Landed in Bangkok at around 10:30 pm so by the time I had passed though immigration (only airport I know with plenty of officials and no queuing), customs and caught a taxi in Bangkok it was getting on for midnight (or 5am by my body clock). The Khao San road was a blaze of lights and activity, however I had to find a room. My attempts to book one by phone from Oz had failed and my first choice was full. Found an OK place a bit further down the road with a room on the top floor (I probably need the exercise).
The Khao San is a backpackers haven, full of bars, restaurants and guesthouses. Its always busy and is an emerging place for young Thais looking for a night out a well as all the farang (white folk). The sheer size of the tourist trade here tends to shield you from the local culture however most shopping is done in markets and its difficult to recognise some of the foods sold at stalls.
I needed to get a Lao visa yesterday whilst still in Bangkok as the one available at the border is only valid for 15 days and cannot be extended, whilst the embassy one is valid for 30 days and can be extended. Used a bus to get to the train station (6 pence), a train to get to the right district (4 pence) and a taxi for the last bit (a quid). Took a long time but as I found in Samoa using the local public transport (taxis don’t count) shows you a how the the people live and gives you a good boost in confidence. Stupidly forgot to book a train to Chang Mai whilst at the station so have to return there today.
Drank too much last night in a small road not far from the Khao San. A guy sets up a small stall with a few chairs outside one of the shops on the Khao San Road selling draft beer. Its a great spot to people watch and whilst doing this I got chatting to a Manc guys called Paul. He had just come back from Laos and remembered the baggy period in Manchester so we had a load to chat about. He recommended a few other good places for a drink where he was hoping to meet up with a friend. One of these is a Beatle Bus turned into a cocktail bar at the start of the alley which then has a whole series of bars and food stalls up its length. It had a good atmosphere and was unlike anywhere I’ve been before.
When I was planning this trip it was clear that there would be one or two places on the trip when it would be possible for someone from home to join me for a couple of weeks. One of those is coming up. In late March I intend to head to the islands off the east coat of Thailand, catching the Full Moon Party on April the 4th. If anyone fancies a holiday with a difference (couple of days in Bangkok, week or so in the islands and then another couple of days in Bangkok) let me know.
In the meantime Bangkok is a blast. I’ve got a train ticket to head up to Chang Mai overnight on the sleeper train tomorrow night and will be sorry to leave. I’ve not really done many of the sites in Bangkok yet as I feel I’ll make a better job of it once I’ve got used to Asia in places a lot less manic. Nice to know I’m coming back in a month or two. I’ll pop up some photos of the nightlife soon.
I caught the overnight train from Bangkok to Chang Mai, taking a 2nd class top bunk. Not a problem says the Lonely Planet…… wrong. The major flaw with the top bunk is that the curtain rail is about 2 inches below the ceiling and right next to this gap, beside every bed is a very bright lamp. It was so bright on my bunk I felt I was under a sunbed. I took my first sleeping pill of the trip and wrapped my eyes in a T-shirt but to no avail. I saw every hour of the night and arrived shredded next morning.
I had booked into the Eagle House 2, hoping to catch Tara who I had met on the bus from Byron Bay to Sydney. As I checked in I was told she had checked out; things weren’t getting any better. Much of the day was spent snoozing, before getting up, exploring the night market and watching the FA cup in a series of bars. Chang Mai nightlife is much, much quieter than Bangkok, probably a good thing for my state of health.
Woke up next day to find Tara in the courtyard. She had been off on a multi day trek into the hills to see the hill tribes. We spent the day exploring temples (Wats) including Wat Phra Singh and Sunday markets, both coming to the conclusion that most Thai cities consisted mostly of Wats and markets. They are everywhere; I had sort of noticed this in Bangkok but their dominance of a 2nd city brought it home.
Tara’s camera had broken and we eventually found a place with a replacement. Unfortunately the shops creditcard machine couldn’t connect to the bank so she couldn’t buy it after all.
