Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Day Twenty One - Ko Samui - Thailand

We got up on our last morning on Ko Pang-ngan and had breakfast by our bungalow. We had really enjoyed our stay but we were also looking forward to some air conditioning after our few muggy nights in our (non sir conditioned) palm tree bungalow on Ko Pha-ngan. We had booked a ticket on a wooden taxi boat to Ko Samui and in true Ko Pha-ngan style we went out onto the beach and waded out into the sea to get on board.

We stopped off at another few coves and passed more secluded bungalows hanging onto the edge of rocks. We also passed idyllic small islands home to a few palm trees along the way before we left and crossed the sea a few kilometres to Ko Samui. The whole journey took about an hour and a half before we were dropped off at the north of the island. We then got a bus the short distance via the islands airport to our hotel in Chaweng to the east of the island.

Ko Samui instantly had a different vibe to Ko Pha-ngan. It's more developed here and there are shops and restaurants lining the streets side by side with glass fronts and branding! McDonald's sits opposite Burger King with Starbucks a few doors down. Huge electrical wires that are a familiar view in the city's line the streets linking the shops up to electricity. In some places there are so many you have to duck to get into a shop. Markets all selling the same knock off brands of clothing, perfume, cosmetics and leather go on for miles along the main street. Men outside greet you with 'my friend' and 'where you from' trying to get you to come in and see what they're selling. Westerner's with meaningless tattoos, white polo shirts, un-naturally tanned skin and fluorescent bikinis strut down the street while chewing on gum or wiz past you on a motorbike NOT a moped!

We arrived at our hotel the Chaweng Garden Beach Resort at midday. The hotel does actually sit on the sea front, as the name suggests, of one of the biggest strips of beach on the island. However, there are so many shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and power lines lining the beach road you can't see behind to the beach as you drive along or to the jungle the other side! There is no such thing as a beach bungalow here, just resorts which makes it a bit of a disappointment in comparison to Ko Pha-ngan for us. I guess it depends what you come on holiday for?

We settled in and went out to find some lunch, at least with the amount of restaurants here it's not hard to find somewhere good to eat. We had a dim sum platter for starter and a Thai Green Curry and Crab Yellow Curry for main before headings back to the hotel. We went out for a swim in the sea which is crystal clear and actually not too busy when you compare it to other holiday resorts but it still felt busy to us after having whole coves to ourselves the past couple of days. The people here are different too, most of them are here on package holidays and don't move from their resort. Jet skis tear up the water and there was a man selling a ride on a machine that makes you shoot out of the sea and hover ten meters up in the air on a board with a jet underneath. Then the noise of the many people's voices was broken by a huge plane passing over head from the international airport just down the road.

I know if you get out and explore this island it has a lot more to offer than just Chaweng, with equally as beautiful waterfalls and countryside just like Ko Pha-ngan. I just don't want to share it with the people that are round here! I guess that sounds snobby and I don't mean it that way but people here aren't here exploring and discovering - they have signed up to this from a glossy catalogue back in their country and probably don't even know about the islands sights let alone Ko Pha-ngan - thank god! It just lacks the magic here a little for us.

Our hotel is nice though and air conditioning is appreciated at last! After we spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and the hotels pool we went out to explore a little more. We walked down the street south towards the quieter end of the beach. As we headed south it did become less chaotic with fewer market traders and banging bars that are present in the north.

We passed three guys that were fixing the power lines along the way. This consisted of one man sitting on a no entry fence holding the bottom of a ladder that was resting on the buzzing power lines, another on the ladder fixing something while the third guy held up a large amount of the lines that were getting in the way! This made me worried at the same time as amazed so I thought it was worth a picture!

We stopped off at a bar called The Library that Jamie had looked up and stopped off for a drink. It was like a breath of fresh air in there - literally! The air com had really cooled the place down and the interior was amazing! Polished concrete walls met steel shelves and fantastic lighting. The ultra high ceilings with the steel ventilation exposed made it feel spacious, open, trendy and laid back at the same time. We settled down in a seat at the front and watched the world go by from this peaceful bar. People went about their business going to and from work along the street outside. The peace was occasionally interrupted with a truck with 'we will, we will, rock you' chanting out of its speaker follower by a game show style American accent enticing people to tonight's big Thai fight! Boxing is very popular over here, there are even rings under shady palms in the most unlikely of villages.

