Friday, April 6, 2012

Bangkok fun ... But visa woes.

Greetings from Bangkok! We are supposed to be in Hangzhou, China now: but obviously things have not gone according to plan. Arriving here last Saturday with Sonja (Rolf's sister) and Delwin, this was a 5-day stop-over to organise our China visas. Our Thailand visa expired yesterday (Thursday 5 April); we had flights booked for 4pm and had given ourselves 4 working days to obtain the China visa, planning to use the more expensive get-it-in-a-day option. All most organised, we thought....

So we set about enjoying Bangkok: we love this city! Based first in the Banglampu backpacker area, the vibe was relaxed and fun and it was easy to get to huge Chao Praya River, appreciating the busy river traffic (ferries and long barges pulled by tugs) and enjoying a longtail trip down the klongs (canals) to see how people live alongside the river.

In most cases these homes were underwater in the 2011 floods; it is sobering to hear the tales of the extent and effect of the floods on flat, low-lying Bangkok and wonder how the city will be 20 years from now. This is a normal "street scene": the street poles supported by concrete pillars.... so this is not a floodwater picture; the streets are waterways.

Two days covering the river, the magnificent Grand Palace

and chaotic Chinatown is a sensory overload!

But occasionally the close Chinatown streets reveal tiny Temple scenes down alleyways that give one respite..
We then overloaded our senses further... In contrast to this experience of old Bangkok, we moved to Soi 8, Sukhumvit Road: uptown; frenetic traffic; tall concrete buildings, bridges, and overpasses; incredible retail centres and high-end hotels. All this acts as a backdrop to the masses working in the streets - cooking, selling, tailoring, massaging - and the throngs making their way through and around it all, either (like us) enjoying and sampling the variety, or jostling their way through it on their way to work.

The contrasts in downtown Bangkok are extraordinary and stimulating, and we hit the jackpot. A visit to Erewan Shrine (beautiful, revered, constantly bustling with people praying and requesting Thai dancers for special routines as blessings) is always awesome:

this is a haven of Buddhist devotion in the midst of downtown cacophony, flanked by exceptionally busy 6-lane roads and rail overpasses, and dwarfed by the Erewan Hyatt Hotel and huge shopping malls.

On Wednesday we had the opportunity to witness a sacred golden image of a revered Buddhist monk being transported through the city in this area. Its passage was preceded and heralded by chanting and supported by a procession of over a thousand monks from Wat Phra Dhammakaya: a river of orange robes, they walked 16km barefoot on that day, one of a three-day pilgrimage.

The monks walk the entire route on red mats laid down by countless devotees who spread rose petals on the mats, kneel alongside them and bless one another and the passing monks.

It was an exceptional privilege to have local people explaining to us, giving us bags of fresh rose petals, helping us to understand what was happening and telling us how to participate... All the while telling us that they were privileged to have us there. The experience was extraordinary and awe-inspiring.

So what about the visa? Early Monday morning found us at the visa office, joining many others staring at locked doors and notification that the office was closed for three days due to Chinese public holidays; it would then open for one day (Thursday 5 April) then close for several Thai holidays.

Some, flying that afternoon, had come for passport and visa collection. Others, like us, knew that they would not be able to organise visas in time to fit in with other plans. We had flight tickets for Thursday, our Thai visa expiring on the same day. So Monday was spent (that little word used in this context to mean: many many hours of chasing around Bangkok by taxi and on foot; large chunks of money; and our condition at the end of the marathon day) getting Thai visa extensions and new tickets, to fly on Saturday. No mean feat in a huge city, where communication is not easy (hint: if you need the department of Immigration, say "passport"), location of offices is completely unknown and modes of transport good but also not well known.

The China visa had to be obtained on Thursday: we had no options. Leaving the hotel at 6:30 we found about 50 already ahead of us at the visa office building. By the time the doors opened at 9:00 there were hundreds of people, queues wrapped round the building twice. Our application was in by 10:30 and we were told to return at 3pm. A small breakfast/lunch topped up the tanks and we decided to return at 2:00pm - thankfully! Again we were quite forward in the queue; but the staff were so snowed under that the doors only opened for collection at about 4:15pm. At this stage the mob was unruly and we were pushed and shoved forward, with fears that the glass doors would break. A saga but all ended well and the visas are in our passports: here, Rolf stands happily at the end of our process; on the steps alongside seemingly unstructured crowds but actually in orderly queues of those still waiting to go in and collect their visas... ever hopeful!

We fly to China tomorrow!