Scuba Junkie: Eat, Sleep, Dive, Repeat!

Semporna had some really tasty seafood but not a whole lot more going for it and after one night in the Scuba Junkie (the same company I dived with in KK) dorm I jumped on the morning transfer to Mabul. Mabul is a small island near some of the best dive sites in the world and we did not have time to catch our breath before heading out for our first taste. I was on a boat with a nice group and was diving with three other dive masters so we enjoyed two relaxed dives, with a break for coffee and cake of course, before Lunch.

The lunch is included in your four day package and I went in expecting a rice heavy ration pack but the food is really good and there is as much as you want (and then slightly more). After lunch I chucked my bag in the dorm room before heading out for the final dive of the day. After three nice dives around Mabul Island it was time for more coffee and cake (I want to make sure I fit in all of my old clothes when I get back to the UK) before a quick snooze on the beach before yet more food.

After dinner I headed up to the bar to have a few beers with Patrick (Austrian I shared a dorm with in Semporna) and Ted (one of the guys I dived with). We enjoyed a few beers before heading down to the beach where the local guys were enjoying a fire, a singsong and some punchy Filipino rum. I called it a night around midnight after a brief attempt at fire dancing as I still had three more days of diving ahead and it would be a lot less fun with a raging hangover or first degree burns.

The next day I headed out to Sipadan Barrier Reef for a couple of dives before returning for lunch and another dive around Mabul. Today I was diving with an Aussie instructor called Heath who worked in Koh Tao and his friend Bella who was also a divemaster. In the evening we were conducting a very thorough post dive debrief (having a few beers!) when the manager came up to let us know that the turtle nest had hatched and they would be releasing them soon. In the wild lots of turtles get picked off by predators as eggs or on their first trip to the water, this coupled with the locals penchant for turtle eggs means the odds of any one turtle making it the 20 or so years to return to the island and reproduce is about the same as England winning the world cup anytime soon. To give the little fellas a fighting chance Scuba Junkie run a scheme where they pay locals as rangers when the discover a nest and then relocate it to a safe place before releasing the babies when they hatch.

We went down to watch as they released over 100 baby turtles into the sea and I adopted little baby Kenneta and released her for the short walk into the ocean. My sister is due to have a baby girl any week now and I am sure that all my readers will agree that Kenneta is the only sensible choice for a name however just in case her and Mark do not make the obvious decision I thought I would ensure there is at least one Kenneta in the world.

Kenneta is in there somewhere

Kenneta is in there somewhere

I was up at 6am for my third days diving for the highly anticipated trip to Sipadan. As Sipadan is such a popular divesite and they only issue 120 permits a day Scuba Junkie squeeze in four dives while you are there. All four dives were great with so much life and diversity underwater that you almost become nonchalant to the sheer number of sharks and turtles. Heath and I had managed to fashion a working GoPro between us (he has a leaky housing but a working camera so we used his camera and my housing) and we have shot some pretty decent footage although it is fair to say Heath was the more natural cameraman with my videos all ending prematurely (I will not make the obvious inappropriate joke as my Gran reads this but feel free to add your own). We had a great four dives (naturally with plenty of food in between) but I am led to believe that Sipadan can be even more breath taking and I had some problems equalising the pressure in my ears towards the end so maybe I will have to return one day.

The final days diving was another day trip this time to an island called Siamil. It was another fantastic day of diving having seen dozens of Devil rays on the first dive and a really interesting muck dive to finish the day. A muck dive is where you have do not dive on a specific reef and instead look around for smaller interesting creatures in the sand/silt. I really enjoyed floating along with the current stopping to inspect anything unusual. Our divemaster Kye had an insane ability to spot things that I completely missed (if there are not turtles or sharks as far as I am concerned the reef is dead) so I was very pleased when I spotted a stick pipe fish and pointed it out to Kye only for him to spot a baby one hidden in the rock that I had missed. The highlight of the dive was definitely a flamboyant cuttlefish which is a small cuttlefish that changes colours and patterns like some sort of living underwater disco light. It served as a reminder of all the cool things I have seen diving and the diverse, alien and unusual life under the sea (and I don’t just mean my instructor Tony).

I realise this blog has been one out of my Dad’s instruction manual constantly harping on about food (although he would have provided a full breakdown of costs in comparison to the UK) but after each day our dive master Kye would walk up the trees as if taking a stroll along the beach and cut down some fresh coconuts to enjoy with the heaps of other food provided.

That evening we were transferred back to Semporna and after some tasty prawns for dinner and with little else to do Patrick and I went over to the Scuba Junkies bar and got stuck into the beers. We headed to bed after the barmen had shut the bar and refused to serve us any beer to take away (something about not being able to serve beer once the fridge was turned off). I woke up the next morning and Patrick and I had some more seafood for lunch before getting taking a local bus to Tawau airport where he flew to Kota Kinabalu and I headed off to Kuala Lumpa.

As I have already visited KL and ticked off most of the tourist attractions I had a nice relaxed day yesterday wondering around the city. I visited the central market again which unsurprisingly is still full of overpriced tourist crap, my favourite example was somebody selling “vintage Malaysian glasses used once upon a time by local Malays” the vast majority of these glasses were the same coca cola glasses that you get in a Wetherspoons back home.

I am about to check out and then spend the day in KL before flying back to sunny England in the early hours of Saturday morning.

See you soon!

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Catch up 3: Caught Up

When I arrived in Manila I jumped in a taxi to my hotel and got my first experience of the infamous Manila traffic. Despite my hotel being about 15km (yes I deal in km now) it took over an hour and a half to get there. I am led to believe that Manila is one of those cities that sprawl across a vast area with no real centre but it is fair to say that if there is a centre than my hotel was absolutely nowhere near it. I was certainly ready to leave after a couple of uneventful days and booked myself on to an overnight ferry to Coron.

The ferry was an interesting experience sleeping in one of the 100s of bunk beds spread out across the entire deck but I managed to get some sleep and met some interesting locals who were surprised to see a white person in the super value class. I arrived in Coron, found somewhere to stay, signed up for some diving and met Tom whose missus had left him in Coron earlier in the day (Valentine’s day no less) so we went out for a few beers.

I was up early the next day and headed out for a full day of diving, a fleet of Japanese war ships were sunk by U.S bombers during WWII so there is some pretty incredible wreck diving around the island however the first dive of the day was a lake dive on another island. We had to jump out of the boat and swim ashore before clambering up some steps to get to the lake. The lake has a layer of fresh water, then a layer of salt water that is 37 degrees and then another layer of fresh water. It was interesting going between the different layers and feeling the difference in temperature and buoyancy but there was very little to see and I probably would not bother doing it again. After that we tackled one of the deeper wrecks and had some fun swimming through the propeller shaft and some of the tighter entrances and exits of the boat. The final dive of the day was a gunboat that was used to hunt submarines, this one was a much smaller wreck and lay in shallow water and I took the opportunity to take the GoPro on its maiden underwater adventure – I have one decent video but none of the photos are particularly special.

There was a pretty good group of people on the boat so I signed myself up for another day of diving the next day. As we jumped in from the boat on the first dive the case to my GoPro opened up and the camera went for a dive all of its own – we managed to recover it but so far it is yet to come back to life. I had another fun day exploring the wrecks with an awesome local divemaster who had some top of the range technical diving gear rounded off with some homemade fins that I was very jealous of. For the final dive of the day it was just me and the divemaster and we set about exploring another gunboat using the most unconventional route he could find, we got some very strange looks from other divers as we swam past the cargo doors only to pop up out of small chimney or crack in the wreck.

