Thailand - the north face of it
Thailand... we were hoping it could be something more than just a beach vacation but in the end that’s all there is to it. Here is how it’s been so far. Before arriving we didn’t know how long we would be able to stay, as the Thai visa doesn’t specify the duration, and although by default it should be two months, we found in some sources that for countries like Belarus it might be possible to only get 30 days from the immigration officer. We were also advised to have the onward flight tickets. Well, we went very well prepared – tickets, bank statements, marriage certificate… But it wasn’t necessary – Jordi went first, the officer checked his visa, asked him some questions regarding how long he would stay, put the “60-days” stamp we were hoping for, and as Jordi was taking his passport, all he had to do was gesture towards me and say a very convincing “She is with me” for the guy to put me the same “60-days” stamp without any single question.
Bangkok - awash with consuming tourists and grumpy locals
We spent our first days in Bangkok mostly enjoying our first comfortable hotel in a very long time (we didn’t pay more than usual but the standards in this country are higher compared to other countries we’ve travelled so far). We did find some time to visit the temples in between all the TV watching, and sleeping and doing nothing (it was a really welcome break from the tough side of our 24/7 travelling “career” - almost daily and very long bus trips, lots of walking along our sightseeing routes, treks etc etc.
The below photos are of us trying one of the "gourmet" treats of Thailand - BUGS!
The below pictures are from our visits to temples:
What really struck us about Bangkok were the huge amount of tourists and the total absence of smiles in the “country of smiles”. Jordi was selling me this image of Thailand as very hospitable, with very friendly people… well, we don’t know what epidemic disease swept off the smiles from these people’s faces but probably something like “acute tourist intolerance”, with one of its saddest side effects being its disastrous influence on their business sense: some of these people seem to be so tired of tourists that they are sometimes outright rude to the customers in their shops. Some extreme examples: a shop assistant inquiring from Jordi whether Jordi is crazy just because Jordi dared to question his pricing policy (which didn’t make sense from the point of view of common sense, simple arithmetic or and logic), or an old owner of a shop refusing me a possibility to try a pair of walking shoes just because my eyes were very red at that time due to very acute conjunctivitis.
Among all the doing nothing and the visits to the "obligatory" (but gorgeous) wats we found some time to shop :), for a laptop! The business case behind this purchase was very simple – with prices in Internet cafes so high and us needing an extra hard drive to back up the pictures, and all this free wi-fi available, we figured that we would reach the “breakpoint” for this laptop investment in no time. So we bought one – a cute aquamarine 1.3 kg Acer Aspire One, with Intel Atom N550 (dual core), 2 GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive, 6-cell battery, with Windows Starter. We love it!
In Bangkok one of the few things we visited was the house of an American guy Jim Thompson who spent almost his entire life in Thailand and made a fortune on selling silk, which he spent wisely and built a house by putting together six very traditional Thai houses in a very harmonious way (well, I forgot to mention that before he started selling silk he was a successful architect, and trust me – it tells). The house and the garden are really beautiful – very authentic, and preserved in their original state, maybe part of the charm stemming from the fact that their owner mysteriously disappeared on his trip to Malaysia and not a clue has been found ever since about what could have happened (communist spies, business rivals, man-eating tiger or the wheels of a truck are among the theories). Maybe his spirit still wanders around the house and if they brought a medium there they would finally learn the real story...
It was funny though that although this place was very far we got there without paying a cent, all thanks to the very unique currency they use in Bangkok for rickshaw drives – your time. Since on this trip we have a lot of this currency (much more than any others like USD or euro) we could fully benefit from it. The trick is: the rickshaw drivers will take you any place you want (well, within something like 1-hour drive) for free or symbolic money, if you agree to stop at one or two tailor shops (basically, the longer the distance the more shops, or your time, required). We visited one tailor and were really amazed that all we had to do was check a catalogue and tell them that we are not really interested in a suit. That was all! We were so amazed we asked our driver what it is that he gets in return – it turns out they give him 5 litres of gasoline for every customer he brings. Well, go figure out how they can survive with such monstrous spending on marketing...
