A Travellerspoint blog

Rollercoaster water boarding to reach a Golden Rock

Tuk-tuks, trucks and buses take us to a Buddhist place of pilgrimage

rain 28 °C

Bago to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

Leaving our Bago hotel early we checked out and waved down a passing tuk-tuk ride heading to the bus station. Confirming suspicions from the previous day our ‘bus tickets’ with assigned seats merely ensured that the agent we had purchased them from would ensure we boarded the next private bus bound for Kyaiktiyo. With the Agent paying a significantly lower fare for our passage, we were on our way. We had overpaid for our ticket to Mt Kyaiktiyo or the ‘Golden Rock’ by out five dollars. Lesson learnt. No real harm done!

On the bus to Mt. Kyaiktiyo

On the bus to Mt. Kyaiktiyo

Riding the bus to Kyaiktiyo we were soon passing the now typical rice fields and stilted bamboo houses. To our western eyes the scenery was both fascinating and alien, yet, as the only westerners on the bus we were the only passengers that paid any attention to what lay outside. The majority asleep or watching the Myanmar version of a comedy show – Chaplin style visual humor studiously avoiding the remotest reference to politics, religion or sex. Nothing here that could insight the population…well unless they wanted to watch something that was actually funny!

The station platform at Kyaikhto

The station platform at Kyaikhto

A local, eager to have his picture taken

A local, eager to have his picture taken

Arriving in Kyaikhto after a few hours on the bus we were immediately assaulted by groups of taxi scooter drivers wanting to take us the ’20 kilometers’ to Kinprun. From Kinprun trucks would take us towards our final goal. As the only reason a traveler might alight in Kyaikhto it was obvious where we wanted to go. Yet the pushy sales technique, stretching of the truth regards the distance to Kinprun and my absolute intent of avoiding scooter rides (one of the most dangerous forms of transportation in SE Asia) we left the taxis behind to various cries and went in search of the pickup trucks that we knew ran the actual eight kilometer trip to Kinprun. Fortunate, as is often the case, a young boy who was touting bus tickets and accommodation showed us the narrow alley, that crossed the railway tracks, that we had to follow to the pickups. Grateful, for his assistance we were soon in the back of a large pickup, on wooden boards, bouncing towards Kinprun.

Relatively comfortable truck takes us to Base camp at Kinpun

Relatively comfortable truck takes us to Base camp at Kinpun

From Kinprun large Chinese Hino and Japanese Nissan trucks would take us to within an hours walk of the Golden Rock and summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. As with much of the transportation in Myanmar these ran to no schedule. When the eight, thin, wooden boards in the back of the truck where full, with roughly, 45 passengers we would leave. For over an hour we waited for our truck to fill. Whilst waiting a veritable conveyor belt of food sellers offered their wares. Soft tapioca pudding, sweet rice cakes and hot corn on the cob were amongst some of the more identifiable culinary delights on offer.

Our ride up the mountain

Our ride up the mountain

Finally, we were ready to leave just as the afternoon monsoon began. Missing from our truck, of course, was a roof. Whilst we had been undercover waiting for passengers as we left the comforts of the village we were soon getting rained upon. Our stuttering start did not help. Advancing some 30 feet, just sufficient to exit the dry safety of a stationary roof we collected more passengers. Two minutes later we stopped to purchase gasoline, bought in a small plastic container and poured into the gas tank via a primitive stand and piece of cloth to act as filter.

After our generous soaking we were soon heading into the mountains. Strangely, before departing we had failed to notice that our driver was the Myanmar equivalent of Nigel Mansell. Every corner on the switchback road was entered and exited as fast as possible. Every straight length of road, no matter how long, gave opportunity to accelerate as hard as possible. With the rain still falling the effect for those perched on a thin four inch plank of wood in the rear of the truck was a fusion of Disney rollercoaster and water boarding. As the rain continued to penetrate through our failing rain capes we tried, invariably in vain, to maintain our upright position and ignore the jungle draped, roadside drops that populated the majority of our journey. With a number of locals show clear, physical signs of motion sickness we eventually reached the truck station, happy to walk the remaining hour to the top of the mountain.

