Bangkok and north Thailand, travel journal

This is the first in a series of journal entries of my experiences backpacking Southeast Asia. Bangkok was particularly rocky, as we were disorientated, and didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Enjoy! 

7 April –  21 April 2015

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We were rearing to go!

Bangkok – Day 1

We land at the airport, outside of Bangkok and collect our baggage. Outside we walk to a taxi rank and are escorted to a taxi, the driver of which cannot speak a word of English. On the back of his seat, in front of mine as I climb in, a sign that warns us that ‘service staff are not polite’. It’s a long drive, but a cheap one. We turn down soi 3 – ‘soi’ meaning ‘road’-  and it’s very narrow (which is something we will become accustomed to over the following months). At first glance, the road looks like it has never seen a westerner, but that’s just us being naïve. FAB hostel, our first accommodation, is next to a Hindu temple. It’s gated. We are allowed in and given our key to the room. The staff seem nice. Our room is a double bed, cooled by two fans with a table next to it. Outside the room and on our right is the shared bathroom. I was expecting worse but at the same time I am still not thrilled at the thought of staying here. Against all sense, we allow ourselves to collapse in an exhausted sleep – the result of having travelled all the way from Birmingham, and wake up about two hours later. It’s going dark. We decide to go and have a walk around the local area. It’s here that we feel a little terrified. We’re surrounded by dark, narrow alleys, which Asian men and women seem to wander in-between. The first thing that goes through my mind is that a robbery is imminent, though I don’t tell Soph. We emerge on to a slightly bigger road, but one still full of Asians. There is a barber shop open, and we have to walk on the sides of the road to get out of the way of the cars and motorbikes. We head in the direction of ‘the only place with an English menu’ (to use the words of the receptionist). It’s here we spill out on to what looks like a main road; thriving with Asians. On our side are a range of hawker stalls: booths that serve food and outside tables from which to eat it. We walk up and down the road; the results are predictable: lobster, oysters, fishes, crabs. All that horrible seafood that Asians love so much. There is a place with English on the menu. We order and only mine seems to come: chicken bites and rice. It’s not too bad. But Sophie’s never arrives and when she asks about it the language barrier prevents us from getting it. She orders something else in the end. When the bill comes, it’s about £5, which is actually a lot more than I expected it to be. We walk back to the hostel fearing death every step of the way. When we are back within the gates we sit in a nice outside area filled with cushions. It’s the only place the WiFi works. There’s a cat chasing a cockroach. We watch it and go to bed.

