27 February 2009

Seeing your name in lights

I've always wanted to see my name in lights, I just didn't expect it to be at a ladyboy cabaret!
We thought that Anne was looking in need of some kathoey based entertainment so last night headed over to Patong to see the show at Simon Cabaret.

It was a strangely entertaining song and dance cabaret show featuring some convincing and not so convincing "female" performers.

It was all good fun although one "lady" appeared to have a bit too much padding on her hips giving her an uncanny resemblance to Biggles in his flying trousers!

After the show we headed into central Patong to have a night out on Bangla Street. I'm trying to think of a nice way to describe Bangla Street but am really struggling since it is a road that seems to consist entirely of go-go bars, (the infamous) ping pong shows and prostitutes!

We had a very entertaining evening sat at a street-side bar watching the world go by, trying to work out if the various punters realised when they were in the company of a lady without an X-X chromosome pair.

The toilet at the bar had a very peculiar list of instructions of what not to do in the bathroom. Please skip over the next picture if you are easily offended!
To get back to Kata we took a sawngthaew, essentially a boy racer styled, maxed up, open sided, Dihatsu Sooty van with two rows of seats in the back. It was like being on a really scary roller coaster as we careered our way up and down the hills of Phuket back to our bungalows.

Really crazy golf

Apart from teaching Anne the finer points of advanced sunbathing, reviewing the local cuisine and guiding her through the full range of Thai beer, we've also had time to fit in some crazy golf!

Dino Park is a Flintstones / dinosaur themed 18 hole crazy golf course located on the headland between Kata and Karon beaches. The jungle setting around a 30ft high volcano spewing fire and smoke is really spectacular. However, I don't remember Tiger Woods ever having to negotiate stegosaurus poo on the fairway.
The taxi home wasn't much cop either.
I'd like to dedicate my victory to Ben and Kate . . . looks like that golf lesson that you got me with Robert Rock is finally bearing fruit!

25 February 2009

Baby news!

No . . . not from us! We just wanted to pass on our congratulations to some new parents back home.

My friends Jon and Lindsay have just had their first baby, a little girl called Grace. Born on the 24th of February and weighing in at 6lbs 13oz.

We'd also like to pass on our best wishes to Steve Gerrard (not the footballer but the bloke who took our wedding photos) and his wife Evelyne, who have just had their second baby. . . a little brother for Elliot called Isaac. You can see more details on Steve's blog here.

Once again many congratulations to you all and we hope that there aren't too many sleepless nights!

Hello Anne

After 16 weeks on our own we now have our first visitor from home joining us . . . say hello to Anne.
Anne flew in via Doha to Bangkok on Sunday and meet up with her friend Grat for an evening in the Thai capital before flying down to join us in Kata on Monday afternoon. She'll be with us for a fortnight while we take in Kata, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Anne has very kindly been a bit of a mule for us and carried some much missed items from blighty over in her luggage. A Sunday Times for me, a copy of Heat magazine for Liz and most importantly some Maynards Wine Gums!
She also stowed away some little surprises for us from my nieces, Kira and Erin. Thank you very much girls . . . we have missed you loads too!

What with all the stuff she has carried for us and the 6 packs of Hob Nobs for Grat it's a wonder that she has had any room for clothes in her bag.

We had reserved a room for her at Cool Breeze Bungalows where we are staying at Kata but weren't sure if she would like it. After 16 weeks of mainly backpacker budget accommodation we weren't sure if our standards had slipped too far for someone fresh from the plane. Thankfully Anne has quite low standards so we are ok!

21 February 2009

Monkey Madness

We had some suprise visitors yesterday when we where heading back from Hat Phra Nang beach (where the ultra posh Rayavadee resort is) to our hotel.

These little fellows came down out of the jungle covered cliffs at the end of the day to get the leftover food and scraps from the beach vendors.


We had said on a previous blog posting that Ko Phi Phi was probably one of the most beautiful places we've been to. We're going to have to update that statement as Railay is definitely the most beautiful. The beaches and scenery here are just stunning plus there's the added bonus of it being litter and effluent free!

