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Here There Be Tigers

Greetings from Thailand! Here's what I've been up to of late. . . . 

After an early start on Monday 23rd May, I got to the airport in plenty of time for my 11 o'clock flight. At check-in I looked on rather smugly, as others around me were repacking their bags to ensure that their carry on luggage was not too heavy. My bags - backpack and daypack combined - weighed a total of 19kg; it looks like I've finally got the hang of this travelling light lark. I boarded the plane sometime later, and settled into my relatively comfortable seat, looking forward to being fed, watered and entertained until I arrived in Bangkok at seven o'clock (local time) the following morning.

I only managed to clock up 20 minutes sleep during the flights, so I was feeling rather dazed when I landed at Bangkok Airport, but I managed to collect my wonderfully light backpack and ventured out into the astounding heat. I snagged a reasonably priced taxi to my selected home for the next couple of nights. I'd chosen the New Merry V in Banlamphu, along Thanon Phra Athit near to pier for the Chao Phraya Express. I'd stayed there twice before, and knew the area, and that it is near enough to visit the madness that is the Khao San Road, without actually having to stay there.

I've been to Thailand twice before, and plan to explore it again when my sister flies out in September, so my intention is to head to Cambodia as soon as I can, followed by visits to Vietnam then Laos, returning to Bangkok in time to meet Natalie. (Bangkok has only one airport, so I should be able to avoid a similar cock-up to the one several years when she flew to Orlando to meet up with me. I arrived at the airport with a little time to spare . . . only to discover that I was at the wrong airport.) While getting the relevant visas was something of a priority, I decided that - due to my befuddled and sleep deprived state - I would put it off until the following day. Handing over a wad of money and your passport to a complete stranger is, after all, something that really should be done with a clear head!

I set myself the simple task of purchasing a few essentials - toilet roll, flip-flops, tiger balm, and a SIM card for my time in Thailand - and eating the first of many pad thais, then I retired to my room for a wee kip. I know the advice for avoiding jetlag is to stay awake until night-time, but there was no way I was going to do that; plus, never having suffered before, I had decided that I was immune to jetlag. Well I slept for eight hours, waking up only long enough to consume my second pad thai before returning to my room, and falling asleep around midnight.

Around three o'clock in the morning I awoke. By six o'clock it became evident that I was not going to be able to get back to sleep, so I abandoned my efforts, and made my way up to the roof to watch Bangkok wake up. I followed this up with a wander along the Khao San Road - which is much quieter at that time of the morning (unsurprisingly), although there were a few dreadlocked travellers supping breakfast beers. I can't look down my nose too much at them, as I did the same myself a few years ago.

After breakfast (but not a liquid one) I arranged to get my visas and did a few other chores, exploring a little along the way, sniffing at the fragrant smoke from burning incense, and trying to avoid sucking in the exhaust fumes. I tired myself out in the excessive heat and humidity (was it this hot the other times I've been here? Probably not, as I've only been in the relative cool of November before), so made the mistake of having an afternoon kip - just a short one this time, but I was still to suffer for it that night.

I ventured out later for a massage, then took a stroll along Khao San Road, where things were in full swing. Here you can buy everything from fake UK driving licenses to mounted insects, knuckle-dusters to hair braids, and funky clothing to tattoos. Alternatively, if you have run out of money, then you can sell the contents of your backpack, and even the backpack itself. The streets are full of dreadlocked, tie-dyed travellers both enjoying, and a part of, the show. The most random sight I saw there was a stocky American evangelist, pounding his bible, and shouting "be sure your sins will find you out"; his words were falling on stony ground.

I awoke around half-past two the next morning, and again found it impossible to get back to sleep. I decided to make use of my unexpectedly early start, and catch the early morning train to Kanchanaburi, rather than the afternoon one. After texting my parents, and getting them to check the departure time online (you gotta love technology!), I read until half six, then checked out and headed to the pier to catch the boat to Bangkok Noi train station.