2

Today we walked to the sky-train, but quickly got lost because of the poor directions the hostel woman gave us. It’s very hot and we’re tired from a bad (jet lag?) sleep. We jump in our first tuk-tuk, which takes us the long way round and rips us off. At the sky-train, we book a ticket to the centre of Bangkok, with all the shopping malls and markers of globalization. There is a nice shopping centre and we eat a McDonald’s just because it is the first place we see. We look around the centre, (there is a Leicester FC clothing shop in the train station!?) and we are politely approached by a woman who tells us she is a teacher who wants to practise her English. She shows us a list of places to go, that are tourist-ey in the city. Yes, this is another scam, we think. She practically throws us on a tuk-tuk and orders the driver to take us to the river. He does, and on the way we see our first monks pouring out of a building, surrounded by chickens. The driver drops us off in front of a man who wastes no time in arranging for us to go down the river by boat to explore. He gives us a price that is far too much, but slashes it in half when we go to walk away. A little reluctantly we step on to the boat and off we go, down the river. It’s just us and a Thai man steering the boat; he is loud and has a raspy voice, and insists on asking us questions when we can barely understand him. He takes us down a tributary and to a part of the river which is bursting with fish. And I mean, really bursting. In fact there are so many that if you stuck your hand in the water you could easily touch one, and the water moves about as they splash frantically. Then we float past several other boats  primed to sell us things. We don’t buy anything. It’s our first experience of a ‘floating market’ – if you count five boats with sweets on it as a market. We turn around and back at the start of the tributary start again upstream, passing a massive temple undergoing renovation. It’s at this point the loud boatman tells us he is extremely poor, and begs us for a tip. He drops us off and I tip him 50 baht, which is about £1. He seems pleased. As we step off, we are immediately hounded by another man who claims he isn’t selling us anything. We ask him where tourist information is and he takes us to yet another tuk-tuk and puts us in it! The tuk-tuk driver takes us to an information centre where we are put on the spot to order accommodation if we want to go and see the bridge over the river Kwai. And we book somewhere through him and book our first tour. The tuk-tuk driver has waited patiently for about an hour and I feel sorry for him. We ask him to take us to Ko San road which is the backpacker part of the city. He does, but he really wants to take us to ‘get petrol’ (he shows us a card with a fuel pump on it). But we know this is another scam to take us around places to try and make us buy things. He is visibly annoyed when we refuse, which is odd given the Buddhist custom in Thailand is to save face and not show anything but a smile. The food stalls smell so bad that they make you want to wretch, and the food looks so bad that you can almost taste the salmonella. Little slabs of meat that look like burgers sitting cold on dirty stalls. Instincts warn us away, and we find a western restaurant (Ko San is full of them) and eat there instead. We meet a nice couple coming toward the end of their travelling experience and share a tuk-tuk with them in the direction we are going. They tell us of their experience watching middle-aged American men buying the sexual services of children in Cambodia, and of little Cambodian girls who begged to offer them sexual services for a dollar. We say goodbye but are lost immediately and cannot find our hostel. We walk so much that I get blisters from the rubbing of my flip-flops. We have the address of our hostel and show it to any tuk-tuk that drives past, getting more and more desperate as the time goes on. Our phone batteries are dying. No one who looked at the address seemed to know where it was, and even when we pointed on the map (this was a trend in Bangkok, how can they not understand a map?) no one could help us. We asked a policeman who was friendly, but couldn’t speak English. Eventually, one tuk-tuk driver understands soi 3, and takes us right there. It was such a relief getting back; after fearing we may be stuck, helpless, in Bangkok at night. This was, I think, one of the main reasons we disliked our first hostel so much.

3 – 4

For some reason I didn’t write about days three and four. I don’t know why. (This is the only time over the three months I was inconsistent with it.) but we moved in to a smelly and disgusting hotel (the one we booked through the tourist centre). We are in the place for four nights, and we would never again book a place in advance for more than two nights. The location is excellent, though. After the scare of getting lost the second night, our location ensured that would not happen again. It’s a little too close. The loud and raspy air-conditioning drowning out the noise of clubs and bars at night. Spider webs and insects. And the worst bit, the room stunk of a smell that I had never endured before I came to Asia, but later on  realised that it was sewage. The ‘bathroom’ we had was so bad we preferred to use the shared one. The smell was so great I had to sleep with a tee shirt over my face as a sort of mask. We dreaded going back at the end of the night, and considered looking at other places until our budget scared that idea away. Still, there were some good things. Drinks were cheap. There was a little restaurant that did excellent food. We met a creepy Mancunian who told us he loved holidaying in Thailand (and we guessed for all the wrong reasons) who also told us it was his favourite place to eat in Bangkok. And we got our first, cheap deals – well, drinks that seemed cheap, anyway.

