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Cambodia once more

Our second time in Cambodia can be divided into two parts: independent travel and travel with two of our friends from back home. As we sat in Pakse deciding on our next move, we had two weeks to play with until their arrival and we have decided to spend them seeing Cambodia we missed out last time and will not get a chance to visit whilst with them, as it was their first time and there was specific things to do and see. We looked into Cardamom Highlands and crossed these off our list: there did not seem to be any way of doing them independently and all the tours were far outside of our budget. We settled on North Eastern Cambodia and headed to Banlung.

Crossing the border was easy and painless enough, visas purchased, stamped out and in and so began our interesting (read: frustrating) experience of Cambodian transport system. The minibus waiting for us was pretty full when we got there, the back was free, but no way to get in without getting half the people off the bus… or so we thought: the driver folded one of the back seats. We looked at him blankly, he motioned for us to climb in through the back, we laughed, he did not… Ah, it seems you are serious… a short Mexican stand-off later we were climbing in over the bags. Another person appeared… same scenario repeated and in they climb with an added hilarity of having to sit on my lap whilst the chair in being unfolded once more locking us all firmly in the back. Another person appears… we hold our breath… a seat is found at the front, we breathe and hence the journey begins.

It turns out we are the only ones on the way to Banlung, or indeed have heard of it, the rest are on their way to either Siem Reap or Phnom Pehn, therefore at the drop off at the crossroads town and during the distribution into appropriate vehicles we are downgraded into a minibus so old that the backs of the chairs can no longer support even the tiny Cambodian woman sitting in front of us and I have to lean on it with my knee to ensure it does not smack me every time a pothole is hit (which is often), fear not, we were the lucky ones as we had plenty of space and even after the bus went round the town twice picking people up, we were on our way before the bus heading to one of the more popular destinations. We had the pleasure of being entertained by the efforts of the other driving team playing human Tetris with 20 full sized Westerners and their luggage and a 16 seater minibus: no one looked happy.

Our hotel in Banlung was a strange one: a hotel/furniture store… Turned out we stayed in the wrong part of town, not wrong as in bad, but wrong as in a middle of nowhere. The place to be seemed to be by the Lake, which was about 30 minutes walk away, not the end of the world and the hotel was cheap and clean. Banlung itself we could see does not entertain a lot of visitors, virtually everyone was gawking at us with mouths wide open and jaws firmly on the ground. A motorbike slowed whilst passing me and the driver  lifted his helmet visor to ensure his jaw was unrestricted whilst dropping, a small naked child stared at me like I was the one parading in the nude. But on the whole, people smiled and waved and shouted ‘Hello’ and we assumed the staring was not hostile.

We rented a tuk tuk for a day and and went to see the waterfalls in the area, which were quite spectacular and the crater lake, which is different to the Lake, but equally as popular with the locals if not more. Crater lake is a spot for swimming and dining in a little shelter either sitting on the floor of the shelter or in hammocks and the Lake is a place to stroll around and dine on a rug by its side. There are quite few minority villages  around Banlung and although we chose not to visit, for reasons previously explained, the driver was quite knowledgeable and had a good command of English to explain some of their customs and traditions without the intrusion as we sped past.

After a couple of days we departed for Kratie. The journey was more of a hoot than the destination. We were told to be ready for 7am and at 6.30am there was a knock on the door: they are here! We were not even packed yet! (yes, last minute packing is our thing). Speediest packing ever done in 15 minutes and we were on our way.. to pick up 25 passengers for the 16 seater,  and a load of timber… and then we were on our way.  We did not know this at the time, but this was one of the most pleasant and comfortable journeys we had in Cambodia. Kratie is a small place on the river with some pretty views and a temple on the hill. Against advice we decided to walk to it and 10 kilometers later we were not sure where we were, where the temple was and we ran out of water. When you do REALLY need  tuk tuk, there are none and so we made a decision to walk 10 kilometers back and made a pact to inform the person advising us that we did make it to the temple and it was lovely. The road we walked was through small villages and children in each one would shout ‘Hello’ and wave and smile, but after hours and hours of having to shout ‘Hello’ back and wave I must admit, it does get a little cumbersome.

Another uncomfortable journey later (why would you make someone Ste’s height sit in the back with his knees almost touching his ears, whilst tiny Cambodian people sit in the front with their feet not touching the seat in front should they wish to stretch out their legs is beyond me, but that is what happened), a change in Phnom Pehn for a less uncomfortable bus (Hurray!), we arrived in Kep. Kep is a seaside town which used to be royal playground and home to French aristocracy is now a sleepy get away for the expat community and richer Cambodians, so it is not cheap, but very pleasant. Its a place to eat fresh crab, relax, do some jungle walking, which we did and maybe a dip in the sea, which we did not (it was raining and the water was silty). The beach is very small and artificial, the sand is brought over from Otres, which was our next destination.

Yet another interesting journey: the driver tried to get us to get out an hour in and change into a cab, smelling a rat, we refused and together with a British family who were equally unimpressed. The driver gave up and perhaps as a revenge placed a box of durians under our seats. Perhaps it was the only place to put them and no malice was in his actions, but why would anyone transport 3 durians from one place where they literally grow on trees in plenty to another?

Pondering on the mysterious Cambodian ways, we arrived in Sihanoukville and a short tuk tuk ride later arrived in Otres II on a recommendation of a friend. The place was nice and cheap and food was great, and it would have been fantastic is not for the storm which meant the rain came in through the walls of the bungalow and we had no sleep. The next morning we moved to Otres I and spent few days swimming, eating and drinking before heading up to Siem Reap to meet our friends and experience the most frustrating bus journey to date care of the slowest bus driver in Asia and maybe the world: nevermind the scooters, we were overtaken by a cow at one point.

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One of the Banlung waterfalls

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The crater lake in Banlung

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Another waterfall around Banlung

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A snake on the side of the path pointed out to us by some children… watch your step!

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Fine rug dining by the Lake in Banlung

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On our tuk tuk ride

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The tree outside of a house in the minority village: according to our driver, it is planted when someone dies and depending on whether the tree lives or dies indicates whether the person has gone to heaven or hell.. this one seems all good

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Yes, another waterfall!

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And a view from behind a waterfall, just to spice things up!

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Some creative driving….

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Young rubber tree plantation

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An abandoned skate bowl in the middle of jungle in Kep

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A path over the hill in a jungle park in Kep

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Tasty Kep crab

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Restaurant on the sea in Kep

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Kep from the hill

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The lady is getting our dinner

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View from our porch in Otres

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CRAB

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Otres sunset

 

 

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To Thai border and back again

I am now finding myself in the ‘in-between adventure’ place where one more chapter of our travels has ended, but the other one has not yet begun. It is time and place to sort things out, write some postcards and do some blogging. I have done this post before, however, it was not saved as turns out there is no autosave in the part of the new version of WordPress that I am working from… shame on you WordPress!

Where I left you last was that we were heading to Thailand for a week on lovely Koh Chang before heading into Cambodia to wait for our friends from back home: Col and Joey. We left Don Det early in the morning, with me not in the best of moods. We have hopped from the boat to the bus to the minibus and arrived at the Thai border, where my mood was not in any way improved by the fact that the border officials were not letting me through. Turns out, that even though it seemed from the information on the internet that Estonia is granted a fee free visa as the rest of Europe, this is not the case in reality and further more, visa on arrival that I managed to wrangle last year is only available at certain points, not including the one we were trying to cross at that particular time. All this was hazy to me at the time and quite upset and emotional we headed back into Laos hoping to make it into Thailand shortly. We were lucky that the official at the Laos border did not charge us to get out of Laos and then cancelled the stamp out and did not charge us to get back in. We got a minibus back to Pakse aiming to stay at the same place we stayed at previously and the minibus kicked us out miles away from it, we were not prepared to pay for a tuk tuk as they pounced on us and moods being sombre we refused and set off decidedly in the direction we hoped was that towards the hotel. Anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes later, feeling a lot like a pair of snails on a hot garden path we have finally arrived in DaoLin restaurant for some sustenance and re-grouping before last 100 meter dash to the hotel. After some research it became clear that Thailand is not an option: it would take 2-3 days of travel and forms and considerable expense to just get to Bangkok. So it was decided we stay in Laos a little longer and see just a little more of it.

We booked a tour of the Bolaven Plateau (no force on the planet would get me on the bike at that particular moment for various reasons) and hoping tomorrow is a better day went off to bed. Next day was only a marginal improvement on the mood to begin with as we were kept awake by the most horrendous karaoke opposite the hotel and only managed to get a couple of hours sleep when at 4am we have managed to persuade the hotel staff to move our room. To make matters worse, a very similar karaoke was disrupting our lunch during the tour so it is safe to say I have a great dislike for karaoke these days: keep it private people!

Bolaven Plateau was beautiful! Aside from the fact we did not get to see the first waterfall due to the heavy fog, the above mentioned karaoke, the dreadful service at lunch (over an hour for a plate of pad thai is an offence in a European country where one does not pay for the food when it eventually turns up, unless it is being delivered from the next town), the questionable visits to the tribal villages (if you envisage a Bruce Parry experience when someone is trying to get you to get a tour of a local tribal village, think again, it is either an uncomfortable experience of a zoo where no one is certain who is the spectacle, or a shop. Face it, without knowledge of the language and customs or a true guide and a purpose of more than just few snaps these visits are pointless, disruptive and harmful to the real tribal villages), unfortunately, on a tour you have no choice but to go along or stay in the minivan. All in all, we were glad we did see the Plateau in the end, but it is definitely much better done yourself on a bike if at all possible. Maybe we shall return one day, although who knows what will be left there.

We have them checked into the biggest hotel in town with a pool to treat ourselves after these eventful few days (first world problems, I know!) and have spent a couple of blissful days there before heading to Cambodia.

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Our 4 star dinner

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The view across Mekong River from the hotel’s restaurant

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Happy Ste

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One of the waterfalls on tour of the Plateau that we actually could see

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Bamboo bridge

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Bridge…

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Why… hello there…

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Something called the ‘bachelor’ house

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One of the shops in the ‘tribal village’

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Wears for sale

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Waterfall number 2, very impressive and once you left the restaurant and stood close by it would drown out the sound of the karaoke… so I like this one a lot!

