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March 2, 2004

In Search of Bangkok Trance

At the weekend we took a taxi to Minitry of Sound Bangkok to discover that it's now called Dbl-O. It was much quieter inside than previously, the upstairs gallery was closed, and the entire downstairs section appears to be permanently shut. Apparently, it's been sold to new owners. Still it was good to be back in a club, but we soon began to notice that none of the trendy Bangkok people were there, so, feeling that we were somewhere that had had its moment, we left and caught a taxi over to Narcissus on Soi 23.

Narcissus didn't disappoint us. It was as packed as usual, and with it's oppulent setting in an old mansion, wonderful marble interior, and valets parking expensive cars outside, it immediately makes an impact on you as you arrive. It's far more impressive than any of Ibiza's clubs, which sadly don't seem to feel they need to look good to get people in.

It was a really good night, but still, I suspect that there's another good club somewhere in Bangkok that must have taken over from Ministry of Sound.

March 4, 2004

Chiang Mai

We arrived in Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand this morning, dazed and tired, after spending almost 14 hours on the overnight train from Bangkok. After doing a bit of hunting around for a hotel we found a tuk-tuk driver who, looking for commission of course, brought us to the Laithai Guesthouse. It's much more like a proper hotel than the kind of places we've been staying in and Carita saw the swimming pool and immediately wanted to stay, so we booked in and crashed out.

March 7, 2004

Scooter Touring

After watching a demonstration of elephants painting, we rented a scooter yesterday and set off for the countryside to one of the elephant camps outside Chiang Mai. I'd expected to ride around the corner and instantly be on quiet, country roads, but unfortunately Chiang Mai turned out to be a much bigger city than I'd expected. It was also a few years since I'd last driven a scooter and it quickly became apparent that this one was a bit of a wreck as I tried to come to terms with it in the city centre. The traffic was truly horrific, as bad as anything I'd driven in before, as I did my best to figure out the one-way system whilst Carita hung onto the back shouting directions.

Eventually, however, we got out of the city, off the motorways, and onto country roads where I could exploit the full power of it's 100cc engine! This involved both of us shouting encouragement to get it up the hills as it almost ground to a halt. After an hour or so we made it to the elephant camp, parked, and walked over to the entrance only to be told that it had closed an hour before. It was disappointing, but I also knew that Carita was intent on doing some elephant riding in Thailand so I knew we'd be back making the same horrific journey the following day.

Rather than returning to Chiang Mai we decided to see some of Northern Thailand's countryside and continued along the road into the Mae Sa valley. It's dry season here right now and the area reminded me a lot of China, which I suppose is very close. The route was quite picturesque as it wove between mountains and through forests with hill tribe villages, however, as we were still reasonably close to the tourist hoardes of Chiang Mai, much of it was spoiled by developments and resorts. One place we passed was busy burning down and bulldozing away a slice of forest to build a resort village, and some of the mountains bore huge scars of deforestation. Once again it made us consider the irreversible damage that our own and fellow tourism was causing to Thailand's environment.

After another nightmare ride through the traffic and pollution, we got back to our hotel in Chiang Mai, looked in the mirror, and saw that we were almost black from the dirt and exhaust we'd been riding through.

March 9, 2004

Elephants in Thailand

The following day we rented a less wrecked scooter and headed once more to Mae Sa Elephant Camp. It's a lovely village set by the river in which all the elephants, staff and mahouts (elephant keepers) live. Each of the 73 elephants has it's own mahout. As elephants often live 80 years, a strong bond is formed between the animal and it's keeper, so this is often a father and son team to last throughout the elephant's lifetime.

After spending time feeding them we watched some of the elephants being bathed in the river and blowing water over themselves. Next, there was a demonstration of working elephants moving and stacking logs, then elephants playing football, playing harmonicas and dancing, giving someone a massage, and painting.

One of the striking things you realise after spending some time up close with these animals is that they are incredibly gentle and graceful creatures. If they walk right past you they'll be careful not to stand on your feet or bump into you. The base of their feet is soft and they exert less force per square centimetre onto the ground than a deer, hence they are perfect for travelling through the jungle and making little impact.We had an elephant ride around some of the grounds and we were surprised by how agile and sure-footedly it could move down steep paths and between trees.

It's always a careful decision whether or not to give custom to tourist sights that are based around animals. The days when we thought we had a right to keep wild animals captive for our own entertainment sadly aren't over yet, as thousands of people go to dolphin parks each year without thinking about the ethics of it at all. We both, however, felt that the elephants at this camp were very well cared for, happy to be trained, and being tended by keepers whose families had probably been tending to elephants for generations. Additionally, there is less demand for working elephants in Thailand these days, and some of the elephants at the camp obviously used to work in the logging industry.

