Tag Archives: Thailand

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.
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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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THAILAND – Snorkelling in The Surin Islands

Welcome to Paradise…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick & some downloads)

We thought we were done with islands. We had done beaches, and we had even done a bit of snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, but when the workers in the jungle bungalows told us we had to go to the Surin Islands, we were convinced. They were guys that really knew Thailand, in particular the great snorkelling spots, and we knew we’d probably regret not going. The speedboats there were going to be expensive, and we had to pay a national park entrance fee, but once there, we were told we could camp on the beach. As Cheryl Fernández Versini would say, it sounded “Reet oop mai streeet.”

Looking on the map we realised that the Surin islands, although within Thai territory, were right next to the Myiek archipelago that we had passed on the boat to get to the south of Myanmar. The ones that we had really wanted to visit but were off limits. This nailed it for us. We were going.
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We arrived to water that didn’t even look real. I want to say it looked like water from a swimming pool, but it was even more turquoise than that, if that’s even possible. After we got off the speedboat on one side of the island, we got a longtail boat to the other side, where we had been told there would be less “day trippers.” With only a couple of bungalows and lots of tents, staying here wasn’t ideal for everyone. Luckily Nick and I love camping.

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Our humble abode
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The view from our tent!
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Mangroves

Our first afternoon would be one of the craziest. A couple of hours after arriving and choosing our tent (the tents for rent were so spacious and breezy, we still didn’t use the one we had carried around for 3 months!) we headed out on a boat to go snorkelling. The area here is vast, so each trip takes you to several different spots. The spot this first day was Sakut. According to a Korean guy on the trip, he had seen sharks here many times before. Nothing like starting big.

Mask fixed, I lowered myself carefully into the water. I took a deep intake of breath, closed my eyes (force of habit) and tentatively lowered my mask under the water, face towards the sea bed. Head submerged, I opened my eyes and immediately took in a sharp intake of breath. The sea was deeper here than in Phi Phi, but you could see literally to the bottom of the ocean. It was like being on the set of The Little Mermaid, but less safe and certainly somewhat overwhelming. There was an entire world down there, carrying on, oblivious to us humans. Calming myself and taking a few deep, slow mouth-breaths, Nick and I, curious more than brave, headed towards the bay where the Korean had said he’d seen sharks. I had always maintained that the things I was afraid most of in the world were crocodiles and sharks. But hey-ho, here I was heading straight towards their territory.

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The Water Monitor Lizard - a harmless land resident of the island

I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I should fess up, I’m actually really shocking. My 8 year old niece could leave me in the dust spray. Those water baby classes didn’t reach my household and my first memory of swimming was my parents sending me to classes at around the age of 11. I was fast, but got puffed out after a width or two. Here I was in the big bad ocean – no life jacket, no flippers and completely out of my depth.  I should have been petrified, but I took Nick’s tips of using a slow breast stroke, and much to my delight, head down and my hips up, I discovered the science of salt water and buoyancy.

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I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’m not sure what exactly I expected. It should have been thinner, more friendly looking, more like the ones in the aquarium…less…shark like. Just up ahead of me was a black-tipped shark and it was FAT.  Maybe it had had its fill of human for the day.
I had been so distracted with the swimming, that when I saw it, I was completely taken off guard. I quickly looked around, but I had out-swum Nick. I had to share the news. Lifting my head out of the water,  I called to him in a mix of panic and pure exhilaration.

“Nick! Nick!”

I did the pointy signal that means little on land, but on a snorkel site means, “Get your head under water – you are not going to believe this!” I quickly resubmerged my head, but it had gone. Looking in every direction, it was a strange feeling to know it was somewhere still near us, but we had no clue as to where.

From then on, I became intent on seeing more sharks, and I did, although no other shark was a match for that first one. We loved that snorkel so much, that what we had intended on being a one or two night stop over turned into 5 days, where each day was a new snorkel site with treasures untold to discover.

