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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)

Wildlife blog #1: Encounters in the Himalayas


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

Happy New Year one and all! As our trip draws to a close, we are furiously cranking out the last few blogs - today you get three for the price of one.

I wrote about zoos in my previous blog, but there's no substitute for seeing an animal in the wild. In the Himalayas, there's always the chance of an animal encounter, and we've had some memorable ones on our previous trips to Nepal and India: seeing griffon vultures at close range as we climbed to a ridge on which they perched, glimpsing musk deer and colourful pheasants in the forests around Namche, tracking a group of tahr (a wild goat) up a steep hillside and finding langur monkeys in the rhododendron forests of the Annapurna Sanctuary. This trip provided many more such moments.

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

There are two species of monkey in the Nepal Himalaya, and both are relatively easy to spot. Rhesus macaques are bold opportunists and they happily live alongside people, even in major cities like Kathmandu and Agra. We saw a large group on the first night of our trek and a lone individual at about 2,500m in the Tsum Valley, which is about as high as they venture. Further up the same valley we came across a troupe of grey langurs sunbathing on the roof of an abandoned stone hut, and they posed obligingly for photographs. The monkeys here have an uneasy coexistence with the local farmers, for they come down from the trees to raid the fields of millet and tsampa (a local cereal crop). In response, the farmers build elevated wooden platforms overlooking the crops and post their children as sentries to watch for marauding monkeys. Any animal that comes within range gets scared off with a well-aimed rock. If ever we heard a high-pitched, disembodied voice crying "Namaste!" it was sure to be one of the local kids on monkey watch.

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Higher still, the pine and juniper forests peter out and one enters a realm of windswept pastures and rock debris. Other mammal species inhabit these high, inaccessible valleys. Marmots are usually heard before they are seen, betraying their whereabouts with a piercing alarm call. They are the same species as can be seen in the European Alps, only they seem fatter here. Mustelids - Himalayan weasels and yellow martens - also patrol these valleys, hunting small rodents like the pika and Himalayan rat. In the UK you have to be very lucky to see a wild weasel, but I've seen their Himalayan cousins on several occasions. We surprised one individual who had just caught a mouse, causing him to drop his dinner and scamper into the bushes. We waited patiently and sure enough he emerged a short while later, scampered back to his kill, grabbed it, stared at us for a few seconds and scarpered.

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

The aforementioned tahr is one of a number of large herbivores which graze the scrub and kharkas. The one most commonly encountered is the blue sheep or bharal. It is not a true sheep, but rather one of those strange-looking hybrid animals that appears to have been designed by a committee. Males grow large curved horns and look most impressive when they engage in combat on the precipitous mountainsides.

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

The blue sheep is curiously named
For its blueness is falsely claimed
If I were a ewe
I'd paint us all blue
To stop us from feeling ashamed

Baby blue sheep and fat marmots are the favourite prey of eagles. Our trekking guides pronounced any large bird of prey in the sky as an eagle, but most are in fact vultures. Griffon vultures are the highest fliers and are commonly seen in small groups, circling on thermal updraughts to great altitudes. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are usually seen in pairs and track up and down valleys below the mountain summits. I watched a solitary lammergeier wheeling and swooping around the outcrop on which the village of Phu is constructed, and as we got closer it buzzed us several times, flying so low that I could make out its eyes and the mane of golden feathers around its nape. A large, solitary raptor is more likely to be an eagle, always flying purposefully. In the Himalayas, we saw a fair number of golden eagles, the species we know from the UK.

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La


Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

You have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of other large predators in these mountains. They are rare, wary of humans and mostly nocturnal. But my most memorable wildlife moment on the Himalayan leg of our trip involved one such predator, and I didn't even see the animal in question. It was above the treeline in Sikkim, at an altitude of nearly 5,000m, that my guide and I came across fresh tracks in the snow. The lower forests harbour leopards, Asiatic black bears and red pandas, but the extreme altitude ruled out any of these candidates. They were the tracks of a Himalayan wolf, a rare subspecies of the grey wolf restricted to the remote corners of Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Pakistan. As if this were not exciting enough, further along the path we came across yet more tracks, this time a trail of much larger pawprints with a shallow groove running between them: tracks left by a snow leopard. The groove was created by the snow leopard's long tail trailing through the deep snow. An actual sighting of a snow leopard must count as the ultimate animal encounter, because of its inaccessible habitat, its beauty and scarcity and the fact that it almost exclusively hunts at night. In Nepal we trekked through the Annapurna and Manaslu Conservation Areas, both prime snow leopard habitat, but even here there are thought to be no more than five snow leopards per 100km2. To illustrate the difficulty of seeing one, even the experts at the BBC Natural History Unit took a year to locate a snow leopard, and a further year to obtain some decent footage of it, when they decided to film the species for Planet Earth. I would settle happily for a set of fresh tracks!

