We took the overnight train from Butterworth Station, Malaysia, on the mainland near Penang. We had second-class sleeper berths, which is two single wide seats facing each other against the window. At night the porter comes around and converts the two seats into one bunk and pulls down another upper bunk from the wall. Each bunk has privacy in the form of a curtain. In second class there is no air conditioning, but the train travels at night, there are ceiling fans, and the windows can open, so it’s not that bad at all. We are both a bit paranoid about cockroaches, so Kevin had made a last-minute purchase of Baygon in Butterworth. The locals on the train were laughing when they saw him spraying it around our seats, but then they weren’t laughing so much when a dozen cockroaches all went over to their side of the train.
We arrived in Bangkok early in the morning. We had both been there several times so it was not new to us. I had once stayed in a very nice clean cheap hotel called the White Lodge, located centrally just across from the MBK shopping plaza. We took a tuk-tuk there but there was only a room available on the ground floor. This wasn’t up to par with the upper floors there, so Kevin persuaded me that our second choice would be the Grand Hyatt Erewan. The price shot from $8 to $150 per night. We walked the three large Bangkok blocks in the searing dripping heat to the Hyatt, locally known as the Erewan.
We “had” to stay two or three nights in Bangkok while our Laos and Vietnam visas were getting prepared. We may have obtained the Laos visa at one stop to the Lao consulate or we may have obtained them at the Thai – Lao border, I forget. We visited the Vietnam consulate. There was a large line-up and we were told it would take over a week to get one. We both were on a tight schedule so this wasn’t an option. So then we went to a small travel agency I knew of on the same laneway as the White Lodge. For an extra fee it was possible to get the Vietnam visa in three days. It would have been quicker if it wasn’t a weekend. We left our passports there and proceeded to enjoy Bangkok.
We got some shirts made up at a tailor I had used in the past, again near the White Lodge. This was still the same day we arrived in Bangkok. We commented to the tailor (whose name is Mack and who remembered me) that we were tired after all that travelling. While we were getting fitted for our shirts, Mack began to insist that we go and have a Thai massage. We resisted for the longest time, but Mack was really persistent. It was 4:30 pm and Mack and his assistant were themselves heading over for a massage once the shirt fitting was done; they have them three times a week. We didn’t want any sexual kind of thing and Mack insisted that we didn’t have to get that service; that the massages themselves were top quality. When Mack offered to pay for the massages, I broke down and agreed it was a good idea. Soon afterwards Kevin gave up.
So Kevin, Mack, his assistant, and I all went for a long walk through streets we had never seen in Bangkok. We stopped outside Mack’s apartment briefly while he went inside to drop off some of his stuff. Then we walked quite a bit more. I had dealt with Mack on at least two previous trips so I trusted him somewhat. Kevin, however, was extremely jittery. On the way, the assistant hinted that one could obtain “extra services” from the masseuses for an extra $20. Finally we came to a six-storey office block, the type found in suburban commercial malls, but still in downtown Bangkok. We went up the elevator and down a hall, past normal looking offices of several different businesses and also a pool hall. Across from the pool hall was a plain door. Mack knocked, spoke a few words to the doorman, and we all went in.
In the first lobby was a scene from any documentary TV show ever made about prostitution in Thailand. There was a large window, behind which were several layers of wooden benches covered by Thai women, maybe thirty. Mack picked out the two masseuses for Kevin and me, such that they would be gentle with us, as it was our first Thai massage. By this time Kevin and I were freaking out inside, becoming nervous as hell, but trying to act cool. We all went to a locker room where we changed into pyjama type outfits and placed all our clothing into supplied lockers. Kevin was especially paranoid about this (and me a bit as well) as we also had wallets and cameras. We may have carried our wallets with us throughout the whole experience. The pyjamas were obviously designed for the local population: small Asian men. They were tight and came up to the knees. It should be noted that this was definitely a local establishment; there were no other foreigners at all. Then we went for showers, then a twenty minute sauna, then another shower. Then we were led to the massage rooms.
The first question was whether to have individual rooms or one shared room. Kevin and I insisted on one shared room with Mack. The tailor's assistant went off to his own room. Inside the room there were four low beds, maybe six inches off the ground. We all lay down on our stomachs and a girl turned the lighting down a bit, but not too dark. Then for our benefit they changed the TV channel to CNN. The girls could speak maybe three words of English. We had thought we would try out the massage, but maybe leave early. It was supposed to last for two hours and we couldn’t imagine wanting to stay the whole time. Once the girls got going, however, time flew by and the two hours were up in a flash. Really great massages, but I did have to stop my masseuse from trying to pull my toes and fingers out of their sockets. Afterwards we dressed (clothes, wallets, and cameras intact) and met up with the assistant in the fist lobby. Then Mack suggested that we tip the girls. I asked how much. Answer: usually the same price as the fee for the message. We thought, ah – here’s the catch. But the price turned out to be $2 – for two hours! So we tipped our girls another $2 each. We went back to the hotel and slept well, our first sleep since the overnight train.
The Erewan was a fine hotel. Good five-star service in Asia is usually equivalent to seven-star service in Europe or North America if it existed there at all. The outdoor pool was on the sixth floor, the top floor of a wider section of the hotel. The edge of the rooftop was surrounded by palm trees and bushes, completely hiding the sight of the city and making the area appear to be a tropical oasis. There was even a waterfall in the swimming pool. Much time was spent there as the waiter brought us umbrella drinks to the poolside.
We also did a bit of sight-seeing. I hadn’t done the canal tour, so Kevin went again with me. The long-boats are at a dock right next to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, another top-class hotel. The canal tour went up the Chao Phya River and some side canals, more in the suburbs than in the city. We checked out the Royal Barge Museum and returned to the Oriental where we had more umbrella drinks by the pool, in order to compare it with the Erewan. The next day we went to Chatuchak, the Weekend Market.
We also spent an inordinate amount of time shopping for a new suitcase for Kevin. He wanted a large hard Japanese style suitcase. He analysed them to death, at one point refusing a perfect one because its liner was purple. Finally he got one. Extra unnecessary items and souvenirs were stored in this and left at the hotel to be picked up on the way back to Malaysia.
We got our visas, booked out of the hotel, and boarded the overnight train to Nong Kai, north-eastern Thailand across the Mekong River from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This time we were in a first-class cabin which seemed to be brand new.