Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chiang Mai, Mae Sai, Thailand

After bus burnout we flew 1 hour from Luang Prabang in Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived on a Sunday which is the biggest market day and her indoors was overwhelmed with the choice of bargains while I escaped the shopping mayhem in an internet cafe with a large beer. It's a bit too touristy here for my liking but it's not too hard to escape the minibus tours if you try.

We rented a scooter and visited the nearby attractions including an elephant sanctuary where the talented trunked ones have been trained to paint. Yes you heard right, they actually paint, play football and various other impressive tasks.

Elephant Painter!

There's also a somewhat touristy tribal village where the infamous 'long neck' women live. They never take off the metal bindings around their neck from a young age. Over time the neck elongates and if they were to take off the bindings they risk breaking the spine as the neck muscles would not be able to support weight of the head unassisted. It's all a bit bizarre as you roam around the village and you can't help thinking that at this point it's no longer about preserving the culture but more about fleecing tourists in a kind of carnival freak show.

Long Neck Women

Seven hours north of Chiang Mai is the most northerly town in Thailand called Mae Sai where we had to spend the night as we waited for the border to open and get our visas for Myanmar (Burma). Our original plan was just to hop across the border into Talichek, Myanmar for the day but after chatting with a French woman who had just spent a week in Burma we decided to head to a small town called Kengtung. It was a decision we would not regret as it is a world removed from tourists but more on that next post. More photos of Chiang Mai in the slideshow below.
Click on map to enlarge

Tags: ..Chiang Mai, Mae Sai, Thailand..

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Monday, 27 July 2009

Laos - Vientiane - Luang Prabang

I've been on my fair share of long bus rides (like this one - here) but these two back to back rides are right up there with the All Stars.

A minibus picked us up at our hotel in Hanoi at 5pm and dropped us at the bus station for our " 20 hour VIP sleeping bus" to Vientiane which eventually left 3.5 hours later. It was comfortable enough until it stopped 15 minutes later and another 10 locals were squeezed in sitting on the aisle. It's fairly common in these parts for the driver to make some extra cash by carrying passengers off the books, under the table or in this case on the floor.

We were lucky there was a toilet on the bus but to get to it you had to summon the conductor to unlock it and then tip toe around the bodies stretched out on the floor before you reached the piss puddle - yes that's right there was a good 2 inches of urine on the floor and the bus had a no shoe policy - just lovely!

We arrived at the border at 6am and waited an hour for it to open before crossing into Laos. At 5pm (24 hours after we set out) we finally arrived in Vientiane where we jumped in a pickup truck which would bring us to the centre via an ATM as nobody had local currency (Kips). After 3 ATMs refused to give money finally the fourth seemed to cooperate but then the unthinkable happened. The frikkin' machine swallowed my card and no cash came out - SHITE!!!!!!

Vientiane, Laos

I changed the last of my u$d which just enough for a room and a meal for the night. It would take another 24 hours and 3 trips (1 hour round trip) to the banks head office before I would retrieve my card and get refunded for a phantom withdrawal.

With no rest for the wicked we jumped on another 10 hour overnight bus north to Luang Prabang. Once again the locals sang the vomit national anthem all the way. I feel bad for them as I presume they are more prone to motion sickness but when we hit a bump and the over spill from a bucket landed on my ankle my tolerance level was being tested severely. A few unfortunate people who left their bags on the floor got a new coat of puke paint as the rivers of bile meandered along the floor of the bus.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang itself is a beautiful spot and we recovered from the puke extravaganza eventually but decided with conviction, we would fly to our next destination.

Click on map to enlarge

Tags: ..Laos - Vientiane - Luang Prabang..

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Friday, 24 July 2009

Vietnam - Ho Chi Min City - Hanoi City

From Phnom Penh we headed south and crossed the border into Vietnam where we arrived at Ho Chi Min City. HCMC is just a blur of motorbikes on the roads scattering like ants in bizarre sort of ordered chaos. I'd already spent a long weekend here back in April so I'll revert to the photos and previous post here

Ho Chi Min City

As we flew from HCMC to Hanoi in the north an unfortunate theme started to emerge. Quite a few locals were throwing up on the plane despite the smooth flight. As we jumped into a shared minibus the driver handed out puke bags for the 45 minute trip to the city centre. Sure enough, three locals serenaded us with a chorus of gut wrenching and stomach churning and dutifully filled their bags to the brim. As the waft of vomit filled the minbus another local would tag the next culprit to continue the game of puke dominoes.

The weather turned sour on us in Hanoi and threatened to cut the trip short as most of SE Asia was a wash out but after waiting a few days as the heavens poured down we took a gamble to move on to Laos. The gamble paid off but unfortunately the puke theme stuck with us a while longer. More on that cheerful topic next post.

Tags: ..Vietnam - Ho Chi Min City - Hanoi City..

