Thursday, 27 September 2012


The Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, which is one bombing mission every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day, for nine years.

Over two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped during the Vietnam War, and the US denied that there were any combat missions in Laos for six years after the war, not taking any responsibility for their actions. Two hundred and seventy million bombs were dropped on Laos and thirty percent of them failed to detonate, that’s eighty million unexploded bombs just sitting around waiting to explode.

People all over Laos are still living with the leftovers of the US secret war. In January of this year (2012) a family in a rural Laos province were having a bonfire for their daughters Birthday, there was an unexploded bomb buried underground beneath the bonfire, the heat from the fire was enough to force the bomb to detonate. Four of the children’s were killed instantly, two more died on their way to hospital and more people were left injured or without limbs. The UXO problem here in Laos is devastating.

Today we went to the COPE center a charitable organisation based in Vientiane dedicated to helping those affected by UXO’s in Laos. Some of the stories we heard and things we learnt will no doubt stay with us forever. The issues surrounding UXO in Laos are far more complex than people simply getting killed by unexploded mines. There is an illegal scrap metal industry that is seriously big business here. People can sell scrap metal for money and depending on the amount of metal found, that money could feed a poverty stricken Laos family for months. There are stories of children spotting bits of scrap metal that have tuned out to be bombs. They try and dig the bomb up in order to take it to sell it so they might feed their families, and of course, more often than not, they are killed or injured in the process. 41 out of 46 of the poorest districts in Laos have UXO contamination. Bombs are found under roads, in school playgrounds and in the middle of villages.

Between 1964 and the present day more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a direct result of UXO incidents, more than 20,000 were post-war, out of the 20,000 killed or injured after the war had ended, 13,500 of them lost a limb, forty percent of them were children and one hundred new casualties occur per year. 24% of accidents occur because people are looking for scrap metal to sell, this is something that could be stopped if the illegal scrap metal trade were to be shut down, but in such a poor country this is hard to enforce. When a bomb is cleared from a village the looks on the faces of the villagers are torn, some part of them is pleased because the danger is gone but the other half is sad because the money they could have gotten from the metal is taken away.

The museum was amazing and some of the documentaries we watched were very moving and very informative. I feel like I’ve really learnt something of value here in Vientiane. Is there ever any need to carpet bomb a country? Is there ever any need to use cluster bombs in times of war? 111 counties in the world think the answer to those questions is no, and I’m happy to say that the UK has signed a treaty for the ban of cluster bombs, however, the US on the other hand, has signed no such treaty. Which is disappointing. You don’t really give these things a thought until its there right in front of you, where you can touch the bombs (the safe ones in the museum), where you can talk to the people affected by the choices and decisions of military advisers  people in white collar suits in high rise buildings deciding the fates of the lives of thousands. I’m sure these decisions aren’t taken lightly but in the case of Laos, nearly fifty years after the bombings took place, people are still losing their lives and losing their limbs, parents are losing their children, an entire country is being prevented from being moved forward because of those choices.

Some of the most devastating footage we saw was of an old 92 year old village elder watching the UXO clearance team blowing up a bomb found in his village. The UXO team said that they could sometimes see that the people who were alive during the bombings are taken back to those days, are reliving those moments, this particular man lost his wife and his whole family during the bombings and he was there hunched over behind a barricade reliving those moments fifty years later.

I’m not sure quite how to conclude, but I’ll just say that if you’re ever in Vientiane pay a visit to the COPE center  it’s truly amazing and the work the charity is doing is very noble and very worthwhile. They are good people.

The past few days we’ve been chilling out here in the capital city, we walked around all of the major temples and monuments, and we took a local bus out to the Buddha park (an open air Buddhist art exhibit) which was very interesting. It was striking to see how quickly the concrete roads of the city turn back into bumpy, dusty, mud flats, there is still a lot of development to be done here, this country has a long way to go.

Lee (the Malaysian cyclist we met in Luang Prabang) told us how he found it astounding that the country still waves the communist flag. He has a point. The big buildings, wealthy business man, and economic excess that can be found here in the capital are a stark contrast to the abject poverty that we witnessed on the slow boat through the Mekong. This country probably needs to re-asses some of its priorities, but I tell you something: Laos people sure know how to smile, they know how to be welcoming, a guy who had both of his arms blown off was a fine example of this today as he said hello to us with a huge grin on his face. The people here are wonderful, they are friendly, and even though some of them have nothing they are humble and willing to help. Natalie’s flip flops broke on a walk through the country in Vang Vieng and a teenager walking through his village offered her his flip flops. They have the important things right. They know how to be humanitarians, they know kindness and empathy and as long as they don’t lose that, I think they’ll do just fine.

It’s been a great experience visiting Laos, we’ve seen a lot, we’ve done a lot, and we’ve learnt a lot. We are really lucky in the UK that we can walk through a field with no fear of having our legs blown off. That's not the case here and it's been an experience learning why. We've also met some great people, and had a great time, eaten some good food and engaged in some great conversation. We fly out to Vietnam tomorrow, onto a new country and new adventures. I’m going to remember that no matter what happens I need to keep smiling, if the people of Laos can, then by gum, so can I, and so can you. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Vang Vieng

I was sceptical about even visiting Vang Vieng in the first place. It has a reputation for being a loud and obnoxious party town that caters specifically to backpackers who want to get wasted on buckets (yes buckets) of cheap whiskey and BeerLao. Not my scene, at all. However, since Huay Xai we had started hearing rumours that things were changing in this central Laos party hotspot, and from what I saw, things really are.

Let me put it this way, in 2012 11 people have died whilst tubing down the river in Vang Vieng, they usually die because they’ve drank their body weight in Tiger whiskey and have decided to jump into a river full of massive rocks from a giant slide. On average 4 backpackers die every month in Vang Vieng. Tubing is the big draw for a lot of people. You rent a giant rubber tube from town, get a tuk-tuk down to the riverside and then sit in the tube and float back to town, only on the way back, there are several bars along the river most of which have water rides, a recipe for disaster if I ever did hear about one. Oh, and that happy pizza you saw on the menu, yeah, that ain’t happy because it’s so delicious, it’s happy because they’ve thrown a load of hallucinogenic drugs on top of it.

So, what’s changed? Well, on August 31st the Lao government stepped in and shut down all of the bars along the main tube run and have cracked down on all the drugs and heavy drinking going on in Vang Vieng. The result is a ghost town. There was just nobody there. We saw a few people tubing down the river but they weren’t drunk and they looked pretty bored if you ask me. The bars along the riverside in town were practically all empty despite the fact that they were playing re-runs of Friends and Family Guy on a loop. The Lao Culture and Tourism board want to completely reinvent Vang Vieng to pull in a less rowdy cliental, and a month in, it seems to be working. Once word gets around that the party is over in Vang Vieng, then those booze hounds will have to find a new town to destroy.

