Vietnam 2001

Tuesday    6th February, 2001      Hanoi

Our first impression of Vietnam is not great – a dull, misty, grey afternoon and only about twenty degrees. And passing through immigration is painstaking. We see David get off the plane and try to dodge him but he spies us and tries to bum a lift into town. He knows we’ve got transfers into Hanoi and we wouldn’t mind giving him a lift but then we don’t want to get stuck with him after that. Luckily our driver is a bit late and David ends up going with some other poor suckers – they’ll be wishing they had earplugs by the time they get there.

Our transfer is a red four-wheel drive with tinted windows – no this isn’t supposed to happen! We want adventure not comfort! The forty-minute drive from the airport is along a newly constructed freeway with ugly billboards all along the way. Beneath advertisements for western luxuries are farmers working bare-footed in cold, wet paddy fields. Rice paddies stretch as far as we can see and workers in conical hats are either still in the fields or heading home on bicycles. We’re driving on the right hand side of the road and it takes a while to get used to it. There’s traffic chaos as we come into the city that looks much nicer as we pass through the Old Quarter. It’s dusk by now and lights are twinkling from street stalls and we pass pretty parks and old French architecture. The streets are jammed with people and bicycles and cyclos. The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow streets that are each named after the merchandise they sell. There’s Lace Street, Tin Street, Gold Street, Button Street, Silk Street and more, more, more.

Our van finally turns off into a dark, muddy side street to pull up at the Hotel Hong Ngoc. This is a tiny, elegant French boutique hotel and a lovely surprise. A doorman rushes out to get our bags while Mark jokes with the funny guy on the desk. The foyer has antique looking furniture and mirrors, a marble floor, a carved staircase and potted palms. Our room is on the fourth floor and there’s no lift but we get help to carry them up the eight flights of stairs. Our room is as elegant as the foyer and we love it. Don’t mind foregoing adventure for comfort for a couple of nights when it means staying in an old French hotel which is actually part of Vietnam’s history – sounds like a good excuse anyway. We have a tiled floor and one whole wall consists of French windows which lead out onto our own balcony. There are maroon velvet curtains and white lace curtains, carved furniture, paintings, a writing table, bedside lamps, potted plants as well as a fridge, air-conditioning, a television, a bathroom with a bath and best of all hot water. A hot bath can’t wait and we jump in before we even unpack.

In search of dinner, we take ages to find somewhere to eat. The streets around our hotel are very dark and I feel slightly nervous which isn’t like me. We find a Vietnamese café called Smiling Café on the first floor of an old corner building. Up a set of old, rickety stairs we sit on plastic stools at a tiny table on a balcony overlooking the street. Below is total chaos. There’s no rest from traffic noise as horns blow relentlessly and we feel almost culture shocked after the peace of Laos. As advertised on the sign outside, the food is fast and good. Vegetable soup, chips and an unusual hamburger of four tiny slices of bread topped with minced meat, tomato and cucumber. Saigon Beer is as awful and warm as the beer in India but at least it’s beer.

From here we walk around to the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre on the shore of Lake Hoan Kiem. We’re here for the 9.15pm performance, which only costs us twenty thousand dong or $3AUD.  Along with a large crowd of mainly western tourists, we wait in a large tiled room that smells damp and mouldy. The theatre upstairs is nice and we have good seats. Someone gives us paper fans which also smell of mould so we chuck them away. The performance starts with the band playing truly beautiful music on wooden and bamboo stringed instruments. The single stringed ‘dan bau’ produces a range of haunting notes and is played by a young woman who sings just as perfectly. After a few solos, the water puppets start.

This one thousand-year-old art form consists of wooden puppets operated by puppeteers actually standing waist deep in the water behind bamboo screens. There’s a story behind it and it’s not too hard to follow with lots of funny bits for us non-Vietnamese speakers. The costumes are great and we really enjoy it but are both almost falling asleep by the time it finishes. I still find it a bit threatening as we walk back through the streets but we find an interesting side street where most shops have artists copying photographs and other paintings. Our street takes a bit of finding as we didn’t really pay attention to our bearings when we left. Relieved to finally get to bed after a long day. We watch some television just because we can, then have a good nights sleep in our so, so comfortable bed.

Wednesday        7th February, 2001               Hanoi

Today is wet and cool – not impressed. Mark accepts it as it is but I really am the worst sport when it comes to bad weather. Breakfast is in the cute dining room downstairs at 7.30 and then we’re out into the wet streets in the misty rain. For some reason, it takes ages to get a taxi to stop for us. First time to have trouble getting transport anywhere in Asia – usually beating them off with a stick. When we do finally get a taxi to stop we have trouble explaining in our Aussie accents where we want to go but at last we arrive at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

Here we find some very strange protocol. The first rule is to leave our bags in the ‘Put Bags for Free’ office. Then we’re herded with a group of Vietnamese tourists into a large room full of wooden school-type desks to watch a propaganda film on Ho Chi Minh. Can’t understand a word but there appears to be lots of happy, waving people. Anyway, it works on us and I’m in love within minutes – what a sweetie is Uncle Ho. Next we’re marched two abreast towards the Mausoleum. This is a huge square ‘communist looking’ building if there is such a thing. It’s encased in a blanket of mist which adds to the wonderful, eerie atmosphere of the whole experience. Uniformed honour guards make sure that no-one strays off the path and Mark gets screamed at for getting out of line. Cameras and videos must be left at another small office and then we continue marching. It’s hilarious and we’re having a great time. At the Mausoleum, we must have hands out of pockets and hats off while guards in snowy-white uniforms are standing around inside to make sure no-one goes berserk around Uncle Ho. We solemnly walk around the body which is in a glass case in the centre of a large darkened room. This is wonderful – he just looks asleep and especially handsome.

Outside we tag along with a group of Chinese tourists with a guide. Since we don’t understand a word it’s totally pointless and we go off on our own. A fine mist still hangs in the air and partly obscures the beautiful old French Presidential Palace set amongst the trees. We finally come to a small lake teeming with huge gold fish and fringed with weeping willows. On the bank opposite is Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived for eleven years from 1958. Not far from here is the One Pillar Pagoda which is a pretty temple sitting in the middle of a pond. Steep stairs lead to the entrance and I’m determined to have a look despite having to fight off a band of Japanese tourists. On, then, to Ho Chi Minh’s Museum which is surprisingly huge, modern and beautiful. Our favourite exhibition has Ho’s words inscribed in a metal plaque: ‘All the People on Earth are Equal. Each People has the Right to Life, Happiness and Liberty. Ho Chi Minh’ – how fantastic!

The rain has eased off now so we hire a cyclo to take us to the Love Planet Café. Margaret, a friend from our India trip, recommended The Love Planet as she’d been here last year and said the service is good. It’s an open-fronted room lined with travel books and a few tiny tables and chairs and a booking desk. We’re greeted by a sweet, smiling girl who offers us a chair and gestures that the other girl, ‘my friend’ as she calls her, will serve us next. She’s also friendly and smiling and speaks good English. Mark books our tickets for the overnight sleeper-train to Hue on Friday night as well as a two-day trip to Halong Bay starting tomorrow. We pay a deposit and it all seems too, too easy.

From here we wander around the Old Quarter and eat at another café-cum-booking office. This area is littered with them and most aren’t cafes at all like the popular Sinh Cafés that operate all through Vietnam. Another cyclo now and we’re in amongst heavy traffic with a herd of motor bikes hurtling towards us. The roads are wet, we’re heading down what seems to be the wrong side of the road and surrounded by all sorts of vehicles – all of which could squash our cyclo like an ant. Cyclos are different to the samlors of Thailand and the cycle-rickshaws of India where the rider pulls the carriage behind him. Vietnamese rickshaw carriages are right out there at the front with the driver pedaling from the back. Probably dangerous as hell but great fun.

We’re on our way to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Son Temple. This 18th century temple is situated on an island on the lake and we reach it by crossing a picturesque, arched, red painted bridge. The temple covers most of the tiny island which is surrounded by trees and flowering shrubs. Inside, elaborately carved statues are decorated in vibrant colours, candles are burning everywhere and flashing Christmas-type lights make the whole scene incredibly beautiful. Vietnamese worshippers are burning incense and oils and making offerings of fruit and flowers. Just love watching these Buddhist rituals.

Another cyclo to our hotel so we can ring home. Talk to Mum and Dad and Angie and they all seem okay. Miss them all and feeling very sad for Benny today. Best thing is to keep busy so we hire a taxi to take us to Hoa Sua which is a French/Vietnamese restaurant that takes in and trains street kids to work as cooks or waiters. It’s situated at the back of an old colonial building and is surprisingly up-market. The décor is a perfect mix of Asian and French colonial and so is the food. We’re not hungry enough for a meal so we order a cheese platter from some sweet kids. One young boy is really loves Mark and wants his photo taken with him out the front.

From here we head to the Relax Bar only a few streets away. This place is a scream and we enjoy is so much. It’s set in another lovely old colonial with columns and tall French doors opening onto a tiny balcony surrounded by plants and potted ferns. The two young girls who work here are lounging over the counter and we’re the only customers. The ‘bar’ looks suspiciously not like a bar and we’re even more suspicious when we see what’s on the menu. Besides beers and spirits you can also get all sorts of massages from full body ones to a ‘Face Massage for Anti-Obesity’. Think we’ll pass on the last one and not game to go out back for the full body routine, so we both opt for a ‘Legs Wash’. No idea what this involves but soon the ‘boss lady’ appears and two electric foot vibrators arrive in a car. Next a bucket of hot water is brought in through the front door and we spend the next twenty minutes with our feet dangling in scolding hot water in the electric massagers. Along with our beers we’re proudly presented with free peanuts and mandarins and have a great time with the girls showing them pictures of Angie and Lauren. The girls then give us half-hour foot massages while we drink our Tiger beer. Definitely worth a visit to the Relax Bar.

The rain has stopped and we have a dry cyclo ride back to the Love Planet to pick up our tickets. We dodge bicycles and cyclos and tourists and flower-sellers. Wherever we look we see women in conical hats with two cane baskets bouncing from the ends of a long wooden pole balanced on one shoulder. The baskets can contain anything from vegetables to breadrolls to flowers to garbage. At the Love Planet we’re met by the smiling girl who again gestures us to wait for ‘my friend’ who’s serving a couple of people ahead of us. We tell the smiling girl that we’ll go for a walk and be back in a few minutes.

In the street behind the Love Planet is a market selling flowers and foodstuffs. This includes live chickens whose throats are being cut and the blood drained out of them into a metal bowl. Mark buys me a long stemmed white rose which I love but obviously can’t keep. A young woman is selling disgusting animal entrails and blocks of congealed blood, and she admires my rose. Mark hands it to her and she and all her mates on the other stalls are screaming laughing. The market is amazing but we have to get back to the Love Planet. Here we present ourselves for our sleeper-train tickets but ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘why?’ – ‘you not here’ – ‘but we’d paid a twenty dollar deposit’ – ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘but we told the other girl we were just going for a walk’….. Apparently the only English words the smiling girl knows are ‘my friend’ and she had no idea what we were talking about. Great, this means we can only get seats and we’ll have to sit up the whole twelve hours to Hue. Oh well, Mark says it’ll be an experience.

After a quick change at the hotel we walk around to the Cyclo Bar for dinner. We’d expected this to be some sort of gimmicky place but it’s surprisingly very high class even though everyone is sitting around in rickshaws. Mood music is playing and the lights are dim and the prices match the expensive décor. We eat a Vietnamese chicken dish, prawn fritters and profiteroles then drink cocktails to round off a posh night. Back to our room then for a hot bath before bed. Tomorrow we head off to Halong Bay.

Thursday   8th February, 2001      Hanoi to Halong Bay

At six o’clock we wake, pack and are downstairs with all our gear in the dining room for breakfast at six thirty. Off then in a taxi to the Love Planet Café where we store one of our bags as we only need a few clothes for the two-day trip. At seven thirty we’re walked around to a main street where a big bus is waiting for our tour group which will be made up of people from lots of small agencies. We’d been given the choice of going in a mini-bus with a small group which is more expensive or with a group of thirty. We’d opted for the cheap trip only to find that there’s only seven of us anyway and we still get to go in the big bus. This is not only big but very fancy with green lace curtains. Mark and I are on first and are very pleased with ourselves for grabbing the front seat opposite the driver. This will give us perfect views of the road ahead through the huge front windscreen. Our happy guide introduces himself as we pull out of the city. His name is Khinh and he’s so keen to please. He speaks English but his accent is so strong it’s still sounds like Vietnamese. We do lots of smiling and nodding even though we can’t make out a word he says.

The road to Halong City is along Highway 5 and very uninspiring. It’s another grey, drizzly day and the scenery for the whole five hours is ugly towns broken up by rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Water buffalo are ploughing paddy fields, most of which contain family burial plots made of huge, cement headstones. Things could be a lot worse than being a bit bored with the scenery as we see conical-hatted people up to their knees in freezing water as they plant the rice. The funniest thing about the trip is that our ‘great’ seats turn out to be a nightmare. Our driver blasts his horn every few seconds and we have bird’s eye views of Vietnamese people ambling all over the road on dodgy bicycles and we see endless near-misses. Young people ride in the middle of the road holding hands as they pedal along next to each other and overladen trucks lie on their sides after tipping over at roundabouts.

After a couple of hours we pull in at a toilet stop-cum-souvenir shop selling hideous souvenirs like polished wooden plaques and lacquered jewelry boxes. Other buses are here as well and we see David from Laos but luckily he’s not going to Cat Ba Island which is our final destination today. He’s with one of the tour groups who stay in Halong City and just do day trips out into the bay. No-one on any bus buys any of the horrible souvenirs and off we go for another three hours of being deafened by our horn-happy driver. Along the route we stop at numerous tollgates to pay for the new road and there’s lots of roadwork as we come into Halong City. The seven of us and Khinh eat at a roadside café for a banquet-style lunch that’s part of the trip price. We get to meet the others: Liz and Tracey from England, Ben and Louis from England and Paul from Australia. He’s a lecturer from UNE and is married to a Vietnamese woman. He’s a total bore but does tell us interesting things about Vietnamese life.

Across from the café is the dock where our boat is waiting to take us on the four-hour trip to Cat Ba Island. I buy a woolen beanie before we board and, besides a blanket we’ve brought with us, it’s the only warm thing we own. The boat is a fabulous big old wooden tub and very spacious inside. There are yellow nylon curtains trimmed with lace at each window and each padded seat is topped with a lace cover – tacky but homey. We all get a padded bench seat each with a low table between facing seats. Mark and the boys spend time out on the front deck and up on the roof but I’m too cold and stay inside talking to the girls. Liz and Tracey are so easy to talk to and tell heaps of funny stories about their travels in India.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage listed area in the Gulf of Tonkin that’s dotted with three thousand limestone islands. These jut steeply out of the water and contain thousands of caves. After an hour we pull in at Hang Dau Go which is a huge cave reached by climbing ninety steps that zigzag up the side of one of the islands. We love it here and can’t believe its size. Stalagmites and stalactites are lit up with coloured lights but aren’t too garish. The view from the top is beautiful and we can see how wonderful this area must be on a good day. The clouds have opened and the water below is the turquoise blue that we’ve read about. By the time we get back down to the boat, though, the weather is dull again. Despite the grey skies, Halong Bay is still incredibly impressive and atmospheric with endless tiny islands peeping through the mist that  rises up from the water. By the time we see Cat Ba Island at five-thirty, though, we’ve definitely had enough.

Cat Ba is the largest of Halong Bay’s islands and is inhabited by tiny fishing villages and a row of hideous tourist hotels newly erected along the waterfront. Khinh proudly points to a blue, high-rise monstrosity which is where we’ll spend the night. God knows how safe these things are. They all look like they’re on a lean and ours is no different. Meanwhile, inside the small bay where we’re to dock, we pass hundreds of houseboats and fishing boats and some people have rowed out to meet us. At the pier we grab our packs and follow Khinh to our hotel. Our room is on the second floor with a verandah that looks out over the bay. We have a bathroom with hot water and a television with only one station. This is of a little Asian girl singing and dancing – rivetting stuff. Mark goes for a walk along the waterfront while I get into bed to read and get warm.

After hot showers, we meet the others downstairs for dinner at six thirty. Despite being the only diners we’re all squashed around a tiny table in one corner. It doesn’t even seem to be a dining room but just part of the foyer. No atmosphere which ironically means it’s a great atmosphere. The food is good and then Mark brings down our duty-free Bacardi and Jim Beam which we all get stuck into. Paul doesn’t drink and disappears but the rest of us get very drunk and very loud. We even talk Khinh into downing a few rums. ‘Dewn the hetch’ as he keeps saying and actually tosses back a couple in one gulp.

Don’t remember getting back to our room and manage to sleep heavily.

Friday        9th February, 2001      Halong Bay to Hanoi

Wake to find us encased in a mosquito net – Mark must have been drunk! This morning he’s also feeling badly hungover and sick on the stomach. At breakfast the others are looking just as bad and not looking forward to their trek across the island especially as it’s still raining. Not sure if we’re any better off by heading back to Hanoi today. It means four hours on the boat, five hours on a bus and then twelve hours sitting up on a train tonight. We’ve got to be kidding!

The boat trip is horrid for me but poor Mark is really suffering. He’s able to lie down but there’s not enough room for him to get comfortable and anyway he has to make frequent visits to the loo to be sick. Outside the water and sky are the same dull grey and I’m feeling less than thrilled. I pass the time planning on ways to get home early but I know Mark won’t be in it. At last at the dock at Halong City, I ask about getting a taxi back to Hanoi but it’ll cost the earth so we’ll just have to bus it. We follow the crowd to a restaurant near the bus stop. This is three narrow crowded floors of backpackers and locals all making lots of noise and there’s food and used bowls everywhere including the floor. We add our packs to the wet, mountainous pile near the front door and squash into a seat downstairs. I ask to go to the loo which actually appears to be the owner’s bathroom. Even though we haven’t ordered anything, the food just keeps on coming. Mark can’t stand the smell and I can’t eat it all. We’d escape but we don’t know when the bus leaves and we can’t miss it.

At one o’clock the bus is ready and (great!) we’ve got the same horn-happy driver as yesterday. The bus is packed today and all the Vietnamese passengers seem to have brought everything they own with them. Plastic chairs are set up down the aisle so that we’re five across from window to window and the rain means we can’t open the windows so it’s a stuffy, five-hour drive back to Hanoi. As we reach the outskirts of the city, the traffic is horrendous but we finally reach the Old Quarter about six o’clock. So, so glad to get off this bus. A quick walk around to the Love Planet to pick up our train tickets and our other pack, then find the nearby Kim Café to eat. We like the atmosphere in here but our order comes out wrong twice. From here we walk around to ‘jumper street’, as we call it. It’s cold enough for woolies but there’s nothing we can even force ourselves to buy except for a woolen scarf each. There seems to be the same fashion time warp in Vietnam as in India and we’ll just pray for warmer weather.

A taxi, next, to the railway station where the usual Asian chaos reigns. Train stations are always great places to people watch and Hanoi is the same. Hundreds of people are sitting on the floor inside and we can’t find any English signs. Mark shows a woman in a uniform our tickets and she has us on the train in seconds. The carriage is clean and brightly lit and much more comfortable than we’d expected. The seats are full of Vietnamese passengers and a few backpackers and the aisles are stacked with bags of rice. We get off to buy food at a stall on the platform. Here we make a great find – Choco Pies! These are biscuits with marshmallow on top and all covered with dark chocolate – a chocoholic’s heaven. Back on the train, we’re approached by a tiny man who tells about his new hotel in Hue. The deal is that we get free transport from the station to have a look but no obligation to stay. Fair enough. It’s dark by the time we pull out of Hanoi and, with our seats laying back almost horizontal, we actually go to sleep.

Saturday   10th February, 2001             Hue

Very pleased with the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get. Wide awake at six o’clock and feeling great. Breakfast arrives on a cart and consists of a white doughy ball with a rissole looking thing in the middle.  Mark eats it, of course. I just can’t stomach it at this time of day but manage to scoff down a few Choco Pies instead. Disappointed to see that it’s still raining even this far from Hanoi and the scenery is never-ending rice paddies. I swear, half this country must be under water. We’ve been sitting on some sort of transport for twenty-five hours by now and I start to lose it about a quarter of an hour before arriving in Hue. I know it’s got a lot to do with the weather but I’m not at all impressed with this country and getting unreasonably annoyed. I know it also has a lot to do with losing Benny but Vietnam isn’t really what I’d expected. I want to love it here and hopefully Hue will be better.

At nine o’clock we arrive in Hue and it’s raining. Luckily hawkers are here selling raincoats for a dollar each and the van for the Thai Binh Hotel is waiting for us. Two other backpackers jump in as well and within two minutes we turn down a muddy lane and pull up in front of the hotel. It’s typical of the new Vietnamese hotels – tall, skinny, cement rendered and with white pillared balconies facing the street on each floor. Inside there’s also the usual décor of white slippery tiles, plain white walls and lots of laminex – hideous bit clean. We look at a room on the first floor with a bathroom with bath and hot water, a fridge, television and two single beds. For $20 AUS it’s a bargain and we take it.

Breakfast/lunch is at Thuy’s Café (pronounced ‘two’) which is just a few doors down the alley and a real travellers’ haunt. Lots of very trendy backpackers here but we manage to get a table. Thuy is a crazy but friendly Vietnamese woman saying ‘g’day mate’ to us Aussies. She’s learnt all the tourist jargon and deserves her reputation. She tells us that her dream, which may be happening next year, is to make it into Lonely Planet. While we wait for our food I get a shoeshine from a cute little boy about ten years old but then see him smoking in the laneway a few minutes later.

Before going back to our room for a long hot bath, we book seats on a minibus to Hoi An leaving in the morning. We’d planned to stay in Hue for two days but we want to try and outrun the rain. Back out onto the street, then, to find a cyclo. On the main road we’re spotted by two cyclo drivers who we bargain with to take us to the Citadel. The cyclos here are smaller than in Hanoi so we have to have one each. We cross the bridge over the Perfume River and then turn left into tree-lined avenues that are surprisingly peaceful after the chaos of Hanoi. It’s still raining but we’re wearing our new raincoats and it’s not as cold here as up north so we’re feeling very happy. I’m almost alive again today.

Every traveller’s story about the Citadel is that it’s raining so today is just perfect. It’s not so much raining now as a thin mist that hangs in the air. This creates a wonderful mood for this moated Chinese-style fortress. We wander around for a couple of hours and spend ages with a Yoko Ono look-alike who’s selling her husband’s paintings. Inside a teahouse surrounded by flowering gardens, we buy a bronze incense burner (AUD$16) then listen to a man playing a wooden flute. Very haunting sounds in these atmospheric surroundings. We see huge temple drums and temple bells and the ruins of the Purple Forbidden City blown to smithereens by the Americans during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Outside our cyclo drivers are still waiting for us and we head off towards the town centre. Lonely Planet recommends the Lac Tien Restaurant which is owned and run by a deaf family. The sign out front proudly boasts ‘Mentioned in Lonely Planet’ and ‘Food is Awesome’. It’s typical of all Vietnamese cafes with laminex tables and little plastic stools. Our dinner is cooked over hot coals in an old metal cooker on the street and the food is great. While we’re eating a man selling silk paintings approaches us and we buy two for $1US each. This seems criminally cheap but he’s overjoyed.

Off in the rain again to the Post Office to ring home. It’s Jacky’s birthday but she doesn’t answer so I ring Mum and Dad to tell them to ring her for me. Had enough of the rain so we ask to be taken back to the hotel. Now we’re cosy and warm in bed, reading our books and don’t plan to go out again till dinner. The rain is a good excuse to stay inside and sleep. We wake at seven thirty and walk down the alley to look for a different café. The rain has stopped now and it’s so nice to walk around at night. At a souvenir stall we stop to buy bronze rice paddy workers (AUD $4 each) then we wander around the corner to stumble across the Mandarin Café which is another Lonely Planet favourite. Every other backpacker in Hue must have a Lonely Planet as well because it’s packed. We like it though for its quick service and just the right amount of dinginess. Music is playing but it’s not too cool or too loud and there’s framed travel photos all along the walls. We have a great meal of garlic squid, garlic shrimp and ice-cream. Back then to our three-quarter bed and our books.

Sunday      11th February, 2001              Hue to Hoi An

At six thirty we wake and wander down to Thuy’s Café for breakfast. For some reason we’re the only ones here so we get to chat with Thuy. She’s very pretty and obviously intelligent and ambitious. The music is Simon and Garfunkel and we’re given complimentary green tea in tiny flowered ceramic cups and a tiny teapot. Breakfast of cheese and mushroom omelets is good but, like everywhere else in Indochina, if you ask for ‘toast’ you get a huge French breadroll that’s always fresh but a bit much at seven o’clock in the morning.

At eight o’clock we meet the minivan at the end of the laneway and stash our packs in the back. As usual we’re the first to turn up and we get the best seats. There are eleven of us including an unfriendly American girl and some nice young English people. Sitting opposite us and facing backwards the whole trip are two crazy English guys aged in their thirties. They’re having a ball in Asia getting pissed and taking any drug they can lay their hands on and they keep us laughing the whole way.

We make our way out of Hue and soon start to see mountains ahead of us. This is the Truong Son Mountain Range that divides Vietnam into the cool north and the warmer dry south. It’s why we’re on our way to Hoi An where we tell ourselves it’ll be warm for sure. We’re travelling along the famous Highway 1, which winds its way down the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. It’s a pot-holed mess and dangerous on the sharp bends of Hai Van Pass which crosses the mountains. The scenery is lovely – a dramatic, sandy and rocky coastline and low clouds suspended in the valleys below. We stop to take photos of North Vietnam about half way up the pass then another hour of crawling upwards till we reach the top. Here we stop for a toilet visit and to take photos of sunny South Vietnam on the other side. Well, it’s a little bit sunny down there so we’re still feeling optimistic. Aggressive hawkers surround us as we get out of the van. They get shitty when people won’t buy their stuff. Mark and I buy some tiny orange flowered bowls but then lock ourselves in the van to get away from them.

The trip down the pass is quick and after travelling through a few small towns, we arrive at Danang. During the American War this was called the ‘Saigon of the North’ and is still Vietnam’s fourth largest city. The American girl and a couple of others are being dropped off here and we all get out to stretch our legs. At last, it’s warm and sunny and we can’t wait to get to Hoi An. Firstly we have a stop at China Beach which is a big disappointment but I really don’t know what I expected. The only interesting thing is some round fishing boats lying on the sand and some young girls trying to sell us shell necklaces. Behind us is Marble Mountain, which is supposed to be part of the trip but the English guys just want to keep on going.

Another hour and we’re coming into Hoi An. The sun is almost shining and the scenery is pretty, green rice paddies and small basic villages. I don’t know why, but Hoi An itself does nothing to inspire us. Despite being known as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ it just appears to be ‘another shit-hole Vietnamese town’ as Mark so nicely puts it. The weather has also turned dull again which doesn’t help and we drive around for ages trying to get us hotels. We’re all finally deposited across the bridge at the Pho Hoi Hotel. It’s a bit out of the way but very impressive with a lovely foyer with the usual velvet curtains and walnut Chinese-style furniture as well as a wide sweeping staircase. Our room is big with a bath, hot water, a fridge, a television and two beds covered in frilly blue nylon covers. It’s only $20 AUS a night and looks clean but for some reason it stinks so we decide to only stay until tomorrow.

After unpacking, we head across the Cam Nam Bridge to explore the town. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m hating this country. To make my depression even worse we’re soon dragged into a café by another ‘g’day mate’ Vietnamese woman. We’re asked to write our order in a book but half an hour later we haven’t even got our drinks. Apparently, they haven’t even started our order and they want us to write it down again. Besides this, we’ve spent the whole time getting rid of hawkers selling postcards and wooden whistles and beggars shoving their stumps in our faces. I feel like the biggest bitch but they’re making me a nervous wreck. I usually love hawkers so I think I must be having a nervous breakdown. Good, then I can go home.

After a gracious ‘up yours’ we move on to another café down the street. This is a lovely old Chinese teahouse with dark, dark wooden furniture to match the dark interior. The atmosphere is great and things are looking up. That’s until I order a chicken and cheese sandwich. This seems reasonable as the menu offers a cheese sandwich and a chicken sandwich but there is no way I can have cheese on my chicken sandwich or vice versa. Totally pissed off by now but give up and we end up having a nice Vietnamese lunch anyway.

We decide to look for a new unstinky hotel for tomorrow and wander around town for a few hours. Hoi An was once a major trading port for the Dutch and Chinese and its strong Chinese ties are reflected in the many pagodas and Chinese congregational halls all around the town. The French influence is also prominent in the beautiful but dilapidated colonial houses and lots have been turned into shops and hotels. Some of the shops sell paintings and carvings and silk lanterns but these are far outnumbered by the tailor shops. They’re everywhere but we can’t be bothered getting anything made. Next to the water, the central market is a beehive of activity as all Asian markets are. All sorts of fruit, vegetables, meats, rice, eggs, chickens and lots of fish. Pretty smelly at this time of day so we’ll come back in the morning.

Near the market we find the Banana Split Café and have fruit-salad splits while we E-mail Jillian. Back across the bridge to our hotel, we lie down for a read and a sleep. Afternoon napping is turning into a habit and the novels we’ve brought with us are definitely becoming addictive. At six o’clock we walk back across the bridge into town.

It’s dark by now and nice walking along the promenade beside the river. We eat at a cheap, atmospheric, upstairs café called Dong Phuong Restaurant that has red Chinese lanterns hanging from the balcony. Beef spaghetti and prawn crackers are good but especially the ‘hot pot’ which is another version of dishes we had in Laos a few weeks ago. A round metal container with a trough around the outside is heated by red-hot coals in the middle. The stewy-like meal is kept hot in the pot then poured into tiny bowls. The BGI beer is also a great discovery.

From here we push on to Champa Bar a few streets away. Love the atmosphere in here. So dark and only lit by interesting bamboo lampshades on the walls. More beers while we sit at the bar and watch the Vietnamese barman slaying a young English guy at pool. The Vietnamese guy is too good for Mark, too, but they have a great time. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to talk to the little barmaid who’s been putting sticky squares like elastoplast all the way up her spine.

Our next stop is the Tam Tam Café and Bar. This is a busy bar at the top of a narrow set of stairs and is full of Westerners. Good surroundings and we’re just in time for happy hour beers. We sit with three young English people who’d been on our minibus from Hue then walk home through the now deserted and very dark streets. Back to our stinky room and our very comfortable beds.

Monday     17th February, 2001             Hoi An

We’re back over in town before eight o’clock to look for a new hotel. Next to the bridge is a cute guesthouse with a café right on the Thu Ban River so this is our first stop. We have a relaxing breakfast here next to the water then we’re extremely happy to find that there’s a spare room upstairs overlooking the street. We race back to check out of the stinky one and into our lovely new room at the Huy Hoang Hotel. We have a balcony with bonsaied bougainvillea in blue and white Chinese pots and colored lanterns are hanging from the verandah roof. The room itself is big with a white tiled floor, a bathroom, cane furniture and a huge window. It’s a bit noisy with a school on the next corner and the market across the road but it’s in a great spot and we’re very happy.

Outside we meet Mai, a pretty boat woman who’s ready to take us for a ride upriver. She’s wearing the traditional straw conical hat that all the women workers wear and a soft purple pyjama-like outfit. Most poorer class women wear these as well and they look comfortable and even elegant. We follow Mai back across the bridge where her tiny boat is tied up and where her friend is waiting. Mai’s friend is also called Mai but she’s much older. She’s so sweet and happy and we all shake hands. Young Mai has the most gorgeous smile which never disappears except when she tells us that her husband is dead. This should be a sad story but she mimes out how he drank himself to death. We’re all laughing so she keeps doing it. She says ‘five children, no husband’ and wipes away a fake tear then starts the whole thing again – best laugh we’ve had in ages. Then, she keeps saying we’re going for a two-hour boat ride although we’d only told her one-hour. Then she says. ‘Okay, one hour and a half’ with a nod and a big happy smile like it’s all decided. Mark says’ Okay, only half hour now’ which makes her scream laughing.

For the whole hour she’s yelling out to fishermen and people on the shore. I guess she knows everyone here. There’s so many different types of fishing techniques that we’ve never seen before. One man is sitting on the very front of his tiny boat so that it’s sticking up out of the water at the back. He’s paddling with one foot and unravelling a net. Nearby two men are standing chest-deep in the water while they push long poles into the muddy bottom. Further down, bigger boats are tied up ready to go out to sea after dark. Here Mai stops to roll the biggest tobacco rolly we’ve ever seen and then keeps paddling with it hanging out the side of her mouth. The town looks lovely from here. It spreads for a couple of kilometres along the river which is lined with coconut palms and cafes. Even when it starts to rain, it’s still lovely on the calm water. Mai takes off her conical hat and insists I wear it. The air is warm and I feel so good out here. After an hour, Mai and Mai drop us off at the market and we give them toy koalas to give to their grandchildren.

No sooner are we on the wharf, than we’re ‘kidnapped’ by a young girl who takes us to her mother’s shop. This is in an old wooden warehouse at the back of the market. It’s smelly and dirty around here but we like it. The shop sells materials and within minutes I’ve been fitted for a pair of black kashmir pants. We must look easy prey as we’re abducted again as we walk out the back door. A pretty lady called Thuy tells me I’m ‘beautiful’ while we’re both cuddled and whisked us away to her beauty parlour. It seems that I’m to have a manicure with Thuy and Mark a hand massage with her daughter. The ‘beauty parlour’ is about the size of a double bed so Mark has to sit on a plastic stool outside with his hand sticking in through the door. This also makes him a prime target for hawkers and beggars. I’m luckier inside and get two coats of nail polish and one of nail hardener. Now I have to write how much I love it in Thuy’s little book that she keeps to show prospective customers. For $3.50 AUD it’s a bargain and worth more just for the great experience. Feeling so much happier now that we’re meeting some of the local people.

As we head off in search of lunch, we get dragged into another tailor shop called the Hoa Clothing Shop and there’s no escaping. Mark orders a silk shirt and I order a skirt and top in black Chinese material – don’t even want the bloody things. We escape to our room to rest for the afternoon but are back up again at three thirty to walk down to the Post Office. We need to send off postcards and to cash in traveller’s cheques. This is quite an experience as we line up with other frustrated travellers who also can’t understand the time-wasting rigmarole. We fill in long forms that ask the strangest questions while five people behind the desk are very busy processing one person between the five of them instead of taking one each. Back to the market to try on my black pants that I don’t want. They don’t fit and I want them even less now but I promise to come back tomorrow for another fitting.

Outside the market is a sea of conical hats and we wander around with another wrinkled, sweet boat-lady who also tells me I’m ‘beautiful’. I say ‘you’re beautiful’ which she really is. The women we’ve met here in Hoi An are all so gentle and kind. They’re poorer than anyone could be at home but seem to be happy maybe because it’s a close-knit community. I suppose we can all be happy or at least accepting of what we’ve got, if everyone we know is the same. Or maybe western values have just been fucked up so much that we don’t even know what it really means anymore. Along the river next to the market we stop to talk to a young man selling vegetable cutters. He’s so enthusiastic carving carrots and parsnips into pretty shapes for us that we can’t not buy a pack. It’s all for ten thousand dong or about a dollar and we even get a photocopied instruction sheet. He tells us that we’re his first customers today which, sadly,  is probably true.

Further along we sit under umbrellas in tiny blue plastic chairs. Mark squeezes his rear end into one which stays attached to him when he gets up to move. This sends Thu who owns them into hysterics and she calls him ‘big bum’. She sells us beers and cokes from an esky then brings out a letter and a photo that another traveller had sent her after they’d arrived home. She wants us to do the same so we take lots of photos and get her address. Next her husband turns up so there’s more photos. All Vietnamese people ask us ‘what name?’ then ‘how old?’ and Thu’s no different. She wants us to write down our ages in a book then falls into hysterics again when she works out that I’m fifteen years older than Mark. She tells everyone around and it’s all a great laugh – ha ha. Definitely having a good day today.

It’s so busy down here along the river especially now when school is finished. The school ferry is tied up just near us and is overloaded to the hilt. Everyone seems to have a bicycle which goes with them. As they float off towards the island, it looks like it’ll sink any minute but I guess this is what it’s like every day. Back through the market we watch fresh fish being sorted then find our way to the Banana Split Café to book a trip to My Son for tomorrow. Here we also buy a fresh bread roll with cheese and then order a salad and, at last, a cheese-salad roll! Finally getting the hang of this place.

Half an hour later, we’ve had hot baths and are on our way to happy hour at the Tam Tam Bar. It’s dark by now and a nice walk through town especially one street full of amazing old Chinese shops that sell herbal medicines and spices. After French fries and huge tankards of beer at Tam Tam, we head home to the Huy Hoang for an early night. It had better be sunny tomorrow.

Tuesday    13th February, 2001    Hoi An to My Son to Hoi An

Guess what? It’s raining! Fuck it – hate to be here in the wet season. We’d set the alarm for 6.30am to go to the market next door but we’ve heard the goings on since 3am so we’re wide awake anyway. We want to get there early so we can watch the fishing catch that’s just been brought in. It’s even busier here than usual and there’s hundreds of conical-hatted women buying and selling all sorts and sizes of seafood.

Try, then, to go to the Banana Split Café for breakfast but an old lady from the place next door literally pushes us into her café. Most cafes around here seem to have an old lady, presumably the grandmother, perched at a table on the street ready to drag in passing tourists. We’re the only customers, breakfast is good and it’s a nice family atmosphere so it’s a good move.

Now the mini-bus for My Son is ready and we spend the next half-hour driving all over town picking up other tourists at their hotels. Of course, we’re all squashed in like sardines, hot, uncomfortable and gasping for air. We drive through the usual grotty towns but also see lots of beautiful countryside including endless brilliant green rice paddies. It’s not planting-time here in Central Vietnam so there’s no-one working in the fields like we’d seen everywhere in the north.

The best part of the two-hour trip is when we’re held up by a huge funeral-march. The mourners are walking behind the body which is elaborately decorated and carried by a group of men who smile and wave to us as our van crawls past them. At last we pull into a muddy area near some rundown cafes and where other minivans are also arriving. We’re told to go ‘that way’ so we head off with the others for a kilometre to where jeeps are waiting to take us to the ruins.

A lot of ugly, old German tourists are here and we’ve had enough of them so we decide it’s our turn to be rude bastards for a change. Instead of waiting, we push past them and sit our arses in the back of the first jeep. So proud of ourselves and we laugh uncontrollably the whole way. Great fun but think the weather is starting to make us a bit strange in the head.

We bump our way along a sort of road for fifteen minutes then we’re told to get out and walk the rest of the way. Mark has brilliantly decided to wear rubber thongs which are now either being sucked into the mud or behaving like ice-skates. This means we take ages to get to ruins which are definitely ‘ruins’. After being pilfered and bombed almost out of existence, there’s not much left at all.

My Son is a group of monuments from the Champa kingdom which thrived in this area from the second to the fifteenth century. The site has been divided into ten ‘groups’ which were once temples, meditation halls and other religious buildings. Some are still in tact and look beautiful in their lush setting surrounded by the now mist-covered hills. Before the American War (aka the Vietnam War), the best preserved group was Group A but now it’s nothing more than a pile of rocks after the pea-brained Yanks blew it to bits – brilliant. On the whole the ruins are rather unimpressive but we have lots of laughs. For some reason we find that childishly posing for photos behind headless statues is absolutely hysterical.

Our raincoats are now acting like mini saunas but we can’t take them off because it’s still raining. Let’s get the hell out of here! Back through the slimy mud to the jeep, we dump the raincoats and are soon back at the cafes. These would have to be the most basic place possible to eat but we take the chance. In fact we really like it here with its dirt floor and mangy dogs. I go to the loo in the most ordinary of toilets but we’re having fun. Our lunch is a meat and tomato dish and fried rice and it’s surprisingly good.

The drive back to Hoi An is just as hot and stuffy as this morning. We arrive at one thirty and try to ring Vietnam Airlines from the Banana Split Café. We want to move our Nha Trang air tickets for Friday forward to tomorrow but no go. It’s the end of Tet here in Vietnam which is sort of like our Christmas holidays and people are moving all around the country visiting friends and relatives. This means all the planes and trains are booked ahead so we’ll just have to stay put. I’d met some Australian girls in the corridor of our hotel this morning and they were trying to get out of Vietnam as well. They’re so desperate to get back to Thailand that they’re going overland through Cambodia.

After looking at the weather forecast on the internet we decide to try and bypass Nha Trang where it’s supposed to rain for the next few days. Luckily we can get tickets to Saigon on Thursday where it’ll definitely be hot and sunny. The rain has finally stopped and the streets are dry so we hire a motorbike from a friendly man in a wheelchair. We can have it for only $2US for the afternoon but Mark only gets to do a trial run around the block before the rain starts coming down again. We take the bike back and now it’s Mark’s turn to be depressed. He sulks under the bedspread in our room but then we decide to go for a walk in the rain. ‘If you can’t beat it’ as they say.

Our first stop is the Hoa Cloth shop which is only a few doors down from our hotel. We’re really happy with our clothes and since we’re here for two more days, we order more. Mark is getting two pairs of travellers pants and I’m getting a long green silk dress. The two ladies who work here are Yaun and Hoa and are making a great fuss of us. They’ll probably be able to retire if we stay here much longer. They sit us on miniature plastic stools and give us bottled water and a bowl each of the traditional Hoi An dish called Cau Lan. This is croutons, noodles, bean sprouts, green vegetables and pork and is very nice. In Hoang Dieu Street we drop off photos at Fuji Processing even though the machine inside looks suspiciously like Kodak. The area around here is busy especially now with school kids on their way home on foot and on bicycles.

It’s still sprinkling but it’s warm and quite pleasant. We buy new raincoats and are feeling happy again. We spend hours walking around the tiny streets and even find some Choco Pies in a tiny corner shop. We watch woodcarvers and bamboo wood crafting then visit a lovely old French house-cum-art gallery. There are endless shops selling paintings and even more selling tailor-made clothes. All of these have examples of their designs hanging out the front but the crazy thing is, they’re all exactly the same. Hundreds of shops making the same bloody clothes. Our own designs have worked out, though, and really there’s nothing much else to do here so we’ll probably get more made.

Still on our walk, we wander back down to the river then cross the An Hoi Footbridge to a quiet café on the other side. Love the atmosphere here with it’s basic furniture and Chinese lanterns glowing red in the dimming light of dusk. We sit near the balcony and watch the rain sprinkling on the calm water and local people crossing the bridge to the village on this side of the river. The air is still and warm and the mood is almost surreal. Feeling happy, ‘over the moon’ as Mark says, and we order drinks and ‘Cake Hoi An’.

It’s dark by the time we get back to the market to pick up my black pants so we head back to the room for a bath and a rest. At seven thirty we’re at Hoa Clothing again and order two more shirts for Mark and a black satin jacket for me. Outside the streets are busy with candle-lit stalls and handcarts selling all sorts of interesting food to the locals. In a deserted back street there’s a sudden blackout but we have our torch so we’re okay and we head to Champa Bar. This is even more atmospheric tonight being lit only by candles and not many people around. We have beers at the bar while we watch a group of well dressed, elderly local men playing pool. They’re all hopeless and roar laughing after every shot. We ask about the traditional music that we’d seen advertised for tonight but we’re told that there aren’t any tickets left so we buy some for tomorrow night. It’s interesting to see that it’s only Vietnamese people arriving for tonight’s performance.

A few minutes later, a cute, smiling man wearing a black, silk Chinese-style costume and hat approaches us. He invites us to the show and insists we follow him up the stairs to the theatre. He pulls aside a heavy curtain covering the door and shows us into a large room with the biggest wooden chairs we’ve ever seen. These are set up in three rows and there’s a screen in the left-hand corner and musical instruments opposite. After getting our seats we’re given tall glasses of lemon drink and the show starts on time. The cute, smiling man is the host and he translates everything he says into English. Since we’re the only westerners here we feel very privileged.

The musicians consist of five men dressed in pale green satin tops and black trousers and a beautiful woman in a pink ao-dai. The musicians are excellent especially a young guy playing a two-stringed instrument with a bow. He’s so talented – like the Jimi Hendrix of Vietnam. There are also eight female dancers and two males. They’re not what you’d call professionals but the costumes are spectacular and they’re having a great time.

The audience is having a great time as well but we notice that throughout the show people just talk to the person next to them or behind them in their normal speaking voice. There’s no attempt to be quiet or whisper but no-one seems to mind – must be a cultural thing.

We enjoy every minute of the show which finishes with the cast standing in front of the audience, who is also standing, while everyone (including the audience) claps and sings at the top of their lungs. They all suddenly launch into Auld Ange Syne in Vietnamese with everyone belting it out and clapping with huge smiles. It’s a scream and an unexpectedly fabulous night. Afterwards everyone asks us if we ‘like’ which is nice. Downstairs then for a beer but very tired so home to bed.

Wednesday        14th February, 2001    Hoi An

Guess what – it’s raining. We decide to look for a different hotel to amuse ourselves. We walk for hours and look at a few rooms but decide we like our little hotel the best. We both order more clothes from Hoa as well as a jacket for Mark and a pair of silk pants for me from another tailor shop on the other side of the market. At this rate we’ll have enough clothes to last us for years. At Fuji we find that our photos have been developed by Kodak like we’d suspected yesterday and the colour just isn’t right. We’ll get them redone later.

Lunch is at the Yellow River Restaurant. We’re working our way through all the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurants in Hoi An and so far they’re all good. I ring home and talk to Angie. She’s quiet but trying to sound okay. I’ll be with them soon but I can’t think about it or I’ll be more worried and depressed than I am already. Back to bed to read for hours then a hot bath. Feeling unmotivated today but we make ourselves get up and we pick up clothes from Hoa, order shoes from a tiny shop across the road then pick up Mark’s jacket. He looks gorgeous in everything he’s had made which isn’t at all surprising.

As we walk back through the market we’re ‘kidnapped’ again by two sisters who tell us we’re both ‘very beautiful’. With arms around our waists we’re ushered through the little back alleyways to their tiny massage parlour/hairdresser/beauty shop. It’s among a shantytown of lots of these little businesses and where tailors are actually sewing all the clothes ordered from the dress shops.

Before we know it Mark’s agreed to have a half hour back and leg massage and I’ve agreed to have a hand massage and a ‘skin washing’ whatever that is – hate to think. All this is to cost a mere $8AUD so who cares what it is. You get what you pay for as they say and no wonder it’s cheap. Neither of them have a clue what they’re doing but we have heaps of fun. Mark is on the bed opposite and is doing a lot of yelping while my face is being slapped and scrubbed so hard it’s red raw and I’ve got a scratch down the side of my nose. It’s hilarious especially when they pull faces at Mark’s hairy legs then roar laughing when he isn’t looking. They think they’re doing a great job and we tell them they’re fabulous but thank God we’d only agreed to half an hour.

Dinner is at LY Café 22 in a part of town we haven’t eaten in before. It’s a nice atmosphere and good food – pork salad, wonton soup, prawns and vegetables. Back at the hotel we book transport to Danang for one o’clock tomorrow afternoon then up to bed to read – Mark is obsessed.

Thursday   15th February, 2001             Hoi An to Danang

We wake early but lay around having hot baths and reading till eight o’clock. We’ve got till one o’clock before we leave so we decide to do a last minute walk around town. At the river we have breakfast at the Dong Phuong Restaurant (also in Lonely Planet) and sit on the upstairs verandah overlooking the street and the water. The sun is shining and everything looks so different today. Mornings anywhere are one of the best times to watch local daily life and from up here we can see all sorts of small boats on the river going back and forth to the market.

After breakfast, we cross the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in 1592 and is still used to cross the small stream that runs through this side of town. The bridge not only has a roof but it’s also walled with windows looking out onto the stream and wide doorways at either end. It has that wonderful ancient feel that transports you back to another time. On the other side are lovely old houses and art galleries and we stop to take pictures of a cute baby.

Back to the main side of town, Mark barters for eight silk Chinese lampshades. The three ladies are very excited and pretend to cry when Mark tries to bargain them down to AUD $5 each. We spend ages here and all have a good laugh. Further along we buy three wall plaques with ‘happiness’ written in Vietnamese and then to another shop to buy an opium pipe (AUD $10) and an incense burner (AUD $12).

Mark heads off to the bank to exchange US dollars for dong while I go back to Hoa to pick up the last of our clothes. Now I have a black brocade skirt and top, a green brocade skirt and top, an orange Japanese silk skirt, a cashmere skirt and jacket and a pink satin top. Everything fits perfectly and I’m thrilled with my new wardrobe.

It works out that for five tops (AUD$10 each), five skirts (AUD $18 each), a jacket (AUD $18), a suit jacket (AUD $24) and two pairs of pants (AUD $18 each) I’ve spent a grand total of AUD $218. Mark now has three silk collarless shirts (AUD $16 each), two pairs of travellers pants (AUD $20 each) and a corduroy jacket (AUD $36) all for AUD $126. Mark arrives and jokes around with Hoa and Yaun while we take photos and videos. They tell us that we’re ‘beautiful’ then get me to put on my suit for a photo in front of the shop to show other customers – fame at last!  Very attractive in my walking boots, too.

Back to the room to pack and check out and store our packs in the foyer. Outside we meet a pretty boat lady called Lan who wants to take us for a ride out on the river. She’s so, so sweet and tells us that he husband drowned last September in the flood – ‘he die in big water, September, water high, he no swim, I swim, he no swim’. She’s only thirty-eight and has two sons who she has to support by paddling around tourists in her tiny boat. She pays ten thousand dong a day to have her littlest one minded and only gets that much for each hour she works. Some days she doesn’t get anyone and today we’re her first customers.

When we pass small covered boats with whole families inside I ask her if that’s where they live. She says that they’re ‘very poor, no house, like me’. We can’t believe it, but she lives in this tiniest of boats with no roof. It’s unbelievable that people can be this poor and I feel so sad for her. She’s told us all this only because we’ve asked her. There’s no self-pity, just a gentle acceptance.

Lan paddles us up past the market, which looks wonderful now that the sun is shining in a brilliant blue sky. Old fisherwomen in the same tiny boats as ours, float up beside us to tempt us with baskets of miniscule fish. We feel sorry for the ladies but, I mean, what would we do with raw fish. As we come to the footbridge we all have to lay flat in the bottom of the boat to pass under it and we’re all laughing.

Lan drops us off at the Han Huyen Restaurant which is floating on the river. This is another Lonely Planet recommendation and it looks wonderful. As we climb ashore we watch her paddle off in her little boat and my heart is so sad for her. Here are Mark and I going to a fancy restaurant and Lan hasn’t even got a home. We paid her a lot more than she’d asked but now we wish we’d given more.

The restaurant looks out onto the prettiest area. Palm trees, old French houses, boats, and the footbridge. The river is so calm it looks like glass and the coconut trees and boats tied up on the banks are perfectly reflected in the still water. We see old Mai in her conical hat busy unloading a boat of vegetables and an endless stream of village people on bicycles crossing the bridge. The food is good and Mark orders eel.

It’s time to head back to the hotel but on the way we stop to watch some woodcarvers sitting on the floor of a lovely old shop. Within fifteen minutes we’ve bought a beautiful carved wooden sideboard decorated with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. The AUD $1200 price includes shipping it to Sydney and we’re ecstatic.

Our walk back to the hotel takes us past colourful Chinese temples which we visit before picking up our shoes. Both pairs are a tight fit but we’re quickly assured they’ll stretch. Suddenly we hear Lan calling us and waving her arms. She’s brought her little two-year old boy to meet us and he’s immaculately clean and dressed in a navy baby suit. It always amazes me how these people who have nothing always manage to be spotlessly clean and fresh. An absolute contradiction to the arrogant western perception of people in underdeveloped countries as being smelly and dirty. Lan looks lovely in her apricot-coloured pyjama suit. She has the face and body of a model but doesn’t have a clue how beautiful she truly is.

While we wait for our transport to Danang to arrive, we sit with Lan on a low wall outside the hotel. Mai turns up with two other friends all wearing conical hats and huge smiles. One friend is younger with fair skin and freckles so she’s probably a war child. The other lady, called Nguyan Thi Nga, has her front teeth missing. She tells us ‘husband gone, no good’ and then pretends to drink from a bottle and staggers all over the road. She has us all in fits of laughter and keeps doing it. We video her and there’s more squeals when we play it back.

Sitting here I feel like one of the girls and wish we’d met them all on our first day in Hoi An instead of when we’re about to leave. For the first time we know this is genuine friendship. When the van arrives we throw our gear in and then there’s cuddles all round. We get more cuddles through the van window and we’re waved off with bit beautiful smiles.

Driving through the streets of Hoi An we feel sorry to be leaving our new friends but happy to be on the way to our next adventure. The one-hour drive to Danang is interesting and with the sun shining we’re feeling excited and happy. The driver is playing the ubiquitous loud, daggy music but it fits our good mood. Small villages line the road and we dodge endless bicycles and school children on their way home.

Coming into Danang, we cross the wide Han River with its busy docks and river transport. At the Vietnam Airlines office in town we stop to pick up our airline tickets to Saigon. Because someone has processed our names in the Vietnamese way of surname first, only people called Scott Mark and Kibble Virginia have tickets for the flight. We make a snap decision and decide to keep our original tickets to Nha Trang for tomorrow and so we’ll stay here in Danang tonight.

Outside are two motorbike riders who offer to take us to a hotel. We like them straight away and they introduce themselves as Quang and Van. We hop on the back of a bike each while the guys balance our packs across their laps. The Hoa Hong Hotel is on the other side of town and we love riding around on the bikes. The streets aren’t too busy and Quang and Van are safe drivers. We check into a room on the second storey with a slightly sloping floor and the usual bad taste décor. We like it.

Back down on the bikes in minutes, we ask Quang and Van to take us to the open-air Cham Museum. The buildings here are old and picturesquely set amongst trees and gardens. The guys drop us off to pick up their kids from school and we plan to meet them out the front in an hour. Inside, we’re approached by a tiny Vietnamese man who wants to be our guide. He’s straight out of Lonely Planet and I recognise him as Monsieur Louis or Nguyen Phu Luy. He even reads his bit out of the guide book – ‘friendly old man who speaks relatively good English and is highly knowledgeable in Cham art’. Of course he fails to read the part about how he overcharges everyone. Naturally we can’t pass up meeting a ‘celebrity’ so off we go feeling like we’re back at school.

After each room he tests us to see if we’ve been listening then hurries us off to the next room saying ‘this way, very complicated’. It’s a scream and we can barely understand what he’s saying. He’s so bossy but very enthusiastic and we have fun. For the last ten minutes we look at a map on the wall and get a long-winded history of the Cham empire – definitely too much information! At last we escape and hand over US$2. He’s not overly impressed and rushes off to nab a better paying customer.

Out on the street the guys take us down near the river then drop us at Christies Restaurant for a snack. It’s in an air-conditioned upstairs room with no atmosphere but memorable anyway. From here we ride out to the Cao Dai Temple on the outskirts of town for the six o’clock evening prayers.

It’s just on dusk and the temple looks empty with its tall wrought iron gates closed and no-one around. Quang manages to get an old man’s attention and he happily opens the gate for us to come into the garden. Leaving our shoes at the door, we’re welcomed inside to watch the worshippers doing their thing. They’re all wearing long white gowns and are kneeling, standing and bowing to the main altar. Behind the altar sits a huge eye which is the symbol of Caodaiism. After the prayers, two priests come to speak to Mark. They look so tiny next to him and peer at the silver Moslem and Hindu symbols around his neck. They’re so sweet and patiently explain their religion to him. I stand back as they only seem to be interested in Mark – maybe it’s a religious thing. I’m not sure, though, as Quang and Van seem to be taken with him as well. They keep telling me I have ‘handsome man’.

Caodaiism sounds nice as the priests show us a sign above the huge eye that reads ‘Van Giao Nhat Ly’ which translates as ‘All religions have the same reason’. The sign also shows the founders of the world’s great religions; Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Laotse (Greek Orthodox Jew) and Confucius. Afterwards they walk us outside and wave us off. We’re so glad we came here when it’s so quiet and had the chance to meet these lovely people. Always best when you don’t feel like a tourist.

On the bikes again, it’s another fifteen minutes back to the hotel and we arrange for Quang and Van to pick us up early in the morning to take us out to Marble Mountain. Down the street to look for dinner, we find a noodle stall and sit on baby-sized plastic stools at a baby-sized table and eat delicious noodle soup for fifty cents. On the way home, we stop to buy Choco Pies then rush back to our room to eat them in bed. Feeling happy today especially with our unexpected time here in Danang.

Friday  16th February, 2001          Danang to Nha Trang

At six thirty we shower and pack before meeting Quang and Van downstairs. We head through town then across a small bridge to pass through endless villages. These are alive already and the roads are packed with bicycles and motor bikes. We feel safe on the bikes and exceptionally free this morning. Our first stop is at Non Nuoc Hamlet which is the village at the base of the Marble Mountain. Here we watch the marble carvers at work and see each stage from the actual carving to the polishing. Some statues are so huge they could only be for the very rich.

Now Mark, Van and I start climbing the hundreds of steps to the top of the mountain. These are carved out of the cliff face and shaded by overhanging greenery. The main cathedral-like Huyen Khang cave has a small opening to the sky in the centre of its soaring ceiling and was used as a hideout for the Viet Cong during the American War. Inside are Buddha and Confucius images which are all overlooked by a huge stone Buddha high up in the darkness.

We visit another smaller cave and the Tam Thai Tu Pagoda and several other pagodas. From the top we have great views of China Beach and the village below. Somehow Van and I lose Mark. One minute he’s there and next minute he’s gone. I have images of him being kidnapped or chucked over the side until a man on the stairs tells us that he’s been seen on the other side of the mountain. I’m so happy to see him when we get to the bottom.

On the bikes again, we head back to Danang to pick up our packs at the hotel. On now, to the airport where we can’t thank Quang and Van enough for giving us a great time. We pay them more than usual and they’re very happy. While we wait for the plane we see the funniest thing. A man is stuck inside a glass phone booth in the boarding lounge. Staff are running around not having a clue what to do while the man’s plane is revving up on the tarmac and his wife is happily taking pictures of him. He’s finally released after twenty minutes having enjoyed himself immensely.

The flight to Nha Trang only takes an hour and the town looks lovely as we land. There are palm trees and sandy beaches and best of all there’s blue skies. The airport terminal is an attractive white building with coconut palms around it and there’s a real beachy, holiday feel already. Outside taxi touts are waiting and we ask to go to a Lonely Planet favourite only to find it closed for renovations. The driver is happy to take us somewhere else and we soon pull up at the Phu Quy Hotel. It’s in a good area near lots of cafes and our room is clean with television, bathroom and a balcony. It’s probably the best place we’ve stayed in so far and only US$19.

After checking in, we walk along the beach promenade. We feel so wonderful to be warm and wearing thongs and singlet tops. The beach cafes surrounded by palm trees remind us of Bali and the beach has white sand just like home. We have lunch of cuttlefish salad and little beef rolls with ham and cheese inside that look like Mr Hankies. From here we walk to the Post Office to E-mail home and then on to Sinh Café to book a boat trip to the islands for tomorrow.

