Wednesday, February 28, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Visa teasers

The cool skytrain at Siam Square. [IMG_1282]
Bangkok City of Life [Enlarge]

Ah, visas. How we love them. Every one is different. Some like UAE and Thailand are freely given, others like Jordan, Turkey and Laos are paid for on arrival, and then there are the ones like Syria and India for which you have to visit the embassy. And the forms are different, but there's always at least one question that you can't fill in because it's not designed for independent or overland travellers. So what do you put when they ask you for your address in the country you're visiting, or for details of your return flight out? You could make something up—the name of a hotel or a travel agent—they probably won't check but they might. You could leave it blank and hope that it doesn't matter, or you could write in something vague like "travelling". A combination of the latter two has yet to cause us problems, but yesterday's visa application was for China. Chinese visas are the stuff of legend on the web: stories abound about how picky the Chinese officials are, how they will check out your entire itinerary, and how you mustn't leave any boxes blank. We needed to get it right because we've already paid the deposit for a tour! Our travel agent in Beijing had sent us a letter of introduction to take to the embassy, along with their itinerary and lots of passport photographs.

We went straight to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok more or less as soon as we arrived back on the overnight train. As we understood it, the visa process takes four days: this was Tuesday, and we wanted them before the weekend. After getting in a taxi and failing to persuade the driver to take us to the embassy ("Too far!"), we were forced to use a combination of two canal boats, a metro and our legs to get to Ratchada Phisek Road way out in the east of town. It was 10:00 by the time we got to the embassy. The visa office occupies a large square room and feels not unlike a major post office. You take a numbered ticket and wait. There were a lot of other people seeking a China visa in Bangkok that day. Admittedly it was the second day that they were open after the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, but even so, it was busy. Our ticket was number 260 and the funky laser display was only showing 95! There were five windows open and the embassy was due to close at 11:30. Unsure of whether we would make it to the head of the queue in time, we took a couple of application forms and filled them in. We noticed that there was a same day priority option—so much for it taking four days! It was a bit more expensive but it would mean that we would have our passports back and we wouldn't need to cross town again in a few days. So we ticked the priority box and then grabbed a seat when we saw one come free. The woman beside us had ticket number 343—suddenly 260 didn't seem so bad. We had observed that if no one came forward to one of the five windows within ten seconds of their number being called the number would move on and they would presumably have to start from scratch. So as our number approached we lurked close by the window. We were poised, ready, as above the third window from the left the numbers two, six, zero appeared. We leapt forwards and flung our forms and supporting documents under the glass. It was then that we noticed that each window had two members of staff behind it processing applications! They must have been unusually busy. The lady glanced over our documents and handed back the letter of invitation and itinerary, keeping the two forms and passports. Then she told us to return at 15:00 to collect the visas. And that was it!

We had four hours to kill. We were out in the suburbs so there wasn't too much to do touristically. On the way from the Metro station we had passed a big Tesco superstore (yes, they have even made it to Thailand) so we went for a nose around there. Their range of ready-meals included Thai green curry: just like at home. In fact if you didn't look too closely at the deli counter it could have been home. We wandered into the next door mall, had a Coke and topped up on soap and shampoo. Later we treated ourselves to a Thai Pizza Hut lunch. Then, in an inexplicable fit of impulse purchasing, we bought The Man With The Golden Gun on DVD, to watch on the laptop later. We justified the purchase because it was cheap and we hadn't seen a movie for a while, but mainly because the film is partly set in Bangkok.

All of a sudden it was 14:30 and time to go back to the embassy. It's amazing how you can while away time in a mall, especially if the alternative is to go outside into the superheated streets. When the doors opened on the stroke of three, the waiting mass poured into the embassy and up the stairs, forming a queue at the payment counter. Once we had paid our 5,900 baht (GBP 93.26 / USD 180.00) for two double-entry priority visas, we took our receipt to the collection counter and got our visa'd passports with no problems. Yet again, all the horror stories on the web had proven to be inaccurate.

OK, we've got our Chinese visa sorted, so where next? Our China tour starts on the overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai on 25th March. We actually want to be in Hong Kong several days before that, firstly to see the place (and Macau), and secondly to buy some more Malarone before our current stocks run out. We know—well, we've found on the internet for all that's worth—that there are at least two travel clinics in Hong Kong able to dispense Malarone to travellers.

Sticking to our ideal of going overland, we would go through Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, then by train up the Vietnam coast to Hanoi, then train across China to Hong Kong. The problem is, although Hong Kong is part of China, for visa purposes it's completely separate. As British citizens we can visit Hong Kong for 180 days without needing a visa. To travel overland from Vietnam through China to Hong Kong would count as entering and then exiting China, thus using up our visa. We would then need a new Chinese visa to get back in once we were finished in Hong Kong, which we wouldn't be able to apply for until a certain period of time had elapsed. OK, but surely we have a double-entry Chinese visa so there's no problem, right? Wrong. We need a second entry into China for a special reason which we will talk about later. And tourists can't get more than two entries at a time.

So overland to Hong Kong is out. Our preferred option is to fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong. It's not very far—about the same as London to Glasgow. We can still get to Hanoi overland from Bangkok. Cambodia issues visas on arrival at the two main border crossings with Thailand, but we need to get our Vietnam visas before we set out. You know what this means. We trundled off this morning to the Vietnam embassy—thankfully much nearer to our hotel than the Chinese one—filled in more forms with more photos, handed over yet more money and surrendered our passports again. This time it cost 5,000 baht (GBP 79.03 / 152.54 USD ), and is an overnight job. We have to go back at 16:00 tomorrow to collect our passports and, hopefully, our visas.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic / Thailand Thailand

Return to Bangkok

And Arc de Triomphe (Patouxai), allegedly built from concrete donated by the US to build a new runway at the airport. It is sometimes known by the locals as 'the vertical airport'. [IMG_1265]
Vientiane's Champs-Elysées (Lane Xang Avenue) [Enlarge]

Getting from Vientiane to Nong Khai in Thailand is a multi-stage process: Transport 24 kilometres from Vientiane to the Friendship Bridge; walk through the Laos border; minibus across the Friendship Bridge (pedestrians not allowed); walk through the Thai border; tuk-tuk three kilometres to Nong Khai. Luckily there is also a bus service which runs all the way from Vientiane to Nong Khai, so we decided to take that rather than piecing together separate transport for each stage. We had borrowed someone else's Laos guidebook and found that there were three buses a day, and the next one was due at 10:30 from Vientiane's Market Place bus station. We checked out of our hotel and walked the few blocks to the bus station. It was stiflingly hot and muggy, even at 09:45. Low cloud meant the humidity was even higher than usual. A leisurely walk with our small bags left us soaked in sweat. It got better: when we reached the bus station we found that the timetable had changed, and there was no longer a 10:30 bus! The next one was at 12:40. A local taxi tout helped us to clarify our options. We could get a local bus to the border—he pointed out the local bus crammed full of people, shopping and livestock—or we could get a tuk-tuk. His tuk-tuk. Neither of these options was appealing, especially since they would only get us as far as the Laos border at the start of the Friendship Bridge. We chose to go with our own, third way: wait for the 12:40 air conditioned bus. We found a nice cool café round the corner to have breakfast.

After a couple of croissants and a leisurely read of the previous day's Bangkok Times we wandered back at the bus station. The clouds had lifted and the air was less humid, but it was still blisteringly hot. Nevertheless the bus was on time and we were at the border post in no time at all. Every border crossing we've done has been different and not one of them has gone according to plan. We'd read up on what we needed for the Laos/Thai border and arrived at Laos immigration with our pre-completed departure cards, passports and a crisp 20,000 kip note to cover our exit tax (GBP 1.07 / USD 2.07). The guards took the departure cards, stamped the passports, then decided to waive the exit fee! There was a booth marked "exit tax" or something similar, but the person inside just waved us through. We have no idea why.

Back on the waiting bus we crossed the Friendship Bridge back into Thailand. Ever wondered what happens when you cross a land border from a country where they drive on the right to one where they drive on the left? The road turned into a dual carriageway, then each carriageway curved round like a bow tie before turning back in on itself. The two halves met in the middle at what was basically a cross-roads. You make sure nothing is coming from the other direction, cross over and the road goes back to being a single carriageway with you on the other side. Simple.