Our time in the sea was an eye-opener each and every time. Sometimes full of joy at finding Nemo, for example; or full of amazement at the octopus that Nick spotted, following its transendent appearance from plastic bag to rock, skin morphing into its surroundings like something from The XFiles; or the fear I felt when spotting what I thought were barracuda and realising I was one very strong current away from anybody. It’s really lucky we didn’t know just how dangerous some of the animals we encountered were until we left the island. With no internet, we were left to imagine what might be unfriendly, with absolutely no warning from any of the staff, or our boat captain, who didn’t seem that bothered. He, we guessed correctly, was a sea gypsy, from a group called The Moken. We were obviously amateurs in his eyes. I legged it paddled it away from needle fish, thinking they looked aggressive, only to find out that they only harm humans “by accident”. They do this by diving out of the water at 30mph without looking, having speared the odd unsuspecting human at various points in the past: the aquatic version of the Indian driver.

Later a German girl was telling us all about “trigger fish” and how vicious they can be.  Imagine my horror when she showed us a video of one of these beasts attacking a diver and I realised I had swam over that very fish! Luckily I had been late heading back to the boat and only gave it a cursory glance as I paddled furiously overhead.

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The Black-tipped Reef Shark. Meaty but harmless...apparently! (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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The Clown Triggerfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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Accidental impaler, the Needlefish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

But we also had so many magical moments. At one point Nick and I swam quite far away from the boat, where built-up coral full of big colourful fish gave way to deep mid-blue ocean. These parts tended to be full of schools of tiny fish, whirling around cylinders of themselves the depth of the ocean. Suddenly we happened upon another school of fish, only these were bright yellow and about 30cm long – bigger than all the other schools. There were hundreds of them, moving around like a synchronised swimming team. We spent half of that dive just swimming amongst them, watching them part as we went between them, or swimming directly above them as though we were part of their gang. Somehow I don’t think we made the grade, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much. 

Maybe because they seemed to be being “bullied” by a couple of enormous metallic blue fish and they assumed we were some kind of protection. I still haven’t found out what fish these were, but Nick and I agreed this was definitely one of our highlights.

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Our serious looking captain

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They say size isn’t important, but in the sea it is. Had we not been the size of sharks (we aren’t quite as fat, but with all the beer we’ve been drinking, we certainly aren’t far off) we never would have had my favourite deep sea encounter.

“Over here!!!!”

Our korean friend, Subin, new to swimming and waving her arms around, spluttering and panting was calling to me. It took me a few seconds to realise that, no, despite the fact that she had taken her life jacket off, she wasn’t drowning. Good. I had left my red swim suit at home.

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Some awesome friends we made on the island, including Subin, at the front in blue

I swam over to her quickly, hoping that whatever she had seen hadn’t floated away with the tidal wave from her frantically treading water. There, under her life jacket, were two of the tiniest fish I have ever seen. Black and yellow striped, they measured about a centimetre each in length. I put my head under the water and they immediately swam to my mask. They disappeared. I turned my head, they were right there, by my ear. Then in front of my mask. I had fun for a few minutes before swimming off to explore something new. But these guys were in it for the long haul. I swam on only to realise that these guys were swimming alongside my head. Whenever I stopped, they swam in front of my mask.

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We found Nemo! (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Long fin Bannerfish a-plenty (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Regal Angelfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

“Are you looking at me?”

I would like to think that these little guys just really valued the friendship we had made and were trying to do their bit for land/sea relations. Alas, no.  These were the same ones an American guy we had been hanging out with had told us about. They had followed him in the same way, too. On googling back on the mainland, I found out these are called “Golden Trevally fish” and they normally display “piloting behaviour” accompanying sharks. They eat the bacteria off the sharks, and in return, the sharks act like some kind of protection. So, really we were just dirty bodyguards. I had to keep my mouth clamped round the mouth piece for fear of swallowing the sea water, and possibly the fish, but inside I was grinning from ear to ear.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

– The speedboat goes from aThai town called Kuraburi – small town, dress conservative. Nice food markets daily. Bus goes there from Surathani to Phuket or Krabi (or vise versa).
– Tom & Am tours were just where the bus dropped us on the main road. They can book your boat and will even take you to the port and pick you up. Great English and super nice couple.
– If you want somewhere cheap to stay, they also have some very basic bungalows for 290THB (about £6 or 9 USD) per night. Take mozzie lotion as these are quite open to the elements! They do have nets for night time, though.

