Third time tigers

Today would be my third visit to the Tiger Temple after one touristy excursion and then a week working there in 2006. And things have changed. A lot.

Again, there may be repetition in this post compared to the earlier ones, but I will try to highlight the differences. First of all, a few points to note about anyone visiting – get there early. Virtually every trip from Kanchanaburi runs from 2pm to 4pm. If you do this, you will miss out on a lot. Get up there for 11am if you can. This may mean hiring your own transport or getting the public bus up, but it is worth it.

The public bus runs frequently from the main bus station and costs pennies, but drops you on the main road – a couple of kilometres walk away. Making your own way by moped is certainly an option if you have access to one. Cycling is a long way so bear in mind the distance and the heat.

The most common way is to get a converted flatbed with seats in the back and fill it. Drivers usually charge for the trip, not per passenger so the more you get (maybe a capacity of 10) the cheaper it is. These are the vehicles used for the organised tours.

After breakfast, we met Sam himself – the owner of the Rafthouse and two other places in the area. He’s Thai, fluent in English, and an incredibly nice and helpful chap. And a qualified pilot. With his own airfield out near the Tiger Temple. Cool. He called the taxi driver we’d used yesterday  and he gave us a good price for a return trip to the Temple. A few minutes later he was sat outside waiting for us and we hopped in with all our luggage.

The trip up was fun, watching the usual sights. The first thing I noticed that was different was the road running from the main “highway” to the Temple itself. Two years ago it was unpaved dusty gravel. Now it’s tarmac, with walls in some spots as well. Money is definitely being spent. At the Temple itself, parking is more organised, a couple more buildings are in place and the price had risen to 300 Baht for entry. You still have to sign a “these are tigers and might rip my throat out and I realise I can’t sue monks” declaration before entering.

Entering the Temple itself, the pathway up to the cages has changed a little. What used to be the female accommodation for volunteer staff now seems to be administration offices. To the left is the start of (I guess) the “wild” area where future tigers will play without human interaction. This wasn’t there last time I was here. Neither were the larger cages for the cubs with play areas. Or the waterfall. Or half of the tigers, come to it – they’ve had quite a few births since I was here in 2006.

One of the things you’ll miss if you go up late is being introduced to the smallest of the cubs. Leah got to cuddle one of these little beasts while I took photos. The largertigers were introduced and the tourists taken down in small groups to the Tiger Canyon area. The opportunity was given to “walk with the tigers” and have photos taken with your hand on the tiger’s back as it is led down by one of the monks.

More changes were visible at the Tiger Canyon. Guests are spoken to more frequently, there’s more organisation and more rules. Basically it seems more “touristy”, but this also means more organised. The tiger “teeth” on sale for 30 Baht last time are now 100 Baht and you can buy belts as well. Also, to have a photo with a tiger’s head in your lap is now 1000 Baht. Previously, this was done on spec – you got one if you wated long enough and were lucky. Still, there was a huge queue for these photos – the only ones where you can get more than one person in a picture. The other photos are still free, so don’t worry if you can’t afford to fork out £15. Water is still ice cold and free!

Fancy doing what I did for a morning? Mucking out, feeding the cubs and having breakfast with the monks? 4000 Thai Baht to you, guv’nor.

So, yes, it’s more regimented. It’s more of a “tourist attraction” than it was. But costs rise and there is definitely money being spent on the place. I can only assume that someone upstairs has started to look seriously at the money situation and these decisions have been based on getting the work done that has been the aim of the project since the start.

Oh, and no – they’re not drugged. As ever, I heard this… crap being whispered by various tourists. Here’s hoping this makes it onto Google: The tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, are not – and I repeat in big letters with italics NOT drugged, doped up, tripping or otherwise maltreated in any way. The only drugs they get are for medicinal purposes (vitamins, antibiotics or anabolic supplements such as clenbuterol and others)

Yes, they look dozy when you visit. They’re used to people. They’ve just been fed. It’s the hottest time of the day when tigers, by their very nature, will sleep. Watch one of them being walked down to the canyon when it’s not in a good mood. Or how fast the staff move when one of them rolls over and could – just could – be about to “play” with a tourist.

They. Are. Not. Drugged.

Soapbox now goes away.

