Monday, October 31, 2011

Day 18 - Yeepeng Lantern Festival

October 29th was a rollercoaster of a day. We'd heard from one of the girls that a lantern festival was happening somewhere near a university, but after a bit of research by her boyfriend, it turned out that it was a fairly closed religious festival and that the monks were not keen on tourists going along to it. We had also heard that a more open event was taking place by the Three Kings monument. After a bit of thought we decided to go to the monument. There were lanterns there but after investigation with some locals it turned out they were in preparation for the "main" lantern festival on November 10. Dilemma! Further soul-searching abounded and we decided to risk it and head to the festival at Mae Jo university. I thought it would be worth checking with Dao (hereafter known as Magnificent Dao) at the Libra; it turned out that she had already organised 3 bus loads of people to go there! Tourist-free festival my arse. Magnificent Dao leapt into action, flagging down a songthaew (red pickup taxi thing) and negotiating a 200 baht return journey for each of us - Gilly and I, Hayley, James (an English guy Hayley met on a cooking course) and Nevo, an Israeli guy we struck up a conversation with in our guesthouse at lunch.

The journey was an exercise in frustration. We got about 1.5 miles away from the entrance and hit masses of traffic, mainly songthaews full of farangs (foreigners) and dozens and dozens of bikes and scooters weaving in and out of them, slowing things down. It was about 7pm and had got dark, and we needed to stay in the songthaew in order to find out where he was going to park in order to get back to him when we left. There followed a torturous journey around lane after lane of grass paths as the driver was directed from one traffic helper to another. We could see the lanterns being released into the sky a mere 300m away but were helpless to get closer. We finally ended up in a pitch dark field, and had to work our way back to the festival entrance. Fortunately Nevo had brought a torch, but it didn't stop my ankles being made a meal of by whatever biting things we were walking through in the field.

It was worth it though; once we got to the festival, we were treated to a breathtaking show of fire. Thousands of torches lit the ground, their flames being used for people to light lanterns to release. Jaunty music was piped out of huge speakers, and the area was covered with people, Thai and farang alike, taking pictures. The atmosphere was one of both calm and awe, with monks and non-monks alike mixing to light lanterns. It didn't feel like we were intruding at all, indeed it seemed like tourists (and their cash) were expected and welcomed. I love playing with fire so was more than happy to take the opportunity to buy, light and release two lanterns with Gilly, and watch them join the multitude of others in the night sky.

The festival music stopped at about 9:30 so we found our way back to the songthaew with some acrobatics over a gate which was previously open and now locked, and went back to the guesthouse road. We grabbed some great food from Chiang Chabaad Cocktail Bar, just round the corner (massaman curry for me, yellow curry for Gilly) and turned in for the night, relieved that we hadn't missed a fantastic evening.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Day 17 - Chiang Mai Halloween Party

After enjoying a lazy day after the trek, we went to town and splashed out on some Italian food in the evening at Pum Pui. Garlic bread to start was followed by a basket of complementary bread, a massive pizza for me, and a huge bowl of pasta for Gilly, washed down with a half-litre carafe of white wine, all for 16 quid. We felt like splurging on some western food; I love Thai food to bits, but there's only so many stir fries and curries you can eat without craving something a bit more homely.

Yesterday we decided to be a bit more active and walked the best part of 5km to the Chiang Mai University Art Museum in the baking heat. We were almost wilting when we arrived, with the mercury close to 32 C. The art was a little all over the shop, and not really our thing (it was a gallery of exhibits made from recycled / raw materials - noble, but a bit bland). It killed a couple of hours though. On the way back we found an excellent little art cafe called Minimal which had some superb photos in, and made the trip that little bit more worthwhile. After stopping off for a customary Cornetto lunch (ice cream lunches are the best) we headed back to the guesthouse to hit the pool and cool off. Typically, the minute my toes touched the water, the clouds gathered and the temperature dropped about 5 degrees. I can't get a break. We said goodbye to the two Pauls and two Toms who were heading out to Laos on a 16 hour minibus drive - something we'll be avoiding, methinks - and then went over to Hayley's guesthouse (Kavil) for some food.

A couple of the ladies that run the guesthouse were heading out for a Halloween party, and invited us to join them. They cracked open a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and were liberally sharing it around. When I say liberally, I mean that by the time we left the guesthouse, there was only half a bottle left. The owner was a lady called Eve, and she was joined by a younger girl named Benny. They were both completely nuts, and had a fantastic sense of humour. We also saw Max - Eve's younger brother - who was painting a mural in one of the back rooms, which looked stunning. The food at Kavil is great; we shared a plate of chicken with cashew nuts, a penang curry, and a pad thai between 3 of us, with a plate of spring rolls to finish, all cooked from scratch. To say we were stuffed would be an understatement.

We weren't planning on doing much that evening, but have taken the attitude of trying to say "yes" to any invitations we get, in order to broaden our experiences and meet new people. So after food, we waddled out towards the Halloween party which was a good 3km away, whilst Eve cajoled a group of German guys en route to join us. Fortunately, the rest of the Johnnie Walker had made its way into some plastic bottles mixed with water to ensure we didn't get thirsty on the way(!). I love whisky, but generally only when it's neat or - at a push - on the rocks. So this watered down stuff tasted pretty bad, but it's probably for the best as I wanted to have my wits about me in case the club was dodgy. There was nothing to worry about as it turned out, and we were treated to a club full of the most amazing costumes we'd ever seen. The creativity that went into some of these was insane.

Unfortunately the music was dire (I believe it was "techno" but to me it was just a very loud, bassy beat/noise) and it meant that we only stayed for an hour or so before grabbing a tuk-tuk ride/crazy death-trap adventure back to the guesthouse. Tomorrow we will be taking it easy in the daytime before heading to a lantern festival in the evening.

