TINDO-B 2007 Mails English
Following is the full text of all English emails we sent during this trip. The texts are original copies, shown here as sent: typos, errors, warts and all (the same in French).
- Mail from 13.11.2007: 13.11.2007 News from the travellers
- Mail from 25.11.2007: Chanthaburi, Trat, Kho Kong, Phnom Penh
- Mail from 02.12.2007: Phnom Penh, Kratie, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap
- Mail from 12.12.2007: Angkor Wat, Aranyaprathet, Ayutthaya, Mae Sot, Umphang
- Mail from 22.12.2007: Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan
- Mail from 07.01.2008: Phi-lok, Lopburi, Kanchanaburi, Bangkok... and Brrrlin
Subject: 13.11.2007 News from the travellers
Date: Tue, 13 Nov 2007 11:52:26 +0000
Dear all, yeah, it's that time of the year again... ;-) So, after a long silence, here's a short update on our travel plans. Originally we wanted to fly to India and Nepal some time end of September, but we had to postpone this because Thomas' passport had run out of empty pages and getting a new one took much longer than expected. So we decided instead to return to SE Asia in November, to spend two months in Vietnam (mostly the north) and another two months in Cambodia and Burma. Good plan. But then, a few weeks ago, a German colleague of Vero's decided to have his three-month "Vaterschaftsurlaub" (that's a sort of parent's holiday for couples with a new-born) from 1st of January 2008. Vero, quick as ever, realised that *someone* would have to fill that vacancy... long story short: we'll now be in Berlin for three months. Winter in freezing Berlin... we'll see! It'll be interesting for us, to say the least, to return to Germany after such a long time in Britain. However, given that our long-term plan is to move back to Germany (albeit somewhere near the Alps), this may give us some glimpses into how things have changed. Or, this being Germany, haven't changed;-) Alas, all this means that we will have to cut short our planned four months in SE Asia to a meagre six weeks. We will skip Vietnam and Burma for the time being (which, in the case of Burma, may be a good idea anyway) and concentrate on Cambodia. Vero is especially keen on seeing Angkor Wat once more, and there are some remote regions (mostly in the north of the country) we have not really visited last time. So we'll spend a good deal of these six weeks in Cambodia. As for the rest of the time, we may either return to the northern mountains of Thailand or we'll pay a flying visit to Laos, especially to Luang Prabang (not very probable though, given how we reacted to Laos last year). We'll catch a plane to Bangkok next Monday and will, as is our custom, send an email about our peregrinations once every seven to ten days. Well, that's it for the time being. Next stop Cambodia. All the best Thomas and Vero PS: In case you want to be taken off this list, please send an email by return so we're able to arrange things in time.
Subject: Chanthaburi, Trat, Kho Kong, Phnom Penh
Date: Sun, 25 Nov 2007 13:04:12 +0700
Dear all: after an uneventful flight we touched down on time in BKK, raced to the local bus station and caught a bus to Chanthaburi, 250km southeast of Bangkok, and thus avoided the smog and heat of the latter. Ch. is a sleepy town, exactly right to overcome the jetlag and getting used to the heat. (We found the heat much less oppressive than last year... either getting used to it or because it was indeed slightly cooler: 33/24C day/night.) Ch. is famous for its gems, which used to be mined in the hills around town but nowadays are imported from all over the world. We stayed two days in this town, which sports the largest cathedral of Thailand, nice wooden houses by the river and a distinct Vietnamese feel, because of all the immigrants from there who came during the start of the 20th century. Next we took a bus to Trat, another 70 km southeast. This is even more sleepy than Ch. so we stayed just a day. So, without further ado we took a pick-up to the Thai/Cambodian border at Hat Lek/Cham Yeam. This is the southernmost crossing into Cambodia and to reach it we had to pass the "narrowest bit of Thailand"... Koh Kong, the nearest town, immediately felt like Cambodia: poorer, dirtier but also more convivial. We just stayed for one day and then took a bus to Phnom Penh. In fact, it was four buses, because the road itself is ready but the bridges over a few huge rivers are not. So what happens is that you walk over a half-finished bridge or take a ferry and on the other side waits another bus. It was fun, though and the landscapes are just wonderful: lush and green mountains, big rivers, a real jungle atmosphere. This impression grows stronger all the time because there are almost no villages en route. We reached PP at 3pm, so had no trouble finding a hotel and then went to the river: we had learned in Koh Kong that currently there is the biggest festival in Cambodia, the water festival which celebrates the end of the rainy season and the fact that the waters flowing UP the Tonle Sap from the Mekong now return the "rightful" direction: DOWN. It was all very colourful and incredibly crowded: normally PP is easy to negotiate but during the 3 days of the festival it's packed. We saw the boat races, with big long boats carrying around 60 to 70 oatsmen. They yell and hack at the water as if their lives depended on it. From a distance the boats looked a bit like a centipede on its back, floating down the river. When that was finished, it had become dark and a whole procession of lighted ships with colourful motives began to float along the river. And then the high point, especially for the immense Cambodians crowds: the fireworks. And they were pretty good indeed, being fired from a peninsula on the other side of the river. Well, that was it so far; next mail will probably come from Siem Reap/Angkor Wat. All the best Vero and Thomas at the spot
