Planning our first train experience, people watching at the adult playground, and a 77 year old with all his parts in working order.

Day 34: We spent this morning finalising travel plans and accommodation for the next section of our trip. Tomorrow we head to Kanchanaburi, a town about 145km northwest of Bangkok. The town is famous for being the home of the Bridge on the River Kwai, the controversial structure built by prisoners of war during World War II to support the Thai-Burmese railway.

Getting to Kanchanaburi should be interesting – we start by walking to the sky train, then board a ferry, then catch a train from Thonburi station on the outskirts of Bangkok. It will be our first train experience in Asia – thankfully it’s only two and a half hours, so even if it’s hellishly uncomfortable it will still be manageable. Always good to do a test run before planning any longer trips.

This afternoon we headed out for a walk towards the city and checked out Benchakiti Park along the way, a decent sized park with a great lake to walk around. Always good to walk around parks on a weekday – we were two of only a handful of people there.

We continued walking and ended up at Nana. The area is famous for Nana Plaza, which occupies a three-story commercial building and is billed as the ‘world’s largest adult playground’. We had a quick drink in a local bar and sat people watching – and wow, there was certainly lots of watching to do. Although the Plaza itself doesn’t open until 7pm (we were there around 4pm), there was still lots a lot of colourful action along the street.

Bar girls were busy cornering single guys in bars to coerce them into buying drinks or more; sex workers (we think that’s the most politically correct term these days, but could be wrong) were hanging out on street corners touching up makeup and making phone calls; and lady boys (also known as kathoeys) were striding up and down the street in front of us. By 5pm things were really starting to lift off and we’d seen enough – we finished our drink and headed off towards home.

We stopped at the Robin Hood pub on the way back for a beer – an English themed pub with a decent selection of local and international beers. We sat on two stools by the bar and after only a minute or two, the American guy next to us introduced himself and started talking. And talking. And talking.

His name is Peter and we heard pretty much everything about his life (we didn’t get to introduce ourselves or say anything much at all – an incredibly chatty guy). He’s a local writer for an overseas publication; has lived in Bangkok over 15 years; lives in a house with 8 rooms; has been married twice; has a daughter who lives in the US; has had a triple bypass; thinks the worst thing about living in Thailand is that people here don’t speak English; and at the age of 77 told us multiple times that ‘all his parts are in working order’, and he has a date with a Thai girl tomorrow evening. And to top it all off, we even got to see a picture and a video of the girl he’s meeting, and a picture of the wine bar where the action is scheduled to take place. Jim reckons that’s all way too much information. Lil was pretty amused by it all, congratulated him on his working parts and wished him well with his date.

We escaped from the Robin Hood after one beer and headed to our favourite local Japanese restaurant for a quiet dinner. We’ll really miss that place, the food is sensational and the staff are really lovely, it was a great find.

Then we headed home for an early night. Tomorrow we’ll be up early, packing and getting ready to set off on the next part of our adventure.

More then.

Avoiding skin whitening, a craving for meaty burgers, and getting our blues fix.

Day 33: We finally managed it. A day of downtime – no monster walks and a welcome chance for Jim’s niggling plantar fasciitis to calm down.

We had a long breakfast at the apartment while we caught up with stuff online – drinking countless cups of coffee with lots of chats and reflections on the trip so far. The brief summary is we’re loving it, we still have to pinch ourselves occasionally as we realise that we’ve really made the jump from corporate life to crazy adventures, and the first five weeks have charged past. We’re happy.

Late morning, Lil headed to the local shopping mall to top up on sunscreen and insect repellent – we blitz through both in copious amounts. Toiletries and lots of other goods are surprisingly expensive in Bangkok; for once it’s not Sydney that’s the higher priced culprit. A tube of sunscreen that we pay $18 for in Sydney is around $30 here and lots of other toiletries are either a bit more, or substantially higher. It turns out that Boots the Chemist had a sale and sunscreen was 75% off, so Lil returned swinging a large bag of the stuff – now we just have to squish it in our packs and carry it around with us. We’ve struggled to even find sunscreen in some towns and villages, so it’s worth hauling supplies with us.

Lil also had to search high and low for a mainstream moisturiser that doesn’t contain whitening agent (the thought of her Irish skin being any whiter than it is, is pretty amusing). Despite health concerns, the multi-billion dollar skin-whitening market is still growing and apparently set to double over the next 10 years. Demand is driven by a mix of following western ideals of white skin, but also a cultural notion that people working in the fields have darker skin so more associated with poverty, whereas pale skin indicates a life out of the sun and hence a higher socioeconomic status. All a little baffling.

Late afternoon we caught the sky train into the city, to walk around the outside of the Grand Palace and surrounding streets. The Grand Palace is a huge complex of buildings that has been the official residence of the royal family since 1782. There are also lots of government buildings nearby – it’s a big central focus and sparkly clean compared to some other parts of the city. The streets were noticeably more quiet too, which made walking around a lot more comfortable, and crossing the road a lot less scary.

We passed a civic square where some kids were playing footy, and an outdoor aerobics class was taking place. Once again Lil tried but failed to convince Jim that we should join in the aerobics class. Next time maybe?

