“The Thailand Travel Diary” Part Four
21 minute read
Previously in Part Three of “The Thailand Travel Diary” – Felt relaxed, swam to the rock, thought I’d drown, didn’t drown, felt good, woohoo, reflected with metaphors, Christmas karaoke, meeting two German girls, drank whisky, enjoyed the beach with the two German girls, laughed uncontrollably on my bed like I was Walter White in Breaking Bad, the rock again, saw a jellyfish, got stung by jellyfish, don’t you remember that bit in Breaking Bad when he was under his floorboards, dinner with the two German girls, more whisky, shooting stars, playful birds, bonding with a Burmese dude, thinking about Burma, maybe I should go to Burma, enjoying the night skies with the two German girls, saying goodbye to Koh Tao
Day 11 – Monday (Koh Tao to Bangkok)
I got out of bed early and went through the usual routine for packing and moving on, laying everything out on the bed into assorted piles. Everything had a set place in my backpack and over time you learn exactly in what order to put things in and which smaller items can fill up all the empty spaces. It becomes a tactical process of precision packing with every square-inch being valuable, and no space should ever be wasted.
I tried my best not to be sentimental as I left and so I only glanced back once as I walked away from the villa. The grounds-people smiled and said goodbye with the palms of their hands held together as I walked past them. After checking out I threw my backpack into the back of the shuttle and then climbed into the front and sat next to the driver. The engine fired into life and then we were on our way, leaving the Haad Tien behind me.
The pier was already getting busy but after collecting my ticket I only had to wait maybe half an hour or so until the catamaran arrived. And this time the journey was completely uneventful with calm seas for the entire duration. I’d built myself up for another 90 minutes of being thrown around the waves and having to endure the smell of yet more vomit, but it never happened. I can’t say I was disappointed.
Now back in Chumphon I enjoyed an ice-cold can of Diet Coke while I sat in the shade, and then an hour later I boarded the bus towards Bangkok. The seating was allocated and as I approached my seat it became clear that I’d be sitting next to a really nerdy looking guy who was sweating a lot. As I got closer I also noticed that he wore a very nervous expression and had massive eyes which gave off the impression of him being really surprised about something. I started to wonder if he’d just realised he’d soiled himself or something and was now sat in a state of shock and embarrassment. I really hoped this wasn’t the case since I’d have to sit next to him.
Then we made eye contact.
I tried to help ease his nervousness by smiling and saying “Hi”, to which he responded by shouting “HELLO!!!”
Several people turned around in their seats to see who was shouting and possibly because they may have thought he was saying hello to the entire bus. A crazy smile then spread across his face for a moment, before returning to his big-eyed, shocked and embarrassed ‘I’ve just shit myself’ expression. I took my seat, quickly put in my headphones, and then turned my head to the side and pretended to be asleep. When you’re travelling there are times when you really want to meet new people and share stories, but then there are times where you want to avoid people like the plague. This was one of those latter moments, and so I just kept telling myself that if he tried speaking to me I’d just pretend to be dead or something.
Later on I felt the bus come to a complete stop and then checked my watch to find three hours had passed and that we were now at a service station. I must have fallen asleep at some point and as I turned from the window I noticed that the strange chap next to me had disappeared. I left the bus, used the facilities, and then stood around at a set of benches waiting for the second half of the journey to begin.
But just then I noticed the weird nerdy sweaty guy walking towards me, eyes still shockingly wide. I began to panic and quickly started looking for a distraction, and so I started inspecting the workmanship of the benches and nodding to myself as though I’m suddenly an expert on bench construction and that I’m giving my approval. But this is silly because he’s still walking towards me and now he’s getting really close and I only have a matter of moments until he reaches me.
And then I had a great idea. I decided to use the classic ‘I’ve just seen somebody I know and need to say hello’ get-out routine. I looked up and into the distance, made an enthusiastic face, held up my hand, and then mouthed an excited ‘HEY’. And so I walked off in the opposite direction and towards some people who were stood at some food stands. Oh this is a great idea Elliot. You’re in Thailand, thousands of miles away from home, and then you just happen to see somebody you know in a service station. There’s no way the crazy guy is buying into this. I’ve surely been rumbled. But now I’m in a real predicament as I now need to find somebody who I supposedly know so that I can appear genuine.