I had a quiet night as I had to be up before 9am to do my one day Thai cookery class. The 6 of us doing the class had to agree the dishes to be cooked . Dishes were in catagories (soups, curries, stir fries, etc) and we had to agree 5 catagories to cook, then 2 or 3 dishes from each of those. The trainer worked out the shopping list and we went with him to the local food market. There was a superb range of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that puts British markets and supermarkets to shame. Once we had what we needed we set about chopping the days ingredients as instructed before preparing and eating our dishes through the day. It took all day but was a superb (& tasty) introduction to cooking Thai cuisine. Expect spicy food to emerge from my kitchen on my return. (Note on Thai spicy soups, they are served with herbs & spices still in them that should be removed before eating. It shows to the customer the quality & quantity of ingredients that went into it.)
The next day was spent travelling on the bus to Chang Rai, Thailand’s most northern city. The original plan was to head to a town called Pai which had been recommended by a couple of fellow travellers. Discussion the night before had revealed it was now very much a traveller hang out and I wanted to get off the beaten track more. The final decision wasn’t made until I encountered poor service at the window for the Pai bus. The plan is now to head to Mae Sai for a day trip into Burma (Myanmar), stopping in Chang Rai for a night to see it and change buses. To be honest if I was doing it again I would go though Chang Rai without stopping as it has little to offer after Chang Mai. Still I had a great Thai meal at a place called Cabbages & Condoms, a charity run restaurant whose profits go to promoting safe sex.
After my trip into Burma the plan is to head east to Chiang Khong and cross into Laos ASAP. I’m looking forward to returning to Thailand for some lazy days on its beaches, but before then I need to undertake some more challenging travel than I have done up until now.
Spent a couple of nights up at the very north of Thailand in Mae Sai. Stayed in a great little place called the Northern Guesthouse; friendly & with good food. The town itself wasn’t much to look at mostly being a strip of shops leading to the border however heading to town from the guesthouse I was presented with a great view of houses clinging to the hill that looks over the hill and border. On top of the hill is Wat Phra That Doi Wao, accessed via a spectacular stairway with dragons as handrails. the view over the border and the country around was superb from the top. In the evening I had a drink in a bar right next to the border bridge. There, across a little river I could have waded across, was another country.
Spent half a day crossing into Myanmar but not much to see there except markets & touts. There did appear to be an official visit by some Thai & Euro dignitaries but I noticed the Europeans were given an old non-air-conditioned Thai bus whilst everyone else had the latest Landcruisers. I guess a political snub was being made.
I am spending the night by the Laos border before crossing over tomorrow. I’ll then catch a boat down the river to Luang Prabang that will take two days. For a while this will be my last web access and even this is on a slow connection.
Had a quick look at the news and wished I hadn’t. The Hutton report is a total whitewash. Despite even the Whitehouse admitting there were no WMD’s No 10 is still optimistic about finding evidence. And it doesn’t look likely the Democrats can mount a serious attempt to remove that idiot Bush and the rest of the lunatics in the Whitehouse…… Please do me a big favour before I get back : replace Blair with Cook or Brown and do anything to make sure Bush & Cheney don’t end up in the Whitehouse for another 5 years…..
I was stamped into Thailand without hassle, however I realised my early arrival could cause me some slight problems. My visa ran out on April 8th, but the Full Moon Party I was determined to be at was on April 5th. It was something I could sort out later, for now I jumped into a waiting minibus heading for the town of Trat.
On arrival there was a tout waiting from Guys Guesthouse, promising a free ride there. Normally I steer well clear of anywhere pushed by touts but it had been a long journey and I jumped in the back of a pick-up with a few others. Because of the one way system we took a slightly round about way getting there with the last couple of hundred yards passing through narrow lanes. I wasn’t sure if this felt right. The place itself seemed nice enough and I checked in, getting a room with a telly. Unfortunately the only news channel was Fox News, a nastly right wing Republican mouthpiece. I hadn’t seen it since my business trips to Detroit and forgotten how bad it was. Ample evidence that we shouldn’t allow Rupert Murdoch any further access to our media.
A quick exploration of the local area showed I was in a charming part of the old town, with small restaurants, winding lanes and a laid back feel. All my missgivings about touts had been wrong in this case.
