Why travel overland? Part two

Ed chills at the Mongolian Russian border

Continued from Claire’s post here.

He says…

There’s now vanishingly little doubt among scientists that climate change is happening on an unprecedented scale and that it is caused by human activity.

The average European has a carbon footprint of around 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. A single long haul flight from Delhi to London accounts for around one tonne of that, so taking one or more flights a year accounts for a huge proportion of the carbon we’re personally responsible for.

Keeping below the 2°C limit of warming above which scientists believe climate change will have catastrophic consequences in our lifetimes requires big cuts in emissions starting now. Numerous unproductive climate summits have shown how unlikely governments are to make the necessary changes on their own (there’s yet another ‘last chance’ summit coming up in Paris in December).

It’s now up to you and I to lead by example. The simple and convenient solutions promoted by some parts of the green movement over the last couple of decades (not overfilling your kettle, using the stairs instead of the lift and carrying a reusable shopping bag, etc) are not going to cut it on their own. We need to set our sights higher and reduce more, but this is not austerity in another form – quite the opposite. Scientists, environmentalists and even some politicians are suggesting lots of changes that can not only help divert catastrophe, but simultaneously create jobs, promote equality and generally make us all happier. Claire and I reckon transport is going to be a big part of this.

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Why not offset?

In times gone by when I’ve declined to take a flight for a holiday or to a work conference, people have often asked why I don’t just offset the carbon. Just tick that box to say that a bunch of trees will be planted somewhere abstract, suck up the carbon and leave the planet just as healthy as it was before your flight, they say. It sounds great and it might help airlines sell a few tickets concerned people might not otherwise buy.

However, there are some major problems:

  • There’s nothing to say that the carbon offset solution you’re being sold wouldn’t have happened anyway. Did the net number of trees planted go up after you ticked the box? We don’t really know and there’s little transparency.
  • Many offsetting solutions (take the tree planting example again) take years to reach maturity and reduce anything near the level of carbon they’re designed to. The science suggests that we don’t have time for that.
  • We can’t afford to invest in airlines or increase air traffic whether we offset or not. We’ve got to simultaneously invest in carbon reducing practices like reforestation and renewable energy whilst also divesting from polluting, carbon intensive industries.

If you’ve felt inspired by our blog, maybe you’ll consider taking the train for a journey that you’d normally fly. If you’re in the UK, you might be pleasantly surprised at how comfortable and fast European trains are to nearby countries. If you’re in India you could take a very comfortable Rajdani Express train between cities that you might previously have flown between (ice-cream is included in the ticket price!).

We’d love to hear from you in the comments if you decide your next long trip will be an overland one.

Why travel overland? Part one.

Scouting for taxis

We’re nearly home and so it’s time for these scamps to tell you why overland travel is best.

She says

It took Ed three years to convince me to take this trip and in the end I realised I was more afraid of not doing it than anything else.

My motivations for travelling without flying are not as environmentally altruistic as Eds although of course carbon comes into it. What I wanted above everything was to have an adventure. Sure, we could have got on a plane and landed in Inja 7 hours later, but where would be the adventure in that?

The best part of our trip has been the people we’ve met along the way. If we hadn’t ridden the bus we would not have met Amir the Pakistani gem trader who showered us with hospitality. If we hadn’t taken the train we wouldn’t have received a lesson on Buddhism from the monk sat opposite. With children draped across our knees and in the company of vodka swigging neighbours, we’ve munched on shared snacks and rolled our eyes at yet another bump in the road. With one week to go, we’ve only met unimaginable kindness from the worlds gamut of personalities, in spite of linguistic and cultural differences.

Travelling overland has helped me see how the world fits together in a way I could not have understood otherwise. Things like how the shapes and shades of peoples faces change so incrementally travelling west (or east). How in spite of broad or small geopolitical borders, the ‘rules’ can be so quirkily different for something as ‘simple’ as buying a bag of nuts.

