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Around Northern Thailand – on a beast!

July 11, 2011 4 comments

1,000 kilometres

6 days

4 destinations

1 Kawasaki Naked 650cc

Having spent a lovely week in Chiang Mai, we needed to get out and do something else. Besides we were here to see some of the Northern Thailand, and not drink at expat bars, eat Japanese food and laze around (as nice as that was!).

Realising that we could apply for our Indian visas right here in Chiang Mai, and not need to travel back to Bangkok for it, we quickly decided to extend our stay – applied for the visa, left our luggage (bar a small bag) with our guesthouse, hired a motorbike (with the numberplate reading just ‘666’) and headed north!

1st stop – Chiang Rai.  A number of people we have met on our travels advised us to stay away from the touristy Chiang Mai and instead head to Chiang Rai, a hundred and twenty kilometres north of CM. We really liked Chiang Mai actually so were really curious to meet it’s smaller, apparently better liked neighbour. Half way through the journey the rain pelted and along with a other half a dozen bikes on the road, we parked next to a shelter and waited for it to die down. I saw these shelters pretty much everywhere we went which, along with the quality (generally very good) of road surface around here pleasantly surprised us.

On to the city of Chiang Rai, and having reached their in the afternoon we proceeded to try and find a room for the night which took us about an hour of asking around and seeing a variety of places by which time we had seen all of Chiang Rai. It is rather compact with a road catering to the western tourists, i.e. bars and restaurants plus the obligatory night market. Having checked into a hotel, showered and changed, we walked around the town and later in the evening visited a few bars. Cat Bar where we met some very friendly ex-pats married to Thais was the best of the bunch especially with the pool table though the live singing could have been turned down a little. By this time we had had several drinks and the expats had tried their best to convince us that Chiang Rai is better than Chiang Mai. I think we disagreed, but we are city rats!

Next morning we decided to move on and head further north, more remote into the mountains where the Lahu tribe has their strong(er)hold. 2nd stop -Mae Sailong. Winding through beautiful countryside we reached Mae Sailong at mid-day. The little hilltop village has a distinct Chinese feel and about 40-50 buildings including public buildings. The view is gorgeous from here and we sat down for an early lunch. Chinese obviously! After a little wander around we decided there wasn’t enough to hold us here and zig zagged our way out towards west and heading south again towards our next destination.

We ended up riding for 350 kilometres on this, only our second day, through most of the north east of border of Laos and dropping down back towards Chiang Mai though on a different route from the one we took north from CM. Just before the sun set we reach our 3rd stop – Pai. This is a small town situated right in the centre of the mountains in a valley which is really rather stunning. Full of guesthouses, bars, restaurants, markets and shops and yet tiny enough to walk all around unless you were going to visit the nearby attractions. Nevertheless, it had a calm quality about it and on the second night we found the perfect place by the river to stay. The first night we had ended up staying at the first guesthouse we came to as the dusk was setting in and the rain had just started to come down. Throughout the night a strange man sat on our private verandah. I think he was just sleeping it off!

A motorbike is a must around Pai because there is little public transport to take you to the attractions. There are a number of waterfalls, hot springs, caves and elephant camps to keep you busy for a week as well as seeing and meeting the local tribes of Lahu, Hmong and long-necked Karens. But just the scenery around is gorgeous and you can ride endlessly around the paddy fields trying to capture the right light on film. Four nights were plenty for us though many stay for a lot longer.

4th and final stop – Mae Hong Song. This is the administrative capital of the north east and we were told the town as well as ride will be scenic. So through threats of rain, we rode further into the mountains and reached Mae Hong Song near the Burmese border. We found four hotels of which we saw three and only one was clean enough to check into. Yet again, having showered, we set out to see the town and found a lake, well it was more a pond really and the ever-present Wat. There was a bar at he only junction in the town imaginatively called ‘The Crossroads’ where we sat down for a couple of hours to have a drink and eat food. In that time there were no other customers who even looked in and this was the best looking place in the town. Should have been called Sleepsville.

So the next morning we decided to make the 330 kilometre trip through some of Thailand’s tallest mountains. Ignoring my advice, Craig took a wrong turn and we ended up taking the road to the top of and back down the other side of the tallest mountain in Thailand!

What we enjoyed most was the stunning scenery of the North West, at every turn there was another vista and each one more beautiful than the next. With this trip, the saying – to travel is better than to arrive – was certainly true for me!

Wat a temple!

