170km Ayutthya to Pak Chong
“Twenty baht for photo,” said the man on the elephant as he strode past, looking at us hopefully. What seemed like half a house of things – a table, some chairs, a washing basin – was piled on the elephant’s back and we couldn’t help stopping our bicycles to take a better look. That’s when the clever fellow recognised an opportunity and tried to get us to pay for the honour of taking his picture.
We were disappointing customers, refusing to get out our camera and encourage the idea that all tourists have money coming out of their ears. For us it was a wake-up call, that escaping off the beaten path of backpacker hotels and karaoke bars in heavily-visited Thailand was going to be harder than in any country we’d visited so far.
That morning we’d left the city of Ayutthya, famous for its temples, and headed out on rural roads along a small and winding river. Under a beating sun, which had us covered in sweat before 9am, we watched as little by little the population disappeared, leaving just thick forest on either side of the road and grazing water buffalo to look at.
We were just starting to enjoy the tranquility when an intersection appeared and with it a return to civilisation that wouldn’t have looked out of place in California: a whole string of fancy restaurants, wineries, spa hotels and resorts followed along a road that was supposed to boast a waterfall and something called a ‘tree tunnel’ although we didn’t manage to find either of the natural attractions.
When we reached the main highway connecting Bangkok to Thailand’s second biggest city we were even more surprised to be greeted by a Western theme. “Come live like cowboys and indians,” said one sign beside a teepee. If that didn’t tempt us, we could always have lunch at the Chokchoi Steakhouse or go visit Uncle Bill at his Texas Ranch. Was this what Thai people craved or what they imagined foreign visitors wanted?
Near dusk, after navigating around dozens of steakhouses, we found ourselves in front of Grandpa’s Cottages, where a sign advertised bangers and mash as the nightly special. We stopped not for the food but for the campground they boasted alongside the cottages. After asking the price we found ourselves blurting out: “You want how much?”
In hindsight it wasn’t the most polite response but fatigue and shock overtook our good sense as we listened to a figure that wouldn’t have been out of place in Europe. Grandpa wanted 12 euros for his tent pitch; more for camping than we’d paid the night before for a room in a four-star hotel.
“Well, like, we have, like, separate bathrooms for men and women,” our would-be host explained. We weren’t exactly swayed by his eloquent argument and made our appologies to search for something cheaper. Thankfully we came across the perfect little guesthouse just a few hundred meters later and ended up staying to do a tour of Khao Yai the following day.
The entrance to the national park isn’t cheap but the tours are reasonably priced and we enjoyed some trekking and wildlife spotting – snakes, spiders, scorpions, birds and quite a few monkeys but no elephants as they’ve all retreated into the jungle with the rainy season. We’ll do another half-day tour today and then continue on our quest to find the hidden Thailand, if it still exists somewhere out there beyond the steakhouses!