GOODBYE LAOS HELLO THAILAND

20 06 2010

We have travelled quite a bit since our last post. We left Vang Vieng and made the 190km ride back to Vientiane. It was hot and dusty most of the way and not really the most pleasant ride of the trip. After arriving back in the city we got a room in the hotel that we had stayed in on or last visit to the capital. The following day we took one more ride to a place just outside the city called the Buddha Park. After getting lost for a bit we finally found our destination. The Buddha Park covers an area of several acres and is filled with many concrete sculptures and monuments to Buddha some over a hundred feet long. We walked through the park for a little bit observing the sculpture but ultimately the heat overwhelmed us. We decided to head back to the city and hide in our air-conditioned room for a while. When we got back I had to finally saw one last goodbye to the bike as we had to return it before retreating to our room. We spent the rest of the time just walking around the neighborhood before catching our bus to the train station the next afternoon. We where finally moving on to Thailand and from the train station we took a short shuttle ride over the Friendship Bridge to the Thai side of the border. Once through customs we had an hour or so before we needed to board the night train to Bangkok. While waiting at the station we needed to get some of the local currency, the Thai Baht, as the Lao Kip is just about valueless outside of Laos. There was one ATM at the station and after making several attempts we were unable to withdraw any money from it. Now we got a bit worried as we had only a little bit of US cash on us and we where unsure if our ATM card would work in Thailand at all. So with only a half hour before our train departed I ran into town and found of all things a 7/11 with two ATM’s where I was able to take out some Baht and make my way back to the train before it left. I know this may seem a bit minor but I have gotten to countries before and not been able to take cash out and my fear was that we would get to Bangkok and not be able to get a place to stay or buy a ticket back out of the country if we needed to. After this little drama we boarded our train for what was a fairly uneventful journey to the capital of Thailand eventually arriving at 6:30am. One thing I did notice about Thailand was that there seemed to be a much more pronounced police presence. In Lao you would be hard pressed to find an officer other than the few waiting on corners in the capital but on the train alone there where many armed officers riding along with us. Once in Bangkok we made arrangements at the station for our onward journey as well as a hotel in the city. After some negotiating we got a cab to our hotel and got cleaned up. We planned on visiting some of the sights so from our place we walked to the river where we got on an express boat to the old quarter where most of the significant temples and the palace are located. Once there we where immediately bombarded by touts but we managed to find our on way to our first stop Wat Pho. Temples in Thailand seem to take things to a whole new level and Wat Pho was no exception, with many pinnacles buildings and structures decorated and gold and glass tiles they are just magnificent compared to the temples of Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam. We walked the complex for a while exploring the many little enclaves and structures located throughout. From there our next destination was the royal palace located next door. After leaving Wat Pho we crossed the street and began to follow the wall of the Palace grounds in an attempt to find the entrance. We had heard rumors that only long leg pants and closed toe shoes were allowed inside and as neither of us where wearing these we eventually stopped to ask a gentleman standing at one of the gates talking with one of the guards. After telling us that he worked at the palace he did in fact tell us that not only where pants and shoes required but that you also needed to wear a collared shirt. He did however tell us that it happened to be a Buddhist Holiday and that we where not going to be able to enter that day anyway and we could return the next day wearing the appropriate clothing. He then asked us if we had seen some of the other temples located around the city and then helpfully pointing them out on the map. He told us that a tuk tuk should only cost about 40 baht or so and then once again helpfully flagged one down and told him in Thai where we wanted to go and agreeing on a price of 40 baht (about $1.35). So we took a ride to the first temple where both Justyna and I both felt that there was something a bit off with this whole deal. After walking around a fairly lack luster complex we went back and waited by our tuk tuk as our driver went to find a bathroom. While waiting we met a Thai man who said he was from London here visiting his family. We talked for a few minutes and he confirmed that it was indeed a buddhist holiday and that we needed the appropriate clothing to enter the palace and he also commended the gentleman at the palace for laying out some good sights to see. After this we felt a bit better before being taken to a shop that reportedly made suits for Armani. The explanation that we got was that because of the riots they where open to the public as they usually only deal with exporting and/or military officials but today was the last day and we where very lucky if we needed a suit. So I played the game for a bit and asked lots of questions and generally acted interested but I had no intention of buying a suit so after about ten minutes I bought a cheap tie and we got on our way. After this our driver brought us to another temple which was a bit nicer but still paled in comparison to the one at Wat Pho. From there he brought us to a jewelry shop. At this point we began to get what was going on, if he brought us some place and we spent enough time in there he would receive a free gas card for 5 liters of fuel, he even showed us a card stating this. So again we played along acted interested and did actually buy something. I have not had a wedding ring to wear for some time as the titanium one from the wedding does not fit me anymore and cannot be resized. While we were in the shop we found a nice simple silver ring that I could wear as a replacement and it would also have a neat story to go along with it. From the shop we eventually convinced our driver to drop us off on Ko San Road the main backpacker area in Bangkok. Along the way we ran out of fuel and wound up being towed by another tuk