Archive for September, 2009

Hong Kong

September 10th, 2009
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On the 24th June we departed Krabi for Bangkok, where saying our goodbyes to Claire, Steve, Emma and I headed off to Hong Kong to meet up with Rav and to get out of Thailand before our Visas finished.

Hong Kong, as most people know, is an (recently) ex-British colony but now back in the hands of China given the status of a SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China. This essentially means that while it comes under the ultimate control of Beijing it does have some autonomy and is slightly more flexible in terms of capitalism and relations with the west. This is beneficial to both the residents, in terms of increased (relative) freedoms, and to China, in that Hong Kong provides a disproportionately large amount of income. Hong Kong is obviously very flush with cash, and shares many similarities with Singapore. The shopping is pretty ridiculous, malls everywhere and we’re not exactly talking Primark either.

We spent three nights in Hong Kong in total and stayed north of the river a short MRT journey from the main part of Hong Kong. Unfortunately it pretty much rained for the entirety of our stay due to a typhoon passing through. This made our stay not as enjoyable as it could have been. This did however teach us how to use all of the walkways and malls to traverse Hong Kong without stepping a foot outside.

We spent most of the first day exploring round town having a look at a temple before heading off to find some Dim Sum for lunch. We ventured in to a small tea house to try out the Dim Sum and knew we were in an authentic place as all the other diners were Chinese. We each ordered some Dim Sum and then spent the rest of the meal not knowing who’s we were eating and, Steve in particular, complaining that our Dim Sum tasted pretty crap not realising that we were actually eating what someone else ordered. That afternoon we met up with Ross, one of Steve’s friends from a “previous company” who showed us his office and took us to a few places. We headed back to the hotel before going back into town to meet up with Ross again as well as another guy called Gideon. We first went to the harbourside to look at the lightshowHong Kong Light Show, not realising at the time that we were in the wrong place and therefore missed a fair part of it! We then took off in to town to get an Indian and a few drinks.

The next day me and Em spent going around a few shops before heading up to the park and aviary and then finally heading off to the History Museum. THe History Museum is definitely worth a mention as not only is it massive it’s very well put together. I can’t remember how long they suggest you visit for but it’s definitely worth taking heed of their advice. We had an hour and ended up rushing the experience. That night we headed off with Rav to SOHO and had a really excellent italian.

The third and final day was accompanied with a spot of sunshine and led us straight up “The Peak” in search of the iconic view of Hong Kong. A tram transports people up the (very) steep hill and from there you can see views over the entire city. Towards the end of the day Emma and I headed off to Koh Samui, leaving Steve to go to China and Ravi off to Perth.Hong Kong from "The Peak"

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

West Coast of Thailand

September 4th, 2009
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Having finished the tour a few of us decided to head off down to the West Coast of Thailand for a bit of time on the beaches. At this point Ravi left us to head off down to Koh Tao to get his Padi and do some diving. So, Emma, Claire, Bex, Steve and I left Bangkok and made for the (obscenely) touristy island of Phuket.

Phuket, in all fairness, is a pretty nice island; it could not have grown to be the tourist behemoth, that it now is, had this not been the case. However this popularity has not done the island too many favours and, as a result, is slightly overdeveloped and frequented by package tourists (I’ll leave it at that.) We stayed at Karon Beach, the second most roudy beach, in a fairly nice little hotel just off the beach. A great big long pool was accompanied by some really excellent rooms with flat screen tv and beautiful bathrooms. Anyway, the place was actually fairly quiet (it was low season) but still had enough going for it to give us a bloody good dinner. We went to a little restaurant called “The Two Chefs” where I had a melt-in-the-mouth steak and really can’t recommend highly enough.

