Tag Archives: Journey

The Last Leg…

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THIS IS IT..the FINAL COUNTRY; last border crossing, last set of ‘useful’ phrases to learn, last feeling of utter confusion as we try to calculate how many (insert currency) to the dollar / pound / (insert whatever currency we’ve just left).

SO…

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Where we have been…

The first map (red line) shows where we have been. It looks a little unorthodox but remember we are still a merry company of seven so need to start and end at the same place. From Cambodia, we gathered up our gleaming halos and took an epic 36-hour bus ride to Nha Trang, a small city on the South China Sea.

After a few days in Nha Trang, we (or some of us anyway) got the bus five hours down the road to Mui Ne, an idyllic beach town just a little further down the coast.

Another night bus will take us back to Ho Chi Minh city and this is where we will say our goodbyes. Many thanks to Rhys, McEvoy, Chris, Daw and Jamie for being nutters.

 

 

Where we're going...

Where we’re going…

Cel and Imogen will continue down to the Mekong Delta before going back to Ho Chi Minh city and flying (we just couldn’t face another three-day bus journey, and price-wise there’s not much in it!) up to Danang.  From there it’s the historic town of Hoi An, the picturesque Halong Bay and finally ending up Hanoi.

 

See you somewhere along the way..!

Bus is Best

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We’ve spent a lot of time on buses recently. Laos has proven to be a lot larger and longer than expected. And as our penchant for getting night buses has been gradually extinguished – bus company thieves rifling through bags in the hold, sharp corners and hard seats, and Celyn proving too tall (!) for even the V.I.P Sleeper Coach – we have been treated to some epic yet eye-opening daytime bus trips.

Laos map mark 2. Follow the blue line

Laos map mark 2.
Follow the blue line

Vientiane, Laos’ capital, came and went without either of us really noticing it. We wandered around the hot streets, completed some dull admin tasks and briefly looked round the rather uninspiring night market. In all honesty, it was just another capital city – functional yet strangely nondescript.

Having checked the capital city off the list, we got an early morning bus in to the mountains towards Phonsavan.  As the bus climbed along the stomach-clenchingly tight corners, the air grew cooler (we spent the best part of the journey with the coach door open and the conductor hanging out) and the population more sparse. Every couple of kilometres along the road we passed mountain-top villages consisting of a scattering of precariously balanced wood and thatch houses, most of which backed on to terrifyingly steep drops. This is the rural Laos, the mountain villagers who are named according to the altitude at which they live: Lao Thai (living in valleys up to an altitude of 400m); Lao Thoeng (midlevel mountain slopes); and Lao Soung living 1000m or more above sea level). I’m not 100% sure which groups we encountered, but seeing as we passed a 2819m peak en route, and that all our fellow Lao bus passengers reckon that it was freezing (it was about 30 degrees), I’m assuming the latter.

 

The three mountain tribes, as depicted on the 1,000 Kip note (worth about 8 pence)

 

There were kids everywhere –small children trotting alongside the road with a younger brother or sister strapped to their back, groups of girls in dirty dresses crouching beside a litter of miniscule kittens, a game of boules with family members from all generations, elderly ladies being terrorised by their grandkids or great-grandkids as they tried to wash them or comb their hair. Mothers would stand in the doorways to their houses, many of them unbelievably young and beautiful, a youthfulness equally matched by the fresh faces and taut bodies of their husbands. There was a communal tap in each village, evidently the sole source of water as each one was crowded with people washing themselves or their offspring – leading to a whole lot of naked soapy children cheekily escaping the firm hand of their mothers. So I guess some things exist all over the world!

 

Ponsavan, our destination, was welcomingly cool after a stuffy and (for some) vomit-inducing journey. It is renowned as the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars – a huge area scattered with thousands of limestone jars of undetermined age and purpose. Scholars believe that they were funerary urns, the locals prefer a tale about needing wine fermenters to celebrate a victory of the 6th century Lao-Thai hero, Khun Jeuam. No one knows, and the random scattering and varying sizes do give the plains a rather enigmatic feel. However, I think our theory that the jars were used as upside-down loudspeakers will achieve little recognition in the history books.