Alighting from the truck the mist that had enveloped us at the base of the mountain provided little opportunity to view our new surroundings. Bamboo huts and thick tropical jungle were just visible on the periphery of our visibility. So too a steep, wide concrete road that would be our path to the summit. As rainwater cascaded down the road I resolved to walking barefoot, my flip flops offering no grip on the wet road. As we walked shuttered huts confirmed that few tourists would be passing this way during the monsoon season. For us we yet again felt like virgin travelers pushing the boundaries of western exploration, visiting areas seldom seen by our non-understanding eyes. Yet this sacred Buddhist site is, during the November-March pilgrimage season, flooded by the faithful charging the region with magic and devotion.

Our first view of the Golden Rock

Our first view of the Golden Rock

Declining the offers of a sedan ride to the summit we continued apace and were soon at our hotel, perched high on the summit. Oversight on our part and failure to listen to our requests by our tour agent in Yangon had seen us booked into a government hotel. The first time I have stayed in a government hotel and not something I hope to repeat – purely from a desire not to provide any unnecessary funds to an insidious regime that treats the citizens of Myanmar in such an odious manner.

Mist envelopes the Golden Rock

Mist envelopes the Golden Rock

With rain and humidity drying ourselves, at the hotel, was challenging. So with daylight still available we set out for the final assault on the mountains summit, still wet from our journey. A brief walk past shrines and temples led to the Golden Rock itself. For there, floating high above the coastal plains, with wisps of cloud rushing past, almost within touching distance of the heavens is the prayer and wish drenched balanced boulder stupa of Kyaiktiyo. Rivaling the wonders of the Shwedagon Paya or the breathtaking beauty of Bagan it felt only proper that like any proper pilgrimage our journey to the summit should have involved a certain amount of hardship.

The mist clears around the Golden Rock for a few brief moments

The mist clears around the Golden Rock for a few brief moments

Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. During dryer months pilgrim chants, candles and meditation continue day and night, yet, for us the boulder was deserted. Few hardy souls were making their pilgrimage today. Returning to the hotel we secured a surprisingly good supper as the wind continued to howl and the rain fell – it was forecast to continue on the mountain for the next 10 days.

Trey with her two Buddhist monk friends

Trey with her two Buddhist monk friends

Leaving supper we made one of our better decisions and returned to the golden boulder to experience this scared sight at night. With a slight break in the rain but the wind still whipping the clouds over the rock in dramatic style we made our way back to the overlook. Clearly on pilgrimage two Buddhist monks soon reversed the typical conversation exchange, in this scenario, asking to have their pictures taken with up. With good English we were able to spend some time afterwards understanding their pilgrimage. Travelling from Yangon, sleeping on the floor of the monastery, rising at 6am their trip to the rock was both spiritual and exciting for them. The opportunity afforded of speaking to westerners and being able to introduce us to their family was clearly also a novelty. After talking at length about Myanmar, England and of course football (slightly surreal!) we exchanged email addresses and goodbyes. A great experience and worth our toil to reach the summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo.

Posted by jamesh1066 14:31 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Temple tour by Tuk-Tuk

Exploring the many religious sites of Bago

overcast 29 °C

Yangon to Bago, Myanmar

The following morning, having hastily prearranged a taxi off the street, the night previous, we were soon heading through the sprawling, ramshackle suburbs of Yangon. After half an hour the dilapidated concrete and corrugated metal structures of the city were replaced by the bamboo and often stilted houses of the paddy field farmers. Set sporadically throughout the countryside men and women in conical hats still worked the water filled rice fields. The majority of the fields were empty of crops, filled, despondently with a murky brown water, with only a few showing the vibrant green shoots of life sustaining rice as this critical southeast Asian crop was tended and prepared for harvested.

Passing few urban areas en route to Bago the ever changing vista remained unaltered for the remaining hour that it took for us to reach our next destination. Yet eventually rice field faded back into rudimentary urban dwelling with scooters and tuk-tuks crowding the previously vacant roads.

Shwemawdaw Paya - The first temple on our Bago tour

Shwemawdaw Paya - The first temple on our Bago tour

During the late Mon dynastic periods (1287-1539) Bago acted as the capital of their southern Myanmar empire, until the Bamar took over in 1539. Today, Bago is a Disney-flavored theme park of brightly colored religious sites. Eager to explore this new city we set out, on foot, to the nearby 1476 Kyaik Pun Paya consisting of four 100ft high sitting buddhas placed back to back around a huge square pillar. Yet we were not to achieve our walking goal or at least not yet. Arriving on scooter two local tour operators caught us up, having been waiting for us at the bus station, to offer a tour of the temples. As they confirmed that they were agents for the tour operator we had spoken with in Yangon we agreed a price for the temple tour - $20 USD. Paying this amount to them ensured that we would circumvent the ticket booths at the major temples in Bago, which empose a Bago wide temple pass of $10USD each, that goes straight to the government. An ideal solution all round.

