Monthly Archives: April 2016

INDONESIA – Diving in Bunaken

Under the sea, under the sea, darlin’ it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me…

(Written by Steph, photos courtesey of a friend with a GoPro, some downloads & some Nick’s)

Spluttering and exhausted, we finally dragged ourselves out of the water and onto the pier only to be greeted by umpteen mobile phones pointing at us – loaded and ready to shoot. Oblivious to our ordeal, the crowd of locals weren’t taking “Thank god they made it” photos – they were rather more interested in having a snap with a tourist while they laughed and joked and barbecued their fish on the beach. Ahh, the simple life.

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Arriving on the island of Bunaken

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We had come to the island of Bunaken, in a far flung region of Indonesia, for Nick to do his Open Water Padi course. That’s diving to you and me. My previous two pneumothorax (a collapsed lung for those of you that didn’t grow up watching Casualty on BBC1) ensured that this was not to be the double act we had grown so used to.

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Bunaken is located by the star in North Sulawesi. It took 3 planes to get there from Sumatra

Nick, in a fit of romance, or possibly guilt for abandoning me for the deep seas, had mentioned that this was our honeymoon in his email to the place we were staying.  Could we reasonably still class it as that 6 months on? Well, there’s nothing “reasonable” about travelling for 6 months, anyway. This reminds me of a story told to us by a couple we met travelling of a time they went to Mexico and pretended it was their honeymoon. Seven days of being pursued by the band, who assumed that they would like to be serenaded at every available opportunity, followed. Needless to say, they never did get married.

“Your name is Steph?  Ohhhh”

There was no fanfare when we arrived at Bunaken Sea Garden Resort, but there was a beautiful smiling girl to greet us. She introduced herself, as did I. She looked confused. People in Asia often had difficulty pronouncing my name, but her reaction was odd. It wasn’t long before we went in our room and discovered why. There on the bed was a big heart drawn out with flower petals. And our names – Nick and Irvine.  Apparently Nick loves himself.

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Nick loves Irvine! 😉

Rather than taking the plunge on the first day, Nick decided he would delay the diving for another day so that be could spend time snorkelling with me. We had heard that no more than 100 metres out from our bay lay the most amazing coral, but that we should go out at high tide – that couldn’t have been more true.

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Nick's diving instructor, who was also an award winning under water photographer

Flippers on, we headed out. Now, flippers are great when swimming in strong currents, and they also provide protection against Triggerfish, should they decide to attack, but try walking in the blinking things. Not only was the tide still low, but in order to get out, you had to cross a huge section of mangroves, negotiating broken trunks piercing the water’s surface. However, we had also heard that stingrays sometimes settle on the sea bed here, so we would have to be careful not to tread on one. Easier said than done with water murky from the  mangroves. Swimming out in water only two feet deep meant we had to use very little movement to avoid stirring up the mud further and scratching our bellies on these alien looking forms below us. Looking ahead through our masks all we could see was half a metre of turbid water, but post minor meltdown (mine), Nick calmed me down and I agreed we should swim out just a bit further.

It was lucky that Nick has the patience of a saint or we might never have made it those extra few metres. Suddenly the water cleared up and we started to see starfish and spikey sea urchins everywhere. Barely half a metre below us was the most stunning coral – we would have to be extra careful not to kick it as we manoeurved through. In Surin, we had been privy to some extraordinary animals, but unfortunately, due to the boxing day 2006 tsunami and perhaps global warming, much of the coral had been bleached. The algae living inside the coral can only do so at a certain temperature, so when the water temperature rises, the algae is expelled. This leaves the coral colourless, and effectively dead. Here in Bunaken, we were surrounded by blues, greens and pinks swaying back and forth with the pull of the tides. It was quite something to feel how alive it was.

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Clear waters!

Finally we managed to cross the shallow corals and out of the blue we came across what Bunaken is famous for – “The Wall”. Right next to the warm shallow corals was a drop-off so huge, you suddenly felt like a toy in a giant paddling pool. Its enormity was overwhelming: a wall 40 metres deep. Still, it was a relief to be able to come up to a vertical position. Treading water in the freezing depths, we reviewed where we were in relation to the shore. We must keep our eye on the currents here.

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The view of Bunaken Sea Garden Resort from the sea, through the mangroves!

When skin meets coral

Almost as soon as we put our masks under, we saw what we had yet to tick off in Surin – a turtle! The moment was short-lived as it ducked under a rock embedded in the wall. It was obviously a popular hangout as the turtle displaced another new animal for us – a blue spotted sting ray. We could hardly believe our luck.

