The sleeper train to Chiang Mai

After a few days in the Jungle we set off back to Bangkok to pick up a sleeper train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. I’d never been on a sleeper train and obviously neither had the boys, so we were looking forward to the adventure.

With only 2 trains a day from Nam Tok back to Bangkok, one of which leaves at 5.20 in the morning (no thanks…I’m not that much of a dedicated traveller!) the other leaving at 12.55 p.m., arriving in Bangkok at 5.40 p.m., and then a taxi/bus/tuktuk ride (choose your transport) across the city to the main Bangkok railway station during rush hour, there were some concerns that we might be pushing it to make our train. Thankfully our taxi driver picked his way through the crazy Bangkok traffic with great precision and only a couple of shut your eyes – hairy moments. We even had time for some food before we left!

The night train was awesome, we loved it, and the trains ran like clockwork (thank you once again to seat61.com for all the helpful info) – although the toilets left a little something to be desired! We had comfortable padded seats, then an hour or so into the journey a member of staff came round and made said big comfy seats into beds for us, the upper bunks were already made up and I couldn’t get Josh down from the moment we got on the train! We shut the curtains and were rocked gently to sleep by the moving train (or most of us were at least: Dougie, not so much!). We were woken early by the staff coming round to make the beds back into seat form and to the sights of the blue sky and the Northern Thailand jungle landscape out of the windows.

We arrived in Chiang Mai, hungry – breakfast on the train was overpriced and not very appealing, so we gave it a miss – and bombarded by tuk-tuk and taxi drivers offering to take us to our hotel. We got something to eat and then negotiated a tuk-tuk ride to our hotel in the Old City – we’re now quite partial to a tuk-tuk ride!

 

Sai Yok

Our next stop after the chaos of Bangkok, Nam Tok. We planned to have a couple of days chilling out in the jungle and visit the Erawan Waterfalls while we were there. We checked into the fabulous Yayei Homestay – great food, great people, great location and great service…can you tell I liked it? (I would happily have stayed here longer and would highly recommend it to anyone that is visiting this part of Thailand).

Tukkie, who runs the homestay with her family,  promptly announced that it wasn’t a good time to go to the Erawan falls at the moment, when we asked about it (our main reason for taking the four-hour train journey from Bangkok initially)- aghhh! We asked why and were told that because of some heavy rains in the previous few days the falls were all dirty and not the beautiful emerald waters we had seen in all the pictures. That put pay to the plan!

Not to be disheartened, we looked at what else we could do. There was a small waterfall on the map just a 10-minute walk from the homestay, it didn’t look much on the map and it didn’t seem to be mentioned much on the internet, but it was on the doorstep so we thought we may as well take a look. We could also walk along a disused section of the death railway in the jungle to get there, which would be a bit of an adventure…

At the end of the disused railway section, we walked along the path that led to the falls and we were met with a 25m high waterfall cascading on to the rocks with a pool at the foot of it…what a discovery! We spent the afternoon swimming in the pool, clambering over the rocks and sitting under the downpour of water from above. What a find…we had an unforgettable afternoon at the Sai Yok Waterfalls, making memories to last for a long time to come.

 

The Death Railway & the Bridge on the River Kwai.

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From Bangkok our next destination was heading west to the Erawan National Park, initially with the intention of visiting the Erawan Falls, but that’s a story for another day…

When I started planning our trip there a few months ago – should we day trip, should we stay overnight, do we hire a car, do we go by train, bus, etc.? – I discovered a fabulous blog, that has served us well on more than one occasion since being in Thailand. It’s called ‘The Man in Seat 61’ and gives detailed train travel information for all over the world.

The reason I mention the blog is because it is precisely this blog that ignited the modern history geek flame in me. I love history and since my uni days I have been fascinated with 20th Century history in particular. When I discovered from the blog that one way to visit Erawan was by travelling on the Bangkok – Nam Tok railway, a still used section of what is widely referred to as the Death Railway, there was no need to look any further – I had found the way we were going to travel!

The History Lesson!

In early 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma (now known as Myanmar) and seized control of the British colony. To supply the troops the Japanese were dependent on bringing their supplies 2000 miles (3200 km) around the Malay peninsular by sea, but the route was extremely vulnerable to Allied submarine attack. Building a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon was proposed as an alternative.