Outside of the video-bars and tourist driven downtown area Vang Vieng is a truly beautiful place. The river flows gently beneath these huge limestone cliffs that fade away into the clouds in the distance and they make for some great exploring.

We headed out to the ‘Blue Lagoon’ which is a lot more green than blue this time of year, no matter, the main draw of the place is a giant cave that sits half way up the cliff side. Unfortunately, like everything else in Vang Vieng, the cave has been subsidised and you have to pay to get in. The man sat beneath the path to the cave had a giant spider crawling all over him. It was about the size of his head, it was bright yellow with black stripes and black legs and the man said it was very poisonous. It was one of the scariest things in the world. It was huge and it was just crawling all over the man who seemed pretty un-phased by the whole affair. I took his photo and we started climbing up the side of the cliff.

It was quite a ramble up the steep slope that was covered with giant leaves and insects, as we got higher up, the more dense the jungle seemed to become, but after about ten minutes climbing we finally got to the entrance of the cave. We threw our headlamps on and headed inside. I have honestly never seen anything like it before in my life. The cave was gigantic, the sunlight poured in through a hole in the ceiling which illuminated all of the rocks below, there were passageways leading off in all directions, there were vast holes which fell into nothingness and there were pools which had formed in small pockets of the cave interior. It was like being in the mines of Moria.

This wouldn’t be the only cave we would venture inside on our stay in Vang Vieng. We didn’t fancy tubing or drinking so all that was really left to do was explore the countryside and the caves.

On our second day we went looking for adventure, we left the town on foot and headed out into the cliffs, we eventually stumbled across a sign that pointed to a cave and figured we’d been walking long enough and we wanted to do some caving. We followed the sign through a huge rice paddy and then through the jungle until we got to a small outpost that two guys were sat upon. They told us it was 10,000kip to go inside the cave so we paid up and headed through the forest towards the bottom of the cliff.

This cave was very different to the first one that we had explored. One of the guys from the outpost followed us to the entrance, handed us some headlamps and showed us the way inside. You had to duck down into a small puddle and under a rock to get in, inside there were some bats hanging out on the roof and the whole room was pretty large. The guide pointed to a far corner where a trail went off into the interior of the cave. As soon as we edged around the narrow rocks we were told to leave our shoes and our bags and we descended a rickety old ladder into an even narrower path a little lower down. There were huge crickets jumping around under foot, the mud was incredibly slippery and thick, there were puddles of water at every turn and the walls were wet and provided no decent grip.

I started getting pretty nervous about this cave, pretty quickly. If our lights went out then it would be pitch black and there would be no way out, if it started raining then surly the cave would fill up and we would drown, the ladders we were descending into the cave upon were made of rickety old wood and were falling apart, barely resting on the slippery granite walls. There was one hole that we had to cross on top of two old bamboo poles which were just as slippery as the floor and if we would have fallen we probably would have been falling to our doom. We kept going and the guide kept reassuring us that “it’s no problem, it’s very easy”. We walked further and further into the cave for a long time, climbing up and down ladders, ducking under giant rocks and splashing through deep puddles, thick with brown mud.  

Eventually we made it to the back of the cave and there was one final descent to a huge swimming pool below, however, to get there we would have to descend steps that were made out of the very mud we had been sliding upon our whole way through the cave and we decided it wasn’t worth the risk so we turned around and went back the way we came, which was just as daunting, nerve wrecking and heart wrenching as before.

We were happy to get out of the most claustrophobic space we had even been inside, we were covered in mud and filth and had a new found appreciation for our lives. The conclusion of this cautionary tale is that Vang Vieng doesn’t just have to be about drinking buckets of whiskey, watching re-runs of Friends and tubing down the river, you can in-fact do some pretty amazing things there, but you’ll probably still put your life on the line. It’s certainly not for everyone.

We’re in Vientiane now, the capital city of Laos and we just walked around the old run-down Lao National Museum, which is basically a communist propaganda centre, but it had a few interesting things going for it and I read a lot about the UXO situation here in Laos, which is truly devastating. We’re looking forward to exploring the city some more tomorrow and we hope not to go inside any more caves anytime soon, although it was incredibly enjoyable.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Luang Prabang

Arriving at the pier in Luang Prabang you are surrounded by touts trying to tell you all about their hotels and guesthouses. We must have ended up with about seven pamphlets by the time we finally got out onto the road. We pretty much ignored the pamphlets we were given and headed out to find a guesthouse. We walked past a fair few asking how much before we finally settled on a quaint little guesthouse tucked nicely away down a side street. The guesthouse catered to Korean travellers, some coincidence, they had a soju stocked fridge, a menu with kimchi soup on it and Korean writing scattered around on signs.

One pamphlet did come in handy and it was advertising a restaurant called the Lao Lao garden. We had wanted to try Lao barbeque since hearing about it in the border town of Huay Xai so we got pretty excited. My belly was finally feeling back to some level of normality so we set out into town to find the restaurant. Luang Prabang is a beautiful little town with lots of hangovers from the French occupation. It’s a green city lined with golden steeples, beautiful French architecture sits next to small Asian inspired buildings, and monks in orange robes walk through the streets day and night, (that is until midnight when curfew kicks in). Laos has a government curfew that states that every person must be in their legally registered residence by midnight, or else. This law seems pretty loose as far as foreigners are concerned and most police won’t bother you, however, if you are Lao then rest assured you had better be home by midnight, so all the bars and restaurants start shutting up at around 11 / 11:30pm.

Anyway, onto the Lao Lao garden. It’s a great restaurant with a great menu, and we ordered our Lao barbeque. It’s very much like Korean barbeque but with a slight twist. You start by pouring some seasoned water around the edge of the pan and into that you throw a bunch of cabbage, glass noodles, lettuce, tomato, some egg and a few other salad type items, then in the raised middle you cook your meat, we had chicken, pork and buffalo. It was delicious. What was even more interesting about the Lao Lao garden was that the menu informed you about Lao culture, it had a kind of FAQ page at the back, and I learnt a lot by reading this, let me share what I learnt…

Laos is one of the most remote and one of the poorest countries in the world, when you barter or argue over a few thousand kip with a Lao person then you are arguing over a few pence or a few pounds with somebody whom if their family gets sick, they die, because they can’t afford medical care. The average Lao person stays in a bamboo hut with about ten other people with no water and no electricity (you actually see a lot of Lao washing themselves under waterfalls or in the Mekong river, and washing their clothes the same way). They grow their own food and will rarely, if ever, eat meat. In fact the ONLY things made in Laos are basic farm crops, textiles, handicrafts, wood products, cement, electricity, cigarettes, beer and soft drinks. That’s it. Everything else must be imported. Laos is so remote that it wasn’t accessible by road until nearly the 21st century (probably the 80’s / early 90s). Most area businesses operate at laughably small profits in order to stay competitive; they have to pay the same cost from imported products as they do in Thailand, plus the increased cost due to reselling fees and taxation. So anything modern costs more than 2 to 10 times more than in a developed country.

