5 February – Ko Lanta

We needed a room for the next few days, so again we were playing Mary and Joseph, it was becoming increasingly dull and frustrating. We got a tuk tuk driver, with a black eye and various scars, who was very willing to take us from door to door at each place asking for a room. However either the price was extortionate or the one bungalow that was in budget was a dump, still we kept on trying and in the end we did find somewhere, not beach side, but clean, compact and run by a lovely lass. She also explained why our guy was so keen to make sure we had somewhere to stay as they get 200 Baht (£4.20) as commission, per night of our stay. So we said we were only staying one night. That is on top of the price we negotiated for the ride, so he had made a nice 500Baht out of us.
Now we had a room for the next few nights we had to see what the beach was like……this is what it was like…..

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We also had a mini fridge, that desperately needed filling so we went off to 7/11 to get supplies, ok, mainly beer! And on the way we passed a woman with a BBQ chicken and papaya salad stall, handily she also sold beer! It was delicious, the papaya salad was sour from the lime, sweet from the sugar and fishy from the dried shrimp and fish sauce and just one birds eye chilli made you sweat a little…..

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We saw a few happy hour signs up for sunset, so thought it would be rude not to indulge ourselves……just a few times, it was blissful watching the sun go down, with a slight breeze and a very chilled Chang beer.

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Loads of restaurants had BBQs set up on the beach,and maybe we had had one too many happy hour beers, but we stupidly decided to go for this, as it is all done by weight, he actually weighed out 2 prawns,they were 200 Baht, yes, £4.20 for two slightly large prawns, undeterred by this ridiculous pricing we also ordered chicken, squid and 2 corn on the cob, along with a beer or 2 this meal cost us £20, a whole days budget! We sobered up pretty quick and had a lovely walk back along the beach, seeing all the restaurants lit up and people lighting Chinese lanterns and seeing them float away into the night sky.

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4 Feb – Georgetown, Malaysia to Ko Lanta, Thailand

Up at 7am for our 8.30 bus to Ko Lanta. The company had told us to be in reception at 8am so we grabbed curry and roti for breakfast and checked out. At 8.30 we asked the receptionist to call the number on the bus ticket which she kindly did after charging us. The person on the line said not to worry it was on its way. We had been in this situation before and knew that the buses tour around the hotels picking up passengers and concluded that we were probably the last pickup. We waited and watched Mrs Overall slowly fulfill her duties. At 9.45 the bus arrived. It was empty. We were the first pickup. Thankfully we only had to pick up two Paraguayans and we left. The driver spent no time trying to make up for his lie in and we hurtled towards the Thai border. We changed buses in Hat Yai and again in a car park somewhere for the final leg to our island paradise. We also had two short ferries and we chatted excitedly to our fellow passengers. An Italian couple and an elderly German bloke with a beautiful Thai girl.

The beautiful slim Thai girl in the figure hugging grey dress is and or was a man. I guess its where you drawn the line or where the surgeon draws the knife.

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We were dropped off at the backpacker zone and just like our friends from Nazareth were turned away from many many inns. The sun had dropped and after a slight foot stompy tantrum (me), we got the last room at Dreamy Casa run by a very helpful Italian guy who recommended a restaurant for tea. We headed straight there and shared a seafood green curry and a Tom Ga which was one of the best things we’ve eaten. Sweet and sour coconut fragrant soup. Bloody delicious! We had a beer in a bar far cooler than either of us run by a rasta whose dreads reached his calves and turned in.

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31 Jan – train then ferry to Georgetown

Woke up a couple of times in the night as the train lurched around on the tracks but overall slept very well in the berth. Watched the Thai countryside roll by and felt great. It was only a few hours later the deserved hangover kicked in. Breakfast was dried fruit and nuts with half a packet of biscuits. We didn’t think about it at the time but we wouldn’t eat again until 4pm which was bad planning.

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We arrived at the Thai/Malaysia border and passed uneventfully through immigration and customs before getting back on the train. The only thing of note was a huge sign that described hippies and explained they are not welcome in Malaysia. Apparently they wear singlets and no undergarments.

Finally after 22 & 1/2 hours we pulled into Butterworth and headed into the station to withdraw money from a cashpoint. Amazingly, no cashpoint, but huge red signs for a moneychanger. Got to the moneychanger and he was shut. Well its obvious, one of the only trains that comes to the station daily and the only international one per day, why would you want to open your currency exchange service as dozens of tourists carrying Thai Baht and needing Malaysian Ringgit are around? I was told he was on his way. Eventually the shop keeper from Mr Ben strolled up and grinned through his sparse teeth at the queue of us westerners, slowly melting into a huge puddle under the searing Asian midday sun. The heat, after a more temperate Hong Kong, lack of food and last night finally catching up with me put me in a tired grumpy mood.

We boarded the ferry and slowly watched Penang come into view.

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A free shuttle bus dropped us off in the backpacker area and our strategy was to wander from place to place in the heat, with our rucsacks, trying to find a room. After five nights in HK we were fully aware that it was Chinese New year as we had enjoyed seeing the preparations there. Like Joseph and Mary we were turned away time and time again with no room at the inn. Just as they couldn’t get a room as it was Xmas, we couldn’t get a room as it was Chinese New Year. (Instead of the baby Jesus, Al was carrying a dim sum belly)

Best of all was a middle aged american who looked like a cross between the comic shop owner in The Simpsons and Jabba the Hut explaining to us in a patronising tone that it was Chinese New Year. “Oh really? Is it? I screamed as I shoved his bag of donuts into his face. I imagined.

Well, just as our favourite pregnant virgin and carpenter eventually got room in a stable, we got a plush three star hotel. We wanted to pay less but beggars can’t be choosers.

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As we gazed across the crystal waters of the bay from our 18th floor room we noticed the firm king size bed and realised it would would be the first night for a week that I could sleep with my legs straight. Relieved to have a king size bed in a three star hotel, I headed out for a haircut, my first since Xmas day. I got no discount for my bald patch and no smile for my crap gag.

We came to Penang 15 years ago and loved the food. As an ex British colony there are generations of Chinese and Indian immigrants alongside the native Malays which adds up to culinary heaven. We headed straight for little India and had tandoori chicken and naan fresh from the tandoor. Delicious. After some fruit juice we crashed early.

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30 Jan – Hong Kong to Bangkok

Al keeps telling me that this blog is not only telling our friends what we are doing but is a diary of what we have done that we can look back on in the future, so here’s today’s diary.

Alarm at 4.30am. N21 night bus to airport. Check in swift but flight delayed an hour so restaurant vouchers. Immigration quick. Breakfast of fried Cajun chicken from Popeye’s. Girl asks if i want to eat in or take away. Genuinely confused by question. No tables to eat. Bloody new shiny airport and no tables to eat. Design over function. Rubbish. Nice architecture though.

Try to find something to spend remaining Hong Kong dollars on. Buy water.

Board plane. Tired. Flight has movies though. Look through awful selection of films. Same movies as flight out two months ago. Ponder wasting the little time I have left on this beautiful planet on shit culture and settle for “Pacific Rim” a film about monsters fighting robots.

2 hours later. Film shit but about to land. (I hope Idris Alba was paid well to shout “Let’s cancel the apocalypse”)

Land. First through passport control and to carousel. I win luggage roulette. 3-2. Airport rail link and tube to Hua Lamphong train station. Need brain to work now. So far today not a great track record. We want the sleeper to Butterworth in Malaysia. If we can’t get it then maybe a night in Bangkok. Bad option for sleep. We don’t know where or what we will be doing in 24/48 hours. All depends on ticket office trainee woman. She says yes and Al wells up in a man from delmonte moment.

Ticket purchased. £22 for berth on sleeper. Tired but must celebrate. Scan station for seven eleven. None. Outside, spotted. Ace. MAGNUMS INBOUND! Al = almond. Me = strawberry. Essentials for train. Dried fruit and nuts. Water. Whisky.

Board train. Dump bags. Another celebration. Can of cold beer. Delicious in 30° heat. Realise wrong carriage. Move rucsacs. Very sweaty. Another beer required. Buy 10. Sit on platform and wait. Relax. NICE NICE.

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Train leaves. Start blog.

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Train hawker arrives. Places two beers in front of me. Captive market. Totally ripped off. Cans dripping in ice water. Risk of viles disease. Add that to malaria (42 bites in one night in Rangoon) and Avian flu (chicken in HK). Lucky to be alive.

Need boys room. Watch gravel fly past through a hole in the floor at 70mph. Happy as Larry. Who is Larry?

25 January – Hong Kong

Well, such is the life of international travellers, today we had breakfast in Bangkok, yesterday we had breakfast in Rangoon and I now sit here in Hong Kong having had a delicious dim sum and dumplings for our tea.

