Reflections on Thailand

Lucy We went to loads of Wats in Thailand. They are very beautiful with big Buddhas, you have to take your shoes off when you enter because it is respectful. You are not allowed to point your feet at the Buddhas because it is very rude as feet are dirty, so you have to sit in a mermaid position so you are sitting on your legs but your feet are facing backwards. We stayed on the beach, where there lots of old spirit houses. I played on the beach and made special bathing place for the spirits to enjoy.  We travelled through Thailand having great fun. We met Daddy's friend Brian in Bangkok and his lovely girlfriend Kae, and we sent a weekend with them. Kae was very nice, lots of fun and she kept on buying us tasty treats from the market. The thing I most liked was the frozen fizzy drinks on sticks, I had coca-cola. The black grass jelly wasn't so good, it tasted like nothing. We also fed some monster fish with her, they had gotten so fat with all the bread. We also went out for 2 delicious dinners. The first place had amazing puddings, one had cream, coconut, cake and ice cream in it. The lady had a flat disk with a bowl on it, loads of smoke was coming out. Then she dropped it on the table, we thought it was a broken plate but it was a frozen bowl of chocolate. Yummy! We left Thailand to go to Cambodia and Laos. Then we came back and went to Chiang Rai then Chiang Mai, it's funny to name 2 cities close together with almost the same name. In Chiang Mai we went to the 3-D museum where there were amazing paintings, that made you look like you were doing unreal things. We were chased by a massive kitten and my favourite was when we were flying on the magic carpet but actually we were just lying on the painted floor. We went up into the mountains where there were loads of huge moths in the toilets. There was a big hill we were playing on, when Mummy went in with the camera Alisha shouted "You can't take pictures of moths on the toilet." I laughed and laughed. Going down the mountain was worse than going up because it was steeper. One day on a twisty mountain road there was a truck stuck right in the middle of the road, he had run out fuel and blocked the whole road. The driver used our jerry can to refill it, Alisha and I didn't mind waiting as Mummy made us a picnic lunch to eat in the cab. Alisha There was a lots of Wats pretty much all over Thailand and they are very beautiful. But in my opinion there is nothing worse then being dragged round Wats until your head hurts and your feet feel like they're going to fall off the next time you take your shoes off to go into another Wat.   When we returned to Thailand the King had died, although the official 30 days of mourning where over most people were still in mourning and there was big black signs all over the place showing the King with some Thai writing. In the cinema we all had to stand for a slideshow all about the King but they hadn't updated it as at the end it said long live the King. When we went to see another movie it showed the millions of people outside the palace after his death singing the national anthem. Most people where wearing ordinary black clothes with a piece of black ribbon on a safety pin. The national anthem was played while we where at the Saturday market everybody stood still.  I liked going to Bangkok where we met Daddy's friend Brian and his girlfriend Kae. I think Lucy has written about them. I'd say my favourite bit of Thailand was when we spent a couple days up in the mountains it was really cold we went climbing up on a small hill. We found some dried flowers wrapped in a dead leaf with some old insense up there. There was a lot of moths in the bathroom we found a dead one on the road and buried it up on the hill with one of the old sticks of insense. When we got down from the mountains we went to a park with lots of old ruins. We got our scooters and scooted around it was fun except when we went inside the ruins then we had to carry the scooters. Admission to the park was free because of the death of the King. Gilly Our memories of Thailand from previous visits were lovely beaches, excellent food, fascinating culture and smiling welcoming faces. It is well renowned world-wide as an excellent place to travel, welcoming all types of visitors. Just why then, a month before we had hoped to go there, did they effectively close their borders to overland travel? Only those people already driving through neighbouring countries or so determined so they could continue their route would bother to go through the rigmarole to go through the process