Thursday, 17 January 2008

..and finally

Pam and I have been truly amazed at the number of friends and relations who have been following our blog. It started out for us as a record of our journey and turned into a tool by which people could communicate and comment and it was great fun to hear from all our friends back home and in other parts of the world. It's been a truly inspirational trip giving us an insight into how people from other cultures live and hopefully it'll be the pre-cursor for many other trips in the future.
Soooooooo.... thanks to everyone for your contributions and thanks too to the many hundreds(probably thousands) of people with whom we've made contact and friends during the 3.5 months we've been away. Our special thanks go to all those wonderful people who have welcomed us into their countries and made us feel 'at home', from the yankee dudes in Boston to the lovely Raratongans, the friendly Kiwi's to the Aussie sports, the polite Thais to the wonderful Laos people who have little, but offer everything they have.......................thanks a million!

A sudden end

On Saturday 12th Jan, we woke up to a text from our niece Emma, which informed us that Pam's sister Diana, who has suffered from MS for many years, had had a cardiac arrest and was in intensive care on a life support machine in Addenbrookes hospital Cambridge. We immediately set about trying to book tickets to come home and after dashing around various agents, secured flights for Sunday 13th.

We arrived back on Sunday night and have spent some days visiting Di, before travelling back to Glossop on Wednesday. She is still very ill, but has been moved from intensive care to a general ward, where we follow progress carefully.

Luang Prabang

Having 'done' the middle and south of Laos, we wanted to explore the north and so, the following day we said our goodbyes to the friendly staff at the Hotel Pakse and flew to the old capital city of Luang Prabang.

Andy had told us that we should see it and that we would enjoy its many and varied charms.

A two hour flight and 10,000 kip taxi ride and we were in LP by late afternoon. This is a beautiful city and although it attracts many thousands of tourists every year, it still retains its charm and historical interest. It's true that it caters for European and American tastes, but so far, the likes of McDonalds and Starbucks haven't touched this country(phew!!!).

A walk around the evening market was enough to convince us that we really liked the city and we planned to spend 5/6 days here, before moving down to the capital Ventiane, by way of Vang Vien.


Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Done Khone..4,000 islands, Laos

We decided to explore the 'deep south' of Laos, so organised a 2-day trip to Done Khone and the '4,000 islands' through our hotel. The hotel provided a driver, Mr Kampak, whose spoken english was limited, but we were advised that he knew the itinerary like 'the back of his hand' and, we were up for the challenge!!!
So, an early start and off we went in what must have been our most luxurious transport to-date.(a 4-wheel drive Diahatsu space-wagon) to Wat Phou an ancient Khmer style temple in the Champasak region. This is even older than Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia and involved a very interesting Ferry crossing of the Mekong on a rather unusual craft, looking like it had been cobbled together from a 'Blue Peter' kit!!!!

On our return to the east bank, we sped off to another equally old temple called Wat Oumong, whose ruins lay in an forested spot, famous for its butterflies(a stern test for Pam).
We then took a long-tail boat(minus Mr. Kampak) from Ban Hatsaikoune down the Mekong to Ban Nakasang, where we again picked up Mr Kampak for the final stretch of the Mekong to Don Khone, where we were to spend the night.

However, on landing at Don Khone, we promptly jumped on cycles for the 1.5 mile ride down to the impressive Li Phi falls, which make this stretch of the Mekong un-navigable!

Day 2 saw us heading back to Route 13 via the Mekong and 4-wheel drive to Khonephapheng falls an even more impressive natural phenomena which stretches almost 20k across the Mekong river and is known locally as the Niagara of SE Asia. The sheer size and noise levels experienced here gave an incredible feeling of un-bridled power.

After a look around the local market we headed back north to a final temple, where a baci ceremony was held for us both.

After lunch at a road-side cafe(soup again) we headed North for a final elephant ride at Phu Asa, where we got a good soaking from our beast as it decided to spray cool water on its back(not far from where we were sitting!!).

On then, back to Pakse where a local market visit was the last thing on the agenda.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Tad Fane. Laos

We decided that a couple of days away from the hulabaloo of town life would be a good idea and some fellow travellers had told us that Tad Fane eco-lodge would be a good place to visit. So, armed with a minimum of information, we set off east out of Pakse to stay a couple of nights. The main attraction was the walking and a couple of very impressive waterfalls, one of which plummets 120m to the valley below.

