Monday, December 27, 2010

Unspeakable, unthinkable, and reasonably inedible.

I have a little to catch up on over the last few days. After a very pleasant Christmas day we started traveling again, and we are still behind on sleep. However, certain events are foremost on my mind and would be better aired, although I'm sure few will thank me for the sharing. Even now Hel is reading this as I type with a satisfied look upon her face - the guilty smirk of someone who has outdone themselves.

On our journeys we found ourselves in Surat Thani with a few hours to spare before the night train. This is probably the least tourist oriented town we have had the pleasure of visiting, and we were excited to note the presence of an excellent street market. We were soon cursing our lack of appetite, for we had unfortunately eaten recently, but were still content to wander up and down looking for a potential late dinner.

Dinner One stall in particular drew Hel's attention, as they were offering a small (but not nearly small enough) selection of delicacies. There were several varieties of beetle, a plate full of mealworms, another of grubs, and a bucket of grasshoppers, all delicately fried to some twisted idea of perfection.

Hel is adventurous when it comes to food, and was very enthusiastic to find something that she had not eaten before. Despite the many superb reasons that these items had yet to be sampled by either of us, the fact that someone was misguided enough to sell them was obviously good enough reason to go along with the ill conceived notion by actually buying and eating some.

I did not share in this enthusiasm, nor did I choose to look as Hel filled a small plastic bag with the critters. Neither did I look as she munched her way through them with mixed reactions. The "crisp-erpillars" (the mealworms look like caterpillars, and were evidently crispy when fried) were received very well - apparently.

I would rather not dwell on the subject any longer. Suffice it to say that Hel eats bugs. Charming.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Nice lunch

We found nice lunch yesterday, after I took a walk on Patak road, the main highway and realised that although it was busy as hell and took several minutes to cross, you can walk along there without being offered a tuk tuk, a suit or a massage, and then I started to notice that there were several little shacks with Thai writing on the outside and Thai people eating on the inside.

The one we chose for lunch had no English menu or pictures, but a canteen style counter where you could point at your food. We couldn't see rice so asked for "khao" and the lady looked very surprised that we had asked for it in Thai and she had understood us! We each pointed at some tasty looking dishes to be piled on top of our steamed white rice. Dgym's included some kind of spicy minced pork that was hot enough to leave him wanting copious amounts of cold dairy produce afterwards, and mine included some weird little chewy dried fish. Very tasty, with nice cold jugs of water at the table, and cost us 70 baht in total. We felt suitably pleased at having fed the two of us for less than the cost of a fruit shake down the road, and finding a little piece of genuine Thailand again.

Dino golf In the evening we decided to fully embrace the touristiness and go for a round of dinosaur-themed mini golf, after all it's not every day you see that, and what holiday is complete without mini golf? Quite expensive - 240 baht per adult, i.e. double the cost of a round of mini golf on Brighton seafront, but it turned out to be a lot of fun putting our way through glowing caves, past waterfalls, dinosaur statues and dinosaur poo statues, and we did get a full 18 holes for our money.

We were in danger of being cut short at just seventeen holes when Dgym knocked his ball into a murky pool which was deeper than his arms are long and his chopstick-style attempts to retrieve it with two clubs were fruitless. I finished hole 17 and lent him my ball, which he also knocked into the water. We eventually managed to fish one of them out and finish the game. I won, by the way. After all that, I think I would have won even if my score had been higher.

After dino-golf we walked up the road a bit to Karon Noi beach. It was dark by then but we had a little walk around on the squeaky sand. If you close your eyes you can imagine you're walking on snow.

Friday, December 24, 2010

From north to south

We stayed in Chiang Mai for a little over a week - mostly lounging around but we spent a lovely day with elephants, I took a cooking course and we popped into town every so often to the excellent Mexican restaurant we found, which was conveniently next door to a delicious burger bar.

Staying on the edge of town had its drawbacks - it cost 100 baht each way when we wanted to go into town. We did try to walk once, but only once, having to cross the Superhighway and then the busy moat road and several other busy roads - pedestrian crossings there seem to consist mostly of a faded zebra stripe that everybody ignores, and you can wait a good 10 minutes before it's safe to cross.

