Flying into Asia…

I’m running so far behind on this blog, but we’ve spent the last 24hours on a bus from Hanoi to Vientiane – so I finally found some time to pen the following.  You can expect more soon!  (Publishing without pics for the time being – *updated with pics 9th Dec 2015* That took a while!)

There is an almost indescribably vast chasm of contrast between what we left in Delhi, and what we found in Bangkok…and we were certainly ready for a change!

Bangkok is a modern, thriving metropolis and the beating heart of South East Asia for many travellers. It’s the access point, the jumping off point, the melting pot. From here, you can go anywhere and yet it is, of course a hugely popular destination in its own right.

Our arrival in Bangkok demonstrated the difference in cultures and behaviour immediately. Having made it through immigration, we got ourselves a map and headed towards central Bangkok on the sky-train. It’s essentially the same as the tube but loads quicker, loads quieter, and on a monorail in the air (so you get great views of the city). The stark contrast was played out on the platform before we boarded the train however. As the airport is the end of the line, the station staff and security sweep the train after everyone has disembarked before letting the waiting passengers get onto the train. This is not unusual in itself I suppose, but the manner in which it happened was so organised and so well behaved that it kind of blew our minds just a little bit – especially when we thought back to our third day in Delhi and the rugby scrum style approach we developed (and honed pretty rapidly and successfully I might add) to getting on and off of the metro trains. They were rammed to the eyeballs.

We have no pictures of the sky-train, so here’s one of some Chang in a Singha glass to be going on with.

A few minutes before the train arrived in Bangkok, everyone was lined up in a series of queues on the platform. These all corresponded exactly to lines painted on the platform itself directing you where to stand to facilitate ease of movement of groups of passengers. Then, a rather elderly and frail-looking man with a high vis jacket walked along the platform edge, making an announcement in Thai and gesturing to wait. There was only he and one other guy to control the entire station. You’d need a flippin’ army to keep Indians off a train once it’s arrived in a station – they think nothing of climbing in through the windows! And the same goes for Londoners on the tube, wouldn’t you say? Actually, the last train we caught in India, our carriage was locked so one guy did indeed climb into the emergency exit hatch and open it from the inside. This appeared to be entirely normal behaviour…

Anyway…back in Bangkok (and with fresh Indian memories in my mind) I was chuckling to myself as I thought, ‘Good luck holding this lot back mate. Good luck indeed, oh ho ho ha ha! Watch them run! He he!’ And as the train pulled in, and the passengers calmly disembarked through the gaps left by the painted lines, I was waiting, just waiting, for the inevitable to happen…for somebody to break the line and start a mad dash and scramble for seats that would see elbows flailing and heavy bags being dragged and children pushed, pulled and heaved this way and that in the melee of screams, shouts, and muffled grunts of desperate effort just to make it there before the last space has gone and the doors slam shut on the late ones’ hopes of ever getting a place on the magical train.

But it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen like that at all.

The doors opened, the passengers got off, and then … nothing. The old man in the high vis stood at the end of the platform and surveyed the scene as hundreds of travellers (who only 40 minutes earlier had no doubt been involved in some sort of baggage carousel ruck and maul) stood perfectly still. Nobody flinched, nobody twitched, nobody moved muscle. I thought maybe this old guy was Yoda and this was a work of the Force.

The train staff swept through the train, it took two, maybe three minutes, and then it was clear. The doors were open, the train was ready, the passengers were inches away, literally, from the train and still – not a single person moved. All eyes shifted to the old man. He stood for a moment, nothing more, almost just waiting to see … and then, with no sound, just a simple motion, a small wave of his hand, he admitted the passengers to the train. And everyone just stepped forwards and took their place.

If you’ve ever been to Bangkok you’ll recognise this as the inimitable Khao San Road.

Oh wow. A whole new world (sang Aladdin to Jasmine – totally irrelevant) we thought as we raced through the air on the sky-train towards the centre of Bangkok and the one place that every Thailand traveller will know – the Khao San Road.

We had to get a taxi at the end of the sky train, but that was quite exciting because all of the taxis in Bangkok look like something out of The Fast and the Furious. We hailed a pink Toyota that had lowered suspension, a body kit, leather interior and a large exhaust hanging out of the back of it. ‘This is going to be fun,’ I thought. And then off we went, into the Bangkok traffic. Which was heavy! Unlike Indian traffic, they all follow the rules, hardly ever beep and there is seemingly a large amount of time spent sat in jams from one set of lights to the next. So much for my anticipated adrenaline thrill taxi ride!