Although Railay isn't an island it feels more like one than any of the Thai islands we've been to so far. Railay is actually a tiny peninsular jutting into the Andaman Sea from the mainland state of Krabi in Southern Thailand, not far from the Malaysian border. The peninsular is completely isolated from the mainland by an impenetrable wall of limestone cliffs. This means that there are no vehicles and the only access is by boat, giving the place a really isolated laid back feel.

The Railay isthmus is very small, not more than a few hundred meters wide and only a couple of kilometers long. There's only 4 beaches and a handful of accommodation options, including the ridiculously priced Rayavadee where rooms cost up to 55000 Baht per night, roughly equivalent to £1100. Needless to say . . . we're staying somewhere else!

Although our accommodation isn't quite as swanky as the Rayavadee, as a Valentine's Day treat, we're staying somewhere a little bit nicer than our usual standard. A beach front resort called Sand Sea right in the middle of the main beach, Hat Rai Leh West. The hotel and its location are great but it can be difficult getting the right drink at breakfast time.

For some strange reason the coffee is made in a tea urn, the tea is made in a filter coffee maker and the milk is kept in a tea pot . . . all very confusing first thing in the morning.

The sheer limestone cliffs that surround the peninsular make Railay one of the worlds top climbing destinations with over 700 bolted routes. The weathered limestone means that there's plenty of hand and foot holds but it can be quite sharp. The 300 meter vertical climb past Railay viewpoint to the top of the Muay Thai Wall is one of the most spectacular I've ever done with stunning views from the top.

There's also an interesting climb through the jungle to a hidden lagoon known as Sa Phra Nang (Holy Princess Pool). The climb down the ropes into the crater to the lagoon was like something out of the lost world of Jurassic Park . . . only with less veloceraptors.

We've also been out kayaking to have a closer look at some of rock formations out at sea. As well as Liz and I work together we just couldn't get our paddles synchronised on the Kayak and seemed to spend most of our time going round in large clockwise circles. I don't think we'll be putting our names down for mixed Kayak pairs at the London 2012 Olympics.

The sunsets here are pretty spectacular too. I know we've probably already put up lots of sunset pictures from other places . . . but here's some more!

16 February 2009

Buffet Eyes

We've had some very entertaining evenings out since we started this little escapade of ours, but I can't think of many more entertaining that last Thursday evening at Matt's Joint Grill. There's no entertainment laid on at Matt's but there's nothing quite like an all you can eat buffet to bring out the worst in people!

Some of the feats of food balancing witnessed that evening were quite unbelievable as people (ok it was mainly men) tried to cram as much as physically possible on to their plates in one go. One bloke managed to stack nearly a foot high pile assorted cooked meat onto an 8 inch plate and manoeuvre it across a crowded restaurant without so much as the slippage of a greasy sausage from the meat mountain. He must have been great at jenga. Even Alan Partridge with his fabled 12inch buffet plate would not have been able to compete.

It was incredible to see. At one point I thought a guy across the room from us was about to collapse into a protein induced coma.

We had been looking forwards to having a burger but as most people were taking 6 at a time they were quite hard to come by. A little reminder for the folks out there . . . remember you can usually go up more than once!

They also had a really interesting price policy . . .

11 February 2009

I kissed a fish and I liked it!

Ko Phi Phi - the good, the bad and the ugly

Ko Phi Phi is possibly one of the most stunning places we've ever been to. The natural beauty of the scenery is just amazing. Massive jungle covered cliffs rising from a bottle green sea with sweeping curved white sand beaches.

Ko Phi Phi is actually two islands, Ko Phi Phi Don, which is where all the action is, and Ko Phi Phi Leh, a smaller uninhabited island a few kilometers over the Andaman Sea to the South.

Ko Phi Phi Don is itself really two separate islands, Ko Nok and Ko Nai, that are joined by a half a kilometer long sand bar. Perched on top of the sand bar is Ton Sai Village which is packed full of bars, restaurants, shops and accommodation.

During the day the atmosphere is very much like it was on Ko Samui with a really relaxed beach vibe. However in the evenings it's quite lively, more like Ko Phangan, with the beach bars putting on music and fire shows until the small hours.

Despite the natural beauty of the island there are some big problems here. The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 was an unavoidable natural disaster that caused massive damage to the island, buildings and infrastructure. However, it's a real shame that a lot of the rebuilding work has been done really haphazardly and, lets not pull any punches here, is fairly ugly. It looks like a lot of the building is unregulated and as a result the place looks more than a little scruffy.

