Thailand in a nutshell

The first thing to say about Bangkok is that it’s hot. Properly so. We decided to walk the 1.5 miles from the station to the Vivit hostel (yes, that’s not a misspell, we’re staying in a hostel and it’s fab) as there was no suitable subway and we didn’t (yet) want to trust a taxi/tuk-tuk. That almost killed C and we managed to find a cafe with air-conditioning to regroup before the final assault on the hostel – which, BTW, is fabulous. Small room, shared facilities, but clean and with breakfast and WiFi for under £20.

Second, like Thailand, Bangkok is enigmatic. There’s real poverty here; you can see it from the train windows. Tin shacks with corrugated roofs, gaps filled with plastic bags and kids washing in streams. There’s rubbish and plastic away from the main streets, but in and around the makeshift houses, pride seems to keep order. The electricity supply is a bird’s-nest of black wires and there are stand pipes for some.

 

And yet on the beaten track things are more first-world. Thailand is a military dictatorship, disguised by a unitary parliament. It is the only SE Asian country not to have been colonised and has held onto its monarchy through military coups and recent, brief flirtations with democracy (quickly overcome by military intervention). Yet there’s no sense of subjugation – unless you consider a large swathe of v poor people as disenfranchised and put upon. Literacy rates are in the high 90s and Buddhism attracts over 95% of the population, which probably makes them more chilled out than your ordinary dictatorship – and they love their king. When the last one died the country went into mourning for a whole year. His pictures and appropriate flags and bunting are everywhere.

And much of the city looks prosperous, especially the military buildings. There are trains and buses, taxis and a metro. There are 7-11s (all air-conditioned, a really helpful fact when you’re wandering around in an open-plan oven), and the palaces and temples are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re like Disneyland meets Claire Accessorize. The photos only touch on the story.

Oh, and they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. Nope. They use Buddha’s calender which is 543 years ahead of the rest of us, which can be a bit confusing when you’re using booking.con.

IMG_20190623_113453969IMG_20190623_104605561IMG_20190623_102410745IMG_20190623_132057437IMG_20190623_125053003IMG_20190623_145231572

We walked out on Saturday night and found the main backpacking tourist areas and had supper. And on Sunday we did the palaces and temples, and a couple of river taxis … which ply the Chao Phraya River like demented waterboatmen. Fabulous. You must do the temples/palace if you come here, but if you’re really short of time visit the big gold lying down Buddha temple (it does have a proper name). It is special. And big. And lying down. And gold (leaf).

 

We spent late afternoon planning the next stage of our journey, which looks to be more adventurous still. But first …

… on Monday C and I broke away from Bex and Steven and caught an early train from a minor station in BK to Nam Toc, the end of the line for the poorly named Burma railway, as it travels through both Thailand and Burma. And, importantly, the bridge over the River Kwai (which isn’t actually the River Kwai and was called something else until the Thai government renamed it Kwai as the guy who wrote the book got the wrong river … which was difficult for tourist purposes … if you follow me), is definitely in Thailand.

Anyway we caught the train (£10 for both of us, return) that went to the bridge built by Allied PoWs and interned civilians during WW2.

IMG_20190624_110006748_HDRIMG_20190624_120246078IMG_20190624_124140565_HDR

And it was fab. Up to Kanchanaburi (3 hours) the route is pretty dull; urban and busy. Beyond Kanchanaburi (a further 2 hours), where the train crosses the newly named Kwai on the same structure built in WW2, the landscape changes and it’s beautiful … arable land (cassava plants predominate, although C thinks they’re a cover for cannabis), crossed by mud-red tracks and well kept farmsteads. The railway cuts through these, as well as rocky and pointy, jungle covered hills, the viaduct at Wang Pho taking the biscuit.

In a suprise move to everyone we stayed on the train and then pottered  back home again. Yes it was a bit hot in 3rd class (no a/c, but that meant you had the windows open and could experience everything) and I got time to reflect on the many, many beautiful temples en route set against all the poor people living in squalor by the tracks … and my organised-religion hypocritometer ratched up the scale a bit. So I stopped reflecting.

