I've spent most of the day wandering around the ruins in Lop Buri. The Rough Guide to South-East Asia describes them as "unimpressive," but I beg to differ. Perhaps the author has spent too much time in Angkor Wat, which these probably pale into insignificance in comparison, but I still find them pretty darn impressive. There's not enough here for more than a day, but King Narai's Palace and Wat Phra Sri Rattanamahathat left me open-mouthed as I wandered around them. I'll upload a few photographs when I reach an internet cafe that has the right software and a reasonable connection.
I've bought a ticket for the 8:59am train to Phitsanulok tomorrow morning.
Lop Buri. I caught the bus from Bangkok this afternoon, and reached here early evening, the journey taking a little longer than I expected. Making the most of public transport, to get to Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal, I took a river express boat south from Banglamphu, then the skytrain north to Mo Chit, and a local bus from there to the main bus station.
Bangkok still. I decided to get my Laos visa here, and as I'm now quite enjoying the city, haven't forked out the extra to rush it through.
Still in Bangkok. This morning I went to the Vimanmek Teak Mansion, apparently the world's biggest house made entirely of Goldenwood Teak. What is there to say about a big house made of wood? Not alot really; the interior is plushly furnished, and still used by the Queen for some events. I did wonder about the large number of men that were wearing sarongs in the museum, until I remembered the little sign about being appropriately dressed. It turns out that if you go to the ticket office wearing shorts, you will be given a sarong to wear during your visit, as that is more decent. No wonder David Beckham is held in such esteem in Asia.
Later on I popped into a coffee shop, which as anyone knows is most unlike me (that's sarcasm, folks). I lingered a little longer than usual in this one as in the magazine rack was a copy of Time Out (London's listing magazine if there are any foreigners reading this -- actually, is anybody reading this?) dating from October. I read it pretty much from cover to cover. Don't be mistaken, I am enjoying the travelling, and looking forward to the months to come, but I'm also looking forward to getting back to family, friends, and of course the city. It was a bit of an odd experience; knowing I am in Asia, but sitting in a coffee shop that looked as though it had been picked straight out of midtown Manhattan and dropped in a leafy Bangkok street, and reading Time Out.
I'd hoped to get back to the Democracy Monument, which is near the hostel I'm staying at, before sunset to see how it would photograph. Alas, Bangkok's traffic conspired against me. After spending about an hour stuck around Siam Square, a hole appeared and our driver made a dash for it. It must have been his last run of the day, as he was certainly in a rush to get somewhere when the traffic cleared. We were the fastest thing away from the lights, and the suspension was tested to the limits of travel as we went over a couple of bridges. If someone told me this bus weighing several tons was briefly airborne I wouldn't be suprised. Accompanied, of course, by the obligatory flashing of headlamps and sounding of the horn which, as far as I understand, translates to something along the lines of:
Dear fellow road user, if you care to look in your mirror you will see a bus approaching with the momentum approaching that of a large meteor hurtling towards the earth. It would be advantageous to both of us if you could move one lane to your left or right to avoid your instantaneous conversion to so many cans of soft drink. You may also like to bear in mind that I do not have to pay my own insurance premiums. Thank you for your attention.
Despite the driver's best efforts, I didn't reach the Democracy Monument by sunset.
I was planning on heading out of Bangkok tomorrow, now I am the proud holder of a Cambodian visa in my passport, and of getting the Laos visa in Chiang Mai. However, after talking to somebody today, who said that you can only get a 15 day visa in Chiang Mai, I may well stay here an extra couple of days and sort that visa out too. Even if the information is wrong, at least it is sorted out, and I won't have the uncertainty of trying to get it done over Christmas.
I've spent most of the day hanging around the shopping areas of Bangkok; Siam Square and Silom Road. Drinking coffee, and spending a couple of hours updating these web pages. I'm quite proud of my self-restraint in not buying any gadgets.
Until I arrived in Bangkok I hadn't seen one Christmas decoration, or heard any Christmas-style music, be it carols or something more secular. However, all that has changed in the past couple of days. I'm still having trouble reconciling the images, seeing Christmas trees whilst I'm wandering around in temperatures of 31C. Oh, and one more thing -- if I hear that Dido song, "White Flag," one more time, somebody is going to get hurt. Probably me.
