Tuesday, March 1, 2016

South to Bangkok

26 February, Kanchanaburi

After just one night in Bangkok, we took a very long tuk tuk ride to Thonburi Station in Northern Bangkok. Luckily, we had left ourselves plenty of time, because our tuk tuk driver got terribly lost. We had agreed on 180 bt for the trip but, as the driver was almost in tears, we relented and paid him the full 200 bt he had requested. A whole 80c extra. Big-hearted us!


Kanchanaburi was a major staging point on the Thai-Burma railway constructed by the Japanese in 1943. An estimated 100,000 men died constructing this line - around 90,000 conscripted workers from South-east Asia and 12,800 Allied POWs from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands as well as a small number of Americans.

We treated ourselves to an air-conditioned taxi for the 80 km trip to Hellfire Pass. At about $50 AUD, it was a good deal, as a local share taxi was about $40.


The Hellfire Pass Memorial was constructed by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs. The memorial features a small museum, opened ANZAC Day 1998, as well as 7 kms of the line that included the cutting now known as Hellfire Pass. Remnants of the railway and its construction can still be seen - decaying sleepers, some track, dog spikes and drill holes cut by the POWs and Asian workers, using only hammers and hand drills. The work must have been tortuous enough in the south-east Asian heat and humidity, especially during the monsoon season. Add in the inhumane treatment dished out by the Japanese and Korean guards and it is easy to see how the name “Hellfire” Pass fits, even though it was coined because the eerie glow from kerosene lamps on the faces of the emaciated POWs, working to create the cutting, reminded observers of Dante’s “Inferno.”

Work on the Thai-Burma Railway began from both ends in October 1942. The Japanese were desperate to complete the line so they could move equipment into Burma to confront the British in India. The American, British and Australian navies had mined the main sea lane through the Straits of Malacca, blocking access to the Indian Ocean. From April 1943, the Japanese engineers, themselves under pressure from the Japanese government, increased pressure on the workers, in a period known as “Speedo”. It was during this time that the work on Konyu cutting (Hellfire Pass) was undertaken.

Disease and exhaustion were responsible for the more than 100,000 deaths on the project. Around 20% of the POWs died. The death rate among the Asian workers was closer to 50%, as they had no medical care and their living conditions were far worse than those endured by the POWs. We were interested to note that the well-known politician, Tom Uren, was a survivor of the Burma Railway.


To return to Kanchanaburi, we got our driver to drop us off at Nam Tok so we could ride the train over the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. We got off the train at River Kwai Bridge station and walked back across the bridge. The area is very touristy and, sadly, it is about all some people see of the area.

27 February, Kanchanaburi Railway Station

We are returning to Bangkok today after a morning spent at the Burma Railway Museum and the Allied War Cemetery. As is the case all over the world, the graves of the thousands of POWs who died on the railway are immaculately maintained, set among flowering tropical shrubs and manicured lawns. About 100 kms of the line we have travelled over the past couple of days were built by the POWs.


28 February, Bangkok

Arrived late last night from Kanchanaburi. Our train was late leaving and the terminus station, Thonburi, in North Bangkok, is a long tuk tuk and Metro ride from our hotel. After a few beers and a very late dinner, it was close to midnight before we got to bed. Consequently, we were a little slow out of the blocks this morning.

We were in Bangkok a few days ago, but just overnight, so we didn't do much other than familiarise ourselves with the transport system. Today we applied that skill to getting about, using the BTS and the rather complex river ferry system. Without too many dramas, we got ourselves to the riverside Wat Pho. Yes another Wat, but this is Asia and that's just “Wat” you do.


Lord (and Buddha) know just how many temples we have seen in Asia, but this is just a whopper - well-maintained and in spectacular condition for a complex, parts of which are more than 600 years old. Some days ago we wrote about a comment made by a cleaner in our hotel in Chiang Mai. "Many Chinese”, he said with a roll of his eyes. He was right! Everywhere we went today was crowded with thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists - pushing, yelling at the tops of their voices and poking us in the head with their sun umbrellas. The crowds today were at least on a par with any we have experienced in China. Towards the end of our visit to Dusit Palace Park later in the day, we just gave up as the lines of selfie-stick waving, umbrella-poking, ill-mannered Chinese tourists extended as far as we could see outside the Palace Throne Hall. Apparently, Chinese tourists have no interest in the history of the management of the Royal Elephants, because this small museum on the same site was almost empty. Only marginally interesting, but very peaceful.

