...images from planet Earth
8 February - 14 March 2002
On the bus from the airport to Bangkok, I got a bit of a shock. Warm sunny and humid weather, comfortable buses with doors that open by themselves, women bearing flesh. Compared to India and Nepal, it was another world. The airport bus dropped us off near KSR (Khao San Road). Wow, this place was packed with westerners, a far cry from the almost ghost town like streets of Kathmandu. You could hardly move as people spilled onto the road, the roads lined with pirate CD stands, hair braiding stands, clothes stalls, rice/noodle/juice/fruit vendors. Behind those were restaurants, travel agents and souvenir shops and little else. Most hostels were full (unheard of in India and Nepal). I got a tiny box room, barely big enough for the bed, at Sawasdee House for 200B not far from KSR. But after two days I checked into the Lucky Beer hotel on KSR, which was only 100 B and the room was bigger (I could swing a cat here). I spent a few days in Bangkok seeing some of the local sites, trying to change my flight dates with Qantas. Bangkok was really hot and humid. I was permanently sweating, it was horrible. I planned to do a walking tour but I couldn't be bothered, the humidity made me lazy. It was noisy on KSR, loud music played well into the night.
Scamwatch: The 'lucky Buddha' scam
This is a common scam targeted at new arrivals. I fell for it the first time and they tried it on me on two other occasions. As you walk down from KSR to the Grand Palace area, you'll be approached by someone (probably saying they're from Chiang Mai) asking you how long you've been here (to suss out how much of an easy target you'll be). They'll tell you the Grand Palace is closed and that there is a lucky Buddha you should go and see. A tuk-tuk driver will be waiting and they'll agree to take you to the lucky Buddha and some other sites at a very cheap price (about 30B). The driver will then take you to some temples where you'll meet people who are in on the scam. The story when I was there was that there was a unique special offer, today is the last day, where you can buy jewellery for a discount price and sell it in your own country for more than twice the price. It was originally offered to Thais to finance trips abroad but now, for a limited time, it's open to tourists. I had 'bumped into' Thais at the temples who had taken advantage of the offer themselves. I even met a French traveller who said he took advantage of the offer himself. I agreed to go to the jewellery shop, which looked very legitimate with government approval certificates, professional looking staff and several other tourists looking keen to buy. I was tempted but didn't want to part with $2,000 unless I was certain this was genuine. I asked to call the British embassy. The guy on the phone (who had a French accent) said the company was genuine and the only issue was a moral one. I suspected he was in on it too and walked away, somewhat reluctantly, but I later spoke to people who told me this was a scam.
After I had wasted half a day falling for this scam, I went to the Wat Pho complex near the Grand Palace. It's walking distance from KSR. Here was the famous 40m long reclining Buddha, several temples with golden Buddha images and lots of chedis pointing up to the sky. The massage school here is reputed to be one of the best in Thailand. I had a one hour massage by an big woman for 250B which was rough but good. I had planned to go to Siem Riep first but, was told that I should avoid Angkor Wat now as it was Chinese new year and the place would be packed. I noticed adverts for tours to Kanchanaburi at travel agents on KSR. I'd never heard of it before but the pictures looked nice so I booked a three day trip for about 1,100 B. About ten of us went in a minibus. Our first stop was the Kanchanaburi cemetery for the victims that died during the building of the railway after forced labour under the Japanese during WWII. Then we went to the JEATH and war museums and walked across the famous bridge over the River Kwai. Later that day we went on an elephant ride through the forest. I had had enough of elephants rides but it was OK, a gentle, slow placed walk which, unlike in Nepal, didn't seem to cause much distress for the elephants. Then to Pha Tat waterfall which was a nice spot for a walk and a swim. Our accommodation for the night was a floating bamboo cabin on the river. It was a very picturesque setting. With me were two Aussies and two Japanese girls. We had dinner at the restaurant high up on the river bank, then the Aussies suggested we play drinking games. This really brought the girls out of their shell. We carried on till we were told to go to bed by the staff. The next day, there wasn't much left to see. We were taken to a dam, a rural village lined with large overhanging palms, passed through Hellfire Pass and visited another museum/memorial, a modern place which was more interesting than the ones we had seen before. Finally we went on a two hour scenic train ride before going back to Bangkok.
Back on the KSR, I bought a ticket to Siem Riep for 80B. After one night in Bangkok I left for Cambodia early in the morning.
