Thailand Through the Eyes of an Alcoholic London Photographer: Guest blogger Matt Goldsmith
Thailand Through the Eyes of an Alcoholic London Photographer
So I went to Thailand for a month.. It was meant to be three months, but... stupid money!
I'd never been to Asia before - I didn't really know what to expect - and I thought that my Western money would last a lifetime.. this was a mistake, but my only mistake I'll admit.. Okay, maybe ordering that food that one time, but that's another story.
I had no plans beyond landing in Bangkok. This was the plan in itself, I didn't want to set anything in stone because I knew that by following an organic route I'd find more valuable experiences. If I planned ahead then I wouldn't be able to divert from the plan, and I wanted to escape from routine.
So, first to Bangkok.. Bangkok in a nutshell? It's very busy, modern, extremely rich people living in the vicinity of the extreme-poor, it all just sort of gels together. It's a good central staging point for getting all over the country, with train, plane and bus connections to get you wherever you want. All-in-all I spent around 10 days, over four trips, in Bangkok.. It's an interesting city, huge and sprawling, with many amazing sights to see.
|One of the many beautiful temples (wats) in the centre of Bangkok|
I'd met a Scottish guy in Bangkok the first day.. Mike.. he and his wife were doing an around the world trip and were three quarters the way around. We talked about my plans and he suggested - for my budget - to go down South to Krabi. I booked my hostel in Krabi and the next day I set off for the train station.
Krabi doesn't have a train station so the nearest point is Surat Thani and from there it's a 5 hour bus down south. This meant a 17 hour total journey, longer than my flight from the UK to Thailand.
When I arrived at the station to buy a ticket there were none left for the 1st and 2nd class sleeping carriages, only 3rd class seats - I didn't immediately think this was a problem.. until 8 hours later, no sleep, cold, crabby, uncomfortable.. The trains are an amazing experience, the windows can be pulled all the way down and the doors either side of the carriage in the vestibules can be opened if you want to have a cigarette or take a running leap.
Down to Krabi by Train
After not much sleep I arrived in Surat Thani in the rain, immediately harangued by taxi drivers outside the train station, luckily I had a ticket for the onward bus so I waited for that and eventually arrived in Krabi. Southern Thailand is stupid hot, it was 32 degrees when I arrived in Krabi at 11am.
For all the heat though, Krabi is really beautiful, quite sedate and - like Bangkok - is a good staging point for all the southern islands. I intended to stay 5 days but ended up staying 8 it was that good. My first hostel was pretty cheap, around £5.40 / $8.00 per night, air conditioned, clean, amazing showers, large lockers under the bed for your backpack and other items and centrally located in the town.
It was also where I first hired a bike in Thailand.. If you've never ridden a motorbike before I'd definitely advise against learning in Thailand.. There's a phrase: 'motorcycle tattoo' originating from the scars, cuts and scratches that tourists display after riding a motorbike and coming off. I've got a few of them.
Getting a bike meant that I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And so I did! Up the river road to see the beautiful limestone rocks framing the river vista:
|A tourist boat on Krabi river with one of the many beautiful limestone rock outcrops in the backdrop|
And up North, in-country, where I came across an interesting restaurant - Thailand's first, global award winning, social enterprise, set up to promote safe sex, by making condoms as easily available as cabbages.
|Despite the comedic name, Cabbages and Condoms has amazing food and a great mission|
While down South I had to go and see the sea. Luckily everyone had buggered off to the islands for full moon parties, so a lot of the inland areas were less busy. I drove west to Ao Nang beach for the day and chilled out in the sun.
|A deserted and peaceful Ao Nang beach with Southern Thailand's islands in the distance|
The South couldn't keep me there forever and I'd planned to meet my friend's brother, Peter, in Hua Hin. Not far from Bangkok but just far enough to be difficult to get to at a sensible time by train from the south, I ended up heading to and staying in Bangkok for a night so I could arrive at a good time the next day. On the way I witnessed a robbery on the sleeper train that I'd made sure I'd booked a sleeping carriage for after the no-sleep 3rd class fiasco! I spent the day with a mixed-nationality group of guys and girls, playing pinball, visiting the mall, and drinking into the night.
I was told that there's a minivan which takes a few hours from Bangkok to Hua Hin, so I ventured over to Victory Monument and boarded the suicidally fast minivan down South.
Two and a half hours, and no nails left later, I arrived and headed over to Peter's and his wife's shop, The Family Tree to prepare for the next few days of relaxing, learning Thai culture and speaking with an ex-pat about his own adventure in the land of smiles.
Peter is an extraordinarily charismatic man, a testament to all ex-pats in the country, everyone he meets likes him immediately and together with his extremely calm and together wife, Dtor, they make an amazing couple. I really enjoyed my time in Hua Hin thanks to them. Without them it's really just a touristy town that most people spend a couple of weeks vacation in and then leave.
I arrived on New Year's Eve and after talking to Peter, getting loved to death by his two kids Rosie and Louie, the whole family sat out in the garden to welcome in the New Year, Thai style. It's possibly the least alcohol I've drunk on New Year's since learning about alcohol, and the first night of many in Thailand that I played Jenga until the early hours.
Wild Elephants in Kui Buri
Peter had suggested that on New Year's Day we try and see elephants in Kui Buri National Park. After an 80km drive down South we arrived at the ranger station for the park, picked up the ranger who was going to show us the way to elephants, and set off.
