When is a scam a scam? Our most unusual day trip to Patong… (the conclusion)

For the first part of the I-swear-it’s-true story, click here. We were at the point of finally being left alone and trying to work out how we are going to get out of a NZD$16,000 timeshare hardsell.

The *major* prize!

I should point out that Sean left us alone at many times over the course of the show, and I did wonder at one point whether we were being bugged (once he left his phone on the table); a way of scoping out whether we were serious or wasting their time.

At some point during this dance, I can’t remember quite when, Sean also realises he ‘forgot’ to tell us about the annual USD$400 membership fee. Whoops. He’ll talk to boozeman boss Andy. He returns. Because it was his mistake and he forgot to tell us – how silly of him – they’ll wipe the fee for the first year. How generous. I wonder if he forgets this every time he does this performance?

We continue talking/laughing about how we find ourselves in these ridiculous situations. Another card is put on the table: they’ll throw in a week at Patong Bay Resort for free, so we can come back at Christmas, and try the product before we might have even paid it off. How great is that? So that means we’ll get 11 complimentary weeks!

Another minute to talk.

Finally, the ruse is up. We tell Sean that, ‘regrettably’ – time for my words to appear in parentheses – we’ve been unable to get over the line. He races off to Andy; he doesn’t want us to leave without giving him one more try. We’re back inside. They’ll drop the price and allow us to take a five year taster package for, urgh, I can’t remember now. Whatever.

We’re clearly not swayed. We try the line that there is nothing wrong with the numbers, the package sounds great – did I mention that it was a family and friends affair, so anyone we counted as those could use the membership benefits too, and we didn’t even need to be there on holiday – but we just can’t commit to those figures without time to think about it.

But you have to sign up today.

We know, soz.

I try the tack that I can’t say yes to the four questions, the one about deserving it, because I can’t say that we deserve to spend that kind of money on ourselves, in case something comes up that we need money for. I thought that was bloody clever. Nope, there was even an answer for that.

It took all the acting talent we had, as I tried to play a character under the direction of ‘I really want something but I can’t commit so I’m going to display lots of anxiety and nerves’. Eventually, though, they gave it up, no deal, and we made it out. Alive. And ruing the moment we ever came across damn Scotty, and definitely the first and last time we’ll do anything like that for a fellow Kiwi!

Oh, the prizes you ask? We did indeed get the promised T shirt, which is now a useful pajama tee providing all the LOLs. And my major prize? Which one of the four do you think I received? I won a week’s holiday at some nameless resort, with a huge number of conditions and hoops to jump through, including that you have to sit through another presentation so you can ‘learn about the true benefits of holiday ownership’. I’m not kidding. I wonder if anyone, and I’m sure every major prize winner ends up with this lemon, bothers to redeem it?

After the taxi dropped us back to the beach, it was after 4pm, our beach day almost at an end. After a quick dip, we jumped the bus back to Phuket town, kinda laughing, kinda in disbelief about how weirdly our day trip to Patong turned out to be. The better half, in his wise wisdom, made the point that, in fact, it was kinda perfect: Patong’s scummy, scammy-ness encapsulated in the most bizarre four-and-a-half we hope we ever have to experience. Good point.

Some of the fine print; check out #1: another presentation? Not today, Satan, not today…

So, was it a scam? What did I find out?

In short, I don’t think it was a scam, and the internet hive mind is certainly full of warnings about real timeshare scams in Phuket. It was, though, likely a dog dressed up in glamorous threads.

We were being sold a package through a company called Club Unique, a part of an organisation called ILG. A big part of the pitch was that Marriott Vacations Worldwide bought ILG in 2018, for four billion dollars (US).

Marriott Vacations Worldwide (MVW), which was the timeshare part of the Marriott Corporation until it became its own publicly traded company in 2011, did indeed buy ILG in 2018. ILG was/is also a timeshare company. ILG, trading as Interval International, now appears on Marriott Vacations Worldwide website as an ‘exchange and third party management’ part of the company. This is how they are able to proclaim that we would be able to access the range of brands that are a part of MVW: Sheraton, Westin, St Regis, Hyatt, etc.

However, rather than just booking any room, you would be booking into these brands’ own vacation clubs, so a particular number of suites I presume they have dedicated to these kinds of arrangements. For example, in the MVW buyers guide I downloaded, the Patong Resort appears under the resorts that have only made 6-10 suites available for holiday clubs (covering who knows how many thousands of members). Many or most resorts fall into the between 51-100 category, to be fair.

So, the ILG website and booking facilities we were shown are completely legit, and indeed do provide some kind of membership access to the broader MVW club networks. What I was not able to find online, and quite frankly can’t be assed wasting any more time researching, is where the role of Club Unique, the club we were supposedly being signed up to, sits within this web. I couldn’t find concrete links between them.

Where the MVW and ILG websites have ‘about us’ sections detailing ownership and history and legal sections, Club Unique’s website is vague to say the least:

From a single, bold concept back in 2015, today, Club Unique is the result of the shared vision of local developers and real estate and hotel specialist alike

Aha.

It does have a section about Interval International under its club benefits section, which states that they chose Interval to be their worldwide exchange and benefits partner. The resort is also in MVW’s buyer’s guide as an affiliate resort. But it still leaves me quite confused about who and what CU exactly are? The few media stories about them/the Patong resort I managed to find in the Thai press, read like PR press releases they’ve somehow gotten these outlets to publish verbatim.

