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Thailand - The Final Blog...

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Bumpy is about the best word to describe our journey back into Thailand. Apparently, one of South East Asia's top airlines are paying the government of Cambodia a healthy sum to keep the road between Siem Reap and the Thai border in a dodgy condition. Unfortunately for many travellers, this extra cost is beyond them, and like us have to endure a morning of being thrown around a poorly made bus as it drives along the dusty, pot-holed track. The journey itself is only one-hundred-and-twenty kilometres, but takes a bone-crunching five hours to complete.

Finally back in Thailand, we only hung around in Bangkok long enough for a nights sleep in one of the Khao San Road's cheapie guesthouse rooms (a cardboard box in the street would probably have been more pleasant), and then headed to catch a local bus the following morning to Kanchanaburi, a small town about two hours west of the sprawling capital. Instantly, Kan (as the locals call it) is a likable town. Quiet and quaint, it belies much of what you see in the more heavily touristed areas of the islands or the big cities. Unfortunately, like many of the places we've already visited, it hides a dark past.

In the spirit of continuing our recent trend of death, destruction and depressing historical events, this is the town made famous by the moving story of the Bridge over the River Kwai. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army had plans to connect Yangon in Burma with Bangkok, via a railway which would aid their transport of military supplies. Of course, such an undertaking meant they'd need a lot of manpower, and so prisoner's of war from all over Asia were drafted into the project which was to become known as the Death Railway. The four-hundred-and-fifteen kilometre track was thought to have taken to lives of over 100,000 men, many simply from exhaustion or malnutrition, as they toiled in savagely inhumane conditions on a project that was estimated to take five years, but was completed through force in just sixteen months. We visited the museum which explained more about the project itself, and the told the stories of some of the POW's from diaries which were secretly buried with them. Across the road are the allied cemeteries, where thousands of name plates sit in rows of bleak remembrance to the fallen soldiers. Lastly, we went to see the site of the bridge itself as it majestically spans the river. Imagining how such an ordinary bridge lies at the heart of such an extraordinary story can only be achieved once the history behind it has been uncovered.

With one second and last day in Kanchanaburi, we took ourselves off on a tour of the surrounding region. The only real attraction in Thailand we'd yet to take part in was an Elephant ride, mainly due to the fact that we were concerned with the way in which animals are treated in this part of the world. It seems that wherever we go, the Thai's aren't particularly good in their treatment of wildlife, whether it be protecting their coral reefs or hunting for ivory and fur-skins of endangered species. This tour included a small elephant trek, and we decided that we'd only really be able to comment once we'd seen for ourselves. The young lad on the back of our particular beast seemed jovial enough and managed to control the animal with just a few commands and a tickle under it's ear with his foot to get her moving. After a few minutes however, he produced the pick-axe style weapon that we've seen other elephant handlers use. As we protested, he would playfully pretend to raise the instrument high and smash it into the Elephants head, stopping short and smirking wildly at our cringing, before finally doing as we asked and putting it away. Thankfully, this was the last we saw of it, and could enjoy the trek without further need to harass him. In honesty, we still felt bad about taking part, and it's by no means a comfortable experience anyway which will probably be enough to stop us returning any time soon. The novel part however was when we all got to go into the river with the elephants and give them a bit of a scrub. As the trainers made them dip below the waterline, we'd all get a bath of our own, the only real moment of worry arising as giant, football-sized lumps of turd would float menacingly past us!

Bangkok would see only another quick stopover for us, checking out a few of the bigger shopping centres in the Siam Square area before the buying began in earnest a week or so later with our fourth and final visit. For the evening however, we were surprised to hear that our friends Tom and Lisa were briefly in town. With a flight booked to the islands for early the following the morning, we didn't really want a large one, but somehow found ourselves sitting with buckets of Samsong and Coke in the Khao San Road at 3am and had to hurry back to our guesthouse for a half-hours shut-eye before leaving for the airport. Suffice to say, by the time we reached Ko Samui early the next morning, we were only fit for spending most of the day in bed.

The first few days back on the island were fairly quiet. With rain delaying play, we watched a little Wimbledon from our hotel room and caught up on the whole third season of Lost, which was predictably unenlightening. We did manage to hook up very briefly with Stacey, a girl we'd met in Buenos Aires, and spent Christmas in Sydney with. It was around the fourth day that things began to liven up, as we began to make ourselves permanent fixtures on the free sunbeds outside the popular Ark Bar in the middle of Chaweng Beach. First we got chatting to a couple of older lads who were on holidays checking out some property on the other side of the island. Soon though a few more characters began to join the party, and this is when things became a little more interesting.

Five people from our second visit to Samui will forever stick in our minds: First up, a young girl called Saren. We're fairly sure she had a bit of a screw loose, mainly due to the fact that she sat around bragging about going home with a nice bout of Worms. One evening, we got chatting to a lad called Matt. We'd heard a little about him but I wanted to confirm the details for myself. Leaving Manchester just over nine months ago with a round-the-world plane ticket, he arrived in the Ark Bar and never actually ended up leaving. A standard day involves rising at 4pm, coming to the bar with his book for a Sprite and a Pad Thai, going back to the room for a few hours before returning around 8pm for a night on the lash. He's due home in just a few weeks, having seen nothing of what he'd set out to do, but apparently with no regrets. Impressive, if slightly sad.

Next up, came Richard, a fifty-something 'Geezer' from the north of London who claimed to be a chef, living and working in Portsmouth. Instantly recognisable as a 'pinch of salt' kind of guy, when asked about the kind of food he served in his restaurant his reply was "we make a bit of everything, barbecues some nights, even Panini's for the kids". You can understand the dilemma we had with taking any of his stories as given, and things were little helped when he later claimed to be a three-time World Disco Dancing Champion. We couldn't bring ourselves to ask for a display, but would get one sooner or later anyway.

Finally, two lads from Guernsey rolled into the fray. Testament to the fact that living on a small island all of your life can't be good for you, these two weren't quite the full ticket. Although offering little in the way of thoughtful conversation, they were a good laugh and were the source of almost constant amusement. Paul, the slightly dippier of the two, was a law unto himself. After ordering boiled eggs with his breakfast one morning, we asked why he was smashing them to pieces and looking so confused when they arrived. His startling response came with a make-believe drawing on the tabletop, and without any sign of shame: "This wasn't what I wanted, I was after the one's with the big white bit on the outside and the soggy yellow bit in the middle - you know, the type that leaks all over the plate when you cut through it". If we hadn't heard it with our own ears we probably wouldn't have believed it. Anyway, these two managed to liven the place up, constantly stroking Richards ego (which he was more than happy with), and generally being nice, but worryingly stupid lads.

All in all, this week turned into a great crack. We all sat around in the daytime's, moaning about Ark Bar's standard of food, it's repetitive music policy and over-charging, but still did little to leave and find something else. This week was all about taking it easy. Nights out meant a few beers around the pool table, and then a stroll up to one of the lively bars in the square where Richard would pull out a few of his world-class (??) moves and the lads would humorously egg him on. Despite the diverse group, with very little in common, it proved to be a great combination for an interesting finale to the Thai islands.