March 12, 2004

Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya

Apart from seeing the elephants in Chiang Mai, there wasn't very much that was appealing about the place. Pollution hung in the air, and much of the town seemed to consist mainly of ugly, post-war, concrete buildings you find in so many provincial Thai cities. Strangely, it was also full of package tourists, lots of whom were American, which had obviously pushed prices up and everything cost much more than in Bangkok. The locals kept bowing and acting very servile, as if to make the package tourists feel important as they threw their money around, which is quite unusual for Thailand where normally they would joke with or laugh at you. Much of the town felt seedy and many of the bars were full of Thai hookers, with whom most of the single Western guys you saw were going around with. We were glad to get away.

We boarded a train to Phitsanulok, and sat in third class with old men who smoked opium for much of the trip, which is pretty common in the hill tribe villages. Eight hours later we finally arrived. Walking out of the railway station I spotted an old, thin man with a rickshaw, and happy to see a keen cyclist, I did my bit for the environment, dumped our heavy backpacks into it, climbed in, and agreed to give him 60 euro cents if he cycled us several kilometres across town to the youth hostel. Carita was looking at me in horror, wondering if he would survive the trip, but he turned out to be quite fit for an 80 year old, though possibly a little shaken by the end of the ordeal.

Phitsanulok youth hostel was really quite nice. Set in a lush garden with a big outdoor terrace, the rooms were made from old teak houses that had been joined together.

The next day we got up early and caught a bus to old Sukhothai, one of Thailand's World Heritage sites. The city was Thailand's first capital in the 13th century and today it's spectacular ruins cover 45sq km. We rented bikes to look around and it was one of the most tranquil, impressive places that I've been to in Thailand so far. The area itself is set in well tended parkland and was almost devoid of tourists. Strange as that may seem, it was lovely as it allowed us to fully appreciate the serenity of the location, temples and huge buddha sculptures. It also stopped fat people in tracksuits from ruining our photographs. Next time, however, I'd go earlier in the morning for photographing, as most of the statues are east facing.

Spiritualised, the next day we continued on to Ayutthaya. Another UNESCO listed site, it was Thailand's capital from 1350 until it was sacked by the Burmese in the 1700's. The new town, however, looks like it's been recently looted. It's dirty, unattractive, and a hard place to say anything good about. It does appear to have several gekkos to each inhabitant though, which is nice if, like us, you enjoy watching lizards (and there's little other entertainment in the city).

The ruins are beautiful though. They're much more interspersed throughout the town than in Sukhothai, much busier with tourists, and feel more like a money making operation, but they're still very impressive. Needless to say, once we'd been around them we went straight back to the hotel, picked up our bags, and caught a tuk-tuk to the station for the next train to Bangkok. The new town wasn't the kind of place you wanted to spend more than one night in.

March 14, 2004

Tick Attack

We were relieved to get back to Bangkok, and after many days of travelling and restless nights, I crashed out unconscious. An hour or so later, however, Carita wakens me up, telling me to get out of bed. Convinced that she's just having another bizarre, psychotic dream I try to ignore her, but she refuses to leave me alone. "The beds are infested with ticks", she says as I stagger up. Looking down I see that she's not hallucinating and the beds are, in fact covered with big ticks intent on finding blood and crawling with larvae. It's pretty disgusting looking but I consider things and reckon I could probably still get back to sleep and just ignore them; Carita, however, seems intent on moving out of the room to somewhere more hygienic.

The rest of the rooms were full so we decide to go somewhere else. I realise, though, that if we wait to check-in for a couple of hours till 0600 we can save paying for another room for the night. So we pack up our things and sit waiting in a bar whilst listening to the deranged ravings of pissed Swedish people at the next table as big cockroaches run around our feet.

Finallly, after a painfully slow couple of hours, it's time to check in and we get a room at the still-being-built Rambuttri Guesthouse. We go through all of our clothes and belongings attempting to pick the ticks out of them then have several frantic showers, trying to wash the larvae off our skin, but still we itched.

Crawling into bed and getting comfortable, I was finally ready to pass out again. At that moment, however, someone begins hammering and a circular saw starts up - it was the builders starting work next door to our room. Obviously, I wasn't supposed to sleep tonight, so I lie awake, scratching and mulling the joys of world travel.

March 15, 2004

Bangkok Clubbing

On Saturday night we went out to continue checking out Bangkok's clubs. We'd just walked out of Koh San Road, however, when a police motorcycle drove down the pavement and the police got off and came over to talk to us. Thailand has seriously been cracking down on drug use over the last year or two with over 1200 suspected drug dealers gunned down in the streets by police, and they asked to search us. They were very polite about it, and gave me in particular a thorough going over, but we didn't have anything to hide and once they realised this they laughed and went on their way.