My original plan in Trat was to pass through spending a single night, but my fondness of it and a slightly upset stomach persuaded me to spend a second night here. I found places to swap my books, get a haircut, etc and kicked back. The next day I booked a minibus to take me to the Khao San area of Bangkok. Normally I prefer to get on the main public buses but I knew the bus stations were out on the other side of town and getting from there to where I wanted would be a pain. In addition the minibus was advertised to take 4 hours instead of 5 for the main one.
I was clear we would be a little late when we stopped for a 2nd break after 4 hours. When I asked how much longer the reply was an hour. Around an hour and a half and we are on Bangkok’s highway system, so getting close. We come off the toll roads and descend into the start of rush hour. I am having trouble recognising where we are until I realise we are on the main hotel road to the east of the city centre. It seems crazy, I know its at least an hour from here through packed streets to where we are meant to be heading. It soon becomes clear; two couples have bribed the driver to drop them off at their overpriced hotels in the east of town to the inconvenience of those of us staying in the west at the buses destination. 7 hours after we set off we are finally set down and are able to look for a place to stay. Luckily there is a room in my first choice so I can set about enjoying one of my favourite places.
The Banglamphu or Khao San area is probably the busiest traveller’s hangout in the world. That would normally make it really naff except that it’s also the hangout for young Thais. In many of the bars the locals will seriously outnumber you and in none of them are there any bored looking hostesses. The Khao San road is lined with a variety of bars, guesthouses, shops, restaurants, market stalls, everything. Those passing through the street are from all corners of the globe and sitting on the pavement with a beer allows for some great people watching. I can’t recommend this place highly enough.
When it all gets a little much, head to its west end and get onto Soi Rambuti, with the cocktail beetle bus at it entrance. Along here are a quieter strip of restaurants, bars and guesthouses doing great grilled seafood. I’ve got an excuse to spend some time here as I’ve ordered a couple of suits to be made by a local tailor. Not trusting the make them cheap merchants I decided to use one in one of the bigger hotels. It’s a bit of a commute to get there but the journey by riverboat and then skytrain is pleasant.
I went for my final fitting last night and my clothes are fully made. Once they are steam pressed my tailor will post them home, as I have no intention of carrying them for the next few months. It’s great to have clothes that fit properly, a sensation I am unused to being as tall as I am.
I’ve not done a huge amount this week, visiting the biggest temple complex in town and the snake farm used to produce Thailand’s anti-venom serums. Twice a day they milk some of the snakes in front of the public; right in front. When it’s a 4m long King Cobra that’s slithering a few feet away from the front row it adds to the tension.
Most Thai cities have a foundation stone that is believed to hold the spirit of the city. Bangkok’s is near the Royal Place and main temple complex of the city but unlike those, which are overrun by Farang tourists, the stone (actually a pillar) is visited by the local residents. Its an easy place to like with lots of locals offering incense & food offerings, refilling a series of oil lamps and watching plays in traditional costume.
I meant to visit the Royal Palace but on arrival I found out that shorts, even knee length ones weren’t allowed. It was also in this area that I came across a common con, drivers telling you the attraction you are heading for is closed so they can take you somewhere else. By the 4th such approach I was getting somewhat abusive and they left in a hurry.
Early tomorrow I’m off to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, before heading south to Koh Pha-Ngan.
I wasn’t up in time to get the early train to Kanchanaburi, which would have got me there in the morning, but got the second one arriving late in the afternoon. It was too late to start sight seeing, but next morning would be a rush, as I had to catch a train out at 2:45pm. That evening was spent having dinner at a guesthouse which also ran a cookery school (the food was a good as you would expect) and watching football at a small convenience store that had put a temporary bar up in front of a TV.
I’m not sure if the Lonely Planet had the scale wrong on its map but it took me 20 minutes to walk from my guesthouse to the Bridge over the river Kwai, which would suggest it was over a mile away, not the 600m indicated. The bridge itself was mobbed and despite the fact that it was a railway bridge one track wide you could walk across on planks between the rails. Every 30m or so was a bay at the side where you could get out of the way if a train came. To be honest a train coming was the least of your problems, the plank path in the middle was narrow and to pass people coming the other way required one party to place one foot either on the rail or the sleepers. Not originally designed for passengers the bridge is not really enclosed, meaning a slipped foot could easily send you falling through to the river below, a knock out blow to the head on the way through a small mercy. Despite my part time phobia of heights I made it across the bridge and back again.
