Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chiang Mai Thailand to Luang Prabang Laos - Thailand & Laos

The flight from Phuket was pretty smooth and uneventful.  The Pao Come Inn was the first place that we stayed in.  Although it was very quiet and sweet unfortunately we didn't stay more than one night owing to the beds being like something out of the Flintstones.  We had a little stroll in the vicinity and picked up lots of information on things to do over the coming days.

The next day our priority was checking into somewhere new, we walked a few steps down the road to the Pogoda guest house where we swapped rock hard beds for an extremely smelly bathroom and noisy creaky fan (even the tap water reeked) but it was a step up, our first hot (smelly) shower in days and it felt safe.  The next port of call was a neck, back and shoulder massage which just what we both needed and also very cheap! An ice-cream from a passing vendor later and we were ready to face the day.  We did lots of wandering and in the evening found the suspiciously named 'THC' roof top bar, picture lots of neon and black lights.


We then headed to the 'Night Bizarre' (aptly named) which was geared heavily for the short-term holiday maker with rows upon rows of market stalls lining the street and indoor food and shopping outlets leading to 'Scooby-doo' syndrome where every six stalls you will more than likely see something you saw six stalls ago (so named after the background in the cartoon which kept repeating itself FYI).  Later, Kate got a half hour foot massage on the roadside which cost about one pound fifty and I'm sure that it was worth every penny.

The Night Bizarre

The next day we attended a Thai cooking course.  This involved driving for about an hour, stopping to shop for ingredients at a market on route (I've never seen so many fish in one tank) then on to a farm converted to 'cater' for 10 cooking students.  There were 4 others with us, two Dutch girls and 2 French guys, both couples.  We began by walking round the farm identifying the crops that we would later be cooking with.  It was great fun and time passed quickly.  We can now cook green and red curries, pad Thai, tom yam soup, spring rolls and my favourite being a chicken and basil dish.

Two fish in a tank, one says to the other... How d'ya drive this thing?
Cooking school!
Our dishes (with a bit of help)

On our return there was a Sunday evening market where an entire major road is closed off for more Scooby-doo stalls, although we did see some very interesting and precise soap carving going on which is supposedly a traditional art, it was again all very much geared to sell tat (albeit pleasant) to tourists (I did end up buying a couple of 'home made' t-shirts though...).

Soap Carving
The end result
After we managed to escape the hustle and bustle we parked ourselves outside a small shop and bought a beer to share.  We ended up joining a table of locals who were very enthusiastic about the Thai Whiskey Samsong and spoke no English whatsoever.  The Thai phase book was invaluable and made for a very good talking point! They were extremely polite and jovial, one was winding us up by telling us his friends were from Vietnam and Myanmar which had something to do with their personalities or looks, I couldn't work it out.  One let us read his personal Buddhist book and they were very hospitable, they definitely all took a shine to Kate and asked her to practice lots of Thai phrases!

Hanging out with our new mates

The next day we were collected in the afternoon to be taken up into the mountains where we had booked to hurl ourselves through the canopy on zip lines with a company called 'Flight of the Gibbon'.  A long and very bumpy ride through the hills took us to a wooden hut where we got kitted up with our harness and had a brief safety talk.  We then had a short walk until we reached the first point where we would start the adventure.  There were zip lines and rope bridges and small treetop platforms making up over 2km of wire! The longest line was just below 1km in length and was pretty cool, spectacular views whilst hurtling down a metal rope is not something that can be done at home!
Flight of the Gibbon
Flying down the 1k zipline
With the instructors

That evening we visited a joint English/Thai bar called 'Pinkys' owned by Graham and Fon, after chatting to Graham from Somerset we discovered that he had back bacon and we could indeed look forward to a bacon sandwich the next morning which felt as though Christmas had come early.  We hung out at Pinkys where a rather shabby looking man sold Fon a turtle after convincing her that she was buying his freedom from the cooking pot, he became the new bar pet and was named Sok-Dee (Thai for 'Cheers!'). 

Fon and Sok Dee the turtle
The Pinky's gang and friends

Later we joined these guys and their friends for dinner where we tried two new types of food:

Chicken Feet:  Literally the feet of the chicken cut off at the ankle and kind of stewed in a pot.  The meat around the bone actually tastes like a bland fat and has a similar soft wobbly texture, not a huge fan.

