Chilling out on Ko Lanta

Whereas most of our blogs are filled with stories of places we’ve been, things we’ve seen, stuff we’ve done, this is a story of slowing down, planting our feet (and our hearts) for a moment, and kicking back.

We never know what, or who we may find each time we move from one place to the next, and having had such a great time in Railay, moving on to Ko Lanta worried us slightly – what if we missed out on some more excitement on the beaches and rocks? As ever though, you inevitably have to keep moving forwards…

We left Railay quite early in the morning and by the time we reached Ko Lanta, Helena was dying for a pee. She jumped out of the mini-van and simply disappeared! The journey had involved a long-tail boat ride, two meandering mini-vans and two lumbering ferry crossings and had ended up with Helena in the ether chasing after a compassionate soul with a toilet, and me, with all of our luggage stood on the side of the road wondering which way she had gone. As she didn’t seem to be re-appearing from anywhere in the immediate surroundings, I decided that the only thing to do was to head to Chill Out House – our hostel for two nights – and hope she was either there already, or may turn up there.

A short but exhausting walk later down a dusty and bumpy ‘road’, laden with both of our heavy bags and our three smaller rucksacks, I came across Chill Out House and walked in through the wide, low slung, swinging bamboo gate that bore a hand-painted sign saying ‘Welcome’ with a sunrise background. image‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen my girlfriend have you?’ I asked the lady behind the desk (who I now know to be Marilyn). She looked slightly confused and replied with a question in kind, ‘Are all of those bags yours?!’

She offered to watch the bags while I went and searched for Hels. I found her wandering, but happily relieved, on the road and we went back to check in. Marilyn offered us a seat (it was actually a wooden swing) and we got chatting to Jessie, Marilyn’s daughter. It was about 25 minutes before we, and they(!), remembered/realised that we hadn’t actually checked in yet. So we went to the desk, were presented with our Chill Out House wrist bands (which we’re still both wearing) and Jessie gave us a tour.

The Chill Out House tour is an integral part of every person’s check in and each of the staff have their own style (watch out for Henry’s tour, it’ll be close to checking out time by the time you’ve reached your bed!). You are introduced to the place, the people, the ethos and welcomed into the family. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it was about Chill Out that felt so right, but we just knew straightaway we’d found somewhere a bit special.

A funky and arty space
A funky and arty space

So I guess I should give you guys a virtual tour of the house in words as best I can. Here goes …

Chill Out House is an organic, creative, evolving structure and space. It feels rooted to the earth and the sand under your feet downstairs enhances the feeling of connection to the island There are two common areas (creative named Common Area One and Common Area Two), a music station where all sorts of eclectic sounds are played out depending on who has plugged in their iPod, and a couple of chill out pads – softly furnished, low slung areas built solely for relaxing (and where I spent quite a lot of time trying to digest Cloud Atlas.) The little bar is the centre of the downstairs and serves cold beer, marvellous Mojitos, and the occasional shot of Black Cock if you’re feeling fiesty! There are two more floors, entirely constructed of wood – quite often driftwood that has been washed up on the beach – housing more chill out spaces, dorms and rooms. ‘The fire risk here is extreme’ explained Jessie as we climbed up into the treehouse-like structure on the way to our room which was named ‘sunset’, and decorated with shells tied onto thin strings hung from the edge of the ceiling where the room was open to the outside world. Throughout the house you find all sorts of mini arty touches; hand painted signs are dotted around and about, collages of shells decorate the bathrooms, recycled bottled tops are used artistically in lanterns and free spaces, driftwood sculptures provide structure and aesthetic interest in nooks and crannies. And it is constantly changing – while we were there, the staff were always working on one ‘project’ or another to fix, restore, replace, or add to the fabric of the environment.

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Jaydon’s definitely one of the lads…

Speaking of staff…I suppose this was one of the big things about Chill Out. I’ve already mentioned Marilyn and Jessie, but we quickly met Matt and Rosie, Henry (of extended tour fame), Erin, Mechi, Tommy, Gabi, Arm and Jayden. They were the real family at Chill Out and they made us feel so welcome. I can’t even really remember being introduced to these guys, but I do remember our first night there.

We’d seen a flyer for a reggae band called ‘South Paradise’ who were playing just around the corner at Gypsy Bar. You know I’m a sucker for live reggae so Hels and I were sat in the bar having a few drinks and just started chatting away to everyone. Before you know it, we’ve had more than a few beers and are fully in the party mood. We decamped to Gypsy Bar and had a great time watching the band. They weren’t as straight a reggae outfit as I was expecting though – they went from Ain’t No Sunshine straight into Don’t Look Back In Anger for example. Not that I’m complaining of course! Their rendition of Seven Nation Army at the end had the whole place jumping and they followed it up with No Woman No Cry, the singalong to which potentially made more noise than the band themselves!

