Tag - travel

Muay Thai on Khao San Road!


Muay Thai on Khao San Road
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Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Thai boxing on Khao San Road

Want to learn how to kick arse and show your respect for thai culture at the same time? Not far from Khao San Road, down a small alley, is hidden the Sor. Vorapin boxer training center. You have likely walked past and been mystified at the shouts of “ess!” followed by the rather painful sounds of passionate pummeling. Yes, this is Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, and you too can get in on the action!

Sor. Vorapin started around 30 years ago with only three people, and was initially a thai-only training center. This was back in the days when there were no banana pancakes on Khao San Road- no dreadlocked hippies, no VW bus bars – in fact, there wasn’t much there at all at the time! The location was chosen simply because of its proximity to Sanam Luang, where the trainees would be able to run around the park if they so desired, as part of their training. Eventually the area started to become the foreigner circus it is today, and farangs started traipsing past the gym and being distracted by the grunting and sweating. Simultaneously, the trainees had grown into champion fighters, and started thinking about training others. In around 1984, a french lad named Frederic became the first foreign student of Sor. Vorapin. He was also the first foreign champion.

Nowadays, people (both men and women) come from all over the world to study muay thai at Sor. Vorapin. There are an average of five trainers on hand daily, who can give personal attention to anyone from a wide-eyed beginner to a (hood-eyed) experienced fighter. Each trainer has many years of fighting and many champion titles under their belt

We stopped by during an evening class to get the scoop. Dodging high kicks and flying sweat, we found a safe corner in which to gawk. The gym has a boxing ring, several hanging punch bags, lots of weights, space in which one can practice making evil faces in the mirror along with perfecting that move with their knee. The many students were each paired with a trainer of similar size, who prompted them to hit as hard as they could on the rubber pads they had slipped onto their hands. A tiny thai girl screeched loudly as she wailed on her startled victim in merciless succession. A well sculpted irish girl casually jumped rope. Several Japanese boys practiced combos on mats.

We cornered a group of trainers once they got a break and fired up the old pencil. A young man named ‘Us’ was most happy to oblige our interrogation. He, like many professional boxers, came from the area of Buriram, and has been with the gym for about 15 years. When asked why in the world he would ever choose fighting as his profession, he interrupted defensively- “it’s not so much fighting as it is an art”. Sure, he gets a lot of aggression out in the ring, but the reasons for his chosen life are more complex. Muay Thai teaches discipline, he says, and helps you realize your strength, both inner and outer. It also keeps you healthy, in shape, and away from vices like alcohol and drugs. It helps you defend yourself, and in the case of thais, is a way of showing patriotism to their country. The other trainers nodded in agreement, and a garrulous ‘Singh’ piped in that the money and international travel opportunities were good motivators as well. How much money do you make as a fighter? “It depends,” says Singh, “in my village when I was a little kid I made 50 baht for winning my first fight. Nowadays I make an average of 6000 baht per win, and much more in international championship fights”. Us nods, adding that he is headed to Indonesia in a couple of weeks for a fight and is excited to add that to the list of countries he has been to. “It’s good to give exposure to Muay Thai to other countries. It’s not like any other martial art- it requires you to be much harder and there’s a lot of different technique involved”. When asked how he will prepare for this upcoming fight he sighs- “It’s a lot of relaxing. Meditating, cleaning out your body, staying away from alcohol, getting sleep”. My Thai companion leans over and whispers in his ear and he blushes and says sheepishly “it’s true, you can not ejaculate for 2 weeks prior to a fight. It builds up tension which you can use to your advantage against your opponent”. I muse that it’s rather like joining the monkhood and they nod. “It’s a spiritual practice in much the same way. It’s been around for hundreds of years [in fact, it is first on record in the year 1767] and every thai child grows up with a certain reverence for it. It’s very ceremonial- before each fight we perform the wai-kru, which is a sort of traditional dance. It’s a way for us to please our families, please the king, and please ourselves with our bravery and stamina. This takes a lot of self discipline.”

A very large thai man emerges from the gym with his arm slung around the neck of a lily white dutch student, and I recognize the man from the many pictures pasted up on the walls as being Mr. Tanomsak. He is one of the most well respected trainers in Thailand, and now spends part of his time teaching in Switzerland. I am lucky to catch him. I ask him why he thinks people should come to his gym and he smiles. “We have so much experience, we’re all champions here. We’ve worked with foreigners for years, and we have a good understanding of just how far we can or can’t push someone. Each trainer has their own special techniques for bringing out the best in people, and we welcome anyone who is interested in observing or joining up”. I ask him if one should be worried about pain or injury and he laughs. “It happens occasionally, and certainly the first couple of times might be a bit painful. But you learn to feed off the pain and it eventually becomes welcome”. He adds that they take every precaution as to the safety of bones and muscles. I ask him how long it takes to become a champion and he muses, “It’s probably easier for a thai, as we grow up with muay thai and many boys start learning at a very young age. But if a person is careful, has a good trainer, and learns step by step- starting with building up strength in the body and progressing to having the strength in the mind, they can be ready to fight after just a couple of weeks of training”. Do they turn out farang champions? He nods vigorously, saying many backpackers come for just an introductory class and end up changing their tickets home so that they can stay longer and do more intensive study. “We have champions in Holland, France, Switzerland, Japan…. you name it. We have girl champions too!”- he scrambles for a photo of a very large swiss girl with arms like tree trunks and I shudder in awe.

Mr. Tanomsak urges anyone who is interested in having a look to stop by around 3pm. To get to the center you cross the main street (Jakapong) at the Khao San police station and walk left until you see the sign at an alley on the right. Training occurs from 8:00am-10:00am and again from 3:00pm -6:00pm. An introductory class sets you back a mere 400 baht, and they have special deals for packages of classes. Everything you need is on hand, just dress comfortably and bring an open mind. They guarantee you won’t leave without learning a thing or two, and you might even have some fun!

