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Bill's Thailand diary

Reclining Buddha from a different angle, Wat Pho.

Bangkok, January 19, 2001

The quest for IDD

Bangkok - what a wonderful place to be. Doreen has a theory that RTW travelers tend to fall in love with the first place they get to after India, hence all the glowing reports you hear about Nepal. She could be right. India was incredible, but there are certain things about it that wear you down. We'll see how we feel about Thailand in a few weeks, although any place disparaged by backpackers as "too easy" will probably be OK with us.

The Indian subcontinent was like some kind of Dickensian alternative reality - cell-phones and nuclear missiles juxtaposed with open sewers and crippled beggars propelling themselves along the pavement like crabs. Through western eyes (how Conrad) it seems strange to have a 21st century economy existing amid such squalor and poverty, although I suppose you don't really have to look further than New York for that kind of thing. In fact India's enormous gap between rich and poor is probably what Thatcher had in mind when she talked of a return to Victorian values.

Bangkok was a shock. Far from being a Dickensian parallel universe, it's more like a pre-war utopia - it even has a gleaming new skytrain zooming high above the highways. The only things missing are the flying cars and jet-packs. And it's so clean - the cleanest city we've been in since, er, ever, actually. It's certainly cleaner than New York and London could dream of being. That Singapore-style death penalty for littering must really be working.

As soon as we got here, we naturally rushed to Lumpini Park to look for the Streak-eared Bulbul - wouldn't you? While there, we became aware of a very peculiar sensation - no one was staring at us. God we love this place. The gravest problem we've faced so far is the Thai's tremendous fondness for eating meat, in every form, with everything. This is not an easy country to be vegetarian in. It's almost enough to make us miss India, but there are, of course, plenty of Indian restaurants in Bangkok if we get too nostalgic.

The only other difficulty we encountered was finding a hotel with direct dial so that we could update this site - and we finally did, thanks to Doreen's indefatigable persistence. (Here's a hint: "direct dial" doesn't always mean you can dial direct, as we found out in Chennai). The first Bangkok hotel we stayed in was great - $12 a night, improbably clean, and centrally located (the Khao San Road is not for us), but didn't have the requisite IDD, so we had to move on. (To the Silom Golden Inn, in case you find yourself in a similar predicament and don't mind staying in a place that has evidence of night trade going on).

Hua Hin, January 28, 2001

Still brilliant

We're coming up to our second week in Thailand, and we still catch ourselves chortling imbecilely at odd moments, carried away by how wonderful it is to be here. For the first time since 1986 I can appreciate what a wonderful thing an ice-cold beer really is. I could go on forever about how nice everyone is - and to each other, not just in search of the tourist dollar - and how clean, elegant and convenient everything is. For a while we thought it was just in contrast to India, but now we realize that it's an objective truth (and they're hard to find, aren't they?). For example, booking train tickets from Delhi to Agra was a process that took several hours to complete - after negotiating the frenzy outside the station, we sat down and waited in a line that moved with the inexorable slowness of Hindu cosmology. Basically, we blew it by showing up near lunch-time, so there was a long period when the line didn't move at all - but at least the people working there all got to eat lunch at the same time. Our boredom was momentarily relived when an older man (presumably Bangladeshi or Pakistani, since this was the office for foreigners only) exploded in frustration and started shouting that everyone who worked there was "bloody rubbish" and had forgotten that they were there for their customers. (Perhaps he was an American national). After that, it was back to reading the poster advertising one of those luxury steam train excursions that cost about $200 a day.

Arriving at the equivalent office in Bangkok, we took a numbered ticket and sat down to wait, grateful for the air conditioning. These deli-style numbered tickets are quite common in India, where the British fetish for queuing never quite caught on. Sometimes the number system works, and sometimes people just ignore it. (Point of etiquette: one should avoid elbowing one's way to the front of the queue until it's been established that the numbers are indeed being ignored). Best of all are the occasions where the numbers proceed in a non-linear fashion - it keeps you on your toes when your ticket says 27, and yet is preceded by 18, 374, 2, and 28.

