Friday, 24 April 2009

Two Wheels good

Day One

Waking up after only six hours sleep and with a hangover delayed the start of this little adventure. By 10am I was ready to hop onboard my trusty steed and hit the road. It was only 106km to the target destination but it took me over 4 hours to get there.

The reason are:

a) The road was tight, twisty and steep
b) Exactly how many times do I have to mention that despite having a big fat arse it doesn’t mean I want to sit on it for long periods of time!

The road to Mae Hong Son was a thing of beauty to those on two wheels. Each bend in the road led to a curve which in turn led to a tight hairpin. Double apexes followed switchbacks and the road was quiet and well maintained. The landscape that I passed was fabulous, steep ridges of tree covered rock formed tight narrow valleys into which I would not dare to go into alone. Small hamlets came and went the size of which was dependant on the success of the rice harvest and the number of fields they could make from the rugged landscape.

I arrived in Mae Hong Son in the afternoon and after a quick tour of the town found a hostel near the centre. The centre of town was a large tank full of overfed and pampered fish. On the southern side a small complex of Wats, all shiny in gold and mirrors. On the northern edge was a small park with people doing Tai Chi as the sunset.

I wasn’t feeling that hungry so I just had sweet sausage salad. 87 minutes later I saw it again as my stomach ejected its contents into the toilet bowl. I spent the rest of the evening lying sweaty on the bed or feeling weak in the bathroom.

Day Two

I woke early and spent a while making sure that all was right with the world of me. By 07:15 I was on the road and heading south.

It was 400kms to the next place of call, the town of Mae Sot. IT WAS FUN!!!!

The road map of Thailand that I am using is the one in the guide book. As such, it lacks a lot of detail. For a 200km stretch there were no towns marked on the map, as my fuel tank held enough petrol for only 100-150km depending on how hard I was canning it, I guessed that there would be.
After leaving the town of Mae Sariang it was a 150km ride to the next town, I had a full tank of gas but would it be enough?

To say that this road is underused would be stating the obvious. After one hour of tight turns and steep gradients I saw 4 cars and 2 bikes. As the kilometre markers reduced the numbers so did the fuel in my tank. With 20k to go the needle had hit the end of the red and stopped moving…mmm. After holding my breath for 20kms I came across the petrol station, surfing on the fumes. The petrol station consisted of 3 drums of fuel, a hand pump and no sign! I almost missed which if I had you’d be reading about how a grown man sat down on the side of the road and cried.

Now, with a full tank and a road that had more straights than curves I opened up the throttle and let the mighty 115cc engine roar!!!!
The town of Mae Sot is 3kms from the Thai-Burma friendship bridge which straddles the border. Like a lot of border towns it has a used and somewhat sleazy air to it, me likes! I’m staying in the Ban Thai guess house and it’s great. My room has a cool view, wood panelled walls, free wifi and a very large but soft towel. Let me tell you about the towel, it’s not for drying yourself after a shower it’s for sleeping on…think about it! The room also has a floor standing fan, which is the kind you want. Placed at the end of the bed and set on the low setting equals a cool and relaxing nights sleep

Day Three
It was raining when I woke up and continued for 4 more hours. As my tyres are not kind to inspire grip in the wet I lounged the day away.

Day Four
It was a 175km ride to Sukhothai and the road climbed up into the mountains. Slowly I overtook Lorries belching out black smoke as the heart of the truck struggled to beat fast enough. Screaming down the other side singing the uphill song, fingers twitching over the brake handles ready to respond in an instant when the corner did indeed become tighter than I had guessed. Then I was out in the open and on a plain. Neglected paddy fields interspaced with trees carried on out of sight either side of the flat straight road.

In case, like me, you were wondering how fast the bike went in a straight line the answer is 105km or 120km if you are drafting behind a truck. I have no idea what the speed limit is here but there are no speed cameras!
By the early afternoon I was in Sukhothai and at the 4th attempt I found a place to stay. It’s called TR guest house and is just across the river from the night market, behind the bank. As the night market is close by I’ll be snacking later but not on cockroaches or deep fried crunchy baby terrapins. If however there are lizards on a stick then count me in!

