Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Original Pirate Material

As I write this I’m sitting at the window of an apartment in San Francisco, on a warm Sunday afternoon watching people head in and out of the Italian CafĂ© and Dry Cleaners across the street. The kerbs are populated with large shiny 4x4s and family estates. I can hear two local women chatting about thier hair and a hip replacement on the pavement down below, backed by the soundtrack of ranting Pharmaceutical adverts on TV and an occasional police siren peeling out. The internet works properly. Right now, I couldn’t be further from Indonesia, geographically and metaphorically.

It’s been nearly been nearly two months since we left Indonesia, and although it seems like a hell of a lot longer, it still feels vividly fresh. In all we were only there for one month (Visa limitation…) but we saw and did so much in that time it really felt like double that.

Indonesia is, frankly, massive. You would need a very long time to see all of it properly. It’s hugely spread out, spanning thousands of miles from the Western tip of Sumatra to its most Easterly point in Papua, bordering New Guinea. No country anywhere in the world is so disjointed. Large expanses of water separating the islands mean whole communities have basically incubated in isolation from each other and most people are simply too poor to travel, so you end up with what really feels like lots of smaller individual countries rather than one big one. It makes for fascinating travel.

Bali, and some partying was the first stop. After the restrained civilization of Malaysia it was perfect. Neither of us really knew much about it other than its reputation as a package holiday hotspot so we were both really surprised at just how much we liked it. We had arranged to meet friends Spud and Katherine in Kuta, the islands main resort and party town in the South, literally a few miles from the airport. Kuta basically seems to be like Ibiza town for Australians. It is a seriously crazy place; a maze of streets lined with clubs, bars, shops, restaurants and tattoo parlours. The traffic is ridiculous and comprised mainly of bleach-haired surfers on mopeds with boards strapped to their bikes, and locals driving the wrong way down the pavements. Pedestrians have no rights. Children and old people equal double points.

Usually this sort of place would send me running rapidly in the other direction – but I have to admit I liked it. It’s tacky and noisy and full of tourists on the rampage, but its undeniably good fun for a few days. Decent food is everywhere (and stupidly cheap), and you can get average accommodation for a tenner a night. Or a lot less if you’re not too bothered about frills. We spent a couple of nights just eating out and hitting the bars, and then hired some mopeds to do some exploring.

Trying to drive a moped around the towns Bali is basically a real life version of Wacky Races, except with worse drivers and weirder looking characters. Three lane highways become six lane death-races, nobody signals, and everyone is trying to get where they are going as fast as possible. They are total loons. It was worth it though. Once you get out of town and start to head down the coast it’s a whole different island; Bali has got some incredible beaches. The sort that make you say WOW when you see them. I have no idea why anyone would want to stay in the same resort for two weeks there when there are so many places to explore. Over the course of the next few days we spent a lot of time on the bikes, avoiding bent police trying extort tourists (“there’s one! Floor it!!), and getting wildly lost in country roads. We found some amazing spots including Ulawatu beach, home to one of Bali’s most famous surf breaks - Racetracks, accessed via a tidal cave, and watched some locals ride some of the biggest barrels I’d ever seen.

From Bali we decided to head over to the small neighbouring Island of Nusa Lembongan, which takes about an hour and a half by long tail boat. If you’re going to Bali, you really have to come here. It is stunning. There no cars on the island at all – just pushbikes, a few vintage flatbeds and some locals hiring mopeds out - other than that it’s basically a rural village on an island. The islanders themselves are almost exclusively Balinese Hindu and make their living from cultivating seaweed and drying it in big colourful piles all over the island. Being a small offshore community, fish is also one of the main methods of subsistence, and it’s easy to get basic but tasty food.

We grabbed a couple of bikes from an old guy round the corner from us, and spent a few days battling steep hills on our hairdryer mopeds (often rolling down them the wrong way…) and bombing around in the blazing sun trying to find some of the hidden beaches on the island – which is easier said than done. We could see some of them from various vantage points, but finding the tiny tracks that lead down to them took some detective work. As with Bali they were worth it – pristine white sand, crystal clear water and some occasional decent surf too.

We’d only been in Indonesia for a week or so but were already completely falling for it. Compared to Thailand it felt like an undiscovered gem – we had whole beaches to ourselves some days and some spectacular views. From Nusa Lembongan it was easy to see just how volcanic Bali actually is – the huge cone of Mount Agung on the island looms high over the Badung Straight between the islands, and nowhere was this more impressive than at 5am just after sunrise when we chartered a boat with a local fisherman and went trolling for Tuna. Watching the colours bleed through the mist over the glassy morning sea, revealing the vast volcano is one of the more magical starts to a day I can remember.

It seemed like every other boat but us had caught that morning, so we gave in and drifted off the reef and snorkelled instead, which was spectacular – we saw some huge parrot fish, massive dome-headed Trevally and shoals of all sorts marine life that were new to all of us. When we got back to shore we were given a fresh five pound tuna by a friend of the fisherman, who told us to head down to his brothers for lunch in a few hours where he’d cook it for us. As Spud pointed out a fresh tuna like that would cost an arm and a leg in a decent restaurant back home. We got eight good steaks out of it and he only charged us about a tenner each for the fishing and snorkelling – crazy. I can’t imagine eating fish any fresher than that.

After an idyllic few days of lounging on quiet beaches, biking all over the island, dining on super fresh seafood and home-made Arak, we decided to head to the Gili Islands. Now we hadn’t realised this, but there is basically no cheap way to get to the Gilis which lie East of Bali, other than paying an extortive price for the one direct boat that leaves every day. It’s a speedboat and takes one and a half hours. The other option is a combination of about 4 boats and 4 buses and takes eighteen hours. There wasn’t really any choice. We would discover later getting around in the more rural parts of Indonesia is not exactly easy. As it happened the boat was great fun – we climbed on the roof and sat and ate fruit and drank cold lager while bouncing at 60mph across the waves…see the pictures for Club Tropicana action…

If Nusa Lembongan seemed small then the Gillis were tiny. The Gillis are made up of three tiny islands off the coast of Lombok and have no cars or mopeds, just horses and carts and pushbikes. They seem to have acquired a bit of a legendary status on the travel circuit, we had met quite a few people who’d been, and while it’s clear that these tiny islands have felt the impact of commercialisation they haven’t lost their appeal. You can still find some decent accommodation at a homestay in the backstreets of the village. If you’re a heavy sleeper you get free five AM wakeup calls too from the muezzin at the mosque next door, which gets all the roosters, dogs and donkeys going mental! Cheers Allah!

The bulk of the week or so we spent on the Gili Islands was spent on Gili Trawangan, the larger of the three islands. Along with snorkelling with Turtles and spending too much time in the bar, Spud and I went fishing with the locals off the pier, and got totally shown up by cheeky six year olds catching Barracuda with hand lines, while we caught sod all with our rods. Our egos were badly bruised. We did the only thing we could to make ourselves feel better. Dress up as pirates and go to a pirate party. To be honest it was a bit concerning that we’d managed to put together some pretty convincing outfits using only the contents of our rucksacks, but by now after eight and a half months on the road with the same clothes we were probably actually starting to resemble pirates anyway…

Sammies birthday was spent on Gili Air – the smallest of the three islands where we managed to get a surprise cake made. We concocted homemade rum cocktails and ended up trekking through the jungle under a full moon to find a party that didn’t seem to exist -but found a jazz bar in the middle of nowhere instead – very weird. Bu at least it wasn’t an Irish Theme Bar. Or playing Bob Marley.