5

The day of our first tour. We wake at 6am, and are picked up outside our horrible hotel. It’s a two hour drive west to Kanchanaburi, near the Burmese border, to see the Allied war cemetery, the world war two museum, and the bridge on the river Kwai. It was a great day, despite not having the chance to eat anything until 2pm (didn’t the tour consider that?). The tour was actually deplored by the other tourists, which consisted of a nice collective of people all communicating in broken English. We were first taken to the cemetery, dropping off an English girl who had gone out to see a friend for the Easter holidays. We were free to look around the graves of English and Dutch POWs who died forcibly constructing the death railway. And then we were taken to the museum, which was 20 baht to get in. The museum was small and we had an hour to look around it and to walk over to the bridge. The river, the hills and palm trees looked beautiful, though our poor quality cameras couldn’t do them justice. We were suddenly escorted to a train that went over the bridge, and we were on it for a tedious one-and-a-half hours, with no air conditioning, and crowded – all while being completely in the dark by our tour group. At the end, we drove 20 minutes to the side of a serene and green river, which looked stunning, and ate a rice buffet. Then, it was back on the minivan to a trickling waterfall, which we are assured looks better in the wet season. Then it was a three hour journey back to Bangkok (I sigh, little did I know this would be an easy journey and just a taste of what was to come). The complaints among our tour group mounted, as it wasn’t so much a tour as it was a ‘we’ll-drop-you-off-at-key-places’ trip. A woman was upset, because her leg of the tour – which was different to ours – didn’t tell her she needed to wear appropriate clothing to enter a temple. On the way back, right as we entered Bangkok, a new driver took control of the van just as a thunderstorm was approaching. He drove us to Ko San road and told us all to get out. Sophie refused, because we were supposed to be dropped at our hotel as promised. Suddenly, the driver exploded with rage, slamming the door to the van closed. He got in and drove the van around the block, recklessly and running red lights in the process. The rain was really coming down now, and Songkran, a national water-fight festival, had begun, prematurely, in Ko San – with hundreds of people soaking each other with buckets and guns in the rain. The driver returned to the same spot where he had ordered us out and demanded we leave, screaming at an elderly English woman who yelled back. We have been told Thai people shouldn’t raise their voice, as it is a non-confrontational society, and can be violent if they shout because any sort of brouhaha is embarrassing to them. So we just left. Luckily, we were a stone’s throw away from our hotel anyway (hey! It’s the principle!). As the night progressed, Songkran developed into full effect. Waterguns soak you, talcum powder is smeared on your face as if it is a rite of passage, and nothing is safe. Stupidly, we overlooked buying a waterproof pouch that everyone else had bought the day earlier to protect money and electronics (how bad could it be?) but it turns out, you really need one. The streets were in chaos; the people in anarchy. Everything is soaked by water; westerners are enjoying it as much as anyone, strategically setting up large buckets of water at choke off points where you cannot find another way to your hotel without being swilled with large amounts of water. You’re drenched and your bag is drenched. We try to walk down Ko San to find the bar we liked with the cheap drinks. The crowds get so rowdy and hem us in so badly, that I almost feel as if I could have a panic attack. You can’t breathe, you can’t move. It’s like a mob on the verge of stampede – and all the while you are being soaked and smeared with talcum powder. We try to go in to the nearest bar to escape, but find out extortionate prices are being levied today. We can’t turn back, we fight and squeeze our way past on to the parallel, but quieter, street. And on the way back up to our hotel, a group of lads throw a bucket of water over me from their apartment window! Despite the madness, it was fun seeing so many young Thais, and old, so many people dancing and enjoying themselves without the need for alcohol. At least I hope all those underage people weren’t drinking. Little Thai girls were dancing rowdily on top of tables at bars with waterguns, just feeling the moment.

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Welcome aboard! The death railway express.

6

Today is a filler day. Six days is far too long to spend in Bangkok, but Grant, Sophie’s dad, is coincidentally holidaying in the area and we promise to meet up with him before we leave. I have a decent sleep for the first time since we have arrived, probably getting more than eight hours. The city is still under siege from the warriors of Songkran. We start walking about at 2pm and people are running about and soaking everything. You can’t get a tuk-tuk without being drenched, and the fares they charge you are now super inflated. Sophie says she wants to get involved but the second someone soaks her just gets angry with them. We need to save money, anyway, so we head to a restaurant and spend the whole day there. 3 meals, many drinks, coming to about £27 between us. Cheap. Thai pork and vegetables for 60 baht. We learn and play a new game, ‘go fish’, sitting away from the street because some of the guests are being attacked by pedestrians. It’s the only way to keep dry.

