Travel Log

MY THAILAND TREK..............................................by: David Agniel

MY THAILAND TREK  ....................................by David Agniel  © 2008

 

 

 

 

Approaching the Suvarnabhumi airport after a 23-hour flight,  my restricted feet were decidedly itching to get moving. 

 

 

Looking down at the lights of Bangkok in the distance provided a sight that removed any doubt about the size of this sprawling metropolis of 13 million souls

 

Just thinking about the hassle of negotiating a late night taxi ride or trying to figure out the public transport system, I was quite happy to have a prearranged voucher good for a shuttle into the city directly to my hotel. The JAL 777-300 touched down and roared to a halt before taxiing to the arrival gate.  

 The cooped up passengers were already jockeying for position, ready to disembark after the long flight. More than 300 restless people were vying to simultaneously pull down luggage from the overhead compartments as if the last one would be forever branded a loser, doomed and destined to remain eternally in economy class purgatory. Having noted this human odyssey play out on so many occasions I sat placidly in my seat thinking pleasant thoughts and exercising my lower legs until I was able to stand without elbows in my ribs, gallantly claim my backpack from the overhead bin and wait for the thundering herd to clamor off the aircraft. After 20 hours of flying one comes to appreciate the various video games, music, TV, meals, and HBO PPV movies offered as diversions by the airlines. Not incidentally, the Yebisu beer from Sapporo Japan that flowed without limit should receive honorable mention. The tiny hostesses wearing kimonos and colorful cloth butterflies on their shoulders seemed to sense when a refill was needed and always arrived at just the right time to keep the imbibers unconcerned and semi-tranquilized. An interesting feature of the JAL 777 is a nose camera that records the roll & take–off and then the camera pans the ground ahead as the aircraft gains altitude. Passengers can have a birds eye view of the take off from their individual video screens. However, the biggest asset is to sit in one of the exit rows where you can stretch out your feet and easily get up and walk around without having to climb over other passengers. I was able to reserve seats in these rows on-line in both directions before departure and felt blessed to have the extra leg space.

It’s been a few years since I dismounted from an aircraft in Thailand. Last time was 39 years ago at the old Don Muang Airport on the other side of the city. Back then it was a four plus hour flight from my base in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam on our Delta Queen, a then ancient C-47 that was our base bird for emergency supply runs and could do all of 160 mph. We made that run as often as possible. I was fortunate enough to do several of them during my tour of duty.

I’ve retained a fascination for Thailand since those earlier times. Now instead of being 35 years old I’m pushing 75 and wondering if my imagination is playing tricks on me; fooling me into thinking I can actually keep up with a decidedly younger crowd that will be my backpacking companions for the next couple of weeks. That remains to be seen. However my accommodating mind has rationalized that if not now, when? Certainly I cannot put this off any longer. If it’s to be it’s now or never. I’m reminding myself that it’s not the goal but the journey that matters. So far, so good. Hopefully there will be some older souls in my group to commiserate with while the younger crowd charges ahead like so many of the recently released inmates of JAL Flight 703.

Slow and steady is the only way to approach this adventure. Not being of totally unsound mind I’ve been "training" for the meet. I’m remembering the hours put in back in Florida, walking the local state parks with full pack to make certain I could at least do the hours required on level ground. Then a couple of longer fully laden treks back and forth over some of the larger bridges that sweep high over the inter-coastal waterways to allow the bigger ships to pass. This was the best I could do to simulate the hill country that would make up the first phase of the trek. Several times in Florida I thought passersby were shaking their heads and thinking "there goes another poor old homeless man." It occurred to me I should have had a sign on the back of my pack "Need money for food." Maybe I could have financed the trip with the proceeds. Finally I found a Florida State Park that had real hills and it became my final training ground for the forthcoming Thailand hill country trek.

I found no kindred spirits of my generation willing to have a go at this adventure within the short time frame for preparation. At one point I almost had my friend Mo convinced to give it a go, but some knee problems ruled that out. It would have been nice to have Mo for a hiking buddy. Mo was my PT instructor in Officers Candidate School. I couldn’t keep up with him then when he had us dropping down for pushups and I believe he can still do a few of the one-handed variety, a singular feat not shared by many of our vintage. Not only is he a good friend and an excellent pilot, he still is an active aviator. He’s a great navigator as well. He’s never lost, at least that’s his story and he’s sticking with it. . I know he would have been better than any GPS system made. And we could have watched each other’s backs on the city streets and country trails.

