Monday, September 30, 2013

A train, a track & a hilux sandwich

After lots of planning, hours spent on Trip Advisor working out the logistics and some blind faith that Thailand Railways would indeed send our tickets (bought a month out) to our hotel in Bangkok we headed out in the predawn cool for what we knew was going to be a long day.

Haulamphong Railway station is Bangkok’s Central – but funnily enough it doesn’t compare with the Berlin Hauptbahnhof or even Sydney’s central.  Our train, the “Tourist Excursion train to Nam Tok” was scheduled for a 6.30am departure.  Our expectations of comfort etc were low, and met but hey, it’s an adventure!  It departed sort-of on time and painfully slowly crawled its way out of Bangkok’s sprawling metropolis.  Satellite dishes on rusty iron & plastic sheeting roofs are just a bit incongruous.


We had ‘booked seats’ but when we got on there were people in these seats so we just found an empty one further along the carriage and figured we’d deal with the seat issue later.  A man in a uniform saw we had tickets and walked past.  Sometime later the boss ticket man came through and started moving people all over the place.  We knew he was the boss ticket man because his uniform had more gold buttons, more ribbons etc and he was wearing a hat!  We followed his instructions when he gestured that we were in the wrong seats, and then insisted we had our right seats  when we realised our seats were facing the way the train was going and the lady occupying them suggested we take the seats opposite and therefore facing backwards.

Once the important train ticket man got seating sorted he took off his special hat and took hold of a megaphone and became the funny tour guide – shame we had absolutely no idea what he was saying but it must have been funny because he and the rest of the passengers all laughed.  Maybe it was something about the silly farang (foreigner) pair in seats 32 & 33.


First stop was the town of Nakhon Pathom for a 40 min visit to the Giant Chedi – pretty amazing from a distance but we were saving the knee so didn’t venture much past the markets where we got muffins for breakfast from a little cake shop and coffee from a street cart.

This train is notoriously slow (and late) but we arrived at Kanchanaburi pretty much on time.  The train stops for 25 minutes so you can walk across the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  Besieged by vendors trying to sell us books, food, and tacky souvenirs we made our way to and over the bridge on foot.  Back on the train for the slow crossing.


Back on the train and through some really pretty landscape we rocked and clattered our way to Nam Tok.  This little town is the end of the line and most passengers were Thai day trippers heading for the waterfall.  It seems that 10 scheduled hours (5 there and 5 back) on the train for 2 hours at the waterfall is a strange way to spend the day but they all seemed to be enjoying the party atmosphere with lots of seat swapping, eating and laughing.


This train is 3rd class so you’re a/c is an open window.  Track side maintenance is pretty much non-existent so by the end of the trip the floor looked like it had been mulched – track side greenery was whipped off by the train and showered in through the open windows.  We put the window up except for the top 6-8” but still managed to get covered in leaves, bits of stick, and even the occasional insect.

We had arranged for a car & driver to meet us at Nam Tok to take us directly to Hellfire Pass.  We wanted to visit the Memorial Museum and walk the track.  The driver found us – not hard there were only 3 other white people on the train and with the aid of some pretty simple gestures, showed us the way to the 7/11 where we could grab something a bit more substantial to eat.  We didn’t have time or language skills (and he certainly couldn’t act as a translator) to venture to the road-side food carts.  Sandwiches, a couple of cartons of flavoured milk and a bag of what I thought was mango slices and we were off.  Turns out I had inadvertently bought a packet of pickled mango – oh well, tick that off the list of life’s experiences.

The drive from Nam Tok to Hellfire Pass is about half an hour.  The Memorial Museum is quite small but is the starting point of a 90min walk along the actual rail bed.  We got the audio guide, the walkie-talkie (to call for help etc) water and applied bug spray as instructed and set off – not quite sure what to expect and wondering if Tony’s knee would in fact hold up given the warnings about the need to be in good physical shape due to the steepness of the path.

