The 'Land of Smiles' delivers!
25.11.2009 - 21.12.2009
Having cancelled our ferry booking with Tigerline and stayed in a hotel overnight, we began our mammoth journey to the Thai island of Ko Lanta.
The first leg was by ferry where passenger safety wasn't top priority and all bags were propmptly dumped in a heap on the muster station and conveniently blocked our emergency exit door! After a safe and fairly easy crossing into Thailand we hopped on the back of a truck to a bus station, where we caught a bright pink double-decker bus. On arrival in Trang we were picked up in a 4x4 and taken to a nearby mini-bus terminal. Our mini-bus then drove north through wet conditions and via 2 ferries before we finally arrived at our island paradise, just 12 hours after we started!
Thankfully, the island of Ko Lanta was a great introduction to Thailand. With it's long white sand beaches, warm seas and friendly people it was a very relaxing island where we spent many a happy day sun-bathing, swimming, walking, shopping and dining out. Lucy also indulged in a Thai massage on the beach and we soon put our recent travel tribulations behind us!
After a week of relaxation, we reluctantly moved on, and so caught a scenic ferry to the headland of Railay, which many refer to as an island because it is only accessible by long-boat. As you can imagine, this means that it is relatively unspoilt and very relaxed.
We stayed in a jungle bungalow set in beautiful surroundings where you could hear the high-pitched 'whooping' of gibbons throughout the day.
We spent 5 blissful days in Railay, sunning ourselves on what have to be some of the best beaches in the world. After a tough morning sunbathing and swimming we would buy our lunch of Pad Thai noodles from a longboat anchored by the shore, and then relax until the sun went down over the horizon for a romantic end to the day!
We also enjoyed watching the numerous cheeky monkeys that inhabit the island:
We built up some seriously good tans here before deciding to move on once again, hoping to go to Khao Sok National Park.
Unfortunately, the journey was fraught with problems! First Lucy lost her balance when the pavement disappeared on the way to our longboat in the morning, and had some very nasty cuts and grazes to deal with. The locals were very kind, rushing to our aid with antiseptic and tissues!
We then had to contend with a 2 hour wait on the beach until there were enough people to fill a long-boat followed by a taxi into Krabi town. We then discovered that the local bus didn't stop at the National Park, as we'd been told, and so we would have to go to Surat Thani and then get another bus to the park. We later found out this is the worst place for scams and fake travel agents in the whole of Thailand!
After some very heated conversations with several 'agents' trying to over-charge us, it became clear that we couldn't get to Khao Sok without being ripped off!
In the end we got a hotel for the night, eventually made it to the train station the next morning (after jumping out of a taxi who wouldn't take us to the station as requested, but back to the dodgy travel agents again!) and after a 6-hour wait jumped on the 17:30 overnight train to Bangkok, where we would have an hours wait before boarding another 12 hour train up to Chiang Mai in the north. We plan to explore Bangkok just before we fly home!
We were very impressed on the train with the efficiency with which our seats were quickly converted into bunk beds for the evening, and by 8pm the whole carriage was quiet except for the vendors who joined at stations to sell food and drink.
We both managed a surprisingly good nights sleep and arrived in Bangkok around 6am, where we had some breakfast and a cold shower before catching the 8am train to Chiang Mai. We spent several days exploring the delights of Chiang Mai, which we had been reliably informed was a friendly and relaxing city. It has some of the finest temples in the country as well as a huge Sunday night-market which has to be seen to be believed!
It was here that we met an English couple Ruth and Liam, they were doing a 2-day trek north of Chiang Mai and asked us if we would be interested in joining them. Staying with one of the remote hill-tribe villages - the Karen people, Elephant riding and bamboo rafting - it all sounded great so we decided to sign up for the trek.
Our trek was quite an experience! On the first day, we drove to bathe in some impressive waterfalls and hot-springs before setting out on our 5-hour trek through hills and villages to our destination for the night.
On the way, one of our party was taken ill and our progress was a little slow in the heat anyway (the hike was all either uphill or downhill - very hard on our unconditioned legs!) and so we descended the last hill in the twilight of evening, making it to our village for the evening just as darkness really began to take hold, and the stars came out in force.
Our accommodation for the evening was a large bamboo hut which was pretty much open-air. We slept on bamboo floors on roll-out fabric mattresses underneath mosquito nights. Hardly luxurious but we've learnt along the way that we can cope with most conditions just so long as it's only for one night!
After some much-needed food cooked by our friendly guide, we all hit the sack (literally) by 8pm and managed to get enough sleep to prepare us for an exciting day ahead!
Day 2 of our trek was where the fun really began - elephant riding and bamboo-rafting down the river!
First up was elephant riding, as our mahout (elephant teacher) positioned our elephant next to some high wooden steps which we climbed carefully before gingerly stepping on our young females neck and swung around to plonk down on the wooden seat positioned behind our mahout.
Little did we know just how spirited our young female elephant would turn out to be! Somewhat of a teenage delinquent, she followed the other elephants as we set off along and across the river but then proceeded to take as many detours along the way as she saw fit, tearing branches off trees and having a good sniff of any interesting items along the way.
However, things got a little out of hand when a large group of children white-water rafting down the river began to make too much noise and passed too close to our elephant. Emanating a booming, deep growl, she turned to the passing rafts in the water and flapped her ears in warning before raising her trunk to release a loud, angry roar of power! As we peered over the elephant towards the steep bank below, we began to wonder just what the protocol was if you happened to find yourself astride an angry, charging elephant!
Luckily, another older elephant approached and used its trunk to make reassuring stroking gestures on the face of our elephant, blowing gently to calm it down. A really touching and sweet moment, despite the rising panic we both felt!
We then began to cross the river again, only to be faced with a similar scenario as the rafters insisted upon encroaching upon our elephants company! This time our young lady turned right around to face the rafters, who were by this point all wearing faces of real fear as our elephant roared at them once more.
Thankfully, they heeded our warnings to be quiet and we eventually crossed the river before enjoying the rest of the journey without incident!
Although it was a little unnerving at times we admired her spirit and character and it made the ride that little more exciting too!
After alighting our elephant on a steep bank further down the river, we said goodbye and held our hands for the elephant to once again sniff with her trunk before she returned to her village back up the river. Next up for us was bamboo-rafting!
With Richard, Liam and a very hungover guide steering the back of the raft, we managed to make it back to the mini-van in one piece, but not entirely dry! We felt pleased with our effort, having navigated some fast and rocky stretches using nothing more than large bamboo poles and our tired arms!
The next few days were spent relaxing and taking in the sights of Chiang Mai, especially the walled 'Old Quarter' where we were staying. We also picked up a parcel from home, containing a few luxuries and our Christmas present, which were very welcome as we were soon to be leaving for Laos, where we would be spending the Yuletide in Luang Prabang.
Departing Chiang Mai, we caught a bus to Chiang Khong, jumped on a tuk-tuk and after going through Thai immigration we headed down to the shores of the Mekong, where we caught a long-boat for the 500m journey to the other side and stepped onto Laos land!
After going through immigration, we found a hotel for the evening in Houay Xai and bought some cushions in preparation for the hard wooden seats of the 2-day slow-boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
Our Laos travels will follow in the next post.
Hope you're all well back home and have weathered the winter storms. Looking forward to seeing you all very soon!
Love Lucy and Richard.
PS As always, photos for those who don't like reading are here!