Bathroom friend However, we were glad to stay where we did - our hotel was situated in quite a green and leafy neighbourhood, no touristy pretences, just real people going about their real lives, and restaurants full of Thai people in which very little concession was made to the western world. One restaurant made our curries so hot we could barely eat them - and we are people who order especially hot sauce off the internet and can't usually convince restaurants in England to actually make something hot enough. We found a lovely street restaurant with an extensive menu in Thai and a few pictures with English pronunciations. The food was delicious and fried but also full of tasty crunchy vegetables, and we could both eat there, with drinks, for about 80 baht (£1.60).

We also ate in a non-Thai restaurant which was pretty pricey compared to others nearby but we had a good meal there - I had crab pasta and Dgym had a duck curry, followed by some lovely cakes. However, not such a good experience when we returned to try some of their cheaper Thai dishes. My pork fried rice had a funny smell and taste which I soon identified as somewhat dogfoody - Dgym concurred, and suggested that they might have used bone marrow. I didn't finish that meal.

Sesame milk There were also some small convenience stores along the road, selling a selection of weird little cakes, snacks and drinks. I became quite addicted to black sesame flavoured soy milk. Dgym drank too much of the chocolate flavour milk and got tummy ache. I spotted blueberry and hazelnut flavoured Pringles in the shop one time but they had disappeared again by the time I had made up my mind to try them, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

We were headed to Phuket next for some beach action, from the top of the country to the bottom - and decided to fly down to save ourselves two consecutive nights on sleeper trains. Much as I prefer overland travel to flying, I will concede that it saved us a hell of a lot of hassle this time.

We took the minibus from Phuket to Kata beach where our hotel was waiting for us. They turfed us out of the bus half way and into a travel agent where we saw our first fake-looking smiles since we got here as the travel agent lady enquired about our plans with the aim of selling us a hotel. We dutifully answered the questions, expressing our disinterest in being sold anything, and got back on the minibus where it continued its journey. The minibus costs half the price of a taxi and drops you right outside the hotel so we're not complaining too much if that helps to keep it cheap.

On arrival at Kata we were super hungry so dumped our stuff and went out to eat, instantly finding that everything was super expensive compared to Chiang Mai and even Bangkok. Being desperate to eat, we  picked a restaurant and ordered some relatively cheap Thai dishes (A simple fried rice or Pad Thai seems to go for about 120 baht here). They were absolutely horrible, the worst food we've had in Thailand so far, and were served with "juice" that was not juice but sugared stuff from a carton. My noodles were overflavoured and so rubbery they pinged me in the eye, and Dgym's rice had no flavour at all. Then it started bucketing down with rain. We popped into a mini mart afterwards and I was slightly cheered up by finding some weird banana flavoured crisps.

It's our third day in Kata now and we've found some actual decent food (including pizza, which made Dgym happy) and real fruit juice but it's still bleeding expensive compared to anywhere else we've been here and we feel ever so slightly caught in a tourist trap.

KataIt's very very different here. People are constantly trying to sell you stuff, be it ladies in street bars trying to sell themselves or the crazy bloke at the Indian restaurant whose arms never seem to tire from trying to wave people in from the other side of the street. Or the tailors who step in front of you and try to shake your hand as you walk past their shop. Walk up to a menu outside a restaurant and the waiter will come out and hover over you until you either walk away or decide to go in. Maybe they have had problems with people stealing menus from outside restaurants.

It all comes across as a bit pushy and we're not quite sure how to take it. It feels as if people are trying to aggressively sell you stuff all the time, but maybe we're wrong and it's just the nature of people in this region to greet everybody that way. Either way, we're still trying to find where the Thais eat, those restaurants that aren't filled with tourists and where perhaps we have to point at a picture to order.

Needless to say we have been spending some time at the beach - the northern and slightly sewagey smelling end is quite empty but the rest is jam packed with loungers and umbrellas as far as the eye can see - they go for 200 baht a day which the sellers don't seem to want to negotiate on, but we're quite happy sitting on a towel under a tree next to dozens of empty seats which are doubtless costing them money - just a little willingness on their part to haggle would see them making a bit more of it back, but never mind. I'm surprised the numerous beach sellers still bother to approach us given that we're clearly too cheap to even fork out for a seat. The sand's lovely and soft and the sea's lovely and warm and a little bit wavey at times and it's good to go for a swim in mid December.