Bands were a bit of a feature of our stay actually – we were fortunate to be in town at the same time as Job2Do – Thailand’s biggest reggae band. They were due to play at a bar called ‘Irie’ on the Monday night, so we got tickets and went along. The place was packed! Irie is an open air bar in parts, the bar is in one corner and the stage in another, both under a thatched roof. As any of you acoustically minded folk out there will know, playing in the open air is a nightmare for sound. It was the same here. In the open, the band sounded muffled and flat – I turned to Hels and said, ‘It’s no good, we have to go in!’ She gave me that look of ‘What’s that you say? You want to go front and centre on a dancefloor, surely not?!’ But she knew there was no other option so off we went, clawing our way through the crowd, but it was worth it – under the roof canopy it was a whole different sound and atmosphere. The entire place sang along to Doo Doo Doo Doo Ter Tum (Google it!) when they played it and we stayed there right until the end of their fifth encore which, to my delight, was Natural Mystic.

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Job2Do packed out Irie! Sing it with me…..’Doo doo doo doo ter tam!’

Afterwards, Hels and I indulged in a Ko Lanta institution – Mr Green, a late night restaurant just next to Irie. Unlike UK late night joints where you’d get kebabs, burgers and pizzas, Mr Green serves a whole menu of Thai food: curries, fried rice and vegetable dishes and of course pad thai. We happily tucked into some chicken fried rice with vegetables before wandering back towards Chill Out House.

On our way down the road, I had a genius idea, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ Night swimming always has a certain romantic feel to it so we wandered the two minutes down to Long Beach. I quickly de-robed, ran headlong into the sea and dived into the warm water. I have images in my head of it being graceful, like a dolphin perhaps, or a slightly hairy seal, but it was probably more like a drunk orangutan (orangutans actually can’t swim, as we have learned in Borneo). And then, the most amazing thing happened – I turned into a wizard! I had Dumbledore’s words (or was it Hagrid?) ringing in my ear ‘You’re a wizard, Harry!’ as I swooshed my hands around in the water, creating spells and light, leaving trails of green luminescence. ‘You HAVE to come and see this, I shouted to Hels. It is literally incredible!’ Just incase you think I have gone mad, I clearly hadn’t gained magical powers, I’d merely stumbled upon the bioluminescent phytoplankton. Spotting them is another favourite activity on Ko Lanta after dark, and one which we repeated a couple of nights later with Henry and Rosie but with the aid of snorkelling masks. These little creatures, who knows what they are, hang around in the shallow water and emit a green glow when stimulated by movement – beautiful, intoxicating, unforgettable.

So we stayed. We’d booked two nights originally but extended, and extended again to a week – the longest we’ve spent in a single location before or since. Our days were spent happily dozing, relaxing, chatting, eating Tom Yam and noodles at Mon’s across the road and the fabulous Pad Thai from the Pad Thai guy’s stall, playing Jenga – and mega Jenga, otherwise known as Jenga tower, drinking the occasional beer, running on the beach, reading books, playing with Jessie’s son Jayden, messing about with Blue, the dog, sun-bathing, singing, laughing, swimming, watching the sun set, getting up late and going to bed even later.

Mega Jenga!!  It's only the start...
Mega Jenga!! It’s only the start…

Another major past-time was browsing Arm’s portfolio of tattoos… At the back of the hostel, there is a small studio where Arm does tattoos in the traditional Bamboo technique. Chill Out Ink (www.chilloutink.com) is his business and his work is phenomenal. Almost everybody who was working at the hostel had had something done by him and so there was a living and breathing portfolio all around us. Erin had a pineapple on her side and a Sak Yant on her finger both done by Arm (amidst many other tattoos), Rosie had a beautiful Lotus flower on her arm, Henry had a wolf on his calf, a guy called Steve had an indescribably brilliant elephant on his calf and Matt…well, Matt got a circle (but that’s another story!) Add to that Helena’s discovery of Pinterest and you have a seriously heady and tempting mix of time, place and desire and it was no surprise when she said, ‘I’ve been thinking… I’m going to get another tattoo.’

After much deliberation, she settled on a combined image of a Buddhist Sak Yant symbol adorned with a half lotus flower. She gave it to Arm and he refined it into his own style and gave Hels a final design. It’s beautiful. She opted to have it on her ribs and so part of our final night was spent in the studio with Arm as he worked his magical art onto (into?!) Helena’s side. The result is a great tattoo and a lasting memory.image

Talking of memories, that’s what this week was abounding with – small moments, little things that combine to create a living and lasting experience in our minds. We were only there for a short time, and the very nature of Chill Out House and travelling generally means that the experience and the place could never be the same even if we returned – most of the people in this blog have already moved on too – but it was one time when we felt really like a part of something and somewhere. Travelling, even when you’re with another person, can be mystifyingly unsettling experience – the excitement of having no roots and being able to wander anywhere is sometimes tempered by the distress of never feeling at home, like nobody knows who you are or anything about you. To find ourselves momentarily rooted in the sandy floors of the house, with people around who would greet you not only with a smile, but also your name, to have shared experiences, fun and laughter was something that we cherished.

So to the people of Chill Out House, Ko Lanta, and especially Matt and Rosie, thank you 🙂 x

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Watching the sunset for the last time on Ko Lanta 🙂
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Chill out house staff – legendary!

Reaching new heights!

