Category Archives: Thailand

Churr Bru

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Home again home again jiggity jig.

 

294 days, six countries and more miles than Google calculator can be bothered to deal with.

 

Here’s a final map of our complete route (and no, Jesus was not born at every yellow star…) Start and end in Auckland and do a kind of almost-figure-of-eight around both islands. Big BIG stopover in Wellington, our home from home.

New Zealand Final

(Nb. There was also two weeks in Tonga but that was too complicated map-wise. Just imagine it yeahh….)

 

From there it was a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then wiggling overland up to Hanoi…

Asia Final

 

Flight back to Kuala Lumpur and then HOME. And home is just as good as we remember it.

Churr everyone and hello again.

Such a Luang journey…

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So we left you in Pai, the chilled out capital of Northern Thailand. Unfortunately, the journey across the border and into Laos didn’t really follow on the same vein …

Laos

The red path indicates our journey (ignoring the final line to Vientiane.. that came later): minibus to Chiang Kong, a nondescript town on the Thai side of the border; couple of hours sleep – fine for us but flea-ridden and sleepless for some of our fellow bus-mates; up at dawn for a short boat ride over to Huay Xai, our first introduction to Laos; faffing for hours at immigration – forms and queues and waiting and confusion; and finally, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

Hefty.

The slow boat is an experience  in itself, and we highly recommend it. Actually, saying that, there aren’t many other options – it’s either that, a fast boat which has a terrifyingly high rate of annual casualties (you have to wear motorbike helmets – and so loud that you couldn’t possibly talk), or a non-air-conditioned bus which may or may not actually arrive at its destination.

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

The actual vessel is a wooden longboat, about 40-50m in length with the engine at the back and the driver (helmsman?) at the front. It was decked out with car seats (!), a miniature bar at the back and one rickety toilet. The roof is covered with a tarpaulin and the sides are open, creating a semi-cooling breeze as we drifted down the river. The Mekong is absolutely stunning; wide and fairly fast flowing, with towering ranges on either side covered in impenetrable jungle. Every so often you pass a narrow fishing boat with a single fisherman aboard, shying away from the merciless sun under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Groups of naked children splash in the shallows, and beautiful women dressed in Laos silk skirts and invariably with a baby strapped to their back, scrub clothes and lay them out to dry on the smooth rocks behind them. There seems to be an inordinate amount of butterflies, specks of white and yellow that flutter around the surface of the water and bloom in front of you as you walk.

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The journey passes in a blur of heat and chatter and unfamiliar sights. As you pull into Luang Prabang, a whole three days and two nights after you originally set out, you are so ready to hit dry land and stop blimmin’ moving, that you honestly wouldn’t care, nor probably notice, if you had just docked in Timbuktu. What a treat, then, that Luang Prabang is the gem in Laos’ crown and encompasses the ethos of Laos completely. When people say that the Lao people are gentle and genuinely interested in you, they are 100% spot on. There is no aggressive hassling, most people actually want to help you and their politeness and kindness is unrivalled.

 

Sunset from Phu Si

Sunset from Phu Si

The actual town is a delight. The first thing that meets the eye is an enormous temple – Phu Si – positioned atop a hill right in the middle of the city. It’s 100m high (190 steps, sweaty or wha?!), but the impressive panoramic views from top (sunset and sunrise in particular) are well worth the exertion of the climb. Phu Si sets the tone for the rest of the town as Luang Prabang is home to 39 Wat and has acquired the nickname, the ‘city of temples’. The monk and novice population is so omnipresent and so real that we never know whether we are actually allowed to go into the temples of if they are just for the practicing monks. We spent an afternoon in the library with two novice monks helping out with some ‘informal English lessons’, and ended up chatting about their facebook profiles and Steve Jobs. Pretty surreal.