Interesting, huh? So, anyway, we ate our food and spent a while in the Lao Lao bar playing pool with the bartender, who was surprisingly amazing at pool and thrashed us.

On our first full day in Luang Prabang we booked a mini-van for 50,000kip (that’s a pretty good deal) to take us to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These waterfalls are unimaginably beautiful, it was like stepping into a fairytale, it reminded me of Rivendell in J.R.R Tolkiens ‘Lord of the Rings’. There were several pools that branched out from beneath the tallest waterfall I had ever seen. It was surrounded by gorgeous greenery and wildlife and the mood was so serene that I felt like I could have swam in those pools forever.

On our bus trip to the waterfall we met Sebina (a travel journalist from Germany), Tiana (a student wildlife conservationist from Nevada) and her boyfriend Jeff (also from Nevada) who was visiting friends and family in Thailand. We would spend the next few days with these guys and we were really lucky to have bumped into them. On the way back from the waterfall we stopped off at the Hmong village which I talked about in my previous blog post but that I’m going to touch on again here. See, we’ve been to a few more of these places now and we’ve seen some real Laos hill tribe villages along the road on our journey to Vang Vieng (where we currently reside).

Most of the community development projects like the Hmong village we were stopped at are a front to sell items to tourists. They usually get the kids to do it, they’ll run up to screaming ‘you buy, you buy’, Tiana said that it’s so bad in Cambodia that the kids will say things like ‘if you don’t buy, I will cry’, but most of the time the money won’t go to the kids and won’t even go to the village but will end up to the supplier of the many bracelets and trinkets that they have for sale. There was no doubt that it was a real Hmong village but it was depressing that their lives had been reduced to selling this stuff to the tourists who pass through, you question how much it really helps these people. There are also hundreds and hundreds of kids in the village and this must be down to the tradionalist way of thinking (I need as many kids as I can to look after me when I’m old) mixed with the complete lack of access to any contraceptives. We’ve seen a lot of this and it’s very sad. It’s not going to get any better any time soon if things stay the same here in regards to funding and sustaining these projects.

That night we went to dinner with Sebina, Tiana and Jeff and were joined by a Malaysian called Lee. Lee had been cycling from Malaysia, through Thailand and Laos for 48 days and his final destination was China. He had already cycled over 2500km and he was still rip-roaring on. He was 56 years old. He seemed pretty fed up with his bike but was very happy that he was free and doing what he had always dreamed of doing. He said every time that he is close to giving up he looks at his bike thinks of how much t cost, and decides to keep going. He was quite the character and he told us lots of stories about his travels and gave us a fair insight into Laos.

The next morning we got up and went for breakfast with Tiana and Jeff. Jeff proposed that this specific restaurant did the best breakfast in Laos, well that maybe but the conversation with the waitress went something like this:

Sean: I’ll have the banana shake?
Waitress: No.
Sean: No banana?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Ok, I’ll just have a ginger tea?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Just a lipton tea?
Waitress: Ok.
Sean: And to eat, I’ll have the fruit salad?
Waitress: No.
Sean: No fruit?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Wow! Er, Natalie what do you want, they have no fruit.
Natalie: I’ll have the banana and honey pancake?
Waitress: No.
Sean: There is no banana.
Natalie: Oh.
Sean: I’ll just have egg and bread.
Waitress: Ok.
Natalie: I’ll have the omelette.
Waitress: Ok.

Hmmm, best breakfast in Luang Prabang, huh? They had nothing and what they did have was hardly anything to write about in this blog.

After breakfast we met Sebina at the market, picked up some baguettes for lunch (another French colonialist hangover) and headed out to the Pak Ou caves. To get here you had to hire a boat at the pier so we spent some time haggling with the boat captains to get a decent price, we finally scored one and headed out. The boat was a rickety old thing that had an ant infestation but it was good enough for us, the views along the Mekong were just as stunning as they were during the slowboat trip and we had good conversation with Tiana, Jeff and Sebina to make the ride go quickly.

The first stop before the caves was a traditional village that specialises in making Lao whiskey. Not another one of these again, we thought, but we stepped out and strolled around for a while. They had lots of jars of whiskey filled with the craziest things, whiskey with scorpion, whiskey with snake, whiskey with centipede, whiskey with king cobra, whiskey with bears paws! BEARS PAWS! It was revolting so we got back into the boat and set on our way wondering if anyone actually buys any of that stuff.

We pulled up at the caves about half an hour later, the caves are full of old discarded Buddha images. You can’t touch them, and it’s considered a very holy place rather than the dumping ground for old Buddhist statues, that it actually is. The caves were very pretty though but didn’t go back very far, you could hear the bats from up above your head which at least made Natalie happy, along with the giant spiders we saw on the outskirts of the upper caves. The upper caves were a little more impressive than the lower but were still pretty small, but the views across the Mekong more than made up for that. We are planning to do some caving here in Vang Vieng so we should have our cave fix by the end of our time in Laos.

The journey back went much quicker as we were travelling with the current, we exchanged some money and sorted out our bus trip to Vang Vieng and did a little shopping in the night market. We actually spent more than we probably should have but some of the things on sale were just too beautiful to pass up, I actually managed to get all of my Laos gifts at this market.

That evening we met with Tiana and Jeff and had dinner and drinks and talked about many a thing. I had buffalo which was the toughest meat I’ve ever had and it left me with a massive toothache the following morning. Tiana and Jeff had never tried soju so we went back to our hostel and all shared a bottle of the stuff before curfew kicked in at midnight. It was great hanging out with them for a few days and it broke our trip up a little bit as prior to this we had been mostly doing things by ourselves. We wished them well as they were venturing back into Thailand the following day and we settled in for the night.

