Thursday, 25 August 2011

Dream catcher

Alaska: Homer, Kenai Peninsula

There’s an irony at play here, I thought, as I assessed the outfit I was wearing to go halibut fishing in the ocean off Homer, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.  Checking myself out in the wing mirror of our car, the dawn sunshine breaking through the low clouds, my breath turning to steam, I resignedly concluded that when I go fishing I end up looking like a skier, and when I went skiing I looked like a fisherman. 

The skiing took place 10 years ago in Prince George, British Columbia, with two dear friends, Jacki and Warren, and my younger brother, Richard.  There is a picture of the four of us lined up, ready to hit the slopes, with me at the end wearing a blue fleece and grey rain hat that instantly prompted my brother to ask ‘who invited the fisherman’? I might as well have been carrying a rod for all the good my skiing poles did me as I sped into a snow bank on the side of the slope, ejecting head first from my two skis whose binding tension had been set, with sensible foresight, at extreme liability beginner level.  It was on this same trip that the man sitting next to me on the chair lift to the top of the nursery slope had looked at my old-school elongated skis (another thrift store purchase), and asked if I was a speed skier.  Having absolutely no idea what he was talking about I meekly replied, fear making my voice quiver, ‘er, not intentionally, no’.  Reaching the summit I pushed off the chair lift and confidently skied down the incline for ooh, at least four feet, before taking out two small children, doing a not-totally-inelegant pirouette, and landing on my face, making a deformed snow angel indentation in the snow.

Fishing would be successful, surely? Zipping up my skiing overalls I pushed to the back of my mind images of monster halibut pulling me over the side of the boat, and then taunting me by playing piggy in the middle with my rod.  I was flying solo on this one, the two girls opting instead to spend the morning devouring giant cinnamon buns, although they came to see me off at the dock, Helen pecking me on the cheek and slapping my bum with the instruction to ‘bring back dinner you hairy hunter-gatherer you, grrr’.  As I clomped down the ramp to the dock she shouted ‘Have you got your packed lunch’? after me.  Receiving a look that said ‘stop embarrassing me Mum!’ I joined the other fishers.

The boat was packed with families and groups of buddies, and I was surprised to slowly learn that they were all Alaska residents.  One of the many reasons I love travelling in America is the warmth and hospitality of Americans, and it wasn’t long before I was sat with a family learning about the upcoming marriage of the two grown up children, who sat looking embarrassed as their mom enthused about the flowers, and the food, and the guest list.  A couple of retired pilots, hearing my accent, leaned over and said ‘try this’ offering up the most delicious smoked salmon I’ve ever tasted.  ‘We caught that two days ago and oak smoked it the self-same day’ they explained, ‘you won’t get any fresher’.  With the ocean flat and glistening, the mountains standing on sentry duty around us, and the sun fully emerging from behind the clouds, I basked in the warmth of the kindness of strangers.

Moving upstairs to the open deck I was soon chatting to the only other solo fisherman, a charming bloke who had moved from Colorado to Anchorage simply because he ‘had always had a dream to live in Alaska’.  As he told me his story I was enraptured by his almost childlike fascination with this state, for he was articulating exactly how I felt about Alaska.  Here was a resident speaking with the awe and wonder I was feeling.  He had, he explained, moved up to Alaska in late summer five years ago and had, by his own admission, underestimated how tough you needed to be to survive an Alaskan winter.  ‘Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong’ he gently explained.  ‘I lost my job, the heating in my apartment packed up, and I couldn’t afford snow tires for my truck.  Believe me’, he continued, ‘you need snow tires up here’.  So he had moved back to Colorado, tail between his legs, but instead of giving up on his dream he had worked hard, built up a bit of cash, and tried again three years later, bringing his wife and young son with him this time.  His second crack at Alaska was proving more successful. 

Now, the more reality talent shows colonise our TV screens the more cynical I become with platitudes about ‘following your dream’, ‘never giving up’, ‘giving 1000 percent’ and ‘taking a journey’.  But I couldn’t have been less cynical as my new friend told me his story, fielding questions from me.  ‘What about your wife', I asked, 'does she like Alaska?’ ‘Oh man’, he replied, ‘she can’t get enough of it.  She’s having the time of her life, and my boy has this as his back yard’ he said, gesturing out across the ocean and mountains, just as a sea otter popped a furry head out of the water.  He told me about his new boat and his new Jeep like a child would enthuse about their Christmas gifts, and I lapped it up, smiling at just how happy he was with his new life, with a dream he was now living.  We had become temporary buddies, taking photos of one another with our catch, and against a backdrop that was picture postcard no matter where you looked.

As we drew into port at the end of the trip, the two of us standing at the bow against the bracing sea air, he pointed out his wife and young son standing at the dock awaiting his return.  And chatting to his wife was Helen.  Exhilarated by the fishing, my two halibut waiting for me as a trophy, I had an overwhelming feeling of good will to this man, and his family, and to Alaska and, if I’m totally honest, I had a lump in my throat as his son ran down the dock to greet his father, the two wives happily chatting and following him down the dock.

‘Did you have fun’? Helen asked as I presented my catch to her. ‘I really did’ I replied, waving goodbye to my new friend, ‘it was a dream’.       
Catch of the day
L: a triumphant homecoming.  R: Skiing

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A-Unit: thrift in the Last Frontier

Alaska, Kenai Peninsula

‘Eew, don’t put that thing on my hoodie, it smells like dead people’. 