The mysterious jars

The mysterious jars

Another draw of the area, and perhaps one that is slightly more exciting if not a lot more recent, is that the whole area (Xieng Khuang province) was the site of the ‘secret bombings’ during the Vietnam war. The Ho Chi Minh trail passed through the Northern part of Laos, sparking the decision by the U.S. to carpet-bomb the area, in spite of the reticence of the Lao people to become involved.

 

Some empty shells gathered outside a house

Some empty shells gathered outside a house

For anyone unsure about the term ‘carpet-bomb’ (we had to look it up) here’s a definition and some stats:

Carpet-bombing: Large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selective area of land. Achieved by dropping many unguided bombs. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area in the same way a carpet covers a floor. Also known as saturation or obliteration bombing.

The USA conducted 580,344 missions over Laos in a 9-year period (1964 -1973). Bombs fell by the planeload every 8 minutes during this time, creating a grand total of 2 million tonnes of bombs. That’s more bombs than were dropped in the whole of WWII.

So would we be wrong in saying carpet-bomb and annihilate aren’t too dissimilar?

Casual stack of artillery outside the Tourist Office

Casual stack of artillery outside the Tourist Office

Tragically, of all these bombs dropped, about 30% failed to explode, which left the North and East of the country littered with UXO – Unexploded Ordnance. The Plain of Jars site, which is now a dedicated UNESCO heritage, has been meticulously cleared and the ‘safe route’ through them is delineated with reassuring white markers. However, a lot of the surrounding land still contains UXO, which has rendered much of it out of bounds and essentially futile – it cannot be farmed, it cannot be built on, you cannot even walk there for fear of unearthing something explosive.

Discarded Russian Tank near a small village

Discarded Russian Tank near a small village

Fear not, however, as the Lao people are remarkably resourceful. When you walk about the town you realise that the empty shells are all being put to use – small shells used as decorative pieces in restaurants,  cluster bombs being resold as boules sets,  large ones artillery propping up the foundations of houses. Even the scrap metal from the bombs has been smelted and refashioned into cutlery. Their stoicism and refusal to get stuck in the past is both impressive and astonishingly humbling.

The keyring for our room key was even an empty shell

Our little sojourn also included a brief stop to a whiskey making village where we were invited to try the local specialty – rice wine.

Cel sniffs apprehensively next to our wine connoisseur...

Cel sniffs apprehensively next to our wine connoisseur…

Joe's not so sure..

Joe’s not so sure..

.. and Imogen's pissed already.

.. and Imogen’s pissed already.

Another gut-wrenchingly wiggly journey (sickbags, I love you) took us down to the border town of Tha Khaek – situated on the banks of the Mekong and facing Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. On arrival we were heralded with some aggressive thunderstorms, a theme which was to continue throughout our stay. In fact, the apocalyptic weather combined with a severe lack of accommodation and the unwelcome appearance of Imogen’s mysterious skin disease – misdiagnosed by my suffering self as leprosy, but rediagnosed (by Google) as heat rash – made us all feel rather ill at ease in this unusual town.

The ominous sky...

The ominous sky…

 

However, Tha Khaek more than redeemed itself the following day as we got on our manual motorbikes (MANUAL, I TELL YOU! WE MANAGED A MANUAL) and began exploring the province’s myriad network of caves.

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The landscape around Tha Khaek

Frankly, the caves were alright. I mean, a cave’s a cave. They were all sufficiently dank and dingy, many of them contained some sort of algae ridden water in the bottom, and nearly all were drowning in litter. What was far more exciting was steaming along the wide-roads, the paddy fields either side giving way to dark purple mountains, so steep they seemed more like vertical towers of rock; or trying to cross a swollen river with the bikes accompanied by a giggling audience of local children; or partaking in some miniature motor-cross racing as we found ourselves completely lost, along with some bewildered cattle, on trench-like dirt tracks. That was fun.