Oh well, it seems from preliminary reports that we will have a very nice, albeit small group of trekkers whose homelands span the globe. Australia, Italy, Canada, and the US have registrants I’ve learned of. We will meet up at the starting point, The Trang Hotel, a not-too-well-rated jumping off point for backpackers and budget travelers. Ah, but it is to be an adventure, one I can hopefully look back on with delight and then scratch it from my bucket list. For those who haven’t seen the movie by that name it simply signifies a list of things a couple of guys (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) plot to do before they "kick the bucket." I highly recommend it, the movie that is.

Now entering the main hall of this large modern airport it feels so good to be walking upright, freed from the seatbelt that has been my restrainer for far too long. I spot the Thailand Travel Authority Desk, give them my voucher for a ride to the hotel and in quick order I am in a van and on my way.

The Trang Hotel is older and well worn but surprisingly more than adequate for the beginning of a backpacking adventure. The bed is comfortable, the room has A/C & TV, It even has an indoor swimming pool and a very attractive dining room that is arranged so that when weather allows one can choose between indoor or outdoor dining in a very attractive tropical setting.

 

 

 

The included breakfast is more than adequate with lots of choices including a complete array of Thai dishes as well as the typical juice, coffee, bacon, eggs and toast type selections. It’s impossible to leave hungry. The hotel did have a special way of limiting electricity usage. Only one key was made available for each room and it had to be placed into a special slot after entering the room. Only with the key properly in the slot would the electric lights and the air conditioning operate. Therefore when you left the room and took the key the electricity went off. This worked well when you had a room to yourself but when two occupied a room, as was to be the case with our trekking group, and one went out somewhere, they either had to go keyless or the other one would be without electricity. This proved to work in practice but required a little planning and if both were going separate ways, the key had to be left at the hotel desk so whomever returned first would be able to access the room. This seems to be a universal practice in Thailand, at least at the hotels and guest houses we occupied during our travels.

The location of the Trang is about a 20 minute walk from Khosan Road, the main gathering spot for backpackers and a lively day and night area with many bars, restaurants, moderately priced guest houses, and all the attendant hoopla that makes for an interesting area for tourists. It includes a plethora of shops and stalls selling everything from street food to T-shirts and local crafts. I met up with Stephanie, a young lady from Vancouver who had just arrived and is also booked on this trek and we decided to walk to Khosan Road and check out the scene. We are both wondering who will be our traveling companions on this adventure and we won’t have long to wait as we have our initial meeting at 6 PM in the hotel. Not long to wait. We look around the lobby but restrain from asking everyone we see if they are possibly booked on the Roam Thailand Northern Hill Tribes Trek. At Khosan Road we found a good restaurant serving food on little tables on the sidewalk and got our first introduction to Pad Thai, a very good dish to order if you are not keen on hot & spicy, and enjoy rice, vegetables and some meat cooked up in a very tasty way. I resorted to ordering this several times over the course of the trip. Each time it varied but was always delicious, sometimes even containing cashew nuts. Along with a bottle of the local Singha Beer it made for a great introduction to a Thai meal. I can’t pay enough praises for the Thai beer. Singha and Chang are the two main brands. Both are very good with full body. They both taste a lot like German pilsners. As we were cautioned not to drink the water and use ice only if the cubes had holes in them (designating they were produced with purified water) beer became decidedly the drink of choice when not consuming bottled water. I was amazed to see the number of Seven-11 quick shops in Bangkok. There must be literally hundreds as almost every other block has one. It is such a city of contrasts. The Seven 11 near the hotel is next to a little shop that fixes motorcycles and cars and that shop is next to a Wat, a glorious and ornate Buddist temple, just one of hundreds that you will find in the city and around the country.

 

 

 It is not an exaggeration to say that Thais love to eat and do so seemingly at every opportunity. The sidewalks are filled with food stalls and little portable cooking outfits. Food vendors display their wares as the people try to find room on the sidewalks to get by, oftentimes having to go in single file to make it through the maze of vendor’s carts. The smells of the hot Thai street food are varied and tantalizing, making the walk from the hotel to Khosan Road an adventure for the olfactory senses. Small tables and chairs also block the sidewalks where any free space is an invitation to set up a little food stall and serve food on the sidewalk. By the end of my stay in Thailand I had this feeling that very few Thais eat at home. They certainly fully support the street food vendors and it seems to be a very pleasant way of life. There are many strange and admittedly delicious looking offerings and maybe I’m just a coward but I refrained from eating any of it, other that what was offered at more recognizable restaurants.

 I guess I was just worried about coming down with a food borne illness and not being able to make the trek. I was tempted to give the chicken legs a go but recoiled at eating roasted rice rat on a stick. Thais seem to love rat and also fish head soup. I suppose it’s no different than eating any other kind of meat but I’m not crossing into that territory unless in a survival mode. So I ate a lot of chicken and rice dishes during my stay. Also, lots of Seven-11 ice cream cones from the deep freeze. I don’t know how they are able to sell them for the equivalent price of 70 cents US, when we pay $2. plus for them here. But I don’t mess with success and enjoy a cone every day that I can find a Seven-11.

