It was Wednesday 16th April 2014 and were nearing the end of a twenty-seven hour journey home to the UK from Koh Lanta in Thailand. A journey that would require
We’d got up early that morning, buzzed off on our mopeds to have a final explore of the island and had discovered an amazing beach that we had all to ourselves. Pure white sand, sapphire blue water, and towering cliffs on three sides. We had an amazing hour mucking about in the surf. And all before breakfast.
It was a throw-away remark after a completely brilliant two weeks, but one which would set us on an seventeen month journey which will end on Wednesday 9th September 2015 and see us getting on a one way flight to Kathmandu…
Getting back to Thailand for a while, which is what I’m supposed to be writing about, I’ll try and give a flavour of what we got up to by whizzing through the highlights. I know that we’ve made many people suffer through the “highlights” of the photos that we took, so I’ll attempt to be brief….
Where to start with Bangkok? Well, it’s bonkers for a start. Bonkers in a brilliant way though.
It was a fourteen hour flight and we expected the kids would at least be able to get a couple of hours sleep. It was their first ever time on a plane though and we hadn’t factored in the impact of the in-flight entertainment. They sat through fourteen hours straight of geek heaven and didn’t seem pleased about landing on time and having to get off the plane.
We tried and failed to get a bus to the hotel and eventually admitted defeat and got a taxi, where the boys finally gave in and had a couple hours sleep before heading out for our first bit of exploring.
Amazingly, we bumped into a chap on a street corner who just happened to have a tuk-tuk and unbelievably knew a bloke with a boat that could take us on a trip on the river to see the floating market. And as it was almost a festival, we could have it all for the bargain price of mumble baht. Sounded like a scam but it was a very pleasant way to get mugged. The boat was exactly where it was supposed to be and we had a very happy couple of hours on a long-tail ticking off several “must see” places.
We purposely stayed up late that night to try and catch up with the time difference, and managed to find our way back to the backpacker mecca of Koh San Road. We allowed the kids to eat pizza on the first night as they were struggling a bit with the culture shock. Us adults got some proper street food – delicious Pad Thai and more than you could eat for about 50p – more boxes ticked there.
It was really quite odd being back. Bangkok was the major hub for the Asian part of our round the world trip in 2003 and we had spent a lot of time there. Not very much had changed. We found our way back to the nice street across the road from Koh San Road and sat in a bar, chatting and people watching. The smells and the noise brought back so many memories. Near death hangovers caused by Beer Lao, deadly chips-and-mayonnaise food-poisoning, hours spent in internet cafes, happily haggling with Hmong people peddling tat that we didn’t need but really wanted. It was a fantastic start to the holiday, we got back to the hotel about midnight, tired and very happy.
After a couple of days exploring temples and flower markets in Bangkok, we got on a sleeper train and headed up to Chiang Mai.
When we were travelling last time, booking the train tickets would have taken the best part of a day mucking about with travel agents, handing over cash, and fretting whilst someone’s brother with a moped buzzed off to the station and purchased the tickets to somewhere for us. For this trip, Floss had spent a short time researching the train options on the invaluable www.seat61.com, and had pre-booked the tickets using the power of the internet.
We were a little bit dubious that this would work but it did. The train tickets arrived by magic whilst we were out visiting temples.
Bangkok itself hasn’t changed much, but this travelling lark seems much easier.
The train was just as described. This was one of the highlights of the trip. The kids quickly bagsied the top bunks, and we just as quickly ordered a couple of celebratory beers from the nice lady with a bucket full of Chang on ice.
And what’s more, the kids got to experience their first squatter. Yay!
Chiang Mai is just as lovely as we remembered it. We stayed in the rather posh Rimping Village hotel – a fabulously lovely place just outside the old city. The kids had started to relax into Thailand by this point. Chiang Mai is much less bonkers than Bangkok, and giving them a chance to play in the pool before breakfast really set them up for a day’s adventuring.
We must have walked miles, but as long as we kept them regularly topped up with drinks, visits to 7-Eleven stores to savour the air-conditioning and tuk-tuk trips to blow away the worst of the humidity, they had a ball and were generally treated as minor celebrities. The locals really made a fuss of them. I think that they found this a bit creepy at first. It’s so alien to how things are at home. They did start to adjust though and take it in their stride. We spent a couple of hours at the monk university in the city chatting to the monks, and they really came out of their shell towards the end.
After a couple of relaxing days in Chiang Mai, we headed out of town to the awesome Elephant Nature Park – a retirement home for abused elephants. This really was one of the highlights of the trip. It wasn’t a particularly spiritual thing, but the place is completely magical.
I must admit to being pretty dubious about it before we arrived. I’d kind of assumed that elephants were big enough and clever enough to be looking after themselves. But it turns out that there really is no limit to the pointless cruelty that people can inflict if they put their minds to it – or rather, they leave their minds and their conscience behind.
