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Stories from my Sabbatical

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Currently traveling
  • Day150

    S̄wạs̄dī Koh Phi Phi & Koh Lipe

    August 28, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 86 °F

    Day 1
    I was up picked up early the next morning and taken to the ferry terminal to catch the boat to Koh Phi Phi. The ferry was fairly comfortable and only took just over an hour to reach the island. As soon as I disembarked I headed to my hostel arriving just before 12. I spent half an hour or so in the room looking at what to do on the island. While I was there two new girls checked in, one from Spain and one from Portugal, and we decided to go to the beach. The Spanish girl wanted to snorkel so we walked to the other end of the bay to our hostel as we were told the snorkelling was good there. On the way there’s noticed how clean and pedestrianised the island was, with no cars or bikes in sight in the main town. If I’m honest it also felt quite like being on a resort. Albeit one occupies by backpackers. To our disappointment when we reached the “snorkel spot” we found that the sea bed was this weird mixture between sand and mud, which made the water really cloudy as you walked through it. It also wasn’t very deep, both factors making it less than ideal for snorkelling. We didn’t fancy swimming in it either so decided to head to the other side of the island to the main beach (the party beach at night time). Although the water was much nicer here it was even shallower as the tide was on its way out. Me and the Spanish girl decided to walk out for a bit hoping it would get deeper. After about 10 minutes of walking the water was still barely at knee height so I abandoned the idea of swimming and headed back. The Spanish girl kept going still hoping to snorkel. Back at the beach i chatted to the Portuguese girl (you may have guessed by now I couldn’t remember their names) while we waited for the Spanish girl to return. Half an hour later she came back, telling us that she went right out to the edge of the bay and was still only waist deep. She did manage to see a few fish though so not a completely wasted effort. We headed back to the hostel where the girls left me to go hike to the view point for the sunset. As it was pretty cloudy I didn’t see much point and would do the hike tomorrow. Instead I went and had an early dinner at a vegetarian restaurant where I had a yummy falafel burger. As I wanted to spend the next day hiking around the island i decided to have an early night so returned to the hostel.

    Day 2
    I was up and out early the next morning so that I could explore as much of the island before my ferry back to Krabi at 3pm. I decided to only stay the one night as the island felt too much like a resort for my liking, plus as it was off season and there was no direct ferry to Koh lipe id have to take the long way by getting the boat back to Krabi the a bus down the mainland and then another ferry closer to the island. I started my day by climbing the hundred odd steps up to the islands main viewpoints. The first view was nice but still fairly close to the town. The second viewpoint was higher up and so you could see the whole island below and also the famous Koh Phi Phi Li island, home to “The Beach” beach (sadly that specific beach is now closed for the next four months in order to let it recover from the mass tourism involved in being one of the main fist famous film sites in south east Asia). I had a drink from the conveniently located cafe and sat looking at the view for a while (taking a short break for the customary jumping picture). I then continued my hike up to viewpoint 3, which was more secluded and gave a nice view of the bay I tried to swim in yesterday. After seeing the three main viewpoints on the island I decided to follow the route to the east of the island to Long Beach. On my way there I found another viewpoint hidden away up an overgrown path (thanks maps.me). The simple viewpoint was just two large rocks looking out to the beach where all the boats dock. Although not mapped as a main view it was actually my favourite on account of it being so quiet and peaceful. I sat in blissful silence for half an hour, thinking how lucky I am to be there right now. I really appreciate every second of my trip. As time was ticking on I continued on to the beach and finally found the nice sandy beach I had been waiting for, complete q water deep enough to swim in and a view the The Beach Island. I spent the next two hours soaking up the sun and swimming before it was time to head back to catch my ferry. I was back in Krabi by 6pm, staying at the same hostel as before. I booked by bus for the next morning and then headed out to weekend night market for dinner. At the market I stumbled across a baked potato stall ad jumped at the chance for some home comforts. Washed down with a nice mango smoothie. With my tummy full I headed back to the hostel to shower and sleep.

    Day 3
    The next morning I woke up with a slightly unsettled stomach but tried to ignore it as my minivan picked me up to head south to Park Bara port. Unfortunately my stomach continued to feel unsettled until finally four hours into the journey I couldn’t hold it and threw up in to a plastic bag. As I hadn’t eaten anything yet it was mainly just liquid and thankfully didn’t smell up the bus. I felt slightly better and managed to make it through the last hour of the bus ride without being sick again. Unfortunately while waiting for the speedboat to take us to Koh Lipe I was sick again, this time over the edge of the pier. Thankfully I don’t think anyone noticed. With no other option I reluctantly bordered the speedboat and began the final hour of the journey. And as you might have guessed I was indeed sick again, this time having to back my way to the front of the boat before one of the crew gave ne a bag. I stayed there until we got to the island. Finally finished with transport for the day I walked the last 10 minutes across the island to my hostel where I checked in and went straight to bed. I woke up at 7pm having slept for an five hours, bought sone bananas and water in the shop next to the hostel, brushed my teeth and then went back to bed for the night.

    Day 4
    I spent all next morning in bed, eating a few bananas as keeping hydrated. Finally at about 2pm I felt well enough to get some fresh air and decided to walk to the beach. The island is pretty small so it only took me 5 minutes to reach a nice quiet beach. I spent the next couple of hours reading and cooling off in the water before heading back to the main walking street. I managed to find a nice restaurant that did some western food (I couldn’t stomach fried rice or noodles just yet) and had a veggie sandwich for dinner. Feeling better for having a proper meal inside me I headed back to the hostel for an early night, hoping one more good night sleep would do the trick.

    Day 5
    I woke up late the next morning feeling so much better. I decided to spend the day at the islands sunset beach, reading swimming and soaking up sone vitamin D. It felt good to be able to finally enjoy the beauty of island life. I had most of the beach to myself until the rest of the islands few tourists turned up to watch the sunset. I finally got to watch a cloud free island sunset. Once the show was finished I headed back to the same restaurant as last night and had the same sandwich for dinner, too nervous to try anything too special before my journey off the island the next day. After dinner it was back to the hostel to pack. Although I spent most of time on the island I’ll I was still able to enjoy enough of what Koh Lipe has to offer, quiet beaches and chilled vibes.

    So there you have my few days living the island life. Next stop is Malaysian peninsula.

    Lā k̀xn!

    PS - in case you were wondering, I’m pretty sure it was the mango shake that gave me the food poising. The risk with ice here.
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  • Day146

    S̄wạs̄dī National Parks!

    August 24, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F

    Day 1
    The night ferry to was actually pretty nice, more like a boat hostel with actual bunk beds inside. I was able to get a good nights sleepy and woke up just as we were docking in Surat Thani. The terminus of the ferry all the passengers got off and waited to be picked up bu their respective tour companies. After 10 minutes my company arrived and me and a few other passengers bundled into his minivan. We were then transferred to their office where were given stickers for stating our next destination and waited again for another minivan to come. Me and another couple heading to Khao Sok National Park were the first to be picked up. We didn’t get too comfortable before we pulled into a bus station and were transferee to our third and final bus which would takes all the way to the park. It took another two hours to reach the park where we were dropped by the main road outside the village. I decided to ignore the waiting taxis and walk the final 10 minutes along the road to the village and finally reached my hostel just before lunch time. I dumped my stuff in the room and headed out to fine somewhere for lunch. As I didn’t really have breakfast I decided to have pancakes for lunch, which would have been nice had it not been for the wasps hovering about. I managed to trap three under a lid so that I could finish my meal before paying and making a speedy exit before they released them. Refuelled I headed into the National Park and started the main hiking route. The first 3km of the park is quite a wide dirt road which can be trekked without a guide, the main highlight being a small waterfall just off the route. At the 3km mark there is a small forest cafe and information centre marking the point where you need a guide to continue. I had read online that it is possible to continue on alone as there are signs showing the route and the path is well marked on maps me. I decided to ignore the signs at the entrance and continued on. The path was much narrower and trickier than the main route with many stones and tree routes to navigate. Although there were arrows every so often the path was not always so obvious. After ten minutes of so I met two Czech guys and joined them for a bit as I truthfully I didn’t like walking there alone. Soon after we met a family with their tour guide and followed them for a bit before having to pass them as they stopped to talk about some of the plants. We found ourselves having to climb up the routes of a tree along a steep hill and when we got to the top it started raining. I checked maps me and say that we were quite far from the next point of interest. The path was getting harder and harder to navigate so I decided to make the sensible decision and turned back. The guys said they’d carry on for a bit so we parted ways. On the way back I saw that the family had decided to turn back too so I knew I’d made the right decision. Finally I reached the forest cafe and took shelter there until the rain stopped. Not long after I got there i saw another group return followed shortly after by after by the two Czech guys who carried of to the man entrance. While I was waiting for the rain to atop I met a nice young couple from Manchester, Adam and Rachel and we chatted about their trip and life in Manchester. It was nice reminiscing about uni days. Finally the rain stopped and we made our way back to the town. Still pretty wet and dirty I headed straight to my hostel and had a shower before finding somewhere for dinner. After my meal of pizza (I think I’d earned it) I retired for the evening, exhausted after a long day in the go.

    Day 2
    The next day I decided to take a tour of the Cheow Lan Lake within the National Park. I was picked up by a minivan in the morning and driven the hourlong journey to the main pier. About twenty other tourists and I bundled into one of the many long boats and at the lakes main pier and headed off on our tour. The 165 square km lake makes up almost a quarter of the whole park and is surrounded by huge limestone rocks and is surprisingly man made. The basin was flooded over one year in 1987 in order to use it as a source of energy. We had an hours ride to the centre of the lake, stopping along the way for photo opportunities of the main rock formations, until we reached one of the floating restaurants and Homestays where we had lunch. After lunch those that opted to hike to one of the caves headed off (only two young guys) while the rest of us stayed around the homestay where we could swim or kayak if we wanted. Unfortunately for me the group wasn’t the most conducive for making friends (mainly couples or families) so I decided to spend the afternoon reading on the porch of one of the guest huts with the view of the lake. A couple of hours later the boys returned and he got back on the boat for the journey back to the pier. On the way back we stopped for some more pictures before finally reaching the pier at around 5pm. We bundled back into the minivans and headed back to the village. After a light dinner I returned to my hostel for an early night ready for the morning bus.

    Day 3
    I caught the 9am minivan the next day to Phang Nga. Unfortunately there are no direct buses so it took over three hours to get there due to the route. As soon as we left Khao Sok the heavens opened and we had torrential rain the whole way. Even more unfortunate was that it didn’t stop when I arrived at the Phang Nga bus station which was quite far out of the town meaning I had to get a motorbike taxi to my hotel. In the rain. Thank god I still had my poncho I bought in Pakse! Although it didn’t really make the rise much better. I arrived at the Phang Nga guesthouse pretty damp and checked into their cheapest cupboard of a room desperate to change into dry clothes. Feeling instantly better I went to the reception to ask if they had a tour of the National Park Bay and they gave me a brochure from a local agent. The price looked good, and to be honest the town looked pretty dead, so I decided to book it straight away for tomorrow. I wanted to do a half day, due to the price but they already had a family who wanted a full day if the weather was good. As I really wanted to see the bay I agreed and booked it anyway. With the tour sorted I ventured out to find somewhere for lunch. Thankfully it had stopped raining. Thanks to TripAdvisor I managed to find a really nice cafe on a hill overlooking the town and had a nice meal while looking at the view. With literally nothing else to do on the town and no other tourist in site I decided to spend the rest of the day in my cupboard room making full use of the WiFi.

