Thailand Tips

 

 

David Whitley discovers that, if you’re planning to stay in Thailand for a while, it’s better to pick proper adventures instead of variety pack day tours

 


When I was in Thailand earlier this year, I headed up to Chiang Rai. I didn’t want to stay in the city for three days, so I decided to look into some day tour options. There were loads with different travel agencies, and I ended up plumping for one that offered a bit of everything – a few hours’ trekking through hill tribe villages, an elephant ride and a ride on a long-tailed boat.

 


As a day out, it was really enjoyable. It wasn’t one that I’ll be raving about forever, and it’s one that will never be regarded as truly special when I’m sitting on my deathbed recounting my life to sobbing family members.

 


On a return visit to Thailand in November, I ended up in Kanchanaburi and found myself doing the same thing. I wanted a day trip, had a look at the options with a few travel agencies, and ended up doing a day out that included a trek to the Erawan waterfall, an elephant ride, bamboo rafting and a train ride on the infamous Death Railway.

 


Again, it was a really enjoyable day out. The waterfall is gorgeous, the swim in the pools created by it was a welcome respite from the heat, the elephant ride was comically entertaining, the bamboo rafting and rail trip undeniably cool.

 


But I could foresee a problem here if I was planning to spend a few weeks travelling around the country. Day trips like this could soon get boring.

 


It doesn’t take much web research to uncover that similar day trips are available from many hubs across Thailand. Generally, these trips fit in three or four experiences that come from an increasingly predictable selection box. There’s trekking, visiting a hill tribe, rafting, kayaking, elephant riding, cycling and possibly a visit to a wildlife attraction that has dubious animal welfare credentials.

 


The problem is that once you’ve done a couple, they become very samey. And no one activity on any of them feels particularly satisfying. In Kanchanaburi, for example, the bamboo rafting lasted half an hour. It was nice, but it didn’t have the feel of an epic adventure that a half day or full day of rafting miles down the river would have done.

 

Similarly, there’s a massive difference between an hour in a kayak and having properly sore arms by the time evening draws in on a day-long expedition.

 


So my advice to people heading for a few weeks would be to pick out tours carefully. Research in advance where you can do one thing with a degree of depth – ie. A whole day’s elephant safari or a two day trekking trip – rather than continually plumping for bite-sized tastes of various activities across the day.

 


It’s better to spread the variety out over the course of the trip rather than taking similar doses of variety on numerous days. And that sense of achievement and epic adventure doesn’t come from small doses.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here

 

Ayutthaya

 

 

David Whitley takes out the context and history in Ayutthaya as he experiments with an ignorance-is-bliss method of getting over temple fatigue 

 

Under normal circumstances, I am a complete sucker for stories and context. I don’t just want to know what something is – I want to know its background, how it got there and what has happened to it since. The why is vitally important.

 


I have found one exception to this, however: Temples.

 


In south-east Asia, you can look through any guide book and temple after temple after temple will be listed in the main attractions. No-one wants to admit it, but this isn’t because every single temple will knock your socks off – it’s because there’s not much else to list and they need to fill space. South-east Asia doesn’t do sight-seeing and museums in nearly the same way that Europe, North America and Australia do. It’s a being destination rather than a doing and seeing destination.

 


Consequently, it doesn’t take long for temple fatigue to set it. See a couple, and the next fifteen are increasingly boring.

 


One way to tackle this is to get context – to either read up on the temples or get a guide who can explain why they were built and go into detail about what individual shrines and carvings mean.

 


I’ve tried this before, and it has had the wrong effect. Instead of making me more interested, it’s made me more bored. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t care about the machinations of long-dead kings, and that I’m not even faintly fascinated by what the engravings and carvings depict.

 


It has felt like a test of endurance, standing and listening to a guide explaining things that bore me rigid. That’s no fault of the guide – it’s just the same thing that would happen if a mechanic tried to tell me how all the bits of a car work or a scientist tried to talk me through DNA sequencing a weasel. They’re just things I’m not interested in, and I’ll die perfectly happy never knowing about them.

 


Ayutthaya is Thailand’s top temple city. The country’s former capital is full of the bloody things and visitor options are generally looking round temples or looking round temples.

 


Taking previous experience into account, I decided to experiment. While I’m sure Ayutthaya has a long, labyrinthine history, it’s one that doesn’t have all that much relevance to modern Thai society. I’m sure there are knowledgeable guides, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to look at the temples in complete ignorance. Maybe the way to enjoy looking round them was to completely take them out of context and just appreciate them visually? Stripping the story and context away, and just taking them in as incredible buildings, might offer a different perspective.

