MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Asia”

Contrasts of Krung Thep

It’s hard not to find something to love about Bangkok. After a fantastic few days based in Silom, it was time to change hotels in preparation for a conference, and discover another side of the city that I had quickly fallen in love with.

I caught the Skytrain (BTS) to Phaya Thai and transferred to the airport link to travel one stop to Ratchaprarop. 4-Star LuxuryThe station was next to the busy Ratchaprarop Road, and coming into the heat of the day, despite my hotel being just a 7 minute walk away, I was sweating buckets by the time I reached it. Thankfully my room was already available, and I checked into the spaciousness of it. One of the fantastic things about Bangkok, is how far your money stretches, and even a four-star hotel was perfectly affordable. It was a luxury that I rarely get when I’m travelling.

Bangkok's tallest buildingThere was so much to explore in this area. The vibe was quite different here, with various four and five star hotels in the neighbourhood, as well as one of Bangkok’s main conference centres and a myriad of giant malls all within easy reach. Erawan ShrineHeading south to where the skytrain (BTS) stands tall above Phloen Chit, one of the city’s main shrines, the Erawan Shrine, sits on the side of the road. Elephants at the Erawan ShrineIt is a busy place at any time of the day, and the locals come here to pay their respects, give thanks, and have their prayers heard. Dancers at the Erawan ShrineTo one side, some men played instruments whilst ladies in traditional clothing danced. I stayed for a while in quiet observation before moving on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phallus at the shrine of fertilityI was on a quest to explore the lesser explored parts of Bangkok. I had seen on a website some quirky things to do, and was on my way to find one of them. Phalluses at the Fertility ShrineA couple of blocks east from the shrine and up a long road, nestled in the grounds of the Swissotel Nai Lert Park hotel, is the Goddess Tubtim shrine. Khlong Saen SaepEffectively a shrine full of phalluses, it is where the locals come to seek fertility. On the banks of the Khlong Saen Saep, it was a quiet and peaceful place to be, the quiet broken only when a khlong boat flew by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Khlong boatThe khlong boats along the canal were an experience in themselves. Unlike the river boats, these khlong boats are not a routine form of transport for tourists. They are very definitely the realm of locals, and as such the signage at the boat stops and the staff that worked on them, were not geared towards English comprehension. I boarded at Chitlom pier (several of the piers are known under different names depending on where you read it) just a street away from the phallic shrine. Initially the boatman trying to give me a ticket couldn’t understand where I wanted to go, but after a bit of repetition we got there in the end. It was a very cheap ride, and the boats were crowded. There was no hanging around at piers: getting on and off needed to be a brisk affair, and involved stepping over the lowered side of the boat without tripping over the material or the ropes.

Riding the khlong boatJust a few minutes later, I was left confused when everyone got off the boat but me. The last passenger to get off was speaking in Thai to me and pointing up ahead. The boatman then did the same. It turns out that Pratanum pier is an interchange pier and there is an obligatory boat change here, so everyone had piled off simply to climb aboard the boat in front. Soon we were on our way again. The sides of the khlong boats can be lowered and raised as splash guards. The canal water was a murky brown with lots of rubbish floating in it. This was the not the kind of water you wanted to be swallowing, and at the speed the boats were running at, the splash guards came to good use to stop the spray coming inside the boat.

Banks of the khlongThe boats offer an interesting perspective on the real Bangkok. With mainly locals and few tourists, it was a popular transportation for commuters, and many of the buildings that lined the canal were authentically Thai and gave a glimpse of life in some of the poorer quarters, with small shacks squeezed into the gaps between highrises. Eventually, the boat came to a stop, and again everyone got off. The signage was a name that I didn’t recognise and I had no idea whether it was where I wanted to be or not, but with no other boat to board, I cut up to the road to discover that I had indeed made it to Phanfa pier.

The Golden MountI was not a million miles away from Kao San Road to the west, but this time I crossed the bridge over the canal and headed one block south to the Golden Mount. Statue at the Golden MountAt just THB40, this is one of the cheaper tourist places to visit, but involves a lot of stairs that spiral up and then down the other side, so is not for those who would find this physically hard. CentipedeLarge centipedes wandered across the lower stairs, and there were lots of statues amongst the bushes on the way up. Bangkok from the Golden MountIt was a very overcast day, but the reward at the top was a view over the local district of Bangkok sprawling into the distance. Bangkok from the Golden MountAway from the commercial buzz of Ratchaprarop and neighbouring Ratchathewi, this area seemed calmer and less westernised. Bangkok from the Golden MountThere were plenty of tourists there that day, but compared to the busyness of the Grand Palace, this place felt hidden and out of the way, which I liked immensely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could spot my next destination from the roof of the Golden Mount, and after descending the steps back to the main road, I cut through streets full of shops selling buddhas of varying sizes. It was astonishing how many shops there were selling so many styles and sizes, and I wondered what kind of market there was in Thailand to warrant so much choice. I had heard about, and indeed seen in a couple of locations, petitions to encourage tourists not to buy buddhas as souvenirs. It is seen as devaluing and disrespecting what is essentially a symbol of Buddhism, and I tend to agree. Whilst for many tourists, a buddha symbolises their Thai experiences in the way that the Eiffel Tower is used to sum up Paris, or Big Ben for London, I would never wear or buy a symbolic cross as I am not Christian, so nor would I buy a symbol of any other religion that I am not a follower of. However, with many people earning much needed money from these often tacky souvenirs, I guess it will always be a contentious issue.

Giant SwingAt the western end of Thanon Bamrung Muang is a structure known as the Giant Swing. Giant SwingIt is essentially a large red frame that sits on a traffic island next to Wat Suthat. Just a few blocks to the west of here is the back wall of the Grand Palace. Democracy MonumentI headed north past the City Hall to the Democracy Monument, before turning back east and sitting for a while in the grounds of Wat Ratchanatda. A man who told me he was a teacher at the nearby school chatted to me briefly before I headed on back to Phanfa pier past the Mahakan Fort which didn’t appear to be open to the public. Again, I nestled amongst the locals on the khlong boat back to Pratanum pier where I re-emerged amongst the busy commercial district.

Marks & SpencerIt can be quite strange the things that make you emotional. I have no idea how much the incessant heat and humidity played a part, but when I headed into the great expanse of Central World mall, I became ridiculously overjoyed to the point of near tears, when I saw some UK high street stores nestled in its white interior. H&MIt’s been 2.5 years since I last set foot on UK soil, and I didn’t realise how much I missed some of my favourite stores until I saw Marks & Spencers, Boots, Accessorize and H&M. I’m well known for hating shopping at the best of times, being the antithesis of a shopaholic, but I couldn’t help but gleefully wander around the stores that flooded me with memories of my old life in Scotland.

7 Floors of Central WorldCentral World is 7 floors of a shopper’s paradise, and armed with a store map, I started with the lower level, getting tired before I even completed that one floor. I’d discovered repeatedly, that Thailand does not know how to make good coffee, so despite not normally being a tea drinker, I enjoyed a nice pot of fruit tea at the Twinings of London tea house. Busy Ratchaprarop RoadAfter a brief respite and shower back at my hotel, I explored the busy streets at night time in search of food. At times it was hard to find authentically Thai food outwith the street stalls, as a lot of the restaurants were fusions of different styles of Asian food. It was easy to find delicious food though, and sometimes there was so much choice that it was simply overwhelming.

