A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Eveness

Laos...rockclimbing, tubing, bus journeys and sticky rice!

sunny 30 °C

With still two weeks before we were due to go to Malaysia, we went over from Cambodia into the southern Laos boarder and headed for a place named Si Phan Don (which means 4000 islands). A collection of small islands (some of them tiny!) set amongst a wide opening of the Mekong river, it was a beautiful sight to see as we took the long wooden tail boat from the mainland at sunset. Small communities live on a few of these little islands and being so close to the boarder this had also become a place for backpackers to set down and chill for a while (Most people staying at the island of Don Det or Don Khon). We choose Don Det to make home for a couple of days.

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Immediately it struck us that the village, once a humble fishing community had clearly adapted to foreign visitors with many restaurants and huts dotted along the edge of the island, catering for the steady stream of western backpackers. Though this is firmly on the backpackers route, you could consider this still an uncut diamond with nearly all the accommodation being very basic (picture you nan’s old rickety wooden shed after too many long hard winters) though thankfully the place we had booked (Don Det Bungalows) was of a good standard with four solid wooden walls and no signs of the multiple legged creepy crawlies which typically come free of charge with many cheaper huts we had come across on our travels. Another observation we made was that the average age of the foreigners appeared to be pretty young , guessing that many of the backpackers were possibly not more than 21; so instantly we felt like a pair of golden oldies gate crashing a kids party! Perhaps an exaggeration but you get the picture!

That said, on the first night we stumbled upon a familiar face and one that was not 21 (halleluiah!). A chap by the name of ‘Rocky’ who we had seen doing the open mic live nights back in Goa. Fellow travellers have told me about seeing the same faces in different locations but I didn’t expect to see one here!

The following day, we woke to discover what all the fuss about this place was all about. In full daylight with the sun glistening on the lake and with the birds singing you could see why this was a place that people found themselves staying for longer than planned and we found a few people who had lost weeks and even months in this vortex of peaceful relaxation (with Rocky being a likely candidate!).

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Being keen to buck the trend of 24 hour hammock dwelling we hired a couple of bicycles to hit the pathways and go exploring! It appeared to a popular method of transport on the island and a bit of a giggle too so off we went with our very dainty shopping baskets attached to the handle bars! It was all very ‘Mary Poppins’!

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We met lots of fellow bike riders along the way though my favourite was this little cutie who hitched a ride in her mom’s basket!

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We had heard about a bridge connecting Don Det with Don Khon and that you had to pay a toll fee to cross. This came in the form of some shady looking guy who stood at the end of the simple bridge holding out his hand and saying “you must pay” with a grimace on his face. Perhaps he hadn’t been on his ‘customer care’ course yet?! The fee really wasn’t very much but the unsmiling man did have a bit of a menacing expression on his face which put a dampener on our happy upbeat mood.

So with our toll fee paid, off we went exploring in search of Somphamit waterfall which we had been told was nearby. We got to the place easily enough and went to park up our bikes to walk the final few metres. It was here that we met another local guy who had cordoned off a piece of scrub land and called it a ‘bicycle park’ also demanding money from us. He was pretty insistent that we use his parking area for our bikes (for a fee of course!) but we told him that we were happy with leaving our bikes parked up under a tree. It wasn’t that the fee was much but we didn’t like being told that we ‘must’ pay up especially as it was nothing more than scrub land and it looked to us like a pointless service set up to get money for nothing. The man, clearly not happy with our decision got a bit pushy and a tad angry that we didn’t bend to his demands and so we didn't hang about..

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The Somphamit waterfalls were not steep but a collection of small waterfalls and rapids which were indeed very nice. It was the dry season so it was not in its full glory but was still worth the visit.

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The heat of the sun was melting us and fortunate for us we discovered a little area where we could take a dip to cool off from the mid-day heat and not get dragged into the rapids! After the sweltering bike ride it was so lovely in the cool clear water!

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We headed back to get our bikes but we soon discovered the consequence of refusing the bicycle parking from the local man. It seems that the pushy local guy had decided to teach us a lesson by letting J’s back tyre down. It couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence as there were a couple of other bikes parked next to ours and they too had flat tyres! So it was a long walk back into the town in the blazing heat was ahead of us…and it was not much fun I can tell you! Thankfully after about half a kilometer we came across a bike repair shop who’s fee to reinflate the tyre was the very same as the fee we would have paid if we used the bike park. Another coincidence???

Keeping in mind that we had only two weeks in Laos, we only stayed on Don Det for two nights before moving on. Si Phan Don was indeed beautiful but we were yet to experience the friendly welcoming nature which we had heard was typical of the people in Laos. We continued on in hope!

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Si Phan Don being in the far south of the country we looked at what would be the next stop. Most people tended to head north to Vientiane but that seemed like too long a journey to do in one go on a Laos bus (which had the reputation of being over crowded, slow and susceptible to breakdowns) so we decided to break our journey up by stopping off at a place called Thakhek which we thought would be a good base to go explore the Kong Lor River-Cave (though the water of the Hinboun River into the cave which boasted a 7km cave passageways which are up to 90m wide and 100m high) which we had heard was well worth the effort required to get to it.

Pumped for a bit of an adventure when we arrived in in the seriously dead town of Thakhek but when we made some inquiries it turned out that the only way to reach it in a reasonable time was to hire a private taxi for approx £100 as the round trip was about 300km. With no other travellers to share the cost we re-evaluated how important it was to see this cave! We thought about doing it by local bus but we were told that it would have been a mission from Thakhek with no chance that we’d be able to reach it and back in one day. So with local buses out of the picture we took the decision to take the morning bus out of there and continue onwards!

We took a local style bus from the towns bus terminal and got stuck into the journey. We soon discovered that buses in Laos consisted of long waits, stops every few hundred yards to pick up yet another passenger, untold items being placed on the roofs of the bus (furniture, mopeds…you name it, it goes up on top!) little plastic stools for even more people to sit on up and down the narrow aisles, bags and kids everywhere and locals eating with an amazing ability to make the loudest slopping noises with their mouths (especially gross when you have it in stereo surround sound!). It sure is an experience!

Getting hold of good food on these journeys wasn’t easy, with the most basic of food you can imagine at the isolated places we stopped, most dishes often with very little and bad quality meat and having been left out for the flies to get. It was not appetizing! Even those ladies who would jump on board selling food along the roadside would sell barbequed chicken on a stick that looked like the poor chicken had been starved to death! So it was plain sticky rice for us on pretty much every bus journey. Though exceedingly tasteless it t kept hunger at bay for those lengthy journeys.

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Vientiane was a wash out as it rained every day for the three days we were there so didn’t get to check it out but did manage to find a good Thai restaurant which was like seeing an oasis in the desert compared to our food options over the previous couple of days!

We moved northwards to Vang Vieng, in hope that the weather would improve and we timed it right as we arrived there to beautiful sunshine! This time we took the VIP (tourist) bus which meant they only allowed enough people on to fill the seats which saved time and was less crammed but cost more than the regular bus.

We arrived along with all the other travellers to the town famed for ‘tubing’. We wern't sure what to expect especially as we were not drinking at this point in our trip (and everywhere we looked in town had signs for cheap booze and ‘happy’ pizzas). Not what we were looking for but we were curious about what this ‘tubing’ was all about. We saw lots of really young guys and girls (probably the same kids we saw back in Si Phan Don!) coming home at sunset covered in splashes of body paint, staggering through the town cross eyed, disorientated and usually bare foot and in their bikinis /swim shorts. It was a very interesting sight!

Despite us doing it booze free, we still spent a great afternoon floating down the Mekong river in our ‘tubes’ (giant lorry inner tubes), jumping in the river off swings and slides which were part of the various river-side bars along the way!

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J wasted no time in getting out of his tube to venture up the rickety wooden ladder to the top of the biggest swing on the river, making a dramatic splash into the water!

I was not quite so brave, opting for the less scary water slide. Embarrassingly, as I slid down it, gaining in speed I started to rotate as I came off it and went flying through the air sideways and sort of thigh flopped into the water (think belly flop but side on with my thigh!) OUCH! A beautiful purple bruise appeared on my leg shortly after the red blotches subsided! Apparently it was funny to watch so I guess it wasn’t all bad!

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While we were there we also did some caving and rock-climbing. The rock-climbing was the best though as you get to climb right next to the Mekong, where all the people tubing float past. It was especially great for J as it had been a while since he last climbed and it reignited his passion for it! A fantastic day out and one which we'll remember as a highlight of Laos.

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I have to say that the area around there is simply stunning, with beautiful limestone rocks jutting out as the Mekong river curls around it. It’s not something the people really talk about when they describe Vang Veing, but if you look past the loud bars dotted along the river banks and in the town, this part of Laos is really beautiful.

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North of Vang Vieng was Luang Prabang, a really picturesque town filled with French colonial architecture, lovely boutique style restaurants and shops, peaceful riverside restaurants and a daily night market. Upmarket and beautiful, Vang Vieng was quite a contrast from the poorer, rural parts of Laos.

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We took a tuk tuk to a nearby waterfall which we had heard was worth the visit, and we were not disappointed! With a large waterfall at the top, then cascading shimmering blue pools, it really was a slice of paradise!

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Conscience of that we had a flight on 29th to Malaysia, we decided to head back to Vientiane a couple of days early. Back in Vientiane, we took advantage of being in a capital (and this time without the rain) and enjoyed our time by renting bicycles and checking out the local area. We found out about a gym and pool not too far away and took advantage of the opportunity to do something active. It was a nice couple of days just pottering around on our bikes and a chilled out way to finish our Lao trip. All in all we enjoyed Lao, and though two weeks was enough for us, we were glad to have been able to do all the activities we did, especially the rock-climbing!

With that, it was time to get ready for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!

Posted by Eveness 01:55 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls laos vientiane luang_prabang tubing rockclimbing don_det vang_vieng si_phan_don bus_journeys sticky_rice thakhek don_khon somphamit Comments (0)

Cambodia...its been emotional!

