By All Means

Getting around in Thailand hasn’t proved to be as much of a challenge as one would think it could be.  Since arriving here I’ve managed to take every conceivable mode of transport available.  I’ve taken trains, cabs, moto-taxis, bicycles, boats, buses, canal boats*, tuk-tuk, elephants, and my favorite bi-ped.

This will be my last post from Thailand for at least a month and a half, the plan at the moment is to spend about a week or a week and half in Cambodia and a month in Vietnam followed by a few weeks in Laos (gotta see the plain of jars.)

My impression of Thailand has changed since first blush quite considerably.  I enjoy Bangkok now that I know how to deal with it appropriately and I tend to take it in small bites otherwise it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all.  It was fairly naive to have the impression that the smiles given here have nothing behind them, what I didn’t think about is that capitalism lies behind the smiles.  Everything here revolves around money in some form or another.  It is still a developing country so this attitude has to be understood to make it bearable, otherwise I’d feel taken advantage of at every corner. That being said I still plan on coming back here for a few more weeks at the tail end of SE. Asia and give the wwoofing here a shot to see how that goes.

*canal boats are a frenetic little boats that fly along the canal that crosses through the middle of Bangkok.  Used mostly by the locals I’m typically the only falang (foreigner) on the boat. They stop for fractions of a second at each pier where people disembark and embark at a pace rarely seen.  I stood confused the first time I got to the pier until the attendant hastily pointed a finger at a spot on the boat.  After that it’s an invaluable  resource for me to get around the city, since 99% of the rest of the time gridlock grinds the city to a halt.

I added 5 pictures a few days ago, notably of a me and a tiger.

Nice Smile

Feasting on Pad Thai

Current Location: Kanchanaburi, Thailand

It’s been a long week, at least it feels that way.  Hanging out in the hostel in Bangkok for a week waiting for things to arrive kinda slowed me down.  Fortunately for me the people at the hostel are really cool, watched a bunch of movies and basically chilled out for a week with them.  I got back on the road yesterday catching the train up to Kanchanaburi, infamous for where the bridge over River Kwai was built.

Short history lesson stolen from a guide book.

About 60,000 Allied POWs were shipped up from the captured Southeast Asian territories to work on the link between Thailand-Burma, these were later augmented by 200,000 conscripted Asian laborers.  By the time it was completed, after 15 months, it had earned the nickname, the Death Railway; an estimated 16,000 POW’s and 100,000 Asian laborers died while working on it

I was keen to see this re-created bridge along with the animal sanctuary here, where they let you pet tigers (how crazy is that.)

On a down note, I was traveling with a girl yesterday who was leaving from the same hostel I was up here.  We got here just fine and rented a couple of bicycles to get around town.  They had baskets in the front of the bicycles where we stuffed our bags, a couple of guys drove by on a motorbike and snatched her bag.  Spent half the day with the police sorting everything out.  Lesson learned to never take the backpack off the back, and invest in a money belt.

Heading back to Bangkok to spend the weekend with some friends of my cousins hopefully.  Then off to Cambodia early next week.

Happy thanksgiving to everyone, same request as I had last year.  Have a couple extra pieces of turkey for me, and an extra slice of pie.

Back in Bangkok

Current Location: Bangkok, Thailand

I sit and stare at the crystal blue water and think I’ve failed to find any of the true Thailand.  I’ve seen temples and historical places and met a few people here and there, but I have the nagging suspicion I took the easy way out most of the time and haven’t experienced the true Thailand.  After being here a little over a month now I feel I know little more than I did before I got here with regard to Thai culture.  I’m not sure exactly how to remedy this for the remainder of South East Asia but it’s something to ponder on for the next few weeks.

At the same time It’s hard not to become more cynical towards a lot of the interactions here because of the tout culture.  I’ve come to realize that any information that comes to me unasked for is a lie and to believe the complete opposite of whats told to me.  A good example of this is at the Cambodian border where I was told countless times that if I left the border that day I wouldn’t be able to return the same day, of course this was completely unfounded and was able to return with no problems.  I realize they are just doing their job but from my perspective it gets very tiring to be on guard 24/7.  I keep reminding myself to have faith in humanity and that they are just doing a job, but it’s hard to remember that after being lied to for the millionth time.

I spent a few days on Koh Phi Phi island, famous for several reasons.  One was that it was devastated by a tsunami shortly after Christmas in 2004.  Any signs of the tsunami are far removed from what I can gather. The guidebooks say that rebuilding has been done to survive another tsunami but I find that hard to see as most of the structures look to be built with the same half-hazard construction I’m used to seeing.  The other reason is it’s where the film “The Ocean” was set, something I neglected to watch or read before getting here.  We went around on a longtail one day to see all the “pristine, deserted” beaches.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call them deserted as each one was flooded with longtails disgorging their passengers but they do manage to keep the beaches clean which made for some stunning beaches.  Pictures can’t do the blues justice, it’s a shifting kaleidoscope of blues.  It was fun to sit on the veranda and just look out into infinite blue.