Bangkok city has been a real eye-opener for us. Broad boulevards, beautiful parks and open spaces, modern skyscrapers and, at least at the moment, relatively clean air. On the train coming and going over the past few days, we have seen enormous infrastructure projects. Freeways, railway works and maintenance and improvements are going on everywhere. Down at street level, there is plenty of “old Asia” left to see, but in 10 years, Bangkok will be as western as Tokyo. A bit sad in some ways, but indicative of the rapid change that is taking place throughout Asia.


We learnt a valuable lesson about getting about the city today. We have generally used tuk tuks in cities and towns throughout Asia, thinking that they are the way locals get about, so they will be cheap. Increasingly, this is not the case. Locals in cities and large towns tend to use share taxis or local buses. The tuk tuk is becoming somewhat of a tourist thing to do. We grabbed a normal taxi today and had an air-conditioned 4.5km trip for 65 bt, about $2.50 AUD. We have been paying at least twice that for the joy of sitting on lumpy seats, risking our lives on the back of beat-up old tuk tuks to do the same distance.


Just one more day in Thailand. We will probably just hang about and see what we see.

So what do we think of Thailand?

Thailand was obviously not on the top of our must-see list of Asian countries. We have visited some of its neighbours several times. To be honest, one of us had to be cajoled into making this trip. To us, Thailand was a place that old men went for holidays with young Thai girls - a place for “sex tourism”. There is no doubt this still goes on in Thailand, we have seen plenty of it on our travels, but this is a very unfair view of the country. Most Thai people we have met have been extremely polite, friendly and helpful. The blame for the sex tourism mantra should more fairly be settled on the western men who exploit poorer Thai women. Even this judgment needs to be qualified. We are sure there are many normal relationships between Thai women and western men. We have seen many younger mixed race couples with children who, we are sure, live normal lives in Thailand, but the exploitation is still there. It is just too obvious to ignore.

Stepping off our moral high horse, there is a lot to like about Thailand. It is going places. Industry is jumping here. Many of the cars imported into Australia are manufactured here. The middle class is growing rapidly and rural poverty is declining. There seem to be some political issues, but we don't know much about those and we don't see much evidence of discontent among the people we meet. All in all, we have had great experiences in Thailand and we have been amazed at the rapid development of the country and we have been captivated by the people. Just smile or make a joke with a Thai and you will always get a positive response.

Thailand is taking us close to the end of our “to see” list for Asia. We started with a visit to Vietnam in 2007. To date, we have travelled in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia and Japan. Some of these we have visited more than once. We plan to visit Japan for the fifth time later this year. We may get to Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan sometime in the future, but India, Pakistan and the Philippines are not in our plans at the moment.

So it is fairly obvious that we are big fans of travelling in Asia. From the treeless plains of Mongolia to the steaming jungles of Laos and the just as steamy cities, Asia is simply exciting, not always easy, sometimes challenging, but it just gets you in.

It is hard to remember what we actually thought Asia was like 10 years down the track, teaming with people, poor, dirty, culturally different and possibly dangerous? Very little of this has proven to be true. Asia is not teaming with people, in fact most countries are far less crowded than European countries. Some of Asia is poor, but many of those living in poverty have the possibility of an improved lifestyle as Asia continues to grow and develop. In many parts of Asia living standards are as high as or higher than Europe or the USA. Asia is changing so quickly that we are staggered by the changes when we revisit places like Vietnam after a gap of a few years. We know Asia much better now than we did 10 years ago. We enjoy it. We will continue to travel and learn about our nearest neighbours. Most telling is the fact that we are no longer phased by motor scooters, loaded with whole families and their weekly shopping, hurtling towards us on the footpath.

1 March, Kuala Lumpur

Now masters of the Thai railway and subway systems, we took the MRT from our hotel this morning to the outer suburb of Bang Sue where we took the ‘heavy rail’ for the last 20kms to Don Mueng Airport. This last leg on board a less than luxurious 3rd class train cost us 3 bt each, about 11 cents. The total journey of nearly 40 kms cost 43 bt each, $1.60.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Northern Thailand

19 February, Chiang Mai

This is a very laid-back city, despite, or possibly because of its large population of back-packers. The world moves at two speeds here. We are in the old part of the city, narrow streets, few through roads serving the more modern parts of the Chiang Mai and a place where the day, for most, seems to start sometime after 10:00 am. On the other side of the old city wall, the pace is way more hectic. We ventured out into this other world this morning to find the train station so we could buy tickets for the next leg of our journey, towards Bangkok. Despite the heavy traffic, we didn’t hear a single horn blast or see any aggressive driving. The streets were clean and we were able to walk on footpaths for almost all of our 5-6 km stroll. Now this last comment may seem odd, but anybody who has spent any time walking around Asian cities will know what an amazing feat this is.

