Monday, July 31, 2006


Khorat is a quite large town in the Isaan region of North Eastern Thailand, and it was there that we headed after Surin. Noi's police brother picked us up at our hotel and took us to the railway station to meet Patrick and Noi who had sorted out tickets for us.

The town of Khorat is pretty big and fairly unlovely. The first day after arriving we just went for food with Pat and Noi at a nearby mall. Pat is obsessed with a chain restaurant called MK, which does steamboat food. You have a boiling pot of soup on the table and get brought pots of vegetables and seafood (or meat, but not in our case) and cook them in the pot. It was OK, although some of the fishy things were really quite horrid. Gemma tasted one and nearly threw up into the pot.

The second day Noi's army brother and family arrived to take us to more Khmer ruins at Phimai. Gemma, Patrick and I sat in the back of his pickup and I had great fun waving and wai-ing at people that we passed along the road, and in cars, buses and on motorbikes. I think I nearly made someone on a bike crash when he tried to return my wai though. Before Phimai we visited a village with an archaeological exhibition which was interesting. Gemma bought a bamboo flute. Noi's brother began to play one flawlessly in a traditional Thai way, whilst I just about managed to murder frere jaqcues on it. It's good to know that the recorder lessons I endured as a child had a beneficial effect.

Near Phimai is a giant (3,500 square metre) complex of Banyan trees. Pathways have been crafted through the roots of the intertwining trees and make a very nice and cool stroll. We ate at the roadside eatery next to the Banyan. A meal for 7 costing 3.60 Sterling. A man was selling sugar cane to feed his mates' Elephant so Gemma and Patrick bought a bunch each. I tried getting a photo of Gemma feeding the beast, but it had other ideas and ate all of the cane in about 2 seconds flat. It seemed to like it a lot.

The ruins at Phimai were pretty good, albeit similar to the ones at Phanom Rung, and, I presume, those at Angkor Wat. These ruins had a few more people about, including quite a few monks. Both Gemma and I tried to sneakily take their photos without them noticing. I got surveyed by some giggling schoolgirls.

The hotel we stayed at in Khorat was a similar affair to the one in Surin. A nightly programme of Karaoke based entertainment, this time round the pool. It was pretty dreadful. We couldn't face hotel food, especially since the menu included delights such as, 'Fried Noodle with Crap Meat'. Happily there was a farang owned pizza shop next door so we ate there both evenings. The place had loads of certificates on the wall from military training operations, so apparently the US Marines also like the pizza there.

We checked out the following morning and army brother drove us to the bus station from where we made for Bangkok.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Surin is in the North East of Thailand, close to the border with Cambodia. We spent a couple of nice days here following the wedding. I doubt many people do more than use it as a stopping point on the way to or from Cambodia, or visit for the annual Elephant fair. I've quite enjoyed myself here though.

Our first full day was a bit of a washout, with almost constant rain from noon onwards. We managed to get some Internet chores done, e-mails, diary entries, etc and spent the rest of the day reading. This is something that I'd promised myself I'd try and do on this holiday, spend whole days just relaxing with a book. In the evening Patrick came back to the hotel so we ate with him and went for a drink at a bar down the street, the Hip Hop, which somewhat unsurprisingly was playing Hip Hop. Somehow it got to be 01:30, so we went back to the hotel and to bed.

The second day, Patrick and Noi, Pat's parents and Noi's brother took us to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. Phanom Rung is the ruined complex of a Khmer temple, dating from the Angkor period (11th century). It's built of quite pink stones, the name of which escape me. It's in reasonable nick having been restored quite well and is rather impressive. I was quite taken with some of the bas reliefs, showing scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. It's worth a visit if you are in this region as it is apparently the best preserved example of Khmer temples in Thailand.

In the evening Gemma and I went out for a couple of beers and some food. We had trouble finding a place with veggie options, although we are able to ask for it in Thai now. I ate a plate of noodles while Gemma had to put up with crisps and biscuits back at the hotel!

We had been planning to go to Cambodia from Surin. Noi and her family were aghast at the idea of us travelling overland to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The road is bad from the border and notorious for banditry. They were adamant that we shouldn't go and so we decided to respect their wishes as they'd been so nice to us. Another influencing factor was the fact that from the Cambodian side of the border it is a 7 hour ride in the back of a pick up over extremely bad roads to get to Siem Reap. I value my buttocks too much for such a ride, so we decided that we may just take a cheap flight from Bangkok direct to Siem Reap.

We spent our final day in Surin chilling out and just wandering about the town and the market. I was so happy in Surin that my face had been split by a constant grin. Everyone was smiling and laughing at us in, what I'd like to think, was an affectionate way. The laughter could have been because I kept walking into bits of the market stalls. They aren't really built for people of my height. People were bringing their kids out onto the streets to look at the farangs. I thought I'd find it slightly disturbing, but it was totally good natured and I quite enjoyed it. Surin, in contrast to Bangkok or the tourist centres is somewhere I felt completely safe. Always in the back of the mind in the other places was a thought, 'Beware of pickpockets, watch out for scams, etc, keep your money seperated around your person'. None of that even touched my thoughts in Surin.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Its a nice day for a Thai wedding

We met Patrick and Noi at their hotel. Their hotel was slightly, o.k very much more, up market than ours. We felt very scruffy in our travelling clothes. I spotted Pat across the lobby and crept up on him. It seemed to take him a while for it to sink in who I was ( I think he was jet lagged). It was great to see him and finally meet Noi and I showed this by giving her a big hug. In Thailand Noi means small and this was the fitting nick name given to her at birth. She is indeed small and I thought my hug was going to crush her. She didn't seem to mind though and we said goodnight to Pat's parents and went up to Pat and Noi's room to catch up.

It turned out that they were leaving Bangkok the next day and driving up to Noi' s family's village and as soon as they arrive they would be having the wedding ceremony. It was happening very quickly because that day was the only auspicious day available.(Meaning that the spirits are good for that day and the planets are aligned- something like that anyway).

They invited us along and Noi started finding out about flights and calling her friend who was going to be flying there the next day. It turned out the only flight was 9am. We ended up booking it at 11pm and getting up at 5.30am so we could catch it on time. It was all a bit of a whirlind descision, but we thought we'd go for it because, why not? We met Noi's friend and said we hoped to see her at the airport the next day all being well.

Everything did go well and we met her on the plane. It was a tiny plane.Tim described it like a smarties tube with wings. He assured me it was alright though as it was a jet and it goes fast. Oh. thats alright then! It was a 50 minute flight and qute enjoyable. We landed at Buriram airport at 10am and were met by Noi's brother. I don't know if he was expecting us, but he made us feel welcome anyway. This was the case for the whole day. Noi is from a rural village in the NorthEast of Thailand (less visited and less developed region of Thailand) 35km from Surin. The majority of people, including her family are rice farmers. We arrived at their house and were just blown away by the rest of the day really. I am struggling knowing what to say; how to describe it. These are people who don't see Farangs (foreigners) very often and who don't speak English. There were about 50 people there and we were instantly made very welcome by them. There was a lot of smiling and nodding and waiing (Thai greeting- like the prayer gesture) Tim and I could already say hello and thankyou in Thai which came in handy and I think was appreciated. We were shown to their couch and given drinks and food; fruit platter, rice cakes which are like rice Krispies cakes but very dry (later we found out they were an offering for the spirits. I really hope we were meant to eat them because we did) and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and dipped in sugar.

Throughout the day people were preparing for the ceremony. The women were inside sitting on the floor, decorating the pillar in the main room (which we were sat in) and the men were outside, drinking. Their style of living is very communal. Everyone leaves their windows and doors open and walk in and out of each others houses. There was one communal kitchen which was outside under an awning with people sitting on tables eating and chatting under it.

