27 December 2008

A couple of happy events . . .

Firstly we'd like to congratulate Den and Jo on the birth of their lovely baby boy Oliver Mackenzie who was born on Sunday morning (21/12/08) weighing in at 6lb 6oz.

We'd also like to congratulate Jo and Simon who have set a date for their wedding which will be on the 3rd April 2010. Hopefully we'll have had chance to have a wash and change into some proper clothes by then!

Once again many congratulations from us.

Koh Phangan Christmas

Since we arrived in Koh Phangan last Saturday we've been taking it easy and just relaxing on the beach and around the pool. On Christmas eve night there was a massive party on Sunrise Beach. About 10 different bars had sound systems set up and were hosting free parties. So we got ourselves some flashing Santa hats and joined the other five thousand odd revellers for some festive fun.
We had a really great evening watching and joining in as the chaos unfolded. As well as the music there where the fire performers who were holding a flaming limbo competition, which needless to say we didn't join in, loads of fireworks and other nonsense.

I even managed to get hustled at Connect 4 by a local girl on the beach! Big loss of man points that one. I fancied my chances as I was undefeated all afternoon at Pog and Kelly's wedding last year. I think the girl was using Jedi mind tricks . . . or I'd drunk too much Chang.

Unfortunately Christmas day itself was the wettest day we've had since we left the UK. We had a lovely sparkling wine breakfast (couldn't get any champagne) before we headed out to get some Christmas day tan action.

However our plans (and tans) had to be changed after about half an hour on the beach when the rain started. Thankfully it had stopped by the evening when we went out for our Christmas dinner. No turkey this year so we went Italian which was certainly a bit different. Then it was back onto the beach for more party action. This time there was a kick boxing ring set up where tourists who had been on training courses at the local gyms were having bouts. It was very entertaining . . . a little bit like watching Fight Club. The best fight that we saw was a blindfolded one where the contenders appeared to spend more time clobbering the ref than each other.

23 December 2008

Happy Christmas from Koh Phangan

We just wanted to wish everyone back home and out there on the internet who's following our jaunt a very happy Christmas.

We're not sure what our Christmas day plans are yet but I think it may involve a little sunbathing and maybe a Chang or two!

Koh Phangan

We eventually arrived in Koh Phangan after a bit of a nightmare journey. We left Bangkok at 9 in the evening on one of the overnight buses and arrived at the ferry terminal at 5am - I don't think I've ever seen Liz awake at this time before! At 7 we got onto the catamaran ride from hell. I never get sea sick but even this 4 hour journey had me feeling queasy at times. Liz along with most of the other passengers wasn't so lucky. When the boat was sat in the port the water looked as still as a duck pond , but as soon as we got out onto the water we were pitching and rolling like cork in a storm. Liz is going to look into how much it will cost to fly out because the crossing was that bad.

We staying at a lovely resort called Rin Beach Resort which is a little bit flasher that what we are normally used to but we thought we would treat ourselves and stay somewhere nice for Christmas and new year. It has a lot of bungalows that overlook the sea but our new found flashiness didn't quit stretch that far and we instead have a lovely little spot in a jungley garden. Here's our place and another picture of the resort from the pier on the beach.

We overlook sunset beach and have been able to watch the sun go down from the pool most evenings.

Five minutes walk across the peninsula takes us to sunrise beach which is packed full of bars and hosts the full moon parties. They have some amazing fire artists doing their stuff every night.

On our first night here they had a huge flaming skipping rope and were inviting the spectators to have a go. Liz and I kindly declined after one dufus managed to get hit by the rope!

During the day the beach is really laid back and a great place to catch some sun. We're currently working very hard on our tans!!!

19 December 2008

More Laos Pictures

To compensate for the rant on my last posting here's something a little easier . . . just a few random pictures that we haven't already uploaded.

Immigration Irritation

It's been a frenetic few days of travelling and other hassles over the last couple of days, not helped in the slightest by Thailand's immigration services.

Laos had been great with Luang Prabang being the highlight for both of us. I think we may already of said that it is one of our favorite places that we've been to anywhere in the world. It just has a really special atmosphere, a kind of X factor that you can't quite put your finger on. We could have easily whiled away several more days there doing nothing in particular. The tubing and scenery around Vang Vieng were also great but the town itself, the food and a fair few of the other visitors left a lot to be desired. Vientiane was also a lovely place to spend a couple of days soaking up the atmosphere and the Beer Lao!

Anyway, we left Vientiane on Wednesday afternoon at half two on the bus to Nong Khai in Thailand. We passed out of the Laos boarder, over the friendship bridge and awaited our turn at the Thai border. It was here that our problems started. Whilst queueing at the Thai border I spotted a sign saying that as of the 25th of November 2008 people entering Thailand via a land crossing would only be granted a visa for 15 days.

This would not have been a problem except that when we were planning our trip a few months ago you were given 30 days. We had also been advised that before you enter Thailand you should have a ticket out of the country. So to abide by the rules we booked a flight out of Bangkok to Myanmar (Burma) 28 days after our entry.

Under the new immigration rules this rendered our 180 quid flights, which were only available on a non-refundable booking, completely worthless! We were not best pleased at this last minute change of immigration policy upon our finances. It was not only our Myanmar flights that were at risk but the knock on effect on our Myanmar visas, the loss of some of our pre paid new year accommodation in Koh Pangan but also our plans to meet Anne in Bangkok on the 22 February (she has booked flights to come and meet us). All of our carefully made plans were starting to fall apart because of a change in immigration policy. We begged with the border official to give us the 30 days we had expected but he wouldn't budge. He did say that we could get a visa extension at the Bangkok Immigration Office if we wanted one.

Feeling a bit annoyed and also worried about our plans we made our way to Nong Khai train station for the thirteen and a half hour overnight train journey into Bangkok. Thirteen and a half hours on a train probably sounds like most peoples idea of hell but this was great. There was loads of room, really comfortable seats and a bed that was as good as any that we've slept in. It really was a fantastic service. I did however feel sorry for anyone who has the misfortune to work on the track maintenance for the Thai railways as the train toilets empty directly onto the track!

We arrived in Bangkok at around 8-ish on yesterday morning fully refreshed after a good nights sleep and ready to take on whatever the immigration department could throw at us. To cut a very long story short we returned to our hotel six hours later with, despite our best groveling and begging, only a 7 day extension but 40 quid lighter each. The 7 day extension still left our flights for Myanmar useless and was scuppering a plans to meet Anne but at least we would be able to see the new year in on Koh Pangan and use our accommodation that we had already paid for.

If we left the country and came back in we would get another visa on arrival and all our problems with the Myanmar flights and visa would have been solved, however that would have used up our 3 Thai entries and we would have not been allowed back in to meet Anne in February. Being stuck in Thailand on her own for two weeks may have annoyed her a little bit.

We also looked at crossing into Malaysia and then trying to fly from there into Myanmar. However all the flights had an overnight stop in Bangkok, hence that 3rd visa stamp, and still no meet up with Anne.

My plan at this point was to just stay in Thailand anyway and overstay our visa. The Lonely Planet book said this is possible and you get a fine of a tenner per day overstay when you leave the country. So for 80 quid each we would be able to follow our original plans. Problem solved . . . or so I thought.

Liz started to do some research into it on the Internet and every story she found strongly advised against doing this. If the police find out you will get thrown into an immigration detention centre until you are deported back home. It didn't sound like Liz's idea of fun particularly as the Thai immigration detention centres have recently been criticised by Amnesty International!

It looked like our only option was that we would have to write off our trip to Myanmar and try to ignore the 260 odd quid that we had already spent on flights and visas. Thank god that Air Asia have let us reschedule our flights . . . of course for a fee (another 40 quid each).

The only issue that we now have is that although we can get back into Thailand to meet Anne our timing is to cock and theoretically we have to leave 4 days before her. Time once again for another visit to the Bangkok Immigration Office to have another visa extension.

When we originally booked this part of our trip we followed all of the rules that were in place in relation to the time we could stay and having an exit ticket booked so that there would be no issues. Now those rules have changed its costing us at least an additional 240 quid in visa extension and flight re-booking fees to get ourselves out of the mess that the immigration changes have left us in. Do the Thai authorities not want tourists to come into the country and spend money . . . or are they just interested in screwing visitors for visas? Answers on a post card to Mr Angry, c/o Thailand.

Today we again leave Bangkok after an overnight stay at the Bella Bella guest house (highly recommended) for an overnight bus and boat journey to Koh Pangan, where we'll be spending Christmas and New Year. We're both looking forwards to a bit of beach action after 7 weeks on the road.

15 December 2008

Wat more Buddhas!

We left Vang Vieng on Saturday to go to Vientiane on what we had been told would be a VIP bus. We thought a small, shabby form of transport would take us to the main bus station to board the VIP bus but no, the small shabby minivan that picked us up in town was the VIP bus! The four hour bus journey wasn't too bad, the only nasty surprise was looking up when I was in the loo at the halfway stop to find a man looking in at me and smiling from the next door roof as the toilet cubicle had no roof, what a sicko! I did ask my husband to sort this man out but he was too busy with his Cornetto.

Anyway we arrived in Vientiane the capital of Laos late afternoon. It is a very quiet, small place for a capital. We are staying at the Orchid Guesthouse which is very nice and on the riverfront of the Mekong. After the rubbish food in Vang Vieng we were very keen to try out some of Vientiane's better restaurants. Some expats describe the city's eating as dollar for dollar the best in the world, and so far they haven't been wrong we have had some great French food for just a few pounds. Yesterday we tackled some of the city's main sights. First we went to Patuxai which is a bit like an asian Arc de Triomphe. It is sometimes called a vertical runway as it was built with cement that was supposed to be used in the construction of a new airport. Please see the sign below for how it is brutally described on a sign stuck to the building!

Then we went to Pha That Luang this is the most important national monument in Laos. As you can see below it is a vision in gold! The Lonely Planet describes the monument as looking like a gilded missile cluster. So we have lots of pictures below of all this glittering gold, and more gold items and Buddhas from the two surrounding temples.

Next we headed off to Wat Si Saket it is believed to be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple, and just in case we hadn't seen quite enough Buddhas already, this Wat contains 7000 in all, photos of a few of our favourites are below.

Today, Monday, we have been to a very odd sculpture park called Xieng Khuan. It is described as 'bizarre but compelling in it's naive confidence'. I'd just call it very odd, and let you make up your own mind from the pictures below.