January 23, 1999 Bangkok, starting to feel like home...
We came back to Bangkok from Taiwan four days ago, expecting to only be here for a couple of days. As usual, we lag. We have been using this time to try and figure out how, when, and where to go next. And again, as usual, we are besieged with too many choices, and not enough money. We have decided against the original plan of going to Egypt next given the crisis in the Middle East and the unfavorable sentiment toward Americans there. We've also decided that we will most likely go home at the end of May when we have to return to the East Coast for David's sister's graduation. This is a technical difficulty with considerable expense; either a cheap London to New York and then an expensive one way ticket from New York to LA, or an expensive one way ticket from Europe to LA via NY. Here's what we found out after spending an half a day at three different discount travel agents;
1. The onward ticket requirement: everyone has a different opinion, from the airlines themselves to the various travel agents. We have been told by the airlines that they require passengers to show an onward ticket when you leave Bangkok airport and again upon arrival in any European country. This is to prevent people from emigrating illegally. We have also been told by an airline representative that it is at the discretion of the person at the desk in said airports (not a good thing if they are having a bad day). The travel agents say they can sell us the ticket to Europe without the other one, but the risk is that we will either be turned back to Bangkok at any point, or forced to buy a ticket on the spot. Our internet travel agent assures us in all her time selling tickets she has NEVER heard of this happening to American Passport holders, as did all the local travel agents. There is also the option that if we are hassled, we will be let through if we can show sufficient funds like credit cards or traveler's checks. The reason we do not buy the tickets home here in Bangkok, is because we believe that we can find them much cheaper in the London consolidators. So we will wait and take our chances.
2. We can fly to Europe for around $330 each. This would be on Singapore Airlines, via Singapore, and would take almost 18 hours of transit time. There are other options that are +/-$30, but they are either on inferior airlines or involve flying through countries where we do not want to go (like Pakistan).
3. We were offered a flight to NY via India and London for only $560 each. Ooooh, what an option! We considered it for about a day, but then decided against it. India was not David's first choice for our next destination. Also, we would then have to find a ticket back to LA from NY, and NO ONE in Bangkok deals in discounted one way US domestic tickets.
4. We can go to South Africa and then to Austria for about $800 each. We might even be able to meet up with our friend we met in Nepal, Rochelle, if we do this. Problem here is that we have absolutely no idea what our in-country costs will be in South Africa. We anticipate that it would be fairly expensive given that we would want to travel through the wine region (tasting wines of course!) and go to the Krugar Game Reserve to see the wildlife. Even though this can all be done independently, we would need to rent a car and the game parks can be expensive. Also, we would hate to go and be disappointed because we could not afford go on a safari and see all the good stuff that's off the drive-thru roads of the game park. We think it might be best to wait to go to Africa when we can afford to do it better and be able to go other places like Zimbabwe and Botswana. However, we are still waiting to hear from Rochelle, who has been there before, but is now traveling in the far reaches of India.
So, those are all the choices we have been kicking
around for the last few days. I think in both of us there is a small part
that feels if we do not go to Egypt, India, or Africa, we will not be truly
"traveling around-the-world". Our original itinerary included all of these
places, and yes, we will be very disappointed not to go there. On the other
hand, we had already dropped Africa from the list before we left for the
very same reasons mentions above. We would still be headed to Egypt if
we hadn't read recently the the US Embassy had closed in Cairo due to threats.
And India, well, we just don't feel up to it at this point. So we will,
most likely, head to Europe next week.
If we choose to fly to Europe now, we will have almost 3 1/2 months there. Given this, we have begun to look into the prospect of buying a cheap used car or campervan. We want to have the freedom of movement that comes with driving. Also, since we will have a place to live in the Swiss Alps for almost a month it would be nice to be able to come and go as we choose. We even looked into long term rentals and leases, but they seem to be very expensive. Buying a vehicle is a bit of a risk, given that we will need to sell it before we leave. We will also have to spend money on insurance and gas. A campervan would help us save money on lodging and food.
After a little research, we discovered that Amsterdam, London, and Frankfurt are considered the best places for travelers buying cars. Since we don't want a right hand drive car, London may be more difficult. We may go to Amsterdam because we have a friend living near there and maybe he can assist us. The other option would be to take trains and/or buy Eurail passes. These have become very expensive, even with all their various options, and are of dubious value.