Subject: Phnom Penh, Kratie, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap
Date: Sun, 2 Dec 2007 11:10:23 +0700
Dear all, we pick up the story in Phnom Penh and the Water Festival (called Bonn Om Tuk in the local lingo). The last of the festivities was very similar to what we had already seen, but we as we had more time we learned a lot about the boats, the crews and the races. It were altogether 400+ boats and they were mostly racing against each other in pairs, though there was the occasional lone boat on the river. There were also smaller young boys' and girls' boats and womens' longtails with about 60 or so rowers, all very gaudy decked out. The whole spectacle is conducted with lots of shouting and clapping and jumping up and down by the spectators... the atmosphere is very cheerful and boisterous. Next day PP returned to its more quiet and relaxed self (during the festival there were real traffic jams in the city, something normally almost unheard of!). We visited the National Museum with a host of statues, lintels, freezes, Buddhas, Ganeshes, Vishnus, Garudas... you get the idea:-) In fact, the number of exhibits is too big to really enjoy the show... in our view a museum (especially such an important museum) should concentrate on the really big show-pieces and not simply present a hot-potch of stuff that happens to be in the curator's hand. The rest of the day we strolled around along the river bank and through the French quarter as well as the markets (Cambodian markets are definitely a diversion in their own right). Following day saw us in the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, the latter with its floor covered in 5200+ silver tiles (of which quite a few look so dirty they could be anything). We enjoyed the two sites rather more than last year, although we found the amazing murals which line the courtyard of the Silver Pagoda even more run-down than last time. Still, these are really an amazing piece of work: 642 metres of the Indian Ramayana epic (called Reamker in Cambodia), all in vivid colours and executed with much love to detail, at times almost fussy. Well worth seeing once again. Then we drove up to a place called Kratie, not too far away from the Lao border. The draw here are the famous Irrawaddy dolphins, nowadays a pretty rare species (there used to be thousands a few decades ago, whereas today there are only about 70 to 80 left, due to habitat pressure and the brutal fishing methods (among other things some fishermen simply explode a bit of dynamite in the river and collect the dead fish). The main site to watch them is about 15 km north of Kratie; we biked up there through a wonderfully unspoilt landscape along the Mekong, with small villages and scenes of rural life left and right. Finally we took an observation post directly on the banks of the Mekong and waited. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don't... basically this is a game of patience between you and the dolphins. And we won it...! After about one hour of scanning the surface with the naked eye and with our binoculars we spotted a beautiful specimen, not more than 20 metres away. The dolphins give their presence away by a very peculiar noise, when they exhale air. The beast was probably about 2 metres long and of a very dark blue colour and it stayed with us for around a quarter of an hour, mostly down in the muddy waters and every now and then coming up to get some fresh air. So this outing was a full success indeed! Kratie in itself is a nice and busy market town with lots of old colonial buildings, much better and livelier than the famous Savannakhet in Laos which we found utterly disappointing last year. From Kratie we took a bus to Kampong Cham as a stopover to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Another of these faded colonial towns, surrounded by rubber plantations and rice paddies, sleepily lying on the banks of the mighty Mekong. One reason to stay here was a Angkor-period Khmer temple in the vicinity which was indeed interesting. Although one thing is sure: Angkor Wat hands down out-temples all the other Khmer sites: there are all styles, all the different periods on view and all that profusion within just a few dozen square kilometres. But more about that in the next mail, as we have just arrived in Siem Reap. We very much look forward to visit all these gracious, huge, astonishing monuments: Angkor is certainly one of the very few MUST-SEE sites in the world. Other than that all is well. It's a bit cooler than last year (evenings on the Mekong can be a bit chilly at 23C :-)) and so far we have absolutely no problems with weather or beasts or anything else. Next mail very probably from Thailand in about a week. All the best Thomas and Vero PS: One small thing: Vero was absolutely, positively flabbergasted when, during the journey from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap, we stopped at a roadside eatery and she found a plate with fried spiders, hairy legs and all. These are about the size of the palm of a hand and we have been told that they are eaten very much like crabs, sucking off the meat from the legs and body. Sadly, Vero abstained (though Frenchies are supposed to eat and suck everything).