Kylie and Joe on the bike

Kylie and Joe on the bike

Can you imagine how this ended? (Notice how Kylie and I have somewhat wisely jumped off...!)

Can you imagine how this ended? (Notice how Kylie and I have somewhat wisely jumped off…!)

Still there was no time to waste and we were on the bus again the next morning for the last leg of our Laos journey – 11 hours on the road to Si Phan Don, otherwise known as 4,000 Islands. This is where the widest section of the Mekong is punctuated by sandbars and islands adorned with betel trees and sugar palms. Most travellers stay on Don Det, which is where we ended up; the facilities may have been basic but it more than provided a welcome respite from hours of travelling in cramped buses, tuk tuks and sorngtaaou. When you emerge from the ‘do nothing’ stupor of Don Det, it’s worth hiring a bicycle and pedalling over to neighbouring Don Khon, Not only does it offer stunning views across to Cambodia, but if you’re lucky you will catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that frequent the waters. We didn’t manage to spot any but were content to waste some time cooling off (cycling in 35 degree heat is SO SWEATY) in the hope that we might see them. Don Khon also has some magnificent waterfalls; great roaring cataracts and wild waters which make slightly nervous when you realise that only barrier between you and certain death is a flimsy bamboo pole. Erk!

Crossing the Mekong

Crossing the Mekong – muddy as the rains are just beginning

The Khong Phapheng Falls

The Khong Phapheng Falls

.. and again.

.. and again.

Wise sign

Wise sign

Did someone say Tour de France 2014?

Did someone say Tour de France 2014? (Imogen is SO UPSET about this)

 

Our two days R & R here were absolutely ideal, although the leprosy still hasn’t cleared up. I think with 4,000 Islands you need to know what you’re in for before you arrive. If you’re looking for luxury, go elsewhere. If you don’t mind an intermittent electricity supply, sharing your bed with a cockroach or two, yet some undeniably incomparable views, then this is bliss.

And so ends our time in Laos. Two very enthusiastic (mums) thumbs up from us both, it has had everything. Onwards and downwards to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we will be joined by the three Musketeers. Watch this space.

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.

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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Why Happiness Reads White… (Part I)

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As is becoming a common theme with bigclimblittleclimb, we begin with an apology.

We are both extremely sorry for going AWOL in the past few weeks and hope that it will not happen again in the not too distant future. (sad and slightly sheepish face)

All better?

While we are (quite) sorry, there are valid reasons for this. It is partly due to our recent lifestyle change; that is, from hard-working city-dwelling internet-users to wannabe free-spirited campers with no roof, no shoes, no showers and no electricity. To be perfectly honest, living under canvas for a month has been nothing but fantastic and although the first few days saw us pining for a memory foam mattress, we now feel wonderfully adept at using just the bare necessities and average a BOLT-ESQUE 5 mins 04 seconds tent erection (ahem) time.

The second, and slightly more difficult to explain, reason, is that we are a little lost for words. There is something about the South Island that is. Just. Awesome. I know it sounds as though we’re just regurgitating the worst of Kiwiana, but it really is. The places and experiences themselves are  hard to describe without releasing a volley of superlatives and meaningless descriptions about ‘majestic / towering / forbidding / enormous mountains’ and ‘sparkling / golden / pure / soft sands’ (delete adjective where appropriate). And as you all know, happiness reads white.

Hence, we’ve said nothing.

