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Published: June 24th 2008
"Please Make Trans Fats Good"
Big Ron speaks to the Gods Thai style
People, People Everywhere
Whoa, what a culture shock. After the great people and amazing places we have experienced over the last 8 months, arriving in Bangkok was like being hit in the face with a Monty Python sized stinky wet fish.
It was horrible.
From the 'I'd rather be anywhere but talking to you' bus sales woman at the airport, to the smiling-as-I-rip-you-off taxi drivers, to the trying-a-bit-too-hard-to look-like-a-hippy travellers on Khao San Road, our first impressions of Thailand we not at all favourable.
It didn't get any better.
Hotel staff could barely bring themselves to find a key to show us a room, let alone raise the tiniest hint of a smile. Market vendors looked at our faces and evidently only saw a dollar tree ripe for harvest as they pushed their clothes/jewellery/tattoos/dreds on us at vastly hiked up prices. Bars blurted out scratchy copies of latest albums or played fuzzy counterfeit films on huge TVs and everywhere drunken 2-week-holiday-idiots staggered about with their tops off, showing off their sunburn and new tattoos.
"The Land of Smiles" my arse. Who ever came up with that slogan at the Thailand Tourism Board must not have
Kickin' Back On The Kwai
Tracey ponders whether the booze or the river is making her chair move
been out of the office since about 1975. Back then we're sure the country had not been ruined by way too many tourists and the resulting greed and attitude that unfortunately seems to go hand in hand with increasing popularity. Now it has.
Of course we are being a little harsh. We did choose to stay in the Khao San Road area, which used to be a travellers' mecca but has now become a bit more like the main drag in any holiday resort in - take your pick from - Crete, Costa Del Sol, Falaraki. You get the picture. People now go there to spend their Euro/Dollar/Pound on cheap beer, Pad Thai (actually very nice) and knock-off clothing. The problem is, most are rude to local people and pay over the odds for the fake gear they are buying. This makes the locals 1. Resent tourists for their rudeness and behaviour 2. Charge higher and higher prices with no chance of haggling because they know if they don't sell it to you another drunken sucker will come along soon anyway. As one man refused to drop his price for a pair of shorts he even barked at Dave
"This is Khao San Road". Perhaps what was most upsetting though, was the attitude of the people working in the area. The lady at our guest house (Wallys) was all sweetness and smiles until we checked in and paid. Then any question we asked was an effort to answer and when we came to store our bags for a few days and expressed suprise at the cost of storage she flew off the handle and refused to even talk to us. It took some coaxing to calm her down, but she still charged us to store the bags on a night when we were sleeping in one of her blimming rooms! Needless to say when we got back from our trip to Kanchanaburi we decided budget wasn't everything and paid more for a nicer, friendlier hotel a few blocks away where the noise and the attitude were much, much better.
The Bridge On the River Kwai
Kanchanaburi was much better than Bangkok but we still found the people to be a lot less friendly than in other countries. Kanchanaburi is on the tourist map because of what went on there during the Second World War. The Japanese decided
The Death Railway
... in more ways than one! This bit is precariously attached to the rock face
to build a railway to try and link Singapore to Burma (both of which they occupied) and used prisoners of war to do it. Over 10,000 POWs died and another 90,000 Asian workers who had been 'drafted' in to help also lost their lives. The conditions were hideous, the cruelty from the Japanese and Korean soldiers unimaginable and the physical and psychological effects on survivors still felt. The most notorious parts are the bridge that crosses the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass. Instead of opting for a tour we took the train along the section of the track that is still operational from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok. Its known as the Death Railway because so many men perished during its construction and it is easy to see why. Aside from a total lack of food and nutrition, the absence of any kind of health care, relentless monsoons and continual beatings from soldiers, the POWS were working in some of the most difficult terrain you can imagine. One stretch of the track is built on the side of a cliff. It clings to the rockface on wooden struts that wobble as you cross them. Wall of rock to the left, sheer
Breakfast Slop In Nam Tok
Nothing sets you up better than fatty, greasy, mystery processed-animal sludge
drop to the river on the right.
