Thailand Through the Lens 2013 – our journey, gossip and pictures!

Here is my blog from the Thailand Through the Lens (TTL) winners photography trip, November 2013. Whether it’s travel inspiration you’re after, or you just want to know the gossip, read on to find out what we got up to in Thailand…

Day 1 – The journey: 

I waited eagerly at London Heathrow to meet the three winners of our Thailand Through the Lens (TTL) competition who we were taking on a 10-day photography holiday to Thailand with their brand new Nikon cameras (part of the prize package). Our winners, Gavin, Peter and Marina (sadly our other winner Mel was unable to join us) were selected as the 2012 winners last year based on their photographic skills and we chose a selection of photography styles – Peter has an eye for portraits and people, Gavin for arty, detailed shots, and Marina for landscapes.

Armed and ready to get snap happy! Marina, Gavin and Peter_Kanchanaburi

Armed with my new Nikon camera too (I’m a budding beginner photographer) I was excited to meet our talented winners and get a few handy tips!

Excited to get to know their fellow travel companions (and suss out the competition!) talk quickly turned to photography, their cameras, all the fancy extras (this is where they lost me) and all the exciting places they have travelled to and photographed before. Gavin and Peter were miles ahead in the travel stakes having covered pretty much every continent between them and I discovered it was Marina’s first time travelling outside of Europe. I sensed her nervous excitement and couldn’t wait to get to Thailand to amaze her.

After a seamless journey from London to Bangkok with EVA Air who kindly sponsored our competition and the winners tickets, we touched down in Thailand, a little bleary eyed but excited. Before I could say ‘Nikon’ Marina was bounding out of the airport with her camera already around her neck and snapping the airport architecture. I caught something about “light and shadows” as she skipped past me on the escalator. Suvarnabhumi airport is still relatively new at just seven years old and it’s a modern welcome to the land of smiles.

We were met by Khun Sax, our guide from Destination Asia, who would be my right-hand man for the next 10 days and help things run smoothly. How little did I know how much I would really need him in just five days time…

We received a grand welcome to the Chatrium Sathorn hotel, our city home for two nights. Refreshing welcome drinks, scented cold towels and warm smiles, we checked into our suites (one would have been big enough for all of us!) and after a quick freshen-up headed to the Chatrium Riverside hotel for dinner by the river. Situated right on the banks of the Chao Phraya river the Chatrium Riverside is conveniently located for the pier, Asiatique night market, BTS Skytrain and benefits from the buzz of the river. Busy by day and night there is plenty to watch. We tucked into a buffet dinner at Pier 28 which Marina later described as “that Thai meal was delicious, the best in my whole life!” I couldn’t have asked for a better start to our trip.

After dinner we headed up to the hotel’s rooftop Chinese restaurant, Silverwaves, which boasts the most stunning views out across the river and the city. Blown away by the view we planned to go back the next night to shoot the sunset and ‘blue hour’ which I now know is the hour after sunset (or one hour before sunrise) when the sky is bluer. First photography tip under my belt!

Gavin, Jo, Marina and Peter at the Chatrium Riverside hotel, Bangkok

With a little (OK, a lot!) of guidance from Gavin here is my proudest picture. Ever.

So pleased with my picture (thanks Gavin for the tips!)

Day 2 – Bangkok:

Up and out early to get the best light (and beat the heat) we had a day of Bangkok sightseeing planned. Starting with a James Bond-style long tail boat up the Chao Phraya river and through the klongs (canals) we sped past rice barges and local life. We stopped at Wat Rachanadda, Wat Suthat, the Giant Swing and the Royal Barge. We tucked into a Thai lunch at Supattra Riverhouse restaurant on the river.

Back to our hotel by 2pm with a few hours to relax and download pictures, we were back to the Chatrium Riverside by 5pm to set up for sunset.

From the Chatrium we headed further up the river to one of my favourite spots for dinner, The Deck at Arun Residence. Having visited Wat Arun earlier in the day the team were amazed to see how different it looks by night. Bellies (and memory cards!) full we made our way to Khao San Road, via Chinatown to walk off dinner and catch the buzz of the night stalls. Chinatown was its usual burst of colour and culture as we passed the flower stalls and endless street food hawkers. Khao San road was its usual burst of backpackers and booze. Not one to miss out on the fun (when in Rome as they say) we grabbed ourselves some cold beers and wandered up the strip in awe. And feeling old. Happy to be climbing into an air-conditioned van and our queen-size beds back at the Chatrium Sathorn we all agreed that this is definitely the way to travel!

Spot the dummy!

