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Published: March 1st 2007
These "Scary Marys" Are Seen In Shop Windows All Over Thailand
Hi there from a hot 'n sweaty Malaysia. We're currently in Kuala Lumpur, spending a few days making the most of the cheaper shopping! It's strange being somewhere so modern and cosmopolitan after a while on the road (AKA basking on deserted beaches in Thailand). It has a much more relaxed air to it than Bangkok. In a couple of days we're heading south to Melaka and then onwards to Singapore where we meet Cherry, a good friend from home before catching the freighter on March 10th, sailing to Brisbane! Where has the time gone - the Norwegian fjords and Mongolian desert seem a long time ago now?!
Anyway, back to the here and now, or rather, this blog - which will cover the month or so we spent in Thailand - travelling between historic war sites, various islands and of course, Bangkok. We started our Thai journey on the train from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. A bus took us to the Thai border from where we crossed the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River and onto Nong Khai, from where we caught the sleeper train to Bangkok. The train journey was an easy ramble through northern Thailand and
a 6 hour delay meant that we were awake to see the sunrise through the mist of the morning, over fields and huge lakelands.
We arrived into Bangkok - hot and steamy as we pushed with everyone else to get in a cab to try our luck at the infamous, Khao Sarn Road. This road is well-known on the backpacker circuit for one reason and another and having heard so much about it, we thought that we should give it a go - if only for 1 night. The start wasn't good - the cabbie shook his head in disbelief as we told him where we wanted to go and eventually dropped us in backpacker central, only to accelerate away - did he really just lock his doors as he drove off?
We dived into the mishmash of tattoo parlours, bars and shops selling every fake t-shirt, pair of runners and Rolex watches that you can poke a stick at and finally found a hostel with a free room. The hostel was pretty central and it wasn't long before we were out exploring the road to see why it seems to attract so many other travellers. Soon enough
Roast Dinner With ALL The Trimmings!
Danielle With Mum And Dad In Our Villa In Hua Hin
we were tripping over burger joints, western-type bars and places to get those cliched dreadlocks and hairbraids that every other traveller seems to sport (maybe I'm just jealous as I don't have the hair anymore). It felt like the least foreign place I'd visted since leaving Norway 8 months ago which is maybe why it's so popular, but just around the corner, past the bar advertising "no age IDs checked", next to the stall selling fake IDs (should they be required elsewhere), were countless stalls selling local food. Busy with locals buying and selling fish, meat and veggie kebabs, it bizarrely seemed a world away from Khao Sarn Road, yet only really a 2 minute walk away.
We'd be coming back to Bangkok in a week or so, so we had plenty of time to visit the tourist attractions, but the following day it was time to go and meet my parents. They were flying in from the UK and it would be Danielle's first time of meeting them and of course the first time I'd have seen them since leaving home, last June! Hence nerves were flying around the airport almost as much the low flying 'planes as
Not The Maharaja...
...But The Four Of Us On An Elephant Trek
we waited for them to arrive. We were due to stay in a rather swish villa in Hua Hin, a 3 hour drive away and a driver was waiting to meet us. I nabbed his sign (Danielle's idea!) which said "Barry Horsman" and stood in the melee of meeters and greeters, waving it furiously. It seemed ages before they emerged - Danielle recognised them before I did (I like to think they recognised me without the sign) and all of a sudden we were reunited/introduced! Tired after a flight that had transitted in Hong Kong, we headed for our car and driver and southwards to Hua Hin.
The town of Hua Hin is an easy 3 hour drive down the coast, past the salt pans and rice fields, through the nearby town of Cha-am and onto the resort where the Thai Royal Family regularly spend their holiday. Presented with our keys to the villa, we were dropped off for 7 days of luxury - a place where we could completely relax and make use of the TV, pool and above all, the washing machine! After several months of having seen our clothes washed by being stamped on in buckets
On The Elephant Trek, Hua Hin
of water or in the river, it was time to completely empty our smelly packs and freshen them up.
It proved to be a great place to unwind and to catch up on news from home and of course, for Mum and Dad to meet Danielle! The week went so well - if too quickly. Days began with a dip in the pool and breakfast (usually long-lusted-after cereal!) followed by a leisurely jaunt out to explore. Hua Hin is popular with western families and retired couples so there are lots of tempting seafood restaurants lined up along the beach which we had to sample a number of times. Bizarrely, there's also a huge Tesco's in town - not something I'd expected to see until I got home - memories of my monthly shop in Basingstoke! However, this shop was very definitely not in Hampshire - resplendant with giant prawns and fresh tilapia as well as packaged fish heads, it would cause a stir at home! We made good use of the bbq and Danielle and Mum both cooked some delicious meals that brought back great memories of home cooking and thoughts of foods to come!
