The City of Angels

I squashed myself further into the front of the pork mince stall as the train slowly trundled its way through the centre of the market. I'm not sure how it came about whether it was the market that sprung up on the train tracks or the train tracks were laid through the busy market. Whichever came first they now coexist in the same narrow space in the town of Mae Klong, an hour outside Bangkok. The stall holders are used to the passing of the train and most of the stalls are on wheels, ready to roll back their vegetables, fruit and fish when they hear the announcement from the nearby station. They leave the pulling in of the shade awnings till the last seconds though, to protect their goods and themselves from the scorching afternoon rays, jumping out in front of the slowly rumbling engine to pull in the blinds. The girls were fascinated, from their safe vantage point in a nearby fruit stall, that the lady couldn't be bothered to move her towering pile of rambutan fruit. The bottom of the carriage just brushed the pile, sending a few of them tumbling further into the wheels, anyone for a smoothie? Literally seconds after the massive beast had passed the shade umbrellas were unleashed, stalls kicked out and the stall holders banter continued, as if nothing had happened. dsc03192 mae-khlong-market-outside-bangkok-with-brian-and-kaedsc03200dsc03197 We had been brought to the market by an old friend and colleague of Steve's Brian and his girlfriend Kae. Brian lives in Jakarta but had flown into Bangkok for the weekend to see us, he knows the city well as Kae lives there. We set off on Saturday in a long tailed boat to explore one of the floating markets. The Chao Phraya River is swollen with all the recent rains, so we had to go through a lock to access the smaller channels. There are hundreds of narrow canals in the city, houses back straight onto the water so you get to have a noisy at people's lives. Eating out with Kae was wonderful, at the market she picked out some of the most delicious foods for us to try. Plump prawns, delicately flavoured fish, spicy salads and a couple of bowls of soup with interesting pork "bits" that tasted delicious.dsc03096wat-arun-bangkok-with-brian-and-kae dsc03117dsc03123floating-market-bangkok-with-brian-and-kaedsc03127dsc03130 image Surprisingly we had space that night to eat out as Brian and Kae took us to one of their favourite restaurants, the Issaya Siam Club. Looking around the sophisticated and sumptuous surroundings of the converted 1920's house, Alisha wondered aloud why it was that we never take her to such swanky restaurants? She laughed when we told her it was what we used to do..... before we had children. Thankfully they then tried to be on their best manners, to keep up with surrounding. The experience was fantastic, not only was the food delicious but there was quite a lot of culinary theatre too. It culminated with an amazing desert translated as a "broken bucket" with all the components laid out on a couple of banana leaves on the table. First there was the coconut cream; crushed peanuts; mulberry and lychee ice-cream; and several more exotic ingredients laid out with panache. Then out came a smoking cauldron, there was a bang and onto the table tumbled some cake and a frozen chocolate "bucket" which cracked into pieces, all wreathed in fog. We were all transfixed and it tasted as good as it looked. image The following day Brian had hired a minibus to take us all an hour outside Bangkok to Amphawa floating market. Going to a market with Kae gave us a great new perspective, as she explained all the different culinary delights that we'd seen but hadn't been brave enough to try on our own. She bought some of the tastiest morsels for us to try. Popular with people from Bangkok, it was busy as it was Sunday lunchtime. We stopped for a delicious lunch in a riverside restaurant, just outside the main hustle and bustle of the market. dsc03154imagedsc03159 From the market we jumped back in the minibus and headed out to a wat (Buddhist temple) which had been completely engulfed by trees growing around it. Busy with devotees, Kae kindly sorted us out with the correct offerings and explained the correct way to use them. One of the fascinating aspects of Asia is the diversity of religions, so this year the girls are going to study the different ones as we pass through the region. Buddhism is next on our list, so it was great to learn more. As we had driven through the town of Mae Khlong earlier the driver had mentioned the market held on the traintracks, so we stopped on the way back to town to check it out. outside-bangkok-with-brian-and-kaedsc03173image dsc03178 For our last night with Brian and Kae, we went to another fabulous restaurant known for its haute cuisine. It's diverse tasting menu was full of gems. Most intriguing was the glass of rice spirit; followed by chunk of bitter tamarind; but finished off with a spray of sweet pandanus water from a little bottle - unusual but delicious. It was so lovely for