Part 2: Scammed in Krabi: Tales from the Road

This is a continuation of last week’s story.  If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you might want to start there first.

Part 2 – Scammed in Krabi

The previous story left off as Minah and I, a little angry and a lot relieved, rejoined our bags and our irresponsible driver in the minivan bringing us, we hoped, toward Surat Thani.  And from Surat Thani, onward to Bangkok.

Upset as we were for getting abandoned at the airport, we realized that this whole misadventure had inconvenienced the rest of the folks on the bus, who hadn’t done anything to deserve the turn-around delay, and who also hadn’t had the chance for a bathroom break.  We had climbed into the bank of front seats next to the driver, and didn’t risk turning around to see those eyeballs which were more than likely boring holes into the backs of our heads.

And so the second part of our trip begins, but it is only a quick trip to Krabi Town, in and out of some main streets and not-so-main streets.  At one point the driver pulls into a gas station alongside a man in a car, the man hands our driver a piece of paper, and our driver continues his side-street meanderings.  Hand-offs and exchanges all day, as we’ll find out.

A few side-streets later and the minivan stops again.  The driver gets out, and motions us to follow him, just us.  This must be where we change transportation, since nobody else on the bus is going to Surat Thani.

Surat Thani station: it’s a lot harder to get here than we thought it would be.

We step outside the van and we’re nowhere – on a dusty little road in an industrial part of town, a canal and guard rail to one side, the other direction is more side-streets, boarded up store-fronts, and empty Chinese restaurants.  The exception is the small tour company office we’re parked in front of.

“Surat Thani?” we ask. The driver just sort of waves/points at the woman behind the desk.  “Surat Thani?” we ask her.  “Yes, yes.  You wait here.  Put bags there.”  She indicates one of the poles holding up the roof, near the front of the shop.  “What time?” we ask.  “3:30”, she replies.  So we have about an hour to wait.  The minivan takes off as we, the tourists, like the money-excreting little soccer balls we are, have been passed down the field to the next player in the game.

We quickly find out that this tour office is a clever holding cell indeed for humans in transit, with physical and emotional needs.  There’s a toilet, but you have to pay 5 baht to use it.  The electrical outlets are all labeled “Don’t charge — Penalty 1000 baht.”

There are a few tables and chairs in a sort of dining area, and the saddest looking overpriced baguette sandwiches for sale and soft drinks and cans of Pringles.  Sweaty bus station food.  I take a quick jog around the side-streets in the heat of the sun to try and find a 7-11 to top up my SIM card, and maybe get some reasonably priced refreshment.  Just more industrial buildings.

Still giddy from our trauma at the airport, we don’t think to take any pictures of these sad features of our current stop.  There’s a couple of Spanish girls in the corner who hop on a minivan at about 3:00, but after that, it’s just us.  In pseudo-rebellion I take off my shirt, it’s maybe 37 degrees C, and embarrass myself with a little hacky sack.  Anything to try and shake this rat-in-a-cage feeling.

The woman at the tour desk breaks up the monotony to ask us what we’re doing in Surat Thani.  We explain we’re hoping to take the night train to Bangkok.  She asks if we have tickets and we say no, we’re hoping to buy them at the station.  She says maybe they’re booked, and she calls the station, and actually she’s right, the 8PM and the 9PM trains are booked.  Only a few upper berth seats left on the 11:57 PM train, do we want them?  We do.She takes our passports and is dictating names and passport numbers over the phone, takes our money (markup doesn’t seem too steep, according to the prices we’d researched), and gives us a receipt.   She tells us our train info: “11:57 PM, car 4, beds 15 and 25”.  We’re late to book and we don’t even have beds next to each other.  All of these numbers stick in our heads.  We realize it was lucky we stopped here and had her help to book the train.  I almost feel bad about using the bathroom for free when she wasn’t looking (almost).

This hand-written train receipt from this dusty little Krabi tour office is now our only evidence of travel to Surat Thani (since the minivan driver took the one issued in Koh Lanta).

At maybe quarter to 4, our “bus” arrives.  Only it’s actually just a guy in an SUV.  “Surat Thani?” we ask.  Our mantra.  “Yes,” he says.  “Bus station.”  He ends up driving us to another part of Krabi Town in the quasi-suburbs off a small highway, to the bus station where we’ll catch a proper bus-sized bus to Surat Thani.

