Saturday, 18 June 2016

Thailand Dairy - Day 1: Pune to Bangkok

May 7 : Pune to Bangkok

This time the destination of our annual holiday trip was Thailand. A lot of planning went in to finalising the places, hotels and trips. But every phase of planning was a lerning experience for me. While planning a trip, I came to know a lot about the country and culture of Thailand.

Finally the D day had arrived. All the planning and hard work of past 3 months was about to get paid off. I was feeling a bit edgy and super happy at the same moment.

We had a early morning flight hence the plan was to hit the sack as early as possible. But the final packing, checking the checklist, clearing the trash, ensuring every minute detail was taken care of all these took much time and we ended up going to bed at 10:30 PM.

Our flight was at 6:05AM. It takes nearly 45 minutes to reach the airport from our home. So ideally leaving home by 4:00 AM was the thing to do. But when I had earlier contacted Indigo Customer Care just to be sure about the Check In time I was informed that I need to check in at the airport at least 2 hours before the flight time, which is the usual norm for an international flight. But the Pune-Kolkata leg was a domestic flight so I expressed my surprise over the 2 hour thing. The customer care executive seemed totally unsure and finally ‘recommended’ me to be there 2 hours before just to be sure! So now we needed to leave home by 3 AM. Hence the alarm was set at 2:15 AM. Which practically meant that we were just going to bed just as a ritual. But I was not complaining at all. My heart was racing all around the place and I simply wished the 3.5 hours to zoom past so that we can embark on our holiday!

We had so many options of transportation to choose from – Ola, Uber, local auto etc. But we decided to stick to good old Wings radio cab. Though they charged more but their service was bang on time. I had a disastrous early morning booking experience with Ola hence I didn’t want to repeat the fiasco.
The cab arrived before time and within minutes we were into the cab. It was pitch dark outside and there was hardly any soul on the roads apart from a few cars zooming by. We engaged in a friendly banter with the cab driver. When he knew that we were from Kolkata, he expressed his long standing of desire of visiting the shakti peeths of Bengal. We talked about Dakshineshwar, Goddess Kali and all kinds of spiritual things. It actually felt good. The day had started off well.

Traffic less Pune roads are like a dream come true. You feel like you have gone a century back when there were no gas guzzlers on the streets. It was pure bliss cruising through the empty roads. We reached airport by 3:40 AM. There were hardly a few cars in the departure area. And in the departure lounge there were even few people. Most of the people were dozing off in their chairs. The baggage screening belts were non-operational and not a single ground staff of any airlines was seen anywhere. This confirmed my doubt that we didn’t need to come 2 hours before departure to airport for a domestic flight. But we could do nothing except sit and wait. After playing candy crush, sugar crush, criminal case, for umpteen times and checking and rechecking whatsapp for the possibility of any night owl sending cool midnight messages I could still manage to pass only about 50 minutes. When I was just about deliberating the fact whether I too should seek a corner chair and doze off I saw a gaggle of yellow blue uniformed air hostesses making their way in. The jet airways crew was in. Everyone stirred in their chairs. Soon the jet screening belts whirred to life and passengers started queuing up. I was wondering where were these damn Indigo folks?  After like 15 more minutes later which seemed like an eon, we finally saw the Blue uniformed ladies.  As soon as the Indigo ground staff was spotted a long queue formed behind the Indigo baggage screening belt. No it was still non-operational but we Indians can never give up the temptation of reaching first everywhere. Finally the belt was started and we got our bags screened.

