Home in T-Minus 1 Week, ft. a Small Crisis

I started to write up our visit to Danang yesterday, thinking it would be a short ‘n’ sweet kind of post, like the visit, but then I remembered a bunch of funny stories and things we did (some of them might not be that funny but they are at least stories) and pretty soon I was drafting several paragraphs and selecting many photographs and I think it’s going to take me a while to write up two months of travelling. There is so much to tell you. Like the pet pig I saw in a Chiang Mai food market. The time I nearly fell down a toilet in Laos. When I went to a church in Hanoi and realised why people like churches (don’t worry, I’m still a salty atheist with a complex).

St Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam
Just as a teaser, here’s the church. Officially it’s a cathedral. Possibly when I walked in I should’ve burst into flames.

I can’t quite believe it, but we go home in eight days. In fact I am writing this during the early evening, so in a week’s time I will probably be packing. Or I’ll be in one of Bangkok’s markets, bartering for a new summer wardrobe and all the souvenirs I’ve denied myself since January. I want a nice set of chopsticks, because I have finally mastered chopsticks (I can feed myself with them, anyway), another pair of elephant trousers because I will look cool and well-traveled if I wear them in Southend high street, a silk scarf or five and possibly an elephant plushie. I have even checked my airline’s hand luggage allowance to see if I can squeeze more stuff in. Our checked luggage can go up to about 30kg, and I don’t think I hit 20 on the way out, but our backpacks are only about 45 litres, so I may have to go all Marie Kondo and roll my bras into my sandals.

Then again, if living out of one bag for three months (with a fair bit of bra rolling) has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need a lot of objects to get by. In Chiang Mai I kept nearly tripping over a couple of guests’ bags, because they left them open on the floor and holy bats they had a lot of stuff. I refused to scrimp on facial products and underwear, and my bulkiest items have been electrical (which, if I wanted to backpack like a purist, I would have left at home) but otherwise I’ve been pretty bare bones. Aside from clothes and my sleeping bag, most of my items have been things like contact lenses, notebooks (I’ve finished three and started two) and prescription sunglasses. Technically they’re all luxuries, and Maxim thought I had way too much stuff when we started – but he doesn’t need glasses and doesn’t write. He also doesn’t menstruate, and I absolutely refused to leave the UK without a supply of sanitary products, just in case South East Asia did not have pharmacies (spoiler alert: it does). I have a feeling I’m going to walk into my bedroom at home and, after crying with delight upon reunion with my bed, look at my stuff and think ‘what the fuck was I thinking when I bought this?’

To be honest, I’ve thought that a few times already… and yet I still seem to own 7865 pieces of overpriced MCR merchandise, 387 handbags when I use the same rucksack every day until it breaks and I buy a new one and 2567 dresses, most of which don’t fit because my clothing size fluctuates with my IBS.

I’ve just remembered that I have not worn a dress, jeans or a pair of boots for three months. I’m looking forward to putting on my Doc Martens almost as much as I am looking forward to the dogs. And I’m going to get a haircut, and cash a voucher I won in a raffle last October for a mani/pedi and a Thai massage (yes, really). I’ve had two massages in Thailand so far just so I can go in and say ‘Oh, a Thai massage? I was just in Thailand!’

Bahahaaa.

The cafe I’m in legit just handed me my bill, because I’ve been ignoring the fact it’s been closing around me for fifteen minutes. Oops.

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A Tale of Two Cities… No, Three Cities. And Three Trains, Three Buses, One Unprescribed Sleeping Pill and 50 Hours of Public Transport

All right children, I know it’s been four seconds since my last post and I was telling you all about southern Vietnam in January, but I’m going to fast forward you for a minute to 10th March, which was the beginning of what I am now realising was a ludicrous journey across central Thailand. I’m going to be retelling it for years to come, so I thought I may as well tell you all now while it’s fresh in my memory (and before I pass out with exhaustion and wipe the shittier bits from my memory).

