After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Monthly round-up - November 2011

Charlotte at The Pinnacles.

So we're desperately battling to get the blog up to date and from now on we'll be aiming to do the blog month by month! As it's the 30th November (when this was written, blame Liam for taking so long to get it published!) it would seem fitting that we are spurred on to recording a little of what we've been up to this month.

We had a great weekend away up north taking in the Piccacles. Driving up north (and not really that far) certainly gave us an insight into what driving in Western Australia is like, We knew there would be an awful lot of nothing. We just weren't quite that prepared for that much... nothing (and compared to the rest of Australia this wouldn't even register on the nothing-scale).  However, every so often there is a corking view of the coast, or of some amazing white dunes that look like snow capped mountains.   We were also amazed at how quickly the landscape can change after looking the same for hours on end.  We arrived at the Pinnacles just at the right time, as some of the tourists were departing and the sun was lowering and providing some cool shadows. The Pinnacles is just a huge area of, well, rocks, basically, lots of limestone lumps and bumps jutting out of the group in odd ways as everything else around them has been eroded away. You drive through, hopping out every now and again for a wander, and it truly feels 'other worldly', almost as if you're on a film set. Pretty bizarre. Pinnacles done, we drove on a little further to Cervantes where we were camping for the night. The campsite was pretty full but had a BBQ area under a marquee (shelter from the wind was key!) which pleased Liam no end.  Cervantes is a small town with some beautiful coast, we spent our mornings at Thirsty Point and we also drove up to Jurien Bay to bask in the turquoise waters. There's only so much that you can write about white sands and quiet beaches, but it was pretty swell! On our way back home, we took a scenic route inland and stopped by New Norcia.   New Norcia was set up in the 1800's by some Spanish Monks who wanted to 'civilise' the local Aborigine population by making them a self sufficient community.   It includes a few huge old buildings and a Byzantine inspired church; which looks gob-smackingly out of place as you approach it on the highway.   I guess to many Western Australians this may be the closest to thing to old European architecture that they will ever see.  Very interesting nonetheless.

Another weekend we took a day trip out to York. Well, when I say day trip, we drove for about 2 hours to get there and it took about 45 minutes to look around, because most things were closed. Not to say it's not nice, in fact I can imagine if it was bustling it would have quite a feel to it (usually in October they have a jazz festival which would have been a perfect setting for it, but this year it was cancelled). But hey, we bought a pie, looked at the building that reminded us of old American movies, sat a while chilling... all good stuff! On our way back we went to York Wines and did a tasting. It was interesting wine because the vines aren't irrigated, making for a dryer, stronger grape and wine. They also use no pesticides on their plants, and no preservatives or filtration techniques (for all you vegans out there, no nasty fish or egg products).  A pretty amazing undertaking given the dry climate of this area, it means that some years they don't even get a crop.  Unsurprisingly they were actually in the process of selling up!  We bought a bottle of their stuff and Liam is now a firm believer that the chemicals that you usually find in a bottle of red is what gives you a headache the next day. So there you go.

One weekend we threw the bikes in the back of the van and headed out into the Perth Hills for a bike ride around the Heritage Trail. It's mainly on a disused railway track, and is about 40 km. The trail affords some fab views back towards Perth and was pretty quiet considering it was a nice weekend. Despite Charlotte's initial grumbles (my bike's too small for me, my saddle's too painful – nothing changes eh Dad!) we finished on a high having freewheeled downhill for about 7 km – wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!

After the last gigs we've been to being pretty small intimate affairs, we were excited for something different and very excited to be going to see Fucked Up (sorry Mum), Tenacious D and Foo Fighters at an outdoor stadium in Perth!  Fucked Up were a great warm up, I think they hardcore punk sensibilities confused most of the mainstream rock fans there but it turns out, if your lead singer is fat and comes out into the crowd to hug as many people as he can (including climbing up into the seating areas), then it makes for an entertaining show. Tenacious D were funny as always, if a little predictable by now.  And of course the Foos, the Foos! Always a pleasure; even though the sound was a bit dodgy at the beginning it was pretty good for most of it and they did a fair mix of old stuff and new stuff (as well as some covers, which didn't really go down that well!). Finishing with Everlong just as it started raining heavily was a pretty epic end to the night :)

Last but not least, let's discuss the WA Beer Showcase. Now, there isn't much to do in WA, beyond barbecuing and sunbathing.  We therefore are jumped at the chance to attend anything which sounds vaguely up our street.  The WA Beer Showcase most definitely fell into that category.  So off we toddled to pay $30 to get into what essentially was a trade show for West Australian breweries. Each brewery had a stand (although there were some glaring omissions apparently due to the WA Tourism Awards being on the same night) and you got a free glass and 5 free tokens for samples as you went in. We attended a talk about 3 different styles of beer, which we could also sample. Follow this with Charlotte being given 3 times as many tokens as she paid for towards the end, and being given free beer by Darcy who was representing the Nail Ale stand who we've met before on a few occasions, and it's fair to say that by the end of the night, we'd had a few. It was an excellent night though, speaking to brewers and randomers alike all who were there because of a love of beer.  As it was the first event, and how paranoid the local authorities seem to be about granting alcohol licenses (especially as it was in a community space right in the centre of Perth) it was lacking a bit of atmosphere, a bit of live music wouldn't have gone amiss for starters.  It was if they were desperate to avoid the beer swilling masses getting wind of the event and turning it into a debauched beer festival.  Somewhere in between would be good!

So that leads us almost up to the present, now for our first Christmas abroad in the unfamiliar surroundings of sun, sand, sea.

Van Adventures
Fremantle & Perth, Australia

Parker Invasion (October 2011)

Charlotte and Joe on the beach at Rottnest Island.

As many of you will have been aware, Charlotte's parents and brother came over to visit us in Western Australia in October. Yippee! It was fantastic to all get together and see them all again, and for us to have a little 'taste of home' for a short time. Liam did a sterling job of continuing his 9-5 whilst partying each evening and going away each weekend, and Charlotte managed to sneak the odd night shift at work to pay the bills!

The highlights included:

A weekend trip away to the Margaret River, where Charlotte and her parents embarked on a winery tour and Liam and Joe hit the beach (and a brewery). The winery tour was interesting and amusing as we learned about why Ozzie wine is so strong, and Dad tried to enjoy drinking white wine (and failed). The top wines we had included a chilled sparkling Shiraz and a white Port. Yum! Liam and Joe went to Bootleg Brewery, 'an oasis of beer in a desert of wine', and enjoyed a tasting paddle. Sat in the beautiful surroundings of their beer garden (it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere). Margaret River is a funny little town mainly catering for the tourism industry which has been created due to the wine region being so good around here. The River itself is less than impressive (think more babbling brook) but we had a great time on a campsite there; Mum, Dad and Joe in close quarters in a cabin and Liam and Charlotte in Eric the Econovan. We also had a walk along the coast, and saw some kangaroos on the way back, and were treated to an entertaining spectacle of Kangaroo boxing - punches in the nose and karate kicks galore, tremendous!

Another weekend trip was to Rottnest Island, visible from Fremantle on a clear day and accessible by boat. The island used to be a prison and has a lot of Aboriginal history because of this. There is one 'settlement' on the island containing all of the accommodation, shops etc, and the rest of the island is gloriously unspoilt, it's car free roads great for cycling. We all got bikes and whizzed round the island, before going back to the most pristine beach for a bit of snorkelling. The weather was amazing while we were there but unfortunately this did attract a rather substantial amount of flies! The rest of the weekend was spent relaxing in the garden, barbecuing and drinking to our hearts content.

We spent lots of time around Fremantle, showing the Parkers the Fremantle Arts Centre, fish and chipping at Cicerellos, breakfasting at Fidels (eggs florentine – swoon!), beering at Little Creatures, $7 beering at The Monk (scarily the most bargainous drinking option going, nice beer brewed on the premises but bad hangovers!) and walking up to South Beach.

By the end of the visit Liam and Joe were BBQ extraordinnaires, and we had enjoyed an array of BBQ delights including burgers, sausages, chicken wings, steak, halloumi, veg kebabs, salmon, tuna and prawns, not all in the same meal! We also showed them around our local area, walking along the beautiful beaches of Mosman Park, Cottelsoe and Swanbourne up to the Naked Fig for a coffee and huge slab of cake.

We did a night tour around Fremantle Prison – a very informative and humorous guided tour around the old prison at night.

Of course lots of days were spent at the beach, swimming in the sea, and watching Joe swimming and being followed by an eager seal that he was utterly oblivious of (despite about 10 people on the beach excitedly pointing our to it and the lifeguard practically jumping up and down with glee!)

We also met up with Charlotte's Dad's second cousin, Helen, who now lives in near Perth – small world! While up that side of Perth we visited Perth Aquarium (AQWA), seeing all the creatures we hoped not see in the sea. Our favourite was perhaps the sea dragon, Google a picture of it – it's bizarre!

For Charlotte's birthday we went out for a curry not far from where we used to live with Bruno, after starting the night with a couple at Little Creatures, of course. On the actual day of her birthday we had a lovely brunch before heading off to Margaret River.

On our last evening together, the family produced an early Christmas present for us! It was an absolutely massive Esky, perfect for filling with beer and food and ice and throwing in the back of Eric (our campervan) for weekends away. An amazing present and one that we've already made use of and will be invaluable when we hit the road proper in March! Massive thanks to Dad who brought it back on public transport, most probably looking quite absurd (it really is huge).