‘Well I think it’s pretty snazzy, and look, the last owner has left me a bottle top in one of the pockets’ I replied, proffering up the bonus gift from the inside pocket of my newly acquired four dollar bright orange body-warmer I had snaffled, along with a bunch of other cold weather gear, from the Salvation Army thrift store’s racks in Homer, the southernmost town on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.

‘Yeh, well I bet that was his lucky bottle top, one he always carried and fondled as he fished these waters, before that fateful night when the cruel mistress of the ocean took him.  And now you have it, a bad omen.  Like I say, it smells of dead people, and that stain looks like poo’.

And so began the call and response game between me and our new temporary travelling companion, my oldest friend, Haley Joel Osment Kate who had, in a moment of impressive impulsiveness, said ‘why the hell not’ and booked a last minute holiday, not to the Balearics, but to Alaska to join us.

(Me) ‘Ooh, these new boots are warm’, (Kate) ‘dead people’s boots’. 

(Me) ‘This fleece really was terrific value’, (Kate) ‘That’s what they said, before they died’.

(Me) ‘These underpants are, um, supportive’:  (Kate) <raised eyebrow> ‘Bet they died of crotch rot’.

I love thrift shops (charity shops in British parlance), and can happily spend hours poking around the racks, or plunging elbow deep into the bargain bins.  And thrift shops in North America are the best.  The ‘make do and mend’ ethos has not yet supplanted the ‘give away and buy new’ one, and I’m happy picking at the bones of this consumer society, a vulture circling before hungrily swooping on a branded bright blue, down filled hat, with earflaps, for the princely sum of 50 cents.  Maybe that’s what that old rapscallion 50 cent (or fiddy as the inarticulate kids call him) should do a remix to his song Candy Shop about:

gonna take you to the thri-ift shop
I’ll let you touch my bottle top
go ‘head girl, ignore the plop
keep going ‘til you buy the lot

I'll take you to the thri-ift shop
Boy one taste of this crotch rot
I'll have you spending not much of what you got
Keep going 'til you find those pots (woah)       

Uh huh
So cheap

gonna take you to the thri-ift shop
Come and touch this new pot
go ‘head girl, ignore the clots
Keep going we’ll refurnish the yacht

Ohh, yeh, baby etc…

But let’s back up a little.  We weren’t supposed to be in Alaska.  We were supposed to be in Myanmar (Burma).  That is until on one humid and sticky evening in Vietnam a couple of months ago Helen turned to me and said ‘I can’t believe we’ve still got six weeks left in South East Asia.  This sounds really bad, but I kinda want a change of scenery’.  ‘Yeh, I sort of know what you mean’ I replied.  ‘We could, of course, change our plans’ I floated.  ‘Where would you really like to go’? I asked, figuring that once you articulate your hopes the rest is just detail.  ‘Well, this is stupid and totally unrealistic’ she replied, ‘but we’ve always talked about Alaska, but it’s a long way away’.  And that’s what did it.  Alaska is a long way away.  But then it is always a long way away, no matter where you are.  That’s the point.  Alaska is exotic, more exotic to me than anywhere else I could think of.  Where men are men and moose are nervous.  Where the border guards get twitchy if you don’t have a beard, even more so if you’re a man. 

So, a couple of calls to the friendly people at Trailfinders in Cardiff to shift our flights, a plea of assistance to those kind, anonymous folk who answer questions in travel discussion forums on t’interweb for no reward other than the satisfaction that comes from the maxim of ‘it’s nice to be nice’, and we had a new plan.  Having a new plan – is there anything finer?  It’s one of the things that has stuck with me most from the time we spent in Africa with our tour leader, and now friend, Tim; his fondness for the phrase ‘let’s make a plan’.  It’s a phrase so full of possibilities, so lacking in procrastination, so no-nonsense.  It sits up there with ‘yes we can’, ‘ I have a dream’, and ‘I want a Big Society’.  Oh, hang on a sec, one of those phrases doesn’t look quite right – that’s right Cameron, the one that means absolutely NOTHING, you naïve, focus-group reliant, out of your depth buffoon.

Anyway, what was I saying? Ah, yes, Alaska, our new plan.  Flying up from Seattle, where we’d rendezvoused with Kate, the sky getter lighter as we headed north, we peered out of the plane window, seeing wraith-like clouds hugging the mountain ranges and stretching down to the sea like glaciers.  Oh, they are glaciers.  Lots of glaciers, hugging the coastline until the lights of Anchorage appeared like an oasis of civilisation in this untamed land. Trying, but failing, to get some sleep in the hire car on our first night I reflected that now was probably the time to get our game faces on, or we’d end up looking like complete greenhorns, the type of city folk who try to cuddle a grizzly and then look shocked when it acts like a wild animal.  Or at least would look shocked if they still had a face left. 

But who was I kidding?  We were greenhorns.  Better to admit it and respect this land of unforgiving wilderness than act all enigmatic and end up trudging Into the Wild before realising the wild wouldn’t let us trudge back out.   We all, I think, shared this exciting sense of the unknown, of a wilderness beyond Anchorage, that tinge of nervousness that accompanies a new adventure tugging at our bellies.  The simmering nervousness was relieved the next day when Kate said she’d ask for directions to the nearest Liqueur Store. ‘Um, I think they pronounce it Liquor Store’ I replied, ‘there’s not much call for crème-de-menthe up here’.  Giggling, the hire car stocked up with camping kit, a new cooler, a ridiculously oversized tent, and enough liquor to fell a mountain man, we headed south out of Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula, Adam and Joe podcasts on the Ipod in the car, the most staggering and humbling landscape rolling by outside the car.