Scamwatch: The Bangkok - Siem Riep scam
You will see many travel agents in and around KSR offering transfers to Siem Riep for as little as 50B (probably even less low). This is cheap, but there's a catch. Basically, they'll take their time driving to the border. The overall aim is to get travellers to the hotel/guest house in Siem Riep (which takes pays commission to the travel agent) late at night. By then the passengers will be too tired to find somewhere else, and they'll be told it's dangerous to walk around the town at night (it isn't). Along the way, they'll also stop at a travel agent (where they'll tell you that you need to buy the Cambodia visa in advance (you don't) and they'll charge you 1,100 or 1,200B (it costs 1,000 at the border). They'll also stop at certain restaurants. The travel agent and restaurants also pay commission to the travel agent you buy the ticket from. Hundreds of people will then arrive at the border at the same time, and most will have to stand in line for about two hours, as opposed to a few minutes if you went by yourself and got there earlier. The bus from the border to Siem Riep is a nightmare. They'll stop frequently and they'll cram the bus full of unhappy and tired travellers. Plus there's the air conditioning scam - they'll stop somewhere along the way and get under the bus to pretend to fix the air conditioning or something. I heard about that one before as well, and sure enough, it happened. It would have been funny if we weren't so frustrated. But if you just want to get to Siem Riep cheaply and don't mind going though a day of hell, go for it. Just make sure you buy your visa at the border, and don't let anyone help you with it there (people will get you the forms and expect a tip, you can get them yourself from the counter). The people at the travel agent got upset with me when I didn't buy the visa from them and when I refused to wear the blue sticker they put on you so you can be identified.
I had planned to get off at Aranyaprathet near the Cambodia border and make my own way to Siem Riep, but it was already too late and the queues would already have formed at the border. Besides, I liked the group I was with on the bus and I didn't want to split up with them. We eventually got to the hotel in Siem Riep at 9:30 at night. A few people from the bus looked for another place but most stayed there. I wasn't happy to have gone along with the scam, but it the rooms were OK and cheap at US$2 a night. The next day four of us hired a driver for the day to take us to the Angkor temples. It costs about $6 per day for a bike and driver. On arrival, I bought a three day pass which cost $40. First we went to Angkor Wat, the main temple. It's huge, too big to really appreciate when you're close to it. From a distance it's stunning, especially at sunrise when it becomes a silhouette. But I didn't think it was the best temple. Nearby, Bayon, with its many stone faces smiling down on you, was smaller but more impressive. It was more intimate. I also liked Ta Prohm. It was unique in that the trees were allowed to grow uncontrolled around it, slowly swallowing up and destroying the temple. Although it was sad that it was falling apart, unlike the other temples, it looked more like the ancient ruin it is. We could have been explorers who had stumbled on an undiscovered site as this is what it might have looked like. This is what made it so special. We drove around and got to visit most of the temples in the area over two days.
But my favourite temple was probably the one at Banteay Srei. It's 16km from the main temple complex but it's well worth the effort to get there. The carvings on the temple and the reds and greens were amazing. The views on route to the temple were excellent too. It was very picturesque; rice fields, grazing water buffalo, tall palms along the road, small wooden houses built on stilts and the red dirt road contrasted nicely with the greens beside it. From Banteay Srei, we continued to Kubal Spien, a further 7km away. From here, a half hour hike through the forest takes you to the river and waterfall. Kubal Spien means 'river of a thousand lingas'. It refers to the carvings on the rocks in the river. It's a nice place to walk through or to simply relax by the river. Hiring the bike for the day cost $10 but I bargained hard for it, but when I realised how far it was I gave the driver an extra few dollars. I spent two days exploring the temples and the third I spent in Siem Riep. It's a nice little town, I could have done with an extra day. I went to the markets and did a boat ride to the floating markets. Not as good as I expected but still interesting. I'd recommend a minimum of three days to see the temples (more if you want to take your time) and a day or two in the town.
After three days in Siem Riep I went back to Bangkok. I bought the ticket for $6 from the hotel in Siem Riep. Again, for a reason I couldn't understand, they took their time driving us back. From the border to Bangkok took about five hours, they took a detour in Bangkok that took us into the rush hour traffic. When I returned to Bangkok I bought my train ticket to Surat Thani for the following day (440B second class - the travel agent takes about 50B commission). I spent the next day in Bangkok, during which I finally managed to go to the Grand Palace. It was all very impressive, similar to the Wat Pho complex but on a larger scale and the architecture was much more elaborate with lots of intricate detail. Amongst all the wats, there were many chedis and a large golden bot. I'd never seen so much gold in one place. This was the home of the famous emerald Buddha, surrounded by many golden Buddha images.
