...and a dash of SE Asia

May 1st 2005
Published: May 18th 2005
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View of Kho Phi Phi LehView of Kho Phi Phi LehView of Kho Phi Phi Leh

From our beach house on Koh Phi Phi Don
Heaven on earth with cherries on top is what it felt like arriving in Singapore having just spent 3ish months touring the sites in India. Spotlessly clean streets lined with enormous shopping plazas selling all manner of designer & high street goods at amazingly cheap prices. OK, cheap compared to UK standards. Nonetheless, I reasoned with Bob that for entirely 'practical' reasons our budget should stretch to a couple of choice clothing items. Having seen our last temple for some time, the time was right to re-indulge my vest-top fetish and get rid of a well worn kota while Bob, in true boy fashion, found himself immersed in Sim Lim Square, SE Asia's premier electronics plaza.

Singapore is designed for hassle-free shopping with the city linked by a state of the art metro system. Eateries are everywhere, our favourite spot being sat amongst the hawker stalls on 'food street' in China town, immersed in a banquet of dim sum and other not so easily describable goodies. We were fortunate to have arrived at the end of Chinese new year, the spectacle of dancing dragons and elaborately decorated streets made our visit all the more enjoyable.

Timing more by luck than judgement we arrived in the last few days of an exhibition by world-renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero. With 70 paintings displayed in the Singapore Arts Museum and monumental sculptures placed at strategic points around the city, his works were difficult to avoid. If the truth be known, neither of us were completely convinced by his 'whimsical renditions of human and animal forms'.

So with the trappings of consumerism, a comparatively luxurious hotel complete with all the mod cons and, critically, a minor bout of food poisoning we felt the need to extend our stay in Singapore to nearly a week.

Our luggage stripped down to a minimum (the hotel assured me that although unusual they were happy to hold on to my rucksack until our return in three months time) and both feeling healthy it was time to get back on the road. No matter how much we've enjoyed a place there's nothing more exciting than setting off again not quite knowing what's in store.

The border crossing into Malaysia is as easy as they come but we were then faced with a 7 hour wait at Johor Bharu bus station for our overnight bus to
Lying BudhaLying BudhaLying Budha

Stop off for site seeing on journey to Kota Bharu
Kota Bharu. Actually quite fun, we browsed around the colourful market with all manner of unfamiliar fruit and veg on show, sampled some delicious Malay cuisine and even managed to purchase some bargain designer flip flops - a travel essential.

As the early morning mist was clearing, the cab we had shared with a local guy we met on the bus, arrived at the quiet village port of Kuala Besut - the transit link town for the island destination we had been dreaming of for at least three weeks, the Perhentians. Having taken on board roti canai (traditional Malay breakfast of fluffy pastry and curry sauce) we boarded a small 6 seater speed boat to take us to the islands. After the intensity of India and intense consumerism of Singapore it was wonderful to be speeding out to sea in the early hours flanked by beautiful islands, an unforgettable experience.

The Perhentian Islands truly are beautiful - crystal clear waters, swathes of powdery white sand lined with unassuming beach huts and the vivid green backdrop of a monsoon rainforest. We found a great 'bungy' on a rocky outcrop on Coral Beach, the quietest beach on Kecil (small) island,
Sitting BudhaSitting BudhaSitting Budha

Near Kota Bharu
accessed only by boat or a short trek across the island's interior. Keen to make the most of world class diving at great prices we were disappointed to see the weather close in, unfortunately the monsoon was continuing longer than expected leading to choppy waters, reduced visibility and dangerous diving conditions. Furthermore, on arrival, Bob had picked up a stomach bug, unable to shake it off after having chilled for 6 days we decided to continue our journey and venture to the mainland to seek medical expertise.

After a lengthy sight-seeing taxi ride with a couple of other travellers and with Bob still ill the prospect of another 8 hour bus journey (this time across the peninsula to Pulau Penang) was too much so we decided to spend a night in Kota Bahru. Not a bad call really, this town is normally used as a transport hub but has a lot more to offer with a fantastic market and several museums.