The “bus station” in Krabi – backpacker purgatory


If the tour office in Krabi felt like a backpacker holding cell, then  this “bus station” feels like a holding pen.  There are no Thai passengers here, just backpackers looking for a well-coordinated package trip across the country.

And here-in lies the scam.  Like the rest of these foreign travelers, Minah and I hadn’t wanted to do the leg-work to figure out how to get ourselves from the overpriced taxis-only tourist zone on the beach to the networks of public transport that Thais use.  We thought we’d pay a little more for the convenience and ease of minivan transport, where drivers would be responsible for helping us get where we’re going.

But responsible they are not, and convenient it is definitely not.  Behind the desk at this stop-over point is a woman about my age who bellows to each wave of arriving backpackers to “check in” at her desk before sitting down in the waiting area.  We do, and she takes our train receipt and impales it on one of those receipt sticks on her desk, and she tells us our bus will arrive around 5:30.  It’s maybe 4:15 now.  Another hour.

The bus stop is mostly empty but it slowly fills up.  We talk to travelers as they’re coming in – a group from America, a group from Germany.  We have a coke and an ice cream from the overpriced stand in the corner.  Pass these backpacker soccer balls to the next “bus stop”, make them wait until they are hungry and thirsty, collect money, then pass them on down the field.  The toilets here have a 5 baht container outside as well, but they are unmanned and nobody pays it.  But we can feel it, this atmosphere of undisguised capitalist cash-grabbing.  Minah notices that the ceiling had electrical wirings and mounts for fans, but that they had been taken out.  The message is clear – “we don’t care about you, we just want your money”.

We talk to others that are going to Surat Thani, and they tell us that our bus has been delayed until 5:30, then 6:00.  At 6:15 we board – it is a double-decker behemoth, and there is air conditioning and we’ve got front-row seats on the top floor, with great views of the countryside as we roll along.  For the first time that day, we kick our shoes off and relax for a bit.

A moment of relaxation on the double-decker bus


We reach Surat Thani train station at about 8:45, a few couple later than the “6:30 or 7:00” quoted to us by our first tour desk, the hotelier’s daughter in Koh Lanta.  To make sure, as the driver is helping everyone unload their bags, we ask one more time, “Surat Thani?”  The driver nods.  We made it.

We’re exhausted but we’re almost done, we think – a quick check-in at the train station, then a much-needed late dinner, we are starving, and then finally that romantic sleeper train north to Bangkok.  But trouble is not over yet. The station is crowded with people, half foreign travelers and half Thais, but it is small, just two platforms, hopefully simple enough to figure out our train.  But I realize as we’re waiting in line at the train’s ticket office that the second bus station in Krabi had taken our receipt.  No worries, we think, our names and passports are in the system, right?  With no physical ticket, we try to explain this situation to the ticket clerk, but her English is minimal, and she has no idea what we’re talking about.

But we have allies in Bangkok.  Minah has unlimited internet on her SIM, but her phone is dead, so we switch out my SIM card for hers, and I’m online.  I send a Facebook message to our friends Pui and Burkay in Bangkok, and they’re on the case.  We can’t make outgoing calls but they can call us.

The fact that Minah and I remember that we are on the 11:57 train, car 4, beds 15 and 25, is incredibly lucky.  There’s a bit of back and forth as we put Pui on the line with the ticket clerk and she explains our situation.

Burkay sent this pic to us while we struggled – an annoyed Pui on the phone with the train clerk.

I can’t hear Pui on the phone over the mayhem in the station, so every time the clerk hands the phone back to me, I have to run outside to the street to listen, then run back to talk to the clerk at the window.

Finally, enough is communicated that the clerk prints out the train manifest and indeed our names and passport numbers show up next to those numbers we remembered.

But due to some inviolable train system rule, she cannot issue our tickets.  We have to go to the Surat Thani police station, file a “lost ticket” report, and bring that official report back here, then they’ll have to do some more paperwork, and then we’ll get our tickets.

We are incredulous, and I hand the phone back to the ticket clerk as Pui tries to talk her into just breaking the rule and issuing us tickets.  The clerk disappears out of the window, and walks out the back and across the station to another building and closes the door – holding my iPhone.