The other really shocking thing is the amount of litter . . . an absolutely staggering amount really. Everywhere you go there are plastic bottles, cans, paper and other general waste just thrown at the sides of the road, in fields or on the beach. It's a real shame that somewhere that is so beautiful is slowly being turned into a complete tip.

Take the following as a good (bad!) example. The first guesthouse we checked into here was the R.S. Guesthouse. Upon opening one of the windows from our bedroom we were confronted with the following . . .

. . . about 3 foot deep pile of old plastic bottles! And this is typical of the mess in and around Ton Sai Village. We've since moved to a place called Scenery Guesthouse which is a little further out of town up the hillside of Ko Nai.

The other thing about the accommodation here is that it feels massively overpriced. It appears that you have to pay twice the amount to get half the amenities of everywhere else in Thailand. This is a place that is trying to go more upmarket and move away from it's backpacker beginnings. If you're going more upmarket you have to do more than just charge high prices!

The overspill of rubbish and the general ugliness of the buildings has a big impact on the two main beaches that are on either side of the sand bar. It makes them not particularly nice places to hang around during the day. It's a real shame too as they are stunning locations. The beach to the North of the sand bar, Ao Lo Dalam, also has the additional problem of what appears to be some stinky discharge from a water treatment plant oozing out onto the beach. Adding a rather strange sheen and nasty odour to the shallow lagoon of water.

It's hard to be overly critical given everything that the people here have been through as a result of the tsunami but without a little more care there's a risk that the man made mess will turn the tourists away.

Thankfully it's fairly easy to escape from the worst bits of the man made mess on Ko Phi Phi.
About a half hour walk, or a couple of minutes in a long tail boat around the coast from Ton Sai Village is the stunning beach of Hat Yao (Long Beach). Thankfully the beach here is a lot less developed and devoid of litter and stinky effluent. It's also a great beach for snorkeling from as there is a large coral reef just off shore. Although this has the disadvantage of making the sand really sharp under foot.

Ko Phi Phi is reputedly one of the worlds top dive sites, in particular the waters off the uninhabited Phi Phi Lay. We took a half day boat trip for a bit of snorkel ling there and saw a stunning array of fish and coral including lion fish, clown fish, moray eels and giant parrot fish.

As part of the boat trip you also get to visit a few of the other sights of the Phi Phi islands including Monkey Beach (there were no monkeys on our visit), Viking Cave (where swiftlet nests are collected for birds nest soup) and Maya Bay where the film of the Alex Garland book The Beach was made. Unfortunately the timing of our sunset visit to Maya Bay coincided with low tide so we got to see the mud flats of the bay rather than the shimmering lagoon that was seen in the film!

Last night, being a full moon, saw the now obligatory full moon party. This being Ko Phi Phi was more of a full moon party "lite" with lots of really lame dance music. If I hear Bob Sinclair's love generation one more time there might be a DJ related accident!

06 February 2009

Snow joke

Oh no it looks like Blighty is having a bit of a belated white christmas! Our advice is to try to stay warm!


Phuket part 1

We're currently on Phuket, which is the largest of Thailands islands, situated on the Southwestern side of the country in the Andaman Sea.

A few people had warned us that Phuket wasn't particularly nice and had become horribly over developed. As we made our way from the airport we feared that the warnings were looking like they may be correct. The first main resort we passed through, Patong, looked like all the worst bits of the Costa Del Sol had been lumped together, transported half way around the world and dumped on the back of the beach. A chaotic sprawl of ugly, characterless, high rise buildings. Patong also has a reputation of being one of Thailands premier resorts for sex tourists and is rammed full of go-go bars, sleazy clubs and of course the odd ladyboy or two.

The next resort down the coast, Karon, looked marginally better but still didn't set our pulses racing.

Thankfully the town where we are staying, called Kata, is much more like it. The beach here is the most beautiful we've been to so far on this trip. A mile long arc of white sand with crystal clear warm blue sea, backed by a small strip of mangrove. After 28 days in Myanmar it feels like we've arrived in nirvana.

