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Thailand

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)

Wildlife blog #3: The wild side of Thailand


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Thailand is known more for its wild parties than wild animals, but away from the fleshpots of Bangkok and Phuket the country is blessed with some extraordinary natural treasures. We planned our fortnight in southern Thailand to include some of the area's wildlife hotspots, and we weren't disappointed.

The chain of karst mountains that we had seen earlier in our travels in Vietnam and Laos raise their heads again in southern Thailand. They stretch all the way from Guilin in China to Sarawak in Borneo, and are the eroded remains of an ancient coral sea that was thrust up when the Indian and Eurasian plates collided. The limestone peaks are at their loftiest in Khao Sok National Park, reaching to more than 3000ft, and it was here that we spent New Year.

The park was created in the 1970s to protect the rich tropical forests that cloak the hills, a dense jungle older than the Amazon rainforest. Subsequently, the creation of more National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the surrounding areas mean that Khao Sok is now part of the largest tract of old-growth forest in Southeast Asia. So vast is this protected area that it still holds viable populations of wild elephants, tigers and gaur. I decided this was the place to watch wildlife in Thailand.

It was not cheap. I planned a four-day tailor-made trip with a local tour company. As it was during the busy New Year period, we needed to travel deep into the forest to escape the hordes of partying Thais. The invoice ended in lots of zeros and required three trips to an ATM before we had a sufficiently fat wad of baht to pay for it.

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

Our tour started with a longtail boat ride across Chiew Lan Reservoir. This huge lake was created by the construction of the Ratchaprapha Dam in the 1980s. The energy generated by the dam now powers most of southern Thailand, but it remains a controversial project. The lake flooded the lowland forests to a depth of 90m, resulting in devastating loss and fragmentation of forest habitat. Now, the remnants of once-mighty trees still break the lake's surface and the wildlife of the park is continuing to be affected by the changes.

The remnants of the flooded forest

The remnants of the flooded forest

On a map, Chiew Lan looks like one of the fractal patterns you find in a maths textbook, each branch of the lake dividing into sub-branches and then sub-sub-branches, many of which remain untouched by human hand. One benefit of the lake's creation was to allow easier access to far reaches of the jungle. In turn, some local fishing families have turned their hands to ecotourism, building floating rafthouses to accommodate visitors. These allowed us to stay three nights on the lake and explore the Khlong Seang Wildlife Sanctuary, less visited than Khao Sok. Our guide was Kiem, a real character who could spot a monkey a mile off and tell you all about it in his unique brand of self-taught, "Me Tarzan, you Jane" English.

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

"Looking, looking! Monkey! Me not sure which. Him on ground near water. Now climbing. Climbing on bamboo. You see? Left from big-leaf tree. Now more! Sitting, watching on big branch. Him look at me. Now climbing, now jumping! Him jump in tree behind. Next one coming and jumping also. Now one left. You see him now? Also jumping, jumping! Now gone behind. Me no see him now."

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Kiem was a star. On our daily boat safaris, morning and evening, we saw so much wildlife that Kiem’s monologues were played out again and again as he went into a spotting frenzy. But the forest was dense and primeval, and picking out the animals was not easy. Monkeys were amongst the most conspicuous. Both long-tailed macaques and dusky langurs came to the water’s edge to feed on fresh bamboo shoots. They are easy to tell apart – the langurs look as though they have fallen for the old comic-book joke of using binoculars with wet paint on the eyepieces, thanks to the white rings around their eyes. They also have endearing orange babies. I’m surprised a certain mobile phone company hasn’t cottoned on to them yet.

Hornbills are here too, and we saw four different kinds. The most majestic are the great hornbills. We watched one feeding on a fig tree, tossing the fruit into his huge beak and flapping from branch to branch. When they launch their heavy bodies into the air, their wing beats make a characteristic whooshing sound like a gaucho whirling a lasso round his head.

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

By far the most evocative noise in the forest is the haunting cry of gibbons, which carries for miles over the canopy each morning. Gibbons live in family groups and are monogamous; their calls are part of a daily ritual of singing and swinging to reinforce the pair bond. On our third morning we finally saw wild gibbons with our own eyes, doing what gibbons do best: hanging around, swinging and walking upright along branches, Man on Wire style.

