Friday, 30 July 2010

Bike rides, boat rides and elephant rides

We’re not too sure where the last few weeks have gone but it’s dawned on us that our last blog post was two whole countries ago!

From Bangkok we hopped aboard a 12 hour sleeper train, destination Chiang Mai. This is a part of Thailand that has always appealed to me – it’s the cultural capital, complete with ancient city walls and a moat, which to Tom’s amusement really did remind me of a Thai version of Chester! The overnight journey was surprisingly comfortable - by 8pm I was already curled up asleep on my seat which seemed to alarm the train conductor who insisted that he make my bed for me. Unfortunately this also meant that the Thai lady sleeping below me would also be retiring to her bed shortly after 8pm... Anyway after a relatively comfortable night’s sleep we arrived in Chiang Mai and headed to our hostel which we were more than happy to discover was actually a small boutique hotel. After a couple of days exploring the royal city – still making the most of the street food vendors and by this point addicted to potent iced coffees (the only way to deal with the sweltering Thai climate) – we travelled a couple of hours further north to Chiang Rai.

Innocent-looking enough...
...already roasting at 9am, little did I know what was to come...
Foolishly we decided that we would venture into the countryside surrounding the small town of Chiang Rai so we hired bikes and peddled off on a 60km bike ride in 40+ degree heat. There was absolutely no room for slack in our day’s cycling as we had, not so cleverly, booked ourselves bus tickets to the Thai-Laos border leaving promptly at 5.30pm. We peddled furiously through the midday heat until around 2pm when I nearly keeled over and at which point Tom informed me that I didn’t look very well. I seriously think we were on the verge of heatstroke! Anyway despite it being totally exhausting we really enjoyed taking in the countryside which until this point we hadn’t seen much of in Thailand.

We stopped by to chat to the locals at a sanctuary for out-of-work elephants, yes really!

Our crossing from Thailand into Laos was in the form of a two day boat trip along the Mekong river. Compared to Indonesian boat trips it was almost luxurious, on the other hand it was extremely basic with the constant supply of Lay (Walkers) crisps and Beer Lao keeping the tourists happy. The highlight of the journey was the scenery, which was stunning. Granite rocks jutting out of a chocolate-brown river (I fantasised about unattainable food for the whole journey – clearly still recovering from the 60km slog on wheels or me just being me?).

Our first sight of Laos across the Mekong river

Our whistle-stop tour of Laos commenced with a few days in the French colonial town of Luang Prabang. The cultural heart of Laos with young novice monks milling around the temples, the city is also Unesco protected which means tourism is booming. As a destination it is definitely a place for women – the nightly market is full of trinkets, thousands of pretty silk scarves and handmade notebooks which I ooh-ed and ahh-ed over along with every other female. 

Someone looking rather pleased with himself after spotting a BMW bike from World War Two

The enticing night market - if only I had a bigger rucksack!

Luang Prabang will also be remembered as the place where I proudly became a mahout (elephant trainer). I say “became”, really I suppose a couple of hours of feeding an elephant and then riding her to the river in order to give her a wash probably doesn’t classify me as an official mahout but these are just minor details and in my mind I am now at one with these magnificent trunked creatures! In all honesty I was actually quite nervous. Having never been up close and personal with an elephant before I was soon reminded how powerful they are. They eat around 100kg of food a day and by the time we were feeding them they seemed pretty darn hungry. Amusingly my elephant didn’t respond well to the mahout’s stern words of command yet as soon as he said “Ohhh” as though he was about to say “Oh no more food for you” she responded immediately and trotted ahead. Perched behind her ears we set off for a bath in the Mekong.


Followed by an afternoon snack

Ankle-deep in mud (luckily she wasn't too precious)

Bath-time in the Mekong

Clearly her loyalties lay with the true mahout

Time to say goodbye

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Bangkok and beyond...

Finally we've reached Thailand - the epitome of backpacking in Asia and country number 15(!) of the trip. We of course started by spending a few days city slicking in Bangkok, which following our chilled stint in remote Sumatra, definitely added to the capital's novelty factor (can you believe they have Tesco and Boots?!). Thailand is well and truly geared up for tourists (catering for the whole spectrum...) but again in comparison to Indonesia we've welcomed it with open arms, and appetites!

We spent a day at the Grand Palace - former residence of the Thai king

We must have seen several hundred Buddhas so far..
A huge gold Chedi in the Grand Palace
Buddhists fill each of these pots in the temples with a coin for good luck 
and to have blessings bestowed upon them

A five and a half tonne solid-gold Buddha and 
a 46m long reclining Buddha
Bangkok is basically a very busy, extremely hot, loud, Asian city. Skyscrapers (complete with breath-taking rooftop bars where we reflected on the trip thus far whilst sipping cocktails), food stalls on every corner with all kinds of tropical fruits on offer, elaborate Buddhist temples home to orange-robed monks going about their daily business, one of the world's biggest markets, and tuk-tuk drivers beeping their horns every few minutes to get your attention. We loved it!