Suvarnabhumi Airport
One more funny thing with the Indigo guys. I have taken a lot many International connecting flights earlier in other countries. One, I am allowed to do web check in for both segments of the flight and two if I am having a connecting flight with the same operator then baggage is internally transferred by the operator themselves. Both the things were not allowed in our case by Indigo. I got to know from customer care that since it was a domestic international combi flight hence I cannot web check in, god knows why! And two I need to check in my baggage at Pune, collect baggage at Kolkata and then again check in baggage at the counter in Kolkata by myself.  The window period between our two flights was hardly 2 hours. So I was a bit tensed because usually it takes a lot of time to collect your bags and we had to go from domestic arrival terminal to international departure terminal in Kolkata which I was not sure how far. So I did the next best thing available – asking for confirmed assistance at Kolkata airport both while going to Bangkok and coming back. I was assured by the customer care rep that as soon as I would arrive in the baggage collection hall someone would definitely be there to assist us. I am really sad to say just because it’s our country we didn’t bank much hope on this assured assistance. And good that we didn’t. Because there was no such person who came for us. There was in fact no ground staff of Indigo available at the arrival carousal. When after walking for long in the Kolkata airport we saw someone from Indigo we informed them about this and he didn’t seem any less concerned about it. My good old country! Only one thing good was that they followed international norms for baggage. If you have an international connecting flight with Indigo they allow up to 20 KG in the domestic leg as well. Not sure if the same rules would still apply if you have two different operator for domestic and international segment.

Suvarnabhumi Airport
Okay so as I was saying I was not allowed to web check in earlier, this meant that getting a desired seat was totally impossible.  What I didn’t anticipate was that getting a seat together would also be impossible. And exactly that’s what happened. We got two middle seats 4 rows apart. Okay so the experience with Indigo was getting sourer. I was cursing the fact why didn’t we book a bit earlier while the Thai airways flight was still cheap. Our bad.

The security check was quick enough and then we went to the first floor to wait in the departure lounge. Though 5:30 AM was not a time to feel hungry, but since we were awake from 2 AM our body was already sending hunger signals. We got some sandwiches just to stall the hunger pang. We thought that we will have proper brunch at Kolkata airport. While we were waiting in the lounge we heard faint kitten calls. First I thought it was just my imagination. How could possibly a cat be anywhere near first floor departure area. For a while I didn’t hear anything else. Then I actually saw something. A mama cat with her little kitten going around the lounge! I was astonished beyond words. All the small kids in the waiting area gathered around the small kitten who seemed people friendly. I deliberated for sometime if I too join the kids in cuddling the kitten will the other passengers think I’m nuts? Should I behave in a more sophisticated manner as expected by a woman of my age? Then I thought what the hell? I am a cat lover and there right in front of my eyes was a tiny little kitty, does anything else matter? So I got up and went after the kitten. After sometime got hold of it and brought it to my chair. The other passengers seemed amused at my antics but I couldn’t bother less. Soon hubby also joined in. He is equally a cat lover. We played with them for long till our flight departure was announced.
Kitties @ Pune Airport
The flight from Pune to Kolkata was quite uneventful. I was in the middle seat so anyway I didn’t have anything better to do than catch up on my sleep.  Once in Kolkata airport, it was a long and frustrating wait before we got our baggage from the arrival belt.  After collecting the baggage we scurried towards the International Departure area. Now after Kolkata airport has been revamped for good or bad, one needs to simply run a marathon to reach from point A to point B. There are more empty places than vantage points in the whole airport and it makes things a whole lot confusing especially when you are in a hurry. We walked and walked and walked and then walked some more until we reached an escalator which indicated for departure. Funny enough we couldn’t locate a lift anywhere. So we somehow fitted our huge baggage on the small step of the escalator and reached upstairs.  Then I noted it was the usual domestic departure area that I always accessed while coming to Pune from Kolkata.  A bit confused we went towards the check in line where a ground staff informed us we need to go thought the baggage screening first and pointed to a screening machine at one corner. Ughhhh as if checking in all over again was not painful enough. We waited in the long queue and got our baggage screened and tagged and then came back to the check in queue. Now the same baggage person checked our ticket and told us with a deadpan look – “Oh you need to go to international departure area this is domestic”.  And heaven forbid where was this international area? I dared to ask. He tilted his head and pointed to some area far far away which was not even visible from there.
Suvarnabhumi Airport
Just by thinking about the distance we had to still cover and looking at the time we had in hand for once I thought why not give up this whole idea of boarding the international flight and just go out of the airport, take a cab home and have a week chilling out at home. I was beyond frustrated at that time. We half ran half walked to this international departure area. Guess what the farthest aisle was for Indigo and we did have to screen our bags again because for international flight they had different screening tags.  Due to so much delay in these procedures I was almost sure that we are not going to get a seat together again. But surprise, we did get seats together that too in the second row and one of the seats was a window seat! Wow, some fairy somewhere was sympathetic to our plight. Once the boarding pass was collected and baggage dropped we headed towards the immigration queue. Boy the size of the queue gave us a heart attack. We barely had 30 minutes till departure and the line in front of us looked like the great wall of china. Nonetheless we took our positions.