Subject: Angkor Wat, Aranyaprathet, Ayutthaya, Mae Sot, Umphang
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2007 13:33:15 +0700
Dear all, Angkor Wat...! What can we say? We enjoyed every minute of it and in a sense it was even better than last time, because we knew the temples already and so had a pretty good idea where to go and spend time (we once again took a three-day pass). Besides the old favorites (Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm) we explored two new sites, a small temple called Banteay Srei about 35km from the main sites and a bizarre site (Kbal Spean) some 50km in the jungle. Banteay Srei, though tiny in comparison to the huge Angkor Wat complex, is nevertheless a magnificent sight: the temple dates from around 950AD but the carvings and bas-reliefs, done in a nice reddish sandstone, are as fresh as if they had been executed yesterday. What's more, literally all surfaces are carved... a multitude of gods and demons, animals, flowers, plants... Kbal Spean, OTOH, is basically just a shallow, rocky riverbed, about five metres wide. The draw here is the fact that the crazy Khmers, around 1000 years ago, carved all sorts of things into the rock that forms the riverbed: Buddhas, Vishnus... well, pretty much the whole show. The idea was that the water, by flowing over these holy images, would be turned into sacred water, to be used downstream for all sorts of purposes. Well worth driving out there, if more for the strangeness of the site than the actual carvings. One other thing about AW is that this year there were definitely fewer tourists around. The main sites were of course still pretty full but many of the smaller sites were blissfully empty. We have the impression, in general, that the tourist circuit this time round is less crowded than it was last year. To sum it all up: a full success and we're very glad that we came a second time. From there we crawled to the border at Poipet/Aranyaprathet (the Cambodian part on national (!) road #6 that deserves to be among the ten worst drives in the world). Aranyaprathet in Thailand is a sleepy and relaxed border town, as most tourists race on to Bangkok. We stayed, because we wanted to continue to Ayutthaya, avoiding the Bangkok gridlock. Aranyaprathet boasts some very beautiful old merchants' houses, the wood darkened by decades of strong sunshine. Next we took the train to Ayutthaya, which we had already seen twice last time. So we just popped into a few of the wats and generally enjoyed the place. Once again, we were lucky as we arrived while the World Heritage Festival was on: a big celebration indeed, many stalls with almost everything imaginable in the way of food and non-food. There also was a fireworks and a sound-and-light-show in the main temple ruin. Nice touch. From Ayutthaya, we took a bus to Mae Sot on the Burmese border, already seen last year. Once again, we were quite taken by the incredible mixture of races, peoples, beliefs: this is a melting pot if there ever was one. We also did something we wanted to do last time, but couldn't because we had no time: we took the road up to Umphang. This is a small village about 50km south of Mae Sot as the crow flies. However, the road needs 164km and reportedly 1219 bends. The Thais have dubbed this road "Sky Highway" and indeed it is pretty impressive (though a Swiss wouldn't be overly impressed). Anyway, this is a case where the way is clearly the goal. The trip is done by songthaew, these are small, open trucks with two rows of seating in the back. The songthaew we took was overcrowded, so a few people moved to the roof, among them Thomas (Vero tried as well, but the driver issued a very stern no-no: ladies on the roof, good grief!) The landscape is very varied, sometimes deep in the jungle, sometimes along a lofty ridge... (Thomas comments: there can't be many things more enjoyable than sitting in the sun on the roof of a songthaew on the way to Umphang, taking in the amazing countryside, while listening to a Deep Purple album on the MP3 player...!) Well, back from Umphang (with yet another scenic drive on the roof for Thomas:-)) we took another songthaew, from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang. This is a bone-rattling 230km journey, most of it more or less directly along the Thai/Burmese border. We had done this already last time, so we knew what to expect. Another good feature of these songthaew rides is that there's always something going on: people and their livestock move in (or out), hobbit-like creatures emerges from the woods and jump aboard, only to leave a few kilometres later, again into the seemingly impenetrable forest. From Mae Sariang we took a bus to Mae Hong Son, where we've just arrived. We will do some walks in the mountains here and rent a motorbike to explore the countryside before we head to Chiang Mai. More about that in the next mail. Otherwise, all is well. Thai food continues to amaze us, the smells, the tastes, the variety... The temperatures here in the mountainous north are rather low, it's definitely cooler than it was in March. (In fact, we now sometimes *search* the sunshine to warm up, instead of avoiding it, as we did in March.) Well, that is that. More in about a week or so! All the best Thomas and Vero
