Published: October 3rd 2011July 1st 2011
We flew into Bangkok, all smiles... Our favourite city in the world. A city that evokes every emotion and provokes every sense. A city I hate to love.
We headed straight to the backpacker Mecca of Banglamphu (Khao San Road), an area that straight away fires up the emotions. The travel snob in me can't help but sneer, how easy, how unauthentic, and how very un-Thai. The tourist in me shakes with glee, the ease, the shopping, and yay a McDonalds! Although we've been walking familiar ground for a month now, Bangkok feels like something else, after so many visits over the years it feels a little like home. Even better yet, my parents were here. They'd arrived a few days earlier and we were here to surprise them.
We knew what hotel they were staying at and a general idea of what they were up to. If they weren't there our idea was to hang around the restaurant till they came back. Faye and the boys hung around the ubiquitous hotel fish pond while I got their room number from reception and headed up in the lift. While I was on my way up however, my Mum was
on her way down the stairs. I may have missed the look of surprise on her face but I could certainly hear it several floors up.
After catching up over lunch we left the boys with their doting grandparents while we visited Faye’s favourite place in Bangkok, Chatuchak weekend market, one of the largest markets in the world, filled to the brim with everything you’d ever want, stuff you didn’t think you needed and a whole lot of other crap you didn’t even know existed. As usual, Faye rapidly reached shopping nirvana, while I toyed with the idea of buying a sugar glider
, man those things are cute and they fit right in your pocket, probably not a good idea trying to sneak one on a plane though.
Over the next few days we caught up with my folks and the news from back home, the boys spent as much time as possible with their grandparents in-between their various trips and we got some much needed time alone, lifted from the constant responsibility being a parent brings.
While in the city I also took the opportunity to do what I’ve been meaning to do for years, get
a tattoo in Bangkok. The first question I had to ask myself was, where? There are hundreds of tattoo studios in the Banglamphu area alone, how do you go about choosing? Well, it was actually a lot easier than it sounds. I’m no tattoo virgin; I have a full sleeve which took a year of monthly visits to complete. Because of my obvious tattoos I can’t walk 10m down the street without being offered “another tattoo Mr. Cheap, Cheap”, these studios are instantly off my list of possibles, I don’t want a cheap tattoo, I want an awesome tattoo, the two rarely go together. I also ignored any studio which employed a tout at all, even if they didn’t offer me a ‘cheap’ tattoo, if that’s what an artist needs to get business then they’re not getting mine. After these cuts there are actually a manageable amount of studios to peruse. I checked out the various portfolios and in the end I chose an artist
whose portfolio I’ve been checking out anyway over the years. We had a chat about what I wanted, placement and cost and I was happy with everything so I made an appointment for a week
later and left smiling; I was getting new ink… Yay!!!!
From Bangkok we took a short break to Koh Chang for a bit of much needed beach time. Sadly, the journey there was anything but short. We opted for the ‘easy’ option and got a bus/boat ticket through one of the many tour providers on Soi Rambuttri, how did we choose which one? The cheapest of course… Big mistake.
The bus that took us to the pier was a large coach and left on time at 8am, it was a bit tired and old but the A/C worked and it was virtually empty so no complaints really. It took 7 hours to get to the pier rather than the 5 we were told. It didn’t exactly take us to the ferry pier either, it dropped us off at a tour office close to the pier, where we’d get a minibus onto the ferry and which would then drop us off anywhere on the island we wanted to go (for a small fee of course). This mini bus took us to the pier and then waited in the long queue to get on the ferry. Due to only two
ferries being in operation we had an hour and a half to wait so we killed time walking around the pier and trying all the various things on sticks for sale at the small kiosk.
We eventually got on board the ferry, got loaded up and got on our way. We hadn’t travelled very far away from the pier though when a massive storm front blew in. The wind was really strong, driving the torrential rain horizontal and much more alarmingly pushing the ferry backwards until it stopped on the shore. Just as quickly as it came, the storm passed and I’m sure as it disappeared I heard it whisper “my work here is done” as it had left us stranded on the mudflats, 50 m from the pier. The captain gunned the engine for a while before it became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere and then everything stopped. The crew were milling around looking a little confused wondering what to do.
Plan A. After a while a guy in a canoe came across from the pier with a rope, one end of which was attached to a big digger. They hitched them up and while the
captain gunned our engine the digger pulled from the pier. The rope snapped whipping back at both the ferry and the pier but luckily no one was hurt. They tried this twice and both times it failed.
Plan B. When the other ferry came back it unloaded its passengers and vehicles and they tied the rope to it so maybe it could pull us out. After about 20 minutes of loud engines and churning of water, they gave up on this plan too.
Plan C. Abandon the ferry. Both ferries dropped their doors and all the passengers walked from one to the other leaving all the vehicles and the miserable looking drivers behind. The second ferry then went back to the pier, loaded up all the passengers from shore and vehicles and we were on our way, again, 3 hours later.
After arriving on Koh Chang, we jumped in a taxi and got dropped off at a resort we’d stayed at the previous year. The price had gone up 20% but we didn’t care and I think they knew it. We checked in and went straight to bed, it was 11.30pm. The journey in total had taken
15.5 hours. Next time we’re not taking the cheaper option; we’ll take the minibus to the good pier, with the good ferry company and do it in 6-7 like we thought.
