Vietnam – Victims of Crime.

We arrived in Vietnam after a relatively straightforward bus journey across the border from Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The headline story from our time to Vietnam is that we became victims of crime for the first time during our trip.  My phone was snatched from my hand in Ho Chi Minh City.

Sleeping's lost time in our book.

Staying awake in Vietnam is not the fashionable thing to do.

It was mid morning as we walked along Pham Ngu Lao in the direction of Le Loi, the only thing in our way was a massive traffic laden roundabout that we had to negotiate via a pedestrian crossing. The traffic in Hoi Chi Minh City is manic, streams of motorbikes throng the roads in a constant wave of movement, if you are on a bike you enter the steam of traffic and get swept away, if you are a pedestrian you enter the stream and hope that the traffic avoids you. Vietnamese drivers are adept at avoiding pedestrians, unless that is, they are trying to steal your mobile phone.

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Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.

The traffic was so impressive on the roundabout that I decided to film our crossing to the other side. The pedestrian crossing was huge, spanning at least three of the carriageways that were merging into the round about to our left. It would take us perhaps 40 seconds to reach the other side and I thought our game of frogger with the oncoming traffic would make a good piece of footage.

I was about midway across the crossing with the phone in my hand pointed at the oncoming cars. I was just thinking that I had picked a bad time to film because the traffic at that moment wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been, when suddenly, I became aware of a moped approaching me at some speed from behind. I swung the phone towards the oncoming moped driver for this was the kind of near miss that I had become accustomed to and would make for just the kind of footage that I was looking for . The driver continued to ride directly at me until the whites of our eye balls met. “This would be a great piece of footage” I thought, “a near miss of the typical Vietnamese kind”. Just as that though had crossed my mind, the driver now level with my face simply reached out and gently slid the phone out of my hand and continued his drive towards the busy roundabout leaving me to flounder in one of those split seconds that we always talk about.

After the second had passed my instinct kicked in and I turned to chase my assailant shouting something stronger than “that cheeky little rascal has stolen my phone”. I ran at speed into the traffic laden round about but after about 50 meters I came to my senses and realised I was in danger of getting knocked over as mopeds, buses and lorries screamed past me demonstrating that special Vietnamese “dodge the tourist” skill described above.

I retreated to the roadside to lick my wounds. My phone is like an extension of my right arm. It has proved so useful during this trip, photos, contacts and social media, my flexible link to the outside world. Yes I was gutted, we had been warned repeatedly about the hideously high levels of street crime in Saigon but I like to think that I am street wise and immune from such overt daylight robbery.  Pride, as I learned, comes before a fall.

The act of crime was only the start of that days woes.  Getting a police report from a police station in Ho Chi Minh deserves the status of an Olympic sport. I got a gold medal eventually but it took the rest of the day, including three visits to the police station and the procurement of a translator for $10 USD. The lowest point came when I was sat in the back room of the small city centre police station whilst the young lethargic policeman took my witness statement through the expensively procured translator. The officer sat slouched on a wooden chair at the other side of a decrepit wooden desk in front of me. If he was slouched any further down the chair he would have fallen under the table. He scribbled with compete lack of interest as I relayed what had happened. Occasionally he paused to pick up an electronic tennis racket-like instrument. He swiped it through the air intermittently and it crackled on contact with its target, the mosquitoes which hovered around the dusty room where were sat.  At one point I couldn’t believe it, but one of his colleges joined us and sat in the corner of the room strumming a guitar! The four of us, me, translator, disinterested police man and the guitar playing policeman made for a surreal scene that I will long remember, it was almost worth the $10 dollar translator’s fee. Oh, there was one more person in the room, a black and white picture of Ho Chi Minh hung from the wall above us. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have made of made of the scene that he was overlooking below.

Eventually I got my police report, I wonder if the insurance claim will be worth it. Losing your phone isn’t really as bad as you imagine. My photos were backed up two days before, Google does a good job of automatically storing contacts. The worst is losing the ability to access social media remotely but deprivation of that kind of post modern activity must occasionally be good for the soul?

Happier times in Hoi Chi Minh City were spent during a “back of the bike tour”. We were picked up in the early evening by two super enthusiastic Vietnamese students. We sat on the back of their bikes and they drove us through the city at night. We visited various authentic eating establishments where we paused for some authentic food before moving on to the next stop. At the first stop we met up with perhaps 20 other folk doing the same tour and after each eating stop we drove on in convey through the crazy city night traffic in Saigon, it was an exhilarating ride and the food that we ate on that tour was some of the best we had on the trip. A crab soup was particularly impressive, a whole crab nestling on a bowl of creamy crabby broth, beautiful!

Crab Soup

Crab Soup

I also ate a duck embryo out its egg, I wouldn’t have normally done that but I could sense that I was about to become engulfed by peer pressure from the other folk that we were eating with, so I succumbed and ate the baby duck – it actually tasted pretty good.

The duck

The duck

The next day, we visited the War Remnants Museum to learn  more about the Vietnam War and its ongoing affect in the country. The most memorable moment for me was talking to a young American tourist as we stood alongside a US Chinook helicopter which was displayed on the forecourt of the museum’s entrance. It felt a bit uneasy looking at the various American machines of war which were displayed outside the museum, they were all recovered after the conflict after either being shot down or abandoned. There was something a bit trophy like about the displayed helicopters, aircraft and tanks now standing in the middle of the city in the country that they were designed to destroy. I asked the American how he felt as he observed these powerful symbols of his country’s identity now standing helplessly within the walls of a museum in Vietnam. The American told me that his intention to visit the museum was solely out respect, respect for all the war dead and he wasn’t thinking any further than that. He told me that his Grandfather had flown Chinooks in the war and it was uneasy for him to see the same type of flying machine in the confines of the museum but he repeated that he was here out of respect for all those that fought and lost their lives, for him it was a pilgrimage for me a learning experience. Interestingly, he also explained that his “buddy” was waiting for him at the hotel. His buddy was apparently particularly patriotic and it was too much for his pal to bear to visit the museum where the horrors of the conflict are illustrated without reservation.

