Christmas and New Year

20 Jan

As soon as the holidays were approaching I was busy planning my next little adventure. I say planning, but really it was just a case of choosing where I would like to go and then hoping hotels and transport would book themselves, which annoyingly they didn’t. I had decided a while back that I would go to Cambodia this Christmas to finally tick off the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap. I’d heard a lot of rave reviews, not only of the temples but of Cambodia itself. I got myself a re-entry visa and booked 3 nights into the Amra Angkor Hotel, a modest place but all importantly with a big, outdoor pool.

The tricky bit was deciding where to spend New Years Eve. I wanted to go back to my favourite Thai island, Koh Chang, and Diary was keen as she’d never been there before. It all seemed feasible, but would require a lot of travelling in the short time period we had (always seems to be the way when I go somewhere).

We left for Cambodia about midday on 27th December, as soon as Diary had finished her last exam. The journey to the border took around 6 hours, costing just 150 Baht (£3) each. At the boarder we were quickly hassled by both Thai and Cambodian taxi drivers asking where we were going and offering us visas and transport to Siem Reap. I let myself down at this point. I paid an inflated price for an express visa and believed an Asian Del-Boy that it’s difficult to book taxis on the Cambodian side. So we booked a taxi for 2000 baht (54 dollars) and headed through immigration. As soon as we were through, taxi drivers were everywhere and offering rides to Siem Reap for half what we just paid. I really should have known better!

When we arrived at Siem Reap it was late and we just wanted to get to our hotel and relax for the night. But our driver didn’t go to our hotel and instead dropped us off at a tuk tuk rank. Here, we were offered a lift by Cambodian called ‘Jonny’ who made the cardinal sin of saying ‘lovely jubbly’ when I told him I was from England. That instantly made me think he was likely to sell me a suit or scam me some other way. In the end he seemed quite friendly and we agreed to book a tour of the temples with his company for the following day.

The next morning we were up early and heading for a day of sightseeing around the temples. We had our driver ($20) and our tickets ($20 each) and stopped for breakfast ($8), and quickly discovered we were completely out of money on just our first morning. I thought Cambodia was cheap!!

The first stop was Angkor Wat itself. It was enjoyable strolling around in the sun admiring the sheer scale of this ancient building and the intricate decorations inscribed into the stone. But it was still just another temple, and temples just don’t get me that excited. The next stop on our Tuk Tuk tour was Bayon Temple. This was actually my favourite place of the day. It was a lot more dilapidated than Angkor Wat and consisted of scores of pillars each covered in giant Buddha faces carved into the rock. This time I was able to get more of a sense of the age of the building and enjoyed picturing this grand stone building in its ‘hey day’. After Bayon temple we climbed up to the dizzy heights of ‘The temple of the Leper King’, which, presumably at some stage was built by a king with leprosy. Again the temple was interesting and pleasant and offered a fantastic view from its top. However it was a tough climb in the heat and on tired legs.

 

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Top: Inside Angkor Wat. Bottom: A few of the 36 giant Buddha faces

Because of this, and because it was under renovation we decided to skip the next temple and move on to Ta Prohm, which has been made famous for being the set for the Tomb Raider film. This was quite an astonishing place, where trees have slowly been winning the age-long fight with the stone temple. It looks quite unreal in some places, and stupidly I couldn’t help thinking it was just like a Hollywood movie set. This was our last temple visit, and after a quick bit of harassment from the street sellers we were back on our way to the hotel.

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Top: A view from the top of the Temple of the Leper King

Middle and bottom: Ta Prohm temple among the trees

After a quick dip in the hotel pool we headed back to the centre of Siem Reap for dinner. There is an abundance of good food available but it is more expensive then I had expected. Tonight we ended up eating traditional Cambodian ‘Boston style’ pizza at Belmiros. I didn’t feel guilty at all, the pizza was amazing and almost as big as the table. Diary and I shared a MEDIUM size and still had enough for breakfast in the morning. The staff were also excellent, a refreshing change to Thai-style hospitality (which is to stand awkwardly at your table while you look at the menu and to not smile at all costs). The owner of the restaurant came over to every table for a chat and to make sure everything was OK. If you’re ever in Siem Reap, try this restaurant!

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Above: Pizza at Belmiro’s Pizza and Sub

The next day we woke up early again and headed into town for breakfast. We found a really nice cafe where we could sit upstairs and observe the market across the road while we waited for our food. This time I did eat some local cuisine and had a type of Cambodian omelette.

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Top: Cambodian style omelette.

Once fed we set off for the local war museum. It was a short tuk tuk journey away from the centre and cost just five dollars. This allowed you enter the museum and got you a ‘free’ guide. I say ‘free’ because of course you are expected to tip. The museum wasn’t exactly what I expected, it is entirely outdoors for starters, but it was interesting and informative enough. More importantly there were loads of weaponry to look at and hold. Our guide didn’t speak the best of English but was a true war veteran. He had been either shot or blown up numerous times until he was forced to quit after stepping on a landmine.

