Sunday, December 18, 2011

Return to Bangkok and Ayutthaya

Our bus from Krabi arrived a lot earlier than expected at 4am.  We had booked accommodation and luckily they let us check in around 5.  We got a few hours rest then got a tuk tuk to the Grand Palace for Nev’s next world wonder, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

I’ve been to The Grand Palace before, I liked it on my first visit, but knew it wasn’t a world wonder.  This was maybe why I didn’t give it a proper go and why I can’t really remember much about the visit.   We got a one hour tour which was good, our guide spoke excellent English, he was very informative, was pretty sharp and really got our humour, with some great comebacks to a couple of our wisecracks.

I remember on my first visit I went alone, my friend Sally wasn’t keen on a repeat visit, she wasn’t really keen on The Grand Palace at all, telling me it was “over the top”.  I liked it though, it is over the top, but it’s a palace, it’s meant to be over the top.  It’s just over the top in Thai style with bright colours and lots of gold.  The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is an impressive building and very pretty to look at.  Like the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, it’s all about the bling, the gold and of course the emerald Buddha itself which is worth hundreds of millions of pounds.  But it’s just not a world wonder for me, I don’t think it’s a building of architectural prowess, it’s not iconic enough and not unique.  Your average person on the street could identify it, it doesn’t stand out from the crowd and it’s very similar to other palaces in South East Asia.  

The next day we got the train to the ancient city of Ayutthaya.  We picked a guest house from the lonely planet and it turned out to be a belter.  It was a great room and the guest house was very near the ancient ruins.  The owner was a helpful women, and a good sales person, we signed up for an early evening boat tour within a few minutes of checking in.  We hired bikes for a couple of days and set off straight after an early lunch.

We tried to first of all find the tourist information centre, but when we did it was shut.  Ayutthaya was badly damaged by the floods with over a metre of flood water in some areas.  The tourist information centre was closed for refurbishment, and when we arrived at Ayutthaya, we discovered that the charge for the site was waived, presumably to encourage tourism.

We cycled around stopping at several points of interest.  The area is fairly large and in Ayutthaya’s heyday I’m sure the ancient city would have been astounding.  But it is very ruined, most of what’s left is rubble after the city was sacked by the Burmese.  After the defeat the King moved to Bangkok and a new capital was established, the bricks from Ayutthaya were in fact used to build the Grand Palace.

On the first day we took an audio tour round one of the ruined sites.  It was very interesting learning about the history behind the Ayutthaya civilisation.  The first site we visited had the famous picture postcard photo of Ayutthaya with a Buddha head covered with tree roots.  It looked cool and reminded of Ta Prohm. 

We made it back for the afternoon cruise.  It was a good way to see the rest of the city, we saw ruins, some big Buddhas and an impressive sunset view of one of the temples. 

We went back in the evening as our lonely planet guide had informed us that the temples were illuminated at night.  Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, the recent flooding must have played havoc with the electricity.  It was an experience riding about in the pitch black.  I persuaded Nev to jump over the walls and check out one of the main temples in the dark.  As soon as we approached, about a dozen stray dogs intuitively new our intention and jumped up on the temple walls and started barking feverishly at us.  In the pitch blag we could picture the saliva drooling from the rabid mouths, and that was enough for us to abandon the plan and get straight back on our saddles. 

The next day we woke up early and set off on our bikes.  We went straight for the main temple we’d bizarrely managed to miss the previous day.  This temple was the best, with three large, almost identical stupas.  We got an audio tour which was again very interesting.  We checked out the other temples we’d visited the previous day, then had lunch and left for the train station for our return to Bangkok.

I’d arranged to meet up with Wee Dave’s brother, Ryan and his wife Lee in Bangkok.  They were here for a Thai beach holiday spending time in Railay and Kho Phi Phi, with a few days in Bangkok beforehand.  I was due to leave for the airport the next morning having booked and pre-payed for a taxi to pick me up at 6am so I planned to have a fairly civilised affair, but it certainly didn’t end up that way… 

Our meeting started off with the obligatory few beers.  We decided upon going to watch some Thai boxing, I’d been before and it was one of my highlights of Bangkok the first time round.  It didn’t fail to disappoint, with some good quality bouts, crazy Thai betting and a fist fight in the terraces next to us.  It’s a very interesting sight, even for people, like Lee, who aren’t a fan of contact sports.  The Thais go crazy for it!  The atmosphere can be quite intense, especially if the bookies favourite goes down.

