A Travellerspoint blog

November 2013

Typhoon Haiyan - a change to the itinerary?

storm

With our previous track record (being on St Lucia when Hurricane Tomas hit in 2010), we're well aware of the devastation these huge weather fronts can cause.

It's really tragic that the Philippines have suffered the worst storm ever recorded - typhoon Haiyan - a super storm which has left a significant trail of destruction and cost the lives of thousands. RIP.

Our plan was to head there at the end of this month but, understandably, the official travel advice is not to go. We are still considering it, but now with a purpose to volunteer and offer aid. It would obviously be an entirely different experience to what we had planned, but will no doubt be extremely humbling and rewarding. That said, I can't lie, there's another part of me which says let's just go to Borneo instead to see the little orange fellas... we'll see. We both agree we won't go if it puts us in any unnecessary danger.

Some research to do and maybe make contact with the Red Cross. We'll keep you posted!

PS. Also wanted to say thanks for the kind blog comments, we love reading them x (ha ha Will!)

Posted by Galavantie 20:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Ao Nang minus Hubbard

sunny

So what else can I tell you about Ao Nang? Russians and reggae.

Russians far outnumber any other nationality in terms of tourists, and the best bars are reggae bars (sorry Jon, but we found by far the best bar after you had gone... Mr Long Bar... complete with very friendly Mr Long. He wasn't, although his white hair was).

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In Mr Longs with chilled live music

The living here was easy. It's definitely a package holiday destination so felt very much like a holiday rather than backpacking.

We extended our Ao Nang stay to a week as we loved our hotel so much and booked another boat trip, this time to see the Hong Islands.

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More birds' nest harvesting

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Best beach of the day, wonderful soft sand

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You see these signs everywhere near the coast since the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004

The Hong Islands were a bit overrated which was a shame (or have we been spoilt?!), as the marketing suggested they were the most beautiful islands close to Krabi. The scenery was still lovely but some of the beaches weren't great and we noticed piles of litter just back from the beach area. It seems there's little responsibility taken to keep some of the heavily visited beaches/sea clean and complacency about the sustainability of future tourism. Anyone who came to Thailand years ago would no doubt see much change, for the worse. However it can still offer some beautiful clean beaches (west Railay Beach is a great example).

The rest of our stay was filled with massages, beach time and mooching about. Very chilled... and hurrah, my hearing returned after 12 days, so although we couldn't dive in the Krabi region, I'm good to go again!

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Ao Nang beach

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You see a lot of singular birds in cages, Thai people prize these and pay good money for them as a sign of wealth and for decoration...

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Breakfast reading of the tourist mag letters page... weirdos...

Posted by Galavantie 02:23 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

50* Not Out

Well, I guess it's about time I wrote a blog. To be fair, a few of the words written have been mine, I've just not received any credit for them :-)

But seeing as it is a worthy milestone I thought I would write a whole blog by myself.

So today marks our 50th day travelling, or if you are reading in binary, this is day 110010. In cricketing terms we nod politely, wave our bat and acknowledge the milestone before carrying on as before. We are about 17.6% of the way through the trip (that's just under one fifth in old money), which would normally feel like an age. It's been 7 weeks (or 3.5 holidays really). Which is weird as I can't remember what it's like when not travelling, but also doesn't feel like it's been that long!

What's it been like I hear you ask? Well, it's been great and the fact that we are moving every few days means we never get bored - or settled! There's always the next place to look forward to and plan for.

There's a few things I miss about home (besides the people!!):
Tea with proper milk (currently drinking it black)
My bike, or more precisley being out on it. Although that's a slight non-truth as it would likely be too cold out!!
The build up to Xmas

But then again, that's only a few things to give up for an amazing adventure.

In the next 50 days we're hoping to travel to 4 countries, 3 of which will be new to both of us, celebrate Christmas on the beach, watch one of the world's greatest firework displays, dig for gold, dive the world's most famous coral reef and catch up with some friends and relatives.