In Bangkok's train station we didn't even have time to enjoy the AC - our number was called as soon as we sat down and we were back outside in under two minutes, stunned and sweaty. And this sort of thing happens everywhere - we were in and out of the central post office in the same amount of time. For someone who, like myself, has spent a substantial percentage of his life waiting in line in New York's post offices, this is little short of miraculous. Thailand is not only cleaner, easier, and more friendly than India, it beats New York on all those levels as well. So we're not only dealing with a contrast of two months here - we're talking fifteen years. It brings to mind the occasion a Japanese guy exploded at the Spring Street post office and started lecturing the line that you'd never see this type of inefficiency in his home country of Germany (it must have been an Axis thing). People actually began to mutter "well go back to Germany", demonstrating just how proud New Yorkers are of their city, and how jealously they guard their bitching rights. We'll probably never get used to it here.

Dumping Woodcock

Just so you don't think it's all beer and skittles here, I wanted to let you now about a couple of Thailand's downsides. Not only is it a bit difficult to get vegetarian food sometimes, but the portions are really small! I ask you - can we be expected to endure these privations much longer?

And then there's the heat. Manhattan gets pretty steamy in summer, especially for one used to Bristolian weather - for the first few years I'd spend July and August with my head in the supermarket's frozen foods cabinet - but Bangkok in January reigns triumphant. When my brother visited Hong Kong last summer and said the heat there was unbearable, I thought he was just being wimpy. Now I understand what he meant about feeling like Sidney Greenstreet - I find myself mopping my brow with an oversized red handkerchief and saying things like "By gad, sir - it's hot!" The size differential between us big, hairy westerners and the small, delicate Thais doesn't help this impression much, either. The other tourists are starting to look comically huge to me - as long as I can avoid mirrors, of course.

Even worse is the second-hand book thing. Most places we've passed through have had book stores where you can get new reading material at minimal cost. There was a little stall in Delhi where I swapped Umberto Eco's disappointing third for a pristine edition of Tom Jones (one of several unread copies, probably the result of noble intentions engendered by the TV series). As long as you rotate second-hand books and don't do anything stupid like swapping a brand new Lonely Planet Goa for a ratty copy of Sour Sweet (like we did), you can keep your reading budget quite low. Bangkok's fab and groovy traveler ghetto, the Khao San Road (get your fake dreads here!), has several bookshops, and we were shocked to discover that none of them would take our stuff. I mean, who wouldn't be glad to take a bittersweet novel about the Anglo-Chinese community in the Sixties, or a lengthy attack on determinist theories of history penned by an aging Canadian anarchist? These buggers are spoiled for choice. I should have pinched that Sutcliffe from that hotel in Pak Chong when I had the chance.

At long last gibbon

And speaking of Pak Chong, we ended up there because of it's proximity to Khao Yai national park, a wonderful place with brand-new roads, cheap food, and gibbons ululating from the roadside trees. Now I don't want to knock the Common Langur or the Rhesus Macaque, but seeing gibbons in the wild has always been something of a dream for me, and this was a definite highlight of the trip so far. In my book, gibbons are strong contenders for the "most adorable" award at the primate olympics, and these (White-handed Gibbons, to be precise) were wonderful. Great singers too - they could teach the Common Loon a thing or two about maniacal gibbering, and the Three Stooges evidently studied them carefully. The Pig-tail Macaques weren't so good on the vocal front, but then they did appear to be wearing liberal applications of turquoise eye-shadow, and so managed to have that Valley of the Dolls look down as they rushed your car and demanded bananas. Not a good thing, I know, but people here enjoy feeding them, and you seem to get these problems in national parks everywhere. At least they're smarter than the Arctic Ground Squirrels that starve in the winter when the tourists go home, and are less dangerous than Grizzlies habituated to human food. (I seem to have moved a bit north here. Sorry).

Shot a man in Hua Hin

Hua Hin is a pretty odd place to find ourselves. For the first time on this trip we seem to be representing the younger generation of westerner, so you can probably imagine the ambiance for yourself. Every other tourist seems to be over fifty and extremely rotund - I haven't seen this many spherical individuals since we were in that all-you-can-eat place in Enfield. Here, the streets are jammed with red-faced Germans and expensive Italian restaurants, and it has that rather unhappy feel you find in towns where tourism is the only local industry - the resignation of dealing with one incomprehensible complaint too many. Apparently there are several golf courses nearby, which might explain a lot. There's certainly a ton of expensive hotels.