The gibbons were a personal highlight, but our first night safari ran them a close second. The technique is to search the forest from the boat with a powerful spotlight, looking for eyeshine. Then the engine is cut and the light used to try to keep the animal frozen until the boat is close enough for us to see what it is. The biggest prize was a small wildcat (probably a leopard cat, though even Kiem was not certain). We also got a surprise when the boat drew up to the bank so Kiem could catch us a frog, only for him to discover a python climbing out of the water. Seconds later he spotted second python right behind it, and this one was a monster. Kiem leapt backwards and grabbed a paddle, leaving me in the line of attack and without a weapon. The python turned and started swimming towards us. We could see the whole of its body just under the surface, and I do not exaggerate when I say it was about 5m long. Fortunately it lost interest in us; I think python lovemaking was top of its agenda that night. I don't know how pythons do it but I presume there's quite a lot of squeezing involved.

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars


And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

Another of Thailand's natural wonders are its coral reefs, particularly those on the Andaman coast. The reefs are another ancient ecosystem, but have taken a battering in recent years due to coral bleaching and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. On the day after the seventh anniversary of that disaster, we left the harbour at Khao Lak on a boat bound for the Similan Islands for three days of snorkelling.

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The reefs are now in a pretty bad state, and it will take decades for them to recover (assuming global warming doesn't kill them off completely), but other marine life around the islands is still abundant. Jumping off our boat at each site was like entering a giant aquarium. There is so much life here that it can be difficult to take it all in. Your eyes have to constantly roam the water ahead and to each side, as well as scanning the reef below.

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

We had the pleasure of swimming with sea turtles three days in a row, an experience that would have been worth the price of the trip alone. But we saw much else besides! Cuttlefish, squid, stingrays, sea snakes, giant morays, tuna, giant grouper and a whole smorgasbord of reef fish. The icing on the cake for me was seeing a blacktip reef shark. I was snorkelling so far from the boat that nobody else was with me, so I made sure to get a photo as proof. It’s probably the worst photo of a shark you’ll ever see, but I have to confess I wasn’t totally in control of my senses when I took it!

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances


Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged wildlife thailand Comments (8)

How not to haggle


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We British are notoriously reticent when it comes to haggling, but in Southeast Asia's tourist markets it’s a skill you live and die by. And judging by my first clumsy attempt at Siem Reap's Night Market, my skills definitely needed honing.

Getting in to the Night Market is all part of the fun, as you have to run the gauntlet of fish massage stalls which line the street leading to the entrance. Ladies rush at you from both sides waving laminated price lists and shouting "Sir, sir, fish massaaaaa!" The first time this happened I was far too polite. "No thanks," I said to one hopeful woman, "I can get this in England." Her reply was instant. "My fish give better massaaaaa!"

Once inside you immediately lose your bearings in the labyrinth of covered alleys and hundreds of stalls all selling variations on the same theme. Most of the stuff was not worth a second glance, but then I spotted a stall selling t-shirts of a single design; a motif of the monkey god Hanuman in full battle dress. I can't explain why I liked it, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have one. I enquired about the price. "Five dollar," said the lady running the stall (US currency is king in Cambodia). Yes, it was cheap, but other stalls were asking US$2 (for admittedly inferior t-shirts) and knowing I should haggle, I offered her three. "No!" came the quick reply. "I give you four dollar, best price." Not satisfied with a 20% discount, I walked away, expecting her to call me back and agree to my offer. But she didn't. I couldn't look over my shoulder as that would betray my tactics, so I walked straight back out of the market - a humiliating failure by anyone's standards.

The next night I went back and braved the fish massage sellers again, this time with four dollars in my pocket.

Slightly embarrassed by my efforts in Cambodia, I resolved to do better at Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar, a massive enterprise which seems to occupy an entire district of the city. It made Siem Reap look like a garage sale.

Ten minutes in, and things were going well. I already had a pair of 'Oakley' sunglasses in my pocket for 100 baht (£2) and was hunting for the next bargain. Jen paused momentarily at a stall selling bamboo place mats and coasters. The stallholder sensed another gullible victim to prey on; I sensed an opportunity for some ruthless negotiation. His opening gambit for a set of six mats and coasters was 900 baht. ("Special price tonight sir!") I laughed at his gall, and decided to get him down to 400. The bartering was a tactical game and we were both putting in spirited performances. My adversary brandished a large calculator on which he theatrically bashed out lower and lower prices, each one accompanied by a well-rehearsed patter: "Look sir, this price for you only, don’t tell nobody, our secret!" On this occasion my walking away trick worked – three times. After 10 minutes his calculator display read 4-0-0, and victory was mine. I reached for my wallet triumphantly. Jen immediately took the wind out of my sails by announcing that she wasn't sure if she liked them enough, and anyway, how were we to carry them home? To the stallholder's bafflement, I had to walk away empty-handed, shrugging my shoulders apologetically.

