With rescheduling of the expedition programme it is just another three weeks to touchdown in Cochin. The expedition had been fine this far. Except for the major disappointment of not being able to drive in Vietnam and missing the huge opportunity for sightseeing in that country and the non-availability of a ferry to Batam, the rest went pretty much to plan. The biggest gain of the expedition has been the many new friends I have made on the way and the renewal of older relationships.
The accommodation in Euro Boutique Hotel had been more than adequate for the price. For about Rs. 1000 the location, the facilities in the room as well as the breakfast was fantastic value for money. One of the things I have come to accept is that the booking sites describe quite accurately what you can expect in the hotels. The photographs are not window dressing. Moreover, whatever the price in the hotels the facilities are invariably clean and neat. That has never been a concern right from Myanmar through all the other countries. In fact, it is part of the culture in these countries. Garbage is regularly collected and disposed off, streets and buildings are cleaned and their upkeep is ensured, rules and regulations are followed on the road, individuals are given respect and politeness is a ‘national value’.
In the large room that doubled up as a restaurant for the buffet breakfast the women first smilingly folded their hands and greeted in the normal sing song manner. The elder of the two asked if I am from Malaysia and then made it a point to tell me that the sausages were made of chicken. Besides the sparse continental fare there were many local items like conjee, noodles and rice cakes. I had toasts with eggs and plenty of orange juice. When I returned the key at the reception and mentioned that I was checking out the ‘key deposit’ was returned.
Google Maps was to be the guide yet again. The distance to Bangkok was more than 450 km. However, the road condition, the signposting of routes and the disciplined rod users combined to make the driving experience pleasant and hassle free. Nearly 50 km short of Bangkok I encountered humongous traffic jams. Traffic came to a standstill at many places. However, save the delay, I reached Jasmine Grande Residence on Rama IV road in slightly less than 6 hours. Once I reached Bangkok I was convinced that I could have done the journey from Phuket to Bangkok in one shot, about 850 km, without having to break journey in Chumphon. The road condition is quite good and it does not wear you out.
As I drove into the hotel I was greeted at the entrance by a bellboy who loaded my luggage into a cart and asked me to report to the reception. The check in did not take much time. I was told that they were upgrading my accommodation for the four night stay at the hotel. When I was taken to the room I was surprised to be given a suite room with fantastic views of the port and the neighbourhood. For less that Rs. 4000 a night this was more royal than it could be. It was as big as a serviced singe room apartment. The balcony of the large living room was locked. At the reception I was told that I had to give an undertaking if it were to be opened. The printed form had questions like, “Why do you want the balcony door to be opened”? Once the undertaking was given the door to the balcony was opened and I had lovely unhindered views. I was also happy that I had covered car park for the four days that I would be there at no extra cost.
Moncy Thomas works for Alsthom in Bangkok. He and Reji Mammen, my colleague in Trans Asia, had been classmates in college. When I shared my travel plans with Reji he had put me in touch with Moncy, who offered to put me up in Bangkok. He was in regular touch to monitor the progress of the expedition. A week back the dates for Bangkok were confirmed to Moncy who said that accommodation would be fixed suitably. It was only when I was in Phuket that I got a mail from him about the hotel accommodation. I felt bad that I was imposing so much on him; I had expected to share the accommodation at home. He explained that his family had moved back to Kerala and hence, he was in a smaller rented accommodation. The hotel was not very far from the office he worked in as the Group CFO. He has been with Alsthom for over a decade and managed the financial services of the three verticals of Power, Transportation and Energy Infrastructures.
I called him up after I had checked in and he said that he would send his son, Thomas, to take me around till he could get free from the office. Thomas arrived within the hour and I was instantly struck by the confidence of the young man and his knowledge of the city. The 9th standard student, who studied and lived in Kottayam with his mother, was encyclopaedic about the places to visit and what one could get where. I felt as if I had a ‘wired’ companion. He said we should visit the MBK Centre to find if some of the stuff I wanted to pick could be had there. But we made a mistake of taking the car to the shopping mall. The traffic hardly moved and we spent more time sitting in the car than driving. It is not so wise to drive in the city due to the density of vehicles as well as the number of traffic lights and major intersections. The best way to move around, I realised later, is to hire a bike taxi or the BTS, which linked almost all shopping centres in the city.
Moncy met us at the shopping mall and we walked around the many floors of the mall that had food stuffs, textile, electrical and electronic items, footwear and much, much more. After I had picked up a few things we went to the food court in the mall. Various stalls offered cuisine from all over South East Asia as well as Continental dishes. I chose to have a seafood green curry soup with a couple of beers. The portion was huge and I was grateful that I had not ordered steamed rice to go with it. Over dinner Moncy and I exchanged notes on work, family and friends. It came as a pleasant surprise that Moncy and Sam Manipadam, who was my colleague in DP World and a dear friend, were thick friends from their CA days in Mumbai. The world had shrunk. I was even more surprised to know that Moncy and Reji had met only once in the past 30 years since their salad days in college. The fact that Reji could depend on Moncy to host me in Bangkok brought home to me the quality of their friendship.
I had one more visa hurdle to cross before returning to India. Myanmar embassy in India had given only a single entry visa stating that the return visa could be had at the border ‘on arrival’. When I was exiting Myanmar in March the Silver Hills representative had confirmed from the border authorities that they do not issue visa at the border. That was a major shock at the time. However, the remedy was to get the visa issued in Bangkok, they said. I have been apprehensive about this arrangement, but Silver Hills was confident it could be done. They sent me a couple of documents to be presented to the Embassy in Bangkok and gave me the contact details of the Minister Counsellor, in case I had any trouble. To say that I was comfortable about the visa when I went to bed would be far from the truth.