Now it’s back to the room for a sleep, bath and book reading. After blow-drying my hair for only the second time since leaving home, I try on all my Hoi An clothes for the video. To go out I wear my favourite which is the black and gold brocade skirt and top while Mark wears his new shoes, new navy pants and new rust coloured silk shirt. We look very glamorous as we’re planning a romantic night on the town.

At the end of our street is the Vien Dong Hotel which supposedly has nightly shows of traditional music. The huge hotel  restaurant opens up onto the pool and we order cocktails and finger food. Mark buys me a cocktail with Baileys and Cointreau called ‘I Love You’ – he’s so good to me.  We eat pork spring rolls and drink beers and bacardis. The live Vietnamese band is playing beautiful classical music and we especially love the violins.

Feeling very happy we hail down cyclos outside to take us to the Nha Trang Sailing Club. The night is hot and it’s lovely to be out in the breeze as we pedal alongside the beach. The Sailing Club is naturally right on the beach and is a series of open-air thatched huts. The lighting is wonderful, good music, and everything is made of bamboo, wood and cane. Young backpackers are playing pool and there’s a lot of pretty Asian girls with ugly old western men.

We sit on cane stools at the bar and order the equivalent of a Bali Arak – a one litre plastic bottle with two straws and filled with orange juice and just about pure alcohol. Tastes like shit but it’s fun. Cyclos home.

Saturday   17th February, 2001             Nha Trang

Breakfast is early in the café next door to our hotel. ‘Same, same’ as most cafes all over Vietnam – plastic, laminex and featureless but somehow appealing. We sit at a table in the sun which is a real treat and then walk down to Sinh Café. A couple of guys are loading food into the van that’s to take us to the boat. I sit inside and talk to Lan who’s the pretty lady that runs the boat.

On the way we stop at a few hotels to pick up an Australian couple and a family of unfriendly Germans. We drive along a wide palm-fringed road next to the beach to get to the Cao Da dock which is at the southern end of town.

Here chaos rules. The carpark is full of locals and vans from other travel agencies while hawkers and beggars scramble to get to the door of our van first. The crowd is five deep and everyone is desperate to make a sale. I buy a straw conical hat then we race down the stairs to the water to escape it all.

Red and blue painted boats are also pushing and shoving just like the crowd. They’re all vying for positions at the wharf and just ram their way into cracks between other boats to push them out of the way. So glad when we all board and get the hell out of here. Talk about a relaxing day to the islands!

Our boat holds fifteen tourists and three crew as well as Lan. Leaving the craziness at the wharf behind, we start to enjoy being in the sunshine and out on the beautiful blue waters of the South China Sea. After an hour, the boat drops anchor about twenty metres off a deserted island. We thought we’d be getting off but apparently we’re to just snorkel and swim next to the boat.

Mark and a few of the men jump in and do a bit of swimming around using the masks and snorkels but there’s nothing much to see so they come back. Other boats have now arrived and it’s like Pitt Street. The plan is to stay here for an hour and a half and this is exactly what we do despite the fact that everyone is ready to get going after thirty minutes. I climb onto the roof and Mark and I are alone for the fifteen-minute ride to the next stop.

Unfortunately this looks exactly like the last stop and no-one can be bothered going in the water. We still can’t go ashore so we all just sit there looking at each other. I’m back on the roof and feeling totally nauseous with the boat rolling in the swell even though it’s barely noticeable. Lunch is a great distraction and we climb down to the deck where the food is spread out in the middle. Seafood, rice, noodles and salads are all good but I feel even worse now. Still sticking to the dreaded schedule, we stay for another hour then chug off to another island.

Thank God we can get off at this one and we walk along a path next to the shore that’s lined with thatched raised platforms. Here Vietnamese holiday-makers are lounging around in their swimmers and kids are playing in the shallow water. Mark and I find a shady table and chairs and talk to the lovely Australian couple from our boat. They’re Tom and Desley from Queensland and they tell us of their travels so far in Vietnam. They’ve come up from Saigon so we get lots of good tips from them about where to stay and what to see.

Back on the boat, Lan has afternoon tea waiting for us. This is even better than lunch and I’m feeling wonderful again. We try everything including pineapples, watermelon, mandarins, papaya, sponge cake and dragon fruit. This is a handsome spiky bright pink fruit speckled black with white flesh inside and tastes good too.

The next island looks so pretty and we’re met by young women in the famous round basket boats. Mark and I ride around for ages with a couple of young girls. They let Mark have a go and think it’s funny to see someone else rowing for a change. Back on the boat, we head back towards Nha Trang.

Mark sits at the point of the bow with one of the guys from the crew. He tells Mark that they do this trip every day and earn an absolute pittance. Before we get off, Lan points to Mark’s feet. Unbelievably all the men have had their little toenails painted bright red sometime during the day.

In the van back to town, we make plans to meet Tom and Desley for dinner. After quick showers we walk around to the street parallel to ours to find the Indian restaurant. The food is so cheap and the service quick. We have a lovely night talking about each other’s travels and after a few beers we head back to the hotel for an early night.

Sunday 18th February, 2001     Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City

We wake early to a sunny, hot day. By eight o’clock we’ve had a quick breakfast in a cafe next door, packed, and in a taxi on the way to the airport. Nha Trang looks especially lovely today and we feel in a true holiday mood created by the heat, the palm trees and the beach. The airport is only a couple of minutes from the hotel and we’re in the air on time. The trip to Ho Chi Minh City is a quick forty minutes. Feeling better today, maybe because of the good weather or maybe because this is our last stop before we go home.

By ten thirty we’re outside Saigon airport and in a metered taxi which is what Tom and Desley recommended as the cheapest way to get around. The streets are busy and full of life even though it’s a Sunday.  Despite heavy traffic of bicycles, cyclos and thousands of motorbikes, we like the look of Saigon. It’s greener than we’d expected and very exciting.

The hotel that Desley and Tom stayed in last week is in Pham Ngu Lao which is the backpacker area of the city and where we want to stay as well. This is itself at the western end of District 1 which is central Saigon so we’re in a great area. We know when we reach Pham Ngu Lao by the internet cafes, guesthouses tour booking offices, dress making shops, artist studios, souvenir sellers, cafes and beggars.

The Mien Chau Hotel is like all the guesthouses around here – narrow and four floors high with the family living in the foyer and cooking in the back alley. Our room is on the third floor and looks onto a brick wall. We love the fact that it’s big, old and rundown with a faded linoleum floor and thankful that it’s air-conditioned and quiet.

After quickly unpacking, we spend a while walking around the area then jump in a couple of cyclos. The drivers are friendly and take us past the Saigon River, pointing things out along the way.  and then on to a moneychanger. After changing some money, they take us to lunch at Restaurant Nineteen and wait for us outside. The café is air-conditioned which is a bonus and the food is good.

From here they recommend going to the Jade Emperor Pagoda so off we go. The Pagoda is unbelievably colourful and full of giant statues of Chinese gods representing both Taoism and Buddhism. Our sweet driver, who’s also kindly acting as our guide, shows us two floors of rooms where people come to worship by burning handfuls of joss sticks and oil. One room has a carved depiction of hell on the wall showing all the gruesome ways to be punished when you get there. A happier area has rows of ceramic mothers and their children. There’s buddhas everywhere – happy buddha and woman buddha and even unemployment buddha where you leave a donation if you want a job.

In the leafy courtyard outside is a pond holding baby-sized turtles and huge goldfish. It’s nice here with a lot of children and families hanging around. Here also are women surrounded by bamboo cages packed with tiny birds. The idea is to pay for one and then set it free for good luck. I ask how much and I’m told it’s very expensive – five thousand dong or about eighty cents. A little bird is put into a smaller bamboo cage and I hold it up and open the door. Should have done this weeks ago – might have staved off the rain till the wet season.

Our next stop is the War Remnants Museum. We get a mini tour of central Saigon on the way. It’s a muddle of lovely old French buildings and rundown newer buildings that have all seen better days. Some have a war-torn look but maybe we’ve just got war on the brain because of where we’re headed. Despite changing its name from the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes to avoid upsetting anyone, the War Remnants Museum is a depiction of the American/Vietnam War from a totally one-sided Vietnamese perspective – which is probably as it should be.

In the grounds of the Museum are some interesting planes and helicopters from the war and a small building showing hideous torture methods. Had enough for one day and ready now for a sleep so we take the rickshaws back to the hotel. Dinner is cheese burgers and chicken burgers after booking a tour for tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. An early night in our quiet, air-conditioned room.

Monday  19th February, 2001                 Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Mark wakes feeling great but I’m sick with cramps in the stomach and the dreaded runs. Breakfast is at Sinh Café before we board the bus to take us out to the tunnels. Our guide is Skinny Thong who speaks exceptionally good English and fills us in with stories about the war as we head out of town. The two-hour drive is through rural areas and small towns. The road is so bad with potholes the whole way and is making me feel sicker than before.

Glad to arrive at Cu Chi where our bus pulls into a carpark already full of other tourist buses and vans. It seems that half the population of Saigon has turned up for the day but we only get held up for fifteen minutes. There’s a line-up for the film which is compulsory to watch before we’re allowed any further. This is another propaganda film about the evil Americans who came ‘thousands of miles from their homeland’ to kill ‘woman, children, chickens, pots and pans, and ‘burn houses’. The film is accompanied by the daggiest music that makes it seem like an old silent movie.

Skinny Thong then leads us across the road and into the jungle. Love Skinny Thong – he’s so sweet and has the cutest accent, like Tweety Bird. He shows us all sorts of ‘booby twaps’ that the Viet Cong used during the war – terrifying. Horrid things positioned in the ground or in trees and set with bamboo spikes.

We’re shown how the entrances to the tunnels were completely camouflaged. From a patch of bare ground covered with leaves a man emerges from a tiny hole that’s been hidden by a leaf-covered board. I volunteer (very unlike me) to have a turn and can barely squeeze through myself. Mark would never fit.

On now to the shooting range where we both shoot an AK47 at a target. Unbelievably loud despite ear muffs but very proud of doing something so different. We see an abandoned American tank and then we climb into one of the tunnels.

These have been made twice the size for us huge westerners but they’re still unbearably claustrophobic. It’s also incredibly hot and I get out the first chance I get. From here we’re taken to see an underground kitchen and given tea in tiny cups and eat tapioca. This is what the Viet Cong had to survive on because rice was so scarce.

As we walk through the jungle we hear noises like popguns going off then people screaming and laughing. Apparently they’ve put booby trap wires across all the paths so that we can experience what it must have been like.

We’re back in Saigon by early afternoon. At Sinh Café we hail a taxi to take us to the Post Office so we can ring home. This is a huge elaborate building beautifully restored and obviously newly painted. Although impressive inside and out, the service is the worst we’ve come across even in Vietnam. Instead of ringing then paying, you have to pay first so you have to guess how long you’ll talk and that’s if you get through at all. The woman keeps ringing the wrong number and I have to line up again and again. I feel like jumping the counter and strangling someone.

Outside we take photos of the beautiful church of Notre Dame which is a replica of the original in Paris. Now we’re back in a taxi to the hotel for a sleep. Feeling very sick by now with stomach cramps and a headache. Out for a quick snack about seven o’clock and then back to bed.

Tuesday  20th February, 2001               Saigon

Wake feeling much better but we lay around and don’t leave the hotel till nine o’clock. At Kim Café in the next street, we have club sandwiches for breakfast – very un-Vietnamese. From here we catch a taxi to Cholon which is Saigon’s Chinatown. After a twenty-minute drive through congested streets we’re dropped off at the huge Binh Tay Market.

This is a two-storey cement block crammed with stalls and people. The amount of stock is mind-blowing. We really enjoy the ground level area in an old wooden structure attached to the side of the main building. We have fun with some of the ladies who are either swinging in hammocks hung above their goods or sitting amongst it all in shops no bigger than an average wardrobe.

A blind man is walking around playing an electric guitar and singing while two young boys walk with him, one carrying a speaker made from a tin can and the other with a collection tin. We buy incense cones and tall, fat incense sticks then wander around the food area. We sit at a noodle stand and Mark orders soup and noodles while I just watch. I’m still feeling too queazy (is that a word?) to eat Vietnamese food although it looks so good.

Outside we’re followed by a rickshaw driver who won’t leave us alone. We decide to just go with the flow so we get in. Besides that, he’s so lovely and his name is Ngu. He offers to take us to some of the local Chinese pagodas that turn out to be wonderful.

We visit three which are all different but in a way ‘same, same’. Love watching the worshippers who don’t seem to mind us being there. At each pagoda they’re burning oil and incense, giving offerings of fruit and burning paper in open furnaces. The decorations are so ornate and we see two-metre high incense coils hanging from the carved ceilings. I adore these places.

Ngu cycles us all the way back to the Mien Chau Hotel so we can have a rest – how pathetic. He picks us up again outside at three o’clock so we can go to the Thai Airways office. We need to confirm our flight home but we’re also hoping to be able to get an earlier plane. Even if we can at least get back to Bangkok earlier we’ll jump at the chance. No luck as the next flight out of here is the 20th March. Okay that’s it, time to buck up and be happy. At Kim Café around the corner we book a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta for tomorrow. This will keep us occupied till we leave.

Ngu now cycles us to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park near the Reunification Palace. This is a huge walled park with lots of different areas but not many people around today. There are a lot of gardeners, however, and funnily enough they’re all women. I swear, from what I’ve seen, most Vietnamese men are either swinging in hammocks or congregating on busy pavements getting pissed. A young boy passes us making a clicking sound by hitting two sticks together. Apparently this means that if you follow him you’ll be able to buy hot ‘pho’ which is a vegetable noodle dish that’s eaten anytime of the day.

As we ride back to the hotel, Ngu tells us about his family and proudly shows us pictures of his new baby girl. In the cool of our room, we have a quick nap before dressing up for a posh night on the town. Although we intend to grab a taxi, we see Ngu riding past so we call out to him. He’s so pleased to get another fare and off we go to the area of District One near the river. He cycles us around for a while showing us the sights.

The city looks so different at night – exciting even. Ngu drops us off at the Continental Hotel which is where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in 1954. Outside are sandbags all along the pavement and inside the bar is closed. Apparently they’re in the process of filming the movie which is to star Michael Cain. Disappointing but we still get to see inside the famous hotel.

The other famous old hotel of Saigon is the Rex and it’s an easy walk from the Continental. The foyer is very impressive but smells like shit – literally! The Rex’s infamous bar is on the roof and open to the beautiful night sky. It’s a big area divided into intimate dining and drinking spaces. It’s tastefully decorated with cane furniture, caged birds and bonsai plants. We spend an enjoyable hour drinking beer and eating peanuts then downstairs again to find a taxi to take us to the floating restaurants.

These are a series of boats tied up along the Saigon River and all decorated with strings of coloured lights. The docks are packed with local people watching the guests get on and off the boats. We almost feel like royalty when our taxi pulls into a special dropping off area and we’re led to the gangplank of the nearest boat. Each boat has three levels and we choose the lower level where a band is playing.

This is a big mistake as we’re on the same level as the dock which is only metres away. The poor people stand there watching us eat and drink. Facing the other direction isn’t much better as the view consists of huge hideous neon advertising signs all along the other side of the river. The set menu is also revolting and I’m given a tiny pigeon, head and all. No way can I eat it and don’t eat much of anything. Mark naturally eats everything but we’re both glad to escape the food, the music and the atmosphere. Despite the tackiness of the whole experience we have a good night. Back to bed early.

Wednesday 21st February, 2001 Saigon to The Mekong Delta

The bus to the Mekong Delta is leaving at eight o’clock but we have time to pack, have breakfast and E-mail home. On the minibus we meet Hai our driver. He’s a replica of Skinny Thong  – all teeth and crinkley eyes as he smiles and laughs continually.

Our fellow travellers consists mainly of Europeans and there’s two rude Hungarian couples who speak at the top of their voices the whole time Hai is talking. He’s painstakingly explaining our tour as we head west out of the city but the Hungarians have their backs to him and have also opened the windows. Hai patiently explains that we have to have the windows shut so that the air-conditioning can work and we can all be comfortable. Of course, they ignore him and everyone else is doing the ‘rolling the eyes’ thing.

The roads out of Saigon are packed with bicycles and motorbikes as people make their way to school and to work. A few hours out we turn off the main highway and onto a bumpy dirt road that winds through open countryside. We drive beside a canal where ramshackle houses are built on the other side and connected to the road with arched bridges every few hundred metres. The bus pulls up at a pineapple plantation and we all get out to watch trucks being loaded from small canoe-type boats. Hai explains the process of growing the pineapples and then we all get to try whole pineapples freshly picked this morning. They’re so sweet and juicy.

From here we travel to Cai Be which is a large town on a filthy waterway. We all pile onto an old wooden boat and head off to the floating market – ‘you know flotting mar-ket?’ as Hai keeps saying. Unfortunately the floating market is finished for the day so we keep going up the river to a village where they make rice cakes. This is a pleasant area with grass huts overlooking the water and surrounded by trees and gardens. We watch while the family goes through all the stages of making rice cakes and then, of course, we all buy bags of them – lovely.

The boat drops us off back at the wharf which is really just a plank of wood over a muddy bank. Mark and I have lunch with a lovely couple from the bus. Brian is English and Turid is Norwegian and they live in Cyprus. How boring are we? Mark is Australian and Virginia is Australian and we live in Australia – fascinating stuff! Afterwards we walk through the market which, as always, is fantastic and loads of fun. The ladies are playing bingo and there’s lots of laughing.

We get back on the boat, now, and wind our way through smaller canals. After a while we get off to walk along the water’s edge and see how people live in these little backwaters of the Delta. We’re on Tan Phong Island which is so thick with vegetation it’s hard to tell how many people actually live here.

As we continue on the boat, the people are so friendly and we spend the whole time waving and smiling and some throw fruit at us in fun. Feel like we’re on the African Queen as we chug our way through narrow canals overhung with greenery.

We finally reach Vinh Long town and set off with Brian and Turid in search of alcohol during our one hour break. The Hungarians are late getting back to the bus but we manage to get to the ferry wharf on time. Here huge white vehicular ferries are loading cars and trucks that are lined up on both sides. This is an incredibly busy area and we can see at least six other ferries of the same size crossing the Mekong.

We all pile out of the van and take seats on an upper deck. As we make our way across the huge river, the sun is setting in a golden sky and the Mekong almost looks lovely. At last we arrive at Can Tho City which is the capital of the Mekong Delta and the largest town.

The van now drops us all off at our hotel which is a rundown dump with cold, damp rooms. We don’t take long to shower and meet Brian and Turid downstairs. At the counter, the Hungarian bitch is going on about her passport having been stolen from her room and that it must have been someone from the hotel. Hai is getting totally pissed off and tells her to go back to her room and have a good look. She finds it but doesn’t bother to apologise. Hai is very smug and is all crinkley eyes again. He tells us that he loves coming on these trips which he does once a week. He’s happy to announce that he has a girlfriend here and a wife in Saigon.

With Brian and Turid, we go next door for a beer but it’s pretty horrid so we look up the Lonely Planet for somewhere to eat. Apparently, the best café in town is Restaurant 31 which is in this very street. We all set off the find it only to find that it’s the dump we’ve just left.

Someone suggests we look for the other restaurants down by the river so we set off through the market. This is now closed and reeks of rotting fruit and vegetables. It’s also very dark so we can’t avoid wading through the muck on the ground. We decide it would be better to go back along the main street and get to the river that way.

We find a few interesting restaurants here overlooking a park and the river beyond. We find a table on a balcony that looks down on the market and the busy street. The meal is good and we get along famously with Turid and Brian. They are soooo interesting. After dinner I suddenly feel vertigoed out so Mark and I catch a moto-cyclo back to the hotel. This is a motorbike pulling a cyclo and is unique to the Delta region. Back to our horrid room and bed.

Thursday  22nd February, 2001             Mekong Delta to Saigon

I feel much better this morning and we have breakfast in a café across the road while we watch the local market people setting up their stalls. We’re all on the bus at seven fifteen and drive for about an hour to a small canal. Here we walk down the grassy embankment to find two tiny boats waiting for us.

There’s to be six in each boat and Hai is making very sure that he’s not in the same boat as the hateful Hungarians. Mark and I do the same. The boat is only wide enough for our two bums which are sitting on a hard wooden plank. We hope we’re not going to be in it for too long.

Our first stop is the Cai Rang floating market which is a total waste of time – yet again it appears to be ‘finished’. From Cai Rang, we chug our way slowly through narrow waterways for several hours. The boat stops for us to walk through some rice paddies where women are harvesting the rice with long scythes. It looks such hot, backbreaking work.

From here we have to stop several times to unwind reeds and rubbish that’s been caught up in the propeller. Definitely had enough of this boat but the people down here are so friendly. We never seem to stop waving and ‘helloing’ especially as we get closer to the Phong Dien floating market.

This is much more like a floating market and tiny boats selling food and drinks pull up alongside us. Most of the real produce, though, is on bigger boats that display their wares by hanging a sample from a flagpole on the deck. Some have bunches of onions or other vegetables but we don’t see any real trading going on. I must say, the floating markets are definitely not what we’d expected.

The problem with most expectations is that they’re rarely lived up to. I’d pictured the Mekong Delta as lush and picturesque, which it is in some parts, but mostly it’s a congested, filthy mess with wide, ugly, brown expanses of water where the Mekong River fans out before emptying itself into the South China Sea.

Happily, at least the weather has managed to live up to our expectations of being hot and sunny. I really have been the worst sort of spoiled brat on this holiday even if it’s been mainly in my own mind. Mark may like to disagree with that – ha,ha. I love South East Asia so I know how I’m feeling isn’t normal for me. For some reason I got a set against Vietnam from the start and I just can’t shake it. Will come back one day to see it in my usual (better) frame of mind.

Near the floating market we finally get off the dreaded boat at a sort of shop/café built out over the water. Here there’s a television blaring out old Boney M clips. Hai has a ball turning it up full blast and dancing to ‘By The Rivers of Babylon’ all by himself. Now we get back into our minivan and stop half an hour later for lunch. This is the dirtiest café we’ve ever seen. Old chicken bones are scattered all over the floor and spider webs and daddy-long legs are hanging under the tables. The food is passable but we can almost see the germs.

An hour more on the bus and we arrive at Rung Tram forest and the site of a Viet Cong Army Base called Xeo Quit. Hai guides us across bridges that span small canals though the dense jungle. He shows us bunkers and shelters, lookout posts and a mine field that’s still active. Apparently the Viet Cong chose this area because of the thickness of the jungle. There’s vines and marshes and paperback trees that grew back quickly if they were fire bombed or sprayed by the Americans. It’s a scary, damp place that’s made even scarier when we see a live giant snake about eight inches in diameter in a cage near the entrance. This jungle must be teeming with these monsters.

By now we’re all dying to get back to Saigon – ‘tell me I didn’t hear him say three more hours’, Turid feels the same as me – totally over this tour. After a couple of hours we stop to buy icecreams and Mark and I buy breadrolls with tomato, cheese and chives from a little street cart. Just heaven.

Back on the bus for an incredibly hairy ride back into the city to arrive at Pham Ngu Lao about seven o’clock. No time for showers or unpacking, we head straight to Café Allez Boo for beers with Brian and Turid. Great atmosphere in here with bamboo walls, cane furniture, a bar with a thatched roof, open windows onto the busy street and old Credence Clearwater tapes playing. The place is full of backpackers and hawkers are hanging in through the windows and walking through the crowds inside. After a couple of drinks each, Mark and I decide to go back to our hotel to see if we still have a room. Luckily we’ve got our same room which is starting to feel like home. Back out to meet Brian and Turid at a nearby Indian restaurant for dinner and then an early night.

Friday 28th February, 2001                              Saigon

This morning neither of us are well and our toilet is constantly occupied. I’ve also got a sore throat so we stay in the room till eight thirty. We have breakfast in Kim Café but have to hurry back to the room for another toilet stop. Luckily we haven’t got anything planned for today so we lay around reading till lunchtime. We decide to go souvenir hunting but have lunch first at a nearby café – chicken salad roll for me and curried chicken roll for Mark.

Outside the café we ask a couple of cyclo drivers to show us where we can find souvenirs like masks and buddha statues. One driver is so bossy and keeps telling us that all the tourists love him – I doubt it. They ride us a few kilometres away to a sad looking department store  – like a mini David Jones but no customers. While we walk around the empty store, all eyes are on us and we feel almost obliged to buy. When we ask if there is more on the next floor, the woman screams something up the stairs and we hear footsteps scurrying across the floor and lights being turned on. Up here are more awful polished wood and lacquer-work ornaments and boxes like those we’d seen on the way to Halong Bay. We politely leave as soon as we can and ask to be taken back to our hotel.

We wander around outside for a while, then Mark goes up to lie down – not feeling well at all. I go to E-mail and find messages from Angie and Jillian. After some local souvenir shopping and money changing I head back to the room to get ready for our night out with Turid and Brian.

We all meet at Allez Boos again and we’re all looking very different in our posh clothes. Turid looks beautiful – the same age as me but has no wrinkles and lovely golden tanned skin. Brian is fifty-eight and looks great for his age. Mark is the handsomest man in the whole world and I’m trying to look my best. After a couple of beers we get a taxi to Vietnam House.

This is an expensive restaurant in a French villa in inner city District 1. We all have a drink at the bar before going up to the lovely dining room. We order a different set menu each so that we can try everything. Meanwhile we’re entertained by three female musicians who all look stunning in pastel coloured ao-dais. So much food arrives and it’s all traditional Vietnamese. The seafood soup and barbequed tuna is the best. We talk so much we don’t even notice that we’re soon the only ones left in the restaurant and the staff are obviously hovering around waiting for us to leave. When they start dimming the lights we finally get the hint even though it’s only ten thirty. We can’t even find anywhere else to party on so it’s another taxi back to our hotels. Brian and Turid’s hotel is totally locked up – people definitely have early nights around here. Luckily we can get into the Mien Chau and it’s straight to bed.

Saturday  24th February, 2001     Saigon to Bangkok to Sydney

Mark is feeling sick again but he manages to have breakfast at Kim Café – our favourite. We buy a wooden mask for our collection and then head back to the room to pack. Mark manages to squeeze it all in before we go out to change some money. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we pass a shop selling beautiful silk and beaded shoes and handbags. Within minutes I’ve bought five pairs of shoes, three handbags, five purses and three silk scarves. Mark somehow crams them into our already bulging bags and we set off for the airport.

We take off at 2pm for a one hour flight to Bangkok. Leave here at 6pm to arrive in Sydney at 6am Sunday morning to catch the dreaded Aero Pelican plane back to Newcastle. Thank God we’re home!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sri Lanka 2012

    P1020723

                                                                             Our Itinerary
Tuesday 12th June, 2012 Train to Sydney
Wednesday 13th June, 2012 Sydney 10.55am to Kuala Lumpur 5.30pm
Thursday 14th June, 2012 Kuala Lumpur 6.15am to Colombo 7.15am  to Sigirya
Friday 15th June, 2012 Sigirya  to Polonnaruwa
Saturday 16th June, 2012 Polonnaruwa to Kandy
Sunday 17th June, 2012 Kandy
Monday 18th June, 2012 Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Tuesday 19th June, 2012 Nuwara Eliya to Arugam Bay
Wednesday 20th June, 2012 Arugam Bay
Thursday 21st June, 2012 Arugam Bay
Friday 22nd June, 2012 Arugam Bay to Unawatuna
Saturday 23rd June, 2012 Unawatuna
Sunday 24th June, 2012 Unawatuna to Negombo
Monday 25th June, 2012 Colombo 8.15am to Kuala Lumpur 2.30pm. Depart Kuala Lumpur 11.40pm
Tuesday 26th June, 2012 Sydney 9.45am

 

Tuesday 12th June, 2012       Sydney

Lauren picks us up from home at four o’clock and drives us to Hamilton Station. We kiss our darling girls goodbye – we don’t want them to see us off on the train because the Dolly became so upset when we went to Bali in March. As soon as Lauren drives away we realize that the station is closed because of track work and we have to ring her to come back and drive us to Broadmeadow.

Dolly had been okay when we left her at Hamilton but when she realizes we’re saying goodbye at Broadmeadow she starts crying and we can hear her screaming as poor Lauren drives off down the street. Oh Abi, we love you, That Girl. We’ll be away for two weeks this time – hate leaving Lauren – I wish they were coming with us.

The train trip is the usual two hours and the weather is dark and raining by the time we reach Central. From here we catch another train to St James then walk in the rain to Jillian’s in Wooloomooloo. Luckily she’s already ordered pizzas so we don’t have to go back out again on this horrible night. We have a lovely time catching up before heading for bed at 10.30am.

Wednesday 13th June, 2012      Sydney to Kuala Lumpur

An early start to have breakfast with Jillian and by 7.30am we’re walking across Hyde Park to St James Station. We don’t have to change trains at Central but go straight through to the International Terminal. Here we do our usual airport routine – check in our bags, pass through immigration, eat McDonalds and buy duty free cigarettes and Bacardi (just one bottle because I have visions of myself going easy on the fags and the booze for a change – dumb idea and I’m sure I’ll regret it).

At 11.15am we fly out on Air Asia on our incredibly cheap tickets. When we were booking for Bali in January, Mark found this flight from Sydney to Sri Lanka for $500 each return, including taxes! We do have to stay overnight in Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia’s hub) on the way over and for ten hours on the way back but we don’t care – all an experience and we’ve made plans on how to fill in our time instead of just hanging out at the airport.

Anyway, back to the plane. Mark has a window seat and I’m in the middle of him and a nice Indonesian man who I share my lollies with. After take-off, I check out the back of the plane and find two empty seats – heaven. Now I can be comfortable, reading and sleeping for a few hours while Mark works on his laptop. I chat with a young Muslim couple with their fat baby girl called Tabitha – I want our little baby!

Arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 5.30pm their time, four and a half hours behind Sydney. KL has two international airports: The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and the KL Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT).  Air Asia monopolises the LCCT, so this is where we arrive and where we’ll depart for Sri Lanka in the morning. The flight leaves at 6am so we’ll need to check in by 3am.

This means that we’ll either have to stay at an airport hotel (sounds boring and a waste of money anyway) or crash out in the airport (sounds fun and something we’ve never done before). A few weeks ago I found a great website called Sleeping in Airports where I picked up some good advice about KL. The only problem is that we need to get to KLIA as we can’t sleep here at the LCCT for some reason.

So to get to KLIA, we need to catch an airport shuttle bus outside the busy terminal. By now it’s after six o’clock but it’s still thirty degrees and very humid – just how we like it – wonderful to be in the tropics again. Asian restaurants and fast food outlets are full while buses, cars and taxis are dropping off and picking up passengers. We like it here and feel very excited to be starting another adventure together.

The shuttle soon arrives and we pay only 3RM for the twenty minute ride to KLIA. The terminal here is much bigger and modern but lacks the buzz of the LCCT. Up escalators to the fourth floor we look for the food hall as we’re starving by now. Inside is a semi-circle of food outlets, each with a different name but all the food looks exactly the same. It also looks disgusting so we pass and decide to go up a floor.

On the fifth floor we see signs for airport accommodation and decide to check out the cost – if we can get a really cheap room we may as well take it. Of course it takes ages to find out – Mark stays with the packs while I head off on a wild goose chase from desk to desk, and up and down escalators.  Eventually I’m told that we needed to book weeks ago and anyway it’s over a hundred dollars – not paying that especially for just a few hours.

Even hungrier by now, we find McDonalds and pig out till we’re feeling sick. Funny sitting here watching very excited teenage school girls and their parents.

So now we wander around looking for the best spot to make camp. We’re following the info I’d found on the Sleeping in Airports blogs but things must have changed because we can’t find any benches in the spot they recommend. We ask some of the friendly cleaning staff about other places to sleep. One lady thinks we should go down to the third floor so off we go down in the lift yet again.

Finally we find two long benches facing each other in a remote spot that should be quiet but still close enough to the shops to be safe. Mark locks our packs to the trolley that he parks in between the seats. With our bed pillows that we always bring with us, blankets we’ve pinched off the plane, ear plugs and eye masks we settle down about ten o’clock. I love this and feel very comfy and secure. Manage to get about four hours sleep.

Thursday 14th June, 2012      Kuala Lumpur to Colombo to Dambulla toSigirya

Mark’s alarm goes off at 2:30am – both very happy to be on the move again. And also very happy that we ended up sleeping in the airport – a great experience as well as being free. Now we’ll have no worries about doing it again in the future.

Outside we find a taxi to take us back to the LCCT as the shuttle buses don’t run in the middle of the night – a shame because it costs us a lot more – 62MR instead of 3MR. Arriving at 3am at the LCCT, we’re surprised to see how many people are around already. We try checking in but there’s some confusion about our Bacardi which they want bubble wrapped. We’re not paying for that so we pretend to do it and just wrap it in some clothes and book through our packs at another counter.

With two and a half hours before takeoff, we order breakfast with coffee and tea at Old Town White Coffee then, through immigration, I sleep for an hour while Mark checks out the shops and watches a bit of Euro 2012 on tv.

We leave on time at 6:15am with – joy of joys – three seats each. The flight is only three hours but, with room to stretch out, we both sleep most of the way. We’re excited to get our first glimpse of Sri Lanka, prettily described as a little teardrop shaped island just off the southern tip of India. As we cross the coastline, dark clouds obscure the land below us and, at 6.50am, we land at Colombo airport in the rain.

We quickly get our visas and clear immigration easily. Mark talks me into buying a bottle of Bacardi – I’m to be very thankful for this later. Bag pickup is easy as well and at customs there’s no-one to be seen so we just sail through. While Mark gets out some money from an ATM (130LKR to 1AUD), I have a ciggie in the garden. Lovely here – hot and humid with the tropical rain pouring down around me.

Now we have to work out how to get to Dambulla – by bus or get a van and a driver. At the information desk we’re told that there aren’t any direct buses so we’ll have to go back into Colombo and get one from there. But since Colombo is an hour away in the opposite direction it would add two hours onto the journey – doesn’t make sense so we decide to go for the van/driver option despite it being a lot more expensive. Outside, the terminal is chaos as hundreds of people are getting in and out of taxis and buses and vans.

After bargaining with a few touts, we agree with a handsome, young man called Madu that he and his friend will drive us to Dambulla for 7,500LKR. Surely we’re being ripped off but we haven’t got time to muck around as we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in only twelve days. Our plan today is to get to Dambulla in the centre of the island, check out the famous caves then get a bus to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Anyway it’s still only nine thirty by the time we leave the airport. We love the look of Sri Lanka already even though it’s still raining. The vegetation is thick, lush and green and, amazingly, we pass two trucks with elephants on the back! I ask Madu if they’re being taken to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage which is only a couple of hours from here. He says he can make a side trip to the orphanage for a mere 4,000LKR extra. We say ‘no thanks’ but he doesn’t give up.

Actually, he’s already been driving us mad trying to talk us into having him as our driver for the whole time we’re here. No matter how many times we politely say ‘no thanks’ within a couple of minutes he’s on about it again. He tries all sorts of angles – ‘I very cheap’, ‘I very safe’, ‘I very good guide’, etc, etc …

Despite Madu being a pest we do like him and really enjoy the trip especially as the rain stops after the first hour. About half way we stop on the side of the road so that Madu’s friend can get out and leave money at a Buddhist shrine for good luck. We also visit a lake where Madu says they found an ancient golden coach on the bottom only a few years ago.

Later we stop at one of the many roadside shacks that sell coconuts, fruit and corn on the cob. An old lady wearing a faded, floral sarong is cooking the corn in a big metal urn over hot coals. I get out to have a closer look and to buy hot corn cobs for the four of us. She takes them out of the boiling water and puts them in a dish of cold water then wraps each one in corn husks so we can hold them without burning our fingers.

Back on the road we notice that the vegetation has changed by now – not as thick as on the coast and the coconut plantations have been replaced by rice paddies – a really nice drive. After three hours we arrive in Dambulla.

Dambulla is hot and sunny and quite a big town. The main reason in coming here is to visit The Golden Rock Temple but first we want to get rid of Madu. We get him to drop us at BBH restaurant in the centre of town. Even as Mark is paying him, he’s still trying to talk us into something else – whatever and goodbye!

Such a relief when he drives off and we’re on our own.

Before we do anything we want to have lunch. Inside the restaurant’s large, dark interior, we order a chicken curry which is so hot that I can’t eat it. Mark devours most of his and all the locals are getting stuck in as well – apparently most Sri Lankan dishes are super spicy so God knows what I’m going to eat.

After a visit to the loo – my first squat toilet for a while – we ask if we can leave our bags here while we visit the Temple. The ladies can’t speak much English but eventually they understand and we store our packs behind the counter.

Outside we talk to a young tuktuk driver called Nian who agrees to take us out to the Temple for 200LKR each way. We squash ourselves inside the little cabin which is decorated with colourful Buddhist hangings and a bunch of plastic grapes. We putput our way to the outskirts of town where we can see the towering Dambulla Rock looming above us.

Nian pulls into the entrance to the temple which is dominated by a giant, golden meditating Buddha. The Buddha itself sits on top of a three storey building which houses the museum and is decorated with fake, pink and white lotus flowers. The wide doorway is framed with a row of teeth so it looks like an open mouth and the pink steps up to it look like a long tongue – sounds hideous but it’s nice.

On a cliff face to the right hand side of the museum, is a line of monk statues representing the monks from the local area coming for prayer. On the other side of the museum is the beginning of the stairs that lead up to our destination – the World Heritage-listed cave temples.

We’re not sure how many stairs there are and I’m not game to ask. Better to just take our time and enjoy the views and the little market stalls that have been set up along the way. Half way up we stop for a rest and a drink.

Looking eastward, the landscape is flat except for Sigirya Rock far away in the distance. It’s a huge, grey, flat-topped blob sticking out of the surrounding green jungle. It was built as a fortress and palace in 500AD by King Kassapa as Sri Lanka’s capital. Now it’s another World Heritage site and we plan to climb it tomorrow – attempt to anyway – it looks HUUGE!!!

Now, though, we still have the rest of Dambulla Rock to climb. Finally at the top we need to take off our shoes and Mark has to rent a sarong because we’re entering a temple area. We hire an old man called Manu to be our guide through the cave complex. He tells us that the five caves were cut out of the rock by the Sinhala kings and made into temples that contain hundreds of Buddhist statues and paintings. Inside, the ceilings are painted with intricate patterns of religious portraits that follow the contours of the rock – very well preserved for an ancient site.

We stop at a Hindu shrine to have white string wrapped around our wrists for luck then Mark prays with Manu in front of a tall Buddha. We really like the whole place – the caves have a wonderful atmosphere helped by the uplighting at the base of the statues.

On the way back down we stop to watch monkeys being naughty in a tree and Mark buys a couple of t-shirts from a man who is very grateful for his sale. At the bottom we climb the steps to the golden Buddha. We stop to make friends with three local ladies wearing all-white dresses and carrying purple water lilies which we’re told is Sri Lanka’s national flower.

Time now to head back to town and find a way of getting to Polonnaruwa. Nian hasn’t turned up yet so we wait in the shade of a spreading tree then try to get a close-up photo of a big male monkey. Soon our tuktuk arrives and we’re sharing the ride (very squashy) with a friendly Aussie guy who’s heading to Arugam Bay from Dambulla – might run into him out there.

At BHH Restaurant we pick up our bags, thanking the ladies for watching them for us. Across the road is the main bus stop for Polonnaruwa and we buy water from a nearby bakery for the trip. Lots of people are waiting for buses that come every minute or so, most heading north to Anuradapura and even to Jaffna at the very top of the island. Before our own bus arrives we’re convinced by a funny guy called Kalau into going to Sigirya in his tuktuk today then head for Polonnaruwa tomorrow.

We like the plan so we’re soon speeding out of town with a beaming Kalau, who’s overjoyed to have got a fare. We ask him about getting beer in Sigirya but he’s not sure so he stops at a sort of bottle shop made of odd bits of corrugated iron. Mark buys a few Lion longnecks (giving one to Kalau) and cracks one himself already – great to be on holidays

The forty minute drive is very pretty, passing all sorts of fruit trees – avocado, bread fruit, cashew nut – vegetable gardens and young plant nurseries.  Kalau is a good guide pointing out things on the way.

Sigirya is perfect – a tiny village across a pretty stream on a bend in the road. There are about twenty little shops, guesthouses and cafes – all very basic.  We’re hoping to get a room at The Flower Inn as I loved the images of it on Tripadvisor – and it’s cheap.

But before we check it out, Kalau wants to show us Sigirya Rock which is only a few hundred metres past the village. This is excellent as we’ll easily be able to walk this far tomorrow if we can get a room here tonight. Now, we turn off the road onto a gravel laneway overhung with flowering trees and vines to find The Flower Inn sitting cutely in its own garden.

Breetney, the jolly owner, greets us like old friends and shows us a darling room just off the verandah – aqua blue cement walls, pink floral bedspreads, pink mosquito nets and a lino floor. We even have our own bathroom with an adorable yellow frog sitting on the sink. The best part, though, is the little windows that open outwards into the garden, letting the sun pour in. All this for just $12AUD!

Feeling tired by now, we rest till 6pm with the overhead fan keeping us cool. On dark we set off to find somewhere to eat and drink. Just outside the laneway we see an elephant walking along the road – how could we not love it here? Further along we come across the Sigirya Rest House which is a sort of semi-upmarket place but just shabby enough for us to like it. A large open-sided room with dining tables and chairs and a few lounge areas is perfect for a few drinks.

From here we find a small, simple café in the village where we order chicken noodles and chicken fried rice. The owner’s little boy is in a walker and we’re sad to see that there’s something awfully wrong with the poor little one – he seems to be very loved, though.

We walk back to The Flower Inn in the warm night air which is a bit stinky in the laneway – must be cows next door. Now it’s time for bed after an excellent first day. Tomorrow we’ll attempt to climb Sigirya Rock then get to Polonnaruwa somehow or other.

I don’t think we could have had a better first day!

Friday 15th June, 2012      Sigirya to Polonnaruwa

I wake at 5.30am after a deep sleep but Mark is still sleeping bunny for another hour. Breetney serves us breakfast at seven o’clock on the verandah – pineapple, banana, toast (good for Asia), scrambled eggs, marmalade, tea and Kopi. This is a lovely setting with the flower garden all around us and birds singing in the trees – we’re very lucky to have found this pretty place right in the village.

Meanwhile, the cow manure smell is still hanging around but Mark thinks it might be an elephant instead – Breetney says he’s right. There are two elephants living right next door to us! – will check them out after breakfast. While we’re eating we chat to the only other guests – a friendly, young Japanese couple who are off to climb the Rock this morning as well. We also ask Breetney if she can organize a tuktuk to take us to Polonnaruwa after lunch.

Before leaving for the Rock, we go next door to visit the elephants – ‘elephants at river’ we’re told – and here they are being bathed by their mahouts and having a wonderful time lying on their sides and doing lots of poops – huge things the size of basketballs that float on top of the water. This is the prettiest place with a big tree overhanging the river which is very shallow at the moment – hasn’t rained here for ages apparently.

We ask about having a ride after we finish the climb, so we organize to meet back here about eleven o’clock. We don’t have enough cash on us though, so the owner doubles Mark on his motor bike to the next village to get some money. Meanwhile I enjoy watching the elephants – not something you do every day. Twenty minutes later, Mark has returned so we go back to our room to get our day packs ready for our walk/climb.

Now we set off on foot through the village turning left after a few hundred metres onto a dirt road leading to the Rock. I can see that we’ll have at least a kilometer to walk before we even get to the entrance, so I’m very happy when a lone tuktuk offers us a lift. The road follows the edge of the moat that surrounds the rock palace and the grounds below it. We see monkeys playing on an ancient stone wall and a tree that’s grown around a boulder reminding us of Ta Phrom in Cambodia.

At the entrance we buy our US$30 each ticket from an office next to a pond completely covered in pink flowering water lilies. A pesky man wants to be our guide but we can’t understand a word he’s saying and tell him nicely to bugger off – we’d rather be by ourselves anyway – we’ll read the Lonely Planet as we go.

We must be punished because the sole of one of Mark’s boots comes away but he manages to tie his shoelace around the front of his boot to keep it in place – an ideas man. Meanwhile the walking shoes I’d brought with me have already been dumped at The Flower Inn as the whole sole had come off one of them. This means that I’m wearing my old brown flatties and socks for the long climb – could be a good excuse if I can’t make it – there’s always a bright side.

Okay, so now we’re ready to get to the summit of this 370 metre high granite peak (guide book info). It’s hot already even though it’s still only eight o’clock. Before going up too far we check out the reception areas and the Cobra Cave. Uncountable stone stairs lead us to lots of other levels; one a big flat rock where the king and queen had meetings and held court.

For the next hour we keep climbing up and up – stone steps, open stairways and a spiral metal staircase to some cave paintings. At one stage we meet the Japanese couple from breakfast coming back down. We finally reach the Lions Paw Terrace which is a large, flat area about halfway up the rock. From here we can see the Lion Staircase (steep metal stairs attached to the side of the Rock) that look almost as steep as a ladder. A local man called Ratna walks with me holding onto my hand and pointing out things on the way – I guess we have a guide after all.

At last we reach the top where the king’s palace was built over fifteen hundred years ago. Can’t believe I actually made it and I’m not even sore or tired – might be a different story tomorrow. Mark stands on three bricks to be the highest person here – he’s very competitive!

Ratna points out the swimming pool which is full of water even now. Also the queen’s bedrooms and the king’s seat carved into the rock which had channels of water running around it to keep him cool. Lush, green jungle extends in every direction and we can see a white standing Buddha, Dambulla Rock and a large lake towards Polonnaruwa far in the distance.

Back down to the Lions Paw Gate, I give Ratna a good tip but he turns into a little shit. He isn’t at all happy and keeps whinging for more – I don’t like him anymore. The walk back down from here is easy. At the bottom we see what we now realize is the real Cobra Cave – much more impressive. We head for the car park which means navigating a maze of little shops. I make the fatal mistake of making eye contact with a wooden jigsaw puzzle so we get mercilessly hassled until we gratefully escape in a tuktuk back to The Flower Inn.

Now it’s almost time for our elephant ride but first I have a cold shower and change my clothes. A tall platform reached by rough wooden stairs has been built to make it easy to get onto the elephant’s back. Years ago when we went elephant riding in the jungles of northern Thailand, the poor elephant had to get on its knees for us to scramble onto its back so this is a much easier method all round.

I’m no sooner about to climb aboard when I have to race back to our room for a kabumbah – I take an Imodeon so I’ll be safe for a few hours at least. Second time lucky, and soon we’re both sitting in the basket on Raja’s back. He’s a twenty nine year old male and very tall which is why we feel so high off the ground. His mahout is Muttiah and we’re also accompanied by Deva who grabs our cameras taking photos the whole way. He seems to know what he’s doing and it looks like we’ll have hundreds of photos and video footage to pick from.

Raja walks us through the village towards Sigirya Rock then through a jungly area next to a lake. It’s very eventful seeing troops of monkeys, Raja doing lots of poopadoops and Deva blowing bubbles with a soap plant. Muttiah also gets Rajah to do tricks for us. He throws his trunk up into the air and blows like a trumpet and very cleverly puts his right front leg up on a stump and lifts his hind leg up off the ground – God love him.

Now Deva (who, so far, hasn’t drawn breath and keeps calling us Mrs. Virginia and Mr. Mark – hilarious) gets me to climb onto Raja’s head – a bit scary getting on but I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant this way. Mark and Lauren have already done it at different times in Thailand, so now it’s my turn. I love it even when Deva gets Raja to pull on a vine and my legs are nearly crushed between his head and his shoulder.

We finally come to an elephant camp next to a lake which is just below Sigirya Rock. With Raja wading out into the deeper water, we have photos with the rock behind us before heading back to the village. Just on the outskirts we stop at a family home for Raja to have a drink as well as spray us with water.

Muttiah throws a bucket into the well then pulls it back up with a rope. Raja drinks a couple then sucks up a few more before throwing his trunk back and shooting the water straight at us – great fun and good to get wet even if it’s probably half elephant snot.

More poops on the way back to the village and The Flower Inn. Ready to keep moving, we have cold showers, pack and pay 2400LKR for our room. We share two Lion Lagers as we wait for the tuktuk to Polonnaruwa that Breetney had promised to arrange for us. After half an hour, she finally gets around to telling us that ‘tuk tuk no happen today’.

I want to see if we can get one from someone else but Mark is up for an adventure catching local buses. I know he’s right so we wait out the front for a bus to take us back to Dambulla. It’s in the opposite direction to Polonnaruwa but there aren’t any buses direct from here. While we wait, I sit on our packs in the shade of an awning while Mark buys water from a little shop.

The Dambulla bus arrives at 12.30 – only 62LKR (about 50 cents) for both of us. With a cooling breeze coming in through the open windows, I love this trip. Mark is happy filming a little girl and her mother then playing it back to them – lots of giggles. At first we’re driving incredibly slow as we pass through tiny villages but then, in the middle of nowhere, we eventually come to a total standstill – we have a flat tyre!

The driver looks bewildered and all the passengers gradually get off and stand on the road behind the bus. No-one can speak English but we figure we’d better do the same. All the ladies have put up umbrellas to keep off the burning sun but I have to stay in the shade of the bus. Eventually another bus is flying towards us and soon we’re happily sailing towards Dambulla – music blaring, of course.

In Dambulla, we’re dropped off almost opposite the bus stop where we got the tuktuk to Sigirya yesterday and quickly cross the road to wait for a Polonnaruwa bus. We have to ask people each time a bus pulls up if it’s the right one but at last we’re on our way. It’s almost full but we manage to get a seat each even though we’re not together. By the time we leave, there’s standing room only but mainly with local school kids dressed in pure white uniforms who get off after a few stops. Mark is right at the back and makes friends with a grandmother and her two grandkids. He takes their photos and a video so he can replay it for them. After an hour, we stop at a small roadside shop where we buy yogurt while the two ladies sharing my seat buy plumbago plants at a small nursery next door.

For the next hour we pass through Habarana and Girithale and a few small towns before reaching the huge tank (a man-made lake) built by King Vijayabahu a thousand years ago. Now on the outskirts of Polonnaruwa we can see some of the many temples and dagobas of the ancient city that we’ll visit tomorrow – too hot and tired today and, anyway, we’ve read that it’s better to go in the cool of the morning.

As we get off the bus in the old city, Mark’s new friends say goodbye with heartfelt handshakes. From here we look for Samudra Guest House but after the owner shows us the dreary rooms, we decide to check out the Devi Tourist Inn that Breetney in Sigirya had recommended. Apparently it’s outside of the old town centre, but then it looks pretty shabby and uneventful here anyway so we’re happy to check it out.

So now we find a tuktuk which heads out of town to a pretty area of laneways and local houses. Diva is an attractive bungalow painted bright yellow and shaded by tall trees and coconut palms. The owner is Darina – a fat, cheery Breetney replica – maybe they’re sisters? When we tell her that Breetney had recommended that we stay here, she’s thrilled – ‘I must rrrring her’ she says, rushing off after showing us our room.

This is excellent with air-con and hot water – good value at only 300rp a night. I’m exhausted so I have a sleep while Mark reads outside on our little verandah with the call to prayer coming from the local mosque. Darina calls us for dinner at 6:30pm. The meal is set up in an indoor/outdoor room with overhead fans and dark furniture. Noodles, soup and french fries are all good, if a bit scarce.

Later we have drinks on our verandah while we write up the diary together. Geckos keep us amused and we have bets on which one will be the next to catch an insect. Mark wants to have his wicked way with me but I’m still tired so I go to bed early and he stays up till 10.30pm reading and drinking beer.

An even better day than yesterday!!

Saturday 16th June, 2012     Polonnaruwa to Kandy

This morning we wake early as we want to see the ruins before getting a bus to Kandy. By 6am we’re outside exploring the quiet little, shaded laneways under clear, blue skies. Big, airy houses with deep verandahs, thick gardens, flowering hedges, banana trees and glimpses of green rice paddies make for a lovely walk. We watch an old man wearing a temple sarong picking flowers for offerings and see gardeners at work behind tall gates. It reminds us of our time spent in Anjuna in Goa in 2005.The funny thing is that every house seems to have a dog and we set them all off barking at once. The best bit is when I pick a red hibiscus to put in my hair.

Breakfast is at seven o’clock – pineapple, banana, avocado, toast, one scrambled egg between two of us, tea and kopi all cooked by our lovely hostess, Darina.

At 7.45am we meet our tuktuk driver in the laneway as we’d arranged yesterday. He’d told us that he can get us into the ancient city for $20US each instead of $40US each by sneaking us in the back way. Darina isn’t happy when we tell her so we ‘promise’ we’ll make him take us through the main entrance and pay the full fare – NOT!!

Anyway, now we’re ready to see old Polonnaruwa. This was the second capital of ancient Sri Lanka and nowadays, of course, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage site – hence the hefty entrance fee.

We fly through the laneways and out onto the main road that runs alongside the massive lake. On the opposite side of the road are brilliant green rice paddies and groves of coconut palms. Further on we turn onto another dirt road that follows a pretty canal where we see people washing their clothes and others going in for the full body bath. Everyone waves to us and we even see two mongoose (mongeese?) on the side of the road.

We’re taken to lots of different ruins with short tuktuk rides in between. We like Park Island which has a deep stone pool filled with water and overhung with weeping willows. At another spot overlooking the lake, our guide shows us where the king and queen bathed and the audience room with a lion throne. Another big carved lion must have been very happy with a huge penis hard-on. I talk to a local teacher with a group of teenage girls on a school excursion.

From here we drive back around the canal to the main area. We see a tall fig tree strangling a stone wall – another reminder of Ta Phrom – then visit a big white dagoba and a crematory dagoba before the long, hot walk to the carving area. Cut out of the rock face is a reclining Buddha, a standing Buddha and a sitting Buddha. Apparently these are extra special so tin roofed shelters have been erected to protect them but ironically they ruin the whole atmosphere.

Walking back in the scorching sun towards the white dagoba, we come across my favourite temple – a tall stone structure open to the sky because, like all the buildings here, the wooden roof fell to bits a millennium ago. Inside is dominated by a thirty foot high statue at the far end which is missing its head for some reason. I love it here and sit quietly having an unexpected and emotional spiritual connection – are you here, Angie? I love you, my little one, my heart is hurting today.

Later outside, we sit in the shade to cool down while watching the Sri Lankan tourists. From here we walk to see more ruins then drive to another big dagoba nearby – the last one for the trip – templed out by now.

Back at Diva Guest House, we shower, pack, then pay Darina 7000LKR for our accommodation, beers, cokes, dinner and brekky. Our tuktuk driver has waited for us so we set out for the bus station with Darina and her husband waving us off. Luckily they never asked if we paid the full price to see the ruins.

The bus station is in the new town of Polonnaruwa but it only takes about ten minutes to get there. We’re very lucky as we barely have time to jump on before the bus pulls out. Luck is also on our side that we can get seats together for the four hour trip. So now we’re off to Kandy!

We haven’t brought any food with us but we assume we’ll stop somewhere for a toilet break like we did yesterday on the way from Dambulla – wrong!  We only stop to let people on or off but we manage to buy bunches of rambutan from a hawker who jumps onto the bus then later hot corn cobs from another hawker near Dambulla.

Leaving Dambulla, we climb slowly and steadily through rice paddies and spice gardens. Mark reads most of the way but I never get tired of looking out the window. As we climb higher we pass through the busy towns of Katugastota and Matale finally reaching Kandy about three o’clock.

This is the country’s second largest city and was the last capital of ancient Sri Lanka. It’s very popular with both overseas and local tourists not just because of its history but also because of its beautiful setting.  It sits on the edge of Kandy Lake surrounded by mountains mostly covered with thick forests and tea plantations.

The bus terminates at the main bus station which is incredibly hectic and we’re surprised to see how busy the whole town seems to be. As soon as we jump off the bus, tuktuk drivers are ready to pounce and we’re soon speeding towards The Pink House which is the guesthouse we’ve chosen from the Lonely Planet.

To get there we pass the Queens Hotel and beautiful Kandy Lake then uphill a hundred metres to be dropped at the door. The Pink House is a cute family-run guesthouse surrounded by greenery and painted a candy coloured – you guessed it – pink.

The tiny owner comes out to greet us, very happy to have more guests. He shows us our room which is just off the garden – basic but clean and we have our own bathroom for 1500LKR. The other rooms are all inside the main part of the house which has a shabby but very appealing old-world atmosphere. A few feral looking travellers are lounging around on the closed-in verandah at the front.

The family lives in a smaller house behind and attached to the Pink House by a covered walkway. Here a long wooden table and chairs have been set up for meals but I think we’ll be eating in town as we don’t want to miss out on anything.

After resting for an hour, we’re up at four o’clock ready to explore Kandy. The little owner wants to show us the closest shop, for some unknown reason, so he walks with us down the hill and along the edge of the lake. We thank him at the shop and buy the three of us an ice cream each. The problem is that he’s still hanging around like a bad smell and now wants to go with us to the Kandy Cultural Centre where we hope to see the Kandyan Dancers. Okay, we’ve finally worked out why – obviously he’ll get a handout for taking us there but we want to go to the Queens Hotel first, so we ever-so-nicely, ‘fuck him off’.

So, from the shop we continue our walk around the lake to the main part of town. We can see the British colonial Queens Hotel looking majestic and glowing white on the opposite bank with the Temple of the Tooth alongside – more about that later.

At the Queens we ask to look at a room and book in for tomorrow night – only $80US to stay in this gorgeous historical place. Built one hundred and sixty years ago as the Governor’s residence, it’s one of Sri Lanka’s oldest hotels. We’re very excited as we thought it would be way out of our price range.

To celebrate we settle in for drinks in the Mountbatten Bar. The bar is obviously named after Lord Mountbatten of Burma who used to stay here when he was the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia – I love all this British colonial history and want to learn more!

We also order a club sandwich and chicken burger – too much for me – and are running late to get to the dance show. At 5.30pm, we hurry past the busy Temple of the Tooth where we’re befriended by another little man – a replica of our little Pink House man and who also wants to take us to the Cultural Centre – apparently he’s a ‘master dancer’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. He goes on and on, ‘I good man’ and tells us that he helps visitors ‘not for money’ but to gain ‘good karma’ – heard that one before. He keeps saying that he doesn’t want anything from us, he’s just ‘good man’ – whatever! Then of course, when we get to the door, he’s got his hand out – another little shit!

Now we settle in for the show and get front row seats upstairs. This is a great view for the one hour performance of ten different dances, the national anthem (where we all have to stand up) and the dramatic fire walking finale. We enjoy it all but one hour is definitely enough – the performers are a bit amateurish but they’re hearts are in it and the costumes are impressive.

Time for a drink so we find a tuktuk to take us uphill to the PUB where we sit on the rooftop terrace that looks down over Kandy. The view is beautiful with the lake in front of us and the lights of the town spread out below. Besides this, a group of Chinese guys are getting very drunk and a couple of interesting dreadlocked, backpacker ‘couples’ (gay) make for good people watching. We get very drunk ourselves and I serenade Mark in the tuktuk all the way home.

Straight to bed but then I wake in the middle of the night looking for the loo but I can’t see a bloody thing and have to wake Mark to help me find the light switch. I promise him that he can sleep in tomorrow as a thank you.