A bit more wandering around. I'm starting to change my mind about Bangkok. Maybe I am getting the hang of this travelling thing, but I could easily spend a few more days here, and probably still have things to do when I left. I certainly won't dread coming back here in the future.
Back to Bangkok. My third time in the city (not including the brief visit earlier in the week), and not something I was hugely looking forward to, as I've been less than impressed with it before. It is a necessary evil, as I need to arrange at least one visa here. I caught a taxi from the bus station to the hotel I'd planned on staying at, Sawasdee house on Soi Rambuttri, just across from the legendary Khao San Road (if you've never heard of Khao San Road before, just read any book, fact or fiction, about backpacking SE Asia, it is bound to be mentioned).
A quick wash and brush-up, a haircut (costing about £1, and the less generous of you will still claim I was ripped off), and some passport photos later I was saying goodbye to my passport for a few days so it can be sent off for the Cambodian visa. I'm still a bit unsure about the route I will be taking, as I've seen reports (notably one on the Foreign Office's web pages) that the border between Laos and Cambodia that I plan on taking is closed, but I've heard others have been through there recently.
After that, I was thinking of splashing out and paying for a boat trip to Ayutthaya and Bang Pa-In arranged by the Oriental Hotel, one of the world's most famous hotels. I put on a pair of long trousers and headed downriver on the express boat. However, when I got to the hotel I was still denied entry as I'd forgotten to swap my Tevas for trainers. Ho hum, I'll just spend the money elsewhere.
Lots of temples! Wat Yai Suwannaram, Wat Kamphaeng Laeng, Wat Ko Kaew Sutharam and Wat Mahathat. Wat Ko Kaew Sutharam has some murals that are a couple of hundred years old. A palace built by a German architect that looks very, well, European. Some caves which have buddha statues inside them (Khao Luang), and a nearby hill (Khao Wang) which has temples and museums on top, and gives a great view over the town and surrounding plains. In the latter places there are lots and lots of monkeys that are anything but afraid of you. Keep all your food hidden, or else you'll have to fight for it, and the monkeys don't play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Whilst you're at it, watch your camera too.
About 2:30am my stomach started to complain badly. I couldn't double-over as I felt that might relax my bowel muscles a litle bit too much, and as this was a second-class bus, there were no toilets on board. For about an hour, I clenched and sweated for all I was worth before I had to admit defeat and ask the driver when the next toilet stop was. He just waved ahead, and so I sat back down again, and continued with more of the same for another hour or so, passing several garages with toilets, before we stopped at a small office. In the interests of decency I'll skip the next five minutes, but I got back on the bus a much happier man. My stomach was still painful, but I figured the worst was over.
At about 5:30am we sailed straight through Phetchaburi, which I'd been half expecting, not stopping until we arrived in Bangkok at 7:30. I wandered from booth to booth trying to find out where to buy a ticket for Phetchaburi, until somebody led me to a bus, which I got on, and was on the road again by just after 8:00. We arrived in Phetburi at 10:00, which to be honest is a much better time to be looking for accomodation than 5:30. I checked into a hostel and decided to rest for a couple of hours before doing a bit of exploring.
Whilst there are a couple of other farangs (foreigners) around, there are far fewer than in the other places I've been lately. In one of the parks there were a load of men playing boules, not something I was expecting to see, although given Thailand's history perhaps I should have. The guesthouse restaurant is also quite unusual in that there were lots of locals dining there. I guess the food must be both authentic and reasonably priced. Perhaps foolishly given what had happened the previous night, I chose some fishcakes (which are a local speciality) which were rather nice.
A bit of a long day. I got up to get the first bus from Khao Sok back to Takua Pa, as I'd decided to visit somewhere I had missed out on the way up. Another bus from Takua Pa to Pha-Ngan, and I arrived at a tour company to try and find a half-day tour of the island nearby that featured in the James Bond movie "The Man With The Golden Gun." Unfortunately most of the companies need two or three people to do the trip,and business was slow. One company did have a group of four going out for a day and night trip, where they were sleeping at a nearby Muslim fishing village, and they let me tag onto that as the boatman was going to have to come back anyway.