Buying rail tickets is a breeze in Thailand. The system is all computerised, almost as slick as Japanese Rail and the staff spoke good English. Sadly, online sales are not yet possible. Our 6 hour, 2nd class air-conditioned express train trip will cost around $20 AUD each.

As the day heated up to the forecast 34C, we sought shelter in a triad of historical and folk museums clustered just inside the old city walls. All were interesting, well-presented and, above all, air-conditioned. The heat here has been accompanied by low humidity, nowhere near as draining as the oppressive humidity we have often experienced in Asia, but a good dose of aircon in the middle of the day is always appreciated.

Last night we ate at a small café where the food was good, if not great when the price is taken into the calculation. As usual, when we eat in these sort of places, we shared our table with a nice young fellow traveller from Sweden. The poor guy was in a bit of a state because his girlfriend was in hospital with a serious infection, but without going into the gory details, she was being well looked after and because they had travel insurance. He was living at the hospital with her. After a long discussion about the comparative merits of the Scandinavian and Australian education systems, we wished each other the best and went on our way. He was 21, we are three times his age, but we connected, as we have so many times in our travels.

20 February, Chiang Mai

“Many Chinese”, said the cleaner in the lift at our excellent Chiang Mai hotel. His face actually said, “Too many Chinese.”

The cleaner’s comment was in response to a clamour, like a flock of angry birds, that met our lift as it hit the ground floor. Chinese tourists are everywhere in Thailand. Family groups on tours predominate, but young couples and singles are abundant as well. The latter group travel independently and generally speak some English. Many of these may come from Singapore, Hong Kong or other Asian countries where English is widely spoken.

Today we grabbed a share taxi truck to Wat Doi Suthep up in the mountains to the north of the city.  With the exception of a lone young European woman, we were the only non-Asians. What is interesting about this is the increasing mobility of the Chinese. As our cleaner friend in the lift said, “Many Chinese.”

Doi Suthep is an interesting experience and, as usual, much of the fun is in getting there. Our research clued us up to the cheap way to get to the Wat. “Go to the North Gate, grab a red share taxi, wait until the driver has a load and off you go. “50 Baht Up and 50 Baht Down” is the deal. The little sting is that when you line up for a taxi back it becomes 60 Baht back. Seems the 50 Baht deal is if you can find your original taxi amongst the scores of identical cabs AND you are prepared for the others in your original group to return. Good luck! Stay grounded, however. This little scam will cost you about $0.40 US and being able to have a joke about it with the tout when you get back is worth the money! The trip takes about 30 – 40 minutes and it can be a little hard on the bum and back, but drivers are good and the roads are excellent.

Tomorrow we take the train to Phitsanulok, then a bus to Sukhothai.

21 February, ‘Sprinter’ Express Train 8

Off exactly on schedule, Train 8 belts along at a fair clip. We were racing past cars on the highway running beside the line as if they were standing still. Our carriage is a little worn but clean, with the exception of the windows. What is it with Asians and windows? Even Asian shops back in Australia sport cloudy, grimy windows. We booked our tickets a few days ago, but it probably wasn’t necessary as the train looks to be about half full. Our fare for the 6 hour trip from Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok converts to about $20 AUD each.

The smoggy haze that the locals like to call “mist” persists out into the country. Visibility is less than 1 kilometre and the sky has that yellowish tinge that we associate with big city smog.
Chiang Mai province is in the far north of Thailand and this time of the year it is extremely dry, so the countryside is probably not at its best. The rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see, which in this haze isn’t that far!  Mango trees and banana plants provide some green relief, but the scenery is not at all attractive. A few traditional wooden houses survive in some villages, but concrete block constructions of two floors with an open lower level, predominate.

Later the same day

As the day draws on, the fairly desolate landscape of the north has given way to much greener plains. Many of the rural villages here still have a few traditional wooden houses, but they are more often used as storage sheds than as homes. The rice fields now are bright green, quite a contrast to a few hours ago further north.