Our general plan for the trip was to do Bangkok-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Thailand. We both want to see the southern Thai islands, and to see Chiang Mai in the north, and we fly home from Bangkok, which is conveniently located in the middle. Or inconveniently, if you consider that we have three weeks to visit two opposing sides of the country.We got to Vientiane, the Lao capital, on Thursday (I promise I will tell you all about Laos soon) and realised that it was more practical to go to south Thailand before we went north, partly because the Maxim wants to be in the south for a party thing in the middle of March and partly because Lao public transport is generally lacking in options. Flying anywhere from Vientiane was expensive, so we booked a sleeper train to Bangkok and planned to get another train and a bus down to Phuket (pronounced ‘pooket’, for the record, not ‘fuck it’). Surprisingly, everything went to plan. Unsurprisingly, I wish someone had knocked me out on Friday afternoon and woken me up tomorrow morning.

Vientiane’s train station is about 12km south of Vientiane, so we reached there on a bus from our hostel, via about five other hostels. I had purchased two snacks for the journey, some disappointing crisps and a bar of overpriced chocolate, and I made it through most of the crisps before we reached the station. I should add that we left the hostel at about 3pm, so we’d had a full day of doing stuff in 35 degree heat and already needed a shower. When you cross from Laos to Thailand, you pay 10,000 kip to leave Laos and have your visa stamped, then get a shuttle train to Nong Khai in north-east Thailand, which takes about fifteen minutes and crosses the Friendship Bridge (nice one, politicians).

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Children played on the tracks before the train left. I have been away from Health and Safety land for so long that all I thought was ‘that looks like a nice way to pass the time.’

We’d booked a sleeper train from Nong Khai to Bangkok – you can also book a regular train that travels at night, and we soon learnt the difference – and paid a few thousand kip extra for lower berth beds on recommendation from everyone. We’d booked late, so we were in different carriages; my neighbours were a Lao man who snored loudly and got off a few stations before Bangkok, and a Japanese girl and her Korean boyfriend who were told off by an official for sitting on their bunks before he’d made them up (he also confiscated their beer; alcohol is prohibited on Thai railways). Until I was on the train, munching my chocolate and watching as staff transformed the bunks into beds using foldable mattresses and hospital corners, I hadn’t really thought about living in hostels for two months. I mean, I miss my bed and my privacy and my space, but as I took in the working reading light, working plug socket, curtain and folding table (complete with drinks holder – the lower berth was definitely worth it), then cleaned my teeth in a little cubicle with a lock, liquid soap and toilet paper I thought ‘this is the most privacy and the most luxury I have experienced since that beautiful yet pricey hostel in Hue, if not since London’. And then I thought, ‘I am very much ready to go home.’

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Leg room! LEG ROOM.

The journey was from 7pm to 7am – we left on time and everything – but unlike on sleeper buses, they didn’t turn out the train lights at all (that explains the curtains) and the background noise is spectacular, so when my Lao neighbour got up for his stop at 3:30am, I did too. Staff roused the troops, and converted the bunks back into seats, around 5am, so by the time we got into Bangkok station I was starving and wished I’d taken diazepam the night before.

Kids, if you ever have to get from Bangkok to Phuket, ignore the environmentalists and the purist backpackers. Ignore your money concerns and desire for adventure. Book a flight. By 8am, we’d sussed out the ticket office, consumed various overpriced coffees, used a terrible wifi connection to Google our options, consumed various breakfast foods (a chicken leg at 7:30am was a new culinary low) and booked another train. I can’t remember if we were too tight to fly or just forgot that we could, but we wanted to get the hell out of Bangkok as soon as possible so we booked the soonest available train to Surat Thani, which is the end of the railway line, and a bus on to Phuket, which I had just learnt is an island and has no railway.