Our journey through Siem Reap, Batambang and Phnom Penh

sunny 30 °C

We weren't even sure that we were going to go to Cambodia, or anywhere east of Thailand but it was during one of our many discussions about where to go and when, we decided to check it out so that we didn’t drop into Malaysia while their rains were still heavy. We had been reading a lot about Cambodia’s history and wanting to fully appreciate the country and its past, we both tried to absorb ourselves into it for this part of our trip. We could have just done the rounds on the sights here but Cambodia has been through so much in the last 40 years, so we decided to try to dig a bit deeper than that and learn what we could while we were there.

We got the bus from Bangkok over the boarder to Siem Reap and as we entered Cambodia we instantly saw the difference in countries. The boarder was a strange place. We had to get off our bus and walk from the Thai boarder control to the Cambodia boarder control; walking maybe 100 meters between them, where there were stalls selling duty free cigarettes and alcohol and there was even a casino there. The walk through ‘no mans land’ was verging on surreal as we approached the Cambodia side.

Across the boarder the buildings looked aged and dusty, the roads dirty and in disrepair. The streams of local people passing through the boarder looked very poor, many of them pushing by hand large wooden carts with various contents. No cars, trucks or even horses to help these heavy loads pass through; we saw some ridiculously heavily loaded carts with contents stacked five metres high swaying precariously as four or five people were practically breaking their backs to get them moving. We watched in wonder as they passed the menacing looking boarder guards who ushered them along impatiently. Immediately I sensed the authority and though wanted desperately to photograph this strange place I didn’t dare in case I was breaking a rule about photography at boarders (and I was not about to take any chances!). As we waited for our onward bus we observed how the local stalls set up just over the boarder were competing passionately for even the smallest piece of business, calling out to us to come look at their cheap drinks and snacks. It was amusing watching them spring into animated selling as each person walked past!

Once we got back on the bus and on our way, we noticed that the land in this part of Cambodia was very flat. For miles we travelled and we hardly saw any mountains or even hills. Coupled with the fact that it was the dry season so the paddy fields were dried up and the earth cracked and parched. All around we saw the land scorched where the farmers had burnt the fields following the end of their last rice crops. It was a bleak landscape and such a difference having come from the lush Thai Islands.

We travelled most of the day and arrived into Siem Reap late in the evening. Our guest house, 'The Mandalay Inn' was a Burmese ran place that was so helpful and friendly. Not the cheapest place in town but at $9 per night it was great value for money and well located so we were glad we chose it. J had started to come down with something on the journey over so our first nights exploration was limited to scouting for a place to eat dinner and then back to the hotel to get an early night. We quickly found the main drag; ‘Pub Street’ where there were young travellers enjoying the cheap beers and pumping music, but down the side streets we found a mix of smaller more relaxed upmarket looking restaurants and very European styled boutique shops. This, combined with the normal Asian street food night stalls on the fringes really made for quite a strange mix!

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But despite the slightly crass looking tourist bars, you could still see the blend of French architecture and Cambodian tradition. You could see the French influences everywhere with fantastic french baguettes, croissants and french wine in many places. You could almost forget where you were, sipping your drink at a restaurant a child amputee on crutches would ask you to buy postcards. We saw amputees of all ages, some begging, some playing music, each of them struggling to earn a living. It was hard to get my head around the fact that the thousands of undiscovered and unexploded landlines and bombs are still killing an injuring people of all ages today in Cambodia. It begs the question, how can a country move on from a horrific past when so many are still being affected by it?

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It was clear to see Cambodia’s poverty but at the same time, every corner of Siem Reap had charity projects, charity backed businesses and volunteer programs. Much of it was overseas investment to try and put back some of the education and wealth it had lost. Education being the lynch pin behind many of the initiatives now as during Pol Pots rule, anyone with an education was slaughtered and Cambodia had lost most of its doctors, professors, teachers, engineers etc…so many skills and knowledge had been lost which are essential to the country's recovery. Perhaps Cambodia’s government does not have the funds to provide this education back to the communities but at least it was encouraging to know that all sorts of people from large charities to individuals were putting something back into Cambodia’s children's future.

The following three days were pretty uneventful as we pretty much stayed put at the hotel as J got worse and then slowly better, and the only highlight of these few days was an unwelcome visitor to our room in the shape of a MASSIVE spider that was the size of my hand span! Even J looked more than a little scared at the sight of this beauty! I should point out that this picture makes it look positively small compared to how it looked in the flesh!

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When he was eventually feeling a bit more human we decided to take a moto/tuk tuk to the nearby landmine museum, which is ran by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier to educate people on the devastation caused by such devices. He himself was made a child soldier after his parents were killed. After laying thousands of landmines during war time, has dedicated his post war life to deactivating mines, some 50,000 so far, in a bid to counter the number of landmine victims still being injured or killed by unexploded devices left in Cambodia. It left us feeling mixed emotions about how so many Cambodians had to lose so many of the people they loved as a result of conflict but also the guilt from fighting in a war that claimed so many innocent lives.

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The following day we decided to do something a little more light hearted and cultural so set out to see the famous temples of Angkor. There are so many temples in and around the area, you could easily spend a week working your way around them all, but neither J nor I felt the need to see every single temple and besides that J was not yet 100% better so we decided to do one full day and see what we could in that day.

We started off at the former fortified city of Angkor Thom, 10sq km in size was built between 1181-1219. At its height, the city boasted 1 million at a time when London only 50,000 people!

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From there we moved on to see Bayon, a truly majestic temple with 54 gothic towers famously decorated with 216 faces of Avalokiteshavara (try saying that three times quickly!). These giant faces look down on you from every angle and are a breathtaking sight set amidst the background of the forest.

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From there we continued round to Ta Phrom, another great temple. This ancient Buddhist temple is even more stunning due to how the forest has enveloped the ruins, with the roots of trees and vines intertwined into the crumbing bricks making it a truly awesome place to visit.

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Roots of trees growing through the ruins of Ta Phrom

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To finish off our day we went to see the famous Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most famous temple and the largest religious structure in the world. It is the Khmer’s national symbol, a wonder of the world and a must if you are visiting the area. That said, both J and I felt that it was not nearly as impressive in comparison to the Taj Mahal!

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From Siem Reap, we decided to take the boat to Batambang; not the most direct route nor the quickest but it was an alternative way to get there and one that would allow us to see some of the riverside villages along the Tonle Sap lake and surrounding rivers. At first, the novelty of it was great but we had no idea what a long and slow journey it would be (8 hours by the time we finally got to Batambang). With the rivers being so low due to the dry season, we went at a snail pace for much of the journey and sitting in simple wooden benches left our backsides well and truly numb! This coupled with the loud din of the outboard engine, we were starting to ask ourselves why we it seemed like such a good idea to travel by boat! That aside, the journey gave us a great insight into some of the lives of Cambodians who settled by the riverside. Many of them living in very simple bamboo huts on the banks of the river and some of them floating on the river. We saw floating shops, floating schools; whole communities living their lives out on the water. Some of the huts looked so basic, some without four walls, it was difficult to imagine a family living in there but as we passed the various villages we were met with welcoming Khmer smiles and waves.

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Batambang; a busy little place with less of a touristy feel to it than Siem Reap. The town wasn’t much to look at but had a nice feel to it and the locals were friendly. We had been told that there was a place nearby infamously named ‘the killing caves’ where hundreds of people had been killed during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign. Apparently in a bid to save on the cost of bullets, they threw people down the mouth of a deep cave where their victims would fall to their death. Not your typical tourist attraction but Batambang had been so severely affected by this place in the late 70’s so we decided to pay it a visit. We took the long walk up the steep stairways up the hill and it was here that we befriended a local boy who helped to show us where to go.

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As we climbed the many steps up the side of the hill we took in the sights over Batambang. The cave had been turned into a place of remembrance after the end of Pol Pot’s terrible rule and a number of the broken skulls had been kept there for people to see. A number of local people from Batambang were killed in these caves, in fact our moto/tuk tuk driver lost both his parents to this cave and said that it was such a terrible thing to learn that they had lost their lives in this way. What can you say to someone who has experienced such loss as a young child? It really brought it home to me how many people in Cambodia still live with the scars of the Khmer Rouge’s cruel dictatorship.
Next to the cave, there was a small Buddhist temple and in there we got talking to a lovely monk who was there. A peaceful place, we spent a lot of time up there just talking and learning about how the monk had found his spirituality and changed his life. It was just nice hearing his story and talking about his work.

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The cave, now a place for locals to pay respects still houses the skulls and bones found there after the war and is marked by a Budhist shrine.

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On our way back from the cave and temple, our driver asked us if wanted to go on the bamboo train, a rickety train that once served at the local transport but now was mainly for tourists. The unique thing about this train (if you could call it that) is that it only had one line so if you came across another little bamboo train coming in the opposite direction, one of the trains would have to dismantle and hop off the line to let the other pass. We thought about it, but after seeing our friends photos, we didn’t feel a massive urge to sit on a plank of bamboo struts just to go a few hundred meters! This was one of the first signs of me and J becoming a bit more selective about what tourist attractions we’d take part in…I guess that comes with time! That said, we did ask our driver to take us to the disused railway station that used to be the towns main transport hub. This old station, what was left of it, consisted of rusty old lines and couple of battered looking carriages; but it gave the place a bit of a ghost town feel. As we explored the place, we found a number of poor families who had set home where the station once was with little Cambodian children running around happy to see some new faces and keen to get in a photograph. So many smiling faces, young and old greeted us as we explored the disused station.

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We were told that a new line was due to come through Batambang. A welcome development for the people of Batambang but no doubt but also an end to the old makeshift bamboo railway!

Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh, this time we took the bus!

Our first impressions of Phnom Penh was that it was a pretty hectic place, with more tuk tuk/ moto drivers than there were apparent customers (by the endless offers for a ride we gathered that business was perhaps a bit slow at that time!). The main riverside area had plenty of restaurants, many of them with western style dishes catering for tourists. It was a big difference compared to Batambang in that respect. The city was heaving with people and cars; far more than we had expected to see. The roads jammed with cars, vans, moto’s and even the odd elephant! It was a stark contrast to the surrounding areas and countryside of Cambodia, so much so it felt that Phnom Penh was very overpopulated.