The track doesn't go as far as Hellfire Pass anymore. The jungle has reclaimed most of the land but there is an amazing and very moving museum at the site (reachable by bus from Nam Tok). As you would expect it is full of interesting and shocking information about what went on, but what makes it SO good is the free audio tour they provide. As well as the narrator there are extracts of interviews with surviving POWs. Their commentary, especially when you take the machine with you on the walk to Hellfire Pass itself, is incredibly moving. The pass got its name because the POWs were forced to work round the clock to get the railway finished in time, so at night the channel they were having to blast through solid rock, using only hand tools and small pieces of dynamite, was lit up with hundreds of bamboo torches. You can do a short walk or a longer one. We really reccommend the long one to get a true feel for what went on there and to really appreciate how well made the audio presentation is. The museum survives on donations
The human suffering here was almost unimaginable
and it is so good you really want to help by the time you leave.
Back in Kanchanaburi town itself there is an immaculate war cemetary where many of the POWs who died are buried. The most moving are the stones for the unnamed soldiers whose remains could not be identified. They lie anonymously in the soil next to their comrades.
We stayed just long enough to visit the Tiger Temple while we were in the area. Tracey was very dubious about going, having heard that the Tigers are drugged and the whole experience is like something out of a hideous freak show. She is still not 100 percent convinced that the Tigers are as docile as they are without a little help from uncle Valium, but she did grill the staff to within an inch of their lives about it and they insist no drugging goes on.
The temple is still a working monastry. The monks are the reason the tigers are even there. They got a reputation as something of a wildlife sanctuary after villagers took them an injured wildfowl to care for. One bird became many, peacocks appeared and an injured
This Is Not An Optical Illusion
A VERY real, VERY big, already VERY well fed tiger!
wild boar stumbled in to the grounds. It was nursed back to health and released, only to return with its family the next day. Villagers started taking other injured animals including tigers that were rescued from captivity and poachers. The monks are committed to 'uphold the sanctity of compassion and kindness to all living creatures' and so they even kept the tigers. Today they hand rear any cubs that are born in the sanctuary.
Tourists are allowed to visit in the afternoons when some of the tigers are taken down to what is called The Canyon. We arrived at this time and have to say that the 'walk down to the canyon and touch a tiger' part of the experience was horrible. Dozens of tourists in a queue walk along behind a tiger being led by a monk. Staff grab tourists one by one and stick their hands on the back of the tiger before grabbing them out of the way and moving on to the next person. It felt like a money-making conveyor belt and not at all like a sanctuary for rescued tigers. The tiger joined 9 of his buddies in the canyon and people were
Roar Sweetly For The Camera
Our Tiger poses nicely from one foot away
then allowed to go in a few at a time to stroke them and have pictures taken.
Shall I Stay or Shall I Go...
How you feel about this place depends on the angle you approach it from. Tracey was not happy with the situation. She felt the whole thing was a bit of a show which didn't seem to be doing much for the tigers until David pointed out a few things. The people that took the 'pay to have the tiger's head in your lap' option (an additional 1000 Bhat 'donation') were coming out saying they had had the experience of their lives. They were beaming from ear to ear and calling friends and family to talk about it. In return the temple gets much needed cash to keep operational and keep the tigers alive (entrance donation of 300 bhat a person). We waited until much of the early rush died down then went in ourselves. By now it was a bit quieter and calmer and a bit less like a freak show. The tigers were being monitored by two members of staff each. Tracey grilled one man who insisted that the animals are sleepy because
No, I ordered A MiniCAB
Tracey's big, little friend
of a rigourous morning exercise programme, a huge lunch and the afternoon sun. He also said the money from the afternoon sessions is paying for a new Tiger Island that will eventually give each pair of tigers 2 hectares of land instead of their current metal cages. And it means that only one or two (rather than 10) will be brought down to the canyon each day because visitors will be able to watch the animals in their enclosures instead. David went round to touch the tigers a second time without the camera and thinks the experience of being that close to and touching an animal that could jump up at any moment and kill you was incredible. If you can't decide whether to go or not our advice is that whatever you may or may not think or feel about the 'touch the tiger' side of things, tourist money is undoubtedly making a difference. It is keeping the tigers alive and ultimately giving them a better life. There are plans to start releasing the next generation of cubs into a reserve instead of keeping them at the sanctuary. So go along, keep an open mind and definitely wait until
The Most Hated Man in Thailand
He used some of his stolen money to buy Manchester City Football Club in the UK
2.30 or 3pm to get there instead of arriving at 1 for the tiger walk when the crowds are largest.
