05.07.2013 35 °C
After completing my Australian 4WD camping adventure and swapping the Land Cruiser for a backpack it’s time to start travelling again. I’m moving back to the UK and plan to do some more travelling on the way. The plan is to fly from Sydney to Bangkok and travel around the Mekong region before returning to Bangkok for a flight to London. I’ve just spent 2 weeks in Sydney catching-up and saying goodbye to good friends, selling my beloved Land Cruiser and preparing for the next adventure. I was planning to travel as light as possible and managed to get my overall backpack down to 20kilos. I’d purchased a 55 litre main pack with an additional 25 litre day back zipped on the outside. I’d filled both with all my stuff, I was keen to take my Digital SLR with lens and kit plus a small 10inch laptop for image processing/storage, blog writing and to keep in contact with family & friends over email. I didn’t pack much clothes, you can buy plenty of clothes out there. It was still a challenge to get the weight down but I’m pleased with 20kilos. They say ideally you should carry a quarter your body weight, half at most but that gets really hard work.
The Mekong region
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, winding its way down from the foothills of Tibet to the South China Sea and encompassing some of Asia’s most dramatic and exotic landscapes. The river passes through and is surrounded by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The region has a history as long and dramatic as the river itself, more recently its played host to some of the most brutal wars of the 20th century and the bloodiest revolutions. But now and only in the last generation peace and relative stability has come to the region, this has brought tourism and prosperity which means it’s now quite safe to travel these countries.
I’m hoping to spend some time in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. I’ve given myself 6 weeks for this adventure – too ambitious? very likely given the distances involved. Again I’m not planning a detailed itinerary as it’s constrictive and doesn’t allow the freedom to change course on the road, you meet people and hear about great places to explore, you may find you want to spend longer in certain places. However, a high level plan is a good idea with an outline of which areas you want to explore and a rough time allocation for each, just keep the details fluid. I’m still working through my high level plan as I hurriedly read the Lonely Planets’ Mekong region book and also do my online research and so far it goes something like this; fly into Bangkok and spend up to a week there, then possibly shoot down South Thailand to check out some of the islands and enjoy some sunbathing on the beach. Head back to Bangkok and East to the Cambodian, after spending sometime in Cambodia head East again to Vietnam. Travel up Vietnam as far as time will allow and then head West through Laos to return back to Thailand’s and Bangkok. Coming in to Thailand by plane you’re given 1 months free Visa (only for UK, US, Canadian, EU and Australian/NZ citizens), if you come in over the border from Cambodia or Laos you’re only given 2 weeks so I plan to spend most time in Thailand at the beginning.
I arrived in Bangkok after 9 hour flying from Sydney on a Thai Airways 747. Thai Airways are good and I recommend them – modern, clean and efficient and the stewardesses certainly made the flight seem less mundane . Coming out of Bangkok international into the humid tropical air felt like you had been wrapped in a wet Asian rice pancake, but it was great after the chilly Australian winter.
I managed to negotiate the train and subway to my hotel without too much dramas, although the spelling of place names varies depending on which map you’re using which threw me a few challenges on the way. This is a vast city - I travelled 25 miles from the airport to the city centre continuously passing residential high rises, occasionally you’d see a huge poster of Man United splayed across a building. The city is split down the middle by the main train line running north-south. To the west is new Bangkok with its high-rises and teaming modern shopping malls, to the east is old Bangkok with most of the temples and teaming street markets. I booked into a hotel in the west for the first few nights near Silom, mainly for me to settle in and acclimatise to this exotic frantic city. I then spent several nights in the east side down amongst the street markets and backpackers.
My hotel overlooked Silom from the 15th floor giving a dramatic view of modern Bangkok with its gleaming white skyscrapers.
At street level you come out of the lobby into the heat with jostling people everywhere, street vendors spilling out onto the road, the noise and the smell of wafting charcoal and spices overwhelming your senses… this is indeed an intense, vibrant and exotic city. It took me several days to find my feet and brush off the haggling skills, I got ripped off several times until this happened, everything is negotiable here and it took me a while to figure out what you should be paying for things like taxis. But even being ripped off it was still very cheap.