We also passed the city train lines, which reminded us that getting to our next location involves train travel rather than buses – that should be interesting. Unless you’re prepared to pay a hefty premium, train travel here is pretty basic. We’re looking forward to the experience.

After nearly 5 weeks of noodles and rice dishes, we’ve found ourselves craving a good meaty burger – a little odd given we hardly ever eat them in Sydney. Perhaps we’ve finally received our calling to get our burger fix sorted out – we spotted some advertising for Jim’s Burger & Beers (the face even looks like Jim too).

We took a walk down Khao San Road – it had to happen. It’s backpacker and party land – a crazy concoction of loud bars, neon lights, blaring music and stalls selling cheap drinks and buckets of cocktails. There were a couple of stalls selling insects too – as Jim was eyeing up his next crunchy meal on a stick, Lil dragged him away, pointing out they’d probably been out in the sun all day long. Jim says Lil worries too much. Lil agrees, but says someone has to. Food poisoning averted.

We spent the rest of the evening at a tiny music bar called Adhere the 13th Blues Bar – we assume the name is a reference to the US 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The bar seats about 30 people, packed around small round tables with flowery fabric table cloths, and lots of blues music posters, albums and memorabilia pinned to the walls. It’s popular with both locals and tourists and is one of the few blues venues in the city – we tried to visit another one called ‘Nothing but the Blues’ a few days ago, but found it permanently closed.

The support act was an Asian lady who sang mostly folk ballads – she was really good. Then the main act came on after 10pm (a late start but at least we don’t have to get up early for work) – and they were awesome. Mostly blues music with some reggae numbers thrown in. High energy, great musicians – just the music fix we needed.

We caught a Grab car home (similar to Uber) – fair play to Jim for aptly working out locations and street names, which are hellishly confusing here, and getting us safely to our door.

Tomorrow we need to finalise plans and book accommodation for the next stint in our adventure, then we’ll head out for a walk and to check out some more nightlife.

More then.

Getting our snake fix, an anniversary curry outdoors, and it’s snowing beer.

Day 32: Today was a planned recovery day, having walked 30km yesterday. However our recovery plans didn’t work out too well, as we somehow managed to add another 20km today. So in total we’ve now walked over 92km across four days. Go us.

This morning after breakfast, we caught the sky train towards the city and walked across to the Red Cross Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute . We’re both big wildlife lovers, and have a fascination with snakes (though Lil’s fascination is sometimes mixed with equal parts anxiety, particularly if we encounter snakes while we’re out trekking through the countryside).

The snake farm is affiliated with the Thai Red Cross Society, and is the second oldest in the world (the oldest is in Sao Paulo, Brazil). The farm opened in 1917 to produce venom for snakebite victims, together with vaccines for diseases like rabies and small pox. Today, it continues to produce antivenom for hospitals and clinics around the country, is home to over 70 different types of snakes (many from Thailand), has a snake breeding program and an excellent informative exhibition plus snake demonstration. The Institute’s goals are to save lives, promote education and understanding and hopefully help to break down some of the fears people have with snakes.

We arrived at the farm early to get front row seats for the venom milking demonstration, which was carried out behind glass in the auditorium. A narrator impressively switched between Thai and English, as a team of three guys pulled on visors and released five feisty cobras one by one, and conducted the milking process right in front of us. In addition to watching the demo through the glass, there was a close up screen right in front of us, so we got to see it all in more detail. It was fascinating and we felt incredibly lucky to get so close to it all. Our only suggestion would be that a bit more protective clothing might be a good idea – the guys didn’t even wear gloves. Yikes.

We had heaps of fun walking around the farm, peering into cages to view a large range of snakes, everything from king cobras and massive Burmese pythons, to smaller species like pit vipers and cat-eyed snakes. A sign requested visitors not to put their fingers through the open mesh of the king cobra cage. No reminder needed.

Wise words indeed.

The snake demonstration takes place in the afternoons, so after a morning at the farm, we headed to Lumphini Park for a couple of hours for something to eat and to watch more giant sized lizards.

We got back to the farm early to get front row seats again – the snake demonstration is held in an outdoor auditorium. It was one of the most incredible experiences ever – the snake handlers brought out around 10 snakes, one by one – everything from highly venemous king cobras, banded kraits and pit vipers to a very feisty but not so dangerous copper headed king snake.

The demonstration was only a metre from where we were sitting, with no major barrier between us and them other than an open mesh fence – it was both nerve racking and fabulous. The host gave a very informative and at times amusing talk, explaining each snake in detail and its behaviour and level of toxicity as the guys walked around showing off the creatures. Lil was frowning as she listened to the host reeling off snake facts:

“There are around 200 species of snake in Thailand” (Argh)
“However only 16 of those are really dangerous” (Sounds more positive)
“Still, lots of people die every year in Thailand from snake bites”. (Hmm, perhaps not so great after all)

And again, we were really amazed that the guys handling the snakes wore so little protective clothing – wellington boots was it.

A very deadly banded krait.

