I’m feeling really excited about returning to vibrant Bangkok. I’m rapidly brought back down to earth by the queues at airport immigration. They make Miami airport look like a stroll in the park. It’s a new airport building and the wooden booths have been replaced by metal desks, but the systems don’t seem to have improved at all. Neither does the attitude of the airport officials until I ask the luggage belt supervisor what his name is and then he suddenly becomes highly solicitous.
There are so many placard waving meet and greeters that it takes me another 30 minutes to find the lady waiting for me. My name is thoughtfully obscured by a stack of suitcases on a trolley. Waiting gives me time to observe the great, the good and the decidedly different. One long haired bearded guy has just sashayed past in a tigerskin top, a red velvet skirt and pirate boots.
Thailand is relatively wealthy compared to other countries in South East Asia, but ten percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
You're spoilt for choice here:
Bangkok is basically a Mega Wat Experience. Wat is the Thai word for temple and there are plenty of them, mainly, but not all, Buddhist. Marvelling at the glitzy and the assorted Buddhas has to be the number one Must Do. You'll either find them gaudily Disneylandesque or exquisite. Either way, they're fascinating.
The Number One Must See (if you’re up to braving the crowds) is the most opulent sight of them all, the Grand Palace (the King’s home) and its sacred Wat Phra Kaew Temple, which contains the tiny Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is a huge rectangle of assorted buildings on the banks of the river. It was the official residence of the Kings of Siam, their court, and royal government from 1782 until 1925. Today, the king lives in the Dusit Palace and the Grand Palace is regarded as a working museum
Taking up roughly a quarter of the Grand Palace compound, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is an astonishing complex of highly decorated buildings, surrounded with deities and shrines. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, built specially to the king's specification (1783) for his use, and to house the diminutive Gautama Buddha. The Buddha is just over two feet high and made of jasper, not emerald, and not jade, as some sources suggest (not that I can tell the difference). And it's too small to see clearly anyway with all the crowds surging around. The image is considered the sacred palladium (object of great antiquity on which the safety of a city or nation is said to depend) of Thailand.
South and close by, also on the river, is Wat Pho Temple, with its enormous reclining Buddha, famous for its training in Thai style massage, where if you are lucky, someone walks on your back. It's also known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (for obvious reasons). The royal Temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, and the reclining Buddha is 46 metres long. The temple's one of the oldest in Bangkok (late seventeenth century) and its official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawiha.
Wat Suthat Thepwararam is yet another Royal temple. This one dates from 1847 or 1848 and contains a gold Buddha image, the Phra Sri Sakyamuni, which was moved from Sukhothai. At the lower terrace of the base, there are 28 Chinese pagodas, representing each of the Buddhas born on this earth.
The most atmospheric city life seems to take place on the waters of the Chao Phraya River, where long tailed boats and water taxis ply constantly up and down (these are quite useful to avoid the congested roads and tuk tuks). The view is dominated by Wat Arun, of the Thonburi capital, on the opposite shore. You can't miss it, with its steep steps and Khmer-style spire.
Or take a trip out to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – more long tailed boats, chock full of all manner of vegetables, and vendors in their conical straw hats. (A Thai tourist destination that was in decline and has now been revived.)
Further away still , The Golden Buddha, officially titled Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, is a gold statue, with a weight of 5.5 tons, located in the temple of Wat Trait.
Once watted out, there are plenty of day tours. Ayutthaya, River Kwai, the rainforest.
It's impossible to resist shopping in Bangkok. There are decent tailors (!), trinkets and crafts galore and fake designer good on every corner. Though the ultimate shopping experience is Patpong Market, (where I stocked up on 'Armani' jeans). You can buy just about anything here in the huge halls. There are rows and rows of pet stalls. At least, I think the animals are for pets. If it's the same as China, you either keep them or eat them. You can even choose a fake ID out of a plastic basket.
The Patpong area takes on a different face at night. It is also the heart of Bangkok's sex industry.
Bangkok has an incredible array of hotels. with amazing service. The Banyan Tree (there are several) is great. I've flown in from Brunei this time. Fifty minutes in the taxi from the airport - that’s not bad for Bangkok - and I'm there. The skyline has changed since 2005. There are many more tower blocks and very little Thai script. Nearly all the signage is in English now. My Banyan Tree is in an upmarket hotel area, adjacent to an equally upmarket shopping area. And things are definitely looking up. I’ve been upgraded to a suite. So I have a little palace on one of the top floors. There’s three separate rooms and a huge tub. It’s a shame I don’t have time to indulge. I’m off shopping, trying to match the bamboo design steel cutlery I bought in Kho Samui in 2003. Some items have gone AWOL over the years.