Last night, as I popped out to pick up another Singha, I passed by Buffalo Bill's Steak & Grill, a happening place where oblivious tourists shoveled BSE into their faces as a cowboy-hatted Thai serenaded  them with Johnny Cash tunes. Now that's the sort of thing that can make a visit worthwhile.

So why are we in Hua Hin? Well, it's strategically located between two of Thailand's national parks - Kaeng Krachan and Khao Sam Roi Yot - which are both supposed to be stuffed to the gills with exotic birds and animals. And there's an Avis office here, so with any luck we are about to embark on a slightly more intrepid phase of our journey - self propulsion (sort of). Should be interesting.

Bangkok, February 7, 2001

Always check your trousers

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's biggest national park, and also one of its least visited. We were able to spend some time there, thanks to the mysterious willingness of Avis to let us drive off in one of their cars, the fools. A rogue copy of "Beatles For Sale" that had somehow got lost in Cha-am provided the soundtrack as we made our (fairly confident) way there - Thailand is kind enough to print many of it's road-signs in English, and for this we are very grateful. We barely got lost at all.

Quite apart from the inherent surrealism of approaching the Burmese border to the strains of Mr. Moonlight, Kaeng Krachan was a virtual paradise. We were practically the only people there (we arrived mid-week), and even the weekend influx did little to alter this impression. It's a big place. (Many of the other visitors were young Thai birdwatchers, which was nice to see - virtually all the birders we've seen on this trip so far have been other tourists. It's also nice to see the young people involved in such a wholesome activity, if a little mystifying. Why aren't they off breaking the law somewhere? This really is a strange country).

Not only did we have the park to ourselves, we also had our own bungalow just outside the park; part of a brand new (and deserted) tourist complex, still apparently in the middle of slow-motion construction. It had running water, air-conditioning, and was spotlessly clean - this must be the definition of roughing-it, Stair style. It also had a great view of Kaeng Krachan lake, and there were enough birds fluttering around outside to enable us to birdwatch there as well (although it took Doreen some time to get me off my arse and convince me that her "blue-eyed drongo" was in fact a new species for us).

So we had a car, music, lovely accommodation, and a whole national park practically to ourselves. Not only that, but next door was a restaurant that sold vegetarian food for absurdly low prices, and there were dozens of little stalls providing life's essentials: water, beer, and those wonderful little cans of iced coffee that you see all over Thailand. All this more or less in the middle of nowhere, mind you. Not a bad set up.

Eschewing a guide - assuming we could have found one - we birded by ourselves, and had a great time doing so. OK, so we probably missed 80% of the available species due to our general ineptitude, but there's a great sense of satisfaction in identifying a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha for yourself. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Kaeng Krachan - a paradise by our standards, so it's only natural that there was a serpent lurking in this earthly Eden. (Well, not a serpent exactly, but something nasty in the cellar nonetheless). On our last morning there, as we braced ourselves for another hard day's bird, Doreen felt something sting her when she pulled on her trousers. Thinking that it might be a tick - not exactly pleasant, but no real cause for alarm - she disrobed and was rather surprised to see a scorpion curled up inside her trouser leg. Flinging her trousers to the bathroom floor, she rushed into the bedroom where we immediately followed my grandfather's wartime maxim of what to do in times of crisis: "When in danger, when in doubt - run in circles, scream and shout". This helped the situation considerably.

What's strange is that, until this moment, the nasty beasties of the world had shunned Doreen entirely, and the various leeches and ticks we'd encountered had been my devoted admirers alone. Even a majority of mosquitoes had shown a marked preference for English blood. And although I don't relish the idea of sharing my clothes with them, I'm not at all bothered by spiders and snakes - unlike Doreen who has to fend off mortal terror whenever we pass within fifty feet of a snake, big or small. Scorpions, however, scare me. I don't know why - it must have been all those Tarzan movies I watched as a kid. Even now, the thought of quicksand gives me the chills.

Anyway, phobia or no phobia, I was dispatched into the bathroom as soon as my shaking hands has managed to lace up my boots (an important step if you wish to be remembered as Shadrak: Scorpion Slayer). Extricating the arachnid from the space-age trousers was the hard part. Repeatedly stomping on it was the easy bit. (Yes, we really are peace-loving vegetarians and friends of all the animals of the world; but anything with an exo-skeleton is fair game, especially when it bites my wife.) When the monster was well flattened and secure on the sole of my boot, I grabbed our Lonely Planet to try and find what words of wisdom it offers on the subject of scorpion bites. Should Doreen be rushed to hospital? Should I suck the venom out like James Bond (or even Woody Allen)? Who knows?