"Amoebic Dysentery, probably picked up in India" was Dr Chong's verdict, appropriate medication and a spot of r and r was the solution. In retrospect if four courses of multi-spectrum antibiotics and some 'heal all' tablets from a retired Swiss vet hadn't worked, it had to have been a little more serious than travellers diarrhoea. Come to mention it, the vet did say that if his medication didn't have the required effect he would normally recommend his patients be put down.

So Pulau Penang was to be home for the next 10 days. The island sits off the west coast and is the largest in Malaysia, approached via ferry or an impressive 8 km long bridge, first impressions are something akin to the French Riviera. Georgetown, the capital, bares little resemblance to this, a cultural melting pot with architecture reflecting a strong Dutch/British colonial past. These impressive old buildings sit side by side ornate wats, temples, traditional wooden Malay homes and modern high tech businesses. The centre is divided into large and distinct Chinese, Indian and Malay quarters. With Penang on the western tourists radar as well, the variety of cuisine on offer is quite overwhelming. The town is described as a 'foodies paradise' in all the literature, something which can't be disputed.

We elected to take in the islands sites by motorbike. Incidentally, the more we have travelled by bike, the more we've enjoyed it; a great way to explore farther reaching areas and get to meet the locals. Penang National Park is a wildlife sanctuary surrounded by beautiful coves and bays and a great place to admire the floating fishing village - set on stilts in open water and accessed only by boat. We stumbled across a hidden away fishing village in the South West corner of the island and were treated to a most amazing seafood meal, the owner told us that he had never had foreign tourists visit, although the English translations on the menu and his suggestion that we set up a franchise begged to differ. A visit to the Cobra Temple was an interesting diversion, although I respectfully declined the offer to hold one.

Bob fully recovered, it was time to enter Thailand. Having been shown photographs of the effects of the tsunami on Penang, which were minimal, we were intrigued by what we'd see on other west coast islands. The tsunami has led to a massive downturn in tourism which is a major sector in the Thai economy. With the economy and people's livelihoods at stake, there is a huge drive to encourage visitors back.

Cobra Temple, PenangCobra Temple, PenangCobra Temple, Penang

Warding off undesirables
minibus took us across the border into Thailand and on to Krabi. A tourist hub geared to western holiday makers, but also a pleasant place to relax for a day before continuing on to the islands by boat. Krabi's main port is worthy of note, bearing more resemblance to high-tech airport than a quaint jetty in a fishing village, which is what it obviously once was.

A couple of hours later and we were pulling up to the pier at Kho Phi Phi town. A jewel of an island as all the guidebooks say. Beautiful, lush green mountains rising from an aquamarine sea teeming with fish, but also the site of severe destruction and devastation from the tsunami. Palm trees combed over by the sheer force of water, palm fronds washed up all over the beach. Restaurants, guesthouses and shops on the sea front either lost completely or just shells of what they had once been. The scene from a war zone. Wondering through the devastation was one of the strangest experiences I've had, Phi Phi town was obviously once a Disneyland of up-market holiday chalets interrupted only by mini supermarkets, local excursion operators and beauty parlours. A kind
Local delicacies, PenangLocal delicacies, PenangLocal delicacies, Penang

We couldn't finish all five though
of self contained holiday park set within a picture perfect paradise.

As we wondered through the streets we were immediately hit by the proliferation of foreign relief effort volunteers filling up what was left of local bars.

The islanders and relief organisations had been encouraging tourists and volunteers alike to return to the islands as both bring much needed business and money. We sensed an overriding feeling of frustration among the volunteers that some attributed to confusion and a lack of organisation both from the relief groups and the government. Still they were happy to help, just as we and the many other tourists were happy to bring the much needed business in.