Further, some of the figures in MVW’s buyer’s guide, about fees and so on, seemed to be less than the amounts provided by CU, so are they simply selling these memberships but adding their own cream on the top? Seems an awfully exhausting process to go through for a bit of cream, so I don’t know, and refer previous point about wasting any more time. So, I guess, unless someone reading this can shed some further light, it will remain an incompletely answered question. For now anyway.

A palatte cleanser…

When is a scam a scam? A most unusual day at Patong Beach

While in Phuket, we decided to do a day trip to Patong, the real warts-and-all centre of tourism in this part of Thailand. We did it so we could say we’d done it, and secretly so we could pretentiously and smugly judge its outrageous facade; the worst stereotypes of farangs go wild writ large. Instead, we found ourselves having an altogether I-promise-it’s-true, you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kinda experience…

We had really only just arrived when we met fellow Kiwi Scotty, having wandered down the (in)famous Bangla Road with its morning after hangover appearance. We were both wearing black tops that easily identified us as such, so we were easy targets! After a bit of general chit chat, his intentions became clearer.

He and his Swedish ‘colleague’, like himself another slightly weather beaten expat, gave us cards that were part of a ‘promotion’. We opened them to reveal that, while one was just a T shirt (cue sympathetic ohhs), mine – surprise surprise – was major: an iPad, smartphone, USD$1,000, or a seven night resort holiday. They started excitedly jumping around. This was great news as not only had we won, but if we just went to this 90 minute presentation, they would get thousands of baht in commission and they’d be able to ‘eat steak tonight’.

By now we were well clued in, and really should have a) declined and b) remembered that no one ever beats the house! However we decided to do a fellow Kiwi a favour.

He clearly (not) needed a good iron feed. So we agreed.

Scotty played his part well, remaining excited throughout. A tuk-tuk was hailed to transport us up to the Patong Bay Hill Resort while he dressed up as chit chat what were clearly the screening questions: are we wealthy enough to desire annual resort holidays, are we their target market? Because we were staying in Phuket Town in a nice but budget-friendly hotel, he coached us to talk up how much we’d paid per night, and to really emphasise our next destination: a branded resort at Karon beach.

And so, upon arriving at the functioning but still under construction resort, what turned into an almost four-hour show began.

Jellyfish: not the only spineless blobs we encountered on Phuket!

Sean, a Manchester lad of Irish descent, was our chosen narrator. He spent quite a bit of time establishing rapport. In retrospect, it’s bizarre how long we spent just ‘chatting’ before any talk turned to what the package was; although, of course, it’s also totally not, being clearly part of the game. He told us a lot about himself, and how he ended up in Patong. The extended version. All the while he was asking us questions too, obviously feeling us out and trying to find the little hooks he could use.

He mistakenly assumed, for example, that our black and white tops with silver ferns on them were All Blacks/rugby tops, and so assumed we were either fellow players (our builds) or at least fans. Wrong on both counts Seanypoos.

(As was also the case when we later met Andy, the big boss, who had recently spent a boozy weekend in notorious Pattaya, a place we avoided for that exact reason, and told us about how it got rowdy, a great boys’ weekend, and how his bank balance was now paying for it. Bad mis-read, bro.)

While this was happening, we were seated in an AC room/office with a tasty-looking continental buffet spread in front of us, told to help ourselves, and were plied with – not great – coffee too. If only we had no shame.

He then showed us around the flurry of activity that was a US$1 million dollar pool being built, while making lame jokes about Thai time and OSH in this part of the world. Another mis-read. The knowing laughter was canned, Sean.

(Side note: a hilarious part of the theatre of it all is how you are introduced to other staff members as the show progresses; the bit characters to the main event. They pop in and out, all smiles and delivering little scripted jokes.

Exhibit A: we meet the other British sales guy whose son is apparently going to be the next answer to the Arctic Monkeys. After he walks off, cue Sean: no he’s not because the band’s crap. Cue more canned laughter, and yet another misread: just because I’m a music scholar, it doesn’t mean I’m an instrumentalist, or that because your playlists are eclectic and could be anything from classical to hip hop, it makes you interesting; and why are those always the two ends of some kind of musical taste spectrum anyway?!).

Sashay away, Seanypoos, sashay away!

After the first part of the show was over, we take a taxi down to the Club’s beachside resort, so we can ‘get a taste of what you could be looking forward to’, if we joined up today. The location was amazing – literally out your door and straight onto the beach – everything else was questionable.

The pool took up a large part of the resort area and it felt like it was full of shirtless muscle lads looking for good time girls to bang. The rooms were literally metres away, so there is nil privacy to enjoy your little private plunge pools. No wonder they were empty. The vibe was just a bit seedy.

I don’t know whether Sean picked up on this, or not, but he didn’t show us around much and we didn’t stay that long, just long enough to enjoy a coconut shake. Instead we returned to Patong Bay Hill Resort for the final act.

Now the sell finally begins. Back at the office, Sean shows us how we could book into luxurious villas that, on booking.com, were thousands of dollars a night, for ONLY $USD288 A WEEK!! And, because of their ownership within the Marriott family, there were thousands of these properties across the world we could have access to. No matter where in the world we wanted to go, almost, we were guaranteed to be able to find a week’s worth of five-star accommodation for USD$288, Sean told us excitedly.

By the way, I’ve started speaking these words in a sarcastic tone; you should read them likewise.

