We had a lovely day today with a relatively relaxed start to a very hot morning. I had a cooling body wash and we both had cereal with nice cold milk. The border exit and entry were no problem at all. On the Malaysian side we drove through the immigration section, stopping at a small booth to have our passports stamped and then we parked the car and went into the captain's office to have the exit stamp in our carnet. There was another diversion through an older customs section, where people had stopped to have their papers checked, but we just drove slowly through. On the Thailand side we queued to get entry forms (then discovered we could just have walked into the main building and got them there) and we had our passports stamped, by a civil, but not very friendly officer. Then we wandered across to a customs booth to have the carnet entry stamped. The lady knew what needed to happen and advised her senior officers, they did what she (and we) told them, smiled, said welcome and we were on our way...
We immediately sensed a different look and feel to the place. I can only describe it as somewhat less assuming. It was strange to see the Thai script, but thankfully most road signs have English written underneath. The houses each have a little shrine outside (normally a mini version of a temple standing about 1.5m from the ground). They have a variety of adornments including burning incense, candles and pots of flowers. There is more cattle alongside the road and it looks like many households own their own cow or bull, which is tethered to a tree or garden furniture in front of the house.
There are still loads of scooters and motorbikes, some with the addition of a frame and extra wheel to one side, to provide more carrying capacity and they are often used for food hawking. We haven't seen any of the famous three-wheeled tuk-tuks yet, but we have seen songthaews (small truck with two, sometimes three, rows of bench seats in the back, which ply regular routes between towns). There are lovely little Pagoda style bus shelters at regular intervals along all the roads and most towns make an effort to have neatly clipped shrubs and borders, as well as centre islands on the main roads leading into and out of the town.
As with Malaysia I think there are problems here with effluent too as every now and again we'll pass a section of road which is particularly stinky. Today we had the (dis)pleasure of being behind a pick-up loaded with some type of dead animal, we're not sure what, but it stank and we couldn't wait to overtake it!
We stopped at about 13h30 and I made a tuna fish salad for lunch which we wolfed down with Provita biscuits. It was nice to have something cool for lunch for a change, instead of chilli chicken. The road has been very scenic with a mixture of green open fields, rubber plantations, palm trees and limestone hills covered in thick forest. We drove past lots of signs for waterfalls (surprising many in the flat areas) and than we saw a sign for a wildlife breeding centre, so we decided to have a look see. We drove over bridge with a lovely clear stream running underneath and followed a tar road up through the forest to the entrance of the Phattalung Wildlife Breeding Research Centre. We wandered over to a little shaded lapa (shelter) where a bunch of workers were sitting. Sadly, they didn't speak any English and the only Thai we have mastered so far is sawaat-dii (hello) and khawp-khun (thank-you), however, with sign language we asked if we could look and around and they said yes.
What a surprisingly little place. The enclosures were all remarkably clean, with foliage and shade and the birds and animals generally looked in good condition. We saw some amazing birds including a variety of spectacularly coloured pheasants and a small peacock-type bird (most of the enclosures were named in Thai, English and the scientific names - but we've forgotten the majority of them).
Other birds included bulbuls, and some hill mynas which were incredibly noisy and full of song and speech! They spoke a number of Thai words and even said 'hello' - they were quite mesmerising. On the mammal side, there were barking deer, hog deer (which were very timid, even at feeding time) and some large antelope which reminded us of waterbuck and caribou. There were a number of different macaques, as well as some cute, furry white handed gibbons, sadly, one of which was looking very timid in the corner sucking his finger.
They also had lots of little small antelope cross rodent animals which had two fang-like teeth protruding from their mouths - they weren't 'marked' so we're not sure what they were. We also saw a single leopard cat, a small and large civet and two porcupines. We spent a very pleasant time wandering around and left a donation in their suggestion box.
We drove down to the stream and went back along a sand road we'd seen from the main road. We found a nice little spot next to the road up above the stream. One car passed us and the local herder with his cattle, whom we offered a coke, but he declined. Michael tried out our new Thai words on him, but he didn't understand a thing. He just smiled at us and went on his way. One car of friendly locals drove past a little later and after that we didn't see a soul.
We had a slow start to the morning. We drove through Trang and a number of other towns which were all busy with people doing their daily activities, from food hawking and motorbike sales to sweeping and pig transportation. We soon discovered the scenery became more spectacular with huge limestone outcrops standing proud above the palm plantations. We decided to drive along some of the smaller unmarked roads in search of a quiet idyllic beach to laze at. We soon found ourselves on a dirt track in a rubber plantation so did one of our few U-turns for the day.
Further along we saw people drying the rubber in sheets outside their house...
We tried another road a bit further north which was tarred and heading west. There were some magnificent limestone karsts alongside the road. They were carved into some amazing shapes and stalactites hung down menacingly, threatening to drop to the ground below. Patches of mountain were draped in a veil of green creepers, which gave it a lush tropical look. It really was fantastic to look at! We came across an intersection that looked a little more promising as it lead to the royal palace. As a result all the villages are very well maintained and we thought the beaches may receive the same loving care. Unfortunately, the road became quite major and there were some big signs to beaches and one to a big hotel chain resort, so we decided this wasn't what we were after.
Another U-turn and along a road which threatened a dead end, but we went to investigate anyway. The well maintained tarred and painted road came to an abrupt halt in the middle of nowhere, so we did a 6-point turn and then we met a Dutch man called Duke, who had a timber stilt house backing onto the mangrove swamps. We chatted to him for a while (he was very entertaining and knew a lot about local politics etc.). We asked him where we could find a nice quiet beach to relax for a while and he told us about a place called Coconut Home (which he said would be nicer than the other place we were heading for south of Laem Sak). He gave us directions and off we went. The road we went down was under repair and we could cross the rickety bridge suitable only for bikes, so once again we did a U-turn and decided to just wind our way through the villages and head west toward the ocean. We drove past more limestone karsts surrounded by fields of pineapples...
Eventually we stumbled upon the entrance to Coconut Home and drove down to find a lovely little place with grassy beach frontage, a number of little bungalows on stilts and a small restaurant. The place was very quiet and we only saw two other tourists. We asked if we could camp (the English/Thai conversation wasn't great) and managed to agree to B200 (Baht) per night and use of the toilet and showers. There were no bungalows available and we found out later that they are busy renovating the place, which is why it was so quiet. We parked Nyathi on a concrete platform about 50m from the beach. We took out the chairs and table and settled in. I saw two back packers arrive and walk off, north, into the forest so I decided I'd take a walk along the beach to investigate what else was about. There is only one other set of bungalows further up the beach, which is apparently managed by a German guy. I wandered back taking photos of the beautiful beach, calm (almost flat) sea and the rocky islands jutting out from the ocean in the distance. We would have struggled to find a nicer place.
We met Leslie, who manages the place on behalf of the owners and has done a tremendous amount of travelling all over the world, and Richard who comes from Singapore, and is helping the owners, who are his friends. They both speak excellent English and Leslie has just had team here build the beach bar in time for Christmas. He was telling us the place lay dormant for years and they have only recently opened it up for business, refurbishing the bungalows, neatening up the grounds and providing meals. They have done a good job and they deserve to succeed. We spent some time lazing in our hammocks with the cool sea breeze wafting over us.
In the evening we went for dinner and had a delicious dinner of sweet and sour chicken and a spicy cashew chicken with rice, washed down with a few beers. A couple from Stuttgart, Oliver and Angelika, joined us and we spent a lovely evening chatting to them.
I went for a run along the beach first thing this morning followed by a lovely cooling swim in the sea. You can only swim here when the tide is in, because the slope is very gentle and at low tide the sea recedes way into the distance revealing a muddy bottom and all the fishing people come to collect their spoils from their fishing nets. They catch crabs, prawns and a variety of fish and we watch them walking back to shore and then driving off on their motorbikes and scooters, generally with a passenger on the back balancing their heavy (and probably rather smelly) load.
We both spent the rest of the day relaxing. I did girlie things like painting my toe nails, cutting my finger nails etc.. I tidied Nyathi a little and we sat and watched the sea creeping slowly back to shore. Oli and An came across to see the vehicle and had 'tour'. They spent quite a while looking at our photos. Oli has always been very keen on visiting South America, and in particular Bolivia, so we did our best to whet his appetite.
The people who work here at Coconut Home slaved away the whole day preparing for the Christmas Eve party. The place was a hive of activity with extra drinks coming in on the back of motorbikes, frenetic cooking in the kitchen, decorations erected, the beach bar having the final touches added with beach sand poured on the ground, fairy lights, tables and chairs moved to the sea front etc. The turkey was put on the braai (bbq) in the afternoon and slowly cooked over a number of hours.
Michael didn't have such a good day as he cut his head open when he walked straight into the bathroom door lintel. It bled quite a lot and probably could have done with some stitches, but I used some stick-on sutures instead. I gave it a thorough clean with disinfectant. Shaved his head and tried to push the wound together and keep it closed with six sutures in a row, just 4mm apart. I stuck a bleeding wound plaster on the top for good measure and he took it easy for the afternoon as his head throbbed pretty badly.
In the evening Oli and An joined us for a glass of red wine before we joined the party. It was a lovely start to the evening.
The Christmas dinner spread was impressive. There was the traditional turkey and potatoes, but more more besides including grilled prawns and squid, a Malay curry (cooked by Richard, which was our favourite), rice, vegetables, bread and sweet pineapple and watermelon for dessert. The food was good, but a bit pricey at B500 per person! Nevertheless, we had a great evening, although there were only six tourists, and the rest of the people were local family and friends. Michael and I were given a table right on the beach front softly lit by two candles and we invited Oli and An to join us as they were on a small table further back. We were serenaded by two local guys (Khang and Sean) who played the guitar and sang a mixture of English and Thai songs (with Sean giving some rather amusing translations). Then Michael played a couple of songs and the children gathered around too - it was a very pleasant evening, but by the end of it we were pretty exhausted.
The four of us decided we'd like to go island hopping tomorrow for Christmas Day, so Michael spoke to Leslie and he organised a boat to come and collect us at 09h00 in the morning.
Unfortunately we didn't sleep too well as it was almost full moon I think the local fishing folk took the opportunity to retrieve their catches in the early hours of the morning (or maybe they just came down to the beach for a walk), either way there was some motorbike traffic which woke us up every now and again. Still, when you wake up to such a spectacular view, everything else pales...
Our long boat, skippered by Leo, arrived shortly after 09h00. We clambered in and the staff brought along our lunch, water, life jackets etc. The kids were keen to come too! By 09h15 we were making our way across the sea towards the islands.
It was glorious - the wind our faces, the odd splash of sea spray, just what we needed to feel refreshed. Leo took us to a small island where, a golden sand bar jutted out into the sea and on the other side of the channel was another larger island. I went snorkelling along with Oli and An, but Michael decided it was best not to get his cut wet, especially as it was still bleeding. The water wasn't the clearest and there were stinging plankton in the water which wasn't so nice (but not painful enough to make me get out). I saw one yellow and black striped angel fish, some long, skinny fish with pointed snouts, what I call mud suckers, prawns and a few larger schools of fish too.
For the first hour we were the only 'inhabitants'. Then one or two more boats arrived, but it wasn't over crowded and we were lucky to have secured the best shady spot available. A couple from the first set of new comers were from Castle Marina in Nottingham - what a small world!
Michael and I wandered over to the end of the spit of sand and considered swimming across to the other island, but we waded in up to our hips and could feel the current was pretty strong, so we decided against it. We spent the next few hours reading, soaking up the sun and then we had a delicious lunch of rice, fried chicken, sweet chilli fish and vegetables, followed by watermelon and bananas! Then we packed up, got back into the boat and Leo took us to some rocks in the middle of the ocean, where Oli and I did the best snorkelling of the day.
There was some superb coloured coral and the variety of fish was good, although nothing particularly big. The current around the far side of the rock was quite strong and it was hard work swimming back around to the boat, especially without fins. Meanwhile, Michael and An took pictures of colourful rock crabs.
Our next stop was at paradise island. Unfortunately the tide was already on its way out so we couldn't snorkel, so instead we went for a walk along the Nature Tail (sic) through the jungle forest. We heard some lovely bird calls, saw some beautiful butterflies and scared a large monitor lizard off into the undergrowth. I'm not sure who got a bigger fright, him, or us? There were quite a lot of boats anchored just off shore, to avoid the coral - it looked like the Krabi fleet...
On the walk back along the bay we met an English family who had hired a catamaran and were sailing around the islands for a few weeks - what an innovative way to see the place! Our next stop was the island with all the swallows which are famous for their nests which make the SE Asian delicacy of bird's nest soup. Apparently the best quality nests sell for between B50 - 70,000 per kg ($1,800). It was all academic though, as our skipper Leo couldn't (or we suspect wouldn't) understand where we wanted to go, so at 17h00 we went back to the boat pier at Kayak Krabi, where we were collected and driven back to Coconut Home. We had a wonderful Christmas Day and rounded it off with a warm shower in Oli and An's bungalow.
We phoned friends and family to wish them Merry Christmas and then Michael said he wanted to collapse into bed as his head was throbbing and still bleeding a bit (good thing he didn't snorkel). We watched the sun dip below the horizon and the fishermen bringing in the last of their catch. Michael said he would like to have a relaxing day tomorrow (Boxing Day) and that we should head for Phuket on the 27th. So I went and got a delicious dinner which Michael and I ate at Nyathi and then we watched Helen of Troy and fell into bed, a little sunburnt and in need of the cooling fan!
Today started off like many others... I went for a run along the beach, had a swim in the sea and floated gently on the water with the sun beating down. Then I had a cold shower and came back to Nyathi to find Michael with the laptop on the camping table just next to the vehicle, but then things changed...
I was surprised to look out across the sea and see a long line of a wave coming in to shore. The sea here is always remarkably calm, so it seemed strange when I looked at the beach to see waves crashing on the shore. I commented to Michael that I'd seen a wave out in the distance and walked toward the beach where I saw the sea was incredibly choppy, a bit like water sloshing back and forth in a bath. Then I noticed the staff standing on the beach and I shouted to Michael to come and have a look, because this was really strange. He came across, armed with the camera and we were amazed to see the waves rolling in. Not particularly big breakers, but long, solid waves coursing across the bay. Some of the staff were still standing with children on their hips when one swell reached right up to the grass line. Then people began to look seriously worried and said they had never seen anything like this before.
Michael was taking photos and the small keel boat further along the beach which normally stands way above the tide line was being pushed back into the trees by the waves.
I wandered if it was volcanic activity because we'd seen a tremendous amount of air rising from the sand off the beaches we'd visited yesterday. Michael said perhaps a large chunk of island somewhere had broken away and fallen into the sea creating a kind of bow wave (much like the huge chunks of ice which fell off Perito Moreno Glacier).
The sea seemed to die down a little and I could see that my usual pole markers between which I swim hadn't in fact been washed away, but had been fully submerged. The waves began to crash on the shore again and before we knew it the sea had swollen to such an extent that it came right up the beach and onto the grass, stopping just before the beach bar, but again it subsided. We took a few more photos as the water was subsiding and were commenting that we were glad the beach bar was still OK. Then yet another swell came, this time, much more forceful and reaching up to my thighs and pushing forward across the ground.