Our driver dropped us off at the bus station in good time to jump on one of the aircon buses for Bangkok. We had one transfer partway along the route where I panicked when I didn’t see my luggage being shifted between buses – all was fine, though, and we got to Bangkok South bus terminal in good time. There’s a new shopping mall at the terminal that we walked through (and had doughnuts in). The information staff were very helpful indeed, giving us various options for getting into the city.

We chickened out and opted for the taxi. Bus is cheap but would have taken ages.

In the evening we popped back to the cinema (so cheap!) and watched the surprisingly good Hancock. Will Smith does it again. I had my fears with the stories of reshoots weeks before it was released, but this is a great bit of cinema. No classic, but good fun.

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Arrival in Bangkok. Again!

Our flight arrived dot on time and Leah started to perspire the moment we hit open, humid air. Hot weather is not her strong point! Immigration was a breeze and once we’d grabbed our bags it was a matter of deciding how to get into Bangkok proper. The BTS link is not complete yet (due to be finished next year and it’ll make the journey incredibly quick and cheap), so the options are meter taxi, limousine or airport bus. The bus had gone up to 150 Baht from 100 Baht with the new airport being further out of the city. A meter taxi is far quicker and not that much more expensive (traffic conditions dependent) so we went that route.

Within half an hour or so and less than 400 Baht lighter we arrived at the Indra Regent. We’d picked somewhere nice for the first couple of nights because it’s Leah’s holiday. And I liked the excuse to have somewhere posh for once. The room was nice, the staff polite, everything sparkly but (as expected) with no free internet. What is it with posh hotels that they can’t give you something like that for free, whereas the cheapest hostels seem to?

It was early evening by the time we settled in and unpacked. Outside the hotel we hopped in a tuk-tuk to a place around the corner (it was chucking it down, so walking wasn’t an option). It wasn’t cheap, but the setting was nice and the food was pretty good. After a beer and some chow, we dodged the drizzle and got a BTS to the Paragon centre where we picked up tickets for Wanted. Not a bad little film. If you switch your brain off and just watch the pretty colours.

We had a fairly early night as I had quite an important appointment the next morning.

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Quick trip home

Gammon and Brown AleFriday was a short day in the office until Chris drove me to Geneva airport for my Bristol flight. I’d opted to get my passport sorted in Newport so I could catch up with some people I’d otherwise not get a chance to see on my next trip home. Passing through security and so forth at Geneva was a breeze, though my flight was delayed around 45 minutes due to congestion over Brussels or something. Ah well. My PSP and a few episodes of Dexter helped while away the time.

The late landing meant that Talia was left hanging around at Temple Meads station for a little longer than planned. Of course, due to those ludicrous rules on mobile phone use I couldn’t contact her until I did land. Bristol airport‘s website stated that there was a train to the city centre. This is a lie. I actually emailed the airport and asked about it as I couldn’t find any information on the fare. They told me to check with Great First Western who manage the route. Only they don’t as it doesn’t exist. A quick glimpse at Google Maps shows that it would be a hard route to maintain what with the complete lack of train tracks anywhere near the airport and all.

Instead there is an overpriced bus service. According to the web site, the airport is 7 miles from Temple Meads. To me, that’s 10-15 minutes and a couple of quid. The buses have “£5” written on the side. The timetables claim £6 and the actual cost, I believe, is £7.

So I walked out the main entrance onto the A38, stuck my thumb out and inside of 5 minutes had a lift from a nice gentleman heading home after returning from Aberdeen. Conversation was polite and he asked if I’d been working a season in France, and which company for. It turns out his son started at one of our hotels in December, but quit after two months as he didn’t get on with the manager. Small world.

I beat the “express” airport bus into Temple Meads (saving £7 into the bargain), and met up with Talia who had waited patiently. We walked to The Crown, the local metal pub, where I enjoyed a rather welcome bottle of Brown Ale and a proper pub-grub gammon steak with chips. Well cheap and very tasty, though I did have to explain to the barmaid what a bottle of “Dog” was. I so need to get that tattoo done.

We partook of a few more beers before heading down the road to Bristol Bierkeller, or “The Keller”. This is a place I’ve heard of as it’s normally on the tour list of mid-size metal bands who play the UK. Three quid in before 10pm and “free” shots with every pint. OK, so they charge more than the pubs for a beer, but they make up for it with the shots. The music was pretty good and I think I wrenched my neck from head banging without warming up. I am so unfit. Talia settled for getting mindbogglingly drunk and wenching at all and sundry. She’s good at it.

I think we finally crashed around 4:30am. A good night, but a big mistake as we had to be up before 8am to get to Newport and the passport office. Somehow we surfaced, though not in the finest of fettle. The transport was typically expensive, over £2 into the town from Talia’s, then £4 each (booked online in advance) into Newport. Aside from the passport office, there’s nothing in Newport. At all. As far as we could find, and we had over four hours to not find it.

Sure, it was a giggle watching the 12 year olds pretend to be tough, and trying to not stare at a fully grown man wearing a blue shell suit (I thought even Scousers had banned them now) but overall it was a pretty dire experience. I usually take photos of places for the blog, but there was nothing at all worth taking a photo of. At all. Nothing.

Thankfully, Anni joined us for a couple of hours to help maintain the sanity as we slowly slipped into the world of the non-hungover. She regaled us with tales of the kitties and we had a (soft) drink in a pub up the road from KFC. Oh, yeah. I may have had KFC for breakfast. Ahem.

Sadly, I couldn’t get in touch with Joe. For some reason we couldn’t get through to her mobile even though I definitely had the right number. I checked with her when I next caught her online and we can’t figure out what caused the problem as her phone had been working all weekend. Neither of my texts got through, and calling her on Talia’s phone gave us a “Number not in use” error. Weird. I tried emailing her from the free email terminal in the library, but to no avail.

Finally, after one interim trip to provide replacement photographs, my new passport was ready. £123 well spent, I hope. And I have my old one stuffed with visas and stamps as a souvenir to be proud of.

The trip back cost us twice the price of the trip there (obviously…?) and we headed right back to Talia’s where a comfy couch and snoozage awaited. In the evening, we opted to go an see Iron Man. A decision we’re both glad to made as the film pretty much rocked. A little formulaic, but well made and with a nice line in dry humour. Excess popcorn and Pepsi killed my appetite for sausage and chips on the walk home and I was curled up in my sleeping bag by 11:00. I watched one more episode of Dexter before nodding off, though.

Sunday was a complete chill-out. The household was up and about pretty early on with various family members dotting about doing various things. To pay my rent, I crushed the contents of the bins. Talia’s mum picked me because I had my whacking big 1000-mile boots with me. Such things as bin-crushage are requires as they live in one of the areas where the council will only collect every 2 weeks. Not very helpful when you have six permanent residents in the house, one of whom is pregnant and due in the next couple of months. I can see that bin overflowing all too soon…

By mid-afternoon I’d managed to get hold of Lisa, Indy’s wife. They were in Wales having a break from life down under, and it would have been mad not to go and see them. I thanked my hosts for the comfy couch and made my way out towards the M4. On foot.

You can walk a long way in a residential area without anyone stopping to give you a lift. I walked from Talia’s place, all the way to the edge of the city centre, under the Clifton Suspension Bridge and another mile or two up the road before finding a layby and deciding to stay stationary. Give or take 6 miles with not more than the occasional *beep* and a wave. I waited another 45 minutes before a nice girl (with a hangover, I think!) called Imogen drove me up to the M49 turnoff. She picked me up as one of her friends had hitched for years until he had a child and suddenly realised that he had responsibilities. These included being somewhere when he said he would be. Sadly, she was heading north up the M6 so I had to wait for another lift.

And wait.

And wait.

Until after another 45 minutes or so, a red van pulled up. I can’t recall the driver’s name, but his little Jack Russell was called Max and he was adorable. My driver built eco-friendly housing for a living, and got Max from his mother, a social worker. One of the old ladies she looked after passed away and Max went from home to home until the shelter basically put him in “last chance saloon”. I hope he enjoys the next few years with the Red Van Man. Nice chap!

I got dropped off at the M4/A449 junction and began walking into Newport (again), giving Indy a call to let him know where to find me. At last, I had a lift and we stopped at Porky’s in Pontypool on the way to his in-laws for a pizza. Definitely a good pizza place. It doesn’t have a web page (I checked) , but just chuck “Porky’s Pizza Pontypool” into Google. You’ll find it.

And finally to Lisa’s parents’ place. Sadly, it was gone 21:00 so both little girls were in bed, but I had a chin-wag with the grown-ups before a fairly early bed. And sleep after the mandatory episode of Dexter.

In the morning I got to see Megan again for the first time in over a year. And her new baby sister, Carys. Carys is about the same size Megan was last time I saw her. Both are just lovely, and spoiled rotten. By all accounts, Megan’s a great kid. Indy could only tell me of one occasion when she’d thrown a strop. Good parenting and lots of luck! Cerys is just lovely and I did the usual thing of getting all broody again.

Time passed too swiftly, but the long trek over there was more than worth it to see them all. Indy very kindly drove me to Bristol Airport for my return flight. Checking in here was far more intimidating and annoying than at Geneva. Longer queues, more oppressive staff, scarier warning signs. I swear we’re looking more and more like the 51st State (and more and more paranoid) every time I go home.

Not too impressed with the airport, either. You don’t even know what gate you need to be at until it actually opens, which is a little unhelpful. Internet is a pound for ten minutes, which is just insane given than it’s free in so many other countries. The loos are tiny, the waiting area far too small, and the shop queues spill out into the queues for the gates. Whoever designed it didn’t seem to realise that planes seat more people than minibuses.

Regardless, the flight was on time and I was into Geneva and outside into the parking area in less than ten minutes from the doors of the plane opening. The benefits of travelling with hand luggage only.

And so, back to work for my last few days. I’ve got enough food to last me till Friday (more than enough, actually – I’ll have to give some away), just enough work to do to keep me busy and plans to make for when I’m back in the UK next week. Know me, and want to remind me to visit? Use the Contact Me page or the comments!

Bucharest inside and out

I’ll be honest – it was just too darn hot. In the morning, after a teeny amount of sleep, I just had to get up to escape the stifling heat in the dorm. I showered, and didn’t feel much better as I only exchanged the hot sweat for hot water.

The main tourist sight in Bucharest is the Palace of Parliament, an enormous building built at huge human cost by Ceausecsu. Homes were flattened to create the huge open space required for its foundations and the planned promanade in front of it. It’s still around 10% unfinished, but amongst the largest buildings in the world. There’s no denying it’s impressive, but in the heat I wasn’t about to circle it to find out excactly how big it was. I’d also been told that the tour was a little dull (for every room, the guide just tells you the dimensions, material the carpet is made from and what the room is used for) so skipped that and just took some exterior photos.

I walked around for an hour or so until I found a shop selling postcards, then sorted some stamps from a Post Office (there’s a novelty – every other country in Europe seems to sell them from gift shops or tobacconists). Off they went into the wild postal yonder and I headed for a (very) nearby cinema to finally catch Transformers in the big(ish) screen. Pretty enjoyable in a “my brain has turned to cheese” kind of way. Bizarrely, despite the film being brand new, the print used seemed to be scratched to hell and even jumped a couple of times. I suppose it’s just that whole “Bucharest” experience.

Like Cluj, the cinemas in Bucharest all seem to have one screen but each show a different film. I noted that another was showing The Shooter and walked round to that one after scarfing down a McD’s. OK, so it’s hardly touristy but it was so cheap and I did miss it in Oz (the film, not the McD’s). Great film, by the way. Probably full of factual holes that would make any any military person weep into his dress uniform, but I don’t care.

I located a pizza place with the help of the kind staff at the hostel and ate as much of that as I could before collecting my things and catching the last bus up to the airport. My flight checkin was at 5:00 and the only other option was to pay for a room for about 4 hours, and a taxi. Cheapskate that I am, I’ve developed an ability to sleep on concrete and tile floors.

Pirates. Yar. And pics.

Not a lot to report today as I spent most of it getting those blog posts done! Noa and I went to see Pirates 3 at the cinema this evening, by way of a promenade offering a very pleasing night-time view of the eastern side of the Old City.

The cinema was mobbed, including two groups of students dressed as pirates saying “arr” a lot. Good grief.

The film was OK, but a bit too complicated in the middle with all the double-crossing and so on. That’s not a spoiler – if you’ve seen the first two it’s more of the same. Just more of it. If you’ve not caught it yet, the I recommend watching the second one immediately before so you remember what’s going on.

I’ve also uploaded a ton of pics (up to date) to FotoPic so go peruse!