Another long bus ride and I’m back in Bangkok figuring out what happens next.

Added a few pictures yesterday.

Boat and Storm

Swimming in a Monsoon

Current Location: Koh Tao, Thailand

It’s was quite an adventure making it to Koh Tao after being in Chiang Mai.  It took me two bus rides, each about 12 hours a piece, and 2 more boat rides to make it here.  The first bus ride straight after the Loy Krathon festival got me to Bangkok where I was supposed to catch a connecting bus to Surathani where I would connect to a boat.  But the taxi driver in Bangkok took me to the wrong bus and I ended up missing the bus and had to waste a day in Bangkok getting things sorted out.  So I ended up on a bus later that night and it was another over night spent on a bus making it to Champon to catch yet another bus to Suratani where I could catch a boat to Koh Samui and then Koh Phangan.  They kicked us off the boat at Phangan just saying we had to switch boats.  Little did we know they were asking us for 140 baht more to catch the next boat.  We were all pretty unhappy with this as it’s a common scheme to get more money but what choice did we have as we couldn’t get on the next boat without paying.

The next boat ride from Koh Phangan to Koh Tao ended up being quite an experience.  The waves were estimated at 3meters and the boat rocked, a lot.  By my guess there were over two dozen people sick all over the boat.  I was running around with other passengers who weren’t sick getting bags for people and trying to keep things in order.  Little did I know but even the boat engineer was sick in the back as well.  I had wanted to ride through extreme conditions and this satisfied that, I went through it with no reaction at all.  Wish I could say the same about the rest of the passengers.  After what felt like a precarious 2.5 hr boat ride we finally make it to Koh Tao just in time for a great sunset.

I signed up at Big Blue dive resort for my open water certification where they give accommodation and training for 9000 baht, a little over 300$ us.  My luck has it that the next day as we spend all day in the classroom the weather is amazing.  The next day as we start our practical  exercise the monsoon starts.  The rain falls in walls, not sheets.  Rivers everywhere and thunder and lightning to boot.  Our first open water dives the visibility is just about nil where the normal visibility here on the island is typically about 10-20 meters.  Our second day of diving the weather opened up for us and it is actually a postcard perfect weather day.  The second day of diving we made it down to 19meters (62 feet) and visibility was noticeably better.  Saw loads of fish and had a great day diving.  I took to it quite easily probably thanks to being in and around water a good portion of my life.  Some people had difficulty getting accustomed to taking off their mask and dealing with being underwater.  In the end 2 people in my class quit before finishing, it’s not for everyone.

We finish up with the tests tonight and I’ll be certified as an open diver by SSI (Scuba Schools International.)  I’ll probably hang out on the island for a few more days as the weather is supposed to stay this nice and then take off for somewhere else, just not sure where yet.

Lacking Urgency

Current Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Imagine walking around in a sauna all day that is turned on to low, that is about the best description I can give regarding the heat and humidity here in Thailand.  I’m not sure I am completely used to it yet but it’s something I am slowly accepting as a fact here.  This usually leads to me hiding in the mall for lunch as they are usually air conditioned, actually I’ll hide in any building given the choice of air conditioning or even  a fan at times.

I’m liking Chiang Mai for several reasons one of which is the touts here are of a different breed than those that exist in Bangkok.  I like to paint the picture that the touts in Bangkok are like running into a wall over and over again, but in this case it’s the wall that incessantly runs up against you.  They eventually break you down and you succumb to their pitch.  Here in Chiang Mai I can actually walk down the street without being bothered by anyone, a great way to learn the city.

I originally wanted to head south from Bangkok and work my way back north on over to Cambodia and Laos but ended up coming up north to Chiang Mai for the Loi Krathong festival (festival of lights) which I heard about in Bangkok and decided to check it out.  While here I’ve sort of found the sense of urgency that my time here is very limited.  I’ve done a cooking course, ridden an elephant, fed monks, and seen loads of temples along with going to the festival.  It’s been a pretty long week but fairly amazing what I’ve seen and done.

The elephant riding took me a while to get over mentally, but I rationalized it away with saying that I rode a horse with no qualms so why should this be any different.  I couldn’t see an elephant having a hard time getting around with me on it’s back.  It turned out to be loads of fun and the group I was with for the day all had an amazing time with the guides and elephants.  We learned 3 different ways of mounting an elephant as a mahout would, took them to wash them down in the river and played in the mud with them, not a very stressful day for the elephants I’m thinking.  I have something like 480 pictures from that day alone so sorting through them will be a bit tough, hopefully I can get to it sometime in the next few days.

The cooking course was also amazing, for the price of what I would pay in Hawaii for dinner at a thai restaurant I learned to make my 5 favorite dishes (green curry, pad thai, mango sticky rice, papaya salad, and coconut seafood soup) and they all turned out amazing.  We got cookbooks as well listing about 30 different things we could have learned so hopefully I can master them all.