Bathed in sunshine we carried on south, then west, passing scores of fisherman lined up along the banks of the Kenai River, reeling in salmon with an ease that reminded me that of all the adjectives one could apply to Alaska, abundance is probably the best.  Abundant scenery, abundant space, abundant wildlife, abundant natural resources.  Excluding the intelligence of Alaska’s most recent, most glamorous, and certainly most famous Governor this was a land of abundance.  Finally however, the distinct lack of abundance in my sleep got the better of me and I declared that we had to set up camp for the night or risk seeing one of those river beds in a little more detail than any of us would appreciate.

Sleep deprived, inexperienced, and desperate for a camping spot we made a stupid decision as the rain started to fall, first in drops, then in sheets.  'That beach looks interesting' we said, 'there are lots of other people camped down there'.  And there were, except these were fishermen, taking part in the annual dip-net fishing event that is hosted on the beach in Kenai.  They were there to catch fish in their oversized nets not, as we were to discover, to enjoy a prime camping spot.  Pulling our camping kit out of the car, price tags still attached, we dragged it down onto the beach in torrential rain, the phrase ‘city folk’ running through my mind as we received bemused looks from the locals.  Resisting the urge to batter them out of the way with our double air mattress (‘well, I might look like a ridiculous city slicker, but at least I’ll be a comfortable ridiculous city slicker, bosh’) we erected our cavernous tent in silence, soaked through to the bone, sand making its way into every nook, cranny, and orifice.  Shivering in the tent, the wind blowing off our rain sheet after a fitful night’s sleep, we were up and out of there early, at which point I remembered the old military adage; any fool can be uncomfortable.  I’m no fool, I lied to myself. 

And that is what led us to going wild in the aisles in the thrift store when we arrived in Homer, with the conviction that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation.  With a new warm, waterproof wardrobe purchased for less than $25 we were ready to put our inauspicious start behind us.  Humming a little tune, our Alaska adventure was beginning to take shape…

Hey girls, we’re in Alaska
we’re gonna party like it’s Alaska
we’re gonna sip liqueur as it’s Alaska
 And you know we don't care for bears
‘cos it’s Alaska!


Kate and I on the beach in Homer.  Check out the new threads!

<< Well, the blog has shot through the 6,000 page views mark which is, as ever, far more exciting for me than it is for you. A big welcome to all the new readers; a veritable smorgasbord of nationalities.  Thank you for reading, particularly those of you who came for the 'useful' posts on SE Asia and have stayed for the whole show.  There will be another 'useful' post on Alaska coming soon, but I first need to rid my mind of all the superfluous nonsense about thrift stores, 50 cent, and whatever else pops in before then.  

Although most of what I write is tongue-in-cheek, my thanks for reading is straight down the line serious:  <Hand friskily placed on your forearm, intense and creepy eye contact, little bit of spittle around the edges of my mouth> Thank you. >>   

Friday, 19 August 2011

Cambodia: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around

There are no trains currently running in Cambodia so it’s buses for getting around.  The roads in Cambodia are much quieter than neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, a reflection on the relative prosperity of the average Cambodian.  Socio-economics aside however this is a relief when crossing from Vietnam as the din of a million car horns disappears and a strange hush takes hold. 

Tuk tuks are a good option in towns and you won’t walk for long before you’re offered your hundredth tuk tuk ride of the day.  Tiring as this may be do try to smile and say no politely. Even better, say yes.

Again, mopeds are an option for bombing around towns and out into the countryside.  As ever, take it easy as the roads in Cambodia are often poor and medical facilities, particularly good ones, are few and far between.

Getting to Thailand from Siem Reap is covered in the introductory post to these mini-guides.

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen – Sleeping

Bloom Garden Guesthouse, Siem Reap: a really super guesthouse this one.  Run by the charming and chatty Diana, a Singaporean expat, she takes the running of this place seriously.  She seems to like the company of guests and this is a sure sign of a passionate hotelier.  The guesthouse is a little out of town, but they offer bikes to guests free of charge, and a tuk tuk ride is only a couple of USD.  Breakfast is good, the Wi-Fi is fast, and they are eager to help.  The tastefully designed bedrooms come with air con and a fan, and have good bathrooms. 

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Toucan, Crab Market, Kep: The crab market in Kep is a ramshackle collection of waterfront huts, and this place, stumbled upon by chance, was a delight.  Helen has just leaned over my shoulder and said, simply, ‘stuffed crab’.  She’s right, of course, you don’t argue with my wife when it comes to food.  The stuffed crab was indeed excellent, as were the plate of prawns, ordered off menu, served with a butter and pepper dip.

Yacht club, Kep: This place seems out of place in Kep, a moneyed bastion in a town that was decimated by the Khmer Rouge in living memory.  But it has very friendly staff, good value cocktails during happy hour, and an excellent menu.  The prawn, cream cheese and jalepeno poppers were a favourite.  It is also the best place in Kep to watch the sunset.  With a mojito.  And a beer chaser.

Soria Maria, Tapas, Siem Reap: this place does a ‘dish for a dollar deal’ on a Wednesday night, and is an expat favourite.  Not least because all the drinks are also a dollar.  We grazed on an impressive array of tapas choices, eventually dragging ourselves out, bloated and drunk, but only $20 USD worse off.

Other stuff

Rabbit Island, just off Kep

This is a good day or overnight trip.  Rabbit Island is a 45 minute boat ride from Kep, the return trip giving you plenty of change from $15 USD.  The beach itself is lovely, with some ramshackle wooden bungalows set back from the beach.  Ladies offer good value massages on the beach.  I had two.

