Bangkok. Wednesday 2nd May 2018.
Bangkok is, of course, Thailand’s capital city. But it’s only held that honour since the late 18th century. But that’s been plenty of time to build some extremely impressive temples and a Grand Palace, which very much lives up to its name. The part of Bangkok where the king settled is called Rattanokosin and is an island, in part bordered by the main Chao Phraya River, which runs through the city. Its other borders are formed by canals, of which there are several that crisscross the island. They served partly as defence works but also as the capital’s thoroughfares. The Thais very much preferred water and boats to roads and wheels. The rest of the city has evolved around this island, first dedicated by Siamese King Rama 1 in April 1782. Why was a new capital needed? Because they’d been forced to flee the old one when it was captured and sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Burma and Siam (Myanmar and Thailand) were often at war and this time the Burmese had won. As time went by the king successfully fought off attacks from the Burmese until they gave up trying. Burma and Siam. Those two names will bring back wry memories to my British readers of a certain age.
Thailand’s early history was a difficult one. Large sections of its current territory were part of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire but as that declined during the 13th to 15th centuries, Thai leaders came to the fore and formed Thailand more or less as it is today. The early capital was at Ayutthaya until, as mentioned, those pesky Burmese arrived. The Thai kings themselves captured areas that are now part of Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, meaning that the current settled borders in the region are a relatively recent development.
The prevalent religion is Theravada Buddhism, usually including traces of the previous Brahimist and Animist religions. Thailand is very big on its peoples’ ‘Thainess’, and Buddhism is a big part of this. Almost 94% of people follow it and that constitutes the highest rate of adherence of any Buddhist country in the world. As previously mentioned, there are Muslims in the south but they only constitute 4% of the 68 million population. Just over 1% are Christian. All of this meant there were Buddhist temples everywhere I went and at first I tended to stop the bike and walk around them, although the novelty wore off after a while. Had I stopped to look at all of them I’d never have got anywhere. They are always ornate and involve lots of gold colour. They were always open and I was able to just walk around and look.
Thailand was an absolute monarchy until 1932 when the king was forced to change to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless coup. At the same time Siam became Thailand. The country was occupied by Japan during WW2 but having previously aligned itself with the Axis powers at the outbreak of war in Asia, the people didn’t suffer the cruel occupation that affected most of the rest of SE Asia. It is the only country in that region never to have been colonised, mostly achieved by clever political manoeuvring. Since the war, rule has swapped between elected and military governments. Despite the inherent political uncertainty, Thailand has a strong economy, a good eduction system and good health services.
I left Dave’s place for the short ride to Bangkok. I’d carried out research into the huge variety of hostels there and selected one which turned to be not such a good choice. I use the hostel booking sites and had chosen it because of the free wi-fi and that it had parking. That’s a big issue in a city. The problem was that it was an hours walk away from most of the places I wanted to visit, something I hadn’t realised. While it’s true that I was happy to get some exercise, it was also very hot during the day. Bangkok has a metro system, consisting of three lines, but none of them went onto the island. A couple of times I used motorcycle taxis to get across the city.
My first task though, was to get my phone fixed. The smashed screen needed replacing and I’d found a repair centre that could deal with an HTC phone. I made my way up there and because they offer a while-you-wait service I walked back down to a nearby McDonalds where I discovered they provide a really decent cup of tea, and for not very much money. That was a useful bit of information to file away. Good tea was hard to get in Thailand. When I went back to collect the phone they confessed to having broken something inside it. They’d try to repair it but would order the part from China, just in case they couldn’t. That was really annoying and I had to borrow a phone from them just so I could use Google maps to get back to the hostel. A few days later they contacted me to say it was now OK but I demanded a discount off the repair price because of all the inconvenience.
