Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ancient cities, wild monkeys, racing tuk-tuks and fruitshakes

Flying from Yangon to Bangkok is like traveling to the future. Despite the cultural difference, Myanmar is like what Thailand used to be say, 40 years ago. In the 1960s, Myanmar and Thailand were pretty much at the same level of development. But today, while Myanmar's economy didn't really grow much since that time, Thailand is booming. And as old paint bladders from Yangon's colonial buildings, Bangkok is building the one skyscraper after the other. Thailand is one of the new 'Asian Tigers', along with China, Malaysia or Vietnam, and Bangkok is the sprawling center of it.
Although to me it seems very interesting to visit quickly developing countries, I never really felt attracted to Thailand as a traveling destination. This is mostly caused by the exploding tourist industry of Thailand; there are simply so much tourists that a lot of Thai places don't even feel Asian anymore. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but when I travel I try to experience a different culture and therefore the massive numbers of western tourists scare me away. However, this time, I actually was in the mood of some easy traveling and time to relax. And if you're looking for this, Thailand is great and besides, it is a very beautiful country with lots of friendly folks.

So I flew to Bangkok, the 'City of Angels' as it is nicknamed. I stayed in the famous Khao San Road area, which is the backpacker area of the city. The streets around Khao San Road and the KSR itself are like one large funfair. Every centimeter of the area caters to foreign tourists, with restaurants, guesthouses, souvenir shops and everything else a foreign tourist might possibly need to buy. I've probably seen more western tourists than Thai in this area, but it simply is the cheapest and easiest place to stay in Bangkok.
My first week in Bangkok, I haven't done much really. I had to get a new passport, as the old one didn't had a single empty page left. So a made a visit to the Dutch embassy and I arranged a few other things. Besides that, I enjoyed some bars and terraces along Khao San Road with a few British guys and a German photographer I met in Myanmar. After that first week in Thailand, my friend Jurjen flew into Bangkok; we would travel together until the end of June. So I picked him up from the airport and we started to do some sightseeing the next days. We went for a long stroll in Bangkok's bustling China town, made a nice boat trip on the Chao Praya river and visited a few temples.
Although Bangkok has some nice sights, the city itself is rather dirty. Especially the air pollution in the Thai capital is really bad. I never felt pollution as much as in Bangkok, it is worse than all the Chinese metropolises I have been to. In order to escape the pollution for a few days, Jurjen and I went to an holiday island not far from the capital. We took a bus to the provincial town Rayong and hopped on a pick-up to the ferry port in Ban Phe, from where we took a ferry to Ko Samet island. We chose Ko Samet, because it is the closest bounty-style island from the capital and it is not as touristy as the islands in the south.
We stayed in the cheapest guesthouse we found, which is located next to Ao Phai beach. The following days we just hang a bit around, drunk numerous fruit shakes (banana-pineapple shake is my favorite) and swam in the Gulf of Thailand. The good thing about Ko Samet is, that you can hike from one beach to another. Each beach has bit of a different atmosphere and different types of people, which makes the tiny island actually quite diverse. And of course, the white sand beaches and beautiful blue ocean provided a good break from busy Bangkok. Furthermore the island provided a good setting to chat up with my friend Jurjen, who I haven't seen for the past half year.
From Ko Samet we bussed back to Thailand's capital city, where we spent the night. Next day we moved north to the historical city of Ayutthaya. This city used to be one of the ancient capitals of Siam (former name of Thailand) and is absolutely filled with ruins and temples. However, we couldn't see the glory of the city straight away, because the owner of our guesthouse kept us busy for the whole evening. So what is this guesthouse? Well, it is called Mint guesthouse and the owner is nicknamed Mr. Toy. We found the place, because it is just next to the train station and the guy approached us when we passed. The guy who runs it is named Mr. Toy, because he keeps you busy with all kinds of magic tricks, mind puzzles and anecdotes. And with a room for just one US dollar, it probably is the best guesthouse I stayed in Southeast Asia. So that evening we were playing like circus artists and drunk a few cold Chang beers with Toy.
Next day we rented bicycles and just cycled around the beautiful, but boiling hot city. We stopped a few times at some stunning ruins and temples, before recovering from the heath with a nice and cold fruit shake. Despite the nice atmosphere and the amazing guesthouse, the thing that really annoyed me in Ayutthaya are the swarms of stray dogs, which can be very aggressive sometime. The Buddhist Thai don't like to kill the dogs, because the killing of an animal conflicts with Buddhist thought. So the dogs can stay in the city and made cycling a bit more challenging for us, luckily we weren't bitten. Less luckily was my flat tire, which we got fixed at a small shop for just 40 baht (0.85 euro). It took them less than 30 minutes to repair the bike. To compare, if you bring a bike with a flat tire to a bicycle shop in the Netherlands, you can expect to pay at least 20 euro and wait for your bike for at least 3 days. In Europe we call it efficiency.
With the bike repaired and a rewarding beer with Mr Toy in the evening we went to sleep and prepared us for a day trip to Lopburi. We took a morning train and spent the afternoon in even hotter Lopburi. That day really was so boiling hot that it was almost impossible to walk anywhere out of the air-conditioned 7-Eleven. Lopburi is another ancient Thai city and has some nice ruins as well. We visited some of them and went into a history museum until the weather cooled down a bit. Afterwards we went to yet another temple, which is famous for its wild monkeys hanging around there. Similar like stray dogs in Ayutthaya, the monkeys in Lopburi are protected by the Buddhist Thai and can walk pretty freely around the city. Shop owners around the monkey sites all carry small catapults in order to keep the animals away from their stores. We made a few pictures of the apes and took a train back to Ayutthaya for dinner. At 1 am that night we took another train back to Bangkok and hopped on a tuk-tuk who brought us to a guesthouse at 3. That tuk-tuk ride was really crazy, our totally maniac driver had its foot full on the gas pedal all journey. He also really enjoyed ignoring red traffic lights and overtaking. I was glad to arrive safely so I could pick up my new flashy passport at the Dutch embassy next day. While doing the Thai immigration stuff later on (which is necessary if you change your passport), I met a Russian guy Igor at the office. As his English wasn't that good, I helped him a bit arranging his stuff. He invited me for a beer and a boat trip on Chao Praya river afterwards. Together with Jurjen we walked a bit around the Royal palace area.
The day after we moved on eastwards, to the provincial town of Trat. We spent the night in Trat and caught a pick-up to a small ferry village next morning. A short ferry ride brought us to Ko Chang, which is quite a large island in the east of Thailand, famous for its tropical rain forest covering most of the island. A pick-up drove us along the small snaking road to the southern side of Ko Chang, which is the backpacker area. We stayed in a German owned guesthouse on Lonely Beach, which was a really nice place. The beach however was disappointing, because it is quite narrow and was full of garbage. Also the weather wasn't that good, cloudy and rainy most of the days, so we couldn't really enjoy Ko Chang's beaches. We did make a nice but tiring walk to a village named Ban Bang Bao, from where we had a nice view over the south side of the island.
A few lazy days later, we took a ferry back to the mainland and arranged a pick-up to Hat Lek, which is the southernmost border with Cambodia. Just a few minutes before we arrived at the border, the sky opened and it started to rain very heavily. In the heavy rain we got our Thai exit stamps and walked over to the Kingdom of Cambodia.