Mal & Tracy's
Saturday 30/3/96. Thailand. £1=40 baht. Petrol=90B/litre.
Surprise, surprise they drive on the left here, bang go those popular misconceptions! My first impressions of Thailand from the bus was, very much like Malaysia. The countryside is unimpressive and the lifestyle looks the same. We stopped at 'KL Mansions' (170 baht) in Krabi for the night. From here it is a 2 hour ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi Don.
The hotel has a good selection of tours to go on so we chose the infamous 'James Bond Island Tour'. The bus trip took us through some spectacular landscape with huge limestone columns of rock protruding up out of the ground like teeth from a giants mouth. These rocks were about 200m high and some only 100m across with vertical sides. On the top grow many trees giving them a 'fluffy green head'. The road weaved through these features, across rivers and around fields to reach the dock (Pang Nga Bay) where we were to take our boat. The boat is a larger version of the local fishing boat with a canopy, seats and a 'stonking' great diesel powered truck engine bolted to the back. This arrangement proved to be extremely noisy and almost unstable but fairly fast. I think a standard outboard motor of half the size and a tenth the noise would have worked just as well but perhaps disallowed the boy-racer posing value.
The view on the way to the island was well worth the resulting 'ringing in the ears' as we weaved our way precariously through the mangrove swamps where I presume James took his hover-craft all those years ago.
All around were more of the limestone columns but up close I could see where acid rain had dissolved rock from the top and deposited it in formations further down like wax melting off a candle. Weathering seems to have reworked it into weird knobbley shapes unlike the stalactites normally seen in caves.
In places the mangrove swamps opened up into vast lakes of sea water allowing waves to erode the bottoms of the columns making them look like light objects floating on the surface of the water. One of the columns had been worn through creating an arch (The Grotto) through which we passed in our noisy little boat.
The characteristic feature of 'James Bond Island' (Kao Ping Gan) is the column that has worn into an - inverted circular based pyramid - that looked like it would topple over anytime now - ('Kao Tapoo' or 'Nail Rock'). That was the only way anyone would have recognized the island for it's fame for now it is just crammed with little stalls selling lots of very pretty sea shells worked into many different trinkets. Absolutely no sign of James at all.
On the way back we stopped at a sizable village (Paynee Island) clustered around the base of one of the limestone columns and raised out of the lake on wooden stilts. They even had their own mosque on stilts.
It appears that the village has thrived and grown on the tourist trade and about 1/4 of the place seemed to be devoted to sea food restaurants. Needless to say we stopped for lunch.
Next stop was the Suwankhuha Cave Temple (of the reclining Buddha) where a 14m golden statue of a Buddha lies nonchalantly on a plinth in a cave in the limestone rock (probably because there is not enough height to stand him up). The caves are in much better keep than the Batu Caves north of KL and some limestone features are lit up further to the back. These caves also house families of bats and have a cluster of monkeys outside to snatch handfuls of food from giggling Japanese tourists.
Last stop is at the Thanborekhoranee National Park to swim in the rock pools but the rains on the previous day has washed mud into them and they are uninviting and rather smelly so we skipped that bit. Thailand seems to be much neater than Malaysia with less tumble-down housing and slightly less trash in the streets. I hope it does not get worse as we travel north.
Enough of the mainland, we travel 2 hours by boat to the little island of Ko Phi Phi Don. The only transport on the island is by boat so we hop on a little fishing boat with one of those awful noisy little motors strung on the back and sail round to 'Long Beach' where it is supposed to be a little quieter. It turns out to have a better beach and cheaper accommodation so we pick a basic little hut because it costs only 100 baht per night (£2.50). This leaves us with more beer money which is fortunate as a large (630ml) bottle costs 90 baht! The price you have to pay for getting away from it all is leaving it all behind, the clean secure room, fresh water shower and a proper toilet but you gain immediate access to the sea, beautiful views of little islands in the aqua marine ocean, soft white sands, rocky coves and high forested hills. The food is good here so all together I think we will enjoy our stay.
