October 26–28, 2007

San Diego, California, United States to Bangkok, Thailand

Prerequisites for foreign travel

Lonely Planet guidebook (check); waterproof, crushproof, drop-proof camera with 1 GB memory card (check); sturdy backpack with hiking shoes, swimsuit, and a few pairs of underwear (check). Plane ticket, passport, and iPod (check, check, and check). Hostel reservations, such as they are, at the port of entry (almost check—I had a few phone numbers).

An unrepentant procrastinator must eventually make his recompense. Mine came due that evening. Fifteen minutes before leaving—counting generously—the question was posed among this last-minute checklist of necessities: I had sent in for my visa, right?

No, I hadn’t. Visa? For India? You don’t need one, or if you do, I’m sure you can get it there. Bear in mind, the woman who posed this question—a seasoned traveler, indeed, a veteran of the subcontinent herself—never once mentioned needing a visa for her own visit. And wouldn’t one suppose that reminder would be in Chapter 1, Page 1, Paragraph 1 of every so-you’re-planning-a-visit-to-India guidebook, travel blog, news article, pamphlet, and papyrus leaf of the sort I read over the three months I’d been planning this trip?

For the record, I found the urgent warning on Page 978 of Lonely Planet’s 2005 edition of the India guidebook. And also for the record, it’s going to appear in Paragraph 4 of this so-you’re-planning-a-visit-to-India travel blog: american, british, and european visitors need to get a visa before departing for India.


Make that a flight to Bangkok

Speeding down the freeway assuming you’re either not going to India, or about to be thousands of dollars poorer for trying, tends to induce panic. My clear-thinking girlfriend, however, forestalled a total lapse of judgment. It’s been said that all successful plans have three parts; and hers had these: Arrange a stopover in Bangkok, visit the Indian Embassy in Sukhumvit, and return a few days later to claim the freshly adhered, stamped, and embossed six-month visa I so uncharacteristically forgot to send away for.

Having no more than ten spare minutes spared me from much, though not all, rumination during the two-hour drive to L.A. Sweaty from a hurried rental-car dropoff and out of breath from sprint-waddling across the terminal hauling all my worldly possessions for the next month, I scanned the signs for Thai Airways. With a final sigh, I leaned against the check-in counter, announced my name, and slid my passport to the agent.

“Where are you flying today?” she asked.

Wouldn’t I like to know? I pleaded my case before the unwitting prosecutrix, juroress, and judge: Bangkok, although my final destination is India; somehow I neglected to get a visa so I’m hoping you’ll plea bargain, nullify, or depart downward from my all-but-certain penalty.

Counting on the mercy of anyone who earns a living anywhere near an airplane generally isn’t advisable. So my pride was all I could offer as sacrifice to the Airbus A340 being refueled on the other side of the gates of LAX. “I was hoping I might be able to change my itinerary,” I trailed off, before laying the remaining few crossbeams of my demolished ego at her feet. “How much would that cost?”

An itinerary change, even if possible, would have bankrupted me. A rough accounting of my net worth as of that moment would have required only a knife, to cut open my kangaroo pouch full of cash and rifle through my backpack, and a pocket full of red pens, to record all the debts to my myriad creditors. Clothespinned between a weeklong preview of associate “life” before my trip and a headlong plunge into that abyss immediately thereafter, I couldn’t waste even a day haggling with Thai Airways over a change fee or frantically searching kayak.com for a last-minute deal to somewhere in southeast Asia.

My gambit succeeded; the prosecutrix, judge, and juroress relented. I could reschedule the flights for any day with availability, provided I kept the same entry and departure ports in India. Whether desperation, luck, or divine providence impelled the A340 to show mercy, I will never know. I couldn’t allow myself to believe I had boarded that plane until we landed seventeen hours later.


Chatty McGregerson...

Or was it Gregor O’Smalltalk? Whatever his name was, I knew immediately my conversation with him would find a paragraph or two in my journal—and now, my travel blog. I occupied the window seat, and he the aisle, in the sought-after left third of the A340’s 2–5–2 configuration.

In such intimate quarters, it wasn’t as though I could turn to another passenger to throw off his train of thought. But five minutes into my journey I smiled to myself as I thought, I travel the world for stories like this. So I feigned interest in everything Greg from the Bay Area had to say—in between two-star movies and learn-to-speak-Hindi games—for the better part of our interminable flight.

As it happened, Greg, too, was stopping over in Bangkok before his onward leg to Nepal a few days later. He and his carabiners were going to hire a porter for a weeklong Himalaya trek. The mountaineering 40-year-old, if memory serves, had never left the country before. A part of me envied the software developer’s sense of adventure; a sardonic part of me hoped he was carrying a homing device.

Yet the unbroached topic became the uncomfortable past became the buried secret: Why hadn’t Greg a girlfriend, fiancée, or wife?


First impressions, second propositions

By the time we landed, I knew nothing more of these closeted details. But we suffered through the exit lines, customs lines, and baggage lines together, and forged an acquaintanceship of convenience, I daresay, more at his insistence.