Machines of War.

Machines of War.

An easier day was spent running a 10k race at the Vietnam Golf and Country Club. It was the first race that I have run feeling anywhere near good for some time and of course, it was just great to have raced in Vietnam.

Race Morning.

Race Morning.

We also visited Cu Chi Tunnels by day trip. There is an immense network of tunnels underground which we were given the opportunity of crawling through for about 100m. We were warned that the tunnels were hot and claustrophobic – not the best place for a person that’s shuns lifts in favour of stairs but I had conquered my fear of tight places by going down the Potosi mine in Bolivia so I had to give Cu Chi a go. I was supposed to follow a line of other people in our group but instead I hovered around at the back until most people were well inside (or nearly through!) and then I went for it. I scrambled along and was surprised to find escape routes every twenty meters which helped me to relax a bit. Looking back over the photos to illustrate this blog post I was horrified to see this spider over my shoulder. I had no idea that spider was there If I had have seen it I would have got out of the tunnels in record time!

Spider!!!!!!!

Spider!!!!!!!

After leaving Ho Chi Minh we travelled by train to Nha Trangh, a coastal resort that is dominated by Russian tourist. In addition to Vietnamese, the restaurants in Nha Trangh have menus and signs in Russian and the larger shops employ Russian staff. The resort was quite pleasing with a long stretch of sand fronting a wavy blue sea. We met Karen and Ian, in Nha Trangh,  a couple from Middlesbrough and we enjoyed their company eating with them twice during our stay.

After four nights in Nga Trangh we ventured on again by train to Hoi An. Lunar New year was approaching and the Vietnamese were travelling in droves, the train was laden with locals and all manner of goods that they were taking the opportunity to move.

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Hoi An was a great place, a beautiful town split in two by a quaint river where the reflection of candle light glimmers from the lanterns that float on the water at night. The river banks are flanked with impressive restaurants which come alive in the evening.  There are hundreds of shops selling local art work at good prices and the hotels are of good quality and decent value. It was in Hoi An that we met our friends Harper and Gamble who had flown in from Japan. We hired motorbikes and headed out to the ruins of “My Son”, navigating a particularity treacherously busy highway on the way.

Harper, Rushworths and Gamble.

Harper, Rushworths and Gamble.

We had to save Richie from a motorbike rider that pulled alongside him to try and influence him to drive to her uncle’s shop. We spent the second night in a late night coffee shop (drinking ale). The bars have a curfew of midnight but there was late night football to watch so we hired a taxi driver to take us “underground” and the coffee shop on the outskirts of the town was were we ended up. We sat with a few locals drinking ale from the fridge and watching the football on a screen above. It was about this time that Richie got a hangover food poisoning but he eventually made a full recovery.

Hoi An Fun.

Hoi An Fun.

After Hoi An we took a plane to Hanoi. In Hanoi we took a three day, two night trip to Halong Bay. A film of our trip is found here. We spent a night on a junk ship and a night at a remote beach side hotel where spent a brilliant afternoon kayaking alone through the misty bay.  On the first night, karaoke was in full swing on the junk boat. It was Lunar New Year’s Eve and the crew were going crazy on the karaoke machine.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Karaoke not being my thing, I hastily made an exit for the fishing which was taking place on the starboard side of the boat. I met an elderly male traveller from Bolton, he explained to me with a typically blunt Lancastrian accent that “as long as there was karaoke inside the boat, he would be outside fishing” – I was with him all the way. I caught two squid, the crew told me that catching the fish was an impressive feat as it wasn’t squid season – perhaps they were massaging my ego, perhaps they were drunk on karaoke.

Catching squid.

Catching squid.

In Hanoi we watched a performance at the water puppet theatre. It was great watching the puppets including the water breathing dragon. It was the same night that we ended up drinking outside a street bar on the way back to the hotel. We sat amongst hundreds of others on plastic stools surrounding a busy junction up a back street. It was great to watch the life of the vibrant Hanoi night pass by. The midnight curfew kicked in again and we begun our walk back to the hostel. Somewhere along a quiet back street all of a sudden a metal shutter rose sharply from a shop front that were passing. A Vietnamese looking male gestured to us, “quickly, would you like another drink?”. The night was young so why not?

IMG_1083We entered the drinking den and the shutter clattered down behind us. At  first we sat with a couple of Irish men doing what Irish men do very well, drink and talk. Later we met Emma and Arnuad who had also found the late night underground establishment. Arnaud was a French man and master of international politics. We had one of those great drunken conversation about international relations. I think we put the world to rights that night and Arnaud was able to explain some of the complexities of the politics of Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam which I had not understood during my recent visits. The complexities of the world became clearer that night.

Hoi An at  night photograph courtesy of Craig Gamble Photography (c).

Hoi An at night photograph courtesy of Craig Gamble Photography (c).