Our second night in Phuket was spent with a visit to Patong Beach, the most popular resort in Phuket - think 18-30 holiday and you’re about there. In all fairness this night was one of the best so far. We started off by going to a little italian restaurant where we had a lovely meal and a few drinks. You know you’re in good company when the chef comes out and is actually Italian: it makes a hell of a difference out in Asia. Following that we headed down to the main nightclub/party street where we were greeted by what was basically a few hundred yards of girly bars. A quick walk up the length of street and then, on our way back, we met a Tina Turner lookalike (as much as a man can look like Tina Turner) and, after the girls had gotten a few photos, we headed upstairs for a drink and a look at the competing “dancers”. Following this we headed in to a little bar, guided by a guy offering something or other, where we discovered Thailand’s best cocktail waiter. This guy was bloody good, as were the number of free drinks/shots that came our way. Showing off his skills was impressive but every now and then a round of shots was bought for the bar and, once decanted, he literally lit the entire bar on fire. At this point I also discovered that I’m not quite as adverse to Tequila as I’d thought, which was nice! Several drinks and barely a Baht later we walked out of the bar and straight upstairs in to a club. The club was heaving, but the dance floor was not. Using the greatest selection of shapes known to modern man we proceeded to dance our arses off on the floor attracting a lot of attention and, eventually, getting the club bouncing. It was bloody brilliant. Not sure when we left but a good night was had by all, except at 6 in the morning when I realised I’d lost my wallet. Thankfully it was handed in to reception as I’d dropped it outside the hotel.

Early that morning we packed our bags and headed off to get the boat to the island of Koh Phi Phi. Koh Phi Phi is an island about an hour west of Krabi and is in a group of six islands. Unfortunately it was devastated by the Tsunami of 2004 and while it has been mostly rebuilt I would say that it has probably not been redeveloped as it should have been. Regardless of this I would also say that it’s probably one of my favourite places and as a beach resort it is simply fantastic. In total we spent 4 nights in Koh Phi Phi but in all honesty we could have quite easily spent a few more. Our days tended to follow a bit of a routine; that is, get up fairly late morning, spend the day on the beach, go for a nice meal and then get fairly trolleyed afterwards.

With it’s undoubted beauty it was only a matter of time before Koh Phi Phi was included in a film. That film was “The Beach” and, although not on Phi Phi itself, makes one hell of a day trip. While it is possible to get a guided tour around the 6 islands we decided to simply hire a boat and a native to help us out. The girls did the usual fine job of bartering down the poor man until he was probably at breakeven point (whether he knew it or not) and for, I think, £5 each we had his services for the day. We started off the day with a quick trip round to another part of the island where we did a spot of snorkelling. Phi Phi is famed for its diving, with many people coming here to get their PADI, and this was very evident such was the clarity of the water and the beauty of the coral and fish even at this low depth. At this point I did rather make a tit of myself: trying to swim over to Em I accidentally kicked down and through a load of coral leaving a fairly hefty chunk in my ankle. A piece, of diameter ~1cm, was stuck in the side of my ankle and did not look good. I’d told Em that I’m only really hurt when I don’t say much. In deadly silence I swam back to the boat and showed it to the native (who I suspected had seen this many a time.) He took one look and pretty much yanked the thing out. Luckily it was only a couple of mm deep so was not too bad. Some really hilarious scenes followed as, first the native, and then me, threw food in for the fish in and around the others. The sheer numbers of fish coming to the surface was staggering and scared the crap out of the others! We spent the rest of the day going round the other islands, in to a stunning, really stunning, cove and then off to “The Beach” itself. This will probably go down as the best individual trip of the whole trip. We also had to give it to the native; he didn’t speak a word of English but whenever he said something we quickly learned to say “yes” to him as his suggestions were all absolutely brilliant. He was in fact so good that we added 50% on to his price.