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A house in an actual tribal village…

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Another house in a tribal village… foundations? Who needs them when they have satellite dishes the likes of which MI5 use…

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Our driver and a large patch of tobacco… oh and Ste

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A stealth photo by Ste of some disgruntled tribal children… they were not best pleased at strangers in the village

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Coffins, these are built by the members of the household for themselves and stored under their house until required…

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Some woven baskets and things at the coffee plantation shop

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Traditional Laos scarves…

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Brewing the tea

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Creative use of bamboo…

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Coffee grown on Bolaven Plateau…

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Tea leaves drying

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First waterfall… it sounded impressive…

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photo of the photo…

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Local tribe woman smoking an opium pipe… allegedly…

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View from our hotel window

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Pool time!

 

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Hanging out in Laos

Ok, my deep and meaningful diversion  is over and there is a bit of catch up to do with regards to our trip. Last I wrote we were about to travel to Laos.

From Pai, we had to travel via Bangkok, which meant a trip back to Chaing Mai (the very unpleasant one for me as you might recall), then an overnight train back to Bangkok (a pleasant journey), a day of killing time in Bangkok where we went to MBK to watch ‘X-men’ and enjoy shopping mall air con. We are over BKK sightseeing, sometimes it gets like that, those who have been travelling for a while will understand. Everyone then went to close by Chinatown to get some train supplies, I stayed at the station and enjoyed some very questionable Thai music videos played on the big screen and chatting to a Bulgarian sports teacher who lives in Thailand, bonkers, but nice enough fellow. He was telling me all about the protests in Bangkok as he lives right bang smack in the middle of the epicenter of the activities… turns out it was pretty hairy few months back.

The gang returned armed to the teeth with food, snacks and tales of the crocodile they have spotted in the canal… there was not photographic evidence, but I chose to believe them: it’s more fun that way.

Train from BKK to Laos border was a little less pleasant: the bottom bunks were singles and the dude pushing food on the train was extremely displeased with our superb organisation skills. He sat in the bunk close to us and gave us evils for few hours as we did not need to buy anything. Well, we ate handsomely, wished him ‘chock dee’ with our beers and rum (‘cheers’ or more accurately ‘good luck’ in Thai) and had a jolly good time ignoring him, which riled the
dude up to no end but amused the lady in the next bunk who drank like a trooper and tried making conversation with us despite her lack of English and our lack of Thai … We established that she was Lao and was a better drinker than us (well, me at least!). Suppose the trip was not too bad!

On the border we had to stamp out, get the 15 minutes train to Thanalung and get our visas, at which point we met an Australian guy named Flyn who lives in BKK and an American guy named Ben, who lives… well, no one knows. We all shared a tuk tuk fairly cheaply thanks to Flyn’s language and bartering skills and were soon in our hotel in Vientiane.

Vientiane is very quiet and laid back for a capital city, especially if you are coming from BKK. As we have re-united with yet another friend from back home and kept in touch with Flyn and Ben, our time was spent largely drinking, eating and more drinking. We did a little sightseeing, but rest of the time was spent socialising and catching up. Both Flyn and Ben turned out to be interesting characters, especially Ben who traveled literally everywhere and had some crazy
stories to tell, not boasting, but more sharing the wonder. For example, this guy spent unknown amount of time hanging out with an Iowaskan shaman and taking part in the rituals and by the end assisting the shaman… Bruce Parry: eat your heart out!

After a couple of days, we caught a night bus to Pakse, down in the South of Laos. The bus was a bit trying: you get actual beds like in China, as opposed to reclining chairs like in Vietnam and Thailand, but they are double beds, very small double beds and sharing with a stranger would have been bad enough, but sharing one of these with 6.5′ Ste was almost impossible! I spent 2 hours sitting on the floor and seething that we did not think to book two seats each like our friend Mark (the friend from back home that we met up with in Vientiane, not to be confused with Marc of Marc and Gen) who had the who whole thing to himself and was really comfortable. I did manage to fall asleep awkwardly after 2 Valiums (over the counter medicine in South East Asia… Gen went into a pharmacy and asked for something to alleviate a headache, Tramadol was promptly plopped on the counter… ‘Eeermmm…. maybe some paracetamol or Nurofen to begin with?’ was our response).

Pakse is not a big place, we got dropped off at the bus station, intercepted by a tuk tuk driver who took us into town for what I imagine was a reasonable fee (or probably not!) and then we set off looking for a place to stay. Tired, hungry and grumpy I was not best pleased when boys set off looking for a place straight away carrying our massive bags around, so I threw a hissy fit (not my proudest moment…) at which point myself and Gen were allowed to sit down in a restaurant type place on the corner with all the bags and order some food while the boys went off to check out a hostel Mark stayed at previously. The place on the corner was DaoLin, where we would spend a lot of time: they were a bit pricey for Asia, but the food was good, so were the shakes and the vodka shakes! Plus the service was with the smile and what can I say: we are creatures of habit.

We spent the first day and evening eating, drinking and hanging out in the hostel playing the guitar, well, Marc, Mark and Gen were, I was just listening (tone deaf and a voice of a strangled cat, so no signing from me unless I hate people I am with). We were joined by a couple of people and then the crazy American turned up… Seemed normal enough to begin with, just a little intense and then the dude turned crazy … forcefully following us to dinner, being rude to the restaurant staff, talking a LOT of nonsense (some racist, some just plain bonkers) and then pulling out a machete for no good reason except to show us he had it and waiving it about kinda crazy… but no one was harmed during this outburst of craziness and we did not bump into the guy again after that evening, so all is well that ends well.

