Saturday, 29 September 2007

Turtle Island

I must say Kanchanaburi was a very nice place. The Bridge over the Kwae river (Kwai is actually a misspelling - it means water buffalo in Thai) isn't all that amazing to look at (though the setting is nice). But the history behind it is pretty cool. The museum beside the bridge is in fact a melange of all kinds of nonsense (almost worth the entrance for it's comic value), none of which is much about the bridge, the real museum is back in town and is actually one of the best laid out museums I've been in - and not too much in it to be overwhelming. Once you become aware of the huge loss of life involved in it's construction, a trip on the "death railway" itself is a must.

I hopped on a local bus out to hellfire pass, site of some of the hardest digging and something of an Aussie pilgrimage site (it was mostly Aussie POWs that worked/died on this bit). I managed to blag a lift with an intrepid tour back to Nam Tok, the (current) starting point of the Railway back, and was able to avail of some free guiding. There was only one bloke on the tour - a nice English guy, who seemed very relieved to have some male company for a change - by all accounts the girls were moaning all the time and doing his nut in. He was only on the trip cause he and his girlfriend split up just before there Phuket holiday, and she was taking the room for the two weeks! I told him he should have no problem finding a "shoulder" to cry on in Phi Phi, his next stop (he's leaving the tour).

The previous day I'd rented a bike and gone to Erawan falls with Dillon. The falls were in a really beautiful setting, without too many tourists, and some of the various levels (there are 7) made fantastic refreshing jungle swimming pools.
The trip back on the other hand was more of an endurance test - character building if you like, as we (I) drove almost the whole 2.5 hours back in the dark through torrential rain and lightning - our lights were barely able to distinguish the road from the trees. Cool. The rest of the time we spent hanging round/playing pool with English and Scottish Paul, Jayne from Canada and Ebony, an ivory Aussie girl.

So on to Ko Tao.
From Nam Tok and the Death Railway, I passed back through Kanchanaburi and onto Natham Phaton, quick stop to take a pic of the big Pagoda there, then onto a train for Chumpon. All 3rd class, and the better for it - I was the only Farang in the carriage. I had to move a little girl who had crashed out on my seat, and for the next 5 hours we had a great conversation despite her speaking no English and me having only a few dozen Thai words. Much of it went along the lines of "Nee a-rai" (what's this) and her pointing to something - I didn't think she could be taking anything in so fast, so I was pretty amazed 30 mins later when she pointed to her eyes, nose, ear, etc and said the English word. Kids just sponge up language when their young I guess.

After 4 hours kip in Chumpon it was up for the 7am ferry to Kao Tao, a long trip all and all, but worth it. So far I'm really liking the place, though it's really pretty expensive by Thai standards (the Diving is actually quite reasonable).
This morning I went to Chumpon pinacle, and it was a really excellent dive - best in a long time, with great visibility, cool rock formations, huge schools of fish and by far the most sharks I've ever seen on one dive - I lost count after 10. Top class. The second dive on white rock was pretty good but not in the same league.
So off now for some lunch and a siesta before torturing myself one last time in Choppers Aussie bar to watch the Irish try the impossible against the Argies.

P.S. Finally found a cheap internet place that doesn't electrocute you when you plug in your camera's USB cable.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Bridge over the river Kwai

For some reason a week passed before I managed to get out of Chiang Mai. It's not like I did an awful lot there - apart from an evening on a bouldering wall I can't really remember doing much of anything after my last blog post. Whatever. Anyway, I decided that it was about time I saw something of cultural or historical significance. A quick glance at the train line south showed Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which both seemed to fit the bill.

I hopped the morning train out of Chiang Mai and after a brief change to the bus in Phitsanulok, home of the flying vegetables, I was in the ancient Thai capital.
Sukhothai definitely lived up to the hype. It's not even hyped up that much, so much of Thailand's tourism revolves around far baser needs that beautiful historical sites like this often get overlooked. For much of the morning touring the old site I had the place more or less to myself. Apart from the odd cow here and there. The ruins are spread out over a fair area but its all easy enough to visit yourself on a bike.

I met up with a French guy back in the new town in the evening, and between us we managed to convince a local Belgian bar owner to give us a shut in at his bar so we could watch the world cup game. Another heroic defeat by Ireland, but I suppose at least they tried this time. While in the area, I also popped up north via a very pink rented motorbike to Si Satchanalai, another lovely 13th century site, maybe not quite as manicured but even less visited and perhaps more atmospheric. Plus the locals there are very, er, friendly.

Not content with this cultural smörgåsbord, I headed further south to Ayutthaya, a 14th century city thats only a stones throw north of Bangkok, and therefore does get a few more coaches. Still the ruins there are also lovely, and approaching nightfall most of the buses are gone, though theres still a fair few elephants knocking about to add some colour to the occasion. I had met Elliot from California off the Train so we compared ruins and movie sequels over Leos and Singhas.

One more historical stop needed before Bangkok, this one a little less ancient. A few hours detour east by a couple of public buses brought me to Kanchanburi, and the location for the movie about the famous world war II building of the Burma railway, which included the famous bridge spanning the Kwai river. So far it seems like a really beautiful setting in the river, very nice and relaxing. My room is actually a floating pontoon on the river! Tomorrow I might actually go to see the bridge.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

New Town

Joining up with the two Isralei guys from the Gibbon Experience, we managed to blag a minivan all to ourselves and left the border town of Chiang Kong - a nice enough place - and arrived into pretty cosmopolitan Chiang Mai, the norths major city. The towns definitely changed a bit since I was here before - right in the heart at Tha Pae gate is a big Starbucks and theres another branch of Seattle's evil empire in the middle of the night market, flanked by a Burger King, McDonalds and Subway. Shocking. I still really like the place though.
The guys were keen to visit the temple on the mountain at Doi Suthep so we rented a jeep for the day which was good fun - my first time driving a four wheeled vehicle in Asia. Having missed a close encounter with the Gibbons we took the chance to see some up close at a local "monkey school", one of a number of similar "attractions" sprouting up around town. It was nice to see the Gibbons (not sure why they were in a "monkey" school though..., but the rest of the show was all a bit sad really - monkeys peddling rickshaws around, etc.
I spent an hour on one of the new additions around the night market - a rock climbing wall called the peak, which was good fun though a bit overpriced. In Laos I had met Clare from Falkirk and agreed, after a few too many BeerLaos, to meet in Chiang Mai to do some rock climbing trips out to a local site called crazy horse. After my unimpressive attempts on the wall, I'm not so sure I want to embarrass myself further now.

After a couple of days replacing various lost items with new ones from the night market, and tasting Chiang Mais fine cooking, I rented a motorbike and headed off to Pai, The place in northern Thailand that everyone seems to be raving about.
The trip there was really cool - almost a constant series of (hairpin) bends which required Valentino Rossi like skill to negotiate. At one stage I stopped to put on a raincoat but was a bit careless in parking and the bike slipped off the road and down the side a few meters. Oops. As invariable seems to happen in South East Asia, within a minute a group of Army guys passed and, seeing my predicament, pulled in and hauled the bike up with me. It was fine apart from a bit of a funny rattling noise I chose to ignore (and to not mention after I returned it).

Pai itself is a nice little town, with a few cute restaurants and bars. Though to be honest, I think people seem to be over hyping it a bit - its not an amazing setting or anything, and there are far too many of a certain type of traveler there to make me want to stay too long. Still I had a good couple of days and nights - the first spent mostly with a nice bunch of Thais from Chiang Mai/Bangkok who showed me all the spots to go, including a couple of places which were pretty Farang free, and the second with some Belgian girls I met in Na's Kitchen, a really good local resturant.
One of the late night pool bars - Fubar served up a Tom Yum Gai at 3am that was quite possibly the tastiest food I have ever eaten. Definitely beats a spice burger and chips.

Other than eating and drinking Pai has all kinds of new age nonsense that I stayed mostly well away from, and some cute villages that make a diverting afternoon drive. On my way back to Chiang Mai it started chucking it down so I stopped off at one of the little spa pools, and very nice indeed it was too.
Last night I decided to torture myself and watch another of Ireland's dismal performances at the Rugby world cup. The only place I could find open at 2am with a Tv screen was a pretty dodgy spot called Spicys, where I was the only one in the place passing up viewing nubile young Thai girls in favor of overpaid overrated Irish men. You have to get your priorities right. OK then, I'm off for a Frappacino and a 6 inch spicy Italian.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Gibbon Endurance

I arrived in the little Laos town of Huay Xai after a really pleasant 2 days on the slow boat from Luang Prabang. The views were really nice and the boat pretty comfortable (well the first days one anyway - complete with padded reclining seats and even life jackets - whats that all about?) We stopped the first night in Pak Beng, a nice little village about halfway along the Mekong. I've really grown to like the chocolate coloured artery, though after seeing and smelling the dead cow on the way I'm glad that I resisted the urge to slurp Augustus Gloop like from the river.

For the last 3 days I've been deep in the Bokeo forest in north west Laos to undertake the Gibbon Experience. The experience starts with a bit of a marathon walk in taking anything from 5 to 9 hours - we managed to slog our way through in 5 pretty sweaty and tiring hours, at times almost knee deep in mud and always on the lookout for the dreaded leeches (I only got one but the little fcuker drank some amount of blood) Our group consisted of me, Gus and Dan from Israel and Luz from Holland, all really nice. Apart from me obviously. Arriving finally at the tree house and zipping into our new home via a flying fox was pretty cool, as was the cold water shower with views to die for.
With a bit of time to kill I decided to do some exploring on my own, having half listened to the guides fairly vague explanation of the route needed to get back on the zip lines. Almost 2 hours later and unable to find that magic route back anywhere, and in the growing darkness I managed to pull myself back up the 300 meter zip line in the wrong direction, as it was the only way I could get home. I thought after the walk I was exhausted, but after that session I found the real meaning of the word. But the euphoria of making it back and the decent dinner made up for the pain.

The next morning we awoke to the sounds of the gibbons calling and a few minutes later the somewhat tardy guides saying come quick now. So without time for camera or shoes we zipped off in pursuit of our prey. They sounded only meters away but as we tried to track them one of the lads fell flat on his backside and made a right racket to we didn't manage to see any. Still the views later from the platforms looking down at the partially mist cloaked forest were beautiful. Much of the rest of the day was spent resting and zipping around (I found that I had been only a 3 minute walk to an easy zip home the night before - doh!)

On our last day we awoke to more cool views and gibbon songs, but they were too distant to chase, so we began the long slog back to the road, finally arriving at a cute village with tons of kids making nice portrait subjects. A can of coke never tasted so good. Nor did the cold BeerLao that evening, and it was oh so nice to not eat rice for the first time in days. This morning I hopped on a little boat and 10 minutes later I had exited Laos and entered Thailand - must be the easiest fastest Asian border crossing ever. So off to Chang Mai later today and then figure out what I'm up to next.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Here comes the rain again

Having had a pretty dry wet season so far in Laos, the last few days have started to make up for it a bit. Right now Im hoping all the clothes that got soaked on the roof of the Sawngthaew (a sort of truck with two rows of seats, though I sat in an additional 3rd row of plastic chairs with my feet dangling out the back - best views that way) back from Nong Khiaw will be dry before I head off on the boat towards the Thai border. Apparently the previous day a woman had given birth on the same Sawngthaew run, so at least I missed getting my clothes covered in that:)

Nong Khiaw is as far as the road goes en route to the little town of Muang Ngoi Neua, where I've spent the last couple of days. The last hour is completed by boat, and the isolation means there are no cars or motorbikes of any kind, so its a really nice place to relax and watch the village life unfold. Again the scenery was excellent, both on the way and around the area.

Theres only sporadic electricity and the food kinda sucks, but still its all part of the experience. The girl running our guesthouse was a bit of a character, and took us to her local orchard to graze on all manner of tropical fruit, which required some climbing and waving of large bamboos. The nicest part was a day spent trecking to the little village of Ban Bo, which occupies a beautiful setting in paddy fields surrounded by karst mountains. And the odd satellite dish. Its occupied by a mix of Lao and hilltribe folk.

I went with Issy and Violene who I met on the boat, and we met a few other falang who were overnighting there, including one Basque guy who was going to spend a month there teaching english to the local kids. The walking was a bit tricky with all the mud and river crossings, but very enjoyable, though we had to keep the odd eye out for the local kid hunting for their dinner. On the way back I took a dip in a lovely pool beside a cave. Fabulous.
Back in Luang Prabang now for a days r&r before braving the two day boat trip up to Huay Xai and a date with the Gibbons of Bokeo reserve. They mentioned 5-9 hours walking in leeche infested forest to get to the treehouse where we stay. Should be interesting...