Monday, 26 March 2012

My wonderful gap year revisited: Bangkok - Malaysian border

It's five years this month since I started out on my epic around the world adventure. My gap year came at the tender age of 38 years, but I think the wait made it all the more special.


So over the last few weeks, in a fit of nostalgia I've been revisiting my old travel journals. If you need to catch up, so far you've missed:

Five years on, my wonderful gap year revisited.
My wonderful gap year revisited - Laos.

For today's instalment - written exactly five years ago today, I'm sat in an Internet cafe in the seaside resort of Ao Nang (Krabi) on the west coast of Thailand. 

Burns victim! 

If I were a red Indian (which I could easily pass for at the moment), my name would be "sweats with lobster head!"  I got very badly sun burned on a boat yesterday. But I'll come back to that in a minute.

Yes I did finally get to the Grand Palace in Bangkok - at long last, and it was quite spectacular. But a touch over the top maybe, with all the be-jewelling and Buddha’s and scary creatures and glass mosaics. It felt a bit like Thailand-Land. I half expected to see Mickey Mouse strolling around in full Buddhist monk outfit. 

I did a bad thing. The Grand Palace houses the most sacred Buddha in all of Thailand - the Emerald Buddha. He is a little fella who sits on the top of a big pyramid of gold glorification. He has three outfits which he changes during official ceremonies throughout the year, according to the season. The Thai people the length and breadth of the country fall to their knees to pray in front of him. 

The worst thing you can do is to show the bottom of your feet to a Buddha. So what did I do? I gave him a full frontal verruca view as I stretched out my tired and sweaty legs in front of me! An angry official came and smacked my ankles and pointed as I shuffled round with a shamed look on my face.

I also went to see the massive reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. It was truly amazing - but I have to say, if I had to stay there in that heat I'd be reclining too.

After that I met up with my tour group (Bangkok to Singapore for the next 17 days).

We set off early the next morning to visit the floating markets and Kanchanaburi (home to Bridge over the River Kwai), which was right on the western border of Thailand, near the Burmese border

Floating markets - hmmmm - bit like a zoo actually. There were lots of small boats floating around on what smelt like an open sewer with old women trying to sell you bananas and hats that turned into fans. Wasn't a huge fan (pardon the pun). 

Then on to K'buri – first of all we visited an original bit of track actually built by the prisoners of war. The place was beautiful – really peaceful with the river running just along-side. It was hard to believe that somewhere so beautiful had such a grizzly history. Thirty eight people died for every 1km of track. That’s one person for every sleeper. It was overwhelming. 

The scenery was very strange too. Just as we made our approach to K'buri, the earth changed colour to a deep red, the colour of dried blood. It was like someone had picked up those poor bastards and wrung out every last bit of their juice and trampled it into the earth. The greens seemed very green and the reds very red. It was a very 3-dimensional place.

The bridge over the River Kwai that you see now isn't the one actually built by the POW's - that was bombed by the allies. But it was still incredible to walk across it. It's something I've wanted to do for such a long time. 

Dad - I got you a Burma / Thailand Railway cap badge which I know you will treasure.

But it was the cemetery that did me in. With 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' playing my Ipod I wandered round the graves (6,000 in total), with Australians on one side and Brits on the other. It was hard to get your head around the fact that you were walking over so many people's remains. As usual with war, they were mostly young boys under 25 years. Again it makes me think that our generation has got off very lightly.

From there, another two hours drive to get the overnight train down the Thai peninsula to Surat Thani. 

This was quite an adventure, with your own little bed with a curtain which screened you off. The only one other thing to say about the train was - squat toilet! It’s a strange experience indeed to look down and see the track speeding below you. I will never complain about Virgin Pendolino's again!

Finally we made it down to Ao Nang which is part of the seaside resort of Krabi. It's absolutely beautiful here. I was trying to think of the best way to describe the scenery - it's like someone has stuck their thumb up through the earth’s crust, and pushed up giant mounds of jungle covered limestone. They rise from the earth and they rise the sea. It really takes your breath away.

Since we’ve been here, we've been on a boat over to ‘Chicken’ and ‘Poda Island’, where I did a bit of snorkeling, and then yesterday we chartered a speedboat and went down to Ko Phi Phi. We actually went to where they  filmed 'The Beach' with Leonardo de Caprio. We did more snorkeling and generally chilled.

Again I find myself trying to reconcile history with reality. Ko Phi Phi, as with lots of the islands and coast around here, were wiped out by the Tsunami just over two years ago. I found myself looking at the people and thinking “I wonder what your story is?” It's never far from my thoughts that so many of the people that perished were just like me, on holiday, having fun - then hell arrived.

They've reconstructed Phi Phi now - but I think they've overdone it a bit. Now there are so many tourist bungalows and hotels that the island's infrastructure is struggling to cope. I saw bags and bags of rubbish piled up waiting to be collected.

It was a brilliant day, but I have managed to get quite burned which I am quite cross about. The last thing I wanted was to be lugging a heavy backpack about with a burned back. And to top it off, I've got Delhi belly which isn't nice at all. So I think I'm just going to have a quiet one today (near a toilet). We set off again tomorrow, across the Thai border and on into Malaysia.

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