One of the snakes was a green pit viper – it didn’t look too dangerous, in fact it looked pretty cute. The guy explained it’s venomous, can’t be handled directly as it senses heat and so strikes its prey if it’s picked up AND it’s very common and can be found throughout Bangkok in parklands. Too much information for Lil.

A highly venomous pit viper

At one point a cleaner decided it was a good time to start mopping the floor – the demo team didn’t bat an eyelid as he swept his mop back and forth around their feet. Anything goes as they say.

And then a very special moment when we got to hold an albino python – a seriously gorgeous creature, weighing 10kg.

Today was a special day for another reason as it marks 4 years since Jim proposed to Lil. It’s become a tradition for us to return every year to the Indian restaurant in Sydney where he popped the question. We found a great local Bangkok alternative – a very small local pavement side eatery in Little India by the banks of the Chao Phraya river, with just a few tables and a tiny open fronted kitchen.

The food was sensational – chicken masala, butter chicken (cooked as it should be), aloo bindi (okra with potatoes – delicious and unlike anything we’ve had before), freshly made roti and paneer paratha, and a side of lime chilli sauce. It was one heck of a find, and definitely one to remember.

Then we walked a few kilometres through town and across the Memorial Bridge to the sky train, through the rush hour traffic.

On the way home, we stopped for a beer at the Ekamai Beer House, where we’d spotted they had live music on Mondays. The band set up – the initial number was a jazzy instrumental which sounded great, but they quickly broke into some renditions of old over played 70’s pop songs, so after one beer we decided to head home for an early night. We stopped off at a store to check out some local beers and bought some Weissbeer which the marketing blurb says resembles snowfall when poured. It tasted fine but we didn’t spot much snow.

Tomorrow we really are having a recovery day – Jim’s plantar fasciitis is niggling a little and Lil has lots of research and planning to do, plus a little shopping to do to top up basics like sunscreen and insect repellant.

More then.

A leg bashing 30km walk, a floating sausage stall, and avoiding monster lizards.

Day 31: A sunny Sunday morning in Bangkok. Over breakfast this morning, we decided on another good leg-stretching 20km walk today. We checked out some online maps, and picked out a interesting looking park to walk to called Rama IX, southwest of the district we’re staying in.

Walking in a straight line has never been our thing – we both have some inherent need to know what’s lurking in the back streets, definitely a bit of FOMO going on there. We weaved our way in and out through dusty laneways and run-down streets, all chockers with people out and about wandering, meeting friends and family, and selling and buying food from market stalls.

As we steered back onto the main road, we spotted four girls dressed up in what we assume to be national dress or costume dress – looking very glamorous for a Sunday morning. They posed for a quick photo, them climbed into a taxi and off they went to wherever they were going (language barrier means we couldn’t ask, and will never know).

The map we were following showed a small pathway alongside the river, so we decided to give it a go. It was pretty narrow and very rickety in parts, with a railing on one side and a small risk of falling into the river on the other. Apart from a small family group taking a photo, we were the only people doing the river walk – pretty interesting given we had just left some insanely packed streets.

We heard a bell ringing, and looked down to see a lady paddling past in a small boat, selling sausages on sticks and other food items. She weaved in and out of ferry wharves as she went along, stopping occasionally to hand over food and chat with the locals.

There were a number of small ferry wharves dotted along the riverbank – some just looked like piles of wood nailed together, others a little more sturdy. At one of them, a monk was waiting for the river ferry to come along. It arrived while we were passing – the monk jumped on and the ferry continued on its way down the river – what a great, easy way to travel.

The vibrant flame trees were still in bloom along the way, though they’re starting to shed their red petals – their flowering season is April to June. We found ourselves humming Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees song as we went along, “Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver, And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town”.

A little further along, we passed an entire floating shop – a boat that has all sorts of goods on board including sweets, crisps, drinks and biscuits. It sure beats a trip to the supermarket.

We reached the end of the river path, and steered back out onto a busy street. It was typical of the roads we’ve become used to here – a confusing mix of new and old, rich and poor – you can look across the street one way and see an exclusive gated community, and right behind you there’s a wooden shack with people cooking over open flames on the pavement. How it will ever all get straightened out (or indeed if it ever will), who knows.

Further along Jim spotted a bizarre English themed mini village, called Pickadaily Bangkok Community Mall (whether Pickadaily is a typo or intended, we have no idea).

The eccentric village features lots of different cafes and restaurants, with mock Tudor houses, a gigantic chess game (Jim pointed out there weren’t enough squares to complete a game – regardless, there were only 3 chess pieces, so a game wasn’t happening any time soon), and stores with English plaques nailed outside, including Piccadilly Square. All very random. Must research that one at some point.

We continued on our way, and eventually reached Rama IX park. There were a few frustrations finding the entry gate – we found ourselves walking up and down wrong roads for a bit and through a closed market, but got there in the end.

Rama IX is fabulous. It’s the largest green space in Bangkok, with huge grounds featuring a botanical garden, a massive lake and gardens inspired by countries around the world. The park was built in 1987 to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 60th Birthday and is a popular hangout for locals to escape the crazy city streets. The park also has a Royal Pavilion, a Geodesic dome housing a huge range of cacti, and a number of other buildings and gardens to spend the afternoon wandering around.

