|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
Back into the Western World
Thailand, Country 19 (of 21 so far), Diary entry 18th-26th May 2006, Total distance in Thailand: 4226km+2665km
It seemed as if no westerner had ever crossed the border from Cambodia to Thailand at Pailin before, and if they had, they certainly hadn't brought their own car.
On arrival at the border (finally, after a few interesting detours trying to find the right road) I went first to Cambodian customs to get the carnet documents stamped. Nobody there had ever seen one before, and I know this because every single person from the whole building came to have a look and give their own puzzled expression. Fortunately one of them understood a little English and with much pointing, miming and discussion over the correct spelling of the name of the border post in our alphabet (Proom? Pruhm? Prum?), I managed to get them to stamp and sign in the right places on the part of the document that I keep... what happens with their bit I didn't really care, as long as my receipt is OK that's all that matters. I am sure their bit will get filed properly. Passport control was simple, a mere four rubber stamps used this time, and we crossed the tiny little stream which makes the border.
The Thai side was equally surprised to see us but with the advantage of the immigration official speaking excellent English. This didn't help him to explain why we needed to fill in the same document obviously designed for incoming aircraft as when we'd left to enter Cambodia, but once again we went through the motions and we were told to go to customs and then come back. The customs people had also never seen a carnet so again I just pointed and mimicked rubber stamping the right places, went back to passport control and got the right stamps on the passport (using a blank page, grrrr, I don't have many left!) and then drove away trying to remember to drive on the left side of the road again.
The change on crossing the border was as remarkable as any I'd seen before. On the Cambodian side it had been rice, rice and more rice, but not much actually growing as it is only just the start of the rainy season and everything is dried up. On the Thai side the roads are smooth again and the fields have many different kinds of crops growing and just seem to be more intensively farmed in general. I guess it helps that they don't have to worry about stepping on a landmine but not knowing how accurately the Khmer Rouge knew the border I'd have been reluctant to go far off the beaten track myself.
Having decided against filling the tank with diesel from Fanta bottles on the side of the road in Cambodia, we stopped at the first small town with a proper petrol station and filled up, refuelled ourselves with some red curry pork and rice and pressed on towards our planned stop for the night - a town called Klaeng which is close to the Khao Chamao National Park. The Father had decided he wanted to see a national park on the Thai side of the border, just to compare how years of non-corrupt tourism would make a difference to how a place is run. In Cambodia we found that very little of the admission fees actually gets used in maintaining the site and curiously the few flashy 4x4 vehicles there are in the country tend to congregate around the government buildings in Phnom Penh, whereas Thailand knows which side it's bread is buttered and invests heavily in its tourism industry and in my experience so far, the majority of this development is done in a positive and tasteful way. We arrived in Klaeng to find a drab little market town with no obvious hotels, so formulated Plan B which was to drive another 15km to the coast to a little resort town called Laem Mae Phim.
Laem Mae Phim has a long sandy beach which although maybe not the best beach in Thailand, compared to the Cambodian coastline was an absolute delight. With the start of the rainy season now well and truly upon us, the town had an out-of-season feel but we liked it very much. We walked along the beach for quite a long way, seeing only a handful of Thais and one western couple. We returned to the restaurant which was part of the hotel we'd chosen, the restaurant being on the beach but the hotel set back across the road, and now getting quite proficient at the miming and pointing we managed to order a very nice Thai meal, quite different from the Khmer food we'd been sampling in Cambodia. The dark rain clouds that had been threatening us earlier finally arrived and the downpour started. At the end of the meal I looked down to my feet and noticed that all the mosquitoes in the region had decided to take shelter in the restaurant and that we were their best dinner option. There were several of the little buggers attached to my ankles. We made a break for the hotel car park and struggling with an umbrella and a Land Cruiser tailgate with not enough hands, I found my medical box and dug out the antihistamine cream which soothed the bites rather well. Luckily we're both taking malaria pills.
