Archive | February, 2011

The Man with the Golden Camera

27 Feb

(lest anyone is tempted to make any comparisons with bald Bond movie villains, this one had Christopher Lee in it. The villain you’re thinking of is Blofeld. Stop that train of thought immediately. Now, where did I put that fluffy cat?)

So, another day of touring – this time, off towards Phuket for the James Bond Island tour. The island is actually called Khao Ping Gan but since ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ featured it in 1974, a whole tourist infrastructure has grown up around it.

So, onto a bus for quite a bit of a hike towards Phuket… finally ending up at a small harbour. There are actually two lovely girls from Leicester on the bus, and it’s wonderful to hear an English accent again. We decant into a long tail boat, and set off for the island. The noise from the engine is really quite incredible – basically like having a truck’s diesel engine in your ears – but the trip is magical. The limestone karst formations that litter the Thailand landscape now rise like a giant’s fingertips from the sea, or like the sunken spine of some long dead sea creature.

On the way to James Bond Island (19)On the way to James Bond Island (24)On the way to James Bond Island (2)On the way to James Bond Island (5)

It feels, almost, as if each one of these islands looks like another – but there’s no mistaking James Bond island when we turn up there. There’s a lot of tourists, mostly doing James Bond poses (although it does now feel a little more ‘Charlie’s Angels’), or pretending to be manacled to the rocks (now that wasn’t in the film). But it’s a stunning sight – we can walk up the beach where Nick Nack greeted our hero with a bottle of champagne, see the rock face that Scaramanga hid behind to shoot the cork from the bottle, and marvel at the karst pinnacle that housed the solar array. (yes, I did a bit more movie watching homework for this trip too)

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James Bond connections aside, it really is a beautiful location – a white sand beach in a sheltered bay, with the needle rising dramatically in the background.

Khao Ping Gan (16)Khao Ping Gan (6)

Leaving the island, once the longtail driver had managed to get his boat to shore, fighting the others all trying to do the same, we stop off at the sea canoeing platform. Somewhat disappointed that this is a chauffeur canoeing experience, we hop into the inflatable canoes and set out for our tour of the caves of Tunnel Island. Most of the entrances are covered under high tide, and we do have to watch our heads when we enter each of the little inlets, created by the effect of rainwater on the limestone (there’s a long and complicated explanation on line, which I won’t bore you with!)

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We canoe in and out of caves… through sea arches… past huge rafts of mangroves… past a man selling coconuts from a boat (hold up – now THAT’S entrepreneurial.

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And then on to lunch at the Koh Panjee floating village – although this is actually a Muslim fishing community, most of it is now a platform of floating restaurants catering to the James Bond Island tours. It’s actually very sophisticated (for a floating restaurant) – the food is good and I wish I had brought a tuxedo. Sadly, we can’t find a casino, and leave back for land.

Koh Panyee (6)Koh Panyee (2)

Back on dry land, and with the sound of the longtail boat engine a distant echo in my ears, we set off for the Suwankuha temple. This has two main claims to fame – firstly, it’s built inside a cave. Secondly, it’s surrounded by monkeys.

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Yes, yes, the monkey is the one on the left.

The tour guide confuses me for a baboon (easy mistake to make) and attempts to feed me a banana. How we laughed. (Actually, Bell is a pretty cool tour guide, although the entire party is struggling to deal with the ‘off duty ladyboy’ look)

And then, finally, we finish the tour with a dip in a waterfall pool (‘Refreshing’ says Bell. Which is of course Thai for ‘bloody cold’)

And back to Ao Nang – just time for one last meal at the ace little street diner next door to the hotel (we’ve been testing the menu all week, and it has the BEST Pad Thai, Penang Curry, Massaman Curry, pancake rolls and shakes I’ve had so far – and for around £2 – no matter what we order, it’s impossible to get it above 190 baht per person). Ordering is by pointing, but that’s half the fun.


On “The Beach”

25 Feb

or “Tim, Tigger and Snuff go Phi Phi….” (trust me, it’s funnier when a Thai says it. It’s the silent ‘h’. No? OK, not funny then)

So, having taken a couple of days to chill and relax, it’s time to go on tour again… well, at least, to leap onto a speed boat and to visit some islands. Today, it’s Phi Phi.

So, down to the beach (lowercase, you’ll understand later) and then off to pick up some folk from beaches you can only get to by boat (very cool).

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First call, Bamboo Island – a stop for snorkelling with some very cool fish…

Bamboo Island (5)

(have you any idea how difficult it is to get the sea to look level when you’re bouncing up and down on a speedboat?)

