30. Havin' ourselves a sandy little Christmas

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January 10th 2008
Published: February 1st 2008
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Our home-away-from-home for Chistmas 2007Our home-away-from-home for Chistmas 2007Our home-away-from-home for Chistmas 2007

Koh Lanta, west coast of Thailand
We took an overnight bus to Krabi then a boat to the island of Koh Lanta, then a pick-up truck to Fisherman's Cottage (FMC) which was to be our home for Christmas and New Year.

We sampled numerous delights from the Cottage menu (Mussuman curry, English breakfast on Christmas AND New Year's Day, Bean on toast (though we were delighted to get more than one) and left others alone (Barbecued seafood: crap (sic)). We enjoyed many a leisurely breakfast looking straight out to sea from the dining area, not to mention a few sunsets accompanied by Cafe del Mar-esque chillout music wafting over from the bar. (See attached sunset video). Kun was the welcoming and laid-back owner who led the FMC, who were like a family) including Kun's Dad (sometimes allowed to stay up late with the rest of them!), Tom (chief bartender and fire-juggling fiend), Lan (all-round helpful guy, carted us to and from town and DJ-ed in his spare time), not to mention Peah and Lam (the talented chefs). Our pets were singing birds and a cat with three very small kittens.

Just as we had settled in to our residence, John and Laura (our Trans Mongolian train cabin fellows) arrived and we caught up on stories of our diverging routes over the previous 3 months. We walked south along 'our' beach - Klong Khong - which was quite rocky with the tide out but you couldn't tell at all once the tide came in and covered it up. There was lots of coral washed up on shore which was a perfect pumice stone!

We expected a large Saturday night out in Koh Lanta's metropolis, Saladan, but alas it was a little on the tame side. Before entering our chosen dining establishment, however, we did receive a rundown from the chef on the different types of fresh fish available that evening: they were displayed before our very eyes and included red and white snapper, pomfret and fresh squid (its black ink appeared near the skin's surface when you touched it) - an education. Christmas Eve was significantly livlier where we centered ourselves in the cluster of bars halfway to town. Before the dancing and ordering of "Whiskey and Coke buckets" (yes, buckets) we patronised a rasta guy's restaurant, each ordering 'half a chicken BBQ-ed' though we could count 4 or 5 legs on each of our plates..?! Big portions anyway.

Christmas Day morning saw us brave a pre-breakfast swim - we waded quite far away from shore but due to many shallow rocks we could still stand up to our waist! Lanta island is predominantly Muslim so, try as we might, we did not manage to find a Church in existence for a Christmas service. Many of the locals dressed conservatively (even in the heat) so we tried to follow suit when out and about. Several times a day we heard the call to prayer from the Mosque a few hundred metres down the road; this sound in one ear and John's i-pod playing Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas' in the other was cultural contrast!

A lengthy breakfast was had by the four of us at the tree-top table as we reminisced of wintry Christmases at home and thought of all of those not we were not with. (See attached video of Laura's joke.) Our Christmas present from Kun's dad was fresh coconut he had just plucked down from one of the 20 metre-tall trees around the garden. We have to admit that as much lazing about was accomplished as would be at
Party PeopleParty PeopleParty People

Nick, Paula, John & Laura Christmas Eve 2007
home and before we knew it the sun was low in the sky and the FMC BBQ with after dinner fireworks was kicking off. Roast dinner favourites were replaced this year with an albeit delicious BBQ of king mackerel, squid, prawns, mussuman curry and morning glory (a common vegetable in these parts). We are pleased to say that we topped it off our Christmas cake from home, courtesy of Alex and Cevan's wedding (3rd December 2006!) which we had carefully transported with us since September. Boxing Day's food was simpler, as we tried to save a few pennies after the big day we bought some supplies from Seven-11; unfortunately Nick's "Instant Chicken Soup" upon tasting, turned out to be unmistakably stock! Yum.

In at the deep end
Well, several islands off the coast are recommended diving sites so, although not without trepidation, we decided to try a Discovery Day with GoDive- a scuba diving taster course which offered two dives in the sea rather than learning the ropes in a mere swimming pool. The boat took us to Koh Ha, with beautiful coral and very blue water so clear you could see quite far down from the boat as well as quite far up to the surface when underwater. It was odd to look up from beneath and see the sun's rays continue down through the water and the seabed slope gently down like the floor of a swimming pool AND not get your nose full of water into the bargain. Tasty breakfast was enjoyed on the 2-hour boat journey out and I was reading The Beach (by Alex Garland); as we approached the lagoon-like waters of Koh Ha I had just reached a similar point in the book when they start swimming out to the idyllic island.

