At first glance it seemed like a Thai version of one of those armeggedon disaster type movies. Vehicles and boats strewn haphazardly against semi destroyed buildings, bodies motionless in the mess and rubble with anyone alive visibly panicked and traumatized; maybe a flash flood or tidal wave? I’m amused at the outward emotion shown by the locals standing beside me – have they not seen a movie before! The ‘movie’ is in Thai and my inability to speak the language has delayed my eventual realisation….it’s not a movie….its real!
Koh Phi Phi – an island nightclub – sleep all day and party all night! Sobered up long enough to hike to the high point of the island and a little secluded beach on the other side complete with eclectic accommodation.
We had our favourite small bar/restaurant from which we had brunch each day and early evening drinks and befriended the owner and his handful of staff. We enjoyed the quiet diversion away from the loud bars and nightclubs that dominate the island; one night we never left and slept on the floor of the young barman’s family residence. On our departure we bid farewell to the owner and his staff and promised to return – I did return some weeks later – under incredibly tragic circumstances!
Nearby Koh Lanta is the ying to Koh Phi Phi’s yang…quiet, casual, undeveloped…Tracy Chapman/Jack Johnson, instead of dance remix; cushioned bamboo decks and bar stools in the sand, in lieu of strobe lights/mirrors and busy dance floors.
Was not planning on completing my scuba dive open water on this island, but at the insistence of someone I met whilst here and the service from the professional Dutch owned dive company on the island, I relented. Two days in the classroom/swimming pool and two days on the reef; enjoyed it immensely and stayed on the island to do more diving after completing the course. I loved the whole diving experience – despite a painful ear infection a day or so after leaving the island – the coral, the fish, a whole new beautiful world.
I switched coastlines, crossing the mainland peninsula to another island – Koh Phangan. It’s here on the west coast of this small island where I would spend one of the most relaxing weeks of my life. The USD$4 per night bungalows right on the water’s edge complete with an incredible timber bar and decking jutting out from the beach and over the brilliant blue warm ocean waters.
Days spent alternating between swimming, hammock time, watching a movie, game of cricket/badminton; even taking out the canoe and catching some squid. Late every afternoon a CD of someone’s choice would begin playing from behind the bar and like the pied piper we would follow the sound to the source and saddle up to the bar for another late night of beer and $10 whisky buckets.
Koh Phangan is infamous globally for it’s longstanding ‘full moon party’ located on the south-eastern side of the island. Hiring motorbikes we ventured over during daylight hours to the beach where the event is held. Size of the speakers from the various venues facing the beach are astounding. Easy to see how a number of people have drowned at the Full Moon with this side of the island facing the open ocean and its accompanying swell. Chose not to partake in the Full Moon festivities, but did attend the lessor frequented ‘half moon party’ in the jungle island interior.
The islands of Thailand have ‘trapped’ many a traveller and before I fall any further under their mesmerizing spell have one more island to visit….Koh Tao.
Nigel and Julie have been my companions since Koh Lanta and unbeknownst to me, I find them waiting for my arrival at the Koh Tao jetty with spare motorbike for transport back to our accommodation. Koh Tao revolves almost entirely around the dive industry with seemingly every 2nd building a dive shop of some description.
The day after my arrival the monsoon started in earnest with driving rain and gale force winds, so diving was not permissible with all boats including the ferry back to the mainland unable to venture out. During a break in the weather managed to circumnavigate the island on foot exploring its beautiful coastline with many tiny secluded beaches separated by rocky points. A near miss from a falling coconut frightened the life out me!
Dive instructors I spoke with, feel the reefs surrounding the island are being ‘loved’ to death with far too many divers for a small area and dive companies preoccupied with the quantity of divers they attract and scant regards to the quality of their experience. Feel very fortunate that I took the opportunity to complete my certificate whilst on Koh Lanta.
To get to Kanchanaburi from the islands it should be a simple matter of boarding a bus or train north to Bangkok and from there take required transport west, but after such a long period of relative tranquility on the islands, was keen to avoid the chaos of Thailand’s capital and so I disembarked from the train at a city called Nakhon Pathom some 70 kilometres from Bangkok from where I could catch a bus to Kanchanaburi.
It was early evening, the sun having long disappeared over the horizon yet the train station was teeming with people. After several attempts at asking for directions to the bus station, I’m delivered via a short motorbike taxi ride to a large bus shelter.
Directly opposite me is the entry to the city’s predominate temple and as it so happens, tonight there is a festival or celebration in full swing. I discover later that this is the worlds tallest Buddhist monument! If I was trying to avoid large crowds by detouring Bangkok, I had failed dismally. This particular bus depot appears to be ground zero with thousands of people arriving and departing the temple via bus and I’m right in the middle with my backpack and no idea.
I engaged some schoolchildren in conversation who inform me that ‘Bus 81’ will take me to Kanchanaburi. I wait another hour – nothing. My wait however was anything but boring; I feel like I’m in the middle of a mardi gras parade, its bordering on ridiculous!
This whole time an elderly Thai lady – who can’t speak English – has been sitting beside me selling drinks out of an old esky. Suddenly she indicates to me to watch her esky on her behalf and disappears! Now I’m babysitting a bloody esky, although I did sell one drink. Just as suddenly she returns, grabs my arm and says ‘quickly go’ and points to a guy sitting on a motorbike taxi. ‘Go where?’ I ask. She again says ‘quickly go’ and points to the motorbike.
The guidebook indicates there is no traveller accommodation in the city, so with seemingly few options and some trepidation I jumped on the motorbike. He soon drops me off beside a 5 lane highway on the city’s outskirts and says ‘wait here’ and rides off. Back at the temple I may have been lost but at least I felt safe! Its after 10pm, dark, I’m alone and a little ‘scared’ – why couldn’t I have just gone to Bangkok like anyone else!
Within minutes a bus slows while approaching, I try to read the bus number on the front – 81! I all but jump in front to ensure it doesn’t pass me by. The driver looks me up and down and says ‘Kanchanaburi?’ I want to run up the steps and hug him! That elderly lady with the esky has come to my rescue; I want to go back and thank her for her kindness but I’m not leaving this bus.
Kanchanaburi is a very popular tourist destination both for its location and surrounding activities, but for an Australian it has a far greater significance. For here is located the bridge over River Kwai- some may remember the movie – and my visit coincided with a quite spectacular night-time light and sound show complete with fireworks. Further along the infamous Burma-Thailand railway is ‘Hellfire Pass’ and the nearby museum built by the Australian Government.
Another museum in town pays tribute to ‘Weary Dunlop’ the Aussie Medico who saved so many lives from the cruelty imposed by their Japanese captors. The cemetery in the centre of town has seven acres of plaques remembering the 8000 Allied troops including 2000 Australians that will forever rest here. I had little prior knowledge of the events that transpired here during WW2 and subsequently have been shocked at what I’ve seen and learnt whilst here.
As mentioned, Kanchanaburi has other attractions including Erawan waterfalls, although the psycho monkey that tried to attack me with teeth bared was a little terrifying! Of course no visit to Thailand would be complete without a Thai cooking course, although not sure what I will remember by the time I return.
A short distance out-of-town near a disused quarry, a small group of monks have been raising orphaned tiger cubs. Called the Tiger Temple, the LP guidebook discourages anyone from visiting and the necessary signing of an indemnity form prior to entering is a little disconcerting; but the opportunity to get close to one of the planets most amazing creatures is too great.
