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Bob & Margot's travels Thailand, Vietnam & Cambodia

ASIA - Thailand July 2013

THAILAND | Friday, 12 July 2013 | Views [289]

Welcome to our Asia 2013 Blog.... a few test messages to get it sorted. I don't seem able to start a new journal, so it leads on from the 2010 trip.

7 July

Flew out of Auckland 1.15pm, arrived Bangkok around 5am NZ time to the hotel. 

3 days in Bangkok

Fast high tech trains, tall glass clad sky scrapers, escalators, stairs, stairs, stairs.

Helpful attendants offer easier access,

Stairs & more stairs. Fast train   Central city area... Malls climb into the sky. Sterile; breathing luxury.

Designer high end stores, designer clothed people, mass connection to smart phones

Poverty, history, hawkers, Rusting iron roofed shacks, bundled wires, broken pavements and bustling markets.

Bangkok from New Zealand is a culture shock.

Our hotel was comfortable, affordable and convenient. A short walk, negotiating the possibly most dangerous aspect of Thailand... the streets, we test the driver alertness and response to pedestrians. When in doubt stick by a local.

The promise of cheap prescription lens and dentistry may be a thing of the past... the optical shops set back in the comfort of a luxury airconditioned mall quoted prices which far exceeded a home quote.

Stepping off the 'skywalk' out of the mall onto the street, brought back memories of Bangkok in the 80's, the 70's for Bob - the searing humid heat, the smells, the streets and side walks with gaping holes and wide grid grates the only separation to the sewer below, the back alleys with glimpses of local life.

Bangkok... hustle & bustle. Amazing how it has changed in the past 30 years. Unrecognisable with the rapid sky train and subways, operational since 2003.They imported the best technology from Austria and Germany. Also glitzy multi-storied malls and hotels with sheer glass and central cores of escalators spiraling up into the sky. However, immediately adjacent is the tangle of electrical wires and not far down the street the footpaths are broken and tiny shop fronts offer the usual bargains of clothing, street food vendors and more. The streets are humming with modern cars, many Toyota's plus buses, tuk tuk's and hundreds of scooters and small motor bike racing in all directions at break neck speeds.

We enjoyed an expensive, but worthwhile trip on the river in a longtail boat which took us into the back streets / canals with views of impoverished slums, stinking polluted waterways alongside high end hotels and homes of the wealthy.

The Grand Palace / Wat Pra Kaew

Consecrated in 1782 the first year of Bankok's rule. Today the biggest tourist attraction and pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists.

A truely stunning place. Will add more photos

11 July
 We traveled from Bangkok to Hua Hin... the original hide away place of the Thai King in the early 1900's. About 4hours by train (actually 5hrs) Pleasant journey in 2nd class leaving from Bangkok's original railway station built in the 1880's. We had comfortable seats with plenty of room and fresh air through the open windows as recommended in the good old "Lonely Planet". 
We found a little guesthouse, very much like a backpacker, right on the gulf of Thailand.  "Hua Hin" is obviously a very popular destination for the upwardly mobile from Bangkok and travelers alike. We enjoyed a beautiful meal on an upper deck restaurant - very fresh seafood swimming in tanks at the entrance -  with views out to sea, all for about $11 to $12 for both of us (that is actually quite expensive for Thailand). We have booked for 2 nights. it looks interesting, but a bit too touristy for us... plan to follow up our local Thai restauranteur's advice to go about 1 hour south to a less traveled beach side location.
13 July
Travel south in search of smaller less touristy locations
18 July

Prachuap is a beautifully clean, tidy & picturesque town. The shore is lined with a wIde paved promenade. Colourful fIshing boats dot the bay. iridescent on the night skyline. Night market offers cheap tasty meals to be consumed sitting on the sea wall under elegant lights. Our guesthouse was cool & quiet overlooking the bay from our room with a balcony. We Rented a scooter to explore. First traveling north to Ao Noi one of three bays in the area. The signage led us to a National Park which proved very disappointing as the trail was not established and poorly marked making it challenging to negotiate. Also the bay is extremely polluted leaving a dark green residue at low tide. Rather a concern to see women & children out there collecting cockles or some other shell fish.

