Don't Strain Your Neck at the Grand Palace
Wandering around Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace complex, it struck me that it is a good metaphor for Bangkok itself. Wat Phra Kaew is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, and is an impressive sight. So impressive in fact, its hard to know where to look.
There are six temples, statues and monuments, including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, all packed together fairly tightly, with enough gold leaf to keep a Wag happy. Not having much room to breath is a fairly common theme in Bangkok.
After the Grand Palace complex, we nipped across the Chao Phrayer river to Wat Arun. Situated on its own, with some great views of the city from the top, the closest thing together here are the steps; not a place for the unsure footed.
Steep steps at Wat Arun
Khao San Road, and the adjacent Rambuttri Road, one of the main tourist hotspots, is packed to the brim with all the usual tourist attractions, as well as the odd cooked insect stand (they taste a bit crunchy and salty, but that's about it), but if you go very far, you'll notice the attractions disappear to be replaced by more authentic Thai shops and offices.
The food in Bangkok is great. While the street food may be a more authentic Thai experience, I'd certainly recommend trying a few restaurants. Eating out is inexpensive and the food available is excellent. I'd recommend May Kaidee, a brilliant vegetarian restaurant around the corner from the southern end of Khao San Road, and a trip down Rambuttri Road to devour some king prawns.
Vegetarian Penang Curry at May Kaidee
Getting around is fairly easy, as long as you don't get caught in one of the many traffic jams. Cabs are everywhere and cheap, and there are plenty of buses. I'd do your best to stay out of tuk-tuks. The worst problem no one ever mentions is that you are just the right height for the local buses to blow their exhausts straight into your face, and that will probably be on the way to a tailor or jewellery seller you don't want to go to (the tuk-tuk drivers get free petrol for taking you there, even if you don't buy anything).
There are a lot of people on the street in Bangkok who will do their best to rip you off. It seems like everyone gets a backhander somewhere along the line, be it from sending you to a certain travel agent, hotel or show. This gets pretty annoying, but it's quite hard to know if you're being ripped off when everything is so cheap. Shop around if you can and be prepared to walk away and you'll do better.
Bangkok is a great city, with enough culture, night-life and activities to keep pretty much anyone happy. You only need a few days there, and I'd advise planning your trip as much as you can to avoid wandering around in the baking heat. This isn't a city to take it easy, it's crowded and can be quite claustrophobic at times, but stay one step ahead of the game and you can pack in great food, ancient history and sightseeing for peanuts.
There is a wealth of opportunity for onward travel when you arrive in Bangkok. Local transport in Thailand is not easy to organise, you will have to either go to the local train or bus station, or book tickets through one of the many travel agencies, but it is cheap and runs well.
From Bangkok, I wanted to go north to Chang Mai, but also see as much as I could in a couple of days on the way. I booked a day trip in and around Kanchanaburi, starting at the Death Railway (make sure to tell your Mother it's called that for historical reasons).
While not exactly “fun”, the Death Railway (or the Burma Railway) has an interesting history and is a good place for sightseeing. The first stop was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, a sobering and respectful reminder of the real human cost of the railway, including the graves of Bristish, Dutch and Australian soldiers who died during its construction. More about the Death Railway at the bottom of this page.
Graves at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Next on our trip we went to the JEATH Railway Museum. The museum isn't much to write home about, but does offer great views of the next stop, the Bridge Over the River Kwai.
Yep, it's that Bridge Over the River Kwai, and is still a working railway bridge today. Fortunately for all the tourists walking along it taking pictures, there are refuges to stand in while the train creeps past and take more pictures.
Taking refuge on the Bridge Over the River Kwai
The train trip takes you across the bridge and through some typical Thai farmland along the banks of the Kwai. Parts of the track are laid along some squeeky wooden trestles, including Hellfire Pass, a good few metres above the river; so why not open the train doors and peer over the edge?
Sat close to the edge at Hellfire Pass
After getting off the train and some lunch at a floating restaurant, we headed to a waterfall I don't remember the name of, but if I'd had my swimmers with me, I would've been straight in. The temperature must've hit the top 30's (in Celsius), with the humidity on top of that.
The last stop was easily the best, if not the most controversial. The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province is a temple (Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua) that also houses tigers, along with other animals including deer, water buffalo and wild boar.
After being let into the site, you walk through the fairly baron grounds and down a slope into Tiger Valley. Here you queue to pass through steel gates into the tiger enclosure. Stepping through the gates, you see a dozen fully grown tigers chained to the ground. It's quite a site. While I don't always feel comfortable with animals in captivity, there is no way you could allow tigers to freely roam around and expect one to stand still long enough to have your photo taken with it, let alone trusting it not to bite your arm off.
While you are inside the enclosure, every move you make is strictly controlled. You are not allowed to make loud noises or wear anything orange or any animal prints. You are then led by the hand (literally) and positioned to the rear of the tiger where you can touch it's back, while another keeper takes pictures with your camera. Unless you get the keeper I did and she passes you the tigers tail.
Catching a Tiger by the tail
I wish to this day that I'd made a biting gesture, but you just don't think do you?
I've got some amazing memories and pictures from this experience. I can't describe what it's like being so close to such a powerful animal. My favourite picture is this one. Please note the tiger to the left of me eyeing up his next meal.
The tiger on the left is wondering "Eat him whole? Or the legs first?"
Controversies around the tiger temple include rumours that the tigers are drugged, that the tigers are allegedly mistreated and that the temple allegedly engages in illegal tiger trading and breeding (meaning that tigers are being bread just to attract more tourists, with tiger cubs being a very popular draw).
I've never met a drugged tiger, but the tigers I saw seemed healthy and alert, and not much different to other big cats I've seen in captivity. We were told that the tigers are fed before being shown to people (good to know), and being nocturnal predators, are naturally sleepy in the afternoon. We were also told that while not on display the tigers are not chained down and that the tigers are rotated so not to be on show every day.
Regarding the rumours about mistreatment and illegal trading, many conservation groups have contacted the Tiger Temple asking for improve links to other tiger conservation efforts. The Thai government should be involved and allow independent inspection of the tigers and the temple's facilities. If it is possible to create an amazing experience for tourists and help tiger conservation efforts, that would be something really positive for Thailand. It's possible to keep animals in captivity without cruelty, so why not here?
Was my money used to care for and feed the tigers I saw that had been rescued and looked after since being cubs? Or was it used to further the profits of a popular tourist attraction at the cost of one of the most precious and amazing species on the planet? Honestly, I don't know, and because of that, I don't think I'd go back.
What I can tell you is that tigers are wild animals, no matter how long they have had human contact, or how tame they seem. But if you still want to meet Tigger, the Tiger Temple is the place to go.
About the Death Railway
Oh, the British. There weren't many places on my trip that I wasn't reminded of British colonialism and occupation. The Death Railway has a particularly ironic twist for the Brits.
The British Government of Burma surveyed a route to connect Burma and Thailand by rail in the early 1900's, but it was thought far too difficult to complete. During the Japanese occupation of Thailand in WWII, 40 years later, the Japanese military needed a way to transport supplies between Burma and Thailand.
Guess what? They'd build that railway after all! And guess who'd be building it? Asian labourers and allied POWs. The POWs included British personnel, over 6000 of which were killed during it's construction.
The railway was completed in just over a year, after the deaths over 100,000 of those working on it. But the death didn't stop there. Some of the labourers were left behind to maintain the railway, which was now a target of allied air bombardment.
I'm not sure what would be worse: bombing a railway where you know your allies are, or rebuilding a railway in horrific conditions knowing the bombers would be coming back.