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2 Weeks in Koh Tao

I spent two weeks in Koh Tao in 2015 all by myself. I enjoyed it enough that this year, while looking for someplace to visit with my girlfriend, I decided to return. I didn’t initially intend to spend two weeks on the little island as it really is a small place, but we enjoyed it enough that we stayed the whole time. We’d planned on island hopping over to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan but never got around to it. In the end, Koh Tao was more than enough.

Arriving and Finding a Hotel

After two days in Bangkok, we took a bus to Chumphon and then a Lomprayah catamaran over to Mae Haad Pier on Koh Tao. From there we got a taxi down to Chalok Baan Kao Bay in the south of the island, where we spent most of our fortnight. During the first night we stayed at Big Bubble, but we didn’t enjoy walking up hundreds of stairs to our room – although the room was admittedly nice. So the next morning we moved to OKII Bungalows, where I’d spent much of my time in 2015.

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The view of Shark Bay

OKII is located pretty much at the very bottom of Koh Tao, on a little peninsula jutting out to towards Koh Pha Ngan. It’s right on Shark Bay and has the most beautiful views imaginable. I made this gif with my GoPro of what I could see from my balcony:

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Exploring Koh Tao

From the very beginning, we were stunned by the wildlife. On the way up to OKII we were stopped by a huge lizard (most likely a water monitor) crossing the road immediately in front of our bike, and when we arrived we saw a large green snake on the rocks below the balcony. As the name suggests, Shark Bay is also home to a number of sharks. You have to know how to find them, though. I figured out in 2015 that your best chance is before 7am. I saw a few during my morning swims, including one occasion when several sharks gathered for a moment before going their separate ways. Sadly, though I got close to the sharks, I never managed to get a decent photo. The bay is also home to a number of turtles who feed on the coral – or rather, the remains of the coral, as most of it is now dead.

While staying at OKII we had to rent a motorbike to get around the island, as the hotel is quite isolated. The peace and quite is nice, but you’re limited in many ways. With a set of wheels, we managed to explore much of the island, getting to Sai Daeng Beach, Tanote Bay, and up to Mae Haad, Sairee, and Dusit Resort. We wanted to visit Hin Wong and Mango Bay, but the road was too badly damaged to get over the hills in the middle of the island on our little bike.

After a few days at OKII, we moved back to Chalok Baan Kao Bay and into the lovely Tropicana Resort, where we lacked a view but had a more comfortable room. We were also in walking distance of a few good restaurants, including one we can to eat at regularly, called Fishy’s.

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The view from Tropicana Resort

Although Vera couldn’t swim at the beginning of the holiday (and had indeed never been in the sea), by the end of our time she was swimming fearlessly with the sharks. We returned to a number of beaches, but Tanote Bay was definitely our favourite. This was unfortunate as it is rather a scary road that leads there. Certainly I have never seen a paved road more frightening to drive. Travel tip: check your bike is powerful enough to get up the hill, and the brakes are good enough to get you down safely!

Stranded on Koh Nang Yuan

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Two of Koh Nang Yuan’s three beaches

On our final day, we took a taxi boat to Koh Nang Yuan, a small island to the northwest of Koh Tao. The tiny little boat left Sairee Bay and bounced over big waves, soaking us completely as we made our way towards the smaller island. At times it felt like the boat would capsize, but finally we made it to land.

Koh Nang Yuan is famous for its “triple beach” – a stretch of white sand between three rocky islands that give this tiny place three connected beaches. One of these has a lovely coral reef that is known as the Japanese Garden and is where many people go to learn scuba diving. On Koh Nang Yuan we found ourselves laughing at a group of Chinese tourists waddling about in giant life jackets right by the water’s edge, shouting unnecessarily as the always do, and some even carrying umbrellas into the sea.

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One of the most hilarious sights in nature – Chinese people at the beach

When it came time to leave, we went to the little floating pier and waited for our taxi boat. One by one, all the other tourists left the island, but our boat never came back. We were stranded on Koh Nang Yuan. After a few hours, though, the taxi boat operator sent another boat to pick us up – a large vessel owned by a diving company. When we finally got back to Koh Tao, she was waiting on the pier and explained that the sea was simply too rough to risk picking us up. We weren’t angry – it had been an interesting adventure.

Leaving Koh Tao

The next day we were on a ferry back to the mainland, then a bus to the capital, and finally a plane back to China. It was a long journey with little in the way of sleep, and lots of rude Chinese to deal with, but finally we made it back home in time for the new academic semester.

