Thursday, August 16, 2007

The One with the Tunnels

After a whistle stop 6 days in Cambodia it's time for a new country. After being held up the Vietnam Embassy we nearly miss the bus, but make it with minutes to go.

Its another bumpy ride to the border. On the way we stop to catch a ferry across the river. The bus is surrounded by people trying to sell us everything from sunglasses to bread and even snakes!!

Again, once over the border, we notice a marked difference... aerials stretched up from every house.

After another 7 hours or so we reached Ho Chi Minh City. It was my turn to hunt through the guest houses for somewhere to stay... a hot, sticky and frustrating business, but eventually we found somewhere to stay. The Internet here is ridiculously cheap... which is a definate bonus!

The next day we check out the city. The thing that first strikes me about Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is also known) is the amount of Communist Propoganda that is everywhere. There is no mistaking it's political leanings, or it's total love of Uncle Ho.

We head to the Botanical Gardens which houses a very sorry looking zoo, and then go to the Independence Palace. Time for another history lesson, and getting my head around the Vietnam War - or The American War as it's known here.

The Independence Palace was built in the 60's and the architecture and furniture confirm this! We finish our history lesson at the excellent War Remnants Museum. It's recently been redone and was fascinating, although totally sobering.

The first room was photos from foreign journalists who had died in the course of their jobs. A second larger room, had details of the American attack - the effects of Agent Orange and the Massacre of Son My. There were reconstructions of the "Tiger Cage" cells that communist Prisoners of War were kept in. It certainly put the whole war into perspective, and has set us up for our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow.

We set off the following morning to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is where the Vietcong Guerrillas hid, coming out to fight against the Americans. At some times people may had had to stay in the tunnel for up to a week.

We get the chance to go in one of the original openings. As you can see it's tiny - my hips get stuck on the way out. We also get the chance to go through a 100m stretch of tunnel.

The original tunnel would have been 0.6m wide by 0.8 m tall, but they've been widened for tourists to 0.8m wide and 1.2m tall. This is still tiny. Of this 100m stretch there are 3 possible exits; the first is after 40m and most people exited here. It's hot, very dark and even those of us who don't usually suffer from clostrophopibia are finding it a bit tough. Sam and I press on, and Sam leaves at teh second exit, but only as the tunnel gets even smaller then, I head on alone, on hands and knees and frighten off a few bats ahead of me in the process. I emerge gratefully from teh 100m stretch, dripping in sweat. How people could stay in here for any length of time is beyond me.

Back in the city, we check yet another museum, and then indulge ourselves in what has become somewhat of an obsession in SE Asia - watching the traffic. I know it's sad, but I am a self confessed Scooter Spotter and I'm not in any hurry to get cured.

We've seen pretty much everything you can imagine on the back of a scooter - who needs to hire a van to move house - bung it on the back of my moped! The top spots so far were tons of boxes, and the most people was a five. Today we spot our first 6!!! 2 Adults adn 4 children, but unfortunately don't get a photo of it.

That settles it and we spend the next 2 hours on various street corners taking photos of motorbikes. One guy has a ladder, another a widescreen TV, and another favourite has a washing machine - complete with a box of powder balancing precariously on top.

As we're about to give up we spot a second 6 but don't get a good photo, but are spurred on for some time. The bikes here are crazy. They even ride on the pavement as you can see below!
Getting a little giddy on exhaust fumes we call it a day, but after taking a photo of a "solid five", we spot a baby on the bike that we hadn't seen before. Finally, photographic eveidence of a 6!

As we sit and eat our dinner, we keep gettign bombarded by women selling books (photocopied books at really cheap prices). I got one from this lady as the stack she was carrying on her hip was almost as tall as her!!

So far my first impressions of Vietnam are excellent. A totally crazy place!

Monday, August 13, 2007

The One about the Khmer Rouge

We left Siem Reap gnashing our teeth at the perfect weather which would have been amazing the previous two days, and head on to Pnomh Penh the country's capital.

