Monday, 19 July 2010

In which we climb a lot of steps and decide monkeys aren't that nice...

We arrived in Koh Phi Phi at about 11, and it was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly quaint. It's got a population of about 2,000, and it's entirely based around tourism - but despite this, it doesn't feel horrible and rammed. There are no high rise blocks of apartments, and the winding roads are just about wide enough for a motorbike and sidecar, but little else. Therefore, there are no tuktuks, few motorbikes and even fewer pushbikes. Everything is well within walking distance, and people tend to cluster around small areas on the island. Things get progressively more expensive the closer you are to the pier, but fortunately we were well away from that.

I am almost certain our accommodation had been sold to us on the idea that it was 600m away from the beach. It may well have been, perhaps on a map - but it was at least 20 minutes away from most things, up a steep hill, around three sides of a reservoir and beyond the "waste collection garden" - an ingenious solution to deal with waste, by planting flowers all over it - unfortunately, it doesn't conceal the smell at all and someone has scrawled "poo garden" on top of the engraved sign - so that was how we came to know it. When we reached a sign to our resort, we were ecstatic to finally be there... however, upon reaching it, we saw that each small bungalow was perched precariously on the side of a steep hill that was undergoing building works. Ours was 102 steps up roughly hewn steps with hoses and logs of wood scattered randomly around just hoping to trip you up. We fought our way up and got into what was actually quite a pretty room. The view would have been lovely if not for the thick trees obscuring our view of the two beaches. Oh well.

We soon grew to hate this room. There was no air conditioning, no hot water, no english language tv channels, an ants nest beneath one of the beds and ineffective mosquito nets. As a result, we spent as little time as possible there - but we still calculated we climbed up and down those 102 steps at least 3 times a day... over 600 steps! my poor calfs!

We went straight to the beach, which was glorious and beautiful, and had bbq'd corn on the cob - delicious :) then that night we went out properly for the first time in a while. There are reps with flyers like on every clubbing island in europe, so you know where to go. They drink from buckets here also, fairly dangerous amounts of alcohol, but kemi and I fancied ourselves hardened to their alcohol levels and threw ourselves into the spirit of the thing with a gusto. We went to the irish bar - as always, but they didn't serve guinness! We were appalled! And the 'girls night' playlist consisted of green day and guns and roses.. even more unimpressed. However, we met two boys - luke and jack, who we bumped into almost constantly until we left Ko Phi Phi, so that was nice. We ended the night in Stones Bar - a dubstep bar at the far end of the beach that kem and i went mental for. Most people end the night there, chilling out on the mats by the fire-adorned sand sculptures, but Kem and I were the last ones dancing as usual. Music finishes at 1.30 officially, but i don't think anyone was complaining. We sat under the pagoda and chatted to a group of lads from london until the wee hours and then returned home, exhausted but conscious that we'd had an excellent time.

The next day, we woke up late, grabbed ourselves some lunch and booked a tour for the next day. We figured that there was no time left to achieve anything real, so we decided to go to the viewpoint. People - and the guidebook - had warned us of the sheer effort required to get to it, but living where we lived, we thought we could handle it.

We did manage it. Just about. It was 186 metres above sea level - which is where we were! Pure, seemingly endless, steps going upwards relentlessly. After the 1st viewpoint, the steps peter out and you're left with a dirt track to the top. Such a mission! However, when we got there it was -very- pretty..not sure if it was pretty in equal measure to how hard it was getting up, but i'm glad i did it.

When we reached the bottom, we bumped into Luke and Jack from the night before, who were carrying a bag of bananas. We quizzed them on this, and they said there were monkeys near their accommodation and they were going to feed them. We tagged along, and indeed, there -were- monkeys. However, they swarmed around luke and jack, and i took the bag of bananas off them... then the biggest monkey snatched the bag of bananas from my hand and they all started growling at us. So. Scary. There was a french couple near us, and the man had the right idea, he was growling back and making himself big so that they would be intimidated. However, we were not so trained and instead just shrieked and ran away.. before cautiously returning.. and repeating. One smaller monkey seemed quite friendly with the boys, but its mother ran over and started screeching at them.. so we decided to flee, while we were still intact.

We returned home and had a nap before going out again.. this time we went to Reggae Bar - recommended by the guidebook - but while we were disappointed there was no actual reggae playing, there was a thai kickboxing platform in the middle, and people would get free buckets if they volunteered to fight in there with their friends. While Kem and I were tempted, we erred on the side of caution and watched everyone else instead. It was hilarious! We ended up at Stones again, and when we decided to go home, thailand decided to monsoon shortly after. Very uncool. You get used to the rain, but sometimes, at inopportune moments like those, it's still very very very annoying.