I shouted to Michael (who was further in land than me) to rescue the laptop and I ran as fast as I could, with the wave pushing in behind me toward the restaurant. There were bits of debris knocking into the back of my legs. Michael thrust the camera into my hands and told me to get to higher ground and he ran toward the vehicle to start moving Nyathi - that was when the adrenalin started pumping. As I was pushing through the water to get to one of the bungalows on stilts further back I lost my flip flops and the camera case and all the while bits of palm tree, grass and all sorts of muck was swirling about in the water around me.
Then it started to subside and I took some video footage, which was quickly abandoned when I could hear some chicks in distress and tried to find them (two hens were 'swimming' about in the water) but I couldn't see the babies. So I ran toward Michael, barefoot and feeling all sort of yucky stuff under my feet. He had untied the hammocks, got the computer inside and was ready to move Nyathi. The water had begun to rush back into the sea leaving fish flapping about in the grass and crabs scurrying about the place.
One of the local people brought back our cool box which had been washed away. Michael rescued one of our chairs out of the water and we began to manoeuvre the vehicle. It wasn't looking so bad anymore, but we decided better to be safe than sorry and we wanted to get Nyathi on the road facing in a 'quick escape' direction, so if another wave came, we could safely evacuate. Michael had to drive out 'blind' as the ground further back was still submerged in water and he could not see any obstacles. With a bit of sliding in the mud on the last stretch before the campsite road he made it out, but I fear we have left some deep tracks across their lawn! I collected the table from the concrete platform where Nyathi had been parked and sloshed through the campsite up to the road. I also took down our washing line of clothes, some on which had got rather wet! Here you can see Nyathi in the distance in among the trees...
Oli and An walked across to us. They had a small backpack of all their essentials which we locked in Nyathi and we pulled the back seat down for them to sit on if we needed to leave in a hurry. Then we walked back to the restaurant area to see what we could do to help the staff. It was then that I spotted our picnic blanket lying in amongst the debris and one of my running shoes which I had put out on the concrete to air. We looked about for my other shoe, but no luck. Michael lost both the flip flops he was wearing, as well as his strops (sandals), so he had no shoes at all.
It was incredible to see that although all the staff and locals were panicked and scared they weren't doing much to clear stuff out of harms way. (The children had thankfully all been taken to safety after the first of the bigger waves hit). They said there was nothing we could do, but when we asked about news of surrounding villages they told us the pier at Krabi Kayak (where we had been dropped off yesterday) had been destroyed and that two tourists were missing and a little boy had been washed away. We decided to drive there to see if there was anything we could do to help. We parked up and offered to help by using our winch and asked if anyone needed medical attention (there were only a few people with very minor cuts and scrapes). The pier had been badly broken up and the majority of boats destroyed (including the one we went in yesterday - who would have thought it would be her last voyage).
Nobody was particularly interested in our offer of help and then someone told us they were all leaving as they had heard another wave was expected in 40 minutes. So we jumped back into Nyathi and went back to Coconut Home to tell them what we'd heard. At this stage someone had told us there were 1,000 people dead in Phuket, but then we heard around 50 from Leslie, so we decided not to believe anything, as rumours are always rife in this kind of situation. The frustrating thing was that the only news we had was via radio (which none of us could understand) so we were reliant on the few English speaking Thais for info.
It was also only then that it dawned on me that I had felt the earthquake this morning at about 08h00! I was lying in bed in Nyathi and Michael had just got out of bed and was wandering about outside. It felt like he was rocking the vehicle. I asked him if he was touching the vehicle and he said he was just tying up the washing line, but I felt the movement again and when I looked, I could only see the hammocks moving ever so slightly, yet I could feel small shifts of motion, or shuddering through Nyathi. I thought it was strange, but then I got up and forgot all about it. It turns out the others had seen the lights in the bungalows swaying in the morning and had put it down to a number of more plausible scenarios other than an earthquake (like someone working outside etc.).
Oli and An went and packed up the rest of their things and the two other German tourists, Christian and Julia, also came back to Nyathi with their suitcases in hand. Oli packed all the luggage on Nyathi's roof and lashed it down. We parked Nyathi near the restaurant, facing the exit, so we were ready to leave in a hurry if we needed to. Then both Christian and Leslie had international calls on their mobile phones to say the news had hit Europe, so we got out the satellite phone to call home. There was already a message on the phone from The Leas saying they had heard about the earthquake and tidal wave and for us to please contact them to let them know if we were OK. Later on when we saw the television footage we could understand how worried my family must have been. When we called Michael's mum, she hadn't seen the news yet, so that was OK. I called my family back a number of times, mostly to get reliable news and to ask them to contact people we hadn't managed to get hold of.
We were all hungry and the staff told us we could still have lunch cooked. We told them not to be ridiculous as the kitchen was still flooded, but they insisted. As Michael said, they could probably do with the income now more than ever and I think they were reluctant to do too much clearing in case another wave hit. Nevertheless, the six tourists all got hold of brooms and started sweeping all the water out of the kitchen. A few of the staff helped out, while others starting cooking lunch! It was quite a sight to see us all in ankle-deep water wielding brooms. The kitchen looked much better when we were finished and we all had a welcome beer and lunch as reward!
We all sat around the table debating the likelihood of another wave. We felt if it did come, it would be smaller than the previous one, so it would be OK. Then the news of the incidents related to the quake began to come through, which were quite shocking, but we still weren't sure quite how reliable the information was.
We moved Nyathi back onto the concrete slab, but left everything packed inside for a fast getaway, if required. We agreed to hoot our horn if we saw a wave and the staff kept a watch throughout the night to give early warning if required.
When I made the final call to Karen at 22h30, the statistics reported on television and the internet were:
Deaths: SE Asia - 6300, Sri Lanka - 2,500 and India 1,600.
It was surreal speaking to her via satellite phone to get information on what was happening around us. All I can say is that we were extremely fortunate to experience the tidal wave in such a protected bay, without any immediate human harm (and for our hosts, little permanent property damage). Our thoughts go out to all those people in other areas who have suffered as a result of the earthquake.
Michael's head was still sore so we decided to lay low for the day and leave tomorrow. It was sad to look out across the bay and see debris of all sorts floating on the water, including a capsized boat. We scanned with binoculars to see if we could see any people, but we couldn't see anyone. The staff at Coconut Home started clearing up all the debris and Leslie supervised the repair of the bar.
I spent most of the day writing diary and cleaning up Nyathi and the things that had been washed away and retrieved from the tidal wave. Which reminds me - An found both of Michael's strops as well as my second trainer (I'd found the other one yesterday in a different spot at least 100m away). So our only material loss was flip flops.
In the late afternoon we discovered that the hospitals needed blood so we agreed that tomorrow we would drive the 30km down to Krabi to donate blood and volunteer our services. In the evening we had dinner with Oli, An, Christian and Julia. It was very pleasant, but we interrupted it to watch a televisions programme which was being broadcast in English! Only then did we become aware quite how disorganised the rescue efforts were. We had heard that the Thai government had turned down the assistance offered by Japan, but it certainly looked like they needed it!
We got up and packed up camp. Oli and An came over to ask if they could come along with us to Krabi to give blood. We had a quick breakfast, paid for our bill and took a quick photo of everyone before we said our goodbyes. Michael gave Leslie a CD with all the photos that Christian, Oli and we had taken of the tidal wave and its effects. It was sad to be saying goodbye to all the staff as they were very friendly and helpful making our stay and Christmas particularly special - thank you!
The four of us set off for the Krabi hospital. It appeared to be organised chaos when we got there. We went along to give blood, but when she took out the testing 'pricker' the needle was already in place. I told her I wanted to see the needle come from a sterile package, so she popped it back in the draw and took out another one (which wasn't sealed). I told her I'd go back to the vehicle and bring my own needles, but then she told us that they had been told they no longer needed blood and showed us the fridge looking rather full!
There were loads of tourist volunteers with the names and the languages they speak pinned on A4 pages to their chests. In fact, there were so many of them Michael and I decided to find out if there was another area that was more in need. We were introduced to Eddy from GSEI (Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute). He spoke impeccable English and was really helpful. He told us that he thought the real area of need was north of Phuket in the Khao Lak area. Apparently there were still lots of bodies trapped there and he said if we were up to it, it would be helpful to search for survivors and to locate the dead. He made an announcement over the intercom to ask if anyone else was prepared to join us. Three others came forward - Martin (from Sweden) and Harry and Sunit (from Holland and Thailand). I went off with Eddy to get a more detailed map while the men went off to get supplies. Michael bought a whole load of gloves, but Martin and Harry (armed with volunteer 'badges') managed to get loads of rope, axes, a pick and wellies donated from the local stores! We cut the ropes into manageable sizes and loaded everything onto the top of Nyathi and Michael lashed it down, along with lots of bottled water (this was going to be thirsty work). We all wolfed down a donation lunch of rice and meat and hit the road.
It was a bit squashed for the three in the back and it took us about three hours to get to the Khao Lak area. When we stopped at the 'emergency centre' they could give us absolutely no direction, so we decided to set about it ourselves as a team, along with Adam and Chan (from Ireland and Thailand) who had also arrived to volunteer in whatever way they could. We drove along the road until we came to Khao Lak Paradise Resort and saw there was a road leading toward the beach, (though blocked by debris). We drove Nyathi down with all the kit and set to work using the last of the light and then into the night with our torches.
The destruction was far greater than we had anticipated and the smell was particularly bad in some places. We tried to apply some method by splitting into two teams and worked through each of the bungalows searching for survivors. We knew the chances were slim, but we tried anyway. Many of the bathrooms were sealed, so we smashed the windows to gain entry from the outside. Sadly we found nobody, but we did see a number of dead bodies exposed, but trapped in debris that was too dangerous for us to get to at night. The resort dog, which sadly had a dislocated leg, followed us around frantically and when Chan fed it some leftover lunch food, it scoffed it up ravenously. At about 21h00 we decided to call it a night. The roofs of the bungalows were very unstable (many completely washed off) and with all the broken glass and other hazards such as furniture dangling from the roof struts, we thought it best to return in the morning at first light. We located a number of identification documents which we took up to the hotel reception. We had a meeting for an hour and tried to formulate a plan for the morning along with what further equipment we would need. We agreed the priorities were (1) to clear the road down to the bungalows to provide easier access for hauling bodies out, (2) get a detailed plan of the resort from the manager, (3) to locate the bodies in each bungalow and mark the bungalow with the number of dead and (4) to look for identification documents.
Then we drove back to the emergency centre where they told us rescue teams would be coming first thing in the morning. We washed ourselves with the hose behind the centre and they gave us bread, croissants and rice meals, as well as drinks so we sat down on a patch of grass and had something to eat.
Chan managed to find a place for us to stay for the night. We went along to the Khao Lak Nature Resort where they kindly gave us a bungalow for the night with a shower! They also gave us hot food and drinks. The donation of food and supplies has been very generous. The pile of donated goods outside the emergency centre was impressive and it grew and grew.
Michael and I slept in Nyathi, parked nearby the bungalow and the others settled down (cosily) in the bungalow.
We were up at first light after a broken night's sleep. We had a little to eat, though none of us felt particularly hungry. Michael and I feel intensely frustrated that we didn't come here on the day after the tsunami as perhaps we would have had more chance of finding survivors and getting a bit more organised.
We drove down to the emergency centre to see if the rescue crews were there and we were told they were about 2km further along the coast. We decided it would be a good idea to try and find them to see what methods they were applying and see if we could work with them. What a waste of time - they had no clear leadership and we decided we were better off going back to the resorts we'd searched last night and trying to stick to our original plan. I have to say though, that they had already progressed quite a lot with repairing electricity lines and clearing the debris off the main road which had been completely blocked!
When we arrived back at the resorts there were already some body recovery teams, but they hadn't cleared the road to get further down so we got some of the resort staff (who were all very friendly, but lounging around in the hotel foyer doing nothing) to go down with Harry who worked with them to the clear all the debris to make it easier to bring the bodies up. It was incredibly useful to have Chan and Sunit with us as translators and they did a sterling job of roping in assistance from a fairly apathetic bunch of locals. I parked Nyathi at the entrance of the hotel near the main road and we stuck up the large banners in English and Thai on the side of the vehicle appealing for volunteers to come forward and help!
Meanwhile, Michael, Martin, Adam and Chan had started looking for documents to keep with bodies when they were wrapped up and carried away. All in all it was a particularly gruesome task. Just looking through the debris and being near the bodies, smelling the stench was bad enough, but Michael, and I think some of the other guys actually helped the recovery teams to wrap up the bodies. It was unbelievable how discoloured and swollen the bodies were, almost unrecognisable. It was very frustrating to see that not much was done to try and mark the bodies as coming from a specific bungalow to help with identification, but then the manager hadn't arrived with the resort plans either, so that made it a bit complicated. I suggested they mark the body and then mark the bungalow with the same mark, so at least when they got copies of the plans they could try and reconcile things and narrow the search a little, but trying to explain that to the teams was impossible. So, we just did what we could, which at the end of the day didn't feel nearly as much as we would have liked.
Martin had a text message from his parents and wife to say that all Swedes were being evacuated from Phuket airport at 17h00 so he had to leave, Harry also said he'd done as much as he could and couldn't stomach much more , so he and Sunit were going to leave too. I went back up to Nyathi with them so they could collect their things and drove them back to the emergency centre to catch a bus back to Phuket.
When I got back down to the resort Michael told me that he had seen quite a lot of pilfering going on. When he was looking for identification documents, some local people, were blatantly removing the cash from wallets and taking any beers and drinks they found. He said that he had been in the top floors of some of the bungalows where bodies were found and there were still camera bags etc. It'll only be a while before the looting is on a more major scale... It is so depressing, but I suppose the money is being fed back into the local community, still, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth and it's unlikely the most deserving people will benefit from it.
We carried on for a while finding more passports etc. It was incredibly hot and past lunchtime, when we decided to call it a day. The rescue teams were leaving (perhaps their brief was only to clear the most accessible bodies), and we didn't feel comfortable digging deep in the rubble for bodies. So, we went back to the top and sat in the foyer of the hotel and made a list of the passports we had found. We will email it to the embassies and let them know we handed them in to the police at the Khao Lak emergency centre. It was really hard seeing the pictures of the people - it made it more human. Sadly, Michael found some unopened Christmas presents from a Swedish family along with some identification and contact details, so we will try and contact the family to return the gifts. We said our goodbyes to Adam and Chan who were going to offload some of the gear at the emergency centre. Just afterwards a group of tourists stopped to say they wanted to volunteer in some way and had clothes and donations to make (they had seen our signs on Nyathi). We told them where to leave the donations, but they were dressed in flip flops and shorts, which wasn't suitable for walking through the rubble. They had come from Phuket, as they had also been asked to come up to Khao Lak where the need for volunteers was greatest, but there was simply no co-ordination to use the resource effectively and with the language barrier it was even more difficult.
Michael and I stopped by the emergency centre and dropped off all the equipment we'd been using along with clothes and blankets. What brought a little light to our day was reading through the survivors list and recognising some of the names from the passports we had found. We went back to the Khao Lak Nature Resort to ask if we could have a shower and once again, they were lovely, even offering us lunch, though neither of us felt like eating. We both had really long, cold invigorating showers, which made us feel much better and then we hit the road, north...
That was a mistake! The two lane road become log jammed with three lanes of traffic heading north and just one south (half on the verge) and eventually with everyone trying to push in and create new lanes, it came to a complete halt. It was 37°C and we sat for about an hour moving about 300m. It took us about 2 hours to drive 25kms.