Our train pulls into Phitsanulok just a few minutes late which isn’t a bad effort over such a distance. Before we are even out of the station we are grabbed by a lady tuk-tuk driver and loaded up with another couple for the short trip to the bus station. This performance is repeated at the bus station, where we are herded to the right ticket booth along with all the other travellers and, before we know it, paid our 50 bt each for the tickets and been directed to the platform for our next 60km, 1 hour, leg to Sukhothai.

We used to fret about making complex transfers like this in Asia, but not anymore. It just happens. Even people passing by will somehow know where you are heading and point you in the right direction. A French woman who shared our “share taxi” (read tray-back truck with a roof) told us that she had been driven 25 kms by a local lady to catch up with a bus she had missed on her day trip.

22 February, Sukhothai

Our hotel in Sukhothai is a little out of the way, up a side alley off the main street, so, we were caught in the dreaded “Resort Trap”. Not that our hotel was a resort, nice as it was, but we had no option but to drink at the hotel bar and eat at the restaurant. Everything in our area of town looked like closed-up workshops. It was Sunday, so that was expected, but next morning we discovered, on our long walk up town to the local bus station, that many of these workshops were actually little restaurants. The next thing we discovered was that it was a special Buddhist holiday and, to our glee, that meant parades and fire crackers. As we were to find later in the day, there was also a major down side to Buddha’s special day.

Our reason for coming here was Old Sukhothai, the seat of one of the early Kingdoms of ancient Siam. The old city is about 30 minutes by share taxi from New Sukhothai and it is set in a special Historical Park. The park is well laid out and extremely well maintained. Vehicle traffic is restricted, so we felt safe to wobble along on our hire bicycles (30 bt each). The bikes were a good call, because once we got our bicycle legs back, we were able to cruise into the slight breeze and offset the oppressive heat and humidity. These ruins are on a similar scale to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar. We would rate Old Sukhothai 3rd, with Angkor Wat and Bagan sharing first place.

We finished our visit at the National Historical Museum which was air-conditioned and after returning our bikes, we waved down a passing share taxi and headed back to town.
The big sting in the tail of the holiday was that alcohol sales are banned. Never mind, we managed to find a local street stall where they had no qualms about selling us beer on such an auspicious day.
So far our travels through northern and central Thailand have been a real eye-opener for us. Everybody knows about Chiang Mai, Phuket and Bangkok, but we had never heard of the places we are now discovering. Most tourists here are Thai and European, mostly French. Australians are very few on the ground, which is unusual for Asia. There are organised tours through these parts of Thailand, but most of the people we meet are travellers, rather than tourists. These places are not necessarily on the list of those looking to have a holiday in Thailand. They might be a little bit more hard work, but well worth the effort.

23 February, Train 8 Phitsanoluk to Ayutthaya

Travelled most of today, leaving our very nice Sukhothai hotel for the bus station by luxury Landcruiser, then the local bus to Phitsanoluk, and tuk tuk to the Train station.

Thailand State Rail, TSR, is a fairly popular choice for the locals. The trains we have been on have been fairly well patronized. The network is extensive enough to get us fairly well everywhere we want to go, or close enough for us to connect with a bus. Looking at the TSR timetable this morning we noticed that it is possible to travel by train from Singapore, through Malaysia and Thailand, to the Laos border. That means that with one bus connection from the Thai-Laos border to Hanoi, it would be possible to go by train from Singapore to London. There is a train from Hanoi north to the Chinese border, the one that we have taken to Sapa in fact. From there it is plain sailing through the Chinese High Speed network into Beijing, then the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian lines to Moscow which has connections to many western European cities. We calculate that we have already covered 60-70% of this journey on previous trips. One day we might give it a go?

The missing link between Thailand and China was close to being closed in 2012 when the Chinese proposed a High Speed link from southern China through Laos to Bangkok. It was never made clear why the project stalled, but it might have had something to do with concerns about increased Chinese influence in South-East Asia. The same fear still lingers for the Mongolians who refused the offer of a Chinese built standard gauge line to Ulaanbaatar. As a consequence, trains crossing from China to Mongolia still have the bogies changed through a painfully slow process at the frontier.

24 February. SilQ Hotel, Bangkok

Ayutthaya is the third seat of the ancient kings of what is now Thailand that we have visited, so as you might imagine we are getting a little Wat fatigued! This condition was exacerbated today by high 30s temperatures and unbelievable humidity. To make matters worse, we decided to walk around the old city, ignoring the calls of tuk tuk drivers who must have thought we were mad. Shunning the touts outside our very flash hotel this morning, we plodded up the street to the little ferry that whisked us across the river for just 5 bt each (20c).

