Saturday 29 September 2012

New videos uploaded - get them while they're fresh

If you're following me on Twitter or Facebook, you'll already have spotted that the new videos have uploaded. The link to my YouTube channel is down on the right side of this page. For those of you too lazy to scroll, here are the direct links:

My Channel (watch ALL the videos here)
Cruising the Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta - Tra Su Reserve
Tuk Tuk to Cheoung Ek (near Phnom Penh)
Bangkok - Silom Thai cooking school
Bridge over the River Kwai trip
Thai man doing his exercises on River Kwai trip
Koh Samui
Chiang Mai elephants
Chiang Mai waterfall


Friday 28 September 2012

More videos coming soon...

Just a quick note to say that I've got a pile of short videos ready to upload (the first one went up earlier) which cover the last month or so. We're currently in Luang Prabang (which is lovely by the way) but the internet is kind of slow here so it's proving difficult to get them up on YouTube.

I'll get some kicked off tonight before I turn in so hopefully by tomorrow they'll have arrived in internet land by tomorrow and you'll have an excuse not to do any work on Monday morning.

Hopefully by then I'll also have a couple more blogs finished and ready to upload. 

Don't go far...

Current location: Luang Prabang until Tuesday
Next stop: Vientiane

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Chiang Mai – Elephants and Water Sports

10th-14th September

While taking the train is all very well, when you’re on a tight schedule and you need to get from Koh Samui to Chiang Mai, planes beat trains by about two clear days. It’s just as well we did fly because we arrived to reports of severe rail delays due to flooding north of Bangkok. But events were to prove that it was way too soon to be laughing in the face of the water gods...

We stayed in Chiang Mai for about a week, waiting for our Indian visas to come through, but my parents only had four days. Some of that time was spent relaxing in our nice hotel.

Fresh coconut water
Manathai Village hotel
The main event for us in Chiang Mai was the visit to the BaanChang elephant park, split over two days: day one, the elephants and day two, a walk up to a waterfall and then some white-water rafting.

There are dozens of elephant parks around Chiang Mai. We chose BaanChang because it doubles as a sanctuary for domesticated elephants (as opposed to wild elephants) and is funded by tourists like ourselves. Apart from a couple of new births, almost all the elephants have had to be bought from the original owners (sometimes costing as much as £50,000!) Sadly, some of these animals have been abused in their previous lives and bear scars from elephant hooks and machetes. Unfortunately, like all domesticated animals, they’re no longer capable of fending for themselves in the wild so BaanChang (which means 'Elephant Home') gives them a safe place to live and work.

We arrived at the park around 9am and were told to don our blue denim ‘Mahout’ uniforms.

Lookin' good in blue
A Mahout is what they call the elephant handlers – there’s one permanent Mahout for each animal. The uniforms were dual purpose: to protect us from dirt and scrapes but more importantly, the blue colour is recognised and trusted by the elephants – the last thing you want to do is annoy an elephant.

Our first job was to give the animals their mid-morning feed – sugar cane and bananas.

Feed me
Feed me now!
A thank you kiss from the baby elephant
Then it was time for lessons on how to command the elephants. Before you ride them it’s good to know the commands for ‘stop’, ‘go’, ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘sit down’ ('hao', 'pai', 'kuay' and kick right ear, 'kuay' and kick left ear, and 'non loong', in that order.) Then we all got the chance to take an elephant for a quick trip round the tree to practice what we’d learned.

"Non loong, er, I mean hao!"
"I can see my house from up here"
After lunch, it was time to take the elephants for their daily walk through the jungle.

Elephant train
Hello Mum
Mum, Dad and Nellie
How to get on an elephant - easy!

Trekking through the jungle
If you’re wondering why there are no photos of Karen on an elephant, it’s because she opted out. Apparently she used to work in a cake shop in Nuneaton when she was a teenager and had a bad experience with some buns and an elephant that wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’s not trusted one since.

Sad but true.

Finally, after an hour or so gallivanting through the forest, the elephants needed a drink and a wash. A Mahout’s work is never done.

Washing the elephants
Remember to clean behind the ears
Bath time's over
Perfectly balanced
Getting close to and spending some time with these magnificent beasts was a truly wonderful experience. They’re huge animals – you really get a sense of their raw power when you’re sitting on the back of one – and yet they’re very graceful and have distinct personalities. It’s hard not to get completely enchanted by those huge eyes and long eyelashes!