My extended walk here meant that there was no way I could stick to walking and see everything I wanted to. I hired a scooter for 3 hours costing 50 baht (80 pence) and set off for the allied war cemetery outside of town. Only 3km out of town and I was the only person and this well kept memorial. Most of the graves here are British, but I also noticed a significant number of Dutch. Each person had a simple stone declaring their nationality, regiment, date of birth and date of death. Many have a simple message from the persons family and reading these the loss of a real person to a real family is made clear. As I walked the length of the cemetery I noticed something even more poignant, the graves of unidentified people with a simple inscription you can read below…..
I then set off for the real JEATH museum, a recreation of a Japanese POW hut, filled with pictures donated by survivors and families of survivors of the death railway. One of the museums near the bridge has also started calling itself the Jeath museum, including official looking signs on the street, but the Lonely Planet had warned me about this scam. It’s a great collection of photographs, drawings and paintings covering the construction of the railway and the conditions of the prisoners working on it. What seems to be forgotten here, and by the world at large, was that far more locals were killed building the death railway than Western POWs. Despite this it’s a great place to visit. I then went to the two cemeteries in town, one for the Allies and one for the Chinese. The Allied cemetery was similar to the one out of town, just much busier as it’s more accessible to the tourist hoards. The Chinese next door is a contrast, as every grave is different, most being very ornate and colourful.
That was all I had time for if I was to drop off my scooter, grab lunch, my bags and make it to the station. I was glad I had visited here, its a place with a recent tragic history but the key sights are presented with dignity. You are left in little doubt about the coast of war.
The train at 2:45pm was the start of a long journey. 1.5 hours later I’d to get off at Nakhon Pathom and wait for a couple of hours to catch the overnight sleeper train to Surat Thani. At 6am we arrive, however the station is 14km away from town so its onto a local bus. Once there a ferry ticket to Ko Pha Ngan is easy, however the various ferries leave from piers outside of town so its onto another bus to get to the boat. A 4 hour boat ride brings us to the island, but on the south west corner, not the south east where I want to be. A shared taxi takes me to Had Rin, famous for the full moon party but not where I eventually want to stay. However I need to get a feel of the place and am looking to avoid travelling any more so I grab a room for the night near the pier. Had Rin really is a busy little traveller community but next day I’m off somewhere better.
I found something close to paradise, an island beach only accessible by boat, surrounded by palm trees, full of fine sand leading to turquoise water. Along the back of the beach in the hillside are a series of wooden bungalows, small bars and restaurants. There is nothing to do here but chill, enjoy the sun and sea, whilst noting that every girl here is gorgeous. At one end of the beach a raised wooden walkway leads over the rocks and up into the hills. First stop is a great restaurant with a fabulous view and great food. If, however, you continue you find yourself on a rough trail through the jungle to a second beach, even less developed than the one before. At the back of this is a superb little bar, though it was closed the first time I tried. They had had a party two days before and the staff were still recovering; my kind of place.
Anyway I’m here for a couple of weeks but as there is no mobile phone signal, no phones, no internet, no roads….. etc etc I’ll not be posting much up for a while.
What I didn’t mention in my last post was that I had managed to sunburn myself. I hadn’t realised how much the skin had toughened up to the sun on my arms, legs and face. Having spent most of my time on the road or in cities I had almost always been wearing a T-shirt and my torso was its normal Scottish pale blue, looking for its first sun rays to tan it white. Oh boy it got them. At the time I covered up there was no sign of burning, but by the evening it was clear it had had too much. A few days later and the loose skin appears for the start of peeling, unfortunately the skin underneath is still red and angry. My own fault, I was stupid and made a few bad assumptions….. and its lead to me sheltering from the sun on the most idyllic location its been my good fortune to encounter.
Still, I’ve had the company of three friendly Aussies returning to Sydney having spent time in Edinburgh and a Brit I’ve met in Siem Reap and Bangkok has just turned up this morning. Plus it was interesting chatting to the acrobats who put on a show here and regularly do the Glastonbury and Edinburgh festivals.