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This page was last updated 1 July 2008.
Part 2: Thailand
Tour date: February/March 2006.
See also my 1998 tour to Thailand.
Continued from part 1.
Entering Thailand from Poipet in Cambodia is trivial, the formalities take less than a minute. Buses continue to Bangkok on the other side. There is also a huge market here. Since our bus was late, we had missed the train, so we got another bus to Bangkok. The drive is boring - a fast modern air-conditioned minibus and smooth well-built freeways, with a few not very interesting towns along the way. Driving through Bangkok's faceless concrete suburbs is not fun either. We got off at the skytrain, Bangkok's new elevated light rail system in the modern (read "concrete highrises and thundering traffic") part of town. We first checked the Asia Hotel but it was fully booked, but they helped us call the Patumwan House hotel nearby where we got a nice although effectively windowless room for 1100B. We still had time to visit the Pantip Plaza shopping center, a five-floor electronics department store with the atmosphere of a bazar.
The next morning we took the skytrain to its northern terminal, and paid another 100B for a cab that brought us to the airport. We had reserved a 999B (plus taxes) ticket to Chiang Rai two days ago in Siem Reap, with Air Asia. This is a lowcost airline of the type that is so popular in Europe now. There is a hotel info counter right in the arrival hall in Chiang Rai, and they called the hotel that we had selected and booked a room and taxi to bring us there. Exceedingly uncomplicated. We stayed at the Golden Triangle Inn, which has nice rooms in several small buildings in a tropical garden. Very pleasant, although the air conditioning didn't manage to get the air dry. Unfortunately the first thing you see when leaving by the front gate is several large ugly department stores.
Chiang Rai may be a small and quiet town compared to Chiang Mai, but it's still a big change from Cambodia, even Siem Reap with its soulless foreign investment architecture. People are not poor here, there is no begging, no small children run after tourists and no shopkeepers shout out to people. Traffic is mostly cars. On the other hand, I miss the friendly easygoing way of the Cambodians - here you must wait for someone to notice you, answer a question, or help in a restaurant.
We didn't have a lot of time after checking into the hotel, so we just
had an excellent early dinner at Aye's restaurant (of course, a Lonely
Planet recommendation), and walked about town. We found the Night Market,
a local attraction. Nice to look at but they aren't selling anything
that we would be interested in.
Early in the morning we took the bus to Mae Sai. On the way, the bus got stopped by police who checked the IDs of the Thais on the bus, but not ours. Mae Sai is not very interesting but it's at the border to Myanmar (Burma). It's easy to just walk across the border with a passport. The checkpoint office has a sign that reads "Sorry for the slow procedure our computers are slow please be patient". The town on the other side is called Tachileik, and it feels a little like Cambodia: touts and small children surrounded us, begging or selling souvenirs. The items are basically spam, you get Saddam Hussein playing cards, porn, and viagra. (Really.) No instant university diplomas though. We walked around town and its large tourist market, trying to ignore the touts.
We also did their tuk-tuk sightseeing tour. They all offer the same one: a buddhist temple, a large stupa on to of a hill with a nice view, and a native village. The tour is worth its price, but don't expect too much - it all looks like it's been hastily put together from prefab concrete so that the tourists have something to take pictures of. Especially the "native village" consists of a nice garden with a concrete path with native huts that are so obviously fake that it hurts. A native dance is included in the price of admission; it consists of a few dressed-up girls shuffling their feet and waving their hands in tune with some blaring pop music from a cheap stereo. A very sorry display. Our tour guide spoke no English, he just stopped and made a practiced take-picture-here gesture. Funny.
After getting back into Thailand we wanted to take the songthaew to the bus station. (A songthaew is a pickup truck converted to a very small minibus.) We were the first passengers so the driver asked us where we want to go. We said Chiang Saen, and he offered to take us there direct (the usual bus takes a far longer route), rather than his normal route to the bus stop. For 400B (8 Euro) he drove us for over an hour to Chiang Saen.
Chiang Saen was somewhat less interesting than we thought. We watched
a Chinese boat on the Mekong river being loaded with thousands of boxes.