And in the blink of an eye, almost three weeks had passed and it was time for them to go. Although it was sad to part ways again, we look forward seeing them again in February (and everyone else of course!). But for now, back to the grindstone to save up for our future escapades!


Thursday, 22 December 2011

Touchdown in Oz (20th July - 2nd October)

Charlotte with Eric (the Econovan).

We arrived at Perth Airport on a chilly and dull morning on the 19th July, the middle of the Australian winter. Being in Western Australia this rarely means much worse than 7 degrees and a few storms. We were due to stay with our old Withnelian friend Bruno, of Lets Not Lose Mars To The Commies (Liam’s old band) fame. After driving from the airport through sprawling, featureless suburbs, we eventually arrived on the outskirts of Fremantle. A knock at the door at 6am and we eventually managed to drag Bruno out of bed, and he welcomed us with bleary eyes and a bare floored room as he had expected us the following day. Having just come from the tropical sweatiness of Cambodia, we were woefully prepared for temperatures of even a mild nature, so we spent the first night shivering in our think silk sleeping bags and unsubstantial clothing. This was compounded by the fact that the houses here are built with baking hot summers in mind, very open and airy with no insulation. We marvelled that this would indeed be a lovely, cool house in the summer, as we shivered the night away.

The first few days we spent acclimatising ourselves and buying some more suitable clothing. Jeans, socks, jumpers and raincoats were the order of the day. As was a dooner - a duvet to you and I. We got the lay of the land in Fremantle and surveyed the various pubs selling myriad beer, a real treat after the limited offerings of the past few months (we like lager but sometimes its nice to have some variation!). We saw Bruno’s band play (Hand Stands For Ants), who were great fun live and met some of his friends. We spent the first month doing not an awful lot, just exploring around and about on the days where the weather was nice, and of course brushing up our CVs and applying for jobs. We got ourselves bikes and cycled up and down the coast paths, and to Kings Park in Perth.

Our first trip out of Fremantle was with Bruno and his girlfriend, Betty, to her parents holiday home in Dwellingup. We had plans for walks in the forest and maybe even some rafting on the river but in the end the weather was so bad we just ended up drinking and playing Scrabble. Still, a great time, and the opportunity for Betty to make us an amazing breakfast of poached eggs and tomatoes (she worked in a cafe in Fremantle that probably does the best breakfast going). Go Betty!

We spent a month or so living with Bruno, it just so happened he had a spare room when we arrived, unfurnished but we managed to find a spare mattress. It was a pretty decent sized house with a big garden and within walking distance from Fremantle. The only downside was that the trucks from the port were up and down the main road outside our window, not particularly conducive to a good night's sleep! Not the little trucks we have back home either, huge American Mac trucks with double trailers, roaring away as they pulled up the hill outside from the traffic lights at 4am. The only other inhabitant of the house was Bruno's legendary cat, Warhawk. We spent many a day with her while she howled for food constantly, and she kindly brought us a dead rat as a token of thanks for feeding her. Lovely!

After failing to get any casual work (winter is much quieter as the tourist numbers drop off), Liam decided to go through an agency in Perth to try and get a job in IT. Luck was on his side and a job at Fremantle Ports was procured, working on the Helpdesk in a similar role as with the NHS in Sheffield (an originally temporary contract now extended until the end of January). Charlotte tried her hand at bar work and charity mugging (sorry, fundraising) before settling into a job caring for people with acquired brain injuries, mainly from car accidents.

At the end of August we had to look for a place to live as Bruno's lease was about to expire and he was moving out. We wanted to get away from the main road and the road-trains rattling the windows all night, and decided to try and live out the Australian dream near the beach. We chose Mosman Park due to its proximity to the beach, although to be fair there are two highways and a railway line between us and the coast for those of you imagining us living in a beach-front tropical paradise! It is also 7 minutes on the train from Fremantle (or a half hour coastal bike ride, great for cycling to and from work for Liam) and about 20 minutes to Perth. The rent isn't cheap but unless you want to live in the back of beyond in suburbia, it wouldn't get much cheaper.

We have been enjoying the weather, although it has been anything but predictable. As we arrived in July, our spirits were lifted with tales of spring in September, but even as I write this in early November, the wind is howling and we have had some fairly epic storms recently.  That’s not to say we haven’t had some good weather too, half the week is usually beach-worthy and even in August we had some days worthy of a British summer, although actual summer here could see the temperatures rising to well over 40 degrees.

September the 11th saw a very special anniversary for us, our first year together as husband and wife. The night before we had tickets to see our Ozzy punk favourites Frenzal Rhomb, a blast from the past as we had both seen them around 10 years previously. It was great to go to a punk rock gig after all this time, and it was cool that another favourite of ours, Teenage Bottlerocket, were supporting. We had a meal at a Japanese restaurant beforehand, and enjoyed a nice bottle of wine in a trendy bar on the way to the venue. Just in case we were feeling a bit above our station, we were happy to be brought back to earth in the more familiar surrounds of a beer soaked rock club. Some things never change eh? The following day was our actual anniversary and the weather was on our side, so we had a scorching hot day down the beach at Cottesloe. Tapas was procured for the beachside restaurant a few minutes further north by bike at Swanbourne, so all in all a lovely day.

At the end of September we had settled into our jobs and decided it was time to buy a campervan, especially since Charlotte had been hiring a car for work. We looked at a few which didn't work out but finally bought a white 1990 Ford Econovan from a friendly German and Swedish couple. The van was basic but conveniently kitted out with a bed which folded up into a settee in the back, and was a little longer than most, giving us some extra storage space. The mileage didn't seem too high for its age and a further bonus was that it was dual fuel, so it also ran on LPG (pretty cheap over here). We bargained them down by a few hundred dollars and set off on our merry way. It was only when we came to register the van in our name that we came a cropper, as it was currently registered in South Australia, so we needed to get it registered and put Western Australian plates on it. We were assured this was an easy process as WA are pretty lax about things and there is no legal requirement for an MOT. However, when the license is being transferred interstate its a different story! So after some very expensive work was carried out to get it up to code (new brakes, LPG tank, tyres seat covers and more) we were road legal and had evaporated what little money we had but were just happy to have a van to call our own. In hindsight we should have been more careful when buying, but this is the peril of knowing very little about cars, from other people who know very little about cars, in a country which doesn't require yearly road-worthy testing. Lesson fully learnt! In reality though, the vans that had good service history and were well looked after were a lot more expensive, so ultimately we probably didn't pay all that much over the odds. The problem is that a lot of vans get passed around the backpacker circuit, and due to them being owned for a few months at a time get very little attention from the owners, who just hope for the best and drive them into the ground. It's like a game of pass the bomb in this respect, and we ended up taking the full force of the blast!

Our first day trip with our new-found freedom was to Walyunga National Park, where we enjoyed a barbecue on one of the ubiquitous public grills found in parks and on beaches all over Australia. On the way back we stopped off for a tasting at Houghton Wines in the Swan Valley wine region. We tasted some of their excellent premium range, and after some very generous measures Liam was drunk enough to buy a bottle of wine for $30, which we are saving for Christmas. Charlotte tasted a couple but was driving back (Liam would like to note that he would have offered to drive but Charlotte was due to pick the Parkers up from the airport later that night). The Swan Valley normally produces fairly cheap wines as it is a bit too hot (this also produces very high alcohol wines, 14.5% whites seem common!), but the wines we tasted were made with grapes from further south, where the climate is a bit cooler and less dry. Liam was blown away by the different flavours, and aside from being quite merry by the end, was definitely sold on the virtues of paying for high quality wine.

And with that, we have belatedly brought you up to date with our goings-on until the end of September. More to follow, covering the action-packed three weeks we spent with Kath, Mike and Joe Parker. A rollercoaster ride of eating and drinking like I was on holiday but actually going into work every day at 8am. Watch this space...
Fremantle & Perth, Australia

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia (14th - 19th July)

Cycling around Angkor Wat

We had heard our fair share of horror stories about the border between Thailand and Cambodia, namely in terms of people being scammed out of quite a lot of money.  We caught a tuk tuk from the railway station to the border, and were perturbed to realise that all the white people were being taken to a different place to the locals.  As we exited the tuk tuk, to shouts of “where you from, England? Ah lovely jubbly hahaham please come with me now to fill in your border form', we slunk away up the road and away from the maniacal scammers.  To be fair to them, as they realised we weren't going to be duped, they shouted after us to turn right at the top of the road and that was the border.  Cheers!  We later found out that lots of people had been taken in by it and were paying $50 to fill in a bogus border form.  The girl who'd almost been duped told us that the guys working there were just unable to lie, so when she asked “ is this actually necessary?  Is this actually the border?” they just looked at each other guiltily.  This scam has apparently gone on for years, and the only reason it carries on can only be with the co-operation of the local police and border officials, so you do have to worry that if there is such blatant corruption at a low level, what on earth goes on higher up?

