A Travellerspoint blog

The wild, wild east

37 °C

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

This being my first visit to Central Asia, I was not really sure what to expect on landing in Kyrgyzstan. Emerging from the plane in the dark I was reassured to find that I wasn’t immediately cloaked in the usual humid fug, which I’ve experienced in so many Asian airports. Instead I looked up to be greeted with a beautiful view of the Milky Way: a small element of familiarity, in what would be an otherwise unfamiliar world. I had thought that I would find a few more signs of being in Asia than I initially recognised: where was the chaotic traffic, street vendors, and odd jumbled buildings? Who had rounded up the meandering animals from the middle of the road and marshaled the locals down from the roofs of the buses? Where were the half-finished houses, and half-crumbling government buildings? Instead, Bishkek’s grand, austere architecture and large solid-looking concrete edifices served to remind me that until the 31st August 1991 Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence following its collapse. Wandering around Bishkek, I got a sense that this was a place where North meets South and East meets West. Once we had cycled into the mountains (90% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,500m in elevation) I revised my judgement to just "East meets the Wild West".

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

In GDP terms, Kyrgyzstan is ranked just 143rd out of 228 countries, and surprisingly, even smaller than countries such as Rwanda, and Laos. Kyrgyzstan has visibly suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's and the political turmoil of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which left nearly 2000 dead, and lead thousands more to flee to Uzbekistan. In the rural mountain areas we traveled to, there was little evidence of political upheaval, but it was clear that wealth was difficult to come by, and subsistence the norm. The obvious signs of wealth that I did see, in the form of cars, trucks, and interior decoration tended to herald a previous era (mainly the 1980's), with the odd exception.

They say "necessity is the mother of invention", and cycling along the dirt roads through sparsely populated towns and villages, there were constant examples of imaginative recycling: oil tankers converted into cafes and basic accommodation; ex-Soviet railway carriages forming a row of terraces. In one particularly remote area on the North side of Son Kul Lake, we found a family that had adopted a railway carriage, rather than the traditional yurt as their summer residence. It looked as though someone had dropped it from the sky, and appeared so utterly incongruous with its surroundings that I failed to notice a goat being castrated about two metres away. It did rather beg the question as to how it actually got there, and why only the one carriage....?

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies,  at the remote Son Kul Lake

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies, at the remote Son Kul Lake

The other striking observation from cycling the back roads of this mountainous country, was the abundance of only two types of vehicle: clapped out Ladas, and Audi-80s hailing from the late 1980’s / early 90’s. As they shuddered or bombed past us on the barely surfaced roads, this confirmed Kyrgyzstan as one of those places (together with Morocco, Nepal and India) where the locals have an exceptional ability to adopt relics of a bygone era and maintain them to a standard of “barely functional” for decades to come.

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

Plenty of examples in the “no longer functional” category were also to be found in odd places. Fortunately the same principle didn’t seem to apply to the traditional mode of transport in these parts: horseback. The horses we encountered appeared well looked after and were vigorously ridden. It was quite common for us to be overtaken by galloping Kyrgyz children, teenagers and adults alike, clearly getting a thrill from riding bareback at speed, and surprising unsuspecting foreigners. When they turned and galloped off again in a cloud of dust, or I awoke to the vibration of cantering hooves on the remote ground near our campsite, it was these times that I felt I was truly in the wild, wild east.

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

The locals call it a night

The locals call it a night

Posted by jparsons 14:19 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged landscapes cycling Comments (0)

When the wanderlust strikes again…

...there is no cure

35 °C

So it turns out that four months travelling around the Himalayas and South East Asia is not a good cure for the wanderlust. No sooner had we touched down in the chilly North of England on January 16 2012, and we had already targeted our next big trip back to the Himalayas. They say "every cloud has a silver lining" and so when it emerged that Tibet would be off the cards this year, plan B swung into action, which is how come I’m writing this blog post only 24 hours after landing back in the UK from our second trip to Asia in six weeks (two for the price of one in the end. Just).

