Friday, 5 May 2017

The Land of Smirks & Elephant Pants

I've struggled to start writing this post because I was afraid that it would be overwhelmingly negative, but then a few days ago I finally had the opportunity to sort through my photos on a proper computer and I realised that we did in fact have some great experiences in Thailand too. Still, although this will be a view that no doubt many will disagree with, I have to say I didn't like Thailand. It was an awful place. Unfriendly, racist, money-grabbing and thoroughly unpleasant for the most part. Let me tell you about our time there.

Having crossed the border from Malaysia at Wang Prachan, a tiny, remote border crossing point manned by a few bored looking border guards who weren't too happy that we'd interrupted their game of Candy Crush, we were through far more easily than we'd expected. There was no insurance agent in the border town so we'd been let in on the promise we'd buy insurance a few kilometres down the road. After over an hour of searching we finally found the insurance office, a small table in someone's car port, and we were on our way. 

First stop - Krabi, a nice enough little town on the coast and a jumping off point for various Thai party islands. Not being at all interested in being surrounded by drunken children or loud music (I admit, I'm getting old) and not being a fan of laying on a beach doing nothing, as well as the fact we had our bikes with us, we skipped the islands and instead headed up to the Tiger Temple a few kilometres north of the city. Before you recoil in horror at the thought we went to that awful place where tigers are drugged for photos with tourists, I can assure you there are no tigers at this temple, only a lot of steps to a spectacular viewpoint at a clifftop Wat. 1237 to be precise. That might not sound like anything very much, but in the heat of the midday sun and with humidity at about 95%, it was one of the hardest climbs I've attempted in a while. Comprising of multiple staircases with the number of steps still to climb painted at every turn, we played tag with a variety of other climbers, all climbing fewer and fewer steps between pauses as we got higher and higher up. Eventually, around an hour after starting our climb we reached the top and as everyone heading past us on their way down had assured us, the view from the summit was worth it. 

From Krabi we rode further north up to Ranong on the western coast, a small city with not a lot of interest apart from free public hot springs. I wasn't so sure that hot springs would be that refreshing when the air temperature was as hot as the water, but a dip in the relative cool of the evening was a great experience, as much as anything for the opportunity to watch the local people relax and interact. I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn't accidentally stuck my bare leg on the hot tail pipe of Evan's bike when we arrived, which immediately blew up into a huge blister. Not good when combined with 40 degree water.

Prachuap Kiri Khan was our next stop and the first place in Thailand we both really liked. A pretty little coastal town half way up the long, thin section in the centre of Thailand, we found a cheap room with a balcony, a sea view and washing machines for 30 baht a load and immediately set out to investigate the huge street market that was setting up along the waterfront outside. We've been to lots of street markets on this trip, they're everywhere, but this one was particularly good. We wandered back and forth sampling as many different foods as we could until we could eat no more and reluctantly gave up and retired for the night.

To the south of the town is the Wing 5 Airbase, which unusually is open to the public. After signing in at the gate we were free to ride around the base and visit the beaches and museums inside the grounds. By one of the beaches we met a group of friendly Dusky Leaf Monkeys, or Spectacled Langurs, a species we'd never seen before. A ride around the site took us to some stunning beaches, almost entirely free of people, with clear turquoise water and limestone karst islands out in the bay.

In the evening, just before sunset, we climbed up to Khao Chong Krachok, a Wat on top of the cliffs, accessible only by steps inhabited by hundreds of macaque monkeys. And when I say hundreds, I mean hundreds. I've never seen so many in one colony. Whilst not particularly aggressive, they were a little intimidating at times and we witnessed what happened to people who brought food or water with them, or took off their shoes and left them at the gateway. At the top we sat and watched the sun slowly sink accompanied by the troop, a few street dogs and a monk who happily interacted with the monkeys, offering them food and chastising them for being too rough.

From Prachuap Kiri Khan we went in search of a little history, arriving next in Kanchanaburi, home to the Bridge on the River Kwai. Originally a wooden bridge directly adjacent to the current steel one, both Bridges on the River Kwai were built in 1943 and repaired by Japanese POW labour during numerous air raids between January and June 1945. Now a memorial site and popular visitor attraction, we spent a couple of days in Kanchanaburi staying in ridiculously cheap raft rooms floating on the river and visiting the various museums, enjoying the sunsets by the bridge and eating the best pie and chips I've seen since leaving the UK at Crackers Bar in the town.

Trains pass through Kanchanaburi regularly on their way from Bangkok to Nam Tok on the edge of the Erawan National Park. We considered a ride on the train along the historic line, but instead chose to ride alongside the track so that we could stop and walk across the famous Tham Krasae Bridge and also continue further to Hellfire Pass, the notorious railway cutting on the former Burma Railway that claimed the lives of so many POW's forced to build it. Walking along the raised tracks clinging to the side of cliff alongside the river made me think of the famous scene from Stand By Me. I was constantly waiting for someone to shout 'TRAIN!!!' By the time we reached Hellfire Pass time was getting on and unfortunately we didn't realise that the museum closed quite early so this limited the time we had to walk much further than the first part of the pass, but the presentation of the place is powerful and moving, the sheer scale of what the prisoners achieved in the timescale they had almost unfathomable.

Between all these stops of course we spent many hours on our little scooters, mostly this time on fairly big roads, the distances a whole other ball game to riding through Vietnam and Cambodia. As much as I loved the little scooter I had in Vietnam, which was the perfect choice for that country, I found myself liking my second bike less and less. For the first time I started to miss my Vstrom and its comfort over longer distances. Riding over 300km in one stretch hurts on a Honda Wave. It's not fun and becomes a chore very quickly. Surprisingly, Thailand also had the worst roads we've ridden on so far in South East Asia. We'd heard that Thailand has the highest death rate from road traffic accidents in the region and at first this surprised us as the roads seemed fairly sedate and nowhere near as crowded as the likes of Vietnam. The issue here though is indecisiveness and outright poor driving. Cars and trucks indicate, pull on to the road and then either randomly slow down or speed up, move into the lane or decide to stay on the shoulder, never to a predictable pattern. Dithering drivers also suddenly decide they're going to turn off or pull over with no warning and if you're in their path you're in trouble. To add to all this signage is poor and the road surface too in many places. Even on a seemingly smooth road in good condition there will suddenly be an unexpected rough patch or pothole, or a pile of discarded tarmac ready to catch out bikers not paying full attention.

In Nakhon Sawan, after a brief stop at the wonderfully gaudy Wat Chan Talan, otherwise known as the Glass Temple, we spent a night and enjoyed a leisurely evening stroll around Paradise Park, a place buzzing with local life, people jogging, working out at the outdoor gym, taking part in a mass aerobics session or quietly sitting by the lake feeding bread to the writhing mass of catfish eager to secure their share. That night we ate at the food court in the misleadingly named Fairytale Plaza where we lamented how much our standards have dropped over the last few months. While we stood waiting for our noodles to be cooked we watched a large cockroach run through the food cabinet, around the plates of food, satisfied that it hadn't actually walked over the produce. And that was aside from the eye-watering smell of wee that seemed to linger about the place. We certainly know how to live!

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