We successfully exited Thailand with no problems and then tramped through 'no man's land', marvelling at the sheer amount of casinos (gambling is illegal in Thailand so many Thais come here to gamble).  We were directed to a certain building by lots of people –
Liam: “don't fall for it, just keep walking”
Charlotte: “but the building they're pointing to looks pretty official”
Liam: “what makes it look official?”
Charlotte: “it's... painted grey?”
Liam: *raised eyebrow*

We kept on walking until we got to the next checkpoint, where the official told us we hadn't got the visa stamp in lour passports so we needed to go back.  Where do we get the visa stamp?  The grey building! After reading so many stories about scams at the border, Liam took the approach of keep on walking until someone in uniform stops you going any further!

We were technically still scammed out of $1 each as a 'fee' to the border guards (written on a comedy little hand written sign, presumably to be whipped away if their boss showed up), but when we heard one guy triumphantly bragging he'd got out of it by causing a huge scene and threatening to call the police, we felt $1 was probably worth it just to avoid the fuss, given that these people have the power to make your day very difficult to say the least.  Border navigated, we met up with a German girl called Anna and caught a taxi together into Siem Reap.  Travelling in cars in Cambodia is quite a thrill, as they drive on the right but have right hand drive cars.  This means that when they want to overtake, which they do regularly (why are we always in the taxi/bus that wants to overtake every other vehicle on the road?), the passengers have a better view of oncoming traffic than the driver! A little scary but thankfully neither of us was in the front seat. We got there safely (the only minor injuries sustained were to a stray dog that ran out in front of the car), booked into a lovely guesthouse and went to a local Khmer-run restaurant for dinner. 

The next 3 days were spent exploring the temples of Angkor Wat.   We road around on bicycles for the first two days, but the final three temples were much further away so we hired a driver for the day.  It's difficult to sum up the experience really, and the photos do no justice whatsoever, but we'll try and describe the temples that we went to!

Angkor Wat:  The Big One.  Having read so much about the place, and seen so many photos, it was hard for Angkor Wat to live up to expectations.  We were hassled by kids to buy drinks and postcards, and the whole place just felt overwhelming.  However, we did hire a really informative guide who took us round and pointed lots of things out which we wouldn't have otherwise noticed (for a price of course!).  There was a fair bit of construction work going on so it wasn’t quite as impressive as we expected.

Bayon:  The One With All The Faces.  Bayon has 216 huge faces of Jayavarman VII gazing down at you, lending a sinister yet intruiging air to the site. 

Ankhor Tom:  The One With All The Little Bits.  Ankhor Tom is made up of many small temples, and was great for whipping round on the bikes and getting away from the crowds. 

Ta Phrom:  The One That Was In Tomb Raider.  Completely overgrown by trees as nature has taken it's course, Ta Phrom is a deliciously spooky temple where the imagination can take over. 

Bantaey Srei: The One Which Is Basically Ankor Wat In Miniture.  Immaculately preserved bas reliefs and very accessible size gave a dolls' house feel to this temple.

Kbal Speil: The One With Carvings In A Waterfall.  Name says it all really.  Pretty. 

Beng Mealea: The One That Should Have Been In Indiana Jones.  Well, we certainly saved the best til last.  This temple is far enough away to avoid the camera snapping crowds and ruined enough to give it an 'other worldly' type feel.  We were shown around by a local kid called Song (he went to tourism school so can do the tour in English, Mandarin, Japanese and German!).  We had an utterly fantastic couple of hours clambering over dangerously crumbling archways and ducking into rooms created by the caving in of the original building. Truly awesome.  

And with that, our time at the temples had comes to an end.  We enjoyed it immensely, far more than we'd actually expected to, and wished we'd had the time get a 1 week pass rather than a 3 day pass.  Because our days were filled with templing we saw relatively little of Siem Reap itself, but what we did see of the river, the market, and our local favourite restaurant, we  enjoyed!  Our evenings were well spent enjoying the food and drinking cheap beer (a novelty as beer in Thailand wasn’t particularly cheap).

We then headed off to Phnom Penh, our last stop of the trip. We had a bit of a hassle finding a room, and ended up going with the advice of a tuk tuk driver – not something we've ever done before, or would do again!  But when you are loitering around looking lost as the hostel we had in mind was full up, you are at their mercy!  They tend to get commission from the kinds of places which might not survive otherwise (i.e. pretty crappy), so it's always a bit of a risk.  We had to insist that they take us to the actual place we were booked into in Siem Reap, as they tried to pull one over on us and take us somewhere else.  We ate at a gorgeous restaurant where the staff all used to be street children who were trained up by an NGO to be catering professionals, very inspiring.  We had plans of having an action packed day for our last day, which then ended up being even more action packed as our flight turned out to be about 6 hours earlier than we'd thought (good job we checked!). So after a zip around the Royal Palace (a bit like Bangkok's, but a lot less OTT, and therefore a lot less interesting to be honest!), and the S21 museum (very interesting and moving, it was used as a political prison in the days of the Khmer Rouge), we raced back to the hostel to pick up our bags and did some last minute shopping at the Russian markets.

We took a flight first to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before boarding a flight to Perth. Our big travel adventure was over, time to get a job!  These 7 months have been completely brilliant – we feel proud to have (finally!) made it happen, nostalgic looking back over our favourite places, and excited about being settled for a while.

Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi & Bangkok, Thailand (3rd - 14th July)

Canoeing on the reservoir in Sangkhlaburi.
From Kho Tao we caught the boat back to the mainland at Chumphon, arriving in the pouring rain.  We secured our rail tickets for the onward journey up to Kanchanaburi, and grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant.  The government election was this weekend and as such alcohol was banned (apparently to ensure the drunks whose votes they had bought actually turned up to vote!) – so we were kindly offered it in quaint little teacups.  I'm sure this facade wouldn't have fooled any police officer who happened to be driving past, but that's just the way things are done in Thailand!  Finally the train was due and we hopped aboard for the night train up north, unfortunately the air conditioning was so ramped up that we spent the night shivering in our jumpers.  The train was delayed and we both had top bunks with no windows, so when Liam got up at our original arrival to find out when we were due to arrive, all the doors were locked and there were no windows to look out of!  Everybody else in the carriage was carrying on to Bangkok, and for a while we thought maybe we were going to be forced to too. Fortunately the train was quite a few hours delayed so we changed trains in Nakhon Pathom as planned.

We had a couple of hours to kill so we had a little wandered, and it happened to be a religious holiday so there were monks being ordained at the huge Wat in the centre of town, and we enjoyed some tasty grilled meats from the numerous street stalls.  We also watched a hilarious Chinese guy do his morning exercises – imagine cut off office trousers as exercise shorts plus press ups on the kerb and lifting a car park barrier as weights and you'll get the picture!

Kanchanaburi is a riverside town set in beautiful countryside, which actually has much more to offer than just the little tourist part of town, as we discovered one day when we stayed on the bus for too long!  The actual city has a fantastic night market and a lively atmosphere, but lots of grey architecture and not much else to distinguish it from other Thai cities.  We stayed in a quieter part of town across the river, at a guesthouse with some lovely, albeit bonkers, staff.  Whilst we were there we hired bikes and had a great day cycling around the rice fields and gazing at the mountains.  A sudden ferocious downpour forced us to duck into a rural shop for a while where we watched guys playing a game which involved playing pool and cards at the same time, very confusing.  Another day we hired kayaks and were driven upriver to paddle back down to our guesthouse – around 3 hours in the blazing sunshine.  It was incredibly peaceful and we often felt like (and probably were) the only people for miles around!

One of the main points of interest in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai.  The railway runs between Thailand and Burma, and about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 prisoners of war worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died.  We took the train along the Death Railway and were pleased that it felt like a local service rather than just a tourist attraction aimed at Westerners.  There were fantastic views from the train over lush hillsides and valleys, and some pretty spectacular feats of engineering virtually in the side of cliff faces.  We also visited the Hellfire Pass museum, a stretch of the old railway which was a hugely laborious engineering feat, requiring the workers to blast through huge sections of rock, and where many labourers and POW's lost their lives.  The museum here is very informative, tasteful and thought through, and focuses on the many locals who died as well as the POWs.  Unfortunately we didn't have chance to do the memorial walk as the last bus back was drawing near (the train was massively delayed, a bit of theme in Thailand), so we decided to return another day.  Back in the city there is also the Kanchanaburi War Cemetary and the Death Railway Museum, both well worth a look at, the cemetery being especially moving due to the sheer amount of uniform POW graves.

We were persuaded by the guesthouse to join a guided tour for a few days, not something we have done very often, but it seemed more than worth it and would take us to some places we wouldn’t be able to get to on our own.  Joining Lizzie and Dan from the UK and Erin and Alex from the US we headed out to Erawan Waterfall, a truly awesome seven tier warterfall.  After hiking to the top to decide which levels looked the most fun, we relaxed in the pool at level 5 before heading down to level 4 which had a brilliant natural waterslide – lots of fun!  After some lunch we headed to Daowadung Caves in Sai Yok National Park, some pretty cool caves absolutely teeming with bats.  Our accommodation for the night turned out to be the swishest of the trip so far, with beautiful balcony views of the surrounding countryside.  We cycled through some nearby plantations and ate far too many rambutans, before returning to the guesthouse for dinner and some rather excruciating karaoke.  Liam and Dan performed a pitch-perfect rendition of Band on the Run by Wings, which was of course the highlight of the evening(!).  The second day of the tour included elephant trekking, which we weren't entirely sure about, having done it before and not being very comfortable with it.  However, not ones to cause a fuss, we reckoned the elephants looked well looked after and so hopped aboard for a lumber around the park and then down to the river where the elephants squirted each other, and us, and the camera (!) with water.  We thanked our elephant with a basket of bananas, which was by far the most satisfying part of the journey.  Although of course we had to pay for the bananas but at least they were being well fed.  It is quite amazing how dextrous elephants are with their trunks, although not quite enough to peel the bananas (they scoffed them whole)!  We then floated down-river on a bamboo raft and caught up with our mini-bus.  Next stop was the Hellfire Pass museum again, so we skipped the museum and headed straight for the memorial walk, a very interesting walk in terms of being able to see the old railway and a pretty challenging walk to do in the short time frame that we had!  We then said goodbye to our tour mates and were left by the side of the road to catch a different bus onto Sanklaburi. The journey was slow going up steep mountain roads, and quite a few times the bus was stopped by police to check passports and ID cards. This is because many Burmese refugees live in the region, although the Thai government restricts their movement.

