Day 17: Battle to cross the Chao Phraya River
The view from the bridge allows a momentary glimpse of the beauty of Bangkok. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Ahhhhhhhhhh,” I scream. The scream starts in the gut driving upward until it's sprayed across the visor of my helmet.
“This fucking Expressway,” I yell at nobody in particular, as another attempt to cross the river Chao Phraya on a motorbike is thwarted.
I'm finally in Bangkok, but still 20 minutes from the hostel in Lumphini, which was the part of Bangkok chosen by the die for me to stay in. It passed on staying in the tourist packed debauchery of Khao San, the upscale lifestyle of Sukhumvit and the skyscrapers of Silom.
Admittedly, I woke up this morning and wasn't sure I'd even make it this far. I had 200 baht (7 bucks) and change, that was it. I couldn't remember how much fuel was in the tank, but I remembered it being pretty low when I pulled in at Cha-Am Fishing Park the other night.
My bank card, of course, is still useless.
As a man who has run out of gas twice in one day before, it didn't take much of an imagination to see how badly this could go.
The goal was an early start. Get to Bangkok, get my card sorted out and everything prepared for the visa. But first, I needed to get a post live.
After putting some finishing touches on the piece, fiddling with the video and selecting photos, it was nearly 10:30.
I want to hit the road before eating, but it's just not going to be an option, so I walk to the bait shop next to the lake and browse their meager selection of nutritiousness food.
Oh, peanut butter. I have peanut butter.
I buy a half loaf of white bread, the exact same bread I was ripping apart and feeding to the fish yesterday. Peanut butter, bread and a canned Nestle's “esspros” get me through the morning.
I checkout three minutes to noon and hit the road.
The gas gauge drops to one bar.
I'm not sure how far this will get me, but I have at least 3-4 litters of reserve fuel in the tank. Any attempt to calculate how far an additional 160 baht of fuel, the funds leftover after “breakfast”, will get me are futile. I don't know what kind of gas consumption the bike and I don't know the price of fuel.
In the distance, a big green sign comes into view. It's a Kasikorn Bank sign. I've seen dozens of Kasikorn Bank signs since my card was cancelled – they were all for ATMs. However, this one seems different.
I pull up along side the bank, half expecting it to be closed for some bizarre Thai holiday – Thailand seems to have more bank holidays than then working days.
It's open. I hand over the necessary documents. Yes, I do know my password: DICE, remember?
The woman helping me has me write it down. Sigh... what are the numbers? I look it up on my phone – why in god's name didn't I do this the first time? I write down the numbers and “alakazam” – my card and pin number work again.
For a five minute period anyone who follows my blog like serial killer follows her next victim could empty my bank account and leave Dice Travels marooned, leaving me with 348 days of rolling the dice while trying to find the cash to eat.
I change the password to... Just kidding.
Back on the road, it's a slog. Miles and miles of moderate traffic on a six-lane split highway. When I set off at noon, Bangkok was two hours and eight minutes away, according to Google Maps, which I should note believes that I am driving a car.
There is no “Welcome to Bangkok” sign when I hit the city. The bleak stretch of industrial complexes and shrimp farms just gives way to slums and then a maze of roads that are woven into the chaos of the city.
Traffic slows to a painful crawl as one lane of traffic is forced to merge. Police are already on site, helping move traffic along as a pickup truck is hauled out of the small ravine it crashed into. Feet walking the bike along, I work the clutch in and out, in and out, trying to avoid being directly merged into in the nearly standstill traffic.
Traffic starts flowing again, I glance down at the Google Map on my phone. The blue arrow, me, is still chugging along on the blue line, the path to success.
The road bends right, heading for a line of toll booths. Shit, I didn't realize I'd end up on a toll road. I don't know how much it will cost and don't have any money prepared to hand over.
I inch closer, the only motorbike in the line up. The signs next to the booths show the price for big trucks, medium sized trucks and passenger vehicles, but nothing for motorbikes.
Maybe I just pay the same as a car, or maybe it's free for motorbikes.
