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April 24th 2011
Published: April 26th 2011
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Bangkok (25-28/03/11)

We landed at Suvarnabhunmi Airport at 23:10, quickly cleared immigration, collected the baggage and steered the box through the customs slalom to the amusement of the staff there. Originally we were going to be riding through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam then into China but our plans had changed when we had to extend our stay in Australia, so we only had one week in Thailand before flying into China and would be spending that week in cities so we decided to leave the Jaffanaut in left luggage. Unfortunately we arrived on floor 2 and left luggage was, we were assured by a very helpful gentleman, on floor 4. More unfortunately the lift didn't stop at floor 2 so we had to use the travelator. The travelator was one metre wide, the bike box wasn't. With the assistance of a very helpful woman we turned the box on it's end giving me 10cm clearance each side on the travelator, unfortunately this also effectively blinded me as the box on its trolley was about the same height as me so the very helpful woman mentioned earlier came to our aid again by guiding me onto the travelator. At floor 3 we played a similar game but this time Vernon did the guiding and we reached the correct floor without any major incident and with no small children splattered bug-like across the front of the box. We negotiated the crowds to the left luggage office where the officer took one look at the box and said "No room here, go to the other office, it's on floor 2."

Finally unencumbered we found the courtesy shuttle to the Novotel where we experienced posh hotelese for the first time, our bags were loaded onto a trolley for us, we were shuttled off to the business lounge to check in as all the receptionists were dealing with other guests in the main reception area, somebody summoned the lift for us and pressed the correct floor button and soon after we had got into our room our luggage joined us. It was all a little bit strange. Still, it only took us a few minutes to explode our baggage all over the place and give the room the look of a second rate backpackers. The next morning, after a large and leisurely breakfast (we were determined to get our money's worth) we headed back to the airport to dump our unneeded luggage with the bike box then got the train into Bangkok and found a much cheaper guest house in the Siam district. The Wendy House is well positioned up a fairly quiet side street about a hundred metres from the Skytrain and the MBK building, the staff speak English and they weren't at all phased by the two confused Brits in the reception area.
We headed out to the consumer mecca that is the MBK building, eight storeys of shops and food halls, it is quite terrifying, particularly the electronics floor where I lost Vernon a number of times. Back out on the street we noticed the Bangkok Art Culture Centre which was clearly based on the Guggenheim in NY and houses a collection of modern Thai art. We popped in for a quick look and watched, fascinated, as local street artists decorate the huge sweeping stairwell from floor 7 to floor 9. We weren't allowed up there while they were working on it, so planned to return another day.
We were up early the next day, body clocks still on Aus time, so we found our way up to the canal to catch a boat to the Khao San Road. The easiest way to find a canal in Bangkok is by smell, they are effectively open sewers and stink, it gets worse when a boat goes past and the "water" becomes agitated. Just as we reached the ferry pontoon we saw a sign for the Jim Thompson House, so detoured there instead. Jim Thompson was an American architect who moved to Thailand after WW11 and set about reviving the silk industry. He bought old houses from various parts of Thailand and had them restored and rebuilt to his design on the site in the Siam district, chosen because it was next to the silk weaving area. Sadly it is also next to the canal and the stench was horrendous the day we were there, detracting somewhat from the tranquillity of the place. The house has been kept as it was when Jim lived there and has some wonderful furniture and ornaments, including a number of rather ornate chamberpots one in the shape of a cat, another a frog, these were used in preference to walking across the garden to the toilet at night when it would be difficult to avoid any lurking snakes. The garden was cool, shady and very peaceful with lots of fish ponds, one very loud frog and no snakes.
The smell put us off catching a river bus on the canal and we headed down to the river instead to catch a tourist boat up to Sumane Fort where we avoided getting dragged into a weird TV filming thing the premise of which seems to be getting foreigners to sing something. We snuck away to the Khao San Road, the backpacker centre of Bangkok, it was horrible, full of stalls selling cheap tat at ridiculously high prices, eateries selling "western food" or cheap renditions of Thai food, majoring on the chillies at the expense of all other ingredients and, of course, backpacker pubs all selling "western beers" (Bud and Guinness mostly). We were also regaled with yells of "Suit sir, suit sir." and occasionally "Ping pong, ping pong." We braved the canal on the way back to Siam, very smelly and a bit hairy getting on and off the boat without connecting with the canal but we made it safely.
The next day we headed back up the river to see the Grand Palace, wearing long sleeved tops and long trousers as required by the temples as we entered the site we had to walk past the "decency police" who were directing some people to the clothes hire room. It was all a bit random, some people in three quarter length trousers were let in some were directed to cover up, people who had turned up in shorts were given sarongs to wear, which the women tended to knot around their waists so that one leg was covered to the knee and the other was just as bare as it had been before while the men did a towel around the waist kind of style and, mostly, looked uncomfortable wandering about in a skirt.
First stop was the Emerald Buddha which was remarkably insignificant, being quite small and a long way up a highly decorated display area, took us a few minutes to spot it amongst all the gold and bright colours. We struggled back out through the hordes of tourists, found our shoes and took ourselves off to the other, less popular parts of the complex to marvel at the mosaics and gold works on the temples and stupas.
Before we got "templed out" we left the Golden Palace and moved on to Wat Pho where we saw the giant reclining Buddha which is a perfect description, it filled the entire temple and we needed the fisheye to get a picture of the whole thing. Because Wat Pho is not part of the Golden Palace complex it gets a lot less visitors so we didn't have to fight our way around and it seemed a much more relaxed place.

