I was sufficiently nervous as the day began because I started thinking about alternatives in case there was a glitch with the Myanmar visa. The first thought was about the extended stay in Bangkok and the next was the network I would have to activate for course correction. With all these difficult thoughts I gravitated for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I could not believe my eyes and ears because the very large lobby was nearly filled with luggage; there were Chinese everywhere. I wondered if there had been an invasion the previous night and some sort of resettlement of Bangkok had begun! The second floor restaurant was over crowded with more Chinese waiting for chairs and tables. The air was filled with smell of noodles and rice and chicken and conjee. Children to the elderly took portions as if the hotel was running out of food. Some dropped food on the floor, some others on the table. Much food was wasted and some more was picked up for the same purpose. It was not a pleasant sight to watch. I managed to grab a chair and set my bag firmly on it. Fresh fruits, eggs, Danish pastries and toasts, I tucked into with gusto; the sense of achievement at having got a plateful of them and manoeuvring through the increasing number of Chinese tourists at the restaurant adding to the appetite. The young among them were dressed fashionably, with more revealed than concealed. I remembered Simon, the B&B owner in Phuket, who said that the Chinese comprised more than 50 per cent of the tourists who came to Thailand these days when the more generous western tourists went to Laos and Myanmar. Besides, they travel together in large number, often on conducted tours. I had experienced this in Batam, Singapore and Malaysia too.
I checked at the reception where I could change currency. They told me it could be done in the bank just opposite the hotel. There was an air of excitement at the counter. A woman at the reception asked me if I could recognise the picture they had on the computer screen of an Indian actress. I did recognise the popular face but could not recollect the name. She was expected to arrive at the hotel the next day with her entourage and 21 pieces of luggage!
When I reached the bank I was greeted in typical Thai style by the security personnel, bank attendant, manager and all the women who manned the counters. I was the first customer of the day. I finished my business quite soon and asked the hotel to arrange a taxi to get me to the Myanmar Embassy. The taxi took some time coming because it was already rush hour. After it arrived it took further time to let the driver, who spoke Thai only, know where I had to go. Progress on the road was so excruciatingly slow that I feared I would be delayed for the visa submission. The many traffic lights and busy intersections kept the taxi meter ticking without the car having to move. Finally when I got to the embassy the early morning crowd had dissipated, mercifully.
There were three counters for visa submission. As soon as I got into the covered enclosure a person at the entrance asked the type of visa I would be applying for. He gave me a token for counter 2, as I wanted a tourist visa. I had filled up the visa form and kept all enclosures and photographs ready. I did not have to wait long before my turn was announced. I submitted the visa application form along with enclosures and the documents given by Silver Hills. The polite official consulted another colleague with my papers and asked me to fill up another visa application form. He was extremely patient with me and helped submit the required papers, collected the fee for same day visa and asked me to return with the receipt after 3.30 pm to collect the passport. It had been quick work and smoother than I had expected it to be.
When I returned to the embassy to collect the passport at 3.30 pm the entire hall was full of people, foreigners and locals, waiting to collect their passports. The maximum queue was for counter 2 that snaked all across the hall. What made matters worse was the inefficient air conditioning and the locked windows. And the queue moved ever so slowly. I was worried that I would not be able to get the passport that day if they closed the counter at 4.30 pm, the official closing time. What prolonged the queue was when some were denied visa and they kept arguing with the counter official. The embassy should have had some mechanism of redressing such grievances beside the counter with another official put in charge to handle them. Finally, I managed to get my passport and confirmed that the visa stamped therein met my need.
During the course of the day I had ‘mastered’ the BTS and the bike taxi system. Bike taxis are extremely efficient and cheap and is the best way to get around in Bangkok, especially during the peak time. I met up with Thomas at Siam BTS station and we did a bit of shopping before going to the Saphan Taksin BTS. Moncy had made a booking for a river cruise and dinner on it. We waited for Moncy to arrive there after his office commitments. The Chao Phraya River cruise is one of the must do activities for tourists to Bangkok. The river cruise itself attracted large number of people to the river cruise terminal. Boats arrived and departed at very short intervals and made sure that the numbers were evacuated quickly. I could make out that the river was used extensively for passenger transportation as well as for cargo movement. Small motorised barges pulled two to three large dumb barges filled with cargo. I was later told that the Chao Phraya River is a major transportation artery that links a vast network of river buses, cross river ferries and water taxis. The most famous hotels in Bangkok as well as some of the popular attractions of the city were by the sides of the river. They are also linked by the transportation network. All the hotels seemed to have their own boats to ferry customers back and forth.
The sun had gone down by the time we were picked up from the boat terminal by the company with who Moncy had arranged the river cruise. We were taken to their terminal to complete the check in formalities. I wandered around the terminal complex that was an exclusive shopping mall. The shops had wares to suit different wallet sizes and customers. I fell prey to an impulse buy before boarding the ‘Wonderful Pearl’. The cruise boat could accommodate 500 and was almost to capacity. Moncy had taken a table on the open deck from where we could observe the sights around, particularly as the lights went on. Dinner was an opulent affair and I helped myself to small portions of almost all dishes that were in the buffet. Sangha beer accompanied the solids. I had fruits and a few local delicacies for dessert. The cruise boat had entertainment on board. Western live music was the most popular. There were shows of traditional Thai art and music too. On the top deck people danced to popular music and socialised with abandon. The cruise began after giving sufficient time for guests to get through their dinner. I only wished for some form of commentary during the cruise that could have identified the landmarks and recapped some history. In the absence of that Moncy and Thomas filled in with information about the landmarks. They included the First Presbyterian Church, Royal Thai Naval dockyard, Thai Maritime Navigation Company, Customs House, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Royal Boat House and many other temples and exclusive hotels that studded the banks of the river. They also pointed out the Shangrila Hotel from where Carl Slim, the Tata Motors top shot, had flung himself to his death. The entire river cruise had been a fantastic experience, more so because the Myanmar visa matter was done and dusted too.