Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Final Chapter

So here I am, sitting at my computer at home in rainy Hampshire. For at least a while my travels are over and I have the not so easy task of trying to sum up what this means. Like any large transition in life it involves a mixture of emotions and these were mine:

There I was, my last night on Phi Phi, Bucket fed and sitting in the sea under a three-quarter moon with my trousers on. Gutted. No other way to describe how I felt but gutted. Here was all this beauty and opportunity and it was slipping through my fingers. Where had the last year gone? How had this period of my life that I had longed for departed with such apparent ease? Life leaking away and out of my control.

The next morning Dave, Arron and I set off on the 16 hour journey back to Bangkok. The sinking feeling of the night before had been substituted with a point blank lack of emotion at to the imminent changes in my living situation. Watch Phi Phi disappear and past the stark juttings of Krabi without too much thought. Just get on with travel as usual, meet a nice bunch of people, do standard random things and collapse before I even finish my Singh on the overnight bus.

The last day in Bangkok, that ultimate fairyland of backpackers, my last day of travel. Once the mundane tasks are out of the way, a heightened and sharp annoyance with the whole situation takes over. Solution - beer. Slightly crazy Dutch guy from a month ago joins the boys and we hit the giraffes (3 litres of Chang in an ice cooled tower) hard. Narrowly decide not to get a ‘Carpe Diem’ tattoo.

Sombre attitude alleviated by final contemplative walks and meeting up with lasses from the journey back from Phi Phi. A last rush of laughs, drinks and squeezing of every last minute takes over. Throw my bag on my shoulder and say adios with an inane grin on my face.

Bugger…. I forget to give Dave the Kleiner Welt Atlas that a certain German gave me at the end of his travel 7 months ago with the promise to pass it on to a worthy recipient. Leave all possessions with Israeli couple and run more than mildly inebriated down the Khao San Road one last time – dump the book with the gals and sprint back to the bus for all I’m worth.

Enter the airport half cut wearing a singlet, thongs, pink glasses and Mr Brightside booming in my ears on repeat… everything dandy… DOUBLE BUGGER – manage to lose my bag containing not only all my money and cards but my passport God damn it… think of Mik… you’ve really blown it this time haven’t you… run with big bag on back and glasses to information, BA desk, police… no sign of bag anywhere… oh well you can’t argue with fate - back to the pub then… no… no… I have to go home…gate closes in a few minutes… think James think, where on earth could I have lost it… faint glimpse of an important memory… swinging trolley round a corner… BINGO… relief… my bag and everything in it… sweating but happy they let me on the plane… take off over uncountable lights of the metropolis… slumber…collapse.

Bump bump tschhhhh. Back on home soil. Familiar accents, buildings and ease. Friendly passport control, bag intact and I’ve made it. It’s not so bad. Resolute about future travel but not entirely against the idea of getting on with my life. And there they are, not only my dad but Christina as well. Two of the people that I could not but return for.

The final leg of my journey. Striding off a train in the morning light, through the town and now past the lake with the familiar and reassuring weight of my pack on my back. I had almost forgotten just how beautiful this part of the world is. A final thought for everything I am leaving behind, look forward with a genuine smile, walk through the door and surprise my mother. I’m Home.


This only leaves concluding words to thank everyone and everything that has made this year everything it has been. For opening my eyes and showing me just what life can and should mean and for setting me on my path.

A contemporary poet describes life as a bitter-sweet symphony – how accurate – a mixed bag of emotions, feelings and occurrence. Life like a symphony is not about its end but its journey. Every note is there to be grabbed, soaked up and savoured, bitter or sweet, whether you do so is up to you!

Paradise Islands

Back in Bangkok, a city that is really growing on me, and more specifically back in Sawasdee House, a place that has become like a second home during 6 weeks in the region. Bonus – Dave eventually found Arron having a few drinks with a bunch of randoms on the Khao San Road, and Double Bonus – Dan (university mate who set up a bar in Cambodia) and his lovely girlfriend Sokha were around. I was meant to meet them in Phnom Pehn but as circumstances had it would have missed them had it not been for Dave’s illness. So, despite Dave’s continued ailment and me feeling like shit after catching some bug in the hospital, we had a very pleasant night out on the giraffes. The only bad news was a ridiculous decision by the embassy to deny Sokha her tourist visa for England. I will not go into details but a disgrace.