Although the weather wasn’t great while we were on Chang, we had a good time. My folks hired a car to explore a bit more and one day we went diving off the south of the island. We did a couple of dives and although the diving was nothing special it felt so good to be back in the water after a 3 year absence. We were worried we’d of forgotten everything but we needn’t of, as it all came back easy enough.
Our journey back from Chang was far more straightforward, we’d booked a return so was of course dreading it, but everything went smoothly albeit slower than if we’d of paid more for a minibus and good ferry company.
Once back in Bangkok, my parents made the most of their final days with the boys and took them to the zoo while we chilled out, went to the cinema and got massaged to within an inch of our lives, all the things you can’t
do while looking after kids. Very quickly the time came to say our goodbyes and my parents were gone leaving us teary eyed (or in Gabe’s case screaming his lungs out for his Nana) on the curb outside the hotel.
At least I had something to look forward to... Tattoo time!!! I arrived at the studio eager to see some sketches and once we’d got the design looking great on paper, it was applied to my forearm. This part took two hours, so not too long and then it was time to start tattooing. He started with the outline, and as the needle drew close I felt the familiar bite as the needle broke skin. It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never had one, some people say it’s like a cat scratch and I suppose there’s an element of truth in that… if a cat scratched you repeatedly in the same place for a long time. I’m not one of those people that say tattooing doesn’t hurt, of course it hurts, but it’s tolerable, otherwise you’d have a lot of people with unfinished tattoos walking around. I always find that the first 10-20 minutes are the worst but
after than you just kind of zone out and deal with it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how it would feel 6-8 hours later. This was the longest session I’ve ever had, at the 5 hour mark I started to get uncomfortable, 6-7 hours in I was wriggling around in loads of pain, my butt hurt and I was sure I could feel every puncture of the needle. As the 8th hour drew to a close and he was almost finished I was in agony, it was ALMOST unbearable but I fought through it to the end and couldn’t hide my satisfaction when he finally said he was done. He said it was because there were many layers of colour involved, but I was just glad it was over, it was close to rivaling having my elbow tattooed for the pain, the memory of that haunts me to this day.
So what about the end result? To say I’m pleased with it would be an understatement. It is seriously beautiful, it’s like the tattoos you see in magazines and think “Wow, how is that even possible with ink, needles and skin?”. The colours are fantastic and the shading
exceptional, it really pops and I love it. I know tattoos aren’t to everyone’s taste but you can’t help but appreciate good art.
Sadly it wasn’t over, the bit I always forget, the healing period. This really hurt as well, not surprising considering the abuse my arm had just put up with but it hurt way more than any part of my sleeve. I’d be lying if I didn’t say at this point that I was done with tattooing and wasn’t getting anymore. It didn’t help that we were travelling; I’m back to square one with knowing how to take care of a tattoo because of the climate, something very different to back home. Also the constant moving around, along with picking up bags and kids just made it worse. It has healed well though and although it need s a couple of minor touch ups it still looks amazing. Sadly we have to wait though as he’s now in Europe for a few months doing conventions, not to worry, we know we’ll be back in Bangkok later on, this city just keeps drawing us back.
We now had some decisions to make on which way to go...
Cambodia or Laos? We still had a couple of weeks left on our Thai stamp so we figured we'd hang out in the north of the country before crossing into Laos. We could then go to Cambodia after that as we knew we'd probably want to go back to Vietnam anyway as it was so cheap there and that's heading in the right direction.
Our first destination in the north was Chiang Mai, which involved a rather comfortable overnight train journey to get to. This journey reminded us about why we love train travel so much, we'd been using buses in Vietnam and it was so nice to have the space and comfort a train bunk provides.
We didn't get up to a whole lot while in Chiang Mai, we've been a few times before so there was nothing we really had to see and we couldn't go trekking, which is the big draw for backpackers in the area so we just hung out, shopped and ate for the week or so we there. We did check out a few of the temples in the city and we couldn't have left without going up to Doi Suthep to
admire the view which was spectacular as always. We also took the boys to the zoo for a couple of hours which was great as it was so cheap.
From Chiang Mai we headed north to Chiang Rai, a city we'd never been to before and a five hour bus journey away. We were using it as a stopover really to break up the journey to the Laos border, which was a good thing as we didn't warm to the city at all, there just didn’t seem to be much there.
We did go visit the white temple (Wat Rong Khun) which was both beautiful and bizarre. Visually, from a distance it was stunning but up close some of the details were just a little odd. It was adorned with many skulls and the entrance had pools with hundreds of human hands jutting out of them. The murals inside were mostly from TV and movies which just seemed out of place in a temple setting. Don't get me wrong, they were very good; it was just bizarre that that's where they decided to paint them.
From Chiang Rai we took a knackered old local bus a further
couple of hours north to Chiang Khong which is where Thailand Borders Laos. We didn't stick around though, choosing to stamp straight out of Thailand, cross the mighty Mekong and head into Laos to pick up our first Beer Lao, reputedly the best beer in SE Asia.
There are more photos below