Thailand

This was the second time I visited another south-east Asian country, after Bali/Indonesia. Like Bali, I was a bit apprehensive in the beginning, mainly because Asia is such an unknown quantity for me. I am not a born traveller. But in the end my worries were completely unfounded. On August, 2nd we set off from Narita airport with tickets bought via accumulated air miles – some pay back at last.

The flight took around five hours and we caught the airport shuttle bus from the airport to the centre of town (100 Baht p.P, ~¥300), where we reserved the Swiss Park Hotel via HIS in Japan. Traffic is dense and the view from the road not too great, but it made a nice welcome to the city of Bangkok. This was the view from our hotel window.

In the evening we had a stroll around the neighbourhood, one of the best times during travelling, checking out what’s around you. I was overwhelmed by the buzzing street life in the Nana/Asok area: stalls selling all sorts of wares (mostly undeeded things, as always) and much to my surprise, food stalls, one after the other. We later managed to meet Naomi’s friend Sonmai, who took us to a very local restaurant, i.e. visited by Thais. If one can call it a restaurant. We emptied a few bottles of beer, drinking it on ice, something normally unthinkable for a German. However the heat and humidity made drinks go lukewarm so fast, it was better to have it watered down by the melting ice. Imagine my surprise when I turned around and a baby elephant stood behind me – its owners where soliciting money for food for the poor animal (which wore a cyclist-style blinking tail lamp on its tail, because according to Sonmai, sometimes cars drive into them).

On the following day we set off to Koh Samet in the Rayong province, by bus from the Eastern bus terminal Ekkamai, conveniently reachable by Skytrain. The bus ride to Ban Phe pier takes around 4 hours and cost 124 Baht (unlike described in the Lonely Planet). At the pier we bought tickets for the ferry for 100 Baht return. As it is common, the ship waits for a number of passengers to make the trip worthwhile, but we were hungry anyway and had a late lunch. The crossing takes about half an hour. On the island a fleet of so-called “song thaew”, basically pickup trucks with benches installed on the bay, are waiting to take you where you want. Again the waiting game – or pay full price for the whole vehicle. When you enter the National Park (a bit of a joke, because of development and the amount of rubbish everywhere) you have to pay 200 Baht, ten times as much as Thai nationals have to pay. Not much, but the discrimination is annoying. We stayed at Samed Villa, a Swiss-managed bungalow. Not cheap at 1600 Baht per night, but very nice bungalows. Too bad that no breakfast is included. On the first night we made the mistake of eating at a neighbouring bungalow place. It wasn’t any good, relatively expensive and we regretted it. The following days we were smarter and went where the locals go: on the street, where it’s cheap, friendly and the real Thai thing. None of this mentioned in the LP, which recommended the bungalow places.

We chilled out on the island for several days, and then returned to Bangkok for another two days. There we visited Chakutak market and some other places within the city. The amount of big Western men with tiny Thai girls is remarkable. Our first night was in the Honey Hotel, a very odd place dated from the Vietnam war. It was old and grim in the room, never mind the cockroaches, plus a large number of single men and a strong smell of cannabis in the corridors. We found ourselves something else asap, again via HIS in Bangkok (Windsor Suites Hotel).

Wondering what to do next, we booked a no-frills flight on the web with Nok Air to Chiang Mai in an Internet cafe. I was amazed by the ease of this: quick, cheap and in English – unthinkable in Japan. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, but it is tiny by comparison to Bangkok. Still, the air on the streets is just as bad, Thailand is the worst I have ever experienced, mostly due to engine fumes, absolutely horrible. Chiang Mai seems to be somewhat of a New Age destination. One can see many long-term foreigners who seem to be on some sort of spiritual journey, studying buddhism, massage, cooking or whatever, slightly strange if you ask me, but it’s peaceful so there you have it. All of them with a Lonely Planet guide book in their hands, which makes me feel uncomfortable as I feel I am advised by the globalised mind on my journey. Worse, the maps were inaccurate at times and the recommended places questionable. But it is the best we have, fortunately we had a Japanese Arukikata book as well, which is far better in some respects, but in combination those two work quite well. From Chiang Mai town we made a day trip to Doi Suthep and a touristic Mon village (better than nothing, as the LP advised). A tropical downpour set in while walking around and we were stuck under a roof for a long time, until we decided to take our shoes off and wade through the ankle-deep waters.

Flying back to Bangkok with Nok was a breeze again. This time we decided to try the train from the airport instead of the bus, just to see what it is like. Well, they definitely don’t want people to take the hourly train as there are no signs at all in the airport. You have to walk all the way to the end of the international terminal (quite far apart from domestic as we found out) and there is a little bridge to the Amari Hotel, from which stairs lead onto the platforms. Fortunately the train was delayed and we caught it (30 Baht). Train is relatively modern, but slow (Diesel). Hua Lamphong station is decent and not to be sniffed at. From there we took the recently opened underground, and since it was opened before schedule and we had the Queen’s birthday (a national holiday and Mother’s Day in Thailand) ahead of us, all rides were just 10 Baht!

The last day we went to Chinatown, which is the most dense and seemingly chaotic place I have ever been to. And the smelliest. But definitely worth a visit. Then we took the river bus to the Royal Palace, which turned out to be closed due to the birthday celebrations, so we walked around it outside and watched the people waiting for the Queen to arrive, which was also fun. By then we were well tired out and enjoyed out last Thai dinner, this time not on the street though.

So overall I really enjoyed the trip. My fears were completely unfounded. We were most of the time left alone, sellers are also not very persistent. The amount of foreigners in Bangkok seems very high when compared to Tokyo, which in a way I find sad. It is much easier to get along as a foreigner in Thailand, but of course money talks and your life is made easy on purpose. But still, can you imagine an ATM at the entrance of a Japanese temple? My only advice is to ignore most of the Lonely Planet recommendations for places to eat and go to street stalls. Enjoy the real cuisine, and freshly mixed fruit shakes for a third of the price of a normal place. However we would have not fully appreciated if it wasn’t for Sonmai’s guidance, which I am very grateful for.

PS: I am selling my Lonely Planet Thailand, latest edition only used once…