Dropping in on Istanbul

Our trip to Turkey’s second city starts with the woman in front of me putting her seat back before we’ve even taken off. I consider this bad form on short-haul flights, even on a comparatively long short-haul flight like London to Istanbul. Noticing that the seats behind us were unoccupied, we move back a row.

Would you believe it? The woman clocks that the seat behind hers is now empty and moves back a row, too. We start to object, at which point her partner stands up and joins in. After a bit of argy-bargy it becomes clear that they’ve flown from the US, have been travelling for hours and now all they want to do is stretch out on the two rows. They won’t need to recline the seats. Phew.

We touch down at Istanbul’s immense new airport and 45 minutes later we’re checking into Hotel Amira in the city’s old town. We hope the American couple from the plane don’t harbour a grudge because it seems they’re staying here too. It’s a bit awkward in that we keep on bumping into them in restaurants and elsewhere throughout our stay. Later, when I see their suitcases piled by the door on the day we’re checking out, I fear we’ll be on the same flight back to LHR, then have to share a cab from the airport, and that they’ve actually moved in next door to us and we will spend the rest of our lives studiously avoiding eye contact.

The view from the hotel’s 5th-floor terrace is pretty impressive, even on a hazy day.

Being tourists, we do all the touristy things. On our first day, we employ local guide Richard to help us. He shows us around must-sees like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and the Süleymaniye Mosque. It’s fair to say Richard is a details guy, keen on telling us the precise dates of this refurbishment and that reconstruction, but ignoring the big picture such as WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT HERE, RICHARD? 

So, for your benefit and so that I don’t forget, here are the basics.

Topkapi Palace

 

Built for the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th century. Bloody huge. Loads of rooms for washing, having meetings and sitting around in, and even one for mutilating children, or performing circumcisions as it’s more widely known. The place has been a museum for about a hundred years and is currently undergoing restoration work.

Sultan: ‘A real page-turner, this.’

Hagia Sofia
In AD 537,  when we Brits were squabbling about in mud and wishing the Romans would come back and sort us out, the locals in what is now Turkey were busy building this enormous Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral. It became a mosque about 900 years later and since 1935 has been a museum. (Although President Erdogan has said it might revert to being a mosque.)

The building is staggering in its scale but the addition of giant discs bearing Arabic calligraphy hasn’t done it any favours (not to mention the destruction of Christian artefacts and the plastering-over of priceless mosaics. Religion, eh?)

hagia sofia

minbar

A minibar?! *re-reads* Oh.

Süleymaniye Mosque
‘Build me a mosque!’ commanded Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in 1550. Seven years later it was all over bar the worshipping. Did the builders work particularly hard because the boss was, well, magnificent? It seems not. A lot of these mosques were finished in 10 years or less, a blink of an eye compared to the scores or hundreds of years it takes to knock up a cathedral in Europe. Perhaps we should put them in charge of Crossrail.

It hardly looks like a rush job, either:

 

During our tour, I witness something I’ve never seen before. Our guide notices a man in front of us accidentally drop his hotel key card. Richard picks it up and calls out to him. And again. And again. The man – a big, bald bloke – doesn’t seem to notice. Eventually, his wife does and points out Richard holding the guy’s card. Get this – baldy just reaches out, pockets the card and saunters off. No word of thanks, no eye contact, no smile or nod, nothing. Unbelievable.

In the evening, as we walk to the nearby Garden Mezze restaurant, we see something just as unusual but a lot scarier. I’d earlier noticed an absence of joggers in this city, but suddenly around the corner come four of them, running at high speed. Although they’re not wearing running gear. In fact, one of them is in robes. He is carrying a big stick. They all look angry. They are chasing someone.

We don’t see the chasee disappear into an unlocked building, but the chasers clearly do because they rush past us and pile in through the door. A waiter from Garden Mezze pulls us away. “It’s just crazy Arabs,” he says, as we’re led through to the restaurant’s open-air courtyard. We try to study the menu against a background of shouts and screams from the adjoining building.

Quite an eventful first day. Here’s how the rest of our short visit played out:

The Cistern Basilica. Made famous (to us) through Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, this underground reservoir normally holds millions of litres of water, but inevitably it was undergoing refurbishment during our visit. Hence no water = dull shot. And there was relentless hammering going on.

The Grand Bazaar. I bloody hate markets so was dreading this; being close-hassled by the world leaders in hassle, urged to buy scarves and bowls and trinkets and other stuff I don’t need. In the event, we sauntered through this huge covered market pretty much unscathed. Not a single scathe! With a knowingness I hadn’t expected, one of the shop owners even called out to Carol ‘Come and look at things you don’t need!’

The Spice Bazaar. We were similarly untroubled here. What a place, though. If you’ve got the slightest interest in spices, and happen to be in Istanbul, this is the place for you. (There’s a street outside that seems to cater solely for gun lovers and shopfitters.)

 

The Pera Palace Hotel. A favourite of Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and, if we ever had the money to stay here, us.

The Dolmabahce Palace. Served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 until 1922. The Ceremonial Hall, above, is definitely the highlight, although the massive chandelier wasn’t lit during our visit. 

The rest of the sprawling palace is made up different sized rooms apparently designed for sitting around in. However, my audio guide goes on the blink, so when we’re in a room propped with 19th-century musical instruments, a voice tells me we’re in the grand banqueting hall. As we enter the gift shop, I’m reliably informed that this was where the sultan entertained visiting dignitaries.

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Bosphorus river trip. Six hours cruising up and down this iconic stretch of water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. The ferry is crowded with noisy people photographing everything they set eyes upon, usually with themselves in the foreground. But the trip costs about £7 each so it’s definitely worth it. 

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A few random shots.

So. Istanbul. Worth a visit? Of course. And maybe the sooner the better. Erdogan’s grip on the country is tightening, and if his man wins the mayorship on June 23, the Islamification of the city might just accelerate. The only disappointment during our visit was how virtually all the main attractions were undergoing restoration work.

There’s plenty of history here, getting around is a doddle and the people are friendly to visitors – certainly the ones whose job depends on it. 