If you’ve got an appetite for travel, I’m not about to start preaching that you should never fly again because unless you’ve got a very flexible boss it would be pretty difficult. But I think you should consider overland travel as a viable alternative. In places such as London where a 3 minute wait between tube trains is criminal, this is a difficult concept but that in itself is a reason to get a grip and get out!

It doesn’t have to be an epic journey (although I’d highly recommend it), it could be an ICE train to Munich or a ferry to Copenhagen. If you’re looking for a bigger adventure then travel overland as much as you can. Do it, do it, do it!

I’m proud of doing this trip without flying. I can tell you exactly what the landscape looks like between England and China and back again and can say ‘thankyou’ in 14 different languages. I have learned a lot and these two points I believe are most important.

1. The world is actually a very nice place. Mankind is not doomed! Wherever you go, there will be kind, helpful, funny people eager to help or just have a chat.

Moreover, don’t believe or blindly accept everything you read or hear. In days like these where sensationalism sells newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is dangerous and full of bad, bad people. Well, newsflash! Think beyond the headlines and question the angle behind the information. Our travels in Pakistan are a testimony to a nation of people grossly misrepresented in the western media. I am particularly outraged by the islamaphobic content that appears in UK tabloids and the dirty politics which feeds on fear.

2. Revel in freedom of speech (and protect it at all costs). However imperfect democracy might seem, it is a damn sight better than living under military rule in Myanmar or under the ‘pretend’ democracies of Turkey or Kazakhstan. The old adage goes ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone’. Well, I wouldn’t risk it if I was you.

It has been the adventure I was hoping for. At times frustrating and always wildly fun, I’m coming home a bit more worldly, a bit more tough (20 hour bus rides will do that), a bit more thoughtful and maybe a bit nicer too.

Decompression; the Baltic states

Baltic beach fun

After a short stop in Moscow to gawp at billionaires and big gold domes, we’ve since been holed up in the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania. A key feature of our decompression strategy has been a (self-prescribed) need of sun, sand and sea therapy. The Baltic states have delivered and then some. We’re both trying to figure out how we can stay here forever.

To many, knowledge of these small states is limited to the Eurovision song contest and maybe if you’re so inclined, threatening tabloid headlines about migrants. Well, whilst we were swooning over Kevin Costner in tights (Robin Hood circa 1991), Latvia and Lithuania were overthrowing the soviets. For nearly a century these small states had been simultaneously occupied by both Nazi Germany (which systemically exterminated the Jewish population) and the Soviet Union (which banished all ‘opposition’ to labour camps to Siberia).

There is of course more to it than that. Forget the mediterranean, the Baltic is where it is at.

Our first week was spent holed up in a studio flat in lovely Riga, the capital of Latvia. We wandered through the narrow cobbled streets of the old town and lounged in the generous greenery of the city. I cried with joy when we found a gluten free café and subsequently ate my bodyweight in dumplings. Latvian countryside comprises of pristine white sandy beaches, abundant pine forests and quaint agriculture. I never really imagined that a pine forest could back onto the sea until we visited Saulkrasti. We picnicked in the shade of pine trees with the luxury of dipping our toes in the sea a few metres away. I can also confirm that whilst the Baltic sea is chilly, it is by no means as ‘baltic’ as you might think.

With heavy hearts, we boarded the bus to Vilnius to find ourselves, again, in a dreamy old town. Stumbling upon a folk festival in one of its many picturesque squares, we drank mead and bopped to along to the accordion. After a chilling visit to the KGB museum, we refreshed our souls with a trip to the hippy Republic of Uzpudis. Only a few sqkm in size, this is a state within the state of Lithuania where amongst other things, its constitution grants you ‘…the right to heating in winter, the right to make mistakes and the right to understand nothing’. Complete hippydom! I plan to come back next April Fools day when I can get my passport stamped.

