I had just arrived into Thailand from Goa. I caught a one hour and fifteen minute flight to Mumbai, followed by a four and a half hour flight to Bangkok. I remember there being a really tiny amount of leg room, but that I managed to sleep through most of the second flight anyway. At the airport, I realised I had lost my international credit card and would have to use my debit card that I had thankfully brought with me as a back up, although this did mean incurring charges. After many disasters in New Zealand I hoped this would be the final one of the trip and everything else would go smoothly…
I rode in a Grab Taxi (the Asian equivalent of Uber) to my hostel and checked in. They had a free popcorn machine which I took advantage of before trying a Thai McDonalds and chilling for the rest of the day, as I had missed a night of sleep and was grateful for a break from travel (and junk food and Netflix). I also found it funny that there was a sign banning guests from having the fruit, durian, in their room because it has such a pungent smell!
The following day, I decided to explore a little of Bangkok before my tour started two days later. I began by visiting the local mall to see what the Thai shops were like. I remember being surprised to see a Boots, and excited that they had a Dairy Queen as I loved it in the US.
Two days previously, it had been the Chinese New Year and so there were decorations around the mall and outside, celebrating the Year of The Pig and saying goodbye to the Year of The Dog.
I then went to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, known for its contemporary art, music, theatre, film, design and cultural events. There were only a few galleries open at the time, but I saw a couple of interesting exhibits, including one with some really lovely messages.
Before joining my next group, the rest of my time was spent rather lazily in the hostel, as I knew it was set to be a full on 27 days once the tour began.
I was joining Contiki’s Big Indochina Adventure, which would take me through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and was the final organised tour of my travels. I was excited and apprehensive to meet my new group, as after a fair few organised trips it was hard not to make comparisons between them.
Luckily, I had nothing to worry about and I absolutely loved my new set of travel buddies. I moved my belongings to the starting hotel, which felt luxurious compared to my hostel, with a pool and plush-looking beds.
I then met my new (rather jetlagged) roommate for the next three out of four countries. Everybody was really friendly and after an introductory orientation meeting, we went for dinner and drinks on Khao San Road. I could see why this was known as Bangkok’s ‘backpacker central’ as there were lots of bars and tasty looking, inexpensive restaurants. I remember the sweet and sour sauce being amazing!
As the evening progressed, the street got extremely crowded, but we enjoyed getting to know each other in the lively atmosphere, with two of us even daring to try a scorpion (after a few drinks of course).
The following morning, nursing slightly sore heads, we rose early to view the stunning Grand Palace, which dates back to 1783 and has been the official residence of the Kings of Thailand since its construction. The palace is set on 61 acres of land and holds a number of beautiful buildings, including Wat Phra Kaew, which means “the Temple of the Emerald Buddha” and is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.
After viewing the temple in 35-degree heat and feeling like we were about to melt, we were able to cool off with a long-tail boat tour of the local klongs (which translates to canals) to feed the fish and see the locals who live along the water’s edge.
We saw many catfish swimming around us and we fed them bread, which we were told would give us karmic merit, meaning we could then ask for something in return, as Thailand is a Buddhist country and has a firm belief in karma and the ultimate goal of reaching nirvana, just as Buddha did.
Our local guide, Al, who would be with us for the next few days, armed us with interesting knowledge on both the temple and the cultures, people and places of Bangkok, as we cruised along the klongs (even spotting a komodo dragon along the canal bank!).
Later that day we left Bangkok and drove for just over two hours to the town of Kanchanaburi, where our first stop was to the The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. This is the main prisoner of war cemetery for victims of Japanese imprisonment while building the Death Railway (which we would be visiting the following day).
With 6,982 prisoners of war buried here, we saw many grave stones and couldn’t imagine what the victims went through under the conditions of their forced labour.
It was then time to board boats to our accommodation for the night, a floating jungle river raft located on the River Kwai. Our main luggage had been left at the previous hotel and we had overnight bags with us, as I can imagine the huge rucksacks would sink the raft!
We boarded the boats from the Phutakien Pier for a ten-minute journey to the “floatel”.
Arriving at our accommodation for the night, we were greeted by a beautiful long set of rafts, which bobbed up and down on the water. With no electricity on board, our rooms were lit by candles and oil lamps and they overlooked the serene river. There were hammocks to relax in and we were each given life jackets and told that we could jump off the boat and float around it, which was a lot of fun.