Take a peek at the photos on our facebook page, which collectively should give you many thousand words and, in order to make some sense of them, here is a brief whirlwind tour of the past few weeks…

We started off here…

 

The Abel Tasman National Park

This was a four-day freedom kayak trip around the renowned Abel Tasman coastal National Park. Contrary to popular belief, freedom kayaking is NOT the same as a Newport ‘freedom taxi ride’ (where no cash is followed by a quick dash). It just means that you start at point A and arrange to meet back there however many days you want later. In the interim, you choose a couple of campsites up and down the coastline and as long as you make it to the correct campsite on the correct night with the correct number of people / kayaks / other necessary and unnecessary equipment, then all is well. The park itself deserves its pristine reputation and despite the floods of trampers, campers and kayakers in the area, it was one of the most unspoilt areas that we have seen thus far. If you want paradise, you’ve got it here…

Note for your bucket lists: if you can, stay at Mosquito Bay. Access by water only, dramatic tidal variation, and one of the best early morning views that you can ever ask for. There’s a reason why we found a picture of this on page 4 of the LP (fame).

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The eagle… (as she is known)

 

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Morning view (Incubus?)

Mosquito Bay

Mosquito Bay

Beamers

Beamers

We saw Tom Hanks...

Pretty sure that was Tom Hanks…

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Siggy and Marina training for the next Olympics

From there, we somehow got stuck here…

Motueka and the Nelson Lakes

By stuck we mean we just couldn’t leave. Perhaps it was the hippy vibe (ex-Luminators, dontcha know) in the area; perhaps it was the free campsites that we stumbled across; perhaps it was that we wanted to spend a few more days with our soon-to-depart Norwegian and Argentinian travel buddies. Whatever it was, the whole of the Golden Bay area was without a doubt one of our favourites, and our reluctance to leave is testament to that.

Dragging ourselves kicking and screaming (note: WRITER’S HYPERBOLE) from Golden Bay, we took the Wild West route down the coast, straight into Glacial Valley. Which is as exciting as it sounds. Home to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, as well as a ton (not literally) of other, smaller glaciers, this is the Southern Alps at its finest.

View of the Southern Alps (plus cloud) from the Tasman

View of the Southern Alps (plus cloud) from the Tasman

Same again but at dawn (YES WE GOT UP FOR THIS SHIZ)

Same again but at dawn (YES WE GOT UP FOR THIS SHIZ)

Does anyone else distinctly remember studying glaciers at GCSE / Standard Grade / O-Level (we’re not judging here) and learning a whole load of concepts and formations yet never EVER seeing one? We certainly do. Everyone always seems to be able to explain the formation of an arret or a hanging valley or an ox-bow lake but, let’s be honest, how many times have you actually seen one? Do they even exist?

Well, here’s the thing…

THEY DEFINITELY DO! We’ve SEEN them and we can CONFIRM their existence. Panic over. And to put another dusting of snow on an already very cold, couple of kilometre long tongue of ice, these glaciers are one of a kind due to their position close to the sea; during the ice age (around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago) the glaciers actually reached the sea… probably the greatest slide ever.

The Franz Josef is the bigger of the two, but is so over-hyped and over-stated that you’re practically vomiting information on the glacier before you’ve even seen it.

FJ Glacier.. from the pauper's viewpoint

FJ Glacier.. from the pauper’s viewpoint

A few ks down the road you come across the miniscule town of Fox which starts at a solid good and only gets better. Over the (many) years, the glacier has retreated and left a Lord of the Rings type valley; sheer rock faces on each side and an ice-grey flat bottom. Tourists can walk for around 20-minutes to reach the glacier tip, which is both hugely impressive and quite terrifying at the same time. The great tongue of ice, light blue in the centre and dirty grey on the top, is enormous. You can see the guided tour groups walking on the ice looking like miniature action men, with a guide in front hacking out a path for them to follow. At random, chunks of the ice fall off and rock debris and shards of ice tumble into the slate grey river rushing out from underneath the glacier. Funny as it sounds, it was all pretty humbling. Partly because of the size, partly because of the insane raw beauty, but mostly because of the actual danger of it all – only a couple of months ago some snap happy tourists crossed DOC barriers and ended up under the ice. Rescuers couldn’t even retrieve the bodies because it was too dangerous for them.