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Our first evening was spent walking along the banks of the river as the sun was setting. As we approached the palace area we saw that right near the river there was some sort of religious celebration happening so we headed over to see what it was about. Incense and traditional music filled the air, people milled about buying small birds from bird sellers with small cages and went about releasing them into the air as they said a prayer. The atmosphere was spiritual as we just stood and observed all this as the sun dropped beyond the horizon.

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The architecture in Phnom Penh was a real mish-mash of styles and from what I had read, many of the traditional wooden houses had been destroyed in Pol Pot’s occupation of the city after 1975 so there was a feeling that this city could be anywhere with its many concrete hotels and shops. That said, you could still see glimpses of the traditional wooden houses here and there. We didn’t do much in the way of exploring the nightlife side of Phnom Penh but we did see evidence of sex tourism in some of the bars and restaurants we passed in the side streets off the river front which wasn’t very nice, especially as our first hotel was located right beside this. We found out about a lovely new hotel called Smiley Hotel about 10-15 mins away, tucked away from the main tourist area. We got ourselves a great room with cable TV, fridge, balcony and comfy bed for about 8 pounds! What a great deal! It was so nice to stay in something similar to European standards for a change (and not pay European prices)!

J and I got to talking about me doing some sort of focused photography project while we were there. I was already so moved by Cambodia’s ability to survive through the aftermath of extreme communist rule and mass genocide and so I decided that I would like to try and get in touch with people who were living with injuries sustained during Pol Pots rule or by the landmines left behind. This came in the form of a fantastic charity called Cambodia Trust. They had set up clinics in Cambodia in the early 90’s to reach out to people who were living with disabilities. Many of these people had lost their leg in landmines during and after the Khmer Rouges rule and had spent years house bound unable to get prosthetic limbs or physical rehabilitation.

Cambodia Trust give people custom made prosthetics and community support which for many have given them back their independence and confidence, enabling them to have a job, a home and to live as an active member of their community. Moved by the work that they had been doing and are still doing I requested an appointment to come to their Phnom Penh clinic to talk to them and their clients. J and I spent a whole day there meeting people and learning about their stories. These personal memories were told without hesitation and their openness really moved us. We took photographs of them and their injuries so that this would give the charity access to new photographs for them to use on their promotional material and a promise from us that we would use the photo’s to tell their story once we got back in the UK. An unusual thing to do I know, but it was for me one of the most humbling aspects of our time there.

Outside of the photography project, in the few days we were waiting for our appointment, we checked out Phnom Penh. We spent our days checking out the local area and found a local gym a few minutes from our hotel. Keen to try it out we discovered that this gym, though old and somewhat battered only cost the equivalent of about 18p per day to go. OK, so the exercise bikes had broken peddles and everything was well on its way out, but for a few pennies it was sufficient; besides it was funny being the only westerner in there with all the locals doing their work outs in jeans and flip flops!

By contrast, we did however find a really plush gym not too far away which was about 15 pounds a day to go. This gym though was as nice as any premium London gym and had state of the art equipment, sauna, steam and a lovely outdoor pool and sun lounge area. Although we were keeping to a tight backpackers budget, we decided to have a treat day in honour of it being international women's day (J was my honorary girlie mate for the day) so headed up to the plush gym for a posh work out and leisurely swim in the pool! From there we did a spot of shopping in a designer department store where I bought a pair of last season’s Gucci shades for the equivalent of 40 pounds! (Only to lose them 4 weeks later in Malaysia…what a complete fool!) and we finished off the day with us both having a pedicure and foot scrub. And yes and J loved every bit of it too!

Before we left Phnom Penh, we visited the infamous killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). Formerly a children's high school, it was converted into a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge and it is estimated that 20,000 prisoners lost their lives here or were transferred to the killing fields to be bludgeoned to death or left half alive to die in the open graves they were thrown into. It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking into one of the interrogation rooms, which still bear the blood stains on the floor and the metal beds they were tied to.

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Our time in Cambodia had been a real learning experience. We had stayed away from the party scene and tried to embrace what we could of Cambodia’s culture. The kindness and friendliness of this nation touched us as soon as we got there and stayed with us for the whole visit and though the sadness of their past struck us deeply; we will always remember their smiles and determination for a better future.

Posted by Eveness 07:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged fields cambodia phnom_penh caves siem_reap war killing communist landmine pol_pot batambang khmer_rouge land_mine_museum Comments (0)

Thailand...a busy few weeks!

sunny 32 °C

Our flight to Bangkok went like a dream and we landed in the early hours of the morning sleepy but excited to see a new country and experience a different culture!

Coming out of the airport was like a shock to the system. So accustomed to India, jumping into a modern, plush metered cab was strange to us. It was about 5am and as the city slept we gazed out the window of our taxi as we noted the smoothness of the roads, contemporary buildings and bright lights. We headed to the famous Khao San Road (famous for its backpacker hotels and loud bars) in search of a place to call home for a few days. As we made our way down this famous road, rucksacks on our backs, sleepy eyed and tired, there were a handful of bars still open and a few hardcore party goers still larging it and dancing in the street!

I immediately realised why this place was so well known amongst fellow travellers; the whole street is geared up for the backpacking, beer drinking, party going backpacking people, with numerous bars, hotels, currency exchange kiosks, and street stalls selling knock off designer gear and beer branded t-shirts! That said, at 5am, the only thing we wanted was to get our heads down for some sleep!

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Over the course of a few days, I started to discover what Bangkok is all about. J having been here many times before, set about showing me around, taking me to the key places and introducing me to my very first whisky bucket. That was my Bangkok baptism of fire day!

We befriended some local Thai's who ran a small street bar, this led to them doubling the strength of our whiskey buckets of which there were many and later a group of us piling into a tuk tuk heading in the direction of Patpong! The latter half of the night was a bit of a blur but I do recall the tuk tuk ride home as a bit of a white knuckle ride with the driver doing wheelies along the road as the flashing lights in the interior of his tuk tuk mesmerized me through my whisky bucket haze! A great night out, a hangover from hell and a lesson learned about the hidden strength of those whisky buckets!

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Being in Bangkok was a sensory overload! Bangkok was filled to the brim with super modern shopping malls in Siam, the streets everywhere bustling with people, street food vendors whipping up Pad Thai, colourful tuk tuks and day glow coloured taxis. Bangkok had a great buzz to it and I loved it!

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We did the obligatory tour of the Grand Palace which was so beautiful with all its grandeur and opulence. It was such a difference from the sort of architecture we had seen in India; everything glittering and shimmering in the sunshine.

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Next, we checked out Wat Po, a famous temple with its giant gold reclining Buddha.

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Wat Po, aside from its temple status is also famous for it being the mecca of traditional Thai massage; we decided that this was a good place for me to have my first Thai massage. I thought I knew what to expect and was really looking forward to it.

At first it all seemed to be going swimmingly; lots of pulling, stretching and kneading, but when the lady came around my back as if to perform the Heimlich maneuver I did wonder what was to come next. A few seconds later, as she hooks her arms under my arm pits, swings my whole torso swiftly to the right the sound of my entire backbone clicking fills the room! I let out a scream from the shock; nobody told me that was going to happen! Before I knew it, she then swung me to the left and pop, pop, pop there goes my spine again! Wow! Double shock.
My reaction to which was to start laughing nervously (I do that with pain...dont ask me why!) I have a pet hate of the sound of people even cracking their knuckles (it goes right threw me!) and so this to me was like that but in super technicolour! What had started off as a nice relaxing massage had somehow turned into a white knuckle ride and before the ride was over however, she managed to get hold of my head and give that a good old swing too; yes left AND right and the sound of my neck cracking filled my ears as I was suddenly desperate for this experience to end.

Thankfully it did end shortly after and trying not to seem ungrateful I thanked her, paid her and got out of there pronto! I make it sound like hell, it really wasn’t but to me cracking bones has the same effect on me as someone scratching their nails on a school blackboard; it makes me feel funny! So if you like a good bone crack, then Thai massage is the one for you!

Before we left J took me to see Chatuchak weekend market (apparently the biggest market in Thailand and I'd believe that too!). A bus journey away, we arrived to see masses of people swarming in and out. The market had everything you could imagine. Hundreds of stalls selling all sorts like clothes, shoes, shades, belts, lamps, jewelry, furniture, traditional crafts, original pieces of art…you name it! Lots of stalls had stuff that was handmade and if we had room in our backpacks I would have had a field day in there! Well worth a look in if you are ever heading home via Bangkok!

While we were in Bangkok, we fell upon a major demonstration by Independence monument. At first we couldn’t work out what it was all about, but as we waded through the sea of people wearing red shirts the penny started to drop. For as far as the eye could see there were people filling every square inch; there must have been tens of thousands of people there. Everyone there was wearing red, some with banners, and some with slogans on their red t-shirts. We stopped at one place where they had set up a stand. It was here that we saw photographs of a previous demonstration with people who had been injured and killed, lying bleeding on the floor, some already dead. The stand was appealing for the justice of those who had died there in the violence (90 people…last year) and for the release of a group of anti-government protesters.
I wasnt sure at the time if it was appropriate to photograph there so for the purposes of this, I have found a photo on-line to illustrate.
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We realised that this was probably not the best place for us to be, particularly as there had been trouble at these demonstrations before and with the sheer volume of people and the fact that many were drinking heavily, we felt that it would have made for a dangerous place if this turned violent. Keen to get out of there quickly, we realised that there was no quick way out and we had no choice but to wade slowly through the crowds until we found a way through. It took us about 20 minutes to reach a clearing and though the demonstration was peaceful and in actually in most parts we saw people smiling and singing, we knew that it was good to get away. As our luck would have it, this was not the only time we found ourselves wading through a red shirt demonstration; having come back through Bangkok again later in our Thailand trip, it happened again!

So after our first stop in Bangkok we headed north and spent a few days in Chaing Mai where we did a Thai cooking course which showed us how to make Pad Thai, Red curry, Penang curry amongst other Thai dishes. A fun day learning to cook some seriously good food! First we took a trip to the local food markets to check out all the fresh foods, followed by some serious chopping and cooking!