My first cultural visit was to Wat Arun, named after the Hindu God of the Rising Sun. This temple is on the opposite side of the river to the island but is famous for having the highest stupa in Thailand. It dates from the 17th century and the high stupas were added in the 19th. Most of the buildings are covered in white stucco which looks to be impressed withmulti coloured jewels. On closer examination they turned out to be pieces of coloured tile, but against the white background they looked stunning. There are smaller stupas next to the main one but looking at all of them, the effect was impressive. Inside the main hall were some excellent murals, telling traditional stories from the life of the Buddha. All buildings in these temple complexes are very decorative, especially the roof areas. The roof rises up, pagoda style, over several layers and the gable ends are covered in carved decorations. There are carvings on the ridge and at all the corners too. They all have some kind of significance, usually representing a part of the Buddhist story. It’s worth mentioning here that because the Buddha came from Hindu India, there is an interweaving of stories among the artwork and decorations. Thailand’s national symbol is the elephant, so there’s plenty of statues of them at all temples.
On another day I visited the Museum of Siam, which mostly centred on this idea of Thainess that I mentioned earlier. Although its ideas have changed over the centuries, since being introduced by King Rama IV in 1850, the concept is a blend of three elements: the king, the religion and the nation. The one thing that worries me about this kind of thing is what sort of pressure might an individual be under if they didn’t buy into this Thainess idea. It can all seem a bit innocuous but are individuals judged against some kind of criteria, and then called to account if they’re deemed to be lacking in enthusiasm? I don’t know the answer to that question, but the whole concept worries me. I got cornered by a group of school kids at one stage, wanting to interview me as part of their English studies (I was getting very used to this by now). We went into a room where they have a puzzle which consists of twenty seven blocks, each of which has a symbol on it. The challenge is to decide which element of Thainess the symbol belongs to. We had a bit of a laugh with that and I was delighted to be able to chat with them.
The next dose of culture came when I visited Wat Pho temple. The site is massive, the largest in Thailand, with many highly decorated buildings on it. There are 1,000 Buddhas around the complex, mostly gathered from abandoned temples around the country. King Rama III had a library built within the complex, specifically for public learning. He had granite tablets engraved with writing and diagrams relating to science,maths, medicine, history and culture. Effectively a public university. Thai massage is still taught and practised there. The most stunning feature is a statue of a Reclining Buddha, depicted lying on its side, with its head resting on a hand. It is 46 metres long and the head is 15 metres high. It’s covered in gold leaf. It’s so big that it was installed and then its building was constructed around it. Sadly, the pillars make photographs difficult.
A little way up the road is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and next to that is the Grand Palace. There is a dress code for visiting temples and I’m normally OK in a T shirt and my longer pair of shorts. But the code here was a little stricter, in deference to it being the king’s personal place of worship, so I had to either buy or rent a pair of trousers from a handily placed store opposite the entrance. A very enterprising business, with a captive clientèle. I chose to rent a pair in very loud purple. The temple and palace have only been used for ceremonial purposes since 1925 so visitors can walk around all of it and I rented an audio guide to help me understand it better. The most import icon here is a statue known as the Emerald Buddha, referring to its colour rather than what it’s made from. It’s sits on top of a high display in one of the temples and although it’s 166cms high, it looks very small from floor level. I sneaked a photo of it, against the rules. Once again, the buildings here are very highly decorative, in keeping with its royal worshippers I suppose. I’ve seen Buddhist temples in other countries but none have come anywhere near matching these for grandeur.
After viewing the temple the designated visitor route took me into the grounds of the Grand Palace. The main palace building is very nice but isn’t particularly fancy. But the other buildings in the compound certainly are, with even the king’s dressing room, used before he attends ceremonies, looking like a palace too. There’s no question of it, the Thais certainly know how to do ‘fancy’.
Lastly I visited the National Museum, a collection of twelve buildings which used to be the palace of one of two Viceroys. This particular one acted as a second king, which I know sounds very odd. It was abandoned as a palace at the beginning of the 20th century and was then given over, by the king, to be used as a national museum. It’s full of art and artefacts from the various stages of Thai history, including copies of prehistoric cave paintings. The artwork has a heavy Hindu influence although I was surprised to learn that Buddhism arrived in the area as early as the 3rd century. It then spread south into Malaysia and Indonesia, before being supplanted by Islam. The various displays are split into era and region, showing where the influences came from. In particular, there was a section on how much influence Khmer civilisation had on Thai art. The history of both countries has been very much interwoven over the centuries.