COSTS:

– 1700 THB for the return speed boat (about £36 or 54 USD)
– 500THB for the national park entrance fee (about £10 or 15 USD). This lasts for 5 days. If you wanted to stay longer, on the 6th day, you would have to pay this again.
– 300THB to use one of their 3 man tents (about £6 or 9USD). Mats are about 40p a night, pillows, 20p and sleeping bags something similar.
Note – if you take your own tent, it is only 80THB a night, but I don’t know if this is per tent or a per person charge.
– 150THB for a long tail boat to take you to various snorkelling sites. These go at 9am and 2pm everyday, and work on a two day rotation. If you want to see sharks, the afternoon trip to Koh Samut is the place. There are two locations on this trip and this is the first of the two. Head towards the sandy cove. This is where they hang out!
– Rent masks and flippers for around 40p each for a half day.

OTHER THINGS TO DO ON THE ISLAND:

– Take a hammock!
– Read a book
– Get up early and go monkey spotting on the beach 200m walk from the quiet camping beach (this is the one the longtail boat will drop you off at when you first arrive).
 – Do the trail that goes from this beach to one of the other beaches. I think it’s a couple of kilometres (we only did the first part and then went off piste to monkey spot).
– Spot the water monitor lizards! There are a few of them just by the campsite, especially near the little bridge.
– Swim! There are also some good things to spot further out on the camping beach if you are a strong swimmer. Mantarays and turtles were cited to us by other tourists, but we didn’t actually see these ourselves.
– Visit The Moken (sea gypsy) people on the neighbouring island.

THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:

– Food works in a voucher system, so you buy vouchers from the reception and hand these in in the restaurant.
– Food is only served at certain times, 3 times a day.
– There is only one restaurant and the food is so-so. Also, there is no bar, although you can buy cans of beer.
– Maybe go prepared and take some food and drink with you, although beware the monkeys that can not only smell food, they can also unzip your tent!!
– Thailand is home to over 200 different types of poisonous snakes – be careful in the jungle and near mangroves.
– Do not feed the monkeys! It’s not good for them to become reliant on humans, especially just so you can take a close up picture. For that matter, don’t feed any of the animals. 🙂
– Before you go snorkelling, look up some of the fish so you know what to be aware of. Barracuda, needle fish, trigger fish, stone fish, octopus etc. The sharks are all fine. 

THAILAND – Khao Sok National Park: Trekking & Floating

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the I.F.s sleep tonight…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You HAVE to go there.”

In Groundhog Day fashion almost everybody we met backpacking had a ” You HAVE to go there” story. Quite often, “there” referred to some full moon party bursting with 20-somethings eager to find themselves and then puke their guts up on the beach. Um, maybe next time…This time, however, the place in question was a national park called Khao Sok. A national park? Our attention was grabbed. We had no idea that amongst all the beaches of the south lay a jungle ready to explore. It seemed, as rarely happened, we should trust in the keen recommendation of these nature-loving Aussies we had known for all of 5 minutes.

In our usual style, we spent way too long googling reviews on trip advisor of where to stay. After being taken to what seemed to be bungalows in a palm plantation (a leading cause of jungle deforestation), we hastily moved on – we had come here to be in the jungle, not to support its demise. We eventually found some amazing bungalows almost next door. They were more pricey, but they were in amongst the trees and next to a river. This was the real deal. Once settled in, we set about making a plan.

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Our Jungle Hut refuge where we ended up staying 3 nights we loved it so much

“No food. Pahahaha.”

We were asking about a survival trek, where you go into the jungle for a couple of days and forage. Apparently now wasn’t the season, so if you needed to survive in winter, you were a bit screwed. The rainy season over, the river was also too low for tubing, so we opted for a two day trek through the jungle with an overnight stay in the “floating houses” upon the enormous man-made lake that we had heard so much about. We decided that the trek should be fun to do in a group and crossed our fingers we would be in good company.

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Spot the difference…

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“Bonjour”

The good company came in the shape of a French girl called Charlene and her boyfriend, Anis. Maybe it was my fondness for Kylie in her Neighbours days, or the fact that Charlene thought everything I said in French was “tros minion” (so cute), but we hit it off right away. I’m pretty sure my rendition of a french gangster rap song had never been described as “cute” before.

It had been a while since I had bonded with a girl over shoes. Generally I had left the shoes and handbags phase of my life behind, but this was different – these shoes were “special.” And, dare I say a word that should never be uttered in the same sentence, “functional.” Yes indeed. Beckham would have been proud of these rubber beasts complete with footballer-esque studding. I was one proud owner; the other was Charlene. We might have received a bit of flak for our choice of footwear, but they were to stand us in good stead (boom boom) in addition to proving a great talking point.