The following night we went to the Sunday Walking Street, a road through the old city which transforms into a tourist market one evening every week (on a Sunday, funnily enough). We found a stall selling bamboo mats and coasters identical to those I had haggled over the night before. They even had sets of six, prominently displayed in the middle of the stall. I glanced at the hand-written sign propped against the sets, then glanced again just to make sure I had read it correctly. Disappointingly, I had. "Special offer – 400 baht."

Luang Prabang's night market

Luang Prabang's night market

Sunday Walking Street in old Chiang Mai

Sunday Walking Street in old Chiang Mai


The lantern sellers always draw a crowd

The lantern sellers always draw a crowd


Glass engraver with a hot-headed bear

Glass engraver with a hot-headed bear


Chiang Mai doesn't have a branch of Accessorize, but it does have this

Chiang Mai doesn't have a branch of Accessorize, but it does have this


A refreshing drink after a hard night's haggling

A refreshing drink after a hard night's haggling

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:10 Archived in Thailand Tagged markets shopping cambodia thailand chiangmai Comments (1)

Food blog #4: Cooking doesn't get tougher than this


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What do you get if you cross Masterchef with Ray Mears? You might be thinking of a strange TV survival challenge in which the contestants have to keep John Torode and Greg Wallace alive in the jungle by feeding them Michelin-star bush meat, berries and roots. In our case, the answer was the ever-cheerful Kiem, our guide in the tropical jungle of Thailand's Khao Sok National Park. On the second day of our tour, he gave us a masterclass in jungle cuisine. We had journeyed by boat to a tributary of the Cheow Lan Reservoir, and then on foot upstream. This involved a fair amount of bush-whacking, stream-crossing and leech-dodging. By the time Kiem announced that we had reached our lunch spot, our clothes were sticking to us, and on our exposed skin the leeches were doing the same.

Kiem finds his rice steamer

Kiem finds his rice steamer

First task: collect your bamboo. You don't have to go far, for it grows everywhere in the jungle. The bamboo is not for eating, it's much too valuable for that. Its first use is as fuel for the fire, which is Bin's responsibility (Bin is our boat boy and Kiem's sous-chef). Whereas Mears would waste hours rubbing sticks together and blowing into kindling, there's none of that malarkey here. Kiem and Bin are both smokers, and the fire is soon burning merrily.

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Next: get the rice on. It's washed, parcel-wrapped inside large leaves and stuffed inside a length of green bamboo with a little water. The top is sealed and it's placed upright on the fire. Hey presto, one rice steamer!

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Time to crack on with the first of our three dishes today: barbecued chicken. Kiem fumbles deep in his rucksack and, in a flourish, produces a bag of chicken portions that have been marinated in spices overnight. Now all we need is a skewer to hang the meat on over the fire. Kiem reaches for the bamboo again. A thin cane is split lengthways over most of its length and the split ends are tied together with bamboo twine to hold the chicken pieces securely.

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Now, it's time to prepare the serving dishes and plates (the only crocks in this jungle have big eyes and big teeth). For this we turn to - yes, you've guessed it - bamboo again. Sections of green bamboo are cut above and below adjacent joints, then split in half lengthways. This takes advantage of the fact that a thin membrane of fibres grows across the stem at each joint, so the chopped up pieces form hollow half cylinders – perfect for dividing up the grub.

Raw material for the plates and dishes

Raw material for the plates and dishes


Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Dishes two and three are a sweet and sour pork curry and stir-fried vegetables. Unfortunately nobody has yet learned how to make a bamboo wok, so Kiem has to cheat. When each dish is ready, it's transferred to the serving plates. The only remaining task is for us to get to the grub before the wee jungle beasties do! Every dish is a winner, but the prize goes to the barbecued chicken, which was finger lickin' good.

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork


Succulent chicken straight from the fire

Succulent chicken straight from the fire


Jungle lunch is served

Jungle lunch is served

But we're not done yet. There's fresh fruit for afters: the remainder of the pineapple used for the sweet and sour curry (eaten with bamboo cocktail sticks) and rambutans, fruit that looks like it was brought to earth from Mars.