Moments later I find myself stood at the food stand next to a group of young Thai people who are wondering why I’m looking at them and smiling so enthusiastically. In truth I think they’re a little scared and are not quite sure what to say, and as I continue to smile I wonder how much longer I need to stay in order to pull off the routine.
It’s all very awkward.
But thankfully, as if by some small miracle, I was suddenly saved by the sound of the bus’s engine roaring into life. I held up my hand and waved goodbye.
“Well, I’d better be off.”
And then I turned around and returned to the bus, leaving behind me a group of very confused and scared looking Thai people. I climbed up the steps with my head hung in shame, preparing to return to my seat for whatever look of disapproval I’d get from the sweaty nerdy man, but he wasn’t there. In fact he had moved to another seat and was now pretending to be asleep.
I suddenly felt really bad. But on the plus side I did now have two seats all to myself.
After a total of seven hours on the bus I was now back in Bangkok. It was 9.00pm and I needed to find some accommodation for the night, and so I instinctively made my way to the quieter area of Soi Rambuttri. I found a clean but simple place to stay and then half an hour later I was sat outside of Sawasdee House with a large bottle of Chang, some spring rolls, and a huge plate of Pad Thai.
My mind drifted back to the evening I spent here with Iva and so I picked my phone out of my pocket and sent a text. A few minutes later Iva replied and told me all about settling back into home life and how much perspective her six weeks in Thailand had given her.
I settled back, ordered another beer, and then spent the remainder of the evening people watching and thinking about my next move.
Tomorrow I was heading back to a place that had come to mean a lot to me and was a place where I’d made a number of good friends over the years.
Tomorrow I was going back to Kanchanaburi.
Day 12 – Tuesday (Bangkok to Kanchanaburi)
There are times when you just have to have faith that things will work out okay in the end. The times where it pays off in a really positive way are sweet; this was the case today, and in this instance I’m talking about people.
I’d left the hotel and was all set to head to Bangkok’s southern bus terminal (Sai Tai Mai). It’s a bus station that I’d never been to before, but I envisaged just jumping in a taxi or a tuk-tuk and making my way there without any issues. It’s never been a problem before. However the first tuk-tuk driver that I approached said it would cost me a staggering 500 baht, which is roughly ten British pounds. Although I’d never been there before I knew this was a ridiculous price and so I kept on walking. I then got speaking to a taxi driver who this time claimed that it’s not feasible to get there by taxi but for 100 baht he’d drive me to another part of Bangkok where a driver of a mini bus would take me to the bus station. Again this just didn’t feel right and my instincts made me keep walking in spite of all his protests.
Half an hour had passed since leaving my hotel and I was now just walking around in circles. The temperature was rising and I was beginning to sweat heavily with a fully-loaded backpack and daypack weighing me down. I couldn’t believe how difficult this simple journey had become. But just as I was about to give up hope I saw a taxi driver sitting quietly by himself who made no attempts to flag me down or hassle me. I decided to approach him and he greeted me with a smile as I opened the conversation.
“Southern bus terminal? Sai Tai Mai? Kanchanaburi?”
“Yes, yes. We go.”
At two British pounds this seemed more like it and so I jumped into the back of the taxi and we set off. Now I’m no Bangkok expert but I know enough to know the general direction of places and I was aware that the bus terminal was located to the west of the city. Therefore it came as a shock when he started heading to the east. What was going on? Was this a scam? And just when I was really starting to think the worst and was about to speak up, the driver suddenly shot through a central reservation, completed a U-turn, and then started heading to the west.
It was a long straight drive and when we finally pulled into the bus station he took me all the way up to the main entrance. The driver then spoke very softly and smiled with genuine kindness as I said thank you and exited the taxi. I gave the driver more than the agreed 100 baht and I waved him off.
There are good people, there are bad people, there are people that will try to scam you, and there are people who act in your best interests. Sometimes it’s just down to pure luck as to which ones we meet, but I was grateful for today’s encounter and it really helped restore my faith. The taxi driver was an example of how one person can affect another through the simplest and most discreet of acts. Whether we just say hello to somebody, smile, or make a gesture of kindness; they can all make a difference to the other person’s day. It may sound a little extreme, but making either a kind or cruel gesture has the potential to be a turning point in somebody else’s life. I’ve seen it myself, and if somebody is at a tipping point yet out of nowhere is treated with true kindness, it can be just enough to spark a turnaround for them. I really do believe that we should try to keep that in mind more often when we interact with people.
