Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Overnight Train to Chiang Mai

Convenience and speed has taken over our lives. Air travel has made distances negligible, and now we can reach destinations in the blink of an eye. Well, almost - frankly, the sooner they invent teleporting the better ... I loathe flying!

But sometimes it's nice to take the slow route, watch the world slip by in real time and appreciate the simple things in life. But even with this in mind, I'm surprised by how reticent I am at the prospect of travelling by train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

I've always flown this route - after all, flights are cheap and plentiful - so why spend an uncomfortable night on a train, travelling for 12 hours when you can do it in one?

Cost is obviously a factor - which is why train travel still appeals to backpackers and budget travellers. Then there is the carbon footprint of flying - train travel is ecologically more friendly and lighter on resources.

It is these factors that inspired Intrepid Travel - an Australian small-group tour company that has just celebrated its 25th anniversary - to use public transport wherever possible in their itineraries, taking their mantra of 'responsible travel' seriously. And having joined a group of fellow journos on an Intrepid trip to the north of Thailand, I'm about to discover exactly what this entails.

We pull up at the main railway station in Bangkok under a sign for the Eastern and Oriental Express, the ultimate in old-school railway glamour. "Oh goody," I joke. "Are we catching the Orient Express?"

To tell you the truth, I'm fearing the worst. I have visions of drunken backpackers, stinking toilets, incessant noise and a sleepless night. You know those trains in India jam-packed with poultry and pigs, with freeloaders riding on the roof? Could it possibly be as bad as that??

But I'm in for a pleasant surprise. The train is clean, and relatively empty. The sleeper carriages are simple, but practical, with double bench seats converting into upper and lower bunks, with privacy provided by a curtain. Our group has been allocated lower bunks for the journey - and we're all praying that no-one will be on top, and that we have space to spread out.

My on-board view

As we take our seats, we are handed menus listing set menu packages, and a staff member fits a metal table between the seats, covered in a checkered tablecloth. We then settle back for the long journey ahead, breaking out the snacks and novels to kill time.

Fairy-lit Bangkok flitting by

The train makes slow progress through the suburbs of Bangkok, allowing us time to gaze out on fairy-lit trees, railway road crossings and family groups gathered in back yards along the tracks. As dusk slips into night and the outside world fades to black, we are distracted by our meals arriving, presented in plastic bowls covered in cling wrap.

Vegetarian meal on board

While it's not up to the usual standard of meals on an Intrepid trip, the train food is adequate, if a little bland; the service, however, is excellent, presented with a smile as if it was a gourmet meal.

In the interest of passengers who want to sleep early, the beds are made up around 8.30pm. It's a fascinating process as a staff member comes along, pulls apart the seating, adds an extra mattress and covers it in a clean sheet. Voila - an instant bed!

Making up the beds. Pics: Julie Miller

My worst nightmare has come true with two Irish backpackers coming on board to claim our upper bunks. I groan inwardly, fearing all night drinking and constant chatter; but these two delightful young men are soon tucked up in their beds, as quiet as church mouses with nary a snore between them. Phew!

Once the beds are made up, there seems little reason not to actually sleep ourselves ... and by 10pm, the whole carriage is in silence, curtains drawn.

I'm a light sleeper, notoriously bad at sleeping in anything other than a real bed. But the clickety-clack is a comforting sound, and even I am lulled into a fitful stupor. There is ample room in the bunk for me and my hand-luggage; and the blanket provided is adequate protection against the (rather frosty) air-conditioning. My only issue is that the incessant rocking jiggles my bladder, and I need to make several nocturnal visits to the bathroom...

Our train pulls into our destination, Lampang, at 5.30am, punctual to the second. It's been a drama and stress-free night, and frankly, very pleasant. It might not have been the Orient Express, but the overnight train has far outweighed by expectations and has elevated "getting there" into a genuine travel experience.