After the boxing we decided to have a night cap near Ryan’s hotel.  The night cap, which was a tequila slammer, turned into a sesh, and when all the bars closed we found ourselves in a Go Go Bar.  I don’t know what time I left, but I remember getting in to my hotel room at around 5am, my taxi to the airport was booked for 6.  I stupidly went to bed and set my alarm for 5:45.  I woke to find Nev trying and just succeeding in shaking me awake.  It was 7:30am, and I had just under 2 hours to get my flight.  I hadn’t packed, and literally started chucking things in my bag.

When I got to reception I asked about my taxi and they told me it was long gone, and I had to pay full price for a new one.  I was initially furious until I found out that they had tried everything to wake me up.  They’d been ringing me phone and had been knocking on my door, they’d even gone into my room and tried to shake me awake but had no success.

I had carefully budgeted for my last day in Thailand and had 200 Baht left (about a fiver).  Due to my recent credit card fraud, only one of my credit/debit cards was working and I’d maxed it out that night to lend money to Nev as he was staying behind in Malaysia for Christmas and his Maestro card wouldn’t work in Thailand.  I only had 200 Baht to my name and no way of withdrawing anymore cash.  In my desperate looking state, the cheapest fair to the airport I could get was 600 Baht, so I took it and jumped into the taxi.  I made it there in the nick of time.  After I arrived at the airport I made it look like I only just noticed I didn’t have enough money for the full fair.  I assured the taxi driver that I’d get money from an ATM inside the airport and meet him back at his taxi, then pay the full amount.  As soon as I got my bags on a trolley I legged it, not feeling too guilty knowing that the correct fair shouldn’t be more like 300.

I checked in and went through to departures.  I had a thirst you couldn’t imagine, fortunately Bangkok airport is pretty slick and had water fountains outside the toilets.  I managed to rehydrate myself somewhat before getting on the plane for my short hop to Kuala Lumpur’s LCCT Airport.  LCCT stands for Low Cost Carrier Terminal, and as you can imagine it’s a total dump.  It was a world of difference from the new, shiny, Bangkok International.  No water fountains were available, and unsurprisingly none of my cards worked in any of the ATMs but I had one that would have worked if I was to buy something with it.  None of the shops, absolutely none of them, accepted credit cards, not even the Bureau de Change.  I had an unbearable thirst, and in shear desperation went to the smokers lounge to see if there were any leftover drinks.  I was in luck, and managed to mine sweep a couple of half finished bottles of water which made me feel marginally better.

At this point I’d better explain that I was flying Air Asia, they are like the Easyjet of South East Asia.  You have to pay for food, drinks and even blankets.  I noticed in their magazine that they accepted credit cards for duty free items and thought that I might be in luck.  When the air stewardess’ starting coming round and offering, or should I say selling drinks, I asked if it was possible to buy any food or water using my credit card.  They told me that only duty free items could be purchased in this manner, and for everything else I had to pay with hard cash.  This was the one thing I didn’t have, and they refused to give me any water.  The hangover was starting to kick in big time, and my unquenchable thirsty was back with a vengeance.    When the air stewardess’ were dishing out dinner, I snuck to the back of the plane and had a rummage in some of the drawers.  I managed to hit the mother load without too much trouble, and packed the pockets of my combats with us much water as I could squeeze in.  I crept back to my seat, gulped down some water and distributed the rest of bottles in the seat pocket in front of me.  I managed to drift into unconsciousness confident knowing that if I were to wake up thirsty that I’d have ample supplies.  Although I did wake up with the occasional embarrassing flash back of myself pole dancing in the Go Go Bar the previous night.

The 14 hour to flight to London passed with relative comfort although I was ravenous when I finally got off the plane.  24hrs had passed and I could use my debit card again.  I went straight into Marks and Spencer’s bought two sandwiches and scoffed them down in record time.  I then met up with my wee bro, who I hadn’t seen since the summer, and we ended up staying up very late catching up.  Our flight the next day was at 9am, and we had to get up at 6.  We only managed to get a couple of hours sleep, and we almost slept through our alarms.  I really should make more of an effort in future to get a good night’s sleep before a crucial early morning flight.  We got to the airport in ample time for our flight to Inverness where I was to spend Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Koh Phi Phi

It was a short trip across the Andaman Sea to Koh Phi Phi.  The crossing was a great deal smoother than the previous day’s journey, the sea was a lot less choppy off the Andaman coast.  I had pre-booked accommodation and transport to our Hotel for our arrival.  We were picked up by a long tail boat and taken to our Hotel, Koh Phi Phi Hill Resort.  The resort was in a great location right on the top of a hill with commanding views of the harbour and Koh Phi Phi Leh.  The view came with a price though, with a great deal of steps to climb from the beach until you reached the resort.  Fortunately they had trolley with a pulley system for our bags, but even without our bags we were still out of breath when we reached reception.

The Hotel was a find, it was cheap, quiet and had a great location.  The food from the restaurant was good, and the beer was the cheapest on the island.  I was glad to find somewhere away from the noisy main town, and somewhere we could relax.

Koh Phi Phi is a beautiful island, it really has it all.  With spectacular beaches, limestone cliffs, inviting turquoise blue sea, Technicolor corals and colourful jungle it’s no wonder Koh Phi Phi has become a hedonistic paradise.  And beauty comes at a cost, the island is peppered with resorts and beach huts and jam-packed with tourists.  Fortunately we weren’t subject to the masses of holiday makers as we were hidden away on top of our hill.

Koh Phi Phi was our relaxation time, and like Koh Tao, we didn’t do very much.  I went diving on one occasion, and it was probably the best diving experience yet.  We took a boat to Koh Phi Phi Leh, the smaller of the two islands which remains uninhabited.  We found an amazing dive spot, a coral wall which was a hive of activity.  The visibility was good and we saw loads of brilliantly coloured fish.

The only other excursion was when I persuaded Nev to take a half day tour around Kho Phi Phi Leh which combined sightseeing with a spot of cliff jumping.  He wasn’t keen on the cliff jumping bit, mainly because of the people we thought cliff jumping would attract, the teenage party crowd.  But we were wrong, and the cliff jumping ended up being the best part of the tour.

The boat was packed, the tour was pretty rubbish, and our guide was irksome.  There was free booze though which was a bit of a bonus, and helped to make us less irritable when our guide cracked his, mildly amusing for the first time, but very annoying for the tenth time, practical jokes.  They included the usual repertoire when booze and ice was at hand, ice down your t-shirt, spilling whisky all over the place when he was pouring you a glass etc. etc.  Amazingly we were never the butt of his jokes and it was kind of funny watching the reactions from the other people on the boat.  One guy thought he was hilarious, while his buddy who was sitting right next to our guide was incensed every time he was the brunt of a practical joke.

It was a whistle stop tour, with some swimming and snorkelling before we arrived at Ao Maya, a lagoon which was used for the controversial filming of the The Beach, based on the popular novel by Alex Garland.  It was impressive with soaring cliffs on each side, but since the shooting of The Beach tourist numbers have soared, and there must have been at least two hundred other people when we were there. 

Our final activity was the cliff jumping, and we were the only two people on the boat doing it. I love cliff jumping and have had a fair amount of practice in Scotland.  But my first attempt was rather pathetic with both arms flailing as I jumped from the cliff into the sea below.   I’ve never done that before, maybe it was the added adrenalin with an audience watching, whatever it was it didn’t affect Nev, he launched himself off with a text book jump, totally straight with arms by both sides.  I wasn’t allowed to do the bigger jump that was planned due to my amateur first attempt, it was a pity though as my next jump was exemplary. 

The next day we left Koh Phi Phi for Bangkok.  When I arrived at the port I noticed that my bank card and one of my credit cards was missing.  I later found out that somebody had taken them from my wallet which I left in my Hotel room, when going for a swim.  They had both been used fraudulently for significant amounts of money.  This left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth about the Koh Phi Phi Hill Resort which I had initially rated quite highly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Our catamaran trip back to the mainland was horrendous.  The Gulf of Thailand was like the North Sea on a bad day.  We were offered sick bags when we had taken our seats, and most of the cocky westerners refused, including myself and Nev.  I’ve spent a lot of time at sea experiencing some choppy conditions offshore and have never been sea sick.  The catamaran was something else though, it bounced its way along the top of the waves, sometimes getting some good air before crashing back down with a jolt.  The Thais were prepared with sick bags and smelling salts to overcome the stench of the impending vomit.  It wasn’t long before the first westerner was sick and unfortunately he was sitting a few rows behind me.  He stood up and projectile vomited in the aisle.  It started rolling towards me, the sounds and the smell of the sick started a chain reaction of gagging.  The girl who was sitting next to Nev quietly threw up in her sick bag, it was almost full at the end of the journey.  It was a loooong two hours, even though I wasn’t sick I wish I had taken a sick bag.  I didn’t feel confident and for most of the two hours I was thinking if I was sick, what I could have thrown up into.  My laptop bag or the aisle were the only options as all the toilets were full with people heaving. 

Our next destination was Krabi, where we to spend the night and set off for Kho Phi Phi the next morning.  I’d been to Krabi before and remembered there was a good street food market in the town.  We were dropped off at a travel agent where we managed to get incredibly cheap accommodation organised along with our transport to Koh Phi Phi for the next day.  We checked into our Hotel and then took advantage of the ping pong table that was situated on the first floor.  After a few games we’d worked up a bit of a hunger and left for the street market.

The street market was pretty much as I remembered it, with weird and wonderful sights, sounds and smells.  I ended up having about three separate meals there, dispersed with a few beer stops.  We ended up at a bar near our Hotel for a night cap, then went to bed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Koh Tao

Our transport to Koh Tao was one of the most confusing and disorganised journeys I’ve ever taken.  After we were shown to our bus stand we were all given a coloured sticker, different colours for different islands.  This system seemed a bit futile, woe betide the person that lost their sticker, you never know where they would end up… 

After four different changes of buses we finally arrived at the port where we were to catch the ferry to Koh Tao.  There were hundreds of people at the port, I don’t know why they couldn’t have organised a direct bus from Bangkok, there was certainly enough demand for it.  The ferry stopped off at Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Samui, with a change of ferry before we were to arrive at our destination.  It was a few days before the famous Koh Pha-Ngan full moon party and the boat was full of the Ibiza crowd.  As soon as we got under way all the guys took their tops off and started drinking beer outside.  I’ve been to a full moon party when I was last in Thailand, it was an experience, and I kind of enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t want to repeat the event.  There were too many pissed up Brits, staggering around with buckets of booze.  Thailand is the only place I’ve been to where they sell booze in a bucket.  Normally this consists of vodka and red bull (the Thai red bull is rocket fuel and banned in most countries) and heaps of ice, complete with a few straws poking out of the top.

After the party crowd hopped off at Koh Pha-Ngan we were left with more subdued passengers, and when we finally changed boats at Koh Samui, the rash noisy party people from the first leg seemed like a distant memory.

Valerie had suggested a dive shop where one of her mates was an instructor.  I’d been in touch and had organised some accommodation and transport from the ferry port.  We checked in at the dive shop, I organised some upcoming dives and we were then dropped off at our accommodation, a beach hut right on the beach.

We didn’t do a great deal in Koh Tao, well Nev certainly didn’t.  He spent every day writing or reading without once going for a swim in the sea.  Nev really isn’t a beach person, I knew I might not convert him, but I thought that maybe if he was presented with a beach of outstanding beauty that he might get into it.  I was wrong and his blunt apathy towards beach life was more than apparent. 