Angkor temples, Siem Reap

You can’t really go to Cambodia and not see the temples.  I’ve written about them in a previous post, so will keep this to practicalities.

We were in Siem Reap for three days and spent just one morning at the temples.  This, for us, was enough, but you could easily spend more time there.  For two of our three days we hired a tuk tuk driver by the name of Vantha, and his magnificent chariot that he had christened Black Wolf.  A diminutive and delightful young man he drove us around for two straight days, always returning to a pre-agreed pick up point bang on time.  He was enterprising and educated and had memorised the temple guide book, in a second language remember, taking pride in sharing his detailed knowledge with us as we toured the different temple sites.  We agreed on a day rate of $15 USD.  I gave him $20 on both days. 

I can’t think of a better way of touring the temples than like this, and would urge anyone to seek out a similar arrangement.

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vietnam: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around


The trains were fully booked when we were in Vietnam which was a real shame as travelling North to South, or vice versa, is both a logical route and well supported by the train network.  The best I can do is direct you, once more, to the Man in Seat 61 website.


A little known fact is that Vietnam uses 92.6% of the world’s motor horn allocation.  Drivers honk to clear the path, honk to express alarm, honk to express recognition, honk to say hi, and honk when they haven’t honked in the last five seconds.  Sometimes they forget to honk so do a double honk to make up for their oversight.  Bus drivers have the most impressive horns in Vietnam, and the largest predilection to use them.  Biggest vehicle wins in Vietnam so riding a bus is akin to riding in a tank, scattering mopeds and pedestrians hither and thither as the bus motors on down the road, all accompanied by a near constant HOOOONK!  Take some earplugs.

The buses are OK in Vietnam.  We took a 20 hour sleeper bus from near Hanoi to Hue.  It was an experience.  I noticed that westerners were often placed at the back of the sleeper buses.  This could have been coincidence, but perhaps not.  The upside to being on the back row of a sleeper bus is that you get to put your travelling bag down behind the back row and, well, that’s it.  The back of a bus is bumpier, and in our case had five beds lined up next to each other.  Each berth is perhaps two foot wide, and six foot long. I struggled, sandwiched between Helen on one side and a kindly Vietnamese bloke on the other.  Sleeping etiquette in these cramped conditions is quite a skill.  Sleeping on your side requires that you face away from the person next to you so as not to snore into their face.  If everyone does the same then it happily morphs into a strangely intimate five person spooning configuration.

You can avoid this intimacy by not getting a berth on the back row.  Even better, get one on the lower level as clambering up into the upper level decks requires some climbing skills.  Whatever you do, avoid berths near the toilets, for obvious reasons.

To summarise:

  • Use earplugs
  • Avoid upper level, back row sleeper berths, unless there’s five of you and you’re swingers
  • Avoid a berth near the toilet
  • Pass the hours by purchasing a child’s toy steering wheel with horn to attach to the seat in front and pretend to drive

You have to be a bit mental to hire a scooter and drive around a big Vietnamese city.  The riding is hard, with few recognisable traffic rules.  Navigating is even harder.  If I’d have known where I was going I’d have done it for shits and giggles.  I didn’t, so I didn’t.

Hiring mopeds outside of the large cities is more realistic.  Just remember; size wins.  You are at the bottom of the vehicle pecking order so be prepared to get out of the way.


Flying domestically in Vietnam is a feasible proposition; especially with the great value fares Jetstar offer.  The obvious downside is that you miss a large part of the country.  We flew from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City because all the trains were full and I couldn’t face another night of awkward intimacy on a sleeper bus.   

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen – Sleeping

Huenino Hotel, Hue: This was probably the best guesthouse we stayed at in SE Asia.  Reasonable rates, slightly above average (approx $18 USD per night), but worth the extra outlay.  This place does very well on Trip Advisor for good reason.  The rooms are small but nicely designed.  The breakfast is excellent but what really sets this place apart is the staff, all members of the same family.  The one act of service that exemplifies this is that they give you a cool fresh fruit juice every time you come back to the hotel, and a cooled flannel.  This is five star stuff at guesthouse prices and I got the feeling that one of the family had been trained in an international luxury hotel.  Or they were just naturally hospitable.  Either way, great place, worth booking in advance.

Beach Club, Phu Quoc Island: If you’re going to this island (and you should) then you may as well stay on the beach.  This place is at the southern end of the long beach and offers beach cottages.  We paid $30 per night for the beachfront bungalow, and $20 per night for a bungalow slightly set back from the beach.  Both were good.  The food is average, but the setting great.  Beautiful sunsets, good swimming.  It’s a bit out of town so you need a moped to get around, but this is a sound investment anyway, and it’s worth negotiating a rental rate for your entire stay.  Take it easy when riding out of the hotel and up to the main road – this dirt track can easily throw you off balance. Not that this happened to me, oh no.

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Iced coffee – wasn’t expecting this at all, but the iced coffee in Vietnam is delightful.  Rich and chocolaty coffee, sweetened by condensed milk, it’s available pretty much everywhere.

Nina’s Cafe, Hue.  This is another winner on Trip Advisor, and again it deserves the plaudits.  A small place run by the eponymous Nina it offers great food at low prices.  Nina herself is delightful; friendly, kind and thoughtful.  She is also smart, and realises that word of mouth, or of internet, is the best way to make her business a success, along with running a tight ship.  I admired her for this, and urge you to go to experience the great food and to support someone who has justifiably earned a good reputation. 

