This Time Last Year Project

In February 2011 I had my last day at work. My car was put into storage and my arm was sore from all the vaccinations. My backpack had been packed for days already. I couldn’t wait to start out on a journey that I’d been planning since at least 2004. The trip would take me through Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and then coast-to-coast across the USA by car.

I would be travelling in a group with my girlfriend Nic, and our two friends Frank and Chick.

I consider myself extremely lucky that my boss gave me such a long time off work. It’s something I’ll be forever grateful for, especially considering he’s likely to become my father-in-law at some point in the future.

Arrival In Thailand

Day 1 – Bangkok – Wednesday March 2nd 2011
The flight to Thailand from London took a long time. The first leg to Mumbai was exciting, and we were all in high spirits in anticipation of seeing Bangkok for the first time. Mumbai to Bangkok was one of the strangest flights I’ve ever been on. It was full of noisy blokes on some sort of stag party. To add to the strange atmosphere, there was an Indian slapstick movie for in-flight entertainment which the stag party noisily enjoyed.

I had managed to plan our escape from the airport and into a Taxi-Meter (metered taxi) for the trip to our first ever hostel. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport has an ingenious taxi-liason system where English speaking staff take details of your destination and relay it to the Thai taxi drivers. For first-time travellers in a strange city this was extremely helpful, and helped us avoid any scams from unofficial taxis.

The drive was fast. Scarily fast. but we felt pretty safe as we went from toll roads and motorways to densely packed roads between brightly lit tower blocks. The big surprise came when the driver stopped at a red light, unzipped his trousers, and started to piss into a plastic bottle. When you gotta go, don’t let a car full of passengers stop you! Luckily for Frank he was fast asleep in the front seat, but the girls in the back got a face-full of the smell when he stowed it in front of the air conditioning fan.

Welcome to Thailand young traveller. It’s like nowhere you’ve seen before.

Somehow we got to our stylish and modern hostel, Lub D, in one piece. Located in Siam Square, and wedged in between construction sites and high rise tower blocks, it was like a new flower growing from the rubble. The view from the front was dominated by a massive Skytrain Terminal, giving the place a kind of futuristic edge. It reminded me of a post-apocalyptic movie set, where the harsh modern new structures provide a stark contrast to the old traditional buildings and temples.

I thought Portsmouth was densely populated until I saw this place.

First Day In Bangkok

Day 2 – Bangkok – Thursday March 3rd 2011

As I lay in bed, trying and failing to sleep, I could sense that the others were doing the same. We had a four-bed dorm to ourselves. Nobody spoke, and only Frank was asleep. Suddenly he woke up and sat bolt upright in his bunk. “Shit, what time is it!” he blurted out. “It’s about 2 o’clock mate.” I said. “Oh no, we’ve wasted half the day!” he shouted as he jumped out of bed, scrabbling around for his things.

“No, Frank. It’s 2am. You’ve only been asleep a couple of hours…”

The look on his face was brilliant. Almost made up for the sleepless night. He still managed to get back to sleep while the rest of us just lay awake until morning.

When morning did finally arrive I was exhausted, and glad to get out of the room. I had a tiny bowl of freebie Cornflakes for breakfast and then we headed for Lumphini Park.

We decided to walk to the park. It was only a couple of centimetres on the map… It turned out to be a few miles away but a good walk, as we got to see some street food stalls and experience the endless lanes of traffic and congestion. An initiation of sorts.

The park was an oasis surrounded by high rise office blocks. There were pretty pagodas and small buildings throughout the park, and a large lake with some sort of Komodo Dragon sentries patrolling the waters edge. The pagodas provided a handy resting stop when an impromptu thunderstorm stopped us walking for an hour.

After the park we stopped for lunch at a Chinese cafe and then bough Ice lollies from Tesco Lotus. We needed some fuel for our walk to the train station.

At the train station a kindly lady with official looking name badge helped us with train times, and ushered us towards a T.A.T (or TAT, I can’t remember) tour office. We thought we would see what they had to offer, and ended up going for a package to get us up to Chiang Mai by train via Ayutthaya and Lop Buri (Monkey Town). The trip also included accommodation in Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and a jungle trek for 3 days at the end. We had the next 10 days all planned out and sorted for £100.