It worked out well though, I was able to do some more diving while Nev chilled out.  I opted for a deep dive and a night dive.  On both occasions the weather was poor and the visibility was bad.  I didn’t take with the dive shop either, it was a lot more impersonal than Malapascua Beach Divers.  The instructors seemed over worked and exhausted, it was as if the dive shop was focused on making money and trying to certify as many people as possible in a short space of time.

My instructor for my deep dive was a young guy from London.  During the the deep dive, his instructions were poor and he didn’t seem like he wanted to be there, a world of difference from the bouncy enthusiasm of Valerie in Malapascua.  He was supposed to take me for another dive afterwards but told me he was feeling ill, so I had to join another group.  He later let it slip that his illness was really a bad hangover, and he’d had a big night the night before.  I wasn’t very happy as I’d paid a lot of money for the diving excursion.  I had to get up early for the dive and had a quiet night beforehand as a consequence, certainly expecting my instructor to have done the same.  He was incredibly unprofessional and I kind of wish I let the dive shop know how I felt.   

The visibility was poor during both dives, and we didn’t see that many fish.  The night dive was exciting though.  I was a tad nervous beforehand, the sea looks a lot more intimidating when it’s pitch black.  We were given torches to illuminate our surroundings.  We saw a lot of barracuda, big 2m long fish with a kind of evil look about them.  We would shine the torch on smaller fish in front of them and they would go for the bait, it was pretty cool watching them change their pace and chase the fish.  We also saw a lot of stingrays, and a few squid. 

I managed to persuade Nev to give the motorbikes another try.  The roads are quiet on Koh Tao, although we later found out they are ridden with pot holes and seriously hilly.  We hired the motorbikes from the dive shop for an incredibly cheap price.  We decided to set off for the Northern most point of the island, it was a pleasure at first until I stopped for the first time and then I realised why our motorbikes were so cheap.  I had a kick start semi-automatic, while Nev’s was fully automatic with an electric start.  I couldn’t for the life of me get my motorbike to start.  I was wearing flip flops, and my feet were getting battered and bruised by my attempts to kick start the thing.  It was extremely difficult, I had to ask a local for help and it was a mission for him too.  He had to go downhill freewheeling while violently hammering the kick start with his foot.  It took him a while and a fair distance before he finally got my motor bike started.  I thanked him, then vowed never to switch my engine off unless absolutely necessary.

We got to a really steep section, the road became a lot worse, it was now unpaved with lots of rocks and pot holes.  On the downhill it was rather dodgy, it was as steep as a downhill mountain bike trail, with similar obstacles thrown in.  Nev hated it.  Once we got to our target point, Nev decided enough was enough and it was time to go back and return his bike.  That worked for me too, as my motorbike was playing up.  On the return leg, it started to conk out on the uphill, having to kick start it was a total mission and was starting to really piss me off.  After numerous engine failures and help from at least two locals, we finally made it back to the dive shop.  I returned my motorbike and took Nev’s one off his hands, which he was more than happy to give me. 

For the rest of the day I explored a bit more of the island on my fully automatic, electric start motorbike, which was a pleasure to ride.  I discovered a lovely resort with a wooden walk way over some big rocks and a restaurant with great views of the sea below and a couple of islands in the distance.  The strong winds had whipped the sea up into a fury and the waves were hammering the rocks.  It was an impressive sight, and I decided to return to our guesthouse and pick up Nev and take him to the resort for a beer.  We had our beer and scrambled over the wooden walk onto the rocks while the highest waves splashed our feet.

The rest of our time in Koh Tao was fairly uneventful.  I would go for a morning or evening jog along the beach and the occasional swim.  Nev would remain in the room, or sit on the porch typing furiously.  He’s a two fingered typist, but probably the fastest and angriest two fingered typist I have seen, I’m surprised the keyboard on his laptop still works with the pounding it’s had since our travels began. 

We originally planned to get the night boat back to the mainland, but with the choppy conditions at sea, we decided to go for the faster and more expensive option, a two hour catamaran ride back onshore.  We were both quite glad to leave Koh Tao, the diving hadn’t been too great partly due to the bad weather conditions, and we were staying in the main drag of Koh Tao and were getting a bit sick of the noisy bars and people.