Thursday, 29 January 2009

Australian road trip...chapter 1

Well after a month of avoiding blogging and general communication like the plague (and being aided by Australia's generally poor transmitter coverage and colossal size), I thought I better give you a downunder rundown...

After panicking about getting accommodation before we arrived we hit the jackpot with the Elite Private Hotel in Kirribilli. On my first morning here I was blown away, walking down to the harbour only to see the bridge looming up next to me and the Opera House gleaming at me from across the harbour. Fantastic and relatively cheap too.

New Year's Eve was good. Although the whole week we were there was spent drinking too much, eating too much and spending too much as we caught up with friends and family from back home.

For the fireworks we camped out in the blazing sun at Bradfield Plaza, on the bridge's north side and opposite the Opera House and Sydney CBD, for the 9pm show, before heading to Observatory Hill on the bridge's south side for the midnight celebrations. The fireworks were spectacular and I will try and get some pix up here or on flickr soon.

By January 4th and with considerably less money, we picked up our 1st hire car from Hertz. The plan being to buy a tent and some camping equipment and drive south along the NSW coastline, then down to Melbourne before heading along the Great Ocean Road, up to Adelaide and back to Sydney cross country.

I had been hoping for a jet-black, nitrous-equipped Interceptor used in Mad Max but made do with our air-conditioned Toyota Camry. With wheels, shades and sunburnt noses we hit the road...

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas from Bangkok

Just woken up in our swish apartment in Bangkok, it didn't snow and Santa hasn't been, but just wanted to wish everyone a happy Christmas and new year's. It's going to be a strange day especially as it's just the two of us.

While the Thais are trying hard to make it feel like Christmas it isn't quite working - and it feels decidedly weird spending xmas in a country where it's 30c instead of 4c. Part of the reason we are staying in the apartment is so we can make our own Christmas lunch - but after a visit to Tesco Lotus yesterday that may be harder than we hope.

Firstly we can't find a turkey anywhere, secondly we don't have an oven. So we're having a re-heated seasoned chicken and mashed potato with veg...mmmmmm. I bought what I thought was a xmas ham but it turns out it's a lump of uncured pork - I get the feeling one or two Thai dogs will have a Christmas surprise later when I get rid of it.

We're almost at the end of our Indian/Asian adventures and will be heading down under on Boxing Day (night). It's been fun. I think we both enjoyed India the most and despite all that has happened in Mumbai we will definitely be heading back sometime (though on reflection the country's transport system probably wore us out more than we had expected).

The last few weeks in SE Asia have been busy as we have been on the move constantly - as a result we're looking forward to getting to Oz more than ever, where we know we will be for at least a year.

We're planning on getting ourselves a camper van (I'm holding out for a Mad Max-style Interceptor) with all the kit and caboodle, and will be hitting the roads after our NYE celebrations.

After moving our flights to Dec 26th it looked like it might be impossible to find somewhere to stay in Sydney but we have managed to get a room in a place just north of the harbour bridge in Kirribilli so will see some of you soon. To everyone back home enjoy the Christmas spirit and I will speak soon.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Patong Ping-pong, ladyboys, and the neverending journey to Ko Pha-Ngan

After arriving in Phuket (pronounced Poo-Get if your Thai and feck It if you're Irish), we hauled our bags to the nearest guesthouse in the resort of Patong Beach. I was still dazed after stupidly smashing my head again on the roof of the boat (this is starting to worry Angela who thinks I will have the IQ of a boxer by the time I get back to the UK - apologies to any boxers reading this),and we somehow managed to get a room in Charlie's Guesthouse, which it turns out is more used to renting by the hour rather than per night.

After freshening up and a quick bite to eat, we headed to the beach. We were dazzled by the amount of bars and tacky tourist restaurants we saw on the short walk through Patong. The beach was no different and was massively over-developed. Having spent the previous night on a deserted beach on Ko Phi Phi it was a bit of a shock. Everywhere you looked there were parasols and sun-loungers while people on speedboats, jetskis, and parasails weaved dangerously in and out of swimmers. It seemed a real shame as the bay must have looked fantastic before the lure of tourist dollar turned it into some sort of South East Asian Benidorm.

Unfortunately a lot of the places we have been to in Thailand are similar. I guess a lot of it is a response to the devastation wreaked by the tsunami (there are tsunami warning signs, evacuation routes and alarms everywhere) but I think southern Thailand generally is over-developed.

I spoke to a couple of diving schools, but their prices were massively over-inflated (I will wait until we get to Ko Tao tomorrow), we soaked up the sun and sights and sunk a couple of well-earned beers.