Below are a selection of the best pics from the evening:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 14 - 16: Chiang Mai Trekking and a Rest Day

We spent a wonderful, if exhausting, two days trekking near some Chiang Mai villages. After booking it through our guesthouse (Libra), we got up at 7:30am and headed straight to Mork Fa waterfall, which was magnificent. I think I preferred it to Erawan waterfall, it seemed a lot less touristy. In fact, we didn't see another tourist or group for the entire trip - one of the reasons we went with Libra. After the waterfall, we went to a hot spring which was incredibly hot - we couldn't sit down in it for more than 5 minutes without getting cooked. The amount of heat that is generated by a geyser is amazing, I wasn't expecting it at all. Once we were done there, the actual trekking started. This was tough. It took us about 3 and a half hours of walking through jungle, with 4 - 5 five minute breaks. Most of it was hilly (up and down) and whilst the distance to our destination as the crow flies was 9km, we must have walked a good 11-12km, if not more due to the path we took. The heat was sweltering, and we were thankful that most of the walking was out of the direct sunlight, as it would have been unbearable. We visited two villages which were mostly empty as the villagers were out farming, and took in some great sights of the mountains. However, we were not smelling our best when we finally reached the Karen village at about 5:30pm. Our guide was a Karen native called Noo, who had left to help run the trek with the guesthouse - he was great fun. He cooked us some very tasty dinner (chicken and potato curry, stir-fried chicken and lots and lots of rice) and taught us the word "Abuya" (a-boo-ya) which means Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, Cheers, and a number of other things. Quite handy really. He also gave us some "happy water" to try...this is basically home-brewed white spirit with an ever-so-slight fruit tang, and was one of the strongest drinks I've ever tasted. We built a fire, and sat around playing cards with the other trekkers who had joined us at the Libra - Paul, Paul, Tom, Tom (all 4 from the UK), and Monique - a UK-born American who works as a professional clown in Colorado. They were a great group, and we had a lot of fun over the two days.

At about 9:30pm the lights suddenly all went out, and we were plunged into pitch dark. This was probably because the village uses solar power to generate was pretty terrifying when it happened though. We'd brought torches, but didn't spend too much longer outside as the various bugs floating around made a bee-line straight for the torchlight. We did get to see a firefly though, something I'd never seen before. Our lodging was a hut in the village, furnished with sleeping mats, a couple of pillows and some old duvets, all covered with mosquito nets. It wasn't the best night's sleep I'd had, but the trek had tired me out enough to get a good 7 hours before morning.

The next day we had breakfast (a mountain of toast and fresh fruit) and then the elephants were brought down from the mountain to get washed in the river. I got up on one of them and poured water over it, I'm not sure if it minded or not but it didn't try to shake me off so I took that to be a good sign. After the elephant bath we then got to ride them. They really are beautiful, gentle creatures and are very intelligent. The one Gilly and I were riding grabbed and broke off a nearby branch with its trunk and proceeded to scratch its head with it. After an hour or so riding, we came back to the village and fed bananas to them which was hilarious. Our elephant crammed loads into its mouth and then took some more off Gilly and held them curled in its trunk whilst munching the current mouthful...greedy sod.

We headed back to the river and got on a bamboo raft. This is basically 19 bamboo logs secured by what looked to be banana leaf. It was controlled by Noo at one end and another villager at the other, with the rest of us sat in a line down the middle. It must have taken a good 2.5 hours to get down the river; the two guides were fishing with a bit of fishing line and a carrot attached to a bamboo cane. Noo caught nothing, but the other guy - who couldn't have been older than 13 - managed to get a fish. He held it in his mouth until it died, then tied it to the raft. Lunch for him was sorted, then. I had a go fishing and managed about as well as Noo. I don't think it's a sport I'll ever fancy doing. Unfortunately disaster struck on the river when Gilly slipped getting on the raft, and lost her sunglasses. If anyone finds them in the river, please let me know. Otherwise, there's probably going to be a really cool fish swimming around right now.

After lunch (noodles, chicken, veg, and a papaya salad which was insanely hot), we got kitted out for some whitewater rafting on the Mae Tang River. Now, our insurance covers us up to Grade 3 whitewater rafting but because of the recent floods in Thailand, the river was pretty turbulent, and was around Grade 4...we decided to do it anyway. I'm glad we did as it was fantastic. The only other rafting we've done was in Wales which was about as calm as you could get - it was good, but not particularly adrenaline-filled. This was the other end of the scale, and whilst we didn't fall in or tip over, we got a massive soaking on a number of occasions down the 10km trip we took.

Wet and tired, we piled into the van and headed home. It was an amazing trip, and we were glad we took the opportunity to do it. It was also very reasonably priced - about 50 GBP each for the whole thing, including rafting, food, accommodation, the works. Outstanding. The shower I had in the guesthouse was very, very welcome though. We'd also amassed a decent pile of laundry to do so we gave that to our guesthouse to do all at once rather than have us try and scrub it in the sink. Handwashing is OK for the odd thing, but sometimes it's worth letting the professionals do it, especially if the clothes smell as bad as ours did...

Today we are taking it easy. We've moved a couple of doors down to SK Guesthouse which has a pool and is also cheaper. The 4 guys we went trekking with have also moved, so we'll be heading out for some beers and cards tonight I think. We went shopping in the main Chiang Mai shopping centre and I picked up another t-shirt, but Gilly had no luck finding sunglasses she liked so we'll probably have to wait until the Sunday market again.