It was time to see what was meant by this, so we were taken up to one of the resort’s one bedroom suites, which we were told would be the minimum guaranteed standard we could expect, if we weren’t upgraded to something better. Admittedly the suite was fine, and the outside infinity pool tempting.

Standing outside on the balcony, overlooking the pool and view out across Patong, it was time to start building to the climax. We’d been told that, if we could answer yes to four questions – is it value for money, would we get the use from it, do we deserve it, and one other piece of nonsense I can’t remember now – then a simple yes/no answer should be a no brainer. Were the answers to the questions a yes? Indeed. Would we be able to give him a simple answer today? The start of problems ahead for Seanypoos.

Insert lame joke about wanting to parachute out of the situation

He’d previously mentioned that he was a researcher by nature, investigating all of his options before deciding anything. I reminded him of this and that, as a researcher I would be very unlikely to say yes to something without taking time to research and investigate. I can’t remember his retort, but of course there was one. Something lame to keep us in the game.

We returned to the shiny sales rooms for the final reveal. The normal price for a 10-year membership – and that was fine as ‘the majority of people enter at the 10-year and then love it so much they upgrade to the full 25-year options’ – was just under NZD$20,000, but today, and only today, we’d get 20% off that price.

As a bonus, we’d also get an extra ten free week bookings over the ten year period, and so we didn’t have to consider the full amount, we could make a deposit – how much could you realistically put down today? – and pay the rest off over six months, longer if you need it, we’re completely flexible and it’s 0% interest, and the ten years won’t start ticking over until we’ve made payment in full, but the special has to be taken today. Can you imagine how the lines are starting to be delivered?

We sit outside so we can ‘talk without two annoying British guys standing over you’. And so we can finally talk about how we are going to get out of this.

To be continued…

Why I’ve (mostly) changed my mind about Phuket

To be honest, we weren’t expecting a lot from Phuket – beaches and Australians, mostly. Pleasantly, however, we discovered that our expectations were based on one admittedly pretty narrow stereotype. And while stereotypes generally carry at least a kernel of truth within them, as is true here, it’s always nice to experience a far more complex reality and come away with a far more nuanced picture. That’s the rationale for travelling in the first place, surely?

In reality, if it weren’t for meeting friends from South Africa, we probably would have skipped Phuket entirely for an island on the east coast. I’m glad we didn’t, because Phuket, both island and province, as well as neighbouring Krabi province, has a lot to offer. Like I’ve concluded about Thailand in general, I can see why it is so popular and has been for so long.

In our eleven nights in the region, I feel like we got a pretty good feel for its extensive range of possibilities – even if we didn’t dash about trying to fit it all in – and it does feel like several weeks could quite easily slip by without you even realising.

There are, of course, its famed islands; you can day trip to some, spend endless days on others. Which leads to its equally famed beaches…so many, such choice; its gluttony for sand lovers.

There is The Great Outdoors. As you approach the region, dramatic karst hills start cracking through the landscape, and reasonably flat although lush surrounds transform into something rather more interesting. A range of outdoor adventures await.

And there is also history. Old Phuket town is a pure delight, and a great companion to Penang’s more famous Georgetown. As it turns out, there’s a lot more than pretty historic shophouses that link the two.

We started out in Krabi, which is really just a little fishing town. It’s cute though and acts as an easy launch off point for boats to and from the islands. The night market, per usual, was the liveliest nightspot and provided a couple of great feeds. A wander along the waterfront and a visit to Buddha at the town’s temple, and we were ready to move on.

We next ventured to the far more tourist-heavy Ao Nang for three nights; a simple shared songtaew ride away. This is where beach lyfe begins. It’s not paradisically pretty, but not a beach you’d kick out of bed either, to appropriate the phrase oddly. And the swimming was great: warm, refreshing, and enough tidal current to make it interesting.

The South African contingent arrived the next day, and the glorious reunion was had. With so much to catch up on, there was nothing else to do but take advantage of happy hours that run the length of the afternoon and get quietly and joyously sozzled on cheap – but pretty average, it has to be said – cocktails. We settled on Mai Tais being the most reliable choice!

The next day we headed off-beach for a little exploration of the countryside. We made a final mountain climb, up 1,200 stairs of many shapes and sizes, to the famous Tiger Cave Temple; the views from the top making every sweaty brow wipe all the worthwhile.

As well as that, we were exploring the forest and caves at the bottom when we got caught in a monsoonal downpour. There was nothing to do but wait it out, although in truth it only made the experience even more memorable. While waiting we stuck up a conversation, of sorts, with a monk. As best you can when there’s no mutually intelligible language between you anyway.

Afterwards, as reward for our efforts, we luxuriated the afternoon away with a long soak in thermal hot pools, both naturally formed and human assisted. The rain had kept people away, so we were gloriously alone at-times; our own little forest oasis.

On our last day together we caught a water taxi to the popular, stunningly dramatic Railay Beach, for an afternoon of tropics swimming hemmed in by karst cliffs. And pent up exasperation of five months witnessing the Instawhore hoards of the world finally exploded in our own satirical photo shoot, although I’m not sure those close by, who we were essentially openly mocking, got it. Oi vey…

Our final six days we headed onto Phuket island itself, although it’s so large it doesn’t necessarily feel like an island. We spent three days in old Phuket town, and the last three days lazing it out on Karon beach (with a side trip to neighbouring Kata beach). There, it was essentially a regimented beach-pool, beach-pool routine.

Phuket town, though, is a real charmer, similar to but smaller than Penang’s Georgetown. There are real links between the two, with Georgetown having acted as something of a blueprint as the tin mining centre came into being. English style architecture and administration were imported, there is the same history of Chinese migrants intermarrying with locals to create a fusion Baba Nonya culture, and existing Penangites were in fact drawn to the opportunities Phuket presented. So it’s no surprise they feel like sister cities.

Like Georgetown, it has the feel of a living museum, albeit here a little more artificially constructed for tourism’s insatiable appetite (the historic centre, at least; surrounding it is a very typical, rapidly expanding Thai city). But when it’s so pretty, and so charming, it’s hard to feel bothered by a little well meaning duplicity!

Plus, it has one huge bonus. The island has a lot of beaches. Blessedly, they are all linked to the old town via local style buses (it’s much harder, or more expensive, to hop between beaches). It’s very easy to simply base yourself in Phuket town and explore the beaches via day trips before moving out to one for some proper aqua time (choose your beach right, and that will include Barbie boys and girls, if you should so want that not-looking-at-anyone-in-particular-Patong).

Speaking of that cesspool of tourism’s barrel, I’ve got a story to tell you about our ‘day trip’ to Patong, but I’ll save it for its own post…

On the road between Bangkok and Phuket

The space in between Bangkok and Phuket (or southern Thailand’s many other beach-based options) seem largely bypassed by holidaying tourists, harried by time’s constraints. Fortunately, without the pressure of itinerary, we were able to take the slow road, making a few stops on our way overland.

There’s a real simple pleasure in hop-on/hop-off travel I reckon. By this I don’t mean the buses that promise you 32 sights for one ticket price, although the concept is similar. I mean making your way between two points, jumping off the main trunk line along the way with little little stress, little pressure, little expectation; nothing but time to let drift through sand-covered fingers and languid, sun-drenched days.

With about a week to cover the 700+ Kms between Bangkok and Phuket, we decided to make three stops, at Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and Chumphon, spending two nights at each. All were riffs on a similar theme, but each was interesting and unique enough to warrant individual meanders.

Our first stop was Hua Hin, a former fishing village that became popular with Thai elites after the rail arrived and the royal family built vacation homes there in the early 1920s. Within weekending distance from Bangkok, Hua Hin today is v popular with frazzled urban dwellers, but also, creating an interesting mix, northern European retirees (there are Swedish and Danish eateries amongst its varied offerings). We were there early in the week, so there was nary a weekender about; it was pleasingly quiet.

We arrived to quite the scene: the end of a clearly heavy pre-rainy season downpour. It had surface-flooded the streets, making some impassable, and meant we had to manoeuvre around a little. It extended what should have been a short wander, and we must have arrived looking like quite the sight. Especially as we were staying five star.

Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that, as a belated birthday surprise for the much better half, I had booked us in for two nights of early twentieth century glamour at the Centara Grand. The first resort built at Hua Hin, it maintains the finish of its original incarnation, rather immaculately maintained. It’s all dark panelled wood mixed with white trims in colonial era style, set among extensive grounds; the kind of place where you want to spend time sitting in different spots in order to enjoy all the angles.

We didn’t completely neglect the town, though, wandering in for dinner each night and a look around. I often find these overly resorty, touristy places uncomfortably artificial and just a bit too plastic. It might be because the city caters to foreign as well as local visitors; it might be because we were not there on a chaotic weekend. It’s more than likely at least partly because we were really just basking in the warm glow of our luxurious digs, transferring these feelings onto its surrounds. For whatever reason, instead of discomfort, here I was charmed.

As I have come to learn, once you head out of rat-racing Bangkok, the country heats up and the pace slows down. This is charmingly relaxed pace, small town Thailand. Take your shoes off and stroll around a little. We spent two days relaxing, swimming, eating (lots), a fancy spa treatment for the birthday boy, and what turned into a rather long wander along the rather fine and joyously empty beach.

The next day we jumped back on the local train and headed further south, to the bay town of Prachuap Khiri Khan. With hills and both ends, a few dotted islands, a pier jutting out of its centre, and filled with fishing boats, it is achingly pretty. It’s the kind of wistful scene that elicits genuine ohhs and ahhs when you turn the corner and lay eyes on it for the first time; you instantly de-stress a little.

PKK is Hua Hin’s even more laid-back cousin, only just starting to be discovered by Bangkokites willing to drive just that further bit further south. Again it gets busier on the weekend; we were outta there by then.

As with elsewhere, there is much to do and see in the surrounding countryside, best explored by grabbing a scooter and seeing where your wheels take you. We were happy instead to just hang about on the waterfront, the beach, the beach in the next bay over, and take in the spectacular views from the monkey-overrun temple on top of the northern hill. When the scene is that pretty, sometimes you’re happy just to sit and be in the postcard for a bit.

It was also full moon time, so the usual night market had been embellished to more of a festival type affair. People watching while trying a few market delights – perfectly tangy pork & vermicelli sausage, numbingly running nose-worthy spicy papaya salad, ditto the tart green mango salad, and sticky rice, kidney beans & coconut cream steamed in bamboo – was a perfect way to end a blissful couple of days.

Chumphon, three hours further south, was our final stop. Inland this time, so lacking that instant waterfront appeal, the city acts mostly as a transit point for travellers heading to the east coast islands. Arriving later than expected, due to a delayed train, we really only had a single day to explore.