Other casual observations, in no particular order:

  • Getting around is cheap and easy. Trams can be crowded at rush hour, but you’re probably used to that
  • Water cannon and armoured cars are everywhere, as if the city is confidently expecting civic unrest. Maybe that will materialise on June 24th if the election goes the ‘wrong’ way.
  • We didn’t see many beggars or outright poverty. Possibly a reflection of the comparatively small area we explored
  • There were no cyclists and very few flies or mosquitoes. Not that I generally lump those three together as holiday nuisances
  • The city must get through a billion plastic bottles every week, although it looks like many get recycled
  • There are quite a few stray dogs but they’ve all been tagged and seem to be in good shape. No small breeds, for some reason
  •  Newspapers are on sale but I didn’t seem anybody reading them. I was told that the papers are ignored now that the media is tightly controlled by the government.

Our four-and-a-half days exploring the city was probably enough (for us), but wouldn’t nearly be enough for anyone interested in Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, Islamic art and calligraphy… or with a love of markets.

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 8: The Long Trip Home, and What Not to Take on Holiday

We’re sitting in a Thai Airlines A330 Airbus, about to fly from Phuket back to Bangkok. A member of the cabin crew is walking up and down the aisles with a clicker device in his hand, counting the occupied seats. I’d say the plane is 90% full, so if I could pass on one piece of advice learnt from my days as a tour guide it’s that it is much quicker to count the empty seats and subtract that number from the total capacity.

But I’m not going to do that, obviously. Can you imagine?

‘Back to your seat, please, sir’
‘The empty seats! Click on the empty seats!’
‘We’re cleared for take-off. Please return to your seat.’
‘Fine. Go on then. Do your clicky-clicky on all the FULL seats. See how long it takes you.’
‘Security!’

90 minutes later we’re once again in Bangkok’s sprawling airport, Suvarnabhumi. We’re getting to know it quite well. The wavelike, multi-panelled glass roof, the endless walkways and travelators, and the odd sight of shops selling Leicester City FC kit and souvenirs, explained by the club’s sponsor being Thailand’s duty-free retailer King Power. A moderately interesting observation I make while in Thailand is that posters advertising football matches all feature footballers with their mouths closed. In the UK, we like to show our soccer stars in gaping hippo mode, preferably bearing teeth and with a clenched fist aloft. Over here, the players look just as resolute and professional, but not as if they’re about to start a pub fight.


We never really leave the airport for our last night in Thailand. Because of the early departure of our flight back to LHR, we thought it prudent to book a room in one of the on-site chain hotels. After a lengthy stroll, we plonk our bags down at the check-in desk of a Novotel. Pretty soon, we’re once again talking about allergies. It appears they haven’t got the room ready, despite Carol having warned them about her duck-feather allergy months ago. ‘Are you really allergic to them?’ asks the disbelieving receptionist. ‘We’ll have to change the bedding.’ Well, duh. There’s the inevitable delay before it’s established that the hotel doesn’t have any feather pillows anyway. 

Our room is fine, our evening meal is fine, everything is… fine. It’s about what you’d expect from one of the big, soulless corporates – grudging service, conveyor-belt food, impossibly bad croissants – but there again we weren’t expecting Claridge’s. 

Fine if you like this sort of thing

The final stretch

As mentioned, the Novotel is located within the airport grounds so it’s only a five-minute walk to the airport building followed by an eight-minute walk to the BA check-in desk, then a mere 10-minute walk to the BA/Thai airport lounge. By the time we sit down – having chosen a pair of seats for comfort, proximity to other people, availability of power points etc etc ad infinitum – we have covered three kilometres and could do with a cuppa. But a look at the scene outside shows it’s past sunrise, so we have Moët.

At the risk of coming across all over-privileged and with an uncharacteristic sense of entitlement, the Club World service on our flight home falls far below BA’s usual standards. Requests for drinks are ignored, there’s little eye or verbal contact from any of the cabin crew, the gap between starter and main course spans most of Nepal, and when my main course of beef finally arrives it turns out to be inedible (other passengers, I notice, came quickly come to the same conclusion). 

But you know what? I don’t care. I don’t even care when someone asks if he can ‘literally’ take my food tray away. I don’t care because my mind is buzzing with memories of sights, smells and sounds. Of temples and tat markets; rice whisky, river cruises and rooftop swims; longboats, speedboats and top-heavy fishing boats; Buddhas, beaches, too-big breakfasts… It’s been an amazing experience. And once again I owe it all to my lovely and resourceful wife, Carol. Give us a wave, Carol!

Things I Didn’t Need To Take On Holiday

  •  A power pack for my iPhone. I didn’t need it once. There are charging points everywhere. And to make it even more of an unwanted burden, some airports ask you to remove battery power packs from your luggage, along with any shaver or torch batteries. The first time this happened I became the Bloke at the Airport Who Doesn’t Know How to Pack Properly
  • Camkix 4 in 1 Phone Lens Kit. It arrived just in time for the holiday! Yay! Four fiddly lenses that screw into your iPhone to give you telephoto, wide-angle, macro or fish-eye photographs. Times I used any of them: one.
  • Three separate mosquito killer systems. Why three? No idea. We didn’t need any as they’re provided free at every location, along with mosquito nets. We didn’t get bitten once
  • Mosquito bite relief ointment. See above
  • MOVO 120-minute timelapse tripod head. We were never in one place long enough to do a time-lapse film, and in any case, I refer you to my earlier comment about photography being a solitary hobby
  • Spare camera lens cap. After losing one on the first day of our Canadian holiday, I always take a spare. Consequently, I never need one
  • Remote control for Nikon DSLR. There were precisely zero opportunities to use this
  • Game & Watch. I thought this little device would come in handy for all those times when I didn’t have my phone, a book or my wife with me, but there were no times like that
  • A hand-held fan. I mean, come on 
  • A spare toothbrush. Why? What did I expect to happen?
  • Spare batteries. AA, AAA, the powerpack already mentioned, a Lithium-Ion battery for the camera… I didn’t need any of them
  • The bag of toiletries handed out in Club World. OK, so I didn’t pack these to start with, but it took me until Day 19 to realise I’d never need any of the balms and unguents I’d been carting around. I left them in a hotel room. Two days later, I’m handed another bag for the return flight  
  • Sunglass clip-ons. I packed these despite owning a pair of Reactolite reading glasses. They stayed in my suitcase for the duration
  • Selfie stick. I’m not as vain as that suggests. Selfie sticks are useful for things like taking photos over walls. Times when I wanted to see over a wall: 0

That’s all! Or nạ̀n khụ̄x thậngh̄md thī̀, as they say in Thailand. Thanks for sticking with this seemingly endless series of blogs. Until next time… 

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 7: Exploring Thyn B’eech Taol

We’re up at dawn to say goodbye to the Golden Buddha Resort and to the manager, who comes to wave us off.