As expected, the monstrosity of awfulness which is Santander has screwed us yet again by not letting us withdraw money on our debit card from ATMs. This is despite me confirming twice that we were going travelling. I'm now going to have to get a SIM card and call their horrendous customer service line to try and get things rectified. It makes my blood boil how utterly incompetent one bank can be. Fortunately we've got enough cash to keep us going for about another week, but whoever picks up the phone when I call is going to get an earful. If I can give you one piece of consumer advice it would be don't ever, ever, EVER use Santander. Ever.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Day 12 & 13 - Chiang Mai

Arrived at Libra Guesthouse after a short flight and taxi ride, at about 11pm. Not a good start, the room wasn't bad but we had twin beds despite booking a double room, and were joined by a cockroach in the bathroom. Woken at 6:30am by people walking past our room outside (we were on the ground floor), talking, making noise...and then the workmen across the road started up. But then things got better.

Dao is the lady that runs the guesthouse, and as soon as I told her we didn't sleep too well, she apologised and immediately moved us to a double room on the second floor. She had been having an argument with her staff about whether we were two guys or a couple and eventually settled on the former (note to self - specify this when emailing guest houses in future). She then got out a map, and sat with us for about 20 minutes pointing out the highlights of Chiang Mai, things to do and see, and places to eat. We've booked on a 2 day/1 night trek with the guesthouse which promises to travel a less well-trodden route and includes a stop at a waterfall (can't get enough of those...) a stop at a hot spring, a trek with some elephants, some bamboo rafting and an overnight stay at a Karen village. To date there's only 3 of us booked on the trip, but a few Germans may be joining us. It'll either be Tuesday or Wednesday depending on when we can get the numbers together. It's pretty reasonable too - it works out at about 70 quid all in, including food and accommodation.

We checked out the Chiang Mai cultural centre yesterday afternoon which told the story of Chiang Mai's history and had plenty of things to read and listen to, but it was presented in quite a dry format and wasn't as stimulating as the counterpart in Bangkok. We also visited Chiang Man, a fairly ancient wat on the way there (almost 800 years old).

In the late afternoon, we went back to the guesthouse to sit in some hammocks in the shade; the heat has been blisteringly hot, and really takes it out of you. We met a fellow resident - Hayley, from Melbourne - and decided to join her in the evening as she was headed to the massive Sunday market that Chiang Mai hosts each week. We met some of her friends en route: Eli and her partner Huey, and Eli's friend Anna, all from Australia. It's been great to chat with new people and get ideas of places to visit when we eventually head over there. We've all arranged to meet up for the Lantern Festival next Saturday, which promises to be excellent. We saw a few hundred of the lanterns set up next to the Three Kings monument in Chiang Mai, and I imagine they will look spectacular lit up.

The Sunday market was amazing. I cannot even fathom how people can cram so much "stuff" into one street. It's probably a good kilometre or two long, with arts, crafts, clothing and food all lining the street, and two huge food courts either side. Everything is crazily cheap, and pretty good quality too; I could quite easily see myself coming back with two massive suitcases and filling them with beautiful pictures, carvings and clothes. But unfortunately not on this trip! Gilly went with the intention of getting some light trousers, and succeeded. Somehow, a new dress also ended up getting purchased. Ah well, on her back be it. The food in the food courts was amazing. We ate some of the nicest samosas we've ever tasted, and filled up on various rices, chicken balls, odd sausage-type things and prawn toast. Delicious.

Today we went up to Doi Suthep and had a wander around; a lovely building, but something about the nature of the Buddhist culture makes me uneasy. Everything I've seen appears to revolve around money. Donation boxes line the walls, and giant "trees" made out of banknotes abound in many of the temples or wats we've visited. Locals come to pray to the Buddha and throw numbered sticks on the ground to get "lucky" numbers they can use to play the lottery, and hundreds of boxes promoting good fortune are available for you to buy anything from a long life to happiness (depending on the boxes you decide on). This clashes uncomfortably with the solid gold idols and monuments which are on display, as well as the stupid amount of wealth flaunted in the many, many palaces around the country. I make no secret of my atheism, but I feel that a religion which promotes the purchasing of happiness with hard currency is perhaps not as sacrosanct as it would like the wider world to believe. This is just my opinion, however.

We're heading to a little restaurant around the corner from the guesthouse tonight with Hayley for some yummy dinner. I probably don't need the's always yummy. We'll find out later if the trek is on for tomorrow, otherwise we'll probably head out of the old city and check out some of the outskirts. As we're going to be here until Saturday at least, we've got plenty of time to wander around at our leisure. It's nice not to feel rushed. Our visas expire on November 10th so we definitely need to have left and be in Laos before then.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day 10 & 11 - Kanchanaburi Creams

We're sat at the airport, filling the 4 hours until our Chiang Mai flight. Thankfully, we have a puzzle book, cards, and the all-important Kindle. It was touch and go whether we'd actually get here today. We had booked a minibus yesterday with Toi's Tours (opting to give a competitor to Good Times our business, since the lady running it was very smiley whilst Good Times appeared to be the Tesco of tour operators, ad didn't have the trip we wanted a few days back). Great, we thought - we can relax now and just hop on the bus today. We were woken at 7:30 by the woman who had travelled down the road to our guesthouse and had a frantic look on her face (according to Gilly anyway, I was basically still asleep..).

The minibus wasn't running due to the floods.
Crap. How can we get to the airport?
You could take a taxi.
For a 3.5 hour much would that be?
1800 baht (£36)...

...which was 800 more than the minibus. Not outrageous, but to put it into context, two nights' stay in our Chiang Mai guesthouse is only 700. We had no option, of course, luckily our budgeting included a fair amount of contingency for emergencies like this. We'll just have to eat at some more street vendors for a couple of nights to get back on track, and the food is so good anyway, it's not exactly a hardship.

Speaking of food, we avoided the Jolly Frog guesthouse in Kanchanaburi due to a number of recent reviews mentioning bedbugs. However, we went there for some drinks last night and watched a fundraising band comprising mainly children play (really well) in aid of Baan Dada children's home, Maybe I should ease off the XBox when I get back and pick up the guitar that's been gathering dust for 8 years. We then went back today for lunch, and it was huge, filling, delicious and cheap. Even if you don't stay there, you can do a lot worse for mealtimes.