Roti It's not all bad. Despite the cheap and cheerful side of Thailand being slightly absent here, there are some things that shine through all the touristy crap - the huge and brightly coloured butterflies, the chorus of noisy frogs outside our window at night, the mummy gecko and its tiny baby that we found on one of the hotel walls... and the lovely pancake lady who sets up her cart at the end of the road. Thai pancakes (roti) are a bit different from the European kind - they begin life as a solid ball of dough made from flour, egg and coconut butter, which is kneaded and beaten into a flat pancake shape before being fried and folded over any filling you may care to order in a neat little pancakey parcel. Definitely tastes different too, a bit more like a flatbread than a pancake, but delicious.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Last Sunday we decided to take the train to Chiang Mai, which is in the north of Thailand. This was done in two stages - back to Bangkok in the afternoon and then a sleeper leaving in the evening. Unfortunately the first class option is very popular, and needs to be booked a few days in advance, so we went with reclining seats instead. The seats did technically recline I suppose, but not more than a token gesture. The result was an uncomfortable trip, but we got to Chiang Mai and only a few hours late.

We are now staying a few miles out of town following a recommendation on tripadvisor. A9 Place is a comfortable hotel and in a quiet neighborhood, with everything we need on the door step but no noisy club music to keep us awake.

Ele-friend Yesterday we went to an elephant sanctuary. It was quite an abrupt start as we had made the booking on line and had not received the confirmation we were told to expect, so didn't think it was happening. When the bus came to pick us up at half eight we were still asleep. Oh well, 5 minutes later and we were off. The sanctuary is only an hour away in a beautiful valley, and is home to over 30 elephants. Most of them used to be working elephants, but were abandoned when logging was banned about 20 years ago. A couple were born in the jungle and have been rescued after their parents died. They are considerably more mischievous, and can be easily identified as they have two handlers (Quan) each while the others only have one.

We started off by helping with the feeding. This consisted of holding out large pieces of fruit so the elephants could take it with their trunks. This lasted until they had eaten a large basket filled with bananas and various melons each, so about 10 minutes.

Ele-friendThen we went to a large enclosure where one herd was eating. Being rescued elephants they are not actually related (apart from some of the youngsters) but have formed herds anyway, for friendship and to protect the young. This was the first glimpse we got of their playful nature, as one decided to clamber over a fence just for a challenge, despite the gate being open right next to it. Apparently they break a fence at least once a fortnight, not that they actually run away - they stay where the food is, but it is good to see them living on their own terms.

In the afternoon we went elephant washing in the river. Enough people with buckets can get an elephant clean in about 5 minutes, and after a good soaking they go looking for some nice dry mud to cover their backs with. The mud protects them from sunburn, and gives next day's tourists something to wash off. The elephants certainly seem to enjoy a splash around, perhaps it also helps them build up a good appetite for their evening meal.

With each elephant eating up to 200 kilos of fruit a day the sanctuary has an impressive food bill. The elephants do not work and do not perform tricks, this really is a sanctuary, and it is supported through eco-tourism. If you ever get the chance to go and support the work they do here I would thoroughly recommend it. It was a very informative day, and a wonderful opportunity to spend time with these noble creatures while contributing towards their care.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


The first few days in Bangkok had been a bit cloudy but the sky was clear and blue the morning we left.

We were taking the train from Thonburi station - the taxi driver mistakenly took us to another station which was on a road whose name sounds exactly like Thonburi, but we made it eventually. We got there early so took a wander through the markets with our backpacks, passing the usual fruit sellers, barbeque stalls selling various bits of meat and fish on sticks, boys sorting through big piles of red chillies. We found a nice cafe on the other side of the market and managed to order by means of pointing at pictures. Dgym recognised the word for chicken on the menu and I was very proud of him.

The food was lovely, as were the drinks, including a very cold mango ice drink which kept giving me brainfreeze. I commented on this and one of the waitresses seemed to have both heard me and understood the word "brainfreeze" as she offered to take the drink away and make it a little more temperate.

Feet We travelled third class, that being the only option - the train was a little shabby but comfortable and reasonably cool once it got going. There was an unexpected half hour stop - we don't have very good maps on us so we didn't really know where we were. It turned out we were waiting for an oncoming train to free up the line. In England a delay like that would result in at least a lot of tutting, if not a full-on passenger revolt, but nobody seemed too bothered by the wait, and neither were we.