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Top: An RPG rocket launcher. Bottom: Diary buying yet another fruit shake

The rest of the day and that evening was spent relaxing, eating and exploring. By now I had managed to accustom myself to the money and how to direct tuk tuks to our hotel, but just as I had mastered these essentials our time in Siem Reap was ending. We had booked a bus to Koh Chang the next morning and I was already excited to be going back to such a beautiful island. I was however a bit concerned. It was 30th December and I knew he roads would be busy. We also had to get to Trat, where you take a ferry, before 7pm. Our final problem was our complete lack of accommodation and everything online was completely booked up for New Year’s Eve. An all to familiar predicament.

Our journey to Koh Chang began with a 3 hour drive to the border. It went smoothly and I spent much of the time talking to an old timer from Oz. He was in the process of becoming another pensioner to move to Thailand in order to marry a younger Thai wife. But he was friendly enough and good to chat to. Once at the border our smooth progress came to an abrupt halt. People were piling out of Cambodia, supposedly with similar intentions, to spend New Year’s in Bangkok or on a sandy beach somewhere. I was stuck in a queue at immigration for nearly 2 hours, dripping with sweat, tired and hungry. It was definitely one of those moments when you realise travelling is not all fun and games!

Once across the border we took a tuk tuk to the bus station where we waited for our mini van to Koh Chang. By this time I was seriously concerned we wouldn’t make it in time for the last ferry. We finally set off about 3pm and began our dash for the pier in Trat. Our driver also needed to get to Koh Chang tonight and drove like a lunatic the whole way. Thankfully we made it on time and in one piece and even had time for some Mama Noodles while we waited at the pier.

Our final predicament was our lack of accommodation. If it came to it, I had an offer of a tent for the night, but considering how tired and in need of a shower I was, it wasn’t much of a consolation. My plan of action was this. Get a taxi to the south of the island (near Bang Boa/Lonely Beach), hire a motorbike, and find a room with a hot shower. By the time we got a motorbike it was nearly 10 pm and most receptions were closed already. Those that were still open told us that all the rooms were taken. It wasn’t looking good.

Thankfully a lady who had finished her shift and was relaxing on a hammock overheard that we were looking for a room. She called her boss and told us there was one last room available at Exotic Bungalows. It would be 1500 baht, but we had no choice, and were just thankful to have found somewhere. The room was drab and had a very stale smell, but had a hot power-shower and a comfy bed. We weren’t alone in this either. Just as I was drifting off Diary let our a scream as though shed seen a ghost. Thankfully it was just a humongous gecko (Godzilla) hanging around in the corner of the room.

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Above: Godzilla

The next morning we woke up early and I set about looking for a nicer place to stay. Rooms were hard to come by but I did find a very basic place for just 200 baht a night, but it wouldn’t have been a comfortable. Just as I was going to give up I found somewhere with a final bungalow available. It turned out to be a really nice, modern, cozy room. Finally a stroke of luck. Now we had a roof over our heads it was time to make the most of our day on the island. We jumped back on the bike and headed to beach.

The weather today was perfect, not a cloud in the sky. Once at the beach I couldn’t resist hiring kayaks and attempting to reach a tiny islet in the distance. It was hot and sweaty work but we made it and enjoyed our secluded beach for a while before heading back. Here we enjoyed some refreshments, Diary consuming her umpteenth fruit shake of the day (she’d become an addict), before going back to get ready for NYE.

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Above: James Cracknell  Below: Did not even break a sweat!!!!!!!

Koh Chang is such a beautiful island, and part of its beauty is because it is still underdeveloped, green and raw. Even on NYE, with all accommodation fully booked it still felt quiet and relaxed. I was more than happy to celebrate the New Year with a low key party on the beach, rather than pushing myself through crowds or waiting 12 hours to see some fireworks. We headed out for a meal, I treated myself to a particularly spicy pad ka pow guay (chicken fried with basil),  before going to find a beach-side bar. As usual there were some fire dancing displays. The highlight of this was running through a flaming archway with Diary on my back.

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Top and bottom: Beautiful scenery on Koh Chang

After a few hours we had strolled up the beach and it was on the stroke of midnight. Fireworks erupted all the way along the coast in both directions. We stayed dancing on the beach for a while before heading back (the kayaking had taken its toll). The next day and it was time to head back to Korat. It had been a bit of a whirlwind trip but a really enjoyable one. It’s not too long until summer break, and a possible trip to the Philippines. To be continued…..

 

A little trip around Bali

22 Oct

Well it’s been a long time since I wrote a blog, but then again, it’s been a long time since I have felt I done something new and exciting. That’s not to say life has been dull. I’ve had fun exploring Korat, had a crazy weekend in Bangkok and flew home for my sisters beautiful wedding. Not to mention the normal ups and downs of school life. But overall the last few months have been mainly consumed by work, with weekends being used to hit the gym, relax and indulge in western food (in precisely that order). I have also been consciously trying to save some money up, knowing that October would be an expensive month with two and a half weeks off work and plans to travel.