Unfortunately there's no "Scorpions: What do when you're bitten in Kaeng Krachan" listed in the index, so I thumbed desperately through the book, passing through every conceivable subject - Shopping, Spectator Sports, even Video Systems, for Christ's sake - before somehow finding the scorpion bit, which was buried somewhere in the "Health" section". (Or was it "Dangers & Annoyances"?) Very fortunately for us, scorpion bites are not fatal in Thailand - just very painful. Poor Doreen - but thank god they're not as dangerous as the little wonders waiting for us in Australia. We'll have to be very careful in future. (And I do feel bad about killing the scorpion - it might have formerly been someone we know - but we might have needed it for medical evidence. And nobody bites Doreen without my permission).

Chiang Mai, February 28, 2001

North by Northwest

Three weeks since the last update... What have we been up to? Well, after enjoying the wondrous avifauna of Kaeng Krachan, we had a few days R&R in Bangkok and then took the night train up to Chiang Mai. As might be expected, this was quite a different experience from taking the sleeper in India. Not that Marilyn Monroe did climb into bed with a hot-water bottle full of booze, but we had our own little compartment, clean sheets and air-conditioning. Very nice.

Each pair of compartments has a connecting door (which can be locked from either side), presumably for parties of four. While I was out buying supplies for the thirteen-hour trip (OK, beer), the Germans next door started trying to batter down the door - apparently under the impression that it led to a private bathroom. A likely story. When I got back, Doreen told me how the conductor had to restrain them from staking a claim to some extra living room, and it was her - not me - who brought up the annexation of the Sudetenland. (Actually, according to the theory of manifest destiny, it was their compartment that belonged to us. But we let them keep it). The rest of the trip passed without incident. Without world-champion snorer Jack Smith sharing your compartment, it can be quite easy to sleep on a train.

And now, a word from our sponsors

Remember how I was moaning about the dearth of vegetarian food in Thailand? How wrong I was. It's just that, for some reason, all the vegetarian restaurants seem to be in Chiang Mai. Not only are the prices here much lower, the food is excellent - if the Mangsawirat Kangreuanjam was open for dinner we'd be eating there three times a day instead of only twice. (After finishing, we sometimes think about walking around the block and going back in wearing bowler hats and false noses. But they'd still know it was us). Three different dishes, two bowls of rice, and a bottle of water comes to $1.05 - and the food is as good as any we've eaten. God, we love Thailand. (Except for the bizarrely unhelpful park staff at Doi Inthanon - see Doreen's page for the full, shocking story). In fact, the only the real problem I have here is that it's impossible not to keep falling in love. The cheesy tourist hook for Thailand is "The Land of Smiles". Tacky slogan, eh? Well, the funny thing is, it's true. With very few exceptions - cops and soldiers, mainly - everyone will return a smile with one of dazzling radiance. It makes walking around quite fun. And if these aren't genuine smiles, then they're so close to the real thing I don't care. A lot of the smiling probably comes from their amusement at how odd-looking and clueless we all are - but Thais seem to get such a kick out of how hopeless you are that being a figure of fun is OK. Especially if you're rewarded with one of those smiles - which you always are.

Where was I? Oh yes, plugging some places we love, on the off-chance you ever end up here. So, when in Chiang Mai, eat at Mangsawirat Kangreuanjam, just five minutes walk from this website. And when in Doi Chiang Dao, stay at Malee's Nature Lovers Bungalows, the nicest place we've stayed so far. The location is magnificent - it's nestled at the foot of a mountain - but it's Malee that makes it such a great place to stay. If she'd have offered to adopt us, we'd have accepted without hesitation. She's incredibly nice, really funny, and ridiculously helpful (often at her own expense - for example, she refuses to mark-up any of the excursions she'll organize for you). And every night she stuffs you full of food until you can't move (at a cost of $1.50 a head. She should really put up her prices). Her place is well known in the birding community, (which is OK unless you get stuck having dinner with The World's Most Tedious Man - an occupational hazard of birding, I suppose), but also attracts many other types of tourist, often on word of mouth. We had great fun there, hanging out with a shifting population that included some lovely birders, sweet Swedes, and a couple of German club-kids who were chilling out from the raves down south and would make mysterious trips into the mountains on moped. We really liked her three dogs, too.