The usual suspects like yellow tangs, parrotfish, boxfish and so on…more pipefish than I have ever seen in one place…sea urchins (careful not to step!). The biggest parrotfish I have ever seen, though – perhaps because they lack real predators in these waters. All fish photos brazenly stolen from other sources.

sea-urchinTrip to the Adventure Aquarium (formerly the New Jersey State Aquarium) in October 2007. Unfortunately not terribly scientific (more entertainment than educational), but still some nice displays.parrotfishtang

I spotted a cleaning station with a couple of cleaner wrasse doing their thing (couldn’t get them interested in a quick once over for me though, so I’ll have to take a shower later)


Huge shoals of little tiny silver fish…


And then off to Maya Bay. Now, Maya Bay is the setting for “The Beach” with Leonardo de Caprio… which, as homework, I had watched the night before. In the movie, of course, it’s a pristine wonderland inhabited by a few backpacker types – the reality is that it’s still a wonderland with the softest, fluffiest sand I have ever seen.. inhabited by a large number of speedboats, long tail boats, tourists and holidaymakers from every nation under the sun. And still, for all that, beautiful.

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We managed to leave my friend on the beach (we did go back for her in the end) after the crew counted 51 back on the boat but failed to notice there were actually 52 people on the boat originally.

Off to Pi Leh Bay for photo opportunities….

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And then on to Phi Phi Don for lunch and a lounge in the sun….

Phi Phi Don (2)

And finishing off going past Viking Cave (home of some of the best bird’s nests. For the soup.


Viking Cave (1)Viking Cave (4)

and then some more snorkelling at Monkey Bay.

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This time, shoals of yellow and black fish – the scissortail sergeant that will eat out of your hands – they rise from the depths like a swarm of aquatic bees as we approach, waiting to be fed)… yellownosed pipefish…wonderfully multicoloured parrotfish, nibbling on the coral


redbreasted wrasse

And back to the beach at top speed…chances of getting a stable picture… absolutely zero!

When you get older you get a bit Krabi…

24 Feb

(actually, Ao Nang, but that’s close enough)

And so, finally, to the beach. Ao Nang is a beautiful place, and when we arrive, the locals are out on Noppharat Thara beach in force.

It’s quite a busy tourist harbour, with long tail boats (so called because the propeller is on a 2m boom behind the boat. Look it up at if you’re interested – but basically, in keeping with lots of things around here, it’s a boat made out of bits of things that weren’t meant to be in boats (like auto engines) and the whole thing is designed about the implications of that (like, mounting the engine on top of the boat to keep it cool, and to allow it to swing round, so there’s no need for a rudder)

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Anyway, it’s quite remarkable, with sandstone karst formations rising out of the sea as if they belong in a James Bond movie (actually, that’s later in the week). At low tide it’s possible to walk to the islands (although the sand is a bit squidgy) and the tide goes out so far I am reminded of Hunstanton.

And so a couple of days of chilling and relaxing, a chance to knock back fruit smoothies and watch little tiny bubble crabs create amazing patterns in the sand as they form the sand into little balls and push them behind them (eating the detritus off the sand as they go). Sometimes, it actually looks like they have created the patterns on purpose…

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The tuk tuks have evolved again – now they are motorcycle and side car combinations:

Ao Nang (7)

At the moment there’s a fair on – the local pimped cars are on show, with lights, and sound systems in the trunk


(this isn’t one of my pictures, by the way – but it gives you an idea)


– and the kids are playing Bingo. The street food is good, and by a simple method of waving and pointing I manage to get a decent plate of spicy glass noodle shrimp.

The proprietor of the hotel, Joey, is incredibly cheerful, and simply says that the reason why he has a hotel is ‘I do it for happy’. And he does.

And Tigger and Snuff finally get in the sea, too…


And on the way back to the hotel the heavens open up.. and I feel like there’s a story in there, too….

Another Day in Paradise

23 Feb

And so the next day … off again before sunrise.  I won’t see Luang Prabang in the daylight. In a remarkable reversal of the normal pattern of events, the tuk tuk driver hands me money and asks me to buy the ticket so he can go home.

And so onto the bus. For the first time since leaving Mexico in October, we’re driving on the right hand side of the road.

Nothing in the guide books has prepared me for the beauty of the journey that unfolds for us. The bus is old, and slow, and, to be fair, speed limited by the potholes that litter even Laos’ most major highways. But that’s OK, because the scenery is absolutely stunning. It’s partly the scale of it all – the beauty seems to disappear into the distance – and partly the size – mountains that rise out of nowhere, with a new surprise round every bend. And there are certainly lots of bends on this trip, winding round the mountains.

To Vientiane (32)To Vientiane (6)

The early morning sun shines a weak light on the mountains, producing an achingly beautiful, heartstopping view, a peak rising in the distance framed by a gray-blue light.

To Vientiane (48)

We pass little settlements built in traditional style out of reeds and leaves – and yet with a satellite dish quaintly mounted on a  tree stump outside. Pigs are tethered by the side of the road, and little makeshift gardens are fashioned out of sticks anywhere something might grow.