After we’d showered, we had a delicious dinner and as the sun set, gathered round the campfire for songs, magic tricks, dancing and laughter fuelled by some vicious-tasting rice spirit (which got better as the night went on…) These Mahouts sure know how to party.

Before we all retired to our rooms, our hosts brought out some floating lanterns for us to release into the night.

Dinner at BaanChang
Fly, fly!
Then next morning, after breakfast, we were bundled into the back of a jeep for our ‘adventure’ day. It turned out to be more of an adventure for me than I’d imagined.

The morning’s activity was a hike up to a waterfall. It was slightly more challenging than we’d expected due to the fact that the waterfall feeds a river, which the path followed and at various points, crossed. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for a young and fit specimen like myself but I’d only brought a pair of Crocs (or cheap Chinese copies) to wear on my feet. These had no grip. This was fine stepping on rocks and sand, but some of the crossings were on wet logs which for me might as well have been sheet ice.

I was 90% across one particular log when my left foot slipped. “Not a problem,” I thought as I fell, “I’ll just stick out a leg and stop my fall in this no-more-than-shin-deep water.” Shin-deep turned out to be James-deep.

I went completely under.

Luckily I’d had the foresight to wear my swim shorts that morning so after rescuing my bag and avoiding being swept downstream, I clambered out with nothing hurt but my pride.

I didn't slip on this log
Walking to the waterfall
Walking to the waterfall
Although I was now soaked from head to toe, I bravely carried on. I guess I'm just that kinda guy. 

When we got there, the waterfall was well worth the effort.

On a hot day, the breeze and spray from the falls was most welcome
Now I'm wet
I somehow managed to make it back down without falling again. I wasn’t safe yet - the water gods weren’t done with me. After we had lunch it was time for the white-water rafting…

Apparently, September is the best time of year to go rafting in Chiang Mai, because the monsoon season guarantees the best white-water conditions. In hindsight, perhaps not the best time to try the sport for the first time. The first bit of water was exciting, but nothing too strenuous. Because the waters were so high, they made us disembark and walk between jetties because one section was just a bit too mental. I should have noted the warning signs. The second section was slightly more challenging, but nothing too difficult until our boat captains steered us straight into our first medium-sized wave.

Completely unprepared for it, I was unceremoniously pinged pung launched out the boat like a champagne cork. Suddenly I was experiencing white-water rafting ‘sans-raft’ which is quite exhilarating, let me tell you. Unless you’re my wife and parents, who were treated to the distressing sight of their husband and eldest son disappearing (albeit briefly) under the frothing waves.

Luckily, due to the recent rains, the river was quite deep, so I wasn’t in much danger of hitting any rocks. Although it felt like longer, within seconds the boat captains had brought the raft around and I was being hauled back aboard by them with the help of my Dad. Panic over!

Kept hold of my paddle though.

For the record, I’d like to state now that I hold the water gods, whoever they might be in the highest esteem and if they ever got the impression in the past that I was somehow mocking them, then I unreservedly apologise. Point taken.

Back to Chiang Mai and we made sure the next day was explicitly excitement-free. Then, finally, it was time to wave good-bye to Mum and Dad.

I think they enjoyed their holiday – it was a bit hectic as we’d packed loads in, but it was lots of fun and it was great to share a piece of our travels with them.

Next time we’ll do something a bit less exciting, I promise!

Queen of the jungle
King of the jungle (and Dad)
Current location: Chiang Khong until tomorrow
Next stop: Laos and the slow boat to Luang Prabang

Monday 24 September 2012

Bangkok and Koh Samui

30th August-10th September 2012

Taking advantage of our newly acquired economies of scale, we were able to take a taxis from Siem Reap to the Cambodian–Thai border at Poipet and then on to Bangkok for not much more than the cost of taking the bus. The benefits include not having to wait for the rest of your fellow passengers on the other side of Thai customs and being taken directly to your hotel in Bangkok.

We had four days in Bangkok. We began with a cruise up the river on the river-bus, getting off at the Grand Palace. Karen and I had already seen the Palace on a previous visit so we left my parents to it while we sorted out some passport photos and train tickets.

Wat Arun
Bangkok river boat
Wat Phra Kaew (next to Grand Palace)
Their visit was cut short however when security guards started asking everyone to leave. On further questioning they were allowed to stay, as long as they sat down and kept quiet. Mystified, they complied only to be treated to a visit from the Queen of Thailand who was there as part of her birthday celebrations. Unfortunately they weren’t allowed to take photos – this was the best they could get.

