Brit Bit

Touching ground in England

Touching ground in England

We flew from Singapore in a whopping great 800 seat plane with a web cam on the tail. This is not recommended viewing for anyone with flying anxiety as you watch the nose  dive through the clouds and the speck of the runway gallop up to meet you.

We checked in to a dingy B&B near Heathrow, taken there by a driver qualified to be up there with the crazy Thai drivers, (see earlier post about Beelzebub driving school). We were pretty zonked and disorientated and slept fitfully, but did rouse ourselves sufficiently to sample our first English pub, run rather bizarrely by an Asian woman.

We went our separate ways after dumping our luggage at Euston, Matt went off to buy a super-dooper shiny Gretsch guitar he has been lusting after for ages. I went to meet my dear friend and new baby, she and her partner have asked me to be their celebrant for their naming ceremony, so we had the initial planning session.

Next stop, Berkhamsted, where we stayed with our sweet and incredibly hospitable friends, the young gals had painted us a big welcome sign which made us very, very blinky and emotional. We had a lovely time with them as always and earned our keep by having creative sessions and cooking a celebratory feast.

We went for a walk with my Ma and Pa, it was great to see them and wonderful to be back in English countryside, they don’t make woods like this anywhere else! We saw the antlers of a magnificent stag having a doze in the middle of a golden corn field, and ate a splendid beery lunch.

We were due for more visits, but Matt had come down with a nasty sinus infection so we had to lay low for a while. Luckily he recovered in time to take my gorgeous nephew and niece camping. We had a night with my brave sis and cooked a meal as she is still recovering from her op. Thanks everyone who has asked after her, she’s doing fine, apart from a trapped nerve in her ankle which is giving her a lot of trouble, it was inflicted while she was under anesthetic that she really could have done without.

We had a brilliant, if occasionally damp time camping, in the Forest of Dean. Tom and Alice really are a delight to have around. We visited Tintern Abbey on our wedding anniversary, it’s such a beautiful place full of personal romantic history for us. The next day we were off to Puzzlewood, a place that apparently inspired Tolkien to write the Hobbit. You can understand why, it’s a magical place full of strange rock formations, twisted trees and glowing green moss.  Alice got super-excited because they were filming an episode of ‘Merlin’ there, and she got waved at by Morgana!!  Adventures aside, we spent a fair amount of time hanging out, having uke and guitar jams, lounging in our new Onesies (me and Alice), playing cards and having olive spitting competitions, all good clean camping fun!

The team

The team

And finally, our countdown had reached the end, 1st September, the day we got back to our home in Ulverston. We had a smooth uneventful train journey with mounting excitement as we crossed the bay, went around the corner, and there he was… HOAD! The local lighthouse guiding us home.

Home to the Purple House

Home to the Purple House

Check out more pics below…

 

 

Krabi Birthday

Ko Lanta

Ko Lanta

23 July – 17 August 2012

We flew out of lovely Luang Prabang to not-so-lovely Bangkok returning to the hotel we’d stayed in before. We were hoping for a return of the three smiley swing men, but instead got the surly brother so we gave the musical soiree a miss.

We then got the overnight train with little fold down beds and very little sleep to a confused bus connection where we were herded on and off various different buses until we found the right one which had twice as many passengers as were intended . We got to Krabi town, Krabi province in Southern Thailand and we holed up in a grotty little hotel for two nights. There was loads of building going on here and we watched the sad sight of trees being bulldozed to make way for yet more concrete monstrosities.

We had a brief mini bus trip to hang around for a long time for another mini bus, in the meantime witnessing a nasty scene with the travel agent and a couple of tourists, him shouting across the small room “Don’t shout me!”, it got quite unpleasant with him aggressively slapping stickers on their chests, luckily we got away without any further escalation.

Whoever wrote “It is not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts” has never ridden in a Thai mini bus, they are hell on wheels. The drivers seem recruited from Beelzebub’s school of driving where I’m sure they score extra points for overtaking around blind bends, and shortening their passengers spines by taking every pot hole with a hideous jolt.

Lovely leaves

Lovely leaves

We were glad to arrive on the island of Ko Lanta, the quiet sister of Phi Phi and Samui. It was almost deserted where we stayed, but that suited us fine, we worked, swam and sometimes got a tuktuk into town. I got quite a nasty injury on my heel while we were here, coming out in sympathy for my big brave Sis who was undergoing surgery.