Pakse is a point of departure for the Bolaven Plateau and 4000 Islands and we were up for both. Bolaven Plateau is a 1 to 3 day trip on a bike vising waterfalls, villages and coffee plantations on the way. As Gen and Marc had limited time only, we rented the bikes for a day. Unfortunately, we did not make it as the roads were busier than we thought, the storm was coming in and some of us were less experienced at staying upright on the bike. Although the day was not a complete waste, as Ste got used to the semi-automatic bike in preparation for the Vietnam trip and we did have a bit of a ride about half way to the first waterfall.

Next day we left for Don Det: one of the 4000 Islands… whether there actually are 4000 of them is not clear, but who will count?

Don Det is one of the more popular islands with the younger backpackers and although it is a bit of a dive, I can see the appeal for the younger generation (the kind that brag about ending up in hospital 4 times in their travels (or an Asian 3 month booze cruise if you will) and then proceeding to lick spilled booze off the floor… hospital trip number 5 I feel is coming up.

If it were just the two of us, we might have moved to a different island, but as the aim of the game was hanging out with our mates and relaxing, Don Det was perfect enough: there is beer, hammocks, river views, a place with a decent snooker table and a few nice places to eat… what else does one need? Food on the island was good in only a handful of places: the place right on the front of the island did a hit and miss food, hits were real hits and misses weren’t too inedible. Ev’s a bit further down the road, which was actually called Seaview Cafe and run by an Ozzie guy called Darren, but he reminded us so much of an Ozzie guy we met in Darwin called Ev, that we just called the plac: Ev’s and might have actually called him that to his face accidentally once or twice. The place was pricey, but well worth it! Best breakfast, best western food on the island and best mash in Asia (yes, I will go that far!). Then the Crazy Gecko, even further into the island: best Lao food on the island, especially the lentil pumpkin curry! And they have a good pool table I mentioned… or snooker,  I do not claim to know the difference.

So most of our time was spent chilling in the hammocks and agonising over where to eat. We did take a day trip on kayaks which almost nearly was disastrous. Marc and Gen did not go as unfortunately Marc caught a bit of a traveler bug, turned out they made a right choice. The guides were not very good at explaining basic rules of kayak operation in rapid waters and since the only other time we were in a kayak was in Halong Bay, which was calm open water, we capsized, got stuck in the bushes and were generally the entertainment for the rest of the group and especially Mark who kept going past in stitches (he does claim he helped at some point…). The worst were the bushes, as Ste is arachnophobic and the said bushes were full of various types of spiders that promptly were all over us and the kayak and as hysterical as it is to recall this now from the safety of the spider free hotel room, Ste was bordering actual hysteria at the time. But in the end it all worked out: we saw some rare dolphins in the wild, some stunning waterfalls and got back safely as the sun was going down.

Marc and Gen left for Bangkok few days before the rest of us and then the 3 of us departed the same way as we felt we needed some relaxing time on a Thai island beach (Koh Chang), 4000 Islands chilling was just too tiring!

And now for the photos, again, in no particular order and some are from Gen and Marc’s camera:

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Brunch time by Hua Lamphong train station in BKK, Marc just eaten 3 very hot chilies, which I might have egged him on to do…

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The BKK to Nong Khai train, if you look really closely, you will see a man sitting at the end of the carriage looking grumpy… the above mentioned food pushing man…

 

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Crazy Gecko

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Boat selfie on the way to Don Det

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Game of pool at Crazy Gecko… or snooker…

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Occupying Mark’s porch…

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Stormed in in Pakse… but its OK

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BKK Chinatown

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Train!

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All checked in in Vientiane

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Good idea?

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Vodka shakes in DaoLin in Pakse

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Butterfly on Don Det

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Largest and strongest waterfall in South East Asia

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Mekong views

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Children playing football with a bottle…

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Don Det rice fields

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Pakse Big Budha

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Sunset over Mekong in Pakse

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At Wat Si Saket in Vientiane

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Patuxai – Arch of Triumph in Vientiane

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Photographers on duty under Patuxai…

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Railings could do with straightening out (top of Patuxai)

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View off the Patuxai

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Spiral stairs… who does not love those?

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A Wat at Pha That Lunag in Vientiane

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Pha That Luang, rumored to be covered in carat gold…

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On the Wat steps

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Marc n Gen with their bike in Pakse

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Don Det dog

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A tree that no one claimed they could climb and then did not…

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More Mekong views (4000 Islands)

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Back of our hotel on Don Det, a boy riding a buffalo

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A minor waterfall somewhere on 4000 islands

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Sacred tree… rescued by helicopter, encased in a glass box and fanned all day to prevent rot…

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Enjoying the huge waterfall view…

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A duckling on Don Det

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Raised herb garden on Don Det

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Don Det piglet

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A buffalo taking a cooling bath…

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On the other island…

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Liphi waterfall on Done Khone (an island connected to Don Den via a bridge)

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Muay Thai: blood, sweat and tears

As you might recall, we did a month in a Muay Thai camp recently, mainly to get fit, I wrote about it here: https://escapingtheknown.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/living-the-muay-thai-dream/

Muay Thai to people like us (farangs) is just that: a way to get fit, for some to have a fight experience or two, a way to become a better boxer, kickboxer, MMA fighter back home, its a way to prove something to ourselves and others, often just another thing on the bucket list. It is however something much more for others less fortunate, it is a survival tool, it is a ticket to a better life… I have failed to mention this in my previous post which was concentrating on myself but here I would like to talk just a little more about what Muay Thai is to some of the others…

In Thailand, Muay Thai gyms are often a place to straighten out troubled children, Santai for example had one such a child. He seemed like a pleasant 12 year old when we met him, however from what we were told he did not start out that way, his mother passed away when he was very young and he was going down a dangerous path of smoking, drinking and getting into trouble before he was sent off to the gym. He lives there now, sleeping in the ring, doing the chores and training every day, twice a day. He will be a great fighter one day instead of ending up behind bars or dead (or both).