And then we were back in Thailand. It didn't take long for us to know that we'd made the right decision to stay the previous night in Vientiane. Nong Khai doesn't have a lot to offer. We took a tuk-tuk to the railway station to buy our tickets for the night train back to Bangkok, then another tuk-tuk back into town to find somewhere to eat an early dinner. There are restaurants in Nong Khai, but we somehow managed to miss them. Eventually, right at the end of the street on the river front we came across Tony's, an English pub, guest house and restaurant. There was a blackboard outside boasting at the size of the pies, the greasiness of the all-day breakfasts, the milkiness of the hot tea, etc. In England we would have walked straight past the place. But we were out of options and we had a twelve hour train journey ahead of us. Glenn went for the house special, the steak and ale pie with mash, peas and gravy. Isla, ever adventurous tried the sausage and mash. How wrong first impressions can be! The home-made steak and ale pie was the best that Glenn had ever tasted, and Isla was delighted to find that her mash was lumpy, just like her dad makes it. Just goes to show that you never can tell unless you try!

We got a third and final tuk-tuk back to the train station and boarded our train. We had treated ourselves to a two-berth first class compartment back to Bangkok. It had a washbasin and was clean in all the places that mattered, like the bedding. We left Nong Khai on time and shut the curtains on the night. Two hours into the journey we asked the steward to make up our beds and we went to bed. We discovered that it is much easier to sleep on a night train than a night bus. The rocking was very soothing and with our ear plugs in even the train's horn was drowned out. We woke up at 05:30 on the outskirts of Bangkok with the GPS reading 21 kilometres to go, and we arrived into the station exactly on time.

We were even earlier arriving at the Prince Palace Hotel than we had been last time we got to Bangkok, and again they had no double rooms available yet. We must have looked a bit crumpled and travel weary because after a few minutes of sitting in the lobby to wait for someone to check out, the receptionist called us over and said he would upgrade us to a suite and we could have the key now. Result! After exploring our suite (OK, it's not all that big—it's just that we're used to budget accommodation, so humour us) we took a quick shower changed our clothes. We were ready to hit the town and face our next challenge… the China visa.

Map of Day 094

Day 094
Vientiane to Bangkok

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, February 25, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Voyages on the King of Bus

King of Bus [Enlarge]

No matter whether you've booked a first class compartment on a train or a seat on a luxury bus, travelling by public transport in second and third-world countries is still guaranteed to be an experience. It never seems to be the case of "got on, got off at the other end". But experiences are what it's all about on this kind of trip. At least that's what we keep telling each other.

We caught a tuk-tuk to the bus station and arrived in lots and lots of time for our 08:00 departure. The bus arrived and from the outside it looked fine—clean and modern with the correct number of wheels, an intact windscreen and no visible damage. The paint job and decoration inside and out made it look not unlike a drag queen's boudoir. But from the safety signs inside we deduced that it had originated in South Korea and was supposed to look like this. It was the type of coach where the passengers all sit upstairs above the driver, and proudly advertised the fact that it was no ordinary bus, not even a VIP bus. It was Super VIP; it was quite literally, the 'King of Bus'. At some point all the seats down the right side of the bus had been shifted about a bit and bolted down in different positions. The result was that our seats had a huge amount of extra leg room. Great news for Glenn, less so for the poor buggers sitting behind him who only had half the room they should have had. On most seats, ours included, the recline mechanism was broken. Luckily on most seats it had malfunctioned in the upright position, but the man in the seat at the front had to spend his whole journey almost horizontal. If we collided with anything he would shoot feet-first through the windscreen.

As the bus began its rocky progress out of the bus station we realised that not all the seats were entirely bolted to the floor. And the advertised 'air conditioning' was in fact, a fan.

The road connecting Luang Prabang and Vientiane is one of Laos's principal highways. This means that most of the time there is room for two vehicles to pass one another, so long as they're both careful. The first half of the journey is spent winding through the mountains and there are some sheer drops waiting to claim the reckless overtaker. Where safety barriers exist they are made of woven bamboo and coco leaves—they were not really going to stop the King of Bus. The GPS had told us, as we sat in the bus station, that it was 214 kilometres to Vientiane. Unfortunately it didn't know about the switch-back bends that saw us spend as much time travelling away from our destination and we did towards it, or about the fact that we'd be ascending and descending as much as one vertical kilometre every half hour or so. After an hour we were less than ten kilometres in a straight line from where we had started.

When we finally stopped for lunch (included in the ticket price), we were both feeling pretty travel sick and could only manage to drink a Pepsi and stretch our wobbly legs. We were glad to find that the lunch stop marked the transition from hills to flat plain, and so from that point on we were generally pointing in the right direction most of the time. It was a great relief. Progress still wasn't rapid because of the patented Laos traffic-calming craters that we had to keep stopping for, but at least the road was fairly straight. We were feeling better, making good progress, when suddenly there was a great grinding, crashing noise from overhead. Since leaving Luang Prabang the inadequate fan system had been fighting a losing battle with the heat in the coach, and now it had very publicly given up. At first we thought the King of Bus was disintegrating, but the driver turned off the air and the grinding stopped. The steward yanked the cover off and started poking at the fans with a screwdriver while the driver periodically turned them on to see if the poking had by a miracle fixed it. Of course it hadn't. The stuffy bus got even stuffier.

The beautiful scenery and fascinating villages we passed along the road were a reminder of why we prefer overland travel to flying, despite the discomfort. In every village at least one house had a huge satellite dish. They were all identical, which suggests that maybe they are government issue, one per village. About half of the houses looked like they were connected to the overhead power wires, but most didn't have running water. Each village had a stand pipe or a village pump with a queue of people beside it and on one corner a placard announced that World Vision Singapore had funded clean water for that area. And we were only looking at the developed parts along the main highways and waterways—the equivalent of the M4 corridor in the UK.

We weren't quite sure when we would arrive into Vientiane. The lady in the seat in front of us had been told the journey was seven hours, our agent had said eight and we'd seen a sign outside another agency that advertised it as nine. We hadn't booked any accommodation because we weren't sure whether we wanted to stay the night in Vientiane or to cross the Laos/Thai border to Nong Khai that evening. It really depended on how we felt when we got there—whether Vientiane looked like it was worth looking around. It was almost 17:00 when we got to Vientiane's Khoua Louang bus station—exactly nine hours after we set out. We were very hot and sticky. Thunder was rumbling around the city and we decided we'd prefer to find accommodation while it was still dry and daylight. And we didn't want to quit Laos without even seeing its capital. The first place we tried was a large hotel that had undoubtedly been very smart about ten years ago, but was looking tired now. It was USD 35 a night which for a capital city is not too bad, but we felt we could do better. Around the corner was the Riverside Hotel, complete with a sign saying "new open, special rates". We took a look inside. The room were were shown still had the cellophane on the lamp shades. It was great value at USD 16 per night. We took it and, leaving the bags in the room we went downstairs to check in.

After a very much needed shower and a change of clothes we went out for some dinner. The thunder storm had moved away but the humid air was no fresher. We found a busy, inviting looking restaurant where a mix of asian and western diners were sitting outside. We wanted to give Laos food one final try. We ordered several dishes including pork lab, a traditional Laos dish of minced meat with spices and lots of herbs. Isla liked it, but Glenn was itching to get back to his beloved Thai cuisine.

This is the first time we have turned up in a new town without booked accommodation. It was surprisingly easy! Maybe we will do it again some time. The experience with the fleas taught us that booking a place before you arrive doesn't really guarantee much.

Map of Day 093

Day 093
Luang Prabang to Vientiane

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, February 24, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Viva Laos Vegas

Luang Prabang night market [Enlarge]

Our first night in Laos was also our first night sleeping under a mosquito net. We didn't really need it as we had air conditioning, but it was suspended from a hook in the ceiling and if we hadn't unfurled it we would have probably had strange dreams about ghosts hovering above the bed. Having tucked it in around the bed, we took everything we needed into our cocoon. Except we forgot the ear plugs, which we suddenly needed at 05:00 when the roosters started doing their noisy rooster thing. Yes, there was in fact a chicken coop right outside our ground-floor window.

Laos is an ex-French colony and one of the better things the French did to the place was to introduce the wonder of bread. Our breakfast consisted of freshly baked baguettes—not something we thought we would have in Asia! We would have liked to stay in the Merry Swiss for our second night but they were full, so we spent the first hour of the day finding another guest house—we eventually settled on the Xieng Mouane, which was in a colonial-style mansion set around a garden courtyard. Then the day was ours to spend hanging out in Luang Prabang, soaking up the weird ex-colonial astmosphere. Most of the official street signs were in Lao and French, but clearly the commercial pressure favours Lao and English, because the shops and menus were generally in those languages. Much to the chagrin of the many French tourists who still arrive in Laos expecting to be able to converse fluently with the locals. And also, much to our slightly twisted Anglo-Saxon amusement.