We planned to go to Phi Phi (pronounced pee pee, tee hee!) for my birthday and splashed out on a swanky looking place which cost four times as much as we had been paying. We were looking forward to this special treat, especially since the guide book waxes lyrical about PP, saying things like “it turns brutes into poets”. After a choppy ferry ride over we lurked around the port waiting for someone from our place to pick us up. There are no cars on the island, witch isn’t as peaceful as it sounds as the narrow lanes are full of bikes determined not to slow down and hard working barrow boys shifting suitcases and endless bags of cement (yep, more building). Phi Phi suffered horribly when the tsunami almost destroyed it in 2004, it’s hard to believe now, it’s a really throbbing tourist destination, and this is the quiet season.

Nice towels, shame about the mouse poo

Nice towels, shame about the mouse poo

We eventually got picked up and did our best to keep up as our boy zoomed through the lanes, we got to the part when even his mighty muscles couldn’t handle the incline and we all piled on a clapped out little truck (which did break down later) The place was disappointing, (infuriating actually).

Here’s why: We were made to wait 3 hours while they ‘cleaned’ the room, when we got in there was animal poo on the bed. No security and a work party dumping their stuff outside our room, really rude staff, water that turned off in the middle of a shower and a restaurant that didn’t serve food. There’s more but I don’t want to rant! More than anything we were annoyed with ourselves for booking ourselves in for four nights without checking it first, ah well… you learn!

Birthday Collection

Birthday Collection

Whinging aside, I had a wonderful birthday. Sweet Matt had put out a call to friends and relatives to contribute towards a celebrant course I want to do when getting back to UK. I have already done this kind of work, (non-religious creative ceremonies), but I’m really keen to develop my skills and get out there as a freelance celebrant. I was so touched by people’s comments and feel very affirmed that this is the right direction to go in, thank you so much those of you who chipped in, it really made my birthday very happy. It’s not too late if you still want to! Go here.

After Phi Phi we scuttled back to Lanta, this time staying a bit further down the coast, this place was a bit busier full of gorgeous people working on their tans around the pool. There was a funky-little-shack bar here where we met fellow travellers and shared a few beers.

Bonny boats

Bonny boats

We left this little haven for more god-awful trips, one night in Krabi, a mini bus to Hat Yai where we had a gruesome overnight stop, made really disturbing by seeing a dog get run over. We got up at 5am the next day to catch the train which turned out to be 2 hours late, which took us to Butterworth in Malaysia, then a taxi to Georgetown. We were feeling pretty exhausted and dispirited by now and getting increasingly anxious about the imminent return to England. We’d planned to do another all day overland trip but decided to sod the expense and fly to Singapore, that we we will hopefully arrive back in some semblance of good repair.

So now we’re counting the days, until the end of our Grand tour, it’s with mixed feelings and a considerable dollop of anxiety that we are contemplating the close of this extraordinary chapter. Five nights in Penang, two in Singapore and then London, we’re really excited about seeing some dear faces again and starting the next chapter of our life adventure. Thanks for travelling with us dear blog reader.

Love Fran and Matt

Birthday sunset

Birthday sunset

Look! more lovely pics

Lovely langourous Luang Prabang

Languour

Languour

29th June – 23rd July 2012

We’d booked in to ‘Lao Wooden House’ which was a dark paneled room that resembled a spacious coffin. We went about orientating ourselves in this rather disorientating city, this was due partly to being sandwiched in between two rivers, so a ‘down to the river’ direction might mean the opposite to what you think. Also we spent some time in what we thought was the main drag of the place, before we discovered another high street down the road.

View back to LP

View back to LP

There is a lovely lazy, languid feel to this place, partly because the humidity forbids fast movement, partly because of the beautiful saffron clad Buddhists drifting from their golden pagodas under orange umbrellas and partly because of the big old river moving slowly about its business.

It is a backpacker destination but not only the twenty-something hippies that frequented Pai, we met some interesting folk here including a grumpy old sod we called Uncle Vernon, father and daughter English teachers, a bio-chemist taking time out to write a book, a buddhist couple building a retreat and some Lao musicians.

We moved down town on our second week to a cheap friendly place run by a gay Lao couple. This place featured as many free miniature bananas, as you could eat, strong Lao coffee, and a litter of kittens living in the laundry cupboard.

We were careful to abide by the house rules, here is an excerpt: ” Do not any drugs,crambling. Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostrate and others into your room.”