Still, the people were all friendly, getting out of their cars to talk to one another and offered donated food and water to hot and hungry drivers and passengers (which, by then, we accepted). The snarl up ahead was further complicated by what we then discovered was a visiting dignitary coming in by helicopter, which added to the congestion. Uncharitably, I think the reason they had made such an effort in clearing that particular area and stretch of road (the same section we'd seen earlier in the day) was because they had an important official arriving.
Eventually, the police got themselves sorted and started forcing people to keep to two lanes in each direction (even though the road is only meant for one each way). We got moving and it was so good, particularly as further up the road they had about a hundred wrapped bodies lying in the sun which were creating an awful stench.
We kept our masks on the whole time and I surveyed the scene through the viewing hatch as we moved slowly forward.
It was unbelievable. Cars in trees, inside shops, entire buildings wash away on the far side of the road from the beach (over 1km inland), an overturned bus in a lake. Though proof of strong construction shows this Landie stood the test better than others...
Telephone and electricity poles and cables lying all over the place (although they were working hard at erecting new poles and we watched some workers pulling up new lines), loads of people wandering about with mask covered faces, emergency teams and vehicles standing randomly about.
Inefficiently - trucks and buses going in one direction with food, water, clothing and supplies and then others going in the opposite direction!
A huge truck full of wrapped bodies with what looked like people (doctors/morticians?) in scrubs hanging on the truck top and sides trundled by, prefaced by a smell that warned us something bad was coming.
When we drove into Takua Pa, we could smell the temple before we got there. The coffins were piled higher than the perimeter wall and we saw massive trucks turning in with more coffins. Never before have we witnessed such devastation and death and I can cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be for those looking for missing loved ones, or coming to identify bodies. I am so thankful for our health and lives.
We began to head inland into more forested area and away from the scenes of destruction. We found a nice petrol garage with space to park for the night. We had a cooling ice lolly and then I wrote the journal while Michael played on the laptop upstairs. One of the local land owners, Anan, came over in his car and offered for us to stay at his place and use his toilets and shower. I thanked him and said we'd love to take him up on his offer in the morning! We really wanted to be on our own for the evening to veg out and watch a movie, clear our minds and head to bed, which is just what we did.
We both slept well last night and were awake at just after 07h00. We went along to Anan's place and had a cool shower and freshened up, which was most welcome. He is busy completing construction on a little eco resort, so we were the first tourists to use his facilities!
We did a driving day today. The first 100km were still parallel to the west coast, but slightly inland, so we saw some signs of tidal wave devastation, but not much. Just south of Ranong we headed east along a a lovely winding, hilly route with plush vegetation and palm plantations. We stopped off at some waterfalls which gave a relaxing leg stretch. It was more of a cascade than a waterfall, about 60m high and beautifully falling down grey granite into two splash pools (the one higher up a lot more turbulent than the one at the bottom). The homesteads en route were drying coffee beans which had a pleasant aroma when we drove past.
We stopped in Chumpon for lunch. The waitress and restaurant owner only knew how to say 'Hello' in English so it made food choosing a bit more complicated. It all looked a little weird and nothing recognisable as chicken so we eventually settled for fish curry which was tasty, if a little too spicy for me. Afterwards, even with my phrase book in hand, asking where the toilets were was entertaining. I got the 'where is' bit right, but not toilets (suam). She through I was asking which town so she wrote something in Thai script and I recognised she said the town name. So I resorted to saying suam in as many different ways as I thought possible and eventually she recognised the word and we both packed up laughing!
When I was doing my afternoon shift I saw at least eight aid convoys (one with 31 big trucks) as well as an assortment of trucks filled to the brim with coffins, heading south. Eventually the sight became part of the landscape. I also saw about half a dozen Tesco lorries, which were no doubt filled with food for the injured, homeless and volunteers. The number of companies and enterprises which have given support has been tremendous. Just some of the ones I recognised were Nestle water (and a whole lot of other local bottled waters), Coca Cola (including trucks to transport coffins), Tesco (we had some of their delicious croissants), numerous food companies, airlines (free flights and catering boxes) , hotels and guesthouses (accommodation), bus companies, local stores and so the list goes on...
One very entertaining thing we saw today was a macaque (monkey) riding on the back of his owners motorbike. It was comical to see his fur blowing about in the breeze and he was not the least bit phased. We suspect he is one of the ones trained to climb coconut palms to break off the coconuts and drop them to his owner below. Apparently they can pick as many as 1,000 a day!
In the evening we found a quiet campsite in amongst the bush about 200m from the road. We think it is part of an Agro Tourism initiative. A few people have gone past us and simply waved hello, so we should be good here for the night. I think another movie will be in order and hopefully, a good night's rest before heading into big, bad Bangkok tomorrow...
We had a goodnight's sleep broken momentarily when we could hear a wild dog scavenging outside. When I got out the cab in the morning, a very scruffy looking dog ran away as soon as he saw me. We followed him and fed him a left-over croissant and some milk. I had cereal for breakfast, we had a refreshing wash, brushed out the cab and headed for Bangkok.
As with any big city, it's sprawling outer edges start miles and miles before you get there. We saw some rather sad looking crop fields and lots of shanty houses build from scraps of corrugated iron and wood, many of them looking precariously balanced on stilts. Still, it was not as dirty and smoggy as we had anticipated. We took (inadvertently) the motorway for a short section around the city and then the off ramp we needed to take was closed, so we found ourselves backtracking a fair distance. The traffic was busy, but not too bad (I think our timing was fortuitous - we'll see how it is when Monday comes...) We made our way to the Tourist Authority offices, where the ladies were friendly, but not particularly helpful. I really had to coax the information out of them and was surprised at how poor their command of English was.
Whilst Michael was driving in a holding pattern in the area, he found a hotel which looked like it had suitable parking. They charged B450 for a deluxe room with air conditioning, so we decided (after driving briefly and slightly stressfully through the more touristy areas near Ram Butri and Khaosan Roads) to stay for the night and suss out other options on foot tomorrow. The room was old, but clean, with a hot shower and good air conditioning. When we first opened the door it had that overpoweringly spicy sweet air deodoriser smell to it, but that faded after a while with the windows open. We brought some clothing up from Nyathi and Michael spent some time trying to synchronise the computers so I could use the laptop in the room for diary writing, but he had no success. While I was waiting I met Peter, an expat who has lived in SE Asia for 30 years. His girlfriend, Ni, works at the hotel and together they gave us some good advice on where to go for the evening to see in the New Year.
To start with, we went for dinner at a little restaurant across the road called The Lamp. We were a little taken aback to see it decorated with swastikas, alongside the profusion of lamps of all sorts from the antique to the tacky - a 3D framed elk picture back illuminated and featuring twinkling stars to lights with seven different colour changes. The food was mediocre and the service a little strange as the owner stood by and watched us eat - perhaps it because we were very early and the only diners.
We had some reaction to the photograph featured below and we thought we would clarify that we in no way support what the Nazi symbols represent. We included the photo because we thought it was so bizarre and we were surprised that the restaurant had them as part of the decor. If it offends, we apologise.
Technically, Thailand was on the side of the Axis during the war, and consequently there would have been quite a lot of German and Japanese paraphernalia in the country. However, Thailand's participation was reluctant, (in fact there was a significant Resistance movement), and it seems likely that the majority of the people were ignorant of the wider issues of the war, especially those regarding far-off Germany. We suspect the restaurant owner has no idea of the depth of feeling surrounding Nazi "memorabilia".
Then we caught a tuk-tuk down to Ram Butri Village a narrow semi-pedestrianised lane where we had squeezed through with Nyathi earlier in the day, leaving only inches to spare on either side. It was great to wonder about and took our minds of the images of the previous days. We checked emails and sent responses to our friends who had been worried about us. We also got the very exciting (and surprising) news that our friends (Trevor and Sonya) in Australia are having a baby next April! At about 19h00 we came back to the hotel to have a sleep to help keep us going later on.
We headed out at just after 23h00. Khaosan Road was absolutely heaving. Although the city had cancelled the big New Year events in sympathy with the dead and mourning, the city was still alive with people and activity. We wandered up and down the street and then went into a 7-11 to buy some drinks. We stood at the edge of the road, slightly out of the way and watched all the people drinking, laughing and hooting when it hit midnight. I was amazed at how relaxed everyone was and I didn't feel remotely threatened despite the thousands of people jostling past. We stood next to a street seller with silly string and he cleverly kept starting wars with people, who then purchased more cans from him! The mix of people was incredible, we heard at least seven different western languages and saw Chinese, Korean, people from the hill tribes, punks, lady boys (who were often incredibly beautiful). The only 'problem' we saw the whole night was a tall blonde guy who stripped naked, but the police were there within seconds sorting him out!
We ended up talking to an Australian couple, Kevin and Brooke who have also travelled extensively and worked for an overland company as driver and tour leader. They were so easy to talk to and we had so much in common. We went for a late dinner together and Kevin and Michael both put away more beers than they should have!
Still, they weren't as crazy as the guy we saw eating a local delicacy of fried locust. I was quite intrigued to see that quite a few of the locals dug in too, though no-one I saw went for the scorpions...
On the whole, we had a fantastic night and it was great to tie up with Kevin and Brooke. We swapped details and said we'd get together at about midday. We hopped on a tuk-tuk back home and crawled into bed at about 03h30.
Michael was ill in the early hours of the morning and felt really rough when I woke up just after 09h30. I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn't stop thinking about Khao Lak (I tend to sleep OK, but when I wake up in the morning my mind is flooded with all sorts of thoughts, like what would we have done if the wave had been bigger, I wonder how many of those dead bodies we found have been identified by families? etc.)
I got out of bed just after 10h00 and read up on Thailand and Laos. At 12h00 I called Kevin and Brooke's hotel. Kevin answered, sounding very worse for wear. Brooke was downstairs trying to phone us. I arranged with Kevin to meet Brooke at their hotel in about ten minutes, so we could go for a massage as she had also been up for ages and was keen to get out and about.
We spent and absolutely wonderful afternoon together. She and I got along so well, it felt like we had known each other for ages. We had a terrific lunch of Tom Ka Kai (spicy soup with lemongrass, coconut milk, chicken and mushroom) and swapped the horror stories of leading expeditions and what a nightmare it can be dealing with the passengers (most of whom behave like spoilt children). Then we wandered about looking at all the fabulous shops and stalls - all the time chatting about about so many different things. We looked at jewellery, beautiful fabric pillow cases, tried on lots of shoes (the favourites ones of which they did not have our size!), I bought some wrap around trousers and a lovely handbag from a seller in the grounds of a temple. We ended up having to go back to the massage parlour four times before we got our timing right and managed to have a Thai foot massage, with a little bit of work done on our legs, arms, hands, back neck and shoulders. It lasted an hour and cost only B150! Next time, I am going to have an hour just for my back, neck and shoulders! At about 18h30 we wandered back to Brooke's hotel, both feeling really pleased to have had a girl friend with whom to spend the afternoon. We found Kevin still looking a bit ropey, but keen to go out for a bit. We arranged for them to come to us at 20h00 and I zipped off on a tuk-tuk.
I got involved in reading the Bangkok Post in the hotel lobby and subsequently had to rush to get ready for 20h00 when Brooke and Kevin arrived. They spent a good while looking at Nyathi and then we caught a taxi to Khaosan Road area to find something to eat and have a wander. We decided to eat from the stalls and I had a delicious Phad Thai (noodles, vegetables, egg, spices, nuts and a sprinkling of sugar and chilli), but Michael couldn't stomach the smell of food and we agreed to meet him at an internet cafe.
We all caught up on emails and read about the tsunami disaster on the BBC website, where they had an excellent schematic of how the wave travelled. The toll is now at over 126,000 deaths for the region and tens of thousands still missing or unaccounted for (almost 3,000 of those in the Khao Lak area where we had been working). We walked Brooke and Kevin to their hotel and said our goodbyes (there are leaving for Cambodia at 05h30 tomorrow morning). We had such a great time with them we are really hoping to meet up on the road somewhere.
Michael was still not feeling his chirpiest and not being able to synchronize the computers did not make him any happier. Eventually he resorted to copying the relevant stuff for the website onto our camera card and will copy it all back when I am finished doing the diary and all the photos.
I wandered about the local area around our hotel looking for a laundry, but being Sunday, didn't have much luck. Apparently laundries with driers are few and far between and I ended up going with Peter and Ni to their apartment to use the machines in the basement. They have both been so kind and helpful and Ni arranged for us to be able to hang our washing on the roof of the hotel when I got back. She called a tuk-tuk for me and off I went (this time only paying the requisite B30). Michael and I went and hung all the washing out (I remembered to clean the line first). I took a few photos of the shrines in the neighbouring courtyards, as well as the one the staff at the hotel have on the roof near their living area. It is interesting to see how important it is to people and that they continually offer gifts of food and money.
Then we went out for the afternoon and early evening. I had Pad Thai but Michael still didn't want to eat anything. We really enjoy just watching events unfold around us and there is so much happening in the 'tourist' streets. We spent a while browsing through book stores and looking for some knee length trousers for Michael, but never found anything he really liked.
We caught a tuk-tuk home, again paying only B30 - knowing the numbers in Thai is the key, it seems.
We did the tourist thing to day and went to Wat Pho (Wat Phra Chetuphon). For B200 we hired the services of Mr Thang, a toothless, rather entertaining, if long-winded and almost comprehensible English- speaking guide. It was the right move. The temple grounds are enormous and rather maze like, filled with hundreds of visitors who pleasantly, never succeed in drowning the tranquility of the place. Although perhaps a little colourful and garish for our taste the chedis (stupas), temples and many other statues are remarkably beautiful with minute attention detail.
The wat is the biggest in Bangkok and houses more than 1000 images, although the thing that Wat Pho is probably most famous for is the 46m long reclining, gold plated Buddha.
The soles of its feet decorated with mother of pearl mosaics depicting the 108 signs of the Buddha. All around the Buddha are small enclaves where people can worship, light candles and place gold leaf on the smaller Buddha and other images.
Whilst walking down the front length of the gold Buddha we could hear small tin clanging noises and when we got past the Buddha's feet we saw a long row of tin bowls (108 in all) into which you can drop pennies. Our guide got us to drop one in the last pot, with the appropriate mai gesture (Thai form of greeting / show of respect with hands in a prayer-like position in front of the chest).
Our guide introduced us to a number of other traditions including spinning the ball carved out in the mouth of the protective lion for good luck and stroking the head of another Singha (lion - the biggest Thai brand beer is named after the lion).
he took us into the ubosoth (bot) and showed us the appropriate way to show our respects by flowing from the wai to touching the forehead down to the floor, three times. It was embarrassing to see the number of tourists who had absolutely no respect for the local culture, wandering around in skimpy tops, skirts and shorts.
We ended our meanderings (on our won) at the four grand memorial chedis, for the first four Rama Kings (traditionally the ashes of the kings, royalty and rich families are kept within the chedis and there are 95 chedis, varying in size and ornateness within the complex).
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and liked being in a 'working' temple with local people coming in to pray and a variety of classes being taught. We were impressed not only by the grandeur and complexity, but also the calmness brought about by the quiet corners, the water fountains and bonsai trees and of course, the monks in their orange robes.
We wandered back to the hotel alongside the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaeo and past the impressive Ministry of Defence building adorned in flowing fabric and fronted by a collection of cannons on lawns cut with military precision. Further along we passed small stall holders selling amulets and, rather out of place, condoms and small sex aids.