It was cold in Hanoi so a week later we retreated back South to Da Nang (very close to where we had come from in Hoi An) it was the first time we had travelled backwards on the trip but it was worth it as the clouds broke on the way back and 1 hour later the plane descended into the  bright sunshine we have become accustomed to. In Da Nang we struck a great deal, staying at a brand new four star hotel before it had even officially opened. We negotiated a good price in return for acting as guinea pigs so the staff could practice their hotelier skills ahead of the grand hotel opening which was about two weeks later. The hotel was great, a huge skyscraper with a roof top swimming pool and panoramic views across the sprawling white sands of the bay below and the city of Da Nang behind. In the end the attentiveness of the staff became to much to bare. Everywhere we walked someone followed,  every door was opened for us, at meal times the staff hovered about our table rushing across to clear of plates as the last mouthful of food hit our mouths – it was all appreciated but far too much!

Da Nang was our last stop in Vietnam. We flew out of the city about a week later. Lunar New Year had come to an end but the Chinese embassy’s were all still closed for the festive period. We needed a visa for China and Russia so we decided to go to South Korea instead.

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A Film of our Trip to Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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Cambodia – Siam Reap and Phnom Penh.

Cambodia – Siam Reap

Question: “how many people can you get on a Cambodian bus?”

Answer: “one more”.

We caught the train and a tuk tuk to the Cambodian border and then a government bus to the main, official bus station. It was here that our experience of Scambodian begun – we have been avoiding scams ever since. The bus to Siam Reap was marginally cheaper than a private taxi and we were promised that it would drop us at out hotel. We climbed aboard the mini bus and things were looking good, lots of space. Not ten minutes later a whole load of people joined us to occupy the empty seats. One man asked, “how many people can you get on a Cambodian bus?” The answer – “one more”.  There were even seats that folded out into the aisle, we found ourselves stuffed in with no escape.

Always room for one more.

Always room for one more.

It was a miserable five hour ride to Siam Reap where we were unceremoniously dumped on a minor dusty road some way out of the town. The only people to greet us was the usual tuk tuk cartel who, “persuasively” explained how they could take us the rest of the way for “cheap price”, so much for the bus dropping us at our hotel. I was really narked off by this point but I knew that protesting the false promise made to us 5 hours earlier by a man that was nowhere to be seen was not going to get us anywhere, so, with Tracy’s agreement we decided to walk the rest of the way into town and we left the trail of tuk tuk drivers floundering in our wake. As we walked up the dusty track we could hear their final efforts to secure our custom, we were making “big mistake” the town centre was “long way”. We walked into town in about 40 minutes, no mean feat wearing backpacks and front packs with the sun continually shining in our faces, but we did feel a sense of satisfaction by avoiding paying the tuk tuk bad boys.

Walking into Cambodia

Walking into Cambodia

Siam Reap was a beautiful town with a river flowing through it and a happening nightlife of bars and quality restaurants. We visited the Angkor Wat complex on two separate days, the first to see sunset via a tuk tuk that we hired for the day, the second aboard bicycles that we rented from the hotel. The day in the tuk tuk was amazing. We drove in the dark before dawn to the Angkor Wat temple, as we got closer we ended up in a convoy of dozens of other tuk tuks all ferrying others in a pilgrimage to the temple. It was brilliant to sit, rocking bumpily in the back, stealing through the dark as the feint lights from the convoy of similar tuk tuks illuminated the dusty Cambodian tracks behind us, it is those times when you know we are doing something special.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise was good but not spectacular. I made the mistake of buying a coffee in the dark from a vendor who was plying hot drinks on the lake banks, the liquid which arrived was unrecognisable, I have no idea what it was but it was soon put to use watering the historic plants outside the historic temple. There were hundreds of other tourists lined up by the lake in front of Angkor Wat waiting to capture the perfect shot of the sun rising. The hundreds of camera laden tourists was almost as interesting to witness as the temple itself. Line after line of amateur photographers stood behind an army of tripods, maybe there were thousands of us.

A tourist or two.

A tourist or two.

It was noticeable that people get confused between dawn and sunrise. Dawn broke and many people left the lake thinking that the sun had risen. It was perhaps twenty minutes later that the sun appeared and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the many people that had left the lake and missed their anticipated sunrise shots.  After sunrise we spent the rest of the day touttling around the other temples, pausing for lunch by the side of a picturesque lake before moving on to visit the Cambodian Landmines museum.

A monkey milling about the temples.

A monkey milling about the temples.

The landmine museum is run by ex Khymer rouge soldier, Aki Ra. In acknowledgement of the horrors of the regime that he contributed to, he now spends his life educating people about the atrocities of land mines and the destruction that they continue to cause. Ra also spends time clearing mines from the many mine fields which still exist in the country. The mines were mostly left by the Khymer Rouge after they fled towards Thailand when Vietnam captured Phnom Pen in 1979. The landmine museum provided our first experience of the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, horrors that were to come into more focus when we moved on to Phnom Penh the next day to visit the killing fields and Tuol Sleng genocide museum, poignant experiences that we will never forget.

Elephants on the way to the land mines museum.

Elephants on the way to the land mines museum.

Phnom Pen

Taking the boat to Phnom Penh was the lesser of two evils. We had been warned against the bumpy 7 hour bus ride along a road that is being resurfaced. The boat seemed preferable but there were plenty of on-line reports about the lack of safety on the old rusty boats that plough the route.  The “coffin boat” did not disappoint. The boat would never have made service in the UK. The vessel was long and narrow and it didn’t stretch the imagination to understand how it got its name. In the event, when we got going the journey was good. We were able to go outside and shuffle along the side of the boat whilst gripping the hand rail tightly and then climbing to a suitable place to sit on the roof. The boat sailed quite fast and the manoeuvre took some balance, there is no way you would be allowed to do that in the UK. Once you found a settled position it was a nice ride, we spent the journey watching Cambodian fisherman pass by and we waved and wondered at the  at the local folk that appeared inquisitively from the primitive bamboo huts on stilts that lined the shore.

