Tuesday, 23 December 2014

War, Temples and Street Food

After my extended sojourn to Japan, followed by one night in Hong Kong (which involved a vast amount of Michelin-starred dim sum with a friend of mine, and all for £8 each), I hot-footed it over here to Thailand. That was the last flight, except for my flight home in February, that's included in the round-the-world ticket I bought from STA Travel last September. God that feels like forever ago.

I was welcomed by the manic buzz, death-defying traffic and fragrant smoke of Bangkok's food stall-lined, neon light-adorned streets. I haven't made my mind up about BKK yet. I can't decide if it's just the right amount of crazy, or if I never want to go back. It has a fantastic energy, so I'll leave it at that for now. 

I was only there for two nights. I just wanted to give myself a buffer to book onward travel to explore central Thailand and also to apply for my visa to Vietnam, which I'll cover in a separate post. 

As it happens, I didn't book my bus to my next destination, Kanchanaburi, because the buses are so frequent (three an hour during the day) I thought it would be fine to just turn up. And it was. Another reason is that Bangkok's bus stations are incredibly difficult to get to. There are three, and you need to know which one serves which destinations. Basically the Southern Bus Terminal goes to the south, and west for Kanchanaburi, Northern (Mo Chit) to the north, and Ekamai to the east. So check which one you want before setting off. And leave plenty of time. Even me showing a map on my phone to my taxi driver didn't help. 

Incidentally, the average Thai person does not speak English. They will speak words of it, which is fine for most situations, but they won't speak sentences. It's been a bit of a test for me, because the last time I had this much of a language barrier was in Brazil, and that was back in February. But it's all character building. That's what I tell myself anyway. 

Also, absolutely get a SIM card with unlimited data from the airport. There are a couple of counters in the Arrivals hall of BKK airport. I went for DTAC - their 30-day package with unlimited Internet and 100 baht of credit included. It's been worth its weight in gold (times a hundred) in terms of getting me around the country. It cost me about £20, but they also do one-, two-, and three-week packages. 

Anyway, back to me. 

I decided to cram the riverside town of Kanchanaburi, and the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai into seven nights, in order to be back in Bangkok for Christmas Day. I split them 2-2-3, and that's actually been fine. I don't mind being on the move a lot in short bursts, and I've got six nights in Bangkok when I get back tomorrow. 

I was really keen to go to Kanchanaburi because of its history in WWII. I studied Japanese at University, and in history modules I learnt about the Japanese expansion through Asia as it tried to build its empire while the West battled Germany and its allies. Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, and is also a very convenient place to visit the Death Railway, which the Japanese Army forced prisoners of war to build to link Thailand and Burma for supplies. 

It was this connection and personal interest in the history that pushed me to go, but it's also a very pleasant town. There are raft houses floating on the river under thick jungles, backed by impressive mountainous terrain, and large Buddhist complexes dot the shoreline. 

I did a day tour on my one full day there. It was with Good Times, and was arranged through my guesthouse. I stayed at Canaan Guesthouse, which was very conveniently located near the bus station. It wasn't in the centre of town, but only being there for a short time I didn't mind as long as I could arrange a tour. It cost 1420THB including lunch and a guide. 

Our first stop was Erawan Waterfall, an impressive, and at times stunningly beautiful, seven-tiered collection of crystal clear blue pools fed by fast-flowing water spilling down the mountainside. I think this is what most people come to Kanchanaburi for, as it's famous for swimming and is featured on a lot of tourist posters. I climbed to the top, and it was worth it. The hike takes you past all the tiers, over rocks and through shallow streams, all the while under a canopy of tropical forest. At one point I saw two adult monkeys and a baby playing in the branches above me.

On the way down I stopped at the second tier and paddled my feet. I didn't go the whole hog and swim though. I had a free exfoliating massage from the fish, who came up in droves to nip at my toes. My feet haven't felt this smooth in years! 

From there we went to Hellfire Pass, one infamous part of the Death Railway, and walked along the original sleepers, still sitting in the ground.

There's also a free museum, which I found fascinating. But that may be my vested interest in the subject matter. 

The tour included a 30-minute ride along the Railway itself, which is still partly in use today. The views over the River Kwai were spectacular.

The day ended with the bridge itself. It was crammed full of tourists, but its iconic arches are still worth going to see. I was there at sunset, which made it even more atmospheric, and you can walk the length of it, following the train tracks.

The next day I got a bus back to Bangkok and got a taxi to the Northern Bus Terminal for buses to Ayutthaya. The taxi ride was a bit of nightmare, because the driver took me to the minivan departure point, but I'd read that minivans in Thailand are really uncomfortable and you often have to pay for an extra seat if you have large luggage. So I asked him to drop me at the closest metro station and I found my own way. The closest metro station to the Northern Bus Terminal is Chatuchak Park, and the closest BTS (overground train) station is Mo Chit, but it's still a 20-minute walk or a taxi ride from there. 

From Kanchanaburi to Ayutthaya you can also take a local bus to Suphanburi and then a minivan onwards, but I think it's easier to go back through Bangkok.  

I hadn't booked the bus to Ayutthaya, but it wasn't a problem. I had to wait 80 minutes for the next one, but I needed to get some food and sort myself out anyway. 

It took two hours to get to Ayutthaya, which is a beautiful city. The temples (wats) are everywhere. It's best to hire a bike and cycle it (it cost me 50THB for the day til 7pm).

The major temples are all gorgeous, but my favourite by far was Wat Chaiwattanaram. This one is a bit of a way out, over the river to the southwest of the Ayutthaya 'island'. But it's so worth it. It looks like a film set. I saved it for last and saw the sunset there. After dark it lights up magnificently.

I booked my bus up here to Sukhothai a day in advance, at the Transport Co. office which is on Naresuan Alley, much more convenient than the bus station, which is out of town on Asia Road. 

This trip took five and a half hours (including a rest stop for food halfway through) and not including an hour when our bus broke down in the middle of nowhere and we had to wait to be picked up by another bus that came along. There's one essential Southeast Asian experience under my belt! 

Now Sukhothai's historical park is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but apart from Wat Mahathat, with its oft-photographed pillars leading to a seated Buddha, the temples are all much of a muchness. I think I prefer Ayutthaya.

But I also think I prefer ruins over the pristine working temples of Bangkok, with their gaudy golds and reds, and sometimes with flashing LED lights that come on after sunset. There's much more atmosphere in the ruins of the old cities. The working ones feel like Mickey and Minnie will be coming out to sign autographs any second.

I did have a nice day exploring Sukhothai's old temples amid the lotus ponds yesterday. I hired a bike for the day, and also bumped into an American couple I met on the bus from Ayutthaya. We hired a tuk tuk for two hours (100THB per person) and went to see some of the more out of the way sights. 

Today I had a very chilled day. Instead of going to the historical park again (I'm a bit templed out for now) I had a lie-in, wandered round New Sukhothai and had my first Thai massage. It cost 200THB for an hour, and I felt glorious afterwards. Now I'm starting to ache a bit, and I have a feeling I'm going to be more than a bit bruised tomorrow. 

I booked my bus back to Bangkok online through Thai Ticket Major, collecting it at the bus station in BKK before I left. It seems to have all been fine. One word of warning though, the time printed on my ticket was the time the bus starts its route, so if your stop isn't the starting point, check with the ticket office in the bus station what time it's due to leave your stop. 

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I'm spending it on a seven-hour bus journey. And Christmas Day in Bangkok... 

Ho ho ho? 

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