We arrived after nightfall in Sangkhlaburi, and whizzed down to our waterfront guesthouse on the back of motorcycle taxis.  The government flooded the area a few years ago to create a reservoir, forcing the locals to retreat up the hillsides.  To gain access across the water, the largest man-made wooden bridge in the world was built. There was a cafĂ© at one end that did a mean noodle soup so we sat and watched the bridge being maintained by guys in wooden safety helmets, clambering down the slats without a harness, and wearing Thai-style safety boots (flip-flops).  We enjoyed eating Burmese food (a highlight being nut and seed salad with fermented tea leaves, nicer than it sounds!), visiting the Mon village across the water, and visiting the local wats.  There are a lot of NGOs based there helping ethnic minority Burmese who have had to flea Burma, but aren’t allowed to travel freely within Thailand.  The upshot of this was there were a few cute cafes selling wholesome bakery treats to Western volunteers and tourists like ourselves, but the place wasn’t touristy like a lot of Thailand as to spoil it. We also hired an old-style American Indian canoe (strange but true) from our guesthouse and paddled around the reservoir and up to the 'sunken temple', which is sometimes completely submerged but as the water level wasn’t very high we were able to walk through it.  A short trip on a songthaew from Sangklaburi took us to Three Pagodas Pass, a border with Burma currently closed to foreigners (though it was pretty much unguarded and looked as if you could just wander through. Needless to say, we didn't give it a go).  We wandered around the local market and marvelled at how the landscape looked genuinely different as you stood on the border facing Thailand, and then turned around to face Burma (lots more forest on the Burmese side).

Our 2 month Thai visa was on the verge of expiring and, with our flights finally booked to Australia, we intended to hot-foot it to Cambodia for our final big ticket travel destination, Angkor Wat.

First we spent another night back in Kanchanaburi and were reunited with our backpacks at what was probably our favourite accommodation of the trip, Apples Retreat. Clean, cheap, cute rooms and an awesome restaurant by the riverside. We can’t overstate how good the food was, and Apple and Choi were great hosts and cooks. Completely crackers, as most Thais seem to be, but in the best possible way!

We took a bus to Bangkok (decided to forget taking the randomly timed and always delayed train!) where we stayed the night, although we arrived late in the afternoon so didn't see any sights (although we have been before). We had a funny exchange with a tuk-tuk driver who was driving to charge us to drive us round the corner to the taxi rank when we just wanted to know where the bus went from! Despite some bare-faced lies we smiled and insisted that we know there is a bus, we just want to know where it goes from. Begrudgingly they pointed us a hundred yards around the corner where the bus driver and locals alike seemed shocked to see a tourist getting on the bus!

We spent the night a little guesthouse run by a local family, and had a quiet night as we were getting on the train at 5am. We were worried the train would be packed as it was a religious holiday the next day and the train would be free for locals, but thankfully we managed to get a seat and we were on our way to the Thai-Cambodian border at Aranyaprathet. 
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
National Parks near Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Ang Thong Marine Park & Koh Tao, Thailand (27th June - 2nd July)

Relaxing on the balcony on Koh Tao.

Our trip to the Gulf Coast was short and sweet, primarily to see Ang Thong National Marine Park and go diving off Koh Tao.

Our journey from Railay over to Koh Samui (from where we could access Ang Thong) pretty much epitomised everything we were starting to get annoyed with whilst travelling through Thailand, namely being herded around like cattle and trying to extract money out of you at every turn. We took a longtail boat back from Railay, sat and waited whilst being encouraged to buy drinks etc, eventually a mini bus turned up to take us into Krabi town (not far), sat and waited for ages again, got a big bus to Surat Thani, sat and waited, a big bus to the pier, sat and waited, a boat over to Samui and a mini bus to our accommodation for the night, taking around 11 hours to travel just over 150 miles. Joy! Although Liam was feeling smug after he went round the corner from the cafe we were waiting at and bought 6 litres of water and some fruit for a fraction of the cost most people had paid for small bottle of water and a sandwich. We last visited Samui in 2004 and enjoyed ourselves immensely, being in good accommodation on an amazing beach. It was the first time we had been to a tropical beach so it was always going to be memorable but this time round we actually passed the accommodation we had stayed in, and were surprised how much in that area had changed – even the streets were narrower due to sheer over development! Samui these days seems to be a warren of cheap hotels with lots of drunk Europeans hanging around, little sign of any local culture and a general air of a place in decline, a shame really.

The main event came the next day as we were picked up to head off to Ang Thong National Marine Park. It took 2 hours on the boat to get there and we enjoyed croissants and fruit along the way (this was one of the few package tours we took on our trip so the free food was a novelty!). We arrived in the Marine Park after an hour's journey on a boat and split into two groups. Our group spent some time snorkelling, swimming and jumping off the high platform of the boat whilst the other group kayaked. The snorkelling wasn't great due to lack of visibility but it was more than made up for by the sheer isolation of the place, and the strange bulbous rock formations that made up the nearby islands. It was then our turn to kayak, paddling our way around the islands and through rocky tunnels – fantastic. Sea kayaking is something that both of us really enjoy, even if Liam does end up doing most of the paddling while Charlotte takes photographs! The guide set off at a cracking pace so it was pretty good exercise too. We watched one of the Thai guys who was keeping an eye on us all prising shellfish off the rocks, free lunch! Back aboard the boat we had lunch which was billed as 'Traditional Thai', despite being more like a mixture of Indian and Chinese with extra sugar and cream. Arriving at the next destination, half the group didn't want to kayak any more (quite strange since we had all paid for what was billed as a kayaking trip around the Marine Park!) which meant the rest of us could all kayak for as long as we wanted – hurrah! We stuck to the back and enjoyed losing everyone else from view. After pulling into a sandy bay we climbed some seriously steep steps – not for those afraid of heights! - to get an amazing viewpoint of the Emerald Lake, the lagoon which inspired Alex Garland's book 'The Beach'. The lagoon was an almost unnatural shade of green but unfortunately it was a cloudy day and the photos just don't do it justice! We spent a while up there enjoying the peace, and the view, and were fairly perplexed at the rest of the group's tendency to get to the top, take a quick photo and head straight back down. It seemed that most of the group were of unimaginative tour-group mentality; get the activities over with, quick photo then “where's the beer?”. After the climb down we kayaked out into the bay on our own (our guide seemed surprised that we had bothered!) before returning to Samui, sunning ourselves at the front of the boat and spotting flying fish along the way.

The next day we travelled over to Koh Tao on a Catamaran, watching – horror of horrors – Britain's Got Talent. The first impression of the island was 'uh oh, nightmare...' as what felt like hundreds of touts vied for our attention. We jumped in a 4x4 taxi and travelled down the extremely bumpy and steep road towards New Heaven Huts at the other side of the island. The accommodation turned out to be lovely, and on a quiet little stretch of beach. The bungalow were spread out at spacious intervals up in the rocky cliff-side from the beach, certainly kept us fit getting to and from our room! The main attraction for us here was the diving, and we were keen to use continue with our diving after doing our Open Water course in Malaysia. The two of us went with Neil from Coral View Diving and did two dives, one at King Kong and one at Shark Island. It was great to get under water again, and we saw some amazingly colourful shoals of fish and had to contend against fairly strong currents at Shark Island. The rest of our time on Tao we spent snorkelling and hiking about the island. We enjoyed eating food at a restaurant where the staff were really friendly – this unfortunately is a bit of a novelty in some of the more touristic parts of Thailand. We had a a great time but we were starting to feel a bit beached-out, so were very much looking forward to heading up to Kanchanaburi for a dose of history and some beautiful national parks.

Ang Thong National Marine Park & Koh Tao, Thailand

Andaman Coast, Krabi & Khao Sok National Park, Thailand (14th - 27th June)

View from our bungalow on the beach on Koh Lipe.