I mentioned in a previous post that ants are not our friend. This turned out to be an understatement after I got bitten three times on one foot and twice on the other. These bites aren't painful, but by the gods do they itch. Of course, the bites are located exactly where my sandals rub against my feet, meaning I'm in an itchy stupor every time I walk. I've smeared Anthisan cream all over the bites, and can only hope that reapplying it every few hours will sort them out. The ants here are practically indestructible. Gilly thought she'd killed one by squashing it this morning, but a minute later it started moving again. She smashed it to a pulp with some tissue against the table, opened the tissue and it was STILL ALIVE. I think they must have some sort of metal exoskeleton or something. I wager if you threw one into the fire it would melt into a pool of quicksilver before reforming again, like a goddamn Terminator.

Ice creams here are lovely, and there's so much more variety than the UK. This is probably due to our summer lasting 4 days, but there's definitely a market for black cherry Cornettos back home.

Looking forward to Chiang Mai, it's smaller than the capital and supposedly a lot more laid back too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 9 - Kanchanaburi: Lessons Learned

We are still in Kachanaburi and will be now until Saturday.

Things we've learned:

- Travelling involves a lot of forward planning when it comes to travel between places. When you have the bare bones of an itinerary and are effectively making it up as you go along, last minute decisions to skip flood areas and jump on a plane to a relatively safe city can be tricky to organise. Case in point: we wanted to book a flight to Chiang Mai last night for today. We could have done so if we hadn't left the cards in the safety deposit box which was unavailable until morning. This morning we found almost all flights for today and tomorrow had sold out. So now we have booked another two nights at Ploy, and will be getting to Bangkok airport to catch a 9pm flight to Chiang Mai with Air Asia on Saturday. We've also attempted to book a room at Diva Guesthouse for our arrival and will hopefully be staying there at least two nights. For me, Chiang Mai seems more appealing than Bangkok. Everything aside from public transport appears to be cheaper which means we can indulge in the things it is known for: expeditions. It may still be quite touristy, but we both want to spend a day with some elephants and there appears to be plenty of places offering just that.

- Washing clothes by hand is difficult if you are expecting the same level of freshness you get from a machine. It simply won't happen. My quick drying clothing is acceptable, but until we decide to risk a boil wash in a local laundrette, we will probably have to make do with a fragrance of Eau de Damp (avaiable in Boots now).

- We should probably keep at least one card with us at all times in case some spontaneous purchases are required.

- Ants are not our friend.

- Mosquitos have some sort of cloaking mechanism which renders them invisible just long enough for them to have a nice meal on (and of) your leg, before buggering off.

- The humidity can be draining. It has been a sticky 26-27 today with no breeze, and little respite. At least in Bangkok we had a few storms each day to clear the air. Probably not too good for the locals though.

- Gilly is inordinately good at playing Cribbage. Considering her vocal distaste for anything involving maths, this is perplexing.

- The Kindle has been a lifeline. It's allowed us to keep on top of the flood situation and also find our way to places and book them. I would hate to think what a RTW trip would have been like to undertake 20 years ago, reliant solely on word of mouth to find recommended digs. Trip Advisor has come in for some stick, but it is in my opinion the best travel review site I've used, bar none.

- I'm getting a taste for Asian beer. I've never really been a lager fan aside from Corona, but the two main lagers here are not far off that taste: Singha is probably my favourite at 5% but Chang at 6.4% isn't too bad either. At just over a quid a bottle, they are good value too. I haven't dared touch the wine here. Red wine in Asia is likely best avoided unless it's imported; a guy came into the bar last night clutching a bottle off Penfolds red like it was a 30 year old single malt.

- Air Asia is one of the worst websites I've used for booking flights. They make Easyjet's costing system look transparent. You have to opt out of buying insurance not once, but twice during the booking process. You also get pre-allocated seats you have to opt out of if you don't want another bundle of costs added to the total. Doing it in an internet cafe was bad enough; I fear if I try to do it on the Kindle there may be a Kindle-shaped hole in the bedroom window after a couple of minutes.

We now need to fill today and tomorrow with things to do...or not. Truth be told, it's nice having a break from hitting the sights every few days or so. Kanchanaburi is a quiet town, and since we won't be spending as long in our first run of Thailand as first planned, we can rest up a bit and take our time when we get into Chiang Mai.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 7 & 8 - Kanchanaburi

Checked into the Ploy Guesthouse, our cheapest accommodation yet, and also the best. Thai-style beds, free drinking water, a massive en suite, breakfast included, marvellous. We visited the Death Railway Museum not long after arriving. This told the shocking and moving tale of the building of the Thailand-Burma railway, where the Japanese used POWs and drafted in Asian labourers to toil away, often around the clock and under brutal conditions. The museum pulled no punches, it was very matter-of-fact and I would highly recommend visiting if you came to this small town.

We ate at the Apple Guesthouse Restaurant last night, a place we may have stayed at if they hadn't been booked up. As it turns out, the Ploy exceeded all expectations. The restuarant was also excellent, however. I had chicken with basil, chilli and rice, and Gilly went for fried rice with pineapple, chicken and cashews. Yum.

Today we went all touristy and booked a tour out with a local shop. It made sense really, most of the sights in Kanchanaburi are spread out (probably a 100 mile round trip all told), so a tour took us to the main places we wanted to visit: Erawan waterfall, Hellfire Museum, a ride on the "Death Railway" and the River Kwai bridge. The Hellfire Museum was dedicated to a specific cutting through the sheer rock face that the POWs had to labour around, by drilling and then blasting rock. Hundreds of thousands died building the railway due to the conditions; it was very humbling.