We had already given up hopes on eating anything. But I was in dire need to use the washroom. So Hubby kept the line while I decided to make a quick visit to the washroom. Guess what again, the nearest washroom was near the intersection of the domestic and international areas. This was seriously getting unrealistic. As if the whole gamut of airport and ground staffs had pledged to make our lives miserable in each and every imaginable way. It took me nearly 10 minutes just to go and come back. The line had moved quite a bit by then thankfully.

Clearing the Immigration was possibly the easiest thing we had done in the whole day.  After the immigration we had to just reach our mentioned gates. We were feeling quite hungry by then. But we couldn’t see any food courts nearby and we thought we will have brunch on flight with whatever they had t offer. Though strangely we saw a lot of passengers moving towards the gates with packed Thali lunches. We wondered why. Food would definitely be available on flight, though it might be a bit pricy, but was it really necessary to pack a thali for the flight? Little did we know the surprise that lay ahead of us.
Suvarnabhumi Airport
There was still some time left before the flight so we browsed through a bookstore nearby. I bought a couple of books to read in-flight. The boarding call came like 15 minutes before departure time and everyone boarded the flight right on time. After settling down my first thought was to check out the food offerings. Usually there was a time when Indigo would serve different meals according to the time of the flight. Gone are the days, now they serve only fixed snacks on all flights. Still I hoped for something different. When I went to the Menu page I got the shock of my life. Not only the same snack items were listed but now the cost was marked in USD!!! And it was not a direct price conversion from INR to USD but a 3 times costlier deal. I will give you an example. The cookie box which costs about 60-70 INR (cheapest snack on board) was listed as $3 (still the cheapest one on the menu in terms of USD)! You get a big cookie box in the Walmart at about $2.50! This was fleecing customers like anything! No wonder everyone was carrying the thalis. It seemed we were the only ones unaware of this.

But the problem was we were terribly hungry. And after seeing the unaffordable prices our stomachs started growling even more. I had a lot of INR cash on me but we had limited USD and Thai Bhat and that too in bigger denominations. I asked the air hostess if we can pay in INR equivalent of USD but she straightaway said a No. Only Thai Bhat or USD we were informed. It was a difficult decision to break the $100 currency note into lesser denominations just for buying a box of cookies but we did it finally. The loose change we got back is not usable as no one would convert less than $10. The lessons and experiences seemed piling up throughout the day.

Bangkok Sky View
First glimses of Bangkok City from the flight

It nearly took us 2 hours 30 minutes to reach Bangkok from Kolkata. When we were nearing Bangkok the clouds that had blocked our view so far slowly faded away.  The first glimpse of Bangkok seemed like a maze of canals and farming lands. But the demarcation was very linear, very uniform. It almost seemed like someone had marked the entire land with a ruler. We could see temple like structures and some high rises interspersed between the landscapes. We could also spot the Chao Phraya River looking like a giant silver serpent. The airhostess announced the local time before landing at the Suvarnabhumi airport and we adjusted our watches accordingly. Thailand is 1.5 hrs ahead of IST. We were given the arrival and departure forms which we had to fill in before landing.

The temperature was quite balmy at 38 degree centigrade. We were informed that first we need to visa on arrival, clear the immigration and then collect our baggage from conveyor belt 19. The excitement came back to me and made me forget all the sour experiences we had till then.