After another good day on the boat a group of us met up for some dinner and a few beers. After a late night and with the next day sounding like some of the tamer dive sites I decided not to dive and had a lazy day in Coron. In the evening I climbed up to the highest hill where they have a Hollywood style “CORON” sign and watched the sunset over the bay.

The next day I took a seven hour boat from Coron to EL Nido and went out for a sleep on the sun deck. Despite wearing plenty of sun cream I managed to miss a patch on the top of my leg and got my first real sunburn of the trip but I was just glad that it was only a small patch. When we got to El Nido Andrew (Aussie bloke I met on the diveboat) and I went to look for accommodation. After being denied by every hostel, hotel and doss house in the Philippines and feeling a bit like Mary and Joseph looking for a place to squeeze out baby Jesus I eventually found an overpriced, pretty grotty room for the night. It was the day before Chinese New Year and it appears that half of China has decided to come to El Nido, I decided to only stay one night as I knew I could get better accommodation for less in Puerto Princesa.

The next day I got a buss across to Puerto Princesa and checked in to a nicer room that was less than half the price. I had a few lazy days in Puerto Princesa exploring the area (including an incredible microbrewery), going to the beach and trying to sort a few things out for when I return home. I probably stayed a bit longer than was necessary in PP and if I had planned things in advance could have explored another area but after five days I was on a flight to Cebu.

Cebu is a busy little town that seems to have its own version of Manila’s traffic problem and not much going for it however I was only stopping for one night and then I was back on another long bus trip followed by a boat to get across to the Island of Malapascua. After an 8 o’clock start I arrived in Malapascua in the early afternoon and jumped on a bike to Thresher Cove where Julia (one of the instructors from the Perhentians) is working and where I would be staying for the next few days.

Thresher Cove is a lovely secluded spot about a ten minute walk from the main village with a private beach and very relaxed atmosphere. I checked in to the dorm room (see I can be a backpacker) and had a wonder around the island which manages to retain a real local atmosphere despite the number of tourists that come here to dive. I met up with Julia for some dinner and a catch up and signed up to do my Nitrox course (that’s what I am going to need in the UK…more diving qualifications).

The next day I was up at 4.45 to go Shark hunting, the first dive site was supposedly a good spot to see hammerhead sharks but we waited in the middle of the ocean for a good 45 minutes and saw nothing more exciting than some unicorn fish and the other people we were diving with. Next we went to Monad Shoal which is famous for thresher sharks, we saw a couple in the distance (enough to convince me that they do exist and this is not all a big scam) but they did not come very close. After a lazy day Julia and I went out for dinner with Bev and Frankie who also worked in the Perhentians and despite Julia being sensible and going home early I still stayed out until nearly 1.

The next day I dragged myself out of bed at 5am and we went straight to Monad Shoal to try and see the thresher sharks, this time my luck was in and I saw plenty of threshers with some of them only a few meters away and I finally understood why people bothered to get up so early.

As my underwater photography career was a bit of a disaster...I have stolen this picture of a thresher shark from my dive buddy Matias who took some amazing photos.

As my underwater photography career was a bit of a disaster…I have stolen this picture of a thresher shark from my dive buddy Matias who took some amazing photos.

This was followed by another dive and another lazy day with the dive shop going out for dinner for Tim’s birthday (another one from the Perhentians…basically the whole Island has relocated). I got a lie in for my final day in Malapascua and did not go diving until 10am when we headed out to Gato Island for another couple of dives. The second dive was incredible s we came through a cave/tunnel under the island there were two white tip sharks circling around the entrance coming into and back out of the light.

That evening the two DMTs from Thresher Cove did there snorkel test (it was nice not to be involved for once) and then everyone went out to a few bars and the local disco (basically a basketball court, a sound system and some dodgy rum). Nobody seemed to have to be up the next day so we had a good night, I can’t remember getting home but I am glad I remembered that I had moved to a beach hut and didn’t wake the dorm up unnecessarily.

The next day I had to get a boat, followed by a bus and then a flight to Manila which was hard work as I did not feel particularly fresh. I stayed near the airport after my first encounter with Manila and the next day flew on to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo having been to three different terminals, paying ridiculous taxi fares and nearly missing my flight).

Kota Kinabalu is a fairly nice town next to the sea although a few areas could do with a good clean. I was back in the water the next day and did three dives around the KK marine park with a Scottish oil rig worker called Billy. In the evening we met up for some overpriced beer (seriously…I didn’t think I would be looking forward to UK drink prices) and ended up staying up until the early hours. I had a few more days exploring KK and today I flew to Tawau and I am spending one night in Semporna before getting a boat to Mabul for four days diving including a highly anticipated day is Sipadan.

Catch up 2: Planes, Buses, Slow Boats and a Giant Inner Tube

After Mui Ne I took a bus along the coast to Nha Trang where spent a couple of days and visited the mud baths and thermal springs before hoping on an overnight train to Danang. Danang is a pretty uninspiring town so I only stopped for the one night. The main bridge in the town has a giant ornamental dragon and I was told that there was a show at nine o’clock on weekend nights. I arrived in time to see a few bursts of fire from the dragon’s mouth. It was fairly unspectacular but the majority of the crowd had not left so I picked my way to the front of the crowd (I thought I must be getting good at this tourist business as it was particularly easy) just in time to be covered in a monumental amount of water (well played Mr Dragon, well played). I was forced to make my way back to the hotel drenched from head to toe and a source of much amusement for the locals.

From Danang I took the short trip to the town of Hoi An. Hoi An is a very pretty market town that turns into a postcard scene at night with traditional lamps in all of the restaurants and candles floating down the river. My hotel was a little way out of the town and provided free bicycle hire so I enjoyed a few days exploring the area and getting out into the Vietnamese countryside. I also completed another cooking course which was interesting as they had a number of stations showing traditional Vietnamese cooking methods as well as allowing you to try some of the more unusual foods (I tried a frog stew and jelly fish salad but drew the line at the duck embryo). The cooking course itself was ok but a lot of the preparation and cooking was already done for you so it did not live up to the course in Thailand.

After almost a week in Hoi An with legs hurting from the constant cycling and my wallet hurting from the market visits I was back on the road. I was off on a four day easy rider trip (pillion passenger on the back of a motorbike). My guide picked me up from the hotel and we headed out on the HCM Trail that was used by the Americans during the war and is a spectacular road up in the mountains. The weather was pretty cold on the first day (I was glad of the coat I had brought at the Hoi An market) and by the second day it was chucking it down. Despite the weather the ride along the HCM trail was still incredible. On the third day we visited the DMZ where the border used to be between North and South Vietnam we visited another tunnel community and the bridge across the border that the Vietnamese would paint so that it was one colour and then the Americans would paint “their” half a different colour the next day to emphasise the divide (a bit petty during a war where so many are being killed everyday).

The final day of the trip was a drive from the DMZ into the city of Hue and then a tour visiting the Imperial city and some of the rural villages. At times the ride did get pretty cold and wet but this trip was an amazing way to see Vietnam we had some incredible food at all the places we stopped.

From Hue I took a bus to Phong Nha and the next day I was back on a motorbike (I was in charge this time) and rode out to paradise cave which is 31km long but you can only walk just over a km without booking a special tour. From there I rode around the rest of the loop with a slight detour into the mountains as some of the roads were truly breathtaking. In the afternoon I got together with a few other tourists and we hired a boat to explore Phong Nha cave after that I returned the bike and jumped on a sleeper bus to Hanoi.