Lex (Michael's brother) called a little later, it was really nice to chat to him as it was the first time since the tsunami hit. At 18h00 we met Peter and Ni at a lovely restaurant opposite their apartment. It is set in grand 19th century house which backs onto a khlong (canal).
Peter refused to let us pay and treated us to a wonderful meal with crab curry, green chicken curry, grilled sweet chilli fish, cashew nut chicken and tom yam kung (hot and sour prawn soup spiced with chilli, lemon grass and coriander - among other things) and of course, rice.
We had a wonderful evening and they took us down to Khaosan Road to meet the visa contact so we could get our Laos visas done. Then Peter showed us the fab little internet cafe connected to the post office which has fast connections and smells of delicious coffee.
Our next stop was the nightlife of Patpong (an area in downtown Bangkok renowned for dancing girls etc.). There was a big night market with lots of fake brand name goods and all the same stuff you get at Khaosan Road, just more expensive. The bars and clubs appeared a lot tamer than we had envisaged. The first one we visited had a bunch of bored bikini clad ladies dancing on the bar and we were fleeced there for a beer and sprite at B80 each. We went to Queen's Castle where the drinks were B60, and it was more entertaining, but the ladies there also looked rather bored and we have definitely seen slicker shows in South Africa, Argentina and Holland!
We stopped off at a Haagen Dazs cafe for a quick ice cream and got home just after midnight.
I spent the morning doing diary writing and in the afternoon we sat with Peter who gave us loads of good advice about where to visit in Thailand. Unfortunately we don't have the time to see and do everything, but at least we have a better idea of what to choose from. Andrew phoned a bit later so it was great to chat to him and then we went out to Khaosan Road. I had phad thai from my favourite lady at the end of Ram Butri Road (past Hotel Vientiang), but Michael didn't feel peckish.
Michael changed money and went in search of filters for the camera while I bought a silver choker and some gorgeous pendants and earrings from a little jewellery shop called SW Silver (near the Sawasdee Inn). Sawath, the owner designs and makes the jewellery and he was so lovely to deal with. His prices were also terrific.
We had a great time wandering about and this is the first day since New Year when Michael has felt 100%. We went to the internet cafe at the post office and caught up on news, email etc. I had my dose of Phad Thai and then a little later a tasty banana and chocolate crepe with nuts for just B25. Then I left to come back to the hotel and Michael stayed for a few hours longer in the internet cafe and had some dinner before coming home.
I spent the majority of last night (until after 01h00) choosing all the photos to be put into the diary ready for uploading onto the website. This morning I spent ages resizing them and sat and copied and pasted them in. In the late afternoon we went for a walk to Khaosan Road and had some lunch. We enjoy walking as you get to see the little side alleys and khlongs (canals) and get a better perspective on how people live.
We bought Michael a pair of shorts and a pair of calf-length trousers (most of his shorts are now looking rather worse for wear with unique grease patterns and various other splodges and little holes from battery acid). We passed the Democracy Monument, which looked quite beautiful in the glow of the setting sun.
Then we went for a tasty dinner where we both had one of our favourites - me Tom Ka Kai and Michael cashew nut chicken, both with rice. It was great to sit and watch the world go by...
We spent quite a while in the internet cafe trying to upload the website, but had no success (their connection was SO slow). Eventually we gave up just before midnight ( when the cafe was about to close anyway). We got an ice cream and wandered home. So, we won't be able to leave tomorrow and we'll give the uploading another try! When we got back to the hotel we found the Siamese cats wandering around on our floor. They were very friendly and meaowed to us and came over for a stroke. I ran back down to Nyathi to get some cat food to feed them and they thought it was Christmas...
In the morning I sat down with Peter , along with the map he had kindly bought on our behalf, to mark down a whole lot of suggestions on where to (and not to) go. He is a fount of knowledge on Thailand and is quite a historian, my father would have loved to have chatted with him!
After that, we spent the entire day in the internet cafe, with me nipping out to get us both something to eat. However, in the end, Michael successfully got the website sorted, this time with all the pictures in place too! Sadly, we didn't get to go to the palace, but we'll go when we come back.
We had cocktails from a festive mobile bar with tables set up outside the 7-11 and then Michael declared he'd had enough for the day. He got himself another pita with chicken and caught a tuk-tuk home. I still wanted to stay out, so I wandered down to the far end of the street where there was a performance to raise money for tsunami victims. They had erected a stage with a collage of tsunami pictures for the backdrop and they had children performing a variety of traditional songs and dances. I was impressed by the children's stage confidence.
Despite the self-important (adult) presenter trying to get a few laughs from the audience, they ignored him and continued unabashed. Whenever a farang (white person) donated money from the audience, the presenter would show it to everyone and they would burst into applause. The performances were very good and it was equally entertaining to watch the large crowd who squashed together around the stage to see what was happening.
After that I spent a short while helping a German expat put up more notices for missing persons. It is gut wrenching to see all the messages and photos, particularly the ones of small children who are in hospitals without their parents. My heart aches when I see so many of the missing coming from in and around where we volunteered in Khao Lak. After seeing devastation there, I can't help thinking how unlikely it is that people who were there could have survived and wonder how many of the dead will ever be identified, it's just awful. I searched for ages for the Swedish lady and her son, whose documents we found in Wanaburi Resort, along with the Christmas presents, but had no luck. I tried sending an email to her business address today, but it came back. I also left a phone message at her office in Stockholm, so we'll see if someone contacts us. There was a new notice up on the fence appealing for volunteers to take calls from overseas families, so I took down the number. With my work experience to call centres, I feel like I could really make a difference there...
I wandered back down the street and had some tom ka kai at the Silk Bar, which was tasty and the spiciest one I have had yet! I met a French photographer/creative and we sat chatting (which was great for my French) about travel, people and how the mosaic of activity on Khaosan Road would take him absolutely ages to capture in a studio! It was really interesting to talk to him and reminded me that I do miss the different kind of stimulation my work offers (a little), but also just how lucky we are to be experiencing this journey.
We packed up our things and took them back down to Nyathi. Annoyingly, the batteries were dead (including the spare) so we got a jump start from a friendly hotel guest. We put the spare battery on charge in the cab and set off north for Ayutthaya. The traffic leaving Bangkok was not too bad and although our map didn't quite correlate with the road system we made our way out without any wrong turns. Just north of the capital we saw a Carrefour off to the left and we turned off just past it, going down some fairly narrow residential roads, but couldn't get back to it, so we continued, only to find a well signposted Tesco further north. We stopped and got a few more drinks, had some burgers for lunch and I called the volunteer call centre number. It took ages to get an answer, but what eventually transpired was that they had plenty of volunteers in Bangkok, but if I could get down to Phuket, they needed help there with supporting the DNA analysis teams (I assume doing admin or something). I felt really guilty about saying no, but we didn't want to drive for three days back to Phuket and then have to retrace our steps north again.
We filled up with fuel en route and reached Ayutthaya at about 15h15. We drove around to get a feel for the town and to look for suitable places to stay where we could park Nyathi, but didn't have much success. So we headed for the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre, which was recommended as a good place to start as it provides a good overview of the history of the town and has models of the royal palace etc. Unfortunately they closed at 16h30, which left us only 45 minutes to visit, so we asked if we could sleep the night in their car park and come in tomorrow morning. They spoke only a few words of English, so I resorted to drawing a picture of Nyathi with the roof tent up and us sleeping inside. It worked a treat and they said it was fine.
We took our bikes off the roof and Michael put the pedals back on, greased them up a bit etc. I cleaned them a little and off we went. We rode down to the elephant kraal (which is on the original land of the elephant kraal of the royal palace some 500 years ago) where you can take an elephant ride for 10 minutes for B200 or simply watch them and pay to have your photo taken with a calf. We chose the latter for a number of reasons. (1) The calves were just too cute. (2) The ride seemed expensive for what you get. (3) We are going to the elephant conservation camp north of Lampang which Peter recommended to us and we are hoping to do a short elephant management course there.
We could see the elephants were very fond of their trainers/owners. They followed them everywhere and were extremely affectionate toward them. We got to see them doing a number of tricks including walking on front and then hind legs only. When you pose for a photo they sit in a 'delicate' pose for you and afterwards they screech a 'thank-you' at the command of their trainer. You then give the elephant the B20 which he takes gently in his trunk and hands over to the trainer. They were delightful. So gentle, calm and yet entertaining.
We rode down to a nearby (modern) temple which was just outside the perimeter walls of the royal palace. We took a few photos and then went for a walk in the ancient palace grounds (for B30 each) just as the sun was starting to go down. It gave a particularly peaceful air to the place and the red brick exuded a warmth from the setting sun. The Wat Phra Sri Sanphet with its three chedis was impressive and you could see that it was a magnificent place in its day. There were a number of old gnarled trees looming over the ruins and lots of fragrant frangipani trees.
We cycled back to toward the study centre down a chaotic street filled with cars, bikes and pedestrians which made for somewhat nerve wracking riding! We had dinner at a karaoke bar in Rojana Road, but we chose sit outside on the beautiful patio with a lovely waterfall feature and which was a good move, despite the ferocious mosquitoes (which dispersed a little when the waitress brought us a smoking anti-mosquito stick). The restaurant began to fill up just as we were eating and then the singing began. Actually it was more like loud, unmelodious screeching.
When we got back to the study centre Nyathi was safely parked and they had put up poles and looped chains across the entrance and exit. We parked her a bit further away from the building and light and settled down for the night.
Michael spent two hours this morning synchronising the computers (so that I can do the website on the main computer while we travel). We went into the study centre at about 10h30 (B100 each) and spent just over an hour wandering about. It was relatively well presented, but there were some strange things like the model of the royal palace and it's surrounding buildings was oriented facing south, instead of north, which was confusing. Still, the centre gave a good overview of the history of Ayutthaya, its different functions and what life was like during the period before the Burmese sacked the city in 1767 and the capital was then moved to Bangkok.
Today is Children's Day in Thailand and our next stop was at the university grounds where they were celebrating the day with elephant displays, live bands and markets. Unfortunately we arrived just as the elephants were finishing, but we got to see them drinking 2 litre pepsi. The trainer just puts the bottle deep inside their mouths, they tilt up their heads, empty the contents and she takes the bottle out (Michael wonders if they burp afterwards, but we didn't hear any evidence)!
We cycled to the Wat Chai Wattanaram across the Chao Praya river. It was an impressive wat and reminded us of the calibre of ruins we had seen in Central America. The central chedi afforded beautiful views over the river and two of the larger, remaining Buddha statues.
Sadly the row of Buddha images which line the perimeter of the inner wall were all decapitated when the city was sacked.
We got to see a number of large barges, longboats and other vessels going up and down the river.
Afterwards, we stopped at a restaurant next to a large pond, which was very busy with local custom (we were the only farangs). We had a mediocre meal of fried chicken and sticky rice (not our favourite) which we enhanced with copious amounts of chilli sauce. It was interesting to see that the Thais were mostly drinking brandy or whisky with lots of ice and a little soda water. The table next to us were looking like a motley, but merry crew! We saw one of the many broom sellers during our ride and he waved for the camera...
We rode back to Nyathi, put the bikes back on the roof and then both had a refreshing 'shower' in the toilets (which were remarkably clean). We drove along a very busy road with lots of truck traffic , causing dust and rocks to fly up along the sections which were either being repaired, or in a state of disrepair. We pulled into a large Esso fuel station about 10km outside of Nakhom Pathom and asked if we could pull up in a corner and sleep for the night. We bought some ice lollies, which were very welcome after the hot and dusty drive. We watched a sad movie called My Life and then went to bed.
We did some maintenance stuff first thing this morning. We took the back two tyres off and put the brand new spares on instead. At the same time Michael changed the brake pads. Then we got the garage to change the gear oils, as they had a pit to work it, which makes it easier and after that we treated Nyathi to a jet wash, as she still had the coating of sea water from the tsunami, which isn't great!
We visited the tallest chedi in Thailand, Phra Pathom which dominates the town of Nakom Phatom. The facts differ according to which source you believe, but we understand the chedi stands 127m high. Outside (but within the perimeter walls) there was a big market surrounding the chedi selling everything from clothes and flowers to toys and car parts. Some of the orchids are beautiful and delicate.
The place was remarkably noisy, but colourful and interesting. The main entrance of the chedi has a towering Buddha in a temple at the top of the stairs, in front of which were a number of rotating stands with B20 notes attached to them. Encircling the base of the chedi are numerous Buddha images which look out onto a gallery, where people wander, sit or chat. The gallery has a number of large bells at regular intervals which we saw people gonging ceremoniously and then moving onto the next one.
There was also another line up of 108 receiving pots (similar to that at Wat Po in Bangkok) so Michael bought the requisite coins and dropped one in each bowl.
We went into the inner sanctum of the chedi where there were a number of classrooms set up with old wooden chairs and desks. We walked around the 'first floor' level where they have various layers of bright orange and gold cloth wrapped around the chedi. The chedi itself is plastered with millions of ochre tile chips which shimmer gold-like in the sun. We also went down into a little cave where a monk was counselling people, but we simply visited a few of the little shrines, which we thought were surprisingly unkempt with boxes and all sorts of junk lying about the place, not what we expected!
Then we went in search of food! We found a lovely little dim sum restaurant two streets down from the chedi where we tried five dishes (the only one of which we recognised was salmon) along with some steamed rice. It was very nicely done and the food was tasty! We met an American couple who live locally and had a lovely chat with them about the pleasures of travelling in Thailand.
Our next stop was Kanchanaburi. We spent a good while in an internet cafe downloading emails and I spent ages searching through the tsunami missing/dead/safe lists to see if I could find the names of the Swedish mother and son whose Christmas gifts we had found, but had no success. I sent an email to her, but it was sent back and I haven't heard anything since I called and left a message on her answering machine in Sweden. It would be so wonderful if they are safe and well.
We found a little guesthouse down on the Kwai River, called C&C (thanks to the Footprint Guide). The 'camping' area was not accessible to us with a vehicle, so we parked Nyathi for the night on the edge of their driveway and they let us use the shower and toilets for just B20 each. We had a lovely and very cheap meal at the C&C restaurant, where we met Jim, Kieran and Tish and we chatted for a while and watched the myriad geckos scurrying along the roof in search of their next insect meal. There was also an ingenious cat which balanced on the ceiling rafters to get closer to the geckos and drank the offerings left on the little Buddha shrine.
We had a relaxing evening watching the (inaccurate, but interesting) film for which Kanchanaburi is famous - The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
As usual we awoke to the dawn chorus of cockerels. Pity the cats don't chase them away instead of the geckos! We fed the friendly black this morning, he had been climbing all over Nyathi and tried to get into the tent at one stage.
We had leisurely day enjoying the sights in and around town. Our first stop was the Thai Burma Railway Centre, which overlooks the Kanchanaburi cemetery in the centre of town. Our friend from Bangkok, Peter, knows the centre director, Rod Beattie, so we got the opportunity to speak to him before visiting the museum. Rod is not only an enthusiast, but an expert on the history of the railway and all things connected with it. His knowledge is clearly reflected in the well presented and highly informative (and unbiased) displays. It is, by far, the most professional museum we have visited in SE Asia and certainly the best museum in town on the 'Death Railway'. It cost us B60 each and we spent almost three hours wandering around - well worth the visit!. www.tbrconline.com
We drove down to the famous bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge itself is not particularly inspiring and we understand that the only remaining parts are the concrete supports (some of which have the telltale signs of bombing, with blast holes and chips replastered). However, we were lucky to see a train crossing and all the tourists crossing the bridge or walking along the tracks have to step onto little side platforms to let the train pass by.
