Bangkok, Sukuthai, Chang Mai and around
May 9, 2005
|After crossing the Malaysia / Thailand border we caught a 22 hour train up to Bangkok. Not as bad as it sounds as we had an aircon sleeper cabin. We hadn't been on the train long before we got chatting to a couple of Thai people. They, as in fact most Thais are, were so friendly and full of questions. Each time one guy, Songarat, went for a cigarette, he came back with sweets, cakes and drinks for us all. It was all so different to what we'd experienced in Malaysia and completely alien to anything you might expect to encounter on a train from say London to Leeds!
We got to Bangkok around 9am and headed to backpacker central - Khao Sarn Road. It's a very colourful district full of street vendors and all manner of bars. After checking into our hotel, we walked down to the Grand Palace which is just amazing. One of the first things you notice when you cross into Thailand is the magnificent colours and especially the opulent golds of the temples (Wats). The Grand Palace was no exception and, with the sun beating down on it, was a beautiful sight. The palace grounds are full of buildings, all of which ooze expense in steep contrast with the poverty only a few doors away. The poorer people seem to be crammed into the smallest of areas, in shacks or sometimes under bridges by the skanky, sewerage-filled canals.
Whilst on a trip around the palace and other buildings, we lost count of the times we were accosted by a "student" who "reliably" informed us that the next thing on our list was closed! After a few minutes of chat, they always suggested an alternative wat to visit. Then they would suggest a tuk-tuk and lo and behold, one would just materialize from nowhere. Needless to say, we did not fall for this in the slightest.
We spent a further two days in Bangkok seeing more temples and shops. On Sunday, we went to the floating market at Damnoen Saduak. As soon as we got there, we chartered a boat to sail amongst the many vendors on the canals. It was really good fun. We bought a few bits and bobs and tried lots of fruits that we'd never even seen before. The market was full of colours and aromas of fruits, spices and traditional clothing.
Monday, we then caught a bus to Sukhothai, which in itself was not a pleasant experience. To cut a long story short, the aircon was pathetic and two kids on board were to spend most of the journey being sick - nice!
We stayed overnight in the New Sukhothai before getting a Sarmlauw (bus with bench seats) to the old city. There, we hired bikes and cycled around the old ruins of the city and to the museum. Sukhothai was once the capital of Thailand. That afternoon we caught another bus (this time we had to stand) to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is in the extreme north of Thailand and is a real contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, being quieter, less high-rise and, thankfully, several degrees cooler and less humid.
We spent Wednesday morning seeing the sights of Chiang Mai and the afternoon visiting the numerous local craft centres including silk, umbrella and lacquerware factories.
Thursday we headed up into the jungle around Chang Mai for a three day trek. We trekked for 3 hours to arrive at our camp by the waterfall. All the guys stripped and headed straight into the water, only to emerge pretty quickly when they realized it was extremely cold! Unfortunately though, the water wasn't cold enough to chill the beers so we had to make do with luke warm Chang and dodgy Thai rum (sangsum). Everyone had a few too many to drink and card games continued until very late. Consequently, there were a few hangovers the next morning. But nothing that a brisk three hour walk in the rain wouldn't cure!
After said walk, we arrived at our camp for night two. It was at a hill tribe village way up in the mountains. The village housed nine families including at least ten kids, 30 pigs, a few buffalo and a number of dogs. There was no electricity and the local "witch doctor" at eighty years old, had barely ever left the village and had never been to Chiang Mai let alone out of the province. The family were very welcoming and the kids were so interested in us all. Despite being some of the poorest people in Thailand economically, they all seemed so happy and content. Despite the rain, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening around the camp fire and were even entertained by a guy with a guitar type instrument, siging a mixture of thai and English songs.
Last day of our trek, we walked out of the jungle, a 3 hour walk, through drizzle. By now everything was soaked and our shoes, even now, are yet to dry! We had a ride on an elephant which was good fun then we went bamboo rafting. That was excellent fun. We were wet and we got even wetter, racing down the rapids and crashing into about 10 other boats.
Totally whacked, we returned to Chiang Mai for pizza and beers with our new friends from the trek. After eating, we went to a bar called True Blue, suggested by our new aussie mate Simon. The entertainment was appallingly rigged Thai boxing and ladyboy caberet. It was comical and a very entertaining evening.
After only four hours kip, we were up at 6am for another trip - this time a day trip to see a temple in a cave and the "long-necks", "long-ears" and "black-teeths" in northern Thailand, close to the Burmese border. From the Karen tribe, these people previously lived in Burma, but crossed into Thailand to escape Burmese persecution. Many of the women wear 5kg brass coils by tradition. The original reason was to protect their necks against attack by tigers. Other ladies dye their teeth with a black rubber to stain their teeth black. This is seen as a sign of beauty and strength. Jury is out on that one for us - make up your own minds! After a thoroughly exhausting day, we boarded another overnight train back to Bangkok. Unfortunately, this one was not air-conditioned and we were certainly glad to get off it 15 hours later.
Today, Tuesday, we went up to a town called Katchubari. Where you say? It's famous for its river and a bridge that crosses it. The famous bridge over the river Kwai. It took 3 hours to get there on a 48 seater bus with around 80 passengers but it was worth the trip. We went to the allied war cemetery first which contains over 7000 graves of POWs who died building the railway. It was very moving. Most of the POWs were younger than us, the oldest we spotted was 41 and the vast majority were early twenties. Over half of the graves were British followed by almost as many Dutch and hundreds of Australians. The grounds were very well kept, graves surrounded by small shrubs and larger trees around the perimeter. Contrasts starkly with how their final days must have been.
We then visited the museum next to the cemetery. There were lots of good exhibits and the death railway story was very well told. It is a horrific story which we couldn't begin to imagine.
Finally we went to the bridge itself. Not the original as it was pretty much destroyed by allied forces, though parts of it are in the museum. The bridge itself is like any other but the walk across it was quite moving all the same.
We're now back in Bangkok. Tomorrow we head to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam....