Driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

20161113_134607
Suburban Bangkok traffic

We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.

I’ve done my share of driving in foreign countries, on both sides of the road, but one of the luxuries of my late-in-life marriage to David is leaving the driving to him. He actually loves challenging driving (and is fine with wrong-side stick shifts) and I’m a pretty darn good navigator, so we make a great team.

20161113_134603
Nerves of steel!

Bangkok, though, has a reputation of being a driving nightmare and there’s that always-present worry about accidents or police shakedowns in a third world country. Still, a car would be ideal and online research led me to believe it wouldn’t be that bad given the location of Don Muang. (Had we flown into Suvarnabhumi Airport to the south of the city, we’d have had to drive across Bangkok to get to Kanchanaburi. No way!) I showed David what I’d found and he was game for the drive, so I booked a rent car with Sixt…but made it cancelable in case on-the-ground experience in Thailand changed our minds. After two weeks in Thailand, David felt more confident than ever, so we made the drive.

Sixt provided us with a nice mid-size sedan with automatic transmission(!), Google Maps was up and working on my phone via my Thai SIM card, so all was good as we pulled away. Don Muang is a long airport whose length runs along a major highway. To get out of the airport, we had to drive through parking lots and drop-off lanes to reach a U-turn bridge to get us going north on the highway; no big deal.

20161111_113020
Yes, I know. The sign spells “Don Muang” differently. The airport spells it the way I have. Mostly. Thai spelling is a very changeable thing.

Traffic, as expected, was heavy on the highway with scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out among cars and trucks. We encountered our first problem when we tried to make our first exit. Massive construction of an overhead road was going on along the length of the highway and the exit was blocked. Thank God for Google Maps! We just kept trying to head west and after a series of Google re-routes that resulted in a lot of backtracking as we made long parallel straightaways and squared-off U-turns, we finally got onto the right road. Google Maps predicted 2h25 to go 142 kilometers (88 miles).

Traffic was insane in the early part of the drive as we made our way through Bangkok suburbs. [See lead pic.] Cars and passenger trucks mixed with tuk tuks, songtaews, motorbikes and brightly-painted big rigs. Major town signs usually had English, but not always. Most road signs were in indecipherable Thai squiggles and swirls. Worse yet, Google Maps would often show road signs and directions in Thai, not English. The robot lady still talked in English, but her “turn right’s” and “turn left’s” often came at the wrong time and I’d have to zoom into our little moving icon then tell David, “No! Not here!” more often than I would have liked. It required a lot of attention on both of our parts. Meanwhile, cars and motorbikes cut in and out around us. Traffic would occasionally come to a stop on a major median-divided road, to allow a stream of cars from the other side to U-turn. We could figure no pattern to that, and when I got the chance to research it, I found an expat message board where someone attributed it to “telepathy,” like us finding no rhyme nor reason to when cars would yield.

20161113_134607

20161111_123832
Trucks sported all sorts of decoration.

Things got better as we moved into the countryside. The roads, all along, were in good shape, not much different from what we’d see at home (if you don’t count the temples, rice fields, loose cows and other signs that we weren’t in Kansas any more).

20161113_135819
Not unlike home, except for the Buddha

Thais protect themselves from the sun and it’s common to see people, especially on motorbikes, with their heads fully covered by cloth with only eye holes. It’s vaguely alarming-looking, like a bunch of bank robbers on the loose.

20161113_141842
Roadside vendor avoiding the sun

Getting hungry, we started looking for somewhere to grab a quick lunch. By now, we were used to and fond of Thai street food, so a local open-air market looked promising and we pulled in. A songtaew overloaded with locals pulled in beside us. This crowd headed to tables and vendors at the front of the market, but David bee-lined for a cloud of smoke emanating from the very rear of the big space, far from the other vendors. An old lady with a bandaged food greeted us eagerly while a man tended skewers on the grill. When we asked the price, she replied “5 baht,” about 14 cents. Sure we must have misheard, David asked her again, but got the same answer. Um. OK. She got out a plastic bag and quickly added several skewers. When we asked if it was chicken, “gai,” she nodded and repeated “gai.” Inspecting the skewers, I spotted a heart and some other odd bits. We asked her what part of the chicken those were. She waved her hand around her stomach. Intestines. That’s what I thought. The skewers were split down the middle then wired shut around the meat. Some of the skewers held flattened, unidentifiable meat with small bones visible. It looked like chicken back. Maybe. David tried pointing to his leg and chest, asking for more familiar cuts, but she just nodded and added another skewer, bringing our total to five. When she mentioned sticky rice, for 3 baht, we happily bought 2 plastic pouches for a grand total of 30 baht or about 86 cents. She’d moved her crutch aside for us to sit down, but I told David we should eat in the car, both for a/c and so we could spit out anything we wanted without offending her.

20161111_132950
Inedible barbecue with strange beaky bit on the right

Back in the car, we inspected our lunch. We tried nibbling on the flattened, bony meat, but could only get the tiniest bit of food. Were you supposed to just crunch through bone?! Giving up, we moved on to the tripe. Curling my lips back, I tried a bite…but couldn’t get through. An odd beaky looking bit was equally impervious to my teeth. Hmm. The barbecue sauce wasn’t bad, though. We quickly wolfed down our sticky rice and tossed the rest of our “lunch,” afraid to feed it to the two dogs wandering the front of the market for fear of choking them. Oh well, back on the road.

We arrived at our Kanchanaburi hotel without incident. The drive, while a little frazzling in some places (for me anyway–David has nerves of steel), wasn’t bad. It was nice to have the car, for privacy, comfort and just to be free to follow our own whims and timetable or lack thereof. For about $30/day, it wasn’t a bad deal either. It also turned out to be a great way to escape the myriad tours being touted in Kanchanaburi. More on that later.