For our grand entrance into Bangkok, Greg and I splurged for a prepaid cab. We spilled down the raised expressway as blood cells in the carotid artery connecting the city’s two major organs: airport and inner city. The grey skies and rain robbed us of perspective; without warning the driver descended from the toll road and a few turns later we were in front of Greg’s hotel. We planned a meeting later that day; half of me wondered whether I should have ditched.

I wandered away from the hotel along the road, dodging would-be “guides” and tuk-tuk drivers, the first of hundreds. I needed money, sleep, and a better map, but for those few moments, I breathed the stale air with vigor. It had been over two years since I’d left the country—longer still since I’d traveled alone—and I intended not to screw anything up. Until the city woke up, though, I was content to saunter along, block by block, surveying, reflecting, planning.

I would err that day, indeed, much of that week, by avoiding metered cabs. After an hour I found the train, but it was far from discovering anything like the Northwest Passage or even a five-dollar bill in your back pocket. Yet I managed to find Sukhumvit by following a subway map sponsored by every luxury brand Thailand's fledgling malls could claim as their own.

I walked toward the residential skyscraper palaces thrusting up without apology from the dingy concrete plain. Yet their exotic gold entryways and private courtyards could not arrest my lingering queasiness; I had yet to identify, let alone check into, whichever skyscraper or hovel was my hotel.

I finally found Sukhumvit 23. Thank goodness some farang implored the government to include Roman letters beneath the Thai gibberish on the street signs. Just my luck; the hotel had no record of my reservation. That meant an early trip to the internet cafe to confirm or rebook, and a quick $1.99-per-minute phone call to the girlfriend. A few moments later, all was in order. (To think: the hotel would have charged 30% more for a walk-in.)

But even on this ritzy international scene, the cat calls began early. I made the mistake of assuming they would stop. They didn’t. After only a day, I began to think of Bangkok as one citywide luxury red-light district.


Omm...

There are a lot of temples in Bangkok. So many, in fact, that you can’t gesture with your guidebook as if to say, Where is the temple? and expect to be nudged toward the one you pointed to on your map. I learned this the way the unseasoned traveler usually does: by rereading the guidebook after wasting a few hours searching in vain.

Before my unwitting lesson in temple-hunting began, I met up with Greg, ate a quick lunch, and found a place to get the passport photos I would need for the visa. I had forgotten that America is the only place in the world where you smile for such an occasion. Grinning unselfconsciously, I drew a stern reprimand from the photographer. I wiped away my slap-happy smirk but another disconcertment gave reason for the snare that replaced it. Greg had pulled out his single-lens reflex and snapped a meta-photo of the irritable photographer snapping me. Struck me as strange, and he never explained himself. Weird, wasn’t it?

I shook it off. We decided to tour a few of the temples hidden everywhere in plain sight. Standing right below the skytrain, we pulled out our maps to plot a route, blithely assuming we could float above the choking diesel fumes by taking a pleasant, though sterile, ride over. Yet, in another overt act in furtherance of the taxi drivers’ apparently worldwide conspiracy against foreigners, the skytrain does not take you to these or any other major temples. So Greg and I swigged our first mouthful of the bitter tourists’ tonic: paying orders of magnitude too much for a ride, with a bonus detour through a textile shop.

When the tuk-tuk driver–cum–con artist finally relented, we found ourselves among the grunge of Chinatown. You can fly across the globe to a faraway land, but Chinatown follows you. We could have scored a bargain on used power tools but took a rain check instead.

After a few more missteps, we finally arrived outside Wat Pho. Wouldn’t you know—it was closed. A friendly gentleman wearing photo identification and a slick suit tipped us off and kindly offered us a ride to another temple. To think, we would have wasted hours trying to figure out how to enter! (After a few minutes of his shtick, we wandered around the corner, discovered the entrance, and walked in.)

Once inside, I took a few acceptably good photos. But the mystifying part was not the façade, it was the people I saw meditating within a few days later. They swayed back and forth, each at a tempo seemingly set by his own inspiration, connected only by a literal string and the figurative spirit creeping out of the incense jar and hovering among them.

Anxious to see more, we inhaled some delicious, if overpriced, noodles and made our way through the remnants of a riverside market. Somehow we found our way onto a boat plying between the makeshift docks along the riverfront around dusk. For about a quarter we bought front-row seats to a beautiful, smoggy, grey-orange sunset over the rice paddies and foreign hotels along the horizon.

To end our day together, we faked our way into one of those foreign hotels and gave into the urge for a third-world beer at a first-world price. We began to talk politics, which didn’t go very far. Foreign travelers, like college professors and starving artists, assume out of habit and naïveté that all others they meet on the trail share their predictable sentiments. I act as though it’s my duty to correct their misapprehensions. Drives them batty sometimes.

At last we went our separate ways. I strode back through the cat-calls, grateful for the solitude and a clean bed after more than a few awkward moments as Greg’s travel companion. I knew I wouldn’t sleep through the night—midnight was noon—but I resolved to wake up early to start the next day’s lessons.