The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
Emerging from the arrivals gate I eventually spotted the travel company's representative, nicknamed 'Rabbit' (she assured us we wouldn't be able to remember or pronounce her real name) she would be our local guide through Thailand and Laos. Once the other four Brits who were arriving on the same flight had assembled we changed money into Thai Baht, bought bottled water and were loaded into a minibus for our journey into Bangkok.
The drive in revealed a modern city, at first glance no different from anywhere in the world. As we got closer to the centre and descended from overpasses there was more decorative Thai script on display but still most of he signs and advertising were in English. The roads got smaller & busier until finally we drew up outside the Royal Princess hotel, our base for the first two nights of the tour. Room keys were handed out and we dispersed for showers and naps, although I made sure to set the alarm in case my body clock decided that, despite the sunshine, it was actually the middle of the night.
Gathering in the lobby later on we introduced ourselves to the rest of the group and, under Rabbit's supervision, went through a lot of the paperwork for the tour. We were a group of ten - three British couples, one Canadian couple, an American woman who had quit her job to see more of the world, and me. Nicole, the American, was in her 30s but the rest of us were all in our (late) 50s or 60s and (apart from me) retired. As we chatted (and continued chatting at a group dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening) it felt to me like a nice group of people, three of the couples had been on several such tour holidays before and all of us were obviously looking for something deeper than a few weeks in the sun. As I headed up to bed that night I felt reassured that I'd be spending the next month with, if not kindred spirits, at least people with some similar outlooks.
Canalside houses, Bangkok
The next day had the first of our 'activities' - we drove down to the riverside where two long motorboats were waiting to take us on a tour through some of Bangkok's canals. The cool breeze as we sped along at water level was a refreshing change from the dusty heat of the streets and as we wove through the narrow waterways we were presented with a more rustic (at times verging on ramshackle) face of the city. At one point we stopped by a Buddhist temple where, in exchange for a donation, we were given some whiter than white bread rolls to tear up and feed to the fish who, obviously wise to this routine, appeared in great numbers to snap up the offerings.
From the quay we walked to the Grand Palace. This, probably the biggest tourist attraction in Bangkok, had originally been on the itinerary but had been removed following the death of the king in October, and then reinstated when the palace was reopened to foreign visitors a short while before the start of the trip. Whether for security or simple logistics (there were thousands of Thai mourners there to pay their respects) vehicle access was severely restricted so we had a long walk through very busy streets and then two security / ticket checkpoints before we made it to the palace itself.
The Grand Palace is a wonderful collection of amazing buildings but this was not the best time to be visiting it - several parts were fenced off for mourners, the remaining area was chock full of tourists, and the midday sun beat down relentlessly. Rabbit's leadership skills turned out to be a little wanting, a couple of times I turned to take a picture and had to search to find the group again, by which point she was halfway through the next set of details & instructions - a pattern that would recur during our time with her. Thai (as with the other languages we encountered) seems to be more vowel-focussed than English and the last consonant in words was often lost which made it very tricky to follow, at one point we were passing through a (very tall looking) tea plantation before she clarified that it was a teak plantation. Luckily this was the limit of her shortcomings, Rabbit was invariably positive & enthusiastic and when push came to shove she always got us through the various situations we encountered.
From the palace we had another long walk through city streets to our next destination, the Wat Pho temple complex. Along the way there were several small stands handing out free water & food, obviously there to cater for Thai mourners visiting the palace but happy to hand out refreshments to all & sundry, even obvious foreign tourists like ourselves. In a sweet reversal of roles I offered to take a group photo for a uniformed group of Thai visitors, with smiles & gestures we overcame the lack of any common language, a method that served me well through the following weeks.
Evening temples, Bangkok
Wat Pho was everything that the Grand Palace wasn't - spacious, uncrowded and serenely peaceful. Not as gilded but just as beautiful with tall stupa towers, ornate & multicolour roofed temples, and statues of Buddhas & various mythological beings. After our allocated hour there I wasn't ready to leave so I waved the group goodbye, figuring that a walk back to the hotel might be a nice alternative to the minibus.
After part exploring, part idly wandering in the temple I worked out a route back and set off towards the hotel. Shortly afterwards I found myself being hailed from the road - it had taken that long for the group to walk back to the minibus and navigate through the busy streets, fortuitously choosing the same route as I had decided on. The park I'd planned to visit had been closed and it was hot & dusty on the pavement so I hopped in and was driven back with everyone else.
That evening Rabbit led us on a much more pleasant walk through the cooler and considerably less traffic-filled streets to a quite upmarket restaurant for a group dinner. The tour included breakfasts but we had to find our own meals otherwise, often the leader would suggest somewhere but as the trip wore on we became more confident in making our own discoveries, eating in various combinations depending on people's appetites & preferences. This evening's restaurant had excellent Thai food (although one green curry was so fierce it took two of us to finish it) but sadly a very loud (& very cheesy) band who made conversation very difficult and were studiously ignored by all the diners, local & foreign.
Sunrise over the pool, Chiang Khong
Next morning we were up for an early start, driven out to the airport munching our packed breakfasts and soon flying north to Chiang Rai. After the urban pressure of Bangkok this was a delightful change, rolling countryside with fields of exotic crops - pineapples, rubber trees with their little cups, teak (not tea) trees, and, of course, rice. Along the way we pulled over to watch locals harvesting a rice field with a splendid contraption that could be configured for a number of different tasks - a great example of practical technical ingenuity.
Traditional band playing at Chiang Rai airport
We stopped at the Golden Triangle, a viewpoint showing the meeting of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos with the Mekong river flowing between them. This had obviously been a tourist attraction for quite a while, after admiring the impressive gateway framing the view I found five or six older ones in similarly picturesque locations. From there we visited the Opium Museum, neither as informative or as condemnatory as I'd expected, and a Buddhist temple on the riverbank with an impressive & eclectic collection of statues, crowned with a giant golden Buddha serenely overseeing everything.
Our hotel for the night in Chiang Khong was very nice but obviously aimed at the Chinese tourist market, there were clocks showing Thailand and China time and several Chinese dishes on the menu. I'd not really thought about the proximity of China to this part of the world but Laos shares a land border and, as we were to discover, both Chinese investment & tourism are very extensive throughout the region. The staff at the hotel restaurant were clearly more comfortable with Chinese than English but once again smiles, gestures & pointing got us through the language barrier.
Thailand had been full & busy, although this had eased in the north. Tomorrow we were crossing into Laos, a country I had very few impressions of - what would that bring?