Friday, 16 July 2010

In which an excellent morning is balanced out by a dreadful night..

6AM is far too early to be getting up on holiday. Nonetheless, we wearily shoved our clothes into our rucksacks that seem unfathomably to be getting heavier with each stop we make, before getting into the van for flight of the gibbon.

We arrived at about 8, and our early bird group was comprised of 3 americans, four israelis (who we had thought were french...) and us. Again, the americans were from florida and california, thus far, no other states have been represented in thailand. Anyway, we met our guides - Cash and Bird - who were hilarious. They had absolutely no problem in pushing us off platforms 45 feet in the air and then rocking the wire back and forth so we swung dangerously (or so it seemed). It was such an excellent adventure, they loved torturing kemi because she wouldn't stop laughing (only tempered by screams of terror as Cash would push her off or drop her really fast down an abseiling section without warning) so perhaps she bore the brunt of their hilarious sadism.

When we were finished, we went to a waterfall where I decided to have a nap while kemi clambered and scrambled to the top with everyone else... after that we had a lemongrass juice which was lovely, and then a veritable feast for lunch. At about 1 we returned to our accommodation - only we had no room and nothing to do. We decided to have another go at finding Love at First Bite, only this time we took a tuktuk - who got as lost as we did! He thought we wanted th. chang mai soi 1, but such a place didn't exist, we actually wanted th. chang mai lamphun soi 1... I know! What a mistake to make!.....

We finally got there and it was beautiful, calming, green... the selection of cakes was fantastic too! Kemi opted for a hot chocolate, while i had iced chocolate and we both picked the brownie sundae. We had decided to spend the whole afternoon there, eating cakes in a decadent fashion. However, shortly after kemi finished her brownie sundae, and i had ordered a mango cheesecake, she began feeling quite ill. We decided to return to the hotel, where i despaired because my feet had swollen to the size of small children. While I tried every means possible to shrink my feet, kemi sat quietly by the pool, looking really really pale. Then she ran to the toilet and was horribly sick. She kept being sick at regular intervals until we were picked up. When we got to the airport - early, we set up camp near our check in desk, and a safe distance from the bathroom. A lovely man and his son inquired after kemi's health and offered her some medicine (we read the label, and it was a new packet, definitely fine) which she promptly threw up. After we checked in - and were hit in the face by a horrible luggage charge from AirAsia, we tried to find first aid, but gave up and kem just curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. At this point, i really wanted to take her to hospital, but instead I found first aid myself, and walked kemi there. The nurse- who had been happily watching thai soaps and eating dinner until then - was an angel. Kem sat down on the bed, and had her blood pressure taken, as well as being given anti cramping pills, anti vomit pills and a host of other things meant to make her better... if only she could keep it down.

Our seats were upgraded so kem was near the toilet, but it didn't make the flight any better. Poor kemi slept and threw up in turn, and it was horrible to see, but she refused to go to the hospital when we got to Phuket. We were exhausted, and when we got to the hotel in Phuket we didn't even care that there were cockroaches in the bathroom, and just passed out in a nicely airconditioned room.

The next day, we trudged through the mire that is Phuket to get to the beach and lay there all day. Stupidly, I fell asleep. I woke up a brilliant shade of lobster, which means that now, i'm not a cool tanned backpacker type, i am a sunburnt tourist. The distinction is v. important in how the thais treat you, so v. v. annoyed about that. Kem was still queasy, but managed to order a pizza at the harley davidson restaurant (we had given up on thai food, the idea of greasy noodles or fried vegetables made us both want to be even iller..) even  if she only ate half of it. We then went home and watched about 6 hours of Universal.. which is essentially a crime channel, so we watched Criminal Minds, Psyche, Life and about a gazillion other things. Fox News is the only english speaking news channel out here, so we're choosing to be ignorant of the goings on the world, especially after we accidentally caught the o'reilley factor and bill o'reilley spouting off about obama's misinterpretation of collective salvation... such. rubbish. We had an early night after that - had to be up horribly early again the next day for our transfer to Ko Phi Phi.

In which we vespa to find a sandwich..

So. Having awoken ridiculously late, we resolved upon getting ourselves scooters for the day and exploring the city - we had been somewhat ashamed that our only experience of it so far has been the night market, the english pub, and mcdonalds.