They used laborers who each carried three boxes on their shoulders,
10kg each, down a long stairway in the early afternoon heat. The town
has the inevitable large market, but very few tourists find their way
here. You can take a boat to China from here; it takes three days but
you must already have a visa for China.
The next morning we went "trekking". We had booked a tour at a travel agency the night before. Just the two of us and the guide, so we could pick exactly where we wanted to go. First we went up a Mekong tributary river by boat, a brightly colored narrow long-tail boat with a sunroof. The river is winding its way between groves of palm trees, open farmland, and curious steep and humplike mountains. After an hour, we got to the elephant station.
The first view of the village on the river looked like a picture straight from the National Geographic. A cluster of bamboo huts, a row of boats, and two elephants slowly walking through the shallow water. A little away from the water there are the inevitable souvenir shops and tourist amenities, but the village felt very right.
After a short wait we got our own elephant and mahout. The mahout sits on the head of the elephant, and controls it with some ropes and pressure on the side of its head. We tourists sat on a small bench strapped on the back of the elephant. We were trundling for an hour through pastures and groves, up and down hills. Elephants move slowly, ponderously, rocking us back and forth. It could have been quite comfortable if the bench had been larger and we had a place to stow our legs. In the end, we went through the water, like the elephants we had seen when we arrived.
Next was a "hill tribe" visit. Hill tribes live in small primitive villages, with huts built from bamboo and palm leaves. The first was the home town of our guide, who owned a great refuge on the top of the mountain with a few huts he rents out to overnight guests, and an open hut for eating. Great views over the village and the surrounding hills. The second village was far simpler - no electricity mains (but solar panels), pigs and chicken were roaming freely, and the houses were made from just bamboo and straw. We were invited to the house of a friend of our guide. Very archaic. But meticulously clean, the entire dirt grounds of the village was carefully swept and everything was carefully stowed. To get there, we had to go up and down a very steep path cut into the side of the mountain and through the jungle.
We also went to a waterfall with a deep swimming hole, and some caves
with Buddha statues and one complete temple built into them. Eventually
we decided to head back to the hotel, rather than watching the sundown
from a hill. Although the whole experience was of course completely
canned for tourists, we found it very impressive.
The next morning we took the VIP bus to Chiang Mai. VIP means a big Mercedes bus, A/C, and wide seats and lots of legroom. Much of the three-hour drive was through the hills, and moderately scenic. Again, the bus was inspected by police on the way. Chiang Mai is much larger and much busier than Chiang Rai. We got a songthaew to our hotel, where we had reserved a room the day before by cellphone. (GSM cellphones work fine in Cambodia and Thailand.) We were staying at the River View Lodge, the same place where I had stayed eight years before. It's right on the banks of the river, a couple blocks away from traffic, and it has a beautiful garden with a pool, shown in the left picture below. Just what we needed now. The right picture shows a temple school in Chiang Mai.
Once again we explored the town, and had an early dinner at another recommended restaurant. The food was ok but not great. Chiang Mai has a famous night market too, but I found it largely a waste of time. They mostly sell souvenirs, Buddhas, watches, silk scarfs, cheap jewellery, pictures, and so on. If they have viagra I didn't see it. Nothing I'd want to carry home; very little food, and all the same. My friend got a Thai massage at the disturbingly named but quite fancy Porn Ping hotel. There are tons of massage parlors all over town, more than we have mobile phone franchises at home, but most of them look very dingy and untrustworthy. Kneading tourists must be quite profitable.
After a quick ride to the train station to buy tickets for the next day, which sometimes sell out quickly, we took a cab to Doi Suthep, a temple complex on a mountain northwest of Chiang Mai. As always, the driver quoted a roundtrip price and had no problems with waiting two hours while we were exploring the temple. Time is cheap here, and driving tourists is profitable. Here are two pictures of the temple:
The temple complex is very well maintained. The central stupa, one of the holiest of Thailand, is covered with gold, and the surrounding buildings and ornaments also glitter with gold. Buddhas come in all sizes and materials. There are several beautifully done sets of eight that show the eight poses of Buddha. On clear days the view from the temple over the city is great, but we had a little haze. There are lots of tourists here, and touts selling pictures and making uninspired photos of tourists.