    Day 4
    I was up and ready in reception by 8am the next morning where i waited for my tour guide. As I waited I was treated to the view of the local schools parade agains smoking. The seriously over the top parade through the towns Main Street made up of each class dressed in different costumes, some as dancers, some as giant cigarettes or trees carrying rubbish bags. Every so often there was a slightly under rehearsed marching band to accompany the dancers. All this for stop smoking. Imagine what they do on the kings birthday! Soon my guide arrived and led be down the street to his car where I met a sweet Canadian girl called Mercedes. We then navigates the backstreets as we tried to avoid the parade before we picked up the family from the Netherlands, Sonja and her three teenage kids (I cant remember there names). We then headed out of the city and to the small pier where we were shown onto our long boat for the day. The driver left us in the hands of our local boatman who would take care of us for the day. He didn’t speak much English but was very sweet making sure we were comfortable before setting off. The boat headed down river before turning into the narrower river through the mangroves. I had never seen mangroves before and i have to say they are one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how trees can grow like that. We travelled through the mangroves for an hour before taking a brief tour of one the areas water caves. We then joined the main river again and continued down to the main bay of Ao Phang Nga National Park. The park is made up of small limestone islands within the Adman Sea, very similar (but on a much smaller scale) to Halong Bay in Vietnam and is even home to a floating Muslim village, complete with mosque, where our boatman is from. As we traveled across the bay our guide indicated that we could sit on the roof which is where I spent pretty much the rest of the time in the boat. During the tour we stopped at a few of the islands briefly, the main one being “James Bond Island” where they filmed The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s a fairly small island and is now busy with tourists making it hard to imagine Roger Moore’s Bond being there. We stopped for lunch on the quiet beach of another island. As I got off the boat I suddenly noticed that there was a turtle on the beach. Though just as suddenly I saw that it was sadly dead. It was in its back with a huge chunk out of its side, possibly from crashing into something (its not an area for large predators. I’m so sad that the first turtle I see in real life turns out to be dead. We mixed future down the beach to have our lunch, not that we really felt like eating after that. Not long after the National Park coast guard turned up to deal with the turtle. Not exactly something you want to leave on a beach. Almost as soon as we’d finished lunch it started to rain. We quickly packed up our stuff and for back on the boat while our guide pulled the side panels down shielding us from the worst of it. We started to make our way back through the bay, and as with most rain storms here, it stopped almost as quickly as it stared. A few minutes later I found myself back on the now dry roof enjoying the boat ride. On the way back we stopped at the floating village and spent half an hour walking around and reading the information board about its history. It was probably the worst bit of translation I have ever read so I couldn’t tell you anything about the village even if I wanted to. Seriously none of it made sense. We then headed back to our boat and made the final journey back to the pier, spotting a few monkeys in the mangroves on the way back. We arrived at the pier earlier than expected so had to eat ten minutes for our first guide to pick us up. As previously requested I asked to be dropped at the bus station on the way back so I could get the bus straight to Krabi. I was able to catch the next bus and reached Krabi two hours later. I got a tuk tuk to my hostel for the night and had a quick shower before going to the local night market for dinner. Pretty tired after the days adventure, and yet more travelling ahead tomorrow, I decided to call it a day.

    So there you have my few days in two of Thailand’s National parks. Next stop it’s back to island life for a few days.

    Lā k̀xn!
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  • Day142

    S̄wạs̄dī Koh Tao

    August 20, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    Day 1
    The night bus to the port town of Chumphon was pretty standard and uneventful. Unfortunately it arrived at the pier at 3am and the ferry wasn’t due to leave until 6. Plus the pier office was closed so the rest of the passengers and I had to wait on the mismatch junkyard of airline style seats outside. Somehow I managed to sleep for a couple of hours and woke up just before we were allowed to board. The ferry itself was quite nice with comfortable seating and even played a movie on the way, though i chose to sleep for the duration. We arrived in Koh Tao just after 9am and I headed straight to my hostel to freshen up. Once I was feeling slightly more refreshed I headed over to Simple Life Dive Shop to book my open water course. There are dozens of dive shops on the island, it’s the main reason people come to the island, but I was recommended to use this one by two fellow travellers on my trip, independently of each other. That was good enough for me. The dive shop has a new open water course starting every night so I was able to sign up easily. I even met my dive instructor, Eve a lovely American girl who actually did her open water course with Simple Life a year ago and loved it so much she stayed to do her Divemaster and then instructor training. If that’s not high praise for the company I sing know what is. The course wasn’t due to start until 5pm so I headed back to the hostel for a power nap. On the way to back to the shop I had a quick dinner at one of the islands many vegetarian cafes (falafel wrap, my favourite as you know). Back at the dive shop I met the three other open water trainees; Artip from England, Molly also from England and Alex from France, all just as nervously excited as me. Eve took us up to one of the classrooms where we spent the next two hours watching the first two PADI videos, answering review questions as we went which we discussed at the end. By the end of the videos we were all pretty overwhelmed by all the information but Eve reassured us that once we were in the water with our gear on it would make more sense. Feeling reassured we all headed off to our hostels for the night to rest for the next days course.

    Day 2
    Back at the dive shop at 9 the next morning it was time to get more real. We started by trying on different sizes of BCDs (the buoyancy control device you see divers wearing), we suits and fins, making sure we all felt comfortable in the right sized gear. We then each collected an air tank (bloody heavy they are) and carried them along with the rest of our gear down to the training pool. Eve then explained each part of the gear and demonstrated how to put it all together in the right order. She then dismantled it all and showed us again. Then she went through each step with us putting together our own gear and then taking it apart. She then made us put it all together and take it apart four more times until she was satisfied that we could do it without help. Then it was time for our first test. Before we were allowed to go any further with the course we had to prove that we could tread water/float for 10 minutes. Initially nervous about this I found after a couple of minutes that actually just floating on my back was pretty easy (we are 70% water after all). Luckily we all passed the test (even Artip who had to start again after he touches the wall two minutes in). Now it was time for the fun stuff. We suited up and got in the shallower of the two pools only about 1.2m deep (compared to the 3m one we were just in). While in the water we had to do a number of skills. Eve explained each one first along with the hand signals she would be using (as we couldn’t talk down there) and then we put or regulators and knelt on the bottom of the pool (as it was so shallow). Some of the skills were clearing our mask of a little water, fully flooding our mask and clearing it, taking the regulator out of your mouth and putting it back in and clearing it of water, retrieving your regulator if it floats behind you, and swimming for a short distance with no mask but aided by Eve. We all manage the skills with ease and finished our first two “dives” feeling much more confident. We then had a brief lunch break before getting straight back into it. We had now graduated to the bigger pool were we would actually be going to a reasonable depth. We did two further dives in this pool where we learnt even moe new skills. Such as taking our mask on and off underwater and clearing it, hovering using our breath and what to do if you or your buddy is out of air (using each other’s second regulator). Each dive lasted about twenty minutes and after the two we all felt even more confident that we’d be able to complete the rest of the course. There marks the end of our second days training. Feeling proud and excited for the next day I headed back to my home on the island to rest up.

    Day 3
    We were booked into the morning boat the next day so we met at the dive shop at 7:30am. Eve briefed us on the days objective and then it was time to catch the long boat from the beach to the main diving boat. Once were were given the mandatory safety briefing we headed downstairs to assemble our gear, slightly more difficult when you’re on a moving boat than by the pool. Eve checked them all over and then briefed us again on the skills we would be doing on the first dive. We than got to relax until we reached the first dive spot. Once there it was time for our mandatory second swim test before we were allowed to dive. This one involved swimming two laps around the boat (about 200m) or three of you wore fins and snorkel (about 300m). I wasn’t confident so opted for the latter. Thankfully we all completed our test and were allowed to continue. Before getting back on the boat we did a brief “skin diver” technique were we dove a couple of metres and then swam up clearing our snorkelled on the surface. With both skills complete it was back on the boat to get our gear on. Once we were suited up and did our buddy checks Eve showed us how to enter the water using the giant stride (no room to do that in the pool). One by one we stepped off the boat and joined Eve by the mooring line to the first dive site. Time for the main event. We did our safety check and then stated to descend down the line, equalising our ears as we went. Once at the bottom (only about 12m deep) we found an area of sand we were wouldn’t disturb the coral to do our skills for the dive. Most were repetitions of what we had done in the pool, but in the rea life scenario of the ocean. Once completed we were able to have a brief fun dive before we returned to the boat. Back on the boat we changed our tanks and went upstairs to chat about the dive, all feeling much more excited now that we knew we could do it. The boat then took us to the second dive site and we repeated much the same process as before (minus the swim test). Both dives lasted about half an hour and by the end of the morning I was feeling more confident about my abilities. Once everyone was back on the boat we headed back to the dive shop and spent the afternoon watching the last three videos, taking more in as we had more context now. Once the videos were finished we did the final knowledge review covering everything we’d learned. It was then class dismissed and we headed off for the night. I went for dinner and then straight to bed.

    Day 4
    I was able to have a slight lie in this morning before heading down to the dive shop to get the afternoon boat. Once again Eve briefed us on our last two dives before leading us to the boat. The first dive involved doing a few new skills involving using a compass and controlling our buoyancy as we tried to hover. After we all successfully completed them we were able to explore the dive site. As we were now much more aware of how our breathing effects our buoyancy we were all swimming much more controlled over the coral. When we surfaced Eve commented on how much better our control he gotten over night. Having successfully completed all our skills the final dive was just a fun dive. And as long as we didn’t royally screw up we’d be signed off as completing the course. We spent the 35 minute dive following Eve as she pointed out various different fish and coral formation. With no skills to worry about this dive was definitely the most relaxing. Back on the boat we had a group photo to celebrate finishing the course before heading back to the dive shop where Eve gave each of us a log book and took our pictures for our new Open Water SCUBA licence. Very cool indeed. I loved the course so much and felt so at ease with Eve as an instructor I decided to go straight into the Advanced course which would allow me to dive up to 30m (instead of 18m) and give me more confidence it’s my new skills. Plus it meant I got to do five more dives! The other three decided against continuing due to time and money constraints so Eve booked us on the morning boat for the next day.

    Day 5
    I met Eve bright and early the next morning ready for the new challenge. The advanced course consists of five dives with each one focussing on a different specialty. The first two dives we were doing were the mandatory Deep dive and the wreck dive which I chose. Alex also decided to join us for the first deep dive so that she’d be certified for 30m too. Once on the boat we had our usual skill briefing from Eve before getting geared up and jumping in. Aside from safely getting down to around 27m the only “skills” we had to do were playing with a raw egg underwater, watching how the pressure keeps the yoke together (I know, don’t) and also seeing how colours lose their brightness at such a depth (for example red looks more brown). With the skills completed we were able to enjoy the rest of the fun dive. Back in the boat we had a quick break before Eve and I geared up for the wreck dive. The HMS Sattakut is an ex Thai Navy ship donated to a Koh Tao for use as a dive site. The ship was cleaned and stripped of any hazard before its controlled sinking in 2011. It is now home to many coral and schools of fish. Although no actual skills were involved in this dive using caution and assessing where it’s safe to swim is definitely learnt. Plus knowing not to touch anything as it’s covered in rust. Pretty cool. Although the ship is safe to swim in that is for more specialised divers so we spent our time swimming around and over the hull. While swimming around I saw my first big fish, a grouper, just chilling in the shade of one of the canopies. After half an hour we resurfaced and got back on the boat before heading back to the dive shop. I had a quick break for lunch as then spent the afternoon completing the required knowledge reviews for each of the dives (involving reading textbook chapters and answering quiz questions - felt like school). Eventually it was time to call it a night and return to my island home.