I’m left standing at the ticket counter, a line of confused passengers forming up behind me, with Minah in the waiting area of the station standing with our big backpacks – no tickets, and now our only mode of communication is gone.  I wait there ten minutes.  Out of the whole day, those ten minutes are when I feel the most helpless.

The fateful ticket counter


Finally, my iPhone and the clerk return. The verdict is in – we need to go to the police station, and we need to hurry.

Those of you who know me know that I must eat.  A full meal, every three hours, is ideal.  Minah had ordered sandwiches at the airport while I coordinated our rescue, around noon, but other than that we had only eaten a snack maybe mid-afternoon, that ice cream and coke.  It is past time for dinner, but there is no time, we need to get to the police station.  We hop in a taxi and a few minutes later we arrive.  “I need to eat something,” I tell Minah.  “Let’s stop for a second, I think we have some oranges left.”  “But where are we going to eat?” she asks.

We break out the oranges and just sit right down on the curb in front of the police station.  Two travelers, two big backpacks, a couple of day bags, fingernail deep in oranges.  Minah was sweet and let me eat both of them, and I did, slowly, to ease my stomach into it.  At this point I’m a little bit dizzy.

I’m about to tear into the second one when a guy on a scooter putt-putts up to us and asks us what we’re doing, and what we need.  I’m hungry and exhausted, and had been savoring the quiet before our next encounter, and I don’t want to explain myself.  “I’m eating an orange,” I say.

Our friendly neighborhood Thai police station

Minah is kinder to him, I don’t really remember what she says, but he gets the hint and leaves us alone, driving off behind the police station.  I finish the second orange and I’m feeling a little revived.

The police station actually turns out to be the most pleasant part of the whole day.  We get Pui again to explain things to the young lieutenant at the desk, and he fills out the requisite form for us.  From his ease at the task, I get the impression this happens a lot (maybe other victims of the receipt-taking confusion).

The guy from the scooter a few minutes ago comes in the back; it turns out he was a plain-clothes cop, and he sits with the other senior officers near the TV in the back of the station, watching muay thai boxing.  We are in the station for quite a few minutes before we realize that the whole time, a prisoner behind a glass wall and a set of bars has been hanging his head out from between the bars, staring at us.  We motion in his direction and the scooter cop laughs and says something in Thai, and everyone else laughs too.

The scooter cop has taken a shine to us by the time our report has been finalized, and he asks another young cop to drive us back in the official police pickup truck, which is a great time, although they insist we sit in the front.  The worst is over – we hand the police report to the ticket clerk, get some street food (Thai beef basil, yum),

We deserved this feast.

and by the time we’ve returned to the train station she’s stamped us as “acceptable to board the train”.  It’s maybe 11pm.  We wait another hour and a half, since the train is 30 minutes late.

The sleeper train is fully booked, and as we step inside our car, curtains are drawn.  Only beds 15 and 25 are unoccupied.  And yes, finally, it’s a lot of fun to be cocooned on an upper berth, bags up there by our feet, both us, no need to add getting robbed to our list of the day’s adventures.

I go to sleep immediately and sleep through till morning.  Minah told me later that she kept waking up during the night, strange as it was to be steamrolling across the countryside in our little beds, not unlike the compactness of a Japanese capsule hotel.

In the morning the passengers leave little by little and the train staff clears out the linens, folds the upper berths into the ceiling and converts the lower berths into seats.  We spend our last couple of hours staring out the windows at dried-out fields, the golden flash of sun on the spires of small-town wats (Buddhist temples), and kids playing along the train line.  Minah couldn’t believe that the toilets emptied right onto the tracks.

Staring out the window the next morning.  Minah’s wearing all the layers she packed, the air conditioning was chilly.

We finally step off the train in Bangkok at 11:50 AM.  Remember when we got abandoned at Krabi airport, early afternoon the previous day?  A quick internet search puts one-way plane tickets from Krabi to Bangkok as low as $17 each, one way.  Our bus from Krabi to Surat Thani (excluding Lanta to Krabi) cost us $10, and our sleeper trains cost about $30 each.

Men unloading mysterious pink liquid at Bangkok’s Hualamphong station

So much for train romance.  Next time we’ll take the flight, and spend the baht we saved on a romantic meal instead!  Special thanks to Pui and Burkay for helping out of this scrape, and many others.

In the next chapter: we have front-row seats to a spat of street justice after a bag thief is apprehended … in Part 3: Vigilantes in Bangkok.

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