Chiang Mai - hub to factory-made treks
When we finally got out of Bangkok we were heading to Chiang Mai on board of super comfortable VIP bus that picked us up almost from the hotel. In fact, travelling Thailand is so easy it’s making us lazy :). Here when you need to go somewhere, you can just walk into any agency in the area you are staying and they will arrange a bus for you with a pickup service from your hotel or the agency. The prices are the same or even less than at the station. If you already happen to be at the station – same story, just check the counters which announce in huge letters the destinations they sell tickets for (compare that with China where you have to ask a couple of people first, in Chinese, which counter to go to, and then have a fluent conversation, in Chinese, with a rude lady at the counter, you trying to make it clear where and when you want to go and if not possible which options could save you). Even sweeter, here in Thailand if you are heading for the South and you need a combined busboat trip, they take care of the whole chain, including minivan/pickup from your first destination. Really, it’s so easy!
Anyway, in Chiang Mai we had another chance to benefit from marketing campaigns – a hotel / trekking agency picked all of us up from the bus station and delivered at their hotel (which was in the area everyone was going anyway) for a briefing regarding their trekking offers. We checked it out as they sounded cheap but in the end after looking through their photo albums and filtering what we heard we decided that this trek would be rather a disappointment – too “factory-made” being the main problem. So we passed on it and for the next day had a very relaxed agenda of visiting some “wats” (temples). The only highlight is that in one of those temples we were lucky to watch a prayer ceremony with lots of monks repeating the mantras after an old guy with a very deep voice, from time to time treating their strained glands (and getting a distraction from their boredom) by sipping from a huge glass of bright green lemonade.
Another highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai was trying the traditional Thai massage. This massage is quite an intense experience compared to the conventional pleasing types but is definitely far more advanced in cleansing your “nadis” (the energy channels of the body). The fact that we had our session performed by former inmates of the local jail added up to the experience. (These girls do an absolutely fantastic job as they receive a very solid professional training in the last months of their sentence. Once released they are hired by a woman who had had a similar destiny and knows how difficult it is for someone “branded” to find a job once they are back to normal life).
Sukhothai - the ancient capital
Our next stop was Sukhothai – an ancient capital of Thailand. As always, we had some offers of acommodation at the station – this time it came from a very polite and very professional gay manager of a new hotel. Something we should mention is that by this time we figured out that in many countries (not India!) it’s actually quite worthwhile to check those offers as many of them come from such new places that are spotless clean and cheaper than many budget options in LP but simply haven’t had time to appear in the “backpackers Bible”. Well, take this place for instance (Lila Resort) – it was spotless, very cozy, decorated with good taste, very beautiful garden, free bikes at any time, and a shuttle service to the bus station, for 3 euro less than the cheapest hotel covered in LP. Beat that! (We checked a couple more hotels just to compare and had to come back to Lila guys, at which point the gay guy couldn’t hide a triumphant smile :)). Sukhothai is a lot like Bagan but much smaller. The main (and for most tourists including us) only attraction is its huge historical park with lots of pagodas.
Jordi "feasting" on another local fave at one of the stalls in Sukhothai:
As I said, it’s very similar to Bagan in Myanmar but the pagodas are built in a different style, and there are much fewer of them so with one day, by bike we had more than enough time to see all of it. The best part for us, although not something to boast about :) was that we managed to skip quite a high entrance fee simply by entering at a point a few hundred metres away from the main ticket office. As always in case of such huge sites, they don’t bother to have a consistent checkpoint system or even fence the whole thing – they simply rely on the fact that most tourists won’t question whether there is another possibility to enter apart from the main gate. Well, since we like to question things, we found out that in Sukhothai historical park only a hundred metres around the main ticket office is fenced and the rest is just – free to enter! Well, we did and enjoyed a day of wandering through the picturesque ruins, and even managed to play hide-and-seek in one of the “maze-like” sites.
Hide-and-seek is a whole new game among these ancient pillars:
Kanchanaburi - ever heard of the "Bridge Over the River Kwae"?
Our next destination – Kanchanaburi – was very attractive for us since we would get quite close to the border with Myanmar – the country we really missed ever since we left. Kanchanaburi’s main attraction is its famous bridge, the one from the “Bridge Over the River Kwae” movie. For those who haven’t seen it (like us until we were triggered to download and watch it the day we arrived in Kanchanaburi), it’s about WWII, and how the British POWs are supposed to build the bridge under the supervision of the very anxious Japanese commanding officer, and how they first refuse to do it and then agree and do a great job, and at the same time a group of British officers is preparing an explosion operation of that bridge, and how it all gets very messy since in both war and peace everything human beings do is powered by the normal human emotions fuelled by the normal human egos...