The railway ride was hot but scenic, but unfortunately the bridge area had been turned into a tourist hotspot for souvenirs and other associated junk. The bridge itself was not particularly impressive as a structure, but if you consider what went into building it, that's another matter entirely. In an attempt to keep our budget from spiralling out of control, we went to the Night Bazaar not far from the guesthouse and grabbed some tasty freshly cooked food from a stall.

Ayuttaya is now off the agenda thanks to the floods, so we are going to need to review our travel plan. One option is to somehow get to Chiang Mai where the flooding is no longer an issue, but that may mean going back to Bangkok. Much last minute planning awaits...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day 6 - Thai massage and Chinatown

Currently writing this whilst being driven at breakneck speed in a minibus to Kanchanaburi; I don't think the waist seatbelt will do me much good if we hit something. I count myself lucky - Gilly doesn't have one. To be honest, in an accident at this speed neither of us will know much about it, which I take some comfort in. Driving in Bangkok is nuts. People cut in front of each other, overtake on either side and use indicators sparingly. If that's not enough, the road markings appear to be more of a rough guideline; I've seen a couple of roads which have one way arrows on them, whilst traffic freely flows in the opposite direction. Yet no-one seems to use their horn. Maybe it's some sort of Buddhist fatalism I'm not aware of, and they assume that when it's their time to die in a 12-car pile-up then so be it.

I neglected to mention our trip to Siam Centre in downtown Bangkok, mainly because we didn't actually visit any of the shops there. It was basically an upmarket Khao San road, but didn't appear to have much we were interested in. We did have a conversation with a guy outside a bank who claimed he worked there and gave us a talk about the floods in the area, before then trying to get us to go to a "Tourist Office" where we would no doubt have been fleeced.

We also, by chance, stumbled across the Big Buddha late at night a couple of nights back. This would be the Big Buddha that all of the scam artists and tuk-tuk drivers would try and get you to visit as they have a load of gem merchants and whatnot gathered in the area, but apparently not at 9pm. Good news for us. True to its name, it was big, but not as big as the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

My back has been really sore over the last couple of days, so we decided to indulge in a 1 hour all over Thai massage at the hotel for a bargain 4 quid each. It wasn't as painful as I'd expected and we both felt a good kind of ache afterwards. Sadly my back is still not 100% but I bought a pot of tiger balm from the masseuse which tingles and warms when rubbed over my back, and this should hopefully keep me going until it feels better.

We travelled the length and breadth of Khao San Road trying to find a pair of light long trousers for Gilly. Some of the temples and attractions have a strict dress code policy of not showing any leg from the knee up, but even Gilly's long shorts which came down to her lower calves weren't sufficient for the Vimanmek Palace who seemed to be rejecting women's outfits regardless of length and directing them to the conveniently located sarong stall where they could purchase one for 40 baht (80p). Very would think they were taking advantage of tourists.

Sadly, most of the clothing was pretty rubbish, and the trousers were more MC Hammer than Princess Jasmine, so Gilly wasn't too keen. I was on the lookout for some polyester shirts as they are lighter, dry faster, and help with heat much better than cotton. Khao San road only appeared to sell cotton. We were advised that Cambodia was the place to get wicking tops, so it may be a few months before I can trade off some of my cotton t-shirts.

At night we went to Chinatown on the recommendation of Gilly's masseuse, and enjoyed a fab meal (albeit under cover from the rain) of curried crabmeat, chilli-fried prawns and rice. It was delicious.

Kanchanaburi awaits!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bangkok Day 4 & 5 - Vimanmek Palace, Queen's Gallery, Jim Thompson House, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre

Whilst not a sewer, Green House is possibly the worst place I've ever stayed in. Beds as hard as concrete, pillows uncomfortably lumpy, a dangerously rusty bathroom door in a fairly grim en suite, and worst of all, it faces a street which has "singers" performing until around 3:30am. If it wasn't hard enough to get to sleep with all of that, I was woken at 4:30am by some American pillock trying to get one of his friends to come out with him. She wasn't too keen, but was still more than happy to give him a rundown of her day's events, the highlight apparently being when she bought a taco. "They're like sooooo AMAZING!!!" Super.

We trekked over to Vimanmek Palace in the morning, which was built by King Rama V, the most beloved and progressive king that Thailand had, and it was crazy. Acres of sprawling gardens filled with magnificent buildings, all glorifying the Thai monarchy. Two of the buildings were photo galleries comprising pictures the reigning monarch (Rama IX) had taken. The blurb accompanying these photos was sycophantic to the point of propaganda. Every shot he had taken was for a reason and allegedly incorporated one moral or another, or showcased his wonderful ability with a camera. Apparently he was so technically proficient as a photographer he developed his own camera filters and revolutionised Thai photography. He also plays about 5 different instruments. What a guy. The centrepiece of the Vimanmek Palace was the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall, a ridiculously decadent building filled with more gold treasures than the mind can comprehend. For his 80th birthday/60th year of reign hundreds of artisans spent 1 - 2 years crafting each piece, from a golden latticed longship, through to gold carriages, intricately carved wood panels stretching up 15-20 feet high, huge tapestries studded with diamonds, emeralds, and other gold and silver gubbins. There was literally tens of millions of pounds worth of gold on show, all in glory of this chap on the throne. I half expected to find the Ark of the Covenant stashed away in the corner. Sadly photography was forbidden, and I didn't want to risk stealthily snapping a few things in case the King's guard got mean.

We also hit a few arty places in the last few days. I love galleries. A lot of modern art doesn't do much for me; a couple of lines on a bit of canvas with a splodge in one corner isn't something I could enjoy looking at. Realism and some of the more fantastical paintings though, that's another story. Both the Queen's Gallery and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre had these in abundance, and they were fantastic. I'll be sticking some of the more eye-catching paintings up on Flickr soon. The upload speed for Flickr isn't great so I'm probably going to be playing catch up for a few months.