Thailand's tuk-tuks

The view above the city

We also ventured out of the city for a day trip to Ayuthaya - Thailand's ancient capital repeatedly seized and partly destroyed by the Burmese 250 years ago. We hired bikes and spent the day touring old temple ruins, watching the elephants at work and eating sugar cane filled crepes (roti).

 An eery Buddha's head nestled in the roots of a tree

Setting us up for our whistle-stop tour of mainland SE Asia before we hit China in September, Bangkok certainly helped us re-fuel and re-energise - helped by the fact we stayed in one of the nicest hotels of the entire trip complete with complimentary green tea - it felt positively 5*.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sumatra - an island of contrasts

We left KL and flew the short hop to Medan - the capital of Sumatra - the Indonesian island which is to be our home for the next few weeks. Medan isn’t the prettiest of places and despite going to the Lonely Planet’s top rated guesthouse in the city we didn’t have the most comfortable of stopovers! That said we had an afternoon wandering around exploring, a couple of exciting rickshaw journeys and watched some world cup games with fellow travellers and locals.

The view of Bukit Lawang - a million miles from the view of Medan...

Having decided that Medan is probably not the best place to experience Sumatra we took a bus the next day to Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang is a beautiful village next to the jungle - one of the few national parks in the world where you can see Orang-utans (the others being in Borneo where we were earlier in the month). The accommodation and food were brilliant and the setting even better. One of the reasons for venturing to Sumatra was to try and see Orang-utans in the wild on a two day jungle trek from Bukit Lawang so we arranged a guide and headed off into the depths of the jungle the following morning.

I’m always a fan of jungle trekking and this time was no different. The going was a bit sweaty, the jungle was incredibly hot and at times the paths we took were quite steep and very slippery - I think we all fell over at least once. We stopped every now and then for snacks of fruit, sometimes next to tranquil pools and little waterfalls to take a break.

Hanging out with the locals

We didn’t have to wait too long to find some Orang-utans. The first we saw was a male and female couple who watched us for a bit and then scarpered into the trees. The most exciting Orang-utan we came across was a huge male sat up in the trees, eating and looking down at us. We just stood and watched him for about half an hour. At one point he came down the tree to move into a different one and everyone panicked and ran – he was enormous, you wouldn’t want to mess with him!

In addition to Orang-utans we saw all sorts of other monkeys (including one called a Thomas Leaf monkey or ‘funky-monkey’ due to the Mohawk haircut).

We camped next to the river and were surrounded by monkeys in the trees and the occasional large monitor lizard surfacing in the water. There were also fireflies, bats and all sorts of other jungle insects.

The ants were massive...
...and then I found one biting through my vest!

Our guide trying to get revenge on the ant, by eating it?!

We had a great second day, finishing off by jumping and swimming in the river, then tubing downstream back to the village.

A well-needed drink
Following our jungle trekking we made a beeline back to Medan and onwards south to the largest volcanic crater lake in the world – Lake or Danau Toba. To give you an idea of size, the small island in the middle of the lake is the same size as the Isle of Wight so the lake itself is enormous! We weren’t too sure what to expect as we’d heard that Lake Toba and Samosir island were touted as the next big tourist traps in Indonesia but whether its down to frequent threats (and occurrences) of natural disasters in Sumatra or just a government official over-hyping things, the alleged 10,000 beds available on the island definitely aren’t full!

Danau Toba
We actually decided to slow things down whilst in Sumatra (one reason being that the roads and buses are notoriously bad so with Sumatra being the sixth largest island in the world this isn’t a good combination!) so we ended up staying on Samosir for two weeks. Mainly relaxing by the lakeside we did venture at one point around the island in search of hot springs (not quite deluxe spa style!) and visited a Batak village (one of the indigenous groups of Sumatra) which we learnt was a meeting point used by the head of the tribe to cast judgements and hand out punishments to other members of the clan (one punishment involved having your skin split open and then being rubbed with garlic and chilli!)
Traditional Batak house
The "court-room"

Surprisingly the climate here is much cooler than the rest of Indonesia that we’ve experienced but to be honest a break from humidity and burning rays has been very welcome! Whilst here we also surpassed our nine month travelling mark so its been a nice breather from hurtling around to reflect on all the cool places we’ve seen and awesome things that we’ve done.

Tomorrow we're heading back up to Medan then onwards to Bangkok and through SE Asia before hopefully reaching China for September!