We stayed at the Library moving onto their beach bar on the other side and watched the sun set from bean bags on the sand. By this time in the evening the last of the jet skis were being brought in for the evening and there were only a few bathers left on the beach. The vibe had completely changed, this chaotic beach from a few hours ago had chilled out into a relaxed yet trendy hangout for the evening. We decided to head back to our end of the beach and were greeted within a couple of hundred meters by neon lights and booming music again! We stopped in a hotel for dinner which after over three weeks of amazing food was quite disappointing but fine.

We decided the night was still young so went back onto the main street to see what was going on. The street looked completely different illuminated with neon lights! The folk from the beach earlier in the day were now wondering up and down - no doubt in search of the best booze deal. The whole thing was a bit dizzying to watch! Every bar had sports on wide screen TV's and there were wet t-shirt and drinking competitions everywhere! As much as we both wanted to compete we decided to call it a night! We stopped off quickly to get some ice cream and went back and hid in our hotel. We look forward to flying to Penang tomorrow and seeing what Malaysia has to offer!

Monday, 29 July 2013

Day Twenty - Ko Pha-ngan - Part Two - Thailand

We got up early on our second day on Ko Pha-ngan and planned what we were going to do with our day. Originally we were going to take a day trip to Ang Thong Marine Bational Park but decided to carry on exploring the island as there is so much to see here.

We set out on the moped to visit the north of the island. As the crow flies this is less than a couple of kilometres around the bay from us. However, due to the lack of roads reaching our side of the island we had to go to the south of Ko Pha-ngan before taking the road up the centre of the island to reach the north!

Our first stop was to a beach that has a sand strip reaching out to a small island called Ko Ma. We parked up the the bike and walked along the beach taking in the views. After we went eastwards to the town of Chaloklam which is a traditional Thai fishing village on the island practically untouched by tourism. Jamie bought a snorkel here fromma diving shack before we set off on the road again to a nearby waterfall and national park.

The waterfall flows down the side of Khao Ra the tallest peak at 625 meters on the island. We got off the bike and started to walk up the river towards the waterfalls that are higher up. The first hundred meters were all paved with steps and were easy to get up. Then the path just stopped and you literally had to climb up the side of the mountain pulling yourself up with the help of roots that had been exposed in the rains. We had to climb like this for a few hundred meters (me sensibly in flip flops)

The first waterfall called Pang Noi is about thirty meters tall but as there had been no rain lately it was just an exposed rock. Someone had also graffitied the sign to read 'Pang No' waterfall too which was quite entertaining! As we climbed higher alongside the main waterfall called Tran Nam Bak (also with not much water) we looked back and saw views across the island out to the sea. At the top there was a plunge pool that people were bathing in after the climb too.

You could carry on the hike another few kilometres to the peak of the mountain but we decided to descend as I had bad shoes and that along with the heat and bad path made us feel we had seen enough. It was a beautiful path though leading through dense jungle and the waterfalls must be spectacular after it rains. I guess you can't have it all - we had beautiful sunshine for days now so we can't complain about there being no water - we would have only moaned if we had days of rain!

We set back on the road to home passing small sleepy villages along the way and signs pointing to more waterfalls, elephant rides, bars selling 'bloody cold' beer and gasoline huts. As we made our way across the island and back to our dusty road we stopped every so often to admire the amazing views out over the island before reaching home mid afternoon.

We stopped for some lunch before spending the afternoon lazing on the beach and watching the sun go down. Ko Pha-ngan is a beautiful island that you could spend days exploring and even longer just getting into the swing of its laid back vibe and just chilling out. It's an island visited by many but without the impact marked on it that is often left by tourism. Instead small natural looking palm bungalows pop up to the side of coves hidden under huge jungle canopies. People rarely move from their small bays and if they do you hardly notice them as they get lost in the maze of tracks that can lead you to remote coves that you can have to yourselves if you make the effort to explore. I could easily spend months here but sadly tomorrow we leave to the neighbouring island of Ko Samui which is supposed to be completely contrasting - will see.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Day Nineteen - Ko Pha-ngan Part One - Thailand

After two long days of travel from Bangkok via Hua Hin, we were finally on Ko Pha-Ngan! We got up and had breakfast before lazing on the beach for an hour while deciding what to do with our day. I went for a swim in the beautiful warm water while Jamie went for a 'walk' along the beach. I carried on soaking up the sun, then after thirty minutes and no sign of Jamie on the two hundred meter stretch of beach, started to wonder where he had gone! A few minutes later I heard footsteps coming down the path from the road and there Jamie was, back from his 'walk' with two helmets in his hand and a smile on his face. I should have known he never walks anywhere unless it's to something that contains petrol! We would now be spending the rest of the day exploring the island on our shiny new moped!