We are met off the bus by hordes of people pushing their hotels and head towards the lake (which had recently been the scene of riots and protests due to the governments announcement that they will be evicting all the people in order to do building development).

With this in mind we drink in the view of the lake side hostel. Its so peaceful here, and the area is a real backpacker haven. Little bars and Internet Cafes line the small windy streets, while above a nest of electrical wires are precariously positioned on poles and walls! It seems such a shame that this may soon all be gone.

We head straight out on our site seeing tour and go to the the Royal Palace. We only have an hour until it closes, and it seems that the whole of Cambodia has had the same idea as us. The Palace is packed with people but hardly any foreigners like us!
Sam's flip flop decides that this would be a good time to break so he walks around the palace looking like something out of the ministry of silly walks, and the tarmac is too hot for him to walk barefoot. The other visitors don't hide their mirth behind their hands, and soon Sam is followed by groups pointing staring and laughing at his misfortune!!

The Palace is beautiful, and we head with some anticipation to the Silver Pagoda, which is listed in my Rough Guide as the number one thing to see in SE Asia.
We both find it rather disappointing however. It is called the Silver Pagoda after its Silver Tiled floor - most of which is covered, and the bits which aren't are patched with sellotape, and have tarnished, - so not the gleaming silver floor I had envisaged.

The following morning, with a bright blue sky, it seemed odd that we were heading to the scenes of one of the most horrific scenes in recent history - the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.
Before I came to Cambodia I only knew a little of what had gone on. Through reading the history in the front of my guide book, and then through visiting these places I have become aware of the grim reality of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
Having visited Auschwitz, one can't help but make comparisons, and to be honest I found what I saw today even more chilling in some respects, not least because this only ended a few years before I was born, and because Pol Pot died under house arrest during my life time.
The Killing Fields were where thousands of people met their end. A pagoda here contains nearly 8000 skulls which have been disinterred at the site, and there are still 42 mass graves which have been left untouched.
Most disturbing for me was a tree which was called the beating tree. The sign said that children were beaten against the tree. I thought that this meant that the children were tied against the tree and beaten, which is bad enough, but later saw a photo that the children were held by their legs and beaten AGAINST the tree.
From here we headed to S21 - Tuol Sleng - the former torture chamber and Prison of the Khmer Rouge, which previously had been a secondary school.
Some classrooms had been transformed into prisons with tiny cells made of wood or brick, whilst some larger classrooms were torture chambers, containing a bed frame and instruments of torture.
When the Prison was liberated 14 bodies were found in the classrooms - and pictures of these corpses adorn the relevant walls. One image will stay for me forever. The women is barely recognisable as female, and her legs are facing the wrong way. Horrific... and unbelievable that not only can people do this to each other, or that no one stepped in to help, but that Pol Pot ended his days without making it to trial.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The One at Angkor Wat

The journey to Bangkok ran smoothly enough, and we found ourselves on a bus out to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

It's strange, but literally crossing over the border made a whole world of difference to the surroundings. Behind us were smooth tarmaced roads, and ahead was the bumpiest road I have ever seen in my life. The whole place seemed dusty, cows walked down the street... everything was different, in a way that I haven't experienced on the other land border crossings (to this extent) - with maybe the exception of Peru-Bolivia.

After an hours wait at immigration, we dodge the potholes, traffic and offers of taxis, and board a bus for the bumpiest 8 hour ride of my life. At one point they stopped by the side of the road for a behind a bush loo break, but the door of the bus wouldn't open so the little Cambodian men had to climb out of the window to then try and open it from the outside!

Eventually, late at night we arrive, and despite the "scam" warnings in the guide book, we're all dropped at a hotel. But to be honest it's a lush room and only $6 so we gladly accept!

The next day we are good for nothing, but do make it up to Angkor for "sunset" - the weather has been very cloudy so technically it's a "darkness falling". This also gives us the chance to sit next to a monkey who has decided to join us for dusk!

As the tuk tuk (yet another variety here!) comes close to the moat, I can't describe the feeling of anticipation that I got and I wasn't disappointed.