The last 6 weeks or so of school were pretty tough. I think that everybody, including the Thai teachers were in need of a time out and to get away. It was a mammoth term, stretching 20 weeks, broken up only by a long weekend. I’m not going to pretend the workload is high, but we do spend a lot of time at school and after a while your inspiration and motivation starts to run a bit low. Finally the exam period arrives and you look forward to a week without planning or stress, only to remember that adjudicating and marking exams would be an effective form of torture. Just to top it off we had to submit a mountain of paperwork; lesson plans, results, graphs etc. Still, I got through it and it was time to enjoy living in Asia to the fullest.

Natalie, Enda and I had decided to get out of Thailand during the break a while back. I’ve seen most of the tourist spots here now and it was definitely time for a change of scenery. We toyed with the idea of seeing the Philippines, but flights seemed a bit expensive. I wanted to see Angkor Wat, but felt this is easily doable on a long weekend. In the end we decided to go to Bali, where the prospect of surfing and swimming with turtles was too good to turn down.

We arrived in Bangkok a day before our flight and headed to an Irish Bar to watch Ireland stuff the French while enjoying a Guinness. It felt like we had left Thailand already and was a good start to the holidays. The next day we set off and arrived in Bali in the early evening. We had booked a room at a hostel close to the airport, at least that’s what Enda told us he’d done. It turns out that although the address had ‘Kuta’ in the name, we were in the arse end of nowhere and a two hour taxi journey through rush hour away. Possibly an easy mistake, but only one Enda would of made (sorry dude) ((not sorry really))!

We arrived at our hostel which was basic but comfortable enough. We had unintentionally arrived in a part of Bali which was dedicated to surfing, with not a lot else to do. As luck would have it, it was ideal. We caught up on some sleep and hit the beach. The waves were great fun, and after 20 minutes of being bashed about we hired a couple of boards. I had only surfed once before, in tiny waves with an instructor, so was slightly apprehensive. Not about getting hurt, just about making a complete tit of myself in front of hundreds of experienced surfers. I think it was a bit of beginners luck but I paddled out, caught a wave and rode it to the beach on my first attempt! I went to try again and got continually hit back by waves for the next 10 minutes. I hadn’t realised how tiring it was to paddle out each time in these conditions!

In total I spent about 2 hours, with mixed results. It was not standing up that was the problem it was paddling out and timing the waves that I found hard. Still it was a good laugh and by the end of it I felt I was getting the hang of things. The other two didn’t enjoy it so much; Natalie was forced to retire hurt and Enda gave up before he even got his hair wet (melts). I came out unscathed except for some severe sunburn behind my knees (is there a name for this?! Let’s go with legpits). My legpits were seriously sore!

Our other day in this area we spent exploring the west side of the island. We hired motorbikes and set off with no real plan of where we were heading. The roads are really thin in Bali and the traffic is completely bananas; luckily we were all well used to this from riding around Korat. Then it went a bit wrong. About 10 minutes into our ride we get called over by the police. None of us had been too keen to wear our heavily used, and quite frankly pointless helmets (sorry mum) and so I knew a fine was coming as we pulled over. I wasn’t expecting the police to be quite so corrupt though. We got called into a hut where the policeman, dressed in full police uniform, sitting in a police hut decided it was necessary to inform us he was the police. He then asked where we were from, shook our hands with a big smile before fining us 250,000 rupiah for not wearing a helmet. He then asked for our license which we handed over. He told us it’s not international and fined us another 250,000. I kicked up a bit of an argument, feeling he was extorting us, and he quickly dropped my fine down (what kind of police were they?!) Anyway, I wanted to get out of there so we paid and off we went. We learnt later from a local that we shouldn’t of had to pay any more than 50,000 rupiah. We learnt later still that this is extremely common in Bali, so be warned.

The rest of our bike journey went without a hitch. In fact it was so good, thanks mainly to Maderasta, a local guy who we bumped into. I was actually riding along, minding my own business when this eccentric looking local guy rides up beside me and asks me where I’m going. He then tells me he will show us the best rice fields in Bali. It was quite an odd meeting, riding along a main road at 60kmph, but I had a good feeling about the guy and instantly agreed to follow him.

It turned out to be a great decision. ‘Rasta’ took us to rice fields in the hills, a beautiful temple on the beach where you can watch a spectacular sunset and a coffee plantation where you can sample unique teas and coffees, including the infamous ‘Luwak’ coffee. If you haven’t heard about it already, this coffee is highly regarded and can cost a small fortune in some countries. What makes it so special is that the beans which make it have passed through a mongoose (yuuuuuuuummy). I’m not quite sure why that makes it so appealing, and to be honest having tried it I am still none the wiser. Still, it was another new experience, and the rest of the teas and coffees we sampled were delicious.

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Beautiful place to watch the sunset, Tanah Lot temple, Tabanan.