We also discovered pretty quickly there are heaps more water monitor lizards in the park too – some were way bigger than the ones we saw at Lumphini Park the other day. At one point a two metre creature ambled across the pathway in front of us. We saw others, up to three metres long, just sitting around the banks of the lake or splashing in the water. Lil spent a good deal of time scanning the grass before daring to walk over it – better safe than sorry and all that. Beautiful creatures, but a little scary at the same time.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we heard rumbling and a massive storm started – heavy rain with crashing thunder and lightning. We darted into the cactus dome, and sat among the prickly plants with a bunch of other visitors, waiting for the storm to ease. It was short lived, so 20 minutes later we were able to venture back outside again.

It was time to head home, so we started the long walk to the nearest Sky Train station (7km from the park). We caught the train back to our local suburb, Ekkamai, then went to a local Japanese restaurant for dinner – another great meal.

In total we walked 30km today – our longest walk yet, and our legs are aching. Tomorrow we’ll take it easy and have a recovery day.

More then.

An important interview in the park, the wrong time to buy beer, and meeting a monster cockroach.

Day 30: Saturday morning again – the weeks keep rolling around. We had a nice lazy start to the day, with coffee and breakfast at our apartment – we’re enjoying not having to eat out for every meal. Our plan today was another walk, though shorter than yesterday, and to have a look at Chatuchak Market, one of the world’s largest weekend markets.

We caught the Skytrain (experts that we are now), and got off at Saphin Taksin station on the way. Our plan was to catch a ferry from there to the other side of the river, and walk around some wats and a bird sanctuary that sounded really interesting. However we discovered that the ‘short boat ride’ mentioned in the article Lil read earlier in the day, was in fact a pretty long one, so we changed our minds and parked that for another day. Meanwhile the lady at the tourist office was trying to shoo us out the door as she had “business to do outside”, so we didn’t have a chance to ask her about alternatives.

So it was a ‘make it up as you go along’ kind of day. We got the Skytrain another stop to Kron Thom Buri and walked around the local area, headed through a temple and down through a laneway to the river, to get some photos across the city.

Then we headed off to explore Chatuchak Market. We caught the Skytrain to the end of the end of ‘the green line’ (we still haven’t worked out what the individual lines are called) to Mo Chit station. It was was easy to work out which way the market was – just follow the huge crowds – the market attracts over 200,000 visitors each day, so the local roads were heaving.

The market covers 27 acres, divided into 27 sections with over 15,000 stalls – it’s massive. It’s the place to buy anything and everything from t-shirts, vintage clothes, handicrafts, ceramics, plants, toys, antiques and silk flowers to Superman dog and cat outfits. We spent a couple of hours wandering around then headed to a local park to escape the mayhem and the heat.

We parked ourselves on a couple of the functional concrete seats by the lake, chomping bananas and nuts while watching huge cat fish and carp jumping for scraps of food other visitors were throwing into the water.

On the subject of bananas (or bananology as Lil calls it), we’ve noticed how different local bananas are to the ones we buy in Sydney supermarkets. They’re much smaller, a lot sweeter and the last two bunches we’ve bought have had large black seeds, which we’ve never seen before. A quick spot of Google research explains that commercially sold bananas (Cavendish etc) have been bred over time to be seed-free (a bit like seedless watermelon). The ones we’ve bought more recently from local fruit stalls are straight from the countryside, or perhaps even local trees, and come complete with seeds that are capable of breaking teeth.

As we wandered back through the park, a group of young guys and a girl stopped and asked if we could please help them. Turns out they are studying English and they wanted to interview and video us as part of their course program. We agreed, and then giggled our way through a series of questions about our clothes shopping habits (we both hate clothes shopping); our views on fashion and whether we think designer clothes are necessary (we really don’t); the weirdest outfit we have ever seen (Lil’s response – a potato sack made into a dress); where we are from and why we are in Thailand (travel, adventure and experiencing crazy moments like this). It was fun and it’s also amusing to think of our smiley faces popping up in a classroom somewhere.

Then we walked to the Skytrain station, passing a very cute squirrel hanging from a tree, happily stuffing its face.

We stopped at the local supermarket near home to pick up some more bread for breakfast, and a couple of local beers to sling in the fridge. It was all going well, until a manager came over to the checkout and wagged his finger at the beer. Another of those uncomfortable moments when you can feel dozens of pairs of eyes on you, but have no idea what the issue is. Someone explained it was the wrong time to buy beer – it was only 4.56pm and we needed to wait until 5.00pm. We now understand alcohol can only be sold or served here between 11am and 2pm; and between 5pm and midnight (and there are strict fines for anyone who does otherwise). Local knowledge and all that.

We had an early dinner at the shopping mall – Green Chicken Curry and Tom Yum Goong spicy soup, both fabulous though perhaps Jim shouldn’t have asked for extra chilli in his – he choked and spluttered his way through the soup. Then we headed home, showered and changed and went for a Saturday evening pint at a bar about 15 minutes walk away. The pub was packed, with an interesting mix of expats and locals, delivering a confusing babble of English and Thai languages.

