Asian Travels - Thailand (2010)
We had to decamp from our Luang Prabang hotel at 0530hours to catch our 0800 hr flight to Bangkok with Lau Airlines. However, just prior to departure, the plane developed engine problems and we had to wait until 1030 to board a replacement plane that had been flown up from Vientiane. Our twin-engined turbo prop plane (50 seater) eventually landed in Bangkok airport totally dwarfed by the Jumbos and A330 aircraft all around us. The flight had only taken a little more than 90 minutes and that's typical of the relatively short flights required to skip around SE Asia. To that end, given how cheap air travel is with discount airlines eg Silk, Asia, Tiger etc, it is well worth considering flying between countries instead of the hassles of buses and trains etc. Of course, this issue would not be on the radar to any of you AB Demographics.
We caught the the relevant Airport Express Bus direct to Khaosan Road - the centre of Bangkok's backpacker district. This place seems to be a mixture of Bali's Legion Road and Sydney's Kings Cross, the place was awash with scantily clad youth of both sexes careering down the road with drinks and food in hand rummaging through the endless T shirt and souvenir stalls while rock music blared out of every retail outlet and it was barely midday! I thought I was in a mad house as we trudged up the road looking for the hotel I had 'cleverly' selected on this hedonistic strip.
As fate would have it, the (Khaosan District) Airport Express Bus had dropped us off initially at the wrong street but when we had found the right one; we were, of course, at the wrong end of it. We eventually found our hotel - the Rikka Inn (www.rikkainn.com) and our room on the second floor. The hotel's rooms had been described by reviewers on the Internet as: 'new, tidy but tight' and they were dead right. But the cost @ A$36/night in the centre of Bangkok is not considered all that bad. This new pub even had a rooftop pool albeit full of flabby Germans and English guests all basting themselves with coconut oil and other tan enhancing liniments. I think Maria had a swim, I was saving myself and body for the pleasures in southern Thailand.
Rikka Inn's rooftop pool
While in Cambodia, the news was full of the rioting 'Red Shirts' in Bangkok and we were a little uneasy about what we would find when we eventually got here. However, we need not have worried as all the rioting and protesters' barricades were conveniently restricted to and around Ratcha Damri Road in Bangkok's CBD around which are clustered all the five star hotels. Therefore, the only tourists that were inconvenienced were those staying in and around that ritzy end of town. Must have really mucked-up with their shopping expeditions.
At our ratbag end of town things were going on as usual. We quickly joined the parading masses along Khaosan to discreetly assess how best to explore this debauched party game. The choice of beer seemed endless: Singha, Tiger, Chang, Anchor, Heineken et al all for about A$3.50 for 630ml bottle ie much dearer than we had experienced in other SE Asian countries. However, the prices drop 25% as soon as you leave Khaosan Road. Because all the beers served in SE Asia are 5%+ I tended to follow the habit I picked up in the Philippines of drinking the beer in a large glass with plenty of ice and thus dilute the alcohol.....mind you if you had made this suggestion to me back home I would have thought you were pulling my leg. While, Manila had championed the 'Bucket of Beer', here in Bangkok the go was to buy a 3 litre iced Tower of Beer for just A$15. While I did not try it, I did but observe many groups of young travellers choosing to take up the challenge.
Towers of Beer
Now quite apart from the beer on offer, there is also a vast array of food stalls selling noodles, soups, stir-fried delicacies, waffles and crepes and all manner of things Barbecued on sticks - so you need never leave this street for your basic 'feed and watering'.
Eating options 'off the street' in Bangkok
The real highlight of Khaosan for me was the stacks of T shirts available for sale and their hilarious messages, many profane, a few profound but most just very funny - I bought heaps and could have bought more. Whilst up-dating these notes at a sidewalk cafe, we got to see a whole kaleidoscope of humanity trawl up and down this road; viz: pack-laden new arrivals or departees, buskers and assorted street performers, hawkers selling all kinds of useless items (lighters, lasers, toys, hammocks, sunglasses etc), blood still oozing from recently tattooed backs, chests, arms or legs.
Scenes from Khaosan Road
There are also plenty of expat males generally well-weathered and over 60 years old accompanied by local women - I suppose its a cheap option for ongoing companionship. One of the reasons we came to Bangkok was to make arrangements for our next adventure in Ko Phi Phi an island in the Andaman Sea off the southern Thailand town of Krabi and further along, a suitable hotel for us to rest up in Penang. Once this housekeeping was completed on the internet, we were free again to become idle tourists and try and view as much of Bangkok's sights as time would permit.
However, the first item on the agenda was to make good a promise I made several years back to buy Maria a ring to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary. This required a bit of complex navigation down to the heart of Bangkok's jewellery district which just happened to be adjacent to Chinatown and the beautiful flower markets. The flower markets smelled over powering of jasmine and there were exotic flowers of every description being re-bundled and or being made into fresh wreaths, various Buddhist temple offerings and floral amulets which seemed to drip from every taxi, Tuk Tuk, bus and ferry all over the country. Our guidebook listed a couple of reputable jewellers and we chose one in particular that had close ties to the resident expat community in Bangkok. Sure enough when we found the quite modest shop, the walls and counter areas were encrusted with signed photographs and business cards of past happy customers; including I'm sad to report, George Bush Snr. Suffice to say after an hour's dithering nay contemplation, a satisfactory Ruby ring was identified and the purchase sealed with a firm handshake from the owner who agreed to enlarge it to fit Maria's 'large' finger and have it delivered to our hotel.
To celebrate the purchase, we took a river taxi up the Mae Nam Chau Phraya. This river, which was flowing quite fast, snakes right through Bangkok and is lovely way to get from one district to another and it only costs less than A$0.50 to go just about anywhere.
River Taxi (for tourist) Long Tail Taxi (for locals)
On this particular occasion, we were hunting down a large shopping mall in which there was reputed to be a number of Sports Shops. I still had hopes of pricing a golf bag. Well, we found the Mall - all six stories of it (you could have been in any Australian equivalent) but the prices were not competitive to what I could get at home. Maria meanwhile managed to buy a cheap watch which subsequently stopped two days later! She was also trying yet again to buy some new bathers to show off down in Ko Phi Phi. But sadly the tale was the same as it had been in Manila, HCM City and Phnom Penh, Asia simply does not make cossies big enough for busty round eyed tourists... Ho hum.
This foray into a shopping mall, made us both reflect on the sameness of all modern Asian cities with their preference to dump traditional markets and pokey stalls in favour of the homogenised one size fits all shopping centres. Of course, there will always be those times when you need to purchase some generic utilitarian item quite foreign to your host country. I seem to recall travelling years ago to Singapore from Darwin just to buy some cheap fishing gear!
We hired a taxi one day to take us around the major tourist sights like the Royal Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, Royal Barges Museum. However, all but the Wat Pho were closed to non-nationals because of ongoing Lunar New Year celebrations. However, we greatly enjoyed viewing the huge reclining Buddha.
Wat Arun Wat Rakhang
Wat Trimitr (Golden Buddha)
Wat Phra Chetupon (Reclining Buddha)
However, not for the first time our taxi driver, like a Tuk Tuk driver the day before, tried to renege on a previously agreed price for his services - this is a real annoyance and one which leaves a bad taste in your mouth. This experience together with the shrill karaoke ring tunes on locals damned mobiles were the major brickbats for Bangkok. We also had a minor hiccup at an ATM which refused to spit out the required Thai Baht. After reporting the incident to the adjacent host bank we were advised that it would take two to three weeks to reimburse us the equivalent A$170. On our return home, I was relieved to note that the amount had been reimbursed within 7 days. Perhaps I should mention here that we found the use of an Access Card at ATMs much more cost effective than using our Credit Cards to access the same account - worked real well and only attracted a A$5 fee on each occasion.
Friday 21 April we caught a private shuttle bus back to the airport for our Air Asia flight to Krabi. The flight only took 75 minutes which was sufficient time for me to read their in-flight magazine which included some thoughtful flying etiquette for passengers:
On arrival we were immediately surrounded by travel agent touts, so we disdainfully threw our lot in with the dodgiest looking pair and were carted off to their office where they quickly wrote out over-priced return ferry tickets and whisked us off to the waiting ferry which again, was at the end of a very long jetty. The ferry trip took an hour and a half and was very very scenic as both the mainland coastline and surrounding islands are made up of very craggy limestone cliffs very reminiscent of Halong Bay in North Vietnam. The vast majority of the 100 or so locals sharing the ferry were much had distinct Malay appearance with most women's heads scarved - we were after all less than 200kms from the Malaysian border.
We had chosen to visit Ko Phi Phi over and above the many hundreds of islands to choose from because it was rated as being the most beautiful in terms of its rugged geography, its classic turquoise waters and the easy accessibility of its reefs for snorkelling. However, we were also aware of its popularity with tourists and reputation as a rather expensive party island. Many day trippers come to the island from Phuket, 42kms away. We were not disappointed with what we found. I believe many come to Thailand with the sole intention of doing nothing more than a crawl, or would that be a trawl, through the myriad of islands to be found in both the Gulf of Thailand in the east and Andaman Sea to the west....not a bad idea for the indolent.
En route to Ko Phi Phi
The main harbour on Ko Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee) is located in front of a very narrow and low isthmus of land on which the main village of Ton Sai is located. This village was extensively damaged during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami as can be seen from the pictures below.
However, today with help from the international community, most of the physical scars from this disaster have vanished. Although, you can still come across the odd pile of Tsunami building debris which has not yet been buried by a new developer. I took the following snap of Ton Sai today from a lookout high above the village after a very strenuous trek with Maria.
Of course in 2000, the Island was the central location for the film: The Beach, a cult thriller cum drama story starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Carlyle and Tilda Swinton. The harbour at Ton Sai is littered with yachts of all dimensions, longtail taxis, scuba diving boats and 8m speed boats (some with up to 3 x 250hp outboards) - all available for charter and to explore this island jewel.
At the base of the public jetty is a very convenient island accommodation information centre listing all the major places together with their current room rates. I noticed as soon as arriving that our own accommodation at White 2 Guesthouse hotel was very nearly the lowest one could pay at A$60/night (our most expensive accommodation outlay for the trip) . Nevertheless, it was conveniently located half way between the front and back beach. We had a so called double villa room which was very spacious with king size bed, A/C, ensuite, fridge and own courtyard.
Our room at White's #2 Hotel (we became experts with the various cunning plumbing mechanisms in SE Asian budget hotels)
The vast majority of accommodation choices on Ko Phi Phi cost more than double ours. Once again ours was a strictly 'shoeless' establishment.
Ton Sai village is awash with dive charter shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, internet cafes, tattooists, clothing boutiques and souvenir stalls. There being no cars permitted on the island, the only land transport is bicycle and push carts, which ply the narrow streets with constant bell ringing.
Atop the Look out
Some of the stairs to the Lookout Restaurant in a boat
Ton Sai Streetscapes
Despite the singularly focussed attention given to tourist pursuits, there is a degree of harmony on the island. During the day, one goes out on charters to dive, snorkel, game fish or just sightsee and from evening on its one big beach party and time to compare one's diving achievements, tan and/or sunburn. I quickly learnt that you could not join the 'A list' on the island unless you were able to casually stroll into a bar with a diving regulator over one's shoulder or at least a pair of fins and mask. It was all a little macho and decadent but, nevertheless good fun.
We dined very well here on the island which caters for all tastes and budgets from fancy seafood joints to quite simple Thai snacks of noodles and curries with rice and, of course, their fresh fruit smoothies.
We did mange a couple of faux pas on the beach by occupying private cabana lounges reserved for up-market hotel guests and again on another occasion being booted off some others for which we were supposed to pay one or two dollars......the hide of them! While a good deal of topless bathing goes on at the back beach, there is an area of the front (harbour side) beach reserved for strictly Muslim clientele, with their own hotels and restaurants and, of course, strictly alcohol free area. Not very exciting.
We did arrange with our hotel to go out on a one day snorkelling tour around the Island which proved to be a great experience with superb coral and reef fish - probably better than the Barrier Reef - very clear water. I had another go of using our cheapie underwater camera but once again found it very difficult to properly look through the LCD Screen underwater without glasses. I am sure Amy would have a ball here; especially with her new super Panasonic underwater camera.
I did enquire about hiring special optical masks but the chap I spoke to about this seemed unaware of any generic item and instead advised that you could have a mask made using your own glasses prescription but at some astronomical cost....bugger it, better to swim around half blind. Notwithstanding, this slight handicap, we had a marvellous day on our Longtail taxi which had only 5 other punters on board - an Aussie from Melbourne, a German couple and a Spanish honeymoon couple. Most similar tour boats are crammed with at least a dozen punters. The snorkelling gear made available for our use was a little crappy (I suspect cast offs from the dive shops). However, I did manage my own fish massage while snorkelling - with small reef fish nibbling me as I swam around.
Some Underwater Snaps taken with a very dodgy camera by a 'blind' operator
Ao Maya Beach on Ko Phi Phi Leh only 5kms from Ko Phi Phi and is the so-called 'perfect beach' in the film: The Beach filmed here in 1999.
A sunset finished a magnificent days' outing
Torrential rain fell on several late afternoons which really helped keep the temperatures down and freshened up the whole place.
Saturday 24 April, turned out to be our biggest day of travel of the trip and one which had to be re-organised at the last moment when we realised, to our consternation, that our planned bus from Krabi to Hat Yai missed the connecting train to Butterworth in Malaysia by 30 minutes. Damn, so we had to resort to Plan B and catch another bus all the way down to Butterworth and thence to Penang. The promised bus to Hat Yai turned out to be a beaten-up Minivan crammed with up to 7 heavily garbed Muslim women (one with a baby) and two men. Now the airconditioning did not work, it was extremely hot, we had to travel 300+kms and the baby shit itself half way along the journey.
I was surprised to learn while reading one or other of our guide books that nearly 3000 civilian protesters have been killed in the Thai southern provinces over the past 10 years. There were and are strong demands for secession amongst the predominant Muslim population and in retaliation, successive Thai governments have starved the region of infrastructure funding and maintained a very heavy intimidatory military and police presence. It is not surprising therefore that many of the villages and towns down this way appear scruffy and unkempt.
This uncomfortable journey took just over 4hours and we were then, unceremoniously, dumped at a drab travel agent's shop in the middle of Hat Yai with the bus driver yelling something at a very elderly Chinaman inside the shop. The latter then began questioning us but we could not understand a word until a teenage girl appeared and started to translate and explain that the old man could arrange tickets on a bus that was due at any moment and which would take us across the border and straight to our nominated hotel in Penang. We breathed a great sigh of relief, handed him a fist full of Thai Baht (A$20) just as a brand new minivan pulled up with just 5 European tourists and a very efficient airconditioning unit on board.
Now two of these passengers caught my attention. The first being a 40 something year old Philippino bloke sitting next to an 18 year old German girl. The Philippino, at various times during the journey, described himself as a dive instructor, musician, yogi, masseuse, linguist and part-time travel agent plus a range of other vocational skills, I have since forgotten. He used his time on our journey to educate the seemingly naive and gullible German lass on the ways of the wicked world. He had apparently been kicked out of most countries in the region (including Australia) for visa infringements and was on his way to KL to try and renew his Thai working visa so as to resume his 'brilliant' musical career in a 'very respectable but cool' Phuket nightclub. I am sure everyone has come up against these knowledgeable types who, in close quarters, bore the pants off you - he was no exception and kept it up; right into Penang....he reminded me of the chap in that song who had 'been everywhere'!
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