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Thursday, November 17
The bus ride to Chanthaburi took four hours, a huge chunk of the trip was through what used to be the suburbs between Bangkok and Pattaya, but is now just one big megalopolis. Kind of like the SF Bay Area - city-scape as far as the eye can see, as long as you stay on the highway.
It's about 4 p.m., and I walk downtown, following the signs to the gem market (photo 24). No hotels in sight. And all the gem shops are closed - apparently they keep banker's hours, 10 or 11 am to 3 pm. I find the road to the bridge over the big river, and just before bridge there's a nice-looking hotel. (photo 26) called The River Guest House. 250B ($6.25) for a room with a fan and a western toilet. Clean but small, no TV, no closet. I sign up for two nights.
Drop off my pack, and go exploring the other side of the river. There are a lot of Chinese in this town, and I find one of several Chinese temples. (photos 28-43). I can also see the church at a bend in the river (photos 38-39) which I'll try to explore later. Chanthaburi is a Thai-ification of Canterbury, named that because of the big church in both locations.
Here's the one in England:
I suppose there's a vague resemblance.
Into town, and a real night market for dinner. (photos 52-56) The place I stopped in at had more than 200 items on the menu, and when I asked the grade school aged waitress what was good, she said "all of them". I asked her for some suggestions, and she proceeded to try to read me the entire menu. I stopped her and ordered shrimp with vegetables over rice.
Across the street is a building which defies description. Check out photos 51 and 57. It's a music store - they sell CD, DVDs, VCDs, and the usual rock star paraphernalia. I arrived just as a rock band called "Pink" was leaving. "Pink" is an all-girl band, they sing bubblegum romance songs. Their main competition is "Girlie Berry" which is making a name for itself by being the Thai version of the Spice Girls, except without the talent. Photos 58-60 are inside the store.
Back to the hotel, snacked on soda & cashews as I sat in the open-air deck overlooking the river and wrote postcards. Afterward I went up to the mezzanine and logged onto the Internet.
Friday, November 18
Up at 7:30, to the PO by 8:30, bought some scotch tape at a store across the street and taped scendan's mini-lightsabre to the bottom of a small box, and mailed it off. Also threw the postcards into a mailbox. The mini-lightsabre was a toy which was popular at the Thaksin Bridge Loi Krathong market, and my one fear was it would accidentally have its button pushed with all the bouncing it would get in the mails, and the battery would be drained before it arrived. Apparently the tape held, and it was usable out of the box.
Bahmee Nam Pet for breakfast - that's boiled egg noodle soup with duck. Yummy, but not enough duck. And too many bones.
I didn't take my camera to the gem street since I didn't want it getting in the way when I looked at sapphires, and also didn't want to look too rich.
[The following is from my earlier posting about buying sapphires, feel free to skip it if you have already read it]
Those of you in the Bay Area who have heard the incessant commercials for The Shane Company hawking their sapphires and rubies know that Mr. Shane buys those personally in Bangkok. Which means he pays 10 times as much for gems which are twice as nice as the ones in Chantaburi. I'm not fussy, I just love the magic of a star coming out of a piece of polished rock.
There are four ways to buy gems in Chantaburi. You can buy them from people on the street who hang around the tourist hotels. These people are usually the sellers from the mines, and they are trying to unload the gems which they could not find a buyer for elsewhere. The second place to buy them is from a gem shop. The third is from a jewelry store. You will see a better grade of stone, and more rare colors there, but you will pay the price. Also, jewelry stores want to sell bracelets and rings more than loose stones.The final way is from a broker. The broker sits at one of several tables on Gem Street, finds out what you are interested in buying, and he takes his felt pen and a piece of loose leaf paper and makes a sign which he puts up somewhere easy to see from the street. Vendors who have what the sign says will come in and show you their gems, and bargain with you. Though the seller does the bargaining, he or she knows the broker will take a commission, so he'll pitch his price way too high at first. You pay the broker, not the seller.
I started out by going to gem shops, but was told by three of them that star sapphires are a collector's item, so the gem stores didn't stock many. I did buy a small batch of stones from the first shop I tried, but it took half an hour just for them to dig them out of the vault. Another gem shop sold me the best big dark blue stars I had ever seen, but the price was pretty high. I bought some odd colored stones at a jeweler, who kept trying to sell me settings for them, and I paid a high price there too. I had my best luck at the broker, but it took some doing.
My first stop was at a broker, and of course a crowd of vendors gathered when they saw the Westerner. I kept telling them I was only looking for gems which had stars, and they kept putting cut stones under my nose. Sapphires, rubies, garnets, you name it. After 10 minutes of not seeing a star sapphire, I got up and left. My next stop was at the other end of Gem Street at a gem shop.