Returning to the hotel I found an internet station in the lobby and wrote my first note home to let Robbie know I had successfully made it to the other side of the world. Hurray for the internet and those that make it available to travelers at a reasonable price. Since the time differential is 12 hours, I had no need to adjust my watch. It was easy to know that at any time of day in Thailand it was the exact same time at night in Florida, or visa versa.

At 6 PM we gather in the outdoor eating area and meet up with our traveling companions and are briefed by our tour guide. We will spend this night at the hotel and check out in the morning, leaving our backpacks in a protected area until we head to the train station at 4:30 PM. After introductions all around it turns out that we are a group of ten; a couple from Italy and 4 men and 4 women from various parts of the globe…Ireland, England, Canada, Australia and the US. My initial roommate Noel, is a big affable Irishman, We had immediate rapport although I had to really concentrate to understand his decidedly Irish brogue. Noel had been on a similar trek in Egypt the previous year and had narrowly escaped a terrorist bomb that went off amidst his group of traveling companions, wounding one of them. Perhaps because Thailand is not considered to be a dangerous destination (except for the deep southern zone) accounts for some of us opting for this trip. I know I took it into consideration, choosing the north and mid-south instead of the initially planned Bangkok to Singapore adventure.

It turns out that our entire group is composed of decidedly younger 20 something folks, myself excepted, but the ice is broken quickly and the group dynamics are exceptionally good. We quickly meld into a close knit group of friends. I find that when not straining to catch every word of Noel’s Irish brogue, I’m adjusting my ear to decipher Ben’s cockney dialect, the Aussie gal’s very attractive accents, French Canadian Guillaume’s English with a French accent, and the Italian couple, Luca and Adrienne’s brave attempts to communicate with their limited English interspersed with lots of hand gestures. They were very much in love and were constantly in the hand holding mode. Ben is a recent graduate of the University of Bath and has interned with JP Morgan…a very sharp kid who is doing a seven month "gap year" of travel before entering the workaday world. The Aussie gal’s are full of laughs. One wants to become a Barrister when she completes her studies, one is planning a marriage and one is still just out there having fun. Our Canadian gal Stephanie from Vancouver is working with a charitable organization and taking her annual vacation. Noel works with pension plans in Dublin and Guilliume has his own business and does lots of his work via the internet. It’s an interesting mix and an unlikely international grouping that fared well together in all aspects during our time together.  

       L to R:  Steph, Alli, Noel, Rachael, Myself, Sara, Luca & Adrienne, Ben & Guilliume 

The Chao Paraya river runs through the city and is connected to many canals that flow through neighborhoods making the city similar in many ways to Venice. The next day our guide Chan arranges to take us on a river tour of the city. We walk about forty minutes to the riverside and board a longboat, a solid wooden craft about 30 feet long and powered by what looks like an automobile engine mounted to a sturdy shaft that extends out at a shallow angle into the water where it powers an in-line prop.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

Touring from the river presents a unique way to view the city. Much of the city life centers on the river traffic. In addition to a large floating market there are numerous ferries and water taxis plying the river. We spent several hours viewing the sights before returning to our launching point.

We return in time to hoof it over to Khosan Road for a late lunch. For my part I opted for rice with fried chicken and cashews and of course my beverage of choice, Singha beer. Thereafter, the hike back to our hotel where we ready our gear for the hill tribe trek. Since the tour involves two phases we leave our gear needed for the southern warmer climes sojurn at the hotel in safekeeping storage, thereby lightening our load.

Finally our group assembles at 4:30PM and we head for the main railway station in tuk-tuks, the curious little 3-wheeled vehicles that dot the streets of Bangkok. Two people with backpacks fill a tuk-tuk so we corralled six of them for the trip of around 30 minutes in the hectic traffic. The only way to adequately describe the Bangkok traffic is to say it is chaotic at best. Tuk-tuks, motor bikes, taxis, bicycles, push carts, buses and trucks all doing a crazy jockeying of lanes, inches from each other in a mind boggling death defying orchestration of movement. A ride that normally should take ten minutes easily stretches into an hour. The national characteristic seems to be to not lay on the horn as you might expect in a large US city. When gridlock blocks the way, drivers seem to have a reserve of calm but when an opening develops it’s every driver for himself and full speed ahead. The following picture shows the view from the back seat of our tuk-tuk.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another view of traffic…......from a taxi.  Note the overhead walkway between shopping centers.