Hanoi is a busy city with a bit of a traffic problem but is fairly easy to navigate with a nice lake in the heart of the city. I visited the old Colonial / American Imperialist prison (I seem to be visiting a lot of prisons) and explored the city by foot for a couple of days. After a couple of day in Hanoi I booked a boat trip to Halong Bay.

After a minibus trip to the harbor I was not surprised to find the hunk of junk that looked barely sea worth was ours (to be fair I had booked the budget tour, others that had paid a lot more and must have been pretty pissed off). We enjoyed a nice day cruising Halong bay, which is made up off thousands of individual islands, and exploring the caves. At night there was some confusion as the company had obviously overbooked and people seemed to be joining and leaving the boat left, right and centre. I secured my room on the boat but downgraded from a single to sharing so that more people could stay on the boat.

After all of the chopping and changing we ended up with a decent group of us staying on our floating junkyard. We stayed up long into the night exchanging stories and playing drinking games and it was not much of a surprise when none of our group emerged to witness the sunset. The next day we cruised back to the bay and met up with a few of our fellow travelers that had stayed on Catba island and got a minibus back to Hanoi.

From Hanoi I got an overnight bus to the Laos border and crossed in to the Vientiane, capital of Laos. There is not a lot going on in Vientiane and after a one night stay and a visit to the museum and the national stadium I got another 5 hour bus up to Vang Vieng. After getting called a flash packer by the English girls on our boat in Halong Bay I booked into a dorm room for the first night in Vang Vieng, after a sleepless night of other people snoring and a very desperate French man trying to talk a girl into bed at 4 in the morning I embraced the flash packer tittle and booked myself a room.

The next day I met up with Zoe and Ryan, a couple I had met on the bus in Laos, and we headed off for a day’s tubing. Tubing is essentially sitting in a large inner tube and floating down the river and was made famous in Vang Vieng due to the large quantities of alcohol consumed. Due to a number of deaths (stupid Aussie’s I am told!) the Laos government have shut a number of the bars and tried to calm the whole thing down.

After a tuk tuk ride to the first bar in which Zoe, Ryan and I spent the majority of the trip discussing how we were going to be sensible, stick to the beers and avoid spirits we jumped out of the tuk tuk, had a free bracelet and shot of whisky and got stuck straight into a game of beer pong. Over the course of the afternoon there was plenty of drinking with the odd float down the river to the next bar. The atmosphere was electric and people were getting pretty crazy, if it used to be a lot worse I am not surprised that people died.

After a hungover day sitting in one of the many cafes that show friends and family guy on loop I hired myself a mountain bike to explore beyond the tourist hotspot that is Vang Vieng. I headed out about 10km to where there are some caves. The first cave I visited was absolutely incredible, after about 5 minutes walking inside the cave I came to a pool and waded across before coming to a second deeper pool that required me to swim across. After a good 40 minutes climbing, swimming and crawling through the cave I came to a section where I had to dive under the ceiling to get to the next area. With the cave appearing to come to an end, drenched from head to toe and having not seen anyone the entire time I was in the cave I decided it was about time to head back. I did visit a second large, dry cave but to be honest it seemed pretty tame compared to the first.

The next day I had a relaxing day at a local Lagoon with Zoe and Ryan and somehow on the last day we ended up going tubing again (I think Zoe just wanted more of the free bracelets they give out). It seems that Vang Vieng sensed our mood and the tubing experienced was much more relaxed and we enjoyed a chilled out float down the river with some cold beers. Despite remaining relatively sensible on our second tubing experience I still managed to drink far too much during the evening and woke up with a stinking hangover not looking forward to the 6 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang. My mood was not helped as the bus sat at the station for well over an hour before departing and then seemed to stop for a break every 5 minutes.

Eventually we arrived in Luang Prabang and I enjoyed a few quiet days exploring the city after the excesses of Vang Vieng. After a few days spent enjoying the night market and the fantastic street food and a very interesting day hike to visit the different hill tribe villages I booked myself on the slow boat towards Thailand.

The next two days were spent on a barge boat filled with a mixture of locals, tourists and cargo drifting down the Mekong on seats that had once belonged to a car. It was a relaxed, enjoyable way to travel and as most people make the journey in the opposite direction the boat was relatively quiet. After the second day you recognized a lot of the faces on board and a group of us headed for the Thai border when the boat pulled into Huay Xai. After far too much faffing around with a local that was trying to help but making things twice as complicated we got a room booked and I went for a couple of beers with an Aussie lad of the boat.

The next day I took a bus to Chiang Mai in Thailand where I visited an awesome anarchy themed, Burmese owned burrito restaurant (yes I know….another one!). From Chiang Mai I flew down to Bangkok (I had wanted to take the train but I wasn’t sure if I would get to Chiang Mai in time so I booked a flight) and then onto Manila in the Philippines.

Catch up 1: The Wedding Crasher!

I have been truly awful at keeping this blog updated and I am currently several months and several countries behind my travels but over the next few days I am going to make an attempt and catching up so here goes…Part 1:

After Mark and I parted ways I flew from Bangkok to Siam Reap, Siam Reap is a very touristy but nice and relaxed town which would be very nice to walk around if you were not constantly harassed by tuk tuk drivers who surprisingly / frustratingly / strangely impressively manage to outdo their counterparts in Bangkok. After spending my first few days visiting the national museum, avoiding the aforementioned tuk tuk drivers at the market and donating blood at the children’s hospital (yes, yes I am a hero…but don’t go on about it) I finally caved in and hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to explore the temples of Angkor.

After an early start and a bit of last minute renegotiation as my driver claimed that “The Grand Tour” does not include the three most significant temples (not particularlu grand then is it?). After a brief discussion(and me threatening to go with one of the other 1.5 billion (rough estimate) tuk tuk drivers in Siam Reap we both agreed that I was right and so headed off to Angkor Wot. Angkor Wot is a large sprawling temple that actually forms a small walled city. After that I explored seven other temples ranging from the huge walled city of Angkor Thom to some smaller temples that had been largely overrun by jungle.

The day after I visited the war museum that had a fairly limited display of items however it was fascinating as it included a free tour from a war veteran. The guy who showed me round had lost a leg from a landmine and told some interesting stories although he did hold some fairly peculiar political opinions and it was difficult to tell which side he was fighting in some of his stories, after the war museum I booked myself on a moto cross trip for the next day.

Another early start (see Mum…I’m not a complete bum) and I was on the bike being given a crash (more on this in a bit) course on how to ride a bike with gears. Once my guide was convinced I had a rough idea how things worked then we were off into the Cambodian countryside. After a few hours down some pretty rugged roads we hit a particularly sandy patch, I see my guide shift his weight and flick the bike round a sharp corner with consummate ease and feeling like I am really getting the hang of the bike I do exactly as he did.

As I lay on one side with the bike on top of me I concluded that as I am still a beginner maybe I should try taking the sharp, sandy corners at a slightly more modest pace. After a brief stop at a temple (not sure if he was hinting that I would need the power of prayer to get through this alive) we made it to our lunchtime stop where things took a turn for the bazaar.

DCIM104GOPRO

I am led to believe that people normally top for a bowl of noodles before continuing their tour however as my guide had forgotten that he was supposed to be at a friend’s wedding this ended up being our lunch stop. We made my way through a four course meal and I tried to limit the amount of beer I drank (not easy with all the toasts…even the groom came over to share a drink with the strange white guy at his wedding) before hoping back on the bikes and heading back into Siam Reap (I didn’t fall off again so that’s a big tick for drink driving).

