Thursday, 21 June 2012

Ton Sai, Thailand

After drinking two generous rum & cokes given to me by a chatty local called "Oh" I board the train at 6pm Hua Lamphong feeling a little merry. I'm shown to a big spacious 3rd class carriage and a big seat next to an open window. This was supposed to be a sleeper carriage but I couldn't quite see the sleeping arrangement. I noticed there was a human-sized cupboard above me and assumed that would be my bed for the night. There was another seat opposite me; where would this person go? 6:30pm and the train pulls out of the station rumbling closely past the same shack housing I saw on my journey to Kwai. No-one occupies the seat opposite. I love train journeys and I've been looking forward to this one. The line goes all the way through Thailand, then Malaysia then into Singapore down the thin strip of peninsula. My journey would only take me to Trang in the southern-most part of Thailand. At about 9pm a guard with a tool magically appeared and ushered me out of the seat. He set to work clanking and moving things, converting my seat and the seat opposite into an inviting bed. He put sheets on, added a pillow and blanket, smiled and magically disappeared as quick as he'd arrived.

My bed... the morning after
The cupboard above me was also a bed. I only know this as I was woken by a drunk English girl trying to clamber into it at about 3am. The same guard magically appeared and had a broken English conversation with her about how she would need to pay to sleep here. She complained a little but stumped up. I have no idea where she had come from.

Trains are the best way to sleep-travel. When you wake, that second or two when you you don't know where you are. You sit up, open the metal shutter and there's a bright green and blue painting massaging your sleepy eyes. There so much fast moving fresh morning air you almost can't breathe and the clickety-clack is deafening when you take out your earplugs. We're now deep into southern Thailand at about 7am. 12 hours gone and 4 hours to go. Most of the other passengers had already departed; the tourists for the Thai mega-resorts. By 8am I had to switch to the now empty other side of the train as the sun was already too hot on the east.

At 11am we arrived at Trang. I then had to get a two hour bus to Krabi on the coast. From Krabi bus station I jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi to the marina. I needed to get a long-tail boat to Riley beach.  It's not an island but there's no roads so a boat is the only option. A driver said he would take me alone for 1500 Baht (£30). I choked on my water and said I would wait for more people to share the cost. Does wage, fuel and maintenance really cost 1500 Baht for the 45 minutes to Riley? I think not. An hour passed and a German couple turned up. The driver said we should now go, at 500 Baht each. Still sounding extortionate we decided to wait longer, much to the annoyance of the drivers. By 5pm no-one else had turned up and the drivers says 400 Baht each. A mini-conference later we decide to head down the coast by bus, to another pier, where there could be other people in the same boat (pun intended). The drivers were all around us, being incredibly pushy and in one case blatantly rude. As we're going to walk off one driver begrudgingly says he would take us for 200 Baht (£4) each. We accept the offer and get on the boat.

On the boat we were treated to the joyous, classic image of Thailand: overhanging limestone cliffs topped with dense jungle hair; pulling into Riley east however didn't fill me with joy. A muddy beach leading to a concrete walkway containing posh resorts, bars, souvenir shops and lots of package holiday people. My journey to Ton Sai wasn't over yet though. A ten minute walk and Riley west revealed a much nicer beach, but still fringed with posh resorts. To get to Ton Sai in the next bay you have three options;

 - At low tide you can walk around the headland
 - At any tide you can clamber across underneath the huge limestone cliff.
 - You can take a 45 minute walk through a mosquito infested jungle

Only realising the 1st of these options I clambered around the coast to be greeted by one of  the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. An amphitheatre of enormous vertical limestone cliffs surrounded the blue waters gently lapping into dense jungle. An eerily quiet dirt road leads around to the various cheap resorts. I chose the Paasook and had my own bungalow, with en-suite and balcony, for a killer 150 Baht (£3) a night! The bungalow was dim (verging on dark) inside in the day and night; the mosquitoes loved it. Dripping with sweat and realising I'd spent 24 hours travelling I threw my stuff on the bed and went to find a freezing beer.