To Vientiane (40)To Vientiane (16)

A stop by the side of the road for the toilet is, quite simply, exactly that. A brief stop for lunch, where an angel takes pity on us, who only have a small amount of Laos currency, and gives us lunch at a knock down price. I’ve lost track of exchange rates, but I think we bought two plates of curry for 28p.

Finally into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. In my head, I imagine us getting off the bus, getting on another bus bound for Bangkok, and being taken through immigration. Reality is very different.

The bus station for Bangkok is the other wide of the border, around 40km away. First we have to get to Vientiane centre. Time for a taxi with a couple of very bemused Italians. Then I manage to find an ATM that will give me money. Then it’s time for a crazy tuk tuk ride to the border. Our luggage goes on a van while we walk through, across the Friendship Bridge. And, after driving the the bus station, we have no tickets. The system has failed us.

I’m not keen on spending the night on a bus station, so I have to quickly negotiate for the last two seats on the last bus for Bangkok – by which time the ticket seller has shut up shop…Luckily, I am taken to another ticket seller, and, 900 baht worse off, we have seats on an overnight bus to Bangkok. We’re back on track, if slightly stressed now!

And now we end up on a bus ride half way across Thailand…. first of all into Bangkok.. the bus is comfortable and we’ve got front row seats allowing us to stretch out. We get water, and dinner in little boxes – including a dim sum bun with something not immediately identifiable inside. After thinking about it for a while, I decide I am hungry and eat it without identifying it.

Arriving into Bangkok, early morning, we are shaken awake and thrown off the bus (well, it felt like that) into the bustling Northern Bus Terminal. A taxi ride into town and we are at the meeting point. It’s at this point that I realise that in the Veniane panic, I have lost my bank card. So into the internet cafe and sorting it out… I’ll blog about the experience on ‘ soon…

We’re eventually met by our guide, who leads us through Bangkok alleyways, down back streets and through shops (the short cut through the Muay Thai Boxing gym had me worried for a moment) and into the street to wait for the next bus. This one is definitely fully of backpackers on the way to Krabi and Phuket.

Off into the night. Again, the lights of Bangkok and Southern Thailand speed past in a blur… it’s fascinating to watch it all. The bus disgorges us at a little eatery in the middle of nowhere, full of little bags of Thai snacks and noodle sellers. AAnd then it dumps us, unceremoniously, in the middle of nowhere again, in a place where old coaches go to die. It’s about 5:30 am and it’s quite surreal,, surrounded by piles of old chairs. Eventually we are on a bus to Ao Nang, near Krabi, and our hotel… where I sleep for four hours. Three nights of little sleep have finally taken their toll….

I never thought I would say this….

23 Feb

But I love my Amazon Kindle. I really like the feel of a book, the ability to underline and make notes in the margin… and yet, this techno toy is fabulous.


I’m actually able to take books with me without carrying huge weight (I had around 2kg of books on the last leg of the trip). I can download guidebooks as I go, without finding a shop. I don’t have to pay airport bookshop prices (AUD 60 for the NZ Lonely Planet). I don’t have to worry about posting the book home.

There are even some books that have been made available for free (I have a great modern version of the Bible that I downloaded for free). And I can write my own stuff and send it to the Kindle too so I can read that anywhere (lots of motivational quotes and my own learning documents have been done already!).

And although not every book is available for Kindle (I can’t find a Laos travel guide yet) I can find loads that I really want to read. At reasonable prices.

And I can take notes and highlight stuff, and even share it with others. And it puts all those notes together so I can skim through.

Amazing. And it actually is a crisp, easy to read screen, too.

Downside? Well, with Kindle, Amazon control the publishing price – so heavy discounting isn’t possible – and neither is the possibility of second hand purchases… so perhaps if it really takes off, book prices will actually increase.

Oh, yes, and perhaps it’s actually TOO easy to buy a book now. I can find something on Amazon, buy it and be reading it in around 2 minutes wherever I am…. and that might be just a little too easy for the book junkie that I am…

Cry me a river . . . Into Laos

21 Feb

And so it’s back on the bus. But not before I have gone into mad panic last minute sorting things out mode. Like, I need $70 to get my visa for Laos. To explain (although you will wish I hadn’t) I need to go to Laos in order to get back to Thailand in order to extend my Thailand visa so I can spend a few days in Bangkok to apply for a visa for India. With me so far? Good.

So the sensible thing to do is to turn up at a bank that does currency exchange (and I know this because it has a big sign on the door that says ‘Exchange’). Sounds sensible, but in practice, after taking a numbered ticket for a place in a line that doesn’t actually exist, and after a confusing exchange between me and the counter clerk, I find that they don’t have US dollars.