The coffin boat.

The coffin boat.

Seven hours later the serene riverside settings gave way to the urban metropolis of Phnom Phenh as the cities grand hotels came into view in the distance.  We docked to be greeted by another taxi cartel. Now accustomed to ignoring the tuk tuk gang, we walked into town and were pleased to find our hostel not too far from where we had docked. The hostel was excellent, a real backpackers place, complete with bar, swimming pool and decent pool table. One night I took part in a pool tournament organised by the hostel manager, it was like being a student all over again – brilliant!

Our Hostel.

Our Hostel.

Our visit to the genocide museum at Phnom Penh’s infamously horrific Tuol Sleng prison was every bit as difficult as we had imagined. It is impossible to recount the horrors that took place in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, but the museum has a good go at illustrating the torture, starvation and deprivation of human rights at that torrid place. We watched a film during the visit of accounts the only 7 people that survived the prisons regime. The testimony of Chum Mey was particularly touching as he broke down in tears, the pain of retelling the awful truth of his experience of torture and degradation too much to bear. After the film we walked out into the courtyard and couldn’t believe or eyes, Chum Mey was in the courtyard exhibiting his book.

Chum Mey

Chum Mey

I couldn’t understand how a man that had such painful memories could spend his time sitting in the place that claimed the lives of so many of his compatriots, the Kymer Rouge also slaughtered his wife and children. I can only think that Chum Mey gains a sense of empowerment by taking control of the prison that once incarcerated him. I had no hesitation in buying his book. I was reluctant to take up Chum Mey’s offer of a photo, troubled by the thought of using him as some kind of tourist relic. I felt awkward and inadequate as I sat beside him knowing a little of the horrors of what his own eyes have seen and survived. Chum Mey was a very  gentle man, his genuine firm handshake put me at ease and his eye contact almost spoke to me that he was glad that we were visiting and trying to learn about the horrible history of Tsol Sleng, it was a very special moment indeed.

Tsol Sleung Prison.

Tsol Sleung Prison.

If the horrors of Tuol Sleng were tough to experience so too were the killing fields where we visited the next day.  The mass graves of millions of citizens that were executed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge are there to see in all there brutality. The Cambodians do not dress the killings fields up. Bone and tooth can be seen occasionally in the sunken pits that house the executed bodies and collected teeth are left on top of glass cabinets alongside the paths that house the victims clothes. We were told that the graves are particularly revealing in the rainy season when the rain makes the body parts rise to the surface. The place was grim and difficult but it was expertly presented through an audio channel that explicitly described the killing fields whilst suggesting times when the path became particularly hard to bear, where the listener can retreat to reflect and listen to music. When the horrors of the killing fields become overwhelming (and it does become overwhelming), we escaped by walking alongside the pond adjacent to the rice fields. The toughest part for us to bear was the killing tree that still stands tall, now flanked with hundreds of friendship bracelets that visitors have left pinned to its truck.

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

The Khmer Rouge are alleged to have taken babies by the legs and smashed their skulls against the tree before tossing them into the adjacent pits. We heard a first hand account of the man who stumbled across the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge had fled,  the audio testimony described how there was human hair, bone and flesh in abundance on the tree trunk that he found and it was only after going to on find the mass babies graves that he began to understand what had happened.

The Killing Fields.

The Killing Fields.

More easier times in Phnom Penh were spent in the Foreign Correspondents Club, a bar, restaurant used historically by foreign journalist to file their copy during the war. I had hoped for a Manchester press club like experience but it was a bit more upmarket than that! I drunk coffee on the balcony and pretended I was Sydney Schangberg doing the same in the film “The Killing Fields”. We trawled the markets and bought a shuttle cock with a feather attached to it. The shuttle cock forms the centre of the national pastime of keepy uppy. The Cambodians can pass the thing about all day, Tracy and I have managed four continuous passes between us…

Tuk tuk face protection on the dusty roads.

Tuk tuk face protection on the dusty roads.

We had enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh and got a lot out of understanding more about the countries chequered history. It was time to move on to our next country, Vietnam. We had arranged a 6 hour bus to take us across the border to Ho Chi Minh and it meant an early start of 6am.  The tuk tuk transfer to the bus station was late and we ended up chasing the bus along the highway, transferring from tuk tuk to bus in the blink of a traffic light change. Six hours later we rolled into Hoi Chi Minh city via a straight forward border crossing. For the first time during the trip, we would become victims of crime on our journey – more about that in the next post.

 

 

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Thailand – Chaing Mai and Bangkok.

I write this post from the top bunk of a sleeper train between Nha Trang and Hoi An in Vietnam. Although its a sleeper train we are riding it during the day. We had to buy beds because there were no seats left on the train. The Vietnamese celebrate “Tet” (lunar New Year) on the 19th February and the period before the holiday becomes increasingly busy on public transport. We were warned that the Vietnamese like to travel with their belongings, we saw one person get on the train with a kitchen sink. Despite getting a full night’s sleep last night, we have slept again on the train today, mostly because other than sleep and write blog posts, there is very little else to do when you are staring at the ceiling for ten hours lay on upper bunks. Here’s what we have been up to since leaving Myanamar, we are attempting to bring the blog up to date!

Chaing Mai

We flew back from Myanamar to Chaing Mai. There was plenty to do in the town which holds its reputation as a top backpackers destination. I took part in a 10K road race which reminded me how unfit I have become over the last eight months. Lack of training coupled with the temptations of Asian food equals personal worst race times. We did have fun cycling to the start along dark, quite lanes in the last of the night before sun broke over a lake adjacent to the race start line. The race was a nightmare – enough said.

