Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai: From The Lowest of Slummery to The Heights of Luxury


Wow. What a day.

We started in Ayutthaya, waking up to the sound of running water at our delightful homestay. We had some breakfast with our lovely hosts and fed some fish in the pond next to our table. We then (after a long and heated "negotiation" with a Tuk Tuk driver) went to a local ruins site called Wat Mahathat. It was amazing to walk within the ruins and imagine what took place here so long ago.

My favourite part of the temple was the Buddha head statue that has become half covered by the encroaching roots of a strangler fig. Once again, pictures will follow soon.

We then went for a browse around the local markets. Whilst there were some interesting sights (including baby bunnies... Not sure if they were for pets or for food), Emma and I both agreed that they smelt awful, so we decided to take refuge in a local American ice cream parlour (???)

Whilst downing an ice cream sundae which was almost the size of my face, Emma and I both agreed on one thing: Ayutthaya seems very much like a miniature Bangkok - unsurprising since it used to be the nation's capital many years ago. That isn't to say it is bad or anything - it is quite nice. Just don't go there thinking you're going to find a sleepy little town- there's still the same rampant capitalism-meets-rampant poverty.

Speaking of rampant poverty, we took another Tuk Tuk ride to the train station and bought our train tickets back to Bangkok. They cost 20 Baht each. Our tickets *to* Ayutthaya cost 345 Baht each. We were about to learn the hard way what the class system was on Thailand's state railway.

Imagine the worst Queensland Rail train you've ever been on. Now, replace the whine of the electric motor with the roar of an old diesel engine. Take away the carpeting, cushioned seats, air conditioning and even the glass windows. Then pack it full of people with about three groups of rush hour loads. Throw in a jumbo-sized suitcase blocking the aisle and seemingly every single other person on the train giving you the stink-eye because you're white. And then stand up for the two hour journey trying to stop people from going through your aforementioned gigantic suitcase.

This is a third class train ride from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. It was actually quite fun from a noveltey perspective, but I was happy to get off.

A word of advice for those travelers using Bangkok's Hulamphong train station - do not make eye contact with the men in the blue shirts that look like they're wearing an almost official "uniform" of some sort. They are con artists and will rip you off badly. They offered us 1500 Baht ($50AUD) from the train station to the Airport. We declined. We then used a normal metered taxi to the airport. It cost us less than 300 Baht.

At the Airport, we checked in and spent some time in the Thai Airways Royal Silk Lounge. I wish I could afford business class tickets every time I fly. The lounge had free food and free drink, and was right next to our gate.

Our plane taking us to Chiang Mai was a Boeing 747-400. We boarded about 10 minutes late, and we had plenty of time before pushback to test out Thai Airways' new business class product. A little too long, in fact... We spent close to half an hour fiddling with the reclining and massaging seats before a P.A. announcement was made that the aircraft had some issues with it's hydraulics systems and as such we'd have to change to another Boeing 747. Now normally I'd be pretty upset by the aircraft change, but hydraulics are responsible for pretty much every form of control over the aircraft, so I thought I'd let that one slide.

Two hours later, we were on another 747. In the old-style business class seats. No personal in flight entertainment here, no fancy lie-flat massage chairs, just chairs with heaps of leg room and a nice recline. It could've been worse, but it was annoying to have the best that Thai Airways has to offer dangled in front of our faces and then yanked away at the last second for a "home brand" replacement.

After a very awesome and powerful takeoff, the flight itself was over quite quickly. Soon we were at our next point of call - Chiang Mai. We are staying with a lovely family at their amazing homestay called "The Secret Garden". Upon arrival we were fed delicious home cooking and were made to feel very welcome. Peter, the man who runs the homestay, and Isabel, his daughter, both speak perfect English. It is very nice to be able to have a proper conversation with people who have local knowledge.

And with that, I'm exhausted. It has been the most epic day yet. I have a good feeling about this place though. For the first time since leaving Singapore I feel like I can let my guard down a bit. Here's hoping my feeling is right...

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