Thai downtime

Thai downtime
Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand


We use a few days in Bangkok to wind down following our encounter with Northern India. Indeed, when I look at our proposed onward itinerary through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos my first thought is ‘what a long way.’ I’ve never looked at a long-term itinerary and thought that before. For her part, Kaili detoxes in Siam’s glitzy malls. She gets a facial and a pedicure. It takes an early morning departure from Hua Lumphong Station on a train bound for the Cambodian border for the adventure batteries to replenish themselves. After all, it’s a sleeper train from Bangkok where my rail travel obsession started… January 2014 The disco ball is the first thing I notice. A disco ball in a rail-bound dining car?! It rotates above one of two uniformed waitresses as she effortlessly flicks the cap off another beer and sets it down next to a regiment of empties. She’s tall and slim. What is probably a pretty face is heavily covered in make up. Her rowdy customers, middle-aged local men, toast her above the dining car’s clickety-clack soundtrack. Lipstick-smeared lips part in an encouraging smile. She knows what she’s doing. It’s a bit sleazy but, thinking with our stomachs, my girlfriend and I squeeze into a vacant booth anyway. Presently a menu appears and we point at a couple of the blurry photographs, all variations on a curry and rice theme. I order a beer. Other than us and the ****** Thais, there are a couple of fifty-somethings across the narrow aisle. Also guys. Westerners, with lank greying hair hanging down over their leather jackets. Their table is similarly adorned with bottles of Chang, their manner similarly boisterous. Suddenly Abba comes blaring out from a stereo at the far end of the carriage. The waitress responsible for this Swedish outburst does a compact twirl in the aisle and cheers erupt under the disco ball’s kaleidoscope. Our cheers and olés are strained, a little desperate; extra effort and alcohol goes in to make sure the night turns out ok. The nearest leather jacket says he and his mate are Canadian. I tell him my Dad is too, but once we’ve established they don’t know each other the conversation flops. Instead we drink, listen to Abba’s battle with the clatter of the rolling train, and clap along as one by one the locals stand and jig along with the waltzing waitress. Her colleague looks on impassively, one hand on the stereo’s volume control. Just another night on the Bangkok to Surat Thani sleeper. Very early the next morning I come to in the open cabin we occupy with a saffron-robed monk and a Welshman called Heff. Everyone else is still asleep as the train trundles on. Miraculously, I’m not hungover. As dawn breaks it slowly reveals silhouetted palm trees and jungle. My first time in Asia, I’ve never seen anything like this first hand. Transfixed, I sit up as much as my hard lower bunk allows and watch the day emerge in deep oranges as reds. *** The inspiration brought about by that January sunrise was no epiphany or immediate life-changer, but it was at least a match struck in a cave, the first experimental brush stroke. I can now trace much of what has happened since to that sunrise, that clear, perfectly-formed moment of solitary contentment on the rails somewhere in Southern Thailand.


Shah Jehan’s Delhi

Shah Jehan's Delhi
New Delhi, India

New Delhi, India


Night falls in the labyrinth. Deep in the bewildering alleys of Old Delhi, life is dampened by the darkness. We are by now accustomed to the endless push of Old Delhi’s traffic – livestock, scooters and people – cramming into smelly under-sized paths amid the waves of daytime heat. We are gradually learning to expect and manage the constant clamour for our attention and our tourist dollar. After dark though, the same warren takes on a sinister, foreboding aspect. Tuk-tuk drivers lounging on their vehicles, kids playing on the filthy streets and the last few vendors still at work all watch us pass in silence, waiting to see what we will do next. First though our self-made walking tour takes us to Delhi’s Red Fort. A Mughal ruler was judged by the superiority and aesthetic dominance of his buildings, so it is no surprise to confront a daunting red sandstone wall looming over the bedlam on Netaji Subhash Marg. One of many drivers trying to persuade us to explore Old Delhi on a tuk-tuk presently flings himself in front the jostling traffic so we can cross. We do so very self-consciously. Meanwhile a suddenly immobilised van driver remonstrates wildly with our impromptu traffic warden. Despite the hysterical gestures and reddening face the guilty party is largely ignored. “I wait here!” our hero calls to us as we leave him on the other side of the road to pick our way through the fruit juice vendors between us and the ticket counter. Finally we pass under Lahore Gate, through a small bazaar and into the expansive fort. Built under Taj Mahal sponsor Shah Jehan’s rule, it was the main royal residence until the mid 1800s. Later, the British took over and dumped a series of ugly army barracks within the grounds. Canoodling young couples dotted around the green spaces between the numerous pavilions are also a modern addition; in Shah Jehan’s fort his harem operated behind secretive lattice screens. These subsequent encroachments as well many additional British ‘alterations’, obscure the history of the place. It’s challenging to picture the Shah addressing his subjects from the pillared Hall of Public Audience with faded colonial-era military quarters and teenagers cuddling up over smartphone videos before it. From the wide open fort we brave another dicey road crossing and plunge into the nearby scrum of Old Delhi. A dahi bhalla stall is waiting for us in the mass of humanity and automobiles. Fried flour balls soaked in thick cooling yoghurt are ladled onto plastic plates. They look disgusting but one messy bite is instant relief from what’s outside. Then, with the sun dipping, we trace an ancient route to the magnificent Jama Masjid, another Shah Jehan creation. Paths fanning out from nearby Maliwara Chowk abruptly disappear at ****-stained concrete walls or into small but heaving markets. Bemused store holders and passersby of all ages help us backtrack. The original owners of Karim’s Hotel, tucked away in a side alley off the road to the mosque, cooked in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor. The juicy, tender kebab Kaili watches me devour there would still be worthy of a ruling palette. The hour after sunset sees us searching in the gloom beyond our map for a legendary Old Delhi dessert. Our goal is mango kulfi, Indian ice cream encased inside a cold mango. When we finally locate it, this superbly refreshing sweet is plucked from a huge cool box and diced by a rotund vendor who seemingly couldn’t care less. We devour it perched on deckchairs in a small alcove behind his position. He watches us depart for the hostel expressionlessly.


What to do while the touts aren’t looking

What to do while the touts aren't looking
New Delhi, India

New Delhi, India


A free city tour starts as soon as we have paid the tricksters at the “Government ticket office” for tomorrow’s scammy trip to Kashmir. While the tour itself isn’t worth £150, it does feature a deliciously air-conditioned car and a driver called Sanesh to manage the navigating. We visit: 1. Laxmi Narayan Mandir, a huge Hindu Temple 2. Gandhi Smriti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi lived the final 144 days of his life, where most poignantly his last steps prior to his assassination there are precisely recorded on the ground 3. New Delhi’s imperious government buildings, a sudden reminder that we are in a capital city. These sit at the axis of Rajpath (King’s Way), what was designed to be India’s Champs Elysée. India Gate (6.), which we pay a quick visit to at the end of our tour, is visible at the other end of this dramatic road. 4. Lodi Gardens, including 15th century architectural wonders Mohammed Shah’s Tomb, Tomb of Sikandar Lodi, Shisha Gumbad and Bara Gumbad. 5. Lotus Temple, rising out of the surrounding gardens and pools as if it was a lotus flower in a pond, is thus probably more aesthetically pleasing from above. Inside we sit in silence and take in what we’ve learnt outside about the Bahá’í faith that it represents. Not having to negotiate sweltering Delhi between the sites is a real novelty. However, I fear the main purpose of the trip was to distract us from our ill-judged investment for the bulk of the day.


Centre Tours and Travel, Connaught Place, Delhi

Centre Tours and Travel, Connaught Place, Delhi
New Delhi, India

New Delhi, India


New Delhi train station is notable for its touts and con artists. They are mostly set on preventing tourists from reaching either: The International Foreign Tourist Bureau, the place to buy onward railway tickets from Delhi using the ticket quota set aside for foreign tourists Or: The official Indian Government tourist office at 88 Janpath, Connaught Place Our plan is to use the station bureau to buy tickets on the scenic narrow-gauge from Kalka up to Shimla, one of the most prominent of the old British hill stations. Indeed, the colonial government was moved here from Delhi for half the year while the weather got too hot. Your polar bear author very much likes the sound of an escape to the cool Himalayan foothills. Upon arrival in Delhi, we leave our kit at a hostel close to the station and set off on foot. Battle with the touts is joined about 15 minutes from the station, on Asaf Ali road. We are approached twice by well-dressed middle-aged men who both speak excellent English. Smooth, friendly and curious, they both help us with our route to the station but both mention Centre Tours and Travel as an alternative to the tourist booking office. The first is particularly adamant that going to ‘Centre’ first is best, but we ignore his advice. Inside the station we are untroubled as far as the general ticket counter, where they tell us to go right and down the stairs. At the top of the stairs there is an official-looking guy looking like he is checking tickets. He moves to block our path. “Do you have a ticket?” “Er no. We are going to the ticket office.” “You can’t go down there without a ticket. Besides, the ticket office is closed in the station now. You need to go to the government ticket office on Connaught Place. Ask the tuk-tuk driver for the Ministry of Tourism.” Even after two years as a traveller it still takes a few hours to understand that the Ministry of Tourism is actually Centre Tours and Travel and nothing to do with the government. And the official-looking ticket checker works for Centre. Likewise the tuk-tuk driver. In that few hours we enjoy a tour of Delhi’s main sites by car courtesy of the agency we still believe to be the Indian government booking office….after we’ve parted with £150 each for a trip to Srinagar in Kashmir. The trip offered by Centre is, according to later online research, real. But so too the endless hidden costs and threats for not contracting them for over-priced guiding and taxi services. At the last minute, feeling like chumps, we decide to cut our losses and book the next suitable flights out of India. Enough is enough.


Jodhpur – Delhi

Jodhpur – Delhi
New Delhi, India

New Delhi, India


April 27th marks two years on the road. Dep Jodhpur Junction: 27 April 19:50 Arr Old Delhi Station: 28 April 06:40 On the run to Delhi we meet a young Indian couple in our cabin who ask a few questions about our travels. They aren’t particularly effusive about Shimla (our proposed final destination in India) before we all get our heads down to sleep. In return we learn that he has a ‘government job’ (it’s clear we aren’t to pry further) and that he is posted all around the world. She rather defers to him on all matters of conversation. Meanwhile the train clacks and bumps its way towards Delhi, arriving perfectly on time through suburban tracks lined with slums. The metropolis awaits.


Thali belli

Jodhpur, India

When we have many things we do, we make time to eat. When we have nothing much to do, we make more time to eat. Jodhpur was essentially the impressive Mehrangarh fort, so we very quickly moved on to exploring Rajasthani cuisine. 

The Rajasthani thali for royals. Clockwise, we had the harayali sheesh kebab, paneer in a creamy garlicky curry gravy, spicy vegetable jalfrezi, roasted aubergine and onion bits in a tangy chutney-like tomato-based sauce, light soupy dal, basmati rice, 2 hot and springy butter naans and 1 chewy roti. 

A rooftop oasis: Jodhpur

A rooftop oasis: Jodhpur
Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India


The tuk-tuk that meets us at Jodhpur station whisks us through stall-lined streets of the old city narrow enough that we could do the shopping from our taxi while stuck in traffic. If we were in the market for spices, thick padlocks and silks that is. These streets are no less full of life than Varanasi’s riverside alleys but the lack of cows, flies and river smells is immediately a relief. I am charmed, despite the usual cacophonous bustle of Indian city living and the hot air straight from the desert. Our hostel, tucked away in a blue-painted side alley, is a beautifully decorated inn with a stunning rooftop view of the Mehrangarh Fort on one side and the old city on the other. We check in and head up straight away to enjoy a Rajesthani thali and the view. We have the rooftop to ourselves. From the old city havelis the call to prayer rises up; the effect is immensely atmospheric. The next day we explore the imperious fort, now housing an excellent museum. Thanks to the audio guide included in the ticket price we hear interviews with the current royal family, background on Indian societal values and detailed descriptions of the captivating Mughal architecture and art on show. That evening we sit overlooking the bazaars around the city’s clock tower with some sumptuous Rajesthani cuisine. The laal maans, a rich and spicy lamb curry from the region, is particularly delicious. Jodhpur doesn’t keep its tourists busy once they’ve breached the fort’s huge battlements but nonetheless it is unquestionably the jewel in our India itinerary.


Jaipur-Jodhpur

Jaipur-Jodhpur
Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India


Dep 11:30 Arr: 18:20 A largely unremarkable journey through the midday heat in another very quiet air conditioned coach. Distinguishable only by the intervention of a couple of conversational Chileans and the scenery’s gradual shift towards desert dust. Touts at the station try to convince us that its main gate lies elsewhere, but the tall brick shroud gives it away and we find our pick up quickly.