Friday, 24 January 2014

A Return to Malaysia

My journey had been heading south through Thailand towards Malaysia.  And yet another interesting border crossing was to be encountered.  At least this time it wasn't due to the border authorities on either side.

Getting the bus to Penang meant getting the longtail boat off Tonsai back to Ao Nang.  This bit was accepted.  What wasn't was the rigmarole I had to go through with the buses.  A mini van picked me up from Ao Nang.  I was really hoping this wasn't to take me to Penang as it had seen better days.  It dropped me at a central point near Krabi to reassign passengers to other vans depending on where they were going.  I got back on the same van.  Alone.  I was then dropped off at their office in Krabi where I waited for 40 minutes before another van came to collect me with no one able to explain what was happening.  The next van was already full so I spent most of the 5 hours to Hat Yai, a border town in Thailand, sat on the very uncomfortable middle seat next to the driver.  At Hat Yai I was told to get off the van once more, again with no explanation of what was going on.  Thankfully it was only a short wait before I was bustled onto yet another van.  And finally someone was able to explain, albeit another passenger.  As there are so few people going from any particular place in South Thailand to the same place in Malaysia (other than the capital, Kuala Lumpur), they collect you and then gather you all in the same place before putting you onto a final van which takes everyone from different starting points to the same destination.  All very logical.  Would just help if someone explained this at some point...  Passports stamped & I was back in Malaysia and finally deposited in Georgetown, Penang, an island off the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula.

Georgetown is an old colonial town first settled by the British for the East India Company in 1786 for its strategic position at the north end of the Straits of Malacca, the main trade route to the Orient.  Other than a stint of Japanese occupation during World War II it remained under British control until Malaysian independence in 1957.  And that's your brief history lesson for now.

The city is, to me, beautiful.  Old colonial town houses line the streets of the old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  My hostel was located in one of these buildings.  While only two stories high, they are very long and have an amazing amount of space.  My favourite was a bistro which had taken 2 of these buildings, back to back, creating a cafe on one street and a restaurant on the other, both with different themes and joining the back yards into a large courtyard.  The upper floors of both were then used as an gallery.  And this was a theme.  A lot of art galleries are housed in these buildings, and street art covers their exterior in many areas, particulalry around Lebuh Armenian.  The network of streets and alleys made it a wonderful city to explore, uncovering either new art or temples around every corner.  The temples in the old quarter are much more impressive that the newer ones.

I may have been somewhat spoilt in the temples I have seen so far, but some of the larger ones in Georgetown were a disappointment.  The Kek Lok Si temple is an old Chinese temple, with a pagoda, plenty of Buddha statues, and many buildings.  It is also mostly badly painted, cheaply tiled and has beggars everywhere, interspersed with shops not necessarily selling religious paraphernalia.  Similarly the Thai Buddhist temple has a large reclining Buddha, garishly painted.  Compared to the gold reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok it looks positively tacky.  The Burmese temple on the other side of the road shows how it should be done, with a tall gold Buddha.  You may think that this is not the most important part of a temple, but it is certainly the most impressive and the one which you will remember your visit by.  In comparison the smaller temples do not try to make a point of large statues.  Quality craftmanship and remarkable attention  to detail made seeing these, such as the Khoo Kongsi clan temple, a true pleasure.

Another thing Georgetown has plenty of is museums.  Entrance varies depending on whether the museum is state owned (1 or 2RM - about 20-40p) or private (usually 20RM).  I went to a couple of state museums, being the Penang State Museum for a mighty 1RM, where I spent a good educational hour learning about Georgetowns history & multi-cultural origins, and Fort Cornwallis, the battlements of which have stood for nearly 200 years.  The fort is small and a bit, well, meh, but for 40p I'm not going to cry.  For a private museum I went to the Camera Museum which has a good collection of camera through the ages, old camera obscuras to play with (I enjoyed the juxtaposition of taking a photo with my digital camera through one of these!), and a room size pinhole camera which showed the simple process in some style.

If you're a camera buff (a bit like me) the this is quite a good museum, but the 20RM fee I felt was still a bit high for a small museum, & way too much for someone who is just mildly intrigued.  Or taken against their will.  Feedback from other travellers on cultural museums, such as the Chueng Fatt Tze Mansion had pretty much the vibe - too much for way too little.

