Category Archives: Thailand

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Pink Poncho

It has been over a month since we returned from our Big Adventure and two months since we were in Bangkok. Despite this we still wanted to post this missing blog post. Part of this was written while in Bangkok and some as we left Thailand for Malaysia. It seemed a bit of a waste not to fill in the gaps and complete the story of our adventure. Most of the story was written by Vicki with just a few edits from me.

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

Travel Dates: 4th – 7th November 2013

Day 1: Please let us in!

We arrived in Bangkok with no delays and having successfully negotiated the taxi queue were soon heading into Bangkok. We spent most of the drive being confused, after the driver asked us to pay a toll and then hung on to then  change…we hoped that this was because there was another toll ahead, but the cynical part of us was thinking that he was trying to rip us off. As it happened, he wasn’t trying to steal our money, and we arrived outside our hostel having paid a reasonable fare.

The next challenge was to check in. We found the hostel, The Smile Society, with no problem, but then faced the issue of their being no one at the reception desk. Getting to the reception wasn’t easy either as the door was locked and we had to sneak into the hostel when someone opened the door to come out. We had chosen this hostel based on it’s good reviews on TripAdvisor, and so weren’t impressed with this start. Having waited about 20 minutes, and rung every “ring here for attention” buzzer we could find, Rich eventually found a suitable number and phoned the owner, just at the moment that a member of staff appeared. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak English and couldn’t check us in, but was able to at least give us a key to the room so that we could drop our luggage off and settle in. The owner told us to wait 20 minutes and she would check us in, but after an hour we gave up and headed out for some lunch. It was then that we found the owner in reception, having been side tracked by other problems. However, check in was relatively simple, and she was able to give us lots of information about what to see and how to get there. She also helpfully provided a long list of scams used in Bangkok that we should avoid – this didn’t fill us with confidence!

Having waited around for the owner, we were now ravenously hungry and so headed out for some noodles. Bangkok was such a complete contrast to Siem Reap that at first it was quite overwhelming – so many people, motorbikes, tuk tuks and taxis everywhere! Our road was particularly busy – the pavements were in many parts impassable due to all the various carts selling food, clothes and tourist tat. It was great to be somewhere lively, but it did take a bit of getting used to.

Our hostel was one street away from one of the red light district roads – Patpong. It now has a night market to lure more tourists, but is first and foremost an area where there was once only one thing on the agenda. I was surprised how open it was. We were walking down the street that has the market on, and looking left I could buy watches and sunglasses, and looking right, I was looking straight into a bar with women in very little gyrating around a pole. There were many people keen for us to go into these bars and see a “ping-pong show” – said quickly it sounds like “pink poncho” which is much more innocuous.

The street next to the market was a little bit more creepy. Every shop has a row of very dressed up ladies sat outside on little stools who call to you as you walk past. I guess it is like window shopping – all the goods are on display so you can choose who you would like to share your evening with.  However, despite all of this going on, the area itself felt very safe, not at all threatening and intriguing in a weird sort of way!

Having explored the area around our hotel and not really wanting to experience any the offerings, we headed downtown via the skytrain (like a subway but up in the air, kind of like a monorail) to do some more exploring. The area round the Central Pier stop wasn’t that appealing, seemingly to be an area for drunks to crash out and big dogs to run around barking, but once we got a few streets away things improved, and we found a little beer stop in the corner of a food court, enticingly called “Beer Corner”. Having had a late lunch we passed on the food, but sat in Beer Corner listening to a band and just soaking up the atmosphere.

A little while later we decided we should explore some more, but every way we turned seemed to lead us into dark deserted and smelly backstreets and so we gave up and started to make our way back to the hostel. It was then that we ran into a nice little pizza place attached to another hostel.  Another beer and a pizza and we were ready to hit the hay, and so we skytrain-ed it back to our end of Bangkok.

Day 2: So much bling!

The next morning, after a carb heavy complimentary breakfast served in a side room where we had to climb over disused exercise equipment, luggage and hotel maintenance equipment to find a seat, we were ready to hit the main sites. First up was the Royal Palace, in the west of Bangkok. It is a transport black hole, with the best way to get there being a boat, and so that is what we did. There are various types of boats, each stopping in different places and costing different amounts – confusing is not the word. We opted for the tourist boat, which stopped at only the main sites, and cost 40bht (less than £1). It felt like most of the tourists in Bangkok had also decided to get this boat, as they kept cramming people on, despite everyone being like sardines already. Luckily Rich had bagged a spot next to the railings so we got a nice breeze and view as we went along, otherwise it would not have been a  pleasant journey.

The Royal Palace is the top attraction in Bangkok, and as such there are a myriad of scams surrounding it, such as tuk-tuk drivers telling tourists that it is closed for a special day, offering to take them around the other sites and instead taking them to all the shops they get commission at. The Palace is also one of the only places that you need long trousers and covered arms, and despite clothing being rented for free inside, there are lots of clothes sellers outside the gate, tutting at tourists bare flesh in a bid to scare them into buying cover ups.

After zipping back on the bottoms of our trousers we headed into the palace. The main attraction is the Emerald Buddha, and it is housed in a spectacular complex, possibly one of the most bling temples we have ever seen. Everywhere you looked there was gold, shiny glass and amazingly decorated statues.

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We then headed over to check out a reclining Buddha at Wat Po. It is 47m long at 15m high. It has a surprise in its feet, where there are 108 images carved into the soles and inlaid with Mother of Pearl – absolutely stunning.

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Here again, covering up is mandatory. I was very relieved to have brought the correct clothing. The alternative was a think canvas robe covering you from head to foot. Given that I was roasting in trousers and T shirt, I’m not I would have coped in the smock!

The Wat Po complex has a really good collection of other temples and stupas, including some funky guards.

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By this time, we realised that again we had missed lunch. We still had one more temple on this list for the day, on the opposite side of the river. To kill two birds with one stone we picked up pork balls, spring rolls and mango and then munched away as we hopped on the very cheap (6p) cross river ferry to Wat Arun.

The Wat is an older style Wat, made of stone, and undecorated, which was a nice change from some of the very glitzy Wats of earlier in the day. You can also climb up the Wat to get a view across Bangkok. Never one to miss a climbing opportunity, Rich was straight in there. I went to halfway, but the scramble the rest of the temple was too much for my little legs so I volunteered to stay and guard the halfway point.

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By this point we were getting a bit hot and grumpy so we decided to head back. We had arranged to meet some of the people from our Cambodia trip that night for a sunset drink, and so headed back to relax before heading out again. We hopped back across the river, and on seeing the queue for the boat back to where we caught it that morning, we opted for a taxi. Remembering our hostel’s advice on only using metered taxis, we tried to find one. I think we tried about 5 before in the end before negotiations which a security guard from a nearby Wat joined in with resulted in a non-metered taxi ride. They are all against the meter (including the security guard). We think it is because they get paid by the distance rather than the time, so if they get stuck in traffic, they get nothing extra for the trouble. Resigning ourselves to the fact that all the taxi drivers were on to this fiddle, we negotiated one down to a reasonable price of £3 (I’m sure we were still getting ripped off though compared to the meter) and hopped in. Bangkok traffic is terrible – made even worse by the daily anti-amnesty protests happening in the west of the city. It must of taken at least 45 minutes, but it was air conditioned and so we didn’t mind too much!

A quick turnaround saw us back on the street in about 15 minutes, ready to head off for drinks. We were heading for the SkyBar in the tallest tower in Bangkok, Baiyoke II. We were aiming for sunset, but the Bangkok traffic was against us. As it happened, the smog is such that I don’t think we would have seen much of a sunset as the sun just disappeared into the haze.

We met up with some of the Cambodian group at the bottom of the tower and made our way up, stopping for the obligatory group photo on the way. As part of the entrance ticket a free drink at the 83rd floor bar was included, and most of the group were more keen for this than the view.

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After checking out the view on the revolving deck (very disconcerting, as it moves around the central column of the building) we headed out for dinner. As usual when with a big group, trying to get a decision on dinner was like trying to herd cats. In the end we settled on a restaurant at the side of a lobby of a hotel – very strange to be sat there eating dinner whilst looking at the reception desk!

We then decided to head over to the other group’s hotel, so that we could check out another area. This involved taxis, and given our lack of success earlier in the day we didn’t hold out much hope of finding a metered one. Apparently, by law, the taxi drivers have to take you by the meter if you ask, and there was even a sign saying this at the tower we visited. We took a photo to try and convince taxi drivers, but even once you had shown them the notice, they would either refuse to take you at all, or refuse on the meter. There is an email address to send the details of taxi drivers who do this to and they will be fined. We didn’t report any as we weren’t feeling that cruel. We should probably have done so though as something needs to be done about the Bangkok taxi Mafia.

Eventually we got (unmetered) taxis and made it back to Khao San road (a big backpacker area), and found a pub for drink. What started out as “just a couple” ended up as “quite a few” and we eventually got a taxi back across Bangkok about 1am. It was good to see our Cambodian group again, and plans were made for Roar to come over in February to run the Valentines 10k, and we are to head to Oslo at some point to run with him – a good way to see a new city!

Day 3: These shoes were made for walking

After a somewhat late night the previous night, the morning got off to a slower than normal start. We had a walking tour listed in our book covering the downtown area, and so that’s where we started, looking at the variety of different styles coexisting side by side with modern skyscrapers.

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Whilst we were on the walk, we were offered a boat trip in one of the little long boats that putter up and down the river. As we had thought about doing one, and we managed to haggle the driver down to below half his starting price, we decided to go for it. It was fun to see the scenery from a different angle, and was certainly interesting to go through a lock with all of the other boats!

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Although we didn’t get to see much of a floating market (I think we were too late in the morning) the houses next to the river were very interesting – particularly how they were still standing and not floating away in pieces down the river.

On the way back our driver decided he didn’t want to take us back to where we agreed and rather unceremoniously dumped us at one of the other piers. Apparently here there was a landing fee, but as we didn’t want to be there, and were planning on getting a boat straight out again, Rich opted not to pay, and decided instead to have a stand up argument with the fee-collector. After a while the man relented, and spent the rest of the time whilst we waited for the boat to take us to where we wanted to go glaring at Rich. We are still not sure whether it was a scam or not – he only seemed to ask certain people for money – but either way I was happy to leave, having been standing around nervously waiting for the Thai police to turn up and arrest Rich for non-payment of tolls!

Lunch was held in a shopping centre food court – every possible type of food you could ever want was there, and as a change we opted for Turkish and Mexican, which was very nice, and after a morning outside we certainly appreciated the air conditioning.

Our site-seeing for the afternoon was the Jim Thompson house (for some reason every time I say it, it comes out as Jim Robinson, as in, the guy from Neighbours) – a collection of bamboo houses and accumulated possessions of an American chap who moved to Thailand after the second world war and resurrected the Thai silk industry. He went missing in Malaysia in suspicious circumstances (some people suggest CIA involvement) in the 1950’s but a trust set up in his name now runs the house as a museum, with guided tours. We both found it very interesting and were amused to watch the poor guide tearing her hair out at our Chinese/Korean tour group mates who insisted on trying to touch all the museum pieces!

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After a quick rest we headed out for dinner to the Chinatown area. An interesting walk down some dark alleys lead us to consider running away home but pushing on was worthwhile. We spent the evening eating squid on sticks, some delicious pork and rice, and some HUGE prawns, which whilst very messy to eat, were delicious!

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A hair raising tuk-tuk ride, in which at times had both Rich and I were gripping the rails in fear with our eyes closed, brought us back to the area of our hostel, by which time it had started to rain. In typical South East Asian fashion, no sooner had it started to spit then the heavens opened and the sky fell in. We took shelter in the Patpong night market, watching with interest and amusement as the stall holder tried to put up their rain covers, and create drainage channels for the torrential downpour to flow away. It completely distracted us from the market – watching the stall holders was much more fun.

Day 4

Our final full day in Bangkok started with a run around a park. Lumphini  park was at the bottom of our road, and was full of all sorts of people doing tai chi, running, chatting and any combination of activities. Despite being early in the morning, it was still and hot sweaty and after 5km we had covered pretty much every inch of the park and were ready for breakfast.

Due to a cancelled train our stay in Bangkok was extended one night. As our hostel couldn’t keep us in the same room we made the decision to change hotels, and moved to one across the city, closer to the airport, and closer to our evening activity – a bike tour. Our taxi driver was reluctant to travel across the city due to the protesters blocking roads. We still hadn’t seem any protests so were sceptical about this excuse.

Getting to the other side of the city we realised there were in fact many protestors around. We were very lucky that when we were in Bangkok, the protests against the government and the amnesty bill were peaceful, and seemed to mainly consist of lots of people (mainly police) standing around barricades in the baking heat waiting for something to happen. This has changed drastically in the last few weeks, and we are grateful that we were able to see Bangkok in more peaceful times. Hopefully the conflict will be resolved quickly, without too much destruction or bloodshed.

Another advantage of moving hotels was that we got to see and explore another area of the city without lots of lengthy metro trips. Our destination for the day was Dusit. This the the government area and heavily guarded by police against the protestors. We didn’t think we would be able to get to any of the sights we wanted to see but it turned out that the police were quite happy for us to wander in and out of their barricades.

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Once through the barricades we visited the Viamanmek Mansion, a teak palace. This was included on our ticket from the palaces from two days ago. We weren’t quite sure what was included in our ticket and it turned out nearly everything was. We toured the teak palace and the adjacent throne palace. The first was like a National Trust property and the second more akin to Buckingham palace. There were many other exhibitions that we could also have seen but were toursisted out by then. The other benefit of new hotel was calling by this time – a swimming pool, which although a little on the cold side, was very refreshing.

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That evening we had planned to do a Bangkok by night bike tour. There was only one problem with this: our hotel was on one side of independence square (where all the protests were happening) and the bike tour was on the other. Luckily we fought our way across just in time for the tour, and spent the next 3 hours riding round the back streets of Bangkok, even taking our bikes on the ferry! It was a bit of a shame that it started tipping down about an hour in, as visiting the flower market would have been much more fun if we weren’t dodging the drips. Our guide was kind enough to head off and get us rain covers though so Vicki finally got her Pink Poncho. Seeing Wat Arun and Wat Po by night still made it a worthwhile trip and a fun way to tour the city.

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Whilst we were completely soaking after the tour, we decided that it would be too much of a waste of time to head back and change and so we headed straight out for dinner on Khao san road. For me, having heard so much about the street, it was a bit of a disappointment, as it just seemed to be bar after bar selling cheap beer to get the backpackers drunk, and lots of massage parlours with dodgy looking offerings. We found a dry outdoor table at a restaurant on the adjacent street where it was a little less chaotic. We recovered from the cycle with a few drinks and our final Bangkok meal.

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Together again for Rainy Days

Travel Dates: 20th – 23rd November 2013

Location: Ao Nang, Thailand

Wednesday 20th: Railay Beach (by Rich)

With diving done for now we are back together to spend some time in Ao Nang and surrounds. A late morning was required after a few early starts and hard work days for diving. We just about made it to breakfast before they closed and were then ready to go exploring.

From Ao Nang you can get long tail boats to a number of places. Vicki already did her trip to Poda island in one, today we decided to head to Railay beach. Railay is an area inaccessible by road. The only way in is by boat. This means everything arrives by boat. We saw many things coming and going from tourists to tables being used to furnish a new resort.

We started off with a wander round Railay. Although small and with no roads, we still struggled to get our bearings at first. We knew there was an West (where we started) and East side. We also thought you could walk to Phra Nang beach (voted in the worlds top 10 beaches). Finding which roads/muddy tracks/alleyways went where was a bit of a challenge without a map though and it took at least one loop to get our bearings. Fortunately Railay isn’t big so this didn’t take long.

On the way to Phra Nang beach there is a view point. It isn’t easy to get there though. We came to a signpost pointing at what looked like a cliff face. On close inspection there was some kind of path, or rather climb, available. A steep scramble with ropes provided to pull yourself up gave access to the view point. Vicki said no immediately but I was willing to give it a go. An hour later I returned covered, literally head to toe, in a clay based mud and pretty tired. It turned out it was quite a climb up to the view point. Once I made it there I also tried to get to the lagoon. Partway to the lagoon I discovered from others also struggling along that there were vertical walls to tackle that need some serious climbing effort. In my mud caked sandals this wasn’t going to happen so I admitted defeat and headed back to a patiently waiting Vicki. She had occupied herself by watching people struggle up and down the lower part of the climb and discussing with others how foolish the people attempting it were. I would agree. Mud stained and tired I headed straight to the sea for a much needed soak.

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On Phra Nang beach we swam in the sea and gave snorkelling a go. As this is popular beach I am not surprised that fish find somewhere else to live so we didn’t see anything special while snorkelling. The visibility was very poor and it is quite rocky without any reef for marine life to live on. The rock faces and white sand do however make the beach a stunning spot and it is understandable why it is so popular.

Lunch was taken on the beach from floating restaurants. Kebabs, spring rolls, salted corn and mango sticky rice were an ample feast as we lay on the beach. We took the down time as a chance to listen to the parkrun podcast from back home and heard many of our running club mates talking about a wintery run in Wimbledon. It is strange to think we will be back to that world in less than 2 weeks time.

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Following lunch we went to explore some caves. As Railay’s only official real tourist attraction (other than beaches and the landscape) the walkway through the caves are ok but not exceptional. At only 80p though we weren’t going to complain and found it interesting to see the bats swooping around in any case.

A long tail back to Ao Nang gave us ample time for relaxing before a very tasty Indian meal for dinner, soak in the tub for me then an early night.

Thursday 21st: Rain (by Rich)

Today it rained. Not just off and on. It rained all day. When we woke up it was raining. When we went to bed it was raining. In between, it rained. Did I mention, it rained?

What to do on a rainy day in a beach resort? Easy answer…watch Game of Thrones. We managed to make a large dent in series 3 as we relaxed in bed and let the weather do its thing. In between episodes we did get out though.

We headed down to the beach and had a massage. One end of the beach has a row of numbered tents. Each of these has a number and offers massage services. On the last day of diving, an Australian called Derek was snorkelling with Vicki. He recommended tent 12. With nothing else to distinguish the tents we figured we should give this one a go.

I went for a traditional Thai massage and Vicki had an oil massage. The deep heat rubbed into my back was bordering on painful at times and it was strange to have a (fortunately) small Thai lady walking up and down my back however we did come out feeling very relaxed.

Other activities for the day were a lunch by the pool watching the rain before going for a dip (it was still warm enough to swim). But overall today was a very lazy day.

Our evening was spent eating Thai food and then visiting a bar opposite our hotel called Mr Long’s Bar. This was a very relaxed bar with live music and a great atmosphere. Mr Long is a Rasta-Thai who enjoys welcoming people to his bar and joining in with a few shots of Tequila. We had a very enjoyable evening drinking and going through lists of books to read before you die on the internet. It seems we have a lot more books to read.

Not many pictures taken today because of the rain. This one gives an idea of what it was like:

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Friday 22nd: Kayaking (by Rich)

Today we booked onto a kayaking trip. We didn’t go because it was raining.

We got up early and headed for breakfast. If I had checked my emails when the alarm went off we needn’t have moved. Unfortunately I only saw the e-mail saying the trip was off when I was munching through my muesli. Darn. Change of plans needed. What to do at 8am when on holiday? Easy answer, we went back to bed.

After watching some TV for me (Hello Ladies episodes and Showtime movie) and snoozing for Vicki the weather played a cunning trick on us. Looking out the window it appeared all was bright and well. We headed out and got a long boat to Railay. No sooner than the long tail boat set of than did it start to rain. It continued to do so all day. Boo to the weather once again.

Not wanting to be set back by this and fighting to overcome the cancelled kayaking trip this morning, we hired a kayak from the beach. Initially taking 2 hours with the thought of staying longer we kayaked from Railay beach round to Phra Nang. This isn’t far but had a good few caves to explore on the way. Vicki wasn’t too keen on me reversing her into caves though. With a little kayaking experience from my time with Putney Bridge Canoeing Club I was loving it though.

Having explored caves and circled a few islands (in the rain) we decided it was time for a break. Resting on the beach we had spring rolls and corn before hopping back into our boat. My extensive kayaking experience told me something was wrong when we got back in. I hadn’t picked up on the increased rolling and poor stability earlier however when we got in and the water came over the top of the boat I realised we had managed to sink our kayak. I had been repeatedly telling Vicki you couldn’t sink a kayak however we had achieved it. It seemed our boat had a slow leak. We quickly returned to shore and spent quite some time with the kayak on it’s end draining. Returning to the water and buoyant again we were a lot more comfortable. Much less rocking and most importantly our heads were now above water.

Two hours of kayaking turned out to be more than enough for us in the rain. If it were sunny I doubt we would have gone much further but we would definitely have spent more time relaxing on the beach. Back at Railay we considered lunch options but decided that heading homewards was the best option, given that we were more than a little bit wet. Lunch back in our room with the final episode of Game of Thrones season 3 was a good break from the rain.

Not wanting to be beaten by the weather we headed back to the beach an sunset. This time we were in running kit again. We did 3 miles along a beach less than a mile long (some loops required) once again trying out our barefoot running. Some good sprints were involved much to the disgust of some Russian girls who I splashed while running through the surf. A run along the beach of course wouldn’t be complete without monkeys. Monkeys? Yes. Monkeys! They were munching bananas at one end of the beach so we stopped to say hello.

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A refreshing dip in the sea in the gloom (sun said goodnight while we ran) and we headed back up to the hotel. Tomorrows plan is for scuba so we headed into the dive shop before returning to the hotel. 3 beers (or just a coke for Vicki) later we left again. We sat outside the dive shop chatting with the staff and two Polish guests we had met before.

We finished the day with a fish supper. Not the British kind but instead Red Snapper fried in tamarind with a side of steamed clams.Very tasty. After this it was early to bed for an early start tomorrow.

Saturday 24th: Scuba? (by Rich)

Today we booked onto a Scuba day. We went, but we came back because it was raining. (Noticing a theme here?)

Did I say it was raining? It wasn’t just raining. It was blowing a gale and the sturdy dive boat really didn’t feel so sturdy. Vicki is the first to spot a rough sea but I had to agree with her on this one. Having gotten soaked by the surf in the long tail on the way to the dive boat, the rollercoaster ride as we left Ao Nang wasn’t setting us up for the most pleasant day on the sea. With a lot of inexperienced divers aboard (many of who were seasick after only 40 minutes at sea) the sensible decision to turn back was made. Disappointing and annoying but sometimes the weather needs to be obeyed.

Back in  Ao Nang we did the sensible thing and headed back to bed. Arriving back at 10am we watching two films (S.W.A.T. and Kick Ass 2) as we waited for the rain to stop. At 2pm we were back out (to be honest it could have been earlier but we figured we should finish the film). A quick lunch (yes that means subway again) on the beach and we were back in massage hut no. 12. This time it wasn’t for massages, as the rain had stopped and it had brightened up we could sit out front on the beach. We swam in the seas playing in the large waves and had a few beers. The sun even came out for a while much to our surprise.

After our afternoon on the beach we headed back to the hotel. I had a quick pool dip but Vicki wasn’t tempted by the cold water so went for the warm shower instead. We did however both agree that watching sunset from our balcony was the way to go. With the rain clouds moving on for now we got a good view of the sea, sun and mountain.

Optimistically preparing for tomorrow we headed back to the dive shop after sunset. We needed to confirm our places on the boat for tomorrow and we even thinking we might continue on to a nearby mini golf after. Joining the divers for a beer we decided mini golf wasn’t a good idea as the rain returned. The 2.5 hours outside the dive shop was well spent though with beer, Thai whisky and even a Bacardi breezer for Vicki.

While mentioning the dive shop a quick note about the people we spent our time with their. My instructor, Claire, from the advanced course is a permanent fixture outside the shop when not out on the boat. Her Polish friends Piotr and Magda, who are taking a year out to teach diving first in Indonesia and now Thailand have also been with us on the dive boats and in the shop. The final people to mention are Liz (Thai/German chap) and Bjorn (Danish), the joint owners of the Dive. They run a fine outfit and still have time to socialise (drink) with their guests.

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Tonight’s dinner was in the same place as yesterday. Having enjoyed our Red Snapper we moved on to White Snapper today. Accompanied by grilled squid we ate very well. Following dinner I was still in the mood for drinking and managed to drag Vicki back to Mr Long’s bar. A chilled out drink listening to the live music and we headed home for bed. We need our rest before diving tomorrow. At least we hope we do. Finger crossed the weather agrees.

Sunday 25th: Scuba…take 2…. (by Vicki)

Today we were all set for diving, but this time didn’t even get as far as a boat. We were picked up as normal, and everyone was very optimistic about the day, until we got to the pier. There seemed to be a lot of people standing around, and some harassed sounding phone calls going on. Apparently, the boat captain had decided that the weather still looked too rough in the area we were going and so decided not to go out. He also decided not to tell any of the people who were due to get the boat – very useful. And so that was that, no more diving for Rich, and no review for me. At least I got the brownie points for signing up for the review, and getting as far as getting on a boat!

We all headed back to the dive shop and sat about drinking tea for a while, trying to decide what to do with the day. In the end, Rich and I did what we always do when we can’t think of anything better to do – we went for a run. This time headed up to the next beach along (shoes required for this run) and ran along looking at the waves, complaining aloud that they looked much smaller than yesterdays, and that the captain had jumped the gun a bit cancelling the trip. The sun even had the audacity to come out, and by the end of the run we were well and truly toasted.

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As the sun had deigned to make an appearance, we headed down to the beach after a quick shower stop, picking up some huge chicken legs from a street stall on the way. Not wanting to break our habits, we headed up to number 12 again, and took up residence in their area for the afternoon. By now, it was absolutely boiling, and so the best place to be was the sea. Lots of the afternoon was spent splashing about in the waves – we were meant to be in the water diving, so being in the water swimming was a consolation prize.

After watching a wonderful sunset from our balcony we finally made it out to play mini golf. Poppy’s mini golf is a little bit out of the centre, down a dark road with little else on. The surroundings are not that welcoming, but the owner, a Dutch chap who has been in Thailand for 15 years, was very friendly. The course, whilst well thought out, is quite run down, and surrounded by vegetation, and playing in the early evening we got eaten alive by bugs, despite a liberal dousing of 50% deet spray.

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Not wanting to break a habit we had one last beer in The Dive on our way back. Then our final meal in Ao Nang was back where we had our first – Massaman. Spring rolls and curry filled us up nicely and then it was off for a final drink at Mr Long’s.

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The day didn’t end so well for Rich. A few hours after going to bed, something decided it didn’t like him, at 3am he spent a few minutes hugging his porcelain friend. Luckily it was an isolated incident and by morning, everything seemed to have sorted itself out.

Monday 26th: Off we go then… (by Vicki)

Not a very exciting morning – a bit of a lie in, a lounge by the pool (the weather was again hot and sunny, and diving was back on Sad smile) and then the dreaded packing.

The pool is very nice when it isn’t raining:

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After a uneventful trip to the airport, some mild chaos around check in, we have arrived in our final new country – Malaysia!

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Under the Sea

Travel Dates: 17th – 19th November 2013

Sing along with a dancing crab under the sea.

No mermaids here, just a Scuba diving Rich. Our time in Thailand is quite lengthy and is such to allow time for relaxation and Scuba diving. In 2007 Vicki and I got our PADI Open Water Diver certifications in Egypt. Since then I have dived in Mauritius and Cuba but not done much, only adding 5 dives to the 8 we originally did. I wanted to take the time here to further my diving qualifications and go for my Advanced Open Water Diver.

After some Trip Advisor advice (and working out which shop was closest to our hotel) I decided to do my diving with The Dive. To complete my certification I would be doing 3 days of diving, the first a refresher day and then 2 days for the actual training dives. For all three days I would be instructed by Claire, a former nurse from the UK who now devotes all her time to teaching diving in Thailand and Indonesia.

Each day I was picked up at 7:30am after a quick breakfast (dim sum breakfast before diving works well). We would be shuttled down to the Ao Nang ferry pier where a long boat took us onto the dive boat. The dive sites closest to Ao Nang are apparently not the best particularly at full moon (now for me) when the increased water movement drastically reduces visibility. As such most divers from Ao Nang head out to further out dive sites and require some travelling to get to.

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Day 1 took me over to Phi Phi for my refresher dives. Doing the refresher involves taking a knowledge review (multiple choice test and discussion) on the way out. Having briefly re-familiarised with the theory and having already done the review twice before, I aced the test and was ready to dive. Claire briefed myself and Tim, an Australian, who would be my buddy for the dive. Although he had not dived for a similar length of time as me, he opted out of the review. PADI states that reviews are compulsory after 6 months without diving however some dive centres are more flexible on this than others. I guess I could have gotten away without the review and saved some money. In any case, once in the water the review started with some skills work. Regulator recovery, mask clearance and some hovering and we were off to start the dive. No issues with any of the skills so afterwards I was again wondering why I bothered. Better safe than sorry I guess.

Our two dives for the day were in sites around Phi Phi. Visibility was very good and we had good length dives at around 50 minutes each. As usual it was me running out of air first and ending the dive. I seem to gulp down the air. Something to work on for the future. The highlight was on the second dive where we saw two turtles. This was the first time I have seen them while diving.

The second dive was next to one of the main Phi Phi sites, the beach used by Leonardo Di Caprio in the film “The Beach”. Having not seen the film I wasn’t that fussed. It does look like a very nice beach though.

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Phi Phi is quite a distance from Ao Nang. There was lots of time to relax on the way home as I chatted to Tim and Sal. They are an Australian couple who have given up their lives back home to move to South East Asia. Their aim is to make money “online” and do aid work. It will be interesting to see how their adventurous (if currently a little undefined) ambition progresses: Life against the grain.

Day 2 was super day! This involves 3 dives: The King Cruiser, Shark Point and Anemone Reef. Today was also the first of my 2 day advanced course. The dives were:

Deep Dive (The King Cruiser): A deep dive is defined as anything below 18m. As an Open Water Diver you are only meant to go down to 18m. I have actually been deeper before as dive masters frequently bend the rules however today was the day to do it properly. We descended straight to the bottom along a line as we were out in the middle of the ocean. We soon saw the wreck appear out of the blue. The King Cruiser is a wrecked car ferry that went down with 600 people on board. All survived and many thought the sinking was an insurance scam. Not doing this as a wreck dive we were more interested in getting to the bottom. Once on the ocean floor at 30m we did a few quick skills. Checking for the impact of Nitrogen Narcosis by doing a simple timed task and comparing with the time taken to do it at the surface (no real change) and also looking at colours underwater. Due to the depth you could no longer see any red and very little yellow. Everything was pretty blue. After the skills we had a quick look at the wreck, seeing the propeller and rows of toilets were interesting. In terms of fish barracuda and lion fish were the highlight.

Mutli-level computer dive (Island near Anemone Reef): The current was too strong to stop at anemone reef so as an alternative we went to a nearby reef where we floated with the current along a steep wall alongside the island. The skills for this dive we to plan a multi level dive and use a dive computer to complete the dive. This was pretty straight forward and gave lots of time for admiring the corals and many fish under water.

Underwater Photography (Shark Point): Borrowing a camera from the dive school I had a chance to take a few snaps underwater. Some are included in this post and the rest can be viewed through the album link below. Taking photos was good fun but very hard to get a picture worth keeping. Working with light underwater is tricky as everything comes out blue if you aren’t careful. When I have a few more dives under my belt I will consider getting an underwater camera but for now I will concentrate on the diving without distractions.

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The trip out and back today didn’t leave much time for socialising. This wasn’t because it was a quick trip, the issue was I had lots of work to do. Each of the 5 dives done on the course comes with a fair amount of reading and knowledge reviews. Doing the 5 sets of work filled my time on the boat today but at least it was all done and out the way.

Day 3 was back to Phi Phi but this time with some company. Vicki came along on the trip to do some snorkelling. It was a shame that the visibility wasn’t as good as 2 days before and the turtles didn’t come out to play. In any case there were still a lot of fish for her to see and with a dedicated snorkelling guide she got shown lots more than she would have spotted alone. For me it was 2 more dives for my advanced course:

Peak Performance Buoyancy: Buoyancy is key in diving. To be a good diver you need to have control of your buoyancy while under water. Shooting up to the surface is dangerous as is dragging along the bottom. The aim of this dive was to learn to float with ease through the water. Several hovering drills helped learn this, floating upside down, with legs crossed, aiming for targets and more. In all cases it was about using you breathing to control you buoyancy and ascend and descend as required.

Navigation: Time to get the compass out and work out where to go. This was a skill heavy dive with very little time for enjoying the environment. I had to navigate in various patterns using a compass as a guide. Although I got lost once and messed up on the second attempt, I didn’t get too lost and got through the dive to complete my advanced course.

With the 5 dives completed I am now an Advanced Open Water Diver. I am glad to have this as it gives me more confidence in my diving ability and was good to develop new skills to build on the basics from our first certification.

Returning on the boat from the last dive, Vicki and I sat in the sun at the front of the boat with a few beers and cakes. Much more relaxing than the other days when I had work to do and I look forwards to a few fun dives before the end of the holiday where I can just enjoy the scenery and see some fishes. Vicki is even tempted to try some diving again now.

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More beach relaxation

Travel Dates: 16th – 18th November 2013

Well, before headed off to Ao Nang, we had one final night in Phuket, accompanied by Dave from Singapore. He had volunteered as tour guide, and was taking us to his favourite restaurant – Linda’s Seafood. It had been hyping this up since we saw him in Singapore so the place had a lot to live up to – and luckily it did. The prawns were MASSIVE…

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We aren’t talking about the prawn in yellow of course Smile with tongue out. All in all it was a great meal, and worthy of the hype.

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Just as we were leaving, the heavens opened and we got soaked, and by the time we got to the bar, it was as if we had been in a shower fully clothed. Luckily, we dried off pretty quickly thanks to the temperature. The bar that Dave had brought us to was one that Rich and I were afraid to go in the night before – full of semi naked ladies, poles  and flashing lights. Luckily, unless you were a man there without a women, it seemed pretty safe and within a couple of drinks Dave was being beaten by a podium dancer at Connect 4 and Shut the Box….

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The bar was touristy rather than seedy and we were treated to a particularly good pole dancing show. With pole dancing now being seen as a respectable work out, the lady we saw would make a decent living teaching in London.

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As Dave had a football tournament the next day he sloped off about 11 to rest up (real answer – go drinking with his football buddies). As we had an early boat the next day, we headed home to pack (again). In hindsight, one fewer cocktails may have been a better plan, but hey, we survived.

Ao Nang – Day 1

Our transfer to Ao Nang was booked for between 7am and 7.15am, for a boat leaving from the other side of the island at 8.30am (last boarding 10 mins before). By 7.35am, as the bus finally pulled up, we were convinced we would miss the boat. As we then struggled to find the next pickup, to say we were getting ratty would be an understatement. Add to this that bus driver didn’t seem to know how to drive, and was swerving, accelerating at stationary traffic and randomly jamming his brakes on, by the time we got to the ferry port, I had had enough. Luckily we (just) made the boat, but as the last on, the only place for the luggage was on the top deck, in a pile with other peoples, and the only seats for us were behind the engine (very noisy, but luckily outside). the ferry was supposed to take 2 hours, and after closer to 3 hours of being outside in the sun with no shade, we were a bit fried. Luckily a hotel transfer was included in the ticket and we quickly made it to our hotel once we finally hit dry land.

We then made the most of the air conditioning for a while, having a picnic lunch in our room before heading to the pool for a lounge. Rich had to sort out his diving, so I made the most of the time and finished my book. A sunset beach swim ended the day – the beach here is quite narrow, but it is long and a lot less crowded than the others we have seen so far, which is good.

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Day 2

As this was the first time we had been apart for more than an hour in 10 ish weeks, it was very strange to be sat in the room thinking “right, so what do I do now?”. Having joined Rich for breakfast at 7am, I had a long day to kill before he got back around 4.30pm and so I reverted to type, and went for a run  – running on the beach is so much nicer than pounding the streets. After a quick cool off swim, I went exploring, and found a coastal path which I hoped would lead around the headland to the next beach. It didn’t – it was a collection of planks, some of which stable and in good condition and some of which not, that led up the cliff (as in almost vertically up) to a view point and cafe at the top – which would have been ok if the view hadn’t been obscured by trees!

Tired after my treacherous ascent up the hillside I stopped for a late lunch in a cafe, before heading back to chill out on a balcony, which has a lovely padded sunbed on it Smile

It was the start of the lunar year tonight, and a big festival was held in the town, although it seemed to be mainly for the tourists benefit. Thai people make little lanterns and float them out to sea, or down a river and it is supposed to represent all your troubles floating away. The beach looked pretty at the start with the lanterns floating away, but the nature of the tide meant that soon the beach just looked like an explosion in a flower shop. There were also people flying paper lanterns, some more successfully than others.

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The festival meant that there were lots of street sellers out, and so dinner was food-on-a-stick and some rice from a street cart – probably our favourite way of eating.

Day 2 

With Rich away again, I had more time to amuse myself. Leaving Rich to his early breakfast I had a lie in (well, 8.30am) and then headed down to the pier to catch a Longtail boat to another of the islands. The only trouble with this is that you have to wait until you have a boatful (minimum 6) before you can leave, which meant about 20 mins sitting looking at the beach rather than going to one.

I opted to go to Poda, a small uninhabited island, with dense forest in the middle surrounded by a narrow beach.

Once we had our full complement we headed off to Poda. it was quite choppy and by the time we arrived I was soaking from all the spray. Within 10 minutes of landing though, I was in the sea, giving my clothes a chance to dry off in the sun. There were lots of pretty fish, although the sea was so rough my snorkel kept getting water in it.

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Lunch was Pad Thai served from a long tail boat converted into a floating take away. It was surprisingly good, and fuelled me some more snorkelling. After a couple more hours of alternating sun bathing / snorkelling, I was a little on the pink side so headed back to Ao Nang to lounge around on the balcony and await Rich’s return.

Back with Rich for dinner in Ao Nang, he was pretty tired after a day of diving. This meant a quick pizza for dinner then back to our room for a soak in the bath. As the bath is in the room it means you can lie back and relax while watching TV or reading a book. What luxury!

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Beach bums

Travel dates: 14th – 15th November 2013

After our hectic day yesterday, we decided to have a slightly more relaxed day today. After a late start we headed down to Patong beach – we hadn’t yet seen it during the day, so thought we probably should.

The beach is about a mile long, and has a wide expanse of sand overlooked by mountains with tropical plants – it also has a LOT of people. Most of the resort is hidden from view by trees when on the beach but the sunbeds lining the length of the beach are not.

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We spent a while reading books and watching the people. Many were doing water sports like jet skiing and parasailing. The latter was impressive to watch as a young Thai guy hopped onto the ropes of the parasail as it ascended and dangled off to steer without any kind of harness. Rather him than me.

Rumbling stomachs soon drew us away from the beach. We also thought we might try our luck at buying towels again so wandered down the main Patong street that we had not yet seen. This area is a lot like a very busy Spanish resort. Think Magaluf with more tropical beaches. There were many people pestering tourists. We were very lucky as we won the top prize on one from one prize draw. Sadly we weren’t eligible to collect it as we are unemployed meaning we didn’t have to sit through the 90 minute sales pitch to get a weeks accommodation in their hotel. What a shame. Lunch was a cop out but quick and simple in Burger King. We didn’t manage to get towels again as they still wanted £16 for two. No chance.

After lunch we wanted a bit of variety so headed to the next beach along. We had intended to go earlier in the day but were initially put off by high transport prices. At 300 baht to get there and 400 back it was around £14 in tuk-tuk travel. Not cheap but worth the effort as the next beach was cleaner and quieter than the hectic Patong beach. Someone needs to buy a bus and ferry people between the beaches. We are sure they would make a lot of money but are probably stopped by the tuk-tuk / taxi mafia who are known for vastly inflated prices in the resorts. In Bangkok we were paying 100 baht for similar tuk-tuk rides. We would have shared a tuk-tuk but it seems most of the mainly Russian tourists just stay where they are. The ones that do move around rent mopeds but with thousands of injuries and around 200 deaths each year in Phuket alone we opted out of this (we are considering learning when we get home instead, for next time we go away).

At Karon beach we had a very relaxed afternoon lying on sunbeds and playing in the waves. As the sun set we headed for the activity that drew us to this beach, Dino Mini Golf. Google maps failed us once again getting the location totally wrong. We need to learn not to trust it in Thailand. Luckily we found a tourist map and after a mile walk we arrived very hot and sticky at the mini golf.

The mini golf was really good. The dinosaur theme was well done with moving dinosaurs and a volcano drawing some tourists (Russian again) who pay just to see the park and not play golf. We definitely wanted golf though. After a cool down stop between holes 2 and 3 after we realised just how sweaty we were after the walk the had a fun round. Rich was victorious this time following a string of recent defeats to Vicki.

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Our tuk-tuk back to Patong dropped us off in time for a quick dip in the roof top pool in the moonlight before heading out for a quick dinner and drink before bed. Over dinner we were discussing Patong and wondering why we decided to come here back in our planning stages. It isn’t the usual kind of place that we would come being much more touristy/trashy/party oriented than our usual destinations. At 3:30am we remembered why. We wanted to sample the party scene it is known for and really made the most of it. Drinks in a bar surrounded by Thai ladies dancing on platforms to attract the attention of western tourists was our first stop. The ones on the platform were (mostly) clothed and dancing around with handbags (Vicki found this to be oddest thing about it). Once off the platforms they tried to approach many people (not us fortunately) and were not shy about flashing various bits of themselves for photos or just for the hell of it. This was a lot more overt than what we had experienced in Bangkok (but still haven’t blogged about…oops). In general the sex trade here was a lot more in you face here than we had seen before.

Having seen this side to Patong we quickly tired of it and headed for something a bit more normal. First attempt was a club which was full of Thai ladies looking for some (Western) company. Clearly not the place for us. We continued up the street and found a bar with a live band. Having seen the hardest working Filipino band in Mongolia we think this one is the hardest working band in Phuket. They played non-stop for the 3 hours that we were there drinking and dancing the night away.

Last nights exploits left us a bit tired today so we are having a very lazy day. I am currently blogging by the pool on the roof of our hotel. After a lie in this morning and breakfast/lunch in bed we went for a run along the beach. This was a barefoot run along the sand with a refreshing dip in the sea to cool of after. Despite doing 2.5 miles at 1pm we weren’t too hot as the temperature is cooler today helped by a breeze from the sea and a bit of cloud cover. We took the opportunity to analyse our running by looking at our footprints in the sand. It was clear that it will take a bit more work before we are comfortably barefoot running on anything other than soft sand.

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Tonight we are meeting Dave from Singapore as he is over here for a football tournament. Tomorrow morning we are up early for our ferry to our next beach stop (and final stop in Thailand) at Ao Nang. Hopefully it will be a bit less chaotic there than here in Patong. We have quite a while there which will give Rich time to do a scuba diving course. See you all on the other side of the water.

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Bond, James Bond (Island)

Travel Dates: 12th – 13th November 2013

Leaving Chiang Mai on 12th

Our final morning in Chiang Mai (yesterday as we are now writing) started early. We woke at 6:10am when our alarm sounded. The plan was for an early morning run, possibly to see monks collecting alms. The alarm was silenced and it wasn’t until almost 7am that we headed out for the run. We saw a few monks around collecting alms and giving blessings but no long parades like we have seen in other places, clearly we should have made the effort when the alarm went. It was good to get the run in before the day heated up though. We visited quite a few temples along the way although we had seen many of them already the day before.

Today was a travel day but our flight wasn’t until the early afternoon. This gave us time for a leisurely breakfast and a morning lie by the pool. In our hotel this worked well as the pool was in the sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. After an hour and a half in the sun though we were a bit hot so returned to our room to watch Big Bang Theory while we packed.

At the airport we discovered that Asia’s Boutique Airline (Bangkok Airways) were to treat us very well for our flights to Phuket (via Bangkok). They offer a lounge for all passengers (even the scum class ones like us). This was a welcome change from other airlines as it gave us somewhere to sit, free wifi and snacks to nibble on. We even got food on the plane. Since our flights were cheap we were very surprised by this.

Having made it to Phuket via Bangkok, we had the usual challenge of getting from the airport. Given that it was getting late in the evening, we opted for the airport taxi option. This seemed to be working fine (apart from some truly hair-raising driving) until we arrived at our resort, Patong. The taxi driver then decided take a shortcut down a road that was being resurfaced, resulting in him getting almost stuck in the mud. He then refused to take us any further – his solution was either than we walk along the muddy road, or we could pay him to take us back to the main road and then drive us a different way to the hotel. Needless to say, we weren’t impressed. We opted for the walking option, and paid him his fare only up until the point that he left the main road. Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed by this. He did at first try to argue, but I think he knew that he had screwed up, and so gave up without too much of a fight. I’m sure some questions will be asked when he gets back to the depot with his meter not matching the money received.

Having walked close to a mile with our bags, by the time we got to the hotel, we were very hot, sweaty and fed up. A quick refresh and then it was off to find the beach – even though it was about 9pm at this point. 10 minutes later we were stood with our toes in the sea.

There are lots of bars and shops all along the beach front, including a rather funky one in a pink VW camper, with uncovered outdoor seats. We opted for a cocktail here, these were very good but cut short when it began to rain….it wasn’t just a nice refreshing light shower, this was a properly epic tropical storm, complete with some impressive thunder and lightning (although we realise how lucky we are that we haven’t been affected by the typhoon).

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After about 15 minutes, it seemed to be going off so we made a break for it and did a bit more exploring, eventually stopping for a snack in another bar. Just as we were getting ready to head off, the heavens opened again. This time we made a dash for it, as we weren’t that far from the hotel, but we still dripping by the time we got back…

Boat tour on 13th

After a not too horrendous pick up of 7.15am we headed to the other side of Phuket to get our boat. The tour we had chosen was whistle stop tour of the sights of Phangnga Bay by speed boat, mixed in with some swimming and snorkelling.

There were 16 of us on the speed boat, which was quite cosy, especially when everyone wanted to be on the same side of the boat to look at the scenery, which was at times absolutely breath-taking.

Our first stop was a Hong (the Thai word for room) and is basically a secluded lagoon surrounded by mangroves and sheer limestone stacks. You have to arrive at these at the right time to take a boat in. At low tide you need to walk in instead. At high tide the first we visited was quite popular with a number of boats circling the lagoon. Despite this it still felt very secluded as we were shut off from the sea that we had been sailing moments before.

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We then headed over to Paradise beach for some snorkelling. The beach is aptly named, and again, even with two boat loads of other tourists it was a great spot. We all piled off the boat and donned masks and snorkels and took the key item….a banana. The fish in these waters are partial to banana and if you hold one out (peeled) they will come right up to you and nibble it. We were sceptical at first, but it really works. The fish were very colourful, with a couple of fluorescent fish that particular stood out. Hopefully when we head for diving we will get a fish identification card so we know what they are. The high point for Vicki was having a fish come and nibble at her mask. She was floating very still and was wearing a yellow mask, so maybe he mistook her for a bit of banana?

All too soon it was time to get back on the boat, this time heading to another Hong. As it was much smaller than the first we left the boat and were taken around by canoe. Our guide (paddler?) was called Mean, but to us he seemed very nice. He was very good at pointing out where erosion had turned the cliffs into objects. We saw a dog, an elephant (if you used your imagination and squinted a bit), a fish and a particularly good monkey buddha.

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We then got a chance to go swimming again, however, the only condition was that you had to jump off the boat – about 10ft up. The water was a bit of a shock but it was a lovely way to cool off.

It was now time for the main attraction of the day – James Bond Island. This island, called Ko Kao Phing Kan, appeared in the 1974 Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore. Due to the damaging effects of so many boats landing on the island, causing lots of erosion, our tour doesn’t stop on the island, but gets close enough for some photos. We were lucky on the day we arrived as Roger Moore had come back for a visit…

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By this time, lunch was on everyone’s minds, despite an seemingly unlimited supply of Beng Beng bars (a moreish chocolate covered wafer bar) so we headed to an island built on stilts called Panyee. Lunch of crab, prawns and curry was devoured and we had a chat with some of the other people on the boat. We mainly spoke to a couple in Thailand for their 30th wedding anniversary. He was originally from Manchester but moved to Australia long ago. They are retired and now travel the world together. Following lunch we got a tour of the village. It is a Muslim village and they are currently building a Mosque. They have started decorating the top, and the golden dome are an imposing feature on the island when you see the village from the boat. Most of inhabitants of the island now work in tourism but a significant portion still make their living from fishing.

One distinctive feature of the floating village was the floating 5-a-side football pitch. This was originally built by the players who went on to be a very successful team. The pitch was originally fishing nets and wooden floats but has since been upgraded to a plastic version. One theory that the team were so good is that they had to work very hard to stop the ball going overboard requiring more accuracy and skill than when you are surrounded by nets or fields.

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The final stop of the day was at another Hong. This time it was a walk in version. At high tide you can take a canoe but for us we had to walk through a long cave tunnel to reach the enclosed and now drained lagoon. Here we saw mangroves without the usual surrounding water and various fish and crabs that live on the mud when the water retreats.

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Overall we enjoyed the day on the boat. Seeing the limestone islands all around the bay was very impressive. We were glad we did a tour that visited a few of the Hongs where most just go to James Bond Island and a kayaking area that is packed with Russians and Koreans. It would have been good to have less time in the village and more time swimming/snorkelling though. Ideally we would have had a long boat of our own and explored the many Hongs and Islands away from the larger groups. There seemed to be some tourists in smaller boats so it may have been an alternative if a little more costly.

We returned to Patong in time for a dip in the pool before our evening out shopping. We had a few things to buy including a vest and swim shorts for Rich and bikinis for Vicki. A lot of haggling in the markets and we got what we wanted and what seemed to be a good price. We also need towels as substitutes for our travel towels when on the beach however couldn’t get anyone down to the “What would you pay at Primark” benchmark price.

The day finished with a drink at an outdoor bar. The best feature was a number of puzzles on the bar for customers to try and solve. Rich had mixed success solving a few but having to be assisted by the bar girl in some cases. We might take our Mongolian piggy puzzle to the bar to see if she can solve that.

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Tigers, temples and food tasting

Travel dates: 10th – 12th November 2013

This is where the race report for the run Ban San Kamphaeng Mini Marathon should have been if it not had appeared early. Think back to Vicki’s trophy winning run and we resume the blog from there.

Vicki:

After getting up at the crack of dawn yesterday for our race, we decided to have a lazy morning, and caught up on a few hours of much needed sleep. However, there was still touristing to be done and so at 1pm we headed off with Charlee (of Ban Kan Samphaeng taxi fame) to Tiger Kingdom.

First off, lets make it clear that both Rich and I had our reservations about this. We had purposefully avoided the tiger temple n Bangkok, as people have said that the animals are drugged and treated poorly. However, reviews for Tiger Kingdom said that the animals didn’t appear drugged  and were treated well. In addition, our elephant companions from Yorkshire had raved about it, and so we decided to go and see what it was like, so that we could make our own minds up.

We opted for a package allowing us to see small and medium tigers – and even the medium tigers were quite chunky! Our first stop was the small tigers (3-6 months old) who given the time of day and heat were understandably asleep. We were able to stroke and cuddle them and they were completely oblivious – this happens everyday to them so I guess they get used to it. Putting aside my scepticism, they were absolutely gorgeous, and so soft. Their paws, even at about 3 months, were bigger than my hand!

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We then progressed up to the medium tigers, who were a little more active, washing themselves and walking around. Again we were able to stroke them, and even though they were awake, there was no discernible reaction apart from an occasional ear twitch.

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There were lots of tigers in the rest of the park, dozing in cages, as well as a solitary lion. The cages seemed very small, and had no toys or distractions in but hopefully these just holding cages, and they moved the animals after the visitors have left. All the animals in the park were bread in captivity, and there is no pretence of them ever being released into the wild. They are being bread purely for the park, with the idea that if they become extinct in the wild, at least some will remain in captivity.

The most popular tiger “station” was the the vary small tigers (just a couple of months old). These really did seem just like big domestic kittens – running around and playing, and pouncing on anything that moved. It was a shame that the guards kept separating the playing kittens so that the tourist could take photos and cuddle them – they looked very happy just playing with each other.

Overall, from a purely selfish point of view, it was wonderful to be that close to the tigers, but I’m still not sure that they weren’t drugged – they were so docile. They seemed content and well treated, but the cages looked awfully small, and I can’t imagine it is much fun being poke and stroked all day. It is not something I would do again, and having done it I probably wouldn’t recommend it to others.

That evening we headed out to the Chiang Mai Sunday night market. It is a block of streets all selling tourist tat, crafts, food and clothes. We were feeling a bit jaded by all the tourist markets we have seen so tried to make a bee-line for the food area – unfortunately it seemed that others had the same ideas and at times it was a bit of a scrum. Nevertheless, a dinner of Thai sausages, green curry, pork blood rice and spring rolls was purchased, with some odd salty sweet pancakes with marshmallow for dessert.

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Rich:

Our third day in Chiang Mai was set aside for exploring temples. There are many wats/temples in the town. I believe as many as are in Bangkok which is a lot bigger so the concentration here is far greater. We have already seen a few temples around the town during our wanderings however today was meant for a more consolidated effort on seeing them all.

If Vicki were writing this she would tell you which temples we visited. As she is not I will tell you we saw big ones, small ones, fancy ones and some in need or repair and also being repaired. Buddhas were reclining in some places and sitting up in others. Some temples had a lot of gold, others were white. Something we have not seen in other places are the tiered roofs and elaborate gold leaf patterns on pillars and doors. We even saw the mostest famousest temple in Chiang Mai (a claim made by a keyring seller who we were willing to believe). These were very impressive. Overall though we saw a lot of temples. At one we even met a Thai man whose sister lives in Accrington Stanley.

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Templed out from the morning and refuelled from curry lunch we headed back for a much needed pool break. Even though the pool is very cold and shaded in the afternoon it is still a welcome refreshment and very nice to lie beside with a book.

There wasn’t much time for lounging today though as we were off out to a Thai cooking class. A pickup truck/bus collected us, 4 Canadians, 1 American and a Kiwi (person, not fruit or bird) and took us first to a market. Here we were shown some of the ingredients we would later use and given time to explore. Who knew there were so many types of basil. Today we were using Holy Basil, Sweet Basil and…erm…some other Basil.

At the cooking course we were given the choice of what to make from a soup, noodle dish, curry, stir fry and dessert. Our menus were:

Rich – Hot and creamy soup, Drunken noodles, Penang Curry, Holy Basil and Chicken, Mango and coconut rice.

Vicki – Hot and sour soup, Phad Thai, Massaman curry, Chicken and cashewnuts, Mango and coconut rice.

For each dish we prepared all of the ingredients and then cooked them up. We all worked at the same time together as a group but making slightly different dishes. The processes were mostly the same with a few exceptions. We will let the drunken noodle cooking video below speak for itself. One highlight was making our own curry paste from scratch. Hard work with a pestle and mortar but interesting to see what goes into an ingredient we usually just buy in Tesco. Hopefully this will inspire us to start making our own at home. As we were given a recipe book at the end of the session we have the knowledge required.

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Rich cooks Drunken Noodles

The cooking course was a different activity to what we normally do and really good fun. It was great making out own dinner then getting to eat it. With 5 courses we were very full by the end and should probably have skipped lunch before hand. For anyone in Chiang Mai in the future I would definitely recommend trying it out. Lots of companies offer a similar course but we did our with Siam Rice.

The day finished with some bartering at the night market. This was made necessary as Vicki needed a new bag to be able to take her trophy home. The trials of internationally successful runners. I wonder if Usain Bolt had to buy a new bag to get his medals home from London?

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Now, remember what your elephant looks like…

Today we tried out an alternative career – being Mahouts.

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We headed out to the hills surrounding Chiang Mai (picking up a couple from Yorkshire along he way) to Patara Elephant Farm. We had chosen this place for our elephant experience after recommendation from Martin Fernengel, a colleague of Rich’s from Morgan Stanley.

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We arrived just after 8am and met up with the rest of the group – 4 Americans and a couple from the Netherlands1 – and had our first glimpse of our charges for the day. After an introductory talk by the leader Jack (his Thai name is unpronounceable) we were assigned our elephants (and helpers). My elephant was Bunjen, whilst Richard was paired with Mimi.

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Our first task was to “make your elephants love you”. This was so that you elephant would follow your commands through the day, and let you ride them. Apparently the way to an elephant’s heart is through its stomach, and so we spent the next few minutes feeding them bananas and sugar cane. The first thing you notice is that they are a lot bigger close up, and the second thing is how strong they are. The first time I gave Bunjen a banana i thought he was going to take my hand too!

The next task was to check the elephant was healthy – there are 4 signs:

  1. Swishing ears and tail
  2. A muddy elephant (it means they have laid down to sleep overnight – ill elephants stay standing)
  3. Sweaty toenails (this is the only place they sweat)
  4. Decent poo – there should be at least 5 mounds that don’t smell and that leak water when squeezed (and yes, we did have to do this)

After the health check we had our first go at commands – none of which had any effect when coming from us! After convincing the elephant to lie down, we were able to brush the dirt off them, and then led them to water. Unlike horses it was very easy to make the elephant have a drink. Mimi drank for about 5 minutes only resting to spit some at Rich every now and then.

As well as a drink we had to give our elephants a quick brush and hose down. This meant they were now ready for us to climb up onto their backs. Without cleaning them the mud and soil on their back and neck will get rubbed in by our big bums and hurt them.

With another few commands learnt it was time to “bai”. This told our elephants it was time to start our trek. No sooner than the chap from Yorkshire had started did he want to “how” (that would be stop). His elephant had decided to reach up and grab some leaves from a tree which really tested his balance.

Riding an elephant is very uncomfortable, we were riding bare-back, sat right up behind the elephants ears. Knowing the balance of tourists is not as good as that of the Mahouts, we had been given a rope handle to hold. This was unfortunately situated behind us, being a piece of rope tied around the elephant. Never the less it gave the illusion of a bit of safety – much needed when you are 10 feet off the ground.

One of the things that struck us was how hairy, or rather bristly, an elephant is. It’s whole head is covered in bristles a couple of inches long – just long enough to grip as a last resort when about to fall off!

Our first trek was down to a stream where the elephants can walk along the stony bottom. This is important for keeping their toenails short and in good condition. The walk down was a bit scary, as we were still getting used to the motion, and going up and down hill and over uneven ground was an added challenge!

We then headed to a waterfall for elephant bath time, which involved a sharp downhill – I was convinced I was heading straight for the water, as Bunjen almost broke into a trot in his eagerness to get into the water. Once in the water we then had to clean our elephants with a scrubbing brush to get ride of bugs – there is a lot of an elephant to brush, and I think my helper was having more fun chucking water around, getting all of us soaking wet. Luckily most of the elephants had been considerate and pooped downstream of the washing place, but I’m still not sure the water was the cleanest we could have bathed in!

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Having spruced up our elephants, it was now time for the photo call. We all stood dutifully in line with the elephants behind us, and then right on cue, they all sprayed us, making sure we were absolutely soaked. It was refreshing though after a long morning, so I don’t think anyone minded too much.

Whilst we were drying off, my elephant decided that it would like to “get to know” another elephant. We have pictures, but I’m not sure they are suitable for a family friendly blog such as this. My guide was all for the union, to the point where he was trying to hold Mrs elephant in place so Mr elephant could come calling. However, unfortunately they didn’t have time to finish what had been started, as we had to get back on the trail to where we were having lunch. This was an almost completely uphill section, and at times we were all hunched over our elephants head, hanging onto the bristles and trying not to slide backwards.

Lunch was set out on banana leaves on a picnic bench and looked wonderful. There were all types of Thai rice dishes wrapped in leaves, chicken, pork and about 10 types of dessert and fruit. I felt really sorry for the person who had to carry it all up there! After we were all full there was still a huge amount left – luckily the helpers were able to take some away, and the elephants helped out with the bananas

It was then back on the trail for the final hair raising ride – definitely a case of what goes up must come down. Most of spent the journey gripping onto the rope behind us, trying not to take a nosedive down the elephant’s trunk.

At the bottom of the hill it was time to say goodbye to the elephants and handlers, they were off for more food (the elephants, not the handlers) before being led back to the jungle at sunset. After getting off for the final time, I think most people were glad to be back on solid ground. Our helpers then showed us how it should be done, by scampering up the elephant and riding off, looking as comfortable as many people do on a horse, just a bit higher up.

Our final stop was with the baby elephants – one was only 7 days old! It was very cute, and spent the time trying to hide between it’s mothers legs, or trying to pull apart bamboo (although it can’t eat it till it’s about a month old). It was a really lovely way to end our day with the elephants.

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I’m glad we chose to do this one, rather than just going to a zoo and having a ride on one. It was a lot of fun, and we learnt a lot. It was nice to be able to get close to the elephant even if you did feel like it was about to squash you when you trying to wash it’s legs!

We then headed back to the pool for a quick dip, before heading out for dinner early, so that we could get back and have an early night, ready for some running exploits tomorrow!

1 While writing this Vicki asked me what you call people from the Netherlands. When I said Dutch she then queried it again, “But that is what you call people from Holland”. It has been a long day.

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Airport delays and upgrades in Chiang Mai

Travel date: 8th November 2013

We had originally hoped to get an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This was thwarted by the Thai rail network doing engineering work on the line we needed. The line is closed for several months1. This is the second time this has happened, the first being between Poland and Lithuania. Then we just took an overnight bus however this time Vicki wasn’t willing to transfer from train to bus at 5am and I can’t say I blame her. Off to the airport we go again!

Due to the protests in Bangkok we were advised to head off early. The lady who booked our taxi advised leaving at 7:30am for an 11:20am flight. We thought this excessive and negotiated her down to 8:15am. It turned out she was being overly cautious and we were at the airport with no issues by 9:00am with 45 minutes being the expected journey time.

Inside the terminal with time to kill we did what any traveller would and sat on the floor next to a plug socket, charging our laptop and writing our travel blog. After a small breakfast we were a bit hungry but figured we would last until lunch in Chiang Mai as we were due to arrive at 12:40 and it is only 2 miles from the airport to the centre. On arriving at our gate and seeing someone else’s plane present we realised food might be needed earlier. In the end a Subway raid for me and duck wrap for Vicki fuelled us while we waited for our delayed flight. It wasn’t too bad though and we took off 1 hour 20 minutes late, co-incidentally at the time we were meant to arrive in Chiang Mai originally.

Our accommodation in Chiang Mai had recently been upgraded. Originally Vicki had found a well recommended hostel. Unfortunately the room offered only had a fan and no A/C. At £6 a night we originally accepted this though. After our time in Cambodia (mainly experiencing the heat but also appreciating the pool) we decided to upgrade. We are now in a £26 a night hotel with pool. It is a lot more comfortable if less social than the hostel alternative. That suits us though, as our room is actually multiple rooms we can split up as we would at home. I am in the lounge writing this while Vicki is reading her book in the bedroom. We are definitely enjoying the two room luxury.

Anyway, after only arriving at the hotel at 2:30pm we decided a restful afternoon was in order to get over the stress of flying. We spent some time organising our upcoming activities and then headed to the pool. The pool isn’t in the sun which meant it was a bit cold in there. Air temperature is fine though so once out we happily lay reading books for an hour.

Before the sunset we decided to head out for a short walk to get our bearings. We set out from our hotel and found a lively bar/restaurant/hostel area that we will be returning to. We then headed inwards to the major Wat in town. Not sure of the name but it was very impressive. A large hall with a three tiered roof housed golden pillars and a Buddha. An older temple out the back and a few more Buddha’s completed the set. Unfortunately we saw a magnificent sunset but weren’t quite at the old temple to capture what would have been a great photo of it.

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We are now back in the lounge and spent a bit of time catching up on admin. In an effort to keep Martin happy and keep the blog fresh we have already written up half the day. Check back in several weeks to see how our evening went!

The Next Day…

Not much of a cliff-hanger there is it. I only kept you waiting past a sub-heading. In order to keep our next blog on topic I will discuss our evening here. We headed to the night market. Although we have done a lot of these, the one in Chinag Mai is pretty good. There are the usual knock off bags/trainers etc but also more crafty type things. The sellers aren’t too pushy so aside from being eaten by bugs we enjoyed the stroll around.

Not very interesting I hear you say. Well things certainly picked up a bit when we went to Chiang Mai Cabaret! This is a free show provided you buy at least one drink and situated on the edge of the market. Although here called a cabaret, the more common term used by westerners visiting Thailand for this kind of show is Lady Boy Show. It was great fun.

The show is advertised by several ladies(?) wandering the market in elaborate costumes. When you enter the bar you are met by some very unconvincing ladies there to keep the crowd happy and buying drinks. They are the revenue generators getting people to have fun, buy drinks and most importantly tip. The aim is to get large tips stuffed down their tops. The show itself was a combination of dancing and lip syncing. The costumes were fabulous and the show entertaining. Parts were hilarious. Well worth the couple of relatively expensive drinks (£2) that we bought. It was made a bit cheaper at least when happy hour occurred part way though. I don’t think the pictures do the experience justice, but anyway…

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1 We only found out  about this after an agency had bought tickets for us. They subsequently told us we couldn’t actually get the train but still charged their service fee for the privilege of booking and cancelling the tickets. We never got the tickets and I doubt they did either. Poor show Asia-Discovery! My advice to people booking Thai train tickets is to use someone else. They weren’t particularly helpful with the booking and ended up messing us around without us getting anything out of it.