I have more success finding somewhere to take photographs for the visa, although it still means I need to run backwards and forwards before our bus arrives…

So, onto the bus. I have the bench seat next to the driver, which, to a backside numbed by cycling, is the worst form of torture. And we head out into the countryside. This time, the scenery is far more interesting – little villages, hills, forest… we really are starting to get into nature. We pass the Khao Rai National Park, which is lovely, although it does remind me a little of Scotland.

And then we rock up near Chang Rai for a stop at Wat Rong Khum temple. In contrast to most Thai temples, this is recent, begun in 1997 and still under construction. The place glitters in the distance, made of white cement and tiny mirror tiles. There’s a real ‘Heaven and Hell’ theme going on – the alien from the Predator movies is half buried in the grass, while hands reach out from a Dantean hell in front of the temple.

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Inside the Hell theme is revisited, with a crazy mural that, unlike most temples that recall the history of the Buddha, is filled with modern images – I spot neo from ‘The Matrix’, Iron Man, Superman, Spiderman and Batman, the Twin Towers on fire, a whole slew of Star Wars characters and more. It feels completely out of place and yet absolutely in keeping with the structure.


(photography is forbidden inside, so I borrowed these from others)

And finally we roll into Chian Khong, on the banks of the Mekong river – wide and slow moving outside the hotel, with lorries being ferried up and down, and long tail boats ferrying folk across to the other side – which, of course, is Laos.

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The next morning we’re up early to be run to the boat. I find that I could have got currency exchanged and photographs done at the ferry.. so we pass through passport control out of Thailand, and then across the Mekong into Laos. After which we queue up to get visa forms, then queue up to apply for the visa, then wait for half an hour, then queue up to get our passports back. It feels crazy and chaotic, and a systems analyst would have a field day… but by 10 am we are allowed into Laos – at which point the frantic behaviour of the last couple of hours come to a complete stop as we wait for the boat.

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Eventually the boat is ready for boarding. There should be 70-100 people on the boat, so when they try and cram 150 on board we demand a second boat. There’s a combined protest group of Australians, Brits, French and German (including one or two people who seem worryingly good at the whole protest thing and have come equipped for the long haul. There’s a complete impasse until I go and check the numbers of seats available. There’s 7 seats, and 20 people to get on, a fact which I communicate with a lot of arm waving and holding fingers in the air. Eventually they relent, and it looks like another boat is going to happen – but no, they are just taking more seats out of another boat. It;s a minor victory, but it beats sitting on the floor. (The seats, by the way, have obviously been rescued from old cars)

And so the boat sets off – although it’s the slow boat, it’s faster than any of us expect – although when the fast boat zips past, the occupants wearing crash hats, we realise just how slow it is.

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So, five hours on the boat passing one or two little cottages, fishermen and groups of kids out for a swim. The cottages disappear, to be replaced by cows wandering the beach – it’s a beautiful journey, made even more enjoyable by the presence of a young American couple, recently engaged and travelling round Asia. And when Mack makes it big as a jazz pianist, remember you met him here first. (That’s Mack and Chelsea – and a Frenchman who worked at the same dive company I went diving with in Oz – it’s a small world – above)

And so, as the sun sets over the Mekong river, we arrive in Pak Beng, a little town that exists simply because it’s half way between Chiang Kong/Huay Xai and Luang Pra Beng, where we get off. The local kids flood the boat, carrying our bags off. I swear that my bag is heavier than the kid carrying it – and I am quite happy to pay him 100 baht just to reward his determination.

Pak Beng (5)

Our system has failed us – there doesn’t seem to be a hotel booked – but there are more than enough folk trying to sell us a room, and yet again we find ourselves in a comfortable little place – enough time for a drink, and to sleep, ready to get back on the boat again….

So, back on the boat… just as we leave the bank, my friend realises she has left her camera in Pak Beng. As time goes on it becomes clear that it’s not just the camera, it’s the credit cards too. We can’t do anything beyond juping off the boat and swimming for shore. We do not attempt this – but it does mean that nothing can be done for several hours and several hundred miles.

Mekong Day 2 (19)Mekong Day 2 (16)

However, the river is still gorgeous… every now and again we hit a spot of white water, which gets slightly exciting. We invested in a bottle of local rum last night, which means that we can drown our sorrows…

The river unfolds – little sleepy settlements, makeshift fishing lines, the occasional speedboat or cargo boat passing by and disturbing the gentle flow of the boat. In frequently there are temples, and monks, and lots of kids who wave like they’ve never seen a boat before. Sometimes we stop and drop someone off, or pick up someone with three months of shopping (or so it seems) – although the boat is mostly tourists and backpackers, there’s a healthy sprinkling of locals making their way down stream.