Sunday 17th June, 2012     Kandy

I wake Mark at 6:30am (yes, that’s your sleep-in) as I want to get lots done today – tea plantations, a massage and Temple of the Tooth for a start. After showers, I find a litter of cute kittens to cuddle and we see monkeys on the roof of the house next door – a good start to the day.

We decide to get to the Temple for the morning session so we walk around the winding road on the edge of the lake towards town. On the way we stop at an interesting looking monastery which is home to the monks who administer the tooth relic temple. No one is around at the moment – must all be at the temple. Closer to town we see the water level control system for the lake. This is because it’s not a real lake but another manmade tank – heaps of them in Sri Lanka.

In town we look for an ATM but the only one we can find doesn’t take our card. We’ll try somewhere else later. At the moment we’re in a small street near the side entrance to the Temple. A row of market stalls sell colourful flowers, including the amazing lotus that worshippers buy for offerings.

The Temple won’t be open for a while so we look for somewhere to have breakfast. We find a simple café popular with locals who are all tucking into what looks to me like mountains of food. When the waiter comes over we just point to what everyone else is eating and soon end up with an array of dishes in front of us – dosas with sambals on flat bread with a few chili dishes. Thank God we’ve got water with us because it’s too hot for me – chili hot but temperature cold – bloody awful, I think, but Mark loves it all.

Nearby we find a colourful Hindu temple where all the worshippers are dressed in white. Inside is a garden with a central pavilion surrounded by smaller chambers. Strangely, one is inhabited by an old Buddhist monk who welcomes us inside his bright yellow room. All the walls are decorated with vividly coloured Buddha paintings and he proudly shows us photos taken of him with the Dalai Lama.

He ties white string around our wrists and blesses us each with a long chanting session. Of course he asks for a donation and we’re happy to give him 1000LKR for the lovely experience.

From here we find another ATM but this time we’re short of funds so now we’ll have to find an internet place so we can transfer money from another account. Before that we stop at Queens Pastry Corner – it doesn’t sell pastry and it’s not on a corner, but it does sell cakes and that’s what I want. Because it’s part of the Queens Hotel, it’s very English so we have a posh chocolate cake, tea and kopi.

An internet café is next so we can shuffle money then back to the ATM where we finally withdraw our cash. While Mark is doing all this, I’ve been sitting on a ledge in the arcade surrounding the Queens Hotel. A local man stops to say hello as he recognizes me from our guesthouse. His name is Barda (or something like that) and says, ‘Madam, don’t you remember me? I clean floors in your hotel’. I don’t recognise him but I say I do anyway, in case I hurt his feelings.

He asks me what our plans are for today then gives us lots of good advice about other things we can do. Apparently it’s better for us to go to the Temple of the Tooth tonight so we can see a group of traditional musicians playing, as they’re not there in the morning.

I ask him where we can get an Ayervedic massage and he says he can take us to a good place. Firstly he can show us a true local market that most tourists don’t know about. So off we go.

The market is interesting as all fresh food markets are – rice, fish, fruit and vegetables. The meat section is typically gross with disgusting entrails hanging from hooks, other unrecognizable organs and buffalo tails complete with hair. Upstairs is the fabric section where I buy a pashmina and a gorgeous orange skirt.

Outside the three of us squeeze into a tuktuk for the twenty minute drive to the massage place high up in the hills overlooking the city. It seems that we’ve come all this way because Barda tells us that this is a ‘true’ Ayervedic place. It’s hard to work out what’s so special about it but apparently Ayervedic medicine doesn’t just deal with the symptoms of disease like western medicine. It’s holistic, so it’s about the spiritual, emotional and mental aspects of a person’s life as well. It’s got something to do with all the herbs and spices used in the massage oils that are supposed to do the trick. Anyway, we really don’t give a shit because we just want a massage, man!

Anyway, for 7200LKR we end up with a one hour and ten minute workout accompanied by buckets of warm oil. Then we’re taken to separate rooms where we lie in a steam bath for twenty minutes. This is a creepy, iron-lung looking contraption – hot as hell and scarily claustrophobic. Mark calls out, ‘are you in the log?’ which cracks me up to imagine him having the same torture treatment. I’m so over it and can’t wait to get out of the bloody thing! At last we’re released to have warm showers that only manage to wash away some of the oil. Outside, Barda and our tuktuk driver have disappeared so the owners have to ring someone else to get us – can’t say we’ve enjoyed it much at all.

On the way back we get texts from Lauren to say that our Dolly isn’t well. She points to her tummy saying ‘tic’ then throws up. We text back and forth then end up ringing Lauren. We both feel sad and worried then I have an Angie meltdown and can’t stop crying. Mark helps me and soon I feel a bit better.

We get dropped back at the Pink House where we pack then get another tuktuk to take us to the Queens Hotel. This will definitely be one of the highlights of our trip. The grand foyer has a black and white marble floor, velvet curtains, chandeliers, potted palms, walnut furniture and rotating overhead fans. A magnificent staircase with walnut wooden banisters and a thick maroon carpet leads up to the rooms.

A porter takes us up in the old wrought iron lift to the second floor to Room at 304. We have a big bedroom and a sitting room with dark polished floors as well as a beautifully restored bathroom – like stepping back a hundred years. Our two windows look out over the lake and the Temple entrance so we’ve got a great room.

Lunch is at the Mountbatten Bar – club sandwiches, a beer for Mark and a fresh pineapple juice for me. A wedding is being held in the reception room and women in gorgeous gold-trimmed saris are wandering around. They proudly line up when I ask if I can take their photos. I even seek out the reception and stick my head in for a look. Tired now, so we head upstairs for an afternoon siesta.

On dusk we get ready for our visit to the temple but naturally have a drink in the Mountbatten Bar first – we love being on holidays! Crossing to the temple gate, some ladies tie a wrap around my shoulders and Mark has to wear a sarong. Lots of people carrying floral offerings are making their way down the long path and across the moat to the main temple which is already jam packed. We squeeze our way past the people lined up to file past the precious tooth till we find a good spot to sit on the floor where we can watch the ceremony.

I suppose here that I should explain what all the fuss is about. The Temple of the Tooth is one of Buddhism’s most sacred temples. It’s said that there are only three of the Buddha’s teeth in the world – one in India, one in Thailand and this one in Sri Lanka. A load of rubbish but it’s what they believe.

And you can’t see the tooth because it’s kept in a series of golden, jewel-covered caskets behind an altar inside a carefully guarded shrine. The caskets are brought out once a year, but the tooth itself is never displayed – is it really there at all?

Anyway, everyone here obviously believes it – pilgrims come from all over the world to be at one of these twice-daily rituals. The tension is mounting and more and more people (all dressed in white) take up every inch of space. Meanwhile the musicians are making a racket downstairs so I sneak off for a look while Mark minds our spot.

I love watching them. One man is playing a flute-like instrument while four others are playing drums. They’re all bare chested wearing white turbans and sarongs with wide red cumberbunds – very spectacular especially in this vast imposing space. What I love most about it is that this isn’t a tourist performance – this is spiritually and religiously meaningful to the whole tooth ritual thing

Back upstairs, the ceremony starts with hundreds of people slowly parading through the inner sanctum where the tooth is safely tucked away. After about thirty minutes we’ve had enough, so we spend the next hour exploring the other buildings. We join crowds of pilgrims squashing into a small room to see a marble Buddha then to outer buildings holding more Buddha images. An area on the temple wall overlooking the moat is beautiful with hundreds of candles flickering in the calm night-air darkness.

By now we’re hungry, so we leave by the side entrance as we want to eat at the Old Empire Hotel. This is a historic, colonial place a bit worse for wear but the real thing – love it. The dining room is painted a faded pink with a polished dark wooden dado, lovely time-worn tables and chairs, arched windows and Victorian pendant lights hanging from the high ceiling. There’s nothing posh about it, though – probably not much has changed since it was built over a hundred years ago.

A very old man brings us the menu and another very old man brings us our vegetable soup – adorable. The food is excellent and cheap but, most of all, we just like soaking up the atmosphere.

Afterwards we walk across to the Queens Bar which isn’t inside the hotel but in the arched arcade that runs around it on three sides. This is where we’d met Barda this morning. Now as we reach the Bar, we have another man approach us – all teeth and gushy – ‘Madam, don’t you remember me? I am cook in your hotel’. Now where have I heard something like that before? Suddenly the doorman rushes out and tells him to ‘piss off’ while ushering us inside. Okay, now I get it! Of course, that little shit, Barda, never did work in our hotel – dumb of me not to have realized. As if our crappy little guesthouse would pay someone to clean the floors! Feel a bit stupid but it’s all pretty harmless.

Anyway, the Queens Bar is fantastic with the most gorgeous antique bar we’ve ever seen. This is another stepping back in time place with pressed metal ceilings, slowly swirling ceiling fans, polished floors and coloured glass arched windows. And I can smoke!

We spend an hour drinking beer and Bacardi and making friends with a German couple who are leaving for Arugam Bay tomorrow. Later we walk down the street to an upstairs bar where we can sit on the verandah overlooking the street. I don’t like it as much as the Queens so we go back to enjoy more of the old world atmosphere. We sit on stools at the bar chatting to the lovely little barman then have photos taken with him.

Bed at 11pm after a great day.

Monday 18th June, 2012     Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

This morning we’ve set the alarm for 6am as we’re leaving Kandy today for Nuwara Eliya and we want to get to the station by eight o’clock. Breakfast is at 7am in the Queens posh dining room. We eat everything – fruits, cereal, bacon and eggs with tea and coffee. Another special experience – I love everything about this place.

Outside we catch a tuktuk to the train station only five minutes away. We line up to buy our tickets for the 8:20 train but have to wait until the ticket office opens. Incredibly we only pay about three dollars each for the four hour trip.

On the platform we meet a friendly English couple as well as talking to lots of other nice local passengers as the train is an hour late and no-one seems to know what’s going on. Mark wanders off to buy some food but it looks disgusting so he can have it all.

At 9:20am we eventually pull out on a funny old train with lots of spare sets. However, this comfort is short-lived as we have to get off two stops later at Peradeniya Junction where we jump onto another train that’s already packed to the rafters. The poor people on this train have been waiting for us for an hour but no-one seems to mind.

For the first hour, we have to sit on the step at the open doorway but then a nice local man gets up to give me his seat. Mark still has to sit in the doorway but he loves it anyway.

Actually we both love every minute of this trip. It’s what we like about travelling on our own – especially using public transport. The people are gorgeous – they’re having a great time swapping seats and a couple of kids are moving from lap to lap. As we climb higher into the hills the weather changes from hot, sunny Kandy to cool, misty pine forests. And because all the big windows are wide open, we really get to feel the difference. The train is also struggling with the ascent and we’re literally moving at a snail’s pace.

I love hanging out the doorway to watch the end of the train curling behind us as we wind our way around the bends. We stop at a few little stations where men jump on selling rotti and fruit. We buy a bunch of peanuts as we’re getting hungry by now.

The scenery is also spectacular – waterfalls, views through deep valleys towards the south coast, people carrying bundles of sticks on their heads, Buddhist temples and tea pickers in the endless tea plantations.

It’s well after midday when we eventually crawl into Nano Oya which is the closest station to Nuwara Eliya. In the cold mountain air, we cram into a minibus with a French family who I try not to hate but I do anyway. Within fifteen minutes we reach Nuwara Eliya – a small, British hill station surrounded by mist covered peaks.

The story goes that a group of British officers came across Nuwara Eliya during the earlier part of the 19th century when they became lost while hunting elephants. At that time it was just a tiny village but was changed by the British almost overnight when it became a popular escape from the heat and humidity of the coast.

Now as we drive into town, we feel like we’re in a Little Britain time warp. The centre is busy with markets and shops but the outskirts are like a journey into the past – colonial villas, rose gardens, a golf course and country-club-styled hotels. We drop the French family off at St. Andrew’s which is a picturesque old Tudor mansion tucked away down its own little lane close to the heart of town. It’s obviously too expensive for us so we drive on to check out the Grosvenor Hotel. We have a quick look inside but it’s strangely cold and lifeless so we agree to look at our driver’s hotel called The Trevene.

This rambling, old white house is built on the side of a small hill just behind the town centre. Our hostess is Nisa – a jovial, helpful lady with a baby girl on her hip. She shows us to our room which has old fashioned dark furniture and a tiny sitting room attached. Our bathroom is huge with hot water – we hope so anyway, as we’re really cold by now. After pulling on layers of clothes (I look like a bag lady) we check out the cosy, old sitting room and dining room, both with open fires. It’s all very cute and homey with vases of plastic flowers everywhere.

On the pretty glassed-in verandah, Nisa brings us a welcome pot of tea before we order soup for lunch. Later I see her re-arranging the flowers which aren’t fake at all but fresh from her sister’s nursery.

We ask her about getting to the Grand Hotel so she gets someone to drive us there in the Trevene van. The Grand is very grand – a sort of mock Tudor with a gabled roof and half timbering on the top floor. The gardens are vast and very English with clipped hedges, topiary, winding paths with flower borders and white garden furniture scattered across the lawns. We see a few couples taking photos but not what we’d expect – the women are in the full burka and there are lots more of them inside. Apparently Middle Eastern people like to come here on holidays for the cool climate – makes sense but it looks bizarre in these very British surroundings.

Of course, we’re after the bar and soon find it in a big, wood-paneled room with dim lighting and carpeted areas for comfortable sofas and chairs. Chandeliers hang from the intricate ceiling while century-old black and white photographs of The Grand decorate the walls. The beers come in huge mugs and, considering the surroundings, are surprisingly cheap at only $6 each.

Now we walk to Victoria Park where Mark thinks it’s a good idea for a stroll but it costs money to walk through and I think it’s too cold as well. I win, because I’m a pain, so we end up catching a tuktuk to the bus station. We’re looking for a bus to get us to Arugam Bay tomorrow but the trip looks like it’ll take too long so we decide to go with the van idea instead.

We talk to a young guy lurking around and who obviously sees us as potential customers for transport to Arugam Bay. He takes us across the road to a man called Bandu with a very dodgy looking van but we’re promised that he’ll borrow a new one for the long trip to the west coast. It’s expensive at 13,000LKR ($100 bucks) but it’s direct so we go with it. To compensate we’re given a ‘free’ lift to St Andrew’s Hotel. Bandu has his little boy with him and we stop on the way so he can buy fish for their dinner from a roadside vendor.

In minutes we pull up again at St Andrew’s – that other lovely old colonial hotel built during the British occupation. Outside, it looks about the same size as The Grand but inside seems smaller and cosier and we like it better. It’s very English with old customs that are still maintained to the letter. In the small bar, I have a Margarita and Mark has a beer – bloody expensive at $17 AUD – wtf? Pissed off paying this much and getting pissed off with each other – not really, but we have fun pretending to be ‘mean’. Don’t think we know the meaning of a real argument.

From here we walk into the town centre to look for an ATM. After getting our money, we decide to catch a tuktuk back to the Trevene instead of walking as it’s getting very cold in the late afternoon air. Back in our room we have a ‘snuggle’ in bed to warm up before getting all ‘poshed’ up for our night out at The Hill Club.

Forget St Andrews and The Grand, apparently this old stone-clad hotel is the epitome of Nuwara Eliya’s colonial past and having dinner here is supposed to be a unique experience.

We’ve read that it’s all very upmarket and the men even have to wear a suit. We’ve come moderately prepared but we’re improvising for the most part and don’t know if they’ll let us in. Mark is wearing the black jeans he wore on the plane, which we hope will pass for black trousers if you don’t look too close. He’s brought a long sleeved shirt and a tie which do look the part, but his hiking boots and plastic jacket are a bit dodgy. I’m wearing a long black skirt, my crappy flat brown shoes that I wore to the top of Sigirya and a day-pack as I haven’t brought a handbag of any sort. I am wearing the lovely pashmina (probably a fake) that I bought in Kandy so I don’t look too bad from the waist up.

Nisa calls us a tuktuk (our limousine, as we call it) and we freeze our butts off all the way even though the cabin has been encased in plastic to try and keep out the wind – it doesn’t. We can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous we look then feel even more ridiculous when our tuktuk, farting loudly, ceremoniously pulls up at the stately entrance. A doorman greets us, ushering Mark straight to the cloak room where he has to borrow a suit jacket before we’re allowed in. I try to hide the backpack behind my skirt and hope he doesn’t spot my dirty old shoes. Finally we’re in and seek out the Mixed Bar.

Up until 1970, the Hill Club was reserved for British males (typical!) and one of its bars remained resolutely ‘men only’ until a few years ago. It’s now open to Sri Lankans and women. Apparently, members retain reciprocal rights with London clubs so we become temporary members (Rs 100) for the day.

The bar is empty just now so we have individual service. We try to be very posh until Mark takes a sip of his dry sherry and nearly gags – FAIL! I have a Tom Collins which is okay but then just order a coke to go with my smuggled-in Bacardi – all class! Mark’s second drink is the ‘cocktail of the day’, a Stinger – another FAIL! We find it all hysterically funny but you had to be there.

Enough of crappy drinks, we’re escorted to the formal dining room for the famous Hill Club dinner. It’s GORGEOUS! – a thoroughly retro atmosphere with white linen tablecloths, intimate lighting, small round tables with wicker and wooden chairs, faded lounges and old hunting prints on the walls.

But, like the bar, we’re the only people here – we suppose because it’s Monday night – hilarious! The old waiter treats us like royalty and we order white wine to go with our five course meal. For $20 each we have warm rolls, ravioli, tomato soup, baked pork with vegetables and a fancy chocolate tart.

After dinner we ‘retire’, darling, to the other end of the room to sit on one of the tapestry couches pulled up to the big fireplace. The burning logs look very welcoming in the soft, warm glow of lamp light. We order tea that comes in dainty English tea cups then choose tiny cakes from the aperitifs trolley – all very civilised. The whole bill comes to only $53!

At nine o’clock, we wait in the library for our limo (see tuktuk). The doorman announces its arrival but we’ve already heard it coming a mile away – more embarrassment – glad no-one else is here. A very cold trip back to bed.

Mark performs like a stud for hours before sleeping with more than satisfied wife (a minor embellishment and this bit obviously written by Mark himself).

Tuesday 19th June, 2012      Nuwara Eliya to Arugam Bay

Up at 7am after M services V again – what a stud (this bit also obviously written by Mark).

Quick, hot showers and pack then we’re ready by seven thirty. Bandu soon arrives – still in the shitty, old van from yesterday but we don’t care as long as it gets us there. Now we set off for the seven hour drive to Arugam Bay. The plan is to head south east through the towns of Agampodigama and Welimada stopping to have a look at Ella then continuing south to Wellaway. Here we’ll turn left onto the CRWB Highway going directly east across the plains till we reach the coast.

Half an hour after leaving cool, misty Nuwara Eliya, Bandu veers off the main road to pick up his friend who’ll take turns with the driving as they’ll be coming all the way back again today.

Still in the hill country, the scenery is never ending terraces of tea plantations, tea pickers, vegetable gardens and temples. We stop at a Hindu temple where Mark and I have a wander around then later pull up at a roadside Buddhist shrine where Bandu gets out to pray and to give a good-luck donation.

After two hours we arrive in sunny Ella where we’ll all have breakfast. Ella is little more than a handful of shops, hotels and guesthouses, but with spectacular views that stretch right across the south coast of the island. At a nice outdoor café built on the side of a hill, Mark orders string hoppers with dahl, sambal and hot curry while I have chicken satay with green peppers – an excellent meal and worth a photo!

Because we’ve been winding our way down the mountains, the temperature has climbed so we start peeling off layers of clothes – nice to be warm again. And because of the winding roads, Mark is sooky lala and feeling sick so he lies on the seat with his head on my lap while I pat his forehead.

Just outside Ella we visit a pretty waterfall where local vendors are selling hot corn on the side of the road. Finally we reach the plains and the small town of Wellaway where we visit an ATM as apparently there’s nowhere to get money at Arugam Bay. The road from here is flat and straight all the way to the east coast so Mark is feeling a lot better.

Driving through the Yala East National Park we see a wild elephant in the distance then later we’re thrilled and very lucky to see a family of ten elephants very close up. We also pass herds of water buffalo just before we arrive in the small Muslim village of Pottuvil. It’s a bit dry and dusty but could be interesting so we decide to check it out in the next few days as Arugam Bay is only five kilometres to the south.

Just over the bridge that connects the two towns, we turn left into the Beach Hut which is where we hope to get accommodation tonight. It’s had good reviews on Tripadvisor and it looks very cool in the photos – there are even tree houses to stay in.

One of the young guys who works here takes us down to the beach where the so-called tree houses are – not tree houses at all, just rooms on stilts. We have a look inside but we hate them and they’re expensive anyway so we ask to look at the rooms up the laneway. We like it better here especially the hanging-out areas but these are taken up with lots of too-cool backpackers. The room we’re shown has a great rustic atmosphere but our close neighbor is an overly-friendly aging surfer who’ll potentially be a pain-in-the-arse so we decide to go somewhere else.

I’d also liked the look of the Hideaway on Tripadvisor, so we check it out as well. It’s in a much nicer spot a lot further down in the middle of town but the rooms are too expensive for our tight budget – $60 a night. But then we notice the Arugam Bay Surf Resort which is just across the road and right on the beach. It’s a colourful place with an open-air basic restaurant with a chill-out spot attached where more cool backpackers are lounging around. That doesn’t worry us this time as it’s in a much better location so we’ll stay here for tonight at least.

Our room is painted bright orange and our bed has a strange zip-up net dome to keep the mozzies out – very odd but effective. For $30 a night it’s a pretty good deal. Back out in the restaurant we order lunch and lime sodas. It feels great to be in summer clothes after being in Nuwara Eliya – hate being cold.

I’m feeling tired so I have a sleep while Mark sets off for the point to check out the surf. Arugam Bay is listed as one of the top ten surf points in the world and apparently we’re here at the best time of the year when the predominant wind is offshore – we’ll see.

Mark comes back to find me still asleep so he orders a hamburger and a beer. Later I have a prawn quesadilla – good food here – then we have a great night getting a bit drunk while up-loading photos onto Facebook. Lauren has put up lots of photos of her and Abi so we’re extra happy tonight.

Wednesday 20th June, 2012      Arugam Bay

Mark gets up early to watch the fishermen coming back with their catch. They all look very poor and scraggy compared to one well-dressed buyer. We have breakfast at the Surf Resort then Mark spends half an hour on the phone talking to Andy Hunter who’s looking after our office while we’re away.

Later we walk along the main road which runs parallel to the beach – too hot so we head back towards the point. The weird thing is seeing uniformed police and army people all along the beach and there’s even a police station right on the sand.

Wandering along the sandy laneways we come across Rupa’s Guesthouse where we have lime sodas in the simple café at the front closest to the beach. We ask if we can have a look at a room (3500LKR per night) and decide to move here this morning. We love the quiet, leafy setting and the big, airy room.

Now we walk around the point to look at the surf then backtrack to Mambos which is an attractive hotel with a restaurant and a thatched roofed bar on the beachfront. We order chicken salad and chips sitting at a table under the trees while checking out the guests – no ‘cool’ people here probably because it’s more expensive.

Back at the Surf Resort, we pack up and walk down to Rupa’s. While I read, Mark hires a board for 500LKR from a shop on the main road then has a surf at the main point. When he comes back we decide to have a snack here at Rupa’s. We have to wait ages for the wife to return from Pottuvil then we get flavourless prawn noodles, so we won’t be eating here again.

Now we’re feeling lazy so we have our usual sleeping and book reading afternoon. About 6pm we walk back down to the Surf Resort which seems to be the only place that has worked out food at a good price. Besides this, the atmosphere is the best, so we have another fun night drinking and uploading photos onto Facebook. I go to sleep early while Mark gets a good chunk of his book read.

Thursday 21st June, 2012       Arugam Ba

Our last day in Arugam Bay – clear blue skies once again and already warm. We plan to have another quiet day before heading off on our long bus trip to the south coast tomorrow. This starts with a bit of a sleep-in before breakfast at Mambos around 9ish – not sure, as we’re starting to forget the time – must be time to move on, I think.

I have a small western breakfast and Mark has a vegetable jaffle while we spread out on padded floor cushions in one of the open-air cabanas. We talk to three Aussies from Perth then see a suntanned European woman in a skimpy bikini with the biggest banana tits you could imagine – seriously, each one about a foot long. She’s loving all the attention and poses on the sand out front – great people watching here this morning!

Next we go for a swim in the pretty corner of the lagoon. Mark swims to the other side while I float around in the shallows. Later we find a sweet young man to take us in his tuktuk into Pottuvil. We want to check it out as we liked the look of it on the way in. We also want to go to the bus station to find out the timetable.

We head first for the supermarket to pick up a few supplies for tomorrow’s long trip. It’s very hot today so I buy ice blocks for the three of us then find out when the bus leaves for the south in the morning. Next we visit a local market selling fresh vegetables, fish and meat. Stray goats wander around town and there are a lot of army guys in combat gear carrying machine guns. I‘ll explain why.

The Tamil Tigers of the north (mostly Hindus) and the Sinhalese from the south (mostly Buddhists) were still fighting here only two years ago even though the civil war between them was supposed to be over after the ceasefire in 2002. Today things are still shaky so the military presence remains even though Pottuvil is mainly Muslim – so what’s going on here? Too complicated to work out.

Back in Arugam Bay, I find an Ayervedic massage place but just opt for a head massage this time. This is really, really good and I wish it would go on forever. Meanwhile Mark hires a board from a shack  at the main point but after a couple of waves he takes it back – surf not good today.

Mark is offered a bong but just ends up having a couple of puffs on a joint. More sleeping then at six o’clock we walk back along the sand to the Surf Resort for quesadillas and prawn spaghetti. Back to Rupa’s via the main road this time then have beers and Bacardis at the Bob Marley Bar right on the beach. This is as basic as you can get but we love it. With our feet in the sand and drinking by candlelight, it’s magic sitting here on this calm, starry night.

Later we walk around to Mambo’s to do some Facebook and diary writing but leave when they have a blackout. I want to go sleeping bunny so Mark walks me home then goes back out again for fresh grilled fish as well as being on the prowl for BIG TITS woman. Does he find her?????

Friday 22nd June, 2012       Arugam Bay to Unawatuna

Today we’re leaving Arugam for Unawatuna on the south-west coast. At 5.15am our alarm wakes us – throw on our clothes and grab all our gear to meet our tuktuk driver from yesterday out in the dark laneway. We always love these really early starts when we’re away.

In Pottuvil we’re dropped at the bus stop where a few people are waiting on the side of the road in the early light of dawn. Because Pottuvil is predominately Muslim, the women are wearing hijab, or Muslim head scarves, and jilbab, the long all-covering robes. The men wear kufi caps and white baggy pants and long collarless shirts.

Across from the bus station (just a place where the buses pull up, really) Mark buys cakes wrapped in cellophane and water for the trip and we watch the military guys patrolling the main street with machine guns. Cows are wandering around accompanied by big, black crows – creepy things.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what bus we should catch so we ask the only other westerner (a Canadian girl) but, like us, she’s been given a few different stories. Finally the three of us jump on the 6.30am bus and hope it’s the right one – luckily, it is!

Apparently, the bus only goes as far as Matara where we’ll then have to catch a train to Unawatuna – all a bit up in the air but we love travelling this way. The bus leg will be at least seven hours so we’re lucky to have three seats for a while. Just out of Pottuvil we see flocks of wild peacocks – gorgeous.

From the east coast, we head inland, westward through Monaragala to Wellawaya where the bus fills up – now we’re squashed in our seats and many people are standing. I love this trip with the breeze coming in through the open windows keeping us cool and lots to see on the way – never get bored.

Now we turn south on the CGHW Highway till we reach Hambantota on the southern coast. Here we follow the shoreline westward to arrive in the busy town of Matara about two o’clock. The bus terminates right on the edge of the water where we grab a tuktuk to drive us straight to the train station.

This is across the other side of town so we manage to get a good impression of the place – we like it. At the station we’re in luck as we’ve only got a fifteen minute wait. It’s nice here – a very British feel about it and very clean with lots of potted palms and school children in snowy white uniforms.

There aren’t many people in second class so we can stretch out and hang out the open windows. We snake our way through Weligama and Habaraduwa passing through smaller towns and dense tropical growth. We pass acres of salt beds, cross wide rivers and can see the ocean on our left for most of the trip.

We’re not sure if the train actually stops in Unawatuna, so after one and a half hours, we’re ready to jump out at every station. Suddenly we’re here and hop off onto the railway line. The tiny station is more inland and amongst village houses and laneways. We start to walk along a dirt road till we see a tuktuk coming the other way.

At last we’re heading towards the beach. Through the village we turn onto the main road that runs through to Galle only five minutes to the west. We’ll definitely check it out in the next couple of days but for now we just want to get a room and a beer. After a hundred metres we veer to the right into the labyrinth of laneways that make up the tourist part of Unawatuna – cafes, restaurants, guesthouses, homestays and little shops.

We ask to be taken to the Village Inn as it sounds nice in the Lonely Planet – away from the beach in an overgrown yard. The setting is nice but it looks like it might be mosquito heaven so we leave. Soon we see the cute Thilak Guesthouse – 3000LKR for an excellent upstairs room with a big bathroom and a wide verandah overlooking the beach. It’s very homey, painted a happy, bright yellow with a thick garden overhung with tall tropical plants and palms. And it’s right amongst all the cafes and market stalls!

After dumping our gear on the bed we head off in search of food and drink. Just a few doors down from our guesthouse is the Upul Restaurant which is a small family-run place literally built right over the waves. We enjoy marinara spaghetti and roast chicken. A large local family is having a celebration at a long table next to us and we talk to a couple of Australian women.
While Unawatuna suffered heavily in the 2005 Tsunami, it was quickly rebuilt but with the cafes and bars still too close to the water – they never learnt from their mistakes but maybe it’s an economic survival thing and hopefully a tsunami will never happen again.

Anyway we just have to enjoy the moment and we really do have the best viewpoint – a golden beach protected by coral reefs, safe for swimming and surfing, and a white Buddhist stupa looking majestic on the point.

Feeling tired and hot, we head back to our room for showers and a rest then, on dark, we walk to the Happy Banana for free wifi and lemon sodas and beers. It’s nice here but we like the look of some other places a bit further along the beach. At the Tartaruga Restaurant we sit at a table on the sand. By candle-light we order seafood and drinks then buy three awful little home-made oil lamps from a nice man who we feel sorry for – we don’t want them and end up leaving them on the table – maybe he can sell them again to someone else.

While we’re uploading photos onto Facebook I agree to have a twenty minute neck massage. After ten minutes the massage guy says he’ll just go and get my change – of course, he never comes back – another little shit! Anyway, we’re having a lovely time and it really reminds us of Ko Samuii with all the cafes and restaurants set up with tables and chairs on the sand, fairy lights and music.

We get a few sprinkles as we’re walking home. During the night we hear heavy rain falling on the roof and hope that the bad weather we’ve been expecting hasn’t arrived at last.

Saturday 23rd June, 2012      Unawatuna

Guess what? It’s hot and sunny without a cloud in the sky – we’ve been soooo lucky with the weather except for the first couple of hours after we arrived ten days ago. The south coast is supposed to be hit with a monsoon at this time of year but so far it’s been perfect.

We’re up early this morning as we want to see a lot today. First we have breakfast at Ton Tun Villa just along the laneway – orange juice, eggs, toast, corn flakes, tea and coffee.  We like it here with vases of the striking blue water hyacinth on the tables – a bit fancier and expensive than we usually go for.

Back out in the laneway, we talk to a man called Kalu who says he can take us to see a few nearby sights – a turtle hatchery, a spice garden and even the stilt fisherman. We’ve got nothing definite planned so off we go in his tuktuk heading east on the main road.

First stop is the turtle hatchery near Habaraduwa. This is a basic family-run concern and we have the grandfather showing us around. He shows us where the eggs are incubated in the sand then all the different ponds according to the age of the turtles. Some are as small as a baby’s hand and others are huge – one has a flipper missing so he’ll have to stay here forever.

Further on, we turn down a narrow dirt laneway away from the coast to a pretty spice garden situated on a lagoon. Kalu introduces us to our guide for an in-depth tour of the garden. All very interesting but verging on too much information. He explains each plant then shows us the medicine or cream that it’s been made up into. One plant is used as hair removal – very popular with the very hairy Sri Lankan ladies. He smears some on Mark’s leg which he wipes off ten minutes later – totally bald so I think I might buy some.

And our guide is really nice, God love him. He’s so intense about it all but it’s hard to take him seriously with his hairline starting halfway down his forehead – can’t stop staring at it.

When the tour is finally over he takes us to an open-air room next to the water where we have a twenty minute massage each from two young men who are being trained in Ayervedic medicine. We give them a donation then we can’t avoid a visit to the shop. They want $50 for a small jar of the hair removal cream – are you serious? ‘Goodbye’!

Back out onto the main drag, we stop at a small roadside shop for water then set off for Weligama to see the stilt fishermen. No luck but we do see the stilts – a pretty place. We could come back late this afternoon or early in the morning but it’s too far so we probably won’t bother.

Now we head for home but then decide that we should go to Galle while we’re already out and about. It’s only ten minutes further on and a big town compared to tiny Unawatuna. It’s actually the biggest town on the south coast and was once the country’s main port before the British developed the harbor at Colombo. Galle’s biggest attraction is its old Dutch fort and the main reason we want to check it out.

Coming round the coast road we can see the massive fort walls that dominate the city. Just near the entrance we stop at the cricket ground to watch Sri Lanka playing Pakistan in a test match. We join lots of locals who are looking through the wire fence while many more are perched high up on the fort walls – a bird’s eye view for free.

Afterwards Kalu drives us through the arched, stone entrance to visit the old city within the walls. Galle Fort is a true living museum full of colonial-style hotels, homes and restaurants and is understandably a world heritage site.

Our first stop is the Dutch church but a service is happening so we don’t intrude. Next is the Dutch museum situated in an old mansion. I could spend ages in here and I especially love the architecture – vaulted ceilings, towering wooden doors and an inner courtyard where we watch a lady making lace in the long-established way. Lace making is apparently a tradition from the Dutch colonial days and lace is one of the most popular mementos bought by the tourists – too expensive for us and not our thing anyway.

Our next stop is the fort wall adjacent to the sea. We start our walk along the top of the wall from the lovely old lighthouse to an old church at the other end. We stop on the way to watch a man fishing with a small hand-net in the shallow water below us. This is a happy, lively place with lots of local tourists. From this far end we can see the silhouette of the lighthouse glowing a brilliant white against the blue sky with a cluster of coconut palms growing at its base – picture postcard material!

Now we drive round the cobbled streets looking at the wonderful old buildings and I’d really love to move here tonight but Mark wants to stay in Unawatuna. Instead we decide to have lunch in one of the cute restaurants but I suddenly get an attack of the kabumbahs and think we’d better go back to our room.

We still want to visit the bell tower so we make a quick visit. From up here we can look down onto the cricket ground but unfortunately they’re at lunch and by 12.30pm we’re speeding back home. Before saying goodbye to Kalu, we arrange for him to pick us up at five thirty in the morning to drive us to the Galle railway station.

After a hurried visit to our loo, I’m feeling good again so we head straight out for lunch and drinks on the sand next to our guest house. Because it’s the weekend there are loads of locals around. We watch them having a riotous time at the other end of the bay, jumping into tourist boats that take them back and forth along the beach. It all seems a bit pointless but it’s definitely a cultural thing so we don’t piss ourselves laughing too much.

Later we go back to our room for sleeping bunny, heading out again about six o’clock. The Bong Spice Chili Bar is a dark, rustic place right on the water with old hanging Indian lamps, candles and some tables on the sand. We sit on the verandah eating garlic prawns while listening to good music and talking to the owner’s little boy. It’s really nice here but we can’t get Wi-Fi so we move on.

Like last night, we end up at Tartaruga but decide to sit inside for a change. There are a lot more people around tonight so I’m happy people watching while we have a few more drinks and do our diary, Facebook and email. Home to bed about ten o’clock and hear the rain starting just as we enter our room.

Off to Colombo in the morning – full circle!

Sunday 24th June, 2012       Unawatuna to Colombo to Negombo

At five o’clock we jump out of bed to shower and pack before meeting Kalu with his tuktuk outside at 5:30am. In this early dawn light, the lanes are quiet except for a few other backpackers possibly on their way to Galle railway station as well. Luckily the rain has disappeared and we have clear skies once again.

The tickets for the three hour trip to Colombo cost a mere 53LKR (about 23c each). Before boarding, Mark buys coffee and a chicken salad roll but I just stick to a cup of tea.

We’ve bought second class seats and it’s another enjoyable journey. Rail travel in Sri Lanka has been a fantastic experience mainly because of the atmospheric, crusty old trains and the friendly people – at least as fun as the long, public bus trips.

Between Galle and Hikkaduwa the railway runs close to the coast, most of the time within sight of the beach. At Telwatta, the track cuts through thick palm groves and the sea, 200 metres away, is barely visible.

I don’t want to dwell on this, but this is exactly where the tsunami hit the Queen of the Sea that terrible morning in 2005. The train was packed because it was a holiday weekend as well as a full moon, when Buddhists visit relatives. The tsunami was three times the height of the train killing all 1,700 passengers. It’s the world’s worst ever train accident. Now and again we see huge boats still stranded hundreds of metres inland.

On the outskirts of Colombo, we pass the popular beach resorts favoured by the locals rather than western tourists. The end of the line is at the busy Fort Station where we jump straight into a tuktuk to take us to the Galle Face Hotel. I’ve read a lot about this place and hoped we’d have time for a visit.

Built by the British in 1864, it sits right on the edge of the Indian Ocean and adjoining Galle Face Green. This is a long, grassy promenade popular with food vendors and families having picnics and flying kites. The hotel gleams pure white with the sun beating down on it from a cloudless blue sky.

We both get that deja-vous feeling as we pull up at the hotel’s grand arched entrance in another farting tuktuk. Uniformed staff rush out of the tall carved doors to extract our backpacks while we seek out the desk. No luck with getting a cheap room here for tonight (over $200AUD) but we are in time for the buffet breakfast. This is served on the gorgeous, long colonial verandah – arches, columns, multi-paned windows, ceiling fans, palms, a polished wooden ceiling and a cool, slate floor – and, yes, I’m in heaven again.

I pay for the buffet breakfast but poor Mark is full from eating on the train so he just has to watch me stuff my face. Before we leave, we have a wander around the posh bottom floor – a perfect mix of English elegance and the exotic east.

Back out into the heat and sunshine we jump into another tuktuk to take us across town to the bus station. This is alive with local people unloading bags from tuktuks and transferring them to the waiting buses. As usual these are all a bit dodgy which means loads of character. We love public transport and soak up everything we see.

I have a sudden kabumbah attack but I’ll just have to wait till we get to Negombo. It’s only thirty seven kilometres to the north so it shouldn’t take too long to get there – WRONG! I spend two nail-biting hours thinking I’m going to shit myself as we literally stop every few hundred metres!

Finally, at the bus station, we grab a tuktuk to drop us at the Beach Villa Guesthouse – a cheap option in the Lonely Planet. This is off the main road down a sandy alleyway and facing the ocean. The beach here, though, is unappealing to say the least – a long stretch of windswept coastline with a wide expanse of sand and no-one around.

For some reason my kabumbah urge has eased, so when we see that the guesthouse is a bit of a dump, we decide to see if we can find anything better close by. The guesthouse next door looks fantastic but it’s booked out so we look at another one on the main road. This is a newish apartment with no character at all so we head back to the laneway.

Here we check out another place with only two bare rooms set in a dry, mangy garden. Okay, it looks like the crappy Beach Villa isn’t too crappy after all. Things are so spread out here that we can’t be bothered trying to find other places and we’ve only got tonight anyway so we book in.

Our room is small and dingy but, to make up for it, there’s a comfy lounging around area with groups of other travellers relaxing and having lunch. I just want to have a sleep so Mark goes off to check things out.

He finds a tuktuk to take him to a bar in the centre of town but he isn’t too impressed. At six o’clock we both head out again for a late lunch / early dinner. At the Rodeo Bar, we share a chicken burger then I see a beauty parlour sign further down the main road. I’d like to have my grungy nails done before we get home so we wander down for a look.

The beauty parlour is in the garden of a hotel and very upmarket – not what I like but there doesn’t seem to be anything else around – this definitely ain’t Thailand. Anyway, the lady who owns it is lovely and we become best friends in no time. She even calls out to her little boy and girl to come inside to meet me. The only downfall is that my manicure and pedicure are the worst ever with nail polish everywhere – I think Abi could have done a better job. And it costs a fortune – hilarious. Don’t have the heart to say anything else but ‘thanks’ and give her a hug.

Meanwhile Mark has found a restaurant/bar right on the sand but there’s no atmosphere at all. We’re trying to like Negombo but it’s just not happening. We move on to Cocktails Bar and this is more like it. On sunset a lot of local families and couples are on the beach which is much nicer in this area and the restaurant is starting to fill up with people having dinner.

We order prawns and lobster cocktails as well as plenty of beers and margaritas – we decide to splurge on our last night. In half an hour I’m drunk and sing loud love songs to Mark – I’m pretty sure I sound amazing!

Tuktuk home to bed.

Monday 25th June, 2012      Negombo to Kuala Lumpur

A very early 4.30am alarm and we’re ready to go in minutes. Out in the laneway we meet our tuktuk driver who drove us back here last night. We were hoping he’d turn up this early and here he is, God love him. Flying through the empty streets, these extra early starts are always exciting.

Twenty minutes later, it’s still pitch dark as we pull up at the busy Bandaranaike International Airport terminal. The flight is only a few hours and we seem to be landing back in Malaysia in no time at all. We’ve got a ten hour stop-over so we decide to go into the city instead of hanging out here at the LCCT. First we put our big packs into storage then get a shuttle bus to KLIA to catch the fast-speed train into Kuala Lumpur.

This is the KLIA Ekspress that runs non-stop from the international airport into the centre of the capital. We’ve caught it once before when we flew in from Borneo a few years ago. The train is super-modern and at speeds of 160km/h, we cover the 57 kilometres in only 28 minutes.

At KL Sentral, Mark manages to work out how to get another train to Chinatown. I’m totally confused especially finding the right platform through floors literally packed with people. Mark seems to have some sort of inner radar and we’re soon on the right train and in Chinatown in minutes. We wander around the markets buying an owl backpack for Abi and scarves for presents.

Near the entrance we stop for drinks at the Reggae Bar that was a favourite when we were here last time. Inside is decorated with Bob Marley pictures, photographs and posters and endless Bob songs are playing with a little bit of UB40 thrown in. We decide to sit outside so we can watch the passersby – good people watching. Later we wander back into the market then on dark get a train back to KL Sentral where we catch the airport KLIA Espress to the airport.

One more leg to go – the shuttle bus to LCCT where we get our packs out of storage then wait for our eleven o’clock flight. The terminal is packed but I find an empty bench seat where I lie down to read – very comfy.

The plane leaves on time and we have an easy nine hour trip home.

Tuesday 26th June, 2012     Sydney

Land at 10am then train home. Lauren and Dolly pick us up. Soooo happy to be back with our darlings.

 

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Thailand 1997

01-29-2008 12;00;11PM

 

Saturday 10th May, 1997     Sydney to Singapore to Bangkok

We said our good-byes to Angie, Lauren, Benny and Layla. This was our first holiday away from our babies but I think they were looking forward to having the house to themselves – party time, obviously. We drove out to Mark’s mum and dad’s and then my mum and dad’s for more good-byes. At last we set off about 11am in our hired rice-bubble of a car for Sydney airport.  We booked in on time to get good window seats on the plane – always try to get the last few rows, which have only two seats instead of three. This gives us more room and we don’t have to bother squeezing past someone else to get to the loo. We were really pleased with ourselves for getting through our first solo airport experience so easily.

The weather was cold, rainy and windy – a great day to be leaving Australia for hot sunny Thailand. The take-off was rough and we had turbulence for half an hour into the flight. I’m glad it hadn’t been like this for Angie and Lauren’s first flight when we took them to Bali last year. We were really impressed with Qantas except for a grouchy airhostess. There were six smelly Moslems in long white robes and caps sitting near us. Twice during the flight they prayed on mats at the back of the plane – don’t know how they knew which direction Mecca was.

We finally landed in the dark at Singapore’s Changi Airport eight hours after leaving Sydney. This part of the flight had gone fast with a movie and in-flight television and a great captain. He turned the plane on its side as we passed over Alice Springs so we could get a good view. We were delayed for an hour and a half in Singapore but this was fine as the airport is so huge and beautiful with flowering orchids and fountains – puts Sydney to shame. No smoking except in the Smoking Room which was quite a degrading experience really. You enter a glass box inside the airport and sit there fagging away with all the other losers all on show to the healthy, sensible people outside. The air is white with smoke and I was happy to find a door to an outside verandah. Much better out here and I was so excited to feel how hot it was outside.

It was only two hours flying from Singapore to Bangkok. It was now 1am Thai time and twelve hours after leaving Sydney. Bangkok’s Don Muang airport was quiet at this time of night so we passed through customs quickly. We’d arranged transfers with Intrepid and so we expected to be picked up by a tour agent. Instead we were met by a young girl and guy in a smelly old brown car with no seatbelts and plastic flowers hanging off the rear vision mirror. What a great surprise and why we love Asia so much. We drove at top speed to get to the hotel in forty minutes. There were so many freeways, which was quite a shock but once we left them we began to see the real Bangkok. Our hotel is in a great area and we can’t wait until tomorrow to get out there. The Viengtai Hotel is also not what we had been led to believe and is a grubby multistory old building with smelly rooms – also loved it. Finally got to bed at 2.30 am.

Sunday 11th May, 1997        Bangkok

We woke at about 6.30 am and couldn’t wait to get out into the streets. We walked up our hotel street called Tanee Road and watched people cooking and eating at tiny tables and chairs on the footpath. Everything is so different to home – the heat, the noises and the smells of cooking and sewage mixed together. We found that Khao San Road was only the next street parallel to ours. This is the famous backpacker area of Bangkok. It’s lined with markets, cheap guesthouses and cafes all playing loud music and packed with backpackers from all over the world. Here we had a lovely breakfast in an open-air café that was blaring out music even at this hour. We bought some bottled water and walked over to Wat Bovorinet where we were shown around by a young Thai boy. This was our first temple and we were quite impressed but it was rather small compared to others we were yet to see.

We were tiring by now so we walked back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep – jet lag combined with the heat is a killer. It was only midday when we woke so we set off again, this time in search of the Chao Praya River.  Bangkok traffic is notoriously bad and it took us ages to cross some of the busy streets – no pedestrian crossings that we could see, you just seem to go for it. It was so hot and we walked for ages in the sun without finding the river – next time we travel we’ll definitely be buying a Lonely Planet. Hopped into a tuktuk which are tiny three-wheeled open-air vehicles that sound like lawn mowers and which can zip in and out of traffic like motorbikes. They’re wonderful for short distances and to get a breeze in hot weather. We were dropped off at the Memorial Bridge which was the beginning of a walking tour of Thonburi that we’d read about in an old guidebook on Bangkok. Thonburi is on the opposite side of the Chao Praya River to Bangkok and is the site of the original capital. It is a maze of canals or klongs as they’re called.

After crossing the bridge, we found Wat Prayon that contained a small grotto called Turtle Mount, which is filled with shrines and stupas rising up out of a pond. We bought plates of chopped meat and papaya and sat on the edge of the pond to feed the hundreds of little turtles that live in it. It was so lovely and peaceful in here with Thai people lying around the pond on raised pagodas – shoes off, of course. Our next stop was the Portuguese area and the Church of Santa Cruz and then on to Wat Kalaya Namit. We seemed to have lost our way but finally came to the klong area where people recycle cooking oil cans. There were a lot of people sitting around in these narrow alleyways and smiling and friendly as usual. We found the river at last and caught a ferry which we thought would take us up-river where we were hoping to find a restaurant we’d read about. Unfortunately, the ferry took us across the river then back again to Thonburi where we were dragged off by the driver who was going home!  We got on another ferry which took us across to the Bangkok side once again until a young Thai girl could see we were dumb foreigners and told us that the ferries from these wharves just go back and forth all day. We gave up trying to get a ferry up-river, so we walked through the market area to find a tuktuk.

A young Thai student stopped us as he said he wanted to practice his English. He then mentioned a fantastic place selling cheap jewelry and it was the very last day we could buy it and we must hurry!  He shoved us in a tuktuk and off we went like dumb farangs again. Naturally is was a scam and the gem shop was so expensive and probably fakes – we’d already been warned by Intrepid and all the guidebooks and we weren’t even interested in the first place – so why did we let ourselves get taken in, we ask ourselves. We only stayed long enough to be polite then had our tuktuk driver take us to the marble temple at Wat Traimit to see the Temple of the Golden Buddha. The grounds here were lovely and we walked around the monks quarters and then had a peaceful sit in front of the Golden Buddha. Another man outside befriended us and tried again to talk us into going to another gem shop – not so dumb this time!

Jetlag was catching up on us again, so we had an early dinner in Tanee Road and had three hours sleep in our air-conditioned room. We’d set the alarm for 9.30pm and dragged ourselves off in a taxi to Patpong Road. Instead the driver took us down a grotty alley to a dingy looking place where we were asked to pay 400baht (AUS$20) each to get in. The people looked pretty scary but we said ‘no thanks’ and headed off back towards the road not knowing where the hell we were. It must have been in the business section of the city because it was totally deserted at night. Suddenly our taxi appeared again with the driver calling out to us and promising this time to take us to Patpong Road. He’d probably get a commission if we’d actually gone into this horrible out of the way club.

We finally arrived at the very glitzy street of Patpong. It is lined with bars and flashing neon lights with a busy night market down the centre. The street was packed and noisy and we were continually hassled by young men to go into their particular bar. Each one carries type-written cards with English explanations of what goes on inside. We saw most of this; girl smoking cigarettes, bursting balloons with blow darts, blowing out candles, blowing trumpet, picking up cigarettes with chopsticks, shooting out bananas. A couple of hours was enough to see these poor bored young girls do their stuff for sleazy white foreigners who probably use them as prostitutes as well. Glad to find a tuktuk and get back to bed by 12.30pm.

Monday 12th May, 1997                 Bangkok

A beautiful clear blue sky again today and hot already at 7am. We had breakfast at the same outdoor café in Tanee Road where we’d eaten dinner last night. From Khao San Road we caught a tuktuk to Chinatown to begin our second walking tour. It was an interesting ride through the streets and over a bridge spanning a small klong near the railway station. We drove along backstreets full of life – lots of food stuffs and furniture being made. In the main street of Chinatown we were stopped by a well dressed Thai man who sent us off in a tuktuk to some wonderful markets that would be closing soon. Not again! We were taken to another gem shop! We really are the dumbest travellers! Back in the tuktuk we choked on traffic fumes all the way back to Chinatown.

At last we could begin our walking tour. We walked through the maze of tiny alleyways called sois which are lined on both sides with food stalls and funerary supplies. These funerary shops sell paper replicas of things to be cremated with the body which they believe will be taken with them into the next life – motorcars, televisions, mobile phones, etc. (just what you need in heaven – I don’t think!) The sois are amazing with so many different foods to look at and strange smells and people calling out to each other. No farangs here but us which made it even better. Monks were walking around in their orange robes and nuns with shaved heads wearing white robes.

We veered off into even smaller alleyways where people were preparing all sorts of meat and seafood. Women were shelling huge baskets of prawns and chopping up carcasses of meat. Back out onto a wider street we found a Chinese Buddhist temple called Neng Noi Yee.  Here a constant stream of people of all ages came to pray and burn handfuls of incense sticks. It was so hard to breathe with all the burning oil and incense. We’d never seen anything like this and could have stayed for ages but we weren’t sure if it was polite to watch these religious rituals.

After the temple we walked for an hour through another maze of crowded sois which sold fabrics, bric-a-brac and just a whole lot of junk really. This was a total waste of time and we were so glad to make our way out to the main road. We bought meat on skewers from a street cart and hailed another tuktuk to take us to Wat Pho, home of the gigantic Reclining Buddha. The temple grounds are huge and we could look into the monks quarters. The main building houses the reclining Buddha which is covered in gold leaf and an amazing 46 metres long and 15 metres high. The main attraction for us is the massage school in the grounds of the wat. For a couple of dollars we both had a half-hour Thai massage which is definitely long enough. This is no gentle massage like those on the beach in Bali. A Thai massage is eventful to say the least. It involves a lot of pushing and pulling and gauging with elbows and knees and then finished off by being walked on! This can be understandingly painful but a great experience especially in the wonderful setting. The school is set in lovely airy rooms open on three sides and cooled by overhead fans. The masseurs all wear bright yellow pyjamas and the ‘victims’ lie on mattresses on raised wooden platforms.

Feeling really high from our massage we tuktuked it back to Khao San Road for food and shopping. We had dinner at our favourite café – great food and atmosphere sitting under vines and hanging Chinese lanterns on the busy street. Afterwards, more shopping and an early night.

Tuesday 13th May, 1997      Bangkok to Chiang Mai

We had an early breakfast in Khao San Road and then met Naomi, our leader, and the Intrepid group at 10 o’clock. Naomi is probably in her late twenties, really well travelled and very athletic looking. She seems very nice and explained to us the Intrepid way of travelling (green and eco-friendly) and our itinerary. We are twelve in all – Mark and I, Bridget from England, Enda from Ireland and the rest Aussies – Vanessa and Sally from Melbourne, Karne and his father Ross from Perth, Robyn and her boyfriend Warren from Perth and Carole and Suzie from Brisbane.

We all stored our gear in a dayroom at the Viengtai Hotel and walked through some lovely leafy laneways lined with cafes and guesthouses to the Chao Praya River. We boarded a long-tail boat and set off for the klongs of Thonburi. A woman passing in a small boat sold us bread which we fed to the thousands of fish at Fish Temple – huge ugly catfish looking creatures. It is amazing to see how the people live along the klongs in houses crowded up to the riverbanks and many actually built over the river. Some were living in sampans and houseboats but all had a wave and a smile as we went past. So cool out here on the river and great to get away from the heat.

After an hour we jumped off at a pier near The Grand Palace. Mark bought some street food – lovely chicken kebabs – and we all shared some bananas that Ross had bought near the river. At the Grand Palace we were met by a sweet little Thai lady who was to be our guide. She was so proud of the palace and kept stopping for us to take photos of things we didn’t want to photograph. There are strange dress rules at the Palace as we had to wear long pants or long skirts but no sarongs – they even checked to see that my skirt wasn’t tied at the waist. Our shoulders and the backs of our heels also had to be covered. It was unbearably hot in here and it was so nice and cool to sit on the floor of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the most sacred buddha in Thailand but is surprisingly small. More rules here – we mustn’t sit with soles of our feet pointing at the buddha – or any buddha for that matter or any Buddhist for that matter. The feet are considered dirty so it’s an insult to point them at someone just as it’s an insult to touch someone on the top of the head which is considered the most spiritual part of the body – will get the hang of it, no doubt.

Still inside the grounds of the Palace, we walked past a small temple literally packed with monks in orange robes who were blessing water which they then brought out to us. We all had to kneel down and it was sprinkled over our heads for good luck – what a bonus to have this unique experience!

Tuktuks, then, back to the hotel and we all went our separate ways for the rest of the afternoon. Mark and I had lunch on the verandah of a lovely old colonial-style guesthouse near the river – called Sawasdee Guesthouse. The food was so good but hot, hot! Some sort of beef dish with whole red chilies and seeds. Mark loved it so much he ordered more to take on the overnight train.

We met again at the hotel and piled our backpacks and ourselves into tuktuks for the Hualamphong railway station.  This is huge with a massive coloured glass window at one end. Hundreds of people were waiting for trains and added to the excitement. We bought junk food for the train which left at 6pm. Mark was feeling sick with a head cold but we managed to enjoy ourselves with a few bourbons and bacardis. We had dinner on the train and ordered plates of pineapple and watermelon. We took about an hour to pass through Bangkok and then the old capital of Ayuthaya before dark. As we left the cities we could see farmers working in the fields and a beautiful sunset across the rice paddies.01-29-2008 10;37;25AM

Police boarded the train several times – suppose they were looking for drugs. Porters came and made up our beds as we needed them – bunks top and bottom with clean white sheets and pillows and curtained off from the long carriage. We went to bed about 10pm. I slept badly on the top bunk (kept thinking I was going to fall out) and Mark didn’t sleep at all on the bottom bunk (sick and just too big for the bed).

Wednesday 14th May, 1997          Chiang Mai to Tham Lod village

At  six o’clock in the morning I climbed down into Mark’s bunk and we watched the scenery together as we came into Chiang Mai at 7.10am. Outside the station we all threw our gear into the back of a songthaew  – like a truck with a roof, open sides and wooden bench seats facing each other. This was to be the first of so many on this trip.

We drove to the bus station where we all had a really cheap breakfast at a grubby little café opposite – still liked it, though. We all had to stand when the National Anthem was played over loud speakers  – the Thais are very devoted to their king. The toilets here were our first experience of the squat type – takes a bit of getting used to. At 8.30am we left in a local bus headed for Sappong.  It had very narrow seats and only fan-cooled but this was better than air-conditioning as we later needed the open windows for other purposes. Deafening Thai music entertained us the whole way. The bus was full of Thais and hilltribe people and the road was unbelievably steep and winding for four and a half hours. Mark wasn’t feeling well at all and we both had to try to watch the road to stop getting motion sick.

We stopped at two police checkpoints where they boarded the bus to look for illegal Burmese immigrants – one man was taken off the bus. We stopped a roadside café after about two hours and finally arrived at the small town of Pai at one o’clock. We bought drinks in plastic bags and set off again for Sappong. The bus was now packed with hilltribe people in traditional dress and we had to share seats. Before we left Pai, we wondered why the driver had put plastic bags in the roof right along the aisles. As soon as we started around the mountains again we found out why. Apparently hilltribe people have trouble travelling and were grabbing the bags to vomit into. Eleven people were sick on the one and a half hours to Sappong. Spew bags were flying past us out of the open windows and exploding on the road – wonderful! So glad we all made it without being sick ourselves.

At Sappong we were met by the women of the Lisu hilltribe in traditional dress in black, bright pink and yellow. They all had red teeth from chewing betel nut and they were so friendly giving us their huge red smiles. We all bought their embroidered, multi-coloured water bottle carriers which were to be invaluable.

Naomi then found a songthaew to take us to Cave Lodge only half an hour away. This is situated on the outskirts of a small village of grass huts called Tham Lod. The main area of the lodge is incredible with lots of cushions and low tables and hilltribe wall hangings.

01-29-2008 11;00;07AMIt’s open on three sides and looks over a small valley overgrown with bamboo and bougainvillea. The verandah was taken over by the Lisu women who spread out their beautiful embroidery on the floor. Mark and I had a hut to ourselves because Mark was sick but we still shared cold showers and squat toilets with the others.