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Posted in travel

Thailand Part 1: Bangkok

A few months ago I was pondering where in Asia to take my girlfriend, Vera. She’s Chinese, and that makes travel difficult because their passports prove rather problematic when visiting new countries. Whereas a British citizen like myself can travel freely through many of the world’s countries, a Chinese citizen doesn’t have that luxury.

When we flew directly from Hefei to Bangkok, Vera began to understand why it might be so difficult for Chinese people to travel. Yes, their government isn’t exactly popular around the world… but the real issue is the people. Our flight was like the movie Con Air, starring Nicholas Cage and Steve Buscemi. When you see the Chinese in their natural habitat, you become accepting of their wild and irrational behaviour. However, stick them on an airplane instead of a city bus and you realize how awful they actually are.

Thankfully, we soon landed in Bangkok and made it our aim to get the hell away from other Chinese tourists as quickly as possible. However, to do that meant getting through immigration at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which was jammed with yet more Chinese. They acted like they were back home in China – pushing and shouting. When one especially rude Chinese woman attempted to push past us to the front of the queue, Vera said calmly, “Don’t cut the line.” The woman turned around and unleashed a vicious tirade of abuse in Mandarin.

Typical.

“Forget these people,” I said. “Let’s go enjoy our holiday and let the Chinese act like shits towards each other. They’ll just spend all day on tour buses and in stupid shops anyway.”

*

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We spent the first evening at the Rambuttri Village Plaza, a pretty decent hotel in the Khao San Road area of Bangkok. The hotel has a rooftop swimming pool, a good free breakfast, and the rooms are very clean.

We then went out to explore. Truth be told, I hate Khao San Road and I’m not that fond of Bangkok as a whole, but we had to pass through on our way to the islands and Vera had never seen the city before. We wandered through the mad nighttime streets of drunk tourists and hawkers selling poorly made t-shirts and bracelets. It seems every second business is a tattoo parlour or an Indian-run tailor.

We found a good place to eat and watched the tourists go by. Even a few years ago there were no Chinese there, but now small groups of confused mainlanders wandered about with selfie-sticks wearing giant floppy hats to avoid getting sunburn from the moon.

*

The next day we set out to explore, having decided to give Bangkok a bit more of our time before taking a bus and ferry to Koh Tao. We didn’t venture far from the Khao San Road area, but instead walked slowly through the surrounding districts, seeing the great brown Chao Phraya River and its Rama VIII bridge, then exploring the small sidestreets along the canals. We saw Wat Ratcha Natdaram Worawihan and the Golden Mount, and then headed back via the Democracy Monument.

After that, it was time for an early night as the following morning we had to be up at 5 o’clock for the bus south to Chumphon and then the connecting ferry over to Koh Tao.

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Travelling Europe for Cheap

My readers know that I spent part of this summer travelling around Europe, and people who’ve read this blog for a long time probably know that I like to stretch out my journeys by travelling on the cheap.

I teach in China and between my employers and the government, it’s hard to know when I’ll have my visa ready to leave the country, making it difficult for me to plan my travels in advance. This year, I didn’t know when I’d leave China or where I’d go until a day before I actually left! All that makes it pretty damn difficult to travel cheaply or even get excited about the journey ahead.

When I finally did leave China, I headed back home to Scotland for a few weeks with my family. I had a great time there getting reacquainted with the area where I grew up, taking walks around the coast and shooting some photos of the local wildlife.

As much as I’d have liked to stick around, I also felt the insatiable urge to get out and travel some more, but where to go…? I really wanted to get back to Africa but it just wasn’t feasible on my budget or timeframe, so I put that trip on hold for a while.

After a lot of searching for ideas, I settled on a trip around Europe. Ever since I graduated from university a decade ago, I’ve been travelling Asia and the United States, and so I don’t really know Europe as well as I should. I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam and another from Budapest to Hefei (which is near where I live in China). It took me a while to pad out the details between those flights but it ended up looking like this:

europe map

 

After a short flight into Amsterdam, I spent a few days taking in the art galleries before heading to Belgium and the city of Antwerp. Next, I embarked upon an unpleasant journey across Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where I explored the capital of Bratislava. Finally, I took another bus ride to Budapest, where I spent some four days wandering around one of the world’s most interesting cities.

Thanks to hostels and Flixbus, the journey wasn’t as expensive as it could have been. After I left Budapest, I returned to China for a two-day stay and then hit the road (or rather, the air) again for a fortnight in Thailand. Stories and photos from that journey will be posted very soon.

