essay: Thailand 2011

Despite Qantas’ best efforts, Rochi managed to get to Katherine for 4 days; then our connections gave us a pleasant day in Darwin and in Singapore – the latter once again an incredibly well organized, clean Asian city. We’d tried to re-organize our Thai itinerary away from the BK flooding, but that proved too great a task from Katherine – just as well in the end as BK not so far as badly affected as Australian media reports suggested. We did cancel a trip to the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya and Lop Buri, both just north of BK and badly flooded; so had 2 extra nights in BK instead and a day trip to the World Heritage Khao Yai NP.
Our BK hotel is the very nice, new but inexpensive Ibis Riverside, on the bank of the mightily swollen Chao Phraya River opposite southern downtown BK. It has a 25m pool – great for end-of-day laps, and our room looks over the river; last night lots of fireworks over the river on a Buddhist holiday, and countless thousands of mini hot air balloons ascending into the heavens – little paper lanterns over a candle. The Thais bring their cute small or large dogs to the hotel, restaurant included.
BK is a vast, huge, enormous, sprawling city – bewildering at times, and to me almost futuristic – possibly because of sheer size and population (around 9 million), the legions of skyscrapers (a lot of them visually quite imaginative), broad freeways, and much superstructure – quite extensive sky train, lots of elevated freeway; also a big metro, though some stations closed with the floods. So each day we cross the swollen rapidly flowing river on a cleverly steered little ferry for 3 baht (10c), and get a taxi or sky train to the sights. The air is bad, comparable to Mumbai’s 20 cigs/day quality, but everyone smiles at you and makes the hai greeting after even the briefest of exchanges. Other than billions of anticipatory sandbags everywhere, and the great river overflowing its banks in places, we haven’t seen much flooding here – so far confined to outer and northern parts of BK. Everywhere you look there are big portraits of King Bhumiphol and Queen Sirikit – though most of their pictures are of a younger couple, he is quite old and frail now, and she, once of legendary beauty, quite large these days. As he is revered as a god, one would not risk saying so. There are often little PR pieces about them – on the front of the BK Times the other day, a piece saying that he was quite ill with concern about the floods and the effects on his people, whom he regards as his children; but with help from his doctors he was putting up a brave fight. They have a vast piece of real estate – the current palace is within several sq km of forested grounds in central BK. Food is very good and VERY cheap – all up (accom pre-paid) we have been spending about $30/day each on everything else – including lots of taxis / tuktuks; it’s too big to cover much of BK on foot. We’ve been scammed a few times, including one a taxi last night who took us the LONG way home. We’ve learned to beware of tuktuk pimps – they will tell an absolute porky just to get you into a tuktuk (‘Wat Pho is closed today so you should go to this place instead’). Once in the tuktuk the driver begs you to stop and go into this or that jewelry complex so that he will get a coupon to feed his children, and then the hard-sell touts go to work on you.
Sightseeing has been exceptional – mostly the great wats (temple complexes) all over BK, though the ones in the old quarter just across the river from us are almost beyond belief in their size, beauty and complexity. It’s the Angkor Wat effect again – though in BK everything is gold or covered in finely detailed highly colourful or mirror mosaic. The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo beside the river is a great rectangular complex, behind tall thick white walls about 2k in length. Big gold buddhas are everywhere, and the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho (beside and even bigger than the Grand Palace) has its own bot (temple building) and is about 50m long, the soles of its massive feet intricately inlaid with mother of pearl. The zoo here was rather fine, with an up close encounter with a friendly Asian bear/cat like creature – about leopard size with a great bushy tail – a binturong.
Our trip to Khao Yai NP was our only tour so far – nice guide and driver, and the other two a gay Jewish American banker Leon and his partner Danny. Leon was loud and somewhat larger than life, but we all enjoyed ourselves – provided light relief for the locals with a bullock cart ride through rice paddies, an elephant ride through rainforest; a mighty (150m, enormous volume) waterfall, and some nice village walks – one with lots of bats and tortoises.
That’s it for now. Tomorrow we fly to the WH ruins at Sukothai for a few days, then a road trip to Chang Mai. Love, R&R