On recommendation from Gav and Eleanor Lahney, friends who had been in Bangkok (and then pretty much followed the same route through Cambodia and Vietnam) a couple of weeks earlier, we opted to stay in The Greenhouse – a hostel style guest house which is actually on Rambuttri, the road that runs parallel to Khao San. The guy at the desk was from the Phillipines, slightly camp, spoke with a slight American accent and seemed incredibly excited to see us. ‘Oh, you’re British!’ he said, ‘I love the British, the British are so friendly, you’re like my favourite customers, you know, I used to work on a helpline for a firm that’s like Netflix but not Netflix and the British people who called were always so friendly, they were never rude to me, I love the British, so, here’s what I’m going to do, I’ve got a nice room for you, A/C, private bathroom, new beds, like ‘brand new’ beds, we literally just put them in there today buuuuuuut, well, I gotta tell you, it’s on the fourth floor …and there’s no lift but I really want you to have this room so I’m gonna sort you a discount, just give me a minuuuuuuute, there we go, cos it’s on the fourth floor but I soooo want you to have it cos I just loooove the British. That ok?’
‘Err, ok,’ we replied, with a smile. It was a good recommendation as the room did indeed have brand new beds, and a hot shower, although the door only came up to my shoulder – I wondered how Gav had got on here (he’s a good 2-3 inches taller than I am!). I had a quick shower, then as Helena was having hers, I shouted that I’d meet her in the bar.

‘One large Chang’ turned into several…

I went downstairs and the bar spread out to encompass the entire pavement outside the hostel – as did all of the bars along the street. I saw a waitress and asked if I could just grab a table. She simultaneously indicated a free table and asked simply, ‘One large Chang?’ ‘How did you guess?’ came my reply, but I think she’d already gone off to get my beer. 20 mins or so (and two more large Changs) later, Hels joined me. We ate Pad Thai and got chatting to two girls who were sat beside us. They’d just arrived in Bangkok from England and were excited and a little scared by it all already.

Bright lights and buzzing streets give Bangkok an energy like no other city.

Hels and I decided to head out for a walk to take in the atmosphere of Rambuttri and Khao San, two streets that are heaving with travellers and lined with bars, restaurants, shops, street traders and people trying to sell you tickets to a ping pong show;  I wondered at Thailand’s apparent obsession with table tennis.  We also fended off various people who approached with scorpions on a stick – which seems to be an entirely Bangkok thing so far!!

Then, I hear, ‘Hello mate!’ in my right ear. Wondering who on earth I knew in Bangkok, I turned right to see a guy I recognised but couldn’t place. Helena got there before me, ‘Oh hi! It’s Ric isn’t it? You were in Kerala?’ Ric had indeed been in Kerala on the same kayak trip through the backwaters and he’d mentioned his plans to head to Thailand. Still, it was a bit of a coincidence.

We only went out for a wander … and I ended up dancing in the street with my hair down!

He wasn’t doing much so we walked around together for a bit before stopping in a bar with a live band. The beer started flowing at this point, along with the tales of India. Then the two girls from earlier wandered past and joined us. It turned into a bit of a late night…

The next morning, our first decision was that we needed to stay another night. And do some laundry!

Oh the absolute luxury of laundry day!   Smell those fresh socks!
Thai massage on the street – pretty standard fare for Khao San.
Waiting for our Pad Thai, Hels looks a little unsure of the optional added chillies

Top Ten Indian Observations

I’m sitting in a chilled out bar in our hostel in Cambodia at the moment – a world away from India and all the experiences we had there!  However, after visiting the killing fields of Choeung Ek yesterday (more on that in another post), we’re having a day of relaxing, reflecting, and catching up before heading off to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow to meet up with Tessa – yay!!

So – here are the top ten things that struck us while visiting India.  (I was thinking of trying to write it in a kind of Top of the Pops/chart radio/ ‘Climbing three places to five’ kind of way … but Hels assured me it wouldn’t work and I’m inclined to agree!)

In no particular order…

1 – The roads are insane. I could write an entire top ten about this single subject!  Our first experience of India was Delhi and I think I wrote a little about the roads then… mainly about the beeping!  Since then, we’ve learned that the rules of the road are widely open to interpretation, so much so that the pavement (on the occasion that there is a pavement) makes as good a road as any when the traffic is bad.  You’ll often be wandering down the pavement and a motorbike will flash past because the road is at a standstill!  Speaking of motorbikes – they’re everywhere and they do everything with/on them.  In India, a small motorbike IS a viable method of transport for a family of five!  (We witnessed this!)  Walking in India is frowned upon – even though it’s normally quicker – but if you do walk, it’s often safer to walk in the road.  And finally, on this first point, crossing the road is as much an art form as it is blind faith.  You have to pick your moment and go for it, confidently, stubbornly, even belligerently and when you’ve started, don’t stop whatever you do!  With tuk-tuks and motorbikes howling past, you are, at that moment, part of India’s massive perpetual game of chicken.

2 – Cows get everywhere.  And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere!  So much so that we started collecting a bit of a picture gallery – cow on the street, cow at the bakery, cow at the guest house, cow at the temple, cow at the ruins…and so on…and my personal favourite: cow at the beach!

Cow at the beach!
Cow at the beach!

3 – White people are a tourist attraction.  I think I mentioned this before too – but it persisted – and has stopped the moment we have reached Asia so it deserves its place in the Top Ten.  We had photos taken of us everywhere, from the Red Fort in Delhi, to the Amber Fort in Jaipur;  the beaches of Goa to the backwaters of Kerala.  It mostly happened at tourist attractions and monuments, but also at train stations, on the street, in shops… pretty much anywhere!  It was mainly in good faith and we didn’t mind but we kept thinking that some of the photos would be quite good to have for ourselves but we were always in front of the camera.  So, when we were walking around Hampi, there were a load of school parties there and a young girl ran up to Hels waving and saying hello.  Hels waved back happily and said hello in return, and in seconds she was surrounded by excitable school children.  I quickly grabbed my camera from my pocket and the resulting photo is one of my favourites so far!