Our ride around Bago

Our ride around Bago

Wondering around Shwemawdaw Paya

Wondering around Shwemawdaw Paya

Beautiful architecture at the Shwemawdaw Paya

Beautiful architecture at the Shwemawdaw Paya

A lone monk wonders through Shwemawdaw Paya

A lone monk wonders through Shwemawdaw Paya

Shwemawdaw Paya - The tallest in Pagoda in the country

Shwemawdaw Paya - The tallest in Pagoda in the country

Signs of damage from the 1975 earthquake

Signs of damage from the 1975 earthquake

For the next four hours we toured the spread out religious sites of Bago crouched on a hard wooden in the back of their bouncing and jerking tuk-tuk. Discounting the ride (!) highlights included the snake monastery where the head of a monastery in Hsipaw reincarnated in the form of an 18ft long, 1 foot wide, chicken eating, 120-year old Burmese python. Bravely Trey offered a small donation to the snake (and monastery!) by touching her kyat note to the snakes nose and receiving an excited chant from the nearby attendant. With no liking of snakes I stayed alert ready to be the first out of the door should the snake awake for its slumber.

Trey's new friend

Trey's new friend

Hanging out with Buddha

Hanging out with Buddha

Snake dragons decorate many of the temples

Snake dragons decorate many of the temples

A Buddha garden

A Buddha garden

Close by we visited a cheroot factory filled with mostly young, dexterous Myanmar girls capable of rolling 1,000 of the tobacco filled green leaves every day. With consummate grace and skill they showed us the paper filter and the art of rolling a consistent, tightly bundled cheroot. For their efforts they will receive no more than a dollar per day.

Cheroot factory

Cheroot factory

Cyclo's and overweight trucks are common sights

Cyclo's and overweight trucks are common sights

Alternative engine cooling - typical in Myanmar

Alternative engine cooling - typical in Myanmar

Mild curiosity greeted our visit

Mild curiosity greeted our visit

At Shwethalyaung we were able to see the 180ft long, 53ft high reclining Buddha built by a monarch with a guilt complex - he had been worshipping pagan idols – and at Shwemawdaw Paya a pyramid of washed out gold rising to 376ft, some 90ft higher than Shwedagon. The highlight of our tour, however, was Kha Khat Wain Kyaung. One of the three largest monasteries in the country we arrived as some 300 monks began their afternoon lessons. According to the guidebook this monastery sees plenty of tourists but this being the rainy season we saw not another tourist. Sat at the back of the hall we listened to their chanting, National Geographic style travelers not for the first time feeling like explorers of a virgin land. Outside the hall vast kitchens were being used to prepare lunch for the following day (Buddhist monks eat only at breakfast and lunchtime). Four 3ft diameter, wood fired, woks were ready to cook the vast quantity of vegetables and rice that were needed to feed this thriving monastery of 1,500 monks.

A National Geographic experience

A National Geographic experience

Giant woks are required to cook for 1,500 monks

Giant woks are required to cook for 1,500 monks

Cooking up the monks lunch

Cooking up the monks lunch

Face at the monastery

Face at the monastery

Monks during their afternoon studies at Kha Khat Wain Kyaung

Monks during their afternoon studies at Kha Khat Wain Kyaung

Whilst slightly bottom numbing a tuk-tuk ride was, essentially, the only way to see the spread out sights of Bago. It was only unfortunate that at the end of the trip our guide tried to con us into paying double what we had agreed for the tour. After moneychangers in Yangon the previous day we were in no mood for more shakedowns and told him in no uncertain terms what our agreement had been. Yet, having purchased bus tickets from ‘a friend’ of theirs we were now very much on our guard in our dealings with the representatives of our tour company. This was very disappointing as the majority of Burmese are extremely friendly, honest people, demanding nothing more than a brief conversation and an opportunity to learn a little about one’s own life and country.