We spent quite a while watching the long boats zooming up and down the river taking tourists to and from the bridge. There were also elephants posing for photographs with tourists and being fed copious quantities of what looked like sugar cane.
We had some lunch at the internet cafe next to the 7-11 and spent a while reading the Bangkok Post, which is a remarkably good newspaper. The overall death toll for the tsunami is now over 150,000 and there are still thousands missing!
We found a nicer place to stay, at the Phong Phen Guesthouse. They had a more level parking area and we were closer to the ablutions and had a lovely view over the River Kwai just a short distance away and below us (which also mean the music-pounding riverboats weren't quite as noisy)! We wandered down to the night market and I bought two pairs of capri trousers for just $5 each and we both got some Reef sandals and I got a pair of pink flip flips thrown in! We bought the Black Hawk Down DVD and were pleased to discover it worked when we tried it in Nyathi's computer.
We stopped off at a bar where a band was playing live music and singing the old favourites, the one we found particularly entertaining was the enthusiastically sung "Mrs Lobinson". I got us some tom ka kai and phad thai from a nearby street stall and they brought the food to us in the bar - it was great! We met a British couple who are travelling around SE Asia and are on their way to Laos next. We also saw the cutest tree frog suckered onto the bamboo just next to us. Sadly we didn't have our camera with us.
The cockerels woke us up earlier than we would have liked and at one stage I through a bottle of water over them when they were right next to Nyathi. We were getting no satellite reception on either the main, nor handheld GPS units so Michael went down to the internet cafes to see if he could find out why, but had no success. He was gone for almost an hour and we needed to get going so I went looking for him and met him on his way back. The GPS units seemed to get satellite connection again, so that was good news and we headed off for Hellfire Pass.
Hellfire Pass is one of the cuttings made by POWs working on the Thai Burma Railway in the second world war. It was so named because one of the POWs commented that when you looked down upon the workers at light illuminated by fire lamps and saw them toiling away it was like "the jaws of hell". The museum at Hellfire Pass was originally set up by Rod Beattie with the support of the Australian government and is still immaculately maintained by the manager Bill Slape. www.hellfirepass.com
We walked along path to Hell Fire Pass and then further along past what was a viaduct and on to a look-out point which gave commanding views over the valley. It gave a good perspective of how hard it must have been slaving away in this environment. Back at Hellfire Pass we climbed the stairs to see an old coco pan and looked down on the pass below. It was moving to visit an area where the POWs had actually worked and it was great to visit after we had been to the Thai Burma Railway Centre in town, which gave good background information on the railway construction.
I chatted briefly to Bill and he confirmed with his staff that there were camping facilities at Saiyok Yai National Park, so we decided to head north for the night instead of returning to Kanchanaburi. When we arrived at the park entrance we discovered it was B200 each to get in, plus camping fees, so we decided it wasn't worth it. We continued north to Vajiralongkorn Dam (near Sangkhlaburi) which has an impressive hydropower plant with three 100MW generating units. We drove up to the dam wall and parked Nyathi, where Michael had to chase off the cheeky monkeys who were clambering over the vehicle and pulling on the stuff under the netting on the roof.
Then we drove south again looking for a sign Michael had seen earlier pointing to the Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary. When we spotted it we headed east to investigate. Eventually we came to a checkpoint before a steep and dusty road. We told the guy we were looking for Thung Yai and he said we could go through and said something about 7km. We are still not sure what he meant, but the track was very scenic and quite challenging, requiring 6x6 at one stage. After another checkpoint where we had to give our name and registration we headed north and soon found ourselves in lush jungle and driving along some overgrown roads. It was fantastic to be off the beaten track again.
It started to get dark so we found a suitable campsite down a small off-shoot road which hadn't been used in ages and we stopped in amongst the bamboo and other trees. There were so many different noises from insects and frogs , to at least ten different birds including a loud hooting owl, which we enticed closer by mimicking its call. We sat on the roof and had a drink, while soaking up the jungle atmosphere it was terrific!
We had a great night's sleep and a refreshing bush wash. We went through two more check points and at the second one were told Thung Yai was 50km back in the opposite direction. They were very friendly and tried to be helpful by looking at our map. We asked if it was possible to connect to Umphang in Tak province and they said no. Having already enjoyed a jungle night we decided to carry on toward the ferry to Sri Sawat and a tar road going south, but then we actually located the sanctuary on our map (it was much further north than we had anticipated), so we turned back, went through the checkpoint again and instead of going back along our previous route headed more north.
The road improved slightly to be more evenly gravelled and wider, but that didn't last long. We passed a section where they were doing road works and putting in pipes under the road to help the water drainage which was evidently needed judging by the very wet, swampy bog at the edge of the road. The big digger operator was very good and smoothed the road over a little with the big crane to let us squeeze past.
We came to a small town about 40km north and after getting conflicting directions from locals and driving back and forth, we eventually went back to an empty checkpoint further back and found a man working nearby who gave us good directions (including fairly accurate distances - good thing I've learnt my Thai numbers now). We drove west down a small road which was clearly not well used. It definitely required 4x4 capability and was quite steep and narrow in places. But, true to his word, about 9km along we came to the entrance of the sanctuary - hurrah!
However, the challenge wasn't over. The rangers at the front gate couldn't speak a word of English and we don't think they had ever had to deal with farangs before. After struggling to complete the entrance form (with the help of my phrasebook - which they willingly used to try and communicate with us), the lady from the information centre arrived with an old man who could speak a little English. After a while we got things sorted and drove down to the 'information centre', where we paid B100 each to get in, plus B30 for Nyathi. They didn't have B70 change so Michael said not to worry we'd collect it in the morning on our way out. We had a brief wander around the small hut with a few posters depicting the extent of the sanctuary (stretching about 15km north along the Myanmar border) and some of its flora and fauna. We were assured there are still tiger, leopard and elephant roaming freely in the park, as well as loads of gibbons and macaques.
We had a wonderful afternoon driving through the jungle. We had to stop and chop some bamboo down which had fallen across the road and at a later stage I had to lift some pieces over Nyathi's roof, while Michael inched forward.
We passed a second 'visitor centre' though there was no sign of anyone around, so we carried on. We met one other vehicle the whole day. It was full of produce, going somewhere in the sanctuary. We asked the driver if we could exit via Sangkhlaburi to the west and he said it wasn't possible from this side of the sanctuary, so we turned around and headed back along the way we'd come. The road was definitely challenging in places, mostly because it was steep, rocky and a bit gullied, but Nyathi took it slowly and was fine (and her tyres performed well).
We found a great spot to camp in a small clearing in the jungle next to the road. We both had lovely hot bush baths and I cooked up some chilli soya, rice and tortillas for dinner. We put our chairs in the road and ate while the sun was setting. The jungles noises were incredible, even more active than last night. We could hear something rustling and breaking branches in the bush and suspected they were monkeys. The one annoying thing was the number of bees, they became immensely irritating, especially when they flew up your shorts or trousers, so we washed the dishes, packed everything away and retreated to Nyathi to watch a DVD.
About two hours later we crawled into bed and listened to all the noises around us. There were fairly large animals in the undergrowth next to Nyathi, we were guessing tapirs? We stared into the forest night, but couldn't see anything. We lay for ages just enjoying the sounds and eventually fell asleep.
We heard many more noises throughout the night. It was so exciting. There was definitely something crashing through the bush nearby, but we couldn't spot any spoor this morning. However, while I was having a pee I looked up and saw a long black tail disappearing across the road and into the bush. Of course by the time I called Michael, there wasn't a trace of anything. Then I heard very loud screeching and whooping-type noises.
We wandered down the road and saw a large troupe of gibbons up in the op of the trees. They were too far away to photograph, but they were making an almighty din. One of them may be the owner of the tail I saw, because some of their tails were quite dark, but I'm convinced the tail I saw as black. I did see a small paw-like footprint in the soil down the road a bit closer to the vehicle, so perhaps it was a mongoose or something similar, we'll never know.
We packed up and drove the last 8km back to the entrance. I drove, because I haven't driven off road for a while. It was nice to be driving in some slightly tougher terrain again. We spotted the old man just as we were driving into the visitor area. Unprompted, he offered Michael the B70 change, which we thought was very good of him. Then, when we drove out the entrance, they also had B70 set aside for us, and we told them the old man had already paid us. We were very impressed with their integrity and have to say that we have found the Thais to be remarkably honest and kind people.
The road was quite narrow in parts and we were glad we were the only traffic...
On the more 'main' roads it was incredibly dusty and what made it worse was it was that powdery dust which gets in everywhere and you have to be careful not to slow down too quickly as the dust catches up with you and engulfs the vehicle!
Next stop was the Tiger Temple run by Buddhist monks (about 30km north of Kanchanaburi). It all started when the local villagers brought the monks an orphaned tiger cub, barely alive and they nursed it to health. Of course, the word spread and the temple now has about eight adult tigers and they have successfully had two litters at the temple. The plan is to build a phenomenal new home for the tigers where they have more place to roam. They have the new design all mapped out and have slowly begun construction, but I think it will be a number of years before they achieve their goal.
Currently, the entrance fee (minimum donation) is quite high for Thailand at B150 each, plus B50 per person to have your photos taken with the tigers. Still, we were keen to see them and wandered down to find tigers lying down in the shade of what looks like a limestone quarry (to be incorporated in the new design), with a queue of about 15 tourists waiting to be led by the hand to sit near the tigers, stroke them and have their photos taken. The monks are clearly very fond of them...
We stood for a while watching everybody else having their photos taken and I took photos of the tigers lounging in the sun. There were five in total. One at the very back who was not posing. Two single tigers and one couple, making three photo opportunities. The staff were well practised and took relatively good pictures with our camera. Here I am with Darika (Starlet) - she was born at the temple on 23rd February 2003) and Michael is with Saifa (Lightning) - he was brought to the temple in 1999 along with Phayu (Storm).
It was quite amazing to be so close to the tigers, to stroke them and hold one of their enormous paws in your hand. I have to say I felt sorry for them, because they must get so tired and bored of it all, still they are live and breeding and that's a positive.
The other tourists left and we loitered for a while watching the monks and keepers pet and play with the tigers. They sprayed them with water and shifted Darika into a different photo position. She displaced her hip as a cub and looked very uncomfortable when she walked. One other couple (John from Colombia and Lilian from France) was still there and we chatted to them for quite a while, which was really interesting. We wandered up and saw the cubs two of which were just a few months old and they were so cute. Lilian had bottle fed one of them earlier, but we had arrived too late to do that. One of the older cubs took great delight in attacking one of the keeper's shoes.
We visited the other adult tigers in their cages (it was their day off) and also saw a beautiful mountain leopard. There were lots of deer, horses, goats, water buffalo and other herbivores wandering around freely, plus, two gibbons in some enclosures. It was worth a visit and we hope they get the new facilities built, because the animals will certainly benefit. www.tigertemple.com
We stopped briefly at the side of the tarred road to give Nyathi a dusting off, courtesy of the pressured air (and of course Michael)...
In the evening we went back to Phong Phen Guesthouse, had a lovely shower (using hot water from Nyathi) and went for dinner at Friends Restaurant - Japanese style. The service was atrocious, but the food was tasty and Michael and one of the other patrons got to eye out some young, sluttish British girls who were wearing pelmet skirts and took great delight in bending over! We took our laundry in to be washed (for just B10 per kg) and then Michael went off to bed and I spent an hour or so in the internet cafe and wandering through the town. I enrolled on a cooking course for tomorrow with See Thailand Travel. I met the owner, Sugar, who runs the course and she seemed lovely and I got to choose the five dishes I'd like to make and so I am looking forward to it...
We woke up to a wonderful view from our tent over the River Kwai (too early thanks to the damn cockerels).
The Thai cooking course was wonderful. Sugar spoke good English and had just the right balance, making sure everyone was relaxed and had fun, but she was still instructive and very patient, so I learnt a lot too. There were four other people on the course, two girls and one guy (American) and one other guy (Australian). We started off the day by riding bicycles to the main market where Sugar bought all the ingredients. We saw coconut milk being made. Simplistically, they put the peeled coconut through a shredder and then place it in a press with hot water, squeeze it and the milk comes out the bottom.
The American girls were vegetarian, so the meat section of the market was somewhat off-putting for them, although they were great about it and came closer than they would have liked when the pig's head they were photographing fell at their feet! The market was remarkably clean, certainly one of the better ones I have been too and all the stall holders were friendly. We bought a lot of chicken, which looked lovely and fresh.
As we were leaving the market I saw a dog sleeping in a scooter basket. When I got nearer to take a photo he woke up and looked across at his owner, who was in a flower stall and then he looked back at me, scowling.
We road back to the kitchen and donned our pink aprons and were ready to begin. Sugar demonstrated the cooking of each dish and then we made our own. I cooked Tom Ka Kai (Sour Chicken Soup with Coconut Milk), Gaeng Kia Wan (Green Curry with Chicken), Kai Phat Met Ma Muang (Chicken with Cashew Nuts), Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad) and Phad Thai Kai (Ma Ma noodles with chicken) . I also watched the others make Gaeng Mussaman (Moslem Red Curry). All the dishes were very tasty and some better than we've eaten in restaurants!
Michael spent the day at the internet cafe, playing Civilization, chatting to some British and Dutch tourists at Phong Phen and he popped in briefly to the kitchen and I got him to sample my Tom Ka Kai. In the evening we went to collect our washing and wandered down to the market where we bought a load of DVDs. Michael sat and chatted to some people at the guesthouse while I went in search of some deserving dogs for our six Vienna sausages which we hadn't eaten. A little later we had an unusual visitor to Nyathi...
We got on the road promptly and drove north through Suphan Buri, Chai Nat and Nakhon Sawan, arriving at Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park mid afternoon. Frustratingly the people in the information booth didn't speak any English, but in my broken Thai I managed to ascertain it was B40 each and there were two areas, both of which closed at 18h00. We walked around the town centre ruins which were interesting, but not spectacular. There were a few eroding chedis and, from a later date, three large and quite impressive Buddhas.
Then we drove to the northern area, where the guard wanted to charge us to park the vehicle inside the gates (where loads of other vehicles were parked for free). We said we'd park outside and I started telling the traffic behind that we had to turn around and the guard let us in. The park was very extensive and we were the only farangs there. It is used by the local people as an exercise park with at least 100 people either walking or jogging, but because it is so large, it doesn't feel the least bit crowded.
This area is supposed to be more jungle like and not as clinically cleared as Sukhothai further north, however, it has a long way to go to come close to the central American ruins. Nevertheless, there were some well preserved sections and some interesting parts left in ruins. We enjoyed walking around and were glad we'd made use of the few hours we had to visit the place, instead of deciding it wasn't worth it.
We found a lovely place to sleep for the night next to a large roadside restaurant. We have no idea what the place was called as the signs were all in Thai and there were no menus. After some charades and our special dialect of Thai, we made ourselves understood and were served a nice spicy chicken dish with rice and salad, accompanied by ice cold beer and sprite. The one chap spoke a little English and asked where we were from and we explained about our trip and said we sleep in our vehicle. Michael showed him inside Nyathi, much to his delight. Then he asked us if we had seen the tsunami. Michael got the laptop and showed him the photos. Then the old, wizened owner of the restaurant said we were welcome to sleep in the garden, so after dinner we parked Nyathi a little distance away from the light and settled down to a DVD and a good night's sleep.
