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…

 

 

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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 

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

Dr. Fish and the Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-tuk travel

Tuk-tuk travel

We flew from the sweaty heat of Singapore to… the sweaty heat of Cambodia!  Actually getting used to it now, we walked through Siem Reap airport where a man holding up a sign with my name on it (very exciting) was to be found waiting for us.  He was our tuk-tuk driver.  A tuk-tuk is a small four seater covered carriage pulled by a moped and was to become very familiar over the next few weeks.  Our man piled on all our luggage and we climbed in, we were then driven down to our new home, the Motherhome Guest House.  Our first tuk-tuk ride was a bit nerve-wracking as we witnessed the apparently random driving of the Cambodians, it seems like anything goes, with traffic flowing in all directions at once, narrowly missing each other in a kind of slow ballet.  Someone later described a tuk-tuk as being like a fish with all the traffic like water flowing around it.

View from the guesthouse.

View from the guesthouse.

 We were greeted at Motherhome by the friendly staff offering us cold fruit drinks and blessedly ice-cool towels scented with eucalyptus.  The staff were all beautifully dressed in red and gold tunics or long dresses and were very graceful and helpful.  At over three weeks our stay was pretty lengthy by normal standards, the average time anyone spends here is one point eight days, how they fit everything in is anyone’s guess. We were to visit the temples of Angkor and generally hang out in the city.
Siem Reap is a mainly tourist town aimed at accommodating all the hordes visiting Angkor, it has loads of good restaurants and markets, massage places (including the dreaded Dr. Fish Foot Massage – I tried this but felt like the fish were finding my feet just a bit too tasty! Fran, after persuading me to take the plunge kept her feet in for about two seconds and squeaked loudly, refusing to repeat the experience.)  There is also a night market where you can shop for silks and buddhas when it’s a bit cooler.
Those fish are too hungry!

Those fish are too hungry!

 We went on a trip to the floating village of Chong Kneas.  The huge lake, ‘Tonle Sap’, in the middle of Cambodia is home to several of these villages, when we went the water level was very low and the colour of buttermilk.  We went on a short tour to see the villages and few disgruntled looking crocodiles, finishing up with dinner on an old boat anchored in the lake.  We were hoping for a longer tour to explore the sunken forest a fews hour’s boat ride away but were informed that the forest hadn’t sunk yet as it was still dry season. (News to us – we thought it was rainy, but apparently the lake doesn’t rise until the mighty Mekong river reverses its flow later in the season.)
Girl, wash tub and snake.

Girl, wash tub and snake.

 Other things we did during our stay included a traditional puppet show given by local kids and a cello concert and lecture by the famous Dr. Beat Richner, fundraising for the local children’s hospital.  At the moment in Siem Reap, there is a terrible outbreak of Dengue Fever with many children being affected by this killer disease.
We also visited a modern Pagoda ‘Wat Bo’ near our hotel in the city.  There we met with a young monk who was studying at the buddhist school attached to the Pagoda.  He was a lovely young man dressed in stunning orange robes, he came over to chat with us and practice his English.  We sat in the shade of a tree out of the hot sun and after a while some more monks joined us, one of them, another young man grinning from ear to ear was even trying to chat Fran up much to her amusement! “You very beautiful!”
Monk chat

Monk chat

We’ve had a good time in the city, we even managed to gate-crash the British Ambassador’s reception cocktail party, after being tipped off by an ex-pat in our local bar.  “Just show up with your passport” he said, so we did.  Free drinks around the pool at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, lovely, darling. Adding to the delusions of grandeur was the mistaken feeling of being quite rich, we went out with wads of 100’s in our wallets, but alas 100 riel is  only about 2 pence.
You can imagine you're rich!

You can imagine you’re rich!

Watch out for Fran’s post on the Temples, coming soon…
Gallery pics below:

Singapore Sling

We made our way to our ‘home’ for the week, Sleepy Sam’s, the cheapest place we could find. We weren’t sure we were in the right place because the entrance was cordoned off with tape and inside the dark room was piled full of baggage. This was however the reception area, but we were told our room wasn’t ready so we dutifully trotted off for noodles and beer. We were trying to acclimatise to the sweaty heat and to the news that my sister has to have a serious operation and I might have to cut short our trip to be with her.

When we got back it still wasn’t ready, but what we had assumed meant cleaning the room in fact meant renovating the whole floor! We eventually were shown to our cubicle with a mattress on the floor which separated us from the dorm with a wafer thin wall so we were treated to the sound of every burp, fart and snore. Slightly more elevating was the sound of the call to prayer from the Sultan Mosque at the end of the road.

While we were here we tried to trace a photo taken by Matt’s dad when he was posted here by the RAF just after the war. The photo was taken in Raffles Place, the central business area of Singapore and now utterly unrecognisable from how it was in the forties, today it is full of dizzying sky-scrapers screaming their wealth.

We had a memorable visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum and were amazed at the richness and wonder of this continent we are now in. By happy coincidence we were there during an arts festival and went to see a ‘Centaur’ performance. A horse and rider showing an amazing amount of skill but unfortunately it looked more like control than harmony, and we came away much bigger fans of the horse than of the rider. Other outings were a walk to the Indian district where we drank Singapore Slings out of jam jars, and pretending to be rich and famous at the famous Raffles Hotel, drinking where Ava Gardener and Ernest Hemmingway once supped.

Next stop Cambodia…

More gallery pics below