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, 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