Friday, 4 October 2019

Slow boat from Thaton to Chiang Rai

To get from Thaton to Chiang Rai, you have only a few options if you aren't driving yourself.

You can take a sorngtaew to Mae Chan, then change to another sorngtaew to get you to the highway leading to Chiang Rai. You may have to change again at this point. The drivers are typically very helpful and will ensure you get the right connection, but you should expect this trip to take at least 2 hours, possibly 3.

Your second option is to take the tourist boat. It leaves every day at 12:30, weather and number of passengers dependent. The boats won't run after heavy rains have swollen the river (as there are some - usually very minor - rapids), and they also need a minimum of 4 paying passengers (400 baht per person). In low season, there are often not enough passengers, so you'll have to pay for the extra ticket(s) if you want the boat to go.

The trip took about 3 hours when I did it, and passes some pretty scenery, but the boat has only slightly padded benches, so it is a bit hard on the bum.

In Chiang Rai, the boat docks at the CR Pier, by the Maefarloung Alley bridge, about 3km NW of the clocktower in the centre of town. There may be the odd unofficial taxi driver waiting at the dock, but you can also walk into the centre in 30-40 minutes.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

A temple and monastery in Thaton

Next up in my tour of Northern Thailand is Thaton, a small riverside town about 175km NE of Chiang Mai.

It's a pretty setting, on a bend of the Kok river, just a couple of kilometers from the Burmese border. The town boasts a large number of hotels and restaurants for such a small place, and presumably is (or once was) a popular stopping over point for backpackers, as well as hosting visiting tour groups from China, and weekending Bangkokians.

The riverfront, with Inter View Guesthouse in the centre

However on my visit, during a midweek in early October, very few tourists were about; many of the hotels were either closed, or almost deserted (I was the only guest at my small guesthouse).

The main attractions in the town are visiting the hilltop temple (Wat Tha Ton), relaxing with a meal and a beer at one of the riverfront restaurants, or taking boat trips down the river towards Chiang Rai.

Night falls over the monastery and bridge

I was actually a little disappointed by climb to the temple. You climb up through 9 levels of the hill, through forest, encountering various buildings and shrines at each level. Before visiting, I'd read the Travelfish description which mentioned paths and staircases that connected the levels, past pretty gardens and multiple viewpoints. Those paths and staircases don't appear to exist - at least not any more - so 90% of the climb is actually along the road.

Great views from part way up

There are three access routes from the town to level one. The only one still in use is the road access, just west of the 7-11. There are also two old staircases, but neither is maintained. The first one is reached from the small road that runs along the riverbank, across from the police office. You'll pass a couple of houses, then see a run-down gazebo / shelter. Next to that is a small overgrown path, that leads through long grasses to a staircase that winds up through a fake rock grotto to emerge at the Goddess of Mercy statue on level one. One section of this staircase has been overgrown with a massive vine, so necessitates careful foot placement, but the rest of the stairs are largely accessible.

I do not recommend trying the third approach, which is the one signposted from the road. You'll see the blue and white sign (in English and Thai) posted on a wall east of 95 Coffee and almost opposite the phone shop, half hidden by a street food vendor. It directs you down a small alleyway, past a gym, to a staircase. The staircase looks quite overgrown. I decided to climb it anyway.

I'm an idiot.

The third approach

As I climbed, it just got more overgrown. I wished I'd brought a machete by the time I emerged at the base of the dharma school, where the giggling novices thought I was hilarious for coming up that route.

(They thought it was even funnier when I then stopped and spent 5 minutes removing about a hundred burrs from my clothing).

The dharma school on level one

Level one also includes a coffee shop, a gold chedi, a large carpark, and several other monastery buildings. A short flight of stairs at the uphill end (or a short road) leads you to level two, with a small ordination hall and a few small bungalows for monks.

This is where the steps end. From here, it's road all the way up.

Level three is home to a large seated Buddha. Four is home to the meditation centre (topped with another big Buddha), and five to seven is primarily a residential area for monks. Eight is the main pagoda, a flashy and modern afair filled with donated artifacts and stupendous views. This level also includes a large carpark, a friendly cafe (they gave me free drinking water, when I turned up drenched in sweat from the climb), and several large dragon/ naga statues. Note: Travelfish is wrong when it says the pagoda is on level five.