Tropical flowers in the temple gardens

Tropical flowers in the temple gardens

Riding in our tuk tuk

Riding in our tuk tuk

Downtown Bago

Downtown Bago

After our temple tour supper beckoned, yet dining options were limited. With Bago, essentially, sprawled along a single main road we grabbed a cheap tuk tuk and headed to the market, the typical hub of tempting morsels. Bago was no exception to the rule with a street side vendor offering extremely tasty fried mung bean cakes, fried bananas and sugar covered pancakes. As the seasonal monsoon prepared for its late afternoon performance we retreated to a nearby bar with our treats, securing a couple of the local Myanmar beers to wash them down. Sitting in now considered comfortable plastic chairs, sheltered from the now arrived monsoon we were able to relax and watch the Bago world pass by. Later in the evening supper consisted of disappointing Chinese food (not unusual in Myanmar with local food harder to find) but a half decent local band that kept us interested while we ate and reflected on the busy day.

Relaxing with a beer as the band plays

Relaxing with a beer as the band plays

Posted by jamesh1066 15:04 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

A dome with more gold than the Bank of England

In awe of Shwedagon, the heart and soul of Myanmar

rain 30 °C

Yangon, Myanmar

After the St. Regis in Bangkok breakfast in Yangon was always going to offer less. This expectation duly delivered we were soon in what remained of a cab heading to a tour agency. For once, with this taxi, the phrase ‘held together by a piece of string’ was not overly pessimistic. Sitting in what remained of the back seat the outer skin of the passengers doors was visible. A community handle was offered should we wish to attach and wind up any of our windows. Opening and closing the doors securely took both time and special training. Welcome to Myanmar!

Trey holds the communal window winder

Trey holds the communal window winder

With our taxi driver apparently unaware of the location of the most famous hotel in Myanmar – The Strand – I attempted to point to it on the map. His shake of the head and response of “No eyes” did not naturally generate any feelings of security. However, hoping this reference was to a lack of glasses for reading we utilized our now well practiced range of gestures and rudimentary sign language to arrive at the Tour Agent we were seeking. Wanting to avoid travel by air and struggling to confirm the schedules of sporadic trains and ferries the use of a travel agent, we had hoped, would simplify this part of our trip. Wasting far too long at the tour agent it was nearly lunchtime before we had in place a travel itinerary that was both practical and reasonably priced. As they finalized the details we headed out to explore downtown Yangon.

Mangosteens

Mangosteens

To understand anything of modern Myanmar, it is said, is impossible without knowing something of Yangon. To know something of Yangon one must first understand the city King Okkalapa unwittingly conceived, from his devotion to Lord Buddha. For it was the gift of eight strands of hair, from two merchant brothers of a faraway land, to a great king in the land of Suvannabhumi, that the great Shwedagon Paya was zealously built, on the summit of a 10,000-year-old sacred hill.

Shwedagon Paya looks atmospheric in the rain

Shwedagon Paya looks atmospheric in the rain

Two and a half thousand years after the death of good King Okkalapa, the small town that had sprung up around the shrine on the hill has grown into a city. A half-finished work in progress, a picture of dishevelment, the city of Yangon, recently dethroned capital of Myanmar, might have lost ifs good Kings of old, but it has matured into a fascinating and vibrant city. With modern glass office blocks pointing to a wealthier tomorrow but the remains of a colonial past evident in the crumbling architecture of the city we head to ‘Scott Market’ or ‘Bogyoke Aung San Market’ as it is known today. The sprawling market of some two thousand stores offers jewelry, souvenirs, Shan shoulder bags and Lacquerware amongst many other Myanmar products. With a light rain starting to fall the market provides useful cover as we attempt to dodge the showers.

It also provides an opportunity to change some of our absolutely brand new USD bills. Anything other than crisp new dollar bills without tears, creases, marks or blemishes cannot be changed in Myanmar. Wise to this from previous trips we run the usual gauntlet of overly pushy locals wishing to change money. With a decidedly shady looking individual offering a rate 15% higher than that which the hotel was offering we change a relatively modest two hundred dollars into Kyat, as most people will accept our dollar bills. Being handed 160,000 Kyat in 1,000 Kyat notes the counting process takes some time and is relatively easy for a unscrupulous money lender with fast hands to corrupt. Handing over four brand new fifty dollar bills I am harassed for different bills, as the number series is wrong on the bills(!!), hundred dollar bills or Euros instead. Anything to distract. With Trey not allowed near me all the usual tactics of money changing subterfuge or working here. With the moneylender now holding three fifty dollar bills in his hand, after refusing a variety of proffered fifty dollar bills it is clear something is not right. Taking back the three fifty dollar bills so that I can ‘look at the serial numbers’ it is not surprising that he is actually holding four of my bills, one cunningly covered up. Unfortunately, I have no photograph of his disappointed face, as his attempt at theft is identified. Needless to say we left as soon as possible, refusing a request for commission from the local who had brought us to this disappointingly crooked moneychanger. Subsequent conversations with other tourists confirmed that this is standard practice. Every trick in the money changing book was tried on them. From that point on our guard was raised.

