46980 kms travelled so far
30.09.2009 - 22.10.2009 32 °C
Sawwatdee crap, or hello to those who don’t speak Thai. We’re here in Thailand and having a great time.
Arriving in Bangkok after the home comforts of Oz and NZ could be likened to being hit in the face with a brick. It was a real shock. Bangkok is non-stop madness in full swing; millions of people, smog, traffic jams, honking horns, beggars next to Ferraris and monks next to millionaires. It’s the kind of place you want to get out of as soon as you arrive because of the total overload, but also a place that grows on you and when you return it doesn’t seem half as bad.
Within 30 minutes of the first day there we closely avoided two scams, first we got chatting to a man on the street who asked us if we needed any help with directions. He chatted to us, seemed very genuine and said we should get a tuk tuk as today was a special day and that the King of Thailand was discounting petrol for all drivers to encourage tourism and that we could get around for 40p to as many temples in the city as we wanted. It sounded interesting, but we wanted to get breakfast (food rules, ok) and decided to give it a miss. After breakfast a tout comes to chat to us, he tells us again “it’s a special day, get to the temples for 20 baht”, sounds good but no thanks, we’re ok for the moment. We go to another street and meet yet another man, he again seems very friendly and chats to us about Bangkok life, shows us a photo of his children and his pet dog Scrappy, what a nice man we think, little did we know he’d probably kidnapped the children and dog for a photo session. He said once again it was a special day and that today was the only day of the year when women are allowed into the Black Buddha Temple. We buckle and agree to take the tuk tuk to this one special temple and also ask him to take us to the main tourist information office so we can get some more information. He drops us off at what we think is the official tourism place, it’s full of farangs (foreign ATMs as I think we are known in Bangkok) and we sit down to ask for a price to get to the nearby island. After long negotiations as she attempts to plan our next 4 months schedule down to the day we finally convince her we just want one bus journey and she quotes us 1300 baht to get there, we had seen it for 250 baht on the street near ours so question this and she got angry and started shouting about how this is impossible and that we have obviously been looking at un-reputable companies, and that of course we must book with her right now or all the tickets in the whole of South East Asia will be booked up. We politely get up and leave much to her disgust and the driver, all full of smiles and chat, takes us to the black Buddha temple and we have a look around. After we get back in the tuk tuk and he starts his spiel, to get the 40p ride all day we have to stop off at various tailors and jewellers along the way. We said we didn’t want to and offered him more money just to take us where we wanted to go, but he was insistent. After some time debating he exploded and told us to get out of his tuk tuk and left us in the middle of nowhere. Charming. We spoke to another couple later and they went to these tailors etc and got hassled and were shouted at when they refused to buy anything so I’m glad we left then! So, my first impressions of Bangkok and of Thai people that day weren’t that good. The problem in Bangkok seems to be this, if you are nice to people then there’s a big chance that they’ll take you for a ride, but at the same time you don’t want to be rude to people and it would be nice to be able to chat to locals and find out stuff without being suspicious. Being in Bangkok seems to have a hardening effect on you within hours though and the thought of engaging in conversation with random “friendly” people doesn’t even occur to me now! Luckily we’ve found the countryside much more genuine and we can have good chats to people without them trying to extract our livers, make us a silk suit or sell us into slavery.
The city was stiflingly hot and we spent the afternoon in a local mall and watching a film in an ice cold cinema, not very cultural but we needed to escape the madness. Armed with the knowledge that my £20 budget would now buy me more than a beer and a sandwich (hurrah!) we went on a mini shopping spree. This is what I got for my budget, awesome!
The following day we visited one of the main temples in the city, Wat Pho. We were propositioned by several tuk tuk drivers with “I’ll take you for 20 baht, today is a special day sir”, but wisely decided to avoid them and get a ride with one who charged a normal price and actually took us where we wanted to go. The temple was amazing and massive, it dates back to the 16th century and houses a lazy Buddha (not sure that’s the official name) which is 15 metres high and 46 metres long. It was stunning to walk around and we made our way around admiring the spires, statues and buildings all adorned in diamonds and coloured glass. Compared to the Korean temples it was very Las Vegas and not at all down to earth, but both are appealing in their own different ways.
