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.