June 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Arriving in Chiang Mai and finding a guesthouse to stay right opposite a Wat, we thought we were lucky until we walked around the city and found we were tripping over temples. You will find one in even the smallest alleyway!

We have visited four in the past four days and not even scratched the surface. Wats are peaceful places with an occasional ringing of bells breaking the otherwise pin drop silence in the huge monastic spaces. The Buddhas are usually large and made with gold though there is a fair sprinkling of other Hindu Gods. There is a lot of stonework with what looks like ruby and jade.

We went to Wat Chedi Luang which also has a Monk University attached to it. There is an area dedicated to ‘Monk Chat’, for people to go and talk to monk’s so they can practice their English and you can ask them about their lifestyle. The only question I would have is “Why?”, so I abstained.

In the interests of time as well as not getting too jaded (ha, did you see what I did there?) we decided to see the most ‘interesting’ wats first.

Yesterday morning we headed to Wat U Mong on the Western outskirts of the old city. This was built a few hundred years ago by the then king for a brilliant but eccentric monk who had the habit of wandering out of the city and into the forests for weeks on end. Wat U Mong is underground (inside a hill more like), so all you see above the hill is the dome.

After that we jumped on our bikes and headed further west into the mountains to see the highest watt in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That is 15 kilometres of a zig zag road up in Doi Suthep after which there are 309 steps up to the temple. Or you can take the funicular.

Legend has it that the king put a relic on a white elephant and let it loose. The elephant stopped at a place, laid down and died and that’s where the temple was built in 1368. The view from this temple is outstanding – you can see the whole of Chiang Mai laid out below you.

Our favourite memory of this temple will be the huge bells and gongs, some of which vibrate for minutes after you bang them. Amazing!

Meet Phosphor’s cousins!

June 27, 2011 3 comments

Today I had the best day of my life! It was always a dream to get close to a tiger and just outside Chiang Mai, I grabbed that opportunity!

We only arrived in Chiang Mai early this morning, then hiring a motorbike and sorting out accommodation for the next few days, we set about visiting the famous Wats (temple) of the city. After two Wats, we had seen enough Buddhas!

Our hotel had a brochure for Tigerland and we were both quite excited about it and had planned to visit it later in our stay. After visiting the second temple though, we both looked at each other and it was decided. We were going to Tigerland instead. Dark clouds loomed above us, rain threatened all the 15 kms north out of the city but we reached the place and were pleasantly surprised by how few people were visiting.

Having paid the (astronomical by Thai standards – over around £20 per 15 minutes) price to get some time with the tigers, we waited for a ranger to lead us. We paid to see a large tiger and a baby tiger.

We signed the contract – basically taking all responsibility if anything was to happen and headed to the area where the biggest tigers were lazing. I have never experienced nor expected to be so

My cat Phosphor

close the tigers. Also, people get individual time with the tigers so it’s not crowded. After a couple of minutes of apprehension after seeing the size of the beasts, I got close to one and patted her. The tigress was huge but cuddle and like any cats rolled over on her back to allow me to rub her tummy.

The ranger had advised us not to touch the front of tigers’ paws, nor their head area. Also you have to approach the tigers from behind – I would have thought you wouldn’t want to surprise them! Gingerly I touched the tigress, and the ranger told me to be firm otherwise they might think it’s a fly and swat you!

We spent time with two tigresses who were both very cuddly and then went to see the male. Now, this was a big beast – he was much more muscular and had a fierce look. Though I posed for a couple of photos with him, I was a little reluctant to spend too much time too close to him as he looked straight into my eyes and I can tell you I have never been so frightened but at the same time mesmerised as looking back into those eyes!

Having had our 15 minutes each, we went looking for the baby tigers and found a small room where there were tiny cubs playing with people. There were only two people in front of so we joined the queue. When we handed over our tickets, we were told we had paid for baby tigers not new born and these were new born. I was devastated. The guy said to go back to the reception and get our tickets changed, so we almost ran back and paid more to spend time with the new borns.

My cat Phosphor would have been proud of me!

We queued up again and this time we had wash our hand up to our elbows and take off our shoes. They were trying to minimise outside contact to the 20 day old cubs.

What can I say about these cubs – words fail me. But I want one!

High spirits!

June 24, 2011 2 comments

Bangkok never ceases to surprise me. It is larger than I expected; even more crowded than London; more cosmopolitan than many of SE Asian major cities; and it has plenty of tall buildings!

In Vietnam a couple of months ago we met our friends Lisa and Jamie and travelled with them the length of Vietnam over a couple of weeks. They had a surprise for us – a voucher to visit the Skybar in Bangkok. They had been on a previous visit to Bangkok and liked it.