I got back to KSR, packed and got a tuk-tuk to the station for 80B (some were asking as much as 300B, many people obviously pay this much). It took forever to get to the station, through heavy traffic and thick pollution. The train departed Bangkok at 6:20. Most people heading down to the beaches get a combined train/bus/ferry ticket from the agents in KSR. But I wanted to go to Khao Sok national park. I love primates, and I especially wanted to see gibbons. Khao Sok is a good place to see them in the wild.
I arrived at Surat at about 7:30 in the morning. It was my first experience of Thai trains. When it's time for bed, the attendants come to make your bed. There are bed sheets, a mattress and a towel for a blanket. There are curtains as well so you get more privacy than on the Indian trains. It was very comfortable. Food is available as well. In Surat Thani I got on the Phuket bus (100B to Khao Sok) and asked the driver to drop me off at the park entrance. There were touts there waiting to show me to their lodges. I looked at two places, one was a luxury lodge for about 600B. I took a bungalow at the other place for 150B. It was a nice place surrounded by palm trees and forests, with views of the tall strangely shaped limestone cliffs behind. The food there was excellent too (only 40B for a nice Chinese chicken and broccoli dish). Most places there arrange tours (to lakes, caves and you can go tubing) but I found these expensive and decided to just do some hikes by myself. Entry was 200B, valid for three days.
Over two days I went on two trails that took me through dense rainforest and to several waterfalls, good places to go for a swim and cool down. I didn't see any gibbons but I could hear their songs far away. I loved that sound, a strange high pitched call that sort of went whaaoo, whaaoo, whaaaaoooo. Hard to describe, obviously. I stayed for three nights, then caught a bus to Krabi.
I decided on Krabi for the beach part of my trip because of the scenery. I figured that the beaches themselves would be pretty much the same everywhere. I also didn't want to go anywhere that was too busy and commercialised. I first took the bus to Ao Nang then walked to a travel agent which booked me a place at a bungalow on nearby Ton Sai beach for 300B. I thought I'd have to pay much more than that (peak season, short notice). I took a longtail boat (50B) from Ao Nang to Ton Sai. It was about five minutes walk from the beach but the place was nice. I used to go to West Rai Leh and Hat Tham Phra Nang beaches though as they were nicer. You hike over a headland to get to Rai Leh and then there's a trail to Phra Nang beach via East Rai Leh beach (which has mangrove trees and doesn't attract many people). There were quite a few people at West Rai Leh and Hat Tham Phra Nang beaches but few enough not to spoil it.
I was only going to spend a few days at Krabi then a couple in Ko Phi Phi, but I met someone on my second day and I ended spending a week in Krabi. Here I spent most of the time sunbathing at the beach but also had a go at rock climbing (800B for half a day). There are nice restaurants and bars there. It wasn't too noisy and there was a good atmosphere at nights, especially at East Rai Leh beach. On Ton Sai people would lie on the beach at night, drinking, chatting. There was a full moon party on Ton Sai while I was there. I didn't go but I could hear the music from my bungalow till about 6am (no signs of it the next day though).
Then we took the ferry to Phi Phi Don (about 250B). At the port the water was bright green. It almost looked unreal, but that's what I'd been hoping to find. There were no spaces in bungalows or hostels so we had to check into a hotel (2500B for a twin room). It was the most I had paid for a room on my travels and it wasn't even that nice. We walked to Long Beach, but that was too crowded so we asked around and were told about a quieter beach nearby with fine white sand. It was very secluded and there were only two other people there. There was a hut available here for 200B, which basically consisted of a wooden platform. I would have taken it but on the way back we met an English guy and girl staying at a bungalow on Long Beach and they agreed to let me stay with them. It had a nice view, despite the coconut palm growing through the balcony. The rocky island of Phi Phi Leh was visible in the distance. That night we all went for a meal in the town (we took a boat from Long Beach) then went clubbing. It was the first time for me while I'd been travelling.
The next day we hired a longboat and driver for half a day (600B between four of us) to take us to Phi Phi Leh. There's no accommodation on this island; it's virtually all cliffs. We first stopped off at a cave on the far side of the island where birds nests are collected (used to make soup, a delicacy) before stopping at an idyllic bay for a swim in the crystal clear water. Then, after some snorkelling at another bay, we walked through an oasis of strange plants and trees which led us to Maya beach, where The Beach was filmed. It was late in the afternoon and most of the bay was in shade. We stayed there for half an hour before making our way back to Phi Phi Don. That evening, after dinner, we went to see Thai boxing at a large venue on the busy strip in the town and later to a bar where a Thai band was playing.