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

All this gluttony was thirsty work, and for a quenching drink, Kiem returned us to the bamboo. Within each jointed section is a small quantity of water – the older the bamboo stem, the sweeter and fresher the water tastes. To get at this precious liquid, Kiem cuts a hole a few inches above a joint, and we suck it out through a straw (made from bamboo, naturally).

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

So as you can see, the humble bamboo is worth its weight in gold. Next time you forget your pressure cooker or your fine bone china when you go into the jungle, you'll know just what to do.

Before we headed back to the boat, Kiem showed us his party piece: the bamboo gun. He placed a long stem horizontally on top of the fire and told us to wait. The fire heats the water in the bamboo immediately over the flames, causing it to boil and pressurize the sealed section. Eventually the pressure rises so much that it explodes with a loud BANG, causing every animal within half a mile to flee. Hang on though, aren't we supposed to be wildlife spotting this afternoon? D'oh!

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:06 Archived in Thailand Tagged food jungle cooking curry Comments (0)

Chris goes to the zoo (again)


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On our travels through Asia, we have come across all manner of animal-themed tourist attractions. Animals as entertainment is big business here and nowhere more so than in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. In the Mae Sa Valley a short distance from the city of Chiang Mai, you can watch a man French-kissing a king cobra, laugh at monkeys riding bicycles and have a photo taken of your head in the mouth of a live crocodile. As if this weren't enough, a few miles down the road lies Tiger Kingdom, which unashamedly bills itself as the only place in the world where you can enter a cage with a full-grown tiger and stroke its whiskers. It's tempting to shake one's head disapprovingly at the Thais for laying on such dubious forms of entertainment. Though they are guilty of insufficient regulation of this kind of attraction and pandering to the market for cheap thrills at animals' expense, the real culprits here are the paying punters. For instance, the staff at Tiger Kingdom has to keep poking and prodding the tigers to stop them from falling asleep. Their excuse for this shameful practice is that if the tigers were asleep, the tourists would not pay to enter the cage. To which I say: isn't it time to educate your visitors instead?

Closer to Chiang Mai itself are two wildlife attractions of a more traditional nature; a zoo and a night safari. Now I like a good zoo (the emphasis on good), and the UK is blessed with some very good zoos which do great work in conversation and education. For this reason I don't subscribe to the notion that zoos belong in the dustbin of history - they should be given a chance to move with the times and respond to the ever-changing demands of the discerning zoo visitor. I also enjoy visiting other countries' zoos, because I think you can learn something about their society from the way they exhibit and care for captive animals, and from observing the natives on family outings to their local zoo.

In Chiang Mai I passed on the Night Safari (because it had been built inside a National Park) and caught a tuk-tuk to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium, Thailand's largest zoo. It's a very picturesque place, set on a forested hillside with an abundance of tropical flowering plants. It's also vast, so vat that the Thais have built roads between the enclosures, as if to prove the point that there's nowhere in the country that can't be reached on a moped. Modern Thailand again shows its face in the form of innumerable retail outlets in the zoo grounds; even a small supermarket and a shoe shop.

In the zoo's many souvenir kiosks, panda toys are the hot sellers, for Chiang Mai is one of the only zoos in South East Asia to house giant pandas. In 2009, their pair of pandas produced a baby, though not without the help of a small army of veterinary specialists. The male showed no interest in mating with the female by natural means, so artificial insemination was used (twice). I know this because it was all explained in great detail on a wall of information boards in the panda house, with the help of some very graphic photos showing probes being inserted in various panda orifices. The panda enclosure faces this wall, so the poor animals are confronted with poster-size images of their own genitalia all day long. It must be the panda equivalent of waking up after a night on the lash, looking in the mirror and thinking "Oh God, is that really me?"

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

If the panda exhibit was one highlight, another was the huge walk-through aviary, which must have been created by simply stretching a net over an area of mature forest and filling it full of colourful tropical birds. Elsewhere, the exhibits were disappointingly average. Though the reptiles can be exhibited in outdoor enclosures rather than the poky heated buildings we're used to in European zoos, choosing to put all your crocodiles in concrete pits isn't the greatest way to show them off. Furthermore, there were no outstanding exhibits and no local rarities - just the usual crowd-pleasers such as lions, penguins and elephants.