Thankfully the town is also a lot more restrained than Patong and Karon, being set back from the beach and blending into the surrounding tree lined hills. The resort is predominantly used by Scandinavian, German and Italian tourists and so there's a different (dare we say nicer), quiter atmosphere than usual. Liz is getting sacred that she's turning into an old fogey being as she is enjoying the peace and quiet so much!

We have 4 days here in total, tomorrow we take the boat across to Ko Phi Phi and then onto Railay. Then we head back here to Kata where we'll meet up with our first visitor, Anne.

Despite the beaty of the resort the new warning signs and a small amount of the remaining rebuilding work that is still underway give a sobering reminder of the tsunami that struck here a on Boxing Day a little over 4 years ago. More than 6000 people died in on Thailand's Andaman Coast when a 15m high wave flattened the shoreline.

Our travel tips for Myanmar / Burma

There is an ongoing debate about whether traveling to Myanmar / Burma is the right thing to do or not given the recent history and current political situation within the country.

I don't want to get into the pros and cons of the travel boycott that was requested by Aung San Suu Kyi and endorsed by the then British prime minister, Tony Blair. But what we would recommend is that before anyone comes here is to fully understand the situation on the ground and to decide for themselves if they think they should or should not come.

We virtually always travel with a Lonely Planet guide book for every country that we go to. Although the current 9th edition for Myanmar / Burma is a little old (published in 2005) and some of the information a bit out of date, I would not recommend that anyone considered coming to the country without it. The book clearly outlines both sides of the travel boycott argument, fully details the places you can and can't go, the things you can and can't discuss, the history and political issues.

It's inevitable that by traveling here some of the money you spend will end up in the hands of the military junta. The Lonely Planet also details how to minimise this and to ensure that you maximise your effect on the local population.

I think that there is a also a fair amount of fear spread by some people in the Western media and other tourists (who probably haven't been there) that travel to Myanmar is unsafe and you are likely to end up in some sort of gulag if you go. This will not happen unless you are foolish enough to turn your trip into a political crusade (and get caught!).

So having spent 28 days in Myanmar what are our thoughts on it and what additional advice would we give people from our experience?

Well conditions and traveling here are fairly tough, easily the worst / hardest I have experienced. Before we came a few people had warned us that coming here was a little bit like traveling back in time 50 years. Sometimes it felt like a lot longer. Once you get out of the capital, Yangon, the main forms of privately owned transport appear to be of the non-motorised variety; horse and cart, ox cart, bicycle and tri-shaw.

Whilst we were in Kalaw we were taking to a missionary who had been working there on and off for over 50 years and in that time the conditions had hardly changed, in fact some had got worse!

Traveling any distance overland is incredibly time consuming and frustrating. The trains are unbelievably slow, run at incredibly stupid times, usually run many hours late, are prone to frequent breakdowns, joggle your internal organs around like you are on a bucking bronco and more often than not are quite filthy. Planning travel by train is also quite difficult as there are few published timetables and if you can find one it will probably be out of date.

Traveling by road is not much better, although rather surprisingly it is often faster than rail. We can't comment much on the buses as we never found one that was going the right place at the right time. We saw quite a few though and most looked like fairly ropey 1930's style sharabangs that pre-war Brits would have gone to Skeggy in.
Although hiring a taxi gives you the convenience of traveling where and when you want it is also really expensive if you want to go any further than across town. The taxis are also mostly 70's and 80's Toyotas and Nissans that are largely held together with tie wraps and sellotape. God knows when any of them last had a change of brake pads! Plus the condition of the roads themselves are really poor, more pot holes than tarmac.

Our advice for any travelers coming here would be to fly between the main cities. It's not the best way to see the countryside or meet the local people. However it's quite often not much more expensive than the overpriced (for tourists) train tickets, cheaper than by car, quicker, easier, more convenient, more comfortable, less dirty, less hassle . . .

The first problem that most visitors to Myanmar will encounter is the money. As detailed on an older blog posting there are no banking facilities open to tourists, credit card and debit cards don't work in most places (apart from some of the top end hotels) and travelers cheques are mostly useless. This means you have to bring all your money that you may need (in US dollars) into the country with you. Not really the most comfortable thing, carting a months worth of money around with you.