 

Crossing a rickety bamboo bridge across the Mekong

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One of the many wats…

 

Yet, that is one of the delights of Luang Prabang – that the monks and temples are fully integrated into everyday life. A major draw is the renowned Tak Bat – a daily ceremony where novice monks form a line down the city’s main street to receive alms at dawn. It is a really beautiful experience, all carried out total silence. The alms givers are mainly women, who roll out a woven mat and kneel on it surrounded by their offerings, which mainly consist of sticky rice and small packets of biscuits. As the monks process past, they bow their heads and place a handful of rice into the alms bowl. Interestingly, alongside the almsgivers there were a few scruffy looking young boys, each holding an empty basket or bag and occasionally one of the monks would take a handful from his own bowl and put it into the boy’s basket. I asked later what this meant and the novices told me that they belonged to poor families or didn’t have enough to eat themselves, so the monks would in turn give them charity. These acts of charity, so very much in evidence in daily life, reflect the importance of religion in Laos as alms giving is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism.
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I apologise for the lack of photos of the Tak Bat but I didn’t really consider it appropriate to take a camera. This is especially relevant as the monks have recently threatened to stop doing it as they feel that the tourists are slightly taking the proverbial biscuit in terms of getting too close in order to get the perfect photo op, and are giving the monks old food which is making them ill just so they can feel that they are part of the ceremony. Having been there and seen the busloads of tourists that pull up bleary eyed, hop out and almost push into the line of monks wielding their super-hypo-panoramic-long-lenses with an astonishing amount of insensitivity, I can kind of see their point.

Added to this melee of monastic and layperson life is the ghost of the colonial French past. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site, which means that French architecture and Gallic cuisine are still very much in evidence, giving the place a quaint and serene feel. You occasionally come across French bakeries, and bilingual schools, yet according to our novice friends, no one speaks French anymore – only the oldies. The city is also home to an extensive night market – it’s certainly a sight to behold as you descend the 190 steps from watching the sunset at Phu Si and see a sea of red roofed tents and twinkling fairy lights as the market gets going.

The tented Night Market

The tented Night Market

 

One final draw of Luang Prabang (as if there aren’t enough already) is the close proximity to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.

The waterfall itself

The waterfall itself

Honestly, with brilliant turquoise water, natural Jacuzzis and great lengths of cascading waterfalls, this place looks like it could be some sort of multi-million pound resort, yet it’s ALL NATURAL! There are about 4 pools in total, many of which you can cool off in, which lead to an enormous multi-tiered waterfall at the top. Sitting on slippery limestone and feeling the ice-cold water on your back is just bliss.

 

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing...

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing…

 

...CHAMPIONING the rope swing

…CHAMPIONING the rope swing

One of the many menthol coloured pools

One of the many menthol coloured pools

Perfect for a cheesy photo op!

So much cheese I think I may be sick (I promise we’re not photoshopped in)

We had to leave Luang Prabang in the end – kicking and screaming and the like. It is an unforgettable place, whether due to the hilarious group of people we had magically acquired (legends), the city’s charm or just because Luang Prabang epitomises Laotian culture, ambiance and beauty. We don’t care why, we just know that we, for one, would love to go back.

If I had an elephant, I’d call it Nelly

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For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.

Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai and Pai

If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.

Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!

It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.

Hungry nelly-phant

Hungry nelly-phant

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Having a drink to cool off

Having a drink to cool off

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Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe...

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe…

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.

Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here –  the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Tea time

Tea time

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

At first she was a bit apprehensive...

…at first she was a bit apprehensive…

...but then she became extremely friendly!

…but she became extremely friendly!

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon + intrepid explorer

Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.

A Culinary Tour of Bangkok

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Oh, Bangkok. Not only do you have a hilarious name, but you also have a bit of a hilarious reputation. People who haven’t been to Bangkok are convinced that it really is the home of the debauched chaos oh so delicately portrayed in cinematic classics such as ‘The Hangover’ and that-scene-where-Tilda-Swinton-and-Leo-get-together from ‘The Beach’; and those who have been often feel that they deserve some sort of medal for surviving it.