We arrived in Kanchanaburi at dusk, the sun a big orange over the end of the main street down which we walked, dodging tuk tuks and street stalls in search of accommodation. We knew where we wanted to stay - Dgym's sister had stayed on a river rafthouse called Sam's several years ago, and had recommended it to us. There was a lot of sweaty walking and asking of directions before we found it down a dark little lane, thankfully away from the hectic main street.

Kanchanaburi is mostly famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai, built in WWII by prisoners of war and now surrounded by souvenir shops, markets and hordes of visitors. The town itself is very touristy and considerably Anglicised. The main street is lined with places offering fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, cocktails, "Typical Thai Food (Red and Green Curry)" and one bar offers the opportunity to "Get shit-faced on a shoestring". Erm, no thanks. Considerably more usefully, it has English language bookshops and plenty of guest houses and restaurants which are slightly more Thai.

Mae Klong Staying on the river is mostly pleasant. We have air conditioning, electricity, comfy seats and the wifi isn't too far away. The place rocks ever so slightly when a boat passes. Small pale lizards run around on the walls. The outside becomes thick with mosquitoes and other insects after dark so we have to slip through the door very quickly. Friday night was quite noisy, probably because it was Constitution day, another big holiday in the Thai calendar. Music carried on until the small hours and we were woken up at some point by our drunken neighbours arriving back, squealing and laughing and pushing each other around, rocking the whole raft. I do hope they felt the effects the next morning.

We took the bus to Erawan national park, which featured a long rocky walk uphill past several beautiful waterfalls and a few slightly grumpy-looking monkeys stealing any food they could get hold of. We saw a huge lizard at one of the waterfalls - it was a couple of feet long and scampered off into the trees as I approached. I also noticed quite a big spider in a web a few feet above Dgym's head. We saw several funnel-shaped webs close to the ground, leading into deeper burrows but I'm not sure what kind of spiders were in there.

On our way back down the waterfall trail we stopped for a swim. Well, I did anyway while Dgym had a sit and a read. I started to lower myself into one of the pools and was so concerned about the fact that the edge was slippery and steep that I completely forgot what I'd been told about the nibbly fish which took me by surprise. It was a funny sensation but not at all painful and I had a proper swim after getting used to it.

I finished my book, part one of Al Humphreys' account of cycling around the world, which was excellent, very interesting and one of the most honest accounts I've read of what cycle touring's like. Unfortunately it left me wanting part two, not ideal - you don't generally get books on demand when travelling, you take what you find. Volume two would have to wait and instead I paid a visit to one of the second hand book shops. It was probably the most disorganised bookshop I'd ever seen - some were grouped by author, but generally there appeared to be no logic in the arrangement, something that became quite clear when I discovered a novel by Katie Price aka Jordan, nestled beside a fat volume by Dickens. I'm pretty sure there are laws against that in the UK.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


I wanted to bring the bicycles but there was no persuading Dgym to get his fancy trike out of the shed, even with the prospect of cheap tasty noodles to fuel us and plentiful massages at the end of the day. So we've swapped panniers for backpacks and are wearing down our feet instead of our tyres this time.

The flight to Thailand was pleasant, we had a lovely dinner and plenty of legroom. The dinner menu kept us amused for a while - unusually, we were less interested in the food and more concerned with deciphering Thai lettering and deducing what the word 'chicken' looked like. We had a decent sized list of food words by the time we ate.

Although it was night and they made us keep the shutters down, I was excited (and strangely nervous about flying to somewhere so far from home) and kept peeking out. On the way to the airport we'd done some calculations and figured out what time sunrise would be, deciding on 2am. I looked out to see a red glow on the horizon at around three, possibly somewhere over Russia. A couple of hours later we passed the Himalayas, a distant white outline jutting up over misty foothills. We both got some sleep but not enough and were glad it was almost the end of the day again by the time we got to Bangkok.

My first impression of Thailand was how smiley and welcoming the people were. A few smiles went a long way to keeping our moods up after the long flight and we soon found ourselves stamped into the country, exiting the airport into a wall of heat and humidity and then swiftly into an air conditioned meter taxi whose driver seemed to have made it his mission to exclaim "Happy birthday King!" approximately every five minutes that day. The King's birthday is a big deal in Thailand - unfortunately we arrived too late and too tired to really appreciate it, but it had clearly created a cheery atmosphere.