 

Rochi reminded me that I omitted the most important lesson from our elephant ride: never vomit near a Thai elephant. The Thai elephant command for ‘forward!’ sounds exactly like someone chundering their heart out after a heavy night on the turps. This and our elephant handlers decision to take umpteen photos of his dear pachyderm after commandeering my camera made it an amusing ride through the jungle.
We left BK and flew BK Air to Sukothai in the northwest to see the ruins of one of the old Thai capitals. Had a nice teak cabana in the Orchid Hibiscus Guest Lodges, surrounded by a profusion of orchids, lovely gardens and aviaries. Rochi had developed ‘Bangkok Belly’ c high fevers, and the area was vast, so we hired a motor scooter to putter around the rather wonderful Sukothai historical park for a few days: lots of fabulous old ruined wats, bots and chedis, in a very well maintained park setting; buddhas of all shapes and sizes from small to huge. Rochi bought a nice puppet from a gorgeous Thai transexual ( ?or was it a transexual puppet from a gorgeous Thai – anyway, it was very hot). Orchid Hibiscus was run by a rather gruff old Italian called Paolo and his Thai family. Farang (foreigners) may not own land in this country, but may purchase an apartment.
Then a 5hr bus trip further north to Chiangmai in a very comfortable aircon state bus, double decker c nice views – reminded us that this is still a ?largely agrarian economy (Mekong region the world’s biggest rice exporter), with lots of people working hard in their paddies. It seems much wealthier than Vietnam, with lots of broad highways. Had a nice boutique hotel Rachamankha Flora (on R street in the centre of town), room with a view on the top (3rd) floor, and v steep stairs c huge (about 25cm) droppers – a bit like many of the temples throughout SE Asia. Nice sightseeing – more fine golden wats, great markets, cheap eating, transport and shopping. I remember one big lunch of chicken fried rice washed down with tamarind juice costing about A$1.40. If SE Asia generally is the land of kitsch then the Thais are the masters of the genre. Lots of besuited little poodly dogs and various approaches to bettering nature; and I am now the proud owner of a model tuktuk made from a Chang Beer can; we’ve added to Chang’s profits this year – it’s very hot and the beer is good.
After 3 days in ChiangMai we flew to Phuket in the south. You may recall that Rochi won a week’s holiday at ‘Boat Harbour Lagoon’ – it turns out to be a massive (many things seem huge in Thailand!) marina piled with million dollar yachts, hotels, big pools, restaurants etc, and luxury villas. We have a spacious 2 story apartment backing onto the lagoon. It’s the wrong side of the island – no beaches – but transport is cheap and we’ll do a boat trip from the marina to ‘James Bond Island’ tomorrow, then days at the main beaches; it’s rather nice to be cooking in a bit after weeks of eating out. This side is also close to Phuket Town so I had a nice suit cut by Manhattan Custom Taylors, a great contact from Uncle Bill’s old mate Murray in Chiang Mai. So that’s it for this year’s adventures, you’ll be relieved to hear. Back next Sunday, love, R&R

 

Just in case you think we have perfect holidays, I thought I’d better set
the record straight. Rochi had quite severe BK Belly, with high fevers and
persistent symptoms which thankfully responded to one-shot treatment for
giardia. I’ve had 4 days of dengue fever, unpleasant personally,
interesting (and embarrassing!! the more so as we’ve been living on a
lagoon, and were slack with the Rid) professionally. It began with 3 days
of unremitting headache, fevers, sweats, hypersensitive skin, profound
lassitude, nausea, mild gastro. On the 4th day my skin went bright red like
a lobster, looks and feels like moderately severe sunburn. Seems to be
improving, should be better by the time we get back next Sunday. Also, an
“insider” swiped my IPhone from inside a box inside my suitcase inside our
locked hotel room, and finally another Jetstar moment – 2 hrs late emplaning
us in Phuket yesterday, we were on board one of those massive Airbus A3-30
(70 rows, 8 seats across)with all our stuff tucked away, then they told us
all to deplane again, with all our stuff, as security had to be repeated!
Finally got away after midnight. That’s about it for Jetstar and me.
Cheers, R&R

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