A Travellerspoint blog


Escape at last!


In final preparation I sold a surplus book that morning and also had a few bob from my key deposit to splash out with. So after tipping my regular captivating waitress Am, refreshingly distant and unsmiling, I stocked up on food for the trip, also Tiger Balm and a rare find, cotton wool balls. It was a toss up which way to go with my last 100 Baht and perhaps regretably I plumped for a Starbucks in favour of one final Chang beer at the Gecko Bar. The train materialised comfy and clean enough and very quiet and spacious, you got a 2 seat bench to yourself which would later transform into half of a very wide bottom bunk. The "Special Express" initially immitated a commuter train with the regularity of its stops but soon we were streaming south past lush greenery and rivers lined with houses on stilts. It was ridiculous that I was passing this way for the third time and yet would still not be stopping to see it in any detail. The constant carpet of ricefields was reminiscent of Bangladesh, though perhaps the palm trees were taller here, it seemed I was seeing Thailand much better than I had done from the road. More karst mountains rose to the west and we got treated to the fantastic spectacle of a surreal sunset over them, with dotted clouds looking like a scattering of islands across a golden sea, eventually tending towards raging crimson like a nuclear storm. Nature mirrored it incredibly with a rainbow the other side. I foolishly stayed sober and so didnt sleep so well but I couldnt fault the train, as well as starchy sheets you even got an inexplicably white blanket prewrapped in plastic. Just past Hat Yai the border was a one minute doddle, with this crossing marking some more immediate changes. Suddenly there was Latin script again and darker, burlier women in robes and headscarves, some ethnic Indians too. I had squared away Thai women in my head to the extent that I was now sad to see them go, and true to form the last one I saw was a babe beyond compare. Strong cultural differences were apparent too, together with a very contrasting change of tongue I would now have to remember to give up the instinctive Wai (hands raised in greeting buddha style) and mind what I did with the left one from now on. Eye contact with women couldnt be so casual anymore and dress had to be considered a little more carefully. Very relaxed though all the same, some young chicks who joined the train wanted photos with me, unfortunately we were also joined by showers. Ah the monsoon, I remembered it well. The rain hadnt been that bad in Bangkok of late but even the locals were sweating so you knew it was really hot.

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I'd invested in a half bottle of whisky whilst over at Thonburi in a futile attempt at saving a little money, but late hours chipping away at my diary meant that I was still out half the night. Though still frequenting the same joints for the want of better options, I tried to stand at the sidelines these days and it was surprising how I didnt get hit on by Thai women anymore. Maybe my face was well known now and I wasnt considered gullible enough? I struggled to believe that but it was a welcome relief anyhow. The last week had turned into such an impromptu blowout and I had come to realise that obviously I had needed it. I paid too much for my room, drank like a fish and dozed till noon but it didnt matter, it was like for a short while I was on holiday. If you cant beat them, join them eh? Now a little bored and vaguely ashamed of it, accidentally it proved to have been just what I needed to inspire a new refreshed sense of impetus, I needed a challenge back in my life. I accepted Sumatra now as inevitable and just wanted to get on with it.

One complicating factor had been that I had an appointment to catch in Australia in mid July and that wasnt so far away now. A trek I had wanted to do in Queensland was restricted in numbers to the point that you had to book it 6 months in advance to secure a place, it was the only prior reservation I had made before leaving home. Accepting now that short of curtailing my Asian odyssey once again and just flying, I knew I would never make it in time. Liberated from that restraint then and finding new resolve, I now accepted that even if it took 3 months to get to Oz then I would just take a deep breath, grit my teeth and get on with it. One perverse consideration though was that with only just over 6 months remaining until I had to start work again (as a postie in Scotland in January, for Christs sake), I had to make sure of preserving at least 2 months for New Zealand. That meant that although returning to Australia had been the original inspiration for the whole trip, I might not now be able to afford that land much time at all.

