6th – 17th November
The rain doesn’t leave us as we leave Malaysia, in fact it gathers all of its tropical mates together for a great big welcoming party in southern Thailand.
The far south of Thailand, apart from the few unspoilt beaches, is a pretty dreary place: a land of palm oil and rubber plantations, oversize six lane highways and modern, soulless towns lined with sprawling telegraph poles. It is similar in many respects to middle America.
The first real excitement we come across is the little town of Khlong Ngae, which would be totally nondescript if it wasn’t submerged between four feet of fast flowing water. A nearby river has broken its banks and has engulfed most of the neighbourhood, wreaking havoc for the locals but at least making the place memorable for us.
As muddy water gushes across the central reservation and cascades down already engulfed side streets, the traffic that is able to pass through (lorries and 4x4’s) is cheerfully directed by the army, clad in brightly coloured but futile polythene kagools and knee high, once shiny boots.
As we meander our way through, we’re greeted with laid back, friendly waves from the locals, for who are evidently pretty used to such occurrences. The few shopkeepers whose wares are protected by sandbags sit cross-legged in their shop fronts, subtly yet smugly watching those without sandbags wearily piling their goods ever higher on desks and boxes.
A shock to the system
We decide to spend our first two nights in a little village 20km north of the busy tourist enclave of Krabi.
How naïve of us: Ao Nang, far from being a quiet backwater, is simply an extension of Krabi itself, with a mile and a half long ‘strip’ along the beach, more package hotels than we can count and the full range of western tourists in ample supply: the two week packagers (varying shades of pink / crimson, all overweight), the hippie types (tattoos and piercings compulsory, sunburn optional), a handful of ordinary looking people wondering quite how they got here and last but not least, Thailand’s ubiquitous western single men – generally middle aged or elderly Gary Glitter look-alikes, sporting decaying string vests and thinning spiked hair, and usually in the company of a bored and minute young Thai (gender optional / variable).
A traveller’s debate
It’s all a little bit depressing, and we ruminate over our evening beer in our thankfully out-of-town guesthouse about how hypocritical we are.
We, like the backpackers, are trying to find those little hidden gems, the inaccessible backwaters, the ‘real’ Thailand, yet as soon as they are discovered (in Thailand especially, but all over Southeast Asia) within five years they are transformed into the mini-Malaga that we’ve just witnessed in front of us.
Is it such a good idea to try to find them? It gets us wondering whether travelling through these countries is such a good idea, given the rate at which Thailand, at least, is bulldozing its own beauty.
But ultimately, what isn’t being sacrificed for tourism here is being razed to the ground for cash crops inland. In terms of GDP per capita, Thailand is the 4th wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia, behind only Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Tourism accounts for just 6% of its GDP.
To their credit, they’ve done exceptionally well for themselves over the past 15 years, although at a heavy cost to the beauty of their country and integrity of their culture. But ultimately, we mustn’t grumble – it’s absolutely no different to what every single western country has done to itself over the past few centuries…
Mangroves and monkeys
We spend most of our day in Ao Nang on a small kayak, silently paddling our way through the mangrove swamps of Phang Nga national park, enjoying the relative peace and seclusion and admiring the awe-inspiring limestone and quartzite monoliths that randomly rear out of the sea, hundreds of feet into the air.
Mangrove swamps must be among the most impenetrable terrain on earth: dense, spiralling masses of stilt roots and the mangrove’s specialised breathing tubes all covered by a thick dark green canopy. At low tide, the roots are revealed, burrowing into great deposits of treacherous sea silt. At high tide, all is submerged, but the roots are so dense that not even the narrowest canoe can pass between them.
These swamps used to be inhabited by crocodiles, but now all that threatens to disrupt a tourist from their sightseeing are the swarms of mosquitoes that inhabit these dank and humid coastlines. Shame really - the occasional salamander and mangrove crabs add a little spice to the surroundings, but they’re not in the same league as a croc devouring an overweight American.
We paddle our way along tiny channels, enclosed by swamp on one side and rose grey monolithic cliffs on the other. It is an eerie, mysterious world, especially where the monoliths have created lagoons in the swamp – areas almost completely cut off from the outside world. Inside these, it’s a bit like being in a Jules Verne novel, until an Australian tour party noisily breaks the silence.
We have arranged to stay with Charlie’s mum Mandy for a few nights in Cha-Am, further north, on the Gulf Coast (the east side of the Thai peninsula).
Mandy is booked into a smart relaxing hotel and chalet complex, and her early Christmas present to us both means five days of relaxing by a pool and swimming in the sea, barely leaving the confines of the hotel! It’s lovely for us all to catch up and spend happy days and evenings gossiping by the pool or over early drinks on our respective verandas.
It seems that before we arrived, Mandy had told most of the other assembled guests about our trip, so we play host to numerous questions about our trip, car, health, safety and future relationship prospects by dozens of intrigued and charming English couples, some wishing they’d done similar things in their youth. Now we know what it feels like to be minor celebrities!
After five wonderful days by the beach, interrupted only by a visa run to Bangkok and a full service on the car, courtesy of the friendly and efficient Toyota Cha-Am, it is time to move on. We have our Burmese visas to collect in Bangkok and a handful of spare parts to find, order and fix to our car that can’t be found here.
With a few pangs of homesickness, we reluctantly head north to Bangkok, leaving Mandy in the capable hands of her friendly fellow fortnighters. Although it’s a vast, sprawling and skyscraper ridden city it’s remarkably only home to about 9 million Thais, although probably a hell of a lot of foreigners too at any one time.
As with the rest of Thailand though, in Bangkok you just can’t fault the people. Happy, cheerful, friendly, laidback and kind; despite the vast influx of foreigners to their country every year they don’t seem to have acquired the avaricious traits that we witnessed so often in India. Considering the people alone, it’s easy to see why so many tourists do flock here.
Although not quite as bad as Dhaka, it is still a horribly congested city. Eventually, after battling with the arduous one way systems and the even more arduous Burmese Embassy, we find suitable accommodation in the form of a daily rentable apartment in Lumphini, nearby most of Bangkok’s embassies.
Wats and weirdos
Our few days in Bangkok are unfortunately car-orientated. However, in between visits to a friendly but frustratingly in-efficient Toyota garage, we manage to slip in a little time sightseeing. We spend a happy Sunday afternoon wandering through a selection of the ancient, colourful and delicately sculpted Buddhist Wats (palaces) that are scattered throughout this modern metropolis, before jumping on the last river boat home.
During the day the Chao Phraya River is a frothing cauldron of activity: high powered passenger boats churning from pier to pier, louder and faster longtail boats racing up the centre and dozens of vast trains of coal barges, being dragged silently downstream by tiny tugs, their charges so laden that brown water laps over their decks. Amongst all this, platoons of water hyacinths are bustled to and fro and the water seethes with great schools of river fish rising in unison and battling for any morsels on the surface.
Lumphini, where we are staying, is pleasant enough on the surface but seems to be home to an alarmingly large number of the western string vest brigade. It’s only after a day here that we notice that very few of the foreigners here are couples: about 95% of them are male, single and potential sex pest material. It makes for interesting albeit slightly unpalatable people watching, luckily it’s only a day or two ‘till we leave for Burma…