7

The pages I used to write up this diary are crumpled and wet (the physical version, obviously), and bearing the scars of Songkran. I had another sleep in, today, finally recovering from the jet lag. Outside again, people are placed strategically to soak you at every turn. Waterguns are refilled from large containers filled with water and some are pouring bowls on people. We head to the same café that we spent the most of yesterday in, because it is so delicious, for breakfast. Because Sophie’s phone didn’t charge for whatever reason in the night (faulty plug?) we return to the hotel lobby and wait for it to charge. Her dad has arrived, and while she arranges for a place to meet I barter a price across town to the swanky district of Sukumvit. We manage one for the ludicrous (for Bangkok) price of 450 baht, but because we only have a 500 baht note, the driver conveniently has no change. We meet Sophie’s dad and his wife Dawn in the Rembrandt hotel and he buys us a Chang beer. I have one and a half and feel oddly tipsy, maybe because I’d only eaten one meal all day. We are soaking wet because on the way, other tuk-tuks with people with waterguns soaked us as they went past or stopped at traffic lights, and opportunistic pedestrians with water buckets and guns loaded on us. We eat at the hotel, which has a buffet on the third floor. Then we head off in a taxi to a place called Pat Pong to have a look at Thailand’s seedy underbelly. The raging water fight horrifies Dawn so we stop at a bar for a drink, just to get away from it all. We are close to the seediness at this point. Neon signs flash ‘the boys are in’ and, as we go to walk near one of these bars, I feel something brush my arm. I turn to see a row of men; one of them grabs my arm, winks and blows me a kiss. Grant and I quickly turn around and leave; Grant adamant he will never return, despite Dawn and Sophie’s protest. We say our goodnights and Sophie and I return to where we had breakfast for a final drink.

8

I woke to find my iPod has stopped working. As a man would say later on, it had ‘Songkran disease’, my backpack had been overwhelmed with buckets of water with the layers not being enough to withstand the water damage. We left the hotel early to avoid the battles, and got a taxi to the train station, where we dumped our bags at the luggage storage and bartered a tuk-tuk to Siam Paragon shopping centre. (I should mention that because of Songkran, there was limited availability on the trains, so we had no choice to pay an extortionate price because of ‘limited’ seats.) We meet up with Grant and Dawn and explore the shopping centre; I buy a new pair of sunglasses. Then Grant takes us to buy some snacks before our journey and makes sure we eat. We have some crispy duck at a fancy restaurant, and I learn to use chopsticks in the process. Then we wrap up some fruit and toasties for the train. Then we say our goodbyes, deciding we should head to the station because we don’t know our way around the station and didn’t want to risk missing anything. It was very difficult to get a taxi to the train station because – yes – Songkran was causing chaos on the streets. No taxi would put the meter on, flat out refusing. We got one for 200 baht, and it should have been something like 50 baht. At the station we met two girl travellers who had come out independently and befriended each other. One was from Newcastle, the other Birmingham. We never exchanged names, just stories and advice. They were headed south. Our train rolled in and we boarded. Inside each carriage was a toilet and several rooms with two bunkbeds. Sophie and I both had a top bunk each. We read, talked, but mostly slept on the 15 hour journey to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. Two Asian boys had the bottom bunks and fell asleep really early. Such a bizarre experience.