 


So we got on a boat. There are a few boat tours of Ayutthaya’s temples available, which generally moor up by three temples to allow you a quick look. The person running the boat tends to have little or no English, and is thus useless as a guide. And that’s exactly what I wanted.

 


First stop was Wat Chaiwatanaram which, from my limited architectural knowledge, bears more than a passing resemblance to Angkor Wat. Unlike at Angkor Wat, however, I had no-one to explain what everything was. It was quite liberating – I could just use my eyes and see what I liked. The ruins are currently under conservation, but I was struck by two things in particular – firstly that the temple was made of red brick – something I don’t associate with this part of the world – and secondly that it’s laid out in a very orderly pattern. This sense of pattern, with one central prang being surrounded by eight flanking towers, is strikingly pleasing to anyone with OCD.

 


The second temple is very meh – lots of fussy, colourful roofs and some statues of former kings on thrones – but the third ends up being utterly fascinating. Wat Phanan Choeng is a mazy riverside complex of buildings, some simple and wooden, some grandly given all the usual sparkly trimmings. As we arrive, a monk is outside, tying up his own boat. This is an active monastery rather than a ruin.

 


The star attraction requires ducking through a few little alleyways to get to and the removal of shoes before entry. The main hall has a small entranceway before you turn right to be faced with an absolutely gigantic Buddha statue. It fills the room that was almost certainly built around it, with the tiered roofs and pillars decorated in what looks suspiciously like Christmas wrapping paper.

 

It looks fantastic – sometimes seeing a bloody big Buddha is all you need. Knowing who made it or why it’s there is of such secondary importance that it’s irrelevant.

 


More to the point, if I’d been listening to a guide drone on about the history and significance of the Buddha, I wouldn’t have walked around the back of it.

 


There, I found an army of women, methodically folding up orange robes like we would do bedsheets from a washing line. The robes were piled high in baskets; an indication of how many the monks must get through. I hadn’t got an insight into the history of the temple – but I had got an intriguing one into the present.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here

 

 

Soft adventure

 
David Whitley checks out the options in Thailand for those who like their adrenalin rushes adventurous but not terrifying

A holiday in Thailand can be all about lying on the beach. But if it’s more action you’re after, never fear – there are some great soft adventure options across the country. These include…

Trekking
Where? Chiang Rai
The mountains in the far north of Thailand are essentially the foothills of the Himalayas, but elevations never get too extreme. Think large hillsides, covered in bamboo forests, with beautiful lookouts over valleys and tea plantations that were once used for growing opium poppies. Two or three day hikes, staying in hill tribe villages, are available for the most enthusiastic. However those who just want a taste cane try two hour ambles packaged up with long boat and elephant rides as a day trip from Chiang Rai. One day trekking adventures provide a happy (if extremely sweaty) medium.
Eagle Adventure Tour is one of the more reliable and likeable outfits selling such tours. Expect to pay 3,000 baht for a full day if on your own, or 1,600 each if there’s two or more of you.
More information: www.thaieagletour.com

Sea Kayaking
Where? Krabi
The gorgeous Andaman coastline around Krabi is ripe for exploring by kayak. With a bit of arm-power, it’s possible to sneak into the mangrove channels that motor boats can’t risk, and gliding next to the limestone karst islands that the region is famous for is a treat. Sea Kayak Krabi runs day-long tours on a number of routes. The Ao Thalane tour heads through the Krabi Klong Talen mangroves – monkeys that are known to jump out from them – whilst taking in impressive limestone canyons. The Koh Hong trip, on the other hand, concentrates on the islands and builds in some snorkelling time for anyone wanting to ogle the abundant marine life. Prices start at 1,500 baht per person.
More information: www.seakayak-krabi.com

Rock climbing
Where? Railay
The limestone coastline around Krabi keeps the rock-climbers just as happy as the kayakers, and the top spot for it is Railay. There are over 400 bolted climbing routes, with plenty of options that are suitable for beginners amongst the tougher, more technical climbs.
Numerous outfitters will happily kit you out and show you the ropes, although Hot Rock is one of the better bets. A full range of options, from half day introductory classes to three day sport rock climbing courses are available.
Daredevils can try what is euphemistically called ‘deep water solo’ – essentially clambering up ledges that hang above the sea. Make a mistake, and you will fall – but the water is deep enough to ensure that no harm is done to anything but the pride.
More information: www.railayadventure.com