I made my way into the station to buy a ticket which meant wandering around the 70 plus ticket windows to find the correct one for Kanchanaburi. I rounded the first corner and was greeted by enthusiastic waves and smiles from a group of official looking people and I waved back and smiled. After wandering around the windows once I still couldn’t find the right one, and so I found myself rounding that first corner again. I was greeted by more smiles and waves from the same group and I responded by smiling and waving once again. And then I proceeded to walk around all of the same windows for a second time. But I still couldn’t find Kanchanaburi. I rounded the first corner for a third time but the enthusiasm from the group was now lost and I merely got a couple of nods and a half smile. I was starting to feel somewhat embarrassed and it was clear that I was failing miserably in the simple act of purchasing a bus ticket. On the fourth time rounding that corner I didn’t even get as much as a single nod. I was clearly an embarrassment.
Thankfully on the fifth time circling the ticketing room I finally found the ticket window for Kanchanaburi. I purchased my ticket and then set off to find the correct bus stand so that I could be on my way. I walked past the official looking group for a fifth and final time and I smiled and held the ticket aloft. They all cheered in what was probably one half sarcasm and one half joy that I was finally leaving.
I reached the bus and climbed aboard. There were only two other people on the bus; a man and a woman who appeared to be in their sixties, and from their accent I guessed they were German. I smiled and said hello and then took my seat. The two of them were teasing each other and laughing between themselves and then the lady stood up to take a photo of her husband. I walked down the bus and asked if they’d like me to take a photo of the two of them and they were delighted. After taking a couple of photos we spoke briefly. They kept reasserting one simple rule for living; you need to have laughter in your life.
They were a wonderful couple and it was great to see how happy they were and how much fun they were having together. They reminded me in many ways of my own parents who are into their sixties and still have so much fun together. In fact with each passing year they seem to get younger and more immature, and I find that to be a real inspiration. Age is a state of mind, and it is people like these who encourage me to not be fearful of getting older.
You can do whatever you want, for as long as you want.
It was another beautiful day and the two hour journey was a pleasure as the concrete jungle of Bangkok slowly gave way to the greenery of rural Thailand. As we pulled into Kanchanaburi’s bus station I already had the familiar feeling of being at home. It’s the strangest of feelings, because even on my very first visit to Kanchanaburi twelve years earlier, I felt at ease almost instantly. There is just a vibe about the place which feels different to other places, and although the city part of Kanchanaburi is busy, it still feels somewhat laid back.
After exiting the bus I said goodbye to the older couple and then climbed into the back of a rickshaw.
“Apples Retreat please.”
And then we were on our way.
The next part of my trip was steeped in an element of uncertainty. In both 2004 and 2007 when I was last here I stayed in a well-known guesthouse called Apples which was situated in the bustling backpacker area of Kanchanaburi. Apples was nothing short of magical, serving what was arguably the best food I’ve ever had in Thailand and had a central garden which was lined on three sides by simple accommodation made of wooden construction. But the most magical thing about Apples was the people that I associated the place with. The staff were always friendly and personable, and they made each and every stay memorable; but what I remember more than anything are the fellow travellers I met there.
Most notably there was Adam and Kerri, and then there was Jes, Trudy, Saskia, and Liani. I have fantastic memories of all of them. Adam has become a close friend who I still spend time with to this day and who has already featured in one of my other articles. And Kerri is also another wonderful friend who I’ve shared a number of experiences with since.
However, on my last stop at Apples guest house on my way back from Laos in 2007, I was given the disappointing news that Apples was going to relocate to another area of Kanchanburi and take a new direction. When I checked out on that final visit in 2007 I was aware that it was the last time I’d ever see the place.
Eight years had passed and I was now sat in the back of a rickshaw and heading to the new premises, unaware of its new location and not knowing what to expect.