Too get away from the city for a while I headed out to the Penang National Park where I hoped to find some decent trekking.  I intended to spent a couple of nights & give myself plenty of time, but the guesthouse I found was less than desirable, populated by a couple of residents who looked as if they had been there way too long and the surrounding town void of entertainment.  A quick search revealed that this was the only place in a decent location for a decent price, so I stayed, hoping the weather would be nice & I would get my treks done in one day - an ambitious idea.  I was shown to the room by the owners son who would not take payment & said his dad would come & see me soon.  He did not.  I woke to the sound of heavy rain, and a heavy heart - would I have to stay an extra, boring day? - but when I eventually got up the rain had stopped & the early heat had dried most of the ground.  Grey clouds still lingered, but this at least stopped it getting as hot as it could have done.  My walks took in both of the trails in the national park, the first going over the hill to the west coast, a pleasant beach and a meromiktik lake, one of only 19 in the world.  They are formed by a layer of salt water that filters through the sand of the beach & settles under the fresh water lake created from water coming off the hills.  But the tide was out & it was a bit unimpressive.  I retraced my steps back up the hill and took a second trail to Monkey Beach.  Despite being the main attraction in the park, this is the harder trail.  While it hugs the coast & the overall rise is not as great, it necessitates a lot of clambering over trees and rocks.  And seems to go on for ever.  And the beach is not that great either.  Maybe it was just the overcast skies, my exhaustion, or the fact I was sharing the beach with a few muslim women, unable to sunbathe in their full burkhas.  It was just a bit rubbish.  I continued past the beach & climbed to the Muka Head lighthouse.  This was a long, steep climb and nearly finished me off, but I finally arrived (where I found a sign saying this was the most difficult of Penangs lighthouses to get to - the rest are all at sea level & in towns!) & climbed the steps to the top of the lighthouse.  To views which may have been spectacular if it wasn't grey.  It was starting to be a bit of a let down.  I retraced my steps down the hill and along the coast, finally seeing the park gates with a smile on my face.  I had covered 14.6km in just over 5 hours.  And realised I had forgotten to eat all day.  That was a bad idea.  It was mid afternoon, so I got my bags & got out of there, finally meeting the owner on the way out to be able to pay him.  I had nearly managed to get a free night,  but am actually glad I didn't.  It's just not right not to pay for your lodging, however poor it may have been (unless service is awful, of course...)

I returned to Georgetown to recover from my exertions (ie, I went to the cinema.  I seem to do that a lot in Malaysia.  Quick tip - take a jumper.  They have the air-con really cold.  I nearly froze watching The Hobbit) and finally eat for the first time in nearly 24 hours.  It was good and well earned.

My next port of call was Tahan Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This area is in central Malaysia and as the name suggests is much higher than the rest, so it is much cooler.  As a result it is a good climate for growing fruit, vegetables and tea.  And lots of trekking through the jungle.

I had met Joseph on the rather scary bus ride (the driver was throwing it around the mountain bends and overtaking anywhere it wasn't safe) and found we were going to the same hostel.  After checking in we had a chat with the hostel owners about treks in the area and were told that a Rafflesia had bloomed and a tour was going the next day. Whilst not exactly rare, these plants only bloom for up to 10 days, and it had only just come out that day.  So we booked to get a chance of this marvel.  First up though was food.  Again I had not eaten for ages (not my fault! - the stall owner at lunch refused to sell me any noodles for no apparent reason) so we found the Sunday market & tucked into street food that was amazing good and stupidly cheap.  Roti Mutarbak is now a favourite.

We started the next day early.  It was a bit cold but the trek to the bloom soon sorted that out.  It was a tough walk at times, especially the final section up a steep muddy climb, and our guide showed us as much wildlife as he could - including a-bit-too-large-for-comfort-and-quite-definitely-poisonous spider.  I have refrained from calling the Rafflesia a flower because it isn't.  It's a parasitic fungus which grows on vines.  It blooms once and then dies.  And they bloom high in the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia.  Guides search for the buds all year round and tell the tour companies when one is about to bloom.  So due to the unpredictable nature of seeing Malaysias national 'flower' this was a bit of an unexpected treat!  And we were not disappointed (although apparently the ones on Sumatra & Borneo are much bigger - ours was only about 70cm across).