Day Five
The only reason to come to the town of Sukhothai is to visit the city of Sukhothai. Unlike the town the city is interesting. It was the first capital the Thai’s had before being superseded by Ayutthaya further south a few hundred years later.
The old capital is square with three defensive walls and two moats surrounding it. The only remains still standing are the numerous temples. All the other buildings from palaces to houses were built from wood and have left no trace. The central area is undeveloped by modern man and is peaceful and serene, with ruined temples set against a backdrop of lakes and trees.

Come the late morning I was back on the road for the 70k or so ride north to the ruined city of Si Satchanalai. This place was almost deserted of tourists; the large open area it covers is best traversed on two wheels. The small roads meander through the trees and grassland connecting the various temples on the way.
I was climbing up some temple steps when a sudden malevolent movement made me instinctively react. The snake was about three foot long, thin, mean and green and I have no idea what kind of snake it was! I respected its space and it went on its way, which was luckily away from me.
I came back to “new” Sukhothai by a different route (which I’ll admit wasn’t by design) and so I will never know what the tourist attraction of “Rocky Ground” actually was…damn it!

Day Six
I left Sukhothai at 8am and got to the town of Nan at around 2pm, my tailbone was aching towards the end.
The ride itself was split into thirds, with the middle third a very boring but fast dual carriageway. The road form Sukhothai to Pheare was cool, flat with gentle curves. I was taking it easy cruising along at 60kph still smiling at the fact that I had remembered last night it had been two years without having to go to work. The last 120kms were really nice after I had taken shelter from a passing shower. In the mountains I was trying to dodge the flocks of mating butterflies that swarmed out of the trees and into the paths of trucks, cars and my head…sorry!

The town of Nan is…well imagine Slough, scaled down. Add a river and several temples and make it all just a little bit cleaner and you’d be about there. Due to the fact that there are 30 days in April and not 31 (Doh!) I am only staying here the night, which is about all I would want to do anyway.

Day Seven
After an early to bed restful night’s sleep I was up at 4am…sod that! Waking up later at around 7am I was on the road by eight.
To get to Chiang Rai I needed to be on route 1148. I could neither see a sign for the destination or the road, so instead I went on a road that looked like it was heading in the right direction. An hours easy cruising later the road bisected route 1148 (I’m lucky like that) and so I turned left and rode my scooter “chopper style” enjoying the views as I went. The road slithered its way into the mountains like a lazy snake with slow and easy rhythmic curves. At a couple of points it was reduced to a single track, the cause were landslides. The sun was out, the clouds were making interesting shapes in the sky and my tan lines were getting more defined…damn I have a hard life!
By the middle of the afternoon I was in Chiang Rai and I got a cheap room just of “bar street“.

Day Eight
It was an easy but boring ride to Chiang Mai and the end of this road trip but only because I took the wrong road….

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Iron Maiden

I had a cunning plan to escape the heat of Chiang Mai; run to the hills and the small village of Pai. It was an easy 3.5 hour mini bus ride to get there and as we headed into the mountains the heat dropped. Unfortunately the village of Pai is in a valley and is just as hot! It is quite nice mind you. I found myself a place to stay and then went for a wander around. It has 3 main streets and lots of soi or side streets as the Thai’s call them. After about 20 minutes I had seen all that there was to see. Time for a siesta!!!

In the evening I ended up in a bar (where else did you think I would be) and hanged out with some of the local long stayers from England. The Essex girl that runs the place showed her true class. As she was bringing my bottle of beer to the table, she tripped over the dog and headed to the floor. Now, she may of broken two bones in her foot but she didn’t spill a drop of my beer!

The next day I was up early and as my room only had a ceiling fan slightly moist. After coffee and the usual I headed out of the village for a bimble. 3 hours later I was back at my room lame! The side of my right foot was going ouch. I really didn’t do too much for the rest of the day. In the evening I went and had a roast dinner at the pub (it’s called the Pai corner in case you ever come here) and for the 1st time in 53 weeks I had roast potatoes…and yes I have been counting!

My last day in Pai saw me rent a little twist and go scooter. I headed out along the highway to a national park some 50kms away, followed by a less than impressive waterfall (well it is the “dry season”) and then a long blast on a very quiet and bendy road to see a hot spring. It was hot and it was a spring…what more can I say! Having forgot to take any sun cream with me I got a little red (but the next day it was brown).