The only use for cars

Complex map
It was over this beer that I met Steve "Austin" (The bionic man). From a single handshake and a smile we were almost inseparable. This most modest man casually mentioned (at some point) that he'd been to Everest summit and snowboarded down a section - his snowboard is hanging in Sam's bar in Kathmandu. We would meet at 8am for boiled eggs, toast and a pot of coffee each. We'd then grab a banana, pineapple, lime and peanut butter power-shake ready for climbing, kayaking, snorkelling and walking. In the afternoon you could find us outside the mini-mart with some Chang. In the evening we ate grilled chicken and papaya salad at Mama's shack. Don't ever accuse us of habitual behaviour!

Chang at the mart

Climbing is why people come to Ton Sai. It's listed as one of the top ten climbing spots in the world. I went in low (rainy) season, and it didn't rain once; we were incredibly lucky. In the high season the place entertains around 2000+ people, with my bungalow then costing 800 Baht per night and people queueing to get on the climbs. I met some great people, offering to take me and Steve out on their ropes, pointing out holds and egging you on when you think you can't quite make that reach! I've heard before that girls are naturally better climbers than men (they use their legs more) - I can confirm that this is definitely true. I witnessed some power yoga moves and aerobics on some harder sections, making them look ridiculously easy, where we failed!



Undecided on the best first-footing
Resting after a days climbing
 If you ever get a chance to do a deep-water solo then DO IT! It's rock-climbing with no ropes over water. There's climbs for everyone from 5's to 8's (mostly 6's). A quick swim or kayak from the boat gets you to a small ladder up to the first steps. I would recommend the Ton Sai base camp tour over anything from Riley beach, although finding enough people to go on the Ton Sai trip could be an issue (we were lucky). The day is punctuated with a tasty lunch on a deserted island beach. In this photo you can just about make me out (top-left third) - traversing my way across the ridge to the top of the middle stalactite, ready for a 22 metre (70 foot) jump into the jellyfish-dotted sea!


I was sad to leave Ton Sai. On the last night we had a blow out at the infamous "free chicken incident" bar and I felt remarkably good the next morning after 4 hours sleep. This was it for Thailand. Next stop Malaysia. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

River Kwai bridge

I know there's quite a few posts missing from Cambodia to here in Bangkok, but I had to write this up while it was fresh in my head :)

1500 Baht for a tourist coach to Kanchanaburi (with free lunch)?! Who would get a coach to go and see the bridge over the river Kwai when you can get a train along the actual "death railway" for 120 Baht. The train in question actually goes to the Sai Yok Nei waterfalls at Nam Tok but handily stops at the Kwai bridge en-route. I found this bit of information thanks to the train-tastic Mark Smith over at the ever-informative As I was one of three farangs amongst two-hundered Thai's I can vouch that it's still a mystery to Westerners. One train departs Hua Lamphong station every Saturday and Sunday morning at 6:30am and another at 13:00. I didn't pre-book and the train was 90% full so maybe out of wet season you might need to.

Not many people got on the train at Hua Lamphong and we set off; a slow winding clik-clak through Bangkok; picking up more and more people at stops along the way for about an hour. Food and drink people jump on the train at every stop. I munch some rice with a fried egg and chicken bits (and a fishy sauce) while shuffle on my mp3 player fittingly plays this. The train squeezes past tiny corrugated metal houses and crosses canals containing a mysterious misty blue water which delights the nostrils but people are fishing and I can see occasional ripples and bubbles so the pollution can't be that bad? Before long the train is picking up speed and the colour outside is no longer concrete and misty-blue but GREEN. Green like you've never see before; a million shades of green! Maybe I've been in Bangkok too long because it's striking; everything is covered! Cotton farms, corn farms, rice farms, hemp farms (I've never seen so many cannabis plants) and trees of every description; bushes everywhere and ivy climbing up anything that's not normally green; it looks like the electricity poles are fighting a losing battle.
I'm not sure what you might call him; I hate to say ticket master or guard, or entertainment, though he seems to be all of these things. His name (I hope I have this written correctly as he wrote it down on a bouncy train!) is Rucha Mitrisu and he's the man. I couldn't get an exact gist but he was obviously talking about the atrocities that happened building the railway but also doing quizzes and getting everyone to sing (traditional songs according to the nice lady next to me) and clap; and all through a megaphone! I'm not sure if he works this route every weekend, or even if this is part of his job description but he certainly seems to enjoy it.

