Sunday, 27 April 2014

Journey to the Thai Islands

Since my last post, Angela and I have been exploring the extreme south of Thailand, enjoying some of the beautiful islands and coastal regions that the country has to offer. The two-day journey from Chiang Mai to Phuket wasn't the most pleasant of trips, involving two sweaty night-trains with no air conditioning, a stopover in Bangkok, and a visit to the hospital after a cut on my leg became infected. Also hampering us has been the unrelenting heat. Down here in the south it's even hotter than in Bangkok, with afternoon highs frequently surpassing 100 degrees fahrenheit. However, the natural beauty we've seen here really makes up for our being constantly drenched in sweat.

We only stayed in Phuket for a couple of nights, as the island itself did not seem especially beautiful to us (the real stunning scenery would come later in Phi Phi and Krabi). However, it was a pleasant, relatively quiet place to unwind after our long journey across the country.

Our route south from Chiang Mai to Phuket.
From Chiang Mai to Bangkok we took a sixteen-hour sleeper train. It was loud, stuffy and generally very uncomfortable.

Once in Bangkok we went to a local hospital to treat my leg. During Songkran I'd grazed it a little, and somehow (possibly due to the dirty water from the festival) it had become infected. By the time we got to Bangkok it had swelled into a volcano of pus, so the doctor had to drain it, which was quite a painful process. It's been about a week since then and I've been having to visit various different hospitals each day to get the wound cleaned and re-bandaged. The whole thing has cost me a little bit of money, and I haven't been able to swim in the ocean or go snorkelling like I would have liked, but I'm lucky it didn't get any worse, and as I write this it's almost healed up entirely.
After my hospital visit, we had several hours to kill before our next night train, so we went shopping at the massive mall in Siam Centre.

Posing at a promotion space for The Amazing Spiderman 2.
We also watched Darren Aranofsky's new film Noah at the cinema there.
We almost missed our train south, as Angela misread the time on the ticket. We had to rush with our backpacks across the train station with barely a few minutes to spare. This train journey was a little shorter than the last one, though it still took all night. We passed some of the time by playing Uno.
In the morning, we woke up to found ourselves soaring over a sea of palm trees.
We departed the train at Surat Thani, a small city near the Gulf of Thailand, and then took a bus across the Malay Peninsula, passing some spectacular limestone scenery.

Crossing the short strait between the mainland and Thailand's largest island, Phuket.
We stayed at Kata, a relaxed, tourist-friendly region with a beach on the Andaman Sea.

The next morning, we paid a visit to Bangkok Hospital in Phuket Town. The hospitals we've been to in this country have all been of a very high standard: clean, efficient, and with very competent, English-speaking staff.
After the hospital, we went straight back to the beach for some sunbathing.

That evening I ate one of the best salads I've ever had, with cucumbers, tomatoes, chicken, bacon, egg, cheese, peppers and a bazillion other delicious ingredients.
The next day, it was time to leave Phuket behind us.

Phuket was a nice place, but it was our next destination that would really prove to us what a beautiful country Thailand really is. Coming up in the next post: The Phi Phi Islands!

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Golden Triangle

As the tides of Songkran began to ebb away, Angela and I decided it was time for another tour outside Chiang Mai. On Wednesday we went on a trip to the Golden Triangle, the tri-border area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge. Along the way we also saw the ornate, pearly structures of Wat Rong Khun, and met some Burmese long-necked women in a remote Kayan village.

One of the service stations we stopped at was located on a thermal springs with its own geyser.
Near the city of Chiang Rai, we visited Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. Though it has quite a traditional appearance, it was designed quite recently in 1997, and contains many surrealist and pop culture references inside and around the main building.
For example, here's Predator wading through the temple grounds.
Some severed heads.

As you enter the temple, you cross a bridge surrounded by human hands, reaching up as though yearning for escape. I don't know if they represented some kind of underworld or other dimension, but they looked pretty cool either way.

Though from afar the temple appears to be made of glimmering porcelain, a closer look reveals whitewash embedded with reflective tiles.

After the temple we went north to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge at the meeting of the Mekong and Ruak rivers. We took a boat to take a closer look.
This giant buddha sitting atop a boat greets visitors arriving in Thailand.

Our view of Myanmar.
On the other side: Laos.

We boarded briefly at Donsao Island, which is actually part of Laos. You don't need a visa, and they don't even stamp your passport! However, it doesn't really provide a true "Laos Experience," as it's mostly just small tourist shops, and you're not allowed to travel inland. We're hoping to see a lot more of Laos later in our trip.

Like Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos is a former French colony, and while the French language has declined in use over the last few decades, according to Wikipedia: "Today, French has a healthier status in Laos than in the other Francophone nations of Asia, and about 35% of all students in Laos receive their education in French, with the language a required course in many schools."

We only stayed in Laos for about half an hour, soon heading back across the Mekong to Thailand.
Then we drove a little way to the dusty border-town of Mae Sai.
Looking across the border at Myanmar, you can see the point where Thai flags change to Burmese.

Mae Sai is the northernmost district in Thailand.
For the final part of our tour, we visited a village in the jungles near the Burmese border. It was home to the Kayan people, who originate in Burma.

There were some of the famous long-necked "giraffe women" living in the village.
Girls often start wearing coils around their neck at the age of 5, with each year a longer coil added. The weight of the coil pushes down on their collar bones and ribcage, gradually creating the illusion of a longer neck.
When asked why they wear the coils, most Kayan women respond that it's for cultural identity. As to the historic origins of the practice, there are multiple theories, such as to exaggerate the slenderness of the neck, to provide protection from tiger bites, or even to give the woman the resemblance of a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore.
We were able to hold one of the coils, and were surprised at how heavy it was.
Even though I'm sure the women are very used to tourists, we felt a little bad taking so many photos of them, so Angela bought some trinkets from their store.

Angela made friends with this little girl.

Leaving the village, and ready for a four-hour drive back to Chiang Mai.

Our time in Chiang Mai is almost over. We're a little sad to leave this place, as we've felt so relaxed the whole time we've been here. Tonight we'll be making our way back down south to Bangkok, and tomorrow night we'll catch a train to Phuket, in the extreme south of the country. It's going to be a long journey, but we're excited to finally see some of the beautiful islands that Thailand is famous for.