Who knows, I might even write another blog :-)

This blog was brought to you by the numbers '5' and '0'.

Some more (not as reliable) numbers:
Miles travelled - 9,000
Bad days - 2
Good days - 45
Hungover days - 3
(Days with Jon - 3)
Number of scams avoided - 17
Number of scams not avoided - 2 (we think)
New languages to say hello in - 4
New skills acquired - scuba diving, moped driving, haggling, scam avoidance

Ant

Posted by Galavantie 17:13 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

When a Hubbard came to town

Ao Nang

sunny

We were super excited to see Jon, who was over with a few friends from the UK for Nick's non-stag do and non-wedding (long story).

Having woken to a glorious day and chance to meet up with our close pal, we put the previous day's problems behind us.

So, what did we do with our J-Ho weekend...?

Big hugs. Beer. Bit o'sun. More beer. Convivial chat. Cocktails. Boats. More sun. More beer. Beaches. Gin. Hugs. Misty eyes (from me).

Ok, ok.... the detail (I'm sure Linzi will appreciate anyway, you were missed lots x).

After a quick Friday night drink just the three of us, and dinner with everyone, we went on the hunt for a decent bar or two. This search lead us down a narrow brightly lit lane before it was too late to notice they were all Thai girl and ladyboy bars... pub names like 'Kitty', 'Lovely', 'Climax' and 'Ting Tong' (no, really) should have given the game away...

I was leading the way, with the 6 guys behind. The whole street appeared to cheer loudly as the wallets, I mean guys, approached. It was hilarious. I felt like some sort of madam pimp leading fresh meat down the street. We stopped briefly and were quickly surrounded and grabbed as they tried to drag us into their bars. The boys were very gallant, took one look at me and said let's get the hell out of here. We made a quick exit!

We found another place but the guys were looking tired after their Bangkok stay so our first night was a pretty quiet one. We were also probably a disappointment to Jon as we've got used to earlier nights and early starts, so I was taking in huge lungfuls of air by 10pm!

We decided to go to Railay Beach on our first day together (a 10 minute long boat ride from Ao Nang). Ian from the group also joined us, Nick had to work (he's hopefully about to get his first book published), Roger was off to Koh Lanta and John had the two bob bits.

Railay was beautiful... archetypal Thailand beach with high surrounding cliffs. As the tide went out the shoreline was also covered in hundreds of tiny crabs, no larger than your little fingernail. I've never seen so many in one place before.

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Ian & Jon

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Railay Beach...
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After the beach, grabbing a beer, it blowed a hooley and absolutely chucked it down... I tried to get them all to look grumpy...

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We had great Thai food in the evening and the guys found a sports bar as Man U were playing. I left them to it in favour of a pedicure and some shopping. Oh why can't match nights always be this good?! We'd booked a day's boat trip to the Phi Phi islands for the next day, so we all headed home before midnight.

The speedboat trip was great... we were taken to a few scenic spots including Maya Beach on Phi Phi Leh, made famous in the Hollywood film 'The Beach'.

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Harvesting birds' nests for bird's nest soup

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Maya beach above

This was heaven and hell. Ant & I agreed it was the finest white powdery beach we've ever been on, but we also shared the experience with hundreds of other tourists. There were so many boats ours had to wait for a parking spot. Shame really, although it was no different to what we were expecting, given its fame.

We had a few snorkel stops, the water was gorgeous although there were lots of tiny jellyfish which kept giving us small stings so I didn't stay in for too long. I thought we saw a couple of seahorses on the bottom but it was hard to tell as they were swimming flat rather than with tail curled up.

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Monkeys clinging to the rocks at 'Monkey Bay'

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Does this count as fish bombing?

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Final stop was Bamboo Island, a very stunning white beach and crystal clear water. Paradise indeed, it was so hot with zero breeze everyone scurried to the shade from the boat. Ant & I enjoyed more snorkelling until a small pink territorial fish bit us both! Fiesty little thing.