Mild nervousness was not assuaged as we donned our equipment to go under: on top of the wetsuit went the metal tank of air (12 litres) attached to an inflatable jacket followed by a 5kg belt of metal weights to help us descend! The biggest challenge was to stand up wearing all this, but we mustered our strength and waddled over in our fins (not flippers!) to the diving deck. Holding on to our breathing apparatus and mask with one hand, weight belt with the other, we took a big stride into the big blue. It is truly a fascinating world down there, and I realised until now how little I had thought of it when I see only the top surface of the sea from a boat or the shore. As we learned our basic exercises using hand signals, brightly coloured fish diverted their course to swim around us. Although during our dives we did not spot a much-hoped-for turtle, we certainly got our money's worth with manterays, royal angelfish, black and white lionfish, box fish (its body is really a square-ish shape), a moray eel and my favourite, the clown fish with orange and white stripes (Nemo!).

Back on the boat we consulted the sealife dictionary (complete with pictures) to put names to the faces we saw, as it were; the fish were entered under specific categories, two of such categories being being 'big eyes' and 'dotty backs'! So, on the way home we umm-ed and ahh-ed but seeing as we had already done a third of the course in the first day, we plummed for the Open Water PADI certification (a small nod to "improving ourselves" whilst travelling and not simply bumming about...)

Day two was pool exercises (mask off and on underwater; simulating an out-of-air situation and using our buddy's, e.t.c.) followed by an afternoon in the classroom (the beach bar, admittedly). Day three saw us back out at sea and down under lots of fish approached us and swam past as if we were just part of their world. The best way to describe it is like swimming in an enormous fish tank; at one point I looked around and Nick was in the midst of about 100 yellow barracuda fish - would've made a great picture! Just before the end we came up into a tall cave where the sound reverberated all around, and on the way back to the boat the sun shone in again like a huge torch and visibility was so good we could see other divers both above and below us. So there you go. We are certified PADI divers now. I wonder where we may dive next...?

Back on Lanta island, we checked out a few other beaches including Klong Dao and Phra Ae (Long Beach). The tuk-tuk was our main method of transport, a very inventive machine kind of like a motorbike with an oversized sidecar which fits about 6 locals (or 4 tourists!). Some have advertising on the side or inside benches and some are simply painted with very bright colours. My favourite was one with seats advertising Thai Airlines at first glance, but on second it read "Business Class" underneath - perhaps just recycling the real airline seats! Hiring our own tuk-tuk was on the cards, and Nick looked quite the man as he practised around the block. However, when John and I hopped on for the ride we veered unequivocally for a ditch, with me shouting "Stop! Stop!" Evidently the balance of the machine is quite different with passengers onboard, and for all our sakes we decided to give it a miss. Arrived and settled on Klong Dao via someone else's steam, the sea was beckoning. We had made it a habit to try and swim as far as the nearest stick in the water (before which point is too shallow for boats) but one day we spotted a buoy a respectable distance away. Not until we had made good progress towards it did we realise it was not a buoy but a man's head! Black hair and white face, keepign very still. Oops. Luckily he didn't move too much and we managed to complete the challenge, but he might have wondered why we swam chuckling around him and headed back whence we came. Onshore Nick made some footy friends and we checked out Ozone bar, where we saw in the New Year later on.

Partying like it's 2551

Renditions of Auld Lang Syne do not stretch as far as Thailand at New Year, so we sung our own (admittedly we hummed some (most) of it). Fireworks were set off left, right and centre, with not exactly the same regard for safety as back home. What was more beautiful than those were the rectangular lanterns that were lit on the beach and let go to float on the wind towards the horizon - many of them filled the sky that night, as they do during many Thai festivals. Speaking of New Year in Thailand, their calendar dictates that this year is not in fact 2008, but 2551: Year 1 was Lord Buddha's birth 543 years before Jesus Christ.

On New Year's Day it was so pleasant to have breakfast in the treehouse looking out at the sea and hear nothing but singing birds and the waves, and sometimes leaves
We have landed!We have landed!We have landed!

Touchdown on Railay West
rustling in the wind. Occasionally there was a big thud as a cocunut fell from a nearby tree, and we felt thankful we were not underneath. The kitchen was open so we could see the ins and out of our curries and pad thai noodles (sugar, chillies and peanuts on the side) as they were prepared. Peah was grating coconut one day fresh from the garden for coconut shakes and mussuman curries so we knew the food was fresh. Nick enjoyed his chicken burger so much that he had lessons to recreate its flavour at home.