It is events like this whilst potentially costly that are rather more disappointing. They cast such a bad light on a country that is largely populated by smiling helpful people. Wherever we go we are greeted by shouts of ‘Hello’ and ‘Where you from’. Unfortunately, for myself being English and living only 40 miles from Manchester conversations invariably revert to football. As in many SE Asian countries the Burmese are fanatical followers of football. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United appear to be the most popular teams. Familiar with some of the players for these teams I am able to hold brief conversations on the topic but am soon lost as memorable victories are remembered, quite often in great detail.

With lunch purchased from an excellent street vendor – samosas, spring rolls, onion bhaji and fish rings – the latter being the only item not delectable we return to our travel agent. It is at this point that we return to independent travel as the previously quoted price has now risen 70% as the per person cost was worked out for three people but we are two. Difficult to understand how that misunderstanding arose and certainly one we could not accommodate. Annoyed at wasting yet more time for no reason we are soon back in a taxi heading for the wondrous Shwedagon Paya, approaching as dusk falls on its golden stupa.

Shwedagon Paya was deserted but awe inspiring in the monsoon rain

Shwedagon Paya was deserted but awe inspiring in the monsoon rain

When the mythmakers of the ancient world spoke of mountains made of gold it must surely have been the Shwedagon Paya that they had in mind. It is said that there is more gold plastered onto the sides of the great stupa than in all the vaults of the Bank of England (although given our previous governments propensity to sell gold when the price was at a record low that is probably not much of a comparison anymore). But to many the Shwedagon is so much more than just the jewel-box pinnacle of human creation. Kipling wrote of it, in his book Letters from the East : ‘A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire… “There’s the old Shway Dagon” said my companion… the golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”.

Exploring Shwedagon Paya in traditional longyi

Exploring Shwedagon Paya in traditional longyi

Me too!

Me too!

For in truth this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old testament to religious faith, this gold draped symbol of exotica, is the very heart and soul of this country. It is the reason for all the smiles in Myanmar and it has witnessed all the tears.

Peaceful journey

Peaceful journey

Today, as we climbed the steps of the south entrance the rain began to fall. Yet, as my third visit now to the great golden dome I have never seen Shwedagon looking more atmospheric and spiritual. Beating away the tourist crowds the light rain allowed us a rarely seen glimpse of a Shwedagon peaceful and quiet. At times desolate at others alive with the gentle chanting of the devout.

Making wishes at the place for those born on Saturday

Making wishes at the place for those born on Saturday

...and for those born on Tuesday

...and for those born on Tuesday

Whilst archeologists suggest that the original stupa was built by the Mon people sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, in common with many other ancient zedi in earthquake prone Myanmar, it has been rebuilt many times, its current form dating back only to 1769. The stupa of today is completely solid with the relics given to King Okkalapa encased in a stupa of gold. Built of this is a stupa of silver, a stupa of tin, a stupa of copper, a lead stupa, a marble stupa and finally, an iron-brick stupa.

Contemplation zone

Contemplation zone

Caught in the rain

Caught in the rain

Being sure to walk clockwise around the Stupa we eventually found our birth days (in Buddhism the day of the week that we are born has great significance) and made our offering. On previous visits the marble flooring of Shwedagon proved too hot to walk on in the glaring equatorial sun. Today, the marble is too slippy to walk on due to the rain. For a country who only sees sun and rain the floor covering should have been chosen with more care!

Nice bell!

Nice bell!

Trey tries to play baseball with the sacred bronze bell

Trey tries to play baseball with the sacred bronze bell

Sheltering from a veritable monsoon we leave Shwedagon through the north entrance. As promised Shwedagon continues to provide a sense of mystique and awe. Once seen it can never be forgotten and once experienced it will hold you spellbound forever.