24,700 miles may not be brilliant for the old carbon footprint, but with the "roads" in Kyrgyzstan not boasting even a hint of tarmac, we more than made up for this in endurance on the bike: powered by plov, and the occasional bowl of fermented mare’s milk (yes you did read correctly). In North East Vietnam the scenery may look fairytale, but the absence of a magic carpet meant we had some pretty hefty undulations to cross: this time powered by morning glory, rice and deep-fried bees…

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

There is something deeply compelling about visiting the hard to reach corners of the globe, and then climbing on two wheels to explore them even further. When you have a passion for photography, the big landscapes of the Central Tien Shan, the street scenes of Hanoi old town, and the rural communities living in the remote mountainous regions of Asia simply capture the imagination. This, and a love of cycling in remote places is why I cannot stay away...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Both Kyrgyzstan and North East Vietnam share borders with China, and have a tourist industry that is still only embryonic, meaning that the opportunity to meet local people is still refreshingly absent of any transaction, and the welcome genuinely meant. However, this is where the similarity between the two countries ends. Kyrgyzstan is scarcely populated (5.5 million), whereas Vietnam is positively bustling (87.8 million). The Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomadic, moving their temporary yurt camps up into the mountains in summer and down to warmer climes in winter. Whereas Vietnamese life in the remote North East centres around village communities. Cycling in Kyrgyzstan was akin to being dry roasted, alive. In Vietnam, it was rather more akin to cycling in a giant steamer, and on occasions, the shower. We exchanged the vast plains and desert-scapes in August for the rice paddies and jungle last week. Kyrgyzstan was most definitely horse-based. Vietnam, buffalo-based. And yet, the experience of travelling in both countries was in some respects remarkably similar: astoundingly beautiful scenery; the priceless look on the faces of the local men, women, and children when they saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman on a mountain bike; the tendency for children under the age of 3 to spontaneously burst into tears, and those over 3 to race you down the road; and the enthusiasm of the local children to borrow my bicycle for a test ride in exchange for a horse ride / donkey ride / photo / a bucket of fermented mare’s milk.

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

The only thing which was saddening, in both countries, was the reality of some aspects of life in such remote areas. In NE Vietnam we cycled through the district of Bao Lac, where we ate lunch by the side of the road close to a small village. By the time we had finished our sandwiches a group of about 30 children aged between 3 and 11 had gathered around 100m from our lunch spot. Chris and I went to investigate, and like the Pied Piper, ended up leading the children back to our seats. We then pursued an enterprise in raising smiles as we captured the scene on camera. What was striking for me was the low energy level of so many of the children we met that day. In stark contrast to North West Vietnam the previous November, where we had been chased vigorously down the road, and received high-fives that left red marks on my hands, we were now met with many expressionless faces. Children who should have been curious, smiling, and playing, would stand around staring through us in the middle of the road. Either we were just too strange, or life for them was just too hard.

We were a strange sight...

We were a strange sight...

In Kyrgyzstan, the poverty surfaced in rural alcoholism. In Naryn province, we stopped for a morning water refill in the centre of a dusty village in the valley, only to quickly attract the attention of the local men. They were obviously curious to meet westerners but their intentions were hazy in their inebriated state. Our local guides were keen to make sure they stayed well out of our way, and this was not the only occasion where somebody needed to come to our rescue and physically remove the local welcoming party.

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

By far the best encounters were those where I got off my bike, put it on its stand and waited. Within a couple of minutes, I would either be surrounded by kids, horses or donkeys, or all three. The offer of a turn on my bike, testing of sunglasses, or helmet would be reciprocated with the offer of a free horse or donkey ride. And while I'd like to say I made good use of these offers, my questionable horse riding skills meant I more often than not made a beeline for the donkey in a bid to relieve my saddle soreness for a few minutes with a warm comfortable seat. In Vietnam, the only real alternative mode of transport to a bike or bicycle was a buffalo, and this wasn't something I considered a fair exchange (have you tried riding one?). But I was simply happy to offer the bike to those who wanted to test out Western wheels in exchange for the odd photo instead. Conversation was usually limited to “hello, I’m Jen from Manchester, UK, England”, but the smiles were wide, and the curiosity mutual.