Maybe we were naive, but this seemed like a great deal.

Referring back to our map, we saw that our hostel was only round the corner, so off we walked again.


3 hours later, we took a short cut and were wading through a flooded back street, trying desperately to find the canal to get our bearings. Then a thunderstorm started again. Nic nearly lost a flip flop as it floated off down the road. We found the canal eventually and followed it through tiny alleyways and houses on the edge of the water. Occasionally a local would pop their head out and point us in the right direction. Helpful happy Thai people.

As we crossed a bridge, Chick slipped and ended up on one knee proposing to Frank. She cut her leg a bit.

We did eventually find the hostel, and although exhausted, we were glad to have seen such a hidden side of Bangkok. If we hadn’t got lost, we would have never met those locals, and never known about their little houses along the canal.

Train to Ayutthaya

Day 3 – Bangkok to Ayutthaya – Friday March 4th 2011

We arrived at the TAT office at 11am and were taken into the railway station and shown which platform to wait at. We were heading for Ayutthaya, one of the most historic cities in Thailand, and former capital.

Bangkok to Ayutthaya Train Ticket
Bangkok to Ayutthaya Train Ticket

This train was ordinary class, which meant we were travelling local style. We travelled with mostly Thai people but there were a few other backpackers around. Our carriage had a rudimentary style of air conditioning, otherwise known as open windows.

The ride was a couple of hours on slatted wooden benches. Fine for this short distance but I can’t imagine sitting like that for much longer.

During the journey, a drunk Thai couple started having a fight in the middle of the train. The man was kicking the woman in the head until a very officious guard arrived to restore order and booted them off at the next stop. There seems to be a real respect for uniformed officials. Nothing like back home.

At Ayutthaya we were met unexpectedly by a friendly woman for our first ride in a Tuk-Tuk (pronounced Took Took). The tuk-tuk was fun and we were quickly at Baan Eve Guesthouse. It was away from the main road and had outdoor seating, tuck shop style bar, and a really lovely family running the place.

The family were more than happy to arrange transport and suggest local places to visit. We could easily make them laugh by trying our hardest to speak Thai. Sawatdee-Krup!

In the afternoon we walked to some local temple ruins, which were literally a few scattered rocks on the ground. They were so inconspicuous that we walked straight past them at first.

In the evening we had some new arrivals so went with our new friends to the night market by tuk-tuk. The market was tiny, and mostly selling food, so we were soon back at the guesthouse enjoying a beer before bed.

Touring Temples & Sleeper Train

Day 4 – Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai – Saturday March 5th 2011

Our room was comfortable but the air conditioning was noisy and kept us awake for most of the night.

In the morning we arranged for our tuk-tuk driver to take us on a tour of all the local temples. Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol was huge, and still in use by monks. Our driver would sleep outside while we went in the temples.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkol - Ayutthaya
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol – Ayutthaya

After the long hot day touring temples, I wanted nothing more than to chill out and have a shower and a beer.

Our itinerary had other plans. We had to catch our next train to Lop Buri (Monkey Town). The train was 2nd class this time, with comfortable airline style seats and fans on the ceiling.

We arrived as the sun was setting and I realised quite fast that I didn’t like this place. The monkeys were violent and savage, grabbing things and attacking people. Luckily we only had a few hours to kill.

After a slow drink at a small cafe Frank went to explore whilst the rest of us went to take cover on the railway platform. Little did we know that Frank had almost got mugged by some dodgy locals after accidentally getting lost down some back streets.

Waiting for our third train, the famous sleeper train, I was not looking forward to a ten hour overnight journey. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The security was excellent, with guards on every door checking tickets and passports when people arrived. We were then lead to our top bunks which were surprisingly spacious.

I had an expensive Chang beer, which seemed to help me fall in love with the sleeper train even more. In fact, I wouldn’t mind just paying to do a few trips on the sleeper train. I couldn’t wait to get to sleep, and nearly nodded off with my beer still in my hand.

The toilets were an experience, but I was soon tucked up and asleep. I slept right through till morning. It was a million times more comfortable than any economy class flight!