And so, finally, into Lua Pra Bang – the sun is setting again as we arrive, and we make our way to the hotel where we get increasingly frustrated trying to track  down the camera (what do you mean, there’s no directory enquiries? what do you mean, you won’t give us the bar’s number because they are competitors). Eventually, we surrender to the inevitable, and head off for dinner. There’s not much choice by this time in this sleepy World Heritage town, so we settle for a barbecue which is similar to Japanese Shabba Shabba cooking – cook your meat on the heated pan while cooking your meat in the stock below. Yes, I know I am a vegetarian, but needs must!

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Pachyderms, pummelling, pad thai and paddy fields . . .

17 Feb

And so I wave goodbye to Sukhotai, and hello to Chang Mai. The landscape unfolds behind grimy bus windows, and slowly the featureless plains of central Thailand give way to hills – or at least i think they are hills behind the grimy windows and shrouded in a haze of pollution. The fruit from the market goes down nicely with its dip of chilli, sugar and salt.

I’m pretty certain I could live in Chang Mai – although the markets are absolutely crazy and go on for a completely unreasonable length. On Saturday, there’s a Saturday Night market… and on Sunday there’s a Sunday night market. The rest of the week, there’s a night market in case you can’t do without the shopping. But there are bargains to be had – a messenger bag for 120 baht will do nicely for my journal, and at last I can replace the bracelets I left in Penang. Oops.

The streets are full of street food vendors – I can recommend the spring rolls…. and the noodles…. and the sticky rice… and pretty much everything there is, actually. I do wonder if the locals look at me as Yul Brynner returned (sans Deborah Kerr, this time).


There’s a trek booked the next day, and ten eager tourists are duly delivered to the hills outside Chang Mai… and into the tender care of the mahouts and their elephants. I’ve never ridden an elephant before, and it’s quite an experience – with a 20 baht bag of bananas in one hand (for the elephant, not for me) we set off accompanied by a couple of babies too (who also want their share of bananas). While an adult can happily grab a banana using the end of it’s trunk, the babies still need to wrap their trunks round the bananas. And it’s surprising how quickly a grown elephant can go through 20 baht’s worth of bananas – but fortunately there’s the elephant equivalent of a truck stop for refuelling.  Fabulous fun, though, with the elephant (Toyota, for some reason best known to the mahout) stopping at the oddest places to reach back with his trunk for another banana.

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It’s a shame when the ride is over.. we leave the mahouts to kick back and relax, and the babies to stock up on milk from a 4 litre container.


From there, it’s a walk in the jungle – although this trek has been done a few times – and a stop off at a local village. These people have come over from Burma, and although now integrating into Thailand, they still hold their own culture, language and customs.


We cross paddy fields and soya plantations, with makeshift irrigation and lots of manual labour..

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and arrive at Mae Wang waterfall, for a cooling swim (it’s darned cold water) before trekking on.

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And then, finally, to river rafting on bamboo rafts. It’s dry season, so it’s relaxing rather than racy, but the raft drivers conspire to make it interesting by rocking the raft, running into rocks and splashing us with the pole. The locals we pass do their bit to splash us too, and there’s some inter raft rivalry too. I’m reminded of a leisurely day out on the Cam in Cambridge.. without the Pimms and strawberries

After the rafting (2)

Sadly, no photos, apart from the souvenir one from the raft company (yep, it really is like Alton Towers here).


Time for the sellers of souvenirs to come find us.. but my brain is buzzing away on a wicked hypnotic metaphor and story from the rafting….

Sunday night market tonight… this one is even bigger, and seems to spread right across the old city. I decide to take time out for a massage on the street corner.  An hour later, i have been pummelled, hit, pulled, poked, stretched, twisted and otherwise abused. It’s oddly relaxing… and very strange to do it in the middle of a busy market street. And at 150 baht, it’s got to be a bargain.

Drifting off to sleep is easy tonight – and I am up early, woken by the rooster outside the bedroom.

I’m on my own today, Lisa having opted for the cookery course, so I have more time to linger in the temples in the Old City.. I feel an incredible sense of peace, calm and tranquillity in each of them, which resonates with something of peace deep inside of me, growing stronger as i feel it becoming part of my purpose and destiny. I take some time out to think, and to dream today, realising that this trip has become something of a pilgrimage, and something of a learning experience too – both intellectually and at a deeper, soul level too.

The streets are unrecognisable during the day: the markets that even spread into the temple grounds have been cleared away, and the monks resume their duties. I spend an hour with a young monk from one of the monasteries discussing Buddhism, world faith, the difference between South Asia and North Asian Buddhism – and the future of Buddhism and the coming of the fifth Buddha. His English is excellent – and his depth of understanding is too. I learn loads very quickly!

