So, this segues nicely into the next bit of our travelogue - Southern Thailand. On the whole, I've tried to to cover our movements reasonably comprehensively, sometimes missing chunks out and sometimes getting a case of of verbal diarrhoea about nothing in particular, and while you obviously can't include everything (and wouldn't want to in many cases), I don't really like missing whole places out - there is something interesting to be found just about everywhere if you take the time to look properly. Having said that, I'm now going to do exactly the opposite and skim over Southern Thailand - we spent over a month there and it was to all intents an purposes, a beach holiday. As I've said before nobody wants to read gushing word for word write-ups on other peoples extended sun-soaked sojourns on the beach - it's usually raining back home at the time of reading and only leads to resentment, and frankly it makes fairly banal subject matter for travel writing. Whats the point of writing about something that's already pretty much familiar to everyone?
From a travelers perspective Thailand can roughly be split up into two parts, the North being the head and home to the more cultural and "spiritual" side of the country and the Southern Islands - well, they're the bits below the belt if you will - the party end - not particularly cerebral and where most of the fun and naughtiness happen. This is almost always where everybody wants to go. This is the fabled holiday Nirvana.
The image of Thailand that one conjures up more readily than any other is nearly always an amalgamation of the following; a white sand beach, turquoise water, lush green flora-coated karsts rising majestically from the sea. A healthy looking woman with a golden tan reclines on a sunbed under a row of pristine palm trees while sipping on a meal-in-a-glass size cocktail. It all looks ridiculously exotic. If you think about it, it is a triumph of marketing really. Its a nation-brand so ingrained in the psyche of potential holiday-makers that barely a thing has to be done to get people to go, except print pictures of the place and stick an attractive price tag on it. What Westerners want more than anything else from a holiday are these things, and Thailand has all of them in spades.
Its hard to say why we felt the way we did about the Southern half of Thailand, but there was a palpable sense of something missing for both of us. On paper it ticks all the boxes. The North had blown us away with its kind people, creative food and stunning countryside, but as we headed South you sensed a country that had sold out.
Capitalism is clearly the new religion and it seems the stunning natural beauty of the islands have largely been turned into cash registers for savvy local entrepreneurs. This business clearly only works for some of the populous however. Thai people will you tell time and again they've never been occupied like their neighbours and they wear this badge of independence proudly - you only have to take one look at Bangkoks high-rise skyline to see that it's become a sizable player in the emerging economies of South East Asia, but, to utilise the cliche, there's trouble in paradise - the country has some fundamental political and ideological issues that seem largely unsolvable.
Tourism has been the backbone of Thailands growth over the last few decades - largely because it's lucky enough to have some of the most stunning natural coastline and islands in South East Asia, but if they continue with the problems of the last year they will scare off their key source of income and probably also a lot of foreign investment - a lot of the locals and ex-pats we spole to were becoming quite concerned about this. As a package holiday destination Thailand has also had success because it's widely percieved as the exotic "safe" choice in South East Asia - no recent history of communism and bloody massacres, relatively decent infrastructure - just the right balance of the known and the unknown. It's hard to tell whether the shootings of dozens of protesters and civilians in the riots this year will have an impact on this. The likely outcome, if any, will be a dip in the high-end luxury market, as this is the demographic that's most concerned with security. I doubt if it will stop budget travellers going at all. Unfortunately as ministers for travel/tourism well know, its short term, high income, holiday makers that spend the real cash.
Perhaps in retrospect being in Thailand for almost the full duration of a major political crisis had given us a slightly jaded view of the country. There is something a little perverse about being in a city where you can be eating and chatting on a noisy street, everyone all smiles and just one block over a few thousand people stand Red Shirted in camps watching angry demos bemoaning the corruption of their government. This sort of proximity would not happen back home. Its hard to tell whether the government, worried about affecting tourism were afraid of making more out of it, or whether the tourists, just happy to be tanking back cheap lager and buying cheap t-shirts, just didn't give a shit. I suspect a bit of both. Nobody wants to think about politics on holiday do they?
Anyhow, we spent six nights in Bangkok. It is everything everyone says it is: busy, seedy, dirty, noisy and exciting - a full on assault on the senses. We liked it, as we have done most of the big brash cities of Asia. At times it can be an overwhelming place; the heady scent of street kitchens and cheap perfume mixed with exaust fumes, the barrage of non-stop banter from street vendors and car horns and shouting, drunken kids getting their hair dreaded on the side of the street, flashing neon that fills your eyes and the grim buzzing of tattooists needles. The heat is unbearable. The food is spicy. Everybody wants your money. It is an intoxicating and vulgar place all at the same time; crass and sleazy feeling with vast shopping centres that go on forever, but don't sell anything you would actually want to buy.
