Category Archives: Thailand

Koh Tao to Luang Prabang 5 -26 January 2014

 

“Hello! Very Good!  Very Good!”  The enthusiastic greetings and thumbs ups from the Thai populace tell us the diving holiday is well and truly over.   No longer just another couple of farang divers amongst the faceless many, we’re back in our familiar role of travelling circus and centre of attention whether we want it or not. After almost three months it was really emotional leaving Koh Tao: the final dive, the final journey on the Sea Cutter, the final walk away from Alvaro dive school, and, most wrenching of all, finally sneaking away from the faithful Doggetty Dog (we pedalled away whilst she was sidetracked in the restaurant of our resort after we dropped our room key off).

Before we began pedalling again in earnest though we had to get from Koh Tao to Chiang Mai, some 1100km further north, in time to meet up with our friends Sue and Justin, and so began three nights of minimal sleep that reminded us (as if we needed it) of why we love cycling.  To start with there were no berths left on the ferry from Koh Tao to the mainland, so we passed a chilly night out on the deck, curled on some grass mats kindly provided by the captain.  We arrived in Chumphon early enough to get on the 05:45 visa-run bus to Ranong where we hopped on a boat to Myanmar, got stamped in and out, and then back on the boat to Ranong where we were stamped back into Thailand with a free 30 day entry stamp (which we needed to give us more time in Chiang Mai).  The bus got us back to Chumphon in the early afternoon and we hung around until the late evening when the station master finally let us and the Pino get on a train to Bangkok (9 hours overnight on a cramped, minimally padded seat), and then after hanging around Bangkok station for a while we had a further 17 hours overnight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on a similarly uncomfortable, cramped and minimally padded seat.

The Chiang Mai train an hour before departure - it was jam packed by the time it left.

The Chiang Mai train an hour before departure – it was jam packed by the time it left.

L-R: Tamar, Andrew, Justin and Sue (for some reason being photographed next to the most boring wall in Chiang Mai!)

L-R: Tamar, Andrew, Justin and Sue (for some reason being photographed next to the most boring wall in Chiang Mai!)

Our friend Andrew, who we last saw in Bangkok last July, has now relocated to Chiang Mai.

Visiting him were our friends Sue and Justin, about to start a two month cycling adventure in Thailand and Laos. We decided to invite ourselves along for the ride (I felt fairly confident that as my oldest and best friend Sue wouldn’t mind).

After seven happy days hanging out at Andrew’s and doing some day-rides together, we eventually bid Andrew goodbye and pedalled off with Sue and Justin towards Chiang Rai.  In a bid to keep pace with the super-fit and super-minimalist pair we ditched our tent, kitchen, sleeping bags and a few other bits and bobs (and all of our scuba kit) leaving them with our trailer at Andrew’s (to Keith’s consternation).  I think the trailer is the travelling equivalent of his garage back in our old sedentary lives: a place for keeping all the things that might come in handy at some unspecified point in the future, and a source of spare parts and tools for myriad random bike fettling sessions.  However, much as I’d worked to part Keith from his bits and bobs, it soon became clear we hadn’t left nearly enough stuff behind as on the first gentle incline racing-snakes Sue and Justin became a pair of bobbing figures in the far distance and we settled down into our steady touring rhythm, trusting they’d wait for us at some point later in the day.

Cabbages and Condoms Resort on the way to Chiang Rai - offering sexual health advice along with your dinner in locations as far apart as Bangkok and Bicester! http://www.cabbagesandcondoms.net/restaurant.htm

Cabbages and Condoms Resort on the way to Chiang Rai: a chain of restaurants offering sexual health advice along with your dinner in locations as far apart as Bangkok and Bicester!

The Pino with some, err, large cocks, just outside Chiang Rai.

The Pino with some, err, large cocks, just outside Chiang Rai.

Let sleeping dogs lie...on an ancient car in Chiang Rai.