Random fish restaurant, Rach Gia: Can’t remember the name of this place, or give you directions, or remember the price (it was cheap) yet despite these Michelin-guide levels of information I would urge you to track down this local restaurant.  They seemed to serve only one dish; a huge fish that comes with rice pancakes and other stuff to make your own fishy delights.  I’ve included a picture so that if you cross this place you can dive in.  They were surprised to see us there, which is always nice, and amused at my attempts to squeeze my frame into the tiny child-size plastic chair.  They were even more amused when I tried to get out of it.  

Night market, Phu Quoc Island: This is the place for seafood on Phu Quoc.  Stalls line both sides of the road offering up a wide range of sea treasures.  Pick the busiest place.  We’d befriended some fair dinkum Aussies on Phu Quoc who came from a long line of fishermen and they assured us that the quality of the fish was top-notch.

Other stuff

Riding the Hoi An pass, from Hue to Hoi An

This route was recently made famous by Top Gear’s Vietnam special and though the programme manages to fake pretty much every scene they shoot they can’t fake the splendour of this magnificent stretch of road.  We completed the day long trip with a company called Hue Riders, our guide Mr Dung ushering us through the hairpins and city madness.  I rode myself on an automatic scooter and Helen rode pillion on Mr Dung’s motorbike. Our heavy packs were transported separately to Hue and we picked them up at the end of the day.

The ride takes in several stops along the way including Elephant Falls; a chance to have a dip and wash the dirt away.   Motoring along this stretch of road, Arcade Fire blasting through my headphones, was one of my happiest times in all of SE Asia.

Video footage of us riding this road is available on my YouTube channel

Riding around Phu Quoc Island

To continue with the biking theme, renting a moped and taking off around Phu Quoc Island is a great way to spend a day or two.  The north west of the island boasts the most beautiful scenery as you hug the coastline.  The ride up the north east coast road is the most fun as a rider as you need to cross some eroded sections of road, using impromptu bamboo bridges.  It takes a little experience, and some conviction to ride this, but I’m an amateur and we managed it, with Helen riding pillion.  And spanking my bottom, like a racehorse, to get extra thrust up the steep sections.

Again, video footage of this road is available on my YouTube channel.

Tour into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

I’m in two minds about this.  On the one hand, it’s a very good value way to see the Mekong, and meet other travellers.  On the other hand, it’s incredibly touristy and there is a significant amount of herding that goes on.  I’d definitely recommend against doing a one day trip as the vast majority of your day will be taken up with travelling to and from the Mekong.  I wrote more about it in this previous post.

What I didn’t mention in this post was the charming Singaporean man we chatted to on the tour.  I’d just been reading about Singapore and in particular the suffocating surveillance society that seems to be the price Singaporeans pay for a prosperous, safe and clean home.  Conscious that this was an opportunity to ask about his perspective on this, away from government snitches, we had a fascinating chat on the subject of ‘what price freedom?’  It was his response, however, to my explanation of our year long career break that really made me chuckle, and stuck in my mind.  That’s a very European thing to do, he said, sounds like a mid-life crisis.  I loved his bluntness, his jovial taunting, and we both giggled when I sheepishly added that I had just biked the Hoi An pass so maybe an early mid-life crisis was an accurate summary. 
Early morning at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi

Get up early and take a walk around the lake before the humidity takes hold to experience how Hanoi wakes up, and to see the most eclectic mix of people exercising.  This experience is so in contrast to the craziness of Hanoi that it left quite a mark on me.

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Saturday, 13 August 2011

Laos: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around

We were in a bus crash in Laos, which rather put us off travelling in buses.  But there’s not much choice in Laos.  There are no trains as far as I’m aware.  The simple truth of the matter is that sometimes you get unlucky, and often there’s very little or nothing you can do to reduce risks.

Please don’t let this put you off.  Laos is an incredible place.  Buses crash everywhere.

Virtually all guesthouses will help you book transport.

Scooters are more expensive to rent in Laos than in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, but still make for a good way to get around towns such as Luang Prabang.  As do bicycles, which are much cheaper.

We flew from Luang Prabang to Hanoi in Vietnam to avoid the 24 hour bus ride.  We bought our tickets from a travel agent a few days before travel and they cost us $150 USD each, including a tuk tuk transfer from our guesthouse to the airport.  Surprisingly, it was cheaper to book the ticket via a travel agent than online.   

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen - Sleeping

Big white new hotel next to waterfront restaurant, Huay Xai: there are plenty of guesthouses in Huay Xai and they are marginally more expensive than in the rest of Laos.  We stumbled over this place which was new and although slightly more expensive than the other guesthouses was well worth it.  Sadly, I can't remember the name, nor can I find it on the internet.  You can find it by turning right at the top of the hill from the border post, and walking 100 metres, it's on your right.  Comfortable beds, nicely decorated rooms with wooden floorboards, a big bathroom with hot shower, and powerful air conditioning.

Zuela Guesthouse, Luang Nam Tha: Nicely designed wooden building, very near the night market.  Cheap and comfortable rooms.  We had a fan room, rather than AC, and sweated our way through the night.

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Generally the food in Laos was less impressive than the rest of SE Asia, with the notable exception of bread products.  The colonial French influence is remembered in baguettes that do not suffer from the over-sweet preparation method common to the rest of SE Asia, particularly Thailand.

Le Banneton Cafe, Luang Prabang: A charming colonial-style café serving good salads, great coffee, and even better lemon tarts.

Swedish Bakery, Luang Prabang: I particularly liked place for its excellent sandwiches and pizzas, and its friendly staff.  I also have a great fondness for Sweden and the Swedes generally, and it was a nostalgic surprise to see Snus in the refrigerator, nestled besides cans of Coke and bottled water.