There is one creature of the Himalayas even more mythical and elusive than the snow leopard. Legends speak of a dark, human-like shape moving swiftly over ridges, huge footprints in the snow and eerie moaning cries in the night. It is of course the yeti. Did I see dark shapes moving swiftly over ridges, or huge footprints in the snow? I did not, more's the pity, though I was once woken with a start in the middle of the night by a strange moaning sound outside the tent. A yeti, perhaps? Chance would be a fine thing - it was only Jen bringing up her dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:04 Archived in Nepal Tagged wildlife india himalayas nepal 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)

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)

Things we lost in the mountains


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We managed to get through both our treks relatively unscathed but the same cannot be said for some of our gear. Here's a list of kit that we lost, broke, or managed to wear out!

  1. Chris's trekking pole - broken on the Tsum Valley trek, now only suitable for people four feet tall. Replaced in Pokhara.
  2. Chris's sunglasses - broken on the Annapurna Circuit. Also replaced in Pokhara. Combined cost of trekking pole and sunglasses? Ten quid.
  3. Chris's glasses - broken on the Manaslu Circuit. Just got them fixed in Hanoi - nothing serious, thank goodness!
  4. Jen's miniature Swiss army knife - lost in mysterious circumstances!
  5. Jen's inflatable pillow - deflated! Neither gaffa tape nor glue worked, so it was replaced in Kathmandu.
  6. Chris's inflatable sleeping mat - also deflated! Can you see the problem with inflatable gear? Still awaiting repair, hopefully a bicycle puncture repair kit will do the job.
  7. Chris's socks - more hole than sock. See photo below for evidence!

Chris_show..f_heels.jpg

  1. Chris's handkerchief - lost in the Nar Phu Valley. Nan, can I place my order for Christmas please?
  2. Jen's handkerchief - charred by a campfire in Sikkim!
  3. Chris's MP3 player - fried by our solar charger in Nepal! Thank you to Amazon and my Mum for the replacement.
  4. Jen's shampoo bottle - the top disappeared down a waterfall.
  5. Chris's waistbelt for our camera case - fell off the roof of the Arughat bus.
  6. Chris's replacement trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (deliberately).
  7. Jen's trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (not deliberately!)

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged india trekking gear nepal Comments (0)

More magical mountain moments


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Here are some of our best photos from our trek in Sikkim, to go with the recently-uploaded blog entries.

A glacial lake in the upper Oklatang Valley

A glacial lake in the upper Oklatang Valley

A recession of ridges towards Darjeeling

A recession of ridges towards Darjeeling

A wintry campsite at Tikip Chu

A wintry campsite at Tikip Chu

Chris celebrates reaching the Goecha La

Chris celebrates reaching the Goecha La

Chris, Jen and Pushpa at Phedang

Chris, Jen and Pushpa at Phedang

Jen at Lamuney

Jen at Lamuney

Kangchenjunga ̣at dawn

Kangchenjunga ̣at dawn

Pushpa and Chris in front of Pandim

Pushpa and Chris in front of Pandim

The golden welly brigade trekking through the snow

The golden welly brigade trekking through the snow

The Singalila range on a frosty morning

The Singalila range on a frosty morning

Yak train descending the Oklatang Valley

Yak train descending the Oklatang Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:04 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #4: The snow leopard's realm