Snorkelling and diving
The Gulf Islands – Ko Tao in particular – offer some of the best diving in Asia. Trips can be arranged from Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan, but anyone serious about underwater activity is best off getting the ferry to Ko Tao and being closer to the true aquatic honeypots. Amongst the best spots are Chumphon Pinnacle, which tends to be home to large tuna and grey reef sharks, and the coral-decorated Japanese Gardens.
Numerous companies and travel agents offer round-island snorkelling trips that include equipment hire and stop for a splash at a number of sites on the way. These include Ko Tao Marine, where day trips cost from 1,200 baht per person.
Dive shops are even more prevalent, with most offering learn-to-dive courses as well as day trips. Crystal Dive has an excellent reputation, and offers trips for already certified divers for from 700 baht per dive. For beginners, a four day Open Water course with full PADI certification at the end costs 9,800 baht.
More information: www.kotaomarine.com and www.crystaldive.com

Ziplining
Where? Chonburi
Calling it ‘The Flight of the Gibbon’ is somewhat ambitious – gibbons are far more graceful than any human trussed up in a harness will ever be – but flying through the jungle is possible to the south-east of Bangkok.
The Flight Of The Gibbon zipline course in Chonburi involves trees being connected to each other with wires. Visitors clip on to them, then fly across from platform to platform, often over somewhat terrifying drops.
Go for the full day, 3299 baht option with pick up from Bangkok, and you’ll cover over 3km of zipline, leaping from 24 platforms and tackling one monster run of over 300 metres.
The same company also runs a similar course near Chiang Mai.
More information: www.treetopasia.com

Zorbing
Where? Phuket
Of all the ludicrous adventure activities to have come out of New Zealand in recent years, zorbing is arguably the silliest. It involves no skill at all – just the ability to flounder around inside a giant plastic ball as it lumbers down a hill. The twist is that the ball is partially filled with water, meaning that the guinea pig (or should that be hamster?) inside sloshes around with it.
Therefore, as you roll down the hill, there’s a high chance of being flushed into all manner of positions – upside down, backwards or flat on your face. It’s more fun than frightening, though – laughter is far more likely than screams.
The Rollerball operation near Phuket’s Patong Beach claims to have the longest zorbing run in the world, stretching 190 metres from the hilltop and running down towards the Andaman Sea. One run costs 950 baht (A$30) per person.
More information: www.rollerball.co

Quad biking
Where? Phang-Nga Province
A good way of exploring the off-road trails in the Thai countryside is to hop on a 320cc quad bike and prepare to get muddy. ATV Phuket offers three hour quad bike jaunts around Phang-Nga province – pick-ups from Phuket are available – and there’s no pretence that anyone’s going to stay clean.
The route goes along bumpy trails, past villages and towards the river. The twist is that you don’t cross the river – you ride along it, tyres creating quite the splash as you go.
The tour then heads up a hill track, towards spectacular views at the summit. Training on how to use the quad bikes is given before the group sets off, although it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work them out. The outing costs 4200 baht per driver – not including the laundry bill afterwards…
More information: www.atvphuket.com

Rafting
Where? Pai, Chiang Mai Province
There are plenty of other spots in Thailand where rafting is possible – Nan and Kanchanaburi are good options too – but Pai has the advantage of offering two types of rafting trip.
The first – bamboo rafting – is more sedate. This basically entails a small group sitting on a raft made from strapped-together bamboo logs as a guide steers downstream. Such trips are usually packaged into full days out involving elephant rides and trekking. If you just want to do the rafting for a couple of hours, it’s best organised through your guest house or one of the numerous travel agencies in Pai.
The more adventurous can head out white-water rafting. The scare factor depends largely on the time of year. Hit the height of the rainy season in August and September, and you’re looking at some Grade Five rapids, whilst water levels tend to be low between February and May.
Pai Adventure offers two day trips down the Pai river, and one day adventures where the Khong and Pai rivers meet. Prices start at 1,500 per person.
More information: www.thailandpai.net

You can get Thailand included in the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW

Photo courtesy of HotRockClimbingSchool

Bangkok Bars

 
Woozy from his flight, David Whitley parks himself at one of the tiny streetside bars that brighten the Bangkok night 

The posh type on the next table is braying about how he used to be his school’s top dope dealer. It’s clearly an attempt to impress; this sort of misguided bragging turns into a competitive sport when the sole female is outnumbered five to one.

Earwigging on such fumbling courtship is one of Bangkok’s delights. It’s not a city in which to bother trying to find an authentic locals’ bar. That’s not where the people-watching is at. It’s best to embrace what Bangkok is – an international beast where travellers, waifs, strays and the highly dubious end up brushing against each other.

