28.07.2010 30 °C
My final travel map!
Having never been one to place a high enough value on my life to alter plans due to personal safety, it comes as no surprise that while everyone else headed for the well frequented western border crossing into Thailand, I opted instead for the far easier, yet far riskier, eastern border crossing just 1 hour north of Kota Bharu. With Lonely Planet stating "it is not advised to cross the border here due to violence and instability on this coast of Thailand...services have sometimes been suspended due to violence in the area" and hearing from other travellers that bombs and shootings have been common in the past, I was a little apprehensive, and even more so when entering the train station just 1km north of the border, which was flooded with armed security officers looking sternly and suspiciously at every individual and item of luggage as it passed by. In fact the presence of 7 or 8 machine gun wielding, bullet proof vested, camouflage clad, ex-army style train inspectors marching up and down the carriage for the first few hours of the journey, probably designed to reassure passengers, yet actually just reminding them that the train requires armed security officers in the first place and making you fully aware that while they are armed and protected by bullet proof vests, you on the other hand, possibly more likely to be a target, are not, was less than reassuring.
Thailand / Malaysia border crossing
As it turned out, the train ride proved to be anything but dangerous or exciting, with 22 hours spent sitting (as there were no sleeper beds available) looking out at the rain soaked landscape of rainy season Thailand. Once again I was unable to sleep and was forced to sit jealously by, listening to the restful breathing of slumbering passengers all around, as I tossed and turned, gradually losing all sensation in various limbs while trying to establish any semblance of a comfortable sleeping position. It soon proved to be futile and I quickly gave up, accepting that some things are never to change as a sleepless 16 hours on a plane, a sleepless 28 hours on a bus and a sleepless 48 hours on a boat should have proved to me long ago. At least it's comforting to know that some things in life can be relied upon, it's just a shame that long, uncomfortable, sleepless journeys happen to be the one consistency that remained throughout my trip and continued unabated right up until my very last step on a long 6 month journey.
Arriving back in Bangkok for the third time in 6 months, I hoped, in terms of viewing the city, that it would be third time lucky as the first had involved a hasty exit, departing as quickly as I'd arrived, not wanting my first impression of South East Asia to be the hectic, crowded, noisy streets of Khao San Road, while in contrast, my second, during the 3 day water festival of Thai New Year, had been wanting nothing but the hectic, crowded, noisy streets of Khao San Road. Therefore I hoped that the third visit might just yield a few days of sightseeing and exploration of the city so that I can not only say that I have been to Bangkok but also seen it too.
As it turned out, this was to be more than the case, more so than I had anticipated, as on my first day I headed out into the centre of the city's commercial district, taking a very local and very cheap bus, and proceeded to get thoroughly lost in the maze of streets, alleys, elevated walkways, roads, skytrains and metros that comprise the heart of busy Bangkok. It's funny that as well as sleepless journeys, the other consistently infuriating aspect of my travels has been my ability to get lost in almost any city, town or village, regardless of how busy or remote. At least it keeps travel interesting I guess.
I eventually found my way back to familiarity after 7 long hours and what seemed like a hundred miles walked, legs aching, muscles cramping up all over, hot and exhausted, and quickly took refuge from any more unnecessary exercise inside the sparkling interior of one of Siam Square's many enormous, fancy and expensive shopping malls. Without even the energy to wander the mall, it was all that I could manage to simply crash down in the food court and make the most of cheap meals and refreshingly cool air conditioning. In fact, the bus ride back to the tourist area, despite being on an old local wreck of a vehicle, proved to be my favourite journey to date as the weariness in my limbs cried out for rest and made the very basic cushioned seat feel more like 5* luxury, the early evening air blown through the open window, despite being full of dirt and traffic fumes, came as such a relief after the oppressive heat of the day that it may as well have been a fresh sea breeze, and the view, although only consisting of congested traffic and noisy streets, the ability to sit and watch it pass by without the exertion of an ounce of energy was better than any spectacular landscape I could have imagined at that moment in time.
I decided to get off the bus at democracy monument and couldn't help but note the difference from the last time I stood in the same position when the entire structure was covered in graffiti, paintings, the coffins of those who died during the rioting, the mourners come to pray and pay their respects, as well as the surrounding streets which still contained the wreckage of army vehicles and were filled with the noise and crowds of dripping party goers as they wished each other happy Songkran while throwing buckets of water at each other. Although democracy monument seemed dramatically different, one thing remained the same, and that is the crowds of young tourists seeking cheap drinks and a lively night out along the neon jungle that is Khao San Road.
Tourist clogged Khao San Road
The following day I took a quick trip down the river and ended up in a minor argument with the ticket officer at the jetty when I asked for a ticket on the slow local river boat. "NO! Only express boat. EXPRESS BOAT only for tourist!" was the curt and offensive reply. Despite the express boat only costing an extra 5 Baht (10p) I was still put out at the attitude of the officer and even more so by the principle of not being allowed on the cheaper, slower boat because I was from abroad. I almost felt like walking the 20 minutes to the next jetty, where the express boat didn't stop as it wasn't in the main tourist district, to force the issue and see if they would really refuse me travel when no other boats were available. I didn't, I hasten to add, but part of me still wishes I had.
As it turned out, that wasn't to be the only altercation I was to be involved in that day as I visited the Grand Palace and temple complex further down the river. After paying quite a high price for my ticket (which seemed even more extortionate considering locals get in for free) I wanted to make the most of the visit and take as many photos as possible. It was while taking a photo through the open door of the Emerald Buddha temple that a short, fat, balding European man, with a much younger Thai bride on his arm (obviously giving him the impression that it gave him the right to speak for the entire Thai nation), brushed passed me with a shake of the head and a muttered insult under his breath. When confronted he replied that I had no respect taking photos inside holy temples and shrines. I quickly pointed out that I wasn't actually taking a photo from inside the temple and also added that when the "holy temples and shrines" stop charging tourists extortionate amounts as though they're simply tourist attractions then I'll stop treating them as such. He didn't seem very happy with that reply and even less so when I stepped in front of him to take another picture, and then, as I was walking away, turned around and said "hey, that's a really good one, it'll look great when I publish it on the internet!" The fact that the tourist brochures given out at the front entrance have photographs taken from inside the temple obviously go to show that it can't be that prohibited, or at least not when used for reasons of money making and tourism! For those of you that are interested, here is that offending picture, which I think you'll agree, wasn't even worth the hassle:
Despite this issue, the Grand Palace and surrounding structures are amazing, with seemingly endless photogenic scenes and buildings. Everywhere you look is a kaleidoscope of gold and sparkling colours, no wonder it is the jewel in the crown of Bangkok tourist attractions.
Satisfied that I have now managed to see more of Bangkok than most people who simply come for the cheap nights out on Khao San Road, or those who just pass through on the way to other exotic locations, I now bring the final stages of my journey to a close. And so, as I sit for one final time in yet another crowded internet cafe, awaiting my flight back to the UK, idling away the hours until the time of departure arises, the road now seemingly coming to an end, I reminisce on some of the highs and lows of the journey so far...
To be continued...