We parked up at a beautiful vista and waited for chang (elephants). We waited for around an hour before one showed up in the distance, then another. They milled around for quite a while but didn't come any closer, nor did any others appear. We decided to cut our losses and head back, we'd seen two at least.. On the way back though, not far from the ranger station in the trees we were treated to a female grazing around 50 metres from the roadside. She hung around for just long enough to get some good photos; this is the closest I've ever been to a wild elephant.
|A beautiful wild elephant in Kui Buri National Park|
Then more turned up, then more, and by the time we'd left we'd seen eight, plus a baby who was drinking from the watering hole. What a success and an amazing experience. This was topped off by having a BBQ, at 10pm on New Year's Day, definitely my favourite, and weirdest NYD so far.
I'd promised Peter and Dtor some publicity for letting me stay at theirs for a few days, Peter also helped me hire a bike in Hua Hin for a very good rate, so after hiring the bike I headed over to the Family Tree to shoot some photos, take the story of each item, and I wrote a blog about it for them. This place is truly amazing once you hear the tales behind the items.
Time to Hit the Beach
Another good thing about having a local 'guide' is being told where the best places to go are. Sam Roi Yot beach was said to be deserted and the best beach in the vicinity. I put on my helmet, filled up the petrol tank, and drove the 60km or so there. En route there was so much beauty either side of the road.
|Beautiful mountains either side of the road en-route to Sam Roi Yot beach|
The beach really was deserted and around 3 miles long. I drove up the entire length, grabbed a shake from a ladyboy waitress, and then drove all the way back to the start. Parking up I decided to walk as far up as I could, half-in and half-out of the water.
|The beach at Sam Roi Yot with Monkey Island in the backdrop|
I drove back before sunset and – feeling like I'd outstayed my welcome – decided that next day I'd head back to Bangkok, before heading up to Chiang Mai next. I explained to Peter and Dtor, thanked them for their hospitality, and slept peacefully ready for the journey back the next day.
Third Time Lucky in Bangkok
Another short minivan back to Bangkok and I'd chosen another new place to spend a couple of days (this turned into six). It was also where I met loads of people who I connected with on varying levels. Australians and a Brummie who went out partying and the latter missed his flight, a Dutch girl who got more mosquito bites in one night than I did my entire trip, a super-hot Spanish girl, two German lasses, a Brazilian, two Korean's and a Brit.
We went up the rooftop bar that the Hangover II was filmed at and I managed to score a shed load of beautiful shots of Bangkok by night, from 64 floors up.
|The view from the sky bar, Lebua at State Tower, Bangkok|
I arranged to head up North to Chiang Mai with Julia and Nina in a couple of days, and so I mostly spent the next day catching up with blogging and staying out of the blistering sun.
Up North to Chiang Mai
I didn't manage to get a sleeping carriage on the 15 hour journey up North, but the one saving grace was that we'd hit sunlight around 6:30am, and we'd have about 6 hours of it until we hit Chiang Mai – photo time!
|A moment that took me with absolute breathtaking beauty, the train with sunlight glinting off its carriages|
I maxed out two of my CF cards photographing the scenery on the way, I'd long ago given up on the idea of sleep and moved willingly into 3rd class as they have better windows than 2nd for photos, and I'd secured a booth all to myself. By the time we arrived I was a bit grump and we soon headed to the guest house for a shower, food and some well-needed sleep.
I'd spoken to a girl the night before about Pai, and I'd said that I was going to hire a bike and drive up there, apparently 3 hours drive on a road with 762 turns! I checked into my new place for the night and readied myself for the insane drive North in the morning.
The Life of Pai
I set off around 11am to drive to Pai, my intent was to stay there for one night and return the next day. The road – whilst dangerous – offered up some amazing views.
|HDR shot of the scenery en-route from Chiang Mai to Pai, by bike, on route 1095|
Halfway there though the temperature dropped sharply, with wind chill it was down to about 5 degrees C, so my hands were blue by the time I arrived, 5 hours later, sore arse and numb. What a place though, Pai is dreamlike, all hippies and hill farming, I really wish I'd chosen to stay some more time. I'll definitely go back there again and stay for longer, with warmer clothing!
I did have to go back though, after heavy drinking around the campfire the night before, the next day was slightly more dangerous on the road for me, though I'd found I packed extra clothes so I wore layers on the way back!
Back to Chiang Mai
It took me slightly longer to drive back on the bike, I was being more cautious than the way up. I made it before sunset though to avoid the crazy night time Thai drivers, and settled my sore arse into the guest house I'd booked. I figured I'd better see some of the local sights whilst here and while I still had my bike, and the next day I went HDR crazy with the local wats dotted around.
|HDR of a wat's side doors in Chiang Mai|
After hooking up with a load of Brits and drinking to excess for a couple of nights, I noted that my return flight date was drawing ever nearer and so I made plans to return to Bangkok for one night before my flight.
Back to Bangkok for the Final Stint
I took the 3rd class train back down South, sadly the majority of which was during night time, but the sunrise on my penultimate day in Thailand blew me away.
|Sunrise en-route from Chiang Mai to Bangkok|
And I even caught some fishermen in the early hours going about their business, one of them either seemed to notice me, or was just naturally paranoid..
|Two fishermen on the outskirts of Bangkok in the early hours|
The last 24 hours in Bangkok, with precious little money left, weren't amazing.. I ate very cheaply and didn't drink any alcohol.. I had to while away the hours watching back to back episodes of Game of Thrones.
My flight was on time, I made it, spent the whole flight without in-flight entertainment (still trying to work out if that was a positive or a negative) and my heart finally sank when – close to landing – the pilot piped up "We're coming in to land at London Gatwick, the weather is calm with -6 degrees and the local time is 06:30"..
I will be back Thailand, wait and see.. If you're planning to go travelling there, then you should check out my list of do's and don't's.. and if you're going there in 2016, give me a shout and we can hang out.