It is not that hard to end up behind bars in Thailand, we all seen ‘Banged up Abroad’. I read an article before coming to Santai about Muay Thai in Bangkok Hilton (Klong Prem Prison). We all heard about this prison (at least many have), it is notorious for many reasons, but it seems there is a faint hope that shines within it and it is Muay Thai. Prisoners literally fight for their freedom. Those who win fights, instead of money receive time off their sentence. I do realise that this might a contentious issue as the inmates in that prison are not there for unpaid parking tickets, but who is to say that even they deserve hope and a second chance? You can read the real article here (it is worth a read): http://time.com/24630/prison-inmates-in-thailand-fight-foreigners-for-their-freedom/

The sport is also the hope of a better life for Burmese children in Thailand. Burma is poor, Thailand is anything but, so Burmese families often cross into Thailand illegally in search of a better life. More often than not, they do not find it as it is very difficult for the Burmese to obtain Thai legal papers. A lot of Burmese children are sold into sex trade, but some escape this fate via Muay Thai. It is not an easy life, they train extremely hard, fight a lot and do not get paid a lot, not until they make it, not many do, but even just few lives are made better, then it is worth the blood, sweat and tears shed… This is the short documentary about Burmese children and Muay Thai, I found it heartbreaking… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0Ji1XA3bIE

All in all, I think this sport deserves a lot of respect and when I go back to Santai (I do not know how and when, but I will!), I will take it far more seriously than I have previously…

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From Santai to Pai

Our month has come to an end and we are onto the next leg of our journey: travelling around places with friends.

Leaving training was heartbraking for me: I ran 4 kilometers on the last day and morning training was excellent, I felt like I have come  miles fitness wise from the day of arrival at the gym, but I need more time to cement this new found level of fitness… a time I do not have as once I leave, self motivation will be an an all new level of low. The rest of the day was a mess being late here and there, forgetting to eat, which meant that the last training session was a flop, and just feeling generally down especially as I remembered I needed to pack. Packing mainly consisted of staring at the contents to be packed away and exercising non-existing jedi powers.

Next morning, still with heavy heart, we set of for our last chicken and rice breakfast and in search of the bus station. Songtao ride into Chiang Mai was a little nerve wrecking: 4 farangs and 6 bags took up a lot of space, but enough was left for 6-7 Thai people between us and the exit… How many Thai people can one farang KO with a backpack on their clumsy crawl out of the songtao? Turns out none! Exist, despite our fears, was painless!

After a little de-tour (the bus station was not where Google maps claimed it was!), we have found the said station and bought our tickets to Pai easy enough for the price we were expecting. The bags felt very heavy as we are very much out of practice of carrying heavy loads in the heat, but mercifully, the morning was cloudy and we were spared in a way… although still soaked through with sweat by the time we settled into the minivan, which made for a pleasant combination with the air con.

Road to Pai was beautiful. However, appreciating the beauty was not easy as the minivan was moving very fast on a very twisty road: left, right, left, up, right, down and round the corner and up and left and whilst we enjoyed our sliced watermelon and solid ground at a short stop almost half way, we observed people being busy emptying themselves into the bin, so we thanked our stars we had a stronger disposition and an hour later, grayer than few hours previously but firmly holding onto contents of our stomachs we have arrived in Pai. The ride back was not so fortunate, not for me anyways as I have uncontrollably spewed into the bag 2 hours in…

Pai… what can I say about it? Its cute… Beautiful views of the surrounding hills… I hate to be one of those people in search of ‘real’ Thailand (or ‘real’ anything), you cross the border: you are in Thailand, whether it is the madness of Bangkok, the pristine beach, the pristine beach ruined by hoards of drunk teenagers, the quiet village in the hills, the quiet village in the hills turned major tourist destination, its all Thailand, all real Thailand and being a snob in a search of a pristine little village untouched by the western world where life goes on as it did for hundreds of years is slightly ridiculous and those better start working on a time machine about now to satisfy their snobbery. There was a specific reason we were in Pai for: tattoos, so we enjoyed the views of the hills, the availability of the western food (well, for me anyways, a month of mainly Thai food every single day called for a steak and the likes), ignored the drunk youngsters, drank a little ourselves and got tattooed and made plans for onward trip as we had another friend to meet up with in Laos.

 

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Freshly tattooed by Mink at Cross Tattoo in Pai

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Some scenery across the road from our resort

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Peekaboo

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The resort we stayed at, fairly cheaply (about £10 a night!)

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More scenery

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Ste’s tattoo done! And the artist himself

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Its raining heavily, but the new get up is too funny…

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Marc n Gen

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More stunning scenery

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A treehouse!

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At Almost Famous… they do a mean mojito!

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Lady preparing mint for all those mojitos

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Night market

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Up to the big Bhudha!

