Thailand Part 1

November 2017: I flew through the night from Almaty to Bangkok. I plan to spend a few weeks here before moving overland to Cambodia.


I slept through almost the entire 6 hour flight to Bangkok, got on a bus, which took an hour and slept through most of that. Bangkok is enormous, and knowing where to stay is a tough choice. There are few stand out tourist areas or sights, but I opt to stay around Khaosan road. This is a mecca for young backpackers, and might be a region that I would normally avoid, but I've been starved of company for a while, so thought I'd at least begin the trip in one of the touristy regions of Bangkok. Khaosan road was originally a traditional rice market, which grew popular with budget backpackers wanting to stay in a rough and bohemian area of Bangkok. As the tourist grew the rice markets were slowly muscled out by bars and street food sellers catering to teenage backpackers starting or ending their southeast Asian odyssey. As the tourist became more mainstream and less intrepid, more home comforts moved in. There is now a starbuck, a boots and a tescos, all selling western delights, for those not brave enough to tuck into the local delicacies. White faces outnumber Thais, anglophones are the biggest groups, along with Germans and other people from Western Europe. Increasingly young Koreans, Indians, Russians and Israelis are muscling in on the tourist scene, no-longer entirely dominated by the west. Bars and clubs line Khao-san road, and as the night draws on the dividing lines between these clubs and the road begins to blur and the party spills out onto the road. In certain spots it is possible to hear the thumping music of at least seven different venues all at once. There are relatively few prostitutes here given the number of tourists, perhaps as the crowd is so young, and so full of drunk young women that no-one feels the need to pay for sex. At the closing hours of the night a few plucky prostitutes, many of them ladyboys, pick off a few of the drunk stragglers who were unlucky enough not to find a mate for the night, and carry them off on their scooters to god knows where! Khaosan road is a place where dignity can only be a burden to true enjoyment. One bar proudly declares "we do not check ID cards" in bright neon letters. Another advertises gin and tonic by the bucket, yet another employs a small Indian man to sell balloons full of laughing gas to accompany your warm larger. Another phenomenon here is a subspecies of Thai woman who has a penchant for Farang men (many sources describe the word farang as a Thai word for a foreigner, but all the Thai people I have spoke to tell me that it means more specifically a white person, and is a word you will hear a lot here if indeed you are of a pale complexion, especially if you have just done something stupid or uncouth). Many young travellers take a Thai girlfriend for the duration of their stay. Contrary to certain prejudices, no money is exchanged, many Thai women just prefer to take a white boyfriend, even if it is only for a time. Note though that the converse is almost unheard of, I have never seen an Asian man linked arms with a white woman. No doubt this imbalance will one day cause great problems for the nation of Thailand.

I checked into my hostel near to, but not on, Khaosan road. It seems nice, but there is no doubting that this area has a tourist industry orders of magnitude more developed than Central Asia. The travellers that you meet here are of a different breed: younger, less knowledgeable, less interested in culture and history and more interested in partying and having a good time. I suddenly feel a bit out of place, although I'm only 29 I get the sudden feeling of being old. It's 9 am and I've arrived into a new world, entirely ignorant, both an old man and a baby at the same time. Once again I have no idea how anything works, but I am too wired to sleep so I go to explore the city.

Public transport in Bangkok, the best way to travel.

Bangkok is massive, compared to this metropolis London is a village. But it's so great to breathe in the hustle and bustle once again. The cities of Central Asia are so doure and dull. Bangkok, as grimey and seedy as it feels, is incredibly vibrant and full of energy compared to my previous stops. I don't really try to find sights here, I simply walk through the streets and observe. No-one pays me any attention whatsoever, Europeans are common place here and no-one seems to care. I have gone from being a rock start in Central Asia to a wandering ghost in South East Asia. Every corner has a food vendor with weird and wonderful snacks and assorted delights. The roads throng with cars and mopeds, and all walks of life are out on the street, seamlessly without aim or purpose, just existing and living their lives out in the open.

