My five weeks in Japan had been amazing. Truly five of the best weeks of my entire life. I experienced so many things. I met so many people. I fell in love with both the country and the people of Japan. However, it was too expensive for me to continue running around Japan. I had only been out on the travel road for five weeks and I had many more months of travel on my mind.
My friend, Justin, who I have mentioned before in my posts, was currently living in China. I hadn’t seen him in a very long time, plus I had a sudden urge to go to China. It’s best to follow those urges when you get them.
Many Americans share the belief that we are accepted with open arms any time we decide to visit a foreign land. As an American, I have found that this is not true in many cases. One of the biggest examples of this is China. In order for most nationalities to visit China, you must pay a visa fee. No big surprise there. Many countries across Asia require a small visa fee in the area of $20 to $30 US. And many of these countries offer the visa on arrival, meaning you can just head to the border and obtain your visa while in transit. Unfortunately in many of these countries, the money goes into the pockets of the government and not the people. But again, no big surprise.
Enter the Chinese Visa. China is one of the more difficult countries to obtain a visa for, in Asia anyway. Most of the time, you need to have specific dates of travel in mind with all flight and hotel arrangements in hand when you apply for the visa. This presents a problem for the backpacker. Especially one like myself, who had planned to do most of his traveling by land, not by air. My friend said that I might be able to get my visa for China while still in Japan, but without having these specific pieces of info, I was betting not.
My plan was to head up to China via Vietnam, which I would also need a visa for, but would be comparatively much easier to obtain. I also wanted to visit Cambodia en route. I had read that it might be possible to obtain my Chinese visa in both of these countries, but no one could confirm this. However, it was expensive to fly into either country from Japan. Choice C: Fly into Bangkok and try there. Again, no one could guarantee I would be able to get my visa, but at least I could try. If I couldn’t get it in Bangkok, then I could attempt to get it in the other two countries as I was passing through.
I’ve been to Bangkok before. There’s not much there. It’s hot, humid, busy, dirty. BUT the street food is delicious and cheap. So I figured why not head there for a few days and attempt to get my visa then quickly get outta town. I booked my flight in Japan for a relatively cheap price. I was ready for a relaxing few days. I would eat some good food. Drink some cheap beer. Maybe stroll around the tourist sites again for nostalgic reasons. Apparently I should have done a little research before going.
Songkran is Thai New Year. I arrived in Bangkok on April 11th. Songkran is April 13th-15th. I had arrived just before the biggest party of the year in Thailand.
Thailand doesn’t have much for weather diversity. It’s either hot, humid, and dry or hot, humid, and wet. Songkran marks the hottest period of the year. What better way to celebrate the hottest part of the year than to soak the entire city with water 24 hours a day? During the three-day holiday, it’s almost impossible to leave your house/hostel/hotel/cardboard box without getting soaked. People are armed with everything from water guns to large buckets full of amoeba-infested water. Trucks drive by with people packed in the back throwing water at everyone walking along the street. Basically, you don’t leave the house with anything that might get ruined by water. Plastic bags or containers become the hottest commodity. It’s mental. I regret to admit that I don’t have any first hand pictures, but mostly that’s because I didn’t want my camera to get ruined.
Anyway, back to the visa-obtaining ridiculousness. Most nationalities pay around $35 US for four-day processing to get their 30-day, single entry visa and about double that if they want it returned the same day. However, US citizens will pay $150 for four-day processing and another $40 for same day processing. I’ve heard that this is because the U.S. now charges the equivalent amount for American visas to the Chinese. Annoying, but understandable on China’s part. It was my full intention to get my visa processed in four days. But since the embassy would be closing for Songkran (which was Wed-Fri) plus the weekend, that meant I wouldn’t be able to get my visa back until the end of the next week. I really didn’t want to stay in Bangkok for 10 days, nor did I want to travel anywhere else in Thailand without my passport. So I had to cough up the $190 dollars. The only good thing would be that I was able to get a double entry visa instead of the single entry.