The other attractions in the area are tours around the strawberry fields and tea plantations.  We found a tour that combined a tea plantation with the 'mossy forest'.  I was not going to a strawberry field - the endless polytunnels and greenhouses that cover the hillsides make the Cameron Highlands look like a huge allotment (I suppose it kind of is...) and I could go and see a garden centre at home.  We were joined on this trip by Renske.  It started with a visit to the tea plantation itself for a photo session.  The clouds were low again but the plantations were impressive.  Pickers could be seen on distant slopes.  The next stop was the viewing tower on the highlands highest peak, Gunung Brinchang, where our guide promised us views of... well, the clouds.  The cloud was still low.  Lower than us.  Visibility was about 20m.  We saw a couple of trees.

The mossy forest was much more interesting.  It is what it says it is, a forest covered in moss, mostly sphagnum moss which retains more water than it's own weight and is therefore vitally important for the planets ecosystem.  The forests of Malaysia also contain a huge amount of medicinal plants (and even more poisonous ones) and so conservation and research of this area, which is starting to heat up (which is bad) is essential.  It is also beautiful.

Our path wound it's way through the forest, side paths with drooping mosses looked as if fairies would appear at any moment (they wouldn't - they don't exist - sorry for spoiling your dreams, but that's my job), pitcher plants everywhere and the occasional orchid.  We finished up with a quick tour of the the processing plant and a much more leisurely pot of tea and a cake.  It was alright...  Unlike the trip to the Rafflesia, where a guide is needed to know where the bloom is, this trip could have been done without a tour.  But we wouldn't have been privy to all the information nor the guides great sense of humour.  Sometimes it can be best to do the tourist thing.

Joseph & I got some trekking through the hill done on the way back to the hostel, first with some very steep up & down climbs and then a much more enjoyable walk meandering through the forest.  Not that many years ago there were many more trails but the rapid encroachment of development and agriculture has resulted in the loss of a lot of forest.  It's a double edged sword - the beauty brings in the visitors, but destroys it to make way for more.

We were unsure where to go next - Taman Negara for more jungle trekking, or Kuala Lumpur for the Hindu Thaipusam festival.  I was in urgent need of a laundry session, so a return to KL won.  No luxury this time - I was in a dorm.  A very dark dorm with a floor covered in bags.  It was a bit dangerous getting down off the top bunk.  Our hostel was also next door to the largest Hindu temple in KL, so we were surprised with a bit of a street procession as the devotees transported the statue of Murugan to the Batu Caves for the main festivities.  Thaipusam is a festival celebrating the god Murugan, occurs, like Easter, at a different time every year, and we had stumbled into the middle of it.  The focus point in KL is the Batu Caves, 11km north of the city.  The procession for devotees starts in the middle of KL and is bout 15km long, although spiritual preparations last for 48 days.  During this time they show their devotion by carrying jars of milk on their heads, weights (usually fruit - limes, apples, pomelos) attached to their bodies by hooks through their flesh - the heavier the better (I saw someone with 2 kg of apples hanging off them) or even with ropes attached, dragging people behind them.  Some even carry large headdresses weighing 100kg, needing a framework to keep them upright, for the full distance.

Culminating in a climb of the 272 steps to the caves themselves.  We took the train & started about 100m from the steps...  It still took over 2&1/2 hours to get to the shrine of Murugan.  It was an amazing experience to be in the middle of this.  Many people had worked themselves into a trance, small children would be overwhelmed with the heat and noise of the occasion.  The sight that showed the devotion the most to me was spears pierced through the tongue, ensuring a vow of silence and supposedly giving the power of endurance.

Renske headed to Melaka the next day, Joseph continued his exploration of KL, & I went on the now traditional cooking class.  This was a really god one, but a tad expensive.  The usual market tour was very good, lots of time given to tasting spices and fruits, and eating the breakfast of Roti Canai (also now a favourite).  Many people say the best thing about the market tour is seeing how to buy meat and fish.  Really?  You need to get out of the supermarket and down to your local butcher - that aspect of shopping does not change no matter where the country.  The cooking itself was done in a nice building in the hills with great teachers, always helping, making sure you don't mess up, and always ready for a chat about anything food related or not.  It was very hands on (apart from long or complex procedures) and the food very good - beef rendang, prawn fritters (first time I had ever deep fried - and no one died!), cucumber salad and Kueh Koci - a steamed, glutinous coconut dessert.

