Back in Thailand

(Em) We left Vietnam with the feeling that we’d not really been able to get to know the country in any real depth, something that gave us a newfound appreciation for the freedom and opportunities that travelling on our bikes allows. Needless to say, we were very excited to be back in Bangkok (for the fourth time!) Unfortunately, our favourite hostel, Lub-d in the Silom district, was fully booked but as luck would have it we found an even newer, more swanky hostel a few blocks away (so new, in fact, that despite it having a potential capacity of 300, there were only a handful of us there and we got a dorm room all to ourselves.) Honestly, the word hostel is just too good for these places; they are stylish, spotlessly clean, have amenities you’d expect from a luxury hotel and the staff are impossibly polite. In fact, the hostels are just another example of how they’re so doing so many things better here than in the western world. Take Bangkok’s newest mall, for instance,The Siam Paragon – it’s like stepping into the future!! Everything is just bigger, better, sleeker and altogether more advanced than we have at home; Paragon even has a supercar showrooms on the fourth floor (god knows how they get the cars up there!), complete with Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis. Needless to say, this was one shopping centre James didn’t mind spending time in!

We had to stay a couple of days in Bangkok as we’d arrived at the weekend and needed to wait for Monday to go to the DHL office. As I may have mentioned before, my passport was running out of pages – hard to believe as I’d had my existing one for less than a year, but 23 countries later, many of which liked to make their mark by stamping several pages at a time, I had only two pages remaining. James was fine as he’d had the foresight to get a 48 pager but I needed to get my hands on a new one before we could leave Thailand (the next part of our itinerary was Laos then Cambodia before heading back into Thailand on a new visa, the combination of which would require at least three pages). Our friend Juan had managed to get a new passport from the Spanish embassy in just four days, paying the equivalent of about £22. For a British national? Not so easy! They don’t even issue passports from most embassies anymore, instead allocating a regional ‘hub’ in different parts of the world. The hub for southeast Asia is Hong Kong so that’s where I had to send my application by DHL, along with £120 (not including the considerable cost of sending a return package by commercial courier!), in exchange for a four- six week wait! How can two different EU countries have such vastly different systems and fees for the same EU passport?! (James: oh, and if you want to call the Hong Kong consulate to ask a question? You can’t. The government has outsourced that job to a UK based private company, where you get to speak to somebody reading from a set list of questions and answers. Naturally, they couldn’t answer any of ours! And for this service, you’re charged an international premium rate! It really does make you wonder what you pay your taxes for!)

Anyway, we love Bangkok so as keen as we were to get back to our bikes in Chiang Mai, we didn’t really mind sticking around for DHL to open. We killed time by visiting Jim Thompson’s house which we’d never got around to last time we were here. He was an American who had fallen in love with Thailand when working for the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) during world war II. He returned after the war and developed a passion for Thai culture, using his contacts in the west to promote Thai crafts and produce. He is now a celebrated figure in Thailand, credited with reviving their dwindling silk trade in the 50s and 60s. His house, now a museum, was built to reflect traditional Thai design and was certainly a beautiful and peaceful place to spend a few hours. Incidentally, Jim Thompson went missing when walking in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands in the late ‘60s and was never seen again. (James: There are all sorts of conspiracy theories about his fate, many of which claim he was still on the CIA’s payroll. The fact that his sister, back in the USA, was murdered in the same year has done nothing to quell speculation.) On the way back from Jim Thompson’s house, we experienced Bangkok’s high speed river taxi that hurtles along at a frankly alarming rate through the city’s network of narrow waterways. Passengers huddle behind sheets of tarpaulin that protect them from the wake while two safety helmet clad ‘ticket collectors’ edge deftly along each side of the boat taking fares and leaping on and off when it arrives at the pier to tie the ropes for the five or ten seconds it docks for before powering off again. It’s a jump-on/jump-off service that doesn’t allow for any stragglers – we missed our stop when I hesitated a second too long at the pier and we were moving again before we had a chance to disembark!

