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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Return to the UK and the 7.22 to Liverpool Street...

So that's it. Fini. Finito. It's all over.

As we sit on the baking-hot bus travelling back to Bangkok we gaze out of the window and silently ponder the last six months, and the many fantastic experiences we have had. It's 35 degrees outside,(and about 37 inside due to the lack of air-con) so I whip out my notebook and start doodling to pass the time. I'm a list kinda gal, I like the feeling of organisation, so I start to absent-mindedly jot down the things we'll miss about travelling, the things we won't miss and the highlights of the trip...

Things we'll miss about travelling:

1.The complete freedom - being able to jump on a plane at a moment's notice to somewhere completely random and exciting.
2.Watching pink-and-orange sunrises and sunsets.
3.Interacting with wildlife we could only ever usually see on the Discovery channel.
4.Meeting interesting people with amazing stories to tell.
5.Discovering new cultures and learning more about history than we ever did in the classroom at school.
6.The low prices.
7.Wall-to-wall sunshine every day and the bluest skies imaginable.
8.Drinking alcohol every day and not being regarded as an alcoholic.
9.Not getting hangovers from the aforementioned alcohol - how comes the sunshine removes the need to mope about?
10.Not having to go to work.
11.Cute baby animals everywhere - most countries don't believe in (or can't afford) neutering.
12.Gorgeous exotic food, rather than British stodge for dinner.

Then I got to thinking about the things we wouldn't miss at all, in a desperate attempt to convince myself that I was, in fact, happy to be going home...

Things we won't miss about travelling:

1.Cockroaches, mosquitos, sand flies, tics, poisonous centipedes,tarantulas..the list of bugs goes on and on...
2.28hr bus journeys, on bumpy unsealed roads and with malfunctioning aircon.
3.Filthy squat toilets.
4.Having to haggle over the price of EVERYTHING
5.The sound of locals hawking up phlegm every few minutes.
6.Bad haircuts. (mine)
7.Having to wear the same 5 (usually dirty) tops for 6 months.
8.Staying in grotty hostels where you can hear people fart in the next room through a wafer-thin partition.
9.Unidentified fried Objects and other culinary nightmares.(usually involving fried bananas..and sometimes chickens feet.)
10.Carrying 20+Kg's on our backs every day.
11.Being referred to as 'backpackers.' So uncool.
12.Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the natives, hence being targets for scams and rip-offs at all times.

To be honest, the second list was written a little half-heartedly. Even though these things may have seemed a little tedious at times, they were all part of the rich experience, and I must (begrudgingly) admit, that I'll probably even miss the annoying things about travelling after a few weeks back to the drudgery of life in the UK (depressed, moi?), back to the monotony of work, responsibility and the 7.22 to Liverpool Street...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The retirement village formerly known as Cha-Am