No mind, we got in, dumped our bags, and quickly hit the town to find some dinner. None of the places I’d highlighted for our attention looked particular worthy; not enough to overcome the attena-pricking intrigue caused by a very popular local place we’d passed. We decided to chance it. Mercifully they had a menu in English, and the simple translations completely undersold the food that arrived: pure and simply a trip highlight. Click through for the full description; it’s worth it, promise!

There is, in fact, quite a lot to see and do in the surrounds of Chumphon, such as national parks, caves, temples, waterfalls and so on. With a fairly late start the next morning – blame the hostel room that in actual fact felt like a lazingly spacious and cool hotel suite – we settled on a relaxing afternoon exploring the northern coast/beaches. Off on our scooters we went.

While it’d be misleading to call the beaches and bays we came across of the ‘tropical paradise’ variety – don’t pin all your holiday hopes here, people…oi vey the tidal detritus, i.e. plastic! – it was a lovely way to while away an afternoon, pottering around the lush green countryside with nothing but the hot breeze against your face, making you retreat into the feels of childhood summers; short on responsibility, long on time.

Our week our southward meandering was a largely unplanned, on-the-fly delight. At many moments throughout, it felt like being somewhere gloriously Pacific. And, in our minds anyway, that’s always a good place to be. Am I right?

Travelling random in Chiang Rai: when ‘unhealthy’ air strikes back II

Our week in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, got off to a rocky start, with ‘dangerously unhealthy’ levels of air pollution (and extreme heat) scuppering our plans for hill trekking. With the flexibility of gymnasts, we changed tact and instead found ourselves on a bus to Chiang Saen, a riverside town on the border with Laos.

Fortunately, we needed to fill a weekend; and this, the hive mind told us, was when Chiang Saen would come alive with markets-a-plenty, as people from surrounding hill tribes/villages and neighbouring Laos come to town to trade and do the weekly shop. Sounded good.

The Saturday night market was definitely a lively affair, with all manner of food options available and entertainment via music and dance on one stage, and a more poppy DJ affair for the kids. We strolled along the riverfront – where we would eat all three nights – settled on a few essentially random options (local grilled sausages, chicken curry and rice, papaya salad, and baby pineapples), and joined the families eating on tiny chairs and tables in front of the stage. It was very convivial.

She burns bright and fast though as, wandering back just after 8pm, the majority of the stalls were shutting up shop. Delightfully small town.

The Sunday markets were even more elaborate, snaking outwards along streets off the main road, and featuring everything from bright Island-style print shirts, to electronic gadgets, prepared food, fresh food, and even live chickens (including those bred for cockfighting). Just as the hive mind told us, there was busy traffic across the Mekong, with boatloads of people returning to Laos with boatloads of goods.

Otherwise, though, we spent the first day and a half relaxing, reading, swimming in our resort’s pool, and looking at the Mekong. It was pretty glorious, and we quickly decided to extend our stay for a third night. If Chiang Rai was appealingly laidback, then Chiang Saen was gloriously glacial, and we had felt its charm immediately.

By Monday, though, we were ready to return to something more adventurous, so hired bikes and set off to explore the countryside. We started by cycling 12km north to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, and now a pretty gaudy tourist zone (yes it was steaming hot, only fools…etc., although the area is completely flat).

With China just a little way up the river, busloads of tourists were piling out at any one of many ‘golden triangle’ photo opportunities. A group of Australian teenagers provided a counterbalance (of what I’m not too sure). I actually quite liked it, it was all rather Buddhist kitsch.

Across the river in Laos, though, there’s a challenger on the rise: the Chinese government has taken a 99-year lease on some land and is building a city clearly intended to become a tourist-magnet; think hotels and casinos and all that comes with. I’m pretty sure the Thai side of the GT will have a gaudy rival fairly soon. Battle of the tack is on.

My feeling was that the GT was one of those places without history (i.e. an historic reason for existing) and, in my experience, this always creates places that are just a bit odd, a bit rootless, transient and wild-westy.

This is somewhat true; the area in fact was named the Golden Triangle because it was historically the world’s main source of opium and then heroin; hardly a ringing endorsement for stable community. However, just a few streets off the trail, there is evidence of a much older history.

The Phra That Doi Pu Khao wat complex sits atop a hill – where there is another Golden Triangle sign photo op; oi vey – and possibly dates back to the 8th century.  The current series of buildings dates to the 14th century and were being rebuilt as we visited; a pretty fascinating display of how temple reconstructions can take place. It was also, at one time, under Burmese control, showing just how much borders and power have waxed and waned here over the centuries (millenia, probably).

Further down the road, Wat Sob Ruak has been completely renovated and now, in my estimation anyway, is a temple to rival Chiang Rai’s famous white temple (not nearly as elaborate in ambition and scale, but a more serene experience overall). Both temples were a lovely meander, and a pleasant way to get off the beaten path.

Back in Chiang Saen, we spent the rest of the afternoon using an hilarious hobomap as a basis to explore the town, which has a long and fascinating history way back into antiquity. Later, it became an important city of the Lanna kingdom, from 1325, but was later captured and ruled by the Burmese (16th century). Because of this, King Rama I completely sacked the city at the start of the 19th century, and it was abandoned for a hundred years. It was only repopulated after 1900.

Because of this, it’s a fascinating hodge podge. There are ruined wats everywhere, a few that survived and deserve visiting, a small and charming town on a grid plan, and most of it still encased within the old double city walls, which are largely still in-tact but have groovy trees growing out of them. Outside the walls, on a hill overlooking the city and Mekong, the Wat Phra That Chom Kitti provides the perfect and peaceful finishing point.

What definitely added to the small town charm was that we were there in the days leading up to Songkran, the Thai New Year. Most well-known outside of Thailand for the water gun-heavy water fights that break out in major cities and tourist areas, here this was something completely different.

For each of our three nights, we watched as the town’s central wat, the riverfront, and the other main road that intersects its middle, were all being transformed in preparation for the country’s preeminent festival. And as it did, you could feel the anticipation and revelry start to ignite.

Around the temple and along the riverfront, festive lights were being strewn and turned on, and amusement rides set up and started in earnest. Further down and around the corner, stalls started to eck out their spots, and, finally, the fairground-type games came alive.

It provided us a real glimpse of Songkran small-town style, and, as we geared up for massed water carnage in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge that we weren’t still wandering along that gorgeous riverfront in that charming wee place instead.

Maybe next time.

Elephant detailing outside temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand, April 2019.

Travelling random in Chiang Rai: when ‘unhealthy’ air strikes back

Poor air quality forced us to abandon our intended plans for a week in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. Fortunately, what resulted was the very best kind of on-the-fly travel: unplanned, nil expectations, maximum enjoyment.

Our final afternoon in Chiang Rai perfectly summed up how wonderfully random and unexpected our week had been. We had returned from a joyously unplanned three nights on the border of Laos, and intended to cycle north to the third of the city’s mono-coloured temple attractions – the blue temple – and then further on to Artbridge, a contemporary art gallery.

By late afternoon, both ticked off, we had a bit of time to spare. Zooming into Google maps, it dawned on me that the old and now abandoned Chiang Rai airport looked open for exploration. We should check that out.

Speeding down the runway, still stained with the black remnants of jet fuelled-travel, I’m not going to lie: the inner child surfaced, the one that used to zoom around the neighbourhood pretending to be a bus driver or a pilot (I had routes and stops and made the relevant noises). Don’t ask me why, but the child and now the adult has always been fascinated by the crossing paths of mass travel, the intersections of people going places.

It was a singularly unique experience: unplanned, unresearched; pure joy. Hot wind blowing on my face, I was sitting on a wing as the thrust engaged, and the engine roared into life. Off, off and up…

Our original plan was to hang out in Chiang Rai for a few days, soak up the atmosphere of the so-called an arts and culture hub, and then do something like a trek in the hills. Because it is now firmly low season, I put a shout out on a travel forum to see if there were any travellers about who might be thinking the same and wanted to band together.

Within hours, I had local experts asking me if I was crazy, given the heat and appalling air quality currently being experienced. They linked me to a website that showed real-time sharply red ‘dangerously unhealthy’ readings amid temperatures approaching 40C. It was fairly obvious we were going to have to change tact.

(Side observation: I always find it funny how you tend to become removed from the news cycle inside the country you are travelling in. I’m completely connected to news as it’s happening in New Zealand, but know little about events as they might be unfolding on the road. The latest Colmar Brunton political poll – tick; air quality emergencies in SE Asia – I got nothing!)

We spent the first three nights in Chiang Rai as planned, exploring its wonderful and unique quirks. The inner city moves at an alluringly small town pace, and we quickly complied. It’s stuffed with temples and markets spaces, cafes and massage places, and everything is wonderfully walkable and open; perfect for the professional meanders we now are.

Ambling around its atmospheric night market is such a cliché, but so enjoyable when the pace is set to relax and immaculate drag queens in their evening best are providing the floor show. Afterwards, we caught a further show when, wandering passed the already very campy clocktower, it suddenly lit up and started playing music. It is hard to decide which was more gay! Fabulous.

Just out of town is the inland Chiang Rai beach. It’s actually a long line of bamboo structures, lined up along the Kok river, where locals go to relax, eat, and swim. As the river rises and falls so significantly, clearly everything is dismantled and reconstructed every year. It’s emblematic of a way of life developed to be in tune with the rhythms of nature and seasons.

We had hired bikes to explore the surrounding countryside for an afternoon – always a good idea – and were further rewarded for our efforts by coming across a stunning cave temple. It was completely deserted, and so totally ours for just a little bit (well, ours and all the bats…).

Two eccentric artists are responsible for two must-see attractions: the white and black temple complexes. The white temple was at once both familiar and unknown. Its shape, design and embellishments were as we’ve seen elsewhere, yet its scale, flourishes and ambition are quite extraordinary.

Inside the temple – photography banned unfortunately yet understandably – this eccentricity was on full display. Alongside the more standard Buddhist-drenched imagery, representations of pop culture figures, from the Matrix to Harry Potter to MJ in full Beat It mode, were interwoven into a canvas of fantastical elements. Even such a simple concept as a lotus-inspired wishing well was mesmerising, and I stood watching for far too long, entranced by the way the gently rippling waters made the lotus appear shimmering.

I think I actually enjoyed the black temple more. It’s not strictly a temple, but a collection of around forty buildings, many of which are shaped like temples, but also igloo and other weird and wonderful shapes. They’ve all been constructed to house one artist’s insane collection of animal trophies (at least that’s how I read them), phalluses, drums, large furniture and other sculptures.

Although I found the combined energy of it all a tad aggressive, and perhaps thought it bordered on being slightly masterbatory, it was still a wonderful trip into the bizarre and otherworldly mind of a unique vision, carried out with singular determination. And that can always be appreciated.

And then there was the blue temple. Although white is the colour of peace, the white temple was actually quite harsh under the glare of the intense sun. I found the blue temple so much more serene and calming. The inside frescoes were similar to the white temple – stunning – but without the fantastical elements.

These temples are all out of town, the black and white at its northern and southern edges, around 24kms apart. Local buses can get you there, though, and the helpful tourist office at the bus station (indeed any ticket collector) will gladly point you in the right direction. To get back from both, we simply went out to the roadside afterwards and, before too long, shared songtaew trucks came along and scooped us up. I’m guessing flagging down a passing bus would have been possible too. Everything was the same price: 30 baht each. Easy as.

With Chiang Rai covered, we now had some days to fill and any hiking plans were well and truly out of the picture (the haze was bad enough to almost have us buying face masks, almost). So, we turned to the hive mind of the internet and found some information that suggested a trip to one of the small border towns would be worthy.

We decided to take a punt and, thanks to an online fire sale, booked into a resort beside the Mekong River. Off to the bus station we went, and within minutes we were on a bus bound for Chiang Saen. As soon as it was full (or near enough to), we would be off.

To be continued…

A visit to historic central Thailand

After finding our feet in Bangkok, we moved into central Thailand, and spent a fascinating week visiting key historic sites that bring alive the country’s precursor, the mighty kingdom of Siam. We were back to our intrepid best, catching transport local-style, but made easy by Thailand’s well-developed infrastructure and super helpful locals.

Our first stop was Ayutthaya, which is only about 80kms north of the capital; many people, if they bother, visit as a day trip. I’m glad we decided to spend longer in this small, laid-back city; it was a great introduction to Thailand outside of the usual beaches and Bangkok, and maybe Chiang Mai.

Some street art captured in Thai city of Lop Buri, famously known as home of the monkeys.
Some street art captured in Thai city of Lop Buri, famously known as home of the monkeys.

Ayutthaya is hugely important in the story of Thailand, as the prosperous capital of the kingdom of Siam for 400 years from 1350 (it sits at equal distance between India and China). Its end came in 1767, when the Burmese invaded and essentially burnt it to the ground. It was never rebuilt, and the capital moved to Bangkok soon after.

The city is, in fact, an island created by the confluence of three rivers. The island was Thai-only, so on the banks around it lie remains of embassies and other buildings that demonstrate its international importance. We stayed on the river, opposite the eastern edge of the island, and spent a glorious first afternoon relaxing on our guesthouse patio, watching the river traffic peacefully glide by.

The next day, we jumped across the river on the longboat ferry (<5 mins; 10 baht each) and, within minutes, had hired bikes (30 baht a piece) and were ready to go. The eastern shore houses a decent-sized town, but the further away you ride, the less urban it becomes. The whole island is literally littered with ruins. Most are singularly unimpressive, though, and many no more than a pile of what would otherwise appear as rubble; a square temple base or a single temple spire. There is more than you can possibly see up close.

For anyone who has been to the awe-inspiring Angkor, or otherwise done a fair bit of templing, I can’t pretend Ayutthaya will leave you mesmerised; these are, after all, remains of a particularly vicious sacking. However, cycling about its peaceful expanse is a wonderfully satisfying way to spend a day, and there is clearly a well-worn path.

The most impressive sites are marked on free maps that come with bike hire, and it’s up to you what, if anything, you see in between. We visited eight in detail: five old wat (temple) complexes, two gorgeously renovated wats, and the famous reclining buddha (racing to soak it up before a bus load of tourists, who arrived not long after us, descended).

The renovated wats were particularly significant. The first was built around a giant old (possibly iron) Buddha figure, with photos showing how it looked a hundred or so years ago. It’s been given a gorgeous golden facelift, and the building that surrounds it is likewise a stunning example of modern Thai wat aesthetics. The second was where the the Thai and Burmese kings signed a peace treaty, post-invasion, so is historically important.

The in-between ambling simply adds to the overall experience. You don’t stop at every site, obviously, but cycling through such a dotted landscape gives you an idea of how important Ayutthaya was. It allows you the freedom to stop, wherever intrigued, and muse on this fascinating history.

We decided to forgo a second day exploring some of the international ruins and surrounding countryside, and do a day trip to nearby Lopburi instead. Getting there and back was a breeze; more on that below.

Lopburi was also an important historical centre. It used to be called Lavo (6th-11th centuries), was part of the Khmer kingdom (although during periods of independence it sent embassies to China), before becoming part of the Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya kingdoms (during the Ayutthaya period it was at-times a second kingdom residence, so there are strong ties between the two). There are some wonderful wats and historic buildings to discover in and around the old town, and all are completely walkable within a gentle half-day wander.

Despite this, it is actually monkeys that the town is most known for. Illustrating the strong historical connections between India, Khmer and thus parts of Thailand, the mythical King Rama gifted Lopburi to Hanuman, the monkey warrior god, as a token of appreciation for his wartime support. Rama shot his arrow, and it landed here. Thus, the monkeys are said to descend from this Godly line, and are an important part of the town’s fabric.

The monkeys quite possibly outnumber humans in fact (certainly the day we were there), and they really do appear to run the joint; at one Khmer-styled wat in particular. Even if you’ve spent time in places where they are present, this is quite different. They’re far more brash and confident in their numerical superiority, and you’re likely to find a monkey or two jumping on you to say hi (a.k.a looking for something to snatch; hint: make sure nothing is grabbable by errant hands).