IMG_0535In Chaing Mai we went to watch more Thai Boxing, one evening we were upgraded to ringside seats for no apparent reason but we were grateful nonetheless. The fighters practice their art with vigour, brutal punches and leg kicks mix with the foot work of a ballet dancer.  The night markets in Chaing Mai were excellent and we ate lots of local street food including sliced roast pork with rice, green curry, pad thai and my favourite – mango with sticky rice, a food that would make an excellent addition to a checkpoints at UK ultra races.

Thai Boxing in Chaing Mai. Brutal art.

Thai Boxing in Chaing Mai. Brutal art.

After a couple of nights in the town centre we moved to a cheap out of town resort that had a massive Olympic sized swimming pool. We thought we could laze about for a few days before the rigours of Bangkok. I suspect the low price of the accommodation was responsible for attracting the various odd people that were also in temporary residence. First we met an Australian man that was a self confessed sex tourist, he couldn’t help but graphically recount his body massage experiences as we returned to the resort each night in the free shuttle bus which was laid on by the hotel. Then there was the Japanese man who bonded with us instantly. After a brief 5 minute chat he asked if he could accompany us to the train station the next day to wave us off!

A great pool but it was chlorine heavy.

A great pool but it was chlorine heavy.

The best part about Chaing Mai was taking part in a full day cooking class. We begun with a tour of the local market where we picked up fresh ingredients. We then drove into the country to an organic farm. First, we walked in the sunny orchard and the vegetable gardens learning about the traditional Thai ingredients then we returned to the kitchens to cook. We cooked all manner of Thai delights, curries, noodles and spring rolls, pausing only to eat each course with our fellow travellers. We even cooked a Pad Thai meal which was given to us at the end of the day in take away bags for us to take home for tea. It was an amazing day learning new cooking techniques and we went home stuffed to the gills.

Thai cooking class.

Thai cooking class.

Bangkok

We travelled from Chaing Mai to Bangkok on the night train. We find the train preferable to the bus. The train is generally more comfortable and is a good way to see local life pass by inside and outside the carriage. On the Bangkok bound train we met a young, lone male traveller from Holland. He had been working on a banana farm in Australia and he seemed to have loved the experience, he recounted his tales with exuberance. He told us that the work was well paid and fun and we spent some time looking at his photos as we shared a bottle of Sam Sang, (Thai rum that is drunk like water in Thailand) before climbing into our bunks to sleep.

The night train.

The night train.

We awoke the next day on the fringes of Bangkok. We lay, wearily in our bunks, sipping sweet, cheap coffee as we sped through the suburbs into the city watching Bangkokians on their way to work. We weren’t particularly phased by the throng of pedestrians and the traffic that we encountered when we got off the train in the city, it was busy but not that bad. It took us a while wandering around the early morning streets until we located our hostel hidden up a narrow alleyway.

Bangkok.

Bangkok.

During our time in Bangkok we sailed up the Chao Phraya river, visited the Royal Palace, and had a night out on Khao San Road (perhaps the world capital of the backpacker scene) where we were offered scorpions and spiders to eat from street vendors. The food courts in Bangkok match the size of the massive shopping malls where they are found. I found Laksa, a curry like soup with noodles and meat, a food that I had discovered in Malaysia and probably my favourite food of the trip so far. Another night I ordered a goan style fish curry despite the waitresses’ genuine warnings that it would be too spicy for my delicate western palate. With the attitude of a caviller I dismissed her concerns and nearly had to jump in the river when the curry arrived and I tasted the first mouthful. If that curry was on fire it would have been less hot.

Scorpions and spiders for sale on Khao San Road.

Scorpions and spiders for sale on Khao San Road.

One day on the way back to the sky train we saw a sky scraper on fire in the middle of the busiest part of Bangkok’s city centre. It turned out that the hospital was being refurbished and the upper levels had caught fire. We spent some time watching in amusement as various raggle taggle firemen arrived, sometimes on mopeds to deal with the inferno. The fire fighters seemed hopelessly under prepared, but the fire did go out some 30 minutes later. Bangkok was a whirling feast of fun, a real ‘world capital’ city.

A fireman arrives on his scooter...

A fireman arrives on his scooter…

We had enjoyed our stay in the city but it was time to move on to cross the border into Cambodia.

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Magical, Mystical, Myanmar

It was a privilege to visit Myanmar, it is probably the most interesting country we have visited because the way of life in Myanmar is so different to our own.

Fully immersed in Myanmar life - what a great country.

Fully immersed in Myanmar life – what a great country.

Mass tourism in Myanmar is still in its infancy and the lack of influence of Western tourists was evident and most welcome. When we travelled outside of the cities, people would stare at us with a hint of suspicion until our smiles of reassurance were met with their broader returns, and then, a following request for us to pose for photographs.  It  was such an interesting time to visit the country, we felt like we were travelling on the curve of a ball that could roll any direction at any time. If Aung San Suu Kyi succeeds, the country will continue to roll towards a democratic regime, but such a conclusion is far from certain and it was that uncertainty that made our trip to Myanmar so interesting. The elections are tentatively set for November 2015 but even if Suu Kyi wins power, it is questionable how far she will be able to wield it. The states constitution doesn’t recognise a president who has a foreign husband and that is but one of the obstacles to overcome before the ball can roll a steady path.

