Goodbye from Bangkok

Bangkok in the EveningFor the third time on this trip, we returned to Bangkok for one final stay. Ignoring any guest houses we stayed at the Sivali Place apartments located south of the Chao Phraya river for a bit of space and luxury during our final week. Annie loved the fact that she could get out of bed, walk down the stairs and have a clean 25 meter outdoor pool for a morning swim.

The city has good transport, along with the Chao Phraya Express Boat that Annie previously talked about, there is a vast Skytrain that runs above the streets covering the roads in concrete pillars. It’s great to use, has a smart card system and more importantly air conditioning, which made getting about so much easier. The only issue we had was our fancy apartments were a good three kilometres from the nearest stop, we knew this and accepted it as a trade off. The hotel staff were happy to call a taxi, but being frugal travellers (it was only about £1.20) we were happy to walk along, save a bit of money and see the city.

Bangkok is incredibly hot, I would say after months and months of sun and humidity we should be acclimatised but that would be wrong; walking to the skytrain I sweated so much my grey t-shirt was soaked looking like I just came from a gym. Looking around, the locals are all bone dry, they obviously know better and avoid the midday sun and excessive walks.

It’s been a very long time since we have had good beers, it’s not impossible to find some German and Belgian beers in Asia but they are normally three times the price of anything local. I go out my way to avoid Chang, the local Thai beer which is strong and terrible. Singha is the slightly more expensive option which is far from great but fills a gap. Doing some research on beers in Bangkok I was surprised to see that a new bar from Danish brewers Mikkeller had just opened, the city being as big as it is means it was 14k away from our hotel, but surely worth a visit. Using the directions we took the skytrain as close as possible and wandered around what looked like a residential area, wondering if I got my directions wrong. Overhearing someone else ask if the bar was nearby, we found the strange house with large beer garden awaiting with 30 craft beers on draft, heaven. The downside of such a range of great beer is that pints started at 300 baht (just over £5.50) and even cheekier, the “small” at 150 baht was a tiny glass which looked like it held about 200ml – forget that. It was definitely an expat hangout, good to try a bunch of beers but way too expensive for another visit, back to the Singha then.

Bridge Over The River KwaiA trip out to see the bridge over the “River Kwai” was on our lists to do, wanting to avoid tour groups we got up early and headed down on the world slowest train, which lacked any sort of facilities including Air Con, it was hot and a bit boring. Three hours later the train arrived, leaving us four hours to wander around and visit the war museum. All very interesting to read about how the railway was built by prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, how many people died in the horrendous conditions and how it fared during the constant bombings during World War 2. We aimed to get the train back later in the afternoon but managed to negotiate a super comfy taxi to take us all the way back to Bangkok which seemed like utter luxury after that train journey.

Fishy FriendTo sample more of the city, we booked on a slightly expensive walking food tour of Chinatown. It turned out just to be us and the tour guide, no need to fight for attention then. Wandering around the busy streets we went to six places to try all sorts of local food of various tastes. Annie did her best to pass over as much as she could to me, normally a good thing but these flavours did not go down that well. A bowl of noodle soup with liver, tongue, stomach and heart was one of the more memorable choices, it was a chore to get through one bowl never mind two.

A final day of travelling was spent soaking up the city, we decided to get Thai massages and spent a while walking around looking for a good place that wasn’t a brothel behind closed doors (the guidebook helped us figure out what was what). A Thai massage isn’t quite as relaxing as I expected, lying down your legs are bent, arms are stretched, knuckles are cracked and pressure points are pushed. I was concerned that I would fart during some of the moves, which may have been awkward! It was an interesting hour and we both came out unharmed, bonus.

And that’s the end of our travels! Six fantastic months, thirteen countries, across three continents stopping in about sixty cities and towns was never going to be easy, but well worth the effort. Was it perfect? No we made made a few mistakes with our flight bookings, flying in and out of places that didn’t make sense and some of our routes overland were not the most direct – all very easy to reflect on with hindsight.

We really only briefly sampled some of the countries, Chile and Japan come to mind, and missed out on others altogether due to lack of time, Central America and India both look fascinating and will be visited at some point.

Now back to home for some Irn Bru, Haggis and Shortbread!

Hua Hin

Hua Hin beach

Keen to squeeze in some more beach time before coming home, after leaving Chiang Mai we headed down to Hua Hin, a beach resort South of Bangkok. Though the town itself is very built up and quite ugly, the beach is absolutely beautiful.

Me on SlideWe had 4 days in Hua Hin and didn’t want to leave. As well as a stunning beach with the warmest water I’ve ever been in, we also found a water park and a wakeboarding spot. The waterpark was a little disappointing, with only a few slides, but that was more than made up for by the complete lack of queues, there was barely anyone there. Although none of the rides were that scary, some of them had a helmet requirement, which was a little bit overkill. The wave machine was very impressive throwing everyone around like crazy.