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Modelling the envy of everyone’s eye – my rubber trekking shoes, which cost all of around 70p

First we just had to get to the floating houses. After a mini bus journey to the edge of the enormous man-made lake that capped the park, we transferred to our favourite mode of transport – a longtail boat. It was only now that the jokes about the shoes temporarily subsided, as each of us sat, jaws dropped, marvelling at the scenery. Steep forest-covered limestone carst mountains jutted high out of the lake. Combined with the overcast sky, this made for quite the dramatic setting. Jurassic Park would have done well to find a better set than this.

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Dramatic weather, dramatic scenery

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Having checked out our boingy floating houses and dumping our bags, we headed out on trek number one.  At this early stage we had already lost a few members of the team – apparently trekking was optional on this two day trekking tour. To be fair, staying at the lake seemed pretty enticing with the option of kayaking or swimming, but I had bought my special shoes for this trek, and there was no way I was going to miss out on wearing them.

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Floating restaurant
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Floating houses – our home for the night

We had read a blog on this exact trek in preparation, and as the words “exhausting”, “struggle” and “huge climb” popped up, I felt a sinking sense of deja vu. Here we go again, I thought. What can I say? That blogger obviously didn’t have a husband that constantly hiked her up to the highest possible view point – after all those previous uphill hikes, I was more than just a little relieved to find this trek was actually a doddle.

After about an hour or so of walking through a path in the jungle, we got to the bit we were looking forward to – the cave. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we had become a little cave obsessed on this honeymoon, but not all caves are created equal. We would be following a river through this one for over a kilometre.

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A beard too huge not to be included, even if the photo isn’t the greatest (guess who is behind the camera)

We strode inside, confident from the brightness of the collective head torches. Heads circling, we examined the cave, careful to know where we were putting our hands. Our guide took great delight in pointing out the hundreds of bats, enormous spiders and a snake coiled up on a ledge inside. Still, we laughed and joked as we got a closer examination.

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“Take a picture, Nick.”

This involved a whole palarva of carefully removing the camera from the drybag, being additionally careful not to drop the lens cap in the stream. This on top of the usual faff of changing lenses (no zoom for Nicholas). Needless to say, by the time we were ready to take a photo, suddenly the cave seemed a whole lot blacker than before. All those other people in our group, along with their lovely bright head torches, had disappeared ahead. Scrambling to get the camera away and seal the drybag again, we pussyfooted our way along, now noticing just how scary the cave really was when you couldn’t see more than a metre in front of your face!

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Always slightly disconcerting when a spider is almost the size of your hand

The shallow river running through the middle of the cave added another element to the adventure. However, it wasn’t until we got near the end of the cave that we got the full “river-in-a-cave” experience. Squeezing through a skinny passage only big enough for the river and perhaps a Hollywood celeb, we found ourselves inching downwards.  At this point the river was up to our waists, then our necks, and as we emerged from the passage, brrrrrr! Plop – straight into a pool of freezing water. Now the ground was nowhere to be felt and swimming the last few metres was the only option. That was fun!  I was just sad the cave was coming to an end.

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The beginning of the passage and the end of taking photos! 

“You won’t see many animals.”

Delighted at the refreshing honesty of our guide, after our delicious dinner of fish, Nick and I decided to skip the night boat trip in favour of staying in our floating house for a nice relaxing evening. Everyone else was on the boats…or so we thought. As it turned out, the staff working in the kitchens took this opportunity to run up and down the boardwalk of metal panelling that seemed to hold the string of houses together. Suddenly our house was bobbing manicly. The noise, which I can only describe as “thunderous” added the finishing touch, but it was enough to leave us in fits of giggles.

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Beautiful dawn

After a beautiful sunrise cruise on the lake, we landed further down the lake for another trek. My favourite part of this was crossing a log which floated on the lake, dividing the restaurant we were at and the nearby jungle. Pretending to be Baby in Dirty Dancing was a bad move, as the log went rolling and my dignity went with it. I narrowly avoided plunging into the water and ploughed on, enjoying every moment of the jungle, the scenery…and my new favourite shoes.