We went downstairs, avoided the clause that said it was necessary to have a driving licence and signed our rights away, eager to get on the vespa. Now. I can't drive, I have zero understanding of the highway code, and I failed my cycling proficiency test in year 6. I don't know what part of me thought this was a good idea. We practiced in the back streets, kemi whizzing along, and I, nervous as anything, trying to understand that if i squeezed my hands from nerves, we would go faster. Eventually, we reached a crossroads. A car was coming up behind me and i panicked. I thoroughly forgot the back brake existed, accelerated, freaked out, held the front brake, put my feet down and prayed. The result: holes in my shoes, a vespa on its side in the middle of the road, and thai people laughing at me from every direction. It was this that made me decide that perhaps biking wasn't my thing, so I returned mine and sat on the back of Kemi's bike. She turned out to be fantastic. However, we needed petrol, and in attempting to follow some bad directions, we ended up near the airport, very, very, very far out from where we needed to be. It was only with the directions of friendly local people and a lot of sign language that we made it back to the city walls.

The whole purpose of our expedition had been to find two food places, one called Amazing Sandwich, and one called Love at First Bite. Now, at the hotel, a receptionist had drawn us directions on a map to the sandwich bar, (chiang mai has a horribly complicated system of one way roads..) and after three hours of struggling, getting lost, losing hope, finding hope and renewed enthusiasm for our sandwiches, we drew up outside a distinctly uninspiring grey building with the words "sandwicth bar" inscribed tinily on a plaque. We blanched. This couldn't possibly be the place - where was the amazingness?! I cautiously stepped inside - it was empty - and attempted to converse with a waitress who didn't speak a word of english, couldn't read a map and would have been the worst charades partner in the world. I mimed eating a sandwich with a quizzical expression and she just burst into peals of embarrassed laughter. Who knows what she thought i wanted! In the end, i cut my losses and retreated with kemi and got out the guide book. Kemi's guidebook had agreed with the receptionist, mine had said it was on a different road, so we tried the address stated in mine, and got there in an alarmingly short time - although it was still three hours since we set out. Needless to say, our sandwiches were amazing. It was like subway but on a whole new level. You chose a bread type, two meats, four vegetables, 3 cheeses, two sauces and then a side. Oh my goodness. SO worth it.

However, now it was 5pm and we had but an hour to find Love at First Bite, a cake shop - we were informed - of such amazing cakes that we had no choice but to hunt it down - plus, i had been craving real cake for a while now. We searched in vain for about an hour and a half, and then conceded defeat and returned wearily to the accommodation. We returned Kem's bike - undamaged! We were still alive, and hadn't done anything ridiculously stupid - except accidentally going down an unsignposted one way street, and veering off into what looked like chaing mai's hidden red light district.

That night we returned to the night market to buy shorts and trousers for flight of the gibbon the next day, and we returned at about 11, exhausted and needing to sleep since we were up at 6 the next day, to pack, check out and go gibboning.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

In which scorpions, frogs, elephants and waterfalls provide the backdrop to a revelatory experience.

Kemi and I had signed up for a two day trek in bangkok for chiang mai. We didn't really know what to expect, except that we knew there would be elephants and rafting at various points. We hadn't banked on serious effort in walking.

We got a 4x4 to the starting point, we were a group of 11 with three british (a guy from aston named Suk made the third), two french canadians (Pascale and Gabi) and 6 french. Luckily for us, our (hilarious) guide JJ forced everyone to speak english, because our monoglottism meant that everyone had to make concessions for us. Our group had maybe 10 languages between them, and me and kemi contributed exactly english to that - woop the english educational system!

We began at the elephant farm, we were high up in the mountains (or so i thought) north of chiang mai, and we were assigned elephants in twos, before we ascended our elephant, a baby elephant took a liking to kemi and wrapped her leg in its trunk and tried to push her over, it was hilarious. When we were on the elephants, we went on a small trek, up steep hills and through mud, which fortunately our elephant - unlike the others - chose not to spray all over us. We could sit on their heads and their massive ears would flap over our feet and fan them - it was lovely. When that was over, we drove up slightly higher to where we would walk from.

Our walk was mostly uphill, at a ridiculous incline - imagine an analogue clock showing the time two o'clock. The angle that the hour hand is at, is the steepness of our path. I use the word path loosely, it was a muddy mess, with slippery rocks and roots providing the stepping stones, pure, sheer, undiluted effort. It was a blessing when we reached a waterfall in which we could bathe - it was really beautiful and relaxing. Nonetheless, the trek had to continue, so we set off again.

Kemi and i kept up a healthy pace though, remaining at the front of the pack with Suk, Pascale and Gabi. However, we were so fast that we soon left the rest of the group behind, and we were left with Nak, JJ's 13 year old cousin who hadn't done the walk before either, or perhaps only once, and didn't speak a word of english, but pointed and smiled with utmost charm. We reached a horizontal path, and kept going in the vague direction we had been for the rest of the walk - however, we took a break about half an hour later, only to realise that we had no idea where the rest of the group were. We yelled, wandered back and forth, when luckily some villagers coming home from the rice fields walked by and nak asked them for directions. We reached the village intact, only to discover that the others weren't there - they had gone back to find us! Fortunately, we all regrouped about ten minutes later and we could have a look around our accommodation for the night.