Day 3 – Making tracks to Kanchanaburi:

8am and we were piling into the van, bidding farewell to Bangkok and heading northwest to Kanchanaburi, the next stop in our itinerary. Just under three hours by road (or by train) Kanchanaburi is a breath of fresh jungle air. The area is teaming with jungle, waterfalls, rivers, temples – it’s an accessible adventurer’s paradise. This part of Thaialnd is also brimming with history as it is, of course, home to the famous Bridge over the River Kwai and Death Railway.

We arrived around 11am just in time to see the train cross over the bridge, but the train was late (pretty normal we were told) and wasn’t due until 12.30 which gave us time to walk around the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery which is the main prisoner of war (POW) cemetery associated with visitors of building the Burma Railway. There are 6,982 former POWs buried there, many British. Across the road is the Thailand–Burma Railway Museum, which provides a fascinating and touching insight into the building of the railway by POWs during the war.

We were back at the bridge with plenty of time to walk along the tracks, across the bridge, and back again before we heard the echo of the train’s horn in the near distance. As tourists leapt and ran out of the way we found ourselves a good spot to shoot the train passing over the bridge. It was such a rush to be that close to the train as it passed over the bridge over the river Kwai.

We tucked into a plate of Pad Thai and chilled Singha beers at one of the riverside restaurants before heading further round the tracks to see Tham Kra Sae station, Krasae cave and one of the most beautiful sections of the railway as it passes the cave and weaves around the mountain side with the river winding below and jungle clad mountain backdrop. In the cave is a beautiful Buddha statue.

The picturesque railway at Krasae Cave, Kanchanaburi

Once again the train was late which gave us time to get some sunbathing in, literally by the side of the tracks. As we sat waiting for the train to come we could hear kids giggling and playing in the river below us.

Being that close to the train and the tracks on the mountain edge as it passed by does not disappoint. To cool off we headed into Krasae cave which houses a Buddha shrine. The cave was formally used as a shelter by the POWs while building the tracks.

Krasae Cave

We headed deeper into the jungle to our accommodation for the night at the beautiful Home Phuytoey, bungalow-style accommodation nestled onto the banks of the Kwai river. Having arrived in the dark we only knew this because our host told us as she walked us through the resort. After a delicious home-cooked Thai meal we headed to bed eager for the sun to rise so that we can see the views from our bungalows. And it did not disappoint. I woke to the sound of a long tail boat chugging past and as I rushed to the window to see I could just about make it out as it passed through the morning mist winding its way up the river.

Bungalow 9 at Home Phuytoey – what an amazing view to wake up to!

The River Kwai winds past Home Phuytoey

Day 4 – A beach within reach:

After a simple breakfast and a morning walk around the resort to explore the lake, hot springs, Tree Top Adventure park and river views we were back in our van and heading south towards the royal seaside town of Hua Hin, via Phetchaburi province, to see the beautiful Phra Nakhon Kiri complex. Not before we made a stop at another train station, largely for Peter’s sake, as it turns out he is a closet trainspotter.

Phra Nakhon Kiri is located 92 metres above sea level and is the summer palace of King Rama IV which stands in a beautiful setting atop wooded hills. Built in 1860 it was named Phra Nakhon Khiri Palace and is known to locals as Khao Wang. On top of the hill are royal halls and temples constructed in Thai, Western neoclassical and Chinese architectural styles. There is a museum too.

The view from atop the hill

The beautiful palace and temple complex on top of the hill

The view from inside the Pagoda

Caught in the act

After another delicious 3-course lunch (the group were complaining about too much food and piling on the pounds but all I could see was empty plates! haha) we headed up the mountain by a funicular. We reached the top and for a moment the monkeys distracted us from the amazing temple and views as they came running out from every direction to say hello. Overwhelming, but in the end funny, we enjoyed the company of the cheeky monkeys as we walked around the temple. I think the guys took more pictures of monkeys than anything else that morning but hey, they are cute!

Couldn’t drag them away from the monkeys!

We continued further south to arrive at the picturesque Hua Hin Hills, home of Monsoon Valley Wine. Set amongst the rolling hills are acres of vines and a beautiful sala where visitors can enjoy elevated views of the vineyards whilst wine tasting or having lunch or dinner.

The Sala at Hua Hin Hills

The first and only vineyard in Hua Hin, this vineyard grows a range of grapes such as shiraz, chenin blanc, colombard, tempranillo and black muscat. After a delicious grape juice welcome drink we jumped into a jeep and were given a tour of the vineyards. Back at the sala we had a table with a view and made ourselves comfortable in time for sunset before enjoying yet another delicious 3-course dinner (choice of Thai or western food) and wine tasting.

They’ll do anything to get ‘the’ shot!

Wine tasting: champagne, colombard white, shiraz rose, shiraz red and dessert wine.

Spicy pork salad washed down with champagne at Hua Hin Hills

Dinner with a view at Hua Hin Hills

Needless to say it wasn’t a straight walk back to the van and feeling a little tipsy we say farewell to the Hua Hin Hills team and make our way to the coast and the Regent Cha-Am resort which was our base for two nights. After a night cap on the balcony of my (huge!) room (over looking the pool and gardens) it was time for bed after another jam-packed day.

Day 5 – Sam Roi Yot National Park, Hua Hin:

With a jungle trek ahead of us a big breakfast was essential (so I told myself!) so we tucked into a fantastic buffet at the Regent Cha-Am.

We headed to the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan and to Sam Roi Yot national park for the day via a rather smelly but pretty and colourful fishing village. Sam Roi Yot (meaning ‘the mountain of 300 peaks’) is a coastal national park which covers 98 square kilometres with limestone mountains, mangrove swamps and beaches. It is also home to various local and migrating birds.

Fishing Village with mountain backdrop

This became a regular sight during the trip!

Armed with water we head off, up and over, the first mountain on our to-do list. This takes us to a pine tree lined beach with just a restaurant on it which made a nice recovery stop. We later had lunch here on the way back.

Sweeping views of the bay from the first mountain climb_Sam Roi Yot national park

Jo & Marina with our guide, Miss Took, who spurred us on up the mountain!

Delicious local Thai lunch on the beach

The second mountain we climbed was much tougher as it was steeper but with the thrill of seeking out the caves we didn’t mind the hard work (too much). And my goodness was it worth it! As we climbed down and through the caves and reached the opening to the cave all of us later agreed that it is one of the most beautiful things we have ever seen, as we stood there in silenced awe.

Excitedly climbing down through the caves to find the Sala

Hat Laem Sala sits in Tham Phraya Nakhon cave which has a big hole in its roof which lets in shafts of light and rain which permits various plants to grow in there too. The Thai style sala is a four porch pavillion that was constructed in Bangkok in 1890 during the reign of King Rama V then dismantled and moved to the cave where it was reconstructed.

Hat Laem Sala – one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in Thailand. Truly amazing.

We retraced our steps back out of the cave, down the mountain, along the beach and back up and over the hill to the welcome sight of our van, cold towels and water. We had the rest of the afternoon at leisure so we dropped Peter off at Black Mountain Golf Course for 18 holes while Gavin hired a bike and explored the local village just by the Regent Cha-Am hotel where he visited a temple and was blessed by a monk. The rest of us (the girls!) chilled by the pool.

A weary but happy, smiling group after our mountain trek!

That evening we had dinner at the Amari hotel by the beach and enjoyed a BBQ fit for a king washed down with chilli margarita cocktails. An inspired cocktail, you get a jug of margarita, your glass and three dishes filled with salt, sugar and chilli so that you can flavour the rim of your glass as you desire. We each braved the chilli flakes and it was great. I’ll definitely be copying that Thai trick at my next dinner party!

Chilli Mojitos – Cheers! Amari hotel, Hua Hin

To round off our evening we headed to Cicada, an art-inspired flea night market with a tropical outdoor feel. It’s a great market for finding handmade products and one-of-a-kind accessories. It’s open Friday and Saturday from 4pm – 11pm and Sundays from 4pm – 10pm. We left the boys at a little bar at the entrance to the market and joined them for a beer once we had spent all of our Thai Baht!

Man Vs. Beer

I love my new necklace!

Day 6 – Highlights of Hua Hin:

Today we enjoyed a tour of Hua Hin’s highlights. We started at ‘monkey mountain’ to see the monkeys, temple and view from the temple across the bay. From there we went to the ‘fake floating market’, a purpose built market about 6kms from Hua Hin centre. At Hua Hin Samphannam Floating Market you can take a small train around the market and a long tail boat across the lake. There are lots of great market stalls and food vendors here. From the market we headed to see Wat Huay Mongkhon, said to be the world’s largest monk sculpture, where many Thais pay respect to Reverend Somdet Luang Poo Tuad Yieb Nam Thale Jued.

Train ride around the floating market which takes you straight to the shops!

After another early start we had the afternoon at leisure and enjoyed lunch at Sawasdee restaurant in the local village, a short walk from The Regent Cha-Am hotel (via the local shops, doing our bit for the Thai economy!)

The cutest way to be serve rice. Ever.

We tucked into a delicious buffet dinner at Regent Cha Am where the seafood platters were proudly displayed on giant ice sculptures. Pretty cool. Literally.

Ice-sculpture buffet at The Regent Cha-am

We arrived at Hua Hin train station around 8.30pm to catch the overnight train to Surat Thani. The Royal Waiting Room on the platform is particularly impressive and proved to be another snap happy moment for the group. The King of Thailand was in residence at his summer palace while we were there so there was a buzz of excitement in the area. He often walks his dog along the beach but sadly we didn’t see him.

Royal Waiting Room at Hua Hin train station

Delayed until 22:00 (I was sensing a pattern here with Thai train travel) we boarded the train in great excitement of our overnight adventure. We picked our first class cabins, made ourselves at home and, having missed last orders at the bar because the train was late, we headed to bed for an early night as the train was due in to Surat Thani at 4am which was our earliest start yet!

First class sleeper cabin

Day 7 – 24 Hours in Chumpon:

I woke around 4am and the train was still. We had stopped at Chumpon station, north of our destination, so I drifted back off to sleep knowing that the guard would knock for us when we were near our final destination. I woke again at 7am (I’ve discovered travelling by train is a great tonic for sleep for me!) and we were still at Chumpon. I sensed that something wasn’t quite right I could never have imagined how the next 24hrs was to pan out…

The view from our cabin for 24 hours whilst stuck at Chumpon station due to flooding

Gavin, Peter and Marina had woken earlier at around 6am and enjoyed noodles, donuts and coffee on the station platform with our dear guide, Mr Sax. I joined the team to discover that both road and rail had been cut off at three points due to flooding. The first, 40kms from where we were. Officials at the station seemed hopeful that the train would set off later that day and that authorities were dealing with the floods and rebuilding the tracks. A freight train even passed us filled with sand and rocks which gave us great hope. So, we spent the day chilling on the train, sleeping and I spent some time on the platform helping stranded tourists, giving them travel advice (my good deed for the day) in between raiding the local shop for provisions.

As the hours rolled by we were filled with hope that we would leave but by 6pm as the sunset I knew there wasn’t much hope. We were then given a departure of 8pm, 10pm and finally midnight. By 1am we were still at Chumpon and so made arrangements for van to collect us first thing in the morning to take us north.

Our 33-hour train ordeal wasn’t all bad though… we raided the station shop (several times!) for copious amounts of snacks, chatted to other passengers, people-watched, played Chase the Ace, polished off a bottle of Sangsom, and several beers, and even gained a new travel companion. We lived on a diet of nuts, crisps, biscuits and crackers with grape jam which luckily Hua Hin Hills had given to us as a gift from our visit to the vineyards.

Our gift from Hua Hin Hills of grape jam came to the rescue!

One way to pass the time!

Tweetie – our new travel companion and something to cheer us all up (who made it all the way to Suvarnabhumi airport where he was denied boarding!)

After another great night’s sleep (despite the obvious worry!) we jumped off the train at 6am, said farewell to our cabins and prepared ourselves for a 10-hour journey by road back to Bangkok.

Our itinerary was supposed to take us off the beaten track to an area called Khanom where we planned to stay at the beautiful Aava resort and enjoy a boat trips, mangroves, fish spa and dolphin spotting but alas this was not meant to be.

Instead the next 48 hours was on a wing and a prayer! A quick phone call to our friends at the Chatrium Riverside and we had rooms on standby from 2pm that day. Phew. To break up the journey, and cure the photographers itchy fingers (they get grumpy when they can’t take photos!) the fantastic Mr Sax suggested a stop at the Maeklong Railway Market.

Colourful market stalls literally on the railway line!

The railway became famous for its route through the Maeklong Railway Market, nicknamed in Thai: Talad Rom Hoop, meaning the ‘Umbrella Pulldown Market’. It is one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand, and is centred around the Maeklong Railway’s track. Whenever a train approaches, the awnings and shop fronts are moved back from the rails while the train passes through and everything is pushed back again once the train has passed. It’s an incredible sight.

We reached Bangkok at 5pm and checked into the Chatrium Riverside. I can not thank the team enough for coming to our rescue. Once we had checked into our suites, with stunning views of Bangkok and the river, the excitement of the train journey was soon behind us and a distant memory / nightmare 😉

Jaded from all the travelling but wanting to cheer everyone up (and thank them for being so patient and understanding!) I arranged for us to have cocktails at Sirocco sky bar on the 64th floor of the State Tower. The panoramic views and mojitos were the perfect way to put smiles back on everyone’s faces.

