26th January – 4th February
Sifting through the debris
Thailand’s not all bad…
That said, the capital’s morally bankrupt, most of the natural beauty is covered in insensitive, frenetic, uncontrolled development, its towns are ugly, concrete jungles and it has unashamedly sold off its cultural integrity to all-comers at bargain basement prices.
Thanks to the expiry of our 30-day Laos visa, we spend a week here, trying to look on the bright side and working out what, aside from a cheap sex industry, contrived hill-tribes and miles of polluted, over-developed beaches, lures 11 million tourists a year to this country.
We’re not sure if we found the answer, but by choosing a handful of less fashionable destinations, we surprised our own expectations. Almost…
On 26th January we cross the Laos-Thai border at Vang Tao, leaving behind Laos’ soporific villages. We don’t drive far, just 60km to Ubon Ratchathani, a smallish provincial capital by Thai standards (pop 120,000) but a whopper compared to those across the border.
We’re pleasantly surprised. Amongst the grid of monsoon-stained utilitarian blocks, an unhurried, becalmed bustle pervades the town. A few locals acknowledge us with perfunctory courtesy, most ignore us. There are few sights to see and no westerners.
In the evening we walk past shabby intersections and motorbike repair shops before finding a snazzy eatery on a wooden deck spanning an attractive ornamental stream. The menu is entirely in Thai (a first!), the staff delightful and the food authentically hot – no allowances for foreign palates.
Listening to the live band warbling the latest Thai hits and watching local families enjoying a posh night out, we can’t help wondering if this is the ‘real’ Thailand – un-contrived, relaxed, simple, friendly – might this be it?
Temple border troubles
Our first destination is Preah Vihear, a Khmer temple nestled on the remote and heavily forested mountain on the Cambodia-Thai border. Despite actually being in Cambodia, the Thais have staked a claim and for the past 60 years it has proved a major stumbling block in diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Ironically though, given Cambodia’s lack of infrastructure, the temple is theoretically easier to reach from Thailand.
Unfortunately, international relations seem to have re-frozen recently. Having driven 40km off the main highway, we get 10km short of the elusive temple before running into a military blockade, complete with razor wire and soldiers.
Although Thais struggle to look threatening in any capacity, machine guns certainly help. Despite some speculative negotiations, we’re not going any further.
Frustrated, we retrace our steps to the highway and continue west, past mile upon mile of scorched dry season farmland; buffaloes leaving the shade of the trees to search out every last blade of desiccated grass protruding from the cracked rice terraces. It may not be awe-inspiring, but it is traditional farmland…
Phanom Rung is another Angkorean-era Khmer temple, this time located safely away from the border zone. It’s on our way and more than makes up for our earlier disappointment. Sitting proudly atop a 300m high extinct volcano (the only undulation for dozens of miles), the towering lotus flower shaped temple is enclosed by beautifully carved sandstone galleries.
It’s like a mini Angkor Wat, minus the tourists. At least, until the school trips arrive. Suddenly the area is flooded with a plague of vanity-crazed Thai teenagers, more interested in taking photos of themselves. Luckily, they don’t linger, and as the sun begins to set we have the place to ourselves and can enjoy the full, lonely beauty of the place.
Accommodation isn’t abundant around here, but luckily we stumble upon what could only be described as a roadside café with rooms. The owners are jovial, enthusiastic and speak zero English. Happily a friendly private tour guide comes to our rescue, ensuring we have more than just an oily pork omelette for supper.
The end of the month
Last time in Thailand, we discovered that driving on a Friday was bad news, as far as police were concerned. Driving at the end of the month however, is positively suicidal.
We leave in high spirits, despite the fact we’re going to have to make an unplanned detour via Bangkok to get one of Nina’s camera lenses fixed.
It’s 400km to Bangkok; we get pulled over five times. A new daily record! Three occasions are checkpoints and the police are relatively friendly. Two are after a salary supplement; our offence appears to be something to do with driving in the fast lane of a three lane highway…
Conveniently, we’ve now removed the word “fine” from our comprehension of the English language, so we arrive in Bangkok no poorer.
We don’t stay a minute longer than necessary in the capital: the Canon technicians seem confident they can fix the problem on the spot and within an hour, we’re driving west, heading out.
The world’s largest stupa
Bangkok’s suburbs are very large. Nakhom Pathom, 56km west of Bangkok, could arguably be termed a ‘suburb’.
But it’s also home to the world’s tallest Buddhist monument, the Phra Pathom Chedi, a bloody great bell-shaped lump of a thing, 127 metres high. It’s covered in scaffolding when we arrive, but nevertheless it dominates the town far more than the incomprehensibly positioned (and far higher) flashing TV mast just 200 metres away.