Dan and Sokha

We woke up the next morning rather late and discovered that all the bus/boat tickets to Ko Phi Phi were sold out – bummer – only 8 days left and something is trying to stop us getting to a beach. What to do? Full moon party – no, not what I need. Flight - yes, no money left but with a bit of help from Arron we were at the airport within a couple of hours jumping on a flight to Phuket. Why not – go with the flow. We landed in package holiday central Phuket, dumped our stuff and despite relative knackeredness decided that as it was about to tick past midnight onto Dave’s 24th bday we had to do something. Phuket town was a ghost town, so the only option was the infamous (if it not infamous it should be) Patong. Problem – the only way to get there was with a rather inebriated looking man in his beamer. Solution - pay him to put the whisky and coke down and kiss the St Christopher's. A stupid decision as he was an absolute nutter, but we got there in the end and had a very interesting night. It was one of those occasions where you feel more of an observer than a participant.

In a rather small nutshell, Patong resembles one of those ghastly towns on the south coast of Spain invaded by hordes of Brits and Germans. Just add a much nicer beach and thousands of prostitutes. There are bars after bars, after strip-clubs after nightclubs of prostitutes, lady-boys, dirty old men and other tourists interested to have a look. It is rather strange to see quite a large number of foreign women revelling in all this debauchery, but simply disgusting to see how some of the men act.

Now, the concept of prostitution does not shock me and I do see arguments for not entirely condemning the practice. I have also realised as I have got older that the only thing that makes a dirty old man any dirtier then a younger man is his age. Society simply does not accept the same thoughts and attitudes from people of different age brackets. BUT, the way some of these men act is unforgiveable.

One man in particular was treating the girls so badly that I had this incredibly strong urge to smack him. Anybody who knows me knows I am not a violent person, but just the sight of this shit of a human made my blood boil. In the end I decided not to hit him but rather take pictures and publish them. Below is one fellow paying off the girls. I have other photos that I am trying to find an appropriate place to publish. Unfortunately I just missed the worst guy and I am ashamed to say that he was a fellow Brit.

So we had an interesting night, not all of it blood boiling (one incident with a conspicuous bulge in a ‘ladies’ pants and a seemingly unknowing customer was hilarious) and after very little sleep and a rip-off scam were on a boat cruising across the Andaman sea to the famed Ko Phi Phi.


This place hit the spot. An absolutely perfect final week to this nearly half a year in Asia and year travelling. All the ingredients of some great diving, hammocks, buckets, boxing ring, fiesta de carpe diem, cricket, sunshine, good company and incomparable scenery brewed together just right.

Aaron and I dived every other day, seeing leopard sharks, sea snakes, moray eels, rays, nudi branches, lion-fish, crown-of-thorns, barracuda, wonderful corals and numerous other wonderful things. The icing on the cake was Simon, a slightly crazy Dutch guy who led most of our dives. For one reason or another he had confidence in our diving and so we were able to do some rather exciting things such as entering into 3m swells, night dives, coping with massive currents and doing a great swim-through. It was all awesome and to cap it all off when you surface you have the astounding beauty of Phi Phi Leh or the Bida islands soaring in front of you.

When not diving, days were spent on the stunning beaches, sleeping (in Dave and Steve’s case) or chilling in hammocks. It is a real paradise. However many times I have seen people's pictures of these green clad limestone cliffs rising out of perfectly turquoise water and blessed with glittering golden sand beaches, and however good their pictures were, it did did not fully prepare me for what is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have had the privilege to enjoy.

Night times were just messy. Long periods spent on our balcony occasionally visited by random passers by were eventually broken by trips to Apaches, Hippies, Reggae Bar and Carpe Diem for inevitable buckets and the even more inevitable silliness that follows them. Below are a few appropriate photos (Dave you can thank me for leaving out the Gnome pictures - never mix antibiotics with buckets):

And also evidence of a certain second round knock out that was not in Dave’s favour:

Who wouldn’t agree to box in the middle of a bar for a couple of buckets. Pure hilarity and I have most of it on film. Personally I would like to dedicate the victory to my coach Arron and henceforth retire from boxing with an undefeated unanimous knockout record…….hmmmm.

