Thailand: An Ongoing Adventure

You meet them in droves when traveling, people who’ve ‘done’ Fiji, the Amazon and China. Three weeks on a tourist bus and they have miraculously acquired supreme knowledge of the food (delicious but avoid the water), the people (so friendly!) and sites (amazing, but not nearly as good as Angkor Way which they did in 2003).  When the OED defines ‘to do’ as ‘to complete/achieve’, the question that begs to be answered is, ‘How? How on earth have you ‘done’ anywhere?’ One of travel’s greatest joys is that it can never be fully completed. Every time you visit a place it will have changed, your perspective will be different, your experiences new. Whether you’ve lived somewhere for years, or visited for the first time, there is always something new to explore.

To that end, I’m returning to Thailand. Bangkok, off the tourist trail of gilded palaces and Kao San Road, is a tangle of back alleys that are a photographer’s dream. Bridges cross over murky rivers, birdcages and orchids hang from eaves, small temples nestle street stalls and a fluro shellsuit clad life -size doll, eerily resembling Michael Jackson, holds up his hands in prayer. We drink coffee outside one of the many police stations, and contemplate purchasing some shiny cop shoes. We take the subway to see where it goes, coming out in a building made of blinding white lino and huge sheets of glass, the size of an airport departure lounge. Imagine coming into St. Pancreas and finding it deserted. We speak in whispers and ride nearly silent trains.

The train to Suratthani, however, takes twelve hours over night. First and second class seats are sold out and the VIP bus beyond the budget, so we resign ourselves to third. There are parts of the world where voluntarily traveling third class takes a serious degree of masochism, but on this train it’s positively luxurious. The lights are on all night and the temperature somewhere below freezing makes the journey something of an endurance test. But given it costs little less than £10, its worth the loss of sleep and blood circulation! Having said that, the seats recline and, unheard of luxury!, the bathroom has toilet paper. If you are inclined to feel cold, bring a jacket, particularly in the air-con first and second-class.  Hawkers wander the rows with beer, coffee, or fried chicken, in case you haven’t packed your own. Waking up to a sunrise over the jungle is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially with chilled-solid chocolate for breakfast.

View over Khao Sok

The hourly local bus to Khao Sok costs a fraction of the price of the tourist mini-buses, and the interior decorating is a treat.  Khao Suk borders Khao Sok national park and caters exclusively for tourists. Enjoy the novelty of sleeping in a tree house or beside the river. If you are after good food, stick to where the locals go, rather than the resorts. It’s a stunning national park, famed for the giant rhaphiolepis and huge limestone cliffs. Tour companies have a monopoly on the activities here, and, as always, its advisable to take a guide if going into the caves. Riding an elephant in Thailand has become the ultimate tourist cliché, but it’s not for nothing that it’s become so popular. Elephants (or Elephanys as the sign says) are beautiful animals and its impossible not be enchanted with them. Chose your tour operator wisely, if it seems the animals are abused or unhappy in anyway, ask to be taken back to your hotel.

The lake trip is the de-rigueur tour and involves a boat trip across the reservoir, swimming, a walk through the jungle and a cave trip. The cave trip alone makes it worth it, with stunning rock formations, bats and spiders whose eyes shine incandescent in the torchlight. Bring a head torch and be prepared to get wet. Reef shoes or heavy-duty sandals are ideal, and swimsuits are a great way to save your clothes. If you’re on the shorter side, you’ll be swimming sections of the cage and coming up to your thighs in the rivers! Your guide will tell you if it’s safe to enter, but never enter a cave when it’s raining or surrounding rivers turn brown. We exit the cave to the first raindrops of tropical rain shower and soon it’s a beautifully muddy dash back to the lakeside camp. The boat journey back is exquisitely beautiful with jungle-covered limestone mountains rising out of the water. It’s a sobering thought that this is a man-made environment; the land was flooded in 1986 to make the reservoir. Already, the environment is showing signs of stain and change.

On the outskirts of Khao Sok is a monkey temple. After you’ve had your fill of monkey antics, explore the rest of the complex. Bring a head torch for the cave behind the  Buddha statues, or if you have had enough of subterranean adventures, climb the rusting staircase to an enclave half way up a cliff face. If you can ride a motorbike, it’s a great way to go exploring for yourself. The village markets are always worth a look, and it’s amazing what a package tour will miss. There’s a whole range of hot springs, jungle walks and waterfalls to discover.

