Tuesday 12th December
Left the beach and headed back to Bangkok, we had forgotten how horrendous the traffic is, and our driver made us shut our eyes as he was going flat out no matter what was in the way (2.5 hr journey). Checked in at the Rembrandt Hotel again and quickly got ready to hit Bangkok town We caught the sky train to Siam Centre, firstly to find the Hard Rock Café (Ron collects tee shirts for those that don't know), we stumbled upon it quite by accident. When we came out and was trying to study our map a couple of local passers by tried to send us by Tuk Tuk to the Thai Trade Centre - "for many bargains as it was Kings birthday last week". We explained that we wanted to go to the Siam Centre and was told twice that we were too old for that, the centre was only for students. Luckily we ignored that advice and found the centre ourselves, and enjoyed the air conditioning inside as it was a very sultry 35 degrees outside. One shopping centre led to another and we found ourselves at the most amazing food hall we have ever seen, how Thai people stay so slim when there was so much food on offer we will never know. As we knew that we were in for another week of rice, we ate at the Outback Steak ranch instead.
Bangkok at night is pretty spectacular, like most cities it is well lit up with plenty of Xmas lights for the tourists. Linda decided that she would put a colour on her hair, we found a self colour package with an instruction on the box saying "more details inside" in English, on opening the box the only details inside were in Thai, it was pot luck that my hair did not go green or fall out. Back at the hotel we had a phone call from the original tour guide (the excitable one who picked us up at the airport) to tell us that we would be going in a private car with her and a driver for the tour, we had to meet the next morning at 8 a.m. in the lobby.
Wednesday 13th - Sunday 17th December
This was our classical tour of Thailand, the driver this time was much more sedate than yesterdays and the traffic eased considerably as we headed north out of Bangkok. Our first stop was Ayuthaya which used to be one of the capitals of Thailand, this place is just full of ancient ruins, pagodas etc. We then went to Saraburi where the monkeys have free reign over the whole of the area as they are considered sacred, they even have a temple dedicated to them. Our first overnight stop was at Phitsauloke, 370km north of Bangkok. The next day we had more temples to visit - this time though we had to use shawls to cover our arms and legs - Ron did look a sight in his (remember the Beckham look). Onto the Kingdom of Sukhothei which was the FIRST capital of Thailand, and then to Sri Satchanalai. Most of the land between Bangkok and Sri Satchanalai is agricultural and everywhere you looked there were rice fields ready to be harvested, it looked just like a snooker table (bright green) we saw some fields being harvested by hand, the labourers using scythes We then had a 3 hr journey which gradually got higher and higher above sea level until we reached Lampang, this was to be our next overnight stay.
Friday morning, up with the larks again and on and on further north until we got to Chiang Rai, we bypassed this town and continued to Mae Sai which is the northernmost Thai town and borders with Myanmar (Burma). After a short stop to look at the border post we carried on to the Golden Triangle (so named as this was were gold was exchanged for Opium), here the 3 borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. We visited the Opium museum which told the tale of the Opium wars with China and how the present Thai Royal family are encouraging the hill tribe people to grow farm produce to sell instead of Poppies. The Mekong River acts as a border between the 3 countries and we took a boat trip up and down the river in a very small boat (we had to wear lifejackets as a precaution - didn't sound very promising), it was great fun though. On the way back to Chiang Rai we visited the Akha hill tribe community centre. This project is sponsored by the Royal family to promote self-reliant development to improve the qualities of their lives, there are a lot of different hill tribes that still exist in Northern Thailand. Personally though we found it very intrusive looking at the people and felt that they were just looking for tourists to give them money. It was interesting though to hear that 95% of the hill tribes are Christian - owing to the missionaries being the first people to stop there.
We stopped at Chiang Rai overnight and we decided to wander down the streets after dinner. We found the place swarming with police and security, a section of the road was closed, pedestrians asked to stay back and a whole flotilla of very posh cars pulled up at a restaurant next to our hotel. The area remained like this until everybody was inside the building, the road remained closed until they left, we still do not know who it was. On our drive to Chiang Mai the next day we saw a variety of fruits being sold at the roadside, pineapples, strawberries, corn, apples, oranges, bananas - you name it they sold it. This day was to be a "sell to the tourist day", we were taken to several handicraft villages where they made silver bowls, shown how the silk worm produces the silk and how it is then woven, watched paper umbrellas and parasols made and finally how lacquer work is inlaid with gold leaf and mother of pearl. The intention is that the tourist then buys the products with a salesperson hovering over you the whole time. We did buy a couple of things, notably a silk shirt for Ron.