DSCF1089DSCF1091Wat Phra Sing (10)Wat Phra Sing (7)Wat Chaiphrakiat (2)Wat Samphao (3)

And on to my final encounter – the opening of Java Junkie which is a great little coffee stop in the middle of town – Klaus, Ann and Stephanie make me very welcome, and the Valentine’s Day biscuit is welcome too.Java Junkie Opening

And a night at the Riverside Bar – a chance to impress the locals with a little bit of bluesy dancing (it’s all that there’s space for) to the Thai rock bands that are playing – half a dozen assorted musos crammed onto a stage, and playing a cross between The Killers and the Blacke-Eyed Peas, all with a wonderful Thai accent.


It’ll be a shame to leave Chang Mai – it’s an easy town to fall in love with, with a huge energy and buzz, and a deeply spiritual heart.

Sukhotai….Return of the Chedi…

15 Feb


Sukhotai (39)

And so off to the bus, on a tuk tuk that doesn’t seem to be going to make it. Perhaps it’s the three of us on board. Perhaps it’s the weight of my pack. But it doesn’t sound very well…(a diagnosis which is further reinforced when it nearly stops going up hill, and finally confirmed when the driver takes a spanner to the engine after delivering us to the bus stop).

And so off to Sukhotai, another of Thailand’s ancient capitals. The landscape qhizzes past (no, really, we found a decent road) and we head north across flat and featureless landscape revealing tiny settlements and larger towns, industrial complexes and paddy fields. And yet pagodas and temples litter the landscape like forgotten toys.

Sukhotai bus station is a typically Thai bus station, full of frantic selling of food, tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take you anywhere, everywhere, and we’re grateful for the arrival of our hotel owner, who seems to have studied at the John Inman school of English. The hotel is really nice though – with lots of fish in the pond, and (tragically) lots of mosquitoes in my bedroom. It’s odd, though – there’s Tescos in Thailand, so sitting in the middle of Asia putting Tesco chillii sauce on my breakfast just seems, well, odd.

Sila Hotel (1)Sukhotai Hotel (4)

The tuk tuks here have been replaced with a new model – more like a motorbike, the driver sits behind the passengers instead. I’m thinking of writing a thesis on the development of the tuk tuk in modern Thailand – although, probably, someone else already has.

New Sukhotai (2)

The town yields its usual night time street market, selling every kind of food imaginable, and some that, frankly, I could not imagine. To continue my quest to bring you the very best in Asian signage, I bring you this glorious example (as recommended in Lonely Planet)

New Sukhotai (1)

And then there’s aerobics in the park. In Thai, of course – it’s strangely compelling to listen to.

Onto a little local bus in the morning – the old town of Sukhotai is about 14km west of the new town, and these old style buses will take you there for around 20 baht.

Sukhotai Bus (3)Sukhotai Bus (4)

The old town is a fascinating jumble of old temples, lakes and monuments – hiring a bike is the easiest way to get round, although I’m still saddle sore from riding round Ayutthaya. Oh well – at least my bike has ‘Turbo Charming’ written on the side. It must be mine then….

Turbo Charming


Sukhotai (25)Sukhotai (32)Sukhotai (35)Sukhotai (44)Sukhotai (49)

In some of these, you can quite clearly see the Hindu influences too . . Thailand is actually a melting pot of ancient cultures including those from Burma and Cambodia.

Sukhotai Hindu model (3)Sukhotai Hindu model (4)

We decide to bike up the hill, too – there are some temples outside the walls of the old town. We have to pay a fee to leave the town, though – the first time I have had to pay to actually LEAVE somewhere. Out in the fields are more temples, more chedi, and more Buddhas – although the climb up to one of the old temples does give beautiful views over the fields and town below. Not really best achieved in the heat of the day, so an iced coffee is in order.

Outside Sukhotai (2)Outside Sukhotai (4)

A ride round the rest of the town, and back on the bus… mission accomplished – and although these bicycle seats are much more padded, I still have a very sore rump…

… which means that the decision to take the bikes out in the morning for a ride round New Sukhotai is unfathomable – and I spend most of the ride standing up. There’s not as much cushioning on me as there used to be, you know….but there’s local colour to be found everywhere

Ride Round Sukhotai (1)Ride Round Sukhotai (2)

Ayutthaya–it’s easier to pronounce than you might think…

10 Feb

In fact, it’s pretty much pronounced ‘u-tay-ya’ with a very silent ‘ai’ at the beginning.

So, a slow, cramped, hot train journey to start with… enlivened somewhat by the ‘Monks Zone’ at the train station (not sure what happens if you sit there by accident) and the Thai equivalent of the at seat trolley service (a never ending parade of people selling everything from water to beer, satays and unidentifiable foodstuffs.

huamphong Railway Monks Section (1)DSCF0694

Eventually we get off at Ayutthaya station, after a brief attempt to get off one stop early is thwarted by the locals, who are pretty certain that I don’t want to get off at Bang-Pa-In.  We’re met by the Aytthaya version of the tuk-tuk, which has metamorphosed into a Daihatsu three wheeler with 6 seats.