 The audio guide is excellent and despite some really heavy rain our driver met us at the Hintock cutting end in a little under 90 mins.  Pictures probably give some idea of what our diggers endured but I cannot imagine what they went through, especially in the monsoon season where it apparently rained for 140 days straight.

This says it all....

We had wanted to visit the Weary Dunlop Memorial Park, but the original owner of the resort where it is situated  (and designer/builder/funder) has sold and the new owners only allow resident guests – damn shame because he could make some money by charging an entry fee to non-guests.

Back to Kanchanaburi, paid the driver and grabbed a coffee before hopping on the 5.20 bus back to Bangkok. 
We both dozed a bit but I woke bolt upright & wide awake at some very hard breaking, a skid and then a loud bang.  Yep, the bus and a Toyota rukus-like-thing had turned a Toyota hilux into a sandwich.  We sit on the bus for about 20 minutes, the next scheduled bus pulls in to the space between our bus and the other accident vehicles, everyone off our bus and onto the other one… ooops not enough room – OK wait for the next one (20 minutes) – rain starts – 10 remaining passengers get back onto our original bus, it pours, the bus leaks, we move seats.  Next bus goes through standing room only.  Our driver gets back on and moves our bus 100m up the road where we wait again.  Next bus (the last for the day) stops and we get on, and get a seat.  Sunday night traffic in torrential rain into Bangkok is snails-paced.  Finally about 9am we stop at the southern bus station.  Get a taxi back to the hotel and peel off the wet clothes before heading out to see if we can find dinner at 10pm in the pouring rain.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Just exploring this fabulous city

Day 5

Decided to explore over the other side of the river and check out the Fair Trade Handcrafts shop while we were there. 

 Got a tuk tuk to the iron Bridge and wandrered along the riverfront.  Lots of old timber (?teak) shophouses – some in good condition and used as galleries, shops etc and other is a pretty sad state of repair.  Loved the place making colourful elephants – very cool.


Next stop was Wat Kate – not as its name might suggest but a temple dedicated to the dog.  Hundreds of little doggie statues and many many very friendly and well-fed dogs lived there.  Stunning timber buildings too.


The Fair Trade shop was amazing and I managed to get little pieces (purses, etc) made by women from 7 different hilltribes – will make great teaching resources for senior textiles.  And it I’d had a lazy $450 I’d have bought this… stunning isn’t it!

Next stop was the Chiang Mai museum – sadly they were renovating the entire second floor but to compensate, entry was free.  And it was a no-camera zone so … no pics.

The whole time we’ve been here, Tony has been on the lookout for Chiang Mai sausage and we finally came across it in a little place near the Three Kings Monument.  Very good indeed.


Wandered a bit then back to the hotel for a nap – we’re still finding t he heat/humidity knocking us a bit.. or is it the beers at lunch time?

 Off to the night market again, ominous looking sky which foolishly we chose to ignore and didn’t take the umbrellas.  It poured, and kept pouring all night.



Day 6

I had considered checking out a couple of the handcraft villages out of town but realised none of them were fabric orientated so we decided to check out the Airport Plaza Shopping Centre – the only really big mall type centre in Chiang Mai.  Grabbed a tuk tuk and headed over there about 9am, only to discover it doesn’t open till 11am – oh well, Starbucks & the newspaper filled in the gap (and they still make pretty ordinary coffee!)

 The airport Plaza is huge, and has a sensational Hilltribes handcraft section- spent a lovely 90 minutes browsing & chatting to some of the stall holders about the fabric - heaven – bought a couple of lovely tops too! 
I had a bit more of a wander round town this afternoon & came across a Wat undergoing renovations - gotta love bamboo scaffolding!

Next time any of my students complain about wearing their school unifoirm properly, I'm going to show them this photo - just love the boys in their pink pants!

