There are three sections to our Thailand diary.
This part covers our trip up from Malaysia, our first time in Bangkok, our journey to the Laos border, and Chiang Mai.
Part Two covers our week of filming with the BBC Holiday programme in Bangkok, and our journey to the Cambodian border.
Part Three covers three weeks in the South of Thailand, on the islands and beaches.
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Taking the slow train north
Time to head north and to leave Malaysia for Thailand. After spending so long in other countries 3 months in Oz, a month in the States, Canada and New Zealand it seems odd to be leaving Malaysia after just less than two weeks. However, we have spent over 2 months in Malaysia before, and this trip was mainly for the girls to get a feel for it, and to see some of the things we remembered from last time. It has been great to visit the food especially is a highlight of Malaysia, because of the many different types available. The other main memory will be the backstreets of Georgetown, with all of the Chinese shops and houses squeezed together, with barely enough space to live in. Because of the open nature of the house-fronts, its easy to see how sparsely furnished their houses are, and how many people are packed into a small space. This was especially true down one of the narrow alleys lined by shanty huts, where whole families lived their lives in a space the size of our spare room at home.
We caught the afternoon sleeper train to Bangkok although it is a 22 hour journey, we always prefer to travel by train, as there's normally more space and freedom to move around, and you see more of life drifting past the window. The girls were looking forward to the 'sleeper' moment, where the railway staff convert the seats to beds, and we all settle down for the night. But as you can see in the photo, it turned into a 'non-sleeper' train, as they were so excited by it all that they couldn't get to sleep. No surprise there then! Eventually, by 10 o'clock, they were sleeping soundly and we were all tucked up in our blankets, trying to escape the icy blast of the air conditioning.
Monday, February 23, 2004
Arriving in Bangkok
In the morning, after a Thai Railways breakfast ("Oh, don't those fried eggs look soo attractive wrapped in clingfilm?") we watched the Thai coast and countryside slide past as we headed further north. Although we're only a few hundred miles north of Malaysia, the outlook is quite different especially the architecture and the ornate Thai temples dotted around the landscape. The closer we got the Bangkok, the more built-up it became, and the more advertising hoardings stood out on the landscape. Eventually, in the suburbs we passed the new raised up expressways, choked up with traffic. Mmm, now I remember why I didn't enjoy exploring Bangkok.
We hopped off the train at the station before the final stop, and got ourselves a metered taxi to the Khao San road area. This is the main area where backpackers head to, and has a wide range of budget accommodation. We got the taxi to drop us at one likely place (at least, according to the Lonely Planet), but it didn't have triple rooms, so we went on a bit further to a guest house with dark, dingy and windowless rooms. Mmm, 2 down, 1,000 more to go. So we found a cafι, and Sarah went off to check out some places while I sat with the girls and the bags. Then Sarah came back, having a drawn a blank, and it was my turn to go off.
Eventually we found a great place the New Siam II Guest House down a small alleyway behind a temple. It is much more like a hotel than a guest house, and even has a swimming pool (How to become a popular Dad!). The cheapest rooms we'd seen would have cost us 400 Baht for a triple (around £6), and this one cost a mighty 960 Baht (£14), but it was worth the difference. Not only do we have air-conditioning, a bathroom and a spotless white tiled bedroom, but we also have Louis Vuitton sheets on the bed!!! Sarah has decided that this is what she's been waiting for since we left home. Finding this guest house has put me into everybody's good books.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
The Khao San Road
The Khao San Road in Bangkok is synonymous with "backpacker". It has been the historical backpacker haunt in the city since the early 70's, and it is lined with shops selling everything the modern backpacker needs. Today that seems to be 1) beer 2) fake CDs 3) fake student/press ID cards and 4) hair braids. We last saw the road ten years ago, and somebody had told us that we "wouldn't recognise it it's now full of coffee shops and nightclubs". Well, it doesn't seem to have changed that much, although it is definitely a lot busier with the weight of thousands of international travellers wandering the streets. We're amazed by how many there are in Bangkok around this area they seem to outnumber the locals on the streets. The ambience isn't helped by the roadworks going on at the moment, and every few feet there's a hole in the ground where a new draincover will be, but currently its just a 4 foot drop to a stinking sewer.