I have researched on the internet and found a stall that stocks Thai cutlery. It's in a department store in a plaza. The shop is a maze of Thai artefacts and doesn't look that different to some of the temples. But Im overjoyed to track down almost identical items to mine. The shopkeeper tells me that my exact design isn’t made any more. ‘Same, same’. I’m pleased to find a decent match and tired, so I don’t bargain and he’s pleased too. There’s massage shop in the plaza, so I head there next. When in Rome.
I’ve taken a taxi to the plaza,as the concierge has ensured a fixed price for me. It’s double the meter rate, but still cheaper than the price a taxi will try and extort from me if I’m left on my own. Or it will be. So, rejuvenated after my pummelling, I decide to walk back to the hotel and plot a scenic route on Google, across Lumpini Park. It seems, additionally, to cut off a corner.
The park is chock full of joggers and after navigating them I find myself back in the road where the hotel is located. I can see it on the other side. Except that there is no way of crossing the dual carriageway, which is barricaded in the middle, not to mention packed with vehicles. I ask directions from a kindly Thai jogger who sends me to a zebra crossing up at the next junction. It adds half a mile to the journey. So much for Google.
Dinner in the hotel. Amazing red duck curry and chillie vodka cocktails in the rooftop bar. I shall definitely have to come back.
Next stop Bangladesh.
Brunei is considered to be the most observant Islamic nation in Southeast Asia and the sale and public consumption of alcohol is illegal, although non-Muslims are allowed to bring up to two litres into the country. There are queues of people filling in the necessary declarations at the airport, when I arrive from Manila. It’s another late night, but although it’s 12.30 a.m. when I arrive the hotel receptionist is still happy to phone a tour guide and arrange a trip for me tomorrow morning. I’m hoping the tour guide is as happy about it.
Brunei is officially known as Brunei Darussalam in Malay, which means "abode of peace"
Brunei has very low crime rates and is one of the safest countries in South East Asia.
Brunei is very small so it's easily and quickly navigated. But it's also known as the Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures. As the tourist board says: ' Brunei Darussalam is a land blessed with the gifts of nature, culture, a stable political environment and harmonious peoples'.
The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) lends itself to strolling and admiring the Islamic architecture, with a boat trip thrown in to visit the stilt houses - if they still remain (they are being torn down and replaced with far less characterful dwellings). There's beach and ancient rainforest. And these are, indeed, some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
Check in is frustratingly slow as there are a group of Chinese tourists waiting. After that the airport is very modern, easy and quiet. There’s just me and five security guards. They won’t let me take my water through, but they count down from ten, laughing, while I drink it. Bangkok next.
Mohammed, my guide, doesn’t endear himself to me right off as he refuses to let me sit in the front seat of the little bus (there’s only him and me). And then he tells me that I have obviously travelled a great deal. ‘How did you know?’ I ask. ‘Because you don’t listen to what I say, you ask your own questions instead and you look around a lot’, he says. ‘But that’s fine.’ I suppose that’s true and very astute and after that we get on like a house on fire. He turns out to be very sensitive, informative and friendly. There are three must-sees in Bandar Seri Begawan (as it’s almost part of Malaysia it’s known affectionately as BSB). These are the water village, the Royal Regalia Museum and the main mosque.
Kampung Ayer is (or rather was) a maze of ramshackle structures wobbling on the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan . It used to be home to nearly 30,000 people, dates back over 1000 years and is said to be the largest river village in the world. It’s now sadly being reconstructed, on one of the sultan’s programmes and the wooden structures replaced with concrete cubes on stilts. I can see the logic, especially the fire hazard issues, but the new buildings have none of the charm of the originals. I’m entertained to refreshments in one of the houses and ignored by the long suffering residents. They are watching TV, two different channels on two sets standing side by side. Then we tootle up the river on a water taxi, for views of houses, old and new, a pointy roofed jetty for each of the different villages, views of the mosques and a glimpse of the sultan’s palace (just the gold dome).