A highlight of the week was a cruise to Phi Phi Leh on the final day. Despite Arron being hit by a long boat while snorkeling (seriously dangerous) and me smashing against the rocks trying to get to the beach (yes, there is a nutty hole in the cliffs that you scramble through to see the beach from ‘The Beach’) it was quite brilliant. The beach itself all but bought a tear to my eye and will be one of those special places locked in my brain. Amazingly the bay on the other side is equally magnificent and our last half an hour there messing about in the rain after most of the other boats had run on home was a perfect end to this trip.

The place is simply magical. Rather than further describe it I just recommend you go there.

This account has to include something that still hangs over the islands and will do for a long time to come. This paradise was devastated by the Tsunami of late 2004 and many lives were lost. The accounts you hear and effects you see and feel can not but affect you and your experience on the island. Many people complain about the direction the island is being lead by the mafia type people who run it, but as far as I was concerned it was still a very special place and the recent troubles are all the more reason to support it. The wave showed that nature still emphatically has the power to destroy us, but, I fear, we equally have the power to destroy nature. We have been given pretty damn close to heaven on earth – just don’t ruin it.



41.2 degrees Celsius.

The approximate temperature on Dave's forehead. After cycling around to find a phone and finding the insurance helpline lacking in the help department, we took the decision to get to Pakse as quick as possible. A walk and boat ride later we were arguing… correction, I was arguing (Dave was lying in a heap on his bag) with a man who gave us no choice but to pay $48 to take us in his minibus to Pakse. I made it clear I thought he was being unethical to say the least, but had no choice but to use his overpriced services.

Once in Pakse we stayed in a nice hotel the Dutch girls recommended, but Dave’s temperature was not decreasing sufficiently and hot and cold sweats, aches and shivers were a kind of hint that we should get more help. The advice from the Aussie embassy was to cross the border into Thailand, so a taxi, tuk tuk, pickup, and few hours later we were in Ubon, a mid-sized city just over the border. I asked for the best hospital in town and that is how we ended up here….

I won’t go into details of how the 3-4 days in hospital unfurled, but a whole lot of tests, x-rays, a couple of days in ICU (intensive care) due to shock and a whole lot of drips, injections and pills later we eventually walked out the hospital with a brand new set of plans.

The whole experience was rather shaky but I think Dave coped well. He can not remember a couple of the days. While he was lying there in a daze I spent most of my time arguing with the finance department (6 hours straight on the final day alone – try explaining the concept of a guarantee when they speak no English and do not even know how to type in a credit card number), fetching food from down the road, contacting Dave’s parents and Arron and sleeping on the sofa in Dave’s room.

In the end I have nothing but praise for the hospital and the local people. I do not think either of us have had more propositions in such a short space of time. The nurses just would not understand that maybe, just maybe Dave lying with 4 drips in his arm and me trying to sort everything out were not in the best of moods to be complimented and flirted with. That sounds like a complaint and was not meant as one. I became acquainted with members of the local council and owners of major restaurants/bars and was taken on free nights out. At one point, a man even invited me to stay for a month with him and his sister so that I could learn Thai. Lovely offer, but with just 10 days left of my year out nowhere but a beach would do.

When Dave eventually came to his senses he was understandably fidgety as they come and I had to almost pin him down so that we could get discharged and jump on a flight to the capital. Why the capital? Firstly because it has excellent medical facilities, but centrally because Arron (Dave’s best mate) had been waiting there for 3 days - we had to stop him jumping on his connecting flight to Cambodia or his planned two week holiday with Dave would have dematerialised. A couple of phone calls and a long series of emails later he was settled in Bangkok having a laugh waiting for the inbound invalid.

