Sunday, 11 September 2011

Chiang Mai to Ao Nang

Mae Head Beach, Koh Tao

We took the sleeper train to Chiang Mai. As far as sleeper trains go (and I'm becoming quite the connoisseur of overnight Asian transport) this was pretty comfortable, with slightly more  privacy than average, afforded by a flimsy curtain across each booth that also doubled up as a wind breaker for the gale-force aircon vent at the top of the cabin. They must think that all westerners live in Arctic conditions and have the constitution of a Geordie pub-goer.

Chaing Mai is a charming little city, overflowing with culture (read: more temples) in the mountains of northern Thailand. I was promised cooler temperatures and lower humidity. In return I promised Laura that rain in the wet season is just a heavy downpour lasting 30mins, then followed by bright sunshine. Neither were correct. We took shelter from the rain in a cocktail bar/ massage house and had the strongest pina coladas ever created.

Chiang Mai is famous for its walking markets streets. On weekend evenings  the locals pedestrianise a street, setting up stalls and displays to sell their crafts. There's music, dancing, and the ubiquitous hawker selling percussive wooden frogs (my irritation with this particular piece of tourist tat knows no bounds - they're peddled in every country I've visited so far), all set against the backdrop of illuminated temples. The markets are supposed to have different themes for each day but the only thing that changed between Saturday and Sunday was the location.

Walking around these markets you appreciate how food and transport are ingeniously interwoven: vehicles are only limited by the owner's welding skills. In Bangkok we passed a VW campervan-cum-backlit-bar and saw several motorbikes with icecream-vending / rotissery-chicken sidecars throughout Thailand, Chaing Mai included. Think of any specialist equipment you need in order to sell something and I can guarantee there'll be a customised vehicle for it.

We enrolled in a Thai cookery course, which was great fun, although there wasn't much opportunity to go off-piste, as we were under the watchful eye of the professional cooks at all times. However, that did ensure my output was almost edible. I'm now the self-proclaimed king of spring rolls and will be accepting challenges after xmas.

Dusk, Koh Samui
Three nights in Chiang Mai was definitely enough to see the sights. Neither of us fancied trekking  (any company with "Endurance" in their name should be avoided entirely) so we hopped on a flight to Koh Samui. We just had one night there then a morning ferry to nearby Koh Tao for a week of diving. I decided to have a bit of luxury around my birthday and we checked into a great hotel right on the beach. If you're not diving then Koh Tao would be pretty dull. The beaches aren't mind-blowing, not by Thai standards anyway, and even the dive sites aren't too special, but it's become a bit of a PADI course Mecca and this competition has driven down prices. Diving in the day and gorgeous seafood restaurants and cheap beers in the evening... it doesn't get much better than this.

Me and yellow tail barracuda
Unfortunately we had to leave Koh Tao, otherwise I would have been looking for a mortgage on a beach bungalow, so we hopped onto a boat then bus to Krabi. In over 2 months this was first time I had been on Asian transport that wasn't completely full, though we did make a totally unneccessary stop at the bus company office (essentially a restaurant with some timetables on the walls) to watch "Jackass - The Movie". Our hotel was a throwback to somewhere in the 1970s - I'm guessing here because I don't think the room had a coherent theme in spacetime. I'm assuming the room was designed to look like a log cabin but aside from the wooden walls, the only wall decorations were a set of four ducks in flight (2 missing beaks) and a poster warning of a 300 baht fine for "blood- or chocolate- stained sheets" - quite a specific message that makes me wonder what horrors they once found in here.  We only had one night here before heading to Koh Lanta so, wanting to get out of our 1970s chalet, we took a wander into town and ended up playing Jenga in a rooftop bar in the glitziest hostel I've ever seen (gosh, we're such party animals!).

Phra Nang Lanta, Koh Lanta
The following morning we packed up and headed for Koh Lanta for some proper beach time. During our journey the bus driver stopped at several places to deliver parcels and pick-up/drop-off random people for cash in hand. I convinced myself that the money received for the packages wasn't enough for it to be hard drugs. Once on the island we headed to the quieter southern beaches and found the best hotel I've had so far on this trip. Adobe style rooms opened up directly onto the beach (complete with hammock) and we actually had the whole place to ourselves. The staff were visibly disappointed that we chose not to eat at the hotel restaurant that night.

The next day we whiled away the hours on the beach before taking a 30min taxi to the other side of the island for a recommended restaurant. I convinced the hotel reception that we wouldn't need a return cab, we could get one over there. After all, there were a few restaurants in that area and it should be fairly lively.  We rocked up and there was nothing, not even streetlights. Everywhere looked closed. Bemused locals stared as we arrived in the pickup. Our restaurant looked to be the place open, so I was practically on my knees begging the driver to come pick us in 2 hours. The waiter/owner was over the moon to see paying customers. After saying they we can have anything we like from the menu (always a good sign, though do I really want seafood from a place with no customers?) he showed us to our table and bounded away like Andrew Sachs on PCP. We were sat on someone's unfinished patio, on stilts above a mosquito-infested swamp, the restaurant layout as intuitive as a level of Zelda. We shared the restaurant with one other couple about half a mile away over the other side. But it was hilarious and the food was terrific. The tide came just in before we finished our meal and we had a final gin and tonic listening to the waves lap against the stilts.

Island near Koh Phi Phi
We said goodbye to Koh Lanta and took the bus to Ao Nang, back on the mainland. I arranged some diving for Ao Nang islands as the wildlife here is much better than in Koh Tao, and it didn't disappoint. I woke up the next day feeling a bit ill and with tingling fingers in my right hand. Surely it can't be decompression sickness; not from a couple of 18m dives with safety stops; the dive computer never beeped a warning on ascent; what's life going to be like without fingers?... Turns out I just ate too much the previous evening then somehow managed to punch the headboard in my sleep.... at least I think that's what happened.

Laura and I spent our last day kayaking in Bothor to see some old caves paintings. After Laura headed to Bangkok I decided to grab a few more fun dives off Koh Phi Phi (not totally convinced about my headboard-punching story, getting back underwater can't do me any harm) and went looking for reef sharks. Unfortunately not a single one in sight but managed to get my first turtle. Still impressive, but I'm hoping that Fiji delivers the goods next month.

No comments:

Post a Comment