 

The View from the Bangkok Convention CentreThe following day was when the learning started with 4 days ahead of lectures. The view from the Bangkok Convention CentreThe bulk of the day was spent in the coolness of the air conditioned conference centre, which at times was so cold I ended up covered in goose bumps. The view from the Bangkok Convention CentreI ended up taking the opportunity at break times to step outside and feel the previously suffocating heat. Thai dancerAt the end of the first day, Thai dancerwe were treated to a traditional Thai dance show with men and women dressed in traditional attire, Thai dancerand some in masks representing mythical creatures.Thai dancerThai dancers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asian elephantAfter the second day of lectures, many of us boarded the skytrain (BTS) to Asok before transferring to the metro line (MRT). At the Thailand cultural centre stop, we were met by a shuttle bus and driven to the cultural centre for a Thai-themed night. We were greeted at the entrance and introduced to an Asian elephant who posed with her Mahout for photographs. Asian elephantI’ve previously ridden an Asian elephant in both India and Sri Lanka, but I’m always in two minds about how I feel about them being used this way. In other parts of Asia they are regularly used for carrying things in a way that horses, donkeys and camels are used in other parts of the world. I have no idea how this elephant spent the rest of her day, but several of us noticed her shuffling from one foot to the other, and wondered if she was frustrated.

Siam NiramitAfter an enormous buffet of traditional Thai food, we piled into the theatre to watch the show. I was mesmerised. Having been unsure what to expect, I was captivated with the wordless portrayal of Thailand’s history and traditions. The dancers and elephants even came amongst the audience on a few occasions, and there was a lot of surprised murmurings when a river appeared to flow across the stage. For me, it was simply magical.

 

 

After the third day of lectures, I discovered a large food market on the forecourt of Central World. Despite tucking into plenty of fruit, juices and savouries from street-side stalls, I had been very hesitant about eating the cooked food. The street food generally looked and smelled divine, but having previously been hospitalised for severe gastro-enteritis contracted in India, and still suffering the effects from another bout contracted in Fiji 6 months prior, I had thus far been decidedly cautious about the meat. Finally though, I felt I had to give it a go, and having found a stall where it looked to be well cooked and freshly prepared, I bought a selection of meats and kebabs and tucked in. I was thoroughly disappointed. Not only were they either cold or lukewarm, but they didn’t taste anything like they had smelled, and I was disheartened with my poor judgement.

Fashion ShowI headed into the mall in search of something tastier and stumbled across a fashion show on the ground floor. I watched from above for a while before heading back to Twinings of London for another pot of a fruited tea blend. A famous groupWhen I found my way to the stage, there was live music, and the crowd suddenly went wild for a group of young women that came out to sing. I had (and still have) no idea who they were, but one song in particular was obviously very popular and I was amused to see all these men in their late teens and early twenties singing along and filming them whilst yelling the lyrics at the stage. The popular girl group on the rightI hung around for a while, and was rewarded with a band who again, seemed to be quite famous and well known there. I later saw the lead singer in an advert on the television, and enjoyed their performances immensely. Women fawned over him when they were invited onto the stage for a competition with him, and I noticed him forcing smiles and pretending that he wasn’t wishing he was somewhere else right then. Eventually, the music finished, and all the acts came back onto the stage, including the girls from earlier, who once again were screamed at by all the young men in the vicinity. I’m guessing that I was privileged to see some Thai celebrities.

Chilli Hip RestaurantThe final day of lectures came and went, and after a wander around the famous MBK centre, I decided to splash out on the rooftop restaurant at my hotel. Street food had ranged from THB10 – 50, and restaurants had varied from THB200 – 600, which usually had included a cocktail. That last night in Bangkok, I enjoyed a fantastic trio of entrees and the most delicious cocktail I’ve ever had for the staggering price of THB1000 (about NZ$40). Rooftop viewIt was al fresco dining at its expensive best, with the twinkling lights of the neighbouring skyscrapers for company. Thailand had been so cheap overall that I didn’t care about splashing out on such a luxurious venue, and I was already starting to feel sad about the prospect of leaving Bangkok behind the next day.

 

 

Skytrain above the city centre streetsWith my flight home not till the evening, I still had quite a bit of time to spare on the last day. I had read about a giant elephant to the south of Bangkok and was keen to go and visit. It was confusing to work out how to get there. I figured that the skytrain (BTS) had been extended recently, as two different station were mentioned on different websites and I was unsure of which one was nearest. I enquired with the concierge at my hotel as I checked out and he mentioned a third station which left me even more confused. I asked him to write the address of my destination in Thai so that I could give it to a taxi driver, and duly headed off to the skytrain station. In the end, I followed my gut instinct (I normally have a reasonably good sense of direction) and stayed on the line till its terminus station of Bearing. Stepping out, I realised to my satisfaction that I was right.

The skytrain stands tall above Sukhumvit Road, and waiting at the bottom of the steps was a taxi. I jumped in and handed him the piece of paper with the address in Thai. In then became quite clear that it wasn’t an address at all, but some kind of description, and the driver couldn’t work out where it was directing him to. He talked out loud to himself for a while, clearly trying to solve the puzzle before he let out an exclamation and started driving. I knew he just needed to head straight down the long road until he went under the motorway, and I silently prayed that he was going to take me to the right place. Thankfully, after initially crawling through the built up traffic, the giant elephant appeared, and he pulled over to drop me off.

Erawan MuseumThe Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan is a 3-headed elephant that stands 29m high as it stands on its pedestal. Erawan MuseumWhat makes this building even more impressive, is that the building itself is within the elephant, and frankly the internal design is so ornate and simply beautiful. THB400 pays for entry to the grounds and the elephant. Ground Floor of the Erawan MuseumThe grounds themselves were peaceful with waterways, and statues, but the building itself made the entry worthwhile alone. Staircase inside the Erawan MuseumIn the basement, which I wouldn’t have known about had it not been for some other tourists who beckoned me to follow them through the door, were lots of relics. View from inside the elephantIn the ground floor of the main building, an arced staircase beckons you up to a platform below a large and ornate stained-glass window. The top floor inside the Erawan MuseumFrom there a staircase leads up one of the legs of the elephant until you are literally within its body. Peacock StatueA small window in a recess gives a view out over the nearby motorway and beyond. Elephant StatueUp a final staircase, a chamber is reached that is painted an ethereal blue with lighting around a buddha casting magical shadows. Erawan MuseumBoth inside and out, this place is just beautiful from every perceivable angle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to leave. I asked one of the workers where to catch one, and he instructed me to have a seat at the gate and told the man at the gate to try and flag one down to take me back to the station. After a few minutes he flagged down a bus, and told the driver in Thai where I wanted to go. This was my first experience of the public buses in Bangkok, and the ticket lady spoke no English. She had to show me the ticket so I knew how much to pay and then we trundled on up the road. What had taken half an hour in the traffic on the way down, took less than ten minutes on the way back, and the driver actually stopped me from getting off at the bus stop before Bearing station, and insisted on pulling over right at the bottom of the stairs up to the platform. I was exceedingly grateful and happy that I’d gotten to experience another piece of real life in Bangkok. I had read that the public bus service could be confusing, so I wouldn’t have used a bus here in any other circumstance.

After You Dessert CafeBack in the world of Ratchathewi, I enjoyed the best chocolate dessert I think I’ve ever had, in a lovely cafe called After You Dessert Cafe, before watching some candy being made at a candy lab. Dolphin StatueFinally, I wandered around an art display outside of Central World before heading back to my hotel to pass a little more time with my feet dipped in the rooftop spa pool. Elephant StatuesCrossing the khlong on the way back to the hotelEventually though, it was time to make the final trip back to Suvarnabhumi International Airport for my flight home to New Zealand. Rooftop Spa PoolI had gone to Bangkok with no expectations, and quickly realised that I would be leaving a piece of my heart behind. Despite the heat and humidity, here is a place of vibrancy and culture; of modern and traditional; of east meets west, and there’s nothing you can do but fall in love with it.

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The Death Railway

I came close to collapsing with heat stroke twice in one day. I can be too stubborn for my own good sometimes, always determined to walk as much as possible. But when the mercury is encroaching on 40oC and the humidity pushes the feeling even higher, I really ought to know my limits. Especially when I’d already knackered my poor feet the previous two days in a row.