So farewell to Cambodia and days resting on the Mekong. All in all a really quite shit and not entirely unscary episode that changed all our plans. You never know what you are going to get, part of the reason why travelling is so addictive. Yes we lost experiences, time and money, but we discovered some of the friendliest people miles off any trail and ended up on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Life takes funny turns including an inevitable final one, but it puts a nice little smile on my face that you just never know what is coming – and to be honest I think life (and death) would be a lot less interesting if all its paths and riddles were straight forward.

A silver lining?

Four Thousand Islands, a Temple and a Couple of Hammocks

So after 2 days of travel and a surprisingly good night's sleep we jumped off a bus in Pakse (southernmost biggish town in Laos) only to jump onto to yet another bus heading further south. We arranged to jump off the bus after about an hour to see the one of the premier archaeological sights of this land - Wat Phou Champasak. Why is stuff usually such a bother? Because it is more interesting that way.

We had pre-arranged a price, but on leaving the bus a very irate bus driver demanded more money from us. It may work on other travellers, but a man angrily grabbing my stuff and shaking his fists in front of my face does not generally convince me of his point of view. In fact the opposite. Dave is the same way inclined and hence we just sat there and the whole bus had to wait for something close to an hour before anything could be settled. Laos is a beautiful country, with wonderful people, but such an influx of tourists and their dollars has undoubtedly spoiled parts of it. Maybe it should not, but the fact is it came as quite a shock that people's desire for the dollar would lead so immediately to violence in a devoutly Buddhist land and I believe it would be irresponsible travel to give into to such brutish behaviour. So the long and the short of it is that a number of people had to wait quite a long time before an English guy helped to solve the situation with some cards. A shout from a Scottish muppet on the bus that it is only 60 pence missed the point. It is not about money but principle. If you can stop people acting like this then you should for everyone concerned.

Wat Phou Champasak

Anyway, it was eventually sorted and we caught a boat across the Mekong and a tuk tuk through the countryside to the sacred hill that foster the dilapidated Angkorean era ruins. The pictures give some idea of the former glory of this temple and palace complex. What made it for me were (i) the peace and quite that came with being the first people at the sight, (ii) the lovely prayer women, (iii) the spectacular view of the Mekong flats stretching into the far distance and, of course, (iv) the funny black lizards jumping around our feet. Some of the carving was magnificent though the site needs significant reservation.

Back on the tuk tuk, across the river and eventually hitched onto a pickup truck. Four or so bumpy, rattly hours later we were jumping on another boat through one of the most special regions of South-East Asia. Just north of Cambodia are the so called 'Four Thousand Islands' (almost certainly less) in the middle of the Mekong. Picture numerous verdant islands poking out the fast-flowing deep red waters of the regions major river. A place to lie back, relax, search for river dolphins and stare at waterfalls – a hard life.

We stayed on one of the most southerly islands, Don Det. A bit of a backpacker hangout but if you stay away from the landing post it is suitably laid back. Thanks to the advice of the guy who aided the bus issue earlier – Charlie – we ended up in a seriously sorted situation. There were 4 little huts on stilts on the edge of the Mekong, each one costing only a dollar and including a swinging hammock on the veranda - paradise. Add the arrangement of Charlie in the far right hut, Dave and me with a hut each in the middle and 2 great Dutch girls who we met in the pickup on the far right and we had very little excuse to move from the hammocks.

So three days were certainly not wasted on the veranda, talking, drinking, reading and simply watching the Mekong rush by. The only series of significant action came on our penultimate night when, after I had just watched a small cat fight a very worryingly coloured snake on the path - I tried to help the cat but made a quick exit when my torch conked out at a perfectly inopportune time - we decided to go for a stroll and Samatha and I ended up walking the majority of the island in the pitch black until the first greys of day burst over the river and we jumped onto a boat bound for the waterfall. We were joined by a funny Czech couple (Dave went home not feeling best) and on reaching the destined river-bank, jumped on top of a bus (literally – a painful experience on Lao roads) and rode to the largest waterfall in South-east Asia.

I say a waterfall, it is more like a colossal rapid stretching before you. I was struck by the noise and force of the churning ochre water. Add sleep-deprivation, a wind-rushed bus ride and an eerie first light setting and the occasion starts to take body. Then back on top of the bus with the locals starting their day's work in the padi fields accompanied with surprisingly white buffalo and even more surprised expressions on the faces of locals as some stupid white people surfing on top of a big bus rushed by.