So that was Bangkok done and dusted. I’d only really seen the highlights. The city has many places of interest, including such things as boat trips along the river, floating markets, and plenty more temples. But I needed to move on.
The ride to Kanchanaburi was interrupted several times by rainstorms. It wasn’t a long ride so I was quite happy to take shelter and wait out the rain. The hostel I’d chosen was owned by a lovely woman named Lynn, who had been sent to high school and college in the USA. Therefore she spoke excellent English but also understood how to make a western breakfast. To the surprise of all of us staying there the excellent breakfast she made was included in the price. Although she’d had the café for over a year she’d only just opened the hostel and sought our opinion, as seasoned travellers, as to what she could do to improve it. I suggested she was being a bit too generous with her breakfast, not that I minded, and ought to provide less or charge more. She’s a very generous woman and invited her guests to enjoy her birthday BBQ. Her brother helps her run the business and he took charge of the cooking, delivering pretty much what you’d expect to get from a BBQ. Plus, a few things you might not. Roasted egg, for a start. They tasted the same as a boiled egg, which makes sense I suppose. But he also came up with a Thai delicacy which was another eggy surprise. A raw egg is soaked in salt water then placed in the ground for two weeks. The white solidifies to something resembling the consistency of rubber and when eaten it simply tastes like the best boiled egg you’ve ever eaten. Delicious.
What was I doing in this particular town? Well it happens to be the home of the Bridge Over the River Kwai, perhaps one of the most emotionally charged locations in Asia, for Britain and the Commonwealth at least. The area also contains sites of significance in Thai history as well. Therefore I was looking forward to learning some new things. The town contains some sites worth visiting, the bridge being the most significant of them, but also a couple of war cemeteries and a very good museum. Further afield are more sites relating to the railway and also the aforementioned Thai related sites. I visited as many as I could in the time I had.
Firstly what was this railway all about? The Japanese occupied Malaya and Burma during WW2, and had an agreement with the Thai government that gave them free reign there too. The Thai government in effect decided that discretion was the better part of valour and, witnessing what happened to Malaysia, who could blame them? But despite their occupation of all those countries Japan had problems in that their navy and merchant shipping was very vulnerable to action by Allied ships and submarines on the journey round to Burma. Malaya in particular provided huge amounts of raw material vital to their war machine. Japan wanted to launch an attack against India from Burma, and drive out the British. Their plan therefore was to link the Thai rail network with that of Burma, thereby removing the need for their ships to run the gauntlet of Allied attacks.
The problem was that the land that lay between Thailand and Burma was very mountainous. But the Japanese Army’s engineering division was sure they could build a route through the mountains. Looked at objectively the railway was an incredible feat of engineering. But of course it was only achieved by using the slave labour provided by prisoners of war and the Asian civilians who’d been tricked or forced into working on it.
The JEATH museums (there are two) are named after all the countries involved in the railway – Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland. They consists of some mock-up bamboo huts that housed the prisoners who worked on the railway. They are filled with photos and paintings depicting life in the camps. At first the Japanese were happy for prisoners to take photographs and keep diaries etc. But as the pressure to complete the railway increased, leading to the appalling conditions that we’ve all heard about, they removed permission. The prisoners instead painted. There’s a remarkable contrast between the men’s physical condition in the photos, still looking quite fit and healthy, and their condition in the paintings, where their privations are made clear.
In the centre of town is a war cemetery, neatly filled with headstones commemorating those who died. Opposite it is The Death Railway Museum. That rather graphic title is on the wall of an excellent museum which tells the complete story of the Thai to Burma railway and everything that happened during its construction. It’s a terrible tale of cruelty and privation. Allied prisoners became slaves for the Japanese to use for the construction of the railway through Pagoda Pass, the main link between the two countries. Hundreds of bridges and cutting were constructed, the Kwae bridge (number 277 out of 600) being the most famous because of the film. The rarely told story is of the Asian labourers who were tricked, and then forced, into working on the railway too. About 250,000 of them, living in isolated camps with no medical facilities of any kind and a diet that was worse than the war prisoners. The exact numbers are unknown because, unlike the POWs, the Japanese kept no records of them. It’s estimated that about 90,000 of them died. The POWs numbered about 61,000, of whom about 12,000 died. It’s a very sobering place but it was good to have a full understanding of what went on.