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

The visitors to Far Eastern zoos often betray the different attitude to wild animals between this part of the world and, say, Europe or North America. Here, animals in zoos are firmly for the visitors' entertainment. In Western Europe zoos take great pains to instruct visitors not to feed the animals, but in Chiang Mai it was positively encouraged. You could feed pretty much anything, including the big cats, the latter by means of a piece of raw meat on the end of a pole which you could insert through the wire mesh of their cage. How exactly does this foster respectful stewardship and sensitivity towards wildlife? To be fair to the Thais, they were generally pretty well behaved, especially when I think back to some of the things I saw in Beijing Zoo.

The aquarium in the middle of the zoo has the distinction of having South East Asia's longest underwater tunnels. (It's important for all public aquaria to have a 'deepest', 'longest', 'biggest' or 'world's only' to trumpet.) The more impressive of the two runs through a freshwater tank which is home to some absolute monsters - giant Mekong catfish, freshwater stingrays and pirarucu (the largest fish in the Amazon). The information signs in the aquarium reflected an unusual take on visitor interpretation, offering advice on which species could be kept in home aquaria.

If Chiang Mai tried to impress with its role-call of big-hitting species, the other zoo I visited on this trip was a complete contrast. True, it held tigers, wolves, bears and panthers, but this was still a zoo with a difference. The Himalayan Mountain Zoo in Darjeeling specialises in Himalayan fauna, so you won't find giraffes, meerkats or flamingos here. It's a small establishment but holds the distinction of being the most successful zoo globally at breeding endangered snow leopards and red pandas.

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

I arrived late one afternoon after a brisk walk along the ridge out of town. Fortunately, the zoo occupies a small site and can be explored thoroughly in just an hour or two. The setting, like Chiang Mai's zoo, is delightful: mature forest, one of the few such areas remaining in this part of West Bengal. And unlike the rest of India, the zoo grounds are clean, orderly and quiet. I spent a good half hour watching the red pandas devouring their evening meal of bamboo shoots, and a similar amount of time marvelling at the extensive collection of pheasants (unfortunately kept behind dirty Perspex screens, so I could not photograph their brilliant colours).

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

At the blue sheep enclosure I noticed three Indian boys nearby. Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they approached me (this happens a lot in India). "Where are you from?" one of them asked. "England," I replied, "Manchester." Their eyes suddenly widened, for mention of this city provokes the same response across the whole of Asia. "Manchester United!" they chorused in unison. I then had to explain that few people in Manchester actually support United, and I was not one of them. This they found hard to believe, perhaps because 99% of Man U fans live in Asia and they can't imagine why I would want to follow any other team. They were not visiting the zoo, but were on the way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which lies within the zoo grounds. They had two weeks off school to learn basic mountaineering schools at this famous training centre established by Tenzing Norgay the year after he summitted Everest on the 1953 British expedition. "You like my country?" asked one of the boys as we parted ways. "I like your zoo!" I replied evasively.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged india thailand zoo panda darjeeling Comments (0)

The Eliminator Route

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Although this is somewhat belated (we've been busy finding the middle of nowhere), I thought I should bring you right up to date on our most recent cycling endeavours.

We spent the festive period in Chiang Mai province in the cooler North West of Thailand, and after Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and three days of non-stop eating, I was itching to get back in the saddle. So, on the 22nd December, while Chris went to talk to the animals [see blog Chris goes to the zoo (again)] I booked myself onto Route 6X: The Eliminator Route. This was described by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking as

The ultimate cross country challenge, for only the strongest and most fit XC riders.*

At 40km long, the route promised to circumnavigate the entire Doi Suthep National Park along the mountain range crest, and crucially, included uphills. Perfect, I thought. What better way to work off the countless thai green curries? The following day at the morning briefing, I was instructed to don elbow pads, knee pads, cycling gloves, a helmet, and carry at least three litres of water and a couple of cereal bars...an ominous sign? At this juncture, I should point out that I was now slightly anxious about my choice of route, but still hopeful that many a weekend spent attempting to stay on down "technical" descents in the Peak District would work in my favour. I figured that the absence of beach material on the single track would also be an enormous advantage. I then prayed to Buddha that I wouldn't be found out.

We, and several other groups on the intermediate and beginner rides, were deposted at the top of the Doi Suthep mountain by jeeps. I was joined in the hard core group by three other victims: Laurent, Steve and John as well as our guide for the day: Jay. Now Jay was something else entirely. Jay was pint-sized, but on a bike, larger than life. It woudn't have surprised me to learn that he also slept on his bicycle from the way he rode. He disappeared off down the track into the jungle on one wheel (his front wheel being surplus to requirements of course). He reminded me of our ski instructor, Remy, in La Plagne: every fallen tree / mound of earth / major drop / boulder was seen as an opportunity to gain air time. Fortunately, the same wasn't expected of us.