While Phi Phi does have some more upmarket accommodation the main town really caters for the 18-30 backpacker scene. There’s a few funky bars, most of which go on through the night, as well as a couple of clubs on the beach for dancing the night away. THe Phi Phi drinking scene is STAGGERINGLY easy to grasp. Basically take a spirit, add some coke and red bull and put in a bucket. Proceed to drink it and get caravaned! Buckets are one thing but the Irish bar was offering buy one get two free: madness! While the abundance of cheap alcohol is welcoming the bars are, that I can remember, actually quite good fun as well. There’s the “Reggae Bar” which offers the usual cheap drinks but also contains a boxing ring and puts on Thai Boxing every single night. Sadly the organised fights are staged but the two guys always put on a fairly good show. More interesting is the fact that anyone can have a fight once the organised fights are over. A few times these fights are pretty dull but on one night we had an absolute treat. One guy, with an ego like the Titanic, was strutting round the ring with six pack bulging. Thankfully a 6ft something rugby lad stepped up and swiftly taught the guy a lesson.

At this point I should probably mention some of the beautiful scenery on Phi Phi and around but I won’t. Just look at the photos.

Koh Phi Phi

After Phi Phi we headed off, leaving Bex who went diving on Koh Tao, on another boat to Railay. Railay is on the mainland but due to the surrounding landscapes is pretty much inaccessible by land and, as a result, feels just like another island. The main part of Railay is a narrow strip of land (maybe a km wide by 3km long) with beaches on either side and high, steeply rising, headlands at either end. The east beach is, as a beach, fairly rubbish but contains some mangrove while the west beach is brilliant for relaxing on and appreciating the scenery. Railay West BeachThere’s a mixture of highly upmarket resorts and cheaper, albeit pretty nice, ones. The better resorts tend to be on the west beach with the north end of the east beach containing the cheaper resorts. The only drawback of Railay is that there really is very little to do other than sit back and relax, and that’s exactly what we did. The restaurants on the west beach do some excellent food for very reasonable prices while the east beach provides the nightlife. I say nightlife, there’s about 3 bars, one of which, the reggae bar (seeing a pattern), providing a very chilled out evening drinking cocktails under the stars.

On our last night in Railay Steve and I ventured off to find the viewpoint and lagoon. My book described this as a slightly tricky walk and, given that these books cater for everyone, promptly ignored that and headed off just before dusk in shorts and flipflops. Walking down to the south end of the east beach and going along a path we saw a sign for the viewpoint and lagoon. Looking at the cliff the sign was pointing at we carried on down the path assuming that the sign had been twisted somehow. We quickly spoke to a guy who told us that the sign was right and to go back. We climbed up the cliff, where a rope has been usefully placed, and on to the viewpoint. The viewpoint overlooks the enitrety of Railay and the view is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately we got there a little after sunset so while the view was impressive it would probably be best to go for sunset. At this point, and realising that we could barely see our own hands we decided to head back down the cliff in our flip flops and back to the girls.

It was our last night in Thailand and also the last night with Claire. This meant only one thing: party hard. We had the usual meal, cocktails on the beach and then headed to the far end of the east beach to bar/club with top tunes and cheap(ish) cocktails. A few games of free pool later we decided to hit the dance floor and strut it late on in to the night. A particular fond memory was seeing Claire chatting to a guy while dancing with a toilet roll in her left hand. Hilarious, not sure whether she even realised at the time.

Steve and I woke up early the following morning intent on getting to the lagoon that we’d been so close to the night before. Feeling ridiculously hungover, dehydrated and tired we took off, at 7am, to the cliff (this time in reasonable footwear) to get to the lagoon and back for our 9.30am boat to Krabi. We quickly scaled the first side and then began the descent down to the lagoon. At this point time was already getting short and after literally having to drop down (with a rope) and 15ft drop we decided that we’d never make it back in time and annoyingly turned back. This was easier said than done. With herculean strength I managed to pull myself back up the 15ft rope and on to the overhang. Steve, however, not quite feeling it managed to fail to pull himself up 4 times. At breaking point he then had a look around and found an alternative route up. We managed to get back, running, but felt horrific.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Bangkok Again

