OR: 'HELLO SIR, YOU WANT A SUIT?'
21.07.2011 - 29.07.2011 30 °C
After a needlessly elongated journey to the Thai border, with the coach driver insisting on taking half-hour rest stops every hour, I finally said goodbye to Cambodia. An arduous border crossing and another 300 kilometers later, I was in Bangkok. I had been due to arrive at 3.30 with plenty of time to find my hotel, but the various hold ups meant we didn't arrive until well under the cover of darkness. Instead of arriving at a conveniently located bus terminal like I had assumed, it turns out our destination was Khao San Road, backpackers' central of Bangkok. I had agreed to meet Gustav, who I had met previously in Ho Chi Minh City, in a hotel on Siam Square, the unofficial centre of the city, and with Khao San Road not linked to any of the public transport lines, and no desire to go there at all, I hopped off in front of the central rail terminal.
One underground and one overground train later and I found myself in what was surely the Times Square of Bangkok. The crossroads were surrounded on all sides by shopping centers. Walking around the area the next day, it was fascinating to see just how glossy, but still unique this district had become, a stark change from the basic and traditional cityscapes of Vietnam and Cambodia. Just as fascinating as the temples of Angkor was witnessing the the Eastern interpretation of modernisation in action. When looking down a street in Siam Square or roving the many shopping centres, you tend to see exactly the same brand names as you would in the West, but there are still touches of tradition to be found everywhere.
Just on the doorstep of my hotel was the Museum of Contemporary Art whose displays spilled out into the street. Equally as remarkable was the daily appearance of a very well-dressed man who would sit down on the steps outside and with just three buckets, each turned on its side at a slightly different angle, had fashioned a near-perfect replica of a drum kit and duly played for money which, judging from the well groomed hair and gold earring, he probably didn't need.
On Sunday, Gustav and I headed to the Chatuchak Market, a semi-permanent shopping area on the outskirts of the city, but on a comparable scale to the mega structures of Siam Square.
Everything you could possibly imagine was on sale in the market, as long as you knew where to look. It is a strange curiosity about South-East Asia that vendors of identical products tend to group together in clusters. The laws of supply and demand would surely dictate that much greater success could be had if you introduce your products to a brand new market instead of an already saturated one. In Phnom Penh for instance, I walked down a street where at least 7 out of every 10 shops sold mobile phones. In Mysore, the silk shops were sold almost exclusively on one road in the entire city. Chatuchak Market in Bangkok was no different. Exploring the narrow but well-signposted alleyways, we found our way to the 't-shirt district'. With literally nothing else for sale for about 30 shops in either direction, identical t-shirts were sold at less than a third of the price of those found in Siam Square. Another area was dedicated to the selling of animals, with chickens, dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs all on display. A few locals looking for their next pet (or meal) were outnumbered by us Western tourists, oohing and aahing over the cutest ones (the animals, not the locals).
Later in the evening, I took a ride on Bangkok's convenient but not very widespread monorail. A further 45 minute walk later and I arrived at the Rajamangala Stadium, which today, was playing host to a friendly between an All-Star Thai football team and my club, Chelsea FC. Arriving early and watching the pre-match entertainment was just as enthralling as the exhibition game on the pitch. The colours on display were amazing, and the support for Chelsea only slightly outweighed those cheering for the home team. Just before the match kicked off, two Thai celebrities ziplined from the roof above my head to the pitch, and after a 4-0 victory to Chelsea, an impressive fireworks display rounded off the evening.
The match had been a true home comfort, and a welcome luxury. The stadium was situated in a very quiet and undeveloped area on the outskirts of the city, so the walk back to the rail station certainly brought me back down to earth!
The next day, Gustav and I decided to indulge in what was becoming a bit of a habit for us: expensive views from the top floors of hotels. The rooftop bar of the Sheraton in Ho Chi Minh was 25 floors high. The Lebua Tower in Bangkok, where the opening scenes of the Hangover 2 were filmed, was 56 floors tall and, as I found out through a painfully smiley staff member, with a bigger building comes a stricter dress code. After reaching the 56th floor, I was informed in just as many words my flip flops were deemed too offensive to grace the eyes of the elite that were dining here. Dejected but determined, I descended the tower and began scouring the streets of Bangkok for shoes. The search was not proving fruitful, but at long last I finally found a shoe shop. I entered with some flip flops that I believe acceptably matched my travelling look of shorts and a shirt. I exited sporting the most hideous pair of plimsolls you can imagine. Jet black, and eerily reminiscent to the ones I used to slip on for Games in Primary School, the shoes transformed me into an absolute crime against fashion. An ill-timed tropical downpour meant that a floppy-haired dripping wet... I don't even know what word could describe what I must have looked like as I entered the hotel. As I entered the bar, I could see the ever smiling staff member suppressing some other kind of emotion, probably mentally ticking off the rules of the dress code. Unfortunately for her, with my covered feet, there was no official rule that I was flaunting, and she begrudgingly let me through.
The rain meant the outside part of the bar was closed, so I was resigned to taking a couple of blurry pictures through the glass. I sat down at the bar ready to wait out the weather. As it was, the cheapest bottle of beer was 360 baht; at my rate of exchange, just under 8 of my hard earned English pounds. I pretended to study the menu for a couple more minutes until the hovering barman was called over by another customer. Seeing my chance, I legged it towards the lifts.