The Winner Inn – Chiang Mai

Day 5 – Chiang Mai – Sunday March 6th 2011

Our sleeper train arrived a few minutes early in Chiang Mai, so we waited around for our transport to the Hotel. Our driver arrived in a nice modern pickup truck with comfy benches in the back and a roof. As pickups go, this was a decent example. Our hotel was located just outside the southeast corner of the Chiang Mai canal boundary. The Winner Inn was clean and tidy, and maybe a bit old fashioned. Considering it cost us almost nothing, it was relatively luxurious, and certainly nicer than a hostel.

View from The Winner Inn
View from The Winner Inn

The restaurant area had a strange British Seaside feel to it. It’s hard to explain, but we could almost have been in Brighton twenty years ago.

Chick wasn’t feeling well so Nic, Frank and I went to explore the city, and to find Chick some medicine. We went to the market and had a look round some temples. It is customary to remove your shoes when entering a temple, but the ground is hot in Chiang Mai. We wanted to light some candles and incense and almost burnt the skin off the soles of our feet in the process.

The main centre of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat. We ventured outside this liquid boundary to find the Airport Plaza which was a massive Mall with a huge food court. We ate some food from a Japanese stall,  got some medication for Chick’s throat and then caught a Tuk-Tuk back to the Winner Inn (Which we pronounced Vinner Inn).

Before the night out, I applied my various potions – 55% Deet to repel insects, Anthisan for the bites I already had and Savlon for my already flip-flop ravaged feet. I had been told to wear long sleeves and long trousers in the evening to avoid getting bitten too badly. For the most part that plan worked.

After dark we walked to the famous night market. It was so busy, and there were swarms of flying ants (or something similar) buzzing round the street lights. After an hour or two, the ants had mostly disappeared (we saw some Thais catching them in bags and eating them!).

Nic and I sampled our first street food here with samosas and spring rolls. We were also on the lookout for Chang beer t-shirts. Everyone had them and Chang beer has become one of my favourites, on account of the unpredictable alcohol content. We didn’t find the right size t-shirts but Nic did get some maroon pantaloons.

On our way back from the market we stopped off for a beer at John’s Place. Due to the crazy time difference they were showing the Liverpool Vs Man Utd game live. We left at half time and Kuyt ended up with a hat trick in a 3-1 win.

Tomorrow is Jungle trekking, and none of us know what to expect.

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking (Day One)

Day 6 – Thai Jungle – Monday March 7th 2011

After my beers last night I woke up late and only had half an hour to prepare for the jungle trek. We were just finishing our continental breakfast when our tour guide arrived. We loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and drove around town collecting other trekkers.

Bamboo Hut
Bamboo Hut

Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but once the truck was full we headed out of town and shortly arrived at a butterfly and orchid farm on the edge of Chiang Mai. We saw more butterflies outside the farm than inside, so it was more of a toilet break really. We did get to glimpse a river snake though.

Whilst we waited for our driver, a Thai man took a tied up live chicken from the back of his pickup truck. He spun it around and somehow hypnotised it . We were quite impressed. He was quite pleased with himself.

After another short drive we were at a long-neck village. We hadn’t paid for this part of the trip so we just had a look round at the handicraft stalls outside. By all accounts it was a bit like a human zoo, so we were glad we missed that part.

We continued North, stopping off at a market to collect lunch, and were then in the jungle. We had a few miles of rough roads where we got smashed around in the back of the pickup truck. After that we stopped at a dusty clearing and the trucks left. We were now alone in the jungle. We ate our boxes of rice and then followed our guide into the jungle. We started off on a dirt track, but then ended up off road.

After an hour or two of non-stop walking we stopped for a much needed rest at a small village. We had some refreshments as the temperature soared. We were glad to be sheltered during the hottest part of the day. We had a solid few more hours of walking after that and my water bottle was getting painfully empty. I was seeing imaginary things by the time we reached the camp so couldn’t wait to dump my stuff and get some food and drink.

Our Guide “Abba”

Our guide was a total nut job. He called himself Abba, after the band, had a pet squirrel on a chain round his neck, and was full of crazy stories and “facts”.