Our last temple was to be tucked away in the mountains at 1056m. We cannot believe how many local people hire taxis or drive any other sort of vehicle to visit this temple, the whole place was heaving. They buy gifts for the monks and leave all types of offerings for the Buddah images, we felt it seemed very commercialised, once again we had to cover up our "naked" skin. Back at the hotel we prepared for a visit to a typical Kantoke dinner where we were entertained with ancient dances and songs performed by various hill tribes.
The next morning we headed north again to Mae Ping elephant village feeling very sceptical about "performing elephants". When we saw them though we changed our minds as these elephants had a really strong bond with their trainers. Although they were doing things that elephants would not normal do it was very light hearted and they appeared not to be ill treated at all. Our last stop with our guide and driver was the Butterfly and orchid farm, this seemed quite small to us as we had visited one in Singapore which was huge.
We were then taken back to our hotel at Chiang Mai where we had one more night before we would get the overnight train back to Bangkok. As this was a classical tour we visited far too many temples to mention and everyday lunch was - you've guessed it - a traditional Thai buffet, this would consist of several dishes of varying meats, fish, vegetables all cooked in various spices, and of course rice. Most days Linda would pick out the bits that she would eat and Ron would sample what was left. This was always followed by fresh fruit, we experienced one of the most disgusting thing we have been offered yet, a small bowl with cubes of raw potato in coconut milk, some of the potato had turned greyish black UGH!! However most of the food was very good..
The temperature had warmed up considerably so off to the swimming pool. Linda just jumped in, the water was freezing, so Ron chickened out. After an hour or so resting we decided to walk to the local shopping centre (about half a mile), they don't cater for European tourists walking though and you literally have to watch every move as scooters drive the wrong way or even on the path. Talking of paths, they are full of holes, uneven or non existent. The shopping centre was very "Americanised" with Sizzlers, KFC, Baskin Robbins etc and Christmas carols being blasted out at every turn, but at least its cool in there with the air conditioning.
Monday 18th December
We get to have a lie in today as we are not being taken to the train station till 15.30. We had a very quiet breakfast as most of the bus loads of tourists had left at about 7.30 for the day. We decided to walk further into the town and found ourselves at the old part of the city which still has a lot of the wall left that once surrounded it. At the end of the morning we think we must have covered 3 or 4 miles and we were covered in dust. Back to the hotel to check out and prepare for the train journey ahead. Arriving at the station we found it quite sedate, we were expecting what you see on the TV of Asian railway stations. Chiang Mai is a terminus station so our train was there waiting for us, there were a lot of vendors trying to sell you food and drink to take on the train with you, we just bought some fruit to take with us. The train is a very new experience (2nd class air conditioned sleeper), each seat is a single one facing each other, at night the bottom bunk is made up from the 2 seats and then a locker pulled down from overhead for the upper bunk (like an overhead locker in an aeroplane). Vendors are round constantly trying to sell food and drink of all descriptions. The steward had us tucked up in bed by 8 at night. It was to be a long night.
Tuesday 19th December
The trains are not quite the same as British ones and we lurched from side to side most of the night, but to be fair we did get some sleep, the worst problem for both of us was that the bunks and mattresses were not long enough as most Thais are quite short. It was quite cold as well with the air conditioning blasting out all night, the locals obviously knew about this and were prepared, us tourists only had shorts and t shirts on. The stewards had everybody out of their bunks by 6 a.m. we were supposed to be arriving into Bangkok at 06.40, however, it was 07.30 before we did disembark. Our usual guide and driver were there to meet us and start the mad drive around Bangkok to the hotel. We were starving by the time we arrived so our first port of call was the restaurant for a huge buffet breakfast. After a nice hot shower and wash & shave (for Ron) - facilities not too good on the train, we took a walk into the main part of the city and just "enjoyed" the atmosphere.
Weds 20th December
Don't know when we will be able to access internet again, so we will take this opportunity to wish our all friends and family AN ABSOLUTELY FANTASIC CHRISTMAS, we will be thinking of you all.