Liam and I had both agreed at various points throughout the trip, usually after a gruelling bus journey, that we'd definitely, absolutely need to spend at least a week at the end of our adventure doing sweet FA, just lazing about by a pool somewhere hot, reading cheesy novels and generally relaxing. Jo, a hippified Aussie, agreed, "You'll be dreading going home, right? So, the answer is to make the final week of your trip the laziest, most boring time, so that is goes reeeaally slowly and makes the trip seem longer." I liked her logic.
So, after an action-packed few days in Chiang Mai, we took an overnight bus to Bangkok, then from there took another bus for 3 hours south, to a small town called Cha-Am.
The Lonely Planet said that this was the place that Thais often chose for a holiday - long white sandy beach,a quiet and safe choice.Plus only 3 hours from Bangkok so covenient for the return flight home.
What the Lonely Planet didn't mention, however, was that you had to be over the age of 73 to get in. Instead of a passport, you'll need a bus pass.
If you visit a holiday destination to find the beach full of deckchairs instead of sun loungers, it can only mean one thing. The blue rinse brigade are out in force.
"Well, we DID want somewhere quiet" we reasoned, as we plotted down next to the (almost deserted) pool at out hotel. "Although we didn't anticipate that the silence would be due to the fact that everyone around here is deaf."
There are plenty of upsides to a resort full of golden oldies. The first one being that at least there would be no screaming kids launching themselves noisily into the pool, surreptiously urinating at every opportunity. Although you might get a few OAP's dribbling into it instead.
Another good thing about being surrounded by pensioners is that I can strut around poolside in my bikini, safe in the knowledge that I have the best, fittest body in the vicinity. And all my own teeth.
After doing the backpacker trail for 6 months and being amongst the oldest travellers (the majority are Sloanes on gap years, funded by Daddy. Bitter,moi?), it's quite a novelty to suddenly be the youngest couple in town.
Despite saying all this,we've had a great time - the hotel is lovely, all modern decking and an infinity pool, and as most Thais have an aversion to tanning, we've often got the beach/pool to ourselves.
Thais recoil in horror at the very idea of sunbathing - you try buying a body lotion without it containing whitening ingredients.Even the deodorant has skin-bleaching properties. I tried to buy suncream the other day, but the only one I could find in 7/11 (which is massive over here) boasted an "anti-melanin whitening effect." In a suncream?! Go figure...I guess we all want the opposite to what the good Lord gave us: there we are, baking ourselves in blister-inducing red-hot sun, teeth gritted desperate for a bit of colour on our oatmeal complexions, whilst the naturally olive-skinned locals are hiding under a parasol, fully-clothed trying not to let a single ray get near them, desperate for the pasty-white squid skin that is typical of us Brits. They should try a winter in London - they'd be anaemic-looking in no time. They love the sea, but only fully-clothed. I even saw a gaggle of schoolgirls swimming in the sea the other day, fully-clad in their entire school uniforms. The boys just wade in in their jeans and t-shirts.Even when out and about on their motorbikes, the locals wear gloves upto their armpits and balaclavas, lest they might get, horror of horrors, a suntan. Weird behaviour.
So, we've been swimming in the pool, lounging around reading aformentioned cheesy novels, marvelling at how warm the sea is here (and not because a child has just pissed in it next to you), strolling along the beach, and getting up at 6.30am to watch impossibly beautiful sunrises on the seafront. Perfect.
In fact, the only downside has been the evenings, when we feel like veritable outcasts, not part of the Saga crew, who sit in quiet restaurants playing bridge, glaring at us as though we're a couple of trouble-making teeneagers when we rock up and order a couple of beers. Anyone would think we were wearing hoodies and threatening to stab them for their pensions, such is their look of horror that anyone under the age of 50 has had the audacity to enter the resort. Coupled with the fact that we've not met a single English person here (these OAP's are all German or Scandinavian) and we've had some pretty quiet nights, I can tell you.
Anyway, the tans are coming along well. Although, when we're rotating ourselves on the sunbeds like a couple of hogs on a spitroast, it can be a bit off-putting catching a glimpse of the old dears sitting across from us, all saggy-skinned and mahogany-coloured, sun-damaged beyond recognition. (David Dickinson eat your heart out).It's like fast-forwarding on your own life, seeing what the years of sunworshipping will eventually do to you. It's not quite terrifying enough to stop us slapping on the bronzing oil just yet though...

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Elephant trekking and bamboo rafting