This gave me an idea. I don’t have to be in Bangkok till the 4th of May….road trip!!!!!!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Wat Wat Wat Wat Wat

There are various ways to get from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai. I could have flown or gone by bus but I chose to let the train take the strain. Going by train meant breaking 2 of my “golden rules” of travelling

Never travel overnight
Never travel for more than 9 hours

Before I came to Thailand I thought it was the monsoon season here. It’s not; it’s the “hot” season so the temperature is nudging 40!!!!
I was in the classiest carriage the train had on offer, it was a sleeper with fan, and thankfully the large windows went down all the way. Sadly my berth was an upper and not a lower so I had a noisy and inefficient fan to cool me as I tried in vain to sleep, whilst the train travelled deep into the night. On the Brightside, like Indian trains you can smoke in the usual manner!

Arriving at the city of Chiang Mai (13.5 hours after leaving Ayutthaya) at 05:30 in the morning, with no sleep I felt tired but wired. The 20 minute walk into the centre of town woke me up mentally and stretched my legs. After looking at a couple of places I ended up staying at the MD House hostel. For 500 baht (or about a tenner) I have a room that is ensuite, has free wifi (which is a big selling point in the 21st century) and most importantly aircon!!!!

With the a/c turned to the max I took a long and quite frankly well needed shower before checking out the mattress for a few hours.

About Chiang Mai:

The old city is about 1 square kilometre in size, surrounded by a moat. Vestiges of the defensive city wall can still be seen as can each of the four gates that once controlled access into the city. This place has about 300 Wats as the Thai’s call their temples which is nearly as many as Bangkok.

Waking up later in the morning I was slightly chilly (damn was that a/c unit good) but that soon changed as I went outside…within 30 minutes of walking the hot and mean streets of Chiang Mai I was inside a coffee shop rapidly cooling down with an iced coffee, followed by another one! I think cold coffee somehow makes the uptake of sweet sweet caffeine a slower affair.
By mid afternoon I was a Watted out. Honestly they all pretty much look the same and after seeing four of them the slight differences were no longer interesting enough for me. So back to the hotel and the a/c unit. I forgot to mention that the hotel has a swimming pool, just like I forgot to bring my swimming trunks.

This city is a good place to many things

zip lining
Bungee jumping
Mountain biking
Go karting
Tiger petting….why?????
Elephant riding

But you know what…I just couldn’t be arsed! I much preferred waking up late, bimberling for a few hours followed by a couple of cold beers in the afternoon before having a little siesta. I think my travelling Mojo needs a good kick up the proverbially arse.

The next day was Saturday….Arsenal v Chelsea in the FA cup semi final, kick off 23:15. I found an English pub (surprised?) called the Old Bell and they sold cheeses!! Pork pies!!! Cider!!!! So for the first time in over a year I had a pork pie (180 baht) and a bottle of cider (195 baht). My wallet was screaming but my taste buds weren’t listening.
The next day was Sunday, obviously, so F1 from china in the afternoon followed by more football in the evening. Manchester United lost…happy days!!!!

Monday was my last full day and I walked to the bus station to get a ticket for the following morning. There are two bus stations in Chiang Mai and I went to the wrong one. Cue more walking! Eventually the ticket was brought and I headed back into the city. Weirdly I passed the Old Bell…mmm cider and a 6 month old copy of private eye. Sometimes it just all comes together!

So I spent my weekend in the pub watching sport on the television

Sunday, 12 April 2009

What? Wat!

As I was heading north for 10 to 12 days before coming back to Bangkok I decided that I really didn’t need to lug my 24 kilo bag around. As the hostel had a storage room for 20 baht a day I now have a small holdall for my clothes.

The train ride to Ayutthaya, the ancient ruined capital of Siam was a long affair. Just kidding it was only 90 minutes, barely enough time to get comfortable. Once off the train it was a short walk to the hostel I had booked online a few days ago.
Could I find the damn place! It was, according to the hostel a one minute walk from the river boat ferry and I even had the map they had emailed me. After a while of just “not getting it” I asked a few shop owners and taxi drivers. Blank looks were all I got. So either I was standing right outside the place and was being blind to the fact or the hostel didn’t exist. Mind you it could be option number three.