I walk down Rambutri street, parallel to the infamous Khao San road, full of restaurants and bars, but a bit more relaxed than its neighbour. Down this street there is an English school, and today the students are all sitting outside trying to drag tourists to their desks in order to practise their English. A youngish girl beckons me to her desk and begins to interrogate me with a set of questions from a sheet of paper. Her English is quite good, but the accent is thick. Thai is a tonal language, and she can't help but translate this to her spoken English, elongating the ends of the sentences to almost comical levels. This is my first real contact with a Thai person, she seems both shy and forward at the same time, asking many questions, but never quite meeting my eye. I'm still very tired from last night’s journey, but it’s only four pm so I decide to have a few beers and then have an early night. Everything here is so exhotic and intense that one needs to be eased into it gently.

I go to a pretty bar decorated with colourful lanterns, catering mostly to a farang crowd and log into the wifi. It's here that I meet Jane, a young, and tiny, Thai woman, out for a drink with her friend Pim and we get chatting. She is an engineer, a traditionally male role, and her friend is a software developer. They have the day off tomorrow and are out enjoying the delights of this touristy area of Bangkok. There are an increasing number of locals who seem to seek out this element of Bangkok, dressing a bit like westerners, listening to their music, and adopting some of their ideas. Pim claims that she speaks no English, but seems to understand a great deal of what I am saying. Jane speaks much more, but with a strong Thai accent which I struggle to understand, and has mastered only two of English's twelve tenses, but is able, nonetheless, to make herself understood. I offer to pay for both her and her friend’s drink, which seems to impress them greatly, and she gives me her number and offers to show me around Bangkok the next day. She has a lengthy conversation in Thai, in which I hear my name several times, but can pick out nothing else. After that her friend disappears into a taxi and Jane takes me to one of the clubs on Khao San road. Despite my tiredness we stay in the club until closing time, which thanks to a recent military coup, is by law no later than 2pm. Exhausted from my long day I collapse into bed, but I have Jane's number. Yet again I seem to have wrangled myself another beautiful local tour guide at no price, aside from the drink I bought her and her friend; such a hard life to travel sometimes.

I wake up exhausted after about 3 hours sleep, but intend to meet up with Jane at the agreed time, so I drag myself out of bed and get myself to the hostel where we arranged to meet last night. She is there waiting for me, and looking remarkably fresh for someone who has slept only 3 hours. Down from Khao San road is a small alleyway lined with a little set of touristy shops, and at the end of this the otherwise hidden Chao Phraya, Bangkok’s great river, suddenly reveals itself. Those in the know use the river to commute where possible, as they are not subject to the same debilitating traffic jams. We take a day pass for the boats along the river and use it to soak up a few of the sights that are conveniently situated along the banks of the Chao Phraya. The first stop was the royal palace, the former principal residence of the kings of Thailand, and still used by the Thai royal family. The Thai royal family is the second richest royal family in the world, second only to the Saudis (Queen Elizabeth II of England is a distant third). It shows in this place. Although much of the palace is actually closed to commoners, the glimpses that we get of extreme pomp and gaud. Next door to the palace is a giant reclining buddha, in his more skinny youthful version, before he piled on the pounds. He's 47 meters long, and covered in golden leaf, no wonder he is smiling. Our next stop is Wat Arun, or the dramatically named “temple of dawn”. It's across the river from the palace, it's simpler to cross the river in a boat than to try and navigate one of the hectic bridges. Wat Arun is architecturally unusual for the temples of Thailand, being made of grey stone and without notable colourful decorations, it seems rather modest and tasteful compared to the gaudi color fests of Bangkok's other places of worship. It's a steep climb to the middle section, but that is as far as you can go. The sights in Bangkok are not world renown, and aren't really the main reason for visiting the city; the real joy is in simply soaking up the bustle of the streets and exploring on your own. It's also one of the most contrasted places I have ever visited. Some parts along the waterfront look like ad-hoc constructed slums, whilst others are full of affluent skyscrapers, reminiscent of Canary Wharf in London, with restaurants that I could never dream of affording to eat in, never mind the people who live in the wooden shacks a few streets down. As the sun sets we enjoy soaking in the varied city scape, and take one last stop along the river: Chinatown. There's a large Chinese population in Thailand, around 14% in fact. The main reason to come to China town though is the food. Every street is lined with street vendors, hawking all kinds of weird and wonderful fair, and by chance we sit down at one which seems to have an international reputation as it is full of all sorts of foreigners. Within a few minutes of us sitting there a long que has formed, all to sample the food from this tiny wooden shack by the side of the road. When the food arrives I can see what all the fuss is about, it is some of the best food, not just street food, that I have ever tasted. I can't remember where exactly the stall is, or even what it is called, so I would have no way of ever going back there, so for now it will have to remain secret. Although judging by the crowds it is recommended somewhere.