20161112_091955
Great roads in the countryside (This is between Kanchanaburi and Tha Kilen the day we did the Death Railroad.)

Venice to Ljubljana, Slovenia: GoOpti van was the way to go

Our 3-week Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruise on the Costa “Deliziosa” dropped us off in Venice, Italy, on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016. It was my 4th time in Venice and David’s 2nd, but our first time together in that magical city and we were excited. It was my first time to arrive by ship and I was surprised to find that our large ship was allowed to dock just beyond the main train station. Undoubtedly convenient, given the 2-minute ride to the train station on the super-cheap “People Mover” to which we walked from the ship, it’s still disturbing to think of allowing these sea-going behemoths so close to the fragile old city. We heard later that there are plans to ban such ships from docking so close and I can’t help but think it’s wise. If you’re going to Venice by ship, I’d keep tabs on that potential dock change.

Despite the Easter crowds, we had a fabulous time in Venice. Our AirBnB apartment was one of the best we’ve had: beautiful and well-equipped, a short distance from the Gritti Palace vaporetto stop, a few blocks from San Marco square, a charming building on a picturesque courtyard, on the gondola path, with one of my favorite mobile amenities, a mobile hotspot so David and I had wi-fi throughout the city and nearby islands, and great hosts (one of whom, Francesca, spent over an hour getting us acquainted with the neighborhood and pointing out her favorite restaurants and those to avoid). One night, we celebrated David’s birthday at Michelin-starred Il Ridotto. We enjoyed their creative holiday prix fixe meal, but after 4+ hours we were ready to surrender!

Because it seems a crime to gloss over Venice entirely, below are a few photos.

20160327_154045
Gondola jam beneath our bedroom window
20160327_214140
Buildings lit up in the colors of the Belgian flag to show solidarity after the Brussels bombings
20160328_191722
Easter menu at Il Ridotto (minus a couple off-menu courses)
20160328_201259
Roasted pilgrim scallops (“cappesante”):

 

GoOpti

After several days in Venice, it was time to begin our much-anticipated Balkan adventure. Research yielded the surprising news that no trains run between Venice and nearby Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The trip can be made, but you have to train to the border, taxi across and then catch a Slovenian train. More hassle than we wanted. We also didn’t want to drive given Venice traffic restrictions and the cost of taking a rent car across a border, even within the EU. After weighing options, we decided to book with GoOpti, a van service that offers a sliding price scale depending on when you book and whether you are willing to share a ride. https://www.goopti.com/en/ I booked almost 3 months in advance and it was far cheaper than flying and without the attendant expense, hassle, and time always required for flying. (Our total cost for GoOpti was €48; €24pp–a great deal.) Even on budget airlines and traveling light to avoid luggage surcharges, you’ve got to factor in transportation to airports which are nearly always a distance from town as well as ever-increasing security delays. For short flights, it’s often quicker to travel by land.

For GoOpti, you choose from offered departure points and departure time windows (of 1-3 hours depending on the time of day) with a maximum arrive-by time at your destination given for each departure time window. GoOpti says they will text and email you the day before departure with a precise time, so wi-fi or phone service is necessary. As promised, GoOpti emailed us the day before saying pick-up would be at 2pm, but emailed again shortly afterward to say 1:30pm. The van arrived promptly. We chose Piazzale Roma (the plaza just across the canal from the main Venice train station, by the big pedestrian bridge) for our departure point. My only uneasiness about the arrangement was the failure of GoOpti to provide any details as to where in the big, busy piazza we were to meet our van. This meant we arrived extra early to allow time to find the van and David waited with our luggage on one side of the plaza while I made a circuit, asking random strangers and vendors about GoOpti to no avail. We finally decided to postition ourselves near the only traffic entrance to the plaza. Eventually, I spotted a GoOpti van stuck in traffic and was able to get him to roll down the window. While he wasn’t our driver, he pointed us in the right direction. So, here’s the scoop: If you arrive by vaporetto, motoscafi, etc., just walk away from the canal, past all the large buses and you’ll find a few benches built into a long planter where you can sit, facing away from the canal and buses, to wait for the GoOpti van. Just walk over to the van and identify yourself when it arrives. The GoOpti vans will simply park, head-on into one of the regular parking spaces. Walk up to the driver and identify yourself. They’ll have your name and reservation or direct you to the driver who does.

20160330_132343
GoOpti van picking up customers
20160330_132425
GoOpti van parking with bench/planter seating to the right of the man in blue. The People Mover station where you arrive from the cruise port is behind him.

Although we booked a shared ride, there was only us in the 9-person van. (This was a Wednesday.) The van was immaculate; our Slovenian driver, Petra, very friendly and English-speaking. We had control of our own air conditioning in the back. She stopped for a little snack and bathroom break when asked about 1.5 hours into the trip, but would have stopped, she said, whenever we asked. You can buy sandwiches and drinks (coffee, soft drinks, water, beer, etc.) at the convenience store/filling station where she stops. There’s also free wi-fi and clean toilets. The drive from Venice to the Ljubljana Airport took 3 hours. Highways and roads are excellent; the drive smooth and uneventful.

GoOpti provides transfers to many locations in northern Italy, as well as quite a few in Slovenia and Croatia. It also has connections as far as Munich, Vienna and Budapest.

Although we planned to spend some time in Ljubljana, we chose to be dropped off at the airport so we could pick up a rent car as well as the Slovenian Visitor SIM card I’d pre-ordered and had delivered to an airport café. A terrific convenience! More about that in the next post.

March 30, 2016