The in-flight entertainment on my Qantas flight to Bangkok included some tourist information on various destinations, including the city I was headed to. With little research done on my destination, I was curious to see what it said, and was intrigued to see it recommending making a day trip to the ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’, which was made famous in the movie of the same name, and bares the scars of the war that lead to the railway earning its nickname of the Death Railway. I’d seen the location on the map before I’d left home, but hadn’t given it any thought. However, after watching the video and once getting some wi-fi at my hotel in Bangkok I did some research into the plausability of taking a day trip there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be possible to travel the full run on the train as well as seeing the countryside around the bridge or the war memorials all in one day, but it was definitely an option to go as far as Kanchanaburi, the location of the Allied War Memorial.

I rose early to catch the first Skytrain (BTS) to Saphan Taksin, and waited for one of the first ferries of the day to take me up river. I caught the orange boat at central pier and disembarked at N10, Wang Lang. I’d promised myself I’d catch a tuk tuk to Thonburi train station, but not knowing how long I’d need to get there, I’d arrived at Wang Lang with an hour to spare, and only a 15 min walk to get me to the station, so I reneged on my earlier promise and wandered the busy streets of Thonburi district. It wasn’t long until I’d reached the bustling market that fronts the small train station, and after purchasing my ticket, I had a wander round in search of something for breakfast.

Timetable at Thonburi StationThere were a lot of tourists waiting for the train, and despite all the other scheduled trains leaving late, the 07:50 train to Namtok left nearly on time. Traditional Station Conductor waving the train offDespite this, it was over an hour late in arriving in Kanchanaburi, a feat that I’m still not sure how it happened. Wat next to the railway en routeIt was an interesting ride through suburbia and townships, and eventually reaching the countryside. Thai countryside viewed from the trainI’d noticed on the flight into Bangkok how flat the area is, and this continued for most of the train ride. The Death RailwayMost of the track felt like we were going in a perpetual straight line with very few turns, Level crossingand only when Kanchanaburi was getting closer, Finally some hillsdid the hills start to appear, and lush vegetation take over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite being due in at 10:20am, we pulled in at the station after 11:30am, and I went straight away in search of food. Despite leaving Bangkok with its inclement skies, out here, the sky was near cloudless, and the sun beat down relentlessly. After a quick refreshment, I stupidly decided to walk the 2km from Kanchanaburi to the famous bridge. A walk that back home in cool New Zealand would have been a breeze, was one of the stupidest things I decided to do in the heat of the Thailand day with the humidity pushing the perceived temperature into the 40s. My stupid pride made me wave off tuk tuks and taxis that tried to pick me up, and nearly 2/3rds of the way there, I started to feel nauseous and dizzy. My feet ached, but I pushed on, finally reaching the crowds at the bridge, only to have to desperately find some shade to catch my breath and rehydrate myself. I promised myself I’d get a taxi for the return journey.

Bridge on the River KwaiThe river Khwae Yai flows peacefully under the majestic and iconic structure of the bridge. River Khwae YaiIt is easy to spot which part was destroyed and replaced as the central bridge spans are different from the outer bridge spans. River Kwai Bridge train stationDespite the crowds, it was a serene place to be, and I wandered slowly across, admiring the changing view both up and down stream. Standing on the bridgeIt felt a world away from Bangkok and I was revelling in the change of scenery. Chinese temple on the far bankOn the far bank, a seemingly out of place Chinese temple sat on the banks blasting out music on loud speakers. The Death Railway disappears into the distanceIt was open to the public, but most people didn’t notice or didn’t care. Bridge on the River Kwai from the Chinese templeOnly a couple of other tourists went in for a wander, and I followed a little behind them. Looking upstream, River Kwhae YaiIt was worth it purely for the view it gave back over to the bridge and down stream, and I sat on the river bank for a while, enjoying some much needed shade. Looking downstream, river Khwae YaiEventually, after wandering around the grounds of the temple, Mountains in the distance down the riverI headed back up the stairs to the bridge and returned to the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Kwai BridgeThere was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to head back to Kanchanaburi. Conscious of time before catching the train back to Bangkok, I felt I had no choice but to head off in the heat. It was a miserable affair, and to make matters worse, I ran out of water on route. There was no shade from the relentless sun, and again I felt the nausea and dizziness return. I was close to collapsing when a tuktuk appeared and I flagged it down. I did a terrible job of bartering a price, agreeing to a ridiculously high price, but at that moment in time, I would have paid anything to get off my feet and into some shade. I got him to drop me at the Allied War cemetery, but even there, sitting in the shade of the entrance arch, I felt rotten.

After a brief rest, I headed across the road to the Thailand-Burma Railway centre which thankfully had both air conditioning and water, and I wandered round what is a relatively small but very interesting museum. Whether the heat stroke added to my emotional state or not, I was deeply moved by what I read and saw. However you look upon it, the Thailand-Burma railway was a feat of engineering, strength and endurance which Japan had built using the labour of Allied prisoners of war in the second world war. A living skeletonThe numbers are staggering. At 415 km long at its full operational length, it was constructed by 180,000 civilian labourers and 60,000 PoWs, with an estimated 90,000 civilian deaths, and 12,621 PoW deaths during its construction. They laboured through monsoons, and incessant heat with little shelter or nourishment provided. There are many stories of brutalities, and the men were worked till the point of collapse. Having nearly collapsed twice from walking 2km in the heat with a large bottle of water, I shuddered at the thought of what these men went through on a daily basis. There were plenty of photos in the museum depicting the emaciated bodies of the men who were forced into hard labour.

Built for the purposes of supplying the Japanese forces who had taken control of what was then Burma (now Myanmar), it was finished ahead of schedule, taking around a year and a half in total. It saved the Japanese valuable time by saving the need to transport by sea. 111 kilometres of the railway were in Burma, and the remaining 304km were in Thailand. Just four years after completion, the railway was closed and abandoned, and now large sections of it are under water, deconstructed or left in place to age. Only the Namtok to Bangkok section, including Hellfire Pass, which was a particularly difficult and deadly section to build, is still used.

Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiI returned to the Allied War cemetery and looked through the book of names before wandering through the beautifully maintained and landscaped cemetery. Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiI was overcome wandering along row after row of headstones baring the names of lives who’d been cut short through disease, brutality and exhaustion. Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiSeveral of the headstones bare no name, as the remains have not been able to be identified. A lost soul buried with his kin. Graves of unidentified soldiersI’ve never felt so emotional before at a cemetery or a war memorial, and if ever I could feel grateful or sorry for the sacrifice of a generation I know so little about it, Kanchanaburi War Cemeteryit was here, in the quiet and solitude, amongst the graves of fellow countrymen, in a town in the middle of Thailand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steam train outside Kanchanaburi stationEventually though, I had to head back to the station. I expected the train to be late in returning as it had been so late in getting there that morning, but I didn’t want to take the chance of missing it. Kanchanaburi train stationWhen I got there, an English couple who I had seen at the bridge, were waiting, and the ticket office bore a sign saying the train would be 45mins late. I sat with them for a while, before feeling drawn back to the cemetery where I passed some more time before grabbing a snack on the way back to the station. Angry Spicy BBQ flavoured seaweedI shared the bizarre sea-weed concoction with my fellow travellers, and discovered they were needing to get back to Bangkok to catch a flight that night. They were getting nervous about making it, so when the delay was extended to 90 mins, one of them went off to see if they could negotiate a taxi. In Thailand, it is normal to barter for a price, and it is easy for novices to be ripped off. With a two hour drive back to the capital, we all knew the taxi price would not be cheap, and when he returned with a price, and not enough cash in their wallets, I offered them some much needed Bahts in the hope it would help them catch their plane. When the taxi turned up, they asked if I wanted to join them, and with the prospect of an unknown time till the train would finally appear, I decided to accept.