Fueled with more anticipation we were up at 5am to go to see the sunrise. Another cloudy day sadly. We had breakfast overlooking the temple and then met our guide who took us on a tour of Angkor Thom, Bayon (with its 216 buddha faces), Ta Phrom (the Tomb Raider temple) and of course a guided tour of Angkor Wat itself. Our guide is very good, but we are reaching saturation point by early afternoon. Also despite hundreds of photos, nothing seems to do it justice. it's so huge and all very grey, adn in this light its splendour doesn't really come out in the pictures.

That night we go to the Dead Fish Towers - a restaurant built over several levels( another health and safety nightmare), and which has a crocodile pit in the corner! I guess it ensures good tips!

Another 5am start, and an equally bad sunrise, but the milo and condensed milk sets us up for the day.
Today we are sans guide and avec book, and head up to Banteay Srei, an old sandstone Hindu temple with intricate carvings, then we do the grand tour of the other temples around Angkor Thom, before heading to three temples quite a bit further out.

These two long journeys (Banteay Srei and Roulous Group) allowed us to soak up the Cambodian way of life. Paddy fields, and the ability to fit an amazing amount of things on the back of a motorbike. Sam and I are now official traffic spotters. Today's top find was a monk on the back of a bike, and a guy with a wooden sideboard!

Lo Lei at the Roulous Group was disappointing as far as temples go, but contained one of my most memorable views of Asia. On a small pond were two monks clearing the lotus flowers. They were on a small raft and (as they were no more than novices) were intent on soaking each other. They were joined by two other boy who floated on the water in metal bowls - and one has headwear which makes him look like he grew out of the garden. Not sure why but this image really tickled me.

Angkor was everything I could have expected and more... but I may steer clear of Wats for a while now.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The One with the Arc de Triumphe

So we find ourselves in the Laos Capital Vientiane, and due to a lack of time decide not to follow our original route down to the South of Laos and into Cambodia, but rather to go back to Bangkok and enter Cambodia from the West... a disappointing and yet necessary decision if we want to see anything of Vietnam.

Vientiane is much smaller than I expected, but we did do a bit of sight seeing here visiting the gold Chedi of That Luang - where a monk asked me to take a photo of him and his monk friend!

We also visited the National History Museum of Laos which was all very biased against the "American Imperialists and their puppets" but when you consider that Laos is the most bombed country in history per capita... you can kind of understand the tone.

There is also a funky arch - the Vientiane Arc de Triumphe, but called the Victory Arch. We climbed it for a very non impressive view of the city.

Sadly we did not leave ourselves time for the Buddha Park which looked COOL on the postcards or to visit the famous Wat Sisaket... but we had a journey to make which would see us take in 3 countries and a journey of 30 hours to get us to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The One Floating Down the River

We followed the tourist trail down to Vang Vieng (Sour Puss and Co in hot pursuit, although thankfully NOT in the same cramped minibus!)

Feeling a little jaded, I had a very uncomfortable encounter with a group of small children at a drinks stop on the way. Armed with my refreshing can of Coca Cola (I can not praise Coke enough these days), I look up to find myself surrounded by small children, who make it clear in a manner of grunts and points that they want my can when I'm finished for recycling.

I agree, but then feel under pressure to finish said can when all I want to do is savour every blessed mouthful, which brings me sip by sip, back to a human form. It does not help that one of the girls has a really angry face... she will have a wrinkly forehead by the time she's ten, mark my words. The picture does look like I'm giving evils back, but to be honest the group were getting closer and closer to me, and I was beginning to feel under pressure!

With said can finished, I hold it out to have it snatched by one girl, and the others all gave me a look of "You cow!... I can't believe you gave it to her and not me" and then they all ran off. Charming!
Vang Vieng is a small but incredibly touristy town. Every restaurant shows Friends or Family Guy, and to be honest nearing the end of my trip, this actually feels like a little taste of heaven. Don't get me wrong... I still love the Asian culture. I think Watford will be very dull without passing monks every five minutes, or without 10 people on a moped, or a car made out of a tractor front and a wooden frame - for these reasons I adore Asia... but a little taste of home can go a long way when you're shattered! I'm not sure I'd have liked Vang Vieng so much if this was one of my first stops from home instead of one of my last!

