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So am I ? Too old for a gap year, I mean.

Sunset after the rain – Ko Lanta – Apr 2

Fri 10th Feb.   When I was 18, (and having just dug out my old passport, I looked about 15), I started to do a bit of what we then called “travelling”. [Inserts photo here, just to check I can, in this blog].

Of course now I know it was just holidays. Two weeks away in the summer hols to somewhere hot in Europe, travelling by bus was all my mates and I could afford. Still, we did it, we loved it, and it inspired me, and all on the leftovers from a student grant too! Those were the days my friend.aaawww - bless!

After three years at college getting myself some qualifications, I really, really should have taken a year out. I remember being told that if I didn’t do it then, I never would, and would regret it when I got older. Well they were half right. They were spot on about the regret, but the bit about never getting another chance? Hmmmm.

In the meantime, I have been about a bit. I’m proud to have visited such “exotic” places as Botswana, Canada, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe. Never for more than a few weeks though, and always with friends or as part of a group. Never done it on my own.

Well I reckon after 27 years at work, I deserve a break. And 2012 is it. I’ve got health, I’ve got desire and I’ve got the confidence in my work skills to give me enough financial security to brave it.

After months of wondering, worrying and fretting about it, I’ve made the call. It’s a GO GO GO. Even though I’ve spent six months telling myself, all those around me, and anyone else who’d listen that I was gonna do it, today is the first day I’ve actually DONE anything positive towards it. I’ve had two armfuls of injections and spent money on a bunch more.

I’ve three weeks left at work, and another two to do some last minute prep.

So what’s still to do? Well shed loads … Flights to book, Visas? Do I go to Vietnam – what with their visas being expensive and a ball-ache to boot, or just stick to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia, where visas are a bit easier? Surely that’s enough countries to cover in the 14 weeks in S.E. Asia (sorry, did I say gap-year?, I meant errrm gap-months), insurance, more jabs.

Actually the trickiest part is to make sure my company affairs are in order when I leave. Who knew you couldn’t pay NI and tax bills by direct debit?

My work is done – or at least for the time being it is.

Sun 12th Feb.  Things are moving on. Whoo-hoo. Checked around, found some flights, so called in at my local STA office in Preston, and did the dirty deed. Flights to Bangkok now booked.

Fri 17th Feb.  This week I handed in my notice at work – or at least confirmed that I wouldn’t be going back when my contract runs out.  I’ve stopped getting nervous now – until I pick up the Big Trip guide and read the safety and health guide.

Today I’ve had my first of two paid-for vaccinations, the dreaded and scary-sounding Japanese Encephalitis. I’d be pretty unlucky to pick up this mosquito-borne disease, since I’m not planning to hang around in any rice paddies or piggeries. The clincher though was to find out that 30% of people who do get it, die. Hmmm. The jab wasn’t so bad – many people get a reaction to this one, and I haven’t fainted yet, 12 hours later.

Sat 3rd Mar.  Another big milestone passed. Finished work!! How great that feels!  Much as I enjoy working – I really enjoy not-working a whole lot more.  After 14 months in my current contract, I departed yesterday. Wondering if I’ll go back there at the end of all this. Hmmmm.  Still, that’s a question I’ll have to answer in the Summer.  Delighted to see that my leaving card had a map of the Eastern hemisphere on the front, and centred on SE Asia. How appropriate is that??  Posted a link to this blog in my “goodbye” email to the guys and gals at work.  Who knows – a few might even read this!

Mon 5th Mar. Just read an article on the Wanderlust site that Burma is “visitable” again.  All the “right on” folks have been boycotting the place at the request of the opposition party but now the NLD, the political party of activist Aung San Suu Kyi, has softened its stance on tourism saying it would welcome visitors. I really ought to consider it. Best I swat up again on visas and the like. Too many countries – too little time.

Tues 6th Mar.  So much for travelling light and compact.  Just realised I’ve got to take 14 weeks worth of Malaria pills with me. D’Oh. Right that’s it – the second pair of pants is gonna have to stay at home. How many different ways can you wear a pair, before they need washing?  Must be four at least. If I was brave, young and idiotic enough, I think there’s 12 ways with a thong.

Tues 6th Mar. How come so-called “backpacker” or “Gap Year” insurance costs twice as much as an annual policy, even though it’s only for a few months?  Oh, hang on – having seen what’s included I’m not surprised. It includes cover for such insurance-needy activities as aerobics, beach games, croquet, historical research, dancing, pigeon racing, vegetable picking (!), working (!!) and chess.  Oh, that’s money well spent then.

Seems I’m also covered for Korfball, Ringos, Airsoft, Hobie, Kendo and BOB – all of which sounds like a gay boy-band to me.  I’m kind of hoping the trekking, diving, climbing, elephant riding, mountain biking, rafting and canopy walking will be more to my liking. 🙂

Thurs 8th Mar.  Got my cash. About a gazillion Thai Baht (… On Ilkley Moor ?) and some new US Dollars – seems that Laotians and Cambodians don’t use their own currency – there’s confidence for you – and usually insist on US Dollars.  Not only that, they need to be unfolded, uncreased and unmarked. Cheeky monkeys! You’d think if they were good enough for New Yorkers …  So much for stashing them in my money belt then :-(.

Just read the list of warnings and side effects that comes with the Malaria tablets.  Store below 25 degs C and avoid sunlight when taking.  Brilliant!  I’ll add a fridge and a parasol to my “must pack” list.

Fri 9th Mar.  Slept under the mozzie net last night.  Yeah, I know it’s Lancs in March, and they’re  a bit less prevalent here and now, but I was keen to see if there were any problems.  Errrrm … The main issue seems to be I cant reach the ceiling to hang the net. D’Oh. Could just about manage it when I stood on four pillows!  It seemed to work though, cos I didn’t get bit by any mozzies, fleas, bugs, sandflies, wasps, chiggers, dogs, cats, rats, monkeys or apes. Result 😀

Sun 11th Mar.  Finally got round to booking somewhere to stay. This is one task that’s been nagging at me for a week or so. Started off with the Lonely Planet guide (from 2009), and found their recommendations came pretty low in TripAdvsiors tables. So what to do?  Well I’ve trusted TA before so I went with one of their highest ranking places. Anybody ever heard of a “boutique hostel”?  Two nights in a shared room with shared bathroom, inc air con, breakfast, free juice & wifi. Five mins walk from the skytrain station – £18 for two nights.  Lets see if it lives up to the blurb …  With a name like the Smile Society Boutique Hostel (  http://smilesocietyhostel.com/index.html ) how can I go wrong ?

Thurs 16th Mar. Almost a very inauspicious start, before I’d even got half way. Got caught in a holding pattern above UAE cos a different aicraft had an emergency landing, just before we arrived. We were five minutes from havinng to divert to a different airport to avoid running out of fuel, before we got the call to land. Almost started off with a twelve hour delay to my onward flight to Bangkok. Aaaah – Asia time.

Big row on the plane – the two camp young blokes next to me having a big stand-up with the mother of the kid behind one of ’em kicking his seat. Kid crying, mum shouting and pointing, boys getting all indignant that the mum accused one of swearing at her son. “I  DO NOT SWEAR” he screeches at increasingly high pitch.  Like summat out of Jeremy Kyle.

Sat in Dubai Airport Transit area. Why?  Cos the bu99ers wont let me leave! Quite fancied the idea of a walk around outside in the balmy 79 degs. But cos my onward flight leaves in less than five hours they insist I stay. Tried to find my way out but theres no exits other than emergency ones. Shall I brave one of those? – it’ll be alright won’t it? The arabs are a friendly people. Even those with guns don’t shoot people very often.  Ho hum.

it’s incredibly spick and span here. All glass, chrome, designer shops and tidy cleaner-uppers.  Glad to see there’s no MacDonalds here – yet.  Was gonna try to  get a picture of a bloke in the full white garb, who had an entourage of about 8 blokes. Prince maybe?  (No, not THE Prince, A prince).  However, camera in transit on route to BKK and phone for camera switched off.

Note to self – Before you make a jam butty just do a check that the jam isn’t chilli dip.

Fri 16th March.  Bangkok – Hot hot hot!  Mad mad mad!  Arrived at airport several hours before check in time, so stopped at a couple of places on the way to the hostel. First museum done – the ancient Thai house of the American silk magnate, Jim Thompson. Very serene place just outside the mega hustle/bustle of Siam Square – the main shopping area of Bangkok. Currently sat in a restaurant over the road from the locked-up hostel waiting for meal to arrive and supping a massive chilled Chang beer. Need to be dumping this sack, getting a shower and seeing more of this crazy place. So far today I’ve done planes, trains (under & over) automobiles and klongs – the water buses plying the canals. Was planning to take a momo bike taxi too, but they’re more expensive than a car – and dead dodgy. The riders all look like something out of A Clockwork Orange.

Walked through Lumpini Park. This place is full of people wandering around in the sun, cavorting, sunbathing, kids playing, families on pedaloes that sort of stuff. Just like any other city park but with one exception. The lakes in the middle are full of massive monitor lizards, up to about 7 foot including tail.  And yet they can disappear when chased by astouded photographers (me) into tiny holes in the ground that I hadn’t even seen.  Bizarre.

Sat 17th Mar

Temple overload. Had a good long linger around the Wat (Temple) Po and Wat Arun around the Royal Palace areas. Thet’re all very impressive. the 46m long gold leaf painted Reclining Buddah, has to be seen to be believed. As do the crowds taking pictures of it!  The Wat Arun isnalso a fine example of a Buddist temple – It has the steepest steps I’ve ever seen. It was like watching a climbing team operating, trying to get up there, and as for coming down, scarier still. One girl was practically in tears at having to go down there.

Dinner on the Khao San Road – the backpackers centre which still has a hippy feel about it even though it’s gone (a bit) upmarket in the last 20 yrs.  Cracking curry and rice in there.

Train ticket booked for the overnight sleeper tomorrow to Chiang Mai – calmer and more restful town in the North of the country, that’s the centre of the trekking industry.

Still hoping for my first moped-fiver, but to date my personal best is a four. Mum Dad and two teenage kids (both texting – maybe each other) on a single moped.

Took my life in my hands a bit taking a motorbike taxi across town in the rush hour traffic tonight. Holy Moly! The guy went through gaps I wouldn’t have walked through. Still I had a helmet – not convinced it was a motorbike helmet though. And we only clashed mirrors with the one car 😉  Damn sure I wasn’t gonna be texting anyone !

Sun 18th Mar. Out for an ace Green Thai Curry last night with most of the lads from my hostel room, into Patpong, one of the main red light areas, but just round the corner from ours. Great food and good company. And no, I didn’t.

This morning a late start – the plan was to visit Chatuchat market, the biggest in the country. My God. What they don’t sell?. Amongst a few notables are Tazers, Porcupines, Fake everything (inc iPADS of course) and Squirrels.  Five of the six of us who were out last night made it to the market – the American was still stoned after finding the local weed seller after the rest went to bed. He rolled into his bunk about 8am, wearing just the one shoe.  Think he’s still there now at 5pm – said something about having oregano and formaldehide in the weed 😉 Youth eh?

Sun 18th Mar. 8pm.

Just set off on a 14 hr train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mail in the North. My first experience of a sleeper train – we couldn’t afford these when we Interailed through Europe in those heady days of the eighties. it’s a 4 person sleeper and there’s just me and a young Chinese couple, Shone and Michael, in the carriage. Not knowing whether there was any food on the train – yeah I know I should have checked – I bought a tub of really scrummy butter biscuits to sustain me – I last ate about six hours ago, in what appeared to be a soup kitchen. Now I find there’s a huge menu of proper Thai food being cooked. So butter biscuits are out, and chicken soup,  jasmine rice, fried vegetables, and red Thai beef curry, with fruit and juice is very much in. All delivered to our carriage on real plates and cutlery and I’m paying £4 for the lot. Wow!

OK I take some of that back, cos two of the four fresh fruits appeared to be members of the potato and turnip family, and a third seemed to be a cross between a pear and a conker. Still, I’m counting them as part of my five a day.

Now one of the reasons I went for the sleeper train is cos I didn’t fancy this long journey during the heat of the day. Night would surely be cooler. Yes, but this is just crazy-cold. I’m thinking a bit less air con would be good for everyone. Chinese Mike has already gone to bed (it’s 8:30) with a headache and he’s got all his clothes and a blanket on. I think I’m gonna have to put my longs on too. Shone is up in the Gods on the upper berth, in a sweatshirt – why didn’t I think to bring one of those?

Everybody who comes into the carriage – order taker, ticket man, fruit seller, waiter, bed maker, speaks to me in English, then speaks Thai to Shone & Michael. They understand as much Thai as I do, so get blank looks from everyone when they don’t respond.  They did say that many people started conversations in Chinese with them, in Bangkok, so I asked Shone if they looked typically Chinese. She thought so, and asked if I could see a difference. So did I put foot in mouth when I said something along the lines of, “well you all look the same to me”? Ever the diplomat, me.

Just uploaded the first batch of photos from the camera and discovered the camera’s lost about a days worth, but the last two pics I took today are on there 😦  Noooo!! Gonna have to watch out for that, and try to work out what went wrong. New camera or memory card may be needed asap.

Fourth bed now filled, Soeren, German Engineering student got on at Attuthaya – he recommends the place.

Mon 19 Mar

I lurrrrrve Chiang Mai! After the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, this place, itself a city, is such a calm and cooler oasis of tranquility.  Arrived this morning and Soeren (German student and regular backpacker who was also in our train carriage) tried to get a bed to sleep in the same hotel as our two Chinese friends. Sadly their hotel was way outside our price bracket so we went the one next door, “Sa buy”. 550 Baht (£12) for twin with bathroom and a/c.

Afternoon – did all the temples (well maybe not all – there’s 300 here) so I’ve seen Buddha from every conceivable angle and pose.  Later met up with Shone and Michael for dinner in a restaurant. Shone is a really lovely girl, very articulate and fun but also shy and conservative in some ways. Turns out that Michael and Shone met at primary school and even though they now live hundreds of km apart they’re still travelling together,  as “just good friends”, as Shone was keen to point out.

Went to the recommended live music bar, Sudsanan – the “hippest bar in town” apparrently. The music that the first singer covered was the most melancholy and sombre I’ve ever heard. Not one uplifting song amonst them. Too many beers were drunk, by us and probably by him too.

Top tip – know where you live! Our tuk tuk driver took us to the wrong part of town, cos I’d mis-pronounced the name of the road, and neither of us could remember the name of the hotel. Took us about half an hour for a ten minute trip. Oh it cost more too – possibly another Scam?

Tues Mar 20

Big day – Massage in prison + Bike hire + Horse carriage ride + ancient ruins + night safari + feeding a tiger by hand + Night market.

So we’d heard you could get massaged by the inmates of the Chiang Mai Womens prison – they’re being rehabilitated into society by learning a new skill, before their release. Had to try that one out! An hour of being tweaked, pummelled, sat on, pushed, slapped and twisted into all sorts of positions. At one point I was hoisted like a crab above the masseuse, with limbs and head all hanging down – I think she probably had her knees in my back at the time.  I can’t say I enjoyed the whole thing but really glad to have experienced it. And I did defo feel better afterwards. Having said that, 12 hrs later as I write this, I’m very concious of having less flexibility in my toes than usual. My God what has she done? The girl was tiny but she didn’t half give my muscles a good going over.

Hired some bikes (well I can’t do a FULL week without riding a bike 😉 ) and trogged off to the Wiang Kum Kar, a series of ancient ruined temples and rural village. Drove round them in a horse drawn carriage.

Horrible ride back along main roads – better map needed.

Persuaded a woman in the market to sew up the big hole in my little rucksack – she even did the bits were about to come apart, but hadn’t yet.

Evicted from hotel – we’d had to change rooms so left our gear in a luggage room. Got back at 6 to find the other people hadn’t checked out so we had to go elsewhere. Our hotel owner had found us a place,” Safe House Court” so he took our bags whilst we followed on bikes. Just as good. better located.

Night safari – Bit like a safari park but you get driven around on a motorised train.  New stuff I’ve never seen before – the hippos opening their huge mouths and people trying to throw bananas in, and the giraffes ridiculously long and blue tongue stretching for a banana.

Fed a 1 year old White Tiger which was considerably heavier and probably quite a bit harder than me. It must have been a real pussy cat though cos it was only drinking milk. Still made me nervous. There’s also a pair of three month old white tigers, play fighting which were just the cutest things ever. Even made me go, “aaahhh”.

Night market – pretty good, but no mood for shopping at 1130 after eating. Try again 2mrw.

Wed 21 Mar – Another big hard day ! Well no-one said it was gonna be easy on holiday! Trek & Bike day today. Mixed bunch again, two US pilots and a nurse working in Japan, and an American / Belgian couple, plus Soren.  A two hour trek upwards through the jungle, via another ace temple with some gorgeous golden Buddahs and even more gorgeous Thai dancers, then lunch – Delich noodle soup with pork balls — in the village of one of the several tribal peoples of Northern Thailand. . These villagers were the Hmong pronounced Mong! Their local temple is called the Wat U Mong – no sniggering at the back there please.

Then the real big fun started, a thousand metres of descent on forest trails and some technical single track on the mountain bikes. And hey, I didn’t come off! For those MTBers out there who know me, that is an uncommon thing indeed.  The single track was a bit tamer than Glentress, but hard enough and the forest trails were hard pack dirt, bit like Llandegla but hotter! Got more and more confident and faster as the day went on, only nearly came a cropper once. Stopped by the Lake for a swim (and that was mmmmm refreshing after the hike/bike day, then dinner of Red Thai Curry and several more new fruits – how many are there out there that I don’t know?  So, since I walked biked and swam, can I call this my Thai Tri?

I blame the camerawoman – it was a perfect swallow dive from where I was looking. Lake swimming at the end of the MTB descent.

Yesterday we were travelling on a mini-bus with a Japanese guy and as ever we got chatting about where we’d been / going etc. He asked if Soren and I were father and son. Wasn’t sure whether to be embarassed or to laugh, but I did point out to the Japanese that Soren may have looked older than his age but he’s not old enough to be my dad!

Went shopping for more sun tan cream today. They had only a single tiny bottle, but they did have at least a dozen different whitening skin creams!  Aaaah, so that’s why I keep seeing Thai girls out in the sun who seem not much darker than I am.

Wed 21 Mar

Well that was the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages. Five blindfold teenagers in a single Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) ring trying to knock lumps out of each other. One just kept spinning around at high speed like a human version of a robot wars creation, invariably ended up falling to the ground in a drunken heap. The others just walked around like ham fisted zombies until they bumped into someone, then started punching whatever bit of each other they could find. They all went down quicker than a Portuguese striker which usually meant another zombie tripping over them within seconds. Even the ref got tw—ed at regular intervals. Superb.

That was the “special fight” of an otherwise serious Muay Thai evening. Started with two kids of maybe 11, then older teen fighters, a womans fight – both had very stick-like arms so mainly tried kicking moves. Top of the bill was the local champion versus the huge Henry from Austria who must have been 4 stone heavier and five inches taller than his opponent. Johnny, who we’d been hiking and trekking with earlier that day, had met Henry on the way in, so felt duty bound to bet on his new found best friend. I fancied the local guy who looked a very serious man indeed. He managed to avoid Henry’s big hits and eventually wore him out before clobbering the big fella with a huge right hander – the fight ended right about then. Result – 100 Baht up 😉

Henry the Austrian – he lost but I won!

Onto a bar and met up with a couple of ex-teachers from Gloucester, Ann? & Gary who claimed it was pretty easy to get a Vietnam Visa, and that it is definitely worth visiting. $25 for Visa +$11 booking fee.  Must look into it…  They were notable by claiming 7 months off is not nearly enough for a decent tour. 🙂

Thurs 22 Mar – Elephant Sanctuary – Best day so far! more to follow …

Washing the elephants - huge funWashing the elephants – huge fun!

Thurs 22 Mar

Now that was a hell of a day! Wasn’t sure whether to stay in Chiang Mai a bit longer or go North for trekking.  Soeren decided to visit the elephant sanctuary about an hour North of year – this was the same one recommended to me by Debbie Raby earlier. So I bit the bullet and signed up. What a place! The sanctuary, see

http://www.elephantnaturefoundation.org/go/park provides a safe home to rescued elephants who were previously abused and neglected, usually in the logging industry or used as a tool for street begging, in the case of the infants. It is home to over thirty rescued elephants. Ranging in age from infants to 75 years +, these previously abused and neglected creatures are able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and dignity on the Park’s grounds.

So there’s no riding but many of the elephants can be fed by hand, we joined them in the river to wash them with buckets of water, fun fun fun, and even managed to get a kiss of sorts, from one of the younger ones. It was more of a brief suck if truth be told but I’ve had worse!  It really is an ispiring place, so I picked up further details just in case I want to go back again as a volunteer for a week or so, if I have time. Hearing the tales of how some of the elephants have been treated at the hands of their owners is heartbreaking. Had a tear in my eye once or twice (errrm, “almost”, he adds in a big, deep, gruff, manly, strong voice).

It’s a really impressive setup and is still growing as a result of donations from rich benefactors and a hefty daily charge to visit. Then again, they do get through 2 tons of fruit a day – that’s more even than me at my peak.  Anyone reading who gets a chance, should visit. So glad I went 😀

Fri Mar 24

Easy day. Wandered around town to the Chiang Mai fest – nothing much going on except some nice 3D chalk paintings in one of the Town Squares – The Great and the Good from the province are here in their finery though. Hired a bike, and arranged to visit my first ever couchsurfing meeting tonight.  No idea what that will entail – but that’s half the fun.

What is CouchSurfing? 

http://www.couchsurfing.org/home

Imagine having an interesting friend wherever you go — whether that’s 2,000 miles away, or right in your hometown.

With millions of members in over 230 countries and territories around the world, CouchSurfing is blazing the trail towards a better, friendlier world where people who are different from one another can find their similarities. We are a community, and we are a movement. If you believe that all types of people can share fun, trust, and friendship, then you belong here.

How does CouchSurfing work?

When you join CouchSurfing, you tap into our network of welcoming people worldwide. You can share your hospitality and experience your city through new eyes by offering travelers a place to stay on their journey. You can bypass the typical hotel experience by staying at the home of a local and learning about their culture. You can join cool and interesting people for anything from a bike ride to a party using CouchSurfing Activities. And you can meet up with new people, whether at home or while traveling, for inspiring experiences and new friendships.

I’m tring to really travel light on this trip, so one of the sacrifices I made was to only take the one pair of footwear to start with. So I travelled and have every day used, my comfiest trainers. All well and good til the heel starts coming off the day before I start my 3 day trek! D’Oh.

Still, you can get owt here in Smile-land so I biked over to the market on my girly single-speed basket-equipped steed and after several false leads found the cobbler in the big market. She was lovely. The glue would take a while to dry so she followed my lead and taught me all the Thai numbers. So me with the memory of a sieve and the cultural linguistics of a Lancashire lad went through them over and over.

About ten minutes in I heard giggling, turned round and there’s about six kids / teens in hysterics watching me trying to get my slow brain and thick tongue around 39 (saam sip garw since you didn’t ask). I’ve done this sort of thing a few times before and as I write I can picture Jack, rolling his eyes and drawling, “Daaad” as he gets embarassed for my feeble attempts at learning a few local words. Ain’t gonna stop me trying though ;-).  She also made me write all the numbers from 1 to 60 down, so I’d remember them. And four hours later, I do! Now I can really get those tuttut prices down ;-).

The trainer looks OK now but it could be an interesting few days if I’m wrong. Got my crocs now too, just hope I don’t need ’em.

It doesn’t half go dark quick in the tropics. It was light 10 minutes ago. Doesn’t get cool so quickly though.

Mon 26 Mar

The couchsurfing meeting was OK. I didn’t get a room for the following Monday, but it was pretty interesting to meet up with a bunch of ex-pats, all nationalities except Brits from what I could gather, either living or staying or just passing through Chiang Mai. Walked to a restaurant / bar outside town for a few beers and at about 1am, six of us got a tuktuk back where the the driver dropped  us off at some night club affair where there was no-one over about 22. I didn’t bother!

On Friday morning I’d half planned to go even further North to a trekking village called Pai. I’d been trying to arrange to meet up with a Brazilian couchsurfer up there, but as I’d had no response, I decided on the spur of the moment to do a Sat-Mon trek from Chiang Mai instead. About an hour later I got a response from the Brazilian. D’Oh.  Too late.

So Saturday, set off up North, bought a few provisions on the way and the did the first half-day walk. Crikey it was hot! Wouldn’t have been a particularly onerous walk in the lakes. Maybe four hours tops, and with loads of rest stops, reckon we didn’t ascend more than 400-500m in total. But out of the shade and when climbing, we were leaking like seives. Punctuated the walk with an elephant ride – bit of a moral dilemma for me after visiting the sanctuary last week, but I’m nothing if not a hipocrite! We had a Swiss couple, a pair of US / Soviet Doctors, Laura an Aussie, a young English graddy, Joe and me. The two guides were Bond and CamOn – both all-action heroes combining the best skills of Ray Mears, Jamie Oliver and Tony Hart. During the course of the trek they made seven walking poles, three pairs of chopsticks, three decorated knives, an ashtray, three large drinking cups, a water carrier with stopper, and ashtray, a model bike and a shot glass, all from bamboo, most of which was still alive an hour or so before the carving. Mainly done with a huge machete, but decorated with a smaller (only 10″ blade) knife. We stayed at a Hmong (pronouned Mong) tribal village hut the first night but we were all so knackered after the trekking, big dinner of fried rice, chicken, plus the papaya we’d scrumped en route, then beer and something akin to rough whisky, we were all in bed by 10. Lightweights all.

A fearsome sight.

Trekking TeamThe Trekking Team, Laura, CamOn, Fabienne, Joe, Marco, Sam, morc, Jim, Bond.

My bamboo drinking mug - every picture tells a story

My bamboo drinking mug – every picture tells a story!

Brekky was ace omelettes plus toast and fresh pineapple – my favourite – nom nom nom:-D Then we were on our way again. Sadly an hour later we had to split up as most of the group were on a two day trek with only Laura and I doing the three days. 2nd day we had a couple of very fine waterfall stops. At the first L.  followed the guides lead and showed me up as she ran off and down an increasingly steep cliff edge before leaping about 15ft into the pool below. What with me being scared of heights and a coward to boot, I just manned the video. Scary to watch. Mind you she did have a cracking bruise on her ar$e cheeks after!

Above — me trying to climb the bamboo ladder about 150 ft above to reach the honey from the huge nests – (I got to about 15 feet).

Me packed lunch (egg fried noodles in a banana leaf, and me homemade chopsticks)

More trekking (easier than yesterday) then onto a village camp via another waterfall we could hide behind (peek- a-boo). Stayed in another really basic Lahu tribal hut. It’s a funny old place, there’s dogs, cats, chickens and piglets running around everywhere. Reminds me of the opium dens I’ve seen (in the films ;-)). The hut was open to the mozzies and no nets (left mine in Chiang Mai) so deeted up and slept under a blanket. How loud is a Gecko in the night?  Kin loud I can tell you, even with earplugs, but not as loud as a Cockeral from ten feet at 4 am!

In the main hall of the Lahu village. Proper lino they had an’ all!

3rd day – more trekking – the dogs from the village stayed with us all morning – I think maybe they get fed by the folk at the next village too, followed by some white water rafting on the Mai Teng river, except this being the hot season, following the dry season there was no white water. Just a few pools is all, so mainly an amble and swim down the really shallow river. The best bit was floating right through a group of elephants crossing the river. Think we got a bit close, as we spooked one elly, which turned round v. quickly and spooked me even more. What is it they say? – do something every day that scares you – well that was mine for today.

If my clothes have ever been dirtier, then I can’t remember it, I think the socks I bought last week will have to be sacrificed – Thank Buddah for little old Chinese ladies in little old Chinese laundaries. Just hope it’s ready for 11am tomorrow as I’ve a flight to catch – I think she understood my desperate miming of an aeroplane.

The trainers I’d had glued the day before the trek held together, so that was 20p well spent. Pheeeww.

Just ate my first steak of the trip. Nice as Thai food is, after a week and a half of rice and veggies I just fancied a rib-eye – cheap as chips, and talking of which, my first chips too.

Now back in the same hotel as before the trek but since I’m in there on my own, I skimped on the air con – see how I get on with a fan room only.

Tues 27th Mar – Phuket town, Phuket Island

First hiccup of the trip. Stuck in Chiang Mai airport waiting for my delayed flight South to Phuket (pronounced Poo-get). And this is with Thai International too – which unusually was cheaper than the budget Air Asia for this flight – now I know why.  We did get our free lunch as soon as they announced the delay but they just wheeled out the trolleys containing the airplane food – never seen that before!

Cos of the delay I won’t arrive at my place for the night until after dark – which wouldn’t be so bad if I knew where I was staying. Still can’t decide whether to stay at one of the Northern beach resorts close to the airport (pricey but top class beaches) or go down to Phuket town from where the ferries to the islands (that are my next destination) leave. This is cheaper and will be handy to leave from but can be 30 mins to Phuket’s beaches. I hadn’t actually planned on coming to Phuket at all, as this is the one island I have previously visited. We spent Christmas and New Year here at the end of 2008.

Guess I’ll just call in at tourist info when I get to Phuket airport and make my mind up there. On my own at the moment so maybe I’ll get inspiration from someone at the other end.

Feel like I’ve just about wasted a day on this trip South, as I didn’t do much this am before the flight and won’t have much time again tonight. Still, I can afford it, so won’t get too upset. One thing I want to get out of this trip is to stop getting upset at trivialities – the buddists definitely don’t, and there’s nothing I can do about the delay so I shall stay mellow 🙂  There’s a whole stack of people here for whom one day is a much bigger chunk of their trip, like John and Lynden from Melbourne who’re on their big trip around SE Asia for her 50th. Judging by the pics of there’s I’ve just seen, their 2-3 week trip will cost a whole lot more than my three month one!

Oh Poo. Just tried my debit card to try to get some cash out of an ATM and it tells me the PIN is wrong. I hope that’s a blip cos my debit card is my main source of funds. I do have a pre-loaded cash card but that won’t last long, and my credit card is expensive as a source of cash. I haven’t tried either of these in the ATMs yet either. So far I’ve been living on the Thai Baht I bought in the UK but that’s almost gone.  May need a call to brother Mike. Send Money!!

It was a blip – I got my money out later. Big relief …

Really struggling to find a place to stay for tomorrow on Ko Phi Phi (Island). Nothing left in my price bracket and it’s an expensive place to start with. I may have to just turn up, but I’ve heard tales of people arriving on the early boat and leaving on the later one, cos they couldn’t find an affordable place to stay. This isn’t peak season though so I may be all right.

All in all a really crap day today.  Big delays, then rain (first I’ve seen in Thailand) then my pre-paid hotel is a bit grim and in a seedy district (this is the first time I’ve seen packets of condoms in the bag of goodies  by the mini-bar in my room!) and now not sure I can get a place in my next destination. I knew there would be bad days …  but luckily this is the first.  Tororrow is another day.

Sat 31 Mar – Koh Phi Phi

WOWEEEEE !!!

The fabled Koh Phi Phi island has remained in my conciousness since I’d heard about it when travelling through Malaysia and Indonesia over 20 years ago. So, I guess I had to see what the fuss was about, eh?

Well it starts off as a stereotypical tropical desert island, mountainous, forest covered, all palm trees and white sand. But there’s a twist. It’s also one of the party capitals of Thailand. Every night there’s a huge beach party outside the many bars lying on the main beach. There’s stacks of other activities to keep the punters at each bar, most of which involve fire or drinking, somewhere along the line – limbo, acrobatics, flame throwers, skipping over flaming ropes, plud the banging tunes of course. Apart from the usual beer and cocktails, the main market seems to be for “buckets”. This comprises, well,  a six inch bucket the contents of which can vary but likely to include a quarter bottle of local vodka / whisky, plus the local equivalent of Red Bull (did anyone know Red Bull started in Thailand before a Swiss/ Austrian salesman took it abroad and turned it into a high-end mega brand?. The local stuff still sells here for about 30p a bottle) and coke or lemon. Complete with several straws they’re intended to be for sharing, but that doesn’t usually happen!  On our middle night, it rained pretty damn heavily from about midnight til 1am but I’m not convinced the party slowed down any – just cooled everybody down so they went on for longer. Not much happens here in the morning, you’ll be not surprised to find.

Everything is a lot more expensive here than on the mainland, so our digs are pretty small, and no air-con – fan room only. It’s usually hotter in here than outside. Basic, but suits our needs. Been travelling and sharing here with the gorgeous Jenny from Sweden plus partly with Rav (NZ / Fiji) and Stephan (NZ/Germany) – I met Jenny and Rav on the boat over. We’ve done the ubiquitous boat trip which included a couple of ace snorkelling stops, monkey beach (think theiving and playful monkey troupes – you’ll work it out), a swim stop plus an hour on Maya beach, the spot that was chosen for the film location in “The Beach” with Leonardo deCaprio – coincidentally the book I’m very slowly reading at the mo.  It really is a lovely place, but very busy so hoping to go back there tonight as part of a camping trip. The snorkelling is good here too, plenty of clown fish (think Nemo), parrot fish, pipe fish Blue Dory, plus countless others that I couldn’t possibly identify. I considered diving here too, but I’ll choose to dive from somewhere a bit quieter – maybe Koh Lanta – my next stop.

We also made our own way to another secluded beach. Perhaps 400m long, I think there were less than a dozen people on it, and it had the flattest, warmest sea water it’s ever been my pleasure to sit in. Heaven! Too sandy for any fish, but the crabs on the beach were very amusing to watch. They’re like naughty children, if you’re watching they stand dead still, and as soon as you turn your back, they’re off at an amazing pace!

Like Kirkham, but different

Phi Phi is a pretty hedonistic place too when it gets late – the beach is no place for the prudish after midnight, but in the main it’s primarily the 20-somethings enjoying themselves and each other.  Stephan (and Rav) are here visiting his friend who’s been working here for a while, as one of many staff employed by one of the biggest bars, Slinky’s. Her “work” seems to involve dancing on the tables and encouraging people to enter and stay in this bar, rather than any of the others. It’s almost a nocturnal life, and some of the girls do this for months, seven days a week. After two and a half nights (I bailed at 12:30 last night), I know I couldn’t do that job!

I did think I might stay over as a pole dancer though – there seems to be a gap in the market, and I was OK at my early attempts.   Actually now I think about it, that’s probably why I couldn’t get out of bed next morning with my bad back. Went to the pharmacist, bought some tabs (don’t know what – but she said they were better than Ibuprofren) and after two I was fine – was butterflying in the sea next day – I’m thinking of importing these – what could probably go wrong 😉

potential new career ?

The farang (foreigners) easily outnumber locals on the island – even now in the supposed quiet season. Can’t imagine what it’s like in our winter when the Swedes completely dominate the place. Three days here is about enough for me so I’m moving on to Lanta, similar sort of geography I’m told, but a bit quiter and cheaper.

Watch this space.

Sun Apr 1 – Ko Phi Phi Don, via Ko Phi Phi Leh

When I visited Maya Bay a few days ago, I thought of just how fantastic it would be to have the place to oneself rather than sharing it with the hundreds of day trippers who can be there at any one time. Then I found you could do just that – Yarooooo – so I arranged to go on the overnight camping trip. A single company holds the licence to use the island, there’s no permanent accomodation but there is an open  wooden shack for when it rains. They do a fine job of entertaining their guests. Proper Thai food, plus barbeque and a couple of whisky buckets (see above) as well as fire displays, party games, plus plenty of snorkelling and swimming. Last night’s contingent was primarily English / Scottish plus a sprinkling of Canadian, Columbian (!) and Israeli – I’m told it’s very often much more European. But tonight we’ll take em on the beaches …

It’s a hard knock life – but then it is 7am on a sunday!

It was truly fantasic to get the whole beach to ourselves after about 6pm, when the boats all left. There was stacks of mirth, fun and games helped along by liberal quantities of Thai Whisky, and by Loco Coco, a mad Thai, one of the hosts who put the Brits to shame by playing a mean acoustic guitar and knowing the lyrics of way more Coldplay / Kings of Leon / Oasis / Beatles than we did.

One of the highlights for me was the  plankton phosphorescence. This is a really spooky phenomenon I’ve never come across. Pick up a rock from the seabed and it sparkles and lights up, like tiny diamonds. Agitate the rock – it does it even more. We then discovered that walking in the sea means you can dance like Michael Jackson (before he was dead), upon each step, the floor lights up. Running on the spot – diamond thighs !!! How come I’ve never even heard of this? Just amazing!

Finally crashed out on the beach at about 3, and tried to get up before 6 for the sunrise. However in my drunken state, I set my alarm for 10 to 6 on Wednesday, so missed it – D’Oh! Apparently there wasn’t really a good sunrise so didn’t feel too bad when I found out. More pics of the empty beach (my footsteps alone at the other end of the beach – simple things amuse simple minds) then a big brekky and more ace snorkelling and back. There were a lot of sleepy and hungover folk on the boat back – it was like summat out of the last Pirates of the Caribbean film (and there was a “Black Pearl” moored on the beach a day or two ago, too).

Jeez – That whisky bucket was strong!

I did feel (a bit) sorry for the day trippers who started arriving about 7:30 probably thinking they’d have the place to themselves, only to find two dozen badly dressed drunks scoffing egg  butties and smoking in their kipping bags on the beach! Oh, how we laughed   😀 😀 😀

After doing a bit more research, I’ve decided to restart my diving here on Phi Phi, rather than Lanta, my next destination, so I checked back into the “hotel” I’d checked out of (the price has gone down – maybe we crossed into Low season today?), and booked in for my first 2 dives. Stupendous. It was like I’d never been away, apart from my sh1te control and buoyancy of course ;-). Spotted plenty of clown fish, triggerfish, lion fish, pufferfish and a giant Hawksbill turtle, plus about a hundred different others – no sharks unfortunately though 😦  Must do more diving now and not leave it so long til the next!

My last night on Phi Phi and I won’t be doing the beach party. Jenny has left, Rav and Stephan have been on an all day booze cruise, and I only got 3 hrs kip last night. Couple of pints and a Pad Thai (noodles – bog standard dish in Thailand) and that’ll be me.  Stop Press: Just met up with Stephan and Rav. They’re surprisingly sober though after about 20 mins Rav ran off claiming not to feel well

Jack has been surprised I haven’t lost anything yet. Errrrm ’til now. My crocs didn’t get transferred from the small to the big boat on the way back from our beach camp today, so now I’m the not-very-proud owner of Loco Coco’s sandals. Two weeks and it’s already come down to this – I’m wearing too-big flip-flops handed down from a Thai fire dancer 😦

I think I might be putting on some lard. Did a fair bit of walking around, even trekking when I was up North, but here in the South, I’ve been eating more and doing less. I’ve had four full meals today.  It seems to be called “rice gut” here.

Tues 3 Apr Klong Khong on Ko Lanta, Krabi province

Really missing home today. Mainly ‘cos it’s Jack’s birthday and I’d like to have been there, today of all days.  Counting down the hours now til he’ll be up and I can Skype home and tell him I miss him lots. It’s school holidays so it could be a while, then again it’s his birthday so maybe not.

STOP PRESS – Managed to chat to Jack on Skype – one of his presents is a rucksack which hopefully, he’ll christen when he comes out to join me in June. Whoooo-hooooo!!

After all the hullaballoo and frenetic activity that is Ko Phi Phi, I’ve moved to the next island along, Ko Lanta. This place is so much quieter. Cheaper too. I’m in a double bungalow looking over a coconut glade to the pool. 50m beyond that is the soft white sandy beach and the oh-so-warm ocean. It’s bright, bright sunny but I can hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Same thing happened yesterday afternoon too. Ridiculously loud thunder, then a ten minute light shower then hot and sunny again. In the bar last night, lightning forks all over the show, but no rain. Never yet had both thunder and lightning! Made for a great sunset last night though.

Done nothing at all today so far, other than read and swim (both ocean and pool). Today I was closest to hiring a scooter and touring the island – this is a sizeable one, maybe 15 miles by 3 – but there’s such a high accident rate I probably won’t – driving standards are not the best in Thailand. It’s also subject to a lot of scams where the bike renters claim you scratched, bent, or damaged the bike, and refuse to give you your deposit back. There’s a few petrol stations but mainly people buy their fuel from used whisky bottles just resting on decrepit old tables at the side of the road, if they’re lucky there’s a funnel too.  I can see a James Bond-esque ball of flame happening soon enough here.

Just been watching a a lad maybe 18 years old climbing up the coconut tress, harvesting the coconuts and thinning out the branches. These trees must be 60 foot tall and he’s just scampering up them like a monkey using his bare hands and feet, no ladder, no belt, nothing. I feel queasy just watching! Might have to try it later 🙂  These coconuts are bigger than a football and come down with such a thud, i’m amazed they don’t break – damn sure they’d break me, if one hit me. Who was it got hit by a coconut?

The diving is supposed to be very good fom Lanta, but the best dive sites are a big chunk away so most companies use a speedboat and consequently the dives are very expensive – I may leave it a bit longer for my next dive then. Just met up with Marcus, the lad I was drinking beer with last night. He’s booked on a 3 day package of dives, but some of them are advanced and down tp 30m – deeper than I’m qualified for 😦

There’s supposed to be a really good beach “resort”, Bee-Bees which is what they call a group of huts with a small restaurant, here in Thailand, just 500m further up the beach. It’s really friendly and a bit Robinson Crusoe – so I was thinking of moving there for a day or two. It’s cheaper too, but I’d have to give up the pool – not so good.

5:30 pm.  Now sat in Bee-Bees. I do like it here, but they don’t know yet if they have any space for tomorrow night – depends if anyone moves out in the morning. Came over here to use their wifi and eat their ace green coconut curry. Nom Nom Nom. Might need to stay a while as it’s raining. I don’t mind the walk in the rain but my laptop, ereader and camera might. Excuse for another beer. The dilemma though … Chang or Singha?

What’s this I hear from home? Snow?? What’s going on???

Thurs Apr 5 – Oh No! I do hope the blog isn’t corrupted. The woman behind the bar turned the wifi off just as I was saving an update. To be fair she did ask, but I thought she was asking about the elekky and I’m not using AC so said it was fine. Must learn to listen!   It’s a proper torrential rain storm out there now – easily the heaviest I’ve seen in the trip so far, and the rains aren’t supposed to arrive until late May. Twas dead funny to watch everybody rushing in, except that the communal area is mainly made of thatched roofs and leaked a lot. Even the frogs were coming in to shelter.  Still, it gave a great sense of community – is this what it was like in the blitz?

Noooo!. As I came back to my bungalow tonight, I saw something scurry into a big hole by the windowsill. Hopefully a gecko and not a cockroach – at least the geckos eat the mozzies. But I just heard the gecko chirping and I reckon it’s no more than 1-2 foot from my head, as I sit up writing this – and those things are piggin’ loud – it scared me to death! If it carries on like that, I’m going to have words.

Later on Wednesday I decided to check out of my “posh” place with the pool, and move into the more authentic and basic, but cheaper and atmospheric bungalows at Bee-bees further down the beach. My bungalow now has a double bed, own bathroom with shower,  fan (no air-con) and even a hammock under the porch. It has power to charge my stuff, free wifi (but not working again) and no less than four separate lights. It’s about 50m from the ocean. I’m paying £8pn for the whole thing. Foods good here too, although I had to wait about 30 mins tonight cos “Sorry mister, gas has broke”.  They do great curries ;-D

Today I bit the bullet and hired a scooter today. This is how relaxed this place is… not only did they not want to see my passport or keep a credit card, and not only did they not want to see a driving licence, or ask for a sizeable deposit, they didn’t even want any money up front. They just told me to add it to my own tab at the hut in the middle of the complex. The scooter was pretty easy to work, semi-automatic Yamaha, about 80cc I think, I only had one scary moment when I was braking and accelerating at the same time, and nearly donutted into a large bush. I discovered these things can do 50mph, and will run (almost) forever on a litre of cheap gasoline. Whooo-hoooo. Rode down to the Southern tip of the island, where there’s very little civilisation, life or traffic. There were though a few almost empty beaches and a few small “resorts” where we could refuel (us, not the bikes).I’m hanging around with Marcus, mainly. He’s another German student who’s having a 5 week trip during a gap in his studies. Initially he travelled with cousins where they all got Advanced Diver qualification at Ko Tao. For the next three days he’s diving off Lanta with a friend of his from home who’s a diving instructor just a few miles South of here.  Also spent some time with Michael and Maria, an older Swedish couple who’re staying at the emerald that I’ve just left.

My “lost list” grows. In addition to my crocs left on a boat and my spare camera battery gone missing, I discovered yesterday I couldn’t find my brand new sun tan cream and insect repellent. I found this out just when I started to fry at the southern end of the island, yesterday. It’s really expensive to replace here, too.  Went back to my old digs this morning and someone’s handed it in. Nice one! Top tip two – look after your stuff, Jim.

A crackin’ storm blew up in the early hours – I woke to severe thunder and lightning. Thought my hut was gonna leak or burn – Yikes.  Up early though and it’s super bright and sunny, today for a beach walk and an early swim. Poor visibility in the water here, so only a few fish out. Anh, who works here says it’s cos the tourists eat them all – Touche!  Pineapple pancake and Lassi Yoghurt for brekky. I do like it here.

Lazy day today I think. I’ve started off that way by writing this from my hammock.

Fri 6 Apr – Ko Lanta to Railay

After four days on Lanta, I’m leaving and a little heavy of heart to do so. This has been the hardest place to leave, as the place is so peaceful, calm and friendly. The location is spot on, right on the beach, but it is quite isolated, unless you hire a motorbike. In the four days, I’ve done very little, just swim, snorkel, read, eat, drink, and repeat again. I know there’s plenty of people for whom that is the perfect holiday, but I usually want to do a bit more. I only have about 8 days before my Thai visa expires and I’d like to get to Railay and Ko Lipi before I cross into Malaysia. I seem to have run up a substantial tab, whilst I’ve been here, I think that’s a reflection of how often I’ve had meals, drinks and services without actually paying for them up front.  Although to put this into context, when I say substantial, I mean it was a very long list, maybe 40 items – in fact it came to about £60 for more than two days 🙂

Another crackling lighting storm last night, just had to come out and watch. In just about every case the forks travelled horizontally through the clouds, rather than the vertical strikes we always get at home. This meant they travelled right across the sky for huge distances (maybe 30 degs of arc) before dissipating. Really wish I had a quicker camera to capture the moments, sadly I’ve got loads of identical pictures of jet black.

Finally found some backpackers older than me! A couple of Americans turned up last night, Rico’s a retired scientist, Julie is a writer / documentary maker who’s claim to fame is she was thanked in an Oscar-winner’s speech. They stumbled upon Bee-Bees in Lanta where I’m leaving, and think it’s paradise, so have decided to see out the rest of their trip 9 days here. I can understand that.

I was chatting to Julie about backpacking on my own and how it’s all a bit disappointing (I hesitate to use the word depressing) when I go in different directions from the people I’ve been travelling / hanging with. She came up with the idea that I should write an article on the subject of separation anxiety. I might just do that at some point – see if I can get it published in a backpacker magazine for example. All in the course of my new career as a writer 😉

I spent at least an hour chatting upwards to the Americans whilst they were on their balcony of their wooden bungalow, maybe 6 feet up. Eventually the staff of Bee Bees must have taken pity on me, cos they brought me a ladder and a cushion so I could chat on an even footing.  That would have been great except the ladder lurched forward as soon as I got up there, so only moments from a face scrape on the wooden balcony. Rico is from Vermont, where I’ve skied before and his dad is from Preston.  Talking of a small world, in my last place, the couple in the next door bungalow were from Warrington. I just can’t escape…

Fri 6 Apr – Railay. Now this is a strange place, a heavy mix of rastafarian and climbing cultures. It’s a really stunning and beautiful setting on the edge of a peninsula, with huge vertiginous rock walls all around (hence the climbing) and towering out of the bay are dozens of limestone outcrops, many rising several hundred feet in the air. I can just picture Pete F. and Simon’s reaction if they saw this place – they’d have a field day. It is a climbing mecca with over 4 hundred bolted routes and plenty of top-roping opportunities. I’m not sure I’ll be tempted to do any climbing whilst I’m here but sea kayaking and diving are distinct possibilities. I’m staying in Tonsai, the backpacker district, but it’s very cut off from the main part of town – literally so at high tide, although the ubiquitous long tail boats are available, so long as there’s at least four passengers. There’s a couple of walking routes, but one isn’t available at high tide, and the other is more of a narrow, cliff edge scramble than a walk, and is defo not recommended after beer or nightfall. Guess I’ll stay over this part for tonight then!

Sat 7 Apr – Still in Railay but moved out of the place I was staying at, in Tonsai, as they only have elekky at night (room fan goes off at 6am, and it gets oven-like. Now over the other side of town where the better beaches are accessible at high AND low tide. This morning I did the scramble over the rocks to escape from Tonsai, and I was sweating like a – well I won’t say here – even before 9am. When I did make my escape it took me an hour to wait for a boat – although to be fair given the views and the good company at the boat pier, I was in no rush.

Saw my first in-room gecko this morning, scrambling across my wall. Then it disappeared apparently into thin air – couldn’t see it anywhere. So long as it clears out the mozzies, that’ll do for me!  There’s quite a few of the upright, skipping lizards out here too – they’re always funny to see. Like a love-child of Charlie Chaplin and a young Bonnie Langford (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised, with his reputation).

Just got to the beach this afty and bumped into Lee and Jo, who I’d partied on the beach with, on Phi Phi a week ago. They were about to go sea kayaking so I joined them on a three-manner. Think we bit off a bit more than we could chew by heading for an island that we thought was about a mile or two away. Turned out to be four. Long cold beer and a swim then headed back but went to the wrong beach, so needed another 30 minute diversion on top. It’s fair to say we were pretty damn knackered when we got back. Really enjoyed being out on the kayak though – I’ve been meaning to do some for a while – and only a couple of hairy moments, getting caught in the wakes of the bigger boats. Think I’ve burnt my feet though. D’Oh!

Railay has to be one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been to. It’ll be hard top the likes of the Dolomites and Glen Coe, but it’s up there. No matter what I try to do with the camera, there’s no way I can do it justice. It reminds me of the scenery in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam (not that I’ve been but it was on the Top Gear Special out there). Maybe I’ll need to include a link here instead of my own photos 😉

Mon 9 Apr – Ko Lipe, Southern Thailand

If Railay was truly spectacular with it’s huge Karst limstone rock formations, some a mile round and five hundred feet high, then Ko Lipe (Lee-pay) is the archetypal tropical island. Boomerang-shaped and only about 2 miles by 1 mile, with oh-so-clear blue waters and white sandy beaches. Not exactly unspoilt though, big developers have snapped up big chunks of the best beaches, and prices have rocketed to match. The big place where the speedboat came in this morning is £100-£200pn, still cheap by Western standards, but a tad (!) above my budget. Looks lovely there, mind. My place is more authentic Thai, a very basic bungalow right on the beach, with ants, a whopping spider, another gecko/lizard, no hot water, only one power point, and no windows. However I do have an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean, and within 60 secs of leaving my balcony, I’d snorkelled my first clownfish and angelfish.

Ko Lipe is becoming a pretty rich place on the back of tourism, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an astonishingly beautiful place to be. It was a pretty tortuous journey to get here though, with a 400m walk along the beach at low tide to the longboat, a 4 hour minibus trip (cramped to an extreme), 2 hours in a ferry then another longboat to my digs. Phew! The American lad with the unlikely name of Brendan Sean Jones, in the next seat on the bus was doing a Visa run – from Krabi to the Malaysian border, then back in to Thailand just to enable him to stay another 15 days. Round trip of 11 hours on the minibus – ouch!

In the last 72 hours hours I seem to have spent more time on the water than on land. After my mammoth sea kayak sesh on Saturday, I booked my second pair of dives for yesterday. This was more rudimentary than I’m used to, we didn’t use a proper dive boat, just a long boat (like a big rowing boat but with a ridiculously overloud engine and a prop on a stick). The backwards roll entry into the water will take some getting used to – scraped my leg on the boat first time I tried. The Thai dive master defo knew his stuff but was more interested in trying out his new camera and casing than paying attention to my buddy and I. Luckily there were only two of us, and Naia from Finland was an experienced diver. To his credit our man did find us some StingRay, seahorses, including a pregnant one (aaawwww), and some jet propelled cuttlefish. All good stuff. My longest dive ever too, at 1 hour 7 and returned with 90 bar still in the tank.  Still no sharks 😦

After the dives I had about an hour til I booked onto another boat / snorkel / beach BBQ / sunset / Plankton phosphorescence trip. Just amazing underwater life here, had the fish feeding out my hands, if only I could do the same with the birds 😉 This time I had my snorkel and mask to really appreciate the twinkling sparkles to be seen in the phosphorescence. It’s just the best thing! If it wasn’t for the randomly placed sea urchins in the water outside my bungalow, I think I’d try it again tonight. That’s assuming I can find my way back in the dark – I can get lost in a corridor, me.

In a few days it’s Songkran, Thai New Year, so assuming I haven’t made a break for the border, it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. I do know that in the North they celebrate by soaking everybody using water pistols, bottles, buckets, hoses you name it. Even monks aren’t exempt. The deep south, where I am now, is heavily Muslim, so maybe it’ll be celebrated differently here. As a result of Songkran, this place is a lot busier than it should be this time of year, there’s loads of Thais here holidaying. I was a bit concerned I wouldn’t find anywhere to stay, but it turned out fine – got in at my first choice, the Porn Resort – no honest!  Ironic, as it’s as different from Bangkok or Pattaya as is possible.

Blog 11 Apr Ko Lipi

I’ve been evacuated!  I’m at the Mountain Resort just waiting for something to happen after the tsunami alarms went off.

I was wandering down to the beach dive shop to book my next dives, and I noticed everybody was going the other way. Then a girl told me in Thai and mime that I should go the other way. I didn’t know why,  so carried on. I mentioned this to the dive shop guys and they shrugged and said they’d heard nothing. Sat chatting on the shore for about 15 mins then Dave the dive shop owner came out and said he’d heard on the radio that there’d been an 8.9 quake at Bander Aceh, same place as the one in 2005. His plan was to take to the boats, which seemed reasonable, so I thought I might do that especially since the news was 45 mins old. Then when the alarms finally went off ten minutes later, and the place was all but deserted, my bravery failed me, and I headed for the hills. Perhaps a bit stupidly, I ran back to my bungalow – on the beach but about 10m above sea level, for my phone, passport, cards, money and laptop, then walked the ten mins to mountain resort, probably the highest point of the island. It’s also in the North so protected from any waves from the South. Dave had already said that there was little or no damage on Ko Lipi in the earlier quake, but people are taking no chances. I’m not sure how we’ll know if / when any danger is passed, there’s no news, and I have no internet access.

Now been here about 2 hours, heard a few bits of news from home, reporting there’s no tsunami but still a risk of aftershocks.  Went over to the bar earlier and now sat with a beer on the second floor balcony of a very nice apartment (£80 pn compared to my beach bungalow at £12pn). I don’t know what the Thais who have paid for the place think about the fifteen Westerners that are hanging about on their balcony, including a five year old aussie asleep in their private hammock!

Got the all clear after about 3 hours, so headed to town for some scran and internet. After thinking I might just crash at the mountain resort, I think I’ll go back to my bungalow, it’s pretty high above the sea level, but if anything does happen, it won’t put up any resistance!

Spent all morning at my own private beach. Got there at ten and no-one else showed up til noon. They had no food at the beach bar, but said they’d get me some. Ten minutes later someone woke me from my slumber and handed me an iphone, telling me someone needed to talk to me. Turned out it was the sister of the guy in the beach bar who owns a restaurant a mile away in town, wanting to know what I wanted for dinner. I told her and 10 minutes later they delivered the ingredients for the pancakes I requested. Cool!  Good snorkelling off the beach again, and I managed to swim to the resorts either side of “my” beach. Both super posh! I probably couldn’t have afforded a beer there even if I had taken money with me.

Finally got my first “fiver” on a scooter, but only four of them were sat on it. The fifth, a kid of maybe 2, was being carried at the side by one of the two women on the bike. I’m still havin’ it though!

Yesterday was A GOOD DAY. Booked a couple of dives and probably the best ever. The most fantastic soft coral but sightings of all sorts of good stuff, inc frogfish (who knew?) sea horses, moray eels and wait for it, a shark! I’m not counting it though, cos, a) it didn’t look like a shark, b) it was hiding under a rock – pah, big wuss and c) i didn’t even know it WAS a shark til after I’d surfaced and someone else told me!  For the record it was a coral cat shark, and it’s a very poor imitation.

Discovered my watch that has previously worked OK at a depth of 17m, fails at 19m. That’ll teach me to go deeper than the 18m to which I’m certificated. Since yesterday afternoon, it’s done nothing but bleep at me continuously. And it don’t tell the time, no more (excuse the grammer – I’m reading “to Kill a Mockingbird” just now). Turns out it’s a UPOS. (Useless Piece of S___.  And it wasn’t cheap – I paid 4 quid for that watch!

Went for dinner on the beach with Cyril and Kathryn, the two Malaysians who were also diving today. Tried three new dishes I hadn’t had before, a big barbecued snapper, tom sun (spicy thick thai soup) and papaya salad. All superb! Got loads of help and advice on how and where to go in Malaysia, and a good insight into Malay culture and life.  Cyril also paid for my meal, under my protest of course, but I hope to return the compliment when I neet them in KL again in a couple of weeks.

If the big bad tsunami wolf comes in the night and blows my house down, then it’s been nice, and I left doing what I enjoyed. Otherwise I’ll be in touch in a day or two. Bye-eee …

Fri Apr 13 – 7:30am

Had a really surreal moment on the beach. I’d gone off to Morgan beach, maybe only 4om long, which was recommended as being almost desolate. Got there about ten, and asked the guy behind the beach bar if I could get som tea and food. He said too early for food but would see what he could do. About half an hour later I got my tea, and after a long snorkle sess, started dozing in the shade. I was awoken from my doze by a guy handing me his iphone telling me someone needed to speak to me. How bizarre!!  How could anyone know I was there? Turns out it was the sister of the guy behind the bar wanting to know what I wanted for dinner! Half an hour later the ingredients for my pancakesarrived arrived and twenty after that I finally got to eat. Not exactly fast food.

My last full day in Thailand. I have to say it’s been a blast but all good things come to an end (especially when 30 day visas are the norm), but the next leg of my journey calls and at least I know I’ll be coming back to Thailand soon.

After the tsunami-that-wasn’t, an awful lot of people left Ko Lipi yesterday, both Thais and Farang, and the word on the street is that many were scared of aftershocks so left for somewhere else. The evidence from the previous incident doesn’t support this as being necessary, but there’s nowt so queer as folk. Consequently the island was really quiet yesterday.

I did another pair of dives, bringing my total this month to eight, thereby tripling my lifetime total within about ten days. Managed to “catch” the elusive frogfish and pipefish. We weren’t helped by being in the same group as the most clumsy, uncontrollable, selfish and bad-mannered diver ever. A Chinese guy who lost his buddy / wife within the first ten minutes, causing the whole group to re-surface. Then he regularly swam away on his own, kicked, sat on and poked at all the coral, all this while his wife was having genuine issues and hence needed to be permanently with the divemaster (my supposed buddy). For the second dive, they ended up in a separate group of just two, and the other three of us went with a non-qualified but very experienced Thai “guide” Tik instead which was so much better. In their second dive, they lost him once more, and needed two further surface stops, cos he kept shooting to the surface. Knob-head. There were another ten or so Chinese on the dive boat, some doing a try-a-dive, some just snorkelling. They were also a nightmare, and had to be kept corralled by three dive-masters \ guides, although to be fair at least three of these Chinese couldn’t swim. Brave ? Stupid? You decide!

Not sure whether I’ll do many more dives in Malaysia, althought everybody tells me Sipadan, off Borneo is amongst the best in the world. It is a chore to get to though, I’d defo have to fly, and it’ll be many more hours on bus / boat too. We’ll see.

Today is Songkran, Thai new Year, and one of the ways that it’s celebrated is by the soaking in water of everybody, so I guess I better protect my camera today. Everything else electronic or vulnerable can stay at home.  I goiing to do a boat / snorkel trip around the local islands today so I’m gonna be wet most of the day anyhow. As I have pretty much every day for two weeks.

Out last night with Jo and Claire, an English couple on the beach who’ve just come into Thailand from Malaysia but will be taking a similar path to me in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I’ll maybe hook up with them again later in the trip.

Sat 14 Apr  7:30 am – Ko Lipe

Well Songkran did involve lots of throwing water but didn’t kick off until the afternoon when I’d been out for a snorkel. I took the precaution of putting my passport in a second plastic bag since the one already surrounding it had split.  This I figured would protect it if I got ambushed by kids with buckets on the way to the boat. What I didn’t count on was then forgetting to remove my money belt until after two long sessions in the water. Big oooops! At least I was still wearing it – could have been worse! Spent the next half a day drying out my passport. Today I leave the country, so I just hope the immigration guys don’t concern themselves too much with the fact that the ink on my Thai visa is pretty much illegible.  Otherwise I could be in big trub later.

Excellent snorkelling by the way – best ever, even from the surface or just a few metres below we managed to spot lionfish, puffers, boxfish, moray eels, trumpetfish, barracuda. Oh and more monkeys too. And the waters off the islands around Lipi are just the clearest, with beautiful white, pink, purple and red soft corals. If only I had an underwater camera … sigh.

Back at the dive shop in the evening it was all getting pretty lively and the shop next door was restocking the beer fridge every time I went in. Stayed a few hours, then into Monkey bar with Tero and Matty, two Finn guys I’d been hanging / diving with.

So, Thailand – Very sorry to leave.  I’ve had great fun and fantastic experiences, the highlights must be the elephant sanctuary, the plankton phosphorescence and the diving and snorkelling in the South, but also loved the temples, the trekking and the people – both Thai and Farang. I really have met some great folk out here. I know I’ll be back in Thailand soon, but if the other destinations on my trip are as good as this, I’ve a treat ahead of me.

Sat 14 Apr Landed at Langkawi, Malaysia.  Met up with Connor and Devon, an Irish / American / Oz couple and piggybacked on their research so now staying at Zachry’s guesthouse, with them. Really good. I have aircon and hot water and real glass windows for the first time in two weeks. And free tea, and cheap beer and internet …

Went to the local mini-mart and they had Cadbury’s Dairy Milk! I just had to! Don’t think I had a single bar of chocolate in the full month in Thailand, and within two hours of landing here, I wavered. Dinner was a beef and curry and a can of pop – total 80p. Wow!!

Malaysia seems even hotter – Oh my God – but also more modern, civilised and Western – mind you that might just be Langkawi, which is a duty free island off the NW coast.  Just been watching the Liverpool and Man City games – the first football games I’ve seen out here.

Also hired a really cool looking bike this afty, lurid green / yellow, deep section wheels and very aero-looking single speed, although on closer inspection it’s got a steel frame and a kickstand. The guy in the shop had to cannibalise a few bikes to get enough parts just for one good one. Just been into town on it but it went dark too quick so came back. Maybe tomorrow, eh?

Mon 16 Apr Langkawi to Penang ferry

Yet again I’m on the water. Spent the last two days on the island of Langkawi – not the “real” Malaysia but a wealthy duty-free island maybe 20 by 20 miles. Very scenic, nonetheless. The place I stayed at Zachry’s was pretty good, but I didn’t sleep too well cos the air con was so cold. First night I ended up in a t-shirt and wrapped up in two fleecy blankets. It’s madness when it’s about 25 degs outside at night.  In the enReally I turned it onto “fan” mode which made it more palatable. I didn’t even want an air con room in the first place but that was all they had left when I arrived. I barely used the hot water either – tepid water is much more comfortable in this climate.  Really Liked the place though, and again, sorry to leave but there are other places that call on my time.

Yesterday I rode my single speed bike to the cable car on the West of the island. Probably only about 15-20 miles each way, including diversions, but it took all day, mainly cos of the heat, and the stops and the fact that a bike with no gears is verrryyy slow on the flat and downhill.  I also had to walk up two of the hills, and those that know me as a cyclist, will know that I don’t do that lightly – grrrrr.  I just couldn’t push the big gear round fast enough to make any progress. On the plus side, even though I walked, I still ended up waiting at the top for Johnny, the English outdoor instructor I’d gone over there with, he was on an MTB.  In my lifetime as a cyclist I’ve had a bird strike, a dog strike and a squirrel strike. Yesterday I reckon I was two seconds from a cheeky monkey-strike!

When we first arrived at the cable car they claimed it was closed due to bad weather, but it was clear blue skies at the top and they were still taking all the people up who’d already bought a ticket – I’m sure they were just trying to limit the queue.  I did try to argue the point, but they were having none of it.  The gondola goes up above 700m, and had great views over the ocean, but only from one directions – behind us was all claggy – Ironically when we got there the second time, when it had re-opened, there really was baddish weather! Also the sky bridge was closed for refurbishment which was very disappointing. This is a long curvy suspension bridge that connects the mountian at the top of the cable car with the next peak along. It seems to be suspended from what looks like a very flimsy, and not vertical thin crane-like construction. Seems to be a very effective or dodgy piece of engineering, depending which way you look at it.

Whilst waiting for the car to re-open we biked and walked up to the “7 wells” and a very impressive waterfall, maybe 40m of drop. Later we discovered that Devon, the American girl staying at our place, almost went over the edge of the falls, after she lost her footing in one of the wells, a series of shallow but very slippery pools, just above the falls. She was saved by her man, Connor grabbing her arm as she slid past him. Scary Mary!

Also in our place was Mick, a 52 year old from Preston, who quit his job to travel until the money runs out. He’s been out seven months so far and expects to be able to keep going for another year, depending where he stays. He’s on much slower time than most others, so for example, he really loved Siam Reap in Cambodia, and stayed there for three months, almost as a member of the family. He was invited to four weddings during his time year.  He also put on weight!

Then there’s an American couple, must be close to / past retirement who are spending 6m in SE Asia, then 6m in S. America.  By contrast there’s a couple of way-aye geordie girls, who have less than two weeks, all in Malaysia, one on holiday from her job in Burma and the other just visiting after never having left Europe before. There’s also the usual collection of 18/21 years olds travelling the same circuit before or just after Uni.  Ecclectic bunch.

Bit of a boat trip this am, including a swim / snorkel (and saw NO fish- boooo!) in a freshwater lake higher up the mountain, a beach stop (just a few tropical fish – not a patch on Thailand), and a stop to watch the feeding of the scores of sea eagles that live in the area. It was fun to watch, but they’re more like seagulls than our own eagles.

Langkawi is so much cleaner and tidier than anywhere I’d been in Thailand. They just seem to take responsibility for things here, whereas in Thailand life is all about fun and casualness above everything and the consequences are incidental. Even the prettiest beaches in Thailand will have bottles, cans and rubbish, unless it’s on a national park or is part of an expensive resort.

Penang where I’m headed is famous above all for it’s food, it’s a heady mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay. Can’t wait. Even so, I’ve been eating pretty well, yesterday I had a barbecued chicken and fried rice from the roadside for brekky, a cracking curry in a posh Indian (nearly £6 inc drinks – yikes) and a Malaysian fried rice with lamb, from the Chinese, late on.  Johnny went out for dinner before the rest of us, to a local restaurant, and claimed to have eaten half a sting ray, with rice, for just £3.50.  After remembering how thrilled I was to spot a couple of these lovely and elusive creatures on an earlier dive, I can’t help thinking that it’s life is just too cheap. Glum 😦

Beer is very cheap here too, from about 40p for a can of 6.4% Chang in the restaurants, although on the best beach resorts it’s selling for nearly 3 squid.

Thurs 19 Apr – Penang

Sort of stuck in the hostel, just now. Well not literally, but it’s torrential rain out there, and I’ve no desire to get me and my stuff p-wet through just now.

There’s a few folk hanging around the hostel, but most people set off earlier before it hammered down, so they’ll be holed up in an eating-house somewhere. My (inevitably German) room-mate had plans to hike up to Penang hill, so if he set off before this started, he’s in for a bad day.  I had a late start due to trying to sort my plans for going over to Sabah on Borneo (flights + accom + diving). Air Asia site was playing very silly games.

Penang is an interesting old town with plenty (200 years or so) of history. It’s really a cosmopolitan place but primarily people of Chinese origin, with a blend of Indian, Malay and Western people here. There’s a whole stack of interesting Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu temples + mosques + even a cathedral just a few doors away. Aaaaarggghhhh – religious building overload !!

Couple of days ago, I went over with Chu, a Malaysian girl from the hostel, to see the “Clan jetties”, this is a series of long piers, sticking out into the water, where the old Chinese families have lived for well over a century. All the houses are off the sides of the pier, and go back about twenty metres, so several generations of the same family, and sometimes several families live in each house. I have to say, I’m not sure I’d fancy living there in a storm, and it defo does whiff a bit, but then so do I, most days. There’s about 6-7 piers, each primarily housing a single clan such as Chew / Lee / Tan / Lim families. I gather they got on quite well but don’t mix too much marriage-wise. Discovered today that one of the old piers has been granted UNESCO world heritage status. Kineck! – I reckon it’ll be granted to Warrington within a few years, at this rate.  Some of the houses also have yards with pigs, chickens etc. Plenty of crabs and foot-long mudskippers on the mud below. Do Chinese eat mud-skipper? I’m betting yes! From my experience in Shanghai, they’ll eat owt.  What a life.

The jetties are a pretty scruffy place to be, so I was fascinated when we saw one of the piers being used as a location for some pre-wedding photos. A couple in full make-up, she in a long bright yellow silk dress, he in a three piece suit with tie! Amazing!! Can’t help thinking there must be nicer places for a posh photo.  T’was nice at sunset though.

Camera played up again so asked Chu to take some pics on my behalf, and dumped them to my PC later. Better camera, better photographer so better pics than mine. I wish the camera would decide whether it’s gonna work or not, it seemed to drain the recently charged battery – this on the same day I bought a new battery to replace the one I lost. I think it’s sulking.

Penang is an excellent place for cheap and very good food. I’ve been over to the red garden food court the last couple of nights, similar to the sort of places you get in shopping malls at home, but with better choice and probably better quality food – given that it’s not run by 19 year old kids. Some odd foibles though – such as one stall refusing point blank to sell me less than 10 satay! Given I’d already ordered a lamb biriyani and some chicken wings, I thought ten was a bit much. I even offered to pay more than half for just five satay, but Oh No!  I kind of think someone should remind the stall-holder that the customer is king.  I’m too tight and principled to buy ten and leave some. I’d just have eaten em all. 😀  Their loss. Another oddity is all the meals are served in small medium and large, and the small ones are sufficient. The large are typically 2.5 to 3 times the price, so I wouldn’t like to carry the bloke who can polish one of them off.

Been staying at the Red Heritage Inn (a hostel) in Chinatown, as recommended by one of the lads in Langkawi. I checked into a 4-bed dorm room, partly cos it’s cheaper, and partly to meet new people. For the first two nights there was no-one else in the room, but given there’s a huge common area downstairs, with free wifi, drinking water, tea and coffee and a massive 50″ LCD TV with 500 film hard drive, there’s no shortage of people to mix with. Best of both worlds. Third day though, I’m sharing with yet another German, half my age. It’s embarassing when all the Germans (and Scandinavians) speak better English than what I does. Still, they weren’t brought up in Lancashire, but it’s a gift and a curse I have to bear 😉  Today I even got corrected by an ancient nut-brown old Malay, for my pronunciation of the word bus. He said to me, in no uncertain terms, “In Malaysia we say ‘bas’, if you say ‘bus’ we can not understand you”. That’s me told!

11:15 pm. I’ve just set off on my first long bus trip, and my first night bus. I wasn’t really looking forward to this as I don’t have a great record of sleeping on buses. However it seemed a better option than an eight hour trip in the day, and well, I wanted to see Malaka, and it’s a long way South.  I’ve been given some Melatonin tablets by Devon, which I’m told are a natural and non-addictive sleeping pill, so I’ll give it a go and see z if zz theyzzz workzzzzzzzzz.

Oh poo, they turned the lights out on the “bas” so I can see either the screen or the keyboard (by tilting the screen) but not both. Best I type carefully.

Anyhow this is a huge coach and there’s only four of us on it, the seats have a huge recline so I may get some kip after all. Let you know tomorrow.  Night then.

Fri 20th Apr 6am – Melaka

Despite the bus setting off at least half an hour late, and what felt like an impossibly slow journey and roads, and, for a new bas, a ridicuously creaky and squeaky ride, we seem to have arrived over an hour early.  So 5:25am at the bas-station out of town. I’ve persuaded the taxi driver to drop me off at my preferred hostel (not booked in advance) and only charging me one arm and one leg – the officially-thieving cabbies all wanted two of each initially. Arrived safely in the slowest cab ever – if he got above 30kph I didn’t see it and he was on the verge of stalling it most of the way here (the driver remembers Malaysia pre-war, so must be eighty if he’s a day).  He looks like summat out of “It ain’t half hot, mum”

Guess what? The hostel is still closed. So I’m now having breakfast and will try again in half an hour. Failing that there’s another hostel a few doors away, but they have a minimum two night stay, and I may head for KL tomorrow night.

At least this gives me a chance of a sunrise – albeit not exactly scenic – first one I’ll have seen in 5 weeks. It’s still really hot and humid even before sunrise, and it’s not helping that I’ve got long keks and shirt – a necessary evil on an air-con bas.

Oh, and I did sleep a fair chunk of the bas journey so maybe the Melatonin tabs worked some. May have to buy some and do a longer controlled trial.

Sat Apr 21 – Bus between Melaka and Kuala Lumpur.

Had a great two days in Melaka town. It’s a real contrasting place. There’s the UNESCO protected old town with it’s huge Chinatown heart, and with a very long history of invasion, first by the arabs then the Portuguese domination, who subsequently lost it to the Dutch. They then swapped it with the British, who ran the place until independence in 1957. Now the invasion is primarily tourists, most of them Malaysian, but plenty of foreigners too. So there’s buildings with architecture from all of these nations/eras, and the Malaysians are really proud of it.  Within 200m on one road, there’s several Chinese temples, plus a mosque and a Hindi temple, and just around the corner, a Christian church and a Sikh temple. Integrated country? Hmmm maybe.  Interestingly, we hadn’t been in the Sikh temple more than a couple of minutes and two people asked us if we needed feeding. Now I know I’m slim and all, but there’s no need for that!  Worth remembering next time I can’t find a bank though!

It’s obvious that a lot of investment has gone into the city to make it a really pleasant and good place to live or visit. There’s a whole stack of modern houses and the town has a lovely modernised and sanitised river with boats cruising along day and night. For about 2km, every building along the river has been artistically painted with scenes from local culture, art or history. It must have taken a team of painters ages to finish that lot. Oh, and not a jot of grafitti.  There’s also loads of eating places along the river, although they don’t half close early. The riverside was deserted by about 10pm, even though the boats were still a-plenty with (mainly Malaysian) tourists. There’s also a high rise revolving tower, a small funfair, oh and some massive monitor lizards in the river – always good as a tourist attraction in my book.

We were lucky to be there on market night too. Jonkers Street, a very narrow but heavily trafficked road in Chinatown during the day, comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when it’s pedestrianised and the whole road, maybe has densely packed stalls and people on both sides. We’d planned to go for dinner, but w1000m long alked through the market first, and by the time we got to the other end, we’d eaten a load of dried fruit – none that I could recognise but most of which was pretty tarty, a coconut / chocolate jelly lollipop thingy (not great), half a dozen dim sum, (pork and fish in various coatings / sauces – again I wanted less, but they would only sell six of ’em), and a sort of caramalised and iced fruit kebab, with stawberries, grapes and cherry tomatoes (very good).  Suffice to say when we finally ordered dinnernmy eyes were bigger than my belly, and I ended by leaving half my very tasty curry. D’Oh !

In the last few days, we’ve had a fair chunk of rain at various times of day, but yesterday it was scorchio all day. Back to the high factor sunblock, and my nose has still gone red. Partly cos of the heat, and partly due the night bus and an early start, I needed my first siesta of the trip. Had to get the guest house (house of Kititto, Japanese-run) owner to wake me in time to go out again – his English is only marginally better than my Japanese, so I was glad when he did. Last night was also the first I’ve slept through without needing to cover myself due to – soooo hot.  Perhaps because we’re only 2 degrees above the equator.  Melaka will be my Southernmost destination.

Spent most of the two days in Melaka with Eglantine, a French girl, who’s on holiday in Malaysia on her own for a couple of weeks. Her English is a fair bit better than my French, but they both came on a bit over the two days. As I left for KL, where she’d just arrived from, she’s gone over to the E coast and then to Tioman Island, for some beach-time.

I noticed the Malaysians do stare at her a lot, maybe because she has such unusual hair, for Asia. She’s partly of African extract – although paler than I am – and has ringlets. One policeman came up and told her he really liked her hair. Also, a bit weird, whenever she went off to the loo for example, people (usually, but not exclusively men) would ask me if it was my wife / girlfriend / daughter. And they’d carry on when she came back! They’re so nosy – one guy just said, “How old are you ?” to me …  and likewise to Eglantine. And then tried to quiz us about our relationship. Similar thing happened in Thailand when I was travelling with a Swede.

Whilst waiting for our respective buses, we spent an hour or so in the sun in the kid’s playground next the bus station, teaching each other Malaysian from her French guide book. For some reason I haven’t understood, it includes the phrase “Ticki Ticki, Lama Lama, Jadi Bukit La”, which translated as “little by little, the birdy bird builds the nest” (I think).  We both promised we’d memorise it and use it as soon as we could.

Later, I went to buy my ticket, and it seemed such a convoluted affair, depending on where in KL you want to arrive (I had no idea), which bus company you want to take  (don’t care), and when you want to travel. So after a minute or two of exasperation, and prompting from Eglantine, I grinned at the woman selling the tickets and hit her with my new found phrase.  Before I’d even finished, all three women behind the counter were in hysterics, and one nearly fell back off her chair!!  Either I’d got it wrong (again) or the book was lying a bit, I’ll never know, but it defo lightened the moment 🙂 Gonna have to try that one again though!

I seem to be passing the most massive pineapple plantation on the way to KL It’s been going for miles – do people eat that many pineapples?  OK, I know I do, but then I’m rather special – I mean other people.

Hopefully going to meet up with some of the people from Langkawi in KL, I hear a few of them will be staying at the Explorers Guest house, so that’ll be my first point of call tonight. Just hope I’m not held to ransom by the taxi highwaymen again. (It’s a principle, not a money thing – honest). Don’t fancy walking around the poorest parts of KL with all my stuff, after dark.

Sun Apr 22 Kuala Lumpur

I’m Stuffed.

Spent all of Sunday with Cyril and Kathryn, the Malaysian couple I’d met when diving in Thailand a couple of weeks ago. They’re both real foodies, so we spent a big chunk of today visiting some of their favourote restaurants. When I say restaurants, these were all local, open air food courts or small family run restaurants, hardly a glass-plated window or leather clad menu in sight. I made the mistake of hving brekky before I was picked up. Problem was, we went to the first restaurant straight after. This was a small place, nothing much to look at, that has been run for 3 generations of the same family. There was a 15 minute queue for a table even at 10:30. Great food though. Over the course of the day, I had:

Breakfast:

Toast from really thick bread, and egg jam

A chicken chop, really tender with breaded coating – dee-lish!

Pork roll containing three concentric circles of different coloured pork

Then later I tried:

Rojak – Mixed fruit and veg with a somehow sweet prawn sauce

A huge fruit salad with mango sauce over shaved ice

About 5-ish I tried an ABC (Air Batu Compar) which was another massive fruit salad containing jellies, sweets, corn and nuts, again over ice

And then dinner. Boy o boy. Four courses this time,

Steamed Spring rolls

Grilled (to perfection) Sting Ray

Black noodles with beef and mushrooms

Flat noodles with veg and seafood, in “gravy”

Not a single of today’s food had I already tried on this trio. Woweeeee!

So I could barely move afterwards …

In between these gastonomic delights, we also managed to get to a few places of real interest in and out of KL.

First stop was the Batu Caves, and amazing sight.  All the cave system comprises a massive Hindi temple. During the main festivals, hundreds of thousands of Hindis descend on the place and turn it into a seething mass. This is where they go though various trials of sacrifice such as climbing stairs under heavy weights or dragging stuff using hooks in their skin, and other self-mutilation practices!  Rather them than me, ta. There was plenty of religious activity going on which seemed to involve many shaved heads and yellow powder – always seemed to be men-only.  Unusually for a cave system, we had to climb up about 300 stairs to get there. No mean feat when it’s 30-odd degrees and humid as the equator is. Course, I was OK!

Later we went up to the viewing platform at the KL tower, a 400m high spike in the centre of KL. The lift took less than a minute and the views were, as you would expect, pretty dramatic. I’ve never been anywhere that has so many skyscrapers, all the 20-odd floor hotels, offices and apartment blocks were just dwarfed by where we were though. Even the KL tower has been usurped though by the twin Petronus towers, once the highest buildings in the world. That really did look impresiive, especially later when it was sparkling with the low sun. Interestingly we could see the new kings palace, which was a real shock to Cyril and Kathryn as they didn’t know there was a new king’s palace, and they’re pretty well-informed people on most issues.

Also called in at the Malaysian National Velodrome (we were almost passing – honest) as I fancied giving that a go later, when I get back here, but it looks like it hasn’t been used for a few weeks, so maybe it’s closed season. We did walk straight in to the track though. There is a big cycling community here in Malaysia, unlike in other parts of the region – some nice bikes about! They also have a good record in international track cycling, and host a high-profile bike race every year, the Tour of Langkawi.

Last stop was the biggest Taoist temple in KL, which as you’d expect was also pretty impressive. Mind you it was relatively new. A great display of the twelve chinese animals and their characteristics – I knew I was born in the year of the dragon, but I didn’t know that made me …

Lucky, Strong, Successful, Passionate, Serious, Stable, Creative, Sociable, Proficient, Open-minded and Highly Intelligent.  I wish!  I’d settle for half of those.

Three nights in KL, at the Explorers guesthouse. Got lucky again. Despite my friends booking several days in advance, and me turning up on spec at 8:30 on Saturday night, they ended up as part of a nine in a 10-bedded room. I managed to have a 4 bed room to myself again, at least for the first two nights. Apparently mine was a v. risky strategy as this hostel is nearly always full, due to favourable reviews in various hostel booking sites. Day 3 I have to move in with the others though.

An hour or so after I arrived there was a massive fireworks display kicking off – I knew I shouldn’t have given my real passport number at the hotel. Summat to do with the President being in town about 5 mins walk from here. If it wasn’t for those pesky skyscrapers we’d have seen more fireworks than we did.

Tues 24 Apr, Semporna, Sabah state, Borneo.

Sat in the cab on transfer between Tawau airport and Semporna where I’m spending the night. This is a village on the far, far end of Sabah, which is one of the two states on Borneo that became part of Malaysia when they obtained independence. Whilst I’ve travelled to both Malaysia and Thailand before, Borneo, I definitely haven’t. I’m kind of thinking I should have booked a longer stay here, as I want to do a few days diving as well as visit the orang-utan sanctuary too. I may have to rethink the vague plans I have.

I’m getting a bit nervous as this taxi driver seems to want to spend all his time on the wrong side of the road, and not just to overtake either. It’s as if he thinks the road quality may be better on the right.  Maybe it is! I did mention it to him but not sure he understood my concerns.

After my food fest of Sunday, the last two days in KL have been much more sedate. Did a very dry historical tour of KL yesterday, which was akin to doing a history tour of Milton Keynes. It’s quite a new city so the oldest this and most ancient that only goes back to the late 1800’s.  Still the tea stop was pretty entertaining with the tea man doing his tea-pouring in a Tom Cruise cocktail style. Mind you he had a fair few burn scars on his hands, soft get!

Later went into town with Devon and Conor first for some food (couldn’t have any Chinese food as the chef was on a 2 and half hour break – I ask you!) and then into the KLCC (the mega-shopping area around and inside the twin petronus towers). Now I know I’m not much of a shopper (understatement alert) but the brands here were household names even in my house – Chanel, Boss, Armani, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Mont Blanc, Harley Davidson. I bought one coffee ;-).  Devon went to get her hair “fixed” after the $2 cut from a student in Penang turned out to be not such a bargain – seemed fine to me and Conor, but girls are, well, girls.  So she went to one of the best salons in KL and for less than £20, came out delighted with the result. Whilst she was in there, Conor and I went outside to take pictures of the twin towers as the sun rapidly set. About three gazillion pics between us I’d say. And everybody else was doing the same. I can’t blame them. It is a stupendous building. I’d be proud of that, too! The security man made one guy sit up, as lying down in front of the building was apparently disrespectful!

Later went out for an Indian, and again they only had a few items left as it was 9:45 – we weren’t very organised at all. Ended up with three banana leaf meals, which comprised rice with chilli and considerable portions of about five different veggies. The only thing missing was the banana leaf – although the meal was served on a huge metal plate in the shape of a leaf. A good pounds worth, so it was. It was remarkably difficult to get any sense out of the hardly-English speaking waiter – he kept doing that Indian shaky-head thing, which I just don’t get. Is it yes or no?

Turned out that when I got evicted from my own room the night before, cos 4 people had apparently booked it, they moved an Aussie in there on his own, the same as I’d been for the previous two nights. Turned out Scottish Alan who’s also with us, had the same happen to him last week. No idea what’s going on. I think it’s a vote fudger, as this hostel has won best hostel award in Malaysia twice. So last night I got a crap nights sleep, maybe cos of the late coffee, not helped by some snoring and various comings and goings in the night. Didn’t get up til half ten, then wandered into town again with a few of the others before making my way to the airport . Air Asia seem to have their own terminal for KL, but it’s a sodding long way out.

PS –  if i die in this cab I hope this PC survives. He’s a bit nuts is Ali the driver. We just been off-road I think, but he said it was water on the road – sounded like gravel to me! And he doesn’t half use full beam a lot. And he keeps trying to punch an imaginary wasp. Kinell!! What a way to go.

Been trying to get a couch again for when I get back to KL, bt no success yet. Devon and Conor seem to have got a right cushy number lined up for Singapore, with their own spare bedroom and pool next door in a city centre location. I’d settle for floor space in a flat!

Just had yet another language lesson on the plane over here. It finally dawned on me that at least half the people I’m using my very basic Bahasa Malaysian on, are Chinese, so dont recognise or acknowledge it, So now I know the basics of Chinese (Manadarin) too.

The teacher was errrm a teacher, and a lovely girl too.She’s offered to give me further lessons if I contact her by email. Whit woo!

So it’s getting on for 11pm, I’m nowhere near my bed for the night, I didn’t sleep much last night, and I have to be at the dive shop  offices in town (wherever that is) at 7:30am. I don’t have an alarm clock and my phone is nearly flat. Oh and I think I’m in a dorm tonight. Maybe I won’t be diving tomorrow after all. Oh the fun of solo travel :-))

Oh no – the cabbie just took a call. I’m defo gonna die tonight :-((  Actually I might have to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think there is an imaginary wasp in here.  I’m in a tiny little Malaysian Perdua car and I just noticed the speedo goes up to 180kph, and the tacho to 10000rpm. Yeah right!

Where was I? Oh yeah, well I left some good people in KL, most of them are going in a different directon to me, but I may meet up with Mick, somewhere on route, and with Kathryn & Cyril when I fly back into KL.

Arriving in Semporna – talk later …

Sat 28th Apr Pulau Mabul (Island)

I came out to Sabah on Borneo to see if I could dive at the world-famous Sipadan. Even though I knew that to assure a day’s diving there I would need to book 4-6 weeks in advance – there’s a limited number of permits each day on the island. I’ve had my name on the waiting list but places rarely become available. However, the diving off other islands in the vicinity is pretty spectacular too. Had my first day here on Wedsnesday and loved it. Plenty of life with huge turtles everywhere plus octopus, cuttlefish, massive grouper (one was about 2.5 m long and nearly a metre across – scrareeeeee). Since I’d booked in for at least three days of diving, I decided to spend the last two days getting myself further qualifications. It’s relatively inexpensive here, especially when offset against the two days I’d already booked, the diving is fantastic, and it’s very quiet so I got myself one to one tuition for most of my qualification dives, and with the lovely and angelic Monica as my instructor.

So assuming she is happy with my knowledge review (tests), I become an advanced open-water diver today – I’ve never been an advanced anything before! Part of my qualification included a night dive – pretty spooky, and a deep dive to 30m – I’d only been “allowed” to go to 18m previously. Also borrowed a camera for the underwater course – not looked at the pics yet but I’m not expecting much quality – should have some swimming turtles though.

Good company here too, met a whole bunch of good people from all over, and the lifestyle seems pretty laid back. Doing so much diving was defo not part of my plan for this trip, so my budget has shot up a bit, but hey, I’m only gonna do this thing once – probably 😉

It’s a strange island this. I’m on a sort of budget dive centre – it’s fine and good standards, but the one next door charges 3-4 times as much for accom and half as much again for the dives. The food is allegedly better there, but I can hardly justify that. Suspect I’d enjoy it more here than there if truth be told. There’s only a handful of true Malaysian citizens on the island, however there are 2000-3000 people here excluding Westerners. Most are either displaced Malaysians such as sea gypsies,or refugees / immigrants from the Phillipines who cant get citizenship. So they live in a no-mans-land, and exist by selling fish, shells and mobile top-up cards apparrently ! There are a few Western volunteers helping teach them language and skills to make crafts for sale, but I really don’t know how they survive

Bedbugs   Aaaaarrrggghhhhh! Got back from my first dive at 11am on Thursday, went into my dorm to find it had been cleaned. No ordinary clean this though. Not just the sheets, but the mattresses, the rug and the curtains too. All my stuff was just piled up in a corner of the room, and that included my money belt “hidden” in my pillow case. “Bit odd”, I thought, cos I’m kid of perceptive me. Turns out that Todd, one of the two others in my 4 bed dorm had introduced begbugs into the room. He did the right thing by informing the staff, and they took pretty decisive action – searched all the mattresses, found bedbugs in his so burned it, found none in the other beds, so left those out in the sun for several hours – bedbugs don’t like that. Laurel, the other girl in the dorm took it badly and blamed Todd, Not sure there was much he could have done about it.  Stayed bite-free for three days so thought thats the end of it …

Thurs 3 May – On bus between Kinabatangan & Kota Kinabalu (KK)

Not a lot of wifi on Mabul and in the jungle, and also been very busy enjoying myself – of course – so I got behind on the blog a bit. So what’s happened?

Well, on what was supposed to be my last full day on Sabah, (the North-Eastern portion of Borneo and now part of Malaysia – do keep up) I’d checked out of the resort, but was doing one last day of diving, before going to the mainland that night, and flying back to KL, the Malaysian capital next day. Thereafter my plan ended.

On the jetty, and just about to get on the dive boat, the resort manager sidled up to me and asked if I was still interested in going to Sipidan, the next day.  Realising i’d have to rebook a flight, and check in  to the resort again, it took me about 5 seconds to say a very big “YES!”. After all, diving off Sipadan was the main reason I’d come over to Borneo in the first place. Sipadan is regularly included in informed lists of the best diving sites in the world.  I’d given up hope, cos I was only 3rd on the waiting list , and with only seven places available each day, the chance of three people cancelling in the next day was pretty slim. Turns out a single party of four people all missed their flight! Gutted for them – NOT.

I’d been told to keep it quiet but it was a impossible cos they put the names on a board anyway, and everyone I was pally with knew I’d checked out and was leaving. So I had a big cheesy grin on my face all day – even uderwater!

I had very high expectations of Sipadan, but it was better than that.  It’s next to a deep channel of cold water currents and attracts all kinds of small stuff, which attracts bigger and bigger stuff, until eventually it attracts all the humans too! It’s also a “cleaning station” for all kinds of large fish, where they get tended by shrimps and the like.  This was going to be my best chance of seeing the elusive shark or two.

The dive companies charge a fortune to dive there, partly because the Malaysian government charges for a daily permit to it’s marine park, but primarily cos of a supply and demand issue.  Even if you can get a permit they’ll only sell it as part of a three day or more package. My dive centre, Scuba Junkies is one of the cheaper ones, but they have a reputation as being amongst the best and they’re the only company that does four dives in their day on the island, the first at about 7am.

Early morning start for Sipadan – Chris the cat doing her stuff behind.Early morning start for Sipadan. Chris the cat doing her stuff behind

Sipadan island, between dives ..

Looks like I’ve seen a huge shark! Chance would be a fine thing.

Back at the surface – all “Advanced” dives completed

So I’m floating in the water ready to descend for the first time and my buddy tells me to look down. I peer below and five metres below my feet, there’s the first shark of my trip, I haven’t even breached the surface yet!

Over the course of the day, I probably saw over 50 sharks – some were white tips usually lying on the bottom – they’d let you approach to within 2-3m before swimming away. The remainder were grey sharks, bigger and always moving. More difficult to approach these, but they’d often get to within 5-10m of us.

We were almost getting blase at the sheer number of large stuff we saw including the huge green turtles and the 2.5m long yellow-fin barracuda, with really fearsome looking teeth. Then there was the massive school of chevron barracuda, hundreds of them all swimming in a huge impenetrable mass of silver. Towards the end of the day, we also found ourselves as part of an immense school of thousands of big-eyed trevally – or jackfish, each about 0.5m long. They approached us from behind and we just ended up surrounded by them. After they passed they did a U-turn and again we just sort of swam right through them – which took a few minutes. Most of my group of six had a camera including one $4,000 one, so I’m hoping to get copies of some of the bestvpics and vids, at some point, That really will be good to review.

Another highlight was swimming right out into “the blue”, i.e. into the ocean away from the , wait for it, 2000m deep, wall where all the reef fish are. We were hoping to catch a manta ray or two, but saw absolutelyu nothing. And that’s the spooky part. After a few minutes of seeing absolutely nothing, it does funny things to your eyes and mind. There’s nothing to focus on, and it’s really easy to get disorientated.

We also did a cave dive and the view coming out was awesome – just like looking out into an aquarium.  All in all, an awesome day, a real high point of the trip, and I’ll treasure the memories …

So since I’d sacked off my return flight to KL, I was now free to either re-book it or see a bit more of Borneo, and go back to the mainland later. So after hearing Todd telling us about his jungle adventures, Laura and I decided to do something similar. Laura is a 24 year old English paramedic, who I’d initially met in KL, and discovered she was also going to Mabul / Sipidan. In her case it was to meet her friend who works as a divemaster there, and to learn to dive herself. Inevitably we met again on the island and decided to spend a few days doing some walking and wildlife spotting in the deep jungle, after we’d had our fill of diving and completed Sipadan.

I had to leave the island a day before Laura as the place was full up, so I arranged a day of diving on the mainland, and two nights in the same dorm as I’d stayed before. It was really noisy and so hot, especially when the electricity failed at about 3am and the air con stopped. It was a big blackout affecting most of the coast, and didn’t come back on til 9:30 that night – a huge cheer went up, when it did.

The two days in the jungle didnt start off very promisingly. It lashed down about half an hour before we got there, and we got pi$$ed on being ferried from the village to the lodge, so our “river-cruise”, a wildlife spotting trip was delayed. Got a bit wet too, during the cruise, so wasn’t pretty, but we did spot different kinds of monkeys including my Romanesque brethren, the proboscis monkeys and loads of hornbill. On the two night walks we did, we didn’t see any massive stuff but we did come across a few brightly coloured sleeping birds, such as kingfishers. Most of them won’t fly at night, so you can get great close-ups. Can’t do much for their eyesight though, having twenty bright flashes going off in their little face!  Also did a jungle trek in the day (couple of hours through mud, swamp and low-lying water) and most of us got leeched at one point or another. I had one on my 2″ of visible leg which I managed to get off before it attached properly. About half an hour after the walk, and after I’d had a shower, I took my rucksack in the sun for a bug-check, and one of the guides told me I had a leech under my arm. It was fatter and redder than I was. These things start off about as thick as a biro refill but my one was as thick as the whole pen. After taking a few photos, we DEETed it and it fell off, leaving a big splodge of MY blood on the ground. Because they inject the host with an anti- coagullant to stop blood from clotting, it didn’t stop bleeding for about an hour. And it’s left three wounds (dunno why three) on my armpit, including a lovely round one with what looks like teethmarks around it. Nice!

The evening river cruise was successful in that we got to see some wild orang-utan, the sight most of us wanted to see most, although the herd of local pygmy elephants would have been ace too. The guide reckoned that most two days tours don’t see the Orang utans – they really are the most magnificent creatures. I just wish my camera could have done them justice – but more about that later.

Why we came to the jungle

Nice pose

Kingfisher by night – such colours

My new pet – I called him Bleach the Leech cos he got rid of all my toxins

Last night, our second and last at the lodge I could hear a constant noise in the roof of the hut that Laura and I were sharing. I assumed it was rain. At about half three and still dozing I heard a noise like something falling at the bottom of my bed. Shone my light to see something that looked like a rat, legging it under my bed. At this point Laura woke up and asked what was going on. I told her it was a biog gecko and she went back to sleep. I find that a bit more difficult especially after I heard and saw several other rats in the next few hours. I realised I had a cereal bar on the shelf next to my bed, so when I went to check, half of it had gone. Decided to sacrifice the rest of it, and got up to chuck it in our bathroom. In there was another huge rat with it’s nose in Laura’s tolietry bag – scared the sh1t out of me as much as I did it.  To be fair, by dawn I’d given up worrying about the rats and went back to sleep, although it’s hard when you can feel the sheets moving, or summat touching the bed. I came clean to Laura in the morning and she said she’d wondered why I was being so wussy about a gecko. I think she appreciated not being told about it at the time though.  I’m kind of glad I ate or threw most of the bits of snacks I’ve had about my baggage in the last week or so, and that I emptied my rucksack of the cereal bar. I suspect the rats might have eaten through my sack to get at it – bear in mind the bar was sealed in a foil packet – they must have a bloody good sense of smell.

With Laura on the jungle cruise

We’ve also managed to spot big monitors, millipedes that roll up into a ball the size, colour and hadness of a conker, little (thank God) snakes, a spider that looked like a scorpion on our bog seat, a grasshopper nearly as big as my hand, a grossly oversized wasp, and a big green snot-bug of unidentifiable provenance. What we didn’t see were the elephants and the salt water and freshwater crocs that both live in the river.

Bad news – Left my camera on a bus this morning. There’s still a small chance I’ll get it back, as someone else on the same bus is also going to KK tonight. She’s flying to KK though. If she sees it, recognises it as mine, I should get it back. I’ll have lost all the photos from the jungle trek in the last two days, although I have got copies from one of the other lads who was there – he’s on my bus now. The downside is he hasn’t got all the same pics, including those of my pet, Bleach the leech.

More bad news – The police got on my bus earlier and checked the passports of all the non-Malays. Mine has been in two sealed plastic bags since its dunking last month, and I haven’t looked at it for well over a week. It’s now covered in mould spots on every page. Think I’ll need to do something about that, like maybe dry and clean it regularly. It’s still damp and soggy after all that time. It’s not easy though when you’re living in a dorm or in a hut in a rain forest.

Anyway tonight is the city. I’ve barely seen a car, let alone a city in the last week and a half. Wonder what delights KK has to offer…  Tonight maybe a couchsurfing meeting (see Chiang Mai in late March for details).

Fri 4 May – Kota Kinabalu. So after I got back to my digs last night, I logged on and found an email from Anna, the Polish girl on my first bus, who ws flying to KK whilst the rest of us went there via a long bus ride – in fact she arrived an hour before we did. The news was what I’d hoped for – she’d found my camera and had it in her possession. A stroke of luck that we’d swapped e-addresses almost as an afterthought when we parted. Great result, and I really owe her one there.

I arranged to meet up at a couch-surfing meeting in a local pub, with Anna, Koki from Japan and Charles from Hong Kong. About twenty turned up, including Jools one of the moderators and Fez, a local guy, wise beyond his years and a recent convert to couchsurfing who was keen to host more surfers, so he invited all four of us to stay at his place for a while. We were all booked into our separate hostels so couldn’t do that night, and each of the others had their own reason for not staying the next night either. Just me then. So I’ve checked out of my hostel and I’m now at Fez’s place. Earlier we met up with a couple of his other friends, an English and an Aussie teacher drinking on the beach bar after work – theirs not mine – I don’t have any work 😉   Tom the Aussie is hosting a barbie tomorrow which I’m supposed to be going to.

KK is not the most engaging city to visit. There’s no real old history here, but then that’s partly Britain’s fault as it was heavily bombed by the Allies during WWII to keep the occupying Japanese out – only three buildings in town survive from before that time. Most of the town is built on reclaimed land – I saw some pictures from before the war and the sea is incredibly close to buildings that are now far off the coast. The hostel I stayed is near Beach Street, but it’s about a km from the sea now. I think they had the Dutch in to help them.

Having said that, people who live here tell me it’s a fine place to live, and I guess that counts for more. It’s modern, clean, cheap by Western standards, probably not so for Malaysia as lots of stuff has to be shipped in from the mainland (I say mainland, this is Borneo, an island four times the size of Britain), has good beaches nearby, and a good air transport network. I’ve dediced to stay until Sunday morning them I’m flying to Kuching, the capital of the other Malaysian state on Borneo, i.e. Sarawak. I hear that is a lovely city. It is however a city so can’t imagine I’ll stay long.  Hmmmm.

Thurs 10 May – Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.

Met up with Mick again in Kuching on Sunday night and spent a few days there at the ThreeHouse Hostel, a small Swedish-run place. Nearby is the Semenggoh Orang-Utan reserve, so given it was only an hour away I decided to pay a visit, even though I suspected it would be no more than a glorified zoo. It was way better than that though. The orang-utan that are “resident” there, still live wild in the jungle, but often come back to the centre for a free meal, especially in the dry season when there’s not so much food on the trees. The afternoon we were there only three from about 30 known individuals came to feed. However in another area of the park, we did get incredibly close to the OUs, so close in fact that we were regularly told we had to “Move!” quickly when the mother with child wanted to pass through us. They were mainly female but there were a couple of big males there too. It was intriguing to watch them swinging in the trees – they’re pretty good at it, funnily enough 😉  It was also good fun to see the responses on Facebook, after I tagged many people with specific OUs. As far as I can tell nobody was particularly offended although a few pretended to be.

This was the place where they also had a couple of crocodiles. We were lucky enough to be there on feeding day, and the guy brought out two chickens. He threw them over the fence into the croc pit, and only at that point did I realise the chickens were still alive. Not for long. The croc I was watching bit into the chicken and the blood just went everywhere!  The sheer horror of seeing a live feed – that never happens in the West these days – was quickly replaced by the fun of seeing such a pleased-looking croc.

Next day, we went to the Sarawak Cultural Village. It’s strap line is “see Sarawak in half a day”. It contains mock-ups of loads of different dwellings from each of the tribes in Sarawak – and there are many. Each dwelling is “staffed” by members of those tribes, practicing traditional arts and crafts, and in some cases making rice cookies and sago puddings etc. Had to try them all, but they were mostly really fatty, so after doing my bit for the local economy I think I chucked about half of everything I tried. We sat through nearly an hour of traditional music and dancing too, which was way better than I thought it would be.  The highlight of the show was a guy demonstrating his prowess with a blow pipe on balloons around the theatre. He was a real showman in his own “mimey” way, and played up a bit to the older women in the audience, mainly cos he was half-dressed in traditional loincloth. Later on at the village we also had a go with the blowpipes, and managed to get very close or hit the targets more often than not. It doesn’t half help that the blowpipie is about 7 foot long though. One of the highlights for me was seeing a 200+ year old shrunken human head in one of the houses in the village – this is Borneo after all. They’re not allowed to keep many because they’re high maintenance, since they need to be regularly blessed and always revered, as the powerful spirits they are considered to be. The monkey heads are lower maintenance – I think they just get fished out of the stew.  One of the most popular T-shirts out here is one showing a bunch of shrunken skulls and “HEADHUNTER” beneath.

Later that eveing Mick and I decided to investoigate the racket coming from the other side of the river, thinking it might be a lively bar. The North bank of the river is where the kampungs  (villages) are. We got fleeced by what we thought was a blind boat-conductor. Turned out he wasn’t blind just blind drunk. Glad he wasn’t the one driving the boat. After checking what the ferry should have cost, before we got on the return ferry I said to Mick, “Don’t Pay the Ferry Man, Don’t even fix the price, Don’t pay the Ferry man, til he gets you to the other side”. Actually as we got on I winked to the driver and said “This one is free OK?” and he gave us a knowing smile. We nearly paid 12p too much there!  Mind you we did get six snacks for 1 Ringgit (20p) at the street stall instead of the usual three for a Ringgit – the woman must have liked the look of us, or wanted to fatten us up.

The “bar” music turned out be God-awful Karoake but luckily it stopped shortly after we got there. The locals were playing darts so we sort of nosied our way into a doubles game of 501. We got hammered. Those boys were regularly getting 100s and even a 140 once. Suitably humbled we went back. Quizzed the street seller on what he had on his stall – I thought they were lottery tickets. Turns out to be more spicy than that. He had porno playing cards, “Chinese Viagra”, Cialis, Spanish fly and other devices you wouldn’t find on the high street at home. I told the seller I’d come back and see him once I’d found myself a woman to try them on.

Anybody and everybody who stays in Kuching goes to the Baku National Park, but I’m not sure quite why. It’s the smallest National Park on Sarawak, and it is a rigmarole to get there. First you have to pre-book accommodation at the NP office in Kuching then get up early enough for the one hour bus yourney plus a relatively expensive boat ride to the Park. It has the feel of an island, but it’s on a peninsula. When you arrive you have to pre-book your boat back so if there’s only two of you on arrival that are coming back after two days, then you have the pay for the boat back there and then rather than hoping to share on the day of departure with others who may have arrived separately.  The food in the restaurant is easily the worst I’ve had anywhere on this trip – usually reheated from the day before, and then left to go cold if you’re not there within about half an hour of serving time. There are a number of hiking trails, on which it’s really difficult to see any wildlife – unless you’re out early morning or dusk – but then you risk getting caught out in the dark. And boy-oh-boy does it get hot in the day on Borneo? If you’re under tree cover it’s 100% humidity and as soon as you get out of tree cover it is sweltering – it was sunny every day we were there.

On the positive side, there really are some stunning sunsets and sky colours, and if you are prepared to get up early, there’s a fair bit of life very close to the park HQ where the accommodation is. We saw proboscis and silver leaf monkeys, wild boar – one very wild male one, snakes, an eagle or two, kingfisher, some ace orange and royal blue crabs, huge moths and/or butterflies. There’s also wildcats, scorpion and hornbill, but we didn’t see those.

We did three trails of about 4, 5 and 2 hours, plus a night safari, but that wasn’t brilliant. when you have 15 people including kids traipsing accross a wooden boardwalk with loose slats, the wildlife is gonna hear you before you see it. We did spot a  snake, some lovely looking frogs – Mick asked if that was the one that shot poison out of its eyes – to much guffawing and laughs from the rest of us – maybe he was right but sounds unlikely, some nasty looking poisonous centipedes, catfish, spiders, praying mantis, stick insects and sleeping swallows in a cave – bless.

Despite all that negativity we did have a great time in the Park, and I would go back, given half a chance.

After Kuching, I felt the need to move on – time is pressing…

Tuesday 15th May Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai? What – again? I was only here in March. Well there’s a reason for that. When I last reported I was on Malaysian Borneo. From there you pretty much have to fly to KL so that’s what I did. And Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand is a sort of starting point to get to Laos, where I want to go next.

There was a bunch of stuff I needed to do in KL so I stayed a couple of nights at Suzie’s Guesthouse in Chinatown – very good hostel – and ambled around KL catching up on a few things and taking more pics. The Petronus Towers look better at night even, than by day. Came upon a couple having more pre-wedding photos, she in a white silk dress, he in a suit. I asked if I could take their picture. An older woman (mother of bride or groom I guess) who I hadn’t even noticed quickly jumped in ans said “Yes – go ahead” but the bride didn’t seem so sure. I asked a couple of other times but she seemed to bow to pressure of the older woman – poor girl! What is she letting herself in for?

Back in time to watch the footie season finale and what a night that was. Fantastic end with City getting two late goals. Oooh it made my day that did.

Ridicuously early start next day, had to be up at 4am in time to get the flight to Chiang Mai – and here I am. I liked this place when I was here last and it’s still a good place to be. I remember when I left at the end of March it was 39 degrees. I honestly think it’s hotter than that now. So what to do when it’s so hot?  Well I’m Jim and I ride a bike, so I did that. It’s a single speed, heavy, fat tyres, dynamo and rear wheel stand and with a shopping basket, so at least I don’t have to wear a rucksack. Oh, and you can’t get out of the saddle at the lights, cos you burn your ar$e on it when you get back on. I had to have drink stops about every half hour. Sooooo hot when you stop, but cooler in the air flow.  Had great fun racing and overtaking the women on their mopeds and scooters – I know, I couldn’t help it, I do get all competitive on my bike. It was great getting lost on the bike – always easy for me, that, the hard part was always going to be finding my way back to Chiang Mai. Sadly I had to resort to some main roads to avoid being hopelessly lost all day.

Next day I did the “jungle flight” – a sort of wild “Go-ape” high in the jungle  in the mountains above Chiamg Mai. It was so much cooler up there – must’ve been the first time I’ve experienced sub 20 degrees since I left.  The zip wires themselves were pretty impressive too. some pretty fast, many very long. The longest at 300m is allegedly the longest in Thailand, and there’s a few in tyhis country. They’ve already built another one though, but it’s not yet open to the public – this one is a thousand metres long. ! There must be some sag on a cable that long – it must take some designing that! Had some great fun on the zips and on the various abseiling stages – the guides taking great delight in allowing a couple of seconds of all-but free-fall, before belaying you a bit more sedately near the bottom – the longest abseil was 40m.

That night, at the night bazaar I’d seen a few trannies hawking tickets for a “cabaret show” round the corner, so thought I’d pay a visiyt the next evening. Had a cracking thail curry tyhen went along to find the show was free! I sat through it and there were some great tracks being blasted out, but all the artistes were miming. The dancing wasn’t brilliant either! All in all I’d have been disappointed if I’d paid. As trannies go, most of them weren’t as “deceptive” as those I’d seen in KK, malaysia, in fact one looked just like Matt Lucas but with worse make-up.  Whilst I was in there, someone behind me said, “Hello Jim” and it was my dive instructor from the other side of Borneo two weeks ago and about 1000 miles away. I hadn’t realised she was even planning to leave the dive centre. Another small world moment.

Tues 18th May – Mekong River, Laos

Well today for the foirst time, I’ve actually set foot in a country I’ve never been to. I’ve spent the last two months in Thailand and Malaysia, where I’d been in 2008 and about 1990 respectively, albeit to many different places than I’ve seen on this trip. T oday I’m on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. This is a 3 day trip, that comprises about 6 hours on a bus to the Thai-Laos border then two days on a cruise boat. I’d heard lots of tales as to how it’s a great fun and scenic way to travel. Hmm, now I’m not so sure – it’s all been a bit of a pallaver. It didn’t start well when a huge gang of English lads got on the mini-bus and immediately set about playing loud rap from their iPods through the speakers, then got the beers and fags out. The air con on the bus was way too feeble too. To be fair it got better, the music taste mellowed a bit and the driver told em they couldn’t smoke. In the end, we just opened all the windows which resulted in better air flow for the back of the bus. Another really dodgy driver who preferred the wrong side of the road. Scary but arrived with no crashes, miraculously.

Fantastic white temple in Chiang Rai – one of the best I’ve seen anywhere – so photogenic.

Arrived at our overnight stop on the Mekong River – the border bewtween the two countries, and a really ropey-looking guest house. I did manage to blag a separate room rather than with the loud english youths – I had a good reason that I won’t go into here, and instead spent the evening with a youngish Hong-Kong American with an unlikely name of Andrew and a couple of Chilean lawyers Stella and Paulo. I was pretty concerned about the wilflife in the room, it doesn’t help that the room just had a load of slats open to the elements, so was relying on the gecko in there do earn it’s keep. It seemed to, no bites tonight.

Next day was supposed to be the fun part – the slow boat. Everybody got stocked up on books, beer, fags and food for the first seven-hour day.  The whole morning was spent being ferried from pillar to post including a 2km drive to the Thailand customs and departure point, crammed into the back of a pick-up, a 500m ferry boat across to Laos, another couple of stops to buy more provisions, change money and pre-book accommodation, a 3km ride on a barbie-pink road train, before we eventually got to the slow boat. Nightmare – it was rammed – there must have been a hundred people on this old barge, with not a spare seat at all. Kind of wish I’d gone for the speedboat trip instead – apparently more dangerous, but at least you get there in a single day. The Chilean couple paid for their speedboat ride and once they got into Laos, they were told that as theyt were the only two on the speedboat, they would be charged another £100, triple the price the’d been quoted. They were pretty distraught and argued their case as lawyers would, but they had no real choice. They couldn’t switch to the slow boat as they had a flight that depended on them getting to LP one day earlier than the rest of us. Blackmailed!

So now I’ve been on the boat for about five hours and it’s losing its appeal. The scenery is OK, but it hasn’t really changed much in all that time. River is about 100m wide, jagged rocks maybe 5-10m high on each side, with grey sandy beaches intersperesd with the rocks , and behind, forested hills up to about 500m, some under cultivation, some looks like it’s been subjected to slash and burn cultivation, mostly untouched forest though, especially higher up.

There’s a fair bit of illicit substances being dealt and smoked  towards the front of this boat, and the conductor is complicit in part of it. I gather Laos is an easy place to take drugs and the laws are both lax and draconian at the same time. It’s usually overlooked by the police and can be a good way for them to further their income in bribes, until someone wants to set an example at which point the sentences can be exceptionally harsh. Doesn’t seem to be deterring people though.

He’s also chaged some of the English an extra fee to lie out the front  rather than be stuck in a seat inside. Mind you I think the two lads that were prepared to pay him, have come back in somewhat lobster-ish – I guess they didn’t realise how strong the sun was in the breeze out there. Oh How we laughed!!

Weds 23rd May – Luang Prabang, Laos

I’ve spent a few days in the old royal capital of Laos, and as most people have said, it’s a lovely place. I’m told it’s so much nicer than the new capital of Vieniane. There is a bit of French influence here – they left about 50 years ago – but these days many more people speak English than French. There’s loads of tourists here and so the locals have created any number of services to help us through our pampered Western lives. Unfortunately I’ve decided I can live without a pure silk tablecoth – nice as they are – a fabric bracelet and a wooden toy that sounds like a bullfrog. Neither do I want to take back a small bottle of the 50% proof local whisky (Lao-Lao) containing a six-inch centipede. Another time maybe.

Considering that technically this is still a Communist country – as is Vietnam – there’s a whole lot of capitalism here. It’s also relatively cheap to stay here. I’ve a double room to myself, private bathroom with hot water (sometimes) and cable TV apparently though I haven’t switched it on – wonder what I’m missing? and it costs 50,000 kip (that’s just under £4) per night. There are cheaper places!

I decided I had to move from the place I’d already spent two nights in, after three Scandinavians I’d been hanging around with were robbed from our guesthouse. Each of them had most (though not all) of their cash taken from deep within their bags and sacks. They only discovered it cos the thieves didn’t quite re-pack the Swedish girl’s bag exactly so she got suspicious. She lost about £150 in various currencies, the two Norweigan lads lost less. It then turned out some Dutch lads upstairs were also missing money. Guess I got lucky – I had a stack of US dollars, some pounds, Malaysian and Thai money in my rucksack, but that was all still there. No laptops, Macs, passports or cards went missing so we suspected an inside job, ‘cos they must have been in the rooms a good while to unpack and repack everything. The Swedish girl had a right ding-dong with the young manager. I felt really sorry for him, if he wasn’t in on it of course.  He seemed a really nice guy but who knows. This is something that’s relatively rare but it can happen. I guess insurance would cover it, but it’d be a ball ache to get back.

The Swede was one of a breed of long-term backpackers I’ve come across who have a fixed amount of money and when the fund runs out they go home. So the less they spend, the longer their trip. For example, a couple of days ago I was out with them, and they didn’t want to stop at one restaurant overlooking the river at sunset cos the price of a rice and chicken dish was 25,000 kip (£2) whereas at a not-no-nice place, just up the road it was only 20,000 (£1.60). We ended up at the cheaper place and then she had to send back her drink cos there was not enough mango in it, and then they brought her the wrong dish (but asked her to eat it anyway, since they’d cooked it! – She didn’t).  Likewise I bumped into the Brummie couple from the two-day boat trip today. They’re looking to move out of their guesthouse cos the one they’re staying in is too expensive at£4, for the two of them. Is it really worth moving to save a quid?? Funnily enough they don’t seem to question the price of fags and beer – or if they do, they bitch and moan but buy it anyway. I can’t help thinking we’ve lost perspective somewhere. Maybe I’m just more money-rich, time-poor than they are!

I’ve been pretty active in Luang Prabang (LPB). In the three full days I’ve been here, I’ve kayaked down the river one day and hired a bike two days. The kayaking was all downstream of course and we only paddled about 2-2.5 hours, but it was piggin’ hot by the time we’d finished. I was in a 2-man kayak with 22 yo Vong, training to be an English teacher. It was good fun, but a bit more white water would’ve been funner.

The kayaking also incuded a visit to some ancient caves where there is a collection of over 4000 buddah statues (and counting – they add more every year), mainly in disrepair stretching back over 400 years. Then after the kayaking finished I swum a few hundred metres in the Mekong – there didn’t seem to be a strong current but it was way harder trying to swim upstream than back again.  Who’d’ve thought?

Then the whisky village – guess why it’s called  that! The rice wine they brew is quite pleasant, but the whisky – even without the cobras, scorpions, centipedes they put into some of the bottles was particularly hot for my liking. Not exactly Laphroaig

PS. As I write this, I’ve just started an 8hour bus journey to Phonsavanh to visit the Plain of Jars – more later. The bus is pretty full – mainly locals with a few Westerners, and we’ve just turned onto a dirt road. I kind of hope the road isn’t like his for a chunk of the journey. The seats are not the most comfortable. The driver just stopped for fuel too – he put all of 10 litres in, so I’m guessing we’ll be stopping often.  I only just realised a day or two ago how big Laos is, and I’ve got to get right to the South to cross into Cambodia. I could spend most of the next week on buses! My time is running out rapidly if I wanna do everything on my A list – actually there’s only Angkor Wat and the killing fields left, til I go back to Thailand. Just that they’re a long way from here.

I’ve no idea how we got to it, but Vong, my kayak partner was telling me about the boom-boom girls. I’d wondered what boom boom was when my tuktuk driver kept saying it the other night. I’d thought he was trying to sell me drugs, until he decided to mime the act. Turns out boom boom is the local phrase for getting “favours” from the local working girls. I haven’t seen any here in Laos, but the drivers all seem to know where to go. Turns out that the girls charge a lot less for locals than they do for Falang – foreigners. This is not a new concept in Asia, that’s often the case, but apparently the reason is that Western men are thought to be much “bigger” than local guys, so a lot of the girls are frightened! Certainly in general stature this is true. I don’t think I’ve seen a smaller race than the Lao. Even I’m above average height here, so any 6-footer must feel like a giant.  He did tell me what the rate was too, and I’ve forgotten cos I was stunned after he told me that was for 5 minutes. Per 5 minutes!!! I’d barely have time to neatly fold my shirt and pants!  I think there was a nightly rate too though.  And no, I still haven’t !

Hired a really gash bike, (this is unrelated to the previous para by the way) cos the only proper MTBs I’d seen available were on the other side of town and I couldn’t be ar$ed as it was so hot. Another single  speed with a rack on the back and “pegs” for the feet of any passenger. No shopping basket sadly so had to wear my bag. And even though it’s a full-sized bike, even I couldn’t raise the saddle high enough.   I’d hired it to ride to the waterfall, but what with early rain and changing guesthouse it was too late – the waterfalls are 30k away and far too hot to  ride there and back in the afty. Instead I took the bike over the river to visit a few less-touristy village and little visited temples. What I didn’t know was that the road on the other side was a dirt road, and a poor one at that. Praying for no bike problems (it rattled like a cheap Chinese kids bike – actually it was) or punctures as there were no tuktuks or taxis on that side of the river to get me back, and the return ferry didn’t run very late. The bike held up surprisingly well, although I struggled badly.

Every time I passed schoolkids they’d wave or shout Hello or Sabaadii, and often hold their hands out for a high five. Every now and then they’d run alongside. One kid even jumped on the back of the bike for a lift.

I didn’t get as far as I’d intended on the bike, mainly due to the road quality, bike quality and temperatures, and my black T-shirt had a huge white salty tide mark when I’d  finished. Reckon I lost about a gallon of sweat too. On the ferry back got caught in the closest loudest thunderstorm I’ve ever heard. Ever clap just made everybody jump and/or duck, and a few screams too. Luckily by the time we’d got to the oither side of the river the rain had all but stopped. Only saw two other Westerners on the other side of the river, a couple of young French travellers playing cards on the steps of one of ther old temples. Bizarre!

Out with some German lads for dinner then got up super early to see the monks taking alms. This is a daily occurrence which seems to have become almost a tourist attraction in LPB.  Locals will have big baskets of cooked rice and the monks – usually very young, from about 12 yo upwards line up to put it in their bags.  Very photogenic. The monks will supplement their diet in the monestory too, but this goes a long way to feeding them. Incidentally they don’t eat at all after noon. You never see a fat monk!

Second part of my itinerary was to use the bike to get to the waterfall early before it got too hot. It all went well except where the road got steep, and I had to walk a couple of streches. The falls were deserted when I got there although a few had arrived before I left. They really were quite impressive looking falls. More a series of cobalt-blue pools each a metre or so lower than the last. There’s wooden changing rooms too, although you’re expected to swim in a t-shirt or top. The water was surprisingly cold – though I’m a wuss that way. I did do the swim thing but not for too long. Way hotter on the way back and I forgot nto put sun tan stuff on, so I think I’ve burnt my head. I wouldn’t have believed that, after being out here 10 weeks.  The things I do in the name of “training” (well I am planning to cycle the Alps the week after I get back, so any bike training I can do out here has gotta help right?

PPS The dirt road to Phonsavan only lasted a mile or two, but since then we’ve been high in the mountains. Spectacular views except when we’re in the clouds, at which point visibility has been down to around 50m. Pretty scary though. Every now and again the driver reads his phone. I’ve been trying to find a seat belt but I’ve only got the socket half, not the buckle.  There’s a Lao guy called Audy on the bus who’s a real wise guy, enterpreneur type. At the last stop, he bought a stack of cans of beer and handed them out. He got through three in the time I drank one. One was enough for me on these mountain roads. Oops piss stop now- just feel sorry for the old Lao woman in the front seat.

The food in Laos is quite different to that in neighbouring countries – they rely a lot on sticky rice, a different variety that is drier and seems more glutinous – although it is gluten free. It’s usually eaten with fingers (both hands) and served with a number of different dips to counter the blandness. Having said that, there’s a lot of  food similar to North and Eastern Thailand here too, not surprisingly as they’re often the same people with the same origins. What I love about this place is the myriad different fruit shakes anbd smoothies on sale. Fresh fruit blended with crushed ice or with yoghurt added. The lemon and coconut ones are just dee-lish and so refreshing!

PPPS Just nearly hit a buffalo walking across the road on a bend. Oh and now theres a herd of cattle standing in the road – no-one tending them. And again!  If we don’t hit owt on this tripI’ll be amazed.

Fri 25th May. En-route to Vang Vieng, Laos.

Just finished two nights and one day in Phonsavanh, in Xiang Khoung Prince in NE Laos. This is a not-so-pretty little town which sees tourists for one main reason – to visit the atmsopheric and mysterious Plain of Jars. This is a huge area of highland plateau, on  which are spread several hundred large stone “jars” varying from about 1m in diameter to the largest which is about 2.5m diameter and about 2m high, estimated to weighs about 6 tons. Like stonehenge it’s not really understood how they got there and what their purpose is –  they seem to have been manufactured, or sculpted a good 50 km away, possibly as funerary urns or to brew huge quantities of lao-lao – local rice whisky. Even the age of the jars is unknown but likely to be about 2000 years.  Certainly worth seeing all the same. Sadly lots of them have been stolen or broken up or shot at during the war. Travelling with Aaron and David, two Canadian jews, one really laid back, one who gets very het up easily, and Marcus a slightly eccentric London lad, who, despite having spent two months+ in Asia, is still really pale.

This part of Laos is also famous for one other reason. Sadly, it’s the most bombed province in the most bombed country in the world. Even though Laos was never officially at war with America, it was bombed daily for nine years in order to try to halt the spread of communism and to disrupt supply lines to the North Vietnamese.

Unfortunately about 30% of the bombs or ordanance didn’t explode and given that 2.5 million tons were dropped (that’s nearly a ton of bombs for everyone in the whole country at the time), it meant there were a whole load of people maimed or killed in the years following the war. Even worse, this is still happening. Even now, one person a week dies as a result of bombs dropped 40 years ago. And many of them are children. There are operations (like MAG – Mines Action Group  created by the British, but funded by many countries includung the US and the EU) that are clearing areas of bombs where people want to build or start to expand agriculurally. As you might imagine this is a slow old process. Most of the remaining dangers are “bombies”, small cluster bombs that look quite a lot like the balls that are used in the French game of Boules or Petanque. Hence the threat to kids. But also they are being dug up to sell for gunpowder, for the ball bearings inside (the lethal part) and for scrap metal.  Heartbraking seeing so many kids with limbs missing. As part of the visit to the Plain of Jars, we also visited the site of stacks of massive bomb craters some 20m across, villages where old bomb shells and the cluster bomb cases are being used for henhouses, the stilted legs of buildings and animal troughs etc. There’s also an organisation where you make your own spoon or bangle from melted down 1960’s US bombs.

We also got chatting to an old Lao guy who was telling us his war stories, and about how the US aircraft would just bomb everything so everyone in the province lived in caves. He also told us how he saw his gran killed by a bomb, in graphic detail. He claims not to harbour any grudges to Westerners or Americans, but that must be difficult. There’s even a well documented tale of the US repeatedly firing rockets into the caves where primarily citizens were hiding. Bear in mind the American people and Congress had no idea their forces were even operating in or over the borders of Laos. It is always known as the Secret War, and word only really got out several years after the event.

Sun May 27th – Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng is the party capital of Laos. Many, many people come to Laos primarily and in some cases only, to experience the tubing, and associated activities. The tubing, depending on who you listen to it really sedate and calm and completely safe. This seems very inconsistent with the stories we often heard about the huge no of deaths through tubing. I’ve heard 44 died last year, and 29 so far this year. Also heard that 3 died in one day last week, including one who was dragged out in sight of some guys I’d been travelling with earlier. The difference in the safe and hugely dangerous is usually caused by either drink or drugs or both. The tubing which is simply floating down the slow, wide river in a tractor inner tube, is pretty snoozy. The thing is, the river bank is punctuated by a number of loud wooden “fun bars”, which positively encourage the (usually very young) tubers to drink cheap beer, whisky and free shots, and get involved in various drinking games to make sure they drink even more. Rumour has it they ban the tubing periodically after each cluster of deaths but one way or another probably after big fees have been paid, it starts again. Most people drown but many others are involved in accidents involving zip-wires, rope swings, huge slides and high diving platforms. What with me being old and cautious, and not liking heights except when my feet are firmly on the ground (oh, and a bit of a wuss too), I stayed soberish and only got involved in the low zip wires and swings, rather than the high stuff.  Our tubing was combined with some white water kayaking – great fun, especially over the rapids and good exercise to boot, as well as some caving and some tube-caving where we pulled ourselves along using a rope in a cave that at some points was only inches above our heads, and then at the far end, let go of the rope and drift all the way back again. Never tried or even heard of that sport before! None of your UK health and safety nonsense here. You get a torch  – well it is pitch black in there, but no helmet, gloves or other paraphenalia you’d have in say a Welsh cavern. Did this day with a young Chinese lad, Min and two elderly Canadians, who were better kayakers than Min and I were. We almost capsized, they didn’t.

Another day I decided a bike was the order of the day – no excuse needed for me to get on a bike. Managed to get a proper mountain bike this time so felt ambitious enough to do a big loop from the guesthouse. Roads weren’t up to much, mainly dirt roads, with pretty deep mud in places. I knew there was a diversion to visit another supposedly impressive cave which was next to a blue lagoon. Now a few people have told me it really is very blue, except after heavy rain. Guess what we’ve had. The brown laggon doesn’t sound so impressive does it?  It was good there though, what with deep water and rope swings and tree branch plunges etc. Very refreshing after the strenuous scramble up to and inside the huge cave. What I found really odd was that there were umpteen painted signs showing the scramble route into the cave – it wasn’t obvious without – but not a single waymark showing the way out again. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in there! In fact a big norffas (collective term) of monks came through not long after we did. Reckon their robes would have lit up the place to a fashion. The cave was truly huge. We walked in about 600m and then turned back when the rocks were gettinbg way too wet, slippy and slopey. My crocs wouldn’t cope with it!

On the bike loop I managed to come off the thing three times, twice in deep mud and the third time when the “road” was cut by a deep drainage culvert. This wouldn’t have been so bad except there were six old Lao guys supposedly working on the drainage, and they all saw me come off. I’m quite glad they were there, cos in crashing I jammed my brakes and the only way I could fix them was with the aid of a spanner which one of the guys had. That’d have been a long walk back otherwise. Yikes.

Then I got yelled at by some twenty-something lads to  join them for a beer in their front yard. I did, had a big bottle of Beer-Lao with them, made as polite conversation as I could in my stilted Lao and their not-so-brilliant English, then made my excuses and left – they wouldn’t let me pay for the beers. Later that night, walking into town, the two guys were playing in a band in the high street – pretty surprising cos both lads lived in Vientiane, four hours to the South, and had only been visiting their mate in Vang Vieng.

Friday 1st June, Cambodia in a bus en route to Phnom Penh

A couple of times on the bike ride I manged to pass a few tourists and locals on their scooters, but they usually got me back on the climbs. One guy was amazed to tell me he was doing 45kmh when I passed him. But then I am a cyclist! I did cheat a wee bit and get a couple of uplifts from some pickup trucks and local taxis, by accelerating and hanging on after they’d passed me, usually to the delight and enjoyment of the taxi passengers. The bizzarre thing about the Lao people is tey set up toll bridges everywhere, and just charge folk to go over them, whether walking cycling or in a car. not all cheap too. one tin-pot bridge cost about £1.60 to cross, you can bed for the night for that!  But hey, what you gonna do.

After Vang Vieng, on to Vientiane. I’m not sure quite why I went there, it’s just another capital city on the way to Southern Laos, where I needed to get to. Vientiane was OK though. Stayed one night and one and arf days, and again hired a crappy bike for the two days. This place has “capital city syndrome”, i.e. it was way more expensive than anywhere else, had to pay nearly £8 for my room. As a capital it was an easy going sort of place, but not an awful lot to see. If I’d got my act together I could have seen everything in the one day and left on the overnight bus. Probably the most interesting place I went to was the “Cope” centre where they rehabilitate people with disabilities, usually as a result of limb injuries caused by cluster bombs – Grrrrrrr. There was a young blind kid in there who walked into the back of me when I was reading a display board. Turned out he had no hands too, lost as a result of a bomb injury he got when he was 15. He could still make phone calls though. I’d thought he was dialling the keys on his moby with his nose or tongue, but he told me he was blowing on the keys. The phone would announce the digit dialled after each blow. The boy has adapted well, and was a really funny guy too. Really inspirational, but it was a tragic place too. More ugly statistics, a hundred casualties every year due to ordnance dropped in nthe 60s and 70s, 25% of all villages in the whole country are contaminated by UXO, and almost all villages, in some of the provinces. When I get back I’m gonna find out if Britain is still making and dropping cluster bombs.

The food was good in Vientiane too. There’s still a whole load of French influence there, so it was great to get fresh hot baguettes, even with (nearly) proper cheese. Oh Cheese, how I’ve missed you.

Best thing about Vientiane though is the bus that leaves there. No, really! We’d been told there was a VIP sleeper with proper beds, This seemed so unlikely when most of Laos is stuck in the 1960s and 70’s. But when we got to the bus staion these buses were like spaceships, all sleek, curvy, brightly painted and with fluorescent light underneath. They were double deckers, and equipped with sleeping space for about 40 people. All air con, sheets, pillows, blankets, and we even got a chicken rice meal thrown in. And this was £13 for a 10 hour, 600km journey. And I slept for hours! Cooooool.

The next bus journey was not so good. I wanted to see the Wat Pou temple but nobody else seemed that interested so I ended up getting a tuktuk there on my own, after determining I could definitely get a bus further South after my temple detour. What I didn’t realise was that unless I stayed another night – in a place I didn’t want to be – it would have to be a public local bus. Still, I thought, that won’t be so bad it’s only 2-3 hours.

Bad it was. A songthau is an extended pick-up truck with a padded bench seat running along each outside edge. They normally hold about 10-12 passengers. Our one had a third bench running along the middle. When I got on the thing twenty minutes before it was due to leave there were about six of us on it. About five minutes before we left a huge number of people got on and it just got ridiculous. Then after we left, it kept stoppping and more and evr more people got on. At it’s maximum, it reached 30. If i’d been able to get off to take a picture I would have. Talk about jammed.

Then at every village hawkers surrounded the bus to sell more and more food to the travellers. Eggs on a stick. Roast chickens, big bags of mushrooms, rice with trays of chilli dip, monkey nuts (not monkey’s nuts, they’ve all gone now in Laos) you name it.

Oh yeah I forgot to mention, as well as the thirty in the back, plus four in the cab, there was a massive basket as big bas a bean bag, containing about eight piglets. At least they were downwind and stayed quiet, which is more than could be said of the Laos squishing me in. The whole bus stank of fags and second hand chicken and chilli. Suffice to say I was the only Westerner and English speaker on the bus. Least it was cheap. Talk about extremes of travel in one day.

Eventually I got to Don Deth, the busiest of the 4000 islands. This is what they call this area in the middle of the Mekong River, which by now, had already been from Tibet, via Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and still had to enter the sea in Vietnam. I say River, it’s more like a small sea here, several miles wide and with well, about 4000 islands depending on the level of the tide.

Even Don Deth is a really quiet place even though it’s most definitely on the backpacker trail. There’s stuff all to do there, although there’s a really small beach on the river and most people do nothing here, eat a lot, laze in their hammocks and hire a really gash bike to go accross to the neighbouring island and visit the Khong falls in the River. These are the falls that prevented the French from getting any further up the river in the late 1800’s when they wanted to get two gunships upstream to expand their territory. They eventually made some dismantlible boats, with a plan to take them apart below the falls, manhandle them past, and rebuild them again. I think they managed to rebuild one but it didn’t last much longer afterwards. Of course I hired a bike too, but there’s not a lot of riding to be had on the two islands, very few roads, so only did about 10 miles, including crossing the bridge that cost twice as much as the bike hire.

We (two Americans, Ish(mail) and Riccardo, and I) did go further than most though and came upon a village where there seemed to be something of a celebration going on. Lots of locals in posh(er) clothes, all the best silverwear was out (turned out to be aluminium) and a norffas of monks. Nobody spoke any English or French so we were never fully sure what was happening. We took a bunch of photos after asking of course and then, possibly to get us out the way one of the locals asked us in mime if we wanted to eat something. Well not wanting to offend, after being invited, and also being pretty hungry we sat down to a meal of noodles, chilli sauce, vegetables, and then a sort of sweet ricey dessert thing. all good swag. After we left we asked someone else what had been happening and when we described it, he seemed to think it was a post-funeral bash.  Hey hey, we’d turned into a bunch of funeral-crashers. We had delighted the kids a bit by letting see the digital pics we’d taken. All good fun.

When I check into a room, I normally check if there’s anything flying around or on the walls, and get rid of them, especially if there’s no mozzie net in there. I did this in Don Deth, then took a shower to get rid of all grime of nearly a day of travel on dusty roads. Getting changed again, I nearly jumped a foot in the air when summat big touched my leg. After nearly having a heart attack I realised there’d been a dog under my bed. Must admit, I didn’t expect that one! On Don Deth, there mangy dogs everywhere and I’ve seen others poking about people’s rooms trying to get in. Not exactly five star comfort I’m living in here.

Finally made firm plans for Jack to come out here now. Will meet him in Bangkok on the 14th. Really looking forward to that.

It’s been pretty tricky cos phone / text comms in Laos have been really shite. Even the internet cafes are unreliable. Perhaps in hope over expectation, I think Cambodia might be better!

So that’s now a plan. I’ll defo spend the last two weeks in Thailand, which means I have only twelve days in Cambodia. At the start of this trip I had no real plan at all, now I have to be quite disciplined in where I will and will not go, as my days are numbered, so to speak. No good reason why I can’t come back in a year or two though.

Met up with Ellie in Don Deth. Met here two weeks ago, not long after she’d been robbed on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai bus, after taking a Valium and sleeping too heavily – loads of people are using Valium here, they’re 20p each, and you can buy as many as you like, without a prescription. Mind you people are on all sorts of other stuff too – I’m still sticking to Beer. So since then Ellie has had food poisoning and laid low for several days, and now she’s got a broken foot too, after falling off a stage in a bar. She went to the quack in Vang Vieng – not a proper one, and after being foot-handled by the doc, and not really being confident he’d helped any, she did a runner without paying the bill. Actually she didn’t do a runner, her mate carried her out, with the receptionoist chasing her down the road waving the bill at her.

So nearly two weeks later she still can’t walk, and reckons she’ll get it looked at in Thailand where the medical treatment is better. Dangerous game.  Also met another girl who seems to have some of the symptoms of malaria and has barely been out for the last week. She’s flying back to Dublin a week early, as she seems to be getting worserer not betterer. I feel quite fortunate.

Fri 8th Jun, Seam Reap Cambodia.

When I set out three months ago there was really only one place I defo had to go, and that was the ancient temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Everywhere else was unplanned, and if trith be told, if I’d had a plan, I’d have deviated wildly from it. So after a month in Thailand, the same in Malaysia and two weeks in Lao, I crossed the border into Cambodia and via a stop in the capital, I finally got to see the place.

What I hadn’t really appreciated was just how many temples and ancient buildings there are in this place. Angkor Wat is the biggest and best preserved, but there’s a whole dynasty of cities and temples stretching back to the 9th century. Back then, Cambodia – or Angkor – was one of the greatest civilisations on Earth. I’ve just left Seam Reap after 5 days. In that time I’ve spent three days discovering as many of the ancient buildings as I can – there’s a one day ticket and a three day ticket. The first two days were with my travelling buddy Billy, so we hired a driver and a local guide for the day. Yesterday I was on my own, so rented a bike and did without a guide – used my book instead. I can see why Angkor is easily Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction. It’s really impressive. Just a few stats:

Angkor Wat (Temple) : Built 12th Century. Biggest religious building in the world – ever. 1200 x 900m x up to 55m high. It has a moat that is 5.5km long x 190m wide x 4m deep. Id like to have been a fly on the wall when the foreman told the lads how big that was gonna be, and that they needed it done by Tuesday. Longest Bas Relief in the world, also at 1200m x approx 2.5 high. Most of the stone was brought from a site 50km away, and it’s estimated the construction used 40,000 elephants and 400,000 workers. Yikes! Imagine trying to build that now, even with all the modern aids like cranes and trucks we have now.

Next stop was Angkor Thom, a 900 year old city, about 3km square, centre of a province that was habited by over a million people. Again lots of old temples within the city, the most famous of which is the Bayon. This one has 54 (an auspicious number in Angkor times) each with a huge face on each of the four sides, some looking down, some level with the walkways, all enigmatically smiling. Must have been a really spectacular sight when it was new, cos it’s pretty damn good now. I absolutely loved it there.

The final stop of the big three that every traveller just has to see is the Ta Phrom, another long series of buildings, but unlike most of the other temples in this area, when the complex was “cleared” by the French after they “re-discovered” it in the 19C, they left a number of the huge trees in situ. So these trees some 400-500 years old are often growing right through the temple buildings, sometimes holding the bricks and walls together, but more often, forcing the temple apart. The whole place was so atmospheric, I just had to go back a second time, even on my second visit in three days. Actually it was great fun going there on a bike, it’s only about 5 miles each way but the temples are typically a few miles apart. Me being me, I got all competitive and took great delight in racing and overtaking the tuk-tuks. They normally do about 15 mph, depending on how many lardy tourists are in the back, so it took some doing. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember sweating and smelling as bad as I did this day. I also had to keep diving into bars and restaurants when the rains came – it’s defo the start of the rainy season here now. I ended up getting in lumbar a couple of times by parking my bike at one restaurant then reading next door’s menu. I ended up having to toss up to decide where to eat, and then bought drinks from the place next door. I also had to hire a hat (I know, just for the day, for 30p), in order that my bike would be safe when I went to the temple. I’ve just read that back and it makes no sense even though I understand it !

In adition to these three, there are several hundred other temples and buildings covering history from about the 8th to 13th centuies. We did visit a few of these but none were so spectacular as the big three. All in all though, a fabulous place.

Before Seam Reap, we’d been over to Phnom Penh the capital. I’m no fan of big cities, but, macabre as it seems I wanted to see the memorial at the killing fields, just outside the city. This was just one of the sites where thousands of mainly innocent citizens were callously tortured and murdered by the Kymer Rouge during the “Year Zero” revolution in 1975-1979. Usually their crime was being intellectual, so I’d have probably been fine. In order to make sure there was no future retribution, if they killed one person, then the rest of the family were usually murdered too. This included babies. We stopped at the tree where the babies would be killed by being swung by their legs and having their heads crushed on the trunk. Another heartbreaking moment in my travels out here. These people have been treated so badly and they are such a gentle, happy, fun-loving people. I just don’t get it.

After the killing fields we went to visit Site 21, which had been a school until the Kymer Rouge turned it into a torture chamber. This place was just horrible. If the killing fields have been turned into a tasteful memorial portraying the “Never Forget – don’t let it happen again, here or anywhere” message, the ex-school was totally depressing, with bare rooms containing iron beds and manacles everywhere, plus displays of the tools used. There were also display boards showing the photographs of thousands of the people tortured there and killed later. Like the Nazis, the Kymer Rouge kept detailed records of who they’d killed, and written records of their made-up or under-duress confessions. I’m not sure I’m glad I’d visited this place, and I’ve subsequently told other travellers they might want to miss this one. Incidentally at the killing fields there is a glass tower containing the skulls of over 9000 people who were killed at this one site. Estimates are that 2 million of the 8 million population were killed. Just imagine that! One in four. A couple of days later we saw another killing site, this time a deep cave where the victims were just blindfolded and bludgeoned at the top of the cave and pushed in. Another ten-thousand souls ended their days there. This site also contains a memorial and a buddhist temple now.

On a cheerier note  ( 🙂 ), we also saw the Royal Palace in PP, after bribing a policeman and his accomplice to let us in, after they claimed it had closed early in advance of the elections next day. It was well worth seeing and totally at odds with the rest of Cambodia which is pretty damn poverty-stricken.

We had to laugh at the Silver Pagoda though – it’s supposedly their pride and joy and all the guide books talk about the 5000 dazzling silver floor tiles. The reality is very different. For a start 95% of the floor is covered with poor carpet, and the tiles that are exposed to view, just look like really dull aluminium sheet. And worse than that, loads of them have just been nailed down and where the corners have been rasied they’ve been taped down again with grey, or even black gaffer tape. Even I, Jim Solan, king of “it’ll do”, wouldn’t have bodged it to that extent. Shocking!!

In Cambodia, I was travelling with Billy, an Irish guy who’s just retired (younger than me) after selling two London pubs for over a million. When we got to PP, he needed to see the dentist and asked if I’d go with him, in case it was serious – he thought he had an abscess. I told him I’ve got a bit of a phobia about dentists but agreed anway. So we went at 9am, and the dentist told him it was a wisdom tooth that had to come out. Billy asked if he could do it there and then, but the dentist had another appointment so sent him away to get some painkillers and antibiotics, that he should have breakfast (!) take his pills and come back at 10:30. So he did, against everybody elses better judgement. This is Cambodia – all the books and guides say that for any medical treatment in this part of the world, you should get to Bangkok, Thailand or KL, Malaysia asap, where there are proper international-standard hospitals. I sat in the treatment room with him, not watching and trying to read a book above the noise of the drilling (aaaarrrrggghhhh). Not a murmur from Billy. So he had the tooth out, stitched it up, and was told to rest and come back in 10 days to have the stitches out. Rest he didn’t. We came out and immediately went out for eight hours in the heat of the day, including to the killing fields. I really liked hanging out with Billy, he was just so funny – I was in tears watching him mentally torture a young kid who just wanted to sell his t-shirts to Billy for a reasonable profit – and again the next day when Billy realised they were too small – after refusing to try them on.  A week later he went South on a 15 hour bus-ride to a beach resort, to camp in front of the telly for the football, whereas I couldn’t face the trip (and another one coming back) so I went to Battambang instead. Incidentally Billy is one of the old-fashioned travellers from the eighties, in that he doesn’t have a smart phone or even an email address – he claims never to have used a computer. This means he has to book flights via an agent – dodgy that in these parts. He’s also travelling around with a single medium sized pack and no daysack, and claims to be able to get it on an aircraft as hand luggage – I have my doubts! He even has two pairs of Jeans in there, cos he’s getting as far afield as Oz and the US, before returning to Ireland in January. He gave me his UK moby number and said I should call him in January when he gets back, to pop over. And that I just might. I’ll miss him.

Like me, Billy is also travelling with a bigger budget than most of the kids out here, so we splashed out a bit in Seam Reap, and got into a hotel with a pool, and air cond and hot water and breakfast and a TV – all unusual those. We still only paid $6 each though. Another reason to like Cambodia!  In Seam Reap, we also hung out with two lovely Austrian Lawyers, Irene and Katharina, who sadly have now headed back to PP to attend an international trial of some of the ring-leaders of the Kymer Rouge horror years. They must all be in their 70s by now. Be nice if they get their come-uppance eventually (the Kymer guys, not the Austrians). Incidentally Pol Pot the figurehead of the regime lived another 20 years after he was booted out by the Vietnamese. Make sense of that!

Sun 10 Jun – Battambang, Cambodia

Had a great day yesterday. Went over on the back of a motor-bike taxi to the Bamboo train just outside Battambang (the second biggest city in the country, about the size of Warrington, and just as pretty). Met up with two secretly-Northern lasses, Clare and Ashley who’d taken a tuk-tuk and after hitting it off with them, and hearing their plans for the day, I sacked off my motoman, and sent him home alone, and joined them. The Bamboo train is the Cambodians simple solution to having only a single railway line on which proper trains and small (bamboo) trains run. So the bamboo train comprises two independent bar-bell style axles, a big lightweight panel made of Bamboo slats, that slots onto the axles, and a 6HP engine which goes on top of the panel and drives the rear axle using a fan belt. When the big train comes, or two small trains have to pass, one is just dismantelled and rebuilt after the other train has passed. This takes about 30 seconds!The rule is, the “train” with the least passengers had to be broken up, but if there’s no passengers, then the driver of the other train has to help anyway – it’s a big panel. But a motorbike on top trumps any number of passengers. The tracks are as bumpy as you can imagine, in at least two dimensions – bit like a old stlye roller coaster, and you get off feeling a bit beaten up, and usually bitten, since the train (with no walls remember) goes through various bushes, shrubs and small tress usually full of bugs this time of year. At the half way point we stopped for about an hour and had a beer and played games with the local kids – unusually they weren’t asking for money but instead made us stuff like rings, bracelets and grasshopper models from leaves and reeds. Impressive – the kids were fun to be around too.

After the train we headed off to Cambodia’s only winery. We paid our two dollars and got to try the local brandy and red wine plus their grape juice and a sweet honey and ginger drink. The brandy was filthy horrid. Only Clare finished hers. To a wine philistine like me the local red was OK, others thought differently. And I loved the grape and the honey and ginger. This was where we all got to try the grasshoppers too. We all said we would if the others would – so we did. The girls took the heads off theirs, I went for the lot. Can’t say I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Like a cruncy twiglet or some barbecued nuts. Then after a bit of baiting from me, the girls had another with the head attached. Glad I’ve done it, but in no hurry to repeat the feat, thanks.

Next stop was the killing caves I’d mentioned earlier plus a trek to the top of the local hill for temple-visiting (another temple that was coverted into something nasty during the bad-old years of the Kymer Rouge) and sunset, and a view below of the gazillions of bats exiting a cave. (do they always come out of the cave and turn right as I’ve now been told?)

Tues 12 Jun Poipet, Cambodia/Thai border.

I’ve got a right place here. The town is a right sh1t-hole but I’m sort of stuck here until tomorrow. Because of the 15 day visa rule, I don’t really want to cross into Thailand til then. I left my nice hotel in Battambang to see what Poipet had to offer. I kind of expected the casino zone to be an OK place to visit, but it appears you have to pay to get in, or buy a stack of chips, which I’m not interested in. And bizarrely, in the casino hotels you have to pay a deposit of £20, which you apparently get back when you leave. I don’t know if this is in order to make sure you don’t nick owt / trash the place, or to ensure all gamblers have at least the wherewithal to get home. But all the guides say this is such a scam-city I’m not convinced I’d get my money back.  Incidentally, Cambodians aren’t even allowed to gamble here! The whole place is set up to encourage Thais to come over and fritter away their cash – gambling is illegal in Thailand too. So you don’t need a visa to come here from Thailand, even though it’s in Cambodia. I thought I was in big trouble, cos when I went into the casino zone and got a moto-taxi back, the immigration man stopped me. After a long debate and detailed scrutiny of my mouldy passport he let me through. For one horrible minute I thought he was going to insist I buy a new visa to re-enter Cambodia, and at £30 a pop, I didn’t fancy that!

So I checked into a really dreary but clean hotel, and was immediately asked if I wanted a woman. As usual I said no. Five minutes later knock on the door, and there’s the manager stood in the corridor with the woman I hadn’t ordered. She wasn’t even young or pretty!  Cambodia by the way, is the country in SE Asia with the highest rate of HIV. It’s also got the highest birth rate. Did I already say that the average age here is 22?   22 for God’s sake!

So Poipet is clearly a port / customs town. Everywhere you look, there’s people dragging huge carts towards or away from the border. Some of these are 15 foot x 8 foot wide by anything upto 10 feet high piled with stuff. There’s from one to eight people pushing and pulling them, and sometimes helped by a bloke on a motobike. I’ve also seen two JCBs coming in from Thailand on two huge low-loaders. Ooooh it makes you proud to be from Staffordshire (well sort of from there). There’s also cleavage and short skirts here! I haven’t seen any of that in the last two months, well not on Asian women anyway. Think I must be in the red-light area, but this is broad daylight.  After further “research” I’ve concluded most of the short skirts and cleavage are not necessarily on women, or they’re casino staff rather than working girls!

Came down from Battambang this morning in a shared taxi. Exciting and terrifying all in one. I had the fron t seat which I was pretty glad about cos there were four Thai lads in the back- pretty damn cramped. The driving was astonishing. He literally spent the majority of the journey partly or wholly on the wrong side of the road. At one point we were overtaking a motobike that was overtaking a car that was overtaking a tuk-tuk. We were approaching a bend, and he was on the phone. I’m kind of glad he wasn’t watching the TV he’d set up in there too.  It’s as if, if they’re blaring the horn then they’ve an invincibility field around them, especially on bends. A couple of times he had to pull out of manouevres after he’d tried to overtake, but hey we got here safely, and, I have to say, a lot earlier than I expected to! Best sight was when we passed two motorbikes with cages a good seven feet wide, each must have had ten small pigs in em.  I spoke to a woman last night who said you have to go a months course to be able to drive, and a week to ride a motorbike. I expressed my surprise. Then she admitted that if you pay, you don’t need to do the course. Figures!  I really wish I could have videoed some of the crossroads from above, to show the sort of stuff that goes on.

There’s not even any restaurants here. I found one earlier but it wasn’t very good, so I walked a good half a mile along the main road, and a few side streets and and found nothing! So here I am in the restaurant of one of the big casinos, waiting for my expensive pasta. Whoooo-hooooo! Robbing gets won’t even give me free wifi neither. And there’s none in my hotel.

Cambodia then. Well, despite it’s horrific recent past, the people are as delightful a race as I’ve ever met. They always seem so happy, and the further you get away from the major populations, where Western, white faces are becoming increasing common, the more it is noticeable. The children are so cute and smiley and playful, and the adults always want to chat too, and not just to ask or obtain money, although I couldn’t blame them if they did. This is one of the poorest countries in the world. They do seem very optimistic that it’s their turn for some good news for a change. And I hope they get some.

Would I come back?  I would. It would have to be in the cooler season, albeit when there are far more visitors, and I’d get off the beaten track more. Having said that, I could easily spend more time in PP, visit the beach resorts of the South, do a bit of eco-trekking in the forests and jungles and go back to those amazing temples to see them with a proper sunrise and sunset.

Sun 14th Jun, Bangkok Airport

Back in Bangkok. Not a place I like, but at least this time I’m here for a good reason. In about an hour Jack lands here and we can travel together for a fortnight. Sooooo looking fwd to that. I’ve been really worried that something would go wrong and either he’d miss a plane and get stuck in the Gulf, or lose his passport, or I’d miss him when he arrived. Well I did get a text saying he was about to board his flight from Dubai to Bangkok, several hours ago, and I haven’t heard from him since, so I assume he’s on it. I’ve just got to find him now, when he comes through. Jack has been to Bangkok before, about 4 years ago with his mum and I. On that occasion we stayed in a very posh hotel with a pool and grovelling waiters and staff. I can’t remember what it cost but I do remember breakfast was £16 a head (so we didn’t).That should pay for one or two nights accomodation for the two of us, on Ko Tao!

Because of the lateness of his arrival, and the times of the night bus trip to Ko Tao (an island in the Gulf of Thailand) it means we’ll spend one night in Bangkok (we know a song about that, don’t we children). The place we’re staying in a hostel, so a bit of a difference to his last visit. We have two beds in a four bed room, with shared bathroom / showers. Guess he’s gonna have to get used to slumming it a bit. It’ll all be good experience if he wants to do the backpacking / travelling thing himself in a few years. I made a big list of stuff for Jack and I to see and do tomorrow, but I’ve no idea what he’ll want to see. Most of the big ticket items in town, he’s already seen a few years ago – his memories better than mine, so he may not want to see those again – if he ever did the first time! He may just want to sleep all day, but if so, I’ll soon thrash that out of him!

Been chatting to a keen diving girl today who’s just come back from Ko Tao, and said the conditions were very good. Mind you she admitted that the diving in the Gulf of Thailand where we’re going is not as good as that on the Andaman copast, where I dived in March / April. The problem is that conditions off the coast are really poor in June – which is why I’m not going back. In fact she had her planned liveaboard dive trip cancelled cos of the poor conditions that way.

Last night went out with a bunch of people from the hostel into a pub around the corner, to watch the footy. Even one of the Canadian girls was interested, but I think it was only cos Ronaldo was playing. One of the lads was German so he was most interested in the second game – Germany v Holland. (Germany won). The beer was pretty expensive in there so I ordered a draft Chang, which tasted a bit dodgy to say the least – it felt sweet as if the glass hadn’t been washed properly. So today, dor the first time in three months, I’ve been feeling decidedly squitty! And I barely ate anything ropey yesterday, except a bit of street food that tasted like shredded carrot on a marshmallow base on a big rice cracker.  Nothing major with the belly though, and if this is as bad as it’s gets I’ll be more than pleased. I fully expected to have some kind of Asian Bum burning, and I haven’t done before now. I have brought my Immodium “butt plugs” to the airport just in case. Might have to stay off the curries for a day or two, too. Actually my diet might have to change anyway when Jack arrives otherwise I can see us eating completely separately for most meals -he’s a strict burgers, nuggets and chips man! See if Thailand changes him a bit!!

The arrivals hall is really odd. You can’t get close to where the passengers enter the hall, and I’ve been watching the four big monitors, and loads of people are emerging but very few of them are reaching the bit where I’m “allowed” to stand. I hope Jack reads the text I sent him, and goes to the meeting point then. Otherwise it could be a long and worrisome evening. Oooh he’s landed. Better go.

STOP PRESS – Got Him Yarooooooooooo!

Mon 25th Jun, Ko Tao, Gulf of Thailand

This is the first posting since I collected Jack at the airport ten days ago. Bangkok arrivals is a really odd place, since passengers can arrive in one of two places, which are then supposed to be funneled into one area. The problem is, for reasons I haven’t understood, the police would not let me into that area, and where I was allowed to wait, Jack could easily have gone a different way before he reached me.  As expected though, I was fretting about nothing, and Jack arrived about 10 minutes late, casual as anything. We made our way back to the Smile Society Hostel where I’d spent my first 2 nights in Bangkok, months ago and checked into our 4-bed dorm room. Then we wandered out to get some scran, and I managed to persuade Jack to try the delish street food, albeit, stuff he knew he liked, such as chicken, meatballs and banana pancakes – he did me proud.

Next morning after brekky we set off to do some of the sights of Bangkok, with a rather camp Brazilian guy called Ivan. What is really odd, is that last time I stayed in this hostel, I met another Brazilian called Ivan, who was gay. What are the chances of that?  We did two of the obligatory temples, via the river boat, although given it was about 36 degs and sunny, and was choccablok, we got a bit fed up of that and stopped for summat to eat. Then Jack and I went to Lumpini public park whhere we knew there were huge wild monitor lizards roaming about. It wasn’t long before we saw our first one, and then several others. The biggest was probably 7-8 foot long, although half of that was tail. We also found one that had just caught a fish, probably 18 inches long – God knows how, and we watched from a few feet away whilst the monitor devoured the fish whole, snake-like in just a couple of minutes. Scary Mary. Then we went into town again to try to get a couple of Thai Sim cards for our phones, and some cheap X-box games. We took a tuk-tuk but the traffic was so bad that after we’d done the first mile or so in about twenty minutes, we sacked him off and walked the rest.  Outside the mall that was our destination, we saw a sim card sales team and after debating the best cards for us, with a boy-girl thing who was the only one of the team who spoke good English, we bought em. This particular ladyboy, who must have been about 17-18 took a great shine to Jack, and told him he was very handsome. Not sure quite what Jack thought, but he did know the guy was a bit suspect.

Then we had to get back to the train station for our overnight train to Chumporn, where we’d get the ferry to Ko Tao, our primary destination for this trip, and the diving centre of all Thailand. There are better dive resorts in this country, but they’re all on the West (Andaman)Coast and the weather there can be pretty bad this time of year in their rainy season. Big waves, rain and poor visibility means a lot of the operators stop, and bring their boats in.

The train would have been good, better than the nightbus, since it’s a sleeper train withy proper lie-down beds, pillows, blankets and air con. The problem was, our stop was not the last stop, and we were supposed to arrive there about 4:30, so I spent so long fretting about missing our stop and waking up about 100 miles further South, I didn’t sleep very much. The train was about an hour and half late too, but this didn’t matter as we had about a two hour gap til the ferry left. As it happened, the carriage man knew where everyone was getting off, so “woke” me 10 minutes before we arrived. D’Oh.

Anyway we arrived in time to do a couple of dives that afternoon, and Jack decided he didn’t need a refresher dive, after 9 months without a dive – they’d have gladly charged us £35 for one – way more than a normal dive, by the way! He was peferctly fine, with only a couple of buoyancy issues.  Although Ko Tao translates as Turtle Island, there’s very few here these days, but we did see one on our first afternoon, still the only one we’ve seen in all our dives here. The next two days we did another four dives, the first was a right palaver. Both Jack and I and our third diver, Justin, a helicopter pilot (allegedly), from Canada all had problems. I started feeling sick, then so did Jack, and Justin reckoned he could hardly get any air from his regulator. Long story short, we all went back on board, switched tanks, had a seasickness pill and carried on, but we ended doing only a thirty minute dive – booooooooo! Chumporn Pinnacle was a fantastic dive, as many reef fish as I’ve seen on any dive (except Sipidan off Borneo of course – that’ll probably never be exceeded). Maybe Ko Tao isn’t such a poor substitute for the Andaman sea after all.

Throw in a day with an a.m. swim and p.m. snorkel on Shark Bay – no sharks 😦 day and a tour of the Island inc snorkelling day (Jack got sunbunt – ooopppps), and we were a week into Jacks visit already. Then, disaster struck …

I got a cold.

Yeah I know, it’s just a cold right? Problem is, you shouldn’t / cannot dive with a cold as you can’t equalise the air pressure in your head, which is a pre-requisite when diving. So given that Ko Tao doesn’t hold a lot when for non-divers we decided to leave. We had two choices: head about 12 hours SW to Phuket, or three hours South to Ko Samui, and then go to Phuket later. We decided on the latter.

So we took the ferry, but at the other end none of the taxi drivers knew our choices of hotels, as researched on Tripadvisor, so we ended up checking into a place that looked great, and in the centre-ish of town. Nice pool, big clean rooms. It was only after we’d checked in that I looked at the place on Tripadvisor, it was really lowly ranked, seemingly dragged down because at least two guests had recently been robbed there – probably as a result of an inside job, bags carefully repacked afterwards etc. Paranoia set in.  At this point I decided we’d try to find the place I’d originally planned on going to. Sadly it was a few miles away and again the taxi-bus driver didn’t know it. Eventually we found it and decided to book in for the following night. Then we went back to our own place and discovered they’ve recently put in a secure strongroom where both the guest and the staff need a seperate key to get into the lockers. The other problem with moving hotels was we’d have to do it at the crack of dawn as we’d planned to do an all-day tour next day. We changed our minds then and stayed where we were, making sure anything of value was hidden or locked in the strong room – again a right palaver every time you need summat – laptop, phone, e-reader, money, Jacks laser (!). But better than losing stuff. I have to say, it was a perfectly adequate hotel, right on the beach – with the finest white sand I’ve seen anywhere by the way, no midges, bedgugs or rats – we did have a tiny roaming gecko though, but we quite like those.

On the all-day tour we mainly did a stack of sea kayaking which was greeeeeaaaat fun. Obviously Jack hadn’t been aware of my reputation with boats, so he trusted me. We did try to do some snorkeling from the boat but the bits near the beaches had poor visibilty and we didn’t risk the deep open water in case we couldn’t get back in the kayak. Really loved being in the National Park in a kayak on our own though. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Soooo scenic.

Next day another tour with a stack of stuff going on. Finally, after resisting for so many years – I did one of those fish spa feet things. It was ‘orrible. Tell me, who’d pay good money to have their feet bitten (or sucked, as Jack says) and tickled. Jack thought it was hilarious – mainly cos I didn’t. Then we saw an elephant show – moral dilemma time again but we did enjoy it a lot – Jack volunteered to get stood on and snogged by an elephant, and an elephant ride (dilemma time again), and monkey show – who knew Monkey’s could ride bikes and play guitar – Alex excepted of course.

We also saw a really bizarre site where they’ve stuffed an old monk who was much venerated on this island, as recently as 40 tears ago, and built a temple around his corpse. The oddest thing is that he’s wearing wraparound ray-bans – presumably cos his eyes have “gone”, as opposed to mine that are only “going”.

Then onto the local big waterfall for a refreshing swim in the pool at the bottom, and a fantastic coconut and ginger soup. Well nice! (Jack said the burger and chips was v good too 😉

Oh, we also called in at grandfather and grandmother rocks. Two genatalia-shaped edifices that make for a tourist attraction here!

Then we had to decide whether or not to go on the long trip South to Phuket (probably still eleven hours doors to door) before heading North again to Bangkok a few days later. We’d targetted Phuket cos it’s more Western, and hence likely to find stuff for Jack to eat and do. In the end, since my cold went as soon as it’d arrived, we changed plans and took the ferry back to Tao, to get some more diving in. I think it was a wise choice. I really didn’t want to have to go there.

So we’ve been back on Tao for two days now, and managed another four dives, highlights have included some huge schools of barracuda and trevally, and at SW Pinnacle, large clouds of just stacks of … errrrm … well fish really. Jack’s been thrilled to have sat at the gun of a sunken 50m long ex-US navy troop carrier – he’s had to do his deep water qualification, so now he’s again qualified to dive to the same depths as I am, 30m. We’re in a really ropey bungalow (it’s cheap at £6 per night – can’t have Jack living in luxury the whole trip) but we do have access to the pool at the really posh hotel a few doors away, and it’s dead handy for the dive boat. We changed dive schools from last week partly cos of their crowded and messy dive boats, partly cos as open water “fun” divers, not adavnced and not on a course, we felt like the poor relations, partly cos we wanted to be near to the pier for easy access, and frankly to try a different resort.

Unfortuately because of the boat and train times back up North, and the pi55-poor reliability of the rail network here, we’re going to have to spend another day in Bangkok, or risk missing our flight home – I’d much rather have spent the day here. So tomorrow, after two more morning dives, we start our long way home. Glum I am.

Tues 26th Jun – Ko Tao to Chumporn Ferry.

Well it isn’t quite, but it feels very much as if the trip is over. We’ve left the island and on our way to the mainland to catch our train to Bangkok.  We got our two dives in this morning including our third dive of the week at Chumporn Pinnacle, one of the best dive sites in the Gulf of Thailand. However, due to an unfortunate or badly planned series of events we only managed a 23 minute dive (this is less than half the length of most of the dives I’ve done. The company we were diving with seem to have had a problem with the people filling the tanks so most were just over the absolute minimum quantity of air you should start with, and  about a third were even below that, so had to be returned unused. Then we had six divers in our group (more than the recommended resort guidelines of four) which slowed things down. We had an instructor who absolutely insisted we should all be on the surface before anybody got as low as 50 bar left in their tank (beca use there’s a $2000 fine if you do this in Australia – but we’re in Thailand). NB for non-divers out there, 50 bar is about 15-20 minutes “reserve” if you’re close to the surface. Then to cap it all we had a guy in the group who behaved frantically all the way through, so used his air at an alarming rate, which meant the rest of us had well over half a tank left when we had to surface. Not impressed! The frantic guy didn’t dive with us on the second dive thank God, so we had a lot longer – but still less than I’m used to. We did see several “new” fish (for Ko Tao) on the second dive though, and this was easily the better of the two, although it’s not as highly rated as the first site.

That’s twelve dives this week then, In terms of the sheer quantity of reef fish, some of the Ko Tao sites were as good as any of the sites I dived in April on the Andaman coast of Thailand, but the variety of sealife here in the gulf is nothing like as varied as off the West coast, or off Borneo. At Ko Tao, we saw only one turtle, one crocodile fish, and no sharks, seahorses, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, lobster, boxfish, lionfish, stonefish, scorpionfish, frogfish, leaffish, and I think we only saw one kind of fish on Tao that I hadn’t seen before. Still, very enjoyable, and a good choice for this time of year.  I think I’m now ready to take the next step, and book myself on a diving liveaboard for a week or two next year!  Similans or Indonesia anyone?

Waiting at the train platform we tonight we watched as the Eastern & Oriental train from Bangkok to Singapore , via KL, pulled in. It was full of old blokes in DJs and dicky bows, and women in ball gowns and loads of lippy. We had to laugh, with our bellies full of 95p chicken noodles, and burger and chips. I kind of wanted to go in with my ripped shorts and dirty-as-urchins feet with mangled oil-stained crocs, to see what response I’d get. I suspect I wouldn’t have even reached as far as the platform. One day I’d like to be rich enough to buy a ticket and still go on dressed as an urchin. Oooh, I can hear the tut-tutting from here.

We’re now on our train, it arrived only an hour and half late! By the time we booked it, all the good beds had gone, so we’re in the 2nd class non air-con upper berths. There’s very few Westerners on here – most are in air con and / or first class. I think it may be a choice between using the curtains for privacy or leaving them open to benefit from the fan-cooled air. I guess the Thais will have to avoid my pants then.  Whilst Jack and I were trying to get to our seats/beds, there must have been at least ten people walkinbg down the car with trays of bowls of soup. Who thought that was a good idea? Blokes with fat rucksacks versus women with trays of hot soup, trying to pass in a very narrow (and not even straight) corridor. That’s Asia for you.

I suppose it’s a sign of how well travelled Jack is (he’s been to Thailand, China, Egypt, Turkey as well as lots of Southern Europe) that he hasn’t really been surprised or shocked by anything he’s seen or experienced in the last couple of weeks. He’s really enjoyed the diving as well as the kayaking and the snorkelling, but defo didn’t like the couple of hours in the temple complexes in Bangkok. Good job he wasn’t there for the three days at Angkor Wat or the temple fests of Chaing Mai and Luang Prabang. He survived on Western food, as we knew he could in the tourist spots of Thailand – not sure he’d make it in Laos or Cambodia though.  Funnily enough, as we got off the bus at the railway station tonight, Jack discovered his rucksack was full of ants. I asked him if there was any food in there, at which point he remembered the massive bag of popcorn, biscuits, chocolate, crisps, cookies, cake, Kelloggs Squares and even Tunnocks him and his mum packed for the flight over nearly two weeks ago.  He never told me about them! If it wasn’t for the ants he’d have carried them all home again too. Now we’re working our way through them – minus the mouldy popcorn and and ant-infested cookies!  Nom nom nom.

Thurs 28th Jun – Stone, UK.

So at the start of the trip, I asked the rhetorical question as to whether I was too old for a gap year.  Well, I did over three months of it. And I’m so glad I did. I really wish I’d done so 25 years ago, better late than never and all that, but I also hope I’ll give it another go before another 25 years go by.  There was only one major mishap along the way, which with hindsight was probably avoidable; with only foresight, there was little I would have thought to do differently. There were definitely occasions when I felt like the oldest swinger in town, usually at the late night beach parties, or in clubs and club-style bars leading to heavy drinking sessions.

Physically there was nothing I couldn’t or wouldn’t do that the twenty year olds would – in fact it was usually the opposite, they’d be less prepared to walk or cycle anywhere, or to cope with the trekking and wild swimming that I would.

Mentally, it was a different story. I am absolutely so much more health and safety conscious than I was way back then. So for example, I avoided hiring motorbikes throughout the trip, cos of the very high accident rates, and as a result, I felt I missed out on seeing things I would have, if I’d been more confident. Having said that, I needed no excuse to get on a cycle and see more – but more often than not I was on my own, and of course the range on a cycle is much less than on a scooter. On this point by the way, I’d love to come back here and do some cycle touring, but I couldn’t do it at this time of year – it would just kill me! Way too hot.   Similarly I’m still not brave enough to jump off the roof of a boat or off a waterfall, like many of the people I was with – I probably would have, back in the day. I also stayed off the “Happy” (drugged) pizzas, shakes and coffees, which seemed to be consistent with most travellers over about 30. Seems like most of the 20-somethings dabbled in these areas, given any opportunity.

Technology-wise, I was less able to cope than the kids with their i-everythings, but that’s partly ‘cos I was being hammered by network charges, or I was at the whim of the ridiculously slow netbook I had with me. They all seemed to have an app for that, whether it was to convert currency, review a guesthouse, identify a specific fish, or locate a sh1thouse that still had a sliver of ar$epaper in it.

Financially, I was clearly better off than most, (although the German students do alright for money – talk about gadgets!) so every now and then I’d book into a place with a pool, if I felt like – they were usually less than a tenner a night. Even the thought of paying for a place with a pool would have some of my travelling partners in a hot sweat!

To my knowledge very few of the people I bumped into, hung around and drank with, or travelled and shared rooms with had any issue with me being older. I think if anything, they were slightly envious that I’d had the chance to travel around a lot of the same or similar places before they were born and before these same places had been developed and/or ruined by twenty years of backpackers all treading the same routes.

What has impressed me though is the sheer quantity of really bright people out there that are doing this travelling lark. Most of them seem sooooo switched on. I travelled a fair bit myself in my twenties, but I don’t remember being as well organised and knowledgeable as most of these folk are today. Maybe that’s what the improved Western-style infrastructure and the internet has done in the intervening years. I wonder what it will be like when the people on their gap year now are in their middle age?  Maybe Myanmar (Burma), Kalimantan in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and North Korea will be as Westernised in 2040 as Thailand and Malaysia are now.

Some of my most enjoyable times have been shared with people of a similar age to me, or older;  Mick, Billy, Julie & Rick spring to mind. That’s certainly not the whole story though. I’ve  had really good times with Jakob, Ivan, Soren, Laura, Jenny, Rav, Steffan, Marcus, Chu, Cyril and Kathryn, Devon, Conor, Jonny, Eglantine, Laura(2), Monica, Todd, Eduardo, Vi, DJ, Oscar, Leung, Koki, Fez, Anna, Beth, Li, Caroline, Bos, Dan, Irene & Katharina, Susan, Sarah, Clare, Ashley, Joe, Claire, Polly, Ivan (2) and most of those were half my age. Oh and Jack, he’s exactly a third my age.

So no, with the right frame of mind, I conclude I am not toooldforagapyear. Best start planning for the next one, eh?

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