Sun, sea, sand, snorkeling and stuff. In the evening we tried a bottle of Thai Whisky which has been accurately described as alcohol and flavorings but it did the job. This place would be allot nicer if there was not the constant drone of taxi-boats coming and going. Speedboats pass without only the merest whisper but the taxi-boats can be heard all over the island.
Out for a swim in the morning before it gets to hot. It's almost impossible to get away from the heat but we try for the middle of the day.
In the cooler afternoon we venture out to visit 'Phi Phi viewpoint'. This walk takes us through a village in the center of the island where we would not ordinarily have gone. There are places to stay here as well, away from the attractions of the beach.
Because the water here is undrinkable, drinking water has to be imported in plastic water bottles. Everywhere we walk are piles of these empty bottles lying where they have been discarded.
The walk gets steeper and steeper as we ascend the hill but someone has kindly built concrete steps for us to use.
At the top there is an excellent view of the two back-to-back bays of Phi Phi. The view would be better in the morning when the sun would be behind us but I'm not climbing up again.
By the time we reached the main village we were ready for a beer so we checked out the eateries and stopped at a bar on the beach and downed a couple of beers as the sun set behind the island and the crystal waves lapped onto the shore.
If you looked into some of the kitchens you would give up eating immediately so the trick is to close your eyes and shut your mind. Eventually we found a place with a reasonable kitchen and an interesting menu. We chose 'Phad Thai' which is an old favorite from the 'Thai Cafe' in Hanwell !
Having exhausted the possibilities of Phi Phi we abandoned our grass hut on the hill overlooking the sea and hopped on a boat for a 2 hour trip to Ko Phuket (200 baht each). The boat afforded us a good view of Phi Phi and the steep mountainous parts with vertical cliffs dropping to the sea which makes most of the island inaccessible and hence quite beautiful.
We find our accommodation for the night which turns out to be a Chinese colonial hotel nicer looking on the outside than in. The room is comparative luxury with en suite, a fan and a real mattress.In the afternoon we make our way by public bus (seats in the back of an open sided truck) to Patong Beach where the beach is larger than Phi Phi but the water less inviting. Patong is a package holiday town with large resorts and lots of tourists. Our attraction is the 'Simon Cabaret' as recommended by Steve. H. This cabaret has a unique 'flavour' to it as the entire cast is reputed to be 'young men' some of whom have had liberal applications of hormones and surgery to convert them to the opposite gender.
The result is quite, um, effective but the cabaret can only be described as very impressive with excellent sets and costumes and dramatic use of UV as well as normal lighting and sound. Many of the acts took on country themes from China, Japan, Holland, England, Egypt and America with some well known western songs sung in English or translated to Thai. The term 'Sung' may be a little exaggerated as most songs were mimed and sometimes a little half-heartedly. Some of the dancing was little 'wooden' as one might expect from a male but sometimes the gyrations were a little over exaggerated typical of a flamboyant personality. The show was described as suitable for all ages and family but occasionally a hormone developed breast would slip from its covering to gasps from the mainly Japanese audience. All in all a good wholesome show, which deserved a big write up here as it was the first and most expensive (at 400 baht each) night out we have had in months. Oh, the hardships one has to face in order to travel are many and great!
We took a tuk-tuk back to Pucket Town, not the classic image of a tuk-tuk with a man pulling a wheel barrow or even the modern three wheeler bicycle but the most up to date miniature Hyundi van.
Another expensive day as we head out to the 'Thai Village and Orchid Garden' (220 baht each). The 'Thai Village' turned out to be a show of Thai cultural music, dancing and shadow puppets, demonstration Thai wedding, kick boxing and sword fighting. All this was followed by an amusing display of trained elephants.
We spent the rest of the day walking round town to see the Chinese and Buddhist temples. Phuket seems to be cleaner and tidier than Phi Phi but just as smelly. The fried meats on the street stalls looked and smelled appetizing from a distance but I could not bring myself to eat them after taking a closer look.