We had intended for our first stop on the Andaman Coast to be Ko Tarutao, a government protected national marine park. However, despite there being no word of this on the government website, all the boat operators told us that the island was currently shut. Whether that was the truth, or whether they couldn't be bothered to run a boat for the very few people that would want to go there, we weren't entirely sure! Instead, we opted for nearby Ko Lipe, raved about by the Thai's we had met. We caught a speed boat from the mainland out to the island and opted to sit right at the front outside, rapidly regretting it as we realised just how bumpy it was going to be! We arrived (feeling mildly nauseous and on the verge of sun stroke) to the most beautiful crystal clear waters, corals and white sands. Realising that we were at the opposite end of the island to where we wanted to stay, we trekked over to the other side and hunted for some accommodation which was actually open (it was what they call green (rainy!) season, and as a result many places were shut). Charlotte went for a reccy while Liam regained his sea legs and spoke to a guy whose extent of English was 'I don't know', tried in vain to wake up another guy sleeping in a hammock, and walked into a deserted bar where a monkey threw a plastic chair at her. It was going to be one of those days! Finally, we managed to find someone who spoke English and set ourselves up in a little wooden bungalow on the beach front. Lipe itself is a gorgeous island which felt quite odd to be visiting in 'green season' as it was geared up to receiving just so many tourists,. Luckily it has a fairly decent network of paths and roads which, for once in Thailand, are well signposted, so we enjoyed walking around the island and seeing the different beaches. Inland, the I but at this time there was probably about 50 people there. The island is a little bit bizarre, on the one hand feeling more authentic as there are lots of villagers but on the other seeming very much like a rubbish filled building site at times (this is a feeling we became accustomed to while travelling in Thailand sadly), almost like Glastonbury 3 days after the event has ended! One afternoon Liam swam for a while in the sea in the pouring rain, after which there was an astounding sunset. Our usual drinking hole was 'Time to Chill', a (admittedly rather clichédly named) nice little bar with deckchairs on the shore, and a Thai rasta bloke who cooked up some decent curries. On our last evening on the island we walked to the far side of the beach and discovered a navy bar, and enjoyed some cheap beers amongst the off duty naval officers and listened to them playing guitar!

Our next stop was Trang, back on the mainland, so we caught the boat and bought a minibus ticket to Trang. We set off and then were told that as there were only two of us it wasn't worth taking the minibus all the way to Trang! Off the mini bus we got and stood around waiting for the public bus, before the mini bus driver's 'Dad' conveniently turned up and offered to take us to Trang for very little extra than what it would have cost on the bus. After umming and ahhing we piled into a clapped out old Merc and drove round the port town for a while as he obviously stopped by all his friends saying 'I'm going to Trang, do you want me to take anything for you?' At least the few packages he ended up collecting and delivering on the way reduced our carbon footprint! Finally we were on the road and got to the guesthouse with no problems. Trang has a nice feel to it, quite a small town really but with a fair amount going on. We walked up to a Wat that we could see in the distance and went to the night market for some great food (deep fried spicy eggs on a stick, anyone? Surprisingly yummy). It was right next to the railway station so we ended up eating our goodies on the platform, realising how much we missed taking trains and watching some small children set off fireworks! The morning after we tried the two edible delights that Trang is famous for, iced coffee and muu yang (barbequed pork), both of which were utterly delicious, although the pork was fairly heart attack inducing. Having got it to take away, we hopped on a bus and then caught a boat out to Ko Mook, scoffing pork initially (the two English guys we met later told us they thought we were eating a kebab!) and then putting it away and concentrating more on whether the boat's roof was about to cave in, which seemed increasingly likely as the two guys driving the boat seemed to be holding it up themselves to contend with the very choppy sea we were ploughing through! The ferry was a rickety old wooden boat which had seen better days, all part of the experience!

Arriving on Ko Mook we met up with two English guys Henry and Rory, gap year students from Birmingham, and trekked over the other side of the island to find accommodation, again a struggle as most places were shut! Ko Mook is less toursity than Ko Lipe but still very beautiful. There is a huge local population living here, which added an air of authenticity at least. During our time on the island we ate every day in the only restaurant on the island which was actually open, where the proprietor had a pet monkey and was far too chatty, perhaps mildly deranged, for our liking. But the food was good and we literally had no other options if we wanted to eat at all, and it was about the only entertainment going on the island! We mainly spent our time playing in the waves, relaxing outside our bungalow, getting lost on the inland roads, watching a fleet of submarines doing a military excerise, and trying in vain to find some bikes to hire! We also took a longtail boat over to Ko Kraden to do some snorkelling, it was little rough but we saw some cool fish nonetheless. The real shame about our stay here is that the main attraction in Ko Mook is the 'Emerald Cave', a cave accessed from the sea where you swim 80 metres, some of which is in pitch black, to a beach at the bottom of a natural chimney; the cave was inaccessible whilst we were there due to the sea being so rough. Gutted! Even the crazy lady at the restaurant said to us, “if you haven't been to the Emerald Cave, you haven't been to Koh Mook”, before admitting that she had only been in the last year despite living there all her life.

Back on the mainland we headed up to Krabi town. A pleasant riverside town, with a chilled out backpacker scene. We stayed in a really nice guesthouse and enjoyed the little coffee bars and cheap night market. At the market we just pointed at what someone else had and asked for the same, it turned out to be pork crackling curry – healthy, but awesome! We strolled down the river and enjoyed the peace, despite Krabi being very geared up towards Western travellers there really wasn't anyone there (it is rainy season on the west coast, but the weather was mostly pretty good). Whilst in Krabi we headed to Railay for the day to meet up with Emma who we'd been volunteering with. Railay has some of the most incredible limestone karst cliffs, monkey filled jungles and outstanding beaches we have ever seen. We clambered up a ridiculous 'path', where you often had to pull yourself up by rope, to get to a viewpoint overlooking the bay. Our favourite beach was undoubtedly Phra Nang Cave Beach, where you could swim out to a little rocky island ahead of you. Our guide book suggested this beach was hard to appreciate due to the crowds of people, but there was barely anyone there. We were beginning to detect a pattern here. The backpacker ghetto at the other side was pretty crappy, a great example of how to develop an unsustainable tourist industry which will surely eventually drive away most of the tourists, a la Koh Samui. We were sad to leave though at the end of the day as we had really enjoyed ourselves and the scenery was really amazing, but all our stuff was back in Krabi and we had our hearts set on hiring a car the next day.

We hired a car so we could get out to Khao Sok National Park and it felt amazing to be travelling independently after so much being herded around onto mini buses and boats with other tourists. We headed up to Khao Sok National Park with breath-taking karst scenery on the way. We did experience a frustratingly fruitless search for some 'cool springs' which were signposted off the road but we searched high and low for without finding them! We got to the national park headquarters in the early evening, bagged ourselves a treehouse and settled in for the night. In the morning to the joyful sound of pouring rain we headed out into the park for a surprisingly enjoyable trek considering the weather, encountering beautiful waterfalls and streams along the way. It rained so much that the path became flooded and we had to take shelter for a while in a closed cafe, thankfully the rain eased off and we made our way back. It being rainy season there were vast amount of leeches lurking in every puddle and tree, and we spent a fair amount of time burning each other with a lighter trying to get the leeches off. Charlotte managed to prise one out of Liam's beard without the use of a lighter, thank goodness. We had been given a concoction of shampoo and tobacco to rub on our skin to deter them by our friendly hosts, which mostly did the trick. In the late afternoon we went for a look at the reservoir, which was created by flooding a huge area of the national park. This made the whole area feel a little bizarre and (obviously) man-made and we agreed some of the landscape was not dissimilar to Tracey Island. It was pretty interesting though, and a shame that we couldn't properly explore the lake due to the weather. For our return journey to Krabi to take the car back we took a detour took the Andaman Coast road, where we encountered lots of 2004 Tsunami memorials along the way. The whole coastline here was severely affected by the tsunami and they are still trying to recover the tourist industry here; one of the resort areas we passed through has struggled as they tragically lost 80% of their English speaking residents as they were all working in the beach-front restaurants and hotels. The area is therefore trying desperately to attract as many volunteers as possible to go and teach English to adults there, so they can get the tourism industry up and running again. We were running pretty late by this point so whizzed to Ao Nang (near Krabi) to drop the car off, and had decided to head back to Railay as we'd had such a good time there with Emma. We missed the last boat over though and so stayed in Ao Nang for the night before setting off in the morning. We definitely wouldn't recommend the place to anyone, as basically it is a thin stretch of beach with a road and a massive amount of tourist tat and bad restaurants, although amazingly it was very popular even in rainy season.

There isn't too much to say about our further couple of days in Railay, we basically just spent a couple of days lolling on the beach, swimming over to a small island (about 50m away) with a valuables in a dry bag (tested for the first time and luckily seemed watertight!), and finding some reasonable places to eat (a bit of a challenge). We got a good deal at a quiet resort tucked away on its own which was about to shut down for refurbishment. Lazy afternoons and evenings on the balcony looking out to sea were the order of the day. The only disturbance was the sound of the longtail boats revving up and down the shoreline which Charlotte's Dad commented over Skype sounded like a lawnmower (this is a real annoyance at most Thai beach resorts, sadly). After a great week it was time to head off to the other side of the country to the Gulf Coast.

Koh Lipe, Koh Mook & Trang, Thailand

Krabi, Railay & Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

Southern Thailand (18th May - 14th June)

Enjoying a well-deserved meal with Emma, Kris, Ram and Deng after white-water kayaking!

Working at the volunteer project left us free at weekends to do our own thing and explore Southern Thailand a little more. We knew we'd be spending a while in the country so had purchased a Rough Guide to Thailand whilst in Malaysia. Keenly opening it up to discover what sounded good in the nearby area, we realised that the authors had been so concerned about the violence which had occurred in the area a couple of years previously that they'd pretty much written off the whole of the Deep South with a 'we don't advise that you go there, but if you do here are some transport details'. Handy! Although the Home Office still advises that you avoid visiting the Deep South of Thailand if possible, the risk to tourists is apparently low. All we needed to do was a take a few hour bus journey through the area in daylight. The only sign of the tensions were as we were on the bus up from the Malaysian border, passing military checkpoints every few kilometres. Most days there is still something going on, as we read in the newspapers in Thailand. Its a real shame that the country is so divided, and that it is a war over which religion should have control.