The inability to get more money if you need it can be a real problem too and means that you have to be really careful of overspending anywhere. We met several tourists who ran short of money before the end of their stays here and were having to hole up in a hotel until their flight out! Bring more money than you think you may need.

Changing money is also a slightly shady task which requires the use of the black market if you are to get anything like a sensible exchange rate. You have to be really careful when you change money as there are plenty of shysters who will try and trick and con you. Get a recommendation from someone and avoid using people who approach you on the street (especially those with the best exchange rates). I would also change as much money as you can in Yangon as the exchange rate outside of the capital can be worse by up to 20%.

Finding good food and nice places to eat was also quite difficult. Most restaurants fall into the grubby "hole in the wall" type. One evening in particular in Mandalay springs to mind which highlights the typical conditions. We were sat on small plastic chairs that would be about the right size for a primary school child and were eating a surprisingly good Chinese meal. Sat at an adjacent table was an old local boy who spent most of his time hacking up the contents of his lungs and spitting them onto the restaurant floor. To help improve the general ambiance a small dog wandered over to where our table was and proceeded to empty the contents of his bladder onto the floor. It wasn't like that when we went to Claridges!

Evening entertainment is also fairly thin on the ground. There is no real bar or club scene so to speak. If there was one the combination of the 11 o'clock curfew and constant power cuts would put a bit of a dampener on things. By 9pm most nights the majority of restaurants and bars are shutting up for the night.

I think our top food tip is to stick to the local style, Chinese and Indian dishes as some of the interpretations of Western food have been a little strange to say the least. A couple of Italian dishes that Liz had spring to mind, a spaghetti bolognese that tasted of pernod and a pizza with a base that appeared (in both size and texture) to be made from a digestive biscuit.

One of the other peculiarities is the intermitency of the electricity supply. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind it (other than they can), but the government / military turn off the domestic electricity supply on a daily basis, usually during daylight hours but at other random intervals too. This usually results in no hot water for your shower (or the shower going off whilst you are in it), the restaurant you are sat in being plunged into darkness (until they get the generators started) or you missing the end of the film you've just spent the last hour and a half watching.

So if those are the difficult bits what are the good bits? Well actually most of the difficult stuff is actually great fun too, or at least character building (apart from those soul destroying trains!) They are a big part of what makes travel and being here a so different.

The obvious good thing about Myanmar is some of its sights and attractions. Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, the ancient cities around Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Bago were all fantastic places to visit (just make sure you fly between them!). We would have also liked to have tried Ngapali Beach in the Bay of Bengal but backpacker budgetary requirements prevented us from doing so.

The other amazing thing about coming here is the People. Despite living under a quite ruthless military regime and with a large proportion of the population in severe poverty, you are unlikely to meet a more welcoming and friendly people anywhere in the world. The local people are fiercely proud of their country and heritage (but not their government) and want to do everything they can to make sure you have a great time in Myanmar. It's as if they want to make sure that all visitors go home with a positive message about the country and it's people, a message other than the usual ones about the military regime.

Everywhere you go people just want to stop and talk to you, ask you questions and find out about where you are from. At first it's very odd and you keep thinking "what does this person want from me?" or "what are they trying to sell me?". In most cases it's nothing, it's just that they are really friendly, don't see many visitors here and want to talk and practice their English. At virtually every other monastery we went to the young monks would ask us to stay on so that we could help them with learning English.

As soon as someone finds out you're from England the conversation will go something along the lines of "Ah, England . . . football . . . Rooney!" and then you'll be drawn into a discussion on all of the latest issues on the Premier League. And you won't be able to catch them out as everyone seems to have an encyclopedic level of knowledge that would put Stato to shame.

So if you are willing to put up with some challenging living, traveling and eating conditions then you will see some great things and meet lots of fantastic people . . . just make sure you stay away from those trains!

Freedom to blog

Due to the freedom of speech restrictions within Myanmar we've been unable to access the blog properly. The government owns the only internet service provider in the country and places severe restrictions on the websites that can and can't be accessed. The blogger site is one of those on the banned list.

Fortunately there is a way to update the blog by E-mail, so we've sort of been able to bypass the restrictions. We've had no idea how the postings have been coming out and we've had to be fairly mute on any comments about the junta. Normal service has now been resumed.