Five adult tigers weighing around 180-200 kgs all out in the open; the elderly monk motions to me and I walk towards him. Taking my camera, he whispers ‘dont stand on their tail’ and points towards the nearest tiger who is sitting on the ground nearby. I carefully kneel next to it – very mindful of the tail – and try to smile for the camera. As I move from one to the other I can’t believe the size of their head and feet. One of the most incredible amazing experiences, to physically touch this magnificent animal whilst unrestrained has been a childhood dream – no matter how terrifying!
LOPBURI TO SUKHOTHAI, THAILAND
Having learnt little from my previous attempt to detour Bangkok, I boarded a ‘local’ bus for the 300+ kilometres and more direct route to Lopburi, rather than via Bangkok as one normally should and would. The ‘local’ buses were standing room only – I was the only foreigner I saw all day – they stopped every couple of minutes to let people on or off, and rattled that loudly its astounding they still function. Its amusing when you see someone wearing a t-shirt printed with text in a language they don’t speak, such as the kind female bus conductor with the shirt that read front and back….’fuck off wankers!’
Lopburi is often referred to as the ‘monkey city’ for it is virtually overrun with them, hanging off power lines, above shop awnings, on the footpath, cars, in shops – everywhere! Walking down the street one evening, watched a monkey seemingly on purpose disconnect power to a shop, at which point the owner burst out onto the street wielding a slingshot and yelling at the offender – was evidently not the first time this had happened – very funny.
For something different I took the train north to Phitsanulok – the only available seating is in 3rd class section – not recommended!
Sukhothai was Thailand’s first capital and the 45 sq klm of ruins give us an insight into life here some 700 years before. Walking and cycling around the ruins whilst enlightening, is a poor cousin to Angkor Wat. The two-hour bicycle ride through the nearby rice fields, with farmers waving and children yelling ‘hello’ and running up to you for a high-five as you ride past was probably more enjoyable.
As were the two nights in the nearby guesthouse, so much so an older French gentleman left after the first night in protest of our nocturnal activities.
MAE SOT, THAILAND
My intention for visiting Mae Sot – a small town on the border with Myanmar (Burma) – was to do a ‘visa run’ and extend my Thailand visa for another 30 days.
Looking back, Mae Sot was probably a defining moment of this trip, one of those times and places you look back on later in life, as though someone has led you there, meant to be. Mae Sot was a window into Myanmar life and their people fleeing the injustices within, to seek a better life in Thailand and beyond. It was here that the seed was planted for a journey that would eventually take me to this mysterious country some three years later.
I made a conscious effort whilst here to discover all I could about the plight of the Burmese refugees, even to the point of visiting a refugee camp hospital on the edge of town. Sought out people working here as volunteers in different capacities and talked at length with three such people who told me of the incredible adversity facing these people.
- Myanmar military will march into a village and steal and rape at will, before taking their land.
- Picked up a newspaper to read only last week of village burnt to the ground, including their entire rice crop.
- Thailand government won’t acknowledge their existence. As a result they are unable to attain work. If they do attain work, employers will often refuse to pay wages.
- Met an English man trying to start a school in one of the refugee camps where the majority of parents work in a clothing factory for AUD$1.50 for a 15 hour day! He is yet to find out the clothing manufacturer and expose their practices.
To find out more: www.burmachildren.org
While in Mae Sot I was told of some good hiking outside of a village – Um Phang – not far from here. What I was not informed of, was that I had to share the back of a ute for four hours with 19 adults and 6 children whom were mostly refugees with a small tolerance for motion sickness. The road winding its way through some 1200 turns in the 120 kilometre trip through a spectacular mountain range.
The two-day trek included rafting down a very scenic river, elephant ride and a visit to Thailand’s largest waterfall – Thi Lo Su waterfall. Comprised of several tiers, one of which we took the opportunity to scale and launch ourselves from, splashlanding in the freezing water some eight metres below.