The Death Railway

The Siam – Burma (Thailand – Myanmar) railway started construction in October 1942. The line was completed in just a year, but the human cost was enormous. The lives of more than 12,000 POWs and 100,000 forced Thai labourers were lost. One man died for every railway sleeper laid.

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A series of photographs on the wall at Nam Tok station, recording the extreme hardship & feat of engineering in the building of the railway.

Ok, that’s the history bit over…for now.

So, on our quest to travel the Death railway, we headed in the luxurious comfort of a taxi, for the ridiculously cheap price of £2.50, from our Hotel to Thonburi Station in Bangkok, a small station on the east side of the river that has 2 trains a day that travel the route. We then bought the even more ridiculously cheap train tickets at £2.50 each (£10 for the four us) for the four and a half hour train journey. Ok, so the train was not your modern, electric, sophisticated train, but honestly, that wouldn’t have been right to travel the Death Railway, would it? The train departed like clockwork at 13.55 and off we went.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

About half way along the route the railway crosses the notorious Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by the 1957 film based on the book of the same name by Pierre Boulle.

(A disclaimer at this point: my photos of the bridge are not stunning given that I was on it rather than looking at it!)

I awaited the bridge crossing with great anticipation, the film having been etched into my brain for years by charades games over many Christmases thanks to my brother-in-law, Chris.

It was such an incredible experience. I couldn’t believe I was actually in Thailand, riding the death railway on the bridge over the river Kwai! It was a very poignant journey through, at times, very beautiful dense jungle and a stark reminder of the devastation caused by a war that only ended in my parents’ lifetime. In my opinion, a must for anyone visiting Thailand!

Read on for the trivia moment…

The bridge made famous by the film did not cross the River Kwai, it was in fact the Mae Khlong river, Pierre Boulle had never been to Thailand when he wrote the book and guessed incorrectly. The film was such an international success, however, that tourists came flocking to see the bridge. Consequently, in 1960, the Thai authorities renamed the section of the river that takes in the bridge the Kwai Yai…how is that for tourism marketing?!

 

 

Bye Bye Bangkok

WARNING: This is a long one!! Please feel free to read as much or as little as you like!

So we’re here, we’re doing it – I can’t remember how many years I’ve been thinking about travelling the world and visiting south-east Asia. At least 29!

We’ve just spent the last 3 days in Thailand’s capital city, Bangkok. We arrived at 5.00 a.m. having had no sleep, for our bodies it was only midnight! We had a hotel booked just out of the main central area of Bangkok, but central enough. We made our way through immigration and customs, found an ATM to withdraw some cash and found the signs for the airport rail link that heads right into the centre – it was so easy to navigate I was almost disappointed! The boys were excited and amazing, taking it all in their stride. I’d like to say that I was super excited at this point, or experiencing a massive culture shock, but I think the overarching feeling was bewilderment mixed with tiredness.

We had looked at the route to our hotel beforehand and taken a couple of screenshots from Google maps on our phone, so we knew where to go (handy travelling hint there). We took the rail link and then changed to the BTS sky train to. BTS sky train…tick one of things to do in Bangkok and we hadn’t even been here for 2 hours!

After paying for an early check-in (worth it after 10 hours on the plane!) we found our room and slept for about 4 hours. We set the alarm and made ourselves get up, trying to beat the jet lag, so we would get to bed at a normal time that night!

Then it was time to soak up the atmosphere of Bangkok. Knowing we only had 3 days we didn’t waste any time. We decided to walk the 4km from our hotel to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, one of Thailand’s most important religious sites, stopping for lunch along the way – our first foray into authentic Thai food. Noodles, pork and beef were on the menu.

I can only say that first walk was…emotional! Bangkok is a chaotic, noisy city and our boys, used to the quiet life of Abruzzo, tired from very little sleep and starting to get hungry were a little overwhelmed by the traffic rushing around us at every turn and stifled by the intense humidity. I admit, at a certain point I did have a moment of “have we done the right thing? Perhaps this is too much for them”. I also remember having that same thought almost exactly six years ago to the day, when we had moved to Abruzzo and Jake started school. Well, we all know that turned out ok, so I decided to keep the faith. And it was just a little blip. Once the stomachs were filled and contented life seemed much rosier.

The Temple of Dawn was fascinating – and at only 50 Baht/£1.25 per person entry fee an absolute bargain. The main prang (tower) stands over 80m tall and is the highest in Thailand. It predates the founding of Bangkok and is decorated with small pieces of Chinese ceramics and is one of the most visible landmarks along the river bank.

