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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Day 183-185: Bangkok in a day (almost)

Team 365 arrived in Bangkok at just before 6 in the morning and after waking and gathering ourselves we made it to a taxi and, slightly worried about the unsocial hour and the likelihood of hostels being open, we were deposited on Koh San Road where bars where blaring music, street venders were selling pad thai and people where everywhere. We could have started a night out if we had been so inclined. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we weren't.

We had, however, managed to arrive on a Sunday which meant that we were just in time for the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market; our guidebook advised early arrival (that suited us) and promised sweat, tears, extreme claustrophobia and more bargains on more items than anyone could ever hope for. Since our hostel room was not available to us until midday we decided to check it out.
What we found was a pleasant out-of-town market that was just getting into the swing of things, friendly vendors, a systematic (if vast) expanse of stalls and a little rain. We were happy, but we were also desperate to sleep - so we headed back. The rest of the day was spent snoozing and investing in the afore-mentioned pad thais...tomorrow it would be all action.

Bangkok is full, and I mean full, of wonderful things - alot of things are not exactly as they seem (more on that later), some of them are exactly as they seem, and some of them are even better than they seem. The sky-train falls firmly into the last of these crudely-constructed pigeonholes. A trip across town that once upon a time took over 4 hours thanks to legendary traffic congestion can now be completed in beautifully air-conditioned carriages in 15 minutes, for 35 Baht (not even 1GBP)

We took this glorious mode of transport to China Town, of course, because yes we did come all the way to Thailand to get a better taste of China. The tiny alleys packed with market stalls were an absolute pleasure to get completely lost in.
After a bit of searching we did manage to locate Old Siam Plaza; home to a vast array of confectionery that falls into the 'wonderful things that are not as they seem' category. Here we ate shiny sweets that tasted sweet,were made from savory corn (we think), that were made to look like spicy was bizarre. It was wonderful. It was Bangkok all over.

Our next mode of transport was a boat - actually two boats because the first time we got it in the wrong direction and, much like a normal bus service, we had to get off at the next stop and go the other way. At the risk of sounding like a total transport geek (if the sheer joy on my face in the pic above wasn't enough) - what a ridiculously enjoyable way to travel around a city notorious for awful transit! There was plenty of whistling and crew leaping on and off that every stop (see below). It was quick and it was cheap. It bore close resemblance to what we'd heard about other services available in Bangkok.

Then we enjoyed a good session of intense window-shopping in one of the uber-super-massive-everything-all-in-one-place malls; the one we were in had 5 floors of shops, restaurants, massage parlous, a marine park (bored of spending? fancy swimming with sharks?) and a hotel - and this is just what we saw before we eventually found the exit. Anything and everything is available to you in these malls - for the right price. They are like (not-so) mini versions of Bangkok as a whole.

That evening we had arranged to meet up with our good friend Steve (of previous 365 fame) and a Pai-acquired friend, Ryan, who was studying in Bangkok and recommended a bar on Koh San Road. Brick Bar, Ryan told us, usually had an awesome ska band playing. When we entered Brick Bar we were hit by a wave of funking fantastic tunes - the band were incredible. The place was packed with locals (not usually the case on the Koh San) and everyone was getting on down. Thailand was turning into quite the live-music connoisseur.

But the musical fun could not go on forever and we had one more Bangkok-based cliche to complete; that's right readers, after much popping sounds from tuk tuk drivers we made our way to a Ping Pong show. It was exactly as it seems; various items were lit, extinguished and removed from bored-looking Thai girls genitalia and Rob is now the proud owner of a vagina-written 'nice to see Rob' note. It had to be done. It was 5 in the morning and we had reached the epitome of Bangkok.

And on the third day, 365 was pleased with what it had done and so it rested.

Bangkok was a whirlwind, a sensory overload. It was amazing. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Day 175-182: The life of Pai

Vast, vast amounts of blog-space could be used to describe, in detail, all the reasons that Rob and I fell in love with Pai. Pages could be written documenting each of the many, many factors that made it almost impossible to leave and absolutely necessary that we return again.

We knew before we got there that this town in the north of Thailand would be a good'un; almost everyone that we had met on this trip that had been to Thailand cited Pai as their favourite place. Officially an ex-hippie community (Thai authorities cleared out the thousands of farang that were living there with free spirits but without visas a number of years ago) the hippie spirit - we knew - was still going strong.