What do you do if you have twelve hours in the biggest city in South East Asia? If you’re Maxim, you find a cafe and chill out with food and/or (or and/and) a beer. If you’re me, you find a cafe, eat another breakfast then walk to the nearest market and get a Thai massage. On your return to the cafe for lunch, you discover that an American couple there is also waiting for a night train, and they’re stoned. They’re so stoned that they laugh at everything at a volume normally reserved for raging arguments and compliment your elephant trousers. ‘They’re from Luang Prabang,’ you say. ‘Laos,’ you add, because you know they’re new to Asia. They nod. Your patience extinguished, you walk to the nearby metro and pay 50p to go three stops to Lumphini Park, which is one of the places you didn’t get to visit when you came to Bangkok back in January. You get lost twice between the station and the actual park, stop at Starbucks in an air conditioned mall, pay £3 for iced coffee and hate yourself for it, then Google directions to the park, brave crossing a couple Bangkok’s roads and arrive in the park so exhausted that you have a nap on the grass until it’s time to get the metro back to the cafe, then haul your bags to the main station and eat a couple more chicken legs for dinner.

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Once I’d sat down I didn’t even regret the Starbucks. I will be going back to Lumphini before leave Bangkok in April.

The only part of that I really recommend doing is the massage and the park; stoned tourists are to be avoided unless you’re in Vang Vieng, Laos, where many people are stoned at best (seriously can’t wait to tell you all about Laos).

As we had booked a regular train that happened to travel at night, for the journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani we were back to shitty seats (mine actually fell off its frame when I leant back too far) and the desire for a quick death. The train left about an hour and a half late and either a window was left open or someone had turned the air con on to the ‘sub zero’ setting, because I ended up digging out my hoodie, a pair of socks and the emergency foil blanket I brought from home in case we stayed in open fields. I also took a diazepam so at least if I was cold I wouldn’t be conscious to complain about it (self medicating to survive overnight journeys is not the same as smoking weed in Bangkok. I did not speak to one human post-consumption, although I did have some weird dreams).

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If you were wondering what a foil blanket looks like… (The white one was provided; it was more useful for blocking out light than blocking out frostbite.)

This morning I woke up naturally about fifteen minutes before we arrived in Surat Thani, bought a coffee from the service staff and forgot to take my socks off before I put my sandals back on. I also forgot to take my eyemask off from around my neck before we left the train; I like to imagine that I sat in the cafe waiting for our transfer bus to central Surat Thani looking like a seasoned traveler… possibly I just looked like someone who’s started to rely on diazepam.

We had a half an hour wait for the transfer bus, and while we sat there it dawned on me fully that we’re back in tourist territory. When we left Vientiane, we’d virtually seen or spoken to the same twenty people since we arrived in Laos; it’s the most ‘undiscovered’ of the four countries we’ve visited, with the smallest number of westerners and the highest number of people willing to go off the beaten track. South Thailand isn’t just a backpacker’s staple, it’s a regular tourist’s staple. About fifty people crammed into two cafes, waiting for transfers to Krabi or Koh Samui or Phuket. Some had been on the road for years, with compass tattoos and authentic local jewellery made a thousand miles away; some had clean western clothes and actual suitcases. I can’t actually remember why short term travelers use suitcases. Why bother with those shitty wheels and creaky handles when you can just carry your stuff on your back and walk around like a normal person?

It is possible I am becoming a purist backpacker.

I remembered to take off my socks when we were on the transfer bus, and bought a Hershey’s while we waited for the main bus – I will at least be grateful that Thailand does chocolate better than Laos does – and passed out as soon as we were on it. Five hours and one rest stop later we pulled up in central Phuket, which turned out to be about half an hour away from our hostel. No longer interested in building our backpacker credentials and unable to read English, let alone Thai, bus maps, we hailed a taxi. By the time we stumbled up the steps to our hostel at 5pm, a full 50 hours after we left Vientiane, we were also unable to remember why we wanted to come this far south, or leave Laos, or stay alive.