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Enjoying the most delicious banana daquiri ever once we were back in our Jungle Hut digs
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Cheeky monkeys

THAILAND – Krabi

The only way is up, baby…

(Written by Steph, photos by Steph and Nick)

 “Beginner okaaaaay,” I was assured. I wasn’t convinced. All the people I had seen so far looked pretty pro to me, but hey, what was the worst that could happen? We signed up.

Krabi province in Thailand is famous for many things. The Railay peninsular is much like an island in that it is only accessed by boat, and huge limestone cast rocks frame the outline. We had been recommended this place by a friend back home for the hippyish vibe off Tonsai beach, but a quick wade around some rocks and you find yoirself on a white sandy beach, known as West Railay beach, home of fancy resorts.

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After a couple of nights enjoying the relaxed vibe of the reggae bars over Tonsai, we thought we might be able to stretch to a fancy hotel over there, purely for the convenience, so we asked in a few resorts about prices. Several heart attacks later, we had discovered a more reasonable place on East Railay beach. The East beach was not really for swimming in, but everything was easily accessed from there.

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It was our last night on the Tonsai side, and we suddenly realised that we wouldn’t get these kinds of reggae bars on the East Railay beach, where we had managed to find a posher place for a reasonable price. We should go out and celebrate. It would be rude not to, right?

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We awoke with that feeling that you can only get from a drinking session the night before you have to do something that definitely can’t be done with a hangover.

How did this happen? Did we really drink that much? If I pretend it didn’t happen, can I magic this away? Pleeeease can I go back to bed?

The answer to the first question was probably something to do with Nick buying bucket after bucket of Sangsom and lemonade. The answer to the last question was probably yes. But, we had already paid for it and it was what we had come to Railay to do, or certainly Nick. I had to suck it up. I was sure to feel better later…

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One banana and a litre of water later, we were hooked up at the bottom of a huge cliff lined with other game tourists. In our group, there were only three of us.

“Have you done much climbing?” I asked the third guy, hoping for some kind of reassurance I wasn’t completely out of my league. “Normally level 8” was the reply. The fact I had no clue what he was talking about summed up how much I knew about climbing. The fact the number was near 10, I guessed, meant that I had better forget the reassurance.

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Steve was first up as I stood and gawped at those around me, scaling the cliff side, pinching here for one hold, little toe pressed on a ledge for another. Steve was up and down before I knew it. Nick practically walked up that first one. I, on the other hand, cried. I could blame it on my shaky hangover legs, but really, I’m just afraid of heights. And climbing. And yes, I do know what you are all thinking.

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The next two climbs in two different places came, and I sat out, but I was in awe of Nick. Steve had been climbing for years and found some of it really tough, but Nick had only been climbing once in Wales, a trip I bought him in a bid to convince him I was the adventurous type (who am I kidding?) and a couple of times on a climbing wall in Southampton. To see him manoeuvre himself to the very top of the cliff was both terrifying and incredible. Shame he didn’t take his phone up like the gutsie 10 year old we saw stopping half way up to take a selfie! Apparently it was a great view up there!  😉

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It was at this point our guide said to me, 

“C’mon. Your turn.”

“Whaaat? Up there?”
 
I said pointing at the route the guys had just done. He found this extremely amusing.

“No!” He could barely contain his laughter at the prospect of me attempting what the guys just done. He pointed to a small climb I had just seen a similarly pathetic girl fail. In her defence, she was French and her guide was shouting instructions up to her in English with her friend attempting to translate. It wasn’t a great start. I for one, had a very attentive guide, who instructed me where to put every hand and every foot, and in my mother tongue. That was pretty spoiled I reckon.

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It was absolutely astounding how well these guides knew the rocks. Even when Nick was half way up the cliff face and we couldn’t see any way to move further, he would tell him about some tiny hand hold hidden and secret to all but him. I took a deep breath. One leg up at a time.

He made me do that climb twice, just to give me confidence that I could do it. The first time he told me where to put my hands and feet. The second time he was chatting to some guy on the ground. Right, this is him throwing me out of the nest, I thought. I’d better just do it. And I did. It’s not the most natural thing in the world to me, but the guides were amazing, and if you are going to rock climb anywhere, I can’t think of a more beautiful setting. My only advice to would-be beginner climbers – leave the buckets of Sangsom for after your climb!