We took off on the open road (or rather lethal dirt track) towards the southeast of the island. We carried along a dead end road that eventually leads you to a beautiful secluded beach at the end. Along the way we followed a river which breaks every so often with three beautiful waterfalls. The waterfalls were not as dramatic as they are in the rainy season but there was still enough of a trickle to get the idea and to cool off in.

Eventually we saw a sign that pointed to 'bar with a view to die for and bloody cold beers'. We were sold on the idea and parked up the moped and set off on the track the half a kilometre to this bar. The track was seriously steep and every step was an effort in the heat. We went past three blind bends and after each one the track climbed even steeper again to the next. After about fifteen minutes we reached the top and headed over to a hut with a wooden balcony out the back. We climbed again up the steps and were warmly greeted by its owner (who I think had been to one too many full moon parties in his time and was so laid back he was almost horizontal). We ordered a couple of drinks and some snacks and went out onto the balcony and stared out to a view over the ocean from a couple of hundred meters up.

Beautiful butterfly's, dragonfly and birds buzzed around us with noises we didn't recognise while we relaxed for an hour. Afterwards we made our way down the hill and got back on our bike to the end of the road. At the end the river opened out into a small bay with rocks protecting each side from the wind. We swam in the flat water with only a few other people who had made it out this far. The water was crystal clear and warm enough to stay in the whole day. We drank milk from a coconut in the beach bar before carrying on back to the village next to ours.

The east side of Ko Pha-ngan is a lot more quite and secluded than the west where the boats come in and depart from. There's lots of coves to be discovered here if you don't mind walking or hiring a moped to reach them. We went off and explored various tracks that lead to coves and mountain tops until the sun started to go down and we headed back to out beach bungalow to watch the sunset. On the way back we stopped for gasoline at a hut on the side of the road where a giggly old lady who had inhaled way too may fumes helpfully filled us up.

In the evening we had a beach BBQ with red snapper and giant prawns freshly caught in the day. As the evening got darker people set off Chinese lanterns into the sky with some making their way up over the mountain and some setting fire to things like flags closer by. We looked at the map for things to see the following day before going to bed in our little hut for the night. I could stay here for for weeks or even years and am really beginning to fit in now with three weeks of beach hair!

Day Seventeen & Eighteen - Ko Pha-ngan - Thailand

We woke up today feeling slightly worse for ware after spontaneously sampling the nightlife in the Sukhumvit district of Bangkok the night before! We had a large breakfast before getting a taxi for over an hour right across to the other side of town to a far west suburb of Bangkok to catch a bus south towards Hua Hin.

I had decided back in the UK to get busses or trains as we gradually made our way south to the islands of Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Samui in the southern golf of Thailand rather than to fly. We would stop off overnight in Hua Hin about halfway down as a break along the way. The town of Hua Hin is a traditional Thai beach resort that hoards of wealthy business savvy Thai's from Bangkok flock to each weekend filling it's trendy resorts and restaurants. It was originally put on the map in the late 1800's and early 1900's when the Thai monarchy made this their holiday destination and visited time and time again. Outside of the main town crystal clear water and white beaches line the coast untouched by mass development.

The bus we caught from Bangkok took just under four hours to reach Hua Hin and passed through Jungle lined Thai countryside along the way. The bus must have been older than either one of us and its old caucus rattled the whole way shaking our bones as we passed over the bumpy road south. The pane of glass on Jamie's side could be moved significantly if pushed and there were stains everywhere marking its age and the thousands of passengers that have been aboard before. The 'overly made' bus conductor (in contrast fuchsia lipstick that went way over the contour of her natural lips and purple eyeshadow that looked like she had been beat up) insisted we travel the whole way with the curtains closed. I had to sneakily peak out to see what was outside everything I saw her nod off. On the plus side, the air con worked and due to it being mid week (and the bus being less than appealing) we pretty much had the whole thing to ourselves!

We arrived in Hua Hin late afternoon and got a Tuk Tuk from our bus stop to our hotel. Our hotel was in the somewhat less trendy down town area of Hua Hin away from the five star resorts and hotels that lie in the bustling centre to the north of town. We went out and walked along the beach spotting the famous gold Buddha statue at the far south of the bay while watching all the fishing boats come in and out from sea. Horses were taking tourists up and down the beautiful white sand beach and the sea front was lined with bars and hotels. We stopped at a beach bar for some snacks before heading back to our hotel at sunset.