We weren't disappointed and like so many places in this country, it was extremely beautiful and peaceful.

Heading back, we decided to take the local tuk-tuk, which we thought would take us all the way to Pakse!!! Not so and with so many encounters, what you think you've sorted, turns out to be challenging!!! (Must learn to speak Lao.....I'm sure it might help)

We ended up swapping tuk-tuks half way back and loading our ruck-sacks on top........only to be joined a couple of minutes later by a lady carrying a truck-load of raw meat(in plastics bags) to market and another woman transporting 4 or 5 bags of material. Joy of Joys!!!!!

However, I suppose we can't complain......the journey of 60k only cost us the equivalent of a quid each!!!!!!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Tahkaek Trek, Laos

Got up latish on New Years day and visited local Mini-Mart. Andy & Jo try(without much success) to arrange their return trip to Thailand. Visit Smiley Horse again, but don't stay very long as mossies in full flight/bite mode!! Interesting meal at Thakaek restaurant(no connection with Travel Lodge)!

The next day we meet our guide for a 2 day/1 night homestay in a local village. The trek promises a first day of 16k and a second day of 17k and our guide is to be Deth a very lively young man who speaks good english and has a great sense of humour. We all took to him immediately as he 'sang' along his words and made a point of pronouncing his r's with a resounding rrrrrrrrrrr!!

After a mornings walk, we visited a lovely cave, picking up Mr Mee a local guide on the way, who also had a lovely disposition and good sense of humour!! Lunch followed and we all tasted grass-hopper mixed with some chillies and various other ingredients(couldn'y stop hiccoughing afterwards!!)

We arrived in he village and after collecting a few bottles of Beer-Laos, proceeded to eat evening meal. The fish was excellent, but the chicken a little tough for our western palates. A range of other 'local foods' were also tasted. A Baci ceremony was also held to welcome us into the village!

The next day we were up(after a very cold night), at 7am to continue our trek to a Lake and finally a LOD Tractor drove us(1.5hrs!!) to some rapids, where we swam to round off the day. We all enjoyed ourselves very much and will have some happy memories of Deth and all the other people who looked after us over the two days.

Sala Hin Boun, Laos

Next day was a very casual affair with lots of catch-up going on with Andy & Jo and a short cycle ride around Tahkaek.

The following day we arranged our 2-day trek to Sala Hin eco-lodge by the river which would allow us to explore Konglur Cave, a 7 km cavern which we could navigate by boat. That evening saw us at The Smiley Horse restaurant overlooking the Mekong having evenig meal together.

Up early the next day to depart from Tahkaek at 7.30am by coach to Ban Na Hin where we then shared a sawngthaew(van-like open taxi) with some Aussies to travel the remaining 1.5 hours to Sala Hin Boun. arrived around 3pm and spent the evening relaxing.

'Watching the world go' by was the general activity the following day as we relaxed and wnt for a short local walk in the afternoon. A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon(oh bliss! the first wine since Australia) finished a perfect day.

Up at 8.45am next day to leave by small motorized canoe(3/4 man) for Konglur cave. An hour and a half on wooden seats was enough to give us reason to move around a lot, but the journey there was superb as we were able to view at first -hand everyday village life and to witness just how important the river is to villagers. Children playing, women doing their laundry and washing and fishing were just a few activities.

Konglur Cave was also very impressive, in places, 75m high x 75m wide and still used by the locals as a passage to the other side of the mountain!!

Aftr a picnic at the far end of the cave, we headed back through, ably assisted by our local guides, who even offered their flip-flops for us to walk on the gravel!!!

The following day, we headed back to the 'flesh-pots' of Thakaek (after oversleeping) and arrived early afternoon.
That evening was spent around the camp-fire seeing in the New Year and the staff and customers danced and drank till 2am!!!

