Lemongrass, then ginger. My first mouthful of tow yum soup burst with heavenly flavours – before fiery chilli left my eyes watering. Another memory: a masseuse jabbing his thumbs into my spine during a tortuous massage at Wat Pho monastery – yet afterwards I felt as light as a feather. South-East Asia awakens contrasting sensory experiences like no other region. Indochina (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) is a dream to travel through. If you’ve never been to Asia before, the region is a safe, vibrant first footstep onto this continent. People are friendly, food is delicious and it’s excellent value for money.
For those who missed out on backpacking in their early 20s and now have only limited annual leave, it’s easy to plan an independent overland trip here, much of which can be pre-booked online before travelling. So putting my Thai baht where my mouth is, I flew into Bangkok – the region’s most competitive hub for airfares – to travel independently overland to Saigon through four countries in 14 days, plus travel days. My journey across southern Indochina included mighty Khmer ruins, sleepy Mekong countryside and Vietnam’s Reunification Express railway. I even factored in a beach day – well, it was a holiday after all…
BANGKOK. Day 1-2 – WHAM! That’s the sensation of Bangkok hitting you on arrival. Knockout humidity amid earsplitting, anarchic traffic and sizzling stalls of streetfood, as Skytrains rumble overhead. The two days I’d allocated here seemed woefully inadequate. I acclimatised on my first day by taking a public water-taxi down the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok’s dazzling royal and religious quarter. The 18th-century Palace complex embodies a Thai architectural fantasy of enormous golden stupas resembling upturned handbells and glittering multi-roofed temples inlaid with glass and adorned with writhing dragons and serpents. Wat Pho monastery similarly bewitches: here lies a colossal 46m-long golden reclining Buddha with humungous mother-of-pearl feet.
Yet this isn’t rank-and-file Bangkok. So the next day I delved more adventurously into its humbler underbelly before my evening train departure. A day tour by bicycle might seem suicidal given the daunting traffic but Dutchman Michael Hoes has been safely running his Amazing Bangkok Cyclist tours for 25 years. The guide, Aon, soon had us pedaling through nebulous alleyways swerving by streetfood stands and ducking under caged songbirds.
At Khlong Toey market we dismounted to browse exotic produce including smelly one-thousand-years eggs’, which are buried underground for months. Finally we crossed the Chao Phraya to beautiful Bangkachao to cycle on raised causeways alongside khlongs (canals) that irrigated papaya and banana fields. Iridescent butterflies and birdsong lent an unexpected tranquility given the pulsating megalopolis on the other side of the river.
CHIANG MAI. Day 3-4 – he Thai train rattled north through the night. The next morning it revealed pristine hills of hardwood and bamboo forests where I saw an elephant being worked by its mahout. I’d chosen this brief side-visit to Chiang Mai not only because the city is chockablock with gloriously decorative temples within 13th-century citadel walls but also because it’s a well-trodden base from which to explore the surrounding hills, home to northern Thailand’s many ethnic tribes. To really get among the tribes you need days so I’d pre-booked a shorter excursion to visit the Hmong of Doi Pui village. The Hmong are culturally distinct mountain-dwelling animists who range as far as China and wear distinctive embroidered costumes.
On first impressions, Doi Pui wasn’t as I’d imagined. Most of the Hmong wore Western clothing and the village had become a sizeable souvenir emporium of local handicrafts (including the tribal garments they weren’t wearing). However, my interest soared as local guide, Suvachat, took me inside a ramshackle wooden house belonging to a local Hmong woman. In the smoky interior, Mrs Nangcha was drying maize over a burning log. The doorways had high steps to halt evil spirits crawling in on their bellies. She told Suvachat they grow rice on a hillside nearby.
And a little opium. “Isn’t that illegal,’’ I wondered? Nangcha and Suvachat briefly conferred. “Yes,” said Suvachat, “but she says they only grow it for children when they’re ill.” Her response to my question about the marijuana in her vegetable patch was also culturally enlightening. “Mrs Nangcha is growing it for hemp to weave a funeral shroud for her mother -just like an Egyptian mummy,” said Suvachat. He pointed towards the grinning 93-year-old grandma. “She’ll need it soon,” he said. Both Mrs Nangchas howled with laughter.