BarefootTracy

Barefoot Tracy

If the country continues to attract increasing numbers of tourists I hope in vain that it will be protected from the worst of the Westernisation that has overtaken Thailand. The need to protect the majesty of Myanmar is as important, in my view as the need to protect the environment in general. Interestingly, whilst in Yangon, I found out that  Suu Kyi doesn’t support a policy of promoting tourism in Myanmar, although her stance appears to have softened of late. I suspect that she has better vision than most and understands the  damage that can be done when the culture of east meets the commerce of west.

Monks crossing the U Bein bridge at sunset.

Monks crossing the U Bein bridge at sunset.

We landed in Yangon after two flights from Phuket. We took a taxi downtown where we had arranged to stay. On the way we passed Shwedagon Temple, the most magnificent temple in the country which enjoys a graceful but dominant position overlooking the city . Our taxi drove passed frequent groups of people squatting over smouldering pots at the side of the road cooking food at their impromptu street cafes that lined the kerbs. When the taxi pulled up outside our hotel it was a little intimidating, it was late but there were various shady looking congregated groups gathered under the dim street lamps who generally seemed to be doing not very much at all.

Onion choppers.

Onion choppers.

The next morning the same streets outside our hotel hosted a very different scene, the Yangonese were hurriedly going about their business, the women wearing beautifully ornate traditional dresses, the men often wearing longyis or sarongs. The mouths of Myanmar men frequently looked like they were bleeding and the women’s faces, untouched by Western make up, were being protected from the sun by pasty white face paint plastered across their smooth cheeks. The blood red mouths, we learnt, were a product of the national obsession, chewing betel leaves, a saliva inducing stimulant that turns red in the mouth, the product is then subject to the nations other favourite pastime – spitting. Everyone spits anywhere and the streets are lined with red blotches where betel spit has landed. In an effort to find Christmas, we went to a church service on Christmas day and I couldn’t contain my laughter as a member of the congregation hawked up a large one at about the time that the priest was blessing the alter – nobody blinked.

Riding the Yangon Circle Line.

Riding the Yangon Circle Line.

Whilst in Yangon we visited the Shwedagon Temple that we had passed in the taxi on the way from the airport. The temple is a colossal imposition of  gold surrounded by quaint, mystical Buddhist shrines. Buddhism is of course the religion of choice and the peacefulness and calmness of the practice provides a subtle background to everything that happens in Myanmar. Monks can be seen everywhere but their presence milling about around the pagodas was particularly enchanting.

Reclining Buddha at Bago

Reclining Buddha at Bago

We ate lots of local food. Orthodox Myanmar food consists of small dishes of stews and curries, additionally there is a more traditional Indian curry influence where rotis and biriyanis  are served with refreshing glasses of  sweet lassi. Most Myanmar food is served with a side saucer of mashed tea leaves, a rather odd accompaniment but tasty all the same. The serving style takes a bit of getting used to, the food is usually pre prepared in large tin trays, the potential diner points to what they want and the food is then served at a sometimes luke warm temperature.

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A monks bedroom at the monastery.

On about the third night we went to a local bar to watch Manchester United. We met an English balloon bender who was travelling alone, the three of us moved on to another bar where we met a local man that spoke English, the four of us made a night of it. Talking politics with locals is largely discouraged but it was interesting to chat to the local man about the state of the country and he seemed comfortable with the conversation that flowed. We got on so well that he offered to take us on to his own restaurant at the other side of town. The night was young and the four of us were getting on famously so we obliged. It wasn’t until we were tucking into the free food that was provided a taxi ride later that I began to understand that our hosts politics were a bit hard line, by that point we had travelled outside of the city and the situation suddenly seemed a little tense so we made our excuses and left. The next day, we were kind of relived and a little confused about whether the experience had provided an interesting window on local life or whether we had crossed the line in terms of travellers nativity and actually escaped a potentially dangerous situation.

Negotiating local food.

Negotiating local food.

Christmas day arrived without pomp or ceremony, Christmas just isn’t celebrated in the Buddhist place called Myanmar. We decided to ride the Yangon Circle Line, a three hour circular train journey which showcases traditional rural life through the windowless carriages of the rickety, rackety train. A film of our trip can be found here. We also took a train to Bago and hired a motorcycle taxi to take us around the many temples and pagodas. We got so much attention from the locals in Bago, I couldn’t reconcile the conundrum as to how a people that have been so historically oppressed were some of the most genuinely friendly, welcoming people that we have met on out entire journey.

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Trying to have a Christmas Day.

After one night in Bago we returned to Yangon and caught an overnight train to Bagan. This was without a doubt the craziest journey that we have taken on the trip. The train, another ramshackle length of jostling carriages took about 19 hours to reach its destination – I was just glad it reached its destination at all! A film of that amazing journey can be found here. It was fascinating to travel into the deep Burmese countryside to witness local life at its truest. As we pulled into remote stations locals would walk to our windowless carriage and stare at us, they seemed quite amazed and overjoyed that we could speak a word of their language, “minglaba”, “hello”! That journey was special and will forever stay in our memories.

Bagan was often breath taking. A series of three townships nestle between  miles and miles of flat land that house hundreds of spiritual temples. We hired electric bikes to visit the main sites and occasionally climbed to the top of a pagoda to see the magical, mystical view as the hundreds of golden spires interlaced the land as far as the eye could see. Sunsets were spectacular especially over the River Irawaddy, a wide murky river with occasional fisherman waist deep casting nets, it reminded me of what I expect the Ganges in neighbouring Bangladesh to look like.

The lecy bikes. around Bagan.

The lecy bikes. around Bagan.