Paul was really keen to try the wakeboarding, and at the bargain price of £6 for 2 hours, we signed ourselves up. Using a cable mechanism, you were free to stroll up, pick a board, and jump in. Or if you’re me, fall in on your face repeatedly. Paul was starting to get the hang of it by the end of our session, managing a couple of laps before losing his balance. Although there are staff there who were giving advice, this seemed to be optional, and so for the most part you were left to your own devices. Good fun, but tricky.

Me WakeboardingThe next day we woke up sore and achey, the usual after wakeboarding, so we had an easy day by the beach. For me, Hua Hin is up there with Rio for the beach, and definitely better than the islands we visited. The view is complimented by endless colourful kite surfers in the water. Hua Hin has the perfect weather for kitesurfing and so is a popular spot to learn. I would have loved to have tried it, but time and money meant I’ll save that for another day.

Night life in Hua Hin was quite a limited choice. Unless you were a middle aged Western man looking for a young Thai lady to hook up with, you were basically out of luck. All of the bars had ‘hostesses’ and walking by at night, the bars were full of young Thai women dressed to impress, welcoming any man to come in (including Paul). Our visit also coincided with the National Elections, which meant there was a 48 hour ban on the sale of alcohol, giving our livers plenty of time to recover.

Thai Boxing match leafletThroughout our time in Thailand we had been meaning to catch a Thai Boxing match, and we got our chance in Hua Hin. Not willing to pay the 800B entrance fee, we went to a nearby bar and waited until the first match had finished. We were then happy to pay the reduced price of 500B and watch the 4 remaining matches. Looking at the leaflet, we were confused by the weight categories. 27kg, too light for a person, maybe that’s the weight difference? Our questions were answered when we walked in to find 2 kids fighting, couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. Oh man, what did we just sign up for? Fortunately, the fighting was actually very professional, with a very active ref, and far less violent than I had been expecting. Gradually the weights increased and so did the ages of the competitors. The winner of each match would walk around the audience with a 100B note in his mouth, looking for donations, a bit uncomfortable. An interesting experience, but still not something I would rush back to.

Day 3, restored back to health, we decided to give wakeboarding another shot. I was keen to actually get on the water and hoped that another 2 hours would do it, and Paul wanted to perfect his technique. I was put in any number of different starting positions but they all ended up with me in the water, often with my board still on the starting block. Argh! Despite the blue skies there was definitely a dark cloud hanging over me, stay away! Paul, on the other hand, mastered setting out and enjoyed a much more successful session.

Hua Hin was the perfect stop for us. Now that our trip is coming to an end, we were even more appreciative of the sun, sand, and natural beauty. Although sad to leave, I’m also looking forward to exploring more of Bangkok in our final week.

Chiang Mai & Pai

Elephant Family

Heading north, instead of using another bus we went with an overnight train which as per normal left an hour late; the driver was probably away having his dinner, a wee chat or a sleep. We got on board and headed to our bunks, which were located on the aisle behind a little curtain. The bed was reasonably comfy but oh so noisy, I slept with my headphones in, attempting to block it out.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, we started the crawl around hotels and guesthouse in the old quarter, a large area surrounded by a river looking for somewhere to stay, after being turned away from quite a few which were full and seeing some grim looking place we picked a decent looking hotel with a pool, result. Good base for a few nights eating and drinking, one night was particularly messy with a strong glass of margarita turning to a jug, followed by another, whoops.

Elephant FeedingAn hour outside of the city lies the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, a fantastic place that is home to 37 rescued elephants, along with hundreds of dogs and cats – kept in separate areas. We initially looked in to volunteering for a week but they were full so we went with a one day visit. At £55 each it’s not a cheap day out but soon enough you realise the massive costs this facility faces.

Arriving in the morning we were in awe at the elephants wandering around so close. Taking a basket we headed over and started to feed them, placing large chunks of food in the trunks and watching them happily munching away. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is a continuous companion for the animal, sort of a big brother.

Elephant WashingThroughout the day we had the chance to go around seeing them up close, going in to the river to help wash them before once again feeding, they eat 10% of their body weight each day. It’s a massive operation to source, prepare and feed them.

After lunch we were told there is a cinema room showing a national geographic film on Thailand’s Elephants but were warned the last 10 minutes are hard to watch. It was really interesting, explaining that elephants are still classed as cattle and have no protection. Since the logging industry has ceased (due to a ban) they are no longer needed to pull logs and are abandoned or sold to the tourist trades. I’ve always been against the idea of the elephant tourist rides but looking at it another way, what other option is there for the locals to make money to support them? Tricky.