From Gili Air we said goodbye to Spud and Katherine - they were heading back to Bali for some more surfing before heading onto Sumatra. We were going to Lombok for a few days, to climb Mount Rinjani - the second highest Volcano in Indonesia at just over twelve thousand feet. It was going to be a pretty sizable trek, taking 3 nights but it looked immense. We had found a guide and negotiated the price, and then both contracted conjunctivitis. Winner. The doctor told us categorically that we should not be climbing any volcanoes for a good few days. Added to this there was some nasty weather headed for Lombok, and with a real risk of heavy mud flows on the way up, Rinjani was now out. So, we spent a couple of days there before catching the slow ferry back to Bali where we would head East for Java and try again to see if we could find ourselves another volcano to scale. If my GCSE Geography served me rightly, they had a few...

View our pics here:

Bali, Nusa Lembongan, The Gili Islands & Lombok

Saturday, 14 August 2010

All the way down

Malaysia, according to its tourist boards extremely well funded and omnipresent ad campaign, is "Truly Asia". Throughout the whole of our trip, from India to Vietnam, from Cambodia to Thailand we'd been bombarded with almost military efficiency with this catchy and annoying slogan. Frankly though, having now seen quite a lot of South East Asia I had no idea what being "Truly Asia" could possibly mean. It would be like saying "Truly European". The English are as different from the Italians as the Vietnamese are from Thais. But then what are marketing campaigns anyway if not attempts to capsulate and reduce a range of ideas, images and understandings into one simple concept that's easy for the masses to digest? I had become, and continue to be fascinated with the process of "packaging" of countries for wholesale marketing to a foreign consumer, and just how different the reality really is.

One of the pleasures of travelling over land, making your way across borders on foot, by bus and boat is the noticing the nuanced change in environment as you enter new territory. Sometimes the differences are barely perceptible, like heading up the Mekong River from Vietnam into Cambodia - the landscape is practically the same; rural, poor and burnt looking. The same birds circle your boat and the same fish are hauled from the river. Soon gone are the conical hats of the Vietnamese, but otherwise it would be hard to tell you've crossed a border. It its not like that entering Malaysia.

Considering Malaysia and Thailand share a border they could not be more different. Checking in at immigration is akin to being transferred from the underfunded local comprehensive to the big expensive Private School down the road. Everything is kept smart and tidy, nobody runs in the corridors, the school buses arrive on time, all the kids are well dressed and polite, no-body's smoking pot behind the bike sheds and the likelihood is they've all got parents with a bit of cash. It feels more civilized from the outset; most notably due to the fact they don't drive like total mentalists on weapons-grade PCP. In fact, in the first taxi we took from the port, the driver practically crawled along like he was ambling round the Cotswolds on a Sunday afternoon. The law there apparently seems to mean something. There is obviously a healthy respect for your own and your passengers lives! Which is nice.

So, Sam's mum Gill had finally made it over. After a two week delay due to the Ash Cloud of Doom, she had finally been allowed to get board a plane (thanks BA!) and had made it to Thailand. "There's been a bit of a change of plan mum" Sam informed her pretty much as soon as she arrived. Gill had been expecting a beach holiday in Thailand but we were keen to get to Malaysia so she was now hitting the road with us. I'm not entirely sure to start with whether she was convinced this was going to be as much fun as we assured her it would be, but she soon got into the swing of it.

We spent a few days in Ao Nang near Krabi lazing by the pool before grabbing the boat down to Langkawi, just across the Malaysian border. Langkawi is a bit of a strange place; its basically a resort island - full of tourists and holiday makers. The beaches are pristine clean and raked every morning, and the sea is a shockingly clear turqoise blue, but it was hard to discern a sense of Malaysian identity there. There is obviously a strong Indian population as there is Chinese too, but along with this also Arab, Greek and other South East Asian cultures. We would soon learn that this is part of what makes Malaysia the country it is - its mix of people; a real cross pollination of culture which is probably a part of its success.

We spent a couple of days by the beach (way too hot, pushing 40c some days), and took the speed boat around some of the ninety nine islands which make up Langkawi. We swam in a bright green hidden inland lagoon on one of the islands Geoparks and saw dozens of impressive Sea Eagles feeding on fish off the shores of the island jungles. We took full advantage of the duty free port and sank some decent bottles of European wine - the first time in a while for me and Sam!

From Langkawi it was then South to Penang, Malaysia's most prominent Island on the West Coast and a hotbed of culinary delights. Almost immediately on arriving we bumped into fountain-of-local-knowledge, Mr Alfred, in an Indian canteen, who insisted we meet him for dinner at the Red Garden food court that evening, which he assured us was the best place to eat and where all the locals go. He wasn't wrong - pretty much any type of Asian food you could want was available. And there was a band. And loads of old locals dancing too - some real characters and they all took it very seriously. It was brilliant. We ordered lots of little plates of all sorts of things - I was particularly happy as had half a dozen superb Oysters and half bottle of Saki all to myself, a rare treat and not half as expensive as you would think.

We spent a few days in Penang, mostly eating out (what a surprise) and doing the tourist thing. As a city there isn't actually that much to do in Penang; it's built up with some nice parks and temples and some pockets of history and culture that are worth seeing, but the real winner is the food. And it was worth going for that alone.

Although being an island, Penang is connected by a bridge to the mainland, so we grabbed the bus down to KL along one if its super smooth highways, cutting through some of the most pristine, dense and verdant looking rain forest imaginable. We hadn't had time to visit Teman Negara or the the Cameron Highlands, but by the look of the vast jungle stretching out from the road they would have been something very impressive.

Having worked closely with property investment in KL over the last several years and knowing stacks about it on paper, I was really interested to see the city first hand. As a developed and sophisticated metropolis its certainly not the cheapest place to stay (great if you're talking rental yields, not so great if you're budget travelling!), so we headed to Chinatown. Pretty much like every Chinatown everywhere, it was chaotic, full of decent street grub (Claypot Chicken Rice is very tasty....) and loaded with fake knockoffs - KL's speciality seems to be counterfiet watches, of which there are thousands.

We only had a few days to see the city, so grabbed the hop-on, hop-off bus, London touron style - which took us all over the place. There are a LOT of skyscrapers in KL . Development is absolutely rife, but the demand is there clearly. This is now an affluent country with a young and very aspirational populous who seem to be hungry for the luxury lifestyle - kids seem to shop non-stop (no doubt on thier parents credit cards) and the shopping is endless. Some of the malls are so vast they seem to go on for ever. Berjaya Mall is so large it actually has its own Theme Park on the upper three levels with a giant roller coaster, and unlike Bangkok, the shops do actually sell things you do want to buy. A warning, however; do not go in to Petronas Mall unless you happen to be earning a six figure salary - it will just depress you - particularly if you have been wearing the same pair of beat up jeans for the last several months.