The next day we continue the theme of following the river, this time further south to the flower market (Pak Khlong Talat), one of the biggest in the world, and a spectacle to behold, even if you don't buy any flowers, which I didn't, perhaps to Jane's disappointment. Then we go to another big market, another maze of back alleys, selling all kinds of assorted fairs. I pick up a few more supplies here, such as a new backpack and wallet. Jane comes in handy here, as she is able to negotiate with the vendors in Thai. Later we meet up with Pim, Jane's friend that I met on the first night, and her Korean boyfriend, and go for some drinks in the nearby night market. Most towns of any appreciable size in Thailand have a night market, which is a place where people go to eat dinner, and maybe do some evening clothes shopping, most stalls appear around 6pm and stay until the late evening, usually operating out of a motorised vehicle, or simply selling things from a cloth on the ground. Bangkok's night market is a bit more upmarket than other places though, with permanent buildings, bars and restaurants. Here we share a few beers with lots of ice. Although it has been dark for a few hours the mercury is still well north of 30.

Pim's Korean boyfriend, Jun, is a fair bit older than us, and, it would seem, more worldly. It is here that he tells me about the brothels of Bangkok, seemingly oblivious to his girlfriend's chagrin sitting next to him. Nana is one of the main sex complexes in Bangkok, and has a reasonable claim to being the biggest brothel in the world, although the Germans might have something to say about that. He explains the process to me; girls dance in bikinis with numbered badges, punters can tell the hostess to bekon over one of the girls if she takes his fancy, he must then buy her a drink. The client and the girl can make whatever arrangements they see fit, without the bar being privy to what is agreed, maybe they want to play scrabble or discuss politics or have a pillow fight. If the man wants to take the girl away he must pay the bar a ‘fine’. On the top floor of Nana are hotel rooms that can be rented by the hour. Jun offers to take me there, just to have a look, and not to partake. I'm due to leave bangkok tomorrow morning, but it's tempting to stay one more night to experience this cultural delight, but I politely decline and head on my way.


I bid the sleaze and pollution of Bangkok goodbye, after a final farewell from Jane. Out to the West of the city is a little used train station by the river, where I can catch the once daily train to the small town of Kanchanaburi. The old train departs only 30 minutes late, which by South East Asian standards means it's on time, and clatters and chugs its way through the countryside towards Myanmar. The seating is basic, but acceptable, little fans adorn the ceiling in lieu of real air conditioning, locals hop on and off the train with trays full of delicious little snacks and drinks. The Japanese built this railway, or rather the Japanese operated the whips and guns which compelled the locals and the European prisoners of war to build this railway. As France fell to Germany in the second world war the Japanese took the chance to seize French indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), knowing that France would not be able to resist, being then a puppet of the Nazis. They then signed a peace accord with Thailand, which allowed them free reign over the kingdom; then they set their sights on British held Burma, and began to build a railway to transport troops and supplies for the war ahead. Conditions were horrendous, owing to extreme malnutrition, tropical disease and Japanese cruelty. Many allied POWs died here, as did many more local Thai and Burmese. The bridge on the river Kwae is situated in Kanchanaburi, immortalized by the film, although inaccurately in many ways. Firstly, the pronunciation of the place is more like kwair, which is repeatedly mispronounced in the film. Secondly, the rail runs along the river, but doesn't actually cross the river Kwai. The bridge in question actually crosses another river. The Thai government, realising the potential in missed tourist revenue, renamed the river that it crosses as the river Kwae, so that there are now two river Kwaes and the confusion is avoided! Thirdly, the bridge was actually blown up by the RAF, not the commandos, but that would have made for a much less dramatic ending, and finally, the film was actually shot in Sri-Lanka, and therefore the bridge looks nothing like the one in real life. Despite these minor points Kanchanaburi is a great place to stop for history buffs. The bridge is rebuilt, and you can either get off just before it and walk across, as I did, or you ride the train over the bridge and come back. There is just a single track across there, and no walkway, so if a train comes you need to scurry to one of the small safety platforms, or if they are full as it gets quite busy at times, risk the jump into the muddy brown water below. Luckily I'd seen a train just pass so I was able to cross the bridge and enjoy the view without the threat of impending doom and snap some great shots of the bridge from the bank on the other side.