I woke up with a rip-roaring hangover and toothache, but we had to be early to catch our VIP bus to Vang Vieng. The VIP bit is a bit of a joke. I have never feared for my life more than I feared for it on that bus journey. I had read tales of Hmong rebels with guns on the highway who would hold up buses for money, we did see some but luckily they didn’t hold us hostage, phewey, that wasn’t the most treacherous thing about the journey however, it was the mental driving, unstable roads, winding blind bends and high mountain drop offs that made it so frightening. I clenched my eyes shut on a few occasions when I though we were done for, alas, we made it and we’re now here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is obviously a tale for another blog post and as usual I’ve ranted on for way to long, so I’ll bid you all farewell, the rain has just stopped so we’re going to head out to the caves and do some exploring. Thanks for reading!     

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Getting Stuck In (Chiang Rai and Huay Xai)

Good day my sometime friends, it feels like an age since I last sat here and updated this here blog. It has been, I suppose. Where to begin? The beginning always seems like a good place to start so I’ll jump right in.

We arrived in Chiang Rai at a pretty reasonable hour after a beautiful drive through the Thai countryside. Sweeping hills, expansive forests, and tranquil streams lined the sides of the road as we meandered along on the public bus. The long distance public buses in Thailand (specifically travelling from Mai to Rai) are pretty comfortable, and the ride went quite quickly. When we arrived in Chaing Rai we got a cheap songthaew (converted pick-up truck) to the Akha River House which would serve as our accommodation during our stay. The Akha river house is run by inhabitants of the Akha hill tribe who make up a vast percentage of the hill tribe population in Northern Thailand. More on hill tribes later, needless to say our room had a beautiful view over the river, we were basically staying right on top of it.

We settled in and then headed out to explore the city. Chaing Rai was the smallest place we had visited, and you could walk everywhere in town without too much bother. We strolled through a few temples and looked around a Buddhist history museum which used to house the famous emerald Buddha which now belongs in The Grand Palace, Bangkok and then we finally settled down for something to eat. We were tucking into our pad thai and spring rolls when suddenly there was a huge electrical failure and the light started flickering and making rather unnerving noises. We weren’t really in a restaurant but more of a local café (which looks like a small shack with picnic tables underneath), it turns out a man had taken a chainsaw to a tree next to the café and the tree had fallen through a group of electrical wires and onto the side of the shack. We were escorted out of the shack for safety reasons and ate the rest of our food under some wood to the side of the restaurant. The first of many an odd dining experience to come.

That evening we strolled along the river which our guesthouse overlooked and we spotted a restaurant on the other side. It had beautiful views of the river and looked pretty quiet so we headed over the bridge to the other side of the river and towards the bar. I was already suspicious of the place as it had no English and looked a little out of place in the middle of nowhere just outside the city by the river. Usually bars and restaurants in Thailand all seem to be clumped together for convenience. However, in for a penny in for a pound. We took our seats. Nobody spoke a lick of English, luckily the menu had pictures, it felt awkward, like we weren’t welcome, when we looked around we noticed we were the only couple sitting in the restaurant. We further noticed that all of the waitresses were wearing rather revealing clothing, hot pants and the like. They also had name tags on, there were plenty of business men sat around, it clicked that we probably weren’t in a restaurant but at a night entertainment venue for single men. Wink, wink. We were in now though so we leisurely ate our food, paid our bill and got a story to tell out of the whole experience.

The next day we went to an Ostrich Farm on the outskirts of town, not the original plan but the forecast didn’t look great and we needed something to do. The ostrich farm was another odd ball experience, we were shown around by an incredibly short but incredibly happy middle aged lady who tried to persuade us to ride some of her ostriches, we settled for feeding them instead. I’m pretty terrified of large birds with giant beaks, but you try everything right? They snapped away at this repugnant food that we were giving them, their beaks didn’t hurt but they nipped a little. Once the show was over we sat down and had a drink to cool off, the sun had shown its face by this point but we decided to get a tuk-tuk back into town and we ended up checking out the hill tribe museum.

Chaing Rai province is full of hill tribes, our guesthouse was run by a hill tribe and they organised treks up into the hill tribe villages and the museum was an interesting insight into the lives of the tribes people, who are living in a totally different age. As a side note (I’m getting ahead of myself) we actually went to a Hmong hill tribe village today, we didn’t spend long there but it was a depressing sight to behold, you looked inside their homes and it was just a wooden room where families of up to 15 people would sleep, there are children running around the village (like a LOT of children) in dirty clothes or no clothes at all asking for you to buy the bracelets that they had for sale (there is clearly a contraception issue at work here), the average daily income for a family here is about 50p, and it really puts your existence into perspective, I felt sort of guilty walking through the village and gauping at how they live, I felt unwelcome and awkward. The museum tried to explain the complex issues surrounding the hill tribes in Thailand specifically in relation to tourism, how there are major pros and major cons.

The long neck tribes seem to be the best example I can think of off hand. Most long neck tribes inhabit bordering Burma, but a few migrated into Thailand. I say migrated what really seems to happen is that wealthy business men bring them into Thailand and force them to live in hill tribe villages so that tourists can come and take photos with them, they are forced to wear their gold neck rings and are not allowed to leave the villages. They have no rights as they are not Thai citizens and are paid pittance by the owners of the scheme. This is an extreme case, but tales of hill tribes selling their traditional clothes to tourists and the like are common. The museum gave a really balanced view and we spent a long time there learning about the traditions of the hill tribe people.

That night we had dinner at the famous Chaing Rai night bazaar and headed home in the rain. The next day we were up early and caught a more rustic public bus to the Burmese border at Mai Sai. You can hop over the border into Tachelik, Burma here but we decided not to as from the viewpoint looking over the city you could see most of what you could on foot. The two are linked by a bridge and separated by the river that runs beneath it and for the most part that’s all there is to see. It is like many other border towns, there are lots of markets and cheap goods from the other side for sale, so we looked around for a long time and took some photos of bordering Burma. There is still a smuggling problem here specifically with drugs like opium and this is prevalent from the amount of police checks there are on the road to Mai Sai, a few guys even got pulled off of our bus for reasons we couldn’t quite figure out. Another interesting experience.

On our final day in Chaing Rai we went to the famous white temple which may as well be an art exhibition, it truly is like something out of a fairytale, tall gothic white statues and gorgeous sparkling architecture surrounded by a little moat. It’s an attempt by the creator to bring Buddhist architecture into the modern age. You walk over hell to the gate of the temple. Hell is represented by many white hands creeping up from the ground below you, the temple itself is guarded by a statue of death, and once you’re past him you ascend to heaven, the gorgeous temple itself. This place also houses the most luxurious toilets in the world, solid gold temple like structures surrounding the lavatories. My mother would be pleased.

We left Chaing Rai via another public bus which took us to the border town of Chaing Khong where we were crossing the border into Laos. The bus ride was just as pretty as the first and we were excited to be going to a new country. Exiting Thailand was easy, we signed out and handed over our departure cards, we hopped in a boat and five minutes later we were in Laos, we filled out our arrival cards and exchanged our money and we were there, on the street, without a guesthouse or any idea where we were. It was sort of brilliant.