After a day of floating in the river and swinging in hammocks, it was time for our first meal as a whole group, and it was great getting to know everybody better and enjoying delicious, local food together.
Then, a few of us opted to watch some traditional Mon dances, where the performers wore beautiful clothing and performed spiritual dances to mesmerising music. The Mon people are an ethnic group from Myanmar, and they were some of the earliest people to inhabit both Thailand and Myanmar.
We were told that one can only witness the Mon dances in this area of Thailand. In the morning, we would be visiting the local Mon village which resides next to the river raft, and this is where the dancers and musicians lived.
The cultural Mon dance comprises of six chapters – the Welcome Dance, “Theng Ta-leang La Aow”; the Kids’ Dance; the Flirting Dance, where the male dancers showed us how they express their love to the girls; the Candle Light Dance, which is dedicated to Buddha; the Water Festival Dance, to call upon the spirits; and the Farewell Dance, thanking the audience for watching and enjoying the traditional show.
It only cost us 160 Thai Bhat each to watch the show (the equivalent of just under £4), and the ticket cost is given directly to the Mon village.
It was a lovely way to end a busy, fun-packed day.
The next morning, we explored the Mon village by foot and enjoyed learning about the local people and their customs. There are three hundred people living in the village and their houses are made from bamboo, which they can build in just two days, allowing them to move easily, if the tide comes in. Three generations of Mon people live together and they earn less than ten USD per day, but have barely any need to spend, so find this quite sufficient. The Floating River Raft helps to sustain the village and livelihoods of their neighbours.
We viewed a pineapple farm, the Mon temple, the local cockerel (which we heard constantly throughout the walk), the village school, a cave with shrines to Buddha, their own restaurant, called ‘MonNoodle Soup’, the Mon flag proudly hanging in the village, and lastly, Wandy, the 47-year-old elephant. His name means “good day” in the Mon dialect. He is blind in one eye but has a very happy life in the local village. Elephants are Thailand’s national animal and they used to be a symbol of power in the Thai society. They were previously used as work animals and were ridden in war, but this has since been made illegal.
Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and I am very fortunate to have now seen both types. They greet with their trunks, much like we do with our hands, and we were told that they flirt in the same way as humans. They have the greatest memories of all mammals, hence the expression, ‘an elephant never forgets’.
That afternoon, we bid farewell to the friendly Mon people and left the floating river raft to visit the infamous Death Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai.
The 415-kilometre long railway stretched between Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar (or Burma, as it was known at the time). It was commissioned by the Emperor of Japan and built between 1940 and 1944 by prisoners of war, to supply troops and weapons during the Second World War.
Whilst the Burmese portion of the railroad fell into disrepair, the Thai section of the railway still exists. However, out of respect for those who died whilst building the bridge, a new bridge was built over the river.
Between 180,000 and 250,000 prisoners of war were subjected to forced labour during the construction of the railway and about 102,000 prisoners died.
Next to the railway track, we also saw the Tham Krasae, a cave which was once a campsite for the prisoners of war. At present, it is a place of worship with a large, golden statue of Buddha inside, as well as home to some bats.
Our last stop of the day before heading to our accommodation was to Sai Yok Elephant Haven. This used to be an elephant riding camp for tourists, but it is now a sanctuary, where instead we fed and bathed previously domesticated elephants that wouldn’t survive if released into the wild.
Now the herd have the freedom to roam, socialise, enjoy a mud bath and cool down in the river Kwai. The names of the elephants living in the sanctuary can be seen below, and I remember Mali and Boonmee being the main two elephants that we helped to bathe and feed.
Heading back to our accommodation, we were grateful to see a lovely cold swimming pool and we relaxed happily and unwound after the excitement of the elephants.
And that evening, after another incredible day in Thailand (which I found out is fondly nicknamed The Land of Smiles and could now see why!), we headed to a street market in Kanchanaburi Town for some absolutely delicious pad Thai. One of my tour friends taught me (finally) how to use chopsticks to eat it and I actually managed, much to my surprise.
The night ended with some dancing and bar games, in an absolutely stifling but fun, neon-lit bar.
The tour had only just begun, but already I was having a truly wonderful time.
Tomorrow, we would be visiting the breathtaking Erawan waterfalls and continuing on through Thailand for more incredible adventures, so watch this space!