It’s 9pm now; I’ve had a shower, eaten, done some laundry, messaged a few people and Facetimed my mum. I’m going to add photos to this and go to bed before I forget where my dorm is. Then I am totally going to tell every tattooed backpacker wearing authentic jewellery that I’ve done a 50 hour journey across two countries and three cities (four cities?). I might leave out the socks and sandals bit though.

The Nervous, Jetlagged User’s Guide to Bangkok (Part 2)

By the time you read this we will have started exploring Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I haven’t told you an almost-amusing anecdote about umbrellas, so let’s continue with Francesca’s Edited Highlights (part one is here).

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace, a complex of buildings which used to be the royal family’s permanent residence, is the one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, so we went one morning… so did everyone else in Bangkok. I’m travelling with Maxim who-needs-a-guide-just-take-photos Burke, and know little to nothing about Buddhism (and even less about Thai history) so dodging a million people in the rain  – and by rain I mean HUGE DOWNPOUR – to squint up at golden pagodas through soaked glasses was a bit like walking into a chocolate shop never having tasted sugar. Everything was wonderful, but I have no idea what I was looking at. I did enjoy sitting in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is not actually emerald) and searching for nirvana, but I think it’s going to take more than a few sessions on a meditation app for that.

We also accidentally kept the umbrellas we borrowed from staff, and I was wracked with guilt for a few days for stealing from the Thai government, so I have left mine in the hostel. I wasn’t going to smuggle contraband into Cambodia.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho, one of about four hundred wats (temples) in Bangkok is right next to the Grand Palace, and contains a couple of hundred bronze-and-gold-leaf buddhas. We paid for a tour guide this time, who told us that the Thai name for Bangkok is the longest city name in the world, and that it means ‘city of angels’. Take that, LA. We also met, amongst others, the reclining buddha…. which really reminds me of Kate Winslet in Titanic, now I think about it.

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Is ‘draw me like one of your French girls, Jack’ an appropriate caption? No? You come up with one, then, because that’s all I could think.

National Museum

The Thai equivalent of the British Museum, the National Museum doesn’t look that big from outside. Ignore this and wear your most comfortable shoes. And take snacks. There’s a sprawling gallery dedicated to Asian art, a section filled with royal objects, a separate art gallery, a building dedicated to one of Thailand’s queens…

And more umbrellas.

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We checked it’s a real umbrella with spokes (?) and everything.

 

I did not try to use that one. I must say, I was a bit worried about the number of priceless artefacts out in the open.  What if the rain got in, or a passing child vomited? Then again I once visited a museum where a local stray would follow visitors in and curl up on the antique bed, so I guess a bit of rain isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’d still be wary of puking children, though.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road is the other one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, and since we’ve given the ping pong shows a miss, we did. In a nutshell, it’s like Camden Lock Market but instead of punk gear and tattoo parlours, there are street vendors with scorpion kebabs and tattoo parlours. I didn’t get any good photos, so just imagine Camden Lock, replace rain with sun and add the scorpions. The tourists were identical.

The Nervous, Jetlagged User’s Guide to Bangkok (Part 1)

Greetings from the veranda outside our hostel. There is a bazaar directly to my right, which stocks live gerbils, and a coffee shop to my left, which doesn’t. So far as I know.

Thank you to everyone who saw my last post – if you’re family and you’re new here, please be aware that I swear here more than I do in front of you.

I am slowly starting to make friends with Bangkok, although I doubt we’ll ever be on as good terms as I am with, say, London. I suspect this is because even the thickest motorists in London usually observe lanes, traffic lights, zebra crossings and the difference between the road and the pavement. But we’re getting there. It’s been nearly a week since we left home, and I’ve learnt a lot since then, for example:

  • It’s possible to crack the code on your own padlock, which you accidentally reset
  • Tuk tuks are terrifying
  • I mean if one crashed and- I don’t know how they don’t – every person inside would be toast
  • McDonald’s in Asia is identical to McDonald’s everywhere, down to the smell (although the one we popped in to seemed to serve more fish)
  • It rains more in South East Asia than it does in England, which I did not think possible
  • Boat taxis are cheaper than taxi taxis
Bangkok River Taxi
I couldn’t take more than a couple of photos because that is not somewhere you want to lose your phone.