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The unwashed beans from a Mongooses bottom. Tasting the highly regarded Luyak coffee

After two nights we headed to Ubod, a bustling town in the center of Bali. The main reason we were heading here was its proximity to the volcano we planned to climb, mount Batur, rising a nifty 5,633 feet. I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Ubod, but as we reached the outskirts I was struck by its beauty. It is famous for having a rich culture and a natural feel, which was evident as we passed by stunning rice terraces and prehistoric looking trees, many of which draped their branches and vines over the narrow roads we drove along. We got dropped at our hostel, which was another nice surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hostel which is so clean and such good value for money! For about £5 a night we had a swimming pool, comfortable beds and even a corner bath. The girl who worked there was so polite and even folded our clothes for us while we went for dinner (I’m hoping she will come live with us in Thailand). So, if you ever visit Bali, check out Dormmy Inn Hostel.

While we were at the hostel we hired some motorbikes and booked our trip up the volcano. The tour aims to get you to the peak before sunrise so we had an early morning pick-up at 2am! We drove an hour to ‘base camp’ (lol) where we were put into groups with a guide. It was pitch black so everyone got a torch and we set off. I was relieved to finally get walking because the temperate was much lower that high up. The walk started on a gravel path which ascending at a gentle gradient, but up ahead we could see the line of torches start to rise up the side of the invisible mountain. It was a really cool view, bettered only by the incredible stars and planets shining above our heads. I walked ahead of the group so I could stop for a while and admire them. One star was so prominent it was clearly Venus, and we were later informed Saturn and Mars were also both visible beside it. For me, the trip was already worth it.

An hour into the walk and the path suddenly got a bit more onerous. We were only half way and some of our group were starting to struggle and slow down. We were on a tight schedule, to reach the top before sunrise so Enda and I decided to plough on ahead. We passed a lot stragglers and got to the lower edge of the crater where we could wait for the sun to appear. The views were awesome and everyone huddled around expectantly. The temperature was noticeably lower now and I had to wrap up warm now I had stopped walking. Finally the sun poked up on the horizon, and a buzz went round coupled with a ‘selfie frenzy’. It was a great thing; to witness the sunrise from such a beautiful place, but I couldn’t help feel guilty that I normally take the sunrise for granted. I decided I should watch more sunrises and sunsets, they are free , happen every day and are epic!

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A shot of the sunrise from the craters edge. Looking across the crater.

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Me and Enda at the summit of the volcano. A look back at the climb we just made. 

Once we had regrouped we checked out the crater and the hot steam continuously erupting from hundreds of little holes and crannies. It was very cool but I was distracted by the very top of the volcano looming above. Some people were climbing a very steep path to the very peak, now hidden in cloud. I had asked our guide if we would go up but he told me our group wouldn’t make it. I knew I would regret not going so I grabbed Enda and we snuck off. It was a tough final climb and our legs were burning but we got up there and joined in the photos with a large number of Japanese hikers. But not for long. We were in danger of missing out on our banana sandwich so we quickly started back down again. My legs felt like jelly by now and my shoes quickly filled with volcanic ash which covered the floor. But we made it back to the group, accompanied by some monkeys. We then had the two hour trek back down to the bottom, which just about finished us off!

After Ubod we originally planned to stay in Kuta but had heard reports of ‘too many Aussies’, which naturally put us off. So, with a bit of research and some recommendations we decided to leave Bali and go to the Gilli Islands. Another great decision! It took a taxi followed by a two hour long boat trip but it was so worth it! We went to Gilli Air which is a tiny island (about 7km circumference) surrounded by sandy beaches and coral seas. There are no cars or motorbikes on the islands, which is a great idea. We hired some push bikes and headed off to explore. Within 5 minutes we had crossed the island!

The highlight of our time here was a snorkel trip which took us to several diving locations and neighboring islands. I was so happy to swim with turtles again, and was even able to stroke it as it swam along with like a total turtle dude. It was my main goal during the trip so I was happy! We saw quite a few turtles and clown fish, but I was a bit disappointed by the seemingly poor health of the coral. A lot of it looked dead, and there wasn’t the large amount of sea life I’ve seen in Oz or Thailand.

On our final evening on the island we headed to a bar on the West coast of the islands to watch the sunset with some friends we had met. Again, it was an awesome sight and I felt so content just relaxing with a beer watching this natural spectacle. We finished off the trip we some good food and a bit of a knees up. It was very strange, I was heading back to Thailand, something that would normally be an exciting prospect, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit forlorn about leaving. Still it was a great trip, some amazing experiences AND I guess I will just have to come back another time 😉

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Stunning rice terraces in Ubod. The sunset on our final night taken from Gilli Air.

Pai and Bangkok. The end of the Easter trip

16 May

After Chang Mai we headed further North to Pai for a few days. I’d been recommended to go here by many people, several of which raved about it! The mini van ride took only a few hours, but it was a rough ride. We were in the northern mountain ranges now and the road twisted and turned relentlessly. In total there were over 700 corners on the short journey, all taken at death defying speeds by our maniac driver. By the end everyone felt a bit queasy.