The pillar, the main focal point for the ceremony which Patrick and Noi would kneel in front of, was decorated with Banana leaves, baskets of flowers,(one with a pig's head in it) offerings of food, lots of bananas and rice cakes (we didn't eat those ones), a rifle, a sword,(both of which Tim got quite excited about-it must be a boy thing) a bottle of water and a bottle of beer.

We were made to feel so welcome and it was such different experience, yet I felt really comfortable. We had lots of people at varying times approaching us tentatively and extending their warmth and generosity. There was a huge language barrier, but the language of smiling is so powerful. However, we did learn a few new words with the help of a lovely lady who took us under her wing. I think these efforts were received gratefully and with much laughter. We taught the lady who helped us some English too and she put us to shame with her memory for it. I seemed to learn something and it would go straight out of my head as soon as I wanted to use it. However, I did remember how to say "that was delicious", "I am full", "I dont understand" and "my name is" which I was quite happy about. We learned more Thai in one day than in the 3 weeks we'd been there.

During one of our Thai lessons, we were summoned to a table on which our lunch had been put and which they had prepared and got especially. It was 2 giant catfish, rice and vegetable sidedish with beancurd. It was aroi (delicious) and again, I was blown away by their hospitality.

A couple of hours after lunch our new friend took us to the lake to sit in the shade under the trees. It was cooler there and was really calm and peaceful, with the sounds of the countryside interspersed with the 3 of us singing numbers 1 -10 in thai to the tune of Frere Jacques.

At 5pm Noi, Patrick and his parents finally arrived. They had left Bangkok at 9am and had not expected it to take so long to get there. There were a few emotional greetings (Noi had not seen everyone for 2 and a half years) before they were all whipped upstairs to change into ceremonial costume. Noi looked beautiful, her hair and makeup made up perfectly and was wearing a pretty blouse and thai skirt. Patrick. Well I don't know how to describe what Patrick looked like. Tim said he couldn't decide if he looked like Sinbad or a cruise ship waiter! He looked really nice though. He wore a white jacket with a patterned Thai sash over one shoulder and blue silk short trousers with a bit wrapped up between his legs. (The photos will be on Flickr, don't worry, but not for awhile I'm afraid).

None of us Farangs knew what on earth was happening during the ceremony. A monk blessed Patrick and Noi as they knelt at the "altar" and lots of people were talking and shouted responses to the monk. Patrick was hit round the face with leaves and beer was poured into a jug. People tied bits of orange wool round all our wrists as a blessing. Patrick looked quite emotional and overwhelmed by it all, as did his parents and I can't blame them. It must have been totally overwhelming for them as they had just arrived. We at least had had some time to get used to the surroundings.

After the ceremony,photos were taken and we were asked to have our photos taken with people who wanted photos with farangs. A lady kept telling me I was lovely and beautiful. It was quite embarrassing. I had also had people telling me I had lovely skin. The Thais really like white skin and aspire to have it. In shops there are whitening products as we would have tanning products and they don't like to be in the sun. This always amuses me as of course in the Western world we are the same (except we want brown skin).

I feel very priviledged to have been a part of the whole day. It was very humbling to receive such warmth and generosity. It feels strange that it came at the time when we were feeling quite despondent by Thailand. I have seen it in a new light now. We had heard that Thai people are really friendly, warm people, but until now we didn't really have that much evidence of that. I feel that I can't adequately describe the day. All in all, a strange, surreal, fun, exciting moving day which was rounded off by watching heavily accented thai singers in thai costume singing hits such as "wind beneath my wings".

Thai wedding

Before I start writing this post I must warn the reader that I am not finding it easy to accurately explain the odd experiences of the day and I'm wishing that I was a better writer and had the words to describe what has been a profoundly odd yet strangely rewarding experience.

After the Tuk Tuk incident we received a text message from Patrick and Noi telling us they'd arrived in Bangkok and arranging to meet at their hotel. We were early and feeling a little out of place waiting in the lobby as the Amari Watergate is quite a plush place and we, after a couple of months on the road, are even scruffier than normal, if such a thing can be believed. Thankfully when we caught up with him Patrick was quite nonplussed by the poshness of the place, so it wasn't just us. It is a bit strange to think that Gemma worked with Patrick for a year, we lived in the same town and the first place we meet is continents away. Patrick seems like a really nice bloke and his wife Noi is lovely, just totally sweet. They asked us to come to their third wedding, having been married by registrar in Bangkok, again at a church wedding in the UK, and this to be a traditional rural Thai wedding in Noi's parent's village. We said, 'Yeah, sure, when is it?' and were surprised when they replied, 'Tomorrow, you can get a plane, Noi's mate has the details.' A few calls, a taxi journey and Internet session later and we were booked on PB Air's 09:00 flight to Buri Ram. The booking confirmation stressed obtaining a proper ticket at the airport 90 minutes before the flight and the Rough Guide told us to leave an hour to get their by taxi so we grudgingly set the alarm for 05:30.

The taxi only took about 20 minutes so we were at the airport super early, also it looked like we only had to be there 40 minutes before the flight to sort the tickets out. I was a little grumpy and tired but also quite looking forward to it. We weren't sure what time Patrick, his parents and Noi would arrive at Noi's village as they were driving up from Bangkok in a hire car. The flight was speedy, in a small jet which reminded of a smarties tube with wings. I had to crouch to walk through it to my seat. We took off and I was struck by how big Bangkok is. The seatbelt light was on for about 2 minutes after which, the aircraft still in a steep ascent, the hostesses rushed down the plane with sandwiches and coffee. They just about managed to get the rubbish cleared before the plane tilted the other way and the pilot announced our descent. Noi's mate was on the plane with us and we walked through to the arrivals hall with her to be met by Noi's big brother. Loaded up in a pick up with extended cab we drove off to Noi's village, about 35km from the town of Surin, in the area of Thailand called Isaan. The Rough Guide calls Isaan the least visited, most traditionally Thai and poorest area of the country. It was little surprise that we didn't see another farang (foreigner) on the drive, just Thais working the rice paddies or driving waterbuffalo along the road.

I'm guessing that not many farang visit Noi's village as we were the centre of attention from the moment we stepped out of the pick up. A very few of the people in the village knew a tiny bit of English, as well as Noi's mate knowing some. To be honest it was a hell of a lot more than our knowledge of Thai, which until that point consisted of Hello/Goodbye and Thank You. A lot of random grinning and shrugging of shoulders ensued, as well as children running away scared from us and most people simply staring. We broke out Gemma's little photo album fairly early on which proved to be a bit of an ice breaker. Despite being objects of curiosity we were treated really brilliantly. People kept bringing us beer, water, pillows and plates of fruit and a sticky rice thing wrapped in a banana leaf that by itself was absolutely vile, but when dipped in sugar rather nice. I resolved to learn at least a little more Thai and set about studying the Rough Guide's paltry language page. Mai Kao Jai - I don't understand, became an instant favourite.

We were separately approached by several of the older women and spoken to in Thai, so we were happy when we could at least say that we didn't understand, we were fine, how are you? They seemed pleased, their mouths, red stained and teeth missing presumably from chewing Betel Nut, were turned up into smiles all the time they spoke to us. I developed the habit of giving a Wai with everything I said, which I am sure is wrong, but I think amused everyone further. The Wai is the Thai bow or handshake equivalent, given by pressing the palms together in front of the face or chest and bowing the head. There are various variants depending on age and relationship of the people giving the Wai, but I don't understand those so I just kind of do it. It seemed to work.