After settling in we all walked to Tham Lod Caves about half an hour through the village. There was thick green vegetation around the entrance to the cave, which had a small stream running through it.  There were three caves in all full of stalagmites and stalactites, ancient coffins, prehistoric paintings and lots of steep bamboo ladders. 01-29-2008 11;53;01AMThere is no way I would normally have attempted to climb these but there was no choice really and you can’t look a total wimp in front of the others.  I’m so glad I did as it was such fun. The cave was lovely and cool inside but was very smelly due to the millions of bats which inhabit it. Three Thai ladies carrying old kerosene lanterns guided us through the caves. The lamps gave a very eerie light and added to the wonderful atmosphere. After an hour of climbing we were led down to a stream deep within one of the caves. Here we all jumped onto bamboo rafts and now were led by some Thai men, very colourful in patterned headscarves. We came out at last through the huge mouth of the cave to the lovely greenery outside. What a great adventure and to think that I was going to stay behind at the lodge and rest!01-29-2008 11;56;07AM

Back to Cave Lodge and back to the heat. After very welcome cold showers we all had a banquet of different Thai dishes for dinner. We all sat together on cushions on the floor and ate at a low wooden table while Naomi explained the plans for the trek tomorrow.

01-29-2008 10;47;50AMSuch a great atmosphere here, with other backpackers lounging around and great old ’60’s music playing. After dinner we all had an early night. Mark and I both slept well in our own little grass hut under a mosquito net – what luxury!!01-29-2008 11;44;25AM

Thursday  15th May,1997    First Day of Trek

The sun woke us early and after cold showers Mark and I sat on the verandah of our hut. So lovely sitting in the sun looking over the jungle of bamboo before us. We all had fruit for breakfast and sat around on the big balcony where the Lisu women had spread out their weavings again. It seemed like paradise looking at the beautiful brightly coloured hilltribe women and the brilliant greenery and flowers around the balcony.01-29-2008 12;02;41PM

It was time to get ready for the trek. Mark was fit and not worried but I wasn’t fit and very worried. We all packed our big backpacks away in a storage room and strapped our sleeping mats to our day-packs. Mark carried my big pack, two mats, six bottles of water and all our clothes – my darling! I only had a small day-pack and two bottles of water but I was still worried about making the trek. Naomi introduced us to Miss Doi, our guide, and we all set off at 9am.

At first we walked next to a lovely stream where water buffalo were drinking and pigs were running past. We’d picked up our two other guides by now – Puck and Charlie. We always had a guide at the front, back and middle of our group for the whole trek – good safety precautions.

01-29-2008 12;06;22PMThe walking wasn’t steep at first but we literally crossed the river about fifty times during the day. The pace was quite fast and it was unbelievably hot by now. It wasn’t too bad, though, as we stopped every hour for a break or to lie fully clothed in the river – boots and all.01-29-2008 12;24;27PM

Lunch was simple but tasted great – rice wrapped in elephant leaves next to a shady stream. Puck fished with a stick while Doi and Charlie smoked bongs! We kept close to the stream again after lunch until we started the incredibly steep climb to the village.

01-29-2008 12;12;06PMMark and I stayed back with Carole who was doing it tough. She is a rather large person who smokes (as I do) and is unfit (as I am). This was good as it didn’t make me look as bad. We had lots of laughs with her and Doi didn’t mind the slow pace either. At last we could hear sounds of farm animals and we soon arrived at the Lahu hilltribe village. The Lahu villagers slash and burn so the area is pretty barren. The village itself was bare of grass or greenery and a bit ugly but the real thing. The huts are built on stilts on the side of a hill so the view was quite beautiful. There were lots of animals around and under the huts – pigs, dogs, chooks, roosters everywhere and making untold noise.

01-29-2008 12;15;56PMWe dumped our gear in a hut that had been vacated for the night by the family who live there. It was so bare inside and it is hard to believe that they have so little. There was no furniture at all and only a fire for cooking in one corner. There were no rivers here so we had to pour water over ourselves from a dish but it felt great anyway. We were all so hot we just lay on the floor of the hut and I fell asleep before I knew it. I woke to find a fire roaring away next to me heating up a big cast iron pot full of water. I didn’t need to be any hotter so I sat outside with Mark and the others. The men tried to catch the cute piglets but it was Bridget who caught the only one. She is such a fun person and I think I like her the best.

01-29-2008 12;17;51PMAt dusk we walked to the top of the village and watched the women sitting on the floor of their verandahs preparing their evening meals. They were also chopping huge trunks of banana trees for pig food.

01-29-2008 12;13;59PMThe village kids hung around us and showed off – some of them cute but others so streetwise. It was a great view from the top of the village and we all took photos of the beautiful sunset.

01-29-2008 12;21;02PMBack at the hut, we watched Doi and Puck prepare vegetables for our meal, which they cooked over the open fire. Dinner was vegetables, rice, of course, and chicken – tasted nice but a bit smoky. We went to bed early I think – hard to tell as we aren’t allowed to wear watches on the trek. We were all kept awake by chooks under the hut and roosters crowing all night.

Friday 16th May, 1997          Second Day of Trek

It must have been about 7am when we woke although no-one had slept well because of all the animal noise. Mark was still sick with his cold but maybe feeling a bit better – he never complains. We watched Doi cook breakfast over the open fire again – vegetables and rice – and then she cooked lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice – what variety! She wrapped lunch in banana leaves that she tore into little squares and tied with string.

After breakfast we packed our gear and set off through the village. The whole day’s walk was up and down steep hills and along narrow ridges. We stopped at a village where the people were really friendly and showed Karne how to shoot a rifle. We walked through a deserted village and just kept going up and up. Carole and I were walking slower than the rest but I felt amazingly better than I ever expected. Never thought I’d be able to walk for so far or for so long especially in this heat. I think I could have walked even further. Mark and Doi stayed back with us and poor Mark was by now carrying both his big pack and Carole’s pack as well.

The pace was fast considering the heat and the steep hills. We stopped for lunch at the top of a ridge but most of us were too hot to eat. The guides smoked bongs again and we set off after a rest in the shade. So hot and no rivers today to cool us down. After more ridges we had a really steep and slippery descent into a lovely green valley. It was a scary climb down and we were all amazed to make it without falling. It was worth it, though, as it was green and cool at the bottom and, best of all, there were the elephants! There were three down here among the bamboo where they were being watched over by men from the Karen hilltribe, all dressed in their traditional red woven tops.

01-29-2008 12;26;45PMMark and I, Robin, Ross, Suzie and Carole climbed onto the elephants by stepping on their heads from a huge fallen log. The others walked to the Karen village about an hour away. We had an incredibly uncomfortable ride sitting in the baskets tied to the elephants’ backs – worth every second, though, to think that we were actually riding an elephant in the hills of Thailand! We passed along the narrowest pathways through the thick jungle and up steep inclines – never realised how agile elephants are. It was a slow ride as the elephants continually stopped to pull at the bamboo and eat it. The elephant drivers sat on the elephant’s heads and made grunting noises to give them orders to move branches on the path with their trunks.

01-29-2008 12;30;36PMWe came at last to the Karen village – very different from the barren Lahu village. Very beautiful and green here with lots of crops growing around the village and fruit trees around the grass huts. Each hut was raised above the ground and each had its own yard enclosed by bamboo fences. The Karen people look beautiful in their red and black embroidered clothing that they weave themselves. The elephants took us right up to the hut where we were to sleep for the night.

After settling in to own new hut, we all walked through the village to the river about twenty minutes away. We passed the school and waved to the village kids who were hanging out of the windows and we passed rice paddies in the valley below. Mark and the others walked on to the cave while Ross, Carole and I decided we lay in the river for an hour. So lovely to be cool and be surrounded by the greenery. Th vegetation was so dense here with huge trees full of vines and lots of bamboo. We saw elephants again on their way to the cave. Mark said the cave was great and they had to crawl on their stomachs to get in. Mark, Naomi and Suzie came back for a swim and we had to wear sarongs as swimsuits are regarded as too daring and impolite. The others returned on elephants and then we all walked back to the village.

Here there were about twenty Karen women waiting for us with their weavings. The married women wear black and red clothes and the unmarried girls wear long white dresses with hot pink trim. We all crowded onto the verandah outside the hut and they spread out their weavings of rugs, scarves, wall hangings, bags, and clothes.

01-29-2008 12;33;30PMIt started to rain suddenly and they quickly packed up and we all squeezed together under the eaves on either side of the verandah. It began to really pour then hail and we were all laughing together – a lovely experience. It was still hot and Sally and Bridget washed themselves in the rain which cooled all of us down. The rain was getting even heavier so we all went into the hut and bought lots of weavings. Mark and I bought a scarf for 100Baht ($5 AUS), a blanket for 500Baht ($25 AUS) and a shirt for Mark. After the women left we all sat around with candles while Doi cooked our dinner. We lounged around on the floor and had lots of laughs before having dinner of vegetables and eggs off a low wooden table in the candlelight.

Mark and I had our own little room with a window and wooden shutters. The hut was still absolutely basic but much nicer than the night before. Unfortunately, the sleeping mats were still as uncomfortable as ever and we needed blankets for the first time as the night became cool. The worst was yet to come, however, as I had to get up three times for urgent toilet visits. This was my worst nightmare. Each time I had to find the torch and toilet paper, pick my way in the dark over sleeping bodies, find my boots under the hut, walk through the mud and ‘go’ in the horrid pit toilet behind the hut while trying not to make those awful ‘toilet noises’ – definitely not one of my best experiences. A bad night’s sleep had by us all.

Saturday 17th May, 1997     Third Day of Trek and Chiang Mai

Woke early again and I wasn’t feeling too good so I couldn’t eat the porridge Doi had made for breakfast. Hard to understand why I was the only one to get sick as we’d all eaten the same food for two days and I only drank bottled water. We packed up our gear and said goodbye to the villagers. As we walked through the village we watched a woman weaving a blanket – so glad we have one to remember this lovely place.

01-29-2008 11;49;35AMAt first we walked through a pretty river area crossing lots of creeks sometimes by walking across narrow branches but mainly walking straight through the water getting our boots soaked again. After lots of hills and walking through rice paddies, we came at last to Tham Lod village and Cave Lodge.01-29-2008 12;38;52PM

We quickly showered and packed and then Mark and the others had a Thai lunch. I only had a salad as I was feeling really nauseous by now. After lunch we all piled into a songthaew to take us to Pai. I sat in the front with Noan and her husband so I could see the road. The hour and a half drive to Pai was all right but when we got there we found that there was no bus running to Chiang Mai  – what they call ‘Thai time’. This didn’t seem to worry Noan and her husband who now had to drive us all the way. First they drove us to a shop to buy water for the four or five hours to Chiang Mai.

It started to rain about half an hour later and we had to stop and put the canvas sides down. Mark said it was pretty awful in the back and most of the group felt sick – so stuffy in there and they couldn’t see the road ahead. They all made the most of it though and there was singing and lots of joke telling. I felt so sick in the front and Noan kept fussing over me. She was really sweet and kept feeling my forehead and she put a blanket over me. It was so hot and I tried to let it slip off my shoulder but then she’d notice and tuck in back in. I kept asking her how far it was to Chiang Mai but she would just give a big smile, hold up five fingers and say’ Chiang Mai five’. I guess that was all the English she could speak so I just gave up. The five hours felt like ten with the heat, the rain, the winding road, feeling nauseous and on the verge of gastric the whole way. This ride was a ‘experience’ for everyone.

The road improved as we came into busy Ban Mae Malai and the last hour was through very thick traffic. We finally arrived at Chiang Mai at six o’clock and said goodbye to Noan and her husband who had to drive all the way back to Cave Lodge. The guesthouse was luxury after sleeping in grass huts but the rooms were as hot as hell. I felt so sick by now but rang Angie and Lauren as I couldn’t wait to hear how they were. I couldn’t go out and was so disappointed to miss the famous Chiang Mai night market. Mark went out for a quick dinner with the others and came home early.

Sunday 18th May, 1997                  Chiang Mai

Despite the heat we both slept well but I was still feeling sick on the stomach. We went for a walk and had fruit for breakfast at a small café. Back at the hotel I rang Mum and Dad then we decided to find McDonalds – couldn’t take any more rice or noodles! It was so cool inside and we ran into some of the others there as well. We bartered for jewelry and carved boxes in the markets then took a samlor ride. These are cycle rickshaws and this was our first ever ride but the driver was so old and we just couldn’t cope with seeing him struggle so we asked him to stop and just paid him anyway.

On the walk back to the guesthouse, we bought a mask and some nickel earrings – good shopping here with lots of hilltribe crafts for sale. We dumped our shopping in our room then picked up the clothes we’d sent to the laundry – big mistake. Some loose brown pants Mark had bought in Bangkok had run and all of our clothes (including the shirt he’d bought from the Karen women) either had brown streaks or were a lovely fawn colour. Not a disaster but we think we’ll do our own from now on.

Back out in the streets we found a place near the hotel that gave massages for 100Baht an hour. This place was wonderful! We were taken out to the back of a shop and up a lovely wide old wooden staircase to a big room painted pink with coloured sails on the ceiling and a wooden floor. We were dressed in coloured pyjamas and groovy music was playing somewhere downstairs – great atmosphere! The massage was good but so painful. I was stretched and thrown about but Mark was too big for the little Thai man to move so he just laughed and gave up.

We were running late by now and we raced back to the guesthouse to pack and meet the others. We all shoved our gear into a songthaew and set off for the station. Here, Mark and I went for a walk along the street opposite and bought junk food for the journey as we’d already experienced the rather ordinary train food on the way here. We pulled out of Chiang Mai at 4.40pm for the thirteen-hour trip back to Bangkok.

There were lots of toilet visits on the train which of course were the squat type we’d become accustomed to. The police came aboard at some stage and this time they had sniffer dogs with them – scary place! The train stopped before dark which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Village people were lining the tracks with fruit to sell to the passengers through the open windows – how fantastic! We had a nice night talking to the others who we’d become really friendly with by now. Mark slept badly in the top bunk and I spent another night toilet hopping. I was scared every time I had to go – thought I was going to be murdered and be found with my head stuffed down the toilet.

Monday 19th May, 1997                 Bangkok to Sangkhalburi

Most of us were already awake at 4.30 am to say goodbye to Robin and Warren who were getting off at the airport to fly to Phuket. After the tough week we’d just had, I think most of us envied them a few days lounging around on a beach instead of setting off on more Intrepid ‘adventures’. But an adventure is what we wanted, so let’s go!

After goodbyes and promises of letters and swapping photos, Mark and I got into the bottom bunk together for the rest of the trip. By 5.30am we could see the city was already alive with cars and people. We arrived at Bangkok Station at 6am and got into four tuktuks to take us back to the Viengtai Hotel. We raced each other through the streets that were getting busy even at that hour – great fun! We passed lines of monks in their orange robes on their alms rounds and morning markets busy already. Bangkok is so exciting!

It felt like coming home as we pulled into our hotel. Mark and I, Ross, Karne and Bridget were the only ones going on for the second part of the trip. We gave goodbye cuddles to Suzie, Carole, Vanessa, Sally and Enda and were really sorry they weren’t coming with us. They were all off backpacking to Vietnam or other parts of Thailand. The rest of us were given a dayroom and we all showered and repacked our bags for the second part of the trip. Mark and I walked around to Khao San Road to an open-air café for breakfast. A young Thai boy took our order but after fifteen minutes he came back with nothing. We ordered again and finally got our brekkie and raced back to the hotel to meet up with the new group. We now had two Irish girls called Siobhan and Delores and a loud-mouthed Canadian girl called Elizabeth. We also had a very trendy looking guy called John who was learning to be an Intrepid leader.

We had our shopping and excess clothes put into storage while Ross and Karne spent an hour tracking down two bags of clothes they’d put into storage the week before. Apparently they’d been sent to the laundry by mistake and had been washed! We were just in time to rescue our own gear when we saw it disappearing into a lift instead of the storage room behind the counter. Where was it going?

Ready at last, we strapped on our packs and walked to the end of our road where we found taxis to take us to the Southern Bus Station. We had a groovy driver who was playing loud ‘Eagles’ songs. The bus to Kanchanaburi was still a local bus but this time it was air-conditioned – luxury compared to the buses of the north but totally lacking in character. I was still feeling sick and slept some of the way – hate that – feel like I’ve missed seeing something.

Out of the bus at Kanchanaburi, we squashed into samlors to take us to a guesthouse called Rick’s Lodge about fifteen minutes through town. Mark and I had the slowest rider or the slowest rickshaw but maybe we were just too heavy with us and three backpacks hanging off the back. We drove past the Allied War Cemetery where thousands of allied POW’s were buried after dying in captivity during World War II. This is immaculately kept with green lawns and flowers. We finally pulled up at Rick’s Lodge in a dusty laneway behind the cemetery.

This is a bamboo guesthouse with a big bamboo verandah looking over the famous River Kwai. So nice here in these casual surroundings – one of the joys of Asia is the open-air cafes. We all had a buffet style dinner. Mark and the others had Thai but I only had a salad to settle my stupid stomach.

After lunch we piled our gear on top of a small van and squeezed inside for the three-hour trip to Sanghklaburi. We drove through open country with only a few small towns. After about an hour, Naomi noticed a man and a motorbike in a ditch on the side of the road and made our driver stop. Our driver was a horrible man who never smiled and even wanted to leave the man there because he said he was probably dead! Mark and Naomi ran back to help him and they lifted him onto the back of an army truck to be taken to hospital. He wasn’t too badly hurt but Mark and Naomi both had blood on them when they got back to the van.

The road for the last couple of hours of the trip was very windy and steep – so many hills and mountains in this country! It’s very green here compared to the north and we saw lots of people living in houseboats on the lake which we followed for the last half an hour.

We arrived at Sangkhlaburi about five o’clock. The town is situated near the Burmese border on the edge of Lake Khao Laem. Very few Thais live here and it’s mainly inhabited by Burmese refugees and Karen and Mon tribes so it was different to other Thai towns. We pulled up at P Guesthouse which overlooked the lake. It consists of a restaurant and small huts all built of wood, bamboo and stone. Our huts had a grass roof and a verandah overlooking the lake with the Mon village on the other side.  We had shared squat toilets (accustomed to by now) and cold showers (no problem, because of the heat).

We all had dinner together in the lovely open-air café by the lake. Thai food for Mark and the rest of the gang but Karne and I ordered cheeseburgers as he was feeling sick as well – great to have someone to be sick with – not feeling so pathetic. We all had a few too many drinks but an early night as we were all exhausted after the last week. There were lots of ghekkos around the hut and amazing to hear the noise they make – they really do say ‘ghekko’!

Tuesday 20th May, 1997      Sangkhlaburi

 We had a fantastic sleep and then a lovely breakfast (feeling better at last) with Delores and Siobhan overlooking the lake. It was hot already and after cold showers we walked down to the lake to meet the longtail boat. Kumsoi was our guide for the elephant trek as well as bringing our lunch. She was so happy with a beaming face and always laughing.

We set off across the lake to see the Mon village and on to a partly submerged Buddhist temple. Forty minutes later we came to where a river joined the lake and here were the elephants. Cannot but be amazed to see them. There were seven elephants here with their mahouts and it was fun watching everyone making idiots of themselves trying to climb on. This time the elephants were made to kneel down and we climbed on to their knees but it was still so awkward.

The scenery was spectacular with the river and the hills in front of us and so much greenery. We rode for hours beside the river, crossing it several times and then through thick jungle. We had lots of laughs as Ross and Karne’s elephant was crazy and kept heading off on its own. We’d see them crashing through huge clumps of bamboo and down steep embankments totally off the track. Our elephant had a flatulence problem and let off a ginormous fart – so embarrassing but everyone just blamed Mark.

It was so uncomfortable sitting in the basket but worth it for the scenery and the great experience. So hot now and we were trying to fan ourselves with clumps of leaves from the trees we had to keep pushing out of our faces. The best surprise was when we rode into a Karen village and picked up a baby elephant to come with us. She was so gorgeous with her little mohawk hairdo and we couldn’t take our eyes off her. She kept us all laughing as she stumbled up the embankments beside her mother and when we rode through the deepest part of the river she would completely disappear under the water and then bob up again then under again. Such a great feeling on the ride as Kumsoi sang while bells jingled around the elephants’ necks – only partially spoilt by Elizabeth’s incessant chatter – poor Bridget! A camera crew from Bangkok television followed us all the way and met us again at the end of the ride. We could see them filming us as we were riding through the deepest part of the river. The water was up to the eyes of the elephants and it looked fantastic with the thick jungle all around.

We stopped for lunch by the river and I got up the courage to sit on an elephant’s knee so Mark and I could have our photos taken. Lunch was rice and pineapple that Kumsoi had brought with her. After lunch we all got onto bamboo rafts that were waiting there for us. Mark stood right up the front and I stood at the back and we steered with long bamboo poles. Actually Mark steered – I had no idea what I was doing and I was nervous as we had to stand up. Mark did all the work and we went really well. The girls didn’t do so well and Bridget spent more time in the water than on the raft. The Irish girls were in heaps of trouble and Delores had the most fantastic fall that had us all laughing for days. They kept getting stuck on rocks and had to be pulled off at one stage by a passing elephant. The rain started pouring down but it was still and warm and made it an unreal experience. It stopped as quick as it started and it was hot and sunny again. Ross and Karne spent most of the time pushing people off rafts and Mark got in on it too. Ross seemed to go berserk and even tried to drown the lovely Elizabeth – it shut her up for a few seconds anyway.

After about another hour we reached the longtail boat which dropped us off at the Mon village. The markets here were fantastic with goods smuggled in from Myanmar (Burma), China and India. Mark and I bought four bedspreads – everything so cheap and very different to other markets we’d seen. It was really pouring by now and we tried to get a songthaew at the village to take us back to the hotel. Couldn’t find one so our only option was to walk. The rain was heavy but it wasn’t cold and it was fun, really. The Mon villagers were so friendly and were waving and laughing at us as we walked past their huts. From the village we crossed over the bridge to Sangkhlaburi – of course, it had to be the longest wooden bridge in Thailand! We kept on walking through the pouring rain until a kind American woman saw how miserable we all looked and stopped to pick us up in her truck. We climbed in to the open section on the back and she drove us all the way back to P Guesthouse.

When we arrived the camera crew had already put the video together and were so excited to see it so soon. After showers and dry clothes we had drinks by the lake then all had dinner together. We had lots of drinks after dinner and talked and laughed for ages – great night! Mark and I went to bed about 10 o’clock and laughed till we went to sleep- very tipsy! Bridget, Ross and Karne came back to their hut next to ours about midnight and made lots of noise crashing about and laughing – also very tipsy! Our best day yet!!!

Wednesday        21st May, 1997   Sangkhlaburi to Kanchanaburi

An early rise again mainly due to the noisy longtail boats on the lake and the sounds of animals and music coming from the Mon village. After breakfast we all squashed into a small and very uncomfortable songthaew for the three-hour trip to Nam Tok. We were so cramped that John had to hang off the back the whole way. Our driver was a madman and kept stopping to do errands on the way and out of the way and then drive like crazy to get us to the train on time. We were all scared and Naomi kept banging on the glass between us and the cabin for him to slow down. He didn’t take any notice and it really was the ride from hell. So glad to reach Nam Tok alive. It was nice here near the station and we had lunch in an open-air café run by some happy Thai ladies and then watched them buy seafood from a man passing by.

At one o’clock we boarded the train to take us to Kanchanaburi. The train is called the Death Railway as the tracks and bridges were built by Australian, British and Thai POW’s during World War II and cost thousands of lives. It was hard to imagine what dreadful things happened only fifty years ago in this now lovely and peaceful area. The train itself was old and had beautiful polished bench seats. The train was full of locals who all seemed to be having a great time and hanging out the windows. We had good views of the River Kwai and crossed the famous bridge as we came into Kanchanaburi two hours later.

At the station, we found samlors to take us to Rick’s Lodge again. We had grass huts here too but this time we had our own toilet and shower – the toilet was even a sit down one! Our bed was in a loft which we had to get to by a bamboo ladder. We even had a thick mattress on the floor – a five star grass hut! It began to rain heavy again late in the afternoon – the rainy season has definitely begun. We decided to just lie around for the afternoon.

The rain had stopped by dark and it was hot and steamy again. We all decided to go to the night markets and set off down the laneways and streets of Kanchanaburi. It was smelly and dirty as usual but really alive and interesting. People were everywhere cooking and eating and lots of food stalls lining the streets. It took about forty minutes to reach the night food market where there were incredible things to eat – frogs, snails and even cockroach-looking bugs frying in a huge wok – they stank! Bridget picked up some cute looking furry creature but it peed all over her – a good laugh. There were no westerners here and everything was written in Thai so we had no idea what we were ordering. It was great to watch the people cooking in woks and we spent a couple of hours going from stall to stall. Mark and I sat down at a small table near one of the stalls with Naomi, John and Bridget. They all ordered a famous Thai dish called ‘pad thai’ then we all had banana pancakes smothered in condensed milk and sugar – beautiful but really sweet.

We walked back to the guesthouse at about ten o’clock and it was still really hot. There’s always something to see walking through towns and villages. People sit outside their homes sewing, cooking and eating. The homes are open and we could see that most people live in one room with only a bed, a few pieces of furniture and always a TV, a shrine for Buddha and photos of the royal family. The Buddhist shrines are in all homes and shops and are decorated with flowers, burning incense and coloured lights.

We climbed up our bamboo ladder and into our bed as soon as we got back. Went to sleep listening to the sounds of ghekkos and frogs outside our hut.

Thursday   22nd May, 1997            Kanchanaburi to Hua Hin

Our alarm woke us at six o’clock after a good sleep. The day was beautifully still and sunny and we had breakfast on the verandah overlooking the River Kwai. Afterwards we walked down to the river and boarded a longtail boat to take us to the Jeath War Museum about fifteen minutes downstream. The river is lined on either side with brightly painted barges that are used at night as floating restaurants and discos – hideous!

The Jeath Museum is set in the cool, shaded grounds of Wat Tai and run by a Thai monk. The building is a replica of the bamboo huts the prisoners of war were forced to live in. It appeared very unassuming at first but as we read the stories and looked at the photographs of the young prisoners we all became very quiet – most of us had a cry. It was an unexpected reaction as we’d all heard the stories before but maybe to be here where it all happened, it really brought it home.

Back in the boat, the lovely day made us feel better and we set off for the famous bridge at top speed. We walked across the bridge where we had great views of the river and its banks. On the other side we found a small market and a mother elephant and her cute baby. I put out my hand to touch the baby’s trunk which it wrapped around my wrist – incredible strength for such a baby.

The boat ride back to Rick’s Lodge in the early morning was beautiful. We quickly packed up our gear and climbed into yet another songthaew. This one was bigger than any we’d been in before and was quite comfortable – or maybe we were just getting accustomed to this strange transport. We drove for about an hour for an enjoyable ride to Ban Pong.

The open-air station here was really interesting – lovely in the sunshine with flowers and trees all around. While we waited for the train, Mark, Elizabeth and I walked down the street and tried some of the street stalls – things on skewers, lychees and mangosteens. At the station we bought little Thai cakes and water for the train.

Mark and I both sat next to Thai ladies with huge baskets of fruit and vegetables that they carried on either end of a bamboo pole. They got off after a few stops and we had double seats to ourselves for the rest of the trip. Great to stretch out for a change and watch the scenery through the open windows. The countryside was flat now and lots of palms and rice paddies. A really interesting trip and only three hours.

We arrived at Hua Hin at two o’clock and walked the fifteen minutes from the train station to the guesthouse. The town is a beach resort for Thais – pretty small and busy but hot and smelly as usual. The guesthouse, Baan Samboon, was really cute and situated down a quiet laneway. It has a bar and dining room downstairs off a lovely green garden with a pond and lots of tropical flowers. Our room was upstairs with a cute window overlooking the lane. We had a fan but it was still stifling so we decided to splurge and pay extra for air-conditioning.

After unpacking, Mark and I walked down to the Post Office to ring the girls – great to hear them and that everything is fine at home. We bought an icecream to cool us down and then met for a group meeting. We decided that we’d all do our own thing so Mark and I walked around the town and down to the beach. Lots of market stalls, food stalls and cafes near the beach with places hiring pushbikes and motorbikes. The shopping was really awful with hideous things for sale. Mark did all right, though, and bought six shirts for home (150Baht each). We also ordered a suit for Mark and a jacket for me from ‘G Armani” which we were told would be ready the next day.

Late in the afternoon it began to rain heavily and we ate in a small café not far from the hotel. We went back to the guesthouse for showers then back to ‘G Armani’ for fittings for our clothes. The tailor was a poor little man wearing ragged clothes and thongs and who arrived on a bike. It is sad to think of how little he’ll be paid for sitting up all night sewing our clothes.

We met the others downstairs at the guesthouse at seven o’clock and followed Naomi to the night market for dinner. So busy and colourful here but with lots of beggars who sit in the walkways between the food stalls. It is pitiful to see and we gave some money but can’t give to all. Mark and I sat at a food stall on little chairs and ordered Thai food then I bought a bag of watermelon. At nine o’clock we all met together again and walked to a bar near our guesthouse. A Thai man was playing a guitar and singing Western country music and we were all drinking and getting very merry.

After he’d finished, another Thai guitarist came on and played Thai music. A table of about thirty locals were sitting near us and getting very drunk and noisy and some of the men were up dancing. One of them was having a birthday and we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in English. Most of our group had gone home by now and only Mark, Bridget, Karne and me were left. The Thai people sent over a piece of birthday cake because we’d joined in with their singing, so Mark bought the ‘birthday boy’ a Thai rum. They just loved us after that. They started buying us Thai rums then dragged us up on to dance with them. We had a great time with these lovely people.

When the bar closed the four of us walked to a café and ordered hamburgers and did a lot of swearing and laughing and Elizabeth bagging. We made a lot of noise getting back into our rooms at the guesthouse at 2pm but didn’t manage to wake anyone.

Friday   23rd May, 1997            Hua Hin

We slept in till 9.30am, showered and had breakfast in a café near the guesthouse. Mark and I walked down to the beach where there were hundreds of umbrellas and deckchairs for hire. We decided to walk down the beach and have a swim. The water was warm but great to be at the beach after two weeks in the heat. We had a Thai massage on the beach lying on big pink silky sheets under the palm trees – it hurt again. We had another swim then walked back to the hotel.

In the afternoon we walked into town along busy laneways and streets lined with cafes. We had lunch at a seafood café on the pier – lovely and cool being so close to the water. Mark ordered a nice prawn meal and I had battered prawns, battered beans, battered onions and even a battered lettuce leaf – amazing meal!

After lunch I bought a cheap handpainted fan to try and keep cool. We stopped and had drinks with Delores and Siobhann at a café and heard about their ‘wee’ trip to see a ‘wee’ cave. Then we picked our clothed up at ‘G Armani’. Mark looks beautiful in his new suit and white shirt and I look horrible in my brown jacket – not surprising. We lost the others and so we had a pizza together near the guesthouse. After dinner we walked around town then had an early night in our lovely air-conditioned room.

Saturday  24th May, 1997              Hua Hin to Bangkok

Mark and I had an early breakfast in the café street and watched the life going on in the street. We went back to the guesthouse and sat around downstairs in the cool. Mark went and tried his suit on to show Bridget and the others.

At 12.30pm we all packed and walked into town to the bus station. Very hot now and heaps of people cooking and eating on the sidewalks and traffic everywhere. We left Hua Hin at 1pm for the four hours to Bangkok. There was roadwork most of the way and traffic jams as we came into Bangkok.

At the Southern Bus Station, we crammed ourselves into a tiny van. Bridget and I were up the back almost on top of each other – it was so hot and squashed it was funny and we had lots of laughs – I think we were delirious from the heat. It took us about forty-five minutes to reach the Teak House and what a surprise! We’d imagined another grass hut but this was so beautiful – very big and ornate traditional Thai house totally made from teak. The house belongs to a lady called Pip and her family who rent it out to tourists mainly for Pip’s wonderful cooking classes. We had our own room beautifully fitted out with teak paneling and six tiny windows with wooden shutters. We had yellow silk bedcovers, a dressing table with a mirror and padded floor seats. We were all given sarongs that we had to wear all the time we were there and no shoes naturally.

Heavy rain began soon after we arrived and it was lovely to watch the rain and the wind blowing through the huge palms surrounding the house. The grounds were as lovely as the house itself with lots of mango and other fruit trees and the klong at one end. Downstairs in the teak dining room, we all gathered for drinks then sat out in the tropical outdoor area surrounded by the greenery. After drinks, we had a traditional Thai meal then sat around drinking again outside to try and cool down. The cutest dogs belonging to the house hung around us all the time – everyone’s favourite was Beaver. Mark, Bridget, Karne, Ross and Siobbhan played cards till midnight while the rest of us found a book to read in bed.

Sunday 25th May, 1997            Bangkok

We woke at 6.30am after a good sleep except for the noisy ghekkos. We left at 7.30am to go to the local market with Pip’s daughter to buy food for the day. This was a real Thai market and again we were the only farangs here. We couldn’t believe the things being sold – live frogs and turtles, rats, cockroaches, eels, snails and quail. We watched women take live fish from a dish and chop them to pieces – definitely fresh!  There were masses of different fruits and vegetables many of which we’d never seen before. Mark and I bought a sarong each and some cakes just out of the oven. We bought a frozen coconut thing that looked like ice cream with nuts on top and some peanuts in their shells which turned out to be raw.

We drove back to the house and lounged around outside and then started our Thai cooking classes with Pip. She is a real sweetie and explained all the different vegetables and herbs which we all tasted. She showed us how to chop them depending on the sort of dish being made. She then showed us how to cook Tom Yam Kang (sour and spicy prawn soup), Lap Mu (spicy pork salad), Kaeng Khiao Wan Neva (Thai beef green curry) and Pha-Naeng Neva (beef curry in sweet peanut sauce). The class took about three hours and it was nice sitting in the outdoor kitchen watching her cook in the woks.

Then we followed her to the side verandah surrounded by lush gardens. We sat on the floor and watched her make her own red curry in a mortar and pestle. This took about half an hour – a job she does every day. It was good for me to be off my feet as they were really aching and, for some reason, had swollen to the size of elephant’s feet – very attractive!

For lunch we ate the food we’d watched Pip prepare. Mark loved it all but unfortunately I don’t like coconut milk, coriander or lemon grass which are in just about every Thai dish – what a party pooper! After lunch we went back to our rooms to relax. Bridget and some of the others went on a boat ride through the klongs and had a great time – wish we’d gone with them. Mark and I had a peaceful afternoon reading and talking then all met together downstairs at seven o’clock.

Another Thai meal with the vegetarians at one table (Naomi, John, Elizabeth, Delores and Siobbhan) and the meat-eaters at another table (Mark and me, Ross, Karne and Bridget). We had fun at dinner with Karne and Bridget arguing and flirting and all of us confessing our darkest secrets. We all played a card and spoon game after dinner – great fun for our last night together. Lots of laughing and screaming – Mark won and I lost – became the MUNGBEAN.

We sat around talking and drinking for hours until only Mark, Bridget, Karne and me were left. Mark did his naked ‘Billy Connelly’ romp on the lawn and again outside our room. We went to bed about midnight but couldn’t sleep for ages thinking about tomorrow and home. Looking forward to going back to Bangkok again before leaving to see it for the last time and looking forward to getting home to see the girls.

Monday   26th May, 1997     Bangkok

We woke at six o’clock to a beautiful morning. After showering and packing, we met everyone downstairs for breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and scrambled eggs. We paid up our drink bill and I mysteriously seemed to have a lot of beers on my tab even though I don’t drink it – Mark must have snuck in a few extras. We said our good-byes to Pip and her family and walked down to the klong. Beaver was there to see us off as we set off in a longtail boat for Bangkok.

The klongs were very narrow at first and we watched people bathing and washing their clothes in the muddy water. The houses are built right up to the water and most have small boats tied up alongside. We passed lots of little canoe-type boats filled with fruit and vegetables and some piled high with goods like small shops. After about fifteen minutes we entered a wider canal and then even wider ones as we came closer to the city. We passed elaborate wats and then the Fish Temple. The klongs finally joined the Chao Praya River and here again was the busy river traffic we’d seen before – ferries, riverboats, barges, houseboats and longtail boats of all sizes.

We disembarked at a small ferry wharf and walked for fifteen minutes through the small busy alleyways to come to Tanee Road and the Viengtai Hotel. We tried to arrange with the hotel staff to leave our packs in storage for a few hours but after a lot of confusion we had to get Naomi to help us. We said goodbye to Delores, Siobbhan, Elizabeth and John and walked around to Khao San Road with Bridget, Karne and Ross to arrange transport to the airport.

Mark and I left the others to cash some travellers cheques and do some last minute shopping. We bought pillowcases, bags and two big extra bags for the plane to hold all our purchases. So hot and we had to waste precious shopping time by stopping in a café for an iced pineapple juice. We were running out of time and raced back to the hotel to pack. We had our gear spread out all over the foyer but Mark managed to squeeze it all in.

The five of us then struggled back around to Khao San Road to get the airport bus. There were already eight people inside and the roof looked full of packs but we managed to cram in and we took off for the airport. Sad to be leaving Bangkok – so much to see and we wonder if we’ll ever be back. The bus driver spent the whole time weaving in and out of traffic and we arrived at the airport forty minutes later in record time for the middle of the day. We couldn’t resist ordering pizza at the airport and then were devastated as we forgot to ask for window seats when we checked in.

We sat around with Karne and Ross who were flying with us as far as Singapore and then catching a connecting flight to Perth. Bridget was also on our plane as she was off to Australia for an extended holiday. She is such a sweet, fun person and Mark and I sat with her for the two hours to Singapore. WE were all devastated when we open our meals and discovered we were having rice for dinner! At Changi Airport in Singapore we said goodbye to Ross and Karne and took off one and a half-hours later for Sydney. We couldn’t get seats with Bridget at first but after half an hour we managed to move and we sat together for the eight hours home.

We arrived at Sydney Airport at 5.15am and gave Bridget big hugs and promises to see each other soon. Mark and I flew back to Newcastle with Aero Pelican and it was great to watch the coastline as we headed home. Disappointed at Pelican as the girls weren’t there to meet us as Angie was sick. Jacky and Dad were there though and drove us back to see Mum and then home to see our darlings. Good to be home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Italy 2004

Scan10051Wednesday 9th June,2004                     London to Rome

At 4.30pm we land at Fiumicino or Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. This is more like it! The weather is hot and sunny, no-one is speaking English and Italians are everywhere! A monorail takes us to baggage collection then we catch the airport train into the city. After half an hour we enter the outskirts of Rome and see ancient ruins already. At Termini Station we put on our packs and head off to find our accommodation that we’ve already booked on the internet. I think we take the long way round and it’s a hot thirty minute walk to Via Giovanni Lanza. At last we find the right address in a row of old buildings with an avenue of trees outside. Mark presses the buzzer for the Red Rose Bed and Breakfast but no-one answers. Inside the foyer another couple is also trying to get in so Mark makes a call on his mobile. While we wait we chat with the young American backpackers who’ve been in Italy for ages and give us a few tips. I just love this foyer with its marble floor and wrought iron winding staircase. It’s so very Italian and the real thing. Soon a lady called Anna Rosa arrives with the key. She’s a buxom bleached blonde in her fifties and not exactly friendly until she wants us to come to her restaurant.

The Red Rose is fabulously Italian! Our room is huge with ornate furniture, a marble floor, a chandelier, two velvet couches and a gilt mirror over the fireplace. The window has three sets of shutters and looks onto an old convent. Mark opens the shutters to let the afternoon sun flow into our room – lovely! We also have a shared bathroom and a homey kitchen where we’ll have breakfast tomorrow morning.

After unpacking we walk up to the busy Via Tonna to look for Anna Rosa’s restaurant. Sorry, Anna Rosa, it’s far too expensive so we find a small osteria instead and sit at a table on the sidewalk to order wine and a capricciosa pizza – olives, prosciutto, mushrooms and artichokes. Now we wander the streets and stop at a small fruit and vegetable shop. The owners are a friendly old couple and we buy cherries, onions, tomatoes and a lettuce that we drop back at the Red Rose.

Scan10056Further down Via Giovanni Lanza we find a wonderful little piazza called Piazza Madonna del Mondi in a maze of tiny laneways. It has a fountain in the middle and cafes on two sides. We have a lovely time sitting in one of the cafes watching the locals and drinking expensive vino bianco to celebrate our first night in Italy.

Thursday 10th June, 2004                    Rome

Buongiorno! Our first full day in Rome. It was a bit noisy last night with traffic outside our window and guests coming and going but we still managed to get plenty of sleep. By seven thirty we’re up, showered and having breakfast made for us by another Italian lady in the kitchen. She doesn’t even bother trying to be friendly and throws us stale croissants, tea, coffee and orange juice – welcome to Italy.

Scan10053At eight thirty we set off and realize that we can see the Roman Forum at the end of our street – don’t know how we missed seeing it last night. Our first stop is the Colosseum. It’s only a five minute walk and sits in the middle of a sort of giant roundabout. It looks wonderful even though it’s now just a shell of its former glory. The queue isn’t too long and we’re inside within fifteen minutes.

Scan10051Climbing the stairs to the top level we can see how incredibly huge it is. It once held fifty thousand spectators who during the one hundred day inauguration games watched five thousand animals killed and gladiators fight to the death. During another set of games that lasted one hundred and seventeen days, over nine thousand gladiators died. They could even fill the arena with water to put on displays of sea battles. It’s hard to imagine all this happening in this lovely peaceful place. We spend an hour or so inside then I have a photo taken with one of the gladiators out in the forecourt.

Now we head for the Roman Forum which is just a short walk uphill along the Via Sacra. At the top of the hill is the pretty Arco di Settimio Severo where we sit on a boulder in the shade to eat bananas for morning tea. From here we can see the whole area – the Basilica Aemilia, temples, churches and columns – all in ruins amongst orange poppy fields – beautiful! This is also where Caesar was buried and where Mark Antony gave his famous speech – ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him’. It’s so much bigger and beautiful than we expected and so spread out that it’s still a relaxing haven despite the hundreds of tourists.Scan10052

We walk up the stairs on the far side to Capitoline Hill for an even better view and to see the Piazza del Campidoglio. The piazza is surrounded by three palaces and reached by the Cordonata which is a wide ramp designed by Michelangelo. At the bottom of the ramp it’s just a short walk to the Piazza Venezia which is dominated by the spectacular monument of Vittoriano. A fountain and pool at the bottom is a good place to cool down as we splash water over our arms and legs.

Scan10054From here we walk through back laneways then sit on the shaded steps of a church to look at more monuments across the street – this whole city seems to be a treasure trove of ancient history. Mark has packed a salad for our lunch but we stop at a nearby supermarket to buy more supplies – two bottles of wine, a loaf of crusty bread, salami, a block of Edam cheese and prosciutto. We plan to be out all day and to have a picnic somewhere wonderful.

Scan10055Using our map we soon find the Pantheon, the next stop on our itinerary. It’s surrounded by lively cafes and men playing Italian music on accordions which adds to the wonderful atmosphere. The Pantheon itself is spectacular and apparently the greatest architectural achievement of the Roman Empire. The marble floor spans a forty three metre diameter circle and the dome is also a soaring forty three metres high. Outside we sit at the base of one of the sixteen Corinthian columns to have our picnic lunch and to watch all the action.

Scan10057It’s so hot by now that at nearby Piazza Navona we sit on the edge of one of the fountains to paddle in the cold water. Pigeons are sitting on the nude statues and one is pecking at a doodle. Two young boys have thrown their mate fully clothed into the fountain and throw the poor guy in again when they see our video camera. In the centre of the piazza is Bellini’s beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers and surrounding the fountain are a few hawkers and artists selling original paintings of Rome.

Scan10058From here we make our way to the famous Trevi Fountain. This is set in a tiny piazza and is every bit as magical as we’d expected. The sunshine is glaring as it’s reflected off the white marble sculptures and the blue pool beneath. Hundreds of tourists are crammed into this little square but we find an empty space on the edge of the pool to throw in three coins each over our shoulders.

Scan10061In a nearby air-conditioned internet café we spend an hour emailing home then head back out to find the Spanish Steps. We read the map wrong and lose our way for an hour and have to stop for soft cone Cornettos. The best part of getting lost is that we stumble across Bellini’s Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barbarini.

Scan10059This is one of my favourite sculptures because the very spunky body of the figure reminds me of my darling with his clothes off – ‘I wish’ he says but I know it’s true. An old man is running around the piazza dancing and dunking his head in the water and spouting it out of his mouth like a fountain.

Scan10060At last we find the Spanish Steps but we’re almost too hot to care. Hoards of more fucking tourists are here as well. The heat is sweltering so we don’t hang around for long but take the Metro to Termini Station. We’ve never seen a train so packed and I even have a man rubbing his crotch against my leg. At Termini we can’t stand the thought of another packed train or another pervert so we decide to walk back to the Red Rose. On the way we stop at a supermarket to buy more picnic supplies – cheese, proscuitto, salad dressing and aluminium containers. The checkout chick is a model of Italian service – lazy, talking to her friends and a scowl. Closer to home we come across a travel agent and book tickets for the train to Florence leaving tomorrow morning.

So glad to finally get back to our room to lie around on the bed eating cherries and reading with the fan keeping us cool. At seven thirty we wander down to Piazza Madonna then find a crowded pizzeria to have dinner. The atmosphere couldn’t be more Italian if it tried. An accordionist is wandering around between the tables, everyone is smoking, there’s a jug of wine on every table, the air is thick with garlic and everyone except us is Italian. Predictably the menu choices are pizza or pasta so we order both as well as a jug of vino russo. The tomato and basil bread seems to be free till we get the bill. A great night.

Friday  11th June, 2004                 Rome    

Both wearing earplugs we slept much better and ready for our second day in Rome. Waking at seven we shower, have breakfast and Mark packs our picnic food. Outside is hot already but it’s great to see the sun and blue skies above. At nearby Cavour Station we buy a day ticket each then catch the Metro to the St Peters stop in Vatican City. A ten minute walk from the station takes us through pleasant streets past shops and souvenir stalls to reach the seventeenth century Piazza San Pietro. St Paul’s Square is a massive area in front of the domed basilica with fountains in the centre and flanked by semi-circular Doric colonnades four rows deep. We sit here in the shade to admire the view, eat cherries and feed the pigeons.

Before we can enter St Paul’s Basilica we must line up for fifteen minutes in the sun then have our bags checked. Only one gate is open because the guy in charge of the other gate is having a casual chat and a fag. It’s free to get in which is like most of the sights we’ve seen in Rome so far.

Scan10063Once inside the foyer it’s much cooler and the atmosphere is amazing already. But the Basilica itself is even more amazing. The interior is huge with shafts of sunlight beaming in from the tall windows above. We stop first to look at Michelangelo’s Pieta which, in a sculpture or painting, means the dying Christ in the arms of the Madonna – very moving. The Basilica has so many other famous statues but the building itself is so marvellous that it’s hard to put it into words – so I won’t.

The other wonder of Vatican City is the Vatican Museums mainly because this is where we’ll find the Sistine Chapel or the Capella Sistina. The sun is scorching and we line up in the street behind hundreds of people. As we get to the corner we realize that the line goes up another street, around a corner, up that street, around another corner and then up another street. One and a half hours later we’re finally paying our 11 Euro each to get in. To reach the Sistine Chapel we have to walk through untold rooms of priceless paintings and statues while all the walls and ceilings are painted with frescos of Biblical stories. This is really unexpected and by the time we arrive at the Sistine Chapel it’s almost an anti-climax. No cameras, no videos and definitely no talking and it seems that the main job of the guards inside is to go ‘shoosh’. As we merge with the crowds in the middle of the chapel, Mark manages to take a video. We see the famous Creation of Man at the very centre of the ceiling and The Last Judgement on the back wall. The fact that most of the chapel was painted single-handedly by Michelangelo himself is enough to draw thousands of visitors here every day.

The exit to the Museums is back at the Basilica where we see some of the army of the Swiss Guards wearing the traditional blue, red and yellow costumes. We decide to have lunch in the shade of the colonnades so we wash our hands and splash water over our faces from one of the water fountains we’ve seen all over Rome. The water is freezing cold and great to fill our empty water bottles. Mark makes lunch of salami, lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese and dressing. Untold people are here now and most of them are trying to get out of the sun. I love feeding the pigeons in these piazzas but they’re not too fond of our salad today.

Scan10062For a change we think we’ll get a bus back to Rome so we wait at the bus stop near the station. An old lady waiting with us looks like she’s got sunstroke or something that’s making her look very sick. We wait for ages but it’s too hot to hang around any longer so we decide to go back by train. Catch the Metro to Termini Station then Line B to Cavour. We buy supplies at a supermarket then cherries and tomatoes from our favourite little fruit shop on the way to the Red Rose – a great relief to get back to our room to lie around on the bed with the fan on.

Later I decide to walk up to the internet café to see if any emails have come through and then at seven o’clock we grab our bottle of wine and wander around a few local piazzas. None compare to our favourite Piazza Madonna so we end up back here for the third night in a row. We sit on the steps of the fountain drinking our wine and watching the locals. After finishing the bottle we head up Via Cavour to find a small pizzeria where we have a lovely time eating pizza and drinking a jug of vino bianco.

Even though we don’t leave till nine o’clock it’s still light outside. These very long days are perfect for travelling because we can fit so much in as well as not having to rush.         

 Saturday  12th June, 2004                 Rome to Florence (Firenze)

Wake at 5.30, shower and walk down to Cavour Station to catch the Metro to Termini Station. Boarding our very flash train we pull out at 7am for Florence. It’s only a one and a half hour trip through the Tuscan countryside. We eat a bag of cherries and I catnap most of the way – can’t seem to stay awake. Arriving at 8.30 at Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella, we book in our backpacks, have brekky at McDonalds (sad but true) and book tickets for Venice tomorrow morning.

Using our Lonely Planet map we leave the station to look for the Galleria Academia to see the statue of David. We end up at the River Arno near the Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio. The river looks like glass this morning with the buildings opposite reflected in the still water. The Ponte Vecchio is a 14th century pedestrian bridge lined with expensive jewellery shops and at the moment is standing room only with daggy tourists. We cross the bridge to the other side and walk for ages looking for the Galleria Academia. No luck till we finally realise that I’ve marked it wrong on the map and it’s right over on the other side of town. Back across the Ponte Vecchio we line up at the Uffizi Gallery but I have urgent toilet business (too many cherries) so we find a public loo in a backstreet – have to pay to get in. Can’t be bothered going to the Uffizi so we head back towards the Duomo. On the way we visit the Piazza della Signoria. This is like an outdoor museum and we see Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune and sculptures like Cellinis ‘Perseus’.

Deciding to leave the Galleria Academia until later we head back to the station to catch the No7 bus to the village of Fiesole in the hills above Florence. Bus fares are done on the honour system in Italy so we don’t pay. It’s a pleasant half hour drive out of town with spectacular views of Florence beneath us and Tuscan farmhouses perched on the hills above. Fiesole is a seventh century Etruscan town and still has a beautiful cathedral next to the Piazza Mino da Fiesole. This is where the bus drops us but we decide to explore the other side of town first. We walk up the hilly main street to a leafy area that overlooks a deep valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Mark makes our picnic lunch on a park bench near a low stone wall built on the edge of the hill.

Back in the piazza we eat gelatos in a cute café then check out the views of Florence from another café facing the city. This really shows how very lovely it is – a sea of old terracotta rooftops and the magnificent dome of the Duomo dominating it all. Not a sign of modern architecture to be seen. Now it’s time to get back down there. Buses run frequently from the piazza and we don’t have long to wait – get away with not paying again.

Half an hour later we’re back in Florence and feeling very hot and tired but decide to have one more go at finding the Galleria Academia. On the way we buy a big tapestry at an outdoor market – will probably be our only souvenir of Italy. At last we find the Academia where surprisingly there’s no queue at all. We pay 9.5 Euros each and see lots of beautiful paintings and statues but the prize is Michelangelo’s David. The statue sits alone beneath a tall dome at the end of a wide corridor and is truly spectacular – just love it! Mark takes a sneak video then we sit for a while just staring at it. Suddenly I have another toilet emergency and make a beeline for the loo – no more cherries, please!

Now we just want to get to the hostel so we make our way to the train station. Getting our packs out of storage we catch the No17 bus to take us out to the ostello – don’t pay again. We know that it’s about half an hour out of town but we’re not sure where to get off. I keep asking the driver ‘are we there yet?’. We share the bus with a group of nuns in grey habits and they get off about half way. At last the driver gives us the signal and we can see the gates of the hostel across the road. A long, long driveway winds through a wooded area till we can see Ostello Villa Camerata up ahead.

It’s a grand sandstone coloured mansion with green shutters on the windows and a walled garden at the front and supposed to be one of the best hostels in Europe. Inside, the foyer is as big and elaborate as a ballroom. We check in quickly as we’d been able to book on the internet from home. It’s single sex accommodation only so we go off to our separate wings. Mark is sharing with three other guys who aren’t in the room at the moment and I’m sharing with two Asian girls and a Swedish girl called Mona.  Downstairs we sit in the shade of the back balcony drinking and eating cheese. Mark reads while I watch the local cats and catch up on the diary. From the Lonely Planet we choose a pensione for the next two nights in Venice and make a booking from our mobile. Later we go for showers and to get changed for dinner. I wash my hair and then can’t get the hairdryer to work – have to go a la natural – yuk!  Dinner is pasta, roast chicken, a breadroll and a peach for 8.5 Euro. Mona comes to sit with us and then an American guy called Tom. Have a fun night drinking and talking till 11pm.

I manage to sleep okay even though a noisy party is going on in the garden all night. Despite earplugs Mark doesn’t sleep well at all.

Sunday 13th June, 2004                        Florence to Venice

At 6.15am we meet downstairs – feels like we haven’t seen each other for a week. Not at all fussed on this sleeping apart thing. It’s nice to be leaving early even though it’s a bit cool this morning. We manage to catch a bus just pulling out and have a quick trip into the city through the empty streets – steal another free ride. At the station we have McDonalds for breakfast – this is becoming a habit – and eat it sitting on our packs on the station floor while we wait for our train information to come up on the board.

As we leave Florence at nine o’clock I’m nodding off almost before we leave the station. The weather has turned cool and cloudy and there’s even a few drops of rain on the window. An hour and a half later we pull into Bologna where we have an hour to wait before changing trains for Venice. By now it’s raining but we still have a peek outside the station to decide if we’ll have a look around. There doesn’t seem to be much point in this weather so we spend the time waiting for the train by pulling out any warm clothes we can find from the backpacks. We just chuck on anything and end up looking like total retards. By the time we pull into Venice’s Statione di Santa Lucia an hour later, the rain has cleared with only partial cloud and intermittent bursts of sunshine. The station opens directly onto the Grand Canal which is bustling and full of excitement. We cross a nearby bridge called the Ponte de Scalzi and make our way through the laneways and along smaller canals to easily find our hotel, Albergo Casa Peron in the Santa Croce quarter. It’s an atmospheric pensione in a narrow laneway amongst cafés and pizzerias. The owner has a big green parrot on his shoulder and shows us our room on the third floor.

After showers we lunch at an outdoor café just near our pensione – lasagne, calzone, and half a litre of vino bianco. Feeling very relaxed we wander through the narrow streets, through laneways so tiny we can touch the buildings on either side, across wooden arched bridges spanning big and little canals and finally end up at the Canal Grande. Here at San Toma Pier we buy tickets for a vaporetta to take us to the San Marco quarter. The canal is like the main street in any other city and busy with vaporettas (motorized river ferries which go along the Canal), traghettos (like gondolas and which go across the Canal), river taxis, police launches, private boats and the tourist gondolas. Other gondolas are tied up to blue and white striped poles sticking up out of the water and the gondoliers wear black and white clothes with straw hats – very Venetian. The buildings are built right to the edge of the Canal and most have boat moorings with doorways leading straight into the house. With flowered window boxes it all looks very pretty and romantic.

At the San Marco Pier we disembark with a crowd of other tourists to join the masses that are here to see the famous Piazza San Marco. The pier is alive with tourist stalls selling carnival masks and plates painted with Venetian scenes – hideous. Mark hears a familiar and unmistakable voice in the crowd – it’s Pauline Hanson! My God, what’s she doing in Italy? Doesn’t she know it’s full of Italians – non-Australians – wogs! She actually looks quite attractive in a long pink top and I stalk her to get her on video. She seems to have a couple of minders with her – to keep away the wogs maybe. Get bored with Pauline so Mark buys corn from a street cart and we feed the pigeons.

Now we have a look at the very elaborate Basilica in St Marks Square. This is probably the most famous piazza in Italy. It’s massive with expensive boutiques and cafes all around and the centre filled with tourists and pigeons. Florian is a very famous, very old and very expensive café that has an orchestra playing outside. We stop to watch and decide we have to sit down at one of the tables outside even if it costs us a bomb – it does. Coffee and a hot chocolate cost us thirty five Euros or about fifty Australian dollars but worth it to be sitting here in Venice being entertained by classical musicians. One of the musicians is getting off playing his accordion while waiters wearing white tuxedos serve us our drinks. Every now and again the pigeons must get spooked and do a lap of the square before settling down again – beautiful. Another orchestra is playing on the other side of the square so we have stereo classical music.

From St Marks Square we plunge into the crowded touristy back streets to find an internet café then melt in with a tourist group to watch a glass-blowing exhibition. From here we catch another vaporetta (don’t pay this time) to San Toma Pier and the sanity and tranquility of our truly Italian little area. As we walk back towards our pensione we see lots of gondolas filled with awful tourists and it really doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. The canals themselves look quite lovely though at this time of day with the sun low in the sky so we decide to grab a slab of pizza and eat it on the edge of the Rio del Malcanton. This quiet little canal is just a stone’s throw from our pensione and we’re the only ones here except for a few local boats passing by.

Later we wander around the backstreets and come across the big Campo Santa Margherita. A campo is the same as a piazza but in Venice only St Marks is given the name piazza. We sit on a bench in the centre of the square drinking our Bacardi and watching the local kids playing while their parents eat and drink in the open-air cafes around the outside.

It’s dark by now so we buy kebabs and go back to our quiet little canal to eat them on the steps. I’m ready for bed so I go back to our room while Mark finds a nearby bar to watch today’s soccer game.

Monday  14th June, 2004                        Venice

Up at seven thirty to shower and have breakfast in the little dining room on the second floor – stale croissants, jam, tea, coffee and orange juice. The weather is sunny and warm as we set off for the station to catch a vaporetta to the Rialto Bridge. This lovely arched stone bridge was built in 1592 and is one of only three that cross the Canal Grande.

We’ve come to see the one thousand year old market but we’re too early so we decide to catch a ferry to one of the outer islands. This San Marco quarter is similar to our Santa Croce area – a confusing labyrinth of tiny alleyways and canals but we somehow find our way. We stop at a small supermarket then easily find the vaporetta stop at Fondamente Nuove.

Risking not paying again, we jump on a ferry to take us to the island of Murano. From the water we have a wide view of Venice then make a stop at the small island of San Michele. This is Venice’s cemetery and where a crowd of people get off carrying big bunches of flowers. Murano is the next stop. This is where the famous Venetian glass is made and at a glass workers showroom on Fondamento dei Vetroi we watch the artisans doing their thing. Very interesting but we don’t stay long as we’ve seen it all before. The whole village seems to be full of shops selling the finished glass products – most of it hideously elaborate or else too expensive. The wind is driving us crazy so we take refuge in the Chiesa dei SS Maria Donata cathedral. We walk along some of the small canals then cross a bridge to buy bread from a nice lady in one of the small shops facing the canal. There doesn’t seem much to do here so we decide to dump the other islands and head back to Venice.

