Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.

Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.

Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.

Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.

Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.

I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.

We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.

In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.

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The oddly named, but very pleasant, Wazzah resort on Koh Samui.

At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.

Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.

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A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.

Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)

 

Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.

Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Northern North Korea

This is part three of a short series of blog posts about North Korea. Part one is here and Part two is here. In part one I complained about people selling their photos of North Korea as “illegal”… In the photos you’ll see below, there are lots of soldiers. Many of these photos would be considered illegal. But there isn’t nothing sensational about it… Beware what you read and how it is presented. You’ll also see pictures of normal people doing normal things. How often do you see that in mainstream news? Never, because it’s not as interesting as a single picture of a man in uniform. Yet I find North Korea’s true face – its human face – far more interesting.

Although I’d always been curious about North Korea, it was the opportunity to run a half-marathon there that finally drew me in. At the beginning of 2015 I’d made running my New Year’s resolution, and after a few months I was within sight of being able to run a half-marathon. I can’t even remember how I found out about it, but when I thought about running a half-marathon in North Korea it all just made sense.

On day two of the trip we got to run around Pyongyang a little bit for a warm up, and on day three we took a short flight up to Mount Paekdu, at the border with China. Mount Paekdu is a sacred place for Koreans. It is supposedly the birthplace of the Korean nation, and their mythical founder, King Tangun. To North Koreans it is particularly important, as Kim Il-sung based himself here during the fight against the Japanese, and it is also said – perhaps falsely – that Kim Jong-il was born here.

The flight was quite fun, although the plane came in too early on the runway and was bouncing over the tops of trees. When we came to a stop on the  tiny runway there was no airport – it was just a forest with a runway in the middle. It was also freezing, which I hadn’t expected.

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We were driven up the mountain, along winding little roads, but the top was completely shrouded in fog. Apparently the views over Lake Chon – the highest crater lake in the world, at the top of Mount Paekdu – are stunning, but we could barely see the lake. At the top it was unbearably cold and the air was hard to breathe, too. We kept losing people from the tour in the mist, and it felt genuinely dangerous.

Yet it was more or less from here that we started our half-marathon. We were running downhill, which helped. After fifteen minutes the runners were all spaced out along the road and we were all just running alone through North Korea – no guides, no police, no way of stopping us seeing the country freely. There weren’t many people around but every now and then we’d see farmers and old women come out from fields and forests to say hello, or pass a marching troop of soldiers. People stopped and waved or spoke to us, or offered us water, and one group of old women sang and danced as we run past. It felt good to interact with people without any supervision.

I finished the marathon in 1 hour 44 minutes, coming in 5th place.

After this we took a bus to Paekdusan Secret Camp, where the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army was based during their fight against the Japanese. The scenery here was absolutely stunning, and the history quite interesting, and there were students on school trips and old people visiting, but we were all too sore and tired to appreciate it.

We spent the night at Pegaebang Hotel, where there was infrequent electricity and cold water. The food, too, was awful. However, there was… Werner Herzog! The world renowned director was filming a movie at Mount Paekdu and was staying at the hotel, also musing over the single baked potato on offer at mealtime. How… Herzogian.

The next morning we visited the stunningly beautiful Rimyongsu Waterfalls, where we had some wonderful encounters with old people who’d come to visit. My friend and I tried to take a photo together in front of the falls, and some old North Korean tourists seized the opportunity to dart over and join us, and then their friends came… and then more and more… It was like being in China with all the people wanting photos taken with the foreigners. Except for some reason you don’t expect that in North Korea. In fact, you don’t really imagine people in North Korea ever having fun, but that was one of the eye-opening parts of the trip.

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Later we saw more giant statues of Kim Il-sung in more beautiful country, and more groups of children and adults and elderly people visiting to learn about the country’s history. Many of them had walked or bused over days or weeks to get here, and this was considered a reward for some sort of good behavior. A few of the students spoke English and seemed shy but still somewhat keen to interact.

Finally, we flew back to Pyongyang for the football game. The process of getting on the plane was bizarre – everyone had to dump their bags on a tractor, and then stand on the tarmac as a man with an AK-47 stood in front of us. “Who gets the first class seats?” someone asked. “Whoever runs fastest!” someone else confirmed. And then the rains broke… the skies exploded and we were drenched and everyone ran, leaving the man with the AK-47 helpless. Indeed, those who ran first got business- and first class. I guess that’s how communism works.