Helena was mobbed by this school party in Hampi - 'now waaave!'
Helena was mobbed by this school party in Hampi – ‘now waaave!’

4 – The curry isn’t that spicy.  Now, I’m not sure of the reason for this but we have various theories… Let me begin by saying that I was expecting to find some volcanic curry in India, and was looking forward to it as a huge chilli fan.  So I was really surprised when we were ordering food and it simply wasn’t that hot.  We began ordering things specifically to find the hot dishes and the waiters would always ask, ‘You want it spicy?’  ‘Yes please,’ I’d say.  Which was often met with a look of concern mixed with doubt.  ‘Medium spicy?  Full spicy?’ came the tentative clarification.  ‘Full spicy please,’ I’d reply, and off he would go to the kitchen looking worried.  Once or twice we did get some rocket hot food but our theories about the lack of heat are that either a) we eat hot curry at home and so are used to it, b) the chefs/waiters always tamed it down, fearing for the life of the westerners, c) that’s just how Indian curry is and the UK curry is unnecessarily spicy.  Who knows!

5 – The Royal Enfield is the best sounding bike in India.  Well this pretty much speaks for itself! Amongst the melee of beeping horns, shouting drivers and engines, you’d occasionally hear the deep, throaty ‘frap, frap, frap, frap, frap’ of the Royal Enfield.  It is unmistakeable – and I found myself wanting one!!  I have no idea what it is about the bike that makes it make that noise, but it was a delight to both see and hear them.

Don't be surprised if you see me riding one of these when we get home!!
Don’t be surprised if you see me riding one of these when we get home!!

6 – ‘Ten rupees for change’.  We only got duped with this once, and it was partly the fault of the Lonely Planet!  The short story basically goes that on arrival into Agra, our first time moving around, we got off the train and opted for a ‘pre-pay’ taxi to get to our hotel.  It was 50 rupees, which we thought was a reasonable price, but having just been to the cash point, we only had 500 rupee notes (equivalent to about five pounds)  Helena handed one over and the guy, without looking up asks for a smaller note.  We explain that we only have 500s and he just says, ‘Ten rupees for change.’  Looking at each other we kind of shrug and, knowing no better, say ok.  At which point he brings out a large bundle of notes of all values and gives us 4×100 rupees and 4×10 rupees, having taken his ten for change!  We learned later that this was a complete scam and although the Lonely Planet tells you to have the correct fare ready for tuk-tuk drivers and such, they DEFINITELY HAVE CHANGE!   Every time after that, we simply refused (politely), and they would look at you for a moment before producing the change.  Lesson learned!

7 – Terrible toilets and toilet paper treks.  The toilets in India leave a lot to be desired, and the worst ones are to be found at the places that overnight buses decide to stop to let you use one.  The urinal stench is indescribable – I literally cannot find the words.  The only thing I can think to say is that you had better hope your pee lasts for less time than you can hold your breath for or you, my friend, are in bother!!  The second part of this comes from a short episode in Mysore where, just before getting back to our room we remembered that we had no toilet paper so we decided to pop out and grab some.  We went to about 15 shops on a walk that ended up being about five or six kilometres before we found a shop that stocked it … and even then it was one single roll, tucked at the back of a top shelf, and we’re not sure the guy even knew he had it!  He certainly didn’t know the price!!  So he made one up, we paid it, and everyone was happy!

8 – There are dogs and puppies everywhere.  Pretty self-explanatory really!  Similar to the cows, they’re all over the place.  They do have cute puppies though …

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9 – There’s always an old guy.  This was one of our first observations and kind of started off our list.  We noticed that, whenever we went somewhere to eat, there was always an old guy sat somewhere who dealt with all the cash.  We first noticed it in Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai, where this small chap sat on a chair behind the bar looking not unlike yoda.  All of the orders went through him, all of the bills came from him and all of the money went back to him.  It was the same in Leopold’s, the bars in Delhi, restaurants in Goa and throughout the South.  Invariably, these guys had one thing in common – they all looked fairly pleased with themselves!

And finally – 10 – we never had a hope of covering India in a month.  What were we thinking?!!  On reflection, it wasn’t always the easiest experience in the world, and the Northern cities in particular were challenging to visit, especially since it was quite cold and damp, but it is certainly one we won’t forget anytime soon.  Having only been in Thailand and Cambodia for a week, it may be too early to say, but India is somewhere pretty special.  It’s diverse, confusing, chaotic and unrelenting.  I’m not sure we were quite ready (or had time) to fully surrender to India’s charms … maybe we will have to return!

Typical India - Monkey chilling out on a motorbike, cows in background, general dirt and grime underfoot!
Typical India – Monkey chilling out on a motorbike, cows in background, general dirt and grime underfoot!