There she is, waving

The aquatic equivalent of a tuk-tuk takes us to Kuraburi Pier and from there we embark on a 150 mile road trip to Yamuu Pier by donkey. The journey takes over a month. All right, we go by car and we reach the pier by noon.

We transfer to a modern, shiny speedboat and 30 minutes later we’re on an island to the east of Phuket called Ko Yao Yai (there’ll be a test on all this later) for what will be the last of our holiday destinations. Almost last.

The resort complex is a bit of a culture shock. Whereas our last beach resort was all charmingly laid back, laissez-faire and pleasingly hippyish, Santhiya is faster, busier and way more organised. It’s a big operation, with a string of three-storey apartment blocks carved out of the hillside, numerous swanky private villas with their own staff, and a central resort area by the beach where all the restaurants, swimming pool and other facilities are located.

Your hotel room can be hundreds of metres away up a steep hill, so there’s a shuttle service of what the resort likes to call wooden buses but which are basically Toyota pick-ups painted to look like wood. (In our last place you either walked or, well, decided you were quite happy where you were.) OK, that’s the last time I talk about our last place. As in, ‘well in our LAST place, all the turmeric was sourced locally!’

The, ahem, wooden buses

One of the drivers

We are shuttled to our room and within seconds have spread bags and clothes everywhere, thus rendering it totally unphotogenic. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say the room is staggeringly beautiful, with intricate natural teak carvings, the standard county-sized bed and a fabulous view that we never once tire of. It even has a Sonos-like sound system that connects effortlessly to my iPhone.

Isn’t it, though?

I set about removing all the overpriced tonics and Pringles from the mini bar to make room for our illicit supply of supermarket-bought wine, then we head for the beach. The next woody bus must be due soon.

Where to, sir or madam?

The resort is a bit like The Village in the old ATV television series The Prisoner. One, you’re pretty much trapped there (although there is an actual village nearby that you’re free to visit); two, when we ask about a secluded beach shown on the map we are told ‘no, madam, there is no beach there’; three, the frequent ‘Sawatdee-kah’ greeting you get from all the staff COULD be construed as ‘Be seeing you!’ and four, huge inflatable balloons smother you if you venture too far away. OK, not that one, but there is a truncheoned guard standing by the pier, beyond which you are not encouraged to explore. Funnily enough, it’s in the direction of the mystery secluded beach.

We ask for beach towels are and given the most ridiculous pieces of cloth you’ve ever seen.

I mean, that’s absurd! Hang on, wrong shot. That’s the bedspread. THIS is the beach towel:

Thyn B’eech Taol. Geddit?*

So, yes, it is bigger, but look at it. It’s virtually see-through and has all the absorbency of a rizla. And they make you SIGN for them for god’s sake, like they’re the equivalent of luxurious bathrobes from the Ritz. In the event, the sun is strong enough to dry us off in minutes and anyway who really cares. The beach itself is lovely, with plenty of room to find our own little spot away from other people’s adorable families.

*The resort is actually called Santhiya. 

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At night, a choice of three or four open-air restaurants would normally prompt a comment along the lines of ‘spoilt for choice’. But the menus seem very similar, so it’s a more a case of picking the venue with the least intolerable live music act, then positioning ourselves so that we can only hear the one Talented & Versatile Cabaret Duo. Get it wrong and you could have Simply The Best playing in one ear and Sunshine of My Life in the other.

In fact, choosing where to sit when eating out is for us a complex affair involving calculations and predictions and a deep understanding of restaurant variables. Amongst the factors we have to take into consideration are:

  • Closeness, quality and repertoire of musical acts
  • Proximity of babies or booming loudspeakers
  • Groups of drunks or (casual racism alert) parties of Chinese
  • Likelihood of table remaining in shade or gradually being exposed to harsh sunshine
  • Nearness of plate-stacking or cutlery-sorting areas
  • Ditto with tills, toilets and tantrum-throwing toddlers
  • Availability and cost of wine or beer
  • Popularity of establishment. It mustn’t be too busy or worryingly empty
  • Recency of any previous visit, regardless of enjoyment level
  • Whether one or both of us gets a view
  • Menu prices and range of choices
  • Proximity of electric fans
  • General ambience

But each night we somehow manage to find a venue that ticks all the boxes and, to be fair,  we’re never disappointed.

Now, the idea of lounging on a sunbed for large chunks of the day is my idea of what a beach holiday should be like. You can read, doze, have a stroll, go for the occasional dip then dip back into the book. But other people expect more from their beach holidays and Santhiya caters for them in buckets ‘n’ spades. There are organised events, excursions, experiences, activities, courses and clubs and, inevitably, massages. Ahem.


Went for a Thai massage today. Can’t put my hand on my heart and say I enjoyed it. She must have done something to my arm. Boom tish!

One of the excursions is to a place known locally as James Bond Island. No idea why. We look at the cost (a lot),  pull up some pictures on Google and immediately head back to the beach. Because this is what it’s like:

We were neither shaken nor stirred into visiting

Nature’s nightly miracle
Each evening we’d kick the night off with a glass of wine (our secret stash thankfully not confiscated by hotel staff) and a balcony view of the sunset. What is it that makes a good sunset so magnetic to the eye? For us, it’s probably a) living in a built-up area so we don’t get to see them and b) living in England so there aren’t any anyway.

Out here, they’re terrific. Majestic. Awe inspiring. Jaw dropping. We take photo after photo, hoping that each one would be better than the last. Sometimes they are, marginally. But no single image can ever capture the cosmic immensity of the sinking sun, nor convey the philosophical reflections that it provokes.

sunset

This last one wasn’t from our balcony. And none of these pictures were our BEST ones, obviously.


On our last night at Santhiya we discover what we feel is a more authentic Thai restaurant experience within walking distance of our room. It has air-conditioning, subdued lighting, traditionally-attired staff and, best of all, no husband-and-wife team belting out I Got You Babe. It’s the perfect ending to this almost-last stage of the adventure.

We sleep well and, the next morning, pack reluctantly. Santhiya is not for everyone and probably not somewhere to spend more than a week. But with its funny wooden cars, Truman Show vibe and cast of convincing extras, it does what it sets out to do very well. 

