It’s January 2017 and as Meha, Mika & I look back, it’s been an incredible nine months since we embarked on our audacious goal of traveling the world for a full year as a family. Even we are (positively) shocked at the ground we have covered so far – Egypt, North America, South America, UK, Africa, Australia and parts of India. Reminds us of the old adage – there is nothing called perfect timing; do when you feel like it ! Anyway, we took a well deserved break at my parents’ place at Muzaffarpur for a couple of weeks after our marathon one-month Australian trip (November 2016) and then headed off to Imphal for my 30 year school(RKMV Deoghar) reunion. The demonetization bomb hit India while we were in Australia which in hindsight was a good thing – away from all the madness ! It is instructive to note that after landing in Bihar, almost everyone from the underprivileged class I spoke to were in favor of Modi’s bombshell initiative:”Happy the corrupt are getting caught with their stashed cash, we have nothing to hide anyway”!
The reunion brought out the child within all of us with the realization that there is no substitute to school and college friends. Since we stayed in hostel for 7 long years, our bonding was very strong with an endless array of stories to share! And it was fun playing football after 30 years ! In a nutshell, we had a blast.
After Imphal, we were supposed to head off to Kaziranga in search of the one-horned Rhino but an unforeseen development forced an unscheduled stop at Bangalore. Mika’s passport-sleeve tore in Australia and it needed urgent replacement necessitating a trip to the passport office. Given the renewed efficiency of Indian passport office (the best of all GOI systems), it turned out be anti-climax and we had the passport back within 5 days ! A great stay with old pals Tanu and Sam was wonderful but the real blessing in disguise was the advance search (we saw around 10 villas) and eventual finalization of our rented house when we get back in March. 173 Phase 2 Palm Meadows awaits us from 7th March 2017 – what a comforting feeling to have found a home to go back to from day One of return! Satisfied, we headed off to Chennai to spend time with Meha’s parents and for the first time since our wedding celebrated Pongal with them.
18th January arrived and we headed off to South East Asia with eager anticipation. I would lie if I said we were not thrilled to realize how close home coming was; so admittedly it was difficult to maintain a high level of travel intensity in the last leg. However, we were determined to make the most of last 2 months of travel. We landed in Bangkok in the wee hours of 19th January and managed to dodge the infamous Bangkok traffic. The home-like ambience of Admiral suites at Sukhumvit Soi 22 was truly comforting. Lounging around the whole day in the hotel, we headed off in the evening to MBK for shopping. The chinese new year at Emporium mall was in full swing.
Going berserk at MBK, we must have bought the whole market and ended day 1 with a sense of satisfaction but not before trying the Thai Iced tea at the mall.
The next morning we headed off to Ayutthaya to explore the “finest city in the world in 1700’s” as proclaimed by European merchants. It was the second capital of Thailand after Sukhothai for over four centuries (1350-1767) with over 1 million inhabitants before being razed to the ground by the rampaging Burmese Army. Today it is a UNESCO World heritage site with some truly outstanding temples.
Hopes of making a 15-baht train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lumpong station were immediately dashed as we had to cough 345-bahts per person for the first class journey as the train was a long-distance one 🙁
The clean Ayutthaya station immediately made us feel jealous.
The tuktuk-mafia at the Ayutthaya station had not bargained for a well-research tourist and we were on our way for a 3-hour package at a reasonable price.
First up was the highly photogenic Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon built in 1357 to house the monks returning from Sri Lanka.
Next up was Wat Phanan Choeng with a 19-m high Buddha created in 1324, surrounded by 84000 small buddha images.
It was really getting hot and we reached the big daddy- Wat Mahathat. It is here that Ayutthaya’s most enduring image is : the Buddha head entwined within the roots of a bodhi tree.
We learnt the shapes of various Chedis (stupas) & Prangs (towers) from different kingdoms and timelines. Chedi is a conical structure whereas prangs are corncob-like tower structures. Here is the Khmer-style prang, with visibly gradual tapering.