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Vietnam is buffalo country

Vietnam is buffalo country

My inspiration for writing this most recent blog post was actually to acknowledge the brilliant team leading our trip through NE Vietnam over the last two weeks. But my train of thought has in the meantime taken me off down a minor a rabbit hole from which I shall attempt to recover...When Chris and I were considering destinations for our Tibet “plan B”, Vietnam was not first on our list. The North West is industrialising at an impressive rate, and the scenery we encountered there not as beautiful as we experienced in neighbouring Laos. However, we were easily persuaded to join a group of friends for some cycling and photography, with the selling point being a guaranteed good time: we knew the score, because we were returning with our tour leaders and friends David and Phong from our previous tour to Vietnam and Laos. Only since then David has set up Painted Roads, and this was his inaugural tour, the first of its kind through this region of Vietnam.

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Beautiful tarmac as well!

Beautiful tarmac as well!

North East Vietnam is a stunning place to visit, astonishingly beautiful, and with some of the best cycling I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The itinerary was faultless: quiet roads, spectacular scenery and culturally fascinating. Despite the region’s remoteness, and the absence of tourist infrastructure, the roads were relatively good (there was tarmac, and potholes no bigger than Stockport’s) and the hospitality we received was excellent. David and Phong were also reassuringly on form. David was still peddling as though surgically attached to his bike from birth, and Phong had taken up hills in the intervening months, which destroyed our infallible undulation predictor: the bike coming out of the van was no longer a useful forecast for downhills. Some new developments also emerged on this trip. David’s recital of Monty Python put downs in his banter with Phong kept us endlessly amused…”your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries...”, and the daily entertaining of crowds of children with “Nieeeeyeps” in a bid to capture their smiles on camera is undoubtedly responsible for some of our best photos.

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen

We didn’t get quite as sunburnt as last time but made up for this in spades with our squiffyness. Picking up neatly where we left off in Laos, we quickly accustomed ourselves (and the others) to finishing the ride with a few pints of Beer Hanoi, and rounding off the evening with the local fire water. Not quite as hangover free as I recall from last time, but I may have accidentally upped the quantities somewhat! We also made new friends, as we were joined by Priyen, Claire, Jim and Ros. This brought some interesting dietary challenges to the tour with the need for gluten, wheat and meat free dishes to be found in a country that wouldn’t baulk at eating your cat. It also brought good banter, some interesting Karaoke, an extremely bad Freddy Mercury impression, and many, many more good times.

If you’re interested in travel and photography, David’s blog is a great place to start, with some inspirational photographs, and entertaining stories: The Painted Roads Blog. In the meantime I'll leave you with some final photos...

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Posted by jparsons 15:08 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (4)

A journey in numbers


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

After 7 countries and 119 days on the road, we've reached the final blog entry - it's hard to believe we've written 52 of these things! Rather than trying to sum up our journey in words, I've compiled a few stats to tell the story.

8,788

Kilometres travelled, according to our Travellerspoint map. The real total will be even higher because we didn't travel as the crow flies on the overland routes.

7,343

Photos taken, to answer all those who've asked the question. This doesn't include the 4,000 photos we deleted along the way! 266 of these have been published on the blog.

14

Modes of transport used, including plane, bus, train, car, mountain bike, motorcycle, junk boat, longtail boat, dive boat, speedboat, tuk tuk, truck, songthaew and kayak.

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

964

The combined cost of all our visas and trekking permits, in US dollars. Over two thirds of this went straight into the coffers of the Nepalese government, so I like to think we gave their GDP figures a little boost in 2011.

4.5

The average speed in mph of the bus from Dhadingbesi to Arughat Bazaar (which we abandoned at nightfall after it became stuck in a quagmire).

5,450

The highest altitude of the trip (in metres), just above the Thorung La. We crossed three passes over 5000m on our five-week trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

0

Number of public conveniences in the Nepalese village of Phu. We later found out from some trekking companions that there was another lodge in the village which did have a toilet, but unfortunately the owners don't appear to have capitalized on this USP.