We did have one or two chores to accomplish, not least deciding on our onward route. We eventually settled on taking a bus south to the capital, Vientiane, from where we would cross back into Thailand and take the train back to Bangkok. We found an agent offering decent AC buses and booked two tickets on his Super VIP bus. It was hardly any more money than the regular AC one and we wanted to ensure the most comfortable journey possible—we had heard about Laos's roads. Apparently, when working out travelling times between cities you should use an average speed of twenty kilometres per hour. We also booked a couple of seats on the overnight train back to Bangkok.

When we reached for our wallet to pay for the tickets we realised that we weren't very well off for cash. Two nights at three times the price we had planned for had severely dented our reserves and we soon learned that the situation wasn't easy to resolve. For the first time on our whole journey we were in a country that doesn't have ATMs. They are just starting to be introduced in Vientiane, and they will probably spread very quickly. But for now, according to the travel agent, there are precisely none in Luang Prabang. We did have just enough cash for the bus tickets so we got the agent to cancel the train tickets—we will be able to book them from Vientiane or the Thai border town of Nong Khai.

We eventually found that there is a sort-of ATM in Luang Prabang—it is a dodgy-looking contraption in the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao, a currency exchange office, which will only work with MasterCard credit cards (we generally use our Visa debit card in ATMs as the bank we switched to just before we started our trip doesn't charge us any commission or fees for making the transactions). Since we were going to have to make an advance against our credit cards anyway, we decided to pass on the machine and go up to the window.

In Laos, money is a bit of an issue generally. The local currency is the kip, but because of recent hyperinflation it has lost around eighty percent of its value. Unsurprisingly the locals prefer not to use it with tourists. Despite a law prohibiting companies from advertising prices for goods and services in anything other than kip, you are positively encouraged to pay for everything in either US dollars or Thai baht (always getting your change in kip, of course!). In our heads we still obviously work in pounds Sterling, so we are having to juggle four different currencies in our heads all the time! For example, we see a bus ticket advertised at 100,000 kip. In our heads we would be thinking about five quid, and we would actually hand over around ten dollars or 400 baht.

Anyway, we needed to get a fair bit of cash out in case the bus broke down half way to Vientiane and we were stuck needing accommodation. But it is difficult to change kip back into anything worthwhile when you leave Laos, so we wanted to get baht or dollars. The exchange staff were unwilling to issue dollars but we managed to persuade them to give us some baht, although the transaction would still be put on our card in dollars. We were going to get stung for commission on both ends (sounds painful)—the exchange office would take their 3% cut, as well as their favourable kip–dollar–baht exchange rate, then our credit card company would charge us interest and commission, and their own favourable dollar–Sterling exchange rate. We took the hit and bought 8,000 baht (GBP 126.93 / USD 244.61).

There were a couple of places we fancied visiting in Luang Prabang. There was the museum and the climb up to the temple on the hill in the centre of the city. We headed for the museum first but when we got there we discovered that we had to leave our shoes, bag and camera at the entrance and pay a foreigner-weighted entrance fee. We decided we couldn't be bothered, so instead we headed for the steps up to the temple. There are 328 steps according to the signs at the top and bottom. We were about 110 steps up when we bumped into the film crew from the BBC Holiday Programme. For non-British readers this is a long-running UK television show which, as the name suggests, reviews holiday destinations. It was not Judith Chalmers slogging up the hill, nor even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen… what would the humidity have done to his frilly cuffs? Instead we had a chat between takes with the very friendly and modest Simon Calder. He was much more interested in hearing about our travels than talking about his own and we now have his business card and an invitation to send him any good travel tips we might come up with. We were tempted to drop the Laos Vegas quip into the conversation and claim it as our own, but by this time his director was ready to start filming again. The show is due to be aired in the UK some time in March. He had taken a slowboat down the Mehkong from Huayxai just like us (although he made the overnight stop in Pak Beng), and when you see him doing his piece in Luang Prabang at the temple at the top of the hill, think of us standing just out of the shot.

We wandered down the hill pausing briefly to see a giant footprint-shaped indentation in a rock—allegedly left by the Lord Buddha himself—and to listen to some monks enthusiastically bashing a very large drum. The night market was setting up as we walked back through the town. If we had been following the backpacker rules we would have had huge rucksacks as tall as us, which would have had plenty of room for hand carved Buddha and elephant statues, inlaid chess boards, beautiful handmade pressed-flower paper lampshades and notepads, and of course fake designer sunglasses and watches, made in China and ferried down the Mehkong. There were souvenir Beer Lao t-shirts too. It was nice to see some different, less mass produced stuff on sale alongside the tourist-tat. Maybe one day we'll come back with a long shopping list and a big wad of dollars. For dinner we chose a very popular restaurant overlooking the night market and drank Beer Lao as the sun went down.

Friday, February 23, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic / Thailand Thailand

Cruise down the Mehkong

We'll be needing a skipper. [IMG_1140]
Crossing the Mehkong to Laos [Enlarge]

Only the tourists and chickens were awake at 05:45 when we went downstairs for breakfast at the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel. By 06:15 we were outside in the still-dark street stepping over sleeping dogs to reach the waiting fleet of MPVs. The vehicles set off whenever they were full and we were the first one to leave. By the time we had travelled for an hour downriver to the border town of Chiang Khong, we had been overtaken by several of the other MPVs, because our driver didn't understand that you need to change down to a lower gear to go up steep hills. By about half past seven we were all standing outside the Thai border post, only half awake. The office wasn't due to open until eight, but the hotel tour manager told us that he had a special arrangement and our passports would be getting stamped as he spoke. We were sent down the hill, still passportless, to the river bank—where we were parted from our bag as people and luggage were loaded onto different longtail boats to cross the Mehkong to the Laos side. Once everyone had arrived on the other side and the bags had been unloaded, our passports materialised and were handed through the window en masse. We got them back complete with their Laos visas, and then individually queued at the immigration window to get our entry stamps. A Laos visa and immigration 'stamp' is a work of art, carefully constructed by the issuing officials who need to apply no fewer than ten individual rubber stamps, in two colours, across a double-page spread in the passport to define exactly what each person's entry conditions are. Border guards the world over must dream of being Laotian and getting to do that much stamping.

We walked up the hill into Huayxai to where another MPV was waiting to whisk us a few hundred metres to the river boat on which we would be cruising to Luang Prabang in the Laos interior. There was no pier or jetty; we boarded the boat via a plank from the muddy beach. One of the other passengers had broken her ankle and was on crutches so she was lifted on board. We must say it was a slick operation on the part of the hotel; everything working perfectly and just in time.

Our 'luxury' boat didn't quite look like it had done in the photograph, but it had comfortable seats that had obviously been scavenged from a minibus—and most of them were attached to the floor. There was a bar area selling hot drinks, Pepsi and Beer Lao. The moment the boat started moving it got very cold on board—we found out just what other travellers' huge rucksacks actually contain, as fleeces, jackets, scarves and blankets were produced from the bottom of the bags. We had to make do with putting our shirts on over our T-shirts, but we were assured that by 10:30 or so the sun would be working its magic and we would be wishing it was cool again. Several of the group, which consisted of about 25 people in total, were in the mood for a Beer Lao even though it was not even 09:00. We weren't quite ready for a beer yet so we had a coffee instead.

As we made a left turn to follow the river away from the Thai-Lao border into the heart of Laos, the landscape slipped serenely past us: the jungle-clad cliffs looked like the setting for Jurassic Park or King Kong. We passed tiny isolated villages of bamboo stilt houses, with neither power lines nor roads connecting them to the outside world. Until recently, the waterways were Laos's only feasible means of communication—they are only just beginning to be surpassed by the roads which are being surfaced and widened. Although changing rapidly, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is still extremely poor and underdeveloped outside the main cities—the first printing press only arrived in the country in 1957.

This village marks the overnight stop for most slow boats between Huayxai and Luang Prabang. Our boat just managed to do the journey in one long day. [IMG_1181]
Stop at Pak Beng, Mehkong cruise [Enlarge]

Late February is towards the end of the dry season, so the water level was very low. The level of the 'high water' line during the monsoon season was clearly visible on the river banks and we estimated it was at least twenty metres above our heads. The river banks mostly consisted of tall, steeply sloping beaches of fine sand. Hundreds of sandbanks, rocks and islands divided the river into alternative channels. Several times the boat was shaken by strong rapids, currents and whirlpools, through which the skipper had to plot a skilful course. We could see why the speedboats are such a risky option.