The next day we were picked up at the crack of dawn by our tour guide, who was to take us to visit the Karen tribe, one of the many tribes who had fled persecution in Myanmar (Burma) and are among the estimated 130,000+ refugees who live in remote little villages in northern Thailand, speaking their own dialect and living a simple existence.
After an hour or so drive from Chiang Mai, we were ready to begin trekking to meet these people. Despite having travelled for almost 6 months, Liam and I still managed to wear the wrong shoes, and stubbed our toes in our flip-flops on numerous occasions as we climbed up steep hills in the forest to get to the village. To be honest, it was all a bit of an anticlimax - although they lived in little bamboo huts and showed us how they made fabrics by weaving the cotton which they'd coloured using vegetable dyes, they also told us how they made regular forays into Chiang Mai to sell their goods at the markets, and I'm sure I saw one of them with a Blackberry...
Ok, so I lied about the Blackberry, but the point is they weren't exactly tribes as I expected, all strange rituals and stretched necks etc. The only way in which they differed from other villagers we'd already met was the fact they chewed red betel nuts continously, giving them wide, gummy grins, only a handful of teeth between the lot of them.
Afterwards, we continued trekking until we came to a waterfall, and cooled off on the rocks for a while before stopping at a homestay for lunch - sweet and sour chicken, rice and pineapple. We gobbled it down, eager to get to the main event of the day - elephant trekking.
As we came to the elephant camp, I could hardly contain my excitement..there were several huge elephants as well as one tiny baby, too cute for words.
Never ones to miss a business opportunity, several locals rushed up to sell us bananas for the elephants. We obliged and climbed up to the platform to board our elephant of choice. I'd forgotten about the bananas in my hand as I went to get on the elephant's back, but it hadn't escaped the notice of another elephant behind, who was wrapping his trunk around my arm and trying to grab the bananas whilst I wobbled about, shrieking as I dodged his wet nostrils.
The guide encouraged Liam to sit behind the elephant's ears, whilst he sat alongside me in the chair on his back, and Liam soon discovered why - it's pretty uncomfortable sitting behind the ears whilst the elephant jerks you about as he walks. It was great fun to ride on the elephant's back, his trunk coming back over his head every few minutes to indicate he wanted another banana. The first time he did it I didn't realise he'd curl his trunk around the food, and stuffed the banana up his right nostril instead. Doh! I even peeled it, much to the guide's amusement, who showed me what to do instead..chuck about 5 bananas in their skins straight into his mouth. He was a stubborn creature, often refusing to budge until I handed him another banana.
"Giving him them one at a time is like feeding a man a bowl of rice, grain by grain," Liam observed, so I got a little more generous and gave him 2 after that.
At one point he refused to move at all, despite me giving him a load of bananas, so the guide shouted at him, then jumped down to the ground and started poking a stick in his ear until he finally started walking, with a sigh. I'm soft at heart, (yes,really) and felt quite sorry for him, so much so that I bought him another load of bananas, which was probably what they hoped I'd do I guess.
To get back to Chiang Mai, we took a bamboo raft down the river, which seemed quite a pleasant option until we came to some rapids. A few bamboo poles strung together with vine aren't really your first choice of transport in such situations, yet our guide managed to avert a disaster using another bamboo pole to steer us past the jutting rocks. Nevertheless, we all got soaked and found the journey pretty hair-raising at times. What is it with us and dangerous watersports, when we barely visit the local swimming pool at home?
Still, it had been a fun, and memorable day and we were relieved to be back on dry land and heading back to Chiang Mai for a few cold Chang (which means elephant in Thai) beers and to reflect on our day...

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Thai Masterchef

Since we'd enjoyed Thai food so much, we decided to enrol on a cookery course, in order to recreate our delicious dinners when we had to return to the UK, which was coming up sooner that we cared to think about.
We were collected from our guesthouse by the chef, who then picked up various other wannabee cooks like ourselves and bundled us all into the back of his pick-up before taking us to the food market, to teach us how to select the best ingredients for our meals. We all smelt the aromas, felt the textures and marvelled at the many varieties of vegetables that we'd never heard of, let alone knew what to do with, all the while ignoring the flies and cats which were climbing all over the produce.
The chef gave us some meal options, selected the ingredients, then whisked us to his studio to show us how to cook up a storm...
The meals we were to learn how to cook were: Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup, Pangang Curry, Sticky rice with Mango and Chicken with Cashewnuts.
We all had our own workstations and were shown how to chop the various ingredients, which sounds obvious, but there's a knack to cutting chillies without blinding yourself in the process. He taught us to cook the meat for only about a minute or two, not the usual 20 minute-plus blast that I give my stir-fries at home, one eye on Eastenders and my mobile tucked under my chin.
We watched him avidly whilst he demonstrated the various stages then went back to our workstations and...did something completely different. He just did everything so quickly and expertly and made it all look so easy - it reminded me of Home Economics lessons at school all over again. I wished I'd paid more attention to those HE lessons now, and so does Liam, since my cooking skills leave a lot to be desired. I can cook a mean microwave lasagne though. (Joke.)
To our amazement, Liam and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and even managed to produce some pretty authentic dishes at the end of it, which the class all ate together, feeling very pleased with ourselves and vowing to flex our new-found culinary abilities once we get home. Ok, so I did put a little too much ginger into my Tom Yum soup which caused a choking fit so severe that I thought Liam was going to have to perform the Heimlich manouvre on me, but apart from that the meal was perfect, if I do say so myself. I wonder if our mouth-watering Thai dishes will taste quite so delicious when we're in front of the telly in Romford....