Continuing our travels northward we took a standard bus (no AirCon and hard seats) for 4.5 hours to Khao Sok National Park . At the road junction of 'kilo-marker 109' on the highway a truck was conveniently waiting to take us to their accommodation of wood, bamboo and grass huts (Khao Sok Jungle Huts, 150B/night). This is more like it, peace and quiet in a comfortable hut in the jungle with the sound of Gibbons in the distance. Our hut is surrounded by coffee, rumbatan and banana plantations. The national park is kept in much better condition than the towns and cities with very little litter and no industry or logging to spoil the land and waterways. This is the view of Thailand that is presented in the holiday brochures. Thailand has been getting cleaner and tidier as we move north but still it could be better.
After a late start we only managed to visit the National Park Visitor Center before it was time for us to go 'tubing'. So off we went in the back of a pickup truck with 4 inflated truck tires. Further up stream we leapt into the gently flowing river and floated sedately down stream accompanied by two boys from the accommodation and a number of red dragon flies. The course of the river took us through the jungle past many of the karst limestone features that we read about in the Visitor Centre. Living in the jungle there is a constant chorus of noises from insects, birds, gibbons and other wild animals like a contemporary music band.
Off at 11:00 down the path through the jungle to 'Sip-et-Chan', the 11 tiered waterfall. The path weaved around many clumps of bamboo, tall trees with buttress roots and also up and down. This combined with the steamy heat in the 'evergreen forest' made the walk quite arduous and it took us 2 hours to walk the 4km to the falls.
Apparently the forest cannot be called Rain Forest as there is a 15 week dry season that ends in May. This was good and bad for us as the walk was perhaps easier in the dry and the leeches were subdued, but also the colourful flowers were not in bloom including the 'Bua Poot' which is claimed to be the largest and smelliest flower in Thailand. We did not see any wild animals but we did see many colourful butterflies, some small lizards and many exotic plants, some in flower and some with deep purple backs to their leafs. Also blue ferns and an exotic plant only known to me as 'Parrots Beak' due to the shape and colour of the blossoms (not in flower).
At last we reached the falls which were not spectacular as falls go but did contain many rock pools that would be good for swimming in if we had felt in the mood. Climbing up the rocks we were able to find more of the 11 tiers and many more clear rock pools. We spent a happy hour watching the frogs and fish before it started to rain. On the path back we were attached by leeches on many occasions but none managed to get so far as to suck any of our blood before being detected. They were persistent little buggers though'. They seemed to sense my presence and home in on me from a few feet away. These leeches were worm-like, about 3cm long and 3mm diameter. They moved by stepping end over end, stopping only to sniff the air for their prey. They seemed to be able to latch onto your shoes as you walked then step up your leg until they find bare flesh to drill into. Apparently they are hard to get off once they have drilled into your flesh. Burning them with a cigarette is supposed to be effective as is covering them with salt. A park ranger told us to soak tobacco in water then spread this water over our legs and feet. This is supposed to be poisonous to the leeches but I can imagine it would also give you a fake tan. The rain was OK but the leeches did spoil the walk back.
During dinner in the open sided grass shelter, along with the huge flying beetles and moths came a 10cm Preying Mantis to compete with the geckos for flies. I watched it for some time but never had the satisfaction of seeing it eat a bug even though it walked over a few. The bugs are not much problem here except for the ants that seem to crawl into and over just about everything. It is never wise to leave an open packet of biscuits lying around as sooner or later a 'conveyor belt' of ants will try and disassemble them and take the pieces to their nest.
The nights get a bit cooler here but when you wake up in the morning you are already sweating. Another 2.8km trek to Wing Hin waterfall that seemed like 10km and took 1.5 hours in the sweaty heat. On the way we added to our wildlife sightings; squirrels running up and down the bamboo, a field mouse and a couple of lizards, one with a red head and one with a blue stripe across it's face. Not exactly bears and tigers but it will have to do. The falls were again not impressive except for their clear rock pools.
