Sunday, October 29, 2006

Fare thee well, Thailand

Hello once again, my friends, relatives and other correspondees.

Well, I've finally said my goodbyes to Thailand. I've left behind the land of Tuk-Tuks, Sang Som, Sawasdee and smiles, and am now in Cambodia. I'd probably have written sooner, but Ko Chang is another one of those places where internet is oh so much more expensive than it really ought to be.

Before that, of course, I was back in Bangkok, where I spent a couple of days shopping for supplies (there are more and better pharmacies etc in Bangkok, plus the farang-oriented tourist markets actually have sandals in my size) and watching football at a couple of the fake British or Irish pubs which infest the Sukhumvit area, where I was staying this time. One of these (the Londoner) was actually a brewpub as well, so I got the joys of a drinkable pint of bitter (which obviously put me in hog heaven).

That took care of the weekend, before on Monday I finally made the side-trip I'd been planning to Kanchanaburi. However, due to circumstances beyond my control (non-existent river express service in the morning, train delayed for public holiday in the afternoon), I didn't actually make either the trip there or back on the train as I'd planned to, instead getting rather better acquainted with Bangkok's southern bus terminal than I'd planned. Being Bangkok, this is naturally in the west of the city.

Whilst there, though, I looked around the Allied war cemetery and the Thai-Burma Railway Museum as, for those who haven't gathered it already, Kanchanaburi is the site of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, part of the WWII Thai-Burma Rail Link, better known to the world as the Death Railway. Something like 16,000 Allied PoWs (mostly British, Dutch and Australian) died in making the railway, but it was only with this visit that I became properly aware that well over 50,000 Asians, mostly indentured workers (ie pretty much slaves), also died in its construction. Nobody actually knows the precise numbers, though, since the Japanese didn't bother keeping records of how many died (as they were forced to for PoWs by the Geneva Conventions).

Lightening the mood somewhat, though, was the discovery that the Bridge on the River Kwai wasn't actually on the River Kwai (or Khwae, as it's usually spelt in Thailand). The guy who wrote the book didn't realise this, but it actually ran for a long way alongside the Khwae, but the bridge in question crossed the River Khung. This wasn't an issue until the film became so successful and tourists wanted to see it. At this point, the Thais then had a problem - how to deal with this without confusing all the poor farang visitors. In true Thai style, they decided that the easy way around this was just to rename the river - so that section of the Khung was renamed the Mae Nam Khwae Yai (or Big Kwai River), meaning that the bridge now did indeed cross over a river Kwai.

So now the tourists can scramble all over the railway bridge there, getting out of the way whenever one of the occasional trains comes along (this isn't quite as daft as it sounds, given that there is a 10km/h speed limit over the bridge). Which many of them were doing. I didn't go all the way across, but did have a bit of a wander out on the bridge. It being a public holiday, there was a little tourist train running across the bridge, which was why the scheduled train was so late that I eventually decided to go get another bus.

On arrival back into Bangkok, later than I'd expected, I then faced the challenge of getting over to Khao San Rd, where I was due to meet up with Elin, the Swedish girl with whom I had had a slightly surreal drinking session my previous time in Thailand's crazy capital. Unfortunately, the bus station was mostly populated by taxi-drivers of the more mercenary persuasion, most of whom refused to turn on the meter and kept trying to get me to pay 250 Baht or more for a quick trip of a few km across the river. After about 10 minutes, though, I finally found a guy who was happy to do his job properly and use the meter (which meant the trip cost me 60 Baht, as it should), and hence was only about 15 minutes late.