We walked across to Cafe Democ, a bar with a laid-back, chilled atmosphere next to the Democracy monument. It's a fairly small place but they tend to have some reasonable dj's at weekends when it becomes more of a small club.

Later in the evening we caught a taxi and went looking for Faith Club, which is supposedly on Soi 23, but after several passes appeared to be either invisible or very, very small (reports we've heard since suggest that it's nothing special if you do manage to find it).

Instead we went to Q-bar, which I'd read a good review of. Entry was a very steep 600 baht (about 12) each (with only one free drink) so we were hoping not to be disappointed. As soon as we walked in, however, it was obviously just a sad ex-pat's hangout. It was cramped inside, walls painted black, a predominantly 40-something crowd at the bar, whilst the dj played uninspiring sounds. We left within 60 seconds, and caught a taxi outside, the fat bastard driver of which, attempted (and failed) to rip us off.

We went to Narcissus, which was packed as usual and seems to be the best choice for dance and trance music. We'd been hoping to find a successor to Ministry of Sound, but from what we've seen and heard so far, nothing has really taken over from it in Bangkok. Paul Oakenfold is once again spinning at Songkran (21st April) in Narcissus this year, but sadly we won't be here for it unless we get arrested.

March 16, 2004

Vietnam Plans

We spent yesterday sorting out visas for Cambodia and Vietnam and today we booked flights to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) in Vietnam. We plan to fly out of Bangkok on Friday, spend a bit of time in Vietnam then travel overland to Cambodia, and finally back to Thailand.

I've been trying to do this part of the trip for years but have always ended up enjoying myself in Thailand too much and getting stuck here, so although the overland part could be tough going, I'm really looking forward to it.

March 17, 2004

Cornish Exposure

Anyone who saw the pictures of Carita and I rolling in the snow after a Finnish sauna will appreciate this wonderful recreation of the shot from Simon - taken in the snow in Cornwall!

Originally posted on Carita's blog

March 19, 2004

Off to Vietnam

We're in Bangkok airport right now waiting to board our flight with Vietnam Airlines to Ho Chi Minh, which we expect to be full of chickens and pigs running around.

Last night in Bangkok was made interesting - a drunk guy sitting behind us on the water taxi started groping me and offering me money to have sex with him. Carita, of course, thought this was all very funny and sat there laughing and taking pictures while he tried to molest me.

While we're in Vietnam and Cambodia I won't be able to send any moblog pics to the site as my phone probably won't be working there.

March 20, 2004

Palm Gone

We survived the flight with Vietnam Airlines, and found quite a pleasant hotel in the middle of Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately, my Palm didn't and went missing somewhere between the security gate in Bangkok and getting to Vietnam, and hence I've lost my brain as I'm unable to remember anything at all these days (including picking up my Palm, obviously, as well). So I'm fairly pissed off, but we were quite knackered when we were travelling so I guess it's just one of those things.

March 21, 2004

Good Morning...

Vietnam's most populous city, the streets of Ho Chi Minh are packed with people. Everyone seems to own a scooter and, apparently, there aren't any traffic regulations - people run red lights and pedestrian crossings seem to mean nothing, so everytime you cross a road you take your life in your hands. Breaks in the traffic are rare and the only way to get across seems to be by walking out into the midst of thousands of speeding mopeds, keep going, and, usually, they part and go around you. But it's stressful and requires Matrix-like belief.

Vietnam is much pooer than Thailand, but ironically most things (at least to foreigners) like food and drink, are much more expensive. There's much more hassle on the streets as well, with touts and hawkers appearing as if by magic as you step out the door, though inevitably, they're never selling anything you would want to buy in your dullest dreams.

March 22, 2004

Saigon Stress

Today was a fairly stressful day in Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon, we still can't figure that out?). Endless noise, hassle, people yelling at you, psychotic traffic; it was all hard work. We made more attempts to get the airline to check their lost property to see if my Palm had turned up but they weren't interested in helping so it took lots of (on the verge of losing our temper) persuasion. In the end, on our fourth visit, after lots of 'go fuck yourself' looks, we were told that they didn't have it.

Carita had a couple of silk dresses made for her in one of the tailors, and then we looked at each other, agreed it was time to leave, and bought tickets for tomorrow's bus to Cambodia. We're both looking forward to getting out of here and getting back on the road. We're also convinced that insects are living, or have laid eggs, under our skin as we're endlessly itchy and coming up in strange blotches and marks all the time, but it could be mild paranoia.

[cut to 'Alien' scene...]

March 24, 2004

Phnom Penh

The promised big, air-con coach from Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be a 10 seat Toyoto Hiace minibus. It only took us to the border, however, where we had to cross over and meet a bus on the other side, which was included in the price, to Phnom Penh. We sat down at the cafe where we were supposed to meet it, and waited... and waited.