A great example of Khmer-style prang:
The holiest temple Wat Phra Si Sanphet has the Sinhalese-style Bell-shaped Chedis:
At our last stop Wat Chai Wattanaram, we can see that the Ayutthaya style prang has a sharply tapering corncob tower structure in contrast to the Khmer-style prang (gradual cone) in the background:
It was burning hot and we dashed back to Ayutthaya station to board the 3rd class 15-baht (yippee!) train back to Bangkok. Foot-massage at the Lek@22 (close to our hotel) was the best recipe to soothen our tired feet.
Now we are getting hypnotized by Bangkok’s cheap shopping and head the next morning to the famed Chatuchak market. A couple of hours of frenzied shopping followed, followed by REALLY-big Thai coconuts.
We woke up the next morning weary-eyed at 4:30 am for a 5:30 am taxi to the Hua Lumpong train station from where we plan to board the tourist-special Death Railway train to Kanchanaburi at 6:30 am. We had not bargained for the nasty surprise that awaited us at the station. “Train fully booked sir”, said the attendant at the counter of the highly-organized Bangkok station and our hearts sank; but not before we took the customary selfie. By now we have perfected the art of smiling to the camera in the toughest of situations !
Thankfully we were ready with our plan B having researched the night before and we took off by taxi to Thonburi station (alternative station in Bangkok) from where a 7:50 am local leaves for Kanchanaburi.
With nothing to do, we click some interesting shots of daily life surrounding the station.
We are not alone in the 1oo-baht 3rd class carriage. Giving company are all other tourists who missed the 6:30 am. By the way Thai class is very comfortable with cushioned seats !
Its a 3 hour loooong journey. We marvel at the cleanliness of some of the intermediate stops.
Finally Kanchanaburi arrives around 11 am and we happily alight. A quick primer on Thai-Burmese Death railway: During WWII, emperor of Japan had macabre ambitions to conquer all of Asia including West Asia & India. They needed a railway supply route from Thailand to Burma to support this misadventure. 180,000 Asian labourers (mostly Javanese, Malay Tamils, Chinese, Burmese, Thai etc) and 60,000 Allied Forces’ prisoners of war (British, Australians, Dutch & Americans) were used in this infamous construction under inhuman conditions. The incident has been immortalized in the 1957 David Lean movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. A bit of trivia – the film that made this bridge world famous was actually shot in Sri Lanka.
As our train departs, we get the first glimpse of the picturesque River Kwai bridge.
We walk on the bridge and the peaceful atmosphere totally betrays the monstrous conditions that existed just a few decades back.
We walk to other end of the bridge where River Kwai station is situated from where we turn back.
We head off to a vegetarian restaurant followed by visit to a nicely-curated private museum which gave us a great historical perspective of the Death Railway.
We also visited the war graves of the Allied Forces PoW who had succumbed to the inhuman conditions and learnt that there were none for Americans since they had taken all their dead back home. We were disappointed to see that the loss of Asian labourers’ lives had very little mention though they were the major casualties accounting for 82.5% of all the lives lost. Lesson: you have to become a developed country otherwise no one cares for you. Good going Modi, hopefully the fickle-minded Indians will give you 20 years to transform our rickety, corrupt, poverty-stricken nation with apology of an infrastructure.
It’s time to take the 3 pm train back to Bangkok. It takes another 2 hours to get back from station to the hotel – the dreaded Bangkok traffic! We crash after a very long and tiring day. Every hotel we have come back to in this trip has reminded us of what the comfort of “home” really means.
Our last day in Bangkok is reserved for 2 iconic landmarks : Wat Pho and Wat Arun.
It’s time now to switch gears and head to one of Thailand’s famed national parks : Khao yai. We look forward to being amidst nature and wildlife – away from the urban madness of Bangkok. The homely atmosphere of Greenleaf Guethouse immediately puts us at ease. We have also signed up for a half-day tour of the park today followed tomorrow by the more intense full day one.
A tiring but satisfying one-and-a-half days yield sightings of bats streaming out of a cave by the thousands at sunset, wild elephants, three different types of hornbills, enormous spiders, banded kingfishers, a rat snake, colorful cicadas, centipedes and tiny bats in a cave, monkeys, huge rainforest trees and some amazing mushrooms.