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And so our last evening with J-Ho. We treated ourselves to a steak place which had great reviews. It seemed to get the thumbs up all round for juicy steaks but the service was crazy slow. We were there at 8.30 and didn't get our mains til after 10. No matter, we were downing a nice Malbec in the meantime. ;)

We had a good last night with some late night cocktails with the guys but we still weren't on top form as Ant & I both had colds. A sad farewell to Jon! We left him our heavy Buddha head as a thoughtful reminder.

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Great to see you mate! Oh, and sorry about the photos.

Posted by Galavantie 07:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

And some days just go plain wrong...

Halloween horror

We booked a straightforward ferry/bus combo ticket to Ao Nang from Koh Tao... or so we thought. Today was a very valuable lesson!

After check in at the ferry terminal we were given 'joint ticket' stickers to wear and one paper ticket which said Koh Tao to Koh Phangan. We thought the latter was a bit strange as Koh Phangan was the neighbouring island and the first stop of the day. But I figured it just meant the direction/route via we were taking instead of going north to Chumphon. Wrong.

The entire ferry journey to Koh Phangan and on to Koh Samui and the final stop, Donsak, was uneventful. It wasn't until we were directed to a bus that our problems began. I'm not being racist, this is how the conversation went...
"Where you go?"
"Ao Nang."
"Where's ticket?"
We handed them our paper ticket.
"Noooo, this ferry ticket, where ticket?"
"We don't have another ticket, this is all they gave us."
"You need bus ticket."
"We weren't given a bus ticket."
"Where you go?"
"Ao Nang. We have joint ticket", pointing to our blue stickers, dropping unneccessary words to aid understanding. "We pay 1,100 baht each to get to Ao Nang."
"1,100? Each, not together?"
"Yes."
Fortunately on that news, he nodded to the bus and we were allowed to get on. Thank God for that we thought. Bloody check-in desk for Songerm ferries must have made a mistake. Nice man for taking our word for it. Phew, we're on our way to Ao Nang! Wrong.

The bus only went from the ferry terminal to a small transfer hut in Suratthani, where smaller minibuses pick up tourists to their onward final destination (Phuket, Krabi etc). We all got off the bus. I'm not being rascist, this is how the conversation went...
"Where you go?"
"Ao Nang."
"Bus ticket?"
Inward sigh. "We don't have a bus ticket, we weren't given one."
"You no go on bus. You have to pay taxi to bus station. 500 baht."
"No. We've bought a ticket to Ao Nang. They only gave us one ticket. We've paid 2,200 baht [£44] to get to Ao Nang."
"No, cannot travel on bus without ticket. You pay more."
"No. We already pay. Songserm problem, Songserm fix."
At this point heated words were exchanged as Ant continued to reason with the unhelpful guy. Meanwhile I went inside the waiting area to ask the other tourists how much they had paid and if any were going to Ao Nang. They weren't, but had paid comparable prices for their end destinations.

The man behind the desk could see there was a problem and helpfully asked what was wrong. After explaining, he checked their records and said that no passengers were booked to go to Ao Nang. Shit.

He pointed to an internet cafe up the road and suggested we contact our travel agent on Koh Tao, with an implication he'd help us from there. He also said the last public bus to Krabi was at 6.15pm. It was now 4.45pm.

It took us about 20 minutes to find their number as unhelpfully a google search on just their name didn't come up trumps. Slightly hopeful, we returned to the transfer desk at 5.20pm with contact details. The bloke had gone home. Whaaaaat?!

We were running short of time and were beginning to face the prospect of an overnight here, plus having to stump up more cash to make the 3 hour journey to Ao Nang. But a kind woman serving food at the hut offered to ring the guy and he agreed to turn around and come back to try to help (if that isn't dazzling a client, I don't know what is!!).

The guy turned out to be our guardian angel. He spoke with our travel agent and made several other calls in Thai, before hurriedly escorting us into his car (clearing his back seat of family clutter) saying it would be better to sort this out at the bus station so we didn't miss the last bus. He kept saying "they should look after you, not treat people like this, you are a guest in my country".