At about 10:30 we couldn't resist our hotel-supplied packed lunches any longer (it was almost five hours since breakfast, after all). Our big white cake boxes held fried chicken, sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg, some raisin bread, a banana, a satsuma, a carton of iced green tea and two tiny plastic bags, one containing a brownish powder and one filled with white granules. Someone wondered whether we had all been set up as drugs mules by a sophisticated cross-border smuggling ring, but harmlessly they turned out to be pepper and salt. Apart from the cheese (which was that prefabricated rubbery stuff that has 'cheese' listed as one of its ingredients), it was not a bad packed lunch! By 11:00 most of the lunch was gone and Glenn felt that it was not unacceptably early to partake of his first Beer Lao. We had heard good things about Beer Lao. It is only produced in Laos, never under license in other countries and although it is now being exported we had never had the opportunity to taste it before. It tastes mellower and a lot less chemical than Thai Singha.

Being on a boat with no local people apart from the crew, with a good stock of beer and some pretty crummy music playing on the sound system at the back, was not the way we had originally wanted to travel down the Mehkong. But given that the alternatives were to be pummelled on a speedboat for six hours, or to squat between chicken crates for two days on a local boat, we reckon we made the right choice. And doing it this way meant that we hopefully wouldn't catch deafness or bird flu.

We briefly moored up in the isolated village of Pak Beng, roughly the halfway point, where one of the crew ran up the hill to get a stamp in the boat's log book… and fetched another case of Beer Lao. If we'd been on the slow slowboat this would have been our overnight stop. It didn't look too bad, but we were glad to be pushing on towards Luang Prabang. It was 14:00, and if this was half way we needed to get a move on. The tour company's poster had advertised our arrival time as 17:00, but when we'd asked yesterday evening we were told that we would arrive between 18:30 and 19:00. Tour company posters, we have found, almost always lie about arrival times so that you're not put off. It was now clear that we were not even going to make the later estimate. The sun was due to set at 18:14 (another cool ferature of the GPS is telling you local sunrise and sunset times), so it would be fully dark long before we got to Luang Prabang. As the Mehkong is too dangerous for boats to travel at night, we wondered what would happen. Would we pull over to the nearest river bank and make camp under the stars? The beer drinkers certainly wouldn't go thirsty.

Mehkong cruise [Enlarge]

We continued down river admiring the beautiful Laos countryside as the sun got lower in the sky, the light illuminating the trees became golden and the shadows lengthened. At low latitudes it gets dark very quickly once the sun sets and by about 19:00 it had got so dark that the skipper and his mate couldn't see anything out of the front of the boat. One of the crew went back to the engine room and fetched a torch. He then stood at the front of the boat and used it to try to pick out the rocks. We were curious as to why they had chosen to put the only electric light on the boat in the toilet! So the last three quarters of an hour of the journey was spent under the stars and a half moon, just the occasional bonfire lighting up the jungle as we passed. There was a slight edginess on board as we all hoped the skipper's knowledge of the river wasn't going to let him down. We were all relieved when we saw the lights of Laos's ancient capital and present day second city beginning to line the south bank of the river, having gone for so long in total darkness. The folk of Luang Prabang had certainly gone to town with the decorations. The whole of the waterfront was a mass of lights prompting one of the group to wittily dub the place Laos Vegas. We moored up between two other boats and again in the absence of a jetty the only way onto dry land was to walk a plank across to another boat, and then down onto the muddy beach. We hope the girl on crutches made it!

We shouldered our bag and walked up the steep access road into the town centre to find our guest house, booked on Hostelworld the previous evening. It was at the far end off Luang Prabang and wasn't easy to find. Our room was small and had no AC, but the bathroom was very clean and it was only USD 12 a night. Everything was fine, until we pulled the bed covers back and saw hundreds of tiny brown dots hopping about. The bed was full of fleas. We went straight back out into town to look for somewhere else—we had passed a nice looking place on the way to our booked guest house so we decided to try there first. It was more expensive but they did have a room available, for one night only. We will have to find somewhere else for tomorrow night. After failing to find any wildlife in our new room, we went back out for our first taste of Laos food in a nearby restaurant and found it to be very different to Thai: drier, less spicy, but with harsher and earthier flavours. And virtually all the dishes seemed to be built around 'Mehkong weed' which, given the colour of the river, was a bit offputting. Their beer is better than Singha though!

Map of Day 091

Day 091
Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Thursday, February 22, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Northern Thailand day trip

On our trip we've tried to keep a balance between doing backpacker stuff (staying in hostels, visiting web cafés, drinking beer, swapping anecdotes and eating in Pizza Hut), doing tourist stuff (being transported around and shown things), and doing cultural immersion stuff (just being in a place meeting the locals, eating what they eat and catching their buses). The variety has been good.

Today was definitely a tourist stuff day. We had signed up for a day trip to see some of the sights of Northern Thailand on our way to the Laos border. At 07:00 we were sitting outside the Seven Suns guest house with our bag waiting for our pick up. When it arrived, our guide jumped out and crossed the road to meet us. She was slim, with long hair and lots of makeup, but she had very broad shoulders. We don't think she has always been a woman. She also had the most annoyingly loud voice, especially if you were directly behind her in the MPV. But we couldn't fault her enthusiasm—at seven in the morning she still managed to make us feel that ours was the first tour she had ever hosted.

Boiling eggs in the hot springs [Enlarge]

It was going to be a long journey from Chiang Mai to our next overnight stop at Chiang Saen, and our itinerary showed that we had a lot of places to visit en route. Clearly we would not be pausing for long at each place. Thailand's roads were a model of modernity and civilised behaviour after our experience of driving in India, and it wasn't long before we made our first stop at some hot springs. Walking around the site it seemed that hot water and tourist stalls sprung from the ground in equal measure. A strong smell of sulphur hung in the air. Apart from shopping for all the usual tat (who on earth ever buys this stuff?) the big attraction here seemed to be eating boiled eggs cooked by nature in the bubbling pools. We didn't see many eggs being sold, although hundreds were being boiled by the local ladies in little baskets lowered on hooks into the shallow water. We preferred to buy a coffee and slice of cake from one of the stalls, after which we spent a baht in what must have been a contender for the world's cleanest public toilet—you had to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers to get in!

Monks at the Wat Rong Khun (white temple) [Enlarge]

Our next destination was the brand new, kitsch glitterball of a temple that is Wat Rong Khun. Buddhist temple architecture always makes a garish statement, but Wat Rong Khun takes things a stage further. The entire building is brilliant white, with tiny mirrored tiles embedded in it to add extra sparkle. It has been designed by a renowned Thai artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, and he is financing its construction himself. A combination of cash flow problems and micro-management mean that the first of nine planned buildings has taken nine years to complete, and the bizarre murals showing stills from Hollywood movies that decorate the walls inside still aren't quite done. When it's finsihed Chalermchai Kositpipat intends to dedicate his masterpiece to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. If they get a move on with the construction it could be ready for his 150th birthday in 2077.

At least he would if he could get the lid unscrewed. At the wild monkey cave near Chiang Rai. [IMG_1090]
Even a monkey can taste the difference [Enlarge]

We paused next at what our lady guide called the Monkey and Fish Caves. Outside the mouths of these caves, semi-wild monkeys hang around waiting to be fed bananas and peanuts by the tourists. Sometimes if the tourists are not too forthcoming they jump on them and help themselves. There is a small, fairy-light adorned temple there too, which they have free reign over. They seem to also like posing to have their photos taken. At this strange place you can also (for a fee, of course) set an eel free, or maybe a bird, to carry your worries away. There must have been more significance to this place than our guide told us—she was a bit vague on cultural and historic detail.

After checking for monkeys on our backs we got back in the MPV and hurried to a lunch stop nearby. As we pulled in to a large restaurant car park full of coaches, our minds were cast back to our tour of Turkey, when these lunch stops always consisted of dodgy mass-produced buffets. Yes, this one was a buffet, but it certainly wasn't dodgy or mass-produced. The food was excellent, drinks were included (unlike in Turkey where they charge you the price of a three course meal for a can of Pepsi) and the smiley staff kept encouraging us to go back for more. And Glenn found a new benchmark for pudding excellence. Dessert consisted of large and small sago (tapioca) pearls, jellied fruity bits and strange green caterpillar-like objects (Glenn didn't think they were actually caterpillars, but even if they were, he said they sure tasted good), all floating in warm sweet coconut milk and set off by some ice cubes. Thai desserts you either love or you hate, and this one was surely the exemplar of its class.

We had a chance to talk to the other members of our group over lunch, who by chance were all long-term travellers like ourselves—two other Brits, one French-Canadian (with a hyphen) and one French/Canadian (with a slash). The shortest duration out of all our trips was three months, and the guy doing this trip said it was so nice to be at a table where he isn't the longest-term traveller for a change!

