20.06.2007 - 08.07.2007 25 °C
Bumpy is about the best word to describe our journey back into Thailand. Apparently, one of South East Asia's top airlines are paying the government of Cambodia a healthy sum to keep the road between Siem Reap and the Thai border in a dodgy condition. Unfortunately for many travellers, this extra cost is beyond them, and like us have to endure a morning of being thrown around a poorly made bus as it drives along the dusty, pot-holed track. The journey itself is only one-hundred-and-twenty kilometres, but takes a bone-crunching five hours to complete.
Finally back in Thailand, we only hung around in Bangkok long enough for a nights sleep in one of the Khao San Road's cheapie guesthouse rooms (a cardboard box in the street would probably have been more pleasant), and then headed to catch a local bus the following morning to Kanchanaburi, a small town about two hours west of the sprawling capital. Instantly, Kan (as the locals call it) is a likable town. Quiet and quaint, it belies much of what you see in the more heavily touristed areas of the islands or the big cities. Unfortunately, like many of the places we've already visited, it hides a dark past.
In the spirit of continuing our recent trend of death, destruction and depressing historical events, this is the town made famous by the moving story of the Bridge over the River Kwai. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army had plans to connect Yangon in Burma with Bangkok, via a railway which would aid their transport of military supplies. Of course, such an undertaking meant they'd need a lot of manpower, and so prisoner's of war from all over Asia were drafted into the project which was to become known as the Death Railway. The four-hundred-and-fifteen kilometre track was thought to have taken to lives of over 100,000 men, many simply from exhaustion or malnutrition, as they toiled in savagely inhumane conditions on a project that was estimated to take five years, but was completed through force in just sixteen months. We visited the museum which explained more about the project itself, and the told the stories of some of the POW's from diaries which were secretly buried with them. Across the road are the allied cemeteries, where thousands of name plates sit in rows of bleak remembrance to the fallen soldiers. Lastly, we went to see the site of the bridge itself as it majestically spans the river. Imagining how such an ordinary bridge lies at the heart of such an extraordinary story can only be achieved once the history behind it has been uncovered.
With one second and last day in Kanchanaburi, we took ourselves off on a tour of the surrounding region. The only real attraction in Thailand we'd yet to take part in was an Elephant ride, mainly due to the fact that we were concerned with the way in which animals are treated in this part of the world. It seems that wherever we go, the Thai's aren't particularly good in their treatment of wildlife, whether it be protecting their coral reefs or hunting for ivory and fur-skins of endangered species. This tour included a small elephant trek, and we decided that we'd only really be able to comment once we'd seen for ourselves. The young lad on the back of our particular beast seemed jovial enough and managed to control the animal with just a few commands and a tickle under it's ear with his foot to get her moving. After a few minutes however, he produced the pick-axe style weapon that we've seen other elephant handlers use. As we protested, he would playfully pretend to raise the instrument high and smash it into the Elephants head, stopping short and smirking wildly at our cringing, before finally doing as we asked and putting it away. Thankfully, this was the last we saw of it, and could enjoy the trek without further need to harass him. In honesty, we still felt bad about taking part, and it's by no means a comfortable experience anyway which will probably be enough to stop us returning any time soon. The novel part however was when we all got to go into the river with the elephants and give them a bit of a scrub. As the trainers made them dip below the waterline, we'd all get a bath of our own, the only real moment of worry arising as giant, football-sized lumps of turd would float menacingly past us!
Bangkok would see only another quick stopover for us, checking out a few of the bigger shopping centres in the Siam Square area before the buying began in earnest a week or so later with our fourth and final visit. For the evening however, we were surprised to hear that our friends Tom and Lisa were briefly in town. With a flight booked to the islands for early the following the morning, we didn't really want a large one, but somehow found ourselves sitting with buckets of Samsong and Coke in the Khao San Road at 3am and had to hurry back to our guesthouse for a half-hours shut-eye before leaving for the airport. Suffice to say, by the time we reached Ko Samui early the next morning, we were only fit for spending most of the day in bed.
The first few days back on the island were fairly quiet. With rain delaying play, we watched a little Wimbledon from our hotel room and caught up on the whole third season of Lost, which was predictably unenlightening. We did manage to hook up very briefly with Stacey, a girl we'd met in Buenos Aires, and spent Christmas in Sydney with. It was around the fourth day that things began to liven up, as we began to make ourselves permanent fixtures on the free sunbeds outside the popular Ark Bar in the middle of Chaweng Beach. First we got chatting to a couple of older lads who were on holidays checking out some property on the other side of the island. Soon though a few more characters began to join the party, and this is when things became a little more interesting.