The bridge is now simply a monument and in the evening they do a nice light show over it. One funny fact about it (from LP) is that apparently while most foreigner read the name of the river in the title of the movie the way you probably read it, the correct pronunciation is like “square” without the “s”, and what you probably read means “buffalo”. LP was claiming that locals find it very amusing to hear the fa-rangs asking them to be taken to the bridge over the river “buffalo”, but what happened to us was quite the opposite – a local probably too used to foreigner all calling it the wrong way was using this “buffalo” version to inquire whether we wanted a drive there!
Erawan National Park - the "elephant" waterfall and the tame butterfly
Kanchanaburi is also a hub to Erawan national park so next day we visited it on a day trip to see the famous 7-tiered waterfall. It was pretty nice, with very turquoise layers situated in a picturesque jungle but the best highlight of the day was the butterfly that we tamed that day at the last tier!
As we arrived there, this bright thing kept landing on our shoes and bag, so we kept joking that it likes us. Well, guess what – at some stage just for a joke I stretched my hand to it and – it quietly “migrated” to the top of my palm. I was able to walk with it, it would come again and again, and in the end we managed to get Jordi do the trick also, and as we were leaving, this magic butterfly kept flying after us! I wish we could take it with us – Baloo would have a new and very unusual friend!
Other than this there was nothing remarkable – the park was flooded with mostly Russian tourists, and some groups of mixed “foreigner/local” groups who were either practising some weird sport or setting up a movie scene – we never figured out as we saw a lot of preparation (they were attaching themselves in their harnesses to ropes stretching from tree to tree over the waterfall layers) but zero action in all the time that we stayed there.
We will never be able to figure out the origin of the shiny object in the following photo - UFO, or simply a camera glitch?
Thong Pha Phum - the hot springs and the tree house
Our next destination after Kanchanaburi was even closer to Myanmar – Thong Pha Phum national park. We arrived in the town of Thong Pha Phum too late to take the pickup to the park so we stayed there overnight and since there was nothing else to do or see in this very quiet town, made a short trip to the hot springs nearby, where we were the only foreigners (oh, what an achievement in this country that sometimes looks completely taken over by fa-rang!) and for an evening shared the pleasure of almost cooking in very hot mineral water with a lot of locals. All this time in Thong Pha Phum since it’s such a non-touristy place we had to rely on one very friendly local family running an eatery in the very centre, for all our directions, planning, etc.
Next morning we even decided to leave all our luggage with them since taking it on this return trip didn’t make any sense. We took the first and only pickup to the park and a couple of hours later arrived at this very beautiful but very cold (we didn’t expect that!) place. Well, truth be told, almost the only reason we wanted to visit this park was... its “simple but breathtaking” accommodation (quote as usual comes from LP), and being specific – the tree houses! In the end the park itself, although very beautiful was nothing extremely special plus we were too cold to explore a lot of it, plus they didn’t have any infrastructure there targeted at tourists (no English-language maps, very poor reception etc), but the tree house was awesome, in the fullest sense of this colourful word. We stayed there almost the whole time, enjoying despite how scary it was our house swaying with its hosting tree in the very strong wind, all this moving accompanied by the very special tree-wind duet.
Next day we climbed down, de-froze, picked our bags from the eatery, said “bye” to the very friendly family and headed for Bangkok. By that time we have decided that we’ve travelled enough of the North to get the taste of Thailand, and were ready to head for the beach, thereby officially starting our first (and maybe only) beach vacation on this trip. You might be smiling while reading about us having a vacation on this “long vacation” but truth be told travelling at times is almost like a job, the one you love so passionately that you are prepared to do it 24/7, but still a job, with very specific job tasks: finding a place to sleep almost every day (so checking enough places to make sure you are getting the best value/price package), continuous planning of the future transportation (both short- and long-term), making very long bus/train trips, lots and lots of walking, negotiating endless things with locals etc. etc. If you are planning a trip like ours, take the job only if you are hundred percent committed to a job like that :)! Anyway, we still love it and somehow the list of countries we plan to visit keeps growing longer as we go instead of shorter but at this stage we are officially taking time off from this RTW job for a beach vacation :)!
All about our "beach-binging" in the next post...