However, despite guidance from the book we managed to see some pretty cool places (we were visiting and staying away from the from the risky areas, you'll be pleased to know Mum and Dad!). As Hat Yai was our nearest city, we spent what felt like quite a lot of time there, in a dirt cheap guesthouse where we made full use of the surprisingly fast internet access. Hat Yai itself at first glance doesn't really have much to interest a passing tourist, but as we got to know it a little better and find our favourite places to eat etc, and grew quite fond of it. We noticed a lot Chinese influence on the culture there, lots of great Chinese/Thai crossover food but still managed to enjoy the fresh and tasty spicy food for which Thailand is famed. We visited Wat Hat Yai Nai to see the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, which was different to other statues we have seen as it was painted plaster rather than shiny gold. We got very excited to discover a supermarket that sold muesli so we happily stocked up on a large packet of muesli which we then had to shoo ants out of each morning! Near to Hat Yai is a cool floating market, where we spent an hour or so eating far too much food and getting excited about drinking out of bamboo cups! The food stalls on the river were very tempting, each stall was a small boat moored up, with lots of tasty treats on offer.

One weekend we visited Songkla, a pleasant coastal city (large town?) with wide leafy streets and a large lake. We stumbled across a small but beautiful temple, inadvertently gatecrashing a funeral, before relaxing on the beach for a while. In the evening the city really came to life with a fabulous night market, where the current trend seemed to be 'vintage' so we had fun browsing the vintage style clothes and other bits and bobs, and watching guys serving iced drinks out of a converted VW Kombi van. Bliss! The next morning we visited the market that had set up overnight on the road in front of our hotel, and stocked up on fresh fruit, before heading to Songkla National Museum. It was a pretty interesting museum, with lots about the history of Songkla and housed in a lovely airy old building. In the afternoon we hired a longtail boat and visited a small fishing village over the other side of the lake. They obviously don't get many tourists over that way judging by the gleeful shouts of 'farang, farang' ('foreigner, foreigner') and frantic waving from the small shacks at the lakeside! The villages were an amazing sight, wooden houses built into the lake on stilts, with their fishing boats housed beneath. They were in varying states of repair, some were even subsiding into the lake, apparently this didn't concern the occupants to much as they were sat inside. We hopped off the boat and had a wander round the village, stopping for a cha yen (ice tea) at a small place showing Thai boxing, where the locals got very excited when we ordered in Thai and presumed we could understand them as they nattered away to us, which of course we couldn't.

Our other main excursions were very kindly arranged by Ram and Deng at the volunteer house. We spent one weekend at Ton Nga Chang Waterfall, where Kris worked, with Emma and Kris. We were dropped off at Kris' place and had a mooch around the local area before waiting for ages for a songthaew to take us to the waterfall. In the end we gave up and started walking, only to then be offered a lift in the back of a very posh pick-up truck, a very well-to-do Thai family on a day out to the waterfall with a huge ice bucket and a very slobbery dog. After all that, it was great to finally get there, to only pay 'local rate' as the staff recognised Kris, and to cool off in the waterfall! There are seven levels to the waterfall but the path becomes pretty precarious after level two, so we had level three pretty much to ourselves. It was very serene, sitting in the bubbling waterfall looking out onto the national park below, occasionally clambouring up the slippy rocks to have a proper swim in the deeper pool on the fourth level. That evening we ate instant noodles, played cards and drinking games, the usual camping activities! We stayed in the national park in some kind of government accommodation, kipping on gym mats and being woken up at 3am with big red beetles crawling around on us! The sound of all the various insects, birds and animals outside was a soothing cacophony. We got up at 5am to watch the sunrise and had the waterfall all to ourselves. Amazingly peaceful, and beautiful to watch the sun come up over the misty forest below.

On our last weekend with the volunteer project Ram and Deng took Kris, Emma and us out to see Phu Pha Phet Cave. The cave itself is huge, only discovered in the 1990s (by a Monk who subsequently meditated there for 2 years) and with fascinating stalagmites and stalagtites. Despite being halfway up a mountain, there was actually remnants of shells there and some still living coral (due to the intense moisture in the air), showing that at one time this part of Thailand had been under the sea. Crazy stuff! We then drove to a nearby river to do some kayaking. Ram was very anxious about it as she can't swim, but we managed to persuade her with lots of 'oh come on, you've got a life jacket, kayaking is easy, you'll be fine!' etc. We had imagined a gentle punt down river but it turned out to be the fairly ridiculous 'white water kayaking' (complete with 'Thai-style' health & safety precautions, i.e. none) and Charlotte was the only person to not fall out of her kayak (Liam is proud to stay he 'got out' rather than 'fell out', as we got wedged up on a rock and it need a push off), apart from the people who were with the kayak pros (of which, thankfully, Ram was one!). Needless to say, it was tremendous fun (apart from Liam getting bit by a blue spider! Thankfully Thailand doesn't have poisonous spiders) and once we'd finished we wished we could do it all again!

Our experiences in the south were great, and we really enjoyed being in places where most of the tourists are Thai (tourism is the biggest industry in Thailand, which is great for them but can sometimes take the magic away when you look around and see mostly European faces). But it was time to leave the village of Ban Leab (after staying over 3 weeks, the longest we had stayed anywhere in 6 months) and try and see as much of the rest of the country as possible before our visas expired.

Volunteering, Southern Thailand

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Volunteering in Songkhla Province, Thailand (18th May - 13th June)

With Ram at the Volunteer Centre.

We have recently finished a stint of volunteering at Ban Roean Ram Centre for Sustainable Development, in a small village called Banleab about half an hour away from Hat Yai (big city in the south). It feels a little difficult to look back on almost 4 weeks and sum it up in a blog post but here goes!

The centre was set up a few years ago and attracts volunteers from around the world (mainly European) to come and work there, doing a variety of projects from eco-tourism, teaching English, construction, and agriculture. We were on a 'mixed project' and therefore aimed to do a little bit of everything.

We arrived on a Wednesday night so for the first couple of days we didn't do much beyond some orientation, and we had weekends off. We went along to a local 'anti-drug' community event. There were a few speakers of varying levels of skill at engaging the kids (the local police chief didn't seem to do very well), but there was one stand-out speaker who had the kids onstage and engaged them very well. At one point we were made to stand up as the speaker introduced us to the children. Of course we had no idea what anyone was saying as it was all in Thai, and it was a little strange as our presence there was token at best as we had had nothing to do with the community at this point. At the end of the morning we were asked to pose for photogrpahs with one of the schools and then all the children were made to shake our hands. We felt like royalty! After the children had been packed off to school, the fun really began. The food for lunch was whipped out (a fantastic vegetable, prawn, rice and chilli dish) and the afternoon games began. It felt quite strange that the morning for the children was fairly dull at times and the afternoon events once all the children had gone were pretty fun! There was a catapult game which we were both hopeless at, and a game where a a piece of wood with marbles on top was balanced on two tin cans, the aim being to throw a golf ball at it from a distance and knock it over. Charlotte came fourth in the women's heat and Liam came first in the men's! We were ceremoniously presented with hand towels as prizes by the mayor of the town! There was also a golf putting game, but rendered extremely difficult due to the 'green' being a cracked, dusty and uneven wasteland, so it clearly took a lot of skill (or luck) to get the ball in the hole in a less embarrassing fashion than Liam managed!

Once we got into the swing of things our routine was generally thus: On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, we would spend a few hours at the local primary school teaching English, and then in the afternoon either do some agriculture in the plantation at the centre, do some painting at the house, or clear the area around a hut being built which was going to become a community library. All of this was weather permitting and usually we got back from school in the baking heat, the kind where even sleeping is difficult! So usually we would take a break until 3pm, by which point it might be raining (of the 'heavens opening/God is angry' variety) so sometimes we had the afternoon off. The English teaching was fun, I think we both enjoyed it more than expected. Neither of us has ever had a burning desire to be a teacher (sorry Mum!) or even work with kids, so it was a new experience for us. We taught a nursery class of 3 year olds, then a combined kinderkarten class of four and five year olds, followed by either a class of 11 or 12 year olds. Although the littlest ones were pretty darn cute it was a bit strange to being teaching them the Roman alphabet when they don't even know the Thai one yet, so really we were there for a bit of entertainment and break up there day, and hopefully some basic familiarisation with English and foreigners! So we mainly coloured with them and sang songs with them (If You're Happy and You Know It, Old Macdonald, Wheels on the Bus, all the classics! Being only three some of them would just be napping through our sessions, or crying (one burst into hysterical tears when she saw us and the teacher explained "she's scared of foreigners"!). The next class were a little more receptive as they were more into the routine of school and more confident so we were able to teach them some colours, animals, numbers etc. They loved the games we played with them to help them learn but mainly because it involved running around (not neccessarily to what they were supposed to be running towards) and shouting (if we were lucky what they were supposed to be shouting)! It was a learning experience for us for sure, but we hit a wall with it after a couple of weeks given our limited teaching skills! We were doing the class with Emma, an euthusiastic English volunteer with the ton of energy required for the younger ones. She was also a dab hand at drawing things for the little ones to colour in so most of her days would start with her frantically sketching something for us to photocopy and hand out to the children to colour! So she was a Godsend to have with us and was naturally great with the kids. Despite corporal punishment being made illegal in 2005, both younger classes were subject to a stick or a ruler which the teach waggled about menancingly when the children got a little rowdy, it would have been preferable for us to deal with it ourselves rather than the teacher jumping in with her stick but of course somewhat impossible what with the language barrier! The other major distraction for the kids was a huge table laden with sweets which they were allowed to buy from the teacher. As a result they had bulging pockets of sweets and their teeth were sometimes atrocious. Apart from that the school itself seemed pretty good, and it seemed the younger ones were occupied and looked after much better than the older children.