Nicole Furi lives in New York. She is a gradutate of the University of Colorado, Boulder (Psychology major) and a Human Factors expert working in the web industry where she designs and tests Graphical User Interfaces. She is also a writer. Currently in Thailand, Nicole is spening a bit of time writing for KhaoSanRoad.com. Are you interested in booking a Thai Boxing course? Use the form below to make an enquiry…

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
vietnam_the_road_less_travelled_6
vietnam_the_road_less_travelled_7

I only had a few days in Vietnam and, as enamoured with Hanoi as I was, I wanted to catch a glimpse of rural Vietnam. So, leaving behind Hanoi’s cafes, lakes, tree-lined streets and deliciously smooth and hideously cheap draft beer I headed out west.
With a natural aversion to buses and not enough time for a trip on one of the painfully slow trains the only option seemed to be two wheels. Throwing common sense aside I opted for Russian over Japanese.

The Russian Minsk is more commonly known as the ‘mule of the mountains’ and favoured by the locals for its basic approach to transport and its ability to tackle the rugged highland terrain. Added to that it is cheap and there are spare parts readily available everywhere from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and beyond.

Feeling oddly proud of my US$10 a day museum piece I secured backpack to seat and kicked the decades old two-stroke into action. Navigating through the mayhem and chaos of Hanoi’s streets is an adventure in itself. Officially Vietnamese drive on the right but anywhere between, and including, the paths on either side will do. Street lights and road markings are purely decorative.

Once out of Hanoi the scenery is quick to change. Retail becomes heavy industry which in turn becomes agriculture. Houses become fewer, smaller and with greater distance between them. Eventually the flat rice fields around Hanoi start to incline towards the mountainous region of the west on route 6, where rice is grown in terraces.

The Minsk copes admirably with the hills and trundles along at a steady pace. With no electrics or battery on-board judging speed and fuel consumption is down to guesswork.

The road is generally single lane and of poor quality. Drivers are surprisingly polite even in the very rural areas and as you go further from Hanoi the bounds of what passes as a vehicle get stretched to the limit. Any motorised farm implement with wheels is quickly decked out with a seat and attached to a trailer. Instant tractor!

In Hanoi Minsks are thin on the ground but in the mountains their popularity is clear. Every well dressed Vietnamese owns one. Struggling up a steep mountain road I passed a farmer on a Minsk with a young buffalo trussed up like a chicken and strapped to a board, broadside across the back of the bike. Blue smoke belched from the exhaust just inches from the buffalo’s nose as the two-stroke screamed its way up the mountain.

High in the mountains at around 1000m the temperature dropped and I regretted heading out in only a t-shirt. Stopping to pull another shirt from my backpack I was invited to drink tea with a man sat outside his house. Soon we were joined by two others, one holding a baby. None of them could speak English and I can’t speak Vietnamese but we somehow managed to communicate with a few words from my Lonely Planet guide and sign language.

With an hour to spare before sunset I reached Mai Chau, a village-sized town set in a flat valley base of rice fields surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. Hidden off the main road down a long and bumpy lane Mai Chau leads me to Ban Lac, a small hamlet of traditional ‘hill tribe style’ stilted wooden houses.

The people of this region are said to ancient relatives of the Thais in Thailand and known as White Thai. The houses here are very similar to the traditional stilted houses found in the northern region of Thailand.

For about US$6 I got a room for the night, and dinner and breakfast. The room was devoid of windows or furniture and had an old, thin, fold-up mattress thrown down under a mosquito net as a bed. A ceiling fan hung from the rafters and one bulb gave just enough light to read by.

A delicious dinner was served alfresco beneath the house, overlooking the rice fields. Having managed to get the message across that I am vegetarian I was served home grown vegetables, tofu, rice and deep fried homemade crisps, all washed down with a few bottles of the excellent Halich beer.

After dinner I chatted with the lady of the house. Being a Thai speaker, well sort of, I was amazed to discover that distant as the White Thai are to modern Thais there are still some similarities in the language. We managed to have quite a conversation using common Thai words and English.

The view from my bed was a magnificent panorama of rice fields and the steep, rugged mountains beyond. I went to bed with the sounds of rice paddies in my head; lizards, frogs and crickets chirruping contentedly in the darkness. By 2am the local dogs burst into song as a response to several over zealous cockerels and at 5.45am I was roused from my slumber by the sound of cow bells down in the lane. The cool mountain air, dull dong of the cow bells and gentle plodding of the cattle on the dirt road gave the whole thing an air of the Alps.

After an icy cold shower and breakfast of crusty bread, cheese, jam and local coffee I walked through the network of lanes, dodging small herds of cattle ambling slowly in front of their herders. Thick cloud had descended and the mountains were completely shrouded, leaving only the valley floor visible.

The lanes were alive with the gentle hum of conversation and the tapping of hammers. In several locations new wooden houses were being erected. Craftsmen and women were busy shaping wooden beams and carving out ornate mouldings for doors and stairs. Women and children were weaving traditional hill tribe clothing and wicker baskets.

Later on the journey back to Hanoi was cold, wet and with poor visibility. Going over the mountains surrounding the valley in which I’d spent the night the traffic was reduced to nothing more than a crawl with visibility down to about two metres.

The Weekender

A Weekend Walk in Yangon

A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma

It’s a gloriously sunny day. Squinting through the window I can make out the magnificent deltas of the Thanlwin, Sittaung and Bago rivers below, looking like hundreds of crooked bony fingers probing into the Andaman Sea. It’s a breathtaking view and I remain transfixed until we touchdown. Myanmar International airport is nothing to write home about and I find it strangely reminiscent of a visit to Tashkent Airport about 12 years ago, but with slightly less rubble to scramble over. That said, the customs staff in this peculiarly cool and airy arrivals hall manage to process the entire flight in minutes and still find time to exchange pleasantries with each passenger.