We had teamed up with three other travellers on the boat over and, on recommendation from a fellow traveller, we took a longtail boat to Paradise Beach at the southern end of Kho Phi Phi Don. On two occasions the five of us hired a boat and headed to the neighbouring island of Kho Phi Phi Leh to immerse ourselves in the most breathtakingly stunning aquamarine lagoons and deserted bays I have ever seen, including 'The Beach' beach. Had the tsunami not happened these areas would have been crammed full of private yachts and tourists, in fact we were completely alone in some places. "As quiet as Phi Phi used to be 15 years ago" our longtail driver told us, just after he'd come snorkelling with us and just before he proudly showed us pictures of his wife who'd been killed in the tsunami not three months before.

We spoke to many people who had been caught in the tragedy. Stories of bodies being dragged blackened and bloated from the water for weeks afterwards. Ironically though, as awful as the human loss is, I can't help feeling that perhaps the tsunami has given Phi Phi another chance to develop in a way which works with, as opposed to against, its national park status.

We waved goodbye to one of our friends and, now a group of four, ventured further south by boat to the lesser known Kho Jum, another beautiful island in the Andaman sea. Although no human casualties this time, numerous single flip flops, toys and other personal debris washed up on the beach were ominous reminders of how lucky this island's people were to escape relatively unscathed. A trip by motorbike and sidecar down a jungle track took us to our guesthouse, a series of simple wooden shacks on a pretty deserted beach. Idyllic, although no electricity on the island meant no fans to cool us down at night, reading by gas lamp isn't that easy so we prepared ourselves for a few early nights.

"There's been another earthquake, get up, get to higher ground" (or words to that effect) was what woke us up at 2am on the second night. Torchlights flickering outside, I went into panic mode and nearly forgot to dress before joining the other twelve or so people making their way into the jungle and up a nearby hill. Bob on the otherhand, in typical style, preceded to leisurely pack "essential items" and saunter up at the rear of the group - obviously the more highly strung of the two of us.

After we were safely camped on higher ground and each had identified a palm tree to cling to should the worst ensue, there followed quite a sense of camaraderie. A fire was lit to ward off snakes, a guy who'd obviously been indulging in local herbs and beer insisted on venturing back down for a crate of water - in retrospect beer would probably have been better - and we sat on our hill ruminating about our fate before being given the all clear a few hours later. A couple of people staying in our guesthouse had mobile phones, receiving the alarm calls from their friends on Phuket and now giving us the all clear.

Strangely, by morning it was almost as if nothing had happened, bar the fact that unfamiliar faces had now become familiar ones. No electricity meant no communication with the outside world so we were left not really knowing what had happened.

Natural disastered out, we felt it was time to head north, so a few days later we caught the boat back to Krabi where we were herded onto a foreigners-only bus with a variety of trainee dreadlocks to commence the highly organised human-cattle trip to Bangkok.

Khao San Road, Bangkok; an assault on the senses at whatever time you arrive, 6.30am was no exception. During the space of half an hour we saw 2 Thai and 1 western guy dressed as cowboys fall out of a night-club and be separated from brawling in the street. A medic checking the pulse of a body laying in the road. Numerous prostitutes sauntering past fully dolled up, yes at that hour in the morning. A couple of guys babbling uncontrollably and unnaturally at passers by. Street sellers setting their stalls up for the day, and cleaners, dealing with what can only be described as Khao San Road fall out from the night before. We approached a cab driver, contentedly polishing his cab, blissfully immune to the mayhem happening all around, to take us to Bangkok's northern bus terminal.

Next stop Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. A pretty much continuous trip stopping only for a light lunch of crushed fish bones with chilli and rice - nice. Chiang Mai is a pleasant looking town surrounded by moats. We found a suitable guesthouse in Moon Muang Road, an ideal location from which to explore the town but set within a street of back to back girlie bars. A couple of days were spent wandering around the old town looking at a very small proportion of the 300+ temples, browsing the sprawling Sunday market and night bazaar and enjoying the cooler climate of this cultural city - all in anticipation of meeting up with our first visitors.