DCIM104GOPRO

From Siam Reap I headed to Sihanoukville where I had booked myself a 4* hotel by the sea for the Christmas Period. After a couple of quiet days I arranged a day of diving on Christmas Day. I was up at 7.30 (no presents…thanks Santa) and took a boat to the Island of Koh Rong which was apparently where the original survivor series was shot. From Koh Rong we jumped on to the dive boat and spent an enjoyable day completing two dives with the highlight being two large male cuttlefish who were far too busy fighting over a female (domestic violence always increases over the festive period) to worry about us and therefore we spent a good ten minutes within touching distance of these strange creatures. After a good days diving it was back to the main land where I skyped the family before indulging in a nice steak dinner.

On Boxing Day I was back on the bus to my Phnom Penh for my final stop on this brief tour of Cambodia. I was staying in some basic accommodation by the royal palace and after I had got my bearings I headed out to S21 which was previously a school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into prison/torture camp. The camp is not particularly well maintained but was still very poignant especially when you see the conditions that prisoners where kept in. After another day in Phnom Phen I got a tuk tuk to visit the killing fields. There is not actually much at the killing fields as the locals dismantled all of the buildings in desperation and anger after the Khmer Rouge where defeated however the audio guide provided by survivors of the regime is very moving and the fragments of bone and clothing that are still being unearthed to this day are horrifying as is the central pagoda filled with the skulls of the bodies that were uncovered in the excavated mass graves.

After witnessing the complete devastation and destruction that human beings are able to inflict upon one another I turned down the tuk tuk drivers insistent offer to go to a firing range to fire guns and rocket launchers (only a God bless America spouting, George Bush loving, NRA membership card holding hillbilly could take any joy in firing a gun after seeing such mindless loss of life).

Then next day I took a bus from Phnom Penh to HCMC which was a fairly comfortable enough journey except for the horrendous border crossing. For some reason the Cambodians and Vietnamese have abandoned the system used by the rest of the world and instead insist that all of the passports are collected together and then your name is called out when you can go through. We were left standing in the corridor while a couple of border control officers idly chatted hoping that their bribe express payment might be increased. About every ten minutes one name might be called out but the westerners would be immediately forgotten them moment any locals arrived and pushed through the crowed.

After over two hours and a few extra payments from the bus company to border control we eventually hopped back on the bus and made our way into HCMC. After faffing around with a Taxi with a dodgy meter (luckily I spotted it early) and a motorbike taxi who appeared to have absolutely no knowledge of the city I eventually settled into my hotel. I had a brief walk around HCMC grabbed some dinner and then headed up to the 12th floor sky bar to watch the fireworks at midnight. After midnight I went for another walk with the city lit up by lightshows from all of the skyscrapers. I have never seen chaos like it with all of the roads gridlocked and mopeds blocking every pavement. After stopping for a beer or two (simply to let the traffic die down) I eventually made it back to my hotel to get some sleep.

After a good breakfast including copious amounts of blue cheese (a bit strange at breakfast but after 8 months without any decent cheese you just don’t care) I swapped hotels and had a wonder down by the river. In the evening Dad arrived and we headed out for a few beers and a good catch up.

Then next day we headed out to tick off the tourist hotspots of HCMC including Ben Than market (where most of the prices started off at such a ridiculous level that I just walked away), the war remnants museum (quite interesting but very emotive, propaganda driven message) and the old royal palace. This was all rounded off by a good chunk of fillet steak and a nice bottle of wine (good to have you in Vietnam Dad!)

The next day we headed out in a car to the Cu Chi tunnels which are a series of interconnecting tunnels that allowed Vietnamese village life to continue underground when under heavy aerial bombardment from the U.S forces. There was a brief video (the American Imperialists once again took a not so subtle bashing) and then we were taken on a tour of the tunnels. Dad was excused from a lot of the tighter tunnels but our guide seemed to think I was a small Vietnamese kid and insisted that I follow him into the tightest tunnels (I wasn’t so keen when he tried to send me in first to a trap door that I’m not sure even he planned to go into).

We then headed back to the city, took a trip out to Chinatown to look round the markets and then went to visit the backpacker area. It took us a little while to find it but when we did the streets were heaving and as dad treated me to dinner the day before I repaid the favour with a dirt cheap meal and a bottle of 30p beer.

The next day we left HCMC and headed to the coastal town of Mui Ne which is a Russian dominated resort about 5 hours from HCMC. We checked into a cracking two bedroom apartment on a resort with a good 5 swimming pools, its own fishing lake, a golf course and of course a wine castle (this backpacking lark is pretty tough). After a couple of days exploring the beach and local fishing village (not the romantic sea food extravaganza I had imagined but a smelly town where they made fish sauce) and relaxing by the pool we hired ourselves a couple of motorbikes.

The next day we visited the white sand dunes which were impressive where we rode around looking for an entrance before eventually finding a way in and having a go on some fun but underpowered quadbikes. We then rode back with the sun on our bakes and some stunning views across the coast. We had the bikes another day and visited the local town which had a really nice local market and we enjoyed wandering around without everyone trying to flog things to us.

After a returning the bikes we had a relaxed couple of days indulging in some tremendous sea food and a spot of whisky and visited the wine castle intrigued to see what Vietnamese wine was like. It turned out that they merely imported Californian wine but this did not stop us from getting stuck into some samples. The next day I headed up the coast to Nha Trang and Dad went back to the UK (apparently Nikki was having some sort of get together).

Better Late Than Never

Much like Prince Charles’s glorious reign as king, Barrack Obama’s plans to shut Guantanamo Bay and virtually every bit of schoolwork I was every assigned this blog has fallen dramatically behind schedule. Since leaving Myanmar I have been back into Thailand, on to Cambodia and am now in Vietnam. Seeing as these blogs are stupidly long at the best of times I will deal with Thailand today and then endeavor to catch up with myself over the next few weeks.

After our trial separation Mark and I met up again in Bangkok where we had a fairly uneventful few days although we did manage to tick off the Royal Palace which was worth seeing and considering this was our third visit it felt like we should see the biggest tourist attraction. From Bangkok we flew up to Chaing Mai in the North of Thailand, after a few quiet days relaxing by the pool and checking out the nice laid back bar scene life we signed up for a cooking course. We were picked up from the hotel and taken to a local cookery school which had excellent facilities and a good group of people. After knocking up some tasty spring rolls and tom yam soup for breakfast we headed to the market where we were shown plenty of local ingredients and I think the fact we had already (rather drunkenly) tried the 100 day old egg won us some credit with the Thais. After that it was back to the cookery school for curries, stir fry and pudding to round off a fantastic day.

After a few more days in Chiang Mai we picked up our trusty wheels for the next seven days.

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Due to a strange tax law it was just as cheap to hire a pickup truck as it was to get a little Honda jazz..and obviously a truck is much cooler. We set off at about midday and after a deliberate detour into the mountains and a slightly less deliberate detour into god (and luckily Mark’s Iphone) knows where we arrived at a small town where we found somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep and then most importantly somewhere to have a few drinks. Despite telling ourselves that we would just have a few beers we somehow ended up in a lock in at a local bar where Mark and a few of the locals seemed intent on marrying me off to their families.

Waking the next day having just about escaped the bar as a single man we abandoned all ideas of an early start and instead headed off at about midday once our heads had cleared. After about three hours we arrived at the town of Mae Hong Son which is the half way point of the loop and was supposed to be our next stop however due to a national holiday almost everything was closed and the one grubby little hotel we did see was overpriced. We decided to get back into the truck and drive for another couple of hours to Cave Lodge.