Escaping the urban sprawl, we headed further South to Malacca. With Gill only having two weeks we wanted to see some more of the country and its culture, and Malacca was a town steeped in tradition. The main part of the old town is a UNESCO heritage site, and having visited a few of these round Asia we had come to know what this entails - they're almost always very pretty with lots of old well preserved facades, winding streets and quaint shops selling arty stuff. As a result, once the initial charm has worn off they can appear a little vapid and model town-like, but there was enough to see in Malacca to keep us interested for a few days, plus, we had the pleasure of staying in the smartest boutique (in the correct use of the word in this case!) hotel we'd stayed in since being away - the Hotel Puri (http://www.hotelpuri.com/), courtesy of Gill.

Part of the charm of Malacca is its diverse heritage. At various points in its history it has been occupied by the Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British, resulting in a broad range of culture and people - to some extent its a microcosm of Malaysia really. Its also produced a stylised cuisine called Nyonya Baba which we tried a few times, with mixed results - we all agreed that Penang was leagues ahead on the food front, but you never know unless you try. We took a river boat and saw some of the huge Monitor Lizards that live in Malacca's river systems, and wandered through some of the old Buddhist temples where they burn so much incense you leave half blind, reeking of sandalwood. We escaped the scorching afternoon heat with some traditional Chinese tea and hospitality in the leafy courtyard of an old house. We sat and read books and drank cocktails and played some cards in the evenings, and generally took it pretty easy.

With Gills trip coming to an end we headed back to KL and to the Airport, where the girls said a teary goodbye. It had been a really enjoyable two weeks. Our next stop was Indonesia. Since flying into Hanoi over three hot and sweaty months before, we had made it overland South through the whole of Vietnam to the mighty Mekong Delta, up through Cambodia and into wild Laos, across the border West almost reaching Burma and then down through Thailand in its full summer heat - traveling (sometimes crashing) only by bus, train, moped, rickshaw and boat all the way to the South of Malaysia. It felt pretty good. We had originally planned to head next to Malaysian Borneo, but having spoken to various new friends along the way, the general consensus was that we could experience a lot more in Indonesia. The Orangutans would have to wait.

We considered getting the slow freight boat from Malacca to Northern Sumatra and heading South from there, but a sizable earthquake of 7.2 had just hit Banda Aceh, pretty much where we would dock, so that put us right off that idea. After weighing up various options and costs we booked a flight to Bali from KL. Cornish Partners in Crime Spud and Katherine from Ko Phangan were there doing some surfing and having a great time, so it seemed like as good a plan as any.

We had just a few days to kill in KL so looked up an old client of mine, Mike, and his partner Trish who were now living in the city and had kindly offered to put us up for the night. It was good to catch up, swap stories and get the insiders view on life there. It seems to me while Malaysia might not be the wildest of all the South East Asian nations it certainly has the best quality of life - its a smart, comfortable and extremely diverse place with some stunning countryside, great food and beaches and a strong respect for its past while being solidly forward thinking. People there seem pretty contended in the main. I still hadn't worked out what "Truly Asia" meant yet, but frankly, with half a dozen Oysters and a bottle of Saki costing less than a tenner, I no longer cared.

View our pics here:
Malaysia - Langkawi, Penang, KL & Malacca

Sunday, 25 July 2010

I predict a riot

"Time flies when you're having fun". A truism indeed. As a few observant friends have recently pointed out, Traveloysausage is running just a wee bit behind schedule. You might ask yourself why that is and assert correctly that neither of us have nine-to-fives this year, and are in effect living the dream with nothing more to do than whatever takes our fancy on any given day. BUT, let me assure you that this travelling business is hard work. Your day fills very quickly. Even if you've got a full laminated itinerary of wholesome activities lined up in whatever fascinating/beautiful/oddball locale you've found yourself in, morning rapidly turns into lunch (which we all know is vital to eat properly) and the afternoon disappears even faster, leaving you wondering where the day went. Before you know it it's half five, the sun is sinking drowsily toward the horizon and someones telling you they know a great bar down the road with ice cold beer and some damn fine chicken satay. And there goes your plan to spend an hour bashing out a bit of blog back at the hotel cafe. There is nothing you can do. Believe me I've tried - it's like fighting gravity. I never was very good at getting my homework in on time anyway...

So, this segues nicely into the next bit of our travelogue - Southern Thailand. On the whole, I've tried to to cover our movements reasonably comprehensively, sometimes missing chunks out and sometimes getting a case of of verbal diarrhoea about nothing in particular, and while you obviously can't include everything (and wouldn't want to in many cases), I don't really like missing whole places out - there is something interesting to be found just about everywhere if you take the time to look properly. Having said that, I'm now going to do exactly the opposite and skim over Southern Thailand - we spent over a month there and it was to all intents an purposes, a beach holiday. As I've said before nobody wants to read gushing word for word write-ups on other peoples extended sun-soaked sojourns on the beach - it's usually raining back home at the time of reading and only leads to resentment, and frankly it makes fairly banal subject matter for travel writing. Whats the point of writing about something that's already pretty much familiar to everyone?

From a travelers perspective Thailand can roughly be split up into two parts, the North being the head and home to the more cultural and "spiritual" side of the country and the Southern Islands - well, they're the bits below the belt if you will - the party end - not particularly cerebral and where most of the fun and naughtiness happen. This is almost always where everybody wants to go. This is the fabled holiday Nirvana.

The image of Thailand that one conjures up more readily than any other is nearly always an amalgamation of the following; a white sand beach, turquoise water, lush green flora-coated karsts rising majestically from the sea. A healthy looking woman with a golden tan reclines on a sunbed under a row of pristine palm trees while sipping on a meal-in-a-glass size cocktail. It all looks ridiculously exotic. If you think about it, it is a triumph of marketing really. Its a nation-brand so ingrained in the psyche of potential holiday-makers that barely a thing has to be done to get people to go, except print pictures of the place and stick an attractive price tag on it. What Westerners want more than anything else from a holiday are these things, and Thailand has all of them in spades.

Its hard to say why we felt the way we did about the Southern half of Thailand, but there was a palpable sense of something missing for both of us. On paper it ticks all the boxes. The North had blown us away with its kind people, creative food and stunning countryside, but as we headed South you sensed a country that had sold out.

Capitalism is clearly the new religion and it seems the stunning natural beauty of the islands have largely been turned into cash registers for savvy local entrepreneurs. This business clearly only works for some of the populous however. Thai people will you tell time and again they've never been occupied like their neighbours and they wear this badge of independence proudly - you only have to take one look at Bangkoks high-rise skyline to see that it's become a sizable player in the emerging economies of South East Asia, but, to utilise the cliche, there's trouble in paradise - the country has some fundamental political and ideological issues that seem largely unsolvable.