Back in Bangkok for our last few days, it was all about the shopping and a touch of last-minute sightseeing. Numerous shopping centres (which were disappointingly expensive), the stalls on Khao San Road and the weekend market at Chatuchak were all comprehensively covered in search of bargains, whilst a compulsory quick visit to the Grand Palace, the kings former official residence and temple was also on the menu. This was, unsurprisingly, grand and quite palace like. For our final night, we met with Michaela and Rupert, friends from the good old days back at Bloomberg. They accompanied us to our last must-see, the Patpong market and an accompanying Ping-Pong show. A Bangkok institution, this is where some of the city's finest young ladies display incredible dexterity and talent to produce razorblades and lengths of handkerchief, blow whistles, and fire ping-pong balls from their nether-regions. Although reports from other travellers claimed this was an incredible show, we were slightly underwhelmed by it all.

And that's it all over with. I'm currently writing this from our friends apartment whilst we see out our final week away in Hong Kong, and I'm sad to say that this will be our final blog (collective sigh of relief). I suspect that a monthly update of our time in Bexleyheath and Welling might not be interesting enough to warrant a written account. By the time most of you read this, we'll be on our way home, heavily depressed but excited to see everyone after ten-and-a-half months and almost eighty thousand kilometres of travel. Adjusting to the realities of a normal life is going to be tough I'm sure. We'll be tempted to walk everywhere or use buses rather than expensive taxi's, carry a roll of toilet paper wherever we go, put our weekly shopping into carrier bags and attach labels with our names on, get ourselves a pair of bunks so other people can share our bedroom and wash our underwear in the shower to make sure we don't run out.

We've seen some amazing things, and although it's hard to put much of our trip into words, we hope that those of you who are still with us (how are you Mum?) have enjoyed reading our blogs and have been given a little inspiration to see some of the world as we have. Sarah's been lucky enough to be offered a couple of weeks work back at the court, whilst I have more pressing matters of attending my brother's stag gathering in rainy Blackpool. Back down to earth with a bang is probably a mild understatement... we hope to see you all soon.

Dan and Sarah

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Posted by dbo 19:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cambodia

all seasons in one day 30 °C
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Within minutes of entering Cambodia from the east and being driven along the main road which connects the capital with Vietnam, it's clear to see that this is country playing catch-up with many of it's more developed neighbours. Small rural villages, comprising of little more than makeshift wooden huts, are dwarfed by acres of agricultural rice-land, all of which line the dusty, pot-holed road leading to the country's capital.

Four bumpy hours later, and it finally becomes apparent that we're nearing Phnom Pehn. Crowds of school-children begin to appear and the traffic becomes a little heavier as we enter the outskirts, until suddenly the bridge spanning the Bassac River drops us almost unwittingly into the city centre. As our rickety bus navigates the congested roads, it begins to dawn that this is no small city, and the advice we'd been given to see the city at leisure, rather than rushing through the obligatory sights, appears to be sound.

The people we'd got chatting to on the bus were all heading for the riverfront area, and so we decided to tag along (stalkers?) and see what was over in that direction. Checking into our slightly grotty room, we only really had the energy for dinner and a couple of drinks with Jo and Andrew (our Easy-Rider pals from Vietnam) before hitting the sack. We did however manage to find a good restaurant called Friends, a tapas bar which plays a vital role in the community by not only giving jobs to street-children, but also allowing a huge chunk of their proceeds to go towards training and education of these unfortunate individuals. This was something we were yet to encounter for ourselves but had heard much about.

There's no doubting that as a country, Cambodia has had it's fair share of doom and gloom in recent years, and the poor souls who line the streets each and every day are a constant reminder of the civilised world's failure to act, and in some cases, willingness to contribute (whether unwittingly or not is for each individual to decide). It's no over-exaggeration to call many of these sights upsetting at the very least. Ranging from incredibly deformed, maimed or disabled adults and children (disability in this part of the world will invariably mean becoming a social outcast), to whole families with small children lying naked in the streets because they have nowhere else to go, it's a harsh reality to accept and although the begging is a nuisance to many tourists, we found it hard to turn a blind eye to this kind of deprivation.

Unfortunately, it's a typical 'swings and roundabouts' situation, especially where children are concerned. There are many free schools running now in Phnom Pehn, but the parents will inevitably send their children out to beg instead, beating them if they come home with less than is expected. If they are given money, this undoubtedly raises the bar, and their chances of a good thrashing, if not today, then tomorrow when they come home with less. For those without parents, if given money they will only be encouraged to continue skipping school in favour of begging (or stealing if the opportunity arises). For those in the know about the idea of 'responsible travel', this only makes the conundrum even more tricky to navigate, and there were a number of occasions when we ended up giving out cereal bars, water, sweets and pens, or whatever other items we had with us. Whether this is the right thing to do or not, we are still unsure.

Of course, this leads inevitably to the question as to why so much of this exists here, and yet again, a history of war will play a vital role. Our main sightseeing excursions whilst in the city were not something we were relishing, but felt that we needed to see in order to broaden our knowledge of the country's past, another unsurprisingly complex one.

After World War II, Cambodia was left to fester by the French who had turned their attention to Vietnam's economic potential. The current leader, King Norodom Sihanouk, began a crusade for independence, which the French finally granted in 1953, leading to fifteen years of economic prosperity for the country. By 1969 however, Cambodia had been sucked into the Vietnam conflict as the United States began secretly carpet-bombing huge areas of the countryside which they suspected were communist bases for roving Vietnamese troops. By 1970, King Sihanouk's erratic and repressive policies had alienated many of his allies. He was overthrown by the army and fled to Beijing, where he was eventually pressured by the Chinese into throwing in his lot with a weak rebel party called the Khmer Rouge, boosting their support dramatically.

Unbeknown to US leaders, their insistent carpet-bombing, and ensuing invasion into Cambodian territory to root out Communist forces, only served to provide the Khmer Rouge leaders with the propaganda they needed for widespread recruitment from peasant communities. By 1975, they had a force big and ruthless enough to enter Phnom Pehn and take control, piece by piece, of the whole country. Soon after, the public face of the Khmer Rouge emerged in the figure of Pol Pot, a fifty-year-old man who had learnt all about radical Marxism in Paris before returning to his native Cambodia as a school teacher, a fact that tends to make what happens next even more appalling.

After the taking of Phnom Pehn, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, implemented one of the most terrifying revolutions that the world has ever seen. Communications with the outside world were eradicated, and a plan of turning Cambodia (now called 'Democratic Kampuchea') into a peasant-dominated cooperative was steadily implemented. During the next four years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian's were relocated to the countryside, tortured to death or executed. Educated people became the most sought after, the mastery of a foreign language, or amazingly, the wearing of spectacles meaning you were branded as a 'parasite' and systematically killed. Hundreds of thousands more died of mistreatment, malnutrition or disease. Between 1975 and 1979, it is thought that almost two million people died as a direct result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge. They were finally overthrown in late 1978 when Vietnam invaded, but continued to fight a guerrilla war with the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the 1980's, armed and financed by China and Thailand, and with indirect US support.

Our first visit was to the aptly named 'Killing Fields of Choeung Ek', a site lying approximately fifteen kilometres outside of central Phnom Pehn. This now quiet and serene place, one of many dotted throughout Cambodia's countryside, is the site of one-hundred-and-twenty-nine mass graves, where men, women and children were brought to be exterminated. Arises from it's midst, is a blinding white stupa that serves as a memorial to the seventeen thousand people who died here, and contains a startling collection of some eight thousand skulls which were excavated here in 1980. Some display the tragic hallmarks of bullet-holes, whilst others still bear witness to the fact that they were bludgeoned to death in an effort to save precious bullets. The graves themselves were full of water after heavy rainfall from the night before, and we're still unclear as to whether this saved us from any more unpleasant sights.