Of all the places in Europe we have visited, I can’t recommend these enough. There is so much more that I want to explore and so I’m already planning a grand Baltic state tour (tbc).
So… back to the decompression. During our coalescence we’ve learned how to tell them time correctly and have reintroduced our bodies to the concept of fresh fruit and vegetables after a prolonged died of dehydrated potato. By the time we get home we hope to have nailed days of the week and at least be ready to appear functional.

Meanwhile, we’ll be skipping around Warsaw before a weekend of parties with ‘ich bin ein berliner’, Markus. Then we’ll head for the Channel. We look forward to seeing you at Harwich sea port at 6.30am in 6 days time.

Weapons of control: Our freedom and security in East and West

Boarding a Chinese train requires 4 levels of security clearance. First your ticket and ID are cross-checked at an airport style check-in desk. Next you must queue to put your bag through an X-ray scanner before stepping on to a soapbox for a full body pat-down. Finally, having queued at the boarding gate, you’ll have your ticket checked once more and be allowed to proceed to the platform.

Negotiating such comprehensive security measures on our trip has not been limited to travel in China. 70s hippies who arrived in India and were said to have promptly fed their passports to cows would not recognise it today. Tourists must now present their passports to check in to even the most laid back of Goan beach huts. In the majority of hotels mugshots are taken at check-in and on one or two occasions again when checking out – presumably in case you’ve been involved in some Nicholas Cage style face-off during your stay. “It’s government regulations” is the reply to the inevitable “What for?”

Any London tube veteran would quake at the prospect of the Chinese or Indian metro security measures being introduced in London (ironically the only one of the three places that’s experienced a major underground bomb attack). The prospect of joining a queue for a bag scanner and a full body pat-down at Victoria station at 8am would be unthinkable to many.

I’ve realised that my own response to these security measures varies wildly and is related to perceived threat. Being photographed in order to stay in a South Indian shack made me depressed and resentful, but I didn’t mind when a video camera was shoved in my face by police on a bus in Abbotabad, Pakistan. The greatest danger I associated with the former was persistent bead sellers or ear cleaners – the latter I associated with sensational stories of gun fights and al-Queda.

As a data geek with a lot of time on trains to kill, I started wondering about potential uses for the data that’s gathered about us. With access to large volumes of hotel and travel records, Chinese and Indian authorities could build up a detailed picture of the movements of citizens and tourists alike, regardless of whether or not they’ve been the victim or perpertrator of a crime.

Extensive data gathering is just one of the many systems of government control we’ve witnessed. Police in Istanbul had established a semi-permanent water cannon arsenal in the centre of the main shopping street. In the context of recent history, when protests to save a public park were violently crushed by police, the presence of these weapons seemed sinister and oppressive.

Water cannon haven’t yet been seen on the streets of London, but I suspect mayor Boris Johnson understands well the link between perceived threat and people’s readiness to accept drastic security measures. He snapped up the chance to buy water cannon in the wake of the widely condemned 2011 riots, hoping many would accept he had sufficient reason for acquiring weapons designed specifically for use against civilians. Ostensibly they are being kept in case of a similar bout of rioting. In reality they can be deployed to break up any gathering the Home Secretary gives them approval to.

We read with horror Western media reports on pervasive and oppressive government control in China, but this is increasingly reflected in the West. The recently elected government of the UK is expected to revive the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ in the Queen’s speech today, designed to grant them extensive powers to gather data from our private conversations. The previous coalition government already oversaw extensive censorship of web content by internet service providers.

Whether or not you support the political aims of the current government, increased powers of surveillance and weapons to control civilians will no doubt be used to support those aims. Any changes in the law will be permanent and will be open to use or abuse by successive governments. Let’s not be hoodwinked by the old lie: ‘If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.’

Siberia: Lost in time zones and birch trees

Vodka fumes were eminating from an upright figure partially hidden in a small gap between the cash machine and the wall. He wore a far away expression and swayed gently as if ruffled by the Siberian breeze. We’d arrived in the messy aftermath of a Saturday night in Irkutsk, Eastern Russia.