1000 year old eggs: Not literally 1000 years old thankfully.  However, these are chicken eggs which are totally black in appearance and spend at least a week underground covered in ash before being served to hungry Thais.  They tasted a lot like normal eggs that had been buried underground for about a week hence a strong, slightly rotting boost to the flavour, not a huge fan.   

We stayed up until 3am in order to watch Man United beat Arsenal in a surprisingly full American style Saloon bar.  Graham and Fon joined us and I taught her a few songs involving Man City before the game ended and we got home at around 5am for a long overdue sleep!

We had booked a day at an elephant reserve as our activity for the following day.  We looked online to find the most ethical place to do it as many featured dancing, painting and all sorts of stuff that the big grey buggers don't do in the wild.  We found Baan Chang (literally 'Elephant Home') and booked an all day excursion for about 2,400 Baht (50 quid).  There were obviously cheaper options with more commission for the agent should she manage to persuade us otherwise but she reluctantly obliged to send us there!  The morning was an educational update in the most part, our host informing us in pigeon English on how our money goes towards caring for the 14 elephants they had.  Their goal is to buy more land, as although they have a fair amount they ideally need another 70 acres to comfortably house the animals they already have and hopefully more.  We hand fed the elephants sugar cane which was a little scary but great to be up close.  The elephants were definitely used to being around people and all were all looked after by their own Mahout (elephant carer).

Bonding with the elephant
Keeping a healthy distance
In the afternoon it was time to get on, we gave the command for them to get on their knees and we would then literally hop on from the floor and slide down onto their neck completely bareback! It was unnerving at first and certainly not comfortable for us but the elephant didn't seem to mind too much.  We learned a few commands to go forward, turn and (most importantly) stop which were obeyed intermittently, the elephants occasionally wandering off the track to have a snack or scratch against a tree.  One of the elephants was a rescue elephant called Dancing Queen who although having been saved from a less orthodox existence where she was made to dance for spectators, she still happened to do a jig from time to time when we stopped for a break.

After a bumpy ride around the grounds we finished off in a watering hole where we could jump in and give them a bath whilst they would poo and wee out their body weight and the young ones would splash at us with their trunks!   A long shower later, we were dropped off at our guest house, soon after which we ventured out for a full body massage, the best to date and the price wasn't too bad either!  We were heading out the next day so we said our goodbyes to Graham and Fon.

Giving the elephants a bath whilst they did their business all around us!

On Saturday morning we were collected in a minibus to begin our 3 day journey to Laos.  The first part was a 5 hour ride in the minibus with a German group and a couple of Swedes.  The guest house was fine but the staff weren't too friendly.  A few people paid for the internet which didn't work and when asked to refund the money they were reluctant to say the least.  A terrible breakfast with scrambled egg which actually tasted of soap was served before we boarded another minibus to get to the harbour where we would be going on a Long Boat for 6 hours.  Before we could get on this boat we had to take a smaller boat across the river to Laos border control and pay 36 USD for the visa.

Finally we boarded a crowded boat at around midday, sitting up front in the open air with mainly tourists but a handful of locals on board too who would get dropped off at small villages along the way.  The journey felt long but the views were spectacular along the Mekong River.  We stayed in a small town called Pak Beng that night and had a nice meal, cooked supposedly by the mother of the gentleman at front of house, sampling Laos cuisine for the first time which was very good and worth the wait!  The grilled red snapper and traditional soup were very tasty indeed, but it officially had the worst toilet to date! The host was nice and we borrowed his jacket as it got a bit chilly, had some free Laos rice 'whiskey' then we met up and had drinks with some people from the boat, some of whom were also staying at the same hotel and it all turned into a bit of a late one.

We just managed to hop onto the 10am boat as it was pulling out (which actually left at 9:45, thank you travel gods) after having some great bagels (the French influence here means that these guys know how to make breads and pastry) and having even more made up for our lunch.   We subsequently overtook the earlier 9am boat with some satisfaction!   The weather was much nicer and made the views much better.  The highlights of this 8 hour journey were the lush scenery which was like being inside the cover of a national geographic magazine, whilst also having local tribes wave down the boat and allowing us to get glimpses of their villages as they hopped on and off.  At one point we saw a captive elephant dragging an entire tree behind it.