KL had not much more to offer, so I said farewell to Joseph & followed Renske to Melaka.  My first hostel was full of old people.  So I moved for need of atmosphere into a place in the middle of Chinatown (everywhere has one.  And a Little India.).  I found Melaka to be a lot like Georgetown, a lot smaller and a lot more touristy, the streets full of trishaws (basically a bicycle with a little carriage) which were garishly decorated, blared music out at all hours, and some even had wifi for that authentic experience.  No, I did not partake.

It is again a colonial city, this time rising from sultanate rule from 1405-1511 when the Portuguese arrived, the Dutch took over in 1641 and then the British went all Empire on it. A walk around Chinatown and along the river had the main sights done in a day, mostly temples.  On the other side of the river was the site of the original Portuguese fort, of which little remains, and Dutch buildings of the Stadthuys, bell tower and church, long with a mock up of a sultanate palace.  The rest was the now familiar townhouse.  An interesting site was Bukit China, a cemetery for a single Chinese clan, still in use and recently saved from redevelopment.  The tombs were like small barrows, a gravestone at the entrance and a kind of altar in front for family to come and pay respects.  It had a solemn feeling of awe, quite different to a Christian graveyard.

At the weekends Jonkers Walk comes alive with a street market and entertainment, but is generally selling overpriced tat and cakes and crowded with Chinese tourists moving as slow as ever and having their pictures taken in front of anything and everything (a postcard stand!? That's what you want to remember of your visit!?).  In fact, finding food was a problem - most restaurants, even the local food courts, seemed to have random opening hours, and you were never sure what they were selling.  The other options were usually expensive places for tourists.  Until I found a cheap local Indian place doing great rotis.  Then I was happy.

Melaka only needs a couple of days.  Spare time was spent in the cinema (it is so much cheaper than at home, but the Malays have not quite got the idea of being quiet) so when there were no more films to watch I headed back to KL to arrange the next step of my journey and enjoy a brief reunion with Martin & Stefan from Pai.  It has become standard to check the crowds in hostels for a friendly face, but the regularity and randomness of meetings with the folk of Pai is astounding.  Tine has also met up with many on her travels through Laos and Cambodia.  The phenomenon has become known as 'Pai on Tour'.  Long may it continue.

I am now sat in the hostel lobby in KL, less than 7 hours until my flight out (my first trip on a plane since I arrived in Cambodia just over 4 months ago).  Monsoon season means that the islands on the west coast of Malaysia are closed for a couple more weeks, so I feel that my time in the country is now done.  I have no need to return, at least not on this trip.  In my 3 visits here I have made many friends and had some fantastic experiences.  But I feel that I have been able to absorb myself more in the local atmosphere. I have had more time to travel here than other countries (Malaysia gives you a standard 90 day entry which means you never feel rushed) and so have had a lot more downtime in cities and a chance to talk to people about how they live and the hardships that they sometimes have to endure.  One woman I met lives in a cheap hotel, owes the owner several months rent, but still manages to raise her child without help from her family ho have disowned her because her grandparents favoured her more than them, after they had crushed her dreams of becoming a surgeon as they did not want to spend the money on her education.  A Nepalese guy working in a hostel was forced to leave his country for reasons I will not go into (very complicated - not his fault), was stuck in a 3 year contract that gave him no time of at all (to the point where he arranged activities for the guests as something for him to do away from his job), while not having spoken to his parents for 14 years as he did not want to live the life they had planned out for him.  He tried to call them for 10 years, but they refused to speak to him.  His sister is his only contact with home.  People like this can be found all over South East Asia.  I consider myself very lucky to be in a position where I can live the life I lead, not needed parental blessings or having to live their dreams.  I hope everyone with a pack on their back is just as grateful.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Time Out in Thailand

First of all - Happy New Year!  2013 was a bit of a crazy one, with a massive life change.  And it's going well!

It took me a while to work out how to compose this blog.  Thailand was a bit different to the other countries I've been to so far.  Having a two month visa meant that, obviously, I was able to stay here beyond the normal 30 days, which in turn meant I could take more time seeing the country.  I just saw a lot less than intended.  Thailand was a time when my plans constantly changed depending on mood and budget, which became an increasing factor.  It also means you're getting a long blog...