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Tahkaek, Laos

After a long flight to Ventiane(capital of Laos) via Louang Prabang, we headed for a bit of luxury in the form of a Novotel on the edge of the city. Showers, TV and smoked salmon, (courtesy of room service) and we nearly got lulled into a false sense of security...shall we stay just one more night????....nooooh! push on to Thakaek a sleepy little village on the main route 13 to the south of the country. So off we go to the main bus station(nearly got dropped at the airport...tricky thing this language lark!!!) to catch the air-con v.i.p. bus to Thakaek, having 'sort of' reserved our room at the Thakaek travel lodge(no relation to UK travel lodge chain).
1.00am in the morning is never a good time to arrive anywhere, especially in a foreign country whose language you don't speak and whose inhabitants don't recognise the english alphabet!
However, with a little help from our tuk-tuk driver(hired when we arrived at the bus station in Thakaek) we managed to rouse the clerk on duty and were shown to our room a spacious affair with air-con, shower(which sometimes works) and double bed. The Gheckos were put to flight and there followed a very comfortable night's(or what was left of it) sleep.
The following day was spent cycling around the village (10 mins) and navigating the little lanes in the area.
The scenery is stunning (limestone karst) and we hired a guide to take us the next day on a cave local cave tour, visiting 6 caves in all, one of them with an extensive network of underground water caverns which were partially explored by basic wooden canoe.
We both agreed that Christmas Day had been quite a surreal affair having chatted to our guide and his two students in english for most of the day(not sure how much they understood, but their english was much better than our Lao!!). Christmas dinner being a selection of dried, smoked fish, meats and strange looking vegetables complete with 'sticky rice'.
We had been looking forward to the next day for several weeks as we had planned to meet Andy and Jo at the Travel Lodge and they arrived at around 9.00am having taken the ferry from Thailand. How lovely it is to see them!! We chatted for some time before strolling down to the local bank to withdraw some more Kip(1,000,000) each should keep us going for several days(inflation being rampant here) 10,000 kip = 50p!!!
The kids retired to sleep for a couple of hours having been up most of the night travelling

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Chiang Mai Thai.

Arrived here exhausted after an 11hr bus ride from Ayutthaya! After sitting upright for this length of time our feet had swollen (first time for me...first time since pregnancy for Pam!)but we immediately started to feel some affinity with the place as our accommodation is run by a Thai/Irish couple who have sympathy with what travellers need...(cup of tea and good Thai/European cuisine!!). Our first day was spent on the mountain to the west of Chiang Mai visiting a Temple on top of the hill and then taking a songthaew to Chiang Mai Zoo.

We booked ourselves on a 3-day trek into the hills of Doi Inthanon with a company who are renowned for supporting projects linked with these tribes and who have an excellent track-record in this field. The trek consisted of a morning visit to an elephant sanctuary, followed by a walk through the jungle to stay with trhe local Karen tribe. Day two consisted of a 10 k trek through the jungle hills, followed by yet another camp by the river, and day 3 started with a bamboo raft ride(scary this!! but pleasant enough as it turned out), and finished with a visit to the National Park and an impressive waterfall.
There were 11 clients in all and 4 guides, of which the lead guide Daet was extremely competent, knowledgeable and had an excellent sense of humour.

We both thoroughly enjoyed our experiences and meeting other people of 'like mind from Canada, Germany, US and Austria.

The next day saw us booked onto a Thai Cookery course. We had promised ourselves that we would take up the culinary challenge when in Thailand and so along with our new friends, Walther and Yasmin, 'Ziggy' and Melanie, we were to become Mr Visoot's new students. His knowledge of ingredients was fantastic and his presentation extremely amusing as he ranged the musical scales of voice intonation with gems of wisdom about Thai food!! He kept us amused and interested all day as we cooked(and ate!!) five dishes each. Our menu consisted of red, green and yellow curries, steamed Tilapia, Sweet & sour chicken, spring rolls and sticky rice & coconut with banana and a host of other dishes. We also tried our hand at food decoration!!! I just wish someone had told us not to have breakfast!! The day also included a visit to the local market to buy the food we were to cook.
The next few days are definitely 'rest' days as we prepare for a flight to Ventiane in Laos via Luang Prabang on Saturday(22nd)...courtesy Lao this page!!!!!!

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Ayuthaya Thai.

