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