Although the main roads are jam packed, and the pavements are just one long marketstall, the side alleys still provide some respite from the noise and the traffic in the city. Its also the place where you'll find good, cheap food during the day. In the evening food stalls seemingly cover every side street in the city, but during the day your choice is to find a cafι/restaurant, or one of the very small permanent stalls down an alleyway. Thailand is reputed to be cheaper than Malaysia, but we've found Bangkok costs about the same. Perhaps pinning the Malaysia Ringgit to the dollar has made Malysia cheaper, as the dollar has plummeted since we've been travelling. Typical costs here are 30-40p for a meal on the street, or £1 in a restaurant, 15p for a bottle of Coke and 8p for a bottle of water. Our money is certainly going to start lasting a lot longer here than in the rest of the world!
We're in Bangkok to arrange a whole host of things changing flights, travel and visas to Laos and Cambodia, getting some broken things repaired so we're not planning to do any sightseeing this time around. We'll be coming back to Bangkok 3 or 4 times before we finally fly out, and we're saving the sightseeing until we do it with the BBC crew in the middle of next month. Today we sorted Laos visas tomorrow we've got to try and rearrange our flights home, and sort out travel up to the Laos border.
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
The Cop and I
Getting around Bangkok is a bit of a nightmare in the non-air-conditioned buses you can sit for hours in a traffic jam with no breeze, breathing in the exhaust fumes all around. Air conditioned buses are much better, but are fewer, and cover less routes. Tuk Tuks - the kind of thing you've seen in a James Bond film three wheels, an engine and a Schumacher-wannabee behind the handlebars - are noisy, slow and can be very, very expensive (Tuk Tuk drivers are the first step in many cons in Bangkok, which result in people spending hundreds of pounds on worthless gems). But taxis are great, especially now that every taxi has got a meter, and uses it! Last time we visited Bangkok only a very few taxis had meters, which meant that you had to negotiate fares in advance. Now you just flag down a cab and off you go, knowing that the meter will ensure you pay the right price. To get right across the centre of the city, which can easily take an hour, costs about £1.20.
So there we are, crawling along one of the highways in a cab, going to sort out our railway tickets to Laos, when one of His Majesty's finest (ie a traffic cop) pulls the cab over. The reason was that I wasnt wearing a seatbelt (I don't know what went wrong there I'm normally paranoid about wearing a seatbelt in a car or taxi, but even so, it was my fault for not wearing it). Anyway, the traffic cop sees the chance to make some money. He comes over to my side of the cab, in his 1970's CHiPS uniform (don't ask me why, but all the uniforms in Thailand look like they were made for the series, and for officers one size smaller!), and starts to talk about what a bad boy I'd been, and how it was very, very naughty. And how I'd have to pay a fine of 1,000 Baht at the police station. (At this point, I'm apologetic and not a little amazed police enforcing traffic laws in a city that has some of the worst driving in the world!). So I continue apologising, hoping that I might get some leniency.
Then the officer tells me that if I pay the fine at the roadside, I'd only have to pay 500 Baht. Aha, so that's what its all about he's not interested in enforcing the road laws, he just wants to pocket 500 Baht! But I could be wrong perhaps that's how it works here, and the money does really go to the Government. But I still feel this is a scam, and if I refuse it will all go away, and it'll be too much trouble for him to actually write a ticket. So I said I wouldn't pay him.
So then, in true negotiating style, he offers me the fine of 400 Baht paid to him. Now I know its about money for him. So I say no again because I'm not keen on corruption, and I really don't want to line this guys pockets (mind you, his uniform's so tight, I don't know how he'd squeeze money into the trousers). More negotiation, more refusals by me. So then he offers me another discount this time to 300 Baht, or 1,000 Baht fine at the police station. I'm still saying no, because I still hope that not paying will result in a telling off and no fine. Then he takes the taxi driver's licence, and starts writing the ticket, and the taxi driver starts to get really worried he's the one that ends up with a problem, because his licence is taken, and we spend all evening at the police station paying the fine.
So I offer the police officer 100 Baht which didn't do the trick and he asks for 200 Baht, and I refuse. And then he writes the ticket out fully (after lots of pretence at writing a ticket...), and then I know I'm not going to get off, and I'm up for the 1,000 Baht fine. The taxi driver says to just pay up the 200 Baht, so that we can all go on. And that's what I end up doing.
I've broken the law by not wearing a seatbelt. The policeman stopped us for it so that he could make 500 Baht himself (which is the only reason he stopped us). I started off threatened with a 1,000 Baht fine, and ended up paying the policeman a negotiated 'fine' of 200 Baht, which will have gone straight into his pocket. Did I do the right thing? (Okay, so I don't like corruption, but I think the non-corruption route would have cost me 5x more. But is this a scam, or just law-and-order Thai style? And is it any different to speed cameras in England, where the councils are now putting up loads because they get to keep some of the fine every time they catch someone?)