Tired tigers

We met a local tuk-tuk driver called Gary (not his real name obviously, but what he called himself so that tourists could pronounce it) and did a deal with him to drive us to the tiger sanctuary that we'd heard about, where you can get into the cage with them.
Gary was the Thai equivalent of Delboy, about 50 years old with a slickback hairstyle, dark shades and a glint in his eye. A real character, a charmer. When we stopped for petrol in his multi-coloured tuk-tuk, it was HIM who bought US a drink, when the usual procedure is for the tourist to buy the driver a drink on a long drive. He pointed out all the main attractions on the bumpy journey out to the tigers.
When we arrived, the place looked like Disneyworld, such was the professional appearance and efficiency of the organisation.(I'm not saying that in a derogatory way, only our previous experience of such attractions had been a rundown shack with a wooden handwritten sign and the manager asleep in a hammock.) It soon became clear from the crowds that this particular attraction makes serious money, not least since the cost of 15 minutes in the tigers cage cost around 10 pounds per person, a lot by Thai standards.
Next, we had to select which size tigers we wanted to "play" with. The babies looked cute, the adults looked scary, so we opted for the medium-sized animals.
It wasn't until we were being led towards the tiger's cage that I began to get nervous, and told the guide as much. He laughed and laughed, and when we came face-to-face with the beasts it soon became obvious what it was that he found so amusing...the animals were all snoring their heads off, completely out of it. We were told to take off our shoes and approach the tigers from behind, never attempting to touch their heads or front paws. This precaution was all for show, pretty ridiculous since the animals were all blatantly drugged up to the eyeballs on tranquilisers. We could have marched through there with a brass band in tow and they wouldn't have batted an eyelid.
"How come they're so sleepy?," I asked the keeper as we tiptoed into their cage, going along with the charade. Said keeper, who had been chatting away a few minutes earlier,mysteriously developed a classic case of selective hearing and chose to ignore my probing questions.
We were encouraged to cuddle, stroke and pat the tigers, which we did as the photographer snapped away. The tigers were gorgeous creatures,all soft fur and huge paws. They looked well-cared for, if a little lethargic; the keeper had to drag one of them over by his feet to get him to pose for the pictures. He even had the front to tickle the tigers noses with their tails, to which the tigers barely responded. It was at this point that we agreed they MUST be drugged - you can't even do that to my cat Ronnie without him trying to bite you, let alone a full-blown tiger.We could've prised their mouths open and stuck our heads inside and they'd have just yawned.
Even so, when the keepers encouraged us to lay our heads on the tigers' stomachs for some more photos I still felt a little nervous, which comes across in the pics as we're sporting fixed, Wallace and Gromit-style grins, which look faintly ridiculous since the terrifying, wild animal in the photo happens to be unconscious.
After our final photoshoot which involved us spooning two dozy tigers on the floor we'd had enough of mugging ourselves off and gave someone else a chance to pose with the couple of comatose creatures, whilst we went off to feed the camel, which, whilst not quite so exciting, was at least awake.
We visited the rest of the tigers, only one of which was pacing the cage furiously whilst the rest looked lazily on. It was at least 30 degrees, but even so, this lot were like a bunch of rag dolls. We were able to get really close to them and took some great pics, but we still left feeling a little short-changed and sorry for the animals. Although I don't know quite how we were expecting to rub their tummies and stroke them had they not been doped - we felt a bit guilty afterwards, and despite having enjoyed the experience of seeing the tigers close-up,wondered whether we should have supported such an attraction after all...