We arrived in Sukhothai (Old City) before 10h00. We hired two motor bikes from MV Restaurant and went to the main entrance of the Sukhothai Historical Park to buy our tickets. For the city within the walls it cost us B40 each, plus B20 per bike. It was the best way to do things, especially with the temperature in the mid thirties and the humidity high.
Our first stop was Wat Mahathat which apparently characterizes the style of Sukhothai art with its large chedi shaped like a lotus bud. It also has a large seated Buddha central to the ruins. There are so many different ruins within the old city walls and they are in varying states of repair. The gardens are quite well maintained and there are a number of lakes with lotus flowers shooting out of the water and water lilies floating on top. So little remains of what is believed to be the ruins of the Royal Palace, that we rode straight past them.
We visited Wat Trapang Thong, the grounds of which are still used today. The chedi was not particularly impressive, nor was the attached new temple, but they had brightened up the place by nailing entertaining (rather than profound) sayings onto the trees.
We went back to MV Restaurant for lunch and met Malcolm, who owns the place with his wife, Meao. He chatted to us for ages and said that Nyathi was the first British registered vehicle he had seen since he'd lived in Thailand. After lunch we discovered the tyre was flat on the bike, so Meao quickly had it repaired. They also kindly said we'd be welcome to park Nyathi in the garden at their guest house for the night.
We took the bikes and headed out beyond the city walls to Wat Sri Chum, north west of the city. It was an additional B30 each to visit this and Wat Phra Phai Luang, but from what we had read they both sounded intriguing, so we went in. Wat Sri Chum houses a huge seated Buddha image. It is understood that the walls were built around the Buddha many years later and the image does look very penned in. Its lap measures more than 11m and it is very imposing.
Next, we rode to Wat Phra Phai Luang a few hundred metres around the corner. It had the best example of stucco reliefs that we have seen so far in Thailand. This wat was originally built during Khmer reign in the late 12th, early 13th century and is believed to have been the site of an earlier Khmer town. We didn't see another tourist, Thai, nor foreign so it was lovely and peaceful.
Malcom told us there was a lovely circuit at the base of the hills which takes you past various different ruins, so we did that. We found a number of old wats, and other ruins hidden in the forests and on the top of hills, with views over the surrounding countryside.
We rode all the way south and stopped at Wat Chetupon which is unusual because of the variety of different building materials used, including slate, stone and bricks. There were still some examples of balustrade slate walls around the Buddha images.
Feeling rather exhausted we headed back into town passing some green rice paddies with a ruined chedi protruding in the distance. We stopped at the restaurant and Malcolm led us out to the Mountain View Guest House (www.mountainviewguesthouse.com) with Michael driving Nyathi and me on a motor bike, so we could use it in the evening if we wanted to. We met Malcolm's parents, Phil and Dawn and spent a while chatting to them. They have settled here too and have a lovely little house with a garden filled with bougainvilleas, orchids and other heat-loving plants. There was a festival in the town later on, but we both chose to relax for the night in the quiet countryside instead, munching on Christmas cake and biscuits.
Meao's daughter, Gip used the bike in the morning to go to school and we packed up Nyathi and went to the restaurant for a full English breakfast, which was delicious.
Then we headed for Tak (pronounced Thaaak) about 70km west. After passing through Tak we went north toward Lampang and stopped at a garage as the tappets were sounding a bit loose again. Michael put locktight on the rockershaft studs as they have come loose so often, but as he tightened everything up, he noticed that the centre stud wasn't getting tight properly. We got on the road again, only to hear a much louder clapping noise about 2km on. We pulled over, coasted Nyathi into a ditch alongside the main road, and opened up the bonnet to have a look see. Michael discovered the centre stud had stripped entirely. He removed the whole rocker shaft and found it broken in the centre. Disassembling it further, he discovered it was actually broken in three places! So we weren't going to be driving anywhere for a while. We would need to get a replacement rocker shaft (probably from England by courier).
Michael put the engine cover back on and I labelled the pushrods and wrapped them up safely. We decided to try and stop a truck going back to Sukhothai and ask it for a tow. Michael saw a big vehicle carrier coming and ran across the road to speak to the driver. Unfortunately he was only going to Tak. Shortly afterwards a policeman arrived on a bike to see what was happening. He told us a tow truck to Tak would cost B6,000 (I don't think so!), but we told him we were already organised. He said he was very sorry we had broken down and he rode off back to his checkpoint about 1km down the road.
Michael wandered back over the road to try and stop another truck, but just then a local man stopped at Nyathi and spoke to me saying it was best to go into Tak. He offered to take Michael back into town to look for someone to tow us. He proudly showed us his identity card saying he was originally from Cuba. In Tak, the starting price for a tow was B4,000 and eventually they found a tow company who were prepared to tow us for B2,500. Michael wanted to give the Cuban guy a little something for helping out, but he refused and said that's what friends are for!
While I was waiting with Nyathi a Thai lady and her German husband stopped to see f they could help in anyway. They left me with their number in case we didn't sort something out. At about 16h30 Michael arrived back with the tow truck. They pulled us back out the ditch and then spent quite a while figuring out the best wait to attach Nyathi. They used some heavy chains around the front axle and lifted her up. Michael detached the rear propshaft to protect the centre diff (front wheels in the air + rear wheels turning = worn out diff).
We sat in Nyathi while she was being towed, which wasn't the most pleasant experience. The driver started off cautiously, also making a brief, rendezvous with his boss to get more hydraulic fluid. However, as we got closer to home, his confidence increased and we reached 84km/h some of the time (we could read the speed on the GPS). Michael made sure he also applied the brakes whenever the driver did, and sometimes ever so slightly even when he didn't!
To make matters more complicated night fell and we missed our first turn off in the dark, which was my fault. So we ended up taking a convoluted route back to the guest house and I sat in the tow truck cab trying to give directions to two men who couldn't understand any English, nor frantic hand- waving to slow down, so we had to turn around twice! Eventually we got back to the guest house and we thanked the men for their patience and we gave them a tip and a cold coke for their return journey.
Unfortunately their hydraulic fluid had sprayed back all over Nyathi, which can't be good for her paint work. Dawn and Phil were at home and Dawn kindly cooked up eggs, bacon, tomatoes with bread for a welcome meal. We both had hot showers and then phoned Stuart Foley in the UK to organise a rocker shaft and all the bits to be couriered.
I went with Malcolm into town first thing, to fetch a motor bike. I stopped off at the market and got a fresh watermelon for breakfast. I rode back to the guest house and also bought some lovely yoghurts from a lady who brings them to Dawn and Phil every Tuesday.
I spent the rest of the morning writing the journal. Michael manoeuvred Nyathi onto a more level piece of ground using the starter motor and then he connected the battery charger. The wonderful thing about camping here is that we can use Malcolm's electricity, which makes our life much easier and more comfortable as we can run the fridge, use the computer etc. I washed Nyathi's front to try and get rid of all the hydraulic fluid and at lunchtime we went to MV Restaurant and had some tasty fried rice with chicken, followed by the prerequisite ice cream. I got Meao to help translate some Thai green curry ingredients for me, so I knew what to ask for when we got to the market.
The people at the market were so friendly as as soon as they knew I was making gaeng kia wan they shouted across to other stall holders to see if they had the ingredients I needed. It was nice to have Michael with me too, as we don't often do 'market food' shopping together. The last purchase was fresh chicken breast and we were ready to go. As we were leaving the market we saw the ugliest and saddest looking dog we'd ever seen in our lives. It had such a severe case of mange it had lost all its hair and its dark grey skin was all wrinkled and fold and was beginning to crack and bleed. Michael nicknamed it the rhino-dog, which was very apt. I felt so sorry for it. I pulled all the skin off our chicken and fed it to him and he wolfed it down ravenously - poor thing!
When we got back home I did more journal writing and in the early evening cooked up the gaeng kia wan, while Michael had forty winks. I am pleased to say the curry was a real hit - very tasty!
We rode into town first thing to catch the bus to Mae Sot. I made a quick photocopy of the relevant pages from our guide book, so we didn't have to lug it around. After some hesitation about where the correct place was to catch the bus, it came trundling along and stopped when Michael held his hand out. We took an hour to get to Tak, where we waited 15 minutes for the minibus to Mae Sot. The big bus was very clean and comfortable, but the mini bus was more cramped and the driving a little more scary. The scenery on the way to Mae Sot becomes increasingly hilly and green, which is lovely to look at but induces maniacal driving techniques from the driver. Having said that, we arrived safely and he showed us where to go to catch the song-thaew (pick-up with two rows of bench seats in the back) to the border with Myawaddy, Myanmar. They doubled the fare from B10 to B20 (unless we wanted to wait ages for the song-thaew to fill up). So off we went.
Exiting Thailand was quick and easy and we walked across the bridge to Myanmar. We saw loads of local people (who don't have official documents) walking across the river below, or floating on inflated tyre tubes. A Burmese man befriended us and walked with us to immigration, where he loitered outside. We completed entrance forms and gave them two $10 notes for day visa payment, but they said they were old and wouldn't accept them. Unfortunately Michael had let them see his wallet and they knew we had baht, so after a lot of wrangling and futile attempts to convince them to accept our $20 dollars, or give us $30 change for a crisp new $50 note, we had to pay B500 each ( no guessing why they were being difficult). We left our passports with them for stamping and received a receipt for collection of the passports before 17h00. We politely told our new friend that we preferred to discover new places for ourselves, but that it was nice to meet him. He wasn't too pleased, but we really just wanted to wander on our own and soak up the atmosphere for a while.
It is quickly evident that Myanmar is Thailand's poor cousin, however, some of the nicer shop-houses have lovely, intricate carvings in the wood. We were really disappointed we only had the afternoon to visit, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. We walked in the hot sun looking at the old wooden shop houses and fending off lots of saam-lor drivers who kept pestering us to hitch a ride. One of the distinct differences between Myanmar and Thailand is the sarong skirts which the majority of men wear tightly wrapped around their small hips.
The women's faces are in some ways more beautiful, with their high and prominent cheekbones and fine skin. The women and children also wear pale face powder, which I understand lightens the skin. However, what I found interesting was that they wear it in different patterns, and sometimes, just smear it on in streaks.
After we had finished in the market we decided to to hire the services of a saam-lor to take us to a restaurant. A fight almost broke out in the eagerness to get us on board! Our driver took us down to a nice restaurant where the owner and his family were very friendly and they spoke a bit of English. The driver insisted he would wait for us, so we agreed. We had a look in all the cooking pots to see what took our fancy and we chose a chicken dish and a vegetable curry, along with steamed rice.
They also brought an assortment of other 'goodies' to our table, including a fishy clear soup with green courgette-like vegetables floating in it. We both tasted it, but didn't particularly like it. We were tempted by the fresh cucumber , but decided it was safer not to eat it. We had plenty of food and it was quite tasty, if a little oily. Michael had a Myanmar beer, which we understand is exported to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and I had a shandy.
After lunch our driver took us on a scenic drive. At first he was babbling on about 'cocker-rye' (which we thought meant cookery) and we told him we did not have the time. He took us to a small temple behind some lovely quiet stilt bungalows, where the dog was catching a sly forty winks in the shade.
As we rode past the people were all very friendly and shouted hello to us. the locals here all seem to know at least three English words - hello, goodbye and thank you. We stopped and watched two men playing a game with a bamboo ball where the aim is to kick it over a net and return it without letting it touch the floor, using your feet, thighs, chest head etc. We also saw a number of monks walking through the streets in their colourful robes.
Then we headed through some of the 'suburbs'. The houses were in neat rows along the dusty, bumpy road. The majority of them were made of grass and leaves and stood on stilts.
Then we started up a steep hill and Michael and I both told the driver to stop, that we could walk up the hill. Then two heavily laden saam-lors struggled past and both the driver and Michael helped them to push their bikes up the hill.
At the top we discovered what 'cocker-rye' was all about! There was an ornate temple built on the back of a crocodile - who would have thought?
The driver led us up past the crocodile and into the main temple higher up. He went and bowed his head down on the mat three times, made a wai gesture to the Buddha image and then called us across the temple to a door on the other side. Out on the balcony we could see across the hill to an even bigger temples seated on the top in the distance. In the foreground were more simple huts, about twenty of them in total and they all have to share one well. We watched the young children having a bath and the mothers washing clothing.
We rode past the golden wat and then Michael got his opportunity to photograph one of the strange vehicles that abound in this part of Burma. They are made from the chassis and running-gear of any old truck, to which a Chinese made auxiliary type engine is bolted. The rather home-made clutch assembly is driven by a belt off the engine, then presumably through any gearbox they can lay their hands on. Overall gearing can be made to suit the vehicle by changing the pulley sizes on the belt-drive. Very ingenious!
Then our driver took us back to the immigrations building at the bridge. He wanted B200 for driving us around for three hours (40 minutes of which he spent relaxing while we ate). That is an exorbitant wage for a few hours work in Myanmar (the average wage is B500 per month). It was unusual for us to not negotiate a fee first (initially it was just B10 to take us to the restaurant) and in the end we paid him B100 (plus B20 'present'), which he was happy with (and so were we, as he did make our day more interesting). There really wasn't much to spend money on here, so along with our meal of just B180, that is all the money the locals will see from us, because they're unlikely to get much benefit from the B500 immigration fee.
Our passports were ready with the entrance and exit stamped in them and sadly, that was our encounter with Myanmar. We walked back to the Thailand side where we completed new arrival forms and were quickly given a new entrance stamp for thirty days. The Thais are sensible. They make it easy for foreigners to stay in their country and by default we spend more money (gladly).
The minivan ride back to Tak was uncomfortably squashed and much faster and scarier than we would have liked. The driver fancied himself even more as a F1 driver than the one this morning. The drive from Tak to Sukhothai on the big bus was a pleasure, with air conditioning and reclining seats well worth the B43.
We stopped in at MV Restaurant and Michael chatted to another traveller John, from the UK. We rode the bike back home at got to bed straight away.
I went for a run at about 08h00 and was dripping with sweat after 35 minutes (and almost half of that was walking). I energetically finished off with arm and stomach exercises and then it took me about 45 minutes to cool down enough to take a shower. The pool at the guest house was enticing, but with all the cooling evaporation too cold for me!
I spent the day grappling with a faulty keyboard while trying to order and resize all the photos for the website. Michael went into Sukhothai new city in search of a locating a suitable bolt for the rocker arm. He had no luck, but a place said they could machine one for him, so he'll go back tomorrow to see how they have done.
In the evening we went into town and used the internet cafe. I was absolutely thrilled to receive an email from the Swedish lady whose Christmas gifts we had found in Khao Lak. Both she and her four year old son had survived the tsunami, managing to escape from their bungalow when it was hit by the wave. She was extremely thankful for the effort we had made to contact her and it was terrific to know that they were safe and well!
Afterwards we went for dinner at The Coffee Cup. Although the service was good, the phad thai wasn't great (certainly not by comparison to the food stalls in Bangkok). Then we went back to MV Restaurant for dessert ice creams and we rode both bikes home (so Gip could use one in the morning). Unfortunately the one bike got a puncture and then it starting pouring with rain. Michael took the punctured bike to the garage, while Malcolm and Meao drove alongside in the car and I raced on ahead to get home as fast as I could. It was hard to see where I was going, the wind was whipping about the place and there were loads of frogs leaping across my path. I was drenched by the time I got back and the rain continued to come down in torrents. Michael and I disconnected the electricity, unlatched the awning and dived inside Nyathi, where we dried off and fell into bed.