The Dome at Sirocco, State Tower Bangkok

Amazing view of the city from Sirocco bar

From Sirocco we headed to Sukhumvit and Soi 12 for Cabbages and Condoms. This truly is a fairytale restaurant with its ceiling of fairy lights and we enjoyed a fantastic Thai meal together. Then the heavens opened, and the rain fell hard, washing away our memories of the train journey. We had a night-cap at Q Bar on Sukhumvit Soi 11. The final highlight of our evening was a tuk-tuk race back to the hotel. Boys vs Girls. The girls won. Naturally. The boys said they were just being chivalrous. Whatever.

A fairytale restaurant – Cabbages & Condoms is one of my favs!

Boys Vs. Girls

The winning team!

It’s amazing how much you learn and find out about people when you travel with them. We all got on fantastically well and there were many funny admissions and jokes that cropped up, so as the trip went on I bought little presents to remind people of their trip to Thailand for Thailand Through the Lens:

Kim – a toy foam ball popper gun to warn off cats (existing phobia) and monkeys (a new phobia discovered in Thailand!)

Gavin – Singha beer cooler with can of Singha beer – his go-to drink, whatever time of the day. I threw in a bag of Wasabi peas too as Gavin had shared a bag with Peter at the start of trip but didn’t explain just how hot they were as Peter shovelled a handful into his mouth with disastrous effects!

Marina – cigarettes and antibac hand wipes. The queen of OCD, and only smoker in the group, this was the perfect practical gift for Marina.

Peter – a t-shirt with a picture of a train on it as we discovered, during our stay in Kanchanaburi, that Peter has a penchant for trains. In fact, Peter has only just realised this himself during our trip and is in fact a bit of a train geek, which became a running joke whenever we were near a train, train station or railway (which was quite a lot, to his advantage!)

Day 8 – Back in Bangkok:

Our final full day in Bangkok was spent catching up on sights the guys hadn’t seen before. From the Chatrium Riverside hotel it was so easy to get to the Grand Palace. The hotel’s own boat departs from its pier to the main pier, Central, and from there a river boat taxi drops you at Chang pier for the Grand Palace. As it was Marina’s first visit to the Grand Palace she was particularly snap happy and got lost in the architecture, details and glittering gold designs. By midday it was getting hot so we met for lunch at The Jim Thompson house.

Thai lunch at Jim Thompson’s house

The restaurant is fantastic, serving great food. After lunch we took a tour around the house and gardens and bought a few Christmas presents in the boutique shop. A simple SkyTrain journey took us from National Stadium (right by Jim Thompson’s house) to the Saphan Thaksin stop, where we took the hotel shuttle boat back to Chatrium Riverside.

Colourful Thai silks

Starting to flag after a long week I booked a table at the cute and charming Harmonique Thai/Chinese restaurant not too far from the hotel. A short 10-minute cab journey took us to this hidden gem. After dinner we walked back down Charoen Krung road, via the night market. We finished our trip where it all began on the terrace of Pier 28 on the river at Chatrium Riverside. Over a glass of wine we reminisced about our trip, the highs, lows and bits that I really couldn’t mention here. What happens on tour, stays on tour.

Thai food at Harmonique restaurant

Red Thai Curry – looks good enough to eat! Harmonique, Bangkok

Sad to go to bed as it meant it was finally time to go home, we reluctantly left the bar and headed to our rooms to pack and enjoy our views for the last time.

How many photographers can you fit in a tuk-tuk?

Day 9 – Farewell:

Our guide, Mr Sax, was brilliant. He was informative, fun, kind and so helpful. It was a pleasure to spend 10 days with him and he brought real added-value to the trip answering Peter’s, Marina’s and Gavin’s many questions about all the amazing places we visited. He also enjoyed spending time with us and gave us a lovely hand-crafted gift from his home town of Surin.

He was still apologising, on behalf of his country, for the floods and train delays as we arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport, to take our flight home, which touched all of us. During the ordeal he had spoken with his mum on the phone who said that she would go to the temple and pray for each of us to complete our journey south safely. I just love how thoughtful and kind Thai people are, it’s what makes Thailand so amazing.

Mr Sax has invited us to stay with him and his family in Surin next time we are in Thailand. He has promised us that no trains will be involved in the itinerary.

The End.

If you want to see more of the winners photographs we will be posting The 12 Days of Thailand Through the Lens on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (search thailandreunited) in the run-up to Christmas from 13th December 2013. Let them know what you think, like, comment and share 🙂