Couple of months down the road and now in Bangkok, we decided to visit it last night. We took a taxi from Sukhumvit where we are staying and headed to the Silom area where the bar is located. Skybar is in a multipurpose building with shops, a hotel and several bars and restaurants. We wanted to get a view of the sunset so we left at 5.45, though we should have guessed the traffic at this time would be a nightmare. Traffic in Bangkok
is actually always a nightmare! As it approached 6.30 we were feeling despondent that we may not get to see the sunset. However within 5 minutes, the taxi pulled up outside a most impressive building. You had to glue your head to the back of your neck to be able to see all the way up.

We made our way to the lifts which are divided into 5 lots for the various floors. Towards the end of the lot were the three lifts which take you up to the 64th floor – the highest floor and the one on which the Skybar is located.

Leaving the lift, a narrow corridor wound around until we were hit by the most amazing view – an unobstructed view of Bangkok. From here there was no boundary to the building, such was the illusion. But as you step outside, you take some steps down and see the bar right at the edge as though it was built on what previously would have been a helipad.

We were soon escorted to the bar and given the vouchers our friends had reserved. The cocktail menu was really impressive though we ordered in a haze as all around us was the cityscape which it was hard to take our eyes off.

At the sunset, a live jazz band came on and after ordering another round of cocktails, we were merrily chatting to the head barman (Alex Holzer) who calls himself a “mixologist’. Our cocktails had subtle infusions of various herbs, spices and fruits. He showed us how he makes cranberry infused vodka for ‘Cosmopolitans’ because fresh cranberries aren’t available in Bangkok. I tried a cocktail called ‘Fire’ infused with chillies. Each time Alex made a cocktail for us, he consulted on our tastes and hence mine was rather fiery!

Fabulous experience and will definitely recommend to others. Thanks L & J!

Back to life!

June 22, 2011 3 comments

After three blissful weeks of beautiful coastlines on the Andaman and Gulf of Thailand coasts we head back north to Bangkok. To be honest the beachlife is not for us. And as beautiful as the beaches are here in the south, the city beckons, with it’s cosmopolitan nature, the diversity of food, being
able to get lost and not meet the same people wherever you go.

So we said goodbye to Koh Tao and boarded the ferry to Chumphon, a bus from the ferry terminal dropped us off right opposite the train station where we sit right now whiling away a couple of hours before catching the overnight train to BKK.

Reflecting back on the last three weeks:

The best times were on the Andaman coast on and around Railay;

the worst, staying in the dead Krabi Town;

the peaceful, on the deserted beaches of Koh Lanta;

the serene, the only day just at the beach on Phrangan;

the funniest, seeing people out of their heads at the Full Moon Party and

the exhilarating, abseiling from a karst; and

the excruciating, watching Thai boxing last night!

Full Moon Rave in Ko Phangan

June 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The fact that I am writing this post proves that we went. And survived!

A couple of days ago when we were heading to this island off the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, we were barely aware that there was a party going on. Then yesterday on the ferry over, everyone was talking about it and touts were selling accommodation at rocket-high prices. It registered then that this was THE full moon rave!

So after a quick vote on facebook we decided to head over with the Frenchman Mathieu who shared the day long journey on a longtail boat, a taxi, a bus, a ferry and finally a songthaew which took us just 100 kms away from Krabi to Ko Phanhgan yesterday.

We had booked a taxi from the hotel and late night we arrived in Hat Rin and after paying the 100 Baht entrance fee were pushed into the crowd which mainly wore fluorescent orange and green. I know it was night time, but there were plenty of lights and besides this was meant to be a ‘full moon’ party so what did they think they were going to be hit by? Now I know – people!

Everywhere we turned we saw people – well I use the term in a loose sense, obviously what I mean is 19-21 years old off their face clambering for any inch of space on any dance floor available. And there were plenty of wooden platforms erected all along the 1 km beach. If you ask me, the platforms looked a little bit of a hazard and I know Ann Meehan will certainly not approve of me dancing on these so I kept my feet firmly on the beach.

We picked up a couple more people who we bumped into and as a pack now walked like vigilantes trying to dodge the swayers, the jumpers, the vomiters and many others. The noise was awesome – there were a number of sound systems blaring out trance and people screaming. Reminded me of that great classic ‘Acid’ of the 80s, or was it the 90s?

As the beach filled up with more and more people, the tide started to come in, squeezing everyone into a narrow strip of the sandy beach and forcing many to stay in the water. This would have been fine on any other moonlit warm night like this except the entire shore was a neat long line of men peeing directly into the sea.

There were some great sights and though different music blared out of loud speakers every 5 meters, a couple of the DJs did play some good sounds. We had brought a bottle and a half of of rum with us which we shared around our group and merrily walked around til we all felt a little tired, a little old and decided raves are just no longer meant for us!

 

Climbing into caves and abseiling

June 15, 2011 3 comments

Towards the end of Mr W’s second day of climbing school his instructor asked if his girlfriend and I would like to join them climbing up to a cave high in the karst (mountain) at the west end of Phranang beach and

then abseiling down to the other side onto West Railay beach. This was extra-curricular and not something many people get to do in Railay. Charla was up for it and I felt I would be letting the side down if I didn’t go.

Climbing, abseiling and most type of adventures are not really my thing – I am happy to leave others to get on with it – so having agreed to this I was a little apprehensive especially as the instructor, Tar, detected my anxiety and tried to frighten me more by telling me how dangerous it was! I laughed outwardly feeling my heart in my mouth as we approached the mangrove which we would need to navigate to get to the karst.

Mangroves are pretty from a distance but quite claustrophobic and full of mosquitos close up. Add to that the salty marsh they sit in and you are wading through a mush which is opaque and you have no idea what you are stepping through. At the end of the mangrove the karst came into view and i saw the wooden planks wedged into the earthy foothill of the karst to aid the steep climb. So far so good.

Me being lowered down the karst

At the top of the steep 5 minute climb we came to a clearing at the first ledge of the karst and headed left out of the trees and came out on a large rock jutting out and underneath us the big velvet sea – this was around 4 pm and the sun was shining from the west straight at us and the view was dramatic. We rested for 5 minutes to catch our breath and take a couple of photos whilst Tar continued to tease me about what was yet to come. He got a couple of torches ready and as we turned around we were faced by the huge opening in the karst leading inside to it’s core. It was clear we were the only people up here! As we scrambled in, the light faded until darkness totally enveloped us and Tar turned his torch on.

Interestingly enough, whilst the natural light was around, it was really just a careful scramble around big rocks, but as soon as we got deeper into the dark cave, we really did need the lights as we started to climb inside. At the steeper climbs, previous climbers had erected rickety ladders. With just one torch, usually we were walking or climbing in pitch dark fumbling around and taking the lead from the sounds of one of us ahead.

At a particularly steep climb looking up I could see a faint light – a glimmer of hope! And at the top there was a narrow tunnel, squeezing through which you came out on another viewpoint – this one was breathtaking as it took in three beaches facing three different directions. Phranang, West Railay and Ton Sai beach. Stunning as this was, we were getting a little concerned about the time and how it will be dark soon and we were still to reach the higher point of the cave where we will set up the abseil for the four of us and then at the bottom of which we had to wade through another mangrove forest before coming out at Railay beach.

We rushed up this time and Mr W was the first to abseil down. With just two harnesses between the four of us, Tar had to pull up the rope with harness each time to let his girlfriend and I reppel down. I was next to go and without any hesitation climbed into the harness. Tar told me to face away from the opening and lean out. I have many a time imagined what I’d do if in this situation, and I am happy to report that I just did whatever he said. There was no time for girlie whining and time was of the essence.

When we had all abseiled down we found ourselves on another ledge facing north this time with Railay beach far below us. The evening had set in and there was limited light so we packed the rope and other equipment as quickly as possible and headed down. First we had to climb down a steep bit of the karst using just the rope which hung down a side of it. This brought us into the mangrove forest which on this side of the karst was rather dense and came quite far up the side of the karst.

Inside the mangrove is like being in a steep, slushy jungle. It was very slippery and it was all we could do, hanging on to branches and vines, not to fall down into the sea below. At this point his girlfriend and I casually enquired how far it might be to the beach given that we could hear the sea way below us and couldn’t see the lights of the beach. He said 5 minutes.

At the bottom of the abseil!20 minutes later, the sun had long ago set and the only light coming through was moonlight and this time more urgently we asked Tar if we were close. We had rashes from brushing past bushes and rope burns and just wanted to be out.

“Just 5 minutes ahead”, he said and this time he was truthful as we began to see the lights from the resort at the corner of the beach. We kept heading towards the lights and waded out of the sea onto the beach where we promptly threw our backsides onto the sand and breathed a sigh of relief. Anyone at the beach who saw us must have seen these creatures coming out of the sea totally drenched from head to toe. We were swimming in our own sweat!

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