There’s not a huge amount to write about Pai, it was OK, but certainly didn’t live up to the hype. We hired motorbikes and checked out some local attractions. We went to a waterfall, canyons and some naturally occurring hot springs. All of which were pleasant enough, but hardly worth getting your camera out for. The town itself is small but bustling with backpackers. Perhaps this is one reason I wasn’t fond of it; it’s incredibly touristic.

The other major problem with Pai is the strange sickness it is becoming renowned for. I had read on the Internet and heard first-hand that many people get a sudden bout of sickness there. Many people think they have caught food poisoning, but restaurants argue it is simply a virus that has been going round the town for months, possibly years. Either way, it seems to be a serious problem! I was hit by this virus on our final morning, just hours before we were due to leave to Bangkok. I went to bed feeling fine and woke up to severe sickness and diarrhoea. All morning I was crippled in my room, while our bus time got closer. I didn’t want to leave the hostel, let alone take the same roller-coaster bus ride, followed by a 15 hour train journey. But I had little choice, so I filled up with medicine and off we went.

40 minutes into the journey I was in a bad way. I felt sick, hot and severely dehydrated. Other people on the bus were also feeling rough, and at least one girl was sick near the front. At one point I thought I’d have to stop; my hands and feet went numb and I felt faint. Needless to say it was one of the worst journeys I’d ever experienced. My recommendation is, don’t go to Pai. From Chang Mai we had an over night sleeper train straight to Bangkok. I was exhausted and just happy to lie down. In fact I ended up sleeping almost the whole journey and woke up 12 hours later feeling much better.

We had one last day in Bangkok so headed to the weekend market and bought some souvenirs. We then headed straight to Skybar, a rooftop bar with an incredible view over Bangkok. It is featured in the second Hangover film, and has turned into one of the trendiest venues in the city. Not surprisingly the drinks don’t come cheap! We had one cocktail each and got a bill of 1,500 baht, enough to eat for a month (if you stuck to street food). We enjoyed nursing our drinks and watched the sunset (so romantic). Next to us were two ladies from Switzerland and we soon got chatting about our travels. They were so nice and interesting to talk to, and we ended up joining them for a second cocktail, this time a Hangovertini, a drink invented by the mixologists for the cast and crew while filming. It was a real highlight of the two weeks and a great way to finish the trip. After all the travelling, late nights, early mornings and activities I was beat, and looking forward to getting back to normality.

Chang Mai and the world famous Songkran Festival

16 May

Our trip to Pattaya was about as far as we had planned. We knew we needed to get up to Chang Mai for the Songkran festival but didn’t have any transport or accommodation booked, mainly because we weren’t sure what day we wanted to get there. In an ideal world we would have traveled the day before Songkran in order to make the most of the islands, but we were repeatedly told that the public transport would be horrendous, with thousands of people travelling to festival hotspots. Songkran is essentially a week a three day party, celebrating the Thai new year. Water is traditionally thrown over over people to represent a fresh start and to wash away sins and bad luck from the previous year. This has turned into the biggest and wildest water fight anywhere in the world!

Living in Thailand I had heard a lot about Songkran over the last few months, so I had an idea of the anarchy that would ensue. I also knew that I needed to be armed with a powerful super¬soaker and a floral Hawaiian shirt (don’t ask me why, apparently it’s a relatively new tradition). On the morning of the festivities we got ready and headed out to the Old City. We had arranged to meet a French girl we had met the day before. She was based on the other side of the city, so we hopped into a Tuk Tuk and set off.

Songkran had only just started, and yet we felt the full force of it on that journey! Our route involved us following the moat, around the circumference of Chang Mai’s Old City. This is incidentally where all the action happens, as people have a limitless supply of water; albeit rancid moat water. To make things even less pleasant people buy huge blocks of ice which they use to turn the water ice cold. Our Tuk Tuk crawled along, regularly getting held up in the traffic, making us sitting ducks to the crowds on both sides armed with buckets and water guns. I was soon shivering and spluttering from dirty water. We decided to abandon ship, and walk the rest of the way on foot (at least then we could fight back, and dodge some of the ‘attacks’). This was much much more fun! Instead of being easy targets, we were now able to chase people off. We had both invested in the most powerful guns we could find, and could shoot people from a good distance. We strode through the crowded streets, showering everyone that got in our way.

The rest of the day involved roaming around, occasionally setting up a ‘base’ at a restaurant or bar who were supplying free water. The best places were next to the busy roads where you’d have a constant stream of traffic to shoot at. Most of this was made up of pickup trucks full of people fighting from the back, with huge water tanks for their ammo. However you still got people riding around on motorbikes, getting hit by buckets of water and squirted by guns! So dangerous! I’ve heard that rode deaths double during the Songkran period in Thailand and it’s no surprise!

We would stop every now and again to have some food or a beer and dry out in a relatively ‘safe zone’. The time passed quickly and the sun was soon going down. This made it very cold and we decided an Irish coffee and a few beers would warm us up nicely. We ended up at the West Gate, the main action zone, as evening fell. The roads here were full of people; dancing, drinking and of course, water fighting. We eventually called it a day and headed back to our hostel. We were tired and hungry, desperate for some good food! We found it in the form of a ‘Beast Burger’, a very popular food truck that made some of the best burgers I’ve ever had! So good we’d go back the next day.

