Pak Chong, Thailand is only about two and a half hours away from Bangkok. It’s the gateway to Khao Yai National Park, which may be one of the top national parks I’ve ever been to anywhere. The park’s one of the best places to see animals like gibbons, hornbills and wild elephants. So yeah, of course we wanted to go there during our month in Thailand.
We were up in Chiang Rai at the time, doing our research in a lovely little guesthouse. “It’s easy to get to Pak Chong” said all the blogs. Just go to the Mo Chit Bus Station in Bangkok, catch a bus and you’re there. Boom, no problem. Easy peasy, as the kids say.
It turns out there was nothing easy or peasy about it.
Planes, trains and air-conditioning
Domestic flights in Thailand are ridiculously cheap. Like between $20-30 USD. I know that excessive flying is contributing to climate change, but I’m sorry, sometimes you just don’t have it in you to sit for another eight hours on the bus.
We flew in to Bangkok, strapped on our backpacks and marched right to the help counter to ask how to get to the Mo Chit Bus Station. The friendly counter person showed us a map of the metro. The Mo Chit Bus Station was conveniently next to the Mo Chit metro stop.
We got off the metro and headed down the stairs into a fairly unassuming Bangkok neighborhood. It was about 12 noon at this point. The sun was at its peak and the tropical heat felt extra harsh after the air conditioning of the airport and the metro station. We’d also realized we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and it hadn’t been a big breakfast.
We figured there’d be food at the bus station, so we just bought a couple snacks from a convenience store to tide us over. We were too anxious to be on our way to Pak Chong to want to bother with sitting down at a restaurant.
I looked on the map on my phone and saw that the Mo Chit Bus Station was on the next block, just on the other side of a large city park.
“Let’s walk through the park,” I said. What could go wrong?
The park that never ends
We entered through a big metal gate. The park was nice enough at first. Green grass, tall, shady trees. Bike paths and running paths and all the other stuff you’d expect from a nice enough city park. Various Thai families were out and about enjoying their day. Unfortunately, there was only one monitor lizard, and it was rather scrawny.
The whole park probably would have been a ten-minute walk from side to side if we could’ve gone straight through. Our plans were foiled by winding pathways and a lot of “keep off the grass” signs. It took us more like forty minutes to reach the far side.
When we got there, I looked at the map on my phone again and saw our little blue location dot sitting happily on the other side of the road from the Mo Chit Bus Station. I expected to maybe dodge some traffic crossing the road, but then we’d be able to buy our tickets to Pak Chong and be on our way.
The park, however, had other plans. It was surrounded by a six-foot-high metal fence. I could peer through the trees that were planted all along the fence just enough to get a glimpse of the road. But not a single gate or opening. Not even a low part we could climb over, or a gap between the metal bars big enough to squeeze through.
We walked along the fence looking for a gate. The tropical sun was hammering us. Thanks to our heavy backpacks, our backs were basically tepid swamps. We were tired, hungry, and almost out of water.
But, rather than despair, we followed the fence and eventually found a gate. It was, in fact, a gate just around the corner from the metro station. We’d spent over an hour in this damn park to basically go half a block.
I looked at my map again. “Okay,” I said, “we just have to walk up this street, turn right, go up another block, cross the street and we should be at the bus station.”
My traveling companion was thankfully much more level headed. “Let’s just get a cab,” she said.
The fabled Mo Chit Bus Station
After arriving at the Mo Chit Bus Station, I now know how the early explorers felt when they reached dry land after weeks at sea. I nearly knelt down and kissed the concrete, I was so happy to have finally made it.
My joy soon faded when I realized we’d only just made it to the bus station. We still had to get to Pak Chong.
I don’t know what exactly I expected at the Mo Chit Bus Station. Maybe some sort of central ticket office where you could tell a bored yet friendly ticket agent where you were going and purchase a ticket, then find your bus and be off. That’s generally how bus stations have worked for me in the past.