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Turtle! Thanks to Dominic for taking this one with his GoPro
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Blue Spotted sting ray. (NOT OUR IMAGE)

With no watches, we looked at the sun’s position. We must have passed hours with our heads down, distracted by this new world of discovery. Out in the depth of the ocean, we had neglected to observe the tide. Shit. We attempted to swim to shore, carefully navigating gaps in the coral boulders where the water was deeper, but we were in danger of being pulled into the sharp protrusions that surrounded us. We didn’t get far before we had to abandon that plan, for fear of damaging either the marine life or ourselves. I had already experienced what happens when skin meets coral, and it wasn’t pretty.

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Saw a couple of these puffers - one of them was about half a metre long! (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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Check out this Humphead Wrasse! These enormous beasts were swimming right next to the wall in the deep water. Wish I could've dived to get closer to it, but it was too deep for me. (NOT OUR IMAGE)

Plan B was to swim along the drop-off to a pier we had spotted in the distance. That way we would be in deep water, swimming parallel to the shore, but we should be able to get to safety along the pier. Just to get there…

To begin with, we enjoyed the continuing underwater adventure – spotting yellow Trumpet fish we had never seen, steering clear of the Triggerfish we now knew were well worth avoiding, but the pier didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the current was getting stronger.

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Trumpet Fish (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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So many of these Triggerfish around! Luckily I was told it wasn't nesting season, so I eventually relaxed when snorkelling near them. You don't want to be attacked by these guys! (NOT OUR IMAGE)

Battling against the flow, and convincing myself that the best course of action was just to keep swimming strongly, we were finally about 100 metres away. Nothing could keep us from the pier now. Nothing except…ANOTHER TURTLE. This one was coming up for air and was swimming so close to me…in the opposite direction. It didn’t take a second’s thought to know what to do – and with that we were swimming back in the direction we had just come from.

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Nick on his Padi course. Image courtesey of Dominic and his GoPro

“Whoa is that another octopus? It’s so translucent and mobile…”

Bunaken epitomised everything we had come to believe about Indonesia. The people were beautiful inside, though the streets were outwardly sometimes less so. Tiny Bunaken island was a world away from the dirty and smelly port of Manado we had left from, though the mere 9 miles of sea that separated the two posed a problem.  On the island, they worked hard to keep their shores clean, but they were taking on an impossible task. With so much rubbish being dumped off the mainland, it was hardly surprising we mistook the odd plastic bag for an octopus; afterall, last time it had been the other way round. Luckily the island didn’t smell like the port, and if you could get over the odd plastic bottle when the sea was rougher, you might be lucky enough to see an actual octopus. You’d certainly have to be the unluckiest person in Indonesia if you didn’t see turtles.

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The port of Sulawesi. Paradise indeed.
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At least someone benefitted from the rubbish!!

The never ending story…

Swimming alongside these majestic beings, I was reminded of that dog from The Never Ending Story. Not because they looked like dogs, but because they swam like that dude flew. Gliding and floating, I felt like all my Christmasses had come at once being able to get so close and accompany them until they inevitably outswam me.

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After Surin, I had the snorkelling bug, but I wondered what a new place could realistically offer me. With the concentration span of a goldfish, surely I would be bored seeing the same old thing? It’s funny, but it never got old. All the new things we saw, and the things we had seen a hundred times before, held such a draw. Darlin’ it really is better down where it’s wetter…take it from me.
 
NOTES FOR TOURISTS:

– To get to Bunaken island, fly to Manado. Lion Air are the cheapest airline, but you might have fun and games trying to book with them!  You may not be able to book on their website, add they don’t except visa or Mastercard.  Rather go through tiket.com. Flying with them is also confusing as you get on and off flights like changing tubes, and quite often don’t know what is happening, but we had no major disasters with them and after we realised this was normal, it was funny more than anything else!

– Manado is quite expensive for accommodation. We stayed at Manado Grace Inn overnight, which was cheap (about £9), but about as basic as it gets.

– A taxi from the airport to this hotel cost us about £12 in the middle of the night. Cheaper options may be available during the day.

– You can get blue mini-bus taxis to the port of Sulawesi (near hotel Celebes) that you hop on and off. We had to change once. Ask locals for help – they are very friendly. It only cost about a pound each,  but if you have lots of luggage, you may be charged more. In fact, these buses are TINY, so if you do have a lot of luggage, you may find it easier to get in a private taxi.

– Public boats leave from the port at around 2pm, but this is dependant on the tides and whether they are full or not. It only cost £2.50 each, but you may prefer to take a private boat if you can’t handle the smell or the waiting!