The most northerly town in Thailand, Mae Sai. [IMG_1096]
Myanmar / Thailand border bridge [Enlarge]

After finishing off lunch with some jasmine tea, we hopped back in the MPV and headed to Mae Sai, the most northerly town in Thailand and also the site of a bridge marking the border crossing with Myanmar (Burma). We're not sure why we were taken there. The only reason to visit, other than making the crossing into Myanmar, seems to be to buy the counterfeit goods which are shipped down the Mehkong from China, and then fill the stalls that line Mae Sai's main street. We watched a constant stream of local people walking across the bridge in both directions, either armed with empty shopping bags, or laden down with full ones. It seemed that both the Thais and the Burmese were finding that there were good deals to be made across the water. If we had been in Mae Sai for longer we would have liked to cross into Myanmar just for the hell of it, but we didn't have time.

So called after the opium smuggling trade at this point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. [IMG_1100]
Golden Triangle [Enlarge]

Next we came to the Golden Triangle. After a bad experience in our most recent visit to a Golden Triangle, in India, we were keen to see what this one had to offer. Fact of the day: there are twenty Golden Triangles in the world [source: Wikipedia]. This particular one is located at the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet at the confluence of the Mehkong and Ruak rivers. The 'golden' refers to the lucrative opium trade which has been carried on there for the best part of a century. These days it's more of a tourist site and we all posed for the obligatory group photo under the Golden Triangle sign.

Giant gold Buddha statue [Enlarge]

In the town of Sop Ruak itself, there was a choice to visit the Opium Museum or to look around the river front. We weren't too bothered about the museum so we went to see the giant gold Buddha and watch the mad, mad speedboats tear up and down the Mehkong.

There was just one final stop to make, at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen, an old temple with parts dating back to the thirteenth century. We were all weary from our whistlestop tour so we were very glad when we were dropped at the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel, our home until the morning. After a welcome drink we were left in the capable hands of the hotel and our tour guide returned with her MPV to Chiang Mai. We all handed over our passports and 36 US dollars each, with the promise that we would see get them back next morning all visa'd up and ready to go. Funny that the first time we ever use a US banknote should be in Thailand! Considering the actual visa costs 35 dollars and the hotel was getting just one dollar for their efforts, we thought this was good value if it ensured a hassle-free crossing. They even photocopied the photos out of our passport so we didn't have to provide one of our own. We have another early start tomorrow: we're leaving the hotel at 06:15 for the hour-long journey to the border.

All our photos from the day are here.

Map of Day 090

Day 090
Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Quad biking and whitewater rafting

Finished white water rafting [Enlarge]

Our pick up arrived on schedule at 08:20 this morning to take us out to Mae Tang for our day of excitement. There were six other people on the hour-long MPV ride: a German couple of about our age who were going mountain biking in the morning, then joining us for the rafting in the afternoon, and a family from upstate New York who were on the same programme as us. We dropped the Germans, Cornie and Michael, at their biking location and carried on uphill.

Our first activity was All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) driving, otherwise known as quad biking. We got helmets, gloves and a mesh scarf to cover our nose and mouth, and the expedition leader gave us a briefing on how to use the ATV. It was a bigger and more sophisticated one than we thought it would be, with a 250cc engine and five-speed gearbox.

After a quick practice we hit the road. We had a forty kilometre route to cover through the jungle. The trail was very dry and rough, but it was pretty easy ground for the ATVs. We got back to base three hours later with dust in every place.

After a lunch of salad, chicken and fresh fruit, we were ready for some rafting action. Again we had an instruction briefing and then we got into groups of four. We teamed up with Cornie and Michael who had spent their morning mountain biking. We got in the raft and then our skipper ran through the instructions with us again. Once he was happy that we knew our right from our left, our forwards from our backwards and our 'get down' from our 'on the job' he pushed the raft into the flow and we set off.

Because Thailand is well into its dry season at the moment the water level was fairly low and the river was therefore not too violent. In the monsoon season the rapids can be up to grade 4+. But today they were probably only grade 3 in all honesty. Parts of the route were a gentle meander through beautiful scenery which our skipper made more interesting by having us declare war on another raft. He also made up for the fact that the rapids hadn't been rough enough to capsize us, by ordering us over to one side of the raft so that he could tip it over by himself. During the rough sections we had needed to move to one side a few times, and he was such a good skipper that we obediently complied when he suddenly shouted "over left!", even though we were now on a flat section. Duh!

Eventually we arrived at the end of the course, where we had started the ATV ride from earlier in the day. We lifted the raft up the bank. There were cubicles where we could have a wash and change our clothes, and cold drinks which were very welcome. The company had been videoing us from the bank as we ran the rapids and had the footage showing on a TV, with the option to buy the DVD for 300 baht. They said they would deliver it to each guest house the same evening so we decided to buy it. Dressed in clean, dry clothes we climbed back into the MPV to be driven back to Chiang Mai.

We had a fantastic day. Both activites were pitched just right for us: challenging enough and long enough to be exciting and a proper experience of each activity. In the UK we would have paid probably five times as much for a fifth the experience. We're pretty tired and we have an early start tomorrow, so we stayed in the guest house for dinner. In the morning we will head north to explore a little of rural Thailand before we visit our fifteenth country, Laos.

The DVD of the rafting was delivered to the guest house as promised but we can't persuade it to let us take screen grabs, so we're afraid there is no photographic evidence of the day apart from the photo above of the rafts after we had finished.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Chiang Mai

Bangkok to Chiang Mai [Enlarge]

With a week to kill before the Chinese embassy in Bangkok reopens from the week-long break for Chinese New Year, we came 700 kilometres north to Thailand's second city, Chiang Mai. When we were in Bangkok deciding what to do, we got the idea to take a slow boat down the Mehkong River from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in central Laos. The slow boats generally take two days to make the trip to the world heritage city, and by all accounts conditions are variable on board the different vessels: some have hard wooden seats, while others have no seats at all—you may get to sit on a crate full of chickens if you're lucky. We learned that the alternative is a speedboat which can do the journey in six hours or less. Unless it crashes, that is—which apparently they do with great regularity, as the wake from a passing boat can be enough to flip them over. Flipping over in a speedboat is not a good idea. The other disadvantage of the speedboats is the noise: their engines are unsilenced and they bounce over the waves, constantly pounding against the surface of the river. Ear plugs are essential. Apparently it's quite good fun for the first five minutes or so, but less so for the next five hours and 55 minutes.

Anyway, we wanted to actually see the magnificent jungle scenery and passing Laotian villages, and take our time. Everything we'd read said that despite the uncomfortable or non-existent seating and the need to make an overnight stay in the remote but touristy Laos village of Pak Beng, the slow boat down the Mekhong is a fantastic experience and not to be missed.

We bought our train ticket on Saturday afternoon for the Monday morning train, due to depart Bangkok at 08:30. Having left a bag containing all the non-essentials in the hotel's luggage store we walked down to the station. The train ride was pleasant: for the first two thirds of the journey we travelled relatively quickly through Thailand's flat central plains of rice paddies, tea plantations, and lakes full of waterlilies and fishing herons. The train steward came round with free cake and Pepsi and the train was comfortable, if a little grubby. Then the landscape abruptly changed to mountainous jungle and we began to twist and turn through bamboo forests and banana groves. It was everything we had imagined south-east Asia would be.

Travelling in the same carriage as us were three American college students. They were also going to Chiang Mai and they were talking about taking the slow boat down the Mehkong. They were real fratboy types who called each other Dude! without a hint of irony. Their only aim on their trip to Laos seemed to be to get as wasted as possible on Beer Lao. We hoped we wouldn't be stuck on a boat for two days with them.

Our train finally pulled into Chiang Mai station well after dark. We'd emailed our guest house to get a pick up from the station, but we hadn't checked our email again before leaving Bangkok, so we didn't know whether they would be coming or not. With our fingers crossed we went looking for someone with something like a 'Welcome Mr Glenn and Mrs Isla' sign. There were plenty of signs, but none for us. Eventually, after most of the train passengers had long since left the station, we gave up looking and went outside to get a tuk-tuk and make our own way to the guest house. There were only a few tuk-tuk drivers remaining—the ones who hadn't managed to persuade any of the new arrivals to get into their vehicles, and so because they were keen to get back into town we managed to bargain one down to 40 baht (we learned later that tourists do well if they get it down to 100!)