Slightly reluctant to pack up after such a long stint in the same place, we realised there were more adventures in store and so we headed northwards by boat to Railay West beach. Here was more resort-style, and West Railay's beach is petite but the famous karsts jutting out of both water and land draw the punters, especially those into rock climbing. Our huts were a short trek up the hill on the east side but there was so much greenery around it felt a bit like staying in the jungle. I'm very glad it was Nick and not me who saw a toad one day peer out from a hole in the bathroom floor! Stone Bar down the path at the foot of one karst was a happening place, and coolest of all was looking up the whole height of the imposing rock and seeing the bright stars surrounding its peak, constrasting against the black sky. We ate at a traditional-style place where you sit on a wooden platform half a metre or so off the floor, on rattan mats and cushions. Phra Nang was our beach day, with a cave to one side and all day long shuttling passengers between beaches were traditional wooden boats, with adverts for banks and even Pizza Hut!

In Thailand a boat's stern is a sacred place according to Buddhist custom. The front is often decorated with coloured ribbons and we could not stand there. We treated ourselves to a tour around the islands of Phi-Phi, the most affected by the 2006 tsunami but well recovered now. On the speedboat we could sit near the front. It crashed up and down with amazing power, once it felt as if we left the water completely! It was bouncing on this boat trying to eat watermelon that our current profile picture was taken.

We took in:
Bamboo Island: White sands and clear blue water. The coral (which looked a bit like red cabbages!) was thriving in very shallow water and there were so many tropical fish (up to 7 or 8 inches) so near the shore.
Pileh Bay: Lagoon circuit, huge limestone cliffs.
Maya Bay: The beach used in The Beach film. Sand was powdery white, accompanied by amazingly clear blue and green waters. Stunning setting, as hemmed in by towering, craggy, green limestone cliffs, but offset by so many people and their respective cigarette butts, large bellies and plastic cups! Great snorkelling a little further out, where it was much quieter, like we were alone together. Saw parrot and trumpet fish and others so bright that they must have been heaven-inspired. Nick was pleased to see a fish do a poo.
Lunch on Phi-Phi island: Good buffet! Sun seared down as we walked on the beach afterwards, must have been touching 100 degrees.
Monkey Island: Coral just like underwater mushrooms and fish fed off them. Saw fish feeding from a spiky anemone, who waved its spikes, seemingly bristling with annoyance at this impudence! (Spikes are
Fruit time on a very fast speed boatFruit time on a very fast speed boatFruit time on a very fast speed boat

Day trip to Phi-Phi islands
normally kept still). Also saw a sea slug and 7" leopard fish complete with spots which camouflaged itself well - its front half was white and back half was black criss-crossed, like fishnet stockings and yellow legs! It was funny to have fish swim right up to our masks and when we kicked our legs to move on there was a surprised look on some of their faces before they swam away.

We departed after a couple of days, catching a long boat to Ao Nang just up the coast - the ticket office for which was simply a desk on the beach, and several plastic chairs lined up beside it constituted the waiting room! We had to remove our shoes and wade through shallow water to embark. Six forms of transport later (including a saengthaew (pronounced roughly as "songtail"), a very bright pink bus and a motorbike taxi) we had arrived in Khanom on Thailand's eastern coast. Not many people spoke English but we managed well enough: the bungalow we stayed in was lovely - it sat in a big garden and even had a sealed roof (a luxury we had been lacking of late) and the brilliant
Fave view of the tripFave view of the tripFave view of the trip

Samet Chun Waterfall, Khanom, Thailand
wide beach of Nai Plao we had almost to ourselves. Swaying palms and frangipani trees in bloom in the big garden gave an air of relaxation to the place.

The next day we hopped on bicycles to the Samet Chun Waterfall and saw perhaps the best view of our trip so far: with the waterfall behind us and butterlies fluttering around, an infinity pool in the foreground then a sea of palm trees backed by the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Thailand. And a gorgeous blue sky to boot. The path there took us past many large, well-kept bungalows with generously sized gardens - the families seemd neither rich nor poor but looked comfortable with their lot. As we passed, locals smiled, waved or simply stared. You could tell we were off the beaten track because almost all shop and road signs were in Thai script only. At one point we had to swerve to avoid a 12" lizard on the road. In the opposite direction we had a good workout on a very hilly cycle jaunt to Thongyee beach - on the way catching brilliant views of "our" beach (Nai Plao) from the high points: we could see a sharp drop from the light blue shallow waters near the shore and navy blue deeper area further out. We concluded Nai Plao was the superior beach so we headed back there to cool off with a sunset dip.