We crossed Sud Chai bridge which runs over the River Kwai and links the main Maenamkwai Road backpacker area to the quieter side of the river. A few moments later we pulled up outside of Apples Retreat and it was silent. And I mean SILENT. I paid the rickshaw driver and then he set off with the silence being so intense that I could even hear the sound of his bike chain rotating as he disappeared into the distance.
I was greeted by a lady who I’d never met before. Sadly the owner was ill during my stay and so I never got to see her, but the lady who was to look after me throughout my stay here this time was fantastic.
Apples was now split into two distinct parts with the road separating the two. Apples Retreat was set back from the road and was a dedicated accommodation area with a single two-storey building painted yellow and set in amongst a well-matured garden. The restaurant was now known as the Blue Rice Restaurant and was situated on the banks of the River Kwai. Although the appearance was now completely different to the old Apples guest house, some original features still remained, such as the tables and chairs which were constructed of bamboo.
After checking in I was taken over to my room and was delighted with it. Although the standard of the accommodation had certainly been up-scaled, I was relieved to find that it still had a very rustic feel to it. The room was cleanly decorated and consisted of an elevated sleeping area in which a double mattress lay directly on the floor. There was a fan on one wall, and an air-conditioning unit on the other. The bathroom was simpler still with just a toilet, sink, mirror, and a shower head over a tiled floor. But the guestrooms now epitomised the term ‘simple but effective’. Everything was clean, everything was functional, the mattress was incredibly comfortable, the air conditioning unit was silent, and the water was always warm. It was back to basics, but it was a really high standard of basic. I knew I’d be happy here.
I also started to sense that I was the only guest staying at Apples Retreat, which was no surprise given that it was still early season and was now in a location that you purposely had to look for; it was no longer a place you’d just stumble across.
A short while later I was sat out on a stone bench in the garden, soaking up the sun and reading my book. I felt instantly at peace. The garden was a lush green and with the mid-afternoon sun breaking through the canopy of the trees, it cast a wonderful glow over the garden. I put my book down and then lay back and closed my eyes, taking in the sounds of what was surrounding me. All I could hear was the sound of birds singing, the gentle breeze in the trees, and the clanking of a cow-bell from a cow that was grazing in the adjacent field. I understood why this was now classed as being a retreat and what the new direction of Apples was. I liked it. I liked it a lot.
That evening as I sat in the restaurant there was only one other table that was occupied. A young couple sat having dinner with their two children, and I was sat alone, reading my book and writing my journal. The food was still sublime and I ate and drank until I was merry. I’d decided that I’d head out to Erawan National Park tomorrow, a place which I’d been to before and where I’d first met Adam. But I really wanted to go back so that I could get some better photos this time. I didn’t want to go there on an organised trip as I wanted the freedom to come and go as I pleased, and so I decided I’d venture to the bus station and head there independently.
As I lay in bed that night it was the perfect conditions for sleeping. The room was cool enough to not need any air-con or a fan, and there were no sounds of people or cars. All I could hear was the sound of crickets.
Beautiful, tranquil, peaceful. It was a retreat for sure.
Day 13 – Wednesday (Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park)
There’s one thing that you need to keep in mind if ever you’re going to stay in any rural accommodation, and that’s that you sleep in accordance with nature. When the animals go to sleep, you go to sleep. When the animals wake up, you wake up. And with that in mind I was awoken early by the sounds of birds singing and cocks crowing. I wandered through to the bathroom, turned the shower on, and then stood under the water until I felt fully awake.
Leaving my room in the retreat I closed the door behind me, walked over to the Blue Rice Restaurant, and was greeted by the older lady.
I took a seat at the same table from the night before which overlooked the river. The view was intriguing with so much happening, and I felt I could have sat there for hours. Boats moved slowly up and down the river, butterflies fluttered around the garden, and birds flew from place to place, working together. The sounds of wildlife surrounded me, and the sunrise cast an orange haze across the surface of the water which rippled gently against the riverside. Nature really can provide the best entertainment and it can mesmerise, especially when observing everything coming to life first thing in a morning. You can watch a static video of morning on the river by following this link through to the video section of the site.
I had breakfast, twice. That’s right. I was so hungry that after having a large banana pancake and a black coffee, I ordered the exact same meal for a second time. It was going to be a long day and I wanted to fuel myself properly.