 

 

 

  

 The railway station is quite busy at this time of day. We make our way through the throngs of travelers and board our sleeping car for the all night trip to Chang Mai in the north of Thailand. I suppose I would rate this train the poor man’s Orient Express. It’s really a rocking good ride and fairly fast. It departed exactly on time and almost immediately the waiters were taking drink orders. By the time the city was giving way to the countryside, dinner orders were being taken. As Noel is quite tall we decide he deserves the lower, somewhat longer bunk and I am more than happy to take the top. But not before we have a quite adequate meal served by the waiters right at our seats. The complete meal from soup, main course of rice, chicken or pork in a very tasty semi-spicy sauce and desert of coconut flavored rice pudding was the equivalent of five bucks in Thai Bahts. Here’s Rachael enjoying her dinner.  

 Later a porter comes through and turns the seats into beds and curtains them off from the passageway. Chan warns us all to be especially careful to not leave any valuables when we leave our seats for the rest rooms; likewise not to leave anything valuable in our backpacks that are accessible from under the lower bunks. It’s not unheard of for thieves to board the trains where they stop, grab something valuable and depart before the train proceeds. I’m reminded of a similar situation that existed in Italy shortly after WW-2 and I sleep with my billfold and passport in my pillow case. Our gang is excited to be underway and has developed a particular thirst for good ol’ Singha beer. It flows freely long after I have turned in for the night. Ah to be young again; these kids are having a great time and it’s all good fun.

Chan rouses us at 6 AM to prepare for arrival in Chang Mai scheduled for 6:30. Just time to make it to the communal sink at the end of the car to spash some water on our faces, grab a quick cup of coffee in the dining car and get ready to dismount. We clear the station and load aboard songthaews (pick up trucks) and head for the Prince Hotel where we will spend one night before proceeding on the hill trek. The Prince is the equal of the Trang in most aspects. All the requisites for a travelers needs without being overly fancy. We spend the day exploring the city, swimming in the pool, shopping the stores. Chang Mai is quite large, second to Bangkok, but is laid out so it’s easy to get around without getting completely lost. I spent the day hoofing the streets and shopping for a pair of long hiking trousers, the one item I inadvertently left with my gear stored in Bangkok. I had brought the zip off type and found to my dismay that the lower halfs didn’t make the journey north. Several shops and four bucks later I had a very nice pair that the gang joked about as being so full of pockets I didn’t need a backpack. Some truth to that as I never really could remember which pocket held my normal assortment of stuff one carries in their trousers. I warned them that Father Time would catch up with them too one of these days.

That evening Chan arranged to take us all to a special Thai dinner and show.  We were to meet in the lobby at a certain time that apparently failed to register in my feeble brain and the group piled into Songthaews and left without me...not realizing that I wasn't there.  I showed up a few minutes later and no one was in the lobby.  I hung around for a while thinking I had gotten the time wrong and then the phone rang.  It was good ol' Chan looking for his missing member.  He came back for me on a motorcycle and I must say I got an unexpected added thrill for the day riding shotgun on the back and hanging on to Chan for dear life as he streaked through Chang Mai and out to the restaurant on the outskirts of town. I'm sure he is an excellent driver but it is a bit unnerving to be on a motorcycle tailgaiting other traffic at about a foot or less intervals and passing between parallel moving vehicles.  As we used to say in Vietnam when a round landed uncomfortably close, "only the laundry lady will know how close that one came." 

We are up early the next day and climb aboard Songthaews, pick-up trucks with sideways board seats in the back, six passengers and gear per truck. We head north out of Chang Mai and the first part of the trip is on a major highway. The air is whipping through the back of the truck and whoops, there goes my new hat flying out the back…the special hat that Kimberly gave me. It had two bright LED lights in the edge of the bill and a hidden switch that really illuminated the darkness…just the thing for finding an outhouse in the wee hours of the night. I banged on the cab and got the driver to go back but the hat had disappeared in the meantime. Most likely a motorcyclist had seen it flying and grabbed it before we could find a turnaround. I was beginning to wonder what else I would be losing before the day was over. We are headed up toward the second highest mountain in Thailand and after what seemed an eternity in the back of the Songthaews we dismount at a small store where we grab some snacks that suffice for lunch. Here we meet our native guides who will lead us up to the first nights camp at a Lisu tribal village. The trek takes a little less than 3 hours but mostly up hill and the pace is brisk. We stop intermittently to view something the guides point out. Edible plants, curious views and sights of the mountains. I notice that the chatter really drops off and the breathing gets heavier. At the stops I just about get my breathing back to normal and we are off again on the uphill trek.

A view of the mountains.....and the trekkers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note the bamboo walking stick I’m leaning on. The Lisu guide cut it for me saying, "Here Papa, you will need this." I think it saved me from a couple of slips and potential falls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 I'd like to think the girls would be ready to catch me if I stumble but that would be a stretch. 

 Continue with   Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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