Finally back in a hostel with a computer so this is going to be an huge blog filling you in on the 3 weeks we spent in Thailand. Alice did northern and southern Thailand.
Northern Thailand (17th March - 24th March)
The trip to Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang was very long and very surreal. Starting off with a 14 hours bus ride to the border overnight. Almost every single Lao person on the bus was being sick on the windy roads and we had to stop every hour for them to recover and throw their bags of sick off the bus. For some reason the driver thought that playing a video of Korean techno music all night would keep them occupied and stop them being sick so much...it didn't but meant a sleepless night for the rest of us! When we finally got to the border it was a quick 5min boat ride across the river to Thailand to meet another bus. Eventually arriving in Chaing Mai after 22 hours, our longest journey yet.
We spent four days in Chiang Mai with my friends from Cardiff (Holly, Rachel and Sonia). Was really nice to see them, and gave both me and Dunc a little break from just speaking to each other for a few days Spent the first day wandering around the old town of Chiang Mai, not a huge amount to see, but a lot of Wats, then had a very painful Thai massage and did a cooking class. We can now make proper Thai curry, Pad Thai and papaya salad, so can look forward to trying that again when we get back. We did a big day trip with the girls, including elephant riding, trekking to a waterfall, orchid farm, white water rafting and bamboo rafting. Really fun (and busy) day out. The elephants were really cool, but our elephant didn't want to go anywhere though and it was quite sad to see the guide dragging it along. I think it would have been better to spend more money and go to one of the proper elephant farms where they are treated better. Final day we spent cycling round the outskirts of Chiang Mai, although not a lot to see. Overall Chiang Mai did not live up to my high expectations, it was not as charming and interesting as other places we have visited or as other travellers had told us.
From Chiang Mai we headed further north to Mae Hong Son, a small town up in the mountains. Had a fantastic day trip up there, hiring motorbikes and taking the road up towards the Burmese border along mountain roads. It was nice to have our own transport, stopping along the way at waterfalls, a cave and a palace. The town at the top of the road, Ban Rak Thai, was beautiful, bamboo houses around a blue surrounded by mountains. The village had a strong Chinese influence, set-up originally by anti-communist Chinese immigrants, and a lot of the buildings had Chinese artwork on the plaster, bringing back memories of Yunnan province. We stopped for lunch before heading back on the bikes.
Next stop was Pai, a hippy town between Chiang Mai and Mai Hong Son. The town was nice enough, plenty of cafes and bars set alongside the Pai river. Full of Western hippies who were into yoga, meditation and chanting...I quite liked it but I think Dunc felt a bit out of place. Hired bikes for a day to explore the surrounding area. I didn't really enjoy this as was feeling pretty rubbish, but the stop at the Pai Canyon was good. Didn't quite live up the claim of being the 'Grand Canyon of Asia' but impressive none the less.
Central Thailand (25th March -31st March)
Sukhothai (25th March - 26th March)
The journey from Pai to Sukhothai took 10 hours with a stop in Chiang Mai. We only spent two nights here so only really had one day to explore the place. The main reason for coming here was to see the ruins from the Siam and Khmer empires as Sukhothai was an ancient capital of Thailand. We hired bikes to ride around the central area, deciding not to venture to any of the outlying areas as the central was the best and we are "templed out". On the way back we went for a nosy in a nearby temple where there was a large party happening with two live bands playing music while circling the temple with groups of people following and leading them, dancing as they went - very strange!
Ayutthaya (27th March - 28th March)
Ayutthaya is another former capital of Thailand however unlike Sukhothai (where the ruins are 15km away) the modern city has been built around the temples which gives a nice feel to the city. It took us a whole morning to arrive and then we had a fleeting visit to a Tesco Lotus and large shopping centre (we were dropped by the bus beside them) so had lunch here. The one memory we have of Ayutthaya is the heat and it was 36C+ the whole time so an afternoon of walking round temples was more sweaty than we would have liked! At night we had an amazing BBQ'd fish from the night market which you ate within a piece of lettuce with some noodles and sauce - amazing! I am also grateful Alice is fond of dogs as twice stray dogs came and barked at us but she managed to ward them off! On the second day we hired bikes to explore the floating market and temples further outside. In the searing heat it was very uncomfortable. Moreover, the floating market wasn't open when we arrived and we never found any of the temples we had hoped to see as a result of a poor map. By mid morning we decided to cut our losses and head to Kanchanaburi.