After our visit we meandered our way back through Bangkok’s streets, we stopped for dinner at one of the hundreds of street food stalls lining the roads everywhere you look – pork and rice this time – and headed back to the hotel. By 9 o clock bed was definitely calling…

Day 2 Bangkok

We did not want to get up…so much for beating jet lag, ha! But we did manage to drag ourselves out of bed in the end and we decided to head to another of Bangkok’s famous landmarks – The Grand Palace. The spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom. And, boy, do the Thais love their King – he is everywhere you look from small pictures in taxis to gigantic posters adorning the sides of even bigger skyscrapers.

We took a traditional ferry boat up the river (another tick) to the Grand Palace and just managed to disembark before the heavens opened with a mother of a tropical storm – it is the end of rainy season after all! After watching the spectacular lightning show over the river for an hour, the rain went off and we made our way to the Grand Palace, only  to find that we wouldn’t be admitted as we were all wearing shorts…rookie travel mistake, we should have known better, we won’t be making that mistake again!  The boys and Dougie soon got over the disappointment, I have the feeling they weren’t that fussed about going in the first place! So, we did some more walking and we found another street food vendor and we did some more eating. We then headed to Lumphini park, what for the boys was a far more tempting offer,  in search of monitor lizards.

We arrived at the park amid festivities for the start of a charity run in aid of a Thai heart foundation – which meant we got to see people dressed up in traditional Thai costumes and a group of young boys with what I would describe as a chinese dragon on poles, but I’m guessing it’s also part of Thai culture too (school research project?!), and hundreds of people running in 30 degree heat, at 85% humidity – bonkers! And we got to see plenty of monitor lizards (I think the count was up at around 14) so the boys were happy!

Heading back to the hotel, we then went out to a restaurant where we chose and were served all the dinner ingredients at the table, with a big cook pot in the middle full of stock and we cooked it ourselves. The waitress obviously detected that we were novices at Thai food and feeling sorry for us, proceeded to give us all a cooking lesson at the table – she then kept a very close eye on us throughout the evening, correcting our technique where necessary – I never knew cooking noodles was such a delicate art! Stomachs full after a successful day of exploration bed beckoned once more.

Day 3 Bangkok

Our final full day in Bangkok and my plan was to head back to the Grand Palace appropriately dressed. The rest of my cohorts, however, had plans of their own.  So I ventured off alone and agreed to meet them later in the day. With no Thai SIM we had to actually make arrangements in advance – do you remember those days?!

The effort was well worth it, but knowing my family, it was probably a good move to go it alone. The grand palace and temple complex was large, fairly crowded, very hot, very humid and again incredibly fascinating. The Buddhist art gold paintings are incredible, the 14th century emerald Buddha was much smaller than I had imagined but a must see as one of Thailand’s most revered artifacts. It was also here I really started to get a full appreciation of how important the King of Thailand and the Thai Royal Family are. The exhibition dedicated to the current King and his achievements for progress for the Thai people was my favourite part – a fantastic Thai history and culture lesson .

After spending a few hours wandering the palace complex I met up with the boys back at the monitor lizard park, having picked up our tickets for our overnight train to Chiang Mai at the end of the week. They had visited the Erawan Shrine and seen some religious dancing before lizard counting in the park once more and a 5km run around the park for Dougie.

That evening we took our first tuk-tuk to go to Patpong Night Market. Flying along Bangkok’s streets and seeing the river skyline at night was an unforgettable experience. The way we swung round the corners had me on the edge of my seat a couple of times!

The market stalls were filled with an array of knock offs and tacky tourist paraphernalia, the dancing girls in the bars lining one side of the street were fairly discreet and so no uncomfortable explanations were necessary, we had a wander through the market and then found ourselves a little street food seller with tables and chairs on the corner for dinner. The tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel was just as fun as the first one with smiles and laughing all the way back.

And so ends our Bangkok experience – hot, humid, chaotic, full of wonders, sights, sounds smells. And despite all the chaos one thing that struck me about Bangkok is how incredibly clean and well looked after the city is. I think we could all learn a little something from the Thai people about taking pride in the environment around us.

 

 

Arrivederci europa

20180906_193040The ultimate ‘arrivederci’. From our hotel room at Suite Rooms Fiumicino (I can highly recommend the hotel by the way) we walked the 300m to the seafront and watched the stunning sunset over the Meditteranean sea. Something we don’t get to do from our Adriatic side beaches.