  • *They may as well have called it The Yorkie Route (It's not for girls)

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The riding was fabulous. We rode straight through the jungle on single track, and the descents were not so technical as to find me out. It turned out that the knee pads were also useful for bushwhacking, so overgrown were some of the sections of track we "cycled". The tough part of the route was a half hour ascent, which included walking (Jay even got off his bike here) and a poisonous snake spotting, and landed us right at the top of the mountain ridge from where we had magnificent views. These were masked only by the sweat pouring into my eyes!

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

Banana trees and jungle

Banana trees and jungle

The jungle

The jungle

The rest of the ride was predominantly downhill through jungle, past plantations of tomatoes along tracks lined with banana trees. We cycled well through lunchtime and out the other side, eventually stopping at a farm, where a toddler handed us some much needed local sustenance: bananas. Her father watched on in sandles fashioned from tree trunks. We were well off the beaten track.

Lunch...

Lunch...

Our day ended at Huay Jung Thao Lake with beers and curry. All four of us arrived, fortunately uneliminated and unscathed, about an hour behind all of the other groups. They were suspiciously clean. We were caked in mud, sweat, and dust with the odd tree branch here and there: a fine day out!

A route perhaps better described as The Eliminator Route is the Samoeng Loop. This 100km loop to the west of Chiang Mai up the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng is usually aimed at "bikers" rather than "cyclists", however, Chris and I were not to be deterred. We hired two Trek mountain bikes from an affable Aussie called Damien (and his slobbery golden retriever Lucy) at Spice Roads in Chiang Mai, and packed our bags for a two-day adventure.

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

We must have been suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from "undulations" (there weren't any in Cambodia) for the mere words "Coffee House" and "Hmong Lodge" enticed us off into the Mae Raem Valley around a 38km extension to the usual route. The coffee house and Hmong Lodge turned out to be a wild goose chase (closed in high season), but we were rewarded with a 1,000 metre "climb"** up to Hmong Nong Hoi village at 1,400m. We soon realised the pitfalls of Thailand, an infinitely more developed nation than our previous destinations: the roads were so steep that we spent most of the day in granny gear, unlike in Vietnam and Laos where the local vehicles simply woudn't have made it. The wild goose chase made lunch finding difficult. However, our stomachs were unconcerned - we were powered by cheese cake and tiramisu from Wawee Coffee in Mae Sa (yum).

  • **A "climb" (as distinct from an "undulation") was variously defined by our Redspokes group as an undulation of 4km or more; any hill that required the use of granny gear; any hill that Phong was not cycling - see blog Sunburnt, squiffy and saddlesore

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

We ended the day sipping beers and noshing on an excellent thai take out at the Forest Guest House, taking in a fabulous view across the Samoeng Valley, and a less fabulous serenade by some particularly bad karioke wafting up from a nearby thai wedding party.

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

The only way to finish the day

The only way to finish the day

The following day was a comparatively lazy day. Abandoned were the plans for 60km off-road before lunch: our legs had had enough and our stomachs hadn't. We breakfasted slowly on eggs, and put off the ascent out of Samoeng (500 metres up in 6km) a little longer by testing out the local strawberry juice (much sweeter than the strawberries were). We still had some serious work to do to get ourselves out of the mountains and back to Chiang Mai, including two major climbs totalling another 800 metres. Only another cake stop at Bon Banana would see us through! In a continuing theme we ended the day with the spare Chang beer from the night before, which tasted all the better for having been carried all the way from Samoeng. The only minor improvement would have been a trade-up to Beer Lao.

The only way forward

The only way forward

As I write this, we have now finally tested out the local "bikes". Apparently they haven't heard of bicycles in Koh Lanta, so we hired a moped and sped off round the island for a day. Fortunately I didn't have to ride up the 1 in 2 out of our hotel on my first ever moped outing. This was not a suitable challenge for a novice rider, and one of the hotel staff took pity on us. Mopeds don't inspire quite the same thirst as a bicycle, but they do make you lazy, especially when the sun is ablaze. You can tell by the well-fed look of the locals here (by comparison with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) that this is a place powered on petrol and curry.