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– Bunaken Sea Garden Resort is one of the best value with the best reviews. The staff were all very friendly and the food (included in the price) was good, although you might struggle if you don’t eat fish. They will pick you up from the Bunaken port if you book with them.

– The price of staying in a small bungalow with double bed was 44 euro (£35) for two sharing. This included three meals a day and drinks like juice, tea and coffee.

– Wifi wasn’t very good on the resort, but towards the end of our stay, they did get it working much better.

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– We bought sim cards (Dtac have good reception in general) from a shop right next to the port, but again, we only had reception near the port of Bunaken, and not at the actual resort. Someone who spoke English helped us buy these as people in the shops don’t really speak English.
– The resort only has electricity in the evenings. Wiithout a fan, this place can get HOT, so it better to be out diving or snorkelling everyday.

– The Open Water Padi course took 3 days and cost around 395 euro (£310). I would advise anyone taking this course to do some studying beforehand, as the reading material is quite comprehensive.

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– Snorkelling equiptment can be hired for 5 euro a day. You can head out by yourself, as we did on the first day (really do go in high tide!) or you can go on the boat with the divers for another 5 euro. I also did this, but I would imagine this is better if you are not the only snorkeller.

INDONESIA – Hanging with orangutans in Bukit Lawang

Welcome to the jungle…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“Welcome to the Jungle, eh.”

It was a phrase we were to hear repeatedly over the next three days, along with “lovely jubbly”, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” and “owight maaay” (think cockney impersonations). It appeared we weren’t the first tourists here. In fact, one of our guides, Bobby, had been doing this for 15 years.

My first encounter with an orangutan was not in the wild, but rather in a zoo in Spain. I can’t remember how old I was, but my elder sister was being passed off as under 12 by my mother, who only wanted to pay a child ticket for her. My mother, the serial age deceiver: honest to the core…except when it comes to child fares. It must be why I always think I’m younger than I actually am. Anyway, back to the orangutans. Holed up in a large (but not nearly large enough) wire cage, a small baby had poked its head between the bars and got it lodged there. The mother was frantically trying to free her baby by pulling its legs, but this only caused the baby to scream in distress. Eventually the mother was shot with a tranquiliser gun until the baby could be freed, but the whole thing made a huge impression on me. I wanted orangutans to be free and I wanted to see them in the wild.

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In 1973 two Swiss zoologists, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, came to Indonesia to rescue orangutans that people had kept as domestic pets. A law was passed banning this kind of activity, but what of the animals already raised in captivity? Regina and Monica opened up a rehabilitation centre where the animals stayed before releasing them back into the jungle – the jungle of Bukit Lawang. Fast forward however many years, and we were here to see these awesome beasts in their home territory…and definitely on their terms.

We had only been climbing, albeit it steeply, for about 10 minutes when we came across a mass of tourists. More than we had seen the entire time being here anyway. The object of their affection was a semi-wild orangutan, who had thoughtfully come down to visit them. I was happy enough to watch from a distance, not wanting to crowd her or feed her unnecessarily. Some of the guides had given fruit to their guests to feed her so she would come close, but the point was to try and keep them as wild as possible, so I was glad when our guides said they didn’t  feed the orangutans unless absolutely necessary. It wouldn’t be long before we found out what they meant…

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With a reputation that preceeded her, Mina, the oldest of the semi-wild orangutans, was one to watch out for. Many a guide carried the mark of her teeth on their bodies through one altercation or another. The story goes that one of her babies disappeared in the wild and since then she has been very aggressive towards humans. Face of a mafiosa, when we saw it, there was no mistaking it was her. She had positioned herself in the middle of a small clearing. Some tourists had passed by her and were on the far side. We were approaching on the other. I could see how uneasy she was about being surrounded, but there was no doubt about who would come out on top if it came down to it. As we tried to creep past, she started to come towards us. The guides were taking no chances; they pulled out some bananas, which they passed to her from as far away as physically possible, as we slipped away.

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After a slow but arduous climb and equally steep decent, we reached camp. Here we were met by Rahim, our jungle chef. Hungry and tired, we wolfed down the amazing selection of food cooked for us. How on earth did he manage to get all the supplies here to the middle of the jungle, we wondered. “Short cut.” Looking at the phone’s GPS, we could see we were suprisingly near where we started our trek. Seems we had been taking the scenic route, but we certainly weren’t in the middle of the jungle. We hung out our stinky wet clothes and tucked ourselves into bed, drifting off to the sounds of nature.

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“Mr Ant.”