Yet more beautiful scenery, lots of small islands -- what do the trees on them find to hang onto? Lots of tourists too, and souvenir stalls where I could buy overpriced things made from mother-of-pearl. If I'd so desired. There is not much to say about the fishing village, it does exactly what it says on the box. A village built on stilts where the main trade is fishing. And now tourism. The little paths between the houses are crowded with stalls selling t-shirts and dried fish products. Indeed, some of the t-shirts may have been made of dried fish, I didn't check that closely.
Back to Pha-Ngan, then I had a little wait for the overnight bus up to Phetchaburi. It arrived at 8:30pm, and I sat down and started to snooze. At 10:30 we pulled into some stalls for some food. I had some noodles with fish, which may not have been the best option, as the stalls weren't so busy, but you'll have to read the next entry for the consequences.
A bit of a lazy day, sitting around listening to gibbons whooping while I did some reading. I'm currently reading "The New Rulers of the World" by John Pilger. Not only is he damning of the Bush and Blair regimes, but he is especially critical of news reporting in both the UK and the USA, accepting what the governments tell them and in many cases doing minimal or no follow-up research.
Time to stretch my legs again. I set off and fairly shortly came across what I thought was a long palm leaf on the ground. As I was about to step on it, I realised it was moving in a fairly odd fashion. That's when I realised it was a long, thin, green snake. I stepped back and started to get me camera out, but by the time I'd done that it had slithered across the path and up a tree. I must try and keep my camera a bit closer to hand. The walk passed a number of waterfalls, but the most impressive one was the last one, 9km from the park entrance by the path I took (but there is a 7km path too). Met a guy from Bridgend who was also visiting the park on his way down to Australia with his girlfriend.
Much of today has been spent on the road. The bungalows had arranged for a car to take me to the jetty, but apparently the car had broken down and now they wanted me to go on the back of a bike. I wouldn't have minded, but with my big rucksack I didn't think it was the safest option. They found another pick-up for the journey. After that it was catching the ferry back to Krabi, a bus from Krabi to Takua Pa, then another local bus from Takua Pa to Khao Sok National Park -- passing three elephants on the side of the road.
The scenery around here is beautiful. Limestone cliffs with trees hanging onto them at impossible angles.
Explored the island a bit more today. The roads around here are atrocious, large parts are unpaved, with no obvious rhyme or reason as to why some bits are surfaced and the others dirt track. The other people from Cameron Highlands left yesterday, but this afternoon a German girl that had also been there checked in here.
The beach. (What, me, the beach? Yes, me, the beach.)
A bit of shoping in the morning -- I ended up buying the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand as I'm already finding things that my SE Asia Rough Guide is missing. Then off to Ko Lanta (another two hour ferry ride). I checked into a new place, not in any of the guide books, and bumped into three people that had been at the same hostel as me in the Cameron Highlands -- although it did take me a little while to remember where I'd seen them before.
This evening we went to see a Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) match. Pretty much anything goes in Muay Thai, and the bouts are arranged by age. The contenders in the first bout couldn't have been much more than about 12 years old.
Getting off the ferry onto a longtail boat was alot easier than today's reverse performance of getting from a longtail boat onto the ferry! Still, I managed to give my hair a bit of a Don King look by sitting on top of the ferry for the two-hour ride. At Satun the last bus to Krabi had already left, but somehow (and I'm not exactly sure how), I ended up paying for a private car. In fairness, 500B (less than £8) for a five and a half hour taxi ride isn't a bad deal. You'd pay that for about ten minutes in a black cab in London. Krabi seems like quite a friendly place, although I'm only spending the one night here.
Whilst poring over my Rouh Guide to South-East Asia last night, I realised that I need far more than 30 days in Thailand to see all that I want to see. The two options are to spend more time here, which means spending less time in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, or dropping places for now, and banking that I will be back at some point in the future. I'll probably do the latter.
Ko Lipe is a beautiful island, but it isn't quite the untouched paradise of legend. Development is happening on a large scale, with new bungalows being put up before my eyes. To see a bit more of the island I hired a kayak this afternoon and kayaked around it -- the island is quite small after all. It took a couple of hours, and there was a stiff breeze in places that made it hard going, but I got to see a couple of huge jellyfish, and a shoal of fish jumping out of the water a few metres ahead of me.
November, 2003. September/October, 2003.