Sunday, February 18, 2007 India India / Thailand Thailand

Stamped out of India

Bangkok skyline [Enlarge]

When we went down to check out of the Tara Palace Hotel, the manager was sitting at reception. He asked us if we'd enjoyed our stay and, choosing our words carefully we told him that we liked his hotel very much—our views on Delhi and India we kept to ourselves.

India only had one final opportunity to irritate us and she did her very best. Knowing what we knew about Indian bureaucracy and organisation, the rigmarole and queues at Indira Gandhi International Airport came as no surprise at all. We left early to allow for Delhi's evening rush-hour traffic, and we arrived at the terminal nearly three hours before our flight to Bangkok was due to leave.

Check in and immigration went smoothly (by the way, why do they still call it immigration when you're leaving the country?). The security checks were a different matter however. The queues were so long that we were almost late for our flight by the time we got through to the gate. And then we were subjected to another manual search at the gate itself. Indian law has a daft requirement where you must have a luggage tag on every piece of hand luggage. This tag gets checked and rubber-stamped at security. There is a man whose job it is to check the tag and stamp it, then another man whose job it is to check the freshly stamped tag. At the gate there were two more checkers, one to again check the stamped tag and the other to make sure that the first one is doing his job properly. These are in addition to the vast number of other uniformed people milling around doing (apparently) absolutely nothing. In this rule-obsessed, blindly unquestioning environment, nobody has thought to ask what this hand-luggage tag's presence actually achieves (apart from employment for two checkers per security scanner and another two checkers per departure gate). How does putting a stamped, easily removable luggage tag onto a piece of hand luggage prove in any way that the contents of that bag have been screened? In any case, we noticed tags on several people's luggage which were not even filled in! They had been stamped all the same, presumably because the person's job description says "Check that each piece of hand luggage has a tag, and then stamp the tag."

Glenn said in one of our earlier Indian posts that he was optimistic that the problems India has will be overcome because its society seems to be dynamic and hungry for success. After a few weeks here he has completely changed his mind. We think that India is in for a very tough time in the short or medium term, because of its terrible inefficiency and mind-blowing scale of over-employment. The corporate downsizing seen in the West in the 1990s will be nothing compared to what happens when someone realises that all these utterly redundant jobs are costing money. An example is the luggage tag stampers at the country's airports. Here's another example: on Goan building sites, we saw lorries dropping off their loads of bricks at the side of the road. At each site, tens of workers were employed to carry the bricks across the road to where they were needed. Like a line of ants, this was their job, and they did it all day by the bucketload (on their heads—ouch). When, probably due to the rampant inflation being seen in the country, the site owners realise that they could save money by buying a wheelbarrow and employing just one person to transport the bricks, what are all the others going to do? Maybe investment from outside the country will generate jobs faster than this process will destroy them, but we can't see it.

The overnight flight was not too bad—we didn't bother trying to sleep, deciding instead to watch some movies. We had nothing planned for our first day in the land of smiles so we thought we'd go to bed for a few hours when we got to the hotel in the morning. Five hours after leaving Delhi we were walking through Bangkok's stylish and brand new Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Even at 06:30 the Thai staff were, true to their reputation, smiling as they opened another immigration desk to save us having to queue. No hassles, no visas, no fees, no waiting: just turn up with a British passport and you can come in for up to thirty days. Even the baggage reclaim area is calming, with a huge glass wall at one end looking out onto an ornamental garden. We had read that the new airport has had teething troubles since it opened late in 2006, and that there are calls for international flights to be moved back to the old Don Muang Airport while the problems are sorted out. But for us it really was a breeze.

The Airport Express bus looked like the best option for getting into town. The smiley staff were familiar with where we needed to go and pointed us at the right bus for the Bobae Tower, the location of our Expedia-sourced hotel. We climbed aboard and perched wherever we could as all the seats were taken.

Bangkok's traffic is notoriously bad and it took an hour and a half to get into the city centre. We were woken from our dozy stupor by the driver shouting "Bobae Tower!" and we tumbled out into the heat and humidity and followed the arrow on the GPS until we found the hotel. The heat is incredible if you haven't experienced it before (we haven't). It was some time around seven or eight in the morning and yet it was like being in a hot, steamy bathroom with all the windows and doors shut.

We took the hotel a bit by surprise turning up so early, so we had to wait for a short time while housekeeping cleaned our room. By 09:30 we had taken a shower and were in a super comfortable bed in our lovely clean air-conditioned twenty-third floor room, fast asleep. We got up some time in the afternoon and lounged around until dinner. We love Thai food at home, but this was our first Thai meal in Thailand. It was worth coming for!

Next day after breakfast we decided to walk across town to the Khao San Road, the main backpacker area, to find a bookshop willing to exchange our India guidebook for one covering South East Asia. On the way we were touted by tuk-tuk drivers and tour sellers pretending to be helpful passers by, but they are rank amateurs by comparison with the Indians. And they do it with a smile and accept your "no thank you" almost straight away. One 'passer by' helpfully pointed out on our map all the sights we must see in Bangkok, then told us that because it was National Police Day (!), there was a special offer on all tuk-tuks with yellow number plates (!!) whereby we could go anywhere all day for just 10 baht (GBP 0.15 / USD 0.29). As if by magic, a yellow-plated tuk-tuk pulled over and the driver offered to take us anywhere all day for 10 baht! And he would even throw in several visits for free to some craft shops where we could see local produce being made! It made us laugh. We got to the Khao San Road, hot but relieved to have been able to simply go out for a pleasant walk for the first time in weeks, and had no trouble finding a second-hand bookshop where in return for our India book and a few baht we came away with the most up to date edition of the Rough Guide to South East Asia. At another shop we got a less favourable deal on a fold-out map of the region that mysteriously transformed from a brand new copy to an out of date and slightly tatty second-hand one after the money had changed hands.

Since then we've just hung out and taken it easy for a few days. Our plan was to get our Chinese visas in Bangkok, and it still is. But the timings have gone to pot a bit because we've managed to land here right at the start of Chinese New Year, and the embassy is closed until Monday 26th February. We've read that it can take up to four working days to get a Chinese visa and we don't want to risk being without our passports for the week that the embassy is closed, because we need them to check into hotels. So we have decided to leave half of our luggage in the hotel's storage facility (so that we can travel really light!), and explore some of Northern Thailand and Laos. We will return to Bangkok after Chinese New Year to take in the sights of the city and get those pesky visas.

In our last post we said that Bangkok is a love-hate city and that we hoped we would love it. Well, we're delighted to report that we do! India is far behind us, and our trip is firmly back on track.

Map of Day 082

Day 082
New Delhi to Bangkok

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.