It’s a battle zone out there. I shudder as I see the images on CNN of the Red-Shirts hurling petrol bombs, tyres burning at every street corner, black smoke covering the skyscrapers and the horizon, armored tanks and gun toting commandos running through the empty streets of a ghost city. This is a Bangkok I never thought I will ever see. Always bustling with life – any time of the day or night, Bangkok is like Bombay – it assaults all your senses. There’s pollution, corruption, traffic jam, chaos – yet the city beckons you to return to her, time and again. It is sad that a political crisis had to take shape of a civil war but of course, the issues are intense and we, as outsiders, perhaps, cannot comprehend what pushed these Red-Shirt protestors to hold a city hostage to get their demands met. Also coming from Thai people, who are otherwise, so chilled out, with a typically ‘sab chalta hein’ attitude – very much like us Indians - this battle comes as a shock.
But I am not here to discuss the political scenario in Thailand. Having been there a few times, I thought I would share some travel tips with those who are either stuck in Bangkok right now or have plans to be in Bangkok in the next few days, but don’t know what to do.
Of course, if you can, try and bypass Bangkok on your holiday to Thailand this time. The other parts of the country are still as inviting as ever and with the Army in action, I hope the Bangkok International Airport will be spared this time. Those who have already been booked in Bangkok and can’t cancel, try and stay near the airport. And instead of taking the Bangkok city tour, head out of the city. Believe me, there’s as much to do around Bangkok as is in the city.
Here are some options:
a) Bridge on the River Kwai: If you have watched the 1950’s movie by David Lean by the same name and liked it, here’s your chance to be a part of it. One of the most popular day trips from Bangkok is to visit the Death Railway and the famous bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, and it can take between 2-3 hours to reach from Bangkok, depending on the method of transportation you choose.
If you know your history, you are probably aware of the fact that Thailand was under the Japanese control during World War II. It was here in Kanchanburi, which is near the Myanmar border, that Allied POWs, building the infamous Burma Railway, constructed a bridge. More than half of the prisoners working on the project died from disease, maltreatment and accidents.
Not a very appeasing piece of history, but history none-the-less. And a better option than trying to explore Bangkok amongst gun shells and being history yourself.
You can either negotiate the famous bridge on foot or via a little tourist train which runs a 15-minute round-trip across the bridge and back. It's aptly called the Death Railway.
While you’re out visiting the bridge over the River Kwai, be sure to also check out the nearby War Museum, which contains pieces from the original iron bridge which was destroyed by the Allies.
b)Taweechai Elephant Camp: Thailand is the land of elephants. There are several elephant camps in Thailand and the one present in the Kanchanaburi district is called the Taweechai Elephant Camp. Home to nearly 30 elephants including one born in late 2009, Taweechai offers elephant rides, bathing with elephants, bamboo rafting and special elephant training mahout courses.
Taweechai is conveniently located halfway along the route from Kanchanaburi to Erawan waterfall and so can be included in a day trip to the falls.
c) Erawan waterfall: Erawan National Park is a 550-square-kilometer park in western Thailand located in Kanchanaburi Province. The major attraction of the park is Erawan Falls, a waterfall named after the erawan, the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology. The seven-tiered falls are said to resemble the erawan. Needless to say, a cool break from all the heat that is consuming Bangkok right now.
d) The Tiger Temple: One of the most famous attractions in Kanchanburi is the visit to the Tiger Temple. A monk who started looking after abandoned and injured tiger cubs started this sanctuary, which now charges 500 baht to tourists to take a look at the tigers. If you want to pet them, be prepared to shell out 1000 baht more. Yes, you read it right – you can pet the tigers. If you ask me, I think the tigers are drugged – but still, touching the mighty beast is an experience to cherish for a life time. The monks say that the tigers are habituated to having humans around them, but you can make out that there’s something more to that story. Otherwise, a 300 kg fully grown tiger, letting you touch it and click pictures with it, is really inconceivable.
More than the mighty beasts (which scared the shit out of me – drugged or otherwise); however, the fun part of the trip was getting to play with a couple of 3 weeks old tiger cubs. That the cubs were not drugged was evident from the way they made sure that they’d chew on anything that came their way, including my shoe lace. They were like little pups - playful and full of beans. I so wanted to smuggle one out in my back pack - only if they'd stay still for a minute.
All these trips could be arranged by any tour operator – your hotel should have one. And looking at the situation around, it is perhaps prudent to go through a tour operator, than by yourself.
Try to break up the trip in 2 days – with one night spent on a river house in Mekong River. The cost should come to around 3900 baht per person – for a full-board 2 days 1 night stay.
And then, there’s Ayuthhaya, an ancient city near Bangkok, which I haven’t visited but have heard many tales about. Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam (Thailand) after Sukhothai. Throughout the centuries, the strategic location between China, India and the Malay Archipelago made Ayutthaya the trading capital of Asia and even the world. Today, the remains of the once-impressive ancient city make it an ideal destination for history buffs. In 1991, the historic city became an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its proximity to Bangkok makes it a popular day-trip destination for travellers from Bangkok. You can take a train or a bus, but the best way to go now would be to get in touch with a tour operator.
If nothing else works, stay put in your hotel and indulge in Thai Massages and Thai cuisine. Stay safe, stay cautious and try look at the brighter side – you would have never bathed with an elephant or petted a tiger, had the Red Shirts and the Army not taken over Bangkok.