I went a bit earlier for my run this morning and it made a difference, although by the end of it I still looked like I'd been in a sauna. It is so nice to have a lovely clean shower to use afterwards. Malcolm and Meao let us use one of the bathrooms in one of the guest rooms, as it isn't occupied at the moment.
Michael took the bike into Sukhothai new city to collect the locating bolt that was being machined for him. It wasn't ready and then when they did eventually complete it, it was nothing like the specimen Michael had left with them, not to mention it looked like the guy who did the welding had his eyes shut - so he gave it up as a bad idea.
As yesterday, I spent the morning doing journal writing and then just as I was heating up the left over gaeng kia wan Malcolm arrived to say the spares were in Bangkok and we needed to pay B1055 into the bank before it closed at 15h30. So he and Meao raced me into Sukhothai new city and we made it into the bank with minutes to spare. Meao wrote all the depositing information for me in Thai and that was done. I faxed the deposit receipt off to DHL, but we still think it's unlikely they'll move fast enough to get the spares here tomorrow.
Michael met me at MV Restaurant and we had an early evening dinner of hamburgers, chips and salad - it was just nice to have something non-Thai for a change. Meao gave us some pineapple and unripe mango, with sugar and chilli sprinkles. The mango was quite apple like in its texture and tart taste, I definitely preferred the pineapple. Her bother has a 'prepared fruit' cart attached to his motorbike which he drives around the streets of Sukhothai and she got it from him.
Michael spent some of the day writing copy for a website for Mountain View Guesthouse and Restaurant. Malcolm hasn't got much experience with the internet, so we decided we'd try and help out. The guest house's new site is here. I worked on the journal and sorted out more photos.
In the afternoon we went into town and had a bite to eat, followed by our ritual ice cream. We read emails and did some trip research at the internet cafe. I bought some pineapple from Meao's brother to put in Nyathi's fridge for breakfast. I left Michael in town at the internet cafe and I came home to work on the website. I rode back about 2 hours later to collect him and we came back to have a quick cat nap.
In the evening we were treated to a spectacular light, sound and dancing show at Wat Mahathat. It was actually a private show for the electricity commission and an important Chinese ministerial visitor, but the chief of police in Sukhothai (whom Malcolm knows well) said we could go along. We found a nice spot on the perimeter wall and I nipped in to MV Restaurant to get us a picnic of fried rice with chicken, a beer and sprite, which we ate while watching the show. It was great. After some stage dancing the crowds moved within the wat walls, so we moved to the walls and peered over the top. The other guests insisted we go inside so we could get a better look - the Thais really are a welcoming bunch of people!
The show was most impressive. The wat looked magnificent illuminated against the night sky. There were a number of war re-enactments, dances and other performances in and around the ruins and on the lawn. The costumes were exquisite and the people clearly have a tremendous amount of pride in their traditional dances and history.
The finale included the stunning Thai lanterns which they release up into the night sky. It looks amazing - we've never seen anything quite like it. The lanterns are about a metre in height, made of a bamboo frame with some type of paper covering and a small flame at the base which lifts them upward. The heights they reach are incredible and when you look at them from afar they hover with a mystical glow in the jet black sky. Completely enchanting.
Afterwards we had an ice cream with Malcolm and Meao (and two New Zealand girls we had met - Jo and Beth) and then we rode back home.
We had lovely cold pineapple for breakfast, which was refreshing. We did some more work on the website for Malcolm, inserting pictures of the guest house and pool. In the afternoon we went for a late lunch and I had delicious phad thai, while Michael had gaeng kia wan, which we told them he'd like phet (hot) and I think the girls in the kitchen took it as a challenge. It was fiery hot and his small bowl of curry had five of the small, hellishly hot chillies in it. Needless to say he had two large iced fruit shakes to go with it. The shakes are delicious and so cooling.
Then Michael took Malcolm to the internet cafe to show him what he'd have to do to register a domain name. I went to the market to buy some fruit and see if I could see rhino-dog and feed it some meat, but he was nowhere to be found. We went back to the guesthouse to watch he sun set over Dawn and Phil's garden...
In the evening we watched an appallingly poor DVD called The Magic Bubble with George Clooney in one of his earlier and most cringe-worthy roles.
I spent some of the morning chatting to Dawn and Phil and the rest of the day was spent doing various chores. Dawn kindly let me use her washing machine, so we did two loads of washing, which in the mid thirties heat were dry in no time. She was so lovely she even hung out the one load when it was finished and when she thought the rain might be coming she took it down and brought it across to Nyathi.
Surprise surprise I did more work on the website in dribs and drabs throughout the day. Michael went into town twice. The first time to get gasket cement (the shop was closed) and the second time to get us some take-away food from the restaurant. In the meanwhile I discovered an ants nest in the kitchen and when I sprayed it hundreds of them came scurrying out carrying eggs! I had to spray copious amounts to kill them, which wasn't ideal. Afterwards we had to take out all the food boxes and wash the shelves and I took the opportunity to wipe down the dusty lids. We rationalised the food a bit and started a 'give-away' box. Then we found an even bigger nest under the floor mat on the driver's side and sprayed them too. There were thousands of little black ants in all the nooks and crannies surrounded by loads of little specks of white eggs.
We sterilised our 5 litre water containers which have started to grow an orange algae - healthy and did a few other bits and bobs. We also had the pleasure of listening to the election campaign cars driving by with their inordinately loud music and propaganda blaring from the large speakers strapped into the back.
Then Malcolm came home with the spare parts - hurrah! DHL were none too speedy, but at least we got them. Michael put the new rocker-shaft in and briefly tested to see if anything else was wrong with the engine (there wasn't - she started first time). He decided that he will have to drill out two of the holes (in the cylinder head) and tap in an oversize thread. He went into the new city city to try and find a welding shop to modify the stud to suit the new hole, but they can only do it tomorrow. I swept out the tent and brushed all the bits and dust off the mattress ready for the clean sheets. I cleaned out the cab and then settled down to finish the journal - we are hoping to update it tomorrow before we leave.
Michael went off to the New City to get the machining shop to weld a new thread to the bottom of the locating bolt. Unfortunately when he tried the bolt out in situ, the rather poor weld broke. So ten it was onto plan B. He decided to make an entire new stud from a high tensile steel bolt. He cut the head off and had the entire bolt (except for the threaded end) machined down to the correct diameter. Then he got them to cut a thread on the newly machined section. It sound so simple, but he had to keep an eagle eye on things and after several attempts the machinist eventually got it right. The total cost of welding and machining all the parts was B100, so certainly an inexpensive solution! he only got back from the new city at 20h00.
At lunchtime I took the bike into town and got some takeaways from MV restaurant. I also stopped in at the market and got all the ingredients for dinner tonight. I spent the day refining our website and checking entries and photos. Then I spent a while writing some copy on Sukhothai and adding pictures onto Malcolm's website. Meao came to have a look at it and was very pleased. I am not sure yet whether Malcolm will want to publish it, but at least we have done something to get him started.
In the evening I made Michael's favourite Thai dish, kai phat met ma muang (chicken with cashew nuts). We sat outside and ate and then I fed the family dogs some of the chicken skin and leftovers - they gobbled it up! Then we watched a DVD and let our dinner settle before going to bed.
I did some cleaning up while Michael fitted the new bolts (although Michael still had to refine the work the machinist had done).
The good news is that it he got it all back to together and she sounded good! We put the bonnet back on the vehicle and I cleaned it down and washed the top front section of Nyathi before we put the spotlight grille on. I also gave the windscreen a good scrub and applied Rain-Ex to it.
Then we both had showers and went into town to upload the website. Malcolm has asked us to publish his site too, so Michael registered a domain name for him. We still haven't had email confirmation of the password yet, but when it comes through, Michael will load the info. Our website took over four hours to upload. I had a relaxing afternoon reading the Bangkok Post and then had a fabulous massage by a nun (and her protege) which means I had two people massaging at once - bliss. An hour for only B100 - what more could you ask for? Then I sat in the internet cafe doing lots of shipping, route and visa research, while keeping an eye on the uploading while Michael went into the new city as he thought he'd left his dyes there yesterday.
We had a tasty dinner at MV Restaurant and met really nice French guys, Antione and Christian. I got to speak some French which was nice and they were very interesting to talk to. Then we met another lovely couple from the UK, Adrian and Philippa, so we spent ages chatting to them too. So we got back to Nyathi much later than anticipated, but we had a successful day.
We were up early, keen to get packed up and on the road. We did all the dirty work first - putting the awning away (dusting off all the ash from bush burning), putting the tyre on the bonnet, packing the heavy trunks away, blasting dust out of all the nooks and crannies, putting new draught excluder around the doors etc.
Then we both had refreshing showers and I swept out the guest room and mopped the floor. Michael nipped into town on the bike to check if he'd had a confirmation email from uk2.net, but he hadn't. I did a few last minute things around Nyathi and we drove into town to have our last lunch at MV Restaurant. As always, it was sad saying goodbye. Meao gave us two cute wooden chickens as a parting gift. They didn't want to let us pay for the hire of the motorbikes for the week. Eventually they accepted B500, which was a third of what it should have cost us, plus they gladly let us use their guest house bathroom and we had electrical connection the whole time we stayed, which made our life so much easier! Thanks to you both for your wonderful hospitality. With our stomachs full, we hit the road...
We stopped and filled up with fuel at an Esso Station about 30km north of Tak, where they accepted Visa cards and were generally very helpful, even giving us a big bottle of cold water for the road. They also had (rather strangely) had an arrangement of petrified wood with an explanatory sign in Thai and English. It was a hot drive with the inside temperature at 39°C and outside 37°C.
We intended to visit Wat Phra Tat Lampang Luang, but somehow missed it, after taking the turning to it, and found ourselves on the road to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, so we decided not to go back (feeling a little 'templed out') and arrived at the TECC at about 17h30. We parked in the parking lot, which was deserted of all cars and being used as a makeshift ball court for the staff and we saw some others playing badminton in front of the information office. We asked them if it would be OK to sleep the night in Nyathi and someone rode off to speak to the powers that be and we got the all clear!
We wandered over and played badminton with Joe, Win and Boi (although our cheap rackets weren't up to much and as soon as Michael used a bit of power the shuttle promptly popped its head through the strings and lodged itself there)! Michael gave them to Joe for some children to play with. After some entertaining games Joe and Win invited us to join them for dinner. So we wandered up to the staff houses and had a very phet (hot) dinner of rice cooked by the guys. It was very pleasant and we got to practice our Thai and they their English.
They had loads of cats and kittens and it was rather entertaining to see how they were fed. They all knew it was coming and there was a mad scramble accompanied by a chorus of meaoing (and a few competitive hisses) and he proceeded to pour the cat kibbles over and among the cats and onto the floor - that's one way of doing it! We also met Mr Boonrueng who spoke very good English and has worked there for years, but is now retired, and he aided the communications somewhat.
We left them at about 20h00 and walked back down to Nyathi, where we settled down for the night.
We were awake just after 07h00. We were overlooking the two pens for the elephant cows and their babies May and Uoong.
May was playing with a football, it was so cute. We wandered across to take photos and the keeper had given two other early risers Beth and Reid (from Vancouver and New York) some bananas to feed May (much to her delight - although I'm sure by the end of the day she must get quite full). We spent quite some time chatting to Beth and Reid and feeding May and her mother. May got very affectionate toward Michael, trying to swallow his head at one stage!
She was tugging on his arm quite forcefully and a little later he commented that it felt a bit tender. We fed both mothers and babies more bananas and sugar cane and took lots of photographs.
We wandered up to the office to see if we could find out more about availability on the elephant treks and 3 day, 2 night 'home-stays'. They had spaces for tomorrow so we decided to go ahead and book. It is B4,000 each, but we really want to get close to the elephants and we think it will be worth it, so we are looking to it. We would have loved to have done the three day jungle trek, but it is not offered in the hot, dry season. Beth, Reid and their friends Caroline and Scott began their course at 13h00 and I think we'll get to see them tomorrow, which will be lovely.
We went up to Chiang Mai for the day to do some shopping. We spent lots of money in Tesco (and bought one of those zappy bug killers from a stall outside). We didn't spend very much at the market in Chiang Mai city, coming away with a lantern for the guest bedroom at home. We liked the city, despite the guide books warnings that it is too busy and has lost its charm.
We spent some time wandering through the streets, stopping at a wat to take pictures and just soaking up the atmosphere. Here Michael is taming the naga (snake)...
We met three sets of interesting couples. Leslie and Brian from Oregon, who joined us at our table to chat after lunch. Carallyn and Doug from Canada to whom we stood and spoke to for ages next to Nyathi. We said goodbye to each other a couple of times and then we'd get started on another tale...
It was wonderful to share stories with them (they are seasoned SE Asia travellers) and it reminded us why we like Canadians so much. Then a Belgian couple, Jurgen and Greet, (who are overlanding on a motor bike) left a note for us on Nyathi's windscreen saying if we felt like getting together we should pop around to their guest house, which we did. We spent a lovely evening with them wandering through the night market and eating a light dinner.
We only left Chiang Mai at 23h00 and stopped for the night at a rest area just 6km away from the conservation centre.
We were awake just after 07h00. We had watermelon and pink grapefruit for breakfast. I had a shower in the ladies bathroom, which was cool, but refreshing and Michael just did an 'Nyathi' wash. We got back to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre mid morning and Michael swapped around the batteries while I paid for the 3-day Home-stay Mahout Course and filled in all our details.
Then we had lunch with Oi and a lady from the Mahout Training Centre at the little Thai restaurant on the hill, which was lovely. We met Carol (who is English, but lives in Australia) who is the only other person starting the course with us. Then we donned our mahout suits and got ready for our course. First we taken down to the elephant 'stables' where we jumped the queue of tourists (somewhat embarrassingly) to have a ride on the chair , which was a little jolting, but pleasant, as it led through some forest and crossed the small bathing stream.
Then we went to the show ground where we watched the end of the show. We were given a rundown of the elephant commands and were introduced to our elephants. Beth, Reid, Caroline and Scott were already there. My Mahout's name is Deng and my elephant, Phra Ti Da (Princess). Michael's Mahout's names is Nut and his elephant Pra Chouab (name of the place from whence she came). We fed them a little and then we each went off with our elephant and mahout and practiced mounting and dismounting from the side, as well as down the front of the head and then leapfrogging back on again. 'Commanding' the elephant was interesting, it was clear the mahouts were the only ones they really wanted to listen to, but for what it's worth here's what we have to learn to say...
song soong - get on from the side (elephant bends their leg to make a step)
We all had varying degrees of success mounting, dismounting and getting the elephants to follow our commands. I gave myself a nasty skin burn courtesy of Phra Ti Da's tough skin and my poor judgement of the distance to the floor! It was great fun and it was so wonderful to be in such close contact with the elephants.
Then we rode our elephants for about half an hour back into the jungle where they sleep overnight. Michael rode Pra Chouab on his own, with Nut walking alongside (except for the river crossing) and Deng rode on Phra Ti Da's back with me.