Next up: Our plane gets hijacked and we’re held to ransom and all sorts of stuff like that*

*No stuff like that

Update: Santhiya’s following me around on Facebook. Hope they don’t read what I said about their beach towels…

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 6: A Patch of Paradise in Ko Phra Thong

We’re up at dusk to catch a 9.30 flight to Phuket. Because of a surprisingly shambolic check-in procedure at the Avani hotel a few days earlier (‘Is it just feather pillows you’re allergic to, or feather duvets as well?’), the hotel has made amends by upgrading our taxi to a very agreeable Mercedes with enough legroom to suit a family of stilt walkers.

Better still, the taxi driver knows the way to the airport. The right airport, the right terminal; everything. We literally lounge around in the Royal Thai Lounge for a couple of hours and before you can say ‘cabin doors to manual’, we’re in Phuket. 

A pre-booked taxi then takes us north to Kuraburi Pier, a two-and-a-half hour journey through dense palm forests and orderly ranks of rubber trees. The road is fast and smooth and being widened here and there, the improvements a testament to the millions of tourist dollars now pouring into Phuket and its nearby islands.

In fact, it’s one of these neighbouring islands that will be our home for the next three days, the Golden Buddha resort on Ko Phra Thong. To get there, we clamber aboard a longtail boat tied up amongst fishing trawlers and set off, just us and the driver. Pilot. Captain. This journey is about one hour thirty, and I don’t think the smiles leave our faces the whole time. 

Taking a break from trawling the depths

Enjoying every second. Boatman considers going into warp drive

We’re on one of these

Clearly nicked from their website

If anything, the smiles get wider as we reach our destination. The taxi driver manoeuvres his tiny craft as close to the shore as the low tide permits and we step off into clear, warm water to be greeted by the resort’s manager. The Golden Buddha eco-resort insinuates itself amongst the trees of the island’s peninsular, with 25 or so unique and well-hidden villas (called baans) dotted haphazardly around. Ours is slap-bang next to the near-deserted beach, about mid-point along the top side of the picture above. Everything is slow and laid back here. The only time you find yourself getting a bit of a jiggle on is if you suddenly remember happy hour is about to end. (Booze prices in Thailand definitely veer towards the vertical side of steep.)

Otherwise it’s just a case of reading, swimming, pizza at the beach bar, wildlife watching, some half-hearted kayaking, walking in sand so soft it squeaks, more swimming, enjoying home-cooked Thai cuisine, admiring the sunsets with nightcap in hand, before waking to the sound of the Andaman Sea lapping just yards from our room. I so want to go back. 

This is our place

This is our view

This is smoke from the mozzie killer, caught in the dawn sunshine

The land is mostly flat but there are two hills, named Monkey Hill and Hornbill Hill. All we need is Deadman’s Cove and Shipwreck Bay and we’d be living on a pirate’s map. But they’re appropriately named: Hornbill Hill is indeed popular with hornbills, while Monkey Hill is home to an extended family of clever and resourceful macaque monkeys (i.e. you never leave the door open when you leave your baan). It’s also the site of the resort’s tsunami assembly point – and a quickly-aborted attempt to monetise the hill. 

‘Sorry, I meant black coffee’

A few years earlier, someone in the resort’s management had the idea of placing a dining table and two chairs at the summit of Monkey Hill and launching it as the ultimate romantic dinner location. It all sounded good in principle. You’d be dining with spectacular views of the bay in one direction; the sun setting over the Andaman Sea in the other. Bliss. Except for the monkeys. It’s their hill, after all. Meals had to be closely guarded and consumed at breakneck speed. Then there was the location of the hill, at least a five-minute sprint from the kitchens followed by a punishing slog up 50 uneven steps. It was a non-starter – followed by a swiped main course and a melted dessert.

No. The resort’s restaurant is fine. Spectacular views, great food and conceivably excellent wine, although of course our budget doesn’t extend to finding that out for certain. And you can’t fault a place that’s happy to include Flower Punk from the Mother of Invention’s seminal 1968 album We’re Only In It For The Money on its evening playlist. 

I can’t really fault any of it, to be honest. Although… a cantankerous part of me would introduce a rule stipulating that noisy children (a permanently screaming little bastard turned up on our last day) should have their larynxes removed before being allowed anywhere within earshot of the resort.

Provided he’s gone, I’d go back tomorrow.

Keeping cool by the beach café

…and repeat

We took a kayak into the mangrove stream

Not exactly surfing country

The clubhouse/bar area

Once we got lost and had to scale this escarpment

Luckily it was only a foot high! Ha ha ha!

Cocktails on the beach for Chinese New Year

We were assured these were biodegradable. Otherwise, you know

The obligatory sunset shot

That’s it. Next up: A different kind of resort altogether

A different kind of resort

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 5 (a bit more): Foodie Cruise Down the Chao Phraya River

It’s our last night in Bangkok and we’re going to spend it aboard a floating restaurant as it cruises gently up and down the city’s arterial river, the Chao Phraya. The experience comes highly recommended. Far from being the garish, noisy river cruises aimed at tourists, this is the foodie cruise favoured by in-the-know locals.

Not that our taxi driver is one of them, of course. Earlier, no fewer than three hotel employees has pleaded, implored and cajoled him into using his taxi, and his taxi-driving skills, to taxi two people to their destination, in exchange for some money. I think he was happy with the money part. He was quite looking forward to that bit. It was the having to do something to earn it that seemed to be causing the protracted negotiations. But eventually he consents to doing a bit of driving and off we go. Inevitably there are a few dead ends and wrong turnings but at least we arrive on the same day and without having to stop and ask for directions.

We board the vessel and head straight for the upper deck because that’s where all the action is. Well, there are some people there. The lower deck is all toilets and storage and folded-up furniture. We choose a table – the boat’s only about half full – and order our food from well-thumbed menus. Thank god for pictures on laminated menus, I say.

It works like this. The food is cooked on dry land then raced up the gangplank to the waiting diners. When all the orders have been delivered and we’re all tucking in, the vessel is untied from the shore and we get underway.

The food is delicious. I had (note to self: ask Carol what I might have eaten here. Prob chicken but make it sound more adventurous) washed down with Singha beer. There’s a welcome breeze. The other passengers do indeed appear to be 90% Thai, and if they’re not frowning at their phones they’re setting about their meals with studied resolve. Nobody talks.

The hideous, clichéd touristy ships with their vulgar flashing lights and thumping Western pop music are in stark contrast to our refined and more sedate craft.

As for music, we have a DJ playing lively Thai tunes that are frequently interrupted by pre-recorded announcements telling us about the various landmarks we pass. Most of these seem to have been made possible thanks to the generosity of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who’s easily Starbucks’ least popular customer.