A day was enough for us here and after getting back from the beach we booked a minibus to Sura Thani and ferry to Ko Pha-Ngan for the next morning.

.....Chris has become fatigued (or can't be arsed finishing this off so I have taken over).

Phuket was a disappointment, but maybe we just chose the wrong place to stay...I did not realise how big the island was and we are guilty of arriving in Patong - not liking it and getting on the first bus out of there. We could have hired a scooter and explored some of the other beaches but as we are running out of time in Thailand we decided to cut our losses and head for the east cost islands of Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao.

After a day taking in the sights of Patong darkness fell and the town lit up in a blaze of neon...and out came the Thai Go Go girls and ladyboys! Since we had one night only we decided to fully embrace the debauchery and hit the town. We went to a few bars where you get a complementary Thai girl at every table, these girls were stunning and Chris was like a kid in a sweet shop, he did not know where to look first. Luckily they were showing the match - Arsenal were paying Boro but don't ask Chris what the score was i still don't think he would be able to tell you.

Next stop was a bar where we were dragged in by a ladyboy, he got us settled with some drinks, came back over and made us play Jackpot, connect 4 and some random hitting nails into a block of wood with a hammer game (Chris's DIY nightmares returned). We also made friends with the girls (boys?) and by an amazing coincidence one of the girls I had got talking to was on our minibus to Sura Thani the next morning. It was great chatting to all the girls and I think they were pleased to be nattering to me rather than some 50 year old skanky sex tourist (of which there were many).

The main street was packed with bars all with glittering arrays of dancing ladyboys, here we met two 19 year old boys from Finland....I think it was a eye opener for them, so much so they were hammered - as was Chris. They provided him with lots of material and I had to walk along with the three of them saying "you like ladyboys", "no YOU like ladyboys" Chris in his full volume Borat voice.

Next morning we were on the minibus at 7.30am - the journey turned into another nightmare trip and because of a delay with the ferry transfer we did not reach Ko Pha-Ngan until 8.30pm. We were tired and had no where to say but luckily met up with a couple from Holland who were also heading for the northern resort of Haad Yao. They recommended a place called Highlife. This turned out to be a real gem, wooden huts with hammocks and sea views, a restaurant with a tasty looking menu (they had Cornflakes!!!!) and a lovely pool. However the first hut we looked at was an older style, Chris pulled what he thought was the bathroom light only to find he was holding onto a giant cockroach (Jules you would have loved it), when we did find the real light switch it didn't get any better - the bathroom was full of them! We politely declined this hut and were shown another, this turned out to be much better. We later discovered the absence of cockroaches was thanks to our resident lizard who lived behind the bathroom mirror and was over a foot long, he looked like a mini crocodile.

We stayed on the island three days and it was very relaxing, although the weather was a overcast and windy for a couple of the days so we did not get much opportunity to work on our tan. Needless to say everyone reading this at home will be full of sympathy. On our last day we hired a scooter and drove around the island checking out deserted beaches, we found some real beauties and put the scooter through it's paces by taking it down (and back up) some very steep dirt tracks....luckily it didn't rain or we would still be stuck on a deserted beach somewhere.

Yesterday we got yet another ferry to Ko Tao. I would say that Chris has been doing very well on the open sea but he went diving today and his seasickness has finally caught back up with him.

We are staying in the diving resort of Sairee beach which is a mecca for divers, this island is world number 2 in issuing PADI certificates. Most of the dive centres offer discounts on accommodation and we spent our first night at the Big Blue dive resort, where the rooms were cheap but dreadful. Our little hovel stunk of drains and peroxide (?), this was too much even for Chris so we decided to check out and look for somewhere better. We stumbled across a BAN'S diving resort and had a look at the rooms, the first was luxury but the more expensive one they showed us was exquisite and we just couldn't resist. It is the most luxurious room we have stayed in since leaving home and has hot water which is a rarity on this island....the cold showers are painful.

Chris did two dives today while I had a lay-in and spent the morning chilling around the pool. He saw lots of fish and navigated through underwater tunnels but the visibility was not as good as he expected. The snorkeling however is great and we have been splitting our time between baking on the beach and peering down at the underwater world.

We have two more nights of luxury then we are off on a catamaran-bus combo to Bangkok in time for Christmas.