Three days later we sailed up the Irawaddy to Mandalay. New Year’s Eve had passed as uneventfully as Christmas day, we were both in bed at 8pm suffering heavy colds, probably after the excess of Yangon and the lack of sleep on the night train. Before we left the UK we had grand visions of a big new year’s eve in major city but Myanmar works off the lunar calendar so not much happened, but we really didn’t mind, we were having a fantastic time in this other worldly place. The boat up the Irawaddy arrived in Mandalay 12 hours later after leaving Bagan at 5am. It was such a relaxed day as we sat back and cruised up the Irawaddy waving to occasional fisherman and marvelling at tribal life which was taking place adjacent to bamboo huts on the river banks. Some parts of Myanmar are still off limits to tourists and I suspect life in those areas is as primitive as can still be found.

The brilliant Mandalay Marionettes at a point in the performance with the curtain lifted.

The brilliant Mandalay Marionettes at a point in the performance with the curtain lifted.

Mandalay was a bit uninspiring, a dusty commercial, traffic laden city with occasional cultural niceties to take the edge of the choking streets. The Mandalay Majorettes puppet show was a highlight, as was a walk up Mandalay Hill. After the puppet show the 86 year old master puppeteer came to meet the crowd, he seemed so proud that his show had appealed to so many Western faced tourists, and it was a pride that was reflected in many of the people that we met in Myanmar who seemed to be thrilled that we were enjoying their beautiful country. Tracy got a touch of food poisoning which lasted for the last three days in Mandalay but I was grateful to stay indoors to look after her as the dusty, busy streets were more than challenging as we also continued to suffer with the remnants of our colds, or flu in my case. On the last evening I dined alone at a street cafe, I ate mutton curry, two bowls of mutton soup, a roti and a saucer of vegetables. The bill, including cola came to about 80p, I paid double and left. A few yards along the road the owner of the street cafe pulled up on his motorbike and insisted that he give me a ride back to the hotel. I climbed aboard and chatted to him explaining that Tracy was down with a bad stomach. The Indian looking man then insisted that I wait outside the hotel whilst he sped home to get me a potion that would cure Tracy of her ills. Not ten minutes later he arrived back with a clear plastic bag with a kind of ultra strong black tea. Amazing friendliness, amazing people and an amazing country – we loved our time in Myanmar.

The potion to relieve food poisoning.

The potion to relieve food poisoning.

The next day we flew out to Chiang Mai. It was a laboured journey for Tracy, food poisoning and planes don’t really mix but we made to Thailand without tear or trauma.

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Watch a film of our trip “Yangon to Bangan Train” on YouTube

Yangon to Bangan Train: http://youtu.be/NxDNi7-oHFI

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Thailands South Islands

When I’ve thought about visiting Thailand, I’ve had an image of beautiful small idyllic places , with remote white sandy beaches and occasional palm trees. There is plenty of that but the problem is the westernisation that has overtaken the Thai ideal.

Rusty Boat

Rusty Boat

We’d left Langkawi, Malaysia for an international boat trip to Koh Lipe, Thailand. We took a claustrophobic ferry boat which took 2 and a half hours. We were seated under the deck and all doors were sealed shut. It wasn’t clear how to get out in an emergency and the state of the boat from the outside gave us no reassurances, it was ancient, the paint work was peeling off it and seemed to be listing slightly even as it sat along the dock. When we boarded the ferry we’d handed over our passports to the captain to help aid the migration process at the other side. We had been stamped out of Malaysia and were bound for Thailand across a pretty rough sea.  As we left the harbour we could hear running water, it was scary so I went to investigate, the noise was coming from the squat toilets at the back of the boat and to some extent our minds were put at ease, we would have to suffer the stuffy capsule in which we found ourselves.

Koh Lipe

Koh Lipe

As we approached Koh Lipe the island seemed relatively small but the beach area was jam packed with water taxi’s.  We’d had heard that the ferry boats couldn’t get you to shoreline and and when we pulled up in the bay, we waited for a water taxi to ferry us to the beach jetty. We watched as the ferry boat captain balanced precariously between big boat and small, holding an unzipped waterproof bag containing everyone’s passports. The passports and passengers made it to shore and the immigration process begun. We waited on the beach outside a wooden ramshackle immigration office until our name was called, we then collected our passports and queued up to get stamped into Thailand.  We’d already arranged a visa which would last 60 days, so although we had to queue in the searing heat, the rest of the process was quite straight forward.

Nice Thai Views

Nice Thai Views

My first impressions of Koh Lipe was that it looked more developed than I had imagined, there were lots of water taxi’s, people waiting to take us by motorbike or tuk tuk and far more buildings than I’d expected.  Our accommodation was a concrete bungalow not too far from the shore, but we couldn’t swim in the sea as it was jam packed with boats.  Our room  had a fan but no air conditioning to keep us cool and I was already thinking about how hard it was going to be to sleep, the humidity was crazy. Koh Lipe, like other Thai tourist destinations, has a street called ‘walking street’, made up of dozens of restaurants, Thai massage parlours and gift shops. It seems walking streets accommodate the worst of western excess, restaurant after restaurant selling burgers, fried breakfasts and beer occasionally perforated by a traditional Thai place that was struggling to retain its true Thai identity.

Bungalow on Koh Lipe

Bungalow on Koh Lipe

We went back to the beach bar adjacent to our bungalow and met a guy called Jacob. Jacob had overheard some of our discussion about whether “true Thailand” really still exists. He  wanted to reassure us that there were still beautiful less developed islands we could visit.  It turned out that Jacob had just spent the last 3 months visiting every single inhabited Thai Island in the country.  He was in search of what he called ‘treasured beaches’ for his as new phone app which he was building and is due to hit the app market in February.  He gave us lots of tips which helped us to plan the rest of our trip. We used his tips the very next morning by visiting Jacob’s favourite beach on Koh Lipe, somewhere we could swim and relax for a while, it was pretty good but the swimming was interrupted by insignificant jellyfish stings. We only stayed on Koh Lipe for 2 nights which was enough.