Black sapphires are really brown. They are the most common, and their stars are not as bright as the lighter colors. Also, you can usually see the striated layers inside the stone. The first group were the first sapphires I bought. The seller had a shop which only had a few mediocre stones, and this batch was sold to me for 300 Baht, or about $7.50. Each stone is about one carat.
The gem store owner where they had to fish the star sapphires out of the vault sold me these individual stars. We had a nice chat while we waited - turns out he had been a foreign exchange student in Idaho for two years. He had his staff placed the stones on the table in front of me, and I used a flashlight to see the stars, picking the ones with the clearest stars. He then had them weighed, priced, and put in individual little baggies. This group also cost 300 Baht.
When I got out of the gem shop, the broker was out front on his motorcycle. He told me to hop on, he had star sapphires. So I did. I saw a lot of very poor stones with fuzzy stars, and then someone dumped about 200 small stones on the table, and I picked a few out. This group cost 850 Baht ($21.25):
Then someone put a lone navy blue stone with a very sharp star in front of me, , and I paid 1400 Baht($35) for it without much bargaining. Silly me. It is about 5 carats, and was the first good star I'd seen all day.
The feeding frenzy was on! I had my socks knocked off by a packet of about 50 stones, 2 to 3 carats each, total of 104 carats of about the same quality as the lone blue star I'd just bought. I started choosing individual stones, but the seller said he would give me a deal on the whole packet. 8500 Baht ($212.50). I offered 4000 (the logic being to offer less than half, in hopes of getting the price down to 50%). His final offer was 5,000 Baht ($125) which I gladly accepted. Had I walked away from the table, I could have gotten the price down another $25, but these stones are probably worth $50 each in the US, so why bother? This is what they look like:
My final purchase there took some doing. A woman had a packet of 9 slate-gray sapphires ranging from 4 to 10 carats, all with clear stars. I had never seen this color before, and wanted at least one, but did not want to pay the 9,800 Baht ($245) price for the whole set. I picked out two smaller ones, a total of 9.6 carats, and waited for 15 minutes for her to go ask her boss if he would break up the set. Not only did the boss say yes, she let me have the pair for 2400B ($60):
By now I was shopped out, so I went back down Gem Street in search of food. I can't remember if it was on my way there or on my way back, but one of the vendors I had left at the broker's without looking at his stuff waved to me from a gem shop. He showed me what he wanted to show me at the broker's, and said it was good I came to his shop because there's no commission here. He asked me what size stones I was interested in, I told him 2 carats, and he said that was too small. He put a bunch of gorgeous 4-carat navy gems in front of me. I picked a dozen, and we settled on a price of 5,000 Baht ($125) Then he showed me some 8-10 carat stones. I had a budget for buying sapphires, and could only afford to spend 10,000 Baht at this place, lovely as the stones were. He said we could figure something out, and I chose 9 of the big stones, and went away with both sets for 10,000 Baht ($250).
When I tallied up my spending, it looked like I could make one more run to the ATM, so I did that, and then stopped in at the jewelry store which was next to the guest house I was staying at. They had some red stars on display, and I wanted at least one of those. The nice lady invited me into the office, where she showed me many overpriced gems, but they were gems which would be hard for me to find elsewhere. I paid 3000 Baht ($75) for this matched pair of red stars. Too much, they are poor quality and their stars are hard to see:
And also shelled out way too much for a clear sapphire.
And that's my 2005 sapphire collection.
Of course I needed to have something to put them in, so I bought a few Hills Tribes embroidered pouches at the market:
Now they're all back in the safe deposit box, some will go as gifts, but most will be my rainy day/retirement fund.
Back at the hotel, I put the gems away and took my camera. I walked through some small streets (photos 62-77) and found the church. They were finishing up a major job of washing the building, with the help of a ladder lift from the fire department (photos 83-88). The modern building in photo 94 is behind the church, it's the meeting hall. You may notice spelling differences in the name of the town on some of the signs. The Thai spelling is "Chanthaburi" but the "th" letter is really a "t" in English, and this is one of the few places in Thailand where they commonly use the English spelling instead of the international phonetic spelling.
And it's easier to type.
Walked back to the gem exchange, passed Chinese and Thai temples along the way (photos 100-105) and found a circus in progress. It was Friday afternoon, the beginning of Gem Time. The exchange is in full swing from about 3 pm on Friday all through the weekend. My guess about banker's hours was wrong - they hardly work at all during the week, but stay open late on weekends.
Hundreds of people were in the area, every shop for three blocks was now a brokerage, with piles of sapphires, rubies, garnets, etc. People were in town from the mines to sell, and there was one block where all the buyers were Arabs. I saw a few westerners buying, and one broker who sounded Australian. (Photos 106-130)
Buying gems is a group activity, one dealer, one buyer and 6-12 onlookers who may or may not know the buyer or seller. During my walk several young women asked me to take them with me when I told them I was heading for the south tomorrow.