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I found Chaing Mai to be a chilled place with a far more relaxed place compared to Bangkok. It is also where many travellers then head out on various treks in the surrounding regions but we didn’t fancy that as J had done this a few years before and mentioned that his trek to the ‘authentic’ tribal villages had been a bit of a non-event when he got there to find that the traditional wear the kids in the tribe wore consisted of a Manchester United football shirt. We did however find out about a great place for traditional wood carvings, about 20-30km from Chaing Mai where we bought and sent home two beautiful wall carvings for our flat back in London.

We were going to head to Sukhothai to check out the ancient temple ruins but opted instead to check out Kamphaeng Phet as this was the lesser known of the two sites so a little less foreigners milling about. Beautiful crumbling Buddha’s in peaceful surroundings, it made for a lovely relaxing day.

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The town of Kamphaeng Phet had little to see or do and there was a simple town with a smattering of local restaurants’. With little going on we grabbed dinner and started to walk back to our guest house. On the way back however we saw a little place with blacked out windows with music coming from within. Curious to know if there was any fun to be had in this quiet town we ventured inside. Call it naivety if you will, but it took a few minutes to work out that we had just stepped into a karaoke bar where every male guest gets his very own female host. Aside from the fact that as a couple we stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the typical male only clientele, we had a fun night chatting away to our host and applauded her efforts at karaoke!

From there we knew we wanted to head towards the islands, but east coast or west coast first? Decisions decisions! We heard that Ko Tao was one of the cheapest places in the world to get the PADI diving qualification so we decided that if we did that sooner rather than later, it might open up some diving opportunities later on, so that made up our mind and we headed to the east coast and over to Ko Tao.
Ko Tao was four days of diving and that was about all. We felt that the place was a little overrun by really young backpackers (man, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it!) and being surrounded by loud bars with pumping music into the early hours wasn’t the vibe we were looking for, so we got down to the business of getting qualified.

Ours was a small group of four; me and J and a lovely couple Dylan and Liv who were also taking some time out to do some travelling around Asia. Our first lesson, in a swimming pool taught us the basics of breathing using the gear and the signs to use underwater. So far so good! Though after three hours in a tepid swimming pool on an overcast day had us all shivering like nobody’s business and we were glad to get back into dry clothes!

Day two, some class work in the morning swatting up on the theory stuff and then in the afternoon we went out on the boat and did our first real dive!

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With mild nerves and a whole bag of excitement, we each plunged into the water with our masks on, air supply strapped to our back and our fins on our feet, looking like the real deal!

At first, the feeling of breathing through the regulator (the contraption you pop in your mouth) was just plain odd and at first found myself breathing quickly and a bit panicky. As we descended down the anchor rope popping my ears to try and regulate the pressure, the peacefulness of the water and the little fish near the surface helped to calm my breathing and before I knew it, it didn’t feel so strange at all.

As we descended deeper, all I could hear was the sound of my regulator taking in air (sounded a bit like darth vador in star wars!) and the bubbles leaving it as I breathed out; it felt almost surreal but so calming seeing the fish swim around my goggles…it was incredible! J looked in his element too, exploring the coral and marine life around him. That said, the waters were heavily populated with little jellyfish and no matter how hard we tried to avoid them, their long tentacles stung every bit of exposed skin including our faces! Thankfully as we descended deeper the jelly fish thinned out, but by the next day I was covered in red itchy welts where I had been stung (strangely J didn’t have that reaction).

Coming back up, that first dive site was in choppy waters and where we came up was a fair old swim back to the boat. Tired from the dive and me not being a very strong swimmer, I found the swim back difficult and as I grew weaker I started to panic when I saw that I was on my own as nearly everyone was back at the boat. Thankfully Dylan and Liv realised I was struggling and came back to help me. It was a bit embarrassing getting a tow back to the boat (especially as I also managed to get cramp in my foot just as I was trying to get out of the water) but I was just glad to make it back. Despite that set back, I got right back in there for the remaining dives and by the end of the four day course and four dives under our belt, we both were hooked and knew that we’d be diving again soon. A great experience and one that we celabrated with a cheeky drink with our diving pals!

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Next stop, Koh Phangan. Known for its full moon parties, we decided to see what the island was like when it wasn’t full moon. The boat trip over was a soggy affair as dark clouds came in, the heavens opened up and the rain came down. We docked at the main area (Haad Rin) but decided not to stay there to avoid the main tourist beach. So we took a tuk tuk to the north west part of the island to a beach called Had Mae Had. Being a gloomy day, the beach was a wash out which was a shame as the beach itself was lovely with a little sand bar leading to a small island just off the main beach. The beach was chilled with only maybe three resorts of beach bungalows. We stayed in the one at the far north of the beach nearest the sand bar where we had a beautiful view.

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Now it was just a case of waiting to see if the weather improved. We had one glorious day, and the beach was stunning on that day. It lifted our spirits no end but we soon came to realise that the few people staying on this beach were middle aged families with kids; no backpackers in sight. Despite it being a beautiful beach, it just had no vibe and with the rains returning in full force the following day, we decided that we would move on in search of better weather!

So with that in mind, we skipped overland to get to the west coast! We picked Ko Lanta as neither of us had been there before and it sounded good in the guide book. As our journey progressed the weather started to really improve and we were in great form!

We found a lovely little bay just south of long beach called Relaxed Bay. It was very pretty and we decided that this would be a good place to plot up for a while. We managed to find a very basic but clean wooden beach bungalow for 500 baht a night and was happy enough with that and to top it off there was a cool beach bar with young backpackers’ right where we were staying. We thought we’d found the right vibe in the right location. Perfect…or maybe not.

The bar was laid back with good tunes and even the token fire dancing guy! The only problem was the guys running it had a sound system that could have been big enough for the O2 arena! The bass line was booming every night until 5am and our lovely beach hut was only yards away. Sleep? No sir, that was not an option. We were gutted...especially as the place just next to us (a chilled out restauraunt and basic beach hut place called Strandbaren) had the most AMAZING Thai chef! So after 4 sleepless nights, the bags on our eyes were bigger than the weekly shop at Sainsburys! So with no possibility of escaping the endless noise we had to leave.

We thought that we had found a good alternative, about 10 minutes away in a place that had these beautiful but pricier huts further up the beach. With thatched roofs, they looked like mini hay barns and these were set back from the beach so we were encouraged by the temptation of a good night sleep ahead of us!

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Very picturesque but what I didn’t foresee was the necessity to be at one with nature if staying in one of them. I was ok about the fact that the gaps in the floor boards were big enough for any large insect to crawl through. I was even ok with the fact that the windows in our little barn had no glass so were just open spaces…and would let in the mozzies at night (we had a large mozzie net after all so we’d manage). But I couldn’t have foreseen that with a thatched roof, comes little things that make their home in the hay which I started to get a bit squirmy over and in my state of extreme tiredness my imagination ran wild and J woke up in the middle of the night to find me on the verge of tears mumbling something about bugs falling from the thatched roof onto the bed. He didn’t look too impressed about his sleep being disturbed yet again and basically told me to pull myself together and go to sleep. It’s funny when I look back now, but at that moment it didn’t seem funny at all!

The next stop on our Thai tour took us to the region of Trang Islands. This is a group of islands on the far south west coast of Thailand and were seriously stunning! The most beautiful group of islands we had seen yet. Even on the boat approaching Ko Muk, we were blown away by the amazing limestone islands jutting out of the crystal clear blue/green tropical waters.

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It was picture perfect! Ko Muk itself was a tiny little island with the main bay with only two bungalow resorts on the main beach and a couple of other cheaper options further up the hill in the jungle. A bit pricier than Ko Lanta, Ko Muk was much quieter and more relaxing. The island seemed to cater for a mix of people, some of which were families taking a two week break, as well as the odd backpacker. The vibe was chilled and besides the fishing village on the other side there wasn’t much else going on.

The bungalow we chose was basic but a great location and great view. Ours was one of only two that were concrete built so we thought that this would keep the bugs out. An ambitious notion and one that was unfounded. The first morning, as I made my way to the bathroom, still sleepy and hazy I plonked myself on the loo. In a flash, I saw a big (and FAST) spider run around the lip of the toilet bowl, only out of sight as it passed under my legs! As I screamed and leapt up mid flow (sorry but its true), the spider managed to jump from the loo to the side of the sink. Not only was he quick but he could jump too! Too much for me to comprehend so early in the morning, it was left to J who had been woken by the sound of my surprised squeal to deal with the matter (which he did thankfully!). Aside from that, there were no further bug related incidents there! (Phew!)

The food here was simple but good and besides the nightly beach BBQ, we found ourselves hooked on the local Thai rice soup. It was at one of the local restaurants that we discovered this cheeky little monkey (the restaurant’s pet) who seemed to take a real liking to me!

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We had read that round the side of the island of Ko Muk, there was a hidden sea cave that opens out to a beautiful little lagoon with its own beach which legend says was used by pirates to hide their stolen treasures, so we knew we had to check it out. Accessible only by sea, there were various day trips we could join that would take us there but we had heard that it spoils the experience as they pile 50+ people into this small lagoon. So we decided that we would hire a kayak and time it so that we got there after the day trippers had been and gone.

We paddled our way around to the entrance of the cave, which took about 40 minutes, tied up the kayak and started to swim through into the darkness. As we swam deeper into the entrance we saw that there were two small tunnels, both pitch black. If we had a waterproof torch we could have taken our chances but in the absence of any source of light we were worried that we’d end up lost and chickened out on going any further. So now we just had to wait by the entrance of the cave and hope that someone else also had the idea of coming later in the day.

Our luck was in as five minutes later we saw a group of four come along on a small boat, once of which was a local with a head torch! They were happy enough for us to tag along as they navigated through the darkness of the tunnel, which as it turned out was about 50 metres long. Together we swam with the little torch guiding our way, in hopeful expectation. As we made our way round the corner we were taken aback by the stunning beauty that unfolded before us. Wading through from the darkness of the cave, we observed the beautiful green vegetation growing up the jagged walls of the cave, all the trees and vines brightly lit by the sunlight that shone through from the opening at the top, some 50 metres above us and the light dancing on the lapping water as it hit the little sandy beach before us. It was stunning!