After a brief stop at the hotel, we are whisked off on whistlestop tour of the main sites in Aytthaya, including a very impressive reclining Buddha, and a large number of Buddha statues around the temple. I am now starting to know my prang from my wiharn and my wat from my chedi (not to mention knowing my chofah from my ubosoth) – basically, modern day Ayutthaya has been built in the wreckage of the previous capital of Siam (Thailand) after it was sacked in the war with Burma. The old temples (wats) litter the town, with every street corner turning up a new pagoda in a wild number of styles from Burmese to traditional Thai to Khmer. The town is now (and rightly so) a UNESCO heritage site.


As well as the temples, we stopped off to say ‘hello’ to the elephants…..


…and the tigers…


…and uncovered this entirely appropriate Buddha resting in the roots of a bodhi tree.


I’ve got to say, I have completely lost track of which temple is wat (Thai joke)

Finally, we end up in the night market – having found some food that we can identify and tried some that we can’t, it’s back to the hotel…(I think we were on vegetable tempura, fishcakes, pork satays and omelette – and whatever the Thai for ‘Foo Yung’ is (personally I don’t care – but it was brilliant). All of them seem to come with a little bag of chilli sauce. Each food purchasing transaction seems to consist of a worried vendor concerned that the food is ‘spicy’ and a wildly nodding grinning Englishman who is concerned that it might not be.

The hotel walk isn’t quite as easy as I thought, and we find ourselves lost in town with no real idea of where we are – eventually hailing a tuk tuk who takes us on a wild ride to justify his 100 baht before dropping us off around 100 yards from where we hailed him. Who cares, it’s one of the best £2 I have ever spent.

A gentle start to the morning, but it’s soon hard work on a pair of squeaky bicycles (one of which has a collapsible saddle, which could prove nasty). Tigger and Snuff are of course as keen to see the city as we are, and so take their rightful place in the basket, much to the amusement of the locals. We sail past a plethora of noodle purveyors (with some surprising colours) as well as a further supplier of shrink wrapped Buddhas, as well as little street corner shrines, and plastic coated roosters. We have no idea about the roosters. Or the zebra, which just seem spurious.

Ride round Ayutthaya (8)Ride round Ayutthaya (4)DSCF0877

After yesterday’s temple shock, we have no desire to visit another ruined temple, and so we cycle around town watching the people, the traffic, and the temples. An early coffee stop at ‘1st Cake’ turns into a second coffee stop at the same place after cycling round the island to end up outside the same supplier of caffeinated beverages.

Cycling in Thailand has its own set of dangers, including the fact that the motorcycles (of which there are a large number) also ride on the pavements – or the wrong way up the street. Every motorist ignores someone on a bicycle too.

Eventually we end up at the monument to King Naraesuan monument, where there are literally hundreds of the inexplicable cockerels –



and a final beautiful pagoda built in Thai style on top of a Burmese base – inside the top of the pagoda is a tiny shrine with the perfectly reasonable request not to light incense inside…



And back to the hotel for a game of Uno. Next stop… Sukhotai. More temples await us….

Footnote 1 – according to our Thai guidebook, King Naresuan was the inventor of the rotary spit, as shown in the picture being held in his right hand. The cockerels pay homage to the invention of roast chicken, and apparently there is a small shrine to Naresuan in every Nandos restaurant.

Footnote 2 – not everything in this blog may be completely factual

One night in Bangkok

8 Feb

…and, apparently, the world is my oyster. Well, it’s three nights in Bangkok, but that would ruin the song reference.

So, having been joined by my friend Lisa for a few weeks, and having spent a profitable afternoon deciding just how to get my visas for onward travel sorted out (a few more nights in Bangkok, I think) we set out to discover the joys of Bangkok.

Now, the first thing to understand is transport. You could take the bus, if you knew where it went. You could take the skytrain, if you were near a sky train station. You could take a taxi, and you would actually get where you are going. Or you could take a tuk-tuk.


Now, there is a certain risk with a tuk tuk. On one level, these are simple forms of transportation that are lots of fun, especially if the driver can get a bit of speed up. Some of them would rather be mobile dance clubs and have the sound system and the lights to match. Some of them raise certain concerns over what the driver has been drinking/smoking/ingesting before hand. The chief function of a tuk tuk, however, is NOT to get you where you want to go. It is to offer you an excellent deal on where you might want to go, but take you to a suit shop/jewellery arcade/travel agent on the way. Laden with rucksack, the tuk tuk driver STILL wanted me to go to a suit fitting before dropping me at the hotel.


Woken a little earlier than expected by the banging of drums in the street outside and a large number of firecrackers going off.