of getting a permit to go through. Luckily for us, as well as being incredibly well organised, Steve is very stubborn. He was determined to move hell, high-water or the DLT (Department of Land Transport) to get us in. We had to get 3 different special dispensations to get the truck in; umpteen forms; super expensive letter from the home office (so special it even came with its own ribbons and a wax seal); a travel agent; and lots of pacing up and down for over a month to get us in. Even better than that, he managed to get us a second permit at the same time so we could go to Cambodia and Laos as well before crossing Northern Thailand to get to Myanmar. Since we got our permits we've heard that they have completely stopped motorhomes from coming in, many people need to get a Thai licence and it sounds like every foreign vehicle will need to be escorted by a travel agent through the country. What is most upsetting is that this is the same country where you can hire a car easily with no extra checks and we even heard a guesthouse owner telling a backpacker that there was no problem hiring a motorbike if he didn't have the licence or even if he had never ridden a bike before. Surely a biker bringing their own bike, or a driver with their motorhome, having driven it across multiple countries is far safer than someone who have never ridden a bike before going out on the roads. Maddening!  Having had my rant above, once in we absolutely loved the country. Having traversed from south to north; from coast to coast; and city to countryside we have seen a lot. Some of my personal highlights have been the amazing Buddhist Wats we have been to; the beach at Railey; eating out in Bangkok, in fact Thai food throughout the country; the beautiful cool mountains north-west of Chiang Mai and the friendly Thai people.  Returning a second time, after our trip to Cambodia and Laos, was a bit like entering a different country. While we were in Cambodia the much loved King had died, leaving a country in deep mourning. We arrived after the official 30 days of morning had elapsed but still the majority of people were still wearing black and black beribboned portraits with books of condolences everywhere we went. We were really amazed when in the crazy busy night market in Chiang Mai that the whole street came to an absolute standstill when the national anthem was played over the loudspeakers.  Steve With all the difficulties getting a permit under the new rules to drive our truck in Thailand we were just relieved to get in on both our visits. To be honest though we also felt extremely lucky not just because of all the lovely things that Thailand has to offer but because the rules regarding the permits are been tightened such that vehicles like ours are unlikely to be granted a permit in future and for other vehicles they will need a guide. Such a shame and one that makes no sense as Thailand is a wonderful country with lots to offer. Having now visited a number of other South East Asian countries we can see that Thailand is much more developed than most of its neighbours and much more set up for tourism. However it's possible to get off the tourist path and to explore little visited parts. There is a lot to see but just as importantly there is a lot to eat. The food is fantastic as well as varied and of course if you want it, very spicy. It was great to have Brian visit us in Bangkok and introduce us to his girlfriend Kae as she was able to introduce us to a whole different side of Thai food. We had a wonderful gastronomic weekend with them where we traversed the wide spectrum of eating from local markets to fine dining.   We managed to explore the whole country from some wonderful beaches in the South through the cultural heartland visiting the ancient cities of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai and up to the mountains of the North. Along the way we visited countless temples from the rather bizarre White Temple in Chiang Rai to the magnificent Grand Palace in Bangkok. Everywhere we were greeted with the smiles of the friendly relaxed people. It was also great to catch up with some former work colleagues and see life in Thailand through their eyes. After living in the truck it was lovely of Keith and Victoria to put us up in their lovely house and show us around Phuket Island. Thailand is a wonderful country to visit and also a key country in terms of access to other South East Asian countries by vehicle. It seems a shame that as other countries in the region slowly open up that Thailand is effectively shutting itself down to overlanders. 