Aarival Departure lounge - Photo Courtsey Internet

Beautiful Artwork on the walls @ Suvarnabhumi Airport
We exited from the plane and after a short walk down the ramp we reached the airport. The lounge was done in a beautiful soothing shade of mauve and there were orchids placed at strategic locations. The whole place was aesthetically beautiful. We followed the signs and kept walking. Now Suvarnabhumi airport is like huge. We walked for what seemed to us like ages, maybe like more than 15-20 minutes. But thankfully there was walking escalators which reduced the stress of walking so much. Plus the whole airport was very pretty. There were traditional Thai fresco and murals all over the side walls. We were swooning over them as we walked. I wish I had taken pictures of the art works but we were so tired that we wanted to finish off the formalities ASAP. Now after walking for like 15 minutes we wondered whether we were going the right way or did we get lost somewhere. The arrows still indicated a left or a right towards the Visa on Arrival but we thought of confirming. Fortunately we saw a help desk sort of facility somewhere and confirmed with them that we were on right track. After walking for some more time we finally saw the Visa on Arrival section. There was a desk like structure outside the room where some people were asking something while rest of the foreigners were running inside. We thought of going inside first. There was a queue inside. We saw a board having a listing of what all things are required for Visa on Arrival. There was a mention of some form which we didn’t have. So I asked an Indian lady standing in front of me where I could get that form. She told me with a blank expression that she didn’t know anything; they were already given all documents by their tour operator. So I stayed in the queue while hubby went outside to check at the desk. He came back soon with the required forms. The queue was moving steadily and filling up the form while walking was a daunting task. By the time I reached the end of the queue there were still some text boxes to be filled. The lady manning the line literally screamed at us and asked us to come to side. She was doing the same thing with everyone who didn’t have everything matched to the T. So we quickly filled up rest of the stuff and got the documents in place. The lady gave a dirty look at the documents and kind of shoved us in front of one of the counters. Me and hubby went to separate counters. The men at the counters appeared even less friendly. They took the Visa money, passport ,documents  and gave us a token number and didn’t tell us what to do after that. When I asked the person he rudely told me to “go there” pointing to god knows where. We were still confused so I asked one of the other officials. That person also pointed to some direction without saying anything. So we walked in that direction. It was a waiting area where there were other similar confused looking Indians asking each other what was going to happen next.

Suvarnabhi Airport - Photo Courtsey Internet
After a while a lady came holding some files and started calling the token numbers. She was handing out the stamped passport to everyone. After we got our passport immigration counters were just behind the waiting area. We completed immigration formalities and finally moved into the baggage claim area. The belt was almost empty. I could however locate one of our bags on it. When I was lifting the bag from the belt a security person came and asked for my boarding pass. She then cross checked the baggage tag with the one on my boarding pass. She also informed that rest of the unclaimed bags were collected and kept in one place and pointed to a direction. It was a good measure actually to prevent passengers from mistakenly or intentionally taking someone else's bag. We walked down to the area and found the other bag. The guy who handed our bags seemed like the first Thai person who gave us a smile. We smiled back.

After we got our bags we remembered we were still very much hungry. It would be quite late by the time we would reach our hotel so we had to eat something before that. We came out of the baggage reclaim area and spotted some food stalls.

The first food stall had some tiny sandwiches lined up in the freezer. We asked the lady at the counter did they have any chicken sandwiches to which she gave a confused look. After asking for two three times she said , “no English” and called another lady from inside. The later informed us chicken was sold out, only ones in pork and ham was left. So we moved to the next one. It was a pastry shop and we were looking for some real food so we skipped that too. The next one was a bit far away. Some of the items written on the board in front of the shop caught our attention. Thai red curry fish and rice we decided. I happily asked the burly women at the counter can we have two of that to which she gave a really nasty look, turned her back on us immediately and started talking with another lady sitting inside the shop. Wow is this the kind of hospitality we were going to experience in Thailand? Why everyone seemed so irritated and angry we pondered.

Whatever our hunger problem still remained sorted. I told hubby lets walk down the corridor maybe we will spot something. But our energy and patience was also draining fast now that we were also dragging along our big baggage. Like a god-sent visual we saw the icon of food court a few yards away. It indicated to the floor above. Thankfully we found the escalator too quickly and just as we went up we saw what our sour eyes were waiting for – lines of proper restaurant in Thai, Japanese, Italian etc.