The next morning we were unsurprised to find that our clothes were still soaking wet and just as smelly as we remembered. Reminding ourselves we would be just as wet within about 10 minutes of hiking, we forced ourselves into the same clothes as the previous day and set off on what seemed to be an even steeper path through the jungle.

Maybe it was that the hike was harder today, or maybe just that we didn’t see any animals, so we had no reason to stop, but we were feeling it. This was especially true of the girl of the couple we were with, Mylan. Afraid of insects and struggling with the ascent, she was certainly not in her element. Nick, on the other hand, was absolutely loving the insects, particularly the ants. The day before he had actually missed the entire approach, hangout, and disappearance of several orangutans, because he was taking photos of ants. It was on this day that he received his nickname, “Mr Ant.”

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“Keep moving, keep moving.”

We were nearing our camp for the second night, resigned to the fact that we would not see any animals that day (bar the ants), when we saw a flash of orange up ahead. I checked to make sure Nick hadn’t gone ahead. No, it wasn’t his beard; it was pure orangutan and it was headed our way. In fact, as the orange got closer, we saw there were three of them – the mother was Jackie and she was accompanied by one large baby and one tiny one.

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This was the moment we had been waiting for all day, but the guides seemed intent on moving along quickly. Hang on a minute, we thought. We hadn’t seen any animals all day, and here we were being rushed away from these three. Jackie landed and Heri, one of our guides, went to distract her so we could pass. Reluctantly, we kept moving, but the Canadian couple hung back to take a photo just a few seconds longer. Before we knew it, Jackie was on the path with me and Nick ahead, the Canadian couple behind. As Mylan tried to walk past, Jackie’s hand was already firmly around her wrist. Ha.

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So, what to do now? Jackie wasn’t aggressive, but she knew what she was doing, and that certainly didn’t involve letting go. As we continued along the most difficult part of the path yet, Mylan was led by Jackie, who at times, politely signalled her to go first. Unable to free Jackie’s firm grip, she did as she was told, although trying to keep at an orangutan’s pace through the jungle was no mean feat. Hurried along the path, we reached a flat bit of land and Nick, Mylan’s boyfriend and I were instructed to carry on the path out of sight. Selfish as we both knew it was, we admitted how much we would have liked to be the one being latched onto by Jackie. However, the reality is, this kind of contact passes bacteria between the two and can be very harmful for both human and animal.

Finally Mylan caught up with us, Heri the guide still out of sight. As Heri had passed her some sugar cane, he had managed to distract her enough to prise Mylan’s arm free and tell her to leg it (probably followed by “take your time – you’re on holiday”). Jackie had got what she wanted all along. Mylan was her hostage and sugar cane her ransom.

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Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late…

If I didn’t know better, I’d have said that it was not Kurt Cobain, rather our other guide Heri that had written this. The next morning Nick and I opted for a couple of hours trek before meeting the other guys, obviously out-jungled, at a waterfall.

“We’ll have to leave at 8am,” Heri decided.

By 7.55am we had shoes on and were raring to go. No sign of Heri. At 9am I found he had returned and was, surprise surprise, smoking a fag in the kitchen.

We had been waiting for him for an hour, but we bit our tongues at his suggestion that we should “take our time, relax, no worries, you’re on holiday.”

We hadn’t been walking long when we came across a big group of long tail macaques. Good news. This was why we were hiking after all – to experience the animals in their natural habitat. Naturally we stopped to take pictures.

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“Ready? Are you ready? Mr Aaannt..?”

Nick had no sooner got his camera out than Heri was rushing us on. Fags were obviously higher up the food chain than monkeys. We made the decision there and then to skip the trek and instead opted to stay and watch the monkeys, Heri’s incessant chatter about relaxing bubbling away in the background.

We watched them for a good half an hour, the dynamics of each group giving new interest: two tiny babies wrestling in the trees, tumbling down and crashing into a preening session, whilst close by the alpha male did his best for procreaction, although his best was a few seconds at most.

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Even when we got back to camp, the fun was not yet over. We had one important part of the journey left – rafting on the river to get back! It was a fitting end to an unforgettable three days.

INDONESIA – Back to Nature in the Sumatran Rainforest

River deep, mountain high, yeah, yeah, yeah…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You do know you have to cross the river TWICE, don’t you?”

He was about the third person to say this to us, and we were starting to wonder if this really was a line to get us to stay in their own guesthouse or if crossing the river was actually as dramatic as they made it sound. Either way, Nick was determined that we go to the furthest away guesthouse from the bus stop. So far away that the last hour had to be walked along side the river. The river that you had to cross…dun dun duhhh…TWICE.