Subject: Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan
Date: Sat, 22 Dec 2007 15:10:07 +0700
Dear all, we left you in Mae Hong Son which is a town in the northern mountains not far from the Burmese border. This shows in the local wats which are clearly Burmese style: slender, with many small towers stacked onto each other, definitely different to the usual Thai style of wat. MHS being a mountain place we took the chance for some decent walks through the jungle as well as a motorbike drive to some ethnic villages. The walks were pretty interesting as we didn't book anything organized (ie one of those "hill tribe treks"). We just struck off in an interesting-looking direction (MHS being surrounded by mountains the direction doesn't matter much...) and walked. We were lucky as we could follow some thin, but clearly visible local paths around. It was very humid and hot in the jungle, despite the shade given by the marvellous trees. We also heard many animals though we saw nothing really strange apart from a few weird-looking insects. The motorbike drive was... well, let's say, a bit shaky as Thomas has not driven a bike for the best part for 30 years and the mountain roads in these parts are steep and can be a bit iffy. But all went well. We visited two off-the-beaten-track villages in the far north, one with ethnic Chinese (Kuomingtang who fled to Thailand after the Commies took over in China). This village looked (and sounded) really like China, food, tea, colourful kitsch and whining music: these people have kept their traditions:-) The other village was a Thai tribe with a Royal project to grow coffee as a cash crop. Its biggest appeal was the lake setting directly at the Burmese border: the mountains in the distance were in Burma. From MHS we went to Chiang Mai, where we paid flying visits to all the wats we've already seen earlier including Wat Doi Suthep which is around 1000m above the city on a lofty summit. We walked down back to CM, through a very steep and very slippery (the leaves...) path (which may not have been a path at all, but just the dried bed of a brook. All the same, it went down to a part of Chiang Mai we recognised.) We also did a day trip to Lamphun, about 26km to the southeast. This is a former Royal town (this part of Thailand once was a principality in its own right). Lamphun is a sleepy place with not many tourists and a few really old wats (the oldest bits date from the 8th century) From Chiang Mai we went to Lampang, about 100km southeast. This town we found a bit disappointing: the streets are cramped and dirty, and the wats are really not worth seeing, in our opinion. OTOH, there is a famous wat 18km southwest of town which we cycled to (bicycles, not motor, so much sweat did flow) which was certainly worth the litres of sweat. A weird chedi (that's Thai for a stupa, a round "tower" which contains some sort of relics, most often a hair from the Buddha), a huge, open prayer hall with 400-year old murals and many other charming bits and pieces (there is also a huge Bodhi tree whose boughs are supported by literally hundreds of giant wooden crutches: all donated to gain merit for the next life). This brings us to an aspect of the whole trip which we found disagreeable already last time and which grates even more this time: that is the way in which Buddhist wats hereabouts are used as moneymaking machines. There a donation, here a small offering to buy and put in front of the Buddha image (by the way, these offerings are reused: once the donors are gone the attendants take them away and resell them), there are also monks to ask (and pay) for predictions and good-luck ceremonies. And there are many other ways how people are made to part from their money (for instance the 8 Buddha images of the week, a different posture for each day and 2 for Wednesday: you have to put a few baht into a bowl in front of each image). In fact, it's all a bit like the elaborate mechanisms we saw in Tibet (Buddhist as well). All this is fair enough, because the people give with good intentions... and yet it grates to see how the monks (who know better) keep the populace in a state of dumb superstitiousness, just to keep the money flowing. Back to the road. After Lampang we went to Nan in the far northeast (a place a bit like Mae Hong Son: surrounded by mountains). What we thought would be an easy 4-hour bus trip turned to be much more complicated as all direct buses were full. We finally managed to get there by a crafty combination of buses and minibuses... but it took us the whole day. Reason for the melee is the fact that tomorrow the Thais will vote for a new parliament. The pre-election process seems to be admirably subdued, the most we saw are a few cars done up with big posters and playing loud music (presumably the party with the best songs wins). We are now in Nan and have already seen (you guessed it) a few wats which are pretty interesting here as they are influenced by Lao styles (Laos is around the corner, so to speak). Later we'll do some walks and then we will start the long trek down south, towards Bangkok. All is well, though it's getting hotter now. We will send another mail with the rest of the saga but only once we're back. So next stop Berlin! (Brrrr...) We wish you a Merry Xmas... enjoy the festivities and don't drink too much (you know who you are:-)). And of course a Happy New Year to all of you! Thomas and Vero
