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Heading to the Islands
Bangkok is great, but we were here for the beach and that meant heading south to either the Andaman sea or the Gulf Coast. Initially we thought about checking out the west coast and the Krabi province, but looking at transport options we would have had a long bus ride after a long train ride. Nicole and I were still heavily jet lagged and so opted for the easier trip down the Gulf coast straight to Koh Samui.
We had been to Samui before, but only as broke backpackers. This time we could afford to book into one of the more swanky resorts along Chaweng Beach. The last time we walked along that beach the staff chased us off each private part of the beach for not having the correct resort towel!
We flew down to Samui and landed at the airport. The terminal was open-sided and made of wood and bamboo. It had a distinct island feel.
Soon we were checked in to our resort and beach-side. I ordered up a rum cocktail and we toasted the start of our relaxing holiday proper. It was about this time that a large jet flew directly overhead. We exchanged looks.. maybe not then!
Samui was fine for a day or two, but it was noisy and it was expensive. Typically the islands do cost a lot more than Bangkok, so we had to adjust all our market rates we had honed in Bangkok for the new locale. When we had exhausted the local shops and markets on Samui we decided to book our ferry across to Koh Phangan which is the next island up from Samui and one that we had not visited before. By all accounts, it was much quieter in the north of the island; In fact Nicole had a colleague from some online work who lived in a small fishing village called Chaloklum. With some ready recommendations for good places to eat and drink and local sights to see, we were keen to head over to Chaloklum and check it out.
The ferry over was smooth and it was a joy to see the beautiful coastlines speed past. Local fishermen prepared their boats and in the distance you could see dive vessels and other ferries going to and fro. As soon as we alighted on the pier we hopped in a Songthaew which is a pickup truck with seats and a tarp canopy over the back. Typically they do circular routes of the islands and you can hail one much like a bus in the UK. In this case they were lined up waiting for the ferry to evacuate and drop tourists at all their resorts. We agreed a price of 200 baht a head (about £5) to get over to the other side of the island, and chatted to a Dutch veterinarian as the truck slogged it up and down the steep hills which were sided by lush rain forest. Occasionally a break in the trees would open up and you would catch a glimpse of a turquoise bay and sweeping beaches with white sand.
This was more like it! This was the Thailand we were here for. Quiet, remote, and unspoiled.
At Chaloklum the driver hopped out and clambered up to the roof where our backpacks were stowed. He passed them down and then like a spider climbed back into his cab and drove away leaving us on the side of road, bars and restaurants opposite and the gate to our accommodation behind.
We entered the gate and found ourselves in a verdant garden surrounding a nice sized pool. Around the grounds were dotted small white bungalows. Each had a hammock and chairs outside and the rooms were immaculately presented. Just a stone’s throw from the pier and the sea, we literally had it all on our doorstep!
We stayed a few days in this accommodation, exploring the area by foot. There were local beaches to search out, along with a thriving ex-pat community who offered great options for food and drinks. We ended up at a bar run by a Dutch couple who served up seriously tasty plates of smoked and slow-cooked meats. Nicole’s colleague met up with us there, so we stayed and sampled the cocktails as well. By the end of the evening we had made friends with the bar owners and some of the other patrons who were sat at the bar. One of the things I love about being overseas is that conversation flows easily abroad and people are much more willing to talk than back home.
After a few days, we moved to different accommodation a bit further out of town. This offered a larger house for less money and we took the chance to hire a motorcycle so we could get out and see some of the other sights. Nearby were the ‘paradise waterfalls’ which we saw a sign for and decided to scoot up to. As we climbed up the steep road it became more broken, so we parked up the bike and continued the ascent on foot. At the top, a path led through some jungle and alongside a stream. The path wound further up and then in front of us a deep plunge pool sat at the base of some small falls. Recent dry weather had lessened the water flow, but the pool looked amazingly inviting in the 30 degree heat. Putting aside our bags and clothes we jumped in to the pool which was freezing cold! After some laboured, heaving breaths, I soon got used to it and we swam for about an hour before reluctantly climbing out.
The next day we took the scooter up over the nearby headland and back down to a neighbouring bay called Haad Khom. We bought a drink and some noodles at the restaurant on the top of the hill before climbing down the steps to the beach, arriving late in the afternoon. The beach below took my breath away. A sun-dappled length of white sand stretched out 300 meters away from us.