The festival itself is the second largest festival in Thailand next to their new years celebration and Chiang Mai turns out to be a really popular place to celebrate it.  It’s utter chaos on the streets starting at about 7pm with fireworks going off literally everywhere.  And I’m not just talking sparklers, everything that you can imagine going off is happening all around you with little regard for who is around, it’s really quite unnerving to have aerials going off little more than 2 feet away from you.  The celebration is basically to ask forgiveness from the water god of the sins they had committed through the year and to ask for blessings.  We made our own krathong here at the hostel and set them off down the river so hopefully my sins will be forgiven.

As much as I’ve liked Chiang Mai it’s time to move on, the plan is to take a bus to Ko Tao (turtle island) in the south to learn to scuba dive.  I think the bus ride is something like 20 hours, which I am not looking forward to but it’s the cheapest way to do it.  For 1200 baht a 20 hour bus ride is cheap as chips.

edit: I found some time on my hands and sorted through some pictures.

Colorfull Fly

Land of Smiles

I haven’t moved from Bangkok yet for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. I think one good possibility is that while in New Zealand I became accustomed to staying in one place for long periods of time (about 1 month.) The only problem with that here in Thailand is that I only have one month I’m allowed to be in the country before having to move on, this is mostly due to the fact that I planned my trip into Thailand poorly and didn’t apply for the 2 month visa which I wanted to do.  The good thing is I will probably come back to Thailand since it is a major airport hub which would mean it’s cheaper to fly out of here than elsewhere.

The nickname for Thailand is the Land of Smiles in case you were wondering, often abbreviated as LOS when reading about it online.  At first I thought it was some sort of marketing for Thailand and didn’t really believe it but since getting here I have come to see why it’s called the land of smiles.  I don’t think you’ll find service like this anywhere else in the world and such genuinely happy people.  A good example of that is the person who might be opening a door for you to a mall or a hotel, they look really happy to be of service you can’t help but smile with them.  When I look into the eyes of these people I see actual mirth behind them, it’s quite infectious.

I went on what will probably be my one and only tuk-tuk ride the other day, it turned out to be a practice in patience.  I went to two tailors, one travel company, and one jewelry shop mixed in with loads of more Temples (wat) and all I really wanted to see was the Palace.  I knew it was going to happen this way and I figure everyone that comes to Thailand has to at least do it once so it was an experience.

I decided to get out of here on up to Chiang Mai by train tonight, 14hrs on a train when I hear you can do it 6 hours shorter by bus but I figured it would be kinda neat to go by train at least once, and it comes with a bed.

Tuk Tuk Thai

New Beginnings

Current Location: Bangkok, Thailand

The final person I talked to in New Zealand as I was leaving the airport happened to be a person doing surveys on the tourism.  Funnily enough she wanted to know how long I had been there and what towns I had spent at least one night at.  1 hour later I was still going strong on what should have been a 15 minute survey.  I couldn’t stop laughing at every town I had to spell for her and the sheer size of the list.  After we finished the list of towns she wanted to know everything I did in each town, we both laughed a lot and towards the end as they were calling for my plane it started all going down on post-it notes with a promise to put them in the system after I had left.  Of all the people she could have picked she picked the one who cycled around the country, unreal.

For the life of me I can’t get onto Thai time, each night at around 7pm I get really tired and force myself to stay awake until midnight at least which would make it 6am kiwi time.  The only problem is that when midnight rolls around I’m no longer tired and spend the night tossing and turning, it’s getting pretty old fast.

On to what I’ve managed to accomplish in the first few days.  I’ve figured out how to use the skytrain and subway system here in Thailand, it’s very similar to the one run in Hong Kong except the HK system runs a wee bit faster.  I’ve manage to cross the road without being run over, but that’s really a daily tribulation rather than something to be accomplished.  I’m not talking about crossing little two lane streets, I’m talking about 8 lane no zebra stripes, cars flying every which way, motorcycles deftly zigging and zagging, people standing in between lanes, praying not to get run over.  Very exhilarating.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in the mall getting kitted out with some new duds as most of the stuff I had with me went the way of the wwoofer plus I hadn’t bought new clothes since the cycle trip started so everything was extremely loose.  Not my idea of a great time, but it’s a necessary evil.

I’ve also got my first Thai massage, something I promised myself I would get after finishing the cycle trip.  I now see why it could be called the gumby massage.  These little 90lbs girls use whatever leverage they can to bend your body in ways you never imagined.  I think the trick is to relax completely when they get to the end because that’s when they tend to get creative and do all the spine straighting things.  Bonus to the massage is for 1hr it costs 10$us, it’s a deal if I ever heard one.

The food has been worth the wait, if I tried to calculate how much Thai iced tea (it’s called that in some places even here,  you would think it would just be iced tea) I’d be scared to know, but it’s just so good.  I’ve had a fair amount of the standard thai food, it’s time to move onto the more exotic stuff soon and street vendors.

Now that I’ve got the skytrain and subway sussed out I’ll start doing some sightseeing tomorrow