Fox Glacier valley walls

Fox Glacier valley walls

Valley view from the glacier end

Valley view from the glacier end

The ACTUAL glacier (Fox. Naturally)

The ACTUAL glacier (Fox. Naturally)

Fancy a swim under there anyone?

Fancy a swim under there anyone?

Outdoorsy gimps (matching trousers?)

Outdoorsy gimps / geography teacher wannabes (matching trousers?)

One thing to rival seeing the glaciers? Seeing them reflected in a lake. Formed when the glacier retreated and left an ice block in its wake, neighbouring Lake Matheson should without a doubt be in the list of ‘Top Ten Photo Ops’. Have a look for yourself…

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The view of Mounts Cook and Tasman from Lake Matheson

Reflection?

Reflection?

All glaciered out, we got back on the road and drove inland through the Haast Pass to Wanaka, Queenstown and Glenorchy*; New Zealand’s very own Jane Bennett, Lizzie Bennett and Mary Bennett, respectively. Wanaka is another place that we found near impossible to leave; a small town hemmed in by a vast lake on one side and impassable mountains on the other three. It has something of an alpine village feel to it – probably because that is what it is in winter. Tourism is big there, but it hasn’t completely taken over and there is a real familial and cutesy without being kitch atmosphere. Perhaps the highlight was watching the Super 15 rugby match in a local pub – Otago Highlanders (the home-ish team) vs. Waikato Chiefs. The rugby set Celyn into raptures; the happy hour prices and free hotdog with every drink (we need that more in the UK) worked for Imogen.

Wanaka is often compared to its neighbour, Queenstown. Both famous for their second to none scenery, busy ski season, and ‘adrenaline junkie’ appeal, Queenstown is supposed to be the lashy crazy older brother while Wanaka lingers a bit behind in a sort of almost-but-not-quite second position. To be honest, I can’t stand the way that guidebooks compare the two towns. Yes, Queenstown can be lashtastic and you can down ten shots of Bacardi whilst doing a 1,0000 m bungee jump and then frogging (it’s not as dirty as it sounds) down a river. But, that’s not all, and it means that visitors nearly always arrive with preconceptions neatly etched on their minds. We felt as though we arrived with an idea of what we were in for and I think our opinions on the place were formed before we’d even crossed the Crown Range. Which isn’t fair for any town, no matter how good or bad it might be. Cursing guidebooks aside (our Lonely Planet is now lounging in a charity shop somewhere in Christchurch… but that’s another story), Queenstown is a great place to quietly fritter away a few days (if you’re poor) or alternatively, spend a fair bit of cash and knock a couple of years off your life (if you’re rich). Either way, it has a huge range of bucket list activities (although they come at a price), a café culture that rivals gay Pareee, a lot of Brits, and some really really good drinks deals.

 

Actually, who are we kidding? We know that one massive draw in QT was our happy camping in the backyard of Miss Natalie Farmer’s former house. And Ferg Burger.

 

We’re going to have to stop here, it’s getting late and the only other person left in McDonald’s appears to have died over one of the tables.

 

Hold that thought – we’ll be back for the second instalment shortly…

 

 

 

 

 

 

*For some reason we hardly took any photos there. Weird.

Mutton or Lamb

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Contrary to popular belief, we are still alive. Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the sparkling shores and sunny climes of Golden Bay, we’ve moved southward, following the wild west coast.

By the by the by, wild west is not just gimmicky alliteration. It seriously is WILD. Quick bit of trivia, 1% of New Zealand’s population live the West Coast of the South Island – although it makes up 9% of the total landmass.  As we said, it gets pretty rural out here.