Yesterday we went to the Golden Mount, a huge bell-shaped temple which still houses monks in the surrounding area. Monks are everywhere in Bangkok, and anachronistically can be seen riding buses, smoking fags, calling people on mobile phones, and fiddling with MP3 players (Note to Dad - an MP3 player is like a Sony Walkman but smaller and without the need for cassette tapes). All very bizarre.

Following that, we went to Jim Thompson House, a wonderful collection of houses interlinked and made from teak, all meticulously preserved. He was an American entrepreneur who got rich from the silk trade and was adopted by Thailand as a hero for helping promote their export business. He then disappeared one day, aged 61 and was never heard from or seen again. There's a bit of a legend surrounding him simply because of this. Some say he went to a Buddhist temple, in a Rambo-esque fit of pique. The guidebook optimistically suggests it was more likely he was hit by a car whilst out walking and buried at the side of the road. Either way, it was all a long time ago now so he's probably not in the best condition whatever happened.

We checked into Thai Cozy House for the next couple of nights, which was a lovely change to the last dump. For an extra 2 quid a night, we got free bottled water, a 15 minute Thai massage each (I'm going back tonight for a full hour as my back is killing me) and breakfast. Nice room, nice bed, nice pillows. Woke up today completely refreshed.

Food-wise it's been too hot for us to feel hungry in the day so we've taken to eating breakfast and then getting a decent meal at night. The last two nights we have eaten at the same place - Lotash Seed on Rambuttri Road. Run by a local family, it has fantastic Thai dishes made by the owner's sister who gave us some good recommendations, and the owner (See) who spoke excellent English and spent a good hour talking to us about Thai life. It's a wonderful place to eat amongst the lasagnes, chicken and chips and other English garbage food offered in the tourist district.

Tomorrow we're getting a minibus to Kachanaburi (home of the River Kwai), and staying in a guesthouse there for a couple of nights. From there we'll try and get to Ayutthaya, but it depends on the floods. It has rained consistently and persistently every day we've been here which has broken the humidity nicely, and hasn't actually bothered us that much. However, I think we're ready to move on from Bangkok. The constant harrassment from tuk-tuk drivers, people asking where we're going and trying to direct us to one flavour of Buddha or another (we've had Black Buddha, Golden Buddha, Big Buddha and Lucky Buddha to name a few) and more recently tailors. Every other shop on the Khao San road is selling tailor-made suits. Even two streets along in the hotel complex we're staying at has a bloody tailor attached to it. One of the guys running it tried to pitch to me this morning as we were eating breakfast. Incredible. Obviously where tourists go, hawkers follow. I'm hoping for a bit of a break from the hard sell in the next destination, but won't hold my breath.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bangkok Day 2 + 3: Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wash Out.

Bangkok is an interesting city. Going by my own experiences of travel, it seems to be a mish-mash of Western consumerism coupled with a wide range of eateries similar to Greece and the kind of hard-sell you'd find in a country like Tunisia. However, the hard-sell ranges from blatant to downright devious. Yesterday we decided we were going to visit the Grand Palace. On the way there, we were stopped by a tuk-tuk driver asking us where we wanted to go and upon telling him he informed us that it was a "Buddhist holiday", so only Thais could enter in the morning and tourists could visit at 2:30. Instead, he suggested we took a trip with him to the Standing Buddha which is apparently a massive 40ft Buddha statue. I'd read about this kind of con in the guidebook (i.e. telling you something is closed and shepherding you somewhere else, usually via a gem shop) so we were just about to move on when another guy came over, shooed him away and then proceeded to look at our map and tell us about the various sights we could visit. He said he worked in the government, and that there were a lot of people scamming you on the road. He gave us some advice on the quality of clothing and other tat on Khao San Road, and said we should best avoid it to not get ripped off. All seemed like reasonable advice. Then he started asking questions: If you took a tuk-tuk to this site, this site and that site, how much do you think it would cost? Alarm bells started ringing. It would have cost 60 Baht (about 1.20). All we needed to do was hop in a tuk-tuk. But we want to go to the Grand Palace! Ah yes, but that's closed. You didn't know? Ahaha, it's a Buddhist holiday - it opens again at 2:30 for tourists. He then started pointing out the various modes of transport on the road and whether they were official or not. Taxis with meters in? Not official. These yellow tuk-tuks? They are official government tuk-tuks. You want to get in one? Erm, no thanks...time to move on. As we did, we went past the original scammer who had pulled up in a tuk-tuk expectantly, as if he was convinced the "government official" would have convinced us to ride in his 3-wheeled death trap and visit a load of cheap tat shops run by his mates. He was disappointed.

It didn't stop there though. As we continued to the palace, we were verbally greeted by a number of people, one was a "doctor" who told us the palace was closed whilst we were waiting to cross the road. Another was at a temple we passed - she told us her name was Chanarwa. Little old lady, on holiday from Chiang Mai. Had been to Bangkok 3 times in her life, and was here again on holiday for a week. Took us into the temple to see rows of Buddhas, showed us around the courtyard, all very nice. Sat us down in the main part of the temple and proceeded to point out on our map the Standing Buddha (45 ft high - it must have grown since earlier in the morning), and also informed us that the Palace was closed until 1:30 for tourists (I guess they had so many expectant tourists, they decided to open it for us an hour earlier - very nice of them). At this stage I'd had pretty much enough. We got up, went out to the courtyard and wandered around taking photos, as she followed and tried to herd us back outside. In the end she gave up, and when we finally arrived at the palace we found it was - shock! - open. Imagine our lack of surprise.