I will admit to being more than a tad nervous about stepping off the floating pier and onto the moving boat. My mind was full of images of me missing my footing (clumsy clot that I am), and plunging to the depths of the river. In this nightmarish vision, I manage to undo the quick release clasp of my rucksack and shrug the straps off my shoulders, swimming desperately through the murky water to the surface . . . only to come up under the boat and knock myself unconscious. Damn my imagination! Fortunately - despite racing pulse and raised blood pressure - I managed to negotiate my way on and off the boat safely.

After catching a songthaew (open sided, covered picked which runs on set routes) to Thonburi station, and asking for my ticket in Thai (clever girl!), I boarded the train, and soon after we set off for peaceful Kanchanaburi. Breakfast was a can of iced coffee and a packet of sticky rice, as I gazed happily out of the window watching paddy fields dotted with ibis, kingfishers perched on wires, and corrugated shacks fly by, as the smells of sandal wood mingled with something minty drifted in through the open window.

On my arrival I made my way to another old haunt, the Jolly Frog, where I secured myself a large single room with fan for 70 baht - just under a pound. After I'd eaten (you guessed it, another pad thai!), I strolled along to the infamous bridge over the river Kwai - not the original one, of course, as that was blown up in 1945. I was surprised to see there hoards of what I'm pretty sure were Japanese tourists - they've been conspicuous by their absence on my previous visits, for fairly obvious reasons. Who knows, maybe they've decided that if the Chinese can ignore the past, then so can they . . . or maybe I just get an 'F' in guessing-the-nationality-of-the-tourist.

I managed to sleep all night last night, so hopefully that's the jetlag behind me. I'm still at the stage where I have to have seven showers a day to cope with the heat, and haven't quite got used to feeling sweaty all the time, but I'm sure that will come.

Today I had the highlight of my trip so far, with a visit to the Tiger Temple. It is a wildlife sanctuary run by monks, with the most notable animals there being the tigers. I'd first heard about this when I was in Australia, and had seen an item about the place on a travel program, which had shown footage of tigers sitting at the feet of monks in a temple. Well it wasn't quite how I was expecting it to be, but it was pretty damned amazing all the same.

I was picked up by songthaew and transported the forty-odd kilometres to the park gates, where I paid 200 baht (under 3 quid) entrance fee. We were then led into the park itself, and down into a area hewn out rock, resembling a quarry. Down there already was one monk, seven tigers of varying sizes, and a number of helpers. Two of the biggest ones (tigers, not helpers) were chained up at the back (long chains, mind), but most were loose, and would roam around a little, and drink water from the concrete containers put out for them.

The ticket price includes having your photograph taken with the tigers, so we were asked to form an orderly queue. When my turn came, I was led in by one helper (who kept a firm grip on my arm, so I didn't wander off) and positioned next to a tiger or two, while another helper snapped a few off. They then lead me to another prime position for a couple more shots, before escorting me out of the roped-off area. The first time was a little rushed, as they wanted to make sure everyone had a go, but then we were allowed to have another turn at a more leisurely pace. At one stage, the dominant male - who was chained up behind me - started to give it a bit of a roar, so I have one photograph of me looking rather nervous, with a big cat roaring in the background.

Their markings were beautiful, and they had such expressive faces - one was even boss-eyed. They played around with each other, and with their helpers, and certainly weren't afraid to make some noise. I'm no expert of animal behaviour, but I would say that these animals were definitely not drugged, and they seemed happy enough to be there; there was none of the distressed behaviour that you may see at an old fashioned zoo. When visiting time was over (the animals only meet the public for a couple of hours each afternoon), the monk told us to move to one side, and then the animals were herded up out of the quarry - or given a piggyback, in one case. It was a drawn-out procedure, as the creatures took their time, played and tried to sneak back in. Once all but the dominant male had begun their journeys back, the monk asked that we make our ways out - he said the big male could run very fast!

The fantastic experience over, I was transported back to the Jolly Frog, wondering what can be next in my being-photographed-with-a-dangerous-animal list . . . bears, perhaps?


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