Quite a lot of the afternoon was spent with a nice lady who knew a little English. With the aid of paper and pen, the Rough Guide and judicious use of the art of mime we set about teaching each other our respective languages. I fear that she was a much better student than either me or Gemma. During this process we realised how stupid English can be as a language. Explaining o'clock, quarter past, four thirty, etc was quite interesting.

Someone had called Noi to ask what we ate and suddenly we were summoned to a table. On it was rice, a veggie side dish of cabbage and tofu and two great big catfish that someone had been out especially to get for us. The table was in front of the window and I was facing it. As we began to eat, a row of spectators on plastic chairs began to form in front of us. Framed by the window with people taking turns to watch us I was taken by the idea that it must be just like being on TV. I'm certain most of the villagers took their turn on a chair at some point during the meal! I took the dishes back to the communal kitchen and was able to use my new Thai skills. I think they were happy when I told them I was full, that it was very delicious and thank you, my head bobbing in the Wai with each phrase.

Noi and Patrick's journey took longer than anyone expected and when they arrived we were sitting by the lake under a tree to keep cool. They were whipped off to get changed as soon as they arrived, the reason for the rush being that ghosts had been consulted and proclaimed that day as the only auspicious one for the wedding. Patricks wedding clothes were a delight, a pair of blue silk shorts and a white shirt that left him looking like a cross between Sinbad and a cruise ship waiter. Noi looked really lovely in her wedding outfit. The ceremony was performed in front of a pillar in the house, decorated with banana leaves, intricate banana leaf and flower arrangements, bowls of fruit and incense and, somewhat strangely, a pigs head, a sword and a rifle. The couple knelt on a mat in front of the pillar with the villagers and family seated behind them as various chants and actions were performed. In all honesty I didn't really have much clue what was going on but the people from the village seemed to be enjoying it. At one point people began to tie Orange string on Pat and Noi's wrists, before moving on to his parents and then Gemma and me. I think it was a blessing of some sort. A mix of emotion and, I think, pain from kneeling was creasing Patrick's face and I think he was glad to receive a final slap with a wet branch from the man officiating and be allowed to stand up.

There was the obligatory taking of photos afterwards, including one of Noi's cousins who is fascinated by white people and wanted several photos of her sitting next to Gemma and myself. I felt the cheesey smile setting on my face by the end of it. More food was served for the farangs, most of whom hadn't eaten as well as us, them having been cooped up in a car for 8 hours. The whole day had been completely bewildering and we hadn't thought about anything as sensible as where we might stay. Thankfully Patrick, deciding on air conditioned comfort rather than the marital bed, and his parents had booked rooms in a hotel in Surin. We bludged a lift back with them with a nearby storm lighting up the whole sky during the journey.

We booked into the hotel and got the room next to Patrick. The place was quite nice and cheaper than some much shabbier places we've stayed. As we were about to jump in the shower we got a text message from Patrick, inviting us to the restaurant. We went down for a drink and I'm glad we did. The surreal icing was put on the bizarre cake that had been the day as we and a grand total of 4 other hotel guests watched a pianist and a succession of extravagantly dressed Thai ladies belting out heavily accented classics. 'You are the wind beneath my wings...'

Like I wrote at the beginning of the post, I can't seem to find the words to describe quite how strange and yet utterly comfortable the whole experience was. The villagers are poor farmers, we were utter strangers without even a few words of their language, yet we were treated with amazing generosity and warmth. The curious stares of the people didn't bother me at all and I felt at home just drifting on the experiences of the day. It's affirmed to us that the Thai people are charming and lovely which is something we'd always heard, but not really seen anything of so far. I think the people genuinely liked us and our clumsy efforts to try and say a few understandable things to them. I'm sure this day will be one of the memories I look back on most fondly from this trip.

Grand Palace and Tuk Tuk scams

We wanted to go to the Grand Palace and take some photos so we got a Tuk Tuk over there. The Tuk Tuk is a mad little 3 wheeled motorised rickshaw that plys the streets of Bangkok. The driver predictably tried to tell us that the Grand Palace was closed, a prelude to a scam involving being taken on a shopping trip to places that he makes a load of commision. We told him that we were meeting people and didn't care about it being closed, negotiated a very high price to go there with no stops and set off. The ride was quite thrilling, weaving speedily in and out of the Bangkok traffic.

The Grand Palace complex is brilliant. The whole place is just so ornate and decorated. The three large Chedi's in Thai, Cambodian and Sri Lankan style are amazing, as is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is actually made of Jade -the Buddha, not the temple.) If not for the heat I probably could have stayed all day taking photos. This is what everyone else is doing of course. I found it quite hard to take pictures in there as the sun was so bright that I faced the problem of not being able to see what I was shooting on the display as well as various other problems that had me cursing my camera slightly. On the shopping list for when I get back is a new camera. I hope one or two of the photos do the place justice, and I tried to at least get some less obvious ones.

After the Grand Palace we went outside and were approached by a Tuk Tuk tout. We'd heard a few stories of people getting ferried round a bunch of temples for just 40-50 Baht, providing that the driver got his gasoline vouchers for taking you to his sponsor shops. We agreed on 40 Baht, said we wanted to see the big and reclining Buddha images and hopped in the Tuk Tuk. We went first to the big standing Buddha, which isn't the most lovely of the Buddha images. Next we started the shopping portion of the trip, with visits to 5 shops, about which our driver was sort of apologetic.

After the shopping he asked us where we wanted to go and said, 'OK', when we informed him that we'd like to see the reclining Buddha. After a short while we pulled onto a wierdly quiet road at which point he started going on about a boat trip, saying, 'The reclining Buddha has an entrance fee, go tomorrow, take boat trip, 1 hour, very good, 900 Baht per person.' I wasn't happy at this point and saw where it was leading so I said, 'We can't afford it and haven't got the time.' His response was to lower the price, say that he was doing us a favour, he'd already called them and they were waiting, etc. He went so far as to make an obviously fake mobile call to the boat. In the end I said, 'Well, I wouldn't go even if it cost 10 Baht, we're leaving now, so we'll pay you what we owe you'. He began to demand $20 or 3000 Baht (which doesn't at all add up) for his hour of driving us to shops. We both got out of the Tuk Tuk, handed him a 50 Baht note, and in our best, 'I'm not standing for this, I'm British', style stomped off down the road leaving him shouting and fuming.

We hopped in the first metered taxi that came past and asked to go home. I say asked, but I think I probably scared the poor driver by shouting at him and waving a map in his face. I was surprised at the cheapness of the fare and resolved never to bother with a Tuk Tuk again.

Tuk Tuk Tut

Bangkok is very big, very ugly,very smelly, very noisy. Weirdly though I didn't hate it. We were only there for 2 days though so I'm sure we haven't done it justice. It was an experience being there for those 2 days though. I said in my last post that I was looking forward to seeing some temples and ride in a tuk tuk. Well I got to do those things albeit not quite in the way I would have hoped.

In Bangkok the tuk tuk drivers have a scam where when you say where you want to go they inform you it is closed and take you to other 'sights' which end up being shops which sell things like gems which aren't quite as valuable as they make out. Aware of this we told him we wanted to go to The Grand Palace anyway as we were meeting friends there. ( We weren't, but knowing how persuasive they are decided to lie). He told us that in this case it would be B400 as he would be going straight there (In other words, not making any stops for commision from his friends at the gem shops). We got him down to B300 which is still a rip off as we had known people who got taken round all the temples for B50, but decided to just pay as I wanted to go on the tuk tuk. OK, I realise that conjures up images of me jumping up and down stamping my feet, and demanding in a whiny voice that "I want to go on a tuk tuk"but however posible that is it really wasn't like that.

Anyway, we got on this tuk tuk and it was fun. It was quite exhilirating, noisily weaving our way through the thick traffic. I could have quite happily stayed on it all day, but we arrived at the Grand Palace where surprise surprise it wasn't shut.