I liked this place so much that I planned to give up some days in northern Cambodia to stay in that incomparable hammock. But….. life has a way of choosing different paths. I woke up the next day to find Dave with a temperature of 41.2 degrees C (approx 105 degrees F), fever, shakes and aches. So there we were in a malaria hot spot, Cambodia beneath, Laos above and not a decent hospital within 6 hours. Definitely the start of a new story….

Northern Laos with Jessie and Vickie

Happy Siblings and the Mekong

The first thing I must put straight is why this blog is still under the title 'Siamese....' when I am writing about Laos (rather than Thailand). The answer to this barely a riddle is not that I wish to insult the Laoitian people or make a historical reference to certain occasions of Siamese dominance over their northern neighbours but that during 18 generally great days in Laos I was too laid back and distracted to stare at computers and by the time I have got round to a bit of blogging I am against all plans not still in Laos...nor in Cambodia... but back in Thailand in a mid-sized town known as Ubon - but more on that later!


After a very confused meeting with Jess following a standard night in Bangkok and a flight up to the border it, seemed right to start our time in Laos in a simply delectable restaurant in the village like capital of Vientiane.

There we were, Jessie (my lovely eldest sister - the shortest in the pictures), Vicky (a friend of Jess since she was even tinier then she is now), Dave (Dingo) and myself. A lively occasion of anticipation for what the next two weeks in this new country would hold - NO - 4 completely shattered people barely able to make it through the meal without falling on their plates. Oh well - better start the stories the next day.

After some wanderings around a town that has less life than Petersfield (where my mum lives) which included some nice shopping at a market, getting caught in a rainstorm and failing to see the famous Wat, the start to what was a wonderful couple of weeks was further delayed by a 'discussion' Dave and I had with our hotel. Without going into details of the proprietor's dispicable actions, the girls had to go on ahead of us and I had a chance to use some of those argumentational skills that I am meant to have or at least should have considering I am starting work a month today.........aaaahhhhhh!). During this period I also contracted my first illness for months. Again, c'est la vie - have patience with me starting one last time...

Two British boys jumped on a 'VIP' bus parked by a mighty sway of the Mekong river - a rushing red mass which was to be our companion throughout this startlingly beautiful land. On leaving the very downbeat capital (a real oddity in this part of the world) we were treated with scenery that improved to the point where it rivalled nearly any I have ever seen. A lush country of thick vegetation between lime-caste hills and rushing streams. It was a real delight and, despite a bit of flu, I drew some deep breaths of sweet South-East Asian air and moved back into my normal happy optimistic travelling self. The good vibes did not stop there. A big smile broke out on our faces when on arriving mid torrential downpour at the backpacker haven/hole (depends on who you talk to) of Vang Vieng, Jessie and Vicky were waiting for us and a cup of hot chocolate was waiting on the menu.

References to 'hole' are only applicable to the couple of streets of restaurants dedicating themselves to showing 'Friends' repeats and selling 'special' shakes. Like equivalent places all over the planet, there is very little connection to the host country.

The setting of the place is more than special. The closer we got the more lime-caste hills sprang up until we were in a fantasy-like landscape of dirty red water, deep green vegetation clung to pointy outcrops and enshrouding mist. For those who have been fortunate to visit the area around Guilin in China, the scenary is comparable though perhaps a patch less dramatic here in Laos. A perfect place to put the feet up, watch in wonder at the world around you and well... that's pretty nice isn't it.

We spent a couple of days in VV doing optimal activities to kick my flu - tubing and partaking in beverage.

Tubing - Something so simple, yet recommended to me from travellers far and wide, this essentially involves being dropped into the water a few miles upstream with a tube and your swimmies, lying in said tube and letting the mighty fast-flowing river (logs et al) take you down stream for a couple of hours. The journey is permeated by the flinging out of the occasional rope from a riverside bar and obligatory stop-off (a small panic ensued when Jessie floated past the landing point, fell out of her ring and clung to a piece the wooden jump point as a guy rescued her tyre-tube). For many this is an opportunity for a smoke and drink, but, as always, we were good.