We stop at a little station where Bangkok studios are filming inside an old army train. There's huge cameras and lights and dry ice coming from inside. As we pull away three western actors dressed in khaki coloured uniforms emerge from the carriage and wave at our train. Now this is most likely my imagination and severely unlikely but the one actor looked exactly like Jake Gyllenhaal. (I shall say it was when recounting the story to friends)

We arrive at the Kwai bridge (which isn't actually over the Kwai) around 10:20am and everyone disembarks. On and around the bridge are hundreds of people, cafĂ©'s and souvenir shops; big business.  Rucha says to me "40 minute". Once I'd taken some pictures up and down the bridge and grabbed a coffee I hear the train whistle. Looking at the watch it's 10:40am. The penny drops and I dart back to the train. The whistle blows again, everyone moves off the bridge and we slowly edge on. It creaks loudly and is just wide enough to take the train.

A little further along the line we head upwards, and along a steep ridge to another bridge near Thamkase; this one is a little more breathtaking; again creaking and whining under the weight of the train. Sit on the left side and you'll get the best views down to the river then the hills with giant Buddha's and temples perched. Around noon we stop, then reverse, then stop abruptly with a huge shunt. I guess that we picked up some more carriages.

We arrive at Nam Tok at 12:30pm and everyone else hops into the back of the free trucks to take them up to the waterfall. I've spent a lot of time around waterfalls since travelling so decide to pass on this one and lap up some peace in this tiny village. I have some spicy soup and a pineapple shake then write a postcard to the folks, and another to my old workplace.

Spicy shrimp soup
The train leaves promptly at 14:30 and we clatter back down the line. On the way up I speak to a fellow photographer (and journalist) from the free (ad-based) Thai tourist guide "Tourism Unbound". He's writing a piece on the train tour to the waterfall and decides, as a bonus, he would like to interview me. He brings me a bunch of ngor (rambutan) still attached to their stalks (it's Thai tradition to give gifts to a stranger on first meeting). He writes down some questions for me to answer but the train is so bouncy it's impossibly to write anything coherent! I ask him to email me the questions later and I'll send them straight back before he hands it in next Wednesday. Maybe I'll be a famous farang :)

Aun doing his photographers pose
The rest of the journey back sleepy and a little rainy. We clack past the corrugated shacks in the dark but they're now all lit up allowing a glimpse inside. Lots of smiling faces, delicious looking food, hammocks and sofas and cats and dogs lolling about; but still corrugated houses. I look up over them and can see the Prince Palace glowing; a huge posh looking apartment block. Quite a contrast. We arrive back to Hua Luamphong station at 20:00. I say goodbye to the lovely Aun and wife and head back to the guesthouse to wait for my interview questions.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Bangkok, Thailand

Part 1 - Khao San road
The bus journey from Nang Rong to Bangkok (216 Baht) seemed like one super-wide main road for hours. We finally pull in to an enormous north-east bus station. Finding your way from the national bus terminal to the local bus terminal involves negotiating a corrugated maze separating various stages of building works. We ask about and learn that we need the number 3 bus to the Khao San road. At this point a thunderstorm was raging so we had a 7eleven iced coffee and sat for 45 minutes. The bus was busy, and the conducting lady didn't seem fussed to take money from anyone.
 I'd heard of it but I didn't know where the Khao San Road was until I got here. In my head it was a long, hot, dusty Asian road near a polluted sandy beach with ladyboys, animals and drunken westerners loafing about. I was certainly correct about the drunkards and ladyboys but it was nowhere near as in-your-face as I expected. It's simply a concrete road with bars and restaurants, like any other concrete road with bars and restaurants in the world, but with slightly seedier back alleys and a billion advertising boards. The tuk-tuk drivers also double-up as show bookers and make realistic ping-pong noises as you walk past, trying to get you in the mood for one of the famous shows. Part of me wanted to go, but just couldn't bring myself to do it (even after a few beers). We had a good curry and said beers, dodged a Dutch stag party and watched the frivolities from the sidelines. We stayed at the Greenhouse (290 Baht) on the road adjacent to KSR. The room was nice, and even contained a poor little 3-legged gherkin... gecko! I put it on the porcelain parrot and wished it all the best.