A few days later, with the passport sent off, we went to the station to book the night train up to Chiang Mai but, gutted to find out that the next available seats were almost a week away, we had little alternative but to take a nightbus. Unlike in Vietnam, it was a regular coach rather than fully reclining ‘beds’ but it was fairly comfortable and we had the added bonus of being surrounded by a group of excitable Italians so were able to enjoy their dulcet tones throughout the journey!  Arriving in Chiang Mai at six the next morning, we were more than a little nervous as we rounded the corner of the hotel where we’d left the bikes… No need to fear though, there they were just as we’d left them. Good bikes! We felt it would be a bit rude not to stay at the hotel for at least a night after they’d minded our bikes and belongings for so long but the next day we moved up the road to a new ‘biker bar’ and guesthouse that was not only cheaper but was currently housing a fellow overlander we’d been hoping to bump into again ever since Istanbul: Dean! (Anyone who’s followed his blog from our links page will know who we’re talking about). Juan was also in Chiang Mai, plus a lovely overlander from Texas called Dave who was just at the start of his trip, so needless to say we had a few good nights on the beers. It was great to catch up with Dean after so many months; since he and his brother Paul made it to Magadan in Siberia (arriving three weeks after it’s deemed safe, in temperatures as low as minus 20!), Dean had continued on alone, shipping to Japan and then Malaysia, and was now touring Thailand, seemingly seeking out every dirt road he could find!

One evening we all went for a short ride up to a local viewpoint, and  James and I soon realised that we wouldn’t make ideal travel companions for Dean. It didn’t help that I was a bit nervous having not been on my bike for a month (‘skittish’ would just about cover it), but it’s fair to say that Dean is a riding demon! (James: He actually IS a riding demon, having raced as a privateer in the Australian national Supersports series and in the Moto GP support races. True to form, he chose a completely insane racing motocross bike (a KTM 950 Super-Enduro for those who are interested!) for his big overland trip and goes at 140kph everywhere, regardless of terrain!) The ride up did offer us one particularly good laugh, however. Dean had just bought a new satnav for his bike and, because it was car specific, had spent the whole day adapting it and constructing a new mount on his handle bars to fit it to. On the way up the hill, we passed Dean who’d stopped at the side of the road to take a photo of us passing by. Fully expecting him to catch up and blast past us again soon, we continued up to the top then waited, camera at the ready, to return the favour. We waited and waited but still no Dean. Finally, some ten minutes later, he came wheelie-ing around the corner with Juan not far behind. We must have looked perplexed as to why it had taken them so long as Juan just said, ‘I’ll let Dean explain…’ The reason for the delay had us in stitches: having rounded a corner, no doubt giving it some beans, Dean had had an close encounter with a large bird, in fact what was more accurately described as a ‘flying chicken’! Coming out of nowhere, the chicken had struck Dean square in the head and deflected away. Slightly shocked, Dean slowed and turned round to try and retrieve some feathers as a souvenir for his bike (as you do!), only to find, not chicken feathers, but his brand new satnav lying in the road!…. It would appear that Dean’s ‘header’ glanced the chicken into the satnav, breaking his new mount and killing his brand new toy. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but we certainly didn’t have any difficulty in finding the humour in it!! What are the chances?!

Dean left for Laos after a few days but we stuck around for about a week, chilling with Juan and Dave. We were in no hurry to go anywhere any time soon; we had plenty of jobs to do and the wait on my passport meant we couldn’t go to Laos yet anyway. In any event, Chiang Mai is the sort of place you can easily wile away the days. Aside from being a mecca for motorcyclists, it also boasts one of the finest night markets in southeast  Asia, which takes place each Sunday. The first time we went, our feet were aching at the end of the night from the pounding they’d taken: we’d never seen such a huge market that wasn’t a permanent fixture, it went endlessly on for street upon street with stalls selling wooden crafts, hippie clothing, colourful jewellery, freshly cooked food and fruit shakes, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Ambling along, perusing wares and occasionally ducking into a Buddhist temple, all of which were lit up beautifully, made for a very pleasant evening’s activity. Tempting as it was to spend all day every day eating and chatting, one afternoon we went for a ride into Doi Inthanon national park with Juan, a route that took us up to the highest road in Thailand. It proved once again that Thailand’s roads are out of this world, as if we needed reminding (and, you’ll be pleased to know, I got my riding mojo back!) Apart from being good company, Juan and Dave had their uses too! Juan’s a mechanic so he and James had a good session on the bikes, including doing the dreaded valve clearance (a big job for us!) and we finally lowered my forks to match the already lowered rear of the bike. Dave, meanwhile, is a computer whiz so helped us out with some changes to our website and other techy stuff. We didn’t have much we could offer in return (er, Mum you’d be happy to put Dave up if/when he gets to the UK, right?!) but as is always the case with fellow overlanders, they were happy to help out. Our guesthouse was a bit of a magnet for motorcyclists – one overlanding British couple we met were from Farnham, just ten miles down the road from my hometown! And I even managed to hold my own talking ‘shop’ with two old bikers while James was doing mechanics – he was so proud!

