13.03.2014 - 10.04.2014 34 °C
We’ve been quiet on the blog front since leaving Myanmar, but in the meantime we’ve had Rachel’s parents visit us on a two week holiday, have both celebrated our birthdays, become advanced SCUBA divers and begun to plan the next stage of our travels, so you’ll appreciate we’ve been pretty busy!
First off after Yangon it was back to Bangkok to meet Julie and Martin where we acted as tour guides for a couple of days. We visited the main temples and led a sort of walking tour that we devised ourselves on our previous visits to BKK that took us around some interesting and photogenic local streets and the narrow back-alleys of Chinatown. The four of us also met up with Jacki & Lou, our new friends from the Myanmar trip who happened to be passing through BKK the same time, for a night out around the backpacker quarter of Banglampoo. This was a hilarious night that involved Julie and Martin drinking buckets of cocktails (they thought they had only ordered glasses, but when buckets arrived, they drank them anyway - us four ladies were much more civilized and had wine) and ended in the 6 of us racing in two tuk-tuks through the streets of BKK back to J&M’s hotel. These parents are such a bad influence!
The itinerary (plus accommodation) for the next couple of weeks had all been managed by R’s mum, which gave us a nice break from researching and planning where to go and how to get there for a while. We also got put up in fancy hotel rooms as our combined Christmas and birthday presents, which meant it was truly a holiday from the backpacking for us…
Our next stop was Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. We all found the city to be less interesting than we’d imagined (expecting more of an old town look and feel than it actually has) but we had a great time anyway as we were staying in the plush Shangri-La, enjoying the gym, pool and free bar and snacks at ‘happy hour’ every evening. We did partake in some of the activities the region is known for, including a river boat trip and a half-day elephant camp visit. The elephants have all been rescued from private owners or the illegal logging industry, since they cannot be re-introduced to the wild, they are taken in by rescue homes and cared for with the help of tourists who pay to visit them and ride them (bareback only) and help them cool down by bathing them in the river. Well we had never before had a bath with elephants so this was definitely an amazing new experience for us. Julie was not so keen in having a bath in a murky river with several elephants but was useful in taking photos of the rest of us from the river bank!
Next stop was the lovely island of Koh Samui where we stayed in a rather pleasant, eco-friendly resort, Tongsai Bay, rather more luxurious surroundings than we had been used to, with nature all around and a bedroom larger than our house (you could hold a ball in the bathroom alone) and even a novel bathtub on the terrace. The resort had its own little beach from where we made use of the free kayaks for explore the surrounding headlands and nearby bays.
One day we also hired a car for to explore the island, we called it Martin’s Pimp Mobile as it was a bit of a boy racer motor, complete with Go Faster stripes! We stopped off at various view points, swam at a couple of beaches, visited a place with rocks shaped like male and female genitalia named Grandmother and Grandfather rock (?) plus a temple with a mummified monk (this monk had died some 50 years ago and his family noticed that his body was not decomposing so they decided to put him in a glass case, sitting cross legged in his orange robes with black RayBans on his head). This was very strange - a varied day out you could say.
On a different day we took a speed boat to Angthong National Marine Park (a group of 42, mostly uninhabited islands 30km west of Samui) where we stopped off for snorkelling (this was fun with loads of colourful fish, coral, urchins and the like to see. We visited an island with some small but beautiful beaches and kayaked around a little followed by lovely lunch on the beach with amazing views out to smaller islands of the archipelago. Later we visited a blue lagoon which like something out of a Bond movie where the baddie at any moment would appear from the lagoon in spectacular fashion). A very good day out!
The rest of our 8 days on Samui were spent, sunbathing, reading, occasionally visiting the local village and its public beach and obviously sampling the local beers and cocktails. Rachel, Julie and Martin took part in a cookery class with the resort’s senior chef, Tess not being a fan of cooking opted out but managed to always appear when there were courses to be sampled! The week ended with celebrating Rachel’s birthday; this day started with a lovely breakfast where the staff brought R a chocolate cake, candles and all, and a bottle of fizzy wine. After breakfast we went to the local main beach where Tess, Rach and Martin hired jetskis and went zooming around the bays – super fun! (Julie was happy to be photographer). Birthday evening was spent at a restaurant called Dr Frogs; now anyone who know R will also know that she loves frogs so where else to spend her birthday than a place called Dr Frogs, the food was lovely too. A grand day in all!