As I wedged the bike between two concrete islands, a man steps out of the booth.
“Mai di,” he says. I can't use the road.
I didn't see any signs, but the traffic is building up behind me.
Shrugging, I try to get him to explain where the hell I'm supposed to go at this point then.
Turn around? Drive into six lanes of traffic to a little turn off 100 meters down the road?
I don't mind the idea of being a fish swimming up stream, but I'm in the middle lane, feeling the full force of the traffic flow.
I take a deep breath.
Okay, okay. This is a terrible idea, but fine.
I rock the beast back and forth, back and forth. After completing a 36 point turn, I'm facing a bright pink taxi, which inches back to allow me to slide past it. By slowly splitting the lanes, I'm able to work my way back through the traffic and get off the Expressway.
Okay, Google Maps. Let's try this again. After completing a quick loop, I'm facing the right direction again, pointing toward the Lumphini, which is on the other side of the Chao Phraya River.
The narrow, dark road I'm now on runs along the underbelly of the Expressway, steep humps a dirt bike could ramp off bounce passengers over small canals. Running parallel to the road is a slimy green canal, which is the color of the same toxic waste that created the Ninja Turtles. Past the canal is a line of banana tress, beyond them, high-rise slums, white and black with mold, satellite dishes pointing upward, next to ragged, tired laundry hanging up to dry.
The road hits a T. I ignore Google Maps, which thinks I'm on the Expressway above and see where it's possible to meet up with the bridge, Rama I. The street is small, and the river is very wide. The road crosses under the Expressway, which arches across the river with a glorious golden suspension bridge arch.
That didn't work.
There is a sign for a different bridge, but I'm lost.
Exasperated, I stop the bike in front of a noodle shop, and plop down on a plastic stool. There are dead ducks hanging in the window.
I order duck soup.
Reviewing the map, there is clearly two more bridges east of where I am, I'll just take one of them. I double-check my plan with the owner of the shop.
He agrees for a fleeting moment, but then starts spitting out a serious amount of information in Thai, which might as well have been Morse Code. I nod. He seems to think going westward is necessary.
But the bridge to the west looks further away. Thai's are infamous – even among Thais – for giving the worst directions. Either mixing it all up, or just being so desperate to be helpful that they just kind of make things up as they go.
I go with the original plan. I take another big loop and am chugging along. Google Maps syncs up and is digging the new plan.
I'm on a bridge, slowing down to drink up the breathtaking view. The cityscape of Bangkok is magical from this height. The glass towers of Silom glisten in the sun, as the Chao Phraya snakes through the metropolis.
With one hand on the bike, my other is fiddling with the camera on my helmet – trying to get a shot of the beauty below.
Maybe I've been too hard on Bangkok.
Mid-air, the bridge splits, a quick glance at the map and it looks like I should take the left fork. In a snap decision, I veer left. The road curves left, where I need to go, then it starts a long gentle bend to the right, nearly looping all the way back on itself.
The bridge starts to descend. Ahead are Expressway toll booths.
An officer steps out of the police box ahead of the toll booths and flags me down.
Yes, I know I can't take the Expressway.
He directs me to a turn off a few meters further down the road.
I loop back around again.
Several circles later, I'm still bumping into the Expressway, but at least I'm getting the hang of getting off it before hitting the toll booths.
This is it, I can feel it. There are motorbikes on the road with me, we are cruising toward the bridge. Finally, I've been 20 minutes away from Etzzz Hostel for the last hour. A sign pops up – no bicycles, salang or motorbikes allowed.
I veer left. I'm below the bridge again.
“Ahhhhhhhhh,” I scream. “Fuck this fucking place and this fucking Expressway.”
There is nothing to hit, but it feels like the only way to release the pressure in my body is to drive my fist through a cement wall, or at least break every bone trying. Several years ago, I broke the dash to my scooter in a fit of rage, after the scooter broke down, again. My knuckles immediately started swelling. With my biker gloves on though, I could really go to town. But I'm not angry with the beast, and getting off the bike and starting to wail on the Expressway itself seems a bit daft.