Chiang Mai

So, how to travel back to Thailand? We visited a tour operator in Luang Prabang to find out our options. There were 4. It was like a question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", albeit a no-brainer, early one,the one worth about 100 quid.

How would you travel to Thailand from Laos...?

a. By local bus and minibus taking 22 hours.
b. By local bus and speedboat taking 11 hours.
c. By plane taking 55 mins.
d. By slow boat, taking 2 days.

I mean,you wouldn't exactly need to use up many lifelines on this one, would you?
We'll go for c please Chris, I mean Miss, we stammered, taking the easy option for the first time in the entire trip. I know, I know, "the journey is as important as the destination" and all that traveller blurb you hear whilst doing these trips, but we were seriously over all the loooong bus journeys. "Real" travellers would've probably taken the slowest, most painful option, in order to have a story to tell, but just for once we chose the easy option. We booked a flight.
It felt very strange to be in Laos one minute and then in Thailand less than an hour later, so accustomed had we become to laughably slow and bumpy bus journeys. It was a novelty, a nice one, to travel in comfort for once, and we arrived at our guesthouse fresh and happy. Weird.
Chiang Mai is a busy city, less frantic than Bangkok, but still teeming with traffic and life.There are over 300 temples, almost as many as in Bangkok, and there is a 700year old wall and moat which surrounds the old city, built to protect the Thais from Burmese invasion.
Our guesthouse was located on a tiny sidestreet, an alley really, which suited us just fine as it was cheap (7 quid a night, not to be sniffed at), had cable TV and was very quiet, despite the fact that there were loads of girly bars and cheesy "clubs" nearby. We found the cheapest restaurant in town (not difficult, just look for fleabitten travellers in tie-dyed cotton pants) and chowed down on pad thai and drank Chang beer for about fifty pence each. I turned my nose up at the many hippified "backpackers" (I hate that word) we came across as most of them had filthy matted dreds and looked in need of a good wash. I wanted to get them in a headlock and tip a giant vat of Head and Shoulders over their mangy heads. They were giving us travellers a bad name. You wouldn't catch me with unstraightened hair, let alone the lice-infested tresses they were sporting. As someone once said, "there are no ugly people in this world, only lazy ones." This lot must've been bone-idle.
We had agreed to use Chiang Mai as a base for our elephant trekking, plus we also wanted to go to a cookery class (Liam too!) to learn how to perfect some of the Thai dishes we'd really grown attached to over the last few months. I never thought I'd be eating noodle soup or pad thai for breakfast but I've actually loved the food here and we regularly choose noodle soup first thing in the morning.
We booked ourselves onto a few activities and got an early night, ready for our first excursion in the morning - climbing in a cage full of tigers....