Our trip to Chang Mai was mainly about Songkran, but it was also good to explore the city and surrounding areas before the festival had kicked off. One of the main attractions is Doi Suthep, an amazing temple perched high up on one of Thailand’s highest points. We hired some bikes and set off up the winding mountain road. The ride itself was good fun and we stopped off at a view point to cool off and drink a coconut. While we were there we had a sketch done by an artist for just 50 baht (1 pound). He was an interesting guy, and donated all his takings into buying medicine that tourists could use for free.

Our other excursion while in Chang Mai was a full-day trekking trip. For around 700 Baht it included transport, a guided trek, elephant riding, food and bamboo rafting. It is certainly cheap, but the trip was pretty uninspiring. The highlight should have been riding the elephants, but I had done this before and I worry about the welfare of the animals. I think it’s safe to say that I have ridden my last elephant, at least for the near future. Overall I couldn’t recommend the trip to anyone else, but we explored some of Northern Thailand and met some new faces.

Sin City

25 Apr

As we got further into the city of Pattaya, if anything, the storm intensified! It was some of the most extreme weather I’d ever seen, and certainly made driving hazardous. Sure enough we saw the result of several accidents within a few minutes. A couple of cars had collided, a lorry had somehow been bent in half, and a car was on its roof in a ditch. Our driver decided to continue driving at full speed, despite the fact he couldn’t see.

We got towards the centre of the city, near to where we would be staying and found many of the streets a foot or more underwater. Some of the many roads had been completely transformed into rivers. At one point our driver stopped and said he couldn’t go any further, and a couple of Chinese girls were forced to go on foot. Surprisingly, the best vehicles for getting through the floods seemed to be motorbikes! People were riding through places where the water came over their feet. We were pretty lucky in the end and got dropped off next to our hostel. We checked in, had a shower, and waited for the water to subside.

Within a few hours there was little sign of the extreme weather and we were able to head out for some dinner and drinks. Pattaya is often dubbed ‘sin city’, and is synonymous with Thailand’s sex industry. I had heard a lot of stories about what goes on there, and how lawless and crazy it is. On the flip side, I had heard that it has beautiful beaches, big amusement parks, and is a popular tourist destination for families. As with anything, I needed to see it for myself and make my own conclusions.

It turns out the centre of town is every bit as seedy, sleazy and sordid as people had described it. We wouldn’t walk more than a few metres before being catcalled by masseuses and bar girls, trying to coach you into their bars and clubs. Some would go even further and try and drag you in, with surprising strength (lady boy’s maybe?). The other notable thing was how many old, western guys there were. It wasn’t at all surprising; clearly many were here to find a Thai bride, or escape one they already had. Despite Pattaya’s abhorrent nature I was glad (as with anywhere in the world) to experience it. We had some drinks, hit the clubs and found ourselves partying in a venue which jutted out into sea, overlooking a harbour and the beach. Overall it was a good night, but we were happy enough to be leaving in the morning.

It’s Roberto Thaime

21 Apr

Bangkok

The plan was simply enough on paper, but as always when travelling through foreign lands, not everything is going to work as expected (and with hindsight this was going to be a referring theme). Rob was flying over to visit me in Bangkok to spend a couple of weeks exploring thailand.

We had booked the Berkeley Hotel, a 5 star venue with a roof-top pool, which we got for a good deal. We were both going to be arriving tired; I was coming straight from work at the end of a busy week and Rob was due to arrive after a gruelling 23-hour journey. My trip was slightly more stressful than expected, I hit busy traffic coming into bangkok and crawled into Mo-chit bus terminal much later than expected. I then had the usual palaver of getting from Mo-chit to my hotel. As always I was harassed by taxi drivers as I came off the bus. To my surprise only one of them knew where the Berkeley Hotel was and he wanted 900 Baht to take me. Considering you can travel from the very North of Thailand to the South islands for this price, he was definitely trying to rip me off. I had to resort to plan B, which was to find some internet and alternative transportation.

In the end this involved a motorbike taxi through rush hour traffic, a sky train and another taxi at the other end (this time on the meter). I eventually arrived; hungry, tired and expecting to find Rob relaxing upstairs with a bottle of Leo. Not quite. It turned out that he had not arrived, and was officially ‘lost in Bangkok’. It turns out that he his first flight had been delayed by a sand-storm, and he had almost missed his connecting flight. He had lost his luggage and had been forced to find his own way to the hotel after the airport transfer hadn’t materialised. Just to top it off he’d racked up a tasty £70 data-roaming fee and contracted a violent case of diarrhoea (quite an impressive start). By the time he eventually got to the room I’d had time to freshen up and met a friend of mine, a local girl from Bangkok called May. By the time he arrived, May and I were ‘heaw mak’ (hank marving), and so we decided to head out for some food.