A few days later. What goes up, must come down…

Not content with scaling giant walls attached to a rope, Nick decided to sign up for an activity called, deep water solo. This involved free climbing (no ropes!) up the cliffs of a nearby island, and then plunging into the sea from ridiculous heights. I was going nowhere near it. Except there weren’t enough people going (too sensible if you ask me) so muggins here got roped in… ‘scuse inappropriate pun.

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I spent most of the time relaxing in the boat and enjoying the beautifully clear waters, while Nick did this…

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THAILAND – Koh Chang

The sun is shining, the weather is sweet, yeah…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

I had looked in my backpack, at the bottom of my bag, even on my head. Where was that hat? I was meant to be eating it…

It was looking remarkably like heading to the south, known for its lush beaches, was a bad move. All the weather reports suggested so. Nick wanted to risk it, I thought we should head to an island further north-east, where the weather was meant to be better. And so came the first test of the marriage.

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Nick wearing my dinner

Nick had been amazing at doing research on certain places, and it’s true to say that his attempts at getting me interested in where we were going had fallen largely flat on their face back in England. However, now that bridezilla had thankfully turned back into Steph, now we were here and we were continuously getting new info and new tip-offs about where to go, I was determined to have more input into the schedule. In the end, the compromise was that we would go to Koh Chang (the small one on the west coast – there are 2) but if it continued to rain so dramatically, we would move quickly on to the east coast.

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Bit of blogging on the boat across

We arrived on Koh Chang at the new port and hopped on some bike taxis. These took us on paths that wound their way through the dense jungle to some bungalows we had read were good – Swasadee bungalows. The sun was shining, but I still wasn’t convinced. 

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“What was the weather like yesterday?” I asked the owner, who had really good English.

“Yesterday raining,” came the reply.

I didn’t want it to rain, and yet, it not raining meant admitting that I was wrong. Either way, I might as well accept defeat. Luckily it was my pride that lost, and the weather that held out.

Always check under the toilet seat before you sit down…
Maybe this was instilled in me from the good ol’ days of living in cockroach-infested rooms. Goodness knows why I decided to lift the lid when I got into the bathroom, but whatever made me do it, it was pretty lucky for both me and the creature hanging out there. I had seen some enormous ones in India, but this was the fattest enormous one I had ever had the displeasure of meeting. A giant huntsman spider. In my lovely bungalow. Great start. I should have taken a picture, because no one will ever believe how big it was (the start of a theme). Instead I screamed like a baby and instructed Nick to flush it down the toilet. The Buddhists had obviously not rubbed off on me enough.

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Not our photo...but just as scary!

Aside from the spider, the bungalow was nice and cosy. Open to the elements, sure, but as with most rooms where the walls don’t reach the ceiling, there was a mosquito net covering the bed, functioning as protection from more than just those pesky mites. These would come to serve us in good stead as we got more and more nature-loving accommodation. Dotted along the beach, served up with a hammock on the balcony, this was surely a place to zone out. There was no wifi; no electricity, except for a few hours in the evening; and barely a soul around. This was the place that bookworm dreams were made of. Shit – I had just finished my book.

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This obviously wasn’t a regularly visited island. There was plenty of accommodation all along the beach, but it was really quiet. The bookshelf in our place told us that most people that had stayed here, and read a book at least, were German.  Still one title stuck out, probably because it was in English – The Lemon Tree – a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Well, it wasn’t your usual easy beach read, but it would keep me engaged in a subject that I had been keen to know more about at least.

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And so panned out the next few days. I lay in a hammock reading, and Nick swam in the sea. And we ate. A lot. I was a newly married woman, but it didn’t stop me starting a holiday love affair. Panang curry. In fact all the food here was delicious and some of the best we have had to date. The only thing we meant to do but didn’t was go for a hike through the forest. Having later found out that this forest was home to King cobras, perhaps it was lucky that the giant huntsman spider (and the lizard that jumped down between us from the ceiling one day with an almighty thud) were our only animal encounters.

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THAILAND – Arriving in Ranong

Nibble it, just a little bit, I wanna see you nibble it…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Welcome to Thailand, where everything is SPICIER!

We jumped off the boat in Kawthong, Myanmar, and half an hour later, we were on a tiny boat headed for Thailand. Fifteen minutes later we had arrived. It was a bizarre way to cross the border, and it was a bizzare feeling to be leaving Myanmar, only softened by the beers our German friend, Tamino, had fetched us to mark the occasion.