Despite first impressions the city turned out to be civilised and leafy with a mixture of severe soviet concrete and squat, impregnable looking Siberian log buildings. Having only manged to get a 10 day Russian visa in Delhi we had little time to hang about on our way to the shore of Lake Baikal, an hour’s vomit inducing marshrukta ride away.

Containing a third of the fresh water in the world and frozen during the long winter, we were seeing Baikal in it’s most hospitable season. Even so, we were welcomed with a mixture of freezing rain, hot sunshine, wind and lightening.

There seemed to be two types of people in Baikal: Those who consumed only vodka and those who ate all the food of those who consumed only vodka. The former looked frail and jaundiced whilst the latter were 6 foot bohemoths. All either had to keep the weather out was a vest and an intimidating expression.

We spent a day being tittered about by waitresses to whom we tried to explain one of us was vegetarian and the other alergic to wheat. We put our toes in the vast lake and our noses in the dense forest and oogled at distant, impossibly remote mountains that seemed to grow and shrink depending on the time of day. Then it was time to retreat to Irkutsk, arm ourselves with noodles and instant mash and board the train on which we were to spend the next 86 hours.

We were sharing a small cabin with excitable 12 year old Anastasia and her mum. They were on a five night journey from Chita in eastern Russia to Moscow so that Anastasia could have an operation on her foot. As soon as she was well enough they’d be boarding a train home again making it a 10 day round trip.

As we’d been repeatedly warned, Siberia is mainly birch trees. Sometimes there is a river between them or some buildings but then it’s back to birch. With four time zones to cross, it quickly became more interesting to discuss our confusion about meal times than to admire the homogenous scenery. We soon slipped into a routine built around trips to the wood-fired samovar at the end of the carriage and visits from a grey-moustached man pushing a trolley covered inexplicably in fake fur.

When we estimated that local time was suitable, Anastasia’s mum showed us what to do with our vodka, swallowing it neat in large gulps followed by a cherry tomato. I once forgot the tomato and she gave me a look of horror. ‘He’ll be found behind a cash machine’ I could tell she was thinking.

Free range in Mongolia: No walls, no fences and no roads

The capital of Mongolia looks as though it happened by accident. A splodge of multicoloured single story buildings and scattered ger tents appeared out of the barren steppe as we approached from the Gobi Desert. From the outside many buildings looked shabby or abandoned and a pall of coal smoke from a thousand stoves hung in the air. We negotiated with a clamouring bunch of taxi drivers and spent half an hour driving in circles looking for our hostel. Eventually we found it on an unmarked unmetalled road in the city centre with some hungry looking dogs circling the gate.

Had we flown in from the Western world, Ulaanbataar would have been a grim holiday destination. As an antidote to the oppressive orderliness and modernity of Chinese cities though, it seemed perfect. Here the ugliness was on show, unhidden by the LCD screens or mirror glass skyscrapers of China; ugliness that ended abruptly at the city limits, giving way to endless untamed steppe and huge sky. It was towards these we were headed.

Being more at home with bicycles than horses, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to join Claire on a horse ride on her birthday. The venue was a ger camp run by a Mongolian horseman, his Norweigen wife and their semi-feral 2 year old, 3 miles up a dirt track from the nearest road. With no electricity or running water, this by Mongolian standards is suburbia.

My anxiety wasn’t reduced when 5 minutes into the ride Claire (who was born on a horse) was thrown off and lay on the ground, winded. Whilst she recovered her breath and bravely re-mounted I flung my arms round the neck of mine and clung on, white-knuckled. ‘My wife once broke her coccyx falling off one of my horses’ said Pujuu the horseman uncomfortingly.

