Nong Khai, North East Thailand

Very chilled out and relaxed, the Mut Mee Guest House is run by Juilan, an extremely friendly English expat. It was around 8pm and dark when we arrived at the Bus Station in Nong Khai, and we quickly negotiated a deal with a local TukTuk driver ( ie. laughed our arses off when he asked for 100 Bhat each ) who took us straight to the hotel, where we could just dump the bags, and head out into the garden for a few relaxing Beer Leo’s. The TukTuk cost us only 40 Bhat.

The garden is set right on the Mekong River, and in the morning, we could actually see across to Laos, about the same distance as back home overlooking the Tay from Dundee and over to Fife.

The garden was full of lush foliage, with lots of rustic sitting areas, covered in  bamboo and thatched roofs. There was a bit of a traveller vibe about the place, and Julian seemed to be very good at introducing everyone and breaking the ice.

Up early and fresh next morning, it was time to hire a motorbike and get out and the area. We were going to head out into the countryside, but take in the Sculpture Park first.

The sculptures were quite fantastic, and there were lakes filled with huge giant catfish breaking the surface of the water occasionally in a feeding frenzy.

Leaving the park, we trundled down the road on our little Japanese motorbike, taking in the wonderfully colourful scenery. For the first time, our visit back home was a distant memory, and it really felt like we had just picked up from where we left off. We were both quiet, enjoying the heat, the breeze, the smells, and the sights.

Skinny farmers herding water buffalo would smile and wave from a distance, their teeth glowing brilliant white against a canvas of sun weathered brown leather skin. Poor, hardworking, yet extremely happy.

Smiling children would shout out greetings, looking slightly bemused at the unusual sight of 2 gingers floating past on a motorbike.

We got back to the hotel before darkness fell. There was a party that night with a really good local Thai band. This was on the raftboat at the bottom of the garden, so we had made a loose plan to maybe head over depending on how we felt. We had a few beers then ended up drinking some blue jungle juice concoction. Good idea at the time, we had a great night, but didn’t look too healthy next morning for our trip over the border to Laos. 

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Nakhon Ratchasima,Thailand

Bangkok is really sticky, and we needed some respite from this and decided to go to the cinema to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. On arriving in Siam Square, I stupidly flicked the butt of my cigarette onto the street, and was immediately confronted by a Thai Policeman. I was going to be fined 2000 Bhat (40 quid), and was led away to meet the Sergeant who would roll out the official paperwork. We were both gutted. I advised the Sergeant I would have to go to the bank, my mind was working overtime, wondering if these were real policemen. They looked official, yet had no hats, and the paperwork was like 8th generation photocopies. I asked to see official ID, and was quickly shown a laminated pass, which looked a bit DIY. I was told that if I could not pay the fine, I would be taken to the Police Station. Bummer 😦 I actually had about 600 quid in my concealed moneybelt, but was playing for time. The Sergeant then asked how much money I had on me, and when I pulled out 900 Bhat, he advised if I was to pay him 500 Bhat, then he would not file the report, and the matter would be concluded. I kept eyeing his uniform, wondering if this was a scam? I stalled again, and he could tell I was reluctant to part with any money. Time was ticking, we had spent 15 minutes with him, and then I told him I thought the fine was huge for such a minor offence. He asked me to wait a few minutes, and had a conversation with his colleague, and returned advising me that if I picked up the cigarette but, I could just go. I thanked him graciously, and we legged it as quick as we could. After the film, the two gents were still in the same position conversing with what looked like the “real” police. Turned out they were official after all, but were some form of tourist police ie. No Guns. Think we had been quite lucky there. The film was pretty good, and we had managed to avoid the hottest part of the day.

We had decided it was time to leave Bangkok again, as after 2 days, we had recovered from the last long train journey and were up for a move again. We organised our banking, we had been withdrawing daily amounts from the ATM as in Laos, the most you can withdraw is 50 quid at a time and the withdrawal fees would be horrendous. We arranged for some US Dollars for the Laos visa, picked up our laundry and packed our bags. We were just discussing the fact that it was unlikely that we would bump into some of the people we had met in the past while waiting at the Bus Stop, when Michelle spotted Tipany, the ex Bankrobbing Chess player from Finland. We chatted for a while and exchanged emails, hopeful we could meet up at some stage for a Chess tournament. Hopefully after 9/10 months of playing we can both now give him more of a challenge.