COST: Overnight accommodation in a sleeping carriage from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs 791 baht for an upper bunk, 880 baht for a lower bunk.

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chiang Khan - Town that Time Remembered

Regular contributor John Borthwick goes in search of a forgotten Mekong port.

I awake to a hullaballoo of gossip and chanting monks in the street outside. It could all be 100 years ago but it’s not. Chiang Khan, an old Mekong River port in Loei province is a town that time remembered. At 580km north of Bangkok, Chiang Khan’s glory days — if any — hark way back to times of rubber and opium smuggling, and cross-river spats with colonial French or Lao communists.

Until recently Chiang Khan’s riverfront road, Chai Khong and its century-old teak shophouses were slipping into a picturesque decrepitude. It’s hard to get facts about Chiang Khan, other than it has several old Buddhist temples, the population is about 10,000 people and the place celebrated its centenary in 2009.

The sleepy main street

Chiang Khan has boomed in the past few years, having been well and truly “discovered” by urban Thais (although not much by foreigners), many drawn nostalgically to a past that they never had: Buddhist monks receiving alms and sticky rice at dawn, and rambling family homes made of ancient teak on streets of almost no vehicles.

Monks in Chiang Khan

What visitors don’t come here for is banana boat rides, go-go bars and day spas. Instead, I have a simple choice of bicycle or motorcycle hire, Buddhist wats, foot massage, drink by the river, eat by the river and a few more wats. Or coffee. On the trendy Soi Nine side-street off Chai Khong, two escapees from Bangkok, wife and husband team Em and Arm, tell me how they visited Chiang Khan, “fell in love” with the place, bought a run-down shophouse and transformed it into the "See I 249" coffee and music shop.

Farther along Chai Khong I drink at the Ganga Guesthouse, a beautifully restored teak shophouse that bristles with antiques and curios. The proprietors, also ex-Bangkokians, tell a story that might be, as Thais joke, “same-same but different”. However, having settled here just four years ago in their quest for a quiet, creative retirement, they are already considering moving on, due, ironically, to the tourist influx that they were harbingers of.

Chiang Khan stretches languorously along the Mekong shore like a cat on a couch. Sensibly, its citizens long ago constructed a promenade right along the riverbank. This is where you stroll those lavish Mekong sunsets or morning mists.

Rush hour traffic

I hop on my bike and ride through a cool morning, south along to one of Chiang Khan’s main attractions, the Kaeng Khut Ku rapids. I read that “the shiny rocks here are supposed to be very beautiful”. Like me, the writer didn’t actually see the rapids because the river’s flow was too high at that time. No worry. Instead I get birdsong, an old wat, plenty of exercise and the endless Mekong flowing by like time.

Wat in Chiang Khan. Pics: John Borthwick

Getting There: Fly to Loei then it’s a one-hour bus trip north to Chiang Khan.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A visit to Ko Phi Phi Leh: where Leonardo diCaprio filmed The Beach

The Beach is busy today. Well, not just today, every day. We wait in a queue to land, bobbing about on the azure swell, snapping photographs from a distance of the white strip of sand, coconut palms ... and hordes of tourists, like ants swarming over roadkill.

Then we are informed it will cost us 200 baht per person to land anyway. With no desire to join the throng, we decline and ask to move on to somewhere Hollywood - and the Thai tourism industry - hasn't yet exploited.

The Beach - beautiful from a distance

The 2000 film, The Beach - starring handsome heart throb Leonardo diCaprio - forever changed the sleepy islands of southern Thailand, with backpackers and package tourists alike keen to glimpse the filming location where Leo's character faced drug cartels, executions, gangrenous injuries, sharks and insanity. Come to think of it, it really was the ultimate in rotten holidays - and why anyone would want to emulate that is anyone's guess.

But come they do, by their thousands, wanting to set foot on and have their photograph taken on the very beach where Leo gave one of his lesser acting performances. Amongst Gen X, it's probably the most popular experience that Thailand has to offer, apart maybe from the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan.