An additional mosque has been added to the programme, so I visit both the sultan’s mosque, the opulent Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah, with its 29 golden domes (one for each of the sultans so far), which is slightly out of town, and the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque built by his father, which is the one by the river. I think the latter is more picturesque, but I keep quiet about that. I have to wear a black gown to enter both, though no-one seems overly fussed about head gear.
En route to the museum we fit in the local market. Everyone has been very friendly so far and the stall holders here are remarkably so. They are very good natured about photographs. It's mainly fruit and vegetables on offer. The spiky durian is in season and the whole market reeks of the sour odour, which prevents many people (me included) from savouring this so called delicacy. Mohammed confides that he consumed six at one sitting (while watching football) and is now suffering the after effects. Too much heat in the blood has given him the sniffles. I think he’s lucky if that’s the only after effect he’s had. He goes on to report that his wife isn’t very pleased with him. He ate half their stock.
We divert into the jungle countryside a little and back again to try and disguise the fact that we have covered a very small area (BSB is tiny) and I could easily have walked to all these places from my hotel. However, I’m not unhappy. It’s more fun to be escorted, except I could do without Mohammed’s constant foot on the brake style driving. I’m decidedly queasy in the back (vomiting would at least make him think twice about passenger placement in future). The roads are in better condition than those back home, lined with trees and artistically clipped bushes.
Everything is neat and tidy (other than the ubiquitous plastic bottles floating in the water) and the infrastructure good. So it would appear that the Sultan is not to be compared with dictators like Kim Jong Un or Karim of Turkmenistan. But the Royal Regalia Building collection leans more in their direction. It is a vanity project that houses a large collection of sumptuous gifts given to the sultans over the years from various world leaders. (There’s a very ugly green glass urn from our queen.) Also on display are the fabulous carriages used at the gold and silver jubilee displays and coronation. (His father abdicated). There are a panoply of uniforms, umbrellas and so forth that were also at the pageants and photographs of the VIP attendees. Sophie and Edward Wessex represented the UK both times. Make of that what you will. There are also mock ups and photographs of part of the sultan’s palace, so that his subjects can see how he lives.
In the afternoon I take my camera out for a walk round Bandar Seri Begawan, just to check I haven’t missed anything. I haven’t. I wander the other side of the river from the water village and round past the public gardens. Sunday seems to be a proper weekend rest day here, even though it’s a Muslim country, and families are out renting bikes, walking or just sitting. My stroll is punctuated with calls from the boatmen to take a ride or, pleas from the locals who want selfies with me. There are very few tourists, just a few groups of Chinese at the mosques. The taxi driver assumes I’m here on business. So I’m mostly a novelty. Maybe, as I’ve posited elsewhere, that’s why the people are so welcoming. It’s 31 degrees and the humidity extremely high. I have my long top and ankle length trousers on, to comply with local custom, and an hour is as much as I can cope with.
I retire to my room in search of air conditioning and ice. The hotel staff are incredibly friendly and helpful here too. There are only two hotels in town and it’s good to be back in Asia. The buffet is a delicious fusion of noodles, sushi, local fish and marinated beef.
I’m delighted to report that Brunei isn’t boring at all. (Read more about Brunei, The Land of Unexpected Treasures here). It’s astonishingly welcoming and pleasantly interesting. But it is very small and very hot…
Next stop Bangkok
Koh Samui (pronounced Gaw- Sa'mui), Thailand’s second largest island, lies in the Gulf of Thailand, off the east coast of the Kra Isthmus. It's covered in dense, mountainous rainforest and makes its money from coconuts and rubber. Until the 1970s there weren't any roads here and it took a whole day to cross the island (16 miles at its widest) travelling through the jungle. Today. palm lined beaches and spas have increased income and necessitated improved infrastructure. And, I'm here for a spa.
Samui's weather patterns are opposite to the rest of Thailand. It's relatively dry from April to September, when most of the country has its monsoon, It's wet from October to December and the driest season is from January to March. Ostensibly. I'm not finding that's working.
The historical capital of Koh Samui is Nathon. Other than civic buildings, no-one takes much notice of that. The largest town is Chaweng. It's sprung up around one of the nicest beaches. Well, it was one of the nicest beaches. Shops, tailors and more latterly bars and nightlife have followed. There are surprisingly upmarket boutiques and good quality Indian tailors. The latter are very good at copying existing patterns. I've had some lovely linen dresses and cashmere coat made, for very acceptable prices. I've also bought some handmade bamboo style cutlery and been tempted by other trinkets. But the cutlery is fairly weighty and I daren't try and squash much else into my case.