    Day 6
    After a brief lie in I returned to the dive shop in time for the afternoon boat. Today Eve and I were joined by two new advanced trainees as their instructor was unable to dive that day. Eve briefed me harry and Sam on the days dives covering navigation (mandatory) and peak performance buoyancy (chosen by me). During the first dive on navigation we had to complete a few new skills. We had to swim along a 30m like while we counted kick cycles and then return counting seconds (for our future reference); we had to swim in a square in pairs, one counting ten kick cycles and one using the compass; and finally we did some natural navigation involving Eve pointing out three distinct coral or rock formations as we swam and then telling us to guide her back. By the end of the dive I definitely felt more aware of my surroundings and not just following along. After a quick tea break in the boat he got in for our second dive. For peak performance buoyancy we learned more about controlling our movement with our breathing. Eve brought some additional weights down and did a few exercises with them (like swimming just above the sea bed and knowing them over with our regulators, and trying to over with 1,2,3 additional weights). We then swam over to the cube structures (huge metal cubes on the aww bed, like an underwater playground) and had fun swimming through them and hovering out the top and vice versa. After as the we were working a lot in our breathing we went through our air quickly so the dive only lasted 30minutes and we didn’t have any time for a “fun dive” even though I found it to be pretty fun. Once back on the boat we discussed the dives on the way back to the shop. I still had one more dive to do which I hoped would be a night dive but that depended on the weather (mainly if there was a strong wind). Eve and I decided to go for dinner in a local vegan restaurant before she had to make the call. Over dinner we discussed diving and how Koh Tao compares to other dive sites, and her new job opportunity in Japan (how exciting!). Finally it was time to head back to the shop and to my delight Eve said it was safe for us to night dive. As it was just the two of us we would do a shore dive which meant we’d gear up at the shop and walk down to the beach to enter the sea. Slightly harder as it involves carrying all your gear for 100m before you can swim. Once in the water we put or fins in and swam out until Eve said we were deep enough to descend. We turned our torches on and headed down. The only skill I had to complete was swimming in a straight line and back again using the compass like before. After that it was just a fun dive, where I followed Eve closely scared of getting lost in the darkness. The sea is completely different at night with different sea life coming out. We saw dozen of hermit crabs and a few puffer fish. At one point Eve stopped and lay down on the seabed looking at a rock. I wondered what was wrong until I saw an octopus tentacle poking out from beneath the rock. She’s told me earlier that it was her favourite animal (even having a tattoo of one on her leg). I must admit it was pretty cool seeing one, especially when it came out and swam (or whatever the do they do) around the base of the rock before it hid away again. We continued on with our dive and say yet more crabs and even a few glowing plankton when we turned our torches off briefly. After a while Eve motioned that she was going to surface to check where we were and then guided us back near where we started. Once back at the surface we were both ecstatic with the dive and what we saw. Plus at 48 minutes it was my longest yet. We spent the swim back to shore talking about all the different fish and crabs we saw, and the octopus of course (only the second one she’s seen an the biggest too). Back in shore we returned the gear and said goodbye for the night.

    Day 7
    The next morning I headed back to the dive shop for the final time so complete my last knowledge review as have my photo taken for my new Advanced Open Water SCUBA licence. It was then time to say goodbye to Eve for the last time, thanking her for her patience and for truly giving me the diving bug. I then spent the rest of the day lazing about around the hostel, catching up on some Netflix shows and ordering take out food from the twins burrito bar (thanks for the tip Eve!).

    Day 8
    On my last day in Koh Tao I decided to finally explore more of the island. I followed the coastal path around the south of the island and found a lovely quiet beach with crystal clear water. I spent a an hour reading and swimming before continuing my hike, hoping to find more pristine beaches. After a slightly more strenuous hike through the wood (part of which I’m not convinced is frequented by tourists) i came across another quiet beach, this one with a beach bar. Sadly the water wasn’t as clear but the cold drink from the bar and the deckchair made it worth the trek (sort of). After another hour spent reading I continued on and soon reached Chalok Ban Kao beach, the main beach on this side of the island. Across the bay I could see people on top of the hill at the John-Suwan viewpoint so I decided to push on. To reach the viewpoint involved climbing up a hill over a number of boulders with makeshift ropes to guide you up. Although pretty tricky at points the view was certainly worth it. Sitting on the large rock outcrop you could see the island in a sort of T shape with beaches on either side. I spent twenty or so minutes there taking in the view before navigating the rocks down again and treating myself to a mango shake at the bamboo bar on the adjacent freedom beach. Sadly it was soon time to head back along the main road to my hostel where I showered and got ready for my night ferry.

    So there you have my week in Koh Tao where I became a certified Advanced Open Water Diver and caught the SCUBA bug. Next stop is back to the mainland to visit some national parks.

    Lā k̀xn!
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  • Day134

    S̄wạs̄dī Bangkok & Central Thailand

    August 12, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    Day 1
    My flight from Yangon arrived in Bangkok at around 10:30. In the interest of saving time I opted to get a grab taxi straight to my hostel instead of the bus. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to think about the transport system straight away. Once at my hostel, a cute coffee shop with dorms above, I planned my days activities. The two main things I wanted to see in the city was the grand palace and the Chatuchak weekend market. As it was Wednesday I decided to visit the palace complex and surrounding temples. Following the my trustee map I headed over to the palace and joined the queue of tourists entering the gates. The Grand Palace complex has been the official residence of the kings of Siam since 1782, although Thailand’s current King prefers to reside in Dusit Palace in the south of the city. In my opinion the main palace building is actually one of the least impressive buildings in the site. It is fairly simple compared the ornate and colourful buildings and temples which surround it, especially the buildings making up the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand (and he’s there is an emerald Buddha statue inside). I spent a good hour walking around the site marvelling at the craftsmanship of each building. After the palace I headed next door to the Wat Pho temple. Another ornately decorated temple which houses a ginormous golden reclining Buddha. It is so huge I sadly couldn’t get the whole thing in a picture. The rest of the site sadly pails in comparison. Now that I seen the two most important historical and religious sights in Bangkok I decided to catch the bus over to another popular area of the city, the huge mall complex in the Siam district. Anything for a bit of air conditioned relieved from the heat. Over one huge block there are five interconnecting malls, each tailored to a different shopping experience. You can have a more market stall experience in the MBK center, a department centre experience in the Siam Discovery or go straight to the big guy at Siam Paragon which has everything from food courts to sushi restaurants, fast fashion to luxury designers, and even a cinema. No prize for guessing where I went. It’s a unique travel experience going to the cinema in different countries. This time I watched The Spy Who Dumped Me (very funny) and once again we had to stand for the national anthem at the beginning, this time accompanied by a picture montage of the current king. See, very unique. And luckily no one answered there phone this time! After the movie my luck continued and I found a vegan restaurant right in the mall which served vegan mac as cheese. Winning! Feeling suitably satisfied with a day well spent I caught the bus back to my hostel, ready for bed.

    Day 2
    I was up and out of the hostel early the next morning as I wanted to catch the train north to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital and now UNESCO World Heritage site. Just a short two hour ride later the train pulled into Ayutthaya station and most of the passengers got off. Across the street from the station I found a bike rental place and rented one for the day. Along with the bike the guy gave me a map of the city and recommended the temples i should visit. With map in hand I pedalled on my way. The train station was actually across the river from the main temple sites so I had to brave the main road and roads and bridge for ten minutes before I reached the quieter area around the temples. Over the next few hours weigh the help of my trustee bike I visited six different temples: Wat Mahathat (with its famous and unexplained stone Buddha head trapped in a tree trunk), Wat Ratchaburana (with its impressive central prang), Wat Phra Ram (with its central pagoda and surrounding broken buddha statues), Wat Lokayasutharam (with it’s large stone reclining Buddha, outside in full view), Wat Phra Si Sanphet (with its three large chedis) and Wat Chaiwatthanaram across the Chao Praya River (the largest site of them all). After once again reaching temple saturation I cycled back to the station for a quick smoothie break before catching the train back to the city. Although it doesn’t quite give Angkor wat a run for its money Ayutthaya is definitely a great day trip to take away from the hustle of Bangkok. Now back in the city I decided visit the Paragon again to treat myself to the amazing vegan mac and cheese (its seriously good). Once fed it was back to the hostel for an early night.

    Day 3
    The next morning I was up early again, this time to catch the early train to Kanchanaburi, home to the infamous “bridge on the river kwai”. The four hour train journey took us west from Bangkok through the countryside. I got off one stop before the famous bridge in Kanchanburi town and headed to my hostel to check in. I had left my main bag in Bangkok as I was only staying overnight but wanted to use the internet to plan my day first. After a quick look through trip advisor I decided to visit Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. The museum depicts the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway during World War 2 by the Japanese using over 200,000 south East Asian civilian labourers and over 60,000 POWs, 90,000 and 12,000 of which respectively died during construction. The most notable part of the railway, thanks to the Hollywood movie, and the main subject of the museum, is the bridge over the Khwae Noi River (mispronounced “Kwai” by non Thai speakers. As well as a museum the centre is also a research centre focusing on uncovering the identities and cause of death of each casualty during the railways construction. Across the street from the museum was the Kanachanburi Allied War Cemetery the main cemetery for victims of Japanese imprisonment during the railways construction. I spent a few minutes walking around the cemetery reading some of the tomb stones, some were as young as 20. After paying my respects I headed out of the main town to finally see the bridge itself. The bridge had three parts of it destroyed by allied bombs in 1944 but has since been rebuilt. The original parts are now displayed in the adjacent JEATH war museum (Japanese, English, Australian, Thai, Holland - the nationalities involved in the railways construction). As there are only two trains a day tourists are aloud to walk the length of the bridge to take pictures. A surreal experience, even though it’s now a modern bridge. After the bridge I visited the museum to see the original parts. Unlike the Centre in town this museum not very well organised and was more like a huge antique collection of random war artefacts. Still it was worth the visit to see the original bridge. After my history lesson I headed back to town to sample some of the food from the local night market before calling it a day.

    Day 4
    The next morning I was able to have a nice lie in and brunch on the hostel before catching the midday train back to Bangkok. I spent the train ride engrossed in the spy thriller I Am Pilgrim by Terr Hayes, a seriously gripping read. Back in the city I caught the bus back to my hostel (after waiting a ridiculously long time) and after a quick dinner of fried rice I headed to bed.

    Day 5
    The next morning after a quick breakfast I caught the bus to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. With over 15,000 stalls and 250,000 visitors a day the market was a bit overwhelming, to say the least. I spent about an hour waking around the site browsing at the array of different goods for same (from clothes to spices to ceramics, you name it they’ve got it), mainly just trying not to get lost. I did treat myself to two new tops that would be better for the ever increasing temperatures of SE Asian. After a while the crowds just got too much so I admitted defeat and caught the skytrain back to the city. The train just so happened to stop right by the Paragon mall. Well it would be rude not to say goodbye. So that where I spent my last few hours in Bangkok before my night bus, lapping up the air con in one of the many cafes (no not the vegan one this time). Eventually it was time to return to the hostel to collect my bag and head to the infamous Khao San Road (aka backpacker Street) to catch my bus. Just walking the the 10m down the street to the bus office was enough to make me glad I chose to stay in a hostel far away from it. Just endless bars and hostels which crowds of semi drunk people everywhere. I liked my quiet coffee shop thank you very much.

    So there you have my few days in and around Bangkok.
    Next stop Koh Tao and some SCUBA diving!

