Day 12 – Thailand to Laos

I’m back at pak Chong station at 11. A pjamed station master with missing teeth sends me to the VIP waiting room, which is a glass-walled area with curtains and benches for sleepy important foreigners, whilst the Thais camp out on the platforms. I sink into groggy half-sleep but am jolted awake by the grinding through and halting of slow local trains and piercing tannoy alerts. The station master re-assures me he will fetch me. The train is already 1.5 hours late when he fetches me at 12.30 am and leads me over the track as a train pulls out to reveal mine waiting behind it.
The sleeper car is sleeping and my bunk is made up. The Thai guy above me is singing along to his MP3 and cannot hear my protestations. Sleep comes slowly and I wake up cold in Khon Kaen. The train is at least 2 hours behind time now.
On getting to Nong Khai we flocks of bewildered and ignorant travellers are ushered into waiting tuk-tuks and taken a short distance to the Thai immigration point at the Friendship Bridge. After the first obstacle we have to get on a shuttle bus that takes us over the great Mekong to the entrance to Laos on the other side. Getting a visa and getting through the checks is actually hitchless but takes a while. Then there are the options into town. I take the first one: 50 Baht in a tuk-tuk bus with 8 locals. The 22 km is hot and noisy and Laos begins to reveal itself. Dust roads and food stalls.
Arrival at the tuk-tuk bus station is initially a bit of a “oh God now where am I?” moment. But it quickly turns out that Vientiane is small, I am near the centre, and locals even if they don’t speak much English are enthusiastic to help.
The main drag is lined with juice bars, banks, motor cycle rental shops, and there are a lot of guesthouses on the side streets that lead down to the Mekong. It’s 1pm, no food or drink since last night and the sun is beating on my heat. Probably the hottest sun I have felt this trip. I check out a couple of guest hoses before settling on a clean airy double called Mixay. It’s around 8 GBP per night.
A quick shower then out for a shake and a watching of the sleepy world in early afternoon. I stumble on a veggie restaurant with a shady terrace. I’ve missed the buffet lunch but anyway have a very nice mushroom lap. This is a meat-free version of a famous Laos dish: a salad of shredded tofu, a variety of mushroom, spices and fresh mint. Then I find an air-con tourist office with free internet to while away the rest of the hot day.
As dusk approaches I cross the road and am on the banks of the river. There is a large park here, recently built which becomes the focus of life as the temperature cools. A temple, baby palms, joggers, kids in a playground, boys on bikes, couples strolling women spinning hula hoops which look like car tyres and are over 1m across, badminton, haki with large balls, and a sound system or two playing intially a kind of rhumba pop to which there is a small group of women and a couple of men learning some dance steps. They aren’t very good and remind me of the dancing elephants I saw in Pai…The sun is beginning to go down. A red glow over the Mekong which is in fact about 1/2 mile away as the water is low revealing a vast expanse of dusty mud. Some people are walking down to the water. There is also a football match in progress there.

After sundown over Thailand a market begins to open selling tourist-type stuff. I begin to walk south to a statue which I can see from my window, he is holding out his arm in salute pointing over the river to Thailand. I am later told by Dao, a Laos French teacher, who thinks i’m 25, that thia is King Anuwang from the nineteenth century. As I near the illuminated king there is a blast of siren and a convoy of assorted police vehicles and coaches surge down the promenade and halt right in front of the statue, which is also a buddhist shrine.
It looks like some very important people are coming as photographers with cheap old cameras and no flash, and a videographer assemble, directed away from the steps by the handful of police.
Then from one of the buses a raggle-taggle group of teenagers descend wearing blue tracksuits. They climb the steps to light incense, kneel and have a photo moment. They then return to the coach and the convoy rushes off with a cavalcade of horns blaring. Apparently this was a visit from some young sportspeople (I have to say they didn’t look very athletic) to mark something to do with some youth games. Nobody was able to clearly explain.
Walking back towards the end of my street I could see around 80 people dancing. Getting closer I saw that the dancing practice had morphed into an outdoor full-on dance aerobics get-together, with a man and a woman leading the moves from the top of the steps by the promenade. a crazy sight.
I return to my room for a rest at around 7. This rest becomes a nap from which I descend into sleep for 12 hours. The best bed so far and the first good night’s sleep since Singapore
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Day 11 – Khao Yai Jungle Tour

Up at 6am, though actually I was up many times with the steady drone of the nearby highway preventing good sleep.