On a slow boat to Laos

Having arrived in Luang Prabang, we were astounded to find the majority of hotels on the doorstep asking for around 30 or 40 USD per night, probably because some people pay it! We eventually found a place to stay for 80,000 KIP (a convenient 12,650 kip to the pound) which was great and it had a hot shower, fan and a clean bed!  There are lots of families and short stay holiday makers here which is probably what has pushed the price up.  Chatting to locals makes it clear that this town was very different just 5 years ago but the positives as to why it has become a lot more commercial still remain.

It is obvious to see why people stay here, the town is gorgeous with a strong French influence resulting in attractions such as great food, bakeries dotted around and a great mix of traditional but well-kept temples and buildings.  The fundamentally Laos laid back culture predominates, including a strict 11pm curfew (the shutters come down and aside from the tuk tuk drivers the town grinds to a deathly quiet standstill). There are some great bars here, I even had a kitten sat on my shoulder in Lao Lao bar where there were open log fires and it was a great place to meet people.  We did however use my football sniffing skills and manage to find a bar showing the big match, perhaps they would have stayed open but alas the game was postponed and they booted us out and shut up shop.  With this being our first experience of the curfew we had some difficulty finding our guest house and getting into it!

Another highlight of Luang Prabang is a relatively large and bustling night market that has a lot more interesting produce and knicknacks.  We spent some time looking at Lao snake whiskey, a small cobra suspended in a bottle of questionable liqour which we dared not buy to try but apparently if you have a dose every day you end up big and strong!  An amazing value food market also appears each night with great point and eat options including some more interesting foods like chicken head!

The Night Market in Luang Prabang

Our Dinner

Not our dinner

Tea sets for sale in the Luang Prabang night market

Snake Whiskey 'Mae you stlong!'
Yesterday we watched the sunset from a temple which was gorgeous.  There were views of the Mekong and the sun setting behind the hills from the temple was something to behold. 

Sunset in Luang Prabang

Mulled wine with friends

That night we also found our new favourite bar called Utopia.  The bar has its own self-contained beach volleyball court and overlooks the river.  We plan to head out tomorrow but have had a great few days here in Luang Prabang.  Our new aim is to find a better place to do some trekking and hopefully experience some tribal 'homestays'.  These types of thing are offered here in Luang Prabang but we are closer to busy towns and a smaller percentage goes the tribes themselves.  Our next stop is the town of Muang Xai in Udomxai province as we head north to Luang Nam Tha which is home to thick forests and 23 tribal ethnicities and a great place to visit the Akha, Hmong and Khamu villages.  We have bought 40 dollars' worth of books, 30 books in total from a charity called 'Big Brother Mouse' aimed at promoting literacy levels in the more rural areas of Laos.  The charity encourages travellers to pass these on to families and schools when venturing further afield and along with pens and paper will no doubt be gratefully received by whoever we end up staying with.

I'd like to end this lengthy post on a big fat plus, because of the French influence and recent influx of tourists to Luang Prabang we are able to get our hands on some cheese and a couple of bottles of not ridiculously priced red wine which for some reason is like gold dust in this part of the world.  We aim to have these on Christmas day wherever we end up staying!   

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Krabi (Railay), Co Phi Phi, Phuket - Thailand

Our journey to Krabi town begun with an overnight Ferry from Koh Tao.  Not really knowing what to expect, we opted to cover ourselves with the expectation of a chilly air-conditioning that often accompanies the long Bus journeys but we were in for a surprise.  The boat was probably closer to a prisoner transport vessel but thankfully minus the shackles and casual beatings.  A long, hot room with a low ceiling filled with rows of thin and narrow mattresses, each with a number painted on the wall behind them awaited us.  However, the travel gods smiled on us again and for a reason which we still can't work out we were marched through this section to another separate room with only 6 mattresses but was otherwise empty after we killed a cockroach.  We didn't overpay for the privilege as we chatted to people on the open top truck/van/bus thing we arrived on who had paid the same.  Having the room to ourselves was a blessing as we could spread out and have a good sleep.  Once we arrived in Krabi we got a bus to some sort of depot, where we arranged our transfer to get out of town in order to go coastal again, opting for a place called Railay.  