    Lā k̀xn!
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  • Day129

    Mingalaba Bagan & Yangon

    August 7, 2018 in Myanmar ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F

    Day 1
    The bus arrived outside of Bagan at 4am. Unfortunately the bus station was too far out of the old town to walk so I had to get one of the loitering rip off taxis. Luckily just off the bus I met two girls who had arrived from Yangon, so I could share a taxi with them. We were all heading to the Ostello Bello (with pool - there are two) in the old town and arrived twenty minutes later. Sadly we weren’t able to check in early so Julia (from Germany) and Ylenia (from China) decided to fight the sleep and go watch the sunrise with two french backpackers we met in reception. I was too tired so I decided to sleep on a makeshift bed of beanbags in their chill out area until it was a more reasonable hour. I got up at 7:30 and went down to reception where I met Julia. We decided to spend the morning on the free bike tour of the main temples. I attempted to get my own electric scooter but after driving about ten metres I felt really uncomfortable and asked if Julia would mind driving with both of us on her bike, thankfully she said yes. With the bike sorted we met our guide and fellow tourists at the gate and drove down to the other Ostello Bello to pick up the rest of the group. And guess who was there, Shia and Yifat! Coincidence I think not! Our guide gave us a quick briefing and then off we went on our convoy around the temples. When the complex was first built, between the 9th and 13th century, there were estimated to be around 10,000 temples and pagodas. Now there are just over 2,000. Needless to say we did not see all of them. Over the course of morning our guide took us to about 8 different temples. Some small and some larger (the bigger they are the more important the person they were built for was), and some that you could climb up (though officially all are meant to be closed due to an American tourist falling off one last year and dying). Unlike the temples of Angkor wat most in Bagan are built with red bricks and stones and are much smaller in comparison. Halfway through the tour we had a break for lunch where we could get to know each other better. Shia and Yifat caught me up on their trip since Hsipaw, which involved their rented motorbike breaking down halfway to Nyuang Shwe and then having to beg a guesthouse to let them stay (apparently only the main towns are allowed foreign visitors). After lunch we saw a few more temples before heading back to town. Back at the hotel we were able to check in and took advantage of the air con in our room before spending the rest of the afternoon by the pool. Just after 5pm Julia, Ylenie, the two french backpackers (Thibault and Apolline - can you get two more french makes?!) and I went back to one of the temples we visited earlier to watch the sunset. Along with the rest of the tourists in bagan it seemed. Ylenia spent most of it taking selfies while the rest of us watched, taking a few choice pictures. After the sunset we headed back to town for dinner in one of the local restaurants (though me and Julia barely made it back as our battery started to die just as we were entering the town). After a nice dinner we headed back to the hostel for an early night.

    Day 2
    After a nice breakfast at the hostel Julia and I decided to spend the day doing our own bike tour of some more temples. With the help of maps.me and previous users comments we spent the next few hours visiting an array of different temples. We even finding a couple that you could climb up, albeit some more difficult than others (one in particular involving Julia climbing over a gate at the top of some stairs while I nervously kept watch, not convinced that I’d be able to climb back over if I tried). After a few hours we headed back to town for lunch and then to once again spend the rest of the afternoon by the pool (so glad I picked the one with the pool, even if it is “less social”). While biking about earlier o noticed on the map that there was a temple conveniently labelled “good for sunset - May 2018 open” so we decided to go there for the evenings sunset. And maps.me did not disappoint. The temple was much smaller than last nights but it also meant only a handful of other tourists were there too. We were able to enjoy the view sitting on the tiers of the roof much more peacefully. After the rest of the tourists left we stayed to take a few more pictures around the quiet temple before heading back to town for dinner. On the way Thibault and Apolline’s bike started to slow down as it ran out of battery (not again!). Julia and I told them to turn their headlight off to save the battery and we drove behind them, with Ylenia in front, making sure they were ok (Apolline also ingenuously thought to turn her phone torch on and hold it behind her as a makeshift break light). Thankfully we made it back to town safely and dropped off the bikes before finding somewhere for dinner. We actually found a nice cheap restaurant right opposite our hostel so after we ate we practically rolled straight into bed.

    Day 3
    Having reached my temple saturation I decided to spend my last day in Bagan around the hostel, taking full advantage of the pool. Julia was of the same mind too so we spent our time chatting by the pool and taking a break for lunch in the town. Sadly all good things must come to an end and it was time to get ready for yet another night bus, this time to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and the former capital. I said goodbye to Julia, who was heading to Inle Lake, and got the tuk tuk to the bus station.

    Day 4
    The bus arrived in Yangon at 6am and once again the bus station was miles away from the city centre. Luckily I was again able to commandeer two other tourists to share a taxi downtown. I arrived at my hostel just after 7 and was able to have a shower before enjoying their free breakfast. As I was finishing my food who do I see coming down the stairs, Shia and Yifat! They both greeted me with hugs as we commented on how strange this was getting (there are dozens of hostel in the city). We decided to spend the day together exploring. Although Yangon is The countries former capital there isn’t a huge amount to see in the way of tourist attractions. As we walked around downtown we visited the city’s only synagogue where the guys gave me a tour of some of the religious articles. Luckily it chose this point to start raining so we were ale to avoid the worst of it. After the synagogue we walked around the downtown area a bit more, sampling some of the street food. Sadly the rain continued in short showers so we decided to take a break from exploring and go to the cinema that we happened to pass. The next movie in English, The Darkest Minds, wasn’t showing for another hour and a half so we decided to wait in the nearby mall taking advantage of the air con. We set up camp in a cafe in the food court where the guys taught me Yaniv, a fast paced Israeli card game. Probably one of the quickest games to pick up and so fun to play. We almost rather kept playing instead of going back to the cinema but we’d already bought our tickets. The film actually turned out to be quite good (think a new younger version of the hunger games) and was definitely a different experience watching it in Myanmar. For one the movie started with everyone standing for the national anthem (apparently quite common in Asia) and secondly because not one, not two, but three people answered their phones and had full on conversations during the film! Seriously people?! Why bother paying for the film if you’re not found to watch it?! Mind boggling. After the film we headed to the north to the city’s infamous abandoned theme park. Although technically off limits the receptionist in our hostel said that it actually still on TripAdvisor so we should go check it out. Just be ware of the stray dogs and swarms of mosquitos. Thanks. We found it easily and entered through the fairly big gap in one of the fences. And yes there were a few stray dogs outside but luckily we couldn’t see any inside. Nevertheless I was sufficiently creeped out waking through the park, avoiding the black bog-like puddles across some of the paths. Shia and Yifat were loving it tho and were taking pictures on all of the rides we could get on. I only braved the Ferris wheel before pleading with them to go. This is how horror movies start! Finally they relented and we headed back outside and having got past the handful of stray dogs gathered on the street I was feeling safer again. We then made our way to the main tourist attraction in the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda. The huge gold pagoda (which is actually a stupa as you cannot go inside) stands tall above the city and is said to contain relics from four previous Bhuddas. The complex surrounding the pagoda/stupa was made up of smaller temples and stupas. We joined the number of tourists and sat facing the pagoda as we waited for night to fall, watching as the area lit up around us. Once it was dark we headed back into the city and found a small cafe for dinner before calling it a night.

    Day 5
    The next morning I said goodbye to Shia and Yifat the the final time before they caught their flight to Vietnam. After two weeks of travel buddies I found myself on my own again. I decided to give myself the day off from sightseeing and spent my day reading and planning the next leg of my journey before having an early night so I was rested for my morning flight.

    So there you have my final few days in Myanmar, a culturally warm and rich country.
    Next stop is Bangkok to continue my Thailand adventure!

    Swarrtotmaal!
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  • Day124

    Mingalaba Kalaw to Inle Lake!

    August 2, 2018 in Myanmar

    Day 1
    Lea, David and I arrived in Kalaw at around 5am after a very restless bus journey, all pretty shattered. We walked the long ten minute slog to our budget hotel (kalaw doesn’t seem to do hostels) and checked in. Some people told us in Hsipaw that they were able to check straight into their rooms when they arrived so effectively getting 1.5 nights for the price of one. And we were so glad they were right. Lea and I checked into a very nice twin room with an en suite and were so shattered we went straight to bed to top up our near lack of sleep from the bus. We finally got up for the day at around 11 and headed into town to book our trek with Ever Smile trekkers. Lea had researched all the trekking companies and felt that they were the best, and as they were slightly away from the Main Street they didn’t have the hard sell attitude as you walk by. We met one of the guides and she went through the tour itinerary and packing list and arranged for our pick up in the morning. With the tour organised we went for lunch at the Sprouting Seeds cafe (recommended by two girls I met in Halong Bay.... basically my Myanmar trip is based of their itinerary - I can’t remember their names but thanks girls!) where we met David who had gone to book his tour with another company as he’d promised a friend already he go with them. The cafe is a social enterprise where’re owners teach local young girls to cook the food and learn English. The food was great and the relaxed atmosphere was nice to chill out in. After lunch we headed back to our hotel to spend the rest of the day relaxing, preparing ourselves for the next three days hiking. We did go out again for dinner and ran into a couple Lea had met earlier in her trip in a small Indian restaurant so we joined them for dinner and they recounted their last year of travels on a minimal budget. A very cool couple. After dinner it was back to the hotel for an early night. We were going to need all the rest we could get!

    Day 2
    We were picked up at 7:30am the next morning and headed to the office where we met our guide Mow Mow and the rest of our group, Bas and Susannah a couple from the Netherlands. With our group complete and our main bags on their way to our hostels in Nyuang Shwe where we’d stay after our trek (thank for we only had to carry our day packs) it was time to start our trek. With Mow Mow leading the way we headed out of the town and into the countryside. The start of the trek was fairly easygoing and we were able to chat easily and get to know each other. After a while we entered a wooded area and it was single file for a bit with Mow Mow telling is where to place our feet when needed. Eventually we made to our first rest stop at the side of a giant reservoir. A nice reward for a mornings exertions. After a quick snack and water break it was time to push on. Up until this point the trek had been reasonable flat but now we had a 400m climb through the woods to the view point and our lunch spot. Although that may not sound like a lot, when you’re navigating narrow muddy paths, avoiding trees and bushes it got tiring pretty quickly. Finally we saw the clearing through the trees and reached the view point of the valley. After taking in the view and having a few photo ops we pushed on for the last ten minutes to the hill top cafe for lunch. The rustic cafe with round tables under little gazebos looking out at the view was very nice. Plus we made it just in time before the rain started. The restaurant was Nepalese so we had a buffet style lunch of various curries and salads. After lunch we continued our trek. Thankfully we were finished with the woods for the moment and our journey continued on the dirt roads passing through various villages. After a couple of hours we reached a train track and Mow Mow led us along the tracks. We continued along the tracks for about an hour, having to move aside half way down for a (very slow) passing train, waving at the passengers as it passed, all the while I felt like i was in the movie Stand By Me. Much to Susannah’s relief we finally reached the end of our time on the tracks (the concrete blocks were more uncomfortable than the road paths) and had a brief tea break at the train station before making the final push along the road to our homestay. Finally we Madeira to our homestay, not quite before dark, where we were warmly greeted by our hosts and shown to our communal room. A very simple set up of four thin mattresses on the floor with a few blankets, but we were all thankful for somewhere to sleep after our long day. Before bed we had another feast of a meal for dinner. They seem to like doing multiple dishes with a huge portion of rice. We wolfed it all down gladly. Once we were sufficiently full we all decided to head straight to bed knowing we had another full day ahead of us.