Tourism has been the backbone of Thailands growth over the last few decades - largely because it's lucky enough to have some of the most stunning natural coastline and islands in South East Asia, but if they continue with the problems of the last year they will scare off their key source of income and probably also a lot of foreign investment - a lot of the  locals and ex-pats we spole to were becoming quite concerned about this. As a package holiday destination Thailand has also had success because it's widely percieved as the exotic "safe" choice in South East Asia - no recent history of communism and bloody massacres, relatively decent infrastructure - just the right balance of the known and the unknown. It's hard to tell whether the shootings of dozens of protesters and civilians in the riots this year will have an impact on this. The likely outcome, if any, will be a dip in the high-end luxury market, as this is the demographic that's most concerned with security. I doubt if it will stop budget travellers going at all. Unfortunately as ministers for travel/tourism well know, its short term, high income, holiday makers that spend the real cash.

Perhaps in retrospect being in Thailand for almost the full duration of a major political crisis had given us a slightly jaded view of the country. There is something a little perverse about being in a city where you can be eating and chatting on a noisy street, everyone all smiles and just one block over a few thousand people stand Red Shirted in camps watching angry demos bemoaning the corruption of their government. This sort of proximity would not happen back home. Its hard to tell whether the government, worried about affecting tourism were afraid of making more out of it, or whether the tourists, just happy to be tanking back cheap lager and buying cheap t-shirts, just didn't give a shit. I suspect a bit of both. Nobody wants to think about politics on holiday do they?

Anyhow, we spent six nights in Bangkok. It is everything everyone says it is: busy, seedy, dirty, noisy and exciting - a full on assault on the senses. We liked it, as we have done most of the big brash cities of Asia. At times it can be an overwhelming place; the heady scent of street kitchens and cheap perfume mixed with exaust fumes, the barrage of non-stop banter from street vendors and car horns and shouting, drunken kids getting their hair dreaded on the side of the street, flashing neon that fills your eyes and the grim buzzing of tattooists needles. The heat is unbearable. The food is spicy. Everybody wants your money. It is an intoxicating and vulgar place all at the same time; crass and sleazy feeling with vast shopping centres that go on forever, but don't sell anything you would actually want to buy.

Looking back now its hard to separate one day from another, they all seem to meld into one hot sticky mess. By chance friends from home Matt and Lucy happened to be crossing paths with us while on a visa mission from India, and so the inevitable happened - "a bit of a catchup" turned into a Bangkok Bender of epic proportions, starting with a beer fulled dinner on one of the excellent street food stalls on Rambutri, with a Jewish Hungarian version of Eric Clapton (who lived in Spain) giving us a mini lecture on Chorizo, and moving onto various dens of iniquity before heading off to see one of the city's notorious ping-pong shows. We arrived however to be told we had missed the show, but were invited in anyway and spent the next hour drinking overpriced beer in a brothel. When in Rome. A bit of impromptu al-fresco dancing to the Beegees was also involved at a later stage, but I'll spare everyone the details on that..

So, Bangkok chewed us up and spat us out, and we left for the islands which were to be our home for the next month. First we hit Ko Samui, which was ok - nice be be back on the beach etc. but on the whole pretty dull. We just didn't get the appeal. We left for Ko Phangan after three days which was a vast improvement - a prettier island with better beaches and we had the added bonus of staying at a great little place (http://www.cocogardens.com/) on Ban Tai Beach run by two guys from Jersey who deserve some sort of award for successfully managing run a tight ship while spending most of their days at the beach bar out-drinking the guests. Respect also goes out to the only monk-turned-barman we've ever met, Lak for keeping us in cold Singhas, cocktails, and nuggets of wisdom. Buddha would most definitely approve.

Phangan is known for its Full Moon Parties and is essentially marketed as a party island. Half the kids on the boat trip over looked like un-reconstructed versions of Nathan Barley and we pretty much decided then that where ever they were going, we weren't. We considered doing one of the full moon parties but pretty much most people we spoke to said "don't bother, they tend to be full of idiots" (see boat over) so we gave it a miss. Sam's words were "you know you'll only end up complaining that the music's crap and that trance is for morons and end up wanting to slap some trustafarian trying to stick a bindi on you...". Probably true. The fact that there were also likely to be about two hundred amateurs doing the worlds most annoying hobby - Poi (look it up...) was enough to put me off.

We did however do a few of the smaller parties and had some comedy nights out in Phangan. You can't fail to enjoy yourself when you're drinking in a bar called Fanny 2 really. By far the most entertaining thing about our stay on Phangan though was Songkran - Thai New Year - without doubt one of the craziest days you can imagine. New year across Thailand is celebrated by chucking water over each other at every possible opportunity. There is obviously a cultural significance behind the ritual, but its now mainly just a chance to go mental and drench your next door neighbours with ice cold water shot at high pressure from a giant supersoaker. No-body is immune, and in the scorching midday heat it feels fantastic.

By the time we'd made it into town we were all wet through and had abandoned our puny plastic Taiwanese water pistols for buckets in an attempt to fight the locals at their own game more effectively (it didn't work). Traffic in the town centre was at a standstill and had been diverted so a couple of fire engines could roll through and blast the crowds. Shops had vast sound systems set up in their doorways belting out throbbing house and Samsong Rum and Chang Beer were being downed in large quantities. It was totally crazy. I cant remember a day when I've seen so many people of all ages interacting and having such a good time. This was our third new year of 2010. Not bad going. Sadly we only have a few pictures - a shame cameras and water don't mix.

From Ko Phangan we moved onto Krabi and Railay where we continued our hectic lifestyle of morning swims, book filled afternoons and balmy evenings dining on endless Thai food. Both were utterly picturesque  with good beaches, but very much family holiday territory. By chance we bumped into partners in crime from our adventures in Laos - Ben, Beth, Luke and Polly and after a bit of haggling with a local fisherman had ourselves a longtail boat for the day. Nine hours, plenty of squid and fish (and a few jellyfish) later we headed back to land sunburned but happy. Our last stops were the island of Ko Lanta and Ao Nang where we all met up again for more of the same.

Although we'd had fun in Thailand, we were getting itchy feet and keen to move on. There is only so much laying on the beach and Bob Marley one can take. We had started to feel like tourists amongst the rest of the Dan Brown-reading middle aged Europeans cooking slowly like lobsters on the shore. As a shorter break it does exactly what it says on the tin but it felt a little two dimensional, a little too packaged and devoid of the depth of culture and magical surprises that we'd got used to travelling India to Laos. I guess we'd been spoiled.

Things had also started to get pretty bad politically by now. Thailand was the headline news across the world. There had been two days of full-on riots and shootings in Bangkok and a spiralling death toll including non-protest civilians and a journalist. Army presence had been ramped up and the CBD we'd shopped in only a few weeks ago sealed off. Rubber bullets had now been upgraded to live ammo and there were buses being stopped and boarded by armed Red Shirt groups in the outer provinces. The British foreign office had issued an official warning to UK citizens encouraging only essential travel to Thailand. It had all started to get a bit dodgy.

...But we weren't going anywhere just yet. Oh no! With timing perfect as ever, Sams mum Gill was due to arrive for her two week holiday. There was just the additional minor problem of a giant Volcanic-Ash-Doom-Cloud back home interfering with half of Europes flight schedules. Some things you just can't make up...