Our boat was much more tasteful than this

After a while a gent from a table nearby gets up and takes the microphone. Oh good, we’re on a karaoke cruise. He trots out what is probably a Thai version of My Way before resuming his seat to applause from two people – a member of his family and me, causing the non-clapping members of his family to give me a funny look. Meanwhile, another of the brightly lit and appreciably faster tourist boats passes us by, this one featuring a live band and lots of young people whooping and dancing about.

Not to be outdone, our DJ grabs the mic to deliver a spirited rendition of Dancing Queen (‘…leetl beet rock museec…’) The other diners, in groups of four to 20 or so, continue to eat or look at their phones. There are few conversations taking place and nobody appears in the slightest bit interested in the constantly changing nighttime scenery. Mind you, neither are the passengers in the tourist boats. They’re too busy dancing.

Wat Arun – aka The Temple of Dawn

A rather splendid bridge, made possible thanks to the king with monarchy’s longest ever name

And so ends our third and final night in Bangkok. Given another day or two I’d liked to have visited the red light district and some of its, er, interesting bars, and had a beer at the top of the ludicrous Lebua State Tower. But there’s a dress code and evidently shorts and sandals are not part of it.   

Next up: Phuket, let’s hit the beach

 

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 5: We face Bangkok sans face masks

...or 10 hours by road

I’ve always wanted to set foot in Bangkok, but today the city’s taxi drivers have other ideas. Take our first destination, a huge hospital in which Carol is to have the second of her anti-rabies jabs (here’s the story of why she, ahem, needs one). We show the taxi driver the name and address of the hospital but it quickly becomes evident that he has only a hazy idea of where it might be. After a lengthy tour of Bangkok’s highways and, with its many elevated sections, even higher ways, he spots some nurses by the side of the road and leaps out to ask directions. We could be close, I think.

Everything goes well at the hospital. We’re in and out in under an hour. The staff even go to the trouble of arranging for a cab to take us to our hotel, the Avani. But then the next taxi driver also has a somewhat sketchy familiarity with his city. He tootles around, head craning through the windows, edging slowly down one busy street only to do a u-turn at the end and crawl back the other way. The light’s starting to fade as we pull into a Hilton Hotel so he can ask the parking attendant if he’s ever heard of the Avani. ‘You mean the giant landmark 26-storey hotel with the big illuminated sign that towers over other buildings by the river?’ the attendant might have said.

Oh, THAT Avani hotel!

Eventually we get to the hotel but checking in isn’t a doddle either. It never is, and I wish that just for once this was reflected in movies.

“The name’s Bond, James Bond. I have a reservation.”
“If I could just ask you to sign here and take your credit card and passport.”
“Er, right. I’m expecting a glamorous blonde to…”
“Breakfast is served between 6.30 and 9.30 in the Excelsior Lounge on the second floor, and the rooftop bar is open from 11.00am until midnight.”
“Great. If I could just have my…”
“We have a special all-you-can-eat buffet deal tonight, and there’s 10% off purchases in the gift shop. A shuttle service runs between…”
“Quick! There’s Blofeld, the international criminal mastermind!”
“Oo, you may be interested in our 2 for 1 massage deal.”

But I love it all really. I love playing with all the lights and checking out the bathroom freebies. I love investigating all the things that we’ll never use, like the electric iron, the sewing kit and, obviously, the mini-bar. I even like the ritual of the porter showing you where the bathroom is and how wardrobes work. One of the truly great things about our holidays is my wife finding hotels that might not be 5-star, but which are always several notches above the Travelodges we’re used to back in Blighty. 

If the bed was smaller there’d be room for a bedside table on the other side

Wednesday’s elevator.

The hotel has seven lifts, one for each day of the week. If you get into the Monday lift on a Thursday, it simply won’t work.

I jest. In fact, the hotels many elevators have carpets individually inscribed with the day of the week. Changing them every midnight is not, I suspect, the highlight of someone’s working day.

That night we meet up with some relatives, whose visit to Bangkok overlaps with ours, at a cheap ‘n’ cheerful riverside restaurant called The View. They ask what our plans are for tomorrow. I say that Chinatown holds no particular allure for me, and that after the last ten days I’m pretty much templed and palaced out.

The next day…

Early start, because Carol’s planned for us to visit the Royal Palace, two temples and a trip around Chinatown.

After doing the first of these, along with approximately half the world’s population, we realise we may have to reconsider. That’s because it’s hot and humid, because the no-shorts rule is rigidly enforced here and I have to buy a pair of loons, because there’s a queue to do that and a queue to go inside any of the numerous temple buildings then another queue to get out, and because we are sharing the attraction with people who like to push past whilst shouting at each other. Blenheim Palace it ain’t.

But that doesn’t look too bad, you cry! Correct. I nicked this picture from a Thai tourism site. On the day we visited it looked more like this:

...although obviously without the cooling effects of water. 

So much to my relief we abandon our temples and palace plans, put Chinatown on hold and instead head for the Royal Thai Navy Club. This isn’t the ironic name of some trendy Bangkok burger bar. It really is a club belonging to the Royal Thai Navy and is home to a cheap but good restaurant. You can eat green curry and prawns while watching the busy traffic on the Chao Phraya river, then brush shoulders with smart, white-uniformed sailors as you look for the restrooms. Incidentally, the home of the Royal Thai Naval Attache to London is just up the road from our home in New Malden. Why he chooses to live there is anyone’s guess.

The following day is earmarked for photography. In particular I want to capture shots of some of Bangkok’s extraordinary skyscrapers. The city is currently home to 81 of them, making it the world’s 13th most skyscrapered city (London is battling it out with Boston and Seattle for the coveted 55th spot).

Bangkok’s behemoths are all over the place, though, not conveniently clustered like they are in, say, Manhattan or the City of London. So I concentrate on one: the remarkable Mahanakhon. It’s the world’s only building in pixilated form. There’s a bar at the top, which you might need if you intend to lie flat on the adjacent glass platform and watch the ground from 78 stories up. Look at these idiots:
I had the last laugh because I could see the ground in much greater detail and from just 1.8 metres up!

After a couple of half-hearted pictures I remembered that photography is not something you can do as a couple. So we abandoned this plan too, took the Skytrain back to our hotel and cooled off. 

The dense smog that had made the headlines a few weeks earlier had eased up a bit during our visit, so we didn’t really bother with face masks. They’re impractical when swimming, too.