Our next destination Sukhothai is in Central Thailand – a long 6 hour taxi ride. We marvel at the lovely roads and the comfortable journey while constantly debating when India will reach middle-income country status. Half my time I have been hallucinating on this trip about becoming India’s prime minister and transforming the nation. Sigh !
A quick primer on Sukhothai: founded by King Ramkhamhaeng, it was the capital of Thailand for around 120 years in the 13th century. Sukhothai literally means “Dawn of happiness” and as we check into our resort followed by visits to the ruins of two historic parks, we can see why. Blissfully peaceful, we immediately fall in love with the place and it becomes our favorite Thai destination of this trip !
We head off the next morning to the first set of ruins – Si Satchanalai Historic park. We loved the calm and rugged surroundings in which different monuments lie in their natural state.
But Sukhothai’s real jewel in the crown is the “Sukhothai Historical Park” which is best explored by cycle. We visited the north zone in the evening.
A delicious Thai meal rounded off the day’s proceedings nicely.
The best (central zone ruins) was reserved for the last morning – it was magically spiritual – cycling in the blissful and fresh atmosphere of early morning sun. We truly have fallen in love with Sukhothai and have decided we will come back and meditate here every few years.
Bursting with spiritual energy, we board our bus to Chiang Mai from New Sukhothai bus stand. It turns out that it was a big mistake taking the Esan tour bus in quest of 1st class seats and on-board toilet even though all search had pointed to Wintour bus being the best. In the end, the 1st class seats were ordinary, the toilet sucked and we were 2 hours late ! Anyway, GrabTaxi (like Uber) worked like a charm at the Chiang Mai bus terminal and when the Park Hotel upgraded us to corner suite including Godiva chocolates, our day was made !
It was laundry time the next morning. We have been really impressed by $1/kg (INR 68) laundries all over south-east asia. Really helps to keep your budget under control, not to speak of the royal feeling of someone else literally washing your dirty underwear !
Today was super sports sunday with 2 huge events – Australian Open Men’s final with our favorite Fed-Ex playing, followed by India-England T20 cricket. A quick google search led us to nearby Downunder sports pub run by a very affable Aussie. We joined the festivities and were elated with the Roger win in a cliffhanger. We made a deal with the owner to keep our seats reserved when we returned for the cricket game after a quick walk through Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. When we returned, we were the only ones in the pub and the owner obliged by tuning his TV to some pirated internet cricket site. The flickering non-HD pictures and lack of English fans to tease meant we lost interest and took the 50-baht GrabTaxi back to the hotel. End of a very satisfying day!
Next day was spent visiting the spectacular Wats of Chiang Mai – Wat Phra Singh, Phra Luang & the grand daddy Wat Doi Suthep.
We are here in Chiang Mai mainly for nostalgic reasons. During our last trip 10 years back, we took little Mika to the Elephant Nature Park – the rescue center for tortured elephants where humans can repent and interact with these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. 31st January 2017 has been earmarked for our return visit so that teenage Mika can relive her precious childhood memories. Even though the camp has become something of a Disneyland swarming with tourists, their philosophy has remained intact so we had loads of fun.
A very early start the next morning takes us to Doi Inthanon National Park for some bird watching. Average day out with limited photographic closeups.
Last morning in Chiang Mai, Mika had a blast at the 3D Art Museum.
We signed off Chiang Mai with another great vegetarian lunch in an alley next to the museum.
Now we need a break from our hectic travel and what better way than fly to Krabi, one of Thailand’s famed beaches. We spent some time in Ao Nang beach at the great-value Real Relax resort, and did day trips to Railay/Phrang Nang cave beaches & Phi Phi Island. Phrang Nang was simply paradise. Our 20th anniversary nicely fitted in between and we changed resorts to relax a bit more. The special day was spent doing nothing, lounging around, eating strepsils (for my cold) and in general wondering where did those 20 years go !
Thanks for reading this monstrous blog. If you made it this far, you truly love us ! It’s time to fly to Cambodia tomorrow to explore its ancient ruins as well the cruelty inflicted by Khmer Rogue. Keep reading www.manysharpbends.com and see you in Cambodia.