We made our border crossing easily with the only hiccup being that the border guard didn't notice I had a double entry visa so voided it.  And then corrected it.  I assume.  He scribbled on it, but I can't read Thai...  Not that this would matter in the end.  Maddy, Jenny & I joined again by Whitney & Jessica while we were waiting for the bus, made our way to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

It had been my intention to be in Chiang Mai for the lantern festival, Loy Krathong, since I left England.  And I was not disappointed.  With a few others from the hostel we bought lanterns and made our way to the temple at Mae Jo University.  The roads were packed on the way out there, and we feared we had left it too late, especially when we found we had to walk with the invariably slow local crowd to the temple.  The streets leading there were thronged with people eager to get there, which gave me some hope that we had not missed it, and with stalls selling food & lanterns.  Not a good idea, really, as this meant there was even less space for everyone.  We eventually found our way to a very full field.  We assumed this was where we were supposed to be.  There was a temple looking structure at one end & chanting was being broadcast over the tannoy.  Lots of people milled about. Occasionally a lantern would be released from outside, making us wonder if this was the place to be, or if we had indeed missed it.  Then lanterns started to be released from the temple grounds as the chanting was going on.  A message was relayed not to release the lanterns yet.  (We had actually split & lost the people with ours so this was no longer an issue).  Slowly more lanterns were raised as the chanting ended.  A horn sounded, music started to play & thousands of lanterns were finally released into the night sky.  The release went on for several minutes and was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen!

What wasn't quite so beautiful was the thousands of people who had gathered over several hours trying to escape down the same road we had come up.  There was not enough room for this.  I am surprised if people are not seriously injured in the crush, but health and safety is not a major issue in Thailand.

Jenny & Maddy were due to go home & were suffering from travel fatigue, so it took a few days before we got around to doing anything.  First up was zip-lining.  Again something I had never done before.  There are several companies offering pretty much the same package and some shopping around has to be done, but I found that the Flying Squirrel was cheapest, offered a route with a bike and a skateboard amongst other things and had been created by people working at the original zip-line coarse, Flight of the Gibbon.  The only downside I could see was the possibility of a slightly naff free t-shirt...  So Maddy, Cerin (who we had found again after he left Luang Prabang & spent some time in Pai) & I set off to speed through the trees.  It was a great experience.  The first couple get you used to it & any nerves were settled by the time I was halfway across the first line.  By the time we did the 600m line we were happily sitting in our harness looking at the stunning view!  The bike & skateboard were fun but all in all it was a great time.

The second trip was to an elephant farm.  There are again many to choose from, both large touristic farms where the animals are not looked after well to smaller enterprises where their well-being comes first.  We chose Woody's Elephant Farm, partially because we happened to be staying at his guesthouse.  I say we.  Maddy was actually ill.  It was her idea, & was just really going along with it. I was also suffering from  long night out so not feeling my best off i went.  It was one of the best things I have ever done.  No palanquins are used by Woody's as these hurt the elephants.  Similarly they do not beat the elephants with the hook, but merely place it on the head and apply a small pressure.  The elephants are trained to know hat this means.  Other farms do hit the elephants and dig the hook in.  This is not necessary!  I could see that our elephants were happy.  When we went on a short trek riding on their backs (which is very uncomfortable if you happen to be at the front) they would often wander off the track a short way to eat some food and continue in their own time.  Other farms would have enforced discipline.  (Whitney, who had been to Woody's earlier, also went to one of the bigger farms later.  She said she had been horrified by the treatment of the elephants, the sad look in their eyes and the platforms that you were to ride on.  She left in tears.)  We got to wash them and feed them.  And then went swimming with them, whereby you sit on their backs and hold on for dear life as they plunge into a pool so the water is well over your mid-riff!  It was fantastic to have such an intimate experience with the elephants - you do everything with the same elephant so that they get to know & trust you.  I am so glad I did this.

Finally, Cerin & I did our obligatory cooking class.  Situated in a farm outside Chiang Mai it was a good hands on class doing five dishes.  For me it was comforting to know that two of my favourite dishes to cook, Phad Thai and Massamum Curry, were pretty close how they should be.  Cerin and another chef on the course were always asking questions, getting further information on ingredients and techniques, which was good for me as well for a further level of understanding.  Too finish with we made the ubiquitous Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango.  It wasn't the only option (the other chef also went & made deep fried bananas for the staff!) but everyone wanted to see it done. And I got to be the one making it!  Which meant a lot of pressure to make sure I didn't burn the lot.  I didn't, and with seasoning advice from our visiting chefs we created a very nice dessert.