In case we don't get a chance to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year:


Monday, 15 December 2008

Penang, Ao Nang, Ko Phi Phi

It's been a while, but news of my death has been greatly exaggerated and I have instead been sampling the delights of Thailand - in fact as I write this from the hammock outside our beach hut on the evening of 15th December, I can hear the waves lapping at the beach outside and the sound of Bob Marley drifting across the sand from the bar - I can't even BEGIN to imagine how crap it is in the UK right now - at least it's Christmas soon ;-)

After too much time in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Penang was a welcome break. The slower pace of life and laidback locals give the place a feel very similar to Fort Cochin, Kerala. After a late night arrival in Georgetown at the 'New Banana' guesthouse, we decamped to the bar for a few surprisingly cheap Tigers (beer is taxed at 40% in Malaysia!).

The feel of the place was very different to what we've been used to in India and Sri Lanka. There's a lot of backpackers, most of whom are young, tattooed and sunburnt, and only too happy to while away the days propping up the bar or surfing the net on their laptops. Not being nearly as young, tattooed or sunburnt we grabbed a rickshaw and were pedalled to the mecca of uncool - Fort Cornwallis (even the name is dull).

Good to see statues to the late/great Captain Francis Light who set up the fort in 1786 for the East India Company, and named the place Georgetown after the King. This is one of many remnants of the British Empire we've encountered on the trip, which makes the heart swell with pride and makes you wonder why us Brits aren't a little prouder of our history.

After getting our picture taken with the Cap'n and a four-year-old python called Milo (I thought it was going to bite me), we headed back for a tasty lunch.

(Before this all happened we spent the morning rushing around trying to sort out a new visa for Thailand after the Gov't (in its infinite wisdom) decided to cut the length of stay for people arriving in Thailand via a land border from 30 days to 15. We will only be there 18-19 days so it hurt the wallet even more.)

Back to our tales...

So after sorting the visa we got up the next day for a 5am minivan to the border and Hat Yai in southern Thailand. We were joined in the cramped van by three giant Irishmen who were soon cracking us up and were obviously still drunk. Unfortunately one of the lads managed to get his passport 'locked' (that or he's a terrorist), while the other two made it through passport control only to get lost on the other side (unbelievable) and we had to wait at the border crossing for about an hour while they were found and the passport was fixed.

We were soon at the drop-off point though and after turning our watches back one hour, bought our onward tickets to Krabi - another cramped four-hour minivan ride away.

When I saw the driver I should have known we'd have problems. He was wearing fingerless driving/racing gloves, and after cramming us in the back seat of the van next to a sweaty Thai, turned up the car stereo to 10 just in case we couldn't here his Thai pop 'music'. The ride can only be described as death-defying. His minivan (complete with spoiler, bodykit and alloys) hurtled along the Thai roads come rain or shine. He overtook on corners, overtook on blind summits and seemed to try his hardest to ensure that we spent every second of the journey in abject terror. I lost count of the number of near misses, but let's just say I felt safer in a rickshaw in Delhi traffic than in this van.

We were relieved when we finally got to Krabi Town but a bit dismayed to learn that it was nowhere near the beach. Luckily though a guy we'd met on the journey pointed us towards Ao Nang, which is on the western side of the country and a short taxi journey away.

Ao Nang is well-equipped for tourists and backpackers and after chowing down on some cheap n'tasty massaman curry we decided to take in the sights. There were a lot of places offering Thai massage (no not that sort), and the usual armies of touts and hawkers trying to offload dvds, suits, watches etc.

After booking a luxury speed boat tour of the islands for the following day, we headed to the beach with a couple of Changs from 7-11 to watch the sunset.

Our speedboat was a twin-engined 400bhp, twin V6 monster (who needs eco-tourism anyway?), and was the envy of the other tourists and fishermen alike. The islands around Ao Nang make up the Than Bok Kharani national marine park and need to be seen to be believed. Their sheer limestone cliffs rise straight out of the sea and every steep surface is covered with dense vegetation. One island is battered by waves from the outside but is home to a perfectly calm lagoon in its middle, another one is narrower at the base than its summit and seems to defy gravity, all of them look impressive and island spotting was a great way to pass the 20-minute trip to our first stop - Hong island.

On arriving we donned our snorkels and spent an hour swimming in crystal clear waters in a small lagoon next to the island. The sealife was amazing. It was like swimming in a tropical fish tank but with more Russians. At one point we were literally feeding shoals of these wild fish by hand, one of them ended up biting Angela after she antagonised it with a piece of bread!