View our pics here:
Bangkok, South Thailand and the Islands...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Soul Kitchen

If there's one thing guaranteed to put a smile on Sammies face it's Thai food. Our first proper date was in a Thai restaurant and if we're too tired too cook after work then it's more often than not Thai that ends up on the menu. So, as you can imagine there was more than a little excitement about finally arriving in Thailand and heading for our first stop - Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of the the North and home reputedly to the nations finest and most authentic cooking.

Heading into Thailand from Laos had taken us a little longer than we'd planned. The proposed twelve hour bus journey from Luang Prabang to the Thai border had turned into a sweaty, sleepless and increasingly surreal twenty six hour slog involving a broken down coach, numerous changes of grumpy drivers, a distressed puppy rescued from an airtight box in the baggage hold, some overly aggressive border staff and a few mad dashes for connections, so we were fairly relieved when we finally made it to our hotel located on a small Soi near Tapae Gate. After grabbing a well needed shower and siesta, we got the lowdown from the hotel owner on where to eat and it turned out we didn't have to walk far at all - about twenty yards in fact.

From the first few mouthfuls of superb curry we monstered that afternoon, Sammies mildly concerning infatuation with Thai cuisine mutated into full blown addiction, with red curry soon being eaten for lunch and dinner some days. If there was a Betty Ford Clinic for Thai Curry obsessives then I would have been on the phone tout suite. Things nearly went too far when I found out from a local guy that curry is actually traditionally eaten for lunch and breakfast, as opposed to dinner, but we figured that three a day would probably be pushing it.

Anyway, suffice to say the food in Chiang Mai is very, very good. Thailand is obvioulsy a reasonably developed country though now and while we had expected to see more of the trappings of western society it was still weird to see McDonald's, Burgerkings, branches of Starbucks, Seven Elevens and even Tesco lining the streets, particularly after spending the last few months in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam which are largely devoid of big brands and tacky commercialision, but that's globalisation, and good or bad its an inevitability. Thankfully, Chaing Mai hasn't caved in and sold its soul completely. In fact, if you ignore the chains stores its a very charming place to explore. Cycling around in the city heat we saw more temples than you can shake a stick at and some fascinating old streets and buildings, but where Chiang Mai really comes into its own is the Sunday Night Market.

We'd been told this was pretty special and "quite large", but this turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. Literally from the door of our hotel located down a tiny side street, stalls extended as far as the eye could see, appearing almost miraculously over the course of a few short hours in the afternoon. By the time the sun had set, several thousand artists, craft and food sellers, musicians, hawkers, locals and tourists were packed into the crowed city centre, creating the feel of a street festival. Temples became food courts, symbolic perhaps of a dedication to food as much as religion, and stalls inside served some of the most delicious street grub either of us had ever eaten; home made mini fishcakes with chili jam, marinated BBQ chicken breast on a stick, fried quails eggs, incredible tempura prawns, fried seaweed, squid and octopus satays, spiced omelet in banana leaf, fish curries, papaya salads, sesame pancakes, a rainbow of amazing fresh sushi and too many other mouthwatering things to mention. This is the sort of food you can only fantasise about getting in a Thai restaurant back home, and when you're done wandering the sreets you can grab a beer and get a half hour foot massage right on the side of the pavement for less than the cost of a Big Mac...

Having spent a few days checking out the city, taking in an entertaining night at the Muay Thai Kickboxing and eating pretty much everything in sight, we decided it was time to go get ourselves an education. There are some excellent cooking schools in Chaing Mai and after a bit of research and asking around we found ourselves a well-recommended school for an afternoon class (Asia Scenic), which also turned out to be about fifty yards from our hotel (we were clearly staying on the right street!). From a large list of dishes we could select the ones we wanted to make, and once we'd made our decision as a group we spent half an hour in the herb garden learning about the various flavours that make up the distinctive taste of Thai food and how to use them properly. It was then off to the local market to buy the rest of the ingredients.

We opted for the classics figuring that these would give a better all round understanding, and between us we made fresh Spring Rolls, Papaya salad, Red Curry, Massaman Curry, Cashew Chicken, Tom Sab soup and Tom Yum. Learning how to make the pastes for the curry from scratch was probably the most enlightening part and thankfully everything turned out really well. The surprising thing is that its not actually that difficult to make good Thai food at all; the trick, much like most good cooking is balancing the ingredients and making sure they're super fresh and high quality, which is probably a little easier in Chaing Mai than Oxford.

Our next stop was Pai, North West of Chaing Mai near the Burmese Border. On the drive up we encountered probably the best example yet of managing to get totally and completely fucking lost. Pulling into a little service station on a steep mountain road halfway to Pai, one of the three bubbly Swedish girls who were in our mini-van asked "how far is the town from the beach please?" to which everyone looked at each other with some confusion and responded "what beach?", "the beach! The town is on an island yes!".

....Now, I'm not sure how these girls manage to cross the road on their own or even why their parents actually let them out of their local neighbourhood without a minder, but it doesn't take a genius to realise that a town sitting at altitude, ringed by mountains on the Thai/Burmese border, several hundred miles inland is neither going to be on an island or have a beach (unless you're in Laos that is...). After a bit of explanation about the fundamentals of geography and map reading by fellow passengers, they realised that they were in fact travelling North and not South, where all the pretty islands with the pretty beaches are. They stayed one night in Pai and the following morning made the long journey down to Southern Thailand. Or maybe Central China. Who knows. Either way they probably should have given Pai a bit more of a chance, as although it does have a striking of lack of beach, its not a bad place to spend a few days.

If you are a hippy and/or enjoy spending large amounts of your time stoned and doing sod all except watching Dragonflies buzz around on the river and talking rubbish with people with massive beards, homemade shoes and knitted woolly hats, then the chances are you'll love Pai. It is the quintessential nouveau hippy-chic town. It's very laid back and has a gentle rural feel to it with a smattering of boutique (ah, that word again...) hotels dotted around. As a result it's easy to meet friendly people and very easy to let days slip away doing nothing, which has its own certain charm, but to be honest you do start to feel like you are slipping into a lower state of conciousness after a while. While we were in Pai we did make some new friends however - Guy, Justin, Sheree and Danielle who we spent a few days kicking back with and exploring the nearby waterfalls. We all decided to head back to Chiang Mai for a few more days of food and fun and couldn't resist hitting the market again before heading south.

So far, travelling through the wilder parts of Asia we had avoided any of the sporadic political flair ups that tend to characterise developing nations, so it was a tad ironic really that now we had reached Thailand, home of the Modern Eastern Package Holiday, that a crisis of sizable proportions was gathering momentum.

Watching the news the night before we left there was increasing tension in Thailand with the political protests in Bangkok. Televised meetings between the two parties in dispute over governance had been on six channels simultaneously in most bars and restaurants all day long, and after two days still they hadn't yet produced a deal. It was looking like the issues created by Red Shirt camps in the city centre weren't going anywhere for the time being and we were heading right into the capital the following morning. Perfect timing.

View our pics here:

Chiang Mai & Pai

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Get your rocks off

Everybody, at some point in their life needs to purchase an Ornamental Samurai Sword, or a Tazer, a Machete, a foot long gas lighter that shines a picture of a naked woman on to walls, or possibly a gas Mask. At least that's you what you'd think looking at the shopping options in Vang Vieng.