Looking down on the village of Phu

Looking down on the village of Phu

6.9

Magnitude of the earthquake which struck the Himalayas on 18 September 2011, the day we flew to Kathmandu. It was the second largest quake ever recorded in the region, causing at least 111 deaths and widespread damage. The quake was centred on north Sikkim, a region we visited 6 weeks later.

4:30

The earliest wake up call of the trip, in Dzongri, Sikkim. After seven consecutive days of trekking in a cloud, it was a make or break moment. "Good weather," said our guide outside the tent, not quite believing it himself.

200

Estimated maximum population of wild snow leopards in the whole of India, according to WWF, making it even more remarkable that I saw fresh snow leopard tracks in Sikkim.

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

7%

Average annual growth rate of the Vietnamese economy from 1981 to 2010, 30 unbroken years of boom with only 3 years of less than 5% growth. Quite incredible statistics for a country which was the third poorest in the world after the Vietnam War.

1,200

Kilometres in the saddle on our epic three-week mountain bike trip through Vietnam and Laos with Red Spokes. The longest day was about 120km and the toughest had 45km of hill climbs.

American Chris on the road in Laos

American Chris on the road in Laos

10

Kilometres travelled in the Red Spokes support vehicle. It's not that we'd gone soft - the Vietnamese closed the road while they carried out some roadworks, and by the time it reopened, it was getting dark!

4

The maximum distance in kilometres of continuous climbing on a bicycle without going up a hill, in Red Spokes parlance. Anything up to this point is a mere undulation.

8.11%

Gradient quoted on a road sign in northwest Vietnam. Funnily enough as we rounded the previous bend I had remarked to Jen "This feels like an 8.11%er to me!"

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

6,670,000

The largest withdrawal amount entered on an ATM keypad. No, it's not a typo. This was in Vietnamese dong, and is equivalent to about 200 pounds sterling. The traveller in Vietnam is wise to pack an expandable wallet.

14

Varieties of Asian beer sampled. They were Everest, Gorkha (Nepal), Kingfisher (India), Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Cambodia, Klang, Angkor, Anchor (Cambodia), Singha, Chang, Leo (Thailand) and Tiger (Malaysia). Beerlao goes down easiest.

7,500

The cheapest bottle of Beerlao in Luang Prabang, in Laotian kip. There are 12,500 kip to the pound and there's more than a pint in the bottle!

300

Casualties annually in Laos due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than half are children, and most are killed or maimed by cluster bombs. These and other chilling statistics we learned on a visit to Cope, a charity which provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to UXO victims.

1860

The year French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the temples of Angkor. In fact they were well known to the local Khmer people and had been visited by other westerners before Mouhot. We were two of the 1.6 million tourists to visit the temple complex in 2011, a year-on-year rise of 23%.

2

Our longest flight "delay" in hours. What really happened was that Bangkok Airways cancelled our flight out of Siem Reap and put us on the last flight of the day, but of course they couldn't admit to that.

0

Rice-free days in Southeast Asia. Fried rice, steamed rice, sticky rice - it's all the same after two months.

160

Estimated age in millions of years of Khao Sok National Park's jungle, the oldest tropical forest on Earth. That makes it around 100 million years older than the Amazon rainforest.

10

Number of leech attacks during a two-minute walk through the jungle of Khao Sok. We had left the relatively leech-free stream bed and followed some tapir tracks through the forest to shortcut a bend in the stream.

100

Decibels of sound produced by a calling gibbon. Gibbon calls can travel more than 2 miles over the forest, and at our rafthouse in Khlong Seang I stood on the decking listening to four groups calling from different parts of the forest.

5

Years of hard training by the bar staff of Koh Lanta's Bamboo Bay Resort to perfect their fire dancing routine. And boy, did it show!

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

80

Maximum weight in pounds of a jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, which is found throughout Thailand and Malaysia. The orange flesh is similar in taste to papaya.

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

-32

Temperature drop in degrees Celsius between Langkawi, Malaysia and Manchester, UK on the day of our return home. Brrrrr!

The sun sets on our blog

The sun sets on our blog

We've had great fun writing about some of our experiences, but now the time has come to call time on our travel blog. Thanks to everyone who has been following us and to all those who have commented on Travellerspoint or liked us on Facebook! I hope we can resurrect the Parsons on Tour blog soon...