Brian to fly into see us. I know Steve particularly enjoyed going for a couple of beers and a chat in the evenings after dinner, while I took the girls back to the hotel. Kae was lovely and particularly kind with the girls, listening to them chat away and showing them lots of interesting things. The rest of the week we explored Bangkok on our own. The magnificent Grand Palace complex is full of Wats, murals, chedi (Buddhist spires) and Royal buildings. We spent several hours marvelling at its beauty and trying to photograph its splendour. Nearby Wat Pho and its immense reclining Buddha. The huge complex is filled with many temples all fascinating and beautifully decorated. Footsore after such a interesting day exploring we jumped on the local river bus to get back to our riverside hotel. The Riverside Ibis was a great find, a centrally located hotel with a big enough parking lot for the truck. How ever much I ribbed Steve about how soft he'd become staying in a hotel, I was very thankful for the location and air conditioning. dsc03209dsc03236dsc03239dsc03240dsc03273wat-pho-bangkokimageimage Lucy's birthday is in a couple of weeks, so as the girls joint birthday treat they spent the day at Kidzania. It's a great concept, a city where children are the adults. They get to do different jobs, which they earn money for, which they can then spend on things. Actually writing it like that it doesn't sound like much fun, it sounds like life. But it is absolutely great, trying out different jobs, being totally independent in a safe environment and having an absolute blast. They went to the one in Dubai, when we were shipping between Africa and Australia, and were very excited to be going again. While Steve sorted some jobs in the massive mall outside, I caught up with some writing in the parent's lounge. I caught up with them to see them making sushi in a Japanese restaurant and to see Lucy model in a fashion show. Their favourite job was being secret agents though, especially dodging through a laser filled room to collect some secret documents. dsc03296 image Our last full day in Bangkok was more cultural with a visit to Jim Thompson's house, an American Thai silk baron who disappeared mysteriously in 1967. He purchased six different teak houses and brought them to beside a canal in Bangkok in the 1950's to be configured into the most beautiful mansion raised on stilts. It is full of ancient Buddhas and antiques, all done in the best possible taste. The Thai silk company he started has gone from strength and now has shops all over the country selling lovely scarves and homeware. Our last full day in Bangkok was more cultural with a visit to Jim Thompson's house, an American Thai silk baron who disappeared mysteriously in 1967. He purchased six different teak houses and brought them to beside a canal in Bangkok in the 1950's to be configured into the most beautiful mansion raised on stilts. It is full of ancient Buddhas and antiques, all done in the best possible taste. The Thai silk company he started has gone from strength and now has shops all over the country selling lovely scarves and homeware. image   After our six days in the capital, we were sad to leave Krung Thep, which translates into English as the "city of angels". While the city might be very hectic and busy it has a great energy. Crossing the bridge and jumping on the river bus or the skytrain made getting around really easy, especially important in the heat. We had a fantastic time meeting an old friend; making a new one; seeing amazing sights; exploring fascinating markets and eating lots of wonderful and diverse food.

Running the Monkey Gauntlet

They were everywhere, watching our every move, staring at us, creeping up on us when our back was turned and jumping onto the path in front of us. They were rubbing their hands, baring their teeth, picking fleas off each other and screeching as they waited for each set of climbers to walk up the path. The kids stayed close not wanting to get separated as we headed up to the temple on the top of the hill. We didn't stay long to admire it as we were more concerned with getting back down the path without been attacked by the hundreds of monkeys blocking the way. Now on this trip we have been fortunate to see a lot of wildlife but to be honest running the monkey gauntlet was far scarier than walking in the wild with lions or elephants around. We should have known it was going to be bad because as soon as we had parked a lady came running over to us and told us not to park where we were planning. Through her gestures we understood that the monkeys would climb onto the truck and try and pull things off. She suggested we park closer to her stall where she could keep an eye on it with her catapult. She then asked if we would like to buy some corn to feed the monkeys. Not likely! I wanted to buy her catapult or if not a big stick. We had headed north from Phuket a few days before. As we headed inland we came to supposedly the wettest spot in Thailand. As it was the rainy season