There is definitely a direct correlation between how many pissed people there are in a square kilometre and how much utter crap is on sale - and there are a lot of pissed people in Vang Vieng. Probably one of the other main indicators in South East Asia that you are in the vicinity of a dense population of inebriated people, are Beer Vests.

Anybody who's been to South East Asia knows what these are, and for anyone who doesn't, I will explain - no, they are not a clever and novel way of transporting beer around on your person in warm temperatures, they are simply a cheap cotton vest which proudly displays the logo of the most popular beer in the country on the front and back in large letters. In Vietnam it's Saigon Beer, Cambodia it's Angkor, in Thailand it's Chang and Laos its Beer Lao...you get the picture. Basically it conveys to anyone passing this sophisticated message: "I like beer and I am holiday in this country".

Now I don't wish to appear like a grumpy bastard about this (I now own a beer hat, bought for fishing purposes only obviously), but the mass-wearing of Beer Vests does add an element of Zombieishness (is that a word?) to any place where wearers can be found in large herds. They are not unlike football shirts. In fact, close field study of Beer Vest wearers shows behaviour almost identical to the domestic football fan, and leads one to believe that the Beer Vest may in fact be a substitute for a football (also often rugby and American football ) shirt whilst abroad. Other common characteristics also re-enforce this hypothesis. Migration in large, predominantly male groups being an obvious one, a strong desire to fit in at all costs by doing stupid stuff, being sick in flowerbeds and shop doorways, high volume purchasing of aforementioned useless crap and, my particular pet trait favoured by the American breed - Hi-Fiving! Desmond Morris would have a field day.

Anyway, you may have thought this was rapidly turning into a tirade against the moronic behaviour of large groups of Westerners abroad in Asia (Sam can tell you I do have moments when I turn in to my Dad, and tend to get bit vocal about the sheer retardedness of tourists in foreign lands), but I would be a massive hypocrite if I told you we didn't behave like total idiots and enjoy pretty much every minute of our few days in Vang Vieng. It's a bit like going to a theme park - you know its going to be a totally plastic consumer culture experience, full of chavs and you are likely to return home having spent way too much money, but nevertheless once you're in and on the rides, you end up having a ball.

Vang Vieng itself is a smallish town in North East of Laos and lies on a beautiful stretch of the Nam Song River surrounded by hugely impressive limestone karsts. At some point in the last twenty years a farmer must have been changing a tractor tire by the river bank and slipped and fell in to the river with it. After a few moments of intial panic he realised that he was actually having quite a nice time bobbing down the picturesque rapids in the afternoon sunshine, waving to people, and thought, "if only I had about twenty five beers and half a bottle of free Tiger Whisky and some rope swings and a marker pen to draw dumb stuff all over myself, then this would be perfect", and so Tubing in Vang Vieng was born. And yay, the Tourons came in their droves.

I had been told by a friend that Tubing was "about as much fun as you can possibly have", but nothing actually prepares you for the chaos that awaits when you arrive at the first river station. Pulling down a dirt track from the town with the tubes tied to the top of the jeep, you head straight into a massive party on the riverbank where house music is belting out, and a couple of hundred half-naked people are dancing and chatting on a wooden platform with a packed bar loaded with beer and serving free whisky. In front of you is a huge zip-slide swing with people somersaulting off it every thirty seconds and landing practically on top of each other. Looking downstream is a view resembling a Bachanalian version of Neverland - wooden tree house style platforms hang from the banks filled with people partying, while painted kids attempt to lasso tubers with bottles tied to ropes, trying to pull them out of the current and into the bars to join in the carnage. All this set to an almost mythical backdrop of towering mountains and stunning countryside. Like much of Laos, you really couldn't make it up...

Anyway, without going into all the gory details, we had, as expected, one of the funniest and most mental days we've ever had. The pictures below pretty much say it all. I don't think I've ever seen as many grown adults behaving as immaturely or having such a good time. You cannot fail to meet stacks of people on the way down the river too, and by the time we'd reached the final station in the hazy late afternoon sun, we had assembled a small hyperactive tribe with whom who we headed back into town and then on to party early until the next morning at the rammed, notorious Bucket Bar.

In total we were in Vang Vieng for four days, which by the end was enough. There are seemingly only two states in the town, drunk or hungover and its gets a bit repetetive after a while. So, Sam, Sammie and I grabbed a minivan to Luang Prabang, in Central North Laos - a winding but straightforward journey that should have taken six hours or so had we not had a weirdo driver who insisted that he stop three times in the creepiest places possible in the middle of nowhere, because "I very tired now please, sleep sleep". We would have argued, but decided on balance it was probably best not make a tired man who was bad at driving anyway keep going in the dark, along roads that had five hundred foot sheer drops down one side...

If there is an antidote to Vang Vieng, it is Laung Prabang. It's by far one of the most chilled out and serene towns you could imagine. After travelling through the rest of Laos which is ruggedly beautiful but sparse in places, it came as a real surprise - it was far more sophisticated than we expected, with some beautiful shops, restaurants and galleries. The word Boutique (which is now officially used on everything ever) springs to mind, but not in bad way, and although the town has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which can easily turn somewhere into a living museum) it still feels pretty authentic and isn't too over-commercialised.

Much of its charm lies in its location on the banks of two unbelievably picturesque sections of the Mekong and Khan Rivers and its architecture is fascinating too - a combination of Colonial French and the tradional Indonchinese style. Many of the old houses have clearly been bought up by wealthier Asians now and are immaculately decked out inside, and with most people leaving thier doors wide open it's hard not to be nosy...

We spent four days in and around the town - there are plenty of little places with hidden gardens and terraces with views over the Mekong you can hide away for the afternoon with a book and a decent glass of wine (the best of these being the Utopia Bar which is well worth finding if you go). There are also some excellent places to eat (which we did a lot of as usual), many of these in the superb evening market which takes over the main street in the town. You really can pick up some amazing handmade things very cheaply and we both decided we're coming back to do some serious house shopping once we've topped up the bank account and er, have a house...

As far as adventures go Luang Prabang was more civilized and low key than the rest of Laos; we did however do a few trips out of the town - one to the pristine Kuang Si waterfalls which were shockingly blue and and refreshingly cold, and one too the Pak Ou caves which are famous for holding thousands of statues of the Buddha. This actually turned out to be well over hyped and somewhat traumatic. The entire journey down river consisted of the three of us in a small boat with an overly excitable twenty stone American woman who kept going on about Lady Gaga, the X-Factor and Kelly f*cking Clarkson, and a tatoo-covered, seemingly mute Eastern European Neo Nazi who looked like he was ready to murder one of us at any minute. By the time we'd reached the caves we were more terrified of the American woman than we were of the Neo Nazi.