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We had emailed the guesthouse with the normal amount of warning that could be expected from us contrary Marys – all of a few hours. Needless to say, we hadn’t received a reply.

“It’s ok – they’re my friends. I’m going that way anyway.”

A local not only lent us his phone, but also offered to accompany us. For free..? Apparently so. We were waiting for Jeremy Beadle to jump out of the bushes shouting, “Fooled you!” but that moment never came. Laos, where no one does something for nothing, had obviously made us cynical. How refreshing to be on the end of genuine hospitality, and this was only our second day in Indonesia.

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We weaved our way along the river until the path abruptly stopped. Aha. This would be the first crossing then.  Shallow, but wider than we had first imagined, we shuffled across the fast flowing water, trying our best to avoid the slippery stones and maintain our balance with our big bags. It was fun, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we watch Bear Grylls, doncha know.

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Arriving at Back to Nature, I was most put out. It was amazing, and that meant I would be having hat for dinner again. When we hadn’t got a reply from the guesthouse, I had wanted to grab a spot nearer the town. All the guesthouses overlooked the river and had looked pretty good to me, but Back to Nature was something else. It really was right in the jungle. No WiFi, no toilet paper (apparently this is a leading cause of deforestation – up there with palm oil) and owned by a man kean on taking the protection of the severely threatened rainforest seriously. It was just where we wanted to be, and we weren’t the only ones…

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“Where are all the other guests?” we wondered. There were only four rooms, but no one was around. Probably out trekking, as was the thing to do here. Sitting down to a ‘jungle tea’ (delicious!), we were joined by a dude who, based on his haircut, was into punk. His name was Thomas, and he was a Thomas monkey. Cool as a cucumber with a mohawk, Thomas came and sat on the table, turned his back on us…and weed. Thanks for that hearty welcome, Thomas.

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“She is sad because she can’t cross the river.”

That first day we also saw a couple of orangutans across the river in the jungle. One of them had apparently slept on the sofas of Back to Nature for a while, but had been moved across the other side for her safety and to prevent her relying on humans. Even though that was a while ago, the orangutan could still be spotted trying to work out a way across the river. Ahh, how sentimental, I thought. Turns out there are good fruit trees on our side of the river. Motivated by food, it was easy to see that we share 96% of the same DNA.

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We did two treks that took us further into the jungle while in Bukit Lawang, but without moving anywhere, we saw so many animals – large groups of macque monkeys, 3 Thomas monkeys, 2 orangutans, a hornbill bird, massive black bees, a multitude of different butterflies, and some very hard to spot gibbons. Oh, and a few cockroaches. Where was my bottle of hairspray when I needed it? Unable to blow torch them like the good ol days, I set Nick on them. Turns out that he is an awesome cockroach killer. They do say that travelling gives you important life skills.

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As well as getting to know the animals here, one of the most fascinating things was getting to know the people. Each one of the workers did so for free, only wanting experience and a roof over their head, and each one of them had an incredible story – leaving home at 11, living on the streets of Medan, busking for a living and getting in fights with the mafia who were trying to get a cut of their earnings, living and surviving in the jungle for 6 months…each of these guys were only 23. What a different life they had led. All at once I was amazed by their survival, admiring of their lack of want, and envious of their simple life.

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Every evening we all came together to jam. They sang and played like it was an ourpouring of their souls, and I was hypnotised every time. What, I wondered, would it be like to be near the jungle everyday, to spend the days carving, painting, playing music. Then again, would that really be enough for our digital brains? Would we tire of the peace and quiet eventually? Would we manage to survive the jungle if it came down to it? The thing we would likely struggle with most would be the river.

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After returning from our survival trek in torrential rain, which didn’t pause for a full day and night, the river had doubled in height and width. The once clear and mildly white-water was now a raging torrent of opaque brown. Not a raft on the waters was to be seen.

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“Too dangerous”

What about crossing the river…TWICE? The capital letters were now warranted. A German couple we had befriended had a flight to catch and we were also planning on leaving.

“Too dangerous,” they said.

Now I had seen the locals in the river in the deep parts with the strong current, and they rocked it. Even the littlest of the dudes could handle it, so if they said it was too dangerous, it was too dangerous. What if it didn’t stop raining?  Hundreds of streams ran into the river, making it quite easy for the water level to increase dramatically. They had experienced major flooding on more than one occasion.

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Tara honing his carving skills. He also had the most amazing voice and sang us all Pearl Jam songs.

Luckily, as you have probably guessed, we did get out alive. The rain stopped and the river level dropped, although the flood took out one of the bridges and the river was still fierce. But we got by…with a lot of help from our Indonesian friends.