Death Bridge
The infamous death bridge over the river Kwai. Alec Guinness is just out of shot.

In the town itself there is an excellent museum on the horrors that were subjected on the people who built this railway. Next to that there is a cemetery housing the British, Commonwealth and Dutch dead. Most of the locals were buried in unmarked graves, whilst Australian and Americans were sent home. The seven thousand or so featureless simple white headstones, laid out in repeating rows and squares are but a tiny drop in the ocean of the lives claimed by this conflict. They are looked after with care by the commonwealth fund that also runs the museum.

Back at the hostel the owner takes us on a food tour through the night market in Kanchanaburi. Five rows of small stands sell all kinds of Thai fare here, and despite being a fairly nondescript small town the place is heaving with locals. The elderly woman describes the various foods in a broken English that she has unmistakably picked up from backpackers who trickle through her hostel regularly. "It's oh my god", "It's oh wow!" she says, and she recommends a plethora of different dishes, handed over in little plastic bags, which we take back and share at the hostel. One of the great joys of travelling in Thailand is that there is cheap excellent food almost everywhere you go, and for the adventurous it is always varied: fried frog, crickets, chicken feet, scorpion. Or you can just have beef.

The next day I change the pace a little from the slightly depressing, but educational, second world war tourism, and head to Erawan falls. A tourist bus departs from the centre of Kanchanaburi, and takes me to the edge of the park where the falls are situated. There are seven very pretty falls in the park, laid out on seven tiers, which all pool into beautifully clear water pools, one of the prettiest natural sights I have seen in awhile, but heaving with tourists of course, this being Thailand. I alternate walking, swimming and snapping photos and spend a very tranquil afternoon here. It can't all be high brow cultural stuff dear reader.

The surreal azures of the Erawan falls.

Back at the hostel I go out with some of the people staying there and play some pool. It seems there is a street here which I had previously missed which is actually very touristy, colloquially known to the locals as 'Farang' (this means white person recall) street. Even in this fairly small town there is some low level harassment from 'bar girls', hoping, on the opportunity of the arrival of four farangs, to get a bit of business. By now I'm fairly used to this and politely decline, which seems to be enough to get them off our backs. More drinks, more great food, a few games of pool. It's still oppressively hot and humid here, and travelling in Thailand dictates a slightly different pace of travel.


I hop back on the train to Bangkok and meet up with Jane again. We spend the evening sampling some more local delights back on the street where we met. We plan to go to one of the islands or beaches to the South of Bangkok together for the weekend. The next day we take a minibus to the beach resort of Pattaya. Jane has a friend who lives here who we meet up with. We plan to travel on to one of the islands close to Pattaya, but to our annoyance the island is closed to the public for the whole weekend due to a military exercise taking place there, so we are forced to spend the weekend in Pattaya. Pattaya has a reputation for being a sleazy place, a reputation it has done everything its power to cultivate and deserve. It is the sex capital of the world, making Bangkok's red light districts look tame in comparison. There is a different sort of clientele here, mostly Russian, Indian, Turkish, Chinese and Korean. In fact most of the menus give up on using English as the lingua-franca and opt to describe their food only in Thai and Russian, something you would not see elsewhere in Thailand. Russian mafia and lots of whores; what better place for a romantic getaway. On the main nightlife street there are lots of ago-go bars and show bars, many offering 'Russian women', which I imagine catters to the unadventurous Russian sex tourist, much as one can buy fish and chips in the south of Spain. The beach itself is nothing special, in fact quite dirty, and small. Realistically sex tourism is the only reason to come here, other than to use it as a springboard to the much nicer islands, unless, of course, they are closed. A bit of a disastrous weekend, but still we make the most of it. This is an authentic part of Thai life as any other historical or cultural experience that one may wish to engage in. One image particularly stays with me: of a bar in which women sit on bar stools in the centre of the bar, the bar stools are on a motorised conveyor belt, so as the bikini clad women sip their mocktails they are transported effortlessly around the bar in a convoluted loop, so that both client and woman can see all that there is to offer, without either having to leave their seat. Literally women on a conveyor belt. Anyway, enough high culture for one day; we retire to bed.