Let sleeping dogs lie…on an ancient car in Chiang Rai.

Jaw dropping weirdness at the White Temple.

Jaw dropping weirdness at the White Temple.

In Chiang Rai we hit upon the cunning plan to send Sue & Justin on the long, hilly route to Oudomxai via Luang Nam Tha, whilst we took a day in Chiang Rai to visit the jaw-droppingly weird White Temple and then rode to Chiang Khong, took a boat trip along the Mekong and then a less arduous route to Oudomxai where we met up with the speedmeisters again (hoping by that point to have taken some of the keenness out of their legs).

The utterly exquisite and deeply weird White Temple near Chiang Rai.

The utterly exquisite and deeply weird White Temple near Chiang Rai.

Three litres of beer served at your table with a column of ice up the middle.  An excellent idea.

Three litres of beer with a column of ice up the middle, elegantly served on a folding chair in Chiang Rai night market food hall.

Staying that extra day in Chiang Rai turned out to be a great decision for us as it gave rise to a couple of sociable nights out.  At the White Temple we got chatting to Emily & Mark, an English couple, who we later bumped into and had dinner with on our first night in Laos.  We also caught up with Jules and Li, two cyclists we’d met the day before who are riding from England to Australia on bamboo bikes that they built themselves.  They joined us for a most excellent night of beer, bugs (deep fried) and bike banter.

More White Temple weirdness.

More White Temple weirdness.

Li trying out the Pino.

Li trying out the Pino.

The ride from Chiang Rai to the Thai/Lao border was gentle and enjoyable, but our entry into Laos wasn’t the welcome we’d expected from the small but friendly country we’d enjoyed so much last year.  Until a few weeks ago, you had to cross from the Thai to the Lao side of the Mekong by boat, from Chiang Khong to Houay Xai, but a bridge was opened (by the king himself a proud local man told us) just a few weeks ago and we were led to believe that we should use the bridge crossing and that boats were no longer taking bicycles.  We rode down to the bridge, were stamped out of Thailand, but then told that we weren’t allowed to ride over the bridge, we’d have to take a bus across.  The standard bus wouldn’t take the Pino but we were told to wait as there was a special big bus that could take motorbikes (motorbikes are also not allowed to ride the bridge).  We waited, and waited.  Over an hour and at least four standard buses later we asked again when the big bus would arrive, to be told that there was no big bus so we’d have to ride the five or so kilometres back to Chiang Khong and take the boat, and then ride the 10km from Houay Xai back to the bridge to get stamped into Laos.  We didn’t like the idea of this at all as we have very few pages left in our passports (they’d already stamped us out of Thailand and we didn’t want to be stamped in and out again), and to be frank we weren’t entirely convinced that we weren’t being sent on a wild goose chase.

In the end we split the Pino into two and stripped it down until it would fit in the baggage hold of the next standard bus to make the 2km crossing.  It seemed utterly ridiculous that we couldn’t just ride across, but the Thais assured us it was all the fault of the Lao authorities.  Oh well….whatever!

Dismantling the Pino to fit it onto the stupid bus to go over an otherwise perfectly ride-able bridge.

Dismantling the Pino to fit it onto the stupid bus to go over an otherwise perfectly ride-able bridge.

The next day we took a very cold boat ride along the Mekong to Pak Beng and had our second disappointment.  Upon leaving the boat I took responsibility for gathering our four bags together from their various storage points, and Keith lowered the Pino from where it had been lashed to boat’s roof.  A local man went to help Keith, then snatched the Pino away from his grasp and made off through the crowd with the Pino slung carelessly over his shoulder, compressing the stoker chain between the frame and his shoulder.  There was nothing either of us could do and by the time Keith scrambled down from the boat and caught up with him the tension in the chain was totally messed up and on top of that the man was demanding payment for a) helping us and b) recompense for the greasy chain marks all over his jumper.  We were in no mood to oblige.  We didn’t like the feel of Pak Beng at all and were relieved to find a room where we could bring the Pino inside – a decision that later proved to be entirely the correct one when we were returning from a post-prandial stroll and had to skirt around some boys playing a noisy game of ‘kick-the-box’, which they soon gave up in favour of the far more entertaining game of ‘launch yourself onto Keith’s back’.  We dread to think what games they’d have invented if they’d discovered the Pino unattended.