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And surviving is the right verb. Bangkok is like nothing else. Home to 9.1 million people and sprawling over a 1569 square kilometre area, it is MENTAL. Honestly, we cannot even begin to describe how hectic it is. There are people everywhere and they are always trying to sell you something or entice you to come with them or get a taxi. The streets are packed with myriad clothes stalls and food stalls, patronised by dazed looking farang, sweating more than should be humanly possible. When people say ‘an assault on the senses’, you can completely understand what they mean; you are constantly marvelling at new sights, wrinkling up your nose at the smell of an open drain before catching a delicious whiff of fresh Pad Thai, getting an aural medley (it sounds nicer than it is) from the vying sound systems of bars spilling out onto the streets, being blinded by laser pens (of all things) wielded aggressively at you by curiously dressed street sellers.

Not that this is all a bad thing, it is the Bangkok way. And as we found out, a lot of it is due to the fact that we were frequenting the heavily trodden tourist territories. Get out of Kaoh San Road and the surrounding LP sights, and you’ve got a totally different story.

Fortunately for us, after one or two days getting lost in the city, we found our very own tour guide, Wan; who I had the pleasure to teach last year during her 9-month stint at EC Bristol. What a difference it makes to have some insider knowledge! After plying us with gifts – including traditional Thai soaps, beautiful bracelets, mango and durian biscuits and crab crisps – she ushered us into her car and took it upon herself to show us (the poor ignorant farang) the REAL Bangkok. Like many Thais, she was keen to show visitors that Thailand is more than drink and dirt, ladyboys and scammers. And she more than won us over…

The lovely Wan

The lovely Wan

First stop, Koh Kret – an island in the Chao Phraya river about 30-40 minutes outside the city. She described the area (which is essentially a small satellite town) in relation to Bangkok as Bath is to Bristol (although you’d have to SERIOUSLY multiply the scale.) Koh Kret is home to a Buddhist temple, complete with a Pisa-esque leaning tower, and lots of winding streets filled with traditional Thai food and an extensive arts and crafts market. As Wan pointed out, only Thai people come here, which became immediately evident in both the demographic and the prices.

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Now, just as a word of warning, Wan told us that in order to show us the traditional Thailand, we had to eat all the traditional food. The Thais are extremely proud of their cuisine and it’s no secret that Thai food is renowned throughout the world. We were warned early in the day not to get too full too quickly (it was so hard!) as we had A LOT of eating to do…

We started off with some traditional sweets. Perching on wooden stools at a market café, we were given a plate of small ceramic cups filled with a white gelatinous substance. You were also given a flat wooden spatula in which to scoop them out – round the sides, under the bottom and into your mouth in one go. They were double-layered, with thick white paste on the top and a thicker yellow goo underneath and an unusual consistency; similar to Chinese dumplings, but sweet. I loved them, but I think Celyn was having a few reservations.

His taste buds were satisfied, however, with the accompanying snack of breaded fried fish. They were small, like a sardine, but full of fish eggs (does this mean that they were preggers when they were cooked??!). Kind of like fish fingers filled with caviar. Plus an accompanying spicy sauce. NYOM!

Next stop, lunch. Finding a place in the market, we shared some bowls of Tom Yam – a spicy soup which is extremely popular in Thailand. This was a bit of a variation on Tom Yam as there were thick rice noodles in the soup mix (and one bowl wasn’t as spicy because I am a spice-weakling). Still, it was delicious – all crumbly meat, crunchy veg and thick noodles drenched in spicy sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we passed a traditional Thai sweet stall on our way out and Wan stocked up! The sweets were more like works of art – each brightly coloured, meticulously decorated and almost too beautiful to eat.

The sweetie assortment

We still ate them.