Chiang Mai (28-30/03/11)

We got an early morning flight to Chiang Mai and a taxi to the Pagoda Inn, selected because it gets a good write up in Lonely Planet, as we checked in the owner tried to sell us trip tickets and other services, we ignored him, stashed our luggage and headed out to town to post a small present to NZ and arrange a trip to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). As we wandered we were accosted by the head teacher of the local school who told us about the festival the school would be holding to celebrate the acceptance of one of their pupils at the local monastery, unfortunately we wouldn't be about when it happened but wished him luck with it anyway. He gave us advice about where to book tickets (TAT - the government agency which doesn't charge a booking fee) and also suggested a walk we could do on our way back to the inn. We followed his advice and walked out of the old town towards the river, then along the riverside road with a short pause in a cafe with a balcony over the river from where we watched a couple of fishermen having a pee and failing to catch any fish before returning to the inn.
At the Pagoda Inn there is a key tree on the front desk, as you go out you hang your keys up, when you come back you collect them again, I grabbed the key from where I had left it and walked off, looking at the tab as I did so and quickly realising it wasn't our key. We returned to the front desk to find no sign of our key, the owner told us the air-con engineer was in our room and had our key, we weren't to happy but headed off to the room again only to be called back by the owner who started yelling at us because we had booked an elephant trip without asking him, apparently he knew this because he was the agent and knew what we had booked. He then asked what we had paid and when we told him 2500TB each (the going rate for the trip we were on) he lost all credibility by saying "I could have booked it for both of you for 400TB total." That was total rubbish, there is no way he'd have got us a 90% discount, particularly not for a charity like ENP. "Ah well, it's our loss." I replied and we headed off. When we reached our room the key was in the door which was unlocked and inside the largest window, which led onto a flat roof easily accessed from the street, was wide open, there was no sign of an engineer. We checked all our luggage, thankfully we had been carrying all our valuables, and set off to find better lodgings, returning later in the evening to collect the rest of our stuff and check out, the owner, who was in reception, turned his back on us as we appeared and remained like that until we left. Thanks Lonely Planet, that's one recommendation we'll be crossing out.

The manager at Baan Nud-Kun Hostel couldn't have been more helpful, she asked us if we had booked our elephant trip yet and when we explained what had happened she phoned ENP to change our pick up so we didn't have to go back to the Pagoda Inn the next morning and checked what time we would be picked up to see if we needed an early breakfast.

We were first on the bus the next morning and got a free tour of the backpackers of Chiang Mai collecting our fellow elephantistas. On arrival we were given coffee or tea and stood on the terrace to get our first glimpse of the elephants who were headed towards us for feeding. Throughout the day we got to feed them, throw water over them in the river, get close enough to pat and stroke them, take as many photos and videos as we wanted and just watch them for ages, there was no riding, no elephant painting or other touristy stuff. All the elephants at ENP had been injured in some way, a couple had leg and hip damage due to traffic accidents when they were young, one had a badly damaged foot from stepping on a landmine, a number had logging injuries and one was blind because her previous owner had punished her "bad behaviour" by firing a slingshot into her eyes. Then there were the two teenagers, each had a bell around its neck to warn of its approach; for such large animals elephants can be surprisingly quiet and as they were both in the mischievous teens stage the bells were necessary for people's safety. One of them, Hope, was orphaned at an early age when his mother was shot and had never been domesticated, he was part of the largest herd which was kept separate from the others and attended only by the keepers, we all stood on the walkway to watch them bathing and got drenched by Hope squirting water at us, one of his party tricks apparently. It was a great day, really enjoyable, we got back to Baan Nud-Kun washed the elephant snot off both us and our clothes and spent the evening downloading hundreds of photos.

The next day we returned to Bangkok, taking a ride to Chiang Mai airport in a tuk-tuk, they are designed for people a lot shorter than we are, we managed to fold ourselves into the seat with our bags crammed in around us and shook, rattled and rolled our way to the airport where we reversed the origami process to get ourselves back out. On arrival at Bangkok we did the train and walk option, much more comfortable.

Our flight to China was on the morning of the 31st, we rescued the left luggage, rearranged the bags as required by international flight regulations and checked in. We managed to avoid excess baggage charges by travelling business class (£40 more expensive than economy as opposed to about £200 in excess charges), this also allowed us use of the China Eastern lounge, free coffee and cake - hurrah!

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