Moths in the Mountains

"Mummeeeee, let me in now!!" Lucy was hoping urgently from foot to foot."What's the matter I thought you were going to the loo," I replied. "I can't it's full of millions of monster moths - and they are all LOOKING at me!" Reassuring her that moths are quite harmless and then told her off for exaggerating as surely there couldn't be that many moths, I marched her back to the campsite toilet before it was too late. Only to find I was entering a Lepidopterists dream, the walls were covered with massive hand-sized Lyssa Zampa moths interspersed with hundreds of smaller moths of different types. I was detracted from my marvelling by the wriggling beside me. Quickly hustling Lucy into a stall, she was alarmed to find many more moths on the back of the door. "Poor moths, they were having a nice sleep when some rude people interrupted them by having a noisy wee," I tried telling her, it seemed to do the trick. Once relieved we tiptoed out, "Sorry for disturbing your nap," whispered Lucy. We were up in the mountains of Northern Thailand north-west of Chiang Mai on Route 1095, which supposedly has 1864 bends. As we slowly ground our way up the steep hills, we marvelled at the jungle drenched slopes around us. It was slow going but a beautiful drive, the road might have been steep and winding but it was well built and wide enough. By late afternoon we had had assented to 1700m and turned off to an even steeper narrow road into Huai Nam Dang National Park, where 6km in we found the most beautiful campsite we had come across in SE Asia. Suspended above the clouds at the top of a forest ridge, the small flat fields for tents stretched out both sides below us all had perfect views of the heavily forested hills below us. We parked under a tree in an empty parking lot, with a gorgeous view below us. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped. This is one of the park's unique selling points, it a chance for low land Thais to experience the proper cold. They loved it, buying woolly hats from the little stalls and taking grinning selfies bundled up in layers with their stocking-clad feet stuffed awkwardly in their flip-flops. "Oooo, it's so cold!" we were gleefully told, repeatedly. You could rent tents, sleeping bags and mats and the campsite was gearing up for the start of the holiday season, when it can take 900 people. But for now, it was peaceful with just a few Thai tourists . Steve cooked tea outside in t-shirt and shorts (he is from the North-East, after all) before the girls joyfully snuggled under their duvets for the night. Earlier in the day we had stopped on our way out of Chiang Mai at an area where there were a variety of attractions to chose from: "Monkey School" and "Tiger Kingdom".....mmm, cruel; "Snake farm" - too scary; "Orchid and Butterfly Gurdens" - not this time. I know: "Poo Poo Elephant Paper" - perfect (remember we are travelling with an 8 year old whose humour is all toilet related). So we went off to learn how to make paper from elephant poo....and we loved it, even Steve. The paper we helped make came out surprisingly well and totally non-smelly. The girls then spent half and hour decorating poo poo notebooks with a variety of designs - happy family. We had planned on leaving the campsite at Huai Nam Dang the next afternoon after a walk but it was just too nice to leave. We were far too aware that it might be one of the last "proper" campsites until we get to Europe and that we'd be looking back at it wistfully over the next few months. We had a couple of charming walks along the paths to viewpoints and accidentally we wandered into the garden of one of the Royal Princess's Palaces. A charming Swiss chalet style building in need of a lick of paint. It was a bit like wandering into Balmoral's gardens but as there was no one around and the garden gate was wide open, we thought it must be ok. Later, the girls then took a picnic down to the camping field below us to enjoy one of their long and complicated secret imagination games. Fully rested and refreshed, we continued along past the town's of Pai and Mae Hong Son, where we swung into a tiny road past tiny farms and splashed through many stream crossings. We were on our way to a small village out in the forest, where some refugees from Myanmar's brutal military regime have lived since the early 90's. Unable to work legally in Thailand, the village supports itself by charging visitors a fee to take a look around - the draw: the part of the ladies's traditional dress includes brass rings around their necks. Sometimes known in English as Karen longnecks, the rings press down the ribcage, so their necks appear elongated. We were fascinated to see such an extreme form of traditional dress and the villagers need an income source. The villages are not without their controversy but to be honest for us, it wasn't much different from any rural tourist market we've seen all over SE Asia. As we walked over the small bamboo bridge into the main part of the village, the girls were delighted to see an elephant resting in the stream below. In the village, the famed long necked ladies were selling handwoven scarves and trinkets in a small market in amongst the houses. We were almost the only tourists there and the ladies were smilingly welcoming and happy to pose