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A Letter From China
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A Letter From China
6 Days in Siam

This missive returns to an earlier style as I recount our recent holiday in Thailand. It has been some while indeed since I was able to pen words that reflect the totally illogical way some Chinese people employ to achieve something that would appear to be quite simple – so please bear with me as I relate our tale concerning the relativity of time concerning Chinese logistics…

Day One – Travelling to Thailand aka A Most Stupid Day

Had I known beforehand just how totally absurd this day would prove to be, I am sure I would have stayed in bed - rather than be beaten senseless with a stupidity stick.

The day started normally, albeit we arose well before 6 am in order to catch the transfer coach from Toisan at 7.15. Packing went smoothly and by 6.45 we were all done and ready to head-off for the offices of CITS (China International Travel Service – Tai Shan Branch). We were travelling quite light as all we took were a small wheelie-suitcase that can on occasions pass for hand luggage, and Siu Ying’s trendy ruck sack.

I guess I should have picked up upon the omens when Siu Ying approached a motorcycle taxi to take us and said luggage to the leaving point. The taxi rider seemed quite keen to take us both on his bike, but I seriously objected and so we instead hailed a proper car type taxi instead. The first couple of miles of our journey were soon completed, and we were dropped off outside the main doors of CITS just before 7am. Whilst the doors were open, only security was on duty; so I headed to the nearby bank to draw small funds for emergency usage.

I returned a few minutes later to find Siu Ying inside and staff appearing. I hung around outside stocking up on my nicotine and carbon monoxide levels for what was bound to be a largely non-smoking day. In between butts, I went inside to check my wife, who was fine and dandy. I asked her if she had had her passport returned to her yet – to which she mumbled something in local language. I’ll take that to mean ‘no’, but it is not a problem. In case you wondered: theoretically, Chinese do not need a visa to visit Thailand, but in practice, they do. Therefore, CITS had sent her passport to somewhere in Guangzhou to obtain a Thai visa.

People come and go and Siu Ying is expecting a large coach to appear very soon. I turn around to find a white Ford Transit van people carrier parked in front of the doors, and laid a bet with her that this is in fact our means of transfer. Well, there were by then a few people around, and I am soon dragged into conversation with one who speaks excellent In-ger-wishy. It turns out he is Canadian and proves this by flashing me his Canadian ‘passy-port’. I never would have guessed! He and a friend are headed for another province in China to reconnect with family, whist the others assembled don't look much like international travellers to me.

I soon notice one guy who is hangin’-large and I fix him as our guide/liaison. Sure enough, he soon calls us all and we get into the Transit van. These things must rate as one of Ford’s best inventions since the Model T. By 7.10 am we are en route in the company of 5 others, and we all pretend to sleep so we don't have to swap pleasantries and inanities with one another. It works well.

Meanwhile I am under the impression we are leaving from Guangzhou airport with a guess of departure time being around midday. Therefore it seems reasonable we will be in Bangkok (BKK) late afternoon, and probably be subjected to some missable tourist ‘must-do’ before arriving at our hotel. Oh how mighty are the thoughts of mice and men!

We are headed due east for the first hour – I know this because of where the sun is in the sky. I consider we may be going to Hong Kong – as that option was briefly mentioned last week. However, reaching the outskirts of Gongmuen (Jiang Men) city we abruptly head north by joining an expressway. You can’t fool me, I knew we were really going to Guangzhou airport … and this detour has just added half an hour to the transfer time – but that's ok. I think it saved us having to pay a 20 RMB toll, so it could make sense; that is if you do not count the cost of extra diesel and wasted time in your calculations?

Later we pass by Gaogong and my old island home. I wave to Uncle Sam who is living there today – as later we pass by Le Cong, Foshan, and Guangzhou. We have made good time and reach Guangzhou New Baiyun Airport by 9.15 = a pretty quick transfer actually. The expressway here is looking great and well presented for the upcoming Asia Games in a couple of week’s time. The route is lined with flowers and fancy sculptured shrubs making for an extremely nice display that goes on for miles. These are the Oriental version of our British and Commonwealth Games, so quite large and important on the world stages they are played upon. I nudge Siu Ying awake so she is ready to leave in a couple of minute’s time, to which she replies ‘We are leaving from Hong Kong (HK)’. I'm sorry but I really am not getting this? If we were leaving from HK then we would be there already. It is about the same time for transfer to either destination; and travelling via GZ is a bit like going from Buenos Aires to Cape Town via the North Pole! I got this one – she's having a laugh hahaha!