We had time for a stroll whilst we waited for the transfer and were pointed towards a thriving early morning market.   There were all types of food for sale, not all of it recognisable!  Stalls were selling all sorts of wonderful seafood, we saw beef being chopped up with the tail still on and even some whole foetal-like hairless chicks which were fairly disturbing.  Another short (and rather scary) open top truck/van/bus thing ride took us to a small harbour with the guys perched on the rim of the truck along with our bags and all the girls crammed in the front, much to the amusement of the local school kids riding their mopeds en masse in our wake.  A small taxi boat then picked us up to take us to our drop off point at Railay with countless beautiful islands to be seen along the way. 

Checking out a cave in Railay
Railay is absolutely gorgeous, even more so than Koh Tao.   Renowned for its rock-climbing, you are surrounded by limestone cliffs and rusty looking caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites overlooking the beaches making for a stunning place to chill out and swim.  There was the odd sting from what people were saying were tiny jellyfish which felt like a pinprick.  Using the masks we bought in Koh Tao, we could see some of the fish swimming about beneath us and we actually saw a pretty big Cuttlefish which looked as though it came from another planet!  It hung around for a while and then disappeared before it found itself on the menu. 

Climbing a rope up a muddy bank

Beach at Railay

Beach at Railay

Beach at Railay

For some reason Railay has a resounding Rasta vibe, the bars pump out reggae music in the evening and the locals are very laid back.  We stayed in basic beach-hut style lodgings with no real view even though we had to climb a multitude of rickety wooden stairs, but each hut had a hammock on the porch which was totally apt and the price was excellent for what was a relatively touristy location.  Our favourite meal here had to be the shark meat on skewers cooked 'en papiot' on a charcoal BBQ although we also tried barracuda which was nice too. 

The harsh stairway to the guesthouse

Kate in the hammock of our guest house hut

On our second day we climbed up a steep hillside in order to reach a viewpoint from where it was possible to see both bays which was tiring but worthwhile!  On both days we bumped into large gangs of monkeys who seemed harmless enough but the locals didn’t treat them too kindly.  In the evening our new favourite hangout, the Rasta 'Yaya bar' had a scheduled Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) fight which whilst I'm certain was a promotional exercise for the club, the fighters definitely had their pride at stake and weren't pulling any punches, or kicks to the head for that matter.

Local monkey

One of the fighters

From here we took a short boat journey to Co Phi Phi Don, arriving in the morning on a narrow peer crammed with hotel touts either side, a complete tunnel of hassle!  We took shelter in a small eatery and grabbed a Pad Thai each, but it didn't take long for our waiter to turn into a hotel salesmen and I eventually managed to convince him that we would be alright by ourselves!  We walked for about fifteen minutes with our bags until we found a small guest house just off one of the quieter streets run by a French lady.  Nowhere is cheap on Phi Phi Don, but we managed to get a hot shower and cable television for 700 baht per night (16 quid) which seemed like a blessing after having slummed it for over a week. 

We booked a snorkelling trip for the next day for 500 baht (11 quid) each from 10am until gone sunset which turned out to be great value for money.  This trip took fourteen of us all around the island on a longboat to different snorkelling spots where we saw plenty of fish, albeit with the chauffer cheating by lobbing in food to attract them which wouldn't have gone down too well with Patrick our Scuba diving instructor.  He had previously explained to us how the ecosystem is extremely delicate and feeding the fish could mean that they aren't eating as much of the algae off the coral in order to maintain it.  Either way we enjoyed the fish and various bays that we could swim up to.  The highlight of this trip had to be when we were taken to Phi Phi Leh.  This is the infamous island from the movie 'The Beach'.  I think our boat was slightly too big to enter the actual bay, instead we were dropped off and taken by kayak over shallow rocks to a wooden staircase in order to get to land.  The island itself had a peculiar but serene feel about it, and short walk took us to Maya Bay which is probably the most beautiful beach you could ever see.  The surrounding hills cradle the bay like a horseshoe and the cove of golden sand and shallow clear water is sheltered and spectacular.  We relaxed there for a while before having to board our boat in order to return to our accommodation on Phi Phi Don Island.

