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Tour of Thailand 2007 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

TOUR OF THAILAND 2007

June Coode with Lee (Barney) Barnett

January-February 2007

The following emails have been received from June and Barney on their independent journey round Thailand.

We first met this travelling couple in the winter of 2001 at Camping Aginara Beach in the Greek Peloponnese. Barney had retired from a long and illustrious career in the Royal Navy; serving on minesweepers and latterly at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. Having seen many countries of the world from the outside edges, Barney was anxious to explore in more depth. To this end, he had acquired a Hymer motorhome for himself and for June, who was a teacher at the College.

In addition to motorhome journeys in mainland Europe, this adventurous couple have taken time out to explore southern India and, on this journey, Thailand. They plan to return to south-east Asia to travel in Malaysia and points east.

Some images have been included in the text and a full gallery of 15 images is presented at the end.

12 January 2007 - Email from Bangkok

We've been in Thailand now about a week. On my birthday last Friday we were in Sri Lanka on our 10 hour stopover - courtesy of the airline - in a smart hotel with wonderful pool and a good meal. The 3 hour flight to Bangkok meant we landed about 6 am and were whisked away in a bright pink taxi, along 5 lane flyovers and highways, to our hotel. High rise buildings came out of the morning heat haze to present a very modern and western city with new construction sites everywhere, including mile after mile of the Skytrain extension being built with Chinese money.

Our hotel - the Atlanta - turned out to be quite a find. A 1950's time warp built by a Dr Max Henn, a Berliner who had lived in Thailand for more than 55 years. Its faded grandeur was fascinating, the reception area authentic enough to be used in film sets, with thick red leatherette benches and seating, framed by scarlet and black silk curtains. Outside in the small tropical gardens was the original swimming pool, with cracked tiles and looking past its prime, but a welcome haven from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.

What made the hotel so fascinating though was the information pertaining to Dr Henn. He was clearly a real character, having arrived in Thailand after driving from Tangiers to India and living there for 9 years before continuing his travels. He was very much a pioneer in the country's tourist industry, though he appeared to be something of a Basil Fawlty and steered clear of his guests. All round the place were signs such as 'Don't Complain, this is a budget hotel; if you don't like it you can leave.' The Americans used it during the Vietnam War and crucial meetings were held in the restaurant/bar. All the beer mats had quotes from Dr Henn and we tried to collect a few. Not only was the place quirky and unique but also inexpensive and near the Skytrain and one of the city's main thoroughfares. The Skytrain is most efficient and will be even better as more rail is built.

Our 5 days were spent acclimatising to the heat, walking round the streets near us, reading the Bangkok Post and other papers, taking the Skytrain down to the river and hopping on and off the boats to explore some of older parts. Our main visit was to the Wat Pho (Wat being a temple, though not quite in the sense we understand). Temples tend to cover quite large areas - this one was about 16 acres - and they often include schools, nurseries and other social centres, as well as places for monks tBarney_Thai_(11).jpgo live and study. Wat Pho is famous for the giant golden reclining Buddha. It must be 100 feet long and 30 feet high with intricate mother of pearl designs on its feet. It was vast and very impressive. The whole place was surprisingly lively and full of Thai visitors. There were a lot of monks on the boats, with signs 'Space for Monks' along one side. This was difficult to enforce though because the boats were so crowded and the poor ticket collector gave up moving Westerners on. Monks apparently mustn't be touched by women and men must sit, or stand, so that they are lower.

The river itself was clearly the main artery with barges and longtail boats, ferries and floating restaurants. Several top hotels are along the waterfront, plus the famous flower market. Bangkok is full of markets, including several all night ones but, with the security situation, we steered clear of them, also of the underground. The newspapers had articles daily about the bombs and how they had affected some of the shopping centres and all the rubbish bins now had see-through plastic bags. The fact that the bombers had not been caught, and no-one had admitted to placing the devices, simply added to the unease which was being felt all round. Maybe when we go back in 5 weeks' time things will be more stable: we shall see.

24 January 2007 Email from Ban Krud

We caught the morning train south after 5 days in the capital. It left late, chugging slowly along the single track through fields of wheat, as well as small sleepy stations. Our destination was Ban Krud, a small seaside town about 300 km SW of Bangkok, on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, near where it is at its narrowest. Burma is less than 20 km to the west, although there is no border crossing in the area. Eventually we arrived about 2 hours late and took a motorbike taxi (basically a bike with a covered platform to the side) to the YHA. There was hostess service with snacks and drinks on the train but it lacked the character of Indian Railways.