After the 8 days on Samui it was time to say a sad bye bye to J&M, who were off back to Heathrow via Bangkok and a sad goodbye to the luxury we had enjoyed as for us it was off to the island of Koh Tao, a 2.5 hour boat ride from Samui. Koh Tao is a small forested island with one main village and beach (Sai Ree) and lots of secluded rocky coves. Our main reason for choosing to come here was to learn to Scuba dive – we’d heard from fellow travellers that it was one of the best, and cheapest, places to learn in Thailand, probably the cheapest in the world to do qualifications but also one of the finest places given its abundance of great dive sites. We booked in at Big Blue Diving School and were shown to a 6 bed dorm, which was free if you were diving and so was going to be our home for the next week. Even though we’d just been staying in top notch resorts, this dorm suited us just fine as it was a great place to meet people.
So off we went to learn to Scuba. The Open Water course learning started in the classroom (boring but necessary theory and videos) followed by how to assemble and use the kit, including our air tanks and regulators, buoyancy compensator (BC), weight belt etc. Next it was into a 2m pool to have a go at breathing underwater, learn how to find neutral buoyancy by adjusting the BC and breathing just right, we also learned to cope with mis-haps underwater such as your mask falling off or filling with water or emergencies such as running out of air. All weird things to be doing underwater, but we had fun in our group of 6.
On day 2, after the small matter of passing our exam, it was off to do it for real. A 12m dive at a site with not much to see, while we practised skills underwater to prove we had listened to all the stuff in the pool. All good. On our second dive of the day though, Tess found it extremely hard to equalise her ears (the popping you do on a plane or when subject to pressure changes) and had a lot of pain, eventually she needed to surface early with blood and snot pouring out of her nose and mouth. Not good. Added to the feeling of being almost deaf, this was a bit scary. It was decided that Tess would take a couple of days to recover her sinuses and complete the Open Water course a little later than the rest of the group.
In the meantime R went on to complete the course, keeping quiet to Tess for now about how much better the dive sites were once you got past the 1st day… She signed up immediately to do the advanced course also (4 from our original group of 6 stayed on to do it together with the same instructors Kris and Rich as we made a great gang). After 2 days, T had recovered fully and had learned how to equalise her ears with some tips from diver friends back home and managed to complete the Open Water qualification with no problems at all. She was even fortunate enough to have one to one instruction for her final two dives with Rich who proved to be really good and patient and Tess came back so enthused and confident that she decided there and then to carry on to complete the Advanced Course which R had just done. This involves deep diving to 30m, diving at night and other speciality ‘adventure dives’ such as around a wreck; Rach did some of these dives with Tess as ‘fun dives’ so we did get to do some of the exciting diving together in the end.
The diving proved to be an amazing whole new experience for both of us – it’s like another world down there and so much fun feeling weightless. We saw all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures including pufferfish (Rachel’s favourite because of its cute face), blue spotted sting rays, trigger fish, angel fish, parrot fish, long finned banner fish, many barracuda and even a sleeping turtle on the night-dive! So after a week we were both fully qualified, confident Advanced Open Water Divers able to dive up to 30m anywhere in the world! Hooray! To celebrate, we enjoyed some of Koh Tao’s very lively nightlife and had a most excellent time… Now that we are qualified, we are planning further dives in The Philippines and Indonesia before we come home, so watch this space.
We finally left the beautiful (but also party!) island of Koh Tao, very happy though with a lighter bank balance (we had set aside budget especially for SCUBA though so it’s all ok). We had one final trip through Bangkok which was due to get us to BKK around 5 or 6 am, so we were surprised to be woken at 0230 having arrived already. That left way too many hours to hang around the city before making our way for our flight to Chiang Rai (yes we cheated and booked a flight, we didn’t fancy another overnight bus journey and used the next day being T’s birthday as an excuse), so we got a bed in our favourite ‘chinese laundry’ guest house, for the final time.
Rach had found a good deal on a posh hotel in Chiang Rai for T’s birthday treat so we enjoyed a couple more days in plush surroundings in a nice place by the river with pool, gym and a bar, of course. T’s birthday was spent lazing around, cocktails by the pool and a lovely dinner to finish. All very acceptable! We spent the rest of our time in the town visiting the night markets and the amazing White Temple just out of town, which really stood out from the hundreds of temples that we’ve seen already, it’s creepy depictions of Buddhist hell outside and murals inside including images of Superman, Darth Vader, Angry Birds, Harry Potter and more were a surprise indeed. We liked Chiang Rai – it had a much more Thai feel to it, not so many people spoke English and local dishes were to be tried everywhere. A fitting end to our time in Thailand as from here, it’s only a few hours to the border of Laos, where we will be taking the infamous slow-boat down the Mekong and celebrating Songkran (New Year in these parts.