A group of expats near us were celebrating an occasion (either that or their drinking habits were way out of control) – between six of them they drank beers, then a magnum of Veuve Clicquot bubbly, more beers, then they ordered a 3 litre bottle (no joking) of Limoncello which they asked the barman to whizz up with ice. There’s an extremely good chance they will be feeling horribly hungover tomorrow.

Then home for an earlyish night, with our teeth brushing briefly interrupted by the need to deal with a cockroach the size of a small mouse, and off to bed.

More tomorrow.

Jim discovers insect heaven, a close call with a cleaning cart, and fun times on the Skytrain.

Day 29: The day started with a leisurely breakfast, then we threw on our walking gear and headed out to explore a chunk of this crazy busy city.

We started by walking northwest through Sukhamvit, an exclusive district popular with expats and packed with posh apartments, restaurants, bars and clubs, along with little ‘pocket parks’ – small patches of green in between the densely packed buildings. Sukhamvit Road which runs through the district is one of the longest roads in the world, stretching 388km from Bangkok to the border with Cambodia.

As we walked through the area, we became fascinated by the electric and communications cables running overhead – how on earth anyone works out what cable relates to what, we have no idea. A guy was balanced precariously on a ladder in a tree, fiddling with dozens of wires – certainly don’t envy him his job.

Soon after, we were nearly run over by a cart selling brushes, mops, brooms and all sorts of other cleaning paraphernalia. It’s impressive that the guy driving the cart can even see where he’s going – though given he nearly ran us over, perhaps he can’t.

The traffic in Bangkok is dense and chaotic, and crossing the street is mostly terrifying. There are lots of zebra crossings, but whereas in Australia and Europe traffic stops at crossings to let pedestrians get across the street, that’s not the case here (as we quickly found out). So you have to hover at the side of the street for any sort of gap in the traffic to appear, however small – then run at breakneck speed across the road. Sometimes it means crossing halfway, and waiting in the middle of the street while cars and bikes fly past, often dangerously close, then sprinting to the next pavement. Perhaps assuming there’s safety in numbers, we tend to hang onto each other and run together, like some sort of awkward three legged beat-the-traffic race.

After a quick morning coffee stop to refuel with caffeine, we walked across to Lumphini Park, a 58 hectare open public space with an artificial lake and playgrounds. The park lies in the heart of the business district, and is one of only a few green open spaces left in the city. It’s extremely popular at the weekends, so we decided to go and check it out Friday during the day, when it was far less busy. The park was created in the 1920s by King Rama VI on royal property and was originally a museum. After the first world war, it was rebuilt into the first park in Bangkok. During the second world war, the park was a Japanese army camp. Today it’s a great and very welcome open green space to escape from the dusty noisy streets.

We were sitting on one of the park benches by the lake in the shade when out of the corner of our eyes we spotted, only a couple of metres away, a large water monitor lizard basking in the sun by the water – a real treat. We had a quick look online to find out more. Turns out a large lizard population has made Lumphini their home for some years, however it’s got a bit out of control and over 400 of the creatures now live in the park. In an effort to control the population, up to 100 at a time are removed and transported to a sanctuary elsewhere, however the population continues to increase. They grow up to 3 metres long and can deliver a nasty and painful bite if threatened – so we were very happy to watch from a safe distance.

Next we walked through Chinatown, a packed, busy precinct which is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. We wandered up and down narrow lanes, narrowly avoiding being run over by motorbikes and cars, and taking in the sights and smells. And there were lots of smells. Food cooking, raw meat and fish, herbs and spices, all mixed with pooey putrid drains.

We wandered through streets full of different food stalls selling all sorts of meat, fish and vegetables – some recognisable, some not. Jim skidded to a halt when he spotted the food stall of his dreams – an assortment of different insects, some on sticks, others piled in bowls. Lil groaned, knowing what was coming next.

Jim scanned the selection, quickly decided on a large black scorpion on a stick, and handed over his 100 Baht (about 5 Australian dollars). The stall holder squirted the scorpion with some watery liquid, broke off its tail, added some peppery sauce and handed it over to Jim who was eagerly awaiting his insect fix.

Lil watched in absolute horror while Jim started to chew the claws and the body, then picked bits of flesh out with his fingers. The stuff of nightmares. Then for ‘dessert’, Jim had a silkworm pupae, at which point Lil insisted they leave as she was starting to feel really nauseous.

It took over an hour for Lil’s nausea to subside and her appetite to return (it’s safe to say she will never be the one eating insects). She suggested dinner at a ‘safe’ restaurant – no more dodgy street food for today, thanks. We had some fabulous food at a restaurant on the fringes of Chinatown – sensational roasted duck, pork belly and a great dish of minced pork, salted olives, lime, chilli and rice, rounded off with a pork and marrow bone soup.

Then we wandered across the river, and through lots of streets and laneways, a little saddened by beaten up phone kiosks, apartments that looked like they should have been knocked down a long time ago, a grimy canal with decrepit houses along its side, and so much poverty in amongst all the affluent buildings and cars.

