Category Archives: Thailand

Sukhothai

The journey by train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok in the north of Thailand was a cheap and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The day before my intended departure I went to Hua Lamphong station to book my ticket with all the important info I had collected online. It had to be Train 51, Chiang Mai bound, upper berth, no air conditioning, for the sum of 409 baht. Upper berth was fine. It is the cheapest category. It has no window and limited space but as I would travel at night that was of no concern. The booking was a breeze with a minimum of red tape and after that I had lunch at the air conditioned food court inside the station which did a fantastic pork noodle soup.

The next day I checked out and took the river taxi to Hua Lamphung. After boarding the train I found my berth and made myself comfortable. Not long after the train left, the conductor checked my ticket and it wasn’t before long that the monotonous noise that is typical of train travel sent me to sleep.

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The night train to Phitsanulok

I arrived in Phitsanulok very early in the morning and I waited at the station till it got light. From there I had to walk to the bus station where I took a bus to New Sukhothai. So far everything went according to plan.

Sukothai was formerly the capital of Thailand (1238 – 1438) and is famous for its architecture and classical Thai art. For less than a dollar I rented a bicycle that was really only fit for children, but with my knees all over the place, it got me around. The grounds were nicely kept and some shady trees made for a nice picnic area where I ate my lunch of deep fried chicken. It tasted awful.

Old Sukhothai photos. Another UNESCO world heritage site.

Life in Sukhothai proved to be cheap. Sticky rice with minced meat for 15 baht. Lunch and dinner averaged between 30 and 40 baht. Deliciously soft durian pieces for 100 baht. After the first day I moved to a cheap hotel where I paid 200 baht per night and it proved great value for money. It was clean, quiet and spacious. It even had a small coach and I was provided with towels, toilet paper and reasonable wifi. It was the kind of hotel that made me happy.

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Custard apple or sweetsop

At a small roadside stall not far form my hotel I bought some fruit that I thought was soursop. But if you google it a lot of images turn up that look very different from the one above. I’ve eaten soursop before in Malaysia and Indonesia where it is known as durian belanda because is resembles a rather large and prickly fruit not unlike the true durian. The custard apples, which are related to the soursop, were smaller and had no soft spikes. The flesh was deliciously sweet and creamy. It was very soft. Something I only noticed when I got up and found out I had accidently sat on one and had squashed it.

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Cycling among the rice fields that surround Old Sukhothai.

From Sukhothai I took a night bus back to Bangkok’s Mo Chitt bus terminal. From there I took the subway to the city centre.

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Old photograph in the MRT station showing a rickshaw in front of Hua Lamphung station

Some weeks before, I had bought a flight back to the Netherlands for a short sojourn to visit family and friends. I would fly with the budget carrier Norwegian Air. It was very cheap, but I kept receiving ominous, almost threatening, emails, warning me that I had not reserved a seat and in that case the airline would assign me a seat. The general gist was it wouldn’t be a nice one. Possibly in the middle of the aircraft, in between screaming children and fat people next to me, falling asleep, leaning over me and drooling in my lap… No meals were included so I had brought some chocolate bars and peanuts. To be on the safe side I had filled a water bottle in the transit area of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. In the end the flight was rather painless and even comfortable. I had a layover in Stockholm and from there it was cattle class to Amsterdam where I arrived tired but with a minimum loss of money.

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Thai times

From Battambang in Cambodia I first travelled to Poipet with a sleeper bus. The bus was run by cowboys. They were raucous young men. They laughed and played loud music over the speakers. So loud that tremors ran through the whole bus that left everything and  everybody in it vibrating with the singsong of Cambodian celebrities who were jubilating their new found love. I asked them politely to turn it down as I wasn’t really ready to share the joy of Cambodian love making that early in the morning. After they had complied with my request, I lay down again and looked some more at the Cambodian countryside even though I’d seen a lot of Cambodian countryside by then.

Poipet is a Cambodian border town and synonymous with corrupt officials and an extortionate taxi mafia. But this is mainly a problem coming from the Thai side. Travelling from the Cambodian side, the border crossing was a painless affair with just the usual queueing, the filling out of forms and officials stamping documents. At the Cambodian side they wanted my fingerprints which I generously granted and at the other side the Thai wanted my photograph and so I tried to look my best. Welcome to Thailand.