A couple of very friendly women that I met in Pattaya.

The next day we go to a beach outside of the city centre, which is also quite ugly, and have a few drinks. Suddenly there is a large tropical storm, with an intensity of rain that I have never seen before in my life. This rules out any conventional beach related activities, and we head back to the hotel. Despite only 30 minutes of rain the streets are inundated with water, resembling a small river more than a road. It's time to leave Pattaya and we take the minibus back to Bangkok, all I can say to Pattaya is 'stay classy', glad to have beheld the spectacle with my own eyes, but I sincerely hope never to return.


We spend the night, for the third time now, back in Bangkok and then head to the town of Ayutthaya, with Jane in towe for the moment, although she will head back to work and leave me there in the morning. Ayutthaya was the old capital of Siam, and was thought to be the biggest city in the world for a time, before it was finally overrun by the Burmese in the 18th century, who, regrettably, burnt it to the ground. There are still a number of temples and palaces, some ruined, some being repaired. We arrive there a bit late, and all the temples are closed, so we go to another excellent night market and have a Thai hot pot, which is simply a vat of water and a little gas stove, you are then brought various meats, veg and spices and invited to fill up your pot as you see fit, making a delicious spicy stew. Our hostel is a beautiful little wooden building by the river side, and we spend the evening on the balcony having a few drinks and listening to the crickets and watching the river. This is the Southeast Asia I had in mind when planning to come here.

The routes of the tree have grow around the fallen Budha head at this iconic spot in Ayutthaya.

Jane leaves for work early the next morning, leaving me free to explore the temples by myself. I hire a bike from the hostel for the two days that I'm there and buy a pass to see the six main temples. Ayutthaya is surrounded on three sides by a U shaped river, and a canal forms the fourth wall, making it effectively an island. Four of the temples on the pass are on the island itself, and I spend the first day ticking these off, all of them very impressive and beautiful. The centrepiece sight is the stone head of Buddha which has been ingested by the roots of a tree growing on the side of one of the temples. Each temple is slightly different, and impressive in its own way; and I spend a tranquil two days alternating between an hour of sight seeing and an hour of eating snacks and drinking smoothies. The second day I take in the two temples that are not on the island; they are not crowded, save for a group of Thai school children, who take the opportunity to practise their basic English with me. I enjoyed my time in this little tranquil place, but forever had the feeling that ultimately I have no idea about what I'm looking at, a feeling I get all too often in this part of the world. It looks impressive, but I have little historical or cultural context to the sights that I'm exploring without a guide.

Pak Chong and Khao Yai

My next stop is to follow the train route further down the road to Pak Chong, a nondescript town (although with a night market and good street food), which is used mainly as a springboard for exploring the nearby Khao Yai national park. The train is two hours late, without announcement or explaination, and whilst waiting there it passes 6pm, which is national anthem time in Thailand. This is played from the speakers in the station, to which everyone stands, including two young American girls, with barely suppressed sniggers. No-one else is laughing; the king is serious business in Thailand, which has some of the harshest lese-majeste laws in the world. Insulting the king can lead to hefty jail sentences. One man who owned a restaurant turned off the radio playing the national anthem at 6pm as he was trying to sleep. One of his customers happened to be a policeman and arrested him, to which he was given three years in jail. Another signed off one of his emails with the phrase 'in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king', which was in no way a direct reference to the king of Thailand, was nonetheless also sentenced to three years in jail. Just owning one of the few books that speaks critically about the king can lead to a jail term as well, three years being the minimum. It's a little scary, especially as tourists aren't necessarily immune from these laws. In any case, I digress. I arrive at Pak Chong late at night, but luckily the hostel is next to the train station, and I head to bed after a quick drink with some of the other guests.