The film went on to show the utterly horrific method the use to break a baby elephant’s spirit, basically holding it in a tiny cage for three days whilst beating and torturing it with spikes, no food, water or sleep. Once the elephant can take no more, it becomes submissive to to it’s owner. Heartbreaking to watch, I can’t get my head around how the crew felt filming it.

36c SpringHeading further north, we arrived in Pai, a smaller charming town with a laid back atmosphere. Checking in to a nice set of bungalows we stumbled across, borrowing their bikes we cycled the 7k to the hot springs, normally this would be easy enough but combining bikes that were falling apart, hills and hot hot sun, it was a fair wee challenge. Arriving at the springs we had the option of various pools, starting at 34c they rose up to 38c, I managed to sit in 37c but found the higher one just far too burny!

After a few days in Pai, we started to head back south. There isn’t an easy way to get around Thailand as everything seems to head through Bangkok, realising this we decided to stop once again in Chiang Mai as there was more to see and do.

Biking PaulMountain Biking and White Water Rafting are two big things around here, being dry season rafting was not an option (wouldn’t get very far) so downhill Mountain Biking was the best option. I contacted a company offering rides asking for an intermediate level course to ensure we had some level of challenge. Annie came along but wasn’t as keen on the idea, starting the day off the guide didn’t seem to bother giving out much advise or tutorials until a few people in the group asked/pushed for some guidance, he eventually upped his game. One guy in the group who didn’t speak English came with his girlfriend, she said he was a biker at home and boy it showed, he was right with the guide the whole time throwing himself down the tracks like no tomorrow. On the way down we had various chances to go off the trails and onto single track technical routes, Annie did amazing and warmed up to the idea that it’s a lot of fun, as the single tracks got harder the numbers dropped, I kept pushing but when he started describing them as “hard”, I happily took a rain check and went around as I like my skin attached to my body and not scraped along a tree. One final single track run, the leaders scooted off just out of sight, I was navigating the path well (I thought) with Annie not far behind. Approaching the end with the riders stopped just ahead on the road I took what I thought was the correct route, to the right and suddenly off a larger than expected ledge. Landing to see the others chuckling, we noticed Annie was battering down the exact same route, “LEFT!” everyone shouted but it didn’t work, she went right and off the ledge, landing a bit rough but stayed on the bike fine! Fantastic fun, came away feeling we had pushed our level up a notch.

North Thailand, great fun but now the beach is calling.

Bangkok Part I

Wat Arun

I arrived in Bangkok a little doubtful of whether I’d like it, but as soon as we got off the bus I was taken in by the city. There is so much happening you don’t know where to look, with constant noise and bustle and life.

Our first night was a Saturday, and so we decided to go to nearby Khao San Road, which is the famous backpacker district. It’s basically a street taken over by fast food chains and pubs, bars, clubs, all claiming to offer ‘the strongest and cheapest cocktails’. In theory, it should have been horrible, but it is enchanting, and you could spend hours sitting out on the tiny chairs watching life go by. There are endless street hawkers dropping by, selling all kinds of tat, including ping pong shows, insects to eat, and most memorably, a variety of friendship bracelets with really vulgar statements stitched in. We couldn’t fathom who on earth would ever buy one, but they must sell, because they were all over the place.

Just One BeerAfter getting some delicious street food, for a laugh we opted for a pub whose USP was not asking for ID. Exactly what we needed, obviously, despite being nearly double the age of all the other customers. Paul then decided that it would be fun for us to get a 6 pint giant beer, and that was our first night in Bangkok complete.

Bangkok is an absolutely massive city. I’m usually a fan of walking, but when what looks like a short walk on the map turns out to be an hour long trek along motorways, you need to think again. One of the easiest public transport options is the express boat which travels up and down the Nam Chao Phraya river, which chops the city in two. Despite the fact it’s basically a bus on water, it is so much fun to travel on, with the added game of avoiding any river water getting on you, as it’s filthy. The drivers come flying up to the stops and then crash against the side, with passengers then getting a short window to hop on and off before it speeds off again. It also costs peanuts, with a one way ticket less than 20p, putting Scotrail to shame.

Tiny street catWe only had a couple of days in Bangkok on this stop, but as we knew we would be back to fly home, we didn’t try to cram too much in. We did visit a couple of temples, including Wat Pho, which has an impressive giant reclining Buddha on show, and one of the many huge shopping malls in the business district. At one of the temples we came across a stray kitten hiding underneath a street bench. It was absolutely tiny, and appeared to be on the edge of death. We tried to feed it milk but it was only interested in being close to us, in particular Paul’s foot, maybe it missed company. If we were at home, the kitten would have been coming with us, no question, but as it was we had to leave it to fend for itself. I’m not too optimistic about its chances.

As we were both so taken with the city, and had managed to find a lovely hotel/apartment with an outdoor pool, we decided to spend more time here at the end of the trip to enjoy more of what Bangkok had to offer. But for now, good bye Bangkok, we’ll be back.