Enjoying the easy option of the boat along the Mekong, thinking of Sue and Justin slogging up the hills, as yet unaware of the irritations that awaited in Pak Beng.

Enjoying the easy option of the boat along the Mekong, thinking of Sue and Justin slogging up the hills, as yet unaware of the irritations that awaited us in Pak Beng.

We went to bed more than a little disgruntled, but the next day, rolling through quiet villages, our annoyance and disappointment ebbed away with each friendly wave, sing-song ‘Sabaidee’ of greeting, and high-five from the eagerly proffered and only slightly grubby small hands that were thrust in our direction.

Keith being taught some Lao words by an English teacher who was moonlighting in his wife’s cafe during the school holidays.

Keith being taught some Lao words by an English teacher who was moonlighting in his wife’s cafe during the school holidays.

By the time we got to Oudomxai we were in love with Laos again and excited about meeting up with the speedy S&J and hearing how they’d got on in Luang Nam Tha – hot and hilly during the day, bloody cold at night, was their verdict.

From Oudomxai, there are two possible routes south to Pak Mong.  The direct road is very hilly and in appalling condition (something confirmed to us when we met one cyclist who said he’d ridden smoother single-track) so we followed the route we took last April heading initially northeast to Muang Khoa, then taking a scenic river-boat south to Nong Khiew, then riding west again to Pak Mong.  Our route choice adds one day to the journey, but it’s such a much nicer experience, it’s well worth it.

Two bikes and a Pino on top of the boat that took us down the Nam Ou.

Two bikes and a Pino on top of the little boat that took us down the Nam Ou.

Breathtaking karst scenery.

Breathtaking karst scenery along the Nam Ou.

The surrounding karsts were as beautiful as we remembered and the road was gently rolling with a generally downwards trend, allowing the four of us to stick together for a change.

On the road with Sue and Justin.

On the road with Sue and Justin.

It was lucky that we were together as shortly after leaving Oudomxai Sue picked up a puncture.  Keith and I were about to carry on in the knowledge that the feather-weight-panniered speedmeisters would soon catch up, but at the last minute we changed our minds and waited to make sure they had everything they needed.  And oh how our change of heart paid off.  Although we’ve tried hard to trim our kit, we’re still carrying way more than them, but only that morning Sue said she honestly couldn’t think what else that they could have packed.  To our delight that other something turned out to be tyre levers – of which we have two sets so have been able to lend them a set.  In fairness, we suspect their tyre levers were left in Chiang Mai by mistake, but it gave us a moment of childish amusement to see them hunting in vain and having to ask for ours.

I thought you packed the tyre levers...

I thought you packed the tyre levers…

In Nong Khiew we treated ourselves to a night in a pretty wooden cabin overlooking the Nam Ou River and spent a morning off the bikes hiking up to a viewpoint, and then visiting a small cave that was allegedly used by villagers to shelter from the American bombs.  A young local man struck up conversation with us and when Keith asked him he announced he was our tour guide. Unfortunately the fact that he was only 20 years old but assured Keith that his mother and sister had both been killed by an American bomb in 1964 didn’t really go very far to convince us of the veracity of his information.

Nong Khiew from the viewpoint.

Nong Khiew from the viewpoint.

In the late afternoon we rolled the easy 25km to Nambak, where last year Keith and I taught English at the local school for an evening.  Unfortunately it is now the school holidays, and on top of that, Phew, the English teacher, was away for a few days so we didn’t get to see him again which we’d hoped to do.  But the guesthouse owner remembered us and we were really impressed with the extension he’d made to his little guesthouse, adding a further seven or eight rooms to the six that had been there last year.  Hopefully this means business is going well for him.

