Its hard to believe that this is only Day 4 of my trip thus far to Thailand. Feels like weeks have passed by. It was also very difficult to wrap my head around the speed at which I progressed from my job offer, to my travel plans, to actually leaving- five days in total. It sort of made my head spin. That was pushing it, even for me! I was filled with the usual anxieties of traveling alone, going somewhere exotic that I’m unfamiliar with, and not having done enough in the research department to calm my usual detail-oriented nerves. However, the moment I stepped on my first of three flights to Bangkok…everything dissipated and I was filled with a sense of excitement for yet another Anita Adventure extraordinaire.
My journey was extremely smooth and I cannot recommend Cathay Pacific more highly. They were incredibly particular about every detail of their flight service. I initially flew to Vancouver to catch my overnight flight to Hong Kong where I lost a Saturday night going over the dateline (but at least I didn’t need a date!) It was great seeing all of the Olympic paraphernalia again, and I managed to purchase a little Olympic Mascot keyring of “Quatchi” – the little furry Sasquatch that I liked so much in Whistler. I thought he would be a good little omen for me, and make my photos of tourist sites much more interesting when there was no-one around to take pictures for me.
My only complaint on the flight was that the Indian Mumbai-bound gentleman sitting next to me on my flight to Bangkok insisted on picking his feet for the duration of the 3 hour journey. Yuck. I arrived, bleary-eyed at Bangkok International at 1:30am local time. I’d been traveling for more than 25 hours. I was quite proud of myself for thinking that it might be best to pay for luggage storage at the airport itself for my giant duffel bag full of gear for my Everest trek, rather than lugging it around Thailand with me. I found left luggage for a little under a buck a day- and then grabbed a cab heading to my guest house for what was left of the night.
The city was buzzing. The driver of my cab assured me in broken English that he might be able to drop me “while walk from hotel” because of the “big meeting”. What was he talking about? “It’s not dangerous”, he assured me, “just many many traffic. You not hurt” Hmmm. I was not feeling reassured. As we drove towards the city centre, it became immediately apparent what he was referring to – thousands of red-shirted people protesting in the streets carrying anti-government banners, and lots of police dressed in full riot gear with bottles of tear gas. Oh, lovely. What a great date I picked to arrive… My “while walk” ended up just being a few hundred meters hopping through a mob of backpackers all drinking and partying up the night in the streets.
Once inside my hotel, I was very impressed by the cleanliness of my room and the peace and quiet within. I showered and quickly fell asleep. The next morning I awoke around 7am and took off for a wander around the nearby streets. I immediately grabbed a fresh fruit shake for breakfast (under a dollar) and noticed that every other storefront offered a variety of massages for about 6 dollars per hour. I was in heaven. Just leave me here!! Looking for a certain travel agency, I asked 3 people sitting to breakfast what street I was on, and promptly struck up a conversation, ascertained that they were all from Manchester, England, forgot all about my morning errand, and joined them on a jaunt to see The Emerald Buddha and Grand Palace.
On arrival, our wits were tested by an official looking man who informed us that the temple was not open until 11am and that we should take a cab to go visit another temple and then return…his “friend” would take us there for only 10 Baht each. This registered in my brain as a scam and we promptly moved on past him and entered the main entrance to find hundreds of other people enjoying the clearly open historic site. After the girls were given clothes to cover our shoulders and knees, we headed in to the site. I rented an English audio tour- I always get so historically nerdy and think that I really want to learn everything about a site like that…and then the heat hits me and I realize I’ve been listening to “Number 8 – The Chadi” for five minutes and I have no idea what’s been said.
The buildings were amazing, ornate and all built by one of the “Ramas” (1-4 if my memory serves). I took lots of pictures and took off my shoes to sit cross-legged in contemplation in front of the Emerald Buddha. I melted. After a refreshing Singha beer and lunch we all headed back to our rooms for a little kitty nap and met up later for some meandering around Khao San Road, shopping, and dinner. Feeling exhausted from jet lag, I eagerly paid 6 bucks for the Thai massage and got pummeled into oblivion. I kept screaming every time she worked on my foot’s surgical site, my English and frantic pointing to my scar apparently not enough to deter this tiny but mighty Thai lady from insisting on punishing it with her fists. Small price to pay for bliss everywhere else.