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged india cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam laos nepal statistics Comments (0)

Snap happy: a photographer's perspective


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

This is one for the photography enthusiasts – I make no apologies for the techno geekery which follows!

Several months of planning went into the trip and a large part of my time was spent deliberating over what camera/cameras to take. Jen and I both enjoy photography, and since buying our first DSLR in 2007 (for our first trip to the Himalayas), we have both become converts to the superior image quality, responsiveness and creativity when compared to digital compact cameras. That camera was a Pentax K100D, an entry-level model that we chose over the more common Canikons because it was good value, had in-body image stabilisation and was backed by a line up of compact, inexpensive lenses.

The K100D was a solid warhorse but was beginning to show its age, so I decided we would replace it for this trip. After much umming and arring we finally plumped for another Pentax DSLR, the flagship Pentax K-5. When it arrived, the 400-page user manual and lack of an automatic mode signalled that this was a serious piece of kit. It has headline-grabbing features such as live view and a video mode, but for me the biggest selling point was the weather-sealed body. When paired with Pentax's similarly weather resistant (WR) lenses, we had full protection against dust, sand and rain. In 2007, I had to do some emergency sensor cleaning on the K100D at Annapurna Base Camp after our sunrise photos were spoiled by dust spots, so I was sold on the strength of this feature alone. The K-5 also brought us numerous other improvements: a high-resolution sensor, reduced noise, higher ISO, better autofocus, more user control, a quiet shutter and an impressive viewfinder.

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

It proved to be an excellent package when paired with the WR kit lenses (18-55mm and 50-200mm), and withstood monsoon rains in Nepal, blizzards in India and the dusty roads of Vietnam. It even survived an accidental dunking when Jen, who was carrying it round her neck, decided to audition for Total Wipeout by falling off a rolling log into a lake in Thailand. This wasn't the only pitfall to befall our camera gear. The K-5 had an unscheduled sleepover in a Darjeeling restaurant and one of our SD cards decided to go for a little dip in the sea.

The compromises with a DSLR are weight and bulk, important considerations for us with the amount of trekking and cycling we had planned. We wanted to be able to reach for the camera at all times so the means of carrying it was another issue. I purchased a Lowepro Apex case which comfortably held the K-5, the kit lenses and all the usual paraphernalia (batteries, SD cards, filters etc.) This could be attached to the waist belt of a backpack, carried in the hand or slung over a shoulder, so it was always quick to retrieve on trek. In fact, thanks to the K-5's weather sealing we rarely put the camera in the case. The same was true on the bike ride, which meant we would more readily stop for photos than if the camera had been buried in a rucksack.

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Reviewing the photos from our previous treks, I discovered that the most commonly used focal length was 18mm (equivalent to 27mm on a full frame camera), the wide end of our kit lens. So a few weeks before we left I treated myself to a little luxury – a 15mm prime lens from Pentax's delicious "Limited" lens collection. This little jewel weighs just over 200g, has a constant maximum aperture of f4.0 and all-metal construction (including a retractable hood). We made good use of it for wide angle landscapes and shots inside buildings too.

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

The one place we couldn't take the K-5 was underwater (not without a very expensive housing). To enable us to take photos of the Andaman Sea's marine life, we also carried a compact 'rugged' camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT2. This is waterproof to a depth of 10m, perfect for snorkelers. Underwater photography is perhaps the most challenging field to master. You have to contend with a lack of natural light, the changing colour spectrum with depth, strong waves and currents and moving subjects, some of which can kill you with a single bite or sting! Not only that, but snorkelers are also constrained by the time they can hold their breath and their buoyancy, which makes it difficult to control position on a dive. Any compact camera struggles under such conditions, and the FT2 was no exception. Taking good underwater images is more a matter of luck than skill – I probably discarded 80% of my shots instantly. Worse still, the zoom lens utilises folded optics. This means the lens does not extend and can therefore be sealed within the camera body, but there is a trade-off in image quality, especially when zoomed in. Occasionally, however, it did produce a corker.