Luckily, Elin hadn't upped and left, so I had my planned reunion, which ended up turning into another impromptu drinking session courtesy of friends Elin had made, namely two Irish girls she'd met in Bangkok and two German girls who'd been on her dive course on Ko Tao. Obviously, I was deeply distressed to have to go out drinking with five young ladies, so it wasn't any real surprise that I didn't make it onto the bus I had planned to get the next morning, and ended up staying an extra day in BKK. It also wasn't any particular surprise that I didn't drink at all on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, though, I did make it to my bus (the Eastern bus station being luckily only a few Skytrain stops from my hostel, saving me any more taxi-related grief), and headed down to the little port of Laem Ngop, where I caught the ferry over to Ko Chang. There, I decided to sod being different, and caught the sawngthaew down to the island's main backpacker community of Lonely Beach. Though, as locals and guidebooks point out incessantly, it's not particularly lonely these days - Ko Chang is having something of a tourist boom at the moment, so there are guesthouses everywhere.

At any rate, I had a pleasant couple of days down on the island, split between lazing on the beach reading books, eating and drinking good food at a restaurant/bar and guesthouse called the TreeHouse and (on Friday) taking a snorkelling trip out to some of the other islands just south of Ko Chang. And, once again in typical style, I ended up on a big night out, having met some fun people, the night before I needed to leave. Such that my travels on Saturday, back to the mainland and over the border into Cambodia, were not as comfortable as they might have been. That night, I stayed in the little town of Ko Kong, where I ended up eating and sampling Cambodian beer in a little ex-pat bar called Bob's, where I met an assortment of the local characters, led by Bob himself, a garrulous old Aussie, and including Percy (a 73-year-old, foul-mouthed old merchant sailor from England, with a collection of anecdotes that would make your toes curl). Astonishingly, the fish there was Barramundi, which I had hitherto believed indigenous to Australia, but apparently they grow in the rivers here as well.

Then today I have caught the boat down the coast to Sihanoukville, Cambodia's main port and beach resort, where I have acquainted myself with the joys of being transported, along with my pack and daypack, on the back of a motorbike, and vegged out by the sea. So another couple of days' beach-time beckon, with a brief interlude tomorrow where I need to pop into town and get my Vietnamese visa.

And that's the lot for the moment. Apologies this has turned into one of my epic compositions. Hope you are all well, wherever you are!

Take care and have fun,


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Friday, October 20, 2006

One of those days...