He had also made it his mission to pin an example of a bank note from every country in the world onto the ceiling of his taxi, and was delighted when we helped him out with a Slovakian note that had been in Dgym's wallet for the past five years. Passing and greeting another taxi at a set of traffic lights, I noticed a similar collection on the other driver's ceiling - maybe it's a competition.

After checking into the hotel, we found ourselves a cheap street cafe and sat down for a pad thai and chicken with cashew nuts. The sleep we got wasn't the sleep we were craving - I slept restlessly for three hours, woke up for three more and then slept heavily and peacefully for another three, which weren't enough, and Dgym didn't fare much better.

Tuk Tuk We spent a few days in Bangkok, catching up on sleep, getting used to the heat and the squiggly letters and seeing some sights. Bangkok's a huge city and it's relatively hard getting around. It feels as big as London, and indeed has a similar population, but imagine London with only a couple of tube lines, none of which go into the central bits, and a bus system you can't understand. We walked a lot and ended up with quite sore feet. We took taxis and tuk tuks (three wheeled motorbike taxis) which were nice and cheap, despite the tuk tuk driver quoting us 30 baht (60p) at the start of the journey but demanding 70 when we got out.

One day we took the Skytrain as far to the centre it would go, the National Stadium, and walked for about an hour along a busy fumey road to reach the old town centre. We could taste the fumes, and felt quite ill by the time we got there. We visited Khao San Rd which is backpacker central but I had also read you could get barbequed bugs there, unfortunately we didn't find any. We found a weird park which appeared to be themed around some kind of Thai story - giant hearts, bunnies, a boat, and a tree decorated with lights and gold foil hearts beneath which school children lined up to have their photo taken. So did we.

We spent an afternoon visiting the Grand Palace which consists of several buildings, mostly made of sparkly shiny stuff. Dgym commented that it was pretty, but the kind of pretty that an eight year old might glue together with sequins and gold foil. It was super-blingy and very pretty, a good way to spend an afternoon.

We ate some very tasty food, and were pleasantly surprised to find UK Thai restaurants are pretty authentic (well, in taste and content, not pricing). However, Thai puddings are a very pleasant surprise and we feel slightly sad that so many UK Thai restaurants resort to a lame generic ice cream menu rather than serving authentic desserts. Coconut milk soups with water chestnut, taro (which appears to be a kind of squishy red bean based thing), mango with sticky coconut rice... delicious.

We left Bangkok on Thursday and headed out on the train to Kanchanaburi. More on that soon...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Keep at room temperature

We haven't done any cycling for a while (well, Hel did but hasn't had time to write about it yet) and don't have any immediate plans so it is important to consider our long term storage. England is far too cold so we have escaped to the Far East for winter. This time we have left the bicycles at home, and are instead sporting some enormous back packs.

Speaking of the back packs, we were quietly confident that after all our trips we knew how to travel light, and that the packs we had borrowed were unnecessarily large. Hel's confidence lasted until 30 minutes before the taxi arrived, and my disillusionment was shattered shortly afterwards. It seems that bikes can carry far more than we can, even with all the extras of toolkits, tents and cooking facilities.

Still, we set off on time for a brisk jaunt to Heathrow. I say brisk because we didn't want to weigh ourselves down with winter wear for our summer holiday. Still, England was having one of its more pleasant days - nothing that couldn't be kept at bay by a hot chocolate.

The flight to Bangkok was as expected - long and dull - but the food was surprisingly good. Thank you Thailand Air, I didn't think it was even possible!

And so, less than 24 hours after setting off, we left the airport and were immediately hit by a wall of warm, humid air. Between that and the overused air conditioning I don't think we have actually managed a proper room temperature yet, but it isn't so bad.

Bangkok is very enjoyable. It is mostly clean and friendly although sometimes the pollution can get a bit much. In fact some of the locals are suspiciously helpful - we were told that the Palace was closed for the morning, but a handy tuk tuk driver would help us see some of the other sites for a very reasonable price. Luckily we decided to confirm this ourselves as the Palace was actually open (for the morning only no less) and this was our last opportunity to see it.

The city is a bit hectic for our tastes (simple country folk can't handle the pace) and we are heading out tomorrow. It will be an early start (might have to wake up before 9, eugh) but we are looking forward to seeing some more of the country.