I walked down to see the bridge, which is on a section of line that’s still in use, although only for tourist purposes. The complete line is no longer in place, the Burmese section having been torn up after the war. But people can get a train and take a ride across the bridge and about 55kms up country to see the kind of terrain the railway builders had to tackle. The bridge made famous by the film no longer exists. It was a wooden trestle bridge and soon after it was built it was joined by one of concrete and steel. Both bridges were bombed many times but were repaired quickly by the prisoners who were kept there for maintenance work. An RAF raid in June 1945 destroyed both bridges and they weren’t repaired again.
Eighty kilometres north of the town lies Hellfire Pass, the name given to a cutting mostly built by Aussie POWs. The construction took place during the period known as Speedo, which took place between March and October 1943. It was a period when the engineers were under extreme pressure to get the line finished and therefore forced the prisoners into working sixteen hour days, or more. The name relates to how the flickering of the lamps and fires used for illumination looked like the fires of hell. The cutting is around 500 metres long and up to 26 metres deep. All they had for tools were picks and shovels, hammers and drills. The holes in the rock for the dynamite were made using a method called ‘Tap and Turn’. One POW would hold the drill bit, another would hit it, then the first would turn it and it would be hit again. Eventually the holes would be deep enough for dynamite and the rock would be blasted. Picks, shovels and baskets to clear it up. It’s incredible to think that they cut this pass in only six weeks, but at great physical cost.
At the top of the site is a museum, unfortunately closed for refurbishment when I was there. But I was able to go down the steps to where the railway ran and walk along where the track was, stepping over some of the original sleepers that still lay in the ground. Looking at the cutting it’s almost impossible to imagine how they achieved it and just how awful the working conditions must have been. The line of the track overlooks steep ravines and crosses many deep river courses as it winds its way along the edge of the hillside. As I said before, it’s an amazing feat of engineering and seeing the terrain the track crosses brings that home. There’s a nice memorial part way along the track, to those who died. The whole site is supported by the Australian government in honour of their soldiers who died there.
When I was riding up to Hellfire Pass I happened to see an entrance arch which had a model tiger’s head around it. Curiosity naturally got the better of me so I followed the road and came to a Buddhist monastery which had once been home to over 140 tigers. Really? What a curious thing. A young Italian guy who I bumped into in the car park told me that there used to be many places in Thailand that kept tigers in captivity but international pressure convinced the The Thai government to close them down. Tiger Monastery was the biggest so became a target. I asked where the tigers went to and he said they were dispersed to other places where they almost certainly wouldn’t be as well looked after as they once were. Many of them were born in captivity so couldn’t be released into the wild anyway. He said they had plenty of room compared to many other places. Their staff of nineteen is now reduced to five. What a strange story.
I’ve had an update sent to me about this temple. It wasn’t a good place, it seems. Follow this link for more.
I took a walk around and could see plenty of deer and water buffalo, many of the latter enjoying a cooling dip in a muddy pond. The tigers went about two years ago and all the buildings, now very much under used since their departure, were slowly falling into ruin. I bumped into a couple of young guys in a pick-up who were delivering food to the other animals. They invited me along for the ride. They stopped at a number of feeding points where they piled what looked like chopped up vegetation into the troughs. The animals seemed to recognise the sound of the pick-up, and knew its significance, because they came wandering over as soon as they heard it. I’m here to tell you that the horns on those buffalo are massive and I kept myself very much out of their way. They also showed me their resident lion, looking very lonely in his cage, although he seemed happy enough when they gave him some food.
On my last day in the area I took another ride up country, to Erewan Waterfall. In the car park I bumped into a load of young guys all riding different versions of the new Royal Enfield. This model has left behind the old British designed model and now has a much better engine, brakes etc. It still retains the old look though, but its now a classic bike with modern engineering. They all work in a barber shop in Bangkok and I was surprised to see hip young guys riding that kind of bike.