Back in Bangkok and safely holed-up in a nicer hotel we planned the small matter of David's birthday and ended up joining Canadian Sally who we met in Borneo for a few cheeky drinks, a few more, a bit of food and a final few before bumping in to a baby elephant on the way back to bed and waking up the next day feeling decidedly dodgy. (The elephant, by the way, was not a drunken halucination. The poor things are dragged in to town for tourists to touch. Shamefully a drunken Tracey has to admit to having her hand grabbed by his trunk on the way past and giving him a quick pat.)
Power to the People
Our visit coincided with a mass demonstration against the government. Thai's claim the administration is just a puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted by a coup in September 2006 and faces charges of mass corruption. His name will be familiar to football fans. He now owns Manchester City. Many claim he
The Royal Palace In Bangkok
Royal enough to grow green marshmellows on trees
bought the club with dirty money skimmed from the coffers of the Thai government. He is now back in Thailand and according to protestors is using his influence to control many government officials. We were amazed at the support for the protest and how organised it was. A permanent camp has been set up with toilets, tents, water and even piles of free food that had been donated by sympathetic companies and farmers. The huge stage and meeting area had entirely blocked a major road and some very gruesome and not too flattering pictures of Thaksin and the government were hanging everywhere.
Fight at the Boxing
Our final gripe with Thailand and Bangkok came when we went to see a Thai Boxing match at the Ratchadamnoen Stadium. There were a row of counters. All had a notice in Thai above them. Three also had notices in the Roman alphabet explaining the prices of 1000, 1500 or 2000 bhat. We didn't want an expensive ticket so walked up to one of the counters where the Thais were queuing. We managed to establish that the ticket price was 440 bhat but were told we could not buy them. We
The Big Guy Round Here
To appreciate the scale look for Tracey by Buddha's feet
had to go to the tourist window and pay 1500 for the same seat. We have experienced this racism towards tourists everywhere we go. At temples, national parks etc we are always asked to pay more than a local. We can understand, to a point, for museums and places of national importance but to be asked to pay more for an event which was an entirely commerical affair, where the owners were clearly just exploiting what they perceive to be rich tourists, was infuriating. When we asked to buy a local ticket we were told 'you can not' by an official who smilingly agreed it was totally unfair but was not going to do anything about it. Can you imagine the outcry if British citizens were charged one price to visit a West End Show but anyone from Spain, Turkey, Russia or anywhere else for that matter was charged three times more. It annoyed us so much we left. We have met scores of other people who feel the same way and did the same, but the problem is other people continue to pay for the tickets so unfortunately this behaviour will continue until we all stop paying.
The soles of the giant recling Buddha's feet
Bangkok is not all bad. There are some stunning temples to be seen. We visited the Royal Palace with its incredibly beautiful buildings and temple. It was lovely to see that despite all the tourists, devotees were still visiting the famous Jade Buddha housed there, to pray and make offerings. We also visited Wat Poh, home to the giant Reclining Buddha, which at 46m long certainly is giant. It has amazing feet too, showing the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.
As we do not have time to visit the beautiful beaches in Southern Thailand we have decided to get out asap in favour of more time in Cambodia and Laos instead...next stop Siem Reap.
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