Thursday, April 28, 2011
Transportation in Thailand
Thailand is easily one of the top tourist destinations in the world and with good reason. It's gorgeous, charming, the people are friendly, it's diverse, has the greatest cuisine in the world, and the tourism industry is streamlined into a science. Now, I love Thailand; if I didn't, I wouldn't have stayed here so long, but it is way too easy. That said, just because it's easy, does not mean it's simple or makes much sense. This is shown in no better way than the way tourists are herded around.
When a tourist buys a ticket through a private company at booking agent, it is typically a combination of various modes of transport, taxis, buses, some walking, and if it involves an island, but exclusively, a boat is thrown into the mix. These are lumped together into a single package, with promise of arriving at a destination. Once the process starts though, many begin worrying, as it seems a little strange. As an example, I will breakdown my trip home to Haad Thien from Penang.
It starts with a sticker. Sometimes it's handwritten with a magic marker, listing the place, sometimes it's color coded. My sticker said Koh P, for Koh Phangan. A van picked me up from my hostel in Georgetown, then drove around, picking up one other white tourist and a mob of loud, yet friendly Indonesian grandmothers. After crossing the border, I was dropped off at a booking office in Hat Yai, main city in Southern Thailand. Given enough time to order a coffee, but not drink it, a pickup truck pulled up and I was herded into the back. The pickup drove in a big circle, I swear I passed the booking office again two more times and I was finally dropped off at a train ticket office, even though my trip did not involve a train. A bus pulled up, the driver yelled out, “Surathani!” which was my ferry's port. I stood to board, but a man motioned for me to sit back down and the bus left. I was then picked up again by a taxi and taken back to the original booking office. Eventually, a van full of happy Thais, either returning from shopping with all their bags or leaving work arrived and I was told to hop on. The van seated nine, three in front, including the driver, and three in each of the two rows in back. In reality though, we crammed about thirty.
This is the part of the trip I like to call the joyride. The van drove all over Hat Yai, the cast of charcters for the van changing frequently, but the number of passengers staying static; our first stop, the train ticket office I'd just come from. After an hour of circling the town, hitting markets and various other businesses, the van basically a taxi, it finally headed up north toward Suratthani.
After playing the taxi game again in Surrathani, I was dropped off at another booking office, which I recognized from the way to Malaysia. It always played Jackass the Movie and served disgusting, yet expensive food. It was a random little place in the middle of a bunch of warehouses, selling bulk amounts of toys and other useless trinkets recently shipped from China. Even though I was in a room full of people with stickers for Koh Phangan, I was singled out, ushered into a taxi and driven a block away, where they dropped me off alone. I stood there for about five minutes with my backpack, feeling stupid. Locals strolled by like there was nothing odd going on. Another Thai man showed up, telling me to follow him; I really had no choice. He walked me through an alleyway and suddenly I was filled with the fear that I'd offended the Thai mafia at some point on the island and they just wanted to wait until I had new visa before offing me; it'll take longer for the US gov't to notice I was gone. Then we popped out onto a busy street where I was instructed to wait.
So I stood again on a random sidewalk for about ten minutes, trying to fight the fear that I'd been forgotten. A taxi arrived, beckoned me and I entered without questioning it. We drove around a bit more, passing other random tourists, standing on the side of the road with their backpacks, looking scared, but not picking them up. Finally, I was dropped off at the port and was told to wait again. I was glad to finally had made it to my boat.
But then, a bus arrived! The driver came out, saw my sticker, looked at his clipboard and told me to get on. The bus then took me away from my port. I looked around the bus, noticing it was filled with the very people I'd been separated from at the booking office. They looked as confused as me.
The bus hit the same highway I'd taken from Hat Yai and I was worrying if at some point they'd gotten confused; maybe the handwriting on the sticker looked like Kuala Lumpur or something, but then we took a left and I deduced we were heading to Don Sak, another port town. I was correct in my assessment. Finally, twelve hours after leaving, I was on my ferry. Penang is only an eight hour drive from the port.
The rest of the way was straightforward. I only had to take a taxi back to Haad Rin, then another longtail boat back to my bay. I thought maybe my experience was an anomaly, but upon talking to others, my trip was business as usual for Thailand, even in other parts of the country. I'm sure there is a reasoning for the madness, most likely competing companies that are utilizing the same vehicles or something, but really, I think that it's a joke, a little reminder that even though the tourist trail is so worn in Thailand, we are still in fact, in Asia.