IT’S 8.32am on a Tuesday and I’m sweating more than a politician faced with a polygraph.
It could be because Bangkok feels and looks like the bowels of hell, it could be because I’m standing in the kind of queue where personal space is an alien concept or it could be because it’s 8.32am and I’m awake sans caffeine. But really, it’s because I’m moments away from stuffing up a lengthy, costly and bloody stressful visa application.
For days – no weeks – we’d sweated away during the seriously convoluted USA visa process that’s reserved for “unfriendly nationalities” or people from “friendly nations” who were stupid enough to visit a country from the aforementioned list. It was touch and go as we filled in the long online application (are we intending to traffic children and/or women while we’re in the States and have we ever committed genocide??…hmm only in my head while standing in long, sweaty queues), paid the fee, made the interview appointment, gathered our supporting documents and then turned up to the Bangkok embassy only to realise we’d neglected to print out a crucial page.
To be fair it’s the kind of innocent mistake any moron could make but you have to understand that this happens to us so often I’ve turned our names into adjectives to sum up the situation.. such as..
“Well we just royally Sarah and Scott’ed that up didn’t we!”
It was just 10 minutes before our interview when we realised the giant Sarah and Scott and so after a minute of ranting, huffing and swearing (that was just me) Scott bolted off into the humidity/smog cloud to find an internet cafe while I hopped and fidgeted like someone on the verge of losing bladder control.
Twenty minutes later Scott hurtled back through the queue with a saturated t-shirt and we barrelled our way up the guards to beg entry. We were again turned back (no bags allowed) and after paying a dodgy Thai bloke a fiver to watch our valuables we were finally inside.
The embassy was enormous and by this stage I was so wired and nervous (just our hopes and dreams of conquering the entire American continent were riding on this bloody visa) that my fingers were almost too sweaty to be scanned.
It didn’t help that prior to arriving we were warned by a number of travellers just how gruelling the US interview was and that “they probably know everything about you already”.
Another finger print later we were in the final queue and then an affable looking middle-aged American man was in front of us.
He asked us a few questions (namely, why we were applying for a visa) and then (a fair question) how the hell we were funding our trip) and finally, what kind of bikes we had.
We launched into a long speech full of arm gestures and hysterical giggles but before we could build up serious steam he offered us a five year multi entry visa to be picked up in a few days.
It was like someone turned on the lights and a choir started harmonising “Hallelujah”. We’d expected to grovel, beg and sob pathetically just to get three months while rueing the day we decided to cycle through Iran but instead well – it was better than our wildest dreams. It felt as though the weight of a super-sized McDonalds meal had been lifted off my shoulders and I began to fantasise about wild Alaska and the west coast while conjuring up images of burgers bigger than my head.
America here we come!
Well not quite.
As much as my imagination had me chowing down the equivalent of a small cow between two sugary buns and doused in gooey cheese and mustard we were still in sweaty, noisy, chaotic Bangkok.
We’d hit Thailand’s capital a couple of days earlier and had since played the traffic equivalent of Russian Roulette, while exploring our dodgy neighbourhood. This consisted of us desperately trying to not make eye contact with the hundreds of call girls while fending off the offers of Ping Pong shows from slimy looking Thai blokes. Thai food is sensational and we’d loved it since we’d crossed the border from Laos but everything in Bangkok seemed to be a bit shitter and a bit more expensive so we found ourselves chowing down most meals at the 7 Eleven or (even more depressingly) at the nearby Tesco Lotus. It got so bad that we started frequenting the latter after 8pm when the embittered looking deli worker marked down the pre-packeged rice and curry dishes to a mere 15 baht (about 50 cents AUD).
It was a harsh awakening after the north of the country.
We’d entered the border from Laos about two weeks earlier to find a world of order, cleanliness, good value and even better grub. Our first night was spent at the charming border town of Chiang Khai (where we slept in a double fan room in a resort with a pool for about $7.50 AUD) and so was our second night thanks to Scott copping some tummy trouble.
We pedalled off into the arid heat (the scenery kind of reminded me of outback NSW, Australia) and then camped behind a temple (where we had a sleepless night thanks to a pair of drunks). The next day we made it to Chiang Rai – or the official start of the Banana Pancake Trail – and made plans for the route south.
We were still trundling along with Colombian / Spanish couple Natalia and Diego (who were an absolute blast to cycle with) and none of us really fancied using up a big chunk of our precious Thailand time to pedal the dry, hot and (most importantly) beach free part of central Thailand to Bangkok. The heat was beginning to seep into our guts like a pesky parasite and with the promise of tropical islands just a train ride away it was hard to feel motivation. To add to that was the fact that Scott and I had hit a route planning stalemate. In short, we didn’t know the where the bloody hell to go from Thailand.
We’d buggered off the idea of Myanmar, Nepal and India for several reasons (firstly the border is closed between Myanmar and India, secondly Myanmar is costly owing to camping being illegal and hotels being pricy) and so began toying with the idea of flying from Bangkok to Japan.
The land of the Rising Sun seemed like a great end to Asia and we began researching flights with gusto while fantasising about Japanese buffets and sunsets over the cherry blossoms.
It looked like Japan might really happen and I was moments off booking a flight when Scott suggested we check out flight prices from Japan to North America. Yikes!
They were bloody expensive and suddenly our new route plan came crashing down. One expensive flight is a maybe, but two (Thailand to Japan and then Japan to America) was just not feasible.
We have a budget tighter than a fish’s … backside and so to fork out thousands on airfares was stupid.
We needed a new plan.
After Chiang Rai we stopped off in Chiang Mai (a city I fell in love with 11 years ago during my first overseas trip) and began seriously researching flights from Asia to the US or Canada. While slurping down coconut curries and marvelling in the new hipster coffee trade we crunched the numbers and decided on Kuala Lumpur. The flight was pretty reasonable to Vancouver and it meant we would get the chance to pedal Malaysia and possibly catch up with an awesome cycling family we’d hosted in Chengdu.
Chiang Mai was the kind of city you don’t want to leave – ever. It’s cooler than it’s southern counterparts, infinitely more chilled and home to some seriously sensational food (the Khao Soi noodles remain one of the greatest loves of my life). It was the perfect place to kick back, route plan and begin the painful US visa process.
A few days later (after promising we’d be back) we jumped on a train to Bangkok and about 12 hours after that we emerged in the pollution and chaos that is South East Asia’s third biggest city at just over eight million people.
I’d visited the city twice over the past 11 years and while I can consent that biking through it (while being on a pitiful bikers budget) really changes your perspective it nevertheless seemed even more soul-less than my last encounter.
I don’t know if it was the fact we’d booked a cheap and definitely not cheerful hostel in the red-light district, or if food was roughly twice as expensive and twice as crap as Chiang Mai but after about five minutes we couldn’t wait to get the hell out.
But unfortunately our US visa process meant at least a week in Hell’s Waiting Room so we wiled away the time checking out markets, visiting 7 Eleven (some of them even had baristas, an omelette station and chocolate croissants!) and organising flights to North America.
I know I have a serious case of “the grass is always greener” but I couldn’t help but feel utterly chuffed about what lay ahead – Thailand’s film-worthy beaches, Malaysia and then the Americas – a continent I’d dreamed about for so long it had seriously begun to feel more fantasy than reality. In the interim, about 1000km lay between us and our final Asian destination!