Five people from our second visit to Samui will forever stick in our minds: First up, a young girl called Saren. We're fairly sure she had a bit of a screw loose, mainly due to the fact that she sat around bragging about going home with a nice bout of Worms. One evening, we got chatting to a lad called Matt. We'd heard a little about him but I wanted to confirm the details for myself. Leaving Manchester just over nine months ago with a round-the-world plane ticket, he arrived in the Ark Bar and never actually ended up leaving. A standard day involves rising at 4pm, coming to the bar with his book for a Sprite and a Pad Thai, going back to the room for a few hours before returning around 8pm for a night on the lash. He's due home in just a few weeks, having seen nothing of what he'd set out to do, but apparently with no regrets. Impressive, if slightly sad.
Next up, came Richard, a fifty-something 'Geezer' from the north of London who claimed to be a chef, living and working in Portsmouth. Instantly recognisable as a 'pinch of salt' kind of guy, when asked about the kind of food he served in his restaurant his reply was "we make a bit of everything, barbecues some nights, even Panini's for the kids". You can understand the dilemma we had with taking any of his stories as given, and things were little helped when he later claimed to be a three-time World Disco Dancing Champion. We couldn't bring ourselves to ask for a display, but would get one sooner or later anyway.
Finally, two lads from Guernsey rolled into the fray. Testament to the fact that living on a small island all of your life can't be good for you, these two weren't quite the full ticket. Although offering little in the way of thoughtful conversation, they were a good laugh and were the source of almost constant amusement. Paul, the slightly dippier of the two, was a law unto himself. After ordering boiled eggs with his breakfast one morning, we asked why he was smashing them to pieces and looking so confused when they arrived. His startling response came with a make-believe drawing on the tabletop, and without any sign of shame: "This wasn't what I wanted, I was after the one's with the big white bit on the outside and the soggy yellow bit in the middle - you know, the type that leaks all over the plate when you cut through it". If we hadn't heard it with our own ears we probably wouldn't have believed it. Anyway, these two managed to liven the place up, constantly stroking Richards ego (which he was more than happy with), and generally being nice, but worryingly stupid lads.
All in all, this week turned into a great crack. We all sat around in the daytime's, moaning about Ark Bar's standard of food, it's repetitive music policy and over-charging, but still did little to leave and find something else. This week was all about taking it easy. Nights out meant a few beers around the pool table, and then a stroll up to one of the lively bars in the square where Richard would pull out a few of his world-class (??) moves and the lads would humorously egg him on. Despite the diverse group, with very little in common, it proved to be a great combination for an interesting finale to the Thai islands.
Back in Bangkok for our last few days, it was all about the shopping and a touch of last-minute sightseeing. Numerous shopping centres (which were disappointingly expensive), the stalls on Khao San Road and the weekend market at Chatuchak were all comprehensively covered in search of bargains, whilst a compulsory quick visit to the Grand Palace, the kings former official residence and temple was also on the menu. This was, unsurprisingly, grand and quite palace like. For our final night, we met with Michaela and Rupert, friends from the good old days back at Bloomberg. They accompanied us to our last must-see, the Patpong market and an accompanying Ping-Pong show. A Bangkok institution, this is where some of the city's finest young ladies display incredible dexterity and talent to produce razorblades and lengths of handkerchief, blow whistles, and fire ping-pong balls from their nether-regions. Although reports from other travellers claimed this was an incredible show, we were slightly underwhelmed by it all.
And that's it all over with. I'm currently writing this from our friends apartment whilst we see out our final week away in Hong Kong, and I'm sad to say that this will be our final blog (collective sigh of relief). I suspect that a monthly update of our time in Bexleyheath and Welling might not be interesting enough to warrant a written account. By the time most of you read this, we'll be on our way home, heavily depressed but excited to see everyone after ten-and-a-half months and almost eighty thousand kilometres of travel. Adjusting to the realities of a normal life is going to be tough I'm sure. We'll be tempted to walk everywhere or use buses rather than expensive taxi's, carry a roll of toilet paper wherever we go, put our weekly shopping into carrier bags and attach labels with our names on, get ourselves a pair of bunks so other people can share our bedroom and wash our underwear in the shower to make sure we don't run out.
We've seen some amazing things, and although it's hard to put much of our trip into words, we hope that those of you who are still with us (how are you Mum?) have enjoyed reading our blogs and have been given a little inspiration to see some of the world as we have. Sarah's been lucky enough to be offered a couple of weeks work back at the court, whilst I have more pressing matters of attending my brother's stag gathering in rainy Blackpool. Back down to earth with a bang is probably a mild understatement... we hope to see you all soon.
Dan and Sarah
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