Our guesthouse, the Seven Suns, is cheap and spotlessly clean. The room has TV, fridge and air con, a big comfy bed, and lots of character. We love it. It turns out that they did email us, to say sorry but they no longer do station pickups, and we should get a tuk-tuk. Not a problem. We had a decent green curry at the guesthouse and a good sleep. We can't work out why sitting on a train all day doing nothing always makes us so tired.

This morning we walked into the centre of Chiang Mai to look at our options for the next few days. After peering through several travel agents' windows and studying their boards we found an agent that looked and felt reputable. The woman behind the counter knew her product and spoke excellent English, and her shop had a proper sign rather than one made of cardboard and felt-pen.

The agent offered plenty of things to do, from trekking, to visiting hill tribe villages, to watching elephants play football. We would have loved to do some trekking or mountain biking, but in the stifling heat they were definitely out. We weren't too keen on a 'human zoo' hill tribe experience or seeing anthropomorphic elephants. We found a day's programme involving a 40 kilometre quad bike ride through the jungle in the morning, followed by ten kilometres of white water rafting down the Mae Tang river in the afternoon. Perfect. While we were bargaining the price down on this, we spotted a poster for a one day, luxury slow boat down the Mekhong to Luang Prabang. We asked the agent about it. It is indeed a slow boat, like the two-day one, but it makes no stops en route, it starts a little earlier in the morning and it goes a little faster so that it can do the whole journey in one day. And it is fitted out with comfy seats and a bar, especially for soft tourists. For 3000 Baht each (GBP 44.23 / USD 86.73) (plus another USD 35.00 each for our Laos visas) we would be picked up from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai, taken the couple of hundred kilometres to the Laos border by AC minibus, stop at several of the sights of Northern Thailand en route, stay the night in a three-star hotel near the border, have our Laos visas fully taken care of by the hotel, be ferried across the Mehkong River from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Huayxai in Laos, be taken a few hundred metres upstream by minibus to our waiting slow boat, and then spend the day sailing down the mighty Mehkong to Luang Prabang. We decided to take both the tours: quad biking and rafting, and the slow boat. By paying a little bit more for the slightly faster slow boat, this should ensure that we don't have to share it with the college kids from the train.

Without much prompting at all (we must be getting good at bargaining) the price fell by 500 baht each for the boat, and 300 baht each came off the price of the quadding and rafting. We were pretty happy with that and if we get what we've been promised it will be great value. We will get soaked in the rafts so we bought a cheap t-shirt each in Chiang Mai's market so that we can change afterwards—we are now travelling so light that we don't have any spare clothes!

There is a recommended restaurant just a few doors down from our guesthouse, called Huen Phen, which specialises in Northern Thai food. We decided to try there for dinner this evening. We had a filling meal of succulent bamboo shoots stuffed with pork, salami-like sausage, sticky rice and (of course) Thai beer courtesy of Singha. As usual, Glenn found room for some dessert: warm coconut milk with banana. The whole meal was excellent. Well fed and with the next couple of days sorted we are relaxed, happy and totally back on track.

Map of Day 087

Day 087
Bangkok to Chiang Mai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, February 18, 2007 India India / Thailand Thailand

Stamped out of India

Bangkok skyline [Enlarge]

When we went down to check out of the Tara Palace Hotel, the manager was sitting at reception. He asked us if we'd enjoyed our stay and, choosing our words carefully we told him that we liked his hotel very much—our views on Delhi and India we kept to ourselves.

India only had one final opportunity to irritate us and she did her very best. Knowing what we knew about Indian bureaucracy and organisation, the rigmarole and queues at Indira Gandhi International Airport came as no surprise at all. We left early to allow for Delhi's evening rush-hour traffic, and we arrived at the terminal nearly three hours before our flight to Bangkok was due to leave.

Check in and immigration went smoothly (by the way, why do they still call it immigration when you're leaving the country?). The security checks were a different matter however. The queues were so long that we were almost late for our flight by the time we got through to the gate. And then we were subjected to another manual search at the gate itself. Indian law has a daft requirement where you must have a luggage tag on every piece of hand luggage. This tag gets checked and rubber-stamped at security. There is a man whose job it is to check the tag and stamp it, then another man whose job it is to check the freshly stamped tag. At the gate there were two more checkers, one to again check the stamped tag and the other to make sure that the first one is doing his job properly. These are in addition to the vast number of other uniformed people milling around doing (apparently) absolutely nothing. In this rule-obsessed, blindly unquestioning environment, nobody has thought to ask what this hand-luggage tag's presence actually achieves (apart from employment for two checkers per security scanner and another two checkers per departure gate). How does putting a stamped, easily removable luggage tag onto a piece of hand luggage prove in any way that the contents of that bag have been screened? In any case, we noticed tags on several people's luggage which were not even filled in! They had been stamped all the same, presumably because the person's job description says "Check that each piece of hand luggage has a tag, and then stamp the tag."

Glenn said in one of our earlier Indian posts that he was optimistic that the problems India has will be overcome because its society seems to be dynamic and hungry for success. After a few weeks here he has completely changed his mind. We think that India is in for a very tough time in the short or medium term, because of its terrible inefficiency and mind-blowing scale of over-employment. The corporate downsizing seen in the West in the 1990s will be nothing compared to what happens when someone realises that all these utterly redundant jobs are costing money. An example is the luggage tag stampers at the country's airports. Here's another example: on Goan building sites, we saw lorries dropping off their loads of bricks at the side of the road. At each site, tens of workers were employed to carry the bricks across the road to where they were needed. Like a line of ants, this was their job, and they did it all day by the bucketload (on their heads—ouch). When, probably due to the rampant inflation being seen in the country, the site owners realise that they could save money by buying a wheelbarrow and employing just one person to transport the bricks, what are all the others going to do? Maybe investment from outside the country will generate jobs faster than this process will destroy them, but we can't see it.

The overnight flight was not too bad—we didn't bother trying to sleep, deciding instead to watch some movies. We had nothing planned for our first day in the land of smiles so we thought we'd go to bed for a few hours when we got to the hotel in the morning. Five hours after leaving Delhi we were walking through Bangkok's stylish and brand new Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Even at 06:30 the Thai staff were, true to their reputation, smiling as they opened another immigration desk to save us having to queue. No hassles, no visas, no fees, no waiting: just turn up with a British passport and you can come in for up to thirty days. Even the baggage reclaim area is calming, with a huge glass wall at one end looking out onto an ornamental garden. We had read that the new airport has had teething troubles since it opened late in 2006, and that there are calls for international flights to be moved back to the old Don Muang Airport while the problems are sorted out. But for us it really was a breeze.

The Airport Express bus looked like the best option for getting into town. The smiley staff were familiar with where we needed to go and pointed us at the right bus for the Bobae Tower, the location of our Expedia-sourced hotel. We climbed aboard and perched wherever we could as all the seats were taken.

Bangkok's traffic is notoriously bad and it took an hour and a half to get into the city centre. We were woken from our dozy stupor by the driver shouting "Bobae Tower!" and we tumbled out into the heat and humidity and followed the arrow on the GPS until we found the hotel. The heat is incredible if you haven't experienced it before (we haven't). It was some time around seven or eight in the morning and yet it was like being in a hot, steamy bathroom with all the windows and doors shut.

We took the hotel a bit by surprise turning up so early, so we had to wait for a short time while housekeeping cleaned our room. By 09:30 we had taken a shower and were in a super comfortable bed in our lovely clean air-conditioned twenty-third floor room, fast asleep. We got up some time in the afternoon and lounged around until dinner. We love Thai food at home, but this was our first Thai meal in Thailand. It was worth coming for!

Next day after breakfast we decided to walk across town to the Khao San Road, the main backpacker area, to find a bookshop willing to exchange our India guidebook for one covering South East Asia. On the way we were touted by tuk-tuk drivers and tour sellers pretending to be helpful passers by, but they are rank amateurs by comparison with the Indians. And they do it with a smile and accept your "no thank you" almost straight away. One 'passer by' helpfully pointed out on our map all the sights we must see in Bangkok, then told us that because it was National Police Day (!), there was a special offer on all tuk-tuks with yellow number plates (!!) whereby we could go anywhere all day for just 10 baht (GBP 0.15 / USD 0.29). As if by magic, a yellow-plated tuk-tuk pulled over and the driver offered to take us anywhere all day for 10 baht! And he would even throw in several visits for free to some craft shops where we could see local produce being made! It made us laugh. We got to the Khao San Road, hot but relieved to have been able to simply go out for a pleasant walk for the first time in weeks, and had no trouble finding a second-hand bookshop where in return for our India book and a few baht we came away with the most up to date edition of the Rough Guide to South East Asia. At another shop we got a less favourable deal on a fold-out map of the region that mysteriously transformed from a brand new copy to an out of date and slightly tatty second-hand one after the money had changed hands.