We went us to one Thai restaurant which had the least walking distance. The menu had real food but the prices were a bomb. We selected the ones costing the least – prawn fried rice with egg on top and chicken kung pao and rice. While we waited for our food to arrive a Thai lady in a skimpy yellow suite came walking from the adjacent restaurant and asked my hubby “Do you want beer?” We were a bit surprised that how can someone from another restaurant advertise their beverage in a different restaurant and what made her choose us?  Maybe because we were sitting just at the entrance and rest all were ladies in this restaurant. We politely declined her offer and she went away.

Prawn Fried Rice @ Suvarnabhumi Food Court
Chicken Kung Pao with Rice @ Suvarnabhumi Food Court
Meanwhile the food arrived. The quantity looked really sad and mine was looking quite bland as well. But we were so famished that all these technicalities didn’t matter. The prawn rice was really bland in taste as it was in look. It was steamed rice and steamed prawns together with bare minimum seasoning, even salt. While the kung pao chicken was really good. The first taste of Thailand left us with mixed feelings.  After our hungry souls were satiated and we blew more than 600 THB we were ready to take our next transport – the skytrain.

Photo courtsey Internet
There are actually a few options one can choose from while travelling from Suvarnabhumi to the Hotel. The first is a shared shuttle vehicle provided by your hotel or in general any shuttle service . Depending on the size of the group the vehicle size will change. But its a flat 800 THB per person in the shared vehicle to any point within the city. If you ask your hotel in all possibility they will send such a vehicle. Also the Indian travel agents will book you in shared shuttles if you are taking packages from them quoting that its the most cost effective transport means. In fact they will also say if you take a private car it will cost you more. Which is possible half true. By personal car they don't mean the usual taxis, personal cars are like the ones you can book in any Indian city for private travel.  Which brings us to the next option the metered taxi. The metered taxis are a good way to travel within the city if you are new in the city. The prices are fair enough and you don't need to go though the hassle of knowing at which stop to get down to, which usually is the case if you are taking a bus. The metered taxis are available in the floor number 1 of Suvarnabhumi. Next is the option of Bus. I did find a BTS stop somewhere close to my hotel but still it seemed like a long walk in the google maps. So after some more R&D I stumbled upon the best possible option to reach Citin Pratunam Hotel where we were going to stay for the night - the skytrain. The BTS Skytrain runs through all important downtown disctricts and major transport hubs in Bangkok, from Mo Chit to On Nut (Sukhumvit Line) and National Stadium to Wongwian Yai (Silom Line). I knew about the metro service in the city but I found the direct connectivity between the Suvarnabhumi Airport and Pratunam area just the day before. If you are staying in the Pratunam area and staying at any hotel located near to Citin this is the cheapest and fastest way to reach your hotel. While the taxis take roughly 40-45 minutes to reach the skytrain only takes about 20 minutes to reach the nearest station Ratchaprarop. The pink line in the below image shows the airport skytrain route. 
Rail Map

The skytrain is located in the basement of the airport. We followed the signs and reached the ticket counter pretty quickly. It cost us 40 BHT/person from Suvarnabhumi to Ratchaprarop Station. Metered Taxis would take about 450 TBH. We got a plastic round token instead of a paper ticket which we scanned at the entry gate. Almost in every 10 minutes there is a train. So one doesn't have to wait too long also. The door positions of the train are marked on the platform so the queue forms accordingly. 

Once the train came the boarders boarded the train in a very disciplined manner. The people from the train alighted first. Then without rushing in the people who were about to board the train boarded it one by one. There was enough time for everyone to get on the train. 