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

We take it in turns to carry the camera. Jen is great at spotting and snapping the most dramatic landscapes, and she takes great portraits too. My approach is a bit more scattergun – I take more photos, but they tend to be a mixed bag! I also like wildlife, action and architecture as subjects. People are always interesting subjects but capturing the right expression is tricky, especially with a hulking great DSLR. They can react in unwanted ways: reticence, anger, self-consciousness or showing off! Sometimes a little ice-breaker is needed to establish a rapport between photographer and subject, especially when language is a barrier. At Gumba Lundang in Nepal, we wanted to take photos of the Buddhist nuns, but they seemed a little shy. We approached a couple of the younger girls to ask permission, and they agreed. Showing them the images on the camera's LCD screen sparked a sudden change, and within seconds we had a crowd of nuns round the camera, all clamouring for their photograph to be taken. A bicycle is another great icebreaker. We had some very good photographers on the Red Spokes cycle tour, and it was instructive watching them in action. In a group situation you need a camera on you at all times to capture those fleeting moments which will get a good reaction when you share them later. I missed lots, but fortunately others were always on hand!

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

In four months of travel, it's difficult to be 'up' for photography every single day. Even sharing the work between two, there were still a few days when the camera stayed in the case. But we've certainly enjoyed taking all our photos and sharing some of them on this blog. Now we are back home we're enjoying them even more on the TV screen. The K-5 has been a superb tool for the job – yes I still wish for faster, longer lenses (particularly for those damn wildlife shots) but would I have been prepared to carry them? No way! On the other hand, I'm very taken with the new breed of compact system cameras, especially after seeing David, our Red Spokes tour leader, using his Panasonic GF1.

If I were doing a similar trip again (if only), I would seriously consider investing in a rangefinder style body from the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, which seems to me to have the right balance of size, image quality, product range and value. I would also take a high-end compact camera with a fast, sharp lens and an underwater housing (unless the manufacturers can seriously improve the image quality and performance from their waterproof cameras). Must do some research....

I've been asked by lots of people how many photos we took on our trip. All will be revealed in the next and final blog entry, but to give you some idea, I'll leave you with this thought. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then we have a potential War and Peace on our hands.

Posted by Chris Parsons 15:21 Archived in Malaysia Tagged photography Comments (2)

Going places


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

Scenes from the local market


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A few snaps from the street stalls and food markets of Southeast Asia, places rich in gastronomic interest and photographic opportunity.

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails


Early morning shoppers in Sapa market

Early morning shoppers in Sapa market


Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets

Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets


Crowds at Luang Prabang food market

Crowds at Luang Prabang food market


Fancy a frog kebab

Fancy a frog kebab


Lao drive-through

Lao drive-through


The morning catch drying by the roadside

The morning catch drying by the roadside


A stallholder tends to the veg display

A stallholder tends to the veg display


Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food

Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food


Chicken yoga

Chicken yoga

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:22 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand vietnam laos Comments (0)

A cornucopia of Kohs


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When I wrote these words, we were in the final week of our trip and were rather less than enthralled by the prospect of shivering our way through the British winter with the rest of you. To take our mind off things, we were lapping up the sun on the gorgeous beaches of Tarutao National Park in Thailand’s far south. It would be too cruel, I thought, to torment you with a selection of photos from our island-hopping adventures. But how else do people make it through January other than by planning their summer holidays, so think of this blog as another travel agent’s catalogue on your coffee table. Besides, I’m having trouble deciding which is my favourite koh.

1. Koh Rong

Our beach bungalow on Koh Rong

Our beach bungalow on Koh Rong

Two boys on the pier at the fishing village

Two boys on the pier at the fishing village

Take your seat on the beach

Take your seat on the beach

The first contender is also the only non-Thai island on the list, Cambodia's little-known Koh Rong. It sets the bar pretty high straight away. Palm-fringed, white coral beaches? Check. Turquoise blue sea gently lapping the shore? Check. Private beach-front bungalow with personal hammocks? Check. Beach bar serving fresh seafood and cocktails? Check. You don't quite have the place to yourself; backpackers snap up the cheap bungalows and there's a small fishing village at the pier, but go there before it's too late. Big developers have their eye on this place and want to turn it into Cambodia's answer to Koh Samui.