After everyone had left I made a trip to the White Temple at Chiang Rai.  This is a very new temple, construction on started in 1996.  It is entirely white on the exterior, with mirrors inset to make it sparkle.  That alone would have made it look pretty smart.  What makes this temple very different is it's details.  There are few Buddhas.  This is not a temple based on peace.  It's something to do with death.  There is a bridge leading to the main temple, but at the foot of the bridge is a pool of hands, reaching to the sky as if to escape from their descent to hell.  A few of these holds skulls aloft.  In fact, skulls are very prominent - heads hang from trees, even the traffic cones have little red skulls on top!  It was a scene I am sure Dante would have looked upon with admiration.  Apparently the inside of the temple has odd paintings of Superman, but not being Buddhist I wasn't allowed inside to find out.

Cerin had said Pai was great, and I found that they had a Circus School there at which I hoped to finally make some progress with my juggling (I had started last Easter but never got anywhere).  When asked to expand on why Pai was so good, the answer from most people was, 'It just is.  You have to experience it.'  So off I went, for what could be a pivotal moment for me...

Pai...  It is a small town 132km north west of Chiang Mai along highway 1095 to Mae Hong Son, a great road, twisting and turning through the mountains and much loved by travellers for hiring a scooter to make the journey themselves.  Rather than the slightly safer bus.

There is not much to do in Pai.  It has a tourist centre based around a few roads, full of cafes and bars.  The streets come alive every night with a market selling all kinds of food, from the standard Phad Thai or fried rice jacket potatoes (a favourite), waffles, roti, deep fried ice cream, all the way through to insects (which I have finally tried - I prefer larvae as they are sweeter although crickets are nice if seasoned well...).  Every night was spent here finding something new to eat, savouring old favourites.  During the day the cafes held sway.  Brunch was generally taken at around noon, occasionally 1:30.  It was that kind of place.

Pai would have been just nice if it hadn't been for the Circus School and the people I met there.  They made it into a magnificent place.  The circus school sits on a hill overlooking the town, and as such has the best view, and therefore sunsets, in town.  Nearly everyday was spent on the pagoda waiting to see if that days sunset would have more vibrant colours than the previous nights.

And we did nothing.  There was me, Tine and Martin, who made up a triumvirate which would stay together for nearly three weeks.  Along with Chaz and Adam, the Circus teachers, and a long line of guests who came and went, or didn't leave, or came back again, the days flew by.  Until now I had been one of the most adventurous travellers I had found, given the duration I was out for.  People who had hitchhiked through India for months, some travelling with less than the bare essentials, even one working as a journalist for a major online financial website who was writing his pieces from 'the office' - a sofa in the corner of the reception area!  Listening to the stories they had to tell was an eye opener, sometimes in a surprising way.

We didn't just do nothing (although our ethos was to do as little as possible - when we tried some meditation classes it sat uneasily as we were actively pursuing doing nothing, and therefore doing something).  After about a weeks we rented scooters to have a look at a nearby waterfall and Pai canyon, which did rival the pagoda for best sunset.  We took part in the free yoga sessions put on for us, hilariously as we had no strength or balance and were just falling on the floor all the time (I don't know what has happened to me, but I used to be much better!).  And I finally learnt to juggle.  Just a couple of quick bits of advice from Chaz and Adam was all it took & it clicked.  I also learnt to twirl the fire staff.  It looks impressive.  When done by people who know what they're doing.  I have a lot of practice to do on this.  This was actually one of the daily highlights of the circus school - every day there would be a lesson & new people either playing with staff or poi on fire.  During the day the residents (as we became to be known) would be seen juggling with balls and clubs, practicing the poi, staff, diablo and slackline.  It was free entertainment, and totally enthralling.

Two things of note: early in my stay I bumped in Katie, who I had met in Xi'an months ago.  We had been in touch ever since an had realised we would cross paths again here.  It was great to catch up and exchange stories and tips for the next steps in each others travels.  The other thing was less cheerful.  Cerin had been due to meet me in Pai.  After a couple of days I contacted to see if he was coming.  He had been attacked at a bar in Chiang Mai and beaten up, unprovoked and over nothing.  He had suffered multiple head wounds, including a cracked jaw and broken eye socket.  He was forced to go home for reconstructive surgery.  It is unbelievable that this could happen to one of the nicest people I have met on my travels and a reminder that trouble is never far away in life.  (I can report that the surgery went well and Cerin is looking forward to travelling again as soon as possible.)