I had to pinch this from google as we didnt have a waterproof bag or camera with us!
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Back on Ko Muk, we discovered a great little diving company called ‘Chilled out divers’. Aside from the cool name, the guys that worked there were really friendly and had a wealth of knowledge of the local dive sites and before we knew it were booked ourselves onto a day trip to go diving to a place called Ko Rock. Over a few beers we got introduced to the rest of our group that would be coming out with us the following day. A great mix of personalities and genuinely nice chatty people, we were really looking forward to it.

The following morning we set out on their traditional Thai long tail boat, with all the diving gear ready to go. The journey to Ko Rock would take us an hour or two, so we spent the time chatting to our group and getting to know them. Margaret and Louis and their friends from Portugal, and Claire and Rob from the UK were all very well travelled and the time flew as we talked about various places in world.

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Once at the dive site, we all strapped on our gear and got ready to start our dive. So much more relaxed than when we had done our course, no skills training to do or new things to remember, it was a simple case of getting in there and just enjoying it. As soon as we descended into the water we knew we were in for a treat. The water was amazing with great visibility and schools of brightly coloured fish all around us as we swam down. Coral reefs that were full of life and colour, we could get up close to see so many things; graceful hawsbill turtles, moray eels, lion fish, cornet fish, sea stars, and clown fish to name a few! It was a technicolour of sea life and it was nothing short of amazing!

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To rest for lunch, we brought the boat round to the beach on Ko Rok where we sat and enjoyed some food and snorkeled round the shallow bay. In a clearing just behind the beach we saw three big monitor lizards that seemed to be enjoying each other’s company and obviously not bothered by us spectators. Amazing creatures!

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We had heard from Margaret and Louis (who were on our diving trip) that the island directly opposite Ko Muk, called Ko Kradan had a beautiful beach and was well worth checking out. We weren’t due to get back on the road for a few days, so we decided to jump on a long tail boat and go check it out too.

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We got a bungalow set back from the beach set in a lovely garden. We shared our bungalow with a mysterious gecko (who we never saw but he always left evidence of his visits by leaving his little gecko poo trails behind) and a cute but shy little frog who would come into our bathroom at night.
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In addition to their accommodation, this place was also famed for their American style cheese burgers! (The divers in Ko Muk would often come over just to eat dinner there!) And after five months in Asia eating traditional Asian food; the odd occasion where you can get western food done properly was always worth a try and we were not disappointed!
We stayed there two nights but had to move for our last night as they had booked out our room to another guest (we weren’t best pleased about that one as they sprung it on us at the very last moment!), so we went down to stay in the beach bungalows that Margaret and Louis were staying in. At 1500 baht a night (about 30 pounds), this was the most we had paid for a beach bungalow and though not big bungalows, these were what I would call more upmarket than the average bungalow, with comfy and clean beds, almost hotel style bathroom and French doors to a balcony to a sea view. A nice treat for one night and as it was valentine’s day too so we decided that it was worth it. Ko Kradan was worth the hype. It had the most beautiful beach of all the islands we had stayed in and it wasn’t overdeveloped, though this was not so much a backpackers' island in my opinion (perhaps more of a ‘flashpackers’ place?). Though you could find some cheaper places to stay, many were fairly upmarket and some of the beachside bungalows were verging on opulent with a couple of the restaurants attached to them were serving very expensive food and wine.

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While we were on Ko Kraden, we learned that it was also famous for its Valentine ’s Day diver’s weddings. Apparently each year, a bunch of people don their diving gear and say their wedding vows under water. We hoped that we could observe this crazy concept from the side of the beach but we missed them. What a shame…I was curious to see if the bride was dressed in white! Talking of Valentine’s Day, Margaret left a little present on our balcony, some lovely perfume and creams. It was such a lovely gesture and I was over the moon to have some perfume (as mine had run out a long time before that!)

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The next day, we said goodbye to Margaret and Louis and headed back to the main land to the town of Trang. A little bustling Thai town a few kilometres from the coast, this little place had very little in the way of tourist sights but had a nice feel to it. The people of Trang were really very friendly, the kind of Thai friendliness that both J and I remembered from our previous visits to Thailand some 8-10 years ago. In Trang, we felt that we were given a very warm and genuine welcome. People wore that famous Thai smile and were keen to help us find our way. It really put a spring in our step!

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We decided to venture afield and got talking to a helpful lady who told us about Le Khao Kop Cave that were about 40km away. In this cave we could see stalactites and stalagmites and would pass through small tunnels in a little boat. It sounded interesting so we hired a scooter and decided to check it out. The ride along the highway was so windy, we were holding on to our helmets! Coupled with the fact that this place was not easy to find, we were glad when we finally found the place! Our hard work was rewarded though, as we got on board the little fiberglass boat, we were taken into the beautiful cave where we saw the various shapes that the stalactites and stalagmite’s had created. As we got to the final part of the tour the tour guide told us to lay flat on the floor of our little boat as we ventured into this small tunnel deep within the cave. It seemed to go on and on, getting tighter and tighter as we went. At one point we had to turn our faces to the side and breathe in just to get past some of the tight spots! It’s funny now but there were a couple of times when the boat got stuck and I did wonder if we were going to make it out of there at all!

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That night we too the overnight train to Bangkok, having booked the AC sleeper. Wow, what a nice way to travel! We had plenty of experience doing sleeper trains in India but this was so much nicer compared. The cabins were clean, the bunk beds really clean and comfortable and best of all, there was a dining carriage that served hot food and cold beer. The dining carriage was ace! The waiters and waitresses were dancing to the music which was kicking out of big speakers, serving people with beers, whisky and various Thai dishes. What a stark contrast to the Indian trains! You couldn’t help but smile and join in on the fun!

Our time in Thailand had come to a close, six weeks had passed quickly and we had undoubtedly seen some of the most beautiful beaches and incredible natural beauty, but a part of us compared our time with the previous trips to Thailand and longed to go back to the time when you could easily find your own slice of untouched paradise. A time when backpacking was cheap and it was easy to find like-minded travelers. Thailand will always be beautiful and special, but we could see how many places have over time had changed through mass tourism and we felt a tinge of sadness as we said our goodbyes.

Posted by Eveness 05:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches trains islands cities diving thailand bangkok cooking chaing_mai monitor_lizzard koh_rok emerald_cave Comments (1)

North India - The whistlestop tour of the golden triangle

Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur...from warmth to bitter cold and men who sells zips on trains!

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

So with a heavy heart we left our friends in Goa...back to Margao train station to face the normal chaos we had grown accustomed to when travelling in India. Thankfully we already had our ticket but as soon as we arrived, we realised that our train was showing as 4 hours late...wounder!!!

Our attempts to get Dave onto our train were unsuccessful so we said goodbye to Dave who was on the next train after ours and agreed to meet up at the other end. Our train finally comes and we fight through the crowds, dodge the families with what looks like their entire worldly belongings set out on the platform and weave through the food hawkers and bundle ourselves onto our designated coach...and we're on! Phew! So far so good!

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Settled in our cabin this would be home for the next 28 hours...or maybe not! Somewhere along the route, I'm not sure at which point, it seemed that everyone knew that this 'express' train was no longer going to be doing much in the way of expressing itself to Delhi. I'm still flummoxed as to how they knew (as there was no announcement to say so) but they did; every Indian on that train knew though nobody could tell us how much of a delay we could expect! We had no idea how long this train journey would end up taking so we had no choice but to just accept that it will take as long as it takes!

Our train cabin 'roomies' were an older Indian couple, who spoke very little English so despite a couple of confused attempts at making chit chat, conversation was a little thin on the ground which was a real shame especially as this was becoming an epic journey! And in fact, come to think of it, they didn’t talk to each other all that often either, nor did they read a book or occupy themselves with anything. They simply sat and chilled, ate or slept. Staggering! They must have been bored to tears!

But come to think of it, in nearly every train journey we had taken in our time in India, it was very rare to see the locals entertaining themselves with books or papers. They seemed to have an amazing ability to just sit and be still no matter what length of journey!

As we headed further north, the landscape started to change. We noticed fields that reminded us of England and we noticed areas which had denser populations and families literally living next to the tracks in small one room houses, some of them in no more than a simple shack. As we got closer and closer to Delhi, we saw that people seemed to be dressed in heavier clothes; we knew that it was colder in the northern areas but nothing prepared us for the reality of it. By the time we were getting ready for our 2nd night’s sleep on the train, our cabin started to get really cold and we were rubbing our hands to keep warm (Dave was in a train just behind us and he said that the non AC train was even colder due to all the windows not shutting properly and him not having any blanket! He actually lost the feeling in his feet during his journey!).

We were about 30 hours into the journey and naturally by then we were starting to get a bit of cabin fever. Our eyes had gone blurry from hours upon hours reading of our books and we were running out of movie on the netbook (I think we'd have gone stir crazy without the movies!) ; even conversation was starting to running dry...we surely hadn’t got long to go now?!?!??
Time seemed to stand still for a long time, and after a 2nd night on the train, over 2000 miles covered, and if you count the initial 4 hour delay...it was nearly 40 hours later when we finally stepped off our train in Delhi!

We arrived into Delhi at about 7am as the day was just beginning. As we stepped off the train we were hit by the cold like a slap in the face! It was FREEZING!!! We were a few kilometers from where we needed to be so it was a taxi or a rickshaw ride away. With the cold biting away at us we were intent on getting a taxi with 4 doors to keep the cold at bay but it was not to be so we piled our backpacks into a little open sided rickshaw and braved the elements! It was a low point in our Indian rickshaw experiences to say the least! We had trousers on and long sleeved tops but nothing like what the temperatures required and still donning our flip flops the cold numbed our sad little exposed toes in minutes!

So got to the main bazaar street to where most of the backpacker hotels were and tried to find a room. Thankfully we found one without too much difficulty and to look at it was pure luxury compared to anything else we had stayed in in India, but like us it was not quite so equipped for the cold and didn’t have any heaters. Favouring a quality mattress and upmarket décor we simply decided that we would don some elaborous sleep wear at night. It was not a pretty sight I can tell you! (both of us opting to be fully clothed, me donning two pairs of trousers and hat and gloves to bed!). We soon warmed up and the joy of having a big and soft mattress made it all worthwhile!