Rice being transplanted from nursery paddies near Nambak.

Rice being transplanted from nursery paddies near Nambak.

 

Sue’s innovative use of a fruit protector to try to keep her toes warm

Sue’s innovative use of a fruit protector to try to keep her toes warm

We’re now back in the ever-delightful Luang Prabang.  The weather remains surprisingly chilly but is thankfully much warmer than it’s been in the hillier north where we’ve been sleeping in our clothes and wearing two pairs of trousers in the evening to stay warm. 

Luang Prabang is a city of surprise meetings for us: last April we met an Aussie couple who know Keith’s aunt and uncle and this year, at almost exactly the same spot, we bumped into the son of some good friends back home.  Small world!  Even more so as we discovered this morning that Jake is staying in our hotel!

We’ll spend a couple of days in Luang Prabang and then head south towards Vang Vieng.  The first  day and a half of riding  will be on roads we covered last April (big hills – eww) and then we’ll be off into new territory.  Sue and Justin will no doubt go ahead to recce the route for us.  🙂

A contemplative moment at one of Luang Prabang's many Wats.

A contemplative moment at one of Luang Prabang’s many Wats.

Koh Tao 15 November – 24 December

Is it really Christmas tomorrow? The temperature here on Koh Tao remains in the high 20s, the sun continues to warm our bones, and as I type this the sea is lapping gently against the steps of Alvaro diving school. Aside from the modestly bedecked tree in the corner of the school there’s not a piece of tinsel in sight. It’s a far cry from three winters ago when I cycled the wintry streets of Croydon trying to avert my eyes from the garishly over-illuminated house that intruded tackily on my otherwise enjoyable ride to work. We’re not total Grinches though and will be marking the day by feasting with friends at Fishy Burgers’ all-you-can-eat dinner. The menu is a transatlantic smorgasbord of Christmas fare ranging from turkey to pumpkin pie. We’ve already begun to starve ourselves in preparation.

It’s been a time of change here at the dive school. Over the past few week our numbers have been swelled by the arrival of a batch of new Divemaster Trainees (DMTs), eager to expand their underwater horizons, and us ‘old lags’ have enjoyed showing them the ropes, proudly showing off our new skills. But in the last week the merry band of pirates that started DMT life together back in October has been decimated, first by the infamous ‘snorkel test’ (an alcoholic rite of passage which all newly qualified Divemasters must endure…or so we were told) and secondly by the sad departure of half of our number as they return to their former lives.