At Fondamente Nuove pier we wander through cute laneways, across little bridges, along canals and past stone houses with flowering window boxes on our way back to the Rialto Bridge. At a marker near the bridge we buy a silk scarf for Mum and a soccer shirt for Mark. Crossing over the Grand Canal to San Polo we stop for an hour to sit in a sunny piazza to have our picnic lunch on a red bench. Very pleasant here watching the locals doing their shopping.

After a rest in our room, we walk to Campo Santa Margherita where we buy cherries from a market stall in the middle – can’t resist them despite the probable consequences. At a very Italian bar Mark watches some of the Italy versus Denmark game on the television while I stuff myself with cherries. Moving to another bar closer to our pensione we wash down a pizza with a few vinos then go back to Campo Santa Margherita. It’s very dark by now and the locals are out in force. Everyone seems to be drinking a very orange coloured drink called a spritza bitter so we order one to share between us. Good move because it’s horrible or maybe it’s just the depressed state I’ve suddenly talked myself into.

Sometimes I can’t understand what I feel or rather what I don’t feel. Here I am in a country that most people would give their right arm to see and yet I don’t feel anything. Everything is beautiful so there’s no disappointment there but still I feel nothing. So should it bother me, being different, or should I be happy that I am. I knew it would be this way and I think Mark did as well. It was the driving force behind coming here in a way – to see for ourselves if Europe was the be all and end all, as they say. But our love for Asia has out-won the ‘norm’ of the Europe thing, something we’d both suspected all along. Finally getting this sorted out in our heads, I must take Mark’s stance – that we’ll enjoy it for what it is but know where we really belong. Time to accept our ‘weirdness’ and just enjoy the holiday but from now on go where our hearts take us. God, I’m such a drama queen!

Tuesday 15th June,  2004            Venice to Verona to Lake Gardia to La Spezia

Today we leave Venice and pick up our hire car to take us to Verona. After breakfasting in the dining room we’re ready to leave at 8.30am. With packs on we walk towards the Grand Canal. Lots of Venetians are on their way to work either on foot or by vaporetta. Much nicer to be amongst the locals than the tourists who aren’t out of their hotels as yet. Mark finds our car rental place easily and we spend the next half an hour with the very vivacious woman in charge. Like lots of Italian women she’s volumptuous with waving hands and passionate phone calls. At last our car arrives but smaller and not the one we’d ordered.  I ask her if this means we get a discount but she says ‘No this one better. You see’ – whatever.

As we head out of town Mark is getting used to a left hand drive and driving on the right hand side of the road while I try to turn on the radio. It crashes to the floor and that’s the end of that. Crossing the Ponte della Liberta bridge we leave Venice behind. Trucks and cars fly past us but we’re doing fine in our little blue Datsun. On this glorious hot sunny day we pass through open countryside then pass the turnoff to Vicenza and one and a half hours later arrive in Verona. The old  part of the city is across the Ponte Nuovo bridge on the River Adige where we stop at the first parking spot we can find. Incredibly when we check the map we’re within a few metres of the Piazza del Erbe which is exactly where we want to be. A lively market is set up in the piazza which has a fountain in the centre and surrounded by historical palaces, cafes, wandering accordion players and churches. For lunch we buy cordona which is dry and horrible so we feed it to the pigeons.

A short walk from the piazza is Casa di Guilietta which is a leafy courtyard with the balcony from that famous scene in Romeo and Juliet. There’s also a bronze life-sized statue of Juliet where Mark has his photo taken with his hand on Juliet’s right breast for luck. Back at the piazza we walk under the Arco della Costa which has a whale bone suspended from the top and, which legend has it, will fall on the first ‘just’ person who walks beneath it.

Through interesting back laneways we find the Caffe Antica Osteria al Puoma as recommended by Lonely Planet. The tavern has a friendly, dimly lit atmosphere where locals are drinking and eating. Because we’d had to dump our lunch in the piazza we now have a bowl of sausage and ricotta tagliatelle and drink the local strawberry wine called fragolino.

Now we set out for the River Adige where we walk beside the stone wall that follows its high banks. The current is incredibly fast and we can see the first century built Roman theatre on the hill opposite. This really is a beautiful town. We’d planned to spend the night here in Verona but it’s only one o’clock so we decide to keep moving. Making our way back to the car through arched colonnades we pass statues of Dante and Garibaldi then take off for Lake Gardia.

Even though we found our way easily into Verona we can’t find our way out. Happily cruising along an empty traffic lane, a police car pulls up beside us and the policeman in the passenger seat holds up a kind of ping pong bat with Italian writing on it. We pull over and he tells us that we’re driving in a bus-only lane and wants to see our papers – shit! Luckily he can see that we’re just dumb tourists and lets us off. Mark asks him the way to Lake Gardia and he gives us the directions. As we pull away they drive up beside us again and yell out ‘eh, follow us!’ and give us a police escort out of the city. Not sure if they’re being friendly or just want us to get the hell out of their town.

Once out of Verona we find ourselves lost again and end up miles from where we’d been headed. Backtracking, we at last find the lake. Very pretty but ‘been there done that’ so we take off only to get lost again. Finally after a few hours we make our way to the towns of Modena and Parma then head for the mountains. The views are spectacular but where the hell are we going? The road winds up and up around hairpin bends till we’re so high up we’re in a forest of pine trees.

Finally back down the other side of the mountain we eventually and thankfully join the A15. This is more like it. Now we’re racing through the Italian countryside as fast as our little buzz box will go. Again we have fantastic views of mountains and deep valleys while the road cuts through the mountains ahead via tunnels that seem to go on forever. Bigger cars are tearing past us, obviously going much faster than the 130kph speed limit. I make a phone call to a cheap hotel in La Spezia to make sure we can get a room for the night. Soon we can see the blue Mediterranean ahead of us and we’re nearly there after eight hours on the road.

The outskirts of town is unattractive to say the least but quite pretty down near the waterfront. It’s a modern city lacking the historical character of other towns we’ve seen but still appealing in its own way. One way streets mean that we do a few laps of the inner city while we try to get as close to our hotel as possible. Mark finally finds a car park only a block from the Albergo Nuovo Spezia. This is in a pedestrian-only area in a quiet alleyway and we like the look of it. After ringing the bell, the bottom door opens and we find our hotel on the first floor. It’s a rabbit warren of rooms to rent plus the owner’s quarters – old and spartan but still very Italian. The owner is a smiling old man, full of information and unusually friendly for an Italian.

By the time we shower and unpack it’s time to eat. Just around the corner in another quiet alleyway is a café recommended by Lonely Planet called Trattoria da Luciano. We sit outside with the locals who all seem to have brought their dogs along. The dogs even sit up at the tables and everyone is smoking. It’s so lovely sitting here in the warm night air and we have the best pizzas so far. The jug of white house wine is perfect as always. From here we move on to a nearby bar for more drinks and to use the internet before falling into bed – a big day!

Wednesday 16th June, 2004         La Spezia to Cinque Terre to La Spezia

Our plan for today is to catch the train from La Spezia to The Cinque Terre. ‘Cinque Terre’ is Italian for ‘five towns’ and includes the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.

Skipping breakfast we shower and drive to the free parking area next to the station. At the ticket office Mark buys day-passes which let us travel between the five villages and back to La Spezia. Lots of other tourists are doing the same thing and everyone looks very summery and beachy. Along the Genoa/La Spezia line the train passes through long dark tunnels to burst into a glare of sunshine at the first village of Riomaggiore. At the cute station we walk through a pedestrian tunnel to reach the town. It clings to the cliff face with four storey cement rendered buildings all painted in soft shades of cream, yellow and pink. To get down to the water we walk through tiny dark alleyways between the houses. It smells dank and fishy especially on the water’s edge where fishing boats are pulled up onto the shore. We find a spot on the rocks to sunbake in our swimmers and to enjoy this lovely place. So nice to have the sun on our backs again.

An hour later we’re back on the train which we’ve decided to catch to the last town of Monterosso. The train passes through the hills between each town so that as we emerge from a pitch dark tunnel we’re greeted by a wonderful scene of golden sunshine, blue water and a picture postcard village.

Unlike the other four towns, which hug the cliffs, Monterossa sits at the bottom of the hill and spreads out along the coast. Also unlike the other towns, it has a long sandy beach covered with umbrellas and sunbathers. A huge rocky peak juts out of the water in the middle of the beach and the road in front is lined with cafes and tourist shops. We chat to an Australian woman and her daughter then eat gelatos and drink the local limonchina under a tree overlooking the beach.

Back on the train we head for Vernazza which is said to be the most picturesque of the five towns. It sits in a protected cove with a small rocky promenade covered with cafes and a thin strip of sandy beach on the other side of the water. We sit on a stone wall to wait for a table at the best café on the headland. Sitting under bright yellow umbrellas, we have pizza, tuna salad and a jug of vino bianco while looking back at the town and the boats bobbing in the cove. Lunch over, we jump off the rocks for our first swim in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear and so nice to cool down. After drying off and a bit of sunbaking we catch the train for the hilltop town of Corniglia.

At Corniglia station a shuttle bus takes us up through the vineyards to the town which sits at the top of the cliff. It’s a small village of narrow streets, tall stone houses with green shutters and churches surrounded by terraced vine clad hills. Looking out over the town from its highest point at Belvedere Santa Maria, it’s a maze of terracotta rooftops and church spires. In a tiny cobbled laneway near the main tree shaded piazza we stop to look inside an old doorway to watch two men bottling wine. They welcome us in to taste of one of the local red wines before we run to catch the bus back down to the station.

The next town along is Manarola. This sits above a rocky beach where sunbakers are spread out over the rocks and young people are jumping from the top of a massive outcrop into the water way below. We spend ages watching them then walk around the headland to get a better view of this really breathtaking town. Up in the village Mark has a beer outside a trattoria while I buy an icecream and wander around the shops. Before leaving we buy a bottle of the local limonchina which is made from the lemons grown around Monterosso. But now it’s time to head back to La Spezia.

At Manarola station we’re so tired we crash out on the ground till the train pulls in. This has been such a lovely day and these villages are really something special. I think that what makes them so different is the lack of motorised transport which not only keeps them peaceful but also out of reach of the dreaded tourist coaches. It’s good to get back to La Spezia, though, and we’re soon at Albergo Nuovo Spezia. We change rooms before showering in an old fashioned shared bathroom then head out for the night. After a drink at the internet bar we eat again at Trattoria da Luciano and drink jugs of the house white. Again we end up at the bar so that Mark can watch the soccer on the television. A few men are here playing a wooden board game with the barmaid and we enjoy this very local atmosphere.

Thursday 17th June, 2004        La Spezia to Pisa to San Gimignano to Sienna

 This morning we leave early for Pisa. At this hour the autostrad is relatively quiet and we reach the outskirts of Pisa in an hour. Within seconds we see the Leaning Tower over to our left. Parking the car in a side street, we cross over to the Cathedral and the Tower. There’s a slight mist in the air which creates an almost magical backdrop for them both. The Cathedral is a green and white marble Romanesque church started in 1064 and sits in the grassed Campo dei Miracoli. We’re too early to go in and even the tourist stalls are only just opening. We decide to move the car to the other side of the campo to get a better view of the Leaning Tower. Once you could climb it but now it’s under repair so that it doesn’t fall over altogether.

From Pisa we hit the back roads that lead to the walled medieval city of San Gimignano. The scenery is pretty and after about an hour’s drive we see the towers of the old city perched on a hill before us. It looks wonderful until we see untold tourist buses in the car park beneath the main gate – great! The gate called Porta San Giovanni leads us up a cobbled street lined with expensive shops to the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Cisterna. Both squares are filled with tourists and umbrella covered stalls selling crap to tourists – just hate it. We escape the rat race and find some lovely quiet laneways with locals sitting outside their doorways and views from the city wall of lower parts of the town and the vineyards beyond.

Leaving San Gimignano behind, we head for the hills that will take us to Sienna. We can’t find anywhere to have a picnic until we finally spot a place on the edge of a vineyard. A quick u-turn and we pull into a dirt track just off the road. In the distance we can see the towers of San Gimignano and before us is a green valley of vineyards and cypress trees. Very romantic until we notice the toilet paper behind the bushes and the bull ants trying to pinch our lunch.

Finally reach Sienna and easily find the ostello on the main road into the city. It’s a semi-modern monstrosity but we do get a double room so we’re happy. After a rest we drive into town but as no cars are allowed in the medieval centre we park near the outside wall of the fort. Sienna is a hilly ancient town with paved streets and very picturesque. We stop to look at the thirteenth century Gothic cathedral then find Il Campo. This is a wide fourteenth century square in the heart of the city and slopes upwards on all sides. We can see a bar with a verandah high up on a wall overlooking the square so we find a couple of chairs right on the balcony. A beer or two later we wander around town then head back to the ostello.

For dinner we walk down the street to a busy pizza restaurant then watch the soccer back at the ostello before an early night.

Friday 18th June, 2004          Sienna to Montepulciano to Assisi

Breakfast is provided in the price of our room so we eat it sitting in the sun on the side verandah before heading off through the Tuscan countryside to Umbria. After passing through a few uneventful modernish towns we see the old walled city of Montepulciano sitting high up on a hill. The road twists its way upwards to reach the bottom of the town where we leave the car in a leafy laneway with lovely views of the surrounding countryside. The streets of Montepulciano are steep and narrow like all these old Etruscan towns so it’s a strenuous walk up the Piazza Grande. This ancient square has the usual cafes and palaces with the Cathedral taking up one whole side. This is Lido’s home town so we go into the cathedral to see where he would have come as a boy.

At one of the cafes we stand at the counter, as is the Italian way, and drink thick black coffee and eat one of the local cakes. Mark stays in the piazza while I pay to go into one of the palazzas and climb up to the rooftop to look out over the town. Nothing modern here at all and very few tourists so at last we feel we’re seeing the real Italy. We sit at the fountain in the piazza for a while then walk up to the castle before getting back in the car to head for Assisi.

On the way we stop at a pretty place for wine and cheese tasting but we’re just beaten by a busload of tourists. We look around anyway and love the traditional atmosphere – very gloomy inside with lots of polished wood. Onward to Assisi we drive through the town of Chiusi, around Lago di Trasimeno and past the turnoff to Perugia. At last we see Assisi clinging to the side of a hill. It looks almost too lovely to be real. Driving up the hill we come to the top of the town and park the car. Walking down narrow streets with stone houses on both sides we end up at the Piazza del Commune. This wide pretty square has cafes with flowering planter boxes, shops, palazzas and, of course, a fountain.

Just near the square through a stone archway and up a set of old brick stairs, we find Lieto Soggioro. This is a cute family-run pensione where a friendly young woman books is in for the night. For 40Euro we have a clean shared bathroom and a nice room with a shuttered window overlooking  a shaded courtyard. Back up in the sunny piazza we sit under an umbrella for a panini lunch then grab our packs from the car. After a look around town, Mark has a rest on the bed while I do some window shopping and emailing.

At six thirty we walk down to the Basilica di San Francesco which is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Inside is typically beautiful but we’re too late to get into the lower church. More wandering around town, we buy a wooden St Francis cross then find an atmospheric trattoria in a quiet side alleyway. So nice sitting here with only a few locals having dinner.

On dusk we run back down to the Basilica where we’re just in time to see the sun setting behind the church. Up in the Piazza del Commune again we have drinks in an outdoor café and Mark has the most ginormous beer we’ve ever seen. The Italy/Sweden game is being played on a television inside and we hear loud cheers whenever Italy scores. It’s so peaceful here with nuns in their grey habits and Francescan monks in their long black garbs. We’re so glad we came to this lovely town. And we’re so glad we have our car. Besides having a new experience and a fun experience, we’ve been able to see so much more than we ever expected.

Saturday 19th June, 2004             Assisi to Pompeii

We want to have an early start today as we plan to make the long drive down the centre of Italy to reach Pompeii in time to visit the ruins. At seven o’clock we pack then have breakfast in the dark dining room downstairs. The mumma of the house brings us our breakfast and what a surprise – stale buns again! These Italians really don’t make much of an effort and getting a free breakfast is definitely not a bonus. We’ve decided that we really want to leave Italy earlier than planned and to get back to Bangkok so we ask the daughter to ring British Airways in Rome for us. No luck getting through but at least we have the phone number to try later.

Mark now brings the car down to Piazza Commune so we won’t have to walk as far with our heavy packs. Leaving at a quarter to eight we set off for Perugia, get lost twice then eventually end up on the A1. Keeping on the autostrad the whole way we only stop once for baguettes at an Auto Grill. I make a call on our mobile to British Airways but sadly no seats from London to Bangkok. Seems like we’re stuck here. Five hours of driving later, with me snoring most of the way, we finally arrive in Pompeii.

Just opposite the ruins we see a camping ground and decide to stay here instead of the ostello which is further out of town. This is a pleasant change as well. The grounds are full of trees and we’re given a cabin with an annex at the side. For lunch we eat in an open-air café overlooking the campsites. Mark has a pizza but I order sausages and a tomato salad for something different. Bad move – one sausage cut in half and a few skinny slices of tomato.

It’s still too hot to visit the ruins so we lie around till five thirty then cross over to the main Porta Marina entrance where cafes and markets are still in full swing. We pay 10 Euro each to get in then spend an enjoyable couple of hours walking around. The ancient city of Pompeii was buried in AD 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which still ‘looms ominously’ over the area. ‘Ominous’ because the volcano is still active and could wipe out not only this same area but the huge city of Naples as well. The ruins are so much bigger than we’d expected and unbelievably well preserved – public buildings with colonnades, a brothel, murals, preserved bodies and floor mosaics. This is really something we’ll never forget.

Coming back out through the Porta Marina we look around the market and buy a couple of prints of wall murals from old Pompeii. Crossing the busy road we head back to the cabin for drinks in the annex then on dusk wander up to the main road. We like the look of an outdoor osteria and settle in for the night. At first it’s quite empty but as it gets dark the Italians start piling in. This is excellent people watching with a mixture of families, young couples and groups of trendy teenagers. A huge television screen has been set up for tonight’s soccer match and old nineties songs are being played from somewhere inside. Three jugs of vino bianco later they run out so we go on to the vino busso. While we watch the soccer I serenade Mark – he’s amazed at my voice – I can tell by the stunned look on his face. What a great night – our best yet!


Sunday 20th June, 2004                Pompeii to Sorrento to Positano

At eight o’clock we pack the car and set off towards the Amalfi Coast on another glorious hot sunny day. We pass Naples and drive around the Bay of Naples to Sorrento. This popular holiday town is where we finally leave the car but it takes a frustrating half hour to actually find the drop-off point.

Instead of staying here tonight we’re heading further south along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. We walk to the train station which is where the SITA buses leave for the coastal route. With standing room only, we spend the next exciting hour flying around hairpin bends on a road scarily narrow and clinging by its toenails to the edge of the cliffs. The water below is a deep aqua blue and the view up and down the coast is truly spectacular.

The approach to Positano is postcard material. The town is bathed in golden sunshine while the top of the mountain it clings to is hidden by a soft mist. The bus drops us at the top of the town and just a few metres from Ostello Brikette where we have a booking for tonight. Apparently the hostel is run by backpackers who decide to hang around for a few months so we’re booked in by a dickhead Yank who’s more than happy with himself. Of course, our booking is nowhere to be found but we still manage to get a room together. This is up a few flights of stairs and actually opens straight into the communal bathroom. We do have a nice garden view from our postage stamp sized window but there aren’t any sheets, the room stinks and we can’t be here between the hours of 9.30am and 3.30pm. All this luxury for a mere $100 AUD – get us the hell out of here and back to Bangkok!

Actually the ostello itself isn’t too bad with a balcony overlooking the town and the sea beyond. Just down the hill we catch one of the small orange local buses that go up and down the hill all day. The road twists and turns all the way to the bottom passing hotels, cafes and shops – all very Italian and expensive. The bus stops in a tiny space where the road ends and where the tourists are here in the hundreds. Narrow laneways lead down to the water but we decide to stop first for lunch. In a garden courtyard trattoria we have a horrible lunch and, because we’re feeling pissed off in general, we do the first ‘runner’ of our lives.

Escaping down to the water at Spiaggia Grande, we sit amongst the sunbathers who have to hire deckchairs because the beach is covered in grey pebbles. This waterfront area is full of life – swimmers, cafes, markets, ferries coming and going and tourists, tourists, tourists. On the pier we book tickets to visit the Isle of Capri tomorrow at eleven o’clock then walk around the rocky headland to find the wonderful Lo Guarracino trattoria set high on the cliff face. We order cokes and enjoy this lovely leafy place with a cool breeze coming in off the Gulf of Salerno.

Back in Positano we window shop for about five micro-seconds (boring, boring, boring) then stop at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Now we sneak past the ‘runner’ café one at a time then catch the bus up to the ostello. At six o’clock we decide to walk down to the water and eat at a café on the way. At Il Saraceno d’Oro we sit at an outside table for pizza and vino and watch the local world go by. Much nicer up here than down on the water where most of the tourists congregate. From here we walk down Via Fornillo past interesting houses and small vegetable gardens to Spiaggia del Fornille beach.

It’s dusk by now so we’re the only ones here except for a couple of locals with their dog. We sit on deckchairs right on the water and enjoy the sound of the waves lapping against the pebbles. After dark we buy cokes at the beachside bar then follow the track around the cliffs back to the beach at Spiaggia Grande. From the cliff path Positano looks especially beautiful and we can see the twinkling lights of Amalfi further around the coast.

The cafes and restaurants right on the beach are literally bursting with happy holiday makers and all the shops and stalls are still open. We’ve had enough for today though so we catch the bus back to the hostel.

Monday 21st June, 2004             Positano to Sorrento

Breakfast is on the balcony of the ostello but at the moment the sun is hidden behind the mist that seems to hang permanently on the mountain tops. We’re leaving this morning for Sorrento but when a young French guy is booking us out he asks for the towels and sheets we’d supposedly been given when we checked in yesterday. When we tell him we didn’t get any he definitely thinks we’ve pinched them. Of course the smart-arsed Yank isn’t around to tell him we weren’t given them in the first place so the French guy still thinks we’ve got them stuffed inside our packs – get fucked!!

We’re heading back to Sorrento because we’ve decided to dump the trip to Capri –can’t face the tourists – so we sit on a stone wall in the sun while we wait for the Sita bus. We manage to get seats today and pick ones on the left hand side of the bus to have the best views. It’s an enjoyable trip till we realise we’ve left our pillow bag at the bus stop – not a good start to the day.

Arriving in Sorrento at ten o’clock, we book in at the Ostello della Sirene. At 50 Euros for a sunny room with double bunks and a bathroom, it’s much better value. The hostel itself is a funny little rabbit warren of rooms reached by a ladder-like staircase and with a dining room and café downstairs. Mark rings the Ostello Brikette to see if they’ll put our pillows on the next bus heading for Sorrento but seeing they think we’ve got their bed sheets, I’d say there’s no chance. After dumping our packs we walk into the main part of town and see a funeral then an old lady get hit by a car – still not a good day.

In the busy Piazza Tassi we stop at a picturesque trattoria for drinks and panini then wander around the narrow streets full of cafes and markets. We’ve forgotten our swimmers so we go back to the hostel and have a rest before heading back out into the streets. At a local supermarket we buy cheese, proscuitto and bread for our picnic lunch. It’s a long walk down to the beach and very weird when we get here. The good is fenced off so you have to pay to get in and the free bit is only about twenty metres wide and covered with black muddy sand. There’s not an inch of sand without a body on top of it anyway so we sit on the wall eating our lunch and watching the locals.

Further along we sit at the pier and feed cheese to a sweet stray cat who I name ‘Little’. She curls up on my lap and this little darling has made my day. Nearby in a raised café we’re served drinks by an annoying waiter we call ‘Mr Slimey’ then walk back to the ostello for showers. Later we sit in the café downstairs while the transvestite waiter prances around then Mark goes over to the bus station to check if our pillows have turned up – no they haven’t – bummer!

On dark we sit outside the hostel for happy hour drinks and talk with an Australian guy and two friendly Americans. At half time we walk around to the Red Lion café which is packed with singing English tourists. A fantastic atmosphere as we eat pizza and watch the rest of the game. The Poms absolutely go off when England finally wins. We only get charged for our drinks so, before they realize, we do another runner.

Tuesday 22nd June,2004                 Sorrento to Naples to Rome

Today we’re going back to Rome for our last night in Italy. We catch an early Circumvesuviana train for the one and a half hour trip to Naples with the Bay of Naples on our left and Mount Vesuvius above us on the right.

At Statione Centrale in Naples we change to the Eurostar train to take us to Rome. We sit opposite a pretty, young woman who cries the whole time. She’s sitting there with tears streaming down her face and not even trying to wipe them away – very melodramatic. Later an accordionist wanders through and then a trumpet player. We’ve really enjoyed the train trips and they’ve been an experience all their own. On the Rome to Florence train another young woman had moved from seat to seat placing a small parcel wrapped like a present on each windowsill. A small tag attached to the parcel told us that she’s deaf and that a small donation will help her.

In Rome the train stops as usual at Statione Termini where we walk in the opposite direction to where we stayed last time so we can experience a different area. We find a big, airy room with our own bathroom at Hotel Cervia for 67 Euro a night. The hotel is on the first floor of a lovely old building but the lady at the counter is, not surprisingly, a grouch. After a rest we wander around the streets to find an internet café then Mark buys a few beers to take back to the room.

For a very late lunch we eat in a pretty outdoor café and order lasagna and pasta then sleep till it gets dark. Italy is playing in the Euro 2004 tonight but the only place we can find with a television is an upmarket restaurant near our hotel – really fed up with Italy!

Wednesday  23rd June, 2004           Rome to Bangkok, Thailand

Our last day! Our flight back to London doesn’t take off till late this afternoon so we have most of the day to fill in. We decide to go back to the Spanish Steps to see the Keats/Shelley House which I’d forgotten to look at last time. On the way we see more beautiful piazzas, fountains and statues. Just near the Piazza di Spagna in front of the Spanish Steps we find all the designer shops – Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Gucci and Prada. Too expensive to even window shop and, anyway, I can’t be bothered. I thought it would be good to get back to Rome but I’m still bored – would love to throw a tantrum.

Finally it’s time to go so we catch the airport train from Statione Termini and fly out from Italy at 6.35pm. Landing at Heathrow on a cold windy day (it’s the middle of summer) we have a one and a half hour stopover before taking off for Thailand.

At last we’re on our way at ten o’clock for the eleven hour flight. Managing to get some sleep mainly due to our sleeping pills we arrive in Bangkok at three thirty in the afternoon. Sharing a taxi with a backpacking couple from England we’re soon at Khao San Road – we’re finally back! And all the old emotions are back. I feel something so deep and intense – something so passionate that it catches my breath. I have such love for this place and these people – I feel I’m home and totally me.

Now we walk through the temple to get to Soi Rambutri where we hope to get a room at the Wild Orchid. This wonderfully atmospheric guesthouse is in the backpacker area and in the middle of cafes, massage parlours and markets. Our room is typically Asian and we have our own sunny bathroom for the grand sum of AUD20. In the café downstairs we have a drink and salad rolls while we cool down under the overhead fans. From here we walk around to Khao San Road to Aviv Clothing where Mark wants to get a few business shirts made. Our old friend Alex is here to greet us with a big beaming smile as usual.

At six o’clock we’ve arranged to meet Kerrie and Paul who are also on their way home from England and Italy. They’ve already had a look around Khao San Road so we take them around to Soi Rambutri where it’s quieter. We have cocktails and fresh seafood and swap travel stories in an open-air café then show them where we’re staying. They love this area much better than the upmarket place their travel agent booked them into and we could only say ‘we told you so’.

Thursday  24th June, 2004              Bangkok to Sydney

Today we wake to sunshine, humidity and the smells of Asia. We follow our usual pattern of shopping in Khao San Road, a massage at Mamas, drinking orange juice squeezed fresh on the streets, eating in the open-air cafes, watching the worshippers at the temple and buying a bronze Hindu holy man at the Mahatat Market. While Mark packs, I round off a wonderful day by having a foot massage from the transvestite next to the Wild Orchid. He’s so nice and spends all day, every day calling out ‘you want mathage?’

Sadly it’s finally time to go. We’ve had an amazing trip and seen much more that we’d hoped. And yet if I was asked for the highlight I’d have to say it was being back here in our beloved Thailand. All the history and beauty of England and Italy isn’t enough. You have to be in the place where your heart skips a beat – where you’re deliriously happy because that’s what life is about. No mediocrity – it has to be about passion and undying love or it’s not enough.

 

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Java and Bali, Indonesia 2006

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                  Our Itinerary          
         
Tuesday 26th December 2006   Sydney to Melbourne (fly 1.5hr)
        to Bali (6hrs)
Wednesday 27th December 2006   Kuta, Bali
Thursday 28th December 2006   Kuta to Lovina (van 3hrs)
Friday 29th December 2006   Lovina
Saturday 30th December 2006   Lovina to Gilimanuk (bus 3hrs) to
        Java  ferry(1hr) to Probolinggo (bus 3hrs)
        to Cemoro Lawang (van 2hrs)
Sunday 31st December 2006   Cemoro Lawang – Mount Bromo
Monday 1st January 2007   Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo (van 2hrs)
        to Solo (van 8 hrs)
Tuesday 2nd January 2007   Solo
Wednesday 3rd January 2007   Solo
Thursday 4th January 2007   Solo to Yogjakarta (train 1 hr)
Friday 5th January 2007   Yojakarta
Saturday 6th January 2007   Yogjakarta to Borobodhur (van 2 hrs)
        to Yogjakarta (van 2hrs)
Sunday 7th January 2007   Yogjakarta to Jakarta (fly Garuda 1.5 hrs)
Monday 8th January 2007   Jakarta to Sydney (fly Qantas 8 hrs)
Tuesday 9th January 2007   Sydney

 

Tuesday 26th December, 2006    Sydney to Melbourne to Bali

Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station where we catch the 10.30am train to Central – sleep most of the way. The airport train drops us at the Domestic Terminal where we catch the Qantas flight to Melbourne. Here we have a one and a half hour wait in an almost empty airport – much rather leave from Sydney but with free Frequent Flyer tickets we can’t complain.

At 7pm we fly out on Jetstar and find that our seats are on opposite sides of the plane. A nice girl swaps with me so it all works out. After a sleeping pill, a beer and a bacardi the six hour flight passes quickly.

We land in beautiful Bali at 9.45pm their time. The lines at immigration are slow but I pass the time fagging in a tiny glass box with two other smokers – hilarious. At last we’re out in the hot night air and immerse ourselves in the wonderful smells of Bali. We catch a taxi straight to Aneka Beach Hotel where we’ve stayed so many times before. But even at this late hour they want $80AUD for the night so we decide to look somewhere else. For some reason the gate into Poppies Gang 1 has been blocked so we have to walk down to the beach then back up the laneway. The first place we come to is Kuta Puri Cottages which looks wonderful and where we can get a room for $50AUD. This is still a lot more than we expected to pay but a good sign that the tourist industry isn’t struggling too much.

Our room is wonderful – a cottage really, with an open air bathroom and all very Balinese. Chucking our gear and changing into our slob clothes, we head straight for Poppies and find one of our old favourite places for a drink –  bamboo  stools at the bar right on the laneway. It shuts at 12.50am so we find a newer more upmarket bar also opening onto Poppies. We have a lovely time drinking Bintangs and Margaritas and eating satay chicken skewers – heaven.

Back at the hotel we have a funny time skinny-dipping in the pool – floating on our backs looking up at the clear starry sky and feeling overwhelmed by the wonderful vibes of this magical place. After a naked streak back to the room and showers in our outdoor bathroom, we finally crash about 2am – a great time already.

Wednesday 27th December, 2006            Kuta, Bali

At 7am we’re up and in the pool which is even lovelier in the daylight. Flowering bougainvillea, coconut palms and frangipani remind us that we’re back in Bali. Breakfast is in an open sided pavilion and served by pretty young girls in traditional dress. Afterwards we walk down to the beach then back up Poppies to Sorga Gang to look for a cheaper hotel for tonight. We like the look of Sorga Bungalows but then decide to stay at Kuta Puri instead of moving.

Continuing along Sorga Gang away from the beach we finally come out onto Jalan Legian and head for the Memorial. It’s four years this year that terrorists set off the bombs at the Sari Club and Paddy’s that killed over two hundred people. Back down Poppies II we have a massage (50,000 RP for one hour) in a new air-conditioned place down a small alleyway. The two girls are so sweet and happy to have customers this early. Now from the roadside markets, we buy two sarongs (22,000 RP each), a t-shirt (30,000 RP) and a scarf (20,000 Rp) before heading back to our hotel.

Unfortunately, we can’t get a room here at Kuta Puri for tonight so we pack and walk around to Sorga Cottages. This is fine with us because we like to stay in lots of different places anyway. And besides this, Sorga is so pretty with a lovely pool and a small leafy garden thick with flowering vines, palms, cycads, clumping bamboos, coloured Balinese umbrellas, thatched wooden lanterns and a spirit house. Our room is on the bottom of three floors. Facing the garden, we have a small verandah with a table and chairs and a clothes hanger for drying our towels and swimmers.

After a welcome drink in the tiny restaurant next to the pool, we walk to the Treehouse on the corner of Sorga Gang and Poppies I for lunch. Back in our air-conditioned room for a siesta, then up again at 5pm to walk down to the beach and watch the nightly ritual when hundreds of Balinese come down to hang out till sunset.

We walk down to the southern end of Kuta which is by far the nicest with lots of shade trees right on the sand and where all the massage ladies and hawkers hang out. Some people don’t like to be hassled but we love the ladies and they’ll let you alone after a while. We sit at a basic drink stand for beers and manage to buy CD’s, a pineapple and have a manicure without moving an inch. Other ladies are selling sarongs, necklaces, foot scrapings and neck massages.

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Only a few steps away is the Bali Art Market where we hope to find Ayu. Lauren met her on her last trip to Bali and we promised to look her up. She runs Stall 165 in the market and it takes a while to find it. She’s so happy to see us and we show her the photos that Lauren had taken of her and her little boy, Bagus. He’s here at the moment, playing on the floor and trying to keep cool in front of a tiny electric fan. Ayu is happy and friendly as most Balinese are and we love her smile that lights up her pretty chubby face. Lauren had told me that Ayu wanted lots of bottles of nail polish because she does manicures and pedicures for tourists to make extra money. I’ve brought a whole bagful so she’s very happy. Lauren also wanted some ‘butterfly’ style tops like the one she’d brought home with her. We order seven in all – for Lauren, Angie and Mum. We also get Ayu to arrange for a car and a driver to take us to Lovina tomorrow. Now, she’s extra happy and laughs and brags to her unlucky friends in the stalls nearby.

Back along the busy Jalan Legian, we head for Mades Warang on Jalan Pantaii. This is a Kuta institution and was one of the first places to sell European type food to travelers. It still has heaps of atmosphere and a great people-watching place. Mark and I find a bench seat right on the street and order nasi goring and beer. It’s very dark by now and possibly a bit cooler. Later in Poppies I we have drinks at the Secret Garden, the newish upstairs Sports Bar and then a basic old favourite. Here we meet a funny English couple who are living in Batam – great to talk to and a shame we won’t be able to see more of them.

At Sorga we swim in the pool to cool down before having a drink on our verandah. Nights are beautiful in Bali – we can hear Balinese music, soft wind chimes and, best of all, geckos and frogs.

Thursday 28th December, 2006                Kuta to Lovina

Mark has a sleep in this morning while I go off to email (not working) and buy the girls a few DVD’s. We have breakfast next to the pool then pack for our trip to Lovina this afternoon. Now we wander around the alleyways between Poppies I and Poppies II where we find a massage place that’s been around for years. It’s a basic old shack with green painted bamboo blinds at the front and tiny rooms inside. With no air-conditioning and nothing fancy about it, we love it. Mark and I are in the same little room which is even better. The girls are sweet and we love our one hour massage for only 25,000RP each (about $3.50 AUD).

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The Treehouse is in a laneway nearby so we head there for more good food. Lunch is tuna salad, fish and chips and lime sodas.

At 1pm Made and his friend pick us up from Sorga. They tell us that the air-conditioning isn’t working so we have to change vans. We drive over to a part of Kuta that we’ve never seen before – over near the Night Market but towards Tuban. We wind through tiny alleyways till we come to a newish house with big gates into the driveway. We move all our gear into another van then drive the short distance to the Art Market to meet Ayu. She has the butterfly tops for the girls and Mark buys a couple of t-shirts so she’s really happy with all her sales.

Now we’re off to Lovina. We pass through the busy streets of Kuta and Legian along Jalan Legian, then onto Seminyak and Kerokoban. This is where Schappelle Corby is being held in the big prison and we see its tall walls as we pass by. From here the towns start to thin out and we’re in the beautiful green countryside that Bali is known for. We pass through Bedulu then stop at Lake Bratan to see Pura Ulun Danu which is often seen on Bali postcards. Apparently, the temple is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the Lake Goddess, who provides the irrigation water for the rice fields. There seems to be a lot of Indonesian tourists here and a definite Muslim influence in this area – it doesn’t feel like Bali at all.

From here we drive over mist covered mountains where we pass a funeral procession. The winding roads are making Mark feel car sick so we’re both glad to reach the other side to the flat area on the north coast. We turn left at the busy town of Singaraja and drive along the coastal road to Lovina. I see a horrible sight on the way – a man has hung a cat up by the neck and the poor thing is hanging dead from the roof of his verandah.

Not a good first impression of somewhere but we do like the look of Kalibukbuk which is the main village to stay and eat. With the beach on one side of the main road, mountains close by on the other and lots of swaying palm trees; this will be a different experience to the part of Bali we’ve always known. Made and Made (as his friend is also called) drive us to a place we’ve picked out of the Lonely Planet. It’s called the Ban Kitami Hotel and we love it. It consists of a string of bungalows facing the beach with a gorgeous pool, acres of gardens, a creek and an open-air restaurant. Our bungalow has a verandah and an open-to-the-sky bathroom with rockwork and even a garden – all this for only 200,000 Rp ($28 AUD). I love it here especially when I see we have a resident cat.

According to a sign near the path, a group of mini-komodos live here in the creek and in the gardens so I go off to ask a young waitress in the restaurant. She takes me down to the creek but we can’t find any at the moment. Mark, in the mean time, has spied one in the grass near our hut and I’m just in time to see it make a run for it and dive into the creek – hideous thing but thrilling to see. Also not so ‘mini’ – about three foot long!

On dusk we walk down to the beach which isn’t the beautiful white sands of Kuta but black and grainy thanks to past volcanic eruptions of Mount Agung. Still, it’s nice by the water and we meet Ketut and her husband, Nyoman, on the beach and plan for him to take us out snorkeling in the morning. At seven o’clock we find a nearby café and order shrimp salad and coconut curry. We have a table almost on the sand and watch the local kids playing volleyball on the beach. All is beautiful till we see a dark ominous storm coming towards us across the water. In seconds the wind is blowing everything all over the place and the rain is pouring in. We don’t mind at all – exciting really and it’s still hot so we just move further inside the restaurant. We notice that there seems to be a lot of older western men here with young Balinese guys – apparently Lovina is known for these old perverts who use their money to lure in poor young men. Later after the storm has gone, we find an upstairs bar overlooking the main street then walk home in the dark.

Friday 29th December, 2006                    Lovina

A gorgeous day and a gorgeous view to wake up to  – clear blue skies, palm trees and the calm waters of the beach right in front of us – and it’s hot already. At 7.30am we wandder over to the hotel’s open air cafe for breakfast – yes, this is what Bali is all about.

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After breakfast we look around the gardens hunting out more dragons then spend a wonderful hour in the pool. We have it all to ourselves which is even better. As usual in Bali, the pool is surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and this pool even has a lovely garden in the middle.

At nine o’clock it’s time to meet Nyoman on the beach for our snorkeling trip to the reef. He’s already waiting for us and we’re soon speeding away from the shore on his outrigger with Ketut waving us off.

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Out at the reef Nyoman gives us bags of a cakey type of bread to feed the fish. We both love snorkeling so we have a lovely time swimming over the reef and getting the fish to eat straight from our fingers. Mark has taught me to dive with my snor kel so we spend ages taking pictures of each other under water. When it’s my turn to get back in the boat I just can’t do it and poor Mark and Nyoman have to drag me up over the side like a sack of potatoes.

Back on the beach Ketut is waiting to give us a massage. Mark wants to go back to the bungalow for a shower so I go first. I follow Ketut to their little hut built on the sand only metres from the water. In one room there is a concrete floor that she tells me was paid for by a tourist. A mattress is on the floor and clothes are hanging from hooks on the wall – no furniture at all – this is the family bedroom. During the massage she tells me that she will have to pull her son out of school because they can’t afford the fees now that the tourists have stopped coming to Bali since the bombings in 2002 and 2005. I buy a bottle of foul smelling oil that she has made herself – so with the snorkelling, the oil and the two massages, I hope that Mark and I have helped Nyoman and Ketut at least a little bit.

Mark has his massage next then, while I shower in the outdoor bathroom, he organizes a motor bike so we can change hotels. It’s lovely here but we always like to move around for different experiences. He picks me up and we set off to find a new place to stay.  We like the look of Pulwesi not far away in the centre of Kalibukbuk and amongst the cafes and shops near the beach. The friendly young guy running the place is Ecko whose family lives in nearby Singaraja. We ask him about getting a bus to Java tomorrow but he tells us that we can only buy the tickets at the bus station in Singaraja. He says he’ll go there himself to get the tickets for us. The other good news is that the bus doesn’t leave till 7.30pm so we’ll have another full day here tomorrow. Now we book into our room which is a brightly coloured bungalow with a Chinese style roof, a tiny verandah and another open air bathroom. After lunch in a nice café nearby, we crash out for an afternoon nap before heading out on the bike.

With me on the back, Mark drives east along the main road then turns off along a track that heads towards the beach. The clouds have moved in by now as they do every afternoon here in the wet season. The heavy black clouds actually look quite beautiful rolling over the green hills behind us. Suddenly the skies open up and we’re flying back along the main road to Kalibukbuk getting absolutely drenched. It’s a wonderfully free and happy feeling made all the better because the air is still calm and warm despite the rain.

On dark we ride down to a bar on the main road. It’s a little thatched place run by Batu and his beloved cat, Moo Chang. We’re the only customers so we sit at the bar talking to Batu while he serves us margaritas. He tells us about a tourist who he’d made friends with who was heading for Kuta the next day. A couple of days later he read his name in the list of people killed in the Sari Club bomb.

For dinner we ride to the Semina Café which is supposed to have Balinese dancing but because of the lack of tourists there isn’t any tonight.  We order drinks in fresh pineapples which look amazing but taste like shit. The food is horrible as well then a sleazy looking guy (one of the perverts) chats me for feeding my dinner to a starving cat – fuck off, pedophile!

Anyway the night quickly improves when we find a busy bar near the Pulwesi. We sit on stools right on the footpath and buy drinks for Ecko who’s come down to listen to the music. The band unfortunately takes requests and because I’ve had too many bacardis by this time I ask for Country Roads and sing it very badly at the top of my lungs – poor Mark.

Saturday 30th December, 2006             Lovina to Gilimanuk to Java to Probolinggo

This morning we wake to rain on the roof. Because we haven’t got big plans for today and because we have a long trip ahead of us tonight, we decide to have a sleep-in. Mark also has the runs and doesn’t want breakfast so later I walk down to a café on the beach to get something to eat. It’s all lovely until I see a puppy hit by a car and I feel so sad because no-one really cares – I guess puppies aren’t high up on the care-factor list when everyone here is struggling for survival themselves.

Later the weather has cleared so we hop on the bike to head inland instead of along the coast. We find lovely tracks through villages and stop at a roadside shop in the middle of nowhere. A poor woman sells us water while her three children stare at us. The shop is a broken down shack that looks ready to fall over in the next breeze and there’s only a few things for sale. Back on the bike we stop at a farm house to look at cows, sway back pigs and goats. The family comes out to say hello and the kids give me a baby goat to hold.

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Lunch is back at another café in our hotel street. We have pizza and shrimp cocktail with fresh juice but Mark starts to feel sick again. He makes a dash back to the room while I buy shell necklaces from a hawker walking past.

We spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping then at 6pm we pack, check out and eat in a pretty café with a bamboo bridge over an inside pond. At a quarter to seven, we walk up to the main road with Ecko who wants to wave us off on the bus. Yesterday he gave me lessons in Indonesian and now he hands me a handwritten page full of Balinese words with English translations. I feel so touched because I can see how much effort he’s put into it. I’m so grateful to have met such a sweet person as Ecko and just another example of the loveliness of the Balinese people.

It’s dark by now and we sit on our packs on the roadside while we wait for the bus. It arrives on time and we say a big thank you to Ecko. The bus has come from Singaraja and is almost full. The seats lie back and we soon settle in for the two and a half hour drive to Gilimanuk on the west coast. Because it’s dark we can’t see much except for passing through a few small towns and when we slow down for two ceremonies along the road. Both times people are carrying fire torches and wearing ceremonial dress on their way to the village temple.

We arrive in Gilimanuk about 10pm where the bus drives straight onto the big car ferry that will take us to Java. We can actually see the lights of Java across the three kilometre Bali Strait that separates the two islands. Instead of staying on the bus for the crossing like the rest of the passengers, we climb up to the top deck where we can sit in the fresh air with the locals. A television is playing loud music videos which is so typical of the Asian culture these days. The crossing itself is a short thirty minutes and a nice experience on this calm starry night.

At Ketapang port on the Java side we jump back on the bus and pop sleeping pills for the long (or so we thought) trip to Probollingo – big mistake. Luckily the bus driver knows when we should get off because he has to shake us awake from dead sleeps when we arrive about 3am. We grab our gear and find ourselves standing zombie-like in a tiny travel agent’s place which is the only thing open along this stretch of road and at this time of night. Still dazed from our sleeping pills, we sign up for a van to take us to the town of Cemoro Lawang on the edge of Mount Bromo, two nights in a hotel, a dawn trip to Mt Bromo, a van back to Probollingo in two days time and bus tickets to Solo. I think he could have offered us tickets to the moon and we would have signed up.

In no time we have a driver, and his friend, and we’re speeding towards Cemoro Lawang. Mark immediately curls up on the back seat while I try to sit up but soon pass out as well. Neither of us remember the two hour trip at all.

About 5am we’re dropped at the Cemara Indah Hotel in Cemoro Lawang. This is like a dream sequence with a light rain falling, fog swirling around us and people setting off in jeeps to watch the sunrise over Mount Bromo. Because we’re also freezing the hotel owner hires us thick jackets before showing us to our room. Collapse into bed.

Sunday 31st December, 2006            Probolinggo to Cemoro Lawang to Mt Bromo

We sleep soundly until 9am when we wake to a cold foggy day. This isn’t surprising considering the weather last night. If Cemoro Lawang looked bleak last night it doesn’t look any better by daylight. After dragging on our warmest clothes and our new jackets, we head out for breakfast.

We find that our guesthouse is just across the road from the rim of the crater of an extinct volcano. The fog lifts just in time for us to look down into the crater then comes rolling back in again. We can keep a watch out for it to clear from the Cemoro Indah Café built right on the crater rim. If the café has million dollar views the décor definitely doesn’t match. It’s a bare, cold place of cracked lino and cheap metal chairs – very uninviting but we somehow like it for being so unpretentious. Breakfast is simple but welcome – nasi goreng and hot sweet tea.

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Outside the local people are rugged up in thick scarves and woolen hats. Men crouch close to the ground with their hands tucked under their armpits to keep warm. Other men knock two short sticks together making a clunking sound to send off signals through the fog. The noise means that he has hot soup to sell from his food cart.

After breakfast we buy local hand knitted hats from a woman on the road. With our new hats and our hired jackets at least now we won’t freeze to death. Still hungry after our small breakfast, we set off in search of Café Lava. Because this whole area is a maze of extinct volcanos, Cemoro Lawang is built on the side of a steep slope so exploring the town means lots of up and down walking. The weather is still miserable but ironically creates a strangely exciting atmosphere. The houses are all very similar with thick brick rendered walls to keep out the cold. We walk though vegetable gardens and dodge the noisy motor bikes that roar up the hill.

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At the top of the ridge we still haven’t found Café Lava but meet some men who offer to take us to Mount Bromo on horseback for only 50,000 Rp (AUD $7 each). The trip there and back will take about three hours and the weather looks dreadful but what the hell! There is a problem with the horses though. They’re very short and the first one Mark sits on just about disappears under him.  The men find him a sturdier one which at least we can see.

Soon we set off with the guides on foot leading the horses down the steep dirt track to the base of the crater. This flat circular plain is called the Sea of Sand and is a painstaking three kilometers across to the base of Mount Bromo.

Out in the open the weather is much worse – cold, raining and windy. The fog swirls around us and becomes much thicker as we start the climb to Mount Bromo. The landscape is surreal – almost like the surface of the moon – barren, empty and devoid of any sort of vegetation. Climbing towards the base of the crater we’re engulfed with thick white sulfurous fumes that have us all, even the horses, coughing and wheezing.

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Leaving the horses and the guides behind, we climb the two hundred and fifty steps to the top of the crater. Of course, safety isn’t an issue and with a broken hand rail and slippery pebbles on the stairs, it’s not a simple climb. At the top the fumes are so thick we can barely breathe let alone see. Briefly the fumes shift so we finally get a glimpse down into the belly of the volcano and the source of the stinking smoke and fumes. The wind is so strong we have to push against it to stay upright so we don’t hang around too long.

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The ride back is long and very wet but I feel almost cozy wrapped up in my hooded rain jacket and thick clothes.  I think it must be the adrenaline rush as well. We’ve loved every minute of the whole experience.

Off the poor horses at last, we luckily find Cafe Lava which is a Swiss chalet-style place made of rich dark timber inside and out. Because we’re both totally drenched it’s a warm haven from the miserable weather outside. We order hot tea and lunch while we chat with Linda the jolly local owner.

By now we both need to sleep so we find a shortcut back to the guesthouse, dump our wet clothes and jump into bed. The room is like a fridge and has no heating at all so the only way to get warm is good old body heat – it works.

We sleep till seven then walk uphill to Hotel Bromo Pental for New Years Eve drinks and dinner. The hotel is an upmarket place (for Cemoro Lawang anyway) with a big room set out with tables around three sides of a dance floor and a raised stage at one end. While we order satay chicken and some noodle and rice dishes, we’re entertained by a local band with a female singer playing old ballads – all sung in Indonesian but we recognise most of the tunes. Besides Mark and I there is a group of Dutch travellers and two big groups of Indonesians – and everyone is wearing a beanie – a fabulous atmosphere and so weird to be in this cold misty place so soon after being in tropical Bali.

We don’t stay too late because Mark is feeling sad, this being the first New Years Eve since his Mum died. We walk home about 11 o’clock to our cold little room but are soon snuggled up in bed. We wake to hear a few people braving the cold and letting off a couple of fire crackers at midnight. Happy New Year, my darling.

Monday 1st January, 2007             Cemoro Lawang to Probilinggo to Solo

Guess what, it’s still raining and windy. This must be a miserable place to live – but maybe it’s just the time of year. Before breakfast we arrange for a van to take us back to Probilinggo at midday. At Cemara Indah Café we have another horrible breakfast then pack ready to be picked up down the hill. The driver naturally has brought a friend with him – company for the long drive there and back. We leave on time at noon but stop twice to pick up more friends on the way out of town.

The scenery is spectacular. We’d slept through it all on the way in and it was dark anyway. We can’t believe that we managed to sleep on this incredibly steep and winding road. The mountains climb almost perpendicular on either side of the road and amazingly they’re all terraced with vegetable gardens. With the fog still wafting around us this really is one of the most unusual landscapes we’ve ever seen

The weather suddenly improves as we reach the plains and the temperature and humidity skyrocket. We peel off layers of clothes and feel like we’re back in the tropics once again. Our driver is typical of most Asians and we’re flying through the countryside at breakneck speed.

Around 3pm we’re happy to pull into Probilinggo and get dropped of at the same little travel agent that we’d left from two nights ago. Here we book a bus to take us to Solo in Central Java but it doesn’t leave until nine o’clock tonight. We decide to book into a cheap room so we can have a rest this afternoon. Mark finds a becak (Indonesian rickshaw) driver to take us into town which is a lot further than we expected. The poor little man gets so tired that we hitch a ride with a motor bike driver who pulls us along with him. The rain has started to fall as well so our driver kindly encases us in a plastic cover that we can’t see through and feels like a sauna.

He drops us in town at the Hotel Bromo Pentai II which is a nice hotel with a pretty central courtyard garden. Now we realise that we’ve left the charger for our video camera back in the hotel in Cemoro Lawang. We walk for ages trying to find a telephone to ring the guesthouse and finally find a wartel where we arrange for it to be brought back to Probilinggo this afternoon. We don’t hold any real hope of this happening but we’ve given it a go anyway. At a small supermarket we buy water and ice creams then wander around a friendly local market.

We sleep most of the afternoon in our air conditioned room then Mark goes off to a nearby café for dinner. I can’t be bothered eating and prefer to sleep but it’s a waste of time because kids are running around outside our room in their pyjamas. The mothers of the kids are also dressed in the pyjamas even though it’s not even dark yet.

A mini van picks us up at 8.40pm. Apparently there is no bus to Solo tonight (or never was) so we have to do the seven hour drive in this decrepit old van – and ‘sorry but air-con broken’. The traffic is hectic and the pollution from the trucks and buses is suffocating. Somehow I manage to sleep but Mark has a horrible trip. We finally arrive in Solo about 4am and book into the Istana Griya – a cute guesthouse in a quiet street off the main drag. Our room is big and airy with air-con and our own bathroom. Collapse into bed for a long sleep.

Tuesday 2nd January, 2007                  Solo

Since we had an on-and-off sleep in the van last night, we both sleep soundly till 9am. We decide to hang around today and do some serious sightseeing tomorrow. The weather is a bit cloudy but very hot and humid.

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We have breakfast brought to us while we sit on cane lounges on the verandah of the guesthouse. It’s so pretty here – coloured glass around the roof, colonial hanging lamps, a red tiled floor, statues carved out of volcanic rock and a few blackboards and notice boards with information about local tours. Because we’re down an alleyway off another alleyway, it’s also very peaceful. A couple of cane cages with singing birds are hanging above us with lots of potted plants to keep us cool. A couple of young German travellers are also sitting around in the sun reading and writing journals. We love it here and the only downside is that the loo doesn’t flush. Mark reports it to the girl on the desk and she replies with a big happy ‘yes, you pour water down’.  Simple.

After sending off some emails in a nearby internet café, we buy a watch each from a cheap shop on the corner. Lunch is at Warung Baru across from our alleyway – it’s an old very Balinese-style place with thick vines and bamboo furniture. A couple of lounge chairs covered in cushions are set up here facing the street so we spend a nice hour or so having a beer and reading. Later we walk to a bar in the main street but it doesn’t open till 5pm so we catch a becak to the Kasuma Hotel.  This is Solo’s oldest colonial hotels behind a tall fence and with a wide sweeping driveway to the front entrance. Inside we find the posh bar and have a bintang each enjoying the lovely surroundings. No-one else is here at this time of day and I doubt it ever gets full.

We pick up another becak outside in the street to take us back to the guesthouse for an afternoon nap. Riding through the streets we can see how lovely this town really is. Even though it’s called Yogjakarta’s ‘twin’ sister, Solo has apparently retained more of its Javanese character and is described as the least westernized city in Central Java.

At 7pm we wander around to the shops a few streets away to look for an electricity adaptor to replace the one we left behind. Unbelievably we find one in no time and head off for the bar where a different person tells us that it doesn’t  open till 11pm – forget it, we’ll be asleep by then. From here we find the Gamelan Bar – a dark,  grubby place playing Cat Stevens music. At first we’re the only ones here. They mustn’t have much stock because when I order a coke someone has to race off on a motor bike to bring back a warm one. Later a few expats drink at the table next to us and we try to eavesdrop. Our table is right on the street which is good for people watching but the hundreds of motor bikes roaring past are sending us deaf. Besides that the noodles are cold and we see a rat – ‘would you like a rat with that?’

This soon sends us high tailing it back to Warung Baru where they have cold cokes, hot noodles and no rodents. Bed at 9.30pm.

Wednesday 3rd January, 2007            Solo 

Yesterday we’d arrange for some moto drivers to take us around Solo and the surrounding villages. This means an early start, so we’re up at 7am, shower and order a breakfast of nasi goring and tea to have on the cute verandah. Mark is feeling well today and the weather is hot and sunny – a great start. At 8 o’clock our moto drivers arrive in the laneway. They are Patrick and Ruti and have brought motorcycle helmets for Mark and I to wear – Mark’s is a tiny jockey’s hat – hilarious!

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It’s very exciting driving through town then within minutes we’re in true countryside. At a small thatched village we stop on the banks of the Solo River where a bamboo raft is waiting to take passengers to the other side. While the men are loading the bikes onto the raft, Mark and I have a look at the village.

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It’s so basic and lovely. The people are tiny and two extra tiny women stop to have their photos taken. They both have massive cane baskets strapped to their backs and I hope whatever they‘re carrying isn’t too heavy. Other tiny old women have their photos taken and strangely they all look the same – maybe they’re all sisters – and they look so sweet in their sarongs and pretty floral tops. We see chooks scratching around and a rooster crowing – we love these little villages.

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Finally it’s time to catch the ‘ferry’ after the bamboo walkway had to be fixed when it sunk into the mud on the bank. We have another lady wearing a conical hat coming with us and she too has a huge basket strapped to her back. To get to the other side, about twenty metres away, a young man steers us across by pushing a long pole into the bottom of the river. On the other side we get back on the bikes and head off for the next village. On the way we pass lots of rice paddies most of which are being planted by women working in rows. They’re all knee deep in water and mud and wearing the cane conical hats like they do in Vietnam – at least the weather is hot here today but it must be hard work.

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Our first stop is at the tofu making village. All the villages on the outskirts of Solo are experts in one particular cottage industry so everyone in this village makes tofu. Patrick and Ruti take us to the back of a hut where a man shows us the whole process while a young lady cooks a few pieces of chopped tofu in a pan of oil. We have a taste and really like it. The making of the tofu is very involved and primitive but lovely to see it being made in these homey surroundings. Fires are wood only so there’s a lovely smoky smell in the air.

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Along little tracks overhung with trees and vines we head off to the next village. Here we pass duck farmers herding hundreds of tall brown ducks and see a white mother duck swimming around with her seven little yellow ducklings. This next village is the gong making village. Gamelan bands are an integral part of Indonesian culture and the large metal gongs are one of the essential instruments. We’re taken into a big dark room that seriously looks like the chambers of hell.

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Sparks are flying everywhere as teams of men bash away at lumps of metal after it’s been heated up in fires set in pits on the earthen floor. There aren’t any safety precautions at all – the men are even barefoot. Apparently there are eight of them in a team and they work six days a week for 20,000 Rp a day (about $3 AUD).

We’re not sorry to leave and don’t know how these poor men can do this horrible job. The next village has much more appealing cottage industry – arak making. A very home-made looking still does a lot of the work but I don’t take too much notice as I’ve found a cute puppy to play with. Nearby is the roof tile making village and we spend ages watching a very old man making the tiles mainly with his feet. Inside the family hut his wife is chopping up vegetables for lunch while their two sons seem to be just hanging around – couldn’t they help Dad?