My spa retreat is located a short taxi ride down the coast from Chaweng. above the coconut plantations (plenty of coconuts to drink). And I' m not stepping out that often anyway, as I’m embarking on a week-long detox fast, complete with self-administered colonic irrigation. It’s been all the rage in the newspapers and documentaries lately.
'During your fasting (abstinence from food) period, your body will be purged of long-term accumulated toxins and acid wastes which are affecting its ability to absorb nutrients. Your entire excretory system will be cleansed and rejuvenated, clogged bowels will be cleared of up to 6 kg (12 pounds) of mucoid material, dirty lymph and blemished skin will be cleaned and dirty kidneys and bladders will be flushed out. This program includes daily parasite zapping, a kidney and liver flush and daily self-administered colonic irrigation.
Your Fasting & Detox Retreat will combine delicious juices, nutritional super foods, yoga, meditation, Thai massage and herbal steam baths. All designed to promote the quick and efficient elimination of toxins.'
There are fairly comfortable bungalows. attentive staff and a swimming pool, so life is not too hard. My arrival pack includes my colonic & enema kit, tongue scraper, skin brush & natural soap. I'm fed fruit juice and vegetable broth (only broth to begin with) and dosed with herbs. It's all a little scary, but the process isn’t too uncomfortable and going without food not too painful either. Too much coffee is involved in the colonic irrigation for my liking. I can’t bear the smell.
We can also rent little electronic zapping machines (with more herbs) to ensure the removal of any parasites. This seems to work too well, explaining why I had been getting so skinny lately. Providing any more details would be too much information. Suffice it to say that I must be one of the few people who started to put on weight, before they left a detox spa. I’m not sure that was a result.
Read more about Thailand here.
We cross the border into Laos from peaceful Chiang Khong in Thailand and board what is termed a slow boat, for the two-day journey down the mighty Mekong River to Luang Prabang. We change money as we cross the border. The Laos currency is in free fall. Ive been given handfuls in exchange for a few dollars.
It is a very slow boat indeed. We’re not going to miss any of the breathtaking scenery and can appreciate the correspondingly slow-paced village life. But at times, I envy the long tailed river taxis speeding past. Although they’re going at such a speed that they look a little scary, the bows out of the water and all the passengers, with gerbil cheeks, receiving instant face lifts.
The river boat is billed as basic in nature and this is entirely accurate. It has a toilet, a covered roof, and open sides, which are probably welcome when the weather is warmer. As it is. we are so cold we bundle ourselves in every blanket we can find. We lie on the floor of the boat sardine-like, huddled together for warmth.
After eight hours, we emerge looking as if we have been sitting in a freezer, to dock at the small town of Pak Beng. It’s muddy and undeveloped here. The polite word is probably rustic – we have a local and also very basic guesthouse for the night.
Back on the boat we cruise to the Pak Ou Caves. This is an important religious site overlooking the river at the junction of the Mekong and Ou Rivers. The two sacred limestone caverns are filled with Buddha images of all types and sizes. They have been brought by devoted villagers over the centuries. The lower cave, Tham Ting, is entered from the river by a series of steps. The higher cave, Tham Phum, is deeper and we need our torches.
We continue to the atmospheric World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang. This is a UNESCO recognised gem, nestled in the hills of northern Laos, where the Mekong and Khan rivers meet. It's claimed to be ‘the best preserved city in South East Asia. Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of historic red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture and is utterly gorgeous. (I’m not biased at all by the fact that we’re now in a comfortable hotel).
The Royal Palace is relatively recent. It was built in 1904, during the French colonial era, for King Sisavang Vong and his family. The site for the palace was chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could disembark from their river voyages directly below the palace.
There’s also an eclectic mix of restaurants, cafes and bars. as well as markets and the buzzing night bazaar, where the locals buy their food. Barbecued rat on lollipop sticks is on offer. Or bat. This is one of the poorest countries in Asia. but the people are friendly and eager to chat. ( I see I've unintentionally written a very bad poem here.)
There are plenty more villages to explore. A very fast paced walk, almost a route march, out to the Kuang Si Falls. It's a lovely walk, nevertheless. People are working in the paddy fields. waving happily. A toddler wielding a huge metal cleaver waves too. Groups of children congregate to stare. The poverty is evident in their old. torn clothing. Many are bare foot.