One fun-filled activity we partook in ("we" meaning the boys) was to swing off a high raised platform over the river, pummel into the middle of the stream from some silly height, have just enough time to come to your senses, swim for all you worth to a rope dangling in the river and tug yourself back to relative safety. The trick is to judge your landing so to avoid the aforementioned chunky pieces of timber constantly floating down stream - nice. The most memorable part was simply lying back as the water flowed fast beneath and lashed from above. Time for a little chat and some jaw-dropping scenery viewing.

Beverage - A minor incident involving some salsa dancing with Israelis and the loss of a flip-flop. I swear I intended to stay dry, but it is impossible to watch and do nothing as Americans pretend they can drink and challenge you to a contest. They left in their wabbling place.

Very shortly after arriving back in from said night, I was on a bus (feeling surprisingly good) heading a days journey north to Luang Prabang - the raved about World Heritage Sight that was an old Lao capital. So I drifted to sleep flanked by continually remarkable scenery as the hills became slowly less pointy and larger - picture less fantasy more drama. On waking I realised my error. I had mistaken a lack of hangover with continued intoxication and had to do the standard shutting down trick as we wound are way up, down and around verdant hill to our northerly destination.


With aims of heading further pole-bound snubbed by little brown crawly things freaking my sister out, we ended up staying a full week in and around this simply delightful place. It is a decidedly low-key town (this is Loas after all) but is remarkably charming and has weeded its way into my 'favourite places' list if any such thing existed.

The heart of the town is a few parallel old streets situated in a thin peninsular formed by the mighty Mekong on one side and the Khan river on the other, the latter eventually wrapping around the northern end of the town as the waterways converge. These streets are filled with an interesting mixture of hundreds of year old Wats and palaces alongside charming French colonial era maisons and restaurants. This allows you to spend your days in long cafe sessions (the French really do/did know a lot about food) punctuated by leisurely walks, river cruises and finised off with a few drinks in the minuscule 'lively' pocket of town just over the hill.

There is nothing like sitting back with a drink and good company as something as magnificent as the Mekong flows to your side. What affected me most was the silence of the monster. So many thousands of cubic tons of water and..... nothing. I have seen no example of man so wondrously combining peace and power. Relaxing in the awesome shadow of nature - I love it. Add the marvellous view from the 'mountain', the knowledge that somewhere in this river are couple of meter long catfish and the occasional trip to the after-hours Vietnam bar and you have a great place to just chill.


It is a shortish trip away from town to a piece of protected rain forest that contains Kuang Xi waterfall. That we made this trip no less then 3 times gives an illustration of how great it is. Out of the rain forest and down a series of beautiful and spectacular terraces runs, roars and trickles a 30m waterfall. Apart from the opportunity of feeding a healthy looking tiger, the highlight were a number of natural pools which you could jump in and swim around. Crystal blue and just a little bit chilly, they were refreshing in the heat.

The higher you climbed and the more 'Danger' signs you past the better the pools became until just before the top you have a large pool surrounded by smaller ones at the foot of a large drop. Even better, you have it almost to yourself. Picture it. Jumping off the sides and floating to the very precipice of the falls - dropping beneath and beyond, the full extent of the forest clad valley unfolds. Jess and Vicky showed great spirit in climbing up and over falls to find this place, as did the comedy Dutch boys on our final day, but the extra-slippery conditions of the first occasion when Dave and I christened 'extreme flip-flop waterfalling' go down as the most adventurous. A very very special place.


After all this relaxing, Dave and I were just itching to do something active. This combined with Jess and Vicky's wish to do something 'quite' active and we booked up 2 suitable days of interest. On the first day Dave and I would do a hard trek to where the girls spent the day playing with elephants. After a night in a net on a stool, we would then kayak together back to Luang Prabang.

By both accounts the playing with elephants went very well.