Another great thing about the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok: they are only concerned about money. I still didn’t have any set dates for my travels in China, nor did I have hostels booked or even a vague idea of where I was going. While applying for my visa, I didn’t write down any flight info or location of my visit. At the window, I was asked where I would be staying. I said that I wasn’t sure yet. She started to name off different Chinese cities. After she said Shanghai, I just agreed with her. She told me to write down Shanghai. No address. Just Shanghai, home to over 20 million people. She stamped my visa and told me to pick it up at 3pm that afternoon. Rock ’n Roll.
Although I would have my visa that day, transport in and out of the city was a disaster at that time because of the holiday. So I decided to stay and enjoy the festivities.
With my only task out of the way, I decided to go pick up some more water-friendly clothing. I didn’t have swimsuit, so I wandered over to Khaosan road (the famous backpacker street in Bangkok). It was Tuesday the 12th, one day before the start of the holiday. Things were already getting crazy though. I was able to escape with a fairly cheap pair of board shorts and only a small amount of water splashed on me. Next time, I would have to be better prepared.
My hostel was quite far from the busy parts of town. This was actually a blessing I discovered. I was able to head into the busier parts of town when I wanted. The sleeping rooms themselves were air-conditioned, but the common rooms were not. I met some of the other travelers at my hostel. We sat in the common rooms in the humid night. We drank beer. We played cards. The weather truly encourages you to just lazy around and enjoy yourself. We all planned to head to the celebrations the next day.
In Bangkok, there are many dining options. You can have a wonderfully-expensive meal for an inexpensive price if you so choose. But that’s not my style. The best option: the street. Night markets are everywhere. Fresh fruit to be had for next to nothing. Fried noodles, curries, rice dishes all easily obtainable. You just have to be a little adventurous and not afraid to try new foods. It’s easy to find a delicious dinner for a dollar or two. Add in a thirst-quenching Chang beer for another dollar. Heaven.
The next day was crazy. From the start of the day, people were soaking everyone with water. The 7-eleven workers were standing outside throwing water at everyone passing by. Considering how hot Thailand is, I was extremely shocked at the temperature of the water they were throwing. It was ice-freaking cold, heart-stopping cold.
That night, I headed back to Khaosan road with some of the people from my hostel. One group took a taxi, but we opted for a tuk-tuk, an open-air form of transportation popular in Southeast Asia. This turned out not to be the best idea. People were throwing water at us as we drove by. At one point, the drive stopped to allow a crowd of locals to drench us with every bit of water they had. The driver received his fair share of the drenching, too. By the time we got to Khaosan Road, we were completely drenched. The ice cold water is a great relief during the scorching hot days. It’s not as much of a blessing after the sun goes down. Actually, it’s really freaking cold. Solution: start drinking.
People were crowding the streets. We order buckets of alcohol. By buckets, I don’t mean like a bucket with ice and a few beer bottles in the ice. I mean like a small bucket filled with liquor, possibly a mixer, and a straw. Welcome to Thailand. The only problem: the bucket proved a great receptor for the flying, bacteria-laced water. I’m sure I ingested a lot of disgusting water that night. Oh well. We ended up hanging out in front of one particular restaurant because the people who worked there were cool. I had a water gun at some point. I don’t remember where it came from. But I was spraying people as they walked by the restaurant. We danced to Korean music. Finally at about midnight, we decided it just wasn’t fun to be soaking wet anymore so we headed back to the hostel.
For the next two days, the city only got crazier. It’s all in fun and everybody has a great time. However after a few days of not being able to go anywhere without getting wet, it starts to get annoying. I mostly stayed at the hostel. When I did leave, I had to play ninja and sneak from place to place in order to avoid attention. I was ready to leave.
My next destination would be Siem Reap, Cambodia to take in the vast temple complexes of Angkor Wat. I finally dragged myself out of bed early Sunday morning to head to the train station. A week in Bangkok. Tourist sites visited: 0. Fun had: Way too much.
Next time on This Is My Travel Blog: How to Get to Siem Reap the