Seeing the waterfall itself was something of a challenge because it drops down seven different levels, with a collection of pools at most of them. It was a tough climb up to the top, especially on a hot day. The top section had a long drop to it but there was very little water. Puzzling because there’d been a fair bit of rain recently. But the lower pools were interesting because where the water ran over the edge of the pools and down to the next level there were often stalagmites hanging off the underside of the rock ledge. It struck me as an odd sight and seemed strange to see them outside of the limestone caves where they’re usually found.
When I left there I rode on up the hill, instead of back down it, and came to the dam and lake whose main purpose was to power a hydro electric plant. And that may well be why there wasn’t much water at the waterfall. Nearby was a park with a massive sundial in it, surrounded by flowerbeds and bushes. I liked the design of it and I can tell you that it was telling the right time too. On the way back I stopped at a memorial to The Nine Armies, which refers to a crucial battle between Thai and Burmese forces, won by Thailand.
Time to move on, next stop Ayutthaya, Thailand’s former capital. I’d really enjoyed being in Kanchanaburi. Apart from being in a good hostel and enjoying some socialising with my roomies, I felt I was starting to scratch the surface a bit more learn more about Thailand as a country, and its history. Ayatthaya would enhance that learning. “But how is the bike running Geoff?”, I hear you all asking. It had been running very well indeed. I’d only covered 500kms since doing all he work, but so far not a single hiccup. With he fuel consumption also much improved, my hopes were slowly rising that all my work may not have been in vain.
The hostel I’d booked is next to the river, one of the many waterways that run through the old part of the town. Reception were able to book me onto a boat trip which visited some of the temples in the area. And there are many of them. Although Ayutthaya was abandoned in 1767, and some of the stones and bricks were taken to help build the new capital, it wasn’t long before it was occupied again and in the mid 19th century some repair work was undertaken by King Rama IV. His successor, Rama V, decreed the original area of Ayutthaya Island be declared a conservation area. And that is how it remains today. The boat trip took us around three temples; two of them fairly modern and the third a historic ruin. Wat Phananchoang, which houses Thailand’s tallest Buddha; Wat Phuttai Saiwa, which has a very impressive temple building; Wat Shaiwathanaram, which is a very important set of ruins. It was at the latter that we watched the nice effect of the setting sun over the remains of the buildings. The boat we were on is described as a ‘long tail’ boat. This is because the engine sits inboard but the drive shaft, with the propeller on the end, sticks out a long way over the back of the boat. The engines on these boats tend to be car engines, adapted to the purpose, and the boats themselves are long and narrow. Very common in SE Asia and ideally suited to these calm, inland waterways. The boat dropped me back at a landing point just below the hostel garden. A good introduction to the historic town.
Next morning I got organised nice and early and went across the road to the Old Town. It sits on an island, surrounded by the confluence of three rivers and a canal. There several waterways that run across the island. There are plenty of ruined buildings to look at, in various states of disrepair. The Burmese set fire to them when they drove out the Thais in 1767, but didn’t pull them down. Time and weather has caused most of the damage. There was severe flooding in the area in 2011, which definitely affected the stability of some of the buildings, exacerbating the damage that time had already wrought. I walked my legs off throughout the day, managing to see all the significant buildings as well as visiting the museum. Most of the temples reflected the Khmer influence, which was very strong in that part of Thailand, it having been part of their empire for many centuries. Ayutthaya itself had been occupied for over four hundred years before the Burmese came along to spoil the party. That helped explain the high number of temples in an area that was about 5x3kms. There were at least fifteen, and I still can’t help wondering who pays for them.
The city was an important trading centre and was visited by people from other Asian countries as well as Europeans. The visitor Centre had an excellent display showing how life would have been in the citiy’s heyday, and the National Museum was full of artefacts from that time. It also had a display of gold items discovered when archaeologists found a hidden crypt beneath one of the temples. Although the authorities are carrying out restoration work, it isn’t aimed at restoring them. It’s more about making them safe and a bit less ruined than they are now. The right approach in my opinion.