Whilst the snorkel test was merely a temporary cull (the Sea Cutter was a ghost ship the next day), the return of our friends to their former lives has intruded much more harshly on our happy little world. Goodbye Banana Brothers, Hollywood, the BGs and ‘Lil Miss Sunshine. We’ve shared the most amazing journey with you, from nervous newbies, to fully fledged, confident Divemasters, able to brief and lead qualified divers on underwater adventures, navigate with reasonable accuracy even in the most turbid murk, produce maps of underwater sites, safely manoeuvre a lift bag and its load, and, most importantly, drink an entire litre bucket of whisky, rum and coke through a snorkel. At times it’s been hard – both physically and mentally. Each one of us has faced personal challenges, screwed up, doubted our ability, been bolstered by the support of the other DMTs (and the instructors) and finally overcome our demons to achieve the level of competence required for sign off. There have been tears, but mostly good times and laughter. The Banana Brothers demonstrated how to eat their favourite fruit underwater; Melissa and Pink Bunny danced and capered and took off their fins to wriggle their toes in the soft sand of the seabed; Hollywood kept us guessing about whether Leonardo Di Caprio really is his cousin; Slacky Andy proved his slackline prowess; Braveheart (half of the BGs) impressed with back-to-back equipment exchanges; Bobbity Bob Bob’s good cheer and joy in being underwater never fails to make me glow with shared pleasure; Little Timmy has shown us oldsters how to party; Endika has patiently helped me with my execrable Spanish pronunciation (Vamos a bucear!); Heather (the other half of the BGs) showed as much grit as the granite city she hails from to beat her heavy weight belt into submission and also to beat all the other DMTs in the snorkel test; and ‘Lil Miss Sunshine demonstrated true Divemaster warmth and friendliness by effortlessly charming her numerous ‘husbands’ (on shore, on the boat, and below the water), not to mention her several ‘bits on the side’ and not forgetting that every side has a corner so she could have a ‘bit on the corner’ too! Keith, after his first amusing/infuriating (delete according to your point of view) and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to locate the wreck of the Sattakut, can now navigate to it blindfolded from pretty much any buoy line in the vicinity. Banana Ben and I finally overcame our mutual horror of opening our eyes underwater to complete the ‘no mask swim’, and I have also somehow tricked my cowardly inner self into being quiescent for long enough to allow me to conduct a passable dive briefing without even feeling a little bit like bursting into tears (which was a rather inconvenient hazard at the start of the course). We’ve logged around 100 dives in the last 2 months, completed a Nitrox speciality course and almost finished our Wreck Penetration speciality. It’s been an incredible journey. Whilst we haven’t travelled as far physically as on our pedal-powered odyssey, the distance we’ve travelled in ourselves has been just as profound.

Thanks of course also go to the instructors (Scuba Steve, Judith, Sascha, Luce, Lio, Daniela, Bruno and Cariss), to Pla (who went on numerous dive-shop shopping expeditions on our behalf) and to the boat crew (Cola, Cota, Mo, Mosa, Shop and The Captain).

We only have a couple of weeks left on Koh Tao, which will pass all too quickly. We’re excited about getting back on the bike again, but also dreading our final dive. So much so in fact that we’re putting some serious thought into how we can combine diving and cycling as we continue our travels, most notably how on earth we might fit a further 30kgs of bulky equipment onto our already heavily laden rig – any inspired ideas gratefully received.

Right, that’s enough from us for now. Allons Plonger! Vamos A Bucear! Pai Dam Nam! Let’s Go Diving!

Some suitably festive christmas tree worms.

Some suitably festive christmas tree worms.

Can you spot the moray eel?

Can you spot the moray eel?

Here it is!

Here it is!

Tamar playing around at Buoyancy World.

Tamar playing around at Buoyancy World.

Keith with a blotched porcupine fish.

Keith with a blotched porcupine fish.

Scrubbed up nice for the Alvaro Xmas party and infamous snorkel test.

Scrubbed up nice for the Alvaro Xmas party and infamous snorkel test.

We were accompanied (as ever) by Doggety Dog Dog.

Accompanied (as ever) by Doggety Dog Dog (who we have found out is 9 years old and was called Masha for the first 2 years of her life when she was looked after by a guy called Merlin who we met at the snorkel test and who Dog clearly remembered).

Mind you, Keith didn't leave many leftovers for poor Dog.

True to form, Keith didn’t leave many leftovers for poor Dog.

For Andrew Duckworth who requested one especially - a nudibranch.

For Andrew Duckworth who requested one especially – a (rather blurred) nudibranch.

Blue-spotted ray.

Blue-spotted ray.

Assorted fish above some staghorn coral.

Assorted fish above some staghorn coral.

Little fishy hiding in some soft coral.

Little fishy hiding in some soft coral.

A territorial damselfish taking exception to the camera.

A territorial damselfish taking exception to the camera.

Kieth's favourite - a giant grouper (although this was rather a modest specimen at just 70-80cm).

Keith’s favourite – a giant grouper (although this was rather a modest specimen at just 70-80cm).

Keith leading the way, on what was one of the better visibility days of late.

Keith leading the way, on what was one of the better visibility days of late.

Selfie!

Selfie!