We ended up booking into a cute little guesthouse that was pretty close to the border crossing, I’ll never forget that guesthouse. See, I don’t know quite what it was, but after dinner that night I started feeling a little strange in the belly department, I didn’t think much of it at first but when we got back after hanging out at a cool Lao bar beneath the guesthouse I came over really ill. I was sweating, had a temperature and felt nauseous, I spent most of that evening in the bathroom. Travellers sickness had finally caught up with me. It’s two or three days later now and I’m feeling mostly back to normal again apart from a few rumbles. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience though.

We caught the slowboat from Huay Xai (the border town we were staying in) to Pak Beng (the halfway point between HX and Luang Prabang which would serve as the next major stop on our trip). I was feeling a little better in the morning, my belly had calmed but I still had a fever and a headache, seven hours on a boat wasn’t really what I need but we trekked on. Natalie loved the trip on the boat and undeniably the views were awesome, some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. The Mekong river is pretty muggy but it is surrounded by the most awesome mountains and forests. We would stop off sometimes to let Lao people on and off and it became clear very quickly that we were in a different country.

Laos is one of the poorest counties in the world, and the average Lao earns perhaps $1 a day. There are unexploded mines scattered across much of the country leftover from the US secret war here during the Vietnam war when many Vietnamese fled to these parts, the clean up team suggest that it will take 100 years to declare much of the country safe, luckily we won’t be anywhere near these areas but it’s still an eye opener. The people here are humble and friendly but scarred by their hardships. Children are playing in the river from sun up to sun down as there is no school for them to go to outside of major cities. Here in Luang Prabang things are obviously different and I’m talking about rural Laos here.

It’s an interesting place to be, and a great thing to experience. When we arrived in Pak Beng my head was throbbing and I felt like death warmed up, but after settling into a new guesthouse after being attacked by local kids who wanted nothing more than to get their hands on my packet of crisps, I had some medicine and started to recover. The second day on the river was much more enjoyable as I felt for the most part back to my old self. Natalie said that the second day on the river, “wasn’t as quiet,” hmmmm, I wonder why?

I’ll write about Luang Prabang in my next post, but so far we’re having an amazing time here. It’s a beautiful small town with plenty to see and do, we’ve made some friends here, and we’re going for dinner with some of them tonight. It finally feels like we’re no longer on holiday but that we’re actually vagabonding, taking our time, experiencing things first hand and getting to know people. It feels good to finally be getting stuck into some proper travelling. After all, that’s why we’re here. 

I'll update when I can, the internet here is few and far between. See you on the flipside. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Still Alive: Laos

In true Nathanael style this is just a short update to let everyone know that we're still alive. I just wanted to post and tell everyone that we made it into Laos via the Huay Xai border crossing. It's beautiful here just watching the magnificent Mekong river floating on by. We are catching a slow boat to Luang Prabang tomorrow. The internet is few and far between here but I'll be posting about our adventures (last 4 days in Thailand) soon. Some stories will include having dinner in a Thai whore house (by accident), visiting the flooded Burma border, staying with rude hill tribe people, and visiting a temple which had Neo from the Matrix plastered on its interior, oh and we fed ostriches but were too scared to actually RIDE one. More of that to come when I finally have some internet and some time to write about Chiang Rai. For now we've just had a lovely dinner watching the sunset along the Mekong and we're looking forward to exploring Laos. Asta la viesta, baby.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Chiang Mai

We landed in Chiang Mai airport after a relaxing flight and booked a taxi into the town centre. Already it was prevalent that we were in a very different area of the country. The small and easily navigatable beach villages were a distant memory and before us laid the hustle and bustle of another city, Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok and you can reach most places in the town centre on foot, yet it still remains the second biggest city in Thailand. It’s laid back, its cooler and although tourism certainly has a firm hold on the city it hasn’t taken over. The city is surrounded on all sides by beautifully majestic mountains and the city itself is encased in an ancient wall (most of which is now rubble) and a canal. When we arrived at our hostel on our first day in Chiang Mai we unpacked and then took a short stroll around the canal to see what we could find. We found some temples, we walked between the city walls and along the canal and eventually found some peace on a bench watching the fish laying their eggs.

The hostel we were staying at in Chiang Mai was unlike those we had stayed in before; it was made up of small teak wood bungalows that the owner had inherited from her grandfather. It was quite a sight to behold, the main reception area was full of hand crafted wooden antiques, in the evening bats would fly around, and everywhere you went you could smell the wood and incense.

On our first full day in Chiang Mai the sun was shining, considering it has been monsoon season here in Thailand we’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather; it has only rained in short spasms, usually in the evening. We had heard about Tiger Kingdom a place where you can go along and pet baby tigers and despite the high price tag we hired a tuk-tuk and headed 13km out of town to the small village of Mae Rim where Tiger Kingdom resides. We were a little sceptical about the animals welfare and were worried that Tiger Kingdom was just a tourist trap and whilst the latter does hold true it did seem like the tigers were preferably well looked after.

Our tuk-tuk driver pulled in right at the entrance and we offloaded and walked up the stairs into the reception area. You are greeted with 5 screens which all represent different things you can do at Tiger Kingdom, each has the price tag attached and we opted for ‘Take 3’ which meant that we could go in with the 3 – 5 months old tigers, the 5 – 7 month old tigers and the year old tigers, neither of us had the guts to tackle what Tiger Kingdom just calls the big tigers.

We paid our money and we were ushered through to the park, first up were the smallest tigers and they were strikingly cute, we spend about 15 minutes playing with the baby tigers before moving up through the ranks. The year old tigers were certainly the scariest and considering they were only a year old they were incredibly large, to me they looked like full grown beasts. The keepers kept trying to get us to pose for different photos which more often than not we rejected. Unfortunately that’s what this place is all about (photo opportunities) and you’re certainly not going to learn anything about the tigers here, however it was a worthwhile experience. We read horror stories about Tiger Temple in Bangkok and at least the tigers in Chiang Mai weren’t drugged and weren’t chained up so that was a plus in our books and we had a fantastic time getting to know the tigers and taking our photos with them.

Afterwards we headed to another wildlife orientated park that we had read about. Siam Insect Zoo had a giant collection of insects and you can even interact with some of them. This place was much more educational than Tiger Kingdom. We got to hold giant scorpions and praying mantises and we saw some fascinating insects and at the same time learnt a lot about them.