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Day 11 – The Goecha La and the trek to Kokrochung (9 November 2011)
At 4am porridge and tea is served at the tent door, fuel for our big walk. But there’s an immediate problem; Jen has come down with a bout of D&V in the night. She’s not well enough to walk, so it’s just me, Pushpa and Abi, our senior porter, who set of at 4:30am. The moon is so bright that we switch our headtorches of after about half an hour. Our first goal is a viewpoint at the top of the valley behind Sameti Pokhari. We reach it just after sunrise. A smattering of trekkers are already here, firing off shots of the golden mountains, but nothing like the numbers at Dzongri. The viewpoint is actually the top of a moraine ridge. There’s a second viewpoint an hour and a half further up the path, then the Goecha La itself beyond that. To get to them, we must descend a steep, ice-covered path into the ablation valley of the Oklatang Glacier. Three guys standing at the top of the steep section have serious expressions. “Problem!” one of them says to me, pointing at the ice, but Abi is already halfway down in his wellies. I set off, carefully following his every move, while the dithering trekkers eventually decide to turn back. We reach the second viewpoint just as the sun hits us, warming our frozen toes and faces. Now, we are standing on top of another moraine ridge, directly opposite Goecha Peak and its eponymous glacier. Below us lies a large, frozen glacial lake – it’s awe-inspiring scenery and seems as though we’re in touching distance of the Goecha La. All we have to do is cross a snowy bowl, but it takes a further hour to get there. No-one else has come this far today, and the snow is fresh and deep. There’s a lot of clambering and comedy falling over as legs disappear into deep pockets of snow between the hidden rocks. Pushpa, a few paces ahead of me, points his trekking pole at some tracks in the snow and announces "Snow leopard." This is an elusive prize indeed! The tracks must have been laid since the last snowfall, which means they are less than three days old. An actual sighting of a snow leopard is ridiculously unlikely (Pushpa has done this trek more than 50 times and has only had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard) but to find fresh tracks is still a rare privilege. We struggle on to the pass itself, the sun now beating down on us and reflecting an unbelievable amount of heat from the snow, causing us to perspire heavily. At the pass we celebrate with hugs and high-fives (it’s also Abi’s first time here), and take in our surroundings. Kangchenjunga’s east face is massive and lofty. The mountain is sacred (and it’s forbidden to climb it from the Indian side) and Pushpa and Abi say prayers and burn incense. We look back on our route, a wild, unspoilt valley leading all the way out of the Himalayas. I also look back to our arrival in Dzongri three days ago, depressed after a week of terrible weather and on the point of giving up and going down. How things have changed! It’s rotten luck that Jen is not here to see this, but she gave me instructions to take lots of photos – easy for me to obey! At the pass we pick up the snow leopard tracks again, and follow them on a different route back to the second viewpoint, because as Pushpa says "the leopard always knows the way." Here, we strip off excess layers of clothing and eat our lunch. We retrace our steps to camp, arriving at 12:30pm. After a second lunch, Pushpa is keen that we descend more. Jen still feels rotten, but is just about well enough to walk on at a slow pace. She knows that 4,100m is not a good place to be ill! We walk yesterday’s route in reverse to Kokrochung, a campsite surrounded by rivers. We both rest in the tent until dinner. Mingma has rustled up another pizza but Jen can only manage a small bowl of cornflakes. By seven o’clock we’re both in bed.

Day 12 – The trek to Sachen (10 November 2011)
It’s time to go down. Once the main goal of a trek has been achieved, it’s always something of an anti-climax on the walk out, and that’s how I feel as we set off this morning. Jen has made a rapid recovery and almost matches me in terms of porridge, eggs, chapati and pizza (reheated) consumption at breakfast. We’re now below the treeline and are walking in forests all day. But what beautiful forests – towering pines decked in mosses and ferns, rhododendron trees with leaf clusters the size of small umbrellas, golden birches and magnolias. No villages, no fields, just a wild forest. It’s a different experience to the treks we have done in Nepal. As you descend from the heights, you can almost feel the warmth returning to your blood. There’s a gradual re-connection with civilization: mobile phones spring into life, a distant road is spotted, and then the first settlement. In our case, it’s the small hamlet of Tshokha where we stop for lunch. We then continue to descend, passing another hamlet called Bakhim. Pushpa introduces us to his Aunty Gita, who has a small shop-cum-restaurant stall here. She also has some unusual produce in her vegetable garden:

Gita, Gita
Vegetable eater
How does your garden grow?
With cauliflowers, beans,
An assortment of greens
And marijuana plants in a row

Jen’s remarkable recovery is complete, and she’s now striding along with chef Mingma. I’ve always known that the way to Jen’s heart is via her stomach (which is why I made sure there was a large slab of chocolate cake in front of her when I first asked her out). Mingma is a demon in the kitchen, so perhaps I should keep a closer eye on him… At Sachen, the porters have pitched our tent on a small plateau above the trail surrounded by wild forest. It’s a beautiful location for our final night. We get a special dinner, featuring a salad that looks like a piece of modern art and a cake decorated with the words "Happy Trake" (sic). We both eat too much and there slope off to bed feeling the usual weariness. Some of our porters are sleeping under a hollowed-out tree nearby.

Day 13 – The trek to Yuksam (11 November 2011)
It’s a two-hour walk through the shady forest to our final destination, Pushpa’s home village of Yuksam. Before we leave we say some words of thanks and tip the staff. The walk is uneventful and our minds are already thinking about the coming days and weeks. We pass a group heading up who warn of monkeys throwing rocks down a landslide, but when we get there they have gone. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved. We reach Yuksam, by far the prettiest village I have ever seen at a trailhead (most are complete dumps). Our transport is waiting – the usual pimped-up Mahindra jeep. With the trekking over, it’s time to reflect on what has been a tough but ultimately rewarding couple of weeks.

Sikkim has given us a taste of the wild Himalayan winter. The blizzards and fog persisted for seven days, making the trek physically punishing, mentally tiring and a challenge for Pushpa faced with keeping 16 people safe and in good spirits. Then the sun came out and transformed our experience entirely. Just as we had reached the point of despair, we had five days of the most incredible scenery. This trek has been like a metaphor for India: exasperation and exaltation in equal measure.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:41 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

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