Rethinking India from Bangkok
So the big reunion, having been apart for nearly 2 weeks (after spending every waking hour together for 7 months!), was supposed to happen on March 31st in the Bangkok airport. Stephanie was going to take a boat from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui and then catch an early morning flight the following day to Bangkok while I was flying in from Chiang Mai. Cue Chariots of Fire as we ran towards each other in slow motion. We’d have a three hour layover before boarding a two hour flight to Kolkata.
By the way, have I mentioned yet that we’re going to India?
Originally we wanted to visit Nepal, after Stephanie discovered the Annapurna Circuit, so we ended up getting 5 year India visas back home (it was either that or 6 months from date of issue) assuming that we might need to pass through India to get to/from Nepal. Along the way I read some less than encouraging things about Nepal, but more importantly, the idea of doing a 20-day trek kind of lost its luster for us after being on the road for so many months. Instead I started to fantasize about eating my way across India (Indian food being quite possibly my favorite cuisine, with Thai a close second). So we gave ourselves a month to canvas the country.
And because Stephanie was extremely apprehensive about India, having in particular heard horror stories about Krazy Krowded Kolkata™, we planned to stay in a fancy $200/night hotel near the airport, and then catch a flight the next morning to the somewhat more subdued (we hoped) Varanasi.
That was the plan.
Erase all that. Well, except the part about going to India. Thanks to an unseasonal monsoon-like low pressure system that hung over the Gulf of Thailand for nearly the entire time Stephanie was on Koh Phangan, all boat services off the island had been suspended for several days and all flights into and out of Koh Samui had been canceled.
When we learned on the day before her flight to Bangkok that there was no way for her to make it to the airport on Koh Samui, not even via Thailand’s one and only aircraft carrier (which had been dispatched to the area—oh man that would have been so bloggable!), we had to make some quick adjustments.
I pushed back our flight to Kolkata by 4 days (hoping that was a wide enough window for Stephanie to get to Bangkok—quite a feat for the notoriously inflexible budget carrier, Air Asia), and I canceled the hotel reservation in Kolkata and the flight to Varanasi. Meanwhile I caught my flight to Bangkok and reserved a room at the HI-Sukhumvit for 4 nights. Thankfully the weather system passed, Stephanie got on an early morning boat to Koh Samui, and was rebooked on a flight that evening to Bangkok. It was a little touch and go for a while, but in the end she arrived only about 12 hours later than originally planned.
But now we had 3 unanticipated days in Bangkok. A megalopolis that initially I had been all-too-happy to avoid (based on previous experience)—I now found myself excited to explore. We sampled the wide array of street food available near our hotel, experienced the SkyTrain at rush hour, went on an excellent Food and Culture Walking Tour, saw a movie in a VIP Theater in the Siam Paragon ultra-mall, walked around the Grand Palace, and even found ourselves transported to the Middle East (while having dinner at a Lebanese restaurant on “Soi Arab”).
But most importantly we completely rethought our approach to traveling in India. Stephanie had picked up a used, 4 year old India Lonely Planet (aka “the phonebook”), which though not how we usually like to travel, seemed like it actually might be an advantage in the less-tourist-friendly India (as compared to Southeast Asia). Thus armed with pages torn out of our venerable guidebook, we decided to revert to a more spontaneous mode of travel: show up in a place, navigate to the “guesthouse district”, find a hotel for a few days, and move on, preferably by train.
This was an incredibly empowering concept, especially given that India has a relatively coherent public transit system (rickshaw, bus, train, and plane). At the same time Stephanie (who readily admits to having an irrational fear of India) found it completely terrifying. But we made a promise to each other. We’d try it out in Kolkata, a place we’d heard was the most insane and where we had nothing to lose, and if the city or the train station or the train or frankly anything felt too crowded, overwhelming, or otherwise bewildering, we’d head straight to a ritzy hotel and book the first flight out of there. This trip definitely pushes many of our boundaries, but there is no point in either of us being miserable.
And so on Monday, April 4th, we returned to Bangkok’s airport and boarded our flight to Kolkata, leaving behind Southeast Asia for the first time since setting foot on Bali back in December.
I am loving your travelogues, Justin. And I’m so glad you are safe, enjoying your experiences and sharing them with the rest of us.
Thanks Anton. We’re actually lucky our plans got delayed in Bangkok because it opened us to the idea of approaching India more spontaneously, judging the country as we saw it, not based on the stories people told us. We’ve been in India for two weeks now, it’s like a whole other world.
Speaking of which, two weeks has become my standard blogging backlog. So expect some posts about India this week…