Last visit to the night markets, a couple of purchases but a lovely hour spent chilling in the Colour Bar listening to live music over an iced coffee.  Bangkok tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

PG & beerman play 'tourist'

Our only real ‘tourist’ day .. we had organised the taxi man from the airport to take us up to Doi Suthep and the Tiger Kingdom today.  Thought about using ‘public transport’ but given I knew it was a super windy road to the temple on the mountain, I figured a trip like that in the back of a songthaew was probably not something Tony’s knee would take kindly to, so taxi it was.

 Doi Suthep is a mountain situated ‘behind’ Chiang Mai with a large temple complex on top.  You run the gauntlet of the usual souvenir sellers if you go up the stairs (all 300+ of them) but we took the cable car up for 30baht ($1).  It’s a bit hard to describe so maybe I’ll just post some photos instead.


The view of Chiang mai would be spectacular in the dry season.
Next stop was Tiger Kingdom.  We did the “will we, won’t we”  thing – and while I don’t particularly like to see animals exploited, I contented myself with the notion that without something like Tiger Kingdom, these amazing animals may not be alive and the species would be one step closer to endangered.  There is al sorts of discussion as to whether the tigers are drugged, de-clawed, mis-treated etc – nothing we saw today gave us any concern.  The cats were beautiful, we checked the claws on a couple and they were certainly there, and while they were quiet, I do not believe they were drugged – our domestic cats sleep for large parts of the day so why not these guys.

Awsome experience and I must admit I really did not realise just how big these girls were.  This one loved having her tummy scratched.

Tony found it much easier to pat the tigers on their lounges - kneeling on the ground was not an option for him.

Is this the most beautiful face ever?

 These two were really enjoying chasing this palm frond - just like our girls chase things on bits of string

Playing chasings & pounce in the pool .. just what a tiger ordered on a hot day. 

Home early afternoon, a very late lunch, a nap and we’ll head to the night markets again tonight.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 3 .. A bucket of puppies & a wok fireball

Earlier start than planned courtesy of the spoilt brat 3 yr old in the room next door who decided 6am was a good time to chuck a tantrum!  Another beautiful day and we had planned to visit Wat Umong.  Negotiated a reasonable rate with a songthaew and headed off about 9.30am for the twenty minute trip.  Wat Umong has a number of underground tunnels and a big chedi on tip of them.  Surrounded by trees it is a little reminiscent of some of the Angkor temples and the work the monks do to stop the jungle encroaching is quite evident.  There are also heaps of ‘message trees’ .. in reality just regular trees with messages painted on signs that are attached to the trees – all spiritual/philosophical in nature as you would expect at a wat. 
Not attached to a tree, but this was my favourite
There are lots of dogs living at this monestary and we saw a couple of litters being cared for very gently by the resident monks, but the most priceless thing we saw was a young monk bringing one litter from the house down to an area where they could be outside.


We got the songthaew to drop us at Nimmanhaemin Rd with the intention of exploring this area a bit and then checking out a department store – it’s supposed to be the hip new up & coming part of Chiang Mai with lots of cool eateries & shops – it really didn’t live up to our expectations so we stopped for some lunch (the little place we ate at did make a damn good iced coffee)  and we ended up getting hopelessly lost trying to find the department store so we grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel.

Had a swim and Tony had to go back to the tailor to collect his trousers & shirts.  Lots of thunder, wind and a short blackout suggested we were in for a really good wet-season storm but in the end it came to nothing more than a few drops of rain.

I’d booked a cooking class and at 4pm we headed down to reception to wait for our pick-up.  Aon (the lovely young chef who ran the classes) arrived on time and we headed to his local market for a mobile lecture on Thai ingredients.  Lots of goodies to look at and check out including bags of Thai 'snacks' ... we would call them fried silkworms!

And this guy preparing deep fried crackling strips - now these ARE yummy!

Aon has only been running his school for about 9 months and already it’s ranked #2 on Trip Advisor – and after tonight we can absolutely see why.  He has a really cool outdoor kitchen with 8 concrete work stations and a dem station at one end and a big table in the middle.  There were only 3 students tonight – us and a young New Yorker and we had a ball. (but for some reason, this blog won't let me upload any more pics. 