Ours was the last but one station, so we settled down comfortably. The sky train journey gave us a chance to see the greater Bangkok pass by our window. We could almost see the entire Bangkok city just by sitting in the train. Initially we didnt see many high rises, mostly there were residential and industrial complexes spread around the landscape. As we gradually moved towards the downtown area, the skyscrapers slowly made their appearance along the sky line. The city looked just like any modern Indian city, it didn't appear like a foreign country to us at all :). 
Ratchaprarop Station
There are within the train announcement about the next station so you can be ready beforehand. Finally we got down at the Ratchaprarop station. Frankly, I had a lot of trouble pronouncing the station name before I finally got it right. But it was fun. before we could even figure out which direction to go to, the entire crowd which had alighted with us had disappeared. The station was completely empty when we started walking towards the elevator. We were not sure which floor to go to so we came a floor down. There we saw some security people and asked them the direction to our hotel. They couldnt understand Citin Pratunam, finally an old man said " you want to go to Pratunam Hotel I will show you". He asked us to follow him. We Indians are almost taught to suspect any stranger who is very willing to help. Thus we were a bit hesitant at first. We thought maybe he will ask for some token amount since he was guiding us. But in the end he came across a good guy who was just showing us the way :).  He took us to the basement which opened to the main road.

We thanked him and proceeded towards the road. There are two options from here. You can take a taxi if you have big baggage and not in a mood to walk. The other option is to walk. I knew the hotel was roughly a 10 minutes walk from the station. So despite of the fact that we had two big suitcases each we decided to walk. One more reason was that I had read that the hotels in this area are situated in very narrow lanes hence its difficult for a taxi to find the way at times. So to save time and money walk was the best option.

The first thing that hit us when we came on the road was the weather. It was terribly hot and humid. Within minutes we were sweating like pigs.Even Mumbai is humid but its nothing compared to this. It almost appeared like we had come out of the shower.

Train crossing on the road
We had to cross a junction point which had some railway tracks. And sure enough we were lucky to see the local train pass in front of us. There were no signals on the road for indicating a train is coming. The train came and went very casually. People stopped while the train passed and then it was back to normal. That was something new for us.

We kept asking people for directions and walking. The whole area looked like old Mumbai with the exception that everything was written in Thai. Soon we reached a lane which had many street shops selling clothes, food, accessories and what not. It almost appeared I had reached Laxmi Road in Pune. It was total chaotic and confusing. There was a lot of Indian restaurants in the area and most of them had a person outside their restaurant locating Indians in the crowd and advertising about their restaurant. One such Sardarji saw us and began inviting us to his restaurant. We asked him the way to our hotel instead. Finally from his direction we reached a narrow lane in which our hotel was situated.

Citin Pratunam
The lane was so crowded that it was difficult to locate any building and we almost missed the building. I had read in tripadvisor about one of the front desk staff named Rabbit, being very helpful. Incidentally she was present at the reception when we came but she didnt appear any more helpful than any normal frontdesk person. In fact both the staff at the desk were quite cold in their approach. It is a rule all over Bangkok that the check in time in any hotel is 2 PM. It was almost 4 PM when we reached the hotel so we were eligible to get the rooms immediately.

We asked for rooms in the new building at a higher floor as suggested by all tripadvisor guests. Higher floor room would ensure the street noise didnt reach up to the room. Though they provided room in the new building but they could only provide a room with twin bed. We wanted to rest quickly so we agreed to the room. I had read the hotel required the guest to deposit 1000 THB during check in as security amount which is refunded on check out. But we didnt have that much THB with us, only dollars. We told the same to the reception person. He told then we should deposit $50. $50 is obviously more than 1000 THB, plus keeping that money with the hotel meant it cannot be utilised for any shopping either. We were not happy with this policy. They could have kept the charge lower so that tourists are not required to block the big amount. Anyway we paid in dollars and after that we were given the room. They also provided the wifi details with the room keys.

The new building is just a short walk from the main building. Also there is a seven eleven bang opposite to the new building, so in case you need anything even at odd hours you can go to this shop. The Spa of Citin Pratunam is also located in the new building, so if you are planning to frequent the spa often then staying in the new building is a good idea.

Soon we reached our rooms. The rooms were not much to talk of but still pretty decent at the price offered. Neat and clean rooms with fairly sized beds, TV, in room safe, fridge and payable snacks and drinks.

We decided to freshen up and take a quick nap before we venture out to experience Bangkok by the night.

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