While eating dinner, you'd sometimes notice an orange glow coming from the foothills. Apparently the locals set fire to large sections of the national park because this encourages tasty mushrooms to grow . Good for the mushrooms, bad for the birds. Her place is also quite near the Burmese border, which always seems to be an area of some conflict. There was some quite serious skirmishing going on while we were there - in fact, there still is - but there was no point listening to the short-wave, because the BBC apparently lost interest after the first incident. And it was hard to stay worried with Malee shoveling food at you from every direction. This is classically oblivious tourist behavior, I know, but what are you going to do?

Hawaii or not Hawaii?

While we were staying at Malee's, we took a trip up the mountain in search of the Giant Nuthatch - you might have expected us to do something like that. Well, we did. Apart from us, the driver, and the Norfolk couple we were birding with, there wasn't a soul about. The scenery was stupendous but the road atrocious, so we decide to walk the last couple of kilometers, birding our little hearts out. After a few hours in which we didn't see another living soul, we bumped into another couple of birders, and the first words out of the guy's mouth were "You don't happen to have a Robson on you, do you?" This was a perfectly logical question if you were a birder (and we all were) but had something of a Stanley-Livingston ring nonetheless. (If you even care, a Robson is one of the different fieldguides for south-east Asia. And yes, we did have one). In addition to being very nice and offering us many excellent birding tips, these two turned out to be another Anglo-American birder couple. What are the odds of meeting such a doppelganger pair, high up a mountain in Thailand? (Quite high apparently, but never mind).

These two were camped out at the summit, prepared to survive on starvation rations until they got a good look at a certain pheasant that lives up there - we understood, even if we're not that dedicated. Luckily for them, we missed the nuthatch on our first attempt, and so on our return were able to send up bread, fruit, and some hardboiled eggs (and a duck egg). They got the pheasant and lived to tell the tale, but while chatting to them that day we discovered that they too were taking an extended trip around the world, and that we were all having to deal with the labyrinthine rules and regulations of the INS.

Back when we first put up this site, Doreen wrote that we would have to interrupt our trip at the half-way point, by taking a trip to Hawaii in order to set foot on American soil. Apparently, I'd loose my resident alien status if I stayed out of the country for more than six months. Marc Brosius (of website fame) noticed this, and very kindly alerted us to the existence of form I-90 (or is it form  I-131?), a magical document that allows you to stay out of the country for up to two years. (I wonder why my immigration lawyer never mentioned this to me?) This happened just before our departure date, and I applied for it only a couple of days before we left; it was supposed to take about sixty days to process.

When we had still heard nothing five months later, we figured that they had rejected the application and that was that. Reluctantly, we booked a flight to Hawaii - at a cost of over a grand - and took the train to Chiang Mai for fun and frolics in the north. Yesterday, on returning from Malee's, we checked our e-mail and saw that our mailbox was stuffed with urgent messages from the person looking after our apartment. Unfortunately, chose this moment to crash, and so we spent the next three hours in an agony of suspense, wondering what the urgent messages could be about. It must have been quite amusing to watch the steam coming out of my ears. Doreen correctly guessed that the e-mails were to inform us of the belated arrival of the I-90, right at the bottom of the ninth. (Or is it the top of the morning?)

All of this could have been avoided if I'd know that it was possible to take dual citizenship - a fact that the INS is not keen on revealing to interested parties. A Denver dwelling Zimbabwean who has both British and American passports alerted me to this interesting factoid, just last year. Apparently, someone took the US government to the court of human rights in the Hague and the practice of forcing people to renounce their country of birth was judged to be illegal. Unfortunately, both myself and the mountain-dwelling English birder discovered this good news too late, but never mind. Now you know.

So this is quite interesting. Very good news, in fact, although by the time we were able to access our e-mail we were nervous wrecks - even bumping into the sweet Swedes didn't calm us down. Hopefully we can get the money back for the Hawaii tickets, but even if we have to eat that - and I really hope we don't - it'll still be cheaper to stay in Asia than Honolulu. What weird timing. I can't help thinking Malee must have pulled a few strings.


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