Today appears to be practice day for the local security, Police and military; as loads of people in colourful uniforms are endeavouring to make accessing the airport as complicated and unnecessarily obtuse as possible. We try to access the back passage – or rear ramp to the departure terminus if you prefer. Guangzhou Public Security Bureau really don't want anyone going there, but we are let through after a little queue to the inside of the racetrack that surrounds the terminal buildings. The five other passengers disembark and say fond farewells heading off into the terminal building with the guide. We are told to wait in the van, and the driver moves off to comply with no waiting regulations.

We travel round the loop before trying to get back to the drop-off point, but this time the PSB are having none of it so we head off round to the front entrance. This is usually pretty easy and well laid out for dropping people off. However, the Police have decided to close the inside lane nearest the building so they can park their pretty cars there instead. The army also have a couple of troop carriers there, and I presume the big off-roaders that look similar to Toyota Landcruisers must belong to some special security department. They would certainly fit a role played by Keifer Sutherland.

We cruise by and do another lap of the raceway, returning to the top of the ramp and waiting outside of the restricted zone. I ask if I can have a cigarette and the driver agrees. I get out and am half-done when a nice Policeman comes over. The driver points at me smoking and he goes away. I think I was just used as an excuse for us to linger. As I am finishing a large Sergeant type comes over and orders us to leave immediately. I board and we spend the next 10 minutes trying to negotiate the one-way system in front of the main entrance. This is now blocked pretty solid with five lanes of traffic all at a standstill, four of which are engaged in dropping people off. It appears the drivers like to accompany their passengers into the building, thus abandoning their cars wherever suits them best. The official drop off zone is the innermost of these five lanes, and is pretty empty actually if only because nobody can get to it because of all the double, triple, and quadruple parking being employed. The PSB are seriously not impressed, and I am probably the only other person present who agrees with them.

We eventually get free and the driver decides to try the rear entrance again. I have come to presume he is waiting for the guide to reappear. We then make a couple of slow laps of the circuit before he decides that parking-up is the better option. GZ airport has very high parking charges, so we take a back road and find a dirt track leading to a small construction site. Parking is allowed here and is free. The engine is switched off and the driver gets out and goes around one of the nearby walls – presumably to attend to a call of nature. I also get out for a cigarette and admire the tons of colourful plastic dumped haphazardly between the wild vegetation hereabouts. The wind is up and a mild sandstorm is blowing … it occurs to me that Siu Ying may not have been joking, and that we may indeed be leaving from Hong Kong?

Time passes, cars come and go, I smoke sometimes and consider we probably have a three and a half hour journey to HK, which would be 1 hour more than had we travelled directly from home. Here is China!

After an hour of these delights, the driver receives a call and he responds by firing the engine into life. Hurrah! We are finally heading off to Bangkok (BKK). However, I have lived in China long enough to know never to presume anything. We do three laps of the racetrack circling to the front of the terminal building. I do know exactly what is happening – the guide is waiting at the rear where we cannot go. Our driver gets another call and it appears I am correct. We manage only two more laps before the guy appears and dives in the back with us. He speaks to the driver, but not to us, and we head-off back to Guangzhou City. All goes quite well for the first 30 minutes as we swap around the integrated expressway system that personifies modern Guangzhou city.

I notice when we leave the system, and first hit a couple of link roads before turning down a sidestreet. This is not what I was expecting. There is a large complex nearby which reads “Sun Yat Sen University, Faculty of Stomatology”. I'm pretty sure this should not be our destination - even when the driver U-turns and heads into the main car park. Our guide dives out and speaks to security for a couple of minutes. Arms are waved and the guide gets back in. We head out and up the one-way road, U-turn at the traffic lights, and go back down the road we were on before. This time we catch the red light at the bottom and wait 5-minutes for the green to turn left. Two miles down this busy city road we hang another U-turn, and head back one and three-quarter miles. We pull into what appears to be the main entrance to the University and I am losing the plot a bit. I can only conclude we are here so they can go and get Siu Ying’s passport with Thai visa. I think this because we are close to where Dave once had to go for a British visa for our Chinese friend Candy.