Our search for the cave housing a slumbering Buddha was not as expected. The huge Buddha lay a dark & dingy cave as if forgotten. 
However, back down the long flight of broken concrete steps and on our way back to town we came across the  Wat Ao Noi, simply meaning the temple at Noi Bay.  It is a beautiful teak carved building, with several Buddha's situated to give an interesting silhouette when looking out over the bay beyond.

From there we headed to Ao Manao (pronounced A ma now). Charlie, our local Thai restaurant owner in Russell, recommended this as a quieter retreat for local Thai people.  It is basically an air force base with few services, green leafy grounds and a well groomed golf course. The beach is pleasant, offering rows of colourful deck chairs to lounge on under the trees.  After yet another scrumptious lunch at a large food court, for about $5 for both of us, including a welcome cold cappuccino frappe and blueberry shake for Bob, we relaxed in the shade for the afternoon.  I enjoyed a decent swim up & down the bay, once I navigated the shallow shore, but unfortunately Bob was banned from the water, having grazed his knee.

The next day, Monday we spent the whole day focused on getting to our next destination Ko Tao. One of the east coast islands. We checked out late morning and proceeded to Prachuap railway station in good time to get tickets on the 1pm, 3rd class train for NZ$2.82 for both of us!  Only the train didn't come. Delay after delay. It is a good reminder of the need for lots of patience when traveling here. Finally at 3.30pm we were on the train. After a 4 hour journey of unspectacular scenery, stopping at many towns along the way, we alighted at Chumphon and were immediately whisked onto a minivan to the place where the ferry leaves, another 2 hour wait. Finally at 10pm we boarded the boat, which looked and sounded very old and tired.  With a lot of clanging and banging we headed off  into the night. In fact it was reasonably comfortable and as we were able to stay onboard until a more social able hour than the 4am arrival, it was in fact daylight when we walked ashore at Ko Tao. All was quiet and peaceful at that time.  How little we knew.

An expensive 4 minute taxi right to our hotel, as the locals have price fixed and will go no where for less than 200Bhat (about $10).  Bob was SHATTERED after the long journey so the first few hours were spent recouping some energy!!

We have now been here for 3 days and have transfered to a more affordable little beach bungalow. We walked for miles to explore the south end of this little island and have been amazed at the huge number of tourists and the commercial nature of the whole place.

I am happy to say that we have found a quiet spot on a beautiful beach and some truly exquisite places to sample the local cuisine.
20 July
We are still on the island of Ko Tao. What we didn't appreciate was the popularity of this place. All of the Northern Hemisphere is in summer vacation and this is the dream place for sun seekers and divers.

We are having to spend time booking ahead and accommodation is difficult to secure. A bonus of the computer age means that we are connected, but that means all has changed. Spontaneity of finding a place to sleep and to get around is somewhat compromised.

Yesterday we stayed in a very basic beach side cabin right by the sea. It is lovely to hear the waves rolling in all through the night.

The prevailing wind at this time of year is from the SE blowing right in here. It pleasantly cools everything, but stirs up the sand making visibility impossible. I did go for a swim this morning before the wind got up and could see some of the local sea life.

Yesterday, late morning as the sun was heating up as we embark on a 3km uphill walk to Aow Leuk Bay on the south east coast. Very nice. Fewer, albeit expensive resorts, clear turquoise water, minimal wind and lots of little tropical fish to watch. It appears that all the dive operators come here & disgorge their fledgling divers into the bay.