The Rough Guide says it is one of the most expensive hostels in the country. As well as the building itself, there were several AC bungalows in the very well kept gardens leading down to the beach. It cost 1,300 bahts (about ₤20) including breakfast but after a couple of days looking at other places, it seemed something of a rip-off. The bike rental was double that of other places and anyone wanting another cup of coffee or tea was asked for more money. We met several seasoned travellers who said the restaurant food was some of the worst they'd had in Thailand. The little town itself was very laid back, with only low key bungalow resorts, as they call them, and a long sweeping beach so we decided to find somewhere else. Ban Rim Had resort right in the middle of the beach road was 400 bahts a night, plus 80 each for eggs and toast and fresh mandarin juice. Our wooden chalet had a porch, fan, fridge and TV and was one of about 20 similar places round a big colourful garden, plus swimming pool. There were a few other Europeans, mostly with a lot of experience of travelling in the country, who all said it was quite a find, so we felt it was worth staying.

The place is quiet most of the week, though at weekends garishly painted coaches arrive full of youngsters who like to organise parties on the sand, have karaoke evenings and play bingo. It is all good natured and the music and noise never goes on too late. We hired bicycles a few times to explore up and down the coast and to go into the little town for pineapples, bananas, cheese and tomatoes, nuts and beer. Then Lee got a scooter for a couple of days which allowed us to go down to Bang Saphan, the main town about 25 km south.

Here we managed to get the Bangkok Post - something we had missed, as had the other travellers. It certainly is a mine of information, everything from the bombing suspects who have been arrested recently (some civilian, some military), the corruption, the problems with the banished Prime Minister, adverts for English teachers at less than ₤800 a month, plus news about China and many of the surrounding countries. We do watch the TV but obviously can understand nothing. Many of the items seem to feature military and naval personnel as well as uniformed personnel generally, all weighed down with medals and ribbons, epaulettes and badges. Lots of people wear yellow shirts and ties which appear to be the government colour. Bird flu is a regular topic - and Elvis impersonators We can sometimes tie in the TV news with what we read in the papers but a lot remains a mystery.

9 February 2007 Email from Khao Lak

We picked up our hire car in Surat Thani after a very slow 5 hour train journey down from Ban Krud. After a night in the town we headed for Khanom, a small town on the coast opposite the island of Ko Samui. This is where Paulette and Emmett are now living. We met them in India during their overland trip from Cornwall in a battered Transit van. Paulette's son lives on Ko Samui with his Thai wife and son but it was too expensive for P and E. Instead they have just completed the purchase of a place which are they planning to open as a coffee shop with accommodation above. It was good to see them and their new business project. The area is just on the tourist map and we met several of the local farangs (foreigners) who have big ideas for bringing in more visitors, so hopefully their project will be a success.

After 3 days we took to the open road. Thais drive on the left, which helps and, although in the towns motorbikes tend to weave in and out, going between places there is generally not much traffic with plenty of dual carriageways. Our direction was south-west to Trang, over on the Andaman coast. So far all our time had been on the Gulf of Thailand and at Khanom it was windy with rough seas the whole time we were there. We found an excellent town centre hotel for the night to allow us time to get some detailed local maps.

Next day the drive towards the coast revealed a much prettier landscape than the flat coconut palms on the other side. It was a meandering hilly road with a variety of trees and generally much greener. The rubber plantations too added interest. Tall and slender with mottled bark, they resemble birch trees and their leaves were changing to autumn colours. Along the way was a hot water spring which sounded interesting. Often signs disappear before you reach the destination - and there is no way we can cope with wording in Thai - but we arrived at this near deserted place with huge round tubs in individual cabins, amidst jungle creepers. There was also a peat swamp forest with a concrete walkway, which took you over evil-looking green and orange stagnant water. Not somewhere to drop the keys to the car! As in so many places, there was no information in English.

We headed towardsBarney_Thai_(23).jpg the sea, across a very rickety wooden bridge with a man underneath nailing the planks as we drove over. Then suddenly there were limestone islands and headlands rising out of the deep blue sea. It was beautiful. The beach was about 5 km long with only a few places to stay. Having a car meant we could stay away from the small town in an almost deserted place with about a dozen bungalows. We had 3 nights there, swimming every day in the smooth clear water from an empty white sand beach. It was tempting to stay but we didn't know what else we would find.