Ko Tao is one of the best places in the world to learn to scuba dive. There are a large number of dive sites in close proximity to the island and a huge number of dive schools offering the full 4-day PADI course often with accommodation included. After the debauchery of the full moon party, and our ensuing peaceful stay on Ko Pha Ngan, we decided that it was about time we did something active, especially since Ko Tao was on our doorstep – well almost. So we selected our dive school, paid our deposit and prepared ourselves for a couple of days in the classroom whilst looking forward to beginning to explore the deep blue.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. I won’t go into all of the details; mainly because I don’t particularly want to re-live the 24 hour nightmare of frustration that ensued, but also because it would take up this entire post. The basics go as follows: we arrived in Ko Tao, were picked up by dive school rep, taken to dive school resort, handed medical clearance questionnaire. No problem so far. However, the questionnaire asks if you suffer from asthma and/or take regular medication, both of which apply to me. In order to make sure I was covered by our insurance should anything happen (and in the interests of honesty) I answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions. After that, we explored all possible options/avenues to obtain medical clearance for me to dive, including a 7 hour wild goose chase round trip back to Ko Samui to visit a diving specialist doctor, but to no avail. In the end, we sacrificed a large proportion of our deposit, and were left on Ko Tao, feeling rather frustrated and with no accommodation. Gutted.

However, we made the best of our stay. To soften the blow, we found a pleasant hut near the beach and had a great unplanned night of revelry that started with a particularly lovely pair of pizzas in an Italian restaurant with glasses of wine (my glass of red was so good that we followed it up with a full bottle – special treat) and ended up with us sitting on the beach, drinking a bucket of rum and coke, watching fire shows and dancing in the sand. Oh no, sorry, I’ve just remembered – after the bar closed we went for a dip in the sea; it was literally as warm as bath water.

Although scuba diving was out of the question, we decided we’d have a look into a snorkelling trip, which we did on our penultimate day on the island, and it was excellent. We spent the day on a small boat moving to various sites around the small island, snorkelling amongst the coral formations and observing the wonderland of sub-aqua life that plays out under the waves. A friendly crew, a complimentary lunch and free tea and coffee (always a clincher in my eyes) made for a great day out. A particular highlight for me was diving repeatedly off the top level of the boat into the clear waters – I’m such a kid!

Diving into the crystal waters of Ko Tao
Diving into the crystal waters of Ko Tao

So although our time on Ko Tao was nothing like what we had had planned, we ended up with good memories from our stay there. Looking forwards, we had a vague South-Westerly direction in mind as we knew that we were going to be heading to Malaysia at the start of April. We were wondering about visiting Ko Phi-Phi, famous for being the setting for Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, and we’d also heard good things about Krabi and Long Beach on Ko Lanta … but for fear of turning into total beach bums (even more so than we’d become already), we opted for a mini-jungle adventure first in the form of a stay at Khao Sok National Park, a 160 million year old lowland rainforest in central southern Thailand featuring the vast Chiaw Lan lake.

It was a refreshing change from the beach to open the door of our hut and see a palette of shades of green, interspersed with flashes of colour from various flowers, and to hear the never-ending chamber music of the forest; some call it a symphony, but to my ears it’s a far more delicate score, I’m just sorry I can’t name any of the instruments. Actually, that’s not quite true, there is one specific sound that we heard intermittently but that became familiar – that of the Tockay Gecko. It’s a large gecko, a sort of greeny grey colour, with orange spots, and it makes a very distinctive ‘to-kay, to-kay, to-kay’ sound. The sound doesn’t last for long though and they seem to run out of steam after about five or six ‘to-kay’s and end with a sort of sigh, as if their call takes a huge effort each time.

Apparently, the best way to see Khao Sok is to book an overnight tour, so that’s what we did. We jumped into the back of a pick-up and were whisked off with a bunch of others towards the park. The geography of the place is absolutely stunning and we were amazed by the gargantuan limestone rock formations that rose up either side of the road – and we weren’t even in the park yet. Soon we reached a jetty, and were ushered into a long slender wooden boat that housed a huge, growling diesel engine at its centre. The driver sat nonchalantly on a battered seat that appeared to have been removed from the cab of a truck (probably the same one from which they nabbed the engine) and revved the beast with his foot. The first part of our trip was to be a boat ride across Chiaw Lan lake, a man-made lake created to power a hydro-electric dam, which forms the centre piece to Khao Sok. Once our boat was loaded, the driver gunned the engine and we were soon leaping and lurching across the surface of the emerald lake, to be greeted almost immediately by more limestone karst formations, this time rising up out of the water. These rocks (or are they mountains?) are so impressive; huge in scale and sheer in gradient, they look down from all sides, asserting their dominance on the landscape. Trees and shrubs clamber for space, covering every inch of the rocks, leaving only the steepest of cliff faces uninhabited. And they do have something of the look of faces about them; a white limestone background is painted with burnt oranges and reds, shades of green and brown, hues of purple and blue; flashes of yellow put the finishing touches to this giant geological paint palette.

Our photography skills can't do justice to this incredible scenery.
Our photography skills can’t do justice to this incredible scenery.

As we travelled further along the lake, the mountains gradually reduced in size, and we soon saw evidence of the landscape as it had once been in the form of tree trunks standing in the water near the edges of the islands. These leafless and lifeless trees, ashen and grey in colour, were bizarrely haunting. The futility of their plight for survival made for interesting viewing and I desperately tried to catch something worthwhile on a photograph – silhouetting the trunks against the water and rocks behind.