At the end of the day, it was a small amount of money to me, but it's the fact that you can't trust a policeman that gets to me. What do you think?
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Up the river
Bangkok's roads may be choked with traffic and moving at a snail's pace, but at least the river provides an alternative way to get around. As we had a few hours to kill before catching our evening train northwards, we took a river boat up the river to Nonthaburi, a suburb an hour north of the centre. The boats operate just like buses, with a regular timetable, and low fares (10 Baht 15p for our trip). It was definitely more relaxing than the only other way to get around Bangkok quickly, which is on the back of a motorbike (no thanks!). It's also a lot cooler!
As less tourists make it up this far, we ended up ordering our lunch in sign language from a street-stall (I used the old "point-and-I'll-have-what-he's-got" method), and then desert was served up further down the street, as a pineapple on a stick. These carts are all over town, with a range of freshly cut fruit laid on a bed of ice. We're not really sure what all the fruit is, but whenever strayed from pineapple, we've always found it tasty, if a bit slimey on occasions!
Later on we took a taxi to the train station, to catch our train northwards to Nong Khai, the Thai border town on the Mekong, where well be crossing over the Friendship Bridge to Laos.
Friday, February 27, 2004
Into the land of communism...
We woke up on the train in a different landscape to that we'd left behind in Bangkok everything looked a lot drier, as the dry season is in full swing up in the north. Instead of lush green trees and grasses, as around Bangkok, there is instead a profusion of different shades of brown and grey. But we weren't planning to hang around, but instead get straight across the border to Laos. We'd already arranged our visa in Bangkok (dead easy through any of the travel agents in town, and cheaper to buy there than on arrival), and so we hopped straight into a tuk-tuk (motorised three-wheeler), to the bridge.
We got our passports stamped to leave Thailand, and then caught a minibus on the bridge over the Mekong. The river bed was huge, but because of the dry season the river was filling only a part of it, with a kind of muddy soup. Mind you, it was still 200m wide (we later learnt that the Chinese are building 8 dams upstream, and less water is coming down the river every year). Perhaps the most curious feature of the crossing was a road-sign that showed two arrows crossing over. It was when we saw the road do the same that we realised what was going on we were changing from driving on the left (Thailand) to driving on the right (ex-French colony, Laos!). Although we're used to that living in England, its the first time I've come across on the road border, and I'm glad I wasn't doing the driving the road was just like a cross-over on a Scaletrix track!
Then we had to get all the formalities done in Laos, the ninth country of our trip, and we all admired the pretty passport stamp (communist countries really go to town on their stamps, to create quite a work of art). Then we went to the exchange desk to get some local currency. Knowing we'd be there a while, I changed $100 (these days, only worth about 55 Pounds!). But in Laos it's worth a fortune, and we got a huge wad of notes from the bank teller. The Kip trades at 10,400 kip to $1. So we ended up with 1,040,000 kip. Fortunately it wasn't all in One Kip notes, but we did get quite a lot of 5,000 Kip notes. In fact, up to 2 years ago, the 5,000 Kip note was the largest denomination, and that was the biggest one the bank on the border had.
So I ended up trying top cram 200 banknotes into my wallet. Just to help you imagine what that's like, the picture on the left shows my Million Kip wad, photographed alongside our South East Asia Rough Guide (the guidebook covers 11 countries over 1,400 pages, so its pretty thick!). It made everything seem hugely expensive, until we got used to it.
Read the details of our trip to Laos in our Laos dairies
Monday, March 08, 2004
A week later - leaving Laos
It seems like ages ago that we arrived in Laos, but in reality it was only 11 days ago. But now we need to leave - our visa only lasts for a fortnight, and we've got other things to get to. We had 3 options - the two day slow boat to the Thai border, plus 10 hours on a bus to the city of Chiang Mai; return the way we came - 12 hours on a bus, then 12 hours on a train to Bangkok. Or fly out. Eventually, when we managed to get a flight for $70, we decided to fly to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. After spending a few days there, we'll then head back to Bangkok to meet up with the BBC Holiday crew.