Our collection of sweets.. they didn''t last too long

Our collection of sweets.. they didn’t last too long

Thai sweets may be sweet, but they’re not overly sugary and have a strange flavour that sits right in between sweet and savoury. They like mixing the two here, as is evident from their world famous sweet-and-sour dishes, their sausage-in-a-sweet-pancake stalls and penchant for having sugar in their bread. The sweets, as with the cup dessert we had just tasted, had a doughy consistency (like suet, perhaps?) and came in more designs than we thought possible. There were perfumed jelly roses, sticky rice with egg custard in a banana leaf, fondant frosted fruit, cinnamon-y cups, orange coloured marzipan baskets and pearls…

We told Wan that we’d get fat, but she assured us that it didn’t matter. Well, not today, at least! We heaved our full bellies off the island and drove towards Bang Bua Thong – a suburb of Bangkok – to Leng Nein Lee, the Chinese Buddhist temple. As with many cities in SE Asia, there is a large and lively Chinese population and the scale of this temple was paramount to the strength and closeness of the Chinese community.

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Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

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From the temple, we headed towards Bangkok city centre – all glistening malls and upmarket restaurants. This was not unlike Bukit Bitang in Kuala Lumpur – you know, that place of a thousand malls that Cel and I managed to lose ourselves (literally) in. She took us to the Siam Centre and Discovery and we all just wandered open mouthed along the brightly lit marble floors, gawping at shop displays which seemed more like modern art than consumer culture.

Seeing as we hadn’t eaten in a few hours, it was time for another meal. Naturally. We scooted above the heaving roads on a concrete skywalk and found ourselves in Central Plaza. Yet another mall with yet more square metres of shop, we bypassed Hermes and Gucci and headed to the restaurant area. I hesitate to say ‘food court’ because that conjures up images of Millie’s Cookies and dirty McDonald’s seating – this was far nicer.

Seated comfortably in MK restaurant, we were treated to another Thai favourite – Suki Yaki. I think it may have originated in Japan but it has been wholeheartedly adopted in Thailand and has become the quintessential pan-Asian feed. Basically, you choose a variety of raw meats, fish and veggies. You all sit around a table with a hob in the middle and are provided with a pan filled with stock. As the dishes arrive, you add them one by one to the bubbling stock pot, crack an egg over it when you’re done and… voila: your meal! You can put anything and everything into the pot – crab meat, pork balls, tofu, jellyfish, pak choi, cabbage, raw sliced pork, mushrooms… whatever takes your fancy. The secret (and most important) ingredient is Suki Yaki sauce – a semi-spicy thick relish that you ladle over your steaming broth before you eat it.

Wan persuing the menu

Wan persuing the menu

Can't believe his luck!

Can’t believe his luck!

It is DELICIOUS, and a really sociable way to eat too. If you want the recipe, have a look at the bottom of the page…

Post-food coma

Post-meal lethargy

As if this wasn’t enough, Wan insisted that we try an egg tart in the Siam Paragon as well as a milk tea shake with tapioca. Again, the egg tart was that strange mix of sweet and savoury – sweet pastry but just an egg in the middle. It’s not half bad you know, perhaps we should write to Greggs…!

By this point you can imagine how full our stomachs were. Even Celyn (eater extraordinaire) was getting a bit of a straining gut so although we were tempted by all sorts of weird and wonderful smells as we went on an evening stroll through China Town, we couldn’t eat another thing.

Actually, that’s a lie. We had some roasted chestnuts. Chinese special apparently so it’d have been rude to say no.

Nursing our swollen stomachs, we parted ways and headed home. But what an experience we had had in Bangkok. We are so grateful to Wan for her kindness and generosity and for all the amazing tastes we have discovered. Without her, we would most certainly have left Bangkok with a less tasteful (‘scuse the pun) impression of the city, not to mention far fewer memories.

Wan, thank you once again and remember that you are always welcome to stay in the U.K. Although not sure how haggis compares to Suki Yaki…

RECIPE:

Suki Yaki

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Ingredients:

300 grams of sliced beef
1 Carrot – sliced
1 Onion – sliced
250 grams of Shiitake mushrooms whole
250 grams of tofu
2/3 cup of chopped cabbage
100 grams of Enoki mushrooms
1 cup of chopped morning glory
100 grams of Pak Choi (Chinese cabbage)
2 cubes of chicken oxo
1 package of glass noodles
1 larger turnip chopped

Cooking Instructions:

1: In a large pot, boil the turnip, carrots and chicken stock for 30 minutes

2: Drain the water from the pot into a large wok

3: Bring the water to a boil and begin to add the meat and vegetables.