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The Floods:

The most dramatic flood happened in 2003, when logs falling in the river had caused a kind of dam. The water built up and up and up…until the dam broke and all that water burst out like a giant wall. Suria, one of the guys working there, told me about his experience of it. Their only option was to run away as fast as they could. They couldn’t run up the steep slopes that border the river as the river was already higher than them, and there was no time.  He was only 10 years old as he watched houses and people alike swept away by the river. Around 1,400 people lost their homes and 239 people died in that flood.

INDONESIA – Arrival and impressions

Da-da da-da do da-da do da-da, said I love your smile…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“What do you mean you don’t have a return ticket?” the man said with exaggerated surprise in his voice.

So I might have read that one of the Indonesian visa-on-arrival stipulations is that you must have a return flight. However, I had also read this about other countries and we hadn’t, thus far, encountered any problems.

The truth was that didn’t know where we were going to fly to next, and we also wanted to see if we liked the country before deciding exactly how long we would stay. That thing about honesty being the best policy did us no good here.

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“But you need a return flight.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have one.”

It was a game of ping pong that was likely to continue until suspended by the slip of a note being pushed across the table. A note with dollar signs on it. We had been warned by some other tourists that Indonesia was about as corrupt as it gets, only to have this confirmed by a German sat next to us in the waiting room for people pulled aside at border control.

He didn’t have a ticket, because he wanted to take a boat to Singapore – one that you had to book in Indonesia. As he had been in Indonesia before, he knew the drill and was ready with a little bribery money. Appearing from his turn in the office, he signalled we would be ok if we did the same. The thing was, we didn’t have any money on us. Absolutely nada.

As the conversation with the official progressed in a loop-de-loop, Nick started to utter something about an ATM. I stopped him with a hand on his arm, sensing a hesitation in the official.

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“Ok, I make an exception.”

As soon as he knew we had no money on our person, he obviously realised the futility in keeping us there. Sometimes having no money does pay.

So we had got through our first experience of bribery unscathed, but what would the rest of the country hold, we wondered. The three of us hopped in a taxi come mini bus for roughly 2 quid each and headed to Medan. There we would stay for the night before pressing on to Bukit Lawang in the hope of seeing orangutans.

The number 64 bus from our guesthouse in the Masjid Raya area to the Penang Baris bus station was just as cheap at about 35p each, and we marvelled at the ease of it. But nothing lasts forever, as they say…

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As we got off the local bus that took us to the bus station, we were immediately surrounded by a group trying to take our bags and load them aboard their mini van.

“How much?”

Not a popular question with these people. After we bartered them down to half what they quoted us, but still 2 and a half times the local price, they demanded that we pay the driver. It seemed that the 5 of them, though they had done nothing to get our business, wanted their commission. We had read that the 3 hour journey to Bukit Lawang should cost no more than a pound each. We also read that you should, under no circumstances, pay before you arrive. Their shifty demeanour and unfriendly demands did nothing to gain our trust. Sticking to our guns, refusal to pay upfront ended with us disembarking the bus and 5 touts and one driver with empty pockets.

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Five minutes later we boarded a different bus, and a similar debate ensued, only this time we had already been driving for 10 minutes. At this stage, Nick was getting quite irrate, determined that the driver know we knew the real price and that we had been warned to only pay on arrival. Suddenly the van stopped and our door opened. We were about to be thrown off again. But Nick was not backing down. Before I knew it, he was out of the van and squaring up to the driver. Fearing a game of fisticuffs was about to ensue, it was time to intervene.

“Right, we’ll pay you the 50,000R each (£2.50) but we will only pay when we arrive. Yes or no?”

The driver mumbled something.

“YES OR NO?!” I barked.

I got a reluctant “yes” before the two boys’ complaints subsided and we continued in silence. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we had been warned that we might come against some hostility. Fortunately, this was our first…and last…negative experience of the place. Okay, bar the beyond basic room we stayed in, furnished only with a bed and a couple of cockroaches.

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The thing that struck us most was not these experiences, but the local people. Arriving in a Muslim country, I had done my best to be mindful of this and had covered my arms and legs, but I was still unsure how we would be received. The answer to that was in the Mexican wave of smiles that burst into life as we passed by, punctuated by the odd wave or thumbs up. Walking around the streets of Medan on our one night there, we ended up in a local cafe serving a sweet nutty sauce that you dip fruit in. We laughed and joked as we tried to converse. Everybody in that street cafe was warm and genuine.