Firstly, our driver spoke very little English. Secondly, he took us to someone’s house down a back street where a second man and a young boy got in, meaning what we thought would be a comfortable air-conditioned drive, was actually 6 people squeezed into the car for a 2.5 hr drive to the airport. One of the things I’d already noticed in Bangkok was that lanes, and indeed sides of the road, were only for suggestion, and cars, motorbikes and buses weaved in and out as they pleased, including driving on the wrong side of the road if it suited. Despite that, there was very little horn tooting unlike what I’d experienced in India. Not only that, but all the vehicles looked in pristine condition, as if new and straight out the car wash or the car showroom. Apart from the one man who I’d seen come off his bike, I saw no accidents and no bashes or scratches on any of the vehicles. It was amazing.

The three of us chatted the time away in the back seat as the sun began to set, and eventually we hit the rush hour of Bangkok. It was a side to Bangkok that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and despite never having met any of these people before, it felt like an adventure sharing this part of their trip with them. Finally, we pulled up at Suvarnabhumi International airport, and we went our separate ways. They were in plenty of time for their flight, and I caught the train back into the city centre, before jumping on the metro back to my hotel. Doing the full trip up to Namtok via Hellfire Pass will be on my agenda if I ever make it back to Bangkok. But I was exceedingly pleased that I made the time to go to Kanchanaburi, and tired and hungry at the end of a very long and emotional day, my heart wept for the dead.

Krung Thep – City of Angels

I don’t think I’d ever been this unprepared for a trip before. Certainly, I don’t plan trips to the same degree every time but usually I have a vague idea what I want to do and see when I go somewhere new. When I discovered that a vocationally-renowned conference was taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, I was very keen to go. I booked my place and my flights 9 months prior then duly acted like it wasn’t happening. This year has been plagued by complications which I may yet get to write about if they are ever fully resolved, and there were a few weeks in April when I had no passport and thought the trip wasn’t going to happen for me. So I ignored my guidebook, did only very basic research online, and finally boarded the plane with quite a bit of trepidation and little idea of what to expect at the other end.

I jumped the ditch from New Zealand to Australia, and after a brief connection, and a smooth 9.5hr flight, I landed in Bangkok, and waited with increasing impatience at baggage reclaim for a bag that never came. Great start. One of the few things I had planned was how to get to my hotel in the Silom district. Taking the airport link train to Makkasan, I transferred to the Metro station of Petchaburi and discovered that I wouldn’t have been able to come this way if I had had my luggage. Every metro station has a security gate and bag search to go through and as a result, large bags and luggage are not allowed. Bangkok from my hotel roomFinally getting off at Si Lom station, I emerged into night time, and the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, slightly disorientated at a cross roads, and struggling to find any kind of signage to indicate which street I wanted. By the time I found my hotel, I was more than ready for the air conditioning and a good night’s sleep.

I was very impressed with the ease of Bangkok’s main public transport systems. The next day was a Sunday, and I took the skytrain (BTS) to Mo Chit and headed to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. A quiet section of Chatuchak MarketI’m not a fan of shopping generally, and do it only when necessary, so I expected to only spend a couple of hours there before heading on somewhere else. So I surprised myself to emerge 7 hrs later, limping yet satisfied. The best way to describe it is like a rabbit warren. Apparently there is order to the chaos, and maps are supposedly available somewhere, but I preferred to just head on in and start wandering up and down the various sheds. The market is the largest market in Thailand and the world’s largest weekend market with roughly 15,000 stalls. They are crammed into little lots nestled around narrow alleyways that criss-cross the section, and I was determined to cover every square-inch of the place.

Generally, the market is grouped into categories of wares, so clothes are mostly together, homewares are mostly together, food is grouped together, and animals are all together. Macaw for sale, Chatuchak MarketThere are some exceptions, but for the most part, if you are interested in just one type of product, you can focus on a specific area of the market. Ornate birds for sale, Chatuchak MarketI had been warned in advance that the animal section was not a place to visit as an animal lover. It started off innocently enough with puppies and kittens in air-conditioned rooms, but the deeper in I got, I found puppies struggling in the heat, cages crammed full of rodents, birds tightly packed into spaces, vivariums over-populated with reptiles, and exotic species that I know need specialist care, but were sold freely to anyone who would pay the price. I went with an open mind, but it didn’t sit well with my conscience.

Wood Art, Chatuchak MarketThe main lesson I learned at the market, was that if you see something you want to buy, buy it. I tried to find my way back to two stalls I had seen earlier in the day in order to buy something, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not retrace my steps to locate them again, and missed out. Coconut IcecreamIt was impossible to come to this place without buying something, and I enjoyed sampling different foods from different stalls.  Outdoor stretch of Chatuchak MarketThe heat was incredible though, and without any suncream (which was packed in the luggage that had never arrived), I limited my time outside as best I could. I really wanted to take pictures to capture the chaos, but most of the time, it was so crammed with people trying to squeeze past in the narrow corridors that there just wasn’t much opportunity. It just needs to be experienced.

After 7hrs of idly wandering, I emerged into the daylight with a grin on my face. Queen Sirikit ParkI knew early on that Bangkok was going to capture my heart, and with each new place I went, I felt more and more at home. Next to Chatuchak market is the green space of Queen Sirikit Park. Queen Sirikit ParkBy now late afternoon, the park was full of locals spread across the grass relaxing with friends and family. A large lake snakes its way up the park and even through the murky waters, large fish were visible at the surface and people merrily paddled swan boats up and down the waters. Even though my feet were blistered and sore, I meandered through the park for a while before heading back to the BTS and my hotel on the other side of the city. I was relieved to get to my room and find that my luggage had finally arrived.

 

 

 

The Banks of the Chao Phraya RiverThe next morning was overcast, and I took the BTS to Saphan Taksin where a short walk takes you to the banks of Chao Phraya river, and Central Pier. From here there are plenty of boat options with the main boat service (the Chao Phraya express boat) being colour-coded according to the stops it makes. The banks of the Chao Phraya RiverThe main stops that tourists make are covered by all the colours, but the price varies, with the most expensive being the blue boat which is sold specifically as a tourist boat and comes with a commentary. Khlong Boats on the Chao Phraya riverI jumped on the first boat that came (orange) which cost THB 15 compared to THB 40 for the tourist boat, and although crammed, I was able to watch the world go by as we chugged up river. I love trying to merge with the locals when I’m abroad, so I was happy to avoid the tourist boat, but for the uninitiated, there is no announcement of stops, so it is important to have a good idea of which stop you want.

 

 

 

 

 

I disembarked at N9 (Tha Chang), and walked through the food stalls to emerge at the bottom of the road that leads to the Grand Palace. Statue at the entrance to the Grand Palace complexEven from this distance, I could see the crowds and buses that hovered near the main entrance, and as I reached the main gateway, I stopped to get my shawl ready and make myself respectful. It is important at the Wat’s of Bangkok to be covered up. A mere portion of the crowds at the Grand PalaceSome places are more strict that others, but generally shoulders and upper legs need to be covered. I was quickly accosted at the entrance, and told my shawl was not enough, and was sent inside to hire a shirt to better cover my shoulders. The main walkway up to the entrance was packed with tour groups and the sky was growing ominously dark. I duly paid the THB400 entrance fee and hired an audio guide for another THB200. Entering through the main gate, I was jostled into a throng of people.