Kanchanaburi (28th March - 31st March)
Another stinking hot place as Alice described it - over 38C all the days we were there. On our first afternoon we went to the War Museum which documented the building of the Death Railway which was constructed by the Japanese in 1942/43 by prisoners of wars and forced Asian workers. It was a very well documented museum which put this part of the war into context which we had never heard of before. It was a shame we only had an hour to spend there but the day after we took the railway as far as it went and then a taxi to a memorial built by the Australian government at Hellfire Pass, the section of the line with the highest death toll during construction. This wasn't surprising given the men had to dig 25m through solid rock with few tools, being in the middle of the two terminuses (the men had to walk here), and lastly the heat! For dinner we tried a Thai BBQ which was similar to a Cambodian BBQ but at the bottom there was a lip where you made a broth and boiled veg and noodles. The bonus here was it was buffet BBQ! The next day we spent at Erewan falls which is a 7 tier waterfall full of clear turquoise water. We had the opportunity to experience an "authentic" fish spa as the fish would nibble on the dead skin on your feet while you dipped them in - very strange ticklish experience! Our last day in Kanchanaburi we spent by having a look at the extremely well looked after war cemetries and the railway bridge was very touristy (tacky). In the afternoon we caught a bus to Bangkok where we had planned to take a night train down the coast. The bus was supposed to take 3 hours to Bangkok and then we had planned for an hour to get us to the train station by another bus so we, in theory, had an hour cushion. It soon became apparent to us both that the first bus would take a lot longer than 3 hours and we found ourselves at the bus station in Bangkok only 40 mins before our train. Luckily there was a taxi rank with an English speaking attendant who told us it would take 1 hour in a taxi. That wasn't going to work but he soon called over 2 motorbike taxis who offered to take us on a "high speed" trip to the train station in less than 40 mins! We both quickly nodded realising this was our only choice if we were to make the train. Once we had found helmets to wear we hopped on the back and sped off into the city leaving the bus station by some side exit, going the wrong way down a dual carriageway, pulling several U turns etc etc. Within 2 minutes I had lost sight of Alice as she had gotten the more aggressive driver. It took my driver 30 mins to get to the station, weaving in among traffic, going through red lights, going the wrong way down streets etc etc. Worst case scenarios were going through my head about where Alice could be but thankfully I arrived at the station and saw her straightaway. If I thought my driver had been quick, Alice had already been at the station for 5 mins and bought some drinks etc. We ran onto the train (which incidentally left 10 mins late) and spent the next half hour comparing notes on our journeys, adrenaline still running through our bodies!!!
Southern Thailand (1st April -10th April)
Koh Tao (1st April - 4th April)
Finally arrived in Koh Tao for our open water dive course with Big Blue. The course took 4 days, although the first day was just a short intro session. The second day we did a lot of theory in the morning, with a lot of physics and biology, then spent the afternoon practising with the equipment in the pool. There was a lot to remember, and the equipment was pretty awkward, even breathing properly took a lot of concentration, and I had problems with my ears even just 2m deep. Finished day 2 thinking that diving might not be the sport for me as I hadn't really enjoyed being in the pool. Day three started with more theory and an easy multiple choice exam. Then the real diving began, with our first two open water dives in the afternoon. We went out on the dive boat to 2 sites near Koh Tao: Mango Bay and Twins. After struggling with equalising the pressure in my ears to get underwater we made it down to the bottom and I finally started to feel the fun and excitement of diving. The corals and fish were incredible, so many of them and so colourful! We saw all sorts of cool stuff, schools of baracuda, anglefish, butterfly fish, banner fish, clown fish (Nemo!), parrot fish, trigger fish, Christmas tree worms and loads of other cool unnamed fish. Still not so keen on the actually diving, it is a lot of effort getting in and out, but the funky fishes make it all worth while! The next day we finished the course with 2 more dives, at Green Rock and White Rock. These dives were even better, the water was clearer and we went down to the deepest depth for open water course of 18m. I took some decongestants before diving which really helped my ears equalise so it was a lot more pleasant going up and down as well. Saw loads more cool fish, which I couldn't get enough of, and the highlight was following a turtle swimming across the dive site...amazing! Our final day was filmed, and screened in the bar in the evening. It made the dive look great, and we even looked quite cool so we had to buy it. So now proud to say we are qualified divers...and have caught the bug so will hopefully be doing our advanced course in a couple of weeks in Malaysia, can't wait!
Koh Phang Nang (5th April - 6th April)
Moved on to Koh Phang Nang next for a couple of days relaxing. We stayed in a quiet fishing village (Chalok Lam) at the north of the island. There was a beautiful white sandy beach and hardly any people. Spent the first day just chilling out. Had an amazing meal that evening, all you can eat BBQ buffet, in a restaurant run by a South African couple. Not local cuisine, but really tasty. I had 5 types of meat, and loads of salad, including pasta for the first time in 4 months, absolutely stuffed ourselves! Next day we worked it off with a walk along the headland to the next beach, called Bottle Beach after the bottles marking the trail. This turned out to be a more arduous walk than expected, a tiny path going up and down through the jungle requiring hands and feet to scramble along. The map had suggested it should take 1hr, but took us 2.5 and we aren't that unfit! Bottle Beach was lovely when we finally made it, very secluded (no road access) with just a couple of bars and bungalows. Had some lunch and a well deserved rest before taking the taxi boat back round the headland.
Khao Sok National Park (7th April - 9th April)
Next stop Khao Sok National Park, halfway between the two coasts. Went a 2 day tour in the park, spending a night on the rafthouses on Cheow Lam Lake. The lake had stunning scenery, turquoise waters surrounded by karst rock formations and jungle. It was huge, took us over and hour to get to out raft house by boat, and apparently is 150m deep in places. Unfortunately the rafthouses were not as idyllic as the pictures showed, they were in a great secluded location in the park, but could have done with some TLC. There were nails and wood sticking out all over the place, and a guy on our tour fell through the rotting walkway between huts. Also the toilets were miles away over the most precarious bit of walkway and up a steep hill...too dangerous to go at night in the pitch black so off the side of the raft house was the only option! Did do a great trek to Namtaloo cave as part of our tour. The cave is home to hundreds of bats and spiders and has a river running through it, which we had to wade through up to out necks to reach the exit! Very wet, but a lot of fun. The tour also included a night safari - we saw nothing, and a dawn safari - we saw monkeys and gibbons but so far away they were just black spots, a little bit disappointing Overall we had a good time though, and it was amazing to stay in a place with such breathtaking scenery.
Krabi (10th April)
We left Khao Sok for our final stop in Thailand, Krabi. The town is pleasant enough but not much here. Went to Ao Nang beach in afternoon, but soon got bored as we couldn't go snorkelling as we had planned...Dunc and I have decided we are not really beach people as neither of us likes to sunbathe much, so not going to go to any more of the islands. Next stop Malaysia........