Anyway... the main reason for coming here is the river. You float down the river in tractor inner tubes, and get hauled in by aid of a bamboo pole at many makeshift bars en route to drink buckets of whiskey redbull and to swing into the river.

This would never happen in europe. It broke so many health and safety rules it was unbelievable - but I guess that is partly why it was so much fun.
Being the big fat scaredy cat I am, I only went on one "swing"and that was really a zip line that flung you off the end so you landed gracefully head first legs akimboo in the water. I climbed up the ricketty bamboo scaffold... changed my mind and climbed down, and eventually made it up again and off the edge - and yes it was fun.

At subsequent bars there were trapeze style swings and Sam and Carrie swang back and forth - Sam hanging upside down by his legs the big showoff!... I was chief photographer.

All in all a fantastic day... if a little on the crazy side!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The One with the Alms Giving

Luang Prabang is a pretty little town with a french colonial feel, set on the banks of the Chocolate Mekong. We spent a couple of days here with Carrie and Vicky.

On the first day, Sam and I ventured out to Kuang Si falls, - some very cool waterfalls - which also had a sanctuary for orphaned Asiatic Bears at it's base. One very paddington esque bear, got stuck in the tyre swing, and spent a while trying to figure out how to pull himself out... you have to love animals!

The next day we were up early to go to the alms giving which takes place every morning at 6am. As we left the guest house we were ushered and hurried onto the curb where we were given sticky rice and biscuits to make as an offering.. and then charged exorbutant amounts for. We got 2 trays between the 4 of us, and sat back to give a ball of rice to each passing monk.

When our trays were empty, we headed round the corner to another spot to watch line after line of saffron robed monkes walk past local people to collect more sticky rice. Quite a sight.

After breakfast (it now felt like we'd been up for days!) we got a tuk tuk to take us to the Pak Ou caves. We'd been told that this was where all unwanted Buddhas are left (you're not allowed to destroy an image of buddha0 so we were expecting a cave packed full of dusty happy buddhas... but whilst there were lots of buddhas... to be honest it was a bit of a let down (but did allow for some funky shots of shadows of buddha in torchlight)

That afternoon Sam and I checked out the Wat-age of Luang Prabang - Wat May with it's gilded gold doors. The Royal Palace with its Prabang Buddha - the most sacred in Laos and which gave Luang Prabang it's name, but which was rather small, and Wat Xieng Thong, which has visions of hell stencilled on it's walls - murderers boiling in cauldrons and adulterers escaping rabid dogs on spiny trees and being pecked by giant birds... so much for peaceful Buddhism!

It's a little known fact but Laos has a midnight curfew. At this time everyone should be tucked up in bed in their registered abode (or else risk turning into a pumpkin?!) But there is one tiny loophole in the law. You must be in bed... unless you go ten pin bowling! Weird but true, and so for a very surreal evening we partied until 3am at the bowling alley with our new Laotian friends Mr Peter and Mr Lee!

A crazy place!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The One on the Chocolate River

No rest for the wicked. We now face a two day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.

We arrive well over an hour before the boat leaves to get what turns out to be the last comfortable seats on the boat. We're lucky. The rest of the travellers are on a mixture of wooden benches or if they're particularly unlucky (as unfortunately Sour puss and Chums are) they sit on the floor in the engine room, deafened by the noise - the engine open to the whole room.

Blissfully unaware of Sour Puss's plight, I admire the view of the newly dubbed "chocolate" river, and soak up the views of other boats, little villages, and the lush green landscape.

We spend the night in a little village called Pakbeng, eating in a restaurant where the guy boasts that his "wife is very good cook" - which turns out to be true, and then, just as the electricity shuts off for the night (11pm) head to bed.