Reflection

Reflection

Some of the adventures we had here were labouring up the hill in the centre of the town called Phousy (as in cat, or galore!) and setting free some poor little caged birds, watched over by some round eyed French kids as we shouted “Libre!” Crossing the river in a very skinny wobbly long tail boat to the restaurant on the other side. Having a Lao barbecue, a round affair which fits in a hole in the table, there is a ‘moat’ of boiling water where you cook your veg and noodles while the top fries your meat. Getting up at 5.30 am to watch the buddhists collecting alms, a beautiful ceremony almost ruined by idiot tourists, I have a more prolonged rant about it on my website here. A lot of working, playing and being horizontal in the ridiculously cool local bar, appropriately called ‘Utopia’. The laid back heaven was visually punctuated with some stark reminders of their recent history. Lao has the unfortunate claim of being the most bombed country in the world, mostly because of it’s proximity to Vietnam.

Trouble in paradise

Trouble in paradise

We had a visit to some glorious waterfalls and were entertained by some playful rescued bears. We finally got to understand why this time of year is called the rainy season, but it’s nothing compared to Cumbria! I did quite a bit of photography and some experimentation which you can see on my blog. We appreciated the legacy of the French colony by falling a love with a bakery with divine baguettes and gorgeous coffee. Watched Murray get beaten by Federer in an Aussie sports bar, I was cheering him loudly until the uneasy quiet alerted me to the fact we were surrounded by Rog supporters! We visited the oldest Wat (temple) enjoyed the bright mosaics and meditated in a mini Wat. Shopped in the wonderful night market with beautiful and bizarre handcrafted lovelies.

We are really grateful for the chance of being in this lovely place, it comes recommended highly.

A Piece of Pai

Love shack

Love shack

After a few days in Chiang Mai at a lovely luxury hotel which Fran booked to celebrate my birthday, we moved further north into the hills to the little village of Pai.  The journey was by minibus and after 5 hours and 762 curves we arrived in one piece.  No thanks to the frankly maniacal driving which seem to get worse as we neared our destination with blind overtaking and top speeds of 120km/h on the straights.

Very much on the backpacker trail, Pai is a sleepy place next to a river and comprises many guest houses and restaurants mainly catering to a young hippy type set. In fact the place seemed to be stuffed with 20 something people, mostly young women.  There was a lot of live music around, some of it very good.  Our local had an act on every night. A male/female duo who sang some interesting tunes and another guy who sang the usual Clapton/Cat Stevens/Beatles stuff but did it very well.  We were staying in a little bamboo shack which was peaceful and comfortable.  Although one day a strange teenager appeared and stood about moodily staring at Fran and other western women causing much uneasiness, hence dubbed the Pai perv.

Our stay  consisted mostly of eating, drinking and relaxing, we felt happy to potter about the town and not do any trips or tours, it was really too hot and humid to do much.  There was a fab place over the street from our hotel where we had many a breakfast.  They made a special juice drink from what looked like grass which they grew in containers which formed the ‘walls’ of the place.  It was run by a very perky looking dutchman, his vital looks a testament to his wares.

Our Street

Our Street

We met some young girls from London who were just starting a big trip and a nice guy from the USA who was a geophysicist, we had a couple of fun evenings with them, a merry random mix of travellers. There are so many bars and restaurants it was bewildering in such a small place.  One night we saw an excellent duo at a bar down our street.  The main guy was a Indian trained flautist from Israel who also played guitar and sang with the use of a looper building up marvelous soundscapes and grooves.  Also with him was a guest, Chinua, who played a beautiful melodic banjo.  I later chatted with him and he turned out to be from the USA but lived in Thailand with his family.  He is also part of an international band which plays Middle Eastern music, they only meet up to play tours as and when with no rehearsal, very spontaneous!  I later met up with him and had a jam which was great fun.  We played some Django stuff and some Turkish and American folk music sitting in a sleepy corner street cafe.

Matt and Chinua

Matt and Chinua

We whiled away our days until it was time to take the bus back to Chiang Mai and our flight to Laos.  This time the bus proved too much for poor Fran who succumbed to motion sickness half way through the journey.  We were sited right at the back and took every jolt and turn with a vengeance.  I desperately clung on to my seat and stared out at the road for the 5 hour trip and managed to keep hold of my breakfast, but only just.  Crawling out of the ‘Chuck-Wagon’ or ‘Vomit-Comet’, we headed for the ‘Top North Hotel’, a cheapo place in which to spend the night before heading off to the airport and goodbye to Thailand… for the moment… next stop, Luang Prabang.

More pics below 

Bangkok Hop

We were on the road again and had a succession of pretty arduous, sweaty and varied vehicles.

We took a car and driver from Siem Reap to the Thailand border. We were lulled into a false sense of ease as we showed our passports, we didn’t realise it was only the beginning of a bewildering bureaucratic experience. We watched people dragging massive handcarts, altercations with a crazy man, and trucks stuffed too full of pigs whilst we tried to find the right queue to stand in.