As usual the food throughout the day was spectacular. It is hard to understand why some people travel when they eat western food here. Thai food has to be some of the best cuisine - fresh tropical fruits, our regular daily fix of mango and banana pancakes, curries and more. A great thing is that the food is inexpensive and clean.
22 July
Yesterday was an interesting travel day. We caught a ferry from Ko Tao to Koh Phangan. We observed with some trepidation as we joined hundreds of weary looking travellers. I'd say fellow back packers, but I don't believe we belong to that franterity any longer. Many were looking rather under the weather from the long hours of partying into the wee small hours. Officials directed us onto a very fragile looking wharf, allowing limited numbers to proceed before requesting we wait to the side for another 25 to 30 minutes. We watched as the boat slowly laboured off toward the south, it's free board looking suspect.  Only then did we hear that 300 people were on board. So instead of feeling frustrated to be left to wait we breathed a sigh of relief.
We boarded the next boat and after all passengers were aboard there were even spare seats. So an uneventful trip.
Koh Phangan is the home of the infamous "Full Moon Party" (TM?) where the young party until the late hours of the morning on Haad Rin beach, complete with glow paint and iced "buckets" of cheap Thai whiskey.  This tribal affair is a throwback to the 60's hippy era and has dubious origins but has now become a rite of passage for sweaty youngsters from Aussie/USA/England/Italy/France/etc. (hey, are we showing our age or what?)  Unfortunately this lemming-like event attracts huge crowds and high prices, sooo we are going to visit the quiet northern part of the island where we can use our walkers on the beach relatively unimpeded.  Actually the north has some better snorkeling and scenery and because it is isolated it should give us a respite from the Full Moon Festival.  Towards the end of the month we will go to Koh Samui and then on to Bangkok for a flight to Hanoi and a new phase of our trip.

Mae Haad beach at the far north west tip of Koh Phangan on the Gulf of Siam promised isolation, peace & quiet. So imagine our consternation when after settling into our simple little bungalow perched high above the beach, in the jungle, we walked to the beach to find it littered with western (farang) bodies. 
Additionally the seasonal SE breeze was whipping up sand and the swimmable water 50 metres out of reach. 
Bob is happy to be able to swim now that his knee is sufficiently healed. He waded out, mask & snorkel in hand, only to find the visibility so poor that he couldn't see much.  I have developed a successful method of shallow water gliding on my belly. And I'm happy I brought my swim goggles. This area is promoted as Thailand's best snorkeling and driving so it is disappointing.

Yesterday we explored a beach which appeared to be deserted. A little difficult to reach and well worth it. We spent a few hours under the shade of palm trees mostly alone. The water was a little more accessible and a little clearer.

Today, July 26, we headed out on an adventure to find a better beach. Having heard of a spot just around the rocks to the north, we headed out a little late in the morning, on the hot dusty road (reported to not be accessible via the coast). As it turned out it wasn't so far or so steep. Again rewarded with solitude. Again the beach wasn't as promised, but the water, once accessed, was clearer with a pretty good range of fish. Schools of surgeon fish, parrot fish, damesel fish and many brilliant tiny electric blue fish. The coral is disappointing, lacking in colour, broken and smothered in silt. The up side is the greater appreciation we have for our beautiful Bay of Islands and our sparsely populated NZ. I am glad of the experience I had in 1978 when I dove Taveuni Fiji. It was so spectacularly clear, clean and colourful I don't think I will find a match fo this many years later.  I recall viewing the seabed 150 feet down when looking from the flying bridge of the boat. I dove with a NZ dive operator and we had the ocean to ourselves!
We have 3 more nights here, working on the relaxation, 2 nights in Ko Samui, then onto Vietnam via a night in Bangkok. 

1 August

Impressions of Thailand after almost a month.

Bangkok is a massive city of contrast.  We gained a new perspective on this city as we flew over it on our return from Ko Samui yesterday. We spent a night in a hotel near to Suvarnabhumi (BKK) airport, then early this morning drove clear across town for an hour or more to the Don Muang (DMK) airport.  Looking down on the massive flat area, the Mae Nam Chao Phraya River snakes through the city and an enormous network of freeways / motorways circumnavigate the city.  Our taxi driver this morning certainly earned his 500Bhat, unlike some of the touts in the tourist areas. We left at 4am and once we left the city streets, as Bangkok came to life; street vendors selling food and a small number of shops opening and a few scooters and vehicles out and about, we travelled at freeway speed. We could have been anywhere in the western world passing billboards, factories, car sale yards and so many gas stations.