Eventually though my itch kicked in again.  I decided to walk to the Mae Yen waterfall, a 14km round trip through the woods along the river.  It was nice to be by myself with nature.  The waterfall itself was impressive an a good location for meditating.

On my return, however, it seems that this much activity was too much for some to cope with.  Tine left the next day.  It was strange after she had left.  We had got close as a group, talking, laughing, sharing ideas & stories (the best was the endless discussion we had on how to design the best hostel ever, money being no object & profit unnecessary - including hammocks set on ziplines to the toilet so you didn't have to get up!).  All good things must come to an end though, and while our time together was far to brief I am sure this is another lasting friendship.

Seeing that things were coming to an end (in addition, our pagoda had been taken over by a new group and a couple of the resident puppies - unbelievably cute - had been sent to new homes), I decided to do my final trip here. With a couple of others, I rented a scooter and went to Lod Caves.  This was not the first time on a scooter since the accident in Vietnam.  I had been on one in Chiang Mai on a trip to Doi Suthep temple, and to Pai canyon, during which I had my first ride at night.  But I still didn't feel overly confident.  That changed on this trip.  The road to Lod Caves is twisty and turny up the mountain, with some very sharp curves.  I felt very comfortable this time.  Lod Caves themselves were very impressive.  An underground river takes you to 3 different caves with stalactite formations, cave paintings and ancient burial chambers.  With only our guides oil lantern for light it was very atmospheric.  It was getting late by the time we headed back, and by the time we got to the top of the mountain the sun was setting.  Which meant the descent would be done in the dark.  I had hoped to avoid this, but we had started later than planned.  But I felt good as I swung the bike the bike through the corners and cranked the throttle along the straights.  I definitely feel more confident on a scooter now & am thinking about learning properly when I return home.

And then I left it behind as well.  Pai was a moment in time, a group of strangers brought together and lasting friendships forged.  I had not felt quite like this since Kota Kinabalu, nearly four months earlier.  It took a couple of days in Chiang Mai before the feeling of displacement left.  First I had to work out what to do next.  I wanted to be on a beach for Christmas.  I had 10 days to go.  I had planned to go to Myanmar first.  That wasn't going to happen.  I had wanted to see the ancient capital of Sukhothai, the ruins at Ayutthaya and the Bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi.  I did not have time.  My mind was full of ideas nd missed opportunities.  So I did what I always did in these situations - I went climbing, the only time I can clear my head.  And the answer came - I would get the bus to Sukhothai, then go through Bangkok to Tonsai, where I had heard from Maddy that there was some fantastic climbing, continue to Malaysia, travel to Myanmar from Kuala Lumpur, back to Bangkok and have a little clean up session from there.  Sorted.

It was as easy as that.  I packed, got on  bus, went to Sukhothai.  I was now alone again, properly, for the first time since Kota Kinabalu.  It was fine though.  I had a plan.  I borrowed a push bike from the hotel and went off the the ruins of the old city.  It is a large complex of temples and statues of Buddha.  Frankly they are mostly the same, some bigger than others, some in a better state of repair, but all in all a pleasant day was had cycling around the ruins.  And it left left me totally templed out.  Something has got to be really impressive to get me interested now!

After just a day I hopped on the next bus to Bangkok, where I stayed a massive 2&1/2 hours at Mo Chit bus station waiting for the first bus to Krabbi.  It was a gruelling 13 hours overnight bus.  Not one of the Vietnamese sleeper buses either - just normal seats to try and get some sleep.  I uncurled myself in the morning and got a tuk-tuk to Ao Nang before catching a longtail boat to Tonsai beach where I gratefully found a room at the first place I inquired at, the highly recommended Pasook Resort.  It was a bit basic, but frankly the cheapest avaliable at late notice at Christmas and after 24 hours of travelling it was a bed.