The forecourt is shaped in a U for traffic with three lanes and diagonal parking. One lane is roped off and clear of vehicles, and the other is lined with parked cars. The open section is befuddled with cars dropping people off, or waiting to park = all pretty normal for China really. We pull up near the large wrought iron gates painted a very pretty shade of bright red, and are told to get out and take all our belongings with us. I don't think I like this idea, which is confirmed by my limited understanding of Cantonese a few minutes later. I am sure I just heard our guide tell us we would be dumped here until 2.30 = 3 hours and 5 minutes. Surely not? The guide tries to speak to me but gives up and takes his leave with a giant smile. Siu Ying informs me that we will be collected here at 2.30.

Those of you readers that know China well will understand this immediate version of time. The time is either ‘Now’, or some vague point in the past or future, that could equally be 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 500 years – they are all identical to Chinese psyche. My point is that had we known we would have to endure 3 hours here, then we could maybe have planned something in advance. I get out my most stupid mobile phone and cannot see anything on the large high-pixel display because the sun is shinning. I guess at where to press touch-screen buttons and am later rewarded by a faint something on screen. Sheltering from the sun, I still cannot see much, so end up underneath the rear of a 4-wheel drive something so the screen becomes visible. I call Jim and we agree to meet outside Sun Yat Sen University in 20 minutes time. Great!

Siu Ying finds a nearby toilet, and we later shelter from the hot sun beneath the trees at an adjacent corner. Jim calls to ask where we are, and I say we must be at the south entrance because it is midday-ish and the sun is directly in front of us. I'm not sure this computes so Duma (Jim's Girlfriend) speaks to Siu Ying for confirmation. After the call completes, Siu Ying heads off to look at some nearby shops, returning 5 minutes later with a couple of hard boiled eggs for herself and a couple of sweet sausages for me. I remind her we are meeting Jim and Duma for lunch in a few minutes and she says she knows this. I peer at the sausages and am plagued by a momentary doubt.

Jim calls again and asks me to describe where we are in greater detail. I describe it quite well, as we wander towards the main road. He seems to think we are not at the University. I don't know where we are because, and very unusually for China, there is nothing anywhere in English. He seems to think we are actually at the Sun Yat Sen memorial, something I can confirm when turning around at the roadway, I notice the exit of a subway (Chinese for: Metro, Tube, Underground, MTR etc), which says in large letters ‘Martyrs Park’. Jim says ok, that would be 20 minutes in the opposite direction from the one we just came from. I feel like an idiot, but Jim is calm and accepting of my inadequacies. In my defence, had it not been for the Faculty of Stomatology occupying the north western section of this block, I may have been more observant or inquisitive. But there again, if you ever travel to Guangzhou and visit the Sun Yat Sen memorial, then please know this is probably the only sightseeing destination in the whole of China that is only explained in Chinese characters.

Meanwhile Siu Ying is giving me grief because she is bored and doesn't know why it is taking Jim and Duma so long to arrive. I try to explain but she is in shut-down mode – so I ignore her protests and say 5-minutes … several times! I am actually expecting them to arrive by taxi in another 10 minutes or so, and am surprised when SY jumps up pointing to a cab saying ‘Jim’. We go to greet our friends and decide to have lunch nearby. The first place is close and looks like a Guangzhou version of Hong Kong style Shar Siu, complete with cooked birds hanging up in the window. This suits and we are shown upstairs to the restaurant proper. The meal is fine if nothing special, but nothing bad either. It is very good to catch up with Jim as much has transpired in his life since I last saw him. He seems a lot more chilled and this is a very good sign. Having touched on the basics we then chat about Thailand, a country he knows very well, and Duma has visited once. This leads the girls into some good chitter-chat as we do our boys’ stuff. Jim is up for a few beers, as am I of course, but I hang back from getting the taste, as I am aware we still have a very long way to go today, and I really don't need to be seeking a WC at the wrong moment.

Siu Ying gets a call on her mobile and it seems we are meeting somebody earlier than planned. It is just before 2pm, but fortunately, our meal is finished. We split the bill and head off to the rendezvous point. A few phone calls later we catch up with the newly forming party at the far end of the concourse. Jim and Duma stay to see us off, which is very nice and quite unnecessary, but very much appreciated. People continue to rock-up as suits them, and by 2.25pm, the group is complete. The old guide is long-gone, and we have a new female now looking after us. All checked off we head for the coach, a proper large coach, dumping luggage into the side compartments. I turn around to wave to Jim and Duma, but am too late in my thinking as I am already queuing out of their range of sight. Sorry guys, I didn't intend to be that ignorant – it just happened before I knew it. I’ll get the first round in next time!