Sadly, there's also a mini zoo. Mournful bears and tigers in tiny cages. It's too hard to look at them. The Kuang Si Falls, are beautiful, definitely worth all the effort. A picturesque, multi-level cascade that offers fantastically blue pools. They would be perfect for a mid-afternoon dip, if it were warm enough.
The highlight of the visit here, for me, next day, is the procession of monks undertaking the ritual known as Morning Alms or ‘Sai Bat’. At dawn, the locals stand or squat to offer food to the saffron-robed monks who line up for their daily meal, carrying their begging bowls. It's a tradition that dates back centuries. The offerings must be collected early, as the monks cannot eat anything after midday. Giving food to a monk, earns you merit, which will be carried over into the next life.
Present-day Laos traces its historic and cultural identity to the wealthy kingdom of Lan Xang, which existed from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth century, as one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. After a period of internal conflict, Lan Xang broke into three separate kingdoms—Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In 1893, these three territories were colonised by France, as a French protectorate and were united to form what is now known as Laos. Laos became independent in 1953, but a post-independence civil war began, which saw the communist resistance, supported by the Soviet Union, fight against the monarchy supported by the United States.
Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the US dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II. This made Laos the most heavily bombed country in history, relative to the size of its population. Most of the canoes tethered along the banks of the rivers are created from old mortar shells. Reminders of the CIAs ‘Secret War’ on Laos are everywhere. The locals have crafted all manner of goods, from speed boats to saucepans out of metal remnants. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped in Laos were unexploded and still remain, which makes for careful wandering and all too common tragedy.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic today is one of the world's only socialist states, openly endorsing communism.
South, through Laos, from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng along an extremely hilly highway. Situated on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is surrounded by towering limestone karsts. The scenery (especially the sunsets) is stunning. I take to a bike and wobble over the rutted paths alongside the river, cattle swimming alongside. There are more caves to scramble up to,;the largest is known as Tham Chang. It's a beautiful cavern fed by a natural spring, which creates an almost enticing pool.
Onwards by bus, now, to the Laos capital, Vientiane. Squealing pigs scatter in front of us. Vientiane is more spread out than Luang Prabang and not as charming. Nonetheless, there are markets, monuments and temples to visit. Tuk tuks here are called jumbos. But I can't see one. Serendipitous then, that George, a native Indian American appears with his motor bike and offers to take me on a tour of the city. We zoom along the, tree-lined boulevards and past faded colonial mansions to Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. It’s home to almost 7,000 Buddha images. Also not to be missed is Pha That Luang. This is a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa right in the centre of the city. It is generally regarded as the most important monument in Laos and a national symbol.
I've flown in from Argentina, via Los Angeles, on my round the world anti clockwise trip. Next, an overland trip through Thailand to Laos, starting again in Bangkok's Khaosan Road, (read more about Bangkok here). Another massage on a mattress on the floor that makes me feel as if I've done ten rounds and a facial that involves half a greengrocer's shop on my skin.
First a day trip to Ayutthaya, a city about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok, once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, The kingdom was a major power in south eastern Asia, the precursor to modern day Thailand, emerging during the decline of the Khmer Empire and lasting from 1351 (it seems probable that the Khmers were in the area much earlier) to 1767. It eventually succumbed to another neighbour, Burma, after repeated attacks.
The ruins of the old city (razed to the ground by the Burmese) now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site that contains a veritable panorama of crumbling Royal Palaces, Buddhist temples, towering stupas (known as chedis in Thailand), monasteries and statues. Wat Phra Si Sanphet ("Temple of the Holy, Splendid Omniscient"), features most often in promotion. It was the holiest, grandest and most beautiful temple.
Kings' Summer Palaces always seem to have glorious settings. The Thai royal family are no exception. A few miles down the River Chao Phraya from Ayutthaya is the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace. The first palace here was built by King Prasart Thong as a summer retreat in the 17th century, towards the end of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. However, the Palace fell into decline, along with the kingdom. It was restored by King Rama IV (also known as Mongkut - the one from The King and I) and then Rama V in the nineteenth century.
The Tourist Office explain that it is divided into two zones: the inner zone for royal family to use as a resting place, the other outer zone is for 'normal people and tourist'. I'm not sure if I qualify as normal, but I'm definitely not royal so I'm wandering round the immaculately landscaped park with its many walkways and lakes. There are numerous sumptuous dwellings, temples, shrines, monuments and topiary galore.