 We persist with our explorations of these ancient ruins, because, despite some repetition of styles, there is almost always something different to discover.
Ayutthaya’s ruins are concentrated on an island at the confluence of two major rivers that eventually flow out into the Gulf of Thailand. This strategic trading location supported and enriched the kingdom for over 400 years. Traders from China, Japan, Indonesia and several European powers traded here. By the 18th Century, Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands and Japan had established enclaves in Ayutthaya. All this came to a rather violent end in 1767, when the city was sacked by the Burmese. In their frenzy of destruction, the Burmese lopped the heads of most of the Buddhas in the city’s temples. One of the interesting sights for us was one large Buddha head that had been over grown by the roots of a large fig tree.

By just after midday, we surrendered to the elements and hailed a tuk tuk back to our hotel to collect our bags for the train ride into Bangkok. Given the heat and humidity, we forked out the extra $4 each for the second class air-conditioned carriage. All up our journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok cost us the princely sum of $45 AUD each.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Chiang Mai

17 February Tune Hotel KLIA2

It seems like several lifetimes since we penned our introductory blog while having breakfast in Coolangatta Airport - OOL to those who know their airport codes.
It must be said that we have had a fairly lucky run with flight delays and cancellations in the past. Aside from the memorable incident in Cape Town in 2011, when a flight was delayed for a day because the ground crew directed our plane into the terminal skybridge, we have had very few problems.

All that changed fairly dramatically yesterday. Before we launch into this tale of misery, we should make it clear that we are still big fans of discount airlines and AirAsia in particular. 

Just a few minutes after publishing the previous post, there was an announcement that our flight to KL was to be delayed until 10PM! We were advised by ground staff to return to the airport by 7:00pm and that further details would be sent via email. Luckily, we were able to spend the day with Paul’s sister in Burleigh in comfort rather than sit it out in the airport. Several calls to Customer Service later, we realised that we would not be getting off to KL that day. Seems our plane was diverted to Bali due to a medical emergency. After taking off again, just out of Darwin, there was another medical emergency that forced the flight back to Bali.

We spent the day re-booking hotels and trying to get an alternate flight, which we managed to do, 24 hours after our original booking. We now know that our original plane is still in Bali, held up by Indonesian Immigration officials because several passengers can’t be accounted for.

Settled into our regular stop-over hotel, the KLIA2 Tune, we are sorted. Just a day behind and a little tired after all the delays, we have beer from the 7-11 in the hotel and the prospect of a good night’s sleep. 

We are back on track.

18 February, 99 The Gallery Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand

After the dramas of our first leg of this trip, KL to Chiang Mai was a breeze, through Customs, out of the airport and in the back of a tuk-tuk inside 15 minutes of landing. The insurance excess charge meant it wasn’t worth claiming the cost of our first night at the hotel due to our delayed departure, so we simply told the hotel we would check-in this am instead of last night. The bonus was we scored a great breakfast on arrival.

Our early impression of the Thais is very positive. People smile at us on the street, cars slow down for us on crossings, (a very positive sign in Asia) service is friendly and casual in the positive sense of the word. And, amazingly, nobody hassles us on the streets. In a full day of walking about, one tuk-tuk driver quietly asked if we wanted a taxi.

We are staying in the middle of the old city, so it is Tourist Central, but the narrow streets, footpath stalls, the odd smell of rotting garbage, the high-pitched wail of under-powered motor scooters remind us that we are in Asia. Having said that, Thailand is way more developed than many of its neighbours. A few months back we were in Myanmar, still very much the old Asia we: love dirty back street; kids playing on the road; noisy, sometimes smelly; crowded, hot, steamy; busy and exciting. Laos and Cambodia are towards the Myanmar end of this development scale. Malaysia and increasingly, Vietnam, are towards the Thai end. Japan and China are in a different world altogether. We don’t know about Indonesia. An experience we are yet to savour.

Myanmar and Cambodia may have spoiled us when it comes to Buddhist temples and monuments. We visited Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang today and were a little underwhelmed. What did give them a bit of a “wow” factor, were the life-like wax models of venerated monks given pride of place. When we say life-like, we mean, look twice and tap on the glass.