We’d already walked a very long way, so decided to head to the Skytrain station at the National Stadium for the rest of our journey home. It was our first trip on the Skytrain, and it was awesome. The train whooshes along, is clean and safe, and cost around $2 for a 10km trip. It’s also a lot of fun to watch the city go past from above (so many shopping malls!)

Walking down the laneways close to our apartment, we stopped at a local shop to buy some more water, and were intrigued by six coloured eggs mixed in amongst the regular ones. No idea what that was about, but they looked pretty cool. The lady at the shop rearranged them specially for our photo. And finally we got home, had a shower, then enjoyed a couple of Chang beers, which was a pretty good end to a fabulous day.

In total, we walked about 26km today. Tomorrow we’ll likely take it a little easier, maybe take a look at one of the outdoor markets, eat some more giant insects, and perhaps go to some live music tomorrow evening.

More then.

Catching the wrong bus, a spot of haggling at the airport, and mingling with 8 million people.

Day 28: Today it was time to pack up our stuff again, and head to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. We’ll miss Laos, which was an always-interesting and awe-inspiring start to our trip, but we’re also looking forward to a whole new set of adventures in Thailand.

We decided to catch the airport shuttle bus, which stops about 5 mins walk from our guest house. We were in good time, and a little surprised when the but arrived a bit early. We called out to the driver “airport?” and he nodded, so we climbed on.

Wattay International Airport is only a few kilometres outside the city, so despite morning traffic, before long the driver shouted “airport!” to us. We clambered off the bus and stood looking around. We could see the airport, but we weren’t actually at the airport, it was still some way away. Guess we must have caught a regular bus service that stops close by. So we hauled our backpacks on and walked along the road and down the avenue to the airport. Not too bad.

We hung about until the check in desk opened, then started queueing. AirAsia economy had two check in desks open – but in reality it was only one, as the second one was blocked by a family who had two bags that were so large they were like wardrobes on wheels. They couldn’t even fit them on the weighing scales. There was some serious negotiation going on about excess baggage charges, with a calculator being passed back and forth and lots of animated voices – first time we’ve seen anyone haggling at the airport. Meanwhile our queue snaked forward slowly, one by one, until we got to the top – thankfully despite a couple of small purchases, our backpacks still weigh only 10kg (Lil) and 9.4kg (Jim). Having said that, we’d be happy to turf some more weight – when we’re moving around so much, the lighter the better.

Then through security, and through passport control. One awkward moment when the immigration guy asked Lil where she stayed the previous night and she drew a huge blank for a minute, which felt like an eternity. Eventually she spit out the name of the guest house – the guy stared at her for a bit, then raised his eyebrow and waved her through.

We both find air travel a bit frustating; it’s a never ending ritual of shifting from one queue to another, taking up a chunk of a day for an hour’s flight. And everything at Vientiane airport just seemed so slooooow.

Eventually we found ourselves on our flight – our first time on AirAsia, and while it’s budget and no-frills, it’s fine for a short journey. Interesting Super Saverman advertising on the overhead lockers too.

We got to Bangkok, eventually worked out which arrival queue we should be in after queueing in the wrong one (not visa on arrival, just foreign passports) – and made our way through to the arrivals hall. Mark, who runs our guesthouse, had offered to pick us up from the airport and we gratefully accepted. He was waiting for us outside the 7-11 in the arrivals lobby (every country we have ever visited seems to have 7-11 stores – useful landmarks).

Mark had parked about 15 mins walk away – he explained if he parks any closer, it can take an hour or two to get out of the airport. As we walked and looked out the airport windows, we could see what he meant. Lines and lines of cars and taxis in a bottleneck outside.

The trip from the airport to Watthana, the district we’re staying in, took almost an hour exactly. There was so much traffic – however Mark commented that that was a super quick journey. All the traffic came to a complete stop at one point, to let the Royal Family go through – they were out and about in the city.

We reached our guesthouse. The online description made it sound like a guesthouse or upmarket hostel, however it turned out to be a deluxe self contained apartment – it’s fabulous. Premium furniture and bed linen, our own entrance, living room and kitchen – we scored really well on this one.

This evening we wandered out to take a look at the local area. It’s a confusing mix of new and old, as Bangkok continues to develop. Everything from flash Michelin-rated restaurants to local bars and small beaten up carts by the side of the road, selling chicken on skewers and coconut juice. Everywhere is packed, loud and seems just a little crazy after spending weeks in laid back sleepy Laos. So far we haven’t spotted any VIP buses – in fact all the buses we’ve seen so far look ancient, with no windows and no doors.

Over the years Bangkok has grown rapidly, with little urban planning or regulation. The result is inadequate infrastructure and a haphazard layout with congested traffic and severe air pollution. The population of Bangkok is already well over 8 million (way more than the entire population of Laos), and by 2030 it’s expected it will grow to over 10 million, to become one of the world’s megacities.

We wandered into a local shopping mall to get SIM cards, and the first stall we passed was selling Hokkaido cream buns. They looked amazing, and feeling a bit peckish before dinner, we decided to give them a go – absolutely sensational. We’ll have to be careful over the coming days or we’ll find ourselves in constant bun top-up mode. Thankfully there’s no fear of us getting porky though – Jim has already lost a heap of weight from all the walking and cycling, and Lil is shedding pounds too.