4: When the vegetables are almost cooked, add the glass noodles.

5: Turn off the heat source and let sit for a few minutes.

6: Serve in a bowl with Suki sauce (sweet spicy Thai chili sauce) – available in most Chinese and Asian shops in the UK. This is INDISPENSABLE so don’t sack it off!

PS. This is most definitely a GUIDELINE.. add what you want!

Thailand Island Hopping

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Our route.. in minature

Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.

 

 

Here we go….

Koh Phi Phi

“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”

Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.

Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of  it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days  on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).

As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise. But it’s this appeal that is killing it – it’s a hidden treasure that is not so hidden any more, and the island’s resources and infrastructure are buckling under the swelling tourist demand.

The views towards Phi Phi

The views towards Phi Phi

 

Of course, there’s plenty to see and do. The actual island is tiny; home to a minute resident population and completely devoid of cars. The tourist village of Tonsai, once consisting of a handful of hotels and completely battered in the 2004 tsunami, has grown and re-grown to a beach holiday mecca; plenty of accommodation, any style of food, all-night bars spilling out the streets, dive centres, beaches, pharmacies, 7/11s – you name it, in terms of convenience, Phi Phi has probably got it. Although most of the accommodation is centred around Tonsai, there is a clear divide between the more upmarket hotel-resorts of the south side, and the lashtastic hostel holes of the town centre.

This works well for both parties; those who want a relaxing holiday pay that little bit extra and avoid the town chaos, and those who are having a bit of a blow-out don’t have to worry about making too much noise. If you are going to stay in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough time escaping the tween traveller trail. Who can blame them? Phi Phi is every 18-year olds dream; dirt-cheap alcohol buckets, streetside tattoo parlours, bunches of sexy farang (foreigners.. that’s you and me) touting for bars on the streets in exchange for free booze and a guaranteed good time, and absolutely no one to tell you that the sea isn’t a bin, the street isn’t a toilet, and flailing about with a Bacardi Breezer and sunburn isn’t a good look.

Thankfully, Phi Phi isn’t all rum and neon, it’s also a great place to make the most of the sea, and is the starting point for some fantastic day boat trips. It only takes a few hours to go round the whole island, including stop off points at uninhabited Mosquito and Bamboo islands as well as Monkey Bay on the main isle. Depending on which boat trip you have, you are more than likely to be able to stop and jump off for a bit of snorkelling whenever you want.

 

Most trips continue onto the neighbouring island, Phi Phi Leh, which ticks every box in terms of an antidote to the rowdy main island. It was here where Alex Garland’s cult classic, The Beach, was filmed, and naturally has become a sort of pilgramage for the modern day traveller. The scenery is stunning – so much so that you can easily forget that you are sharing the water with hundreds of other boats, and there is almost no accommodation, which means the island remains largely unspoilt. This is one experience not to miss – swimming in deep clear lagoons in the shadow of craggy cliffs. You know that typical postcard perfect ‘image of Thailand’? Longtail boat, turquoise sea, rugged rock face in the background…? Well, this was it in the flesh.

 

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

 

So, that was it. Phi Phi Don (lash) and Phi Phi Leh (beaut). To be fair, although I’ve definitely had a good old moan (M.A.I = Middle-aged Imogen…I should probably get back to my knitting), it’s not all bad. Despite feeling like we weren’t young enough or our clothes weren’t neon enough, we did adopt an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude fairly quickly. Which was fun. Very fun.

I guess it’s just a word of warning: we were under the impression that Koh Phangnan was the party island and Phi Phi was the calm before the storm, but this is not the case. If you go to Phi Phi Don expecting deserted beaches and a true taste of Thailand, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But go for some cheap voddie and maybe a tattoo or two, and you’ll have a blast.