Dropped the camera back at the hotel, went to the market for dinner. On the way back at 5:30 p.m. all the gem places were closed or closing. Must be nice to only work for 3 hours, three days a week. Though I suspect they work longer hours on Saturdays.
Saturday, November 19
Woke up a few times in the wee hours, not tired at all. Out of bed at 7, checked out at 7:30, walked to the bus station. At 7:55 I bought a ticket for the 8:15 tour bus to Bangkok, which left at 8:30. Arrived in Bangkok at 12:15 - at the wrong bus station. I was counting on being at the eastern terminal and getting the subway to the train station, but I had no idea where I was now. The map said I was at Mo Chit, the northern terminal, and that there was a skytrain station at Mo Chit too. I asked directions and tried walking to the skytrain station, but once again all the directions were vague, and wrong. So I hailed a cab, and instead of taking me to skytrain, he took me back to the bus station, where I told another cab driver where I wanted to go, and he yelled something rude at the driver of the cab I was in, who got me to the skytrain station, which is located in an area where there is a huge weekend market, so it was a bit challenging for him to get there. Lots of pedestrians and lots of traffic. It's also near a major park and convention center.
Took the skytrain to Soi Asoke, transferred to the subway and got off at the train station. Turns out the subway station entrance was only a few feet from where I had gotten into the tuk-tuk when I first arrived in Bangkok. Still kicking myself for not knowing this.
Had lunch at the station's co-op food court, where you buy coupons worth 1, 5, 10 and 20B, and use those at the food stand of your choice. I had something over rice, and then went out to the main station area and bought too many snacks to take on the train (Dairy Queen, Dunkin' Donuts, Puffy Pastry with curry filling).
Boarded the 15:50 to Haad Yai, and had a nice nap in the sleeper. After about 5 hours, I woke up, we were stopped at Petchaburi. We were stopped way longer than we should have been. So I got out of bed and looked around. A young man in a black T-shirt which said "Railway Police" on it came on board to tell us there had been a flood, the tracks were washed out, and they would be taking the train (and us) back to Bangkok. He suggested we take a tour bus tomorrow to get to Haad Yai. The train tracks are a lot closer to the ocean than the highway, so there was a good chance a bus would get through where a train couldn't.
After he'd explained that in Thai to us, he went up to the middle of the car and tried to explain it to a couple of young blonde men whose English was not much better than his. He came back and got me to come translate. They asked me for alternatives, and I said the tour bus was one way, but they might do better, if they could afford it, to go to the airport and get on a plane. There's a transit hotel at the airport which offers short-term room rental, three hours at a time. I would have taken that advice myself, but I really wanted to see the scenery from the ground.
After half an hour, the train started moving north, and at 21:40 we were back on our way to Bangkok.
Sunday, November 20
3 AM, we arrived in Bangkok, they gave us our refunds quickly and painlessly, and since everything was closed in the station, we went outside. There were no cabs, no tuk-tuks, and the subway was closed for the night. Some of the locals had their cell phones out, and soon relatives and friends were coming to collect them. After about half an hour, I finally found a tuk-tuk to take me to the southern bus terminal, where I waited. It was dirty, smelly, infested with mangy, fighting, barking dogs. A far cry from the clean new northern terminal.
At 4 am the window for the government tour bus opened, and I paid 900B ($22.50) for a ticket on the 7:30 am bus to Phuket. I should have waited - at 5:00, all kinds of windows opened for private tour companies with buses leaving at 5:30. Oh well.
It was a long wait. At 6:30 I asked where my bus was supposed to be loading, and was directed to another terminal across a parking lot. I asked someone in uniform which was my bus, and he sent me to the wrong queue - it was the boarding area for the local, not the tour bus. Finally asked until someone actually looked at my ticket and directed me to an unmarked section of the station by the corner. The driver for the Haad Yai bus said it was the right place, but the Phuket bus had not arrived yet.
Okay, so those of you who are paying attention know I was taking the train to Haad Yai, so why was I taking a bus to Phuket? Well, the only part of my trip which was scheduled was my Nov 21-23 scuba dives in Phuket, and Plan A was to visit my old work site in Haad Yai on the 20th, then take the bus from there to Phuket and arrive in time for my afternoon refresher dive on the 21st. But with the one-day delay, I couldn't make it to Phuket in time if I went to Haad Yai first. I was in Haad Yai in '89. and it wasn't much to look at (never was, really) and my work site had been re-purposed, so there really was no compelling reason to miss a scuba dive for that.
The 7:30 bus left at 7:50 or so, it's a very nice bus, but my seat is just past the rear door, and there's no leg room, unless I dangle my feet in the stairwell which leads to the restroom. At least it's close to the restroom.
And that's where I'll pick up in my next chapter