Still sounding strange, it’s good to be back “home” in Penang after three weeks of being Experimental Tourists. Utilizing the train and bus as non-wealthy expats with no current income should, it felt great to brave the airport crowds and fly back home. Remembering the rest of planet earth somehow manages airport security without paranoid TSA agents screening, delaying, racially profiling and otherwise simply making a trip to the airport a three-hour pain in the ass, we breezed through Chiang Mai’s airport after a passport check or two and flew back to Malaysia via Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, reality kicked in quickly when it took almost 90 minutes for the Uber guy to negotiate the bumper to bumper parking lot that is Penang Island on a weekend. (Weekdays are only slightly better and that’s if you avoid factory shift change hours). Note to self: Although Chiang Mai has its share of traffic, it flows better than Penang’s locally populated areas even at peak times. Score one point on the “pro” side of moving to Thailand after our lease expires.
Thoroughly enjoying the comforts of our mattress topper and personalized soft pillows (shipped from home) and our “rarely found in Asia” king size bed, we settled back into life after a successful, fun and eye-opening trip to Thailand. Changing enormously since our last visit as tourists six years ago, Chiang Mai’s growth rate surprised us a bit and we’re told Bangkok people had enough chaos and have begun moving up in drones. Now supporting two enormously large weekend night markets besides the original one at AnusamMarket and covering a span of almost 3 kilometers each, they added the name “walking streets” and it literally takes hours to cover all the merchants. Unlike other places, (such as all Chinese tourist markets that sell only crap), Chiang Mai’s markets have so much interesting stuff we never get bored and patronized both markets two weekends in a row.
Having learned train travel is a rather reasonable way to save some bucks and meet interesting people along the way, we continued the economical express with an arduous bus trip from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai. Realizing this was a huge mistake a few hours into the trip, I quickly learned the difference between trains and buses. Designed for travelers, trains are reasonably comfortable and offer sleeping quarters for overnight trips. Contrasting that totally, taking the bus in Thailand involves an unbelievably long and uncomfortably numbing experience with Thai people disinterested in talking, helping or sharing much of anything. Perhaps already too relaxed as a non working expat, it turns out there’s now a direct flight from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai that started some time in 2015 that I neglected to learn about. Starting at 990 Baht, it costs only a bit more than the 13 hour and 20 minute marathon on a cramped vehicle filled with locals that probably never hopped a flight in their lives. Unless you’re interested in immersing yourself fully in local culture, learning a language the hard way or have a strange fetish for long bus rides save yourself some hassle and avoid Sombat Tours, the company most people use when travelling long distances by bus in Thailand.
Despite today’s internet usage by the masses, many websites in Thailand contain little English, even after you click on the “ENG” tab, and obtaining pertinent travel information like schedules and prices often proves challenging. Sombat Tours is no exception and you know you’re traveling with the locals when the ticket is written in Thai and they quote the year as 2058. Arranging our transport through the hotel before arriving, we ascertained that they run two overnight trips in a “VIP” bus but we opted for the daytime departure scheduled for 8 AM. Paying no attention to the hypothetical arrival time is the first lesson when once you board what looks to be a luxurious and decent bus, at least from the outside. Unlike many other countries, the large Swedish manufactured bus had no bottom luggage compartment and the attendants standing at the station made no attempt to tell anyone how or where to place your bags. Eventually walking to the bus entrance after seeing a few others do the same, the burly clerk picked up our mid-sized bags that fit perfectly on Train 36 and simply tossed them on two seats like they were garbage. Unwilling to help much, he spoke no English and made no attempt to communicate, simply grunting and muttering Thai words while Diane and I stood there in a state of confusion. Figuring out they leave with your luggage whether you’re on the bus or not, we decided to jump on and the neatly dressed bus employee pointed for us to go upstairs.