All aboard, we battle the streets of Guangzhou seeking release from the confines of this weird city. I take a moment to reflect and ponder why we have spent seven and a half hours to progress 1-hour further away from our final destination? You should consider this to not be unusual in China.

You have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes!

Settled into the charabanc we are vaguely informed that our immediate destination is the Shenzhen ferry. I'm beginning to wonder why I didn't bring a hip flask containing 95% alcohol with me today. We are aboard one of the slowest vehicles on the road, but this is ok because CITS operate within guidelines and speed limits, always. They are very secure and reliable, even if time is irrelevant. The bus eats up the miles and we are soon nearing the exit for Shenzhen Baoan Airport. Neither am I surprised when the coach takes this exit road, as I do know Shenzhen ferry is somewhere in this part of town; and 30 minutes outside the city centre.

The last time Jim travelled to Thailand he did so from Shenzhen airport, which is an international airport of regional service. By that I mean it mainly offers internal flights, plus some to neighbouring countries. Better to say it is basically short to medium haul, with no long-haul flights. Jim flew to Thailand from Shenzhen because it offered the cheapest flights to BKK and Phuket. I mention this only because we drive through the airport terminal en route to the ferry. So today, we have already visited two airports that have flights to Thailand, but neither has the flight we are booked on.

Headed away from Baoan airport complex we return to the bypass road and see a sign for the ferry. We turn right as directed and soon come to a T-junction, which has signs indicating the names of roads. A chorus from the front of the charabanc resounds in ‘Jien Jor’ or turn left. I am becoming plagued by doubts, as there are absolutely no signs to indicate a ferry. 5-miles on we approach a set of traffic lights, at which the driver makes a U-turn, and pulls up at a bus stop. He gets out and starts speaking to the queuing people, one of whom then comes on board with us. He turns out to be quite entertaining, as we go all the way back down the road just travelled; and pass the road junction from the airport. We now begin to see infrequent signs for the ferry terminal … meaning we are now travelling in the correct direction. Well, obviously we are not going to get road signs for the ferry if we are on the side of the road headed away from it. Just a shame there wasn't one at main road T-junction really? Hello Shenzhen!

Most of Guangdong is either rural, or pretty modern. Following the occasional signs for the ferry we seem to hit a bit that is transforming – so driving a modern coach through a cement factory using un-tarred roads filled with construction traffic and large potholes should not come as a surprise to anyone. However, I did pick-up that we were in the wrong queue when we joined a line of cement trucks, those kinky things with a rotating barrel on the back. I presume this was an impromptu sightseeing opportunity, and one I could well live without – thank you very much.

Finally, our driver decides the queue for concrete is not the queue for the access road for Hong Kong ferry, and extricating ourselves from the cement factory, we rejoin the main highway, in this instance, a dirt track wide enough for one vehicle only. Those vehicles would typically be the size of a Hino 6-wheel cement truck, which seem to be breeding in abundance hereabouts. Our charabanc is probably twice as long and not really suited to off-road activities. This is corroborated by the fact the driver has turned off the ‘Bus-TV’ movie to avoid damaging the disc. Meanwhile we pass a couple more cement factories and cross a rickety old bridge that was probably and originally designed for oxen drawing carts. As we negotiate this old-world wonder, the Hino's swarm around us like bees drawn to a honey-pot. In the past, I may have made fun of ‘Here is China’. And similar sentiments – but for the life of me I cannot understand why Shenzhen's main and international passenger ferry terminal should be secreted in such an obscure, unsigned, and ridiculous location.

This thought occurred before we encountered the straight three-mile single-track bridleway, just wide enough for two motorcycles to pass in comfort. Bizarrely we encounter speed-ramps every 50 yards, as presumably the earthen potholes were not enough to prevent speeding. I have never been one to seek the pleasures of illegal drugs, but forgive me on this occasion if the thought of ingesting vast quantities of Heroine would not make my incumbent situation far more logical. Cummon! – I’ll even go with Carlos Castaneda's magic-mushrooms – give me a break here, this reality is totally absurd!