Another early start to get the last good seats again, and more of the same all the way down to Luang Prabang. I can certainly think of worse ways to travel.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The One with the Zip Lines

After two days full travel via Bangkok, I finally find myself in Laos, and become an instant multi millionaire (there are 20,000 kip to the pound!)

Having not had quite enough jungle time already, Sam and I head off to the highly recommended Gibbon Experience for 3 days zipping in the jungle.

We climb in a hardy land rover which takes us over a muddy river and promptly gets stuck in the mud. If we can not get it out we face a 7 hour muddy hike over the hills to get to the jungle. With this incentive, the team pitches together, and after nearly an hour of retrieving stones from the river to fill the muddy ruts, the van eventually makes it up the first incline. We are already covered in thick red mud and dripping with sweat... this makes Map's hiking in Chiang Mai child's play!

After stopping to push our van a couple more times, we eventually reach the village and begin our 1 hour hike into the jungle, over rivers and up through Bamboo Groves, to where we receive our harnesses and marvel at a little black Asiatic Bear nosing in the undergrowth. (He's an orphan who's been rescued).

The Gibbon Experience is only 2 years old, although the french owner Geoff has been doing conservation work in the Laos National parks for 10 years - and it works totally on word of mouth. Geoff has asked for it not to be put in the guidebooks. It's success speaks for itself... it's full everyday and you have to book in advance. We were very jammy to get a last minute cancellation.

They help the local communities by doing things like ploughing their fields, and hence stop the Slash and Burn practices in the area. The Treehouses and zip lines themselves are unbelievable. It's one thing to even imagine such a place, but a total other to try and put it into practice, and the result just takes your breath away... even more so as it would seem so impossible to achieve.

We walk the 10 minutes or so up to Treehouse One (our home for the night) and attach our zip lines for the first time. It's a whole world of trust stepping into the void for the first time, but an exhilariting feeling, and the view from our treehouse is magnificient (as is the construction itself!)

Four of our party will be staying inTreehouse 3, so along with our guides we zip out over 4 or 5 more ziplines. Some 100-150m high above the canopy. I did have a wobbly tummy and legs on several occasions, but the feeling, the view, and everything about it is totally indescribable.

At Treehouse 2 we leave the guys to make their way down to their home for the night, and we head back, and have a cold shower (with views down to the ground below!) and then dinner which is prepared for us.

I don't like talking about toilet activities, but there is something very rewarding about doing a number 2 from such a height. That's all i'm going to say!

The next day we awake early to the most amazing sound - the gibbons singing. We Zip off in search of them but they do a runner (probably because we have the loudest dutch guy in the world in our party "WHERE ARE THE GIBBONS... WHY DO THEY GO AWAY?!")

We chill until 10am, have a second breakfast (mmm sticky rice and cabbage for breakfast), and then head off for a mammoth walk - zip - walk to treehouse 5 the most isolated treehouse. The view as we come through the undergrowth on the zip line and see treehouse 5 for the first time will take some beating! Luckily Sam got a little video of it!. Check out the view from the Number 5 loo (above!)

We have lunch here (I feel a bit bad relaxing while our guide dashes off to retrieve a big kettle of hot water and a fully cooked dinner from somewhere!) and then we have a 2 -3 hour hike back. which is mainly "up up up" is totally muddy, and very precarious. I am a whole new colour of muddy brown by the time we get home, and have had to remove a few leeches (Tiger Balm is wonderful stuff) on the way.

This evening, completely shattered, we concoct a chocolate fondue by mixing ovaltine with condensed milk and heating it over a candle before dipping fresh pineapple in it. Ingenious (and a welcome change from the sticky rice!)

Day three, and I'm awoken by the little guide say "you wanna go walk?" - the gibbons are singing again, and today we can see them from our treehouse in the trees in the distance. Fabulous.

We zip closer, but they move on again, but we are happy that we've seen them.