Click Map to enlarge

Hanoi City

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is 6 hours from Siam Reap. It's a poverty stricken, polluted, congested mess. Besides the Royal Palace and Sillver Pagoda there is not much pleasing on the eyes. It looks like a huge shanty town and given the number of kids begging for money it's not far off.

A visit to the killing fields of Choeung Ek 16kms outside the city is a stark reminder of just how brutal the Khymer Rouge really were under Pol Pot. If that doesn't depress you then a visit to Tuol Sleng, a school turned it a torture and execution prison surely will.The Kymer Rouge were responsible for some 2 million deaths.

They eliminated the use of money and closed most hospitals and schools.They systematically killed educated people who they deemed dangerous and even people who wore spectacles became targets. They ruled by extreme fear and are regarded as more brutal than the Nazis.

Inexplicably, the UN allowed the Khymer Rouge to occupy the Cambodian seat at the UN General Assembly until 1991?

Tags: ..Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia..

Click right corner of Photo Slide to see larger images in new window

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Monday, 20 July 2009

Siem Reap - Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Apart from the Khymer Rouge, Cambodia is probably best known for the temple ruins of Angkor Wat which is a short hop from Siam Reap. If you team up and have 4 people you can hire a large tuk tuk and driver for the day for less than u$d4 each or go solo on a bicycle for u$d2 It's very spread out so I recommend the former as the heat saps your energy even when your fat arse is being chauffered around.

Although the official currency is the Riel the u$d is the money of choice especially for tourists. Unfortunately photos (well my photos) don't do the place justice but trust me this truly is a magical place and worth the hassles of the border crossing from the previous post.

Click map to enlarge

Tags: ..Siam Reap - Angkor Wat, Cambodia..

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

How to avoid the scams crossing the border from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia (Got lottsa money?)

How to avoid the scams crossing the border from Bangkok, Thailand to Siam Reap, Cambodia

What are the scams?

Most involve overcharging for transport, visas, accomodation.

Who is in on the scams?

Basically everybody including the travel agent who sells you the bus ticket, the bus driver who takes the long way so you arrive tired and late, the guest house where the driver drops you that overcharges, the tuk tuk drivers that detour to an unofficial visa issuer, the official immigration guards who try to tag on extra bogus fees, the Cambodian ministry for tourism who provide a 'free' shuttle to the connecting bus which "just left" so you have to take a taxi from the border to Siam Reap, the taxi driver who drops you at a tuk tuk stand outside town where you are pushed to use their tuk tuk to explore Ankor Wat and so on.

What you should and shouldn't do.

Do not involve a third party e.g. travel agent to make any of the arrangements. Go to the northern bus station in Bangkok and buy your ticket (u$d 5) to Aranypathet on the Thai border. Take a tuk tuk (u$d 2) for a short hop to Poipet where you cross the border. If the driver does a detour (and he will) or if a tout tries to jump in your tuk tuk just say no and insist he take you directly to the border as this is a scam to overcharge you for the visa.
When you get to the border you'll likely gain a shadow. Some annoying tout trying to sell you onward travel so ignore him but accept he won't go away. First you clear Thai immigration then you have to clear Cambodian health screening and then you need to get your visa.

Despite the fact there is a big sign saying 'u$d 20 - tourist visa' the immigration official will try and charge you extra. First they wanted us to pay using Thai baht as this would bump us to the top of the queue. If we didn't have Thai Baht we could exchange u$d25 for the required amount. When we refused they weren't happy and left us waiting. Next they agreed to let us pay in u$d but in our case he said u$d 5 extra because it was a visa on arrival. When we refused we were left waiting again but now the surcharge had dropped to u$d 2. Again we refused and finally after some cold dirty looks we finally got our visa for u$d20. We met some peeps in queue who paid u$d35. It's not a lot of money but it's the principal. I don't like to be fucked over.

After clearing immigration on the Cambodian side we still had to get 200kms to Siam Reap. Our tout shadow was still lingering and had multiplied into 4 people who told us a free shuttle would take us to the nearby bus station. Sure enough a bus with 'Cambodian Ministry of Tourism' took us to the bus station where none too surprisingly we were told we had just missed the last bus and would have to get a taxi for u$d52 which was posted on a large sign. After some haggling and threatening to hail a taxi on the street this was reduced to u$d40 and since we teamed up with another couple it was just u$d10 each i.e the same price as a non AC sweaty bus. 3 hours later we were drinking beers in Siam Reap content in the knowledge we had beaten the scam-bags!

Note: the infamously bumpy nightmare dirt road between Poipet and Siam Reap is now a smooth sealed road finished in May 2009.
Tags: How to avoid the scams crossing the border from Bangkok, Thailand to Siam Reap..

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Thailand - Ko Phi Phi, Phucket, Ko Samui, Ko Tao

Click map to enlarge
Ladyboys get a discount!