Phra Sri Ratana ChediThe audio guide took me on a tour around Wat Phra Kaeo, past elaborate and ornate statues and shimmering details on the various buildings. Statue in the main courtyardI was finding it really hard to absorb the information that was being relayed to me through the headphones and left at the end of it, feeling like I’d learned nothing about the meaning of the place, but despite that it was a marvel for the eyes. Mythical CreaturesIn the cloisters, there were ornate murals with golden tints, and the Phra Sri Ratana Chedi stood out in its golden glory against the black sky. Gilted doorwayThe various temples and mausoleums stood proudly with gilted window frames and doorways, and the roof details sparkled with greens, blues and golds. Mural in the CloistersI admired the various statues that adorned the route. Statue in Wat Phra KaeoHalfway round the Wat, the threatening storm finally broke, and the thunder rolled in and a deluge fell from the sky. I took the opportunity to head indoors to the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Supporting Creature at the base of a ChediIt was impossible to get to the front of the crowds for a closer look but it sat proud at a height so even with rows of people it was still possible to see the buddha, The main entrance of the Royal Pantheonand I left those who wished to pay their respects at the front, and hovered at the back for a while, taking it all in.

 

 

 

Standing guard outside Barom Phiman HallIn the back corner of the Wat is the doorway to the Grand Palace. Once the Wat is exited, it cannot be re-entered, and immediately on passing through, to the left is the private Barom Phiman Hall, a former royal residence which is guarded and off-limits. The Grand Palace with Dusit Maha Prasat Hall behindThe main building of the Grand Palace is grandiose and beautiful, flanked by several halls and with beautiful elephant statues next to the main staircases. Elephant Statue outside the Grand PalaceIt continued to rain in varying intensities but this didn’t deter people from posing for photos. The Exterior of the Grand PalaceThe main building is closed to the public, but most of the neighbouring halls are open to explore. Statue outside Dusit Maha Prasat HallWhen the next downpour came, I headed into the Emerald Buddha Temple Museum to pass some time before leaving the complex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a rest by the Chao Phraya riverFrom the main entrance, I wandered off on a walking tour of the area, having purchased a poncho to try and stay dry, wandering along streets filled with stalls, and down alleyways where various gems were for sale. I found myself at a boutique group of eateries by the river and sat on a bench watching the river life, waiting for the latest shower to pass. Kao San RoadOn reaching Thammasat University, I turned away from the river and headed to the long green expanse of Sanam Luang. Heading north, I struggled initially to find a way to get across the road. Elephant Statue at a junctionThere aren’t always crossings in Bangkok, and whilst the locals are adept at jumping between traffic to cross very busy roads, I found myself at a fast dual carriageway with no hope of getting a gap to risk running across. Eventually I found a suitable spot after a bit of wandering and headed down the large expanse of Thanon Ratcadamnoen Klang before turning off to visit the infamous Thanon Khao San. This region is a mecca for backpackers and nightlife, but for me, it was just a street full of restaurants catering for Western tastes, bars full of Western beer, and stalls selling t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I Love Kao San’, or ‘I Love Bangkok’. It just wasn’t a side of Bangkok I was interested in giving much time to.

Pink elephantsI headed back towards the green belt and wandered south past pink elephants, and beautiful buildings. Lak MuangI followed the very busy road of Thanon Sanam Chai and was shocked to hear a noise behind me and look round to see a man had come off his motorbike on the far side. Ministry of DefenceMotorbikes are exceedingly common in Bangkok, but unfortunately wearing helmets is not. Building near the Royal GardenThe man lay motionless for a few minutes before finally I saw his arms move as a crowd gathered round him. A local woman who had also stopped next to me, gave me a look that suggested I should move on, so I duly did. I never did hear an ambulance, and the traffic continued its erratic dance around him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reclining BuddhaI reached Wat Pho, one of the city’s larger Wats, in the mid-afternoon, and after the busyness of the Grand Palace I was pleasantly relieved to find this place quieter in comparison. Wat Pho courtyardThere were still plenty of people around but if felt less crammed and more peaceful. Statue at Wat PhoI loved Wat Pho, and it was my favourite part of this region of Bangkok, as well as my favourite Wat that I visited. BuddhaI realised there how much the crowds at the Grand Palace had marred my visit there. BuddhaThe main draw for Wat Pho is the giant reclining buddha in one of the temples. Detail on a buildingIt was the only crowded place but people were patient at waiting for their turn to take photos. ChediI still don’t understand the significance of a lot of the buildings that make up the various Wats, but they are all so detailed and ornate that I was happy to just wander round and ogle at them. Statues were scattered around the grounds, buddha were found in various buildings, and Chedi lined the courtyards. Reclining BuddhaBy now, the clouds had lifted, the thunderstorm departed, and it was a gloriously sunny afternoon, so the gold detail glistened and I found a spot to sit for a while and people watch. My feet were heavily blistered, dirty and painful, and the rest was much needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wat Arun, Temple of DawnIt was a short walk to pier N8 Tha Tien, where Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn stood on the far side of the river. Chao Phraya riverThis is one of Bangkok’s most photographed buildings, and is much-recommended to visit, but when I was there, it was completely covered in scaffolding, so I didn’t bother. West bank of the Chao Phraya riverI added it to my mental list of things I’d do on another visit, and jumped on the express boat back to central pier. Mushroom soupBack in Thanon Silom, there was plenty of choice for food and I tucked into the best mushroom soup and fried chicken that I have ever eaten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a day out of the city when I tried (and failed) to give my poorly feet a rest, I was semi-rejuvenated for another day of pounding the streets of Bangkok. Around the Indian regionReturning to the river, I took the ferry to N6 at Yodpiman, and cut through in search of the flower market. What I found was a large produce market, and I discovered afterwards, that the flowers arrive at night and are replaced in the daytime with fruits and vegetables, so I headed off in search of Chinatown. The busy alleys of ChinatownI had a brief wander around the Indian region where shops were full of saris and rolls of material. ChinatownHitting Chinatown, the shops changed to jewellery stores, and I ducked into an alleyway to find a collection of street markets that spanned block after block. ChinatownAgain, I gave into the moment and enjoyed some shopping whilst squeezing through tight spaces and dodging motorbikes that tried to drive through the tightly packed crowds. Chinatown ArchIt was chaotic but I loved it. I was almost sad to reach the end of it, but went in search of the Chinatown Arch.

 

 

 

 

 

Wat TraimitNear the arch is Wat Traimit, a relatively small Wat but up its many steps the inner hall contains a solid gold buddha, weighing 5.5 tons, and an estimated worth of $250m. Buddha at Wat TraimitLike many Wats, they hired out shawls and sarongs for a refundable deposit. Golden BuddhaI generally carried a shawl and wore long-legged clothes on the days I planned to visit Wats but on this occasion, I had gone on a whim so was less prepared. Chinatown Arch viewed from Wat TraimitThis Wat is also close to Hua Lamphong train station, one of the city’s main stations. Wat TraimitAfter a nosy round it, I hopped on the metro at the adjoining station of the same name and returned to Si Lom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lumphini ParkFrom Si Lom station, the large expanse of Lumphini Park was accessible, and I whiled away the afternoon wandering round here, snacking on sweet buns and bubble tea. Lumphini ParkWhilst the day was rather cloudy, the park was well used. Monitor LizardLocals jogged, biked and walked round the various pathways, and on the various lakes, paddle boats could be hired. A large fountain could be found in one of the lakes, and as I meandered around, I was pleased to see a young man on a bicycle, stop repeatedly to put some cat food on the ground for the myriad of stray cats that were around the park. But just a little further, I got a shock when a large reptile wandered across my path and slinked into the lake. At first I thought it was a small crocodile, but when I got nearer I realised it was a monitor lizard. Deeper into the park, I found several more parading around the shallows.

