April 7th - April 17th: Bangkok and Chiang Mai for 'Songcran,' and back to Bangkok, Thailand
April 7th: The Big City, BangkokBangkok: the myth reaches far and wide. Its traffic, sticky heat, pollution, massage parlours, sex shows, boxing bouts... Sprawling out in every direction, a network of highways criss-cross canals; polluted, blocked, dirty... High rises punctuate the skyline, concrete elevated expressways sweep through the city, whilst below cars and buses sit bumper to bumper and three wheeled tuk-tuks squeeze between them. This is no city to cycle in.
Yet 'the Venice of the East' has retained a charm which lifts it above these initial images - night markets, ornate golden temples, the imposing Grand Palace, a multitude of street food and vendors on every corner. The smell of a spicy Tom Yam soup - coconut, chili and lemongrass - drifts over from a restaurant. Peaceful waterways are dotted with incense burning Wats (temples); orange-robed monks gently pad around. A walk through the flower market at night is an unforgettable experience - the aromas of jasmine and roses waft through the air, flowers of every colour cover the pavement floor and ceremonial garlands are prepared by hand. And every stall on every street corner offers something tasty - Pat Thai noodles, chopped papaya on ice, fresh spring rolls...
Arriving in the infamous Khao San Road, the rest of Thailand and its people might just as well cease to exist; welcome to the 'travellers' hub of Thailand. Backpackers everywhere, drifters practising didgeridoos and guitars, hair braiders, fake watches lined in golden rows, bootleg tape stands pump out Bob Marley, 'designer' clothes and sunglasses - the same in every store. Food carts offer banana pancakes drenched in condensed milk, fruit shakes, pineapples and papayas. Guesthouse boards are crammed with notices pinned on top of each other - buying, selling - urgent, Lonely Planet to India - will swap for Indonesia... Neon signs advertise 24-hour email cafes, restaurants show five films in a row late into the night, ladyboys saunter up and down, trying to catch the eye. Tuk Tuks follow backpackers, offering their services, insistent - it's the only place where the taxis hail you...
In spite of the profusion of goods and trades squeezed along this tiny road, this backpackerland is somehow more orderly than I had imagined. I had envisaged a confusing network of alley ways, a sense of mystery, an edge created by the merging of East and West. But among the apparent disorder, everything has its place. The same faces, the same stalls, day in day out. Fresh travellers arrive and glance nervously up and down, yet within an hour or two they've blended into the background.
I book into one of the many purpose-built guesthouses, full of windowless rooms stacked above, below and next to each other - sharing with fellow cycling enthusiast Pete, from Australia. The room is barely bigger than our two beds, and too small for the door to open fully. Once our bags are emptied, we've just about enough room to rotate! But it overlooks a Wat, and is just far enough from the Khao San Road to believe that there is some kind of normality...
I take the 'boat bus' today down Bangkok's canals, the fastest way of getting into town - this is one big Bruce Lee movie set! Sleek overpowered 'longtails' burn up and down the narrow waterways, weaving through watery chicanes, churning up the dubious water. Sitting right up front behind the wheel, the driver tames the beast behind; the engine rumbles and splutters like a drag racer. Stopping only for a few moments to scoop up passengers, we tear off again - the ticket collecter is leaning more on the side of caution - she's wearing a motorcycle helmet!
As another longtail hurtles by, kicking up a spray as we hit its wake, passengers urgently pull up curtains running the length of the hull, using a pulley system. Up ahead, a bridge is looking worryingly low, but all is in hand. Deploying a Bond style gadget, the roof lowers by 20 cms and we skim beneath it at full throttle. It's a three sensory sensation: sight, sound and smell. It certainly beats spending the afternoon caught in traffic.
I arrive at the Euro RSCG office where, yet again, I have been offered the use of the internet and scanner to work on the web site. Many thanks to David Howell, Pichet Kitcharoenka, Bhidak and everyone at the office who welcomed me and helped out. A wonderfully friendly office! David and Bhidak took me out for a delicious Laotian meal...and told me this story. A representative from Tag Huer had come over to visit, and David took him to the Pat Pong markets to see all the fake watches. Noticing one watch in particular, the man went quiet as he examined it. 'What's wrong, is it a really good fake?' asked David. 'No, it's not that, it's not a good copy at all,' he replied. 'The point is, I only launched that watch in Asia a week ago!'
If there's anything that's worth copying, you'll find it in Bangkok. Rolex, Oakley, Timberland, student id cards, drivers' licenses, even BA Degree certificates, it'll all be amongst the many markets which line the capital's streets. Thai copyright is none existent, or certainly barely enforced. 'Borrowing' names from their more famous Western counterparts like Armani and St Michael's, they offer suits, made to measure, in twenty four hours.
April 11th: Bangkok to Chiang Mai for 'Songcran' - Thai New YearI'm waiting for my Laos and Vietnam visas after untangling the web of overland travel paperwork, and also for Trystan - who works at 'Wheelie Serious Bikes' and is arriving in Bangkok to join me on the ride. I decide with Pete, my Oz roomate, to head up to Chang Mai for Songcran, Thai New Year. Otherwise known as The Water Festival. They say Chang Mai is the Edinburgh of Thailand for New Year, the place to be. Over its official 3 days, which in reality extends to over a week, there is a mass exodus from Bangkok, as everyone heads home to be with their family. The roads are a packed mass of cars, buses and pickups crammed with people leaving the capital. Everything shuts down, including the embassies - hence the visa delays. A valid excuse for me and my bike to take a little rest and spend some time apart...