Afterwards we visited another of the numerous temples in Chiang
Mai, the Wat Chedi Luang, which is an immense ruined stupa undergoing
renovation. Then some lunch, and back to the hotel for relaxing at the
pool. The River View Lodge is very addictive. In the evening we walked
to another market, near the flower market down the river, that is far
more interesting than the night market.
In the early morning we took the "sprinter" train to Phitsanulok, six hours from Chiang Mai on the northern Bangkok line. It's slow but comfortable. They even serve breakfast and lunch, which I didn't eat, it looked like Lufthansa economy catering. The train left on the dot and arrived a little ahead of time. There isn't any reason to stay in Phitsanulok so we went to the bus station, using a curious taxi vehicle that consisted of a motorcycle that had its front wheel replaced with a two-wheeled little cart. The driver fearlessly rode on the fast lane of the eight-lane highway to the bus terminal. We got on a VIP bus to new Sukhothai and arrived after an hour.
There isn't a lot to do in new Sukhothai either; tourists stay here to visit the ruins of old Sukhothai. We arrived too late for this so we explored the new town, or what little there is of it. They have a rather picturesque covered market, frequented almost exclusively by Thais. The kind where they have lots of stalls with big piles of strange animal parts. Despite the proximity to old Sukhothai there are almost no tourists here. We stayed at the Sukhothai Guest House. It's not nearly as fancy as the River View Lodge, but quiet, set in a nice little garden, and the owners were extremely helpful with transport and information.
In the morning we checked out, left our backpacks at the guesthouse, and the owner took us to the old bus terminal where the songthaews for old Sukhothai leave. In old Sukhothai we rented bicycles and explored the ruins. Sukhothai was the center of the first Thai kingdom, and the ruins are quite spread out. We rode some 20km, although the best sights are all inside the main moat, a smaller moat just outside to the north, and a huge Buddha statue northwest of the the big moat. The ruins are impressive, although we would probably have been more impressed if we hadn't come from dazzling Angkor, the mother of all temples.
After getting tired in the blazing heat, we went back to the new city and had an excellent lunch at the Dream Cafe. We picked up our bags from the guesthouse, and once again the owners drove us to the new bus terminal. Unfortunately the Bangkok bus had left and the next one was scheduled for much later. A taxi driver offered to take us to Kamphaeng Phet, our next destination, for 800 Baht, but once again our guesthouse host rescued the situation by talking a songthaew driver into extending his usual route for 400 Baht. A songthaew is basically a pickup truck with a roof, and is open at the back, and it was unusual to ride in one at 120 km/h over the highway for over an hour. The driver dropped us off right at our chosen hotel, the Phet hotel. This is a large modern but very pleasant hotel.
In the evening we did our usual walks in town, and as usual we found
the first market within minutes. We also went to the river, and meant to
check out the bus terminal, but it turned out to be too far away. No taxi
or tuk-tuk could be found. When we asked some friendly Thais, they took
us back to the hotel on their motorcycles. A very interesting experience
that, riding in traffic consisting mostly of other motorcycle riders
with limited patience for traffic regulations at high speeds. Nobody
wears a helmet here.
Since the hotel reception couldn't tell us when the buses leave, we decided to go to the bus terminal first the next morning. We got there with one of these motorcycle carts at 8:00, and indeed a bus to Ayuthaya left 30 minutes later. The next one would have been at 13:00, so we decided to leave right away. The bus arrived in Ayuthaya five hours later, and dropped us off at the edge of the freeway. No taxis, no tuk-tuks, noone who spoke English. After half an hour of gesticulating, we found two guys who would bring us to ouir hotel on their motorcycles. So once again we were on the backs of motorcycles, trying to hold on while they were navigating traffic on bridges and eight-lane highways. At least this time we had helmets.
The Ayothaya Hotel (sic) is not a guesthouse but a medium-sized hotel. They even have a pool, larger than the one in Chiang Mai. But first we had work to do - a major temple area was waiting to be explored.
Ayuthaya was the Thai capital after Sukhothai. It got sacked by the Burmese so a lot was destroyed, but some of these temples can compete with those in Angkor. (Only a few - Angkor is unique.) Some of the chedis have partially sunk and stand at a perilous angle, ready to collapse. The largest stands tall, but it has been reinforced with concrete inside. Another is filled with bats that flap around excitedly when they saw my flashlight.
