Exactly 48 hours before Phil and I were due to leave the country on a 20.35 flight out of Manchester Airport, I found myself, sweaty and smudged with miscellaneous dirt, desperately digging through a van-load of household waste, up to my neck in grimy food containers and socks. We were supposed to be at the tip by now, but remained stationary, outside the house that was ours for just a few more hours. I could hear Phil through the open van doors, growing increasingly frantic as the man on the other end of the phone told him that if we could not find the keys to our hire van, we’d have to pay £300 to replace them, and they’d take three days to arrive from head office. By which time we were meant to be downing Chang after Chang in balmy Bangkok. And no, they couldn’t replace the van in the meantime. As I desperately unloaded the van, Phil developed a number of theories as to the location of the keys, at one point firing off a tweet to the rental company that had sent a man to nail up a ‘For Rent’ sign outside our house, convinced he’d swiped them. One tense hour later, there was just one thing left to unload from the accursed vehicle: a DVD player, the first item Phil had chucked in. I picked it up. Underneath – unbelievably – were the van keys. Phil lay down in the middle of the road and let out a strangled scream. On the way to the tip – jubilant – we rang the van company, and to be fair to him, the man seemed genuinely pleased for us. You see, not all travelling is glamorous.
After these tense beginnings, we made it to the airport, but not before downing a number of Strongbow Dark Fruits with our good friend Verity at Manchester’s The Wharf. This – along with good white wine – is a precious and highly delicious beverage rarely to be found in Southeast Asia. Our sighs of relief were premature however: the woman at the check in desk informed us that since we had no forward flights from Thailand, she couldn’t check us in, and if she did, once we arrived in Bangkok we would be refused a visa. Suddenly feeling like perhaps there IS a God, and perhaps HE did not want us to go on this poorly-planned trip, I sat down on the floor in Terminal 1 surrounded by backpacks and regret and quickly booked two flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia at £30 each, and we were allowed to proceed airside.
This essentially meant we’d managed to fuck up our itinerary before we’d even left the country. We had been intending to travel through Southeast Asia in a clockwise manner, similar to the itinerary I completed three years ago: Thailand>Laos>Vietnam>Cambodia>Malaysia>Singapore. But due to my impulse buy, based on the fact the Bangkok>Siem Reap tickets were the cheapest on Skyscanner by an insignificant £20, we sat in the airport lounge with a map and some Prosecco, quickly re-routing. At time of writing, our itinerary during our six months in Southeast Asia is to be a rather convoluted: Northern Thailand>Cambodia>Vietnam>Laos>Southern Thailand>Malaysia>Singapore. And then – all being well on the freelance writing/money front (and if we haven’t killed each other) – we’ll go to Eastern Europe for another six months. All in all, I admit, it’s a pretty stupid route.
The flights Manchester>Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi>Bangkok were pretty good, despite my ridiculous decision to watch Life of the Party, an absolutely dire Melissa McCarthy vehicle, and a stop at my least favourite ‘Irish’ pub – O’Leary’s at Abu Dhabi, where a 5am pint of lager will set you back a stunning £12.
When we arrived in Bangkok, everyone – from the tourists to the tuk-tuk drivers – was sick. We were surrounded by people with chest infections and hacking coughs, and muscular air conditioning units, perfect for spreading the germs around. But this was not going to stop us enjoying our first night on Bangkok’s notorious, seedy Khao San Road, where we were saying at the Dang Derm Hotel aka number one Khao San Road.
I have mixed feelings about Bangkok, and Khao San in general. Bangkok is a seductive city, if you’re in the right mood for it. If you’re not, you’ll hate absolutely everything about it. This was my eighth visit to the Thai capital, but Phil’s first – and I was keen to see his reaction to its overpowering backpacker district. Despite our lack of sleep, after tucking into a Pad Thai, we went on a bit of a Chang crawl down Khao San, and its quieter, more charming neighbour, Soi Rambuttri. This area is crawling with street vendors, selling everything from suits and durian to ‘ping pong’ shows and scorpions on sticks. I was pleased to see that a few of my old favourites were still peddling their wares: the lady with the frog noise ornament, and the elderly woman flogging her board of highly offensive wristbands (“I love dick salad”, “I rape you long time” etc). Clearly she’s not cottoned onto the fact that the new gen of backpackers are Millennial ‘snowflakes’.
So, nothing had changed since I last went to Khao San, although walking down the street with a man did seem to make the stallholders less aggressive in my direction. In fact, I wasn’t once called ‘crazy’ for turning down a tuk-tuk ride: a common theme of my last – solo – visit. Phil did, however, get asked if he wanted a “sexy suit” on every corner. Upon declining one such offer with “I don’t need a suit, it’s very hot here”, the vendor responded with a spirited: “You might not need suit but suit needs you!!!” It blew my mind that Phil did not want to buy such an economically-priced suit from these tailors given that – according to the images adorning their shop walls – they’d created bespoke suits for A-Listers such as David Beckham and Justin Bieber.
Phil’s thoughts on Khao San are as follows: “It’s almost like being in a zoo in a way. You could spend hours walking up and down it and seeing things you wouldn’t see anywhere else on earth. There’s a massive novelty factor to it that makes it really fun, and as a people-watching spot, it’s probably pretty unparallelled but there’s no doubt that any more than a couple of nights there will start to wear at your soul. There are only so many ways you can turn down a suit fitting or a scorpion on a stick while still remaining upbeat and friendly, and after that I think it’s only natural you’d want to move on. It’s a place without the concept of personal space.”