After a short sit down I did the unthinkable and got out the guide book and walked the 500m or so to the biggest gringo hostel marked on the map. Surprisingly “Tony’s place” is rather nice. The room has

A bed
A window
A fan
A mirror
And a floor to put stuff on

A good restaurant and a well stocked bar is attached. Along the same street are a few bars so walking far isn’t an option worth taking.

It seems that I left Bangkok on the right morning because this afternoon the red shirts came to town and the government has declared a state of emergency throughout the greater Bangkok area.

I also found out how much it costs for a days diving in phuket. It’s 4000 baht or about £78. There is no way I’m ever paying that much, so looks like plans are a changing.

New Years Eve or just the next day (depending on which country you are from):

I woke early, too early as it turns out because the coffee shop across the road doesn’t open till 7am. It does, when it is open, do a damn fine cup of joe. After breakfast I packed the camera into the day bag, slung it on my back and started walking. There was something that I had forgotten but I just couldn’t remember it!

Following a short and lazy walk I was at the 1st ruin of the day. It was a Wat and it had a central temple surrounded by several smaller ones. The remains of a great hall were in front and all of this was surround by a large brick enclosure. Across the road was another Wat which was very similar. When I left the 1st of 5 tourist buses turned up, damn I have good timing!

I walked the long way to get to another Wat. It’s hot in Thailand and it was only 10am. This Wat had 3 central large pointy thingies (I don’t want to confuse you by getting too technical) and they were impressive. Next door was a modern looking temple containing a large bronze Buddha. When I say large, I mean huge.

From there I started to head somewhere else and was walking along the street hugging the shade. Coming towards me was a pickup over laden with shouting kids. When it drew level with me I suddenly remembered what I had forgotten. Having your face smeared with mud and a bucket of water poured over your head helps with the memory loss. Its water festival time in Thailand, it’s the local way of celebrating the New Year and it lasts for 3 days!!!
It took me an hour to get back to the hostel; all along this one road, next to the river were 100’s of people shouting and laughing soaking everyone that walked or drove past. I got soaked to the skin 5 times, drenched several times and had many mud packs free of charge.
Back in my room I drained the inch of water from the bottom of my bag and I was happy to find that my camera was mostly dry and still working. I spent the rest of the day standing on the street outside the bar with a bucket of water in my hand getting people wet.
It was the best way of keeping cool!!!!

The next morning I woke up, sat on the side of the bed, looked at my reflection in the mirror and said to myself “F**k, I’m 39 today”

Could be worse…I could be reading this as opposed to writing it

Today (the 15th) is my last full day in this town. It’s hot but there are hammocks and I’m sure I can find an ice cold beer or two

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Get Thai'd! You're talking to a tourist...

The plane door was opened and with one final nameste I left Nepal behind and sucked in the warm, heavy scent filled languid air of Thailand. Knowing that this joyous experience wouldn’t last long I breathed in deep and hard. By the time I was outside the airport and filtering the air via a Marlboro it was gone.

The taxi to the hostel was a strange affair. After 252 days I couldn’t see a single snow capped mountain peak. Also travelling on a road with 4 lanes of traffic just felt weird

I’m staying at the Urban Age Hostel just off Silom Street. My room isn’t ensuite and it has no window. It does however have a great bed, aircon that really works, free wifi and as I found out when I walked 50m from the front door a pub called the Duke of Wellington nearby!

Inside the Duke of Wellington

“The Good”

As the heavy wooden door gently closed behind me trapping the icy air from the heat outside I stared. First at the several TV’s showing football, then at the ideally positioned pool table and then lastly at the bar. I walked, softly with slight hesitation towards it. Arriving at the bar I pulled out a stool, sat down and looked at the labels on the pumps. The barman asked a question and I answered. Moments later a superbly poured half litre of Heineken was in front of me. The outside of the glass was covered in condensation; the froth of the head was teasing me to take a sip. I paused the glass millimetres from my aching lips for a moment, enjoying the pleasure of the drink not yet drunk. Then I quaffed.

After 11 months I finally had a beer that was:

a) Ice cold
b) Not polluted with glycerol

You have no idea what that was like!!!!!

I put the glass down looking with wonder at where my fingertips had momentarily warmed the glass and dispelled the condensation, caught up in the rapture that my taste buds were experiencing
You know what; the second beer was just as good!

By now it was nearing 7pm and I went for a walk to find some food.