According to my guides the key sights are: the Wehart Chamrunt (Heavenly Light), a Chinese-style palace and throne room; the Warophat Phiman (Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode), a royal residence; Ho Withun Thasana (Sages' Lookout), a striped lookout tower; and the Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), a pavilion constructed in the middle of a lake, King Mongkut's copy of theArporn Phimok Prasart royal pavilion in Bangkok (see above), and Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, the royal palace temple.
Now I've joined a small group tour. We're heading to northern Thailand and Laos on an overnight train. Chiang Mai is the second city of Thailand in the mountainous north. Founded in 1296, it was once capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom. It's also known as the ‘Rose of the North’. There's a scenic, winding drive up a mountain to Doi Suthep, one of the country's most stunning temple complexes. It involves a 300-step serpent-guarded stairway, leading up to the temples but the climb is rewarding. The chanting of the Buddhist monks is relaxing and hypnotic - I could sit listening all day - and there are sweeping views of the city. A cycle tour of the flatter, old city is also worth the effort; it is crammed with hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples.
In the evening, the enormous, colourful Night Bazaar (this area is where most of the Thai crafts are actually made) and kao soy; yellow wheat noodles in a curry broth, traditionally served with chicken or beef. with a cultural show, of course
Chiang Rai, is the northern most town in Thailand, the gateway to the mighty Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos. The must see here is Wat Phra Kaew, a royal temple that once housed the (Jasper) Emerald Buddha (the original now has its own temple in Bangkok) and today, displays a replica. Nearby, the Navel City Pillar is a monument made of more than 100 Khmer-style pillars.
Lunch is at a roadside eatery in Chiang Rai that takes its mission to promote birth control very seriously. The Cabbages and Condoms Inn and Restaurant claims to be in The Rubber Triangle. It's a nice play on words. The Golden Triangle is the name given to this area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. It was perhaps better known as one of the largest opium-producing areas in the world.
There are condom flowers in the gift shop. And the menu is not for the faint hearted. It even features condom salad. I'm relieved to see it's only food shaped to look like condoms. It's all good fun, though their mission is a serious one. And the food tastes fine.
Just outside Chiang Rai, the ornate Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, which turns out to be an wedding cake style art installation. To the tranquil town of Chiang Khong, from where we take a boat along the Mekong to Laos.
After Laos I return again to Thailand via Hanoi, for a beach sojourn in Krabi. This is a southerly province of Thailand famous for breath-taking beaches and amazing vistas: hundreds of picturesque karst islands, with coral reefs, dotted through the Malacca Strait.
I'm headed to “Town”, which is Ao Nang, a continually expanding seaside strip of guesthouses, hotels, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It is an especially sad time. A huge tsunami has hit the month before. I've been lucky. would have been on the beach at the time if I hadn't re-organised my trip. I considered cancelling, but the spa I had chosen tells me they need the business. There are few other tourists and no-one else staying at my lodging. Its a beautiful place with bowls of floating petals just for me and Thai massages on tap. I'm treated like royalty.
I walk round Town, spending a little money and hearing people's stories. Those I speak to tell of their panicking as they ran for high ground, their relief to be safe and their sadness at the deaths of so many. The most poignant sight, the posters and photographs tied to the railings, listing all those still missing.
And I take a couple of quiet boat trips - again the locals are desperate for custom. The Phi Phi Islands, to the south of the bay, where I first ventured from Phuket have been especially badly hit. The pretty bays and limestone scenery are ravaged, piles of excavated timber on the sand, sunken boats in the water.
The must do trip from Ao Nang is The Four Island Longtail Boat Tour. This area has, thankfully, been less affected by the catastrophe. First stop is the renowned Phra Nang Cave Beach at Railay. This gorgeous spot is only accessible by boat and the towering limestone cliffs are beloved of rock climbers. The sea is a translucent jade and at the end of the sand, the Princess Cave, where fishermen make offerings in the form of incense and flowers to ensure safe voyages. There are a heap of phallus shaped objects along one wall.
Poda Island has more white beaches and turquoise water. The huge karst pillar, just off the beach, features on most Thai promotional videos. Chicken Island is possibly even more familiar, with its neck like protuberance. We circumnavigate twice to make sure we appreciate it.
The final stop is at Koh Tub, connected to Chicken and Mor Islands by a spectacular sandbar.