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Moving on to find something savoury to eat, we were stopped by a group of twenty somethings, eager to practise English and tell us about their country. Kids smiled and giggled when you looked at them, and we wondered how few tourists must go through there that we were still such a novelty. Or maybe, Medan being a big and ugly city, tourists just didn’t wander about too much. Either way, we both felt strongly reminded of our beloved India and in this way, quickly connected to this new land.

Notes for tourists:

From the airport to Medan, trains are expensive (about 100,000r, which is £5 or 7.50 USD). We paid 120,000r (£6 or 9 USD) for a taxi between 3 of us, but we had to barter down from 150,000r. The journey takes about 45mins to an hour.

Accommodation is VERY basic in town. Cold Water is the norm, some rooms don’t have a shower, toilets are bucket flush, you might get a cockroach. BUT, they are super cheap. The cheapest ones are right by the mosque, which looks pretty, but believe me, it’s LOUD. At 5.30 in the morning when the call to prayer starts, you definitely know about it. We paid 700,000r for a double room (£3.50 or 4.75 USD). Get a fan – it’s HOT! The one plus was that the mattress was actually soft – a bonus after Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand! Our guesthouse was called Residence.

Turn left out of the front of the guesthouse and walk to the end of the road. When you meet the main road, cross to the other side and wait for the number 64 mini van going to Pinang Baris bus station. Give the driver money at the end (as do all the locals). We paid 7,500 each (about 35p or 50 cent).

Minivans from Pinang Baris to Bukit Lawang are privately owned, so you will need to barter. We read that you should only pay 20,000 each, but we paid 50,000r (£2.50 or 3.75 USD). It’s more than twice what the locals would pay, but we do earn more money, so I think that’s a fair price. I would reiterate what we read, which is not to pay any money upfront. Buses regularly break down (if this happens, you have to wait for the next mini van passing by to pick you up). You’ll be expected to pay for the amount you’ve travelled if so. If you’ve already paid, I doubt you’ll get a refund! Paying on arrival also ensures that you get taken to where you actually want to go. NB – the minivans stop about a couple of kms away from Bukit Lawang. From there you have to get a tuk tuk to the guesthouses.

THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: borders, bathing and tennis balls…

“Borders, bathing and tennis balls…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Day 7/evening:

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Professional model - an Akha lady fond of the hard sell in a Chinese enclave in the hills

That evening we headed up a detour road simply marked “adventure time!” on the map sent to Nick by his friend, Chris. We had no idea what this meant, but were unsurprised to find yet more steep dirt tracks leading the way. We rocked up to be greated by one lone man…who didn’t speak English. The strange expression on his face would have had us believe there was no accommodation, but as luck would have it, a few minutes later a few Thai people showed up. Their first question: “How did you know about this place?”. The fact was, we didn’t really. We weren’t even sure if this was where Chris had stayed or if any tourists ever ventured this way. But as sunset was only about an hour off, and with no monastery to fall back on this time, we were counting on this being a place to stay.

With the new Thai group standing in as translators, we were soon looking at our room for the night – a 6 bed dorm, cheap as chips, sleeping only us.  Score. The group were even so sweet as to invite us to eat with them. Thai camping is a military operation, not least in terms of the cooking. Whole kitchens are transported just for one night in a tent – food really is at the centre of their social events.

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However, we had some exploring to do – this place was not only special because of its remote location, it seemed that here you could quite likely do what we hadn’t succeeded in doing before – walk into Myanmar. As we started along a path leading into a forested area behind the accommodation, we looked on Google – only 1km from the border. Where was all the border control now, we wondered? Pressing on, we could see the blue dot moving nearer and nearer that line, the words of Chris echoing in my mind – be careful not to cross over to the wrong side. We weren’t sure exactly where he meant originally, but now we were here, it seemed this could be the very place – nowhere else had we found it remotely possible to get even this close. As dark was coming, and Myanmar militia groups were probably close by, we sensibly, for once, decided to heed Chris’s warning and head back to our digs. Still, after all the “no entry” roads we had encountered near the border, it was exhilarating to think we had got that close, unnoticed and unhindered.

 Day 8:

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A driving day. Stopped off in this arboretum, which we probably could have given a miss. The gardens a few kilometres before might have been worth the money, though.

Day 9:

That’s not what we learnt in school…

It’s funny how perspective can change something as rudimentary as history. Reading a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict, I remembered an Israeli girl remarking that they didn’t know that Palestinians were chased out of their homes at gunpoint – the story that they were told at school involved the Palestinians running away and abandoning their homes like cowards. Sometimes white lies are easier to swallow. Except when it comes to history, the white lies are often very dirty. So imagine our interest, as two Brits, walking into the Hall of Opium Museum in Chiang Saen to hear history told from a non-British perspective. Our country was no longer a nation of heroes, but one that intentionally got China hooked on opium to further our own agenda, notably, facilitating our tea drinking. Apparently tea was a major expense to us and we had to find a way of funding our indulgence. Now, I’m all about the tea, but to discover the lengths we went to, and the manipulation involved, was quite the eye opener. We spent a good four hours in that museum and I don’t think we missed one placard.