The Grand Palace was a bizarre mix of Thai and Chinese architecture, the majority of it covered in gilt, mosaic and glass. Ostentatious probably doesn't describe it; it was like an authentic version of the kind of thing you'd find in Las Vegas, all spires, garish colours and weird ornamentation. The photos in my Flickr feed will probably explain it better than I can. The main highlight was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which appeared to be made out of jade. The mercury rose uncomfortably in the afternoon and we staggered on through the heat to Wat Pho which had similar architecture, slightly less loud, with the centrepiece of the site being a massive (and I mean massive) reclining Buddha. This thing was monstrous, and barely fit within the temple that housed it (also huge).

In the evening we went out to a restaurant called The Flow, which had lovely food but a waitress with a permanent scowl. I told her (in Thai) that the food was delicious, and she said "You speak Thai?". I said "No", and she made a face that was somewhere between a grimace and a sneer, like I'd comically fallen into a cesspool. At least I was making the effort to try and speak the lingo. When we were in France, the locals loved it when you made an effort. To be fair, the staff at the guesthouse were delighted when I said "thank you" in Thai; I guess most tourists don't bother trying.

Today we were going to go to Museum Siam - the Museum of Discovery. Unfortunately, the only thing we discovered was that it was closed due to the worst floods Thailand has seen in 50 years. I wouldn't say that this was unusual for us. We tend to bring out extreme weather in the areas we visit; when we went to Skiathos, they had a month's worth of rain dropped on the island in the space of 30 minutes. When we went to Barcelona, they had the first snow they had experienced for 9 years. I guess we should have been expecting this. We were caught in a torrent shortly after we found it was closed and managed, somehow, to get a #53 bus back to the road our guesthouse was in. It was an odd bus, in that the ticket lady was holding a clipboard and marking off how many people got on and off the bus, but not actually collecting money. We got to our stop and she ushered us out, and I was expecting to pay someone at the bus stop...but there was no-one there. Free bus ride - woohoo! It went some way to make up for horrendous drenching we got. Typically, as I sit typing this the weather has much improved.

Tomorrow we're moving away from the Sivarin Guesthouse to Green House which is on a road parallel to Khao San Road. By all accounts it's not going to be as nice, but it'll be cheap and in the centre of the backpacker community which is something we've not yet experienced. Plus, we've only booked one night there so if it turns out to be a cockroach-infested sewer, there's plenty of similar sewers to choose from in the area.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bangkok - Arrival

We arrived in Bangkok at 3:40, tired but well fed.

Despite a brief moment when the check in monitor gave us a glimmer of hope that we may have some extra legroom, we were crammed into a massive sardine tin with cattle class space to manoeuvre. Tesco farm hens would have looked at us and smirked (if one can smirk with a beak) before flapping their wings in the luxury of their massive barn. We had the inordinate pleasure of being seated half a metre from a screaming shit, regaling us with piercing shrieks just because he could, whilst Gilly was lucky enough to be positioned in front of a toddler who kicked her seat back every ten seconds.

There was a point where we thought things may go wrong when the check in assistant in Heathrow said we needed to have an onward flight. We don't have an onward flight until April which is obviously outsidde the 30 day window for visitors. Luckily after a phone call to check, she said it was OK. We need to be in Laos by November 10 at the latest but otherwise the Thai authorities didn't care. We got a taxi to the Sivarin Guesthouse which is a nice, fairly basic place by UK standards but I suspect a bit pricier than many of the tourist flophouses which are bound to be dotted around.

Had a second crisis when Gilly found her camera lens coated in a weird sticky film which may actually have come from the camera itself. Easily wiped off but a little worrying. Mine appeared to be unharmed so we at least have one camera if the worst happens to hers.

Looking forward to the breakfast in the morning, hopefully followed by a trip to the palace. Right now though, I'm mostly looking forward to sleep.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Farewell to Wimbledon

I spent a great night in the company of friends in Wimbledon yesterday. After a couple of drinks in the Hand and Racquet, we went to Han restaurant in New Malden for food and karaoke. The food was excellent, but the service unforunately wasn't. I might be picky here, but if someone orders food it doesn't bode well if the waiter forgets to tell the kitchen to cook it. Still, it worked out in the end as we got an upgraded karaoke booth and no-one paid for their food. Quite a maverick business model, but probably not a recommended one. Everyone had a great night (I believe, anyway. After the second bottle of wine things got a bit hazy...) and I'm going to miss the Wimbledon gang very much. Also had a smashing curry at lunchtime courtesy of a cracking cafe near Mo. It will be interesting to see how curries differ in Asia compared to the UK.

I took out the stuff I'll be wearing and also ditched some sun cream and a few cables, and the bag is now a lot more manageable. Less is definitely more in this case, I've estimated a 12.4% reduction in the chance of a slipped disc, and a 35.1% reduction in likelihood of me throwing the damn thing in a Bangkok river two days after arrival.

Speaking of rivers, we've now booked our first three nights' accommodation at a guesthouse close to the river, specifically the Sivarin Guesthouse which is about 1km from the Khao San road and about 2km from the Grand Palace. It's very reasonably priced and includes breakfast, whilst not being in the centre of the tourist hub. I'm now starting to get excited about the trip. With the last few weeks of sorting out work, the car, the house and all the associated admin that comes with being out of the country for a year (something the government can't seem to comprehend- "You want to leave the UK? WHY? How are you going to support yourself? You must tell us everything immediately!"), I haven't really had time to think about the trip itself. Now I can finally start looking into some of the fantastic things we're going to be doing. Three days to go!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Stuff, Addendum

Today we walked from Harrow and Wealdstone station to Gilly's parents' house. This is a 1.1 mile journey. We did this whilst carrying our fully loaded backpack/daypack combination, and have come to the following conclusions:

- Not properly packing your backpack can result in pain.
- Not properly adjusting your properly packed backpack can result in pain.
- 12kg worth of stuff is not fun to carry on your back for any length of time in an ill-packed, ill-adjusted backpack, as it results in pain.
- 12kg worth of stuff is probably 4kg worth of stuff too much to take with us.