September 4th, 2009
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Our arrival back in Bangkok signalled the end of our 30 day tour and the beginning of adventures new. Having already done the touristy bits of the city we essentially spent the time checking out the endless array of highend malls. Staying in Khao San Road again gave us the usual banter with locals trying to get you in their tuk tuk or take you to a “ping pong show”. We had a couple of nights out while there, both of which ended up in “The Club”, a fairly cool club on Khao San Road with an outside inside kind of feel to it. Drinking the, by now, customary buckets of cocktail preparing us all for Claires moves!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Luang Prabang

September 4th, 2009
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Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name and, until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of Laos. It’s a beautiful little town, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a population of around one hundred thousand. It sits on a bend in the Mekong river around 425km north of Vientianne.

We spent a couple of nights in Luang Prabang and could probably have spent quite a few more. Along with the gorgeous restaurants, excellent nightly street market and absurdly clean streets Luang Prabang is surrounded by stunning countryside just waiting to be explored.

On our first day we all went, as a group, on a short trek up in to the mountains and rainforest to make our way to a set of waterfalls. It’s possible to simply drive to the waterfalls but the trek that we took really gave you a sense of remoteness, with nobody else taking the same path. In fact our guide carried a knife in order to cut through the rainforest at certain points. As is the case with many of my stories you really had to be there but hopefully some of my pictures do it justice. The water, once we’d got to the waterfall, was breathtakingly clear and similarly cold but in those temperatures it’s exactly what you want.

Stunning Waterfall

For our first night in Luang Prabang we had dinner down a little side street where you could get a chicken breast or fish cooked for you on the spot and then grab as much salad/noodles as you liked from another stand. We then went off to quite a cool little bar before going bowling in the weirdest bowling place ever.

Our second day in Luang Prabang saw the boys and girls split up to do pretty much the same activities. The girls would go kayaking and elephant riding while the guys opted for mountain biking and then hardcore(ish) kayaking. We took off on the bikes like mad men. Having spent a few days not really doing any hardcore exercise we well and truly made up for it. The poor guide spent most of the trip a good few hundred metres behind us trying to keep up. About half way through the bike ride we were slighlty bemused, if not worried, to see an unexploded ordnance clearing team on the road. Feeling that they should probably be ahead of us we carried on regardless and hoped we wouldn’t come a cropper. As a side note the bombs are the remains from the Vietnam war. Although Laos did not exactly feature in the war they apparently had an agreement with the Americans whereby they got something (I’m not sure) in exchange for letting the Americans drop all of their unused payload before landing. As a result Laos is the most heavily bombed country of all time. I can’t remember the number exactly but it’s phenominal. Anyway, we finished the trip with a kayaking session down the river, which had no rapids, and was basically 3 hours of pain. It was knackering.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Vang Vieng and Onwards

September 4th, 2009
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Vang Vieng is a small town located 164km north of Vientianne. The village is on a bend in the Song River and is set against a backdrop of picturesque limestone mountains. All in all it’s a small place but provides access to a variety of activities including caving, rock climbing, kayaking, cycling etc.