We were just outside a hilltribe village (powered by solar energy, the smarties) in a place with one kitchen, one toilet and 5 bedrooms. All were made of bamboo and leaves for the roofs. The view was staggering, we were on the edge of what looked like a valley so as we looked out, we could see really far below and beyond, and because it was a clear night and there was obviously no light pollution, we could see the stars and the fireflies. After dinner we taught Pascale and Gabi how to play spoons, and JJ gave us a rendition of the thai national anthem.

Kemi and I had cleverly managed to get ourselves the biggest room, and the most well insulated, but because we were playing cards, we swapped with two french women who didn't want to be woken up by Gabi and pascale when they came in to sleep. As we were swapping over, we heard a scream in our new room.. we rushed in to find out that there was a scorpion on the wall. A genuine, vicious looking scorpion. We freaked out. Suk managed to nudge it outside, but outside was literally just on the other side of a milimetre thin bamboo wall, and there were gaps in between the walls and the ceiling. We nervously altogether unrolled our bedding to check for more nasties, and frantically put up our mosquito nets, all to the cacophony of deafening frog croaks. They were everywhere, but you couldn't see them, just hear the harmonies of their croaking cranked up to 11. It was an awful night's sleep. We were really nervous about scorpions lurking about, and didn't want to move lest we dislodged the mosquito net from under our sleeping mats. I had to get up in the middle of the night to dash to the toilet about 30 metres away from our camp, and it was so dark and so terrifying - but somehow we survived until the next day! Hurrah!

Now, the logic is that if you climb uphill to get somewhere, you must go downhill to return. Apparently not. Our journey to the bamboo rafts was steeper uphill than the journey there, only it was tempered by equally steep periods downhill. I don't know which i disliked less. However, as we trudged onwards, drenched in sweat and trying our hardest not to fall over, I maintained my position as fifth in the pack of 13, I realised something: I am not dreadful at walking. In fact, i really rather enjoyed it - only in retrospect of course, at the time i was happy and miserable at the same time. What propelled us onwards was the realisation that if we stand still, the insects WILL get us. Dying of exhaustion beats dying of insect bites any day, and we practically jogged our way home. I counted this morning how many bites I have - 68 on my arms and legs. They are horrible, insects here have a resistance to insect repellant, might as well just lay myself out on a banana leaf and invite them all to a Jo-Buffet.

Nonetheless, we reached the river for bamboo rafting, and that was a lovely conclusion to our trek, the river was not as nice as in vangVieng, and the locals were not as friendly, but it was soothing regardless.

On the journey home, we continued our theme of interesting cross-cultural conversations. We worked out idioms in different languages and the difference between 'I'm french' and 'I am french' as well as finding out other countries' stereotypes - it was really really interesting. We resolved, Gabi, Pascale, Suk and ourselves, to watch the football together that night, so having feasted and washed, we set off for the night market quarter.

We found an English pub (next to a german beerhaus, populated by thai women in dirndls, quite the strangest sight i think i've seen in thailand thus far) and noticed that it, like most of  chiang mai, was a sea of orange. Kemi and I had resolved to support Spain, and we tentatively sat ourselves near the 60 inch screen. There were some english boys near us, who had initially worn spanish tops and then swapped for dutch ones upon seeing the crowd, so we borrowed their tops for the game - i was ramos, kem was fabregas. What a match. It started at 1.30 am and we didn't get in until half past four in the morning. We sampled the delights of thai mcdonalds and did jagerbombs with the non fizzy thai redbull and chatted to the columbians behind us. All very interesting.

Today is our first day off in a while, so we're taking it easy for a while, might get out mopeds and explore the town later, shall be v. v. interesting.


In which thai music is not conducive to a good night's sleep.

On our last morning in Laos it is swelteringly hot. Dressing for a long bus journey is always a risk, do we dare to hope that the air conditioning is on and moderate? Will there be none? Or will it be an ice box? These are the important questions that punctuate my life right now. I had optimistically banked on airconditioning and was wearing harem pants. Before the bus had even arrived I was a veritable puddle on the floor of the internet cafe, and no amount of pineapple smoothie could revive me. Fortunately, Laos is nothing but understanding in these circumstances, and I bought some fantastic shorts for the journey.