Tonsai, as mentioned, is a beach.  On the shore are a row of bars, and another road loops around the back through the woods upon which are the resorts, mainly bungalows.  It is only accessible by boat, giving it an almost island feel.  On the other side of the bay is the beach of Railay West, which can be accessed by a paths either through the woods behind the cliffs or across the front of them, or by crossing the rocks on the shore at low tide.  Also there are Railay East and Phranang beaches.  Between them are great cliffs with the best rock climbing in South East Asia.  The routes at Tonsai are the hardest.  I did an intermediate course and took on some of the routes at Railay.  It was fun and hard, but the course leader was not very good - we also had beginners in our group yet he still proposed warming up on a grade harder than I'd done in Vang Vieng.  Although I had come here primarily to climb, this was the only time I did.  I picked up a couple of little injuries which prevented me doing much more and could not find another climbing centre which seemed interested in my business.  I would like to come back one day with other climbers and tackle the routes at my leisure, as I saw many doing during my stay there. It was actually very good to watch them & see the things that experienced climbers are cable of.

The beaches have very different ambiances.  Tonsai is a backpacker haven, like Pai.  Most of the bungalows are basic, if not wooden, and all the bars are made of wood.  All you can see all day are climbers and base jumpers.  The others are driven by high end resorts, the beaches full of sun worshippers from Eastern Europe and Russia.  Tonsai has a much more active feel.  I much preferred it, only venturing to Railay twice to see a couple of small caves and a lagoon for something to do, and also because it had the only cash machines.

As with Pai, I settled into a routine.  I woke, got breakfast at Pyramid cafe (there was little choice on the beach), read, juggled, had a shower when the electricity was turned on so I had light, and went to watch a movie most nights, regardless of how bad it was, at one of the bars.  Without a dorm, and not actively climbing, I found it difficult to meet many people.  I did spend Christmas with the rest of my group from climbing, but they were gone after a couple of days.  Christmas on a beach was fantastic though!  No feeling that you should be having a good time, trying to keep everyone happy.  I just had a good day & finished it with a massage looking at the bay.

In a desire to do something I decided to take a group tour to some local islands. This meant getting to Ao Nang.  I found that the boats are run by three companies, one on each beach, and that the Tonsai boatmen feel like they have a monopoly.  They want to make 800 Baht from every boat.  If it's just one person they will not lower the price.  Trying to get an early morning boat is a nightmare.  I did a agree a deal with a boatman from another beach, but when approached by the Tonsai firm he refused.  Eventually enough people were found & I got to Ao Nang in time, but I really do think they could run this a bit better and more fairly if they joined together.  My trip took in Daenang Island for some open water snorkelling, where the coral was good and fish colourful, but not as vibrant as previously in Sabah, lunch on Pakbai Island, two rocky outcrops where at low tide a beach forms between the two, and kayaking at Hong Island, which had a shallow lagoon, only 70cm deep at low tide.  I did not get to kayak in the lagoon, but did get to go into open sea.  It was tough work against the waves, and the swell from motor boats didn't help.  I also found that tourists do not mix as well as travelers.  Only when I went kayaking with someone did anyone talk outside their original groups.

I went back to my island and awaited New Year.  I had intended to spend it on Koh Phi Phi, but was hearing stories that it was full.  As I had a definite bed I decided to stay where I was.  It turned out to be a good decision.  One day, sat at a beach bar, I looked out and saw a familiar face.  I had met Jordan at Pai, he was one of the group who had taken over the pagoda, and he was here with a couple of others from that group.  That New Years was possibly the best I have ever had, watching fireworks and lanterns being set off from Railay & floating over the bay, the music pumping out of all the bars on Tonsai, fire displays going on all the time with poi & staff.  It was a magical scene and I am glad I saw in the New Year with friends in such a wonderful setting.

Finally I decided it was time to move on again.  And again plans were changed at the last minute.  I still had time left on my visa and wanted to travel the islands down to Langkawi in Malaysia, but either everywhere was full or the prices were too high on my budget to do the journey by boat.  So I decided that I was done with beaches and paradises for now and booked a bus to Penang.

I don't think I have had a typical Thai experience.  I have not been to any of the islands, and intentionally skipped the hedonistic delights of Koh Phangan and diving of Koh Tao for the chilled climbing of Tonsai.  I have avoided Bangkok and Kao San Road, instead wanting the laid back city feel of Chiang Mai.  And the time I spent in Pai meant I was not able to see as many sights as I wanted.  But I would not have traded by time there for anything, and the sights I missed will still be there when I come back in a few months time.  I do not feel my time has been wasted.  I may have been starting to feel jaded.  I have had time away and can start the second half of my journey reinvigorated & with a fresh desire to see and experience the world.  And most importantly I have travelled the way I wanted to travel, done what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it.  Because this is my adventure.

I also know that Pai and Tonsai are not finished with me yet in this life...