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A lot of steps to walk…

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Big Buddha!

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Rainy day!

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Living the Muay Thai dream

As I sit here weeping, partly in pain from my shins, partly because I rubbed Tiger Balm in my eyes… again, I think it is time to reflect on our time at the Muay Thai camp. We signed up for a month and only 4 days are left now, so it is a logical point of reflection.

How did we end up here since we have never did Muay Thai before? Typically, a friend did this and we thought it was a good idea. So we did a little research and settled on this place: Santai Muay Thai in San Kamphaeng. It had great reviews, looked fairly non commercial and offered no yoga or ballet dancing lessons on the side, not to mention the fact that it was also fairly cheap in comparison to the places down in the South of Thailand. And here we are.

What can I say about San Kamphaeng? Its a tiny village on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, there is a main street, a couple of temples, a post office, a police station and few eating places, few rice fields, packs of wild dogs and few cows dotted about. Not the most glamorous location, but… the locals are very friendly, food is great (albeit not much of a choice), everything is cheap and Chiang Mai is only a 30 minutes songtao ride away (for those who do not know what songtao is, it is a pick up truck with benches and cover, a sort of tuk tuk bus if you like). Every Saturday, a market is put on along the main street that attracts the locals and us (there is really not much else to do here: train, eat, sleep, go to night market on a Saturday). The members of the gym are pretty much the only farrangs (foreigners, for those of you who do not have my basic 5 phrase base of Thai) in San Kamphaeng, beside a couple of dudes married to local Thai ladies and anyone we do not know gets a curious stare: who are you and what are you do doing in our town? Ludicrous, I know, it is not our town, but we all love it as our own, even after a short while. The locals recognise us and greet us, the local restaurant owner where we eat most nights knows us by names, we know where the best fruit juices are and where the best massage is to be had… it kinda is our town.

Onto the main event, the training! To say it is hard is not really to say anything, the average temperature is 36 degrees at the moment and the gym is an open plan affair with no air conditioning, anything in these conditions is hard, let alone 2-3 hour training sessions. We were told to take it easy the first two weeks, which we did not exactly listen to and have hammered first few days… Ste hurt his foot, I could not really move much for 2 days… Lesson 1: listen to your peers! To say we have fallen into the groove would not really be true, I feel fitter for a short while and then something else hurts. I am currently battling shin splints and bruised knees. I have overcome a vicious attack by ants in the ring: there were hundreds! And the underside of my upper arm looked like chicken pox for a while. I have finally started running in the morning, both times at the expense of the ability to walk for the next two hours. I am however proud to announce that that I ran 4k this morning, the longest distance I ever ran! The shortest distance ran here. It is either 4, 7 or 12 that the fighters (or just visitors like us) can run. Few days ago one of the fighters attempted 12 and got lost on the way ending up almost in Chiang Mai after about a 20k run and blagging a free ride back in a songtao… How we laughed… I am still proud of my 4 though.

There are places of interest everywhere in the locality, if you have a scooter, which we do not as I do not feel they are safe here for an inexperienced driver. Few people from the gym decided to head to the hot springs about 30 minutes drive away to soak our battered muscles and of course I have decided to join. We were going to rent out a songtao, but the fate had something else in store: as we were baking in the sun waiting to hail down a said songtao, a friend pulled up and offered to lend us two scooters: Great! everyone said and I quietly started to worry… I did not really know the person I was going to be riding with, Luca, an Italian. ‘So… you are very good on the scooter then?’ I asked with hope, ‘Yes, I am very fast and I love dangerous situations he replied’…. ‘Great, I am going to die’ was my thought that stayed with me as Luca whizzed through the streets overtaking cows and cars and occasionally racing the other scooter riders… Obviously I did not die, and by the end felt that despite his claim the lad was a safe driver, but the nerves were shattered… nothing a hot spring could not fix!

Although the training for us is a mere way to get a bit fitter after overindulging on wine and cheese in Australia for 7 months, for most people here it is fight training and a large proportion of those who train actually participate in fights. We have attended a couple of such fights recently which was very exciting. I have never been to a fight before, but I can confirm that watching people you know fight is far more exciting than watching just anyone. Would I ever participate? Never say never, but if I was 5 years younger, I would have said yes, definitely.

Another event worth mentioning was getting sak yant tattoos. Ste has a couple of tattoos already, but for me that was a first. Decision was sort of taken out of my hands as at 7am Ste informed me: we going to get tattoos at 9am! And so we went… Sak yant is a traditional Thai tattoo done by a bhuddist  monk with either tapping a bamboo or a metal spike (in our case) called khem sak. This practice dates back before the start of bhuddism and has been practiced in SEA for thousands of years, although the popularity today remains mainly in Thailand. The tattoos are believed to have magic powers as they are blessed by the monk and the bearer is believed to be bulletproof… I have not yet put this to the test, but I heard that in Laos many have, with disastrous results.

Almost forgot! Which I suppose shows how much we are affected by this, but you might have heard on the news that we are currently under military regime and a curfew due to the most recent military coup in Thailand. There has been a lot of information in the media, but life here in San Kamphaeng has not been affected much, except that curfew IS enforced, which has affected the Saturday market and the fights in Chiang Mai with a couple being cancelled. The military presence is apparent in Chiang Mai (but they are friendly and open to posing for photos with tourists). The curfew has been relaxed which we take as a good sign and hopefully this will all blow over soon. The area we are in feels safe, but as it is a very heavy Red Shirt area, should anything were to escalate, the unrest would reach here and that would be terrible. Thailand as a whole and the North in particular is an amazing country full of great people and we hope and pray that this is resolved without further trouble.

As our time here is coming to an end, we do feel fitter, leaner and I think we have caught the Muay Thai bug as although we have to leave now, we are thinking on how and when we can come back…

And again, in no order:

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Muay Thai is a violent blood sport after all…

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The first Santai fighter performing a traditional Wai Khru dance before the start of the fight. It is a way of showing respect to the trainers and more traditionally to the King

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The ‘stadium’… in actual fact it is a ring with plastic chairs, but its not the fancy surroundings that make the fight…

 

 

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The said ring and the said chairs…

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The gym owner congratulating the winning fighter

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Greetings…

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The fight is over, the wraps come off

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The ref

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Ste’s sak yant

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The winner and the trainer

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Santai day out to the lake

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The winning gym in front of the ring

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The crowd

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Ste in a sparring session

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Supporters!

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Boom!

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Girl fight! (Neither are from our gym)

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My sak yant

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Getting worked on by the trainers

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Getting my tattoo done… yes, it hurt a lot!

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A minute’s rest

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Just before the fight…

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Action shot!

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More action!

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Our short NZ trip in photos

I have to apologise for the short and lazy post on our New Zealand trip: I have been out of this for a while and with all the moving around I thought a short and awful post is better than no post… I never claimed I am always right… just most times😉

We are currently in the first phase of our South East Asian adventure: in the muay thai camp in Thailand and I will post about that shortly: there is a lot to say already! But in the meantime, this is just a photoblog post about the wonderful NZ.

 

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We spot snow on the hillsides… its been a while!

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Desislava in the mist…

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Snowy path

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The sun is trying to break through!

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Self explanatory

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And the sun won!

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Dylan

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The view of the valleybelow

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Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom from the LOTR and less know as Mount Fuji in The Last Samurai

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Dylan and Desi

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Volcano craters within volcano craters

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Above the clouds

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More lakes/craters… the area is still volcanically active and the lakes are hot, also all the areas not covered in snow are hot from the activity below ground…

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Lake Taupo… also a crater

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The town on Taupo

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Waikato river

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A bubbling mud pool….

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Steaming mud pool pond…

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Redwood trees…

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Treehugger😀

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Good morning Auckland harbour….

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Auckland skape

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Rangitoto and I

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Museum dwelling on the Rangitoto island

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Fantail… a little bird that dominates on the island… It flies like it has never learnt to fly properly… strange bird…

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We are headed to the top…

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Auckland from a different angle

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Lighthouse

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Island life

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Local birdlife

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Views from the top of the volcano

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More views from Rangitoto

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Auckland City as seen from Rangitoto

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Island jungle

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Waiting on a ferry

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Kingfisher

 

 

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A taste of kiwi…

Well, goodbyes said (multiple times!) admin bits and pieces are sorted and we are off on our next lot of adventures. First flight survived with minimal trauma (it was a touch bumpy and I might have gotten a little emotional…) and here we are in Auckland, reunited with our trekking buddy Dylan.

So what have we learnt during our short stay in New Zealand? We learnt that New Zealand is awesome! It is cool (temperature wise), beautiful, people are very friendly, it’s cheaper than Oz… In part anyways, and they have excellent cured bacon. 7 days was not enough, but we did manage to go to a volcanic island Rangitoto, trek to mount Doom in the snow, see an incredibly endangered kakapo (128 left in the world, perhaps because they try to mate all wrong, like the one on the Stephen Fry’s show) and of course some kiwis: feathered ones in the zoo and human kind: catching up with our mate Dylan.

Our visit was cut short as we have realised that our flight was a day earlier than we thought, so we are definitely going back. After 25 hours on the go and a well deserved sleep, we are now in Bangkok, killing some time before catching an overnight train to Chiang Mai.

Here are a couple of shots from New Zealand, I will do a photo post eventually, these are just a couple of phone snaps, to go with this short phone post:

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Great plans laid out

Two weeks today we set off on a new set of adventures!! Very excited about that, as anyone would be and I think it is time to lay out out plans here of what we are thinking of doing for the next 6 months! So here it is:

1. We are flying to Auckland, New Zealand where we will reunite with a friend we made trekking in Nepal and he will take us hiking. The destination is not yet been confirmed, but Mount Doom was mentioned… We will only spend about a week there and besides the hiking have no other concrete plans, so watch this space.

2. Our second destination is Thailand and we are doing a month of Muay Thai, which is Thai kickboxing in a gym outside Chiang Mai… it promises to be brutal, but good for us: all this cheese we ate in Oz is making itself known in a form of a second chin and a cheese gut!