We spent another night at Ao Nang before another sunny ferry trip to Ko Phi Phi. Ko Phi Phi is made up of two main clusters of islands: Phi Phi Don (where we stayed) and Phi Phi Ley (where The Beach was filmed). Instead of opting to stay in the main resort we decided to stay at remote Ao Toh Koh beach which took 20 minutes by long-tail boat to get to and only had power between 6pm and 5am. The first room we looked at was virtually in the jungle and we ended up choosing a slightly more expensive (but better sealed) room for 600 baht.

While I embraced the jungle lifestyle, Angela wasn't too pleased at the lack of hot water and electricity, and didn't enjoy the return to cold showers and damp jungle rooms. The snorkelling off of the beach was yet again fantastic and the corals were better than I saw in Egypt. The only problem was the tide was quite powerful and it was a battle to avoid the sea urchins and stay upright when clearing your mask.

This was December 12th, Full Moon Party night, and we couldn't have been further from the party. But our host, Pon, was very friendly and even offered to open the bar for the eight of us staying on the beach, tempting us with promises of 'something to smoke'. We had a couple more Changs and turned in, after setting the alarm for 6am to catch the sunrise.

We were weighing up whether to visit Phi Phi Ley and in the end gave it a miss having already shelled out for one island-hopping tour. We bought our tickets to Phuket, and squeezed ourselves onto the deck of another ferry to soak up the rays. Now, I'm not the best of sailors, but so far this trip I have managed to avoid seasickness. This almost came to an end during this 90-minute journey though, and I had to try my hardest to stop going green as we were rocked back and forth.

(continued soon)

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Singapore and KL

Pleased to get away from Negombo we arrived at the airport to be confronted with organised chaos as the security conscious Sri Lankans tried to check everyone and x-ray the bags at every stage of the check-in process.

The flight to Singapore was only 4hrs but we had some exciting turbulence, luckily Chris and I who had both been queuing for the loo had just sat back down and belted ourselves in when things hit the ceiling... it was a close call.

We landed at Singapore and were instantly impressed with the large modern airport, it had everything we could ever high speed Internet access on the best computers we have seen since leaving Chris's beloved baby behind, a well stocked book shop where we picked up a SE Asia guide and plenty of shops and restaurants....we almost stayed there.

Singapore was awesome, it is a bustling metropolis of shopping malls, hundreds of them at every turn! Everything is new and shiny and cute! People in Singapore seem to love cute little gadgets and toys, and the main pass time (apart from shopping) is eating, so there were lots of delicious menus to choose from.

Needless t
o say our budget was blown away, especially when we visited Sim-Lim square - a 7-storey complex bursting with electronics shops (Iain you would never leave!) ....we left with a laptop (with bells and whistles) and all the gadgets to go with it. Needless to say Singapore is not a place for backpackers and we spent more in 3 days than in a month in India, but the laptop has already come into it's own and i am writing the blog from it now, goodbye Internet cafes.

We crossed the border into Malaysia and arrived in
Kuala Lumpur yesterday evening. We found our hostel room to be next door to a nightclub but despite the banging music we were both shattered and had a decent night's sleep. We changed rooms this morning, our new one is much quieter and even has the luxury of a window, but comes with the added bonus of bed bugs.

Today we have visited the twin Petronas towers (the second highest in the world), we are hoping to go up to the skybridge platform tomorrow but first we have to queue from 8am to get ticket. These are issued on a first come first served basis so hopefully we will be lucky.

We also visited the KL tower which is the 4th highest
communications tower (it's all about buildings here) and Chris had a go at an F1 challenge, he did not beat the lap time of 5 mins but he got a free cap. We then ventured into china town for a spot of lunch but this went terribly wrong, firstly we couldn't find anywhere to eat and Chris was getting grumpy from lack of food (he summed it up perfectly when he said "I was born hungry"), then we got caught in a tremendous thunderstorm. The rest of the evening has been fairly quiet, I have been on the web and Chris has been coughing and sneezing in the corner (did i mention he has SARS?).

........That's all for now

Monday, 1 December 2008

It's not all bad....

I have just re-read my last post and realised I was being maybe a little harsh on Sri Lanka (and sounding like a grumpy b'stard) here are the things I like about it:

  • The beer. Lion Lager as it's called. It's 4.8% and blows India's gassy Kingfisher out of the water. I didn't try it but they do an 8.8% 'Lion Strong' version. Maybe next time?
  • The tea. Ok, it's not masala chai and they don't put any spices in, but they don't need to. The tea itself is so good. I could drink it all day.
  • It's a lot cleaner than India and they actually have road markings and a highway code that people follow. Plus there aren't cows wandering around all over the place. The dogs seem to look a bit healthier too.
  • The nature. On our first full day in Kandy we saw: two massive water monitor lizards - each one must have been two metres long, and we initially thought they were crocs; a massive ugly pelican that powered its way round the lake like a speedboat; colonies of huge bats hanging on trees over the roads. These things are big their wingspans must be six-foot, and the locals call them flying foxes (!!!) ; hordes of monkeys outside our guesthouse; turtles/terrapins in the lake; loads of huge fish; and a suicidal dog - it was sleeping in the middle of the road. In all, in 20 minutes we saw more than a full-day at the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary.
So it's not all bad!!!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Sri Lanka