Muay Thai Boxing
I was keen to see some traditional Muay Thai whilst in Bangkok so bought a ringside ticket at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium near Silom for the Friday night. Lumpinee Stadium is the oldest boxing stadium in Bangkok and the cultural centre for Muay Boxing. I was particularly keen as I used to practice Kickboxing as a teenager, but even if you’re not into boxing it’s still worth going to see as Muay Thai boxing as it’s a very authentic Thai cultural experience.
I was hurled across the city on the back of a motorbike during the evening rush hour with no helmet on. The artful rider dodging and weaving through the think traffic. I’d jumped on the back of a motorbike taxi man, they’re numerous in the city and I wouldn’t have made it time otherwise as the city becomes gridlocked during peak rush hour. If you’ve got the stomach it’s the fastest way to travel in Bangkok. There are also rickshaws and normal taxi cars but not being as slim they can't dodge between the traffic and get held up, fine if your not in a hurry and don't need to cross the city.
It’s a bit expensive for ringside seats at 1,500 baht (30 quid) but still worth it, the standing areas behind are a lot cheaper and still had good views (I will go for these next time). The Stadium is hot with no aircon just large fans whirling in the roof, the place is stuffed full of people all screaming and you can smell the testosterone in the air. Turn around between fights to see all the locals betting and shouting (even though it’s illegal to gamble in Thailand). Surprisingly enough I noticed as many women in the audience as men.
The fighting starts with kids and works up weights through the night, they also have at least one traditional exhibition bout where they wore rope instead of gloves on their hands. Each fights starts with a traditional dancing ritual which was spectacular to watch and when they fight there is a lot of heart and respect between the fighters, you have to appreciate the culture of this sport in Thailand. There was a traditional live band playing in the corner and their tempo would increase during bouts driving everyone into frenzy. I'd had a great night and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Bangkok.
Wat Phra Kaew, Grand Palace
I spent an afternoon sightseeing in Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) which is one of Thailand’s cultural wonders and houses some of the oldest temples. It is architecturally stunning with gold gilded monuments, mosaic porcelain pillars and rich marble. The temple houses the most revered Buddha, the Emerald Buddha. You need to have covered ankles and elbows to enter the site and take your shoes off when entering the temples themselves.
The Grand Palace is the former royal residence and still used for state occasions.
Wat Pho (temple of the sleeping Buddha)
Wat Pho is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok dating from 16th century. The temple is the traditional training ground for Thai Massage and they still operate massage pavilions on the grounds. In my opinion Thai Massage is one of the world’s best forms of massage and this is the cultural home.
I took a quick trip up the Golden Mountain for sunset, a golden temple perched on top of a hill just east of the Grand Palace. It’s one of the only hills in Bangkok and give you a great view over the city. They have some excellent Buddhist ringing bells and gongs which you can play. On the steps coming up from street level you walk through this garden with what seems like vaporous mist pouring over the path giving a surreal mystic feel as if you’ve arrived after your long spiritual journey to meet Buddha at the top… I figured they have cunningly concealed water vapour nozzles somewhere in the garden… that or I was hallucinating from all the chillies, either way it was a nice experience.
My last few nights in Bangkok where spent in Banglamphu the popular travels district with bustling night life and the most amazing night markets. All the along the north side of Sanam Luang park these huge markets springs up after dusk from what seems like nowhere. They are a spectacle of light, noise and smells and you can buy just about anything at them.
I love Thai food and have been earnestly trying to teach myself to cook some of their dishes over the last year with some success but of course the food here puts me to shame. It’s hot with a lot of chillies used, my ears had steam coming out of them for the first few days and my stomach has taken as long to acclimatise (even with my cast-iron gut). For something a bit more calming on the gut you can’t beat fresh chicken and egg Pad Thai cooked for you on the street