Cave Lodge is pretty basic accommodation on the border between Thailand and Myanmar run by an Australian who has spent his life exploring the caves and integrating with the locals and came highly recommended to me by Brett and Emma. The next day Mark and I set off to do some Cave exploring of our own and after one or two errors that resulted in us climbing a completely unnecessary mountain (Mark swears the map was wrong) we finally concurred Big Knob (yes it really was called Big Knob and yes this is a significant part of the reason we chose this climb). After taking in the stunning views and poking around the caves for a while we descended feeling exhausted, bruised and a little smug when we saw people heading in the wrong direction.

On top of the Big Knob!

On top of the Big Knob!

After proving ourselves as cavers the next day we booked a kayaking tour trip that took us down some rapids, through a giant cave before leaving the kayaks for a spot of proper caving in the “wilderness” cave which was boiling hot and a pretty tight squeeze. We finished the paddle back including a couple of waterfalls and then got picked up and taken back to the lodge.

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After a couple of very enjoyable days at Cave Lodge with some great people it was time to get back on the road for a short drive to Pai. We spent a few days in Pai which had a nice laid back island feel and after a few days we completed the loop and had a night back in Chiang Mai before driving up to Chiang Rai to return the car. Chiang Rai is a fairly quiet town further north near the Laos border. We had a few more relaxed days by the pool (At this stage mark wanted all the sun and beer he could find before returning to the UK) and visited the White Pagoda which was a strange mix of practicing church and graffiti / cartoon hotspot.. Before leaving Chiang Rai we had our official Christmas night out which involved beers round the pool accompanied by festive songs (we got a few strange looks as we sang along to White Christmas when it was well over 30 degrees) followed by a trip into town.

From Chiang Rai we flew back down to Bangkok and had a few beers on the Koh San Road for Mark’s leaving do. The next day Mark flew back to the UK and I headed for Christmas in Cambodia. Seeing as my sister is currently getting married (Congratulations and all that!) I doubt even my mum will bother reading this entry so I will save the joys of Cambodia and Vietnam to a later date.

At that price you would be losing money not drinking it.

My first stop in Myanmar was the old capital and biggest city Yangon. I had been told that accommodation is relatively expensive in Myanmar so I was surprised when I managed to book a private room for £7 a night but when I arrived the old adage that “you get what you pay for” proved to be very true. The room was extremely sparse with bare concrete walls, a cold hosepipe for a shower and bars across the glassless windows – things can only get better.

Yangon is like a lot of Asian cities with all of the dust, sounds and smells that you might expect but with a scattering of elaborate pagodas which make a nice distraction. I am finding that with a few exceptions it is difficult to just wonder round and enjoy getting lost in the cities like you can in places like Eastern Europe as there is a lot less to stumble across although I did find a nice lake with a wooden walkway and some stunning gold statues.

After a couple of days in Yangon I decided to cut my stay short and despite having paid for three nights in my prison cell hotel I jumped on the overnight train to Mandalay. Some of the guide books and websites warn you against train travel in Myanmar but a quick look on the man in seat 61 (seat61.com – amazing website for train travel anywhere in the world) convinced me that it could be a fun adventure and seeing as Myanmar recently abandoned increased pricing for foreigners it was also very cost effective.

After a bit of confusion surrounding my ticket and watching a train load of prisoners disembark (probably off to my hotel) and wait to be loaded on to pickup trucks I found my sleeper cabin which I was sharing with a Dutch couple and despite the negative reports we rolled out of the station bang on time. After dinner (which was cheap by western standards but much more expensive than you would find elsewhere in Myanmar with chicken, fried rice and a beer costing almost as much as my ticket) we enjoyed few beers chatting about our respective adventures (they had met competing in the Dakar rally) and watching the rural Myanmar world go by.

We were woken after a good nights sleep despite the extremely bumpy track by coffee and an over friendly train guard who kept sitting with us and insisted photos in every possible combination including me and the Dutch guy’s girlfriend which was a bit strange. We arrived in Mandalay just half an hour later than advertised and I jumped on a motorbike taxi to my hotel. This hotel was much nicer than the one in Yangon (not that hard) although it was a little but out of the main city. I had a wonder around the local area before getting on a motorbike taxi to catch the sunset at U Bein bridge. U Bein is made of teak rescued from the destroyed palace and at 1.6km long it is the largest wooden bridge in the world. The bridge was teaming with tourists although luckily a lot of them were very lazy so a good walk along the bridge meant I was pretty much alone with the locals, monks and fishing boats.

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The next day I jumped on a bus heading up into the Shan region in the mountainous north of Myanmar. The bus was nowhere near as interesting or comfortable as the train but it was a little quicker and allowed me to leave at 2pm rather than at four in the morning. I had arranged to do a three day motorbike tour up in the mountains starting in a town called Kyaukme (pronounced Chow Mei) however after a good five hours on the bus we stopped at the side of the road for a “comfort break” and when I asked the driver about Kyakme he said “no Kyakme only Hispaw (pronounced see paw…I’m not making this up).

Shortly after we arrived in Hispaw and I managed to secure myself a room before heading out to grab some food. I was feeling pretty disappointed about missing out on the motorcycle trip as it sounded incredible and a good way to get even further off of the beaten track so I decided to indulge in a few cold beers. As I left my guesthouse I had noticed a sign saying that the doors were locked at 10pm so as I felt a like Cinderella sitting at Mr Food trying not to sulk and enjoy few cold beers (at least old cinders got until midnight!)

The next day I arranged a two day trek up into the Shan villages and then went for a bit of a practice walk (practice makes perfect). Despite Hispaw being a relatively well known trekking base (by Myanmar standards) as soon as you walked away from the town you were catapulted into rural life with children ridiculously excited to see you (they all shout bye-bye rather than hello), ancient farming methods that would please a few people back in Norfolk and stunning mountain views. After walking for around 90 minutes I decided to head home as I knew I had a full day of trekking tomorrow and it would soon be getting dark.

The next day I was up at 7.45 and headed to the sister hotel of my guesthouse to begin the trek. After a short tuk tuk ride we began walking and I spent an enjoyable day getting to know the people in our group of seven and taking in the views. In total we walked about for about eight hours of gentle uphill with a break for some tasty traditional food at lunch. When we got to the village we were staying in we were met by a pack of crazy local kids (is it a pack or should it be a swarm?) and a kind family that ran a guesthouse / homestay.

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Most of our group (all but me and a German girl named Cordilla) headed back down in a tuk tuk as they had plans to move on the next day. There were plenty of others already at the guesthouse and after being convinced by Cordillla that we needed to try the local rum I got chatting with a couple of London based Irish guys called Ross and Jason.

After an enjoyable dinner shared between about 15 people staying at the guesthouse and a few guides and locals Cordilla abandoned me after the first small bottle of rum to get an early night and left me in the hands of the two Irish lads. Now…several previous experiences such as missing the Island I intended to visit in Greece should have taught me not to stay up drinking with the Irish but as Ross kept telling me “At these prices (60p for a small bottle of rum and 25p for a bottle of rice wine) you would be losing money not drinking.

Not one to argue with sound advice from a city based financial analyst we spent the evening drinking the guesthouse out of rum and rice wine before finishing off with a beer and staggering up the stairs. Luckily as the locals tend to go to bed early even after our extended drinking session, that had an early casualty in the one guide who decided to drink with us, it was only around midnight by the time we made it to bed however I still felt like I needed a lot longer in my little fleece blanket on the floor when our guide woke me at 7am.