The spirit of Pai reached us when we were still about an hour away. On a short break from the journey from Chiang Mai, we were musing at our total lack of preparation for our visit - none of us had even considered where we might be staying when we arrived. At this point we were approached by a Finish girl who told us of the guest house she had just left in Pai, insisting that we stay there and pass on her love to the owner and other guests. We called, they had rooms available and they'd pick us up from the bus station. Lovely.
When we arrived we were taken to Happy House in a tuk tuk and the owner, Fritz, introduced us by name to each of the other guests that were relaxing in the bar area. This has never happened before. Rarely have guest house owners known our names - let along us and everyone elses; we knew this was going to be a special place.
Then we were shown our rooms; Lukas took a dorm room and Rob and I were given our own bungalow - yes you read correctly. We had a front door, a porch, a bathroom, a fridge and within about 2 minutes of being there, Rob had set us up a bookshelf too. We were going nowhere fast.

Fritz took the time to tell us about the area and we sat and had a cuppa (free tea and coffee!) with one of the few long-term stayers, a British musician. It was early afternoon so we hired bikes and headed into the hillsides to a pool. Just look at it (above) We would spend a lot more time here - especially given that it cost just over 1GBP to stay as long as you liked.

That evening the Happy family (it was like a family) were going out and we joined everyone for dinner and drinks and delighted in choosing from an almighty array of live music. In fact every night of our stay we ate with our fellow guests and enjoyed awesome live bands; thai and farang musicians played covers/reggae/blues/ name it; someone, somewhere in Pai was playing it. Muscian heaven on earth.

In Pai we lost Lukas (damn education to recommense in Germany!) but we were joined by Rob's friends from home - Spooner and Sean - and a number of messy nights out ensued (see below)
By day we rode through incredible vistas to waterfalls and viewpoints and hot water springs and sometimes to nowhere in particular because the riding itself was such a joy. And by night we wandered through the night market which stretched out over the towns small streets and gifted a number of beautiful vintage dresses to my already bulging backpack.

When the day finally arrived for us to depart; we didn't. Aside from being too hungover, we weren't ready to leave.
Pai has a relaxed vibe, a creative undertone, a diverse musical soundtrack - it makes you want to kick back, chill out and not worry about a thing - leaving included. And so we've changed our tickets, stayed another day and promised ourselves that when we leave we would not be seeing beautiful Pai for the last time.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Day 174: 100km of joy

We loved Chaing Mai but after a few days mincing around the city we thought it was probably time to get out of town and - without opting for another jungle trek (too soon) - we of course decided to go by two wheels.

On leaving our lovely and super-friendly guesthouse, Diva, the owner broke the ice with a joke about me looking like I was having a baby after last night's cooking course and after much stomach-patting we met a German guy who heard we were planning to do a day of biking and asked to come along. This German guy turned out to be Lukas; a wonderful bare-footed man, all-round hero and soon-to-be adopted 365er.

Today we were doing 'The Samoeng Loop'; around 100km of breath-taking scenery, small villages, alusive waterfalls and - luckily - at least one mechanic. We had been going all of 30 minutes when, on easily some of the smoothest tarmac we'd seen in SE Asia, Lukas' back tyre got a puncture and, in an instant, was as flat as a pancake. A local guy informed us a mechanic was just around the corner and after a squeky 5 minute drive at 2mph a mechanic had a new inner tube fitted in no time at all.

We were off again! We climbed up to a beautiful view-point and stopped for lunch in Samoeng - which we estimated to be about half way round the loop. We knew the second half would be higher and even more winding, but we didn't expect to be literally driving through clouds. Watching them roll in over the green mountains and into blue skies was really something special.

We'd decided to do the loop with a bit of an added extension to avoid all the 'big' tourist attractions, by which I mean monkey shows, snake shows, elephant dance show - honestly, it was like Animal Cruelty Avenue; we were not up for it. But in SE Asia when you take the scenic route you really do take the scenic route and, though we managed to drive straight past most of the waterfalls we were looking for, really the driving was the main attraction.

We watched the sun set over a beautiful lake and drove home in the dark to the infamous Saturday Night market in Chiang Mai; by then we'd persuaded Lukas to some north with us to Pai and there was plenty more biking to be done.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Day 173: You make SUPER flame, na?

And so the culinary trail of 365 continues; we had entered a new country and therefore we just had to learn how to cook like a local.

On this occasion we opted for an evening lesson with the lovely Meow (yes, she had the Thai version of my name and it meant that we could say things like 'shall I put the chilis in now, meow?' etc. great fun)

The evening began with a trip to the market and then we got stuck in with our first of six dishes; the infamous Pad Thai...after conducting an almost-fast for the day we were ravenous and the stir-fried noodles with green veg topped with peanuts and lime went down a storm.

Then we made a dish that I really didn't think that I would like; a spicy soup called Tam Yam. Preparing it involves boiling various spices and chilis and herbs with mushrooms, tomatoes and tofu and then removing all the herbs and spices before serving with fresh lime. The result is a thin-looking soup that really packs a punch - it was delicious!

Our next dish was a Papaya Salad; which is a lovely light cold salad that involves tangy veg in, traditionally, a shrimp paste, but for us we went veggie...I was beginning to feel full but there was no time to spare and we cooked on!