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Arriving at thai immigration

We passed the journey sipping on Myanmar beer, aptly named, “Myanmar,” and discussing how much we were looking forward to Thai curry. Nick and I had sampled the taste explosions in Bangkok on our transit stop between Nepal and Myanmar, and Tamino and Lisa had both been to Thailand before.

The four of us got off the boat, feet on Thai soil, and the bartering began. I had told an English girl we had met travelling in Myanmar about me trying to buy a top in Bangkok. When I decided I didn’t want to pay more than I would in England and walked off, the market holder practically screamed at me. This was the point at which I ran for my life…and my ears. Those Thai women have REALLY high-pitched voices. The English girl, who had been to Thailand many times, told me in no uncertain terms that I had upset the girl because I hadn’t bartered!

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Thou shalt not worship false idols

In Myanmar, bartering is received quizzically for the most part. In places for tourists, there were some people overcharging, and there, you could barter them down, but in general the price was the price. Here, not so. As several taxi drivers decended upon us, we practised the advice given to us. Without blinking or protesting, the price went from sky high to pretty good. This was obviously just part of the routine. We would have to remember that.

We all checked into an amazing hotel – pristine, modern and oh so comfortable – and only £12 for a room with aircon and balcony. Heaven. Showered and refreshed we headed out for that all important curry.

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Hanging out in our hotel lobby (with a 7Eleven banana muffin - mmm)

 “Don’t order spicy,” came the advice from Lisa…

We had heard this before. You think you know spicy? You think you can handle spicy? Pah. Those Thais laugh in the sweaty face of your chili intolerant ignorance. Spicy here is a whole ‘nother level. We did what most people that can handle their spice back home do – ordered “medium” and still perspired a whole ocean whilst trying to disguise our hiccups and tissue away our obvious inadequacy.

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Panang curry - the best curry ever..?

The next day it did just what you want in Thailand – it weed for England. It wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for, but we eventually found solice in our new hangout – Pornrang hot springs. After all, if you’re going to get wet, you might as well embrace it. 

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The hot springs were off a big road. Like a dual carriage way, if you went past your destination, you had to keep going until you could find a place to turn around, and then repeat on the other side of the road. We did this so many times in our search for the place, I find it tedious even writing about it. Once we found the right road, though, we were pleased to discover the springs set within the forest, where they also had a few bungalows, complete with stream running past. It was the perfect place to stay for the night.

The pools ranged from “freeze your nuts off” to “Delia could boil an egg in there,” and we were astonished to see some Thai people actually submerge their bodies in the latter of those choices! Nick and I managed a limb or two, before having to admit defeat and opt for luke warm. Nick had been talking about baths for pretty much the last 2 months, so here he finally got to live that fantasy.

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The best place to be when it's raining

The next day we awoke to heavy rain again. To mix it up a bit, we had a quick dip in the warm bath before deciding to check out the fresh water river running through the place. It looked decidedly refreshing…

Tentatively we dipped a toe in the water. After the lush of the soft warm water, we would have to ease ourselves in. Waist high, we were beginning to get comfortable.

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Swimming with the fishes

“Ow!…What was that?!

We stood still, surveying the water.

“Ow, ow, ow!”

We waded out of the water and stared back in.

You’ve heard of those fish tanks they use in beauty salons, right? The ones where you submerge your feet, hundreds of tiny fish feast on your dead skin, and you leave red raw and several pounds lighter? Makes sense they are known as piranas’ little brothers. Well, this was their place of residence.

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A strange variation of thai massage

We debated getting the hell outta there, but curiosity got the better of us.  Following Nick’s lead, we sat on the bank and gingerly submerged a foot. Suddenly they were swarming around, darting in for a nibble. It was much easier to let them when you could keep an eye on exactly how much flesh they were hacking off. None the less, some of them were really aggressive, literally headbutting me in the ankle, where there was definitely no dead skin. Little buggers. Despite this, we stayed sat there for a long time, in the end competing to see who could get the most fish.

THAILAND – a transit stop off

This is the (Khao San) road to hell…

(Written by Steph)

Air Asia, I salute you. Best meal I’ve ever had on a plane. This was Thailand and everything was about to get shinier…and wierder.