From the border to Bangkok I travelled in a minibus but the driver was the worst ever. When we got closer to Bangkok the roads became more congested and our driver sped over the shoulder lane overtaking left and right. Several times he attempted shortcuts and once we drove over quiet country lanes until we came to a standstill before a lake. Then we turned around and drove back to the highway. In Bangkok we were unceremoniously dropped off far away from where I wanted to be. It was probably close to where the driver lived…

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Me and my sister

In Bangkok I met my sister and her family who were on holiday. They had a wonderful hotel with air conditioning, a swimming pool and rooms that contained more than one piece of furniture. Together we walked through the city and I bought a durian because I thought they wouldn’t like it so I could eat the whole delicious fruit by myself, but they did like it and that made me very proud. Most people wouldn’t even try it because of the smell. Then we had dinner and we had green curries and pad thai.

It was a great success.

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watercolour tuk tuk, digitally pimped with GIMP

 

Next: Sukhothai

To Central Asia

I listened to the safety instructions.

Put the mask over your mouse…
the emergency exit are there, there and there…
thank you for attention…

Most Russians on the plane to Novosibirsk looked like actors from an early James Bond movie. Men all seemed to have the same hair dresser. Or the same clippers at least. Ruddy faces. Women were either young and stunningly beautiful or old headmasters with bleached hair.

That morning, very early, a scooter had picked me up at my hotel in Bangkok. We stopped next to a van that was waiting for the traffic lights. The door slid open. Airport, my driver said, motioning me inside. Fast.

At the airport all my anxiety proved to be for nothing. Of course no transit visa for Russia was needed. The English website of the airport of Novosibirsk where I had an eight hour layover, had suggested that I had to go through customs at layovers longer than 4 hours, but that must have been 24 hours. Another website had listed ‘the only cities that have international transit areas’ and Novosibirsk wasn’t on that list. And I had also worried about the size of my backpack that I intended to take as hand luggage as my cheap ticket didn’t allow me checked in baggage. But even though my small backpack was too big, nobody ever even looked at it. So that was okay. Everything was okay.

Relics of the Soviet Union in Bishkek.

The flight to Novosibirsk was much more pleasant than I had anticipated. There were not many passengers and I had ample legroom. The Russians were sleeping. No screaming children, no tattering smartphones. Just the hum of the jet and high above the clouds I was reading Paul Theroux’ Ghost to the Eastern Star. He wrote: A  national crisis is an opportunity, a gift to the traveller.

The Thai king had died just days before I left Thailand and hundreds and then thousands had walked the streets of Bangkok, dressed in black and white. Many shops were closed and all televisions in restaurants, including the ones that catered to the farang, showed the procession of the kings body to the National Palace. Many people were watching. Nobody said a word. Some had red eyes, others carried portraits of their king.

The haircut I had on my last day in Bangkok was surreal. The salon was white, but the hairdressers were all dressed in black. It felt like some sort of purgatory.

I have often rebuked flying, but of course it has its advantages. It can offer a culture shock that can be invigorating. In the past I had flown from India to South Africa and at the time it had helped me finding back the joy of travel. Now I was hopeful. I had been way too long in South East Asia.

We were getting ready for landing. Important message for transit passengers: nzdrl nazr… drazka… thank you for attention. In the last daylight I saw snowy patches, Novosibirsk looked dreary, the river Ob, some Soviet era apartment buildings.
I followed the signs for transit passengers. It seemed I was the only one. It led to a small booth where a man in uniform checked my passport. Follow me, he said. He went up a flight of stairs and unlocked a door. Please… He then locked the door behind me. If felt very much like a prison. A white tiled floor. No decorations. Bright white lights.

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I must have fallen asleep because I was woken by my alarm that I had set for my connecting flight to Bishkek. The flight was uneventful and I arrived at 4.30 in the morning at my destination. Immigration was a simple stamp in my passport and in the small arrival hall I found a machine that served coffee. Outside the arrival hall I noticed somebody had arranged a neat row of pots with flowers. Some pictures of airplanes decorated the walls, though I must admit I found it difficult to get excited about a Turkish Airlines cargo plane….

When it got light I toke a mashrutka into the city.

Thai bugs

On Saturday there was a night market in Nong Khai with all kinds of food. At one stand a woman sold deep fried bugs and I ordered a mix of four different species. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak much English, so I couldn’t figure out which insects exactly were on offer.
– Cicadas? I asked.
She didn’t understand.
– Are they iiiiiiii, I tried, mimicking the high pitched sound of cicadas.
The woman looked bewildered.
– Twenty baht, she said.
– Right, I said, handing her the money.

food

Later, in my hotel room, I had a good look, but was not able to identify them all. The ones in the middle are silk worms, which are technically not worms, but the larvae of the silk moth. The big ones are grasshoppers, but the others, I had no idea. They tasted good though. I wasn’t so fond of the silk worms, but I ate them anyway because they’re supposed to be really healthy. And I had paid 20 baht for them.