Relaxing on a nearby island on the snorkling trip

Maya Bay from the boat

Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh

Kate relaxing at Maya Bay

The viewpoint on Phi Phi Don

Yesterday we arrived in Phuket town after another short boat journey.  We attempted to stay at a Lonely Planet recommended guest house for it only to be full, however they had a sister guest house run by the same person with the same prices so we took it up, after all it was not far away and we were being picked up for free.  We sat down for ten minutes or so whilst we waited for our transfer which turned out to be a young Thai bloke with a motorbike and side cart.  I looked at him, back at the hotel staff and then at Kate.  We were both happy to take a bit of a chance, neither of us not being fond of this mode of transport based on the road etiquette witnessed to date yet it wasn't far... being the gentlemen I offered Kate the spare helmet as she hopped into the side car along with our bags and I perched myself on the back of the bike.  Fortunately our driver was saner than some we had seen and we arrived in tact to a comfortable fan room. 

View from our hotel room in Phuket

Attempting to find the night market that evening, we were sent off in the wrong direction and became very familiar with Phuket town whilst trying to find it with all sorts of directions being given to us! Thai people really will tell you anything rather than lose face. We had a nice walk and eventually found an unimpressive market of some sort, had some food and decided to call it a night.  Upon arriving back to our guest house a gentleman fixing something on the door said there was a night market down the road, just a stone's throw from where we were but in the opposite direction from which we set off originally.  I think this was the market we had been trying to find but as it had been raining whilst we were eating I’m assuming it had largely been packed up.  There were still a few nice stalls to see but by this point we were ready for our beds!  Tomorrow evening we fly to Chiang Mai with Air Asia so will spend today and tomorrow taking in city life and trying not to spend too much money!      

Friday, December 3, 2010

Koh Tao - Thailand

Having arrived in Koh Tao (literally translating to 'Turtle Island') to do the four day PADI Open Water Course, we ended up staying on to rack up a total of seven days in order to complete the Advanced Diver qualification that allows you to dive to 30 meters.  We saw loads of amazing creatures, and as we decided to do underwater photography as one of our advanced modules we hired a camera and got some good pics.  It was great value, plus we had the time and we had definitely caught the diving bug!  The Advanced Diver certification should keep most options open in the future should we decide to enjoy further underwater pursuits!  All of this came in at under four hundred quid including accommodation and transport from Bangkok, not too bad at all!

Hawksbill sea turtle seen when diving off Koh Tao

The island itself is small but postcard beautiful, the majority of it being covered in palm trees with only one main bumpy puddle-filled 'road' that requires constant dodging from side to side in order to avoid the motorbikes and a fair few quad bikes rampaging along every couple of seconds.  The view from the beach consists of hills and lush greenery with occasional wisps of fog.  Because we usually had classroom in the morning followed by diving in the afternoon we didn't get to explore a great deal.  Instead we got to know the West side of the island extremely well which includes a handful of slightly more expensive than Bangkok but not necessarily better restaurants, bars and very friendly, clingy local dogs.

View from the Coral Grand Dive School

Swimming with a sea dog

There was a full moon party whilst we were here, but not the kind that you would expect.  The locals offer their own twist in order to refute the rampaging boozy tourists that flock to the other 'party' islands such as Koh Samui or Koh Pha Ngan.  Instead they offer a more chilled 'F**k the full moon' party.  There was an amazing fire show with young lads swinging and tossing balls of fire on chains and sticks to each other, with guests encouraged to use to neon face paint and sip a cocktail or two albeit still very chilled.  The relaxed atmosphere and entertainment whilst lanterns flashed on the sea all contributed to my idea of an ideal night out.  Everybody here is extremely friendly, there are many westerners who have even decided to settle here and I can definitely see why.  Ask any western-looking resident their profession and there is a 90% chance that they are a diving instructor.  All in all an amazing place.

We head out tonight on an overnight boat, followed by a bus with our final destination being Krabi in the south west of the country.  From there we head on to Koh Phi Phi (including a stop off to Koh Phi Phi Lee, the island where 'The Beach' was filmed) and then on to Phuket.  From there we have booked a flight with Air Asia up to Chiang Mai on the 10th December which came to about 2,300 Baht (around 50 quid) for a two hour flight.  Update to follow, turtles rock!