Nakhom Pathom doesn’t like to boast about its claim to fame though and, once again, we are solitary tourists. The rest of the town is pretty dreary, barring an abundance of tasty local eating and drinking options for us to take advantage of.
Did we underestimate this country before?
The River Kwai
The following day we drive 100km to Kanchanaburi and headlong into one of Thailand’s most shameless, unabashed examples of flagrant profiteering.
Having entered WWII in 1941, Japan overran south-east Asia in months, finally capturing Malaya and then Singapore in early 1942. After advancing through Burma equally swiftly, the Japanese decided they needed a secure overland supply line to sustain their advance through Burma and into eastern India.
This came in the form of the Burma-Siam railway, built through 415km of previously impenetrable, mountainous jungle, using forced labour.
Between February 1942 and October 1943, 16,000 Allied POW’s and around 100,000 Burmese, Malay and Chinese civilians died during its construction, through chronic overwork, exhaustion, malnutrition and sickness.
Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai and a huge, beautifully kept war cemetery containing the graves of some 7,000 POWs who died whilst working on the railway.
It should all be a rather peaceful, perhaps sombre place. But no, this is Thailand and rampant commercialism has taken over. It’s very difficult to be reflective when a Thai-dubbed Van Morrison is blaring ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ out of one of the numerous bars, cafes and souvenir shops that surround the bridge. We spend an hour or so in the peace of the cemetery, before departing.
The old capital
We drive west, towards Myanmar, into the mountainous border regions. We’re amazed to find the forests out here relatively untouched, but then notice the sheer number of resorts, country parks and weekend getaways that are advertised from the main road, all for the benefit of wealthy Bangkok weekenders.
We spend a night camping near the clear, sky blue cascades of the Erewan waterfalls, home to large monitor lizards and guitar-toting campers from Bangkok, before heading east again to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s old capital.
Ayutthaya would have been a mighty city of temples, palaces, waterways and lakes – unfortunately for the Siamese, the Burmese invaded and sacked the place in 1767. All that remains now are a few dozen beautifully preserved brick built stupas and prangs, some enormous city walls and a network of peaceful canals amongst manicured parkland.
The new town of Ayutthaya has surreptitiously ensnared the old capital, and tentacles of tarmac housing vast Tesco Lotus superstores, coach parks and concrete shopping malls all lurk threateningly around the island which houses most of the old capital. But for now, the charm and the antiquated splendour of Ayutthaya remain.
We spend two nights camping in Khao Yai national park, swapping culture and comfort for wildlife and insomnia. Khao Yai comprises 2,500 sq.km. of primary forest and grassy plains. It’s only 200km from Bangkok but is Thailand’s largest and most important national park.
Driving in, it feels like we’re on a DIY safari. We are.
We’ve only been here for an hour when we spot our first wild elephant, a lone bull. He’s tugging great spears of giant bamboo from the ground with his trunk and munching noisily on the leaves. We pull over and tentatively get out of the car, watching in awe-inspired silence for 10 minutes.
Our campsite is home to more barking deer and long-tailed macaques than humans. Whilst the inquisitive deer are welcome around the car, the novelty of being woken up at 6am by all-too-inquisitive macaques soon wears off… Unfortunately, their footprints don’t!
We spend a full day trekking through various forest trails and are actually quite relieved we see nothing larger than lots of colourful birds, a solitary monitor lizard and lots of very fresh elephant dung. The park is home to clouded leopards, tigers, wild dogs, 250 elephants, crocodiles and snakes – none of which we really want to meet armed with nothing but flip-flops and a camera.
We round off an exhausting day at a nearby cave, watching two million bats flying skywards at dusk for their evening feed. The acrid aroma of ammonia aside, it’s quite a sight…
A final reminder
Our last night in Thailand, in the border town of Nong Khai on the Mekong River, just 22km from Vientiane, reminds us how lucky we’ve been over the last 10 days.
It would appear that in little over two years this sleepy backwater has transformed into a fully-fledged outpost for Thailand’s ever-expanding smut industry. Our guest house, peaceful and clean though it is, is surrounded by booming bars full of grubby Westerners (ashamedly, a large proportion are Brits) being rubbed up by equally seedy looking Thai girls.
We find the only peaceful restaurant in town, floating on the Mekong. It’s pleasant enough but one dish comes out wrong and inedible, so we send it back. On seeing it added to the bill, we politely decline to pay for it, sending the manageress into a seething, spiteful rage. In these places (and where money is concerned) it’s amazing how some Thais can go from obsequious to vitriolic in five seconds flat…