Our tuk-tuk took us back into the city once we had finished in Mae Rim and that evening we went to the night market or ‘Sunday walking street’ as its called. We spent hours walking through the market and we picked up lots of gifts for ourselves and for friends and family back home. The night was getting late and we strolled back to our hostel after a fantastic first day.

Our second day in Chiang Mai was spent visiting the elephant nature park which is an animal conservation centre and sanctuary up in the jungle near Chiang Mai. We had booked this tour a long time ago and we wanted to make sure that we went to an elephant park that was all about the elephants and not all about photo opportunities and elephant rides. Infact we didn’t want to ride elephants at all as we found it cruel and unnecessary. The park proved our suspicions correct. We learnt so much about elephant welfare in Thailand whilst really getting to know some of the elephants at the park.

The elephant trade in Thailand is truly horrific and Lek the owner of the elephant nature park is really doing good work to protect Thailand’s dwindling elephant population. The park is basically a rescue centre for elephants and some of the stories were incredibly moving. Stories of torture and abuse of the elephants, it was good that they were now in a positive environment away from the hardship they had endured. Some elephants had been blinded where owners had stabbed them in the eyes to get them to perform and obey their owners, others spirits had been broken in awful conditions that had left the elephants scared and alone. I urge you when travelling to Thailand to not only visit the park to learn about the elephants but to not support the street begging elephants or any other tourist orientated non-eco elephant park.

Unfortunately after logging was outlawed in 1989 thousands of domesticated Thai elephants were left out of work and unable to survive in the wild, these elephants are now used in the tourist industry, some in better conditions than others, but if tourists keep on actively exploiting these creatures then they will be bred into the tourist trade, and the cycle will never stop and the wild Thai elephant will be a thing of the past, nothing left but jungle elephant treks and elephant rides.

It was a joy feeding and bathing these wonderful creatures at the park and it’s something I’ll never forget. Their skin is coarse but nice to touch and whilst they are giants they are so gentle and quiet. We spent the day with some wonderful people as well, two tourists from Germany and two from America one whom was just finishing an internship in Cambodia and who had lots of recommendations for our trip there. We had a lovely meal by the river that evening and settled in for an early night after a busy day with the elephants.

On our last day in Chiang Mai we headed to Doi Suthep national park, Doi is Thai for mountain and this particular mountain has a gorgeous temple on top and views of the whole city, when we first got to the top it was incredibly misty but by the time we got to hiking to the waterfall near the bottom of the mountain the weather had cleared and we had amazing views. It was a nice way to bring our Chiang Mai adventures to a close.

As usual there is so much more to write about and its hard to sum up four days worth of awesome experiences in a short blog post but I hope that this gives everyone some idea of what we’ve been doing with our time in Thailand. We’re in Chiang Rai now, about three hours north east of Chiang Mai, but that’s for another blog post.

We’re fighting off insects and trying to cram as much into our adventures as possible, time is flying by and everyday we are getting better and better at this whole independent traveller gig, its certainly not easy, but its very rewarding and I’m sure when I get home I can bore you folks with some more in depth tales of the things that we’ve been doing.

Until then, good night and good luck. 

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Beach (Krabi and Phuket)

"Trust me, it's paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before." - Alex Garland

We stuck our thumbs out just off of Khao San Road and hailed a taxi. We told the driver that we were heading to Hualamphong Station (Bangkok largest railway station) and he turned the meter on. Phew. He turned the meter on. This is a sign of a good Bangkok taxi driver, someone whose sole purpose isn't ripping you off. We were dropped off just outside the main terminal and we wandered inside. We were early. Our train didn't leave for another two and a half hours so we found a coffee shop and sat down. After a while a middle aged British 'bloke' from Bournemouth came and sat with us. This was his 11th time in Thailand and he had a lot of stories to tell and advice to give which whiled away the hours until it was time to board our train. It's been something of a frequent occurrence that we'll meet these really interesting and kindhearted people, talk to them for an hour and then leave them forever without even catching their names.

It was time to head South. Four nights was more than enough for Bangkok, we wanted freedom, we wanted peace, the sound of the ocean sweeping onto the shore. The train journey was about 12 hours, overnight, from Bangkok to a small city called Surat Thani, there are no trains that head directly to Krabi or Phuket the two most popular beach provinces in the South and our final destinations. The train was reminiscent of the bumpy Egyptian trains I had taken with my father the year before, we slept in a small bunk in a crowded second class compartment, the toilet was a squat, just a hole in the ground, and the ride was very rickety, surprisingly we both slept reasonably well and we finally got to Surat Thani at 7:30am.

Now, let me tell you young wannabee travelers a story. A story that will not only save you money, but time. Don't buy the combined train and bus ticket at Bangkok station. That's what we did. We thought it would be nice and easy, you buy a combined ticket, you get off at Surat Thani railway station, and then you wait to board a local public bus at Surat Thani to Krabi. Easy. No.

What happens is you get off the train and are pulled over by people the company  (listed on the ticket you bought), they put you on a bus (about an hour late) and ship you off to a travel agency. You'll stay at the travel agency for about 45 minutes whilst they try and sell you things you don't want for extortionate prices (preying on naive tourists), then they put you on another bus that takes you to a remote part of the town you're going to so you are forced to buy a taxi from them that will take you to your hotel instead of getting the local bus for 50 baht, you end up paying 400 baht for the taxi. There is a way around this. Don't buy the combo, arrive at Surat Thani, walk to the local public station and get a bus from there, it'll be cheaper and will probably take the same amount of time, and you won't have to talk to a travel agent.

I like to think I've become a bit of a pro at winding the travel agents up now. I knew what their game was the minute we got dropped off. I said, "they'll keep us here for an hour and try and sell everyone something." For us they wanted to help us get a mini-van from our hotel in Ao Nang (where we were heading to our next hotel in Phuket). I'm a master now. Conversations with Sean and travel agents go like this:

Travel agent: Where you going?
Sean: Karon Living Room hotel.
Travel agent: Oh, bad hotel, very far from beach.
Sean: Yes, I know.
Travel agent: You want change?
Sean: No.
Travel agent: How much?
Sean: What?
Travel agent: How much you pay at hotel per night?
Sean: I don't know.
Travel agent: You don't know?
Sean: Nope.
Travel agent: Where you go after?
Sean: I don't know.
Travel agent: You want to go to Phi Phi islands?
Sean: No, I don't.
Travel agent: Ok, Karon Living Room.
Sean: Thank you. Goodbye.

They'll try and sell you anything. I don't know, works. They can't sell you a mini-van transfer if you don't know where you're going next. They can't sell you a tour if you turn your nose up at all the places they suggest. I'm working on getting this down to a few questions and answers. I'll keep you posted.