For us (and many other 20 something backpackers) Vang Vieng is all about tubing. Tubing is basically the art of sitting in an old tractor inner tube and floating down the river. Only difference here is that the river is lined with bars, rope swings, rope slides and slides. It’s carnage. It’s also no longer recommended by Gap (really not recommended at all.) I guess that someone had a serious accident, sued Gap and they no longer want people doing it. Regardless, everyone signed the disclaimer and off we went to the drop off point. On arriving we realised that you needed to get the tubes in town and then bring them with you. So, having already had several free shots of whisky the girls headed off to get tubes and the boys, donning their silk taylor made pyjamasSilk Pyjamas relaxed by the riverside. Amusingly, or scarily (depending on how you look at it), we were informed that the week before the bar had been much bigger but a flash flood had washed much of it away. It was at this first bar that we really appreciated what it was all about. Just to the left of the bar a series of ladders took you up to a small promenade where you could grab a rope and swing out in to the river before dropping from ~40 feet, I guess. It all looked like great fun until we saw one girl slip and go head first in to the water, coming to the service but head still in the water looking unconcious. A Laos guy dived in and, very quickly, recovered her and that’s when it hit home. Anyway, Steve and Harry were the first to have a go before I told Rav that we obviously had no choice and that we’d have to follow suit. I hit the water like a lead brick, slightly sideways essentially crushing my left lung. I’m fairly certain I bruised a rib or two as the following days were not good for me. The general idea with the tubing was that everybody basically stayed at the same bars and then, en masse, migrated to the next bar. As a result there was a tendency for people to miss their intended bar as, due to the strong current, it was necessary for the Laos people to throw ropes to catch people and, too often, there were too many people and not enought ropes. This happened to Em, me and Tiina between bar 2 and 3 resulting in one hell of a trek down river to cross a bridge and then come back up.

Bar 2 was hilarious in that everyone was starting to feel a little tipsy (some considerably more than others) and it was at this (early) point that Ravi threw up all over his hands on the dance floor. He claims that it was the result of trying to drink from his bucket using four straws but I’m not so sure! Anyway, the rest of the tubing passed by with more drink, mud baths and various other shenanigans. We finished off around 8pm by taking a tuk tuk back to town. By this point everyone was well and truly battered and a mix up with the tubing guy led to punches being thrown and Steve being held back by Claire. A damn good job really as I’m not sure the tubing guy knew what he was getting himself in to.

That morning we headed on to Luang Phabang. At this point I have to say that Laos is probably one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. The landscapes are stunning, filled with mountains and rain forest: truly spectacular.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

In to Laos and Vientianne

September 4th, 2009
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We crossed from Hanoi in to Laos via the mountains (I can’t remember the name) on the eastern border of Laos. One word can only really describe the view: stunning. Unfortunately the photos that I took really do not do the view justice. Having been to the Grand Canyon I would say that this view comes as close as possible to matching that. Of course they differ in composition but the sheerness of the mountains and the heights from which they rise and fall really does give the same sense.

In to Laos

Anyway, the journey was a long one, taking nearly the whole of a day plus a few hours the next. We stopped in Pak Beng (I think) which really is the middle of nowhere. Crap hotel and a restaurant that didn’t want to serve food and, when it did, it was barely edible. In all honesty we didn’t need the stop and should have just gone straight to Vientianne. Unfortunately there was also a bear being kept at the hotel for its bile, a practice that is being eradicated by the Laos government, just not very quickly. As a result I think that Gap (the company that runs the tour) will continue to use that hotel in order to pressure them in to freeing the bear. Nice for the bear, unfortunate for all Gap’s customers as they’ll have to stay there as well.

Vientianne means “Citadel of the Moon” or (!) “Citadel of the Fragrant Trees” and became the capital of Laos in 1563. It’s not a massive town but sits on a bend in the Mekong river and as a result has a great position, one that was capitalised on by the French towards the end of the 19th century.

Our time in Vientianne was mainly taken up by a day on bikes. As a group we hired bikes, in a somewhat sexist fashion, with the girls on pink bikes and the boys on red. We did the obligatory tour around the palaces before heading off to a market to find Charles presents for less than ~50p. Steve, Rav and I left the rest to go for a little “off-roading”Steve on a Bike! and preceded to make our way in to the countryside down by the river. It’s always nice to get off the beaten track and see the real lives that people live. Amusingly, in this instance, we found a group of 8 year olds who, in no uncertain terms, told us to “go home, go home”. We carried on riding and hoped that their older siblings were more understanding. That night we went to a restaurant and, with a lovely meal, made our way through some beer towers. At that point we also gave Charles his cheap presents before handing him some pink pyjamas that we’d had tailor made in Hoi An. He was not amused and I’m fairly certain he chucked them straight away (I was gonna swear here but I won’t.)

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags: