Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Time for a not so quick update from me!

So, the last circular that I sent out I was in Bankok, having just got back from a week on a palmy beach, lying in a hammock and eating banana pankakes. Our second stay was a lot less stressful, as we'd got more used to the place, and realised that the taxi cabs are cheaper & less hectic than those trazy tuk-tuks (a bit like a motorised rickshaw). This time we're taying a lot closer to the centre, and it's far easier to get right into the thick of it. We do some of the more touristy things stating at Wat Phra Kaew & the Grand Palace www.palaces.thai.net , an impressive sprawling complex that includes the temple of the emerald buddah, and royal palace buildings. Next up we check out Wat Po to see the famous temple of the reclining Buddah. The buddah is lying down having a nap and is absolutely massive- pretty awe inspiring.

In the evening we go to the MBK centre, which is basically a massive shopping centre, with some of the floors dedicated to specialist items like mobile phones. There is a cinema on the top floor there's a cinema, so we went to see "The Ring" (in English with Thai subtitles), and I really enjoyed it (although I found it quite scary). We went to the cinema again and saw "Catch Me if You Can", again in English with Thai subtitles. It's a true story, and as is the way with these films, it says in text at the end what happened to the main characters afterwards. Howvever, all this text was in Thai, so I never got to find out what happened - very frustrating!

Before we leave Bankok, there's one last thing that I have to do, and that is to buy a copy of 'Lord of the Rings', so that I'll have something to do during those long cold nights without a telly. I've wanted to read it since seeing the film, and it would be something that I wouldn't have the time or patience to do back home. The bookshops here are mostly secondhand, and charge prices that are pretty much the same as English ones, but eventually I was able to find a place and haggle with them (with Jo's help) to get them down to a price that was still massive in Thai terms, but not as bad as the price first quoted.

We then head North , on the way to Laos, and our main stop on the way is Chiang Mai, the former Capital of Thailand, and second main metropolis here. One of the main ways to get there is to take the overnight train from Bankok, which is what we do. It's a fairly weird experience - I don't think I've slept on an overnight train since I was i Canada when I was about 8. Anyway, it wasn't so bad - we were ripped off over a discusting breakfast, but that was about it. The highlight was seeing the countryside as we went pass, all manner of fields, farmers and water buffalos, and in the city, little shacks by the railway line, some without the full compliment of 4 walls, but most illuminated by the flicker of a television screen.

We arrive in Chaing Mai, and the guesthouse that we stay at instantly tries the hard sell on their 2 day trekking tour of the hill tribes. We decide against it, as we're not huge walkers, but I also have reservations about turning the Hilltribes people into a "human zoo". We decide to go on a 1 day tour instead with Piss Poo tours (its really called PSS tours, and is run by a lady named Poo). We have a lovely guide called Noi (which is a girls name, but he was the last of many boys in his familly, and his mum wanted a girl). We walk for a couple of hours into the hills in the countryside, over a rickety old bamboo bridge and eventually arrive at a Hmong tribe village. It is a village that is visited by several tour groups a day and was pretty commercialised - basically set up to cater for the tourists, with a little market, and a house turned into an exhibit, with everthing labeled in English. As such it was a little depressing.

Our next stop was at an elephant camp, and we stop to buy some bananas first. We arrive, and its an absolutely awesome sight, about a dozen elephants and their handlers milling about. I've always thought that elephants are very special, and to see them so close up was amazing. We feed them the bananas (they grip them with their trunk & then put them in their mouths - a bit like feeding a wet vacuum cleaner), and they get quite keen, advancing on us, which was pretty intimidating. We then have an hour long trek on the elephant, which was a unique experience for me, if a little uncomfortable (had a metal bar poking in my back). I was a little worried that the elephants wouldn't be treated very well, but all seemed to be ok. Our elephant handler just sat on its head, and was content to let the elephant mosey along the track, without needing to force it along.

After lunch, we visited a Karen hilltribe village, which was better than the first, the people didn't pay much attention to us, and we could admire their village, with their huts on stilts & pigs kept underneath them in our own time. After a stop at a waterfal, we had a raft down the river - it was a massive raft made of bamboo sticks tied togeter, and guided by the "captain" at the front with a bamboo pole. It was very relaxing down the flat bits & fun down the rapids.

When we get back to our hostel, we find that we can't stay there another night - they're not so friendly once they realise they've missed out on their chance to sell us a lucritive tour package. We're able to find anothe room without any bother though.

Chiang Mai, like most places in SE Asia it seems, has many fine temples and we visit a few of them. Fist, the ruined Wat Chedi Luang, which must have been spectacular in its time, but has since been damaged by earthquakes. While we're there, some young novice monks invite us to join "monk chat". This reminded me of a late night tv ad for a dating chat phone line - "Want to chat and date with monks who have similar interests to you? Come on join Monk chat oh-eight nine eight - 50 -50 -50. Monks are waiting to hear from you!" It was quite a fun experience chatting with them, and end up helping them with their English homework, although they seemed a little more interested in staring at Jo's boobs. We visit the Crystal Buddah at Wat Chiang Man and onto Wat Phra Singh, where a roomful of praying novice monks are once again distracted by Joanne. Later, we have an hour long Thai massage, but I wasn't too impressed, we're both a little bruised & sore that night.

We visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on top of the hill, overlooking Chaing Mai a little way out of town, we have to walk up lots of steps to get there, and everywhere people are ringing bells. It's very impressive, but I am distracted by the disproportionate number of old western men here with young Thai girls (and boys). You see quite a lot of that here, and it is a little stomouch churning at times. Indeed, we've seen quite a few transvestite ladyboys as well. They seem pretty accepted here, and indeed certain parts of the culture seem to celebrate them - they had a show on called 'Simons Dream' in Chiang Mai, and in the reviews of it, the reviewers openly addmitted to fancying them. Every night, there is a night bazare, selling lots of very cool cheap things. We have to restrain ourselves as we still have some ways to go yet & can't go lugging everything around on our backs.

There's a monkey farm in Chang Mai, where the tourists can go visit "monkies" (their spelling) being trained "to work on the farm", though quite how the skill of throwing a basketball through a hoop would be applied on a farm, I don't know. The animal welfare part of me forced me to avoid the show, but we instead went to Chaing Mai zoo, which I had heard some quite good things about. It's a big rambling zoo, with enclosures seemingly randomly scattered about, without giving the visitors a map or decent signs to follow, and I found that quite charming, turning around a corner and not knowing what you'd find - so oyu'd be constantly saying things like "Stone me that's a bloody big hippo". Some of the enclosures weren't great, and I saw some evidence of repetitive behaviour disorders, but by enlarge the welfare of the animals seemed pretty good (even by western standards). I saw some Asiatic Black Bears, which featured in a campaign that we had been working on when we were in WSPA http://www.wspa-international.org/site/index.php?page=44 , telling people about their cruel treatment when they are farmed for their bile in tiny cages in China. It was a pleasant change to see them in a healthy looking condition, although, better I suppose if they were still in the wild.

Next stop Laos! Pop fact: Following the American war in Vietnam, Loas had the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in history. We get a bus to Chiang Kong, and cross over the river to Hauy Xai in Laos. We pay a small corruption tax (apparently you have to pay this if you arrive in Laos on a day of the week that ends in 'y'), and then change some money for Laotian Kip. The biggest note is worth about 30p, so we end up with a massive wad of notes. I feel like 'loadsamoney'.

We take the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. We trundle down the river seeing the local people, fisherment, water buffalo, big rocks, other sunken boats, fast speed boats, fields, hills, hazy mists, forest, jungle & so on for 2 days. We stop overnight in Pak Beng, and stay in a very rustic guesthouse. The "bathroom" was a small cubicle with no roof over a hole in the ground. We'd been carrying "Rexona" body wipes around, in case we ever needed to freshen ourselves up, and here we were finally able to use them. The next day we continue down the river, and stop several times to service the local communty, loading and unloading rice, planks of wood, old ladies & monks. Stopping in these villages (most of which are still only accessible from river), seeing the houses, villagers & children made a wonderful change to the over-visited hill tribes on our one day trek. We stop at Pak Ou limestone caves http://www.laostravel.info/Cave/ , which contain a host of Buddah images, which were hidden away during the Vietnam War. When we are ready to continue on the journey, the driver of the boat demands some extra money from all the passengers for stopping there (although it is obvious he was stopping there anyway), and this sours the experience somewhat.

We arrive in Luang Prabang & have a hard time finding somewhere to stay (we get somewhere eventually). Laos is communist, but has been allowing private enterprise since 1990. It recently opened its doors to tourism to boost its ailing economy, but there is a strict limit on visas (which only last 15 days), as the infrastructure cannot cope with too many tourists. Eventually we find somewhere, and have a pleant time doing not an awful lot. This town is a world heritage site, on the basis of its well preserved french colonial charm. People tend to fall in love with it, without being entirely sure why. Its very rustic, with dirt roads, and not much traffick & chickens everywhere. We're woken every morning by the blasted things. We visit Phu Si, the pagoda on the top of the hill, where Jo frustrates the monks by thrying to find out why it is that they wear orange, and the Royal Palace Museum - the King's residence until 1975 when the new regime made him disappear.

Last night we went to the Royal theatre to see a traditional performance of dance, music and song, where they tell old stories and people are dressed up in bizzare costumes and masks. An aquired taste maybe, but it was nice to get an evening of culture. They finish with local tribal dances where they perform the amazing feat of picking up heavy jars filled with water with their teeth. Owch.

So thats my lot for now. I'm enjoying my time out here a lot more than I thought I would. We're off to Vientienne on Sunday.

All the best,


Saturday, February 01, 2003

So.. when last I wrote, it was a frenzied scribble from Cairns airport. How did I get there? Where am I know? All these questions and more can now be answered as we relax and reflect...

After leaving Sydney, Jo and I went on a bit of a whirlwind tour of some of the bits of Australia that we hadn't yet had the cance to explore. Our first stop was Canberra, where we stayed with the very kind Julie Lovell. Julie was just starting a brand new job looking after a senator, and I'm sure the last thing she was expecting was to see an old friend from her days back at the radio station in Exeter. The journey down there by Greyhound bus was pretty uneventful, but we were able to see some wild knagaroos bouncing around as the sun when down. Bill Bryson described Canberra as not really being a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it. It's not really a city best suited for walking around in, and we learnt this the hard way. We tried to walk the "Parliamentary Triangle"; from the grass on top of the roof on the new parliament house down to the old parliament house and the Aboriginal tent embassy. At this point we realise that we are mega sunburnt, and call in at the airconditioned national gallery www.nga.gov.au before we call it a day. In the evening Julie drives us around "Embassy Town", to have a look at the interesting embassy buildings, and as we cruise by the American Embassy, a security van starts following us.

Our next stop is Melbourne, which is similar to Sydney, but with lesss Opera Houses and more trams. It seems like a nice place, a little European, with one tram that does a circular route of the city for free - nice. We look at the interesting Immigration museum www.immigration.museum.vic.gov.au and mooch around the massive botanical gardens. We also check out the old Melbourne Gaol, site of many a hanging, including the infamous Ned Kelly (of whom's life a film is currently bing made). In a mood for an Indian meal, we stop at 'Gaylords' indian restaurant, which I mention now for no particular reason. As a daytrip, we went up the Great Ocean road, but for me it was more of a 'scary coach drivers erratic driving road'. Not as catchy i suppose. Some nice rocks at the end of it though.

Our final destination in Australia was Cairns, where we stayed with Jo's dad's friend Neil & his family, and it was very nice too. Our first visit was a Hartley's Crocodile Adventures www.crocodileadventures.com where we saw an amazing Crocodile attack show, and were attacked by some over friendly Lorikeet parrots in the aviary. The next 2 days we made 2 boat trips snorkling out on the Barrier Reef. We took a big boat out to the reef and saw some of the most amazing fish and coral, including beautiful Parrotfish that you can actually hear biting at the reef. Once again, I get a bit sunburnt - this time on the backs of my legs. But it wasn't too bad. For the 3rd time on our trip we meet up for a drink with Tom Scruby - who is in Cairns with his parents.

And then we say farewell to Australia as we take a plane to Bankok. I catch up on a series of disappointing films on the flight ('Barbershop', XXX , 'The Tuxedo' , ' My Big Fat Greek Wedding'). We arrive in Bankok fairly late, and I don't really know what my expectations were for the place, but I was pretty suprised. Its a pretty well developed place, the touts etc aren't too in your face and its pretty easy to get around so far. Its a place of exteremes, though. Skyscrapers and stunning temples sit next to run down shacks with corrigated iron rooves.

Our first hotel is a little out from the centre, so we venture in on the first day to sourt out our visas, taking the skyrail (a bit like the underground, but up overtheground), and then a boat for 5 baht (67 baht to the pound). We eat at Gullivers, which i think is appropriate; as English people starting out on our voyage in a place far away amongst the little people.

Our first trip in Thailand is to the beautiful island of Ko Chang. Its a 6 hour minibus journey away from Bankok, and then an hour in a rickety old boat. Once arriving at the island, we take a scary trip in a songthow (sp?) which is a pickup truck with 2 benches in the back. On one steep stretch of road, my bag falls off the top, almost hitting the motorcyclist behin us. We then have to get out, so he can start the truck up again on the steep hill! Our destination is the backpacker's heaven: lonely beach http://www.ko-chang.info/sites/bevi_ht_e.htm. The first night its all full up, and we have to stay in a tent, which after a few bottles of Chang beer isn't so bad. The next day we get our own little beach hut and pretty much settle into our daily routine: breakfast (scrambled eggs or banana pankakes), lie on the beach & have a swim, retiring to the hammock in the shade when it gets hotter, and then watching the beautiful beach sunset before having a BBQ meal and ending off the day with a drink in the bar on the beach. And that's pretty much it for 5 days.

Hippy warning: I read 'The Art of Happiness' by HH Dali Lama & Howard C Cutler when I was chilling out on the hammock. Just how much of a lapse into hippyness I don't know. Will update you if there are if any further syptoms develop. There's still an aversion to braiding and dreadlocks which is a promising sign.

We're back to Bankok today, organising what we're going to do next. So it's all very exciting. Both in good health etc.

Keep on sending me mails, sorry if I'm taking a bit longer to reply to them!

Now a funny link: http://www.roganjosh.co.uk/b3tan2/lordoftorch2.gif Caption: Wordsworth was becoming increasingly concerned over Jamie's obsession with the torch.

Cheerio, Mark

And Jo writes...

Hi guys just thought I would write and let you know my latest travel
We left our lovely flat in Sydney after a drunken party with some
we made in Sydney, and had to get up mega early to clear the flat up
and move out by 11am. Then Mel came and picked us up and took us to
the Blue Mountains for the weekend. To see picture click here
It was absolutely gorgeous. Just two hours from Sydney – a massive
wilderness area that looked to me like a green version of the Grand
Canyon. They call it the Blue Mountains because the valley is filled
eucalyptus trees that emit eucalyptus oil and create a bluish mist. It
covers over a million hectares of land, and convicts in Sydney used to
think that china was on the other side of them. Just to give you an
of how wild this place is, they found a species of tree here that has
existed for 65 million years due to the lack of contact with man and
subsequent lack of change in its environment. There have been a lot of
bush fires in the BM recently and we visited a hotel/heritage building
where the fire had come within a foot of its walls, and firefighters
had their backs to the hotel wall shooting water at the flames trying
protect it. They use massive water-carrying helicopters such as
that can suck up a tank of water the size of a house in 50 seconds!
Unfortunately the suction is so strong; it can also suck up fish,
bricks and

After the Blue Mountains and sad good-byes with Mel we took the bus
down to Canberra. We traveled for three hours past nothing but dry
fields – although I did see 8 wild kangaroos! We stayed with mark’s
Australian friend (Julie Lovell) who he knew from university. She was
very hospitable and made our time in Canberra much more enjoyable
than it would otherwise have been… You have no doubt heard that less
than a week after we left the place a massive bush fire destroyed
400 houses… Well, there is no kind way of putting this, but it has to
the dullest city I have ever been to! It is quite bizarre because the
city was planned from scratch after they couldn’t agree on whether to
have the capital in Sydney or Melbourne. But even the Prime Minister
wont live there and choses to commute to and from Sydney as
required!! Apart from staying with Julie, the only other noteworthy
of my time in Canberra was my visit to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
situated in a dodgy looking caravan on the lawn opposite the old
parliament house. Canberra has an Embassy Town, but there is still a
lot of tension between Australians and Aborigines and the Aborigines
want their own sovereignty so they have been sat outside the Parliament
house ‘making a mess’ on Canberra’s parliamentary lawn and squeaky
clean image for the last 30 years.