The next day, my new friends (Drew, Katie and Lucy) and I took a day trip to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, the bridge on the River Kwai, and the Tiger Temple. It was a full-on day… The market was extremely touristy but I didn’t care- it was full of the iconic picture-perfect boats overflowing with produce and straw hat wearing old ladies trying to sell you Mango with sticky rice. We happily sat in our canoe-like boat and enjoyed our water-based shopping trip for a couple of hours before we headed to the town of Kanchanaburi and the World War II museum overlooking the famed Bridge on the River Kwai.
I found the museum fascinating and moving as I read of the over 100,000 POW’s who perished building the railway the Japanese used as a supply and escape route from Thailand to Burma during WWII. There were lots of displays of authentic Japanese armored vehicles, currency and signs from the occupation of Thailand, as well as harrowing stories told by some of the survivors. A walk across the now re-build bridge took me back in time as I imagined what it would have been like to be forced to march out onto this bridge knowing that the allied planes were about to drop bombs on it. Chilling. They say that the river ran red with blood for over 4 days.
Another long drive took us to the controversial Tiger Temple, where about 30 tigers live and roam the grounds offering visitors the chance to get up close and personal with pictures and nervous petting (really? Petting? The tigers? I didn’t believe until I saw…) I had to buy a new pair of pants on arrival as I was informed that red and orange could make the tigers aggressive. I handed over cash very willingly upon hearing that for a blue pair of “fisherman’s pants” (which took me another 2 days to figure out how to tie properly I was a little uneasy about how the tigers were treated, especially since most of them were leashed and seemed very habituated to the humans stroking them. I did get my photo taken, my favorite encounter being with the cutest little tiger cubs.
After the 3 hour journey back to Bangkok, we were relieved to hear that we had managed to secure beds on the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai leaving in a couple of hours- so after a quick shower, we grabbed our backpacks and braved the crazed streets via taxi to the train station.
The train journey was quite a surreal experience: very exciting, romantic and patience-testing. Thank goodness we managed to secure the air conditioned cabin- the faces of the pained travellers sitting in the "fan-only" cars said it all. I slept extremely well despite the fact that they kept the fluorescent lights on all night (thanks to Cathy Pacific's eye sleep-cover thingy).
In the morning, we stumbled down to the restaurant car (after taking an obligatory pee in the toilet/standing hole over the train tracks while holding your nose for the stench) and ordered coffee and coffee. While only 8am, the "manager" was blaring Thai pop tunes at a decibel that required yelling for passable conversation, and insisted on singing (badly) over the top of it at the same time. He was clearly on a controlled substance of some kind as evidenced by his inexplicable euphoria, announcement that he "does boys and girls, you know", and then tendency to pass out when someone wanted to pay their check, muttering in Thai and shaking his head.
A few hours later, it became pretty obvious that we were going to be delayed because the train kept stopping every 10 minutes. We could but hope that the restaurant manager wasn't sharing his drugs with the train driver. A lovely waitress came by and served us sandwiches for lunch as we sat hunched over on our bunk beds, unable to sit up because of the low ceiling. We made a new friend, Raicay, from Seattle (!!!) and sat laughing for hours at the situation, especially when the waitress would break out into a little song and dance for no reason.
Four hours late, we pulled into Chiang Mai station, and were immediately assaulted by the afternoon heat. Negotiating a fair price for a Sorng Taa ou to a guest house, we headed into town, checked in and then grabbed another mouthwatering delicious meal.
The food in Thailand has been outstanding so far. Fresh fruit and juices, and tons of veggies in every meal combined with delicious amounts of coconut milk and spices. Its been a huge part of the experience thus far and I look forward to every meal to try something new. In fact, I intend to take a day's cooking class (wish you were here Magda!!) on Saturday after returning from a trek.
This morning I headed out around 6am ( I know - I'm NOT a morning person, but for some reason when I travel I metamorphosize) on a solo walking tour of the city temples when the peace and coolness of the morning was briefly interrupted by a terrifying encounter with a stray dog who attacked me. I did not provoke it in anyway, he just came right at me and bit me on the leg...THANKFULLY not puncturing the skin. A saffron-robed Buddhist monk came to my rescue and hit the dog with his stick getting him off of me. It was rather unnerving but after another twenty minute walk, I had brushed it off.
The temples were beautiful and I snapped a hundred photos before wandering back to the hotel via this Internet cafe.
Tomorrow, my new Seattle friend and I are heading north to do a 3 day hill-tribe trek, staying in traditional bamboo huts with the Karen people. I'm looking forward to it and getting some cardio exercise in. I will write again on my return.
Much love, Anita