I'm sitting in a cyber cafe in Negombo, 10km away from Colombo airport, and after almost a week here we're both looking forward to getting out of here. ***WARNING***There's going to be a lot of moaning below but I will actually write about where we've been - honest!

Ok, maybe it's a stupid statement but Sri Lanka is no India. Although the exchange rate is in your favour (163Rupees/pound), the locals and cost of living aren't. Everyone it seems is dying to rip you off. I've had a think about this and I think one of the main reasons is that this is more of a 'tourist trap' country than India.

The whole of the west coast is laid over to lavish resorts where fat Europeans come to spend two weeks and take in the sun and pay little or no attention to the culture the country does have. In response the locals and everyone you meet wants your money. People aren't particularly friendly, and the whole week we have been here it has felt as though we are being royally fleeced of our hard-earned cash.

Another reason I don't like it here is because of the driver and guide we foolishly chose hoping this would be the best way to see everything we wanted in 7 days. Everyone recommends that when you come to Sri Lanka you get a guide - mainly because of the ongoing war with the Tamil Tiger separatists. I would quite happily face a battalion of these militants than spend another hour in the car with Siri.

From the moment we arrived he was rude, he didn't like the route we had planned so chose his own, and he seemed more concerned with getting kickbacks and commission than guiding us. He would refuse to stay in any of the guesthouses we had chosen unless they had driver accommodation (we argued and won though), tried to con us into paying for his meals - which were included in the weekly fee we'd paid, refused to stop the car if we wanted to get a drink and generally was unhelpful.

Now, I'm pretty stubborn at times but compared to Angela (she will kill me for this) I'm a pushover. I tried my hardest to get on with this guy, I really did, but his grasp of English was so poor not even VERY LOUD ENGLISH would get through. But from the start Angela and Siri were at war.

It all reached a head yesterday, when after taking us to a restaurant he'd chosen for lunch, we had to wait for him to finish his food before we could set off! We were paying for this! After driving us six-hours across Sri Lanka to Negombo we'd had enough, we promptly found a hotel and terminated his services(I loved doing it). I was dying for him to ask me for a tip, just so I could tell him to sling his hook, but sensing our rage he left quietly.

Ok. Driver aside what are the sights like in Sri Lanka? Overpriced and overrated. In the four days we were travelling around we saw:

  • Sigiriya's Rock (tagline - 'The 8th Wonder of the World'), well no it's just a really big, quite impressive rock, that you have to risk your life to climb. Don't bother.
  • Dambulla Caves -five caves revered by Buddhists and containing lots of Buddha statues and paintings. There are interesting stories about each one, but the walk up to the caves is steep and you're hounded by beggars and hawkers (I told them I had renounced worldly goods to seek enlightenment and they just stared back at me blankly) so give it a miss.
  • Kandy. Sri Lanka's 2nd biggest city and one of the country's holiest Buddhist sites (and home to the Buddha's actual tooth, which is worshipped like a god, but which may or may not be a bison's tooth). Actually quite good.
  • Pinnewala Elephant orphanage. This was good, lots of elephants, 75 at last count. Highlight: Watching them all stampede down a busy street for their daily bath. This was good but was overshadowed by me being ripped off by betelnut-addicted palm reader - I will live to "96-years minimum, I will be good in business, I will have a boy and a girl, who will be clever and successful, and I would be especially good as an electrician".
  • White-water rafting. This was brilliant. Angela fell out. We both kind of wish we'd spent the whole week doing this instead! We got to swim in the rapids as well (swim is probably not the right word) in just our life jackets and helmets.
  • Adam's Peak. Our plan had been to attempt to climb this famous mountain (2,300m high), but persistently bad weather and stomach upsets forced us to abandon our climb. Bit of a bummer as if you reach the top you can see the Buddha's actual footprint (honest). Nevermind - maybe on our nest visit? or not.

Also, the rain has hardly abated since we landed. We did have a day round the pool today, but as I write this the rain is hammering down outside and we're having a full-blown thunderstorm.

Nevermind though - on to Singapore!