Rather then rest up for our potential 7 hour hike, Carrie, Vicky Sam and I decide to go on one last 40 minute circuit on the zip lines, and come back covered in mud and oil from the lines, but totally exhilarated, and disappointed about leaving. Every inch of my body aches... especially my stomach muscles (which i worked out was caused trying to stop myself falling every five seconds!), but every bit of the pain is worth it.

We head out back to the road and start the walk. I am slow, full of cold, and not 100% sure that I would make the 7 hour hike, so imagine my pleasure at the sound of upcoming engines!!! The jeeps had made it through! So now we could enjoy the adventure of jeeps on off roading style mud all the way back to Houay Xai.

Possibly the best experience of my trip so far.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The One on the Elephant

We head back to Chiang Mai, and book ourselves on a three day trek in the jungle. We've opted for a more remote area - despite being a tourist myself, it's really nice not to feel like you're on the same tourist trail as everyone else!

Day one and eleven of us set off, rather cramped in the back of a songtheow. Our guide is a little Thai guy called Map, and he has a fabulous laugh, and his English is fantastic. Our first stop is a market where Map buys our food, and where we get accosted by local women trying to sell us embroidered water bottle holders (flash back to Peru) which I buy as they are generally very useful, and also assorted hats, shaped like witches hats and multi coloured, which I do not buy... although was tempted for mere comedy value!

We head on, through fields of corn, past little villages, and pull up at a hill tribe Karen Village, which is both our lunch stop and the start of our trekking.

The village is very basic, bamboo huts which house up to three families. Work on the farms here is collective, for the good of the village, and each family works in rotation - two from every house work each day with the remainder staying behind to look after the children and do the cooking. They call these families "chocolate families" as they are all mixed together.

The young people here are expected to marry aged 13-15, and they all have children young, and lots of them. The marriages are arranged by the families, and before marriage the medicine man kills a chicken to see whether the marriage will be a successful one.

It's funny, however, that these very basic houses, still have massive aerials outside. I saw at least one with a TV - the essentials seem to be all wrong - a TV, when you don't have plumbing into the house!

Animals roam free: ducks with ducklings, Chickens and chicks, Pigs and piglets, and dozens of dogs walk through the muddy yards.

We set off on the trek, see another hill tribe village with an older style of house, and watch the boys play a version of Volleyball, where the ball can be put over the net by everything but the hand. This seems to be an exhausting and very skilled game!

Now we move through the fields of corn, and start to ascend. The air is warm and humid, and we're all soon dripping. By now we've left the fields behind and seem to be in a forest of bamboo. This seems to be a real utility here - probably aided by the fact it grows at a rate of about 15cm a day! It's used for building, cooking, and lots more besides.

Some of the walking is a little hairy. The drops to the right of the path are steep with only trees to break your fall, and I certainly did not want to become the ball in a downhill, tree version of pinball.

The rain starts, but thankfully we arrive at our basic bamboo lodgings before the downpour. The washing facilities are the stream outside, where some members of our group catch some crabs, which Map then cooks and eats. We spend a pleasant evening relaxing and playing cards and getting to know one another.

Day Two: Last night we slept on a bamboo "stage" with mosquito nets, which sadly did not seem to stop the infestation of ants which bit us, and seemed to take up lodging in our hair. I have a quick wash in the stream, and after breakfast we set off once more. Luckily the sun is shining, and we have a pretty walk through woodland zig zagging constantly through streams, and warned constantly by Map "be careful, velly slippy".

To this end I have a bamboo can to support me, and I'm very glad of it, as the rain last night has indeed made the muddy track treacherously slippery, and we still have drops to our side. At one point we even have to head down a bamboo ladder, to carry on the journey, and we then end up at our showering facilities... a waterfall.

It was very cold, but very refreshing - a massage and shower in one, and it least I was able to get the ants out of my hair!

Pressing on, the walk sees a series of ups and downs, and the legs are beginning to tire, but every so often you get a glimpse of the jungle from a high point.... tree covered hills as far as the eye can see, and everything seems worthwhile.