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is around 6 hours north of Vang Vieng by bus, which was relatively painless compared to previous journeys. The road was extremely scenic, if a little too winding for comfort, and I felt compelled to keep one eye on the bus driver who was shouting into his mobile phone whilst tackling hairpin bends, sending us perilously close to the steep edge of the dusty mountain road. Every time we took a sharp turn I slid into the Chinese guy sitting next to me who was wearing the tiniest shorts (that even the Cheeky girls would've baulked at) and sweating profusely. I thought he'd have to be surgically removed from my right leg by the time we arrived in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang has greatly increased in popularity with tourists since the Asian tsunami, which means that prices have also taken a huge hike. More built up and upmarket than our previous destination, Vang Vieng, we had to traipse around town, backpacks in tow and dripping in sweat, looking for a reasonably-priced room for quite some time, and even then we had to pay double what we'd paid in Vang Vieng.
Luang Prabang has many swish boutiques, expensive restaurants and a selection of markets selling handicrafts, silk scarves,paper lanterns and decorative umbrellas. It is set alongside the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and has lots of places to relax and watch the sun set over the river whilst enjoying a glass of wine.
The buildings are old French-style colonial houses mixed in with wooden huts and bungalows and it is a good base for visiting the local waterfalls and bear sanctuary, as well as doing elephant trekking and hikes.
We decided that watching the sunset over a nice cold glass of white wine would take the sting out of the price we'd just paid for the room (which was only really about 20 quid a night,not exactly robbery,but expensive to a couple of broke travellers) so walked down past a few golden temples to the riverfront where we did just that. Feeling our blood pressure drop considerably with every delicious mouthful, we chilled out here for a while (not too long, the wine was pretty expensive) before going for dinner.
The next day was Liam's birthday, which was spent exploring the town, wandering around the markets and having a "romantic" dinner at a table about an inch away from all the other couples packed in like sardines to celebrate Valentines Day. We'd been kind of hoping that people didn't celebrate Valentine's Day here but no such luck - romance-by-numbers was the order of the day, which is therefore, by definition, unromantic. The pace of life in Laos is so laid-back that we could barely muster the energy to do anything, and instead of going out to the Hive Bar as planned, ended up falling asleep at about 9pm. Very rock and roll.
The next morning we found a gorgeous bakery and ate delicious wholegrain bagels, before exploring one of the local temples and then heading off to visit the waterfalls in a pickup with a Canadian couple, who I insulted about 2 minutes into our first conversation by mistaking them for Americans. Oops! Anyone would've thought I'd asked them why they invaded Iraq.Stony silence all round. Once the moment (and the tumbleweed) had passed, we went on to have a great day with them.
Our tuk-tuk driver bumped and jolted us for around an hour until we finally came to Tat Kunag Si, a beautiful spot featuring a wide multi-tiered set of waterfalls cascading over limestone formations into bright turquoise lagoons below. We climbed up to the top of the waterfalls (no easy feat in flip flops) and walked all around them, before cooling off at the bottom in one of the beautiful, but freezing,bright-blue pools. Locals were swinging from ropes and launching themselves into the lagoon oblivious to the sub-zero temperatures, whilst we shivered and climbed out again before we lost all feeling in our lower bodies. A group of Buddhist monks were also cooling off in one of the nearby lagoons, so I snuck up for a few clandestine snaps of the disrobed young monks. They didn't see me but I still felt a bit guilty. Not guilty enough to delete the pics though, eh? (I even caught a few monks having a sneaky cig in the grounds of a temple once but didn't manage to photograph that one, so consoled myself with these snaps instead.)A sanctuary for sun bears was also nearby which we wandered around for a bit before heading back to town.

The next morning I set my alarm for 6am, as I wanted to attend the Alms Giving Ceremony, which takes place every morning in the centre of town at sunrise. This ritual involves around 400 monks dressed in saffron robes forming a procession as they walk through the town, receiving offerings of rice and fruit from local people. Our guesthouse was surrounded by temples, and we often heard the low rumble of drums each morning to mark the ceremony, but as yet we hadn't got up in time to actually participate. Liam would rather sleep than attend, so I snuck out of bed, dressed quietly and set off.
Out in the street, the sun was beginning to rise and I could hear the drums in the distance. The streets were empty, save for a few street vendors selling offerings for the monks, so I paused to buy some grossly overpriced fruit (should've gone to the market), before kneeling down on a bamboo mat to await the monks. There are all kinds of rules in Buddhism, such as don't stand higher than a monk, always kneel instead, don't touch or look at the monks too closely, don't point your feet towards them. The list goes on, so for all I knew I may have inadvertently insulted them in some way, but I did my best to look humble and respectful, which is more than I can say for the other tourists nearby who just snapped away about an inch from their faces, and didn't give them an offering.
As the monks approached I got my bananas at the ready, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. The procession filed past, the monks opening their large silver urns as they shuffled by, and I gave each one a small offering. I looked from side to side to check I was doing the same as the locals and I seemed to be so I began to relax.
After my offering had been accepted I retreated to take a few snaps. It was a fascinating sight - a long line of bright orange robes snaking down the dusty roads, set against the bright pink and orange sky of sunrise, local people kneeling on the side of the road silently offering gifts to the monks, the sound of drums filling the air.
It was almost time to leave Luang Prabang, so now we had to plan our onward journey back into northern Thailand - next stop, Chiang Mai...