Hello again,
Occasionally, just occasionally, when travelling, I have the odd day when I wonder why I am doing this. When the Gods appear hell-bent on making my life unpleasant, and when what can go wrong, will. It's never as bad as it seems at the time, but it can send my (normally pretty low on the road) stress levels back to what they were when I was working and more.
As those who were nattering with me on MSN yesterday may have gathered, yesterday was one of those days. Quick (well, quick for me) summation follows.
'Mare yesterday involved:
1) Being misled by the guy who sold me a ticket from Don Dhet (island in the middle of nowhere - well, actually the middle of the Mekhong in the 4,000 Islands but at times might as well be nowhere) to Pakxe, such that I was waiting around for an hour and a half in Nakasang (the local port town) for my ride north to Pakxe to depart.
2) Said transport being a sawngthaew (converted pickup/van, with two bench seats facing each other in the back and, in this one, another bench inbetween - suffice to say, even for a Thai, that would be cramped). I did know this, but had not fully comprehended the horror of being in said vehicle for around an hour and a half waiting (yes, I could have got out, but laboured under the misapprehension that we would be leaving at any minute), plus at least two hours on the road. Hard seats, little or no space, chickens on (initially) the back platform (before they were transferred to the roof), being offered fried-grasshopper-on-a-stick by vendors when we paused at one place, etc etc. An experience I could happily forego repeating.
3) When crossing the border from Laos to Thailand (on, admittedly, quite a nice bus) there wasn't a bank/exchange booth (unlike the crossing I made up north), meaning I had no alternative but to get scalped by the bloody bus driver for changing my last Kip (the Kip, bless its little, cotton, undervalued socks, is utterly unexchangeable anywhere outside the Lao People's Democratic Republic)
4) Arriving at Ubon Ratchathani (the terminus of the Northeastern railway line in Thailand), making another sawngthaew ride (happily a rather briefer one) down to the train station to discover that all sleeper berths that night were sold out (there had been almost a full train available when I checked a few days earlier before going into the near-internet-free-zone that is Si Phan Don, the 4,000 Islands). All second class seats that night were sold out. The only thing available on the trains that night was 3rd class seats. Deciding that my bum couldn't handle this (11 hours or so on a hard wooden bench, no air con, and the prospect of screaming Thai kids or, if my current luck held, maybe more chickens?), and that I have about a day's slack time, I enquire about trains the next day (today). No second class seats until the evening trains. Luckily, a couple of sleeping berths, one of which I get.
5) Walk away from the ticket office, and suddenly realise I could probably have got a bus in the morning. Curse inwardly.
6) Realise that I've just landed myself a day (and a night) in one of the least-touristy, so least-English-speaking, parts of Thailand. And the train station is out of the centre of town. Helpful lady at the info desk provides me with a map. I head off to try and find a guesthouse.
7) Map is not terribly useful. Almost no street names on it. Not to scale. Of people I meet, they either a) can't speak English or b) have no idea where we are on the map.
8) Realise that I am, in fact, lost, after dark, in a city where apparently nobody speaks English.
This would be pretty much the nadir of my evening, before a nice old Thai gentleman (who has to get out his glasses to find that he can't tell where I am on the map either) is able to get me going in the right direction. The reason for this, not terribly reassuringly, is that I am asking for directions to the River Moon guesthouse, and it turns out this is the ONLY guesthouse in town. Hence, by asking for the GESS-ah-touse (the joys of Thai pronunciation of English - you cannot pronounce two consonants together without an intervening vowel), I find my way there.
The lady out front speaks English. It's cheap (cheapest place I've stayed in Thailand). These are the good points. The principle bad point is the bathroom. It's shared, and the worst I've had in Asia. The cockroaches are only a minor nuisance. We are down south of the river, actually in a satellite town of Ubon whose name I can't ever write down properly, and there is nowhere I can find that is open to sell food except a 7-11. I eat a 7-11 hotdog and some kind of horrific facsimile of a "chicken" sandwich (after the lovely baguettes in Laos, Thai over-sweet bread is a horrible shock to the system) for my dinner.
Looking back today, it's already starting to look more like another dumb anecdote of the trip. At the time, it was taxing, stressful, upsetting and (the early bits) seriously bloody uncomfortable.
In any case, prior to that I had a very quiet, chilled-out, peaceful few days down in Si Phan Don, which revolved mostly around lying in a hammock, trying not to get sunburnt whilst reading trashy paperback novels (finally, a situation where a Dan Brown novel actually qualifies as being more useful than a roll of toilet paper), chowing down on Lao food and Beer Lao in the evenings (for the few hours that the power is on), meeting more new acquaintances (I would call them friends, but we never really got time to talk for long enough, such that I don't even have any e-mail addresses from there). One day I actually got all enthusiastic and energetic and hired a bike, to ride over the old French railway bridge to one of the other islands and look at some waterfalls.
As you can see, not the most event-strewn section of my trip, but really quite pleasant and relaxing (just in time for yesterday to go and undo all that good work at chilling out...). Oh, and I saw some ancient ruins called Wat Phou on the way down there, which were quite impressive, if rendered a little harder to enjoy properly by the scalding heat. Did I mention the weather's been absolutely scorching recently?
So, now I burn yet more time on the net whilst waiting for my train, trying not to be deafened by the sounds of the local kids playing online games around me (yes, it's one of THAT kind of internet cafe, rather than one that charges you a fortune for the herculean task of burning a CD and features Israelis loudly arguing with the owner about how it ought to be cheaper), and reflecting once again on how much better it would have been for me if I'd followed my resolution to learn more than the most very basic of Thai (things like "How to ask for directions", for example...).
A few more days of lunacy in and around Bangkok beckon, before I head down for a last dose of the Thai islands on (probably) Ko Chang, and then head on into Cambodia.
Hope all is well with all of you (those I haven't been bending the cyber-ear of on MSN). Take care and have fun,