Abba’s words of Wisdom:

  • If a guy goes into the river with no shorts on, a Crocodile will bite his cunt off.
  • I work for the government.
  • My only care is make you happy.
  • If anyone wants Happy Hour then come see me. I got the good stuff from the Burmese border. Not like the shit you get in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
  • For the men, there is the toilet. For the women, you go in the bush.
  • Watch out for the red bugs. They will shit in your eye.
  • Cut up a gecko. Eat it. Then no more Asthma!

Thai Village

This village, although clearly catering for tourists, was also a functioning village. There were people living in bamboo huts and working in the forests nearby.

The toilets were simple holes in the ground. The shower was a blue PVC pipe sticking through the wall of a hut. They had a 7-11, but it was just a hand drawn cardboard sign outside a hut.

We ate some communal food at a massive long table and then sat around a campfire getting to know some of our fellow travellers. Nic and I were chatting for ages to three gorgeous Chilean girls, who all spoke English really well. They tried to teach us some Spanish words, but we didn’t really grasp it.

Later in the night, one of the tribesmen came out playing a strange ocarina type instrument with pipes sticking out. It only made about three notes so he just repeated them forever. It was a catchy tune, which I can still remember after a year!

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking (Day Two)

Day 7 – Thai Jungle – Tuesday March 8th 2011

The first night sleeping on solid bamboo was tough. It was surprisingly cold at night considering the intense heat of the day. I woke up hanging out of the mosquito net. I’m assured that there’s no Malaria risk here.

Stacking One Up On The Rim

Thai Convenience Store
Thai Convenience Store

My morning poo was one of my first experiences of a squat toilet. I successfully aimed a few test nuggets down the hole and was feeling confident. I let it all out, and after I finished, looked back to see that I had stacked it all up on the edge of the hole. I had to find a twig to prod it down.

Feeling refreshed, it was now time for breakfast. Eggs on toast and black coffee. Perfect start to the day.

We had a gentle walk out from the village and made our way to a main road. There was a truck waiting for us with a big crane and bamboo rafts on the back. We had to jump on the back with the rafts and Frank sat on the crane arm. Once we got going the crane was swinging wildly from side to side so we were all struggling to keep our balance, and stop Frank from flying off the truck.

Luckily it was only a short drive before we reached the elephant camp. We were put onto rafts and were paddled slowly down the river by a guide. It was really calm and quiet. A nice way to relax after trekking.

Next was our elephant ride. We didn’t really know how this worked so were shocked to see the elephant trainers (mahouts) using metal picks to control the elephants. It didn’t seem right, however much they say it’s humane. If it didn’t hurt the elephant then it wouldn’t work to control them. The ride couldn’t finish quickly enough and we all made a pact to do something to offset our involvement in the use of these elephants like this.

Elephant Turds

We had a buffet lunch of curry, rice, noodles, vegetables and fruit and were getting ready for the afternoon trek. They decided that it was too hot in the middle of the day to trek but said we could swim in the river if we wanted. Nic and Frank went into the water, but I saw elephant turds floating down it so rested in the shade instead. I watched from the balcony as they washed a baby elephant in the river.

When they came out of the river we all watched a slightly older elephant being trained. It had its head held underwater, was hit with spikes and generally didn’t seem to get treated too well.

At around 2pm we finally set off for the next village. It was uphill and probably near 40°c. After half an hour of walking I looked round and Chick was nowhere to be seen. I went back for her and she had been sick and couldn’t carry on. I stayed with Chick and Nic had to run back up the hill to find the rest of the group. They were debating leaving us but reluctantly turned back and we took a slightly less strenuous route alongside a road. I’m not sure how much longer any of us could have walked in that sort of heat, so it was probably for the best.

The second village was much smaller than the first, with no craft stalls or long-necks. Our early arrival meant we were the first group into the camp. They had cleverly diverted some of the river into a rock pool which we could use for a chilly bath.

Frank and I played around with an old guitar and some drums whilst the girls helped with cooking in one of the huts.