Fruit shakes, Night Market, Luang Prabang: Small stalls selling good-value fruit shakes abound in SE Asia, so this recommendation could apply to the whole region.  Lemon and mint was our favourite.

Beer Lao is, for my money, the best beer in the region.  Cheap and cold it often works out better value to drink beer than soda which is surely the key indicator of a civilised society.    

Night market, Luang Nam Tha: a small night market focused predominantly on food.  Great for carnivores, and you can buy barbecued meat by the pound, or by the bird.  We also had some excellent banana bread.

Writing about the night market reminds me of the incredibly obnoxious traveller we experienced there, a cliché that would make baby boomers choke on their scotch (which they were drinking in the drawing room of their mortgage free houses – thanks very much you lot!).  So cartoon-ish was he in his pronouncements and lack of self-awareness that I was certain we were being filmed by some art students for their project ‘Wanker around the World’.  He was a Brit, decked out with the mandatory linen trousers, bandanna and wooden beads, and was travelling alone. Inviting himself to sit at a table with two other couples he proceeded to talk at them, nonstop, for half an hour.  Helen and I looked at each other from across our food-splattered table, fatty fingers raised halfway to our lips, and simultaneously raised our eyebrows.  Is it me, I said, or is that guy the most gigantic arsehole you’ve ever heardHe really is, she replied. And remember – she’s the nice one.  Here’s a sample of some of his pronouncements to the dumbstruck and overly polite group he’d just interrupted: Yeh, I’ve just been chillin’ with the hill tribes man, I just rock up and sometimes they want money but sometimes they share some smoke with me, and it’s just awesome (LOAD), You guys should get off the trail, start travelling for real (LOCK), so this guy says to me you’re in a drug farm, you better get out of here before they come for you, it was like The Beach dude (FIRE!).  So obnoxious was he that his presence came up, without prompting, in a conversation we were having with a great couple – Jos and Maria – 200 miles down the round in Luang Prabang.  These poor souls had the misfortune to have a room above his and they recounted how he would sit outside his room and just invite passers-by to sit with him, and then talk at them until they managed to escape.  The fire with which the normally gentle Jos told this story suggested that maybe there’s a shallow grave with a bandanna sticking out of the earth in Luang Nam Tha.

Other stuff

The Gibbon Experience is awesome.

I dedicated most of a previous posting to it, so shall only include the logistical information here.  It’s expensive at $270 USD per person for a 3 day, 2 night, trip.  Worth it though. 

A three hour ride up the road from Huay Xai takes you to the jungle entrance before a very short trek to waiting 4x4s ferry you further into the jungle, weather permitting.  Then you hike for about an hour, picking up harnesses along the way. 

There are several tree-houses scattered around the jungle, not that close to each other.  Most tree-houses sleep between 6 and 8.  We had one to ourselves and although this ‘honeymoon’ treatment was nice we also regretted not having the chance to socialise with the others in the group, for this is a sociable experience.  You get to see most of the other tree-houses as you trek and zip through the jungle.  The trekking requires a moderate level of fitness, but the guides are accommodating to this.  Needless to say, you need to have a stomach for heights, or at least the conviction to overcome any vertigo.  There are leeches in the jungle, but nothing that a pair of socks worn over your trousers won’t fix.

The tree-houses have mattresses on the floor for sleeping, blankets, and a black out mosquito net.  There is a rainwater shower.  The jungle chorus can be loud so a pair of earplugs may be helpful, as will bug dope. 

Food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) is zipped in by the guides to your tree-house.  It wouldn’t win any Michelin stars but considering the location it’s pretty good.  We had plenty of food but the tree-houses with more guests commented that they felt short-changed by the amount of food they received.   Take a water bottle in – the rainwater from the taps is fine to drink, and dehydration is a serious risk in the humidity.  There is also a cool-box in each tree-house that holds snacks and a bottle of Lao wine.  Never realised Laos produced wine? There’s a reason for this.

View from a zip line to one of the tree houses

Kouang Si Waterfalls, near Luang Prabang

These waterfalls were a very pleasant surprise.  Beautiful blue water to swim in and rope-swings to get the adrenaline pumping.

We hired a scooter to get there and back ($25 USD per day), but it is more common to share a tuk-tuk.  It is also possible to bicycle there if you’re feeling fit.  We regretted not doing this, and there’ll always be a tuk tuk driver willing to take you and your bike home should the return trip be too daunting.

There’s also a bear sanctuary there which is an interesting diversion. Go early in the day to avoid the crowds.

Kayaking, Luang Nam Tha

We had a great day paddling down the river, notwithstanding the near constant arguments about who was steering in our two person kayak.  It’s easy going, and there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery. It cost us about $30 USD per person for a one day trip.

Included in the trip is stop offs in minority villages.  This is also common in the hiking options.  I find these stop-offs excruciatingly uncomfortable; and they make me feel like a transient and nosy voyeur, not least because I’m the umpteenth tourist to have stumbled into a community and poked my camera into someone’s home.  I know some people love this type of thing, and I’m not making a value judgement; it’s just not my cup of tea.

Activities organised out of Luang Nam Tha are priced based on the number of participants, normally to a maximum group size of 8.  The more people, the cheaper the per person price.  Noticeboards outside the tour offices tell you which activities have people already signed up. 

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Thailand: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around

Getting around in Thailand is so simple even I managed it.  Travel agents are everywhere, more often than not in guesthouses.  Pick a destination, wander down from your room, have a nice chat, pay a ludicrously small commission in some (but not all) instances, let them arrange it for you, pick up ticket, go.  Simple.  The following may just make it even easier. 