The plan was to head East, to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) first, about 5 hours away, then onto Ubon Ratchthani, a further 6 hours away, which would have taken us close to the Southern part of Laos. From there, a linear journey Northwards through Laos without any doubling back. On reaching Khorat, the 2nd biggest city in Thailand, we found that we had entered an industrial type city, with heavy traffic, thick polluted air, and not much going on in the way of things to do. There were daytrips that could be undertaken, but most seemed to be quite laborious and too much trouble for what would ultimately be, for example, a temple visit. Ubon Ratchthani seemed to be more of the same, so we needed an alternative plan.

Nong Khai is right up in the far North East of Thailand, right on the border with Laos, and about 20km from the Laos capital of Vientiane. We arrived here by default really. We spent the evening reading the Lonely Planet guide, and happened across the entry for Nong Khai, described as

“an Adorable, sleepy setting beside the Mekong River, enough tourist amenities to dispel isolation and enough local attractions to fill a day with sightseeing, snacking and wandering”

This seemed ideal, a 6 hour bus journey Northwards, and right next to a border crossing for Laos. The downside would be, that we were entering Laos right slap bang in the middle of the country on the West side. This would mean some doubling back on ourselves unless we could manage some kind of loop. Some careful planning would be required.

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Kanchanaburi & Nam Tok, Thailand

There was a wee man from Nam Tok, who wouldn’t stop …. Okay, maybe just hold that thought. 🙂

Ayutthaya Bus Station was 5 minute walk from our guest house. Walking through the street, we were advised that an air-conditioned mini bus would be 380 Bhat each. The problem with this, notwithstanding the price which we knew was ludicrous, is that you kind of feel you are cheating when taking the easy option. The bus will be full of well healed travellers’, in relative terms, and you are not really experiencing transport as utilised by the locals.

There are lots of dogs in the streets, mostly lazing about in the shade. One jumped up startled as we walked up the road, and I practically shat my pants and jumped about 4 feet in the air as he barked loudly and went straight for my leg. Turned out, the dog wasn’t really being aggressive, he just got a fright, but he still managed to playfully toy bite my calf. I immediately got out of the way, and at a safe distance, checked to see if the skin was broken. It wasn’t, and I didn’t start foaming at the mouth 24 hours later either, so safe to say no rabies on this occasion. Got a bit of a fright though, and it was a good reminder to keep your wits about you.

It transpired that for 80 Bhat, a small local mini bus would take us to Suphanburi Bus Station, about half way, where we could then get the coach to Kanchanaburi for a further 50 Bhat. This represented a total saving of 10 quid for the two of us, and travelling this way was just as hassle free, albeit a slightly longer journey time of maybe an hour or so.

From the Bus Station in Kanchanburi, we took a local pick up for 10 Bhat, crammed in the back with curious friendly locals, and dropped off 10 minutes later at Dam Rak, the war cemetery. This was just around the corner from the area we wished to stay in, and we found a nice hotel for about 250 Bhat on the main drag. This street is geared for the tourists that are daytripping from Bangkok to see the River Kwai Bridge, so there was plenty eateries and bars showing the weekend football.

So we took a stroll one day along the street towards the bridge and I can just hear Dad saying “Eh’ve been there!” The bridge was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, maybe the famous film had given me this impression, and wasn’t the bridge blown up by Obi Wan Kenobi anyway?

We decided, rather than hang about Kanchanaburi, we would take the train over the bridge and head to Nam Tok. There was a wee man from Nam Tok … no, we had to stop repeating this and each time giggling like school children, wondering who would dare to come up with the next line. The train journey was quite pleasant, taking around 3 hours, and creeping over the old bridge, before gathering speed as the rural countryside flew past. All the windows were open, allowing a refreshing breeze. The train would reach the Death Valley Viaduct, and slow down to a snails pace as we crept along the creaking wooden construction, hoping it could hold the weight of the train. It was a long way down, and the huge chocolate coloured river was lurking at the bottom.