2. Koh Similan

A viewpoint in the Similans

A viewpoint in the Similans

Big rocks, small boat and blue sea

Big rocks, small boat and blue sea

The good ship Duanita

The good ship Duanita

Or rather, the group of islands known as the Similans, a Marine National Park in the Andaman Sea. It's a four-hour boat trip from the mainland, enough to deter the crowds. We spent our time on board rather than on land, for the attractions here are all underwater. Sadly, the reefs have been ravaged by the 2004 tsunami and a series of devastating bleaching events, but there are still plenty of fish. It's possible to camp on one island (if you don't mind monstrous mosquitoes), but most are off-limits. Judging by the size of the private yachts anchored offshore, the Similans attract the super-rich. And they are blessed by royalty too – a Thai princess has a nice little getaway pad here.

3. Koh Lanta

Lighthouse at Koh Lanta National Park

Lighthouse at Koh Lanta National Park

Lanta Old Town

Lanta Old Town

An island of two halves, Koh Lanta attracts the crowds due to its proximity to the mainland and the regular boat services to hotspots like Koh Phi Phi and Phuket. The touristy north – overrun with massage and tattoo parlours, shops selling tat and a thousand and one "same same but different" bar restaurants – did not float our boat. Fight your way through that lot and the wilder south awaits. We stayed at Bamboo Bay, the last public beach before the National Park at the southern tip of Lanta. I've tried not to use the word idyllic thus far, but it really is necessary here.

4. Koh Rok

Washed up coconut

Washed up coconut


Longtail boat in a turquoise sea

Longtail boat in a turquoise sea


Monitor lizard on Koh Rok

Monitor lizard on Koh Rok

A bona fide Robinson Crusoe island, lying just an hour by speedboat from Lanta (though as anyone who has ever been in a speedboat would surely agree, it will feel like the longest hour of your life). Sadly we only visited on a day trip, long enough to sample the fantastic shallow reefs and witness the bizarre sight of six-foot monitor lizards prowling round the picnic area. For that authentic castaway experience, pitch your tent at the National Park campsite, wait until the day trippers have gone home and you (and your new lizard friends) will have the place to yourselves. One for the reptile lovers.

5. Koh Lipe

Koh Lipe from the Chado Cliff viewpoint

Koh Lipe from the Chado Cliff viewpoint

Probably the best school playground in the world

Probably the best school playground in the world

Little Lipe is but a speck on the map but it serves as the main transport hub for exploring the islands of Tarutao National Park. Surrounded by warm, shallow seas teeming with marine life and blessed with picture-postcard beaches (as used by Thailand's tourist board), once upon a time it would have been the perfect island getaway. But the National Park authorities turned a blind eye to developers and sacrificed Lipe at the altar of backpacker tourism. Now they come in droves, all seeking that "get away from it all with everyone else" island experience. But remember you're one of them too, so grab a beer and a brownie at a beachside joint and watch the world come to you.

Koh Adang

Seafront campsite under the pines

Seafront campsite under the pines

Koh Adang sunset

Koh Adang sunset

Have we found paradise at last? I think we have. Adang is Koh Lipe's big brother, but other than their proximity to one another, they have little in common. It's a wild island with a dense, jungly interior. The sole accommodation is at the National Park Ranger Station, where, in addition to the usual campsite, you'll find some very nicely appointed bungalows too. We had planned to camp, but where's the incentive when you can have a double ensuite for little more than a tenner? Faced with a lack of shops, markets, bars and internet cafés, we were forced to do as the monkeys do, which is to say very little indeed in the heat of the day. A spot of snorkelling? Maybe later. A walk to the viewpoint? Maybe tomorrow. It was a toss up between Koh Adang and Koh Rong for our favourite island award, but in truth I would quite happily volunteer to be marooned on either.

Posted by Chris Parsons 15:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged snorkelling beach cambodia thailand island Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #4: Little critters


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The wildlife blogs seem to have been popular, so I thought I'd do one final entry in the series which focusses on some of the cast of little critters we saw crawling, scuttling and skulking around this part of the world.