The trekking went excellently. We made it emminently clear to the guide that we wished to have a challenge and he extended and changed the itinerary accordingly. In baking heat of over 40 C we trekked up steep steep inclines, through sticky forests, along small streams ducking below the branches - in a fashion that bought numerous Vietnam war movie clips to mind- up and over ridges to views that knock your eyes back into your head and immediately tune you into what is so evasive in Blighty - life, force, nature - whatever you wish to call it. You can catch a glimpse of one particular valley on the photo above but it doesnot do justice. Sweating but resolutely happy, we stopped for an hour or so on a workers shelter close to the top of a rice clung ridge and just took in everything around us. One of those moments that will stay with me for as long as I have a couple of marbles to knock together.

It is worthy of note that a quite colossal tropical storm passed over during the night. Strange, there were Dave and I soaked through but sleeping like babies while the dry girls in the middle barely slept. I woke up just in time to catch the girls returning from cleaning their elephants in the river and after brekkie the kayaking commenced.

I have never to my knowledge done an extreme sport with my sister (this goes against the evidence of a photo with my sister and I at the age of 4 in teddy-bear skis, but as I can not remember it I discount it), so jumping in a kayak down grade 2 rapids on a very fast flowing tributary of the Mekong was bound to be an interesting experience. I can not but help feeling protective of my sister. Partly because of how small she is and more than partly because of the shared blood running through our veins.

Generally it was a beautiful relaxing journey with the males doing more than their fair share of the paddling but loads of fun. One more than interesting incident did occur as we entered a fast set of rapids at the wrong angle, speeding towards trees in the middle of the river (wet-season). Before I knew it I was clinging to a tree branch in a desperate attempt to stop Jess at the front of the boat from smashing into a another tree at rapid velocity. The plan just about worked, but soon after the current tipped us over and we were both dangling off the side of the kayak struggling to keep hold of our paddles. Such little moments of adrenaline usually sort themselves out and this one was no different with us both able to scramble back on board as we rushed out of the rapid and continue down stream. I shall definitely have to do more of it in future.

A wonderful 2 weeks with Jess and Vicky came inevitably to a far too rapid close and before I knew it they were on a plane heading back to Bangkok and Dave and I were on another all nighter down to Vientiane. It is sad how time rushes by fastest when you are it the most, but this can be applied to most of this year for me. It has gone by in a blink of an eye, despite more memories then I can fathom. Back to the girls. It was a delight to spend time with both of them. Vicky was a sweetheart putting up with flu for the majority of the time (which I am afraid may have come from me) and travelling with Jessie was simply something I have to repeat.

No more rambling. Like time, we were on the move. A hectic day of mad sorting in the capital (we finally got to see the Wats) and then another mammoth (well at least baby mammoth - mammet?) journey overnight all the way to the bottom of Laos. And it is there in Pakse that I will take up the tale and I can forewarn that those were some interesting days indeed....

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sea Snakes, Sand and Samsong

Yes, today I am in Ko Phi Phi, one of the most beautiful islands on this planet, diving, soaking up rays and using beer and buckets to mentally prepare me for the inevitably imminent finality of this set of travels in just 3 days. That thought sends shivers down my spine which is slightly satisfying due to its interaction with a mild case of sunburn on my back.

Immanency, finality, flights, home, work, flat-hunting, more work, rain, cold....the prospect of English life I find a bit daunting. Good things and bad things, great things and dull things it will all soon be my home again.

I am just going to have to content myself with the fact I saw three of the most poisonous objects on earth within a few minutes of each other (sea snake, lion fish and freaky starfish) and that a couple more days with the above view awaits...not a hard life but certainly a contemplative one.

Off to Carpe Diem as tales of islands in the Mekong, waterfalls, fevers, hospitals and sharks await another day for their telling!!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

How do you sum up India?

As my nearly a third of a year in India came to a close I tried to think of how on earth I could start to sum up the country, if not on paper then at least in my own mind. It would take a diligent lifetime to fully understand most countries but India is a different ball-game.