Playing in the rain

Playing in the rain

Posted by jamesh1066 16:14 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Golden pagodas and pit strewn pavements

The land of golden spires, of Kipling and Maugham calls

overcast 31 °C

Bangkok, Thailand – Yangon, Myanmar

Our late afternoon flight to Yangon offered us plenty of time to sample the excellent St. Regis breakfast. Overlooking the Bangkok Country Club, with a clear view of the horse racing (when it is on!), their restaurant provides not only great views but, in our opinion, the best breakfast in SE Asia. A mixture of buffet and a la carte offers the hungry traveler a variety of sushi, pastries, fruit and hot breakfast items. As one of the few hotels to offer oeuf en cocotte my breakfast choice was easily made. Leaving for Myanmar it would be sometime before we ate such a sumptuous breakfast as this. I am sure we will be back!

On approach to Yangon airport both the near and distant landscape offers an amazing spectacle of endless, rectangular paddy fields. With few roads or rivers visible the reliability on rice for this part of the world is self evident.

Landing at the very modern and efficient Yangon airport we are soon through immigration and customs, en route to our hotel. Located near to the Shwedagon Paya I cannot help but show Trey this amazing golden wonder of the world, lit up as it is at night.

With modest street lighting it is clear that sidewalk conditions have not improved since my last visit to Yangon. For the unobservant pedestrian large holes where the concrete covers on the well drained pavements are missing offer a perfect, leg breaking, drop of two to three feet into the murky darkness below.

Careful to avoid dark areas on the pavement we spent a pleasant few hours strolling the suburbs of the Pagoda in the early evening before breaking for supper at a much better than expected Thai restaurant. Knowing that once we leave Yangon behind we will be, largely, limited to Barma food our lack of local food, on our first night in Myanmar, did not feel too naughty!

Posted by jamesh1066 02:29 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

A week in Thailand. Time for food, beaches and exploration

A relaxing return to our favorite country

sunny 31 °C

Bangkok – Hua Hin – Ko Tao –Hua Hin – Bangkok, Thailand

Finding ourselves in familiar territory now, for the first time in our trip, I will keep this account of our time in Thailand relatively brief. Whilst we were able to spend time in new places much of our time was spent on mundane tasks such as obtaining visas, catching up on emails, planning the next stage of our trip and souvenir shopping.

Arriving on Monday morning at the Myanmar embassy, in monsoon like rain, a relatively short queue of fellow travelers were ahead of us. With two passport photos each, a photocopy of our passports and a completed application form the process was relatively quick and straightforward. Whilst we wanted to leave for Myanmar in just over a week we, as yet, had no definite travel plans. Deciding where we wanted to go and how we wanted to get there would take up much of our time in Bangkok.

Great food overlooking the Chao Phraya

Great food overlooking the Chao Phraya

The rest of our day was spent exploring the suburbs close to the Chao Phraya river. With the rain having stopped the very cheap ferry ride up river provided a perfect snapshot of river life as we passed by. On the now dry streets the hawker stalls were back in force. One sold ice cream sandwiches – a bread roll with ice cream in the middle – could that really taste good! Lunching at a small, informal restaurant overlooking the river we had excellent ‘hot’ Thai food and very welcome cold beer. Over lunch we could watch the boats that clear away some of the vegetation that happily floats down the river. Removing boat loads of plant matter their task was thankless, with little evidence of their efforts being visible after they left.

Clearing water hyacinths. A never ending task

Clearing water hyacinths. A never ending task

Our recently vacated table was soon filled

Our recently vacated table was soon filled

In a city with a preponderous of English speaking movie theatres for the first time since leaving the Baltic States we took time out in the evening to watch the latest Harry Potter. The number, variety and quality of theatres available in the Central district of Bangkok is impressive. Our ‘ordinary’ theatre seemed very new. Yet a variety of different style movie theatres offered comfier seats, waitress service, large couches and the like. Service and style that we have not seen since, strangely, a visit to the theatre in Panama some years ago.

The following day we left Bangkok for the three hour drive to Hua Hin. There we would spend a brief evening at the night market commissioning a painting from an artist in the downtown district whose impressionist work I admire.

Having visited Hua Hin before we had no need to visit the tourist sites once my picture was underway. Instead, we found one of the excellent street hawker stalls where we could settle down to freshly cooked Pa-naeng curry, fish cakes and other Thai delicacies. Sat on our small plastic stools we could watch a fascinating vista of both locals and tourist pass by as the night market worked its wallet opening magic on those would be shoppers.