It takes us about 40 minutes, but eventually we escape the cement factory complex, and proceed passed several miles of sewage fields. By comparison, perhaps the cement factory tour was preferable? Please do not doubt me, this really did happen!

Some 50 minutes after leaving the last real roadway, we arrive at a seaborne oasis. I immediately pick out the ferry building – if only because it looks just like what a Chinese ferry building should look like. ‘Nuff said. We have actually made good time, as it is just on 5pm now, and the modern and state of the art ferry complex is telling us our ferry leaves at 6.30. Typical of all international travel hubs that are regulated by time, this one does not appear to have a clock that tells you what the time is now. Instead, it offers loads of different times for different ferry connections.

Now I make absolutely no apologies for digressing here – If I end up somewhere that offers transport connections regulated by the hours of a clock, then I do require a very large and prominent clock within my every eyeline, telling me the current time. Hopeless! I have to switch on my mobile phone – takes a couple of minutes for it to wake-up, in order to find out what the time is now. How extremely stupid Shenzhen Ferry! Most train stations and airports also suffer from the same delusional time-lapse complex. It is very easy = A very big clock stating exactly what the time is ‘now’. Job done!

Shenzhen ferry is a bit weird: It has smoking outside, and inside are desks for car rental, currency exchange (No Thai Bhat), and an information desk complete with sexy and efficient girls dressed in pucker uniforms. There is one shop selling extortionately expensive jewellery, another selling weird books, and a ‘western’ restaurant charging upwards of £8 or $ 11 for Nescafe coffee served in dinky small excesses. And that is it! “You most welcome spend stupid amount of money Shenzhen international ferry”.

I don't think so … but if you offered value for money then perhaps all our group would have purchased something, I am sure. Doubling the price and adding at least one zero is perhaps not a good idea?

Ok, I am rambling a bit I admit, but I simply echo what we were enduring at the time. We have now become an official Chinese Tour Group, which comes complete with special treatment. There are seventeen of us, and we remain strangers for the moment. No doubt by the end of this foray into foreign parts, we will have made some true and lasting friends. The eighteenth member is the girl bossy, who spends a lot of her time talking to officials and getting our way smoothed.

6.30pm, and just shy of 12 hours travelling for us (Something we could have done in 2-hours flat by ourselves), we get the boarding call. I say that I need to have filled in a departure card, something the bossey overrules and says is not applicable to a group tour, but I think she has not yet realised I have a British passey-port. I know I will have to fill one out, but am now reduced to going along with today's absurdities. Even Siu Ying has taken to saying ‘Qui-z’Zhin’ = crazy or ‘Banzhi’. The check-in is very efficient, and I get rebuffed at the desk because I do not have the form required. I did know as stated above, just playing this for the kicks really. Departure form filled out I look across and the bossey shrugs in apology – heah, she didn't know this; but I made my point to her, which should help other foreigners in future.

We board the Sea Cat and a lovely girl tells me to chose any seat in excellent English = not our dedicated seats Siu Ying is searching for. I tell her we can choose, and find her a window seat. Although this crossing is scheduled for 35 minutes, I think it must be longer. I also hope the bar is open, as I actually fancy a pot-noodle. No such luck, but the crossing does take 45 minutes. The bar remains staffed, and not open for any sales … which is very odd; do you not think so?

I am still trying to get my head around the fact that this ferry is not selling ‘anything at all’, when we see the lights of Lantau Island, meaning Hong Kong international airport (Our third field for today) is beckoning shortly. Docking we all go into group mode, and it works just fine. I am actually quite impressed because we are a transit group, and we transit as a group very easily. We pass customs as individuals within a group umbrella, and are soon checking in and our boarding cards issued, then on the metro to the airport. This I was not expecting at all, and so quickly was it all concluded that I forgot to check Siu Ying’s flight bag. She was stopped and asked to empty her bag and two items of ladies cosmetic were removed. One was a long thin thing for removing blackheads, and the other was a combination nail kit a bit like a Swiss army knife for girls. She had had this a long time and it cost her quite a lot of money. I felt so stupid that I had not checked her before hand, but like I said, it all happened unexpectedly and suddenly.

This is a controlled environment, meaning we have no access to Hong Kong proper, but instead go directly to the departure terminal. I very much doubt that even the Germans could effect this so efficiently, truly excellent! I am also impressed because we are now within one-hour of take-off, and are streamlined through to the point where there is absolutely no chance to stop at duty free (A great con most times with ever diminishing choices).