Afterward we visited an enormous market with far too many stalls, including rabbits in dresses and dogs in dungarees. This market is visited by 200,000 people a day and was way too hot so we escaped before we imploded on the spot.
After a couple of days in Bangkok we’d had enough and decided to escape for a paradise beach island to do some snorkelling, lying around on beaches and drinking cool beers whilst the sun beat down on us. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. Koh Chang, or Elephant Island was being hit with the aftermath of the Philippines monsoon and it rained, and rained and rained a little more to make sure that we had noticed. We spent our days peeking out of beach hut, drinking with other travellers and playing cards, not very beach like activities but fun all the same.
So back we retreated from Rain Island to the insane asylum of Bangkok once again. We decided to go and visit a museum of forensics which sounded interesting. We dodged the persistent tuk tuk drivers and caught a bus as advised, it stopped near a bridge and the driver told us to get off. We had no idea where we were and attempted to ask a few people, who couldn’t speak any English. We knew it was near a railway station so tried making choo choo noises whilst moving our arms in the old fashioned locomotive train movement. As they have electric trains in Thailand this was totally lost on them and they directed us in any direction away from them discounting us as mentally ill. Maybe they pointed towards the nearest mental hospital, we will never know. We walked in the suggested direction for ages and didn’t see anything, we asked another man who looked worried and pointed back in the direction we had just come from and said in broken English to get the 146 bus. For confirmation we then attempted to ask another lady who pointed in another direction and told us to get the number 20 bus. We gave up after ages of wandering around and got a taxi, which drove us for 30 minutes to the right location over the other side of Bangkok! It’s good to be back in a country where even doing the simplest of things is a challenge! The museum was located inside a hospital and quite hard to find, but after making a few enquiries surrounded by old women in pushchairs and drips we found it. We entered and were greeted by a charming set of photos of people who had died in various horrendous ways, including light aeroplane crash, suicide by chopping off a hand (who does that?!), smashed bottle to the neck, shotgun, and many more, the finale was a man who had been blown up by a hand grenade. I say a man but I couldn’t be sure, there wasn’t all that much left. By this time I was feeling more than a little queasy but ventured around a corner to see photos of the tsunami victims and a real life toddler in a jar who had drowned (he didnt drown in the jar, he was just pickled in it). On seeing this I left before I puked on the floor and looked around the parasitology museum next door, which to be honest wasn’t much better. You should have seen the size of the testicle of a man infected with elephantitus, it was bigger than my torso. Christy joined me later and regaled tales of a small boy who had unintentionally cooked himself inside a clay pot. I decided not to ever join the fire brigade, police or do any job where I see dead people, and also not to play with grenades or ever put myself into a clay pot in an oven, even if it is the only hide and seek location available. Brutally aware of all the horrible ways we could die or be infected by parasites which would change our genitals into concrete we stepped out into the real world making sure to look left and right before crossing the road. We found out there was a ferry literally seconds away which took us back to opposite our hotel in under 5 minutes. It seems we really did take the scenic route on the way there!
We then left Bangkok and headed to Kanchanaburi, which is the home of the bridge over the river Kwai. It’s a nice town surrounded by mountains and lush green vegetation. We went to several war museums to read about the POW’s, the bridge and the railway and then went to see the bridge itself. Although it wasn’t the original bridge, which was bombed by the Americans months after it was built, it was still moving to see it and to think how much work and how many lives had been lost spanning the river.
The next day we hired a couple of mopeds and set off on a mini adventure to explore the surrounding countryside. We were both given helmets (one with fetching union jack design and mine like an American police man) which were about as effective as balancing a piece of cardboard on our heads and we set off. Thai people seem to think wearing helmets is an activity for the paranoid and looked at us with astonishment as we drove down the road looking a bit like retards. When they drove past us you could see the people in the back of trucks laughing out loud in amusements at our outrageous and unnecessary safety precautions (and of course the ridiculous designs on them!). Little did they know about the man at the forensics museum who had forfeited wearing his helmet and consequently died when he was hit by a duck on the head (ok, I made that bit up but these things are possible and our cardboard helmets were a neccessary precaution).