for photos. We bought a new sarong and the girls spent their pocket money - "human zoo" we didn't think so. Route 1095, continued through the hills with lovely pristine forest either side, interspersed with the odd hill tribe village strung along the road. We wanted to stop in the middle of the afternoon, so the girls could do their daily 2 hours of school but came across nowhere suitable. This side of Mae Hong Song, any signs in English had run out but eventually I saw one on a sign with one English word "birdwatching", I jumped out to ask at a forestry commission building if they had a campsite or somewhere to stop, all through sign language. It transpired that yes they did , 4 "something" along the small road. Thankfully, it turned out the 4 "something" was kilometres and the small wildlife centre did have a campsite. Unfortunately it also had a low boom gate but they were happy for us to park for the night in the quiet lay-by opposite. The reservoir inside was a pretty spot and the guard was pleased to practice his English with us. We were looking forward to our last night in a proper campsite in the hills at Ob Luang National Park. We had read it was a delightful spot beside a river, so made good time to get there early afternoon so we could enjoy it. We were greeted at the gate but 3 totally inebriated gentlemen : the caretaker, the gatekeeper and another employee. No, we couldn't stay; yes, we could; quite a bit of shouting at us; one guy trying to get into the trucks lockers; then jumping up to try and get into the cab; eventually yes we could stay but only beside the road and that will be 300 baht to even look at it. At that point the glorious campsite we could see a glimpse of just beyond the gate became less attractive. So we got back on the road, a couple of hours later I saw a road down to a lake and we checked it out for a spot for the night. It turned out the lake had shrunk to the point that the tourist complex built for lake-side fun with a big carpark, Buddhist temple, toilets and a few stalls selling smoked fish was now 500m from the actual lake, it turned out to be a perfect spot for the night with just a few people coming down in the early evening and morning to walk their dogs. Bad hair days are part of the course when you are overlanding but it got to the point when I could take it no longer. It was all my own fault I was too lazy to get it done in Chiang Mai and now we were in the middle of nowhere with nothing but fish stalls around and it was driving me crazy. So I asked Steve to lop at least 10cm off my straggly locks, unsurprisingly in the interests of marital harmony he refused. So it was up to Alisha to take up the crazed mummy gauntlet. She gamely took on the challenge and did a good job, not bad for an 11 year old who had never cut hair before, now at least it isn't so tangly. The ancient Royal Thai city of Sukhothai is stuffed full of magnificent ruins; wonderful wats and ancient artefacts and we were looking forward to a day of cultural musings. That's not quite how the day panned out, the toilet developed a strange noise and aroma overnight. Before we had even brushed our teeth Steve and I had our heads down examining the truck's sewage system. We are getting better at sorting technical problems with the truck but we had a very low starting point. We bought a new truck because we knew we were technically incompetent and Bocklet did a fantastic job making the truck to their high specifications but after nearly 3 1/2 years of hard travel it is starting to show some wear and tear. If we were in Europe we could just pop it back to Germany for a quick overhaul but on the road its up to us to fix it or find someone who can, not easy with such specific equipment. A couple of weeks ago it was the hot water system, so we are getting used to cold showers, and now the loo looks like it requires new seals and someone competent to fit them. I had seen a camping portapotty in one of the big hardware stores earlier in Thailand, so we spent the rest of the morning trawling New Sukhothai to find one as a back up. We don't want to lose our ability to camp almost anywhere and with 2 kids, having a toilet onboard is very important to us. Hopefully it stays in its box in the back unused. Finally after lunch we could at last enjoy the beautiful ruins of Sukhothai. Our camping spot outside Sukhothai was one of the most perfect we have had, our own personal ancient Chedi. Just outside town amongst the rice fields, with so many amazing Wats nearby it was rather overlooked by visitors and we had the place completely to ourselves for both nights. The road to the Myanmar border twisted through the mountains. Before we left Thailand I wanted just one last Thai meal, so we arranged it that we would arrive in the border town of Mae Sot in time for lunch. We pulled into the best restaurant in town, according to our guidebook. We took one look and quickly dived into the back to change into smarter clothes, one advantage to driving around with your wardrobe in the back. The food was delicious and we left with tingling tastebuds. That night we spent beside a lake, ready to make an early start for the border in the morning. Myanmar our 32nd country on this trip and the first one we've needed to be escorted across, it should be interesting.