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From here we head back into Solo passing through some lovely countryside. In town we stop at the leather puppet making place. This is fascinating and so intricate – no wonder they’re expensive. Not far from here we stop to see batik being made – we’ve seen it before but we see all different sorts of processes done here. Mark buys 3 shirts – really good quality and he’ll have them for years.

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Patrick and Ruti now drop us off back at the guesthouse and we make plans with Patrick to go to the Sriwedari Theatre tonight. But now we head straight for Warung Baru for a pizza and a tomato salad with fresh orange juice. We make a few phone calls but not feeling easy about Angie so we spend an hour emailing home. We hang around Warung Baru for the rest of the afternoon reading and drinking Bintang.

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On dusk we catch a becak to a ‘steakhouse’ for dinner then meet Patrick back at Warung Baru for our visit to the theatre.

Yet another becak ride takes the three of us to the lively Sriwedari Amusement Park where we find the theatre amongst rides and candy stalls. It’s a big building with high ceilings, lots of seating and the band set up in a pit in front of the stage.

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Before the show starts, Patrick takes us backstage to see the sets and the actors putting on their costumes and makeup. We meet the clowns and love the whole experience. The actual performance, on the other hand, is very weird.

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It’s described as a ‘vaudeville-style of telling the classics with singing, comedy and action drama’. Okay, this could be good, but then no-one can dance and we can’t hear the actors (strangely, most of them are fat) because the audience and the band talk all the way through it. You can come and go as you please but we stay longer than we would otherwise so we don’t hurt Patrick’s feelings.

After telling Patrick that we’re going home to bed, we sneak off to the Lumba Lumba Bar to get drunk and sing more bad karaoke – this is more like it. I think the Bee Gees will always remind us of this place.

Becak home in the warm night air – a good day.

Thursday 4th January, 2007       Solo to Yogjakarta 

We’re almost reluctant to leave Solo but need to keep moving on. Today we wake at 8 o’clock and plan to visit the Kraton (palace) then catch a train to Yogjakarta.

We hire a becak outside in the street from one of the guys lying around. He pedals us to the other side of town then along one of the outside walls of the Kraton. Through one of the wide entrances we eventually pull up outside the palace itself. It looks like we’re the only ones here so it will be a relaxing visit. We hire a young man to be our guide and he patiently explains palace life while showing us around the grounds and the Sultan’s Carriage Museum.

Later we head back to the market in our becak. We wander around inside but it’s so huge that we lose our bearings. And there’s so much batik for sale – so much that we lose interest and catch another becak to the hotel.

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After a quick pack we catch a taxi to the station and pay 20,000Rp ($3AUD) each for tickets to Yogjakarta. The wait in the sunshine is nice as we buy ice creams and look at the other people on the platform. The train is on time and we find a spot on one of the long bench seats that run vertically down the train.

The sixty kilometer trip is only an hour so by midday we pull into hot, sunny Yogjakarta – also called Jogja for short. This is the cultural capital of Java so we hope to see some interesting stuff here. From the station we pile our backpacks onto a becak and head off for Blodok Losmen recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s in an interesting narrow street just off Malioboro Street, Jogja’s main shopping area. For 250,000 Rp (less than $30 AUD) a night, our room is fantastic – air-con, a bathroom, hot water, a flushing toilet, a fridge and a television. And there’s a lovely pool just outside our door so Mark has a swim before we do anything else. Also as part of the losmen is a sun filled café right on the street. By now we’re ready for lunch so we relax over pizza and chicken cordon bleu.

After our usual afternoon siesta we wander down to Malioboro Street about seven o’clock. This place is really exciting at night – people, markets, motor bikes, horse drawn carts, art galleries. We meet a friendly man in a supermarket who offers to take us to a batik exhibition. He speaks English really well and knows a lot about Australia because he has a cousin who lives in Mosman in Sydney. At the art gallery he introduces us to Jaka who’s obviously the best salesman around. We end up buying two batik hangings for $120 US – very beautiful but probably paid too much because Jaka is really happy. As we don’t have that much on us, he walks to the ATM with us and then wants to have dinner with us, show us his house and keep in touch – goodbye!

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Now we want to escape the noise of the main street so we head off into the little laneways around our losmen. In Gang II we find a few laid back cafes playing groovy music so we do a bit of a café crawl, drink too much and have a great night.

Home to bed but Mark sick.

Friday 5th January, 2007                 Yogjakarta

This morning feeling a bit over it all for some reason then after a phone call to Angie I just want to go home. She isn’t good and is worried about Mum and Dad. Mark is happy to go home earlier than we planned because he thinks he should be back at work.

It takes some time to find an airline office where we book flights from Yogjakarta to Jakarta on Sunday with Garuda ($69AUD each) then Jakarta to Sydney on Monday with Qantas ($690 AUD). It’s expensive but we don’t care. We feel that we’ll have seen what we want to by then.

Now we walk along past the market stalls and buy sandals for Angie and Lauren and then ice creams at a modern shopping centre. Back near our guesthouse we’re twice approached by young men who want to show us a batik exhibition (a batik overload here) and predictably when we tell them we come from Sydney, they both have a cousin who lives in Mosman. Totally over this bullshit.

Back at Bladock, Mark has a sleep while I find a little beauty parlour close by. At first I have a manicure which is pretty tragic but cheap then agree to have a facial to fill in time till Mark wakes up. Big mistake – the young girl has no idea what she’s doing. While I lie on a raised bed behind a curtain, she plasters my skin with a scrub and spends the next hour scouring away my poor face. I don’t have the heart to complain.

Meanwhile the lady who owns the place comes in with bags of groceries. Next her husband turns up and introduces himself as John. We get talking and decide that he’ll borrow a van and drive us to Borobodur in the morning.

At six o’clock we get a young man called Jo to ride us in his becak to the other side of the city to the Jogja Village Inn in Prawirotaman, the main backpacker area of Yogjakarta. It has a Balinese style garden courtyard, swimming pool and a lovely outdoor restaurant. Sitting by the pool in the warm night air and listening to the sound of frogs, we have dinner by candlelight – prawn cocktail and fish – and feel like we’re actually in Bali – “remind me again why we left Bali”.

After dinner Jo takes us to a couple of fabulous bars in the next street. It’s so dark around here in these back little laneways – very atmospheric and we like it a lot. Back at Bladok we head back to the cafe for drinks, singing and dancin

Saturday 6th January, 2007                    Yogjakarta to Borobodhur 

This morning we wake early so we can have breakfast before leaving for our trip to the eighth century Buddhist temple of Borobodur – one of the main reasons we’ve come to Java. Mark has an American breakfast and I order a fruit platter in the café at Bladok. At 8.15am we meet John outside in the street. He’s borrowed a new air-conditioned van and brought along his young teenage sister and her girlfriend. They sit politely in the back and giggle the whole way.

On the one hour trip to Borobodhur, we stop a couple of times – first at a stone carvers’ workshop on the side of the road and again at a silver shop. I want to buy something but in the end I’m not sure if it’s all too expensive.

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We pass the very impressive Mount Merapi in the distance on our right. Apparently it’s the most active volcano in Indonesia hence its nickname ‘Mountain of Fire’. In 1006 it really blew its stack and covered most of Java in ash. The last of its sixty eight eruptions was in 1994 so I think we’re safe today. And as a result of all these eruptions, the countryside all around is very green and pretty with lots of rice paddies and fields of chillis and intermittent small towns.

Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are really common in Indonesia and it was only in 2006 that an earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale hit Yogjakarta at 6:30AM on Saturday, May 27th – almost six thousand people were killed and lots, lots more injured and made homeless.

Now as we approach Borobodur village, we can see the massive temple in the distance. Hawkers swamp us as we get out of the van but the souvenirs are horrible and we just want them to go away. Mark and I leave John and the girls and wander off to find the foreigners entrance – we have to pay $AUD 11 but the Indonesians get in for free.

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The approach to the main temple is along tree-lined walkways through a lovely park area. The temple sits huge and amazing at the end of the main path and merits its UNESCO World Heritage Listing. It was built entirely by hand and made from over 1,600,000 blocks of volcanic stone. Hundreds of locals are here crawling all over it and most carrying umbrellas to keep off the sun which is scorching by now. We decide to hire a guide for 40,00RP. He’s a sweet, polite young man who is passionate about the history of Borobodur. He explains the meaning of the carvings and tells us that the nine-terraces that make up the temple represent the path to nirvana.

One of the things you must do here is to reach inside one of the stupas and touch the small stone Buddha – Mark to touch the Buddha’s head and Virginia to touch the Buddha’s foot. We take turns with the locals who are having a wonderful time. They’re so friendly and lots of them want their photos taken with us.

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Back down in the park we see elephants grazing and an old man climbing coconut trees collecting sap in bamboo tubes. To leave the park and get back to our van, we need to follow the zigzag path through the market. The hawkers drive us mad again until I finally buy a handful of wooden shadow puppets (50,000Rp for 2), 4 salad spoons (10,00Rp each) and 10 batik cards. There isn’t a chance of just wandering around to look at the rest of the stalls – we just want to make our escape. This is by far the worst experience we’ve had with hawkers anywhere and we gladly jump into the ‘safety’ of John’s van.

He pulls off the road again after a couple of minutes to look at another ancient shrine in the village of Borobodur. The area is lovely – shaded by tall spreading trees and a small market next to the temple. But, oh God – here they come! Once again the hawkers here are like vultures swooping down on us as we get out of the van. To try to get rid of them I buy two puppets but they still keep hassling me till I escape back inside the car.

From Borobodur we head back towards Yogjakarta but John wants to take us for a close up look of Mount Merapi – you know that very active volcano?! We say why not. It’s a half hour detour upwards along winding roads with thick vegetation on both sides. We pass lots of people carrying bundles of long grass to use as feed for their cows. Finally we reach our destination which is the mountain next to Merapi. It has a tacky lookout, café and stalls and the Javanese tourists are out in force. We check out the restaurant at the lookout but prefer to eat hot corn on the cob that’s being cooked over hot coals on the street.

Back at Bladok Guesthouse we have a late lunch of chicken and avocado salad, a potato and spinach dish and cold lime sodas. Mark then goes off to the ATM and afterwards a swim in the pool while I go off for a massage at Gary II. I don’t really enjoy it because it’s a man and in a little room at the back of the restaurant. I take my top off but then have to roll over and he keeps staring at my boobs – Mark where are you? Can’t wait to get the hell out of there and do the bolt back to the guesthouse.

Later we walk down to Malioboro Street to find the posh Inna Garuda Hotel for a drink. Inside we find a gamelan band playing in traditional costumes so we have a drink close by to watch and listen. A wedding reception is being held in one of the big rooms near us and we’re lucky to see the bridal party walk in. All very over the top but cute.

Back in our street we watch the locals eating from street carts then a few drinks before bed.

Sunday 7th January, 2007     Yojakarta to Jakarta

This morning we pack then have an early breakfast before catching a taxi to the Adisucipto International Airport eight kilometres east of town. The Garuda flight to Jakarta, the capital, is only fifty minutes and for the most part all we see are volcanic peaks.

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At Jakarta’s airport we catch a tuktuk into town to the backpacker area in Jalan Jaksa. Like all backpacker districts this has the usual cheap guesthouses, cafes and bars. We wander around the back alleyways for ages looking at different places to stay but then decide on a bigger place on Jalan Jaksa itself. We’re only here for one night and we want air-con and hot showers so we can get cleaned up before we fly home.

After booking in we go in search of food at one of the cafes then decide to head into the main part of the city. Just as we leave Jalan Jaksa we run into a guy called Jacka who offers to take us on a bit of a city tour. Considering it’s the largest city in South East Asia I don’t think we’re going to see much of it though. Out on a really busy main road the three of us catch a bus into the CBD where Jacka is taking us to a place where they sell cheap pirated DVDs. When we get there though the police have closed it down for the day. So now we transfer to a tiny open air local bus that the poorer people use instead of taxis. Then we transfer to a tuktuk and end up at the old port of Sunda Kelapa at the mouth of the Ciliwung river.

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This was where Jakarta began as a trading harbour. Later it was named Batavia as the capital of the colonial Dutch East Indies then renamed Jakarta in 1942 during Japan’s occupation of Java. When Indonesia became independent after World War II it was made its capital.

Nowadays the port is still used for sailing cargo vessels (magnificent Makassar schooners) that transport freight to the other islands. We spend an hour looking at the boats (ships?) and Mark is brave enough to walk a really steep, narrow gangplank up to the deck of one of them.

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I get half way up and chicken out although I’d love to get up there. Next we hire a wrinkled old man to row us around in his old boat while we watch a group of little naked boys jumping from one of the boats to the water way down below. They show off for us as we video them.

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From here we tuktuk our way to the nearby fish market. We choose fish and prawns from one of the hundreds of stalls then have it cooked in an open-sided ‘café’ – sounds great but the flies almost carry us away.

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But the best part is when a Dutch guy called Roi and his Indonesian wife, Wiwi, invite us to have lunch with them. Roi has been living in Jakarta for ten years and says he doesn’t love it but here he can live like a king so why would he go back to Holland. After lunch they offer to drive us back to our guesthouse but then we decide to all have dinner together. First we go to a big department store where we find heaps of DVDs for Angie and Lauren – buy a couple of hundred! Then we pay Jacka and drive off with Roi and Wiwi in their luxury car. We stop at their house for a few minutes before having dinner in an Egyptian place in another big department store. It all looks quite grand but then you realise you’ve got vertigo because the floor isn’t level – crappy Indo construction. The whole bloody great thing will probably collapse in the next inevitable earthquake.

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Anyway dinner is good with an amazing atmosphere – Wiwi and Roi have dinner here every second night. Roi tells us a little about his business and it sounds as dodgy as the floor – don’t think he’s a crook, just knows the system and works it. After dinner they take for a drive through the transexual prostitute area and there they are lurking around in the dark looking very weird.

We’re sorry to say goodbye to Roi and Wiwi and wish we’d been staying longer. Anyway, we’re eager to get home to family stuff.

Monday 8th January, 2007   Jakarta to Sydney

Today we catch a taxi to the airport then line up for immigration. When it comes my turn to show my passport, the guy looks at me weird – keeps inspecting my passport and making phone calls. Then I’m told to follow him to a small room – oh shit! – Mark and I are both shitting ourselves – haven’t done anything wrong but that could be totally besides the point here. In the end we don’t know what the problem was but we were told to go

So happy to get on the plane.

 

 

 

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Cambodia and Thailand 2002

05-29-2008 08;20;51PMFriday  8th March, 2002                      Sydney to Bangkok

Angie calls in to see us before she goes to work – hate saying good-byes but we’ll only away for a couple of weeks this time. Also kiss and cuddle our babies, Sally and Layla (cats) then Dad picks us up at 10.30am. We spend an hour with Mum and Dad before we leave. Lauren meets us here as she’s driven back from Sydney this morning. She drives us out to Pelican Airport and we sit out on the verandah with her till Mark’s mum arrives. It’s sad good-byes again and I cry as we take off just like I always do. I promised myself that I wouldn’t this time but I just can’t stop as I see my baby standing there waving us off.

The flight to Sydney seems a long forty minutes and we’re glad as usual to get off one of these small planes. Aeropelican still stops at the Ansett terminal despite Ansett finally packing it in this week. It’s deserted and we’re quick to grab our packs and catch the airport bus to the international terminal. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, increased airport security means that we have to book in three hours before takeoff. We’re three and a half-hours early but we line up anyway. Although we’re early, we still don’t manage to get our favourite seats at the back of the plane. We do manage to get a window seat, though, so we’re content with that. We’re starving by now so we head to McDonalds as soon as we check our bags in. We spend ages in the bookshops but buy nothing, go through immigration and buy 1125mls of Bacardi and Jim Beam (only $20 AUS each) then wander around the duty free perfumes and watches. There are two more security checks to get on the plane because of the September 11th attacks and I have to hand over my nail scissors in case I go beserk onboard. All our hand luggage is searched, as well.

Although we’d booked on Qantas, our plane is a British Airways 747 but we’re pleased as we haven’t flown with them before. On board the plane we’re confronted with a disgusting stench of body odour as we enter our cabin only to realise that it’s the Middle Eastern man sitting in the seat next to mine – great! He is friendly, but ever tried to breathe through your mouth for nine hours? He also looks like a beardless Osama Bin Laden so I’m glad Mum can’t see us now. The smell remains horrid then later he smells like shit as well – fluffs or hadn’t wiped his bum? Despite this, the trip is enjoyable. I manage to get in two one-hour naps but Mark can’t sleep at all. We have individual television screens on the back of the seat in front of us and we watch movies most of the way. Mark and I stand up the back for a while and do our exercises. I’m also wearing elastic stockings – no way are we going to get deep vein thrombis which is definitely flavour of the month at the moment.

We’re excited when we land at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport half an hour early at 9.50pm. Immigration and customs formalities are quick but I have time to ring Mum and Dad while we wait for our bags to be unloaded. Mum is so nervous about us flying, so I ring her  although it’s 2am at home. Outside it’s hot and humid and busy as usual – fantastic! The airport bus takes us into town in forty minutes and drops us off at Khao San Road. Everything looks the same. We’re hot and tired and so glad we’ve booked a room ahead. We rang Sawasdee Guesthouse from home last week and reconfirmed last night. We joked that when we got here they’d say ‘no ticket’ which is a saying we’d become all too familiar with in Vietnam last year. We’re not surprised, then, when the girl at the reception desk gives us a bored, blank look. There’s no record of us booking, reconfirming … nothing. We wonder later what had actually taken place when we’d rung from Australia. No-one apparently wrote anything down so the whole thing was a total waste of time. No problem as they have one single bed left. We’re too tired to care and are given the key to our cupboard-sized room. We literally have wall to wall bed except for a couple of feet on one side.

We dump our gear and head for Khao San Road for food.  Absolute chaos as always but somehow different this year. There are the same masses of people but there seems just as many young Thais as backpackers and the street had taken on a sleazy feel. Maybe we’re just too tired, though, and we eat and run. The atmosphere is much better in our street although it’s full of party people and loud music is pumping from everywhere including the Sawasdee Guesthouse. For some reason, we wander around looking for another guesthouse for tomorrow (must be delirious) but decide to wait till the morning. Back in our room, we find we have a tiny balcony overlooking the street but it’s too noisy with the door open. We also have a fan which is good but no sheets which doesn’t matter. After cold showers we put in our earplugs and sleep well till 8am.

Saturday  9th March, 2002            Bangkok

We wake to a beautiful clear, hot, humid day and Bangkok looks absolutely wonderful from our balcony. The street is a completely different place in the morning. It’s quiet and  looks so green with trees all down one side and in the grounds of the temple opposite. We’re out into the street early for breakfast and to look for a new guesthouse. We’re only here for three nights and we’ve decided to stay in three different places to experience as much as we can.

First we have breakfast in a lovely outdoor café in the same soi. The young waitress teaches us to say ‘kaup khun karp’ meaning ‘thank-you’. After searching for half an hour we finally like the look of the Thai Thai Guesthouse situated off the soi down a short alleyway. It’s a two-storey wooden building painted green and very Thai looking. It has the usual messy foyer with highly polished white tiles and the owners lounging around on vinyl lounges watching television. We check out of Sawasdee Guesthouse and check in to Thai Thai. Our room is no bigger and the only window looks out onto a messy yard but we love it. There are shared toilets and cold showers like most guesthouses, but only costs 250 baht ($12AUS). Around to Khao San Road then, to change money and get on the internet. We also look around here and Thanon Rambutri for a guesthouse for tomorrow night. Back then to the Thai Thai to get our daypack ready.

Out in the laneway we try to get a tuktuk driver to take us to Vimamek Mansion but he can’t understand us. We’re helped by a friendly English-speaking Thai lady who explains that we’re saying it wrong – pronounce ‘v’ as ‘w’, so say ‘Wimamek’. She explains to the driver where we want to go and arranges a cheap fare for us. She also tells us where to catch bus No. 56 back from there. Off we fly at top speed through the streets – just love tuktuks. Our driver is a smiling old man who continually gets lost and keeps turning around to us laughing. After lots of u-turns and more laughing we drive in through a large archway in a high wall and into a vast area of beautiful buildings, gardens and ponds. We buy our ticket into Vimamek which is the oldest teak house/mansion/palace in Thaliand and was the original residence of King Rama V. We walk around the grounds then watch a traditional dance show in an open sided building on the edge of a klong. For the 20 baht charge to take photos we’re given a garland of fresh jasmine.

To tour the palace we’re told to take off our shoes and no photos or videos which is a great shame as it’s so lovely. It’s made entirely of teak and inside is painted shades of pink, blue, green and cream. Some sections are two floors high and some three. It’s built in a kind of semicircle with verandahs on each floor closed in by windows of bevelled glass. The polished floors are dotted with oriental rugs and the rooms are filled with Asian antiques, flowering plants, potted palms in blue and white Chinese vases, silk curtains and carved furniture. Everywhere there is a feeling of welcome – not at all palace-like but more a beautiful home in the tropics. A funny English-speaking Thai guide shows us around and we learn so much about Thai history and culture.

Out again in the street, we ask directions to the bus stop and soon find ourselves on a tiny green No.56 bus at a cost of only 3.5 baht (20c) each. The conductress tells us where to get off which is at a wat near the entrance to Khao San Road. This is a nice area we haven’t seen before and we sit for a while on a bench watching monks leaving the temple grounds, some getting into tuktuks. It’s  hot and humid so we cross over to Rambutri Road to have a drink and lunch at a street stall. We sit at a tiny table on plastic stools in the shade behind the stall where we can see our food being cooked in large woks. Our lunch is omelets and fried rice with squid – very nice.

From here we decide to catch a ferry down to the Oriental Hotel but can’t find the public pier. Out on the street again, we take ages to find a tuktuk driver who’ll take us as they all say it’s too far. Some of them promise to take us for 10 baht, which translates into taking us first to a gem shop or two – not dumb ‘farangs’ this trip! Finally we find a nice man who isn’t trying to rip us off. It really is a long way to the hotel and there’s heaps of traffic but it’s so interesting it doesn’t matter. Always so much to see as we pass wats and the Grand Palace and street stalls and monks. The driver drops us off at the back entrance so we just walk up through the car park and through the main doors like we’re staying there. We made an effort to look presentable this time, as last year the guards at the gate wouldn’t let us in as we looked like backpackers – which we still are. Wearing our poshest travel clothes, we obviously pass the test and we try not to stare at the fabulous foyer. We walk around the pool area outside and the restaurants overlooking the Chao Praya River. Finally we find the oldest part of the hotel where famous people stay and where we’re hoping to get into the Authors Lounge.  It’s so lovely here with its old-world charm – palms, bamboo in pots, fans and white cane furniture. We order the traditional ‘afternoon tea’ which consists of a pot of Earl Grey tea, cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and cakes. It costs us 550 baht, which is more than we’ve paid for two night’s accommodation, and it isn’t enough to feed a flea but we love it. Experience is everything, they say! We sit in the library then find a bookcase in the foyer with books written by the famous authors who’ve stayed here – Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughan, …..Also use the loos, which are almost worth a photograph.

The river is close by and we ferry our way back down to the pier at Wat Pho. We’ve always loved this pier with little shops that line the walkway. It’s always busy and has so much atmosphere despite being a bit dark and dingy. The fish market next door smells but only adds to the appeal for us. In one of the old shophouses across from Wat Pho we talk to a friendly old man who sells dried fish. He drags us into the back of his shop to proudly show us photos of his family and his son’s university degrees. We spend ages talking and looking at his crowded little dark shop. There are lots of faded prints of Buddha and framed pictures of the royal family. He gives us directions to the Wat Pho massage school which has moved out of the grounds of the temple as it’s become so popular and needs more space. After much searching we find it down an alleyway. We’re so disappointed as it has zero atmosphere so we say ‘we’ll come back later’ – no chance! Looks like it’s become a victim of its own success, as they say.

We walk back through the dried fish market to the wharf then catch a ferry up to Banglamphu – definitely getting more confident about using transport other than tuktuks – much cheaper, too. We do, however, get lost when we get off, but we see places we wouldn’t have otherwise, says Mark. One good thing about ending up here is that we manage to buy a towel. We didn’t bring one as most guesthouses we’ve stayed in on previous trips have provided them. It’s so thin you can almost shoot peas through it but it’ll have to do.

We give Khao San Road a miss as it’s become too touristy/sleazy/mental. We look for a guesthouse instead in the same road as Thai Thai Guesthouse in Thanon Rambutri. The AT Guesthouse is down an alleyway which opens up into a tiny square with guesthouses and cafes all around. We like it here at once and book a room for tomorrow night. Across from the guesthouse we notice a groovy looking place open on two sides where people are being massaged on a row of mattresses high off the ground. We both have a Thai massage with Sharlo and her husband who own the massage place and the guesthouse upstairs called Mama’s Guesthouse. They have the cutest baby boy about seven months old. It’s  the best massage ever and Mark’s back is heaps better now. We really, really enjoy it here.

Feeling high from our massage, we head back out into Thanon Rambutri. We find an open-air café called Tuptin with lots of flowering bougainvillea and good food – spring rolls and fried rice with squid. It’s getting late so we set off back to Thai Thai for quick, cold showers then out again into the street. It’s dark now and very busy. Tables and chairs have been set up along the temple footpath across from the cafes. We sit under the trees watching all the action and drinking Bacardi and Leo beer. It’s a great atmosphere but I literally cannot stay awake and eventually go back to the guesthouse to pass out while Mark finishes a beer. A good sleep despite a rock-hard bed.

Sunday   10thMarch, 2002         Bangkok to Ayutthaya to Bangkok

We wake about 6.30 am, shower, pack, check out and are having breakfast at Sawasdee Guesthouse by 7.30am. Loaded down with our big packs, we walk up to the AT Guesthouse and check in. Our room is up a set of steep stairs at the back of the foyer-cum-bedroom. Surprising decor with frilled pink satin curtains and a Mickey Mouse print bedspread. We like it though and not expensive again at 250 baht ($12AUS). We dump our bags and set off in a tuktuk for Hualumphong Station to catch a train to Ayutthaya.

We’ve been to the station a couple of times before and it’s packed as usual inside and out. Someone guides us to a tourist information booth as soon as we walk in and we’re told that the train for Ayutthaya is leaving in ten minutes at 9.10am. We race to the ticket window and easily find platform 10. I’m lucky to get seats while Mark goes off to buy a chicken leg on a stick. There are only third-class seats to Ayutthaya. This means wooden bench seats with straight backs and knees almost touching the people facing you. We sit opposite three young Thai men who are very polite and sleep most of the way. The train leaves on time and it’s good to be moving and have the breeze come in through the open windows. There’s so much to see as we leave Bangkok and then out into the open countryside. The train becomes very full and some people have to stand the whole trip. We feel sorry for a young Thai lady and her two sons who get on half way. We give them our seats and stand up for the last half-hour. It’s only a one and a half-hour trip and is so enjoyable. At Ayutthaya station, we meet a tuktuk driver who shows us a board with the prices for driving us around the temples. Not too bad at 200 baht an hour.

He drives us first to a wat next to a busy market. We pay at a tiny booth on the way in then pull up in the big parking area. Already there are lots of buses and tuktuks waiting for the worshippers and sightseers inside. First we walk across to the market to buy water and some dried bananas. Inside the wat we take off our shoes then watch hundreds of people burning incense and buying lotus flowers amid tall red and yellow lighted candles. A small doorway leads to an inner chamber which houses a golden buddha that must be thirty feet high. The area in front is packed with people who all cheer every few minutes. Several men are standing on the buddha’s folded legs and are thrown lengths of fine gold material which they throw up over the buddha’s left shoulder.

Our next stop is an ancient temple set in beautiful green gardens full of trees and flowering bougainvillea. A huge stone reclining buddha is clothed in a golden cloth and, as  always, is laying on the right side for pleasant dreams. The main stupa is surrounded on four sides by hundreds of buddhas all looking very handsome in their golden robes. Steep stairs lead us to the top of the stupa where we have great views of the whole area. From here we drive to the outskirts of town to the next temple complex. This is set in a flat dry grassy area on the river. The  temple was almost destroyed by Burmese invaders and all of the buddha statues have had their heads smashed to pieces. We buy drinks before setting off again for the next ruin. This is in a village area and we pass elephants on the way. Another huge reclining buddha, also wearing the gold robes, reclines with his head on a lotus flower Our next stop is another newer wat where we have turns of hitting the huge temple drum. There is a large market outside where we watch spring roll wrappers being made by the hundreds. Inside people are buying small pieces of gold leaf and sticking them on small buddha statues. The massive buddha is most impressive but we were definitely getting templed-out by now so we head back to the station. Mark gives our nice driver 100 baht extra as he has been so good.

At the ticket window we’re told to go to Platform 4 which is actually four sleepers on the other side of the tracks – excellent! The sun is scorching but luckily the train is on time. We buy bags of chopped watermelon and pineapple to eat on the way. As it pulls up we jump into the closest carriage which is almost empty and has padded reclining seats and heaps of legroom. When the ticket collector comes around we realise that we’re in 1st class but that we only need to pay an extra AUS$1 each to stay here. The only problem with the trip is that it takes two and a half hours instead of one and a half hours as we stop at every station. I sleep for a short time but it’s so hot and I’m getting a headache. At Hualamphong Station we ask about catching a bus back to Banglamphu but we can’t find a bus stop anywhere. Suddenly Mark notices a No.53 bus so we jump on very pleased with ourselves. We may be saving a few dollars, but the bus takes forever to get back to Banglamphu. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to get bored in Bangkok. We drive firstly through Chinatown which is  jammed with people and then past Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. At the At Guesthouse we shower then send off E-mails and drink beers at a café next door. Too tired to eat and an early night.

Monday  11th March, 2002            Bangkok to Battambang

At 5.45 am we start to dress and pack then walk down the unusually quiet street to the little tourist agency in Soi Ramabutri. I stay with the packs while Mark walks back to Sawasdee Guesthouse to order breakfast. Time to go so we swap. I wait for the food while Mark collects the packs. We’ve only ordered toast and it’s there, already popped up in the toaster. A waiter is sitting at the counter only inches from the toaster and I ask if I could please have our toast. He asks me to ‘wait one minute’ then screams something in Thai at a waitress just behind him. Of course, it never happens and we leave with it still sitting there in the toaster.

The young man from the travel agent leads us out onto the street and we’re joined by other travellers from other agencies. The bus is to pick us all up at seven o’clock so we wait in the shade of some trees near the main road. We’re a motley looking crew, like travellers always are – unshaven, uncombed hair and crumpled clothes. The bus arrives only slightly late and we climb in quickly. The seats are upstairs with room for luggage and toilets underneath. This is good as we can get better views from up here. The trip out of the city is slow as we’re held up by the notorious Bangkok traffic jams and the need to wait for the inevitable latecomers. The bus stops alongside a row of three storey houses with the bottom floor below the level of the street. From our window we can see into the tiny back yards and watch women threading meat onto skewers, babies playing with their mothers and a man bringing home vegetables on the back of a motorbike. We can see into their homes, too, and I watch a young girl combing her wet hair in a mirror. There seems to be a communal feeling to their way of life that’s almost enviable.

The bus is surprisingly comfortable despite permanently reclining seats and air-conditioning which is blasting cold air into our faces from the broken vents above. It’s hot and humid outside already so we’re lucky to be cool for this five-hour trip. Although we missed getting our breakfast, we’ve got water and meusli bars brought from home. It’s an uninteresting drive to the border and we arrive at Aranya Prathet about 11.30am. We all pile out so that people can get visas for Cambodia. Lunch is available, too, in a thatched open-sided café. We order while the visas are being processed although we already have ours. This means we can relax for an hour. An American girl called Tiffany and an English guy called Ben eat with us. They’re both great company and it’s a shame that we’re not going on to Siem Reap with them today. Feeling very intrepid travellers as we’re the only ones not going on with the rest but doing our own thing to Battambang.

After an hour we’re back on the bus and drive only a couple of kilometres to the border. Everyone is grabbing their packs and doing the ‘quick walk’ to get to the border first. The border is so exciting and absolute chaos as people, carts, people pulling carts, and animals cross from one country to the other – Aranya Prathet on the Thai side and Poipet on the Cambodian side. The lines at immigration and customs are long but the people are so interesting it’s not a problem. It’s annoying, though, when a group of about twenty men in Moslem robes push past everyone to get to the front of the line. Mark and I and another traveller stand three abreast with our packs on so they can’t get past. It doesn’t work but now our passports are ready and we’re so proud of our Cambodian stamps.

The entrance into Cambodia is marked by a huge stone Khmer archway and it’s like crossing into another world. The difference is immediate and from the paved highways of Thailand we walk into the dusty, dry streets of Poipet. My God, we’re here in Cambodia!

A uniformed tourist guide tries to screw us by charging too much for a pickup to Battambang so we head off on our own. We only know how to get there by what we’ve read in the Lonely Planet but there’s always someone to take you wherever you want to go in Asia. Anyway, we can stay here if we have to – no set itinerary. Suddenly, touts surround us and we’re shoved into the back seat of a Battambang-bound pickup before we know it. This is a good ploy on their part as we have to barter for the trip from here. According to advice from other travellers, we want to buy the whole back seat instead of sharing and being squashed the whole way. They agree we can pay for three seats but then they try to tell us that the backseat holds four people and we’ll have to pay more. There’s always just one more scam. We refuse but pay more than we’ve been told anyway and the touts are happy so I guess they got us after all. No problem, we’re on our way. Well, we aren’t really on our way. We spend the next half an hour driving around with the driver yelling out ‘Battambang’ until the front seat and all the open area in the back is full. Another pick-up carrying the pushy Moslems in the back, flies past us in a cloud of dust. Their white robes fan out after them as they disappear from view.

Finally, we are on our way. We pass through the very awful streets of Poipet then bounce our way to Sisophon. We pass through dry open countryside and through green villages surrounded by coconut and palm trees. The road is bearable in parts but teeth-chattering most of the way with the radio blasting loud Cambodian music at all times. The other passengers are all Cambodian except for a sunburnt Dutch couple frying in sun in the back. They both have lily-white skin which is burning to a crisp before our eyes. I pass my hat to the driver to hand it to the girl and get a smile and the thumbs-up through the back window.

Sisophon is only an hour and a half drive. It’s another small dry town but more appealing than Poipet. Here we repeat the looking-for-customers routine when some people get off. We’ve stopped in a market area and we’re soon surrounded by young girls selling  baguettes and drinks and unrecognisable dried meats or fish from big cane baskets. They’re the sweetest girls and are all wearing wide-brimmed straw hats over checkered Khmer head scarves. We jump out to talk to them as we have a fifteen-minute wait to fill the truck. They teach us to say ‘hello’ in Khmer and giggle continually. Two young girls arrive to fill the front seat so we climb back in, ready to go. We still have a wait but have a great time with the girls as they try to teach us their language. One is wearing modern Western clothes as if she works in an office while the second girl is wearing work clothes and, for some reason, a toweling teatowel covering a hat on her head neither of which she takes off.

Finally, the back is full of village people and we’re ready to leave Sisophon. Off we go with music blaring and our brains bashing about as we take on the horrendous roads. We pass a family of five on a motorbike and endless remorque-motos, which are old carts pulled by a motorbike. These are always packed with people who are probably on their way home to their villages after working in the fields. The villages we pass all consist of thatched huts and greenery and lots of activity. It’s just how I imaged it would be. It’s a long hard dusty drive but we enjoy every minute.

At dusk we pull up at a house in a village and unload sacks of grain from the back and our two friends in the front seat say goodbye. An old man takes their place and we set off again. We arrive at Battambang about 5.30pm and four hours after leaving Sisophon. I’d like to say that Battambang is a picturesque backwater and that we’re so clever to have come here but right now it appears to be an ugly, dusty town. This is not good news especially as we’re to spend two nights here.

The truck pulls up at the new and shiny Royal Hotel but we wave them on further down the main street to the Teo Hotel. This is the traditional old hotel where ex-pats usually stay. It’s also the most expensive hotel in town but for $25 AUS we’re happy. It’s set behind a high wall and is hideous and impressive at the same time. Our room is big with a television, air-conditioning and our own bathroom. After quick showers we head off to look for somewhere to eat. We don’t even get to leave the hotel. We’re spotted walking past the dining room door, which flies open, and we have no choice but to be escorted to a table. The room is big and pleasant with French doors opening on to a verandah but the problem is we’re the only guests. At all times we have five people hovering to wait on us and to refill our glasses after each mouthful. The food isn’t as cheap as in Thailand and it’s all priced in US dollars and not the Cambodian riel. The exchange rate is 2000 riel to the Australian dollar so it’s only used to pay for anything inexpensive. The meal is good, if a bit uncomfortable, but I’m almost falling asleep at the table. We have an early night.

Tuesday   12th March, 2002          Battambang

We both sleep soundly till 8am but get ready quickly so we can get out into the street. From a balcony off our room we look out over the town which appears so beautiful this morning. This can’t be the same town. We can see wide streets and temples and lots of coconut trees. We walk down to the Sangher River which at this dry time of year is at the bottom of a wide, steep-sided ravine. There must be so much more water during the wet season. The road running alongside is wide and paved. There’s a steady flow of traffic (mainly motorbikes) but it’s so quiet compared to most Asian towns. We walk along the footpath opposite the river and pass lovely old French colonial buildings. Most of them are run down but they still look beautiful in their dilapidated states – louvred shutters, wide verandahs and palm trees. They’d make the most fantastic guesthouses instead of the monstrocities that are springing up all over Asia. These are skinny, characterless, multi-storied buildings with shiny white tiles everywhere. If they’d only use the beautiful buildings they already have they’d have travellers turning up in droves.

We stop to look at lotus flowers a young girl is selling on the footpath and see orange-robed monks crossing the footbridge across the river. This area of Battambang is so lovely and reminds us a lot of Luang Prabang in Laos with its French influence, monks and quiet streets. For breakfast we look for a café recommended by Lonely Planet called the White Rose Café. Apparently there’s no sign outside, just a white rose painted on the back wall. Although it’s hidden away in a side street, it’s about the only café in this part of town and Mark has no trouble finding it. The walls  are white and tiled and the tables and chairs are plastic and so are the flowers. It’s the usual hideous décor but for some reason it comes together here  and it’s a nice atmosphere. The diners are all locals except for us and a guy who’s obviously an ex-pat. You know, someone who’s an expert with chopsticks and not a guidebook in sight. Our Khmer noodles and duck soup are good but I’m hopeless with chopsticks. I ask the ex-pat about boats to Siem Reap. This is a good move as he tells us exactly where to buy tickets further up the river. There are no signs at all so there’s no way would we have found it otherwise. We actually walk straight past it and have to be directed back towards the hospital. This is a picturesque white building surrounded by gardens and palm trees with a red cross out the front. Opposite, is the booking office, which consists of a tiny table and a couple of chairs under some trees. Three young girls with very painted faces and nightclub-style clothes serve us. The boat tickets are not cheap at $15US each and we leave tomorrow morning at seven.

After inquiring about moto drivers to take us to some sights around Battambang, the girls make a phone call. Two young men on motor bikes soon arrive. One is a handsome guy called Mono who introduces himself in fluent backpacker English. We ask what the other driver’s name is, but Mono says ‘call him whatever you like, he doesn’t speak English’ – this is the first of Mono’s jokes. He has a whole book full of handwritten jokes and slang he’s picked up from other travellers. He’s so enthusiastic and happy and we love him immediately. The other driver’s name is Pii. He’s very quiet, has a gentle smile and is also very handsome.

Discussing where to go, we finally decide on Phnom Sampeau, which we’d read about from travellers’ diaries on the internet. Mono also tells us of other places out in the same area so we’ve got a full day ahead of us. Off we go although I’m a bit wary at first as this is our first ride on motor bikes (motos as they’re called in Cambodia) since Danang in Vietnam last year. We also have no helmets although we do stop for Mono to pick up his from the Royal Hotel – ‘to keep out the dust’, he says. To keep the dust out of our lungs, Mark and I have bandanas which we’ve tied around our necks and pull them up over our nose as we hit the dirt roads. The ride through town is exciting already as we pass the central market and wind our way in and out of the traffic. Then we’re heading southwest out of town and into the open countryside. Feeling exceptionally intrepid today – but glad Mum and Dad can’t see me now. We pass remorque-motos and people on foot and a few trucks pass us but otherwise there’s little traffic.

After a very bumpy and dusty half-hour ride we come to the village of Sampeau. We pass the school and a large wat on the main road and then turn off into a side road near the base of the mountain. Mono and Pii pull in at a roadside grass shack with a verandah shading a couple of plastic tables and chairs. A pretty young woman serves us cold cokes which we also buy for Pii and Mono. No other tourists here except for a couple of gay Frenchmen also arriving on motos. It’s so hot that we decide to rest before tackling the steep climb. We’re also covered in dust and the front of Mark’s hair is totally white.

There’s a relaxed and soothing atmosphere here in the shade with village people swinging in hammocks and half-naked babies running around in the dirt. Mono tells us stories of his own life and about the Cambodian people. His grandparents died due to the Khmer Rouge as anyone old or sick died either of starvation or lack of medical help. When Mono was eight years old, the Khmer Rouge came into his school and cut his teacher’s throat in front of the children. They took Mono and some of his friends back to one of the their jungle hideouts but his father was able to get him back as Mono’s mother gave the Khmer Rouge kapok pillows. All Cambodian people have had relatives murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. The area we’re now in was a place where many horrors of the genocide took place only twenty three years ago. The mountain of Phnom Sampeau still holds evidence of these atrocities.

To reach the top of the mountain, we need to climb the hundreds of steps that start beneath a carved archway just opposite our little shack. Mono has found an easier route, though, and we follow him through the village. We pass a screaming baby being bathed in a tin basin and children running out to wave and say ‘su sadee’ which is ‘hello’ in Khmer. Mono points out all the different trees the village people grow and he shows us the difference between palm trees and coconut trees. We come to a dirt path, which is a longer but less steep route up the mountain. It’s a bit unnerving here with no-one around and especially after hearing Mono’s stories. Even now, this area is still not entirely safe and Brother No.2 (the nutter who was second in charge to Pol Pot) lives not far from here. As we climb higher, it becomes too hot to feel paranoid and we have magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. This is completely flat and only broken up by Crocodile Mountain not far to the south. The heat and humidity are killing us and we stop to drink water and pour it over our faces. About half-way up we come upon a small monastery. This was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge who would march sick or tired farm workers up the hill to their death.

Not far from the monastery is a wooden structure with a raised floor, a roof and open on three sides. Here, four Buddhist nuns are sitting on straw mats drinking tea and chewing betel-nut near a colourful Buddhist shrine. We ask Mono if we can talk to them and they welcome us with big red-teethed smiles and put another mat down for us to sit on. The nuns are shaven headed and wearing the traditional white robes. One is pounding betel nut in a tiny mortar and pestle while they all chew and occasionally spit red gunk through cracks in the wooden floor. They pour us glasses of hot tea then put betel nut into our palms and we try the red dried piece of flattened nut that breaks into crunchy pieces in our mouths. I’m worried that my teeth will go red – have a thing about teeth – but apparently it takes years. Next they paint a lime leaf with some pale pink paste, fold it in and give it to us to chew as well. The taste is so disgusting and I pull agonising faces before spitting it all out into my hand – sorry about that. They don’t mind and just laugh. With Mono interpreting we manage to talk with them and learn that there are only five nuns left living on the mountain. There are also some monks and an ancient one is sitting on a raised platform just behind us. He’s sits cross-legged and is as still as a statue. He smiles, though, when the nuns feel Mark’s hairy legs and say he should be called the ‘boogie man’. They all think it’s a great joke. Before leaving, we give them a donation for their monastery. The money is blessed and then us and then we’re told that we’ll have healthy, happy lives – excellent! This has been the most amazing experience that we’ll never forget.

From this happy place our next stop is just the opposite. Mono walks us further up the mountain to two caves that were used as killing fields by the Khmer Rouge. The caves are now so peaceful and one contains a large reclining Buddha. This was called the Theatre Cave as plays were often held here before the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Two million out of a population of seven million were either murdered or starved to death by their own people. Those too sick to work the fields disappeared after being brought to this mountain. It was only after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese that they found the skeletons of those missing people. The victims were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs before being thrown through a hole in the top of one of the caves to the pit below. We saw holes in the cave walls where other people were entombed alive. We saw where people were tortured to death, where babies were dashed against the rocks and where they would cut open the stomachs of pregnant women. Both caves contain cages with the sculls and bones of the victims and even some of their clothes. It’s impossible to understand how humans can cause such pain to others. The sadness we feel here seems so trivial. Places like this can really pull you up to take a look at your own life and realise how incredibly lucky we are.

We head next to the temple at the top of the mountain stopping half way to buy water from some ladies swinging in hammocks under a canvas shelter. At the top is a wat and a stupa but best of all there is a group of orange-robed monks. As I ask Mono if we can photograph them, one says in a deep melodious voice, ‘what do you want?’. He is so handsome with a commanding but friendly presence. His English is good and he tells us that his name is Mao Lim and that he’s come to the Battambang area for the wedding of his brother. He is particularly taken with Mark and asks him lots of questions. Also, after group shots, he wants a photo of just the two of them. They all walk down the steps with us but leave us half way down. Before we say goodbye he invites us to visit his temple when we get to Phnom Penh in a week’s time. He writes his address on a card so we know this is no idle invitation. We’re so excited! Monks are my favourite people in the whole world and Mark says I go weird whenever I see orange.

At the bottom at last, we order lunch for us and Mono and Pii and then we’re back on the bikes. The village of Sampeau is  picturesque and lush with palms. The road beyond is so dusty and at first we drive through open countryside. It’s such an amazing feeling to be in this place but get that uneasy feeling at times. It’s better driving through villages and we feel so welcomed by these friendly people. Mono tells us that the country people are happy to see tourists as they know that this means their country must be safe. It brings it home how dangerous this country still was only a few years ago. Although the Khmer Rouge were officially overthrown in 1979, they weren’t captured and many disappeared into the jungles and have made irregular attacks on locals and tourists up until the late nineties. It’s ironic, now, that we make the village people feel safe and vice versa.

We drive to Wat Banon but one look at the three hundred steps to the top, we say ‘no thanks’ – too hot today and I’m definitely unfit. The closest village is across a suspension bridge where we stop and walk down to the river. Here people are bathing and washing metal cookware and some village kids are swimming. The water is brown with silt but not polluted so in we go. I’m fully clothed, but Mark strips off his shirt. He has an instant audience of men in the water who stare at his white body and hairy chest. My poor darling, he’s so tall and good looking and I’ve had many people tell me I have ‘handsome man’, but hairy legs and a hairy chest, no way. He doesn’t mind, though, and we have great fun doing handstands and somersaults in the water with three little girls who’ve suddenly appeared.

Dripping wet, we hop on the bikes again and drive for an hour alongside the river and through endless villages. Our wet clothes keep us cool, as the heat is stifling by now. As we approach one village, we can hear music being played from loud speakers. The whole village population is crowded around a small enclosure where two big monkeys are chained to spikes in the ground. Mono says this is a ‘circus’ but it’s really a weird sales pitch to sell snake oil to the villagers. The noise is horrendous as a man with a microphone bellows out information, which is interspersed with deafening music including the song ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’. This village seems strange. The people stare and seem wary of us. There’s no smiling as there has been in other villages and we decide to leave in case we’re imposing for some reason. I’m shocked, then, when as we get back on the bikes, a little girl who’d been staring at us with a hard face suddenly runs forward to give me a flower. The dear little one. It makes me sad that I thought these people were unfriendly when maybe they’re afraid or nervous of us. I don’t know why they would be as they must see lots of tourists but maybe none of them stop here. Then again, it could be Mark’s hairy legs. We smile and wave as we leave.

At another village on the banks of a river, we ask Mono to stop as the people are very friendly and lots of kids have come out to wave to us. The grass houses are all on bamboo stilts with areas under the house for animals as well as the inevitable hammocks. There are cows standing in the shade of trees and chickens scratching around the dirt. It’s paradise, really. A group of children of all ages come out to talk to us and have their photos taken. Mark shows them what they look like in the video camera which creates lots of excited laughter. Older village people wave to us from windows and from their hammocks. We’d love to stay longer but it’s getting late and Mono says it’s too dangerous to be out on these roads in the dark.

Our next stop is at a wat where a cremation ceremony is taking place and where a colony of bats have taken residence in the huge trees outside. From here we cross another narrow suspension bridge but have to pay a toll to a lady swinging in a hammock in a small grass hut at the entrance. Another hour-long dusty ride takes us to the outskirts of Battambang. It’s almost dark and a lovely time of day to be driving through villages with the smell of smoke in the air as the evening meal is being cooked.

At the Teo Hotel we pay Mono $20 AUS and Pii $12 AUS as we’d arranged. We’re so grateful to Mono for giving us one of our best travel days ever. Back in our room, we sleep for an hour and I try to get up to go out for dinner but I’m exhausted and fall back into a dead sleep. Mark walks down past the prison to some big food places we’d seen this morning. While they look good they’re quite strange. He’s put in a booth where he can’t see anyone and has to eat alone with nothing to look at. He’s back home by 9.30pm.

Wednesday        13th March, 2002         Battambang to Siem Reap

Mono and another friend pick us up on motos at 6am to take us to the boat. With our big packs across their laps and with us on the back it seems very unstable but we make it as usual. The morning is perfectly still and sunny once again and the town is alive even at this early hour. At a shack near the river we order cheese and cold lamb baguettes for the boat and noodle soup for Mono and us for breakfast. Other travellers have arrived on motos and there seems to be about twenty of us booked on the boat. Besides us, there are Germans, Dutch, French and Cambodians. We all scramble down the steep embankment to where the boat is moored. Mono comes down to say goodbye and to tell us about a good guesthouse in Siem Reap called the Happy Guesthouse.

The boat is picturesque. There are cane chairs with padded pink cushions and we’re comfortable if cramped. There’s a roof for shelter but otherwise it’s open on all sides. Mark and I are first onboard and choose seats at the back. This is a bad move all round as we’re soon to become deafened by the engine noise while we now have to watch it being repaired with all sorts of improvised tools. This doesn’t look good for a seven o’clock start. Fuel is being loaded onto the boat and poured into the tank via a funnel made from a chopped up plastic coke bottle. Meanwhile, a young German woman two seats in front is happily puffing away on a cigarette. I ask her if she thinks it’s a good idea to be smoking so she chucks it in the river. A French backpacker tells us it’s probably not dangerous because it’s diesel but then points to another boat where a tank of petrol is being loaded by a man with a lighted cigarette hanging out of his mouth. My God, get us out of here.

Half an hour later, we’re ready to go. Mono waves us goodbye and we set off down the river into a slight mist rising off the water. For an hour after leaving Battambang we pass some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever seen. The banks are lined with grass huts, coconut trees, banana trees and vegetable gardens. We pass monks in a canoe and they laugh and wave as we race past them. There are temples and lots of waving children. Unfortunately, the banks gradually become less populated and the palm trees disappear to be replaced by the occasional hut on stilts and a barren landscape. Even this gets worse as we pass small settlements where filth lines the banks and the water’s edge and where the water level has dropped so dramatically that we get stuck on the bottom several times.

It’s also extremely hot and we’re glad when the boat pulls in after three hours at a sort of floating shop. In fact, the whole village is completely over the water. Here the river joins the Tonle Sap Lake so we need to change to a ‘fast boat’ to take us across the lake. Meanwhile we buy water at the shop and move our packs to the new boat. No-one is impressed with this boat, as it looks a veritable death trap. The cabin feels like a tomb and it would be impossible to get out if the boat sank which isn’t totally out of the question here.

For the next hour and a half, we hurtle across the lake which is so huge its banks are barely visible. The two Dutch passengers are the same couple who were in the back of our pick-up from the Thai border to Battambang. Despite the fact that both of them now have skin the colour of cooked lobsters, he squeezes out into the hole in the back to sit in the blistering sun. Mark and I can’t believe it. Maybe we’re like all Australians who’ve lived under the sun our whole lives and are all experts on the sunburnt thing, or maybe he’s just plain stupid.

We soon forget the Dutch guy when anxiety for our safety suddenly skyrockets when the driver decides to go up the back for a cigarette and hands the driving over to a boy of about thirteen. We all give each other terrified looks and just want this horror boat trip to be over.

We finally slow down as we come to the river into Siem Reap and pass villages and huge partly-suspended fishing nets. There’s lots of water traffic here as we pass the Vietnamese floating village and then pull into the boat-stop itself. Instead of a pier, a narrow plank is placed between the boat and the muddy shore. We’re blown away by the filth of this place. It must be a fishing village as the water and the banks are covered with garbage and dead fish and the stench is horrendous. Fishermen are clambering over boats and hawkers are waiting to pounce on the new arrivals. As Mark tries to extract our packs from the rest, I’m inundated with moto touts. It’s chaos and we get on the back of the first bikes we see. Other traumatised travellers from the boat are also on their way into town and we continually pass each other the whole way. The road runs along an embankment lined with raised huts covered in red dust from the passing traffic.

In fact, everything is covered in red dust – buildings, trees, bikes, everything. I’d read about the dust of Siem Reap but this is ridiculous. As we draw closer to town, though, the dust subsides and we see that this place is really lovely. The river that runs through the centre is lined with shady trees and has wide grassy banks. We pass the old market then cross one of the many bridges over the river. Along more dirt streets and laneways we finally pull into a guesthouse – Happy Guesthouse, in fact – Mono would be pleased.

We seem to be a bit out of the way but Johnny, who runs the guesthouse, desperately assures us that we’re in the best spot. The laneway is lined with other guesthouses and with grass houses built on stilts. It’s very green and quiet and we fall in love with it. ‘Happy’ consists of two double storey verandahed buildings with gardens in front and potted palms and pink and cream bougainvillea. There’s a pergola shading cane tables and chairs for which we make a beeline to order beer, coke, chicken baguettes and noodles. Johnny takes us to our room which is big and airy with a tiled floor and a huge bathroom next door. We have a wall fan and a floor fan that has three settings – ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘windy’. An odd sign in the bathroom also tells us to ‘please do not put somethings inside toilet’.

After dumping our gear we sit in the shade with two German girls who’d been on the boats from Battambang and who’d also been kidnapped to ‘Happy’. They’re planning to spend their whole three days here looking at temples. We’ve already decided to just do one day temple-hopping and the rest seeing the town. We also talk to Sam, a young Cambodian man, who’d also been on the boat. He wants to be a guide at Angkor so he comes here to learn its history. He can’t read or write so he has to remember everything in his head. He knows that tourism is the best way to earn money and he’s pretty cool so we think he’ll make it.

In the next street we find an internet shop and get our first messages from home in three days. Always afraid that something has gone wrong and so relieved when I read the first lines and know all is well. This street is dirt as are most of the streets in Siem Reap. Cafes are dotted along both sides. These include the ‘No Problem Pizza Café’ and the ‘Cheese Sandwich Café’. The rest of the afternoon we hang around ‘Happy’ sorting out videos and photos and diary writing.

After dark, we ask one of the guys hanging around in the lane to take us into town. We both climb onto the back of his bike and the three of us set off in search of Siem Reap nightlife. The town is beautiful at night as many of the big restaurants along the river are lit up with fairy lights. We cross the bridge and drive through the old market before stopping at the only nightclub in town. As its only early, the club is almost empty but the band plays continuously. Tables are set up outside so we decide to sit here where it’s cooler. A young waiter called Mai shows us to a table where we give our order to a pretty waitress. Mai asks if he can sit with us and tells us of his life and his dream to go to university. He works here every night from 6pm till midnight when he sleeps on a bench in front of the club, as it’s too far to make it home in the dark. At dawn he cycles the twenty minutes to his village where he then goes to school from 7am till 11am. He’s such a sweet person and happy with his life. He teaches us more Khmer language and we think we do quite well even though he laughs at us. By the time we leave, Mark can say ‘no, too expensive’ which may come in handy and I can say ‘two babies’ which is totally useless. Inside the band is still playing while a series of singers take turns either in solo or in groups.

Later, we thank Mai for his Khmer lessons and we head across the road to the Zanzibar – a trendy traveller’s café run by a spaced out French hippie. A visit to the Zanzibar is a backpacker’s must. Old sixties music is playing and there’s a good atmosphere but I’m almost falling asleep at the bar. We only have one beer then find a moto driver to take us back to ‘Happy’.

Thursday   14th March, 2002                            Siem Reap

We wake again to a hot humid day and decide to stay in town and do the temples tomorrow. We’ve also decided to fly to Phnom Penh on Saturday instead of doing seven hours on a boat – had the long terrifying boat ride already so we’re opting for the short terrifying plane ride instead. Before leaving ‘Happy’, we meet a lovely English lady called Julie and we arrange for the three of us to go to the Grand Hotel tonight for ‘happy hour’ drinks.

Setting off on foot, we pass young monks in orange robes on their alms rounds in our laneway. At the camera shop in the next street, we leave films to be developed and then we turn left onto the busy Highway 6. The road is paved, hectic and exciting. It’s a short walk to the bridge past food carts and shops. Across the bridge we can see the Grand Hotel d’Angkor set behind a green park on the right. It’s very impressive in its colonial glory and obviously full of Japanese and American tourists who are the only ones who can afford it. Further on is the Green Garden Restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, so we go in. Breakfast is chicken baguettes, eggs and soda water. I try not to stare at two monks who come in to talk to the owner.

Out onto the road again we find the Seeing Hands Massage d’Angkor. Blind people have been taught massage so it’s a worthwhile cause for them and for us to get our backs fixed. It’s situated in an old wooden building set back off the road. There are big trees in front and some women are hanging washing on lines strung beneath them. A man sitting near the door takes our money and shows us inside to a room downstairs. We’re introduced to a young lady and man dressed in white pyjamas and then we’re given the same to dress into ourselves. The massage is unfortunately agonising and, even more unfortunately, is an hour long.  Most Asian massages are painful but this is worse. We’re belted for an hour but the last few minutes of continuous slapping is hilarious as I can hear Mark on the next table getting his share as well. My God, we leave worse off than when we arrived. We thank our friends and get the hell out of there.

Further down the road, we talk to a couple of moto drivers who take us to the airline office in town where we buy tickets for Phnom Penh. I suddenly have an attack of the ‘Indias’, as we call it – alias Delhi-belly, Bali-belly, etc. A nearby café looks clean and we order lemon sodas before I casually ask about a toilet. Fortunately they have one and it’s amazingly clean as well. The cafe is called the Red Piano Bar probably because of the red piano in the corner. We cool down under overhead fans and sit on big cane chairs amongst a forest of palms. The old market is on the next corner so we set off to look for souvenirs. Everything imaginable is sold here and we spend ages in the food area – fruits, vegetables, flowers, dried fish, meat and unrecognisables. There are endless souvenir stalls and we have fun bartering with the ladies. We buy ten silk cushion covers for $3AUS, four silk tablecloths for $9AUS, two silk bedspreads for $18AUS, temple rubbings for $16AUS and a bronze queen’s head for $44AUS. This is too much to put on a moto so we hire a rickshaw to take us back to ‘Happy’.