We would then move over to the junior school and teach a class of 11 year olds on Monday and Tuesday, and 12 year olds on Thursday and Friday. They were working through some dreadful books which we were supposed to help them with, full of nonsensical cartoons, from an overly Americanised perspective and too advanced for their capabilities (despite us both having done GCSE German, probably neither of us would have been able to do these books if they'd been in German). The problem was that the requirement to teach English to curriculum had only just come in at the school (it was the beginning of the school year in Thailand) and there were seperate books aimed at each year group, so each student was given their 'appropriate' book. But of course they weren't really at that level as they hadn't been doing the other books in previous years. They seemed to be be doing some English work from TV lessons (there were only a few teachers so most of the time it appeared that the classes were 'taught' by the TV) but this was mostly rote learning, copying down words which they didn't really understand, let alone able to read. We negotiated with the teachers and ended up working from the book for one lesson a week with each class and then the other day we did our own thing. We took things back to basics as their English was pretty much limited to "My name is..." and being able to answer the question "How are you?" with "I'm fine thankyou". So we devised some roleplays to teach greetings, basic questions about themselves and their families and numbers. Hopefully it was more relevant and useful to them than teaching them about buying a 'package of cookies' at the 'store' or what the weather was like in Alaska. Each day as we went over to the classes they were learning from the TV (the school only has 2 teachers to be in charge of everyone aged 6 to 12), and the lack of appropriate supervision when we were there sometimes made things difficult. We had a couple of 'characters' in our 11 year old class (one named Beer - Liam, don't get any ideas!) who made life tricky at times for the others to get on with their work. Ram (from the centre, who always accompanied us to try and translate) was keen on us 'just teaching the ones who want to learn' which completely went against our principles so we tried our best (with some success) to engage the more distracted ones as well as the attentive ones (after all there were three volunteers for a class of six children!). It's the age old dilemma of who to focus on the most; the kids that are the hardest to reach or the ones that are sat quietly and patiently waiting for you to teach them. We taught outside and were often distracted by other variables; kids wandering by from other classrooms and joining in, a poisonous centipede which the boys joyously hacked into pieces, and on our last day the boys all had 'fighting fish' in glass jars, they put the fish together and the fish attack each other until one dies. Thailand's version of conkers? Our last class before we left blew up into a big fight between some of the boys, which wasn't the nicest way to end our time there! But on the whole we enjoyed teaching the older children, they were all bright and good natured at heart and most of them were genuinely interested to learn. The main problem was distracting them from the distractions, so to speak. We built up a good rapore with all of them and on good days they would even beg us not to leave, which was quite heartbreaking.

The afternoons would often involve somekind of agriculture (weather permitting), often hoeing, weeding and planting corn, cucumbers, pack choi etc. We also used a funky contraption on a long pole to reach up and put a plastic bag over the fruit in the trees and then pull the string to snap an elastic band over it to keep the bag sealed. This was to stop the insects getting to the fruit, and since they were growing things organically they weren't using pesticides. The agriculture work was pretty fun when it wasn't too hot and we'd love to have an allotment at some point in the future. To avoid the heat Liam ended up buying a huge traditional wicker hat from the nearby village which the locals were extremely amused by as we walked back from the bus stop, however it turned out a little too impractical to actually do any work in! One week we helped to paint the centre a very fetching shade of green. Unfortunately between school and doing work in the afternoon it was too hot to really do much (all the Thais would be sleeping, as they mainly work in the mornings and evenings - and at night if they work on the rubber plantations) so the day often felt quite drawn out. Sometimes we would catch a songthaew (local bus - basically a pick up truck with seats and a covering on the back) to a nearby village and go on the internet. We also got friendly with the Cha Yen (Thai iced tea) lady in our village as we visted for our fix most days! Cha yen is Thai style iced tea, made with dark red tea, sweet spices, copious amounts of sugar and mixed with condensed milk. It is then poured over ice and then topped up with a bit of evaporated milk. Not being a huge fan of creamy drinks we couldn't believe how mind-blowingly good it was, and the sugar certainly helped to pep us up from our heat-induced comas!

On a Wednesday we would tend to do something different. On our first Wednesday we did a bit of planting in the morning and set off to Satun province in the afternoon as Deng (who worked for the project) was going to see her family there. We hadn't realised quite how far away Satun was and the whole round trip was at least 8 hours, all in the back of Deng's pink pick-up truck exposed to the elements. The most entertaining bit of the day was watching Deng's sister selling compression style socks to various friends and family members; these socks apparently cured pretty much any ailment including spots, being too dark-skinned (skin lightnening is big business here as in most of Asia), even not being able to walk! Miracle socks indeed. They were being sold for 3600 Baht, which works out at almost £75! We watched a rubber plantation (big money in Thailand) owner's wife buy three pairs. As Liam commented, when your water supply isn't even safe to drink, spending over £200 on magic socks might indicate there are some skewed priorities somewhere! A couple of Wednesdays we drove off to visit Kris, a German guy who was volunteering at a national park nearby. We worked with him in the gardens of a local school, attempting to tidy up the school garden for inspection. As Kris rightly commented, it probably looked nicer before we hacked it up and nature was running its course! However, the day ended with a trip to the waterfall in the national park (more on that in the next post) which was beautiful and the perfect end to the day. Another time we went to see a lake just as the sun was going down, with an Irish guy living locally who popped by at the school to chat to us for a bit. The lake was really stunning, and it was fabulous to watch the sun go down behind the jungle-clad mountains surrounded by whispy low clouds.

Whilst volunteering we stayed with Ram and Deng, the two women who ran the project out of Deng's house. They had met whilst working at another volunteer project and decided to set up their own. They didn't get a wage for working with the project so both had other jobs; Ram was a hairdresser and Deng got up at 3 in the morning to work on a rubber plantation, and also worked with the local council. They were great fun to spend time with - Ram was utterly hilarious and Deng was an amazing cook. They really made our time volunteering special and it was really good to get to know them. Our first impression of Ram was pretty funny as we'd caught a minibus from the Malaysian border and then rang her to let her know we were in Hat Yai and needed to be picked up. Having assumed it would be a very short call we stupidly used our English mobile, rapidly zapping it of credit without getting anywhere. Ram couldn't understand anything we were saying (cue lots of "EH!?" from the other end of the phone). We eventually used a payphone and collared a young Thai guy to speak to Ram and explain where we were, and Ram came and picked us up with a huge grin on her face, explaining that she really struggles to understand English over the phone!

Sometimes we would have casual Thai culture, language and cooking lessons from them, which was a great introduction to the customs of Thailand. We would love to say that this means we can now whip up amazing Thai food but unfortunately a lot of the dishes it would be struggle to be replicated at home e.g. a curry made mainly from the leaves and flowers of a tree in a field nearby, and of course all fresh herbs and spices used. We also learned to make cha yen, the aforementioned addictive Thai iced tea. Our language learning didn't really get very far so I'm sure the kids at school were amused with us saying "dee mak" ("very good") to just about everything they did. There were also some cute kids from the village who would come and see us who we'd play cards with etc. Their names were Mintin, Min and Mon, and a little boy called either Phil, Will or Quill, depending on who you asked! They were very sweet and would say our names over and over again, taking particular delight in Liam's name and wandering about saying "Leeeeeeam, Leeeeeeam, Leeeeeam". We were later told that Liam is a simiiar word for a pointy nose in Thai (and also police constable), which might explain why they liked it so much!

I think perhaps what we enjoyed the most about the volunteering was living in a Thai village, seeing people go about their daily lives, and learning more about their culture. It was interesting hearing their thoughts on the upcoming election, especially on why Thaksin is so popular despite charges of corruption. We also got to attend Ram's friend Um's monk ordination party (most Thai men at some point become a monk for a short while, and the party was a send-off before he went. He had already been shaved and was wearing a fetching white robe, which is then swapped for an orange one on arrival at the temple) and witness some hilariously camp dancing to the karaoke (seemingly most Thais favourite past-time - the karoke that is!). It's great to now have some Thai friends and I hope we'll be able to keep in touch.

More to follow on the sightseeing we did during our time here!

Volunteering, Southern Thailand

Friday, 17 June 2011

Kota Bahru & Pulau Perhentian (6th - 18th May)

Charlotte rocking the diver look.

To travel from Pengang to the Perhentian Islands the easiest way to go was via Kota Bharu. We only had a late afternoon and evening there, but managed to visit a 'Thai festival' (a few stalls selling bits and bobs, and some awesome Power Tea - amazing Thai ice tea which I'm sure we will discuss at length in the Thailand blog!) and the recommended night market which had so many rats and so little atmosphere we ended up cutting our losses and going to Pizza Hut.

