Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Last stop, Bangkok baby!

After moving through 11 countries, 7 time zones, countless towns and a few pairs of flip flops, we arrived in Bangkok, the last stop on our most excellent adventure!

We had been looking forward to getting here the whole trip, not because we wanted it all done and dusted (quite the opposite!) but rather because waiting for us here in BKK, thanks to Brandusa, Horia, Aine, Ian, Andrew, Rosie, Alistair and Fiona was our luxury room at the Sofitel Silom Hotel for our last three nights! Yeehar!

So after 7 and a half months of 'slumming' it around the world (apart from the wonderful wedding gifts we got from our lovely friends along the way), we finally arrived at a hotel befitting our status as 'Honeymooners'! Bellboys to lug our backpacks to our room, a bath big enough for Dave to stretch his legs out in, room service, newspaper each morning, even a member of staff who came round to 'turn our bed down' on the first night!

And to top it all off, our first complimentary honeymoon gift - a heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake with dark chocolate shavings! Delicious!

Apart from enjoying all this extravagance at the Sofitel, we spent a lot of time at the super convenient, super cheap shopping mall, MBK, where Christmas shopping has never been more affordable. Needless to say our backpacks will be topping the scales when we check in for our flight home!

We also treated ourselves to some alfresco cocktails at the fantastic Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel, sitting out on the 59th floor with unparalleled views across the neon lit skyline, as well as a sumptuous dinner at Eat Me art restaurant - the theme of this trip really has been 'watch us eat and drink our way around the world!'

The other highlight was when we walked past Patpong Road and one of the strip bar touts came across offering a 'ping pong show' and Libby said to Dave "What was he selling? Pink Ponchos?!" Classic. Oh how we laughed!

With the adventure almost over, we'll save the thanks and reflections for a last entry once we get home tomorrow. So for now, we'll just say, thanks for the memories.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Pee Pee

By the time our ferry pulled into Ton Sai Bay at Koh Phi Phi, we were well and truly relaxed after our four days on sleepy Koh Lanta and were seriously winding down for our last week of travelling.

As a result, we didn't get up to anything much other than working on our tans on the beach outside our resort, paddling in the warm and crystal clear turquoise waters of the bay, a little frisbee here, a little beach tennis there, more good food at night as well as watching a few fire poi displays on the could hardly call it culture but that wasn't really the point of making a stop on this island, which has long been turned into a traveller's plaything.

We came to relax and reflect on the travelling we've done over the last 7 months and somehow, prepare ourselves for the trip home and the shock of returning to 'real life'. But we tried to keep that out of our minds for now and just enjoy the long sunny days and balmy nights in this little slice of paradise.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Koh Lantaaaaaaa!

Getting from Chiang Mai to Koh Lanta, we had to stay a night in Phuket and the less we say about that place the better. Its a noisy, classless den full of noisy classless people. We were glad to get the hell outta there the next morning, boarding a ferry that took us to Koh Lanta via Krabi.

Koh Lanta is the next big island along from Koh Phi Phi but much more relaxed. Dave visited here in 2006 and while the mostly Muslim local communities have kept development in check, the roads have now been paved and there are a lot more 7 Elevens! We checked into the Lanta Mermaid Boutique Hotel for a little slice of luxury at the end of our backpacking sojourn and watched another amazing sunset on Klong Dao beach as locals fished good sized clams out of the sand for their dinner.

The next day, Dave reacquainted himself with scuba diving, having first learnt to do it on Koh Lanta four years ago. Completing two dives out at Koh Ha, he shared the water with lots of big squid, gropers, angel fish as well as a good sized octopus sliding his away across the ocean floor. There were tall towers of bright coral, some like brilliant pearls, electric blue starfish and even an underwater cave where Dave surfaced in.

Libby spent the day sunning on the beach, working on her tan but upped the ante the next day with a one-on-one yoga class, completed as the sun was going down at the beach. Very impressive.

Dave completed another dive a few days later, much deeper this time, at Hin Mueng (purple rock) and Hin Duang (red rock) - two underwater cliff formations covered in purple and red coral. The first dive at Hin Mueng was full of huge giant moral eels, trumpet fish, rainbow runners and trigger fish, one particular fellow taking a dislike to Dave and attacking his fin! There were gorgeous juvenile emperor angle fish at Hin Duang, as well as fluorescent wort slugs, orange spined unicorn fish as well as bird wrasse attacking a poor little jelly fish at the surface. So much to see.

As if the island surrounds were not enough, the people on Koh Lanta make it unforgettable. The family who run the Lanta Mermaid Hotel were brilliant and even the tuktuk driver we befriended, Mr Ivory, offered us 50% off at his (yet to be opened) restaurant if we returned to Koh Lanta, AND our unborn children would eat for free! We must add that Mr Ivory had a vision we would have 5 babies!!!! YES 5!! and the first one should be named Robin - the first one will be a boy said Mr Ivory. He also said one of the girls should be called Diana! Mr Ivory was slightly insane, but very funny all the same.

Poor Mr Ivory. If our children are born with Davey-Two-Meals genes, they are going to put him and his restaurant out of business!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Friday, 11 December 2009

Chiang Mai

Our first night in Chiang Mai was spent indulging each of our favourite pleasures - food and shopping.

The Sunday Night Markets here are not to be missed. Hidden off the main thoroughfare in a series of courtyards is a seemingly endless array of food stalls, selling fresh rotti, noodles, sushi, juice, duck....the choices are endless and cheap beyond belief! As a result, we bought more plates than we could carry and eat more than we should - no surprise there.

Libby then indulged in some retail therapy as we worked our way through the hundreds of stalls manned by the small boutiques from the region - t-shirts, shoes, handbags, paintings, ornaments, many stalls, so much for Libs to buy!

There were two main reasons we came to Chiang Mai, not just food and shopping, but cooking and elephants. We trumped for a fantastic full day cooking school at Baan Thai, starting with the usual visit to a local market for our super fresh ingredients. It was then back to the lovely provincial townhouse to start off our class with some easy stir fries (sweet basil prawns for Dave, chicken and cashew nuts for Libs), before moving onto a little more technique for the fish cakes, spring rolls and deep fried bananas no calorie counting here! It was time for muscle after that as we pummelled the mortar and pestle for our curry pastes that formed the basis of our Chiang Mai noodle and Panaeng curries. There was also soups of hot and sour prawns and seafood in coconut milk and when you consider we ate everything we prepared that day, needless to say we were stuffed! But the best result of the day was when Dave managed to talk his way into getting an old photo from the houseowner that showed Elvis Presley sitting with the King and Queen of Thailand - the King and the King! That's going straight to the pool room!

As for the elephants, we spent an amazing and without sounding cliched, life changing day out at the Elephant Nature Park, just 40km outside Chiang Mai but a world away from the hustle and bustle of Thailand's second biggest city. It is a slice of real paradise and seeing their 35 Asian elephants (together with dogs, cats, water buffalo and who knows how many birds) living and playing out their days without fear and full of love, it changed the way we thought about these graceful but threatened giants.

The people of Thailand worship the elephant as a national symbol of strength and perseverance. And yet, the Thai government watch idly as elephants are tortured as they are 'broken in' to serve their masters for profit. Asian elephants were traditionally used as cheap labour in foresting but after that industry was ended in the early 90s, elephants were out of work and became a nuisance to villages' crops. As a result, many were shot, starved, abused or worse.

The Elephant Nature Park was set up by a woman named Lek (which means small in Thai) to save those elephants treated most poorly. Elephants like Jokia who was blinded in both eyes by her forestry employer when she refused to work after losing a baby. Or Hope who was made an orphan when villagers shot and killed his mother for eating their corn crops. Or Lily who became addicted to the amphetamine used by her masters to get her to work around the clock. So many sad stories, all turned around by Lek and her merry band of mahouts (elephant trainers) and volunteers who brought these gorgeous giants to this sanctuary where they live out their lives happily and free of harm.

During our day here, we got to feed the elephants twice, pet the baby calves through their enclosure as they ran around in the dust, even bathe the elephants in the river that runs through the sanctuary, scrubbing their rough skin with brushes and tickling them behind their ears.

To get so close to such powerful animals,to feel their appreciation of our affection, to see love and good replacing pain and hurt, was something truly powerful and unforgetable.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Crossing the borders

Leaving Luang Nam Tha turned out to be a little easier than leaving Nong Khiaw. We knew when the mini van was leaving, we just couldn't find anyone who would sell us a ticket! But never fear, in true 'she'll be right mate' Laos style, we turned up at the bus station and someone was waiting there with his mini van and ushered us aboard! Too easy!

The road to the border town of Muang Xai passes through the province of Bokeo where the scenery is gorgeous, all lush green ranges, valleys suffocated by untamed jungle and lots of small villages of bamboo stilt huts lining the roadside. There were some patches of rough road that played havoc with Dave's belly after taking the Pepsi challenge with the Laos chilli pastes the day before but he grinned and bared it.

Once we had crossed the Mekong and into Thailand, we boarded our "express bus" to Chiang Rai. It was amazing to see the difference in development between these two South East Asian neighbours. All of a sudden it was all sealed roads, street lights, large houses - sights we had grown accustomed to not missing in Laos.

Chiang Rai itself is friendly (particularly our slightly crazy, singing hostel owner) but not especially pretty. We checked out the night markets and watched some local entertainment over beers and dinner.

We had a little lie in the next morning despite the local school brass band practicing their scales at 9am! In the afternoon we took another local bus, this time heading north to the border with Myanmar at a town named Mae Sai. The bus itself was teeming with people and Mae Sai is just your typical frontier town with the typical frontier town market - though we did buy rather fetching animal hats to wear this Xmas (a prize to anyone who can guess what animals we each are).

The following day we made the crossing to Myanmar though we almost got ourselves in hot water straight away as we somehow managed to walk straight past the passport checkpoint (they had a curtain covering the door) and so when we realised nobody had checked our documents, we turned back and they showed us the way. Phew!

The Burmese frontier town of Tachilek is also full of the usual guff, with a few special extras like Viagra and Saddam Hussein playing cards! We took a tuktuk to see some local temples and another large gold stupa before skipping back into Thailand to catch a bus and a 'songtheaw' (basically a ute with two long benches in the back that acts as a taxi for smaller destinations) to Mae Salong, a pretty alpine town that sits atop a mountain ridge line and was settled by the Kuomingtang Army after they retreated from China following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Red Army. As a result, the town is just as Chinese as it is Thai, evidenced by the architecture and signage, as well as the faces of the local people themselves.

While in Mae Salong, we walked up the 700+ steps to reach the temple at the top of the hill but opted for a motorbike the next day to explore the local Akha and Laho villages, bounded by tidy tea and coffee plantations. We also visited a weird unfinished tea pot monument that looked like something out of an Alice in Wonderland movie set!

That morning, Dave had got out of bed early to see the sunrise and wander through the small but very interesting morning market where some ladies wore their tribal headresses as they tended their stalls. Watching the deep fried doughballs being prepared and fried was slightly meditative, as was watching the local children kneeling before the monks to offer them donated food and to receive their blessing.

There was also the crazy-cymbal-playing-man who walked through town with his huge bright orange glasses and crashed his cymbals while walking his brightly decorated pony! Maybe all this mountain air was too much for him!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Luang Nam Tha

Getting to Nong Khiaw was pretty easy, getting out was proving to seem a little more difficult. The general idea was to take a public bus to Odomxai, a kind of arterial town in northern Laos, and change for a minibus to get to our destination, Luang Nam Tha. Seemed simple enough.

The problem was that nobody was entirely sure what time the bus to Odomxai was actually leaving (one person said 9am, another 9.30, another 10am). As the ticket window was closed when we arrived, we couldn't ask there so we took the safe option of getting to the booth at 8.30am the following morning, whereupon we were kindly informed that the bus was leaving at 11am! Dammit!

So we cooled our heels in a cafe for a few hours and when we returned at 10.30 to buy our tickets, some confused murmuring went on between the driver and the ticket man and then suddenly, at the last minute, they offered to take us all directly to Luang Nam Tha! Score! Only in Laos can they be so attractively nonchalant.

The road was yet another sinuous and often very rough test of our stomachs and backsides, though the scenery was, once again, glorious. There were a lot of roadworks going on using Chinese machinery and lorries, proof of the support Laos is now receiving from its big northern neighbour. We made it to Luang Nam Tha, a little brittle and broken, but after another very good Indian dinner (this time at Yamuna), we felt human again. Dave even had a few of the Hmong tribes ladies offer him (in very hushed tones) some opium for desert, which he politely declined!

The next day we did some exploring of the lush areas surrounding this dusty little town on some hired bicycles. It was cold in the morning as we pushed out to see Tam Dee Waterfall but the weather changed quickly around 10am as the mist burnt off and the sun came out so we had to double back to change into cooler clothes! We saw some local boys playing football on rice paddies and a giant golden stupa on the hillside before heading back out of town to the excellent Boat Landing restaurant for lunch. They do great northern Lao food and their menu is brilliant as it explains the genesis and (very importantly) the chilli content of each dish. Dave decided he had tiptoed around the mild dishes for long enough and jumped in for some chilli paste and sticky rice, a decision he lived to regret the following morning!

In the afternoon, we passed through small rural villages of black Thai people. We had bought educational books and pens from the excellent literacy NGO called Big Brother Mouse in town, with the hope that we could give them away at schools we passed along the way, but each one we passed was closed! Seems Lao children only do mornings!

As we returned to town, we got a real treat when we stopped by a local wedding party and were invited in. Apparently this was day 3 of the festivities and the bride and groom had cleverly taken their leave yesterday, leaving their family and friends to get suitably sozzled! Libby was invited to join in a traditional circle dance, kind of like the macarena but without the hip wiggling! Libs was really getting into it while Dave took pictures and drank rice whisky with the local brewer.

Good times.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Upriver to Nong Khiaw

Most travellers taking a boat out of Luang Prabang take a two day slow boat up the Mekong to the border with Thailand. We decided to take the river less travelled and jumped on a slow boat up the Nam Ou river to reach the village of Nong Khiaw and we were glad we did.

We were lucky enough to snag one of the six cumfy seats on the boat (the rest were all just small wooden seats with even smaller pillows on them) and could then just sit back and watch the world go by as we pushed against the current in the clean emerald water, the river bounded by lots of limestone karst mountainside and small villages on the banks going about their daily life.

Nong Khiaw itself is a small and basic village but it is set between beautiful limestone mountains and the sunsets there are gorgeous. If you are leaving Luang Prabang, you could do a lot worse than getting out by boat to Nong Khiaw.

Mr and Mrs T xx