We got quite an excellent tour from one tuk tuk driver (although there are certainly more buddhas in Thailand than seems strictly necessary) around the temples we hadn’t seen – and then happened on a friendly newspaper reader in one of the temples who warned us that the border with Cambodia was shut (I missed that bit of news – might be important later) and then suggested we might visit the tourist agency to book more tours, along with a very convincing explanation why. Is he in cahoots with the tuk tuk driver, who wants to take us to the same place? I don’t know, and honestly, I have given up caring. An hour at the tourist agency, and we have a plan for the next three weeks – a plan which, dear reader, I will gladly unfold for you as it unfolds for us… but no peeking! We have a small collection of envelopes with vouchers and leaflets in them, and a promise that Sammy will pick us up on Tuesday. This could be interesting.

We discovered that you can buy a shrink wrapped Buddha statue at a little shop in the street…


The rest of the day has been spent wandering Bangkok’s temple landscape – banging the gongs and ringing the bells at Golden Mountain, with great views over the city….a lot of the faithful have a ‘worship bag’, the contents of which get posted into each of the slots on the top of the temple…


The signs around the temple inform us, usefully, that the temple has been repainted with the sponsorship of a local paint company, and helpfully advise us which colours we need should we want to achieve the same effect at home.

Avoiding the demonstration outside the agriculture ministry (possibly the most laid back demonstration I have ever seen, which mostly seemed to consist of people having a picnic in the street).

Watching the catfish in the river being fed. Wild.


Seeing the giant Buddha at Wat Inrawiharn (‘Wat’ meaning ‘temple’) – this Buddha is 32m tall, and an imposing sight, even if we didn’t notice it initially…


Discovering the delights of Thai iced coffee and street hawker food.

And finally back to the hotel (note – real hotel, not hostel… luxury…how things have changed since Australia (Australia it’s around £20 per night for a dorm room – in Bangkok, high living can be had for £30 a night for a twin room))



Setting off to see the rest of the city(!), we stop off at the Erawan Shrine, constructed in a corner of the Grand Hyatt’s grounds after a run of bad luck dogged the hotel’s construction – the miraculous change in fortune means that the shrine gets a lot of devotees.


A brief sojourn in the city’s malls in Siam Square leaves us strangely unmoved, and we decide to close out with a visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. ‘But they are shut for a ceremony’ comes the cry (followed by ‘let us take you on another tour of the city then you come back’) – we have heard this ploy too often now, and settle for a walk dodging the lawn sprayers in the park.

Wat Pho proves to be incredible (once we get there) – a huge temple complex and the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand – at 46m long and 15m high it’s quite incredible, and seems to threaten to burst out of the building housing it. It’s impossible to get a real picture of all of it, so we have to content ourselves with snapshots of bits of it… and this quite amazing mother of pearl detailing on the Buddha’s feet.



We discover shrink wrapped Buddha figures – turns out these have not been recently delivered from the Buddha shop in downtown Bangkok, but are being protected against the enthusiastic painter who is refreshing the walls.


And the rest of the grounds are no less astounding with pagodas a-plenty, beautiful buildings, an awful lot more Buddha figures, and stone guardians in human and animal form


But we are too late to visit the Grand Palace – fortunately, I am coming back… but it’s increasingly difficult to remember which temples we’ve actually visited.

There is a strange and rather beautiful peace in each of the temples though – Wat Pho is a bit crazy, but it’s a wonderful experience to be able to sit amongst the faithful with their gifts of fruit, candles and carved animals, as they wave their incense sticks and bow deeply to the Buddha. For them, their faith seems deeply meaningful and a core part of their life – it is said that 95% of Thai people are practicing Buddhists.

Our tuk tuk driver initially doesn’t want to take us back to the hotel, but would rather deliver us to a boat tour of the floating market…but eventually relents and takes us instead to another bespoke suit shop – where the manager is outraged that I actually don’t intend to buy a suit (actually, if he had been more polite, I might have done, at £80 – if I could only find a way to get it home) – in pursuit of his commission in the form of a petrol voucher, our driver attempts to seduce us into visiting a jewellery store, a massage parlour and the same travel agency. Nice try.. but we are unable to be persuaded, as we have a dip in the pool on our minds.

And then an evening in Chinatown… flaming woks, brightly lit lanterns, street sellers and street hawkers – and I am pretty certain there are people selling discounted New Year products (stock up for 2012!)


On the way home we get a little lost (as usual, so ‘lost’ is more a normal state than ‘I know where I am’ – and it’s more fun that way, as I end up exploring all sorts of places we weren’t expecting) – and our attention is drawn to a solid gold Buddah – the temple is still open at 9:30 at night, and the devotees are still praying. And it felt good to go in and hold a moment of peace, and joy, and gratitude in my heart before wandering back to the hotel..



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