The other thing that we have been trying to figure out we where to go in the next week or so. We decided that we wanted to travel just a bit more here in Thailand before we leave Asia. Since we didn't make it to Cambodia, I wanted to go and see some of the remaining Khmer ruins that exist here in Thailand. Supposedly there are some that are considered the best outside of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
We've decided to begin by going to Ayuthaya which was the ancient capital of Thailand and is only is a couple hours North of Bangkok by train. Most people go here as a day trip, but we will go there tomorrow and spend the night, explore the ruins the following day, and spend the next night. From there, we are going to head to the least visited Thai provence in the north-eastern region. We will go to a town called Khorat and from there visit the Khmer ruins of Phimai and Phanom Pung. After that, we are thinking we will turn south and go to the beach at Pattaya. This town is only a few hours south of Bangkok and is known as one of Thailand's "Sin" Cities. But it also supposedly has beautiful beaches and good diving which we'd like to do one last time before we leave. If we go there and hate it, we can always head to an island just a little further south, Ko Samet.
Lest anyone accuse us of just sitting around too confused to move we did do a couple of other things while here in Bangkok. We finally saw the Jim Thompson House built in the 1950's by the American entrepreneur fascinated by Thai silk. The house is built alongside one of Bangkok's longest canals and is comprised of six old Thai traditional teakwood houses that were moved to the site and reconstructed. The grounds are beautifully maintained with shady, peaceful gardens. The peace only occasionally shattered by the roar of a motorboat down the canal or the call to worship for the faithful in the local Muslim community across the canal. The interior of the house is tastefully decorated in Thai antiques and artwork and has been preserved since Jim Thompson's bizarre "disappearance without a trace" in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967.
We discovered a wonderful little outdoor restaurant
that has been right under our noses every time we've been here in Bangkok.
Right down the road from the Asia Hotel where we have been staying, alongside
the canal is a restaurant that seems constantly busy. I'm not sure why
we never tried it before. Although the setting and decor leave much to
be desired the food is fabulous and we figure it is a "mid-range" restaurant
for the locals as the prices are slightly higher (though not by any stretch
expensive) and they take credit cards. We ordered the "garlic-pepper prawns"
and they came with their heads on, but peeled and deveined, loaded with
chopped garlic and a tasty sauce. The beef with ginger was excellent as
well. We returned the next night for more prawns and they were again very
good although the new dishes we tried were not as good. I guess sometimes
you just have to pick your way through a menu.
January 24, 1999 Ayuthaya
We took a late morning train to Ayuthaya, arriving a little after 1PM. The old city of Ayuthaya is surround by rivers, making it effectively an island. From the train station, we walked a few blocks to the river and took a ferry across to the other side. From there, our first task was to find a place to stay. We were approached by a tout who sold us on the Cathay Hotel, one of the guest houses listed in the Lonely Planet. Along we went and we had a choice of a fancied room, overlooking the river for 200B or an air-conditioned room overlooking the street for 350B, both including bathroom with shower and squat toilet. Given the extreme heat we chose the air-conditioned room, a move we would later regret.
We went next door to a restaurant recommended again by the guidebook, another mistake. It took over 45 minutes to get our two simple orders of fried rice, while the three large Thai families all got served first. There was another couple also waiting forever for their food, and while they did, they approached us with an offer of sharing a tuk tuk tour of Ayuthaya with them.
We had originally planned to rent bicycles to tour around because the distances between the sites was far. When we arrived, we learned just how far they were, and were somewhat disheartened to learn that the guesthouse did not rent bicycles either. So, presented with the opportunity to share a tour, we agreed. It was a good move; for 150B each we got a ride in the back of a pick up to six of the main sites in town. And we didn't have to sweat to get there. If we had tried to do it on our own, we would have made it to maybe two before we got lost and tired and gave up. The other couple, Adam and Katy were from England and also traveling for an extended period of time. It was an extremely pleasant 3 hours with them, touring the temples and ruins, talking about traveling, and later, dinner out in the open market along the river.
Our first stop was an old royal palace. It has two very large sitting Buddhas on either side of a large temple. We climbed to the top of a very steep set of steps to view the small interior of the temple. The inside ceiling and walls were covered by small fruit bats. We found ourselves fascinated more by the bats than the tiny shrine in side. From the top of the temple is a great view of the rest of the old palace grounds and other ruins including a long row of smaller restored buddha figures along a boundary wall.
Our next stop was Wat Phra Chao Phanan-choeng. This is a temple that was originally constructed in 1324 and then continually rebuilt and repaired up to the present day. The Wat now appears modern on the outside with typical steep pitched red roof, white walls and gilt accents. What sets it apart however, is what is inside; an absolutely giant gold covered sitting Buddha. This guy is so big that there are no complete photos of it anywhere because there is not enough room inside the temple to place a camera to capture the entire image. The statue is almost 60 feet in height. It is said that when Ayuthaya was taken by the Burmese in 1767 tears flowed from the eyes of the Buddha. The four walls surrounding the Buddha are covered from about 10 feet off the floor to the ceiling in 4 inch niches that each contain a little wooden Buddha. There must be thousands of them.