Calm azure waters lapped against the sands as we strolled the length barefoot. There were only a few other tourists on the beach so we had plenty of room to spread out and relax. Nicole lay down in the sun and I donned my snorkel for the first time so far and walked into the warm sea. About fifteen meters in, a patch of bleached coral lay home to a variety of small fish. I took the opportunity to fire up the GoPro and chase some around. As I surfaced and looked around I saw Nicole motioning to me that it had started to rain. Looking to the east, I could see a wall of black cloud sweeping in, and the wind had started to whip up the palms on the beach. Not wanting to get stuck in a torrential downpour, we made a beeline for the motorcycle and got into town just as the rain started to fall more heavily. We took refuge in a cafe called the ‘World’s End’ which sat right at the end of the pier, the views looking out across the gulf.
The Big Mango
Returning to Thailand after five years was an exciting prospect. As we got closer to our departure, I started to reminisce about all the small details that made our previous visits so magical; the welcoming Thai greeting “Sawasdee kap” and the delight the Thais show when you make the effort to learn the correct replies and other basic phrases, the streets filled with solo vendors hawking a vast range of exotic treats that fill the senses with their smells, vibrancy and colour, and the ever-relaxing state of zen you find by the side of the sea with the gentle crash of the waves and the breeze offsetting the heat and humidity.
Our flight arrived in Bangkok late morning and by the time we cleared customs the sun was high in the sky. We caught the train from the airport and sat back to watch the city approach. Smaller domiciles in amongst free-roaming livestock gave way to a modern suburbia of clean-cut condominiums for the burgeoning middle-class, which then in turn morphed into the city as we knew it – large blocks of apartments, wide freeways and towering skyscrapers that ranged from art deco inspired design through to ultra-modern shards of glass which jutted out from the bedrock like monolithic crystal towers.
Soon the train came to a halt at Makkasen station and we disembarked into the underground metro which soon whisked us to an area of the city we had not seen before: Sala Daeng. Previously, we had stayed in a more upmarket area of Bangkok called Silom which sat on the edge of the financial part of the city. Sala Daeng was a little further out and much more local. People lived in this part of town and although it catered to tourists, you could really see the Thais go about their lives.
Our hotel was called Cloud on Sala Daeng and was owned by a half-Chinese, half-Thai lady. The building and decor were Chinese inspired, and our bed was on a raised wooden block which I found quite novel.
Once we had dropped our bags, we set out in search of food. We found a nice looking restaurant with AC – It takes a while to settle into the Asian heat – and ordered up some Pad Thai with sides of satay and summer rolls. The food was amazing but we totally ordered too much. We finished our first night waddling back to the hotel full of noodles and in a state of disbelief that we had actually made it out here again.
The next day we took a walk over to the Sky Train. This overhead monorail links up with the metro to take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in Bangkok. Clean, quiet and fast, the monorail offers fantastic views of the city as you rocket from point to point. The train and malls occupy the higher ground, and feel modern and futuristic, and then in contrast you descend down to street level where you have the food karts, tuk-tuks, and raw energy and grime of the city life. There is always this weird duality to Thailand. The temples that drip with gold and jewels, the shopping malls that rise into the sky and impress with their modernity and opulence, and then on the other hand you have the dirty side streets and the seediness of the go-go bars that can be seen amongst the lanes heading away from the night markets.
We headed out to the shopping district and took a wander through the massive malls. Thousands of traders line the hallways in the more local mall, selling clothes and electronics, furniture and apparel. We took a look at Paragon which is the most touristy mall and arrived in a hall filled with Aston Martin and Lamborghini cars. Around the corner was a toy shop filled with Japanese robots!
After this we decided to get a coffee and found a dog cafe in the neighbourhood. Nicole was instantly taken and so we ordered up coffee and cake and sat amongst the cleanest dogs I’d ever seen. They had a beagle, a Samoyed, corgis, a mini collie and a French bulldog. Hidden down the side of the sofa was a tiny Chihuahua! The dogs were all treated kindly by the staff and revelled in the attention that the customers gave them. There were quite a few customers coming in with their kids, presumably unable to have pets of their own.