Chiang Mai – Day 9

I wake up to the sound of a Thai man singing the words ‘Chiang Mai’, signalling we have arrived at our final destination. It’s early in the morning outside, and bright and hot. Backpackers get off the train and queue at a desk, pre-ordering taxis. We end up in a little red van, and you clamber in the back with other westerners; the man dropping you off in order of proximity. In it we meet a couple who don’t feel like talking, and some Germans. We arrive at out hotel – the Royal Panerai – and it is lovely. At only £9 a night, it still remains one of the best places we’ve stayed in terms of service and budget. We drop off our belongings in our spacious and clean room, relieved finally to be away from the horror that was our previous room (which, thankfully, also remains one of the worst places we’ve stayed). We head out to have a look at the city. We are close to the old city, and, ignoring the red taxi vans trying for our attention, walk along the walls of the old city. Hardly anything remains apart from one slab surrounded by some greenery. We walk along the moat which still exists, and try to imagine what it looked like when the Burmese overran it all those years ago. We see a little old lady hanging a ton of washing outside to dry, and she agrees to clean our clothes, and tells us to come and collect it tomorrow. We head to the first place we see for lunch (or breakfast) which happens to be a Mexican restaurant. The food is mediocre. We exchange our last English money and look for trekking day trips to take. We compare and find the best one and book it for tomorrow. It’s very hot today, 40 degrees Celsius. We have a look around a street of bars and pubs and it all looks a lot smaller and friendlier and charming compared to Bangkok. We return to the room and Sophie has a little sleep, and then we arrange to meet my friend Cunningham’s former roommate ‘Schnibs’, and his girlfriend. I know him faintly and only through Cunningham, but we got along well and he was literally in the area (he teaches English to Thai students). We meet up in the evening, as the sun is going down, and take a picture purely for the reason to make Cunningham envious, and then we meet a friend of theirs who is a South African teacher, who also has a little dog with her. (Apparently there are a lot of South Africans in Thailand.) We head to a vegetarian restaurant and Sophie and I drink the cheap beer. We meet up with other people: an Irish girl travelling on her own, and other teachers that Shnibs knows. We walk around the Old City, returning to a bar to order one last drink. It was nice meeting people so friendly. Sophie and I decide to head back, with plans of meeting up again tomorrow. We eat cheap Pad Thai just because, and I buy some stamps so I send a postcard to my grandmother on the way.

10

We wake up early for our tour, which starts at 7am. There is a 7/11 around the corner (they’re open 24 hours, who knew?) for a ham and cheese toasty, which are essential for early starts and one of the best things about Thailand. Yes, you heard me. We eat and are picked up in another van with an open back (but with a roof over our heads). A bit like something you’d transport military personnel in. We drive to a stop with orchids and butterflies in a sort of conservation chamber. The whole thing is unremarkable and similar to something you would see at Chester Zoo. We drive further on, toward the jungle. There are some beautiful hills off in the distance. In our group are a Swiss couple, and a French family. We begin an hour’s walk from an elephant camp, in to the shrub, in the humidity. We’re caught off guard by the pace of it, and have to ration our water. On the way, we see big red ants, and a patch of earth that looks like someone has dug it up and freshly thrown it to the ground: this was where, our guide told us, big spiders nested. He (the guide) picks fruit from the trees and we try them. Some are sweet and others are bitter. A group of natives are harvesting and watch as we do so. Then we walk to an elephant camp, similar to the one that we had started out at. The Swiss couple begin to complain when they see Thais riding and hitting the elephants with what I imagine is the elephant equivalent to a whip. They say they were duped and refuse to partake in anything to do with the elephants, much to the guides insistence that the elephants are cared for, that they are ‘sacred’ in Thailand, and that the ‘whip’ does not harm them. We look and some of the elephants are stayed with chains on their feet, so we kind of see their point. From the get go, we decided we would wash an elephant rather than ride them, as it is more ‘sustainable’ (the Lonely Planet’s words), but it made little difference considering the elephant we washed was probably one that would have been chained or ridden at some point in the past, anyway. Still, the Swiss stayed back as we fed the elephant, which understood commands such as ‘Apok!’ which means to open the mouth.  You can put the food directly in their mouth, if you want to. Other times they would curl their trunk around the bamboo and lift it in themselves. We followed the elephant as it was led to a body of water and got in with it. Yes, elephant dung floated about us, and I’m pretty sure why I know the ground was squishy beneath my feet, but stroking and washing these amazing creatures was a pretty great experience. Sometimes the trunk would just pop up like a periscope, as if it were looking around independent of the elephant. The ‘sponge’ that we used to wash it, was also a type of plant, and the elephant ate it once we were done washing! After this, we drove further in to jungle and uphill, to go and see one of the hill tribes. Although the people do live up here, their constant communication with the developed world means they aren’t exactly like other worldly beings. They had motorbikes, and a gift shop. The weirdiest thing was, they were Christian migrants from China. There was a bamboo shed that acted as a church. I was a little on edge here because bees kept following me, and landing on me, not afraid at all; crawling on me and examining me. The tour guide said that a nest was near, but they would only attack if they thought I was a threat to the nest. We took photographs, but again, they don’t do justice to what the eye can see. On the way back from the hill tribe we descended a path to an idyllic little waterfall next to a bamboo bridge. The plunge pool was hemmed in between rocks, and cold and pure and inviting in the hot weather. I swam underneath the falling water and let it strike my back. We drove down the hill to where the earth flattened and the water fed into a river, and tried some bamboo rafting. The guide and a Thai boy push our tour down the river; the water is serene and green and it’s quiet as we go along. Then a group of Thai boys riding elephants lead them directly into the water as we sail past. The elephants lumbering into the water, and one of them – following the command of a Thaiman – drinks up some water and sprays us with its trunk! The way the elephants moved, and the rumbling noises that they made and the noises they made, reminded me of Jurassic Park. Sorry. We then drove back, and picked up our laundry from the little old lady. We go to an Italian restaurant that Schnibs recommended, but we don’t meet up with him that night. We head back into the Old Town, near out hotel and discover a nightlife square, which is lively and fun. There are many bars all on top of each other, not unlike Concert square but more compact. There are beer gardens and our favourite place is Zoe in Yellow, where we buy cheap drinks and plan our next few days.