Through formalities, we have just ten minutes before boarding, where the group head-off for the departure lounge (What a ridiculous expression), whilst four likely lads head off to explore. Heading back to the main thoroughfare, I eventually find one of the secreted detailed maps, only to discover that our departure lounge actually has a smoking facility. With six minutes to boarding and we reach the boarding point – it’s a long way you know! I drop Siu Ying off at a cosmetics stall, and personally hit the smoking cubicle – it’s very bad, but I have experienced worse; just. At least Hong Kong has one, and that's enough for me.

We emerge and group collectively. The four boys are missing, but everyone else is present. Time passes and I note the rich people are boarding, whilst us riff-ra ff have to wait. I could have enjoyed a second cigarette during this time, but no use complaining. We soon get called to the first class departure gate, and enter within as a group. Nice-one! The bossy has absolutely no idea regards couples, so I get seat 30H and my wife gets seat 30J. Given this is her very first ride in an aeroplane I know I need to be with her, so I swap seats with another within our group, whose wife/GF is a ways a row. Thank you sir, Siu Ying now has a window seat, which for first time air travellers is mega. A bit more swapping takes place until we are all settled with friends or loved ones.

I haven't mentioned this until now, but we are aboard Ethiopian Airlines – from a country riven by famine, genocide and ‘something I do not understand’. What I do know is that they offered the most excellent service, and what they did do, they did exceptionally well! The aircraft were modern, but base spec – meaning that instead of in-flight movies we got a large screen. On the other hand, we were served one of the best internationally acceptable meals I have ever eaten on an aircraft. Their nearest competitors on this route (Air Asia Group) do not offer meals of any sort on short haul flights, although you can pay to book one in advance. It all came complete with a bottle of wine (Only one, but that's fine), coffee and excellent service. I find myself translating the English only meal options into Cantonese for the people near me, which I find quite bizarre.

From my inane mental perception that perhaps Ethiopia could muster one Dakota DC 10 for Presidential duty – I have to admit they now rate second only to Cathay Pacific in my list of international aeroplane operators. I have not as yet flown Emirates, whom many people tell me are the very best. I have flown Qatar who are very, very good. However, their control of passengers on landing is appalling, as is Doha airport transit lounge – probably the worst in the world? China Southern airlines I have flown with many times internally, and they are very good. Air France remains the worst airline ever, compounded by the fact they will only ever speak in French to English people. Ethiopian Airlines spoke their native tongue, and excellent English. Some crew spoke Chinese, a mix of Cantonese and Beijing Speaking (Mandarin).

I find it very hard to fault Ethiopian Airlines, given I am actually writing this after the return trip. The facilities onboard = basic. I accept this for a cheap flight. The food was excellent! The stewardesses were very attractive – sort of sultry with exceedingly large eyes and bodies to die for.

Siu Ying’s great excitement is slowly replaced by ear pain, as she is unable to pop her ears. She more or less gets balanced pressure by the time we level off at our cruising altitude, but it returns again as we descend towards Bangkok. We touchdown smoothly and then she is startled as the engines roar as we decelerate. Within ten minutes we are attached to the extending walkway and a short while later we and some of the mainly African passengers get off. The flight is going on to Addis Ababa and it seems that just our group are leaving for Bangkok. The crew will change and the aircraft will replenish supplies, meaning they will have about a one-hour stay in the airport.

We find customs nearby and split into two groups. It seems six of us have full passports with visa’s, except me of course, as I do not require one. I am guessing the others have some sort of temporary travel documents and not full passports, all under group permission or something. Siu Ying remains with me and we are quickly processed by excellent and efficient Thai border control personnel. Passing through we walk a short way to the baggage collection rotisserie and moments later our bags appear. I am very impressed with the service so far.

However, there is a time lag of ten minutes while we wait for the rest of the group to be processed in a different queue. We are soon assembled together again and with baggage at hand, we move towards customs on moving walkways. Just before customs there are toilets which the group all head for. Nearby is a smoking room and I take a very hurried cigarette whilst watching for the group to reappear. Just enough time and I am not the last back in formation. We pass through customs without being stopped, and exit to a modern hall where our Thai guide greets us. He escorts us to the coach waiting just outside the doors, and within minutes we are en route for our hotel.