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Life in the slow lane

Hello again,
Another note, probably a briefer one this time, as I'm passing time until my bus goes down to Pakxe. I'm now in Vientiane, the capital of the Lao PDR, and sleepy is an insufficiently descriptive word for the place. In the time since last I wrote, I've seen the madness of the final day of the Ban Sum Awk (sp?) festival in Luang Phabang, involving carrying lots of ceremonial boats made of bamboo and paper and covered in candles (I know, sounds like a recipe for disaster) down to the river, lighting the candles, and setting them loose to float down the Mekhong. All while fireworks and firecrackers go off all around you (with some of the local boys taking vindictive pleasure in throwing them right next to falangs). Ironically, the festival is supposed to celebrate the retreat of the rains at the end of the Wet season, so the monsoonal downpour that kicked in just as it finished up was guilty of slightly bad timing!
The rain then proceeded to play merry hell with the plans I had, together with Giles and Jane (an English couple), Lukas and Katrin (a Swiss couple) and Caroline and Marieke (the two Dutch girls I mentioned in my last mail) - all off the slow-boat I took into Luang Phabang - to go and see the Kuang Si waterfalls the next day. In the end, we did get there in the early afternoon, but only had about an hour there before the rain kicked back in, and the water was running very high (and very brown, due to all the silt being washed down), so the swimming holes were a real no-no. Bit of a shame. Though I did get to feed a tiger (who has an enclosure there after being rescued from poachers), which is something you don't do every day.
On leaving Luang Phabang, I headed down on the "Express VIP" bus to Vang Vieng. The quotation marks are because, unlike many of the VIP buses in Malaysia and Thailand, this one was below the standard I'd expect even of National Express, it had severe difficulties finding 2nd gear at times, and generally creaked along the road in a slightly unnerving fashion. The scenery on the drive was spectacular, though, as we made our way through the mountains of north-central Laos - mist-shrouded peaks and outcroppings, draped in emerald-green forest, with rivers snaking through valleys and gorges below. Gorgeous.
Vang Vieng is similarly blessed in the looks department (at least in terms of its surroundings), nestling on a river in a valley flanked by mountains and interrupted by occasional limestone outcroppings rising suddenly from the river's floodplains. If you've seen classical pictures of Chinese valleys with big knife-edge rocks sticking out of them, well, that's what this is rather like. Except that they've turned the village/town there into a tourist centre. Infamously, most of the restaurants/cafes in town serve almost exactly the same food and drinks, at almost the same prices, and all of them either show DVD movies or (more often) perpetual DVDs of Friends or The Simpsons. "Happy" shakes and pizzas (generally featuring interesting varieties of mushroom) also abound. It's all a bit of a shame, really. Amusingly, though, the town bus station is on a disused airfield just behind the main development, which you walk across to get into town.
The first day there, I just chilled out, and ended up meeting up with Giles, Jane, Caroline and Marieke (and a pack of Argentines, also off the slow-boat) at a place called the Smile Island Bar. Which, unsurprisingly, is on an island in the river, reached by a bamboo bridge of uncertain engineering merit (though there are MUCH worse ones in town). There, we sat about, drank a few beers, and played petanque, or boules if you prefer, which was slightly surreal but rather good fun. The second day, we went on an organised trip up to some of the caves north of town (the whole area is limestone-based, with some extraordinary caves), followed by walking through the countryside, followed by tubing down the river. Yes, the number-1 most-popular thing to do in Vang Vieng is to get a bloody enormous tractor inner-tube, and sit in it and float down the river. Beautiful countryside, and the added fun of various riverside bars along the way, who will happily stick out bamboo poles, pull you into shore, and then ply you with beer and attempt to persuade you to use the various zip-lines, swings and platforms which have the common denominator of you ending up in the river, from various heights. Unfortunately, we were running slightly late by this point, so only had time to sample the first couple of these, but it was good fun (even just to watch - I only used the first zip-line, before my usual aversion to getting dunked in water re-asserted itself).
The day after that, my now-regular companions and I chartered a minivan to get us down to Vientiane (accompanied by our driver singing along to Madonna!?!), where I have been the last couple of days, most of which have been spent doing not very much. Notable things I have done are pretty much limited to exploring the Morning Market (the biggest in Laos, dealing with everything from eggs to silk fabrics, to washing machines, via the usual food stands and T-shirt vendors "Hey mistah! You want T-Shirt? We got XL!") and going to see the Patuxai (Victory Monument), a huge 1960s concreted arch, modelled vaguely on the Arc de Triomphe, which I climbed to get views over the capital (what there is of it). Amusingly, the interior floors of the Patuxai are also now given over to souvenir and T-shirt stalls.
So, tonight I head down to southern Laos, on an overnight bus (I keep vowing off these, and end up taking them again!). And I've just realised that I'll be home in 8 weeks' time. 56 days until I'm back in the UK. My, how time does fly!
On that note, those of you in the UK, I shall probably be having some kind of celebration for my birthday soon after I get back - either the weekend directly after (the 16th/17th December) or between Xmas and New Year (maybe the 28th?). Said celebration to happen in Cambridge (depending on numbers, possibly in dear, sleepy old Caldecote). Anyone wanting to attend and having strong feelings one way or the other on date, do please let me know. That said, I'll probably pop down to London town at some point, and also over to Brizzle, so I will hopefully catch up with more of you then.
Until next I write, take care and have fun!

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Taking the slow boat...

Hello again, my many and various friends and other readers!

I've swapped countries again, and now write to you from the Lao People's Democratic Republic, commonly known as Laos (pronounced with a silent 's'), or amongst some backpackers as Laos, Please Don't Rush. Yes, if Thailand can occasionally seem like it's operating on a different time system, and Fiji frequently so, Laos apparently takes this to whole new levels. I've only been in the country a couple of days, so haven't seen enough to judge, but it seems plausible.

Those couple of days basically encompassed the trip down the Mekhong river from Huay Xai (where I crossed the border, which at that point is the river, from Chiang Khong in Thailand) to Luang Phabang. The last day or so in Chiang Mai I spent doing some cookery classes (yes, I now know how to make Thai curries properly, woohoo!) and occasionally wandering around the markets. I didn't do the Hill-Tribe trekking in the end, partly from time constraints, partly because I don't have shoes any more and didn't think my sandals were really up to that much walking, and partly because the weather forecasts were universally iffy (although, it turned out, mostly wrong).

I also kept up my usual record of having one of my best nights out in any particular place on the night before I have to leave - I'd got all my stuff packed up, and popped down one of the local bars that I'd earlier seen advertising live music that evening, just to listen to a band for a bit, got invited over by a girl whose birthday it was to have a a drink with the group she was with, and ended up out in a place glorying in the name of "Spicy" until around 3 in the morning. Subsequently, I didn't get up and check out quite as early as I'd planned, meaning that when I got to the bus station all the early buses were booked up and I couldn't get on one until lunchtime, meaning that (when I'd made my way across northern Thailand to the border), I arrived just too late to get across to Huay Xai that night. Which was a slight problem as I was on the last day on my visa. Meaning I got a 500 Baht fine (about 7 quid or so) for overstaying by a day when I crossed the next morning. Ah well, that'll teach me to go out drinking the night before leaving somewhere. Actually, who am I kidding, it blatantly won't...

For the trip down the Mekhong, I took the advice of people everywhere (apart from a few demented petrolheads) and forewent the joys of the ultra-fast and ultra-dangerous speedboats for the pleasures of the slow boat. This takes two days going down the great river, serving as a bus service for some of the local villages by the river as well as carrying hordes of backpackers, which meant it had the unintended pleasant consequence of providing a whole new bunch of people to get to know, something that Thailand's guesthouse-based scene (as opposed to the hostels I'm more used to) is not all that brilliant at. Hence, my travelling companions included the usual numberless host of fellow British, a stereotypically Irish lad called Liam who spent the best part of both days drinking lao-lao (the local rice moonshine, which smells like meths!), a couple of Dutch girls, a Swedish lad, a German-American girl called Jessie who'd been studying in China and a trio of French girls who gave me plenty of practice for my rusty francais.

The weather was mostly good (we went through occasional light squalls of rain, but there were always blue skies in sight a little further on), the boat was less hellish than some guidebooks lead you to believe (ie those on both days had seats, the second day they even had cushions, and the toilets, while less than pleasant, weren't the hole-in-the-deck variety that I'd halfways feared) and the company was pleasant, making the trip significantly more enjoyable than most of the buses I've taken recently. The overnight stop in Pakbeng was amusing, mostly because there wasn't a lot to do in the village other than have a few more beverages, so a lot of us got quite merry - for all that I regard lao-lao with deep wariness, I am already getting quite fond of Beer Lao, and the prices here compare VERY favourably with those in Thailand. The fact that we were there the night before a big Buddhist holiday also meant that all the local kids were running around throwing firecrackers everywhere, which was hard on the nerves at first (and not the nicest way to be awoken in the morning), but actually quite atmospheric.

So, now I'm in Luang Phabang, Laos' second city and former capital and, well, it's basically a very beautiful riverside town - the population's something like 20,000, so it's not exactly a teeming metropolis, which is great after the madness of Bangkok. Planning on staying here a couple more nights before I start heading on south through Laos, most likely staying at Vang Vieng before I get to the capital at Vientiane. All good fun.

Hope, as ever, that you are all well and enjoying yourselves wherever you are. Take care and have fun,


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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Crazy times in the City of Angels

Hello again,

Wow, I actually managed not to write any kind of mass-communication for a week or so whilst on the road. And, while a week may (as the saying goes) be a long time in politics, it seems like forever when you're travelling. In that week I have:

- ended up singing duets in a beach bar on Ko Phi Phi with a Swiss girl
- watched an awful lot of football
- had a distinctly unpleasant overnight bus journey from Surat Thani to Bangkok
- unknowingly had my spare credit card stolen in the course of said unpleasant journey
- praised various souls from my bank (for possibly the first time) for noticing some dodgy transactions coming up on said card and putting a freeze on it
- experienced the madness of Krungthep, the City of Angels (better known to most foreigners as Bangkok)
- specifically, experienced the madness of Khao San Rd, the beating heart of Bangkok's backpacker scene, albeit one with high blood-pressure that would need a defibrilator kept to hand
- got drunk and practised my German (again)
- had a very bizarre (and totally unplanned) evening out on the town in Bangkok in the company of a Swedish girl called Elin (and no, to those of you who will reply with the obvious questions, I didn't)
- contemplated buying a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "No, I don't want a f*%king Tuk-Tuk!"
- refused even to contemplate joining EVERY SINGLE OTHER backpacker in Thailand and getting a "Same Same But Different" T-shirt
- bought the cliched "flag-patches" for most of the countries I've been to to sew on my backpack
- realised that I've been to rather a lot of countries now and this is going to result in an annoyingly large amount of sewing to do
- marvelled at the comfort, price and service on the Thai State Railway compared to the nightmare that is the British train system (thanks a bloody million, Mr Major, you w*&ker)
- marvelled about the comfort, service and security on the Thai State Railway compared to the Thai Robber-Baron Backpacker Express VIP Bus Companies
- had a fascinating conversation over dinner with a Burmese gentleman on said train, which has convinced me I definitely want to see Myanmar/Burma, but not until those idiots who currently run the country are gone (amusingly, Burma's press is apparently not allowed to report on the coup in Thailand, as the Burmese junta is worried that the moderate way the Thai generals are going about things, and their credible timetable for putting things back in the hands of civilians, would make them look bad...)
- decided that Chiang Mai is a very nice place that I would like to spend more time in, then cursed that my Thai visa runs out on Thursday, so I do indeed have to go over the border into Laos pretty much straight away

And that's about where I'm at. Hopefully gonna do some kind of a cookery course while I'm here, just got to decide between the 3 million or so different schools (possible slight exaggeration there, but not by that much). Apart from that, gonna chill out and carry on with redecorating my backpack.

Hope you're all well! Take care and have fun,


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