We caught the local train to Bangkok, this journey took 6 hours and we were entertained by the ‘air conditioning’ which consisted of having all the windows open full, and the remarkable variety of produce being peddled, most of it unrecognisable to us.

We’d been warned about being hassled when arriving in Bangkok but we still managed to lose Matt’s travel guitar and got ripped off by a very dodgy taxi driver. He  drove around, shouting ‘this it?’ at any hotel and a decrepit looking apartment building, I was getting really worried when he started rolling back into other cars,  then he over charged us !

The next day Matt had a Ukelele job come in, having no Uke we decided to pop across town in a tuk-tuk. We’d been lulled into a false sense of security in Cambodia where it is  a fun ride on your little chariot, this one turned out to be the tuk-tuk from hell. It was Saturday and the busiest traffic day, it was much further than we realised, and at one point were sitting in a jam of 10 lanes, breathing nothing but fumes. I was going down with a cold and feeling pretty rough anyway, this didn’t help. We found the shopping mall which was rather surreal with its of kids with cartoon t-shirts buying lots of small plastic things. The uke shop was great though, it could have been straight from Harry Potter if they’d dealt in magical Ukulele’s. Continuing our lack of luck in the transport department it took ages for us to get back, the train was just too complicated and the taxi’s kept refusing to take us. (and we’re not taking a bloody tuk-tuk!)

 

On a jollier note, Matt hooked up with the local hotel swing band, a trio of sweet smiley men. They played some great stuff, lots of jazz standards like Sweet Georgia Brown, The Very Thought of you… he was only going to do a couple of numbers but they nabbed him for the rest of the set. One of them was so excited about him, they got him to sign the back of his guitar.

Next up was the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, this was supposed to take 12 hours but actually took 16, for no apparent reason. We found our compartment which we were sharing with two rather sulky French teenagers. There was a worrying psycho-waiter with a painted white face who yelled excitedly and did jazz hands if you bought a beer, but pouted and actually stamped his foot if you didn’t want breakfast.  My cold was in full swing now and I woke in the night desperate for water. I went lurching down the carriages in my pink stripy PJ’s all the way to the end of the train. I opened the last carriage and there was a party going in full swing, complete with pumping music and puffing, swilling punters. It was all too much for me and my pyjamas and I stumbled back, and I confess swiped some water from another carriage (they had lots!)

We were grateful for our posh hotel in Chiang Mai booked in honour of Matt’s birthday. The staff sang a sweet if a little surreal version of happy birthday and brought a cake.  I had planned somewhere nice to eat for 18th, but we were so tired, his birthday diner consisted of a packet of crisps.

The next day was our memorable trip to the elephants which Matt has already written about, and then… stay tuned for more transport horror stories…

The Temples of Angkor

Welcome to Ankgor Wat

We were told they were stunning, but nothing quite prepared us for the sheer wonder of this place.It is such a vast place, we bought a seven day ticket and there was still so much we didn’t see, apparently it’s the largest place of worship in the world.

Our first day was to the big boy himself, Ankor Wat, looking a little like a mighty ancient spaceship. It was built to represent the Hindu universe with a massive moat surrounding it representing the ocean, the concentric galleries representing the mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru. The towers represent the mountain peaks inhabited by the Gods. The God’s sanctuary is still hallowed ground, only a few tourists are allowed at one time and you must be appropriately dressed. There are gorgeous carvings everywhere, one of my favourites was the Asparas, the graceful celestial dancers.

Celestial dancer

Next stop was the magical Ta Prohm. This has been left in it’s natural state, partly reclaimed by the huge roots of the cotton wood trees. It’s a wonderful fusion of the man made and natural and the shapes and textures are just fascinating, I was in photographer’s heaven! In certain little alcoves were beautifully dressed buddha statues surrounded by clouds of incense, these are active shrines tended by the buddhist monks and nuns, they’re on hand to decorate you with a woven bracelet and give a blessing.

Mighty cottonwood

Sorry to gush but the next temple was one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced. The old cliche ‘took my breathe away’ was actually accurate. I was busy taking pics of the line of Buddha heads which welcome you in when I looked up to see a high gate with a beautiful Buddha’s face gazing serenely on flanked by two in profile. The temple itself is full of these magnificent heads gazing in all directions, you can get close enough to kiss them!

Serene head

We made the mistake of having an elephant ride around this temple, it was fun at the time but we have since learned that many are cruelly treated (see Matt’s Elephant post)

Next up was the No.1 ‘must do’ when in Siem Reap, watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We dutifully set the alarm and took a bleary tuk-tuk ride. We picked up a hitcher en route, a guy on a bike who was worried he was late for the sun and grab bed hold of us while we flew along. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried as the cloud was moodily spoiling the sun’s chances. It was still an interesting time, all gathering together like a faithful congregation, sitting in silence and sipping disgusting coffee.