Our primary long distance travel method.  Thai trains are clean, well-staffed and exceptional value.  We took sleeper trains to and from the south-west coast and also up to Chiang Mai.

  • This is a brilliant website, lovingly created and meticulously maintained, about worldwide train travel, including SE Asia: The Man in Seat 61
  • We travelled second class, air con.  It was fine, although I was hot during the night, but then I’m always hot.  The fan option seemed OK too, and marginally cheaper.  First class cabins sleep two, and are private.  They were fully booked on our dates.  Book a few days in advance if possible, especially in high season or during festivals.  Virtually all guest houses will help you book tickets for a small commission or you can buy direct from the station if you happen to be in the area.
  • Lower berths are better than upper berths due to their increased width, and proximity to the ground meaning less clambering.  They are a fraction more expensive as a result.  Sadly we could only find upper berth availability on our trips.
  • The configuration of the second class carriages is two armchair style seats facing each other on one side of the aisle, and the same on the opposite side of the aisle.  These seats are then made into the lower bunk.  The top bunk is pulled from the ceiling.  If travelling as a couple a good idea is to get a matching lower and an upper bunk so you can sit opposite each other before the beds are prepared and after they are put away.  The train staff do this for you with practiced efficiency.  We had one who looked and acted like she’d just changed careers from being a prison guard; all bulk and no nonsense.  Lights out animals! Boy she was quick.  She never found the hole behind my Raquel Welch poster though, sucker! Clean bedding is provided.
  • Food and drink are available on sleeper trains.  The train stewards come to you.  They work on commission so don’t worry, they’ll find you.  The food is OK for train standards, but a bit overpriced so we tended to stock up on provisions before we boarded.
  • There is a restaurant that serves surprisingly good food at Bangkok station.  It’s on the upper balcony level on the right hand side as you face the platforms.  The restaurant furthest from the platforms.
  • There is luggage storage at Bangkok station in the far left rear corner (i.e. behind you) as you face the platforms.  Fairly expensive but very useful if you have a day to spend in Bangkok before catching a night train.
  • The trains seemed fairly secure but we padlocked our rucksacks to the racks when we slept, and took our small bags with valuables into the bunks. On this subject, a pacsafe has been a fantastically useful addition to our travelling clobber and has been used in planes, trains and automobiles and as a mobile safe when hooked around relatively immovable objects in guesthouse rooms.
  • The buffet car is fun but can be seriously damaging to a relationship
L: Helen in the 2nd class corridor. R: me clambering off the top bunk


We only took a couple, and these were minibuses.  They were OK, newer and better maintained than the rest of SE Asia.  Again, guest houses and travel agencies abound and will help you book pretty much any travel request.

There are horror stories about buses in SE Asia, and they truly are horrific.  We ourselves were involved in a bus crash in Laos, but walked away unscathed.  I’m not sure what advice to give on this; there is simply no way to completely mitigate the risk, other than staying at home.  If you feel unsafe ask the driver to slow down.  When he doesn’t, ask again.  Try to avoid the suicide seat on minibuses, next to the driver in the front.  If the bus has seatbelts, which it probably won’t, wear them.

Other than that there’s not much you can do about safety.  Get a good book, put on some tunes, and zone out. 


Cheap, in good nick, air conditioned.  Always get a meter one.  If they refuse to turn the meter on, or say it is broken, then get out.  Most taxi drivers are happy for a fair fare so use them instead. 

Guesthouses often provide business cards printed with their address – take one and show it to the driver on your return trip to mitigate against detours, and your own memory failure.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve got into a cab, been asked ‘where to’, and gone completely blank before mumbling something about a hotel near some trees next to a road.  Then wetting myself.  Not really – that’s where the trees come in handy.

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen - Sleeping

I will only mention noteworthy places when it comes to sleeping, in this post and the ones that follow.  We stayed in plenty of OK but relatively non-descript places, and there is no point mentioning these when Trip Advisor can be far more useful (providing you have your crazy internet troll filter activated to mentally weed out the blatantly unreliable reviews).  Generally I’d advise against going for the Lonely Planet’s ‘our pick’ when it comes to accommodation – when we looked at these places they were overpriced and gave off the impression that their new found seal of approval and subsequent upturn in business had been accompanied by the laziness that a steady stream of guests can often engender.

A couple of good websites include Hostelbookers and HostelWorld

Having said all this, what we normally did was just rock up somewhere, have a little look around, and sooner rather than later found somewhere decent.  Nonetheless, when we did receive accommodation tips they were normally good ones, and helpful, so I’ll plough on…


Sivalai Place has big rooms, a pool, Wi-Fi, and incredibly helpful staff.  It’s a bit out of the way though, and this began to annoy us; it’s not located where you can easily pop in and out during the day.  We didn’t find it a terribly sociable place either, lacking a bar as the prime example.  However, it’s a good place if you want to get out of the hustle and bustle of central Bangkok, and it bears repeating that the staff were tip-top.

We preferred Smile Society Hostel in Silom.  Silom is an exciting and vibrant area of Bangkok, vice and commerce rubbing shoulders.  The rooms were small but perfectly formed, with very comfortable beds and high quality linens, a good shower, decent smellies, Wi-Fi and an OK breakfast included.  On a tangent, it has a massage parlour over the road that offers the intriguing prospect of a testicle massage for 800 baht, meaning that every time I popped out to the nearby 7-11 I could return to the room with a slight limp and inform Helen that I’d just had my testicles abused.  She had the good grace to laugh at this lame (limp?) joke every single time.  N.B. This is not that type of blog, I can’t actually comment on the abuse or otherwise such services offer.