Here’s the 26th floor infinity pool, with its infinity effect sadly compromised by a smeary safety screen that could have been placed a foot lower without increasing any risk. I know this to be true. You weren’t there.

Next up: Cruising with the locals. No, not like that.

 

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 4: Vientiane

The bus journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, takes about ten hours. Luckily, we don’t go by bus. It’s fine for young whippersnappers with excellent bladder control, but us oldies take the short flight instead and make a pledge to plant loads of trees later.

On our way to the airport I have time to reflect on how drivers here don’t lean on their horns like they do in Vietnam and Cambodia. Everyone seems to give each other space. This is when our own driver isn’t sharing his views of the Chinese which, in common with everyone else who expresses an opinion, aren’t positive. The Chinese seem to have replaced Russians as the world’s most reviled tourists.

He also tells us that many people in Luang Prabang have difficulty sleeping during the rainy season, laying awake in fear that a nearby dam will burst and flood the area. Their fears aren’t unfounded. In 2018 one of the many Mekong dams collapsed, resulting in much destruction and loss of life. People here blame the Laos government for allowing the Chinese, and anyone else who asks, to build dams all along the Mekong. Construction standards are said to be those more commonly associated with the erection of temporary structures. 

Back to the fluffy stuff

So I’m at the Ansara Hotel in Vientiane, drawing a picture of a duck for the lady on reception. Next to it is a drawing of a double bed. Now I draw an arrow leading from the duck to the pillows and add a large X next to the duck. In this way I communicate to the staff the fact that my wife is allergic to feather pillows. “Ah!” she says, and gets on the phone to housekeeping. “We’ve got a right one here,” is what she possibly says next.

There’s a highly recommended jazz venue in Vientiane with the unlikely name of the Jazzy Brick Bar, but we find that both it and the entire block it stood in have been demolished and replaced by gravel. So we choose a rooftop bar with a perfect ringside view of the smog on the busy Rue Setthathilath. We order Pad Thai and watch a disappointing chimney fire in a building across the street. 

Day 9  

I estimate that we haven’t endured ferocious heat to look at a Buddha for at least a day now, so today we make amends by seeing thousands of them. First, we visit a sort of Buddha theme park on the outskirts of Ventiane and right next to the Mekong. It’s home to more than 200 concrete sculptures of Buddhas, Hindu gods and a giant three-storey pumpkin that invokes James & The Giant Peach. The park is certainly… different. I’d recommend it if you have an abiding interest in Buddhas or sculpture, and particularly if sculpted Buddhas is your thing. As with almost any tourist attraction anywhere, early morning is best.

We take part in a Baci ceremony

This is something Carol arranged through Trailfinders. It’s a centuries-old ceremony – pre-dating Buddhism itself – involving chants, prayers, the sprinkling of marigold, an elaborate display of flowers and banana leaves, and the tying of white thread around our wrists. The thread symbolises ‘peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community’, and it’s customary to wear it for a minimum of three days.

The ritual, conducted in the home of a relative of our guide, is utterly fascinating and the people conducting it warm and friendly. We both feel privileged to have taken part and wave goodbye whilst looking forward to a future of peace, harmony, good fortune etc.

After the ceremony we visit Wat Si Saket, a temple containing – and I’m glad I didn’t have to count them – 6,840 Buddhas of different sizes and material. It never fails to astound me just how key, how absolutely central, the figure of Buddha is to people of that religion.

There’s a tiny Buddha in each of those recesses, too

Rubbed up the gong way

Outside the temple we chance upon a large and very old gong. A guy is repeatedly rubbing the palm of his hand up against the bulbous bit in the gong’s centre, creating a deep and sonorous tone. The moment he stops, the sound fades. I have to have a go, of course.

Me with my Baci threads, having a quick gong rub

I rub and rub, but can I get a noise out of it? Not a squeak. I feel like I’ve failed in something important. Meanwhile, I’m getting strange looks from people who weren’t there to witness the first guy making it sing.

Some more shots from Vientiane:

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*See here for an explanation of why the Vientiane war memorial has this nickname

Making a meal of breakfast

  • Take our seats in the near-empty restaurant
  • Asked how I’d like my egg cooked. Answer fried, please, over easy
  • Put toast on so that it’s ready for fried egg
  • Toast ready far in advance of fried egg
  • Leave it a minute, toast now cold, put second slice on
  • Toast ready. Still no egg
  • Egg arrives! It’s seriously undercooked, like it’s been momentarily shown to a frying pan
  • Send egg back. Toast now stone cold. Consider third slice…
  • Egg arrives. It’s perfect

Today’s our last day in Vientiane. It was only a brief stopover, after all. We could enjoy a bit more time by the pool but instead it’s decided that we pack up and get to the airport pronto as we don’t want to be late and miss our flight despite it not being due to take off until, like, many hours from now.

Carol expresses a mild sense of panic at the airport. ‘There’s nothing happening! Nobody’s here!’

‘That’s because we’re a year early for our flight,’ I say. Ah well, better safe than sorry.

So it’s goodbye Wattay Airport, farewell Vientiane and laters, Laos.

Next up: Bangkok or Bust

 

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 3: Luang Prabang – and a brush with death

Our longboat arrives at Luang Prabang at dusk and we head straight for our hotel. The room is modest but the bed is again enormous, measuring at least seven feet wide. If I snore tonight it’ll be quicker for Carol to phone me than to journey crab-like across the cotton wastelands to give me a prod. First, though, we head for the bustling night market. They’re always bustling, aren’t they?

Luang Prabang is here, by the way

It’s THIS far from other places

Avid readers of this blog may recall that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of markets, bustling or otherwise, and this one doesn’t prompt a change of opinion. It’s an endless parade of stalls selling scarves, trinkets, bowls, tie-dye dresses and garish t-shirts, then back to scarves again. I get the feeling that the type of goods sold at these markets is strictly controlled by government decree, because it’s the same everywhere you go.

But it needn’t be. For example, those distinctive long boats and water taxis ploughing up and down the Mekong are, I think, unique to this area and will form part of many people’s memories. Why is no one selling little models or paintings of them? Why can’t you buy the cute incense stick holders found in hotels and in restaurant loos? Why is there nothing tuk-tuk related? Or t-shirts that don’t have GOOD MORNING LAOS on them? It works for Vietnam because of the film, but here it makes little sense. It reminds me of the time when those ‘MY MOM WENT TO NEW YORK AND ALL SHE GOT ME WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT’ t-shirts started to appear. Soon, NEW YORK became any popular tourist destination and ‘MOM’ became pretty much any family member. I swear the game was up after greedy apparel makers tried to cover all the bases with ‘SOMEONE I KNOW WENT TO…’

I end up buying some coffee but that was mostly out of a sense of guilt. 