Places like Krabi and Phuket were on our way north. They didn't sound too appealing and certainly the beaches of Krabi that we saw were dreadful. So many longtail boats in the water there was no room to swim and the streets overflowing with tourists in varying states of undress. We did enjoy a pizza in Krabi town but the hotel was very noisy and we were glad to leave. As we drove up the coast we tried some of the small side roads but they only led to villages in the mangroves, some more Muslim than others. After a couple of hours of false hopes we decided to stay at Phang-Nga and review our plans.

In the Rough Guide we found the Phang Nga Resort Hotel which had a pool. It also looked out over the river, mangrove forests and distant islands. Nearby is the island featured in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' and every boat wants to take you to James Bond island, as it is known. The hotel had been luxurious in its time but was now shabby, the pool was closed because all the tiles were falling off and none of the staff spoke English. They spent all their days watching TV or sleeping, mainly due to the severe lack of guests. Apparently it had been built to cater for all the visitors who were expected after the film but sadly it never happened. At night it was eerie with no lights from our balcony, just blackness all around.

We had decided by this time to forgo the pleasures of Phuket and head further up the coast. Khoa Lak got a good write up in the RG, though it was the place hardest hit by the tsumani. Many of the hotels/resorts have been rebuilt to a high standard, putting them way out of our price range. Our aim was 600 bahts or preferably less a night (65 to the pound) and we found an excellent place with newly furnished rooms, balcony, fridge and TV - normally 1,000 bahts - for the magic 600 because they had so few guests. The bonus is that they own the next door place, which has a pool that we can use for free. The beach is a short distance away, there is an excellent bakery making tasty wholemeal baguettes, plenty of up-to-date Internet places (post-tsunami), and we can get tasty cheese and the Bangkok Post. There are tourist shops and the usual farang outlets but they are not overwhelming and the balance seems to be about right.

So Khao Lak isBarney_Thai_(14).jpg where we are. There is plenty of building going on and lots of 'Land For Sale' signs. There are also deserted properties and roads where creepers and plants are encroaching onto the tarmac by the day. From our balcony we can actually see the police patrol boat, that has become an unofficial memorial. It is about a kilometre from the sea, its hull caught on a broken trunk of a tree in the middle of a large flat area being cleared of debris and branches and scrub. Next door is a Tsunami Museum, consisting of a small room with some photos, and down the road a craft centre with a few bags and postcards on sale, but otherwise there are not many reminders of the horror and scale of what happened here just over 2 years ago.

From here we have to return the car to Surat Thani. It has given us so much freedom, it will be hard going back to lugging our bags on and off trains once more. We are booked on the overnight train north and plan to spend a few days in Kanchanaburi, infamous for the Thailand-Burma railway built by the prisoners of war, as depicted in the film 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. After that it is back to Bangkok for our last three days.

Email from Kanchanaburi February 2007

Our overnight sleeper from Surat Thani arrived in Nakhon Pathom - about 60 km west of Bangkok - in time for the connection to Kanchanaburi. After AC and comfortable bunks, it was back to wooden seats and open windows in third class. We'd booked a hotel over the phone, or rather the receptionist in Khao Lak had done so for us as no-one spoke English. Alarm bells should have rung, as the place turned out to be grubby, extremely hot, empty and, as we found out later, very noisy. (We hadn't seen the karaoke sign on the top floor). Next day we found somewhere else for the same price (bahts 450), which was not only bigger and more comfortable but included use of the swimming pool at the adjoining hotel.

Kanchanaburi is aBarney_Thai_(16).jpg tourist mecca, or rather parts of it are. The bridge over the river attracts coach loads of all nationalities, including Japanese. I wonder what story they are told. The River Kwai was the first of many obstacles encountered during the building of the railway from near Nakhon Pathom into Burma, a distance of over 400 kmBarney_Thai_(17).jpg. Years earlier the British had considered the idea of a rail link from Thailand into Burma, but deemed it too costly in terms of money and lives. For the Japanese this was no problem, with thousands of POWs at hand. Today the line runs along the same route, but only as far as Nam Tok, about 80 km beyond Kanchanaburi. It is therefore possible to ride along part of the Death Railway but we had had enough of hard seats. The bridge itself doesn't look much like the one in the film, which was actually made in Sri Lanka, but the legend endures and, between the three daily trains, you can actually walk across.