Climbing two hundred steps to stare at a load of old Buddhas for half an hour did little to help too, and things only got worse when we re-boarded and the American Nightmare nearly capsized the boat. She then gave us all a ten minute lecture about why should couldn't make it up the steps (Hockey injury my arse), and promptly proceeded to grab my hand and plant it firmly on her bare sweaty varicose knee, stating "Can you feel it?! That's my knee cap honey, it's totally detached!". Its not often I am speechless, but this was definately one of those times. It certainly made me wonder what the hell had happened to the Neo Nazi before we got on the boat anyway...
View our pics here:
Vang Vieng

Luang Prabang

Sunday, 20 June 2010


Both of us would admit that we knew very little about Laos before we arrived. It's one of those countries which occupies a more mysterious place in South East Asia, being a little more obscure in terms of a cultural identity compared with its more high-profile neighbours China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. With borders closed to foreigners until the nineties it's still a land relatively new to tourism too and as a result still feels pretty wild, but we'd heard nothing but good things about the place and its people.

Arriving after what had been a wierd last few days in Cambodia, we headed for Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the Champasak Province - the legendary inland delta where the upper Mekong flows so wide that large inhabitable islands have been forged, some with villages on them and (four with electricity). For the majority of our trip so far we'd had a guide book with us for general info, but for Laos we hadn't had the chance as the last town we had been to had turned out to be devoid of shops selling anything useful, so we really didn't have any idea what to expect or really where the hell we were heading.

Once we had reached the end of our bus journey we were taken down to small longboats on the river which ferried us through the channels to the islands. Along with our new friend Sam from Essex who we'd met on the bus out of Cambodia we'd decided to stay on Don Dhet, which from the info we could gather had the best options for accommodation. Probably the best way to describe the small island which we were staying on would be medieval. It looked like the set of Robin Hoods Adventures in Asia - pigs, chickens, ducks and children wandered around a dusty village set along the bank of the river. Men and women fished, bathed and cleaned their clothes in the water as small boats floated past. There were no cars, just bicycles, and the odd moped (mainly ridden by six year old kids). Our huts were little more than wood panels nailed to four uprights and cost us about two pounds per night, but as locations go there are few five star hotels in the world that could match the magic of staying on that island. We all fell instantly in love with the place.

The next four days were some of the best we'd had while travelling - there is something totally liberating about being in a place that wild and far removed from the rest of the world, about being able to walk around shoeless and swim in clean river water, that you forget almost everything about home. Being on an island, we quickly met a bunch of guys in the bar near us too who we spent the evenings chatting, drinking arguing and listening to a lot of ACDC with. On a couple of afternoons we all headed out on bicycles to explore the island and its neighbour Don Khon which was genuinely one of the strangest and most beautiful places you can imagine. Around every corner would be something else that would litteraly make you stop in your tracks; the grail being an incredible thundering waterfall leading down to a secluded gorge with its own hidden inland beach. All of us were soaked from cycling in the heat so took at dip, only to find the water full of Doctor Fish (the tiny helpful fish that swim up to you and nibble dry skin from your feet). Sounds grim but, actually quite an interesting experience once you've realised its not a school of Pirhana trying to eat you...

It was tough to leave Don Dhet; I can imagine few places as idyllic. Several people we met were staying on and had either started to run up bills at the bar or shop or made the trek over the the mainland to get more money, and we could have easily done the same, but along with Sam, we made the decision to say goodbye and head north and see some more of the country. From the mainland we took a bus to Pakse, then the sleeper coach to Vientiane, Laos' capital. Yet again Asia's comedy armada of transport didn't fail to amuse, with our "sleeper" seats being basically a massive mattress at the back of the bus. Cosy.

There isn't really much reason to head to Vientiane if you don't need to; as a capital city it's not particularly inspiring and not particularly cheap either for S.E Asia. We had gone there however to organise our visas for Thailand. It's possible to obtain these at the border but they're only valid for fifteen days, so that meant a couple of early starts waiting outside the Embassy at seven AM along with three hundred other tourists, business people and expats. As usual, it was chaos. The rules regarding application had apparently changed a week or so before but the Thai consulate hadn't bothered update their website. Things got more entertaining still when some overly vocal Vietnam Vet from Brooklyn in the queue decided to get more than a little bit sexist and patronising with the wrong woman - Sam - and ended up getting a full on dressing down in front of the whole crowd. The guy may well have been spent two years in the jungle fighting the Vietcong, but he was definitely no match for a pissed-off Essex Girl.

Visas sorted, we had a night left before we were due to move on. Luckily, David and Zuzana, a couple we'd spent some time with in Goa in India were in town, so we met at a French Restaurant for some food and a catchup - the last civilized evening for a few days as the next stop was Laos' own Disney Land for grown ups - Vang Vieng...

View our pics here:

Southern Laos - 4000 Islands & Vientiane

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Road to Nowhere

I am crap at gambling. It's well known amongst my family and friends. The limit of my gambling ability stretches mostly to the odd after dinner game of Newmarket played with two pence pieces, matchsticks or Lego. Whilst I have been known to enjoy taking things to excess once in a while there is absolutely no chance of me ever becoming addicted to gambling, simply because I am so bad at it. My own Grandmother, even in her now less than sharpened state of awareness (and 90 this year bless her!) could probably still take me at a game of Pontoon. I have, however, always held a sneaking admiration for high-roller gambling and those that throw themselves at the card table like their life depended on it.

Clearly, in the real world most gambling is nothing like the smoky backroom poker thrills of The Sting or the edgy broken-romance of The Hustler; it is almost always half cut punters lobbing a fiver on a weekend Premiership match, or rolly-smoking middle-aged divorcees glued to the 3.45 at Chepstow down Ladbrokes on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon. So when you do actually meet a pair of proper gamblers, in a bar, in Cambodia on a Saturday night it makes an interesting change...

"Please! Come and join us!" was the cheery invitation from the couple at the table next to us. We were on our third jug of Angkor beer outside the Temple bar in Siem Reap in Central Cambodia. The following morning we were getting up to visit the mighty Angkor Temples. At four AM. It was already eleven PM. The temperature hadn't dropped below 35c all day, and had reached a whopping 44c mid afternoon. It was unbelievably humid. There really wasn't much to do all day but hang out where the air con was. And the cold beer. Conversation in the bar had turned to places we wanted to see in Europe, and we were discussing Southern France. The couple seated next to us it happened to be French, and were keen to impart some patriotic travel advice, so we joined tables and ploughed on through further jugs of cold lager. It turned out that they were Gamblers "by proffessione", and were literally betting their asses around Asia, which they were clearly managing quite successfully seeing as they had been on the road for over a year and were staying at one of the better hotels in town.

Both were in their late twenties and about as charming as you would expect from two people in their dubious line of business; they reminded me of something from a Roald Dahl short story. She came from Vietnamese origins, pretty and with the adopted chic of a Parisian, he was funny, quick witted and slightly crazy (and no, I didn't wake up with a finger missing having bet the air tickets...). We sat, talked and listened to stories about various casinos they'd played and some of eccentric and absurdly rich people they had met (mostly Chinese...). They had spent nearly a month in Macao, and played at plenty of dodgy backroom games all over, and when they weren't playing for real they spent all sessions night cleaning up at online poker. A strange life. But interesting conversation, and you couldn't help admire the bizarre Jack Kerouac-meets-Gordon Gecko attitude to travelling they seemed to have acquired. The only problem was by the time we had finished up it was well after one AM. Which meant we had three hours until we were being picked up by our rickshaw driver to head to Angkor Wat. Merde.

