We left Australia behind us, and landed in Bangkok to 30 degrees and 80% humidity. A lovely lady called Bridget came to get us from the airport and took us by taxi to CCD Thailand – the Christian Care Foundation for Children with Disabilities – where we would be spending our first week in South East Asia.
CCD runs a range of projects for people with disabilities, but we joined an existing team of volunteers from Leeds University who were working in the Rainbow House, and we had a great time helping out with the kids, and learning about life in the orphanage. The work that CCD does is incredible, especially given the deeply-ingrained Thai cultural beliefs that people with disabilities did something wrong in a previous life – how on earth do you begin to tackle that one?
We had all sorts of fun: Music time was deafening, the trampoline brought giggles galore, the sensory room was great fun, and Chrisie and the Leeds girls even took some of the older Thai girls out to get their nails done.
Our time at the Rainbow House in Pak Kred brought with it our plunge into the deep end of Thai food – it’s not a tourist area, so you can’t read the signs or the menu, and nothing is designed for the Western palate. We followed the lead of the Leeds crowd who’d got street food down to a fine art. They knew which stalls to go to for what and then just pointed! We tried all sorts of things, most of which was really good, including Kau Moo Daeng – barbequed pork on rice with barbeque sauce, Asian style.
We ate amazing food one night in a restaurant on the Chao Prayah river – crab soup, chicken with cashew nuts, sweet and sour vegetables, all of which are distinctly different from the Anglicised versions we get at home. Bridget and Mike fed us proper English fare one night though, as they held a meal at their house for the Leeds crew and we tagged along. Lucky we did; we were treated to baked spuds, tuna mayo, boiled eggs, salads, and banana muffins. Nom!
Most of the volunteers left a few days before we did, and we spent one Saturday exploring the huge island of Koh Kret, which is a maze of tiny alleys, markets in tiny alleys, and motorbikes tearing round the tiny alleys. True to our gastronomic tour of the world, we tried all sorts of interesting things – crystalised Durian fruit, which smells like urine, marzipan sweets painted to look like fruit, sweetcorn waffle, salted passionfruit juice, chicken satay, and because this is Thailand, a bag of Fanta!
Eventually it was time to leave the people at the Rainbow House, after a fantastic and eye-opening week. We took a taxi to central Bangkok, and landed in the backpacker ghetto that is Khao San Road. The area covering a few streets is teeming with people selling practically anything you can imagine: “T-shirt, You want T-shirt?”, “You buy suit. Tailored for you”, “Marijuana?”, “Sunglass? You buy Sunglass?” And that’s at 10 o’clock in the morning before it really gets going! Oh yeah and “Tuk Tuk?” No thanks, no tuktuk today…
We found ourselves a hotel then went for a wander. Not long into our explorations the rain arrived. It was there to stay, and we ducked and dodged among the street stalls, trying to stay dry, and watched as the road began to flood. We decided to go and get a massage to let the chaos and the rain die down. Our massage was a real Thai massage, not a “massage”, thankfully, although mixing the two up could have been embarrassing! When we emerged, the rain was still going strong, and the water across the road was a foot deep – after just an hour of rain! Shop and stall owners were blocking their doors with sandbags, and piling stock up high. An undercover alleyway connecting Khao San Road and Thanon Rambuttri had flooded just from the water pouring in at either end, and tourists (us included) made a sad if amusing sight as they dredged their way through the floating debris and filth. You were better being in the water than out because the flood had evicted the cockroaches and every available dry surface was a seething, shimmering mass of the disgusting creatures.