Dawn. Eggs for breakfast as we all gather for the trip into the jungle.
Our group contains just 5 of us: Gillian, the retired German who I shared a room with, a very cheerful and friendly Swiss girl, and a young Israeli couple who seemed less in tune with the independent adventure travel life. We travelled in the back of a van ( a pickup with 2 rows of seats in the back) for about an hour. Past the bigger resorts, some austentatious themed holiday castles with flashing lights and decorations, a drive-in Mcdonalds and an elephant reserve.
The national park is in the mountains and the drive takes us deeper and higher. We stop to put on leech socks (just in case), a kind of cotton gaiter-like boot which we wear inside our shoes.

I thought the joke may be on us but even the guide, a very young looking 30-year old woman called Aem, donned them. She turns out to be perfect, a tough little lady who used to do Muay Thai, who wants to take us off the less trodden tracks (even though they are barely tracks, as the park is not over-visited and retains an atmosphere of pristeen jungle) as she gets bored, and wants to see and let us see wildlfe as much as is possible. Our sister group is let by a small guy who has less luck in finding wildlife. He has his entire arms and much of his body covered with the most intricate Buddhist tattoos, which he had done and did himself with sharpened bamboo.

On the way up we see several types of animal: lots of macaw monkeys with their red asses. Running across or sitting on the road. Couples grooming each other and lovingly picking fleas from their partners coats.

A couple of female Sambak deer, which timidly run into the trees. A white gibbon, and then a black one swinging high in the canopy.

Some black and white plumed hornbills.

The day starts off with me slipping on my ass into a small stream and getting thoroughly wet. Although it is not hot, the constant low twenties and the long walk dries me out.
We walk for about 3 hours, taking in cinnamon trees, bayon trees, with their enormous leaves which monkeys shelter under from the rain. I climb a 400 year old strangler fig. After reaching about 20m I slip through a gap in the massive vertical shafts and descend on the inside of the tree. So much fun!

We stumble upon a pair of King Cobra eggs and a newly hatched baby with a yellow head. This is a special moment. Our guide has never seen this before. We hover close by, hoping the mother wont return. These are deadly. I have to remind the others to stop using flash!
We hear gibbons calling and see black squirrels jumping, scampering and almost flying between trees. Crossing the grassland down to the salt lick we find a 15cm grasshopper. On closer inspection we see it has an injured leg.

The walk is beautiful, calming, exciting and wondrous. No leeches. No elephants (though they do live wild here) but we do see their pooh! The best thing is the sense of solitude and that there are so few people here. Just our group.

Picnic boxes of lovely fried tofu rice are provided then we walk down a trick steep path to a couple of waterfalls. The first one is the one used in the DeCaprio Beach film, but swimming is forbidden. Mike from the guesthouse later tells me that many people have died here as the water is so powerful and pulls you under.

The second waterfall is serene and there is barely a sole there. Some of us climb into the pool. The rocks are slippery and I cannot touch the bottom. This scares me a little so i wallow by the edge. The water is cool. My bottle comes out tingling and refreshed. I notice my legs are getting better. And not a single bite in the jungle!

The long day winds down by a drive in search of the elephants, but once more they are hiding. We settle for a glorious sunset by a small pool, then come back to town.

The girls at the guesthouse have sorted out a ticket for me, so I’m all set for going to the Laos border on the sleeper tonight. It leaves at midnight and I have a few hours to kill or rather put to good use on-line.

Tomorrow another country!

Day 10 – To Pak Chong

Woke at 6 and walked through slumbering Phetchaburi to the station. Nothing much of note other than a brilliant disc of an orange sun rising over the train tracks. The journey is slow and coloured only by a spllt water bottle causing concern as it puddles across the floor of the carriage.