Our transfer bus rocked up. It was a rusty, 14 seater minivan. There were already 10 rugby boys in there, towels in hand (smart travelers actually DO carry a towel with them everywhere. thank YOU hitch hikers guide..) so Kem and i cautiously slid in beside them and prayed that this was simply a transfer bus to another one. Fortunately, it was. But only after two hours. At Vientiene we were dropped off and had to make our way to another minivan, this one was even more cramped, and sweaty. all the seats were gone, but where the aisle should be, a little shelf thing pops out and we had to sit in those. It was like a sweaty, hellish cinema, with absolutely no leg room and tired, annoyed travellers passive aggressively fighting for elbow room.

When we got to the border, we had to queue for about 40 minutes to get through, and when we had, we hopefully scanned around for some kind of luxury transport to get us to Chiang Mai. Our prayers were answered! There was a massive, double decker, pimped out air conditioned bus, with karaoke at the front and everything! It was bliss! As we reclined our comfortable seats and kicked out our footrests, I exchanged a smug look with kemi - this was the life.

Unfortunately, twenty minutes later, we stopped for food, and the coach driver shouted "CHIANG MAI CHANGE BUS." We felt a shiver run down our spines as we followed the direction he was pointing in, only to arrive at a dilapidated run down old minivan, with two french women standing outside smoking beckoning us towards them - haggard sirens dragging us to what we were sure would be our end. We clambered inside after a hearty meal of rice and vegetables, and there were 9 of us in the 12 seater van. Fortunately I had two seats to myself, but it only lessened the indignity of the following twelve hours slightly. For the first four hours, the driver played american rock music from the sixties, and then swopped to power ballads in an attempt to lure us to sleep. The second it hit midnight, he must have assumed we were asleep, so he changed to pure thai pop. If you've ever heard thai pop, it's one of those awful, uptempo genres with the singing on an eastern scale and a pounding electronic bass. Impossible to sleep to. I gritted my teeth, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to tell myself it would be over soon. Unfortunately, it was over in 8 hours. I maybe managed about 40 minutes sleep in that, Kemi tells me the driver kept pulling over to have a nap by the side of the road - i wouldn't know, i was certain that if i kept my eyes shut throughout i could pretend it was all a horrible dream. Unfortunately not.

We got to Chiang Mai and took a tuktuk to our accommodation, we are staying in a place called BMP residence - it stands for backpackers' meeting place, and it's kind of lovely. Ten minutes from the centre, and eco-friendly. The first night we decided to go to the Night Market. It was fantastic, so much useless stuff to be bought in so little time - we were also ecstatic to note the mcdonalds, burger king, starbucks and pizza hut all more or less adjacent to each other. The McDonalds here is A) 24 hours and B) delivers! I don't know which is more fantastic - and they have a DOUBLE BIG MAC. The mind boggles. Anyway, I digresss. Kemi and I bought some clothes and niknaks, and i bought my first bracelets of the trip - admirable restraint shown so far in that department! Then we followed a recommendation for ice cream and had one of the most fantastic lemon and mango cones i've ever encountered. We had a hectic day the next day so we decided to retreat and sleep.

VangVieng! We must drink then we must float!

THIS for the uninitiated, is tubing in VangVieng in Laos. Thousands of beautiful people flock together to this sleepy village in central laos to float down a river in a rubber ring, fling themselves off one of the many bars along the side, and drink whiskey from a bucket.

When Kem and I arrived in Laos, we didn't really know what to expect, we thought it would be a good idea to go swimming, and so we packed our things, and got a tuktuk driver to take us to a place we could swim. When we arrived, he had dropped us off at bars 1, 2 and 3. Each was swarming with tanned, excitable backpackers and blasting music out at a ridiculous volume. It's not often that Kemi and I are wearing the most clothes in a crowd, but we were by far that day! Slightly cowed by the prospect of being the only sober people in the group, we retreated back to our hotel, resolved that tomorrow, we would do it right.

We explored the town, VangVieng is a student's paradise, there are variously bed bars showing constant repeats of family guy or friends, and so much lovely food for so cheap! 10,000 kip (about 80p) will get you the most wonderful chicken and mayonnaise baguette from a street vendor, i could have lived on them! And we continued our habit of drinking fruit smoothies whenever we could - we are definitely getting our five a day! That night we went to the only irish bar in laos, and met a girl called Nadge (nad-ja) who had been travelling alone, and was from switzerland, we stuck with her for the next day or so. We went to Q-Bar, and danced the night away - we were incredibly excited when, after persistent efforts, we finally persuaded the dj to play DUBSTEP! Kemi and i went a little bit insane in the sweat-drenched crowd, and we sloped out at about 2.30 and went to bed.