tuk before eventually getting there. We walked around the circus that is Ko San for a while and had some food before grabbing a cab back to our hotel. We went for a swim in the pool grabbed a snack and read for a while. It was only then that we realized how bad we had been suckered that day. In reading the guide-book and some posts online we discovered that we had fallen for the usual scam hook, line and sinker. Thankfully in the end we really didn’t lose anything other than some of our dignity. We had heard from other travellers that the Thai people we really friendly and always so helpful so after this I guess we trusted some of them too much. The seemingly random man at the temple that confirmed what the gentleman at the palace had told us did not help either. But in the end I guess we realized that Bangkok is just like any other big city and that it should be treated as such. After stewing for a while in my humiliation at being scammed I got over it and went to bed. The next day we approached the city with a whole new attitude. We went to the Royal Palace and was again stopped by someone right in front of the guards at the main gate who was about to tell us that it was closed even as others walked right in. We just ignored him and went on in. What amazed me was that the palace staff and guards just let this go on just giving us even more reason not to trust anyone in this city. It turns out that neither shoes nor a collared shirt where required and as you may have guessed the day before was not a Buddhist Holiday. The palace was very nice but the star of the show is the temple located on the grounds. It is reported to be the most sacred temple in the country and it is quite spectacular. Again with tons of gold and multi colored glass tiles it is quite an impressive sight but as there are no monks living on the premises and only groups of tourists walking around it seems to be lacking something. After spending a couple of hours around the palace grounds we took a ferry across the river to another temple with a niece view of the city from the top of the stupa in the center. At this point the temperature was again well above the hundred mark and the sun was very intense so we decided to head to one of the famous malls in Bangkok. We took a ferry back to our hotel and then got on the skytrain to Siam Square. We passed the Central World Mall, SE Asia’s largest which was all but destroyed at the end of the riots only a few weeks before. We got off the train next door to Central World at the Siam Discovery Center. From the platform you could see a lot of fire gutted buildings and alleys which was quite a contrast to the extremely high-end Siam Discovery Center located in the middle of it all which appears to have suffered no damage. The mall was something else. The floors were layed out in themes such as lifestyle, luxury item, fashion and so on. You could walk in buy some designer shoes, a $100k stereo system and a Lamborghini (incidentally located on the third floor) all without leaving the building. We enjoyed the air conditioning and grabbed some food in the food court for dinner. Our last day in Bangkok was again another hot one so we decided to head back to the cool comfort of the mall and take in a movie in Asia’s most luxurious movie theatre. We decided we needed a dose of Americana and chose to see the A-Team which actually was not half bad. The theatre was great with nice big comfy reclining chairs and a huge screen although it was likely the loudest movie I had ever seen to the point of being uncomfortable at times. One other strange thing at the movies was that after 30 minutes of previews everyone stands as they play a tribute to the king. That night we planned on heading south to the islands and caught a sleeper train to a town called Chumpon. We arrived at 4 am and caught a shuttle bus to the coast where we boarded a high-speed catamaran and after an hour and a half we arrived on the island of Koh Tao. Upon landing we walked into town and rented a motorbike, the prefered mode of transport on the island, and checked out a couple of dive resorts. We settled on a place called Buddha View and got our selves a room. Resort is a bit of a stretch as most of the places have no a/c, no hot water and only a light or two in the rooms but you are on a tropical island in what many would call paradise so there is not too much to complain about. We also signed up for some diving for the following day. Justyna chose to do a couple of fun dives while I decided to get my advanced certification. We spent the rest of the day exploring around on the motorbike and having some dinner at the resort. The following day we went diving I had to do a deep dive and a navigation dive while Justyna went on her fun dives. They both went quite well but the visibility was not the best. All in all we saw some neat fish and rays as well as plenty of beautiful corals. That evening I had to do a night dive. Unfortunately the seas had gotten quite rough and we had taken a smaller boat so I was a bit sea sick by the time we got to the dive site. Getting in the water did not help because it was just as choppy but I finally began to feel better after we got below the surface. The dive was interesting and we saw a lot of fish you do not normally see during the day. We saw many blue spotted rays and some barracuda we also turned off all our lights and got to see the phosphorescent algae again. Something really neat happened when we got to the surface, there where thousands of these small flying fish jumping out of the water. They where everywhere hitting everything, you almost had to keep you mouth closed to prevent them from jumping in I had never seen anything like it. Yesterday I completed my last two dives in the morning one for photography and the other for buoyancy control and after completing my knowledge reviews I received my certification as an Advanced Open Water Diver. We spent the rest of the day exploring some of the quiet sheltered coves on the other side of the island only reachable by some really sketchy dirt paths. We also visited the main village and walked around for a bit. Today is the first day we have not had anything planned and it is nice to finally relax for a bit. We are planning on heading south from here eventually making to Singapore from where we will fly to Bali in Indonesia and then back to Bangkok. We have not figured out how we are getting to Singapore yet bu we will likely have to endure a 24hr boat and bus ride to Kuala Lumpor in Malaysia followed by a 10 hour train ride to Singapore.  

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