I can’t help feeling it’s mother nature’s way of reminding us that, while we are going to see some amazing things this year and have life changing experiences, you don’t have to go too far to see incredible beauty…you just have to look for it.

The Big Off!

The day has finally come. Years of dreaming, years of saving, months of planning, weeks of organising and today the day of departure has finally come. And I can tell you now it still doesn’t seem real!

As we sit here on the train heading to Rome, for a night in Fiumicino before we fly tomorrow, it doesn’t feel like we’ve left home for a year of adventure. It’s all a little bit surreal! I keep wondering when the enormity of what we are about to do, or I should say what we are now doing, is going to hit me…who knows, maybe it won’t.

We’ve left our home, dog, garden and chickens in the very capable hands of our lovely house sitters, we’ve said our goodbyes to our lovely friends and now it’s time for us to make a lifetime of memories.

With one rucksack each, plus a little one for the gadgets (but that probably weighs more than all of the others…oops) we are heading to new places, for new experiences, to meet new people, to discover new cultures, to broaden our minds and those of our children, to see things in real life that we’ve only seen in books and online until now, and I feel so very lucky!

Keep checking in to see what we are getting up to. I’ll be posting our adventures here in full.

Travelling the world – 4 weeks to go

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Wow, time is really flying by. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was writing the 4 months to go update and here we are with just under 4 weeks to go. Its all getting rather real now. Are we ready? Not really – I’m not sure you can ever be fully ready for such a massive undertaking. What we are is a mixture of excited, apprehensive and stupidly busy!

Our thoughts turned a few weeks ago to all the jobs that we have to get done here and packing, yes, finally packing, hoorah! Anyone that knows me well will know that I don’t tend to think about packing for a holiday until the day before, as long as all the clothes are washed and clean we can just choose and go. Well, packing for a year is somewhat different and has been on my mind for several weeks now!

So, our plan is to follow the sun for a year, which makes things a little easier – no heavy jackets or multiple layers, hats, scarves or gloves to think about. The idea is to pack light with only the essentials, but I will be working and we will be teaching our boys as we go, so computers and chargers are a must. There will be cameras, phones, tablets, books, pens, pencils, water bottles (and those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head) to add to the minimal clothes, flip flops, trainers and walking boots!

I have been scouring RTW trip packing lists. You wouldn’t believe how many there are on the internet – for men, for women, for specific locations, for families with young kids, for families with older kids – so there is no shortage of information out there and this one from Travel Fashion Girl is one of my favourites. I think I’ve finally identified the essentials.

The boys have had their vaccines (Dougie and I have ours on Monday), passports are all ready, medical insurance is booked, we have flights booked all the way to Costa Rica, the first 11 days accommodation is booked, as is an overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Shampoo bars arrived in a very special delivery (thank you Donna, it was so good to see you!).

Another important delivery for us is arriving in just a couple of weeks when my brother comes to visit – 2 water filtering bottles that remove 99.999% of bacteria and viruses. They didn’t come cheap (although we did manage to get them in the sale) but given we are travelling in South East Asia for 5 months where tap water isn’t always safe to drink, added to the fact that I don’t want to add to the worlds ever growing plastic pollution problem by being reliant on bottled water, I think it’s an investment worth making. A lot of research and we finally opted for this one LifeStraw® Go 2-Stage.

Next steps are to organise digital school books and now actually buy/not buy all the items I have been jotting down over the last few months that ‘might be useful’. As with everything, getting the right things for our family’s needs without blowing the budget or going over the top is taking some time to research and I can hear the clock slowly ticking away.

We have started boxing up the clothes and personal items we won’t be taking with us, ready to put in storage – our house sitters arrive on 1st September. We’ve fitted a new roof on the wood shed, finished tiling the utility area, but still have a hundred and one little…or not so little…jobs to do – painting, plastering, staining wooden furniture. All whilst still spending time growing, jarring, drying and freezing our this years abundant crop of fruit and veg, looking after the garden, running the apartment rental and slowly saying goodbye to friends and family that we won’t be seeing for a while!

One thing is for certain though, on the 7th September we will be taking one of the most exciting flights of our lives, ready to live an amazing adventure for a year no matter how prepared or unprepared we might be…I can’t wait!