Looking back now its hard to separate one day from another, they all seem to meld into one hot sticky mess. By chance friends from home Matt and Lucy happened to be crossing paths with us while on a visa mission from India, and so the inevitable happened - "a bit of a catchup" turned into a Bangkok Bender of epic proportions, starting with a beer fulled dinner on one of the excellent street food stalls on Rambutri, with a Jewish Hungarian version of Eric Clapton (who lived in Spain) giving us a mini lecture on Chorizo, and moving onto various dens of iniquity before heading off to see one of the city's notorious ping-pong shows. We arrived however to be told we had missed the show, but were invited in anyway and spent the next hour drinking overpriced beer in a brothel. When in Rome. A bit of impromptu al-fresco dancing to the Beegees was also involved at a later stage, but I'll spare everyone the details on that..
So, Bangkok chewed us up and spat us out, and we left for the islands which were to be our home for the next month. First we hit Ko Samui, which was ok - nice be be back on the beach etc. but on the whole pretty dull. We just didn't get the appeal. We left for Ko Phangan after three days which was a vast improvement - a prettier island with better beaches and we had the added bonus of staying at a great little place (http://www.cocogardens.com/) on Ban Tai Beach run by two guys from Jersey who deserve some sort of award for successfully managing run a tight ship while spending most of their days at the beach bar out-drinking the guests. Respect also goes out to the only monk-turned-barman we've ever met, Lak for keeping us in cold Singhas, cocktails, and nuggets of wisdom. Buddha would most definitely approve.
Phangan is known for its Full Moon Parties and is essentially marketed as a party island. Half the kids on the boat trip over looked like un-reconstructed versions of Nathan Barley and we pretty much decided then that where ever they were going, we weren't. We considered doing one of the full moon parties but pretty much most people we spoke to said "don't bother, they tend to be full of idiots" (see boat over) so we gave it a miss. Sam's words were "you know you'll only end up complaining that the music's crap and that trance is for morons and end up wanting to slap some trustafarian trying to stick a bindi on you...". Probably true. The fact that there were also likely to be about two hundred amateurs doing the worlds most annoying hobby - Poi (look it up...) was enough to put me off.
We did however do a few of the smaller parties and had some comedy nights out in Phangan. You can't fail to enjoy yourself when you're drinking in a bar called Fanny 2 really. By far the most entertaining thing about our stay on Phangan though was Songkran - Thai New Year - without doubt one of the craziest days you can imagine. New year across Thailand is celebrated by chucking water over each other at every possible opportunity. There is obviously a cultural significance behind the ritual, but its now mainly just a chance to go mental and drench your next door neighbours with ice cold water shot at high pressure from a giant supersoaker. No-body is immune, and in the scorching midday heat it feels fantastic.
By the time we'd made it into town we were all wet through and had abandoned our puny plastic Taiwanese water pistols for buckets in an attempt to fight the locals at their own game more effectively (it didn't work). Traffic in the town centre was at a standstill and had been diverted so a couple of fire engines could roll through and blast the crowds. Shops had vast sound systems set up in their doorways belting out throbbing house and Samsong Rum and Chang Beer were being downed in large quantities. It was totally crazy. I cant remember a day when I've seen so many people of all ages interacting and having such a good time. This was our third new year of 2010. Not bad going. Sadly we only have a few pictures - a shame cameras and water don't mix.
From Ko Phangan we moved onto Krabi and Railay where we continued our hectic lifestyle of morning swims, book filled afternoons and balmy evenings dining on endless Thai food. Both were utterly picturesque with good beaches, but very much family holiday territory. By chance we bumped into partners in crime from our adventures in Laos - Ben, Beth, Luke and Polly and after a bit of haggling with a local fisherman had ourselves a longtail boat for the day. Nine hours, plenty of squid and fish (and a few jellyfish) later we headed back to land sunburned but happy. Our last stops were the island of Ko Lanta and Ao Nang where we all met up again for more of the same.
Although we'd had fun in Thailand, we were getting itchy feet and keen to move on. There is only so much laying on the beach and Bob Marley one can take. We had started to feel like tourists amongst the rest of the Dan Brown-reading middle aged Europeans cooking slowly like lobsters on the shore. As a shorter break it does exactly what it says on the tin but it felt a little two dimensional, a little too packaged and devoid of the depth of culture and magical surprises that we'd got used to travelling India to Laos. I guess we'd been spoiled.
Things had also started to get pretty bad politically by now. Thailand was the headline news across the world. There had been two days of full-on riots and shootings in Bangkok and a spiralling death toll including non-protest civilians and a journalist. Army presence had been ramped up and the CBD we'd shopped in only a few weeks ago sealed off. Rubber bullets had now been upgraded to live ammo and there were buses being stopped and boarded by armed Red Shirt groups in the outer provinces. The British foreign office had issued an official warning to UK citizens encouraging only essential travel to Thailand. It had all started to get a bit dodgy.
...But we weren't going anywhere just yet. Oh no! With timing perfect as ever, Sams mum Gill was due to arrive for her two week holiday. There was just the additional minor problem of a giant Volcanic-Ash-Doom-Cloud back home interfering with half of Europes flight schedules. Some things you just can't make up...
View our pics here:
|Bangkok, South Thailand and the Islands...|