CHANG MAI / PAI / MAE HONG SON, THAILAND
Considered the capital of north Thailand, Chang Mai with it’s surrounding lush jungle and mountain ranges, has become a very popular trekking destination. I participated in a two-day trek, the highlight was a fun and challenging two-hour trip down a river standing on a bamboo raft. Unfortunately the trekking in this area is very underwhelming – made worse if like us, you’re accompanied by an obese Italian – and would really only appeal to those who are first time hikers.
On my second day here I am re-united with Ronan whom I’d met in Georgetown Malaysia, Hans from my stay in Sukhothai, and Trish and Jim whom I hadn’t seen since Kanchanaburi. At the night markets one can find an incredible number and variety of unique souvineers and hand made products from the surrounding local villages and an opportunity to test your bargaining skills.
As punishment for not pre-booking a bus ticket for the four-hour journey to Pai, I had the only available ‘seat’ – nursing my backpack whilst seated on the engine cover next to the driver of a crowded local bus.
The day after arriving in Pai, I accompany Trish, Jim and Hans – through sheer luck I had booked into the same guesthouse as them – on a two-day rafting trip. We encountered some rapids on our 70 kilometre journey down the Pai River, but on the whole it was reasonably tame. The scenery however was outstanding – the best I’d seen on the whole trip – jungle either side of the steep-sided valley, no people or villages and an overnight camp in the jungle adjacent to the river.
In the morning I awake to the calls of gibbon monkeys echoing through the valley and I imagine them swinging through the forest with their long lanky arms. On our meander down the river we pass a rock wall along one side of the river; the rock surface along with several nearby trees were blanketed in a thick, black, seemingly soft, and spongy covering. On closer inspection we realised the composition – thousands even millions of daddy long leg spiders!
Pai began life – at least to the western world – as a popular hippy hangout. In Australia it would be called ‘Nimbin’. To emphasise the alternative vibe here, the live band playing nightly at Pai’s most popular bar, is predominately reggae.
Pai sits in what appears to be a bowl-shaped valley, distant mountains peering down from all points of the compass. Each day is greeted with a thick fog which finally lifts around mid-morning, promising warmth after the near freezing night-time temps. With Xmas only days away, it will be my coldest, but can’t think of a better place to spend it.
Nights are late and long, spent conversing and laughing with good company. During the day I take the opportunity to hire a bicycle or motorbike and explore the rice fields and surrounding villages.
I heard of a recent ‘incident’ involving a local tourist, whom having partied hard at a local Xmas party, staggered outside to his motorbike. Unable to stay upright on the bike, two passing police officers steadied him on the bike and gave him a push start down the road!
In fitting with the vibe and atmosphere that is Pai, there is no shortage of places to get inked. I enter a small tattoo place recently opened by a friendly 22-year-old Thai guy who offers to draw up a couple of designs for me. I return the next day – Xmas day – with Trish, who offers moral support and approval of my soon to be permanent artwork. I book in for boxing day, before heading out to celebrate my first Xmas abroad till well into the night.
I awake mid-morning Boxing Day to find my timber and bamboo bungalow shaking as though its having an epileptic fit. It eventually stops and I’m left wondering the cause and whether the hazy events of the previous night were the catalyst for such a strange occurrence.
I take the opportunity to hire a pushbike and ride to the nearby hot springs. With no hot showers, they provide an excellent alternative. I return in the early afternoon in readiness for my tattoo, but notice something different. The streets seem eerily quiet – perhaps everyone is recovering from a big Xmas.
As I walk down the street, I can see people fixated and pointing to their TV’s. I’m initially curious, but a hungry stomach is my immediate preoccupation and I seat myself at a table in a nearby bar. The staff eventually take my order, but seem distracted – again with the TV. I can do nothing until the food arrives, so I join them in front of the screen.
At first glance it seemed like a Thai version of one of those armeggedon disaster type movies. Vehicles and boats strewn haphazardly against semi destroyed buildings, bodies motionless in the mess and rubble with anyone alive visibly panicked and traumatized; maybe a flash flood or tidal wave? I’m amused at the outward emotion shown by the locals standing beside me – have they not seen a movie before! The ‘movie’ is in Thai and my inability to speak the language has delayed my eventual realisation – its not a movie – its real!