The week seemed
to fly by - after opening Christmas cards from home and a lovely parcel of chocolate goodies from Danielle's parents, it was very soon time to head back to Bangkok and say goodbye as Mum and Dad flew off to explore Hong Kong, including the delights of Disneyland! We said an emotional goodbye at the swish new airport - which despite it's teething problems seemed to do the job okay. We bumped into an undercover tout and jumped into his car and headed back into town. Having got up at 4am to get to Bangkok, we had lost all enthusiasm to negotiate our way around by bus and when the tout found us, it seemed like the easiest thing to do for our tired minds and bodies!
Reconciled with the fact that we'd at least "seen and done" Khao Sarn Road, we headed to the north of the city to find another hostel next to the Chao Phraya River. After spending a night in a room that had both the look and smell of a cave, we got moved to a room complete with a window and curtain where we spent a couple of nights as our base in
Bangkok. Close to the Thewet market, we headed out to explore - watching the catfish writhe in shallow buckets of water, whilst a hundred frogs sat, blinking out of large pots covered with netting, lest they make a bid for freedom. We caught the river taxi to the Grand Palace - a great way to get around and to avoid the exorbitant prices demanded by the tuk tuk drivers and the taxis that refuse to use their meters. We just needed to remember not to get off before the boat had completely rested against the side - having already seen one backpacker disappear into the water in between the boat and quayside (he was hauled out, soaking but okay), we didn't want to repeat the performance!
The Grand Palace is in the same grounds as Wat Phra Kaew - the home of the Emerald Buddha, surrounded by stunning stupas, reminscent of Pha That Luang in Vientiane - the gold gleaming in the bright sunshine and the semi-precious stones twinkling and sparkling at you as you walk past to get a clearer view. The palace is only used on ceremonial occasions now and the Royal Family live elsewhere in Bangkok
(around the corner from our hostel) and it's now very busy with tourists snapping away. We saw hundreds of yellow banners on the streets to mark the King's 80th birthday and countless people wore bright yellow shirts with the royal crest on the front as a mark of respect. The Thai Royal Family is very highly respected - even revered, and any talk of the King's passing or a faintly negative portrayal is most definitely frowned upon. By the way, we happened to see the Thai Queen whilst we were walking in the Siam Shopping Centre. Reminscent of my "bumping into" the Norwegian King and Princess in Trondheim at the beginning of this trip, we were corralled into an area and told "no photos" for the Queen to be hurried past us, to wave to her adoring public outside.
The next day we visited the Bangkok aquarium to watch feeding time at the shark tank and later to wander around the megalopolis of Siam Square - a series of huge shopping centres, dodging the traffic to try them all out, but enjoying the Chatuchak Market the best. This is a weekend market, home to an estimated 15,000 market stalls
The Highly Respected Thai Royal Family
Posters Were Up Everywhere Celebrating The King's 80th Birthday
attracting 200,000 visitors a day. You can get pretty much anything you want here - it's all split up into different sections - shoes, t-shirts, pets, food (occasionally a bit of an overlap on the last 2, I think!), as well as the much needed strawberry smoothies to help replenish those energy levels!
After spending a couple of days in the capital, it was time to leave and head on to Kanchanaburi, the site of the infamous Bridge Over The River Kwai. The town is a 3 hour bus ride from the city and it felt good to head out and get on the road again. The town itself is a quiet collection of hostels on the river bank and cheap restaurants behind them, with a relaxed feeling it's hard to imagine what went on here 60 years ago, during WW2. The bridge itself has been rebuilt after the Allies bombed it - but you can still see shrapnel marks in the concrete pillars holding the metal bridge in place. As we looked around, I wandered how realistic the 1960s film of the same name was, until I saw a documentary at the excellent Death Railway Museum next to
the cemetery describing how the POWs used to whistle Colonel Bogey, poking fun at their captors but making the Japanese think they were very happy and steadfast. The Japanese had used Allied Prisoners of War from all over SE Asia to build the railway, aiming to complete the railway from Thailand to Burma in 16 months - despite Japanese engineers stating it would take 5 years. The task ultimately failed - it never reached Burma although got very close and it meant that the POWs had to work in appalling conditions - suffering tropical diseases from cholera, beri beri and leg ulcers to insect bites and sunstroke. It is estimated that one soldier died for every sleeper that was laid on the Thai-Burma Railway. 120,000 sleepers were laid.
Whilst in Kanchanaburi, we visited Hellfire Pass (so-called because of the light that the fires made flickering at night on the walls), catching a local bus to head off a couple of hours away to see one of the most difficult parts of the railway to construct. The terrain in this area meant that hillsides had to be pulled down and cut through - mostly by hand or with rudimentary tools.