we assumed it could get pretty wet here. However there was a nice National Park so we decided to stop. Our first challenge was getting into the park. The boom gate would not go up high enough to squeeze the truck in. No problem. The guards promptly got a shovel and dug a hole so that the boom would go higher and we could squeeze through. To thank them we promptly dug up their camping area. Not that we intended to but it was a bit wet and as we they waved us onto a nice patch of gravelly looking dirt, we started to sink and slide. We managed to extract ourselves but not without leaving large dug up tracks. As we were in the National Park we decided to do a short walk in the jungle. At least it looked short on the map. It turned out to be a steep wet trail that wiggled its way through the lush jungle. We could hear monkeys overhead but as they were genuinely wild they stayed well away from us. About half way round it started to rain and by the time we got back to the truck we were soaked. It then proceeded to rain for most of the night. We were glad we were safely parked on solid ground in their car park. image In a previous blog I think I had mentioned we had a run of good news re permits etc. Well the following day after the good news, our windscreen had cracked (things always even out). We had had a stone chip since Australia and then one morning it just spread about 18 inches across the screen. There was a MAN garage on our route from Phuket to Bangkok so we decided to call in. After a lot of discussion it transpired there was no replacement windscreen for us in Thailand. As it would take until after our Thai permit had expired to import one we decided to plod on. However the garage kindly set us up with a windscreen repair shop in Bangkok. We headed onto the beach and found a lovely spot at Ban Krut. With it been the rainy season some of the beaches we had visited had not been at their best. However this was a delightful beach, very quiet, clear waters and virtually no litter. Despite the risk of Jelly Fish in the rainy season, Lucy and I could not resist taking a plunge. The following day, was the day of the monkeys. After having them harass us all the way up to the temple the kids were not very keen to visit any more temples. However we found the most delightful teak temple nearby which also seemed to be free of monkeys although instead infested with stray dogs. The next day we headed into Petchaburi for some more temple and royal palace viewing. The guide book said the town was overrun with monkeys so we were a little concerned. This time though we went prepared carrying an umbrella and it wasn't because of the threat of rain. It was still over 100kms to Bangkok so we needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. It was starting to get built up so there were no obvious spots. As we sometimes do in these situations we pulled up Google maps looked for a quiet road and then using the satellite feature to check to see if there seemed to be areas to camp. We found an area near the sea but most of what had looked like open areas on Google were in fact fish farms. However there were a number of restaurants with big car parks. It was the middle of the week so they were quite relaxed about us parking for the night. We thought it only polite to frequent one of the restaurants for dinner. Not that ordering food was easy. The menu was only in Thai with just a few pictures so we decided the best approach was to ask the waitress to recommend some dishes. This was a great success as we had a fantastic meal of fish, grilled prawns, some sort of cockle dish and a delightful lemon grass salad. It was absolutely delicious. The next day we headed into Bangkok. We had heard how bad the traffic was and how crowded the city was. To make matters worse the windscreen repair shop was on the opposite side of the city to the hotel we had booked so we would have to drive across the city and then back again. It wasn't much fun as we ended up been stuck in traffic a number of times. In fact the worst jams seemed to be on he roads we paid to use! The lane markers on he road are only used at best as guidance by the traffic and often there were four lines of traffic in only 3 lanes. With us been wide things got quite tight on more than a couple of occasions. image At least the windscreen repair shop was able to attempt to fix the windscreen or at least to stop it cracking further. We will see if it holds as it could be a while before we can get another one. We were relieved to arrive at our hotel after battling our way back across the city. We had selected the hotel not for the usual reasons that people choose. For us the only criteria was easy access from a major road and somewhere to park the truck. Fortunately it is also quite comfortable and surprisingly close to all the main sites. I am just happy to have the truck safely parked and will try not to think of all that traffic I will need to get through again to get out of the city but instead to just enjoy the sights of the city.