In most developing countries the newly arrived guest is accosted by hordes of taxi drivers and hotel touts, and Yangon International Airport is no exception. The only difference here is the remarkable politeness of these guys. They accept no for an answer, bid me good day and move to the next potential source of income. It’s a welcome and refreshing change. It’s at this point that I realise that investment in a guide book would have been money well spent. I negotiate with several drivers on the road outside the airport and settle on what seems to be the going rate for the journey to my accommodation.

Most taxis will take either Kyats, US dollar, British pounds or Yen. Dollars can be exchanged at the official money changer booth in the airport, presided over by a crusty old guy with a sinister appearance, where you will get about 450 kyats to the US$1. If you can wait and change money once you’re in Yangon itself you will get 1000 Kyats or more, a much better deal. Be sure to have a few dollars, British pounds or Yen with you on arrival though, just to get you away from the airport, and don’t forget to check that driver is happy to accept whatever currency you have.

As with most taxi drivers across Asia the one who drives me to my chosen accommodation is a Manchester United fan, and even has a brand new Wayne Rooney shirt in his cab, kept neatly folded in a plastic wrapper; apparently a much a prized possession. I haven’t the heart to tell him that I think Rooney, though a talented footballer, is a butt-ugly, foul mouthed thug in my humble opinion. I settle with just telling him that I support the Magpies and he embarrasses me by knowing more than I do about their present struggle to keep from relegation. I really didn’t expect an Yangon taxi driver to be so knowledgeable about the English Premiership; it’s quite a revelation.

I stay at the Classique Inn which is a lovely privately owned guest house nestled amongst the diplomatic residences along Golden Valley road and a short walk from where Aung San Suu Kui is held under house arrest. I arranged this accommodation online prior to my arrival and can strongly recommend their fast and courteous service. They charge US$30 per night for a double room with en-suite and breakfast and for a further US$2 they throw in a dinner too. Once there I change US$75 at a rate of 1100 kyats/US$1 and get landed with a gargantuan pile of the local currency that won’t fit into my wallet and has to be stuffed into an airmail envelope. A short taxi ride with yet another Man U supporter and I am in downtown Yangon, after a brief stop to change a deflated tyre for an inflated but bold one. The taxis in Yangon are almost exclusively white, Japanese, at least 20 years old and right hand drive; odd in a country where they drive on the right hand side. In fact most of the private vehicles are right hand drive also, not just taxis. Presumably a sign that they get most of their vehicles as second-hand imports from a country that drives on the left.
 
My aim is to explore Yangon on foot. Hot as it is, the climate is much more suited to walking than Bangkok and the traffic a great deal more pedestrian friendly. I walk for hours through busy streets, crammed with locals in sarongs busying to and fro, through markets with colourful displays of exotic fruits spread out on the floor, garment merchants selling material in all patterns and designs, sarong peddlers, men selling cheap plastic toys, book sellers and street tobacconists. Someone is selling something on every street, under every tree and on every corner. I try to install a new film in my camera but have a problem. I find a camera repair shop with far too many assistants for its clear lack of customers and try explaining my problem to a young guy at the door. He shares the dilemma with a few of his colleague and then collectively they refer it to a evil looking bearded guy perched on a stool at the other end of the shop. He takes my camera in complete silence, fiddles a little and then solves the problem in an instant. I ask how much but he just slowly shakes his head and throws me a knowing wink. All his underlings are suitably impressed by his performance with the foreigner’s camera and can’t stop smiling.
 
Everywhere I go there is an aroma of some kind in this city of fragrant streets; scent, food, tobacco, incense, pleasant and exotic cooking smells. Filthy canals and open drains don’t seem to be in as much abundance as they are in Bangkok. Yangon is in no way a romantic city and falls well short of being even picturesque at first viewing but it has a certain charm that, mixed with the friendliness of its people, is quite intoxicating. I read somewhere that Yangon was once the ‘garden city’ of SE Asia. Though it is undeserving of such a flowery monika at present it is easy to see that it would have been quite a place in its heyday. On this first day I already want to return and learn more about the country, wishing my stay wasn’t so short
 
The buildings are generally old colonial with modern cheaply constructed units dotted between them, and here and there more recent multi-storey monstrosities. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonialism the resulting architecture is surely an asset to any cityscape. Unfortunately even some of the colonial buildings that are still in use have been sorely neglected and look tired and miserable. It’s a city in need of a sympathetic makeover.
 
Busy as the streets are I can’t help feeling alone. Foreigners are scarce and once away from the absolute centre I’m soon aware that I’m the only white face around. At no point do I feel in danger or the need to worry, even when sauntering through the most run down areas of town or when, as on several occasions, I’m stopped from taking photos or going down certain streets by armed soldiers and police.
 
Several hours of walking and I have the town pretty much sown up and retire to the 20th floor of the Sakure Tower for refreshments and to view the city from above. The crumbling buildings look even worse from up here, roofs caved in on many of them. I was right about the makeover. The view reminds me of Cairo where you suddenly go from city to desert. Yangon is similar, but with considerably less pyramid. Stretching before me is the chaos of Yangon, right up to the river which acts as a buffer between city and nothingness. On the other side of the river is nothing, just open plains littered with the occasional cluster of trees.
 