Around Bangkok are a huge number of temples, and Khao San Road is full of rip-off tuktuk drivers who, so we were told, work for the local mafia. Many offered us a day’s tour of the popular attractions for 10 Baht (that’s 20 pence in real money)! Now South East Asia is cheap, but not that cheap. We avoided this scam, and many others. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is…
We photographed a map (because we’re too cheap to buy one!) and walked the couple of K’s to the Grand Palace, but once there we discovered the crazy entrance fee and turned around. Making the mistake of not checking our photo-map, we ended up in a Bangkok slum briefly, and bargained hard with a TukTuk driver to take us to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddah. We thought we’d got a great deal until he dropped us off, at the right destination, after turning about 3 corners! Guess we’re not so street-smart as we thought!
Wat Pho was amazing; simply amazing. I knew the Reclining Buddah was big, but neither of us was prepared for just how big. It occupies a vast temple the size of half a football field, and the golden Buddah lies the full length of it (leaving a small bit to squeeze round by his Mother-of-Pearl covered feet). The remainder of the Wat Pho complex is also impressive, and we marvelled at the detail and craftsmanship of the Stupas, the other temples, the statues, the roofs, just everything really.
Back in Khao San we ate more street food (it’s so cheap, why would you do anything else). We found several sellers making pancakes. They would take little balls of dough and spin them, slapping them on the counter to flatten them, then fry them in a wok with banana, before folding and covering them in your choice of chocolate, condensed milk, honey or peanut butter. Yum!
Night time in Khao San Road brings a new flavour to an already vibrant area – The upmarket restaurants wheel out their live bands, the street vendors multiply to tremendous numbers, mobile bars in the form of converted VW campervans and the like appear from nowhere, and the seedy taxi drivers whisper to passing men “pingpong show?” If you don’t know what one of those is, you probably don’t want to…
We got a minibus West to Kanchanaburi, where we stayed for a few days. We walked across the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, the beginning of the Death Railway to Burma. We chose not to visit the Tiger Temple, where you can go into cages with tigers, as guidebooks warn of evidence that they drug the animals to ensure their docility. Not surprising really, but still it was not something we wished to support. We shared a Songthaew (a covered pickup truck with 2 benches in the back) with 3 Belgian girls to Erawan National Park. There we climbed a spectacular 7-tiered waterfall, and intended to go for a swim in the top one, but no sooner had we put our feet in than we were being nibbled by special fish that feast on your dead skin cells! We’d seen little ones in tanks in massage places, but these fish were massive – anything up to a foot long – and the sensation was so strange we couldn’t take being in the water.
Back to Bangkok for a night and to the delights of 60-pence Pad Thai, then on to Hua Lamphong train station for the train to Chang Mai. The journey is about 750km, and being the cheapskates we are, we took a seat, rather than a sleeper. It was a long, noisy night! On the plus side, they did give us 2 meals we weren’t expecting.
We really enjoyed Chiang Mai. We took a cookery class with the Best Thai Cooking School, and spent the day getting ingredients at the market and from our Chef’s vegetable garden, then cooking all manner of Thai dishes: Pad Thai, Massaman Curry, Spring Rolls, Coconut Soup, Sweet and Sour Vegetables, Penang Curry, and Sweet Mango with Sticky Rice. We saved most of them up and all had a massive feast at the end.
Our guest house was run by a depressed Frenchman, who became even more depressed when someone stole the water meter from outside. With the water supply cut off, we hassled the poor guy to get it fixed because we hadn’t had a shower since Bangkok!
Chiang Mai was also where we happened to be on the anniversary of our trip. On 26th September we treated ourselves to a no-expense-spared meal at a Mexican of all places, to celebrate 366 days on the road! Despite splashing out, the bill came to less than £7 for both of us. A great end to an awesome day: We took a trip to go and see Elephants. We learned how to control them, then rode them bareback, fed them, and washed them in the river, before rafting back down the rapids to the base. Fantastic!
Moving on further North, we took a bus to Chiang Rai, then jumped on a rattly local bus to Chiang Khong. A tuktuk took us to Baanrimtaling Guest House, right on the Mekong River. The hordes of insects that inhabit the riverbanks seemed to congregate outside our window. From our room we could see the far side of the river; our next country – Laos!