A Travellerspoint blog

Island life

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View Backpacking 08/09 on VanessaT's travel map.

Arriving on koh samui we spent ages trying to get a shared taxi to take us to Maenam beach without the rip off foreigner price, after about 20 mins and a lot of walking we finally found one. Not a good introduction to the island!

We settled in our room, a stones throw from the beach, and after a bit of exploring we hot footed it to a prime sunbathing spot (didnt have to look hard, the beach was deserted) where Sally proceeded to get very red and burnt!!

The next few days we wandered round Maenam village, had massages (aloe vera wraps for sally!) and generally enjoyed the sun, sea and sand!

We ventured into Chaweng, the most populated area on the island one day with supposedly the nicest beach but it was horrible, jam packed with beachfront bars, people and hawkers trying to flog you things so we quickly retreated back to the quiet relaxing Maenam.

After four days we headed over to Ko Phangan to the north, a smaller and less developed island and caught a boat out to Bottle beach.

all the bungalow operations are owned by one family and are imaginatively named bottle beach I, II and III with smile being the odd one out! naturally we headed for smile, and bagged ourselves a cute bungalow in the middle of a tropical garden looking out onto the beach. perfect.

spent the rest of our time there lazing round the beach...we went snorkeling one day with borrowed equipment from Smile, one set had a leaky mask and the other a leaky snorkel so we either got blinded or drowned!!

the beach can only be reached by boat and this makes it lovely and peaceful and relaxed. We were having lunch one day when a group of people on jetskis roared into the bay and dropped off a few people then whizzed around making lots of noise. The waiter at bottle beach one was fairly annoyed by the disturbance and gathered some of his mates together, headed towards the group...brandishing a meat cleaver from the kitchen where he proceeded to tell them in no uncertain terms to stop making so much noise! needless to say the warning was heeded by the jetskiers and they soon left!

all too soon it was time to leave and i left sally on koh samui to catch the bus back up to bangkok while i carried on down south, heading towards malaysia.

The situation in the South of Thailand is slightly dodgy and there have been quite a few bombings in the recent past by the pattani united liberation organisation who want to make a separate Muslim state in the south. in the minibus on the way to the border there was a big police presence and every few miles a road block this turned the journey into a big slalom as we were always weaving in and out of the cordons!!

crossed the border uneventfully except for the fact i seemed to be the only person walking over the border, everyone else was in cars so i felt a bit out of place with my big rucksack and being the only westerner in sight!!

Now in malaysia and heading to the Perhentian islands tomorrow, apparently home to some of the best beaches in south east asia!

Posted by VanessaT 06:41 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bridges and Tigers!

sunny 30 °C
View Backpacking 08/09 on VanessaT's travel map.

Met Sally from the airport and we headed straight for Kanchanburi, about 3 hours west of bangkok by a very hot bus! Kanchanaburi is home to the bridge over the river kwai, part of the death railway to Burma, constructed by POW's under Japanese control during WWII.

Spent the night being rocked to sleep in our guesthouse which was actually floating on huge rafts on the river!

The next day we went to the Thai-Burma railway centre to learn more about the construction of the railway. Its one of the best museums i've visited on my trip so far, full of interesting information, models and exhibits, all brought to life through the moving personal accounts and anecdotes of survivors. Its this personal connection that can make or break a museum like this and it was this aspect which was missing in a lot of the Cambodian and Vietnamese museums.

Am typing this in a pub and a live band (including bad thai singing!) has just started playing so i can barely hear myself think so sorry if the rest of this post doesnt make much sense!!!!!

After the museum we walked to the bridge which is a reconstruction as the original was bombed during the war, evidence of which can still be seen on the concrete pillars. It a slight anti climax as its essentially just a bridge!!

Our second day was spent visiting Tiger Temple. Ever since i'd heard about it i'd been in two minds whether to visit.
The temple was founded in 1994 as a forest monastery and animal sanctuary and they took in their first cub in 1999. Over time they have been given several orphaned tiger cubs and over 21 cubs have since been born at the temple.
The unique thing about the temple is that the tigers are not caged during the day and are free to roam around the canyon area allowing the public to interact with them...obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity.
There is much controversy about the temple which many people saying the tigers arent infact orphaned but the result of black market tiger trading. Also some people claim they are drugged by the monks in order to keep them docile. The entrance fees are expensive in thai terms- 5 pounds per person, but this supposedly goes towards the building of tiger island which will allow the tigers to roam freely and not be caged at night. They have been planning it for years and its believed they are delaying the building as it will stop the interaction with the public and the number of people visiting might decline but when we visited they seemed to be doing a lot of construction so hopefully they are actually building it.

So deciding there was no other way but to see for myself, we went. There are lots of animals roaming around the temple grounds (no sign of a temple though!!) pigs, ponies, goats etc....think they might all have been dinner!
Heading down into the canyon we were unsure what to expect, turns out it is all very regimented, the tigers are in a roped off area and you are taken around them one person at a time while someone snaps photos. There are lots of thai handlers and western volunteers there to shove you in the right direction. Some of the tigers are chained and all of them are lying down dozing, i dont think that they are drugged though. It all happens a bit quickly so you dont get a chance to think - wow this is actually a tiger i'm stroking! from reading other peoples experiences I think it probably used to be a bit more relaxed with the tigers allowed more freedom but with the increase in visitor numbers they have had to make it more organised.

while we were there an irish journalist was interviewing one of the western keepers, i ear-wigged the tail end of the interview and he seemed to be interested in pinning down exactly where the tigers came from and if any dna testing had been carried out.

Overall i think the tiger temple probably started off with the best intentions, they were actually caring for the first tiger cubs but as so often happens it unexpectedly turned into a money maker and this means they have lost sight of the original aim and as a result the tigers are suffering.

It was time to head back to bangkok, as the sun was setting we watched the procession of bankokians jogging their way round Lumphini Park and ending in the hilarious techno aerobics session...of which our highlight was flip-flop man tripping over his box steps and star jumps. All warmed up it was off round the corner to Lumphini Boxing stadium for the Muay thai boxing!! we went for third tier tickets, much to the disappointment of the lady trying to flog us 20pound ringside seats, we were the furthest from the ring but we were in the action with the muay thai aficionados. Gambling is illegal in Thailand but you wouldnt think that from the amount going on in the third tier. Neither of us really had a clue what was going on in the ring and half the time it was more interesting to watch the men get more and more excited as the fight went on with the betting getting more and more furious. From what we figured out Thai boxing is similar to normal boxing but they can kick each other too! also they do a funny dance before the match in honour of their trainer which was possibly the most amusing part of the whole evening!! and seeing the bookies bribing the policemen on duty!!!!!!

Quick jaunt around patpong so sally could get asked if she wanted to see 'ping pong show?'....no thanks....'we have mens show?'....no thanks.....'ahh we have ladies too?'....no thanks...'sure no ping pong show???'

Saturday was the mighty Chatuchak Weekend Market- 35 acres of hustle and bustle under the fierce bangkok sun for which you need a map if you have any chance of surviving!!
We attacked early in the day and perused the jewellery, handicrafts, clothes, books, household goods, shoes, bags, dogs...yep i said dogs! and cats..and about every household pet you can think of! After 4 hours and frequent cold drink pit stops we were shopped out (almost) and headed for the air conditioned malls where we managed to put in another couple of hours bargaining- this time a bit less hot and sweaty though!!

Sunday we flopped into the cinema and watch the Zohan movie, very funny, and in the evening caught the bus down to Surat Thani where we boarded the boat to Ko Samui for some island adventures.

Posted by VanessaT 06:34 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ayuthaya and Koh Samet (again!)

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View Backpacking 08/09 on VanessaT's travel map.

Well i didnt actually manage to leave Chiang Mai after the last blog!! I stayed a couple more days and then got the overnight bus to Ayuthaya instead, another one of the old capitals of Thailand.

Stayed in a lovely old traditional teak house which has been turned into a guesthouse.

Went to visit the elephants in the old elephant kraal, there were lots of baby ones which were so cute...and very inquisitive, one even had his trunk in my bag looking for bananas!!

Also went on a night tour of the temples, they are in a style similar to the temples at Angkor and it was nice to see them all lit up at night. Think i am a bit templed out now though!! We went by a monument of the king (they love their royal family here!) and there were hundreds of cockerel statues which apparently bring good luck to the families that leave them, was a very strange sight though.

After leaving Ayuthaya i got the bus via Bangkok to Koh Samet, the island i stayed on the first time i was in Thailand. Spent a very relaxing six days on the beach, reading, eating and sleeping!

Left there this morning and am now in Bangkok awaiting the arrival of Sally in a couple of days!!

Added some pictures to Flickr of Angkor Wat and the other temples in Cambodia as i forgot to put them on before!

Posted by VanessaT 04:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Chiang Mai

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View Backpacking 08/09 on VanessaT's travel map.

Just written this entry and then managed to lose it! ARGH so annoying!!!!

so try again.....

Am now back in Thailand, took the slowboat from Luang Prabang to the border town to Huay Xai in Laos and it did what it said on the tin really. After two 9 hour days on the boat though everyone was ready to get off! The Mekong runs along a picturesque valley but the scenery is quite similar all the way, luckily i had a couple of books and my ipod to keep me amused.

I am currently in Chiang Mai the largest town in Northern Thailand and is like a metropolis compared with any of the cities in Laos!!

Chiang Mai is a base for trekking throughout the province but as its rainy season there are lots of leeches so i didnt fancy that too much! There are also a lot of other activities to choose from- courses include yoga, massage, jewelery making, batik making, Thai language classes, the choice is impressive!

I decided to take a one day Thai cooking class of which there are many to choose from! I signed up with the family run A Lot of Thai who had brilliant reviews on Trip Advisor. I was picked up from my guesthouse by Kwan (husband of Yui who teaches the class) in a sky blue VW camper van! Nestled in the back on one of the two vintage leather sofas was Kwans mother who was on babysitting duty for Jun, Kwan and Yui's 22month old daughter. Jun handed me a recipe book with the dishes we were going to cook, along with many others and lots of top tips from Yui. Kwan and Yui designed the cookbook and it looks great as Kwan is a graphic designer. On the way to their house we picked up Mel and Rob from Barnsley who were my fellow pupils for the day. Usually classes can be up to 8 people but Yui later explained her usual assistant was ill and Kwan was filling in so they were holding smaller classes as a result. We arrived at their house and met Yui, we chatted, put on our aprons and then it was down to business. Yui demonstrated our first dish, Pad Thai, a national favourite, noodles with vegetables and egg and topped with peanuts. All too soon it was our turn! We all had out own workspace and gas ring and all our utensils were laid out for us. It was like ready steady cook!! All the dishes were quick and fun to prepare and everyone managed to turn out something resembling Yui's! Then it was time for the tasting... not bad even if i do say so myself (but lets face it there wasnt too much i could have done to mess it up!)

We made 5 other dishes, spring rolls, green coconut curry, stir fried chicken with cashew nuts, hot and sour soup with prawns and sticky rice with mango. After tasting all the dishes we practically had to be rolled out!! Halfway through the day we also visited the local market where Yui pointed out all the weird and wonderful ingredients used in Thai cooking.

Yui's enthusiasm for cooking and as she admitted- eating (not that you would know as she is tiny!) is truly amazing, she has such a passion. She was so interesting, knowledgeable and was great at suggesting alternatives for ingredients we might not be able to find in the UK. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable day and i would highly recommend Yui's classes if you are ever in Chiang Mai!!

Yesterday i did an outdoor adventure experience called Flight of the Gibbon (no actual gibbons!) during which you zipline and abseil through the rainforest canopy. Got picked up at 6.30 and we drove about an hour out of Chiang Mai into the forest up some of the steepest roads i have seen so far on my trip! Getting to a higher altitude was nice though as Chiang Mai is very hot. We arrived at the main office and were strapped into harnesses, given helmets and sent off to the first zipline with our two guides. We were clipped on and sent zipping our way through the treetops, it was great fun. On some of the lines you had to brake with the aid of a bit of wood shaped like a V which you hooked over the top of the line to slow you down. It required a bit of co-ordination and three of us got the hang of it but the other three in the group flew smack into the guides (little thai guys) and the trees at the end of the lines! Ouch!!! There'll be a few bruises there i think! The abseiling was fun too, you didnt have any control over your descent and the guides would let you drop so fast only stopping you just before you hit the ground!! They showed off on the ziplines too, coming across upside down and all sorts!! All too soon we reached our last abseil and we were gibbons no longer! We visited a local waterfall, had lunch and then it was back to Chiang Mai.

Am off to Pitsanulok tomorrow, one of Thailands old capitals with lots of history. Am off for a massage now though! Its a hard life!!! hehehehe

Posted by VanessaT 02:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

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View Backpacking 08/09 on VanessaT's travel map.

Getting the night bus from Pakse to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was interesting. I had booked the sleeper bus and at 8pm-ish we were on our way. Ten minutes out of Pakse and the hostess was dolling out the biscuits and complimentary water when the bus suddenly lurched into the centre of the road, tipping over to the left with a big hissing sound coming from the back of the bus. After bouncing to a stop the driver got out and started calling people on his mobile…yep the tyre had burst. 45 mins later the driver was back on board…all fixed? Nope, we were going to lurch all the way back to Pakse (not that the driver went any slower to account for the burst tyre!!) Back at the bus station we were transferred onto the only coach left…a seating bus which didn’t have enough seats for everyone who was on the sleeper bus! The driver didn’t seem concerned and took off with people all down the aisle with promises of another bus along the way. An hour later with no sign of the other bus all the people standing were starting to rebel, luckily we soon caught up with the bus that had screamed past us while we were on the side of the road with a flat tyre. Passengers re-distributed we were on our way to Vientiane.

Arriving in Vientiane at 5am I dropped off my bags in a guesthouse and headed for the immigration office to get an extension on my Laos visa and then to the Thai consulate to find out if I needed to get a Thai visa…I did but as my passport was with the Laos office I couldn’t apply for it until after the weekend meaning I was going to be stuck in Vientiane for 5 days!!!
Even though Vientiane is the capital city it feels like a small town and there isn’t really anything to do there. There are lots of coffee shops and ex-pats and barely any Lao’s…not the most interesting place to spend 5 days! Perfected the art of sitting in coffee shops and hunting out the free wifi!! Ran into lots of people I’d met in previous countries along the way…everyone in SE Asia is generally heading along similar routes so you often run into people a few weeks later in places with major transport links.
Luckily the town wasn’t too damaged in the flooding, the only sign of it was the sandbags piled up all along the riverbanks.

5 long days later I had all my visa stuff sorted out and caught the bus to Vang Vieng a small town about 4 ½ hours north of Vientiane. Met Nadine from Germany on the bus and we were soon settled in a restaurant on the main street. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen, you basically get a little area filled with cushions with a table and you lie there and watch Friends! And I mean just Friends….it’s the only thing all of the restaurants play!! The most surreal meal I’ve ever eaten I think, everyone lying down in the restaurant watching friends. The scary thing is in all the episodes of friends we watched while we were in vang vieng (and it was a lot!!) I never saw one I hadn’t seen before!!

Vang Vieng is quite similar to Yangshuo in both landscape and activities (now who’s been paying attention?? Where is Yangshuo??! China!) There are lots of limestone karsts and river based sports. We booked a kayaking/cave visiting trip. When we got to the start of the kayaking we had a short safety briefing on land where they taught us how to paddle (could just about figure that out) it became a bit more worrying though when they started to explain how to flip the kayak back over if it capsized in the rapids….rapids…rapids???? Who said anything about rapids?? We signed up for a nice little kayak along the river!!! So feeling a bit worried we headed out onto the Nam Song (river) which was flowing pretty fast due to it being the wet season and paddled down to the first cave, we were in a double kayak which made us feel a bit better though, we could drown together. The first cave had a rock formation in the shape of an elephant but that was about it. Following our guides we picked our way across extremely muddy (well mud and other things that are brown!!) rice fields to get to the second cave. This one you pulled yourself through on a rope while floating in a tube (a big tractor inner tube) complete with head torches! Our group headed into the cave, the water was so high it was pretty hard to get through the gap into the cave as there was only about 30cm head room above the water! Once inside it got a bit better but we were getting pretty well acquainted with the ceiling of the cave! After pulling ourselves through half of the cave we got out the tubes and then proceeded to crawl through the rest of the cave…it was pretty claustrophobic! Some parts opened out and we swam through the (freezing cold!!) water to reach small openings to crawl through…I think a lot of us would have thought twice about it if we knew what it was like inside! After completing out crawl/drag yourself through the cave section we were back in our tubes to go back along the rope and out into the light (saying goodbye to the bats as we went!!). It was great fun but I’m glad I didn’t know what it entailed before we went in as I’d never have done it!!

We had a very tasty lunch of fried rice and barbequed chicken on the river and then started kayaking towards Vang Vieng. This is where we hit the rapids!!! The guides had been very thorough in tying our flip flops and dry bag onto the kayak after lunch- mumbling things about capsizing…not good we thought!! So we paddled along, the guides were keeping a close eye on the group so we knew something was up, we heard the first guide yell ‘paddle!!!’ we obviously we did what we were told and paddled like mad eventually making it through to the other side!! A few sets of rapids later and we were back onto the calmer water! It was nerve-wracking at the time but lots of fun too!!
At this point I should probably explain the main attraction and the reason most people come to Vang Vieng. The most popular activity is tubing, floating down the river in a tractor tyre inner tube, along the river various bars have been set up and they have rope swings and zip lines into the river. We kayaked to one of the bars and stayed for a while watching people fall off the rope swings into the river! Eventually headed to Vang Vieng and relaxed from our day of kayaking by getting a massage and watching some Friends!

The next day was our day of tubing!! We headed to the tubing place and got plonked into a tuk tuk with lots of other tubers and were driven up to the drop off point 3.5km north of Vang Vieng. We floated along till we got to the first bar at which point the fun began. Luckily we had seen from the day before how to get out the river else we would have had no chance…..Lao guys fling you a rope with a big stick/water bottle/small inner tube on the end which you catch and then they haul you into the riverbank/landing area (considering how fast the river flows it’s a lot harder than it sounds!!) You also have the danger of getting separated from each other and one person getting dragged in but the other missing and floating off downstream! Sunbathed for a while, Nadine was brave and tried the rope swing which she said was great fun. I preferred to admire the techniques of everyone else from a safe spot on dry land…some belly flopping into the river….others being very acrobatic and swinging from their feet!!
Soon it was time to float off to the next bar…it basically felt like a massive student union but on a river! It has a great party atmosphere with all the bars playing music…I even managed to get Pimms in one bar which was lovely! One of the bars had a mud bath (slightly more rough and ready than the Vietnam one!!) as soon as you stepped into the bar area someone who was already plastered in mud would drag you into the mud until you were as covered as they were. It seemed to be an unwritten rule that no-one was allowed to be clean!! Luckily we had the river to rinse off in as we bobbed along to the next bar…the one we had stopped at the day before. This bar had the biggest rope swing and a zip line….health and safety people in the uk would have a heart attack if they saw the cobbled together creations in Laos. Lots of random bits of wood nailed together and braced by some wire with the jumping off point normally a platform perched in a tree somewhere!!
A final bar and it was getting dark….it gets dark so quickly in SE Asia…lots of us were still on the river so we all hung onto each others tubes and drifted down to the end point where we were saved from floating all the way to Vientiane by some lao kids who were playing in the river!

The next day we were so tired from the tubing we had a lazy day and spent most of it swinging in hammocks!

The day after we were on the bus to Luang Prabang. It takes about 6 hours and the Lonely Planet warns anyone who get carsick to ‘take the necessary precautions’ before starting the trip. I don’t normally get carsick but a warning like that is never good!!! 30 mins into the journey it became clear what they meant, the road to Luang Prabang twists up into the mountains and while this means the views are spectacular, the combination of hairpin bends and a driver who thinks he is doing a Grand prix leads to a less than smooth ride. We were thrown around the bus like it was a bouncy castle!! Everyone arrived in Luang Prabang feeling pretty queasy!!

Luang Prabang is a Unesco world heritage site, with 32 wats. The architecture is heavily influenced by the French and it’s a lovely relaxing place to wander round. In the evenings they set up a handicrafts market in the centre of town, have visited every night I’ve been here so far and its so hard not to buy everything you see!!!

Yesterday we went to Kouang Si waterfall which was really beautiful, there are 3 swimming holes there which we swam in, it was pretty cold though!! Spending the next few days relaxing before catching the boat to Huay Xai near the Thai border.

Posted by VanessaT 01:23 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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