I’ve been wanting to visit Yangon for some time and my first impression of it is favourable. I think you know if you’re going to like somewhere the moment you see it, and arriving in Yangon with no pre-conception of what to expect I am pleasantly surprised by what I find and know straight away that I like it. It’s a step back in time and is, I imagine, similar to Bangkok in the early seventies, but it has charm and the people are truly warm and welcoming. More than once I’ve been stopped by strangers for a quick handshake and to wish me well, leaving me wondering if I’ve just been the victim of a scam or theft of some kind. In fact it is just a refreshing and genuine attack of politeness and good manners from a people only too happy to see faces from outside grace their streets. Without exaggeration almost everyone I’ve made eye contact with has smiled and or said hello. The true ‘land of smiles’ if ever there is one.
 
Another taxi ride, this one with a chirpy Liverpool fan, and I’m back at the Classique Inn where the staff serve a fabulous local dish for dinner incorporating a wholesome vegetable soup, spicy chicken pieces with vegetables and a simple caramel nut dessert, all washed down with local beer and served alfresco on a quaint little patio beneath a large coconut tree that dangles heavy coconuts perilously above my head from about thirty feet.
 
I intend to go out and explore the Yangon nightlife but get sidetracked by the staff of the Classique who are keen to talk about Myanmar and all it has to offer. Later an American girl arrives fresh off the plane from Bangkok. She’s one of many foreigners I’ve spoken to who is visiting the country for a three month spell of meditation and we talk late into the evening over a several beers. Despite her best attempts I remain unconvinced as to the usefulness of spending three months sat cross-legged and going ‘ohm’ whilst depriving yourself of beer, fags and all your favourite food. Despite our differences of opinion we get along fine, though I decide it’s time for goodbye when she claims to have a ‘spiritual connection with the people of Myanmar’. A bold claim for someone who has only been in the country for a few hours.
 
Breakfast alfresco on the patio at 6.30 sharp and then I walk down to the famous Shwe Dagon pagoda. The original pagoda is said to date back some 2,500 years and contain 8 hairs from the Lord Buddha given to a couple of brothers from Myanmar on a pilgrimage to the north of India. Not being one for temples and pagodas I visit Shwe Dagon mainly because I had been told that it was a must for any visitor to Yangon. It is. As pagodas go this one is definitely the daddy. Built on a mount there is quite a walk up, barefoot, until you reach the base of the pagoda. But it is worth it. Standing more than 90m high from its base, which is greater than 420m in perimeter and in the region of 50m above the surrounding city, this golden ‘winking wonder’ dominates the surrounding complex of smaller pagodas, statues shrines and Tazaungs. Sarong clad locals are in abundance; praying, relaxing, meditating or simply, as it appears, chewing the fat with friends. There is a truly pleasant atmosphere and I would have stayed a while longer had I not been on a strict time frame due to my lunchtime flight.
 
From Shwe Dagon I continue north-east and make my way to Nga Hat Gyee, on the recommendation of one of the staff at the Classique, to view another temple and several hundred monks learning about meditation. Meditation appears to be quite a popular pastime for both locals and foreigners alike. At Nga Hat Gyee I’m told there is a Brit in residence who has been meditating now for six months solid, and for free. I politely decline an offer to meet him and continue my walk. I can’t imagine what I could possibly talk about to a guy who has been meditating almost exclusively for six months.
 
From Nga Hat Gyee I head south taking in the picturesque Kan Daw Gyi Lake and then along Zoological Garden Street, past the Aung San Stadium and back to the downtown area. It is in the area of the stadium that I am the victim of a money changer scam. Keen to change the pile of Kyats I still have left back to dollars I fall for the sales patter of a money changer and follow him back to his ‘shop’, a small, sweaty, hole in the wall affair populated by several of his countrymen. There’s a great deal of pushing and shoving, a fair amount of bullshit to distract me and I’m down 10,000 Kyats with nothing to do about it. We continue the transaction with the remainder of my money and I leave, somewhat pissed at myself for letting this happen. Two of them follow me out of the shop begging me to come back and solve our ‘misunderstanding’. Accepting my loss I suggest where they can put their solutions and move on. They hassle tourists in the area around the stadium and look Indian. Avoid at all cost or take extreme care.
 
Yangon is not for those addicted to the creature comforts of modern 21st century living. The streets are not awash with luxury shopping malls or American fast food retailers; though they do have a local equivalent complete with golden arches called Mac Burger and a doughnut shop that looks remarkably familiar. You’ll have trouble getting a mobile on an overseas network to work and your options for nightlife are somewhat more limited than Bangkok, Singapore or even KL. That said, it is a great place to visit to experience that something a little out of the ordinary. As for the moral argument about whether or not to visit just think about the people. Do you think they really want to be isolated? It’s easy enough to visit Myanmar and limit the amount of money you actually throw into government coffers. If you visit major government tourist attractions, fly with MIA or use the state transport system and hotels you’ll be contributing to the system and arguably prolonging the hell. If, on the other hand, you organise the trip yourself and use only privately owned accommodation, private taxis for transport and avoid anything with state involvement the only money you’ll be giving the government will be the US$10 airport tax on departure. One thing is for sure, the people of Yangon clearly welcome visitors to their country.

Traveling China

Travelling in China
Travelling in China
Travelling in China

For all its beauty, mystery, and excitement, China is one heck of an intimidating mass of land. The country itself is huge and diverse; the languages aren’t even remotely familiar for most Westerners, and China’s self-described “smaller cities” boast several million people. So where does a traveler begin? Dozens of tour companies have made a nice bundle on this intimidation, selling organized tours to curious-but-overwhelmed travelers. At first glance, a potential traveler might be tempted to do the same. After all, China doesn’t have the compact size of Japan, or the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia. Here, KSR gives you the low-down on traveling China, with a group or with oneself.
Time

If you have a two-week time frame and a mile-long list of Chinese must-sees, a tour will allow you the luxury of enjoying the moment without worrying about sold-out trains, odd museum hours, and researching each new hotel. A traveler who knows exactly what they want to do on the trip may feel relieved when the details of accomodation and transportation are arranged.

If your schedule is more flexible, a solo trip allows you the luxury of staying as long or as briefly as you like in each new spot. Lone travelers are free to change their timetable if something unexpected comes their way; a kite festival, a rafting trip, or a volunteer spot in a panda sanctuary. A traveler who is prone to falling in love with new places (especially cities off the beaten path) will benefit from this kind of malleable timetable.

Sightseeing

When it comes to building an efficient schedule, you can’t beat the convenience of a private tour bus and guide. With a tour group, you can hit all the sights on your must-see list without the fuss of ticket queues and city buses. Many companies offer various tours that cater more specifically to a traveler’s interests. Athletes can hike, bike, rock-climb and kayak, while history buffs can sign on to a tour of temples and monuments.

Solo travelers have to work a bit harder to find their way around, and information in guidebooks can be subject to change.
    
Without the guided tour, however, the traveler can spend as much time as they like seeing the landmarks of China that really speak to them.

Travelers who stick with a group might not like every part of their tour, or want more time at some stops (like the buffet) and less time at others (like the demonstration of 17th century pottery). If your idea of travel involves people-watching and unstructured exploring on bicycle or foot, then a tour itinerary might cramp your style.

Socializing

A lot of lone travelers enjoy tour groups, as if offers them the company of fellow adventurers with varying backgrounds and similar interests. Because you will travel with the same group throughout the journey, there aren’t as many sad goodbyes and tedious introductions (what’s your name? where are you from? have you tried wontons yet?). You can get to know your fellow travelers, and you can also take advantage of your guide, who will serve as a teacher, translator, and insider on Chinese life.

Solo travelers can find good company in hostels, which often draw livelier and more diverse crowds (though some dubious characters will inevitably crop up). However, between these meetings come some lonely patches when you’re between hostels, or in a quiet hotel. Chinese people are kind, helpful, curious and friendly, but most speak no English at all, especially in smaller cities. Travelers might meet earnest Chinese students who are looking to practice their English. These folks are usually charming and harmless, but solo travelers are more susceptible to tourist scams or overcharging.

Travel

Again, those on a tight time frame might not want the added stress of tracking train station addresses, checking the schedules, making a reservation with a language barrier, etc. Chinese trains and buses are reliable and comfy enough that an organized traveler can move from city to city with ease. Many big-city bus and train stations have one ticket booth with an English-speaking attendant. If you have the time and patience to make these arrangements yourself, the flexibility can be freeing. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be sticking to a plan, then the ease of a tour means that travel details are out of sight, out of mind.

The same applies to getting around a Chinese city. Most urban areas have great, reliable buses and subways. City types who don’t mind wandering and getting a little lost might enjoy going at their own pace. Travelers who want simply to go from point A to point B might benefit from a tour group, to avoid the stress of navigating new places.

Eating

With a tour group, you are guaranteed the opportunities to try a wide range of Chinese dishes. Some groups will shepherd their tourists to western-friendly hotel restuarants, where the food is more bland and gentler to the western palette. Others will get to try fresh and authentic dim sum, duck, soups, and famous regional dishes. A group has the asset of the omnipotent guide, who can help travelers with dietary issues and allergies.

The solo traveler has to use the luck of the draw with their eating. Adventurous foodies will love the challenge and reward of navigating food stalls, communicating from the phrasebook, and eating exotic new dishes without knowing all the contents. Some may be alarmed by the cultural barriers and recess to the safety of grocery store dinners or familiar sights like Subway or McDonalds. If you’re one who doesn’t mind taking a gamble on your supper, solo travel can open the door to hole-in-the-wall gems, amazing new flavours, and the local culture of dining.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com

Trang Underwater Weddings

Trang Underwater Weddings
Trang Underwater Weddings
trang_underwater_wedding_3
Trang Underwater Weddings

In the southern coastal province of Trang, Valentine’s Day weekend is a busy time. The province is a natural romantic destination, with rainforests, waterfalls, limestone caves and vast undisturbed coral reefs. At this time of year, the Andaman sea is calm and still, and the area abounds with blossoming sri-trang flowers. But what marks Trang as a lovers’ destination is not just its beauty. For the past thirteen years, Pak Meng beach has hosted hundreds of adventurous couples in the annual Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony.

The event originated in 1996, in the marriage of a couple who met and fell in love at an eco-tourism event in Trang. They chose the stunning underwater landscape of the area as a setting to exchange vows in a traditional Thai ceremony, along with the underwater signing of a wedding certificate. In subsequent years, the offbeat event attracted couples from around the world, even placing in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2000 for the largest underwater wedding ceremony.

Though the ceremony may seem unusual, it is in fact steeped in Thai wedding traditions. Along with scuba gear, the couples don hand-woven Thai wedding costumes, and a Buddhist ritual is the focal point of the ceremony. On the beach, the ritual of rod nam sang is performed, where water is poured from a conch over the couple’s hands. Before the weddings begin, couples and guests pay tribute to the ceremony’s eco-conscious roots. All participants release marine life into the sea before going underwater themselves. On the morning after the wedding, couples plant sri-rang trees as a commemoration of their love.

The ceremony can accommodate handicapped participants and guests. As of 2007, the wedding ceremony welcomes same-sex participants. Though same-sex marriage is not yet recognized in Thailand, the couples receive certificates of participation. All bridal couples must hold international divers licences. Non-divers can still take part in a ceremony held on the beach. Wedding guests can watch the ceremony on closed-circuit televisions.

The weekend-long wedding package includes meals, costumes, and accommodations. The wedding is as weekend-long affair, with a traditional pre-wedding party on the eve of the ceremony, and a romantic night of dinner, fireworks and dancing after the vows are exchanged. With a focus on eco-consciousness and ceremonial Thai tradition, this ceremony attracts nature-lovers and adventurers alike. Participants come from Thailand and abroad, to unite in marriage, renew their vows, or embark on an unforgettable second honeymoon.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

One Week in Thailand?

One Week in Thailand
One Week in Thailand
one_week_in_thailand_3

Most people plan their trips to Thailand as part of a larger Southeast Asian travel circuit, visiting many countries in a limited period of time. Thailand’s diversity and beauty gives visitors plenty of travel options. You could spend years exploring its jungles, beaches, and urban temples. For the backpacker who wants to see it all, planning an itinerary might be stressful. Here, khaosanroad.com offers sample one-week routes in Thailand, to fit different traveller’s needs. Enjoy.
Jungle Immersion for the Nature Fan

From Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal, head to Khao Yai National Park for a few scenic days of jungle treks. Thailand’s oldest natural park boasts 2172 square kilometres of rainforest, evergreen forest, and countless wildlife. A few guesthouse spots make you safe from the park’s natural population, which includes elephants, deer, black bears, tigers, gibbons and macaques, and leopards.

Next on the list is historic Kanchanaburi. This town is an easy homebase for your daytrip to the Erawan Waterfall. This seven-tiered waterfall, located in nearby Erawan National Park, is considered one of the most beautiful in Thailand. Visitors can trek up the side of the falls, or like local people, hop right in to swim and climb at the same time.

An overnight bus to Chiang Mai may leave you worn out, so take some time to rejuvenate before bussing to Doi Inthanon National Park. The challenging treks around Thailand’s highest peak are rewarded with fresh mountain air and breathtaking scenery. The mountain boasts hundreds of bird species, and is one of the last remaining homes of the Asiatic black bear.

A History Tour for Temple-lovers

Start in Bangkok, which offers countless temples and wats to feed your curiosity. Take your time touring Wat Phra-Kaew and the Grand Palace, more commonly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This property contains hundreds of buildings and represents architecture and art from 18th and 19th century royalty. Have your camera ready for gilded chedis, mosaics, and murals. From here, stop at Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest wat, to see the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand.

A two-hour train ride to Ayutthaya drops you in the

middle of Thailand’s compact and walkable former capital. During the 14th-18th centuries, this city was the hub of the Siam empire, and the “Ayutthaya-style” architecture, made popular by the royals of the time, is still a prominent influence on Thai design. Rent a bike and circle the river for some temple-spotting, then head to the centre of the town to Ayutthaya Historical Park, where a small entrance fee lets you explore the expansive grounds of temples, gardens, and statues.

Go north to Sukhothai, Thailand’s first capital, for a glimpse of royal architecture in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sukhothai Historical Park boasts Khmer-style and early Thai architecture, with popular lotus-bud and bell-shaped stupas. This park offers 70 sites within the old city walls.

Scenic R&R for Beachgoers

Your trip starts in Phuket, the island nicknamed “pearl of the south” for its sparkling beaches and exotic beauty. Once you fly onto the island, you can settle in Phuket Town for some snorkeling and diving in popular nearby beaches, or spend a couple of days beach-hopping to the island’s more remote beaches in northwestern Mai Khao, Nai Yang, and Nai Thon.

From Phuket Town, hop a ferry to Ko Phi Phi Don, an island of long white beaches and pretty coral reefs. Ao Ton Sai is the tourist hub, while smaller beaches with modest bungalows dot the coastline southeast of the city. while pricier resorts occupy the beaches on the eastern coast.

Catch another boat to Ko Lanta for denser wildlife as pretty beaches neighbour mangroves and crops of wide umbrella trees. The island’s booming tourist economy means that diving, snorkelling, and boat tours are readily available to visitors. Take a day tour of Koh Lanta National Marine Park for easy island-hopping to the coral-filled beaches of Koh Ha and Koh Bida, or cliffy Koh Rok Nok. The latter beach allows camping.

From here, outdoor athletes can move on to Krabi to make use of its famous limestone cliffs and caves for rock-climbing. Slower-paced travelers can explore the pretty mainland beach of Ao Nang. Visitors can follow the main road to the waterfront, which is lined with bungalows and tourist-friendly restaurants and shops. The landscape is pretty and fairly unspoilt, despite the beach’s popularity. Those in search of peace and quiet can head a few hundred metres north along the coast to Hat Noppharat Thara, a 2-kilometre strip of shallow emerald waters and clean sand.

A Weeklong Crawl for the Life of the Party

Starting in Bangkok, you’ll have no shortage of nightlife options. Sukhumvit (around soi 20-26) and the head of Silom street are packed with bars. Go-go bars line the streets of Patpong. Silom soi 4 is considered the main artery of gay nightlife. Those in search of live music should try the concert venues around Siam Square. Those hoping to dance should go to the trendy strip of bars known as RCA.

Next to the city nightlife, popular beach parties are another popular way to let your hair down. Head south to the well-known islands of the Gulf of Thailand, starting with the popular Ko Samui. The island boasts beautiful mountainous landscapes, long beaches, and enough tourist amenities for many nights’ entertainment. Hat Chaweng, on the east coast, is the longest beach with the biggest concentration of accomodations. As a result, it offers the best nightlife on the island, with a main strip running parallel to the beach that stays lively well into the night. Hat Lamai, though smaller than Chaweng, has the same lively atmosphere and dance-til-dawn nightlife.

Hop a ferry to the infamous Koh Phagnan and you may be in time for one of the famous full-moon parties on popular Hat Rin. If the timing isn’t right, you may stumble across a half-moon, quarter-moon, or new moon party. Visitors to this island will cook up easy excuses for all-night festivities, where beachside bars spill onto the sand and partygoers dance, mingle, spin fire, drink potent cocktails from plastic beach buckets, and lose time until the sun rises.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Things to Do Under 50 Baht


Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok

There are no two ways about it; Bangkok can be a pretty expensive place to hang out. The vibrant night life and tempting food can eat through your budget faster than a mouse through grain.

For those on a tight budget, Bangkok’s diversions can seem out of reach, and becoming confined to whiling away the hours watching movies around Banglampu becomes a disheartening prospect.
 
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many activities in the city cost less than 50 baht and can be rich and rewarding. Here are some of my favourite ways to spend time in the city
 
Situated just behind Chatuchak, Suan Rotfai, or Railway Park, is one of Bangkok’s best kept secrets. Filled with water lilly ponds, streams and places to relax, this huge park is extremely picturesque. One of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon is to hire a bicycle from the stand at the far side of the park and navigate the specially constructed cycle paths. Just 20 baht will buy you three hours of cycling fun.
 
Whilst exploring the park, don’t forget to visit the Bangkok Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in the Southeastern area. A 15-metre-high glass dome covers an area of 1,100 square meters, abundant with beautiful butterflies. Admission is free and you can watch the butterflies and learn about them in the attached museum. Open 8:30-4:30 Tuesday-Sunday.
 
The easiest way to get to the park is to take the MRT to Chatuchak Park station or the BTS to Mo Chit. You can also take bus 3 from Samsen Road, just around the corner from Khao San. Simply walk through Chatuchak Park, turn right and walk along the back road until you come to the gates to another park.
 
If you are interested in science, the Bangkok Planetarium and Science Museum is a great place to spend a few hours. A combined ticket to the Planetarium and Museum costs just 20 baht and includes an information leaflet. Tracing the history of space travel, the Planetarium show has spectacular visual imagery and sound. Visit on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. for the English language show.
 
The science museum covers everything from dinosaurs to marine biology and has many interesting exhibits. Open 9-4 Sunday to Tuesday, it is located near to the BTS Ekkamai Station and the Eastern Bus Terminal. You can also catch buses 2, 25, 38, 40, 48, 72, 98, 501 and 511.

Few visitors venture across the Chao Phraya River to the Thonburi side, but there are some attractions worth visiting. Take the ferry down the river one afternoon to pier 6, known as Memorial Bridge or Phra Pok Klao. After walking across the bridge, follow the road to your right and you will soon come to a large red gate flanked by two enormous stone turtles. I love to watch the cute baby turtles learning to swim under the watchful guidance of their and feed the older turtles meat and fruit on sticks.
 
Just around the corner, The Princess Mother Memorial Park is another good place to relax. Established in 1993 by His Majesty the King as a tribute to his mother, these beautiful gardens feature a reconstruction of the Princess Mother’s childhood home. These open rooms allow a rare insight into a traditional Thai home and are very interesting to observe.
 
The gardens also include two exhibition rooms, where photographs and text both in Thai and English tell the story of the Princess Mother’s life. Perhaps most revealing is a passage written by the King’s elder sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana:
 
“Mother said once she was living in this house near Wat Anong. It was like a row-house with many rooms, a rented house with only the wall panels and the roof. The tenants had to provide the other parts of the house, such as the floor. It had a balcony with a roof. Inside the house to the right was a raised platform, which served as an image room and Father’s office. Beyond that there were a sleeping chamber and a kitchen. There was no bathroom. They took a bath by the water jar on the front balcony, or in the canal nearby.”     

A sign outside Wat Prayura Wongsuwat illustrates the way to the Princess mother’s memorial Park. Just a five minute walk away, simply follow the green signs.

Just a short boat ride from Thailand’s capital, Koh Kret is like the land that time – and tourism – forgot. Steeped in culture, this is the perfect place to escape from the frantic pace of Bangkok for an afternoon.

No cars are allowed on Koh Kret, and you can walk around the island – which is a little under 4 kms in circumference – undisturbed. The smell of traffic fumes is replaced by a rich, earthy scent. People sit in the shade beside their houses, completing household chores and chatting to pass the time. Koh Kret has an unusual history. The name literally means ‘the land surrounded by water.’ It was artificially created nearly 300 years ago, when a channel was cut through a bend in the Chao Phraya River to make the journey to Ayuthaya shorter.

Thousands of Mon people flocked to Thailand in 1757, when Burmese troops destroyed Pegu, the capital of Monland. King Taksin the Great of Thailand encouraged the Mon People to settle on Koh Kret and they used their skills in pottery to set up kilns, producing pots, jars, plates and bowls for Thai people. Today, more than 6,000 people live in peace on Koh Kret.

Worth a visit is Suan Kret Phutt, or Buddha Park, a beautiful garden in the center of Koh Kret. Secluded from the road, this is a wonderful place to sit and meditate, and I spend an hour or so relaxing and listening to the wind in the trees.

Before you leave, stop at the food market near the ferry pier to sample some Mon delicacies. Especially good are Khao Chae; rice in jasmine water, accompanied by tempura vegetables. This food is refreshing and delicious and sweet tea is served in clay pots, which make great souveniers.

I love to finish the day by taking a ferry down the Chao Phraya River just as the sun sets. Wat Arun looks spectacular lit from behind by the warm rich tones on Bangkok’s sunset.

Other Attractions:

Housing a total of 52 vessels, the Royal Barge National Museum is worth a visit, as are the National Museum and National Gallery. If you are looking for somewhere cheap to eat, check out the vegetarian food section of Chatuchak market, where all dishes range from 12-20 Baht. Situated near the MRT and open daily from 8 a.m-2 p.m.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!

Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes

Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes
restaurants_on_kha_san_road_8
Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes
Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes
Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes
Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes
Khao San Road Restaurants and Cafes

The area on and around Khao San Road offers one of the widest selections of restaurants in the entire city. Diners can choose between a large variety of both traditional Thai and international cuisine, and most of the restaurants in this area have menus written in English, Thai and a few other languages. The waiters in this area are used to dealing with customers from all over the world, which makes dining here a simple and pleasant experience.

When it comes to Thai food, the options are endless as most restaurants on Khao San Road serve a selection of the most popular Thai dishes. It is possible to order dishes to taste. Simply ask for ‘mai pet’ if you don’t like chilli, ‘pet nit noi’ for medium spicy or ‘pet pet’ if you want to enjoy eat Thai curries, soups and Thai salads at their full fiery strength. If you’re not sure how much chilli you can handle it is best or err on the side of caution as fresh chillies can always be added when eating to increase the firepower. 

Khao San Road and the surrounding streets are perhaps the best place in Bangkok to enjoy Indian food, as there are most than a dozen different restaurants in this area serving traditional Indian fare. Most restaurants employ Indian cooks and waiters and the food is served fresh. These Indian eateries here come in all shapes and sizes, from cheap and cheerful street stalls to luxuriously decorated restaurants.

There is also a wide selection of other cuisines available here including a handful of Israeli restaurants, Japanese restaurants, Italian restaurants and eateries specialising in authentic British grub such as fish and chips.

Vegetarians will find plenty of places to choose from in this area as well. Not only do many of the restaurants offer a large selection of vegetarian dishes, there are also around half a dozen restaurants that serve purely vegetarian and vegan food. These restaurants often serve as meeting places for like-minded travellers and the atmosphere inside is relaxed and friendly. Vegetarian travellers can choose between Thai, Indian and international cuisine and some of the eateries offer extra services such as a bed for the night, cookery courses and massage.

One of the great things about eating in this area is that there are plenty of places for the budget traveller to dine. There are dozens of different street stalls to choose from, which serve light bites and meals from as little as 25 baht. Many of these stalls provide tables and chairs to allow customers to eat in comfort. Simply grab a table, place your order and watch the world go by while you tuck into dishes such as som tam, pad thai, vegetarian food and Indian cuisine. Many of these street stalls also serve beer to those who want to relax for a while and indulge in a spot of people watching.

Sometimes it is nice to be able to treat yourself to something familiar and travellers will also be able to satisfy their food cravings at one of half a dozen different well-known fast food restaurants.

When hunger strikes, Khao San Road is definitely the place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Religion in Thailand


Religion in Thailand
Religion in Thailand
Religion in Thailand
Religion in Thailand

Most Thai people (around 95%) are Buddhist, whilst 4.6% are Muslim, and Christianity comprises 0.7%. Most of Thailand’s Muslims live in the south of Thailand. There are also a significant number of Hindus and Sikhs. Thailand also has a history of animism – which generally means the belief in souls and spirits – and this is still practiced by some of the people of the hill tribes in the north of Thailand.

Although Buddhism is by far the main belief, Thailand prides itself on religious freedom and welcomes the emergence of newer religions and beliefs.

The strain of Buddhism worshipped in Thailand is Thai Theravada Buddhism, which is supported and overseen by the government. Most men are expected to become a monk at some point in their life, and this is often undertaken during the three monk Khao Phansa period, which begins in July.

Monks can be easily recognised by their saffron coloured robed and shaved heads. Monks cannot carry money and so can be seen early in the morning collecting their daily food. Monks also receive a number of government benefits, such as free use of public transport.

Religion forms a cornerstone of most Thai people’s lives, entwined with daily activities and special events. Most people will worship at the temple (known as a wat) during festivals and monks and spirits are consulted when important decisions need to be made such as weddings and starting a business.

Khao San Road Bars and Clubs


Khai San Road Pubs and Clubs, Bangkok, Thailand
Khai San Road Pubs and Clubs, Bangkok, Thailand
Khai San Road Pubs and Clubs, Bangkok, Thailand
Khai San Road Pubs and Clubs, Bangkok, Thailand

After the sun sets Khao San Road is transformed into a neon wonderland as people flock from all over the city to sip cocktails on the street, listen to live music or shake a tail feature in one of the area’s trendy clubs.

Whether you simply want to enjoy a cold beer or two or are looking for a hedonistic clubbing experience, Khao San Road has a good selection of nightlife, which attracts tourists, travellers and Thai people from all walks of life.

Khao San Road is a great place for drinking and socializing as prices are generally much lower than in other parts of the city and those on a tight budget will be able to enjoy a drink or two at the end of a hard day of sightseeing. Many of the bars here also show movies and live sporting events free of charge to customers.

Most of the bars on Khao San Road and the surrounding area open mid morning and stay open until the early hours. Some places also have licenses to stay open 24 hours a day, meaning that there is always somewhere to grab a drink and make friends here.

There are a good number of street side bars in this area, which serve cheap beer and strong cocktails. Sitting at the tables here is a good way to meet people and watch events as they unfold on Khao San Road.

Those who enjoy live music will find plenty of venues to choose from. The bands in this area play both covers of popular Western and Thai tunes as well as their own songs. These bars attract a good mixture of Thai and Western customers and the atmosphere is usually very lively, with plenty of room to dance.

Those who like to boogie will be able to take their pick from dozens of different clubs. Most of these venues get going at around 11pm and stay open until two or three in the morning. Featuring DJs from all over the world, the clubs on and around Khao San Road pump out all sorts of music, from hip hop to trance and offer a lively atmosphere in which to see and be seen.

One of the great things about partying on Khao San Road is that there is always something to see and do here. Most venues are open every night of the week and have special nightly deals in order to attract customers.

Travellers should bear in mind that some of the women who hang out on Khao San Road aren’t quite as feminine as they appear at first glance. Ladyboys are common all over Thailand and it can be quite difficult to tell them apart from the real McCoy, especially after a few beers.

However, one of the great things about Thai people is that they are rarely pushy and both men and women can feel save and comfortable when partying on Khao San Road.