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Playing with the elephant.

11

We wake up at 10am and decide to use the sister hotel’s pool, which is just around the corner. We spend a few hours there, with the pool all to ourselves, and shower before heading to a steakhouse. We walk beyond the wall looking for a night bazaar, and Sophie buys some elephant pants, and a Thai man becomes infuriated with me because I don’t want to buy a replica Liverpool FC top. Then we barter with a tuk-tuk back to Zoe in Yellow and sit in the beer garden and watch people dance – quite frankly – like twats. A drunken mating ritual that British people would not do, even though those doing it were farang (a Thai word for white people), we watch them hide and then reveal themselves clinging to a pole to each other. Then we head to an Irish bar to watch the football, and stumble home before 2am, but not before I smell hawker food like it had just been plucked from Bangkok and gagged on the smell, or before we dodged the cockroaches that love to scuttle out of flagged crevices at night.

Chiang Rai – Day 12

Alas, our short time at Chiang Mai has come to an end (what a pity we spent so long in Bangkok), and we check-out of our hotel. Our destination now is Chang Rai. So the name is pretty similar. We get a 7/11 cheese toasty – it’s sacrilege not too – and grab a taxi to the Arcade bus station. Our timing is perfect; the bus is there and ready. The air conditioning is poor, and Sophie insists on miming every song that comes on her iPod to me. The journey lasts three hours, but the bus is large and modern looking, and you even get a free drink and a snack! We meet a Belgian girl who is also headed to Chiang Rai, then to Chiang Khong and into Laos over the border. There is a short toilet break about halfway through the journey, and the girls queue up for the only western toilet. An hour or so later, we stop at a bus station that looks like it should be ours (in Asian no one tells you anything), and a few people go to get off but are stopped. We drive away from it and continue on driving for some time. This worries us. Are we going in the right direction? What if we don’t know where we are going? We look around to see if the Belgian girl is still on board, or if she slipped away at the other station. Before we truly worry, we stop at another bus station, and at this one everyone gets off. Immediately we are hounded by tuk-tuk drivers in the hot sun as our bags are unloaded. We agree to one, which takes about 10 minutes and costs us 50 baht. On first impressions, Chiang Rai is a lot smaller, and less glamorous than I imagined. It looks like a town exhausted (this would turn out to be just me, and that almost every place in Asia would have a similar appearance). I envisioned a clean, leafy, clean, eco-friendly place – God knows why, though. Our hotel is at the end of an alley way but it looks gorgeous on the inside. It overlooks Ben Guesthouse, a place in the Lonely Planet book and equipped with a fine outdoor pool that made us want to go mad knowing we couldn’t jump in it in the heat. The owner speaks good English, but he is a little… weird. He offers us a bottle of water on arrival and leads us to our room. The room is nice. Afterwards, once we’ve dropped off our bags, we struggle to get a tuk-tuk to the town centre and have to walk quite a bit (all of them were asleep in their tuk-tuks! Should we have woken them?). A good point of reference is the clock tower, which glows and flashes a spectrum of colours on the hour after nightfall. The bars, restaurants and cafes are located near this tower, and we stay in one and watch the rain as a thunderstorm rolls over and empties its contents on to the earth. We have dinner and end up watching football in one of the bars, which, depending where you sat, smelled a little like sewage. (Which, in hindsight, was probably not the best place to eat in, then.) Afterwards we returned to the hotel via a taxi, which was helped after a really friendly Thai woman waited out in the street to signal it in for us, and find ants swarming a bag with crisps that I had left on the desk. The ants seem to be forming a single line from the desk, minding their own business, and marching across the room, disappearing up into the ceiling. I move the bag outside. We want to change rooms, but the owner is nowhere to be seen and it seems as if no other person is staying inside the hotel. It’s a little weird. Eventually, after wiping a few off of the bed, we just go to sleep anyway. As long as it wasn’t spiders!

13

We wake up to find the ants have mysteriously vanished. So, we decide it must have been because of the food we left and don’t bother complaining or telling the owner about it. We are offered tours or all day trips to places we have never heard of, but we decline all of them. We only came to Chiang Rai to see one thing: the so-called “White Temple”. A few travellers have recommended it, otherwise, most people don’t bother with Chiang Rai and go on straight to the border town of Chiang Khong. The owner of our hotel tells us the temple is difficult to reach because it is out of the way. We arrange for a taxi to take us there, wait an hour to give us a chance to look around, and then take us back. It costs us 500 baht, which at the time we thought was a bargain, but in hindsight with the rest of Asia, was a bit of a rip-off. We already know this temple is unique just by our first glance. We arrive and the taxi pulls in a parking bay and tells us to meet him there. The white temple is almost like street art; the expressions of an artist that double down as a place of worship. As a result it comes across as a little tacky. We walk across a little bridge; below it are sculptures of a sea of hands with begging bowls. The temple itself actually looks like something from a Disney movie. Inside, a monk is praying, with his legs crossed; facing tourists as they enter. We are told no photographs are allowed and to take our shoes off. I have never been as surprised as I was when I walked through those doors. Inside, the entire room was a canvas, with art clearly geared toward western tourists. The twin towers, collapsing under the weight of a giant serpent, followed by characters of popular culture hovering over the flames of hell. Harry Potter is on his broom, Hello Kitty is there. Spiderman is there. And, for the conspiracy nuts, bin Laden and a few illuminati triangle’s are thrown in to. Sophie takes a sneaky picture despite there also being a camera ban. After that bizarre sight, I used the public toilets. Which I think will always be the most glorious building I’ve ever seen constructed just to handle human waste. There wasn’t even a charge to use it! We return to the clock tower and feel a little bored. It’s as if Chiang Rai had no nightlife or anything going on at all. We were wrong. We meet two English girls smoking at a place called Coconut bar. (Almost every westerner seems to smoke in Asia. Is it the cheap cigarettes? Are we all just closet smokers cowed by the prices back in the UK?) They tell us to meet them in another bar, Cat bar, later on to play pool. They also tell us to walk to the main street, which we had overlooked because the road leading toward it looked horrible and leading nowhere. Sophie and I have our dinner and a good chat with the two girls and head toward the main street. It looks like Chiang Mai: there are bank buildings, restaurants, a KFC, Boots, and a buzzing night market with live music. Sophie buys some flip-flops and a bag that she would keep with her the entire journey. We walk back to the bars and Sophie beats me 2 – 0 at pool in a shoddy little, empty place with ladyboys and cheap drinks. We meet up with the two girls, who introduce themselves by name this time, Georgia and Catherine. We play doubles at pool, winning 3 – 1, and getting drunk on Chang beer. Catherine tells us she was bitten by a three legged dog attempting to drunkenly pet it – and ended up needing 12 rabies shots. We stay socialising all night, until we are kicked out. Georgia it seems, wants to go home, and we do feel the night is getting on, but Catherine takes us to another place that seems to be the only bar left that hasn’t closed. (And to think, we were considering having an early night before we met them!) We say goodbye not long after though, after almost watching a fight break out between a groups of boys – one on wooden crutches, in a bar full of ladyboys. That would turn out to be a common sight, ladyboys and farang on crutches. (All scooter accidents.) We hit a 7/11 for – you guessed it – cheese toasties, and scoff them in a taxi on the way back.

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Wat Rong Khun, the “White Temple”.

Chiang Khong – Day 14

Sophie tells me she isn’t well, and so we ask for a later checkout. She’s just hungover but the owner not only lets us stay for longer, but he brings up lemon tea in the hope it will help her feel better! I feel bad giving him the key to the room, which broke as I tried to rip it out of my bag after too many drinks. We walk with our heavy backpacks in the hot sun, eventually finding a tuk-tuk to drive us to the station. There were a few on the sides of the road, but the drivers were curled up asleep in the back of them. The idea of waking them up seemed rude to us. At the bus station, we gaze in horror at the condition of our transport to Chiang Khong. It’s a peasant wagon: a small, old, rustic, cramped bus filled with Thais and with the backseat reserved for Monks. There’s only one other westerner on it, an old man at the front. It is hot and overcrowded but we manage to sit next to each other, only with the aisle between us. The ‘air conditioning’ is two small fans that turn, (one would go off) and the open windows. But the bus was extremely cheap. It’s a two hour journey to the border town with Laos. The bus driver is really nice. As we get to our destination, overlooking some gorgeous flat terrain and agrarian land, the bus empties. The bus driver asks us where we are going and makes sure we get off at the right stop. We get off and hand ourselves over to a tuk-tuk driver who takes us to our accommodation, which we had written down after what happened on our second night in Bangkok. And we are taken to the Day Waterfront Hotel, which as the name suggests, is near the Mekong River, which carves through Thailand and Laos. The owner gives us the visa/immigration documents for Laos, and even exchanges baht for the US dollar (which is the preferred currency to buy a visa). He offers us the ‘tour’ which includes transport to the border, lunch, and a ticket on the slow boat to Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s 1, 300 baht each, which was worth it considering a boat ticket itself was 1, 100 baht on the dock. Then, using Tripadvisor, we head to the Hub Pub; a nearby British pub with fantastic reviews. The owner is not only a LFC fan, but he is from Liverpool! He also has a Guinness world record for traversing the earth on a bicycle (though we had read this online, he was in no way big headed about it). The walls are decorated with Liverpool imagery, including one of a church in Walton. He gets the ‘special’ glasses out for us: one of Cain’s brewery, and another with the LFC badge on it. At first it was a bit strange arriving, because we literally woke him up, and so he opened the pub for us, despite it being late afternoon. We get talking, during which he tells me he was once prescribed paracetamol for blood poisoning by a Laotian doctor and so had to risk a dangerous speedboat along the Mekong toward a hospital in Thailand, but then the phone rings. It’s important, he says, and he goes off to talk to somebody. The food meanwhile, is unfortunately disgusting, even though we ordered classic pub food. Sophie is worried her food is undercooked, while mine just makes me sick. It’s the only meal we’ve had all day, too. The owner’s child, Mario, comes to talk to us. He’s a nice enough little lad, who is Thai, but – his father claims – is ‘more English than Thai’, and he doesn’t go to school because he ‘wouldn’t miss much’ as the Thais ‘don’t even teach Geography’. The man does tell us he is thinking of moving home, but he has nothing there. It’s something he would have to discuss with his Thai wife. Unfortunately, the phone call was from a coroner, about the circumstances of his ex-wife’s death. Overhearing the conversation, he consoles a relative, and I remember him saying, ‘and a lad from Liverpool came in today; he’s sat opposite me right now’, almost as if I was an omen or something. It was horrible to see, as he was such a nice man. Finally, we got some money out, and some snacks for tomorrow, and had our first anti-malarial as advised, as we prepared to cross the border tomorrow into Laos.

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