Beautiful Butterfly

Our journey to Kbal Spean also took a little dedication, this was a mighty hour’s tucking followed by a sticky jungle uphill walk. It was lovely to be in nature again and we both realised how much we’ve missed it, the place was full of butterflies which added to it’s ethereal charm. We reached our destination which was a very different experience again, this was not a temple but a series of carvings of Vishnu and chums carved into the rocks in a river bed. It was such a peaceful spot and you could really get a sense of the devotion of those monks who embellished this sacred space.

After Kbal Spean we decided to take in another temple on the way back, Banteay Srei. This was a bit of a mistake as we were hot and knackered by then, it gets ridiculously sweaty, we even found we got prune fingers, like when you soak too long in the bath!  We were amazed to hear that many people do as much as 8 temples in a day, I wonder if they take anything in after the second one. This was a dinky little temple with some elaborate carvings, allegedly designed by gay architects… there was something rather camp about it.

Carvings, Preah Khan

Last but not least was Preah Khan, another wonder where the elements of jungle had been left in. We sat under a shady tree and listened to the tinkling traditional music played by victims of land mines. We took our time to say farewell to this extraordinary place  sitting on the holy water temple, immensely grateful to have had the chance to spend time in this magnificent place.

More lovely pics below:

 

Elephants

We’ve all seen elephants, those massive “gentle giants” that inhabit Asia and Africa, now seriously endangered, these noble animals are a symbol in many religions and revered throughout the world.  I remember the first time I came across them as a child at Billy Smart’s Circus on Boxmoor common in the late 60’s, giant lumbering beasts doing tricks in the ring.  Then later at Whipsnade zoo on a family day out, their huge grey forms sidling around their concrete enclosure, I still remember the awe at their presence.

Now, at age 51, I visited along with my beautiful companion and wife Fran, the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.  We’d both wanted to go and see the elephants in their own country and after a bit of research we came across this place.  It wasn’t until we got there however that we realised the plight of these incredible creatures.

In Asia the elephant, apart from being a holy animal, has been used as a tool that helped build the wonderful civilisations here for centuries.  They were used as a bulldozer is used today.  A hundred years ago there were 250,000 domestic elephants used in the logging trade mostly.  Now there are only 5000 domestic elephants left in Thailand. In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand and the elephants found themselves ‘unemployed’.  Many of them were abandoned to die, others moved into the tourist industry, everywhere you go in Thailand you can find elephant trek centres. Earlier in our trip we had gone on a small trek around Bayon temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, now knowing better I urge you not to do this if you ever find yourself there or anywhere where there are elephant ‘rides’.

At the Elephant Nature Park we learnt of one woman’s crusade to give these animals a better life. Sangduen Chailert, otherwise known as ‘Lek’, meaning ‘small’, (small in stature, but mighty in spirit and heart) has taken it upon herself to rescue as many suffering elephants in Thailand as possible and has built a wonderful park which houses 34 rescued beasts.

We arrived after the 60km drive from Chiang Mai into the hills and with about 100 other tourists in small groups were shown around this fantastic place with the help of our lovely and gracefully informative guide Kuon. (I think that’s how it’s spelled, apologies if I got it wrong).  We fed the elephants bananas and pineapples and the highlight was a bath in the river.  We all energetically threw buckets of water over them as they basked in seeming ecstasy in the afternoon heat.  I have never had such a rewarding experience.

At the end of the day we were shown a documentary about Lek and the park in which we learned of the ‘Crush’.  This is the ancient ceremony the Mahouts, (elephant handlers), along with their shaman, perform to ‘break the spirit’ of the elephant so that it will take the commands of a human.  Virtually all elephants have been through this in Thailand and it is still in practice today.  In the Crush the young elephant (about 4 years old) is forced into a wooden frame only just big enough for it and subjected to days of pain and torture as it is beaten and stabbed with sticks and sharp metal implements and kept from sleeping.  It is one of the most awful things I have ever witnessed.  It is said that this is the only way that the elephant can be trained, but Lek maintains that it is outmoded and creates aggressive behaviour and other problems.  She is trying to persuade the Mahouts out of this practice, but has met with much opposition including death threats.

I felt moved to write this and to ask all of you if you might take a look at the Elephant Nature Park website to see what they are doing.  Here you can donate to help them in their struggle to help these poor animals.  My birthday has just passed and if any of you would like to give me a gift, then a small donation to the park would mean so much to me.

With love

Matt