The next day was our first genuine experience at tubing. We found our way to the tube hire place - 50,000 kip for hire, 60,000 deposit, and got our tuktuk to the first sleepy corner. As we lay in the lazy river, staggeringly beautiful cliffs surrounding us, we thought it wasn't too hectic... then we turned the first corner and found ourselves back at bars 1,2 and 3. At bar one, everyone tends to sit on the edge of the bar, feet dangling above the water, watching the people on the monkey swings (kind of like a trapeze, only you have to choose to let go and slam into the water) and cheering or booing appropriately. We had our first cocktail and drifted onwards. It's really hard to explain just how wonderful tubing is, you drift past bars and Lao people throw out bottles of sprite on strings to drag you in, you get a free scorpion shot at every bar - but a scorpion shot is an unnamed liqueur in which a massive scorpion or snake has been pickled, so most people tend to refuse those. The music is wonderful, the people are wonderful, you chat to whoever you're drifting near or who's at the bar you're in, and you can talk for hours only realising that you haven't even learned their names as they drift out of sight.

There was one particular bar with a massive slide that curved upwards so when you reached the end, you were propelled into the air at an alarming speed. The american couple we were with (G and Laura) were up for anything, so they went, then Kemi and Nadge went, but... my least favourite things in the world are heights and deep water, and this was a  terrifying combination of the two... I resisted going for a while, but eventually kemi persuaded me. It was horrible. I got to the top and almost backed out, but then whizzed down and the feeling of freefalling in mid air is sheer heartstopping terror, then you're plunged into murky green water and all you can hear is your heartbeat racing. I may be exaggerating somewhat, there were children going on it again and again and again, but it was just so scary for me.

Towards the end, the bars stop and there's 40 minutes of calm, sleepy river. It was dusk when we reached this, and absolutely stunning. The five of us (kem, nadge, G and laura) bumped into a large group of people, and we all linked up to make a line of about 15. They were mostly english (like most of laos.. english and irish... in fact, almost everyone was irish..) and at the end, a hoarde of lao children dragged us in to the shore, but took half of us one way, and half the other. The half that were taken away from us were screaming and screaming, which was hilarious because the water was only calf deep at that point, and they were 6 24 year olds being kidnapped by two 8 year olds. After that we went to Q-Bar, and again, danced ridiculous amounts.

The next day, we attempted to find plastic rings, rather than rubber ones, on the 'black market' - they're essentially 'forbidden' by the tourist office of vangvieng so they can profit from the extortionate rates on the rubber rings. We failed significantly, clearly we didn't look reliable enough. We had determined that today we would tube 'properly.' By properly, we mean, fairly totalled. However, we were cautious about how much we drank, and chose to share a bucket at each bar we stopped at. We had discovered the previous two days that what Lao people call red bull, is actually a coffee flavoured syrup, which explained why our vodka red bulls always tasted like weak nescafe. Therefore, we had decided to stick to whiskey. Our resolve did not waver when at the first bar, we found out that a whiskey bucket contained 4/5s whiskey, and 1/5 ice and lemonade. In retrospect, perhaps it should have. Nonetheless, it gave me the courage to try an actual monkey swing, and i flung myself with cautious abandon from a platform into midair, then the water. We spent most of the river with a group of guys we had met the previous two nights, spenser, lloyd, dan, nick etc, and bumped into the Godalming guys along the way. By the time we reached the bar-less stretch of water, it was pretty dark, and the time spent in reflection alone on my tube led me to the conclusion that actually, i was far too drunk to be in a river, but there was no escape! So i drifted onwards, praying for the end to come.

My memories from hereon are filled in mostly by kemi, apparently, we climbed up through some reeds, returned our tubes and then returned home. This was at 8pm, and I just fell asleep the second i got in. I woke up at 2, determined that I had slashed open my toe on a rock somewhere, but apparently i had been impervious to pain, and that I was incredibly hungry, so Kemi went and got me a baguette while I tended to my wounds (sorry mum for mocking the antiseptic-wound wash. it's actually been really useful). Then, due to an inability to sleep more than 6 hours a night, I stayed up and read most of the night. Party. Animal. Thus, my last in VangVieng was wasted, and I have resolved not to drink to such an extent for the rest of the trip. I hope.

To do: Bus trip to Chiang Mai, Night Market, Trekking, football final!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

VangVieng: we DUBSTEPPED in Laos!

Ok, so I left you at us being incredibly organised. Suprisingly, that has mostly continued so far..