Tomorrow's task will be a concerted effort to shave off precious weight from an already fairly sparse inventory. I'm now only taking flip-flops and wearing the Keens (sod the trainers...), and I'm going to seriously reduce the amount of over-the-counter medicines I'll be taking. I also need to decide if I have too many clothes. The answer is probably yes. I've got about 6 bottles of sun cream for both of us. Plus a bottle of after-sun. I think that's 5 bottles too much. I may burn more easily than a Tesco Express during a UK riot, but I'll be damned if I'm going to put my back out lugging 5 litres of the stuff around. I'll just wear more clothes. That'll make my back lighter, need less sun cream, and make me feel like less of a tourist. Granted, I'll probably sweat more, but I hear that backpackers are supposed to reek anyway otherwise they're not considered hardcore. I've got some wicking tops. It'll be fine. It'll be completely fine.

Other things I've learned in the last few days:

- If you have voicemail switched on whilst abroad, and someone leaves you a message, you will get charged for it...even if you don't listen to it. My provider's tariff du jour is 60p per left message, regardless of length. Here's a fun wheeze - if someone you dislike is going abroad and you have their number, help rack up a massive phone bill by leaving a crazy amount of voicemails for them. Not only will they have to sift through 35 messages to see if anyone has left them anything worth listening to (which will cost them), but they will get landed with a bill on top of that, just for the courtesy of having the messages there in the first place. You're getting charged for something completely beyond your control, which is madness. The sooner there is a global crackdown on this kind of nonsense from network providers (as there has been in the EU), the better.

- You can SORN your car online. That is, as long as the DVLA isn't busy "upgrading their system". Apparently, this can take up to 48 hours. That's one hell of an upgrade.

- You don't need 3rd party fire and theft insurance for cars being kept off-road. You just need something called "laid-up cover" or "off-road cover" (depending on who you talk to). I learned this to my cost after buying TPF&T and later fuinidng out I could buy laid-up cover at a fifth of the cost - thanks Fi! - from certain insurers. I'll be using Footman James, but Direct Line will do it for existing customers, and there are a couple of others too; have a look on Google if it's something you'll need.

- Santander have possibly the worst telephone customer service I've ever experienced. This is in stark contrast to their branch staff, who couldn't be more helpful. If there was a way to transpose the two, this would help our journey immensely. As it is, I fear I'll be forced to navigate the murky waters of Santander's telephone banking on a frequent basis to unblock cards, ask why money hasn't been transferred, and tolerate "supervisors" who have even less inclination to help than their call centre monkey subordinates. Tip:- if you are with Santander, move. You probably haven't heard it here first, but there's a reason why they are consistently in the bottom three banks for customer service.

- Kindle 3G connectivity in the UK rocks. Fact. I hope it's the same worldwide...

- The Student Loans Company want you to tell them if you're out of the UK for 3 months. This is presumably so they can send a P.I. after you and check you're not busy making lots of cash waiting bars abroad, whilst neglecting to pay them. They also want you to prove how you're supporting yourself. For us, it's not a problem as we've saved up so can show them bank details. If you're staying with family and/or friends though, I'm not quite sure how you can "prove" this...

6 days to go and still lots to do. Tomorrow we have a whole day free so should be able to get the rest of the admin work done and make a start on converting heavy bags to light ones. Perhaps I can get a small canister of helium and fill up the bag. Hmmm...I may have stumbled upon a possible Dragon's Den pitch. I think I'll call it Heliobag. I've just checked and no-one has trademarked that name. I can practically hear Bannatyne salivating as I type.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Stuff, and the accumulation thereof

It turns out that we have a lot of stuff. I'm not entirely sure how, but in the 4.5ish years spent sharing a flat, we've managed to gather enough things to fill 12 carloads. This includes two estate cars and also takes into account us chucking away (or freecycling) another two carloads worth of crap. In less than a week we'll have the equivalent of less than 1/3 of a car seat strapped to our back, which needs to keep us going for a year. To put it into perspective, when we went camping in June, we took an entire boot full of stuff. For two nights.

We're not hoarders by any stretch, but the sheer amount of items we've accrued makes me wonder if we need it all. Now that I've got a Kindle, I could theoretically get rid of my book collection, but I like books. I like the feel and the smell of them, and the Kindle strips them down to some sterile entity which, whilst retaining the essence of "story", neglects the tactile pleasure in having the thing in your hand, and turning crisply printed pages to reveal the gems within. "A real page-turner!" has become "A real right-arrow clicker!". Call me picky, but it doesn't feel the same. On the other hand, I currently have more books on my Kindle than I could fit into our second bedroom, floor to ceiling. I guess there are pros and cons both ways.

I imagine when we decide where we ultimately want to live (which may have vastly changed after our time away), some hard choices will need to be made. As much as I would love to spend a week travelling from Harrow to Milton Keynes via Bromsgrove, Widnes and Liverpool simply picking up our belongings only to move them to a spare room/cupboard/attic/the bin, I'm hoping that living on nothing but a week's worth of clothes will help us realise that we don't actually need that much. I say that, but I'm sure once we're back in the thrall of first-world consumerism, best-laid plans will head straight down the newly-purchased eco-toilet (with built-in flush sensor, MP3 player socket, and synonym checker for those trickier crossword moments - all absolutely essential).

I may have been a little hasty with my praise about Kindle blogging - the email version I got seemed to have stripped out the apostrophes when viewing it on the Kindle (but oddly, not on a PC). If any readers are viewing this on a mobile, iPad or similar, do me a favour and leave a comment letting me know if the apostrophes are alive and well.

Stuff, I can do without. Having the Kindle make me look like I have the grammatical ability of an eleven year old with ADD is beyond the pale.