James, James and James

The other group arrived in the evening and included three guys named James, some French guys and a Spanish couple. One James (Jay) looked and spoke exactly like Russell Brand. He was an aspiring writer and brilliant conversationalist. He warned us how Vietnam is bad for scams and Australia is really expensive.

After dinner we got to try a taste of river snake. It tasted like fishy chicken and had only the smallest slither of meat along its back. There was also the option of deep fried insects, but Frank was the only one mad enough to eat one.

That evening Abba tried to deal us some drugs from the Burmese border, and some of the other girls in our group took him up on the offer. The night was beautifully clear, but despite watching the sky for hours I didn’t see a single shooting star.

Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking (Day Three)

Day 8 – Thai Jungle – Wednesday March 9th 2011

Breakfast was another black coffee and more eggs on toast. When given the choice between black coffee or coffee with milk powder, there is only one real option for me and that’s black.

We were away pretty early and made the short walk to a waterfall resort. I say resort, but there were a couple of buildings and some waterfalls and pools. It was completely deserted so we had the place to ourselves with no staff or anyone around. We got to bathe in the pools, rub mud on ourselves and swim under waterfalls.

Frank donned his mankini and tried the most pathetic dive into the pool. If he didn’t have his bare arse cheeks out, it would have made me an easy £250 on You’ve Been Framed! He actually fell off a log and ended up with scratches all down one side.

Lunch was a box of pretty bland noodles so I spiced it up with loads of chilli flakes. After lunch we were collected by pickup truck and taken for white water rafting. There wasn’t much white water but it was still a good laugh. We used the Peter Andre song Mysterious Girl as our rhythm to row by and paddled way faster than the other team. We got so far ahead that we even had time to jump off the boat for a quick swim to let the others catch up. Our guide did have to drag us from the water as we couldn’t get back on the boat ourselves.

The Winner Inn

Back at the Hotel we had baths, packed our backpacks and got some laundry done. Nic and I put our laundry together and it cost about £6 (320B). It didn’t come back completely clean, but was definitely cleaner than it was before. I tried to wash my trainers in the bath, but couldn’t really dry them out properly as our room had air conditioning. I ended up hanging them outside the window to dry in the sun. They were never quite the same after that, and always had a strange smell.

That night, to combat our jungle noodle overload we went for a pizza. It may have been the best pizza ever made. it cost about £4 (190B)

Muay Thai

After pizza we went to the arena to watch some Muay Thai boxing. We were a bit early and got ringside seats. We played pool in the bar while we waited for the fighting to start. At one point the ladyboy waitress from our bar brought over some vodka shots for us. We were all too worried about it being some sort of scam that we just left them.

Frank got chatting to a long-haired Italian guy Axl, who turned out to be a bit mad. He had no problem drinking the free shots. He was funny and chatty at first, but when some street kids came in later to sell their wares he got quite confrontational with them. It wasn’t ideal. One of the kids shouted at him, “Suck my gock!” We understood what he was trying to say.

Jay from the jungle trek came in during the fight and said hello, but then was gone again.

Thai Massage

Day 9 – Chiang Mai – Thursday March 10th 2011

This was our free day after the trek so we booked in a Thai Massage for the afternoon. In the morning we went out to get snacks and to use the internet to find somewhere else to stay. Nic, Chick and I opted for a 3 bed room at Thapae Gate Lodge, while Frank chose somewhere cheaper. We were paying £3.90 per night and Frank got his place for about £2!

We were collected for the massage at 3pm. We left our shoes at the bottom of the stairs and were shown to a waiting area a few flights up. We were given tea and water and waited for our masseuses to arrive. When they arrived they looked at the size of me and Frank and laughed. We got assigned the bigger women, but they were still tiny.

We got changed into some massive linen clothes and then went through to the raised massage area. We were all laying next to each other and the massage started gently, but soon, she was digging and prodding and stretching me all over the place. I got the biggest masseuse and she was really beating me up.

By the time our hour was up, I could have had another hour. It’s a great way to unwind after so much walking the last few days.

We went for dinner at the Airport Plaza again, but this time I gave in to temptation and had a Big Mac meal.

It was our last night at the Winner Inn so I cracked open a Singha beer from the mini bar, wrote my journal and read a book for a while.