Arriving in Nam Tok, we immediately spotted a wee man … who had transport and could take us to the waterfall. How exciting! Well actually, the most exciting part was watching everyone play about in the water pools, and then Michelle spotting a big white bum. Most of Asia dresses moderately, and any books you read on etiquette, advise us Westerners to respect the local culture. This dame was wearing a G string, bending over to wash her hands and splash water on the kids. Her big glowing white bum was shining out like a lighthouse beam. Deary me! It was all bums and Nam Tok’s up here 😉

Fortunately, both Michelle and I had forgotten to pack our thong and speedo’s, so we headed down the road to find accommodation for the night. We first sat in a restaurant for something to eat and a couple of beers, taking in the view of the spectacular large green mountain range separating Thailand from Myanmar. To think we were so close to the border and both our thoughts went back to the great times we had in that wonderful part of the world.

We were at first offered a bamboo hut for 250 Bhat. We had a look, and could tell neither of us was particularly impressed. Staying the night in a shed was not very appealing, so we crossed the road and found this resort type place, where we were offered a chalet type bungalow, in a peaceful rural setting with beautiful manicured gardens. With it being low season, we more or less had the whole place to ourselves.

There was not much to do other than chill for a night. On this occasion, the journey was the attraction, and we decided that as we were paying 100 Bhat each just to get on the train, we may as well continue all the way back to Bangkok, where we could plan how we were getting to Laos. I’m now the one being slaughtered at Chess by the Lochee Grandmaster by the way.

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Ayutthaya, Thailand

The look on the faces of Mama, Dan and Job and the warm welcome we received as we arrived at Apple Guest House were priceless. My old mate Dan Beefcake, an ex Thai Kickboxer, was bit less chatty this time. I had loaned him 1000 Bhat (20 quid) last time I was here which he said he would repay on my return. I can only assume he thought after 3 months he would not be seeing me for a very long time – if ever again. I suppose he won’t be out partying this weekend.

Spending only 2 days in Bangkok, we had some things to organise. Michelle need new sandles and I need a small money belt – not one of those huge bum bag things that tourists wear – a discreet version that doesn’t say to robbers “Hi, I am a western tourist numpty. All my money, credit cards and passport are in this huge bag attached to my waist in full view with just a simple plastic release clip at the back – please help yourself”. We also needed a small daypack backpack so we could travel with minimal weight.

Job swiftly done, and then to acquire a new Chess set, a nice little wooden number for around 350 Bhat. Michelle has been getting thrashed at Chess lately, but the tide will turn, each game is getting closer. We left the monster backpacks at Mama’s in safe storage, and can now move with little daypacks containing 4 T shirts, 4 bumpants, 2 shorts, 1 Bra (Michelle’s), 2 plastic lightweight rainmacs, 1 mini laptop, 2 Ipods, 1 camera, and 2 Books. We took our dirty clothes with us and would have them laundered for a dollar when we arrived in Ayutthaya.

We took the local bus to the train station, arriving at 2.28pm with 2 minutes to spare before the train to Ayutthaya left the station. How lucky. This would be a short 2 hour journey, sitting in a carriage which looked like it had been used in an old John Wayne cowboy movie. There was an elderly American guy in front of us wearing a hat with material that draped down over his shoulders and fastened at the front so that only his eyes could be seen. He was wearing a pair of dark shades however, and in the extreme humid heat, he must have been sweltering. It looked strange and it felt strange. Things began to get even stranger when the train rolled out of the station. The carriages were just like I say, from an old western movie, and when you walk out the carriage doors to the inter connecting carriage, you basically stand on a platform in the fresh air. One slip, and you are off the train and on the tracks. Locals would smoke here and the smoke would drift through the carriage. Weird American guy was going nuts, waving his arms around and shouting obscenities, while continually slamming the door shut. The doors were actually being left open all through the train to afford additional ventilation. All the windows were open. It seemed at bit of an over the top reaction to both me and M. This continued for about an hour or so, and he was also rude to all the traders who were walking up and down the length of the train, cumbersomely carrying huge buckets of refreshments smothered in ice. I cannot stand rude people generally – who does ? and why the need ? Surely it’s all about tolerance and respecting people in the first instance, but then in addition the local culture. This bloke was raising my blood pressure and really getting me quite agitated. It was quite amusing when halfway through the journey, 3 scary looking armed policemen came on the train and stood in front of him and menacingly quizzed him on his behaviour. He was told very authoritatively to calm down and to stop upsetting people. After being spoken to like a small schoolboy, he was very quiet for the rest of the journey. Asshole.