On Saturday we checked out of the hotel and left our stuff at the fantastic domestic reservations office, and then popped to the weekend market in downtown bangkok. Oh my goodness, there's nothing else like it in this world. We got there by skytrain, and as you ride over it, you just see this massive expanse of white roofing. When you get there, it looks pretty small, you step past the street vendors, cautiously buy a bottle of water - just in case, and clutch onto your bag as you duck past the first hanging display. Then suddenly, you're in the midst of it all! To one side there's a man selling ivory elephants and tusks, there's a knife and sword stall to the other side, swathes of colourful material draped everywhere, incense masking the smell of sweat. It's organised in rows and columns, so kem and i decided to do it systematically, going up and down the columns. After about two hours we counted 17 more columns to go, so we dived out the otherside for some air and coconut icecream. Then we saw that on the other side of the street, there were even more stalls! It was INSANE! But so wonderful, i invested in some crazy traveller pants, everyone has them in bangkok and they make me feel a little less touristy.

We then headed for the train station - only after discovering Tesco Lotus! You might call us wimps, gravitating towards the only english brands we could find, but technically, it's where real thai people do their shopping, none of this touristy street stuff for us! It was such an adventure, we discovered that crisps that're green in thai, aren't salt and vinegar, but actually seaweed, and that pringles come in crab flavour, and blueberry and hazelnut! Bizarre! Kemi discovered to her disappointment that ribena doesn't actually exist in thailand, and was suitably heartbroken. We managed to lose each other as well, typical us, surviving the street market chaos but getting lost in tescos!

The sleeper train to Vientiene was certainly an adventure. The chairs folded out to make beds, but above that a shelf folds out to make bunk beds, and that's where we were sleeping. The lights remained on throughout, and as usual, the airconditioning was brutal. Probably managed about 2 hours sleep - seems average for thailand so far! When we got up properly, we were in the middle of rice fields and marshland, it was beautiful. We got to Nong Khai which is where the border is, and were panicking because we didn't know what we were supposed to be doing, we were -this- close to phoning Del and freaking out, when I noticed a thai man eagerly scanning the crowd, holding a piece of paper. Turns out, we were booked under Mr. Joanna Barrow and Mr. Kemi Clark, but fortunately disaster averted! He was a legend, fasttracked us through immigration and getting our visa, and filled out all our paperwork for us, which was just lovely.

When we got to Vientiene, the capital of Laos, we couldn't believe it. Having just left the capital of thailand, we were expecting something a little more lively, but it was just the sleepiest town - and genuinely sunny! No clouds in Laos, which was nice. We explored, got bikes and had a look around the town, having surmised there was little to do, we had an early night.

It turns out we were late for the bus to Vang Vieng, so when we got in, there were no two seats next to each other.. we wandered the aisle desperate for seats, but the only space was at the back, one next to a quiet german, the other right at the back in the middle of four, sweaty, topless boys. Evil person that I am, i shotgunned the seat next to the german, and Kemi was left to make friends with the boys. Air conditioning, again, gave us hell, it was so weak, and we were broiling in the heat.

Again, my time is up, I have a 16 hour bus trip to chiang mai.. will fill you in on VangVieng next time, it's so incredible you wouldn't understand!


Friday, 2 July 2010

In which we arrive, fail to acclimatisem and fulfil most stereotypes of gappers...

Hello everyone!

We have been in sunny, glorious thailand for two interesting nights so far. Needless to say it's been full of adventure, mishaps and uh.. baked beans on toast.

The flight was awful, we watched shutter island on the premise that it would be, y'know, interesting - and not mess with our minds significantly enough to prevent sleep for most of the trip. Alas, that was not the case and we were stuck wide awake on a cramped, long flight. When we got to mumbai (it turns out india looks -just- like heathrow airport, only more cell-like) it turned out our flight was delayed, and that when we sacrificed our bedseats to go to our gate, it had been for nothing. Cue sleeping in public places.. something I think we'll be doing a lot of this holiday.

We were fortunate to be seated next to a consummate traveler who had absolutely no qualms about informing us everything we should and should not do in thailand, and then pushed the idea of going to Bali on us, something we briefly considered - only to have Kemi suddenly develop a reaction to her airline food and excuse herself from the (fascinating) conversation to swiftly and expertly epi-pen herself. Seriously, she was excellent, if I was worried before, I definitely am not now.

Upon arrival in Bangkok, we followed the guidebook's directions and made our own way to the bus.. why we had people asking us if we were lost is beyond me! We experienced the charms of escalators that slope downwards, then veer to a horizontal postition, then back downwards again - truly the sign of a different culture! And despite the fact that almost everyone was predominantly english or american, it felt kind of exciting and new.

The efficiency of the bus's airconditioning was truly a marvel, who would have thought it was possibly to freeze in 34 degree weather - and certainly, providing a off switch seemed a step too far for the airshuttle service... nonetheless, it was exciting when we experienced our first tropical storm, literally nothing like we have ever had in england - it's sudden, torrential and lightning fills the sky every couple of minutes. |

The rain was still forthcoming when we arrived at KhaoSan road, and immediately, Kemi and I were targeted as newcomers and kind people (or so we thought) helped us work out where we were supposed to be going, and against kemi's better opinion and all advice we had received to the contrary, I opted to get a tuktuk, if only to get out of the rain. I remember thinking, right, work out a price beforehand, don't get scammed.. so we settle for 100 baht (about two pounds) and I was feeling pretty smug as the TukTuk left.. in the wrong direction..