After a few days in Ko Phi Phi we headed by boat directly to Phucket which was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004. It has recovered well and is much more developed than when I passed thru here way back in 1994.

Sex is the big tourist draw here although vacationing couples with kids walk the same path as 60 year old men with young Thai girls latched on to them. Scantily clad young ladies and ladyboys proposition you for a massage as you walk by dodgy looking massage parlours. It's sad but true this is the only way many of the locals make a living.

The shops and stalls start the haggle price ludicrously high and are unusually angry if they don't succeed to make a sale. After 3 days in Phucket we took a minibus to a bus to a boat in Surat Thani to reach the infamous island of Ko Samui.

After fending off taxi rip off touts at the port we had to hoof it 1km then perform a delicate balancing act of the two of us plus bags plus driver on one motorbike for 2kms to the main road where we flagged down a pickup truck to bring us to town.

Ko Tao was the next island hop on the itinerary and it's famous for diving and snorkelling. The coral is amazingly beautiful and if you took a little bread into the water you were immediately surrounded by a feeding frenzy of fish which would nip at your fingers.

From Ko Tao it was another 2 hours by fast catamaran back to the mainland to Chumphon and then 6 hours by bus to Bangkok. It's bizzare that in a city this size the majority of the budget accomodation is concentrated around 4 blocks near Banglamphu / Khao San. U$D12 will get you a clean room with AC and TV right smack in the middle of the action.

Maybe too near the action as we discovered on our last night as the thumping bass from the loud party in the bar next door was still going strong at 4am. After barely 3 hours sleep we tried to check out but the poor night porter obviously didn't get much sleep either as it took forever to wake him. Now we are headed to Cambodia and will try and avoid the numerous scams crossing the border. More on the scams later.

Tags: ..:Thailand - Ko Tao, Phucket,Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samui..

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Saturday, 11 July 2009

Malaysia to Thailand

Kuala Lumpur

Flights are cheap down here so from Bali we bought tickets at the airport to Kuala Lumpur where we spent a fairly uneventful few days before buying another cheap plane ticket to the poular island gem of Langkawi just off the north east coast of Malaysia. It's a duty free zone where you can get the cheapest liquor I've ever bought e.g. u$d8 for a decent brand of rum and u$d10 for whiskey. Needless to say I sampled a few and since we were leaving by boat my backpack doubled in weight as I ditched some clothes to make room for a bottle or two.


We left Langkawai from the port of Kuah (without time to get Thai money - Baht) and went by boat to Satun in the south of Thailand. On arrival we jumped in the back of a sawngthaew (pick up truck) and had a hell of a time getting the driver to accepy Malay money. No ATM or FX at the bus station compounded problems but we eventually persuaded the ticket agent to convert some USD into Thai Baht.

Bus journeys seem to be one extreme or the other as we first had a microwave oven rust bucket for 3 hours to Trang (where I exchanged more USD to Thai Baht from some helpful Irish lasses. It seems like half of Irelands student population is in Thailand as it's cheaper to live here for the summer than back home. In Trang we connected with 3 hour frisdge freezer rust bucket to Krabi. The following morning after topping up funds (3 attempts at the ATM - Phew!) we went by boat to the much lauded island of Ko Phi Phi.

Sadly this jewel is being choked by it's own success and a good chunk of the beaches are polluted necessitating litter removal (plastic bags, bottles cans) three times a day. You need to hire a boat (be preapred to haggle hard) to reach the some incredibly beautiful and unspoilt islands and lagoons just off the main island. These truly are spectacular and right up there on the WOW factor - think of the movie 'The Beach' and you'll get the idea.

Tags: ..Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Ko Phi Phi Thailand..

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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Indonesia - Bali

Gunung Bromo

I'm a tad behind on the travelogue and inexcusably behind on blog visits (apologies and thanks to those who keep reading this drivel) but the laptop is still fecked (yeah that naughty PC nurse didn't do the job she was supposed to) so I don't connect that often.

We finished off Java on a high (literally) as we scaled Gunung Bromo, an active volcano and watched the sunrise. I have some great photos but they're on the frikkin' laptop :-(

Next we went by bus then boat to Bali (14 long hours) where we stayed in the ín' spot of Kuta. Bali was not quite waht we expected. The beaches were disappointing and Kuta was just a tad tacky. If you're a twenty something backpacker then it's heaven and you can venture further north for some peace and quiet but it's average at best. Maybe I'm getting old but I'm just not sure what all the fuss is about of Bali the beach heaven? It looks good at sunset but not great at midday. We did find heading inland to the tranquil town of Ubud to be the highlight. Lombok and the Gillie isles get good press so maybe another visit is required.

Sunset Bali

Tags: ..Gunung Bromo, Kuta Bali Sunset..

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Saturday, 4 July 2009

Is there a Doctor in the house?

I'm finally back in civilization so taking my laptop to the PC Doctor later today.

Wish me lucky 'long-time!' - Happy Endings and all that good stuff!

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