Betrayal by "bike"!

Betrayal by "bike"!

Posted by jparsons 05:49 Archived in Thailand Tagged people food thailand cycling Comments (0)

Mission Impossible: South-East Asia


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

In Chiang Mai we went to the local multiplex to watch the preposterous but highly entertaining Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise saves the world from a madman bent on starting a nuclear war. It seems likely that a fifth film in the series will be made, and our experiences in South East Asia have given me a few ideas for the producers....

Scene 1:
The movie opens in Hanoi, Vietnam, where IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is being chased through the Old Quarter by the communist police. Suddenly he comes to the main highway on the edge of the district, and is confronted by a moving wall of cars, buses, mopeds, tuk-tuks, trucks and bicycles. His mission? Cross the road. Cruise sets off at a run but sees a bus on collision course and makes a fatal mistake - he changes direction. Confused drivers screech to a halt on all sides, blocking his escape. Meanwhile, the commies march purposefully into the moving traffic, and like Moses crossing the Red Sea, it parts around them. Ethan Hunt is captured.

Scene 2:
Cruise is in custody in Sapa, a Vietnamese town near the Chinese border. An American agent is valuable property, and the Viets want to do a deal with the Chinese military. When his captors are distracted by the 5:30am tai chi public service broadcast, he makes a daring escape. But he hasn't reckoned with the local Hmong ladies who lie in wait and chase him down the road, sweeping him up in a chorus of "You buy from meee?", "You come to my village?" and "I follow you all day!" Resistance is futile, and Cruise is marched down to the 'ethnic' hilltribe village to purchase some hand-woven garments from an old crone in a funny hat.

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Scene 3:
Ethan Hunt has made it to the Vietnam-Laos border, but the police are still on his tail. His new mission? To secure a Laos visa in less than 3 hours. But what's this? The border guards have closed the visa office and gone for a mid-morning 'lunch'. Not even IMF can pull strings here, leaving Cruise high and dry. His only option is to retire to the adjacent cafe and order some coffee and snacks while he waits nervously. But little does he know the cafe is owned by the visa officials, and as soon as he hands over his money the border reopens, and he is swept through in a wave of euphoria.

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Scene 4:
Cruise is in Laos and is safe for the time being. IMF pages him with another mission - he's being redeployed to the town of Vang Vieng to save it from rampant British backpackers. This being Laos, the usual IMF sign-off has been modified to "This message will self-destruct when it feels like it." He leaps aboard the nearest vehicle to race to the scene, but unfortunately it's a squeaking, creaking Laotian bicycle. Moreover, because Cruise is only 4 foot 3, he has to stand on the pedals and ride in the manner of the local kids. (This scene should provide some much-needed light relief).

Scene 5:
Ethan Hunt spots a crowd of backpackers on the river and ditches the bike. There follows a high-octane, fast and furious chase scene down river, showcasing the latest extreme sport, tubing. (The tubes drift lazily with the current, so some bombastic music and clever editing will be required here.) But what's this? Cruise has been lassooed by a riverside bar and hauled to the bank. He is forced to down several bottles of lao lao, smoke strange substances and bop along to bad Eurodance in his bermuda shorts. He blacks out.

Scene 6:
Cruise suddenly comes to his senses. His GPS phone pinpoints his location as Chiang Mai, Thailand. The backpackers must have brought him here. He needs IMF to pull him out of here sharpish. But it's Christmas Day, the Night Market is in full swing and 15 million Thais are here to part with their baht. He's hemmed in on all sides, forced to file past the same handful of stalls repeated ad nauseum: wooden elephants, paper lanterns, silk scarves, knock-off DVDs and "I love Chiang Mai" t-shirts. Suddenly a woman approaches - at least he thinks it's a woman, but it's hard to tell under her heavy make-up. "Hello sir," she says in a suspiciously deep voice, "you wanna some fun tonight?" This could be Ethan Hunt's most daring mission yet... (to be continued)

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

It's only a start, but I think it's got all the ingredients of a classic summer blockbuster, plus a ladyboy. Tom will love it!

On a separate subject, Jen and I are about to disappear into the Thai rainforest for a few days, to spend New Year in the company of some gibbons. No, not British backpackers, real gibbons. So we'd like to say a slightly premature Happy New Year to everybody - have a great New Year's Eve wherever you are. We'll be blogging again in 2012!

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand vietnam laos christmas backpackers hmong visas Comments (2)

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