“The Bad”

I was walking along Silom Street and it was full of street vendors selling all manner of hot and tasty local food when I came across a KFC. I walked past it but only just! However, when shortly after that I came across a Burger King, the lure of a bacon double cheese burger was beyond my ability to say no!!!

Damn….it tasted good

“The Ugly”

My hostel is right next door to patong, the red light district (which shows lack o f judgement on my part when I booked the hostel) and with the exception of me there are a lot of old, fat and bald western men walking around looking for what….a happy ending of course!
Walking down the side streets looking at the girls outside the numerous “massage parlours” with a worn out but fixed smile on their faces made me wonder…

Now personally if a woman wants to earn a living on her back with her legs in the air, then that is fine with me. However I’ve never heard a little girl answer the question “what to you want to be when you grow up” with the answer “a sex worker”.

The next day I went shopping….I HATE SHOPPING!!!!!!!

Being sad, working class and English I ended up at Tesco (my mum thinks she‘s posh because she shops at Waitrose). Why? I had a dream….of a cheese counter going onto into infinity. What I got was 2 foot of chillier space with a choice of cheddar, Edam or Gouda all pre packed age lumps from that well known cheese producing country of New Zealand. I walked away empty handed with my head hanging low.

That night I was bimbling when the heavens opened (yep its monsoon time again) so I took shelter in a nearby bar. It was 30m wide and 4m deep and all the tables faced the pavement. I liked it! After the rain had stopped I went mmm… As the Duke of Wellington was now my local I went down the side streets along outdoor markets and pass the many and varied “dance bars”. Despite the requests and offers I passed on by. I mean you wouldn’t take a staving child to a sweet shop and tell him he can look at the sweets but he can’t taste any of them. That would be cruel!

Freudian slip number one: err….see above

The next day found me awake, slightly hung over and confused. The watch said 08:21 but for some reason I just couldn’t believe it. Not having a window can be a drawback after all. After a shower and my usual breakfast it was on board the sky train (in my head I call it the skylark…remember that TV show?) for the quick trip to the end of the line and the central pier. The lass at the hostel told me not to go on the tourist boat but to get on a local boat instead as it would be 130 baht cheaper. Seeing a boat pointing in the right direction, full of local people I jumped on board. The boat left the pier and headed out into the middle of the river. It continued heading to port till it reached the other side and parked at the pier directly opposite the pier it had just left. Then everyone got of…

Walking is much more fun!!!

A few warm hours later I was at the place where all the temples and the odd palace were. My first thought was N.A.F.T but I forced myself to at least see one. So one large lazy golden Buddha later I felt satisfied and moved on pass the royal palace and into one of the 1000’s of 7 till 11’s (open 24 hours a day) that litter this city for a cold drink. Outside a man was very keen to show me a 50m statue of Buddha that amazingly was not only nearby but by good chance was only open day, for free (scam anyone?). I pointed out that I had seen a bigger one in India so I couldn’t be arsed to see this one. The look of complete disbelief that crossed his face was like a dark storm cloud ruining a sunny day.

Later heading towards the train station, I was sitting down outside a closed shop on a semi deserted street smoking a fag, when a middle aged lady sat next to me. She told me that she worked across the street, pointing out a dilapidated apartment block, as she spoke. If I liked she had a young and good looking girl from Nepal that I could “have” if I wanted to. Several thousand Nepali girls are sex trafficked every year and not all of them end up in an Indian brothel. This one didn’t look set up to cater to an exclusive cliental which made me wonder what would happen to her when she was all “used up” and no longer making her madam money.

In the evening it was time for a long overdue manicure. First I had an hour’s foot massage, which completely chilled and relaxed me out. The young lass doing the manicure asked me how long I wanted my nails to be. I guess that Thai and English people have a different idea of what “short” is. The last time my nails were this short was one minute before I finally decided to stop biting them

Thailand have very kindly decided to throw a big party on my birthday, or as they call it New Year. It’s a 4 day affair that starts in two days (the 12th). This is also the day I leave Bangkok if I can get a train ticket. I could tell you the 1st half of this story but I really can’t face reliving it just yet.

I’m sitting in the pub (no real surprise there) trying to open a packet of fags. Without nails it truly is bloody difficulty.

One more thing: after two days I still think that being able to turn on a light bulb 24 hours a day is a miracle worthy of worshipping a new god