The next day we took a stroll through Lumpini park which was close to our hotel. The last time we were in Thailand, Bangkok was in the midst of a military coup and there were mass protests in the street. Large coordinated demonstrations were taking place in Lumpini park and we couldn’t get anywhere near it at the time without the police turning us away. This time round the park was open and full of runners doing circuits around the lake, then they would get to the middle of the park where they joined a mass of people dancing in front of the Thai version of Mr Motivator.
That night we took a stroll down to the night market and traversed the stalls for bargains, honing our negotiating skills. The Thais mostly start at 200% of real value, so you have to barter to get a fair price. Still it’s a game I enjoy, and Nicole and I had a pretty theatrical bartering session going on as we beat down the price on a pair of fake Ray Ban sunglasses.
Back into Switzerland
Today we left Liechtenstein in the morning and headed back across the border into Switzerland. This was only noticed ten minutes after the fact when we rolled past the first Swiss village, no signs had marked our departure.The plan was to head south along the motorway and then split off west along the 19 which ran through a series of small towns. Almost immediately after coming off the motorway, the land began to rise and as we followed a river valley, impressive peaks and ridges looked down on us from both sides.
Slowly the road wound higher, broad arcs turning sharper as we gained elevation. With altitude came an intense sun and I felt the uneven heat of a driver’s tan on my arm. All around the land was an intense and vibrant green. Any signs of habitation blended perfectly into the surroundings and a distinct lack of litter made the country seem pristine and perfect.
Up ahead a weather-beaten sign marked the start of the Furka pass, and the road began to hairpin up higher into the mountains. With each sharp twist of the path we saw further out to the land below, the small towns becoming distant shimmers in the river valley. The drive was exhilarating. The roads were built to such a degree that I never felt unsafe, even on the tightest angles. Even so, as the car rounded the edge of a cliff and I saw the ground drop away just feet from my side, it sent a surge of adrenaline up through my chest.
Sometime later, after stopping to take plenty of photos, we had traversed the peak and reached our planned midway point – The Rhone Glacier. This primordial shelf of ice is slowly snaking is way down the mountain, its lower tongue melting away to form a pool that then cascades down into the valley below. Getting out of the car we made our way down to the edge of the pool, the summer heat had been replaced by a sharp chill which got only colder as we stepped inside a tunnel that had been carved into the side of the glacier. Ice melt dripped from the slick roof down our necks and the daylight soon submitted to the glow of fluorescents and we moved deeper into the tunnels. I can only imagine how long it took the curators to dig out this route with their chainsaws!
Walking through this ice formed millions of years ago was a surreal experience, perhaps only topped when we exited the tunnels and took a walk on top of the ice shelf which we could hear creaking and cracking below our feet as it slowly inched along.
Returning to our car we started off down the other side of the mountain and on to Interlaken where we planned to camp for a few days. A few twists in the road however and we plunged into the side of a thick cloud, the fog enveloping our car. Slowing right down we edged on carefully as a cacophony of motorcycle engines roared around us. As we punched out the other side we were in the thick of a motorcycle convoy also headed downwards. Slowly but surely the motorcyclists overtook and soon disappeared round the pass. We had a few minutes more of soaking up the scenery before black clouds rolled in above us and let loose a torrent of rain. As the rain came down it started to form a stream down the road, we pressed on slowly, keen to get to our camp before sunset. Up ahead a filling station with a small tin roof over the forecourt stood alone on the side of the road, sixty or so bikers huddled underneath for cover.
Eventually the route straightened out and we approached Interlaken. Nestled between two lakes and surrounded by mountains, we set up the tent, eager to explore in the morning.
Luxembourg, Zurich and Liechtenstein
Bidding our farewells to Tom and Alice we hopped in the car and started the engine – well at least I tried. The engine wouldn’t turn over and I figured the battery was dead. Looking about the cabin I realised I had left my phone charger in the power socket and this must have drained it. Luckily Tom had jump leads and so fifteen minutes later we were waving goodbye as we made off down the road.
The road to Luxembourg was uneventful and before we knew it we had crossed over the border and approached the city. I had no mental vision of what Luxembourg was like, but was amazed to find it towered above the countryside, built as it were atop the sides of deep river gorges. Great mediaeval walls protected the core of the city and insightful city planning had left the area particularly green and populated with trees.