So we sadly left the haven of Luang Prabang, and flew with Thai Airways (not before paying 400,000 Kip in departure tax!). As we flew out, the pilot had to dodge around a couple of huge smoke plumes, created by big burning areas of woodland. Getting into the city was easy by taxi, but the Guest House we'd chosen was full, so we wandered the streets for about an hour until we found one we liked (3 pounds a night for a triple fan room). Chiang Mai is an ancient city, and the streets are a complete warren of little alleyways tucked between the big, busy streets. These little alleyways, called Sois, are named after the main road, and numbered along the road. Once you've discovered the secret, it does become a little easier to navigate, but you'll often come across businesses advertising their address alongside a 'description for taxi', like 'The alleyway opposite JJ's restaurant, then on the left'. While Chiang Mai doesn't seem to have changed too much, they have at least put up fancy signs on every soi, to make life easier. The other thing that you see on the street everywhere in Chiang Mai is draping electric cables, in huge bunches hanging down and across the street (you can see them on the same photo above).
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
The Streets of Chiang Mai
Streets in Thailand strike us as completely chaotic, just a mess of vehicles with motorbikes darting in and out constantly. It makes crossing the road a somewhat hit-n-miss affair, but at least the drivers slow down a little when they see a foreign family weaving its unsteady way across their path. One of the amazing sights is to see what fits on a motorbike. Often bikes pass with the whole family onboard - baby in front of Dad, Dad driving, the second child behind Dad, and then finally Mum at the back. Or we see bikes carrying unlikely loads - once we saw one with an adult pig strapped to the bag, in a basket. The traffic also creates a terrible smog in the busiest streets, where you'll normally see the police wearing face masks, looking like surgeons ready to operate (on your wallet...)
We visited Wat Chet Yot, with its Indian-style shrine. Wats provide one of the most common sightseeing opportunities in Asia, and although they may look superficially similar, there's always something different inside the walls. In Wat Chet Yot we found 'days of the week Buddha', with a number of depictions of different Buddha images for each day of the week. It gave us the opportunity to try and work out who was born on which day of the week, from looking at the positions. We decided that Uncle Euan must have been born on a Tuesday, and I must have been born on a Monday (that body language sums it up!). The one thing that we couldnt work out was why there were two Wednesday Buddhas - it seemed to be the case on every set we saw. (Our theory? People born on a Wednesday are fussy, and insist on a choice!)
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
The Mai Sai Elephant Training Camp
We hired a car and travelled out to the Mai Sai village to visit the Elephant Training camp there (turned out to be cheaper to do that than buy the excursion tickets for 4 of us!). Thailand has got a glut of elephants at the moment, because they have stopped using them to work on logging projects in the forest, and instead use machines. As these elephants are trained and tamed, they can't just be released into the wild again - in fact, logging is such a big business here, there is little 'wild' to let them back into. So they've been brought down from the hills, trained further, and now are used in the tourist trade to put on shows for the public.
Whether this is a good thing or not, we couldn't decide. There seemed to be few decent alternatives, and at least having them in the full view of tourists all day provides some form of guarantee that they are well looked after.
But we couldn't decide what to think when we saw the elephants playing football, and painting. They seemed to do it willingly, and even turned out to be good footballers and painters. But was it right? It didn't feel right, but the crowds of Thai and Japanese tourists around us hooted, clapped and cheered wildly, thoroughly enjoying it.
The girls loved it, and at the end of the show they fed them sugar cane and bananas. But Emily was very hesitant about getting too close to them. Charlotte, who started off nervous initially, got used to them, and even managed to smile while she was sitting on one of the elephant's heads for a photo. Later we went for a walk right around the elephant training camp, to see the nursery facilities with the new-born elephants, and the places where their food is prepared. We came away pretty sure that they were being well cared for there.
Friday, March 12, 2004
Back in Bangkok
We left Chiang Mai on the overnight Special Express train, which leaves at 5 o'clock in the evening, and gets you back into Bangkok at 6 o'clock in the morning. As usual, it was a pretty smooth trip, with comfortable sleeping berths, and a good Thai meal in the restaurant car, looking out onto the sparse forest through the open windows. Arriving in the city so early was a bit of a problem, as we couldn't get into our guest house room straight away, and we all felt dirty and smelly from the overnight trip (felt? - after an overnight journey in Asia you're definitely dirty, the dust and grime covers everything, from your hands to your clothes and rucksacks). But eventually we got into our room, had a shower and a nap - the girls were so excited last night, they didn't go to sleep on the train until 10:30, and we had a struggle getting them up at 5:30 in the morning!
We also made sure all the arrangements are in place for our week with the BBC next week. We'll be filming for the last programme in the Holiday series, around Bangkok (temples, temples), and out to the floating markets and Kanchanaburi (most famous for the original bridge over the River Kwai).
Read Part Two which covers our week of filming with the BBC Holiday programme in Bangkok, and our journey to the Cambodian border.