Ayutthaya is a lovely place, basically built on an island at the confluence of three rivers. The old town is built around a beautiful landscaped national park containing various ancient ruined Wats, large monasteries and palaces. The place was built around 1350 and was the 2nd capital of Siam, after Sukhothai. The architecture and construction of the ruins seems identical to those found in Sukhothai.

When we left the train station, we had to jump a small ferry boat to take us over to the island, and then found a nice hotel just off the main backpacker drag which was had about 6 or 7 little bars.

We had a walk up to the night market for some nibbles, which meant sampling the fried fish, herby omelette and roasted chicken cuts before heading back for a couple of beers. We were up early next morning, shared a pot of jasmine tea, and picked up some snacks for a munch throughout the day as we strolled around the park taking in all the ancient ruins. We had little boiled eggs in a spicy batter, chicken skewers and little spicy sausages. This little picnic cost us only 30 Bhat, around 60 pence, and most of the stuff was eaten within an hour as everything was so scrummy.

The highlight for me was actually seeing the large sleeping Buddha. Although the ruins are interesting, it is hard to be blown away when you compare the site to the likes of Angkor in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar. Still, it was definitely worth the visit and great to get some peace and quiet away from all hustle and bustle of the city.

One whole day was really enough, so we decided to take the local bus westwards to Kanchanaburi about 3 or 4 hours away.

Kanchanaburi has plenty of natural features, such as giant caves and waterfalls, but it is also the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Death Valley viaduct.

This just feels great, we are back doing what we love. You really just cannot believe how good you feel. Total freedom and constantly on the move, everything now seems so familiar in terms of the people and the culture. Nothing really phases us now, and the local transport is fun, especially when you have locals who go out of their way continually to smile and say hello – you just feel so welcome.

Can I just have my Lotto numbers come up this weekend please ?

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Return to the Land of Smiles

Well we have landed in Bangkok, and the whole place feels so familiar, but we were really a bit flat for the first hour or so. Maybe just the jet lag, maybe just the fact we have had such a good time here in the past and knowing that none of the friends and acquaintances we had met on our journey will not be here this time. Maybe, we are just feeling a wee bit homesick having had such a great time back home with all our friends and family.

The place is a bit more chilled out here this time, and not so busy, but that’s really a good thing – although it’s the wet season, and it is continually blasting down from the heavens. Exceptionally hot, humid and sticky, almost unbearable. I think we need time to plan how to go, as reading the Bangkok Post, there has been extreme flooding up North, and some casualties as a result. No need to put yourself at risk, so time to do some homework. The backpacks are extremely heavy this time, with additional clothes and kit for final destination. But we always travel lite, so the backpacks will be offloaded for a month in storage, and we just need a small pack for Michelle with minimal kit so we can travel easily over the next month or so.

Sorry we missed a lot of folk back home. It’s understandable that people have their own commitments with work and organised weekends etc. We thought we had so much time, but the last few weeks were a bit like ground rush – everything just seemed to go so quickly.

Just as we landed at BKK International, and switched the mobiles on, I had a text from Chic suggesting a few pints in the ‘Maidens to watch the match. My heart sank, and I was desperately wishing to be home for that.

On leaving Dundee, Mary was going back to Dublin and was on the same train as us in the morning for her Edinburgh flight. As usual, she was chatting away and telling little funny stories, and it was really nice to sit with one of our best mates as she lifted the mood while Dundee and the River Tay slowly disappeared and we entered Fife. A view, for as long as I can remember, that we have always loved – but more especially when coming home.