Our final breakfast there consisted of soft rolls with a red and green jelly-stuff inside - steamed custard filling was the nearest translation we found! We hung out beside the sea until our bus to Bangkok in the evening, which had a bunch of bananas displayed on the dashboard, not for the driver to munch on but to keep Buddha satisfied (so that he would protect us on our travels?) We pulled into Bangkok at 4 a.m., yet being a capital city, it was already (or still) awake. To reach our guest house we walked through the dredges of the infamous Khao San Road, passing 'ladies if the night' and hardcore farang('foreigners') supping beer. One cafe was so thriving it could have been the middle of the day.

The part of Bangkok where we stayed had a village-like atmosphere to it, which I loved. It was bonus that the food was good too: a cosy corner shop
Buddha statueBuddha statueBuddha statue

Nong Khai, Thailand
called Tuk Restaurant drew us in and the taste of my Hawaiian sandwich warmed me as much as the smiles of the owner. I am not surprised he has made a name for himself, illustrated by a phrase written on the front of the menu: "Wrote in some guide book". The street food stalls also served up a Thai noodle and curry treats at equally tasty prices.

Nearly in Laos, we headed north from Bangkok to the border town of Nong Khai, although the bus was terminating across the border and almost forgot (well it did, really) to drop us off beforehand. Dozing on the bus around 5a.m., Nick had a dream...that we were already at the border and the driver had forgotten to drop us in Nong Khai. In his dream, Nick awoke and, because the bus was stopped awaiting the border gate to open, went to find the driver and make him pay for a tuk-tuk to our guest house.

Next thing we knew we were both REALLY awake, we WERE in the bus at the border and the driver HAD forgotten us! Nick jumped up and tried to locate said driver and after searching around
Remains of Buddhist stupaRemains of Buddhist stupaRemains of Buddhist stupa

Seen from Nong Khai, border town between Thailand and Laos.
a couple of lanes (in the dark) where family-run shops were beginning to cook the day's wares, found him asleep in the driver's cabin. A tuk-tuk driver appeared, Nick bartered for a fair price (half the original), we grabbed our stuff and hopped on the tuk-tuk to our guest house to arrive still 2 hours before reception opened. To be fair, a lady did give us a cup of tea so that was alright. And although not planned, we saw the sunrise across the river where on the opposite bank was Laos.

I didn't have a high expectation of a border town, but Nong Khai was great place to pass a day. We cycled through the bustling market (nearly all markets can be described as 'bustling', don't you think?) and along the riverside. In the middle of the river was a small chedi (store place for relics) from a Buddhist temple that used to be on the bank but slipped into the river; the chedi is the only part left and can only be seen in the dry season when the water level drops. If it moves much further it will be in the Laos half of the river! The state of the bicycles we hired left a lot to be desired, but it was either them or walking, so we made do. Sure enough before long Nick's wheel stopped turning so we dragged it to what looked like the nearest mechanic. The car mechanic was very willing to help and stopped working on a motor to see what he could do. The owner of the car turned up shortly afterwards (a chilled-looking DJ with long hair and sunglasses) and despite his radio show starting in half an hour's time, he was more interested in chatting to Nick about Liverpool FC and such! We hope his car was fixed in time for his show. There is a great saying by the English writer John Boynton Priestly: "A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours", if this is the case then Thailand must be one of the best places on earth to take one!

We passed right through a school playground (those were the directions!) and then a temple to reach the Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park containing Hindu and Buddhist imagery, all made from concrete. The story goes that its creator, a
Sculpture ParkSculpture ParkSculpture Park

Nong Khai, Thailand
Laoation artist named Boun Leua Souriat, went hiking in the mountains and fell into a hole and into the lap of a hermit, who taught him about Buddha and the undeworld for several years. The highest sculpture towers 25m into the sky but there are many equally imposing works of art including a naga (snake heads surrounding a Buddha statue) with long curling tongues. The biggest piece is The Circle of Life which showed different stages of life, death and reincarnation including figures of souls waiting to be born at the entrance to the circular enclosure.

A few wats around town were interesting enough: one was small but intricate with statues of Buddha in various forms; here more senior monks sporting tattooes kept the place looking spotless with their brooms. In the main wat of the town there was a (comfy) red carpet with paintings on the walls of how Buddha wishes people to behave in modern life, below more traditional scenes. On the outside walls the late afternoon sun sparkled on numerous mirrored tiles, which we learned are there to reflect bad spirits away.

You may not expect this but our tour was rounded off with a
Koh Ha in the distanceKoh Ha in the distanceKoh Ha in the distance

- where we learned to dive!
curious look around the local Tesco superstore(!). What was most surprising is how similar it was to home - even the font and colour scheme of the price tags was the same, and Pringles were on offer!!


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