Turtle hatchling, Koh Adang

Turtle hatchling, Koh Adang

This turtle hatchling is a lucky fellow, the last of a dozen to be released back to the sea after hatching from a nest of 106 eggs. I happened upon two rangers from Tarutao National Park digging out the nest after an early-evening snorkel off Koh Adang. The location of the nest was no secret – the park staff had relocated the eggs here to prevent them ending up in a fisherman’s omelette. And what of the other eggs? Most of those unearthed had already hatched; tragically, about 30 hatchlings died before they made it down to the sea.

Mudskipper, Koh Lanta

Mudskipper, Koh Lanta

I was preoccupied with photographing the scenic fishing boats of Lanta Old Town when a soft plopping noise alerted me to this strange-looking creature. It’s a mudskipper, able to breathe air on land like an amphibian and underwater like a fish. Mudskippers live in mangrove forests and use their strong fins to gain a grip on rocks and tree trunks, hauling themselves out of the water at low tide. This one posed obligingly for a few seconds, then with a plop it was gone.

Tree frog, Khao Sok National Park

Tree frog, Khao Sok National Park

Fruit bat, Khao Sok National Park

Fruit bat, Khao Sok National Park

The welcome brochure in our Khao Sok jungle resort took great pains to explain that we would not not be alone in our wooden bungalow. It was normal to find lodgers in the nooks and crannies, geckos, spiders and frogs among them. Well, we were delighted to find all three, of which the orange frogs were the cutest. In the evening they were joined by a bat hanging beneath the verandah, which would have remained unnoticed were it not for the pile of bat poo on the wooden decking.

Tokay gecko, Koh Adang

Tokay gecko, Koh Adang

Striped Lizard, Ta Prohm temple ruins

Striped Lizard, Ta Prohm temple ruins

Lizards and geckos are camera-friendly, and few are more photogenic than the colourful chap I found clambering over the temple carvings in Cambodia. The coolest lizards were the gliding variety. A dozy individual was nimbly caught for us by our jungle guide in Khao Sok. To demonstrate its party trick, he tossed it high into the air. The lizard unfurled the flaps of skin between its front and back legs and sailed smoothly down on to a neighbouring tree trunk. Geckos famously stick to any surface, and can be quite endearing as you watch them clambering around your room. The big tokay geckos are most impressive, but my goodness me, they don’t half make a racket!

Clark's anemonefish on a coral reef in Tarutao National Park

Clark's anemonefish on a coral reef in Tarutao National Park


Christmas tree worm, Tarutao National Park

Christmas tree worm, Tarutao National Park


Pipefish, Tarutao National Park

Pipefish, Tarutao National Park

When I’m snorkelling over coral reefs I’m normally keeping an eye out for the big prizes – moray eels or giant groupers lurking under outcrops, trevallies and tuna flashing by or a turtle munching away on the algae at the bottom of the reef. These creatures are all impressive to behold, but there is just as much to look at within a single mound of coral. Dazzlingly colourful nudibranches and Christmas tree worms, tiny anthias and anemonefish flitting in and out of the reef and cleaner shrimp lurking in holes.

Hermit Crab, Koh Dong

Hermit Crab, Koh Dong

Our longtail boat beached itself on the idyllic white sands of Koh Dong, and we waded ashore with our picnic lunch of fried rice and chicken. No sooner had we sat down than it seemed as though every shell on the beach was on the march towards us. Each was home to a hermit crab. Pick one up and it would tuck itself neatly inside. A few seconds later it would bravely emerge again and give you a tickle with its claws, causing you to drop it back on the beach.

Chris with a millipede in Koh Lanta National Park

Chris with a millipede in Koh Lanta National Park


Butterfly, Khao Sok National Park

Butterfly, Khao Sok National Park

In the tropics, the bugs are big. Cicadas sound like chainsaws, bees like flying lawnmowers. Tiger leeches loop along zombie-like, beetles fly like malfunctioning helicopters, ants infest everything including rucksacks), spiders look like aliens and butterflies the size of birds flit silently through the undergrowth. It really is a jungle out there!

Posted by Chris Parsons 17:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged wildlife cambodia thailand Comments (0)

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