A graveyard for trees.
A graveyard for trees.

Soon we reached our overnight accommodation – a group of floating bamboo huts. Now, when they said we would be staying in floating huts, I imagined a carefully engineered construction of floating platforms, specifically designed for the purpose…oh no, not even close! The huts were balanced on huge tree trunks that were sunk two or three feet below the surface of the water. Onto these major trunks had been tied and nailed a lattice of various other logs and lengths of bamboo creating a floating platform that provided a foundation for the feet of the huts. The unplanned, chaotic nature of the construction proved to be a large part of its charm, enhanced further by the way the whole series of huts rose and fell with the waves each time a boat arrived or departed. That, and the fact that we were in a secluded part of the lake surrounded on three sides by the forest.

A bit of a mish mash construction but it seemed to stay afloat...!
A bit of a mish mash construction but it seemed to stay afloat…!

After a bit of lake swimming, we had lunch (which I particularly enjoyed because there were seconds available. And thirds!), and then Pon, our guide, took us hiking into the jungle to find a cave. Although the path was well-worn, and this was clearly a trek that lots of people do, we still enjoyed working our way through the bamboo forest. We quickly came to a stream and Pon pointed out a large collection of butterflies that had formed on the opposite shore, some large black ones with white flecks and some smaller, bright yellow ones. When he crossed, they took off and the air was momentarily alive with colour. At this point, Pon also explained that we would be getting wet feet on this trek, so we may as well just walk across the stream. Every one of us, however, stepped carefully across the slender branch that acted as a bridge. Five minutes later, we had to cross the stream again. ‘You will get wet feet later, so don’t worry. Walk in the water, it’s ok,’ he said. This time we each picked our way across stepping stones. This scenario played out a couple more times as our path weaved back and forth across the stream, and most of us were still trying to prevent the integrity of our dry shoes right up until we reached the cave – which was an entirely pointless exercise as the stream runs right through the length of the cave!

Butterflies in the forest :-)
Butterflies in the forest 🙂
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Just love the colours in this pic – this one’s for my mum x

The musty smell hits you as soon as you venture through the opening in the rock, and Pon lead us progressively further down the cave, with the sounds of trickling water intermingling with the noises of bats. We had head torches on and saw large stalagmites and stalactites, smooth channels carved out of the rock by flood waters, bizarre formations created as water seeps through the limestone, various large spiders, some bizarre insects and numerous bats hanging from the ceiling. And flying – yep, the bats were flying. A lot!

Spiders.  BIG spiders!
Spiders. BIG spiders!

About half way through the cave, Pon stopped us and took all our cameras and valuables, ominously placing them in a dry-bag. ‘The water gets a bit deeper,’ he said, ‘maybe up to here (indicating his thighs), or here (indicating his waist) or maybe here (indicating his chest).’ So much for keeping dry trainers! Sure enough, as the walls closed in around us, the water increased in speed and depth and we found ourselves wading up to our waists. In the end, there was a section where it was so deep that I just opted for a little swim! Soon enough, we made it out of the cave and worked our way back through the forest to the huts.

Wet feet!
Wet feet!
Cave explorers with our head torches!
Cave explorers with our head torches!

The remainder of the time on the tour was spent on various safari type expeditions (with varying success) and another trek to a second cave where the number of spiders and bats increased by about 1000% and there was also a pretty large snake hanging around too…

So, snakes can climb walls... Who knew!
So, snakes can climb walls… Who knew!

So we had a great time! Planning our onward moves saw us getting a mini-van to Krabi. This was to be the first of a few mini-van experiences in the next few weeks and all of them seemed to follow the same pattern: we’d get picked up pretty much on time, the driver would load the van in an intricate jigsaw system using every inch of available space for either people or luggage, and we’d be off. But we wouldn’t necessarily head towards our destination, we may run a few errands in our place of departure first, pick up a few packages, drop off some money, grab a bite to eat, that sort of thing. And then, throughout the journey, we could stop or deviate at any given moment to complete an errand from earlier, or chat to another mini-van driver, or pick up another unexpected passenger for a part of the journey. And so the saga continues until you eventually reach your destination, at which point you probably need to book some onward transport because you’re nowhere really close to where they said you’d end up. Standard mini-van operational protocol it seems.

Krabi town turned out to be a pretty quiet place with the only distinguishing feature being a night food market on the harbour. So we got some great fried fish there, and made plans to get to Railay the following morning, where we had an unexpectedly awesome few days.

Railay is like Khao Sok but on the sea. The rock formations are just as gargantuan and impressive and the fact that it’s brimming with beautiful beaches and calm seas just elevates it to new heights. Railay is also famous for rock climbing, something which neither Hels nor I had ever done. Problematically however, you can only reach Railay by boat as it’s peninsular location is not served by any roads, and that means that the accommodation prices are sky high – well, in relative terms anyway. More importantly, the beer is also inordinately expensive, an altogether more challenging situation that involved a lot of searching around and comparing prices but to no real avail!