And – predictably – after a night or two of air con I did get a chest infection, which – along with my asthma – severely limited the activities we could do in Bangkok, such as walking. Instead, we moved to a hotel on Soi Rambuttri for my convalescence, and every night we’d go to a little street food stall to eat rice and tofu for 50 baht (£1.25) and watch as the nightly lightning storms turned the sky purple. We ventured out one day to one of my favourite Bangkok temples – Wat Pho – to see the Reclining Buddha, and have a walk through the amulet market, but given my illness and the heavy rainstorm we got caught in, this little adventure set my recovery back, and I spent the subsequent days laying on the bed, unable to breathe and being unendingly melodramatic about my certain death. I eventually shuffled my way to the chemist where they gave me some antibiotics over the counter, and some other very expensive yet mysterious medication that tbh tasted like paracetamol. I’m sure handing out antibiotics over the counter isn’t a great idea in the grand scheme of disease control, but after three days I was fighting fit and ready to move on to Ayutthaya: our next destination.
To get to Ayutthaya – a sleepy city that was the capital of Siam before it was sacked by the Burmese in the 1700s – all we had to do was get a one hour, 60 baht (£1.50), minivan from Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station. It sounds simple, but like so many things in Southeast Asia, it was anything but. We arrived at the station with our giant backpacks, and a smaller rucksack each, and went to the information desk. The friendly guy at the information desk showed us a map directing us to the minivan terminal, at the back of the station. We trudged the 500 metres through a nearby market to arrive at the deserted minivan station, where no-one would put us in their minivans. Surprised and a little annoyed, we did the trek back to the information desk, where the man – less friendly this time – directed us back to the minivan terminal. This infuriating journey happened three times, and we ended up sat outside Mo Chit in the intense heat, out of breath and surrounded by heavy luggage, with no idea what to do. Finally, one of the minivan drivers showed us a picture of a different terminal – across the road from Mo Chit and absolutely not where the information man had directed us.
As we began to haul all our shit across the walkway that spanned the road, we heard a shout: “Ayutthaya?” It was one of the drivers from the minivan station – he’d seemingly gone rogue, had parked in the middle of the busy road and was motioning to us to get in his van. Desperate for air con, we jumped in, and he demanded 180 baht all in for the journey, having hiked up his price given our desperate situation and the lack of officials watching. This still being only £2 each, we agreed. He then pulled up on the other side of the road, left the vehicle for 15 minutes without explanation, only to come back with a plush Nemo toy. Upon getting back in, he switched on some music, which included Thai covers of Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ and other old timey hits. We sat in a tense silence for another 15 minutes, before he pulled into the bus terminal we should have gone to, and ordered us to hide, lest his bosses cotton onto his racket.
Arriving in Ayutthaya, a tuk-tuk driver had our backpacks in his vehicle before we’d even exited the van. We wandered over to find out what the deal was and had a very typical conversation:
Driver: “Where you from?”
Driver: “Ahhhhh Manchester United!”
Phil: “Yes. Manchester United”
Driver: “Where you go?”
Me: “The Old Palace Hotel”
Driver: “Ahhhhh yes. VERY long way”
Driver: “300 baht.”
Needless to say it was not a very long way, and five minutes later we had arrived at our hotel, 150 baht lighter.
The city of Ayutthaya was a strange mix of incredible and weird. The incredible came in the form of the ancient temples, scattered around the city. We hired bikes to ride from ruin-to-ruin, increasingly impressed, not only by the ruins, but by the fact you can walk right up to them, or on them, as long as you never climb on the Buddha’s head. To us, not climbing on the Buddha’s head seemed like a very fair ask – and indeed a low behavioural bar to set – but the sheer number of the signs depicting this request suggested that there’d been some trouble with it before.
We saw the stunning Wat Mahathat, which featured so many spectacular ruins it was difficult to know where to look. Most of the selfie-mad tourists were congregated around the temple’s iconic Buddha head, ensconced in tree roots, apart from one Indian hen party, who were jumping for pictures in front of an old temple for about an hour. Next on our list was Wat Ratchaburana – an ancient crypt, where we climbed to the top of the tower only to be greeted by the squeaks of the many bats that hung overhead. There were some stairs ominously heading downwards and a Chinese man – with a haunted look in his eyes – advised us not to descend.
One of the most iconic images to be found in Ayutthaya comes in the form of the three spires rising from the former palace of Wat Si Sanphet. As we cycled in its direction, I saw a sign at the side of the road saying “Warning: elephant walkway” – as I wondered out loud to Phil what that meant, two elephants turned a corner up ahead and started pounding down the road towards us, a handful of tourists cruelly sat on their backs. Needless to say, we swerved out of the road pretty quickly. Wat Si Sanphet was absolutely epic, and we were struck again by how all these treasures in Thailand are just laid out in the open to visit – no velvet rope to speak of.
But Ayutthaya was weird too. Perhaps due to its current limbo between sleepy Thai city and tourist haven, as well as the fact most people visit on day trips, as night fell the shops and restaurants shut up and it took on a ghost town quality. Phil and I cycled around in the dark, avoiding the packs of stray dogs that roam the street, trying to find places to eat dinner and have a drink, largely in vain. This confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that most places that appeared to be cafes or restaurants during the day turned into printing shops or family homes at night. On our first night we followed the Lonely Planet’s advice and went to an empty outdoor bar called ‘The Coffee House’, which was striking in that among the traditional Thai restaurants, this place looked like it belonged in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It was absolutely dead, but we entertained ourselves by watching some ultra-hard women practice Muay Thai in a ring next door. “They would absolutely fuck me up,” Phil observed, correctly. The next night we found a tourist-friendly restaurant where they served us Chang in an ice bucket, and – of course – a Thai cover of Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ played on repeat.