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We had a couple of days in Delhi before we were due to meet up with Dave and Suza to head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which gave us time to apply for our tourist visa for Thailand so we spent our time taking in some sights around Connaught Square and doing some shopping. Being back in a bustling Indian city after such a long time in Goa was a rush to the senses and seeing the bustling market stalls and rickshaws flying past was like seeing an old friend (perhaps as we knew it was our last week in India it made us a little nostalgic too). People had warned us about Delhi saying it would be a shock, but for us it wasn’t so. I think once we had come through Mumbai back in September and seen many chaotic towns and cities along our travels, this was no big deal. In fact, parts of the city such as Connaught Square with grand colonial style buildings, expensive restaurants and the little park in the centre we really liked!

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Soon it was time to head to Agra. We agreed to try and get the 11:30am train from New Delhi train station and to meet Dave and Suza on the platform. We got there ready for the journey, wrapped up in as much clothing as possible. I felt a bit like a stuffed toy but determined not to let the cold dampen my excitement of seeing one of the wonders of the world. The journey wasn’t supposed to take too long but again once onboard we experienced delays and to make things worse, as we got closer to our destination, it got colder still. But we kept our spirits up as J and I spent the time getting acquainted with Suza.
As per the normal rule of thumb on the trains, we had a plethora of chai and coffee wallers coming up and down the train, people selling samosas, veg cutlets, biryani’s, crisps, biscuits, water, cans of coke, sprite….and even a few people trying to sell us zips. Yes, zips! A very niche market but these guys would have every size zip you could imagine! Not the whole zip though, just the bit that goes up and down. The zip man looked at each of us and pointed out any old looking zip on a jacket or bag and suggested that it needed replacing. 10 out of 10 for originality, but I didn’t see him make any sales, poor bloke!
We eventually rolled up at Agra in the afternoon, again the train having been delayed on route and we went in search of a room. We had heard that Agra wasn’t much to look at and as we walked through the town, we could see why. For a place which has such an amazing sight as the Taj Mahal, the surrounding town was a bit of a hole!

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The guest houses were also pretty basic and pretty cold too but we got something that was clean and with a hot shower though again we found that it was impossible to get a room with heating. It was getting so cold now that were wearing practically everything we could get on. Five layers of clothes and still the cold was getting through! We really couldn’t believe our bad luck and was astonished as to how cold it was. The restaurants were mainly outdoors but thankfully ours had a little fire lit to keep us warm when we ate and even better they had Galaxy branded hot chocolate which went down a treat! Result!

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We asked the locals if these temperatures were normal and they said that every year from during the first two weeks of Jan, they have a very cold spell after which time it goes back to reasonable temperatures where you can wear simply a t-shirt or shirt. It was just our luck that we were travelling the north from 5th to 11th Jan (or perhaps just terrible planning on our part)!

So that evening we kept it simple and decided that a rickshaw to our chosen restaurant would be all the wandering about we wanted to do. The restaurant was recommended in our guide book but a few kilometres away so it meant another freezing rickshaw ride! All four of us piled in (j up front with the driver) we headed off. As the rickshaw gained speed the wind really started coming in hard on our faces, coupled with the heavy blanket of mist which made visibility almost impossible; we started to wonder if this was such a good idea! Thankfully our rickshaw driver knew the roads like the back of his hand and got us there in one piece! And despite the numbness in our hands and feet, the trip was worth it as the food that night was really good and well worth going out of our way to get there.

That night it was a challenge to keep warm in bed and again wrapped up for the long cold night ahead! It was becoming a source of humour as we’d be once again donning our hats and gloves for bedtime!

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The next morning, hesitant that the fog and mist would make our visit to the Taj Mahal a disappointment, we decided to not go there too early and hope the skies would clear. Decked out in our multiple layers we took the short walk to the entrance. Looking around for where to purchase tickets, we discovered that the ticket office was some 2km up the road. Why they decided that was a good idea I’ll never know! So bemused, we all made the journey up the road to get our tickets. The only good thing of it being that it got the blood circulating and I think for a moment there I actually started to get some feeling back in my toes! Thankfully the way back was made easier by the free electric bus they had to ferry customers back to the gates and grateful for this small mercy we hopped on!

We agreed for a local guy to be our tour guide, a humorous chap who was quite likeable. Once through the gates, and the Taj was in view we saw that it was shrouded by mist, we were a little disappointed but our guide continued on giving us various snippets of interesting information such as:

  • The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal after she died in childbirth with their 14th child.
  • Apart from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
  • The Taj Mahal build costs in today’s money about US $100 million. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to complete. The grave of Mumtaz Mahal is located at the lower chamber, while the grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later.
  • Four minarets rising to a height of 162.5 feet surround the 213 feet high central dome.
  • The four minarets of the Taj Mahal were built at a 2-degree angle so that in the face of any natural calamity like earthquake the minarets surrounding the dome would not fall and destroy the dome but would fall away from it.

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By the time we walked halfway through the beautiful gardens of the Taj, the skies cleared up and before us was the glistening white structure in all its glory with beautiful blue skies behind it. Glimmering in the sun, it stopped us all in our tracks; amazed and in awe. This was certainly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and would totally recommend anyone to go and see it. Well worth the entrance fee!

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We felt glad we had made the effort to visit and afterwards while munching on some tasty samosas from a street vendor we headed to ‘Happy Day coffee Day’ shops (J's favourite coffee shop!) to get some tea and coffee to warm us up. It was just outside there that I bought a little key ring from a local boy who was making silly faces through the window, including his personal favourite pose the 'inside out eyelid pose'. That alone was worth a souvenir purchase!

With no time to loose (and no reason to stick around in Agra) it was back to the train station once again to get the train to Jaipur. Again, more delays (which was apparently due to the cold and mist) we stood on the cold platform while sun set. We waited on the platform, getting progressively colder as the minutes turned to hours; our hope and circulation draining away with each passing minute. We met another couple from Norway on the platform and befriended them. They had not long started their India journey and were somewhat shell shocked at their experience so far…a feeling I remember only too well when we first got to India! So we invited them to stick with us as we waited patiently and it chatting to them helped the time to pass. We also made friends with a little Indian girl of maybe 8 or 9 who was clearly a street child, giving her what sweets and snacks we had and any loose change. Wearing a raggedy dress and no shoes, she was upbeat and skipping about despite the bitter cold.

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Eventually our train did come and we hopped on and found a carriage and in the process met a lovely young Australian girl who was travelling solo. At only 18 years old I was impressed with her courage, but I suspected that it was more her sweetness and naivety which made it easier for her. With her tales of endless male attention and invites to drink chai and swap numbers we could see that it was water off a ducks back to her. We’d heard many a story from other lone female travellers about being harassed and groped and we worried about her and tried to warn her to be a little more cautious. Anyway for this trip, we all had each other which was good because a 4 hour journey turned into 6 and with the onset of night, the temperatures dropped again and we were huddled up to each other to try and keep warm. Everyone shared stories, played cards while also sharing snacks, spare jumpers, scarves and the sleeping bag which we draped across everyone. And as the night wore on and we got progressivley colder and more hungry, we realised that this was the first time we’d been on an Indian train but had seen no chai wallers or food wallers. It broke all the laws of Indian train transportation!!! Having had no dinner, we were all starving so when we pulled into a station, the lads all jumped off the train in a mad dash to find some sort of food for us. Not knowing how long they had, it was a race against time but they came back with an assortment of snacks for the group just as the train started to pull out of the station! They guys were legands that night! What should have been a miserable journey turned out to be a good laugh and one which we'll always remember fondly.

We arrived into Jaipur at about 3am and we all said our goodbyes to our Auzzie friend who was staying on. So me, J, Dave, Suza and our two new Norwegian friends made our way out of the train station. Opting to walk rather than get a rickshaw (not sure why we did that…I really don’t!) we started to walk towards the road which we read had a few hotels. The walk, though not really far felt much further, perhaps due to us being tired and cold; passed through the main highway. It was on this walk that I started to notice how many people were sleeping rough under the raised carriageway. Under the haze of the street lamps, there were a sea of sleeping bodies hidden underneath blankets and I was amazed at how many people were there, young and old and over the two days that we spent in Jaipur this was something I saw again in street doorways and pavements. I asked a local rickshaw driver why this was, and he said that people from the surrounding poor farms, come to Jaipur hoping to find work but many are forced to sleep rough as they have no-where else to go. It was sad to see and something which stuck with me about Jaipur.

On a happier note, it was Dave’s birthday while we were there and we planned on spending our day doing some sight-seeing followed by dinner in the revolving restaurant that evening. We met up for breakfast at the local ‘Happy Day Coffee and made plans for the day. It was here that we met a local guide who was more than a little charismatic! He offered to show us around in his rickshaw for the afternoon for a reasonable price and despite the aroma of booze on his breath (I know…perhaps this is a bad idea!?!) , we agreed to take a chance on it and see what the amusing man could show us.
His first job for him was to take us to a good restaurant for the birthday boy’s birthday lunch, and on route he stopped off to buy Dave some birthday flowers! How kind!

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His first task started off well as we dined on some very tasty food in a very pleasant looking restaurant, toasting to Dave's birthday, munching on some very nice tandoori chicken and rice. That said, just as we were finishing up, our drunk guide staggered into the dining room smoking a cigarette much to the annoyance of the restaurant manager. Stinking of booze and smoking out the restaurant, we suggested he should extinguish it, and he did….right in the mint dip on our table. Shocked and nearly speechless we realised that he was not just drunk but rude too! Embarrassed and bemused, we told him to wait outside before he caused any more trouble. Back in the rickshaw, we wondered if we should cut this guy loose; and by the time we got to the pink city, his drunken slurring and pushy ways were really starting to becoming too much to we said a curt goodbye there...with him behind us slurring something about "f**king tourists!" I guess there was no love lost there! As J put it, there is only one word for that guy….”RAGGO!”