The Grand Palace is indeed grand. As I walked in I was quite taken a back by how large and intricate all the buildings and statues were. It was very beautiful. We set about taking photos although it was quite difficult to see what we were taking pictures of as the light was so bright. The Palace houses Thailands most sacred site, that of the Emerald Buddha, because of this you have to cover up. I think I began to over heat. I felt like I was wearing too many clothes (trousers, walking shoes, vest top and long sleeve top over it)I persevered and walked around admiring the buildings and ornateness of it all. We went in the temple to see the Emerald Buddha it was quite small and I had to do " the eye thing" to be able to see it from the back of the temple.( Those who don't know what the eye thing is, it is where I make my eyes slitty, so I can see better-it works honest!) After this, the heat really was getting too much so we trundled off and stood outside the palce debating where to go next.

Standing in a tourist spot looking like you are debating where to go next is probably a mistake. I wouldn't recommend it. We were approached by a man who asked us where we were going. We had thought about the Reclining Buddha and he started saying "oh yes and there is the standing Buddha too which is nice. You can go in a tuk tuk for B40 round these plus the Thai shopping centre" He said he represented Government run tuk tuks and he called a tuk tuk driver over who showed us his Government badge. As he had caught us on the hop we decided to go for it as we didn't know how long we would be in bangkok and wanted to see the sites. B40 was agreed with the driver.

We whizzed to the standing Buddha which is a massive standing (as the name would suggest) Buddha. Very nice. Then we hopped in the tuk tuk and were told we would be going to shops and then we carry on going where we want to go. We went to a jewelery shop, then a tailors where we stayed for 1 minute ( Tim really doesn't want a suit)but the Tuk Tuk driver asked us if we could stay 10 minutes in each shop as that is how he gets his petrol vouchers. As he said it quite apologetically and seemed to realise it was all a farce we agreed and inpsected everything in the following shops; An ornament shop,another jewelery shop, then another tailors.(No really he doesn't want a suit)

Shopping obligations finished, he asked us where we wanted to go next. "Reclining Buddha" we said, "Oh yes, Buddha', he cheerfully called above the noise of the traffic. We were on our way and we suddenly stopped down a road which weirdly didn't have any cars gong down it our side. He told us that Buddha was B300 today and free tomorrow so we should go tomorrow instead. He then whipped a picture of other attractions out and said we could go on a boat ride to see four temples and floating market for B900 each for 1 hour. When we said we didn't want to do this we wanted to go to Reclining Buddha he started to get all indignant. At this point alarm bells started to ring and when we kept saying we don't want to he was getting more and more insistent. At that point we said we just want to go now as we have to meet friends (this wasn't a lie this time we were due to meet Patrick and Noi, friends from home that evening). He said well you have to pay me 20 dollars. I was all confused at this point and a bit worried as we were down a quiet road with some indignant tuk tuk driver. We asked him how much that was in Baht and eventually he said,' for my tour that is B3000!" At that point me and Tim just laughed as that was absurd. You can get a return domestic flight in Thailand for that!I don't think a look at a big Buddha and 5 shops is worthy of B3000 somehow. At that point we hopped out of the tuk tuk quickly as it looked like it was going to go on forever. I shoved B50 at him and we stormed off in time for him to hurumph and sling the money on the floor of the tuk tuk!

I have to admit I was a bit worried though. We were down the quiet road and I had visions of his tuk tuk friends suddenly speeding from nowhere cornering us from all angles. We kept walking and didn't turn round as we heard his tuk tuk start off and screech away. We rounded the corner and there was a metered taxi waiting at the traffic lights. I think we startled the driver as we jumped in it, thrusting a map in his face to show him where to take us and shouting , "how much" before he pointed at the metre. Metred cabs are trustworthy but I think we were ready for another bartering match or something. We were annoyed and I was a bit shaken as you just don't know what people can do, so I was glad to get in the taxi and back to our hotel. The whole thing was just annoying as we had heard of people who did the tour for that price with no incident and I do think the initial bloke at the palce was genuine it's just that we got a driver who thought he'd try it on.

After that incident we felt deflated about Bangkok and even Thailand as a whole, as we hadn't met anyone who didn't want our money. We'd heard it ws the land of smiles, but to be honest we hadn't really seen much evidence of that.

It all changed the moment we met up with Patrick and Noi that evening.


Deciding that we were a bit too far out, we moved into more central Bangkok after one night new Mo Chit. We again eschewed the Khao San road and settled instead for a small traveller oriented side street in the central area opposite the National Stadium. The street, Soi Kasam Sen 1, is quite quiet, with a number of budget guesthouses, internet places and a restaurant. We couldn't get a room in any of the places listed in the Lonely Planet, or Rough Guide, but found a cheaper and slightly shabbier (although clean enough) guesthouse, Star Hotel. We booked in for two nights.

We walked to the Erewan shrine about 1km away down Thanon Rama 1. This is a gaudy shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma and his Elephant Erewan. It was packed and the air was almost unbreathable with the incense choking it. Some Thai dancers were doing their thing to music. I felt a little bit intrusive taking photos, so I just tried to get some from the hip, not very succesfully. The Thai people although Buddhist, incorporate a lot of Hindu dieties in everyday worship (Buddhism itself doesn't have any problem with that).

We continued up the road to Pratunam market. Gemma was disappointed to see that, like many markets the world over, it sold mainly school uniforms and granny clothes. We ate in the chaotic food court of a mall and walked back to the hotel. We had been successful in half the mission, which was locating the hotel that Gemma's workmate Patrick and wife Noi would be coming to the following day. To be honest we may as well have just waited until dark as the hotel is massive and has, Amari Watergate, on it in giant neon letters. We discovered that the connection was fast in the Internet cafe across the road from our hotel so spent a couple of hours uploading Gemma's photos. That evening we ate at Pisces restaurant near our hotel. The lady in there was lovely, as was the food. We weren't allowed any beer though because of the elections in the morning!

First impressions of Bangkok; mad, chaotic, dirty, smelly, busy, congested (vehicle and human traffic) and full on.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Long bus journeys

Long bus journeys are about as enjoyable as long flights. In hindsight, again, it may not have been the best idea to get drunk the night before the minibus, bus, ferry, bus journey to Bangkok (picked up at 12:20 arrived 04:00 the next day). Even so it was less hideous than I had expected. The ferry journey was quite nice, skimming along over the water, with little limestone islands poking out everywhere. This is how I had always imagined the Thai coast. The little islands are covered in green, with trees stuck in every concievable foothold. The water is beatifully turquoise and barely rippled by waves.

After a long wait in Surat Thani we boarded the overnight bus to Thanon Koah San in Bangkok. A couple of movies were shown and we had a rest stop at a roadside place. I forced myself to eat a banana making the days food intake, one pancake, a handful of crisps, two biscuits and the aforementioned banana. The heat combined with my hangover and the general state of my insides at the moment conspired to put me off my food which, if you know me, is not a regular occurence. Actually for some days now I have felt quite sick directly after every meal. This is not something I am happy about as food is probably my single biggest pleasure in life.

I wasn't really able to sleep on the journey, managing at best a light doze. The roads are a bit bumpy here and not conducive to a good nights sleep whilst flying down them. Eventually we pulled into over and disembarked. Thanon Khao San is a legendary place amongst backpackers and where most people head for accomodation in Bangkok. Not us though. At this point, having tried and failed to pre-book somewhere, I just said yes to the first taxi driver to wave a hotel leaflet in my face. It was some drive out to his hotel choice, actually second choice -the first being full. The hotel (Nice Palace) was OK and I was just glad to be able to check in and get to bed. Unfortunately the hotel is kind of far out of the city centre, although near the skytrain. Because of this we only booked in for a single night. After dozing but not really sleeping until 13:00 we got up and had a walk round the area. The area certainly isn't touristy with nothing really there to hold any interest other than the weekend market, which we were a day too early for, and the cheapest Internet place we've found yet (about 20p an hour). We ate a very expensive pizza in a chain joint in a shopping mall because it was the first easy food we came to. I managed a grand 3 slices, again if you know me you will know that this is completely out of character.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Koh Samui -Chaweng beach

A couple of days after the Full Moon Party, Carly and Charlotte moved over to Koh Samui from Koh Pha Ngan. We decided we would move to be with them, so the next day jumped in a taxi for Chaweng beach. We knew where they were staying (Central Bay Resort) so booked into the same place, ending up with a bungalow 2 doors down from them. We randomly bumped into them as soon as we arrived so didn't even need to send a text. I think they may think we were stalking them, which in a way we were.

In comparison to Bo Phut, Chaweng is much more built up, with a pretty grotty central area running parallel with the beach. The beach itself is longer, wider and perhaps prettier than at Bo Phut, but correspondingly more full of people, bars, sunloungers, hawkers and jet-skis. I think I preferred the relative quietness of Bo Phut during the day. On the day we arrived Carly and Charlotte had arranged to hire a car with some girls that they'd met so we left them to it, preferring to take a walk along the beach and eat ice cream.

The good thing about Chaweng in comparison to Bo Phut is that there are a couple of options for cheap eats. The night market is a good choice for food stalls, but we tended to stay on the main strip at either Crystal or Ninja restaurants. Ninja is ever so slightly cheaper, but Crystal is a bit nicer and bring you a plate of sliced fruit at the end of each meal. We'd been talking about lowering our food bill, so were quite happy to find these two. Our average dinner spend including drinks came down to about 175 Baht from maybe 350 Baht in Bo Phut (it's 70 Baht to a pound roughly). I realise we are only talking about a couple of quid a meal, which shows that we are now thinking in Baht. Note also that a beer in one of these places is about as expensive as the meal itself, if you're eating Thai food.

On an evening the whole character of the beach changes, lights that are wrapped round trees are turned on along with pretty lanterns. At the very Northern end of the beach the bars cluster together 3 sunloungers, put fully down to form a raised platform. On this goes a low table with a candle and triangular Thai cushions. It's all lit by the candles, lanterns and strings of fairy lights everywhere and really is quite pretty. The soundtrack is provided by DJs at each of the bars. A lot of the people from the daytime must disappear into the ex-pat and hostess bars on the main strip, leaving the beach to be just busy enough to have a nice atmosphere. The fact that the bars all have a long happy 'hour' is a further draw. We ended up there 3 nights in a row because it was so nice. The night before we left Samui we resolved to have only something to eat and 1 or 2 beers. It was the beach party night at one of the bars, which basically means the (House) music is turned up and the other bars don't have any music. The beers kept flowing past the end of happy hour, especially when we met a trio of Kiwi lads and started chatting to them.

On the way home from the beach party we adopted a couple of dogs for the walk back to our bungalow. They adopted us too, to the point of snarling and barking at someone else walking past. Eventually some other dogs piqued their interest and they ran off with them instead. We were at our place by then and wondering what to do with them so it wasn't unwelcome.

Journey to Bangkok

We are in Bangkok now. We arrived at 4am yesterday. We got the overnight bus from Chaweng in Koh Sumui. I say overnight, but the bus picked us up at 12.15 pm, which took us to another bus which took us to the ferry. There was not enough seats on the bus and some people had to stand, worrying, understandably, that this would be the case all the way to Bangkok. Everyone boarded the ferry and it was a pleasant 2 hour jorney to Surat Thani. The scenery was lovely with rocky outcrops jutting out of the turquoise sea. We arrived at the ferry point where we boraded the bus, luckily able to get a seat, whereas others had to stand again for the hour journey to Surat Thani where we had to wait for our connecting bus to Bangkok.

The bus journey was actually ok. I had not been looking forward to it and we had stupidly had a few beers the night before (See Tim's post-Bophut-Chaweng beach) and I wasn't feeling prepared for a night of being squashed on a bus seat. However it was quite comfy and I managed to get a few naps in after the two films were played. (behind enemy lines and transporter 2 (I know I hadn't heard of it either). We had been told that we would arrive at Bangkok at 5.30am. We actually arrived (surprisingly as transport is usually late) at 3.45am. There were plenty of taxis wating and we hopped in one who told us he knew of a hotel which was at our budget. We drove quite far through empty streets which he assured us would be congested this time tomorrow, rendering it near impossible to get anywhere easily. He pointed out temples and where the King and Queen live and I felt quite excited at the prospect of visiting these grand places.

The hotel he had in mind was unfortunately full, but he took us round the corner to "Nice Palace" which was nice, but I'm not sure about the palace bit. We were able to check in which we were grateful for and slept in til 1pm. Bangkok is supposed to be a challenging city with lots of people and traffic.I am looking forward to seeing some temples, riding in a tuk tuk and buying fisherman pants at the markets.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Full Moon Party

The Rough Guide to South East Asia describes the Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan as, 'Like Apocalypse Now, without the war'. With this in mind and given other descriptions I had read I was hoping for a chaotic Mad Max style post apocalyptic rave. I was a bit disappointed. The two words I summed up the party as were: Lame and Tame. From Bo Phut beach we got a speedboat across to Koh Pha Ngan. We went early so that we could grab something to eat over there and check out the lay of the land before the party kicked off in earnest. It was quite chilled at this point, not too many people, but as we sat having some food the place began to fill up slowly.

Basically the strip of Hat Rin beach becomes the venue for the party, with the beach front bars cranking out whatever their particularly brand of music is. There were only really a couple of decent places, one playing some OK House music, the other some Old School Jungle. Unfortunately the place that got the biggest crowd was what I termed 'MTV Spring Break', a place playing chart hits (like that 'You got the music in you' song and the god awful 'Drop it like its hot'). This in my mind does not make a rave. I guess at best it was like wandering the markets at Glastonbury -there were some cool fire twirlers and some interesting UV decorations. It did get rammed with bodies, although I got the impression that it has become much more of a spectator sport than it maybe used to be. Or perhaps the makeup of the crowd has become such that they demand a chart hits venue these days -the public gets what the public wants. I didn't hear any Crusty Techno or Hippy Trance, or see a laser or a strobe light. At the last Glastonbury I went to, Adam exclaimed that he was sick of 'tourists', I think he would have had the same opinion here. I honestly did try to give it a go although there were a couple of events that conspired against me.

We met Carly & Charlotte when they turned up, having got a cab from their hotel on the other side of the island. They'd been drinking before coming out and were quite merry by the time they reached us. Before they arrived I had discovered the pleasures of the Whiskey Bucket, this being a small childs plastic sand bucket filled with ice, a quarter bottle of local whiskey and loads of Thai Red Bull. It is rumoured that Thai Red Bull contains speed or something very like it. The mystery being enhanced by the fact that it is manufactured by a pharmaceutical company and sold in small medicine bottles. I don't know what the composition of the stuff is, but it is certainly not the same as the UK Red Bull. The buckets began to sink down rather quickly. It's wierd getting drunk but maintaining complete alertness. That was me, and more than can be said for some of our companions. In hindsight I should have maybe not let Carly at the buckets, but isn't hindsight a wonderful thing. She got very plastered and Gemma & I had to spend a not inconsiderable time looking after her until she sobered up some.