However, the Mo Chit Bus Station is about the size of a small football stadium. There’s no central ticket office. Instead, the station is filled with hundreds of tiny stalls, each selling tickets to different destinations. Each booth has the list of destinations written above the stall. Written in Thai.
I walked up to one of the booths and asked “Pak Chong?”
Now, obviously I didn’t assume the worker would reply in English, and I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to find the stall I was looking for on the first try. I was hoping to maybe just at least be pointed in the right direction.
The man in the booth just said, “no.”
We wandered around for another ten minutes before a man came up and asked us where we were going. He looked like he might be a security guard or something. Or just a guy off the street, it was hard to tell. We told him “Pak Chong” and he nodded, wrote something on a little slip of paper, and handed it to us in exchange for some money.
He then ushered us across the entire station, to another little booth. He went up to the person in the booth, they spoke back and forth in rapid Thai and then the man came back to us.
“No,” he said.
He took the piece of paper back and at least gave us back our money, then walked away. We were tired, hungry, and completely lost with no clue how we were going to get where we needed to go.
Finally, we found a pregnant woman in an official uniform to take pity on us. She said “hello” and through the magic of machine translation, we were able to tell her our troubles. She went around to the booths and we finally discovered a bus that could take us close. The bus didn’t stop in Pak Chong, but she said it could drop us off at “the Lotus.”
I had no idea what “the Lotus” was, but we happily bought the tickets. At this point I would have bought a bus ticket anyplace, just to at least be on the move somewhere.
The bus ride was actually quite pleasant. We still didn’t get a chance to eat lunch, but they bought everyone little pies from McDonald’s. I had a pineapple pie, and it was pretty tasty. Or maybe I was just really hungry.
After about three hours of driving, we finally arrived at the fabled “Lotus.” I had secretly been hoping it was some sort of cool ancient Buddhist holy site or something. No, it was just a big Tesco-Lotus service station.
The sun was now setting on the other side of the highway. There wasn’t much in the way of nature, but the area seemed to be teeming with outlet stores and cowboy themed steak restaurants.
Two guys walked up to us as soon as we got off the bus. “Where are you going?” they asked.
Generally speaking, I try not to go with the drivers who come up to the buses or trains directly. They’re typically the ones who want to overcharge you, and you can get a better deal if you just walk a block away. But we were on the edge of a highway, and we were tired and hungry and just wanted to check into our hostel and go to sleep.
Where’s our hostel?
I showed one of the guys the address I had for the hostel. He looked at it a bit, then nodded and motioned for us to follow him and his friend. I wasn’t sure why there needed to be two cab drivers, but whatever. We followed them.
Instead of a cab, they led us to two motorcycles.
We each got on the back and they sped off down the highway. They had helmets. We didn’t. They weaved in and out of traffic like it was some sort of race to get us to our hostel.
We stopped at a fancy hotel that looked nothing like the hostel I’d booked online. In fact, it wasn’t the hostel I’d booked at all. We’d booked a place in the center of town, and this was on the highway, across from the Nike outlet store.
The driver went in and spoke with the hotel owner. I gave him my phone and he called the hostel for us. A group of five Thai men crowded around us and the motorcycle drivers to see what was going on. They all started laughing. I tried my best to smile at them, but at this point didn’t see much funny with the situation.
Our motorcycle drivers motioned for us to keep going. We zoomed back on the highway, past “the Lotus” in the direction we came from. My eyes were stinging from the wind and the diesel fumes of the trucks in front of us. My face was slapped by the tiny bodies of night time tropical insects.
A car was changing lanes ahead of us. The driver sped up and the motorcycle squeezed between that car and the one in front of it. As we passed by, the bumper of the car was maybe six inches from my leg.
The motorcycle skidded to a stop in front of the hostel and I started breathing again. We paid our drivers and thanked them as they drove off. The supposedly two-and-a-half-hour journey had turned into an entire day, but we’d finally arrived in Pak Chong. We spent a lovely time there, and thoroughly enjoyed the nearby Khao Yai national park.
When it was time to go back to Bangkok, we took the train.