All the more reason for not hanging around then, and I endured another sweltering rickety bus ride out to the main train station today in order to asceratin availability for the international service to Butterworth. On my previous visit with the same intention, some 8 weeks ago now, I had been dismayed at waiting in a queue for the best part of an hour, only to learn that the train was booked out for the next 12 days. Imagine my disbelief then when I entered the booking office to find it deserted to the point that I presumed it to be closed. I recognised the same clerk from my previous visit though and expecting disappointment I said I just wanted to go as soon as possible. That proved to be the very next day and without even any time to fully contemplate it I amazingly had a ticket in my hand maybe 20 seconds later. Wow! It was a little pricey and for just a little more I had considered treating myself by flying down to Hat Yai and then minibussing it again over the border, but this was less complicated and a trip also of interest. The only real downside was that my first journey on Thai Railways was going to be a whopping 22 hours. After my experience of arriving in Bangkok from Bangladesh I wanted to be careful of not giving myself another culture shock again, but conceivably I could be in Indonesia in just 2 days.

It was at the train station that I also chanced upon a board bearing photos which had been put up for public display. A local explained that the photos were of atrocities which had been committed by separatists in Thailand's southern border provinces. I knew that the area around Satun for example had only joined the Thai federation in 1923 and had always retained a distinct local indentity, reinforced no doubt by Islam. This particular hotspot had only come to my attention post 9/11 and I wasnt sure of the legacy, but suffice to say the photos showed gruesome scenes of random killings and Thai Army operations. 2 guys passing by on scooters and a pizza delivery guy lay shot in the street as did a few terrorists, and a buddhist monk was now just a yellow robe and a big red smear. I couldnt resist taking a few snaps of them despite appreciating what a bloody tourist I must have looked, I was politely asked to promptly delete them by an Army attendant. Later I learned that Pattani Darussalam, an independent Sultanate of which 80% is Malay speaking was annexed by Thailand, and Narathiwat and Yala are the 2 other troubled border provinces. Rebel action is spearheaded by a group known as the BRN Co-ordinate. The subsequent days proved to be a daily litany of bombings, with 7 explosions in Hat Yai and 2 women and 2 kids killed in Songkhla.

Upon leaving the station I then spotted the Metro entrance and realised I hadnt ridden it yet. Upon checking my map I could see that it would take me to Sukhumvit district, an allegedly upmarket quarter where some travellers preferred to stay, and so on a whim I went there. First impressions were not favourable, with especially bad traffic and pollution, giant testimonies to 1970s architecture and barely a sight of note. What I had not expected was a strip of full on girly bars, thankfully still relatively dormant, a fish and chip shop, and a British style pub called the Ship Inn. I treated myself to a mini splurge of a pint of Heineken in a mock Dutch pub with European prices (where I wrote this!) before heading back underwhelmed but curiosity satisfied.

Another point of note was that after searching on and off for weeks in vain, importantly I finally managed to track down some quality mosquito repellant, all of the local brands were inexplicably lightweight and ineffective. It was left to Boots the Chemist (thankyou globalisation) to oblige me with some 50% DEET preparation, expensive but crucial for Indonesia. Even in Bangkok they had been a persistent menace.

Back in Gullivers meat market that night I got approached by another dazzling Thai hopeful, and I had acquired enough by now to give her the knock back in Thai, at which she was very surprised. It probably would have spurred her on all the more but "Mai aow, khaup khoon" meant no thanks, and no meant no. To balance that, Sam, a Kiwi chick from Oz also decided to talk to me, she was a new arrival who laughably had 10 days to try to take in Bangkok and Cambodia. She had no idea it was the monsoon season, could not recall Angkor Wat, Cambodia's outstanding attraction, and at the age of 30 had never been outside of Oz/NZ in her life. Good on her for finally taking the plunge, but she was blissfully ignorant and re-affirmed that I really didnt belong here. Outside I was surprised to see for the first time a vendor cart selling fried insects and insect larvae and I couldnt possibly believe that he did much business but obviously did enough. Cockroach anyone? Next morning despite having spent a fortune at my longterm guesthouse they still wanted to charge me an insulting 5 Baht for the sake of leaving my bag with them for 2 hours. It all just re-affirmed what a bloody tourist I had become and I was so glad to be getting out of there.

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And again


After for once staying reasonably sober I still slept late after having to stay up half the night to watch the Champions League final. Liverpool couldnt match their victory of 2 years previous though. Still feeling apathetic and intimidated by the prospect of the sizeable challenges which lay ahead, I made tentative moves in the right direction however by getting more work done on the net, more reading, checking flights and heading off to Thonburi railway station.