It was probably the best part of the day, (except Deng had the awful habit of hawking, coughing and then spitting at regular intervals while seated behind me!) We walked along a forest path, crossed a small stream, then waded through a dam and then along a road into the forest and meadows beyond. We each went with our Mahouts to tie up the elephants for the night in a chosen spot (they have about a 30m length of chain) and then we walked back out the forest and to the home-stay bungalows.
I settled for a cold shower (as the hot shower didn't work first time and after pressing two buttons had no success, so I assumed it was broken). Michael went an played badminton with the guys and I sat and chatted to everyone else at the home-stay. It was a terrific evening.
Beth works for the UN and Reid consults to an NGO, while Caroline works for an NGO involved in Aids/HIVs and Scott is an architect for a firm in Bangkok. Carol was quiet and kept to herself, she sells antiques in Brisbane. Michael had a hot shower (I just need to press the button back in) and we all had a delicious dinner cooked by Supat and the team.
We chatted for a while after dinner and then everyone retired to bed feeling pretty tired.
My alarm went off at six. We were both still feeling tired, but we got up and went across to the home-stay where we got dressed in our Mahout suits. We chatted to the others while they had a quick cup of coffee.
It was cool, but not unpleasant and made for a wonderful walk into the misty forest. Deng was super fast and had Phra Ti Da unchained and standing on the road. She was very patient and I gave her a stick of the sugar cane I'd been given to bring with me. It is amazing to see how the elephants help the Mahouts. They collect and pile the chain up to one side so the Mahout can drape it over their necks for the walk back to the centre. Michael went on his own again, but Deng sat with me. His throat was not any better and his coughing continued! However, he is so pleasant and friendly and we have entertaining non-Thai/non-English /charade conversations. He says my name over and over as he battles to remember it, but now he has nick named me Sai (Thai for sand). Between yesterday and this morning I now know in which compound he lives and that he has no children, that he is 27 and Phra Ti Da is eleven and he has been a Mahout for 3 years. He also taught me the name for water (naam) as well as tree and rock (which I can't remember). Michael got to take Pra Chouab across the dam on his own and very nearly got wet up to the crotch. It's all fine, but the water is rather pungent smelling!
We stopped at the bathing area and left the elephants with the Mahouts while we had breakfast. The food was tasty and plentiful. Eggs, sausage, toast, jam and fruit. Then we went off to the show ground to do some elephant training. I met John, who was introduced as the assistant, although I have to say he seemed a whole lot more in tune with Phra Ti Da. He sang and talked to her and only had to give his commands quietly and she listened. She clearly loved him to bits. He was also very friendly and pleasant. We did more climbing up and down (which has improved since yesterday), but I prefer 'tak long' it is definitely the easiest and doesn't cause me to rub against my tender burn from yesterday.
We rode the elephants down to the bathing pool and I went and bought both Phra Ti Da and Pra Chouab some bananas - which they loved. I feel so much more confident around the elephants now, particularly Phra Ti Da, whom I can lie on, stroke and generally get very close too, which is amazing.
It is a very good idea of the centre to give the course participants Mahout clothing to wear as the other visitors see us in such close contact with the elephants and we look 'official' so they ask us what we're doing and of course that encourages others to enrol! Michael did a good job of washing Pra Chouab and she looked so clean when she emerged...
Then it was time for the elephant parade up to the show ground for the first performance of the day. Beth, Reid, Scott and Caroline all rode their elephants in line with all the others and then took part in the show (it'll be our turn tomorrow). Another great marketing trick is the visitors get to see everyone mounting and dismounting along with the Mahouts and thinks 'hey, I want to do that'. Michael, Carol and I took photos for them. The they got a chance to relax while the elephants demonstrated all sorts of log lifting and pushing techniques, including lining them up with the edges flush with each other. Other enchanting acts included playing the xylophone, playing the elephant song on bamboo chimes (Phra Ti Da was one of the five 'musicians'), painting (which is entirely abstract, but fun to watch!) and lastly, lowering the flag.
Then the others mounted their steeds once more for the finale and the audience came up to the edge of the 'ring' and fed the elephants sugar cane and bananas. Once again I took loads of photos and video footage and then I fed the elephants - though not as quickly and as much a they would have liked...
Michael, Carol and I went to visit the elephant hospital while the others finished up for the day. It was so sad to see the various cases at the hospital. Two with feet damaged from landmines along the Burmese border, one with a shotgun wound (a result of trying to stop a raging elephant trying to attack a Mahout), one with brain damage (he did look a little 'dippy'), one with an amputated trunk (after a huge log fell on his trunk), one with an eye infection and another with a urinary infection. It's wonderful to see what they are trying to do with the elephants, but they could definitely do with more financial support.
We wandered back to the home-stay and Michael burnt a CD for Reid of all his and our elephant photos. We said our goodbyes to Scott, Caroline, Griffin (their two and a half year old son - who speaks Thai, which is very endearing) and Deng (their nanny). The rest of us had fried rice for lunch and then hid from the scorching sun in the shade. Then Beth and Reid left for Chiang Mai (we hope to see them in Bangkok) and we went off to make elephant dung paper. It wasn't as bad as we thought it would be. The dung goes through so many processes that it's actually quite sterile before anyone gets to dig their hands in. The dung is washed, boiled, bleached, spun, squeezed, mixed with fabric softener and rolled into balls, which are then mixed with water splashed about and evenly spread above a mesh tray submerged in water, slowly lifted and left to dry - easy! We all got to make our own sheets and it was interesting to see how they make good use of a waste product. I roped Tun and Pui into helping...
Then it was back to the show ground to see the elephants and do some more training with the Mahouts. But first, John and Nut came with us as we rode our elephants to meet Nyathi. Both Phra Ti Da and Pra Chouab were most intrigued by our home. They were sniffing up on the roof, all over the bonnet and around the vice. They graciously posed with us and the Mahouts and created a lot of interest among the visitors to see the elephants in the car park.
We rode back to the show ground and got some practicing in. It is getting easier, although the only command Phra Ti Da listens to on a mostly regular basis is How! (Stop!). She listens to some of the others some of the time but she often needs coaxing from John in the background, but what can you expects after one and a half days? Michael has much the same experience.
We had a terrific walk back to the forest at 15h00. John left me on Phra Ti Da while he walked. He also took the camera and proved to be a proficient photographer - thank you, John!
I got to cross the dam with Phra Ti Da on my own (which had been flooded by them releasing the bathing pool higher up) and I had to kneel on her back and splash her, she really enjoyed it. Michael had Nut with him and didn't get up quite quickly enough and as a result got wet trousers up to his groin!
Once again, the Mahouts tied up the elephants in the forest and we wandered back to camp, feeling enthusiastic, but tired. I like John. He seems very fond of Phra Ti Da and Tun was telling me that she calls him when it's time to go bathing and if he is busy inside his house she will walk up and blow air at him through her trunk to remind him it is time to get going for the show! I also discovered that she is adopted by the Thai King's sister - thus the name.
We had refreshing showers and I wandered up to the shop with Carol to buy some chang beer and put it, along with some sprite, in the big ice-filled cooler box at the home-stay. I wandered up to the car park and watched the guys, including my Mahout, John, playing tak-roh (a volleyball come football game played with a woven bamboo ball which must be kept suspended in play and can be propelled using any part of the body except hands). They are incredibly good at it and their agility is very evident.
After that I helped Tun with dinner by chopping and peeling garlic and we relaxed and had a drink with our very tasty dinner (the leftovers, we were pleased to see were fed to the dogs, including our old favourite, skew-face). I sat and wrote the diary and then we both fell into bed!
When we got to the meadow in the middle of the forest and approached Phra Ti Da she was rocking from side to side and swaying her trunk, pleased to us (well John). She helped him pull in the length of chain so he could lie it over her neck.
I jumped up (song soong) and rode her up the little ridge and onto the dusty road. Pra Chouab had been frolicking with her neighbouring elephant and they had succeeded in knotting their chains together, so it took Michael a bit longer to get started. John wasted little time and got Phra Ti Da walking at a fast pace. It is incredible to feel their feet padding along the ground as you ride on the dusty and uneven forest track.
I have to confess my inner thighs were feeling a little tender today and I have a bruise where the chain pinched me yesterday. Michael was also saying he felt a bit stiff, but wasn't sure if all the badminton playing had more to do with that!! I sat at in the shade at the bathing pool waiting for Michael to arrive and watched the Mahouts all giving their beasts a good washing! About ten minutes later Michael emerged from the forest and we went back to the home-stay (which overlooks the bathing pool) and had a tasty breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, toast, butter and jam - a great way to start the day.
At 09h00 we went up to the show ground where we had our last training session for the course. The Mahouts made sure we could give all the commands and mount and dismount as best as we could. It is actually a pity we are ending today as I really feel like I am getting the hang of it all now. I can now side mount and dismount without a shove up or helping hand from John and have the tak long (down the trunk) down to a tee (helped by the fact that Phra Ti Da lowers her head nicely).
Michael is giving a good demonstration of song soong here...
John was taking photos and then Gam took some too, it was wonderful to have such willing photographers. We posed together with John, Nut and Tun and then we had one just of the girls - Gam, Tun, Phra Ti Da and me...
After that we road the elephants down to the bathing pool and Michael took Pra Chouab down into the bathing pool, while Nut stayed on dry land. Michael was well practiced and fitted in with all the other Mahouts! The elephants did their normal 'spraying of the tourists' trick at the end. I washed Phra Ti Da from the edge of the pool and then once all the other elephants had left she had a terrific time ducking under the water, wallowing and generally splashing about. She sprayed water for me on John's command which was delightful and endeared her to the watching crowd.
Then it was our turn to mount our charges and ride them in a neat line trunk to tail entwined along the road and into the show ground. There, we did all the commands and mounting dismounting along with all the other Mahouts. It really is a great marketing exercise as you can see that the audience is surprised to witness other tourists involved!
We got to relax for a while while the logging, music and painting demonstrations took place and then we joined in for the final bow and the race on our elephants to the edge of the arena where all the visitors were waiting with their sugar cane and bananas to feed the performers!
Then Phra Ti Da and Pra Chouab painted abstract works of art in our 'guestbook' and John and Nut signed, while Tun did very neatly written translations of the Thai script for us. Tun also took lots of photographs for us during the show - thank you! We did a little detour to feed May and Uoong for the last time and then headed back to the home-stay for a hot, invigorating shower.
We wandered up to the office where we were treated to cake and we sat and chatted to the staff for a bit, while everyone signed our book. Everyone at the centre has been wonderful. The staff are enthusiastic about their work and they made our stay a fun and memorable one, which made our farewells all the sadder. Thanks to everyone we met - we will certainly tell people to visit!
Their website, created and maintained by Supat in his spare time, is www.changthai.com.
We headed for Chiang Mai arriving mid afternoon. We stopped off at the enormous and very well stocked Carrefour. Then we bought a new battery for Nyathi. We met Jurgen as we were driving d along so when we parked up we chatted to him for a while. We went to the internet cafe to try and load Malcolm's website, but there was still no confirmation reply so we registered again and we'll have to check for confirmation in Chiang Rai. We a a bite to eat before walking back to Nyathi where we bought some watermelon pineapple and 'apple/cucumber' fruit from a street seller (whose stand we'd compromised a little in terms of space because of where Nyathi was parked! We drove for a while into the night and we found a nice quiet fuel station where we set up camp for the night (after retrieving our spare car keys from the tricky hiding place, with no torch, as we had locked ourselves out, the first time this trip)!
We slept well and were ready to go by 07h00. We had a beautiful drive through the mist cloaked mountains which were carpeted in lush jungle, interspersed with crop cultivation which included anything from bananas, satsumas and mangoes to maize, coffee and (probably somewhere out of sight), poppies! We drove through the bustling little town of Chiang Dao which was alive with colour and people scurrying about at the major weekly market. The town is still peppered with wooden shop houses which give the place a traditional feel. One of the things I find rather quaint is the dustbins they use here, which are made from old tyres - quite ingenious...
We followed the road up to the west to Doi Ang Kang Nature Reserve. The roads were probably the steepest we've driven in Nyathi to date. The gradient was 1:4 for a lot of the way and she understandably got a bit hot under the collar (especially as the ambient temperature was in the late 30s). The air compressor hose burst under the heat and pressure, so we were without a hooter, which would have been handy for the hairpin bends. The scenery was lovely and it was sparsely populated, so we took the opportunity of finding a quite spot in the shade for an hour's nap.
We were going to continue along the 4x4 road which followed the Burmese border, but Nyathi had been shuddering a little through the gearbox at extra low revs, so we decided to play it safe (I know, what's wrong with us) and back tracked to the main road south of Fang. We weren't disappointed the route via Mae Ai, the Karen Village of Ta Don, and then south via Mae Can to Chiang Rai was lovely. It took us through low lying hills and meadows with green rice paddy fields spotted with buffalo and solid rondavels (round huts) of hay. The people were very friendly, waving and shouting to us as we drove by.
We were very fortunate (after trying a number of other places in Chiang Rai) to find the Whitehouse Hotel, where the owner let us park in his hotel grounds and use the toilets and cold showers near the pool for just B50 for the night. The facilities were spotless and the staff desk staff spoke good English and were very friendly. We spoke to a number of the hotel guests including Pat and Rob from Bournemouth and Dirk and Sophie from Belgium. Michael spent the evening putting in the new (very loud) air horn which Ivor gave us when we were in the UK and then he retreated to bed. I walked for 25 minutes to the night market which was a little disappointing, but nice to wander around and I had a great serving of phad thai enclosed in an 'omelette' - tasty!
Michael finished working on the air horn, we filled up our jerry cans with the good, clean hotel water and both had showers, before sharing a tom ka ka for lunch at the hotel restaurant. Then we went in search of an internet cafe, but had no luck as the electricity was down for the day, so we decided to head north east for Chiang Kong (the border town with Laos). We took the lesser travelled route through small village communities along winding roads with chickens and uncontrolled dogs and children darting out into the road.
We liked Chiang Khong, just from driving down its main (and almost only) road. It had a holiday feel to it and there were lots of interesting shops and restaurants. We stopped off at the port to ask one of the local truck drivers what time the ferry leaves and how much it costs. He said around 08h00 - 09h00 and it costs about B300 for a truck (which was a lot less than the B2,500 the slightly grumpy owner of the Bamboo Guesthouse quoted). He told us that immigration opens at 06h30, so we'd have plenty of time.
We met the characterful owner (Sophaban) of the Ruan Thai Sophaban Resort, who welcomed us with opened arms and said she'd love to have us park our 'camper' in her yard. Her guesthouse is beautiful. All the floors are wooden and polished to a perfect shine. The rooms are situated on a number of different levels surrounded by enclosed decks with wooden shutters which open wide giving magnificent views over the mighty Mekong River. We sat out on one of the patios and enjoyed a cold drink.
It was also interesting to see the pictures on display throughout the guesthouse which told the story of Sophoban's colourful life. She let us use Room 12 for the toilet and shower and told us to make whatever contribution we'd like. The room was disappointing given the other parts of the house we had seen, but in fairness, I don't think it was one of their better rooms and it still had a hot shower!
In the evening I took our clothing to a laundry across the way as she said she could have it ready by 06h30 tomorrow. Then we spent over two hours in the internet cafe downloading emails and trying to respond to others which kept bouncing back or not sending at all! I had Phad Thai at a little restaurant and Michael and I watched a bit of the Arsenal vs Manchester United match, before going back to Nyathi to bed.