We were quickly ushered in and out of a ticketing office with stickers scrawled 'Krabi' on them and told to get on the bus at the end of the road. It was now 6.10pm. "Someone will pick you up the other end" he called out to us. And that was it, no time for questions like who was picking us up, from where, how will they know us/us know them, how do we know where we get off etc!

We were on a public bus with school children and workers heading home, feeling pretty on edge from the experience but relieved to be on our way. As it turned out, the pick up went smoothly and we were met by a Songerm private minibus, who were obviously trying to put things right.

Originally, we would have arrived in Ao Nang at 7pm but we finally got there at 9.45pm, having been travelling for 12 hours and skipping dinner. The hotel manager greeted us, concerned for our wellbeing as we were so late. We must have looked worn down as she offered us an upgraded room. A good end to a pretty rubbish day. And what a star the helpful guy was at the transfer depot, a million thanks whoever you are! (We did tip him.)

Valuable lesson? Always check your ticket, query anything which doesn't look right and take photos of any original travel receipts as these are not returned to you once tickets have been issued!

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Our Ao Nang hotel, a welcome sight

Posted by Galavantie 05:55 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Koh Tao... diving, drenchings and dossing

semi-overcast

Appreciate that Facebook friends will already know we certified as open water divers here on Koh Tao (blog is a little behind the times!), but it gives us a chance to fill in the details...

We were really pleased with our choice of accommodation, we're not going super cheap but equally can't justify luxury resorts - we're in the £20-£40 per room/night camp. That budget (in this part of the world) still gets you very comfortable aircon rooms, free wifi, a pool, flat screen TV etc. Our Koh Tao hotel was as nice, if not nicer, than most we had on tour... bed was comfiest yet!

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Hotel Toscana

We based ourselves in the sleepier resort of Chalok Baan Kao, the third biggest resort on this small island. We're here in the low rainy season so it's quieter, but it's a great month for diving visibility and that's what this stay was all about!

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5 mins on high, just need some chips with that

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Chalok Baan Kao

Our diving school, Alvaro Diving, was situated in the bay of our resort, a picturesque stroll on a narrow jetty and boardwalk to get to. It was a bit of a disorganised start but the staff seemed super chilled out and friendly.

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The open water dive course was over 4 days, the first day was paperwork and watching a 2 hour video. We were in a small group of 4 with 2 American girls. One wasn't sure about diving and after watching the video she decided not to go ahead (not entirely sure which part of the video was so offputting). We therefore continued our course with Anna, along with two Dive Master Trainees (Heather & Ian aka 'The BG's') and our instructor 'Scuba Steve', a laid back scouser who reminded me of Crush from Finding Nemo when he dived... duuuuude.

The first couple of days diving were more about exercises under water... removing and putting back on our masks, weight belts and buoyancy jacket, and breathing from our buddy's air source instead of our own. It was all relatively straightforward and we were pleased with how quickly we made progress.

The best diving was on our last, and qualifying day, and required us to do something neither of us thought would have previously been possible. The boat took us far out from shore to Koh Tao's premier dive site, Chumphon Pinnacle, an outcrop which is hidden under water. In pouring rain with choppy waves, we jumped off the boat with all our gear on and proceeded to descend 18m down the buoy line into the big blue - knowing full well shark sightings were possible. It was strangely calming and, whilst before the course I'd worried about going into deep water, it wasn't scary at all. Weirdest of all is that I was actually disappointed we didn't see any sharks!

We saw an array of fish and corals... giant barracuda, a moray eel, giant groupers, pink anemone fish, squirrel fish, angelfish and a whole host of others, often in big shoals. It was brilliant to have the sensation of flying around the rocky and coral formations underwater. We had all got the hang of controlling our buoyancy through our breathing and Steve congratulated us on a good dive and for certifying. We both felt a fantastic sense of achievement! l had M People's track 'What have you done today to make you feel proud' playing in my head... ha ha.

