Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lovely Laos...

Answers on a postcard please...

Having spent a month in super easy, developed Thailand we were ready to get back on the road & experience somewhere a little more rustic and 'real'. Laos was the perfect next destination and we immediately fell in love with the country. Some say it's like Thailand 15 years ago, before it was well and truly placed on the tourist trail. Although not completely undiscovered, you can definitely travel through Laos feeling like you're seeing real people living real lives - the pace of life here is most definitely slow, the people friendly and the beer flowing.

The view from Wat Phu

After crossing the border we spent our first couple of nights in Pakse, mostly hunting for an ATM that would let us withdraw cash.  Eventually we found one that worked, and realised we needed to take 2 million kip out of the bank.  Paying for things with 50,000 notes and carrying around such a fat wad, we've never felt so rich.  Long may it last. 

John's new favourite head gear

After Pakse we headed south to the one street town of Champasak to see the 6th century Wat Phu ruins. I'm somewhat ashamed to say that this was only our 2nd visit to any kind of temple since we arrived in South East Asia before Christmas, so we made the extra effort to wake up early and headed off by bike at 7am.

Visiting the old ruins

Old Buddha statues

I'd been finding it relatively easy to find vegetarian food, until arriving in Champasak.  The concept of not eating meat seemed a bit more alien and I was struggling to get across to one restaurant owner that I just wanted vegetables with my noodles.  After struggling with my bad Lao and drawing numerous pictures of chickens, pigs & fish, I luckily managed to find another westerner in the restaurant that was fluent in Lao.  He confidently explained to the woman that while John wanted beef with his noodles, I just wanted veg.  It was great, apart from the decorative piece of beef slapped on top.

Our house

Our next destination was the island of Don Det, not far from the Cambodian border on the mighty Mekong River and part of the 4000 Thousand Islands.  Here we found our cheapest digs so far, at £1.70 a night for a wooden bungalow on stilts over the edge of the river.  The island was super laid back and the hammocks on our porch made it difficult to do anything but relax, knit, read and sip cold Beer Lao's.  Our most strenuous activities were strolling a few kilometres around the island and 'tubing' down the Mekong at sunset.  

Tubing down the Mekong

Tubing basically involves being taken up stream a few kilometres by boat & then floating back down at a very slow pace sat in a large rubber ring. Easy! Until you have to try and cross the river to get back to the beach.  Luckily there being 4000 islands meant there were enough clumps of trees in the river for us to hold onto while the boat came back to rescue us.  It's really popular in the North of Laos but is often combined with lots of drunkenness & accidents, so it was nice to have the option of trying it somewhere easier. It was great fun & soooooo relaxing, floating back down the river over the course of a couple of hours and watching the world go by.

The Mekong River

Back in Bangkok, after a few months off, I managed to find myself some knitting needles & yarn, a couple of patterns on the internet and have occupied myself for many an hour since trying to accomplish various new knitting techniques. My new year's resolution was to actually get good at knitting, & since I have so much time on my hands I have no excuse. Saying that, the 30 degree heat isn't the most inspiring for making winter woolies but I'm persevering all the same. My friend Gemma's newborn baby, Thomas, has a jumper on the way as soon as I can find a post office. I also crocheted a dress that was intended for the baby daughter of some good friends of ours, but I figured by the time it arrived home it would be too small (sorry Andy & Leanne, the thought was there!). In the end I gave it to a lovely family running the small restaurant next door. They were made up and I have to say the little girl looked super cute.

Cutey cute cute!!!

I also taught our new friend Flo how to knit, & after just one go he was better than me!  

Flo and his knitted phone case

We've spent the last couple of days at the waterfalls of Tat Lo, swimming in the river and walking through the forest.  A few elephants (that we think had been retired from the logging industry) were living near by & it was amazing to see them being washed in the river & one of John's favourite things of our trip so far.

Elephants having a bath

Over the next couple of weeks we are gradually heading up north, & then back into Thailand to meet our friend Natalie who's coming over to visit us on holiday. Yay!!! I'm so excited, and am currently trying to compile a list of everything I'm missing from home that I can get her to stuff in her suitcase.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

I'm currently sat by the Mekong River in Laos, but that is an awesome tale for next issue.  So-  what what what...

After the islands of Thailand, I was looking forward to getting back to the 'real world' of the mainland, seeking less touristy, more Thai areas.  We'd loved Bangkok, so headed north to spend a few days exploring there.  We had some errands to run-  Laura needed some knitting supplies, something about double ended and circular needles.  Hopefully this will lead to some knitted socks for me next time it is cold enough to warrant wearing any.  I'd wanted to find a water heating element thing so we could make tea & coffee & noodles.  Didn't find one though- seems like health and safety regs might have knocked them on the head, even in Thailand?  Can't get them in England either apparently.   We do have one now though...this blog post is exciting isn't it?? No wonder you're still reading.  Enough! Lets try and knock it up a notch.

Thailand / Dukes of Hazard Taxi. Overload for maximum profit!
So, back into the commercial consumer crazy high street market street stall absolute FRENZY that is Bangkok.  There are markets for everything.  Morning markets, afternoon markets, night markets, right through the night (we were on our way home  at 2am and a band was playing- Eagles covers, naturally, just on a road side), floating markets, fish markets, phone markets,  Chatuchack / JJ market with 9000 stalls...

But what is most interesting about this is the 2 ends of the spectrum being right next to each other. Next to the 'back alley' food markets, with grinning pigs heads being butchered for scooter riding punters (engine running), wriggling eels in buckets and countless items I can't even recognise, stands these new super mall's with so many floors, floor plan maps, help desks, air conditioning with expensive designer clothes and electronics that cost mega bucks.  Pretty much one whole floor of the MBK mall is dedicated to mobile phones and accessories.  The sky train smoothly whisks you right inside without even having to weather the heat of the day.  Its crazy.  No water heating elements though...