After a hearty rice based breakfast and drinking as much water as I can to keep the headache at bay we headed out on the trek home. After about an hour and a very steep climb we stopped at a monastery for a rest and to see what all the commotion was about. It turned out that because it was the Myanmar New Year four young boys were to become novices (trainee monks). Apparently every boy in Myanmar has to stay at the monastery and become a novice for at least five days and they can then decide to return home, extend their stay or become full time monks. We were made very welcome and given plenty of sickly sweet tea and more cakes, sweets and biscuits than we could ever hope to eat. It was very interesting hearing about their lifestyle and it turned out that our 18 year old guide had been a novice for five years and only left his monastery in Mandalay last year.

After leaving the monastery we walked for another few hours before stopping for lunch and getting a tuk tuk back to Hispaw. In the afternoon Cordilla and I took a walk up to the old royal palace. The lady who runs the palace (more like a colonial mansion as the original palace was destroyed) told the fascinating story of the individual state rulers and how they were persecuted when the military coup took over the Union. Unfortunately she was a little hurried as the chief of military was due to pay her a visit and I am also a led to believe she can be a little more candid with her opinions when she has a smaller group. The story was intriguing enough to persuade me to download the book written by the Shan princess (Twilight Over Burma) although as yet it remains unread (I had to give Roy Keane’s ego based rant the priority it deserves).

The next day I was back on the trains heading to a small colonial town called Pyin Oo Lynne. There was a long queue for foreigners to buy tickets as they were meticulously recording passport details (they didn’t seem to bother with this in Yangon) and the man issuing tickets was not one to be rushed stopping to answer the phone, put more betel in his mouth already overflowing with the blood red liquid it gives off or simply to have a chat. Luckily the Myanmar train network was reliably unreliable and as the train trundled in about twenty minutes late our laid back ticket official was just scribbling down my hand written ticket.

After a couple of hours we pulled in to the Kyuakme (where I should have done the motorbike tour) and I jumped out to get some cheap and tasty rice and curry (I learnt my lesson from the previous train). A few hours later and we approached the highlight of an impressive journey as we crossed the Goltrek viaduct. This is a bridge that spans a huge cavern and at the time it was built by the British it was the highest bridge in the world. The views were stunning and luckily I read that the government have recently started to carry out maintenance on the bridge as an old British insurance policy had lapsed. After crossing the viaduct we stopped and people jumped off to get a few more photos of the bridge before a frantic scramble back onto the moving train.

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The rest of the journey was spectacular although nothing could compete with crossing the viaduct. A few more hours spent relaxing on the train and I reached my destination Pynne Oo Lynne. It is a nice little town and after checking in to a hotel I had a wonder around and sampled some tasty Indian street food and quails eggs from the night market. On the way back I brought a bottle of local wine to try and from, what I can only assume is scientifically factual label I would have been an idiot not to finish the bottle.

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The next day I opted for a shared taxi back to Mandalay as it was over three hours faster than the train which gave me time to visit the royal palace when I arrived. The palace is quite nice (nothing on the Thai palace) with a watch tour to get some great views however the government are very restrictive of where you can actually visit and at £6 the entry is quite steep by Myanmar standards. I had a nice long walk all the way around the palace complex (only partially because I couldn’t find the entrance) and then had some food before hitting the hay.

The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the river ferry down to Bagan – my final stop in Myanmar. The ferry was a bit pricier than the trains but it was very nice relaxing with a beer on the sun deck and watching people go about their daily lives on the river bank. Bagan is the most touristy of all the places I have visited in Myanmar and seems to be the one place where the locals see westerners as dollar signs like some other parts of South East Asia.

Bagan has gained popularity due to the number and quality of temples, monasteries and pagodas that litter the landscape everywhere you look. I spent two very enjoyable days on a rented E-bike (think glorified…well not that glorified…old peoples scooter) popping from one temple to next and particularly enjoyed the small isolated temples you could stumble across away from the tourists, hawker stalls and people selling sand paintings.

After a couple of days in Bagan I was back on the trains where I had a sleeper carriage all to myself for the long journey back to Yangon. In Yangon I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda before heading back to Thailand to meet back up with Mark.

N.B I have been a bit rubbish at updating this blog of late and given the monumental length of this post I decided against tagging the last few weeks in Northern Thailand onto the end of it. I will try and update it again fairly soon.

One Night in Bangkok and the World’s Your Oyster

After leaving Ko Phagnan on the five o’clock ferry we were left waiting at the station for the overnight train that was delayed by almost two hours and somehow overtaken by the later train. As we waited in the mossie-ridden dump of a station, paying every time we wanted to go to the loo, I managed to get just enough wifi to find out that Norwich had managed to throw away a 1-0 lead in the last five minutes and lost 2-1. It made a change for me to be the grumpy one as we eventually boarded the train at around 1.30. The cabin itself was nice enough although there was not enough room to swing a cat, or more importantly (as neither of us had a cat to swing) to try and find a sensible storage place for two large rucksacks.

After a reasonable nights sleep on the train we had a wonder down to the restaurant car which for some reason had no food so we sat and had a coffee and watched the world go by predicting that we must be entering the outskirts of Bangkok every time the passing scenery got even vaguely built up. In the early afternoon the train trundled in to Bangkok station around three hours late where we grabbed some food before getting the metro to our hotel.

Keen to make the most of our time in Bangkok we headed straight out on the sky train to the Chatuchuk weekend market (the largest market in Bangkok). There were stalls everywhere selling everything imaginable although often the prices quoted were so ridiculous we didn’t even bother to haggle and simply walked away. We did buy a few little things as well as getting stuck into some delicious Thai street food before getting back on the Metro and heading to China town. China town is busy maze of streets, motorbikes and food stalls although despite it’s reputation for great street food we actually preferred what was on offer at the night market.

Despite the long journey the night before we both fancied a few beers so headed out to see what nightlife Bangkok had to offer. After a few beers close to our hotel we had a walk up to the red light district (well…one of them…I am told there are quite a few) and had a drink in the GoGo bar made famous by The Hangover 2. This is supposedly one of the less seedy bars however I still found it pretty slimy with girls wearing numbers dancing on stage and creepy old men picking which one they want like something out of the Argos catalogue. One thing that did make me laugh is that all of the stuff wear numbers including some pretty grisly woman bouncing the door who I imagine is not overwhelmed with customers.

Having seen the red light district and with neither of us having any intention of paying for a girl or more importantly continuing to pay twice the normal price for out beer we headed back towards the hotel and had a few drinks there before calling it a night. After an unremarkable day exploring Bangkok and stopping in little India for a curry the day after we were back on the sky train as we headed to a shopping mall that had a decent food court and where I brought myself a GoPro (shockproof and waterproof camera which will hopefully let me get some good diving pictures) as a little birthday present.

In the evening we headed to the famous backpackers area around the Kho San Road. After an interesting appetiser of a deep friend cricket and scorpion (both tasted salty with the cricket having a juicy middle – not dissimilar to pork scratchings) we had some food and wondered to a few bars. The Kho San Road blasts loud music and you are constantly hassled to buy crappy souvenirs, go into bars or take a taxi to a ping pong show (I never even realised the Thais were so into table tennis) and I am glad the we took many peoples advice to stay closer to the centre of Bangkok.

