Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sticking Their Necks Out

Another border, another country. This month we're bringing you Laos (don't pronounce the s). Actually I would have liked to have stayed in Thailand a few days more as I really liked Chiang Mai and would have liked to have done some trekking in the Golden Triangle, but due to the country's ridiculous visa extension rules (you get a free 30 day stay upon entry, but if you want to stay a few days longer it costs you 26 pounds) I felt it was time to leave.

To make the most of the time I had left in the country I decided to head north, close to the Myanmar border, and visit some hill-tribes, most notably the long-necked Karen who had fled from the fighting in Myanmar. Though before I went I had a lengthy internal debate as to the rights and wrongs of going. On the one hand visiting hill-tribes reduces them to a sort of human zoo, there to be ogled by us tourists and in the end everybody loses a bit of their dignity. But on the other hand the tourism brings them a good income that makes them less dependant on slash-and-burn agriculture. In fact the term long-necked is a misnomer since the Karen's necks are the same length as ours, instead the weight of the brass coils (not rings), which they wear from an early age, causes the bones of their shoulders to deform and bend downwards (and trust me, the coils are heavy), giving the illusion of a long neck.

As I had predicted, I felt very uncomfortable and voyeuristic and couldn't take more than just a single picture, even though the Karen women seemed to take everything with good grace, and, despite their poor living standards and the tourists, seemed to maintain their dignity and beauty.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Erik's Thai Miscellany

I've been in Thailand for almost 4 weeks now and so today's post, as well as recounting the highlights of the past few days, is a bit of a mixed bag of some of my observations that I've been unable to crowbar into any of my previous posts.

At the moment I'm in Chiang Mai, the backpacker capital of northern Thailand, which means my time here is almost at an end as I have only a couple more places to visit before embarking upon Laos. The north of Thailand is definitely more picturesque than the centre, with forested hills and beautiful teak houses built on stilts. On the way up here I stopped off at several more archaeological sites i.e. ruined wats, and although they are undoubtedly interesting they get rather "samey" after a while. A nice break from the wats was a visit to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre where, as well as the standard elephant show, they have an elephant hospital and "retirement home" for old pachyderms. They also do mahout (elephant rider) training programmes, which I was very interested in, but unfortunately they have to be booked well in advance and there's fat chance of me ever booking anything in advance. But if anyone is planning to visit the area, at only 200 pounds for 10 days' training with food, lodging and your very own mahout suit all included in the price it seems very good value.

Right, now for some pointless musings that I'd like to share with you. If you ever travel in Thailand there's one person you can never get away from: the King. He's everywhere. He isn't just content with having his face on all the money in the country as well as on huge billboards dotted all over the country, but he seems to have passed a law whereby all calendars sold here must be of him. Every house, shop, office I've been to has a calendar (or three) of him striking various poses. Plus there is a deference towards the king that harks of Victorian England. Another common sight, and one that continues to disturb me, are clothes mannequins. What could be so disturbing about clothes mannequins you may ask. But these aren't real mannequins, they're all horror, B-movie props (probably rejected for being too unsettling).

A local oddity that is still bemusing me is Thai magazines. They have many of the same magazines we have back home: FHM, Elle, Vogue, etc. which, reasonably enough, have their English names. What baffles me is that the article titles are also in English, whilst the rest of the text is in Thai (see FHM Thailand to see what I mean). I wonder if the Thais actually understand the titles, or have to read the articles before they can find out what they are about?

There has also been a culinary improvement upon crossing the border from Thailand, even though the basics are still the same (either noodles or rice with something). Ordering the food, however, has become more arbitrary, as I am usually reduced to pointing and hoping for the best (I rarely frequent restaurants, preferring instead to get my meals from street hawkers). Through trial and error I have learnt two invaluable phrases that should see any travel through safely in Thailand: pad thai, which is the basic noodle dish with assorted stuff that can always be relied upon (people who have lived with me may recognise in it hints of my own signature dish: Noodles And Shit); and mai peh, which means "not spicy", very important for those with a more delicate palate.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Get Lost

The Thai countryside was beginning to bore me as the area around Bangkok is rather monotonous: all flat land full of paddy fields and grim villages, interspersed by the occasional lotus-choked canal. So I decided to visit Khao Yai national park (home to that waterfall featured in the film The Beach, which, it pains me not in the least to say, I haven't seen either). I didn't pick the best time to visit the park though, as it was a long weekend and there were hordes of locals around. Luckily the Thais seem to take the same approach to tourism as the Japanese, that is to say they want the most views with the least effort possible (if it's not within 200m of a car park then it's not worth seeing). Therefore I only saw 2 people in 4.5 hours hiking, which suited me down to the ground.

The hiking perhaps wasn't as good as in the Cameron Highlands, but this was made up for by the diversity and abundance of animals. I managed to see some wild elephants splashing about in a stream, hornbills, sambar deer, untold numbers of insects and, whilst taking a wrong turning and getting slightly lost, a group of gibbons. They and the elephants really made my day, which just goes to show that sometimes getting lost can be very rewarding. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I also came across armies of the jungle trekkers scourge: leeches. Literally in their hundreds; you could see them waving about on the trail hoping to catch some poor, unsuspecting passer-by. Luckily I had come prepared and had tucked my trousers into my socks (I know, major fashion faux pas, but luckily only those two Thais saw me; phew). So, slowly but surely, I'm ticking off the animals to be seen. Now if I can just find a tiger...

P.S. Along with some recent photos, I've also added a sound recording (I've just discovered that that's one of the things my MP3 gizmo does) of the jungle sounds to my photo album site. You might think the jungle is rather quiet, but far from it, when you're there you're constantly bombarded by an almost physical wall of sound produced by the elusive cicadas.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Monkey Business

Ayutthaya and Lopburi, only 100-odd kilometres north of Bangkok, used to be capitals of Siam (what Thailand used to be called in them days) in the middle ages, though now they are just provincial towns; although very odd ones at that.

For over 400 years Ayutthaya reigned supreme in Siam with, at its peak, a population in excess of 1 million, compared to just 80,000 today. After being razed by the Burmese in 1767 the modern town only inherited the wide, majestic street plan (plus a plethora of wats in various states of crumbling disrepair, but more on them later), and is struggling to fill its erstwhile shoes. In fact the new town seems a bit lost amid the wats and canals, like a small family moving into a cavernous stately home. This incongruity aside, Ayutthaya is definitely worth a visit and should be the first place in Thailand any self-respecting ruin-chaser heads for. Scattered around the town are over 30 different wat ruins, about a dozen of which are truly impressive with grandiose stupas and remains of other temple buildings. However by the end of a day cycling around from one wat to the next, I got a little watted out and felt that it was enough.

So I popped up the road to Lopburi. The town also has its fair share of wats, but what I've found more interesting are the sites devoted to king Narai (who ruled towards the end of the 17th century) who opened up the country to foreign influences, especially the great European powers of the time. It's fascinating to see how, though on the other side of the world, there was an interchange of ideas and dialogue that was far more extensive than I had previously thought. But all that is just historical fluff compared to Lopburi's main tourist draw: monkeys. A couple of troops of long-tailed macaques, operating out of a Hindu temple, terrorise the streets and rooftops of Lopburi. In fact most of the roofs in central Lopburi have wire mesh or barbed wire covering them to keep the cheeky monkeys off. I know this because I have the perfect view of the whole spectacle from my top-floor hotel room, which, luckily, also happens to be just beside a major monkey congregation area. I'm just having a great time watching the animals' antics whilst sitting by my window.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Do You Speakee Inglish?

Upon leaving Bangkok I headed west to the small, provincial town of Samut Songkhram, from where I hoped to visit a traditional floating market. Getting around through southern Thailand and Bangkok had been relatively easy as even the hawkers had some smatterings of English (even if it was just numbers to tell you how much things cost), but that was because the route was already well-travelled. Step off the beaten track though, and you are well and truly stranded in a sea of incomprehension. Still, I found myself a hotel (from the looks of it the only one in town) and the next morning managed to get a moto-taxi rider to understand where I wanted to go (via various hand gestures and my feeble, mispronounced attempts at Thai). Unfortunately when I got there the market was nowhere in sight as it didn't operate on weekends (as I was wrongly informed by my guidebook) but only on various lunar days. The only floating market operating that day was the notoriously soulless Damnoen Saduak, to which busloads of tourists are carted every day. But I thought to myself that since I was there, what the hell. That was until I saw the convoy of about 20 minivans carting the tourist chattel to market. That was it for me and I decided to cut my losses. At least I learnt an import lesson: not to trust everything in the Lonely Planet implicity

So here I am in the town of Kanchanaburi on the banks of the Mae Nam Kwae Yai, or the River Kwai as most people know it back home. There is a bridge, but it is not the one aficionados of the film will recognise (I am ashamed to say that even though I consider myself to be a bit of a film buff I haven't seen the film, though I plan to watch it when I get back home). The wood and bamboo structure in the film (and book) was actually a temporary bridge that was quickly built before the main one that stands to this day. Visiting the bridge also rounds off my tour of importtant WW2 sites of the Malaya campaign: from Changi PoW camp to Kota Bahru (site of he first clashes bettween he Japanese and British forces) and now here by the infamous Death Railway on which over 100,000 people lost their lives.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Auld Acquaintance

Even though I am travelling on my own and prefer to do so, a familiar face every now and again is still welcome; so I was happy to be able to meet up with Martin and spend a couple of days in Bangkok with him.

I know I was rather critical in my last post, but Bangkok does have a good deal to offer tourists, and even the Khao San Road has its uses, as I managed to find a stall yesterday that helped satisfy my insectophagic tendencies (pictures, courtesy of Martin, should be up in a few days). The architecture of the numerous wats and palaces dotted around the centre of the city are stunningly beautiful, with characteristic many-tiered gable roofs and ornately carved eaves. And since Thailand is a buddhist country (apart from the Muslims in the south and some animist hill tribes) there's no getting away from the ever-present image of Bud, usually sitting, and almost always golden. There are three however, that really must be seen when visiting Bangkok: the Emerald Buddha, the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit, and the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho. The Emerald Buddha is a bit of a misnomer as the little guy is really made of jade, and he's not even that much to look at as he is quite small and you can't get that close to him. But because it's the most revered Buddha image in the country his house is incredibly ornate and filled to bursting-point with all sorts of golden objects, so much so that the temple seems to glow from within. The Golden Buddha, however, is exactly what it says on the tin: the world's largest solid-gold Buddha. The statue is 3m tall and weighs in at a hefty 5.5 tonnes and, because it's solid gold, is the shiniest thing you will ever see. And finally the Wat Pho Buddha impresses by its sheer size. At 46m in length and 13m in height it completely fills a huge hall specifically built to house it, which makes taking photographs of the statue a right pain in the ass.

Of course Bangkok has more than just temples and Buddhas and getting around to see the sights is great fun in itself due to the many different modes of transport available to you. Apart from the aforementioned tuk-tuks there are also (very cheap) buses, a metro, a (overpriced) skytrain, motorbike taxis (great fun) and, the most quintessentially Thai mode of transport, boats. The boats mainly ply the Chao Phraya river and some of the major canals and are the quickest means of getting around.

And of course no visit to Bangkok would be complete without an evening watching Muay Thai kickboxing. Actually, Jean-Claude Van Damme has a lot to answer for as he really built up my expectations for brutal violence and litres of blood, or at the very least hands being pressed into shards of glass. Instead the spectacle was a rather tame affair, with most of the entertainment coming from the wild gesticulations of the locals sitting next to me and the frenzied betting that accompanied it. Only the last bout (a title contest) proved more than just mildly interesting. But generally I found it difficult to take seriously throughout due to the preliminary ceremonies that precede each fight in which each boxer performs his own, personal routine, or in other words, a poncy little dance. Of course I'm sure there is a deep, underlying symbolism that eludes me.

Now, though, I'm finished with Bangkok, and, armed with my Laotian and Cambodian visas acquired here, I can zig-zag my way up the country towards Chiang Mai and the Laotian border.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Khwap Kun Krap

Means thank you in Thai (khwap kun kra if you happen to be female) and is the only phrase I have managed to master, so I'm using it a lot. I must say though, that I'm not completely at ease with the Thais and am finding them rather duplicitous at the moment. Thailand is known as the "land of smiles", but they certainly aren't always sincere. Yesterday I was the subject of a scam (I could see it a mile off, but I went along with it out of curiosity). A "friendly stranger" informed me that a wat (temple) I wanted to visit was closed for the day (though to be fair it might have been as it was a public holiday and I had already had one wat shut on me). Instead he suggested another itinerary that would take in a couple of wats and a "super silk market" sandwiched between them. The whole trip, the guy said, would only cost me 10 baht (slightly less than 15 pence) for my own, personal tuk-tuk. Since this seemed cheap, and one of the wats was on my "to do" list anyway I said "what the hell".

The wats were pretty standard (though I'm no expert on wats), but it was the "silk market" that was supposed to be the trap. The market turned out to be a tailor's shop selling silk and cashmere suits. The tuk-tuk driver would get a coupon from the shop for bringing me there, which he could then redeem for money (plus get a commission for any sales); and I was supposed to be subject to the hard sell. They only had to look at me in my clothes (I was down to my last T-shirt) and week-old stubble to know that they had no chance, and I was out of there pretty quickly. A bit too quickly for my tuk-tuk driver though, because it was not enough time for him to get his coupon, so I agreed to go to another shop (a jeweller's this time) and stay there for a minimum of 5 minutes. In the end the experience was quite good fun as the driver was highly sympathetic and I got to be carted around the place for next to nothing. Actually it is possible to use this scam to your advantage when you are in Bangkok: you just go up to a tuk-tuk driver and ask to be taken around town for free, and in return you agree to go into a few shops and travel agents during the day.

This isn't my first experience of Thai dodgy dealing either: in Krabi I was given horrendously inflated quotes for rooms by travel agencies posing as official tourist information centres. However I'm assuming that these goings-on are only symptomatic of heavily touristed areas and hopefully won't be present slightly off the beaten track; and in a way it is partly understandable when you see the horrors of the Khao San Road and Silom Street. The former is full to bursting with backpackers behaving like they would back home on a Saturday night after last orders, and the latter is for the slightly older tourist who has come for very "particular reasons" (I didn't go into any of the clubs, but their names and the touts outside left little room for my imagination). It's a pity that such a beautiful (at least in parts) city should have to experience the worst that tourism has to offer.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Life Of Riley

Well, it's official, I am now certified ... to rock-climb that is. The once- cabbalistic terms of belaying, top-roping and multi-pitching now hold no secrets for me. It is very enjoyable and rewarding at the same time and I'm looking forward to doing a good deal more of it when I get back home (whenever that may happen to be), although I doubt I'll ever be able to do the really outrageous routes with 2-3m overhangs. I'm also glad to have done the course now because if I had waited another couple of days it would have been impossible because the western monsoon has just started and so for the past few days there has been almost non-stop heavy rain. The monsoon also caused the sea to be rather choppy, which made the ferry ride back to civilisation somewhat precarious in the incredibly unsteady long-tail boat. These boats make up the backbone of the short-haul ferry fleet here in Thailand and are an obscene mixture of old meets new: graceful wooden curves with a V6 engine (probably plundered from a rundown truck) strapped to the back. It's amazing to think though, that only 100 miles away on the eastern South China sea coast the weather is balmy and gorgeous without a hint of rain (their monsoon comes in the second half of the year). This short experience of monsoon weather, however, has already made me want to experience as little of it as possible; therefore I'll be skipping Myanmar for the moment and will hopefully get back to it when I'm on the other side in India. For the time being though, it's onwards and upwards to Bangkok.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Hat Yai was rather boring so I decided to leave quite quickly. My original plan for Thailand was to visit Ko Tarutao marine park, a group of islands on the border with Malaysia which are supposed to be exceedingly pretty. In the end I decided against it as it is the end of the season and being alone on a beach, again, didn't sound appealing just now. Instead I travelled north to Krabi province and the peninsula of Rai Leh (or Railay). Although Krabi is home to the hyper-touristy resorts of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta I opted for Rai Leh for a very specific reason: namely rock-climbing. Their karst formations are renowned throughout the rock-climbing community, not just for the beauty of the views (think The Man With The Golden Gun, which, incidentally, was also filmed around here) but also because its climbs have a wide range of difficulties with something for everyone. So I came here to do a beginners course and learn all about the basics of rock-climbing as it is something I've wanted to do for a long time.

I have already completed my first day of the 3-day course, and because I am on my own with the instructor, and have already learnt a great deal. The climbing has been immensely satisfying already, not to mention rather painful too: by the end of the day I had no strength left in my arms (not that I had much to begin with) and my fingers were very raw. So I decided to have a rest day before continuing tomorrow with the torture.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Fight For Your Right To (Elect A) Party

Today I left Malaysia, with its ubiquitous Protons and palm oil plantations, behind me and arrived at Hat Yai in southern Thailand where, you'll be reassured to know, exactly 4 weeks ago saw two bomb blasts blamed on local Islamic separatists. Not much really happened on the trip up, which allows me to devote today's post to a rant rather close to my heart. You see the British general elections are only a few days away and this is my platform to get you all out to vote; and even though this post is directly aimed at my British readers I would like to think that it applies equally to everyone.

I implore all of you who can (and you should all be able to) to go out and vote on the 5th of May. It is the most important thing you can do as citizens and is an honour that too many people take for granted. It is sad to see the apathy and general distrust in the political system when people all over the world are fighting, and dying, for the opportunity to vote. It may be that people don't see immediate results from their actions, and in today's world of instant gratification the continental drift of the political process just leaves them cold.

Many people will counter that by saying that all the parties are the same and there's nobody they want to vote for, but that is just a lame excuse. First of all there is a difference between the parties (albeit a small one) and so you must choose the one closest to your opinions. But that being the case, if you are dissatisfied with the parties then get involved. Actively make a difference. Don't be an armchair critic when it comes to something as important as the way the country (and by extension, your life) is run. Such a step might be slow and incremental, but you can't be expected to be given carte blanche with the country without proving yourself to a certain degree.

Then there are people who say "I'm not voting in protest". But how does one distinguish the protesting non-voter from the apathetic one? A protest vote is all well and good, but it must be recorded. I make no secret of the fact that I'm partial to the Lib Dems and I would naturally rather that you vote for them, but I'll be just as satisfied if you simply voted. Vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party if you want to, but vote! One only has to see what happened a few years back in France when major voter apathy allowed the presidential vote to be decided between a right-wing racist fascist, and the incumbent incompetent. Personally I believe we should have no say in the matter and voting should be made compulsory.

Anyway, if you are still wavering as to who to vote for, below is a list of websites of most of the major parties:

Liberal Democrats
Plaid Cymru
Scottish National Party
The Greens
Monster Raving Loony Party