Bangkok is enormous, a real sprawl which takes nearly 2 hours to penetrate. Railway land is eaten up by shanty slums built of the ubiquitous corrugated iron sheeting and sheets of pepsi plastic sheeting, which in places are inches from the train. Piles of waste and plastic bags. On the many stops you can reach out of the window and touch the roofs, or peer into the spaces where people are sitting and eating. The track gas no fence. People stroll across and climb through the train or over the couplings to get from the side that they live on to the market on the other. The track literally ploughs a path through this seething claustrophobic mass of stalls and dwellings. The track bed broadens and other tracks converge. The heat haze skyline of tower blocks near and we are sucked into the central station.

The platform I disembark on is a hurly burly of activity: hawkers, soiled sheets from the sleeper car being tossed out of the windows and sorted on the ground, passengers humping bales and boxes of goods to sell out of the windows to helpers outside.
Getting a connecting train to Pak Chong is easy, and it costs less that 1 pound for what turns out to be a 5 hour ride. I grab a bowl of congee at the station (a bowl of rice porridge with an egg broken into it and stirred in. You add greens, chillis, herbs, oils to taste). The city is a busy but not hectic melting pot of humanity: monks, soldiers, families, grubby homeless, tourists… But it does not feel threatening. A huge portrait of the king has central place in the airy modern waiting hall.
The train is 3rd class, which means it’s basic, but not uncomfortable. No fans, all the windows are necessarily open. A monk beckons me over to sit by me. He is gawky, thick glasses and seems a bit retarded. Our conversation mercifully gets no further than repeated a number of times the names of our respective destinations. Language barriers can sometimes be a godsend. He also asked me for money.
The train is unbelievably slow and timekeeping is seemingly of no importance. The city slowly turns into suburbs, turns into paddies, turns into flooded land around Ayutthya. For the first 3 hours people are getting on and off quite frequently. As the countryside becomes less populated and plain turns to forested mountains the train begins to empty and the remaining passengers have become good friends and are laughing and shouting. The Thai Chinese are replaced by eastern Thais who have very dark skin, malarial eyes and missing teeth. They smile at me. One guy who looked scary and drunk wants to shake my hand. His is rough and dusty. He is groggy from working in the fields under a baking sun. Dirty but cheerful so amusing to watch him lumber around and tease everyone.
Throughout the journey peddlers of food: fried chicken, BBQ bat, perhaps, on skewers, instant noodles and hot water, fruits…jump on and walk the aisles. They don’t seem to sell much and are not treated as fare dodgers. In fact the guards are fooling around with them too.
For most of the journey an elderly retired Thai architect sits opposite me and we strike up a conversation that lasts for over 4 hours, encompassing the Thai monarchy and the very real situation a first Thai ruling Queen, the philosophy of architecture, the meaning and value of travel. It’s stimulating but he doesn’t let me say much. Possibly because, although well spoken, does not have good comprehension skills.
But, I have noticed here that people do not seem to be very inquisitive about me: I do the asking, they do the talking and sometimes I might squeeze in an anecdote of my own.
When I finally get off at Pak Chong, the station is quite empty and there is only 1 hotel tout. The map shows me that everything s far away and I’m too tired to negotiate this new place. Rabi tells me about her rooms and tours into the jungle. I’m unsure with nothing to compare it with. But also aware that if the town is booked up then she might be my best hope. I umm and err. Her rooms are outside town in the place where all tours start. I’m not even sure I want a tour. The distances on the map look short but after getting on her bike to get to the guesthouse, it becomes obvious that this place does not lend itself to independent do-it-yourself touring. Mis-information and mis-understandings mean that the room she had promised had gone, and the alternative at a recently built high rise business-style place did not attract. I was now stuck outside town and facing the option of going it alone and going back to town. Miraculously a German guy who had just arrived and who was sitting in the yard with a beer had a 3-bed room all to himself and offered me one of the spare beds.
The room was enormous and modern and spotless. I had my first fresh, clean shower in Asia. The accommodation is based around a couple of buildings either side of a track. The HQ being the other side where Bobby’s Apartments were based. The yard has an outdoor kitchen where Mike’s Thai wife cooks to order in super quick time with delicious results, outside seating for newcomers and returnees from tours. Darkness falls by 7pm. Bedtime is early for most. I chat to some Germans. Actually they are rather dull people…..