For lunch we walk around to the adjacent street and find a quiet café. After E-mailing home, we hire a moto driver to take us to the Crocodile Farm on the outskirts of town. We squeeze three on a bike and love the drive through town. The Crocodile Farm is a big disappointment, though, as the crocodiles are all asleep. We’d been told not to miss the feeding frenzy, so I ask what time they’re fed –  ‘Sunday’ she replies.  Never mind, I find some baby ducklings to play with so that keeps me amused. On the way back we ask our driver to take us to the village on the other side of the river. This place looks idyllic. It’s clean and picturesque and there seems to be a close sense of community despite the obvious hardships of village life.

Back at the guesthouse we sit in the courtyard and have drinks with a German man called Karl. He’s been travelling for thirty years and surprisingly he loves Bali most of all. We swap travel tips and then arrange with Johnny for moto drivers to take us to the temples tomorrow and this afternoon. The deal to visit all the temple complexes is $20US for one day or $30US for three days. Whichever you choose, you can go after four o’clock the afternoon before your first day for free. We’re introduced to our drivers who are friendly but unfortunately can’t speak English. We tell Johnny where Karl has advised us to go so he translates for us. It’s three o’clock now so we set off for Angkor on two bikes.

From Highway 6, we cross the bridge and then turn right to drive past the Grand Hotel d’Angkor and a couple of new 5 star monstrosities on the way out of town. Off the main road, we turn onto a dirt track and drive for several kilometres through a sparsely populated area to arrive at the Land Mines Museum. This consists of a couple of grass huts full of land mines collected by a local man trying to educate people on the horrors of war. It’s a non-profit museum but donations go to victims. Ironically, through the fence is a village where a group of boys are playing soccer. One has lost a leg but is doing famously on his crutches.

On the main road again we soon come to the ticket selling gates for the temples. There’s a line-up as everyone is hanging around waiting for the stroke of four. We buy our one-day pass and race off to Angkor. The road is straight and shaded by an avenue of tall trees. At a T-intersection, we turn right instead of left where most of the motos are heading for Angkor Wat. Karl has advised us to see the temples in this direction today and do the big ones tomorrow. The intersection is at a beautiful lake where we can see lines of fishermen in the water holding huge nets. We pass a group of monkeys with their babies on the side of the road and soon arrive at our first temple called Prasat Kravan. This is not terribly impressive but it’s our first temple and we climb all over it. We’re hassled by hawkers to buy hats and postcards but we head off for our next stop only minutes away.

Banteay Kolei is reached through a stone archway with a smiling face carved into the rock. The sun is low and a monk passes through just as we arrive – how beautiful. The temple is situated on the edge of a small village and water buffalo are wallowing around in a shallow dam. We walk down a long path to reach the temple itself which is a single story structure with literally hundreds of doorways and windows. While the temple is amazing, we love the serenity of the jungle setting the most. There are only a couple of tourists here so we think we’re lucky we took Karl’s advice.

From here our next stop is Pre Rup from where we’re to watch the sunset. We stop first at one of the ubiquitous drink and souvenir stalls opposite all the temples. We buy drinks and a ‘I’ve been to Angkor Wat’ T-shirt for Mark then start the steep climb to the top of Pre Rup. This is a big temple and the stairs are so narrow we can only get half a foot onto them. They’re also incredibly steep and I crawl up on all fours. At the top we strain our eyes in the direction of Angkor Wat but all we can see is jungle. Maybe we’re both half blind or maybe all these other people are just having themselves on. The view is lovely anyway but we decide to head back to town now and beat the inevitable rush.

At ‘Happy’, we’re just in time for drinks with the German girls (never did ask their names) and then have a quick shower to go out with Julie. It’s dark by now and the three of us walk over to the Grand. Even at this time of day it’s still hot although there seems to be less humidity. At the hotel we walk up the impressive front stairs where a uniformed doorman opens the doors for us. We’re directed up another staircase, along a corridor past the dining room and then down a curved staircase to the Elephant Bar. To stay here it costs about $400 a night but we’re more than ‘happy’ where we are at almost a hundredth of the cost. The bar is decorated in the colonial style of the tropics with cane lounges, overhead fans and elephant tusks decorating the walls. The lights are dim and the room is set out in intimate lounged areas. We find a vacant corner and order our ‘happy hour’ drinks. Julie knows a young English couple called Becky and Mark playing pool near us. She’d met them somewhere else in Cambodia and we spend the next hour hearing about their travels in Asia. They’re so sweet and we invite them to visit us when they reach Australia. Meanwhile we all enjoy the free popcorn and our cheap cocktails. Mark has two Tom Collins and I have two Margaritas all for $4 US a couple. At 9.30pm we walk back home with Julie and jump straight into bed with our fan on ‘windy’.

Friday    15th March, 2002.                      Siem Reap

This is the day that is to be the highlight of our trip. Today we see Angkor Wat. The thing that all visitors must do is to see it at sunrise. We dress in the dark and meet one of our moto drivers in the laneway. We have to ride three to a bike and then meet the other driver out there for some reason. No problem and we set off at 6am. It’s chilly on the bikes this early and I put on an extra shirt when we stop to show our tickets. The scenery is wonderful again and we pass elephants on the side of the road. At the T-intersection, we turn left and ride around the lake till we can see the long causeway to the temple. I admit to getting tears in my eyes to think that we’re here at last.

Across the road there are buses and vans and motos, all empty now of passengers who are apparently already inside. We cross the moat and pass beneath the wide archway and there it is – Angkor Wat – the reason we’ve come to Cambodia. To borrow the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘it is not so majestic as I had imagined’ (he was talking about Antarctica – hilarious!). It certainly is lovely, though, with the sun about to come up behind it and the moment only spoilt by the hundreds of tourists. Of course, we’re here as well so we can’t complain.

Despite the amount of people there is total silence as everyone waits for the sun to rise. Suddenly the sky turns pink and there’s a flurry of activity as videos start rolling and cameras clicking. People are moving around to get better vantage points and we do the same. The sun then peeps out from behind one of the three towers and the sky behind melts into gold. Now, this definitely is as majestic as we’d imagined. We walk through the stone corridors to reach the other side to view it from another angle. Within minutes the sun is well above the temple and the initial magic is broken. As we look back towards the main entrance we can’t believe that most of the tourists have gone. They have their pictures and now they’re back in their air-conditioned buses heading back to their five-star hotels for buffet breakfasts. I suppose, they’ll be back later so we must make the most of the isolation now.

As we walk up to the main building we’re entirely alone. Angkor Wat is the principal temple of the Angkor area, which is dotted with numerous temples in approximately a thirty mile radius. It was built in the twelfth century as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II and is the largest of all the Angkor temples. The whole area was once densely populated but, since only religious buildings could be made of stone, the wooden houses have long since disappeared. We decide to walk around the outside first so we turn off the main path and turn right.

From the side it’s possible to realise the temple’s massive size. A stone wall separates the temple on one side and the jungle on the other while grassed areas between the temple and the wall are dotted with tiny white wild flowers. At the rear end we climb stone steps to the first level and examine the endless bas-reliefs that stretch in 800 metre lengths. These are carvings in the outside walls and are usually scenes from religious stories starring gods like Vishnu and Shiva. The second floor is reached by wooden stairs as the originals are still under reconstruction. To get to the top floor there are four sets of exterior stairs on each side. These are incredibly high and almost vertical and, like those at Pre Rup yesterday, incredibly narrow. One look and I almost can’t do it.

Then I remember I’d read a traveller’s story about a railing that had been placed on one side. So relieved to find it and I go up first so that Mark can catch me when I faint. I’m saying this as a joke, but when I get almost to the top I’m supposed to move to one side and hold on to another rail. I just can’t – as pathetic as it sounds, my legs are jelly and I cling instead to a landing on the left. Mark casually walks up behind me and others are doing the same – no other cowards. I desperately want to get to the top so I climb through a window on the ledge and there we are at last – at the top of Angkor Wat.

We’re stifling hot by now and have a drink in the shade while we look out over the grounds. Palm trees and dense green jungle add to its magic. Climbing back down the dreaded stairs to the second floor isn’t frightening at all. On every floor there’s so much to explore that it would take days to see it all. Within galleries that wind around each floor we see Buddha statues all swathed in saffron robes and burning incense at their feet. How special this place must be to the Buddhist people who are here now praying and making offerings.

Before heading off to the next temple, we decide to have breakfast probably in one of the stalls across the causeway. But as we leave the main building we’re beckoned over to the trees on the right where a table is set up and people are cooking breakfast. This looks wonderful amongst a plantation of banana trees so we’re happy to eat here. There’s only coke to drink and only one baguette left but enough eggs for an omelet so we enjoy our breakfast in these marvellous surroundings. As we leave, a village woman gives me a bunch of tiny grape-looking fruits to try – bitter and hard to chew.

Although it’s only nine o’clock, the air is hot and humid as we walk back along the causeway to the market across the road. Our moto drivers have already seen us and are waiting to pick us up. The breeze cools us down as we take off on the bikes towards Ta Prohm. This is a Buddhist temple built in the seventeenth century and which, unlike the other temples of Angkor, has not been cleared of the jungle which devoured it for hundreds of years.

Along the way, we see more ruined temples and a row of stone elephants running the length of a bridge. Other backpackers are flying past on their motos – very exciting! The entrance to Ta Prohm is through a tall stone archway on the side of the road from where a dirt track leads us through the trees to the temple. A group of busking Cambodian musicians are sitting on the edge of the path playing for the tourists.

The temple appears and it’s magic – straight out of Indiana Jones but the real thing. Giant trees are growing out of broken towers and stone walls. Their roots are like tendrils slithering amongst the ancient structures both breaking them up and holding them together at the same time. This is what the French explorers would have found when they came upon the ‘lost city’ of Angkor in the 1860’s. The jungle closes in on all sides almost threatening to take over again. We’re alone most of the time and all we can hear are the birds in the nearby trees. A group of elderly Japanese tourists suddenly appear though a whole in the wall. We have nothing against elderly Japanese tourists, but they always seem to have a guide with them bellowing out instructions. This group is quiet, though, and we spend another half-hour wandering around enjoying the peace.

The heat is getting to us by now and we still want to see Bayon before too many tourists beat us there. As we walk back along the track to the road, the Cambodian band are poised, ready for action. They’re not interested in us penniless backpackers but are lying in wait for the Japanese tourists coming behind. We hear them strike up as they approach.

Before we reach Bayon, we stop at another temple called      . This is smaller but has the same horrible steep, steep stone steps leading up to the main towers. I’ve had enough terror for one day but Mark has no problem getting to the top – I’ll see the video! Back towards Siem Reap we arrive at Bayon. This is another huge temple most famous for its massive smiling faces on the third level. These are carved in the stone walls and leer down at you from all angles. Inside a tiny chamber within the temple, an old nun shows me how to give offerings to a Buddhist shrine. We burn incense and I’m sure I look a total fool as I try to copy her as she bows three times to Buddha – don’t care, I love this so much.

We’re suffering now from heat exhaustion and climb down to sit in the shade of trees across the road. This area is very alive and other temples are scattered all around. The markets are bigger here as well and there are plenty of tourists buying drinks and food cooked fresh at the food stalls. After wandering around more ruins close by, we’re dripping in sweat so we order fresh coconut milk from a makeshift café across the road. It’s cold and sweet and drunk through a straw straight from the coconut. Feeling exhausted from the heat we find our moto drivers and head back to Siem Reap.

At ‘Happy’ we rest in the cool of our room then lunch at No Problem Pizza Café around the corner. This is a trendy little grass hut-style place with greenery shading the entrance. A handsome dread-locked couple sit near us. At the internet place next door we thankfully find that everyone is well at home. Back at the guesthouse we ask our moto drivers to take us to the Central Market which is in a part of town we haven’t yet seen. As we reach the Highway 6 junction, we turn right and drive only about a kilometre south. The market looks like a shantytown as the stalls and walkways are shaded by a mishmash of materials. Everything imaginable is for sale. Mark barters for two green hammocks and we buy a watermelon, fresh peanuts and a bunch of tiny mangoes. On the way home, our drivers take us on a shortcut and we zigzag our way through back alleyways to get to ‘Happy’. Out in the courtyard Johnny brings me a plate and a knife to cut up the watermelon, which we share with him and the moto drivers.

After cold showers we dress again in our posh clothes and head for the Grand for more happy hour drinks. Can’t see Julie anywhere so we go on our own. Five roles of photos are ready which we pick up on the way. At the Elephant Bar, we find a different corner to sit and order calamari and fish and chips – will cost us an arm and a leg but we’re spoiling ourselves tonight. While we wait we eat the free popcorn and look at the photos. Our happy hour drinks include a Pims No1 and a Long Island Tea for Mark and a Harvey Wallbanger and a Daiquiri for me. We love travelling rough but it’s so nice to visit these wonderful places now and again. It means we can have the best of everything; have a cheap holiday where we experience the local culture but also have a taste of luxury for a fraction of the price.

Walking back along the river, the night is still and balmy.  Crowds of young locals are drinking and eating in temporary open-air cafes set up for the evenings. At a nearby night market Mark is about to buy a bag of apples but he is so blatantly being ripped off he says ‘forget it’. Never mind paying a bit more but sometimes it’s just a pain in the arse.

We must eat at The Bayon Restaurant. It’s another must that Lonely Planet and every traveller’s diary I’ve ever read recommends. The only problem is, it looks suspiciously not like the restaurant described. Probably another case of something becoming ‘famous’ by making it into Lonely Planet and then everyone else tries to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen another Bayon Restaurant in the last few days. The food is good anyway so it’s not a problem. Julie is sitting in the courtyard when we get back to ‘Happy’ so we dig out our Bacardi and Jim Beam and stay up talking for hours.

Saturday   16th, March, 2002                 Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

This morning, we’re up at 5.30am to be ready for the taxi at six o’clock. Our driver apologises for leaving the windows down all night as the whole interior is filled with man-eating mosquitoes. It’s just getting light as we reach the airport fifteen minutes later. The terminal is a small one-storey building and we quickly pass through baggage check-in. In a corner of the boarding lounge is a sort of café that really only consists of a counter and three tall stools. The staff are slow to get organised and don’t seem to be in any hurry to serve us. All we can order for breakfast is a cold packaged croissant and a cup of tea. A guy sitting on the other stool introduces himself as another Aussie after he recognises our accents. He’s the first Australian we’ve met so far. He lives in Taiwan and works for a US company so he earns massive dollars – lucky bastard.

Surprisingly, there are about a hundred people on the plane which is much bigger and better than we expected. I suppose we were imagining it’d be like Lao Aviation’s ‘plane from hell’ that took us from Luang Prabang to Vientienne last year. As we take off from Siem Reap there’s a slight mist so we can’t make out Angkor Wat although later we have good views of the Tonle Sap lake and river. The flight is only thirty five minutes and. It’s smooth except that the pilot makes a couple of hair-raising right-hand turns as we make our descent to Phnom Penh.

Wow, can’t believe we’re here. Phnom Penh is one of those exotic cities that conjure up images of ex-pats and journalists lounging around in old colonial hotels with overhead fans and potted palms.

The airport is smaller than I imagined but I guess this is the domestic bit. Outside taxi touts are waiting to swoop down on us but we’re ready for them. Can’t remember who, but some traveller told us the price we should pay into town so we know they’re ripping us off at $7 US. We shrug them off and walk out onto the main road. A group of young moto drivers are waiting for us and we ask the two least pushiest to take us for $2 US each. This isn’t only cheaper it’s also terribly exciting and terribly trendy to arrive in Phnom Penh on the back of a bike.

The centre of the city reminds us of Saigon although there appears to be more evidence of destruction. An entire three level block has the whole side-wall missing but people are still living in it. Everything is dirty, rundown and in need of repair and there are people everywhere. Motos, street stalls, markets and dilapidated buildings – the lot. As awful as it is, it’s real and it’s thrilling. Down many unpaved side streets we pull up at the Narim Guesthouse – ‘no, we want Narim II Guesthouse’. Off we go again this time with two new drivers who say they know where it is. They’re right and we soon arrive at a skinny multi-storied place which is obviously popular on account of the many backpackers lounging around in the downstairs café/foyer. The owner drags us up six flights of stairs to an unmade room. We’re not happy with being this high up and the whole place looks dirty and a fire trap. We say thanks but decide to keep looking.

Our new drivers are James and Ali Baba and are full of suggestions for alternate accommodation. They take us to a Chinese hotel but I want to look at the Renakse Hotel where Intrepid Tours stay. It’s only one street back from the river near the Palace and I love it immediately. Through a wrought iron fence we pull into a graveled driveway surrounded by overgrown gardens. The building is an old colonial and full of character. The only room left, though, is expensive and dark and musty. Reluctantly we return to the Chinese-run Royal Highness, spelt wrongly as the Royal Hiness in huge neon lights. A doorman runs out to meet us as if we’re royalty ourselves. Inside, the ground floor is open plan and includes a restaurant and a sweeping staircase to the next mezzanine level. Here are lounges and coffee tables all very Chinese and extremely appealing. We’re shown to our room on the second floor. It has a television, bathroom with hot water (luxury) and air-conditioning (more luxury) all for $15US. We’ve never stayed in a Chinese hotel before and it’s a nice change from trendy backpacker guesthouses.

We only stay long enough to use the loo, then back outside to meet James and Ali Baba. It’s still only 9.30am, so we have all day to see as much as we can. Off first to the National Museum which is an attractive terracotta-coloured building with sweeping roof lines. Inside is an open courtyard formally set out with ponds and tropical gardens. The museum holds an impressive collection of ancient Khmer sculpture but we’re just not into museums and we’d seen the real thing at Angkor anyway, so we leave. Also feeling ‘palaced out’ so our visit to the Royal Place is also quick. The Silver Pagoda is very beautiful with thousands of silver tiles on the floor but same, same otherwise. There are so many elaborate buildings inside the compound and we explore a few before meeting the guys out in the street at 11am.

Our next stop is the Foreign Correspondents Club set on a corner opposite the Tonle Sap River. The club is on the first floor of an old French building and has stacks of atmosphere. Wooden furniture, potted palms, overhead fans, big old lounges and, on the whole, what we’d expected. Two sides are open so that besides getting a cool breeze off the river, it’s a great vantage point to watch the local activity. Below is a busy street with a promenade running alongside the river. After pizza and lemon sodas, we sit on the edge of the promenade but feel a bit spooked by a group of teenage boys hanging around us. One is carrying a large pair of scissors which is more than slightly suspicious. We’ve been told to be wary of gangs of kids like this even in the middle of the day. Glad to see James and Ali Baba pull into the curb. We show them the address of the temple that Mao Lim had asked us to visit. They’re suitably impressed that we ‘know’ a monk and agreed to take us there even though it’s quite a way out of town.

We head north and follow the river for a time before veering off into less populated areas. Ali Baba stops several times to ask directions and I’m getting the feeling that this ‘meeting the monk thing’ isn’t going to happen. He probably won’t be there anyway so we’re not too optimistic about seeing him. A woman at a roadside stall directs us off the main road and onto a dirt track through a village. We pass ponds where water lilies are flaunting their pink flowers and where men are walking chest-deep through the water. Ali Baba explains that some are collecting the flowers to sell while others are catching snakes. Ahead is the tall arched gateway that heralds a temple and we’re here at last.

Wat Toulsantevan consists of a small pagoda and a few wooden monks’ quarters and outer buildings. A group of young monks come out to see who we are and James asks them about Mao Lim. At this moment, he appears from nowhere with a delighted smile on his face. He’s as happy and surprised to see us as we are to see him. He takes us inside to an open sided room where woven straw mats are brought out for us to sit on. The room is painted blue with pictures of the Buddha’s life decorating all the walls. With the monks’ orange robes, it’s a colourful scene. Mao Lim sits cross-legged on a raised dais while the other monks crowd around. Everybody is smiling and we feel totally welcome and relaxed.

Bottled water and fresh mangoes are brought out for us and we all talk for an hour with a ‘brother’ translating between us and the monks who can only speak limited English. Other lay residents of the monastery come and sit with us as well. These are mainly women and one poor lady has the biggest goiter we’ve ever seen – reminds me of that Seinfeld episode. We’re introduced to Old Yang and Young Yang who both want photos and videos taken of them. Old Yang is chewing betel-nut and never shuts up even though we can’t understand a word she says. She’s a definite clown and all the monks laugh every time she says something. I love her and she wants me to sit next to her. Mao Lim proudly brings out a postcard from a man who lives in Canberra and we promise to send back copies of the photos we take today. We exchange addresses and then he takes Mark for a walk and shows him the huge new pagoda halfway through being built. Before going outside, a monk runs up to us with white rubber thongs for each of us to wear.

I leave Mark and Mao Lim alone – I think they’re in love. Meanwhile, the other monks take me to the kitchen which is a weathered wooden structure with a dirt floor and open on two sides. Three shaven-headed nuns who do the cooking want to have their photos taken. This is wonderful. They’re all dressed in long black sarongs and plain white collarless blouses. The first nun is introduced as ‘cooking the rice nun’ and the second as ‘boiling the water nun’. I don’t know what the third nun is called but for the monks’ sake I hope it’s ‘cooking the vegetables nun’ or ‘cooking the meat nun’.

Before we leave, Mark gives Mao Lim a $40 AUS donation for the new pagoda. Again we’re blessed and our money is blessed so now we’re going to have even longer and even healthier lives. We’re both on the biggest high after our time here. A small crowd waves us off as we speed towards Phnom Penh. One of the monks has given James and Ali Baba directions for a shorter route back to the city. On dirt tracks we wind our way through small villages that are full of life and through open countryside, so that we see a completely different side of Phnom Penh.

Soon, we’re back in town and are heading for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 as it’s more commonly known. A pot-holed side road leads us to the entrance where other moto drivers are hanging around waiting for tourists already inside. Dying of thirst, we cross to a café almost hidden by an overgrown garden. It’s lovely in here away from the heat and dust and we sit on cane lounges drinking lemon sodas and banana shakes. But now it’s time to see the museum.

S21 was used as a prison / torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 till 1979. Possibly a hundred people a day were tortured here for up to three months each before being taken to the killing fields to be murdered. Pol Pot and his cronies were paranoid about traitors and would torture people, even those in the Khmer Rouge army, until they confessed to working for the CIA or the KGB. Most had never even heard of them. All intellectuals were killed first along with their entire families. None were spared, not even the babies. It was madness beyond belief.

After paying at the gate we find a guide who takes us first to the rooms that were used for torture and then to other rooms whose walls are covered in photographs of the victims. The whole process was meticulously recorded with each person photographed before and after torture. A list of instructions on a wall tells prisoners that ‘if you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge’ and that ‘while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all’. When we first came in, I’d asked the guide how long it takes to see the prison as there’s a film about the Khmer Rouge showing at three o’clock. He said that it varies because some people become too upset. Within minutes we were the same and we both had to go outside into the yard to calm down. As shocking as it is, we believe it’s right to see and know what happened. The Cambodian people’s suffering shouldn’t be hidden and it’s part of their healing process to show the world the truth about the maniacs that almost destroyed them.

Moving on, we see that other rooms are partitioned off with tiny brick cells where people would wait to be tortured. The verandahs of the two floors above are enclosed by barbed wire so that the prisoners couldn’t jump off and commit suicide. We’re shown paintings by one of seven survivors who survived torture and death because he was forced to paint propaganda pictures of Pol Pot. The hour-long film afterwards is held in an airless sauna of a room and is packed with tourists. Personal accounts by survivors tell how they weren’t allowed to sing, write or even to love. Families and lovers were deliberately separated, and surviving family members read out letters of the broken hearts of those they never saw again. I’ve always noticed that after people watch something like this there’s total silence. It’s the same here. There’s nothing you can say. Probably the most awful thing about the prison is its façade of normality in that it looks like any other high school built in that era. Now children are playing in the yard seemingly oblivious to its dreadful history.

On the bikes again, we now turn towards the Russian Market. We’ve decided that if we can see this now and get to the Grand Hotel tonight for ‘happy hour’, we’ll set off in the morning for the coast. As we blaze our way through the streets, we stop for no man and no traffic light, for that matter. Busy intersections aren’t a problem as we create our own bypasses through petrol stations and  temple grounds. We always wonder why, despite the incredible volume of traffic, there never appears to be any signs of irritation let alone road rage. It seems accepted that this is how it is and everyone will get their turn.

The Russian Market is huge and a rabbit warren of walkways between hundreds of stalls. In the central food area, so many foods are being cooked that we don’t recognise but we finally settle for some doughy banana pancakes. They’re hot and sweet and we eat them sitting on tiny plastic stools. Old beggar women are all over the place and they’re irresistible especially when they ask you to take their photo and then hold out their hand for payment. We barter for buddha statues and other fantastic souvenirs but decide to wait till we get to Sihanoukville to load up on more Cambodian keepsakes. Of course, by now we’re filthy and stink from another sweltering day, so we’re ready for showers.

At the Royal Hiness we pay Ali Baba and James and thank them for a great day although I think they’re disappointed that we won’t be around tomorrow. Before going to our room we find out about bus tickets for the morning and then E-mail home. After quick showers and dressing in our posh clothes, we’re back out in the street and, in no time, in a cyclo heading for the Grand Hotel. The cyclos here are like those in Vietnam where the passenger sits in front. It’s weird being right out there in the middle of it all and unfortunately with a much better view of the endless near misses. Our driver is a dear, weathered old man wearing a constant beaming smile. I feel guilty as I never realised how far it is – it didn’t look this far on the map and it’s dark by now. At last we see it and we’re dropped off in the street. Wouldn’t do to arrive in a rickshaw at the most extravagant hotel in town. The Grand is very grand, to say the least. It’s part of the Raffles group and even lovelier than the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap. ‘Happy hour’ at this Elephant Bar is better as well since we’re given free corn chips and salsa which we down with half priced Margaritas and Tom Collins. Meanwhile, we’re being entertained by that very famous American singer (never heard of him), Jimmy Little. What he lacks in talent he makes up for with his terribly impressive appearance – big, black and beautiful.

Time to leave as by now I’ve definitely had too much to drink on an empty stomach. Besides we’re having dinner at the Royal Hiness and it’s getting late.  I tell the doorman who is dressed in traditional Khmer costume that he looks impressive in his ‘hat’ and ask for a taxi. Instead, we’re whisked away in the hotel’s private car and off we go, flashing tail lights and all. I have verbal diarrhea the whole way whilst pretending to be rich, posh and famous, ‘darling’. At the Royal Hiness restaurant, we’re the only customers and receive speedy service mainly because I think they want to go home. Our choices include ‘stewed sinew of ox’ and ‘stewed sinew of pork’ but I eventually order ‘beef salad’ and Mark orders ‘chicken curry’. They arrive within minutes in trays divided into little sections like TV dinners. There’s rice, beef, peanuts, a fried egg, four things I can’t recognise and a side bowl of fish soup. After only a couple of mouthfuls I stick to my Angkor beer. Mark eats his dinner, of course, but even he balks at the breakfast menu –  ‘porridge duck’ or ‘porridge with sliced fish’.

It’s nine o’clock by now and late according to Cambodian time so we get an early night which we both need anyway.

Sunday      17th March, 2002         Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville       

We’re up early to get to the bus station as quickly as possible as there are varying accounts as to how many buses there are and at what time they leave. Apparently, there’s no way of booking a seat ahead so it’s first in, first served. After checking out of the Royal Hiness, we jump on the back of two motos and speed off towards the bus station. The seven o’clock bus is full so we buy tickets for the next one leaving at eight thirty. Some official in a uniform points to an office where he kindly lets us store our bags while we go in search of breakfast.

Across the busy street and down a bit we find a busy sunny, corner café with tables and chairs set up on the footpath. After ordering omelets and tea, Mark reads an English newspaper while I hand over my walking boots to a shoe-shine guy. I don’t really want them done but I can’t refuse his sweet face. He carries them off behind the tables and squats on the footpath to set up his little box. He’s so conscientious and I should have guessed what was happening when it takes so long.  My beloved fawn suede walking boots are proudly handed back to me, now dark brown and shiny. They’re horrible and I hate them but say thanks anyway. Shit happens as they say. We finish breakfast now and decide we should look for a toilet before setting off on a four-hour bus trip.

A girl at the bus station hands me a key and points around the back. I’m not quite sure what keeping the door locked is supposed to achieve because inside is like a scene from the sewers of hell. I can almost see the germs crawling up the walls. No way but to wait till we get there. This area behind the bus station backs onto a street where a row of cafes are blasting out trendy Asian music while trendy young Cambodian teenagers are eating and watching television. And it’s only eight in the morning. Ear shattering music seems the way to go all over Asia and we’ve seen instances of it in every country we’ve been to. And it doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is or where it is, just play it to distortion level and everyone’s happy.

The bus to Sihanoukville is no exception. It’s modern and full of locals but no leg room and again we’re a disco on wheels. We leave on time but do a lap of the market situated on a kind of massive round-a-bout and after five minutes we’re just coming up to the bus station again. Walky-talkies also seem to be the go in Asia and are used, like now, by people standing within talking distance of each other. A guy on the bus and a guy at the bus station, which we’re now passing again, have a chat and then the guy on the bus jumps out as we pull up at the petrol station across the road. It’s all very important. On the bus we have the cutest little girls in seats behind us and opposite us. They’re dressed in the usual elaborate style of satin and lace dresses, these ones in yellow and red.

As we leave Phnom Penh the countryside opens up into dry fields in some places and vibrant green rice paddies in others. The cows are white but are also skinny which I’m not sure is because of the breed or because they’re hungry. About half way, the bus pulls in at a roadside café where we all pile out for lunch and to use the loos. These are a great improvement on the bus station’s toilet from hell. One reason for this could be that it’s black as pitch and we can’t see anything anyway. It’s a bit hard to aim for the hole in the floor but we’re getting experts by now. In the café we buy lollies in wrappers but can’t stomach the huge meals some of the local people are wolfing down at this time of day.  Outside, village people are selling fruit from a couple of shacks with thatched roofs. Here again we buy bags of chopped pineapple to be eaten with wooden skewers.

All this sounds very pleasant, and it is, but on the way we’ve been reading a bit about this area and it was on this road only a few years ago that three Australians were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and shot. Travellers’ stories I’d read on the internet also warned to stay off this road at night and while there’s no chance of that, it does give me the creeps. I’ll be glad to get there.

Nearing the coast, there are more villages and we can see that there’s a sea breeze blowing the palm and coconut trees. We arrive at Sihanoukville at 12.30pm. It’s an ugly sprawling town on the Gulf of Thailand and doesn’t look at all appealing. At the bus stop we transfer our gear, like the other backpackers, to a free bus sent by the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse. This is good as we’d been told by Julie in Siem Reap to stay here. From the centre of town the bus takes us up and down hills to reach the dusty laneways of the backpacker area. For some reason this is high on a cliff above the water and it’s a good ten minute moto ride to the beach. Surprisingly, or should I say, not surprisingly, the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse is full. So why did they send a bus to come and get us, you may ask. We don’t know.

Mark grabs our gear and we’re off down the lane to nab a guesthouse before the others get there first. Our first choice is the Christmas Guesthouse aptly named because the front courtyard boasts two large Norfolk pines decorated with tinsel and Christmas decorations. How could we stay anywhere else? The family who own the guesthouse is friendly and live on the bottom floor in one huge open room with a cool white tiled floor. Our room upstairs is big and airy, has a ceiling fan and a big window looking over a back garden. We can see palm trees and hear sounds from the surrounding village so it’s nice. At the front is a big sitting area overlooking the street and the row of cafes and guesthouses opposite.

It’s hot as hell and we’re starving so we head for a very trendy looking cafe called Sam’s Place. The café is above the family home so shoes are left in the street then we walk through their living room and up a set of rickety stairs to the café. This is open on two sides with a couple of very basic guestrooms on one side and a counter on the other. The walls and floor are bare boards and is just how we love it. Anyone can play whatever CD they want and a group of we’re-so-cool backpackers are lounging around like they own the place. An English couple are sucking up fiercely to an old French hippie who’s the real thing and lapping up all the attention. The family has really worked out what westerners want – a mix of Asia and home so that you can have Khmer food or fish and chips if you’ve had enough of noodles and rice. We do have noodles but get the fish and chips and fruit shakes as well – the best lunch so far.

We wander around after lunch then stop for a drink at the M.A.S.H. Guesthouse run by a freaky but helpful American couple. The guy is swinging in a hammock from which he yells orders for our drinks and promises to order our boat tickets for tomorrow. He looks like he’s had a few too many joints over the years so we hope he knows or remembers what he’s doing. Outside, moto drivers are hanging around and offer to take us into town. We ask them to take us to the market as this is our last stop in Cambodia and we want to get our souvenirs today.

The centre of town is ten minutes away and it’s nice to be on the bikes to cool down. The market is, as expected, a clutter of jerrybuilt erections but with the usual array of intriguing things for sale. In the flower section are the most incredible varieties especially the huge eye-catching bunches of lotus flowers. There’s dried fish and vegetables and household goods and clothes and incense and everything you could imagine; everything, that is, except souvenirs.  Mark tries to explain to our moto drivers what we’re looking for and they seem to understand so we head off on the trail of Buddha statues and masks. Of course, they don’t understand and after half an hour of driving aimlessly around town we give up. Back at the M.A.S.H. Guesthouse the American guy says there’s nowhere in town that sells anything like what we want so that’s that.

At sunset we wander down to the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse that has a big verandah looking out over the Gulf of Thailand.  It’s almost full but we get a table and order drinks. A television is set up to run the nightly showing of The Killing Fields. We’ve seen it already so we decide to go back to Sam’s Place for food. It’s pumping here with the same crowd as lunchtime and we have a great night getting drunk on our Bacardi and Jim Beam.

Monday     18th March, 2002.        Sihanoukville to Trat (Thailand)

There’s no need for an early start today although it’s too hot to sleep very late. From the verandah we can see a line of people leaving Sam’s Place at eight o’clock. It’s a wedding and they’re all in their Sunday best and carrying trays and bowls of fruit. We stalk the wedding party as it rounds the corner, only to see something fall off one of the offering trays. A couple of men are jumping around and I imagine it must be something extremely spiritual and a great loss. As we come closer we see a punctured can of coke spraying its insides all over everyone’s feet – very spiritual. Turning right at the next corner, we realise that we’re just going around the block and end up back at Sam’s place. A man also watching, informs us that the ‘wedding’ in an engagement party so the whole thing is a fizzer.

It’s also a bummer that we won’t be able to have breakfast here as we’d planned. Instead we eat at a grubby café around the corner. This is definitely a comedown with its flies, dogs under the tables and a pig wandering loose across the road. It’s a good people-watching position, though, and we notice that this town, or this area anyway, attracts a lot of aging male hippies. They all seem the same – long grey hair, tanned skin turned to leather by the sun, ethnic clothes and probably perverts.

Mark suddenly realises that we don’t have the temple rubbings we’d bought in Siem Reap and that we must have left them on the bus. Again we get motos into town but no-one at the bus station has seen anything. This is really pissing us off as we know they were up the back with our packs but the guy is adamant. It’s not really a good idea to make enemies here so all we can do is forget it. While we’re on the bikes, we get our drivers to take us to Serendipity Beach. My God, I wish we’d known about this place before. There are grass accommodation huts and a cafe right on the beach. Tables and chairs have been set up under trees on the sand and girls are wandering around with baskets on their heads selling fruit to tourists lounging around in deck-chairs. We don’t have our swimmers with us and we’re leaving soon anyway, so all we can do is order fruit shakes and talk with some of the kids hanging around. It just goes to show how people can have totally different opinions of places just from where they stay. I’m sure we’d have much better memories of Sihanoukville if we’d stayed here. But then, we’d have missed finding Sam’s Place so I guess it all evens out in the end.

The boat leaves at midday so we race back to the Christmas Guesthouse to grab our gear and meet at M.A.S.H. to get our transport to the pier. The German girls from the Happy Guesthouse in Siem Reap are here. We keep seeing familiar faces wherever we go. The crazy American is not so crazy and has everything arranged. He shoves us into a taxi with a friendly German guy called Willem and two other backpackers along with all our gear. We’re bursting at the seams with four of us in the back seat, but apparently it’s not far. It actually takes about ten minutes to get to the pier and we see a different part of town than we’ve seen so far. Running alongside the water is a thatched village with a pot-holed road leading to the wharf. The water is clear and blue and fishing boats are tied to poles in the water and some are being repaired on the bank. It’s an attractive scene but we’re bathed in sweat and dying for a drink. Luckily there’s a sort of café on the pier where we can get drinks as well as food as we somehow forgot to have lunch before we came. Willem sits at a table with us and we all order food before I go in search of a toilet. A young girl points to an area behind the kitchen where I find a door leading to the cleanest loo in Asia. There’s a hole in the floor above the water and that’s that. As we’re about ten feet from the water, it doesn’t do to picture your waste products heading for the water and on show to whoever can see.

From the café we can see a stream of travellers walking towards the boat and decide we’d better line up. On the pier near the entrance to the café, a tiny old lady with a shaved head is begging. I give her our remaining riel, which doesn’t amount to much, so I give her another US $1 note. She looks up with a big toothless smile as she sees the riches I’ve bestowed upon her. My feelings of benevolence are squashed, however, when next minute I see her lining up for the boat. The fare is expensive even for us, so either she’s running a great scam or the Cambodians don’t pay much. Probably both.

After not too much confusion, we board the boat. This is surprisingly sleek and modern with the inside set out like a 747. We sit next to Willem in comfortable seats and watch the coast as we head out into the Gulf of Thailand. A television screen at the front of the boat runs an endless string of exceptionally bad karaoke videos. These are almost identical. A pretty Asian girl and a big faced ugly Asian man (all different people but same, same) come happily together, then she gives him a filthy look and walks away, he frowns and sings by himself for a while and then she comes back and they walk away together smiling. They’re also all set outside, usually in a garden. Hideous or hilarious, depending on your mood. Next is a movie that causes all the Cambodian passengers to roar with laughter. I can’t understand a word but even I get a laugh. Mark is feeling off and tries to lie down and sleep as Willem has gone off to talk to some friends.

After a couple of hours we stop to unload some local people but others board and take their seats. Almost half the boat seems to have gone up top for a fag and I thank God once again I’m not dependent on that anymore. An angry English guy is storming up and down the aisle with smoke almost coming out of his ears. Apparently his wallet had gone missing while he was asleep. It was then miraculously found by a young Cambodian girl sitting directly behind us. As a reward for finding it, she wants him to give her money but of course he refuses as she’d obviously stolen it in the first place. She looks guilty as hell to us as well. Keeping an eye on the time we know we’ll be arriving soon and we pass on to Willem our top-secret tip from the crazy American at M.A.S.H. The border closes at 5pm and if we don’t make it we’ll have to backtrack and spend the night in Koh Kong instead of being on our way to Trat in Thailand. It will literally put us a day behind.

Willem passes the info onto his friends so by the time the boat stops we’re up top and ready to jump ship. The first problem is to squeeze past a group of German ignoramuses who’ve spent the entire four hours either stuffing their faces from packed picnic boxes or fagging on the roof. The next problem is for me to get through the swarm of hawkers on the pier and grab a fastboat while Mark tries to dig out our gear from the pile of backpacks on the roof. Along the beach next to the pier is a row of small boats waiting to speed us all off to the border. Touts yell out and frantically beckon passengers to their boats. We have ours already and with Willem and his two French friends, we’re very smug being the second boat out. It’s imperative to get to the border before the others to beat them to the immigration window so we can cross into Thailand today. We’re shooting along the coastline and overtake the boat in front. It’s a definite race to the border almost like a matter of life or death – terribly exciting. Mark and I laugh maniacally.

After only fifteen minutes we veer towards shore where we can see men clambering down the embankment to meet us. We’re besieged by the mob who are pushing and shoving each other to be the first to grab our backpacks. Willem is screaming and the French girl is hitting them. Mark and I stare in disbelief and think it’s a joke but then Mark loses it as well when one of our backpacks takes a nose-dive into the water. It’s spirited away into the boot of a waiting taxi but Mark pulls it out as the driver also wants us all to pay US$3 each. After noisy and frantic arguments with taxi drivers to get a fare of US$1 each, the five of us are now speeding towards Koh Kong. This really is the most confusing border crossing and an obvious scam to screw tourists out of more money. Apparently the big boat can go all the way to the border but they stop short so we’ll have to take the speedboats and the taxis. It’s also why the boat leaves Sihanoukville at midday so that there’s no time to argue if you want to get to the border by five o’clock. Whatever the reason, we had a ball and great to know that we’ll be some of the last travellers to experience it as the bridge between Koh Kong in Cambodia and Hat Lek in Thailand will soon be finished.

As we arrive at the border, a few drops of rain fall which is the first since we’ve been here. Luckily it doesn’t amount to anything and it’s still hot and humid. Other travellers have caught up to us now but we all manage to cross into Thailand in time. We lose Willem but cram ourselves into a small van with an English guy Mark’s been talking to. We’re heading for Trat and there’s eleven of us in the van  with all our packs. It’s claustrophobic, to say the least. I’m up the back with the English guy whose name is Jes and his girlfriend, Jo. Mark is in front with a Dutch guy called Robert and his girlfriend, Elizabeth. She slept through the whole boat trip and is now dead to the world again. Robert is a great talker and keeps us all amused for the hour and a half to Trat. He and Elizabeth have been travelling for eleven months and Jo and Jes for nine months. Our two weeks is slightly embarrassing but we try to look as travel weary as they do.

The road to Trat is narrow and we wind our way around low hills. I’m glad of Robert’s stories as they keep my mind off my unhappy stomach. Armed Thai guards stop us at four checkpoints where they inspect our van and look inside. As dark falls we pull into Trat which is a medium sized town on the coast. Apparently it doesn’t have anything outstanding to attract the tourists except its proximity to the Cambodian border. Nevertheless, it looks okay. From the van we’re ushered straight into a waiting songthaew. Jo and Jes and Robert and Elizabeth come too and we all agree to take a look at the Jame Guesthouse. Once we didn’t like to be hassled by touts to go to their guesthouses but then we figured that if they have the initiative to hang around waiting for buses and trains to arrive, then they at least deserve a look. You can also get good deals at times.

The Jame guesthouse at US$2 a night is a very good deal. Admittedly, we only have a bed, a fan, a mosquito net and bamboo walls but love the atmosphere. It’s situated down a side-street and behind a shop front. A narrow alley leads out the back to the wooden guesthouse where we climb polished stairs to a verandah with rooms opening onto it. The backyard is overgrown with flowers and banana trees and the whole thing very tropical. The toilet and shower are outside in the yard and surprisingly clean. I love standing in the garden cleaning my teeth and listening to the noises of cooking coming from the surrounding houses.

We’re hungry ourselves but need to change some money into Thai baht before we can buy anything. The other part of Jame Guesthouse is across the road above the Jame Café. Here we talk to Mr. Jame about changing money but there’s no such things as money changers in Trat and no banks open at this time of night. Unbelievably, he hands us 300 baht for dinner and says we can pay him tomorrow. He’s so generous and then insists on driving us to the night market. It’s not far and just across the road from a 7Eleven store. We definitely will eat at the market, but first we’re going to have a Magnum each – heaven.

The Trat night market is fantastic. There’s the usual unusual things we have no idea about but here there’s so much that we do recognise. Things like barbequed pork on skewers, barbequed fish, crumbed chicken pieces, sausaged pork and noodles. We have a bit of everything while sitting at a plastic table in the centre of the market. A couple of old hippies who’ve definitely had too many years of drug-taking are good entertainment as well as all the local activity. We can just fit in banana pancakes smothered in condensed milk and chocolate but I manage to dribble it all over my hands and feet. We need water anyway so we find a supermarket still open and I have a wash in the street as the sticky stuff is driving me crazy.

At Jame Guesthouse I E-mail home while Mark orders beers. The young woman who owns the guesthouse chats with us at our table and gives us heaps of information about Ko Chang where we want to go tomorrow. She organises for a songthaew to take us to the ferry at 8.30am in the morning then gives us directions for a bookshop that’s still open down the street. If we’re going to spend a few days lying around on a tropical island we’ll need a couple of trashy novels to keep us amused.

The street is dark and quiet and it’s relaxing to walk around in the coolness of evening. Most of the shops have closed for business but, as they also double as the owner’s living rooms, we see families watching television, sewing, eating and generally going about their lives. The street goes on forever and still no bookshop in sight. Backtracking we find it down an alleyway just near the guesthouse. While we’re looking through the books, Jo and Jes turn up and a few minutes later, Robert and Elizabeth. Apparently we’re all off to Ko Chang tomorrow and all with visions of lazing around reading books. Too tired to read tonight, though, and we’re glad to crawl under our mozzy net with the overhead fan going to keep us cool.

Tuesday    19th March, 2002                  Trat to Ko Chang

The heat wakes us early which gives us plenty of time to shower and pack. We drag our packs over to the café where we order an omelet, a plate of fruit and tea for breakfast. Mr. Jame has organised with our songthaew driver to stop at the bank in Laem Ngop so we can change some money. He’s a real sweetheart. I mean, we could be anyone. We can’t thank him enough and set off at 8.30 am with Jo and Jes and a young Thai couple. Laem Ngop is only half an hour away through open countryside and forests of coconut trees. We must have seen millions this trip.

The town is small and quiet this early but the bank is open. We race in and change our money and hand our driver what we owe Mr. Jame.  On now to the ferry wharf and we jump out at a ticket booth near the water. Here we’re told to buy our tickets but then to get into another waiting songthaew which will take us to the real ferry wharf. Why don’t they have a ticket booth at the real ferry wharf, you may ask again. We don’t know. Well, we probably do know. It’s yet another ruse to get tourists to pay more than they need to – to screw us, in other words.

The real ferry wharf is only a kilometre away through some back laneways of town. We like the look of the ferry that’s being loaded already. It’s an old wooden tub but very colourful and picturesque. Robert and Elizabeth have arrived by now as well as about twenty other backpackers. Most of us climb onto the roof which has a canopy for shade. Ko Chang is a small mountainous island not far off the coast and at the moment is bathed in a fine mist. The forty five minute ride is smooth and cool with the breeze coming off the water. I can’t see where there could be even a road as the whole island looks like one huge mountain. The boat pulls in at a tiny wooden ferry wharf where songthaews are waiting to take passengers to any number of beaches on the other side of the island. At the wharf a few ramshackle shops are selling water and women are cooking in woks inside. Mark throws our packs onto the roof and too many of us are squashed inside the back cabin. The road is a series of hairpin bends that wind up and down hills while we have fleeting views of the white beaches and bright blue waters beneath us. Thick tropical vegetation covers every inch of ground until we come to White Sands Beach. Some people get off here but we know this is the daggy beach and we’re heading with the others to the very trendy Lonely Beach. In between is Kai Bae but we keep going even though I’m getting totally sick of being in this songthaew. At least Robert hasn’t shut up again and is keeping us all occupied. He’s asking everyone what they miss the most about home -‘English chocolates’, someone says and ‘a baked dinner’ someone else says. We’ve only been gone for less than two weeks so, embarrassingly, we miss nothing.

At last we arrive at Lonely Beach. The first place we’re taken  is called The Treehouse. This consists of the tiniest huts you’ve ever seen. They’re all on stilts and scattered around a grove of banana and coconut trees that looks like it might be the home of about a million snakes. The café/laying-around-looking-cool area is packed with too many dread-locked hippies laying around looking cool. The setting is incredible with bamboo decks built out over the water but no way are we staying here. It’s full anyway and the six of us head off along the beach to the next guesthouse. Here there’s only one hut left so Jo and Jes take it while the rest of us keep walking. Mark and I take a cabin at the next place called Nature Beach Resort but it’s too expensive at 400 baht for Robert and Elizabeth so they keep going. We’re just glad we’ve found somewhere as we’ve seen people we’d dropped off at Kai Bae walking along the beach looking for a room. Everywhere must be full.

Nature Beach has a café and lounging around area (minus the hippies) built over the sand and about twenty huts behind. Our hut, like the others, has a thatched roof, bamboo walls, a wooden floor and a verandah at the front. We have a slate bathroom (but no water), lights and a fan (but no electricity) and a dog. The water and electricity are only available between 6pm and 2am. Very convenient – I mean, we’re always showering and needing lights on at 2am. This means we can’t have an afternoon nap in here without the fan going, it’s just too hot.

Since breakfast wasn’t much, we decide to eat again even though it’s only 10.30am. In the open-air café on the sand we order chips, sodas and a club sandwich and tuna sandwich and eat half of each. The water looks fabulous and we’re sweating like pigs so a quick change into our swimmers and we’re in. The water is warm and clear and the whole beach is picture perfect. It’s probably only a few hundred metres long and the few resorts are hidden behind palms and banana trees with coconut palms fringing the beach from end to end. We spend the afternoon reading, swimming, bartering for a sarong from a guy walking along the beach and having massages on the sand. Two local massage ladies have set up a bamboo frame with a thatched roof and sarongs hanging down the sides for privacy. They’re friendly, laughing ladies who talk and giggle to each other the whole time. We splurge and have an hour each. Mark has a traditional Thai one while I have an oil one although it’s hard to keep the sand from getting in the oil and it’s more like having a body scrub than a massage. Mark has a bad back and feels so much better now.

Further along the beach we find another guesthouse with a huge open café and dining area on the sand and a row of huts facing the water. Mark asks about booking a room for tomorrow night but they’re booked out for days. It’s time to eat again and this time we share a chicken salad, chips and sodas. A local man and two ladies who must work here spend the whole time nearly wetting themselves laughing. Wish we could understand what they’re saying. Back along the beach we read for a while then have a swim at dusk.

Now all this sounds idyllic, heavenly, utopic, etc etc. But the truth is I’m getting bored. The truth also is, tropical islands are a bore. I mean we’ve done the lot; swam, sunbaked, read the trashy novel, had a massage, walked along the sand and in a minute we’ll see the sun set over the ocean. Beautiful but what now? What is happening now is that Mark is feeling very sick – violently ill is more like it. He spends the next eight hours throwing up and spraying the walls of our bathroom from his other end. ‘You just don’t want to know what’s happening in there’ he says after emerging for a brief respite. No sooner does he hit the bed and he’s up again and at it. This is definitely a case of food poisoning as it’s come on so fast. The problem is that I ate the same food, literally ate off the same plate all day. I guess he must have just got the bad bit. I’m sick with worry and he’s sick with worry but neither of us say it. Mark has diabetes and it’s so dangerous for him to not eat. I buy bottles of coke for him to sip to try to get some sugar into him. He keeps trying to eat tiny bits of meusli bars but vomits it up almost before it hits his stomach. He eventually settles down and I fall asleep at some time but we both keep waking to dance music that’s blasting through the whole area. It’s so loud I think it’s coming from the hut next door but when I go outside to look I find it’s not even coming from our guesthouse. Nothing to be done but we’re getting the hell out of here tomorrow. Lonely Beach is just too noisy.

Wednesday        20th March, 2002                  Ko Chang to Pattaya

By morning Mark’s vomitting and gastric have stopped but he looks like shit. We have to get off this island in case it comes back. There’s no way there’d be a doctor here so we want to at least get to the mainland today. As soon as I see the café open I enquire about boats leaving the island. The bitch behind the counter doesn’t care less about a sick guest and just wants to serve her healthy paying guests. I’m a bitch back and she comes around eventually. The directions are to stand out on the road and a ‘taxi’ will come past sometime between 8am and 9am and then we’ll get dropped at Kai Bae where we’ll wait on the road for another ‘taxi’. But ‘Mark is too sick to barely walk’, I tell her. She yells something to a young guy who throws our gear in the back of a pickup and is obviously not happy about driving us to Kai Bae. The road is awful and seems so much worse than yesterday now that Mark is sick.

We’re dumped on the side of the road at Kai Bae and told to wait for a taxi. When it will come or what it will look like we have no idea. Eventually a songthaew comes towards us so we flag it down and jump in the back. If this isn’t the taxi we’re going in the right direction anyway. Along the way we stop to pick up more people. Just when it seems full, three more men get on with so much shit I thought we’d end up with the kitchen sink as well. No-one hurries and no-one seems to care. By the time we leave White Sands Beach we’re packed to the rafters and God knows how much stuff is hanging off the roof. The songthaew behind is worse with people literally hanging out the sides. The road to the ferry is so dangerous and I can’t believe these trucks don’t tip over on the bends. At least they’re so rundown we can’t go fast and sometimes barely make it up the hills.

At the bottom at last – survived another one. Mark looks bad to say the least but he loads our bags onto the boat which is ready to leave. The inside is full of people trying to get out of the sun so we have to sit outside right at the front. I love it here but Mark is a greeny-white colour and this boat trip is the last thing he needs. He finally crawls in under some shade on the other side of the boat and makes it back to the mainland without throwing up. At the wharf, we’re met by the usual crowds of hawkers, drink sellers and touts. The touts are shoving people into the back of waiting songthaews and everyone is sitting on top of each other. Everyone, that is, except for a beautiful blonde Dutch couple who’ve spread themselves out at the front and totally oblivious to the fact that everyone else is suffering up the back. They’re pissing me off but, I say to myself, maybe they’re not ignorant at all, maybe they’re just dumb blondes.

The songthaew drops us at the ferry wharf where we’d originally bought our tickets to Ko Chang. We have an hour before we leave for Pattaya so we look for somewhere cool to wait. In an open-air café over the water Mark collapses, flat out on the table. No-one seems to care so I leave him while I use the horrid toilet. There’s a few people from the boat still hanging around so I guess that, as usual, we’ll be packed like sardines in the minivan to Pattaya. Mark is still out to it on the table so I buy cornettos across the road and send off a few quick E-mails. When the van arrives, it appears that the only passengers are us, the dumb blondes and two young guys. No way are we going to get stuck with the crappy backseat, so I throw our daypack onto the long seat behind the driver. As we take off at one o’clock, we’re sure we must be stopping somewhere else to pick up more people. We can’t possibly be going all the way to Pattaya in comfort. Soon, though, Laem Ngop is far behind us and Mark is able to lay down and sleep.

Suddenly, about twenty minutes out, the driver’s mobile phone rings. I just know what it means and when he pulls over and starts doing a U-turn, I lose it. ‘Two more people’ he says. ‘Fucking idiots’, I think. I’m absolutely seething which is totally senseless and childish but I can’t help it. Mark is too sick to care, the two guys up the back are asleep and dumber and dumber don’t even know what day it is; so I’m the only idiot feeling totally pissed off. This is only the beginning because when we get back to Laem Ngop, here are a laughing middle-aged German couple who don’t give a rat’s arse about making us turn back. I probably should shut up but I give it to them. They still don’t care and laugh and make smart-arsed comments in German while I make smart-arsed comments back in English. Rude pigs and I have to sit next to the male pig for the next three hours. After two hours we stop at a petrol station and buy iceblocks to cool down. Soon after, we thankfully turn off the freeway to drop the German ignoramuses off at the Ko Samet ferry. ‘Have a shitty time, pigs!’.

Feeling so much better and Mark sleeps while I can now enjoy the scenery. Besides backtracking to pick up the pigs, we’ve taken about two hours longer to get to Pattaya than we were told. It’s usually the way. I wake Mark as we drive along the coast road at dusk. Pattaya is huge and spreads out for miles along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Hundreds of high rise apartments and hotels line the road facing the endless beaches covered in deck chairs and umbrellas. Leather skinned aging couples parade the streets in fluoro shirts and mini-skirts. Old women with bleached hair and sun blackened skin are buying clothes too young for them while beautiful young Thai girls try to look older in high heels and painted faces. No problem with the old beach babes but it’s pitiful what the Thai girls have to do for money. Most of these girls are here for the same reason – to attract the horrible old farts that come from all over the world to use them as prostitutes. It’s a sleazy, over-touristy town and one night will be enough.

The young guys and dumber and dumber obviously know where they’re going but I’m frantically looking through the Lonely Planet. The Apex Hotel sounds okay so the driver waits outside while I run in to see if they have a room. The hotel is rather impressive with a large shiny foyer and even a lift. Our room is on the second floor and has a television, air-conditioning and our own bathroom. While Mark sleeps, I wash clothes then jump into bed with him. It’s a strange night as we sleep, wake, watch TV, eat junk food and read on and off till morning.

Thursday   21stMarch, 2002.                 Pattaya to Bangkok

This morning Mark seems at least human although he’s obviously still sick. He wants to try to eat something so we head for the buffet style breakfast near the pool downstairs. There’s a good selection of Asian and western foods but Mark can’t eat much. I stuff myself with watermelon and pineapple and orange juice. At least five tables near us are occupied by middle-aged men sitting alone – obvious why they’re in Pattaya.

After breakfast we pack, pay our bill and hail a songthaew to take us to the bus station. Even though it’s only nine o’clock, it’s hot and humid already. Mark is still white as a ghost and feels worse now that we’re on the move again. The bus to Bangkok leaves on time at ten o’clock. It’s packed but everyone has a seat and best of all, it’s air-conditioned. We’ve bought icecreams at the bus station so we’ve really cooled down now. The road to Bangkok is a wide freeway so we will probably get there in the promised two hours. Along the way we see a huge cemetery that looks like it’s got a bad gopher problem. The hundreds of graves aren’t flat but are mounds about ten feet in diameter and four feet high. We pass Chinese temples and coconut trees and then as we come closer to Bangkok we see klongs and finally McDonalds – we’re here. The Eastern bus station is the end of the line but unbeknownst to us, it’s miles from Khao San Road. We barter hard for a taxi and feel we’ve been totally ripped off until it takes our poor driver an hour to squeeze his way through the horrific traffic jams. The wait at traffic lights is so long he turns the engine off. At last we recognise where we are and finally pull up at the D&D Guesthouse in Khao San Road.

Thank God they’ve got a room and we quickly book in and race upstairs for cold showers. The guesthouse is nothing like the three we stayed in two weeks ago. This has probably about eight floors of clean, new looking rooms with air-conditioning, TV, our own bathroom and a tiny balcony. It may have all this but lacks the charm of the little cheap guesthouses. We’ve no choice now, though, with Mark being sick.

After showers, we eat in an open-air café on the street but Mark goes straight back to the room to sleep. I spend the rest of the afternoon shopping and pricing buddha statues. They’re so expensive here and most of the stall owners aren’t even interested in bartering. If I don’t buy them there’s thousands more here who will. I visit Mark upstairs then wander around to Thanon Rambutri. In a small clothes shop I buy five summer tops for the girls then ten pillowcases back around in Khao San Road.

Mark ventures out for dinner and he’s looking almost human. We walk miles looking for pizza. I barely eat it at home but now I have to have it. We find a place that looks like Pizza Hut but the pizza tastes horrid which serves me right. On the way back into the guesthouse we pass a tailor shop and go in for ‘just a look’ This involves me getting measured for a woolen coat and skirt while I talk Mark into ordering three silk collarless shirts like he had made in Vietnam last year. An early night.

Friday        22nd March, 2002.       Bangkok

Mark is still not fully recovered but he refuses to stay in the room any longer. We have breakfast in our favourite café then set off early as we’ve got heaps planned for today. Last January when we were here we visited Wat Mahatat and loved its serenity. This is mainly due to the lack of tourists that plague the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Across the road from the temple is an amulet market which sounds fabulous. We never found it last year so we’ll look for it again today.

The morning is hot, still, sunny and so, for us, just perfect. Using a Lonely Planet map, we head towards the Grand Palace. The roads are busy but this area near the park is so lovely with wats and the museum nearby. At the end of Thanon Na Phra That we can see tourist buses unloading some of the thousands of people who’ll be visiting the Grand Palace today. We went there on our first trip to Thailand in 1997 but we’ll have to see it again one day. I just know that Bangkok is somewhere we’ll keep coming back to.