I've had a good, if subdued finale, to my round the world tour. It's time, once again, to go home. The staff at the spa line up to say good bye and wave me off.
Coming from Myanmar via Phuket and Bangkok. (The meal on Thai Airways is ice cream.) I've fixed up to meet Elaine in Siem Reap, for a last minute side trip to the amazing twelfth century Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is the second city in Cambodia, known mainly as the gateway to the temples at Angkor. Today, it's a tranquil place, but I can see that this situation will change very shortly. The whole tree lined approach from the airport, is a hotel construction site. It looks as if they are building hundreds of megaliths. We're staying in delightful bungalows, with flower filled gardens. I can't see any more of these being built, from my tuk tuk. There are hundreds of these too.
Angkor was the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. It is colossal and incredibly fulfilling, one of the most rewarding archaeological sites that I have seen. It was discovered in the jungle and partially cleared. Garuda birds compete with elephants. The bas reliefs are fantastic. And there are pyramids reminiscent of the Mayan structures, though grander. There are steps galore.
Angkor’s vast complex of intricate stone buildings most notably includes preserved Angkor Wat (City of Temples). This is, incredibly, the largest religious monument in the world. It was built on the orders of Khmer King Suryavarman II during the early twelfth century, as a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu. He intended it to also be his mausoleum. By the end of the century it had evolved into a Buddhist temple.
The main building, with its five towers, is intended to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. It faces west. Scholars are still arguing over that one. but think it may be related to the funerary plan. And there are three raised galleries around it, contained within a three mile long moat, which is great for photographs of reflections
Intriguingly, the construction of Angkor Wat also suggests a celestial significance: lines of sight from terraces within the temple show specific towers to be at the precise location of the sunrise on a solstice. And there's also an appointed monument, to be clambered up, for stupendous sunset views across the jungle. The hawkers are relentless. 'Do I look as if I want a postcard, just as the sun's round disc slips below the horizon?'
We have a day in Angkor Wat to be proper tourists. The souvenir shops around the site all look very similar, mainly packed with wooden carvings and friezes depicting aspects of Angkor Wat. There is more variety in the old market with beautiful (but expensive) baskets and a good selection of silver. Elaine buys up the whole mall.
In the evening, a cultural show at the Angkor Village. Japanese tourists leap about in front of the stage with their cameras, obscuring every one else's view - and ruining opportunities for photographs
I'm surprised to learn that that there's another Khmer complex, two miles from Angkor Wat. Elaine has arranged a guide who brings a car with a cracked screen and suspect tyres. Angkor Thom (Great City) was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. around several monuments from earlier eras. At the centre of the city is the state temple, the Bayon, incorporating giant, mysterious faces, carved into its towers. This one is on the national flag (not Angkor Wat as I had assumed). Other major structures are clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north. The Terrace of the Elephants was used by King Jayavarman VII as a platform to inspect his victorious army as it returned to the city.
And finally, I discover that there are many more temples. The area is riddled with them. Astonishing and wonderful. And exhausting. Thank God for tuk-tuks. Ta Prohm (Royal Monastery). one kilometre east of Angkor Thom was also founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII,as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Ta Prohm has not been subjected to digging and restoration. and so is in much the same condition in which it was found. Huge tree root tentacles grasping onto the ruins only add to the atmosphere. I expect Lara Croft to appear at any moment.
Close by is Banteay Kdei, (A Citadel of Chambers), more wonderful towers and tree roots too.
Then, Ta Keo. This one, dedicated to Shiva, is a little earlier, part of the new capital in the late tenth century. It never finished as another new king wanted to build his own new capital. I can see why they refer to this area as a complex. And there's still more. some part buried some just dotted around.
A boat ride is a good way to relax. Tonle Sap is the largest salt water lake in Southeast Asia. It fluctuates in size over the year, expanding considerably during the monsoon. This area, and its surrounding irrigation, is hugely important for growing the staple food, rice. There’s a lot to see, the floating village, the dirt and squalor of the grinding poverty, the long boats as folk ply their wares, the fish farms with their tethered cormorants and pelicans, humming life on the lake shores and children waving from stilt jetties.
Now, to return to the Philippines and home.
My taxi doesn't turn up, so I find myself undertaking a manic 45 minute tuk tuk ride, all the way out to Bangkok Airport, my suitcase lashed to the front. The driver cackles all the way like the Laughing Policeman: 'English football, velly velly good'.