A few hours later, defibulated and vertical again thanks to a near-lethal caffeine overdose at the rickshaw drivers coffee stand, we were sat bug-eyed along with a few hundred other early risers at the gates of Angkor Wat, waiting for the sun to rear its blazing head over the temple. It didn't take long before we'd totally forgotten about how rotten we were feeling and were soon immersed in the sheer overwhelming beauty of the temple complex in the dawn light. Changing quickly from black silhouette against a purple sky to golden stone against the morning sun, it became clear why Angkor has held such a draw over worshippers and visitors for hundreds of years. We spent the early morning wandering round the temples and its surrounds and later headed on to Angkor Thom, and the Bayon which were perhaps even more impressive with their intricate carved faces and bas reliefs.

As the day wore on and the temperature (and crowds) rocketed once again, we headed last for Ta Prohm, a magnificent, partially ruined temple set deep in the jungle, entwined with vast trees growing right through its centre. Ta Prohm had a genuine fairytale feel to it, like something from one of the creepy, early Disney pictures or Brothers Grim stories. It had also, as you couldn't fail to hear about a million times, been used in one the Lara Croft movies, and just about every American and Japanese tourist there wanted a picture taken climbing through the doorway that Angelina Jolie had burst through, mammaries first, in the film; "OK Barb hon, just make your fingers like a gun and poke your head out the door... Smile! Neat!" etc.

We spent another day in Siem Reap, which isn't a half bad town to relax in. Clearly the influx of tourists on package trips to Angkor has led to demand for more upmarket restaurants than previously existed and even the BBQ joints are pricey now, but there are still some excellent places to eat and you can still do it quite cheaply too. The Khmer Kitchen in particular was fantastic (we ate there three times) and knocks out some very tasty Khmer traditional food. Had we known where we were headed next we probably would have eaten a shed load more of it.

Kratie, in North East Cambodia can only be described as a bum hole of a town. Think of a dusty, post-apocalyptic Asian version of Royston Vaysey. After a lengthy and bumpy ride through some pretty wild and sun scorched Cambodian outback, we finally arrived in this small and very odd outpost. We were on route to the Laos Border, but had decided to break the journey by stopping hopefully to see the rare local Irrawadi Dolphins, which live in the Mekong river nearby and now number very few indeed.

After about half and hour in town we had decided that there was clearly some sort of cartel going on in Kratie in which the owners of the only three dumps of hotels had got together to price-fix ridiculous room rates for themselves, knowing that there is sod all anyone can do about it until at least the next day, when the bus out of there rolls through once again. We looked at all three glittering palaces of delight and decided on the best of a bad bunch, which only just beat the other two as it had a window and didn't stink of damp. For this pleasure we were charged about fifteen quid, which was about quadruple the sensible rate. Restaurants were basically non-existent. Street food looked inedible. The hotel staff had clearly never even encountered the advanced and complicated mechanics of The Sandwich. People looked at you real funny. In the back of my head Banjos were duelling. Still, we were in the middle of nowhere now so what did we expect?

Anyway, with nothing else to do we set out by moto-rickshaw to see some endangered dolphins in the wild. We got lucky too. We spent just under a couple of hours out on a huge and stunning expanse of inland Mekong with these strange looking but graceful dolphins, rising and then disappearing with just a soft snort, just metres away from us. A real privilege. I just hope they're still there in ten years time.

However weird and fascinating our stay in Kratie was, nothing could have prepared us for what was going to unfold the next morning. Our bus was booked to Laos, and at seven AM we were waiting outside the hotel with packs on backs as the usual mini-van that rounded up the ticket holders collected us and headed off to to drop us to the main coach about twenty kilometres down the road (dumping off the usual chain-smoking family member tag-alongs en route). We were in good spirits, looking forward to getting the hell out of dodge and arriving at Loas' fabled Four Thousand Islands, and had struck up a friendly conversation with a dutch couple, Jonas and Mika, who were heading our way. Twenty minutes later at the side of a dusty road in the hazy morning sun we boarded our coach and off we went.

Anyone who's ever been to Cambodia can tell you that Cambodians don't drive like normal people. Not even like Indians. Getting a bus in Cambodia is like entering the Canonball Run involuntarily. We have been on buses where the driver will actually get off the bus and drink three cans of lager at the toilet stop, before getting back on and driving like he has a gun to his head whilst simultaneously singing along to the words of whatever nightmare Karaoke he has decided to put on the over-head telly.

The roads from Krace to the Laos border were pretty bad and the driving was the usual level of insanity, but we figured this was just the same crap, different day. Until the deafening bang of crunching metal came from the back of the bus. We must have been travelling at seventy MPH - there were no cars in front or behind us, just field after field of maize, and then the bus started to rear violently off the road to the right, making the sort of noise you never want to hear on a bus travelling at that speed. We never did find out exactly what happened - whether the tire exploded, or a wheel detached from the axle or whatever - but the driver lost control and we started to veer off the road very, very quickly.

Now, I am prone to the odd bit of over-exaggeration, but I genuinely thought that we were going to be mince-meat in about five seconds. It looked like as soon as the bus was going to come off the road into the drainage ditch we would flip straight over into the field and all I can remember was thinking "don't land on your bloody head" as I tried to stop Sammie flying over the top of me and through the opposite window. Somehow, instead of rolling fully over after coming off the road, we had smashed down the bank and ground to a halt and ended up wedged into the ditch. After a few seconds, someone shouted "is everyone OK in here?" (Gene Hackman from the Poseidon Adventure was obviously on the bus that morning...). All the seating had come free from the metal framing and I had landed full weight on the edge of a metal chair frame - large ouch, but thankfully no punctured lung. Sam, apart from a few grazes was fine, although white and looking like she had the worlds most over-active Thyroid, and we all climbed out of the wreck at the front. Every one quickly grabbed their bags from the hold which had broken open anyway and we clambered up the ditch and sat in the field, well away from the mess. Coolant, and god knows what else was leaking out of the roof and none of us fancied being close a mangled bus seeping fuel in the rising heat.

Anyway, after a bit of checking up, no one turned out to be hurt thankfully. Just very shell shocked. Not what you need before breakfast. Best of all though was the driver, who, behaving like a true hero, climbed straight out of the bus and legged it, full pelt down the road the minute it had crashed, waved down and jumped into the next car that came past, and disappeared, like some shit version of Kaiser Soze. It's stuff like that that makes you realise you really are a a very long way from home.

So, four Europeans, a couple of Canadians, a weird girl called Sam from Essex (we love you Sam!), a Cambodian woman and her two very freaked out and brave kids spent an hour in a field in god knows where, waiting for someone to turn up and get us to Laos. Sitting on the side of the road there it was hard to know whether what had just happened qualified as bad luck or good. Either way, our chips were still up and it was a hell of a way to make an exit...
View our pics here:
Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples

Kratie, Irawadi Dolphins & Crazy Bus to Laos Border