Our next two dishes were a Thai Green Curry and a Chicken/tofu & Cashew Nut Fry; the first was spicy and fresh, served with steamed rice and the second allowed us to have a go at "the super flame" - check out Rob, and his apron (above)

For our final dish we made Mango Sticky Rice, which I already knew was my sisters' favourite Thai dish but I hadn't yet tried it. The sticky rice was fried with coconut cream and milk and served with a fresh ripe mango and then more coconut cream was warmed up and drizzled over the top. The end result was a sweet and incredibly scrummy desert and two very full Brits.

Meow gave us two recipe books and certificates confirming we were indeed "master chefs" of Thai cuisine...again, Team 365 would like to warn that friends and family may have recreations of these dishes forced upon them on our return.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Day 167-171: How not to enter Thailand (visa fiasco II)

What's that you say? Surely after the resolutions made back in July regarding the Vietnamese visa fiasco Team 365 would not be so stupid as to make a visa-based mistake again...erm...well...we did.

SO what we were sure of when entering Thailand is that when you cross the border by land you are given 15 days gratis (thank you very much you lovely Thais) and then one must extend this visa while remaining on Thai soil. What we thought was that this extension would be easy to do and fairly priced; this is where we went wrong.

Once you have received your free 15-day pass you can extend your visa ONLY by 7 days and ONLY once and all for the outrageous fee of 47USD. There are loopholes, though these loopholes involve doing "border runs" i.e. traveling into Burma for about half an hour just so you can turn around and get another 15 days for free on re-entry. Unfortunately this can only be done at 2 specific borders (one in the south and one in the north) and you, of course, have to pay to get to and from the borders.

So we were left with a few options;
1) Numerous border runs around a carefully-planned itinerary to make sure we were indeed near enough to the borders at the right time.
2) Fly out of and then back into the country (those entering by air, as apposed to land, are given 30 days free)
3) Go back to Vientiane (Laos) and visit the Thai embassy there where we can get a 2-month visa for free

We opted for #3 - of course this is more than mildly annoying since it involves 2 night buses and takes 4 days in total and we have already been to Vientiane, stayed right around the corner from the embassy, and could have saved all this hassle if we had - as we resolved to - been more visa-efficient the first time round.

But we're back on Thai soil now and after what I have been trying to dub "a city break", our trip to Vientiane wasn't all that bad. We love the city and we met some fantastic people - a special thanks to Daniel (of frequent border-run experience) here for making everything so easy :)

Now...may the Thailand adventure continue!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Day 163-166: Welcome to the jungle

Is there a better way to relieve almost 48 hours of sitting in various modes of transport than to sign up to an all-action 3-day trek into the jungle surrounding Chiang Mai? No, we didn't think so either so we signed up (managing to wangle a free massage on return) and set off!

The morning of the first day was filled with all the usual sorts of crap that no-one really wants to do on a tour but always get thrown in so that the tour operator can display a long list of bullet points and charge that little bit more and make their mate down at the market an easy bob or two. We visited a highly average Orchid & Butterfly Farm then went to a local market under the guise of buying water and insect repellent. It was a good chance to get to know our companions for the trip; a lovely selection of Americans, a kiwi, a Swiss guy and our joke-loving tour guide Tonny.

Then we drove into the jungle, stopped for lunch and the real trekking began! And the scenery here really is something else, by this time the sun was high in the sky and as is evident in the pictures there was much sweating to be done all round - this became something of a hallmark of the trip. We stopped to eat local fruit that Tonny picked on the way (delicious) and eat chilis that he told us were "Thai sweet chilis" - please see Rob's face (left) for evidence of their non-sweetness.

On our first night we spent the night in the village of a local tribe that are known as 'long-necks' because the women of the tribe, beginning at 5 years old, add a metal ring around their necks every 3 years (we think) for as long as they live. The result is that by adulthood their necks, now completely covered by rings, are much longer than your average neck.
I got the feeling that the 'village' was a bit of a tourist spot and the tribal people that were there probably didn't live their full-time but it was interesting to get a taste of the tradition and we whiled away the evening around a bonfire.

Rising early on the second morning we took again to the jungle paths to reach the centre of the all-action part of the trip. Rob, Jeff and I had opted to fly through the jungle on 19 zip-wires which was so so much fun! It took about an hour to get all the way round the wires and vertical drops and ended in a magnificent swoop over the river.

Then, from the same spot, we were able to enjoy a short elephant ride. Obviously Rob is already semi-professional in this department but for me it was my first time on an elephant and felt really lucky to be able to sit on her neck, as well as in the carriage on her back.

After a hearty lunch we were taken for a relaxing trip down the same river we'd just done our best superman impressions over on bamboo rafts, which was rather pleasant. But the relaxing was not to continue and in the afternoon we undertook what was the hardest bit of trekking in the trip. It was hard but so rewarding; the views were spectacular and it made scrambling up and down steep slopes and thick greenery more than worth it.