London was great fun meeting up with Lyndon and Lisa. We had a great night out on the Thursday, and Lyndon had such a good time, he decided to postpone his journey back to Glasgow, and spend the Friday with us also. It was a real thrill to have the old team back together again and reminisce about some stories. Lisa was looking really great, and Lyndon looked like … Grizzly Adams with hair all over the place, and huge beardy chin. Cool Fooker 😉

Anne Colvin met up with us on the Saturday afternoon prior to the flight. It was quite emotional for both Michelle and myself. We have known each other for almost 30 years, and nothing really changes. Anne looked exactly how I remember her at School when she used to fancy me 😉 She has even dyed her hair “GINGER!!”. You can’t kid a kidder Annie XX.

The flights were with Air India this time, and a good old curry was on the menu. Hilarious in that all the carpets and seat upholstery were like and Indian restaurant, and all that was missing was the red flock wallpaper. The curry’s were delicious, but we landed in Bangkok, and almost instantly had a bit of Delhi Belly.

Dr Sharma was on the flight with us. Now we had to tell him that we have a friend back home, Rosie Sharma, and I wondered if they might be in some way related. He was Hindustani, and so is Rosie. He looked Indian, and so does Rosie. Hindustani’s don’t drink alcohol, but he liked a beer, and Rosie likes Gin and Tonic. I think he was kinda liking our Hindu punkrocker friend. He was vegetarian, as most Hindu’s are, and specifically do not eat cow, but I mentioned Rosie likes beef tacos and roast beef and gravy … and Dr Sharma was horrified.

Only kidding, but his face was a picture, and it was a nice wee wind up!

On arriving at Mama’s, we dumped the bags, and noticed my sandles were still in the same position as I had left them 3 months ago. We headed out for a couple of beers, hit the sack early, and slept solid – wait for it … for the best part of 18 hours. We were astounded, and still felt tired when we eventually got up.

We are heading North to Ayatthaya tomorrow, founded 1350 and the ancient 2nd capital of Siam.

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Back to Asia

We leave on the 11th August, with a few days in London before flying out on the 13th to Bangkok. Time to pick up from where we left off, and it feels like we are going home. North and East Thailand, then into Laos for a month travelling North to South to cross back into Thailand again, or maybe South to North, then over the border to China. The Plan is … there is No plan.

New Sandles – Check !

New T shirts – Check !

New Shorts   – Check !

Wonder if we will bump into some old travelling aquaintences from the past … 1st stop, Mama’s Place, Apple Guest House, Bangkok. I left a pair of sandles there nearly 3 months ago, and bet they are still at the entrance under the stairs. 🙂

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We stayed in a more upmarket place on our last night, pushing ourselves to reluctantly part with a whole $20. Yikes! Oh how this hurt, but actually, we were tired and weary and with air conditioning, a hot shower, lovely décor and bedding, and a wide screen telly showing movie after movie – we were really quite happy. We headed out for our last meal, and then grabbed some beer and a Bacardi Breezer or two from the 7/11 with some goodies and headed back to the room for a quiet night in. Our flight was at 9pm the following night, so that would give us more or less a whole day to finish our shopping for some little souvenirs to take back home. We had managed to get a deal on some little carved wooden Buddha’s up in Chaing Mai, (more about this later), so there was no pressure just trying to pick up some more odds and ends.

Arriving at the airport, we were really disappointed to hear that our flight had been delayed by 3 hours. The good news was that we would not miss our connecting flight in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as the plane would wait on us arriving. Whatever way we looked at it, we would have to wait 3 hours in one of these airports, so nothing was lost really. The bad news was that we arrived in Colombo at 1.30am local time, and we were horrified to find out the connecting flight had been delayed until 7.45am. A quick calculation made me realise that we were going to miss our pre-booked train from London to Dundee. Disaster! The tickets were non refundable, and this was going to cost us arranging alternative transport at so short notice. Weary and feeling down, we did not feel like sleeping, so propped the bar waiting patiently for the clock to slowly tick away towards boarding time. Soon enough, the flight was called. The flight was awful with screaming kids and constantly crying babies. I will admit that I really got quite agitated and annoyed. Lack of sleep really, and then I thought about these youngsters, the cabin pressures were probably affecting their ears and causing some pain. I really felt for them, but selfishly I was just wishing they would fall asleep so I could get some peace and quiet. We hardly slept a wink, and were absolutely exhausted on arriving at Heathrow.

Checking the internet in the airport, the trains were double the price now, but regardless we would never make it to Kings Cross in time anyhow. The domestic flights were now costing more than our international flights back home, and the Megabus was fully booked. We were stranded, and after much tired, slow debate, we booked a flight for the following morning, deciding to try to get some sleep in the airport. This was actually no problem, and due to being so exhausted, we managed to cram in a good 6 hours or so of broken sleep.

Arriving in Edinburgh, I immediately felt the cold. We bought tickets for the shuttle bus, and Michelle hopped on, while I took advantage of the 5 minutes we had before departure to grab a quick smoke. I had only just lit the cig, when I heard the roar of the bus engine, and turned around in disbelief as the bus tore away – with Michelle on it!

We had no way to contact each other, and all I could do was watch as the bus disappeared in the distance. My mind started working overtime wondering what to do. Almost a year of travelling together without getting lost or separated once ( well actually that’s a wee lie, thinking about last October arriving on Lombok – right Lyndon ? ).

Fortunately, another bus came along in 10 minutes, with WI-FI!!! I pulled out the laptop, emailed Josy in Glasgow, who tried to contact my old phone which Michelle was carrying, but to no avail. My bus stopped at Waverley with no sign of Michelle. I had 15 minutes to find Michelle in order to catch the next train. Phoning home from a phone box, Pat told me Michelle was actually in the station. I sprinted down the road towards the station, spotting Michelle at the last moment, but the time was now 11.14am, so it was too late, we had missed the train. This would mean another delay of at least 3 hours. We were getting close to home, but it seemed like our luck all of a sudden kept leaving, and someone was playing with us.

I thought there was going to be a bit of a squabbling match between us on meeting up, but actually, we had both seen the funny side of this and could only shrug and laugh. I think we were happy enough to be back in the familiar surroundings of Edinburgh, and it already felt like home anyway just back in Scotland. What a mammoth journey home this was turning out to be. We calculated we had been in transit for 54 hours, with roughly 8-10 hours sleep. We would have to wait another 2 hours for the next train.

The mobile phone rang just at that specific point, it was Mike and Mary, and they were coming to collect us and would not take “NO” for an answer. We were “instructed” to go to the nearest pub, sit down, relax and chill.

As we made moves up Cockburn Street and then walked down the Royal Mile, I did a double take as we walked past a little novelty shop. There in the window, was the exact little Buddha’s we had bought in Thailand. The price was 49 pence each. They were about a quarter of the price we had paid in Asia, and we just looked at each other and smiled. Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?

We wearily dropped our now heavy backpacks in the corner, and propped the bar of the infamous “Worlds End Pub”. Feeling relaxed and happy, I waited patiently for my first pint of Guinness in almost a year, to be poured, and slowly allowed to settle. What a wait. This was like a scene from one of my favourite old time films “Ice Cold in Alex” when they eventually get out of the desert, and head straight to the bar, the scene used for a Calsberg advert years ago. As the pint turned from shades of beige and brown to jet black, and the creamy head formed, I took a few seconds to admire and appreciate this perfectly poured pint. All the memories of Asia were running through my head, and the number of times I had thought of this moment. I took a long swig, savouring the smell and taste of the “Ole’ Back Stuff”, and spotted myself in the bar mirror as I wiped the creamy froth from my top lip.

Asia was a million miles away, and so was I, lost in my own thoughts.

With mixed emotions, we were home, but it felt like we had never actually left. Strange being back, but only 2 months and we will be out there again to finish what we started. It will be great to see everyone over the coming weeks.

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