Securing a last minute ticket, Pete (a fellow cycling enthusiast) and I book ourselves on to the 'luxury' VIP buses for the overnight ride up to Chiang Mai. It's my first bus experience in Thailand and I was a little taken aback - we find ourselves bustled on to one of the cheap buses along with a bunch of other backpackers who've paid an inflated price for this luxury service - a common Thai, Khao San Road travel agency scam, it transpires. Before we realise what's going on, the bus tears off and that is pretty much that. To rub salt in the wound, sometime in the night it grinds to a halt, smoke billowing out of the engine (the air con had broken a while earlier). Stranded at a petrol station, some drown their sorrows in beer... Hours later, a replacement bus arrives, and we finally roll into Chiang Mai bleary eyed and 10 hours late. Oh well, I guess I'll just stick to my bike next time!!
Unfortunately there are no pictures of the Water Festival as I don't have a waterproof camera!
The Water Festival...This is a period of utter MAYHEM in Thailand. The last couple of days have involved the most intense water fights I have ever witnessed. Hordes of people, young and old, line the canals of Chiang Mai, armed with water pistols, super soakers, buckets, and any other methods of projecting water at high speed that they can acquire. Between 8am and 6pm, no one is safe - pickups armed to the teeth and teeming with gangs cruise by, pulling up to unsuspecting bystanders and drenching them - drive-bys, as we call them. Our group, who all feel we have bonded over the 22 hour bus experience, comprise of 2 Brits, one Aussie and three Danes - and we decide to hit Songcran together. Their names: Pete, Katie, Sofus, Marie and Rebecca. We're staying at 'Your House', a chilled out guesthouse in Chiang Mai's backstreets, purveyor of fine food.
Not to be outdone, we invest in water pipes and a huge dustbin to act as a giant bucket. These water pipes are simple yet effective - like a giant syringe, water is sucked up and shot out in a thin yet forceful jet. A well aimed shot can knock a hat clean off. With cries of 'dude in the shades!,' 'dry clothes on the left!', 'tuk tuk, open window!', 'cyclist!' we strike together. One of our finest moments is catching a lady unawares in the phone box. The other trick we have learned from the Thais is adding ice blocks to our water supply, an extra incentive to cool down in the scorching day time heat.
It's hard to describe these few days, they are so out of control. This really is Water Warfare. Yet there is such a feeling of energy, goodwill and family involvement that it is barely comparable to our own New Year. It's all about having fun. And sitting out of the melee to sip on a fruit shake, it's an incredible scene to watch. Thais and foreigners soaking each other, buckets over the head, old ladies with hoses, children with water pistols...The fights get pretty zealous at times, but there are always smiles at the end... And as the days go on, the revelry intensifies. Thais sway this way and that, a bottle of Sang Thip in their back pocket. They rush up to passers by and ply them with drink. Sang Thip is a Thai brew containing a list of 'unknown' substances, the rumour being that it is laced with amphetamines. Certainly everyone seems remarkably hyper and merry.
Escaping the constant onslaught, which can get a little exhausting, we hire mopeds for the day and investigate an enormous temple up a mountain road. The steps that lead up to it have the long bodies of two colourful dragons in place of handrails. The compound is thick with Thais ringing the bells, set out in a long line, to celebrate the New Year. Again, all the family is involved - little children help their stooped grandparents. Continuing further up, we find a little touristy hill tribe village where we stop for lunch, with a museum on the local opium trade. In the drizzle, we explore various winding trails. For the first time in a long while I feel distinctly cold - not a feeling I'm used to on my bicyle. Dropping down into town along the sinewy road, (Mad Pete and Rebecca's moped hurtles down way before the rest) we return into the water melee and as 'farangs' (foreigners) we are targeted ruthlessly as we ride home. Caught in the traffic, Thais pour ice cold water over our heads and chuckle gleefully.
My father emails me to say my mother is booked on a flight to Bangkok. She's arriving in just two days, for a week's visit, - a bit of a shock, though a welcome one! There's no longer any time for a jungle treck by off-road motorbike that we had been mulling over. Our potential guide, a Thai from the mountains who goes by the name of 'Tony Blair', was last seen with an empty bottle of Sang Thip somewhere on the border with Burma... Katie, Marie and I catch the first bus back to the smoky city, which thankfully returns trouble free, and I look forward to seeing my mother for the first time in almost 6 months...
That evening, Peter, a German guy exporting dragon shirts, shows Katie and I the flower and night market. We go for a meal overlooking the river, where a cool breeze is blowing - relief from the sticky air. As hors d'oeuvre, I finally get the chance to try deep fried grasshopper. The head is removed and the body sprayed with soy sauce. I have to report it's a little overrated and not as good as it sounds! I spend the night chatting to Peter over bowls of Pat Thai noodles, discussing our thoughts on life...
At 4am, with a bunch of roses I picked up from the flower market, I catch a cab to surprise Mum by meeting her off her plane - unfortunately we miss each other! A couple of hours later I track her down to the phenomenally swish Sukothai Hotel, one of the finest hotels in Thailand, where Dad's pulled off a weekend deal. Luckily for me, there's room for two! On goes MTV, and minutes later the bath is running - we're both overwhelmed by such luxury, and resolve to put it to good use!