Once we have been sufficiently punished for the overeating and slacking on the exercise front (well, I have, Ste has actually been sticking to a routine for a while), we will head to Pai, where we shall acquire tattoos! I have decided a few months ago that I shall pursue a career in tattoo art (hence all these sketches on my Instagram) and it appears that although tattoo is an unconventional deviation from the norm and a way to mark oneself as ‘different’, ‘alternative’, ‘unique’ etc, becoming a tattoo artist requires me to conform to the industry ‘norm’ of having tattoos, which is a paradox, but if that is what I have to do, this is what I will do…

We will then head down south and spend some time in Tonsai where we shall reunite with our Australian friends, our home friends and who knows who else? Tonsai is a Thai paradise away from full moon parties, crowds and all manner of unpleasantness that marks Thailand holiday in eyes of many. It is a climbers destination and a tranquil beach cut off from the world by the jungle and rocks where time stops and converts to Tonsai time…

We will spend a couple of days in Bangkok at some point, but due to the multiple opportunities to reunite with people, who knows when, where, how… it’s all an excited uncertainty at the moment.

3. We shall then cross into Laos, on our own or with friends, who knows! There is quite a bit to do in Laos, but the list is getting finalised and perhaps I would post about that separately closer to the time. All I know is that a motorbike journey is being insisted on and I am hesitant on account of never have driven one and not wishing to die just yet… We shall see…

4. Cambodia next and here we shall once again reunite with friends from home who are coming all the way out to Cambodia to meet us. We will therefore repeat things we already have done, like giving blood and Angkor Watt, but with old friends, which will be quite exciting I would imagine!

5. Vietnam is also uncertain. Ste wants to ride south to north on HoChiMinh trail, but I am not doing that for the reasons stated above (I might consider a quiet Laos road for a day, but not Vietnam highways for 3 weeks!) and all would depend on whether he can convince anyone to do it with him… time will tell…

6. Hong Kong. A new destination entirely and only for few days to do our Chinese visas and visit the cheapest Michelin Star restaurant in the world!

7. China… well, that needs a whole post of its own as we are doing a LOT in China, including Tiger Leaping Gorge, Karst mountains in Guilin, pandas, Giant Budha or two, Hanging Temples and many more.

8. Back to Kathmandu and we shall do the Annapurna Base camp trail this time and this time we will do it on our own! No guide, no porter: just us, two bags, a map and fingers crossed! Its the trekking season and ABC trek is well travelled, it does not promise to be particularly difficult… but time will tell.

9. Back to Europe and we land in Paris late October. We shall explore the great capital as neither of us been there before and we shall then head to Amsterdam for yet another reunion after which we shall fly home!

I simply cannot wait, but in the meantime, there is the Easter long weekend and we have a full house as well as perhaps a leaving party to be had on Anzac long weekend, so things are pretty exciting here too and I am not going to be wishing my life away just yet!

 

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New friends and old friends…

Don’t you just hate it when you have written a post and then it disappears when you are adding photos? This has happened and I fear that the second time around the post will not be as good since I am trying to recall what it was I said and probably failing!

Nonetheless, as Sydney is finally being blessed by the cooler temperatures the time fast approaches when we shall leave it to continue on our travels. (2.5 weeks left!) and few things that are happening in and around the next few weeks and months that make me reflect on one of the best and worst part of travelling: making friends.

The series of events are that we are about to leave all the friends we have made here and no doubt we will make some new friends on the way, some friends we already have made came and visited us in Sydney, we will re-unite for a short while with some other new friends along the way and our old friends are meeting us in Cambodia and Thailand, not to mention that we will be re-united with most of our old friends when we return in a little over 6 months and that is exciting…

So obviously it is not a mystery why making new friends whilst travelling is one of the best things: it is the excitement of meeting new people, but people who often share a large part of your interests and experiences that old friends back home might not necessarily share or understand, it is the fact that suddenly you have contacts all over the world and quite few spare rooms and couches and a friendly face in places you have never been to or considered visiting and now it is on the list. What can be so bad about any of this you might ask? Well, there are a couple of things really and the main ones are that the new friends are new, they do not know you like your old friends do and you do not know them in the same way, a certain level of decorum has to be maintained, a certain guard I suppose, but that is a small matter, the bigger minus is the saying of goodbye. I said more goodbyes in the past year than I have in my whole life and although you might see some of these people again, there are never guarantees and despite the connections made and the amazing time you have had, it is possible that you might never see these people again… and that is at least a little sad!

But I will not concentrate on the sad, I will look forward to seeing my friends again along the way and keeping in touch and would like to share few photos here to which I will periodically add:

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Old friends from home and new friends from Holland: camping in Western Australia friends… they have visited us in Sydney already and we will see them again in Amsterdam and our old friends are meeting us in Thailand…

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Texas (and Seattle) friends!

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More Tioman friends, drinking and playing Nada!

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Vietnam friends! The Italian couple and a French/Dutch family that we will be staying with in Amsterdam later this year!

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Drunk Island friends…

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Island friends! We made many friends on Tioman…

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We have reunited with the English girls we met in China and travelled through Cambodia, giving blood and surviving a bus fire together… we will definitely see these two again!

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The hilarious group of Americans we drank with in China and two English girls (also hilarious)

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Random Chinese people who have insisted on taking a photo with us in Xi’an, so we have insisted on taking a photo with them… ^_^

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Basecamp friends! The two good friends we made on the way to EBC: after the 3 weeks of struggles and victories I think we will be friends forever, despite the distances… we keep in touch often and we have seen each other since and are staying with Dylan in NZ in 2.5 weeks!

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The architects! UTS School of Architecture academics I was lucky to work for the past 6 months.

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Supermarket bar friends! A super fun Italian couple we travelled through Vietnam with and who we hope to see again when we visit Italy! (well, only one is on the photo: the other is taking this photo…)