With him out of the way, we could start to enjoy our day and took a slow walk round the pink city and into the palace grounds. The streets of Jaipur were hectic and somewhat in your face, but as we got closer to the palace everything became much calmer and even more so once in the palace grounds. It was outside the palace that was saw a snake charmer; the one and only time we had seen one in the four months we had spent in India! The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the palace grounds, enjoying the peace and serenity.

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The evening arrangements were to head to the well-known revolving restaurant near by. Me and J headed there via the coffee shop where we had a chocolate birthday cake reserved for Dave’s birthday. We arrived at the restaurant and went to the bar to wait for the others, where we enjoyed some cocktails and masala peanuts (and Dave and J favourite appetizer). The meal in the restaurant was really great. A totally veggie place that did really tasty dishes, with night views over the city and an in house band playing, it was a great setting. The band played an Indian happy birthday song for Dave and the restaurant staff brought out the cake with a candle lit on top. A nice touch for his birthday meal!

With a new dawn, it was time to get back on the road once more. We said goodbye to Dave and Suza and headed back to the train station for our final Indian train journey. I would like to say that it was on time, but yet again it wasn’t (it turned out that a strike as well as the cold front was the cause of all these recent train delays; which made sense as the previous 4 months train travel had been pretty much on schedule) and so because we had a flight to Thailand to catch the following day we decided to scrap the train and get a bus to Delhi instead. Pushing past the masses in the train station, we saw the counter for the refunds and the people in a scrum to get to the front. Never one to find an orderly queue in India, the only way to get service is to adopt the attitude, 'when in Rome, do as Romans do'. So we waded through and pushed and shoved and elbowed our way along with everyone else fighting to get service at the counter. Madness! It was in this scrum/queue that J was told by a local that he didn’t have a right to be at the front of the so called queue because he wasn’t Indian! Determined not to be put off, J stood his ground and we managed to get our refund. The good news is that the bus we got left on time and got to Delhi in reasonable time and in the process we didn’t freeze to death so we were two happy bunnies!

Even in the airport the following day, we witnessed the funny ways of Indian people. Waiting in a queue (a proper queue, one person in front of another) in WH Smiths (yes they do have them in Delhi airport!), we saw an Indian guy look at the queue, and then look at the cashiers. Then deciding that the queue didn’t apply to him, he just jumped to the nearest cashier and tried to pay. It was hilarious to watch as he was promptly told by the cashier to get to the back of the queue. He looking totally confused and bemused but not deterred, he decided to just try another cashier and then another, before eventually admitting defeat and joining the back of the queue! It was like watching a fish out of water and made us laugh as our parting observation of India!

Our 4 months in India had come to an end. It had flown by and it brought with it a myriad of experiences and memories, good and bad but most definitely worth taking time out to explore. A country of contrasts is the best way to describe India, with so many situations you could easily discover a world of opposites…the contrasts of wealth and poverty living together in Mumbai, politeness and generosity of the lovely families we met on the trains compared to the rudeness of the scamming rickshaw drivers in Mysore, the serene peaceful beauty of the Keralan backwaters and unbearable noise pollution of the chorus of horns honking main towns and cities; honesty and corruption living in apparent harmony everywhere we went; the examples are endless. India is a place where you go to discover their culture, good and bad, like it or lump it; and despite the challenges that we faced we look back with smiles, remember the funny stories that shaped our journey and are glad we experienced it all.

Posted by Eveness 09:13 Archived in India Tagged train delhi jaipur taj_mahal agra cold rickshaw tour_guide snake_charmer Comments (0)

Goa - the return!

Chilling out, fun times, drunken times and great new friends!

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Back to the beaches of Goa…and what a fun 7 weeks we had there! One of the highlights of our time in India!

So after we finished our route in Kerala, we made the decision to slow down a bit in search of rest and relaxation and to also avoid the typhoon that had hit the Bay of Bengal and affected pretty much the whole of the east coast. We made the 18 hour journey back to south Goa via an overnighter to Mangalore in Karnataka and then a few days stop at Gokarna (Kudley beach) and then onwards south Goa for Palolem beach. We had already planned to head back to Goa to meet our friend Dave (who had been traveling the north of India and Nepal) for Christmas and new years, so we figured we’d come back a bit sooner to avoid the typhoon and rest our tired legs!

Being back in Goa was so good, no really it was! As much as the diverse and interesting sights we had experienced in Karnataka and Kerala was fulfilling, we discovered that traveling India was at times very tiring and sometimes frustrating and after two full months on the road we figured it was a good opportunty to chill for a while. So we were glad to be back in a place where we could rest and escape the crazy noise poluted places we had been to. And it was quiet in Goa...apart from the occasional honking of the bread man with his old horn and over-sized bread basket balancing precariously on the back of his bike first thing in the morning! We knew that Goa would revive our spirits and nurture us back to traveling health and maybe along the way we would have a bit of a giggle.

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Palolem, had transformed since we had passed through there in October. The beachfront previously had just as few bars/restaurant had since filled up to cover nearly every gap along the palm fringed crescent bay with bamboo style bars and beach huts. It was so very different to the Palolem we has seen before but with that came a buzz to the place and we knew that this would be a great place to celebrate Christmas and new year.

The monsoons in India had dragged on longer than usual and when we arrived there were a few days of thunder storms dampening things in the afternoon. We watched from our balcony of our hotel the last of the storms and the biggest one by far. Dark clouds rolled in, the rain came down, instantly flooding the streets and the wind was blowing hard as we watched the beach empty and everyone running here and there to escape the downpour. The palm trees were swaying left and right, with large branches breaking off and crashing down on bikes, cars and huts. We watched as fork lightening lit up the afternoon skies and saw the chaos of a palm tree uproot and collapse onto one of the beach huts in front of us and the electricity lines literally explode at each pole all along the little beach road, dramatically bringing the lines down onto the roadside. Watching all that from the safety of our balcony, I have never been happier to be staying in a concrete build hotel in all my life!!! But despite the power outage that we inevitably had (not that power cuts were unusual in India!), and the local children skipping around the wires moments later, locals appeared out of nowhere within minutes to start putting the lines back up and power was restored in no time. I don't think I ever saw such efficiency in my whole time in India! That said, I doubt that these were put back in quite the same way that our telephone engineers back home would, but it seemed to work and everyone was happy!

As the sunshine eventually won the battle over rain, beach life in Palolem really started to get into it's groove. Out and about we soon got chatting to people and we met a bunch of guys in the nearby (and very tasty!) authentic Thai restaurant called Yum Yum Tom Tums. Ran by a Goan by the name of Joe and his partner Nok (who comes from Chaing Mai) this little place tucked just behind Rococo’s on the south side of the beach place is Palolem's little gem (Nok’s Pad Thai is a real winner!). For us it was also a welcome change from the Indian curries we had been eating pretty much every day since we’d arrived in India! It soon became a meeting place for many of the long term visitors and somewhere you could always get a great mojito!

It was in Yum Yum Tom Yum’s that we got to know Stuart, Graham, Paul and Jason who also often frequented the place and we’d join the big table at the back and a quick pad thai would turn into an all night affair with plenty of banter too! Most of the guys had been in Goa a while, some for a few weeks and some a few months or as in Jason case, a permanent Goa resident.

Stuart and J had a genius idea one day to organise our own full moon party on the coming Saturday night. Palolem was still pretty chilled out at this point in the season so this sounded like a great idea! Paul’s friend Jackie was also due to be visiting him on that day so we extended the invite to her also. The evening started off well with everyone at Yum Yum’s and hitting the beers with hopeful expectation of a good night!

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Everyone was on board for a big night and got the party started nice and early and by 10pm we went in search of some entertainment. We found it in the shape of a launch party for a beach bar by the name of ‘Neptune Point’, a bar that ordinarily would be a chilled out beach bar, but for this one night only was absolutely banging with some uplifting house music and a bar full of people having it large on dance floor! The hands in the air crowds reminded me of a 90's rave with sweat dripping, drinks spilling and tunes banging! It was the most happening thing this beach had seen in weeks and we couldn’t believe our luck and timing and quickly joined in on the party!

It was in here that we met a couple that was on a two week holiday, who were super friendly and as it turned out, super swingers (or so it came to light later on that night...no, not like that...they told us!) They could see that we were all in party mode so struck up conversation with us to see what we were celebrating. A strange but friendly couple with pretty intense and alternative ideas about life...it made for some interesting conversations to say the least...the weirdest one being the 'eye gazing' topic of conversation! (You had to be there!) Anyway, they stuck with us for the rest of the evening and we ended up in the infamous 24 hour bar on the beach (Silver Star), keen to keep the party going. I recall that at some point in the early hours the girl (Claire) declared that she had the urge to cartwheel along the beach saying how uplifting it was (that doesn’t happen every day, does it!) encouraging the rest of us to join in! OK so the guys didn’t seem so keen but in the middle of that heavy session, blurry eyed and devoid of better judgment it seemed like a good idea to me and Jackie so in the dead of the night under the light of the full moon on the beach in front of a late night bar you could see three women whooping and cheering away as they happily cartwheeled down the beach in unison. I can’t imagine how that would have looked to the bar full of people, I am just grateful that no-one thought to grab their camera! A bizarre but fun night for all and a great send off to the Stuart, Paul, Jackie and Graham who were due to leave India in the coming week or so.

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Things were chilled for a while and we hired out motor bike for a giggle (J wanted a big cruiser as the sought after Enfield Bullet rode like a tractor so we choose an Avenger) so you could often see me and J zooming about here and there, nipping up to the chilled out Patnam and Galgibaga beaches. We still hung out in Yum Yums and had a few good nights there; in particular the night when Marcus and Joe convinced me and J to get on the sesh. Before long, it all went a bit woo and a bit wah, Joe making shapes to the tunes in his head and Marcus falling of his chair and breaking it!

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A hilarious night which ended with me and J feeling pretty spangly watching the moon set (we'd watched many sun sets but this was our first moon set!).

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The following week we met Scott and Lorraine (both from Birmingham!) who was staying in the room next to us. It wasn’t long before we we’re hanging out and sharing stories about travelling and Birmingham. Like most of the brummies’ we’ve met, Scott was top banana. On the level, well-travelled and a good laugh. Most of the time we were chilling on the beach, sipping cold beers, chucking the frisbee around and mucking about in the sea (human ring throwing with a giant inflatable ring was a good one!).