Movements so far: Golden Bay – Hokitika – Lake Kaniere – Lake Mahinapua – Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – Gillespie’s Beach – Wanaka.. we know this means ABSOLUTELY nothing. Well, not yet anyway. Have a look at our marvellous map to follow the path and we promise that there will be  more than a three-liner (and perhaps some photys if you’re lucky) coming very soon.

 

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Peace, peanuts, mutton pie and enormous chairs.

We’re Off…

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South Island it is bais.

 

Ferry to Picton at ridiculous o’clock tomorrow morning and then on to Takaka Hill for Luminate Festival.

 

 

Don’t be alarmed if there is no contact for a week or so. Proof of life not needed. We’ll probably be playing the didgeridoo and making bracelets out of recycled flip flop like the filthy hippies we would love to be.

 

Click the orange writing to check out where we are heading

How Not To Drive

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The Highway Code for use in New Zealand – Revised and abridged version.

 

 

This Highway Code is used and adhered to by all North Island road users. Please take all points into serious consideration. The writer does not assume any responsibility for actions or indeed non-actions taken by people who have read this version of the NZHC ™ and claims will be refuted for detrimental reliance on any information provided or expressed and so on and so on and so forth.

[If in doubt, see Miss N. Farmer. ]

 

 


1. Spatial awareness is not required when driving.

 
This relates to urban, suburban and miles-away-from-any-sort-of-urban driving area. Bumping, scraping, and full on crashing is perfectly acceptable when parking or indeed just driving. Likewise, overtaking on cliff edges with a slice of plastic cheese worth of space between you and the overtakee is also absolutely fine. Think of it as gaining ‘lad’ points. The more dangerous the terrain, the better.

 
2. When in doubt, pull out.

 
If you are waiting at a left- or right-hand turn for more than 5 seconds (that’s ‘one-elephant-two-elephant…’) just go. Traffic or no traffic. Don’t worry about the other cars on the road, they are there to work around you.

 

 
3. Highway can mean anything.

 
The Kiwi Highway is a self-confessed misnomer. Or, as it is known bureaucratically, an umbrella term. It is known to include: motorways, dual carriageways, single carriageways, 0.5 carriageways, passing lanes, gravel tracks, dirt tracks, mountain tracks, single-lane bridges, rickety Monty Python bridges, hobbit passing lanes, vomit-inducing bends and the Bridge of Death.

 
4. Do not give way on bridges.

 

 

When approaching a one lane bridge i.e. 94.6% of all road bridges, give way signs are purely decorative. Giving way is neither expected nor carried out, so don’t even bother. If crossing a one-lane bridge is akin to playing a Spartan game of chicken blindfolded on the M25, you’re doing well.

 
5.1 Lines on the side of the road are redundant.

 
If there is a hard shoulder, or indeed any sort of tarmac-ed surface on the roadside, use it. And by use it, we mean drive on it. The white lines are only there to help possums in the dark.

 
5.2 Lines in the middle of the road are redundant.

 
Driving on the correct side of the road is only for pansies, learners and German camper-vans.  Use up as much road space as you possibly can. This rule must be adhered to when negotiating the 179 degree turns and hairpin corners of the mountain roads.

 
6.1 Cars must conform to make and model regulations.

 

Cars must be at least 10 years old. The more battered the better.

 
6.2 Cars must conform to colour regulations

 
The following colours are acceptable: black, white, browny black, browny white, brown, blacky white, whitey brown, whitey black, any combination of the above.

 
7. Manners are not to be used on roads.

 
They only confuse. Which could lead to road accidents. So manners are a no-no. Don’t let anyone out, or say thank you, or even acknowledge other road users, and there is a compulsory minimum middle finger use of 3 times per journey.

 
8. Speed limit signs on corners are for guideline purposes only.

 

 
When you see a sign telling you to take a corner at 25 kph rather than your current speed of 100 kph, don’t feel that it is necessary to adhere to it. Think of it like a game of Mario Kart – the faster you go, the more likely you are to get one of those multi-coloured floating prize box things. Go on, you know you want to.

