"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Best $3 I Ever Spent

So, I know I said we'd be train-ing it up to Bangkok. The plan was to take the bus from the Cameron Highlands to Ipoh, the closest city with a train station. Then we would take the 11:30 pm train from Ipoh to Hat Yai in Thailand, stay there during the day, then catch another overnight train from Hat Yai to Bangkok. Well.
We got to Ipoh in the pouring rain, took a taxi to the train station, just to find out that the train we wanted only ran on Thurs-Saturday. This was on a Monday. Even though the LED screen was announcing the train, and nothing on the schedule we had indicated that fact.
So, we decided to try to take a bus to Hat Yai. We got in a taxi, asked the driver to take us to the bus station, but then after asking us where we wanted a bus to, he dropped us off in front of the ticket office of a private bus company that went to Hat Yai...and that he probably got a commission from to drop people at. We figured we'd just check out the price, since there were 2 other bus company offices within sight. The man at the counter was an older Chinese man who spoke very little English. He mostly grunted. He gave us a price and a time-- 45 Ringett, or about $15, and the bus left at 1 am. We had heard that most buses left at about that time, but when we showed signs of wanting to check other places, the guy told us there were only 2 seats left, despite the fact hat he had the passenger roster out on the table, open to a map of the seats, which were half empty. So, we left to check the other places.
One of the offices was closed. The other was inhabited by a Chinese mother and her two children. They told us the details-- 45 Ringitt, 12:45 am-- and we decided to buy the tickets. But first, we had to exchange money. Then we ran into our next problem. We didn't have quite enough Ringit, because the rate in the Cameron Highlands was way lower than normal, so we figured we'd wait until we got into Ipoh. Well, by the time we got there, all the exchange places were closed. No problem, we'll just use an ATM. Well, none of the ATMs took foreign cards. None. I tried 4 different banks' ATMs. Luckily, we convinced the bus company to take Korean won (a little more than the price of the bus tickets, for their trouble) and exchange it in the morning.
So, that was about 7pm. We had almost 6 hours to kill, and the sun was about to set. Ipoh is a small city, with no tourist attractions. We were hungry, so the first step was to find food. A few blocks from the bus company office was an outdoor hawker center-type place. There were plastic tables and chairs outside on a patio, and multiple food stands inside. The food was cheap, and good, and there were lots of cheap juices and iced coffees.
After eating, we figured this was as good a place as any to spend 5 hours. So, we did. Talking, eating and drinking a little here and there, and playing an epic 3 hours of gin rummy, our usual. That pack of cards has saved us lots of boredom over the past year. It was a nice cafe, full of locals even at midnight on a Monday.
Finally, we got to the bus company and waited for the last 30 minutes with other passengers, including 2 Thai monks and 3 Irish girls who were grossly scantily dressed and smoked all the time. The bus turned out to be not as nice as we had hoped. The seats were alright in themselves, but we were in the back row and our seats didn't recline like all the others, and then the guy in front of Jon reclined his to the point that it was touching Jon's legs. The bus was hot despite the A/C vents, and we bounced around a lot in the back. We took a long stop at a rest stop, and then we got to the Thai border an hour before the border control opened, so we sat on the bus there in line with other buses for an hour. After clearing customs on both sides, it was only an hour and a half until we got to Hat Yai.
When we got to Hat Yai we were exhausted, but determined to quickly exchange money and buy train tickets for that night. But, the banks didn't open until 8:30, and it was only 7am. At the train station, we found out that all the sleeper train cars were booked, but there were second-class seats in an A/C car, which are much more comfortable than the buses.
Then Jon had a brilliant idea-- see if a hostel would rent us a room just for the afternoon, until we could take the 2:30 train. We were exhausted, and just wanted a place to put our stuff and take a nap. Luckily, we found a place, with the help of the Lonely Planet travel guide, that let us have a room for the day for about $6 total. Split between the two of us, it was the best $3 I'd ever spent. After the banks opened, we changed money, and bought plane tickets, I took a lovely 2-hour nap.
We ate lunch, then headed back to the hostel to pack things up, and over to the train station for the 2:30 train. Or so we thought. Turns out we had read out tickets wrong, and the train wasn't until 4:30. Added onto that, the train that was supposed to come at 2:18 we found out was delayed until 4:30, so who knows about ours. They told us to check back at 4. So now I'm killing time in an internet cafe, watching Without a Trace and blogging a really long entry. :)
Oh, one more unrelated comment. We were talking to another foreign guy at the train station, which is how we found out about the late train, and he told us a story we'd heard before from other travelers. Thailand only gives 15-day visas to tourists entering by land, while they give 30-day visas when you fly in. Strange to begin with. But we've heard from some people, people who dress like hippies, who maybe have tatoos and don't look like rich tourists, that they get a lot of trouble coming into Thailand. This man we talked to specifically was told straight up to show him 20,000 baht (about $800) to prove that he had enough money to travel in Thailand. Who would spend that much money for 2 weeks in Thailand I have no idea. Finally, he took out 10,000 from an ATM, and showed the border official. It wasn't enough. The man insisted on seeing an airplane ticket, or other proof of onward travel. That was totally unneccessary, and not within the Thai visa rules. The man finally let the traveler through, but not until demanding a 1000 baht bribe...about $40. We've heard similar stories from other people who look less wealthy than the average tourist. It's such discrimination, and arbitrary. The man we talked to at the train station said he had been traveling for a while, through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand a few times before, and Nepal. Lots of flights, he has credit cards with money, but he couldn't get through without a bribe, mostly because of how he looks.
Well, that's all I've got for today. Wish us luck on the train tonight, and getting to Kanchanaburi to chill by the River Kwai and swim in some sweet waterfalls.

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