Infamous Khao-San Road
China town felt like a whole other dimension.  The closest we've been to actually being in China, so far.   This is where you can buy yourself a whole shop's worth of giant cuddly toys, clothes pegs, pans, plastic screw drivers, flip flops, clothes, children's toys, egg whisks, coat hangers - anything and absolutely everything that must come out of Chinese factories in the relentless billions every day.   Its quite an eye opener.

Back in Rishikesh, India, I'd slipped over on a wet marble floor, cracked my elbow, saw stars and was very nearly immediately sick in the street, then spent 2 days in bed- Laura told me it was because my shoes were rubbish and were worn out.  I have some new shoes from china town now, a knock off pair of posh variety Crocs.  They are quite cool.

The man assured me they were definitely not genuine, in a nice turn of honesty.

We met up with Alice and Nat, a couple living in Bangkok, through a mutual friend we had met in Ooty, India.  It was great to be shown around by them, and both were very kind, hospitable and generous to us.  Thanks guys!  They put us up for a few nights, and again we made a vow to open up our house (whenever we have one) to guests and travellers more often.

After 5 or so days in Bangkok, we headed west to Kanchanaburi, on the river Kwai, for a bit of quiet.  A Lot of quiet, as it turned out.  We had a cool bamboo hut right on the river side, about 1km south of the infamous 'Bridge over the River Kwai'.    True to our recent spirits, we generally did a lot of lounging and can't really account for the days we spent there.  I did explore the characterful museum (JEATH), as am very interested in such WW11 things, although filtering information out of the awful rambling translations, weird signs, and dubious messages was hard work, and gave me a sore neck. Still, there were some great photos and displays (even if the glass cabinets were so filthy it was hard to see through them). It made our walk across the bridge the day before seem a lot more significant.  Laura stayed home to, err guard the hut I guess and catch up on some krazy knitting skills.

The bridge, showing the different middle section that was destroyed 

The Bangkok river ferries and taxis are a nice and fast way to get around

Back to Bangkok on the bus, a tasty quick meal and few beers with Alice and Nat by the train station, and we jumped onto the overnight sleeper train to the Eastern border town of Ubon Ratchathani,  where we crossed into Laos, and into the town of Pakse.

Thailand has been really interesting. Plenty of posh air conditioned gleaming cars roll around (does everyone polish their new alloy wheels every day???), but also you'll see as many wooden street carts and old school one man barber shop stools or noodle stands. Coming from India though, it was like stepping forward 20 years in time, but a lot of what made India exciting and surprising is a bit harder to find here.  I should also say that the people in Thailand (anyone you meet seemingly) are the happiest, most helpful, patient and generally best natured people I think we've ever met.

As I said at the start, we're in Laos now, with 2,000,000 Laos KIP in our pockets and where Laura will pick up the next post....




Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Thai New Year

Happy new year! We hope you had a good one wherever you were :-) Our first post of 2012, we better make it a good one...unfortunately you have to put up with my ramblings again as John's having a small dose of 'writers block'.

Over the past couple of weeks we've gradually headed up the west coast of Thailand, stopping off at various islands and beaches along the way. I'd like to say we've been super busy filling our days with endless action, but no, we've pretty much done nothing the whole time. It's been absolute bliss though, & has felt like a real 'holiday' if you know what I mean.

Christmas day was spent on Koh Lanta, where we tried to make things festive by making a stocking out of an old pair of trousers & swapping a few gifts.  John peaked in the Christmas shopping department by getting me a fake student card complete with photograph from Bangkok, genius!  It didn't quite feel like Christmas what with swimming in the sea & eating mangoes on the beach, but that said we had a great day & spent most of it zipping about the island on 2 wheels.

Our last moment's in Koh Lanta weren't so great though, and as we were waiting for a taxi to the pier, a 4x4 pick-up truck with a bunch of people & their luggage in the back ran over John's rucksack....a loud bang saw the colour run out of John's face as he envisioned his mangled computer underneath. Fortunately it was just his plastic soap box, a tin of sardines (that he still managed to eat) and the contents of his washbag that were sacrificed under the heavy load, thank goodness.

After a few rest days on Koh Lanta, we headed up the coast & treated ourselves to a day's snorkelling in the stunning Similan Islands National Park. I've been snorkelling a few times before but never tried diving, so when the opportunity came up to do a beginners dive without needing the relevant PADI qualification I jumped at the chance. It was great to try but lets just say I didn't exactly take to it like a duck to water.  I spent the afternoon snorkelling instead though which was great fun & the boat we were on was lovely, with an endless supply of food that kept John happy for the day. Unfortunately both of us were temporarily overcome with sea sickness, me on the boat & John as he bobbed along on the waters surface in his mask & fins. Luckily it went unnoticed by the group he was snorkelling with. Apparently snorkelling is much harder for people with facial hair & he had to stop every couple of minutes to empty out the water that his moustache had gradually allowed into his face mask.

Our next stop was the beautiful Koh Phayam, a small island off the west coast of Thailand with just a handful of resorts and restaurants. We've been here ever since & it really feels like the ideal island retreat. Our bamboo bungalow is a stone's throw from the white sandy beach and clear blue sea.

New Years Eve was spent on the beach with fireworks, bonfires and dancing until the early hours. A great way to see in what promises to be a great year.

Next stop Bangkok, where word on the street is that there are a couple of knitting shops and a knitting cafe!  YES!!!x