Thailand (October 2006)

8 11 2006

Wat Po - Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Po - Bangkok, Thailand

We weaved unpredictably across lanes, slaloming between cars; my driver, despite initially seeming like a calm and docile chap, was obviously some sort of possessed maniac. With reckless abandon, and an apparent obliviousness to every other vehicle on the road we continued our white-knuckled ride across Bangkok, until finally, the taxi delivered me to my hostel leaving me slightly shaken and feeling like I just participated in a high-speed getaway.

Having never left the Western world before, the first thing that really struck me upon arriving in Thailand was the difference in cultures. It’s hard to say whether it’s their Buddhist beliefs, or a result of living in such a beautiful country, but Thailand’s reputation as ‘the land of smiles’, in my opinion, is very well deserved. Coming from the rather antisocial city of London, it was surprising to find how friendly the Thai’s actually were; and I was staggered on my second day in Bangkok, when a Thai couple I got talking to generously volunteered to show me around the city.

Having only dealt with the money hungry tuktuk drivers, I have to admit I was initially a little suspicious of their motives, but agreed nonetheless, and as it turned out my honorary guides, Rudy and Apple, not only went well out of their way to take me on my own personal tour around Bangkok, but took me places most tourists would never ever find. With them as my guides, we rode on the river ferry to destinations unknown and traversed through damp, dark twisting alleyways full of questionable smells to get to hidden markets selling all manner of weird and wonderful things, from supposedly edible scorpions to fake IDs. My guides, showing true Thai hospitality flatly refused to let me pay for anything, despite my countless objections, and it took much insistence on my part to get them to agree to let me buy them dinner to thank them for their amazing kindness.

There is a staggering amount of temples wherever you go in Thailand; in fact there are over 400 just in Bangkok alone. Although with 95% of the population identifying with the Theravada Buddhism faith, and the faith being so central to Thai culture, this is perhaps not too surprising. Every temple is home to monks in their distinctive orange robes, although these holy men don’t leave the bare existence I had previously imagined, in fact they generally just seem to be doing the same stuff as everyone else; you see them on the streets talking on mobile phones, watching films at the cinema, and one person I met even claimed he’d seen a them playing Blackjack in a casino!

Elephant Riding - Chiang Mai Provence, Nothern Thailand

Elephant Riding - Chiang Mai Provence, Nothern Thailand

After three nights in Bangkok, I journeyed northward towards Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand. Once capital of the ancient kingdom of Lannathai, it was subject to frequent attack from neighbouring Myanmar, so in order to protect the city, King Mengrai in 1296 ordered a huge concrete wall be erected and a moat be install around the perfectly square perimeter of the city; both of which are still in place today. Craving a little freedom I hired a scooter and spent the day happily roaring around the city, the highlight of the day was the Doi Suthep temple which just thirty minutes from central Chiang Mai sits on top of a mountain with incredible views over the city below. As the day drew on, so much was I enjoying my motorcycle escapades that I failed to pay strict attention to where I was going, and managed to get completely lost. After a few frustrating hours of aimlessly riding around, dodging the chaotic whirl of traffic did I eventually spot something I recognised and found my way back to my hostel, but not until well after the sun had set.

Longing to get out of the city, and get some exercise I signed myself up for a two day trek through the jungle, something Chiang Mai is renowned for. I was collected in a rickety Ute and along with an Irish couple and a British gentleman, and before long we found ourselves surrounded by vast green rice paddy fields and the undulating hills of rural Thailand. We stopped for lunch at a small Elephant farm, and had the opportunity to ride on the back of one of these mighty mammals; but despite the novelty of the experience, it was actually pretty bumpy and uncomfortable, and I was quite pleased to put my own feet back on the ground. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for the elephant as the diminutive Thai man perched on its neck kept whacking it on the head with a metal tipped stick, which made a disconcertingly loud sound. Afterwards I was assured that elephants have very thick skulls, and this doesn’t cause them much pain, nevertheless I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor thing.

The Obligatory Rice Paddy Shot - Chiang Mai Provence, Northern Thailand

The Obligatory Rice Paddy Shot - Chiang Mai Provence, Northern Thailand

We started our hike shortly after leaving the elephant farm, and spent the day hiking leisurely through the humid jungle, with the occasional stop to swim in a cool, secluded waterfall. We nicknamed one of our guides Moguli, after the Jungle Book character, as he seemed to be part monkey, effortlessly scampering up trees and swinging from vines, while gathering grubs hidden inside bamboo which he could sell back in the city. As the skies started darkening above, we arrived at a small clearing at the top of a hill where we found three elevated bamboo huts, surrounded by free roaming animals. After a long day of trekking, we’d arrived at our accommodation for the night, the settlement of a small hill tribe.