With any desire for further horse riding safely out of my system (I’ve filed it close to rollerskating), we made the acquaintance of both the other people within a 10 mile radius. 84 year old ‘Grandpa’ still owns a few hundred semi-wild horses and could be seen performing youthful handbrake turns on his own horse whilst rounding them up. He and his wife ‘Grandma’ seemed by be thriving on their lifelong diet of mutton, seasonal dairy products and fermented mare’s milk ‘vodka’.

We discovered, happily, that there’s more to life on the steppe than being nervous about horses. We spent two days listening to stories of wolves that howl from the surrounding woods on dark nights, watching casual after-work wrestling matches and lying under piles of blankets listening to the wind tear around our ger. Without fences, walls or roads this was a place where animals and children took the concept of free range up a notch. Dogs take themselves walking for days at a time, chickens have mountainsides to scratch about on and the cat hasn’t been seen for weeks. Storm, the two year old, learnt to run before he could walk and most of the time was just a spot hurtling along the vast horizon.

It was with sadness that we finally departed to Ulaanbataar to catch a train into Siberia. We did suspect though that the large expanses of nothing much were something we could stay used to.

China musings

We were both impressed with the might of urban China. The well-heeled inhabitants enjoy spotlessly clean, tree lined avenues and impeccible transport infrastructure. The people are nice too. Sweet-natured students keen to practice their english helped us find our way round. It makes me wonder why chinese tourists visit London; its dirty, grumpy and badly planned by comparison.

I am overjoyed to have seen the Terracotta army up close (who knew they were so brightly coloured!) and to have huffed my way up to beautifully bleak Sichuan mountain plateaus. From South to North, China is surprisingly hilly and green, best observed from a train window. We’ve walked on the Great Wall, cooed over super cute pandas and biked around Beijing. I really feel like I’ve seen the sights.

Can you hear the ‘but’ coming? There are actually two.

Firstly, all this comes at the cost of great personal freedom. It may not sound like a dealbreaker but it really is. I was beginning to think I’d lamp the next person who patted me down. Constant surveillance is exhausting as it is threatening. Teenagers armed with spiked metal poles at underground stations do NOT make me feel safe, they make me afraid.

Second, I found the materialist worship of ‘stuff’ gross. If China has a religion it is rampant consumerism. Towering shopping malls on every corner selling all brands known to mankind are rammed with people every day of the week. Whilst there is a movement in trendy Beijng towards kitsch ‘independent’ stores, you don’t have to look too hard to see the stamp of global brands like Starbucks and Haagen Das ‘astroturfing’ their way into the hearts of the newly flush.

China is a funny place. In spite of the ‘buts’, it’s touching to watch a tense games of mahjong take place on street corners and come across dance troupes of middle aged women pulling their best moves in public spaces. I’m glad to have been and I’m glad to leave.

China 101; tips for tourists

“How long would I get for beating someone to death with their own selfie stick?”. As I ponder the answer to Ed’s question, it’s a good time to reflect upon our experience in China and provide some travel tips.

Queuing and crowding.
At first glance you may be forgiven for assuming the Chinese like queuing as much as the British, but you will soon find out this is not the case. Take queuing to get on the train as an example. In your designated waiting area, you and 300 other people are waiting patiently for the gates to open. Some eager beavers may already be standing by the gates, but most people are happily supping noodles or watching pets do the funniest things on tv (party approved train-waiting-area-viewing). The line of queuers grows steadily until a mystery announcement spurs everyone into action. Suddenly 298 people are jostling to get in front of you, carelessly rolling their suitcase over your toes. We’ve learnt the old ladies are particularly adept at cutting the queue and the ones to watch out for. Once they’ve secured a spot ahead of you, expect many relatives and friends to be beckoned forwards, demoting you from position 200 to 298 in the queue.