"Do not put feet here"
First glimpse of the Khao San road
[enter amusing caption here]
Part 2 - Sukhumvit
It's hard to know where to go in Bangkok for a first-timer. The KSR is an obvious choice as everyone else goes there because it's cheap and cheerful (sort of). I wanted to see different parts of Bangkok, and was convinced there must be more to it. The internet suggested there were some budget places in Sukhumvit, a big business district east of the KSR, and well connected with the skytrain. We moved down there and asked about in a few hotels; 1500 Baht, 2000 Baht, 3000 Baht. This isn't going well. We take a break in an Irish bar and have some chips with actual salt, vinegar and tomato sauce - a rare treat! Afterwards we try the other side of the main road and a place called 8-Inn. They agreed to a discounted price of 850 Baht; certainly more that anything I've paid so far but sometimes you need to reset the system, and this was Anna's last day before flying back to the UK so we threw caution to the wind! He gave us a key and we showed ourselves to the room. I opened the door to a tiny room, with no windows and an unmade bed. Back downstairs I asked reception if we could move, to a clean room, with a window. He very graciously upgraded us, no extra charge, to a huge suite, with big windows and a TV that was 0.8km from the bed - result.

Replacing the KSR drunken youths are older businessmen, or well-to-do ex-pats with young Asian girls (or boys) on their arms. We sat in one bar on the street and almost every other person was a westerner with bride/girlfriend/trinket. I knew it happened but I had no idea on what scale. This place felt seedier than the KSR to me with daytime street stalls selling all manner of sex toys, viagra and tazers. In the evening the sexy stalls made way for tiny little street bars selling spirits, and surrounded by ladies of the night offering to please any pleasures you might entertain!

Tattoos had been talked about several times through Thailand leading us to shake on it. If you don't go home from Thailand with a tattoo then you've not really been! We randomly found a world leading tattoo artist (Jimmy Wong) had a shop near our hotel so went to have a look. We didn't expect to see the man himself but there he was! Slightly star-struck we spoke to him and told him our ideas. He told us to come back at midnight tomorrow. I've wanted a tattoo since late teens; I wanted something that I'd designed myself but I never drew anything that I was 100% happy with. I wanted something geometric and mechanical, I knew that much. Back in Laos I met a guy wearing a t-shirt with a design that instantly filled this void. A simple design of three bicycle chain links forced into a triangle; it would forever display my  of cycling and also tick the geometric / mechanical check boxes. Midnight the next day we nervously entered the shop and Jimmy showed us what he'd done. Mine was pretty straight-forward as I'd already drawn it for him but Anna had quite a few variations on an elephant side-profile she wanted: trunk curled, foot out, ears back, walking, tail up. Details decided, Anna went first. Dizzy with first-time nerves Jimmy was very reassuring and it went quickly. Me next and it didn't hurt as I expected; just a dull buzz. Jimmy described is as a "happy pain". 2am and we're all done. Both happy and on a high we grab some group photos, thank Jimmy and leave with our new life-long companions. The tattoo was Anna's final souvenir of Asia before an early morning flight back to Blighty.

Jimmy Wong
Part 3 - Hua Lamphong
With the Khao San road cheap but annoying and Sukhumvit expensive I desperately needed somewhere else, but where? I scoured the internet checking the skytrain, metro and train connections and found Hua Lamphong, near Chinatown, in the south-west. Two stops on the metro to the skytrain, major bus stops to everywhere and a main rail connection sounded perfect; and accommodation prices were reasonable. For the first night I had to stay at the slightly boutique Hua Lamphong (350 Baht / dorm) as the place I wanted to stay at was full. The next 5 nights I moved to Baan Hua Lamphong, into a 250 Baht single room, and for the last night I shared a room (400 Baht) with Talitha.

