I got lucky and met an amazing group of backpackers to spend my first week with so I ended up staying a significantly longer time in Bangkok that initially planned and got a chance to see a bit of the surrounding area as well. With five days in total spent in Bangkok and another two spent in Kanchanaburi, a small town about three hours west of the capital, I saw a lot in my first eight days in Asia, and it's been a major change of pace from what I'm used to at this point in my travels.
Bangkok proved to be much more enjoyable than I anticipated it would be, and my initial two-day plan of staying in the Thai capital quickly turned into a five-day stay seeing much than I thought I would at this point in my trip. I met a group of backpackers from Britain and another from the U.S. that ultimately decided to spend an entire eight days with me of all people, and we had an absolute blast exploring Bangkok, shopping in the markets, eating food prepared by a magician, and doing absolutely nothing for a few days.
The highlight from my few days in Bangkok, though, was taking a hostel field trip with the owner and his wife to a local Mon island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River that runs through the heart of the city. We began our trek to the island by hopping on a boat up river for about forty minutes before docking and hopping aboard a tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk took us even further north of the city, and we eventually stopped along the river again where we boarded another quick boat to take us to the island.
The Mon are a people of Burmese decent and one of the oldest peoples of the region which have spread throughout much of Southeast Asia due to persecution in their home country. Most of them settled along the border with Thailand, but a small community of them found a safe haven in this area north of Bangkok. Despite pressures, they've kept much of their authentic customs alive on this small island, and it can now be visited by anyone wishing to learn about their lifestyle. They're main craft is pottery and there was loads of it all over the island to purchase.
Our group entered the island and decided that the best way to see it would be to rent bicycles to ride around the small island. We got a group of tandem bikes and made our way through the local market, restaurants, and temples for the first part of our ride. There wasn't much new about this section of it aside from the pottery and other crafts presented in typical Mon fashion along the way.
After a tasty lunch along the river with a view of a very large Buddha on the other side of the water we continued our ride around the island through the actual villages themselves. This was a really neat part of the island to see as it was the first really authentic southeast Asian village I'd seen since being down here. The people live in the most simple ways with their houses built on stilts and with no running water for the most part. Most of them move around the island by motor bike and we were passed by locals on more than one occasion with very little wiggle room on each side of the road (bike on one side, ditch on the other). The villages outside of the main area of town were extremely plain, and we saw a number of locals tending to their swampy farms full of rice and vegetables. Our loop of the island took no more than a couple hours, but it was enough to get an idea of how some of them live. Once finishing the loop we boarded the boat to head back down the river and eventually worked our way back to the city.
The following day I made my way to the famous weekend market in the city and spent an afternoon with a few friends working through the endless rows of different clothes, art, food, and every type of shop in between. In just a few short days I'd already gotten pretty decent at bargaining with the shop owners (basically any price goes), and worked a small day backpack price from 1200 Baht down to 500 Baht with just a little resistance to purchase. As I said in my first post on Asia, the locals who run the markets really only care about getting money from westerners, so putting up a bit of a fight with them on whether you really want to buy an item is the best way to work the price down to something you're more comfortable with.
Five days in Bangkok was plenty of time on my first trip through the city (will be revisiting at the end of December with my parents), so our group decided to make a multi-day trip a few hours outside the city to Kanchanaburi, a small town best known for the bridge passing through it for the Death Railway. The railway was built during the second World War by the Japanese Empire between Thailand and Burma and was famously constructed by Asian civilian laborers in work camps and Allied POWs from the UK, Australia, America, and the Netherlands. It gets its name from the nearly 90,000 people who died during its construction, of which roughly 12,000 were POWs.
We took a short train ride to the town from Bangkok for only 100 Baht (a little under $3.00) and had a booking for seven of us at a local guesthouse right along the river on a floating raft. It was a really neat spot for a place to stay and had a nice terrace and bar overlooking the river below. We spent the first day in town walking around the area and explored the railway and accompanying museum in town before getting dinner at a local restaurant. Our big plans for Kanchanaburi, though, was to visit the nearby Erawan National Park, famous for its 7-tiered waterfalls which we planned to visit on our second day. Rather than get a van all the way to the waterfalls, though, we decided it'd be more fun to rent motorbikes for the day in order to make our way up there. We organized this the night before and were set to head to the waterfalls the following morning.
We set off relatively early in order to capitalize on the amount of time we got to spend at the waterfalls. Our bikes cost next to nothing for the day, and it only took two hours with a couple of stops to get all the way up to the park. Along the way we passed by some incredible views with mountains, farms, and elephant crossing signs all along the way. Once reaching the park we paid our entrance fee and started the trek up to the top.
As I mentioned before there are seven levels to this series of falls, each with their own pools to swim in if you wish. We stopped at the first couple on the way up and then became selective after that as we wanted to make sure we made it all the way to the top level before the park closed. Each pool was relatively the same, but differed mainly in the size of the fish in them. These weren't just any ordinary fish as they enjoyed briefly latching on to your skin to eat away the dead cells. It was an odd sensation at first, having dozens of little fish nibbling at your feet, but after accepting the fact that they were going to get you no matter what, it was quite fun to see them swim up to you while still and start eating away. A very strange sensation for sure, but a neat experience nonetheless.
We made it to the seventh level just in time for a quick swim around it and as we'd heard from others, it didn't disappoint. The tallest fall sat at the very top of the pool, and though it wasn't quite as picturesque as the low-rolling pools at levels 1-6, the pool itself was a beautiful turquoise blue unmatched by the ones below.
Once enjoying the pools a bit and then making our way back down, stopping at some of the pools we missed on the way up, we hopped back on the bikes and headed back to Kanchanaburi. Our group clicked really well and once we got back we enjoyed a big dinner out together followed by drinks and dancing at a local bar which stayed open much later than they were supposed to just for us. A fantastic way to spend the last night with this first group I'd met before we all parted ways the following day.
We took a van back to Bangkok rather than the train as we did on the way out of the city and arrived back in Bangkok in the early evening. All of us planned to part ways after this with some heading north to Chiang Mai, one heading to Cambodia, one back to Britain, and myself to Laos for the next few weeks. I had booked a night train to Laos a few days prior and boarded at the train station around 8:30 at night. It was a sleeper train, but was just the beginning of my long trek to Laos which consisted of a ten-hour overnight train, thirty-minute train across the border, a Visa application, and another thirty minute van ride into the capital city, Vientiane. I plan to spend the next three weeks exploring the northern part of the country before heading back into Thailand for another six weeks in December and January for some time with friends and family over the holidays.
All-in-all I couldn't have asked for a better way to start my time in Asia. Meeting such a great group right off the bat was a great ice breaker to the culture shock I experienced during my first few days in Asia. Here's to hoping Laos is just as enjoyable!