On this evening we camped in a small village and after bathing in the nearby waterfall (really, there was no shower) we again settled in for a night of great food, star-gazing and games around the campfire.

All too soon it was day 3 and our final day was a wet one! We trekked to a beautiful waterfall that cascaded into various small pools that were perfect for swimming in and you could even sit behind the largest waterfall in an air pocket, which was really fun - you can see me emerging in the most graceful way possible, above.

Then we went white water rafting! For obvious reasons the camera did not join us on this part of the adventure but it was brilliant. Paddling full speed into the rapids, hanging on while getting bounced about and soaking wet - we were even able to jump out of our raft in quiet spots. It was just the getting back in that was challenging. Prepare to read again of Team 365 flying down rapids in a dingy; we're officially hooked.

And that was it! Our 3-day jaunt was over; we were bitten, scratched, sweaty and soaking wet when we departed again for Chiang Mai. Here we washed, got a foot massage (looks of all-round disgust from staff at the state of me feet; all blisters and bites) which was amazing nonetheless and scrubbed ourselves up as best we could for a night out.

Even our wonderful guide came along to show us the hot spots in town and generally oversee the carnage that ensued (above). For those interested in seeing the affects of drinking cheap whiskey after walking for 3 days the full album is here but be warned; it's not pretty.

What a fantastic three days - a special massive thanks to Tonny, Jess, Yvone, Silvio and Nick for making the hard bits fun and the fun bits even better.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Day 159-161: The afore mentioned ordeal

Apologies again for ow long it has taken me to write this post - much has happened in the mean time, but first let us deal with the afore mentioned ordeal that was our entry into Thailand. It was a series of bus-based disasters that is probably best explained in diary form, so here goes;

Mon 27th September
18:00 - a very luxurious people carrier collects us from our guest house in Luang Probang and takes us to the north bus stand
19:00 - we have switched onto a bigger night bus now and it departs bang on 7pm, as scheduled, we recline our chairs as much as possible and brace ourselves for the 13 hours to the Laos/Thai border
20:00 - 00:00 - the bus rumbles over potholed roads and frequently stops for 15-20 minutes at a time. Loud banging can be heard from the rear of the vehicle during these unscheduled stops. Sleep is impossible.
Tues 28th September
01:00 - the bus stops again and this time does not depart for over 45 minutes, on exiting the bus the driver is crouching behind the bus looking at the engine and other passengers are standing and smoking. I establish that the bus is indeed broken and we're waiting for another bus.
02:00 - The replacement bus, which resembles an over-sized school bus with stiff seats, rusty windows and no air-con arrives and we all pile on, clambering over bags that fill the central aisle
04:30 - For no apparent reason bus #2 pulls over on the side of a road
05:30 - with the assistance of wild hand waving from every male Thai aboard, our bus tries to maneuver itself around a large truck that has got stuck in mud in the middle of the road ahead (presumably the reason for the stop on the first place?) Driving perilously close to the ditch that edge the roads on one side and actually brushing past the canvas cover of the truck on the other side we make it past! Hurrah! freedom! Now let's get to the border!
05:45 - the bus stops just past the broken down-truck
06:00 - it seems that on the way past the truck, our bus actually ripped the canvas cover of the truck. We are now waiting for "insurance man" to come to the scene to resolve the dispute.
07:00 - The insurance issue has been sorted and we head off again at full speed through the mountains
08:00 - this is the time we were meant to have arrived at Hua Xai [the Laos side of the border] we are told we are "around 5 hours away"
10:00 - we stop for breakfast, this is when we were meant to have crossed the border and be boarding our next bus to Chang Mai
14:30 - arrive in Hua Xai, obviously we've missed our connection and we try to contact the right people to figure out what our next step should be; questions are asked and phone calls are made but with no sleep and a phone that ran out of battery and then credit on consecutive calls, it's not looking good
16:30 - we get through and a tuk tuk takes us to the river bank
16:55 - we are sailing accross the Mekong into Thailand!
17:00 - we're in Thailand!
17:30 - the company we bought our tickets with recommends a hotel in Chang Xai [the Thai side of the border] which we check into, we will catch the 10am bus to Chang Mai the following day
18:30 - we are showered and eating our first genuine Thai meal in the hotel restaurant
20:00 - we go to bed
20:01 - everyone is fast asleep
Wed 29th September
10:00 - we are rested and packed and ready to go
11:00 - the minibus departs on Thailands beautiful smooth tarmac roads, compared to the beginning of this trip, it's like driving on a dream
16:00 - arrive in Chang Mai! just shy of 48 hours after departing and almost exactly a day late we make it to our final destination!
18:00 - Chang beers all round