Breakfast in the same restaurant was included with the room and while we were eating that, the heavens opened. It rained so hard that there were rivers running down the sand into the sea and flooding the road between the restaurant on the beach and the hotel. We decided that the national park was not that clever an idea and that because I needed some work done on the car, a rainy day would be as good as any other to sit in a Toyota garage so we decided to make our way to Chonburi. Advising The Father that it doesn't matter what time you get to Toyota, you'll still be there at closing time, we took our time and set off taking advantage of a lull in the rainstorm to pack the car up and head out.
This time, Toyota was relatively painless. It took them about an hour of "nearly started" but eventually we managed to get the major service done, changing differential oils, transmission oil, coolant etc. etc. as required at the 50,000km service, slightly late but I preferred to do it in Thailand rather than Cambodia. While I was in the workshop supervising the work The Father was enrolled as English teacher for the girls in the office. We actually made it out of the garage about an hour before closing time, much to my surprise, and had a decision to make: where to spend the night? Despite Chonburi being quite a large town it fails to even make an appearance in the Lonely Planet, and as we drove round we understood why. We decided that we would have a look at Pattaya for a night before heading to Bangkok.
Pattaya is a huge resort town along the 4km long beach of Pattaya Bay and now so hugely developed that it extends past the ends of the bay and to the next bays along to the north and south. The beach is a second-rate attraction here - most people come here for the nightlife, which is definitely at the seedier end of the scale. We found a very nice hotel out of the centre in Naklua and went walking to find a restaurant and to see whatever else there is to see.
We had expected it to be a pretty nasty place and we were going there merely to satisfy our morbid curiosity, and we were not at all disappointed by what we found. The first streets we walked along were lined with market stalls selling all the tourist tat you would expect - fake Rolexes, offensive and not very funny humorous T-shirts, dodgy DVDs etc. We failed to find any decent-looking restaurants so we took a short-cut down an alleyway aiming towards the main beach road and found the alleyway full of bars - I mean FULL. There must have been several dozen bars along this one short street and the vast majority were illuminated in pink neon and had a number of girls sitting outside calling after us to come in and join them for a drink. Other places I'd visited had a thin veneer of respectability behind which lurked the seedier side of Thailand's tourism industry, but here in Pattaya they'd abandoned all pretence of decorum. Some of the girls even physically grabbed us by the arm and tried to drag us into their bar. Some of the girls seemed to not actually be girls at all. It was a pretty embarrassing situation to be in but one made much worse by being shared with one's father... we upped the pace and escaped onto the main beach road and eventually found a superb all-you-can-eat buffet at one of the up-market hotels right next-door to where we were staying.
After sleep and priority number one of the new morning (i.e. breakfast) we left Pattaya, taking a detour along the main beach just to see it in the daytime and seeing at least 25 parachutes in the air being towed behind boats out in the bay. Kind of defeats the object if you can't see the view because of all the other people up there in the way and it's a wonder they don't all get tangled up with each other. Time to leave town and head for Bangkok stopping on the way to fill with 236 litres of diesel (the petrol station attendants were practically crawling underneath the car to see where it was all going) and 80 litres of water now we're back in a country where the water doesn't come out of the tap brown. We arrived at our hotel for the next six nights, the Baiyoke Sky which is the tallest building in Thailand at 84 floors. Our room was on the 36th floor with a view over an incredibly complicated-looking expressway interchange which was useful as we could plan how to negotiate it on our way to the airport to pick up The Mother who was due to arrive a couple of days later.
With The Mother not being one for the rough-and-ready style holiday one gets in a place like Cambodia, the plan was that we would all meet up in Bangkok and then The Parents would head off together by train down through Thailand and Malaysia making a few stops en-route to eventually fly back from Singapore. I wouldn't be lonely as I had another co-pilot lined up to take over the navigation duties immediately afterwards - Charbel, one of my colleagues from my time in France.