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Unfortunately I'd spent 2.5 days of the course with muffled hearing in my right ear, but as I didn't have any pain our instructor passed it off as 'swimmers ear' so I ignored it. As it hadn't cleared, and after a bit of googling (usually dangerous!), I was concerned that it may be a middle ear barotrauma, as I knew I had failed to equalise my ears during a skin dive on the second day. Glad I checked and saw a physician as it turned out I had suffered ear squeeze which had caused bleeding in the middle ear and my foggy hearing. I was told not to dive for 5 days, which also meant I shouldn't have dived since I got it on day 2... oops. But then I wouldn't have been able to certify, ignorance is bliss eh...

Once we'd finished our diving we moved to busier Sairee further up the coast to extend our stay for an extra 3 nights, as Chalok Baan Kao out of season was a bit too quiet for us. Really glad we did as we had much more choice for bars and restaurants and the place had more of a buzz.

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Sairee beach

We had some major downpours shouldered by good weather, so we caught up on admin stuff and booking onward travel. It was a timely reminder that it's not always a holiday - there's our budget to keep on top of, online banking, shopping for essentials... this is our life for the next 8 months afterall!

Around dusk one day, we were sat having a beer when Blair (from our Indochina tour) walked past! Was great to catch up and we spent the rest of the evening as a three, chatting about our separate experiences since the tour. It was really good to see a recognisable face, nice guy.

Our last two days were sunny and hot so we booked a snorkelling boat trip which stopped at a number of bays around the island. A great day! The water was crystal clear and we were fortunate to see a large shoal of different fish on a coral feeding frenzy... captured lots of pics as we swam with them for about 20 minutes...

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Check out these little fish... they make up the swirling mass around the guy below...

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Love this pic with the fish parting around the snorkeller!

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Koh Nang Yuan - a trio of connected idyllc islands just off the coast of Koh Tao, and regularly voted one of the world's most beautiful islands

We were also 'lucky' to see a titan triggerfish, the largest of the species and one which comes with a fairly fearsome reputation. When defending its nest and terrority, it's been known to attack divers and snorkellers, shattering masks and biting through wetsuits in an attempt to escort unwary visitors off their premises. Scuba Steve had mentioned that you have to swim horizontally away to avoid being in its cone-shaped territory. To be honest we'd only seen a quick picture of one in a guidebook and its colourings were a bit hazy from memory. We also had no frame of reference for its size to know what to look out for.

This fish was both big and beautiful. We both saw it and I slowed down calling to Ant that I thought it could be a triggerfish. He dismissed my slight panic and contined to move closer. As I looked underwater again it faced me so I could see its rather unattractive toothy mouth and features head on... then it started to make a beeline for me... hmmm strange behaviour for a fish, I thought.... head out of the water, taking my eyes off the beastie.... "Aaaaaaant, I think it's a triggerfish!!!", kicking back in a frenzy at the same time. Ant was still watching underwater at this point and saw it move up to about halfway between where it originally was on the bottom to me on the surface, before being satisfied I was out of its zone. Phew! A nerve wracking moment but at least we know what to look for again... and hopefully Ant will take future heed of my fish identifying skills! ;)

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Big mamma Titan Triggerfish courtesy of t'interweb and my (not as close) view of it as it spotted me

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In Sairee, there are some great beach bars set up with bean bags to just laze around watching the sun setting. We had a couple of evenings doing this before dinner. In the calmest of seas we watched fishermen come and go, shoals of fish jumping out of the sea, herons landing on the moored longboats... all whilst the sky changed to beautiful pinks and oranges. It was wonderful. I completely get why Thailand has such a strong draw for many.

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Koh Tao has a very laid back vibe and feels very backpackery (is that even a word?!). It felt like quite a young island - the majority of backpackers are under 25 - so we did feel a bit old here at times, but the snorkelling and diving are superb and that was always the draw for us.

Although I appear to have (temporarily) left my hearing in Koh Tao, it's a great chilled out place and will always be special to us as the place we learnt to dive.

Posted by Galavantie 01:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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