Despite the rather obvious incongruity of a satellite dish and solar panels on one of the huts, one still can’t deny they live a very simple existence. The women of the tribe devote their attentions to preparing the food and raising the children, while the men spend their day hunting, and looking for food to feed their families in the small village. Due to the remoteness of the tribes, its impossible for the children to attend school and gain an a proper education, which makes it very difficult for them to ever leave the tribe; and sadly the ones that do mostly end up working as prostitutes in the cities.

We sat on the balcony of the hut, soaking in the still serenity of the scene around us while a couple of villagers scampered around preparing us dinner on a little wood stove. Sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat we were served a traditional Thai green curry, which was delicious, despite finding a few rouge caterpillars lurking in the sauce.

After finishing our second day hiking we were dropped off to go white water rafting on the Mae Taeng River. As the boat surged up and down we were all cheering and laughing, but soon the rapids very quickly picked up speed and ferocity and our boat got submerged by a large wave knocking a number of us from the boat, in an instant I was underwater, disorientated and being dragged along the rocks, struggling to get to the surface to breathe; the thin, flimsy lifejackets were useless in such angry waters, and I was getting battered by the river.

Our Hilltop Home - Chiang Mai Provence, Thailand

Our Hilltop Home - Chiang Mai Provence, Thailand

Unable to breathe and swallowing river water, in desperation I swam with all my strength and luckily managed to cling to a rock and pull myself from the raging current, but not without straining a muscle in my arm in the process. Hyperventilating and unable to think with so much adrenaline coursing through my veins, I sat huffing and puffing on a rock, trying to gain my breath and composure. As I sat, I couldn’t help but notice I was on the wrong side of the river for the road, and with the river flowing hard and fast for hundreds of metres in either direction, there was no way I was getting back in the water.

For some time I sat on the side of the remote jungle river, quite unsure of what to do; fortunately, before long a little Thai man materialised from behind some trees and gestured for me to follow him. We walked for quite some time through the vast sodden rice fields until eventually we came to a little road where a man was waiting for us on a motorbike. I was instructed to get on the bike, and as I climbed on I noticed for the first time that my legs were covered in dark red leeches, slightly pulsating to the rhythm of my heart as they drew the blood from my veins. Vaguely recalling that you’re not supposed to just pull leeches off, I had no choice but to leave them there for the time being.

I was dropped off to a little hut where my fellow crew mates were waiting, all looking visibly shaken. The relief on the everyone’s face was palpable as I walked in the door; apparently there had been some suspicions I may have drowned. As delighted as I was hearing that they all thought I may have died, my current focus was more focused on getting the disgusting leeches off my body, which my guide was able to do quick flick of the wrist. A few days later, while regaling a fellow traveller with the story, she pointed out me to a warning on the Foreign Office website which advised against white water rafting in Northern Thailand, as they’d been a number of drownings due to high river levels and fast moving water. Great.

Cambodian Party - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodian Party - Siem Reap, Cambodia

After all that excitement, I decided a few days of rest and relaxation was in order, so I headed north to a little town called Pai in Mae Hong Son Province. A small rural town, and ex-hippy hangout, Pai is one of the few places where the foreign residents out number the Thais on a permanent basis. Due to its remote location and small population, power supply is sporadic to say the least. In order to deal with the power being off as often as it’s on, there are candles and lanterns all through town, and I spent a few very happy nights, drinking Thai whiskey in the candlelight, and discussing travels and the mean of life with travellers and locals alike.

After four days of relative inactivity, I set out for Cambodia; former seat of the Khmer empire, who between the 9th and 15th centuries controlled much of South East Asia, and constructed a number of immense temples in the area that is today the city of Siem Reap. Most visitors, like myself, come to witness the breathtakingly spectacular of the main temple, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is immense, the outer walls of the complex are roughly a kilometre square, 4.5m high and surrounded by a 190m wide moat on all sides. The temple structure itself is a temple mountain style building, with three large towers, the main tower being a lofty 65m in height. Despite the immense number and size of the temples, they all have been painstakingly carved by ancient hands to depict scenes from various mythological stories and historic events. Armed with a dodgy photocopied handbook purchased from a beggar child, I set about deciphering the figures carved in the sandstone walls around me, from the Apsara, the bare-breasted celestial nymphs; to the Nāga, the many-headed mythical serpents that according to Cambodian legend once had a large empire in the Pacific Ocean region. The legend goes on to say that the Nāga King’s daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people.