I spluttered in protest and pointed him out on his mistake, suddenly imagining waking up in a dumpster without a kidney... fortunately, they have one way systems too in thailand - who knew! But we literally travelled round the block, and were dropped off less than 20 metres from where we were picked up. Ouch.

Having checked in, refreshed ourselves and made a giant mess of our room, we decided to explore. Our adventures took us all of 6 metres up the road to the vibrant, english language thai restaurant and bar next door to us. We had the most amazing food, and then discovered Mai Tais in thailand are really the loveliest things in the world. We were on our third, I think, when two american guys introduced themselves to us - Travis and Tyler, because, as Travis put it "Travellers just.. like.. get on, y'know?" and we debated everything from our collective failure at the worldcup, and real estate in orange county. We then met an english couple, carmel and will, and we decided to go to Patpong Market. It was fairly seedy, i'm not going to lie, with short thai men approaching us with lists of 'shows' that we could go and see. Nonetheless, there were significantly less english people here, so despite the griminess of it all, at least we could maybe claim to have seen a portion of the real thailand... though I doubt it so far..

We ended up in a couple of bars with thai bands playing excellent covers of what sounded like to be mostly the black eyed peas. Tyler tried to bribe them with 1000 baht to play the Spice Girls, but they were having none of it! Time had marched determinedly onwards, and it was approaching 3am - 9pm in english time, but we were shattered! We said our goodbyes to the guys (who were off to cambodia tomorrow) and rocked up to bed. The efficiency of the airconditioning was again, noted, and much of the night was spent in a silent cold war as Kemi and I woke up at different times in the night to variously turn it off and on.

The next morning, disgracefully, we slept in til 1. We had determined to 'be cultural' today and visit the temples, so naturally, hours were spent trying to find appropriate clothing. We managed to leave at about three, and, fruit smoothy in hand, but thoroughly mapless, we resolved to make our way to the temple of the emerald buddha. We had a vague sense of direction, but Kemi had resolved herself against taxis and tuktuks, and so we ended up standing at what we thought was a busstop, trying to decipher the bus routes. Eventually, we turned to the first caucasian person we could find (it's fairly safe to assume they're european) and begged for help. She told us it was only a few minutes in that direction, so we korp khun ka-ed her (thank you in thai, we're learning fast!) and hurried in that direction. We made it as far as the city shrine, before realising that all the temples would be shut as they close at 3.30. So while we admired the shrine, we decided to just explore.

We ended up wandering down small markets in alleyways near the river, they're fantastic. Each stall sells a wonderful variety of things, and sometimes you think that it's just where they live. There was one man, sitting on a cracked leather seat, with a mickey mouse parasol over his head, watching a black and white film on a tiny tiny television in intense silence, with absolutely no regard for everyone around him. We lost ourselves about six times that afternoon, but always eventually managed to make it back to a place we recognised.

We had to book our train tickets to nong khai, and - again mapless - chose to pick a direction and walk in it, hoping that eventually we'd reach hualamphong train station. It took all my efforts to convince kemi that bangkok is HUGE and we'd be better off with a taxi, and in the end, it took a frenchman deriding our attempts for us to shamefacedly crawl into the nearest air-con'd taxi and drive the half an hour to the station.

After we booked our tickets, we decided to explore chinatown (because apparently we had bored of thai culture already..) and we wandered around, trying to find the golden buddha. We noted a temple and beelined for it, only to have a thai man tell us it was a chinese temple, and not the right thai one. However! A stroke of luck had ocurred! This man was a thai english teacher, and he recommended to us the Domestic Reservation Office, a government organisation that basically plans out your trip for you. He got us a tuktuk there for 20 baht (this is when we realised how much we'd been overpaying..) and a lovely man named Del Ninho planned every last detail for us. Therefore, this is what we will be doing

Saturday: train to Nong Khai (twelve hours!)
Sunday: Bus to Vientiane, one night there
Monday: Bus to ViangViene, three nights there
thursday: Back down to Nongkhai
Then we'll be doing trekking and high wires in chiang mai, flying down to Phuket and spending three nights in Ko Phi Phi, then three nights in Ko Pha Ngan and then three nights in Koh Tao, before training it back up to Bangkok where we'll spend our last night in absolute luxury and come home to miserable england.

My time is out! Will update you more soon!