 

 

 

 

Clock tower in Lumphini ParkAs the afternoon turned into evening, I stumbled across a large group of people doing an outdoor exercise class. It was both amusing and fascinating to watch and it was fantastic to see the park being so well used in so many different ways. It was such a relaxing place to be away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok’s busy streets. Yummy noodle soupMy rumbling stomach eventually drew me away and I went off in search of food. I’d had a hankering for noodle soup since I’d arrived, and finally finding somewhere that sold it, I settled down to the best bowl of noodle soup I’ve ever had. Bangkok is as much alive at night as it is during the day, and I relished wandering through the streets on my way back to the hotel. It was my final night in Silom. With the conference starting the next day, I was shifting hotel and location, ready to explore a different side of Bangkok…

Drinking Tea With Elephants

After finally regaining the lost weight post-Delhi Belly, I decided it was time to head back to Asia. My favourite part of the flight to Colombo was the external cameras on the plane’s nose and nose wheel, which gave a bird’s eye view of the world below. The flight plan took us via Male in the Maldives, so on approach, we could watch a world of coral atolls pass by below. Beautiful deep and pale blue waters surrounded clear sandy beaches as far as the camera’s eye could see. It’s the only flight I’ve been on that has had cameras on the plane like that, and it’s a pity that it wasn’t on some other routes I’ve been on since.

The first day in Sri Lanka was spent wandering along the sandy beach outside our hotel, with the warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapping at the shore next to us. After a much needed sleep, we visited the local fish market with its pungent aroma and myriad of fish species, many of which I had never seen before, and some of which, even to this day, I have no idea what they were. It was a hive of activity, not just for the local people, but also for the local cat population that paraded amongst the stalls looking for scraps.

 

Wary of repeating the previous year’s gastroenteritis, I was very cautious with my introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. Playing it safe the first night in Negombo, I was a bit more relaxed the next day, and my friend Kat and I enjoyed some delicious food at a lovely roadside cafe. That second day was spent on a bus ride that would take the best part of the day. Throughout the bus ride, Kat’s complexion got whiter and whiter until eventually she had to jump off the bus in order to throw up. She curled up looking miserable, and I empathised with her greatly, memories of the utter misery coming back to me. Learning from my experience, I had at least equipped myself with a supply of anti-emetics, however, even these could not be kept down, and Kat proceeded to fill a few bags on route.

After what probably felt like the longest bus ride in the world for Kat, we arrived in Habarana. She curled up in a ball by the swimming pool whilst the rest of us went off to explore the park by elephant. It was the second time I’d ridden an elephant, but this time, rather than being hustled up a crowded road to a fort, it was a leisurely stroll through the vegetation, ducking under branches, and eventually going for a swim in a little lagoon. I even got to ‘drive’, sitting on his neck behind his ears and rubbing them as we walked. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked him by offering him his dinner. Kat was gutted to have missed it, but still felt rotten. There was still some driving to do before we reached our hotel for the next few nights, and understandably, she crawled straight into bed on arrival.

 

We stayed in the same region for a few days, which gave Kat time to recuperate. Thankfully, it was a quick recovery, and she was back on form within a few days. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was a short drive away, and lay nestled amongst the vegetation: a collection of palaces, temples and Buddhas. The remains were in apposition with trees and bushes, and running amongst them all were several troupes of toque macaques, who roamed the grounds with complete abandon, and unflustered by the myriad of wandering tourists in their domain. It was mesmerising to walk amongst the ruins and the grounds, and I could have easily spent all day there in a reverie, however the intense dry heat was oppressive and Kat and I both struggled as our Scottish genes failed to modulate our hydration and temperature. Keeping up with the constant loss of electrolytes was a challenge in that first week where we experienced the hottest temperatures.

 

Sigiriya is a fortress on top of a large rock which is visible for miles around. Stopping only briefly for some refreshments in the cafe by the bus stop, we started our trek through the gardens at the base of the rock, before starting the ascent up the side. The stairs were either carved out of the rock side, or man-made with metal gangways, and thankfully most of the initial climb up to the lower platform was in the shade, as it was another intensely hot day. The lower platform gave an amazing view over the gardens below and marked the starting point for the final ascent. The entrance to the palace at the top was designed to be a lion’s mouth. All that remains is the giant paws either side of the lower stairwell. Much of the staircase is missing, and as a result, parts of the upper climb are a bit of a scramble, clinging onto anything with purchase in order to let people pass in the other direction. The view from the palace summit is worth the effort, with a complete panorama of the surrounding region with lush vegetation visible as far as the eye can see, and some hills on the horizon. I was struck by how green Sri Lanka is, how lush the vegetation, something which contrasted to the part of India I had visited the year before. As a result of this vegetation, the wildlife was in abundance. From monkeys to monitor lizards, and fruit bats to giant squirrels, there was life everywhere. After spending some time at the top, we headed back down to the bus, passing the obligatory snake charmers which are as much a part of the scenery in Asia as the tourist attractions themselves are. As I often handle snakes through my work, I was deemed the best person to hold the snake for the obligatory photo opportunity.

 

The last day in the Habarana region was spent immersing ourselves in the local life. We hired some bicycles, and set off cycling through the local villages, watching the parents toiling the fields, and the children either playing by the stream, or helping their parents. We followed the flow of the river which left Habarana lake, and cycled for a few hours, enjoying the countryside. When we returned, we visited the lake-side to watch the fisherman bring in their catch, knowing that we would be eating them in just a few hours for our dinner. I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, but I know that I had never heard of it before, and it tasted delicious, even more so for knowing how fresh it was.

Our hotel was a conglomerate of wooden buildings over looking the lake, and it nestled neatly amongst the vegetation, such that it blended in well, and from the lake side it wasn’t too obvious. It had a spa suite attached to it, and whilst I’d never had a massage before, the recommendation of one of my travelling companions persuaded me to give it a go. I’m sure in normal circumstances, it would be the most relaxing massage ever, but it was difficult to completely relax when the only thing protecting your dignity was a flimsy curtain that failed to completely block off the rest of the room. There was no towel or drape, it was a case of lying completely naked on the board, either face down or face up. My masseuse spoke no English, but from her gesticulating, I could tell she was trying to get me to relax. I wasn’t as bothered when lying face down, but it was easier said than done when I was face up as I became acutely aware of every movement past the gap in the curtain. After the massage, I was shepherded into what can only be described as a giant coffin, with a hole at one end for my head to stick out, and essentially it involved lying on a wooden bench whilst hot coals steamed away underneath. It was at the limit of my heat tolerance, and I was glad to escape, only to be taken through to a giant jar of potpourri where I had to sit sweating amongst the intoxicating smell. It had been an awkward experience, and I gave the masseuse a rather large tip out of embarrassment. She looked at the note in abject horror, and her boss looked first at me in shocked disbelief, and then at her in a rather threatening manner. Whilst the conversion meant it was hardly anything in British pounds, I was immediately aware that this was probably the most she had ever held in her hand, and I hastened my exit, aware that I had clearly made some kind of faux-pas. I just really hope that she got to keep the money, and wasn’t made to hand it over to her boss the minute I left the building.

The day after the bike ride, we boarded the bus to leave Habarana behind and head on to Dambulla and then Kandy beyond. We were not long on the bus when we turned off onto a dirt track and pulled up by the side of a river. Confused, we got out, to be greeted by the sight of some elephants bathing in the river. It turned out that our guide had felt sorry for Kat missing out on the elephant ride, that he had had words with the local elephant herders, and arranged a visit for us whilst they were getting their daily bath. We hauled off our socks and shoes, rolled up our trousers, and waded in, gleefully washing behind their ears and rubbing their thick hides with water. They seemed to enjoy it as much as we did, and Kat was elated. We were both touched that the guide had put in such an effort for us.

 

Dambulla has an extensive cave temple complex that has been preserved well. It was a day of rain, and we climbed the steps to the temple through a heavy downpour. Littering the steps was hundreds of frangipani flowers. This was the first time I had seen these, and they were beautiful. They have subsequently become my favourite flower, and they were prevalent in many places in the southern half of Sri Lanka.

 

My main memory of Kandy was the fruit bats. There were thousands of them, either flying manically through the sky above our hotel at night, hanging from the trees in the city’s botanical gardens, or hanging fried from the electricity cables where they had gotten electrocuted on landing. Their silhouettes flitted across the night sky every night we were there. I loved lazing in the hotel pool in the dusk, watching them flying overhead.