Another must on the whistle-stop tours of the area is the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, right in the town. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers, and lack of respect on the part of some, make this a less than dignified place. On the other hand, a few kilometres away is Chungkai cemetery, far more peaceful and dignified, on the site of the original POW hospital where many died. The River Kwai itself is swarming with large rafts, towed up and down, which provide accommodation and eating places, often with blaring music. Together with speeding longtail boats, full of screaming backpackers, the waterway is rarely without noise.

The first morning we hired bikes and visited the excellent Death Railway Museum. Founded by a local War Graves Commission supervisor, it was very comprehensive and allowed us to better understand the scale of the project and the human suffering it entailed. There are a couple of other museums but this one was by far the best. Cycling was a noble idea but the heat and traffic and distances meant we needed two more wheels and, since the organised tours were not to our liking, we rented a car for the next three days. This enabled us to drive up to Barney_Thai_(19).jpgHellfire Pass, beyond Nam Tok. Building the railway was an enormous logistical challenge, but driving it through the rock and across the ravines in these hills was the most difficult part. Hellfire Pass got its name from the deathly lights and shadows of the fires the POWs used when working, 24 hours a day.

The Australian govBarney_Thai_(18).jpgernment has built a memorial museum nearby, together with a marked trail of several kilometres following the old rail route. We walked part of it, through the Pass which towers above you. Some of the original sleepers have been re-laid: it was said that a man died for every one that was originally laid. We watched one man walk barefoot the whole way along the cutting - maybe one of his forefathers had been a POW. The silence and the heat, the remoteness and the terrain, gave a poignant insight into the horrors of what the men endured. The main killers were cholera, dysentery and malaria and, in the museum, as well as personal stories and recollections, we learned that Marmite had been used as a medicine rather than a food.

Our few days in Kanchanaburi did include some lighter moments , especially Valentine's Night at the local outdoor restaurant, with a singer who serenaded us with lots of romantic songs, including Happy Birthday, plus an evening out at Tescos and plenty of British eateries.

The town though was really only about the legacy of the railway line. As so often happens after such a visit, we came away feeling we had learned so much but wanted to find out more. I guess that is what travel is ultimately all about.

Email from Bangkok February 2007

Bangkok was as congested and hot as before. We decided on a change of hotel but in the same area, one reason being the Baumrungrad Hospital - a state of the art, 5 star, chrome and glass edifice with the best reputation in town. Medical tourism is definitely a growing business, though at the expense of the local equivalent of the NHS.

I (June) phoned them on the Friday, was given an appointment to see the Orthopaedic specialist on Monday at midday, had an X-ray, returned to see him and was out in less than 2 hours, all for less than 25. Unfortunately, there is no magic answer to the arthritis/degeneration of my spine but the service was second to none. It was also an interesting place just to pass the time of day - wonderfully cool and full of tempting places to eat and drink, while people-watching to your heart's content. Large numbers of Muslim women were among the throng, many with their Levis and trainers poking out from beneath their burkas, though it was the Burberry-trimmed one that really caught our eye.

Another aim during the last three days included a visit to Jim Thompson's House. He was an American who lived in Thailand for many years following the war, founded the Thai Silk Company and built a grand traditional wooden house that he filled with exquisite artefacts from all over SE Asia. His hospitality was legendary and he was very much part of Bangkok life. Then in 1967, on a visit with friends to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, he vanished and, to this day, his disappearance has never been explained. The story of his life, the searches, the investigations and the unsolved mystery make fascinating reading, though the house itself was so full of groups, we decided to just look round the gardens, peep through the open doors and beat a hasty retreat.

In some ways it was disappointing but we found a Klong. I'd read about the city's old canal (Klong) system but so many have been concreted over, that very few remain. Jim Thompson built his house right by a Klong, using it to transport the building materials, and most of his silk workers lived on the opposite side, so it was part of his life. In those days it was wider and more like a river but today it is hidden behind tower blocks and squeezed between them - almost a secret world. Long narrow boats speed up and down like buses, crammed with benches that everyone has to clamber over to get in and out, while a rabbit warren of homesteads line each side, probably not much changed since Thompson's days.