You can walk along a 4km route of old ground used as the railway - although most of the sleepers have been taken up, all of the ballast that formed the rail support is still in place. We didn't meet any other people walking along here and as the wind rustled in the trees it gave the place a very eerie feeling. The Pass has a good museum and is funded by the Australian Government, due to the large number of Australian servicemen who worked and perished here. As you walk, you can listen to a headset describing the events that went on in different parts of the railway, including the roles that each man had to play and the harsh conditions under which they worked. Servicemen from Australia, the UK, Netherlands and the US were involved here and there's a moving memorial to Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, an Australian military doctor who helped many servicemen who died there. Countless numbers of local "coolies" from SE Asia and India also worked here but sadly there is no record of who or how many worked or passed away as a result.
Whilst walking alone here, we stopped to look out
across the view of the railway and heard some rustling - only to see a long (about 2m) snake making it's way through some leaves towards us. Once we moved it slithered away, only to pause and continue to slide towards us! We hightailed it out of there, after grabbing a couple of out of focus shots (I'll never make a wildlife photographer - I get too excited!). Anyway, once we got back to the museum where we handed back the walkie talkie they ask you to carry, we mentioned the snake - so out came the "what snake?" book and it turns out it was a king cobra! It can kill a person in 30 minutes and an elephant in 3 hours - I've been proudly telling Danielle ever since!
I'm pleased that we visited Hellfire Pass and walked the route. You can take tours to the area but it's not much hassle taking a public bus - and it drops you off right outside the entrance and I definitely recommend walking the 4kms each way to get at least a feeling of what must have been involved for the men on the Thai-Burma Death Railway.
Nobody To Keep It Company, Seen At Grand Palace, Bangkok
spending time in Kanchanaburi, we stayed in a great guest house by the river - a bamboo hut built on stilts, complete with resident squirrel in the roof. At night all you could hear was the sound of the jungle - along with a thousand frogs all croaking their merry way through the night to each other.
After seeing Kanchanburi, it was time to head south to continue our journey to Singapore. We caught the bus to the town of Ban Pong and then by train on a 7 hour journey to Chumporn, on Thailand's east coast. We arrived here at midnight and spent a short while wandering the streets with our packs looking for somewhere to stay. Most people here are either on their way, or have just left the Thai islands of Ko Tao or Ko Pha-Ngan - which is where we were headed. After finding a Chinese-run hotel (first hot water for what felt like ages, but only really a week), we were up again at 5am to get the speedy catamaran to Ko Tao. So, off we went in the boat - well, twice actually - to be told that after the second attempt, the
The Royal Crest
Seen All Over Bangkok To Celebrate The King's 80th Birthday
boat was knackered and rather than leaving at 7am, we were now waiting until the new boat (and a second load of backpackers) arrived at 2pm. Ah well - if it would mean sitting at a cafe drinking tea looking at the Gulf of Thailand, then so be it! I can think of worst ways to spend a Monday morning... .
The larger catamran finally arrived to hurl us across the water with a vomit-inducing speed that we hadn't felt since riding in a tuk tuk in Bangkok, and we docked at Ko Tao 90 minutes later. As usual, we hadn't booked anywhere to stay here as it's nicer to get a feel for a place when you arrive. However, given the time of the month it turned out to be a bit of a mistake... . It was just after the Full Moon Party which is celebrated in Ko Pha-Ngan like it's going out of fashion and of course, where do loads of party-goers head to after the party? Ko Tao... . So whilst Danielle waited with the bags in a shady spot, I marched up a roasting hill away from the beach to eventually find an old
On Board A Tuk Tuk
100mph Around Bangkok
bloke swinging in a hammock. He knew of a bungalow that had just been built (clearly to sell) and said we could stay there - cash in hand, straight to him... . The benefits of being the on-site foreman! We stayed here for 1 night and then found more central bungalows - not far from the beach but close enough to walk to town, with the benefit of being nice and quiet. We hired a little moped to explore the island and find some other beaches. This turned into a trial by fire for me. I'll be the first to admit I prefer mountain bikes to motorbikes and all of a sudden, we found ourselves trying to climb dusty, rutted tracks up 1 in 4 hills, with wheel-spins adding to the excitement, just waiting for the bike to pull a wheelie and throw us both off into some bushes. Not content with that, I realised that we had a good as non-existent front brake on the downhill the other side, so it was no surprise when Danielle decided to get off and meet me down the road!
We did find another great beach (after realising that the resorts reserve
Good To Be Amongst The Chinese Hub-bub
all the loungers for their own guests on Sairee Beach) at Freedom Beach. There's a small strip of sand that we could ride to in 10 minutes, dodging the bare-chested backpackers on their quad bikes and it was from here that we hired a sea-kayak and paddled out, swimmers on and snorkelling gear on board. It was one of the best things I've done - we made our way completely under our own steam, chatting away about this and that found our very own beach to paddle up to. We slid the boat onto the sandy beach and waded into the water, immediately surrounded by fish - some nibbling at our skin as we swam amongst them, looking at the sea cucumbers below us and the anenomes of all shapes and colours, "blowing" in the currents. I'd thought about diving here but the cost of it was a bit prohibitive for me what with my funds having to last so long, but it's definitely something to do in the future - hence the snorkelling this time.