After finishing breakfast and preparing my day pack, I left Apples Retreat, climbed onto the back of a motorcycle taxi, and then headed for the bus station. Neither of us could speak each other’s language yet we still managed some communication. As we sat at a red light I noticed the driver was wearing a G-Shock watch, similar to my own G-Shock. I tapped him on the shoulder and then pointed to his watch, then to my own, and then I gave him a big thumbs-up. He responded with a huge smile and a mutual thumbs-up.
When we arrived I proceeded to look for the necessary signs and ticketing information for Erawan, but it took me a moment to decipher the various signs and maps. As I approached the ticketing windows a man exited the office and walked straight up to me, greeting me with a huge smile and boundless enthusiasm.
“Hey, can I help you?”
He was probably in his early fifties, his hair was greying, and he was from New Zealand. Not exactly what I expected to encounter working at a Kanchanaburi bus station. I explained where I was looking to go and he showed me to the correct bus and instructed me to just climb aboard and pay the driver on the way. I boarded the bus and instantly banged my head on the roof. The bus was tiny. And I mean seriously tiny. I had to hunch over to navigate my way through, and when I sat on the seat it was impossible to fit my legs in and so I had to sit at an angle. The bus slowly filled up until there was standing room only and the Kiwi then started circling the bus talking to everyone through the windows. It was as though he was giving everyone a little pep talk in readiness for enduring a hot and cramped bus journey.
Ten minutes later the bus set off for Erawan and the surroundings got more and more rural with each passing mile. About twenty miles into the journey the bus pulled up at the side of the road and the driver made his way around collecting money for the bus tickets. And I really liked the driver; he walked through the bus with such a steadiness, with grace, and he smiled the whole time and spoke softly. Such a way of carrying yourself can be infectious and it feels almost impossible to be angry or upset or to act with any disrespect when people approach you in this way. There’s so much we could learn from this way of being when back in our own worlds where we often feel like we need to stand our ground and assert ourselves with aggression. Who really has it best?
I’m not romanticising here, and I accept that no place is perfect, whether that be Thailand or any other country; there is good and bad wherever you go in the world. But in the main, Thai people are an incredibly friendly nation of people who just want to live in harmony. There’s a lot we can learn from other cultures and there are always pro’s and con’s either way that need to be considered. In the West we are more outspoken and we can often speak with abruptness and passion and demonstrate strong opinions. That doesn’t happen as much in Thailand. There’s a tolerance, but it’s also a balance, and it’s about saving face for yourself and for others. Whether that’s better, or worse, or just different, doesn’t really matter. It’s just the way it is. And this is exactly why we travel, isn’t it? To witness such differences so that we can question our own ways and either confirm that we were right all along, or to accept that maybe we weren’t and that we can take new ideas on board and make changes in our own lives.
As I understand it there are currently 196 countries in the world, so who says that the one we’re from has everything right?
The bus journey was fun and there was something about the cramped craziness which made it an adventure. Upon reaching Erawan National Park I exited the bus, stretched out my legs and my back, and then I set off on the familiar pathway. And this first part of the walk was stunning. The pathway is lined with bamboo and various types of trees, and there was a gentle breeze which caused leaves and tiny twigs to fall down towards the pathway. As the twigs hit the bamboo it made a delicate tapping sound and the tiny yellow leaves that fell slowly towards the ground gave the impression that it was snowing. I was in awe as I walked along at how beautiful this natural scene was.
For the next four hours I made my way steadily through the jungle environment which has been carved out for tourist access. This particular area of the national park boasts seven tiers of waterfalls which are all stunning in their own rights. The second waterfall, Wang Macha, is the widest and has a large area of perfectly clear glacial-blue waters for swimming. And the seventh tier, Phu Pha Erawan, is massive in height and is the reason why Erawan gets its name, due to the belief that it resembles Erawan, the three headed-elephant of Hindu mythology.