The next day Mark and I went our separate ways with him off to meet up with his Dad and complete a whistle stop tour of Singapore, Langkawi and KL before heading back to Bangkok while I am off to see Myanmar (what we used to call Burma under British rule). Myanmar has been highly recommended to me by several people during my trip and only opened their borders to foreigners in 2010 so it will be interesting to see the contrast with some of their more developed neighbours.

I am actually nearing the end of my time in Myanmar but if I include everything now it will be a stupidly long blog post (even by my standards) and there is no chance of breaking it up with pictures due to the speed of the internet here so I will post another update when I am back in Bangkok.

One Day Baby We’ll Be Old!

After a one day layover in Hat Yail we arrived at the island of Koh Lipe and booked in to a bamboo hut and set off to explore the Island. Mark signed himself up to do the open water diving course (diving gets everybody eventually) and I joined him on the boat for a day of diving on his second day. My first dive was with a crazy Frenchman called Antoine who took us down to a shipwreck at 40 meters and it was the first time I had done a dive with decompression stops so that was a cool experience. I then joined Mark on the boat for a further two dives (sorry PADI) with him and his instructor including a site that one of the instructors in Malaysia had recommended called Stonehenge. Stonehenge was stunning and more colourful than anywhere I had dived before followed by a nice third dive with very good visibility.

After a couple of days on Koh Lipe we were joined by Brett and Emma who I had met on the Perhentian Islands and we had a few beers and a good catch up. The next couple of days we tended to chill on the beach during the day and then meet up with Brett and Emma for dinner and a couple of drinks then they would go home at a fairly sensible time and we would end up having a skin full with the crazy old Rastafarian barmen in a very cool bar called Sawasadee.

Brett, Emma and I had another days diving with a long trip out to a rock 8 miles from Koh Lipe. The boat was pretty slow and on the way back the driver was not doing a great job of navigating the increasingly choppy water. We were all sat on the top deck eating our lunch and the combination of the wind and the waves meant that the fish got more than their faire share off my rice. After a few more laid back day including Mark getting very excited about a bottle of cream in 7/11 called Fook and a visit to the hotel by about 12 fully armed soldiers (we were told the fairly unlikely tell that they were taking measurements for the land registry) we decided to move on. Brett and Emma headed back to Malysia and Mark and I embarked on a gruelling two ferry and two buss trip to another Island called Koh Lanta (not great after a crazy night at Sawasadee and only a couple of hours sleep.)

Koh Lanta is a much bigger Island than Koh Lipe and after several recommendations we decided to hire two 125cc scooters to explore the island. Mark and I both did one day driving around Koh Lanta Yai (the main island) and I also rented a bike for another day and took the ferry over to the smaller island and explored some of the more remote rural roads around the jungle. Aside from becoming honorary members of Hell’s Angels we spent plenty of time chilling out at the beach, hanging out with some lads that owned a local bar (bar owners seem to like us…I can’t work out why) and playing some locals at the Thai national sport (Jenga…seriously these people are insanely good at Jenga).

The final stop on what has basically been a glorified beach holiday on the Thai islands was Koh Phagnan (home to the infamous full moon parties). As we recently discovered we are basically professional bikers we once again rented a couple of motorbikes (at £2 each it was rude not to) and set of to explore the Island. We stopped by Haad Rin, home to the Full Moon Parties, and a surprisingly pleasant stretch of golden sand. From there we went off into the mountainous north of the island that has less tourists, more jungle and some pretty incredible views. We handed the bikes back before going to Haad Rin for a reccy before the big party (there are plenty of walking wounded to dissuade you from driving your moped on a night out). Haad Rin was completely transformed into a sea of bars, neon lights and people. We had a good night but got too drunk too early as we started drinking the little buckets of spirit and mixer far to early and we were tucked up in bed by 1.30 – all in all not the most successful of reconnaissance trips.

After a quiet day nursing hangovers at the local sauna the big night arrived. There are reportedly around 10,000 people that turned up, Mark suggested they were here for the full moon but I am pretty sure word had got out that the party was on my birthday and that’s why there were so many people dressed in neon and having the time of their lives. We chilled out in the bar at our hotel until about 11, winning the beer pong (27…but still a natural athlete) and then a large group of us headed to the beach. The beach was once again a sea of neon although the amount of people (10,000…pay attention) was overwhelming and far more than on our practice trip two days earlier. We had learnt our lesson from the dummy run and this time stayed on the beers a lot longer before moving on to those silly little buckets. We had a cracking night although I didn’t enjoy a group of girls requesting “one day baby we’ll be old” after finding out I was 27 that day. Mark has even said it is in his top three nights of all time…something that makes me wish I could remember a bit more of it.

Tonight we get an overnight train to Bangkok and who knows maybe we will even manage to do something more cultural than getting drunk or sitting on a beach.

King of the Swingers! (not those kind of swingers)

From Pulau Weh Mark and I headed back to the city of Banda Aceh to spend a few days there. Banda Aceh was one of the cities that was most affected by the 2004 tsunami with over 160,000 people loosing their lives.

They have built a large museum that doubles up as a shelter should another tsunami hit. Unfortunately, like the world peace pagoda and the battle box, the Tsunami Museum was shut (that’s going to be a great shelter). We did see a couple of poignant memorials including a large fishing boat that had settled on the roof of a house a good few kilometres in land.

Apart from the Tsunami tributes there is not a lot going on In Banda Aceh and after a couple of days we flew back to Medan (my carbon footprint must be shocking).

After a quick stop in Medan and the first beers for well over a week we headed out to the jungle to a place called Bukit Lawang. We checked in to an extremely basic room (at £1.25 each a night you can’t really complain) and had a wonder round the small village on the outskirts of the jungle.

The next day Mark and I ventured out for a bit of a hike along the river and into the outskirts of the jungle. Bukit Lawang is an awesome place and I think it is fair to say they have mastered crossing rivers.

Any idea how this works?

Any  idea how this works?

He knows!

He knows!

After our practice we signed ourselves up for a two day trek into the jungle. We set of the next day in a group of six; me, Mark, Rambo (our guide complete with headband and jungle knife), little Rambo (his son), another guide (didn’t look life any film characters) and Eapanyol (Spanish guy who seemed nice, spoke very little English and was also referred to as Juan and Raul although I think his actual name was David).

The trek was hard going with numerous ridiculous climbs followed by equally tricky descents but it was well worth it for the stunning views across the jungle and several face to face encounters with the wild orangutans.

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I wasn’t exactly overly prepared for the trip but Mark represented the perfect hybrid of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls in his white t-shirt, Adidas plimsolls and one of those string bags that 12 year old girls use to take their P.E kit into school.

After a long day trekking we reached our camp (a few wooden shelters with a bit of tarpaulin throw on) had a swim in the river, some food cooked over the fire and settled in to the shelter for the night as the rain cascaded down outside.

Just as everyone was nodding off I noticed something moving at the top of the tent. It turned out to be a snake and I lay there watching it for a while as Mark took photos. We debated waking the guide but I suggested that they would not be too bothered and anyway, in my expert opinion, it looked a bit like a corn snake.

After a couple of minutes the commotion woke Rambo up and his reaction suggested I may of misidentified out reptilian friend.

Rambo shot up kicking his son awake and within seconds all three guides were up on their feet and backing away from the snake. This convinced me that I should probably also be on my feet and it turned out that my corn snake was actually a viper and had it bitten someone they would only have 24 hours to get an anti venom. After the whole camp came over for a look at our pet snake he eventually slithered away and we all got some much needed sleep (Espanyal was at the other end of the tent and slept through the whole thing).