Now the reason we had to travel so far by taxi rather than have a free shuttle ride to the airport is that confusion arose as to the existence of two international airports. One is new, the other recently revamped. So it is 5.45am and we sit here in a stupor, not a stupa, waiting for our 6.45am flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Although there is a heap to explore here in Bangkok, we are happy with a cursory 3 - 4day viewing and will come back at the end of September to meet with Ali & Eugene before I fly away home to NZ.

 Thailand’s population is 66.7 million as at February 2012 in the LP. Unemployment is reported to be 1.2%. Amazing!  However, when we look around there is someone doing some work related activity, some of which seems rather menial, but at least they can earn; directing traffic, foot traffic, directing people in the train stations, often accompanied by a rather piercing whistle blown with the advance and departure of every train, people sweeping the streets, sidewalks, malls, a young lad sitting at his post outside a public toilet to collect 20Baht from anyone wishing to use it. There are not so many hand pulled carts these days, but I did see one poor fellow who had clearly suffered a stroke, hauling his cart of brushes along the street.

The eastern gulf islands are a humming tourist trade. It appears that the livelihood  initially was from fishing and now predominantly from tourism.  Pockets on the 3 islands we visited are teeming with Europeans. It is interesting to note that comments in the Lonely Planet (LP) regarding being aware of Thai culture and the importance of being sensitive to Thai modesty. The LP suggests covering up when not on the beach.  Some sideways looks were observed in shops and markets as bare chested men and bikini clad women wandered around.  Huge numbers of tourists buzz around on scooters, many scantily clad and apparently many come off.  We were informed that, the road toll on Samui is near 2 deaths a day. Scary! Roads are narrow, generally without a foot path / side walk and are constructed of concrete.  These concrete roads can run out and without notice you are suddenly on a rutted dirt road. Much of the interior of the islands is mountainous and roads tend to follow the coastline which is mostly pretty flat, but the gradient can be very steep in places. Bob nearly got taken out by a women attempting to drive her scooter up one such steep hill. Clearly some of the tourists lack experience and confidence.

We enjoyed a couple of days of getting around a scooter. It certainly is a pleasant way to travel, cool and opens up possibilities of where to go. We were only on Ko Samui for 2 nights and managed to explore quite a bit of it. We had planned to go to the Chaweng which was too far to walk. After about 30 minutes of waiting for the public bus, we gave up and hired a bike for less than it would have cost to get a return bus trip.  It is hard to believe this was the same beach I stayed on in a little bungalow back in 1982. It now has a greater resemblance to Bangkok.

We imagine that Europe has similar smoke free environments as we do in NZ, but many people seem to light up on the beaches, streets and restaurants. Not much fun when sharing the airspace.  Many of the Thai men appear to smoke, but few of the women.  Our impressions of Thai people from past travels are of slim, attractive well groomed people.  The evidence of western food we guess may be responsible for a growing number of overweight and obese Thai’s? MacDonald’s, many bakeries,’ 7 Eleven’ stores, (a chain in the USA) and a high number of western bars and restaurants on the islands, offer western food. The only time we gave up trying to find a Thai meal and decided that a pizza sounded like a pleasant change, we were disappointed. Not only was the meal less tasty and less satisfying, but more expensive.  Makes sense I guess as according to one of our guesthouse hosts, a German who has been living here 25 years, all of the produce is brought onto the islands. Palm trees cover the islands, but mostly those sold for consumption have been brought from the mainland.

Ok, next stop Vietnam.

More photos to upload.  It is a slow process so apologies for not getting onto it.




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