Back at the hut we decided it would be best to set off again on our travels and see how far we could get in the rest of the day so we hopped on the 15:30 bus to Surat Thani, jumping off at Phun Phin to catch a train north towards Bangkok. All the 2nd class seats were booked but we managed to get two 3rd class tickets for 256B. This turned out to be the real cattle class and there were two times as many people as seats, if you can call the barely padded wooden benches seats. We squeezed our way through the crowds of people all eating rice and stuff from little packets (18:00=dinner time) until we reached the end of the train without finding a spare seat. At this point we got off, not wanting to spend 11 hours cramped up with the other cattle.
We now had the task of finding our way to the main bus terminal in Surat Thani with everyone we talked to pointing us in different directions. At last we found a local bus to take us to the main bus terminal where we were directed off down another street to another bus terminal. This place had a bus leaving in 15 minutes at 19:45 in the direction we wanted but at 350B each but with a little haggling we got it down to 300B each. As it transpires we were the only 2 passengers on the whole bus and only had the three crew members for company so it turned out to be a very peaceful trip during which we both managed to get some sleep. At 05:30 we were ushered off the bus at the bus stop where we could catch the 81 bus to Kanchanaburi. Half an hour later we were dozing on a packed local bus on the way to Kanchanaburi bus terminal to arrive at 07:15 and our nightmare journey across half of Thailand had turned into a dream.
It was a short walk from the bus terminal to 'Nita Rafthouse' where 150B bought us a nice room (with real toilet!) in a wood and grass hut floating on the Kwai Yai River. This would have been really peaceful if it had not been for the 'long tailed' boats screaming up and down the river with their stupidly oversized engines tuned for noise. If that was not bad enough then the floating disco rafts started cruising by trying to attract as much attention as possible. In the afternoon we took a stroll down to the JEATH Museum where the horrors of the building of 'Death Railway' were laid out in photographic and sketched record for all to see.
They have no regard for the condition of their country, environment or their own living conditions. They prefer to sleep away their spare time rather than improving their lifestyle. There is no community spirit of working together for the benefit of all as they only think of themselves. Having said all that they are very nice, helpful and kind people and the food is limited but good especially at Nita Rafthouse but I would not like to spend too much time here.
When we woke in the morning the discos were still going but quieter now. Despite them, this is still a nice place to stay and our room is the best we have had in Thailand. We walked past the Dutch War Cemetery on the way to the train station. This must be the best kept bit of land in the whole town with grass and flowers. It provokes a mixture of happiness and yet sadness at the way the people died working for the Japanese on 'Death Railway'.
We found a street stall that served bottles of Coke for 5B each (12.5p). This is allot cheaper than the cans (25B) probably because the bottles are recycled which is why you don't see them strewn around the streets.For 17B each we purchased real, solid wood third class seats on the train to Nam Tok. The train went through mostly flat agricultural land surrounded by distant ragged mountains and past many floating resorts on the Kwai Noi River.
At times the track went through cuttings in the rock which we had read were cut by P.O.Ws with primitive tools in 1942-3. At other times the railway rode trestles clinging to the cliff face by the rivers edge. All the time a hot, dry wind swept through the open windows of the train like an oven door left open.
Nam Tok was a quiet place with only the station and a small restaurant. We had lunch and caught a ride to the nearby waterfalls which were only a sad dribble in this dry season. A hoard of trinket sellers were selling the usual worthless junk so we took the next ride back to the station to catch the last train back to Kanchanaburi.
Saturday is the Thai new year and everywhere the Thais are on holiday and starting to celebrate. The new year starts just after the suns path reaches the highest and longest arc in the sky. This is also the longest and hottest day of the year being about 12.5 hours long with the temperature around 40+ degrees. It feels hot enough now but it will get sticky hot when the monsoons come just after the new year. The Thais celebrate the coming of the monsoons at their New Year by throwing water over each other. In Thailand they follow the Buddhist date system so today is 9/5/2539.