Day 02 – Singapore

It’s not as hot as expected. Permanently overcast and a bit sticky, but nothing unbearable at all.Today I went out to the Botanic Gardens (not Botanical) with a girl and guy I met at the hotel (Sophie from Holland and Valeria from Italy). Travelled by super-clean and super efficient MRT (subway).

The paths were lined with Christmas trees decorated by local kids in rather off-the-wall and recycle-friendly ways. I particularly like the one by the Russian church (I think) which was hung with baubles with the face of Yuri Gugarin stuck on, and rockets made out of silver-painted water bottles. We spent most of the time in the Evolution Garden which told the history of plant life, but overdid it a bit with concrete replicas of primordial trees and dinosaur footprints on the concrete path.

After those 2 left for lunch I wandered through the rain forest area then headed down to the bus stop. But had no idea where to go next.

The bus took me to where I wasn’t expecting, and a Chinese guy, whose help I didn’t want, insisted on showing me where I could go. Trouble was he couldn’t read the map. Ive found that a lot in Asia, that people cannot read maps. I found myself heading past some tower blocks and into China town.

Pausing at a food court to get a bargain plateful of vege Chinese food, some of which I have no idea of its name or components. Yum.

Over the road was the 5-storey Chinese Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. No teeth in sight but quite a lot of Buddhas.

Actually, it was spectacular. More or less next door was the  Sri Mariamman Krsna Temple, equally amazing, ornately painted Vishnu, and cows, resplendent against the backdrop of high-rise hotels and financial offices.

Smith Street was the centre for prostitutes and opium dens in the 1920’s, but now its pretty painted shuttered Chinese houses are hidden by a street-long canopy  built to protect the open-air Chinese market, where I bought nothing. It’s all very similar to Malaysia, so i have to say, so far nothing new, but nevertheless, very pleasant. Reassuringly alien, yet familiar.

I bussed it back to Victoria Road, near the hotel, and found myself looking over a low wall into a rambling graveyard (the religion is not clear, but certainly not Christian). My photographic curiosity got the better of me and drew me into the scrubby garden lined with almost identical and un-inscribed grave markers. As I went deeper I found a ruined building, open to the sky with trees and creepers wrapped around it. I suddenly looked right and there appearing from some trees and eyeing me was a big tan skinny dog. A stray. To my relief he was alone and, probably surprised to see anyone on his patch, he trotted away. It was then I realized my legs were being bitten. Bugs, or worse in the prickly tough tropical grass. Time to shower and put on some cream.

This led to a tropical collapse and sleep for several hours.

In the evening I wanted to catch some of the crazy modern towers at dusk by the harbour. Distance and sheer number of amazing views delayed my progress. In fact i didn’t really know where I was heading. Just guided by the space occupied by malls, hotels, offices, main roads and over-passes. Rain fell lightly and I found my route coming to an end, so I strode through a fashion mall where the shops were just closing. If it was KL or BKK I think they would have been hectically crowded at that time.

Headed to Little India by underground, changing at a fabulous multi-layered spartan clean chrome open-plan interchange with a constant soundtrack of multi-lingual reminders about rubbish, drinking and eating on the network.

Tonight India was different. Shops were open, the gatherings of moustachioed men weren’t there, I had chappatis and curry then visited the Sri Veeramakaliallam Temple, where blessings, offerings and prostrations were in full swing. Food was being sold and Brahmans were collecting limes from devotees and marking their foreheads with ash. A bell was rung and 2 musicians began to play, one a handheld drum with 2 tones, the other an Indian pipe of some kind, the length of an oboe, and looking perfect for charming snakes. i sat and watched, the only white face there, knowing from experience not even to try to take pictures. Committing it all to memory instead.

After hunting down a samosa, ambled back to the hotel for rest and to consider my moves for tomorrow.

Hope I can upload some photos soon.

Day 09 – Phetchaburi

Finally a good sleep, punctuated by barking dogs though.
Ray is still here and I help him plan his trip to the south. We decide to do some things together: first to the station to get the tickets for our next destinations, then I get a banana pancake and a fresh pineapple. After Ray has checked out, we head for the park at Phra Nakhon Khiri. It’s a hot day, no clouds but I am well prepared for the sun.
There is a steep path (and monkeys) up to the park, which contains a royal palace and a number of temples, flowering frangipani trees, rows of potted flowering bonsais and amazing views.