As foreigners are forbidden to drive in Cambodia, I hired a young man on a motorbike to be my chauffeur during the duration of my stay. Being somewhat surprised I was travelling by myself, he kindly invited he to accompany him to a party he was attending that night; being more than a little curious, and feeling like an adventure I gladly accepted his offer. Later on that evening, he collected me from my hotel and we set of on his bike, after we’d been riding for about a half hour, I suddenly couldn’t help wondering where this chap was taking me, for all I knew he was taking me somewhere to rape me, kill me or harvest my internal organs. So I sat on that back of the bike, with the dark countryside whipping past, pondering the fact nobody in the world even knew I was in Cambodia, and wondering how much my kidneys would sell for on the black market, when abruptly we slowed down and turned in to a drive way. He told me to go inside, while he left and parked the bike.

Angkor Wat - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Nervously, I shuffled on my lonesome through the cinder block archway in to a courtyard full of party goers, only to be greeted by aghast stares, while they tried to work out who this random white guy was that had just gatecrashed their festivities. Fortunately, my chauffeur entered and defused the situation and I was ushered to a table and handed a beer, and proceeded to be ambushed by people wanting to shake my hand and talk with me. With me not speaking any Khmer, it was a little hard to understand my new found friends, but somehow we managed to converse using a combination of mime and broken English.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but notice one of the guests had a little radio on his belt, which he’d periodically unclip, speak in to, and then carry on drinking. Noticing my gaze, my motorbike driver told me he was none other than the City Governor of Siem Reap, and took me over to meet him. The Governor, delighted to have a foreigner in his company insisted on having me having a shot of whiskey with him, no sooner had we downed the tangy liquor, he ordered another us round. Seemingly impervious to the effects of alcohol he insisted on shot after shot, until I had to raise my hand and say “No more! No more!”.

Very shortly after, and being very inebriated as the Cambodian whiskey took over my system, I was having a little groove on the dance floor when a little old lady came over and grabbed me by the arm and started leading me somewhere, I couldn’t help but notice a number of people had started to follow us too. Not quite sure where I was being taken, and a too drunk to care; and long past worrying about the safety of my kidneys I merrily followed along as I was led into a little back room. In the room was a woman holding a tiny baby, which she delightfully thrust in to my arms as I came in.

Swaying slightly from the hours of drinking, I was someone perturbed by the fact I was now holding a baby which I felt I could drop at any time, nevertheless the procession that had been following us from the party had now filled the room and now everyone was joyfully snapping away photos of me with their little bundle of joy.

Koh Tao Sunset - Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao Sunset - Koh Tao, Thailand

Departing Cambodia, I ventured on to Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand renowned for its scuba diving; unfortunately on my gruelling 24 hour train/ferry journey from Siem Reap I managed to pick up some strange illness, and spent the next four days in bed, only half conscious and sweating profusely. Fortunately after a brief stay in the hospital, and downing all sorts of mysterious pills and powers, I was within a few days again fighting fit; and proceeded to spend the next week scuba diving in the bath warm waters in the Gulf, swimming with grey reef sharks, and finding Nemo.

From the beautiful white sand beaches, and the crystal clear water of the islands, to the dense green jungles of the Chiang Mai, Thailand is a country of supreme natural beauty. The warmth and hospitality of the people I met in South East Asia also never failed to surprise me, and undoubtedly it was these same people that took my trip from being good, to being an amazing experience I will remember fondly forever; and even now, I can’t help but smile when I think that there somewhere in Cambodia, some unknown family has pictures of this random traveller, holding their sweet little baby.

Full Photo Set from this trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marksteele/sets/72157594357030515/




Advertisements

Actions

Information

4 responses

5 11 2007
jane

Hi,

i found out your blog while i was searching info of Cambodia. May i ask you how did you
apply for Cambodia visa? Did u get it at the border or apply via online? I heard some people
said if we apply on arrival, it may take longer time. Then, i came across a site which
mentions that we can apply Cambodia e-visa online. The URL link is http://evisa.mfaic.gov.kh.
What do you think? Does it works? Please give some advice.

Regards,
jane

16 12 2009
Part 7: Back To Reality « MarkSteele.co.nz

[…] few years ago I found myself one hot, sticky night sitting alone outside a crowded Bangkok (Read more…) bar sipping on a cold beer and watching the throng of Thais making their way home from their daily […]

3 03 2010
In the Shadow of Chernobyl: Notes From The Ukraine « MarkSteele.co.nz

[…] hard to compare a holiday like this to visiting the beaches of Thailand or travelling through Africa, but a part of me feels it’s important to see the less glamorous […]

20 09 2010
Thai Green Curry

Hi

Nice Trip, i like the elephant walking across the river. I don’t think you can compare with Africa, every country has it attractions.

Jane W




%d bloggers like this: