Goodbye from Bangkok

Bangkok in the EveningFor the third time on this trip, we returned to Bangkok for one final stay. Ignoring any guest houses we stayed at the Sivali Place apartments located south of the Chao Phraya river for a bit of space and luxury during our final week. Annie loved the fact that she could get out of bed, walk down the stairs and have a clean 25 meter outdoor pool for a morning swim.

The city has good transport, along with the Chao Phraya Express Boat that Annie previously talked about, there is a vast Skytrain that runs above the streets covering the roads in concrete pillars. It’s great to use, has a smart card system and more importantly air conditioning, which made getting about so much easier. The only issue we had was our fancy apartments were a good three kilometres from the nearest stop, we knew this and accepted it as a trade off. The hotel staff were happy to call a taxi, but being frugal travellers (it was only about £1.20) we were happy to walk along, save a bit of money and see the city.

Bangkok is incredibly hot, I would say after months and months of sun and humidity we should be acclimatised but that would be wrong; walking to the skytrain I sweated so much my grey t-shirt was soaked looking like I just came from a gym. Looking around, the locals are all bone dry, they obviously know better and avoid the midday sun and excessive walks.

It’s been a very long time since we have had good beers, it’s not impossible to find some German and Belgian beers in Asia but they are normally three times the price of anything local. I go out my way to avoid Chang, the local Thai beer which is strong and terrible. Singha is the slightly more expensive option which is far from great but fills a gap. Doing some research on beers in Bangkok I was surprised to see that a new bar from Danish brewers Mikkeller had just opened, the city being as big as it is means it was 14k away from our hotel, but surely worth a visit. Using the directions we took the skytrain as close as possible and wandered around what looked like a residential area, wondering if I got my directions wrong. Overhearing someone else ask if the bar was nearby, we found the strange house with large beer garden awaiting with 30 craft beers on draft, heaven. The downside of such a range of great beer is that pints started at 300 baht (just over £5.50) and even cheekier, the “small” at 150 baht was a tiny glass which looked like it held about 200ml – forget that. It was definitely an expat hangout, good to try a bunch of beers but way too expensive for another visit, back to the Singha then.

Bridge Over The River KwaiA trip out to see the bridge over the “River Kwai” was on our lists to do, wanting to avoid tour groups we got up early and headed down on the world slowest train, which lacked any sort of facilities including Air Con, it was hot and a bit boring. Three hours later the train arrived, leaving us four hours to wander around and visit the war museum. All very interesting to read about how the railway was built by prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, how many people died in the horrendous conditions and how it fared during the constant bombings during World War 2. We aimed to get the train back later in the afternoon but managed to negotiate a super comfy taxi to take us all the way back to Bangkok which seemed like utter luxury after that train journey.

Fishy FriendTo sample more of the city, we booked on a slightly expensive walking food tour of Chinatown. It turned out just to be us and the tour guide, no need to fight for attention then. Wandering around the busy streets we went to six places to try all sorts of local food of various tastes. Annie did her best to pass over as much as she could to me, normally a good thing but these flavours did not go down that well. A bowl of noodle soup with liver, tongue, stomach and heart was one of the more memorable choices, it was a chore to get through one bowl never mind two.

A final day of travelling was spent soaking up the city, we decided to get Thai massages and spent a while walking around looking for a good place that wasn’t a brothel behind closed doors (the guidebook helped us figure out what was what). A Thai massage isn’t quite as relaxing as I expected, lying down your legs are bent, arms are stretched, knuckles are cracked and pressure points are pushed. I was concerned that I would fart during some of the moves, which may have been awkward! It was an interesting hour and we both came out unharmed, bonus.

And that’s the end of our travels! Six fantastic months, thirteen countries, across three continents stopping in about sixty cities and towns was never going to be easy, but well worth the effort. Was it perfect? No we made made a few mistakes with our flight bookings, flying in and out of places that didn’t make sense and some of our routes overland were not the most direct – all very easy to reflect on with hindsight.

We really only briefly sampled some of the countries, Chile and Japan come to mind, and missed out on others altogether due to lack of time, Central America and India both look fascinating and will be visited at some point.

Now back to home for some Irn Bru, Haggis and Shortbread!

Chiang Mai & Pai

Elephant Family

Heading north, instead of using another bus we went with an overnight train which as per normal left an hour late; the driver was probably away having his dinner, a wee chat or a sleep. We got on board and headed to our bunks, which were located on the aisle behind a little curtain. The bed was reasonably comfy but oh so noisy, I slept with my headphones in, attempting to block it out.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, we started the crawl around hotels and guesthouse in the old quarter, a large area surrounded by a river looking for somewhere to stay, after being turned away from quite a few which were full and seeing some grim looking place we picked a decent looking hotel with a pool, result. Good base for a few nights eating and drinking, one night was particularly messy with a strong glass of margarita turning to a jug, followed by another, whoops.

Elephant FeedingAn hour outside of the city lies the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, a fantastic place that is home to 37 rescued elephants, along with hundreds of dogs and cats – kept in separate areas. We initially looked in to volunteering for a week but they were full so we went with a one day visit. At £55 each it’s not a cheap day out but soon enough you realise the massive costs this facility faces.

Arriving in the morning we were in awe at the elephants wandering around so close. Taking a basket we headed over and started to feed them, placing large chunks of food in the trunks and watching them happily munching away. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is a continuous companion for the animal, sort of a big brother.

Elephant WashingThroughout the day we had the chance to go around seeing them up close, going in to the river to help wash them before once again feeding, they eat 10% of their body weight each day. It’s a massive operation to source, prepare and feed them.

After lunch we were told there is a cinema room showing a national geographic film on Thailand’s Elephants but were warned the last 10 minutes are hard to watch. It was really interesting, explaining that elephants are still classed as cattle and have no protection. Since the logging industry has ceased (due to a ban) they are no longer needed to pull logs and are abandoned or sold to the tourist trades. I’ve always been against the idea of the elephant tourist rides but looking at it another way, what other option is there for the locals to make money to support them? Tricky.

The film went on to show the utterly horrific method the use to break a baby elephant’s spirit, basically holding it in a tiny cage for three days whilst beating and torturing it with spikes, no food, water or sleep. Once the elephant can take no more, it becomes submissive to to it’s owner. Heartbreaking to watch, I can’t get my head around how the crew felt filming it.

36c SpringHeading further north, we arrived in Pai, a smaller charming town with a laid back atmosphere. Checking in to a nice set of bungalows we stumbled across, borrowing their bikes we cycled the 7k to the hot springs, normally this would be easy enough but combining bikes that were falling apart, hills and hot hot sun, it was a fair wee challenge. Arriving at the springs we had the option of various pools, starting at 34c they rose up to 38c, I managed to sit in 37c but found the higher one just far too burny!

After a few days in Pai, we started to head back south. There isn’t an easy way to get around Thailand as everything seems to head through Bangkok, realising this we decided to stop once again in Chiang Mai as there was more to see and do.

Biking PaulMountain Biking and White Water Rafting are two big things around here, being dry season rafting was not an option (wouldn’t get very far) so downhill Mountain Biking was the best option. I contacted a company offering rides asking for an intermediate level course to ensure we had some level of challenge. Annie came along but wasn’t as keen on the idea, starting the day off the guide didn’t seem to bother giving out much advise or tutorials until a few people in the group asked/pushed for some guidance, he eventually upped his game. One guy in the group who didn’t speak English came with his girlfriend, she said he was a biker at home and boy it showed, he was right with the guide the whole time throwing himself down the tracks like no tomorrow. On the way down we had various chances to go off the trails and onto single track technical routes, Annie did amazing and warmed up to the idea that it’s a lot of fun, as the single tracks got harder the numbers dropped, I kept pushing but when he started describing them as “hard”, I happily took a rain check and went around as I like my skin attached to my body and not scraped along a tree. One final single track run, the leaders scooted off just out of sight, I was navigating the path well (I thought) with Annie not far behind. Approaching the end with the riders stopped just ahead on the road I took what I thought was the correct route, to the right and suddenly off a larger than expected ledge. Landing to see the others chuckling, we noticed Annie was battering down the exact same route, “LEFT!” everyone shouted but it didn’t work, she went right and off the ledge, landing a bit rough but stayed on the bike fine! Fantastic fun, came away feeling we had pushed our level up a notch.

North Thailand, great fun but now the beach is calling.

Koh Chang

Looking at the islands just over the border from Cambodia, Koh Chang seemed like a good stop due to its nice beaches and nightlife. We aimed for the Lonely Beach side of the island based on some recommendations on things to see and do.

The view from our bungalow hutContinuing with the unplanned theme, we left the taxi and walked around a few places looking for somewhere nice to stay. In theory just turning up gives you flexibility, haggling power and the ability to stay in the best location. All of that goes out the window when you are carrying 25kg on your back with the midday sun beating down on you. Viewing a few is essential but it can quickly descend in to “sod it, this will do” with sweat running down your face. After first viewing a rickety wooden hut with no windows, we soldiered on and found a nice small bungalow hut off the main street, hopefully away from the late, late night karaoke noise.

Petrol stop!Koh Chang is quite big and there’s no easy way to get around without taxis, as per most of South East Asia motorbikes are king here. Passport theft is always an issue over here, one of the two fake passports used on the Malaysia flight that crashed was stolen from a traveller who handed it in as a motorbike deposit. Refusing to hand ours over we previously used the excuse that an embassy had our passports (that was sort of true – they had them a few days before) but this time just declined until we found somewhere who would take a driver’s licence and extra cash.

Biking around the island was fun, the bike was powerful enough to cope with the hills and let us see tons of scenery, open waters and lots of trees! Stopping at a pier, the water looked far too nice not to have a swim, why was no-one else in there? Jumping in at the end of the pier, we had fun until I noticed the crabs walking around where we needed to climb in, shit. Waiting for a gap, we made various failed attempt to climb up before falling in over and over, shit again. Eventually I threw myself at the side, climbed up with cuts and scrapes on my hands, legs and feet – great idea! Time to move on, from the viewpoints we could see quite a few neighbouring islands which were not inhabited but had kayaks rowing back from them in the sunset, looked like fun.

Paul on Koh Man NaiThe following day, we hired a kayak and hit the water and rowed over to the closest island that we could see. This was finally the desert island that the postcards show, no shops, no bars, nothing expect for crystal clear water, sand and trees, beautiful.

Spending a few nights on the island, we first noticed that the Thai people, famous for their smiles, are friendly and warm people who are interested in where you are from and just wanting to say hello. Thailand isn’t coming across as cheap as we expected, beers range from £1.50 – £2.00, a far cry from what the neighbouring countries offer but still not going to break the bank. Food is still cheap, interesting and quite varied – western options available to break up the monotony.

A fine stop.

Siem Reap

Temples Galore

North Cambodia, home to Siem Reap and the Angkor region with its famous temples (one was used in the Tomb Raider movie, bad film fact!). I’m not going to lie, I’m really bored of temples, Buddhas and the same tourist attractions over and over – we tend to skip past temples now as they all look the same and there’s plenty more ahead in Thailand.

Arriving in the city, we knew there would be plenty to see and do at night, it has a very active night life including a street called ‘Pub Street’ with large neon signs directing the way, which gave it a tacky Spanish island feel. The food was once again superb, plenty of choice both western (Pizza!) and lovely Cambodian rice based dishes.

One evening we left a restaurant trying to avoid one of the many beggars around but couldn’t miss the fact she had a thin looking baby in her arms. She said to us “I don’t want money, just milk for my baby” I brushed her off and walked on with it playing on my mind. Annie also heard it, asking if we should get her the milk she wanted. I said I’m sure it’s not right but for all it costs, why not. The begger had already walked away so we headed in to the 7-11 and looked at little fresh milk cartons in the fridge (naive we were). Picking out what we thought would be normal full fat and water for ourselves, we turned to see a little street kid race in with two Aussie backpackers on toe. He walked them right up to the $8 power milk cans and took it to counter. At this point it was an obvious scam, there was a queue and another few people said to the girls they had heard it was a scam, but the girls went on to buy not one but two cans of milk, we put our 50c carton back and left with water. Outside we were crossing the street when I saw one of the street kids dancing back up to the mother outside the store, shopping bag containing a milk can in hand. She clocked me looking in utter disgust, told him to hide it in the corner; it was obviously about to be returned to the shop for a refund before hitting up more tourists. Sad that she’s using her baby for what is probably quite a profitable scam, and FU to the 7-11 staff who are obviously on it, likely taking a cut on the refund. I wish I thought to open/deface the milk cans after purchase, making them useless for resale.

Private cinema in Canbodia, projector, comfy couch and popcorn, lovely.In a small shopping centre we saw a sign for ‘Tourist Cinema’, which turned out to be a little cinema showing all the latest pirate release. We decided to catch American Hustle, for $5 each – which is actually more than a legit cinema would charge over here, you get taken to a private room which has a couch, projector, decent sound system and a DVD player, after being in cinemas with assholes talking, it was a nice change to have it all to yourself, apart from Annie nattering away a bit…

Up at 4am, we booked a TukTuk driver to take us along to the main attraction around here, Angkor Wat which was located 5k away. In order to catch Sunrise we set off at 5am and didn’t think how dark, very dark it would be out there. At the drop off we started following the shadows of the people using the phone as a light source to avoid walking in to all sorts of rocks and rivers. Annie used her giraffe like legs to spring up on to the ledge of a temple to find a viewpoint, I fumbled up, scraping the side of my knee before falling back and realising there’s are steps just a few meters along, stupid darkness.

Sunrise was gradual, due to it being overcast, this left our photos being a bit drab but meant the rest of the morning was cooler than it would be normally. Arriving early gave us time to explore the main temple and some of the nearby temples before the crowds of tourist buses arrived, and boy did they arrive. Our driver reminded us that it was ‘International Women’s Day’ (a fact I was already aware of, thanks to Annie!) and therefore it was busier than normal.

The temples are rather far apart, when paying to get in you are given the option of one, three or seven day passes. Although its big, I can’t understand what the heck people do for seven days, each to their own I guess. We were happy with one day and with the help of our driver saw about four temples and enjoyed it. But early afternoon the sun was out baking everyone outside shade, the temples were swarming with tourists and the roads were jammed with TukTuk’s and busses – time to head back to the guesthouse for sure.

Phare in Full MotionOne final thing we caught in Siem was Phare, the Cambodian Circus. I saw a flyer for this back in Phnom Penh and was curious to catch it. The circus is all human, no animals being mistreated here, performing acrobatic skills along to a story which to be honest was lost on me. All the performers attend a local school formed by refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime, proceeds from the performances go directly back to funding this, seemed rude not to go along. It was absolutely stunning, all the performers showed amazing skill, the same standard as I’ve seen at Cirque Du Soleil in Vegas but with tons of smiles, they all appeared to be enjoying it as much as we did in the audience.

Another great stop in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh

SunsetArriving by boat in Cambodia, we had little knowledge of the country and what was on offer. The city of Phnom Penh was full of Tuk Tuk drivers wanting to drive you around the sights and no doubt their friends’ shops selling tourist tat, thanks but no thanks!

Two of the main attractions are about the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 and Pol Pot’s horrific acts of genocide. A section of the Genocide museum back in Mexico city covered this but to be honest after spending about the hours in there I was physically and emotionally drained and barely took any of it in.

With our trusty guidebook we headed to the “Toul Sleng Museum”, which was called Security Prison S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rogue and the evil dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. This former school was transformed in to a horrible set of tiny cells and torture rooms. These were used against anyone suspected to be against the Khmer Rouge, which included politicians, teachers, professionals and anyone with “soft hands”, yikes! Every single one of the 17,000 people detained here was photographed, documented, before they ended up at the Killing Fields.

Baby Killing TreeLeaving S-21, we headed down to the Killing Fields 14k outside the city. A large mass cemetery where the KR brutally murdered the Cambodians. A really well done audio tour is provided, allowing you to walk around taking your time in what is now a nice and peaceful garden, listening to first hand stories on what happened only 35 years ago. One horrible aspect of the KR is how they not only killed who they deemed against them, but also their full family including children to avoid any revenge attack. The “baby killing tree” and nearby mass grave sent shivers up my spine. The central shrine holds an eery collection of bones and skulls sorted by how they were killed.

At the end the KR killed three million Cambodians like this, a massive amount of the total population of ten million. Many of those responsible are still being tried.

Spending a few more days around the rest of the city, we found the Cambodians to be friendly warm people. Plenty of great places to eat and drink, beer was still über cheap and the food was amazing.

I was interested in going to the theme park that we walked past until I read Trip Advisor and the stories of people falling out of the rides, the body being moved the the ride reopening that same day, eh no thanks!

Hoi An

Knowing little about Hoi An, we started out dropped off in a tailors shop who were friends of Le Family Riders. We naively assumed they were just making small talk and giving us tea before we paid the bill and headed to our hotel.

Hoi An is famous for it tailors, the streets are lined with shops who will make you anything you want, a suit? Jacket? Shoes? Nothing is too hard for them. We were sat in front of catalogues, I was initially confused with the prices being in pounds until noticing the “Next UK” logo, and asked if we wanted anything. I have no use for a suit, my current suit is only dusted off when someone dies and I really hope I never get a job that forces me to wear one, so quickly dismissed their sales pitch. I was tempted with some form of smart jacket, but decided to stick with we are backpacking and this is far from essential, plus we would have to post anything home as carrying that sort of thing when it’s this hot is just silly. We made our excuses, ignored the hard(ish) sell and moved on.

The colourful streets of Hoi An at nightThe town of Hoi An is simply beautiful, a river runs straight through the middle with streets of shops, restaurants and bars all lit with Asian style lights. The locals sell cardboard Chinese style boxes with candles in them which you lay in the river and watch them float down, charming doesn’t quite cut it. We were once again in oldie travelling territory, lots of groups of people aged 50+ wandering the town, I can see the appeal as it’s all very easy to eat, drink and relax for a few days.

Renting some bikes, we headed down to the beach side where Annie got cornered by some guy who wouldn’t let her go down the road. We couldn’t quite figure out who he was employed by, as he was insisting that we park our bikes in the parking lot whilst letting tons of other cyclists past. When asked why they were allowed through he replied he knew them, they lived there – this was big groups of tourists and locals – ridiculous. Instead of making a scene, we just went around the back of his car park and continued on our way, you ain’t scamming us! A little secluded bar and beach area made a fine way to spend the afternoon.

Booking in for a local farming and cooking day just outside of the town in a small village, we hired a couple of bikes again and headed to the local market, Helen from the tour showed us the local fruit, veg and seafood before we headed to the farm to get stuck in.

FarmersStarting with farming, we were handed local clothes to put on and headed out to collect seaweed from the the water. Taking the seaweed we then went though the locals’ method of plotting, planting and watering. All good fun, the family really seem to enjoy what they do. I doubt our pitch was going to be great – I suspect they will dig it up for the next set of visitors.

Next up was Water Buffalo Riding, animal rights over here are non-existent, I do my best to avoid all activities where they are used, previously Annie fancied going to an Elephant “Sanctuary” but from experience these places should be avoided as most are just animals dragged around for fat western tourists, though we have our eyes on visiting a proper sanctuary in the future. For the buffalo I was undecided as they are used in farming here and appear to be in okay condition. Annie asked one of the owners “does this hurt the animal?”, language barrier kicked in and we got the usual reply when you haven’t been understood of “yes”, um… We ended up going on for a quick trot around the paddock, it wasn’t comfortable or an enjoyable experience at all, I’ll stick with my gut instinct in future.

Annie Making Rice PaperThe final part of the day was cooking some Vietnamese dishes, we went through the process of making rice paper; grinding the rice down to flour, cooking the flour on a thin cotton sheet, then rolling them into spring rolls filled with herbs and eating fresh. By this point I was so hungry and would have eaten anything, turns out they were superb, really tasty. Will try and recreate the method at home for sure. After them we were shown how to make various other Vietnamese dishes which turned out rather well.

A great experience and a really lovely town, glad we stopped here on our way south.

Heading for Hoi An

Sunset

Hue turned out to be just an overnight stop, after our longer than expected journey we wandered the hotels looking for a deal. The going rate seemed to be $15 a night but the standard was a bit low, we walked in to a posh hotel after the friendly concierge guy outside said they would do us a good deal, $75 a night was way out of a backpackers budget, though funny when you show no interest at all, they rapidly drop the price to $30. Probably ended up an amazing deal but we stuck to our guns and wandered on – we still have quite a while to go, no point squandering cash on accommodation

Biking To Dong HoiA random motorbike taxi was touting for business and showed us to a $10 a night hotel around the corner, after the lovely hotel on Hanoi we were disappointed but it was only one night so paid and got on with it (dropped our bags, went to the pub).

The next morning we had arranged to be picked up by ‘Le Family Riders’ for a motorbike journey down to Hoi An, the route is famous and now seems to be publicised as “as seen on BBC Top Gear”. Personally I’ve seen the episode but couldn’t really remember much about it, though was up for the journey none the less as it makes a change from buses, damn buses.

Jump!An very friendly meeting started the day as we joined in with another few, getting on the backs of the bikes and beginning our journey. Stopping at a waterfall gave us time to play in some cracking water, a large rock made a good jumping point in to the deep water below. Lunch was provided at a seafood restaurant on a pier above the water, walking in they had a market area filled with live fish, crabs and prawns, fresh as it comes!

The afternoon provided some epic views as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, cars go through the tunnel leaving bikes to go up amd over the hill. Sitting on the back of the bike whilst the driver wound around the corners as we got view after view, was really something special.

Final afternoon stop was at a pagoda and caves, getting a bit fed up with temples and pagodas, there is only so many you can see. These were quite nice and the caves had lots of extra exploring if you were up for a rough climb and scramble, but enough was enough, back to the bikes for a final cruse along the beach coast and in to Hoi An.

Hats off to the tour group, they pulled out every stop to make us feel so welcome, fed, watered and smiled their way through the day.