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Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:

map

 

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Arriving in Lao

I crossed the border into Lao late this morning. It was the first time I’d set foot in the country for exactly five years, but only my first time in the south of Lao. Last time around I crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, and then saw Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This time, however, I’d crossed from Ubon Ratchathani by bus into Pakse, down in the far south, near the border with Cambodia.

It started with an alarm clock at 3:30am back in Chiang Mai, where I’d only just completed my intensive month-long CELTA course. Soon I was flying across the country to Ubon with Kan Air – a company I’d never heard of until I found their ridiculous discounts on Skyscanner last week. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the border on a Nokchaiair bus. Sadly, though, this seasoned traveller was foolish enough to fall for the Oldest Scam in Siam. At the border post, I agreed to pay my visa fee in Thai Baht instead of US Dollars, and consequently overpaid by $6. It’s hardly a crippling financial loss, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By midday I was at Pakse Southern Bus Station, getting fleeced by a tuk-tuk driver for $12 just to get into town. But there was little I could do. I was too far out and too tired to walk. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Pakse and began looking for hotels and bus tickets to the next place I was feeling like a novice on the road once again.

Pakse is an odd little city spread out across a stretch of land squeezed between jagged mountains and might river. There’s a sleepy little centre to the town where the Xe Don River converges with the big muddy Mekong as it slowly rolls towards the Cambodian border. Here, the European influence is felt in the colonial architecture along the veranda-lined streets of cafes. Elsewhere, the city more closely resembles other parts of Southeast Asia in its mix of traditional Asian and modern cement buildings. Overall, Pakse is markedly different from and more modern than the towns and cities I’d seen in the north.

After walking around a while I settled on the Lao Chaluen Hotel, which offered filthy but air conditioned rooms for about $15 per night, and then had lunch across the street at Xuanmai Restaurant, where I tried the lap lap (or laap?) chicken and a Beer Lao. Beer Lao has long been one of my favourite Asian beers and here, naturally, it is ubiquitous and inexpensive.

After lunch I took a walk around Pakse in the blazing 2pm sun. There was no one else foolish enough to be on the street at this time, and I had the city to myself. Along the banks of the might Mekong, cars had pulled up under the shade of large overhanging trees and drivers awkwardly slept with their feet dangling out of windows and doors flung open here and there. I stopped periodically to stare out over the enchanting brown waters to the mountainous jungle on the other side.

I considered staying another day in Pakse and renting a motorcycle to explore the surrounding countryside, but instead elected to move further south. Although Pakse is small and quiet, it is still too much a city for my provincial tastes. I booked a bus/ferry ride to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) for $7, with an alleged 8am start. After four weeks of relentless CELTA studying, I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sleepy environs of remote rural southern Lao. Besides, although Pakse isn’t without its charm, there isn’t much here to keep someone sticking around more than strictly necessary. It’s economy, for one thing, seems centered around transporting people to other places.

After an afternoon nap to escape the remainder of the heat, I ventured out for dinner and found a small hole in the wall called The Lao Restaurant, where I tried a beef and ginger dish that was simply described as “tradistionional Lao food.” I enjoyed it thoroughly, and several Beer Laos, before retiring to my hotel for the evening. On the way home I stared up into the stars, which were far more visible here than they had been in Chiang Mai, and tried to pick out a few constellations. It feels good to be in a place where a man can meander in the streets at night, staring lost into the depths of universe, without reprise.

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Buying Beat Books in Chiang Mai

Yesterday I took the bus back to downtown Chiang Mai to further explore this tranquil little city. Last week I went to Wat Phra Singh and wandered a few other places, but I wanted to see more. After all, next weekend I’ll be leaving and I doubt I’ll be back here for a long time.

What I found were a number of fantastic little bookstores tucked away on Chiang Mai’s winding streets. I’m a literature graduate and an obsessive reader, and so having spent years in Asia, where English-language bookstores are naturally few and far between, I was very excited to find that Chiang Mai has several great shops to browse.

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The Lost Book Shop

The first shop I discovered was The Lost Book Shop, which drew me in because right outside there was a special Hunter S. Thompson display! Thompson has been one of my favourite writers (perhaps my absolute favourite) since I was 18 yrs old, and this was the first time in Asia that I’d seen so many of his books collected together. I restrained myself from buying dozens of books and only purchased George Orwell’s Bumese Days and Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt.

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Hunter S. Thompson collection

Next I found a bookstore with a great Beat name – On the Road Books – which is run by a nice English man, and sits across the road from the U.N. Irish Pub (which I also highly recommend).

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On the Road Books

Here there was no dedicated Beat or Gonzo section, but there was a number of Beat books scattered throughout, including The Beat Book by Anne Waldman. I bought a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler.