To continue the history lesson, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school which was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest centre of detention, interrogation and torture in the country. As we strolled in silence through the basic museum pieces, we were confronted with a number of the extensive records kept by the prison, which somehow failed to be destroyed when the Khmer Rouge left in 1979. Expressionless faces of photographed victims stared back from walls and walls of displays, whilst hand-built brick and wooden cells lined the edges of one particular building. A bare classroom holds nothing more than a single rusty bed, while gruesome black and white photographs stand as testament to some of the unthinkable horrors which took place here. Towards the end of the exhibition, paintings by a survivor of S-21 adorn the walls, depicting torture and life, if it can be called that, in the prison. To be alive after such an experience can only be appreciated when you understand the numbers involved. Of over seventeen thousand total detainees here, it is thought that during the first part of 1977, the prison claimed an average of over one hundred victims a day, and throughout the three-and-a-half years of the prisons running, less than a dozen survived.

Back in Phnom Pehn, it's clear to see that the city's dark past is thankfully being put to rest. Plush bars and eateries line the riverfront area, the Grand Palace and National Museum stand tall and proud, while tourism appears to be on the up, with swarms of shoppers heading for the art-deco Central Market with it's array of cheap goods. We ended up really enjoying our time here... there's plenty of culture and history to be observed, whilst the numerous nightspots in town made for some entertaining evenings with our pals from the bus and the various locals we got chatting to. Particular thanks goes to the owner of one establishment who stayed open until the small hours especially for us, and ended up passing out in the street while we played pool. Good lad...

Time constraints eventually meant we had to move on however, and so we took the bus six hours up the road (one of two major routes through the country) to Siem Reap. We'd been expecting a fairly small town, but development here appears to have blown up in recent years, mainly thanks to the fact that it has one of humanity's most captivating architectural achievements sitting in it's back yard. I talk obviously of the Temples of Angkor, the political, religious and social centre of the Kingdom of Cambodia, dating back as far 800 AD.

Now, it's here that I must point out that we are by no means great appreciators of a good temple. The whole thing just isn't really our bag. Seeing as many of the recommended sights in South-East Asia have been these kinds of structures, especially through Thailand, we've systematically avoided them, knowing that we'd eventually reach Angkor, the world's most renowned and culturally significant bunch of religious buildings to grace the Earth, and wouldn't want to be 'all templed out'. In theory, a fine tactic, but the reality was going to prove slightly more difficult than we'd first thought.

With good, but realistic intentions, we booked ourselves a guide who would take us on a one-day tour of the principal sights (there is the option of two or three day tours, but we weren't about to get naively ambitious) and by the time it came to actually going, I think we were quite looking forward to it. And so at the break of dawn we were up and at 'em, confident that the day in front of us would hold some kind of spiritual awakening. As per usual however, half of our energy was sapped almost as soon as we stepped out the door of our air-conditioned hotel and into the ridiculous heat of the morning...

First up, was the most famous Temple of them all, Angkor Wat, a culmination of the Cambodian 'Devaraja' (God-Kings) need to better their ancestors efforts and produce a place of worship that would out-size and out-decorate all of their previous work. Nowadays, this place represents the source of inspiration and national pride to all Khmers as they struggle to overcome the terrors of recent years. Soaring skyward from the middle of a huge moat, this is one of those moments that you've seen hundreds of times in photographs, but still takes you slightly by surprise when you're there in the flesh. Of course, there is the deluge of tourists (predominantly Japanese, boasting an astounding array of giant visor-like headwear) to wade through in order to get any decent photographs, but the sheer scale of the architecture still manages to captivate, even if just for a few moments.

It is thought by many experts who have been studying this particular site since the beginning of the 20th Century, that the structures all replicate the spatial universe, the large tower in the centre being the Hindu's mythical Mt Meru, surrounded by lesser peaks (smaller towers), surrounded by continents (lower courtyards) and the oceans (in the form of the moat). Of course, we didn't really see any of that, instead admiring the intricate handiwork in the bas-reliefs with little analysis, and tackling the steep stone staircases and giant inner courtyards like kids in an adventure playground.

Next up, we were driven through on of the huge monumental gates and into the fortified city of Angkor Thom, a walled selection of important monuments built by Angkor's greatest king, Jayavarman VII. In Bayon, 216 giant faces watch over curious visitors, whilst elaborate carvings on the outer walls vividly depict 12th Century life with scenes of kick-boxing and cockfighting. Meanwhile, in a separate part of the city, the Terrace of Elephants, a three-hundred metre long deck with it's walls laden with hunting scenes stands proud around it's central stairway.
It was here, I must confess, that we began to labour slightly. The clock had just struck midday, and the heat was almost unbearable. Although the scenes we were viewing were very impressive, the huge hunks of stone in front of us were gradually turning into just that, and it was getting hard to see into the history behind it all.

Explaining (a little embarrassingly) our dying enthusiasm, our guide seemed quite happy to whisk us off to our final stop. This, he explained, was the 'Tomb Raider' site. Apparently, Ta Prohm was used in one of the movies and from the moment of entering, you can kind of understand why it makes such a good film set. Unlike many of the other temples, which have undergone massive programmes of preservation and clearing, this one has been left to it's own devices and would probably look the much the same today as it did when it was discovered by French explorers over a century ago. Many of the crumbling corridors are roped off (with reason we suspect), but most of the good spots for photographs are easily accessible. Giant tentacled roots are gradually strangling the stonework as the natural environment of the jungle takes over, the shapes and damage they cause becoming instantly intriguing.

And that was our temple tour over, as well as our Cambodian adventure. It wasn't particularly thrilling, but we'd come to understand a little more about the history and culture of a country that is getting itself back on the map. It's hard for anyone with a civilised western upbringing to fully grasp what the people here have had to go through to get to where they are today, but with the magnificent temples as a symbol of their strength it's nice to imagine that they will overcome the dark past which has plagued them for so long, even if justice will probably never truly be done...

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Posted by dbo 04:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Vietnam

sunny 35 °C
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Thumping down onto the tarmac at Hanoi International airport was a relief for all involved after what can only be described as a bumpy flight on the shaky looking Vietnam Airways AT-7 plane from northern Laos. Most of the passengers were in for a new surprise however, when the trademark camp steward announced that the outside temperature was currently sitting on a mild thirty-six degrees. It was 6:05pm. But despite being greeted with the breathtaking heat as we descended the steps, we were also welcomed with the beautiful scene of the sun-setting over the western runway.

It was as our taxi-driver calmly drove us into a city centre which looked like it could have been on fire thanks to the smog which enveloped it, that the full scale of Vietnamese traffic conditions settled upon us. As a nation of motorbike owners, the streets are filled to bursting point with purring mopeds, and there were a few occasions where we actually thought that we weren't even going to make it to our accommodation. Road rules do not seem to apply, as bikes and the odd car or van battle through the streets to get to their destination, ignoring red lights, crossings and junctions alike.

Arriving safely in Hanoi, we were pleased to find ourselves once more in a hostel, and out of the boring guesthouses which seem to be the going trend for most of south-east Asia. Within minutes we got chatting to the lads in our room, and then took ourselves out to dinner, arranging to meet them later at a bar they were quick to recommend. After a nice meal, we traipsed over to the bar only to find it without air-con due to an earlier power-cut, and hence, like a human oven. While we dripped pleasantly into our semi-warm beers, Jan seemed to find the atmosphere suitably steamy, and spent most of the night blanking us while she got herself razzled by an American fella called Kyle, who had used his best line (anyone got a guidebook for Vietnam I could borrow?) to wheedle his way into our little gang on the flight over. She obviously fell hook, line and sinker for it though, as within just a few hours of waking up the next morning, she told us that they'd decided to take a holiday together over to Halong Bay. Speedy work from both parties... and worth a cheeky high five!

Leaving us to our own devices, we took ourselves off to some of the cities more interesting sights. In the same tradition as Lenin and Stalin, the body of much revered communist leader Ho Chi Minh can be viewed as he lies peacefully embalmed in a glass sarcophagus deep within his own grand monument building. Although the queue stretches to over an hour every morning, the crowds keeps coming to be ushered through the chamber in single file for their thirty second gawping opportunity. We were surprised to note that despite having been here for near-on three decades, the russian embalmers who receive him every winter are doing a great job at keeping Uncle Ho looking sharp. We were still a little miffed at the history behind the public enamour, but would make a point of finding out more about this as we travelled through the country. Whilst on our tour of the complex, we also took in the presidential palace and the museum, which although visually interesting, did little to satisfy our curiosity about their former leader. Whilst wandering the old quarter, we took a stroll around the lake, and went for a quick peek at the medieval-like St Joseph Cathedral to round off our day of sightseeing.

After a couple of pleasant evenings in the rooftop bar, and a few nights out to local venues, we felt it was time to take the trip to Halong Bay ourselves. This Unesco World Heritage site in the gulf of Tonkin, about one hundred kilometres east of the capital, comprises of over 3000 islands, and is a popular spot for most travellers to the region due to its emerald green waters, innumerable caves and idyllic beach-island getaways. Luckily, we managed to get a really nice group, and spent the voyage out to our 'Paradise Island' base getting to know everyone. After a whopping eight course meal on the first evening, the three american/canadian lads got everyone going with some Karaoke, not something we'd usually participate in, but with only the gecko's to hear us all there was only a smidgen of the usual amount of shame involved.

For the second day, we were left to our own devices, and around lunchtime were joined on the island by a group of four girls from just down the road in Dartford. It's a small world, but we found it gave us plenty to chat about, and after a sunset game of volleyball (in which the girl's team cheated considerably to beat an outstanding men's team performance) we all settled down for a night of drinking games! This meant that hangovers were in full effect on the journey back to Hanoi the following day, but spirits were still high, especially once we'd all spruced ourselves up with a quick dip in the waters by jumping off the top of the thirty-foot-tall boat.

In Hanoi, Jan was back from her trip and we had a few beers with her, saw the Dartford girls off, and then hung around the next day waiting for our southbound train, another experience in itself. The overnight part wasn't too bad as we found ourselves in a cabin of four bunks with a nice Norwegian couple, and the train was smooth enough to actually get some sleep. It was the morning section of the journey which bought the real entertainment. The nice couple abandoned us in Hue, and taking their place was an old Vietnamese woman, her two sons (we presume) and what must have been most of the possessions from her house. As the two boys frantically tried to jam boxes and cases under beds and into overhead compartments, their mother settled down to munch contentedly on a tupperware pot full of chicken bones. We were quite pleased two hours later when the conductor informed us that we'd made up some time and had arrived early at our station, meaning we could finally leave the woman who, after a short nap, was now crunching menacingly on her lunch which had been delivered just moments before.

Arriving at China Beach, a small section of the wider expanse of sand which spans thirty kilometres between Danang and Hoi An, we jumped out of our taxi to be greeted by Moninne and Dave, an Irish couple we'd met in Halong Bay. Like us, they'd been directed here by the hostel in Hanoi, and it turned out to be a little gem. Hoa (the owner of our accommodation) was a humorous little fella who'd picked up a good english vocabulary (from American's judging by the accent) and spent most of his time swearing good-humouredly about whatever topic came up. His guesthouse sat just back from the beach which would become our home for the next few days. The Irish couple however had other ideas and were heading into Hoi An to take a look at the towns offerings of tailored clothes, and being the curious type, we decided to tag along. Despite going without any intention to actually buy, we ended up walking out four fittings later with a selection of tailor-made garments weighing just over eight kilograms. At the time of writing, these still hadn't actually made it home however, so either our box is a little delayed, or some of the Vietnamese postal staff are walking around town looking exceedingly swish.

Nha Trang was our next destination, and this time we were accompanied by Dave and Moninne, and Jo and Andrew (another Irish couple who we'd been in Halong Bay with). This town proved to be the complete opposite of Hoi An, a bustling seaside resort with the usual overload of tourists and street sellers. For alternative entertainment purposes we took ourselves off to the mud baths, a local complex where you can benefit from the therapeutic qualities of the brown waters before sitting in the natural hot springs. A humorous, but not entirely pleasant experience. We also managed to catch up with the Dartford girls and had a heavy night on the town with them before they headed home. This culminated in myself and Dave wandering home at 4am after watching the England game, and both being accosted by six 'ladies of the night' who obviously thought we were more inebriated than we actually were, and began by offering their services but ended grappling with us both in an attempt to relieve us of our money and cameras. We managed to fend them off for a few minutes, starting with polite refusals and ending with a few elbows and all the strength we could muster to throw them off. Luckily, we were right outside our guesthouse and the night-porter had woken in time to let us in to safety.

On our last morning, we thought it would be nice to get involved with some local voluntary work, and enrolled ourselves at one of the free schools which helps with the teaching of the many street-kids who are trying to make lives for themselves in the area. These children are usually either orphaned or sent away by their parents because they can't afford to raise them, and there are a number of organisations who are trying to educate them so they can go on to gain respectable employment rather than begging and stealing on the streets, or being targeted by a shameful selection of tourist paedophiles who come to the area for easy pickings. Our first class was with a group of younger children, and we were asked to sit with them and go over basic conversation in English, whilst the second hour-long lesson dealt with older kids who already had a good grasp of the language and were at a more advanced level. Admittedly, we were expecting on both occasions a bunch of playful and rebellious urchins, but we were stunned to see not only the grasp of English that they had, but also the enthusiasm at which they tackle the subject and turn up uncoerced every morning to learn. It was nice for us to be able to contribute to such a worthwhile scheme, and can admit to feeling quite guilty when some of the friendlier students asked whether we'd be back the next day. Admittedly, they didn't seem at all surprised to hear that we wouldn't, but this only served to make us feel worse about our fleeting visit.

With our trip quickly running out on us we were looking for something a little different to anything we'd previously experienced. Jo and Andrew had bumped into a man on the street who was part of an organisation called 'Easy Riders' and after explaining this to us, a trip with them seemed like just the ticket. In short, you jump on the back of a motorbike with your backpack strapped behind you, and the driver acts as your guide for any route you wish and over as many days as you would like. With biking appearing to be in the lifeblood of the people, this seemed like the ideal way to get ourselves off the beaten track and see some of the 'real Vietnam', and so we booked ourselves a three day tour that would eventually see us reach the well-known southern city of Saigon.

We were all a little nervous about how a bike trip would suit us, especially after seeing some of the haphazard traffic conditions but our four guides Huy (pronounced Hoi), Me, Cuc (Cook) and Trung (Troong) we all adamant that our safety was their first priority: "No worries" generally being Huy's distinctive motto. Within minutes of being on the back of the bikes I think we were all put relatively at ease and once we'd left the city limits we all started to relax and take in the scenery. We stopped at numerous points where Huy would show us some of Vietnam's main exports (such as cashew nut plantations), tradecrafts (making incense sticks from pulp) and crops. This was then followed by a beautiful scenic drive into the central highlands, lunch at the most local of local restaurants (diarrhoea all round please) and delivery into the heart of a small picturesque town called Dalat. It was transpiring that road rules do actually apply, and Huy was quick to tell us of how driving a motorbike in Vietnam is all about respect for others, keeping the speed down, and of course, a certain degree of self-awareness and talent in the saddle.

Once checked into our accommodation, the plan had been to take us to see some of the sights, but as we strolled around our first stop at the Flower Centre (admittedly, this was like a flash version of Homebase) it began to absolutely chuck it down meaning not only that this is probably the coldest we've been in the last six months, but also ensuring that the rest of the afternoon was called off. During the evening however, the heavens had closed and so we could at least venture out to the night-market where the usual supply of foul-smelling meats go on sale and the jumble-like clothes stalls are packed with noisy locals after a bargain.

On day two, the sun was thankfully shining and we were able to take a quick skirt around the town's large lake and out into the surrounding countryside to visit the very popular Buddhist Pagoda and the nearby waterfall, reachable by a novel luge/roller-coaster style ride. Upon leaving the Dalat province, we were yet again out into the countryside, and stopped briefly at a small ethnic minority town called Chicken Village, owing to the giant stone statue of a chicken which adorns it's skyline. In Vietnam, the term 'ethnic minority' refers to the groups of people who are born into the world with a darker skin tone than the rest of it's countrymen, and are hence outcast to small rural populations where they are inevitably forced to manufacture basic handicrafts (weaved garments and tapestries) or gather crops whilst living in relative poverty. It's a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately, the Vietnamese take the skin-tone issue even further than some its neighbours, using skin-whitening creams and lotions at an alarming rate and ensuring that their women are covered from head-to-toe throughout the day in order to avoid tanning.

Back on the road, we wound our way through yet another highland pass and back down onto the coastal roads, unfortunately leaving the cool air behind us once and for all. Before arriving at our overnight destination we were taken to the white sand dunes just outside of town, and then onto the small fishing village of Mui Ne to watch the trawlers come in for the night. By this point, our backside's were in a fair amount of discomfort after nearly nine hours on the back of a motorbike, but the trip was turning out to be as good as expected.

For our final day we knew we had a long journey in front of us, three hundred kilometres and some six or so hours of riding. We were also aware that this leg was to be a little less eventful than the first two, with few stopping points of any interest. Huy did manage to find a nice Dragonfruit harvesting complex however, where we got to sample some of the fruits for free and speak to the workers. After that, it was a case of motoring all the way. We knew it was also likely to get a little hairy at this point, as the volume of traffic increased as we entered the city limits. By the time we reached the centre, we'd seen four bike accidents in under an hour, and our driver-guides really had to step up their game in order to weave their way through the congestion. Saying our final goodbye's in downtown Saigon, and feeling so saddle-sore that John Wayne would have been a little jealous of our amusing waddles, we had a final few days in Vietnam before heading on to pastures new and had said all along that this was the best place to indulge in some recent history.

To start our journey into Vietnam's past, it was necessary to acquire some background. Most people know that during the seventies, the American's fought a long and ill-fated war here, but like us, know nothing of the reason's for it. In a nutshell, in 1954 Vietnam became a divided country with two very different leaders: Communist Ho Chi Minh (of sarcophagi fame) in the north, and Ngo Dinh Diem, anti-Communist catholic in the south. In 1960, the Hanoi government changed its policy of opposition to the Diem regime from one of 'political struggle' to 'armed struggle' and formed a guerrilla group better known as the Viet Cong (VC) to fight the south. When Diem was assassinated by his own troops in 1964 and the North Vietnamese Army infiltrated the south making the future for the Saigon regime bleak at best.

The US (who were still fighting the Cold War with the daddy of Communist states, Russia) held the view that Communism was a threat to peace all over the world, especially America, and so elected to join the south in it's fight, sending over their first troops in 1965 and setting up base in Saigon. They were soon to be joined by troops from South Korea, Australia, Thailand and New Zealand. Unfortunately, no-one had quite anticipated the strength and determination of the forces in the north (unsurprisingly, the Viet Cong are the only group to have significantly resisted the Japanese occupation in World War II), and gradually began losing supremacy in a war that raged for over eight years, and took the lives of hundred's of thousands of soldiers. An eventual ceasefire was called in 1973 with the total withdrawal of US troops and release of of American prisoners of war. Although the eventual reunification of Vietnam by the communists meant liberation from more than a century of colonial repression, hundreds of thousands of southerner's fled to neighbouring countries, creating a flood of refugees for the next 15 years. Vietnam would later hold a large campaign of repression against ethnic-Chinese and invade Cambodia in 1978 which would prompt China to invade in 1979 in a war that would only last for seventeen days but would disrupt relation between the two countries for next decade. As you've probably gathered, it's all very complicated.

To get a better understanding, we took a bus out to the Cu Chi province to the north-west of the city. This rural area is the strategic setting for one of the many reason's that the American's could not defeat their enemy, a two hundred kilometre network of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong which would make them almost invisible to enemy troops on the surface. First there was a brief introductory video, in which it was described the planning and digging of the tunnels (often by hand) and how some undeniably nasty traps were built. Despite the obvious seriousness of the subject, it was hard not to chuckle at some of the names for the medals that were awarded to some of the more successful troops and the seriousness at which it was presented: "Hero American Killer" and "American Tank Destroyer Hero" to name but two.

Moving on, we were given a live display of how soldiers used to hide inside small holes covered by leaves for hours on end waiting for enemies to appear, and a further insight into some of the trap-door style nasties that awaited unsuspecting troops. Next up, we got to fire a machine-gun, good fun, but at nearly seventy pence a bullet, over before it seemed like we'd even pulled the trigger. Finally, it was our turn to experience the tunnels for ourselves. Now I'm not one for suffering from claustrophobia, but after a few minutes cramped on all fours inside the pitch-black tunnels (which have been widened for tourists!) it is hard not to hold a certain amount of awe for the men and women who spent days or even weeks underground. Sarah was very brave on the other hand, but as expected got suitably panicked after about thirty seconds inside the first small tunnel and had to be calmly guided out by a random stranger while I supportively hung back taking photos.

Back in Saigon, we continued our tour with a stop at the War Museum, an interesting display of retired artillery pieces such as American bombers, tanks, helicopters and missile casings. It was the exhibition itself however that really gave an insight into the brutality of the war itself, displaying the tiger cages which were used to imprison Viet Cong prisoner's of war, pictures of troops in action and of those who suffered torture, and even a jar containing the foetus' of two fused unborn babies whose mother had been the recipient of some of the side affects associated with Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical mix which the American's sprayed onto foliage so that the opposing troops were unable to hide within it. Unfortunately, this weapon and the rest of the war effort now accounts for much of the deformity we were due to see on the streets of Saigon during our stay.

All in all, Vietnam had invoked a mixture for the senses. There are undoubtedly some beautiful places which we'd seen with our own eyes, but it is all still slightly over-shadowed by a dark past which the country itself is only just beginning to recover from. There is no doubt that it holds the title for our favourite place in South-East Asia so far, and the friendliness with which we were generally awarded accounts for much of this sentiment. As the country grows in popularity, it's nice to think that this will improve even more but it's hard to believe that the less established places such as China Beach and Hoi An will retain their quiet charm for much longer. We certainly intend to return someday to check on the development ourselves, and hopefully explore the areas that we may have missed...

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Posted by dbo 01:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Laos

sunny 24 °C
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"It's not really a capital city as you know it, there's not even a McDonald's or a KFC!". We'd just crossed the very amiable Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai in Thailand and the Laos border station twenty kilometres south of the capital of Vientiane, and were chatting to a couple of English fella's who had been residing in Thailand for the past five years. To us, their news seemed like just the ticket, but clearly they'd been wrapped up in Thailand's commercialist environment for so long that leaving it all behind was a bit of a chore.

As we took our old-skool red cadillac into town, it was clear to see that Laos hasn't seen the tourism boom like it's neighbours, and the infrastrucuture hasn't quite caught up with the twenty-first century. This was refreshing however, and the signs which adorned the roadside to 'Keep Laos Tidy' were a welcome sight.

In fairness, the guy at the border was right in one aspect, Vientiane isn't really a capital city as we might know it. For starters, it's only got one international cashpoint (making us wonder, rightly as it happens, about the likelihood of being able to get cash in the rest of the country). Neighbourhoods of traditional wooden houses are mixed seamlessly with avenues of colonial mansions and stunning architectural designs. It's no surprise to find out that over the last thousand years of it's history, it has been looted, smashed up and generally bullied by successive Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, Khmer and French conquerors, but it's location on the bend of the Mekong and the distinct lack of high-intensity traffic noise make up for any aesthetic shortfalls. It's a city that is on the up, and as more tourists pass through we're sure that steady investment will mean a bright future for it's inhabitants.

With little to do bar strolling the streets and arranging our Vietnamese Visa with the embassy, we spent a relaxing couple of days here taking in the few sights such as the Patuxai (their very own Arc de Triomphe) and the grand National Culture Hall, and took some time to relax in some of the quaint cafe's which line the river and it's surrounding streets. On our third morning, it was up early for a bus journey to the town of Vang Vieng, four hours to the north.

We'd read some interesting things about the town in question, but still weren't quite prepared for what greeted us. Slightly concerned glances were exchanged between the three of us as we made our way across the disused airstrip in the direction of what appeared to be civilisation. It was as we entered the main street that we heard the all familiar sound of music and singing: "I'll be there for you...". It said in the guidebook that this is a place you either loathe or love, mainly due to the fact that almost every single bar, cafe and restaurant in the strip plays 'Friends' re-runs throughout the day and night. Those that have opted out, simply replace it with either movies or The Simpsons, making (surprisingly) for a place where backpackers tend to come and lounge around for days on end in a twilight zone of square-eyed delight.

We have to admit that for the first couple of days we were a little sucked in ourselves. An afternoon of Friends (Series 9), the FA Cup Final in the evening, a stint with The Simpsons (Christmas Specials!) the following morning, and a return to Friends (Series 2) in the afternoon before we realised we were getting dragged into the black hole. Admittedly, Sarah and Jan went for a walk on the second afternoon but I really couldn't be bothered (TV wins every time!). And that, unfortunately, seems to be the trend. The whole idea may be great for the respective businesses who are pulling in the punters day after day, but we eventually found the whole thing reliably unsociable. Odd words are muttered to waiters as they pass by, but generally, everyone crams into the small cushioned booths to sit glued to the box. A little bit of home may have been randomly presented to us in a town in the middle of nowhere, but we were glad that we'd booked ourselves a tour for the third day to get us out of the routine.

It's once you get yourself out of Vang Vieng that you get to fully appreciate the beauty of the area. Stunning limestone peaks covered in lush greenery tower over the Nam Song river as it winds it's way gently south. Immensely long caves (some up to five kilometres) beckon curious adventurers into their dark mouths, whilst trekking through small villages and paddy fields gave us a glimpse of the real way of life for the people that inhabit the area. After spending the morning exploring some of the caves around the Tham Sang Triangle and walking among the locals it was time to jump into our kayaks for the final stretch, a twenty kilometre paddle (downstream thankfully!) amongst scores of other backpackers in rubber tubes!

For our next destination we had to take a six-hour winding bus journey through the hills and valleys deeper into the heart of northern Laos. It wasn't until chatting to a few other travellers once we reached Luang Prabang that we found out that this exact route had been the target for revolutionary terrorist groups on three previous occassions. Admittedly, the chosen carriers were local buses, but on each occassion (the last in 2003) all of the occupants were removed from the bus and executed with machine guns! We were quite glad that we found this out after the event, and hadn't sat there for six hours with that kind of thing hanging over us while we fought the nausea of an already sickening journey.

In fact, this is just one of the few problems that this country has faced in recent decades. To this day, many people are unaware that Laos is one of the most bombed nations on the face of the earth. Between 1964 and 1973, citing the presence of the Vietnamese in the east and northeastern regions as the reason for their secret war, the USA were responsible for one of the largest sustained aerial bombardments in history, flying nearly six hundred thousand missions into Laos airspace and dropping over two million tons of bombs. As if this wasn't bad enough, nearly thirty percent of these bombs failed to explode, leaving the countryside littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO). The people who have to live with this legacy accept this as a part of daily life, and although clearance work began in 1994, and the UN have taken a more formal stance on tackling the problem, it is thought that it could take more than one hundred years to make the country completely safe.

This tragic story seems a million miles away from the beautiful French colonial streets which greeted us on our arrival into Luang Prabang however; a mixture of fine architecture, delicate buddhist temples and emerald green mountainous surroundings. Unesco placed the city on it's world heritage list in 1995 and it's clear to see why. With a few days here before we left for Vietnam, we took the opportunity to explore the quaint surroundings, browse the evening handicraft markets and sample some typical Laos dishes. By night-time, the town takes on a new twist, with cool bars and cafes becoming packed with diverse crowds, before everyone heads off to the most popular late night drinking venue: The Bowling Alley. A slightly surreal, but entertaining diversion...

For two days, all we'd heard from idling Tuk-Tuk men was "Waterfall?" and so for our final day we took one of the men up on their offer and drove the thirty-two kilometres out into the hills of the Tat Kuang Si area. On entering the park, we were greeted by a large bear and tiger sanctuary, which for once actually bore the hallmarks of legitimacy and wasn't just a tourist gimmick. After "ooh-ing" and "aah-ing" for a little while we made our way to the multitiered waterfall, watching it tumble it's way from the hundred metre cascade at the top to the smaller turquoise pools at the base. Swimming opportunities are not something to be passed up on, and so we took a dip in one of the more accessible spots and played monkey on the handily placed rope swing. To be honest, we hadn't expected much from this attraction, but it turned out to be a beautiful spot, largely unrivalled by anything on this scale we'd seen previously.

In fact, this was the story with Laos throughout. What we'd hastily cast aside as a mere cut-through to a more exciting land in the east, had turned out to be a big highlight of the trip, and a place we'd recommend everyone should take the time to visit if they can. Clean, hospitable, friendly, fun, and more importantly, without the intensity of neighbouring Thailand, this beautiful country will almost certainly be hit by touristic popularity in the years to come, but will hopefully retain it's charm for much longer.

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Posted by dbo 21:43 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Thailand

Long and entertaining, just like this blog...

all seasons in one day 25 °C
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It took us just under three record-breaking minutes of free-wheeling in southern Thailand to get ourselves well and truly stitched up. After the bumpy speed-boat to mainland Malaysia, the two-hour taxi-cab to the border, queuing patiently at immigration and lugging our packs across into Thailand by foot, a tuk-tuk to the station and a four-hour train up from the border to the city of Hat Yai, we were in no mood for being messed about. Unfortunately, we disembarked to find ourselves confronted with a gaggle of aggravating tuk-tuk drivers and touts, all offering their varying services. Trying to sound as complacent as possible, we pushed past and continued on our merry way in the hope we'd be left alone. Of course this was never going to happen, and finally a young fellow pulled the correct question out the hat and made us answer him. Yes, we were on our way to catch a bus to Krabi, and yes, we may want a taxi to take us there if the price is right. "Aaah, hurry, hurry, bus to Krabi leaves in fifteen minutes, come, hurry".

Trying earnestly to disregard our mass scepticism of anything anyone from this part of the world ever says to us, we took the van driver at his word and followed him to his awaiting vehicle. I'd got my bearings beforehand, and he seemed to be heading comfortingly in the general direction of the bus station, until of course we come to rest outside a handily situated travel agent. With little option but to climb out in the middle of nowhere and entertain them, we were quickly told that the bus for Krabi had gone, and that there would not be another for six hours, but (unsurprisingly) they could offer us a mini-van which would take us to our destination, much quicker than any other bus could. Wearing us down to within an inch of our sanity, we eventually conceded, and knocked the cost of the journey down from five-hundred-and-fifty baht to four-hundred, content in the knowledge that we'd secured a reasonable deal. It was only on clambering into the mini-van an hour or so later that we met three Swedish girls who had been on our train, and had secured the same journey for just over two hundred baht. A harsh lesson had been learnt, and if it weren't for the fact that the four hour journey was going to cost us six quid we'd have probably taken much more offense. It seems that over the years of the mass tourism boom, the Thai's have certainly learned where their bread is buttered, and I'm sure we aren't the first, or the most aggrieved party to be taken for a few quid.

A well deserved sleep-filled night in Krabi, was followed by yet another four hour journey to our first island stop, Ko Lanta. We'd heard that this place was a quiet introduction to the islands off the west Thailand coast, but the off-season clearly doesn't even come close to this and after a couple of nights of unsuccessfully trying to find a lively spot we thought better of it and arranged our boat to the more popular island of Ko Phi Phi. By our standards, the accommodation here is fairly pricey, and after a couple of hours scouting around we settled in a resort and waited around the pool for the imminent arrival of my friend from home. After a spot of tropical time delay, Dave turned up about three hours late, looking like a dog's dinner after his long trip from the UK, but in good spirits. It was good to see my drinking partner again after over seven months away, and it seemed our first priority was to get ourselves into town for a night on the lash! Or perhaps three...

As expected, it all got a bit messy for those first few nights, bar-hopping between dodgy bars playing banging trance music, and the strange Reggae/Thai Boxing venue that didn't actually have any boxing on, or appear particularly rastafarian for that matter. Our only real adventure (outside of throwing numerous bottles of Chang down our throats) was the afternoon boat trip out into the surrounding area.

The four of us joined the tour with limited expectations, especially as the dark storm clouds gathered to the south and threatened an afternoon of choppy seas and torrential rain. A quick kayak into the gorge and a snorkel around some of the most heavily devastated coral we've ever seen was followed by the main event: a tricky landing at the rocks edge, and a crawl through a cave to the scene where the 'The Beach' was filmed some years ago. It was a nice spot in fairness, but you got the feeling that it had gone to the wall slightly since it's fame and fortune had come and gone, and it was now just used as somewhere the locals could dump curious tourists for an hour or so. Despite the stunning, but if somewhat gloomy scenery, the whole show was stolen by our enigmatic guide, who with the comedy catchphrase of 'Welcome to Paradise' and a devious chuckle, would sweep his arms out to the grey clouds and murky water surrounding us.

Next stop was the mainland, and the holiday-makers dream of Phuket. With golden beaches and a real resort atmosphere, this would have been great had it not been for the almost torrential rain which seemed to be dampening our spirits as well as everything around us. Not to be deterred however, we thought the best thing would be to keep ourselves busy, firstly, with a night at the 'Super Real' Muay Thai Boxing arena. With the locals in a betting frenzy down in the bottom corner of the stadium, we'd noticed the distinct advantage of being in the 'home' blue corner, as first a Swedish woman boxer, and then a Bangkok fighter were both beaten on points when they clearly should have been victors. The Australian fella in the fourth fight had clearly noticed much the same thing, and consequently took all of ninety-seconds and three clean knees-to-the-face to take out the local opponent, sending much of the foreign support into a bit of a frenzy. All good fun, and not really the gore, blood and guts that the girls had expected. With the weather still playing havoc, the next day we took ourselves off for a muddy afternoon of quad-biking in the northern marshlands and just the kind of adrenalin activity we needed, even if we did have to wear a dodgy pair of Crocs to save ruining our shoes.

As dusk approaches in the Patpong beach area of Phuket, the neon lights of Bangla Road begin to warm up for an evening of fun and frivolity. Dave and myself had already noticed a fair number of what we would refer to as 'dubious' characters on the streets around our guesthouse, but nothing could have prepared me for what awaited in Soi Crocodile, the closed-in lane of bars off the main strip. This was the moment Sarah had been eagerly anticipating, and I'd been brushing off with awkward ambivalence. It was time to have a drink with a bunch of Ladyboy's.

As we arrived at the entrance, the 'ladies' in question were all gyrating around on the podium, and of course this was all the persuasion needed to get us all in for a beer. A performance by one of the lead 'girls' soon followed, where a mystery, but strangely willing Japanese tourist was hauled up to dance and covort with 'her'. As the night progressed, plastic boobs, and on a few occassions, post-op undercarriages were all proudly displayed to the mixed crowd of curious tourists, many of whom were jumping at opportunities for photo's or some kind of interaction. The girls got stuck right in at the front to get some close-up tell-tale photography for later study, whilst Dave and I sat cowering at the back by the bar (where else?) to avoid being needlessly accosted. Many travellers who'd already visited such an exhibition had said to me that they couldn't tell the difference, but us lads came to the conclusion that for ninety-nine percent of the time, with some sure-fire detective methods (height? / strong jaw-line? / spot the adam's apple? / big hands or feet?) and a spot of good old male intuition, we would be able to tell the difference. We suspect for most worldy men, it would be that one percent which would be the cause for concern and spark a real 'Deal or No Deal' moment. As Alan Partridge might say: "It's all very confusing".

For our final day in Phuket, we took a day tour out to the islands in the east at Phang Nga Bay, a combination of a farm tour which lacked any serious effort (except for a randy monkey which amusingly tried to get it's end away with Dave's head), a boat cruise to a floating muslim town for lunch, a canoe trip around some of the towering limestone mountains and caves, and the main event: 'James Bond Island'. As anyone with a television turned on for christmas day afternoon will know, this is the setting for the final scene from the 1974 film 'The Man with the Golden Gun', where Roger Moore and his fake third nipple eventually finds himself taking pot-shots at Christopher Lee in his ingeniously crafted room of mirrors. The island itself, with it's usual array of local stalls (Scaramanga had a clear-out of 'Nick-Nacks' after filming - boom, boom!) is quite unmemorable, but for most people it's the large tooth-shaped rock which juts elegantly from the sea just a few hundred yards off-shore that brings them to the area.

Back in Phuket for our last night, we all headed out to dinner and a few drinks. The girls retired early, and we were left at the bar to befriend a like-minded Londoner called Paul and the Irish manager (also Paul). The former of the two had popped out for a couple of pints after his pal had been taken ill, and like us (who were getting up for a 7am bus) was in for an early night. Somewhat foolishly, we all managed to rope each other into going on to a dodgy club (arms well and truly twisted) until 5am, drinking buckets of vodka redbull and generally giving ourselves the best chance of a hellish journey the following morning. Strangely enough, I don't remember too much about the next day, but I believe there was a fair amount of dribbling and booze-infused sweat in the back seat by the time we climbed out on the other side of the peninsula.

Thankfully, that evening we struck gold. The girls headed off into the night in search of accommodation, and came back with news of a booking at a positively swish, and reasonably priced spa, just a hundred metres from the beach. After a peaceful nights sleep, we were finally grateful to see the sun shining, and headed straight for Chaweng Beach. There's no doubt this is one of the busiest island resorts around, similar to what you might find in any European seaside destination, but we didn't mind as long as the sun kept his hat on for a few days. The six kilometre beach is lined with scores of accommodation complexes, bars and restraurants. Numerous jet-ski companies line the shore, and we took a couple out for some action out on the waves. A successful debut for both of us, although slightly marred by the screaming woman who clung to the back of me throughout whimpering that I should slow down (guess who?). I'll be back for some more though.

Our couple of days on Samui were fairly uneventful, consisting of some well intentioned laziness on the beach, a couple of nights out in the local bars, and being harshly labelled as 'a good ladyboy' for not taking on one of the child businesswomen at Connect Four (a national obsession) on the beach one night. Strangely enough, the 'You pay one-hundred, if I win I keep, if you win you get it back' rules weren't doing much for anyone along that strip of sand.

Our last island hop would be over to Ko Tao, about a two-hour ferry ride north of Samui. This mountainous island perches on a ledge of coral reefs and thanks to the water's high visibility and abundance of marine life makes for a diving and snorkelling mecca. After watching one of the 'crazy' dive videos being shown on the ferry over, myself and Dave were at this point quite happy to partake in an introductory dive. On arrival however, it was all about the hard sell, and the Israeli guy who approached me about scrapping the idea of the 'pointless' intro dive and taking on a much more expensive four day open-water Padi course only served to put me off from doing any of it. I wasn't sure that diving was for me, the girls were not partaking from the get-go, and so it was left to Dave to take on the course, a decision I think he was really happy he took, despite the studying, revision, and general mickey-taking from us about how we probably weren't cool enough to be his pals any more. As a reward for his large monetary commitment, we were all placed in a lavish apartment at the dive school's hotel, which we aptly named the 'Crack Den'. Truly delightful.

It seemed only right that we get out into the water somehow though, and so Sarah and I (Jan paid, but then took the opportunity to sleep for a change) went on a snorkelling trip around the many bays of the island. After the last few months of travel through Australia and Malaysia it felt like we'd done this same trip about thirty times, but it was still a pleasant day out at sea with the reef sharks, turtles and the thousands of resident fish, plus we also got to take a stop at the small beautiful island located to the north-east of Ko Tao.

For our last night together, Dave and I went off to The Castle, a nightclub style open-air bar, where I got to be a bit of a chap for a night and meet up with all of Dave's other wacky dive-school buddies. They were a nice bunch in fairness and we had a good drink to mark the end of his holiday. Highlight of the night was when we stood speculating about the 'dubiousness' of one certain 'girl' in the bar who actually turned out to be an american woman who'd understood everything we'd said and surprisingly didn't take too kindly to our conversation. Whoops.

Unemotional farewells ensued the following morning as Dave headed to Ko Samui for his flight to Bangkok and we took our ferry and coach to the same destination in the hope of catching a train straight out of the capital to Chiang Mai that evening. Unfortunately, the train was fully booked, and so we had one more night with young David around Bangkok's famous Khao San Road area. Dinner in the strange setting of a converted petrol garage forecourt, and a few final Chang's in a local bar was all we could all manage however as a days travelling got the best of us, and more tearless goodbye's were exchanged.

A day of fairly unsuccessful sightseeing in Bangkok was about all we managed the following day, after falling for the oldest trick in the book (it's actually in the guidebook and I'd read about it not more than twenty-four hours before!) and being taken for a ride (literally) by an honest looking tuk-tuk guy to see some temples. His actual mission was to take us to five of his favourite shops (silk, tour agency etc) in search of some extra commission, but he only got as far as two before we sacked him off to save any more harrassment from store personel who we had no intention of buying from. There was time for one more dinner with Dave, and so we said a third and final goodbye to my temporary drinking partner, and source of overly-used but humourous Sean Connery impressions, before heading off to catch our overnight train to the north.

The overnight train is an experience in itself. The sleeping berths are surprisingly comfortable, but how anyone is actually meant to sleep amongst the racket of the train is beyond us. Of course, Jan managed to get a decent nights shut-eye, whilst we generally figdeted around for eight hours in search of a short doze.

Chiang Mai is set quite charmingly in the neat square shape of your standard Monopoly board. The main one-way roads which ring the edge of the old city is split perfectly into two by the moat and remnants of a medieval-style wall which was built seven-hundred yeara ago to defend against Burmese invaders. Where you'd usually find one of the four stations, the walls still stand proudly as gates to the internal soi's (small lanes) which are filled to bursting with small guesthouses, markets, restaurants and bars. It's a world away from the Thailand we'd seen in the south and made for a welcome change. The money-making ethos hasn't deserted the northerner's however, and within two days of being at our accommodation we were more or less kicked out beacuse we hadn't booked any tours with them, something we later found from other travellers to be common amongst many of the ruthless businesses in this area.

None of us were feeling particularly up for the trekking which is a reason many tourists come to this part of the country, but we were quite keen to have a day at one of the Thai cooking classes. Firstly, we were whisked off to the local market to buy all of the ingredients we would need for our chosen six dishes. This was all fairly unremarkable until we entered the 'meat' room, where all sorts of animal were being chopped up in front of our very eyes, and trays of organs, intestines and other unsightly innards sat ready for the next willing customer. The day flew by, but at the end we'd managed to cook from scratch a selection of Thai curries, appetisers, beef and chicken stir-fry's, spicy soups and satays with varying degrees of success. All in all a very worthwhile day and with our recipe books in hand I'm sure we'll be making use of some of them when we return home.

The only thing left to do was figure out how we would exit the country. After asking around, the journey further north consisting of long bus -ride plus two uncomfortable eight-hour Mekong river boat rides didn't sound overly appealing, and so we opted for the lengthy, but less painful thirteen-hour coach journey to the eastern border town of Udon Thani. We'd begun taking our Malaria tablets just a few days before, and Sarah (second place) was the first to fall to the well-documented nauseous side effects, vomiting like true professional in a local restaurant and the lobby of our guesthouse after just one day. Jan (disqualified) wasn't sick, but spent most of her second day feeling rough during the cooking class and missed all of the lessons, whilst I (Champion!) managed to last out for a whole three days, eventually chundering unceremoniously (and loudly I'm told) into a miniature carrier bag on the aforementioned bus.

This wasn't the way we'd really considered leaving Thailand behind, but it was slightly apt. Although we'd had alot of fun and seen some beautiful places in those last few weeks, the constant need to watch for devious Thai's and their money-making priorities had begun to wear thin. As a nation, they don't seem particularly proud of their country and do little to keep it clean, while the much employed point of being 'polite' generally seems to be a one-way street, and being rude is allowed as long as it's tourists on the receiving end. This obviously doesn't apply to all, and we met some genuinely freindly and hospitable locals along the way who made us feel very welcome. Unfortunately, it's only tourists that can be blamed for creating the monster, and hopefully things will change for the better in the years to come. Next stop was Laos and what we hoped would be a slightly different take on South-East Asia.

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Posted by dbo 03:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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