Khao Yhai
The hiking trail through the park involves crossing this makeshift bridge over a river which may well contain crocodiles.

The next day I head to the national park, which involves taking a bus to the entrance. The bus stops at the front gate, but the visitors centre is another 11km from here. I manage to hitchhike there, and a local family with a pickup truck stops for me and I ride in the back of their truck, which handily is an excellent way to see the park; dense jungle clinging to steep sides of rolling hills as far as can be seen. The park is bisected by one main road where it is possible to see monkeys and the occassional elaphant frolecking. The visitors centre informs me that I am far too late to attempt one of the most popular walks through the jungle. Uncharacteristically I actually follow this advice and decide to do a shorter walk, a 5km loop that actually takes me a few hours, owing to tough terrain and hot humid weather. I'm the only person on the trail as far as I can tell, and along the way I see two Dhole, sometimes called the Asian wild dog. They are startled as they see me, and I know that these creatures usually hang out in large packs, so there are probably another ten somewhere nearby. They angrily bear their teeth at me as if to say 'must you hairless apes come here as well? This jungle is ours!' and then they bolt in a blur of orange hair, never to be seen again. I spot lots more little creatures; birds, lizards, many snakes, squirrels and monkeys, but no elephants, or tigers, which are rumoured to have returned to the park by way of Cambodia. Back on the road I hitchhike back to the bus stop, but a group of young guys insist on taking me back all the way to the hostel, to which I can't really complain.

The next day I have one of my increasingly frequent lazy days and hop between cafes and restaurants writing a bit more of my diary and doing some reading. In the evening Jane comes to visit me again, somehow wrangling herself another "working from home" day. She gets into the bus station late at night and I pick her up on a bike that the hostel lends me, and take her back to the hostel after a quick stop at the night market for more Thai delicacies.

The next day we hire a motorbike from the hostel, Jane drives, as she is much more experienced at this kind of thing; I ride pillion. She drives competently, but still like a Thai, so it's quite an adrenaline rush to be on the back of this bike driven by a tiny, slightly psychotic, Thai woman. We go through the park with many stops to look at the view and watch some of the monkeys at play, further through the park to a stop with a waterfall, which is where they set a famous scene from the film “the beach”. It's all very pretty, but the whole park is very busy, it being the weekend, and the one road through the park is actually quite jammed with traffic. I also get the feeling of not really being in the wild as many areas of the park carefully manicured and maintained. We wanted to tick off a few more sights inside the park, but we're unfortunately running quite low on fuel, so we head back to the hostel, just making it to the petrol station in the nick of time for a refuel.

We still have the bike at our disposal, so the next day we head to some springs not quite in the national park. These are a series of natural swimming pools fed by underwater springs, which make the water crystal clear. Not many foreign tourists know about this place, and I'm the only farang there. There are quite a number of Thai families there enjoying a picnic together and a quick swim. It's quite small, so we don't spend too long there, but a very pleasant morning before the bus back to Bangkok. On the way back to the hostel we stop at a truly bizarre tourist destination simply known as 'Italy'. It's a mini town entirely made to look like an Italian town complete with expensive boutique cafes. It seems really popular with the Asian tourist crowd, many of whom couldn't possibly afford to see the real thing. For me it is absolutely bizarre. We take the bus back to Bangkok, which I am now visiting for the fourth time, and have some more food in the night market on our way home. Jane gets a bit tearful that I am leaving her, but I feel like I've made little progress in the three weeks I've been here, being in the very place where I started, so I book a bus to Cambodia, and say goodbye to Jane and head off in the morning for Battambang Cambodia.