Category Archives: tourism

Transport in Thailand: Buses

Private buses are often highly decorative (Photo by Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer)

For travel between towns in Thailand, unless you spot a great deal on Air Asia, it is hard to beat the buses. We’ve tried just about every variety:

  • second class overnight
  • intercity stopping bus
  • first class
  • VIP Government bus
  • VIP cheaper sleeper
  • VIP privatised sophisticated
  • Mini Bus

Second class "Government Buses" are more basic (Same source)

All provide cheap efficient transport from one place to another, with enough loo and/or food stops. Most of the time, if you pay more, you get what you pay for, greater comfort, speed or extras (like on board loos, air-conditioning, blankets, drinks etc.). The mini buses will even stop pretty much on demand for loos or refreshment at the next roadside vendor’s. However, for daytime travel the stopping bus’s slower speed allows you to see more of real life in Thailand. Paying more also makes the journey seem more reliable. Our stopping bus sometimes seemed about to run out finally, though every time the driver and his assistant with the threat of the proverbial “flipping big spanner” managed to coax another 50Kms out of the old girl. As we reported two years back the second class overnight did break down once (until half the passengers got off and walked up the hill to relieve the load), and had its brakes catch fire. Despite this we still arrived only a little late, and the other buses were on time, every time. One bus even left early, since all the passengers were already aboard 🙂

There are two sorts of Bus station, those (like this one) where buses are boarded, and country ones where meal and loo stops are made (Photo by Jeremy Burgin)

The food/loo stops on night buses can seem rushed, we would not want to shovel down a meal of soup that fast, but then we chose the alternative drinks. Either way, you show your tickets (which are torn to invalidate them) and get your goodies. On day buses you pay for any refreshments at the loo stops, vendors do a roaring trade in sticky rice and kebabs in convenient plastic bags.

Ticketing is computerised, and you can buy your ticket (and book your seat) in advance, if they refuse to sell ahead of time it probably means that the buses are already full and they are not sure if extra ones will be put on – that was how we got our second class sleeper that broke down. On one occasion a language breakdown gave us a long delay before the VIP bus left, when a stopping bus arrived to leave several hours earlier (even though on a different company) we were able to cancel and redeem our tickets and grab the alternative.

The whole operation is a huge industry with many many hundreds of buses arriving at the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok every morning at 4:30-5:00am. The bus stations in larger places can also provide several hours of entertainment as you watch the world go by (or, like you, wait to go). All the bus stations are well equipped with seats and snack outlets, the loos are OK and only 3 Bhat, though they may seem a bit grubby, the number of times we paddled through recently swabbed floors suggests a strong ethos of cleanliness.


Transport in Thailand: in town

Bangkok is a huge city, filled with hurtling or traffic jammed cars, motorbikes, buses, taxis and tuktuks. (Plus one evening we saw an elephant strolling down the main road!) Getting around is easy if your base and your destination are near the main transport lines MRT, Skytrain or Klong. But walking far in a hot humid climate with thick smog, even in the winter cool of 34ºC is not recommended.

Thai Tuktuk

For short distances tuktuks are ideal, cool and fun, just agree a price (25-50 Bhat most often) in advance – in small towns bargaining beforehand is usually unnecessary, but in Bangkok or Chiang Mai it can save difficult post hoc discussions 😉 Their size and comfort varies more than the prices should. We’ve seen the extra large ones with two parallel facing seats, that might hold four Thais easily and even four farang with a squash, a luxury semi recliner, and at the other extreme the old small one we could barely squeeze into that, however, took us, without a serious breakdown, to the bus station in Lampang.

Thai taxis offer smart air-conditioned comfort

For longer trips especially if there are two (or three) of you, take a taxi. Ride in air conditioned comfort, and let the driver worry about the traffic. Bangkok’s taxis are metered and cheap, to or from the city centre and our hotel out near the Northern Bus Station was never more that 100 Bhat (NZ$4-5) even in the rush hour. For taxis don’t negotiate, just hop in and ensure the metre is turned on. (A negotiated price, even with cut-throat bargaining is likely to cost double the metered amount 😉

It does help to know a landmark near your destination, or to have the hotel’s card with the address in Thai and a small local map. Most of our trips have been hassle free and efficient, Bangkok taxi-drivers are easygoing and efficient. Most of them. The guy we got from the huge queue at the bus station, despite asking directions several times still managed to take us on a zigzag tour between Moe Chit and the city centre, gradually eastward till finally Barbara spotted the hotel on the other side of the street 😉 still it only cost less than 300 Bhat which at 5:30am with lots of luggage was probably better than a LONG walk 😉

The klong, and I think only one is still operating, is quick easy and “quite an experience”. Avoid the rush hour, as dozens of experienced commuters hop on and off in seconds and the boats are REALLY packed. But for a different view of Bangkok life traveling east-west along Petchburi Road (and down to the River) the klong is fun and convenient. Just avoid licking the spray off your face, because probably you won’t copy discerning locals and wear a mask 😉

Tourism: Lampang

Old Lampang is full of beautiful brightly decorated "horse carts"

On our way back from the north we spent a couple of nights in Lampang a middle-sized city north of Tak on the main north-south highway. It is a delightful place 🙂

Lampang is renowned in Thailand as the last city to use horse-drawn carriages for public transport. These are mainly used by tourists, and in the week after New Year (a major holiday opportunity for Thais (as for New Zealanders, and for the same reason, public holidays to boost your entitlement) these were mainly Thais.

Street corner in the north part of the old city

The architecture shows influences from Europe and Burma as well as Thai and Lanna (ancient kingdom in Northern Thailand) styles, as the city was a centre for Teak as well as other commercial interests in the 19th Century and was much earlier a major city in the Lanna kingdom.

Fountain in the small park by the clock tower, Lampang

As well as attractive houses and shops in narrower roads all around the city centre, there are pleasant wide modern streets and a fine clock tower plaza, with a typically Thai little public park with plenty of green and a fine fountain.

The clock tower plaza, Lampang

We had hoped to stay in the Riverside Guesthouse because Lonely Planet speaks so highly of it, but at such a busy season it was full. So we lashed out on a hotel 🙂

Baan Sao Nak (Many Pillar House), Lampang

The Pin Hotel is comfortable and extremely spacious with a good breakfast buffet. With a huge bed with a soft mattress, and a bath with hot water we luxuriated. (A particular treat after the 2nd class stopping bus from Chiang Rai to Lampang.) We ate at several tasty Thai and Chinese (this is still Northern Thailand) places including a brilliant and cheap place on the corner down from the hotel.

The rooms are spacious, rather than huge; airy rather than closed, and enjoy a beautiful interplay of wood and light.

The weekend “walking market” on the street with the guesthouses, between the Pin and the river was great fun, and even better than the one in Chiang Rai, with just as few foreigners.

Castle Drogo combines medieval looks with Edwardian function, just brilliant! Photo by recursion_see_recursion

Apart from wandering and eating our main sightseeing was a walk through pleasant side streets to the Baan Sao Nak a 19th Century aristocratic teak house built in Lanna style, airy and cool with tall trees and beautiful furniture this house was a delight. It has to join Castle Drogo in Devon (an Edwardian modern medieval castle 🙂 as one of the few ‘big houses’ that I would dearly love to live in!

My chair's "twin" at Baan Sao Nak, Lampang

As well a fine local teak furniture and accessories, beautiful old local china and other antiques, I was excited to see a chair that is almost the twin of the comfortable reading chair I inherited from by Grandmother, but which I get too little occasion to use ;(

Another New Experience

We keep chalking up new experiences, not living in a refugee camp, we did that in 2008, even being a refugee we have tried (1991 for a day or two), but still there are new things to try which add new shades to life’s rich tapestry.

The Friendship Bridge, Mae Sot, with others crossing the border on rubber rings.

Today we went to cross the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge to renew our visas. (That in itself is not the new experience, we did it also in 2008). This time we got photos of the people who cross below on rubber rings, but that hardly counts, as we saw them then, we just had no chance to take photos. Since then we have learned more about the experience and the motives of the ring people. Some are just avoiding customs duty, but others are people planning to be overstayers in Thailand, fleeing the Burma Army and its Generals, they cannot be seen by the Thai authorities to be entering the country with all their worldly goods. So they pay someone to ferry their posessions across on a ring, and plan to collect them once they have entered Thailand. Then they’ll become overstayers…

The person crossing the bridge in the photo above shows the lighter side of life, he was a baloon seller!

Sometimes, as for our informant, it goes wrong and the ferryman steals the load, and the potential overstayer cannot complain as then they would be revealed as intending illegal immigrants.

Oh, yes, our new experience… we became overstayers ourselves today, we should have crossed the bridge yesterday. Our miscalculation cost us 500 Bhat, those fleeing tyranny risk so much more 😦

Akha Hill House: near Chiang Rai

The Akha Hill House ute descends the hill from the guesthouse

Chiang Rai is the largest town in Thailand’s most northerly province. This borders Burma and Laos, while China is only some 200Kms further north. As such a multiple border area the “Golden Triangle” has a chequered history, filled with wars and migrations, and in recent times was a major centre of opium Poppy cultivation. These poppies and the opium, heroin and other drugs they produce were a major source of income for the “hill tribes” until a concerted governmental policy enabled them to earn a living in other ways.

Tea gardens below the Hill House

The hill tribe people remain among the poorest, and their home areas the least developed, in Thailand. The Akha are one of the smaller groups, though around Chiang Rai (because of the multiple frontiers) there are several small people groups.

Lower down the falls

Part of the beautiful waterfall between the Akha Hill House and the tea gardens

The Akha Hill House ute takes visitors from the city into the hills at (about) 4:30pm each day, and returns them to Chiang Rai at 9am. After following the made-up main road for a while, the road into the hills is a dirt track that climbs steeply. Barbara and I as elders, the oldest of the foreigners, and only outranked by the energetic Mr.Apae Amor’s father in the front seat, rode in the rear of the cab, while the rest of the new visitors had better views but a much rougher ride 😉 in the back. (The ute is a working vehicle, hauling supplies during the day, so not equipped with padded benches like a Songthaw.)

The rosy fingers of dawn stealing across the sky

After several Kms of dirt road we pass through first a Lahu village, and then tea fields, before the final sharp ascent to the Akha village and the Hill House. A pair of main buildings are separated by the road, one has a kitchen and sleeping rooms and the other an open dining/resting area, with a welcome fire in the evening. Most of the guest accommodation is in small bungalows scattered around and below the main building. These are a nice mixture of local style and some Western convenience.

At last the sun rises!

In ours the sleeping room is of local board construction, with a bamboo veranda jutting over the drop, but it has concrete tiles on the roof ensuring that it will be dry even in the rainy season. The bathroom (with a warm shower but a local-style toilet) has concrete and mud walls, but a grass thatched roof (dryness is less important than privacy in a bathroom 😉

Between here and the tea gardens and Lahu village there is a beautiful waterfall. It can also be reached by a higher walking path direct frm the Hill House. The Hill house backs onto a steep jungle covered hillside, so offers beautiful but different views to each side.

Our bungalow, from across the stream/gorge (ours is in the centre and has plastic chairs)

Food is cooked to order from a menu (between 7am and 9pm) by a team of Akha women, and a fridge holds cold water and drinks for which we list our usage in a book. We have three blankets, as it gets really cool at night. This morning Barbara and I woke early and got up, wrapped in thermals and blankets, and sat on our deck to wait for the dawn. At first we enjoyed the stars, then gradually as they vanished the mist shrouded valley became clear, as rosy-fingered dawn stole the sky. Finally the sun rose above the hills, and we were warm 🙂 Soon it became too hot to sit and read in the sun, and I came up to the dining shelter to write this, back up the photos and enjoy a different view.

View from the dining area

Beautiful views, nice food and interesting walks for when it gets cooler in the afternoon make this a great place for R & R. Did I say, our room
with ensuite and stupendous views is just 500Baht (NZ$25) per night.

Mae La and Mae Sariang (Work begins, and “real” holiday also)

KKBBSC across the gardens, this is NOT a typical view of the camp, but does show the industrious nature of Karen refugees

From Klee Thoo Klo we were dropped at Tee Toh’s home in Mae Sot. Tee Toh is the Dean at KKBBSC, so we needed to discuss what (and exactly when) we could teach on this trip. He is also one of the Karen with KKBBSC diplomas who would like to upgrade but finds current possibilities difficult, so in both roles he is a key person in developing possible postgraduate opportunities on the border.

I will be covering subjects that Wah Doh (who has travel documents and is making a fraternal visit to Karen in Australia during January) would have covered:

  • Understanding the Bible: this course was begun last semester, so I’ll be giving the students guided practice at studying and interpreting sample passages – this is the easy one to teach and prepare, especially having prepared and taught Understanding and Interpreting the Bible at Carey last semester 🙂
  • Ecclesiology: this course starts this semester, so I need to lay foundations, so I’ll deal with biblical resources for being and understanding church – this one will be harder as it does not relate directly to any of my teaching experience so far!
  • Philosophy: also starting this semester, this course will later on include sections on “Nietzche and the Nihilists” and other groups that were dead trendy in the 60s 😉 Since I have never formally studied philosophy this might have been the biggest challenge to my academic integrity, till I had the bright idea of teaching Ecclesiastes as a biblical foundation to Philosophy. This may broaden to include other elements of a biblical foundation to Philosophy, with a special focus on Old Testament. Since we only have three weeks that should enable me to do something useful that is also academically respectable and more important something I can actually do well 😉

Barbara will teach:

  • Introduction to Counselling: which she will enjoy and find easy 🙂
  • English Grammar: for which there is a textbook!

    Borderland hills north of Mae La

Term starts in “the second week in January” which actually means on the 4th or 5th January, so we are traveling north enjoying ourselves as tourists, planning to return to Mae Sot early in January to be ready when term actually starts.

But before this tourist phase started we were collected by Dr Simon Htoo who had things to do in Mae Sot, and taken to the camp. Although on the journey he was somewhat withdrawn and distant like in 2008, there were glimpses of his more cheerful self . However, once we were at the camp and fed, we had a really useful and lengthy chat. Perhaps he had more time with the students all away on mission trips (many “on the other side” = in Burma), or perhaps as with others the “second term” effect has cut in.Hills on the road from to Mae Sariang

[In Kinshasa we noticed that most of our African colleagues became noticeably more friendly and cooperative almost instantly when we returned after our first furlough – we call this the “second term effect”. People naturally have more trust in and respect for someone they perceive as offering a long term relationship.]

Compared with younger Karen (or Rev Newton, who is like an enthusiastic teenager with an elder’s wisdom, experience and mana) he was more aware of the difficulties (that’s twenty years experience talking, so really useful to listen to) and perhaps less inclined to consider starting with small achievable goals (here I am less sure how far we should agree, on the one hand institutional donors prefer big showy projects, on the other big plans are less likely to achieve anything, small is fast as well as beautiful 😉

The entrance to the river (border) crossing

We had a somewhat disturbed night’s sleep, the camp was tranquil with fewer people in the Bible School area, and no big jamboree in view, but we were not prepared either for the cold (we’d left our warm clothes with Shirley to have less to carry on our travels) or for cockerels (every house seems to have at least one) who took it in turns to compete with each other in relays crowing from midnight till dawn.

We were invited to share in a wedding anniversary celebration starting at 7am, the couple’s home was the other side of the river up the lower slopes of the cliff-like hill. We really enjoyed the walk and seeing more of the camp.

Crossing the Moei

I was again invited to speak a “word of encouragement” so gave them the word hesed (faithfulness/loving kindness/loyalty) like that of Ruth or God as the biblical secret for strong marriages and families.

The couple had been married 27 years, and provided a magnificent spread, including a delicious cauliflower and egg dish as well as fish with peanut and soya which was so savoury I ate it instead of the traditional pork and chicken 🙂

Boats at the crossing

Then Dr Simon (who had a pastor to drop at a river crossing and a load of stuff to deliver) took us on the road north. The river crossing was fascinating, totally unauthorised with no border posts visible, but a fleet of “long tailed” boats ferrying people and goods across the border. We drove through the most beautiful hills which stretch here for miles in every direction, jungle interspersed with occasional villages and their surrounding gardens and fields.

Mae Sariang from our guesthouse

Mae Sariang is a small town set on a beautiful river surrounded by more distant hills. We stayed at the fairly comfortable middling priced Riverside Guest House lashing out on a room with access to the roof top terraceand are enjoying a lazy morning drinking in the views 🙂 We have been eating at a neat restaurant a few doors down which also has superb river views, Internet and makes delicious Northeastern Thai dishes (last night I had fragrant Green Papaya Salad with sticky rice – I think I prefer the Karen style cooked inside a bamboo stalk to that prepared in a hygenic plastic bag, the bamboo adds to the flavour) as well as real bacon and coffee for breakfast. I’m getting a taste for the Hill Tribes’ coffee with its smokey flavour, but it is an acquired taste and Barbara would still prefer the cleaner sharper taste of the PNG based roasts we get in NZ.

This afternoon we catch the 1st class minibus to Chang Mai – we are really on holiday now 🙂

Tourist Information: Mae Sot, Thailand

Life in Mae Sot (the local town, which Lonely Planet describes as something of a cross between Hicksville and the Wild West) is quite a change from Mae La. For a start there is the famous Canadian guy’s café (see any guide book for directions), with bacon burgers and French fries with blue cheese dip, as well as coffee for purists. The Bai Fern guesthouse does a similar range of foreign food, but better fries, if you stay there it has WiFi. However, all these places still have the feel of being in Thailand, just not in the camp. hazel.jpgBy contrast the café we discovered in Mae Sot Mall is pure International. We were in the “Mall” (a small new shopping arcade) because the women have decided that Thai massage is a good way to relax – my shave and haircut took a quarter the time, and with a hot shower (at the guest house) made me feel fresh and clean! The Coffee and Cake joint has free WiFi or a desktop clients can use for free, the coffee including Barbara’s Soy Cappuccino and Sarah’s Moccaccino was good and about NZ$1 each, the chocolate cake was superb.  We did not dare try the chocolates, as we had pigged out on fries for lunch already.The mall is on the same street as the police station, near the 7-eleven and the post office, the café is called Hazel.