Itinerary: Bangkok – the River Kwai – Ayutaya – Pitsanulok – Sukothai – the Golden Triangle – Chiang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Hua Hin
After a long flight (eleven hours) we arrive at Bangkok International Airport. Customs and baggage handling go quickly and our tour guide is already waiting for us in the arrival hall. Exiting the terminal I feel like stepping into an oven. It’s early September, 7 a.m. local time and reportedly ‘only’ 25 degrees, but it feels like being covered by a huge warm blanket.
Driving into the city we immediately get acquainted with a Bangkok phenomenon: clogged roads. It’s cloudy and a little rainy. Many high office buildings (some not completed after the Asian crisis in the late nineties), large billboards and apartment buildings as you see in every major metropolis. Once in the city, the ‘slums’ stand out: in the middle of the city, between the other buildings, are shelters packed together made of corrugated iron and pallets. Our guide rightly notes that Thailand is still a developing country.
On our first real day in Bangkok we drive to the Golden Buddha: a massive golden Buddha statue in a small and otherwise not so special temple. Thereafter we visit the Wat Po, a temple complex where a ‘reclining Buddha’ is located, a large (45 meters long and 15 meters high) golden Buddha statue. The statue is beautiful and very impressive, only the temple that they have built around it is a bit too small. The complex itself contains several temple buildings and chedis with richly decorated towers. It feels magical.
The next stop are the Wat Phra Kaeo and the Royal Palace. Both are huge complexes with several beautiful buildings. Some entirely in Thai architectural style, others in English colonial style. The Emerald Buddha, one of the holiest Buddhas in Thailand, is located in Wat Phra Kaeo. A small statue of emerald on a high kind of podium. We have lunch on a (stationary) boat on the Chao Praya river and then we go to the Vivanmek House, a wooden palace where various interiors can be seen inside. Personally I don’t like this very much.
In the evening we have dinner on a sailing boat on the Chao Praya. After dinner we are dropped off at the Patpong entertainment district. We walk around the busy night market, where we are constantly approached by sellers of all kinds of tourist stuff: t-shirts, watches, jewelry, CDs, clothing, and so on. In between, I am regularly offered ‘ping pong’, or just ‘sex show’. Even the girls in our group are also offered this. After visiting the night market we take three tuk-tuks back to our hotel. The three drivers make it a real competition. They rush through the traffic at an emergency speed. An exciting ride to end a very pleasant evening.
The next morning we spend in a longtail boat that takes us over the Chao Praya river and through a number of ‘klongs’ (canals). Along the way we see all kinds of houses: large ones on the banks, wooden houses on stilts in the water, boats, Thai (who often wave with a smile when we pass) and on the way we also see a baby crocodile along the bank of the river. Some houses are only accessible by water. It’s funny that even the most cheap-looking wooden houses do have an often beautiful ghost house and a large television inside. A boat ride is a really nice way to see this part of Bangkok.
In the evening we leave for dinner and the ‘Calypso cabaret’. No idea what it is, but it turns out to be a transvestite show. Funny to watch. Some men have become really beautiful women. Some in our group are completely dismayed afterwards when they hear that there really were no women on stage.
On our third day in Bangkok we are going cycling. A Dutch guy is our guide and he really knows how to find his way down every single street in Bangkok, based on the way he guides us through the city. We pass through neighborhoods you’d probably never get to otherwise. Past houses where Thai workers assemble shoes, across a Chinese market where an abundance of food is offered, down narrow alleys in poor neighborhoods where the houses are made of corrugated iron. It’s a very nice bike ride, that takes almost five hours.
About half way the bikes and we have to get on a boat and we are taken to the other side of the river. There we arrive in a completely different part of Bangkok. Here people live in wooden houses in the jungle, among all the greenery of palm trees and other tropical plants. The area is only accessible via a concrete path about one meter wide that is about one and a half meters above the water. You don’t want to fall off, so you have to cycle carefully. When our guide turns at a blind corner and a Thai boy comes from the other side, either he or the Thai has to go into the water. It’s the Thai.
