A Travellerspoint blog

Luang Prabang

sunny 34 °C
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Ben, Paul and I decide to try and find a place together. Like Pak Beng there are many people waiting our arrival on the pier, but this time it's a lot more professional and the prices given are the real ones. We get rooms at a place called Namma Von. It's cheap and simple, the only really worry is that our rooms back on to the outdoor kitchen which could get noisy. We get some basic directions from the staff at the guesthouse and head for a walk to get orientated.

This town is beautiful, and the first thing we all notice is how clean it is. The buildings are kept in an impeccable state and have a real French colonial feel. The main street is lined with classy restaurants and bakeries. The road on the Nam Kong river is equally charming with lights coming down from the trees over the riverside terraces. On the Mekong side it's a little more budget and we find a very simple riverside place for some beef lap and a couple of beerlaos. Two is all it takes and I'm feeling quite drunk when combined with the motion sickness swaying I've had since I got off the boat. We all decide to call it a night and get some rest.

In the morning I'm woken to the sound of breakfast being cooked in the kitchen at about 7am, so after a failed attempt at going back to sleep I go for a wonder down the main street and find a bakery for my breakfast. I'm expecting big things given this country's French history, but I'm left disappointed after a very average start to the day.

When I get back to the guesthouse I find Paul and Ben about to set off for their breakfast, so I join them. Is two breakfasts excessive? Probably, but I don't care :). This one is much nicer and I think you'd struggle to find a better bakery in France!

We've got a few days here, so we walk about to see what the options are. The sounds of "Tuk Tuk? Waterfall? Marijuana?" comes from the mouth of every tuk tuk driver. We find a few options and decide to relax for the rest of the day and we'll book something in the morning. We bump in to Graham in the afternoon. He says he's meeting some English girls at the start of the night market at 9pm for some drinks and bowling… bowling??? Yep, it turns out there's a bowling alley about 20 minutes out of town. We reckon this is designed to keep the younger travellers out of town and keep them amused a couple of extra hours after the Laos curfew of midnight.

Before heading for drinks the three of us head to a restaurant called Tamarind which was recommended in the boys guidebook. We place our order and the waiter, in the nicest possible way, says we've got it all wrong and suggests two taster platters and another dish that we should all share. It comes to the same price so we take him up on the offer.

The food in Tamarind is amazing. We taught to eat like the Laotians do, take some sticky rice, use your hands to turn it in to a bowl, and dip in to the various dishes in front of us. In an effort to be as local as possible Ben and I order shots of the local whiskey, LaoLao… not so nice, but I's recommend the food to anyone who comes here! One of the waitresses here is an English girl who got stuck here after running out of money. She tells us the must dos, including a barbecue restaurant which is just opposite… that's dinner sorted for tomorrow then.

At a little past 9pm we meet with Graham, Emma and Kelly. Paul and Ben also invited Dan and Laura who they met on their way to the Laos border. We start of at a local bar called the Blue Ice bar from a couple of drinks and a complimentary LaoLao… hummmmm. After that the 8 of us get in to a tuk tuk and head to the bowling.

This is very surreal, we're not far out of town, but far enough to be in the jungle, and here's this 10 lane bowling alley. We have a couple of games and it's a good laugh, although I've no idea who's won.

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As we leave some other English guys have arrived. I'm chatting to one who tells me they're not going to bowl because they won't budge their price. The price of a game is 20,000kip each, that's about £1.50p, and this chap, who's had a few to drink, tells me they'd play if he lower the price by 2000kip, that's £0.16p. He tells me it's not about the money, it's just a rule he has, no discount, no buy. I try to explain to him that he's already paid 10,000kip for the tuk tuk out here and for the sake of 16p he's not going to have the fun we had, but he doesn't listen and sticks to his guns.

Laos isn't the same as Thailand. Everything is a lot cheaper here, and there's not much room to haggle. It does happen now and again, and you do have to be wary about being ripped off. But in general the Laotians are very poor. A lot of the people who work here come from local hill tribes and have come down to the city for a better life. A guide had told Ben about how some Australians had paid his schooling. All it cost was $250 but there was no way he could afford to pay it. As a result of going to school he can now earn a decent wage as a guide and support his family. If you do come out here, look at the people around you, then thinking about what you're haggling over. 16p is nothing to us, to them it can make a big difference!

After the bowling at about 1am we try to get the tuk tuk driver to take us to a bar, at first we think he doesn't understand us, but soon we understand that nothing is open. The town closed as per the Laos curfew, so it's off back to the guesthouses.

Next day we sort out our activities. Today we're going to take up a tuk tuk driver on a waterfall visit, and on the way we'll pass by Phusey market which was recommend by the girl at Tamarind. Tomorrow we'll going kayaking and the day after we'll go trekking.

We were a bit late to Phusey market, if you want to see all the "interesting" things they sell here you have to get in before 8am. The Laotians don't waste anything, so expect to see every part of an animal for sale. The smells turn my stomach on several occasions, particularly when I pass a stall brewing their own fish sauce. The meat stalls have flies everywhere, and it's only when someone approaches that the stall holder picks up her bamboo cane with a plastic bag attached to wave them off.

Back on the tuk tuk and we head to the waterfall. On the way we get drenched on several occasions be kids enjoying their new years water festival. We weren't expecting to see this here, we know the water festival is big in Thailand, but here, even in the most remote villages will be kids with buckets and water pistols waiting for their pray on the side of the road. Paul and I get caught out on quite a few occasions, but Ben's side of the tuk tuk is looking surprisingly dry, so when I see some kids looking the other way on his side of the road I give them a big whistle to get their attention… mission accomplished :).

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The waterfall turns out to be quite a sight, and attracts many tourists. There's a gated entrances with many shops outside trying to cash in on the flow of tourists coming to this spectacle. The waterfall itself is very high and falls in to a series of pools interconnected by very short falls. The water is almost glowing turquoise from the limestone it's collected on its way down. We hike up to the top which is fairly difficult in flip-flops, and the most exercise I've has in weeks. As we come back down it starts to rain so we make a slippery dash back to the tuk tuk.

Tonight it's barbecue night, and the first thing on the menu is barbecue soup… how???? I assume a spelling mistake or something, but no, it is a barbecue soup. In the middle of each table sits one of the traditional terracotta barbecue pots. On top the rest a metal dish that is raised in the centre creating a moat around the outside. The moat is filled with a broth to which we can then add noodles and veg. On the raised part we can place an array of meat and seafood. This taste so good, and the 3 of us have shared one for 40,000kip, easily the cheapest restaurant food we've found. I reckon this would go down a treat back in London, but I'm sure the health and safety guys will have something to say about it.

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Next day I'm up for a day on the river, but as soon as I'm out the room I'm told I have to check-out as the room is booked. Fair enough I guess, after all I hadn't booked any particular number of days. They do find me alternative accommodation and help take my bags over, so I'm not so bothered. I ask him if Ben and Paul are okay to stay, and he says there's no problem. He says the rooms are being rented to Vietnamese builders who are working the site next door. But later when I go find the boys I see an English couple in there. So my guess is they were getting more money from them.

On the minibus are a retired English couple who live in Australia. They've travelled around south east asia before and tell us how much it's changed. I can imagine, I think the internet has made a huge change to the place. We stop for another pickup and Graham gets aboard, not planned, but it's great to have him along.

The river is very scenic, we've signed out for whitewater kayaking, but with the water so low, it's a very calm paddle down, Graham and I do still manage to capsize our though, as do Paul and Ben. Along the river are people panning for gold, but this time a level up from what we saw on the Mekong. On the Nam Ou they dive to the riverbed using tubes with one end on a normal air compressor and the other fitted to a diving mask. We paddle straight over the bubbles from the divers below as they collect the dirt for others to pan.

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The current is very slow for the last 30 minutes and requires a lot of effort paddling. I think we're all relieved to get to the end. Particularly one of the guides and Ben who were sharing a kayak that was taking on water. I think we poured a good 40 litres out of it. That extra weight must have made it much more difficult.

Good day had by all and we meet later for pizza after which we go to the Utopia bar for a couple of drinks. The curfew hits so it back to the rooms again. We'll see Graham again tomorrow as he's booked himself onto the same trekking as us.

In the morning Ben and Paul have also been chucked out the guesthouse. Their bags are thrown on top of the van and they'll book in to Graham's place when we pick him up. The trekking is hard work! I think this is the hottest day I've experienced so far and we're doing several hills today. My clothes are drenched from sweat and at times I'm feeling very sick. We've all struggled today, mainly due to the heat, but we've got plenty of water and make it to the top in good time. On the trek up we pass many fields being burnt, ready for the next crop. One such field has the family's home right in the middle. Made from bamboo and straw it's amazing to see it still standing among the burning ashes and bomb fires that the kids are preparing.

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We come to a village at the top. A village of straw and bamboo houses and livestock roaming between. The kids are probably used to tourist coming round and the boys barley seem to notice us as they play marbles. We stop for a lunch and a rest here and I take this time for photos. After lunch we go to another village just over a small hill. There can't be more than 250 meters between these two villages and yet once upon a time they used to be at war. I think this was more likely to be fistfights than armed warfare, but I did have trouble understanding how two tribes so close to each other could have so many problems. Even today they speak different dialects, however they do get along now, and as if to cement their friendship they've placed a school on the hill between the two tribes.

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These people live very simple lives, most will work on the farms, and a few like one of our guides will leave to work in the bigger towns/cities. Everyone is perfectly charming, and a couple of the kids enjoying seeing pictures of themselves on my camera.

The trip back down is a lot faster down much narrower paths. Thankfully there's a little more cover here so the sun doesn't get to us in the same. There's still relief when we finally get to the bottom. Despite the hard work, I've really enjoyed this hike. It was great to see how the locals live. Back in town and we introduce Graham to Tamarind. We're all heading down to Vang Vieng tomorrow, all on separate buses but we'll meet up in the evening.

My transfer to the bus station arrives at 8.30am and I'm overjoyed to see the guy I bought the ticket from has decided to save himself some money and pick me up himself on his scooter. He places my day bag, the one with my camera gear in, on the scooter which immediately falls off… if that hasn't broken something I don't know what will. I chose to say nothing. At the bus station safely and I'm on a local bus to Vang Vieng for 7 hours, hopefully I can get some sleep.

Posted by tmac77 22:54 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Along the Mekong

Last days in Thailand and slow boat journey to Luang Prabang

semi-overcast 34 °C
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I've got a couple of days in Chiang Mai before making my way to Laos so as well as catching up on some washing and some sleep I book myself in for a 1 day visit to the Elephant Nature Park (I can't keep away from the place!). It's amazing how much this place has changed in just the few weeks I've been away, the feeding platform almost has a roof now, which will become another viewing platform when it's finished, and there are new structures dotted around for elephants to have a good scratch.

It's good to see everyone there too, Michelle, Chet, Chai, Carl and Tony, who just finished getting a big elephant tattoo on his shoulder. It was also good to see the elephants, Tilley is settling in nicely, although she hasn't yet found a permanent family. Jokia's been having some problems after expelling something rather large. They're not sure what it was and are awaiting test results, but she seemed in good spirits to me.

I met 6 Americans on this day trip, 4 girls all on holiday in Thailand, and 2 guys who are doing a short tour of South East Asia. I've quite enjoyed giving them a little more insight to the park than they would otherwise have got, and surprise myself on how much I learnt in my two weeks there!

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Back in Chiang Mai that evening I meet up with the girls for a meal. Katherine, Mary Kathryn, Weasy and Meredith suggest the Riverside Bar, I'd not been out that way before as I'd been sticking the backpacker scene, it's a lot more upmarket than the old city, but the food was delicious, but delicious has become the norm now. I had the sautéed seafood, in hindsight maybe I should have gone for something a little more substantial before heading out drinking with some Americans!

I take them back to the old city to a set of bars I'd spent far too much time in when I was last in Chiang Mai. We start in a reggae bar where a very bouncy guitarist and a dreadlocked Thai singer perform an array of reggae and other popular western songs. I also get "iced" for the first time. This is a Canadian drinking game that appears to have made it to the States. I'd been witness to icing back on Phi Phi but had not been a target. I wasn't so lucky this time as I fall victim, and I'm not even sure I was the intended target!! Anyway, it was a great way to spend my last night in Chiang Mai, and the girls were great company!

Next day is an early start to catch the mini bus to Laos. I've got a really bad hangover and the bumpy and windy roads really aren't helping… I feel awful!! I'll put it down to not eating enough as I really didn't have that much to drink, and I can't believe downing a single Smirnoff Ice could have done this to me. After a good 7 hour drive we arrive in Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the Mekong River. We'll stay here the night while we sort out visas and boat tickets. The night is a quiet and early one.

Next morning and I'm feeling a lot better, I go down for breakfast where I meet Graham, an IT project manager from the UK taking a sabbatical from work. We're taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang, a journey that he's done before a couple of years ago, so he lets me know what to expect.

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Before getting on the slow boat we must get across the river and go through Laos immigration at Huay Xai. This is all a little messy and no one really knows what's going on, while queuing however I bump in to Ben and Paul, the two other Americans from the Elephant Park. We were expecting to meet up about this point, so that's worked out well.

After immigration there's about an hours wait before the slow boat departs. Today, the first of two on the boat, we'll be doing about 7 hours before reaching Pak Beng where we'll stop off for the night. So I make the most of this hour to get supplies.

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Aboard to boat I'm delighted to see they no long have the wooden benches that I've seen in all the pictures, instead they've filled it with seats from toyota minibuses. The view on the Mekong is stunning, with current of water going in all directions creating whirlpools and splashing against the rocks which I visible down the whole river while the water level is this low. Steep hills raise on either side of the river and on both the Thai and Laos side the farmers are burning their fields to fertilise the soil for the next seasons crop. There's been quite a lot of discussion about this back at the Nature Park and some have said it has no affect. Sitting in front of me is a horticulturist, so I take the opportunity to ask her. She said if the soil is very acidic then it will help balance out the PH levels of the soil. So I guess through trail and error the locals have worked out that more often than not it does help them.

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The constant burning creates so much smoke it almost blocks out the sun, and now and again ash falls into the boat. Farming has also destroyed much of the landscape here. There should be Jungle reaching for the sky up these banks, but little remains, and where it does it's under threat from fires getting out of control. The farmers are responsible for the fires they start, and if they are found out to have let one get out of control then they get fined by the chief of the local village. However I see many jungle fires burning on this trip. Most are unlikely to "kill" the jungle as it seems just the leaves, which don't burn very hot, catch and the trees escape unscathed. However I'm sure it'll be a while before the wildlife returns. Other fires have raged out of control with treetops alight. The only saving grace being that it can't go very far seeing as it's surrounded by already burnt fields.

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This is a difficult situation, the farmers here are very poor and can only farm in the most economical way, access is difficult and machinery on these steep hills would be prohibitively expensive given the return they would make. Burning is not only good for the soil, but it's also a low maintenance and cost effective way of preparing for next seasons crops. My guess is this isn't going to change anytime soon.

On arrival at Pak Beng we're met by dozens of locals trying to sell us some of the local guesthouses. We've been warned about this earlier on the border so I know what to expect. These are fairly young, and very poor locals, they're being paid a tiny amount to just get you to the guesthouse and have no power to negotiate the price on their behalf, and yet standing on this floating pier while we wait for our bags to be unloaded, that's exactly what they're doing. Once my bag is unloaded I try to get away from the madness and start walking up the hill, I pass a girl who shows me pictures of the guesthouse she's working for and points to some bungalows hanging off the hill looking over the river. They look great, but she's promised me a room for B100, this seems very unlikely but I agree to go and have a look. Before I agree to anything I've been given the key and left to my own devices. Had I not asked I'm pretty sure they'd have left me alone until the next day when I'd find out the real price, B400 (100,000 Kip). Expensive for this town, but after a long day on the boat I treat myself.

This is a tiny town, and although very poor I'm sure it's rich compared to others in the area, and that's only because of the passing tourist trade. There's just one road that follows the river lined with restaurants, bars and guesthouses. Local kids sit on the side of the street looking to see if you've got anything to give them, a swig of your Fanta, a packet of crisps, or maybe one of the Oreos you bought on the boat.

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In the evening I go for dinner with some French Canadians that were sitting in front of me on the boat. I've ordered Buffalo Lap as recommended by the owner. Finely chopped buffalo fried with various spices and served with sticky rice. This is a traditional Laos dish, and as with all the food I've eaten, this tastes lovely, and I'd have to say my favourite so far! We call it a night fairly early and I head back to my bungalow. On the way I pass Paul and Ben and have a quick chat before going to bed.

I'm woken fairy early, 4am, to the sounds of roosters, and a little later to the sounds of life on the Mekong, still, at least I have the stunning view from my balcony which makes the early rise relatively painless.

After a quick breakfast I get more supplies for what today is going to be a 9 hour trip which will take us to Luang Prabang. There's more stunning views today with fewer fires and more jungle. Fisherman can be seen all the way down the river checking on the various nets they've left hanging on bamboo prised between the rocks. Women are often seen panning for gold (thanks for clarifying Rachel) on the banks.

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The boat trip is uneventful and I'm very happy to be back on dry land after 9 hours. Paul, Ben and myself find a cheap guesthouse in Luang Prabang and have a fairly early night after some local food and a couple of beers, or what feels like 8 beers when combined with my motion sickness.

Posted by tmac77 23:01 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Ko Pha-Ngan

Days of tropical rains

storm 26 °C
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Kate and I leave Khao Sok together as she is heading to Ko Samui, the boat stop before mine. The journey is a bit of a joke as the mini bus has far more load in it than it can comfortably support and we're held up for long periods of time with no explanation at various transfer stations. We assume it's the rain causing the delays as it hasn't stopped all day. Five hours later than planned I arrive at The Phangan Great Bay Resort, it's still poring down and it's pitch black, so hard to say what it's like.

I wake to the sound of waves which I couldn't hear for the rain the night before. The resort is right on the beach, and my room leads on to the pool. The rain is lighter this morning, but there's no signs of it stopping. In the evening I head to Haad Rin Nok to meet up with Chris and Caz. This is the beach where the famous Full Moon party is held which caters for 20,000 people! The place is deserted, probably due to the weather, and the fact we've just missed the full moon. We have a few beers in a bar that also includes a tattoo shop. C and C book themselves in for tattoos on Sunday. Many Changs (one of the local beers) later and we get a local taxi back.

Next morning and I'm in pain, Changs really don't agree with me!! Spend the whole day in bed as tonight is the Half Moon party up in the jungle so I need to get in shape. Later it's still raining and the winds are picking up. The weather's too bad and I'm still feeling rough so I don't bother with the party. Next day I meet up with C and C at the tattoo place, they didn't go to the party either, and later we hear there were only 200 people there, this one usually attracts 2000. It's still raining as C and C get their tattoos. Caz went first with one on her foot (I'm thinking she'll regret that later given the flooding going on outside). Chris has opted for a detailed lizard down his side. Both come out really well, and despite the pain they're both happy with the results.

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The next day, Monday, we're meant to be heading out to make the journey to the river Kwai, we wait for the taxi which takes us back to Haad Rin where we booked it (the opposite direction to the pier) and we're told the boats are cancelled due to the weather. We book into a bungalow nearby and go for drinks. The electricity has been off for some time, but we find a couple of places with generators for food and drink where we meet some guys from Italy. I'm feeling shattered and not being particularly social, instead I'm just watching Jackass that's on in the backgrounds.

Tuesday is the same story and it's another day of drink and food. The rain still hasn't stopped and the wind has really picked up. Caz is walking round like an invalid with a bag over her tattooed foot.

Wednesday there's hope! Kate has texted me, she's also been stuck on the island although I've not seen her since she got here as she's on the other end of the island. She says the government are putting a boat on to rescue the tourists. This is starting to sound serious, we make inquiries and our names are taken down. Later we're told we're not getting on, about an hour after that we're told to make our way to the pier.

It's still not stopped raining and 8 of us are packed in to one of the local taxis. On the way we see a bolder the size of a large garden shed blocking one side of the road as a result of a landslide.

This weather has affected the whole of southern Thailand and there are many stories of collapsed roads, mudslides, and airport closures on the mainland. There's a reported 20 fatalities and many more injured. Maybe we're better off on the island!

We get dropped at a hotel that's been used as a base to register those needing to get off the island. We're told to wait around and it's likely to be a couple of hours before any boats come. I go for a wonder and head for the pier which must have a good 1000 people all waiting to get off this rock. There's a man from the English embassy here trying to do his best to keep people informed. I bump in to Kate and then go and get C and C as there's a lot more information here.

After about 20 minutes the embassy chap gets on the megaphone and announces there's only one boat coming and there are only 150 spaces on it. We're in no urgent hurry so Caz gets on the blower and finds us a bungalow for the night. Kate hangs around as she's got a flight from Bangkok the night after next, and it's a good 13 hour journey there in normal conditions.

Our bungalow is lovely, right on the beach surrounded by hammocks between palm trees. The sea is so calm, it's hard to understand what the problem is. We head to the bar for the afternoon which is full of stranded people and the beers start to flow. At about 7pm Kate joins us, she didn't get on the list for the boat, which may not arrive anyway, so she's had to book in here. I've switched to Singha in the hope the hangover won't be as bad!

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The Singha seems to have worked, and the rain seems to have stopped!!! There are signs of boats on the sea. Kate texts to say she's on a boat, but we're happy to stay here for the day to avoid the rush and head out tomorrow. Today is spent catching up on blog writing and photos uploading.

Still no sun, but at least some of my clothes appear to be drying! But all my clothes stink now, must do a laundry stop at the next base!

Departure day and the sun is out, all looking good for getting off the island. Spend the morning lying in a hammock taking photos of crabs as they come out to feed.

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The sun doesn't stay out for long and by the time we get to the pier the grey clouds have come back over and it starts to rain again. The boat's still on though, but it's a rough ride. Some 12 hours later at 1am we're back in Bangkok and watch all the party goers enjoying themselves over a few drinks. Next day we do one of the biggest markets I've ever seen and get a little lost. After getting our bearings it's time for me to leave Chris and Caz for the last time as I board my train back to Chiang Mai. I'm a little worried about this as I've booked lower class and got images in my head of a 13 train ride on a wooden seat... Trains are the way to go, this is luxury! I've got my own little berth to chill out in and sleep! At 881b it's worth the extra cash to avoid the buses.

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The tracks coming out of Bangkok were an experience as there are so many people on the tracks themselves going about their daily business. It seems some are selling food through the windows of local trains.

I arrive in Chiang Mai at about 7:30am and book straight in to a guesthouse.

Now to get to Laos...

Posted by tmac77 23:32 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Khao Sok

Khao Sok National Park

overcast 29 °C
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Khao Sok national park is between Phuket and Krabi situated at just under 1000 meters up in the mountains. I'm staying in Jungle Hut Bungalows, and although there are probably more scenic bungalows to stay in, the staff here have been great. I've arrived on a full-moon, so there is no one here as they've all headed to the islands for the full-moon parties. It's also been raining everyday for the past week which has put many people off. For me however, the rain is a welcome break from the intense heat on the islands.

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My "Jungle Hut" is a newly built bungalow raised about 3 meters off the ground with a set of concrete bridges connecting it to the other 3 bungalows and the main reception and restaurant. The place was originally sold to me in Krabi, a half way stop where I had to change buses on route here from Ko Lanta, they said "in the morning you can jump straight in the river from your bungalow!" The river is about 3 minutes walk from the bungalow, but who knows, if the rain carries on like this it might just reach here.

After settling in and after some dinner I sign up for a days lake and cave trekking tour. 8am breakfast and the guide gets us together in a mini van for departure at 8.30am. After picking up a few more people (14 in total) at various other resorts we're head off on an hour trip to the lake in the middle of the national park. This is man made as a result of building a damn back in 1982/83, and this place is huge!! We get on a boat and start our journey across the lake. This is about another hour and takes us through some stunning scenery as we pass islands that were once mountain peaks before the area was flooded. It's truly breathtaking!

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As we get to the other side we reach a set of raft houses. This is basically a floating hotel and is the location where some overnight trekkers will stay. Here there's time for a swim and some lunch, some honeymooners brought their fishing gear and try their luck, apparently there's a 200kg catfish in here. When Evan hear's this he looks at his little rod and wonders if he really wants to catch anything with it.

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Lunch, as usual, is lovely! Some fish (for which I've forgotten the name) has been glazed and barbecued and is delicious. Luckily there's little interest in the fish so all the more for Evan and I. There's also plenty of the familiar Pad Thai and various other veg and chicken dishes. The guide tells us to eat plenty as there's a long afternoon ahead of us… no need to tell me twice!

After lunch there's a little briefing as to what to expect and we're back in the boat. Most of our stuff has been left at the raft house, but I've decided to bring my camera. I've been informed that part of this trip will involve some swimming, so I'll be testing my newly acquired ocean pack a little later.

The boat works it's way down a very small river off the lake for about 5 minutes before coming to a stop on the bank. We disembark and walk rather precariously down the side of the river, many nearly fall in as the mud beneath them gives way. Each side of the river rises up high with dense jungle, but eventually the path leads to a clearing and, for a moment at least, the walking gets a little easier.

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The guide points to a butterfly trapped in a spiderweb. The butterfly is very large, about the size of my hand. One of my fellow travellers asks how big the spider is, the guide laughs and just says "much bigger than the butterfly". Should I mention that I've got quite a bad case of arachnophobia?

We're soon out of the clearing and in deep jungle now. On the way there's a lot of crossing of rivers, and there's only one way to cross a river in the jungle, that's to go straight through it. I've got my Gore-Tex walking shoes on, which have been great so far. The only problem with wearing waterproof shoes through a river is water will get in through the big hole at the top, but it won't come back out again!

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En route we see a chameleon, or at least what they call a chameleon here, but it doesn't have the eyes or feet that I've known them to have, and a gibbon. This was impressive and I seize the opportunity to take a photo, I've been wanting to catch a wild gibbon on camera ever since I was in the jungle in the north, so I'm over the moon to see one here. That is until one of the girls in the group decides to scream at the top of her voice at the sight of a leech on her boyfriends leg… Gibbon gone.

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Leeches have been a fairly common sight on this trip. The recent rains have brought them all out, but some how I seem to be the only one to have avoided them. One poor lad get 5 of them. I remember Stephen Fry stating on an episode of QI that the best thing to do is just leave them, when they've finished feeding they've just drop off. But who in they're right mind would want to leave these horrid things on them?!

After about an hour and half trek through the jungle we get to a cave. The idea is to walk straight through here, but first the guide makes a call to find out when the rains are likely to get here. Later I find out that we only had a 15 minute buffer, had we gone over that we'd have been on trouble. 3 years before 7 people lost their lives in this same cave when the rains started while they were still in them.

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This is real caving, no hand rails, no manmade walkways, just our wits and torches. We're in water for most of it, about half way up to the knee. Occasionally we're out of the water and it's a little easier to appreciate what's going on around us. As we get deeper in the cave I see bats above our heads. The floor is covered in their droppings which crickets appear to be feeding off. On the rocks are huge hunter spiders the size of my hand. I don't seem to be that bothered by them, maybe there are just too many other things to worry about! We've reached a couple of stretches of water that have come just above the waste, and now it's time for a swim. Holding my ocean pack above water, head torches on and my hand torch in my mouth I'm the first to go. It's not a long stretch, maybe 10 meters, but in a pitch black cave it was quite an experience. Everyones makes it across without any difficulty. Last to come through is the guide, but rather than go for a swim he plays at spiderman and wedges himself between the two sides of the cave.

We're in there for about an hour before exiting at the other end. There's a welcome 10 minute breather before heading back to the boat. Just as we start to approach the boat it starts to rain. We get back to the shelter of the raft houses and it starts to pour down. Waiting for us are some snacks, fresh fruit, banana fritters of some kind, and some sweet rice dish wrapped in banana leaf. After about 20 minutes the rain stops and we head back across the river to our starting point. The minibus isn't there so we've got about an hours wait, plenty of time for a couple of beers.

Back at the bungalow I eat with the guide who tells me I'd be fine to go off in the park on my own in the morning. The entrance at this side of the park has some well mapped routes so the next morning I head off on what is planned to be a half day trek. I've got the camera, and I'm hoping to get that gibbon! The first hour is easy, I stop off to see a waterfall, after taking a couple of shots I turn round and see what at first looks like a snakes head just over a large rock. I'm glad to say it wasn't, as given the size of the head it would be a good 20 foot long. It's a very large lizard, the size of a small cat. I really don't have a good angle on it from here, moving round has scared it in to the water and up the bank on the other side.

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I head further in, and now it's hard trails and much deeper jungle. After about 20 minutes I look down and I'm covered in leeches. I count 7, but I know there will be more. After getting them off me, which really isn't easy, I continue on. Eventually I'm just too tired, hot, sweaty and decide to head back. Other than a few more leeches the journey home is uneventful but I do see some sort of squirrel type thing in some bamboo and watch as is makes its way across the jungle. It's acting a little like a monkey as it goes from one bamboo branch to another and is the size of a large domestic cat. A couple of butterflies and a very large spider later and I'm back home, shower, lunch and sleep.

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One of the staff wakes me up and asks if I want to go tubing. I look at the sky which is dark grey and see we're at that time of day again, realise I'm going to get wet anyway, so I say why not. Tubing on a river through the jungle in a thunder storm is quite an experience! The rain seems to have kept the wildlife away apart from a black and orange striped snake in a tree and a very beautiful kingfisher in the distance.

That night I meet a English girl called Kate who has just arrived in Khao Sok and is deciding what trek to go on the next day. I've decided on a rest day, but the staff have something else in mind. They've been very good to me here and offer me a free trek by the driver who is taking Kate on hers. He has a two hour wait until her and three other girls finish, so he takes me out in the jungle. He points out more chameleons, a flying lizard, various insects and after the halfway point, where I meet up with the girls at a waterfall, he points out a black snake with yellow bands sitting in a tree just above a stream. Then the rains start fall and we seek shelter under a bamboo structure that appears to be covering bags of rice... strange what you find in the middle of the jungle!

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All in all it's been a great few days in the jungle, and I'm sad at the thought of leaving! But leave I must as it's getting a little expensive here despite the free trek.

Posted by tmac77 02:13 Archived in Thailand Tagged national_park khao_sok Comments (0)

Phuket, Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Lanta

A hangover in a bucket

sunny 35 °C
View Round the world trip on tmac77's travel map.

I'm leaving Chiang Mai with mixed feelings, it's been home for nearly 4 weeks and I've really got used to the place. The bar staff now recognise me, so maybe it is time to go!

I've an Air Asia flight from Chiang Mai airport to Phuket. Chiang Mai airport is very new, and there's little fuss getting on my flight. I'm welcomed onboard the flight by a very cute lady dressed as Mini Mouse, this seems to confuse some as they try to find their seats, but for most it just puts a big smile on their faces. The costumes change throughout the flight to various nondescript comical looks. It certainly made the flight a lot more interesting!

The extremely bumpy approach to Phuket also made things more interesting/terrifying. A very fast drop that sent my armrest upwards (or maybe it was just me holding on to it to hard) made most of the passengers scream. The staff seem unfazed, I'm sure they're used to flying through tropical storms. A few moments later we're in blue skies again and are taken on a beautiful flight around the islands. I completely lost my bearings while in the cloud, so I've no idea what I'm looking at other than seeing jelly mould like rocks coming out an otherwise flat plane of turquoise water.

I'm heading to Nai Harn beach in the far south to meet up with Caz and Chris. Tip, book a cab before you leave the arrivals area, I made the mistake of assuming it would cost less outside the airport... it doesn't... but once you've gone through the arrivals gate you can't go back in! 1000B later and I'm at what seems like a 5 star resort compared to what I've become accustomed to. Caz and Chris are there to meet me and we're straight on the beers at the bar. Later we walk down the road to another bar for a couple of a drinks and it starts to pour down with rain. We're then invited by one of the bar staff to another bar for some free food. Can't go wrong with that!

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The free food is to draw crowds in for a band that are playing later. The bars demographic seems to be 60-70 year old white males with their Thai wives/girlfriends. Not really our scene, but it appears the whole area is much the same so we stick it out. Next morning I go for breakfast and decide on a walk to find the beach. I decide not to follow the directions I've been given and what should have been a half hour trip there and back turns out to be 2.5 hours. The sun down here is a lot stronger and I've forgotten to put suncream on, I now look like a brit abroad!!

That night is a little quieter and I have an early night as I've decided to make my way to Ko Phi Phi to meet up with English Nikki from the park before she leaves back to the UK. Caz and Chris will follow the day after.

I was under the impression Phi Phi was a beautiful quiet island... it's not!

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The main part of Phi Phi (between the two main beaches/coves) was completely destroyed in the tsunami in 2004. Since then it has been rebuilt and there's been a lot more development on the island. The town is made up of a maze of streets, no cars or scooters here, which makes a nice change. Just pedestrians and cyclists. Everything is designed around tourism here and as I follow a taxi (a metal trolley pushed by a hotel worker carrying my and other guests bags) I start to worry I'll never find my way around these tiny streets of bars and restaurants, they all look the same. En route I meet Dylan who's having a quick holiday after working in Korea for a year. We get to the hotel and we're in neighbouring bungalows. The place is called Uphill Cottages, so it should have been no surprise that we'd have a climb ahead of us. We've got the highest bungalows, and by the time I get up there I'm sweating buckets!

Dylan comes down with me to meet Nikki and Rachel at the beach. We have lunch and then arrange to meet back at the beach a little later as we forget to change in to our swimming gear. Roughly an hour later Dylan and I are walking round the streets of Phi Phi... we're completely lost and have ended up on the other side of the coves. I get my bearings and we're back on track. Eventually we get back to the beach, can't find the girls so we find a space and have a swim and a few beers on the beach before heading back. I really shouldn't have gone back in the sun with the sunburn from the day before!

Later we meet the girls plus Becky, Ben and Brad from Canada for a meal. After which we're on to the Mai Thai (Thai boxing). This place allows tourists to fight each other, which is quite amazing! In between they have some pro fights which are brutal! At some point we get on to buckets, this is a small bucket filled with your choice of cocktail, and we head to the beach. This is one of the best nights I've had in a long and it was great to spend it in such great company. However, this hangover is going to last forever!!!

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Next day I think I'm still drunk when I meet up with Caz and Chris who have just arrived. They check in to their room and we head to the beach... the hangover is starting. I don't last long and have to go back to my room to sleep it off. Later I'm feeling a little better and we head out to dinner. Same place as last night, but this time a fight between what I presume is a man and wife breaks out in the Canadians hotel across the road. The fight appears to be over a machete which she is holding. At first there's a lot of shouting, then the man tries to get the huge knife off her, and about 6 other Thais charge in. One older man comes out with the machete and everything calms down. Wish I could understand Thai, would love to have known what that was all about! This is exceptional by the way, and this is the first bit of violence I've seen since being in Thailand. In general I feel much safer here than back in London!

After that we head to the beach to chill out and what these amazing fire shows on the beach. I'm off the booze tonight and head home relatively early. Next night we're out again and have a very nice meal on an opposite beach. It's very chilled at this place and we stay there for a few beers. Later we walk to the beach and get a few buckets. By this time the fire shows have finished and the bars are more like clubs, I bump in to the Canadians on a dance floor... oh no, I feel another hangover coming.

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Next day (I think it's Sunday) is a write off. I meet up with Caz and Chris for dinner, they are in an equally bad state. They're off to Ko Lanta tomorrow, but I've got an extra day here. Don't think I'll be up to much as I feel horrid, and it's not just the hangover, I seem to have caught a bad cough too. I was hoping to learn to dive here, but I guess that'll have to wait until I can breath properly again.

The trip from Ko Phi Phi to Ko Lanta is a painless one. I get a boat ticket at the nearest tourist information and I'm told to be on the pier at 10:30. On the boat I'm offered accommodation on Lanta that's right next door to Caz and Chris's resort, so I take it.

I'm staying at the Emerald Resort, and after settling in to the rather smelly room I walk the full 20 meters to Khlong Khong beach. The place is deserted. The beach is lined with resorts most fronted by chill-out bars fashion out of driftwood. Hammocks and bean bags cater for the seating arrangements. The beach differs as you get closer to the sea, very soft sand at the top to crushed dead coral that I presume is a remanence of the tsunami. There are many rocks here too which don't make it the most ideal beach in the world, however this place is a welcome relief from the hectic Phi Phi.

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As I walk back up the beach I bump in to Caz and Chris and stop for a couple of drinks at one of the bars. Called "Where Else" this is one of the larger bars made up of an array of seating platforms with cushions, beanbags and hamocks. One of the seating areas is simply a boat with a table inside. The decore is regae and pretty much the whole structure is made of driftwood, like most of the places along the beach.

The time on Lanta is mostly spent relaxing. I've got a bad cold at this point, so I'm struggling a little and spend most of the day in my room out of the sun which is proving a little to hot for me. We do book one day trip though, called The 4 Islands Tour this is a boat trip to 4 very different islands. Island one is a snorkelling stop. I think I've seen pretty much the whole cast of Finding Nemo here, apart from Nemo himself, and the turtle… and the shark… okay, maybe not the whole cast, but I'm amazed at the number of different species in such a small area. A beautiful show of flashing colours and shapes. The angel fish are much bigger than I thought they would be, and some of the fish seem to enjoy a little nibble now and again. I'm having trouble seeing past them as they swim towards me looking straight in to my goggles.

Island two is another swim, this time in to a cave, none of us know what to expect. At one point we're in pitch black apart from the sole torch that our guide is using to identify himself. A few seconds later there is light at the end of the tunnel, we leave the cave on to a white sandy beach with towering limestone walls on all sides. There's rich plant life climbing the cliffs to reach sun light from the opening above. This feels a little like being inside an extinct volcano (all be it a very small one). We're all amazed to have seen this place, and we're all annoyed we had no way of bringing our cameras on this tour! I must find a waterproof camera somewhere!

Island three is a tall rock reaching for the sky. We're taken to the north side where hundreds of large bats are clinging upside down to the rock face. Beneath them we snorkel again. As with the first site there is plenty of different fish to see here, but I'm really struggling with the snorkelling gear so I only do 10 minutes or so this time.

Island 4 I believe to be the other side of island 1, but I'll forgive them. They land us on to this beautiful white sandy beach. The turquoise waters seem to go on forever. This looks like the place you see on all the postcards. We stop here for a couple of hours for lunch and relax in the shade of a tree before getting back on the long tail boat for the trip home.

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A very enjoyable day spent with good company. I sleep like a baby that night after a few drinks with C and C and another couple we met on the trip.

A couple of days later I feel a change of pace is needed and decide to leave C and C for a few days and head in to the jungle. Next stop Khao Sok and the plan is to meet back up with C and C on Ko Pha-Ngan in a few days.

Posted by tmac77 22:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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