We wandered up and down laneways and roads for a bit, then settled on a Japanese restaurant for dinner – superb food, and lovely welcoming people.

Then home for an early night. Tomorrow we’ll head out to start exploring Bangkok – we’re here for a week, so lots of time.

More tomorrow.

The long 28km wander, a vertical runway, and dozens of artificial limbs.

Day 27: After a bit of a snooze-on this morning followed by lots of coffee, we were ready to head out and explore Vientiane. We marked up the main sights and places we wanted to see on a rather cumbersome large folded map, and set off.

First on our list was That Dam (or black stupa) one of the few ancient stupas that remain after the Siamese occupation in the 17th century. The stupa is located on a small roundabout in the centre of town (requiring a death-defying dart through speeding traffic), and overgrown with vegetation. Locals believe a seven headed water serpent, or Naga, lived here to protect the stupa, which at one time was covered in pure gold. In the late 1820s, during the Siamese-Laotian war, the gold was pillaged and taken to Siam (now Thailand).

Next we took a walk through the huge indoor morning market – mostly clothes, linens, tech and white goods. As we walked out we spotted the tourist information centre. Lil can never resist having a poke around tourist brochures and information – Jim found a copy of the Vientiane Times on the newspaper rack and settled down for a good read.

One of the newspaper articles provided an update on the new railway line China is building from Kunming in the Chinese Yunnan province to Vientiane, which will revolutionise Laos, a country so reliant on cars and buses. The 414km link is almost half compete, and scheduled to start running in December 2021. Laos is dependent on China bankrolling much of the US$7bn project. The Kunming-Vientiane link will eventually connect with a railway line to Bangkok, then south along the Malay peninsula to Singapore.

Next we walked to the Patuxai, which means Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph. Built between 1957 and 1968, the Patuxai is modelled on the l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It was built using US funds and cement, which were initially intended for a new airport however the Lao Government built the monument instead – earning it the nickname of ‘vertical runway’. 🙂

We were amused to read the information plaque outside the building, which knocks the monument, saying: “It is the Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane, built in 1962 (B.E 2505), but never complete due to the country’s turbulent history. From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”

We paid our small entrance fee and walked up 5 levels to the viewing deck, with spectacular views across the city. We walked back down, took a last look up at the monument and realised that there were people wandering around above the viewing deck we reached – we’d missed two levels – so back we went to wave our tickets at the lady at the desk, and climbed up 7 levels to the top, to get the full viewing advantage.

We walked back down and through the garden, wondering why there were so many vans lined up with their back doors open and lots of equipment inside. Dozens of photographers were taking photos of tourists at the monument, then scurrying back to their vans to process and print them on the spot. Sounds old school, but here it seems to work.

We also visited COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise). COPE is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos, and has an excellent visitor centre with all sorts of information and displays about prosthetics and of course the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) that sadly makes so many prosthetic limbs necessary.

The centre is a real eye opener to the realities of the UXO impact on Laos. One display showed dozens of prosthetics that villagers had made out of various different items including wood, tin and fabric before receiving proper help from COPE. Pretty sobering.

We then went for some lunch (Jim declared “No more noodles or rice soup for me thanks, I’m over them”) – so we found a restaurant that served baguettes. Goodness knows how he will cope when we reach Thailand.

The afternoon was spent walking along the front by the Mekong River (Thailand is just the other side of the water). We walked past restaurants and bars getting set up to open for the evening, with lots more that are closed for the low season, and some in need of serious repairs. We nearly stopped at the ‘Reggae Bar’ for drinks, but somehow the state of the building made us think twice – it looked like it could tumble at any moment.

We walked back to the town – had drinks and dinner, then an early night. In total we walked nearly 28km and our legs were aching.

Tomorrow we leave Laos after nearly a month, to catch a 1.45pm flight to Bangkok Don Mueang airport. We’re staying in Bangkok for a week (some downtime will be good), and will be in Thailand for 3 weeks total.

More then.

Sunburn on plastic chairs, the roof rack is missing, and lettuce is the new wrap.

Day 26: Today we packed up again, had breakfast then waited for a tuk tuk to take us to the bus station to catch a bus to Vientiane. Though it turns out the bus station wasn’t actually a bus station – it was just a tour agent outlet with some seats randomly plonked on the pavement outside, in full direct sunlight. The bus pulled in and we tried to clamber on to get out of the sun, but were ordered to sit back down and wait. Alrighty.

We’d booked another VIP bus for the trip to Vientiane. This one looked pretty much like the last one – quite small, and with seats. However the big difference this time was this one didn’t have a roof rack, so all of the luggage – and there was lots and lots of it – had to be piled into the bus with the passengers. Lil has now decided that VIP must stand for Variable Important Parts. And in a spot of seriously bad planning, the bus driver crammed heaps of luggage into the bus before all the passengers had got on, which turned out to be just a tad problematic.