Ko Lanta

The most difficult decision we had to make was which beach to stay on when planning our trip to this island on the west coast of Thailand, near Krabi.  It seemed that the further south you went on the island the better the beach and the less development there was.  We went south.  Our final decision on which beach to stay on was eventually made easy by serendipity dealing us a great hand when we discovered our friends Tom and Jodie had just, unbeknownst to us, holed up for a month on Kantiang Beach with their mate Dave.  Much fun ensued with some of the nicest people you could ever spend time with; not least of which was a riotous night out on Ko Phi Phi that culminated in Jodie involuntarily exiting the water-taxi back first, scuba style, giving a literal punctuation to an evening that could not in any way be described as dry.

Kantiang is a beautiful beach set in a long bay, with good swimming.  Most of the hillside is dominated by the uber-luxury Pimalai resort, but their presence is subtle, and they have a vested interest in keeping the beach clean, to the benefit of not just their own guests, but also to everyone else. 

Kantiang Beach in the background.  An oversized jockey in the foreground.

We stayed at the Lanta Marine Park View Resort.  I can only assume that the name of the hotel was created by a malfunctioning Hotel Name Generator.  We got a good low season rate (c.£12 per night over five nights), a spacious air-con room with a balcony and an amazing view of the bay.  They also have a ‘Shroom Bar’ perched perilously on the cliffs which is a great place for a drink.  But not so great if you try the speciality Shroom Shake and turn all R-Kelly (the ‘I believe I can fly’ bit, rather than the ‘I might just pull out the video camera’ bit).  

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Eating in Thailand is a joy.  Street stalls are dirt-cheap and will fill you up with great tasting chow.  There are plenty of places serving basic western fare should you want a change from the lemongrass and chilli loveliness of Thai cuisine.  Here are some of our favourites:

Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok: There’s a Vietnamese kitchen located in the boutique clothing section of the market, with perhaps 20 tables, and an open kitchen showcasing the chefs at work.  They are overseen by a big Momma who tasted every meal before it went out – maybe because she was hungry, but more likely for quality control.  It was to be the best meal we had in SE Asia, and we had it on our first day.  Peaking early perhaps but boy it was good. 

Kantiang Restaurant, Kantiang Beach, Ko Lanta: The eating options on Kantiang Beach were a bit disappointing generally but this small local place served fantastic Thai food, and was charmingly welcoming.  It’s about 200 metres from the ‘centre’ of Kantiang – turn right as you exit the 7-11, walk up the gentle hill, and it’s a few metres up a side street on your left.  If you get to the entrance to the Pimalai resort you’ve gone way, way too far.  Look for the scooters parked outside; a sure sign that the locals eat there meaning two things: (1) it’s good, (2) it’s affordable. 

Mo Rooms Hotel, Chiang Mai: A trendy little boutique hotel that serves Thai-fusion food.  Sounds wanky I know.  But we had some fantastic pasta done with Thai ingredients.  Slightly more expensive than other places but still ludicrously good value, and they have lots of cool modern artwork scattered around the place.

Drinking: watch out for the national beer, Chang.  The changover it generates is rough, and the deceptive strength can affect your judgement, as I have written about previously.  Similarly, ‘buckets’ have been known to claim several victims – the child-size plastic containers filled with a bewildering mix of grog that take you from sober to drunk quicker than a roundhouse kick from Jean Claude Van Damme.  But listen to me.  What a puritan.  If you’re old enough to drink you’re old enough to take responsibility for your own actions. 

Tangentially related to this I’ve just remembered a funny character the aforementioned Tom and I met whilst we were buying our own buckets from an off-license slash gift shop slash convenience store.  He can’t have been any older than 22, clearly on his gap year, with a face that was betraying the discombobulating effects of one too many buckets of his own.  He looked at us, grimaced, and in the drawl of a war veteran said ‘I gotta get out of Thailand man’, ruining his enigmatic style somewhat when he appended it a couple of seconds later with ‘I miss my Mum’.  I miss my Mum too, nothing wrong with loving and missing your parents no matter how uncool the big kids might think it is, so sympathetically I asked how long he’d been in Thailand for.  ‘Three weeks, man, I gotta get out’.  Giggling, Tom and I checked he’d be OK getting home that night which he waved off with a look that said ‘leave me here, save yourselves’ so we stumbled off to do something that I’d probably have been talked out of had my Mum been there – namely getting another tattoo around my ankle that reads This Too Will Pass.  The sentiment is mine, the artwork was not.  I hope this bloke got out of Thailand, and I hope he had a lovely reunion with his Mum.  I see mine in Canada in a few days, for the first time in six months, and I’m giddy with excitement – take that cool kids!  

Other stuff

Avoid ping-pong shows in Bangkok, read more here.

Renting scooters is a great way to get around, particularly on the bigger islands such as Ko Lanta.  Take it easy, wear your helmet, don’t be another statistic.

Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok is amazing.  Thousands of stalls selling mostly decent stuff from clothes to art to homeware to puppies to books to luggage.  We loved it.

Mountain biking in Chiang Mai is great fun.  I did the entry level course and it was just challenging enough.  I only came off once, and had a lovely scab to prove it.

Cookery schools are a great way to learn a bit and meet people. Helen did one in Chiang Mai with a company called Basil whilst I was mountain biking, and returned not with any scabs but with some delightful dishes and a conviction to cook more Thai food when we get home.  We both win, yay!

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