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More food

Eating insects is frowned upon in the West, but when you think about it they are not all that different from lobster or shrimp which are both readily accepted as delicacies. Look at a shrimp up close and you see what I mean. Biologically, these are all arthropods and, given enough brains, would easily enough be scripted into a scary science fiction movie.

Bangkok safari

On Sunday my usual place for breakfast, Lizard View, was closed. I called it Lizard View because the first time I had breakfast there, I saw a big monitor lizard sunning on some reed in the murky khlong. To my surprise I saw it slipping into the water and swimming to some garbage where it caught a big frog. For some time it was happily engaged in banging the frog on some stones, amid some incredible filth as I was eating my breakfast. Bangkok Safari. Later I saw another of these dinosaurs walking through a small park next to the Chao Phraya river, its head low while it flicked its forked tongue exploratory in the air.

On Sunday the eatery was closed, but I found a nearby stall where the proprietor didn’t speak any English and had to call her neighbour for help in negotiating with the farang. At least this was Bangkok and people are used to foreigners. In the past I’ve been in situations where the vendor, upon seeing me, got in a panic and started to frantically shoo me away, not able to deal with a foreigner.
The meal was nice: a spicy salad with mint leaves and some sticky rice.

Other culinary adventures involved scallops, but I found them without taste, and chewy, like pieces of rubber, hardly worth the effort of scooping them out of their shells. A score or so of these marine creatures had died for nothing.

One of the reasons I like Bangkok is the fact that I’ve been here many times and so I don’t feel the urge to go around and see the sights and so it was by accident that I stumbled on to the Nationl Gallery. The entrance was free and it had nice air conditioning.

To get some photos for the blog, I visited a nearby temple, which in Thai is called a wat .

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Rule number one: take off the shoes of anyone on the premises

The temple was called Luang Pho To and it sported a giant standing Buddha that possessed magical power. Especially if it was presented with a head of a fish of the mackerel kind, a boiled egg and a garland of flowers. Thinking about this,  I imagined it took a lot of experimenting when monks first built the statue. Something along the lines of: okay, now let’s try the head of a frog and a Spanish omelet…
This is a photo of its feet:

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… and thanks for all the fish…

Nearby I saw a Buddha that looked as if it was sculpted out of giant beer bottle. I wasn’t quite sure what the material was, but I dubbed it the Beer Bottle Buddha.

 

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Beer bottle Buddha

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Gold leaf Buddha

The pious buy tiny flakes of gold that they apply to statues that need gilding, which made this bust look like it suffered from some skin disease.

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Inside were some nice paintings of rural life. The detail in the photo above seems to show some ladies wth D cups, having narrowly escaped a crocodile…

 

 

 

Night train to Bangkok

It was time to leave George Town and move on. No more uttapam in Little India, no more tandoori chicken at Mustapha’s. On my last evening I went to the frisbee field, but there was no one to throw the frisbee with and when the rain started to fall I walked back home. Home? Well, I guess that’s what it feels like if you’ve been somewhere for a month….

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Delicious Vietnamese coffee. It was called tip tip tip

 

Next day, I checked out and took the ferry to Butterworth. From there I took the commuter train to the border. The landscape was flat and the rice fields shone with a brigthly green hue after the rain. The train intercom issued an interminable stream of information and warnings everytime we left a station. Customers were reminded not to leave their belongings, depart from the train in an orderly fashion and try not to fall on their face or cause any other delay.

The immigration offices of both countries were conveniently located on the platform and the procedures were straightforward so that I was swiftly stamped out of Malaysia and in to Thailand.

It was a very pleasant train and after it got dark and I couldn’t see anymore of the outside world, I got my book out of my bag and while eating my sandwiches, I started reading Graham Greene’s book The Third Man.. Later the train attendant made my bed and I slept like a rose.
Next morning I ordered some breakfast, but it was not quite the feast the pictures on the menu had promised. With three hours delay we arrived in Bangkok, which gave me ample time to finish The Third Man.

It was nice to be back in good old Bangkok and I found some nice lodgings. Somebody had left a Henry Miller at the small pile of foreign books in the lobby and the find of a new book always pleases me inordinately. Not long after I had arrived, I met some friendly Thais who had formed the Bangkok Sketching Club and they were lovely people so I joined them and we made some sketchings and water colours in the park. They then invited me for dinner and drinks and it was really nice. We saw all the videos of Michael Jackson and I was educated on his famous Moon Walk and it was all rather marvellous, even though I don’t really like Michael Jackson very much….Apparently, retired Thai architects do…. and I think I had a lucky escape because we were awfully close to committing group Karaoke….