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We left our tiny room in Bangkok and did public transport to the airport, no problems at all, well, apart from Guy having a slight tummy upset, but nothing a clean airport toilet wouldn’t provide him some comfort from. We checked in smoothly, no one else queuing, now that is a first. Then through the various checks etc, then onto the important question of the morning, what to eat for breakfast? I was craving burgers so queued behind some awkward Russians wanting to pay in a variety of currencies for their burger king meal, Guy went Japanese – rice and pork. All good nutritious food at 10 in the morning! The new airport in Bangkok is fabulous, it has all the shops a lass should need, especially Tiffany’s, in fact Guy did me a deal, I wouldn’t buy anything from Tiffany’s and then I could have a fancy cream from L’Occitane! We agreed on that and I am now one happy lady with posh cream that should guarantee I look at least 10 years younger in a few weeks or so.

The flight was practically empty, although everyone had thick jackets, jeans, boots and warm weather gear. We felt decidedly under prepared.  We were lucky to be on the right side of the plane to get views of Hong Kong and the surrounding islands, it was cloudy but still stunning. It was also stunningly simple to get a bus downtown, each stop is numbered and the electronic message board on the bus tells you when your stop appears……. simples?

We were staying in a tourist attraction mentioned in the guide book, no, it wasn’t the Intercontinental with its views of Hong Kong island at night, nor was it the Sheraton with its wide windows and sweeping bay views. It is Chungking mansions, built in 1961, a ramshackled old building, with a rabbit warren of shops providing for your every need. We had been warned that it would be mayhem when we got off the bus, with touts demanding our business, and although it was hectic, they were all friendly and didn’t press us once we had said we had a booking. Although we had agreed that as long as we had somewhere clean, size didn’t matter, but I wasn’t quite prepared for quite how small our room is…….for the next FIVE days! It is smaller than the nitenite hotel rooms in Birmingham! Guy can just about fit on the bed lengthways, storage is underneath the bed, handy, and at this rate I maybe also stored there as well! The building must hold about 20 hotels, similar to ours, on each of the 5 blocks of the mansions, we are in block E, and have a lift to get us to the 12 floor, I have no idea what the plan is in case of fire. It is best not to think about it. We are also fortunate to be down the corridor of shops that sells sex aids and ‘specialist’ magazines, and can we have no smutty comments on this please!

As it was nearing sunset, we were perfectly timed for taking in the view of Hong Kong from the avenue of stars parade, and it is an amazing site, it is much, much bigger than I imagined, and so it took Guy quite sometime to sort out his panoramic camera photo shots, whilst I watched everyone else taking photos of each other in front of the iconic skyline.

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We had a walk around Kowloon, which is where we are staying, and there are a lot – and I mean a lot – of shops here. I don’t think I have ever seen so many shops and so many people in them, even Prada, Armani type shops are full of people either buying or actually queuing to get in the shops. Although it is the equivalent of Christmas eve here, so a lot of shopping would be taking place because of that.
We had a recommendation for a dim sum/shainghainese restaurant that we had to queue up for, about 45 mins, it was called Din Tai Fung and it was worth every minute. The pork dumplings were steamed, and also had a small amount of gravy/juice in them that dribbled down your chin – if you weren’t careful! We also had a beef brisket soup which was really tasty and delicately flavoured, shrimp and prawn wonton in a spicy sauce, some chicken dumplings and some Chinese kale – for greenery and veg which is lacking in our current diet! It was absolutely delicious, really delicate flavours and smooth textures. I will not forget those pork dumplings for a long time.

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After that we had a walk home via the shops and neon lights, and a rare night off the beer (as it is blooming expensive here!)

24 Jan – Burma to Bangkok

We flew out at the reasonable time of 11.20, so after a lie-in we caught a cab to the airport, the best way to get nostalgic. As we crawled passed Rangoon’s old colonial buildings which have faded and become dilapidated we watched the chaotic street scenes which pass for everyday life. It reminded us both of Hanoi and Bangkok 15 years ago. Smelly, dirty mayhem but bursting with life. So much is going on its hard to take in and it makes your senses tingle. We were both excited about moving on but sad to be leaving Burma. The food wasn’t the finest we have tasted and food is an important part of our travels, but the country was special to us because of the people. We have never been anywhere where the locals are so friendly, hospitable and quick to smile. Shopkeepers welcomed us like the prodigal son, guesthouse owners cared for us when we were ill and hawkers said we didn’t have to buy from them they just wanted to chat. A truly amazing population especially considering how they are unfairly governed by the military as their democratic vote was ignored.