On my list of places to see was the Elephant Kraal. I walked up there and found a place where the elephants that are used for tourist rides, down by yesterday’s temples, are housed. There are some babies there too, looking very cute. I spoke to an American woman who worked there. I’d noticed that the elephants that were chained up seemed to be in distress. They were swaying from side to side and didn’t look at all happy. She said it’s because they know food is on the way, and it’s true to say they did calm down once it had arrived. But I still have my doubts about that kind of operation. She reckoned they’ve had around one hundred and seventy elephants pass through there, including babies born there, but they have to move them on to other places because they can’t get enough Mahouts to take care of them. They seem to be well looked after, but …….
By now I’d had my fill of old buildings, kings and palaces. It was time for a break. I headed south, down past Bangkok and Pattaya, right down to the town of Trat. It was a wet ride in the end so I was very pleased to be in my own room, in a guesthouse, where I could spread out my wet things to dry. Meanwhile I researched the dive centres that were on the island of Koh Chang, and the ferries to get me there. To my surprise one of the two ferry companies would provide a return ticket, for me and the bike, at only 210 bhat – about £5. Incredible! Next morning, once the rain had stopped I rode down to the ferry terminal, bought my ticket there and enjoyed the forty five minute ride out to the island. I’d booked a hostel at Lonely Beach, one which was run by a dive company. With no irony intended I stayed there but didn’t dive with them. Too expensive, and they weren’t doing any special deals even though it was the low season. I used a company called Scuba Dawgs, who were happy to pick me up from the hostel of their rivals and take me, with others they’d collected, down to the harbour.
Over the three days I was there I went on six dives, having got a discounted price. The dive master was a Thai guy named Bank, and I’m pleased to say he gave me unsolicited compliments on how good my buoyancy was. I was really pleased to hear that. I felt so comfortable with everything by the end of those dives that I’m now seriously considering going for my advanced level. My challenge to myself was to get better at controlling my breathing and thereby conserve air. Less air used means longer under water, which can only be a good thing. I think I did very well, with each successive dive using less.
On two of the three days there were four of us in the group, on the other it was me and Bank. He’s very good at spotting fish hiding under rocks, and also Sand Rays which half bury themselves in the sandy bottom and wait for lunch to swim past. We saw some huge shoals of fish and it was delightful to be able just to sit on the bottom while they swam around us, flitting this way and that in perfect unison. How that happens is a mystery to me. They act as if with one mind and it looks quite amazing. I had a close encounter with a large, round jellyfish at one point. I had my camera with me and wanted to get some close up photos. I managed that OK, a bit too close, in fact. I didn’t get stung though.
What with some great diving and some good food over the three days, I felt ready to tackle the next tricky border crossing, Thailand into Cambodia. It’s another country that wants non ASEAN vehicles to obtain a permit, which can only be obtained in Phnom Penh. There are agencies that will get it for you, at a price, but the problem is that you’re supposed to leave by the border you came in at. Absolutely no good to me whatever. John and Lucy had told of the border they used, where they’d managed to talk their way in, and it was not much further south than where the ferry docked. So once I’d landed I headed down there to try my luck.
My first problem was getting out of Thailand, something I hadn’t expected. Immigration stamped me out with no problem. Customs stamped my carnet with no problem, but then immigration demanded a form relating to my bike that I just didn’t have, and didn’t know anything about. I think it was probably the Temporary Import Permit issued by Thai customs when bringing in a vehicle. The guy at immigration said it was my duty to know what paperwork I was supposed to have and not knowing was no excuse for not having it. I either had to pay a 4,000 baht fine (about £90) or go back to Betong and get the piece of paper. After much arguing I had no choice but to pay up. I could tell this wasn’t some kind of rip off because I got an official receipt for my money and while I was waiting there everyone who came through in a vehicle handed over a form. As a conciliatory gesture the guy gave me some fruit and a bottle of water. Bleuah!
At the Cambodian side everything went smoothly, it just cost me lots of dollars. I won’t say how many because I paid what the fixer asked for when I ought to have talked his price down. But the upshot was that I got a thirty day visa and got the bike in without the need for a permit. Cambodia here I come! There was still plenty of Thailand left for me to see, but I plan to be back in the north of the country in a few month’s time.