When we’d visited Thailand in 2003, we’d paid to go on an elephant ride through the jungle north of Chiang Mai,. We’d been a bit concerned about what had happened to make a four tonne animal quite so obedient, but hadn’t done anything to find out. Well, it turns out that the obedience is usually learned through the application of a sharp spike on the end of long stick and other such weapons. Hitting them around the eyes seems to the be an effective approach.
The number of elephants who’d been rescued who were “both eyes blind” bears testament to this practice. Once freed from their captors, the elephants form strong friendships with other elephants in the park. The blind ones are often “adopted” by a sighted elephant friend who sticks by their side and supports and guides them around the park. It sounds unlikely, but unless they’re really good actors, I’d say that it was true.
As well as the cruelty involved in getting an elephant to go where it’s told, it’s also incredibly uncomfortable for the elephant to have two westerners and a big wooden frame strapped to its back. Their backs aren’t that strong, as they’re not designed to be carrying a load of weight. They are also over-worked and many die from exhaustion.
Needless to say, there was no elephant riding or stick based abuse going on at the Elephant Nature Park. We got to help with feeding and gave them a good scrub in the river. We had a magical sunset “Chang o’clock” with the kids playing in the river, just a bit downstream from a family of elephants larking about. Going to sleep to the sounds of elephants shouting at each other is pretty cool too. It’s definitely somewhere we’d all love to return to. If you get a chance to visit Elephant Nature Park, you should grab it. Stay overnight, or volunteer for a week, or a month. You won’t regret it.
After Chiang Mai, we had another sleeper train back to Bangkok, followed by a white-knuckle taxi ride to the airport. The trains are brilliant, but they don’t run to time. They’re always at least two hours late, but it’s impossible to know exactly how late they’ll be. We had the “if you get us to the airport in twenty minutes, then you can name your price” conversation with a taxi driver outside the train station, and bless him, we completed the sixty minute journey in eighteen minutes. Money well spent I reckon.
The final stop was Koh Lanta. We dispensed with pretending to be backpackers and moved into a luxury lodge with amazing views for less than the price of a Travel Inn at home.
It was a bit of an epic journey to get there, but it was absolutely time well spent. We stayed at the southern end of the island. There’s not a lot going on, but the place is absolutely perfect. Highlights of our time here were kayaking around the mangroves, being mugged by the monkeys, and a day trip snorkelling out around the islands to the west. Health and Safety Sam was initially pretty apprehensive about jumping off the back of a perfectly serviceable boat and was well secured in a large buoyancy jacket. But as soon as he took a look underwater and saw the fish, the coral, the giant clams and the urchins, all fear of drowning or being swept out to sea left him. The jacket came off almost instantly and he was duck-diving like a professional.
Evan wasn’t too fussed about wearing a buoyancy aid to start with, and he also wriggled out of it, threw it away and headed underwater to get a better look at what was going on. They both shot off, shouting “Fish!” through their snorkels. It was a perfect day. Just perfect.
Which brings us to the last day, the pre-breakfast adventure, and the discovery that even after six days on a tiny island, there was a bay just minutes along the road that we hadn’t known had existed. We had thought that we’d done a pretty good job of seeing everything that was available. But no. We hadn’t.
Seventeen days away. Three days spent on a plane, or waiting for a plane, or travelling to catch a plane. 70% of the cost and nearly 20% of the time spent on getting there and back.
A long time ago, we’d come up with an “8 year plan” where we’d compiled a list of the eight “must see” places that we thought we could take the kids to during school holidays before they were too old to want to spend time with us. There has to be a more efficient way of completing the list than a frantic two and half week holiday each year. And there are sooooooo many more places to visit and experiences to be had. We think we’ve worked out what it is, and on September 9th we’re going to test the theory.
Only time will tell. But thinking back to the time we spent in Thailand last year as I’ve been writing this post, I’m more convinced than ever that this is going to be epic.
The difficulty hasn’t been thinking of the 2000 or so words in this post, it’s been omitting the 10,000 words that I could easily write about what we saw, what we did, how it made us feel, what we loved, and what we would avoid next time. The thing that sticks most in my mind is spending the time together, just the four of us. Sharing and experiencing things completely removed from our normal lives. Watching the kids be kids. Watching the kids learn at their own pace, using the world as a classroom.
Six months after we got back, during a conversation at teatime, Evan rationalised the concept of poverty and slums based on what he’d seen on that first rip-off boat trip in Bangkok. We hadn’t mentioned it since we got back, but it had clearly buried itself in his memory and is shaping the person he’s growing up to be.
If that can happen in fourteen days, what’s going to happen in eleven months away?