We had barely arrived in Bangkok, and we had already seen several sights that Thailand is famed for – a large group of lady boys (one of them was pretty convincing, but her cover was blown by the more muscular company she kept), massages on the streets and THE most amazing street food.

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I knew little else about Thailand. It had been done to death by tourists; that much I had heard, but I hadn’t quite realised what that meant in practice. I was about to find out…

“Have you heard of Khao San Road?” Nick asked me.

I must’ve been living in a bubble, probably a wedding one, because everyone on the planet had seemingly heard of Khao San road, and half of them were actually there.

We made the sensible choice to stay in a hotel nearby, but far enough away that we wouldn’t be kept awake by the madness on the actual street. We had read a whole heap of guesthouse reviews where the unsuspecting tourists had not been so informed or so lucky. Thank goodness for Nick and his googling.

Our hotel was the nicest one we had stayed in by a mile. Clean and modern, with a balcony and a swimming pool. My best friend, Claire, would approve I decided. We would use the money she and her boyfriend, Wayne, gave us as our wedding present, and would have enough left over to try and mend my broken body with one of those famous Thai massages…

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Thai massage:

“OHMYGOD!!” I blurted out before I could stop myself. The guy had sat behind me, crossed-legged, squeezed his arms around my upper body, and twisted it backwards, right to the floor. I was a wet dish cloth being rung out, and it hurt. A lot.

The next day, I had let Nick off the leash to go and take photos while I got my massage. We would both be happy. I was led upstairs to a dark, empty room, with several sponge mattresses laid on the floor, and silently giggled to myself nervously about happy endings. It felt a little strange, even though I knew perfectly well it was fine.

Not as strange as the massage, though. I mean, it was great, but I just wonder what it might be like if you *aren’t* flexible. I was pushed and pulled from top to bottom in positions I had yet to attempt even in advanced yoga classes.

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By this time, there were more people getting massaged in the room, separated only by thin curtains. I let out a scream. The masseuse next door took this as her cue to giggle uncontrollably. Then I started. Oh dear…

I have to say, save that moment when I thought I might be pulled apart at the waist, this was the most renewing massage I’ve had. All my joints felt liberated and my muscles much less knotted than before. After 2 weeks rubbling I knew it was going to take more than one massage to sort them out. That was fine, though. At a fiver an hour, I could afford to get another one at a later date.

Khao San Road:

That evening,  Nick convinced me we should check it out. We had mistakenly thought that we were on this road last night. “This is crazy,” I thought. Not as crazy as the real Khao San road, apparently.

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We knew we were approaching the road as music from the cafés got harder and noisier, and the staff uniforms got tighter and shorter. Suddenly it was hard to move – tourists dressed in bermuda shorts and carrying beach buckets full of booze filled the street, jeering noisily. Looky-looky men jossled past, squeeking toys in your face. Were we in Tenerife? I wondered.  The stalls of deep-fried insects answered that. No, this was definitely Thailand.  Of course, Nick, being the kind of man that deems stranger to be better, had to partake in the national delicacy. First a grasshopper. Next a scorpion.

“Steph, can you just get a picture?”

It was a big ask. I don’t have the stomach for dairy, let alone scorpion.

Then the finale. A cockroach. Known as “The Cockroach Killer” when I lived in Tenerife, I was none too fond of these bastards, but the thought of eating one..? Eeugh!

Click, click.

“That’s your lot Mr.”

Taking those snaps for my darling husband was testament of my love for him.

Let’s go, I thought, before he goes for the bloody tarantula.

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I was hoping that had satisfied Nick’s curiosity about Khao San road. Literally every bar blasted out Oasis, The Chilis or Nirvana, each doing their best to appeal to the tourists and competing to be the loudest. Don’t get me wrong, I like this music, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the last 20 years had never happened. Furthermore, I didn’t know how anyone could enjoy sitting in front of any of these bars, terraces marred by the incessant sound-combat.

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But there weren’t just tourists there. Young Thai girls made up about 40% of the socialisers. I have to say, the stark contrast between the modesty I had noted in other parts, and the scant and tight clothing in this crazy headache of a place, wierdly, shocked me. This was a place for the young, drunk and uncouth, and I wanted out, dahhling.

Fast forward 3 hours and I was sat in a bar, Nick and I sharing our 3rd strawberry mojito bucket. Well…what’s that saying?  When in Bangkok…

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