‘Ancient’ buildings.
We’ve visited more ‘ancient’ monuments built in the last 10 years than I’ve eaten egg fried rice (which is A LOT). We still dont understand it but most chinese tourists dont seem to mind that the government bulldozed the original ancient tea house and rebuilt an exact replica in 2013. I wouldn’t mind so much if I didnt have to pay 30 yuan to get inside the ‘ancient’ town to discover that it’s filled with shops selling mobile phones and dog skins.

Expect the unexpected.
For the most part, our travels in China have been straightforward. It is a pretty efficient place. Buses and trains run to exact time and most attractions have english translations of varying clarity. But you can’t take this efficiency for granted because suddently there will be men with red arm bands shouting at you to NOT cross the road there. It may look like a pedestrian crossing, in fact it IS a pedestrian crossing but you quickly understand from the frantic arm waving that it is in fact a FORBIDDEN crossing, and instead you must walk through the extensive underground shopping mall if you wish to make it to your destination.

The pavement is not a safe space.
The car is king, its a simple as that. In the likely event of traffic jam or bad parking, the pavement is considered an acceptable escape route. Expect to be run over by vehicles turning left, turning right or heading straight on. This also applies to the silent but deadly electric scooter.

There are lots of rules.
There are lots of rules to abide by. For example, ‘Donotplaywithwater’, ‘Bewareofpinching’, ‘Takecareofyourtreasures’, or the simple but effective ‘Notossing’. Conveniently, cctv is installed in most places to monitor your movements (even in relative wilderness there are cameras instead of birdboxes!). For some this is a red rag to a bull. Yes, I did play with the water, I admit it, but only because Ed dared me.

We were at a loss the first time we took a train in China. So many rules!! There is a strict lights out policy at 10pm; the train guard flicks the master-switch and it is forbidden to use electric equipment thereafter. Until 7.30am of course when the ‘broadcast room’ pipes soothing pop music through the pa system and the guard opens all the curtains. Its a bit like boarding school on a train. You are not even allowed to look after your own ticket!

There is always time for shopping.
Something I cannot impress upon enough. There will always be time for shopping. In fact it is expected that you naturally just shop every hour therefore it is a relief that a four floor shopping mall has been built in the middle of the stunning Unesco heritage park, Juzihaigou. Amongst the crystal clear lakes and virgin forest, even the rarest of birds and mammals can buy a new outfit.

What is considered edible.
Chicken intestine kebab anyone? The range of life considered ‘food’ is diverse as it is terrifying. Today we saw a mummy turtle tied to a lamp post with a box full of baby turtles by her side. We don’t believe there was a happy future ahead of them.

Spitting.
There is lots of hocking and phlegm. Nuff said.

Paranoid security measures.
Expect to be body searched at the gates of every tourist attraction, bus or train station you go to. Same goes for scanning your bag. We even saw one man have his water bottle sniffed. Prepare to be irritated and to queue a lot (see second paragraph).

Last but not least, the selfie stick.
If it wasnt bad enough that everyone around you is taking a picture of themselves every 10 seconds, the selfie stick delivers the final blow to end personal space. A selfie stick to the head is the least of your worries. Watch out for your shins as there is no end to the angles it can deliver for that pefect photo, complete with ‘v’ peace sign, naturally.

Returning to the wild

The toilet attendants broke off from wrestling under the sink to demand 2000 Kip. I handed a bunch of notes to the pair of six-year-olds and hurriedly left the fetid and pestilent place.

Rampant inflation in Laos has resulted in a currency that holds little value unless handed over in multiples of a thousand or million and we spent the first few hours in the country convinced we were being ripped off by everyone. (In my case this kind of paranoia characterises every border crossing and will probably persist all they way to London St Pancras where I’ll convince myself the Costa Coffee staff are taking me for a ride: Claire is more relaxed.)

Once I’d escaped the toilet we boarded a bus to Luang Nam Tha, accompanied by bags of rice in the aisles and several cardboard boxes that wobbled and emitted telling clucking noises. This was the heart of the Golden Triangle where China, Myanmar and Laos all border each other and the ‘War on Drugs’ has not entirely succeeded in stamping out the opium trade. The terrain certainly seemed suited to drug running, with rolling hills enveloped in dense, insanely green bamboo-choked jungle, the impenetrability of which we’d not yet come across on our trip.