Since then we've just hung out and taken it easy for a few days. Our plan was to get our Chinese visas in Bangkok, and it still is. But the timings have gone to pot a bit because we've managed to land here right at the start of Chinese New Year, and the embassy is closed until Monday 26th February. We've read that it can take up to four working days to get a Chinese visa and we don't want to risk being without our passports for the week that the embassy is closed, because we need them to check into hotels. So we have decided to leave half of our luggage in the hotel's storage facility (so that we can travel really light!), and explore some of Northern Thailand and Laos. We will return to Bangkok after Chinese New Year to take in the sights of the city and get those pesky visas.

In our last post we said that Bangkok is a love-hate city and that we hoped we would love it. Well, we're delighted to report that we do! India is far behind us, and our trip is firmly back on track.

Map of Day 082

Day 082
New Delhi to Bangkok

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, February 12, 2007 India India

Incredible India

Lovely. And we were at the FRONT of the hotel, not round the back where presumably the really bad views are. But the hotel itself was spotlessly clean, which is why we came back on our return to Delhi. [IMG_1010]
View from our room in Old Delhi [Enlarge]

This post is going to be a short one. We are so sick of India's filth and top-to-bottom corruption that we are quitting and getting out of here! Our plans to visit north-east India, Nepal and Bhutan have had to be shelved.

Jaipur was just as disgusting as the other cities, and smellier. The difference compared with Delhi was that our hotel was also dirty. We took the train back to Delhi as planned, and have booked two one-way plane tickets to Bangkok overnight on Wednesday night. From Bangkok we plan to tour south-east Asia before moving northwards into China. We will hopefully get our Chinese visas while we're there. Unfortunately, it is another city that people seem to either love or hate—we hope so much that we end up in the 'love' category.

India's main tourist website at (challenge: spot a single piece of rubbish or freshly laid turd in any photo on that site!) describes Jaipur as

Settled in the rugged hills of the Aravalis, Jaipur is the pristine jewel in the desert sands of Rajasthan. Jaipur is as remarkable for its marvellous architecture and town planning as it is for the lively spirit of the people who inhabit it. The city presents a unique synthesis of culture that has to be experienced in order to be appreciated.

Let's just say that we disagree. In the words of a wise traveller we met, "When you start hating a place you just need to get out and move on."


Map of Day 079

Day 079
Jaipur to New Delhi

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, February 09, 2007 India India

Taxi to Jaipur

Agra Fort Station [Enlarge]

We are beginning to think that India is not for us. Maybe we're missing something, but the amazing architecture and must-see sights just don't seem worth the hassle.

Anyway, another train ride was scheduled for today, from Agra in Uttar Pradesh to Jaipur in Rajasthan, starting early at 06:10. This was not going to be one of the relatively modern Shatabdi Express trains. Instead we would be catching the conventional Marudhar Express which had begun its journey at Varanasi many hours previously.

We left the hotel very early so that we would have enough time to walk to the station if necessary. We found a cycle rickshaw easily enough though, and he quoted forty Rupees—it should probably have been ten. We have a lot more respect for cycle rickshaw riders than their motorised counterparts, because they have to work so hard for their money (cycle rickshaws are large and clunky and they have no gears). So we didn't bargain and confirmed and accepted the quoted price. The ride through the mostly unlit pre-dawn backroads was surreal and the poor rider had to get off the contraption several times to push it uphill. He worked so hard that when we got to the station we gratefully handed him sixty Rupees. At which point he had to go and destroy our new-found good will towards Indian transport workers by saying that his price of forty Rupees meant forty each, so please could we give him another twenty! We could not believe what was happening, and Glenn angrily snatched the notes back from him and told him that because he was dishonest he would be getting only the forty he knew we had originally agreed. In the end he got sixty—we're not sure why we gave in, but we were tired.

Inside the station we found that our train was already running late. Very late. After an hour standing on the platform it had repeatedly slipped, and was now showing on the display as being nearly four hours behind schedule. We had struck up a conversation with the only two other foreigners on the platform, Jeremy and Andy—both Brits. After a while someone suggested sharing a taxi between the four of us, which we calculated should cost about 2300 Rupees, or 575 Rupees each (GBP 6.70 / USD 13.07), since the going rate is 10 Rupees per kilometre which includes the cost of the driver doing the return journey.

As if he had been evesdropping, a shifty little man sidled over to us. From his 'look at me, I'm just a regular passenger' demeanour, we immediately sussed him as a tout of some description, and we wondered what he was going to try to sell us. He started moaning about how the train is late every day, and it only ever gets later and later. Four hours is nothing—it will probably be five or six by the time it arrives. He told us we could take the bus if we were in a hurry, or even a taxi—but they're very expensive, probably well over 3500 Rupees. He wandered off.

And then he came back. He had gone to the trouble of enquiring about taxis for us! And the good news was, he could arrange a Tata Indica (a small hatchback similar to a Corsa with just enough room for four passengers, a driver and some luggage) for us for just 3000 Rupees. We said we would consider it and he left us again. Standing in a dark, smelly station all day with only the promise of sitting on a dark, smelly train at the end of it, was not something that was on our 'must do' list. So we agreed between the four of us that if we could get the price down to 2500 Rupees, and if the car looked reasonably roadworthy, and if the driver wasn't under the influence of any illegal substances, we would take the taxi. It would give us the chance to see more of rural India too.

We walked outside to begin the bargaining process. For once we held all the chips—so far we had invested nothing, but the tout army had called for a taxi and driver. Luckily we seemed to be the only tourists at the station that day, so they couldn't hold an auction either. Glenn said that we had considered the offer, but unfortunately 3000 was too much. We could only afford 2000, but we felt confident that that would give the driver and touts more than enough profit, since it is only around 200 kilometres to Jaipur. The head tout did an excellent job of looking first shocked, then deeply hurt. As expected, he refused outright, and as we had agreed with Jeremy and Andy, we shrugged, looked just disappointed enough, and then walked back inside the station.

The foot soldiers ran after us and called us back. The conversation continued like this:

Glenn: We really can only stretch to 2000.
Tout: Impossible.
Glenn: OK, we'll wait for the train.
Tout: OK, 2700!
Glenn: No.
Tout: OK, what you pay?

We went through the motions of trying to piece together some more funds.

Glenn: We will pay no more than 2300.
Tout: 2500 and we will take you.


Glenn: OK, 2500. We will pay at the end.
Tout: OK.

That is what bargaining should be about. Reach a mutually acceptable price and get on with the deal. Pleased, we tied Andy's suitcase to the roof rack, got in the taxi, and drove off. The Tata Indica is actually quite spacious inside and we had plenty of room. However we weren't quite sorted yet. After about 500 metres and one turn, we stopped outside the driver's office (a travel agency, surprise surprise). He said that he needed to go in and tell them where he was going.

We have learned that the secret to bargaining is to genuinely not care about the product or service you are procuring. If you are prepared to walk away if the price is not right, then they can't beat you. And we were all quite prepared to walk away—we were in no particular hurry.

A few minutes passed and then the tout army from the station turned up! A lot of heated discussions took place outside the taxi and then the head tout opened the door and promptly raised his price again to 2700. Presumably they thought that they now had some leverage as we were no longer at the station. So the negotiations had to be re-opened.

Tout: Sorry, but 2500 is not possible. It is 2700.
Glenn: No, we agreed 2500.
Tout: Not possible. We have to pay road tolls on the expressway.
Glenn: Road tolls are not our problem, we agreed 2500.
Tout: No.
Glenn: OK, we will take the train.

We all got out of the taxi and started to untie Andy's suitcase from the roofrack.

Tout: OK, OK, you stay. Get in. 2500 is OK. But we need 600 from you now so that we can buy petrol.
Glenn: Petrol is not our problem either. Do you want to take us to Jaipur or not?
Tout: You listen to me. We need to buy petrol so you must pay 600 now and 1900 at Jaipur.
Glenn: No, you listen to me. We will pay 2500 at Jaipur, as we agreed, or nothing at all.
Tout: OK. But you give us your train tickets so we can get a refund on them. This will be our commission.
Glenn: Absolutely not!
Tout: OK.

We beat them! The tout handed some cash to the driver, and after a brief stop at the nearest petrol station, where a lot less than 600 Rupees' worth of fuel was dispensed, we hit the highway.