Cooking in Chiang Mai

We were already full when we sat down to the final course, a series of sweet sticky rice or bananas in caramelised sauce. Being full didn't matter, we greedily ate up the wonderful puddings at the end of a fantastic meal. What had made it even better was that we had cooked it all by ourselves, spring rolls, appetiser, stir fry, soup and a curry made with homemade curry paste as well as the lovely desserts. When I say we had cooked it all by ourselves that's perhaps a slight exaggeration. We spent the day at a Thai cooking school where under expert guidance we created the tasty dishes. The beauty of being at a cooking school is quite a bit of the preparation is done for you and even more importantly all the washing up. It was a great day. We started off at the market where we were given a full explanation of Thai spices and vegetables. From there it was off to the cooking school to create the feast. Gilly, myself and Alisha all cooked with Lucy as our helper and then we all enjoyed the fruits of our labour. I know it sounds like bragging but the food was definitely better tasting than that we had eaten in the restaurant the night before. It helps to have expert guides. Hopefully we will be able to recreate some of these dishes on the road although we may cheat on the curry paste as this takes quite a lot of work. Earlier in the week we had crossed back into Thailand. Regular readers of our blog will know that getting into Thailand with a foreign vehicle now requires a permit. Three months ago we had to jump through a lot of hoops to get two permits, so we could visit Cambodia and Laos and then cross Thailand to Myanmar. The rules and requirements for the permit are constantly changing, so although we had one, we approached the border with a little apprehension. We were met with a policemen whose face fell when he saw us. He was looking at our vehicle and then looking worried. We approached him smiling, said hello and he gravely asked us where the vehicle was from. We replied the UK and his concern seemed to increase. I smiled and said I had a permit and his face changed in an instant, he was all smiles, handshakes and very welcoming. I think he was worried he was going to have to give us bad news that we couldn't come in. After that he could not have been more helpful taking us to all the right offices and ensuring we smoothly entered Thailand. He even took Lucy's hand and skipped across to immigration with her.  Arriving back in Thailand we immediately noticed the difference with Laos and how much more developed it was. The roads were good and you could see more commerce in the shops. We headed to Chiang Rai, the shopping centre came as a bit of a shock with all it had on display.   The one sight we wanted to see in Chiang Rai was the White Temple. Now I know we have seen a lot of temples but this one is a bit different. It is not old but was built in the 1990s by a famous Thai artist. It is like white porcelain inlaid with glass so makes for quite a fetching sight when you approach it. The decoration inside the temple is also quite unique. I didn't expect to see Superman in there or Keanu Reeves from The Matrix! After such a bizarre sight we needed some tranquility. Fortunately nearby there was a lovely lake which we could camp next to. From Chiang Rai we headed to Chiang Mai where we were going to spend the best part of a week. Just outside the old city is a backpacker hostel with a parking area where they let overlanders park. It was down a nice quiet street and whilst we slept in the truck, we could use the hostels facilities and even breakfast. Apart from the cooking course we spent our time doing a wide range of things in the lively city of Chiang Mai. We went back to visiting more traditional temples and Chiang Mai certainly has plenty of them being a former Royal city. Then some people wanted to try the fish "pedicure". As Christmas is on its way and we are not sure whether we will have much of a chance to do any Christmas shopping later, we also took the opportunity to shop both in the night markets and in the more traditional shopping centres. We also took advantage of the modern shopping centres to do "normal" things like go to the cinema. There was also a museum called the Art museum. What it really was was a museum showcasing 3D art which allowed you to take funny photos if you stood in certain positions. The girls had a great time there playing around. One other thing we had to take care of was that our hot water tank had started to leak, on all the bad roads it had become detached from its moorings and had been bumped around. It wasn't a big leak but a constant drip. Unfortunately the leak seemed to be in the main unit itself and not coming from one of the multitude of taps that connect to it. I think one of the water pipes may have cracked where it connects to the tank itself deep inside the unit. Unfortunately the only way to stop the leak is to switch all the water off in the truck. I decided I had neither the confidence or the competence to uninstall the heater unit and open up the sealed unit to look for and repair the leak. Asking around to see if anyone may know more than me I came to the conclusion that whilst some people may have more confidence than me I was not sure they had any more competence. Therefore we had to come up with a work around whereby the water would bypass the unit so we could continue to use water in the truck. To do this I would need to cap two pipes. No problem I thought and fortunately in Chiang Rai there were 3 massive modern hardware stores. The problem though was my pipes were 3/8ths of an inch and the smallest in Thailand seems to be 1/2 an inch. So in Chiang Mai instead of going to a big hardware store we went to the market and found an old-fashioned style hardware shop with everything all over the place. Once they understood what I wanted, they spent ages searching piles of stuff. Eventually they came up with a two piece brass solution (I think for gas pipes). These did the job so we have water for the truck and no leak. The problem is we only have cold water, no hot water. Whilst that's not a problem at the moment in the heat, showers will be a lot more bracing in the Himalayas if we are unable to get the tank fixed.