In the evening we caught a Tuk Tuk to the 'trendy' area of town and explored the mass of resorts and bars. We ended up in another Japanese restaurant and has sushi and noodles for dinner before heading back for some sleep.

The next day we got up early and headed back into town to catch a bus we had pre booked from the UK that would take us down to Chumphon where we would catch a high speed catamaran across to Ko Pha-ngan. The bus journey took about four hours and went at an average spend of over seventy miles per hour (according to one of Jamie's man apps!) The countryside of vast green jungle that went far up into the mountains which border with Myanmar, not too far west, whizzed past as we made our way to the port.

We arrived at the port of Chumphon at midday. We got off the bus and checked in with the post staff and were issued stickers for us and our bags with colours varying depending on which island you got off at. The journey on the boat took a little under three hours. We first stopped at the smaller island of Ko Tao before we were dropped off on Ko Pha-ngan.

It was early evening now and we headed to a local bar to find a way of getting across to the other side of the island to where our bungalow was. After being moved from one taxi to another we made our way east to the rural village of Thong Nai Pan. The route went round the largest mountain on the island (basically the heart of the island as it only measures four kilometres wide) The route took us through dense, beautiful jungle that every so often looked out through a clearing in the trees to the sea down below. We carried along the road until the tarmac ran out. The final ten kilometres went up and down steep mud tracks with huge trenches and holes carved out of it from the tropical rains that fall regularly on this island which make it so green.

The journey from Bangkok had been long and hard to get here. To be honest up to this point, Thailand had not lived up to the dreams I had once imagined, especially following the amazing experiences we'd had in Vietnam and Cambodia. However, our weary faces filled with joy and excitement now at the prospect of what we had to explore over then next few days and nights that we would be spending here on Ko Pha-ngan.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Day Sixteen - Bangkok - Thailand

We left our hotel in Siem Reap and went to the new airport just outside of town which felt like a brand new national trust wildlife reserve hug. We flew Cambodia Angkor air to Bangkok which took just over and hour. You could see below exactly where the Cambodian border is with Thailand because of the differences in the way the land is farmed. On the Cambodian side there are small fields, all in different shapes, split up with palm plantations. On the Thai side the fields are a lot more grid like and a lot larger in size.

We arrived at Bangkok's airport mid morning and got a taxi into the centre of town to our hotel. This city is unlike any other place we have been too on our journey so far. Huge wide roads packed with traffic jams line the way to the city centre with the brand new sky train link weaving above it all. High rise buildings and sky scrapers make up the city's skyline and stretch for miles. You instantly get the feeling that this is a massive city with lots going on.

We arrived at our hotel to find that the room I had pre booked and paid for hadn't actually been booked! After a quick internet search I booked a more luxurious hotel which was in the Sukhumvit area of town maybe five kilometres east of the old town. We got a Tuk Tuk there which was a lot more 'pimped' our than the Tuk Tuk's we had been on in Cambodia. This one had neon flashing lights inside, cushioned seats, football stickers and it ran on gas making a sound like a teenagers ford fiesta in Southend on a Saturday night!

Once we got to this hotel the lady said we had got an upgrade to a suite as the normal double that we had booked were all taken. We ended up on the ninth floor with an apartment looking out over the high rise skyline of Bangkok. After exploring the hotel and watching a massive rain storm from the hotels sky walk to the second tower we headed to one of Bangkok's super malls to have a look around.

We arrived at the mall that was about seven floors tall and so wide it would take days to cover the whole thing! There was all the usual designer stores you would expect to see on London's Bond Street as well as all the usual high street names we are used to seeing at home too. We wandered around for a bit and decided to head back to the old part of town.

We arrived at the Grand Palace just in time for closing then decided to do a walking tour that is recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. Jamie navigated the way and we didn't really see that much - I don't know if this is because of Jamie's bad map reading (don't worry he doesn't read this) and we didn't go the right way (this is the most probably reason) or if the city just felt too familiar and the things we passed wouldn't feel out of place in London? Ever way I lost interest hence the lack of photographs covering this part of the trip!

Jamie then navigated us to Sirocco Sky Tower which was made famous by the Hangover Two Movie. We decided to go to the top to watch the sunset with a glass of wine. We got to the top then the elegant Thai lady at the top said that we were not allowed in with Jamie's oil stained top and chubby knees showing! We descended and as it was peak rush hour we decided to get the sky train back to our district. This train is amazing towering meters into the air taking you from one side of town to the other in a matter of minutes.