The Last Known Location Guide to Cross-Country Driving in India

  • In theory, keep to the left.
  • When overtaking, there is no need to look ahead at whether anything is coming the other way. The car you are passing will expect you to push him onto the verge, so he will drive up it by himself to save you the bother.
  • On a dual carriageway, you can drive on either carriageway—whichever looks like it will get you there faster.
  • You can swap carriageways any time, crossing the dirt central reservation whenever it suits.
  • You may come round a bend and find a line of rocks blocking your carriageway with no warning whatsoever. These are Indian traffic cones, and they mean that the road ahead is closed, either because there has been a horrific accident, or because it hasn't been built yet. Refer to the previous bullet point for the correct course of action.
  • The bigger you are, the higher your priority. If you are lucky enough to be driving a truck, you have total domination over the road (unless you meet a bigger truck coming the other way). So, trucks trump buses trump 4x4s trump cars trump cattle trump motorbikes trump bicycles trump pedestrians. Rajasthani camels seem to take quite a high priority, especially if they are pulling large, heavy-framed carts. But we didn't have enough data to work out exactly where they fit in.

The consequences of failing to observe the guidance above can be catastrophic. In a journey of just 200 kilometres, we saw the wreckage of three serious accidents strewn across the middle of the road. We presume they had happened recently, as older wreckage tended to be pushed over to the verges. In one, a bus had met a truck head on and the bus was half its original length. In another, a tractor had been pulling an overloaded trailer and had literally disintegrated. In the third, another tractor had overturned, throwing bricks across the whole road. We briefly detoured into the jungle to pass at that point.

Our driver dropped us at Jaipur station about four and a half hours later and he didn't even demand any extra cash! (By the way, we didn't see any road tolls.) We parted company with Jeremy and Andy, but not before getting Jeremy's email address: he lives in Bangkok some of the time and we thought it would be good to meet him there for a beer (if we ever make it) and swap Indian war stories. We got a tuk-tuk to the Hotel Shahar Palace, and for once we couldn't be bothered to argue over the price.

Map of Day 077

Day 077
Agra to Jaipur

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Thursday, February 08, 2007 India India


Taj Mahal [Enlarge]

On a cool, foggy morning, and after some more of the customary haggling, we took a tuk-tuk to New Delhi station before dawn to catch our train to Agra, the 06:15 Bhopal Shatabdi Express. At this time of morning the tuk-tuk ride was hassle-free and only took a few minutes. 'Shatabdi Express' is the name given to some of the trains serving popular routes in the north of India: they are newer, faster and more comfortable than the majority of the subcontinent's trains, and breakfast is included in the price. We were looking forward to our short journey to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

Shortly after we left New Delhi the steward handed out complimentary newspapers. We chose the English-language Times of India, and we settled down to catch up on the news from India and the rest of the world. Tucked away on page 10, there was an interesting article about the possible outsourcing of railway catering to the likes of McDonalds—apparently this will be an improvement. The article went on to describe the conditions inside the catering facilities on board India's trains, including the Shatabdis. You can read the full article here, but the relevant part is:

Citing instances, the PIL alleged that all prepared food stuffs instead of being kept in containers were directly placed on dirty floors of the kitchen, chapathis were rolled on the floor, the cooks never used gloves, nor was there any segregation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. What was more appalling was that body sweat from the cooks constantly spilled over the food material as there were no cooling facilities or exhaust fans in the kitchen, the petition alleged. According to the petitioners, while millions of passengers were taking the unhygienic food unwittingly, there were several other high society passengers travelling by the Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Jan-Shatabdi Express trains who were compelled to take the food as the fares are inclusive of the same.

We skipped breakfast.

Because of the fog, we got to Agra an hour late and took another tuk-tuk to our hotel, where we had a good shower and a bad breakfast. Hoping that the fog would lift later in the day, we decided to look round the Agra Fort first, then go to the Taj Mahal later. We walked across town to the fort, somewhat comically pursued by a stream of tuk-tuks and cycle rickshaws, whose drivers seemed incredulous that we didn't want to take a ride with them. During one of our bizarre walking-pace conversations with them, we did get a good gem of information, however: buy a combined ticket for the fort and the Taj and save 100 Rupees.

At Agra Fort we parted with 1500 Rupees (GBP 17.48 / USD 34.09) in return for two combined tickets to the fort and the Taj. This is surely one of the most extreme cases of two-tier pricing—if we had been Indian, we would have paid around 40 Rupees (GBP 0.47/ USD 0.91). Fair enough, it's their country. We spent a while looking round the fort, which is impressive, and similar to the Topkapı Sarayı in İstanbul. It's a shame that it is neglected by many tourists who only come to Agra for the Taj Mahal. Wild(ish) parrots were flying around overhead and nesting in the trees, and Glenn was very pleased with his photo of one of the tame striped squirrels in the grounds. It seemed that our trip was finally back on track after our bad experience of Delhi.

Striped squirrel at Agra Fort [Enlarge]

Sure enough the fog began to clear and so we crossed town again, parallel with the river to the Taj Mahal. This has to be one of the highlights of any trip to India. We approached the outer wall and walked through the south gate. A man asked us for our tickets and we duly produced our combined Agra Fort and Taj Mahal tickets bought a few hours previously. "This does not allow you to enter the Taj Mahal sir, you need to buy another ticket: 250 Rupees each." He pointed to a window back outside the gate. We argued with him for a while as to why a ticket marked "Visit Taj Mahal along with Agra Fort, Itimadud-Daula, Sikandra & Fatehpur Sikri" should not be valid for doing just that, but it was to no avail. He muttered something about our combined ticket being issued by the Agra Development Authority, and us needing to supplement it with one issued by the Taj Mahal Tourist Scam Corporation, or something similar. [Actually, it's in the small print: "Excluding A.S.I. ticket"—oh, that clears that one up then.] Isla suggested that we forget the whole thing and leave Agra, but we both knew that having come so far we were just going to have to stump up another 500 Rupees (GBP 5.83 / USD 11.36). So we went back to the window and allowed ourselves to be robbed legally, again. And back to the gate, armed with the correct tickets. Now we had to pass through security. As has become the norm for Isla in both the middle east and India, she was shepherded into a special curtained off 'ladies only' booth to be searched, lest any passing gentlemen be overcome by lust at the sight of her with her arms held out. She was carrying the small daybag, and its contents aroused great interest. Our mobile phone, camera and set of eight high-capacity rechargeable AA batteries were fine, but the GPS, mini tripod and wind-up torch were going to have to stay behind. Again arguing proved to be a futile exercise in the face of unfliching bureaucracy and unquestioning application of rules, and we were forced to deposit our illegal items in a dodgy-looking locker room in return for a slip of paper marked "3 items". Calling it a locker room is to overstate the situation, since the lockers didn't lock. We noted the opening times of the locker room: it closed at 5 pm, some two hours before the Taj itself closed. So that put paid to any thoughts we might have had of seeing the Taj at sunset.

Us at the Taj [Enlarge]

The Taj Mahal is truly stunning [see our photos]. We think it is best from a distance, as seeing the tiny people-shaped specks walking round the bottom shows you just how big it is. It is raised up on a huge platform so that it has a clean skyline behind it. We took the obligatory photos from the viewpoint at the end of the central watercourse—luckily we had come on a day when the fountains were turned off so as to leave the reflections of the Taj undisturbed.

We slowly ambled towards the Taj, taking in the view and the majestic atmosphere. When we got to the base, we randomly chose to turn right to walk around the side. We were accosted by a man who pulled us to the edge of the path and made us take another photo of the Taj, and then demanded money from us for his trouble. We continued round the back of the building and then climbed some steps to the large raised platform on which the actual mausoleum sits. As we came back round to the front of the building, we saw a sign saying "Please do not take off your shoes here". So we didn't, and we walked on towards the mausoleum entrance. As we did so, we gradually became aware that nobody else around us was wearing shoes. Hmmmm. We paused for a moment, and as we did so we were shouted at by a couple of zealous Australian backpackers: "Mate, no shoes!"

We were genuinely confused at this point, and we gestured helplessly at the sign that clearly instructed us not to remove our footwear. "Yeah—you should have already taken them off! Down there!" They pointed down to a huge crowd of people removing their shoes, which we had completely missed owing to our earlier, random, 50–50 decision to turn right instead of left. We tip-toed back downstairs and took our shoes off before returning. How it is possible for a society to have such strict rules and regulations and yet implement them so badly?

And so it was. Our experience of arguably the finest building in the world was tainted by a catalogue of frustrations punctuated by episodes of incredulity, with a bit of confusion on the side. This seems to be an emerging theme for our whole experience of India.

Tomorrow we will complete the bottom leg of the Golden Triangle, taking the train to Jaipur—the pink city, the ancient capital of Rajasthan.

Map of Day 076

Day 076
New Delhi to Agra

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.