Bob's sister Jane and her friend Angela then made us a group of four as well as, it seems, dependent on alcohol. The next day, with heavy heads, we arranged to meet up with Bob and Jane's uncle Chris who, having emigrated to Thailand, is now running a homestay with his wife Ta about 45km west of Chiang Mai. We were immediately taken aback by the homestay's design. The main house is divided into separate buildings for kitchen, lounge and bedroom linked by beautiful wooden walkways trailing with indigenous plants. This, together with 5 guest chalets built in typical Thai style are set on a hillside with sweeping views of open countryside, complete with fishing lake at the bottom. And then it hit us - overwhelming and immediate relaxation.

Since the business had only recently opened, and despite the family connection, Chris and Ta were keen to offer us the full service to see what we thought. Talk about 5 star treatment. On our first night we were treated to a private show of traditional music and dance by children from the neighbouring Muong hill tribe. Ta is a superb cook and we found ourselves gorging on banquets of traditional Thai food. Eager to learn I've now acquired a repertoire of Thai recipes but with New Zealand and the Americas trip looming it looks like I won't be practising my new found culinary skills for some time.

They also insisted on taking us around the local sites. From the magnificent vantage point of Wat Phra That Doi Sutep we admired uninterrupted views of Chang Mai city. The local hot springs are set within beautiful gardens with a mountain backdrop - an afternoon spent bathing in the warm waters followed by cooking partridge eggs in woven baskets in the boiling pools was a great way to while away a few hours.

With waists expanded and an enjoyable time had by all we reluctantly said our goodbyes to Ta and Chris (leaving them with the threat that we will be back!) and set off for our next adventure - an overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. Wow. Having experienced overnight sleeper trains in India, this felt like the Orient Express. Some chap actually came round with fresh linen and pillows and made the beds up for us.

Fully refreshed we rendezvoused with the girls as planned in Bangkok, Anita, another of Jane's friends had arrived so we were now five and we boarded another tourist bus to our chosen destination; Kho Chang. Advice; anyone intending to travel by bus in Thailand should take a fleece and preferably thermals with them. It may be a scorching 35 degrees outside but chances are the a/c will be set to cold meat storage temperature. A lunch stop en-route allowed us precious time to thaw out and sample some local fare before bracing ourselves for the next icy stint.

Kho Chang's a great place to hook up with fellow travellers for party nights out at the many bars and restaurants, something we duly took advantage of. Although great fun, like so many of the Thai islands, Kho Chang is well on the tourist trail and, as a result, the idyllic wooden bungalows set on deserted stretches of beach that we all dream about are difficult to find. They do still exist, but you need to travel further a field to find them.

Fortunately (or not) we arrived for Songkhran the water festival that accompanies the Buddhist New Year celebrations in mid April each year. The Buddhist calendar is 544 years ahead of ours making the new year 2549, filling in dates on guesthouse registration forms is quite strange. For three days people line the streets with the sole objective of dousing passers-by with water and flower. Fed up with being the recipients, us girls piled in the back of a hired pick-up, Bob at the helm, and launched a counter attack. Needlesstosay we ended up worse off, an experience nonetheless.

During a trip into Kho Chang's interior myself and Angela found ourselves atop a couple of elephants for a jaunt into the jungle. Great fun, although I must admit feeling quite apprehensive when my elephant trumpeted alarmingly and had to be restrained from bolting at the site of a near-by dog.

We had a fantastic time with the girls but all too soon it was time to say our goodbyes as they had to return home and we had to push on. Thailand was great fun but we were looking forward to venturing into Cambodia. Less developed, a more primitive infrastructure and the promise of more adventure.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Caught off guardCaught off guard
Caught off guard

Taken seconds after Bob took an ear flapping to the back the head
Party timeParty time
Party time

Fire dancers on the beach, Kho Phi Phi Don
Our crew, Kho Phi Phi DonOur crew, Kho Phi Phi Don
Our crew, Kho Phi Phi Don

Touring the beautiful bays and lagoons for places to snorkel

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