We had BBQ pork, fried morning glory and Khao pad (rice with vegetables, egg and spices). The next day I woke up to see a now all-to-familiar sight; Rob running naked to the bathroom with a look of panic in his eyes. It’s not a good way for either of us to start the day. We decided we would play it safe and get some breakfast in the hotel before spending the morning relaxing by the pool. The weather was hot, reaching mid-to-high 30’s. The plan for the afternoon was to find a good market, visit a temple and then finish off at the world famous Khaosan Road for dinner and drinks.

The market was pretty disappointing, we let the Tuk Tuk driver take us to one he recommended but it just seemed to be a few stalls set up at the side of the road. What’s more, he made us stop in a suit shop on-route. This is a pretty common tactic here, waiting until you have customers in your tuk-tuk or taxi before forcing them to stop along the way. The shop pays for the drivers’ petrol in order to get as many potential sales as possible. This is not the first time this has happened to me and incredibly it was the same shop that I’d been to a few years earlier! So we found ourselves looking at suits against our will, while a slimy salesman said ‘lovely-jubbly’, asked if we were cockney, and called Rob ‘Del-boy’.

The afternoon was more successful; we checked out Wat Pho Temple; the home of the impressive reclining Buddha. It was actually the first temple I’d properly visited since I’ve been here, and it felt good to cross it off the list of things to do. We ambled round the temple grounds, admiring the incredible architecture and pretending we were cultured. We grabbed some souvenirs, before speeding back to the hotel in Fernando Alonso’s Tuk Tuk. That evening we did head out to Khaosan, but not to join in the carnage this time. Rob was still suffering and so we just ate dinner and mooched around the local area. I wasn’t too bothered, I’m not a big fan of Khaosan Road anyway, and although it would of been fun to have some ‘super-strong cocktails’, at least we’d seen it first hand.

This morning we are travelling to Koh Chang, which translates as ‘elephant island’ (no idea why). Although I have never been there before I have heard it is a beautiful mixture of white, sandy beaches and mountainous rainforest.

(pictures to come)

Koh Chang

The journey to koh Chang went much better than expected. We were travelling in a minibus with no toilet which was risky business with Rob’s serious bottom issues. However, the six hour drive went without a hitch (or a trip to a ditch). There was just one other passenger on our bus, a girl named Pam who worked in a hotel on the island, and seemed nice to chat to.

The first leg of the journey was to the pier in the town of Trat, where we took the hour long ferry to the island. From a distance the island looked impressive. It was bigger than I’d expected, and very mountainous. It was also very green, covered entirely in rainforest.

Once on the island we had to decide where to go as we had no accommodation booked and the sun was already hanging low in the sky. I had read that Lonely Beach is one of the busier parts of the island and popular with backpackers so we jumped in a taxi and set off. The roads were crazy; winding up and down the steep peaks along the coast, with beautiful views out to sea. During the taxi ride, somebody joked that Pam could be my girlfriend, to which she replied that I wouldn’t like her. I thought she was being a bit hard on herself until she explained that she was a lady boy! This took us all by surprise and created a long, awkward but very funny silence. We arrived at Lonely Beach and quickly got offered a couple of rooms. We weren’t impressed with any of them but wanted to dump our bags, so we checked in for 1 night at Seaflower Bungalows.

The following day we rented some motorbikes, found a new bungalow on the South of the island and decided to go kayaking. We were soon paddling away in the searing heat, aiming for an uninhabited islet about a mile away from the mainland. We got to the island and relaxed on the beach before heading back in search of water. The weather was seriously hot! We took the long way back, going around the island to view it from the other side. The water here was not so sheltered and got pretty choppy, at one point we came so close to capsizing!

The next day and we woke up early for a ‘4 island snorkeling tour’. The weather was perfect again, scorching hot and no wind. On the way to the first island we got talking to two of the nicest people I’ve ever met; 27 year old Giulia from Italy and 54 year old Anna from Brazil. They’d met just a couple of days ago and seemed to have become close friends. They were such interesting, positive people and a joy to be with.The snorkeling itself was pretty good. There wasn’t a huge diversity of fish, but a decent number and some impressive corals. Annoyingly, i’d forgotten to bring my underwater camera with me, so we couldn’t get any photos this time.

That evening we arranged to meet up with Anna and Giulia. It was Giulia’s birthday so we wanted to join them for dinner and some celebratory drinks. We ended up in a VERY relaxed bar (Koh Changs speciality), run by some Thai Rastafarians. The owner loved to play his guitar and invited anyone who wanted to come up to play/sing with him. Apperantly he sometimes tours with Linkin Park (although this could be completely fabricated). Giulia was a very good singer, but the songs were slightly ruined by mine and Robs performances on he bongos and the tambourine.

On our final day we checked out one of the islands waterfalls. It’s nearing the end of dry season here and so there was no torrent of angry water. But it was still a nice place to visit and have a swim in the pool below. We also met some fellow foreign teachers, a group of girls from America and arranged to go for drinks.