Unfortunately it was a bank holiday, so we got to see little that was actually open. Mostly it was just a few shops and restaurants in the central square.
We stopped that evening for a meal at a local restaurant where I tried a local dish of ‘weinzozoss’ or sausages as I tend to call them.
The next morning we set off for Zurich. The drive was long and took us through France. We stopped at lunchtime time just outside of Strasbourg, but didn’t stay to look around. At this point I was raging at the French driving style and wanted to hit Switzerland as soon as humanly possible.
We arrived at the Swiss border and purchased the motorway vignette. This forty euro sticker is required if you want to use any of the motorways in Switzerland. While it’s possible to get about on the minor roads it takes significantly longer to do so as they go over the mountains rather than through them!
As soon as we left the border outpost the road plunged into a series of tunnels, the car emerging occasionally into the bright sunshine in order to blind us, before diving back down.
We got to the edge of Zurich at rush hour and slowly edged around the ring road. Our campsite was on the other side of the city, perched on the edge of a lake and we arrived just as the sun was setting. The tent went up in record time and we relaxed by the shore, taking in the azure waters as the firery sun reflected oranges and reds.
The following day we relaxed around the camp and took a swim in the lake. The waters were cold, yet the perfect remedy to the heat.
Everything in Switzerland is so clean. There’s no litter anywhere and the lake was no exception. The streams that fed the lake were crystal clear and although we were essentially still down on the plains, I got the impression they sourced from higher climbs.
The next day we drove up to Liechtenstein. This small principality only runs about 20km North to South, and we were headed for the main town Vaduz (well technically Schaan, but I couldn’t tell where one finished and the other started).
Walking around it quickly became apparent that we could not afford to stay here. This was the domain of the super rich. Ferraris, Astons and Lamborghinis prowled the roads and the shops sold watches that cost tens of thousands pounds. Still it was fun to look about and explore.
Nicole found a mobile phone on a bench, and seeing it was unlocked set about on a quest to return it to the owner. A few WhatsApp messages to the owners daughter later and a reunion was scheduled with the person who had left it on the bench many hours before and was currently touring neighbouring Austria! Apparently this country had one of the lowest crime rates in the world and I can well believe it. Nicole’s efforts netted her a small reward which bought a couple of drinks and we set off again fresh the next morning.
I’ve only ever driven in Europe once before, so driving off the ferry in Dunkirk and setting off for the Belgian border had me chanting a specific ‘right’ themed mantra. Luckily, the brain soon adapts to new surroundings and before I knew it I was happily cruising down the auto-routes and country roads. Our friends Tom and Alice invited us to stay for a few nights and so we headed to their digs in Wingene.
Tom – being a connoisseur of the finest Belgian beers, of course had some excellent recommendations to make. With the Perseid meteor shower blazing overhead we spent our evenings in the garden barbequeing and reminiscing late into the night.
Alice (a long-term resident of Brussels) was keen to show us the local landmarks, which include a collection of urinating statues. Legend has it that a small boy managed to frustrate an invading force’s war plans by wetting the fuses of their dynamite stash. This in turn immortalised the young boy as the city’s ‘Manneken Pis’.
We also got to visit the Atomium, a vast structure commissioned for the world fair of ‘58. Built to resemble the atomic structure of iron, this unique building links exhibition spheres with escalators forming the bonds.
Opposite the Atomium, modern art collections sit in an impressive art deco museum which faces down the mall.
We also got to visit Ghent during our stay. While Brussels reminded me in some ways of London with its frenetic city life, bustling tube stations and hordes of tourists (ourselves included!); Gent reminded me more of Oxford with its old and impressive churches overlooking the river, while a young and vibrant student population fill the cafes and bars. That evening we were taken to the Amedeus rib house for dinner. With ribs and baked potato essentially the only item on the menu there’s no compromise in quality. When almost full to bursting after clearing my plate, a waiter came over to offer unlimited extra ribs (and potato). Result!
European Road Trip
Hello world, it’s been too long.
Dusting off the blog and committing pen to paper feels strangely odd, as if I’m revisiting an old lifestyle; the last time I really got to talk about my adventures was back in Asia, so in some ways it is!