Each structure has a magical setting and is a little journey in itself.

Each has a view and at each point we end up taking things in and reflecting on some aspect of life. There is hardly anyone there, which makes it all the more wonderful. yet, the noise of the city drifts up and in particular the PA system of a van advertising I dont know what, but punctuating its announcements with blasts of Wham’s “Last Christmas”. Inappropriate? Just wrong!

A drink seller calls out to me “I love you” and pulls out her guitar and sings a beautiful Thai song. Later when I return to buy a green tea and she shows me the bites she has had from the monkeys. They are quite scary.

After a peaceful 3 hours we descend into town where the market is setting up. Fried insects…grilled squid…. sunglasses with Thai and Farang prices….piles of junk..cheap clothes.

And all the kids are coming out of school and calling out hello , then giggling shyly. Thai kids are so good-looking. Well proportioned, lovely skin, rich dark hair, smart and well behaved. Road workers  (women) covered from head to foot in the back of trucks going home. Boys on motorbikes with their girls behind on side saddle cruising through the traffic.

This feels really Thai. Nothing put on for show. People just living and doing their regular thing. Courteous, friendly, offering us food only to try in the market. The atmosphere is so genuine.
Back to base to eat and chat and…wow..this blog is now up to date.
Chang beer to celebrate!

Day 08 – Into Thailand

Dawn is breaking as I pull open the curtains. Thailand is waking up. Wooden houses on stilts, taller, bendier more gracious clusters of palms.
At 7.30 I get off at Phetchaburi and walk into town. past hawkers selling green coconuts, along the street with the municipal buildings lined with displays commemorating the life and passions of the king, who recently turned 85.
The guest house (Rabieng Rimnum Guesthouse) is on the river and an old dark dusty teak building with an airy restaurant which opens directly over the water. Leonard Cohen is playing and the lady owner is on the phone and chatting to whoever appears at the same time. I never saw her finish a conversation. She could be an old madame, or a Chinese opera singer. On the walls are faded album sleeves of Andy Williams and other 60’s heart throbs.
The room is bare, wooden, basic, dusty, but surprisingly comfortable, even if the thin wooden walls allowed sound to penetrate from outside with relative ease.
I chat to Thomas, a German, now living in Israel, who is in the middle of a long cycle through Thailand. We talk about politics, corruption, the Indo-China war, his scrape with the Laos police, which involved him paying them $500 for something he had nothing to do with. Well, that or prison….).
I rent a bike myself and cruise the sleepy Sunday town where everything is in Thai and there are no Farangs to be seen.
I go to 2 temple sanctuaries. Each involves a journey through tree-lined roads full of monkeys. They have no fear and snarl and attack for little provocation.
Khao Lung cave is amazing. It’s roasting outside and the cave give me shelter and most astonishingly after the hurly burly of KL and SP silence. Utter silence and it’s so beautiful. The cave has a number of temples with a central hall with the walls lined with Buddhas. The light breaking through a chimney in the roof. Stalactites and the growing sing-song sound of Thai voices as a few more visitors arrive. Each shows respect. Wai-ing, hands clasped in a bow, then buying a handful of jossticks. Kneeling and wai-ing clasping the sticks. Lighting the sticks from a flame on the altar and repeating. The joss sticks are planted in an urn on the altar and the praying continues. They then gild the Buddha, sticking small strips of gold leaf on the Buddha statue. Offerings are also made. I watched a woman take several bottles of drink out of her bag. open them, put straws in the bottles and leave them there…for Buddha to drink? I also saw cans of coke left in the same way.

The second temple, Khao Bandai It, is west of the town. On the way I buy a whole chopped fresh pineapple from a roadside hawker and chat a little with the woman there. The temple entrance is at the top of a hill and among a number of temple buildings. The inside is less spectacular and less atmospheric, but the silence and coolness is a relief. Outside again I climb to the top of the hill where there is an enormous Buddha statue but unfinished, and by the looks of it abandoned for the time being. The view is amazing.