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Burma isn’t that easy to get around. Its a big country (about the size of UK and France combined) the roads are appalling – on a par with India. Areas are completely off limits because of tribal / drug / warlord issues. Journeys are long and suffer from bonus time breaks due to creaking infrastructure. Buses and ferries are charged in US dollars and some goes back to the generals. The capital of the country is not on the tourist trail and not even mentioned in the guide book. Whilst we were there the BBC news reported on an 11 day course the British army were giving to Burmese generals to teach them how to live in a democracy and take orders from politicians which shows you how far they have to go. 

As we checked into Yangon International Airport, a power cut killed all the computer systems, but the check in desk had a piece of A4 with our names on so we were able to board, guess they are used to it. We arrived at Bangkok and after a taxi, the tube, the airport rail link and another taxi we got to our hotel. The room was trendy and compact so we wandered out and explored a new area. It went dark and after the obligatory Magnum from seven eleven we decided to go to a Thai BBQ for tea. Nervous as to what to do (us and 150ish Thais) and with a bit of a language barrier we dived in head first and before you can say “unidentifiable burnt flesh” we were barbecuing strange meats at our table fire. As these things always turnout we had a great time.

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Bye, bye Bangkok

Well, it has been a fun few days, but as they say, all good things must come to an end, and for once this is a pretty timely end as it seems a whole load of protests are  blocking off streets and on Monday the rebels are planning on cutting off all government offices from electricity and water…..time to go! And we are hoping it will all have cleared up by the time we get back!

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Anyway, we had a Posh Day Out yesterday, being fans of his food we were keen to go the David Thompson’s restaurant, Nahm, and taste some posh Thai nosh, along with a strict dress code to adhere too which is worrying when you live in flip flops and shorts. It was also the same day we had to pick up our passports at 3.30pm with, hopefully, our Myanmar visas stamped in it, so for once we had a deadlines to meet. So we dressed in our best clobber, trousers, best flip flops (erm, only flip flops) and strappy top – with thin jumper to casually wrap around my shoulders in the middle aged way that is acceptable to posh restaurants – I even wore makeup for the first time since we left! We boarded the riverboat and sped across the waves to the sky train for some welcome air con, and were about 1hour early for lunch. So stopped at a posh coffee house for iced coffees, our new favourite nonalcoholic drinks. Ideal in 34° heat.

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We casually wandered into Nahm, and tried to act normal as if we were used to loads of waiters waiting on us. We ordered the set menu and another curry as it seemed plenty for our shrinking appetites. Weirdly they wouldn’t let us order the smoked fish curry we wanted as it was very very hot, even for Thais! Which made us wonder why put it on the menu!! We ordered cocktails, followed by a glass of sancerre for the lady and pinot noir for Guy, it was expensive but blooming delicious, OMG!!!

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The food was great, and for all you Food Clubbers, nearly as good as our last FC! The canape was a recipe we have done at home, and we thought ours had more flavour. The rest of the dishes were all very different, having different herbs – Asian penny wort, banana flower blossom – which are hard to find at home, even in waitrose, and amazing flavours. It was a great experience.

To note though, we have had equally amazing street food for a fraction of the cost.

We then had to get to the Myanmar embassy to get our passports back, the journey wasn’t far walking, and we were going to take a leisurely walk though Patpong to end up at the embassy, however we both got a little needy for the toilet, if you know what I mean, so ended up taking detours via posh hotels, japanese restaurants with very clean toilets, and a bookstore with equally clean toilets before totally jumping the massive queue outside the embassy, and getting elbows out and collecting passports in about 20 mins.  A bit different to the 3 hours we spent on Monday putting the application in!

We still had time to be Posh, so it was off the to Mandarin Oriental for a couple of cocktails, after being thoroughly checked out to see if we passed the dress code – my jumper was slung over my shoulders and they couldn’t see the curry Guy had dribbled down his shirt – so we were ok to proceed. It is strange going into places like this where rooms are £374 per night and we are paying £7 and you wonder what kind of people are staying here, but we were happy to have a couple of cocktails, watching the world go by and be happy that we are who we are!

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We then got the wrong river boat back, the tourist boat, and paid an extra 50 baht (£1) to return home, daily budget broken we had to then resort to Banglampu for fun and cheap beer, alas the night disintegrated into a few beers, 2 bottles of sang som Thai whiskey, more live music, a bit of Radiohead, Tracy Chapman, Eric Clapton, chillli peppers, and a blooming pizza on the way home! The pizza cost considerably less than lunch!

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Today we have been enjoying the delights of Bangkok by buying toothpaste, extra mosquito repellant, Fred perry knock-off tee-shirts and D&G pants – mainly Guy doing the shopping today!