It was a fun trip, even if the temples and ruins are not dramatically different than Ayutthaya. It’s a pleasant amble about monuments that are scattered throughout a very laid-back town. There’s also a great museum contained within the impressive palace complex that helps to make sense of the different periods and kingdoms; the waxing and waning of different influences. A quick stroll to the riverfront, to see some frenetic fish feeding action, was a nice way to kill half an hour before the return train.

Our final stop in this historic trio was undoubtedly the highlight. Sukhothai rose as a kingdom from the 12th century as the Khmer kingdom (Cambodia), of which is was a distant part, declined in power. Although its reign was relatively short – replaced by the rise of Ayutthaya – and it came later than other kingdoms, Sukhothai quickly expanded its realm across most of current-day Thailand, and parts of Laos too.

It also oversaw the creation of a standardised alphabet, as well as distinctive cultural practices, identity markers and art-forms that we recognise today as ‘Thai’. Thus it is usually cited as the ‘first’ Thai kingdom, and a precursor to the truly national kingdom of Siam.

We stayed in the new city, a vibrant but still pretty cruisy town 12kms east of the archeological park/old city. There is a bit of a village around the old city, but, given the low season nature of our visit, we didn’t want to chance a ghost town vibe.

The new city was a good choice, coming alive at night with stalls lining streets in and around the centre, selling all the usual array of foods and so on, and serving a mixture of people wandering, catching up in groups, or doing drive-by pick-ups. A couple of great people-watching bars come with the necessary cool beers to offset the sultry evening heat, still nicely in the early-30s (celsius) post-8pm.

Sukhothai’s old city was a real trip highlight. A benefit of low-season travel is that there really is not a lot of people around. The archeological park is also vast, spread out, and split into four groups*. Both of these elements combined to make us feel like the ruins were ours and ours alone to explore, for most of the day.

And only crazy, freestyle tourists like us would bother to spend a whole day exploring the outer reaches of a ruin Mecca anyway. Most tourists, it appeared, were on limited-time, bus in bus out, whistle-stop tours of the central, most impressive wats. We did these too, of course, but also found many other moments of quiet pleasure.

Cycling around deserted dirt tracks, discovering remains of wats in what felt like the middle of nowhere, was one. So was finding Buddha images hidden from the road, up small hills that, in 38 degree heat, felt like intrepid trekking. Generally though, it was that well-worn cliche of riding through the countryside, hot breeze against your face and enjoying the peace and solitude, where the loudest (only) noises came from birds and cicadas.

For those that can relate, it reminded me of that truly glorious feeling you can experience driving in New Zealand, particularly around the South Island, where you can go for hours without seeing barely another soul. Just you and nature; you and the silent paths of the past. It’s one of my most favourite and treasured feelings.

We left the main central group until last, and this is really the only time we were in company. And indeed, the ruins here are impressive, and the park is very well maintained. It was a pleasurable way to end the day’s exploration, cycling around traffic-free roads lined with big leafy trees, surrounded by moats and canals and waterways, and imagining the splendour of kingdom pasts.

One other highlight is worth mentioning. Randomly, we turned up a street that was lined with 3D and pottery-influenced murals (there were a couple of pottery studios on the street, and one art-influenced guesthouse). In any other city, this would be an attraction in its own right; here it’s obviously overwhelmed by so much luminous wattage (see what I did there?). But what a serendipitous joy to see such an extensive display of local creativity and storytelling; something that is always worth checking out (it’s located around Pottery Street House).

Getting there, away and around

So far, getting around has been super easy, facilitated by great transport networks and helpful locals.

Bangkok to Ayutthaya was as easy as turning up to the main Hua Lamphong train station, purchasing a general class ticket from the helpful ticket windows (15 baht each), and hopping onboard the next train going (they leave regularly, but there are timetables online too). The roughly two-hour ride (yes, slow), with windows wide open, was more than pleasant, watching the comings and goings of local travellers (and some tourists too).

Ayutthaya to Lopburi was equally fun, and again less than $1 each way. The guesthouse owner gave us the times of trains, which we then reconfirmed on the day at the booking window (again, helpful). We didn’t take the one-hour ride until 11.24am, and returned aboard the 5.22pm (the last one was just after 6pm), so it really was only a half-day trip. I’m sure there are earlier trains, though, but it was nice to have a slow start to the morning. The return trip as the sun was setting over the rice fields was stunning, and again, people-watching locals moving about is always fun.

In Ayutthaya, our guesthouse – as I’m sure most do – provided a service of booking bus tickets and organising a tuk-tuk to take you to the station, as it’s not close. Thus our transfer to Sukhothai was seamless. The ride was pretty fancy pants too (first class), as we immersed ourselves in cooling aircon, with water and a little snack-box provided, as well as a coupon to exchange for lunch (we stopped at a purpose-built food court with a range of simple yet effective and tasty local fare options).

Finally, getting from the new city to the old city in Sukhothai was a breeze. Shared songtaew, which are like 4x4s with the trays converted into covered seating benches, leave from the main road (a generic map that seems to be handed out widely pinpoints the convenient spot exactly). In the old city, they handily drop you right opposite the bike hire places. To get back simply reverse the flow, making sure you do so before the last one leaves at 5pm.

* Inside the central group is a museum. Randomly, on the day we explored the park, everything was free, otherwise the museum alone would have been 150 baht per person. I wouldn’t bother paying 150 baht for what is a pretty average museum; the information provided and curation could frankly do with an overhaul thankyouverymuch.