 

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From here we sweated on to the ferry to Krabi, bussed it across to Surat Thani, on the Gulf of Thailand, and landed on the shores of Koh Phangnan as the sun was setting…

Koh Pha-Ngan

 

Look for the two red circles - First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

Look for the two orange circles – First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

 

Everyone knows about Koh Pha-Ngan. That’s where the Full Moon Party is, right? So it’s going to be crazy and drunken and dirty and loud and generally a bit minging, yes?

Well, not really. At all.

For a start, Koh Pha-Ngan, although smaller than neighbouring Koh Samui (which we didn’t have time to go to), is much bigger than Phi-Phi. And you can feel it. There are people who live permanently on the island and it doesn’t have that feeling of a purpose-built resort about it. Cars, pick-up truck-taxis and mopeds storm about on concrete roads and authentic Thai street food stalls far outnumber the dodgy western fare. Yes, this may be the site of one of the most famous parties on the planet, but its overall appeal is immediately evident

So we started off with the Full Moon Party. Sorry, Mum, but as someone said to us when we arrived, ‘The Full Moon Party is kind of like smoking. You know it’s not very healthy, but you have to try it once to see what it’s like’.

 

Gearing / painting up for the Full Moon

 

It all takes place in Hat Rin (Haad Rin), a town set on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of the island and geared up in every way possible for the monthly influx of full mooners. The tongue of land jutting out into the gulf has a beach on either side; handily called Hat Rin Nai and Hat Rin Nok, Sunset and Sunrise respectively. Sunset is smaller and quieter, whereas Sunrise is where all the lunar madness happens.

You can tell that the Hat-Rin-ers are used to the parties because they are absolute pros. As the sun goes down, makeshift bars pop up on the street sides and along the beaches, tattoo artists sit outside their shops drawing swirling patterns in UV paint on the bodies of willing tattoo-ees, EVERYONE has some sort of neon item of clothing or paint on and the streets are packed, which gives the whole town a kind of eerie glow, as though you are seeing everything through a phosphorescent lens. The actual party doesn’t kick off ‘till late, when the whole town is sufficiently fed, painted and lubricated.

As for the party itself, there is no doubt that this is one of the best parties we’ve ever been to. The music is phenomenal, there are literally thousands of people and it all takes place on this paradise island moonlit beach. And if it all becomes a bit too much, you take time out and marvel at the revelry on Mellow Mountain or Kangaroo Bar set on the rocks above the beach. Recounting stories is probably going to be mighty dull (you had to be there, mrah), so if anyone fancies going, here are a couple of tips:

 

Some of our lovely roommates (we were in an 18-bed dorm) .. I think the girl’s expression on the left says it all…!

 

1. If you go to the island but miss the Full Moon, don’t fret. The enterprising Thai locals have cottoned on to just how lucrative the blow-out traveller trail can be, and have created an array of almost-but-not-quite Full Moon parties; Shiva Moon, Black Moon, Moon-Set – it’s all just an excuse really.

2. If you do make it to a Full Moon Party, you MUST book accommodation in advance. This does include weird and wonderful deposits which nearly always get declined and leave you with some very confused email conversations with hostels. Obviously the town is full to the brim around party time and most places want you to stay for between 3 and 5 nights. So get organised.

3. DON’T TRY TO LEAVE TO GO TO KOH TAO just after Full Moon. It’s where the party continues and everyone has the same bright idea – ferries are packed, and more often than not you spend a couple of hours in the merciless sunshine only to spend the next two tucked up in a sweaty corner of a jam-packed ferry.

In fact, thanks to some good advice from Luke ‘I’ve-been-here-so-many-times-I’m-basically-a-local’ Farley, we managed to totally avoid the Koh Tao crush and instead spent a few days discovering the rest of Koh Pha-Ngan…

Haad Salad/ Hat Yao

What. A. Place.

If anyone is planning a honeymoon anytime soon, you should seriously consider spending it here. Haad Salad, set on the northern side of the island, seems like an undiscovered chunk of paradise. Far less busy yet far more beautiful, this gives you an insight into true Thailand island life. From hammocks and beach bungalows at Lucky Resort (gorgeous family-run resort, unbelievable value) to freshly caught fish at the seafood market in Chalok Lam and lonely longtails silhouetted against a pink sky, this was such a find.