We cooked and ate each dish one at a time – Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup - me) or Tom Yum Goong (Tony) then Pad Thai, followed by Red or Green Curry Paste (made onto Red or Green curry Chicken) and finally Gai Pad Med Mamuang (Stir Fried Chicken with Cashew Nuts).


My favourite part was learning how to flame a wok when we made the Stir Fried Chicken & Cashews .. not giving the secret away, but a picture is worth a thousand words.
After a great meal and a very informal discussion on his menus and the school as a whole, Aon dropped us back at the Tha Phae gate about 9.30pm. We grabbed a coffee at the Coffee Club and headed home.  Tomorrow we're off to Doi Suthep (the temple on the mountain)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 2 .. Ghurkhas and Hmong

 Awake before our alarm and then had to wait to go down for breakfast which starts at 7.30am.  Fair selection of fruit & cooked stuff but I’ve never seen chocolate iced profiteroles on a breakfast buffet before – oh well a first time for everything – and no I didn’t have one!

Chiang Mai is tailoring central – they are everywhere but we’d been past a little guy yesterday with a sign about the Ghurkha Tailor .. I’d read about him somewhere so we decided to try our luck.  Tony got measured up for two of pairs of work pants & a couple of shirts.  We picked the fabric from a really large range, he paid a deposit and off we went in search of the Wororot Market and Hmong Lane (I was on a fabric hunt)

We walked from the Tha Phae gate down to the river, turned left and found the markets.  First stop was the Chiang Mai flower market. North of here were it is higher and cooler they grow masses of temperate climate flowers.  The first part of the market are all the growers & wholesalers -  roses, chrysanthemums (white, yellow, pink and an assortment of gaudy fluro greens, blues & pinks – these ones were pretty yuk actually)  What was amazing was the selection of tropical flowers – Singapore orchids, ginger, heliconia, lotus and alpinia and a huge selection of foliage. 


Into the Wororot Market itself – and if you have seen one huge Asian market (wet & dry sections) you can easily imagine this one.  By now it was getting really hot and we were having no luck finding Hmong Lane and stupidly I’d forgotten the map!  Back to the hotel.  Lunch on the way at a little hole in the wall restaurant across from the end of our little soi (side street) for the best mango shake I have ever drunk!

Tony’s knee was a bit sore from all the mornings walking so I headed out by myself to track down Hmong Lane – this time armed with the trusty Nancy Chandler map.  Funny how easy things are to find when you have a map – found in no time at all.  I spent a couple of hours wandering through this market looking specifically for traditional garments – and more specifically a jacket that a) would fit me and b) did not have masses of orange in it.  I saw lots of amazing textiles but came home empty handed except for a lovely book on Thai Textiles that I bought from Backstreet Books.

I did get to check out another of the Wats in Chiang Mai.. Wat Buppharam is beautiful, but since I was wearing a sleeveless top I didn’t actually venture inside the temple itself.


Chiang Mai is famous for its Night Market so tonight’s agenda was a visit there. We walked – and soon discovered it’s quite a bit more than the 15-20 min some maps suggest.  Dinner at the Ping Ping restaurant (squid in basil & chilli and hottest green curry ever, washed down with a cold Chang beer)  the  in the Anursan section then into the madness that is the night market proper.  Much more stuff aimed at the tourists eager to part with their cash for an obligatory “I heart Chiang Mai” t shirt or silk pillow cases.  Fun none-the-less and we will probably go back to explore more another night. We grabbed an iced coffee at a little stall in the Kalare section of the night markets and had another foot massage - 100baht for 30 minutes of torture.  Jumped a tuk tuk (thankfully Chiang Mai tuk tuk drivers are no-where near as crazy s their Bangkok counterparts) back to the Tha Phae gate and home.