We managed to bag a hut on a hill on the edge of the forest, a bit of a walk away from everything but about the only place that was a reasonable price. We didn’t mind the walk to and fro and it had the happy coincidence of walking us right past a very zen coffee shop, sometime bar and rock climbing outfit that was run by a dredlocked dude called Chaow. He also plays the guitar a bit and we spent an amusing evening listening to his part-renditions of songs that he could only remember bits of! I did join in with a bit of harmony when he was playing Stir it Up though, and he also did a pretty decent Proud Mary… We (unbelievably it seems looking back) weren’t sure whether we wanted to have a go at rock climbing so we spent a day exploring first. The guide book said that there was a ‘hidden lagoon’ that could be found by following the path and signs (so not that hidden I guess!) but that the path was challenging and steep in places. Although we’d semi planned to visit the lagoon, we hadn’t really thought it would be that hard of a hike and so both of us were wearing flip flops when we saw the sign pointing us up a hill. The ‘path’ wasn’t really a path at all, more a muddy clamber/scramble up a slippery hillside that enticed you in and then made you just want to keep going. We considered going back to get our hiking shoes but our hut was a fair way off and, well, how hard could it be? The presence of a thick rope to help you get up the hill, and the stream of sweaty, muddied hikers returning in the opposite direction should have given us a clue, but we started and were soon bewitched by the need to carry on. Starting onto the path was like walking into a different ecosystem; super hot and humid air meant that I was drenched in sweat almost immediately – an attractive image I know. It was so hot that my feet began to slip around in my flip flops making them worse than useless, so I opted for a bare-foot approach. Getting back in touch with nature felt great, until we hit the final part of the hike. Once you had climbed up, to get to the lagoon, the path then descended again rapidly, ending in three 10 metre vertical rock faces. Once again, there were ropes present to aid climbing down and back up again but after the first one Hels decided to take the safer option of staying put while I belligerently ventured onwards. The climbs were really tricky and pretty nerve wracking (no harness to save you if you slipped), but I made it down and came into the lagoon. It was a pretty cool sight, and yet another geographical formation that I have no idea how to really describe or explain, but it was a huge, almost perfectly circular opening filled with a shallow and very muddy lagoon. The surrounding walls of rock rose sixty or seventy metres straight up and the only way in or out was this slight crack down which I had climbed moments before. I felt like I should swim, so I did – in a fashion – and then got a fellow explorer to take a few pictures before heading back up to meet Helena. By the time we made it back to our starting point we were sweaty, filthy (I’d ruined a pair of shorts I bought in Bangkok!) but happy with our adventure.

The 'path' to the lagoon.
The ‘path’ to the lagoon.
A worthwhile mini-adventure!
A worthwhile mini-adventure!

Over dinner that night, we discussed whether or not to try rock climbing. We were still feeling a bit sore about the Ko Tao experience, and this was another relatively large expense in terms of our day-to-day budget. It didn’t take very long really – we pretty much came to the conclusion that we’re on this trip to have a go at things when the opportunities arise so we would go for it (we just prayed it wasn’t going to go to waste).

We were not disappointed! Coming down to the cafe in the morning, we met up with our instructor Chaow and he equipped us with shoes and harnesses. Since his shop is directly at the base of a rock face, we just stepped round to the rock to begin. We were taught to tie a safe knot, then made to untie, re-tie, untie, re-tie, untie… Well, you get the picture. Chaow then started explaining to me how to belay (at least I think that’s what it’s called), where you stand at the bottom of the rock face holding onto the end of a rope as a climber scales the rock. It’s a crucial job in rock-climbing because you are the climber’s safety mechanism – if they fall and you let the rope go, they keep falling. Not good. So I was listening intently, trying to take it all in, not realising that the reason he was telling me was because I was about to belay for him while he climbed up the rock to secure a ‘top rope’. Once there is a top rope in place, it’s easier to climb because the rope goes from the climber’s harness, up to a secure point high on the rock, and back down to the person who is belaying. The only problem is that to get the rope there, someone has to ‘lead climb’ the rock, clipping into safety points along the way. All the technical stuff aside, Chaow had basically put his safety in my hands after a three minute lesson – I was a little nervous!

His initial climb went without a hitch though (the chances of him falling were next to nil), and soon Chaow was back at the bottom with us and Helena was tying herself onto the rope. Chaow wasn’t a fan of over-complicating things unnecessarily and so he just told Hels to climb – which she did, very well indeed! I was a little nervous for her, especially after the experience at the lagoon the day before, but she got all the way to the top with minimal fuss and came back down buzzing! I followed next and also made it to the top, much less gracefully, but also loved it. You do have to take a moment to wonder what you’re doing and how you got there when you’re half way up a rock face, looking out over Railay’s beach with the sea reaching off into the distance … incredible!

After our first climb we had a little break before attempting another one. Chaow assured us that this one was the same difficulty and this time I went first. It was totally different, especially at the start as the rock was quite flat. ‘Use the crack on the side,’ said Chaow, and I found myself trying to climb sort of sideways up the rock. And then suddenly, and it was very sudden, I realised I couldn’t hold onto where I was anymore and just fell off. Now, that was a bit scary to say the least! Chaow hadn’t mentioned anything about falling and I wasn’t mentally prepared for it at all! But never fear, the harness held (and somehow this small guy didn’t take off when I fell off the rock) and I just got myself back into shape on the rock, had another go, and this time made it up to the top. Hels went second and fell off too, at exactly the same spot (I had to conceal my competitive sense of relief at this point…) but also made it to the top with no major issues.