It started pouring with rain shortly after this photo
The next day was fairly relaxed, we went to the weekend market at Chatuchak for a couple of hours and that was plenty. Good job too because I’d earlier agreed to accompany my Dad on a day-trip to the Bridge over the River Kwai. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the train leaves at 6.30am from Bangkok station so it was an early night for me.

So, while my Mum and Karen spent Sunday reading, having lunch and getting pampered at a local spa, my Dad and I were up with the larks and off to Burma (almost). After leaving Bangkok, the train goes through Kanchanaburi, crosses the river Kwai (which, incidentally, had to be renamed as the famous bridge didn’t cross the actual river Kwai but a different river – not a problem until tourists started arriving and asking questions…) before finally ending up at Nam Tok. First stop though was at Nakhon Pathom to visit a large Buddhist stupa. And breakfast!

Stupa at Nakhon Pathom
Thai man doing his morning exercises outside the stupa
Half a chicken on a stick - these were good
Then, it was on to Kanchanaburi, and shortly beyond it, the bridge itself.

Dad driving the train backwards
The Bridge over the River Kwai
Dad on the bridge
The journey continued along a combination of seemingly endless straights, winding around cliffs and rivers, the line finally ending at Nam Tok where there was an old locomotive, a waterfall you could swim in (we forgot our trunks), and lunch.

Dad in his element
Waterfalls and pools at Nam Tok
Yummy Tom Yum Goong
'Can I have some too?'
Then, all we had to do was take the same train back to Bangkok.

'Heylp, heylp, somebody save me...'
'Betcha can't stand with your legs like this...!"
'I'll take that bet'
Waiting for the train
We got back to Bangkok at about 8pm – a long day, but a good day. Also, a total bargain at only 120 baht (£2.40) per ticket - about 20p per hour! I'll have to watch the film/read the book now.

After all that excitement we needed a day off and spent it wandering around Silom, having lunch and sharing a couple of bottles of wine - a rare treat for us in Asia. On our final day we'd booked a cooking class at the Silom Thai cooking school, the very same one that Karen and I went to on our first trip to Thailand four years ago. The class was every bit as good as we remembered.

Goong, our teacher for the day
Thai herbs and spices
The Hoskins
Dad with his tom ka gai ingredients
Hang on, who's that guy on the left?
We cooked red curry, fish cakes, glass noodle salad and chicken with cashew nuts but my favourite as always was the tom ka gai – chicken with galangal in coconut soup. So simple to make yet so very, very tasty.

That evening we all boarded a sleeper train to Koh Samui. Toilets aside, these were the cleanest and most comfortable trains we’d been in in Asia. For example, the blindingly white sheets were still warm from being freshly pressed when they were brought to our cabin. Luxury!

Fresh sheets on the sleeper train
Should I put beer in this glass?
As per usual when I’m on a sleeper train, my bladder decided to wake me four times during the night. Shouldn’t have had that beer before bedtime.

We arrived in Surat Thani fairly well rested. Luckily, Karen had had the foresight to pre-book tickets for the bus connection to the pier and then the ferry ride to Koh Samui itself. She also had the foresight to take some motion sickness pills and just as well because the sea was very choppy so thankfully no repeat of the trip to Macao!

Our hotel was literally right on the beach (Mae Nam beach in the north),really quiet and extremely relaxing. All we did was spend the days sunbathing, drinking coconut smoothies, reading and swimming (dodging the occasional shoal of jellyfish!) while the evenings were spent playing cards (canasta) and eating at some of the many beach-side restaurants.

Oh, and I also decided it was time for my parents to try some durian.

Durian goes down a storm with Mum and Dad

Here are some photos to make you jealous!

The warmest sea I've ever swam (swum? swimmed?) in
Coconut smoothies - that's my 'Mmmm, that's good' face
View from the bar with Koh Pha Ngan in the distance
View along Mae Nam beach
Beach hut (not ours sadly, we were a whole 10 metres further back)
This dog spent hours sitting in the sea staring into the water looking for crabs
Look! That dog's still there!
It was truly a tropical paradise.

I wish we could have stayed longer but there was more fun to be had up in Chiang Mai. Make sure you don't miss that one...

Current location: Chiang Khong
Next stop: Laos