We’ve started to get our tourist heads on and been exploring too. We’ve seen a lot, so let’s call this part Francesca’s Edited Highlights (because the forty minutes we spent at the Vietnamese Embassy, or the forty minutes we spent stuck in a taxi on the way back from Chinatown does not make good reading).

Bangkok’s Malls

If you hate Westfield, do not try the Siam Centre, MBK Mall or Siam Discovery. They are air conditioned to a t, absolutely bloody enormous and include everything from contemporary art galleries to supermarkets. They remind me simultaneously of Debenhams and Are You Being Served, and feature many Starbucks.

Starbucks in Siam Discovery Centre, Bangkok
It really is the same everywhere…

Jim Thompson House

CULTURE TIME. A US soldier, Jim Thompson, was posted to Thailand during World War II, but I think the war ended by the time he got there or something – he had a lot of free time, so he explored Bangkok and fell in love with it, returning to live and transform the local silk industry (he came up with printing onto silks directly with moulds; previously patterns were woven in). He built himself a house and a reputation, went to Malaysia on a trip and went missing. Now his private art collection is on display in his house, which his family gave to Thailand. No one knows what happened to him, although one therory is that he was assassinated by the CIA (is anyone else getting serious Leonardo diCaprio blockbuster vibes?). Anyway his house had a pond and a potty shaped like a frog so I like him.

(I was not allowed to take a picture of the frog.)

I’m trying to keep these blogs short like me so I will leave this here… part two coming soon! Or when I’m next in a decent wi fi zone…

South East Asia T-Minus – Wait We Arrived Yesterday

Afternoon, Internet. Or morning, if you’re in the UK. So, we made it to Bangkok! After a 4am alarm, two long haul flights, a delay at Muscat airport which I will look upon fondly when hell freezes over and several moments where I thought ‘I am really not sure about all this.’ (More on that later.)

We arrived in Thailand at about 7:30am local time and we were more interested in sleeping for a week than exploring, but we had to wait around until about 1pm for our hostel, so we found a cafe with wifi and chilled out, aka messaged home and read a book (Maxim) or Private Eye (me). I will be honest with you, reader: I was really, really not sure about this. Somewhere amongst all the planning and and organising and job-leaving I forgot that I was leaving home for three solid months. It was only when people started saying goodbye that it sunk in that I was heading to another continent for a quarter of a year. It really sunk in somewhere around the stop off at Muscat airport and I am not too proud to say that I considered ringing my mum and asking her to pick me up. I know anyone who’s heard me moan about my jobs/life/itchy feet will find this deeply ironic; I will reflect on this as we go along… possibly appreciation for one’s bed, routine and family is one of those growing up things everyone’s said I’ll do while I’m out here.

Anyway, back to Bangkok. Here is what I’ve learnt so far:

  • Dry heat (Mediterranean) is not the same as humid heat (South East Asia)
  • Marks and Spencer is everywhere, and costs about the same here as it does at home
  • 7-Eleven has a grip on the convenience store market
  • Corn soup is tasty
  • If you’re crossing the street and a moped comes towards you, keep walking
  • Every few cars on the road (and there are a lot of roads) has a custom set of wheels or rims. Maxim is fascinated by this.

I reckon it will take a couple of days to feel human again, but in the mean time I draw great comfort from the fact 7-Eleven sells cornflakes.

Room WIth a View Silom, Bangkok, Thailand
My view from the room we had last night. Thank God for air conditioning units.

We’re going to hunt out mobile phones now, so I will leave this here. The plan is to chill out today and plan where we want to see. If anyone here’s already been to Bangkok, where would you recommend? We definitely want to see the floating market and some temples, but we’re not sure where else to go before we head to Cambodia next Saturday. Any suggestions?