That evening, I caught a bus with plenty of time the short distance to the inter-city transport terminal. Or so I thought. I promise I will never complain about driving in London after enduring an inexplicable one and a half hour journey of approximately 9 kilometers. Every traffic light we reached stayed red for, and I'm not exaggerating here, just under ten whole minutes. And there were about five of them in a row. I have no idea why they took so long, but as it turned out, I got to the bus terminal with much less time to spare than planned.
The luxurious and mostly empty sleeper bus took me the 800km ride to Krabi, a topographically stunning province on the Andaman Coast. The landscape is dotted with limestone hills whose sheer faces make for an impressive landmark. I stayed in a hostel run by an American dive instructor who recounted his experiences of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. He had been mid-dive underwater and was suddenly flung hundreds of metres by an invisible force in a matter of seconds. He escaped unhurt, but spent the next three days searching for survivors in an area that was absolutely devastated and is still yet to fully recover. The dive industry plummeted in this area, and the opening of his hostel was borne solely out of a need for a second income.
On Wednesday, I had managed to set my alarm for PM instead of AM and was woken instead by a knock at the door. My bus was waiting outside for me, so without so much as a wash or a bite to eat, I rushed outside and took a minibus to an adventure camp about two hours from Krabi Town. It was time for some white water rafting! After the briefest of safety instructions, I sat on the side of the raft, my feet firmly hooked under the straps and set off down the river. The rapids were exciting, but not too challenging, and sometimes it took the guides to deliberately smashing our raft into the banks of the river to cause a bit of excitement. During one calm stretch of river, one of the guides suddenly leaped up from the boat and slammed his hand down on a nearby tree. He turned around and had in each hand two fairly large frogs that had probably just been having a very nice time together. He delighted in flinging one of the poor creatures into a crowded boat of Japanese tourists just before they headed into some fast rapids. You can imagine the piercing screams that echoed through the valley, much to the amusement of every other boat.
As we neared the end of the Grade 3 section, most of the boats emptied and my now lone boat contained two guides, a Swedish father and son and myself. We set off towards the Grade 4 section and, wow, what a difference! The rapids were no longer made up of large rocks that you had to navigate round, but full blown mini-waterfalls that you had almost no control in where you were going. We were spun around, very nearly capsized, beached on the precipices of a number of big boulders, shunted so many times that I started to get a headache. I think the helmets were intended more for the countless overhanging branches that smashed into you than the actual rocks in the river.
As the exhilarating experience drew to a close, we were taken back to the adventure camp and served up with a sumptuous feast like no other I've had so far. Pad Thai, seafood soup, chicken drumsticks, chicken satay, onion rings and many other foodstuffs were offered up and all the while we ate, a quickly made DVD of our experiences was played on the TV. When we finished, we were taken to a magnificent waterfall nearby made even more impressive by the recent record rains.
We were taken back to Krabi Town after seeing the waterfall, but not before stopping off at Monkey Cave, a small cave system that housed a huge reclining Buddha and a positively ridiculous amount of monkeys. One pretty stupid Japanese man had a see-through bag of some kind of local fruit and was handing it out to specific monkeys. This of course angered the rest of the group and he soon found two of them climbing up his leg and trying to grab the bag, which he was forced to give up lest he be torn to pieces.
(Spot the monkey!)
After such an action-packed day, and all for about 26 British pounds, I headed to bed early ready for another adventure tomorrow.
On Thursday, I woke up all by myself and was destined for an 8 pound boat tour of the nearby islands. My first stop was the seaside town of Ao Nang, not half an hour down the road, where I hopped on an longtail boat with some Japanese and Spanish tourists.
We set off at an impressive speed for a boat of its size, and our first destination was Poda Island. I'm not sure if there were any actual inhabitants of the island itself. Save for the tourists, the place was deserted. The most remarkable feature was the limestone tower that rose hundreds of feet from the sea. Just looking at it makes you wonder about how a feature like that comes to be created.
The next stop on the agenda was Tup Island. This tiny piece of land is connected to nearby Chicken Island by a kilometre long bank of sand that disappears entirely during high tide. I snorkelled the area and swam over to the nearby island, and by the time we were ready to go, I was able to walk back along the now visible sand!
Our final stop was Pranang Cave, a beach that isn't technically an island.
As I was just preparing to put on the snorkel again, the heavens opened. The rain and wind were unlike any I've seen so far in South-East Asia, and let up just about enough to let us set sail. The conditions were choppy to say the least. In Sihanoukville, the smaller boat had been going relatively slowly and had simply rolled up and down with the waves. This longtail boat however, was crusing at about 100 knots (I've no idea how much a knot is, but 100 sounds like a big enough number) and was positively jumping off of each wave. A huge smash would ring out as we leaped from a particularly high one and the boat rolled from side to side. With the speed we were going, the water didn't have time to splash over the sides, so when we rolled over a bit too much, there was literally a wall of water racing within touching distance from the boat. I didn't put my hand out.
Somehow, we made it back alive just as the thunder started, signalling an even more harrowing journey for those yet to finish their tour. I headed back to the hostel and was hit with a wave of tiredness. I laid down and tried to make a plan for the next three weeks. The number of places in Thailand left on my list just keeps on growing, and with still two more countries to go before my next flight, time is definitely no longer on my side!