The main rail terminus Hua Lamphong lay close to the city centre and would be a nightmare to get to in Bangkok traffic. I had been there twice before by way of the riverboat then hoofing the last K, but it was too hot for that game now. You grew tired of constantly washing shirts as they were saturated with sweat within half a day. Then I noticed that Thonburi station lay tantalisingly close the other side of the river just 2 boat stops away. Devoid of a guidebook now, I had a guess that that must be the station which served my desired southern destination (Butterworth in Malaysia again), but upon reaching it found it to be closed. It was more than just closed though, it had been abandoned. Having made the effort I thought I might as well check out the local area anyway and after viewing another temple sporting young would be monks jogging, was rewarded in spotting a small decrepit sign pointing to the real station. Sure enough, and god knows why, about half a K down the line a new spartan platform and ticket booth had been built, but it was not the major terminus with a booking office I had hoped for. I picked up a timetable anyway for its single route, this was the terminal for trains serving the notorious Death Railway using the bridge over the River Kwai. That was the one short excursion I thought that I really still wanted to muster in Thailand, no guidebook aside, and it was also great in that accidentally, I had stumbled upon a real living part of the city, devoid of tourists and reassuringly grungy. Several obviously honest living women proferred genuine spontaneous smiles, people lived in contrived "houses" squashed underneath a highway flyover, the carparks were a shambles and the number of wild dogs was unbelievable. Poverty, how I had missed it! It made me want to get out and see some of the real Thailand, with real people who at least occasionally might not just see you as a business opportunity. A massive stinking marketplace adjacent to the station was a breath of fresh air, where memorably a guy wearing only a pinny used a blowtorch to encrispen rolls of raw pork.

I continued the theme back over ther river by eating in a low key restaurant, me the only white face, simultaneously treating myself to the first steak I had had in months for a small fraction of the tourist restaurant prices. And there it dawned on me that I hadnt been hit on by any touts the other side of the river either, not a single "tuk-tuk" or "taxi" was heard. It bred hope that Sumatra was maybe just exactly what I needed. I had come to realise that I would soon get tired and ashamed of just getting hammered every night anyway, but I also now understood it was only to be expected. After what I had just "achieved" over the last 8 months (to the day), I realised it was only natural it was starting to show. I had not met a single traveller whose ambitions even came close to my own escapades. And I had forlornly tried to re-iterate a few times to women that sex was one thing, I could take care of that myself at the end of the day, but my body was screaming for a cuddle and no bloody wonder.

Perversely, the spicy food of the subcontinent, the only food to which I am trully allergic, proved to be much better for me than the greasy Thai/Chinese concoctions here which were screwing up my skin. And Sumatra was in the land of spices, the first link towards the root of the revered spice islands. I began to feel a certain rejuvenation at the prospect.

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Bangkok (still)


I invested this day in starting to make plans. My newly acquired Lonely Planet Indonesia proved to be written in a highly entertaining cynical spirit and as I read on it gradually dawned on me how much of a reflection of the country that was. Sumatra sounded like it was going to be arguably the toughest challenge of my trip to date, and there had been many, I had to be very honest with myself and question whether I still had the necessary resolve. Getting constantly soaking wet and enduring seriously tough trekking and heat whilst suffering plagues of mosquitos and leeches, I was underequipped if nothing else. Travel was reputedly so hard and the place so huge that it would simply also take too much time. One of the recommended itineraries in the book which traversed only half of Sumatra was deemed to take a month. We are talking one of the worlds most expansive countries, spanning a whopping 5000 kilometres from Banda Aceh in the west to the Papua New Guinea border, with muddy unsealed roads and countless dodgy ferry crossings. Unfortunately it did also sound equally fascinating with a couple of bonuses thrown in to add to the mix. First of all, Aceh province had just opened up after a particularlly long and nasty civil war, and there was also the spectacle of experiencing at first hand the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami. It sounded horrendous, with whole cities wiped off the map, infrastructure such as the west coast road being crippled and mass graves containing hundreds of thousands of unidentified bodies. Unfortunately in its wake there followed mass unemployment and poverty, the few rare tourists there now were accordingly like golddust and so were doomed to suffer constant hassles and rip offs. Oh yeah, and it was Islamic too. Could I really still endure all of that crap?