We spent the intervening time in Bangkok doing things that we decided The Mother probably wouldn't be too bothered about, for example the computer mall at Pratunam and with The Father now a fully-fledged adventurer he also could begin to appreciate the lure of western food outlets. He wasn't quite ready for McDonalds but we did enjoy a Starbucks coffee at one of the malls in Siam Square. In the evening we decided we should check out the hotel's restaurant in case The Mother would be tired when she arrived after her long flight so we had our second all-you-can-eat buffet in as many days. This time the food was equally excellent but the restaurant had more of a works-canteen feel to it, added to which were the live musicians, a kind of Thai mariachi band if you can imagine that. I was just about to say "as long as they don't come over here..." when they came over towards us to serenade the neighbouring table. The Father was about to say "as long as they don't start singing...", so guess what happened next. We managed to avoid eye-contact with them and they moved on, as did the clowns performing magic tricks and making balloon sculptures - there weren't many children there but there were many Japanese adults there overly proud of their prized balloon poodles or ray-guns. The ambience was more than made up for by the stunning view, as the restaurant is on the 76th floor of the hotel and with the city lit up at night it made a wonderful sight.
The following day was the arrival of The Mother. Coming on the same flight as The Father had three weeks before, we knew we weren't in a mad panic to get out to the airport (the aerial view helped a lot) so we lazily changed rooms in the hotel from one twin to a double and a single (still a double really, all for me!), prepared the car to accommodate three people and made our way out there in the Land Cruiser, looking for a car wash to wash away the remains of Cambodia still clinging to the car and make the car look presentable for inspection, but unfortunately failing.
The Mother had slept well on the flight and was eager to get out there and start exploring so after settling into the hotel and freshening up, followed by a quick rifle through the goodies she had carried over from the UK for me (more flapjack! custard creams!) we headed out to the Patpong district to wander round the night market and find some food.
The night market is really more of the same stuff as we'd already seen with the souvenir stalls mixed with the fake designer goods, watches, DVDs etc. but somehow this market had a much more honest atmosphere to it and the quality of the fake stuff just seemed better quality than elsewhere. We went through quite quickly first time as food was the priority (I mean for the parents as well as for me) and we found a restaurant off the main streets where we had an excellent Thai meal after which we returned for a second pass through the market where we had a pleasant time walking around nosing at the stalls, buying a couple of "Timberland" T-shirts and successfully avoided all the touts trying to entice us in to see a ping-pong show, whatever one of those is :)
After an early breakfast I walked down to the Indonesian embassy to enquire about visas. For most countries it is quite simple to get a visa on arrival in Indonesia but this is valid for only 30 days, is impossible to extend and the penalties for overstaying are quite severe. Indonesia is an island archipelago extending thousands of kilometres from the tip of Southeast Asia, and its position on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" means that the volcanic landscape is not exactly flat so we estimate that we will need to cover around 6000 to 7000km of winding, poor quality roads to arrive in East Timor from where we will ship our vehicles to Australia. Added to this is the unreliability of the shipping schedules with some of the inter-island ferries only running a couple of times per week, 30 days would be a challenge even if we were to just drive every day and not see anything along the way. The only solution is to apply for a 60-day visa in advance and having heard that the Indonesian embassies in Singapore and Malaysia are reluctant to issue them, I decided to give the one in Bangkok a go. Surprisingly I managed to persuade them to issue me the right visa without having a ticket out of the country which is normally a strict requirement; I left my passport with them to be collected a few days later and returned to the hotel to catch up with the parents before they went out sightseeing.
First stop - the most impressive and most significant of the sights: the Grand Palace. The palace compound includes several palace buildings and several temples including the centrepiece Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It's impossible to describe how astounding these buildings are. Covered in gold and coloured tiles they glitter in the sun totally overwhelm the senses. The surrounding galleries depict scenes from the Ramayana (as we have seen in other temples such as the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh and around Angkor Wat) but the difference here was that there was the condition. At Angkor Wat the friezes are really old and at the Silver Pagoda they've been badly neglected, but here they have taken excellent care of them (there was a team hard at work restoring some sections) and they gleam today as if they were new.