A couple of days later, John and Kelly (English and Aussie respectively), an overlanding couple that Dave had already met on the road, arrived. They’d already spent 18 months riding an Enfield Bullet in India (we had to agree to disagree on the merits of that country!) and were now two-up on a big BMW GS (the Enfield had died) that John had had sent out from the UK. It was with them and Dave that we went to Tiger Kingdom, a breeding sanctuary not far from Chiang Mai. James had long been determined that at some point on this trip I should get a baby tiger experience (he knows me so well!) but the opportunity had never arisen… until now! We expected Tiger Kingdom to be thronging with people when we rocked up mid morning but, much like we’d found with many of Thailand’s attractions, it was calm, quiet and peaceful with just a few tourists milling around. We didn’t have to wait long to set eyes on a real life tiger; there was a clear view through from the ticket desk to an large grassy pen in which a beautiful adolescent tiger was prowling about majestically. Awesome! Tiger Kingdom offers the opportunity of a close encounter with a range of tigers of different ages and they use the revenue from tickets to support their breeding programme. We were a little wary as to the legitimacy of the place – we didn’t want to be a part of anything that even whiffed of animal cruelty (such as the tiger park near Bangkok that keeps the cats chained and, most likely, drugged to be docile) – but we hadn’t found any dodgy reports on the internet and Kelly, a trained vet, was suitably convinced that the tigers were healthy and being properly looked after. Obviously, it’s not what nature intended that big cats be penned up and petted by tourists but without breeding programmes such as these, tigers would be even closer to extinction. Sad, but that’s the way it is.

As it was quite expensive, our intention had been to just have a session with the baby tigers but when John, Kelly and Dave all opted for the joint ‘biggest cat/smallest cat’ ticket, we all too readily bowed to peer pressure  – after all, when would we get such an opportunity again? We were ushered into the big tigers’ pen first, and couldn’t quite believe it when we saw, lying down in front of us not a few feet away, three huge tigers! (They were actually only 18 months old as that’s the oldest they can be for human interaction but still, they were huge!) The tigers weren’t restrained in any way, and the handlers had just very small thin sticks to use in the event of a problem, but as long as we didn’t go near or touch the head, and remained at their level, it was all completely safe (apparently!) One at a time we were allowed to lie down next to one of the tigers and rub his tummy – almost too surreal to be believed!! It was an incredible experience, and at the same time quite nerve-wracking – at one point I was stroking one of the tigers and I must have been a little too gentle. Perhaps he mistook my touch for a fly but he reared his head up and around towards me, looking somewhat irritated, and pretty much scared the life out of me! ‘Be firm,’ I was told! When our session was up, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away and made our way down to the ‘nursery’. With the baby tigers up next, it was hard to contain our excitement and inside the pen, we found ourselves confronted by one of the cutest sights we’ll ever see – four sleepy tiger cubs!! The first cubs we played with were 4 months old and already had humungous paddy paws! The handlers suggested that we could be more confident with tigers this age and even rest our heads next to theirs – what a feeling! And then we were shown to the two even smaller cubs, who were just two months old. We were even able to sit with them on our laps, soooo cute! They were all paws, ears and bellies! Throw in a bit of pathetic little meowing and it was almost too much cuteness to handle!! Needless to say, we were five very happy bikers by the end of it and sat outside on the steps for ages just to absorb what had been such a fantastic experience. Check out the photos and I guarantee, you’ll be booking your flight to Thailand before you’re through to the last one!!

For latest photos click here.

6 Responses to “Back in Thailand”

  1. Lorna Souch says:

    how unbelievably cute!!! Hannah couldn’t beleive her eyes. sooooo much bigger than guineapigs -but do they smell as nice?!!?
    lots of love from us all in Totnes.xxxxxx

  2. Darren says:

    I so wanted to see the Tigers sounds amazing. Pass on my details to Dave he’s more than welcome to have free lodgings at my house when he arrives in the uk if hes coming this way and a historical tour. Speak soon Darren.

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Loved this blog. I’m sure Nana will too. I so want that tiger experience.
    Of course, your dad sees it as another chance to get me back to Thailand. Frodo was sitting on my knee as I read it and even he can’t compare.
    By the way, lovely comments from that guy who has just read the whole thing. Very gratifying that complete strangers are enthralled.
    Yes, Dave can certainly find a bed here, as can anyone else who comes with your recommendation. Love you lots. x

  4. Jess says:

    You guys are living the dream!!! xxx

  5. Jackson says:

    Just remember a tiger’s not just for Christmas

  6. Martha says:

    We read this blog on holiday in printed format but even without the photos I made Marcus promise to take me to the tiger place one day (soon!!) – your description was brilliant Em!! Now just looked at the photos and it brings a tear to the eye – just sooo cute!! You used to be able to buy a tiger in Harrods, those were the days….

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