A lazy start to today including only a little shopping! Another traveler convinced us that it would be better to take the train into Bangkok rather than the bus so we caught the 15:20 train for the fairly unspectacular ride into Bangkok. Through the windows came the familiar baking wind accompanied by clouds of dust and occasional showers of water thrown by cheerful kids celebrating the new year.
We got out at Thonburi station which is the end of the line in Bangkok and walked down to the river to catch a ferry to the other side. Some of the ferry crew helpfully told us that this was not the right ferry and to take the express ferry that came in 10 minutes. When that one came the crew helpfully told us not to get on but to wait on the pier and sped off again without really stopping. This went on for almost an hour until in desperation we climbed on the next ferry that did not push us off again. This took us to the other side but further away from our destination than we had been in the first place. Not trusting the taxis or Samlaws we walked the 1km back to our intended lodgings discovering on the way that it would have been easier to walk to and over the road bridge rather than take the ferry, ho hum.
The accommodation turned out to be fairly clean despite our expectations but the bed was the most uncomfortable I have ever slept on and I think it had bugs in it. It was a bit like trying to sleep on rows of 10cm bamboo poles - with teeth. Our impression of Bangkok had been built up from other peoples comments about the place but in our short stay so far it seems to be only just as dirty, smelly and disorganized as any other Thai city. Perhaps it is not at it's most impressive due to many of the inhabitants being away for the new year celebrations.
We did not fancy trying to work out the ferries or busses so we did our usual thing of walking around the city - or at least a bit of it. Down past the Theater, Museum and Grand Palace and on to China Town we went. We were hoping to find some bargains in this area but found mainly bric-a-brac and junk (we should have expected it really). Later we found that the silk markets were closed for the New Year celebrations along with most of the shops. They don't just wish you 'happy new year' here, they do their utmost to soak you with water and plaster you with talcum powder. I understand that the water is to celebrate the coming of the monsoons (I can't see why) but I still don't understand the talc. They even went so far as to drive around the streets in the back of a pickup truck with 10 or more people ladling as much water from an oil drum over as many people as possible. Groups of kids would run across the road to drench us. Super-soakers were selling like hot cakes.
The hotel reception was closed today which made it a little difficult to pay our bill but we wanted to store some bags there until the evening.
Next, a short walk through the diesel fumes to the Grand Palace. We had walked passed it the day before and it looked very glittery behind it's unusually well painted white walls. Inside the walls the temples are excessively colourful. It looked like a child had gone crazy with a box of paints. Little bits of coloured glass and mirrors are stuck all over the walls like sequins. Any sculpted surfaces, of which there are many, are covered in gold leaf.
It being New Year the locals are here to pour water over statues of Buddha and wave flowers at it. Some even try unsuccessfully to stick fresh gold leaf to the statues but it is soon washed off to float in the bowl below.Just after midday dark clouds roll over the city and it starts to rain, a suitable occurrence for the start of the monsoon season.
The Thais have an unpleasant habit if regularly and noisily clearing mucus from their throats which is bad enough at the best of times but doubly so when they are in the kitchen, and the men are no better.
After a spot of grub (literally) we hop on the No:23 bus to the train station. On the way the local kids attempt to dampen as many people as possible with great vigor. The stench coming in through the window is bad enough now to turn my stomach.
The train only has third class seats but this time we manage to get some.
The traveling salesmen are out in force again and wave putrid looking and smelling dried fish in front of our noses and my stomach starts to churn again.
The airport played the usual tricks on passengers that only third world countries still do. Just when you think you have planned your finances down to the last Baht they put the departure tax up from 30B to 200B and you are left standing at the check in desk with a cash shortage. Now you know why the queue was moving so slowly. None of these countries seem to be able to manage to add the tax to the ticket price. Still, a quick visit to the ATM and we are out of there.