“The Golden Triangle”

The afternoon of day 9 and we were nearly at the point after which this loop was coined – “The Golden Triangle”. On a map, this is the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In reality, this is an ugly tourist trap with a ghastly monument, some misplaced attempt to mark the significance of the place. We were aware that this might be the case, and yet, we felt compelled to stop and decide for ourselves. Nick even got me on a boat up the Mekong. Now that might sound idyllic, but I can promise you that it wasn’t. The surroundings were that of an industrial bomb site placed next to a murky brown river. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but I boarded the boat, contrary to my better judgement.

“Shopping time!”

Noisy engine propelling us forward, we looped around the casino – evidently constituting something of interest for a nation where gambling is illegal. The next thing we knew, we had pulled across on the Laos side to go “shopping”!! When the guy selling us the tickets had mentioned the word, we explicitly said we only wanted a boat ride. Just when we thought people coming to the boat to sell us things was bad enough, around the corner appeared an elephant giving rides with one of those brutal chairs on its back. That was it, we got the boat guy to take us straight back across the murky brown water where we promptly moved on.

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A beautiful part of the Mekong

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Luckily that wasn’t to be our only experience of the Mekong. Aiming for Chiang Kong, we had the most beautiful ride along a road that weaved alongside the river. The water was now much clearer in colour, although still not quite clean enough to tempt me in for a dip. Nick, on the other hand, was raring to go, and it wasn’t long before we found him a spot to fill his boots, or rather, dunk his toes. Either way, he was in, and he wasn’t the only one. Two young boys were also swimming and had a great time trying to copy Nick swimming upstream against the strong current. We had such fun with them, practising their few words of English, that after they left, I made Nick ride after them on the bike to give them something I had been carrying around since the beginning of our travels – a children’s picture atlas. It had served me well in terms of learning my Middle Eastern capitals, but it was never intended for me. I had brought it along hoping to find a new owner, and as these boys ran off with it and sat on the step of their house to eagerly flick through the pages, I knew that they had been a good choice.

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Nick's swimming buddies

Day 10:

Accommodation along the Mekong road was far too expensive, so we had continued to Chiang Kong to sleep the night of the 9th. It was just such a beautiful bit of road, though, we decided to go back on ourselves this morning. Breakfasting looking out over the Mekong in the morning sunshine was a bit of pure bliss.

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Breakfast view!

After a lazy few hours reading in our glorious location, we headed for Phu Chi Fa, where it was said you could look straight down into Laos from the border.

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Sunrise from Thailand: peering down into Laos with a sea of cloud rolling beneath us

Day 11:

This time we did actually get up for sunrise. Us and the rest of the world. Certainly busier and more commercial than some of our stop offs, it was, none-the-less, quite beautiful. It was evidently a place for some of the Hmong people, who originated from China.

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We were meant to be doing a long journey on the bike today, but we hadn’t got far from the viewpoint when we passed a street full of people wearing the most amazing outfits, and this time it didn’t appear to be about the tourists. Now quite used to being brazen, we got off the bike to go and see what was happening in the school playground where all these people were congregating. Unmoving in two lines, they were simply throwing tennis balls back and forth. And back. And forth. Perhaps Murray had an opening for a new ball boy.

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Fruitlessly we tried to find out what it was all about.  Perhaps we assumed that because we were near a tourist attraction that someone might speak a bit of English. Not a sausage. It wasn’t until some other Thai tourists came along that they managed to find out for us that this was a new year festival and the throwing/catching game was one that was traditionally carried out between girls and boys that like each other. Now that’s what I call a date.

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 Day 12:

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Quick soak at Chae Som hot springs before heading back to Chiang Mai.

THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: hill tribes, hot springs & a Honda PCX…

“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.

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Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…

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Days 1 & 2

It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.

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“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”

It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it.  Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.

That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border.  Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.

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Days 3 & 4:

By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!

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Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective.  Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.

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We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.

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Day 5:

The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…

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“Beer?”

We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup?  No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.

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DAYS 6 & 7:

We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…

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“Turn around. It’s another one. “

Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border.  Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads.  Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…

“What now?”

We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.

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“Sawadee kaaaa”

We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.

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Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly.  Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.

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Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.

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