Ants crawling on The Beach

While it was filmed in several locations around Thailand (the waterfall scene, for instance, where Leo jumped off a high cliff into the water below, was shot in Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand), the bulk of the movie was filmed at Maya Beach, Ko Phi Phi Leh, an unpopulated island in the Phi Phi Archipelago in Krabi Province. Surrounded by rearing limestone cliffs and with water a dazzling gin-blue, it really is one of the most stunning locations on the planet, as idyllic as the book written by Alex Garland describes.

"On the white sands, fishing in the coral gardens, a select community of travelers pass the months. They leave if they want to, they return, the beach never changes."

Perfection, however, is an irresistible lure - and due to the thousands of tourists that tramp its shore every single day, The Beach has changed. Developers may have been kept at bay due to its official status as a national park, but there are no limits to the numbers of speedboats and spluttering, deafening longtail boats that ferry tourists on island-hopping tours from Phuket, Krabi and Phi Phi Don. Any physical beauty the bay may still possess is overshadowed by noise, rubbish and just too many damn people!

Thanks a lot, Leo - the so-called "secret" beach is no secret any more!

Paradise can still be found on Phi Phi Leh, however - you just need to avoid the crowds, and seek out a quiet nook elsewhere on this or surrounding islands. After we rejected the idea of landing on The Beach, our canny tour captain - from Centara Grand Beach Resort at Krabi - found a deserted cove to moor in, sunny for soaking up the afternoon rays, and shallow and sandy for swimming in the blissful balm. We ate, lazed, snorkelled, fed brightly coloured fish and admired the view for a good hour before continuing our snorkelling trip, content in the knowledge that Paradise does still exist - you just need to go around the corner from where you were expecting it.

Our boat in an idyllic cove

Now THAT's Paradise!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Koh Samui's Secret Garden

In 1976, at the age of 75, Grandfather Nim, a durian farmer who lived in the mountainous interior of Koh Samui, decided to build a garden. Not just any garden, but a fantasyland celebrating Buddhist mythology, folklore and legend. For 16 years, he created over 100 concrete sculptures, artfully placed on rock shelves, on the banks of a creek flowing through his property, and amongst the verdant jungle; and as he approached the end of this mortal coil, he also built himself a mausoleum, so he could be buried in his beloved garden.

Deities and scenes from Budhhist folklore in the garden

Some of the bizarre sculptures in the garden

This lush jungle property, now known as the Magic (or Secret) Buddha Garden, is today one of Koh Samui's post popular day trips, allowing visitors to experience the island's interior as they wander through this rather bizarre attraction.

The road to the Magic Buddha Garden

Getting to the garden is half the fun. Located on a steep (though thankfully concreted) road accessible only by four-wheel drive, most people choose to visit as part of a 'safari adventure' day-tour with Samui Off-Road Mountain Tours, based at the Namuang Safari Park. 

Our group just did a garden visit with this company, who use 4WD open-backed trucks with bench seats, plus two seats atop for thrillseekers. I travelled up the winding road on top, through coconut and durian groves, wind (and the occasional branch) rushing through my hair and my nerves on full alert - it's seriously scary stuff at first!

The perilous top seat of the Off Road Mountain Tour

While the garden itself is a tranquil retreat, choose your time to visit wisely - we arrived at the same time as several tours, which meant we had to battle half-dressed Russian backpackers swimming in the waterfall, yelling at each other and generally getting underfoot. It was chaos - but once they'd left, the garden was a different world, serene and intriguing.

It's certainly a change from the beaches, nightclubs and bars of Koh Samui, and well worth visiting to experience an alternative side to paradise.

Sculptures galore...

Getting there: Secret Buddha Garden is found on a hilltop, just off Route 4169 (ring road) at Baan Saket. Follow the signs on the air force road leading up to Ta Nim Waterfall.
Cost: Entry fee 80 baht per person unless travelling as part of a tour.