We spent a week or so completely relaxing at Ko Tao - it really is a beautiful island and apart from the town
is a very quiet island. The bike meant that we could explore at our own pace and stop off here and there. One night we decided to walk back from town with no torch, just using the moon to see by - it felt great to wonder what was out there in the jungle, watching us pass. The next night we drove back on the bike - our headlight lit up 1 huge frog, a lizard and a snake on the road. We used the torch after this!
The next island on our trip was Ko Pha-Ngan, famous of course for the Full Moon Party, we found out later it is also home to the Black Moon Party (i.e. no moon) and also the Half Moon Party - and with pre-party parties and post-party parties on the island, there are only about 3 days with no parties! Anyway, whether you like parties or not, it's still a great place to relax and explore. Yet again, we succumbed to the temptation of a moped - although the roads were largely sealed here, the hills were enormous - 1 in 4 again and to hear our little bike squeal as it
climbed the hills at walking speed made us laugh outloud as we tottered over the brow of hills to hurtle down the other side. After meeting someone in the guesthouse who had stayed there for 7 months (doing what, I don't know) we decided it as time to leave and head to our last Thai island - Ko Lanta.
Our trip back to the mainland involved catching the night boat to Surat Thani. Conscious that a night boat would mean we had travel and a night's accommodation all rolled into one, we climbed along the gang plank and onto a boat that resembled a sanitised slave ship. It was home for the night for about 100 people - mainly backpackers and one Buddhist monk, all sleeping on mattresses, crammed in together. Thinking that it might be difficult to get to sleep as it was so warm, Danielle marched off to get some beers and we drank the night away to drop off whilst swaying gently. We didn't wake until we arrived in Surat Thani to get the bus to Ko Lanta. After setting off the previous day at 6pm, we arrived at Ko Lanta 20 hours later, tired but
Ko Lanta was my only beach stop in Thailand when I travelled through on my way to Oz, all of 15 years ago so it was interesting to see how it changed. Even then, everyone was going to Phi Phi and it was only when someone in Bangkok recommended it that I thought it'd be a good plan. Back in 1992 you jumped in the back of a pick up and headed along a very dusty track to a beach hut - and there was very little else to do apart from swim and drink beer. Well, now the town has definitely grown up and the road is sealed. When I was there last time, someone from the guest house had to buy me a new camera battery on the mainland as there were no such shops on the island back then. There are now Kodak and Fuji shops on every street corner, with internet cafes in between. However, the island still has a nice feeling to it and a relaxed air on the streets.
We took an organised trip to go snorkelling on Ko Lanta, where we visited some amazing beaches - completely clear water and
a plethora of fish and coral - some of the best I've ever seen. We did take an underwater, disposable camera with us but the pictures were rubbish - not sure what we did wrong! Part of the trip took us to a cave which you had to swim through in the pitch black, clad in a life jacket and watching for the occasional torch that the guides panned around. At the end of the tunnel was a beautiful lagoon, with rocks all around and a small opening in the top. It was formerly a hiding place for pirates and their treasure but is now a protected area and is a nice spot to imagine the work that used to go on here - the collection of birds' nests to eat.
Ko Lanta marked the end of our trip in Thailand. We'd pushed our Thai 30 day visas to the limit and once we'd eventually crossed the border into Malaysia by bus, we were fined GBP6 each for overstaying our visas by a day. Travelling through southern Thailand (Yala Province and south) was always in the back of our minds as being risky, as there have been a number
of bombings and shooting there over the past few years. The day after we travelled through here, stopping at various military checkpoints, 7 people were killed in bomb and arson attacks. It's not a place I'd especially want to stop for long in.
As I said earlier, we're now in Kuala Lumpur - about to head out for another plate of noodles or maybe nasi lemak (yum!). We have the tickets for the boat to Oz now and we're all set - we even have a Travel Scrabble set! (Mustn't forget those sea sickness tablets!). The next blog will be once we've arrived in Australia. The plan is to head north to visit some very good family friends in Queensland and spend some time with them, before heading south to Sydney and the V Festival. Then I'm heading back north to hit the outback. Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this blog. Our time in Asia is drawing to a close now - after nearly 9 months it's funny looking back on it - I can honestly say there is not one thing I'd have done differently. I've loved every part of it and now can't wait for the rest
The Servicemen Had To Carve Down the 26m Through The Rock Here, With Bare Hands
of Malaysia, Singapore and then Australia! More about that later - but for now, hope you are all well and keep in touch.
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