Phuket is both a province is and the largest island of Thailand, sitting in the Andaman Sea. It's joined to the mainland by a bridge at the northern tip. There's a large Chinese influence, so the island and Phuket City, especially, is sprinkled with Chinese shrines and restaurants around the City. In the Old Town here, Thalang Road is lined with colourful nineteenth-century shophouses and Sino-Portuguese buildings.
Phuket is also home to some magnificent beaches and that's why I've come. I'm getting the bus south to Karon and Kata, beyond, the liveliest (and seediest strip ) at Patong.
Sadly, the weather is not being cooperative. To say it's raining is a slight understatement. So the beaches have become irrelevant. And in the hinterland, the jungle is dripping and not inviting. It seems sensible to take to the water.
A speedboat journey to Phang Nga Bay. There are 42 islands here, creating some spectacular karsts scenery. First stop of the day, Wat Suwan Khuha, is also known as the Monkey Cave, because of the cheeky primates living in the temple complex and making the most of the offerings to the huge reclining Buddha here.
Next, a longtail boat to the stilt Floating Village that is Panyee Island, We're free to wander the gangplanks and watch the fishermen at work, if we can see through the downpour. It's safer to retreat to the restaurant and wait for lunch. local fishermen, the island has been inhabited since the 18th century. Explore the village, taking in local life, before having lunch at a restaurant in the village.
Next up, Talu Cave, where we're supposed to to canoe and swim as well as admiring the stalactites and stalagmites. But us tourists are grabbing all the plastic we can find in an effort to stay dry and warm and are not keen to get in the water. The peaks of the karst formations are majestic, but atmospherically grey and forbidding, rather than beautiful today.
The day’s main attraction is Khao Phing Kan, or James Bond Island. This is where they filmed the 1974 James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. It's a soaring peak of an island, with an adjacent (about 40 metres) 20 metre pillar islet, Ko Ta Pu. It's just clear enough for us to agree that it is indeed picturesque.
Nothing daunted, I'm off east across the sea again, This time it's a snorkelling trip on a (very bumpy) speed boat, across the Malacca Strait, to see the fabled limestone scenery of the Phi Phi Islands, Here, I'm a little luckier with the weather.
There are six islands, but only two really count, the others are uninhabited limestone islets. Ko Phi Phi Don is the largest and most populated island of the group It was first populated by Malay fishermen, although coconut plantations followed. then troursim because of the gorgeous beaches, most notably Maya, which they've had to close to recover form over tourism.
The second island proper, Ko Phi Phi Le is probably more famous as it's where they filmed The Beach. The resultant fame has had a mixed reception. There have been claims that the island has been degraded by tourists - (and even by the film crew 'enhancing' the set). But it has brought in revenue. Here, we also visit the "Viking Cave", where there is a thriving industry harvesting edible bird's nests.
Our guide recites her stuff like a walking tape recorder, without pausing for breath. She has a red hat and hair dyed to match. And I'm eyeing up my fellow passengers. There are three Indian guys who don't eat lunch and don't swim. I'm not sure why they've come. And there's a guy from the British Embassy. I can't decide if he's with his girlfriend or his mother. We snorkel on a reef and feed the fish bananas.
The rain is relentless ( I wish I had known Phuket has an eight month wet season). and there is flooding, especially in Patong. Motor cycles zooming down the main street send a rippling wash into the shops and bars. Some of the punters are sitting on stools a foot underwater. There’s nothing to do except hang about and talk to the working girls. Every night I visit The Phuket Bar. They're bored too. They dance or sit and smooch each other or doze. A young lad sits sheepishly watching. Every so often one of the girls disappears quietly into the back 'for dinner', dragging along the odd client who apprehensively wanders after them, into the gloom. They teach me how to pole dance in between. It's not my forte. In need of amusement, I flirt with Gunther an unprepossessing German, who has little to recommend him. He asks me out to dinner, arranging to meet the next night. And then he stands me up.
My hotel isn't as relaxing as I had hoped either. The signs in the dining room say 'Happy New Year - 1995'. There are giant cockroaches and mosquitoes dwelling in the bathroom. The mosquitoes here have extremely sharp proboscises. Perhaps, it's all the wet weather. Maybe that's why the hotel is so quiet. but there must be people staying here. There are shoes lined up outside all the doors.
Just one more trip to the shops to stock up on 'designer' tops and jeans. Now, onto Cambodia.
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