A massive tidal wave has hit the south coast of Thailand. The shaking of my bungalow this morning was an earthquake! No longer hungry, I stare alongside the others at the events unfolding, it doesn’t seem feasible, how could we have felt the tremor here, so far from the source of quake?
I remembered my tattoo appointment; he was there waiting for me. With the events that were unfolding I considered backing out, but with a deep breath I sat in the chair and nervously watched him prepare. I’d like to say it was pain-free, but I’d be lying. I was ecstatic with the finished product and proudly showed the others my newly adorned artwork.
Given the circumstances of the day and the week-long pre-Xmas celebrations,an early night seemed appropriate – but it was another 3.00am finish – on waking the next morning I knew it was time to move on. Goodbyes are always difficult when travelling and none more so than now. I board the bus with a sense of melancholy, replaying the events of the previous week – the scenery, tsunami, Xmas, tattoo and the friends made – a time to forever look back with fondness.
Mae Hong Son another four hours west is similar in size to Pai and even more picturesque. A beautiful location nestled deep in the mountains close to the Myanmar border. The town surrounds a small lake which offers a tranquil place to relax and unwind.
Mae Hong Son’s remoteness appears to keep tourist numbers low, but is not without its attractions. Nearby hill tribe villages are home to the ‘long neck’ women who wear brass rings around their neck – weighing up to 5 kg – giving them a giraffe like appearance. I’m told it’s a depressed shoulder bone that results in the ‘long necks’ – in any case, it looks very uncomfortable.
The mountains surrounding Mae Hong Son offer wonderful hiking opportunities, although the low tourist numbers can make it difficult to find someone to hike with. Fortunately Yuko, a Japanese girl I had met on the ‘long neck’ tour the previous day, was keen to accompany me, and we negotiate a guide for a two day overnight hike.
Early the following morning and a short drive out of the village, we set off on the trail. A trail that for virtually the entire day would only ascend. I had never walked for so long in a day, let alone consistently uphill.
When we booked the hike the previous day, our guide stated that whilst it would be a demanding hike, the rewards were worth the effort. Being a typical male, I nodded that I was fine, and Yuko did the same, but nonetheless I was little concerned that she would be up for it. By the end of the first day, I was exhausted; Yuko had hardly raised a sweat. Only I could team up with someone who has spent 6 years working as a dive instructor around the world – including Australia – and logged over 2000 dives. A regular hiker who has climbed Mt Fuji several times, drinks, swears and incredibly for someone from Japan; does not own a camera. They say never to judge a book by its cover.
By late afternoon we are deep in the jungle and atop a high mountain ridge; I hear voices and the sounds of chickens moments before the realisation that we have come across a very small village.
Consisting of about 10 huts on an area half the size of a football field, Yuko and I are introduced to a family and the room they have made available for us. As the sun sets and evening meal is prepared, I walk through the village waving to those staring whilst dodging chickens and pigs. I feel some envy at their self-sufficient and uncomplicated existence, not to mention the unimaginable views looking back down the valley; but then I’m reminded of something our guide told us on our arrival in the village – ‘They lost a calf to a tiger about six months, so please dont wander outside the village’.
I awake soon after sunrise to my million dollar views and again here the unmistakable sounds of gibbon monkeys chattering in distant trees. We descend down the valley guided by a mountain stream – that we crisscross on several occasions – as it snakes its way through jungle covered gorges and ultimately our destination at Mae Hong Son. This is the Thailand I imagined, the hike had far exceeded our expectations and a far better alternative to that offered at Chang Mai.
That evening, Yuko and I take the opportunity to observe Mae Hong Son and the amazing scenery that surrounds, from the large rocky outcrop that towers over the village; atop which is a temple the locals utilize for daily prayers.
