In my research I found a very helpful site called Seat61. The site highly recommends purchasing tickets ahead of time via a 12Go, so I did. The total fare, with service fee, was 891 bhat (US$27); about $20 less than I paid for my Nok Air flight to Chiang Mai. The trip is scheduled as 11 hours and actually took just about that. It was a nice experience, though now that I've done it, if I return to Chiang Mai, I'll pay the extra to fly both ways. Nok Air was a good choice because the ticket included up to 15kg (33 lbs) of baggage allowance. I wore/carried my heavy armored motorcycle jacket and boots to avoid paying excess baggage fees.
When you are flying within Asia, ALWAYS check the baggage allowance BEFORE you pay for your ticket. Vietnam Airlines and other "higher-end" carriers give you 20-30 kg (44-66 lbs) per flight, while the "budget" airlines like Air Asia and Viet Jet ALWAYS charge extra for checked bags and sometimes even charge for carry-ons, sometimes raising the total price to equal or exceed that of the better airlines. They do offer a discount if you pay the baggage fees when you make your reservation, though you want to print out and double-check your receipt to verify that the web site processed your request and payment. We discovered this the hard way the one (and only) time we flew Viet Jet. They tried to charge us twice as much for baggage at the airport because the web site hadn't properly processed our payment and I didn't double-check. My suggestion is that unless the el-cheapo airline is the only one available for the route you want to fly, avoid them spend a little more up-front for better service, friendlier employees, included baggage, and more legroom. The low-cost Asian airlines cater to locals and they are, 95% of the time, less in need of leg room than we Westerners. I've flown on planes within Asia where I had to sit at an angle just to fit into the available legroom.
Back to the train...
After tea at the Chiang Mai station,
|The entrance to the boarding platform|
|Even the "Sprinter" takes 10.5 hours to travel 700 kilometers (420 miles)|
|It's been a while since I've seen a condom machine in the men's room, |
though since half the trains are all-nighters, it's probably a good idea.
|With all the wonderful teas in Asia, it's surprising how many times "Lipton" is the only choice.|
My seat came with a cloudy and scratched window, so I sat on the other side (of the aisle, not the window) for most of the trip until a Thai woman boarded who'd been assigned the seat.
For the first five hours of the trip, the entire car was filled with the voices of two men who talked very loudly and almost incessantly. After a while, it faded into "white noise" or background music and I found myself wondering, "Why am I unable to process loud Vietnamese conversations the same way?" Maybe it's the frequency? Most Vietnamese speech I hear seems that it is conducted at higher audio frequencies than most Thai conversations.
Whining children sound the same in any language... why can't parents keep them more quiet, especially in a confined space like a railroad passenger car?
I spent most of the trip looking out the window, taking a few photos and videos
|These squatting toilets are challenging enough without the train's added motion...|
and eating the rather surprisingly good packaged meals that were included in the ticket price.
|Satay Fried Mackeral—I could've eaten more|
|The snack was Pineapple Puffs (a bit dry)|
The hotel is down a couple small streets/alleys from the main street, so it's nice and quiet. There are a number of family-owned restaurants in the area, but to get anywhere else, you're going to need a tuk-tuk or hike to the rail station (about 10 blocks).
I checked in about 8 p.m. and, VERY HUNGRY, asked about food. The only viable alternative (the family-owned places were all closed) was the top-floor restaurant in the hotel. I sat down, was given a menu, made my selection, and then ordered "yellow curry with shrimp, squid, egg, and vegetables (Seafood Pad Pong Ka-Ree)". What a HUGE disappointment! Fully 1/3 of the dish was barely sautéed (i.e. raw) onions and the "seafood" consisted of exactly two shrimp and two fragments of squid.
When I brought this to the attention of the surly waitress, she mumbled something in Thai and wandered off. The manager I requested never appeared, so I took up my disappointment (and photos) with the hotel manager. She said she'd have someone get back with me in the morning. The short version is that they charged me for the crappy food and gave me store credit in the deli--which was never open when I was hungry.
Would I stay here again? NO! The location is less-than-ideal and... the food sucks.
Since I had a day in Bangkok and needed some parts for my 400cc Suzuki DRZ, I took the list of "big bike" shops that I got from the concierge at the Renaissance during our stay before I went to Chiang Mai and spent the day wandering the city in a taxi seeking out these shops. Unfortunately, Suzuki doesn't sell DRZ in Thailand, so not even the Suzuki dealer had any parts and the other shops either don't want to or (most likely) can't get them.
One of the "performance" shops I tried did have a number of very interesting displays that, in my Western mind, were more suitable for a anime/fetish shop than a motorcycle accessory shop...
Whatever trips your trigger, as my friend Rich D probably still says...
My final morning in Bangkok I headed to the airport early so as to ensure that I had plenty of time. I learned a long time ago that it's much better to sit for an extra hour after going through Security Theater and passport control than to rush, run, sweat, and stress when some little thing goes sideways and throws of your imagined schedule.
The Skyway train connects to a dedicated Airport Rail Link train that drops you right at the terminal, so I chose to again take a taxi only to the Skyway station. I forgot about the many stairs and the scarcity of elevators (at least that I was able to find)... SHIT!
|Only one of the many sets of stairs that I got to drag my three heavy bags up or down|
|THIS queue at Passport Control is one of the reasons it's best to leave plenty of time to get to your flight|
As I waited for my Vietnam Airlines flight back to Saigon, I thought about my impressions and take-aways from Thailand...
1) Bangkok is nice, though significantly more enjoyable with ViLa by my side than alone.
2) Chiang Mai is a great little town that would probably be where I'd head if I ever decide to live in Thailand.
3) The CB500X was a good bike that I rented for a fair price. While it handled well, it's more of a "sport bike" than I want, so there's no danger I'll be tempted to buy one. The new Africa Twin is more to my liking; maybe next time I go they'll have them on-offer.
4) I need to return to ride MORE of the wonderful roads of northern Thailand... preferably avoiding the clay-covered ones.
My impressions of Thailand as it compares to Vietnam:
- A much more polite (to my Western mind) society
- They don't ride along the curb on wrong side of the road
- They have better helmets, though that doesn't help if it's in the basket instead of worn properly
- A LOT more bitter, disgruntled expats wasting their life in the bars
- The roads are better—the worst road I rode was better than 80% of VN roads outside of cities, EXCEPT when they water down clay on top of tarmac
- There are many more wats than temples
- There are seemingly more "Hello Girl" bars and massage parlors in Chiang Mai than in much larger Saigon
- A LOT more ladyboys
- Thailand had the first signs I ever saw that say getting a tattoo of Buddha or having him as decoration is disrespectful and asking people not to do it. If I had been considering it (I hadn't), this new knowledge would change that.
One last comparison—there's no one in jail in Vietnam for writing an article making fun of the King's dog...