Carly & Charlotte went off back to their hotel in a cab at around 03:00 and Gemma and I looked forward to having a bit of a dance. Unfortunately I found a semi concious and vomiting girl in the toilets, plainly the casualty of a pill she wasn't able to handle. I got Gemma to chuck me her water and with the help of another guy set about trying to get the girl to drink some or wake up enough to tell us what she'd taken. She wasn't really responding too well, with her head just flopping around and her eyes pretty much rolled up in the back of her skull. Gemma ran off to see if there was a doctor nearby and returned saying there was a clinic up the road, but they'd said get a taxi. There was no way a taxi would get down that road through the throng of people so we grabbed a limb each and carried her through the street to the clinic. It's amazing how someone can weigh so much and be so difficult to carry when they are flopped out. I was at the front so tried to get through the crowd, simply shouting, 'Move out of the way please', didn't work, so I ended up telling half of Koh Pha Ngan to, 'Get the fuck out of my way NOW'. That did seem to have a little more of an effect and we eventually got to the clinic. They were completely uninterested when we arrived and in fact laughed at the girl, shrugged their shoulders and said 'Taxi, hospital'. We asked them to call an ambulance or give some help and they just shrugged again.

By now a bit of a crowd had formed around us, including a group of medical students. Clearly as the only course of action was to get her to the taxis and off to the hospital, Gemma and I thought, 'Too many cooks...', and left the rest of the group to carry on. I figured it was better to let the medical students go with her to the hospital rather than us taking up room in the taxi. I did make myself useful in the meantime by getting more water for her though.

After this we were thoroughly fed up and decided we best just jump on a speedboat back to Koh Samui. It sounds simple but it was also a complete shambles. The speedboats of different companies were all trying to get in to the beach to pick up their customers. Unfortunately not all were clearly labelled and most of the people trying to get back didn't know which company they were on (everyone had tickets so it would be fairly easy to work out). This led to everyone being in the water trying to rush every speedboat that came in. We spent 2 hours standing in waist deep water trying to push our way through the people to the speedboats we were supposed to be going on, missing a couple that we couldn't get to. The crush was so bad that one bloke even got nicked by a propeller. Eventually we got on one and zoomed back towards our island. There was one more incident of a bloke jumping off the back of the boat when we were a few hundred metres from the beach. The girl next to me laughed. I didn't find it very funny. I did get to shout, 'Man overboard', though, which I have always wanted to do (I also want to shout, 'Land Ahoy' and 'Thar she blows', but only in the correct context).

I was glad to get off the boat, down the beach into our bungalow, showered and to bed.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Koh Samui -Bo Phut

We cheated and flew to Koh Samui rather than deal with buses and ferries. Short flights are much more civilised than long haul. By the time youve eaten your small snack you are descending. We hadn't pre-organised any accomodation, so sorted it out with a booking desk at the airport. The days of the cheap travellers bungalows are pretty much over on Samui so we were paying a little more than we had been on Phuket. Still, Sandy Resort in Bo Phut was right on the beach, with a pool and breakfast included. There was a bit of building work going on which let the place down slightly, but other than that it was OK. We did have a problem with our water, got moved, then worked out it was site wide.

Bo Phut is quite a nice place, reasonably quiet, but still with some bars and restaurants nearby. The development here isn't quite as unrestrained as on some of the other beaches, and the area called fishermans village was really quite nice. Old fishermans houses converted into business, but in a reasonably sympathetic way. We'd basically come to the North of Samui to await the Full Moon Party, held on the neighbouring island of Koh Pha Ngan. While waiting we just chilled out on the beach, took walks along it and generally did not a lot. This was quite nice.

We did take a taxi down to the next beach, known as Big Buddha Beach because of the massive Buddha statue in a temple at the end of it. The Buddha is quite impressive, if a little ugly, and we spent some time taking photos. We also made a donation and wrote our names on a brick for extensions to the temple. This apparently guarantees us some good luck. I'm not so sure I believe that, but if it's true perhaps I should have bought more bricks.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


The resort of Patong beach on Phuket is probably somewhere that I wouldn't naturally have chosen to come given the write up in the Rough Guide. But Carly and Charlotte were here so we came here to meet them. In the end we stayed 4 nights for one reason and another.

The morning after we arrived we got up and left our hotel (Baan Boa 2) in search of the beach and breakfast. We found both after a 10 minute walk and a lot of dodging of mopeds. They love their mopeds in this part of the world. Sadly they don't have the same love of pavements so you have to keep your wits about you. After breakfast we walked up the beach and sent a text to Carly to find out what they were up to. A couple of slightly confused texts later and we were sitting on the beach with them. It's a bit weird meeting up with people you know from home when you are half way round the world, but good weird.

I'm afraid we all sat on the beach a bit too long as we noticed when we moved that we were beginning to turn a bit lobster coloured. After a swift drink in an Irish pub we headed off to our hotels for showers and the application of aftersun. This was a process that produced a lot of 'Owww'-ing from both myself and Gemma, and given the redness of Carly's face when we met them for dinner I would imagine from her also. Charlotte was just brown, which I think we all thought a little unfair.

Patong is a very touristy resort, full of holidaymakers enjoying the Thai sun and the attendant bars and restaurants that come with it. It is reasonably expensive to eat here, especially in the more touristy places, but that is what we did. The main strip of Patong is crowded with sleazy hostess bars and Australian and Irish bars too. We ended up in 'The Aussie Bar' talking to a couple of blokes that Carly & Charlotte had met the night previously. In the street many people were getting hassled to buy a photo with an iguana wrapped round them, or indeed a ladyboy. I drank quite a lot of Tiger beer and the next day felt rather rough for it. After we bid goodnight to Carly and Charlotte, who were being good as they had an early start in the morning, we went to a bar across the street with a covers band playing. I was quite drunk by this point and a couple next to us aroused my hatred by singing along to Coldplay songs, waving their arms and looking meaningfully at one another. I frowned at them to express my disgust. Gemma tried to hide behind her beer.

We didn't get up until the afternoon the next day as it had turned out to be a pretty late one for us. I had passed out on top of the bed, which Gemma found so amusing that she photographed it. I think I'll be deleting those ones in the interest of public safety. The day was somewhat a washout as I felt very hungover for most of it, although it got better when I had a beer with dinner. We ate at a beach side restaurant, which was nice, with the sun going down as we finished our meal. On the walls of the restaurant were pictures of when it was trashed by the Tsunami in 2004. Patong was very badly hit by the Tsunami, although is pretty well rebuilt by now. There are evacuation route signs up all over the beachfront now.

We'd had to sort an extra night at our hotel as we had booked an onward flight and weren't able to get one for the next day. Probably a good thing as we slept in again and would've missed check out. We also missed the time of a tour to James Bond Island (Scaramanga's hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun), something that I quite fancied. Never mind, there'll be other beautiful little islands I'm sure. We spent the afternoon having a walk on the beach and a couple of beers.

Patong is full of tailors shops and you do get hassled quite a lot walking along. It's hard to remain polite, but I really don't want a suit, so there is no point in me going into someones shop to have a look. It always follows the same format, 'Hi mate, where you from', 'England, I don't want a suit', 'Hey, England, Lovely Jubbly, which part', 'Norwich, in the East, I don't want a suit', 'Norwich, yes, when do you leave', 'tomorrow, did I mention, I have no need of a suit', 'well, I can do you very cheap price on a lovely suit, just come look in my shop', 'I don't want a suit', 'just look', 'no'. Once or twice this would be fine, but at the 100th iteration it becomes quite tiresome, especially when it is interspersed with, 'Tuk tuk, taxi?'. My head has nearly shaken off I think with all the negative answers I've given to people.

All of this may give the impression that I'm not enjoying it here, but I am, very much so. I do quite fancy finding somewhere a little less built up though.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Lonely Planet vs. Rough Guide

For South East Asia we have been using a Rough Guide guidebook, the first one I've had. Previously in Australia and South Africa we've used the Lonely Planet. I much prefer the latter. The Rough Guide seems to have been printed on toilet paper, and not the good stuff, that horrible waxed stuff you used to get at school. They also seem to be fairly down on a lot of places that seem perfectly OK to me. Alright, places may be more built up than when these guidebooks were started, and may have lost a little of their charm, but they really aren't that bad. For instance, the beach that we stayed in on Langkawi wasn't really given a favourable review at all, when in actual fact it was really rather pleasant. The reason they were down on it was that the water isn't crystal clear. That isn't such a problem really. It's not pollution, just churned up sand and mud in the water. I also just prefer the way the LP lays out information. With the RG you have to search back and forwards within a chapter to find what you want, say information on trains, whereas the LP will bung all of the relevant information in one place. So I don't think I'll be using the RG for the rest of our journey.

Penang and Langkawi

After the Cameron Highlands we travelled to the island of Penang and stayed in the city of George Town. Although it was another city I enjoyed myself here. I had expected it to be quite English due to the past Colonial rule, but it was actually more like how we imagined a SE Asian city to be; Slightly chaotic. tumble down. but full of life. We had to acclimatise to the heat again as we had been in the Highlands.The first day we were there, the heat was intense.

We stayed at a hotel where the double room cost about 3 pounds sterling. Tim ended up paying more for his pint in an English style pub we went into to escape the heat. It had the english pub in the afternoon, bit down to a t, complete with bored old men propped up at the bar and a feeling of depression hanging in the air.

We wandered around George Town for a couple of days and then caught the ferry to Palau Langkawi which is the island which my friends Nicola and Karl had their honeymoon on. We stayed at a guesthouse on the edge of the rainforest, 100 metres from the beach which you could get to by walking through another hotels grounds. A man who talked in a loud American accent, but who was German, arrived with his girlfriend at the same time as us. I don't know why they bothered coming. They had been travelling since last August ( something which we heard again and again) and he kept saying things like, "once you've seen one waterfall you've seen them all" and "you know, once you've seen one lovely white sandy beach, you've seen them all" in a loud annoying whiny american accent. As soon as they got to the hostel they put a dvd on. I think they must have been a bit travel weary, but I think if I got to that point I would have to go home. It felt like they were going through the motions.

We had a lovely time though, and we saw a lovely waterfall which was actually quite different to other waterfalls that I have seen so that guy was wrong! We hired a little car and drove round the whole island. Our first stop was seven wells waterfall where when you climb to the top there is a natural waterslide which are rocks you can slide down into several little pools. It was great fun! I went first, but managed to slide a little way, before the curent pushed me into a little side pool, which I had difficulty getting out of! I couldn't pull myself up the slippery rock to get out, so I ended uo looking like a beached whale trying to haul myself out whilst Tim just stood there laughing at me. I don't think I looked very becoming.

Tim went next and he slid down all the way. He looked really cute as he kept turning round with a really excited grin on his face! I had another go and did it right this time. I yelped on the way as it was quite fast and hurt my bum when I went over the rocks, but I really enjoyed it. I think some local kids who were there were bemused by us. It would have been a brilliant place to hang out at their age. I could imagine just spending all my time there with my mates, laughing at pasty foreigners thrashing around in the pools.

Next we headed to the cable car which is the steepest in the world. It was very high and was lovely to ride above the jungle canopy. When we got to the top, the cloud was closing in, but there was still a bit of a view over the island and the tree tops. There was a suspension bridge at the top too which was ncie to walk over. It was along way down.

We drove to Tunjan Rhu, to see the hotel and beach which Nicola and Karl stayed in. As we got there, there were dramatic clouds and a storm brewing over the sea. We walked down the beach and when the wind picked up ( a sign that the storm was going to break) we headed back to the car. We were just in time as the rain started pelting down. We waited it out for a bit, but it seemed like it wasn't going to let up so we decided to just head off. However, instead of getting better it got worse and at one point the rain was so heavy I couldn't see anything ahead, so had to drive at snail's pace. We had hoped to go to more beaches, but because of the rain we decided to head back. We had done a full circuit of the island, but still had loads of fuel left. (We only put a fiver in in the first place and it filled the tank). We drove to nearby Cenang beach for tea and it was a lovely ending to a lovely day.

The rest of our time on Langkawi we went to the beach and ate and drank (juices in my case) at a local bar called Cactus which is obviouly very popular, looking at the comments which cover the ceiling and wall. I saw a letter on the wall along with a photo which had been sent of a man called Roy from Lowestoft! I didn't recognise him though. The owner of the bar, Ba, kept bringing us local fruits and wooden puzzles to play. I have a new favourite drink called Sour sop which is the juice of a fruit by the same name. We spent time at the hostel as well, reading, listening to the sounds of the jungle, stroking the 3 dogs they had and laughing at the dogs going mad at the pet monkey (which I didn't stroke as it was always too angry at the dogs). We met a few nice peole here as well. There was a really nice Czech couple who we didn't say an awful lot to due to the language barrier, but there was alot of grinning and waving of arms which said it all and a lot more then what the american\German bloke had said- and he said a lot.

Into Thailand

There is a direct ferry service from Pulau Langkawi over the border to the Thai town of Satun. In fact the border is so close that you can probably spit over it from the North of Langkawi. At the ferry terminal we saw an advert for a direct through ferry and bus package to Phuket, so decided to book that. The nice man at the booth assured us that it would be a direct coach, we'd be picked up by a car and transported from the ferry terminal to the bus station in Satun. He wrote us out a travel voucher and gave us our ferry tickets and his helper showed us to the immigration clearance point. All very professional and smoothly run.

On reaching the immigration point we had a bit of a job explaining our missing arrival card. When we explained to the guy behind the desk that we'd sat in the immigration HQ for hours awaiting a visa, he laughed heartily and told us they don't require one for people who've entered by train from Singapore, you just have to show your train ticket. I really don't know why they can't just stamp you into Malaysia at Singapore, or even just put a sign on the wall explaining it. What would have happened if we'd have thrown away our train tickets? At least the immigration officer got a laugh out of it.

The ferry journey passed quite quickly and the immigration went smoothly coming into Thailand. I was expecting a driver holding a card up or something, but couldn't see one. The guy who sold us our tickets had given us stickers to wear so we put them on. A guy came up to us and mentioned Mr. Sudin, the contact name that we were supposed to go to in Thailand. He took our travel voucher and disappeared. After about 10 minutes he came back and had us get into the back of a rickety old songthaew, a pickup truck with two benches in the back facing one another. After driving around Satun for a while dropping off the other passengers, including an old woman and about 20 plastic fish baskets, we were told to get out and go across the road. Mr Sudin was there and apologised for not being at the ferry, as he'd been in bed. He told us that we wouldn't be getting a direct coach, rather having to change in Trang. He wrote us out a ticket on the back of an envelope, which basically said, 'Phuket, 2 pax'. I began to realise that Malaysian standards of professionalism may be slightly higher than Thai ones.

We had a long journey to Trang, which for me was a journey of discovery. The discovery being that Thai buses are built for people of Thai stature. The top of the headrest cut directly into the bottom of my shoulder blades the whole way. This is about as comfortable as it sounds. At Trang we were pointed at a lady who handed us a real printed ticket and waved in the direction of a line of buses. Fortunately there was a number printed on the bus and on the ticket in western script, so I was able to confirm exactly what bus we needed to be on. After a wait of around an hour we got on the bus and headed off towards Phuket.

Despite being very uncomfortable, both buses were a reasonably enjoyable ride, mainly because of the VCDs of Thai pop being played on the TV. The words were coming up Karaoke style in both Thai and Roman script (but in Thai language), and I thought I would be able by a process of pop based osmosis, be able to assimilate this and magically teach myself to speak Thai. Needless to say, I failed miserably and can still only say 'Hello'. I liked the lady Thai singers quite a lot because they were very pretty, but the boy pop stars just sucked. They kept doing really uncool air guitar bits in the middle of their ballads.

A chance text message to Carly and Charlotte to let them know we were now in Thailand and headed to Phuket, resulted in finding out that they were there too, staying at Patong beach. When we arrived in Phuket town a taxi driver pointed us at the hotel booking place and being too tired to wander around and sort it out ourselves we readily booked a place through him. A taxi ride later we were in a hotel in Patong, but too knackered to do anything other than shower and go to bed. We resolved to find Carly and Charlotte in the morning.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pulau Langkawi

There is a direct ferry from Georgetown on Penang to the island of Langkawi. We booked it through the hotel and decided it would be sensible to try and prebook accomodation. I rang a hostel/guest house from a shopping centre in Georgetown and had a very interesting time hearing and trying to make myself heard. I imagine onlookers must have thought I was stupid, shouting, 'What, no ferry, no 3 nights, no 3 nights,' and so on. The ferry was packed, and I got annoyed by two blokes and their burqa clad wives, who jumped the queue when we were getting on the ferry then tried to arrange to be the first off too. We'd told the guy from Zackry's Guest House that we'd be on the first ferry, because that's what our hotel said, but in the end we were on the second. Luckily the bloke waited for the second ferry to come in, so we still got our pick up.

Zackry's Guest House is on Pentai Tengah, which is a reasonably quiet beach on the West of the island. The place isn't right on the beach, but it is just a short walk through the hotel over the road to get to it. This beach is much less developed than it's neighbour, Pentai Cenang, which has many bars and restaurants crowding the beach. The Rough Guide gives both beaches short shrift, but they are OK really. Quite nice sand, the water isn't the clearest in the world, but neither is it too murky. The beaches have the view of little green covered islands popping out of the water. At the guest house we splurged on an aircon/ensuite room for 4 nights -ah the luxury, we even had hot water.

We chilled out for a couple of days and had some walks on the beach and a little explore of the local area. Pantai Cenang is home to Underwaterworld, an aquarium, and mainly to escape the sun for a while, we popped in there. It wasn't the best aquarium, but it does boast a 3D movie theatre. The only trouble being that the only real 3D part was the advert for 3D technology that they showed at the end. Gemma says she was laughing at everyone, including me, taking off their glasses then putting them back on to try and work out whether they were working or not!

Near to us we dicovered the Cactus Cafe, a cool little place where the owner, Ba, keeps bringing us different tropical fruits to try and challenging us with wooden puzzle games. It's one of those places that people have written well wishes over every available space (mainly the ceiling as it's open sided). Nearby was the Reggae House, which we were going to go to, only they were showing football instead of their normal live music. The hostel has a large collection of shoddily pirated DVDs. Someone had put the English subtitles on, which were so badly translated that it was hilarious. The word 'Well' kept coming out as 'Soybean Cake', so you would get Professor Xavier in X-Men 3 saying things like, 'Come next soybean cake examples'.

My beer consumption rose somewhat because Langkawi is a duty free island. This means that a can of Tiger beer that would be RM7 on the mainland is only RM3 in most places here. At the hostel it's only RM2.50.

Car hire is pretty cheap here, so we took one out for the day. We had to stop at Telegah Harbour to get some money out, as the island is not exactly blessed with ATMs. The harbour is quite pretty, with a fair smattering of posh yachts. I got stared at by a table of fat people with Lancashire accents. Round the corner a little way is the Seven Wells waterfall. This is named for the series (of seven, surprisingly) pools at the top of the waterfall. The rocks between the pools are covered in slimy algae and the water flows so fast that it forms a natural waterslide. After walking up to the top of the waterfall you feel like you need a refreshing dip and sliding about between the pools is fun.

Nearby is the cable car, a two segment beast of a climb up a mountain. I seem to recall it is the worlds steepest cable car. Unfortunately there was some cloud when we went (very typical of our cable car experience so far), but we were still able to see some of the bays of the island and out over the jungle clad mountains. They have a large bridge between two bits of mountain. Walking over it I was unnerved slightly by the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance.

At the top of the island is it's best beach, Tanjung Rhu. This is also where Nicola & Karl had their honeymoon at the hotel of the same name. We drove up through the interior of the island, looking forward to dipping our toes in the water. The beach is lovely, a nice broad stretch of sand, clear waters and small limestone islands which you can walk out to at low tide. Looking out across the water I worked out where the thunder was coming from, as a wall of black cloud moved towards us. We had a brief walk down the beach before a wind picked up and turned the broken shell covering of the beach into tiny razors aimed at our legs. We got back into the car just before the rain started.

It wasn't raining too heavily when we started the car and drove off back towards the interior of the island. For about 5 minutes. Then it began to bucket down to the point that we were straining to see anything at all through the windscreen. We carried on towards the main town of Kuah, and then back towards Pentai Tengah and our accomodation. We had been planning to do a bit of a beach tour, especially given that the car still had over half a tank of petrol left. The rain sort of scuppered that though. Back at the hostel the rain continued to pour down. Sensing a slight break we jumped into the car and drove the short distance to Pentai Cenang for food.

After the rain comes sunshine, and the next day was glorious. Not feeling like doing much in particular, we had a gentle walk down the beach and crossed the rocks onto the other half. Gemma fell over on the rocks and spent the rest of the day rubbing her bum. The sea is very warm and lovely to swim in. I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of it after all of the time we've spent in cities. I feel very much like I am on holiday again.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pulau Penang

Up early for the 8am bus to Butterworth, the jumping off point for the island of Penang. The bus actually goes ovee the bridge to the island, but that would put us at the bus station, 40 minutes stinky bus ride away from the city of Georgetown. So instead we hopped off at Butterworth and took the 20 minute ferry ride. We'd made the smart move of prebooking our accomodation this time, as apparently Georgetown can get quite busy. We'd done a little bit of searching on the Internet and found Noble Hotel, which the reviewer said was cheap and clean. He wasn't kidding with cheap: a double room (in our terms) with shower (but no toilet) was RM19, or about 3 pounds Sterling. Not bad.

Georgetown is more like I had imagined South East Asian towns to be. Grimy, chaotic, tumbledown but full of life. The town centre is reasonably small and so walkable, but crossing the roads can be a bit of a nightmare. There are literally thousands of mopeds buzzing round the streets, weaving in and out of the traffic and blatantly ignoring traffic signals. At one point a guy was stopped by a light and mounted the pavement to turn the corner instead. Quite a lot of people seem to think the pavements for mopeds, and I even saw one nutter riding against the flow of traffic on the road. It's mental, but I quite enjoyed it.

Gemma wasn't so stressed as she hadn't been bitten since the journey to Cameron Highlands. Walking round town we managed to find a shop that sold mosquito nets and she bought possibly the worlds largest. There was absolutely nothing to affix it to in our room, so we had to make do with burning mosquito coils. I fear that this may be the case in many places to come. I bought some sandals and a pair of sunglasses to replace the pair I'd lost in South Africa -these cost about a pound and showed their sturdiness by breaking two days later. I think I best invest in a more sturdy pair.

In Georgetown we just went for walks, I managed to take one or two photos shooting from the hip -I haven't really been taking too many up until that point for some reason. We tried to go to the museum but it was shut. On the way someone shouted at us for not going into a Chinese temple. We found the Soho Free House a British style pub. When we went in in the afternoon it had all the atmosphere of one of those old men pubs where pensioners go to die. I couldn't really enjoy my beer thinking how a pint cost the same amount as a nights accomodation.