We then booked the 6am bus to the airport, and needed to recover from the shock of getting up so early by having a few beers in a cheap bar. Cheap bars mean interesting people, so we sat next to a Norwegian who is on his second Thai wife, and enlightened us as to why the Thai democracy doesn’t work / has been bought and his Thai wife told us how she ate the white grubs that lived in buffalo ‘waste’ when she was little and lived in the countryside. You don’t get that kind of conversation in your local English boozer!!

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4 – 5 January in Bangkok

We had a day of planning the Myanmar trip, involved a lot of sitting around on internet, as dull as it sounds! Booked flights, flying 10 -24 Jan, so we have a week to play in Bangkok!  We (nearly)stuck to our aim of not drinking until 6pm, had a beer at 4pm, not bad! We tried a few street stalls out for food, had noodle soups which were delicious.

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We then decided as it was Saturday night we would celebrate by having a small bottle of sang som Thai whiskey for old time sakes.  Bottle of whisky, soda and bucket of ice ordered, we realised how few bars were offering this now.  It used to be the alcoholics drink of choice, maybe there are less alcoholics here (which there is no evidence of elsewhere) or it is a cheap way of getting drunk and it is better business to have the tourists drinking beer…….? Anyhow, we were flying after just one small bottle, we used to have more than that 15 years ago! Another couple beers later we were back home, tucked up in bed.

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Next day the heads were slightly worse for wear, dull thumping whisky hangover in 34 degree heat, only air conditioning would help, so it was off to the shopping malls for bartering and eyewateringly expensive shops – that was when we wandered into the ‘wrong’ shopping mall that wasn’t full of counterfeit goods!  As Bangkok is easily navigable now we quite delicately jumped onto the river boat and made the whole journey without incident, then on the sky train and we were shooting through Bangkok’s skyline to Siam square! We then had a great time in the Thai food court at the top of the MBK shopping mall, I had chicken laab with rice, Guy had a pink fishy soup…..I won that round of food roulette!  Guy then successfully bartered for a ruck sac, fancy orange one, we then had photos taken in front of the pink penguins that were the xmas decorations, well, why wouldn’t you?

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By this time it was dark so we saw Bangkok by night, all lit up, with all the posh hotel bars with posh beer gardens overlooking the river on our river boat ride home.  On our route back there was a massive street market up the road from us, full of food stalls, crafty stuff, second hand clothes – probably donated from travellers who have gone feral – music, and fashion /dance shows. Apparently this was the second night of this, we clearly missed it the previous night, this whisky has a lot to answer for! So we had a load of street food for tea………and had no unwanted side effects! Bonus!

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BANGKOK

Its good to be back. After 15 years we flew back in to Bangkok which is one of our favourite cities. Polluted, noisy, smelly, colourful and in your face it’s a sensory overload. If life seems pedestrian and in black and white, a visit here gives you full colour High Definition. Its a constant thrill to just wander around with your eyes, ears and especially your nose being assaulted. Monks, hawkers, tuktuk drivers, masseurs, office workers, food sellers, package holidaymakers, feral travellers and local shoppers all share pavement space in a city lived on the streets.

At the risk of sounding nostalgic, 15 years ago, Kao San Road in Banglampu was the centre of the S E Asia backpacker scene, offering rooms, laundry services, visas, transport, nightlife and most importantly, pizza. The next street over, Thanon Rambuttri had authentic Thai food stalls serving locals their evening meal.  As everywhere, things have moved on and there are now additional services available. Kao San now has two mconalds, Boots the chemist and a starbucks and Burger King round the corner. On Thanon Rambuttri, the food stalls also offer pizza and have huge bars showing premier league football.

Other changes we have noticed are tourists drinking beer whilst walking about, doner kebab stalls, massage stalls, cashpoints everywhere, families of tourists (only backpackers before), long wheelbase tuktuks, and best of all, live acoustic music.

We checked in to the same guesthouse we stayed at in 98 and caught the river taxi down to the post office to send a parcel home. We did this journey a lot before and we both felt like it was only yesterday that we were here. Time at its stretchy-ist. We wandered about trying to soak everything in and grazed at street food stalls. Its cheaper to eat out than cook at home so there are food stalls everywhere. Al had a noodle soup with searingly hot chili (choking and a runny nose) and I opted for phad Thai, the national dish of fried noodles. Then a few cold beers. Chang, Leo and Singha.

We ended up at a bar with live acoustic sets and after a month away loved hearing Radiohead, Chilli Peppers and rather aptly Jonny Cash’s Ring of Fire.

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