The last few years have seen Nicole and I travel to Scotland, Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and Portugal but all for just short stays. The sense of getting out of the grind and really traveling never set in, perhaps that’s why I never set aside time to write about these otherwise excellent places. But no more!
This summer we decided to cash in some holiday time and make a break for the Alps, in the car, our tent in tow. Working out the route was fun. Balancing driving with the hassle of putting up the tent and then getting enough time to see the sights made us revisit the plan a few times before finally setting our shortlist of countries and towns.
The plan is to visit Bruges, Ghent, Wingene, Brussels, Luxembourg, Zurich, Vaduz, Como, Interlaken, Geneva, Dijon, Epernay and Dunkirk. I’ll let you know how we get on.
Hello again world.
While the blog has been pretty quiet since we returned from our travelling, life really hasn’t!
Amongst my frequent forays into creating weird and wonderful beers (which I plan to start documenting here), I was also kindly given the opportunity to try my hand at some other brilliant activities. These ranged from a day Blacksmithing, through brewing workshops and theatre visits to riding a balloon over England.
With summer long gone, and the autumn in full swing, I had only days left to redeem my Virgin Balloon flight without needing to schedule for the following year. Given a choice of departure points, I opted for my local county of Oxfordshire and wondered if I had left it too late in the year to get the most out of it. After-all, Balloon Flights are traditionally a summer activity right?
Well I shouldn’t have worried as the day was warm and the environment staggeringly beautiful. We took off from just outside the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames and floated North-East over the river valley. Our pilot kept the balloon low for much of the flight allowing us to skim the woodland canopy which was bursting with bronzed colours. We passed the small village of Hambledon which seemed like a small toy village from my childhood, and looked down on farm animals, horse riders and even rowers practising their form. I even spotted an Alpacca running full-pelt away from the sound of our burners, which cut through the quietness of the countryside.
Melaka is a port city a couple of hours south east of Kuala Lumpur. It is billed as the historic city of Malaysia and has the UNESCO status to prove it. Melaka has been inhabited and run by a range of people from the Malays to the Dutch and a whole host of others in between. The variety of inputs from the different countries and cultures give this small city an unusual feel.
The colours of the buildings and placement of statues made the city feel almost preserved and a little like a model town.
Hugh and I stayed in Malaka for a few days, enjoying the break from the bigger cities and soaking up the atmosphere. During in our time in Melaka we sampled a wide range of satay; all of it delicious. One place had a cook-it-yourself table. After only three weeks in Malaysia, I’m not sure we were quite ready to be let loose on it. The queue of people waiting to get in to one popular satay cafe were certainly amused by our DIY efforts.
There were also the mandatory Chinatown and Little India areas where we sampled some excellent dishes including dosa and thali. It also took us three weeks to figure out that pulled tea (teh tarik) is what the Malaysians call masala chai. I was confused when I could see people drinking it but was then told by the waiter they didn’t serve it. It did make me think they were keeping all the chai to themselves! and samosas just aren’t the same without chai…
While in Kuala Lumpur I decided to try my hand at batik. It is a traditional textile art found in many countries but styles differ. Malaysian batik tends to use large simple patterns and favours flower and leaf motifs. So that’s what I chose – a fitting reminder of my time in Malaysia.
Stage 1 is the drawing of the design on to my chosen fabric – a white T-shirt – using a fabric pencil. Wax is then applied to the outline on the fabric using a ‘chanting’ (a little copper pot with a spout and long handle). This provides a paint and water resistant outline for my design.
Paint is then applied with a soft brush to fill in the design.
In the workshop they have tubs of ready mixed colours lined up ready for the artists to use. Malaysian batik uses brighter more vibrant colours than Indonesian batik. Although the colours are so striking on the fabric, they are dark and rich in the pot.
A second brush dipped in water is applied in swirling strokes over the colour to achieve the graduated colour effect.
When the paint is dry the wax is heated to remove it, leaving a clear outline that creates a contrast between shapes and colours. For this design, a background colour is applied to enhance the outline of the flower shapes.
The fabric is left to dry overnight before the wax is heated and removed. Finally, the T-shirt is washed to remove the initial pencil outline.
The finished product:
I had a few little mishaps with the paint but it was great fun and I learnt a new skill. I will definitely be trying this again.