The Emerald Buddha itself is quite small and is actually made of green jade. It sits on top of a tall golden throne and has three different costumes which are changed during the year to represent the winter, sunny and rainy seasons. The idea of a little statue with different costumes unfortunately reminded me of the Manneken Pis in Brussels but thankfully things are done rather more tastefully here than in Belgium. The costumes are all made of gold and the changing ceremony is performed by the king himself in a solemn ceremony. Below the Emerald Buddha are many other statues, mostly golden, and a large crowd of faithful worshippers all deep in prayer in one of the most venerated sites of Thailand.
We walked around the palace grounds as well and some of the throne rooms were open. The thrones, as with many that we have seen before in other countries, are fantastically decorated sending out the aura of luxury and wealth, but in fact look like they must be incredibly uncomfortable to actually sit on. Most of the buildings do not allow photography inside, and once again I couldn't fathom a reason why. No flash photography I can understand but it seems they ban all photography because they want to boost their postcard sales. You will have to go and look for yourselves!
We walked along to the river and took a shuttle ferry across to another of the great symbols of Bangkok - Wat Arun. This striking temple is used in much of Bangkok's and even Thailand's marketing literature and with good reason. While from a distance it looks a little "same same", on closer inspection is where it gets really interesting... at the time the temple was built in the early 1800's there was an important trade in porcelain from China to Thailand and onwards, and during the rough sea transits a lot of the porcelain got broken. The broken pieces were used to decorate the tower of Wat Arun (and other temples of this period) with ornate mosaics and give it a very colourful, if slightly bizarre appearance.
We returned across the river to the original pier from where we caught the Chao Phraya River Express boat along the river a few kilometres to the Oriental Hotel, which is a fantastically plush hotel where we decided the sun was definitely over the yard-arm and The Mother and I each had a Singapore Sling. OK I know we're in Bangkok but I have to have a reference to compare against when I get to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore!
The Skytrain is a new introduction to Bangkok and though not extensive (yet) it is the quickest way of getting around the crowded streets if it happens that the route goes anywhere near where you want to go. It makes a pleasant journey looking down over the traffic jams and across to the architecture of the buildings and further to the green spaces that you just don't notice when walking at street level. We got off at Siam Square, being the nearest stop to our hotel, and had a wander around a couple of the many shopping malls there, including the ludicrously expensive Paragon shopping centre which is full of designer shops, audiophile stores with valve amplifiers bearing brand names I'd never heard of so you know they MUST be good... there was even a Ferrari dealer on the second floor with a friendly sign on the door inviting you to sod off unless you had a lot of money.
We were to return to Siam Square the next day too, because there are several cinemas there showing films in English (though with Thai subtitles). I'd decided I wanted to see a proper film in a proper cinema in proper English for the first time since... probably the last of the Lord of the Rings films. We watched The Da Vinci Code which we decided was merely OK. Having read the book always makes the film something of a disappointment but in this case I think without having read the book we wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. Oh well, maybe I'll go and watch the new X-Men film before I leave Thailand.
For The Parents' last day in Bangkok I decided to trust them and let them out on their own so they went off round the nearby markets while I caught up with some admin on the computer and re-packed some of the boxes in the car - stuff is starting to fit pretty well now! We heard from Alex and Maz who had just arrived back in Bangkok after their time off-roading in Cambodia (see their next diary entry, coming soon) and they joined us for dinner together with Alex's former colleague Rob who knows the city well having been there many times on business. I joined them for a drink after dinner and it was really nice having someone who knew the decent places to go. There are many bars in Thailand but so many of them have a seedy atmosphere it was nice to go to just a normal proper bar without having to fight off the attentions of the bar girls.
Finally the next day was change-over day: the day to wave farewell to The Parents as they started their journey by train, and Charbel due to arrive early in the morning at the airport...
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