The river Kwai
The next morning we leave Bangkok and first visit a floating market. It’s the only one left in the Bangkok area and it’s quite touristy. It’s nice to see though, all those boats with tropical fruit and other food. Then we drive to the area of the River Kwai, where we visit a cemetery where forced laborers (also Dutch) are buried who during the Second World War worked on the Burma Railway. Impressive. The next stop is the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. Just as I’m on the other side of the bridge, it starts to rain. A short shower, but I’m soaking wet.
We have lunch on a large covered raft that sails on the river. One of the (many) highlights is the train journey on part of the Burma Railway. We board in Chaong Keb and drive to Tachilen. During the ride you have fantastic views. After this we are taken to the jungle. A longtail boat takes us down the river for about twenty minutes. It is just after 6 p.m. when we arrive at our ‘Jungle Raft Hotel’, consisting of a row of floating rooms made of wood and thatched roofs, located on the bank of the river Kwai, in the middle of the jungle. No electricity and a shower with cold water only. In the evening only an oil lamp. It’s a wonderful place.
The next day we visit the Hellfire pass. During the Second World War, forced laborers cut out rocks here for the construction of the Burma Railway. After this we go to Sai Yok National Park. At the waterfall we board a covered ‘raft’ again, which takes us to another waterfall. Neither are spectacular, but some of us do take a dip. The return trip to the floating hotel is again by longtail boat. We come from the other side and the journey takes almost an hour. On both sides of the Kwai nothing but jungle. Occasionally we encounter someone in a boat, a house (floating or not) on the banks or children playing in the river. This place feels very far away from the ‘civilized world’ and far away from everyday life.
Ayutaya, Pitsanulok and Sukothai
We leave the beautiful and peaceful surroundings of the River Kwai and drive to Ayutaya, the former capital of Thailand. Here we visit the ruins of the Wat Chai Wattanaram and the Phra Sri Sanphet. Beautiful ruins. Next we go to Pitsanulok, a long drive through a rather dull, flat landscape.
In Pitsanulok we visit a schoolyard, where every day at 8 a.m. the national flag is ceremonially raised. Then we go to Wat Mahathat, also in Pitsanulok. This is said to be one of the most important temples in Thailand. After this, the long journey to Chiang Rai begins. Along the way we stop a number of times, among others in Sukothai. Here we look around in a rice processing plant. I’m not sure about the hygene standards here. It’s very old and filthy. In Sukothai we also visit some ruins of old temples, which are gathered together in a kind of park.
The next part of the bus ride goes through hilly and mountainous area. In the evening we arrive at our accommodation just outside Chiang Rai. A brand new and really beautiful complex, with small cottages, each with a bathroom and a veranda. What a pity we only stay here for one night!
The Golden Triangle
After one night at the resort in Chiang Rai we leave for the northernmost tip of Thailand. This is in Mae Sai, where a bridge forms the border post with Myanmar (formerly: Burma). Here I walk across the local market, the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far. Baskets of peppers, vegetables, garlic of various kinds, fish (alive and dead) and bags of spices. The containers with two centimeter large caterpillars look less attractive.
After this we drive to the Mekong River, where we make a beautiful boat trip. On the way we stop on the side of Laos. This is not an official border crossing, but local residents have set up a kind of post where you get a piece of paper with a stamp and there are some shops. So I can officially say that I have been to Laos. Three quarters of an hour to be exact.
This area is the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. It’s a beautiful mountainous area with many rice fields. And a notorious opium area. We noticed this on our way here, when we regularly encountered police checkpoints along the way. For a year now, the Thai have been waging a ‘war on drugs’ and they are trying to prevent opium smuggling in this area.
In the afternoon we transfer from the bus to pickups with benches mounted in the back (a common form of transportation in Thailand). In the pickups we drive further into the mountains and visit the hill tribes Akha and Yao. At the latter we are immediately approached by a large group of children who take us by the hand and by their mothers and grandmothers who want to sell us bracelets and hats. I too am grabbed by a little boy and shown around the village. These are very poor people who have no education. They are also not Thai but Laotians. A strange experience.
