I only realised the extent of our boredom when we created the "Ball and Teacup Championship", which was, quite literally, aiming a paper ball into a teacup. My GAP Adventures group and I had been aboard a junkboat for two days, gradually sailing along the Mekong River from Laos towards the north of Thailand. The first few hours had been a novelty, and once we had stopped appreciating the scenery, we put a teacup at either end of the boat, rolled up a paper ball and drew up a league table.
The second day, we asked the captain's daughter for a cooking lesson and the junkboat family collected ingredients from a river town. As my friend jotted down notes for her Thai cook book, I watched a quarter bag of sugar being poured into a pot of chicken. I had a look at the label of the next packet being used - it was MSG. Whether or not this is what authentic home-cooked SE Asian food tasted like didn't bother me though; it was delicious.
The junkboat was comfortable and surprisingly spacious. Although it's two days lost in travel, it's a good experience if you can afford the time. I used the opportunity to reflect on my travels so far, do a spot of planning for Japan and rest my legs. Many travellers cross the border in this way and it also provides money to the junkboat families. To rent a private junkboat costs 600,000 Lao kip (Dh268).
The boat docked at Chiang Khong and we boarded a smaller boat to cross into Thailand. The first thing I saw was a 7-Eleven. As the bus approached Chiang Mai, I saw a Burger King, McDonald's, Starbucks and a Tesco opposite my hotel. The brands were back. Ironically, a block down the road was a night market full of knock-off goods. I stayed well away. What I was looking forward to in Chiang Mai was a visit to Tiger Kingdom about 30 minutes out of town. Depending on which tiger (from baby cubs to giant tigers) you'd like to visit, prices range from 520-960 Thai baht (Dh59-109). The baby cubs were great fun but stepping into the giant tiger's cave, paranoia visited me and I had images of the tiger shredding off my arm. This stunning animal looked spectacular sprawled across the grass. I lay on its beautiful striped back for a quick photo and got out of its habitat as soon as possible. The experience was well worth it, as are the photos. The photographers are around the animals all day and capture up to 200 high-quailty natural images. They even managed to make me look relaxed. It was a worthwhile experience and I recommend a visit to Tiger Kingdom early in the day when the tigers are cooler, in a calmer mood and less hungry!
View On the road in a larger map
Nearby Tiger Kingdom, there's also a park offering an opportunity to shoot targets with M16s and bungee-jump over water. I had already enjoyed my dose of badass in Vietnam shooting an AK-47 and as for bungee jump, I was saving that for a time after Kilimanjaro, perhaps to compliment my planned skydive in New Zealand. After travelling on a fair few trains and spending two days on a boat, I was ready to get places fast. We flew into Bangkok and as soon as I had landed, the scams began, just as they had done the first day I touched down in Bangkok one month previously. Bangkok has always been a staple destination for backpackers and I can see why. It has a rich culture, wonderful food and a fantastic location as a hub to explore the region or Thailand's southern beaches. Khao San Road may have even given rise to the "backpackers' street" culture. This road has everything a budget traveller needs: hostels, money exchange, slogan T-shirts and, at the time, a buzzing international World-Cup fever.
Naturally, where there are tourists, there are scams. A seemingly helpful local will tell you one temple is closed and the Grand Palace opens soon. You walk towards the Palace only to be told the opposite by another local. Once I adopted the approach of doing the opposite of what a local said, and I found the sights just fine. The city wasn't easy to navigate around and I found even the taxi drivers weren't great with maps or insisted on taking you back to the hotel the long way around.
On my last night in Bangkok, I said a sad farewell to my GAP group on backpackers' street and got into a taxi to get back to the hotel, pick up my bags and head to the airport. Despite showing the map in dual text to the driver, he didn't know where it was. This happened in the next taxi too, and then it began raining. The next taxi driver nodded and started driving, albeit in the wrong direction. I asked him to stop the car and he continued to drive. Luckily the traffic had slowed him down so I began to leave the car. He attempted to grab my bag and I thumped him on the shoulder and got out of the car, frantically checking my bag for my wallet and phone. He had managed to get away with 500 Thai baht (Dh55) that was in my other hand.
A lovely Australian couple who had witnessed the episode got me back to the hotel in time for my taxi to the airport. I'd like to say that I enjoyed Bangkok but sadly, the capital and I didn't get along too well. The shame is, it really wasn't the city's fault. It was the few scams that ruined Bangkok for me, especially on the last day. North Thailand was a wonderful experience and I would like to visit the southern beaches at some point but if I can avoid passing through Bangkok, I will.
My Indochina adventure had come to an end. I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the region, but I suppose that's a sign of how much I enjoyed exploring it. Booking with GAP Adventures helped me get from place to place hassle-free and was a great vehicle to meet some fantastic people. On the one hand, I would have not seen anywhere near as many places had I gone on my own. On the other, there are places I would liked to have stayed longer, but couldn't. It was easy to forget that my Indochina adventure was part of a greater, round-the-world trip.
Cambodia and Laos are the countries I'll most likely return to first and it will be interesting to see how they change thanks to increasing development and a rapidly growing tourism industry. Now that I've had a taste of the region, I'd feel comfortable returning without booking a group-travel package. When I do go back, things will be, as many of the signature T-shirt slogans I have seen put it "same same, but different".
Glad to have made it to Bangkok airport on time, I opened up a map of Japan's rail network and began plotting my next route. Next week: Ismat visits Tokyo on the next leg of her journey around the world