Next day, caught the train from Bangkok to Ayuthaya, a distance of 60km but took us 1.5 hrs due to the narrow gauge railway. A similar experience to our Indian travel..very basic(wooden seats), but nevertheless efficient and 'on time'.
Arrived at Hostel after .75hrs walk from station, a little frazzled and very hot. However, the Hostel(once again), is very friendly and we feel more relaxed as the evening passes by. A lovely Thai meal in a restaurant by the river helps us unwind.
On to visit several temples the following day until around 2pm(siesta time for us). At 4pm we take a river-boat trip(2 hours) which circumnavigates the city(more temples en-route)...beginning to feel 'templed-out'!
Another lovely evening meal in a different restaurant by the river and we 'call it a day.'
Catch-up day today(12th Dec) but also visit to Museum and later(8.30pm) we take the night bus to Chiang Mai(10 hrs!!!!).

Bangkok Thai.

Well, we always knew that Bangkok would be a culture shock, and after spending some time in Delhi a few years ago, we should have been prepared for the scams and con-men, but I think we must have left our brains in the Hostel this morning!! Taking a canal boat ride to The Grand Palace, we immediately came across a very friendly Thai gentleman who informed us that the Palace and temple was closed for prayers until 2pm, and he could arrange for a tuk-tuk to take us(half-price) to 3 other different temples, returning us back to the Palace in time for re-opening!! He also mentioned that we were so lucky, as there was a special convention on that very day, which we would get to visit, where we could also buy Thai goods. He was so convincing, that, before we knew it we had climbed into the tuk-tuk and off we went! As soon as we got moving we looked at each other and knew that we has been duped and that we were heading for a high-power sales presentation at some time during the next few hours. We re-negotiated with the driver not to visit the convention, for double the tuk-tuk fare(50p), but he wasn't happy so we got him to stop and found our own way to the Palace!! Dohh!!!!, stupid or what??
Spent the rest of the day looking around the palace and then took a taxi back to the Hostel.
Determined not to repeat our mistake of the previous day we travelled by Transit rail(overhead system) the next day tp Chatuchak market, a huge open-air affair on the outskirts of Bangkok to view everything from poodle-grooming, dry-fish stalls and furniture making to Fashion goods and handicrafts. Bangkok was preparing for Christmas...strange!!......I thought we'd left all that behind, but no, Weatern influence has turned this into a shoppers parsdise!!Pam bought some nice little casual tops for 39 baht(60p)!! Evening meal at an ultra-modern Paragon shopping centre in central Bangkok where one could buy anything, from a pair of Marks & Sparks socks to a Ferrari, rounded off the day(and what a day)!
Next day out to the Chao Phraya river(again by MRT..this time changing lines..cocky or what!?), to catch a 'river express up to Wat Po(the reclining Buddha) and then over the ferry to Wat Arun(Temple of Dawn). A visit to Lumphini Park on the way back for a little peace and respite and then back to our Hostel after evening meal.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Phi Phi Don Thai.

Took a ferry boat out to this beautiful island to 'chill out ' for a day or two before the hectic experience that will no doubt be Bangkok. This was one of the islands worst affected by the Tsunami in Dec 2004, but it's testament to the spirit of the people and their hard work that there is very little evidence of that traumatic event today and they are indeed in a build and develop phase.

The island is beautiful and here as in Phuket we have found the Thai's to be lovely warm-hearted people, only too willing to help.

Not quite the hustle and bustle of Phuket, but still a general air of industry in a 'relaxed' sort of way.

Spent time soaking up the sun and sea and sampling the local Thai cookery.
Also had a Thai massage!!

Monday, 3 December 2007

Phuket(Kata Beach) Thai.

A 7 hour flight to Singapore from Sydney, followed by a 1.5 hour flight from Singapore to Phuket, left us a little frazzled, so it was quite late when having haggled with a Taxi driver, we finally arrived at 'The Little Mermaid' accommodation in Kata Beach. I don't think either of us had realised when we booked it (courtesy Rough Guide Thailand), that it seemed mainly to be used by Scandinavian families and single males who were in Thailand looking for 'Thai Brides', but neverteless it was an extremely homely place and the staff were very kind and helpful.
Had a couple of days scouting around and beach- before visiting 'James Bond Island' in the Phang Nga National Park..a beautiful island which featured in 'The Man with the Golden Gun'(must watch it again now!). Talking of James that Ursula Andress or what??? (I know...wrong film!!!)

We've both been impressed with the Thai's attitude to business and their ability to organise..they could certainly teach us 'Brits' a thing or two about thoroughness and customer satisfaction.