The next day we had a brief hike before stopping for a bit of lunch expertly cooked on the open fire by Rambo and co. After lunch we headed back to Bukit Lawang on a raft made from tractor inner tubes tied together.

Back in Bucket Lewang Ray Mears persuaded us to splash out a bit on accommodation (turns out he didn’t get any sleep due to a lack of a blanket or insect repellent) and we booked a very nice duplex apartment with views of the river and the jungle. It was only after we had eaten dinner and brought a few beers for the night we sat down and worked out how little money we had left between us.

As Bukit Lewang has no ATMs we were staring down the barrel of complete poverty. In the end I managed to change $20 which gave us enough money to eat and we convinced a taxi to take us back to civilisation the next day and let us pay at the other end. We left Bukt Lawang which was definitely the highlight of Indonesia after a breakfast of instant noodles and with the equivalent on 15p between us.

Tomorrow we head to Thailand!

What do you mean you don’t sell beer

Having followed the carefully thought out plan E to the letter (no pun intended) I made it to a nice, pod style hostel in the Chinatown area of Singapore. I spent a few quiet days chilling out and wondering round the city. My plan on the second day was to visit the “battle box” which aims to recreate the final moments before Singapore was invaded by the Russians. I walked past the very nice Clarke Quay area and then climbed to the top of Fort Canning park witch had some nice views over the City below. When I eventually got to the battle box, having followed signs some of which I’m pretty sure were pointing in opposite directions, I was met by a scruffy looking bit of laminated paper stating that they were reviewing their defences and would be closed until further notice. Thanks Singapore…I hope the Russians invade again!

Having enjoyed a nice meal and my second taste of wine in three months I jumped on an overnight bus back to Kuala Lumpa. I only had one day in KL and this time I succumbed to the Market and Wholesale shops that my Dad is such a big fan of and it turns out that, like Pringles, once you pop you just can’t stop. Also like Pringles, a week later anything that is still left is not worth having.

My next stop was Jakarta and after a couple of days in Jakarta Mark (my new travel buddy) arrived close to midnight and we cracked open a few cold beers to catch up. It is fair to say that Jakarta is not the easiest city on the eye but we had a good walk around saw the national monument and the old town square as well as having a couple of well haggled tuk-tuk rides.

Our next stop was Bali heading straight to Kuta which is a party town near the airport. I had not heard great things but you have got to see these things for yourself at least once. It turned out that those people warning me about Kuta had a bloody good point as despite being based around a very nice beach the place is full of drunk Aussies, horrible hotels (the place we stayed being a prime example) and people constantly trying to sell you all kinds of crap from Kuta vests to Crystal Meth (these a poem in there somewhere).

Kuta - nice beach but a bit of a dump

Kuta – nice beach but a bit of a dump

As the place seemed to be crawling with drunken idiots we decided the best thing to do was to blend in to the crowed and disguise ourselves as drunken idiots as well. Our disguise was highly effective and we eventually got back at about 8 after an eventful night that included me chasing down a pickpocket with a turn of pace akin to Giggs in his prime and forcing them to give me phone back by telling them I would ring the police (not sure how I was going to do that as they had my phone). After indulging in the free continental breakfast (two slices of toast) and a brisk swim we finally collapsed to grab what sleep we could in the worst beds this side of Guantanamo.

After Kuta we headed to Tulamben which is the polar opposite of Kuta and made a nice, relaxing change. There is one main road, a few restaurants, plenty of dive shops and a rocky volcanic beach. The hotel was much nicer with a decent pool and we had a nice relaxed couple of days. Mark did an introductory dive U.S Liberty Shipwreck and I went with him and snuck in a cheeky night dive. It was really cool diving somewhere new with volcanic sand and different marine life after all the dives in Malaysia

From Tulamben we jumped on a boat for a rather bumpy crossing to Gili Trawangan, people were screaming, crying and throwing up (ok that was all one over dramatic French girl). Mark and I appear to struggle to know when a night is over as for the second time we found ourselves at home safe and sound after a night out when Mark said “turn the light on in ten seconds if you want to go back out”, I sprung out of the bed and the light was on before my feet had touched the floor (those Giggs in his prime reactions again). We headed back out and the night ended with me cycling past Mark on a bike I had “borrowed” from the local hostel. Mark “found” himself a bike and we decided to cycle round the island however when we hit the sand it became hard work and we abandoned the plan, returned the bikes and went to bed. The rest of the time on Gilli T was spent with a day trip snorkelling and visiting the other islands, taking our daily walk round the island and bumming around by the beach.

We had hoped to get as far East as Komodo but a combination of the time and cost to get there as well as being stood up by Brett and Emma led to us abandoning the plan to spend more time in the west. Therefore our final stop back in the East of Indonesia was Sanur back on the “Aussie Gheto”(Ingam, 2014) that is Bali. Sanur had a half decent beach but appeared to be where the Kuta crowed went when they had knocked someone up and been forced to settle down. We did pop across to good old Kuta for a day trip to the water park which must be the best thing about the place, the highlight being a ride called Climax where you are locked into a “launch pod” that counts down then the floor drops from beneath you and you accelerate to almost 70kph on the near vertical slide. Aside from the poorly named but well built Climax there were a few other fun slides and I enjoyed kicking Mark’s ass on the races (gravity, you are my friend).

The next day we were up bright and early for a fun day of travelling as we were flying up to the other end of the archipelago (who planned this route?). After three flights (turns out Mark isn’t the biggest fan of take offs and landings) we arrived in Banda Acech in the very west of Indonesia. We had gone from being in Tourist hell to being a tourist attraction (we might have to start charging for photos).

After a fun day trying to communicate with locals for accommodation, food and taxis on the outskirts of Banda Acheh we got a boat across to Palau Weh where I was hoping to do some diving. The trip from the Palau Weh harbour to Ibohi were we wanted to stay was absolutely stunning. Mark and I were sat in a sidecar with my backpack strapped to the front and his to the back all pulled along by a very underpowered moped. The steep mountains made for some impressive views across the jungle and out to sea but also made for some very slow accents, a long journey and a numb ass at the end of the trip. Iboih is a small village on the coast with a few dive shops, restaurants and shops but is a million miles (figuratively not geographically) from Bali and the Gili Islands and even makes Tulamben look quite bust. I am starting to wish I had learnt to say more than just Thank You in Indonesian.

Unfortunately our trip coincided with a major religious festival which involves the dive shops closing for the 5th and 6th of October. This only gave me the chance to do two dives (I was also planning a night dive but apparently word came down from the village that this would not be appropriate). Still two dives is better than none and after two quiet nights in Palau Weh we were rudely awakened by an annoying devil child jumping up and down in the room above. As I write this we are sat in the economy section of the slow boat waiting an indefinite amount of time to leave the shore (no sign of the express boat today) surrounded by crying kids. It’s been over a week since we have had a beer and right now I would happily kill for one to take the edge of this journey.

Apologies and Corrections

So after the last enthralling blog I received some feedback from several members of our esteemed dive shop community. Instead of thanking me for bringing a little bit of joy into their meaningless lives they complained so:

  • Safira’s name is Safira not Safia, Sophira, Maggie, Dave, Frank or anything else I may have put in the last blog.
  • There were lots of people at the dive shop not just the ones that I mentioned in the last blog and I liked/disliked the all equally.
  • One of those is Leanne/Leah (took me a few weeks to work out that was the same person) who was a fellow divemaster, evil drinking game co-ordinaor and most importantly went out with Ice Cold Joe!
  • Leah sneezed once.