Posted in Photography, travel

Victoria Falls

After posting two stories from last year’s trip to North Korea, I’m back to blog about this year’s trip to Africa. 

After visiting Matopo National Park in the middle of Zimbabwe, I took the train north to Victoria Falls, on the border with Zambia. The train ride was fairly pleasant and I awoke at dawn to watch the sunrise over Hwange National Park.

The train eventually rolled into Victoria Falls and I walked to Shoestring Backpackers. On the way I was accosted by a number of hawkers selling tours, t-shirts, crappy souvenirs, and bank notes for trillions of Zimbabwean dollars. It was annoying and would only get more annoying as the days went on.

I checked into the hostel and walked around town, making my way through the packs of hawkers to the Falls. Zimbabwe had proven very expensive so far and I wanted something cheap to do, so I was disappointed that to even see the Falls cost $30. What a rip-off… or so I thought.

When I got inside and actually had my first look one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I no longer regretted paying the money. It was well worth every penny. I spent the next three hours wandering around the park, looking at the Falls from every angle.

It’s known as the “Smoke that Thunders” because the sound of water is deafening and the mist rises way into the air like smoke. While I was there, there actually was thunder and it the water was too loud to hear it at first, but then the lightning came and I made for cover. I grabbed a beer at the cafe and the rain poured down. I hadn’t noticed the rain because the mist was so thick.

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Posted in travel

Mantenga Falls and Mlilwane Park

After staying in Komatipoort for a few days, and visiting the magnificent Kruger National Park, I took a combi bus to the border with Swaziland at Mananga, then another to Manzini. On the South African end of the journey I saw witchdoctor shops offering spells to cure your “broken penis, smelly vagina, and unwanted pregnancy.” How that is legal to advertise, I don’t even want to know. In Swaziland I was taken in a loop around the country as the bus stopped here and there, giving me a good insight into “Africa Time.”

At Manzini I found another bus heading towards Ezulwini, but had to swap buses halfway and get one towards an area called The Gables. I finally arrived, after a very long day of travel, at my destination. As the bird flies, The Gables and Komatipoort are only a little over 200km apart, but it took me almost a full day to get there.

I checked in at Legends Backpackers, feeling thoroughly exhausted. The place was quiet, and in my large dorm room there was only one other person. It’s a nice place – clean, with new toilet and shower facilities, and surrounded by trees. They do, however, have a dog which is fond of biting customers. Be warned.

In the morning I hiked out, intending to climb Execution Peak. It’s a large and prominent landmark in the middle of Ezulwini Valley, where prisoners of ancient times were forced to jump to their deaths. It looked too beautiful and impressive not to climb.

I didn’t have a map other than the GPS on my iPhone, so I just set out following the roads on that. It took me first to Mantenga Falls, at the nearby Mantenga Park. Here there were many signs warning of crocodiles in the river. But I didn’t see any. The water with chocolate-colored, so it would be hard to see anything move. I did, however, see a big snake shooting across the top and into some reeds.

I walked to Mlilwane National Park (pronounced closer to “Milan” than “Lil Wayne,” if you’re wondering). Getting there took a few hours, but took me on winding little back roads through villages and farms, where people always smiled and waved.

At Mlilwane I just walked into the park, and the guard said it was okay to walk. By this point I was badly burned and dehydrated, but managed to cover up and found a shop in a nearby camp to buy water. The shop had been closed but evidently I look pitiful enough for them to open up for 5 mins.

In Mlilwane I was able to walk freely across the plains and through the forests. No one else seemed to be doing that, but there were hiking paths here and there, so evidently it’s not uncommon. I was stunned that I could walk amidst the wildlife as it went about its ways. Antelope with huge horns looked at me and turned and ran, when they could easily have gored me to death.

I followed trails and eventually made it to the top of Execution Peak, thoroughly exhausted. It had been a long day. By the time I’d gotten home it was getting dark, with nine hours having passed and 53 km gone under foot. I’d be nursing blisters for a while, but it was a hell of an adventure. Additionally, from the top of Execution Peak, the view had been spectacular – Sheba’s Breast to the north, the Valley of Heaven stretching out to the east, and mountains and forests all around.

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Confronting my fear of heights at Execution Peak.

Sadly, in Swaziland, tours of any other national park proved prohibitively expensive, as did any other activity, and so I chose to leave the next day and move on to another part of South Africa.