A Buddhist monk was allocated the front passenger seat next to the driver – and even he had to scramble over piles of bags and backpacks to get to his seat.

The 4 hour bus journey went past fairly quickly, until we got to the outskirts of Vientiane and then the traffic slowed to a crawl. The last 8 kilometres took about an hour, and we were glad to finally get off the bus in the city.

We walked a few blocks to our guesthouse, checked in and then set off to have a look at the night market and walk along the bank of the Mekong River.

Vientiane is the capital and largest city in Laos, situated on the banks of the Mekong River near the border with Thailand. Vientiane became the capital in 1563, but was later destroyed by the Siamese in 1827. It was the administrative capital during French rule, and is now the economic centre of Laos with a population of around 780,000, around 15% of the entire country’s population.

The evening air here was noticeably cooler than other towns we’ve stayed in. We were amazed to see lots of people out jogging and bike riding and doing sit ups and push ups along the promenade. We heard some loud upbeat music and followed it to see what was going on – there were two outdoors aerobics classes, one for older people and one for the younger crowd. Lil tried to convince Jim to join in with the younger bunch, but he wasn’t having any of it.

We wandered around for a while, watched an amazing sunset, then headed back into the main streets in search of dinner. Lil had read about a restaurant that serves great Nem Nuong – delicious and filling hands-on food, comprising grilled pork meat balls and sausages that come with platters of fresh lettuce, bitter starfruit, garlic, cucumber, rice vermicelli, piles of mint and other greens. You simply stuff pieces of everything into a lettuce leaf, roll it up and dip it in sweet chilli peanut sauce. It was divine and we’re so glad we took the time to find the place, a really great experience. It was also fun watching a whole restaurant full of people rolling up lettuce leaves.

Then a quick trip to the supermarket for water and to pick up some more Laos coffee, which we have become a little addicted to. Coffee is Laos’ fifth largest export – the first few coffee plants were introduced to Laos by French colonists in the early 1900s, and 20,000 tons are now produced annually.

Tomorrow we’re planning a long walk around the town and surrounds. And who knows, perhaps we’ll join an outdoor aerobics class.

More then.

Stuck in the mud, bus time confusion, and laughing gas for sale.

Day 25: There was some serious rain overnight, with lots of thunder and lightning. We woke to a bit of a mushy day, but once the sun came out, things starting drying pretty quickly. So we decided to press ahead with our planned bike ride.

The guesthouse has mountain bikes for hire so rather than walk into town, we decided to rent two of those. The first two we had to bring back 2 minutes after setting off, as not a single gear was working. The next two were better – in that at least some of the gears were working, and the brakes stop you mostly, so long as you aren’t going too fast, or on a steep downhill.

We set off on what is billed as a fairly challenging bike ride along dirt roads, and wow they weren’t joking. 15km of the bike ride was over rocks and dirt and through lots of mud (at times we got stuck in the mud and had to climb off and pull the bikes out). Lil’s swearing got steadily worse as the morning went on.

Regardless, the scenery was spectacular and while it was a tough ride, it was a really good one. We only saw a few other people on motorbikes along the way – funnily enough we were the only ones out huffing and puffing on mountain bikes.

We got back to Vang Vieng early afternoon, dropped the bikes back, pointed out that the gears needed some serious work (they probably won’t do anything, but Lil felt the need to mention it), then headed into town to buy two bus tickets for our trip tomorrow to the capital, Vientiane.

The first place we went into, we asked about VIP buses and what time they leave tomorrow. The guy said there are only two buses, but they leave every hour throughout the day. We asked again and got the same response. We were confused and he was getting cranky. So we said thanks and continued on.

The second place we went into, the guy said there were two buses, one at 9am and one at 1.30pm. We asked which one went to the centre of Vientiane (we don’t want to be dropped at the station which is outside the town). His mate knew the answer to the question, however he was asleep on the floor and despite repeated shouting, he couldn’t wake him. So we said thanks and continued on.

Thankfully the third place had all the info we needed, so we bought our tickets and headed off in search of a cold drink – it was another scorching day. We passed a recycling mountain as we walked – it’s challenging to know how to reduce plastic bottle usage in countries where water supply isn’t safe to drink. Luang Prabang had free water refill stations around the town, and we saw one in Luang Namtha, and locals buy water in the large 19 litre bottles you put on top of water coolers. But otherwise, we’ve been buying plastic bottle after plastic bottle – which makes us feel bad, but we’re not sure what else we can do.

While we drank our icy cold fruit shakes, we chatted about Vang Vieng and our few days here. We’re still not really sure how we feel about the place. The party town aspect we can do without, for sure. As we walked down the street today we saw a rasta bar advertising ‘Mushroom shake’ and another one selling ‘Happy Balloon laughing gas’ and offering ‘Free shots all day’. However walk just 10 minutes outside the town and you find yourself in the most spectacular scenery you could hope for, with no one around – though we suspect lots of the young party animals never make it that far.

We’re looking forward to reaching Vientiane tomorrow. While it’s not billed as the most exciting of towns, we think we’re ready for a change. Meanwhile, Jim is sitting on his post-bike ride soft towel.

More tomorrow.