I’ve just returned from a month in Thailand and Malaysia. We were dogged with problems, which can be traced back to the planning stages of the trip. In the fond hope that others may learn from our errors, lemme tell ya what happened.
I don’t much like planning travelling stints. We keep it very broad-outline: that is, decide on a few places we definitely want to see, and book accommodation for the first couple of nights only. Whatever happens in between is determined by who we meet, what we hear and how we feel. More or less. We’re not always so spontaneous. Sometimes we decide on the road where we’ll be when, and where we want to stay, and book ahead via the web.
This strategy went out the window this time. It quickly became evident that unlike our previous SE Asian destinations Thailand is inundated with tourists. Further, there are so many people now using TripAdvisor to determine their choice of hotels/guesthouses that most of the ones with great reviews need to be booked weeks – if not months – in advance of arrival. So much for spontaneity. Leave it to the last moment and you risk being left with only the cruddy accommodation options.
We’re not talking 4 star hotels here. Way out of our budget range. We aim for small, good value places asking less than $30 per night (or a bit more in big cities). They’ve got to be reasonably clean – we’re past dossing down in cockroach-infested dives. Been there, done that, and have no call to do it again this incarnation. A good location is essential. And an en suite bathroom is a distinct plus, although not a deal-breaker.
Seems a hell of a lot of other travellers have similar criteria to ours, going by the scant availability of most well-reviewed accommodation at the budget value end of the spectrum. This is the first time we have encountered this. I guess the combination of cheap airfares and the convenience of internet bookings have unleashed massive numbers of new travellers (a great proportion of them heading for Thailand!). Also, it seems people who used to book fly-and-flop packages through travel agents have made a relatively recent seismic shift to web-assisted DIY travel of the type we’ve been doing for years. I suppose it was always just a matter of time before the masses caught on. But it’s annoying. Very fucking annoying.
With some slightly lateral thinking and a tactic I will not divulge here, we managed to set ourselves up with our chosen accommodation for the first three stops of the trip: Penang, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Bangkok. After Bangkok – well, we didn’t know where we’d go from there anyway.
We had scored a very cheap return fare to KL with Air Asia, and it occurred to us that a few days in Penang might be a nice way to kick off the trip, rather than flying straight from KL to Bangkok. We had a soft spot for Penang, which had been a highlight of our travels in Malaysia 5 years previously. Besides, we were keen to reacquaint ourselves with train travel, which we remembered with affection from our (separate) sojourns through Europe and India in our twenties. Butterworth (20 minutes ferry ride from Penang) was an ideal train departure point to Thailand. The sleeper train left at 2.40pm. Very convenient. When we grabbed an Air Asia deal from KL to Penang for only $30, the die was cast and there was no going back as far as I was concerned.
Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!
In becoming set on the Penang/train option from the outset, I had compromised one of our core values when travelling – to remain flexible and retain the possibility of spontaneity. When ‘Wrong Way, Go Back’ signs started popping up, I was loathe to heed them.
Firstly, the sleeper train didn’t stop at PKK. We would have to get off in Hua Hin, which we weren’t much interested in, then take a mini-bus to PKK. Not really a problem, we decided. Arrival in Hua Hin was at 6.29am. Just in time for breakfast and a look around. If we bussed it to PKK mid-morning, we would check into our hotel, clean up, and then it would be time to head out for lunch. Perfect!
Never rely on the scheduling of Thai trains. Ours was delayed an hour in Butterworth, then in the middle of the night came to a halt between stations at some God-forsaken wilderness in the south of Thailand. We sat there unmoving for 8 bloody hours. News filtered through that a truck had collided with a train further up the track. Some experienced train travellers on board expressed doubt, claiming that Thai trains were notoriously erratic in their schedules, prone to lengthy delays. But 8 hours? Whatever, our 6.29am arrival in Hua Hin had blown out to mid-afternoon. So much for breakfast and a look around.
Delays like that can’t be anticipated. Can’t be too hard on ourselves there. But there was another complication that really should have prompted us to change our Penang/train plan.
I refer to Thailand’s visa policy. The standard visa stay is 30 days, which was perfect for us, since we were to be away 28 days, 23 of which were to be spent in Thailand. We’d be well covered. But what was this? They gave you only 15 days if you entered the country overland? Further, the inconvenience factor is high for travellers, since you’re only allowed to cross the border at a few points, none of which are geographically close to Bangkok. Couldn’t be right, surely!
It’s true, folks. The policy came into effect a couple of years ago. Lawd knows why. It doesn’t make sense! They’re costing themselves tourist bucks. If overland travellers have to do a visa run after a mere 15 days, odds are many of them are going to cross the border to Burma, Laos or Cambodia and keep on going, rather than hopping straight back to Thailand.
Not us. This trip belonged to Thailand. We’d stay loyal. When our 15 days was up, we planned to cross the border into Laos for a few days in Vientiane eating, drinking the cheap and apparently excellent Lao beer, and maybe taking in a sight or two in between resting up. Then back to Thailand to explore a stretch of Isaan north along the Mekong that had been described to us in lyrical terms by an incredibly helpful and knowledgeable Canadian guy my partner had been corresponding with after ‘meeting’ him on one of the travel sites.
Hassle antennae a-quiver, my partner suggested we buy a longer Thailand visa at the Thai embassy in Penang. According to reports online, the application could take the best part of a day to process. I brought the gamel of firm dissent down on that proposal. Why waste one of our three days in Penang on bureaucratic crap?
How about abandoning Penang and flying to Bangkok from KL, then? That way we’d be granted 30 days on entry to Thailand. But I was attached to our original plan. This 14 day visa hassle could be turned to our advantage, I ‘reasoned’. What’s wrong with sampling a bit of Laos, then checking out Isaan? Forces us off the beaten track, doesn’t it? Always a good thing!
Well, not always. After PKK we made it to Bangkok as planned, and with our 14 day visa expiry approaching, discovered that the sleeper trains to all the allowed border crossing destinations were booked out for days ahead. We hadn’t reckoned on that!
After much confused and lengthy debate, we ended up taking a 15 hour overnight bus journey to Satun, and from there a ferry to the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Not so bad, but we found it impossible to sleep on the bus and didn’t get to Langkawi until late afternoon the next day, grimy and exhausted. Hard not to be resentful that the trip had been forced on us by ridiculous visa requirements. And by the time we’d spent a few days on Langkawi, we had no real desire to make our way back to Thailand, deciding instead to go back to Penang, and perhaps finish in Melaka (that didn’t eventuate). Our Thai trip was thus cut in half and comprised only two destinations, PKK and Bangkok. Not what we had intended at all.
The trip was still worthwhile, but was not anything close to that we had envisaged with great excitement during the planning stages. The 14 day visa had been a pain in the arse. I came to curse myself for my recalcitrance, my closed-mindedness to all options other than our original Penang idea. And I have to say, our romantic notions about train travel have been dispelled by the reality.
We imagined we’d sleep soundly and wake at our destination fresh and raring to go, with the cost of a night’s accommodation saved. Wishful thinking! The bunks were uncomfortable, and neither of us slept. Then there was that bloody 8 hour delay. And there’s a little more to this sorry tale that’s worth another post. Coming up.