– visited May 2015 –
I enter Thailand arriving from Laos in the northeastern Isan Province. It is the poorest part of the country and sees few tourists although it has quite a few attractions. For the average traveller it just doesn’t fit in the usual preconceptions of Thailand with beach and fun. The first stop is Ubon Ratchanthani. The Night Market is a great introduction into Thai cuisine, cheap and delicious food all around.
I head to a post office. I bought some very beautiful postcards in Vietnam. They are plain from the outside but the moment you open them a magnificent ferries wheel or something else pops up. I just could not send the bigger ones from Vietnam as the postal system could not handle them. No problem in Thailand, the girl behind the counter is super-nice and speaks good English. She is happy that someone interesting has turned up: “Do you want to send them express? They will arrive within 48 hours.” She grabs her calculator and puts in a few numbers. “Express would only be somewhere in the range of 700$. No? You really don’t want? How sad.” She burst out laughing.
A rented motorbike brings me to the beautiful Khmer Ruins of Phanum Rung and Prasat Muang Tam. Khao Yai National Park is kind of a disappointment. The landscape is beautiful but in no ways spectacular. Apart from some deer, I miss out on the animals I had hoped for. I make my first contact with leeches though. Fascinating creatures. I look down at my feet and I suddenly realize that my pants are bloody. The leeches are long gone, and I felt absolutely nothing. They basically anesthetize you with their bite and in addition add substances that hinder the blood coagulation, the wounds from the leeches just do not stop bleeding. I put a tissue inside my socks but more than two hours after the bite blood was still seeping out. If the leech has sucked enough blood they just drop off from your body. I catch more later on and again I do not notice anything. Leeches do not transmit any diseases and the moment you have overcome the aversion of some animal feeding from you, you start to like them.
A welcome surprise is the superfast internet in the hostel I had booked near Khao Yai National Park. On all my travels one of my fears is that I might lose some of the pictures I have taken. My laptop or hard disks might go missing, my camera as well. The only safe way is to store them somewhere online. The problem is that I create something in the range of 10 GB of data per day which is difficult to upload. I reach the national park on my 55th day of travelling. The internet speed is fabulous and in my three days I manage to upload a decent chunk of those.
Lopburi is best known for the thousands of long-tailed macaques that live in the middle of the city, especially around the Khmer temple, Prang Sam Yot and a Khmer shrine, Sarn Phra Karn. They have adapted to city life and are fed by the local people. The monkeys can be aggressive, are not afraid of humans, and often steal whatever items or food they can find from unwary visitors. Most of the hotels and guesthouses in Lopburi are “monkey-proofed”, to make sure that the animals do not get inside.
People in countries without monkeys are usually fascinated by these interesting animals. In contrast, for people in countries with monkeys they can be very annoying as they are smart and capable of reaching the most incredible places. In Western Europe a fence can prevent any animal of a certain size from entering your property. A monkey laughs at a fence and just climbs over it. Want to make a fence monkey proof? Good luck with that. And monkeys are interested in many things…
The people of Lopburi have accepted the monkeys and they became kind of an attraction. Signs around town read: ”To prevent monkeys attacking people, the officer will feed monkeys in 3 designated areas outside San Phrakan twice a day, at 10am and 4pm. Those who want to feed monkeys other than these times, please contact the officer or caretaker.” Tourists come to watch.
Thailand, back then known as Siam, is the only country in South-East Asia never to have been colonized. Its monarchy was forced to sign unequal treaties, lost territory but never had to give up its rule. In 1932, the king was forced to grant a constitution thereby ending centuries of absolute monarchy. In World War II its independence mostly kept Thailand out of the fighting as Japan began an invasion but that was soon legalized into a military alliance and free passage for Japanese troops.
Thailand is still a constitutional monarchy up to this day and in 2015 the king with the beautiful name Bhumibol had been reigning for, hold yourself, 69 years. Apart from the king, Thai politics were anything but stable. Major coups happened in 1949, 1951, 1957, 1976, 1977, 1991, 2006 and the last one a year before my visit in 2014. The tourist paradise of fun and good vibes has been ruled most of the time by authoritarian rulers allowing little dissent. The king is highly revered but mostly keeps his distance from all things political, letting things happen.
I had been to Bangkok on this trip before. Six weeks ago it was the Buddhist New Year, known as Songkran and great fun as people celebrated with a water battle all over town.
This time, I am only quickly stopping over on my way south. I visit the Snake Farm of the Thai Red Cross at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. Snakes are a part of life in Thailand as are snakebites. You can watch as snakes are milked for their venom which is then used for the production of anti-venom.
Thailand is well-known for prostitution and sex tourism. Visiting Bangkok this is not apparent; as in other well-known cities around the world, there is a clear separation between normal and red-light districts. Bangkok has three of them: Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza and Patpong. I walk through Patpong around midday and there are no signs of life at all. In the evening, I head to Soi Cowboy to have a look. It is eventually only one street full of go-go bars. There is a great number of sexy, skimpily dressed girls. I am a fairly liberal person so if two adults agree to do whatever I am usually fine with that. Still, to me personally the whole setting is interesting but very off-putting. In the streets around Soi Cowboy are numerous massage parlours. Massages are very popular and a part of life in Thailand. They can concentrate on parts of the body or encompass the whole body. A whole-body massage comes fairly close to sensitive areas. They are often done in semi-public as many massage parlours have glass windows to let people see inside. Or they are done on the beach. A one-hour massage usually costs around 10 € or a bit less. The massages offered in these parlours seem to be of a different kind. The girls are young, beautiful, waiting outside and chatty. They offer prices like 3 € and I suppose there are add-ons that can be “bought” after the massage has started.
I am running out of time and have to hurry to get south to Malaysia. Hua Hin is a compromise destination. I wanted to go to one of the places famous for sex tourism but neither Pattaya nor Phuket were one my way. Hua Hin meanwhile is on the railway line to Malaysia and Singapore.
Hua Hin is a royal city with the summer residence of the king nearby. Because of that status the sex industry is a bit tamer than in other places. Whereas the bar girls in Phuket or Pattaya often come just dressed in a bikini they wear more clothes in Hua Hin. Still the whole centre of town is taken over by girlie bars (bars were the waitresses are plenty and aim to leave with you) and massage parlours of dubious reputation. Whereas in Bangkok you have to look for the red-light areas in Hua Hin there is no way to escape it. Girls are standing outside the bars and try to lure people in. There is a surprising/shocking number of German owned/run businesses around town.
I rent a motorbike to get to the summer residence of the king and to explore the backcountry with the Huay Mongkol temple. Buddhist faithful release fish into the pond, they consider it a good deed. Well, the Buddha told people to help suffering animals but I am not so sure if paying people to catch fish that can later be released is what he had in mind. On the way back, I stumble upon a beautiful stupa in a small village. I just decide to follow the path to the golden dome visible on the hill.
In the evening I find myself at the train station waiting for the night train to Malaysia. As a royal city, the train station has a royal pavilion. You do not want to mix with the common people if you are seen as something close to divine.