 

I loved wandering around the botanical gardens, not so much for the plant life, but because of the couples that were clearly courting. It was a practice that was very evident in the cities. In the villages, things were still very much a case of being controlled by the father and brothers of the house. In the villages, when a girl hits puberty, she isn’t allowed to leave her room for a month, and only females of the house are allowed to look at her. In the city, this didn’t happen, but yet the younger couples, we were informed, were seen in public at their own risk, and they often went to the gardens amongst the tourists to get some privacy. They were only talking and holding hands, nothing more, but it was lovely to see the unfortunately old-fashioned behaviour of courting in full swing. It made many of us feel sad that this has all but died out in modern Britain. I always enjoy spending a few weeks without a mobile and internet access, and it was nice to see how romance would be in a life without emails and texting.

On the shores of the lake in the central of Kandy, lies the Temple of the Tooth, the city’s most famous landmark. Highly revered by the Buddhist community, it is a site of great importance to locals and foreign visitors alike. It is also a pick-pockets heaven, as I saw a couple of boys milling amongst the visitors to the temple trying to help themselves. On our last day in Kandy, we got treated to a dancing and fire-walking display, and we got to enjoy the adrenalin thrill that is a tuk-tuk ride. I had had that joy in Agra, India the year before, and in Sri Lanka we took several, but every time it feels like a theme park ride as the adrenalin surges whilst your driver ignores any road sense or oncoming traffic and proceeds to weave through the traffic around them, cutting corners, and occasionally mounting the verge.

 

Boarding our train in Kandy station, we headed through the most stunning scenery and amazing vegetation, climbing higher and higher up into the tea country. The night before I had pigged out at an expensive restaurant with their all-you-can-eat dessert menu so I was feeling slightly sorry for myself for the first half of the journey. The latter half, I spent a lot of time hanging out the doorway in awe at the view, taking pictures of all the tea fields that stretched for miles around. From the station at elevation, we then had a rather interesting bus ride winding even higher in altitude round the side of hills on single track roads. When traffic appeared in the other direction, it was a very precise, and very slow inching forwards on the edge of the road which usually had a sheer drop to the side. There was more than one occasion when looking out the window meant looking straight down a ravine, and knowing that the wheels of the bus were clinging on to the very edge of the road. It was a tense drive, and we were eternally grateful for the expertise of the bus driver. It is well known from news stories about tourists dying due to accidents on just these types of roads.

 

Nuwara Eliya was our high elevation base for exploring tea country. The tea fields spread for miles around and driving along the roads, it wasn’t hard to spot the pickers up the slopes deftly stripping the leaves for collection. We stopped for a tour of a tea factory and enjoyed a cup of freshly picked tea at the Lover’s Leap plantation on the Pedro Estate, 6200 ft above sea level. The temperature and humidity were noticeably different. Up here, the nights were cold, and it rained heavily and regularly. Waterfalls and streams littered the hillsides, and it was evidently clear why tea grew so well up here. Not normally a tea drinker, even I enjoyed the local tea, and brought a little crate of leaves back to Blighty.

 

Descending from these heights, we passed more and more mountains and valleys green with lush vegetation, and waterfalls and rivers abounded. The beauty of this small country never ceased to amaze me, and everywhere we travelled there were monkeys on posts or running through the tree tops.

 

The original plan had been to visit Yala National Park in search of leopards, however whilst we were at altitude, there was a Tamil-led massacre in that region, and a last minute change of plans instead took us to Bandarawela and onwards into Uda Walawe National Park. I was initially disappointed at missing the chance to see leopards as we were informed there were none in UWNP, but on arriving in the national park, I quickly forgot about any disappointment. The national park was stunning. There isn’t enough superlatives to describe a place as this, but within it we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, a jackal, eagles, and hundreds of wild Asian elephants. We spent hours on a game drive just watching as the elephants milled around in family units, wandering around the scrub land, and bathing in the lagoon. We even stumbled upon a very young baby that was shielded by it’s mother and older sister. Nearer Bandarawela was an elephant orphanage where we got to watch the youngsters that were being rehabilitated prior to being considered for release. It was amusing to watch the orderly queue at feeding time, and the greedy bullies that always tried to barge their way back for seconds.

 

After nearly 2 weeks inland, we finally hit the southern coast. A region devastated by the 2004 tsunami, there were scars of its destruction littered along the coastline for miles. Missing houses, wrecked boats, and holes in the vegetation were all still evident nearly 3 years on. Whole communities had been affected, and some small communities had been completely wiped out. Even our hotel was missing a section of its sea wall, and there were photos displayed in the hotel of the flooded grounds after the waves swept in. We visited a new housing project that was being funded with some of the money donated by international charities, and one of the families living within it was a pen-pal of one of our companions. The project was far from finished with just half the estate occupied, but many people from the community were helping to build it so that finally, those displaced by the tsunami, would once more have somewhere to call home.

 

We had a brief stop in Galle before visiting the Kosgoda turtle sanctuary, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. Fascinated as I am by marine life, it was a joy to visit the hatchery and the play pools where the baby turtles hung out prior to being released by moonlight at the local beach. In amongst the hatchlings were a few injured and rescued juveniles and adults, and the size difference to the babies was phenomenal. Unfortunately, the next batch of hatchlings to be released were going the following day, so we missed sharing the experience of their release into the Indian Ocean. They were absolutely adorable, and utterly cute.

 

The final day was a rather rushed affair. We got another train ride, passing the wreck of the train that was the grave for many people after the tsunami, and otherwise enjoying the coastal scenery, again evidence of the tsunami’s destruction evident over much of the route. We stopped at a lovely restaurant overlooking a river, and tasted some shark fillets. It tasted overwhelmingly of garlic so I have no idea what the shark actually tastes like, although I had been informed that it is usually cooked in garlic to mask the taste! On arrival back in Colombo, there was a brief tour of the capital city before we transferred to our final eating place prior to flying back to the UK.

 

Often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka surprised me greatly. It was rich in both flora and fauna, and everybody was so friendly and eager to please. There was little of the oppressive begging that plagued my trip to India, and even the cuisine, whilst having some similarities to India, was much more delightful. In short, I loved Sri Lanka. It is a wildlife haven, and the scenery at every turn was beautiful, which means it thoroughly deserves it’s place on my list of places to go back to.

The Land of Tigers

By the time I’d taken a few steps, I could barely breath and my legs gave way underneath me. I sat down in the elevator and had to be helped out the door at the next floor. A paramedic was called, and I was given an oxygen mask and wheeled into the medic bay. A few phonecalls later, and I was being taken by ambulance to hospital. It’s the most ill I’ve ever felt in my life: dehydrated and dizzy, my body was giving in to whatever infection had invaded me, and it just couldn’t cope anymore. Unable to swallow, I was hooked up to an intravenous drip, and spent that Saturday night drifting in and out of a nauseating semi-sleep.

If I’d been shocked by those slums in South Africa, I was shocked by Delhi. It was the epitome of pollution and filth and utter chaos. Driving from the airport to our hotel, we passed elephants walking along the street with their cargo of wood, and weaving in and around the traffic were numerous noisy tuk tuks and scooters. If there were any driving laws, they were constantly flaunted. Red lights were ignored, right-of-ways were ignored, and oxen weaved in amongst the vehicles alongside people who seemed oblivious to the cars and buses and tuk tuks that fought to move round them. The pavements were littered with rotting waste, from which children and adults alike rummaged through looking for things of value or edibility. People would even openly relieve themselves in the middle of the road. In India, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. It was my first experience of the constant horn tooting that is so rife in Asia and parts of South America. It made a clamourous noise that pierced my soul and awoke me from my post-flight tiredness. Following a brief respite, we headed out into the city, and enjoyed a tour from the back of a bicycle, an experience which meant being stared at by a lot of people watching us pass, not to mention having to weave through the busy market streets that littered the side alleys of New Delhi. I was disheartened to see the infamous M logo outside a burger joint. America’s invasion is far reaching.