I forgot to mention, that after the second village yesterday, we gained a member, a stray white dog, who I have called Bob. He followed us religiously for the rest of the trip, and got a lot of attention from everyone.

Finally, after a particularly slippery "down" section, we get the chance to rest our feet for the rest of the day when we board our transportation to the Darang village... ELEPHANTS!

Ours is called Ting and is 10 years old. We start on the seat (our Mahout on his mobile phone sat on the head of Ting!) and then he gets down and lets me ride on her head with my legs behind her ears! Their hair is quite scratchy!

We had some very naughty nelly's. The one in front kept pulling up the corn from the field and sucking up muddy puddles to squirt the people on their backs!

We arrived at the Darang Village and headed out almost immediately for a Farang and Local Children mixed team footie game. Knowing my sporting prowess I thought it only fair on the others that I was team photographer... the kids were so cute!

That night we were treated to dancing and singing from the girls of the village (and had to join in a dance), and were then invited to sing them a song back. Visions of Peru come flooding back and I lead the group in the Hokey Cokey. A safe bet when lots of different nations are present. (Even if the American girl I've nicknamed Sour puss on account of her happy smiley face would insist on singing Hokey pokey!)

Day Three: Woken by the cockerels, and set off on a tour of the village before walking for about an hour down the road. We were then picked up and taken to the river for our bamboo rafting.

The river was less than inviting, muddy coloured and scummy surfaced, and the bamboo rafts were less than water tight, but that did not stop a bit of a competitive water fight between our raft and sour puss's. so we arrived at the other end a little soggy for our journey back to Chiang Mai, and my uninviting prospect of a night on a bus to Bangkok to pick up my new passport tomorrow.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The One with the Scooter and the Long Necks

We set off once more on an adventure to a little town called Pai in North West Thailand. The bus journey was 4 hours on little windy roads, and Sam's long legs seemed not to deal too well with the amount of leg room!

On arriving, we knew that chilling here for a few days was definately on the cards. It's so beautiful. Our guest house was on this river which came complete with very ricketty bambo bridges. We sat here one afternoon marvelling at the scooters that tried (and succeeded) to traverse these bridges, and to watch cows wander down the road. In the morning the clouds graze the tops of the surrounding hills.

There is not much to do in Pai itself, and if you do want to see some of the surrounding countryside you need to hire a scooter. I was very wary about this. I have seen way too many tourists with injuries from these things, and personally don't agree about getting on one of these things in anything less than full leathers, but there was no alternative. There are no cars to hire here, and thankfully, not much traffic other than the odd elephant or goat, so we set off carefully, to view the beautiful surroundings of Rice Paddies, Mountains and waterfalls.

After a hard day scooting we relaxed in a swimming pool, in a farmers garden, surrounded by Rice Paddies... surreal, but pure bliss.

Relaxation is the key in Pai. I had my second Thai massage (the first in Phuket!). These seem to be a mixture of pain and pleasure. You bend in ways you just didn't know were possible, and at one point the little Thai lady stood on the backs of my legs and walked her hands up my back! But you certainly feel good afterwards and for about 2 quid you really can't complain!

Pai even has it's own cinema - the Cinema Pairadiso (everything here plays on the name Pai - there's Apple Pai, Pai in teh Sky... etc) This "cinema" is literally a house of rooms with comfy sofas and you hire a dvd to watch! A great way to spend a lazy evening.

Yesterday, we took a trip to Mae Hong Son near the Burmese border. Our driver stopped us off at lots of places on the way including a rather unimpressive fish cave, more Wats, and a very poor market, but the reason for the trip was to see the Long Neck Women and the Big Ear Women.

It's hard to know where I stand on this. These women obviously make their money from the tourist trade, and you buy things from their stalls to make yourself feel better about wanting to take photographs, but I still felt really guilty about it!

I got to hold some of the brass rings and they are REALLY heavy!

The big earred women put larger and larger rings in their ears (like some punk influenced teenagers back home!)

Anyway... it was a bit touristy, but I am so gald I got to see it.