Just moments before I fell off!
Just moments before I fell off!   Spot the monkey…!
It was quite a long way up to be honest... A bit daunting for a first time!
It was quite a long way up to be honest… A bit daunting for a first time!

Our third and final climb was double the height. ‘This one’s harder, right?’ I asked. ‘No, pretty much the same,’ came the reply. On this climb, both Hels and I learned that climbing is as much about falling off as it is about getting to the top. There was an outcrop of rock that foxed me entirely!! I just could not get over it and every time I tried, I lost the grip from my hands, and my legs were no use at this point. I was getting tired, my arms were burning and I was ready to give in. ‘I can’t do it,’ I shouted down. ‘OK, one more go,’ said Chaow. This is it, I thought. I chalked my hands, visualised what I needed to do and where my hands and feet were going. ‘When you get there, you have to go fast,’ came the advice from below. So I went for it and … fell off. Again!! ‘Argh!! Damn it! OK, I’m done.’ ‘OK, one more go,’ said Chaow, again. Bearing in mind that this was about the eighth time I’d attempted it, I was sure he must have been getting frustrated, but I went for it again and somehow, finally, managed to haul myself over the outcrop and up the rock. The sensation of elation (and relief) was tangible as adrenalin rich blood fizzed through my veins. ‘Yes!’ I didn’t make it to the very top of this climb as there was another tricky bit that defeated me but it felt like a victory. Hels also struggled on the same section but got over it in many fewer attempts than I’d taken!

Hels climbing like a pro!
Hels climbing like a pro!
Us with Chaow - great guide, great day!
Us with Chaow – great guide, great day!

That evening we were contemplating extending our stay in Railay and doing some more climbing but we realised we were getting a little short on time and our Malaysian race deadline was fast approaching. So we decided on Ko Lanta for our next destination, booked another magical mystery tour mini-van experience, and searched the internet for accommodation options. ‘I can get us a double room in a place called Chill Out House for two nights,’ said Hels. ‘Chill Out House sounds pretty good,’ I said, ‘Let’s go there.’ This was to prove an awesome choice, but that’s for the next blog!

Would you like it Thai spicy?

Helena and I appear to have been drafting a similar blog, so we decided to intersperse the two to bring you the first part of our Thailand story. Sorry for the slight overlaps…shoot the editor!

[Chris]
Where one adventure ends, another one is sure to start. After a bit of downtime in Hanoi, we were eyeing up Laos. Luang Prabang is apparently a cultural hit, Vang Vieng one long river party, and Vientiane the sleepy but pleasant capital. On paper, the bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang looks like a straightforward enough trip, but the 36hour advertised journey time wasn’t quite to our liking so we opted for the slightly less painful 24hour trip to Vientiane instead, with a view to travelling north after a couple of days.

The bus was one of the more comfortable we have been on for a long trip, although we were lucky. Having boarded, got a pair of sleeper seats and got settled, the bus didn’t depart. We were wondering what the delay might be; the bus was full, there were drivers, the luggage was packed and stored, what could be the problem? Well, as it happened, the bus wasn’t full – apparently – as the Vietnamese staff ushered another group of seven or eight people onto the bus and nonchalantly indicated the aisle as a viable sleeping option. Not ideal, and yet, not altogether surprising.

So, with the bus loaded to (and above) capacity, we were on our way out of Vietnam and into Laos, a country that Hels and I knew even less about than any of the others in the region. By the time we reached Vientiane, quite a few friendships had been formed over the food stops, visa queues and toilet break emergencies that characterised the endurance event that is a 24 hour bus ride. A good bunch of us from the bus were all heading to the same hostel, and so an instantaneous little community was formed on the foundations of the shared ride and it felt good to keep seeing familiar faces for more than a few days at a time. We went for dinner on the first night, and then for a little adventure to see what Vientiane had on offer in the way of night life…

Very little, as it turns out! A group of us headed out from the hostel around 11:30 and proceeded to wander deserted streets for about an hour. I’ve never known a quieter capital city! In the end, we resorted to flagging a large tuk-tuk, (a larger version of the Indian tuk-tuks, capable of holding ten) and Justin, who was a hostel rep from Vietnam on a planned 72hr visa run into Laos, said in his slightly drunken and heavily Canadian drawl, ‘Hey man, can you take us to the party?’  The driver nodded and so we all clambered in and were whisked off through the streets to an unknown location… As it turns out, there are hidden pockets of nightlife in Vientiane and we turned up at one of them; a club full of Laotians dancing to 90s trance. Awesome! It was a great night but we had no idea where we were, so when we left, we all barrelled into another tuk-tuk to take us back to the hostel, knowing we would probably not be able to describe the location of the place to anyone.

As it happens, we didn’t learn an awful lot about Laos, I’m sorry to say, although our time in Vientiane was a lot of fun – and incredibly hot, which was a pleasant change from northern Vietnam. We wandered around the quiet streets, sampled the local food, visited a few of the monuments in the city, went to the night markets on the river, went mountain biking and kayaking for a day and chilled out in the hostel playing pool and drinking games (not at the same time).

