14.03.2011 - 23.03.2011 31 °C
Following a ferry ride back to the Malay mainland, I boarded my first Thai sleeper train; this one would take me from Butterworth all the way to Bangkok. It stopped at the Malay/Thai border and, as hoped for, the lady exit-stamped my passport, writing a mere “via Singapore” next to it, to explain the lack of an entry stamp. After all that, it just goes to show how bureaucratic some borders can be, and also how simple they ought to be.
(Bottom right) The precious stamp!
Sunset in southern Thailand.
Thai sleeper trains are great. This journey took 22 hours but, in 2nd class AC was quite enjoyable. The lower berths are much wider than the upper ones and only cost 100 Baht (2 pounds) more. I forked out the extra. You get immaculate white, soft bedding, a fully flat bed, wider than an ordinary single bed, a big window and curtains to seal yourself in. The toilets aren’t great but, hey, you can’t have everything.
In the day time the seats fold up into two seats facing each other – very social.
Bangkok’s Hualumpong station is a very busy place, but it’s air conditioned and surprisingly stress free. When I first arrived there, everybody in the huge hall stood up. For me? No, for the national anthem, which is played everywhere in Thailand every day at 6 and 8 o’clock. Everybody stands up – they take it very seriously. The King of Thailand is viewed almost as a god. (Order of society: King, monks, teachers). I heard that anthem so many times, it got quite stuck in my head – it’s fairly catchy (well, as catchy as a national anthem in a foreign language can be).
One thing I hated about Bangkok was the money-grabbing opportunism which appears to be everywhere. Nowhere is this more so than in the gangs of tuktuk drivers who prowl around transport and tourist centres, looking for innocent, tired (and therefore weak) tourists. I had to really argue to get a fair price for my trip to the Khao San area, where I wanted to stay. But that wasn’t before telling a couple of drivers to (politely) get lost for quoting ridiculous figures ad refusing to budge. They prey on the weak – bloodsuckers.
Bangkok is a huge city and not an easy one to get around, especially if you’re unfamiliar with it. You can’t really walk great distances in the heat and humidity with lots of baggage, most maps have roads missing, very few street signs and bus timetables are even in Roman script and the one subway line seems to go away from the places you want to visit. Pretty frustrating. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a great fan of the place. I imagine it’d be a cool place to live once you get to know it, but I wasn’t really captivated during my time there. It’s probably to do with the size of the place, you have to know where to look.
There is some great street food however – a meal of fried noodles, vegetables and spring rolls costs about 50p!
Many places offer cheap traditional massages (which are great, until they start clicking your back) to work out the aches and pains of lugging a couple of rucksacks around the world. Several places have fish spas; you put your feet in big tanks full of small fish who dart around and nibble away all the rough, dead skin. It feels strange, tickles at first, but then is very pleasant, like a mild electric current or vibration.
In a couple of hours, this street flood to over a foot deep – pretty heavy monsoon rain.
Keen to leave Bangkok, I caught a sleeper train up to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, in the mountainous north.
I found here to be far more pleasant. The people were friendlier, it’s easy to navigate by foot and much prettier than Bangkok’s smoggy sprawl of concrete.
There are many Buddhist temples (called Wats) here. This one is Wat Chedi Luang. The decorative detail is stunning, both inside and out.
The main pink brick Chedi was damaged in 1545 and is now crumbling, although still impressive, considering its age.
Many of these temples have a main building or shrine and are surrounded by smaller ones. Some advertise ‘monk chat,’ where one can talk to the monks in English.
Pad Thai street food vendor. Street food is great in Thailand – it’s super cheap and cooked freshly to order in front of you. I enjoyed sitting out on the pavement in the evening, eating local food with local people.
I rented a motorbike for a day and rode up into the mountains which surround Chiang Mai.
The road up Doi Suthep was extremely fun; winding, twisting and very steep with some very good views. It was also pleasantly cooler at higher elevations than in the valley.
Geckos. I didn’t really have anywhere in mind to go, just fancied exploring a little. There was a sign for a walk through the jungle which I spotted and decided to do.
This snake startled me a little. No idea what type it was but gave it a wide berth.
In one clearing there was what appeared to be a shrine with offerings next to a small cave. There are many different hill tribes in the north of Thailand whose peoples are animists, worshipping spirits of the natural world.
Vines and branches coil around one another.
The ‘path’ was ambiguous and I strayed off it a few times.
They do love their King.
Chiang Mai’s Old City is a square, totally surrounded by a moat with several causeways.
Very intricate detail on all of the temples.
My traditional wooden room, and the gecko I shared it with.