But it’s also a city where the stories are not kept behind glass. Sure, there are upmarket bars where air-conditioning bills and style outweigh fun, but they could be anywhere in the world.

After a long flight, a frankly terrifying taxi ride and a quick freshen up, we didn’t want to go hunting for the best spot in Bangkok. We just wanted a few drinks that would hopefully keep us up late enough and then knock us out sufficiently for our body clocks to be set properly.

A stagger down the street took us past sure signs of expat central – a couple of semi-swanky four star hotels, an Australian pub, a German beer bar.

But on the corner was a little cart with fairy lights around the top. Bingo. These are where the gold lies in Bangkok. The cart, in this instance, was called Anna Bar. But it has cousins all over the city with different names. Painted in as many lurid colours as possible and pumping out loud commercial dance hits, it had little to offer but a few plastic chairs and a stash of spirit bottles.

It’s a one man operation. The chap sat next to the cart makes all the cocktails, hands out the bottles of beer and collects the money. It’s deliciously small scale, with room for maybe twenty people sat around it at a push.

But that cast changes, both in personnel and temperament. When another four arrive, Cartman pulls out another plastic table and four more chairs, sticking them in the middle of the lane for traffic to negotiate. One car attempts to get past and the chair ends up scratching a long gash in the paintwork.

The cocktails are potent, though. They loosen tongues. The table to our left starts exchanging sexual confessions. They’re the sort that are tame to older, wiser heads, but racy to 19-year-old backpackers who know the people concerned.

And going by are more confessions waiting to be made. A bald man in his fifties comes past, hand in hand with his new love. She’s Thai, in her early twenties, and clad in the sort of tight lime green miniskirt indicative of profession. Her Adam’s apple is equally indicative.

They slip away into the hotel opposite. We stay where we are, drinking, watching and listening until alcohol and jetlag slam into each other with irresistible force. A better introduction to the city would be hard to find.

You can get 
Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

 

Bangkok Snake

 

 

David Whitley, not the greatest fan of snakes at the best of times, gets the chills as he visits a farm where cobras are milked for their venom

 

Ugh. His last film may have been a cinematic travesty, but Indiana Jones certainly has the right idea on snakes. There’s something about them, even the feeble non-venomous ones that are about as dangerous as soppy Labrador puppies, that makes me shudder. They’re fascinating, sure, but I want them safely kept a certain distance away from me.

 

That distance is a little bit further than it is at Bangkok’s Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute Snake Farm. The less-than-grand stand we’re sat in looks a little too ramshackle and the barriers look a little too undeterring. Especially when the guy in the wellies starts swinging the king cobras round by the tail.

 

The farm is not just a tourist attraction. It’s a World Health Organisation-backed research centre. It produces antivenin and studies toxicology. It also acts, at least partly, as a natural history museum of the slithery kind.

 

As snakes sleep in their glass cages, stats and trivia are reeled off. The mangrove pit viper is quick to strike when disturbed; the reticulated python can grow up to ten metres long. But it’s the cobras that have that magical allure. Kipling and co have built a handsome mythology around these romanticised serpents.

 

The conservationists can claim what they like; as far as I’m concerned, they’re horrible, vicious bastards.

 

A video upstairs shows the effects a cobra bite has. Death from one goes a little like this: progressive paralysis of the skeletal and peripheral muscles, then a sleep-like paralysis, spasms and excess salivation, then fatal respiratory failure. It is not a nice way to go. Even amongst those saved in time, 25% end up with severe muscle damage. And several thousand people a year in Thailand are saved in time.

 

Knowing this, it’s hard to understand why the handlers are so nonchalant while conducting the show. They initially give the cobras plenty of room, but chat away as if the snakes are not there, owning the floor. Occasionally one springs into action and goes for the handler’s legs. It becomes fairly clear what those welly boots are for.

 

Then the handlers pick the snakes up and swing them around by the tail. Presumably it’s about momentum – if the snake is swinging fast enough, it can’t co-ordinate well enough to get into a truly dangerous position. Even so, the fury is there. They make lunges, thwarted by gravity and speed of travel.

 

When the king cobras come out, I feel I’ve seen enough. They are astoundingly big, although not quite as venomous as their smaller cousins. I make a cowardly skulk towards the end of the stand and make my exit. The only way to do so without walking back in front of the massed crowd and looking like a chicken is to nip round the back.

 

I turn the corner, and I’m suddenly met with precisely what I didn’t want to see: another giant cobra being swung around by the tail. This is where the handlers are bringing them out from, and they’re not expecting visitors.

 

One “Woah!” is all I need to back off as far as possible.

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. Handily, it’s just around the corner from the snake farm