But it is the third tier that is my personal favourite; Pha Nam Tok, which is set away from the main trail and could be easily missed. The waterfall itself has an overhanging and jagged appearance with a much larger rock face and trees to the side of it, giving it a real sense of scale. There is also a large area for swimming which is always welcome given the humidity and the effort it takes to trudge your way through the seven levels. If you ever do this yourself then be prepared for the fish that will come along and take a nip at you. If you sit on the water’s edge and dangle your feet into the water they’ll crowd around and nip away at your toes and the soles of your feet; some people pay a lot of money for that in specialist spas, but at Erawan you get it for free. Throughout my time here I couldn’t help but think about my first ever trip here and about Adam, my first ever travel buddy.
After I’d finished collecting all the photos that I wanted I started to make my way back down towards the visitor centre. It was starting to get a little over-crowded and it started to feel like a good time to head back home. Back down near the bus stop I cooled down with an ice-cream and a coffee and then boarded the tiny bus in readiness for the return journey.
And that’s something else that I’d noticed this time around too; Thailand is now full of trendy coffee shops. That’s globalisation for you. But at least they didn’t ask for my name or whether I wanted to try the latest Kenyan bean for an extra 30 baht.
Early evening had arrived and the sun was starting to set when we reached Kanchanaburi. I exited the bus early and made my way on foot back towards the guest house, but I decided to make a stop off at the War Cemetary and the Death Railway Museum.
Kanchanburi is a place that still feels like home and I really don’t know why that is or why it feels so natural to me. But it’s always been this way and I still love walking along the main street in the early evening sunset when everything just seems to glow. The pace feels slow and friendly and the people seem more relaxed too. It’s a place that just is what it is. And then there is also the connection to World War 2 which gives it poignancy.
Later that evening, back in the Blue Rice Restaurant, I started to feel a little reflective as I watched the night boats floating up and down the river. One large Chang moved onto a second large Chang, and a second onto a third. And then the Thai whisky began to flow and I kicked back in my chair just staring into the night. And then the lady who’d been taking care of me came over and said she’d baked a dessert as a gift, just for me. I have no idea why she did that, but she just did. I never actually got to know her name, but throughout my stay it just didn’t seem to matter; I was the only guest, she was the host, and we just got to know each other without needing names.
The generosity continued with them staying open beyond closing time for me, and when they finally closed up for the night, the whole team of staff walked with me back over to the retreat. We said goodnight and went our separate ways as they all went back to their homes and I said I’d see them at breakfast. But before going to bed I wanted to send a text message back home and so I sat in the communal area where the Wi-Fi signal strength was at its strongest. And as I did so the grounds-man walked away and then reappeared a few moments later with a fan. He plugged this in and directed it on me so that I could stay cool while I sat there, and then he sat up and stayed awake just in case I needed anything else.
I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed by the continued generosity, and it was the simple touches like this which made all the difference. But why did they continue to be so nice when I’d not done anything to deserve it? The cynic would say it’s because I’m a westerner, a tourist, but this man was achieving no financial gain by being nice to me. He just did it. It just seemed instinctive. But the flipside of this is that with the Thai’s it’s also very clear that you should never cross them, and you’d be a foolish person to do so. And so it started to become apparent that there was a very simple code here. Be respectful, and they’ll give you anything; but cross them, and you’re in for a shit storm. It’s really that simple. Good behaviour reaps good returns. Bad behaviour reaps bad returns. And that’s exactly how it should be. I was thankful to them for taking care of me and for making me feel as though I belonged. I felt humbled. I felt well and truly humbled.
It would be easy to read this and think that I idealise other places in the world, like Thailand, but I don’t. I love my home country, and I really wouldn’t wish to live anywhere other than England. But what I like to do is look closely at each place that I go to; I like to be aware of the bad, but my choice is to focus on the good. And this isn’t exclusive to travelling, because the same can be said about life. There isn’t a single person in this world that hasn’t faced hardship. There isn’t a single person in this world that hasn’t been dealt an injustice. And there isn’t a single person in this world who hasn’t experienced suffering. It happens to me, it happens to you, and it happens to all of those around us that we care about. Sometimes it is hard to focus on the good things, especially when there are bad things that happen which are beyond all comprehension. But to focus on the good does not mean you’re blinkered to the facts or oblivious to reality. It just means that you refuse to let the bad win.
Every act of kindness, every act of generosity, every bit of positivity that we bring into this world; all of this makes a difference.
The good will out.
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