Khao Sok’s beauty comes from its unique geographical and environmental conditions. However, they do affect the weather. Be prepared for hot, sunny mornings and tropical downpours in the afternoon and evening. It’s the perfect excuse to retreat to your tree house with a beer, a few bats and the odd chameleon and watch the heavens open.

Talad Rot Fai: Bangkok’s Hippest Market

For the hip young things, Bangkok’s Chatacak market is old news. Overpriced, crawling with sweaty tourists and baby bunnies in tutus, swelteringly hot, row on row of the same stuff all held in a purpose built market. And, let’s be honest, a purpose built market? Who does that these days? If you’re all about the oversized geek-chic glasses, rockabilly beats and painted-on black skinny jeans, then Talad Rot Fai is the place to be seen.

Talad Rot Fai in Bangkok (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

It’s also the place to pick up everything from Bakelite to Bert and Ernie dolls, all in the dim half-light of dozens of abandoned train carriages, converted VW camper-vans, and market stalls scattered on the pavement. Started just a few years ago, disused train carriages have been converted into retro-chic bars and hold-alls for the treasures of yesteryear. Talad Rot Fai is known in English as ‘The Train Market” and it is an unmissable photo opportunity. The train carriages, the bright young things, the clothes, the jumble of antiques that changes throughout the night, the lighting… Charge your camera and get ready for some fantastic photos. Antiques dealers will be in paradise in the antiques sections, where hundreds of temptations crowd for space. Old mannequins lean against fancy pin-ball machines, ancient telephones tumble off smooth leather recliners, peeling advertisements and retrofitted vintage bikes tempt the passerby. Don’t expect any logic in layout or a set price. Half the fun is exploring and bargaining. For the serious collector, there are some definite finds here. It’s a long walk to the nearest ATM, so come financially prepared.

For those settled in Thailand, the nursery sections is a great, if slightly random, place to pick up new plants. Suit up for your next fancy-dress party, burlesque performance or simply next weekend with some amazing vintage clothes. But if you don’t fancy a powder-blue suit or a polyester prom dress, head round to the clothes section. Here, venders display their custom made t-shirts, hats, dresses, toys and skirts. Everything’s new, hip, and unique. And the dek neaw (hipsters) love it. At a fraction of the price of Khao San Road or Chatarak, its the perfect place to replace your travel-worn wardrobe with something different. Perhaps a complete penguin or turtle costume? Or an ironically ‘80s tee for the less zoologically-inclined? Some sequined hot-pants for your friends back home?

Drinks and food at Bangkok’s Train Market (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

Tired of all the shopping? Pick a train carriage and settle down for a cold beer or iced coffee. Or if you have fond memories of Woodstock (or simply wish you’d been there), have dinner out the back of a converted VW camper van. From live music to the best of the 50’s, there’s also some classic quality audio entertainment to be found. Come with an empty stomach and a full wallet. From bargain-priced noodles to fruit shakes to retro-inspired cocktails, its the chance to dine with the in-crowd. And speaking of the in-crowd, Talad Rot Fai offers some excellent people watching. This is a crowd that knows how to dress- and doesn’t let scorching hot nights or monsoon rains stand between them and some seriously impressive fashion. So grab a cold drink, sit back, and, from a stationary train carriage, watch the world go by.

Vintage fun at Talad Rot Fai (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

At present, the market runs Saturday and Sunday only. While Talad Rot Fai officially opens at 2pm, venders and crowds don’t start arriving till 8pm. The market runs until midnight. Public transport closes around 11:30, so if you want to see the market through to its final glorious moments, you’ll be catching a taxi home. Getting to Talad Rot Fai is easy on Bangkok’s metro/BTS systems. Simply catch the subway to Kamphaeng Phet station and walk away from Chatacak Market. There are sometimes signs pointing to Talad Rot Fai, but if in doubt, follow the dek neaw! Walk pass a bizarre collection of bonsai nurseries and glitzy nightclubs and the market will be on your right. The gate to the market is clearly signposted, but the sudden crowds, smell of food and 50‘s rock are the best indicator you’ve made it to the right spot. If you’d prefer, take the skytrain to Saphan Khwai and then take a taxi or tuk-tuk to market. Talad Rot Fai is relatively new so ask for the name of the market to be written in Thai as many taxi drivers are still unfamiliar with it.

Got your skinny jeans, camera and an empty stomach? All aboard!