    Day 3
    We were all up and dressed by 7:30 the next morning sitting down to another great meal, this time pancakes with a variety of fruits. We all fuelled up and were off and out the door by 8:15 waving goodbye to our hosts. As Mow Mow has warned us, the first hour and a half of our trek was pretty tough going. The road we were walking on was a wide dirt road that had been used to transport cattle from the villages and as a result the mud was covered with divots from their hooves. Each step we made was carefully placed so that we didn’t fall over. Finally we made it to the top of the road where we had the briefest of breaks before pushing on. We were due to meet another traveller on the main road (the 2day/1night people start on our second day) and we were already 30 minutes late. The next part of the journey was only marginally easier so by the time we reached he main road, an hour later we were all knackered. It didn’t help that we were meeting someone who was rested and full of energy (I don’t care if he had to wait for an hour and a half for us). Lorenzo was not meeting us at our best or perkiest. We had a welcome tea break for 15 minutes, where we tried to explain to our new team member just how bad the first part was, before continuing on, now equipped with some much needed walking sticks (where were these on day two hours ago Mow Mow?!). The second part of the day was much easier and more enjoyable, thanks to the more stable terrain, our walking aids and Lorenzo’s youthful energy. We passed through fields and crossed rivers until we finally reached our lunch spot for the day. Unfortunately this spot was inside, which although protected from the imminent rain it meant we had to take our shoes off, and I wasn’t convinced of be able to get them back on again. Sitting comfortably inside around the table we tucked into the lunch feast, too exhausted to talk. Lunch ended all too quickly though and it was sadly back on with the shoes and on our way. As it was now spitting with rain the paths were getting harder and harder to navigate. Lorenzo was the first casualty and fell not long after lunch, but picked himself up quickly. We passed through many more fields and across hills, and I as I looked around I was surprisingly reminded of the Devon countryside, with the red soil and the surrounding fields and trees. After another couple of hours walking we reached another village and had a tea break with an old lady as she hand wove a scarf (apparently the last of her tribe to still use the skill). Bad and susannah even bought a blanket she had made (sadly I couldn’t justify carrying it around for the next 9 months). After tea we were all eager to get going again, desperate to get to our homestay for the night. The final part of the day was worse than any part we have done so far. As it had been raining the track was treacherously slippy and sadly on the way down a small hill i slipped and fell over. Overcome with exhaustion I say on the floor crying until susannah pulled me up and Lea brushed off the mud. The only real casualty was my stick with broke in the fall. Mow Mow kindly have me his and we continued on. We finally made it to the main road into the village which was similar to the road on the beginning of the day, unfortunately though as it had been raining a lot since then so it was near impossible to cross. If we stayed too long in one spot our feet would sink into the mud. Mow Mow tried to take us on a detour through wooded area on the edge of the road but this turned out to be more dangerous as there were rocks and trees in the way and we were sipping all over the place. We quickly got back onto the main road. All the villagers were making there way back from the fields and were walking with easy through the mud with their wellies. Eventually we found that walking/running as quickly as possible through the mud was the easiest way not to get stuck. After almost an hour of slogging through ankle deep mud we finally made it to our homestay. We were warmly welcomed and shown to our practically palatial bamboo hut where we’d stay for the night. Desperate to get out of our muddy clothes we all changed into pyjamas before dinner. Dinner was once again an array of many dishes and we ate hurriedly before admitting defeat and heading to bed.

    Day 4
    Once again we were all up and dressed and having breakfast before 8am. I decided not to wash my shoes like Lea and Lorenzo the night before hoping that the mud would dry overnight and I could just scrape it off. Unfortunately my shoes were still wet and unlike leas she’s with here clean and wet mine were very much still caked in mud. It was joy fun or easy putting them back on let me tell you. Now that we were all refuelled and ready to go we said goodbye to our hosts and started the final leg of our journey. We were all motivated by the thought that by the end of the day we’d be having a hot shower in a nice hostel. Luckily our third day was the easiest ad shortest off the journey. The first two hours we walked along a large dirt road which led to the lake national park. We stopped for a tea break at a small cafe and shop where we met a group of trainee guides who were having a social hiking day. They had an impromptu jam session and Mow Mow even treated us to a song (take me home country road - very apt). After our break with our moods uplifted we push onto the final hike of the trek. Mow Mow warned us that this was going to be hard too as the lath involved going through the woods again but this time having to climb through many rocks W chick blocked the path, which would be dangerous after the rain. We kept waiting for it to get difficult, and although it wasn’t a breeze negotiating the rocks, it was a lot easier than we had expected. We made it through to the clearing and walked the final stretch of the way through a dessert-like area and down to the main road leading to the pier. After a few more minutes we reached our final stop of the journey, a nice cafe/homestay where lunch was awaiting us. We kicked off our shoes and enjoyed our meal with a sense of accomplishment. After lunch it was time to bid farewell to our lovely guide Mow Mow and enjoy the leisurely boat ride up the lake to Nyuang Shwe. We had two brief stops on the way to visit a silversmiths and two ladies from the long neck tribe (the latter of which involved going into a house with a woman and small girl sitting in a corner wearing the traditional neck rings, meant to protect from tigers, as we were encouraged to take pictures - slightly invasive and odd). It was then onto the main event, Inle Lake itself. During the boat ride we passed a few fishermen and other passenger boats as we relaxed in the breeze. An hour later we reached the town and made the final walk to our hotel. Once we checked into our luxurious ensuite twin room it was a fight for who’d have the first shower, sadly I lost. Soon we were both showered and feeling refreshed and went to meet David for dinner (dropping my laundry off on the way). We joined him and some new friends at the highly recommended Inlay Hit Indian restaurant. The restaurant is owned by a mother and son, the mother is the cook and the son is the waiter. The son, who is self proclaimed Eminem’s biggest fan, is such a character and was so funny as he took our order (going “oh man not another vegan!” when I ordered). I’d say he probably had borderline Tourettes which manifested in a sort of gangster montage. Very bizarre indeed. Aside from the added entertainment we had an amazing meal and had fun comparing or various trekking experiences. After dinner it was back to our hotel for bed and a super long lie in.

    Day 5
    Not one to miss a free meal, Lea and I forced ourselves to get up at 8 for breakfast. Once we were finished our feast we went back to our room to slowly get ready for the day. Three hours later we finally left the room to go meet David again at his hostel (the more lively Ostello Bello - Myanmar’s party chain) where we spent the next hour or so chatting. After looking at things to do in the area and seeing that most of them involved a hike of some sort (to a cave or a waterfall) I decided to retire to the hotel to relax and wait for my night bus. I’d had enough of exercise for a while. I bid a fond farewell to my new friends, especially Lea as we had spent the last week together. It was nice having a travel buddy for a few days. On the way back to the hotel I picked up my washing and was amazed and relieved that my clothes, and shoes were good as new! Back at the hostel o repacked my bag and then spent the next few hours reading in one of the lounge chairs. Finally it was time to head to bus station.

    So there you have my amazing, and exhausting, few days trekking. Next stop Bagan and it’s many temples!

    Swarrtotmaal!
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  • Day119

    Mingalaba Mandalay & Hsipaw

    July 28, 2018 in Myanmar

    Day 1
    My flight to Mandalay was probably one of the nicest sort distance flights I’ve gotten. I flew Bangkok airlines and even though it was only an hour flight I got a free meal (vegan of course), along with the ten other people on the plane. Very nice indeed. After landing in Mandalay and making my way through immigration (with the only pre approved e-visas I’ve got on my trip) I found one of the shared taxis to take me to the city centre. During the journey I met Shia and Yifat a lovely couple from Israel who were travelling around Southeast Asia. Unfortunately we were staying in different hostels/hotels so I had to say goodbye when I reached mine. By the time o checked in and got myself organised it was almost 6pm so I decided to head straight out for dinner. I found a nearby Indian restaurant on happycow and made my way there. First impressions of Mandalay downtown area is that although something may seem close, the blocks are really big so walking actually takes a while. Eventually I made it to the small restaurant and found a free seat by two expat teachers (one Irish and one American) and ordered a “non spicy dish”. While I ate my dinner of rice and okra (very simple but very nice) the teachers gave me tips on what I should see in the city. After dinner I bid them farewell and headed back to the hostel for the night.

    Day 2
    On recommendation by two Dutch girls in my dorm room I booked the hostels scooter tour of the main tourist sights of the city. My driver/tour guide for the day picked me up at at 9am and we headed to the first of our many stops of the day. The first stop was a gold leaf workshop where I had a brief tour of the production (and let me tell you it’s a long process - 5 hours of which is spent repeatedly pounding it with a sledgehammer). We then drove past the marble Buddha street where dozens of workshops line the road with workers carving intricate buddhas out of different sized blocks of marble (unbelievable how intricate some of them were). We headed south out of the city to Mahagandhayon monestary where we joined the rest of the tourists lining the streets to watch the monks line up for their lunch procession. This ritual happens every day at 11am and the hundreds of monks of varying ages line up with their bowls and then proceed to food stations where volunteers serve them (all with donated food as is the Buddhist custom). They then head into their open dining areas, say a prayer and then eat their meal. All while tourists watch from a distance. To be honest I found the whole thing a bit invasive and only took a few pictures to please my tour guide before we returned to the bike. The next stop was the one I was most looking forward to, the U Bein Bridge. The bridge, which spans the Taungthaman lake (1.2km) is the oldest teakwood bridge in the world, built in 1850. I enjoyed walking along the entire length of the bridge, passing the various lady’s selling drinks and mango slices. After my leisurely walk I met my driver again and we visited an embroidery workshop and I watched the local girls weaving lungis on a loom (the pattern they followed was just a series of numbers on a sheet corresponding to the colour and number of strands to use, seriously impressive). We then visited a number of temples and pagodas which to be honest started to merge into one for me, all I can remember is having to keep taking off my shoes, and at one point nearly burning me feet of as I walked around one monastery in the mid day heat (much to amusement of my tour guide, which you’ve probably guessed by now that I cannot remember his name - I asked him a couple of times but didn’t catch it so just nodded along...). Now back in the city we stopped for lunch by one of the main temple clusters and had a much needed rest. After lunch we visited my second favourite site of the day, Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the largest book in the world. The “book” is actually a collection of stone tablets, 730 to be exact, each housed in its own cave-like structure, which surround the pagoda. The double sided tablets make up the 1430 “page” book of the Tripitaka script and is a seriously impressive sight. We then visited yet more temples and pagodas on our way up to Mandalay hill to watch the sunset from the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. Even though we had visited practically the whole city it was only 4pm when we reached the summit. Which meant we had a two hour wait for the sunset. We had a tea brake in the nearby cafe and then took a few pictures around the site. Finally it was sunset time, and I’m sad to say that I’m not convinced it was worth the wait. Being a slightly cloudy day I didn’t get the typical sunny pictures. Oh well. Finally it was time to head back to the hostel. Absolutely templed, pagodad and monestaried out I was exhausted by the time I got back to my room, but satisfied that I could now leave Mandalay having seen EVERYTHING. Just before I fell asleep for the night I overheard one of the girls in my dorm talking about getting the train at 4am the next morning to Hsipaw, what I was planning to do. At least I know I don’t have to do the journey alone now.

    Day 3
    Lea (my new german travel buddy) and I were up at the ungodly hour of 3am the next morning to make sure we didn’t miss the train (the only train to Hsipaw). We quietly packed (Lea having significantly more stuff than me, more on that later) and were downstairs checking out by half past. We were pleasantly surprised when we were sent on our way with a packed breakfast for the train (only two jam sandwiches but very much appreciated). As it was the only train to Hsipaw, and the journey is both scenic and extremely cheap (£1.70 for 11 hours) we were not the only tourists boarding bright and early. The train was quite full when we left Mandalay and me and Lea were separated by a few seats so unable to chat. As it was still dark outside the train I sept for the first few hours, waking up in time to experience the train navigating the mountainside by doing a zig zag routine of going back and forth a few times before continuing on again. Pretty cool I must say. At around 9am we pulled into Pyin Oo Alain station and about half the passengers got off. Lea and I took advantage of the additional seats and spread out now in our own section. We slept again for a bit, now able to lie down on the plastic seats, and woke up a few hours later. The main highlight of the train is going over the Goktwik viaduct, a real Harry Potter moment. We dared to snap a few pictures out the window and wondered how many phones have been lost to the 100m drop. After the excitement me and Lea spent the rest of the journey getting to know each other. A main topic of discussion turned into the contents of her backpack. As I mentioned before she had quite a bit more packed than me. And by that I mean an extra 20kg! We spent over an hour having a sort of intervention were she listed all of her belongings and I’d constructively advise her what to keep and what to get rid of (something like: Lea: “I have two pairs of jeans”, me: “it’s too hot for jeans get rid of them”; Lea: “I have three Spanish books, one grammar, one dictionary and one workbook”, me: “Lea you have your phone and the internet, you can keep the workbook but get rid of the rest). She was only three weeks in to an 18 month trip so every kg counts when you’re having to carry it around for thy long. Luckily she would be visiting her dad in Hong Kong after Myanmar so she could leave all non essentials there instead of simply throwing them away. All in all i think she appreciated the help (I hope...). Finally we reached Hsipaw at 3pm and were treated of the train by someone from or guesthouse with a tuk tuk. We bundled into the back (me laughing at Lea struggling in with her elephant load on her back) and headed to our home for the night. After checking in and dumping our stuff in the room we went to explore the town and get some food. Hsipaw is pretty small, with only a few streets, so after just 10 minutes we’d covered most of the area and found a cute local cafe were we had a simple curry dinner. Once refuelled we headed back to our guesthouse to plan tomorrow’s activities. While we were talking about what to do we met David, a Spanish backpacker and we decided to do a self guided walk/hike tomorrow to a nearby waterfall and hot spring. As we were planning on doing the Kalaw to Inle lake three day trek in a couple days we didn’t want to do anything too strenuous. We planned to meet early so that we could then catch the night bus at 5pm to Kalaw.

    Day 4
    We were up at 8am for a nice breakfast of pancakes and fruit. At breakfast I ran into Shia and Yifat who had opted to take a motorbike to Hsipaw instead of the train. We caught up briefly before heading out. We started our hike just after 9am and estimated that the whole route would take us around five hours, with a break at each spot. As usual I found myself in tour guide/map reader mode and led our small group through the surrounding nature. On the way to the waterfall we walked alongside rice fields, through a Chinese cemetery, past a rubbish tip (as directed by maps.me), and through many local farming fields and houses. We saw fields of aubergines and past a group of locals harvesting corn. After about an hours walk we reached the waterfall. This one, although not tiered like the Kuang Si falls in Laos, was huge and cascaded straight down the cliff edge. We were able to stand right at the base and marvel at one of nature’s creations (while trying not to slip and fall in the pool at the bottom). After a brief intermission we headed to our next stop, the hot springs. Unfortunately we had to walk almost back the entire way we had walked before turning onto a new road after the Chinese cemetery. This was more of a paved road and passed through a small village on the way. After an hour we reached a river which the road disappeared under. There were a couple locals bathing and they indicated that we had to cross through the river. Who were we to argue. Off with our shoes and bags strapped tightly we waded across the river. Although not deep, only about knee height, the river was flowing quite fast and the bed was covered in rocks making it slightly tricky to cross. We made it across in one piece and got a few congratulatory smiles from the locals on the other side. Shoes back on we continued on our route to the hot springs. Unfortunately after another ten minutes walk we reached another barrier. The river again, but this time deeper and faster. A passing local told us that the hot around was on the other side. I wasn’t convinced it was worth the effort. The river was beside a quarry which meant that some of the rocks at the bottom were sharp so we’d have to wear our shoes to cross and I didn’t much fancy doing the Inle Lake trek with wet shoes (it takes ages to dry things here). David had on waterproof rubber shoes and wanted a swim anyway so volunteered to brave going across to see if the hot spring was worth it. He found a stick for support and waded across, the water quickly coming to waist height. After a brave effort, with Me and Lea cheering him on, he made it to the other side in one piece and continued along the path to the spring. After ten minutes he returned and shouted across that he couldn’t see any “hot” spring. He waded back across the river and showed us the video he ingenuously took (his phone was in his dry bag). He was right, the river just came out of some rocks but no steam was visible so the water would be cold. Unless the spring was somewhere else. Either way I was convinced it was not worth getting soaked for. David enjoyed his swim nonetheless. We had a snack break by the river before starting our hike back to the town. The return route was took us through yet more farming fields and across a small river eventually bringing us into the north of the town past their small temple. We reached the guest house just before 3 and had an amazing lake lunch of savoury crepes from a street food stall conventioneer located across from us. They were so tasty and cheap we had about five each! We then headed inside to shower and pack for the bus. The staff were nice enough to give us a lift up the road to the bus stop were we waited for the overnight bus with fellow backpackers.

    So there you have my first few days in Myanmar. Next stop the much anticipated Kalaw to Inle Lake trek!

    Swarrtotmaal!
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  • Day115

    S̄wạs̄dī North Thailand!

    July 24, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    Day 1
    The rest of the slow boat gang were going straight to Chiang Mai so I bid farewell to them in the morning and got the local bus to Chiang Rai, just a couple hours away. It was quite a nice change getting a local bus as opposed to the big long distance buses or minivans I’ve been used to until now. The bus was quite old and small and I was definitely the only tourist in it. I almost had felt like Red at the end of the Shawshank Redemption when he gets the bus out to field with the big tree, mainly because it went though the countryside and was old, not that I had jus been released from prison... Anyway, after a couple hours we reached Chiang Rai and I was pleased to find that the bus station was actually in the entire of town (not always the case here) so I was able to walk to my hostel. After checking in I asked about the bus times to the White Temple, the main tourist sight here, and headed back to the bus station. I found the right bus easily and got on, followed by a handful more tourists. Just a short ride outside of the town we got off on the side of the main road and followed the trail of tourists heading to the temple. Wat Rong Khum, to give it its official name, is actually a contemporary, slightly unconventional private art exhibit which was designed and built in the style of a Buddhist temple by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. From the outside the building looks like a very pristine, shimmering white temple. But inside the main building is where it’s really weird as the walls are covered in bizarre murals. At first glance it looks like any spiritual paintings but then you notice images of Michael Jackson and Harry Potter. The most bizarre is definitely George Bush riding a rocket. Very odd indeed. After marvelling at temple of madness of a while I headed back to the city for an early dinner. The temple is pretty much the main thing to see in Chiang Rai so I decided to spend the rest of the evening relaxing at my hostel, taking advantage of the air conditioning and WiFi.

    Day 2
    I got the late morning bus to Chiang Mai and arrived at the bus station in the outskirts of the city at around 2pm. I refuse to pay the extortionate price for a tuk tuk to my hostel so managed to find a local bus that would take me there for a tenth of the price. Win for the day! When I arrived at the hostel I was greeted by probably the friendliest woman ever, Jaidee. She owned the hostel with her English boyfriend. And when she found out I was from England too she said “welcome home” and gave me a big hug. After she showed me to my room I relaxed for a while before going down to the cafe for an early dinner. I felt that I was starting to get a scratchy throat so I decided to have an early night, hoping I’d feel better in the morning.

    Day 3
    Unfortunately I didn’t feel better when I woke up. I think all the traveling eventually caught up with me and I just felt really run down. So sadly I had my first sick day and stayed in the hostel for the day. All I can say is I’m glad I was ill at that hostel with Jaidee around. Every time I came down from my room for food or a drink she’d feel my forehead and ask if I was ok. So sweet. Even though I wasn’t able to see any of the city that day, the rest was a welcome break. I was sure after keeping hydrating and eating enough during the day I’d feel back to normal again in the morning.

    Day 4
    Thankfully I woke up feeling much better and well enough to explore the city. After a very welcome english breakfast of beans on toast (I’m pretty sure it was even warburtons bread too!) I headed out for the day to visit Chiang Mai’s many temples. Unlike the White Temple, the temples here are very old, some of which dating back to 14th century. As there are so many to chose from, on Jaidee’s recommendation I visited Wat Chedi Luang (a huge stone temple, where the small temple in front had a sign saying women aren’t allowed in as they menstruate), Wat Lok Molee (the three tiered wooden temple guarded by two elephant statues) and Wat Phra Singh (which was renovated in the 19th century so looks more modern than the others). In between temple visits I stopped at a vegan restaurant for lunch and to buy some of their baked goods for later. On the way back to the hostel after being temples out I stumbled across a huge vintage clothing shop and enjoyed a good half an hour rummaging through the clothing rails. Sadly due to luggage constraints I had to contain myself and walk away empty handed. It’s nice to know that the second hand trade is not just a European thing. Back at the hostel I got chatting to an English couple in the common area and after a few minutes discovered that although they live in Bristol they’re both from Torquay. How weird! We spent the next while reminiscing about home. After a while Jaidee popped in and said we should go to the night market so we headed out to have a look. As with most night markets in Asia there are the usual food and souvenir stalls to browse. We stopped at one food stall and had some noodles for dinner and continued to chat about each other’s trip, they also gave me tips on Pai where I was headed next. After walking the length of the market, avoiding buying any souvenirs, we headed back to the hostel to pack for our onward travels.

    Day 5
    I got the late morning minibus to Pai and had yet another awful windy bus journey. I’m not usually one to get car sick, but this was a windy of windiest roads, so by the time we got to Pai (three hours later) I was feeling pretty queasy. Luckily Pai itself is pretty small so I only had a two minute walk to my hostel and soon found myself having a lie down in a large bamboo hut with 8 beds on each side. I had a nap to sleep off the nausea and woke up feeling well enough to venture to the famous backpacker walking street to sample the culinary treats Pai had to offer. Pai is the backpacking hub of Thailand with about 90% of its inhabitants on a day being tourists. Walking down the main street you’d be hard pressed to find any locals, other than those manning the food stalls. Thanks to happy cow I found a small falafel stall and got myself a huge falafel pita. Next to the falafel stall was a fresh fruit smooth stall so I got a mixed smoothie too and headed back to my bamboo hut to enjoy my dinner on the porch looking out at the river. And FYI the falafel was the best I’ve ever had. After dinner it was time for an early night so I was rested for a full day exploring tomorrow.

    Day 6
    I was up early feeling well rested and ready to explore the nature surrounding Pai. After walking around the village for twenty minutes I eventually found shop renting bicycles instead of mopeds. I should have taken that as a read flag that in the whole village there were about twenty shops renting mopeds and only one renting bicycles. Blissfully ignorant I set off out of the village towards pai canyon, the main attraction in the area. Clearly I had mentally blocked out the car ride into the town due to feeling sick and forgot that not only were the roads windy but also hilly. After starting off enthusiastically I soon lost energy after the first hill. I spent the next hours journey walking up the hills, cycling down the hills and sweating profusely. After much effort I finally made it to the entrance to the canyon. I took a few minutes to catch my breach and climbed the last few steps up to the canyon. Andrew me tell you, the view was definitely worth the effort. The canyon, like a mini Grand Canyon, covered a LARGE AREA, and consisted of a number of natural walkways across and around the canyon (some treacherously narrow). I spent around an hour walking around the canyon and taking in the impressive view. Many people come here for sunset, but the thought of repeating that journey was too much for me, plus it was cloudy so there wouldn’t be much of a sunset anyway. I headed back to the parking area and grabbed a quick smoothie at one of the stalls before grudgingly getting back on my bike and heading to my next destination. To be honest I was tempted to just cycle back to town, but as the next place was sort of on the way I forced myself to continue as planned. After a further hour of cycling and walking I reached the “Land Split” a unique tourist sight. In 2008 an earthquake split a farmers land right down the middle making it almost unfarmable. As a stroke of entrepreneurial genius he decided to turn it into a tourist attraction and also sell his homemade jams and teas. Although not a big area, taking just ten minutes to walk from top to bottom, it’s quite a unique place to visit, especially getting to talk to the farmer himself. While visiting I met three other travellers (an English guy, Sam, a South African guy and an Israeli girl). They were shocked that I’d cycled there as they had taken the more commonly used mopeds. The we’re going further along the road to visit the nearby waterfall and bamboo bridges and invited me along on one of their bikes. I gladly accepted as there was no way inward cycling further away from the town. The waterfall was quite small but fun to climb through the rocks to see the full height of it. Sam even took a quick swim in the water while the rest of us waited on the rocks having not brought a change of clothes. After the waterfall we continued on to the bamboo bridges. The bridges themselves were more like a ling network of bamboo walkways connecting various rice fields together. It was nice and peaceful waking along the bridges taking pictures of the rice fields. We stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at the local bamboo restaurant looking out over the fields. After our food the guys took me back to my bike, and after a few unsuccessful attempts of trying to find a way to carry my bicycle alongside their bikes so I didn’t have to cycle I thanked them for the gesture and committed to my fate of cycling back to town. The journey back didn’t seem as bad though, probably due to the fact that I know once I reached the cycle shop I wouldn’t have to cycle again, and I reached town after only twenty minutes. I headed back to my hostel for a brief rest before dinner. I couldn’t leave pai without another visit to the falafel stall so my dinner was exactly the same as the night before, smoothie and all. I also treated myself to a couple vegan spring rolls I spotted on the way back. Back on the porch again I enjoyed my dinner looking out onto the river (while also catching up on a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy). I went to bed feeling satisfied after a full and active day.

    Day 7
    After a welcome lie in I got the late morning bus back to Chiang Mai and to my home away from home Jaidee’s house. Thankfully the bus ride wasn’t as car sick inducing and I reached Chiang Mai around 3pm. Although it was till early I decided to spend the rest of the day at the hostel planning the next leg of my journey as tomorrow I’d be flying to Myanmar.

    So there you have my week in North Thailand. Next stop Myanmar, my tenth country of this trip.

    Lā k̀xn!
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  • Day108

    Sabaidi Phakhenu Laos

    July 17, 2018 in Laos ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F

    As night buses go, the one from Pakse to Vientiane was pretty nice. It was a double decker with double beds running along each side of the bus. Luckily (probably because I was a solo foreign female traveller) I got a double bed to myself, whereas normally you may be sharing with a stranger. And because it was an actually flat bed I managed to sleep the whole journey.

    Day 1
    I arrived in Laos’ capital at 7am and made my way straight to my hostel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check in so had to just hang about in the common area while I decided what to do for the day. Vientiane is sadly one of the worst capital cities I have been to. The only “tourist” thing to do is visit a land mine museum or go to a bhudda Park outside the city. Neither of which greatly appealed to me. I decided instead to have a lazy morning in a nearby cafe and then spend the afternoon in a local herbal spa. The spa I found was actually one of the top 10 things to do in the city from TripAdvisor and I was not disappointed! It was located down a side street and was very much a place where mainly locals went. I decided to do the herbal sauna and then have a traditional Laos massage. I changed into the required tunic-towel-dress and started my cleanse. This involved going into the sauna for as long as possible, then washing myself with a bucket of cold water, then scrubbing myself with a mixture of coffee and yoghurt and then repeating as many times as I could in the hour before my massage. I managed to do six repetitions in total. Did I mention that I was the only tourist in the spa? The four local girls there must have thought I was very week every time I admitted defeat in the sauna - the longest I lasted was about 60 seconds (it was seriously hot in there!). After being thoroughly exfoliated, bathed and void of sweat I changed into the strange pyjamas provided and headed upstairs for my Laos massage. If any if you have had a Thai massage it is similar to that. If not let me enlighten you. The only way I can describe the Laos massage is something between a massage, a visit to the chiropractor and someone doing yoga on your back. At one point the girl was kneeling on the back of my legs cracking my back. And as with the Thai massage it finishes with the masseuse getting you to sit up, as she sits behind you with your arms and head in a head lock she twists you from side to side. As weird and different as it was to my relaxing massage in the Philippines I did leave feeling thoroughly rejuvenated. With extremely soft skin. After the spa I had dinner in a nearby Lebanese restaurant before heading back to the hostel.

    Day 2
    I decided to get the morning bus up to Vang Vieng, the backpacker hub of Laos. After five hours we reached the small town between the mountains. I checked myself into my chosen hostel and headed out to explore. The town is infamous for tubing, a backpacker activity involving floating in rubber rings down a river stopping at bars along the way to get exceedingly drunk. As I’m not much of a drinker (or in the desired 18-22 age bracket which makes up the hulk of said tubers) I wasn’t too eager to book this activity. After talking to a cool Norwegian girl working at one of the tour offices I decided to opt for the more sober kayaking and lagoon trip and booked that for the next day. I then headed back to the hostel for a power nap ahead of tonight’s England v France World Cup match. Sadly no need to relieve that. Although during the match, which was only being shown in one bar in the town I met Chloe and Jack again. The odds were pretty good as it seemed like every backpacker was there that night. After the match, which we watched til the bitter end, I headed back to the hostel to try to sleep before my early morning kayaking.

    Day 3

    I was picked up at 9am and taken to the first of three stops on the tour, a small river going into a cave that you tube into. This is much more tame than the tubing on the main river and involves sitting in a rubber ring and pulling yourself along a rope as you go into and through the cave. Although once inside the cave it’s pretty dark so me and my fellow tour goers were all wearing head torches, trying to avoid other groups going in the opposite direction on their way back. Quite a fun way to spend the morning, especially laughing at each other trying to get in and out of the tubes. After our cave tour we had lunch and got to know each other better. It just so happens that there were two other pharmacist sabaticalers on the tour, the first I have met on my trip, both from Ireland. Much to the annoyance of their two non pharmacist friends we spent most of lunch venting about pharmacy. It’s good to know that the problems are the same no matter what country you work in. After lunch we followed our guide on a short walk to one of the seemingly numerous “blue lagoons” in the area and spent the next hour relaxing in the water (occasionally trying, and failing, to zip line off the podium into the water). After a very relaxing morning it was time for the main event - kayaking. We headed back to the river and paired into our kayaks. There was 11 of us with two guides which made up the front and back of the group, making sure none of us got lost. Before we started our guides said that we would be kayaking about 20km down the river, and then joked saying “Europeans you can swim so we do 20km, Chinese and Korean can’t so they only do 8km”. Not entirely sure if we were thrilled about the extra distance. 20km is pretty far. We started down river, following our guide as we avoided occasional rocks and trees. The first few kilometres went really well, we were all keeping together and enjoying going over the occasional rapids. Then it started raining. Then it started really raining. The heavens just opened. Let me tell you, it is neither fun nor easy to kayak in the rain. At one point it was raining so much I could hardly see. We managed to soldier through and make it to our rest stop, one of the infamous tubing bars. We were glad of a break and to get dry for a minute. Although the rain did ease it didn’t completely stop and we had to continue the rest of our journey wet and all a bit less enthusiastic than when we started. Nevertheless we all made it safely to the finish line, and I for one felt a sense of achievement. Mostly though I just wanted a shower. Back at the hostel, clean and dry, I had dinner in the common area with two new arrivals, Steph and Mel from Birmingham. They were planning to go tubing tomorrow and asked if i wanted to join them. Why not? I’ve conquered the river now. (Also they said they weren’t planning on drinking a lot). So with tomorrow’s plan sorted I headed to bed.

    Day 4
    Tubing is an afternoon activity so after a much needed lie in and a very late breakfast I met Steph and Mel in the common area at 12. We headed to the tubing shop where we met up with Hannah and Jack, a couple from Birmingham that the girls met while travelling. We hired our tubes and bundled into the van that would take us to the river. At the river we got the makeshift raft-ferry across to the first bar as were greeted by some hungover looking bar staff (fellow backpackers who love the laidback Laos life so much they have decided to stay here and work in these bars while really just getting drunk for free surrounded by other Europeans backpackers). We were one of the first groups there and set up camp at one of the tables with a few drinks (think the girl died of shock when I asked for a sprite). As we waited for the main throng of people to arrive we shared stories of our traces. Steph and Mel have been travelling for 10 months, starting by working in New Zealand for a few months, and are now on the home stretch of their trip. And Hannah and jack are in the middle of a six month trip. They met while doing the slow boat journey between Thailand and Laos (something il be doing in reverse), and weirdly they’re from the same part of Birmingham. After a while the main group from Nana’s (the towns party hostel) arrived and it was time for the hungover staff to rally the troops. Cue drinking games and awful trance music. Plus the three male barmen, who I’ve decided were in a cult due to their matching tie die wife beaters and leggings (seriously guys wearing leggings is just not ok), would brake out in a chant followed by a shotgun (where you pierce the bottom of a beer can and open the top while drinking out of the pierced hole - Australia’s version of our “strawpeedo”). One good thing about being sober is watching other people get drunk. It’s fascinating. Anyway after about two hours at the first bar the group left on mass and headed down river in their tubes. Luckily we noticed that one tube at the bottom of the pile was deflated before it was too late as quickly ran to get one and join the group. After the initial trepidation of getting on said tube it was quite a relaxing experience just floating down the river (much more so than kayaking down it). After about ten minutes we spotted the second bar on the other side and tried to do a weird backwards butterfly stroke over the tubes to get ourselves over. Luckily two local guys were on hand with bottles tied to rope which they threw out and reeled us all in. The Nana’s mass were already there in full party mode. We chilled on one of the table seats and had our own mini party. That was until the heavens decided to open and rained everyone into the small covered area. As it didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon the Nana’s mass soon continued their party in the rain (that’s the beer blanket for you). We stayed under the cover and had some drinks and snacks. As well as rain we had full on thunder and lightning. And as we were all from the uk we did the standard “lightning, one, two, three, thunder... it’s getting further away/closer” skit until the storm stopped. After about an hour the rain died down enough for us to continue our journey down river. Back in the tubes, more confident than the first time as we now knew that there would be someone to reel us in at the end, we relaxed into the journey. Me as Hannah (the two most nervous about floating off) hooked ourselves to each other and had a very nice time just floating along together chatting. After about 45 minutes we reached the third and final bar and were once again reeled in. We had a celebratory drink and watched as the rest of the mass trickled in and danced around the fire. Even though we were one of the first ones to start the tubing, we ended up being one of the last groups to leave as we spent most of the time talking. This ended on our favour as the tube rental guys came to pick up our tubes so we didn’t have to carry them back like everyone else. After a long day we all headed back to town for a shower and some food. All in all a good day.
    (Ps - I feel that I should actually mention why tubing here is now so infamous. Before 2011 there used to be 25 bars along the river and people used to get drunker and drunker as they went down the river. Unfortunately due to this chaos a number of people died, mainly Australians, until finally the Australian government put pressure on the Laos government to put restrictions in place, hence there now only being three bars open a day and they alternate so that all the former bars continue to get business. So yeah, not the greatest history...)

    Day 5
    I got the 11am bus to Luang Prabang and was joined by my welsh friends Chloe and Jack. The bus ride was probably one of the most nerve racking onesie taken. The road is so windy that only minivans are allowed to transport people. At one point the road was just a dirt building site that the driver had to navigate so that he didn’t get stuck. At see points I honestly just closed my eyes it was that bad. The scariest money came though just after we stopped for a toilet break. We were only half an hour from Luang Prabang so no one got out. But just a minute after we continued on we came across a lorry that had just overturned across the road. The driver was still inside and was kicking the windshield so he could get out. After a few kicks he got out and we saw he didn’t have a scratch on him. Unfortunately his cargo, bags or rice I think, were all over the road. A few minivans stopped but as he was ok and there wasn’t anything they could do we managed to squeeze past the lorry and continue our journey. How lucky that we stopped for that toilet break! We soon reached the town and walked to our respective hostels agreeing to meet up later. After a quick pit stop at my hostel I headed out in search for food and then to meet up with Chloe and Jack to watch the final England match. We found a sports bar near my hostel and watched the game, sadly not as exciting as the semifinal. After the game we headed back to our hostels for much needed sleep.

    Day 6
    I had a lazy morning reading, before meeting Chloe and Jack for the day. We booked a minivan to go to the Kuang Si Falls for 11am. Unfortunately due to a miscommunication the guy didn’t turn up so we rebooked for 1pm. In the meantime we went for a walk to the nearby Buddhist temple and cave in the centre of the town. Unfortunately the temple you had to pay for which we didn’t think was worth it so we just saw the very small cave and then found somewhere for lunch. Finally after the brief delay we met our minivan driver and headed to the waterfalls. The falls are probably the most visited site in the area and are also home to a bear “sanctuary”. Not much of a fan of these so called sanctuaries we headed straight for the waterfalls. The waterfalls are split over three levels with the walking trail starting near the bottom. We decided to head straight for the top tier which involves climbing a strap path up the side, at one point climbing some stairs with water cascading down them (pretty cool). The top of the waterfall was made up of small pools connected by bamboo walkways and felt very tranquil compared to the pools below. We crossed the pools and headed down the other side and across the bridge at the bottom to get the main view of 60m drop. As far as waterfalls go this is the beat one I’ve seen so far. We then headed back along the path and picked one of the quieter pools for a swim. Well that was the intention. I tried to get in but only managed up to my knees. It was very cold and also full of those little nibbly fish which you see in those foot spas, which by the way actually sting a bit when they bit you. So no I didn’t see the appeal after that. We just sat on one of the picnic benches instead chatting until it was time to head back. Back in town we found a cool bamboo bar for dinner and were going to stay there to watch the World Cup final but the whole place seemed to be reserved for one of the bus tour groups (18-30s group). We headed back to our trusted sports bar instead and watched the game surrounded by a mix of nationalities. After the match it was time to say goodbye to my travel companions as we were heading in opposite directions, me to Thailand and them to Vietnam. It was definitely a nice change to solo life being able to meet up with them in a few different places.

    Day 7
    I had an early start the next morning as I was picked up at 7:30 to get the slow boat to Thailand. Unfortunately due to monsoon type rain the night before and into the morning the staff didn’t show up at 7am for breakfast so I had to start my day with only the granola bar I had in my backpack. The truck dropped me and my fellow tourists (4 Brits, 3 Germans, 1 American and 1 South African) at the river and we all bundled on the slow boat. The boat itself was a cross between a narrow boat and a very old neglected plane. We set up camp in the various distressed airline-style seats and got comfortable for the long and, you guessed it, slow journey ahead. As the seats were all facing the same way it wasn’t exactly conducive to socialising. Plus it was still fairly bleak outside so most of us just slept for the duration of the journey. Pretty boring I know. The journey to the Thai border actually takes two days (well it does if you take the slow boat) so after about 8 hours we stopped for the night at a small village halfway up the river, mainly full of guest houses specifically for this reason. Me, the South African, on of the german girls and two of the other Brits decided to get a homestay together to cut costs. I was the first in the queue off the boat and a guy came up to me saying he had a room for 50baht each. Then as I was trying to navigate the plank off the boat a lady helped each off and said she had a room for 20baht each for the five of us. Sold to the lowest bidder! For that price we got transport too and from her guest house and she had also had a restaurant for dinner and breakfast and would even make a packed lunch for the next day. We were all pretty tired when we got there so just had dinner and went straight to bed.

    Day 8
    The next morning we were up at 7am for breakfast and then back on the boat by 8. We had a different boat today and it had a much better layout, with tables down each side with double seats on facing eagle other so we could be more social. We spent most of the journey talking and playing cards, much more enjoyable. After about 9 hours we finally reached the border town of Houay Xai. Even though it was getting late in the day my group decided we’d rather cross the border and spend the night in Chiang Khong on the Thai side than stay in Laos and cross the next morning. Plus I didn’t have enough money left for another night in Laos. We got a tuk tuk to the border and got stamped out of Laos. Not before paying the extra dollar for it being a weekend, according to the sign the border control guy placed in front of him. It wasn’t until I paid and went through that I realised that it was Tuesday! The double with travelling, you lose all concept of days of the week. We then had to pay for the official bus to take us across the Friendship bridge to the Thai side of the border, and as we arrived after hours at 18:02 (two minutes!) we had to pay an additional 3,000 kip, about 30p. Oh Laos, how I love your borders! The Thai border was much better, completely free and easy. After finally making it into Thailand we bundled into yet another tuk tuk and headed to the border town of Chiang Khong and found a surprisingly nice hostel for the night. All exhausted we had a quick dinner and headed to bed.

    So there you have my week in north Laos. Next stop north Thailand!

    La kone!
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  • Day100

    Sabaidi Phaktai Laos!

    July 9, 2018 in Laos ⋅ ⛅ 79 °F

    Today was another full day of travelling. I left Siem Reap at 8am, and after 6 hours in a bus we (myself and an Israeli couple) reached the border town where we waited for over an hour for our next for of transport to arrive. We then bundled into a very questionable minivan (no MOT here) along with a local family, a few sacks or rice, six crates of beer (making up the floor) and possibly a chicken rammed into the boot (like Aladdin’s cave) and traveled the last hour to the boarder (stopping along the way to deliver said goods). Unfortunately due to the numeroia delays we reached the border “after hours” at 4:30pm (office hours end a 4pm) which meant we had to pay an additional $1 for the staffs inconvenience. That added to the $2 extra for each countries “ink” budget to ensure we left with official stamps brought what should have been a $35 visa up to $40 dollars - the joy of the land crossing. After jumping through all the hoops we finally made it into Laos and were met (after a slightly worrying ten minute wait) by a very nice, air conditioned, 4x4 (plus driver) which would take us to our final destinations, me to the 4000 islands, and the Israeli couple to Pakse further north. After just half an hour I was dropped off at the small pier where I got my own private long boat across the Mekong delta to Don Det, one of only three inhabited islands out of the 4000. The official name of the island archipelago is actually Si Phan Don (meaning 4000 islands) and the number of islands is more likely in the hundreds. As it is low season in Laos I decided to throw caution to the wind and just turn up on the island without any accommodation booked and see what I could find. After 5 minutes of walking down the “sunset” side of the island I came across the “Sunset Bungalows”, a very quiet line of six bungalows each with their own porch and hammock. And to my luck they had one free. Well actually they had six free and I was the first guest to stay in a month. I checked into my own private resort, dumped my stuff in my room (very basic but very nice to have a private room after three months in dorms) and headed to Adam’s bar for dinner. Again I was the only customer in this Don Det staple, but the food was great and the constant loop of Friends episodes playing on the TV was a welcome change to watching YouTube videos on my phone. After dinner I headed back to my sanctuary for some much needed sleep.

    Day 1

    Laos itself is a very laid back country (the saying “it will happen in Laos time” is common here) but Don Det is even more laid back. I quickly got into the island vibe. After a much need lie in I found a cute tavern for brunch, enjoying the food and people watching. I then walked around the rest of the main village (which consists of two main roads down each side of the island with an adjoining alley, so takes a grand total of 5 minutes to cover everything) and headed back to my haven to enjoy some hammock time. This is where I spent the majority of the first day, with a break for a lunch, and also dinner, at Adams bar (being able to have a home comfort of a TV again really is enticing).

    Day 2

    After a full day enjoying the guilt free bliss of lounging in a hammock I decided to explore the rest of the island and the adjoining Don Khon island. I rented a bike and circled to the other end of the island. Once you leave the small tourist village the rest of the island is just farm land with a few houses and cows dotted about. It only took 20 minutes to read the other end of the island and the old French bridge which connects it to Don Khon. Whereas Don Det is more for the “backpacker” crowd, Don Khon is more for families and older travellers, with more modern guest houses and restaurants. The island also a few walking trails and waterfalls making it a nice place to visit for a day. I decided to cycle to Li Phi Waterfall, the larges one on the island, first. To my complete surprise as I was parking my bike I run into Irene (the Italian girl i met in Phong Nha National Park). What are the chances?! We catch each other up on our travels since Phong Nha and then say goodbye, hoping to meet for dinner, as she didn’t want to pay the entrance fee for the waterfall. I cross the bridge and head to the waterfall, which is more like a large rapid cascading over rocks as opposed to an actual waterfall. I take a few pictures and then follow the signs for “the beach”. After ten minutes I come across a true deserted island paradise - a white sandy beach with a four deserted sun loungers and a palm leaf umbrella. As it’s a bit of a walk away no one else seems to make the journey so I had the whole beach to myself. And the cherry on the cake is that there was a little beach bar close enough that I could use their WiFi, but still far enough that I felt like I had the place to myself. I spent the next two hours enjoying the serenity of my island paradise (with the best WiFi connection I have had in months!). I then forced myself to leave my paradise to go explore more of the island. This was the wrong decision. I spent the next hour cycling down increasingly bumpy and narrow roads, stopping at a couple “waterfalls” which turned out to be little more than trickles (thanks maps.me), avoiding a few water buffalo and numerous puddles until I got so fed up I headed back to Don Det, exhausted. I should’ve stayed on my beach! Only one thing would salvage the day - dinner at Adams bar. Irene never made its as she ended up walking around the whole of Don Khon (in hind site a better option than cycling) and was so exhausted after she went straight to bed. While I was at Adams the heavens opened. I managed to make it back to my bungalow fairly dry where I watched the storm from my porch before heading to bed.

    Day 3

    It rained all through the night and continued into the next day. Luckily I had already decided it was time to leave my little island today so it didn’t affect my view of backpacker heaven. After breakfast I got the boat over to the mainland and then found the minivan that wild take me up to Pakse. The journey only took a couple hours so I arrived at my hostel just after lunch. In the common room I met Chloe and Jack, a Welsh couple who were backpacking for six months. We spent the next two hours chatting and then giving me tips on Thailand and Indonesia before the left for their bus headed north. I then headed out for an early dinner in a small vegetarian restaurant and then back to the hostel for a shower and an early night. In my dorm room I met the most unlikely traveller, a 70 year old Korean-American solo female backpacker. Myself and the rest of the travellers in the room (two Swiss girls and a German guy) spent the next hour listening to her travel stories in absolute awe. She has spent the last two years backpacking from San Francisco to Laos. Life goals right there. I went to bed that night picturing the next 50 years of my life travelling around the world!

    Day 4
    The main reason I stopped in Pakse was to see the Wat Phu temple which is actually an hours drive south of the town. As I refuse to drive a scooter the only option to get there was to hire a tuk tuk for the day at £20. Luckily, as it was raining, the Swiss girls decided to join me as they didn’t want to drive their scooter tour in the rain, so I was able to split the cost with them. Our driver was very nice and dropped us at the entrance of the temple and would wait until we were finished exploring. Wat Phu was built around the same time and in the same style as the temples of Angkor Wat, and although it isn’t as grand as it’s more famous counterpart and not as preserved, it is still worthy of a visit. Especially as it doesn’t have the crowds of Angkor wat so you can fully appreciate the serenity of the place. We spent an hour walking around the complex, which is set over four tiers of a hill, taking in the views from each level, before heading back to our tuk tuk. On the way back to town we stopped at the base of the giant Golden Bhudda and climbed the 200+ stairs up the hilltop to take in the view of the city. The Buddha itself looked better from a distance (the gold paint showing cracks up close) but the city view was worth the climb (sort of). We then climbed back down to meet our driver and head back to the hostel where I packed once again ready for my night bus to the capital, Vientiane.

    So there you have my few days in the south of Laos. Next stop, the backpacker hub of the north!

    La kone!
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