 

And after a very ‘cool’ night out with Bex and Steven, that’s Thailand, I think. We’ve still got 3 weeks left but the plan is Cambodia (by train and taxi … could be interesting) for a week and then two weeks in Vietnam. Apparently the Cambodian border can be a bit tricky.

I’ll let you know

A final flourish

Our last day in Langkawi had an unexpected, but pleasant turn. We’d thought we’d potter around on the bike, catch a coffee at #Starbucks and then find a beach somewhere. Down at the pointy end of the island I metaphorically wandered around with £10 in hand in the hope that a fisherman would take us to one of the islands (broken, jungle-green teeth rising from turquoise gums – stunning). In the end we hopped on a 3-hour trip to three islands for £8 each.

IMG_20190619_143022101_HDRIMG_20190619_143502558_HDRIMG_20190619_161256950

Wow. Welcome to Jurassic World. The boat, a fibreglass fishing outfit fitted with a Bugatti Veron engine, was quicker than any RIB I’ve been on. And the tour was fab. Two highlights were  the sea eagles diving and feeding right next to us, and, along the same lines, watching the monkeys sprint out from the jungle and feed from our neighbour’s picnic as they went for a swim on a quite delightful Robinson Crusoe island. We swam, but didn’t feed the monkeys as we’d only bought a few biccies, unlike our German friends. Just fab.

And then the great escape.

In incredibly slow time we took a Grab taxi (like Uber, if I’d ever used Uber) back to the port, caught the 3 pm ferry, wandered around Kuala Perlis (mainland ferry port, like Dover but 1/1000th of the size – but just as poor and shabby) before calling it a night back at our favourite Muslim hotel, which was even cheaper (£18 inc breakfast) and even more acceptable.

It’s worth pointing out, in case I die on you, that my heart hasn’t been right since we got off the plane from Heathrow. Thursday night was particularly bumpy, but I slept soundly, only woke once and was feeling refreshed – but not regular – the next morning. And for the record we’ve both lost our stomachs and currently can’t find them. Oh well.

IMG_20190620_122810711_HDR

the Langkawi port is protected by a blooming big bird. Dover could learn a lesson here

Friday was the mad dash to catch the 5 pm sleeper from the only railway border crossing between Malaysia and Thailand, at Padang Besar. Another Grab and £12 lighter for a 40 km trip (there are no buses) and we were at station 8 hours before we needed to. But it’s about the journey, and we popped out of the station and found reliable WiFi at KFC and then twiddled our thumbs a bit.

Our 5 pm sleeper (2nd class, don’t you know, and easily workable) arrived at 5 pm and left at 5.03. By then we’d befriended a young Argentinian footballer (currently playing for a BK side but popping into Malaysia to get his visa renewed) and his girlfriend, a French Canadian couple and their two young kids who were spending 6 months travelling this part of the world (the kids, both under 8, had their own weighty back packs – respect), a Singaporean, post-national service trio who were, wait for it, bus and training it to Mongolia, and a young English couple who were on a 4-week break via Singapore (where her dad worked) … they were from Essex, his dad lives in Great Bentley where my folk live/lived. What a team.

IMG_20190621_180203684IMG_20190621_180353108IMG_20190621_174000666IMG_20190621_182344938IMG_20190622_064200491

And what an adventure. I played cards with the Singaporeans whilst the waiter showed C the v basic menu which displayed 20 dishes in glorious technicolour, 18 of which were not available. We decided on our own pot noodles and some wine.

Sleep? More adventures. C wanted to sleep on the top bunk … I got the wider, bottom. I slept fitfully, woken by shuddering and bouncing – I think I had concussion where my brain had rattled against my skull. C the same, adamant that she had chosen the wrong bunk, but I’m not sure. But, and it’s a big but, C can now claim that she slept with an Argentine footballer (her quip, not mine). And checking googlemaps in the morning we were considerably closer to BK and woke to fab views.

More about Bangkok later, other than to say we met up with Bex and Steven as planned, and now the second leg of our adventure begins. Hurrah!