We eat at Coconut Garden, a venue popular with American tourists although that might be an impression gained by the fact that they’re generally the loudest.

Bowled over: an example of how something can be both unique and ubiquitous

Helpful information from hotels.com

In the morning we’re up at crazy o’clock to meet our guide for the day who, in a bored and listless voice, asks that we call him ‘Funn’. We’re taken to witness the early-morning ritual in which villagers give alms to the local monks. The alms normally comprise a handful of sticky rice, which probably explains why the monks don’t look overjoyed or say thanks. Funn points to a nondescript house and in his languid drawl tells us that ‘a keen driver lived here’. We never work out if we heard him right. 

After breakfast, Funn takes us round some old temples (sandals untouched by footwear thieves), then to what used to be the Royal Palace. Laos had a royal family until 1975, when the communists swept to power and the royals were swept off to be ‘re-educated’. Their former home is now a museum.

We walk in and immediately come to a halt in front of the first painting in a room filled with many paintings and artefacts, in a palace in which every room is stuffed with many paintings and artefacts. Funn starts to tell us the story behind this first picture and my brain is not equipped to calculate when we might possibly emerge into daylight, if ever. But luckily Funn doesn’t have a story for everything on display. Instead, he tells us about his dislike of the Chinese (‘they’re rude, arrogant and disrespectful’) and even finds time to demonstrate his technique for playing boules. It’s a bizarre moment as we stand in the former queen’s reception room watching a man silently and intently mime the throwing of a boule, while perplexed tourists pass either side.

We warm to Funn today, a bit, or at least get used to his weary, can’t-give-a-toss delivery. He’s good company on our afternoon drive to see a dramatic waterfall and a bear rescue centre.

A temple. Please don’t ask me which

The sweatshirt suggests it’s still early

The Kuang Si Falls

In the evening we eat at L’Elephant, a spacious, high-ceilinged Gallic restaurant in which we could choose from either the Lao or French menu. I’d gone full-on local at lunchtime so tonight I go for the duck breast roasted in Grand Marnier, and I’m sorry to report that it was the best meal of the holiday. I know, I know.

Here’s what we had for lunch:

AFC Bournemouth 4 – Chelsea 0

That’s the staggering news I wake up to. Tottenham won too, so there’s a spring in our step as we scale That Phousi, the 28-storey* hill in the centre of town, to see the sacred Buddhist temple and the inevitable Buddha seated at the top. Actually, this one’s standing. They all either stand, sit or recline. It means different things. So does the way they hold their hands – palms outwards, downwards, supplicant… Everything means something with your buddhas. How long have you got?

*That’s what my phone’s step counter reckons anyway

There’s a rocky outcrop on which people have their photos taken, although I note that most of the photographers choose to take the shot with their subject seated in front of sky, with no context to show that they’re at the top of a hill. So although a Chinese lady pushed in front of me to get her picture taken, I take solace in the fact that it’ll be terrible.

500 feet up, unaware of the nightmare about to unfold

 That brush with death mentioned in the headline  

We’re on the 328-step descent when a kitten from the temple takes a playful swipe at Carol’s exposed ankle. She’s had a rabies inoculation and the skin isn’t broken but you can’t be too careful. I mean there’s no mark, no trace of blood, in fact nothing to suggest she’s been anywhere near a cat, rabid or otherwise, but it pays to be on the safe side. The kitten might be looked after by the most devout and creature-loving people on earth but you just don’t know, do you?

So Carol gets on the phone to Trailfinders who arrange for a local rep to take her to a nearby clinic. Who should turn up 20 minutes later but Funn, seemingly not put out in the slightest by having to take a neurotic Western tourist to the clinic on his day off. All goes well, with the doctor happy to provide a booster jab while assuring us that contracting rabies from infected cats was extremely rare in Laos. Although he would say that, wouldn’t he. Probably has a stack of boxes in a storeroom with ‘ANTI RABIES VACCINE – CAT VERSION’ stencilled on them.

Funn and Carol in the clinic

All that’s left is to have another injection in three days’ time, when we’ll be in Bangkok. 

Luang Prabang: worth a visit?

Definitely. Twenty years ago only 300 tourists came to the whole of Laos, now it’s possibly that number of backpackers PER HOSTEL! Not really. But it’s easy to see why Luang Prabang in particular has become so popular. It’s in a superb location between two rivers, has grand old French-Lao architecture, loads of bars and restaurants, a thriving nightlife scene (probably), some marvellous Buddhist temples and that unique almsgiving ceremony. No wonder it enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It was our favourite place in Laos. But look out for the kittens of death.

Where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong. The bridge is rebuilt every couple of years

Next up: A fleeting visit to the capital, Vientiane

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 2: ‘Alexa, play the sound of a longboat cruising down the Mekong’

We say goodbye to our hotel in Chiang Rai, although not audibly because that would be silly. In fact we barely say anything at all, it being 5.40am. Instead, we travel in bleary-eyed silence for a two-hour drive to Huay Xai on the Thailand/Laos border. After a few customs formalities (getting on and off buses, queuing up at this and that desk, filling in forms, exchanging dollars for visa stamps, more queuing and surreptitiously leaving a Bollocks to Brexit sticker in the loo), we’re in Laos. 

This second stage of our holiday is one I’m really looking forward to: a trip down the Mekong River aboard a traditional-style long boat. Banish any thoughts of Viking longboats. This is a flat-bottomed and pretty much flat-topped wooden vessel originally designed for transporting freight but now repurposed for tourists. Here’s ours:

Sorry, wrong shot. Ours was more like this:

A fine craft. Anyway, we boarded at midday and met our 15 fellow passengers, mostly Europeans around our age or older – considerably older in the case of one unsteady-looking chap – and a youngish American couple. 

Carol stands at the bow as we meander downstream

We set off at a sedate 10 knots or so, with Thailand on one side of the Mekong and Laos on the other. Away from the river banks, lush jungles of maple and teak rise impossibly high over steep-sided hills and mountains. We see precarious hillside villages, isolated shacks and herdsmen driving cattle along the sandy banks. Crash-helmeted taxi drivers race their longtail boats from place to place, their unprotected passengers hoping they don’t meet any submerged logs at 40mph. Unattended fishing poles poke out from rocky outcrops while the occasional upturned plastic bottle resists the flow of the river, suggesting it’s been tethered there for a purpose. There’s an odd and perplexing lack of birdlife.