So, after all the commotion with the travel agents we finally arrived at our hotel in Ao Nang. We didn't get ripped off too badly by the taxi so we got off lightly. The hostel we were staying at was amazing. We had a private room with a balcony, living space, en suite bathroom and giant bed for 250 baht a night. We were very impressed. The owners had two dogs 'Chilli' and 'Tata' who both became very friendly with us as we were practically the only people staying there. The place was run by a dutch guy and his Thai wife and they kept the place so clean and comfortable.

We got to the hotel at about 1pm so we had the rest of the day to explore. We headed down to the beach past all of the shops and Thai men trying to sell us suits (we were definitely in tourist town) and finally made it to the most beautiful beach. The sea was crystal clear, there were long-tail boats lined up on the shore and palm trees made shade on the edge of the beach. We strolled along letting the waves wash over our feet. This was the life. You swim, you laze around, everyone is so friendly. It's simple. No responsibilities.

Eventually we came across the monkey section of the beach. Natalie yelled, "there's a monkey!" I had no idea there were monkeys on the beach and I got very excited. They were everywhere! There were loads of babies who were so cute, and they were all just chilling out at the edge of the jungle, running around on the beach. They seemed pretty harmless and friendly so we walked through them into the jungle and over a cliff to a more secluded beach on the other side.

By the time we were walking back, the sun was going down and we hung out with the monkeys some more. We watched all the tourists still trying to catch a tan on the beach and we felt empowered that we weren't doing the same thing. Despite being unbelievably beautiful and tranquil this entire area: both Krabi and Phuket provinces, have been ripped apart by tourism. By the package holiday tourist. By irresponsible westerners with no care for the environment or for cultural heritage. Ao Nang luckily still retains its natural beauty and its very clean compared to Phuket (which I'll get to shortly) but most tourists in Ao Nang seemed to be bringing all their baggage with them, intent on holidaying in Thailand without having to learn any Thai, eat any Thai food or in fact do anything remotely cultural. I don't want to sound snobbish but if a Thai person bows to you, the least you could do is smile, you could at least learn the word thank you in Thai, that's one word, its not a lot, I think the world would be a better place if people showed a little more empathy, a little more human decency and kindness. It's a real shame. I'm proud to say I've only eaten Thai food, I bow when I'm bowed to, sometimes even when I'm not, and I've learnt some Thai. I'm only rude to travel agents. I promise.

Anyway, that night we had a lovely Thai dinner and we walked back down to the beach in the dark. By the time we got back to the hostel we were knackered. Time for bed. We played with Chilli for a while. She's the cutest puppy ever, and then...

Then the unthinkable happened.

Of all the things that could have happened. Not this. I saw Chilli's ball sitting below the steps into the hostel. I put one foot onto the step and pulled the other one forward to lean down and pick up the ball. Click. I let out the most awful cry as I grabbed a hold of my knee. It had dislodged itself and clicked itself back into place again. Luckily it didn't fully dislocate and a hospital was definitely not needed so it could have been worse, but now as I write this four days later I'm only just nearly fully recovered.

The next day I limped down to the beach, lucky I could walk at all I suppose, it didn't feel too bad, it was puffed up a little but we took it pretty easy, went swimming in the sea, played with more monkeys, Natalie got a Thai massage, and we relaxed, that day of relaxation certainly  helped my knee out as every day since it has gotten better and better. I can walk normally now, and I can bend my knee all the way. It was still frustrating that it happened during the trip, but its a relief that it happened when we were on the beaches, not doing as whole lot.

The next day we got a long-tail boat to Railey a remote set of beaches cut off from the Thai mainland by huge granite cliffs. This beach was even more perfect and reminded me of 'The Beach'. In-fact the movie was indeed filmed on these beaches but the bulk of it, including THE beach was filmed on Phi Phi island and because of that, getting a boat to Phi Phi is an expensive affair so we opted for Railey and it was perfect. The caves, cliffs and jungles all hung over the beach, the sea was so clear that you could see fishes swimming about beneath the surface. We were very lucky with the weather, despite being monsoon season it didn't rain once whilst we were in Ao Nang, but the boat back to the mainland was a little choppy, it was very much worth it to spend some time relaxing on the most perfect beach, which hardly had anybody on it.

That night we ate at the restaurant next to the hotel and stayed up talking to the dutch owner for a while. We played with the dogs whilst he told us about the tuk-tuk mafia of Phuket and how they have to charge high prices else they'll get beaten up by other tuk-tuk drivers. Savage.

We enjoyed our time in Ao Nang very much and in the morning we got another stupid travel agency mini-van from Ao nang to Karon in Phuket, a very different kind of beach town. We just played the flat fare for the mini-van and didn't fall into any of their sneaky little traps, we talked to an English teacher from Korea who was vacationing here and we finally arrived in Karon at about 4pm. We were very hungry so had an early dinner near the hotel and settled in for the night.

Phuket is a town that really has been consumed by tourism. It's like a Spanish resort, shops selling cheap gifts, hats and sunglasses, overpriced restaurants, western food chains, everything you'd expect from a seaside town in England is here. The beach is still wide, long and beautiful but the weather hasn't been as beautiful as it was in Ao Nang so we've taken it pretty easy. We watched the sea-life on the beach, we've gone for plenty of walks and we've eaten some very tasty Thai food.

We much preferred Ao Nang to Karon. Ao Nang is everything you'd expect from a tropical beach, and I can't describe how picture perfect it was, it was also easy to vagabond there and live very cheaply whilst still having a great time. That's a little tougher in Karon, a place that caters to the resort tourist, we have managed to eat really well and have a good time, we also gave into the tourist tat and played a round of mini-golf. We are pretty beached out after 6 days down here in the south and we're looking forward to heading north tomorrow. We can't believe we're already nearly two weeks into this trip. Time is going fast. We're enjoying it. We're soaking everything up. We're living for the moment. We're trying not to be walking cliches.

I look out of the window at the coconut trees, I squint at the sun, I can hear the sea, and the cars and scooters speeding by on the road below and I still can't believe I'm finally here.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


Everything started out so promisingly. We got up on time. We caught the airport limousine bus. We found our check-in counter. We checked in. We cleared security. We cleared immigration. We found our gate. It was clear from the weather that the typhoon was looming. We were confident however that our flight would be unaffected, the board didn't say we were delayed and everything looked promising. Until our plane never showed up. This small delay of forty five minutes lead to a much longer delay of five hours. Most of which were spent sat on the plane waiting for the weather to improve. We finally took off at around two thirty and despite a rather turbulent ascent we had a pleasant flight down to Kuala Lumpur. We sped through the airport in Kuala Lumpur, we changed our flight, we got some dinner and before we knew it we were boarding our flight to Bangkok. Finally.

