13/03/05 (Paul writes...)
The Friendship bridge over the Mekong river between Laos and Thailand was build in 1996 by Australia and Thailand, so said the plaque at the halfway point over the bridge. I'm sure Laos must have had something to do with it, half of it is in their country!
The Thai border control buildings were all very new, neat and tidy. Not very busy either. Instead of just the usual imigration and customs sections, there was also special 'Drugs Checkpoint'. The people manning it were watching us progress through immigration for some time, and when we finally made it to the checkpoint they just waived us through with barely a glance. I guess they;re like customs officers, who can spot a guilty looking smuggler from a mile away. Actually, up until this very morning I had been carrying some glucose powder, for adding to our water when we were flagging a bit during aour days cycling. But I had decided this morning that crossing the border into Thailand carrying a half-kilo bag of fine powdery white substance was probably not a good idea, especially as the Thais are a bit tetchy about such things.
The customs counter was a different story. There were 6 uniformed men sat at a long desk, watching our approach. When I said we had nothing to declare, the head man sat in the middle said "But what about your bicycles?" I hesitated briefly, not sure what to say. I have read stories about people having problems with taking bicycle across some borders, but hadn't given it too much thought, so I lamely replied "We brought these from England" as if that was the answer to any problem. It turned out he wasn't really interested in our bikes, he just wanted to have a chat, especially about the virtues of his town, the one we were arriving at. He said it would be a shame to go straight off to Bangkok, we should stay in Nong Khai for a couple of days, there were loads of things to do, places to visit, people to see. We had planned to spend the night there anyway, so he needn't have worried. 10 minutes later, we were cycling into Nong Khai.
The Mut Mee hotel is different from most. It's very laid back, and a good place to chill out, on the banks of the Mekong but near the busy town centre of Nong Khai. The hotel has the honesty book system, similar to what we had in Siem Reap, where we write down in the book what food and drink we want. The difference here is that you help yourself to the drinks, and for food, you write what you want and just leave the book open on the kitchen table and the staff prepare it and bring it out to you.
Unfortunately, they have a curry of the day, which is the only one available on that day, and today it was not Thai green curry, which is what we had been looking forward to with much anticipation. Never mind, todays special, potato and mutton curry in a sweetish green sauce, was excellent.
We whiled the afternoon away in the garden, eating and drinking and generally relaxing. It's nice to be back in Thailand. Not that there's anything wrong with Laos, which we liked a lot, but there's a different feeling in Thailand.
At 5:30, we took the evening Mekong Boat Tour, which turned out to be just an excuse to try and get you to eat and drink more. Being stuffed from the afternoons excesses, we just had a beer, which I think upset the boat's staff a little as they expecting to make loads of extra money from their overpirced menu. The trip lasted a little over an hour, and apart from one Wat with a large Buddha statue in front of it, we didn't see anything of note.
Our room was quite interesting, snuggled in a corner between two other rooms, with our own little porch area to sit out on. The bed had a bamboo framework over it, making it into a sort of four poster bed, and there was a large mosquito net. The shower was the more unusual part, it had a base of loose pebbles, with a couple of strategically placed flagstones on which to stand. On an enviromentally friendly front, I suppose it could have been a sort of soak-away arrangement, but I didn't delve beneath the pebbles to find out. If it was a soak-away idea, I wondered what it would do to the foundations of the buildings. more
14/03/05 Monday (Paul writes...)
Our train wasn't due to depart until 9.05, but we decided to check out early and get something to eat at the station, and also to stock up on goodies for the long journey, twelve hours plus.
At checkout our bill came to over 1400 baht. As the room was only 450, we must have been far too diligent in filling out the honesty book. Perhaps I'd put the same beer down ten times without realising it. That would explain it.
Cycled the 3KM to the station and had a few Thai spicy pork sausages and some fried mixed veggies for breakfast. While Rita was stocking up on provisions for the train, I cycled the 6km round trip back to the hotel to hand in the room key I'd just found in my pocket.
We'd booked second class tickets at 180 bahts each, with an extra charge of 80 bahts each for the bikes. The only other option on the 9:05 train was third class, commonly referred to as 'hard seat', although the seats were padded, they were benchlike and rather unpright. Our second class (aka 'soft seat') seats were considerable softwer, and could even be reclined. Worth the extr 80pence, I think.
The jouney was long and boring, the scenery caught the attention for a while but varied little throughout the day, and we only stopped in one large town before we arrived in Bangkok slightly ahead of schedule at 9:20pm. There were numerous stops at small towns and halts, and quite a few stops in sidings waiting for trains to pass in the opposite direction, this being a single track line. At most stops, traders would board the train, racing up the corridors waving all manner of food in the faces of the passengers. Oddly enough, they usually ignored us, perhaps us foreigners have a reputation for not buying from train vendors. Or perhaps it was just the puzzled frown we gave as we tried to work out which part of what animals anatomy was skewered onto that bamboo stick they were offering. But some traders were selling cans of beer, so we did buy something!
What made my journey that little bit more unleasant was I developed a toothache, which gradually got worse during the day. The beer helped numb the pain, though.
Bangkok can be a bit of a dodgy place at times, and Hualamphong station late at night is not noted as a place for nervous people to hang out and relax. So, once we'd retrieved our bikes from the guard's van and loaded up our panniers, we raced off into the night before anybody could spot we had arrived. Actually, it wasn't as busy as I had thought it might be, and we didn't spot any obvious dangers, but then that can be the time to be nost wary.
Successfully navigated our way to the Siam Square area, where we had selected a hotel to grace with our presence for the night. What we handn't factered in was them being full! How dare they fill up and not leave space for us! Pehaps we should have booked. Nah, booking's for sissies. After 15 minutes and 6 more hotels, things were looking a little grim, but then we found the Bed and Breakfast House, prepared to let us have a room for only 500 bahts a night. Quite reasonable for a clean, air-con, en-suite in Bangkok. A bit of a box, but okay.
15/03/05 Tuesday (Paul writes...)
My toothache was not improving, and having had some serious tooth problems in the past, decided to see a dentist straight away. We had spotted a dental practice (isn't it worrying that doctors and dentists call what they do "practice"?) a few doors down from hotel last night, and luckily, this morning, it was still there!
The very nice dentist there was little he could do as we would be leaving Bangkok tomorrow, so he sold me some drugs. Antibiotics, more precisely, and some much needed pain killers.
Did a spot of sightseeing around Siam Square during the afternoon, and spent some time plotting our escape to the airport in the morning for the 10am flight to Hong Kong.
Our evening meal was at a small restuarant near our hotel, where the Thai proprietors obvious boredom at serving dumb tourists for over 8 years was written all over. But the beef green curry was the best we'd had for a long time.
16/03/05 Wednesday (Paul writes....)
Taxi to the airport, bit extravagant, but hey, we're on holiday. And it was only 100 bahts more than going by bus.
Breakfasted on egg, bacon and sausage - our first Engish style breakfast in 2 months!
To get into the check-in area, all luggage to be checked-in had to be put through the scanner, then we joined the queue for the cattle class check in desks. After 15 minutes, having arrived at the front, we were asked what was in our unusually shaped bags, Bicycles of course. 'Have you let the tyres down so they down explode in the cargo hold?" Doh! Knew we'd forgotten something. We had to open our bike bags and let the tyres down a litle, but then, because we'd opened the bags, they had to go through the scanner again. Luckily, when I returned from the second scanning, they took us straight to a check in desk instead of making us queue again. Once through immigration and more security and into air-side, spent my last 100 baht note on a large bottle of water. 100bahts! Daylight robbery. I would have felt better if they had held a gun at my head when they asked for the money, at least it would have felt like a robbery.
Moaning over. We're off to Hong Kong!