I’m on the foredeck enjoying the view, the breeze and the surprisingly weak sun on my face when we pull up for a visit to a typical Mekong village. As we come to a stop I realise the sun is actually very hot indeed and I’m starting to look a bit like the archetypal  Englishman who doesn’t know how to do summer.

It’s also proving too hot for the elderly gent, who elects not to traipse around the village admiring locally-bought handicrafts (i.e. scarves bought by the villagers from a local market). In fact the guy isn’t very well at all, and after a few phone calls and the mustering of a support crew, he’s helped off the boat into a van and taken to a Thai hospital. Presumably.
The boat’s not equipped for sleeping so our next stop is the delightful Luang Say Lodge. Constructed entirely from local hardwoods and subtly camouflaged against the hillside (unlike the garish Grand Pakbeng hotel complex nearby), Luang Say Lodge should be an anagram of ‘relaxation’, although as you can see it doesn’t even come close.

The lodge staff have the unenviable task of lugging our suitcases about 50 metres to the lodge – mostly upwards – while we enjoy the sunset and devour a buffet meal.  Then as everyone else turns in, we proceed to get drunk with convivial American travellers Sam & Matt.

Recipe: Blue curacao, triple sec, whiskey, lime juice, maybe some vodka, I don’t know, other stuff, uproar, despair.

The next morning starts off chilly but the mercury races north to hit around 30 by lunchtime. We’re again travelling downstream, heading towards Luang Prabang. We stop at another village to see some traditional weaving and sample the local rice whiskey. Each of us quickly gains an insight as to why it’s not exported all over the world. Next stop, the ‘Buddha Caves’, where you climb the equivalent of a 25-storey building to see some natural caves that people have put statues of Buddha in.

‘Of course it’s safe. Come on, only 290 more steps.’

Without the Buddha statues they’d just be ‘the caves’

Outside the caves, small boys attempt to sell you tiny bamboo cages containing even tinier sparrows. The idea is that you buy the cage and release the bird to bring yourself good luck. In fact, the only one who strikes lucky is the local boy, as the overheated, under-watered and malnourished bird soon drops out of the sky, only to be re-caged and re-sold to the next soppy sucker.

Back on the boat, the gentle lapping of the water, the steady throb of the engine and the muted background conversation make it an ideal sample for one of Amazon Echo’s sleep sounds, as it’s easy to nod off and miss the amazing scenery. I down some strong coffee and enjoy the final stage of the journey before we make landfall, as us mariners call it, at the ancient and unforgettable town of Luang Prabang. 

Next up: Er, the ancient and unforgettable town of Luang Prabang

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Laos/Thailand 2019, Stage 1: Chiang Rai

I’m in northern Thailand in a vast hotel room in which the TV is about the size of our double bed back home, while the bed itself is easily the size of Wales. Le Meridien Hotel, sprawled on the banks of the Kok River in Chiang Rai, is big in every way, from the enormous rain trees in its well-tended grounds to its almost overwhelmingly large buffet restaurant and just-let-me-at-it swimming pool.

The start of a great adventure

The pool area looked magical at night

My wife Carol chose it not for its size but its proximity to the major tourist attractions in the area: the White Temple, the Black Temple, the Blue Temple and the Shirley Temple. Sorry, no, the White Goddess of Mercy.

The first of these is easily the most impressive to look at. Formally known as Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple is largely the work of one man, Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai, and is supposed to be ‘a heavenly garden for people to stroll in and have feelings of peace and happiness,’ but apparently with terrifying reminders of hell nearby. It kind of works until we remove our footwear and go inside when, as with all temples, my focus on the ornate carvings, the statues and the holy artefacts is tempered slightly by the niggling and unfounded fear that someone will make off with my sandals.

Clearly this is the White Temple

There are hundreds of these hands reaching out from hell and symbolising unrestrained desire

The chap on the right unwisely considered a selfie, thereby activating the God Of Narcissism. It wasn’t pleasant

Unlike beer, baccy and bingo, memories aren’t on the list of a Buddhist Monk’s many can’t-haves

I’m the one on the right

The Black Temple isn’t really a temple or a single building, and most of it isn’t even black. Dark, yes. It’s a kind of theme park of around 40 oddly-shaped structures and sculptures, heavy on the use of animal bones and hides, and definitely a bit Wicker Man in places. Again, it’s the work of one artist/visionary/crazy guy, Thawan Duchanee.

There are no signs asking visitors to leave money. Animal skins evidently provoke the same inexplicable reaction here as small bodies of water do in Britain

I was doing my ninja pose and these guys asked if they could stand with me

Next up, the Blue Temple. Another recent addition to Chiang Rai’s exciting temple portfolio, this one is a proper temple and, yes, it’s predominantly blue in colour. Semi-divine mythical beings abound, there’s a huge white Buddha inside and rich symbolism everywhere you look.

Just one wall of the Blue Temple. It has four like this, conveniently located on each side of the building

The seated Buddha inside, with worshippers frankly not paying it that much interest

Finally, the Goddess of Mercy. This too is a recent construction and looks quite impressive, standing, or rather sitting, on the biggest hill for miles around. It would be an exhausting climb to the base of the statue if you didn’t have a guide with a car, like we did, and an equally gruelling trudge to the top of the statue if you took the stairs, like we didn’t. There’s a lift.

This is as far as our guide would take us. ‘The ‘orses won’t go no farther, sire!’ he’d have cried, in another setting

The elevator ride to the top is rewarded with a view of some distant fields and what might be a barracks

The base of the statue is surrounded by depictions of Buddha in various poses.

This one has the gesture for ‘I care this much’

A nearby gift shop features this happy chappy:

My, that’s a bit of a handful

By now we’re pretty much templed out so head back to our hotel on the banks of the mighty, er, Kok. 

At dinner we get our first taste of how expensive alcohol is in Thailand, and also spot a few dodgy-looking old blokes with their Thai wives. But as the old blokes are also Thai it’s no big deal. This joke needs work.

At around ten o’clock we retire to our massive bed. I spread out over the Welsh Valleys with a foot in the Bristol Channel, while Carol gets comfy over Snowdonia, her arm occasionally lolloping into Cardigan Bay.

Next up: Into The Heart Of Darkness. OK then, a pleasure boat down the Mekong.

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