The finale of our time together ended in a silent disco called Silent Noise (where you have wireless headphones to hear the DJ’s playing – a clever way around the 10pm amplified music curfew) at Neptunes Point, (in between Palolem and Patnam beaches). These beach parties I’m sure about ten years ago would have been more of a hippy thing and less orgainised but this was the silent noise launch night for the season (a big event!) and it had to be done. We convinced Scottie and Loraine to come even though it was their last night and they were heading to the airport at the crack of dawn. It was an absolutely banging night and pretty much everyone in Palolem was there making shapes and having a top time! The Stanton Warriors were playing a DJ set and were on top form as well as Scottie who managed to spend most the night raving bare chest sweating like a nutter!

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A tip top night which ended about 6am with tired legs and full on crash and burn. We said our goodbyes on the night and we woke to a note from Scottie under the door which had some lovely farewell words and typical Scottie good humor! Hopefully a friend for life that guy and someone we’ll definitely link up with often. Happy Days!

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So with still a month to go before we would have to move on, we chilled out, spending our afternoons watching the sun set over at Patnam beach and Palolem beach, amusing ourselves with the increasing numbers of hawkers who would comb the beach looking for someone to buy their cheap jewlery, though we never grew tired of hearing the fruit seller on his slow but steady approach as he sang his happy song "Piiiiiinaaaaaaapple...cocooooooonut...papaaaaaaaaaya...waaaaaatermelooooon"!

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We eagerly awaited the arrival of our friend Dave who was at the time traveling around Nepal and north India. He soon made it to Goa and Dave’s first day there consisted of us getting down to the business of sharing a beer and exchanging our traveling stories. We hadn’t seen Dave in over a year since he had left the UK to travel so it was really nice to him and to compare our experiences of India. So with Dave’s arrival the build up to Christmas could officially begin and with that we found ourselves frequenting our usual haunts such as ‘The Nest’ (by far the best bar staff and best fillet steak in Goa!), Yum Yum's, Papillion (great Indian food) and Rococo’s (where we could normally find Jason and his sleepy giant bull mastiff hanging out).

Almost overnight we met a whole new group of people, including the lovely Merete (JB) and Camilla (frisky) from Denmark; as well as the guys...Pete (coco Pete), Sean (soups/sean the sheep) and their mate Tony (who had had such a dry sense of humour!)…all of which were from Birmingham! What a great group of people! We met JB and Frisky on the beach when Dave looking for a frisbee partner approached Camilla (Frisky got her nickname when she misheard me call her the ‘frisky girl’ instead of the frisbee girl and the name stuck from there!) We met Coco Pete through Nok (I think we met at the Alpha bar during one of their headphone parties when J was twisted and up for a late one and they walked me part of the way home...what gentlemen!). We had a laugh that night and though we discovered that we supported opposing football teams (Up the Villa!!!) or as Pete would say “right up em!” we formed a friendship from there!

Along with these great people, good old Bill (barnacle Bill!) from Iceland, another Nest regular who was never far away and always beaming from ear to ear with his famous happy smile as well as the musical guys who brought us many a good night of sing-alongs…Christabelle, Sandy and of course not forgetting Colin.

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Every night was a cause for celebration, the drunken jenga games, the hilarious song Pete would sing “no-one knows what it’s like….to be a baaaaad man, to be a saaaaaaad man….behind blue eyes”, Sean the soups amazing ability to dance in the early hours when the power of speech had gone and everyone was fading. Frisky’s unique facial expressions that expressed more than words ever could and JB’s fantastic and unforgettable rendition of the Jungle Book songs in Danish (hence the nickname JB!) were their trademarks as was J and Dave’s fascination with other peoples food. J coming in to grab the first bite of everyone’s food and Dave there to clean up any left overs (those hollow legs of his never seemingly got full!) Never a quiet moment and loads of funny memories!

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In between Christmas and New Years, a few of us decided to head into Margao for the day. Me, J, Sean, JB and Frisky jumped on the local bus and a normally dull journey turned into a giggle with lots of chat and banter and with the occasional famous Frisky expressions! With Indian music blaring out into the hot and stuffy bus and the bumpy roads making us hang on tight, it made for a fun journey (though we all left with sticky sweat patches from the humid bus ride…not a good look!) With the task of shopping done (though that was mainly me getting my netbook) we decided to take a break at the famous Longuinis restaurant in the town centre for some food and drinks.

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We spent a fair amount of time there, toasting with peach schnapps and beers and sharing stories about ourselves. It was nearly dusk and so we negotiated our taxi ride back into Palolem. The journey home was hilarious! With not enough seats in the taxi, we put J in the boot area and with his head popped up over the back seats we were ready to go! Already a little bit tipsy, we asked our taxi man to stop off at the local wine store for fresh beers for the 45 minute journey back which meant our little party mood could continue. In search of some entertainment we asked the taxi man to put on some his radio. He didn’t have a working radio so we instead we opted to sing some songs to pass the time. This was where we first heard JB’s rendition of the Jungle Book songs as well as her and Camilla’s joint versions of the classic songs! At the end of the journey, we all fell out of the taxi (J falling out of the boot!) laughing about the great day and funny journey home!

The run up to Christmas was great! Christmas Eve starting off with a great traditional roast dinner at Cheeky Chapatis followed by a full on beach party at 'Cosy Nook' with seriously great old skool tunes kicking out and everyone up dancing like no tomorrow! Everyone was on great form and was a fabulous way to start Christmas!

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And Christmas day itself started off in full swing with everyone donning their Santa hats and us all eating our Christmas dinner on the beach, sipping beers, champagne and the odd tipple of Baileys Irish cream (it wouldnt be Christmas without that now would it?!)

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I think one of the best memories from these few great weeks in Goa and the one that will last the longest for me is the evening of New Year’s Eve, when we all partied, danced, drank and sang until well into New Year’s Day. It was a fair old session...in fact it would be fair to say it got more than a little messy! We started off as per usual at The Nest with Mohan, Raj (the Raginator!) and the guys buzzing about super-efficient as always, making sure we all had drinks and always with a smile on their faces. With the evening underway, we found out that our friends Christabelle and Sandy were playing at the open mic night along the beach so we all headed up there to enjoy the music. A great way to start the night!

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We were all starting to feel a little bit merry by then (some more than others, hey J!) and yet the night was young! So blurry eyed and full of energy it was back to the Nest once again in preparation for the midnight countdown and fireworks! Just as the midnight countdown came around Pete came out of no-where with a massive box of fireworks hoisted on his shoulder shouting out “COME ON!!!!!”

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We lit the fireworks and as they ascended up they joined the hundreds of other that filled the skies all along the beach and we hugged and cheered the New Year in! With midnight under our belts we all stumbled over to the Alpha bar where they had an open-air DJ playing tunes until 4am. We took to the dance floor (and the stage!) and shook our funky asses like James Brown himself! You might think that this was the end of the night….oh no…as Pete with his famous phrases would say “one more; and we will continue!” we were on our way back to the Nest again to keep the party going! It must have been way past 4am and the Nest was still in party mode so we all piled in to the chill out area and Christabelle got on her guitar to sing us our favourite songs as we watched the dawn bring us the first glimpses of sunlight of 2011.

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A classic memory from the early hours of that morning was of Tony and J talking to a young Indian guy who woke for breakfast and got talking to the guys. This guy was on holiday with his friends and told J and Tony about his engagement to a young Indian girl. Baring in mind that we were still on the beer and pretty ruined by this point, Tony and J with completely straight faces and dead pan voices started to tell this poor guy that his life was over if he was to marry. That it was ''suicide'' in fact. "Don't do it mate" "Seriously..." He wasn’t sure if they were being serious or not but 15 minutes later the boys nearly had the poor guy convinced that getting married was a disastrous idea! I turned round to see Sean in fits laughing at the antics of Tony and J! I think he worked it out that his leg was being pulled but it was so funny to watch! At was at around this time that Colin (the other one, slightly nutty one) who as the early morning progressed was starting to act a little weird, and very wired; decided to jump up to grab the bamboo struts which supported the palm roof of the bar. Calling him down in fear of him hurting himself, he ignored us and then monkey barred his way up the A-frame and back down again to the other side! A very odd bloke if you ask me and for sure a surreal moment!

By the morning some slipped off to get some well-earned sleep while the rest still in the chill out area got into the ‘zone’ of Jimmy Hendrix and Led Zeplin, each of us nodding our heads through hazy bloodshot eyes in approval as ‘A whole lotta love’ was building and coming to its pinnacle (met with the unexpected blast of energy from Soupie Sean who got right into gear to shake it right there and then!). Proper legend…and a lasting snapshot memory that I’ll always have! Not that this would be the last burst of energy from the dancing Sean…oh no! Before long, sometime maybe around 12 noon (by which time the rest of us were pretty comatosed and little able to talk let alone move) the bar next door blasted out some crazy banging tunes to which Sean leapt up and really started to give it some welly! That was a classic Sean moment and one that stays with me as a classic NYE memory!

The Nest, which had firmly become our favourite hangout, had provided us with so many memories and laughs. With the adventures of the crazy people like annoying Clive, Crazy Dutch Pete (pictured below)

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...not to mention Wendy and Scottish Jackie; all of these characters and the funny things that happened there gave us the inspiration to rename The Nest as ‘The Cookoo’s Nest’ but the people who really stand out were the great people we spent time there with and who became our friends; and of course the amazing staff at The Nest who were always a good laugh and were always so friendly and accommodating.

Our 7 weeks in Goa came to an end on 4th Jan (As Pete would say "My name's Goff and I'm off!") when me, J and Dave woke early to an emotional goodbye with the gang (even Pete woke up early for that one!) and headed to the train station to start our 2000 mile train ride to Delhi. It was so sad to say goodbye to everyone; such great memories and great friendships forged during our time there, but promises of remaining in touch firmly made before we departed.

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Posted by Eveness 00:18 Archived in India Tagged beaches parties goa christmas drunk nye palolem the_nest Comments (3)

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