Later whilst plugging away in a net cafe I couldnt help but overhear an unusual Ozzie-German couple who I volunteered advice to. They later unwittingly sat next to me in a restaurant and so we got talking. It turned out that Ashley from Perth was returning home after having worked the last 7 years in an Edinburgh backpackers hostel, where he had met Tina 5 years ago. Remarkably, he proferred that his fathers family was originally from Dunfermline and I had to tell him that I was too. Their name was Norrie but he had only taken photos on his visit and didnt have an address to track down relatives, my considerable postie knowledge couldnt shed any light on it either. And Tina, well she was from Lune, 10 minutes away from where I had worked for the NAAFI at Herford. Thus, over too much beer, the Dunfermline/Herford Appreciation Society was formed, membership 3. A very nice, refreshing evening but of course they were jumping on a plane the next morning.

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The Major Sights of Bangkok


Yup, at last I got off my arse and did the city real justice in traipsing round the considerable wonders lying close to Banglumphu district where I was staying. Unfortunately the heat really did make this an endurance test, with the interminable traffic making it an obstacle course into the bargain. First off the mark after witnessing again one of the many colourful royal banners crescenting over a highway, I discovered the City Pillar Shrine, a pointy pyramidal obelisk similar in style to the crown of many temples. This was ground zero for Bangkok, the original foundation site where King Rama I picked his spot for his new capital in 1782. Its inscribed with the horoscope of the city on a gold plate weighing interestingly 1 Baht (the Thai currency), about 15.2 grams. The neighbouring Ministry of Defence building used to be a barracks of 19th century era, beautifully presented as ever in cream and lemon with many cannons lying outside on the lawn, it was like a palace. Next the Drum Tower, actually a modern reconstruction of what had once been a signalling station of sorts. Each of its 3 stories housed a large drum of varying tones, with the first signalling dawn and dusk, the second used as a fire alarm, and the third serving to warn of invaders attacking the city. Wat Po across the road is one of the city's major buddhist temples, very large and ornate with typical multicoloured pointy architecture gleaming of gold and I inadvertantly sneaked inside through a rear entrance. I didnt go inside any of the buildings but got the idea by peeking through open doorways and windows to see predictable golden buddha statues, before shirking off the belated demand for the 50 Baht entry fee. This then took me along an overtly less touristy throng of buddhist trinket sellers, the propensity of which was a lesson in the importance of it to the national psyche. Pavements too clogged to negotiate were awash with yellow polo shirted devotees pondering over talismans and other less discernible charms. Passing the aforeventured National Museum, I found in a small park the surprising Expeditionary Force Memorial. Remarkably it contains the ashes of volunteer soldiers killed during World War I after Thailand belatedly declared war on Germany, only joining in the fun on June 20th 1918. They returned to Thailand from Europe in September 1919, and Thais commemorate Armistice Day here annually. Unfortuantely, Thailands motives for going to war were explained upon it only in Thai.

I went back to the MBK cinema at Siam Square that night, where I'd arranged to meet up with a stunning German chick I'd hit on, she said she would be shopping there anyway. She had a boyfriend and it was her last full day in Bangkok so it wasnt wholly unexpected when she didnt show up. Determined not to get hurt, I'd convinced myself enough that I didnt really care, but still felt a bit if a dickhhead standing around for 20 minutes waiting on the inevitable. I really hadnt wanted to go to the flics on my own but with time to kill I consoled myself with a Starbucks before going to see 28 Weeks Later, a pretty full on horrific spectacle which left me tangibly shocked. It perhaps wasnt the best medicine for my aching heart. Later on back at Khao San I got inexplicably flagged over by one of 2 young English chicks, who upon learning that I was Scottish chirped up that oh, she'd been in Scotland just last month. She struggled to recall the name of the place but eventually stuttered Dun-ferm-line. They were pretty blitzed and were acting like kids so I elected to just walk away and make way for their 2 young male sidekicks. Gentlemanly, one of them said they werent together so I should fill my boots. Just one more avenue for regret.

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