Subject: Phi-lok, Lopburi, Kanchanaburi, Bangkok... and Brrrlin
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2008 09:40:53 +0100
Dear all, we hope you arrived in 2008 in one piece! For our part, we are surrounded by a very unThai landscape: a snowed-in forest. Yes, we're in Berlin now and it's even colder than we thought: while we are writing these lines it's -8C (the cold Russian easterly doesn't exactly help: it makes it feel like -15C). However, the small house we've rented for the three months is warm. It's also adjacent to a wood (we're in Heiligensee, for those who know Berlin) and there are supposedly wild boar and deer to be watched. We'll verify that and report. Back to warmer climes. We finished our Northern peregrinations by taking a bus to Phitsanulok (short Phi-lok). There we visited a famous foundry that's literally big in the Buddha-making business: they do small statues of, say, two feet height but they also do three, four metre-high monstrosities. It was very interesting because we could see the whole process, starting with creating the wax images which are encased in plaster; next, the wax is melted away and the case is filled with molten bronze. After cooling, the plaster is hammered away and the image (which at that stage is pretty raw, with many sharp edges) is cleaned and thoroughly polished, perhaps even "airbrushed" with a silver or gold finish. (Needless to say that we also visited a few wats in Phi-lok, among them Wat Mahathat with the second-most important Buddha image in Thailand.) Next we rode a slow train down to Lopburi. Most Thai trains are driven by huge Diesel locomotives (Alsthom, in case you're a rail fan) and these machines produce a lot of fine soot which gets into the carriages (we travelled 3rd class with natural aircon, ie wide-open windows) and invariably settles on the clothing. The trick is not to touch the stuff but to shake trousers and shirts gently every hour or so... nothing remains. For a change, Lopburi (which the locals pronounce Lopbulli) is stronger on historical remains than wats: there are a few Khmer ruins and many buildings and palaces dating from the time when Lopburi was the capital of Thailand. We'd already seen these in 2006 but they are always worth a second look. >From Lopburi we took the bus to Kanchanaburi, of River-Kwai-bridge fame. We stayed two days there and, with rented bikes, trundled along the banks of the two rivers Kwai (the one with the bridge is the Kwai Noi). Very nice limestone landscape, dotted by wats and caves (often, the caves double as wats: one famous wat south of K. is indeed just a long cave, with its entrance turned into the huge and very colourful head of a Chinese dragon: you enter the cave through the dragon's blood-red mouth). Finally we couldn't find any reason to avoid Bangkok any longer, so we took our final train, from K. to BKK. We spent just one night and two days there (our flight to LHR left at 00.35 in the morning). It was loud and polluted and dirty... and yet Bangkok has such dynamism, such energy, that it remains a fascinating place... well, at least for 48 hours:-). We visited more shopping centres than wats (for once), although we are not really big shoppers: just a few souvenirs and a nice shopping basket for Vero. Well, then we flew back to the UK, direct with a Qantas 747 (avoid them if you're tall: smallest legroom Thomas has ever had the pleasure to fill with his legs). Less than a day with getting clean, sorting stuff and trying not to fall asleep... then, at 5am next morning, we hit the road to the Channel Tunnel and on to friends in Holland (in Arnhem, which marks, by one or two miles, exactly halfway between Boringstoke and Berlin). During 31.12 we continued to Berlin, once again without any problems, spent New Year's eve with friends, drinking lots of Italian red wine... and awoke to a white Berlin. And that is how things stand right now: it's white everywhere and the smaller roads are very slippery indeed. We will continue to send reports from Berlin every now and then... whenever we think we have something to talk about. For now, we wish you some cold, pleasant winter days (you folks in NZ are excused;-)). All the best Thomas and Vero PS: Here's one small tidbit we realised on 1.1.2008, upon walking along the banks of the Havel through the freshly fallen snow: we haven't seen a single snowflake in all of 2007! January to March we spent in SE Asia and back in the UK we saw no snow at all. Nice that the snow-in-waiting over Berlin decided to fall in the new year.
$updated from: TINDO-B 2007 Mails English.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:23 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$