Rather blotted my 'copy-book' when I forgot to put enough cash in my wallet for the day and then came to pay for a lunch we'd just consumed!! Imagine our embarrassment!! However, it was 'no problem' to the Thais . The deputy manager of the Hotel just told me to hop on the back of his motorbike and whizzed me back to our hotel(about 4 miles) to pick up some more cash!! Imagine that happening in England!!

Sydney Aus.(return)

After our sojourn to the Blue Mountains, a return to Sydney, to finish off our time in Australia at a more luxurious hostel, seemed like a good idea...and so it proved!!
A visit to Hyde Park Barracks(yes, I know it sounds familiar to those of you in the UK ......but who said Aussies are original??) was extremely interesting, as they have a complete history of all the "criminals" deported there during the 1800's and details of their crimes along with the specifics of living conditions and punishments incurred whilst they were incarcerated. Most of them were only 'petty criminals' and some were deported because they were political or religious threats to the government of the time(nothing changes....)!
Lots of Irish Catholics were banished from the Kingdom, so I felt quite at home!!!

Pam tried out the sleeping accommodation....but I think I prefer a double bed personally!

Our last evening was spent at the Opera House with Dionne Warwick and boy did she put on a show!! I guess she must be in her 60's or even early 70's, but she had so much vitality and a real zest for life as well as a great voice still....we both thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Katoomba(Blue Mountains) Aus.

We fancied a train ride away from the hustle and bustle of "city life", so, next morning it was off to Sydney Central to take the 2 hour train journey to The Blue Mountains for a spot of walking.

Checked in at YHA (what an excellent change for the better to have good accommodation) and took the explorer bus out to the edge of this mini 'grand canyon' The weather was good so great views were had throughout the day.

We walked for about 5 hours and then caught the excellent explorer bus back to Katoomba.

Today, however(Tues 27th), the weather has broken and so decided to have 'catch up' time in rural surrounds... excellent decision!!

Bondi Beach Aus.

The next day and we were up early to join the 'other beautiful people' on Bondi Beach!! A short bus ride saw us mingling with the surf-boards and slapping on the sun tan oil!(actually we only paddled as I won't swim in anything less than about 30 degs). The weather having taken a turn for the better we walked back to Coogee Beach around the coastal path and caught the bus back to Sydney.

One of the better areas is Darling Harbour and we've rather made a thing about eating out alongside the boats and people-watching until late evening. The restaurants around here cater for every taste and the fish is extremely good so this suits us fine.

Sydney Aus.

Arrived in Sydney to a cold, misty morning and a strong southerly wind. This is definitely not what we were expecting!! Checked in to our backpacker's accommodation which we had to book at the last minute as there was little available and a further shock to the system as it wasn't quite what we'd expected. In fact, it was very basic and we both felt like octagenarians as the scene was a bit like that witnessed by parents when their teenage children have their first party with alcohol(those of you who have had kids will know what I mean..........those of you who have kids not yet of this have a treat to come!!..........those of you who have no kids.........breathe a sigh of relief!! Added to this , the room was very bare and the toilets/showers were, shall we say, less than hygenic!! and worst of alll we were here for 3 nights. Trying to convince Pam that this was good training for SE Asia was not going down too well either.
Next day went down to Sydney harbour and with 1 night in the hell-hole behind us, things were starting to look up. Had a look around the Opera house,(very impressive architecture at close quarters), booked to see Dionne Warwick in a 1 night only show on our last night in Oz and took a tour around the Harbour , before heading off to the Botanical Gardens.
Beautiful plants, flowers and wild-life greeted us there and we were mesmerised by the sound of birds high up in the trees!!. Actually these were bats roosting(looked a bit like coconuts from a distance!) and we were rooted to the spot watching their antics, clinging on upside down, feeding young and fanning themselves(pictures for you Max, as if I remember correctly, you're fond of bats!!).

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Christchurch NZ

Our very last place to visit and it's so English! We spent time in the Botanical Gardens which were just starting to show the early signs of summer blooms to come and were very impressed with the cleanliness and general tidiness of the place...not a piece of litter evident and everything in its place.

In the afternoon we visited the Art Gallery which was extremely interesting and innovative, with contemporary work on show from NZ's best.

Well, tomorrow at 7.00am we fly to Sydney and it really has to go some for us to rate it alongside this place....we'll see!!!