 

Away from Delhi, the countryside was beautiful, though scarred from countless droughts and floods reshaping the landscape. We stayed in the town of Nawalgarrh where the locals showed us their manual skills, weaving and making pottery, and we were welcomed into the local school where the children eagerly awaited gifts. Camel driving at sunset was an interesting way to spend one evening. At the train station, we were the only ‘westerners’ to be seen, and the locals formed a circle around us in order to stare unreservedly at us. They didn’t speak a word, but stood in silence staring at us in turn, until the train appeared and it was time to board. Even then, we received a lot of attention. Our first class seats were the equivalent of a European 3rd class, and whilst they were fine enough for us, it was obvious that those locals who could afford such ‘luxury’ were very privileged. In the lower classes, people were crammed into the carriages like cattle, and people were forced to hang out the doorways and some sat on the roof.

 

For all my dislike of Delhi, I loved Jaipur. Heading into the land of the Maharajas, the palace and the observatory were glorious. Even our hotel was styled like a palace, and we had a lovely walled garden to enjoy the sunshine, overlooked by chipmunks and owls. Within the observatory, we were left in peace to marvel at the astrological devices of old, but outwith the grounds, we were hounded by beggars that wouldn’t leave us alone. It was difficult to turn a blind eye, but it was so incessant as to be a constant niggling annoyance for the whole holiday. Our guide insisted that we gave them nothing, it was a practice that was worsened by tourist generosity, and he enlightened us on the fact that many of the beggars were more than capable of working, and others were more than capable of stealing. Still, the sight of a man with such a crooked spine that he had to walk on all fours to get around, was a difficult sight to block out.

 

Away from Jaipur was the Amber Fort where I got to experience my first elephant ride. A 20 minute shuffle up the road to the Fort on the hill was a smelly affair, and a slow affair with countless elephants marching up and down the hillside. The view to the town below was delightful, and the intricacy of the design of the Fort was stunning. The many concubines and harem of the various maharajas through the years were gifted such beautiful gardens, and hallways lined with mirrors. From the walls, the macaques and langur monkeys played and surveyed their kingdom below.

 

The reason I had come to India, was to visit Ranthambhore National Park and go in search of wild Bengal tigers. A few months earlier, I had deliberated between going to Oman to go swimming with whale sharks or to go to Rajasthan to see the tigers. I quickly came to my senses given my general fear of swimming in water too deep to see the bottom, and booked the trip to India. It was an early rise for the first safari, and we weren’t disappointed. Fairly soon after entering the park, we happened upon a tigress who meandered in and around the bushes before disappearing. Following the road, we spotted deer and monkeys galore, and even a few terrapins lazing around a waterhole. Deeper into the thicket we spotted another tiger, this time a male. He sat, paws crossed, considering us from a distance, not moving apart from the occasional twitch in response to the offending flies that buzzed around. Eventually, perhaps bored with us, he stood up and walked away. Later on, we came across him again, and he once more lay down and lazed in the shade at a distance. He was beautiful, and it was hard to look away as we drove off and left him to his daydreams; watching him until we turned a corner and he was out of sight. Our second safari revealed no more tigers, but the abundance of langur monkeys stole the show.

 

Following a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, we continued on the Rajasthani triangle towards Agra. The city itself, whilst being nicer than Delhi, still holds nothing about it other than 1 of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Built as a show of love by the emperor Shuh Jahan for his favourite wife, she never got to see it’s completion, dying during the birth of their 14th child. It became her final resting place, and it has since become a site of great pilgrimage as well as a world-recognised structure of great beauty. With everybody else, we arrived early to watch the marble change colour with the rising sun, before wandering around the gardens and onwards towards the main structure, the central dome. Amongst the tourists, the macaques watched on with vague levels of interest, the youngsters taunting passers by before running away scared if anybody reacted to their faked bravado. It was a day for becoming lost in a world of your own thoughts and reveries.

 

After 2 weeks, our group returned to Delhi. My roommate and I decided to treat ourselves at the coffee shop that was attached to the hotel, and we chatted over coffee and chocolate cake. We had a last dinner with our guide prior to one final sleep before heading to the airport. Both of us woke in the night with suspicious noises and flutters coming from our bellies. By morning, whilst not 100% well, we both felt that we had sorted ourselves out. At Delhi airport, we had a long wait. Having plugged myself with immodium, my stomach was doing mini back flips, but by the time we had boarded our scarcely filled plane back to London, it had quieted itself. My next move was the fatal one. I ate the food on the plane. Not only that, I ate the chicken curry option. Thankfully, the plane was half empty, because I was able to spend those moments where I wasn’t in the toilet throwing up, lying prostrate across a row of seats, clutching my belly willing to be home already. It was an 11 hour flight, of which I spent 6 hours in and out of the toilets bringing up every millilitre of fluid that my wretched body contained. I’m not proud of this, but I’m pretty sure I blocked a few of the sinks with it all, but the last thing I was considering was my fellow passengers. Eventually, after having been missing for some time, due to rocking back and forth on the toilet floor groaning, I was met by a knock on the door by the air stewardess asking if I wanted some flat lemonade to settle my stomach. No thanks.

After 6 hours of acute fluid loss, I struggled to stay in my seat when the seat belt sign came on for the descent into London. Focusing on my breathing, I waited on the plane until everybody else was off, and then I slowly put one foot in front of the other, and disembarked. It was quite clear very early on, that things were not going to go how I’d planned. I had a night booked in London, before I was to transfer to a different airport for my flight back to Scotland the next day. But after collapsing in the elevator, I found myself being stretchered into Hillingdon hospital, and put in a cubicle next to the Saturday night drunks. I had a fever, and when they tried to get me to drink some water to swallow a tablet, I threw up all over the cubicle floor. I spent the night being disturbed every hour to have my temperature checked and to ask me how I was feeling. The anti-emetic I was injected with burned in my vein and made me more dizzy.

The next day, the doctor deemed I was fit for discharge based on the fact that I could now swallow. I was taking up a bed, and he didn’t care that I was 400 miles from home and without my baggage as well as without a ticket home. There was no way I would make it to Stansted for my flight home now. I had little energy, and whilst the oral issue was sorted, the immodium had worn off, and I was under strict instructions not to take any more in an effort to let whatever had invaded me flush out the other end. Whilst not as ill as the night before, I felt miserable heading back to Heathrow airport to fetch my luggage. Now without a way home, I traversed the terminals in search of a ticket to Scotland. Unfortunately, I had chosen to fall ill on the bank holiday weekend, and all the flights were booked. There was only one ticket available in the whole airport, and it was a business class ticket to Edinburgh. At the time, I lived in Aberdeen, but my family was in Glasgow. Either of these would have been a better option, but in desperation, I paid the £230 fare just so that I could reach my home country. Ironically, as part of my business class ticket, I got access to the business class lounge which had unlimited complimentary snacks and drinks. In any other circumstances, I would have lapped it all up. Instead, I spent the time in the posh toilets, sat on the seat, willing the ground to swallow me up.

The ‘business class’ ticket was for an Embraer-ERJ plane, which means it is a row of single seats on the port side, and a row of double seats on the starboard side. It only contained 19 rows of seats, so essentially, my £230 ticket was for the front seat of the single row. I couldn’t help but feel ripped off on top of my continuing malaise. Finally though, Edinburgh castle showed up in my window as we descended, and I finally felt like I was home, or at least on home turf. It was another 1.5 hours before I crawled into my childhood bed and pulled the covers over my head. It took a week before I could eat a normal meal again, I was off form for 3 months, and it was 6 months later before my weight bounced back to it’s previous numbers, having been at it’s lowest levels since I’d reached my adult height. I loved the Taj Mahal and I loved seeing the tigers, but India is the only place on my list that I will happily never visit again.

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