Thai Beaches – 3 Different Ways

Thailand has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and this last week we've had three very different experiences on them. We started the week off in the lowest key way, with a couple of nights boondocking on the Andaman coast in Southern Thailand. We then upped the stakes by leaving the truck and taking a boat out to Railey to a cut off peninsula with stunning beaches and finished with a lovely weekend with friends in Phuket. At times over the last 3 months, we have seriously doubted if we would see any of Thailand's famed white sand and turquoise sea combinations. Thailand recently changed its laws about allowing foreign vehicles into the country. It has taken Steve 2 months, liaising with other overlanders, travel agents and the government department. Like many new laws implemented there were several unexpected consequences, mostly to the few overlanders who pass through their country. The Thais were very helpful trying to make it easier for those already on their journey to continue but there were still lots of beurocratic hurdles. The truck's weight was the biggest issue and even a couple of days before leaving Malaysia we still didn't have the permit. Thip, our Thai agent tried repeatedly to reassure us in her limited English, that it would all work out. When her English failed her she resorted to happy puppy emojis to communicate, leaving Steve with some explaining to do when I saw iMessager covered with hamster-shaped love hearts. She came though in the end as the permit was issued at the eleventh hour, we chose some appropriate fluffy kitten kiss emojis to communicate our thanks, when our non-existent Thai failed us. We have arranged to meet Thip near the Cambodian border to pick up our second permit to cross back over to Myanmar, so maybe there will be cute rabbit hugs all around then. In the end the border crossing was painless and took all of 40minutes, most of which was the customs officer filling in the new, unfamiliar foreign vehicle temporary import form. We'd decided on a couple of days wandering up the coast, unfortunately as it is rainy season the water was rather rough and murky. Recent storms and high tides had brought ashore a lot of rubbish and although we found a couple of great spots parked up under trees it was very wet underfoot. You know that picture-postcard photo of Thailand that you see tantalising you from billboards? It has a pointy nosed boat bobbing merrily in a crystal clear turquoise sea with a limestone tower shimmering in the background. Gorgeous isn't it and we knew just the place it was taken, near Krabi. Railay Beach is cut off from the mainland by huge towering limestone karsts, it's only accessible by sea. So we packed a bag, waved goodbye to the truck and jumped aboard a long-tailed boat. Railay was a little slice of paradise, the sea might not have been perfectly clear due to the rainy season but otherwise it was gorgeous. The golden sands are bookended by tall limestone cliffs dripping with verdant vegetation. On the most picturesque of the three beaches was Tham Phra Nang, a little fishermen's temple in a cave dedicated to a drowned princess. Wooden phalluses are left as offerings in the hope of a good catch and safe passage. Piles of penises and 4 foot high, erect willies were scattered nearby - try explaining that to a fascinated 7 year old. The diminutive looking lady looked like she would need help opening a jar of jam. Boy, was I wrong! Lying facedown on a mattress, she pummelled me within an inch of my life. Call me a sucker for punishment but I love Thai massages for the way you feel just AFTER they have released the pressure. I loped out, feeling like a piece of cooked spaghetti. It was a good thing there was plenty of relaxing to be had at Railay, as I don't think I would have been up to doing much more for the rest of the day. It was about a hundred miles north to the island of Phuket, no longer a true island as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It maybe popular with tourists but we were going to see a different side staying with Steve's old colleague Keith. He had retired to Phuket from Kazakstan with his wife Victoria and 2 children a few years before. They had a lovely house overlooking a lake, we parked on the driveway but slept inside in their delightful air conditioning. We had a great weekend with them, eating delicious Thai food; exploring the beach; and hanging out while the girls played with their 2 month old adorable kitten. Victoria turned out to be a durian fruit afficionado, so when she heard of my desire to try this delicacy, she kindly offered to pick up a tasty one to try. The durian is loved by so many South-East Asians but despised by almost everyone else. The smell is so pungent that you can smell it from 50 metres away, in fact it is often banned on public transport. It's hard to describe the smell accurately but it I think reminds me of sweaty socks with just a touch of vomit. I was intrigued to know what the taste was. My fellow family cuisine-adventurer was Lucy, yet again proving that she is the bravest member of the Snaith family. As Victoria happily tucked in, Lucy and I took a few tentative nibbles. Mmmmm.....weird.....soft, squidgy, sweet, tasting of cooked onions. Not at all what I expected from the smell, not truly disgusting but not pleasant either. I'm going with Lucy on this one: "Mmm, not exactly to my tastes."  Keith took us up to the jungle, as the heavens opened yet again, to see a gibbon rehabilitation centre. Baby gibbons are poached from the forest so tourists can have their photos taken with the adorable long-armed apes. To get the babies, the poachers have to shoot the mothers out from the high treetops, which not only kills the mother but also often injures or also kills the baby, they then usually have to kill the rest of the closely knit family group, as they come down from the trees to protect the youngsters. It is a very sad business. The project aims to return these beautiful creature to the wild, they have four you can see that can not be returned to the wild . The others were higher up the hillside, in the process of breaking their bonds with humans. The loud whooping call they make to each other could be heard echoing around the hillside.  It was lovely weekend catching up with Keith, Victoria, Donovan and Ceira, who couldn't have been more hospitable . As they got on with their usual Monday morning routine we waved goodbye and got on with ours, back on the road. Driving to the other side of the country to the Bay of Siam, to see what that has to offer.dsc02982-1