The first 5 weeks of our first visit to SE Asia were spent in M'sia.
7 September 2006
Crossed the border into wet Thailand.
8 September 2006
Bangkok really blew my mind. At the train station we were greeted by tourist support people who directed us to the fantastic underground train. Fun using the electronic ticketing machine trying to find work out where we were going in Thai script. An underground and a sky train ride and we bypass a 2hr bus ride to our hotel near the NZ embassy. A quick visit and Al's passport appears good enough to continue traveling on (it glued itself back together on drying). We get a Cambodian visa from the embassy, visit the inner city parks (really nice green spaces), then try and find some wats.
After a museum visit to learn a little Thai history, we knowingly get sucked into a tourist scam. It was eloquently done. 1 person tells us the place we want to go to is expensive, and we should go to the free Watts instead, and points us in the direction of the bus-stop. We get off, and a Thai guy grabs our map, and draws circles of all different places to visit, then hales us a tuk tuk and makes it sound like a great deal - it's a Buddhist holiday, they give coupons to taxi drivers, it's fashion week, they give coupons to drivers who deliver tourists. Knowing something is up, we go to our first Watt. Next, it's on to what is clearly a fake watt - the lucky Buddha, the amount of luck you receive is in relation to the amount you give (but there's no donation box, you fools), then to a fashion store where we aren't even slightly tempted, and back to a watt under restoration where we meet a supposed Indonesian who's been adopted by some poms (although he thinks we're from England even with our NZ accent) and he's been given a similar deal, and isn't it great, except they took him to a jewellery store, and why wouldn't you want to pay for your trip by taking gems back to NZ to make a huge profit on. We were so lucky to be invited to the gem store too. Alas, we were getting pissed off with the need to get "coupons" our scam to get a cheap ride around in a tuk-tuk and see another side of the city (i.e., the backstreets, alleys and deviants) for bugger all (1hr for less than a $NZ) had achieved its purpose, and we took the bus home. Cheers to the tuk-tuk driver.
From Bangkok we head south to Ko Chang - the eastern bus station is really nice. We take a fancy 1st class bus where they dole out bickies and water and tea/coffee and stop at posh stops with nice loos.
On our return to BKK we headed to the floating market - the trip there was more eventful than the market itself which was over-touristy - (the real market was on the back streets of the town). I have new found respect for bus drivers, and for the size of Bangkok. We head to the southern bus station, during rush hour. The bus drivers in the city are seriously amazing. I would last about 20 seconds. Warning: ask which route the bus takes back - we went the long way taking and extra hour (longer but cheaper - go figure).
We'll wait and see what BKK is like in on the 25th post-coup when we are due back there.
10 September 2006
Top Class Resort. Well no, but we still had fun!
Ko Chang sounds like a little breath of paradise. Unfortunately, it gets irritating as soon as you arrive. There's one taxi company, and they wait for 1-1/2 hours or until fill before going anywhere, then they charge 80B each for what is a 20min ride. Rude. We stay a lonely beach - it's lonely because the beach is shit, but the accommodation is actually quite amazing and dirt cheap at off season rates. We hire a scooter to see the island - we even mange to get a flat from riding it on rough ground. Bays on the island are separated by steep hillsides, so the riding is great. We also went to swim at a local waterfall. The beaches aren't anything spectacular, and while there may have been coral reefs to snorkel on at some stage, there aren't now. Compared to Tioman, this place had over-prepared for tourists and seemingly ruined what could have been a good thing. Yes, the bikes were fun, and the food was probably the best we've had in Thailand in the last 3 weeks (thanks to a really amazing little local restaurant next to the 7-11 at lonely beech, but that was about as good as it gets. Being expected to open your wallet in such blatant ways (there are 3 atms per beach) is off putting. Most of all, we disliked the taxi system. We waited 1 1/2 hours, while 2 drivers went past before being given a lift. When we got off the ferry, the tourists were herded into one sangthew so they could be charged extra, and then delivered to a bus ticket office so the commission could be got. We all refused to move and demanded to be taken to the bus station, and intentionally got on to another company.
The day we left Ko Chang, we were up at 6am to go on the following schedule (not recommended as we got in at 9pm):
Sangthew to ferry -> ferry -> sangthew to Eastern bus station -> sky train -> subway -> bus to Southern station -> bus to floating markets.
After the markets, we headed to Ayutthaya. The following schedule is also hectic (10hrs)
Bus to market -> market boat ->bus to BKK thornburi station -> bus to hualomphong -> underground ->sky-train -> taxi to nth bus station (looks close on the map but it's much more difficult to find than that) -> bus to ayutthaya -> walk to Soi Tourist Overcharging.
14 September 2006
While this would have once been a thriving local market, the allure by tourist have replaced the traditional markets with stall upon stall of junk souvenir vendors. However on some of the quieter side canals, remnants of the original lifestyle still remains. If you actually want the real market, it is now in an empty car park in town every morning.
Ayutthaya, the old capital and famous for the Buddha in the tree. Phitsanulok, just passed through on way to Sukhothai.
15 September 2006
The Old Capital and famous for the Buddha in the tree. Well the one before Bangkok. That's if you ignore Lanna in the north. Many other races have ruled it since, including the Khmer and the Burmese. Lots of ruins, and overpriced tourist food, washing and internet. There's also a living Wat, Wat Phra Cao Pana Choeng, that's worth a visit. 1 day was plenty in this place - it's a little pricey and far too many tour buses even for the off season!
The pork innards and pepper soup is not recommended for breakfast. Needless to say it's best to stick with the very ordinary and tasteless tourist food. Exception is the coconut pancakes - yummmmmmmmy!
A bike is a good (and cheap) way to get around the city - we even rode ours on the 10 lane motor way. A tuk-tuk to the train will cost you 40-50B.
16 September 2006
Just passed through on way to Sukhothai. The tourist office staff were supper friendly and helpful. To find TAT, go straight to the t intersection, turn left then take the 3rd street on your right. A lovely watt to visit too.
17 September 2006
Sukothai is the major Thailand archaeological site.
There's a lot of history that goes with Sukothai, but my memory might not be quite, but I'll take a shot at describing some of it. Once upon a time, Sukothai was ruled by a dude and Si Satchanalai (about 40km away) was ruled by his brother. As the strength of Ayuttaya increased, its kingdom began to gobble up the smaller ones around it. Sukothai was treated nicely given that it bowed to Ayuttaya without resistance, Si Satchanalai was really at the edge of the kingdom. However, when Ayuttaya came under pressure from the Burmese and Khmer, the links between Sukothai and sister city Si Satchanalai were broken. Si Satchanalai was over-run by the Lanna (northern thai kindom) in an attempt to defend again the Burmese and Khmer. So, Sukothai has ruins in relatively good nick, but Si Satchanalai is more dilapidated.
When you arrive at Sukothai you'll be herded to Garden House for sure, whether or not you ask for a different hotel. Aside from treating tourists like sheep, the place is actually quite nice and even the food is OK. You can get around both historic parks and surrounds in a day on a motorbike. For experienced watters, try the fun game below (no offensive intended):
From Sukothai historic park, in pairs, one bike and camera per pair. You have 3hrs (adjust if less time) to photograph as many different watts as possible. 3 points per unique watt, 1 point for each other, and 1 extra point for remembering the name of each watt. 10 points for the longest and least pronounceable name.
Seriously, we did whip around a bit fast, but there are some amazing Buddhist images here, including my favourite in all of Thailand - much better than Ayutthaya.
18 September 2006
The second largest Thailand city with a mare 1.4 million tourists, I mean locals.
Chang Mai is the 'head city' of northern Thailand. It's a way from Bangkok (about 12hrs by train), with a population of 1.4 million - apparently 1/4 western expats who do visa runs every 1-3 months. To us, it's similar to Christchurch, just nicer. It's got good markets, a nice mix of food (great pita and falafel, just don't bother with the 'delicious' Indian), the people are friendly and the 1o lane motor way isn't bad either. The hills behind the city are lush with forest and the views quite pretty - you look out onto hills just like at home. It's also a good place to base yourself when you decide what you want to do with your time up here.
24 September 2006
Update: 5 days post-coup, there are armed guards at every entry point, at government buildings, and at travel points (train station, airport etc. We even saw jeeps with bazooka launchers on the back. Town is much quieter, but still perfectly ok. Nice to get a break from streets full of loopies.
21 September 2006
We only passed through Lampang on the way to the Golden Triangle after heading the wrong way down highway 11 with the rental car. But, the food was good and cheap, and the traffic officers are really sweet - they'll stop traffic just so you can walk across the road : )
22 September 2006
Chiang Rai. The old opium crossroads of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Northern Thailand is spectacular. Leave time to explore.
Chang Rai can be reached two ways: make a slight detour to the south to Lampang and take the eastern super-highway. 4 lanes of concrete to eat up as you make your way over hill sides covered in forests that make for seriously amazing scenery. Stop at cliff gate (you'll know it when you see it) and visit the Neolithic rock art and spice markets. Then drive down to the lake at Phayao and you'll swear you think you are back in NZ. The only real difference is the amazing green provided by the rice paddies.
From Chang rai, you can go trekking, or to the borders. The golden triangle itself is just a meetings of borders on the Mekong. Check out the news item on the new visa details for Burma/Myanmar. Myanmar blew my mind - it's seriously beautiful, and well deserving of a few days. You can play the political card and make a decision not to support an oppressive regime (and there are signs of this in scaring on people) but you hurt the people through lost opportunity for income and cross-cultural exchange, rather than hurting the government. And if you're lucky, the border guards will practice their chat up lines on you and tell you that you're beautiful.
23 September 2006
Any drive around this area is great as it takes you through the middle of villages into the heart of rural Thailand - a truly special place. We fully recommend Mae Salong. It's called a tourist village, but there were only 4 of us there. It's set at 1800m, on the spine of a hill. The drive is treacherously steep and winding, but really beautiful. Mae Salong is 12km from the Burmese border. It actually home to 4 different peoples - Yuannan chinese, Muslim, Akhar (Tibetan refugees from Myanmar) Lasu and another hill-tribe. Development programmes in the surrounding areas appear to have been really successful - opium has been swapped for tea and coffee plantations, intermixed with corn, rice, limes and the melony-cucumber yummies.
We took a 1/2 day trek with horses (I think Yuanaese) to the villages - they all have schools, water pumps at each house, power, and roads (although they're in varying states of dis-repair). Oh, and the people are really healthy, really friendly and really lovely. The tarmac turned into dirt road which turned into rain sodden dirt track. We had tea and fruit with an elder couple and their great grandson. In between rain showers, we passed villages nestled into hillsides covered in rice, coffee, tea, bamboo, corn and other vegetables. This has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I'd happily move here at the drop of a hat. My favourite place to be since we left NZ. Oh, and the tea is great!!
The main western highway south is awful - they've cut the margins out and there's no lights at night (not even cats eyes) and the locals drive like they're on drugs. The 100km from the turn-off to Pai actually takes 2- 21/2 hours for 100km. The road condition aints flash either. We decided to rest a little and pulled in at Mushroom Barn. AVOID THIS PLACE AT ALL COSTS. The 1st room we checked into had an ants nest in the wardrobe - they came out when we sprayed for mossies. The room we changed to also had a nest, so they moved us to the posh suite and asked for extra money. NOT Likely, as it was overpriced to start with. The guy who does the talking is also rather sleazy. We shot off at 6.30 the next morning and got to Pai.
26 September 2006
Pai is set on the valley bottom and nestled among hills. Again, it's a meaty road in, but hippy-ville is just gorgeous. It's a little pricey, but there's all the comforts from home (burgers and chips, real coffee and cafes, croissants) and probably more Westerners than Thai in this little village of just 3000. It also has about the highest computer/person ratio in the whole of Thailand. A good place to get info on the coup and just relax. Oh, and the elephant rides and trekking opportunities. Unlike m'sia, locals are friendly to tourists. We basically just laxed out and ate - great Thai food at Na's House, oh, and the fruit-ice smoothies. Yummm!. We also tried the elephant rides which are a lot more glamorous sounding than in reality. Our elephant was really big, and it was hard to get up even when you were yanking on his ear. They're not really stinky, and the ride is comfier than a wooden horse saddle, but you get the feeling that they really can't be bothered. They're such big animals, when they get grumpy they just stop, when they want food they eat. So our guide had a job on his hands. Pretty cool to be that high up and you can feel the animal's muscles move under you. Our 'phant wasn't too keen on the water. I got splashed a lot, but then the trainer had the phant going side to side and up and down etc. - not sure if was intentional or not, but both he and Al fell off. I was left with my legs around the beast's neck. Quite scary really - I was pleased to get off. It was obvious that the elephant didn't want to be there and that the guide was losing control.
If we had more time, I'd spend it in the little villages like Mae Salong as opposed to Pai - each has their strengths, but rural Thailand at its best is really quite surreal. Next trip we'll also take in the eastern hills of northern Thailand.
29 September till 9 October 2006
10 October 2006
The coup d'état of 19 September 2006 didn't really change things much. It was bloodless, unlike some of the earlier coups, and there wasn't the huge political protests seen in 2009/10 with the Red and Yellow shirts. The police were replaced with baby-faced soldiers that had orders to smile at the tourists. Still, it isn't every day you see rocket launchers and tanks in metapolian areas.
11 October 2006