The following morning we took a minibus to the tourist port of Kuala Besut, stopping for far too long on the way to pick some other people up from the airport. The driver then proceeded to drive the rest of the journey like a madman possessed who had watched too much Dukes Of Hazard, flying over potholes and bumps in the road. After our white knuckle ride we got to the port and went to the resorts mainland 'office' (a local families house with a shop out the front) and were shown to the pier by a frankly very rude lady (the joke was on her though, as in her rush to get us on the boat and out of her sight she forgot to make us pay!). Skipping across the still blue ocean in a 15 person speed boat for about half an hour we arrived at the smaller island (Perhentian Kecil) and started dropping other passengers off at various resorts, the sea so clear and turqouise it was as if your brain was photoshopping your vision. The resorts were a little overcrowded though, with lots of wooden huts and concrete hotels (although nowhere near the scale you would expect on some Thai islands) built right out onto the beach. After stopping off at various bays and having our fingers crossed that it wasn't where we were staying, we were the last people on the boat and we finally rounded into what looked like a deserted jungle-backed bay on Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two islands, wondering why we appeared to be heading inland. As we came closer it became apparent that the resort had just made an effort to be discreet and not build directly on the beach, and so the resort itself was just behind the trees. We were welcomed to Bubbles Resort by a friendly English girl and an Australian kid and checked in and were shown to our rooms. The resort itself was no frills, just simple concrete bungalows set back in a cluster from the beach. The rooms were nice enough and clean, although we took the cheapest option and baked ourselves for the duration of our stay in the fan only rooms. The first day we spent on the beach, deserted as the resort had it all to themselves and there were only a handful of guests staying. It was a very hot day and despite suncream and efforts to stay in the shade of the beach, we were both lobster red by dinner. The staff had a good laugh at us and our sterotypical Brits abroad look! The next day we took a snorkelling tour by boat around a couple of different reefs, saw lots of shoals of colourful fish and a couple of huge turtles. At the end we were taken to a freshwater creek to cool off and rinse off the salt water. Charlotte managed to burn her back despite wearing a t-shirt, when floating around snorkelling her t-shirt had ridden up, bad luck!

We decided to do a 'Discover Scuba' day course and were taken out by the resort's friendly South African Dive Instructor, Chris. We liked it so much we decided to carry on and get our PADI Open Water qualification, a course to learn the basics and technically allow you to dive without supervision up to 18m, although we won't be doing that anytime soon! But it will mean we can go on dive trips with Dive Masters to show us the sights at any Dive resort in the world. There were some patronising and tedious videos to watch (PADI is an American organisation - 'nuff said!) and some quizzes to fill in, but it was mostly logical common sense. We did 4 dives and some skills practise in the shallow water at the beach. There are a couple of 'house reefs' at the resort, so all we had to do was wade out from the resort to dive. We also did a couple of boat dives where they took us out to two different reefs (Gadom & Tiger Reef) and we jumped in and dove down to some beautiful reefs and saw some interesting creatures (including big bumphead parrot fish, boxfish, angel fish, batfish, stingrays and another whopper turtle). We passed the final quiz and Chris was happy with our skills so we were issued with our temporary PADI ID cards. Whoop!

The rest of our 5 day stay at Bubbles was spent relaxing the hammocks in the shade of the trees by beach, snorkelling on the house reef at the beach (saw a Black-tip Reef Shark!), swimming and kayaking in the sea and eating in the canteen. The food was OK but nothing spectacular, it all has to be imported from the mainland so it is fairly expensive and it was canteen style food cooked up by some non-Malaysian guys so not exactly authentic cuisine! But it did the trick, and I even enjoyed some tasty, locally caught, breaded fish and chips on a couple of occasions. Beer in Malaysia is very expensive so we only treated ourselves to a can each on one occassion, because of the high tax on alcohol in Malaysia (as it's a Muslim country) and the fact the beer was shipped in from the mainland. The price is just over £2 for a small can, so you easily bankrupt yourselves at those prices. Also the fact was that the cost of two beers would have upgraded us to an air-con room, so we held onto our precious Ringgits (Malaysian currency). The resort also operates a turtle conservation project, which originally we had thought about doing, but in the end the dates didn't work out and it was a little too expensive (we actually spent a little less as paying guests in total than in would have cost to volunteer!), The guy running the volunteering gave us a little talk about the turtles and how their nesting is being disturbed by tourism (especially resort building on the beach, and too many lights, which is why they had taken a more subtle approach). He took us out one night to see a couple of pretty huge turtles (a good metre in length), digging holes in the sand to lay eggs. Underwater they are quite graceful but on land they are very slow and cumbersome as you can imagine, dragging themselves across the sand, before quite energetically scooping the sand out with their flippers. A truly amazing sight. The volunteers also keep the turtles tracks hidden to stop poachers digging up the eggs for sale, apparently they are considering to have health-giving properties. The turtles don't breed until they are on average around 25 years old and many of them die before reaching maturity, so their existence really is in the balance in places such as the Perhentian Islands.

We had also planned to visit the smaller island, Perhentian Kecil and so headed off by boat to a resort we had booked by email a few weeks previously. Chris (dive instructor) kindly came with us to make sure we got there and that the boat guy knew where to pick us up from (our final dive had been called off because of bad weather so we were doing it the next day). We turned up at the resort to find that our reservation had been cancelled, because Paypal had held the deposit payment. The lady explained that she had emailed Paypal (but inexplicably not me, despite me having had booked via email!) and my account had been suspended. I had known this but hadn't worried, as I had received the email the day after I had transferred the deposit, and had an email receipt confirming my payment. Paypal wanted all sorts of bank details that I didn't have on me to unlock my account so I had left it. Now we were stood on the beach, watching our boat disappear back to Bubbles wondering what to do! Another resort we had been originally booked into but had been cancelled due to crossed wires and then told they were full (lesson learnt: don't book accommodation in the Perhentians by email!) was only a 15 minute walk away so we decided to dump our bags and go and see if they had any free rooms. Thankfully they did and we came back and collected our bags, and tramped through the hot and humid jungle (admittedly the paved path made it a lot easier!) further up the coast and checked into our wooden hut on stilts, a stones throw from the beach. It was located in a small, picturesque bay with a beautiful beach and great swimming, with a collection of wooden huts just back from the beach. The accommodation itself was basic to say the least, but what more does one need in paradise other than a bed, mosquito net, fan and a toilet? It wasn't particularly clean but we wouldn't be spending much time in the room. We also had a little balcony with a hammock and table and chairs, the perfect spot to chill and out and read, with a lovely view of the beach and out to sea. The people working there were a crazy couple of guys, a young guy with a pet otter (very cute, it even followed us all the way to the next bay when we were collecting ours bags) and an older bloke who liked to sing and exclaim 'OH MY GOD!' a lot. They both made for some light entertainment most days! Although with only 2 staff, great patience was needed in the restaurant if there were a few other guests in there, one day I had to wait an hour for a cheese sandwich! We soon discovered that the resort we had supposed to have been staying at had a very good restaurant with good food and a nice atmosphere so we tramped on over there a few nights for dinner. Each day they did a special dish and we enjoyed some great locally caugh Snapper fish in Thai curry sauce, and a delicious Chicken Korma on our last night. Their generator had given out so one evening they closed their kitchen early, although very kindly whipped us up some sandwiches as we had walked all that way in the dark. But it made the restaurant even more atmospheric eating by the sea by candlelight.

We would have loved to have stayed on the Perhentians longer and chilled out in the sun reading and swimming, but we dragged ourselves out of the hammock as we were due to arrive in Thailand at our volunteer project. We got the boat back to Kuala Besut and waved goodbye to Perhentians. Truly paradise!

We ended up spending another night in Kota Bahru after returning from the Perhentians and enjoyed it much more this time around. We asked the hostel guy where we could get a beer (it being a Muslim province most restaurants and shops don't sell beer - only the Chinese restaurants) and he jumped at the chance of showing us to a place nearby. Because he is of Muslim origin (although non-practising) it is frowned up for him to drink in public, but apparently it's acceptable if he is with foreigners. He still got some funny looks from the Chinese patrons though. He seemed to enjoy meeting travellers and questioning them on their philosophy on life. He took us back to the rat-infested night market but this time it was surprisingly rat-free and there were a fair few more people milling around. We bumped into a German guy who was staying at the hostel, who had also bumped into an American guy he had met at some other point in Malaysia (even when travelling to far off destinations, the world can still seem small!) and we got some amazing tasty treats. Grilled chicken, blue rice with curried anchovies, really great food. It changed our perception of Kota Bahru a lot. I had a chat to the German guy about beer (he was a Bavarian) and despite being un-stereotypically slight for a Bavarian he really loved his food and beer, and was waxing lyrical about the grilled chicken and bakery products he had bought (made me chuckle as he sounded a lot like Uter the sterotypical German boy in the Simpsons). The American was from Gainsville, Florida so I chatted to him about The Fest which is punk rock festival there I have also wanted to go to. The night ended with a failed attempt at watching Shutter Island on the hostel TV (dodgy pirate copy, it skipped so much we watched the 'entire film' in 40 minutes!) and we hit the hay in preparation for our journey across the border to Thailand.

Perhentian Islands & Kota Bharu, Malaysia