If I hadn't gotten my debit card sorted and filled the gas tank, the issue at hand would have no doubt been compounded by the fact I would have run out of gas.
I take a left. It doesn't really matter.
It looks like the road is going to die out in a school yard or a temple along the river. Instead, it dips down to about fifty scooters, and their riders, sitting on a barge. Nonchalantly, I drive down the ramp and onto the boat.
Minutes later, engines start up and everyone starts driving onto the other side.
Traffic is a bit heavier on the side roads as I slowly roll toward the hostel. Twenty minutes later, I realize I'm back at the noodle shop.
The same noodle shop that was on the wrong side of the river. Don't ask me how this is happening. It's just happening.
I've now been in Bangkok for more than two hours, doubling the time it was supposed to take to get to the hostel.
We'll try the noodle shop man's directions.
The man's directions are immaculate. The time away from the hostel starts ticking down, and I'm getting the hang of avoiding the Expressway, which keeps dipping down onto the public road I'm traveling on.
Again, the Express way dips down to pick up more passengers, I veer left – traditionally the way to avoid it. I'm only six minutes away from the hostel.
Toll booths ahead.
A police officer, dressed in a sharp, clean uniform shows up blowing his whistle at me.
I know, I know, I fucking know.
I stop the bike. It looks like I could turn into a school right before the booths. I think about just ignoring him and doing it. Instead, I stop.
He walks up to explain I can't take the Expressway.
There is a nasty sharpness in my voice, as I make it clear that I know, but what the fuck am I supposed to do know that I'm 10 meters from the booths?
Ah, turn around, and drive directly into traffic again? My favorite Bangkok roadway pastime.
He reads the exasperation in my voice and body perfectly. Instead of escalating the situation with the snappy farang, he manages me.
He takes a picture of the bike for his records, then starts to direct traffic around me so I can start the painfully slow process of turning around. Once around, I slowly working my way into three lanes of traffic. A minute or two later, there is a patch of road that allows me to cut across the traffic and jump back onto the right road.
Too tired to celebrating arriving at the hostel, I let the die choose whether or not I'm taking a 8 person or 4 person dorm room – they are roughly the same price if you stay for four nights. However, I'm not sure I'll be here for four nights. The die picks the 4 person room.
I trudge up three flights of stairs and walk into the closet sized room. Good enough.
With the AC on, I just sit there. My stomach hurts. My new diet of Snickers, Thai food and junk is taking a toll on my digestive system.
I can't bring myself to move or even lay down. I can smell myself. I've become increasingly aware of how much I stink. My shirts stink, my underwear stinks, I stink. I'll sit down in my dirty green shorts, give them flap to get a breeze down to my balls and be hit with the smell of my penis, or at least the underwear, shorts and sweaty dick combination. It's unpleasant.
I'm still sitting in my riding gear on the bed when my roommate arrives.
A French girl by the name of Laura. She has wavy brown hair, a plain, but pleasant, face and indistinguishable Southeast Asia travel clothes.
Dice Travels comes up pretty quickly in the conversation.
“Oh I know that book,” she says. She hasn't actually read it, but The Dice Man is apparently one of her brother's favorite books. Laura has just come back from a 28 day trip to Myanmar. There are no tourists in the country right now, they've all been washed away with the rainy season, she reports.
I can't wait to pick her brain about the country, but right now I don't have it in me.
After a shower, I head up to the commons area on the fourth floor to work.
A French Canadian guy is in his own world up there, the place feels dead. However, by the evening a good little grew of Americans, French and Germans congregate in front of the TV, trying to decided what movie to watch.
Most have been on the road for more than six months; they are on the back end of big trips and are looking to skate out the last week or so before going home. There is a mix of intellect, American pop culture and drinking that transports the room back to a university dorm in the States.
Split between watching Batman Begins, writing and jumping into conversations about books and movies, I let the evening drift by.
There's just too much work to let the dice throw me out on another adventure so soon.