My first priority was to get my Myanmar visa. The embassy is a quick walk from the Surasak skytrain. I initially went at 9am and the queue was huge. I grabbed a coffee for an hour then went back and the queue was nothing; I would say there's no point getting there at opening time! The handing in of passport photocopies, signed mug shots and entrance form was simple enough. I paid 1300 Baht for the slow turnaround as I was in no rush. It took 5 days (including a weekend) to get the visa. It was valid for 3 months from that moment. I would soon go to my long-wanted destination of Myanmar!!

During the 5 days waiting for the visa I walked most of Bangkok and did the tourist things like the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha (which is actually Jade) and had a day out to Kwai. I took a laundry day (involving everything in my wardrobe apart from some tatty shorts I'd bought in India 2006 and a T-shirt) and slobbed in the guest house watching films and writing this diary. I went to the cinema to see Prometheus in "4DX". The cinema sits on the top floor of the beyond-ridiculous Siam centre; never have I seem a Lamborghini showroom on the 3rd floor (or any floor) of a shopping mall. The cinema was the same price as two night accommodation (500 Baht) in my guest house but the curious lure of "4DX" had me buying a ticket before I realised. You get the 3D glasses as usual with the addition of a big comfy chair on hydraulics; It would tilt and yaw and shake and vibrate leaving you feeling a little queezy on the spaceship flying scenes. Also, for extra effect, there were small air jets in the seat headrest that would hisssss loudly in your ear when, for example, the alien hisses in the film; it made me jump and laugh in equal measures. Also (yes there's more!) there was a giant strobe on the ceiling which was particularly annoying during a thunderstorm scene, and dry ice which would rise up at those smokey moments in the film. It was good, if a little distracting, but I don't think I would do it again. The AIS 3D system is better than IMAX in my opinion, it's much clearer and has better depth. The film itself: technically brilliant but the story and characters left me feeling dead inside! Leaving the cinema I noticed a group of gleaming Asian girls with sashes (?) being photographed for what looked like a local beauty contest; around them false faced celebrity types with fashionable hair and big teethy smiles were being interviewed.

Five and a half months I've been gone from the country at this point. Travelling with 2 credit cards (for big purchases like flights), one debit card (emergency backup) and a main, charge-free, travellers card. This is going to sound like an advertisement: the Halifax "Clarity" charge-free card lets you take cash from any ATM, anywhere in the world, for free. Of course local rip-off ATM charges apply in most cases but this would be on top of your own bank charges. I like this card, as did the ATM at a little 24 hour mart which decided to eat it. Asking in the mart they said nothing could be done and that I should see the bank that controls the ATM. I went to the bank with passport and all and they scratch their chins and called a faceless person higher up the chain. It was decided that, following international fraud prevention guidelines, the card would be destroyed. Had I not had a back-up It would have meant festering in Bangkok for however long it took for Halifax bank to get a new card out. I decided to get the card sent to some friends' in Singapore, as I would be there in a months time. Writing this now on Saturday 11th August in Burma I still don't have the card; the one to Singapore never arrived. My sister is going to safely bring a new card (and some vintage cheddar) to Nepal in September.

I must take a moment to mention this picture of a "Missing Monsta" drawing posted on a coffee-shop wall. It's good to see that the word is still on the street! One day you will come home buddy!!

My final days in Bangkok were spent with Talitha who was there to get her Mongolian visa before jetting off to India. The visa office was a pain to find. Trooping all over Bangkok via some wrong directions on Google maps we eventually decided to get a taxi. In a very nice looking neighbourhood a smiling receptionist opened the door to a quiet, plush office with beautiful images of Mongolia on the walls. The visa required should take 24 hours but as we hadn't found the place until midday they said a next day turnaround would be impossible. Talitha explained her flight to India was at 10am the next day prompting he actual consulate to come out from her office for a stern word. I've never met a cross consulate before but to her merit she said that she would push it through and it was to be collected on the way to the airport the next morning.

You can see all of my Bangkok photos here