After an hour and a half, a wrecked bus finally appeared, but when we went over to board it the driver told us he was hungry and he was going to be eating for the next hour. I suspected they were stalling to get us to spend more money in the cafe so I went out to price a taxi to the capital. It was $25 dollars, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my day hanging around there so I told the bus driver that either he left now or we got a taxi. He then said he had to check with his boss, who was, surprise, surprise, also the owner of the cafe!

So we took a taxi, and we were glad we did. The road varied from having a decent tarmac surface to being a dusty, potholed nightmare. Cambodia seems much poorer than most of South-East Asia, and some of the houses we passed were built from mud and sticks.

The taxi dropped us off in the backpacker district, which is truly a disgusting ghetto, with a dirt road extending down to guesthouses built over a filthy lake, and full of stoned backpackers. We were tired, however, and looked at a couple of rooms but they were too filthy to even think about spending the night in. One of the places had a sign on the bathroom saying "Do not piss on the floor", and outside the wasted staff tried harder to sell us drugs than a room. Luckily, after a short walk around the corner, we found a lovely, newly built place, the Phi Paris Hotel, and booked into a spotless room with satellite tv and a fridge.

Tomorrow, we have to catch the 0645 bus to Angkor Wat, the only bus of the day. We know we're going to be on it for at least 8 hours, we know it's going to be wrecked, and we know they're going to try to rip us off, so we're really looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, this site has some info about travelling in Cambodia.

March 26, 2004

Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat

The trip from Phnom Penh did turn out to be pretty bad, partly because we both came down with a touch of food poisoning shortly after I wrote that blog. We hardly had any sleep all night, spending the whole time lying there with stomach cramps, or on the verge of throwing up.

We were determined, nonetheless, to leave the next morning, and squeezed into an old, wrecked bus for the tortuous trip to Angkor Wat. Although it was pretty close on a couple of occasions, we miraculously managed to avoid throwing up on other passengers or filling our pants en route, until finally we rolled into Angkor in the late afternoon.

March 29, 2004

Switched

After thinking about it for a long time, today I finally took the jump and bought a very lovely Apple laptop. I'd had enough of using Windows, it's instability and problems, and swore I wouldn't get another pc, especially one running xp, so I'm now the very proud owner of a 15" Powerbook, with 802.11g, and built-in dvd burner. Carita's already feeling neglected!

March 31, 2004

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was definitely one of the highlights of this trip, and one that made the gruelling overland journey through Cambodia and Vietnam worthwhile. Almost as soon as we arrived we caught a tuk-tuk to the city of ruins to watch the sun setting over them. As it's by far Cambodia's greatest tourist attraction and a revered UNESCO site, entry costs a whopping $20US a day, but it's worth it. Angkor Wat is truly enormous, and can take days to tour if you want to see everything. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, the entire place was, amazingly, forgotten for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered and then written about in the 1860's in 'Le Tour de Monde' by Henri Mouhot. When you're first driving through the jungle and set eyes on it, you can't help but be impressed, and as the sun set, the stone turned a lovely golden red.

We retired to the nearby town of Siem Reap shortly after sunset as mosquitoes were beginning to appear, and we'd picked "avoiding being bitten and drinking lots of gin and tonic" as our malaria prophylactic of choice since we were only going to be in a malaria-risk zone for a couple of days.

The following morning, 'Mr Ted', the same tuk-tuk driver, was waiting for us outside our hotel, and off we buzzed in what was basically his motorcycle with a trailer, for a high quality day of sightseeing. One of the most surprising things was that there weren't the packs of tourists everywhere that we were expecting, especially at the smaller, more remote temples. After checking out a couple of lovely, peaceful wats we continued in the tuk-tuk to Ta Phrom, the jungle temple made famous in the Lara Croft film, Tomb Raider. Whereas most of the other temples have been partially restored, this has been left almost as it was when the first explorers found it, with trees and jungle growing through. It's only when you look at the enormity of some of the trees that grow through the stones that you begin to realise just how old the buildings are. We stopped off for lunch, then, suitably refreshed and with Carita looking less red and overheated, we looked once more at Angkor Wat, the main temple complex. It was the hottest part of the day and most of the tourists seemed to have sought sanctuary in their hotels as the place was totally deserted. We climbed around it, took lots of photographs, and soaked in the peaceful atmosphere of it's courtyards, and eerie darkness of it's inners. Next we continued onto Bayon, set in what was the centre of the ancient city. Looking exactly as you'd expect an ancient temple in the jungle to look, it has 54 incredible towers, each of which bear the huge smiling faces of Avalokitesvara on their sides. Finally we finished the day off with a punishing climb in the heat up to the top of Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop temple built in the 10th century and bombed by the USA in their hunt for communists during the Vietnam war.