An Aussie Guide to Thai Transport 1st Edition
Monday the 11th of October is the first full day of our Intrepid Tour. The previous night we had met up with the the other members of the tour for the first time and had an orientation session with our tour leader Molly, who was a local from Lampang in northern Thailand. This was followed by a group dinner at a local cafe that served the best Thai food and the coldest Chang beer. We settled in to get to know our traveling companions.
The group is varied, a well travelled Welsh couple, Jacqui and Richard who had wonderful stores of their travels through India and South America. Don, who hails from Canada, and is treating himself to a well earned holiday after successfully pulling off his daughters wedding. Dave, a young Irish guy working in Switzerland, coming to the end of several months of travelling. Paul, a Brit, just starting out on an 8 month journey through South East Asia, east coast of Australia and South America. The final passenger on our tour is Tiger Ted – a small stuffed golden bear who apparently is the largest fan of the Leicester Tigers Rugby club.
It would turn out that Dave and Paul were the groups party animals but they still swear that it’s Tiger Ted who leads them astray each night. But more of that later.
We set out to take an early morning longboat ride down the khlongs – the canals that run through the old city of Thonburi. Thonburi was the site of the original capital until King Rama 1 moved it in 1792 to the current location of Bangkok which sits on the other side of the Chao Phraya river. This extensive network of canals is still a vital transport route for those who live along the banks and many tourists never take the time to see this unique area, full of homes, schools, temples and trading houses whose way of life is dependent on the waterways.
The water outside the canals is much higher than inside and the water level is controlled by a series of sluice gates which open and close. Long boats ferrying camera carrying tourists line up at the gates to enter the canals. They are fitted with old car engines and rev like formula one cars at the start line. Our driver proudly informs us we have a turbo!
Gate one opens and the long boats race in, to be trapped before a second gate. The water level drops and the gate opens, revealing a city which is a far cry from the five star hotels and back packing Mecca that beckon across the Chao Praya River
Houses sit on rotting posts, leaning precariously towards the brown and polluted canals. Giant water monitors lazily climb out of the murky waters to find a place to sun themselves, after feasting on refuse floating down the canal. Temples line the banks, sun gleaming off the gold trimming along their roofs.
Like all older parts of any city, however, gentrification has come to the khlongs of Thonburi. Here and there modern mansions spring up between the timber buildings, many looking like they’d be more at home in the rich canal estates of Australia’s Gold Coast or the Florida Keys in the US.
Once, the motley assortment of boats plying the canals were the main method of transportation for people living in and around Bangkok. Sadly today, many of the canals are being filled in as boats are replaced with cars, tuk-tuks and motorbikes.
But catching land based transport is another experience in itself and there are a few things to know when travelling the streets of Bangkok. Firstly a 10 baht tuk tuk is too good to be true no matter how cheap it sounds. Unless you have plenty of time to kill in a tailor shop be aware of drivers offering free or cheap site seeing tours! They get paid a commission to take you to the tailor shops. If catching a cab – make sure they speak English and know where they are going BEFORE you get in. It is also worthwhile asking at your hotel the expected price between the locations you want to go. And remember a negotiated flat rate is almost always going to be double the metered rate! The benefit however is you won’t be taken on any side trips.
Finally there is the train. Our next stop, Chiang Mai, requires a trip on the overnight train. The first time we took this trip I was envisaging bench seats, shared with locals holding chickens (clearly I was reading too much Lonely Planet). This time round we knew what to expect however. Sleeper carriages on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai run are actually quite comfortable, with air conditioning and, if you are lucky, a western toilet rather than a squat one. There is even a “disco carriage” with flashing lights (sadly no disco ball or Top 40). The train attendants seem to be a happy lot, the one looking after our carriage was continually laughing, although Molly assured us he wasn’t particularly funny! Each pair of facing seats fold down into a bottom bunk and the top bunk is unlatched from the ceiling, the girls making the beds with great speed and efficiency. Providing you are under 6 foot they are quite roomy and not too uncomfortable. Be prepared to share with the odd roach however, though at least they are small and not the monsters we have back home. A couple of cold Changs or a bottle of whisky and coke will generally put you out for the 13 hour overnight trip. All aboard for Chang Mai.