Our guide is a happy soul who is definitely Chinese. I’ll call him Charlie Chan for want of his real name. Once onboard the coach, he starts off in Mandarin, before calls for Cantonese are heard. We then spend a few minutes deciding which language he will use by default. Only one of the 19 of us now does not speak Cantonese, a nice guy who has lived in Guangzhou for 13 years. This strikes me as a bit odd, as Cantonese is quite easy for Chinese speakers to learn. Another girl does not speak the language well, but does understand it when spoken. I'm a bit like that in that I understand a lot more than I can speak. There are four boys who don't speak Mandarin with us, so Charlie Chan decides to speak mainly Cantonese, but offers confirmation in Mandarin if required. He then asks me in Mandarin if I speak it, to which I reply in Cantonese, “No I don't speak Mandarin, but I do speak a little Cantonese”. The coach erupts in laughter and I earn a little unexpected respect.

With the language we will use settled, Charlie Chan begins filling us in on our itinerary for this evening, which is basically get to the hotel, breakfast at 7.30, and leave at 9am. He is speaking quite quickly and very loudly due to the fact the pa system appears to be set at full blast. He speaks with an accent and it takes me a little while to conclude he is actually from Hong Kong – a fact that I later confirm.

After the initial presentation, he takes about money and keeping safe in the city. He relates a tale of somebody being injected and waking to find several body parts missing – like kidneys etc. I'm not sure it is fact, but it serves to keep the group together and wary, which was probably his objective. He proceeds to hand out a pink envelope to each of us, which contains 5, 000 Bah in several denominations of notes. He warns against changing money on the street as it may be counterfeit. He suggests they only get money from him to ensure it is legal tender. He quotes 1, 000 RMB for each envelope, and it actually isn't a bad deal. However, I am the only one not carrying vast sums of Chinese currency with me, and instead have planned to use my English cash-card and get a better rate. He is bound to be making money on the deal, but it is very convenient for all aboard. I had noticed in the airport that Chinese currency attracts substantially lower rates than should be if converted properly, so this must be a Thai thing. However, we are all allowed to keep the envelopes overnight and he will do the exchanges in the morning. I reckon it is also a chance for us to spend some of the money, thus forcing us into the deal. He is a clever cookie, but honest and likeable.

The transfer takes the best part of an hour, until we finally leave the main highway and head up a sideroad, which narrows to a single lane. We seem to be headed out into the countryside where signs of life are minimal. I had paid extra for 4-star international standard hotels, so am a little surprised when we pull into the car park of what is obviously a Chinese 2-star hotel. We check-in as a group and are issued with our room cards. Charlie Chan insists on inspecting each room before accepting it on our behalf. He checks all the lights, a/c, and ensures there is hot water. That was all very good.

The hotel is non smoking, as is anywhere indoors in Thailand – so that means restaurants, shops, theatres, etc. I know some hotel rooms allow smoking, and as there is not a sign anywhere telling me not to smoke, so I presume that I can. There isn't an ashtray however, and I conclude it is better not to ask for one. The bathroom contains one mighty fine bath, as you may know I hate showers immensely. Siu Ying sets about running the bath after I explain to her how the tap works. It is exactly the same as our tap at home, except that in Canton there is never any hot water supply, only cold.

She soon gets the hang of it and then turns on the TV. The remote no longer works as the batteries are dead, so I sift through the channels manually and she marvels at how clever I am. What! There are about 50 channels with a pretty even split between Chinese, English and Thai. We find one of several in Cantonese and she settles for a soap shown in China. Once the bath is drawn, I jump in to wash of the stains of travelling and the strains of stupidity. Later Siu Ying joins me and we entertain ourselves for a while.

Later we relax in front of the TV and unwind. I take a last cigarette before retiring to bed, and check the time using Siu Ying’s mobile, its almost 4am … and that means that we have been awake for 22 hours. However there is a one-hour time difference making the correct time here 3am.

I inform SY that there is no way we are returning via Guangzhou, something she wholeheartedly agrees with! I think only the Chinese are capable of inventing such a fuckwitted transfer schedule. We would never have believed it possible, if it had not just been inflicted upon us! The hard beds are welcoming and no sooner do our heads touch the pillows than we are both fast asleep.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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Snapshots of Siam
Image: Grand Palace Bangkok - Click to Enlarge

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