The overnight bus trip to Chang Mai is initially in close proximity to the Myanmar border. As a result the trip is punctuated with frequent military roadblocks and intimidating M16 toting army personal boarding the bus to check passenger identification.
Our 4am arrival in Chang Mai is too early to check-in, so leaving our pack with the security guard at our favourite guesthouse, we wander the streets in the dark. Initially annoyed at our inability to gain access to a bed, I observe a group of barefoot monks in their flowing red robes receiving their morning alms at a nearby market. Despite my sleep deprivation, the dark and cold, I cant help but admire their committment and am grateful for the opportunity to witness this daily ritual.
The King of Thailand’s grandson was killed in the tsunami, so official celebrations for tonight’s New Years Eve celebrations have been cancelled. However with fireworks and crackers already purchased, unofficial celebrations raged on in the streets around us, seemingly little regard to those in cars and motorbikes.
A day tour to Thailand’s highest mountain – very near to Chang Mai – is well worth it for its spectacular views. In true Asian style, a road leads right to the 2565 metre summit – my new personal best.
Once again I run into Hans at the same guesthouse owned by an Aussie (John) and his Thai wife. The relaxed laid back atmosphere offered by John and his wife is quite addictive, so much so I stay for a week with a core group of about 9 others for a very memorable and hilarious week.
John in a previous life was president of a motorcycle club in Melbourne. He infected us enough with his passion of motorbikes to convince us to take on the crazy traffic of Chang Mai and a 110 klm loop through the mountains west of the city. A fun, scary day punctuated with incredible views and many laughs; photos of which were put on a cd with a copy made for all of us to immortalize in years to come.
A night on Johns rooftop balcony for beer and prawns – at seven stories high one of the highest vantage points in Chang Mai – to kick back and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the city around us. Another night at a local bar to watch John and his mates play in a band; one of those nights you wish wouldnt end. End it did with the local police refusing to accept anymore more money to further extend the curfew.
CHANG RAI, THAILAND
I meet two other Australian guys at my guesthouse in Chang Rai which is near an area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ in Thailand’s far north. We each hired a motorbike and guide and set off exploring the nearby mountain ranges and villages between here and the Myanmar border.
We inadvertently stumbled upon a Nestle owned coffee plantation, and our guide spoke with the plantation workers who seemed concerned at our appearance. As he quickly made his way back to bikes, we asked “What did they say?”
“We’re in Myanmar!”
“I havent been down this road before, but they said the Myanmar military is active in this area and will hear the bikes. We need to get out of here!”
Before returning to Chang Rai we visit the opium museum and the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ district.
The three of us visit a local discotheque/nightclub, in all honesty didn’t think we had a chance of getting past security in our backpacker attire. An amazing night of dancing and drinks; three Australians and nearly 200 Thai’s, we seemed to be the centre of attention.
The guys leave the next day, but my confidence on the motorbikes is sky-high, so I hire a bike and head off on my own back into the mountains. I’m pulled over shortly after leaving town by two police officers standing on the side of the road adjacent to an intersection. Despite the cool air, I break into a nervous sweat, pondering my ‘charge’. They ask several questions, nothing related to the bike or my lack of licence, experience etc. They conclude the conversation with a smiling goodbye and sensing my lack of skills on the bike, stop traffic in all directions to ensure my safe passage through the intersection. Seems they just wanted to practice some English.
High up in the mountains I come across a village where the main street runs directly along a razorback back like ridge, dropping steeply into a valley on either side, views for perhaps hundreds of miles, stunning location. I leave the bike and walk up 721 steps to a temple on a high point overlooking the town, only to find another road leading all the way to the temple from another direction – needed the exercise.
500 kilometres in two days on the motorbike. I’m really enjoying the feeling of freedom from the bikes. Although next time I ride at 1500 metres above sea level will remember to take something warm to wear.
Link to my photo site: