This was the greeting that we heard right after landing in Bangkok. The Thai capital was quite cosmopolitan.
We commuted in the rush hour traffic to our hotel. It was a pleasant surprise to discover a rooftop pool. Monsoon season was in full bloom, so we opted to stay indoors, getting dinner at Pier 21, a food court inside Terminal 21, a bustling shopping centre only five min away from our hotel.
On one of its long winding escalators, we took a group selfie, proclaiming our excitement.
The next morning, we decided to visit the famous Wat Pho temple where over one thousand Buddha images and sculptures were kept. Buddhism is deeply engrained in Thai culture. This was evident in everyday things we saw. Buses had dedicated seats for the elderly, pregnant women and then two extra ones for monks.
The intricate decorations on the temple’s facades were fascinatingly beautiful.
Later in the afternoon, after a rather exhilarating Tuk Tuk ride, we decided to checkout the floating market just outside of the city. Our drivers took us to a parking lot where boat tours operated at astoundingly high prices. A little digging on Google Maps revealed that the market was mere 30 minutes away on foot, we ventured forth right away.
We got there and noticed the market was mostly empty. An old man showed up and asked us if we need boats. It was only a small fraction of the previous price. Soon after our tour started, we felt the full force of the rain season. It started pouring in a matter of seconds.
To our delight, A few food vendors came by as we were trapped under a tarp. We ate delicious unnamed fruits and skewers of local street food. About twenty minutes later the rain stopped and we continued on our tour.
The next day we boarded a plane to Chiang Mai.
Our hired driver pulled up and we got into the party bus. The road trip is a go! With only occasional breaks for food and water, we headed for our first destination - a national park.
We got to the park and about fifteen minutes into the hike, a narrow gorge presented itself.
We saw this capacity 500kg sign just before the bridge. Everyone has fears. Kevin encountered his at this moment. He needed some help.
He’s in good company.
After a gruelling hike over steep rocks and dense bushes, we reached the top of the mountain.
The mountains rolled on like waves. The temperature was good for Thai standards. We stood there for a bit, enjoying the peak breeze and examined the (purported) artifacts of pre-historic humans.
After the hike, the party bus took us to the hotel and we rested up momentarily. Our next adventure was in the nearly by villages. Hiking up the country road led us to a field of crops. The villagers were celebrating a special occasion. They generously offered us free food. We gobbled the food up and thanked them in our broken Thai.
By now, we’ve grown accustomed to the various insects and bugs of Thailand. Some of them bite, but most don’t. Though a few of us had felt the wrath of the fire ant.
We saw some breathtaking views, but we had a feeling more awaited us ahead.
Our van ventured travelled from one location to another, most of them within an hour or two drive to the city. Before dusk, a wrong turn led us a dead end. However, we saw the beautiful bridge just ahead, and asked the driver to wait for us at the end of the dirk road and then walked towards the bridge.
The bridge stood above rice paddy fields. The field glistened in the sun-light. It was beautiful.
In the distance, a farmer was tending the crops, spraying insecticides.
So this is where Thai rice come from. I thought.
The bamboo bridge bounced as we walked along.
Occasionally, locals walked across the bridge, smiling at us tourists who are enamoured with the views.
Time for a photo-op. I said.
The wooden column provided a perfect monopod. Count down, get ready, and snap.
The bridge was entirely made of bamboo. Panels interlinked each other. It was surprisingly strong yet felt incredibly light. It reminded me of a quote that I once read in a book:
“Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance.”
We noticed a temple on top of a hill on the other side of the bridge. Climbing up its stairs gave us an aerial view of the fields. At the foot of the hill, a buddhist statue caught my attention. It was holding a scripture tablet. Though it reminded me of an iPhone 6s+.
The next few days were spent mostly on mountain roads, among the fog. Some of us slept, while others shared laughs. We stopped along the way to eat good food and drink good tea.
One of the places we stopped at was a cave in a national park. It was only accessible by raft. Visitors had to be guided by local guides holding oil lamps. These guides were all women from a local ethnic group.
So we paired up, two on a raft and entered the darkness.
The air was cool. We very much enjoyed the cave, partly for the momentary relief from the heat. Unlike the caves we visited in Phong Nha, Vietnam, the scale of these ones were smaller.
This cave was largely untethered from the outside — without any electricity powered lights, stairs or extended wooden walkways. The only human touches were the rope guardrails that adorned the sides.
Soon we were on the road again and saw many interesting things.
A few of us were almost stuck on a human powered ferris wheel. The team had to come to the rescue. We also witnessed a large truck carrying heavy machinery stall on an uphill mountain road bend. We had to get off and walk past the truck as the driver of our van narrowly squeezed by on the road shoulder — with its rear right wheel dangling above the ditch.
As soon as we arrived in Pai, the gang went about renting scooters. We stepped into one of the many rental places and asked to see some bikes. The owner greeted us and handed us the keys, assuming that we knew how to ride. Little did he know that the bikes we were used to riding were bicycles. Given Michael’s shaky performances that almost crashed the test drive, the owner smiled and shook his head.
This is not a good idea. I thought.
We agreed and decided to venture forth on foot.
The scooters wouldn’t be the only danger we’d encounter. The Pai Canyon is notoriously narrow and steep with its cliffs ranging from 80 to 120 meters high and narrow paths at no more than 30cm wide. I soon found myself in a precarious situation:
My life was in danger.
Long story short, the gang got separated in the canyon and my hike went awry after a few wrong turn. I ended up alone on a very steep yet slippery cliff with nothing to hang onto. To prevent myself from falling off to death, I had to jam my legs into a narrow crevasse, buying time for my brain to search for a way out.
After a good few minutes of calming my nerves, I thought of a way out. I would pulled my body of the crevasse. Then flip my torso to the left, while keeping my feet in the crevasse as an anchor, grabbing the small vegetation with my hands, and then shuffle my way to the safe ledge ten meters away, by grappling the sparse vegetation and using the friction of my body to keep my on the 60 degree incline.
It worked! But only barely so.
I felt the vegetation loosening as I pulled on them. The ledge led to a proper path. I was safe. Cold sweats followed suit. This story became my go-to tale about my trip for friends back home. I took a breather and recounted my experience to the German tourists moments after, when they inquired about my scraped knees and my dirt covered clothes.
After that, I just wanted to leave, so I proceeded down the trail to our parked van, waited for the gang while washing away the dirt and tending to the scrapes. Lessons learned. I thought.
I would tread more carefully after the Canyon scare.
The next adventure was in the forest. The lodge is called “Our Jungle House” for a good reason.
Its location was right at the foot of a mountain. A creek ran next to our cottages. At night we heard wild animals running, foraging and howling just outside of our shed.
We spent a night there before going into Khao Sok national park. It was my first time putting up a mosquito tent and burning mosquito incense in more than a decade. Brings back memories of growing up in China.
Later we got onto a long-tail boat that took us to our float house in Cheow Lan Lake, inside Khao Sok National Park. The lake was a man-made reservoir. You can still see the tree branches poking out of the water.
The scene was serene.
For the next three days, this was our home. We were fed well and kept busy with lots of activities in the water and in the nature. We kayaked, hiked, climbed into caves and cliff dived.
We spotted monkeys, eagles and all kinds of fish. When our kayaking excursion turned into a kayak capsizing free-for-all, Ushhud lost his glasses in the ensuing fray. I lost my Dropbox shirt, which I had tied to my kayak and David almost lost his glasses too. But it was all good, I had many more shirts to wear and Ushhud had a backup pair of glasses. David, though shaken, cherished the fact that he didn’t lose his.
It was all smiles.
At night, the stars were bright. We gazed them and pondered. The weather was still hot so everyone slept with windows open. Peering into the open window meant peering through all of them.
Going to the bathroom at night was also an interesting experience. The bathroom was located all the way at the end of the dock, a good 250 meters away. Each house was provided with an oil lamp. Carrying that lamp in one hand, one had to walk a good four minutes to the bathroom. Aside from the immediate ground being dimly lit, I faced pitch blackness. Naturally I relied more on your other sense.
All I could hear was the cracking of the wood panels as I walked and the animal howling in the woods. Occasionally a fish would make a bubble pop in the water. The dock gently swayed left and right on the water.
It was surreal.
We spent two more days in Phuket after leaving Khao Sok. The weather wasn’t as nice, so not a lot of pictures were taken. We did however take a proper group photo beforehand. At one spectacularly beautiful roadside stopover earlier in the trip, we gathered for this one below.
This is how I will remember Thailand.