Hot hot hot on the bikes in Vientiane.
Hot hot hot on the bikes in Vientiane.
Taking the zen approach in front of the reclining Buddha.
Taking the zen approach in front of the reclining Buddha.

Although we once had vague plans to go north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we were keen to take the opportunity to meet up with our friends Gav and Eleanor who had been travelling in the same region for a month too but our paths had yet to cross. So we planned a meet up in Koh Samui and our route became almost a bee-line for the South of Thailand, with a return visit to Bangkok en route.

We love Bangkok! The whole place just fizzes with energy and spark the whole time. We checked in to a cheap but not particularly pleasant guest house and spent four days exploring the Thai capital, navigating our way around using mainly a combination of the river taxi and the sky train. These two methods of transport couldn’t be more different: the sky train is very clean, efficient, modern, and high tech whereas the river taxi is akin to a thrill ride at a water based theme park.

The river taxi is a large boat, long but relatively thin, equipped with a huge engine and an insane driver. Well, it is actually a fleet of boats and drivers that all fit this description, that race along the city’s canals from dock to dock, tearing up the water in the process. We got to the closest stop to our guest house on the canal route after a short walk, and found a boat waiting. To get on, you have to clamber over the side and climb down to find a perch on the rows of wooden slat benches inside. And then you hang on for dear life as the driver guns the throttle from idle straight to full, launching the boat forwards in a roar of noise and smoke. The taxi charges down the canals, skimming under low slung bridges and dodging other canal traffic, not least other taxis running in the opposite direction also at full tilt. The boats all have an ingenious roof design too, where the driver can wind a handle at the front to pivot the entire roof forwards on hinges thereby reducing its height for the super low bridges. He does this without slowing down and without flinching either! Importantly though, you mustn’t forget to pull up the splash guards – long sheets of tarpaulin running the length of the boat along its sides, attached to pieces of rope – because although you may think you want to take in the view of Bangkok from the canal as it flashes past your eyes, you definitely do NOT want a face full of the black rancid stinking canal water. Perhaps the most insane person on the boat is not the driver but the ticket collector. This guy spends the entire journey walking along the outside edges of the boat, (the gunnels?) constantly bent at the waist, selling tickets and fishing change out of his bag, all the while ducking bridges that would literally decapitate him if his timing was off by any more than half a second.

The river taxi coming in to dock with the ticket collector ready to leap with the rope.
The river taxi coming in to dock with the ticket collector ready to leap with the rope.
Sliding under the bridges - you can see the roof struts tilted forwards to reduce the height of the boat.
Sliding under the bridges – you can see the roof struts tilted forwards to reduce the height of the boat.

Now, I had a love/hate relationship with this river taxi. Loved the excitement of it, loved the unbridled engine power, loved the un-chastened, unadulterated, un-watered-down (is that a word) attitude to safety… Hated that it took us to the shopping centre. Well, not really, but any gentleman readers out there will have shared the sense of trepidation you get when your other half says, ‘You know, I’d really like to go shopping today…’

At this point, I think it’s time to introduce said other half – it’s about time she contributed something to this blog…!

[Helena]
I’d been excited to return to Thailand having spent some time volunteering there in 2007. Our brief stay in Bangkok after leaving India had further whetted my appetite, literally, in light of the amazing food on offer. And the country is beautiful in so many respects; lush green jungles, chilled out islands and super friendly inhabitants. Despite continued, and in many areas, intense development, it remains a country with so much to offer.

Leaving Laos by overnight train (a particularly pleasant experience where a friendly chap comes round and makes your bed for you), we initially returned to Bangkok to see the sights we ignored on our first visit. Small, quiet Wat Pho with its gigantic reclining Buddha was a highlight, providing contrast to the heaving crowds we found (and added to) at the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. We also visited the famous Chatuchak weekend market where I managed to finally find a good quality pair of ‘traveller trousers’ in a design I’d spotted a month earlier, and (with Chris showing tremendous endurance) the massive, seven-storey MBK shopping centre.

And we thought the reclining Buddha in Vientine was impressive...
And we thought the reclining Buddha in Vientine was impressive…
...the one in Wat Pho is huuuuuuuuuuge!!
…the one in Wat Pho is huuuuuuuuuuge!!

[Chris]
An unplanned highlight on our final night in Bangkok was a visit to Brick Bar, a live music venue tucked below and behind a hotel on the Koh San Road that is a favourite of the Thai locals. The guide book said it had great bands on including the resident band ‘Teddy Ska’. Enticed by the possibility of dancing to some reggae/ska, we went down to check it out. The bar as a whole is pretty ordinary, but one thing does strike you about the actual bar- it’s almost exclusively stacked with whisky, specifically Johnny Walker Red Label – they love it! Basically, what you do is, you club together with a few mates, grab a bottle of whisky, a bucket of ice and a load of mixers and then just … work your way through them. But the best bit is this… if you don’t finish your whisky, you take it back to the bar where they stick a label with your name on it and keep it until your next visit. Flippin’ genius if you ask me. We were tempted to join the whisky experience but since neither of us are particularly fond of it, and unfortunately weren’t likely to return any time soon, we had beer instead.