I have spent longer traveling India then any other country outside of my own, but despite racking my brains the best I can come up with is that it is indescribable. Surely nowhere else can have such diverse and interesting culture at such intensity. Over a billion people are squeezed into a country much smaller than other giants and it is better understood as a continent then a single country. North to south, east to west and everywhere in between the country alters, changes and never fails to grab your attention. From the mind-blowingly crazy collection of beliefs and traditions that is Hinduism with its monkey gods, rat temples and four-armed elephant headed sons of ultimately powerful destructive fathers, to one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, without forgetting the millions of Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and just about everything else - a lifetime of investigation would barely scratch the surface. Just names of religions do not demonstrate the complicated social systems and hierarchies that are intertwined with spiritual aspect and the fusion and diffusion caused by the mixing of so much so intimately.

Ultimately it is a country of riddle and wonder that it has been a privilege to even try to begin to unravel. A classic case of having no idea just how little you knew. Despite undoubted difficulties in just about everything you ever try to do (and I mean everything), and a number of underlying traits of the national psyche that I find it very hard to reconcile, I have left it enchanted. Not only have I discovered so much externally but also internally. Coming face to face with some of the worst poverty in the world, crazy climates and a business culture that seems to actively promote argument has developed me and my thoughts and I am thankful for that. From tigers to the Taj, Bollywood to Bangalore, Holi to Hampi to hippies and of course all the amazing people I have met, it has been an unforgettable and invaluable experience that I wish to repeat in the future.

I would though be lying if I said a Thai beach was not seriously appreciated at the end!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Ko Chang

Not bad...not bad at all!
Andie and Sumit
Lonely Beach
Ooooh..isn't the water fun!

On arrival in Thailand there was a week to kill before meeting my sister. The original plan was to head to the far north of Thailand and do the usual stuff with elephant trekking and the like, but such thoughts had been long left behind for the niceties of a beach. Now as most people know, Thailand is spoilt for beaches but despite the imminent and renowned full moon party down at Hat Rin we decided to go against the crowd and head to Ko Chang. If this decision had not already been taken the sight of numerous British travellers of the worst kind on the Khao San Road all heading to said party would have been the final straw. (I even convinced some girl full of mouthy Arsenal chants that I was Italian having spoken to her in my normal English accent for a good 10 minutes). The full moon party was fun when I did it back in 2001 but I think one is enough for me.

Back to what we did do. Rarely have I heard such a constant trickle of compliments about a place from other travellers and these pictures give just a minor reflection of how the majority of a week we spent in Ko Chang lived up to the high expectations.

For those of you without perfect geography Ko Chang is located a short boat ride off the coast of Thailand just past the Cambodian border. And it is a truly stunning island. When you get beyond the small strip of coast being rapidly developed for money-dripping tourists, it is a paradise of relatively pristine rain forest running down to beaches that become more 'lonely' as you head south.

I say lonely because we stayed on the not so lonely 'lonely beach'. A collection of dollar a night bamboo huts. No mirrors in sight, just outdoor toilets and a gorgeous view out onto the Gulf of Thailand. As is best at the beach very little was done beyond eating, drinking, sleeping, a little bit of party, swimming, Thai massage (2 hours a day no less) and ....well...very little.

Unlike Dave, I did make it to the beach more than once - including on one occasion having to dodge a black snake during swaying middle of the night strowl. A highlight that unravelled from one such visit to that stunning shoreline was a rather confused trip to a waterfall in the rain forest. Sumit suddenly announced his intention to be active and against most of the bones in our bodies we were exactly that. After 20minutes in a uye (truck) and a 40 minute trek through the forest we arrived at a crystal clear waterfall spilling its load into a channel and pool that at one end was as tranquil as it comes and at the other a fun little rapid to swim against. Unfortunately we had left it until our final few minutes to go the falls so the splashing around was cut short.

Apart from that I only left the beach to go to some mini-full-moon party that apparently resembles a Goan rave - I can not corroborate that from personal experience. And right, that is about it short of saying that those gorgeous days were surrounded on each side by suitably fun weekends out in Bangkok (though I can not believe most stuff closes at 1am these days), to curse the Power Girls I was forced to drink at the treehouse and say cheers and thanks to Sumit (there is something about the dutch - the Power Girls were his fault), Andie (a good right kick but you need to work on the surprise a bit more), Grant (cheers for the South Africa pictures - I will get round to thanking you personally soon) and a couple of others who made it all such an enjoyable time.