The views and some of the structures are very impressive, but I was disappointed in the lack of maintained footroutes; I guess everyone goes up by car or motorbike these days, so the staff and monks no longer bother maintaining them.

A seat with a view, on level eight
Still, the views are worth the effort. Just don't use the third route.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Surabaya, baby!

Surabaya doesn't see a lot of Westerners.

I know this, because I've been asked to pose for 8 selfies in the past 24 hours. Because security guards and traffic cops keep grinning and waving at me. Because old women doing their shopping in the wet market stop to stare and shout "Hello, Mister!" at me (not a Mister, but I appreciate the sentiment).

The town centre has good pavements (so you can walk confidently on many roads, without worrying about falling into an open drain, tripping over broken paving stones, or bumping into parked motorbikes). The streets are often lined with flowers and trees, and there are many attractive old buildings to admire.

Arab quarter

Old meets new (meets cancer-stick advert, ptooey!)

There's a 1950s Soviet sub to scramble through (remember to duck), an evocative Dutch cemetary now used for grazing goats, and a small museum dedicated to Dr Soetomo (one of the founding members of the Indonesian nationalist movement, that worked towards independence) - drop in. The friendly staff will be delighted to see you.

Dunno what bunny topiaries have to do with Soviet subs...

Mmmm, cozy.

When you're done with exploring and history, there are modern shopping malls filled with brand names and iced lattes avaiting you.

Spot the goat

Food-wise, there isn't a particular "eating district" but there are restaurants and food stalls scattered across the city, from tiny coffee carts to Pizza Huts (often next to each other). Local specialities include rawon (a curry made from a type of black nut, which has to be pretreated for days or weeks to make safe to eat), and rujak cingur (a dish of blanched and fresh vegetables, fruit, tofu, cold rice cakes and almost-tasteless chunks of gelatinous cow nose, doused in spicy peanut sauce).

The cow nose is at the back

For tourists, this is a small big city - you can comfortably explore it in one day. But it's a pleasant town, and worth breaking journeys across Java here.

But I'd eat around give the cow nose.

Friday, 9 August 2019


Coming from the frantic traffic, noise, and dust from Yogya and Solo, Semarang felt like a breath of fresh air (quite literally - the air quality had been terrible in the Yogya ogya / Solo area).

Ostensibly a city of 1.8 million people, the main areas of interest to tourists are quite compact. In the north, you have the old town (Kota Lama), and 2.5km south you have the business and commercial district.

Kota Lama is a halfway gentrified district, prone to frequent flooding and popular with Indonesian tourists. Expect a real mix: there are gourmet coffee shops, selfie props, and restored old buildings that have been lovingly turned into bijou art galleries.

There's also non-restored, crumbling buildings that probably should have been condemned, but which are still home to desperately poor people, who will probably have no where else to go, when the gentrifiers come for their house.

And what appears to be a massive multi-storey car park going up almost next to the famous church, because of course there is.

Ten minutes walk south of the old town, you find Chinatown. There is apparently a sizeable Chinese minority in the town, and the neighbourhood boasts a large night market that fills Jalan Gg. Warung with food stalls every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening.

Twenty minutes further south (also spreading SW), the commercial district offers shopping malls, good value hotels, a village that turned itself into a rainbow to attract tourists (if you visit, please ensure you buy food or drinks from one of the little shops or caf├ęs in the village)...

... and Lawang Sewu, the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Railway Company.

Meanwhile the city boasts an extremely confusing bus system, good pavements for walking, and a very friendly population who don't see that many Western tourists.

I liked the city.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Solo in Solo

Roughly an hour away from Yogyakarta by train, Solo gets a tiny fraction of the international tourists that Yogya does. It's a crumbling city, filled with good food, low key sites, and motorcycles.

The town centre is quite spread out, and the local buses are less foreigner-friendly than in Yogya, so exoect that you'll probably be doing a fair amount of walking (watch your footing, as most streets have no sidewalks and just crumbling and potholed shoulders for you to walk on).

As you wander about, you'll pass friendly locals (surprised to see a Westerner), crumbling colonial buildings and palaces (filled with rotting antiquities)...
Keraton Kasunanan Surakarta (one of two royal palaces in town
- the other one is in better condition)

Crumbling and dusty objects within the palace

Small street in one of the kampung batiks (a traditional batik-making area, now acting almost like a collective to attract domestic tourists and shoppers)

...half abandoned new buildings (I get the feeling recent years have not been good to the local economy)...

On Slamet Riyardi street

...a fantastic batik museum showcasing thousands of pieces of antique batik, the opportunity to peek into the workshop, and highly knowledgable tour guides (plus, if you have been inspired by what you have seen, you - of course - exit through the gift shop)...

In the workshop of House of Danar Hadi

...and finally, more good food than you can shake a stick at, in one of the best eating cities in central Java...

Nasi liwet at Nasi Liwet Bu Wongso Lemu

At Omah Sinten

If you can manage to tear yourself away from the food, there are a few temples in the pretty countryside outside Solo that make a nice day trip.

I only had time to visit one of the three, Candi Sukuh. It's sometimes referred to by touts and taxi drivers as "the erotic temple", but it's really not. It's attractive, almost Mayan looking, and boasts a number of interesting reliefs and statues, a few of which have big penises. But hardly sufficient to get your granny in a tizzy.

The easiest way there is to hire a car and driver. It is possible to travel out to near the temples by bus, but the bus drops you some distance from the temples, needing to hire an ojek to get you the final few kilometers up into the hills. The roads up are steep and bendy, so I don't recommend hiring your own motorbike and attempting to self-drive unless you are a highly experienced driver.

To get there by public transport, head to the main bus station (Tirtonadi, a bit north of the main train station, conveniently connected by an elevated walkway). Catch a bus to Karangpandan, where you can change to a small minibus towards Kemuning. If you tell the driver which temple you want, he'll tell you where to alight. Expect really surprised locals on the bus.

From Kemuning, it's 6-7km to Candi Kethek and Candi Seto. There's normally an ojek driver hanging around where the bus drops you, and you'll probably have to pay him to wait while you look around the temples, as the sites are not very popular and you may otherwise have a hard time finding someone to take you back into the town (Grab and Gojek don't have any drivers out here).

The stop for Candi Sukuh is just under 2km ftom the temple, so in theory it's walkable, but it's uphill all the way there, sometimes quite steeply. I hired an ojek to take me up. Momma didn't raise no fool.

Getting to Solo

From Yogya, you can reach Solo by bus, but I always think the train is a more civilised way to travel. There are several mainline services a day to Solo, but they tend to be fairly expensive. Much better value as the Prambanan Ekspres trains (Prameks for short) which run from Yogya to Solo via Prambanan roughly every 90 minutes. They aren't listed on the main train schedule and ticketing website, although google maps includes them on the schedule from Yogya's main train station. You cannot purchase Prameks tickets ftom the self-service ticket machines at Yogya station, nor can you buy them from the hectic and busy main customer service and ticketing hall. Instead, you need to go into a separate, much quieter hall next door (on the left of) the main customer service and ticketing hall. No, I don't know why, either.

Saturday, 3 August 2019


Long treated like a poor second sibling to Borobudur (it used to be cheaper to visit, but not any more), Prambanan is super easy to reach from Yogya.

You can take one of the Prambanan Ekspres - aka Prameks - trains (for details of these, see my Solo post) or bus 1A which runs down Malioboro, along the north end of the Kraton, and then heads east, past the airport to Prambanan.

Popular with local tourists, and students looking to practice their English

The temple complex consists of the main grouping (surrounded by piles of stone that were once hundreds of smaller temples), plus 3 other temple complexes within the greater park area.

The reconstructed temples (and what a jigsaw that must have been) are filled with reliefs of animals and plants, and most of them allow you to go inside.
For some reason, this reminds me of my brother and me as kids....

The other temple complexes (Candi Lumbung, Candi Bubrah and Sewu temple) are all considerably quieter than the main complex, and you can easily find a quiet corner to take a break. 

One of Sewu's big boys

Pack a sunhat or umbrella / parasol, as the site offers little shade - I believe you can rent parasols there - I certainly saw plenty of abandoned ones around the complexes.

If coming by bus 1A, the bus drops you off at a small depot on the other side of the main Solo-Yogya highway.

Cross the road at the lights, and walk in the direction of Solo. You'll pass 3 gates. The first is locked. The second is a staff entrance. The third is the pedestrian and motorbike entrance to the parking lot. Go in here (the 4th gate is around the corner, where cars can go in) and cross the parking lot, angling a bit left, to see the entrance pavillion and ticket offices. The foreigner ticket office is on the far left of the pavillion, and has the last clean, Western-style toilet you'll see (I suggest you use it). Once you've paid your extortionate fee (350,000 IDR; you can buy combined tickets for Prambanan and Borobudur that save you a little money, but they're only good for 2 consecutive days, so you can't spread out your visits out avoid getting over-templed), and been given your photo-bearing entrance ticket, head out back to the welcome area to claim your included cup of tea or coffee (well worth paying 10x the local price!).

I have no idea what they spend all the vast amounts of money from ticket sales on.... it certainly isn't on cleaning the public bathrooms away from the tourist entrance....

Yes, the temples are ludicrously overpriced, but they're also incredibly impressive. So clench your teeth, pay the money, and go.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Yikes! Yogyakarta

The main base for visiting Borobudur and Prambanan, Yogya sees a lot of tourists.

There's no getting around that fact, nor the consequences. Walk around the streets, and you will be assailed every ten feet with the calls of "Taxi, taxi," or "Where are you going?" or "Hello, batik?"

It will get very wearying within the first few hours.

The main roads are filled with rushing traffic, dust, and becak drivers.
Stick to the backstreets as much as possible.

There are some nice corners of the city to wander in, and the old water palace is attractive, and there is some good eating (although, with the amount of sugar involved, staying here long-term would probably cause diabetes).

Signposting is frequently almost non-existent, making it sometimes quite difficult to find your way about, especially around the Water Palace and underground mosque.

The Water Palace (Taman Sari)

Inside the Sultan's Palace

Traditional dance display in the palace
Finding your way to the underground mosque (Sumur Gumuling)

When you leave the water palace, ask the staff at the exit to point you in the direction of the mosque. When you follow their directions, you'll see the dome of the mosque. What you won't see is anyway to get inside. The entrance is pretty well hidden, with no signage.

Continue walking past the dome, and you'll see an alleyway on the right with a clump of trees on the corner. If you look closely, you'll see a small red arrow on one of the trees. Immediately next to the clump of trees is a narrow path heading slightly uphill towards what appears to be a crumbling ruin. There's a bit more greenery on the other side of the path, and a small yellow building.

Take the path, and follow it around to the right, ascending for another 30 feet until you see some steps leading down to an entrance. That's how you get in.

Inside Sumur Gumuling

This is the path that leads to the entrance

Getting to the city from the airport

There are a couple of transport counters in the terminal that offer taxis, but I didn't recognise any of the company names and had no idea how reliable and honest any of them were (no Bluebird here). I certainly wasn't going to trust the dozens of taxi touts who hang out in front of  arrivals and descend on white faces like a pack of hungry wolves (I had one of them following me for 50 feet).

But you have options, although none are as quick as taking a taxi. First you have the TransJogja city buses. They run a couple of routes from the airport to the city centre (1A runs down Malioboro, past the backpacker area, and then passes the north end of the Kraton, before looping back towards the airport. 3B heads south to the Giwangan bus terminal before running west along the top of the Prawirotaman area). The buses have conductors on all routes that speak English and are very helpful at ensuring tourists get on the right bus. Many bus stops also have uniformed staff who will tell you which bus to catch. Buy your ticket from the staff at the stop, or from the conductor when you board at non-manned stops. You can find route maps online (Google map's route maps are not 100% accurate).

Your other option is to catch a train from the airport station into the centre. Please note: ticket booking sites and the railway's website only show the intercity trains that use this stop. However there are also regular Prambanan Ekspres trains (known as Prameks) which stop at this station and run about every 90 minutes, and are not listed online. Google maps will show the schedule. Depending on when your flight is scheduled, trains may or may not work for you.

To get to the train station or bus stop at the airport, look for an underpass in terminal one (it's towards the right side of the terminal, when you're standing with your back to the secure section). If your flight arrives at terminal two (Air Asia uses two) you will need to walk out of the terminal, turn right, and walk 100m along the street to terminal one, then go inside to find the underpass.

Yes, I did eat all that ice cream.
Yes, I did pay for it later.

Sugar rush part 2: gudeg with krecek at Gudeg Yu Djum