We got back to our hotel and after smartening up a bit Jamie chose a restaurant nearby our hotel called above eleven which is on the 69th floor of a hotel and looks out over the whole of the city. Up here you got an idea of the huge scale of the city and could easily believe you were in New York. We ordered some sushi which was the best I had ever tasted and watched the city lights twinkle in the night.

After dinner and a couple of gin and tonics we made our way back to out hotel falling into a bar with great live music then into a VW camper Paul Frank pop up bar along the way before dragging ourselves back to our hotel post midnight and numerous glasses and buckets of gin and tonic later!

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Day Fifteen - Angkor Wat - Cambodia

We woke up early, like usual, to avoid the crowds making their way to the nearby ancient city of Angkor. We arranged for our Tuk Tuk driver who picked us up from the Port in Siem Reap the day before to take us around the old cities. We begun by making our way north out of town stopping first at Angkor Wat before carrying onto, Ankor Thom and the temple Bayon and ending at Ta Prohm.

Our Tuk Tuk arrived on the road to the east of Angkor Wat. The first thing we were staggered by was the huge moat that surrounds the temple and old city. At this point you couldn't actually see the buildings inside the island through the trees but the moat alone is amazing. Spanning nearly 200 meters in width and enclosing an area measuring 1.5 by 1.3 kilometres. It's truly inspiring and unimaginable to think this was all dug by hand back in 1125 when building commenced on the city. Even the banks of the moat are lined with huge stone blocks helping to preserve it after all these years. We turned around to the front side of the temple and the giant stone bridge that leads you into Angkor Wat city came into view.

Our Tuk Tunk driver dropped us off and pointed to where he would wait for us until we finished exploring. We had arrived early but there was already a decent gathering of other tourists here too. We made our way over the giant bridge which is paved in massive stones with beautifully caved stone statues sitting on either side lining the way to the grand entrance. Some of these statues are in better shape than others but there are enough surviving to give you the feel of the magnificence of this place and the huge intricate detail that has gone into sculpting each individual stone laid.

We arrived at the grand front entrance and made our way inside. Once you get into the entrance hall, long corridors go off to the left and right and lead you to either end of the front facade. Small shrines with fragrant incense sticks burn along the corridors and monks line the way in prayer. Stepping out the other side you enter onto the grass island of Angkor Wat with another giant paved path leading you to the front of the main temple. You can hardly see the end of the path that leads to the main temple as it's so long and the main temple is but a silhouettes in the distance.

As you walk along the raised pathway to the temple you pass other small buildings along the way that if they stood anywhere else in the world would have a huge impact yet here they are dwarfed by the unbelievable size and grandure of the main temple here. The sound of xylophones and chanting of the monks that still reside here filled the heavy air as we walked in anticipation towards the main building.

We climbed up the steps into the main entrance that again has corridors off each side that surround the main temple in a square shape forming a courtyard around it. We looked back along the path we had just crossed to the dot in the distance that is the front entrance. We carried on inside to the main temple and looked up at the huge towers that form the main temple. Unlike the other temples on this area, Angkor Wat remains in good condition as it is still in use by over eighty monks that still live here. It's amazing when you look at all the giant stones, each with individual engraving, and imagine how they got here and were places so high. The original stones were quarried over fifty kilometres away and floated down the river on rafts to the site of the temple.

We carried on thought the temple and out the other side of the corridor lined courtyards to the other side of the moated island. At the far side where we met the moat again another entrance lies which we looked around before walking the whole way back though the temple and its paths back to out Tuk Tuk driver.

We drove north to Angkor Thom which is home to the Bayon temple. This temple is slightly less in tact than Angkor Wat but the main building is still accessible. There are just a few stones and statues in more of a state of decay than Angkor Wat. We wandered around navigating through the tourists that had started to pile in for the day before moving further north to other smaller ruins in the ground and finally passing over the terrace of elephants before meeting our Tuk Tuk again.

We then drove to our final temple of the day Ta Prohm which is a lot more neglected than the other two and is famous for the trees that's roots hug it's walls. There is a lot of work being done on this temple at the moment by an Indian company that are restoring a lot of it that can still be saved. As you walked through you could here these workers vigorously chipping away at stone creating an image of what it must have been like here hundreds of years ago. We wandered around before getting our Tuk Tuk back to our hotel to escape the heat and humidity of midday.

You could explore the huge amounts of temples in this area for weeks as they cover such a huge amount of area and there are so many separate ones. This place definitely holds the most amazing pieces of ancient architectures I have ever seen.

We returned to our hotel and relaxed by the pool and enjoyed dinner out before our flight to Bangkok the following day.
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