 

Hammock love at Lucky

 

During our few days of R&R in the north, we managed to rent a jeep for 24-hours, which gave us access to the whole island. OK, so the roads sometimes just descended into sheer drops of terrifying terrain and we may have come across a couple of wandering elephants on the roadside, but honestly, having the freedom to discover a place for yourself is ideal. Hats off to; Cel, who managed to get us out of the clay rut on an almost vertical hill with minimal clutch damage; Ali, who proved herself to be a ridiculously good cruiser after having been sans voiture for more than 2 years; Farles, for being reckless but really really knowledgeable; and Imogen, for not crashing.

 

Local Thailander behind the wheel

 

Perhaps three days wasn’t enough, but time is of the essence and we had to continue onwards and upwards to…

Koh Tao

 

Koh Tao

 

There is no doubt about it, Koh Tao is cute.

At only 21km2, the place seems tiny in comparison to the other islands of the Gulf, but that is most definitely part of its charm. It doesn’t have the holiday hedonism atmosphere of Phi Phi and is famed for it’s deep sea diving, so the sunburned Thailash-heads are diluted with cool-looking active types sporting six-packs and oxygen tanks.

There is more than enough for everyone. We spent some middle-aged time (probably my idea) at Shark Bay (see the map) – a quiet cove renowned for it’s coral and impressive array of marine life. The adjacent bay, Chalok Ban Kao, went  down  well as somewhere to relax with a cold drink as the sun goes down and the tide comes up. We had something a little bit different at Hat Sai Ree, the ‘town’ in Koh Tao. Busier than the remote reaches of the south, this was like a really relaxed version of Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangnan. Some great bars spill onto the sands – chilled out music, giant beds, and mesmerizing fire shows. You can party hard here, but the nice thing is you definitely don’t have to.

 

One of the ridiculously talented fire dancers on the sands of Koh Tao

 

And so ends our trip to the islands of Thailand. Apologies for a mega post.. it’s hard to be concise when you’ve  got over two weeks to cover and you’re fighting with an internet connection. I’ll work on that.

Any last thoughts about the islands?

Yes, a few.

It is ridiculously easy to get to and from and around all of them. Because this is such a time worn travel destination, you’re ushered from boats to buses like a herd of very sweaty sheep. They have this almost fool-proof sticker system (except when you’re Celyn and manage to lose it) so it’s clear to everyone where you are going and where you should be. The infrastructure of the islands is exemplary, and the roads are crammed with Sorng-taa-ou – basically, pick-up trucks with benches on the back working as taxis. Prices are non-negotiable – word on the street (Farley) is that they’re owned by the Thai mafia, which seems plausible given that on Koh Phangnan the taxis would routinely stop and pay a sort of informal road tax. The trucks on Koh Tao don’t have any roofs, which makes for fun if not slightly hair-raising (literally) rides.

The Thai people are gorgeous. Nearly everyone we met was so friendly and helpful and they absolutely love a practical joke. The food has been spectacular, (Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Banana Shakes, Flied Lice…), the service sporadic and the bars absolutely brilliant. Plus, there is no denying that this is paradise. We’ve been treated to beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, snorkelling with tropical fish, eating deliciously fresh food, drinking chilled beer… it’s perfect. And although we all complain of profuse sweating ALL THE TIME, we’re not really that bothered. Heat is heat is GOOD. And sweat clears your pores and makes you lose weight… right?!

Of course, there are some glaring flaws; tourists often treat the islands like a theme park and possess an astonishing disrespect for the people and the places, stinking piles of rubbish line the streets and cups and wrappers can be found floating in the shallows of the beaches, and the eggy smell of full drains is never far away. Yet, tourism is a massive deal here, and for every tourist tyrant, there are a whole load of people who come and enjoy and spread the word. For our part, we hope that everyone has a chance to visit at least one of the Thai Islands. It’s well WELL worth it.

 

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