Cycling back across town is great. The town is awakening from the heat of the day. The many many temples, though are quiet, and the monks almost invisible. The ones I see are sweeping the yards and watering plants. Dogs are everywhere, many mangy, lounging in the sun or strolling across the roads. The shop houses are in evening mode, tvs showing boxing and football, shopkeepers packing up…but the hairdressers, of which there are a disproportionate number are busy. Children call out hello, men are chatting together, some playing chess, and the women are preparing noodles or barbecue on their stalls. Everyone looks content, beautiful, simple. There are pictures of the king all over town, whole families on motorbikes and everybody obeys the traffic lights.
I dont have the language skulls to negotiate the night market with its myriad of dishes and eat at the guest house. Noodle omelette and spicy morning glory. Some beers, some football (Liverpool 2 Villa 0), and I meet Ray from Holland, a well-travelled German couple and 2 very drunk Norwegian guys. Bedtime is late, around 2pm.

Day 07 leaving KL

Waking at 5.30 is hard. Cyrus has to go to work and I have to leave with him. Neither of us wants to go. By the time we have got outside night is beginning to end, but there is no bus. As usual. In fact hardly any traffic. Finally a taxi. This drops Cyrus at his hotel and takes me on to Pura Central, an airport-like bus station, which looks more efficient than it really is. In spite of my insistence on rock-solid answers, the bus which I had booked, does not leave on time. They wait to see if any latecomers will fill it up. It stops almost as soon as we have crawled out of KlL for some petrol and the driver disappears. I’m already looking at my watch wondering about the likelihood of making my train in Butterworth, again, which I had reserved. After a couple of more stops, a traffic jam which ground us all to a halt for a round an hour and more frantic huffing and anxious staring at my watch we make it to the sprawling transport hub of underpasses, fly-overs, hawker food stalls, abandoned buildings and intense heat of Butterworth. With 10 minutes to spare.

I use my fledgling Malay to get directions, but am met with shrugs and disinterested pointing by the first older guys when they see I’m a foreigner.

Cyrus calls me when I’m at the station worried about my near miss. Worried about my lack of food.

Anyway…and I should have predicted this…the train isn’t even in the station. 30 minutes after schedule a 2 carriage train pulls in, I find my seat and we pull off. It’s more like a rural service, speed-wise, but the rhythm is relaxing. There are no compartments, but pairs of seats either side of an aisle face to face, which convert into 2 bunks, privacy provided by blue curtains. My lower bunk is about 1.5 times the width of the top one and only $2 more. When I finally sleep later on, it’s very comfortable, except for the aisle light which stays on all night. During the ride I read, watch the perfectly planted rows of palm plantations roll by, limestone cliffs and mountains, rice paddies, and begin to chat with 2 French guys, loaded with juggling props who are opposite and next to me. The other guy is Malay and is going to BKK to bulk buy t-shirts to sell back in Malaysia. Half the price in BKK….

The journey is relaxing. For the first time this trip I know I don’t have to move or make any decisions for the next 17 hours.

Crossing the border is very relaxed. Through one office out of Malaysia and through another on the same station into Thailand. Visitors’ visas used to be for 1 month, I notice that now it’s only 2 weeks.

As soon as we enter Thailand the atmosphere of the train changes. There is a whole procession of uniforms….railway police in dark grey with red braid, ticket collectors in smartly ironed white shirts with a buddha hanging from his shirt pocket, a hostess who shows me an on-board menu, a young guy who sweeps the train clean (finally- it was dirty when it left Butterworth) wearing a smart yellow polo, which when only on closer inspection you noticed the red and green trim and the miniscule Bob Marley logo. At the station as we creep into Thailand there is a police officer photographing in detail the train. I’ve heard that there are flashpoints her and it can be dangerous here. Could be this is a security check. There are a group of kids who look hostile, but no stone throwing, as I’d read about.

In spite of no change in latitude the clock go back. 7pm becomes 6pm. It is now dark. Damian (the French guy with 3 diabolos) challenges me to some chess, which to my surprise turns out to be quite even, although I havent played for maybe 15 years. He runs out beating me 2-1 and I eat my meal of soup, rice and 2 veg dishes.

Sleep to the gentle rhythm of the train and Mogwai on the i-pod.