From there we went to the ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This was yet another part of the early royal palace and is in complete ruin. It reminded me slightly of the Acropolis in Greece with only walls and pillars remaining. There are still some crumbling chedis (temples) and pieces of buddha statues sitting amongst what were once walls. After that we went to see yet another giant Buddha, this one reclining on his side and out in the open in a field. This is part of the Wat Phra Chao Phya-thai complex.
Our last stop was Wat Mahathat which was a set of ruins very much like all the others (ok, we were getting a little ruined-out by this point). However, the one remarkable feature is a large stone head of Buddha that is completely surrounded by the roots of a tree.
After dinner, we learned why one should never take
a room on the street side of a hotel, even if it has air conditioning.
Who would have thought that that sleepy little town would have the Thai
version of Moto-cross at 3 AM? Motorcycles are a popular form of transportation
in Thailand and it seems that very few of them have adequate mufflers.
So, they all queue up at the stop light a block from our window and when
the light changes, VROOM! Off they go! Add to that the incessant barking
of local dogs, streetlight directly outside the window, and an extremely
hard mattress, and it was one sleepless night.
January 25, 1999 Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat)
After seeing all of Ayuthaya in a day we decide to
press on and go to a town east of there which we were going to use as a
base to get to the Khmer ruins of Phanom Rung. When we got to the
train station early in the morning we discovered there was a train leaving
in an hour, a four hour journey in third class. By the time we got there
and found a place for the night we were hot and tired and decided not to
go anywhere else for the day. We found an ok hotel, the Siri Hotel,
where we got an airconditioned room for only 270B a night. We ate next
door at the VFW Cafeteria, a supposed hang out for American ex-GI's
who live in the area. It was not very good and not very clean. In the afternoon
we walked around town (which is surrounded by a moat like Chaing Mai) and
bought our train tickets back to Bangkok for two days later.
The next morning we went to the main bus station in town and got a ticket out to a town called Ta-Ko. The bus ride took two and a half hours and was an interesting way to see how the locals get around. Like the train stations, at every stop there were hawkers selling food to the passengers. Except on the bus route, the hawkers actually got on the bus at the front door and walked through to the back door. Some of them would do this several times in a row, until the bus began to move again.
When we finally arrived at Ta-Ko, we were dropped at the stop which was basically the intersection of two main roads in the middle of nowhere. At this point the ruins were still 15k away. At the bus stop there were half a dozen young men offering motercycle taxi rides to the ruins for 200 B each. We said, no motorcycle, we want taxi truck. They started at 600B but we bargained down to 300B, saying we didn't want to stay very long. We were glad we took the truck because the ride was uphill on a very winding road.
The ruins themselves were impressive, though not
exactly as expected. They were much smaller that we thought, maybe expecting
something along the lines of Angkor Wat. They sit atop a small hill
and are reached by walking up a very steep set of steps. Then, down a long
alley of stone markers is the temple, in decent condition after having
been somewhat reconstructed. What is amazing is that it is possible to
walk inside and all around the temple. There were no barriers. After walking
around for an hour we decided to go because we still had a long two and
a half hour bus ride back. See the photo page for more of these incredible
That night in Khorat we went out to a street stall for dinner and had wonderful pad thai with chicken and with shrimp. The next day we headed back to Bangkok.
January 27, 1999
Once we arrived in Bangkok we were on a mission; find a place to stay and get a ticket OUT. On the train ride back we decided that we were going to head for London first and look for a campervan there. In the train station, we went to the information and bookings counter to see if they could book us into the hotel we always stayed in. First they told us it was way more expensive than we had been paying, and then they said the hotel was full. We knew this was likely to be untrue, so we took a cab to the STA office and sure 'nuf, they were able to get us a room no problem. Then we went to another travel agent (Chawla Travel on Patpong Rd 1) we had visited before to see how soon we could get on a flight. We got a flight to London on Singapore Airlines, via Singapore (18 hours, ouch!) for a good price, for two days later. Back to STA to book one last night in Bangkok while we waited for the tickets and we were set!
Our last day in Bangkok involved last minute shopping and packing. We even went over to Khao San Rd. in search of some used guidebooks for Europe, but we unable to find any good ones. We tried again unsuccessfully to find the woman who cooks in the alleyway, but she was not there. We lucked out however, and found a great restaurant which we realized halfway through the meal was the same one that had been recommended to us by Adam and Katy back in Ayuthaya!
The restaurant is called Sor Nor Banglamphu and
it is at 179-181 Rambutri Rd. (tel. 282 3945) which runs parallel
to Khao San Rd. The restaurant has a sliding glass door for its entrance.
The best part of the meal was the spicy
beef salad which had an amazing flavor of chilies, lime and
fish sauce. I have tried to re-create a recipe for this. We also had equally
good pad thai gai and green curry with pork. The entire
meal, including rice, ice coffee, and a large Heineken, was 255B! A fantastic
finish to our four months in Asia!