Koh Bulone Bungalow

Koh Bulone Bungalow

 The next island we visited was Koh Bulone, we visited Koh Bulone in further search of the Thai ideal, we hoped for an idyllic remote island, untouched by the mass tourism. Koh Bulone was a contrast to Koh Lipeh, a lot smaller with only a handful of accommodation available and only two proper resorts.  We avoided the resorts and decided to walk the whole length of the island with our backpacks to try to find a smaller bungalow in a more remote setting. Our efforts paid off. We found a small homestay called Chaloen it only had a handful of bamboo bungalows on stilts. It was situated slightly inland and was significantly cheaper than the beach front resorts that we had seen earlier.

Hermit the Crab

Hermit the Crab

We had found the Thai ideal but remoteness and tranquility came at a cost. The electricity supply was limited to 6 hours per day, from 6pm to Midnight, we had a squat toilet in the bamboo hut and there were all manner of insects knocking about. The benefits outweighed the primitiveness, the accommodation had a real rustic charm about it, the bamboo huts were in a kind of village hamlet, there was an area of dried mud in the middle where children played and there was a ramshackle bamboo hut where guests could eat in the evening. It was a perfect place to stay for a couple of nights.  We have seen some amazing wildlife over the past few months and this islands was no exception, we saw huge monitor lizards as big as some of the smaller Komodo dragons, lots of hermit crabs and Paul’s favourite – fireflies which momentarily illuminated the pitch black night air with brilliant electric flickers of colour. 

1267 Steps at Tiger Cave

1267 Steps at Tiger Cave

A couple of days later we waded into the bay with our backpacks on, and scrambled aboard a local fishing boat which slowly took as around the island to where our speed ferry was waiting. We caught a ferry to the mainland, then got a minibus to Krabi town which took about 6 hours.  Our hostel in Krabi had air conditioning, it was clean and had a normal toilet that flushed! It even had power all day long plus the bonus of Wifi, yippee, its amazing the home comforts you miss when roughing it Thai style.  We stayed  here for 3 days, generally getting clean again and relaxing. We visited Tiger Cave Temple, climbing the 1267 steps to the top was fun, not for the faint hearted but worth it for the great views across the surrounding hills. Another day we caught a local tuk tuk bus to Ankor Beach and then caught a water taxi to Railey beach to swim and enjoy the views of the limestone cliffs as a back drop .  Ao Nang however was another hideaway of western excess where we found McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks coffee.

Mobile Food Boats

Mobile Food Boats

From Krabi Town we moved on to Koh Phi Phi a 2 hour ferry ride away.  The island was particularly badly hit by the fatal Tsunami back in 2004. One the first day when we climbed to the viewing point at the highest point on the island that afternoon we found a tribute showing photo’s after the Tsunami that had hit the island, a large area of was just washed away. There are dive schools on every street corner, more western restaurants and cheap style but expensive accommodation everywhere. The night life was full on, we walked down the street towards the main beach where the music was getting louder and louder. The walk way was starting to fill up with people drinking alcohol  “buckets”. People were drinking away, having their photo’s taken with a monkey which had been dressed up, so cruel!   We found beach bars with blaring music and young locals throwing fire sticks around in time to the music, tourist were doing limbo and getting free shots for successful completions. The girls were even offered free buckets if they got got their tits out, all very surreal for a Buddist country where sunbathing topless is frowned upon?  We only stayed on Phi Phi for a night before we had to escape!

Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi

Phuket was our final Thai island experience, it’s probably the largest Thai island and was also devastated by the 2004 boxing day Tsunami killing 250,000 people.  We arrived by boat and got a minibus to Phuket Old town, which is situated inland. Phuket is perhaps misunderstood, often associated with go go bars and sex tourism, the old town is forgotten. Phuket Old Town was beautiful, lots of ancient buildings with  a strong chinese influence about them and excellent food found in the local restaurants. We stayed at “Sunny Hostel”  a new place that had only been opened for a few months.  The location was quiet and it was a great place to relax after the mayhem on Koh Phi Phi.

Paul Partying on Koh Phi Phi

Paul Partying on Koh Phi Phi

Paul had found that we could go to see some Thai boxing  in Patong so we planned on having a night, Patong is the part of Phuket that really is associated with excessive nightlife of all descriptions . We had a great night out, its was certainly varied. We started with a local meal in a small restaurant near to the boxing stadium, followed by the Thai boxing itself.  There were 7 fights starting off with a fight between children who were only maybe 12 years old. Each match lasted 5 rounds unless they knocked their opponent out.  We were able to bet on the fight by picking the red corner or the blue corner and passing a bit of money to one of the bookies who were roaming around the stadium.  After the boxing we headed to the famous Bangla Road to drink and people watch, Manchester United were also playing so we watched that too.  The bars were fascinating and jam packed, every bar was full of dancing girls gyrating on poles above overweight again western men who leered longingly below, a fascinating place to people watch and an entertaining way to finish our trip to the Thai Islands. Hedonism reigns on the islands but tranquility can be found if you are prepared to rough it for a few nights.

Bangla Walking Street Patong

Bangla Walking Street Patong

From Phuket I arranged visas for our entry into Myanmar. It took a bit of doing but it turned out to be well worth the effort.

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