With the above in mind we sat in Bangkok trying to decide if we would follow our original roughly planned route that would see us in Vientiane, Laos after an overnight train from Bangkok. More and more we were thinking of Cambodia so that we could visit Laos as part of a Northward journey snaking across from Vietnam. For Julia the temples of Angkor at Siem Reap were a big draw card whilst for me the southern beaches of Cambodia sounded interesting. Molly generally just goes with the flow!
So after a small amount of research, I went to the Bangkok train station and booked tickets for Surin, in the North East of Thailand. All that we knew about Surin was that it had an annual Elephant round-up in November and that there were two Thai-Cambodia border crossings to the South of the town that were quiet and rarely saw tourist traffic.
We took a rather leisurely day train, departing Bangkok on the 10.05 am with a little bit of concern that the Red Shirt protests may kick off at any time. The fact that Julia had decided to wear a Red Shirt didn’t seem to put any Thai’s off side with us and clearly there were no problems with protestors as the train departed within 60 seconds of its due departure time.
2nd class train travel was very good with reclining seats, air-con and a hostess (well, actually a host in our case) selling a variety of foods and drinks, most of it more than a little different from what you would find in your corner store but beer is beer and chips are chips (unless of course they are crisps!). The scenery was pleasant although our entire stay in Thailand has been obscured somewhat by the smog of grass and forest fires. We left Bangkok on a day where the smog index was moderate which actually equates to noticeable and unpleasant, one off unhealthy according to the Bangkok Post.
Arriving in Surin, I had a mental map of the town so decided that the best course of action would be to walk around, get our bearings, find what was good and which hotel was close to everything. After half an hour of walking past businesses that you would find in any rural regional centre, none of which were attractive to tourists but all of which contained smiling, helpful locals, we decided to sit down, have a cool drink and let me explore alone. At this point we had seen two hotels but nothing was jumping out at us as somewhere we wanted to spend a few days relaxing.
So off I went, and after doing two street blocks and still nothing, I went into a computer store – clearly if anybody spoke clear English then it would be the people in town keeping up with emerging literature on computer design and technology! Nope, naught, nothing…….except a very good map, hand drawn as I watched and with a clear Thai explanation of the difference between a round-a-bout and an intersection…..I think.
So I went back to join Julia and Molly only to discover that they had been given a very detailed tourist map within 2 minutes of me leaving. Most points of interest were in English….except Hotels!
So off we went, wandering the streets with more of a purpose now. As the sun was starting to set we looked to the west and did one of those typical westerner things in Asia – stopped in the middle of an intersection staring down the street, jaws dropped and unaware of the spectacle that we were. No, not another great sunset, not a crazy moto with 7 people on it and a wardrobe, in fact not even men with guns arguing over a gem sale gone wrong. Coming towards us amongst the traffic was an Elephant! We knew the place was famous for its November Elephant round-up but we didn’t know they were still part of daily life in Surin. It would appear that our reduction in planning had lead us to greater surprises, even if we were probably now missing so many other great attractions.
So after moving to the footpath, we stood amazed for 5 minutes as the Elephant manoeuvred through traffic, was parked at the side of the road like a car and moved on again as if it was a Toyota Corolla (well, more like a 1st generation Hummer but you get the point), we headed off again. We soon found the Hotel that breeds mosquitoes, the Hotel that breeds smart-alec staff and the hotel that offers suites, connecting rooms and studios, all mysteriously disguised as the same room. So for $40 a night we got three beds in the best hotel in town and as it turned out, it was a great hotel. Sure the pool was missing some tiles, the staff spoke no English, the breakfast was bizarre (yep, even by Asian standards) and the papers were 3 days old, but it had views of the bus station, all of the staff smiled and it was so central that even after 4 days there Molly still hadn’t bothered with the cable TV.
Surin was a real breath of fresh air. Not many tourists but a fair number of expatriate guys who have found a happy, relaxing life in this part of the world. When drinking in the evening we were joined by elephants and for a dollar we could feed, pat and talk to them. I assume it has been said and written before but it can’t pass without saying again. Whilst these elephants are basically domesticated, walking behind their handlers without tether or restraint, it is difficult to look into their eyes and not think they are crying out for maybe just a change, for a different life or I expect genuine freedom. That is not to say that feeding them wasn’t a delight – more than just a novelty for us as they are the most curious of creatures, insistent about their food and I guess the largest of all domesticated mammals.