Meeting Kwan was one of the priorities of our final days. He had been a student in Torquay for a couple of years, staying for a year with one friend of mine and having lessons with another. He eventually stayed in England for 7 years. I'd only met him a few times in Devon but, because he had kept in touch with both friends, I wanted to see him. He came to our hotel with his girlfriend and intended to take us both to dinner (at the Jim Thompson restaurant by coincidence) but Lee wasn't feeling too good, so I had a very enjoyable evening, including a tour of Bangkok by night.

It was good to be able to talk to a local and ask questions on all kinds of topics. I was curious about the Thai Royal family, who are held in very high esteem. The King is an especially diligent, caring, educated man, but he is 80 and frail. He has 3 children but the son is deemed less suitable than the 2 daughters. The constitution does allow for any of them to succeed him but it is likely to be controversial. With so much lack of respect for or trust in the politicians, the Royal family hold the country together, work hard and are fortunate not to suffer the same media hounding as in the UK.

Kwan also wanted to hear about Torquay. On our final day, we both met up with him during his lunch hour. Apparently he had really enjoyed living for a while in Newcastle so, he and Lee spoke a bit of Geordie and talked about places they both knew.

It was a busy final few days - time by the pool for some last minute swimming, in the vast shopping complex known as Siam (pronounced See-am) Square, together with its amazing underground aquarium, and an hour and a half's ferry ride the length of the river for only Bahts 13 each.

Reflections

So what would sum up Thailand for us? As a winter sun destination it is great - plenty of cheap accommodation, good beaches and some wonderful coastal scenery, especially the Andaman Sea. It's easy to get around by bus, train, plane (there are several low cost airlines) or car.

We were surprised how few people in the tourist industry spoke reasonable English or were able to conduct the most basic of conversations. Trying to get information, or make bookings by phone, was frustrating and, at times, impossible. Poor pronunciation is the biggest stumbling block by far. English teaching is big business but mainly in private schools: the state system still employs Thai nationals so the problem is perpetuated. If only they would show children's programmes in English with subtitles, rather than dubbing everything, I am sure it would go a long way to helping them at an early age.

The country is called the Land of Smiles but underneath this exterior lies another world. Corruption is endemic and accepted (according to Kwan), discussed and written about in great detail and it affects every corner of life. The new airport at Bangkok, opened only a few months ago, has problems so major, such as badly cracked runways, that it is likely to be closed and the old one re-opened. Corruption charges have been levelled at everyone involved, nobody is taking the blame and instead they are all pointing the finger at each other. Meanwhile the corrupt get richer and the poor stay poor.

The TV gave us endless news programmes with everyone wearing either military uniforms or yellow polo shirts. We decided these were the national costumes. There is daily Royal news, dozens of adverts for skin whitening products and over-dramatic soap operas. The newspapers kept us up to date with the violence in the South (beheading an 83 year old monk, killing teachers, setting fire to schools) as the Muslims endeavour to get their voice heard; constant accusations of corruption against the deposed PM which led to last year's coup; news items about China, Korea and Burma; the lack of progress finding the New Year's Eve bombers and the mysterious theft of an 8 tonne gold coin specially made for the Chang Mai Flower Festival.

The restaurants offered us such delights as Friend Fried, Spicy Gashed Salad, Egg Red Ant Spicy Salad and Water Bug Dip. We didn't try any of them! Instead we dined on prawns, fried rice, sweet and sour, fried eggs and toast for breakfast, and discovered steak a few times, whilst our trusty little electric element from India served us well for coffee and tea.

We may go back one day, though Malaysia and some of the other SE Asian countries caught our eye as potential winter destinations another year. Meanwhile, though, India is still head and shoulders in front, for reasons very hard to explain.

 

Buddhist monks on a ferry in Bangkok 

 
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 View of the coast from a Buddhist shrine

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 Typical Buddhist shrine on a prominent hill top

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 A stark reminder of the power of the tsunami: a police boat hundreds of metres inland

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 The sun sets on the tourists

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 The Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi

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 The Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi

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 June walks in Hellfire Gap, 50 miles up the line from the River Kwai Bridge. An excellent museum and memorial is devoted to the many Australians who were killed in the Gap by the Japanese.

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 Dr Edward 'Weary' Dunlop is remembered for the care he gave to the many POW's who were abused by the Japanese while building the Burma Railway

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 Thai food

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 Thai food

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 Buddha is revered in Thailand and has many hilltop temples and shrines devoted to his worship

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 No expense or care is spared in creating and maintaining these gardens, shrines and temples

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 A post-tsunami idyll

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 The sun sets on Thailand

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