March 20, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 1: Starting at the bottom

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Today was the start of my Easter break. I would be spending 6 days in Thailand, mainly visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. But first I have to get in via Bangkok and spend a little bit of time in the capital.

I was pretty excited about getting into Bangkok, since this would be my first experience with the new airport. In December I transited through on the Emirates flights to and from Dubai, but wasn’t allowed to get off the plane. The funny thing is that the new terminal actually bears a lot of resemblance to the new terminal at Dubai International, although Dubai has a slightly sleeker look.

Upon landing, we were parked at Gate B5 (which I learned the next day was for domestic flights). As I got off the plane and walked onto the sky bridge, I realized that my fellow passengers were walking down flights of stairs and boarding a bus on the ground level. I was a bit puzzled and annoyed. Isn’t the point of having a gate (and a sky bridge) to have direct access to the terminal itself? Why bother parking at a gate if you still need to board a bus?

Well, I guess I didn’t have a choice. I boarded the bus like everyone else, and soon we were weaving through the traffic on the tarmac.  Eventually we stopped next to Gate D6, and finally entered the terminal itself to line up at Immigration.

At this point I decided that the new airport had been poorly designed. There are multiple areas for people to line up for Immigration counters. Many airports (and indeed much of Asia) have the same setup. The difference is that in Bangkok, the separate areas are segregated by greenery, and hence one does not have a full view of the whole place at a glance. I was in one area with 5 open counters and I eventually counted 9 officers. The lines were incredibly long, with probably 40-50 people in each line. It was excruciatingly slow. But I had no way of ascertaining whether there were more counters open at the other area, or how quickly the officers were processing people in that area. I stuck to my line, and about an hour after we landed, I finally got through Immigration and picked up my luggage.

I checked into the Conrad after a pretty uneventful cab ride. I’d never stayed here before, but heard a lot of good things about the hotel. The room was indeed very nice, with a nice, big bathtub in addition to the shower. I nibble on the tiny bananas the hotel had laid out for me.

After resting a little and having checked out the adjoining mall at All Seasons Place, I left the room to try to catch sunset at Wat Arun. The plan was to get to the riverbank opposite of Wat Arun, snap some pictures of the temple’s silhouette against the setting sun, and then take pictures of the Grand Palace area when buildings are lit at night. 

Unfortunately, this was not meant to be. I waited for a taxi at the hotel around 5:30pm, but no taxi would take me. Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams haven’t gotten any better, and every time the doorman asked, the taxi driver would shake his head. One asked for THB 300 but couldn’t tell me how long the trip would take (and whether I would get there before sun down). I was fed up.

In other cities in Asia, taxi drivers would have no choice but to take the passenger to whether he or she wanted to go. In Bangkok, apparently the cabbies call the shots. I went back to my room in disgust and waited for the traffic to ease up.

At around 8pm, it was time to go out for a bite. In all my internet searches, Chote Chitr has consistently come up as a place frequented by foodies from out of town. There has been much discussion about this on boards such as Chowhound. So I hop into a taxi and head in the general direction.

While I do have the exact address, the restaurant is on a lane that is too small to appear on any tourist map or the Lonely Planet maps. I have some descriptive directions, and was sure I could find my way. We drive on Thanon Tanao, and headed north past Thanon Khaosan. At this point I realize that I could never find it sitting inside a speeding taxi, so I got off and started to double back. Khaosan Road is a touristy circus at night, and I walk past without going in.

Slowly, I make my way south on Thanon Tanao, checking the name of every lane on both sides of the street. Finally, I reach a dark lane whose name is not translated into English. I had the feeling that this was the right place, and decide to wander in. Sure enough, the name Chote Chitr appears on a sign above one of the doors.

But the place was CLOSED! Didn’t Lonely Planet say that the restaurant opens until 10pm? A piece of paper taped onto the front gate informs me, in English, that the restaurant is closed from March 14th and will reopen on the 24th. So I have trekked over to this side of town but failed to find out for myself what the fuss is all about. My only chance to return would be on the last day, after I arrive from Ayutthaya by train and before my evening flight back to Hong Kong.

It’s 8:50pm and I am still starving. I flag down a cab and ask to be taken to Wireless Road (Thanon Wittayu), and to Soi Polo. 2 cab drivers claimed that they didn’t know this road. This is utterly bullshit. Wireless Road is a very central road, with landmarks such as All Seasons Place and the American Embassy located on it. And everyone knows Soi Polo, since it is named for the Polo Club, part of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. I was hanging out at the Polo Club 20 years ago when my parents lived in Bangkok. Anyway, I digress.  I am utterly fed up with Bangkok cab drivers who simply don’t take passengers when direction doesn’t suit them. A third cab finally takes me, and we make our way to Soi Polo.

My initial plan for the evening (before heading for Chote Chitr) was to have the famous Soi Polo Fried Chicken for dinner, since the location is within short walking distance from the Conrad. Now, as I reach my destination around 9:15pm, I am told by the staff at the restaurant that they are done for the day. That’s the third set-back of the day. A restaurant next door with newer décor claims to be “Polo Fried Chicken”, but I had heard that there are imposters out there, so I choose not to go in.

Dejected, I make my way back to the Conrad on foot. Fortunately I had bought some glutinous rice with mango from the supermarket next door, and this became my dinner on my first night in Thailand. I am exhausted and decide to call it a night.

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