The next day I was on my own again. In the morning I went back to Maya Beach, I wanted spend longer there and see what it was like at a different time of day. Unfortunately, by 10am it was completely packed with day trippers. It was a shame; this is the sort of place that is at its best when it's deserted. I liked Phi Phi but four days was enough. I took the ferry to Phuket, where I spent two nights at the On On Hotel (180B). I could have gone back to Bangkok from Phi Phi but I wanted to go to the gibbon rehabilitation centre near Phuket. I took a motorbike taxi there from Phuket town and hitched back. It wasn't nice seeing the gibbons in cages, but at least I finally got to see some, and they sang to me as well.
That afternoon I got the VIP overnight bus back to Bangkok (755B). I decided to splash out because I can't sleep on buses and I hadn't treated myself for a while. There was lots of space (just seven rows of three seats) but it wasn't any easier to sleep as you're still in a sort of sitting position and you can't lie on your side. The loud Thai music and film that played till midnight didn't make it any easier, nor did the stop for food at 2am.
Back to Bangkok for the fourth time. I arrived in the morning and left in the evening. I didn't want to stay longer than I had to. This time I was going north. I booked the overnight train to Chiang Mai (661B with 80B commission) in the morning. I didn't know exactly what I'd be doing in the north, though an Israeli guy I met in Siem Riep recommended Pai, a small town a few hours from Chiang Mai. I wasn't initially going to visit the north, but I had time and I thought I should make the effort, even if it was going to be a brief visit. It was better than nothing.
In Chiang Mai I stayed at the Green House, which was also recommended to me. It's a nice place, cheap at only 60B per night, and it's run by a really friendly and jovial guy called Pob with his family. The only bad thing about the place was an Australian girl there who was the most obnoxious person in the world. She hated everyone and moaned about everything. Anyway, I spent one day in Chiang Mai, I felt that was enough for me. There are a few interesting wats with impressive golden Buddha images. At one of these wats I ended up giving some young monks English lessons, which was a bit surreal. It's a clean and tidy town, similar in ways to Bangkok, but on a much smaller scale. But I preferred to spend more time in Pai than in Chiang Mai and possibly come back afterwards.
It's four hours by bus to Pai, we drove through steep mountain roads as we neared the small town. When the bus arrived I walked across the road to the Duang guest house, which was the first place I saw and, luckily, I got the last room. It was only 60B for a single room with a balcony overlooking the street. I considered doing a trek from here (there are many places offering trips) but I couldn't really be bothered. I had done something similar in Borneo two years before anyway. Pai is a nice, peaceful little town but probably the main appeal is the surrounding area; waterfalls, villages and the scenery in general is excellent. Cultivated hills, isolated villages, lush green farmland and banana palms are common. On the second day I hired a 115cc motorbike for 250B and travelled the 42km to Soppong. It was OK, as villages go. Riding through the countryside was an experience in itself. 6km further down the road is Lod Cave, which was more interesting. You can hire a guide or walk through by yourself. On the way back, I crashed the motorbike, after going too fast round a bend, downhill on a mountain road. I was badly cut up in many places, but I was lucky it wasn't more serious. There was no helmet and no insurance. I washed the blood with water from a nearby toilet reservoir (that's the only water supply I could find) and a policeman gave me some tissues and tape to dress my wounds. I then drove back down to town to Pai hospital where they bandaged me up and gave me antibiotics (I think I needed them). That cost me about 500B.
I spent the next two days in bed, going for the occasional walk, going to the restaurants which showed films in the evenings. There were worse places to be stuck in. When I was more mobile, I hired another bike (with better brakes) and went to a nearby temple and a couple of waterfalls, one of which was nice. I liked Pai and I didn't fancy going back to Chiang Mai. So I booked the overnight train back to Bangkok for the day before I was due to fly out of Thailand. On my fifth and final time in Bangkok, I decided to take the scenic route from the train station to KSR. After getting lost in central Bangkok, sweating under the weight of my bags and with my injuries still leaking, I eventually got to the pier and took the river taxi up to Baglampu, the area KSR is in. I bought a second hand LP guide for Australia and relaxed in one of the restaurants in KSR over a pineapple shake before catching a taxi to the airport (280B including toll) for the overnight flight to Sydney. The driver didn't speak much English but he knew how to tell me about the girls he wanted to take me to.