The Ayuthaya ruins are spread out quite a bit, so once again we had rented bicycles. Quite convenient, as long as we didn't ride too fast in the humid heat. We also had occasion to ponder whether an elephant coming from the left has the right of way. But the elephants, deep down in their hearts, are content in the knowledge that they always have the right of way no matter where they go.
We had dinner at Tony's place, a guesthouse close to the hotel,
opposite from the bicycle rental shop. Looks quite nice, if the rooms
live up to their restaurant this is a good place to stay.
The next morning we were going to our final destination, the city named Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani buridom udomratchaniwet mahasathanamonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit, also known as Bangkok.
We decided to go native and take a local train. Slow, loud, not very comfortable, but interesting to watch people and scenery. Then a cab to the Shangri-La hotel at the river, one of the best hotels in Bangkok. We had an Internet reservation for a nice room with a balcony. A night here costs about as much as all the hotel nights before combined but it's nice to conclude the tour in style. Before the taxi could pull up to the entrance, security guards were inspecting the underside with mirrors and the trunk before they pulled the tank trap aside. The reception wouldn't comment on the motivation for this. Perhaps a reaction to the bomb going off at the Premier's house the day before?
It was too late to visit the palace, so we walked the modern part of town, Silom and Sukhumvit roads. This is basically a waste of time; there are a few markets, boring shopping centers (one half abandoned), and touts. Sukhumvit road is now dark and ugly; just lots of shops, shopping centers, and the ubiquitous roadside stalls pushed to the edge of the road by the traffic. The skytrain blocks most sunlight. We did find the Bussaracum Restaurant and ate a buffet lunch with lots of Thai dishes to sample.
We spent the remainder of the day at the Shangri-La's large pleasant pool. Overall the Shangri-La is more spacious than the Oriental just up the river, where I stayed during my last visit, but it cannot touch the Oriental's service. The Oriental has three employees per guest on average, but our 40 square meter room with balcony overlooking the river would have been very expensive there indeed. We did have excellent fruit shakes at the Oriental the next day to compare the atmosphere..
The prime sight in Bangkok is the palace. The main attraction is the Emerald Buddha, a small Buddha statue made of green nephrite jade that is dressed by the king at the beginning of the hot, wet, and cold seasons. It may be small but it sits atop an enormous stack of golden thrones. The palace grounds also contain a large golden chedi and lots of temples, chedis, murals, and statues, all meticulously maintained. They also have a palace heavily influenced by French architecture. At the ground floor. Thai influence appears at the next floor, all the way up to the traditional Thai roofs. Odd. Right next to it is an elephant boarding gate for the king.
The palace is impressive with its gold and colorful tile, but the neighboring Wat Pho is even more interesting. They have a palace housing a 45 meter long reclining gold-leaf Buddha, lots of colorful chedis, and various temples. Taking pictures inside temples is allowed here.
We then took a tuk-tuk to Chinatown, hoping to eat at the Siam center food mall, but they only have traditional Thai desserts. Lots of them. We went wandering around the markets of Chinatown, and soon found one that sells only electronic components - connectors, transistors, capacitors, old analog multimeters, speakers, LEDs - innumerable variations arranged in little boxes like spices or fruit in other markets. All discrete though, I saw no integrated circuits. They also repair big old speakers here, in the same way one repairs a torn shirt.
Eventually we ate at a Chinese hole-in-the-wall where nobody spoke English. Not bad, but not spectacular. Since this was Chinatown, we got chopsticks, and even though I do ok with chopsticks they found us forks after watching us for a few minutes...
Last day. Enough time to go for a swim in the pool in the morning. Then an extended breakfast at the Shangri-La's huge and excellent buffet. Back to the pool. Getting to the airport was easy, using the skytrain to the Mo Chit terminal to dodge the downtown traffic, and taking a cab to the airport. We made sure that we had a 1000 bath bill left for the departure tax for two, and changed the rest to Euro.
All photos in this report were taken with a Canon S80 compact camera. All are unretouched and unedited except the banner image at the top, which was cropped and had its contrast increased.
Find more pictures in my Cambodia web gallery.
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