Later that evening rob and I ended up popping into a bar for a pre-dinner beer. We got chatting to the owner, a Thai lady called ‘New’ who was, quite simply, an amazing host. She set about helping us book our trip, giving us advice, playing us at pool and even trying to get me to marry her daughter. When we said we had to leave to get food she went and arranged for the restaurant down the road to bring us our food so we could stay in the bar! The American girls came to meet us a little later and we enjoyed talking about our Thailand experiences and our plans for Song Kran. Next stop is one night in the madness which is Pattaya before stopping in Korat and heading up to Chang Mai for the festivities. As I am writing this we are driving through a huge storm with lightning going off around us. Pretty extreme weather!

Back to school and the daily grind

12 Feb

It’s been a little while since I updated my blog, so thought it was about time I made a note of what I have been up to; which in all honesty, is not a great deal.

Going back to school at the beginning of term was tough! I had enjoyed a long Christmas break and explored Bangkok and Samui. The last thing I wanted to do was turn up at school ill¬prepared and lacking motivation. However, it was definitely one of those times when the thought of something was far worse than reality. My students; so small, smiley and cute, all seemed delighted to see me and their infectious positivity quickly rubbed off. I was greeted with more hugs and high fives than ever before!

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My primary 3 students; by far the best behaved and highest level of English. My friends adorable daughter

After a couple of weeks of being back at school it was time for ‘ACN night’, a celebration where students perform to teachers and parents. In the past this had been squeezed into one evening, but would often finish late at night, so it was decided this year would be split over Friday and Saturday night. The event took place on the football pitch and athletic track, which had been transformed into a huge outdoor arena. They had erected an elaborately decorated stage, with approximately 300 round tables for guests, each seating 10 people. The evening was not free; in fact each ticket was 400 baht which included food and drinks. It was once again, very impressive, and felt a million miles from anything I had experienced at school in the UK. I spent the evening watching some of the students’ performances, talking to teachers and taking photos with my students who were dressed in amazing Thai costumes. At the end of the evening a famous pop group called 4Mod performed. Of course I had never heard of them before, but they have had several number 1’s in Thailand and judging by the screaming girls, were still popular with children over here. Towards the end of the performance the duo called some students onto the stage to sing and dance with them. This included a couple of lady-boys (in their early teens) who seemed to know all the words and dance moves!

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Some of my students ready to perform and the arena before the guests arrived

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Secondary students dressed in their costumes and performing on stage

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The pop duo 4Mod perform at our school for the Thai version of ‘parents evening’

The next evening was much the same, although this time it was the turn of the older students. To close the night another pop star was performing, Bie ‘The Star’. He had apparently come to fame through a reality TV programme, similar to XFactor. He is a really big deal in Thailand, so the kids (and teachers) were really excited to see him! There were even security guards in army uniforms called in to control the crowds (parents and students). I watched about 15 minutes of his act, which was actually pretty entertaining before escaping back home. At one point while I was watching an old fat guy ran on stage and highfived Bie midsong before being dealt with by a security guard. By the end of the two nights I was relieved to go out for a nice cold Leo after what had been a long week, but I was once again amazed at the lengths the school had gone to in order to put on a spectacle.

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‘Bie The Star’ performs on the second night; a big celebrity in Thailand.

In order to keep myself busy and my fitness levels up I have been playing five–a–side football and squash with some fellow teachers from different schools. The football is a good standard, and played by a mixture of Thais and Expats. I play squash at one of the local universities and have already enjoyed some classic matches!

Aside from teaching and playing sport I have been generally exploring more of Korat. A major part of this is trying new bars and restaurants. It seems that new venues pop up all the time, and there is always somewhere new to have a meal or drink. One of the best places I went to recently was Third World Bar, which has created a new pulled pork burger. For just 100 Baht (2 pound) you get an amazing burger and fries! On the opposite end of the food spectrum is the school food, which I’ve already moaned about. It has recently improved since I have decided to eat the primary kid’s food instead of what is served in the teachers canteen. Although it is much better, it’s still pretty dire, and so I have put together a few photos to tickle your taste-buds.

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Food glorious food: I think the gruel in Oliver Twist is better than some of our school meals. Check out the green slimy rice for desert!

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Not muchroom: Never thought I would eat so many mushrooms! But actually they’re ‘meatier’ than most of the ‘meat’ we get served here, so I have to eat them

As this is more of a general update I will quickly mention the weather here. I honestly can’t remember the last time it rained, and every day I wake up to another beautiful sunny day, with temperatures easily surpassing 30 degrees! The worrying thing is this is their ‘winter’ and we have been warned to expect it to get SERIOUSLY hot soon!. We spend almost all of the day inside, so at the weekends I like to make the most of the weather. A short drive away is a really pretty lake called Bung Ta Lua, which is surrounded by coconut trees and a cycle track. Whilst we were there I had a overbearing urge to see if I could climb a tree and get a coconut; just to see if I could if I was ever stranded on a desert island.

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Attempting to get a coconut: I managed to get to the top and grip and twist a coconut, but gave up