Early the next morning we would leave Hua Hin to travel another four hours south to Chumphon. From there a ferry would take us to the laid back island of Ko Tao, set in the fabled Gulf of Thailand. Warm water and golden beaches awaited us.

Our hi-speed ferry to Koh Tao

Our hi-speed ferry to Koh Tao

Our journey passed uneventfully. The high speed Catamaran that took us to the island made the thirty mile trip in less than two hours. The slow, overnight boat would have taken six. Arriving at the islands main pier a plethora of boards announcing taxi for rent met us, with the associated cries of ‘over here’, ‘very cheap’, ‘where you go’ and the like. With transportation already organized we were soon at our small hotel far away from the madding crowds. Met by the turquoise blue oceans that were so reminiscent of the first half of our trip it was an easy decision to stroll along the beach, breathing in the salt air, contemplating nothing more complex than where we should have supper that evening. As it was a simple restaurant close to our hotel, overlooking the ocean, was to provide the perfect answer.

Quiet beaches

Quiet beaches

Which way now!

Which way now!

Unlike its near neighbor of Ko Samui, Ko Tao is still laid back, without the high rise, grandiose construction that one might associate with a popular beach island. Yet whilst the island was popular it attracted mostly backpacker tourists whose numbers did not appear to swamp the island. Although a few areas had some low rise tourist facilities, with every store offering boat tickets to another island or so it appeared. Scooters could be rented for five dollars per day to help navigate the largely dirt roads that covered this relatively small island, some eight miles square. For ourselves we opted to explore on foot, wondering along both the golden beaches and around small bustling villages. As we had hoped the island had little to offer the traveler except an enjoyment of the outdoors, in the form of hiking, diving, snorkeling and biking. After our long train journey it offered us a pleasant opportunity to spend a few days relaxing in a tropical paradise.

Happy smiles before I ate something bad!

Happy smiles before I ate something bad!

Trey enjoys our stroll on the beach

Trey enjoys our stroll on the beach

As events would unfold the expectation of relaxing became a little more enforced. Awakening the following morning I had obviously eaten something that did not agree with me. Whilst we were still able to explore a little the best I was able to manage was a walk along the beach to a secluded restaurant that overlooked the bay. With a fantastic view of both the rough seas outside the Bay and the rounded boulders that formed the Heads of the Bay only soft drinks appealed. With Trey feeling fine but being very understanding, acting as both nurse and helper, it was fortunate that my ailment only lasted 24 hours. By the following morning I was back to near ‘normal’ and ready for our planned departure from the island, to Hua Hin.

Dive boats aplenty on this island

Dive boats aplenty on this island

Golden beaches and turquoise water at Koh Tao

Golden beaches and turquoise water at Koh Tao

Relaxing with a Chang beer

Relaxing with a Chang beer

Sitting on the top desk of our delayed Catamaran an announcement came over the tannoy system that due to a low tide and a high sand bar all passengers needed to move to the front of the ferry. Duly moved we ground over the sand but were soon out on the open seas. Leaving Ko Tao the island had delivered what was promised. Maybe not in the manner expected but we had been able or forced to relax and felt all the better for it.

Arriving back in Hua Hin I was able to collect my now completed commission and very pleased we were with it. By the following morning we were back in Bangkok. Returning to the excellent St. Regis hotel we were welcomed almost like family. With a large suite overlooking the city we would spend a couple of days here visiting Chatuchak market (a most see spectacle for anyone visiting Bangkok) and attempting to visit areas of the city we have not been to before by foot, BTS and ferry.

In the evenings we visited very different but recommended restaurants, across the city. At ‘The Face’ at our concierges’ most excellent suggestion we sampled a wonderful sea bass in garlic and chili that was presented as though a whole fish but in reality had been completely boned. It looked and tasted spectacular. For desert we headed to a street hawker stall who only sold mango and sticky rice. Again, according to our concierge, the best in the city. As we were to find out no false claim. Akin to eating ice cream we enjoyed a large $0.60c bowl ourselves and took one back for our helpful concierge, much to his amusement.

The following evening on the recommendation of the hotel’s engaging Director of Sales we tried a locals restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. Translated as ‘The Home Kitchen’ the restaurant proved exactly that, offering fresh, quality Thai food and more than reasonable prices. Struggling to avoid both over ordering and over eating this was the sort of restaurant that makes Thailand so appealing. Everything was fresh, well cooked and so tasty. I suspect we will be back here on our return.

Posted by jamesh1066 02:10 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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