Finally, I found the mother of all Asian bookstores – and indeed one of the best bookstores I’ve visited in my life – Backstreet Books.

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Backstreet Books – the best book shop in Chiang Mai

I’d heard from a few friends that this was the bookstore to visit, but I didn’t actively look for it. I just sort of stumbled upon it, and I’m glad I did. Inside there are posters and photos from City Lights (the only other bookstore I can think of off the top of my head that is better than Backstreet). At the back of the store there is a Beat section, where they’ve collected dozens of books by or about Hunter S. Thompson (not actually a Beat writer, of course, but still…), Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

At this stage I was aware that although I wanted to buy dozens of books, I realistically could only buy one more, and it was a tough choice. I picked Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals because I actually bought it last year and had it shipped to China, but it never arrived. I believe the Chinese government, in all their censorious wisdom, objected to a book that is so sympathetic to the Tibetan cause.

After that, I retired to the U.N. Irish Pub with my purchases to have a Guinness before making the long trek back to International House, out in the countryside to the south of the city.

If you’d like to find these great bookstores for yourself, you can find them on Google Maps. I don’t know how to embed the map, so I’ll just screenshot it below:

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Bookstores in Chiang Mai
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CELTA in Chiang Mai Week 3

It is now the end of week three in my CELTA course at International House, Chiang Mai. These first three weeks have been tiring, although perhaps not as tiring or difficult as I had anticipated. Certainly, the cumulative effect of three weeks’ hard studying is palpable. I’m counting the days until I’m free.

I only have two more teaching practice lessons and one more assignment to do. In week four there is lots of free time and on Friday there is only a party to attend. The finish line is now in sight, and I’m beginning to look beyond CELTA, to my travels in August.

I still don’t know what I will do but I need to be in Cambodia in early August and my Thai visa expires on August 1st, so that helps shape things. I plan to cross the border into Laos and perhaps travel down through the southern part of the country, crossing into Cambodia after a few days. In Cambodia I’ll catch up with some friends before somehow going to Malaysia. I’ve wanted to see the Perhentian Islands for some time, and now seems like a good time to visit. After that I plan on going to Lombok in Indonesia, and perhaps to Komodo.

I’m torn between finding someplace nice to sit and relax for a month, and going out to explore the region a little bit. As you can tell from the last paragraph, I’m leaning towards the latter.

For the moment, though, I’m hoping for a few free hours this weekend to further explore Chiang Mai, which does seem like quite a cool city. Last weekend I explored a few temples and a wonderful little bookshop, called Lost Books.

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Wat Prah Singh

Last weekend I escaped the International House school grounds and ventured north into the city of Chiang Mai. IH is about ten kilometers south, so I walked to the nearest main road and found a little yellow truck acting as a taxi. For the very reasonable sum of 10baht ($0.35) it took me all the way into the city.

Chiang Mai’s old town is set in the middle of a moat, and lined with narrow streets harboring cafes and restaurants. It’s very touristy these days, with many businesses advertising as much in Chinese as in English, due to the high number of visitors from the Middle Kingdom.

I walked to the western edge of the old town, where I found Wat Phra Singh (The Lion Buddha Temple). Although the Lonely Planet and other guides say there’s an entrance fee of around 20baht, there was no charge when I visited, and scores of tourists milled about freely.

Wat Phra Singh is the premiere temple of Chiang Mai and it really is a beautiful place to spend an hour wandering about, admiring the ancient stone work and perfectly manicured gardens.

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CELTA in Chiang Mai – Week Two

Today marks the halfway point in my CELTA course here in Chiang Mai. It has been an exhausting two weeks of studying and I, along with the other 30 trainees, am feeling the cumulative effects of this punishing schedule.

Thankfully, I have done well in all four of my teaching practice lessons and have completed two of the four written assignments. I just heard back that I passed the first, which was a huge surprise, as it was quite difficult. With luck, I can pass the remaining assignments and by the end of next week I should have a good idea of whether I’ve passed the course or not.

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Sun set over the rice paddies next to the school.

I was reluctant to spend my summer holiday studying a notoriously tiring course – essentially teaching during my precious break from teaching – but in recent years I’ve come to love my job, and I believed that the CELTA would make me a better teacher.

From what I’ve learn already I know I am now in a better position to return to my job and help educate my students. Even if I were to fail this course, I’d have learned so much that it would’ve been worthwhile. I actually look forward to returning to work after the summer and applying my new knowledge in the next semester.

In the meantime, though, I have another hectic two weeks to finish the course and then four weeks to decompress, probably by trekking through Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

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My first Thai students and some of my fellow IH trainees.