In Luang Nam Tha we met Sai who was to take us into the jungle for two days to trek to a remote village and then kayak back down the Nam Tha river. Having baulked at any organised activities involving other tourists on our whole outward trip, since Myanmar we’d realised that a) other tourists are generally quite nice and b) we got to see a lot more and meet local people more easily if we have a guide. We were to stay the night in the village and Sai would cook our meals. ‘Cat’ he replied when asked what we’d be eating. I crossed my fingers and hoped for a Quorn one.

So, in the company of two American hippies and a newly-wed French couple we struck out into the jungle to sweat buckets and attempt survival on whatever Sai cooked up in his bamboo pot. Infact he turned out to be an excellent cook and there was no cat on the menu at all. In the evening we were hosted by a family living in a creaky wooden house perched on stilts. We drank rice wine while the smoke from the stove escaped through the many gaps in the timber walls and a television played Bollywood music videos.

The next day we boarded some inflatable kayaks (slightly leaky, so they occassionally needed pumping up mid-river) and shot the rapids. Claire and I capsized almost immediately and a partially waterproof bag containing our passports had to be retrieved from down stream.

By the time we’d spent a hour swinging out of a tree on the end of a creaper and plunging into the deep, green water of the Nam Tha we decided our transition to jungle animals was complete. If only there was wifi we could stay forever.

Beers and tears; from Myanmar to Thailand

The tears came thick and fast. An aggressive bus driver had extracted my first tears of travel frustration at a soulless bus terminal in Tak, North Thailand.

Yes, up until this point Ed and I had cracked our knuckles; glared accusatorially; engaged in serious passive aggressive travelfare but nothing had come this close.

After 5 long, soggy travel days and short, sometimes sleepless nights, I had been ready to believe what other tourists said; that travelling in Thailand was super easy.

SO NOT TRUE. As curious onlookers passed by, I vowed there and then to learn how to say ‘kiss my a**’ in thai.

We had left Myanmar a day earlier than planned to catch the restricted border transit window. Arriving in the border town of Myawaddy, the Thingyam party was still raging. Teenagers in pick up trucks hosed us down to the tune of happy hard core. There was no respite when we arrived at the Myanmar customs office. Swigging from cans of Myanmar brew, the officers wished us Happy New Year and painted Thanaka (a yellow paste made from tree bark) on our faces. Does it to without saying that they poured water over us?

As we walked over the friendship Bridge to Thailand, residents of both countries were partying hard in the Moei river below. Thingyam in Myanmar is known as Songkran in Thailand and we found out pretty soon the same water throwing traditions count. Soaked, again, we ate our first pad thai as the locals queued round the block to get their turn at a good soaking.

The next day (the day of tears) our travel nightmares began early. Before 10am we’d been bullied onto 5 different buses across 4 different destinations. For all the jostling crowds in India at least there elbowing is done with good humour! Sour faced bus conductors and giggling 12year olds delighted in shunning our questions or simply informing us ‘No’. Of course, it turns out the bus driver that made me cry bullied us onto a minivan which eventually took us to a place where we could make a connection to Chiang rai.

So here we. In Thailand. The home of 711 stores, tesco lotus and gigantic pick up trucks. One of the buses we went on even had seat belts that you were expected to use or risk being fined!

With only a few days to transit NW Thailand, I realise that it is unfair to cast judgement, especially when trying to travel during the UK equivalent of Christmas Eve, but I’m not too sure about this place. Why do people come here? It’s too much like home with way too many ‘massage parlours’. I’d like to understand more about the perception of tourists and what the Thai people think about westernisation.

Maybe I’ll come to Thailand again one day but for now we’re escaping north to Laos.