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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)

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)

A cornucopia of Kohs


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

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)

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)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


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The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

What's wat


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This blog is inspired by a bar in Siem Reap called Angkor What?

- "Look at that wat!"
- "That what?"
- "No, that wat."
- "Oh, the wat."
- "Yes, and what a wat."
- "Very nice. So, what wat's that wat?"
- "Well, I'll tell you what."
- "What?"
- "I know what's a wat and what's not a wat, but I don't know what wat's what."
- "You what?"

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage


The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong

The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong


Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang

Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang


A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks

A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks


The West Gate of Angkor Wat

The West Gate of Angkor Wat


Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand

Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand


A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint

A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint


A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat

A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat


Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Posted by Chris Parsons 23:42 Archived in Laos Tagged temples cambodia thailand buddhism laos monks wats Comments (2)

Night moves


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During the planning stages of this trip, I was quite taken with the idea of using sleeper trains for some of our long-distance hops. What could be better than sweeping gracefully through the countryside, sipping a nightcap in the dining car and then retiring to bed to be rocked gently to sleep by the swaying carriage. Yes, I thought, this would be a civilised way to arrive somewhere. And then I remembered that this is Asia we are talking about.

Our first night train was the 21:00 Padatik Express from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Calcutta. This being India, I did wonder what hurdles we would have to overcome to get ourselves on board. We arrived at NJP in good time, armed with a print-out of our pre-booked reservation for two berths in first class. I was fully prepared to brandish this in the face of any uniformed jobsworth who stood between me and my train. But in the course of four hours at the station, my heart rate remained steady and my blood pressure normal. At the ticket counter, we were told that the reservation receipt also constituted our tickets. The train appeared on the departure board as expected. We parked ourselves in the 'military waiting area' and nobody moved us on. Even the local beggars, missing various limbs and crawling around the concourse like spiders, left us in peace. By this stage I was completely disarmed, almost willing for an obstructive minor official to pick a fight with.

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4


Loading the luggage car at NJP

Loading the luggage car at NJP

We moved to the platform half an hour ahead of departure and found the train waiting for us. A list of passenger names was pasted next to each carriage door, and if your name wasn't on the list, you weren't getting on. We had to walk the whole length of the platform to find the single first class carriage, past third class, second class (seats), second class (sleeper, non a/c) and second class (sleeper, a/c). Miracle of miracles, our names were on the list. What's more, we seemed to have the four-berth compartment to ourselves.

My disappointment at the lack of a dining car was forgotten when a man appeared to take our dinner order. The menu options were chicken or vegetable (no further details were provided, but you can take it as read that it's going to be curry). We ordered two vegetable dinners - he brought one of each. Strangely, I found his incompetence reassuringly Indian.

I switched off the irritating rattle of the ceiling fan, only to find that it was masking the equally irritating hum of a badly-maintained a/c unit. This could not be switched off. My hackles were briefly raised, but I was distracted by the sensation of movement. The train had left on time! With nothing left to rail against, we settled down to sleep. It felt like a sleepness night, but I must have drifted off at some point because I dreamt that someone was running their fingertips across my stomach. In the morning, we discovered evidence of a mystery occupant in the compartment. I had stowed a piece of cake wrapped in foil in a storage pocket on the wall next to my bed. The foil now had a mouse-sized hole in it, and half the cake was missing. Evidently, I had not been dreaming. (We later discovered that only first class carriages come with complimentary rodents. The riff-raff in second class get cockroaches.) Although we arrived in Calcutta an hour late, Indian Railways had provided a disappointingly stress-free service. We disembarked and strode out onto the street, where we were promptly fleeced by a taxi driver. Ah, the real India again!

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse


Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

The Thais also do night trains well, even more so than the Indians. The Bangkok to Chiang Mai Special Express service was extremely comfortable, even in second class, and mercifully rodent-free. It even had a dining car, but the waitress service made us lazy and we ate our dinner and breakfast in our seats. At bed time, a bustling, cheerful woman turned up to convert our table and seats into fully made-up beds, with curtains for privacy, within two minutes. Ok, the train was more than an hour late in arriving, but I'm prepared to forgive the Thais seeing as their main railway line north has been flooded for much of the past three months.

In India we shared a carriage with well-dressed businessmen, in Thailand with Western families on their holidays, but in Cambodia we joined the backpacker set for the night bus from the coast to Siem Reap. Signs all over town in Sihanoukville advertised the bus, using words like 'express', 'comfort' and 'luxury'. It had a toilet, a DVD player, air-conditioning and seats that looked vaguely bed-like. On the other hand, the Lonely Planet warns against road travel by night in Cambodia, and a quick Google search turned up some terrifying accounts of bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel and near misses with sleeping dogs in the middle of the highway. It sounded unmissable, so we bought two tickets.

We boarded at 7:15pm and discovered a problem straight away. The 'seats', which looked like a cross between bunk beds and sun-loungers, were designed for locals. For anyone over 5 foot 6, it was impossible to find a comfortable position to lie in. A second problem lay in the state of the road. Granted, it was surfaced, but the Cambodians have a habit of laying strips of raised tarmac across the highway every few hundred yards. In the bus, it felt like crossing cattle grids at high speed, making sleep impossible. We were the cattle, and we were on our way to market.

I half-remember the unwelcome stops during the night: dinner in a dead-end town at 9:30pm; midnight in Phnom Penh, to decant the bewildered farangs making the 18 hour journey to Ho Chi Minh City; and breakfast at the god-forsaken hour of 4:00am. Shortly after sunrise, we were deposited at the bus company's Siem Reap depot. The gates were locked behind the bus until everyone had bought a tuk-tuk ride into town, at non-negotiable rates. This of course provided an opportunity for more fleecing, but your money goes a long way in Cambodia and we were ripped off to the tune of a dollar. Would I do the night bus again? No, once was enough, thanks.

And so I'm left with a paradox: the night trains of India and Thailand were disappointingly dull, and for that reason I wouldn't hesitate to use them again.

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged night trains india cambodia thailand buses Comments (0)

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