 

9. Indicating a sign of weakness.

 

It’s far more interesting trying to guess which way a car is going. Especially on double roundabouts. For true man points, smash all indicators.

 

10. Expect the unexpected.. of the bovine variety.

 

 

This is far more entertaining than the odd suicidal squirrel. Just make sure you brake in time.

 

 

 

Copyright 2012. From a sofa and some very cold feet in Whitianga.

North by Northwest

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What do you think of when you hear ‘Northlands’?

How about ‘The Far North’?

Believe us, it is just about as remote as it sounds. Although not quite Elephant-Graveyard-from-The-Lion-King, it’s pretty darned isolated.

Having left the sunny surfing climes of the Russell and Paihia, we moved west towards the Hokianga Harbour. Only about 2 hours drive from the tourist trap Bay of Islands, this area feels wholly different – almost as though it has  evolved on it’s own, completely independent of the mainstream. The we-aint-seen-new-blood-in-here-for-years tone was set at Ngawha Hot Springs, where we drove in, freaked out at the weathered sheds and dirty, smelly, bubbling pools of natural hot water, and promptly turned around and drove out again.

*Confession*: Over-active imagination Imogen (‘It was too much like Deliverance‘) was definitely more scared than Celyn.

We perked up though. For a start, the 10-minute ferry ride from Rawene (population 440) to Kohukohu (population 190 – does that go up to 192 if we stay there?) was beautiful. Streaming rays of sun bounced off the thick, brown water of the channel (which eventually turns into the Tasman sea) and our little chugging vehicle ferry powered it’s way between the two piers. We found a place to sleep at The Tree House, a true rainforest lodge which we shared with ducks, doves and the odd Tui if we were lucky. This was a find. As the concept of time seems to have been left somewhere on the other side of the water, we inevitably ended up staying for longer than planned.

This did, however, give us a chance to explore the town of Kohukohu. Heralded as the ‘last fully-preserved Victorian village in New Zealand’, we decided to spend the night at quaint little Coke (as it is known to the locals). Nice place. Nice night. But there was one thing that we noticed about the town, which in fact echoed with our impression of Russell.

It just didn’t seem that old.

Were we disappointed? Not sure. Perhaps we, as European citizens, are spoilt by the abundance of staggeringly impressive historical buildings right on our doorstep, or maybe we are grossly uneducated about the history of NZ, but we can’t help but feel a little bit … indifferent to the late 19th-century architecture and grid-square layouts of the towns that we have come across. However, we know that we didn’t travel across the world to compare European and Oceaniac architecture, and as has already been proven, our breath has been taken away by the more than impressive natural scenery. Verdict? Let’s stop complaining, start educating ourselves, and get outdoors!

One last point about the Northlands? EVERY ONE IS EVEN NICER THAN THE NICE PEOPLE THAT WE CAME ACROSS IN AUCKLAND! Serious. There’s something in the water or something. Staying at hippy-haven  we met (and were fed by) a great group of Frenchies as well as coming across Phil-from-Tredegar working on the ferry. There were also the two German hitchhikers who entertained us from the Hokianga Harbour all the way back down to Auckland. Nice NICE nice.

Listening to:

Chet Faker, Cigarettes and Chocolate

Courtesy of Patrick and Timon – standard German guys having an unbelievably good taste in electronic music. JAH!

What time is it?

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Safely touched down in Kuala Lumpur (or KL if you’ve been here before and are a travel snob). Pretty standard flight… Had too many meals, a fair few G&Ts, and not enough sleep. Thankfully there was a hefty film choice – (out of My Sister’s Sister and Spider-Man, guess who watched what?)

So, Celyn’s watch reads 12.05; our flight leaves in an hour, which is 21.45 (naturally); the sun is setting; and we can’t work out which meal we just ate. Seriously, which day is it? And WHAT TIME IS IT?

Hopefully we’ll find out in Auckland…