We rode about 75km to a place called hellfire pass, which was where the POW’s had to dig out a pass by hand through the rock, it was meant to one of the worst places along the death railway and hundreds of people had died there due to maltreatment from the Korean and Japanese guards. We walked along its length and it definitely had an atmosphere about it, and it was not too hard to begin to imagine what it must have been like. One of the surprises I got was that many of the POW’s described the area as beautiful and vowed they would come back later on after the war ended, I thought that they would have hated the area but it seems that many did not even though their time there was terrible. I was also shocked to see how many Asian workers died on the railway, far far more Asian than Western workers died (around 90,000 I think) and none of their details were recorded so their families never knew where they were buried or what had happened to them. After this moving site, we rode on to a waterfall and then had a drive around the countryside where I was rewarded with the amusing site of Christy wobbling down the road looking petrified with a one eyed dog nipping at her heals, whilst Thai children looked on smiling and laughing at how odd us Whiteys are.
The next day we took the death railway train along a section of its route which whizzed through the Thai countryside filled with paddy fields, cows, egrets and herons, climaxing at a rickety old bridge which creaked dangerously as we passed over it. We stopped in a small town for lunch where I unsuccessfully tried to persuade a shop keeper to let her songbird free from its stupidly small cage (I got as far as “No speaky English”, but at the same time she seemed to have no problem saying she wanted 5000 baht to let the bird free, talk about selective English knowledge!). I love birds but I’m not paying £100 for her to set it free and go out and catch another one the next day so it had to stay captive
After our time in Kanchanaburi we set off to Khao Yai National Park, which claims to be the 5th best national park in the world, and is a UNESCO protected area and home to tigers (although at last count there was only 7 which is not an encouraging sign in over 2000km of park), elephants, bears and gibbons. I wanted to arrange a personal guide rather than a tour and we did so after much bartering. To get a knowledgeable guide who also speaks English is no easy task! Our guide was a man called Djib who had such immense enthusiasm for all things living he would have made pre-stingray Steve Irwin look like an unmotivated slouch. After a couple of minutes driving down the road he skidded to a halt, jumped out of the car and started screaming at a car coming the other way. We thought we were on for a tiger spotting or maybe an elephant wrestling with a bear with an eagle on its back, but in fact he had spotted a beetle on the road and wanted to save it. Djib was, in my limited knowledge, what I would call a real Buddhist and a genuinely nice person and it was great to chat to him about his views on life. We visited a bat cave at sunset and saw 3,000,000 bats leave for a night of hunting, which was fantastic to see but hard to photograph. As the bats left the cave they were swooped down upon by kestrels’ and barn owls who grabbed the odd one for dinner. The next day we set off for a full day’s photography bright and early and we weren’t disappointed. Our first spotting was an Asian elephant, we crept through the woods and saw its trunk metres away, before it moved on further into the undergrowth and we couldn’t see it anymore. A good start to the day. Luckily we were given leech socks as they were attacking in mass as soon as we got out of the jeep, one managed to get into Christy’s trousers and sucked blood from her bum, which she wasn’t that amused with. We then walked back into the jungle to find some white handed gibbons, we located them after a while and spent an hour or so watching them swing around whilst trying to throw poo and wee at us. As they were so high up my lens couldn’t really get any decent shots but I have a few for memory at least. We continued on seeing pig tailed macaques, muntjak deer, sambar deer, a monitor lizard swimming in a river and a beautiful white lipped pit viper resting on a branch. We finished the day by walking up into some woods at the top of a mountain, we stood in the twilight and thousands of bats (the same bats from our cave the day before) poured through the forest skimming our heads by millimetres, a great experience.
After a few days of our park experience we headed back down on a night bus to an island called Koh Lanta, which is down the South of Thailand. We spent a couple of days relaxing and basking in the sun, which was a nice change after our Ko Chang experience!
Next up is Phuket where I will be hopefully getting some good photos of the vegetarian festival, where the locals pierce themselves through the face with various sharp objects, walk up razor ladders and step on hot coals. Mental stuff!
I hope you’re all well, apologies that this blog has once again turned into a bit of a novel (again)!!!