We landed in a rainy Bangkok airport at about 11:30 and by the time we had cleared immigration and picked up our luggage it was coming on midnight and we were very tired. We approached the taxi counter (something very necessary in this part of the world due to scams) and we got a taxi to our hostel. My first impressions of Bangkok as it flew by my window were that this place was very different from Seoul. It was blurry though. I was tired. It was raining. We pulled up at our hostel and got our bags, there was nobody around when we arrived but with the help of a lovely European couple we figured out that the owner had left a key for us, so we settled in for a well deserved nights rest.

We awoke at about 9am the next day and got freshened up, started the daily routine of sun-cream and insect spray and headed outside for our free hostel breakfast (which is outstanding, we've eaten it everyday). It wasn't raining anymore and it was hot. Really hot. Despite being rainy season Bangkok manages to stay at around 30 degrees with about 60% - 70% humidity. It's sweaty to say the least. We went for a morning stroll to get acquainted with the area we were staying in.

Our first stop was the grand palace and despite it being overpriced we had an amazing time there. The sun was ablaze as we walked up to the gates and we were about to experience our first Bangkok scam. We were ready for it. Somebody wearing an ID tag told us that we couldn't enter the palace because Natalie wasn't wearing appropriate clothing. She was wearing shorts and you're not allowed to expose your knees inside. He said not to worry and that we could come back at 1pm and it would be fine. "Huh." I thought. Before we know it the ID tag man had walked away and another man (a tuk-tuk driver, tuk-tuks are little buggies that parade the city streets weaving in and out of traffic and beeping their horns) took over and started telling us about other sites that he could take us too whilst we couldn't enter the palace. I called bullshit on the whole affair and we entered the palace anyway. Low and behold they had clothes inside that you could rent for free. So, Natalie put a sarong on and we entered the palace. We read signs scattered around the entrance that said not to trust anyone you meet outside the palace. It's disappointing that a tourist industry can do that to a country, turn people into dis-honest money grabbers. It's inevitable in the poorer parts of the world I suppose.

The Grand Palace was beautiful and we spent a good hour walking around looking at all of the temples and shrines and golden pagodas. Once we had had it with the palace we moved onto Wat Pho (the most famous temple in Bangkok). Wat is Thai for temple so all temples begin with Wat. Wat this and Wat that. This particular temple is famous for its giant golden Buddha which was truly breathtaking. Photo's were taken but it was starting to get unbearably hot so we bought a drink and sat down to watch the city go by for a while.

There is a huge tourist industry here, bigger than I expected it to be. You can't go anywhere without seeing backpackers, families or people with expensive cameras around their necks. Well, unless you go to Siriraj medical museum. We jumped in a taxi and headed over to a museum that Natalie had read about and wanted to see. I was dragged along for the ride. The museum is situated in a working hospital and we spent a while walking around trying  to find it. It was interesting in a mentally disturbing, disgusting kind of way, and there's no real need to go into detail so lets just say that they had things on display in that museum that they could never have on display in the UK. We'll leave it at that.

On our first night we went and had Pad Thai on the infamous Khao San Road, a backpacker paradise, glorified in Alex Garlands novel and Danny Boyle's movie adaptation 'The Beach'. It does what it says on the tin. It's a cesspit of debauchery and overly expensive food marketed to the tourist who doesn't know any better. It's everything a back packer wants to avoid all on one road. It was worth seeing for the experience but we haven't walked back down that road since. I guess at the time Garland wrote 'The Beach' in the late 80's / early 90s, Khao San was still a hip place to be, a place where backpackers could commune and share stories over pints of Chang. It gave them a place in the city that was their own, but not anymore, now its just a commercial train wreck.

We enjoyed the pad Thai and settled in for the night. The next day we headed over to the modern side of Bangkok. Bangkok is divided in two there is the old city on one side, this is where all the historical buildings are and most of the tourist industry, then there is the business side, where the high rise buildings and shopping malls live. We started out by heading to the train station to book tickets for our Saturday trip to the South. Then we went to Lumphini park and spent some time watching all of the monitor lizards running around. In the UK we have squirrels in our parks, here they have giant lizards. I've seen an array of wildlife since being here, beautiful tropical birds, giant poisonous millipedes, elephants, loads of street cats and stray dogs, cockroaches the size of my hand, beautiful butterflies. We're definitely in the tropics.

After the park we headed over to Siam Square, we had lunch in the Paragon (a huge shopping center) and then we walked around the streets checking out upper class Bangkok, a stark contrast to the old city, you could be in any metropolis here if you didn't know any better. It's very modern and very exciting. We must have spent the whole afternoon around Siam before catching a bus back to our hostel. Up until that point we had been getting taxis everywhere, but we decided we should give the public transport a shot, well the ticket was cheap only about 15p to get from one side of town to the other but because of Bangkok traffic (oh my god don't even get me started) the journey took just short of two hours. We did meet a lovely family on board though but they got so fed up with being stuck in traffic they got out in the middle of the daily storm and walked. I say daily storm because that's all we've had so far, most of the day has been cloudy and hot, or sunny and hot and then at around 5pm the heavens will open for an hour or two and then it will go back to clear skies again, something I can live with, the evening showers have actually been rather refreshing.

I tried my first Thai curry that night which was delicious, and we had some fruit on a street a few blocks away from Khao San. On our third day we booked a mini-bus out of central Bangkok to go and check out the ancient city Ayutthaya (the capital of Thailand until the late 1700's). Ayutthaya is basically an island with a load of ruins upon it. It was a very interesting place to spend the day. It felt more quintessentially Thai than central Bangkok, elephants walking around, and huge plants lining the sidewalks. The ruins were spectacular and there were still loads left. Inside one of the temples there was a small group of bats which stunk the place out. We spent all day here really walking around the various ruins and seeing the Buddha head which had been submerged in a tree. We got a three o' clock bus back to Bangkok and low and behold it started raining again, right on cue. No matter, we headed out for dinner and had rice and pad Thai and then came back to the hostel and chased a cockroach around the room.

That's been Bangkok so far. I've enjoyed it here immensely and I think it's a great start to the trip and a good introduction to Thailand. I think we stayed for just the right amount of time. Cities can get a little overwhelming. We're taking the train south tonight and we're hoping for good weather down on the Thai beaches. I'll miss our kooky little hostel, we've been sleeping in a small shed, with great air conditioning, beautiful paintings and very friendly staff, we hope our next hostel will be just as good and just as friendly. I have so much more to write about but I won't keep you any longer. I'll blog again soon.

The trip is going so fast, already!