The main entrance to Wat Mahatat is on the next street, Thanon Maharat, but we cut through an alleyway instead of going all the way around. Inside are monks quarters and one of Bangkok’s Buddhist universities as well as the temple itself. Entering the temple area we’re approached by a monk who introduces himself as Sumedho. He shows us around and he tells us about the temple and about his life. He even takes us through a short meditation sitting on the tiles surrounded by hundreds of life-sized Buddha statues covered in gold leaf. This is spiritually amazing but as he finishes every sentence with ‘Mr Mark and Mrs Virginia’ it’s a bit hard to be serious. I guess it’s a language or cultural thing but it’s pretty funny. He shows us photos of himself teaching in Laos and with ‘famous’ people like the Dalai Lama and Leonardo di Caprio. He writes a message in our Lonely Planet wishing us peace, health and love and signs it ‘Sumedho, the honest slave monk of the Buddha’ – cool! The setting here is fabulous – so peaceful and cool and so many trees and plants. I can’t believe we’ve met two monks this trip. We could hang around here all day but leave in search of the amulet market.

Across the road from the wat is a row of shops and cafes that look interesting but we still can’t see the market. On the corner of an alleyway is a stall selling religious statues in bronze, silver and clay. Some have prices written on them and we can’t believe how cheap they are. Further down are more stalls selling ceramic jars decorated in flowers and gold leaf and here are more stalls selling amulets. Is this the amulet market? I don’t know but we’re going off trying to work out what we’ll buy and how the hell we’re going to get them home. The statues weigh a ton so one stall owner who’s selling literally thousands of them lets us phone a courier service to see if we can ship some of this stuff home. Of course, we’ve left it too late and, with the language barrier, it’s too difficult. There also appears to be some restrictions on taking Buddha images out of Thailand.

I want to buy an urn about twelve inches high with a lid and edged in gold but we need more money. The lady who owns the stall tells her daughter, her ‘baby’ as she calls her, to show us where the bank is. ‘Baby’ obviously doesn’t want to do it and she drags herself down the street – just like teenagers all over the world. We feel sorry for her but she’s gives us a sweet smile when we get there. The Siam City Bank is set in a lovely old building on a bend of the road near the Grand Place. Inside is air-conditioned so we don’t mind hanging around in here for a while. A young man shows us to a seat at a desk and we change our traveller’s cheques in the nicest place ever. Everything is done efficiently and quickly and all with genuine smiles and enthusiasm. Incomparable to the bureaucratic mess we found in the banks in India a few years ago.

We take our time walking back to the market. I love this street where there isn’t a backpacker or tourist in sight. It’s a true local area where the cafes only cater for the Thai people and stalls along the footpaths are selling traditional herbal medicines, pink eggs, amulets and even false teeth. Food is being cooked in the street and people buy noodles and soup in ceramic bowls and sit on tiny plastic stools provided by each stall. There are trees on either side of the road and at times there’s even a glimpse of the river. Back at the market we barter for the urn then buy a handful of clay amulets. Because this area isn’t inundated with tourists no-one is trying to rip us off and we pay maybe only a bit more than the locals – we think anyway. We don’t know what to do about the buddha statues but decide to have a think about it today and maybe come back in the morning.

The heat is unbearable so we catch a taxi back to the D&D to drop off the urn then head off straight away towards the river. Wat Chana Sangkhram is opposite the T-intersection of Khao San Road and we take a shortcut through here after buying the best drink in the world. Our favourite drink used to be the lime and lemon sodas in India but this drink is kumquats freshly squeezed into plastic bottles sitting in mounds of ice. It’s sweet and freezing cold and we go back to buy another. Inside the wat we sit inside for a while then wander through the monks’ areas before coming out onto Soi Rambutri. At the river we wait in the sun on the floating pier till the ferry to Wat Po comes along. The ‘Reserved for Monks’ area inside the boat is full as young monks make their way to different parts of the city. At the ferry wharf we change to one of the flat-bottomed across-river ferries to Thonburi and Wat Arun.

Wat Arun is more commonly called The Temple of the Dawn and dominates the Bangkok skyline as well as appearing in most of the city’s tourist brochures. It’s a 240foot tall porcelain-covered Khmer style prang (or tower) which sits in the centre of four smaller prang amid gardens and food and souvenir stalls. A handcart selling icecreams is inside the grounds so we sit on the grass in the shade and have our first taste of real Thai icecream. To enter the temple I hire a shawl to cover my shoulders then we spend an hour climbing all over the towers. The only way to exit is through a covered area selling souvenirs and we spend a wonderful half-hour bartering for a hand-embroidered elephant hanging with a hilarious Thai lady. Mark is great at bartering as he bargains hard but always seems to get everyone laughing. We buy a large hanging for ourselves and three smaller ones for Angie, Lauren and Jacky.

The ferry back across the river is just about to leave but there’s a delay on the other side for the up-river ferry. While we wait we decide to look at the stalls on the wharf as we’re after a mask to take home. We’ve been buying masks on all our travels and need one for this trip. The stalls here are tiny and we can barely fit the two of us inside. Each time we ask ‘thao rai’ meaning ‘how much’, the young salesman puts it under a bench that’s covered by a floor length cloth. It takes a while for us to realise that someone, presumably the owner, is under there – having a rest supposedly. We buy three wall plaques and two Buddha masks for the girls.

Back up the river again we now know exactly where to get off and find our way easily to Khao San Road. On the way upstairs we have a fitting for our clothes which are looking great. Leaving our gear in the room, we change into our swimmers and head for the pool on the roof. This is amazing to pay so little for a room in the middle of Bangkok and get a pool as well. There are great views from the roof especially at this time in the afternoon. The pool area has potted plants and sun lounges and it’s so good to be in the water after another scorching day. No time to relax too long, though, as we want to have another massage at Mama’s on our last night.

Down in the street, chaos rules as usual. It never stops. It’s a circus of freaks, drug addicts, wannabe hippies getting instant dreadlocks on the footpath, music coming from all directions and a never ending stream of backpackers getting in and out of tuktuks. This place never alters – the faces change but are, at the same time, ‘same, same’. To escape the freak show we walk around to Thanon Rambutri and sit at a long trestle table set up on the pavement. All along this part of the street, similar eating areas are packed with backpackers getting freshly cooked healthy meals for next to nothing. We order pork fried rice with egg and watch it being cooked right next to our table. It’s a good people watching vantage point as well. Young backpackers are chatting each other up while having a beer and at the next table a Western guy is having a meal with his Asian wife and baby.

After fried rice and having a few beers ourselves, we cross over to Mama’s Guesthouse. As usual there’s a group of young people hanging around on the verandah but we’re able to get a massage without waiting. I ask for Sharlo and Mark asks for her husband again. We also ask for half-hour massages but they both last forty-five minutes and they refuse to take any more money. After my massage, Sharlo’s husband presses down on my stomach which is where I told her was the most painful. This pressing apparently does you good but right now, it’s killing. We played with their beautiful baby boy afterwards and had photos taken with everyone. Sharlo then shows us a shortcut through a tiny winding alley back to Khao San Road. Now I have freshly made banana pancakes smothered on chocolate topping and condensed milk – so much great food to eat here. Next I’ve been meaning to have a pedicure so we walk down the main walkway back to Thanon Rambutri where most of the ‘beauty parlours’ are. For 100 baht or $5AUS I get a pedicure and polish while Mark goes back to the room. We watch CNN before having an early night.

Saturday   23rd March, 2002                  Bangkok

Our last day. Get up early for showers and downstairs for breakfast. We choose a new café that’s very clean but lacks everything Asian – a bad move on our last morning. Breakfast of omelets, toast and tea is good but too much. We’ve decided to take our chances of taking Buddha statues out of the country and exchange a heap of money into baht. It’s illegal to take antiques out of Thailand but we’re not sure if these statues will cause a problem as well.

A quick tuktuk ride to Wat Mahatat and we’re back at the amulet market. It doesn’t take us long to choose three different bronze Buddha statues but Mark and another guy spend the next hour digging clay out of the middle of them. This will reduce the weight as they all weigh a ton. I talk to the lady who owns the shop and who’s given us such a good deal at approximately $70AUS for each statue. Further along the alley I barter for amulets, six monk statues and six clay plaques – all for 380 baht or $18AUS. Now we’re flying back through the streets to the D&D to try and get all this and the rest of our stuff into two backpacks and a carrybag. I leave Mark to it while I go back down into the street to pick up our clothes from the tailors and last minute photos.

Mark manages as always to fit everything in. The big ceramic urn will go into my daypack and Mark will carry one of the Buddhas in his. We literally drag our bags along the corridor to the lift and meet our driver for the airport bus in the foyer. Somehow our packs are thrown onto the roof and the inside is crammed with other travellers heading for the airport as well. We arrive an hour later and put our packs through the X-ray machine. They want Mark to unpack one of the big packs so I jump into the baggage check-in line to grab a spot. They have some problem with the bronze queen’s head we’d bought in Cambodia. Luckily they wave it on while poor Mark has to try and squash everything back into the bag. He’s laughing, though, which just goes to show his good nature.

To show my less than good nature, I nearly jump the counter to strangle someone when the woman at the check-in desk tells us the bad news that our Qantas flight is overbooked. She then tells us the good news that we’ve been transferred to a British Airways flight leaving twenty minutes earlier. We even get to pick our favourite seats. We’ve three hours to wait so we eat, buy a bottle of Christian Dior perfume and use up our spare baht buying junk food for the plane. There’s a holdup on the runway as we have to wait while the Thai Air Force lands some jets as it’s been using the civilian airport today for some reason. At last we take off and head home.

Sunday      24th March, 2002.                 Sydney

The flight is great – love getting meals and drinks and watching the little television screens – love it all. We land on time at 6am then Mark has to unpack another of our backpacks as they say the X-ray shows we have food in there. Of course we don’t and it’s another waste of time. Then because Ansett no longer exists, there’s no bus to take us to the domestic airport. This means we have to take our trolleys outside and across the road to wait for the airport bus. Sydney is freezing and stupidly we’re not wearing warm enough clothes. At the Ansett terminal where Aero Pelican is still operating, there’s no-one around at all. A security guard comes to the glass door only to tell us that all Aero Pelican flights have been cancelled this morning. Furious, we drag our gear around to the Qantas terminal to ring the Aero Pelican arseholes. The stupid bitch on the phone is quite happy to tell me that we’ve been confirmed on the one o’clock flight for this afternoon. Great! I tell her to shove her one o’clock flight and we want our money back and we’ll never fly with them again and we’ll tell all our friends etc, etc. Now we try to hire a car but we don’t have our driver’s licences so that’s out. Now we decide to fly home with Qantas but they’re booked out. That leaves catching a train. Great! The station is a few floors down and the train to Central is fast and efficient. The bad news is, that railway stations don’t have trolleys, so we again literally drag our bags to the platform. We wait an hour, grab our seats and I promptly fall asleep. Two and half hours later we’re here. And people say travelling in Asia is hard!

Great to be home!

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Thailand’s Southern Islands 2014

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Our Itinerary
Friday 24th Jan 2014 Sydney (21:40) to
Saturday 25th Jan 2014 Kuala Lumpur  (3:15)  KL (6:45)  to Bangkok (7:50)
Sunday 26th Jan 2014 Bangkok
Monday 27th Jan 2014 Bangkok overnight train to Surat Thani
Tuesday 28th Jan 2014 Surat Thani bus/4 minivans to Krabi minivan/longtail boat to Railay
Wednesday 29th Jan 2014 Railay
Thursday 30th Jan 2014 Railay ferry to Ko Phi Phi Don
Friday 31st Jan 2014 Ko Phi Phi Don ferry to Ko Lanta
Saturday  1st Feb 2014 Ko Lanta ferry to Ko Lipe
Sunday 2nd Feb 2014 Ko Lipe
Monday 3rd Feb 2014 Ko Lipe speedboat to Langkawi
Tuesday 4th Feb 2014 Langkawi flight to Kuala Lumpur
Wednesday 5th Feb 2014 Kuala Lumpur (9:10) to Sydney (20:20)

Exchange Rates

Thailand

$1AUD = 30 THB  (Thai Baht)

Malaysia

$1AUD = 3 MYR   (Malaysian Ringat

What it Cost

Air Fares

Sydney to Bangkok for two                           $669.00

Kuala Lumpur to Sydney for two                   $300.40

Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur for two                $179.00

Total                                                              $1,148.40

Train Fares

Bangkok to Surat Thani (2 X $26)                  $52

Accommodation

Wild Orchid – Bangkok  (2 nights @ $27)       $54

Rapala Rockwood – Railay  (2 nights @ $17)  $34

Ko Phi Phi Don                                                 $40

Ko Lanta                                                          $50

Mountain View Resort – Ko Lipe                     $86

Bella Vista – Ko Lipe                                       $100

Malibest Resort – Langkawi                            $46.00

Tunes Hotel – Kuala Lumpur                           $57.00

Total                                                            $467.00

Ferries

Railay to Ko Phi Phi Don                               $16

Ko Phi Phi Don to Ko Lanta                           $16

Ko Lanta to Ko Lipe                                      $60

Ko Lipe to Langkawi Island                           $80

Total                                                            $172 

Final Total                                                   $1,839

Friday 24th January, 2014     Sydney to Kuala Lumpur

Mark has gone into work at JSA to finish off a few things before we leave this afternoon. Luckily it’s not a busy time of year with lots of people still on holidays. I spend the morning with Lauren and our bubbas. We have lunch at a disappointing café in Carrington then Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station at 3.15pm. Dolly loves the trains and says ‘Hab fun on your howiday, Ma wand Pa’ – it’s killing us to leave them all and get teary waving goodbye. Elkie is still too little to understand but Lauren tells us later that Abi cried all the way home and was saying ‘I can look apter Ma wand Pa’s house, Mummy’ – she doesn’t like the idea of Al being there.

I fall asleep so it’s a quick trip for me while Mark reads. Someone has left chewing gum on the floor which sticks to my daypack which then ends up all over my top – I look a mess already. At 6 o’clock we arrive at Central where we catch the airport train to the International Terminal. After booking in our bags we splash out on drinks in one of the bars – $12 each!

Through immigration my hairspray is confiscated (must leave it in the check-in bag next time) then we buy two big bottles of Bacardi (planning on a good holiday) and a small Bacardi and two small Baileys for the plane. We buy Coke Zero at McDonalds to mix with the Bacardi – have a few drinks each before we even leave – feeling great!

We ring Lauren and Abi wants to talk to us. It kills us when she says ‘Ma wand Pa, when you come home, Uncle Al can go home to his house’ – I think she’s worried that he’s staying forever. Then when we tell her that we’re at McDonalds she says ‘Wibout me?’ – Oh Dolly, you break our hearts. Then she asks ‘Are you habing a Happy Meal wib a twoy?”. Oh God this is too much – we miss them already and we haven’t even left the country!

Taking off on Air Asia at 9.30pm, we have seats in the middle section with a lovely Malaysian lady called Lilly sitting next to me. She now lives in Sydney but is going ‘home’ for Chinese New Year. It’s the Year of the Horse and she tells me how her family celebrates it – lots of eating involved and giving money to the children in red packets – she pulls one out of her bag to show me.

Mark and I try to sleep but despite Baileys and triazapam we’re wide awake. Lilly can’t sleep either so we chat through the night. She also tries to convert me to Hillsong – shows me a newsletter and insists I keep it to read later – NOT!

Saturday 25th January, 2014     Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok

At 3am we land in Kuala Lumpur feeling very spaced out having had no sleep at all. Because we’re leaving for Bangkok in a few hours we need to go through transit which we’d imagined would be quick but everyone else on the plane seems to be doing the same thing so it’s a long wait to get into the transit lounge. We have a usual spot where we can lie down but all the seats have been updated and there aren’t any bench seats now at all. We decide to have a look upstairs and find some excellent benches in a quiet area where we crash out for an hour and a half.

Mark has set the alarm for 6am so we have plenty of time to buy breakfast before boarding at 6.45am. Mark has seafood noodles (I’m not kidding) but I can only stomach a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea this early. We also have enough time to transfer money on our laptop and to text Lauren (it’s 9.30am at home) – she said that when Abi woke up she asked if we were home yet? I talk to a young veiled Muslim girl from Indonesia. She’s been studying in Kuala Lumpur and is now on her way home – lovely meeting different people.

Our gate is literally miles away but exciting walking through the darkness in the warm tropical air. For some reason we’re the last ones to get on the plane with only ten minutes before take-off. The best news is that the back of the plane is almost empty so we have three seats each – sleep for an hour then watch a golden sun rise over fluffy white clouds – glorious!

At 7.30am we land in gorgeous sunshine at Don Muang Airport. This is Bangkok’s original airport and our old favourite. With no lines at immigration, grabbing our bags within minutes and sailing straight through customs, we’re outside in twenty minutes. Mark withdraws Thai baht from an ATM – 29 Baht to the Aussie dollar – then we grab a taxi. We would have caught the bus into the city but they don’t run anymore for some reason. The trip is fast and without the traffic jams caused by the demonstrations that we’d expected. In fact everything looks as peaceful as always (typical of news reporters being drama queens). We pass familiar wats, street markets, klongs, monks and tuktuks – wonderful to be back!

We ask the taxi driver to drop us off at the top of Soi Rambutri in the backpacker Khao San Road area. The soi looks virtually the same since we were here with Lauren four years ago. We’ve arranged to meet Jillian at ten o’clock at the Wild Orchid but it’s only nine so we’re happy to see that she’s here anyway – already had breakfast and on her ipad. We haven’t seen each other since she left for her world trip four months ago. She’s done some amazing things but has never been to Thailand before and we hope she loves it as much as we do.

Jillian has booked a room here at The Wild Orchid for the next three nights but Mark and I have a look at a couple of other guesthouses nearby to see if we can get something cheaper. Not fussed on anything around here and don’t want to be too far away from Jillian so we decide to stay here as well. It’s a good room on the bottom floor with our own bathroom and, best of all, a little sun-filled window looking out onto the garden of the guesthouse next door – nice and only 800 baht (AUD $27).

Before we do anything Mark and I order breakfast sitting in The Wild Orchid’s open-air restaurant while we catch up on Jillian stories. Now we book sleeper train tickets ($27 each) at a small travel agent in Thanon Phra Athit which is the street just around the corner and runs parallel to the river. We plan to leave on Monday afternoon on the overnight train down south to Surat Thani where we’ll make our way over to the west coast.

But before that we’ve got three whole days here in Bangkok where we’ll show Jillian some of our favourite places and hopefully find a few more. Right now we want to do a klong tour of Thonburi which is on the opposite side of the Chao Praya River and was Thailand’s original capital. We walk to the Phra Athit Pier only five minutes away and ask about hiring a longtail boat for an hour and a half to take us through the klongs with a visit to the floating market.

We fly across the wide Chao Praya then enter the quiet canals of Thonburi. It’s hard to believe that the busy streets of modern Bangkok are just a stone’s throw away. Bangkok was once called the Venice of the East and while it may not be as picturesque as it once was, for me it still has the romance of the Orient. Old bridges still survive, crooked houses crowd the waters edge and monitor lizards bask themselves on sunny stone walls.

Ladies in sampans paddle frantically towards us to try and sell their souvenirs and we feed the catfish at Fish Temple with bread sent out to us via a simple overhead pulley system. The lady on the shore sends out the bread in a bucket that we send back with the money. The bread sparks a feeding frenzy with the fish swarming all over each other – a bit creepy but these ugly creatures are believed to be holy and can’t be caught.

But the highlight is definitely the Taling Chan floating market. We’ve done this klong tour probably about eight times now but this is the first time we’ve been able to stop at the market – sometimes closed because it’s only open on weekends and sometimes because we’ve just run out of time. Now we pull up beside one of the floating pontoons where you can sit on mats around low tables once you’ve chosen your food from one of the little boats that float up alongside. These are like little kitchens where ladies chop, grind and cook an amazing array of seafood. We all like the look of the king prawns – huuuge things – and Mark and I buy freshly cooked fish cakes as well.

I absolutely love it here. It’s a colourful, friendly atmosphere with musicians playing traditional music to add to the local charm. We could stay all day but after half an hour, our boat is waiting to take us back to Bangkok.

Home to the Wild Orchid before setting off again – ready for our first massage. All three of us walk through the temple grounds passing open-sided classrooms where orange-robed monks are studying at wooden desks – oh, I love this so much! Next to the temple entrance we watch shaven-headed nuns in their white robes cleaning up after a morning preparing meals for the monks. Some are sweeping with straw brooms while others are packing away the big metal cooking pots.

Inside the temple itself is like coming home, we’ve been here more times than I could count. As usual people are praying in front of the tall seated golden Buddha at one end while an old monk reads in a big carved wooden chair. Outside we watch worshippers giving offerings of marigolds and lotus flowers then burning incense and oils. And here are more nuns stringing marigolds into leis and selling candles and incense to the locals.

From here we cross the busy Chakrabongse Road to Thanon Rambutri which still has wonderful street food as well as lots of newer cafes, bars and restaurants. We stop for green curry and pad thai cooked on the footpath at one of the traditional stalls that have been here ever since our first visit to Thailand in 1997.

From here, we turn off into a laneway and head for Mummas – our favourite massage place in the whole world. Great disappointment to find ‘no massage – finished’. Mummas is now only a guesthouse. We can see Sharlo inside but not really game to ask about her husband in case it’s bad news. Oh well, we find another place and enjoy it heaps anyway.

Over in Khao San Road we call in to see our old friend Alex at Aviv Tailors but he’s visiting family in India. We’ve both had lots of clothes made here over the years and now Mark gets measured up for a grey suit and six shirts. Jillian and I help to choose the fabrics then Mark is told to come back tomorrow for final fittings.

Later at the Wild Orchid we have a quick nap before meeting Jillian downstairs and walking around to Ban Saphai for a few margaritas. Lovely out at night – still hot and lots of people around as usual. Strangely they tell us ‘no alcohol’ despite other people with beers in front of them. On the other side of the temple we find a good table near the wall where we order more drinks. We’ve noticed that everyone here is drinking coffee or tea – what the hell is going on? Apparently because of the unrest, no alcohol is supposed to be served after six o’clock but the Sawadee is disguising it in coffee cups.

Later we wander over to Khao San Road then up Chakrabongse Road towards Soi 1 where we’ve stayed many times. Over the bridge we find an interesting drinking place and get very happy on beers and Bacardi. More drinks at the Wild Orchid – Mark goes to bed while Jillian and I stay up talking.

Sunday 26th January, 2014     Bangkok

Mark is sick this morning – not a hangover. He comes downstairs with me while I have breakfast and wait for Jillian. Soon he has to rush back to the room to throw up and spend a few hours in bed. Luckily we’ve got a quiet day planned.

When Jillian arrives an Australian woman called Sandra comes to sit near her. She’s okay at first but ends up being a cynical old bat. She’s lived in France for forty years and for the last twelve years she’s been coming to Chiang Mai every winter to escape the cold. Sounds idyllic but she whines about everything – goodbye!

To make our escape, Jillian and I do some shopping in Khao San Road. She doesn’t want to buy much so she decides to walk over towards the Grand Palace while I buy a few presents for Lauren, Josh and the bubbas – head scarves, bags, a silver anklet and some trendy clothes for Abi and Elkie.

Back at the Wild Orchid I run into Sandra again. She beckons me over and tries to keep me talking but ‘see ya later’. Mark is feeling a lot better so we decide to have a massage. In a quiet laneway nearby we find an excellent place that I think we’ll keep coming back to. It’s part of the Sawadee Smile where we stayed with Lauren but never knew about the massage bit tucked around the corner. It’s bright and airy – nothing like the wonderful old Mummas atmosphere – but we think it’s a real find and only 220 Baht (AUD $7 each) for an hour.

Now it’s my turn to feel sick so I head back to our room to sleep for an hour – hate wasting time like this but it’s all part of travel. In the meantime, Mark buys a couple of t-shirts from the deaf lady inside the temple grounds. She’s been there for as long as we can remember and Mark always buys something from her.

At four o’clock Jillian rings to say she’s in a café in Khao San Road watching the Australian Tennis Open live on tv (Nadal playing Wawrinka) – we make a quick dash to join her and are happy to see it’s another old favourite and one of the original cafes here. Lots of tables face the road but we sit at the back of the vast dark interior. I’ve always loved this place – stacks of atmosphere with dark wooden walls and ceilings, swirling overhead fans, gorgeous old pendant lights with long tassles and framed sepia photos of old Siam. It’s noisy with loud music and busy with Western backpackers, some watching the tennis like us. We all drink Chaing beers (I’m feeling good again) out of paper cups – taking the police warnings more seriously here as it’s not even dark yet.

Later we all walk back to Soi Rambutri for dinner at the Four Sons Café where we see the same drug-fucked European guy we see everywhere we go. He’s still making a pest of himself and a tragic prostitute with peroxided hair sidles up to us. She soon wanders away to follow someone else.

The Four Sons isn’t actually a hit. Everyone seems to be in slow motion and the food is only okay – I have fish salad, Mark nasi goring and chicken skewers while Jillian has vegetable noodles. Our waitress is actually a ladyboy – the long orange painted nails are a bit of a give away but then we realize that all the staff here are ladyboys. How cool is that!

Mark is feeling sick again and can’t finish his meal. While he goes back to our room, Jillian and I stay for half an hour then I head for bed as well. Jillian stays up to use the wifi in the foyer. Hope tomorrow is a sick-free day.

Monday 27th January, 2014     Bangkok to Surat Thani

Wake at 6.30am but Mark is still asleep. After a shower I decide to take my book down to the restaurant and watch the world go by – lots to see at any hour around here – a middle-aged hippie couple sitting opposite at the New Siam Guesthouse are chain smoking and drinking beer, and it’s only 7.30am! The prostitute woman is wandering around lost again and bumming cigarettes off anyone passing by.

I’m happy when Mark appears, showered and looking heaps better this morning. He has a coffee and I have a pineapple shake while we plan the day and send a few messages on Facebook. Lauren has put up some lovely photos of her and the girls so we’re extra happy.

Jillian is still getting ready so Mark and I walk up to the temple for breakfast – not open yet so we eat in the laneway. We love it here, sitting on plastic stools against the temple wall and watching the ladies making our breakfast in the makeshift kitchen – muesli, yoghurt and fruit salad.

Back inside the temple grounds, Mark buys two more t-shirts from the deaf lady. Actually he thinks she isn’t deaf but can’t speak for some reason. Anyway we get by with sign language and I think she’s a little bit in love with Mark.

On this gorgeous morning, we stroll up to the wat itself where we can see the monks having their lessons again and the nuns preparing endless bowls of food and making the flower offerings. Inside we wander around inside and buy gold leaf to put on a standing Buddha – love these temple experiences.

Jillian meets us near the temple gate so we decide to visit Wat Po. On the way to the river we notice a small shrine, elaborate with garlands of fresh jasmine and marigolds, candles, incense and a cat. A sign on a box next to the cat reads ‘Please Donate For Cat Food’ – so we do.

At the Phra Athit Pier we cram ourselves onto the local ferry to get off several stops later at the Wat Po Pier. The wharf hasn’t changed with the same little shops but sadly the long-standing dried fish market outside is gone. We wander around the old Chinese shop houses that sell traditional medicines – always love this area. It’s here that Mark and I always drop in to visit a friendly old man who sells dried fish. We met him twelve years ago when he dragged us into the back of his shop to proudly show us photos of his family and his son’s university degrees. On another trip with Lauren his wife took us out the back where she gave us slabs of a freshly baked cake. Can’t find his shop this morning but we haven’t got time to keep looking.

Now Mark and Jillian stop for a coffee before we seek out the entrance to Wat Po which is just across the road. For the 100 Baht entrance fee we get a free bottle of water each. I think we’ll need it as the temperature is full-on by now.

Inside the walls, the sunny compound is colourful with lots of tiled stupas, topiary and hundreds of gold-covered Buddhas. Beautiful! And besides all the prayer halls and shrines, there’s also a university, monks’ living quarters and a massage school (more of that later).

Actually, Wat Po is the largest and the oldest wat (temple) in Bangkok and its main claim to fame is that it’s home to the Reclining Buddha – also supposedly the largest in the whole fucking universe! Of course we have to take our shoes off to go inside but instead of leaving them at the door, each person is given a drawstring bag to put them in so we can carry them around with us. A good idea considering the crowds they get here every day. Inside we take lots of photos as usual then Jillian and I buy 20 Baht of coins to drop into the bronze monks’ bowls (symbolizing the 108 characters of Buddha – guide book info). This is to bring us good luck as well as helping the monks to look after the wat.

Now for the best part – a massage at the massage school. Wat Po is home to one of the earliest Thai massage schools and is actually believed to be the birthplace of traditional Thai massage itself. For 280 Baht, we ask for a thirty minute foot massage – expensive at twice the price as on the streets but worth it for the experience. I love this place with its gorgeous red and gold ceiling with overhead fans keeping us cool. I’m wearing a skirt so I have to change into fisherman’s pants then the three of us get comfortable in recliner chairs sitting side-by-side. The massage is great but my legs are sore with great bruises on either side of my shins where I’d jammed them under the seat in front of me on the plane. Mark gets a cramp.

From here we tuktuk to the Mahatat Amulet Market where we buy traditional necklaces for me and Lauren and a Chinese jewellery box for Abi. Wonderful bronze and brass Buddhist statues are tempting but we’ve bought so many in the past that we resist this time. Now another tuktuk through the busy streets – lovely around this area with overhanging trees, the Grand Palace, Wat Mahatat and glimpses of the Chao Praya River.

Back in Soi Rambutri, Jillian goes off to the dentist for a last minute teeth whitening while Mark and I have lunch sitting on the verandah at Sawadee – a baguette, chips, roast chicken and fresh orange shakes. Now Mark heads over to Khao San Road to pick up his suit while I just have time for a facial, hair wash and blow dry before packing for the overnight train.

Poor Jillian has been held up at the dentist but her teeth are snowy white so it’s worth the mad dash she has to make back to the guesthouse. By 4.30pm we’re all crammed into a tuktuk speeding towards Hualamphong Station. The traffic is horrendous as usual and we wait for ages at every traffic light. The only sign of political unrest is razor wire that’s been put up around some important looking buildings but we don’t know what they are. A few military guys are hanging around as well but that’s about it.

Crossing the canal we recognize where we are and soon see the station ahead. Love it here with lots of memories of other fabulous trips including our first one with Intrepid in 1997. The last time we were here was with Lauren in 2010 and I know she’d love to be doing this again. At that time we were heading north to Chiang Mai but today we’re off to Surat Thani about thirteen hours south.

Before boarding the train we visit the little old supermarket to buy coke and chips for the journey – train food is disgusting. We’ve booked second class non-air-con so we can have the windows open and we’ve all got top bunks as these were the only ones left. The lower bunks are a few dollars more anyway because they get the window.

Mark and I are across from each other and Jillian is at the other end of the carriage. Coincidentally, it seems that we’re sharing with an Intrepid group and their Thai leader is the young woman in the seat opposite Mark. Her name is Moo and we chat with her about our past Intrepid trips and where they’re all headed tomorrow. They seem a nice group except for an English wanker who Jillian falls out with – ‘bitch’ he says to her.

As we slowly pull out of Bangkok at six o’clock we pass the very luxurious Orient Express and get to check out the sleeping compartments and the posh passengers in the dining area – very gorgeous but very expensive – Moo says it’s about $2,000 for the trip from Bangkok to Singapore. I don’t know what comes over me but I have a weird urge to pull down my pants and stick my bare arse in their faces. Mark says, ‘no’.

Dark by now but too early for bed, we decide to check out the dining car – not for food, of course, but to have a drink. I don’t know what I expected but it’s as basic as can be and so, naturally, we all love it. No frills décor, bad lighting and wide open windows make for a great atmosphere. Mark and Jillian have beers while I race back for my Bacardi. Besides a dickhead western guy who yells out the window ‘show us your tits’, we have a great time. Laugh??!!

Ready for sleep now, we head back to our carriage where the seats have been made up into beds and the curtains hung across for privacy.

Love, love, love the overnight trains!!

Tuesday 28th January, 2014     Surat Thani to Krabi to Railay

Wake after a wonderful, dreamless sleep (strange for me) then pack for our seven o’clock arrival in Phun Phin. This is the closest station to Surat Thani which is a fifteen minute songthaew ride away but we won’t be going there today. Surat is the hopping off point for the ferries to Ko Samuii and Ko Phan Ang where we’ve been a couple of times before. But today we’re headed for Railay on the west coast so we need to catch a bus across the mainland to Krabi Town.

Outside the station we hop on a big bus with the Intrepid crew and a few others. With so few passengers it should be a comfy two hour drive. But, of course, this is Asia and there’s no way a half empty bus will do – must be packed to the rafters or no go. So half an hour later we pull into a sort of rest area where other backpackers are waiting for buses back to Surat Thani. I guess they’ll be getting onto our big bus while the sixteen of us and all our packs will be crammed into a minivan.

No-one is happy and Moo isn’t having a bar of it. So now we’re driven in another van twenty minutes back towards Surat to a crusty little bus station where we all pile out to wait for … what, we don’t know. Now we need to change tickets then Mark and Jillian say ‘why can’t the three of us go in the van by ourselves’. Somehow they agree so we’re soon back on the road waving goodbye to our Intrepid friends.

We don’t know what’s happening this time but we seem to be heading east and end up in Surat Thani. After two hours when we should already be in Krabi Town, we’ve actually gone backwards! Now we’re dumped at a big bus station where we’re told to wait in a little shop for half an hour. Hungry by this stage, we decide to look for a café and ask a group of locals at the next corner for directions. We walk for ages then backtrack past the shop to find a fabulous open-sided food place right at the bus station itself. Have a lovely Thai breakfast then wander back to the shop to wait with our packs for our next form of transport, whatever it may be. It soon arrives – another minivan – and we’re off at last. We enjoy the scenery as always and finally arrive in Krabi around eleven o’clock.

Krabi is a pretty, market town surrounded by limestone cliffs – very laid back with a nice area along the river. This is where we’re dropped to catch the boat to Railay. Well, actually, not quite – now we’re put in another van for a thirty minute drive to Ao Nang – this is our sixth bus/van since we left Phun Phin this morning – sooo Asia and you have to love it!

At Ao Nang we’re greeted with the stunning turquoise waters that Thailand is famous for. Palms trees, coconut palms, white sand and longtails boats make us very excited to be here at last. We throw our packs into a weathered longtail with a canvas roof and set off around the point for Railay. Lovely to be out on the water on this gorgeous hot, sunny day.

Railay (pronounce Rye-lay) is actually a small peninsula cut off from the mainland by limestone cliffs so it can only be reached by boat and feels more like an island. It’s broken into East and West beaches and to the north is the small backpacker village of Ton Sai which is where we’re now headed. As we chug towards the shore we can see that the peninsula is surrounded by enormous limestone cliffs which apparently make this area home to some of the best rock climbing in the world. It’s why heaps of young people come here but I know for sure that none of us will be trying it.

As usual on these small beaches there isn’t a pier so we just have to jump out in thigh-high water and wade to shore with our bags above our heads. As we reach the beach we’re surprised to see quite a lot of expensive looking hotels and hope we can find some cheapies to choose from. The good thing is lots of cafes and little restaurants all along the water’s edge so we find a nice place for a cool drink before we set off in search of a room.

Leaving Mark with the bags, Jillian and I set off for the opposite side of the peninsula but everywhere is either too expensive or booked out. Now Mark and I check out Tonsaii Village while Jillian stays with our packs and orders lunch. We ask at a few places but most of the budget guesthouses seem to be at the top of the cliff. We eventually find rooms at Rapala Rockwood Bungalows up a steep staircase and built on the side of the hill. It’s very tropical with thick gardens and a trendy restaurant and chilling-out-on-cushions area. Lots of young people are here reading and on their ipads.

We can get an air-conditioned room for Jillian – about $30 – and a fan only room for us – only $12. We race back to get her as we know how fast rooms disappear. Of course by the time we get back, the air-con room is gone so she has to do with one near us. For our $12 we get a good sized room with wooden flooring, woven bamboo walls, a fan and a foam mattress on the floor. We also have a nice verandah overlooking other bungalows and the gardens. The bathrooms are outside and a bit ordinary but okay for the price.

Now we all walk around to West Beach across the middle of the peninsula which is basically undeveloped with only a couple of simple cafés and the rest just family homes. West Beach itself is really lovely – a wide white stretch of sand with sandstone cliffs at either end. Upmarket hotels and restaurants line the sand with outdoor seating shaded by tall trees. We all order cool drinks and can finally relax now that we have somewhere to stay.

On the way back to Rapala we pass people decked out in climbing gear heading for the rock faces on the other side. We also see the sign for Diamond Cave and decide to have a look. After paying a 40Baht entry fee we follow wooden walkways through the cave where stalactites, stalagmites and limestone waterfalls are very impressive. And of course there are lots of bats squeaking above us in the darkness.

On dusk we head down the stairs to find a café for dinner and drinks. We also want to use Facebook so we need to find somewhere with free wifi. We like the look of the Andamantino but the service is slack and the internet connection crap so we just have a drink and decide to move on. We cross to one of the trendy places right on the edge of the sand with wooden platforms covered in cushions and low tables. Mark, though, is suddenly sick and has to go back to our guesthouse. Jillian and I stay for a pizza and a few drinks but don’t last too long – feel bad that Mark is on his own.

Wednesday 29th January, 2014     Railay

This morning he’s still sick with a rumbling stomach and the runs. The other bad news is that we can’t find his mobile phone. We search the room and all our bags over and over but it’s definitely not here. Jillian is already out walking so we head down to the cafes hoping that someone has handed it in. It’s his work phone so it’s got all his contacts (which he hasn’t backed up, by the way) but he’s more worried about losing all the photos of our dollies.

Down in the village, it’s still too early for most of the cafes to open so we wander along the shore. The tide is out exposing the mangroves – creepy things – like triffids, I always think. The sun is just peeking above a mountainous island and casting a golden path along the water towards us. A lone longtail sits silhouetted on the sand so it’s not a bad spot to hang out. Finally the cafes open but no-one has handed in his phone. We search under the platforms and the floor pillows – no luck. Nothing to be done as there isn’t anything like a police station around here so I have breakfast of pineapple juice and an omelet while Mark just has to watch – poor baby.

The rest of the morning Mark and I just lie around our room reading and sleeping while Jillian has a lovely time at West Beach.

In the afternoon we all have a massage in a cute upstairs place at the bottom of our stairs then Jillian and I have a romantic, candle-lit dinner on a floating restaurant hidden amongst the mangroves.

Thursday 30th January, 2014     Railay to Ko Phi Phi Don

Our last day in Railay and Mark is feeling himself again – happiness! We wake very early so we can check out Phra Nang Beach – Jillian said we have to see it before we leave.

The sun is barely up as we pass the cafes to reach a walkway that starts from the southwestern tip of Railay East. The small curving path winds beneath a towering rock ledge with small caves in the side of the mountain and someone is burning mounds of dry leaves. It’s really lovely in here – no-one else round except for a few naughty monkeys playing in the overhanging trees.

If we think this is impressive, we’re not prepared for how perfect Phra Nang Beach is – it’s no wonder that it’s recently been voted one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world.

A broad strip of soft white sand has massive limestone cliffs framing each end of the secluded beach and lapped by a milky turquoise sea with limestone karsts just off the shore.

At the northern tip of the beach is the very unusual Tham Phra Nang Cave. It’s dedicated to the spirit of a princess who, legend has it, drowned in the nearby waters – the reason why it’s also called Princess Cave. The very weird thing is that it’s full of wooden penises – all shapes and sizes – put here by the local fishermen who want the princess’s favour of a fruitful fishing trip. It makes sense if you think of the phallus as a symbol of fertility – a bit gross really.

But forget the penises, swimming in the calm water here is one of those very special travel moments that we’ll never forget. Only a couple of locals are around so it’s been the perfect time to come. Back at our bungalows, we find that Jillian is packed and ready to leave so we chuck everything into our bags and head down to the village to catch a boat to the Phi Phi Islands.

Although we were there in 2010 with Lauren and Julie and Steve it’s too close for Jillian to miss out but we plan to just stay for one night – better than nothing and besides Mark and I loved it last time so we’re more than happy to be going back.

Actually the boat is leaving from Railay West Beach which is a much nicer place to hang out – picture postcard stuff! The sun is scorching by now and the sky is the usual cloudless blue. We find a little place that sells coffee for Jillian and wifi for Mark so he can do some work then we all hang out on the sand with other travellers to wait for our boat. Again we have to wade out to a waiting longtail that takes us to the middle of the bay where we transfer to a beautiful big ferry for the two hour trip.

Coming into Tonsai Bay, Phi Phi Don looks as lovely as we remember although there appears to be less tourists being dropped at the wharf this time. Hopefully there won’t be as many people here as on Railay and we’ll be able to get the guesthouse we want. Last time we stayed in a really nice place near the stairs to the Viewpoint. Actually Julie and Steve had a lovely little bungalow with a cute leafy verandah while Mark and Lauren and I had a room on stilts with a view of the washing line. Anyway we hope to get one of the cute bungalows each today.

It’s a nice idea but as soon as we reach the laneways we realise there are even more people here than at Railay and twice as many as when we were here four years ago. There also seems to be a lot of young Western guys getting very drunk even at this time of day. And besides the feral people, we can’t get a room at the cute place or anywhere else for that matter.

We finally find a couple of dark rooms at a tiny guesthouse. Mark and I have a window although it seems to be boarded up. But we do have our own little bathroom as well as brown floral wallpaper so we’re very grateful to have found this place.

After booking in, we arrange to meet Jillian at Lo Dalam Beach – only about fifty metres along a sandy track opposite. Perfect here with lots of people sunbaking in deckchairs under umbrellas or the trees that line the sand. We sit outside the     which was our favourite last time. This is heaven – hot and sunny, cold drinks, pizzas, gorgeous scenery and good people watching.

Later Jillian and I wander down to the northern end of the beach to a thatched, open-sided hut for a face massage each – very bizarre and more like a facial – must be a lost-in-translation thing. Now we all have a nanna nap before Mark and I set off to find somewhere to have my hair washed and blow dried. No luck but we do find a funny little beauty salon where the owner tells me how good she is then gives me the worst manicure ever. My lovely long nails have been filed into ugly square ends and she only manages to get the nail polish down the middle of my nails – are you kidding? – ha ha!

On sunset we all head back to Lo Dalem for salads, fish and chips and cocktails. We hang out on cushions laid out on a bamboo platform drinking Margaritas for me and Jillian and Mohitos for Mark while we watch the usual fire twirlers – so Thailand!!

Friday 31st January, 2014     Ko Phi Phi Don to Ko Lanta

Another day, another island. Today we’re off to Ko Lanta, a few hours south in the Andaman Sea. We don’t leave till ten o’clock so we’ve still got time for a swim. Jillian heads off to the Viewpoint while Mark and I walk to the southern end of Lo Dalem which is the only spot on the beach with enough water for a dip – the tide is out again.

Later we buy boat tickets from a guy next to our guesthouse then pack ready to walk down to the boat pier at Tonsai Bay. Here the ticket collector is suss about our tickets and it looks like we’ve bought them from a guy who’s given us fake ones and done the bolt with our money. But I feel pretty sure he was ok and after a few phone calls we’re allowed to board. Two young girls behind us aren’t so lucky so it looks like the scam thing really does happen.

The boat is another big island-hopping ferry but not as nice as the one that brought us here yesterday from Railay. We choose to sit in the big cabin to have heaps of room to lie down then later hang out at the windows as we pass lots of little islands.

Ko Lanta itself actually consists of Ko Lanta Noi (“Small Lanta Island”) and Ko Lanta Yai (“Big Lanta Island”). It’s Ko Lanta Yai where all the tourist action is and where we pull up at the pier at Saladan Village in the far north.

We don’t waste any time grabbing a tuktuk to take us further down the coast in search of a guesthouse. Ko Lanta’s long western coast is strung with family bungalow resorts, boutique hotels, chilled out backpacker huts as well as some serious five-star opulence. We definitely want something right on the beach and something cheap.

But here again, everywhere is packed and we end up having to pay a fortune again for a room each. Definitely not happy about all this three star shit but all the budget places have already been taken. We’ve never experienced this before but nothing we can do about it.

Our hotel has a nice laidback restaurant right on the sand but the rooms are in an ugly box. We’re lucky to get rooms near each other on the ground floor facing the pool so it’s not too bad except for paying $80 for the night. The best bit though is the weird (wtf?) sign stuck on everyone’s door. No typo mistakes here, by the way.

  1. Do not towel dry feel
  2. Eat snacks in garbage already duai?
  3. Do not perform dirty in the room. Linen towels and so on
  4. Wha’t in is damaged your must pay
  5. Because some people bad habits (thank you)

So gorgeous!

The tide is out exposing coral reefs but we find a spot further along the beach where we can have a late afternoon swim. Drinks and dinner watching another lovely sunset.

Saturday 1st February, 2014     Ko Lanta to Ko Lipe

Moving again today. We’d like to stay longer on Ko Lanta but we want to have a couple of days on Ko Lipe and we’re running out of time. I love travelling this way anyhow and so does Mark – just ask him!

After a nice breakfast overlooking the beach we jump into another tuktuk to take us back to Saladan Village. We’ve got a bit of a wait for the ferry to turn up so we wander around the market stalls but don’t like anything. Our boat, called Tiger Ferry, leaves on time for the five hour trip to Ko Lipe.

Ko Lipe (say Lee-pae) is the southernmost island in Thailand and part of the Butang Island group. Guide book info says it’s inhabited by the Chao Ley (or Sea Gypsies) who used to travel from island to island looking for the best fishing spots. They eventually found a permanent home on Ko Lipe and were given a grant to settle on the island’s eastern beach (Sunrise Beach) and have remained there ever since – pretty cool! Anyway I just like saying ‘Sea Gypsies’.

And like all these southern islands, it looks perfect as we make our way slowly to a pontoon anchored off shore. There isn’t a wharf here so we‘re all transferred to a fleet of waiting longtails to take us in closer. As we did at Railay, we have to wade through the shallow water with our packs above our heads till we reach the beach.

I’ve picked out a couple of places from the Lonely Planet so we head south along Pattaya Beach. This is by far the most populated area on the island with a busy vibe that suits us just fine. But, as we’ve found everywhere else on this holiday, we can’t get a room. We take turns going into one place after another as we drag ourselves around in the burning sun. Oh shit, every answer is ‘Solly, full’. Jillian calls one guy the Soup Nazi. For some reason he hates her – ‘no room for you!’ – ha ha.

We eventually come across the entrance to Walking Street which apparently connects Pattaya to Sunrise Beach on the opposite side of the island. It’s a very long sandy laneway crammed with cheap restaurants, markets, diving shops, massage places and lots of budget accommodation – but again, all say ‘solly full’.

Eventually Jillian and I leave Mark in a café with all our packs and set off for Sunrise Beach. We meet another Aussie woman looking for a room and she’s so desperate she takes a horrible tent pitched in a scraggy yard next to a café. We also talk to an old hippie couple who tell us that they’re going to sleep on the beach and it looks like it might be our only option as well.

Sunrise Beach is much quieter than Pattaya with the hotels spread out so we have a long, long walk with no luck. Eventually I can’t be bothered and walk back to Mark – sleeping on the beach might be ok anyway if there’s heaps of other people doing it. But not long after I reach Mark, Jillian calls to say she’s found a room for $130 and that she’s coming to pick us up in the hotel songthaew.

Walking Street is just that – ‘walking only’ so we’re picked up in a side street about half way along. Throwing our gear in the back of the truck we bounce our way along a rutted track to end up at Sunset Beach and the hotel’s long, impressively paved driveway. The hotel is called Mountain Retreat and is built on the side of a hill with views of the Andaman Sea and Adang Island.

Separate bungalows are scattered across the hillside but it’s all pretty ugly. We do have air-con and hot water and a big balcony but we’re stuck in the middle of fucking nowhere. A bit of an exaggeration but hopefully we’re just here for tonight. After checking in we all walk back up to the top of the hill to wait for a lift back to Pattaya.

We’re dropped off in Walking Street so we make our way back down to the beach. We find the usual string of cool restaurants with pillows on the sand so we set ourselves up for the night. Great food here with the usual Margaritas for us girls and Mark has a couple of Mijitos – very impressive tall glasses of rum, lime juice and packed with mint.

A songthaew back to Mountain Retreat in the dark is fun.

Sunday 2nd February, 2014     Ko Lipe

Wake at seven o’clock and after quick showers we wander down the hill to the main building for breakfast which is included in the cost of our room. Shoes off we find the dining room to be a vast empty space with glass windows all around and nice views over the lagoon. Another island is very close and we see fishing boats on the shore. But it’s a soulless place as most upmarket hotels are – why we hate them. And we don’t fancy the food because they’re obviously catering to the all Asian tourists. It’s horrible and Mark’s fried eggs are raw – he cries. A bizarre place and we just want to get the hell out of here and stay somewhere with a bit of atmosphere.

After we finish eating, we ask at the desk if we can stay another night – insurance in case we can’t find something else. ‘Yes, yes’ they gush all over us.

Catch a songthaew with an Asian family back to Pattaya Beach, this time driving along a different sandy track through a tiny village – really lovely here with overhanging trees.

At Pattaya we’re surprised to see that most of the crowds have gone and we eventually find out that today is the last day of the Chinese New Year holidays so heaps of Asian tourists are heading back home. It’s the best news but rooms are still scarce. We finally find one at Bella Vista at $150 for the three of us – we’ll take it!!

In Walking Street we look for a motorbike taxi to take us back to Mountain Retreat. No songthaew this time but a motor bike with a sort of sidecar on the side for me and Mark while Jillian has to sit on the back of the bike behind the driver – looks hilarious!

Pack then Jillian kindly walks the key back to reception to tell them that we’re not staying tonight – Mark and I would have just pissed off and not told them – definitely arseholes, ha ha! Anyway the friendly people at the desk aren’t friendly anymore when they find out that we’re leaving. Too bad, they’ll have it rented out in the next five minutes anyway.

Another motorbike taxi takes us through the back entrance to Bella Vista but our room isn’t ready so we leave our bags in the office and change into our swimmers. The hotel has a large rustic restaurant right on the sand with a wooden deck shaded by overhanging trees. Mark and I get ourselves set up on beach lounges while Jillian heads off in search of coffee.

Later Mark and I have lunch in Walking Street in a fabulous café sitting on floor cushions and watching all the cool people around us. Pineapple shakes, prawn cakes, chips and salt and pepper squid then a beer for Mark – God we love being on these tropical islands!

Further along the street we buy a skirt for Lauren, wrist bands for her and Josh and a snorkeling bag for us as we’re hoping to hire a boat this afternoon. Just along from our hotel we find a place where we book a boat for four o’clock.

More lounging around now on the Bella Vista deck then we move into our room at 2pm. It’s on the top floor of a double storey bungalow so we’ve got a beautiful view from our verandah of the snowy white sand, the crystal clear water, little boats out front and a bamboo massage place just below us – so much better than Mountain Retreat! Our room is big, clean and sunny with a huge bathroom so we’re very happy.

Haven’t seen Jillian for ages so I decide to have a massage out front. The little massage lady is lovely but she kills me – ‘solly’ she keeps saying.

At four o’clock we still haven’t been able to contact Jillian but she arrives at the last minute and we’re soon heading out into the bay. Apparently the best place to snorkel around here is The Pinnacle which is about a fifteen minute ride.

It turns out that The Pinnacle is under water so we jump out where a few other boats are anchored. Luckily there’s a rope stretched across the surface for us to hang onto because the current is so strong I think we’d end up in India in no time. We just stick our heads underwater but can’t see much – too windy, choppy, too many people. As we leave a boatload of Thai tourists turn up – God help them!

Our driver takes us next to a small island where we snorkel in a sheltered bay then back in the boat to make it to Sunset Beach before the tide goes out.

After showers we walk along the shore as the sun sets in a beautiful pink sky. Near the entrance to Walking Street we find a table on the sand where we all order seafood and salads. Later we find a groovy place with big cushions spread out on woven mats and settle in for another night on cocktails and beer. A band plays good cover music – a lovely last night on Ko Lipe.

Monday 3rd February, 2014     Ko Lipe to Langkawi

This morning we wake to another gorgeous island day. Buffet breakfast on the restaurant deck then we book tickets for a boat to Langkawi this afternoon. Jillian has a flight to Kuala Lumpur at 6 o’clock so we need to get the two o’clock boat that’s advertised on their board.

Now the three of us walk over to Sunrise Beach – aqua blue water, white sand, blue sky, tiny islands just off-shore and grass huts –  really lovely. Back along Walking Street we split up then meet back at the boat booking place ready to leave. But now the guy says ‘no two o’clock boat only three o’clock’. Jillian says ‘Why?’ but the grumpy guy snaps back ‘No Why! No Boat!’. Jillian is PISSED!!! This means she could miss her plane.

She races up the laneway to another boat company and we can get an earlier boat with them. She argues with the original boat guy to give our money back – he’s not happy! After lots more running around with passports and swapping tickets we’re finally on the beach ready to hop on to one of the three catamarans revving up in the shallows. Mark and I get separated from Jillian and we hope her boat is the first one out.

We really enjoy the one hour trip to Langkawi especially when our driver does a full throttle three sixty just before we pull into Telagah Harbour. Jillian is already on the pier but because we’re entering Malaysia we have to wait while our passports are stamped. Two other western guys are on Jillian’s plane so they plan to catch a taxi together to the airport. We give Jillian goodbye cuddles then wave her off in a speeding taxi – she should make it in time.

Soon we’re also speeding towards Cenang where we had a lovely few days eight years ago. The problem is we don’t recognize anything – it’s been developed out of all recognition – bloody awful! And we’re not thrilled at the look of the Malibest either!

In a very daggy lobby area, we’re booked in by two sweet young girls wearing the traditional Muslim head scarves that all the ladies here are wearing. Of course, Langkawi is part of Malaysia so it shouldn’t be a surprise although it does seem strange after being in Thailand.

Malibest is an odd place – part daggy and part cool and trendy. The reason I’d booked somewhere to stay on Langkawi was that we needed to spend at least $250 on the trip to qualify for free travel insurance by using my ANZ Platinum credit card and we still needed to spend another $50 to combine with the cost of the flight to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. And the reason I’d booked the Malibest is that it looked really good on Tripadvisor but unfortunately the reality doesn’t compare with the photos. I guess they were pictures of the expensive tree-house rooms right on the sand.

And while I didn’t think we’d be getting one of those I also didn’t expect the dark, dingy dump that we’re now the proud owners of. The good news is that it’s only two days – imagine how pissed off you’d be booking in for a week or more! And that’s why we hate booking ahead – best to take chances of finding something on the spot than being stuck with a shit-hole like ours. Oh, I forgot to mention that we also have a muddy puddle right at our door.

With no reason to stay in the shit-hole we set off to explore Cenang – and we’re still wondering if we’re in the right spot. This surely can’t be the quiet little place we visited in 2006. Where the occasional sandy floored café was separated by a few simple shops and houses, it’s now overcrowded with daggy, glossy shops, restaurants and upmarket hotels. Maybe if we walk far enough along the road we’ll find the Cenang of old days. But no luck, just more of the same horrible shit. Well, we think so anyway. Apparently the Malaysian tourists are loving it because they’re here in droves.

We decide to get down to the water where it might be better. Of course we have to cut through a posh hotel but eventually we’re on the beach. Not loving it here either but we do find a trendy but basic place on the sand where we catch a pretty pink sunset and order food and drinks. Don’t stay out late as we’ve got a lot planned for the morning before our afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Tuesday 4th February, 2014     Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur

Sleep okay and don’t get out of bed till 9 o’clock. Our flight doesn’t leave till seven o’clock tonight so we plan to hire a motorbike and check out some of the island including the capital, Kuah Town. But first we throw on some clothes and set off to look for breakfast. The weather is perfect yet again – we haven’t seen a cloud since we arrived twelve days ago.

The street is more bearable this morning – quieter but still a shock to see the change in this once, quiet little town. There seems to be a lot of shiny new cafes which we hate on sight so we’re very happy to find The Breakfast Place with its thatched roof, lots of greenery and basic wooden furniture – rare around here now. Next to us a large family of Asian tourists is having a riotous time and the American Breakfast of eggs, toast, jam, tea and coffee is good – can’t get bacon, of course, on this Muslim island.

Nearby we hire a motorbike for a mere 18RM then set off for a ride along the main street as far as the fountain. Unbelievably we come across the AB Hotel that’s grown into a two storey monster next to the same little huts that we stayed in eight years ago. But besides that, nothing else looks at all familiar – all been swallowed up with new development.

Back to the Malibest we walk down the beach to a simple hut for drinks and watermelon. For some reason they don’t have water or even soda water so I have to drink warm Sprite – yuk and so is the watermelon. Not loving this place at all so far. Hopefully things will look up when we get out into the countryside this afternoon.

Back to the shit-hole to pack then check out leaving our bags with the sweet girls at the office. Okay, so now we’re ready for our bike ride to Kuah Town. A petrol station is our first stop before heading inland. Later the road follows the hilly coastline with views of lots of outlying islands.

Kuah Town is attractively green with lots of parks, shops and office blocks. It’s definitely outgrown the small town that we remember when we landed here by ferry from Penang in 2006. We can’t find anywhere interesting to eat and end up in a strange shopping centre at the top of the hill. After lunch at McDonalds – tragic – we admire the surf shop where store dummies in the window model the latest in lycra burkas – ha ha.

Back at Cenang Beach we drive down to the water for a drink and find a lovely thatched place right on the sand. Bizarrely they only sell coconuts so, very disillusioned by now, we return the bike then hang out in the foyer till it’s time to leave for the airport.

Our taxi guy is very friendly and complains about the Chinese drivers. Check-in is easy so we read before boarding Air Asia at seven o’clock.  The flight is quick and we land at Kuala Lumpur’s LCCT at 8.10pm. Because we were on a domestic flight there’s no need for immigration or customs. Eat Kentucky Chicken before walking over to Tunes. Watch some of our video – noisy neighbours banging doors every ten minutes – wtf? I shower and wash my hair while Mark goes down to Seven 11 for beers and water. Glad to fall into bed.

Wednesday 5th February, 2014     Kuala Lumpur to Sydney

Wake at 6.15am to shower, pack and for me to blow dry my hair. It’s still dark as we walk across the car park to the LCCT terminal. There are hundreds of people here all trying to book in luggage so Mark has the bright idea of lining up at the Passengers With Special Needs desk. Another Aussie guy who we’d been talking to earlier hops in behind us and we’re all through in no time.

Waiting for our flight, we eat McDonalds and use their free wifi to get onto Facebook and for Mark to check his work emails. We also manage to get a call through to Lauren – only one more sleep till we see are darling girls.

Through immigration we buy the Dolly a Dora wallet then we again have to board the plane from stairs on the tarmac – much more exciting than using the jet-bridge. As we never book seats – too stingy – we’re actually across the aisle from each other – me sitting next to a nice Indian couple and Mark is sitting with an Aussie couple. I take a Triazapam and manage to get a couple of hours sleep – with mouth open as Mark tells me later.

Home again!

 

 

 

 

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