The remainder of the ride continues uphill. Rice fields give way to tea plantations. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to photograph the landscape from the covered pickup. By the end of the afternoon we arrive in Maesalong, where our accommodation consists of apartments with a veranda and a beautiful view.
On day 11 of trip trip we drive to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Here we visit a gems gallery, where handmade jewelry with diamonds, rubies and sapphires are made (and sold of course). The ladies in the group in particular do extensive shopping.
The next day we visit elephant camp Chiang Dao, where tourists are entertained by having their pictures taken next to elephants, on top of elephants, of elephants in the river, elephants playing football, and so on. After this we take an hour-long ride on the back of an elephant. We don’t go far, but those animals walk so slowly that the ride takes an hour. Along the way we enjoy the beautiful nature.
The camp is located on the river Ring, which we take a trip on by raft. On the way back we stop at an orchid garden. Back at the hotel we are invited to a two-hour Thai massage. The ladies are already waiting for us and no sooner have I entered than one has already grabbed me and leads me to one of the mattresses. What follows is two hours of pulling, pushing and kneading. Except for a few square centimeters, every spot of your body is tackled. It’s not unpleasant and very relaxing.
The next morning we visit the Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. This one is on top of a mountain, but the fog obscures the view of Chiang Mai. Only when we drive back and descend the mountain do we look out over the city. After this we go to a factory where they make Thai silk and one where they make teak wood making furniture.
Pai and Mae Hong Son
After lunch at the hotel we have to pack our things for the next six days. The big suitcases go back to Bangkok and we leave Chiang Mai in minibuses to Pai, in the region where the Karen tribe lives. The environment is beautiful. It’s the most mountainous area we’ve seen in Thailand so far. On the way we visit a Karen village, wooden houses in a muddy environment, all very primitive. In the afternoon we arrive in Pai.
The next morning the second leg of the journey to Mae Hong Son goes through the mountainous landscape on a winding road with hairpin bends. Every now and then we stop, among other places at a beautiful viewpoint, at a rice field where work is being done and at a Lisu village (one of the hill tribes in this area).
After a relaxing afternoon and evening, the next day we visit the Wat Doi Kong Mu (on top of the mountain of the same name). It’s the last temple we visit during this trip. Good thing too, because I’ve seen enough temples and Buddhas now. From the mountain you have a beautiful view of Mae Hong Son.
We also visit the well-known long-necked tribes. Thiese people live in a remote village with wooden houses, similar to the Karen and Lisu. The women with the rings around their necks are sitting in front of their houses and sell small souvenirs in exchange for photos. This ancient culture (those rings were once seen as an ideal of beauty) seems to be less and less prevalent, but is being preserved for tourism.
The next day we fly from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai, a flight of less than half an hour. From Chiang Mai we take the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The train ride takes thirteen hours and is quite an experience. At 8 p.m. the seats are transformed into beds. One upstairs and one downstairs, with a curtain in front. During the night I wake up regularly, but overall I sleep pretty well.
Once in Bangkok we have breakfast in a hotel opposite the train station. A bus is also waiting here with the luggage that we sent to Bangkok six days ago. Very well arranged. After breakfast we drive to Hua Hin, the beach destination where we will end our trip in Thailand. The closer we get to our beach destination, the harder it starts to rain. Due to the poor drainage, the road is mostly flooded. People wade through the water and low-lying shops along the road are barricaded with sandbags. What a bizarre contrast with the dry and sweltering north. When we arrive in Hua Hin it’s dry, but still cloudy.
From now on I don’t do much more than relax and recover from all the impressions of the past few weeks. One more impression is added when the next day we have dinner at the balcony of a restaurant and lightning strikes an electricity pole right next to the balcony, causing a short circuit in the illuminated signs of the adjacent building. The enormous blow, the flash of light and the shower of sparks look spectacular. Everyone is shocked and some are shaking in a corner two meters away in less than a second. We decide to finish dinner inside.
On our last day in Thailand we pack our things, play some pool and in the evening we head for the airport for our return flight to the Netherlands. I’m glad we are going back. But it was a fantastic trip!