After Canberra we spent another non-scenic 9 hours on a bus down to
Melbourne. Melbourne was completely different to Sydney. I think
in Sydney had spoiled us both, but it was still an interesting place to
spend a few days. It felt much more European than Sydney did with a
lot older buildings and tram system, but also a bit like an ozzie
of San Francisco, if that makes sense? Being on a whirlwind tour of
we decided to do the Great Ocean Road in a day, which was a bit much.
Australia is a massive place and nowhere is just down the road, so this
meant 15 hours on a bus. But we did get to see Bell’s Beach where they
filmed ‘Point Break’; the town of Torquay – home of Quiksilver and
Ripcurl; and of course the 12 apostles.
(Click here to see picture
While we were in Melbourne we also went to the immigration museum
which painted a rather rosy picture of Australian history, but we did
learn about the ‘White Australia Policy’ which aimed to keep
into Australia restricted to whites only for about 50 years. The museum
didn’t really mention much about the ‘Stolen Generation’ of aboriginal
children who were taken away from their parents to be raised by the
white community in an attempt to try and teach them to live in the
world. In contrast, we visited the old Melbourne gaol, which painted a
very seedy picture of Melbourne’s olden days. Although there were a
few mass murderers, a lot of the crimes were committed by people
struggling to survive in desperate times. I had my picture taken
Ned Kelly’s armor and we learnt in great detail about how the prisoners
were hung; had to cotton & steel face masks to conceal their identity
and stop them talking to other prisoners; had to wear leather mits to
prevent ‘self abuse’. So yeah, that was Melbourne.

After Melbourne we flew to cairns. Our four-hour flight only cost us 60
pounds!!! Bargain!! We stayed with my dad’s friend and his family who
were lovely. We had three manic days. I really wish we had had longer
now, but it was down to when we could get an international flight from
oz. We hired a car and bombed around cairns for the first day. Cairns
city is pretty dull and not that attractive, but luckily we weren’t
staying in
the town. We drove along beautiful coastline where the rainforest came
right down to the beach. We visited a crocodile farm and saw a 4m croc
do a death roll and watched the crocs jumping out of the water to be
fed. Cairns is really hot and sticky being so tropical – I could hear
buzz of the insects over the car engine! We spent the next two days
snorkeling on the barrier reef, as this was the main reason we had
come to cairns. The first day we went out to the outer reef (about 30
miles out to sea). Mark and I had a noodle (float thing) so we were
to swim around together. We saw giant clams 1m across, some big fish
about 4ft long, we could hear parrot fish biting off bits of coral and
pooing out sand!, and massive coral that were as big as trees and
looked like an underground forest. The next dive wasn’t so good and
we got bitten by sea lice and saw little jellyfish swimming by us, so I
decided I had had enough for one day. Then when we got home we
realised we had both been burnt to buggery by the cruel Australian
Despite applying suncream every 30 mins, I had forgotten to do my bum
and mark the back s of his legs! Ouch.. So the next day we covered up
loads and stayed out of the sun. We went snorkelling again but this
wore ‘stinger suits’ used to protect you from blue bottle jellyfish
that can
kill you. When we asked the previous day about stinger suits, they said
oh don’t worry we don’t get them out here – I haven’t seen one for a t
least four months!!! So that was cairns…

Then we flew 9 hours to Bangkok; it took us 4.5 hours to get out of
Australia!! Mark was a bit nervous about landing in Bangkok and I was
beginning to feel absolutely awful for dragging him here, but I was
for both of us that when we arrived it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I
thought it would be. It has been a bit of a culture shock, but wow!
soooooo cool here!! We spent one day in Bangkok and went to a travel
agency, we left our passports with them and they sorted out all our
visas for us. We also booked a trip down to Ko Chang – a little island
down near Cambodia. The trip cost us 3 pounds each way! We took a
little air conditioned minibus 6 hours and then got a little fishing
over to the island – all included in the price!! On the way over the
was listing dangerously to the right so everyone had to move to the
other side. Then when we got on the island we jumped on the back of
a ‘sawngtheaw’ (pickup truck with seats in the back). The driver
managed to squeeze 12 of us in the back, and four standing on the back
with all our rucksacks on top. While going up a steep hill marks bag
off and nearly hit a motorcyclist and we couldn’t get up the hill so we
had to get off and walk!! But it was all part of the fun. The first
there was nowhere left for us to stay so we had to sleep in a tent in
our clothes, but we had met some nice people so we just stayed up late
talking to them.
Click here to see a really cool picture of where we were staying on the
first night!!!


After that we managed to get our own bamboo hut on the beach. We
stayed in Ko Chang for just over a week and extended our stay we liked
it so much! We soon fell into a routine of getting up late, eating a
breakie, going for a swim and chilling out in the hammocks for the rest
of the afternoon till the sunset and we knew it was time for a
BBQ dinner and then bed. It was like we didn’t need watches! We got
woken up by the cockerels in the morning, and then waited for the sun
to go down.!! The beach was amazing, white sand lined with coconut
trees and crystal waters. (la da dee la do dow!). So now we are back in
Bangkok for a day or so before heading north to an elephant
conservation centre and then to Chiang Mai.