There were two bands playing that night (neither of which were Teddy Ska incidentally) and the reception they got from the locals was exceptional. I was so happy to see a sax/trumpet/trombone combo walk on with the first band and they went on to play a great set of mostly well known tunes in varying styles – a few ballads and some cracking ska. But they were only the warm up it seemed… By the time the second band came on, the bar was stacked, the whisky was flowing, the people were dancing on the benches, the tables, and they all seemed to know all of the same moves! The second band played a lot more fast ska-style Thai music (none of which we knew but all of which we liked) but I have to admit I did leap onto my stool when the brass played the opening to Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love. An absolutely brilliant night – and all the better for the fact that it was live!

Ska is alive and well in Bangkok!
Ska is alive and well in Bangkok!

[Helena]
Leaving the capital (on another overnight train), we travelled to meet Gav and El on the island of Ko Samui. As you venture out across the Gulf of Thailand from the mainland, the views of the landscape are just as the pictures suggest: glorious sunshine, an array of small, tree-covered islands, limestone karst rising up towards the sky, and beaches made of soft white sand.

As Gav and El had travelled ahead of us, they had found a brilliant budget resort and on greeting us urged us to take on the steep (seriously steep) climb to the pool. ‘It’s worth it,’ said Gav, and he was right. Our efforts were rewarded with an infinity pool looking out over Chaweng Beach – we could definitely get used to this, especially after our dodgy guest house in Bangkok. Chaweng Beach itself has beautiful sand underfoot and we explored it on our first night as Gav and El introduced us to beach side cocktails.

In the days that followed, we spent most of our time chilling out by the pool, checking out various restaurants and bars, and wandering the markets of Chaweng. (Chris and Gav also taught ‘the girls’ to play poker which was instantly embarrassing for them as they lost and were left proclaiming ‘beginner’s luck’!) One of our favourite places to eat was a small restaurant called Callumpi, run by some slightly zany but super friendly women. Gav and El had eaten there once already and explained that if you wanted your curry authentically spicy, you have to ask for it ‘Thai spicy’. So Chris and Gav did just that, and their meals came with fresh, hot and spicy flavours. Now, this was repeated a day or so later when we popped in a second time. Having remembered us, the lady asked the boys if the curry was ok last time, ‘A little bit spicy? No? It was ok? Ok, this one I make you real Thai spicy,’ and off she went into her kitchen. Needless to say, they got the full treatment this time and the lady was looking pretty happy with herself!

But…we can’t pretend that our journey to Samui was simply to enjoy the cuisine and the scenery.

The neighbouring island, Ko Pha Ngan, is renowned for its monthly celebrations of all things Luna – and the March 5th Full Moon Party coincided conveniently with our visit. As we’d never been before, and were unlikely to go again, we decided to embrace the revelry and get over to the island for the party. Now, we all agree that the full details of what happens on a full moon night should probably stay firmly on Haad Rin beach, but what an experience! It started with the shopping for neon outfits and the donning of copious amounts of neon paint and continued with adding flowers to one’s hair, sharing the famous Thai bucket (or it may have been ‘buckets’ actually) and dancing on the beach with literally thousands of others.

How much rum would you like in your bucket?  A whole bottle....? Oh, go on then ...
How much rum would you like in your bucket? A whole bottle….? Oh, go on then …
The magical Full Moon Party...
The magical Full Moon Party…
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The beach is lined with bars and bucket sellers and packed with people!

We got boats back after the sunrise, the rest we will leave to your imagination. The following day was mainly spent recovering and all too soon we were waving Gav and El off as they headed on to Singapore and then Australia.

[Chris]
So once again it was back to two, and we decided to have a little explore of Ko Samui on mopeds. It’s a big island and we only made it half way around but the waterfalls were fab and some of the views across the sea were amazing. Looking forwards, we were planning to visit the smaller Ko Tao, but also felt that we wanted to see a little more of Ko Pha Ngan. It has a reputation for hedonism that can be off-putting to many, but we had heard that it was a beautiful place despite the monthly carnage, so we went back (it’s also on route to Ko Tao so it made sense). Arriving back on the same dock, and walking the same streets through Haad Rin town to sunrise beach, it seemed strange to imagine the quiet streets being packed with crowds as we had last seen them only a couple of days earlier. Only the occasional neon t-shirt shop remained optimistically open, with the street stalls of paints, hats and bucket-sellers only left in our hazy memories. Instead, we found peaceful streets, local people carrying out they’re normal day-to-day business and a pervading quiet that seemed almost ghostly. Reaching the beach, we were expecting to see ruination: piles of rubbish, dirty sand, litter strewn everywhere…yet there was nothing. Haad Rin, I am very happy to say, is up there with the cleanest beaches we have ever seen. There is a monumental clean up job happening there after the parties, and pretty much every other day, financed by an extra ‘entry fee’ which you have to pay on arrival at the party. We were very happy to see that the natural beauty of the place was being looked after. So we stayed for two nights, relaxing in the peace and quiet of Ko Pha Ngan, who would have thought it…!

Haad Rin in the post party serenity - we loved it here :-)
Haad Rin in the post party serenity – we loved it here 🙂