‘You’ve been here ages’

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My home for a while!

How do you know when to move on to pastures new when travelling? When you get bored? When the weather turns? When you’ve made your way through every dish on the local restaurant’s menu?

No. Its when a complete stranger bellows across a busy street: “You’ve been here ages, I keep seeing you everywhere!”

Or in my case, its when two complete strangers shout that at you. On the same night.

So I was back on Koh Phangan after three days on Koh Samui to visit Dirk. With him on his way back to Germany, I was glad to be getting off the island, and I wont be going back.

Overall conclusions? An island that’s been spoilt by mass tourism, in a ‘Benidorm or Blackpool in Thailand’ kind of way. I know by me being there, and in Thailand in general, I am a tourist and therefore contributing. But the sad thing was, it was dirty, overpriced, the sewerage system can’t cope leaving the streets smelling really bad, the beach needed a serious litter pick, the constant pestering by massage girls, the unfriendly feel about the place. Whether or not its because I’m more used to quieter places in recent weeks, I don’t know.

Beautiful sunset back on Koh Phangan

What I do know is that I feel at home arriving back on Koh Phangan. I checked into my room that I’d managed to book in advance before I left for Samui and had a walk around Haad Rin, stopping for lunch at one of the cafes. It felt like I was among friends again, and quickly got talking to two blokes on a nearby table.

On the way back to my room I bumped into two familiar faces in the 7-Eleven – an Australian named Brad and his French partner Emily. Strangely, I’d also bumped into them the night before on Koh Samui, when I’d decided to take myself out for a night out on my own. It was a strange feeling, walking around a nightclub on my own and having brief conversations with people, but I figured if the music was going to keep me awake in that awful room I was staying in, I may as well go and enjoy it!

It was towards the end of that night that I recognised them – they had been in my taxi just before New Year, and their friend Sarah was a journalist. Bumping into the pair of them again, I was jokingly accused of following them and then we got talking, agreeing to meet up the following night for a few drinks.

Koh Phangan

Suddenly, I had a new group of friends, and we met up the following day for drinks on the beach. It was while walking back into the town that a random girl shouted at me.

“You’ve been here ages – I keep seeing you everywhere. You were on my boat!”

I had no idea who it was, and for a second shouted back that she too had been here ages in that case, before we began chatting. Her name was Jenny and she told me she lived in Derbyshire. I told her I was from Grimsby in Lincolnshire.

“I know that, well, I know Lincoln,” Jenny said.

She told me her dad runs a business and lives between Lincoln and Newark.

“Norton Disney?” I queried.

“How did you know that? Nobody knows that place!” she threw back at me, laughing.

That’s when I told her about my job back home and that I happen to have a fairly in-depth knowledge of Lincolnshire’s towns and villages after years of driving and filming in and around them.

Jenny told me how I’d been on her boat over to the island and that she kept seeing me everywhere. It gave me a bit of a complex, that perhaps I was becoming part of Haad Rin’s furniture and that others would see me and think the same. I didn’t particularly want the reputation as ‘that guy with glasses that just wanders around’. I told Jenny she’d obviously been stalking me.

She was fun, but she had a friend with her and I was keeping my new friends waiting so we joked we’d probably see each other at Full Moon.

Incredibly, a few minutes later, the same thing happened with another girl near the beach. She was a bit worse for wear, but was still able to pinpoint where she’d seen me. Growing slightly concerned that the next edition of the Lonely Planet will have an entry about me and where best to spot me. (it would be the café next to Chicken Corner  – superfast wifi!)

Full Moon wear!

It was now officially Full Moon day, the night when the beach fills once again with thousands of people to dance the night away, under the brightness provided by a full moon.

Haad Rin is a town where the whole economy is based on this once a month spectacular. Every shop is filled with bright illuminous clothing, all daubed with bright slogans and logos for full moon. There’s loads of bright fluorescent paints available, glow sticks to buy, flashing lights and hats to spend money on. There are posters everywhere about the event, as well as about Half Moon and Dark Moon events – there is something almost every week to keep the parties going.

It all started back in 1985, when the first Full Moon Party was held at a bungalow outfit on the beach as a thankyou for about 20-30 travellers.The parties carried on and quickly gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 20,000-30,000 every full moon evening, more for big events like New Year.

Its popular as almost every genre of music is played by the dozen or so bars along the beachfront, each with ever impressive sound systems that could shake your fillings out if you stand still long enough.

Its now one of ‘the’ things to do for anyone backpacking their way around the world. Tonight is my third ‘Full Moon’ event in a year, and yet again I locked all my belongings safely away so unfortunately have little in the way of photos from the night.

It began with Sarah, Emily and Brad, who I’ve become good friends with over the last few days. They invited me to their hotel to join in with the body painting workshop that was currently taking place in their bathroom. I went for dots and squiggles down my arms, in some fetching dayglow yellow, stunning pink and a bit of green. A trips to the 7-Eleven bar meant we had some cheap drinks before hitting the buckets yet again. Tony Bucket was delighted to see me back on the island, and naturally gave me a big free hug!

Fire fun - or madness, depending on viewpoint!

It was actually nice to just wander along the beach and take in everything that was going on. We walked up to Mellow Mountain to the extreme left of the beach, with a great view looking over the whole area. The beauty of this huge event is that everyone seems to be in a great mood – everyone is on holiday of one sort or another, and while there have been reports of some violence here and there, compared to some nights out I’ve had at home, its chilled, relaxed and has a very friendly atmosphere.

Most of our time was spent around the Cactus and Drop In bars, which seemed to be playing the six anthems of Thailand on a loop, the main one being Levels by Avicii, with an incredibly catchy chorus of ‘Woah-oh, sometimes’ which has an annoying habit of getting completely stuck in everyone’s heads, while ‘Save The World Tonight’ by Swedish House Mafia, and David Guetta’s ‘Without You’ are other favourites. Infact, you can normally walk along the beach and hear any one of them playing somewhere at any point in the night!

The fire ropes and fire jumps were back out in force, with many having a go, while others – and it has to be said, mainly the girls – had a go at firebreathing.

With Tony Bucket saying goodbye - and my bucket!

Sarah, Emily, Brad and I opted for another drink and a bit of dancing on the tables until the sun rose. Apparently, it’s the rules that you have to see the morning in on such a big night. Once again, that mission was accomplished, but with the tide coming in fast, we called it a night. I went home with a souvenir – my last bucket from the party, and possibly my last ever bucket from Koh Phangan.

Tony signing my final bucket

The next day, as usual, was a bit of a write-off after Full Moon, but I met up with my French and Australian buddies for dinner. It was our last night together before we all go our separate ways – Sarah to Hua Hin in the north, Emily to Burma on a visa run, and Brad on his way towards Bangkok and preparing for his journey home to Sydney.

With Brad, Emily and Sarah at the great Thai restaurant off the main street

I took them to a lovely little Thai restaurant, run by a family, and which serves some of the best food I’ve had. Thankfully, my friends agreed. Over dinner they told me more about Leela Beach, a beautiful beach a few minutes walk from all the craziness of this town.

Paradise on party island

They were right – it was stunning. I’d had no idea the beach existed, yet a few minutes walk up a hill and then down through the Cocohut resort leads you out into a smaller cove, away from Haad Rin and with a typical coconut palm fringed beachfront, idyllic quiet spots and beautiful clear blue water.

Leela beach

I was slightly annoyed I’d not visited sooner. I knew I’d have to leave the next day, as it was time to explore more of the country,

Little crab friend that kept me amused

but the beach was beautiful. It seemed a million miles away from the buckets, chicken burgers and pumping dance music on the other side of the hill. It was peaceful, relaxing – and it had wifi for the blog! I spent the entire day with a coconut tree waving over me, watching the waves lap on the shore, writing away about recent events with an occasional swim to cool off. Fab!

Sarah left around lunchtime, so we took a few photos of each other on the beach and said goodbye. She’s also blogging about her journey, having travelled across land from home. Incredibly, along with Emily, they hitchhiked most of their way to Thailand before catching a few trains along the way. Sarah was returning home to her job as a journalist for AFP, full of traveller stories and tales, although she wasn’t looking forward to the cold.

Sunset beach

I, however, was looking forward to moving on. I’d already had another tweet from Derbyshire Jenny, winding me up about how she’d managed to escape Koh Phangan’s clutches and wondering if I was still stuck here. I was, but only for a few hours – I’m booked onto a night ferry to Surat Thani, and onwards to Railay in the south. My plan is to spend a cheap week or so there, and then move on.

I watched yet another stunning sunset on the island, had a last walk along the beach where I have so many memories from my three visits over the past year, and said farewell to a great place that had become home. I didn’t particularly want to leave, but as one cheeky redhead from Bakewell rightly pointed out, I had been here ages!

The sun sets on my time on Koh Phangan

Dirk’s big break

Visiting Dirk in hospital

I had no plans to visit Koh Samui, and after three days on the island, I knew exactly why I had been avoiding it like the plague. However, this wasn’t a sightseeing trip or a bit of beach time – it was more of a mercy dash for a stricken friend.

Dirk when we were tubing in Laos

You may remember Dirk, the German guy from my tour around Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. He of the Vietnamese mafia fame, who got chased on motorbikes after having his camera stolen and paying a wedge of cash to get it back. He who then had said camera knocked clean out of his hand and into the tubing river in Laos – and then having to pay another wedge of cash for divers to retrieve it. He who then lost his treasured hat to some driver who gave it to a street kid in Luang Prabang.

Yep, you get the picture. Poor Dirk hadn’t had a great deal of luck during his few weeks in southeast Asia. We loved him for it on the tour though, and he was a great guy to travel around with.

Unfortunately, just before Christmas, and in the middle of his Padi diving course in Koh Tao, he broke his leg. Twice.

He’d been stuck in hospital on Koh Samui ever since, and while a few others from the tour had visited, I was now the only one left in this part of the world from the tour, as everyone else had either moved on to Australia or gone home. Well, I was the only one who still had the use of both legs…

With Samui on the horizon from the beach at Koh Phangan, I felt it was my duty to go and see him and try to lift his spirits a little.

View from the boat leaving Koh Phangan

I caught an afternoon sailing from Haad Rin to the island, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and after the storms of recent days, there was a huge swell in the sea.

A bit of a rough crossing - some struggled!

We bobbed our way for an hour across the crystal clear turquoise blue water, which offered us some stunning views or the immaculate beaches on both islands, before heading to Chaweng Beach, quite near the Bangkok Hospital on Samui. And yes, having a hospital with another city name is incredibly confusing.

After the excesses of New Year, I’d set aside this week as a ‘cheap week’, skimping on a few areas like decent accommodation, food, drinks – you know, the stuff you normally take for granted – but with depleting funds, it’s a necessary step as a backpacker.

With many places full, the rooms I could find were starting at about 800 Baht a night. I feared the worst. It works out to be £16 a night, well out of my price range. Its one of the downsides of travelling alone, that everything is done on a room rate here, rather than by person. My luck changed a little when a guy approached me in the street for Ali Baba’s restaurant. There were rooms available, so I agreed to check them out.

Somehow it almost looks nice in the photo!

Hmmm. It was fan cooled, so pretty stuffy. The sheets had stains and fag burns on them. The mosquito covering over the window was pointless, as there were some weird building tiles that let what little air there was into the room – as well as every insect known to the Thai islands. The toilet was a non-flush bucket version, the water out of the taps was brown, the electrics looked shocking (pun intended)…but I got it down to 350 Baht a night.

“I’ll take it,” I said, taking a deep breath and telling myself I won’t be in it much.

If anything, it meant I could get my heavy bags off my back.

Home sweet home

I walked out onto the street.

“Sexxy masssaaaaaaage,” said a gaggle of girls in skimpy skirts near the doorway.

Head down. Walk on.

The beach wasn’t anything spectacular, despite what the Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the best on the island’. It was marred with rubbish, washed up weed and too many tattoed skin-headed blokes getting beered up for two weeks.

Above all, there was a perculiar atmosphere, one of tourists, holidaymakers, families and backpackers all trying to mix together. Nobody seemed to want to talk or get to know one another. Most were in couples or groups. I knew I wasn’t going to like it here.

The only photo I could be bothered to take of Chaweng beach!

However, I wasn’t here for ‘me’ I was here for Dirk, and that night, unannounced, I made my way to the hospital he’s spent just over two weeks in. It was only a couple of miles away, but taxis wanted a standard 300 Baht for the trip – £6 for a journey that would cost pennies in Bangkok.

In the end I found a motorbike taxi for 80 Baht and made my way to the particularly plush hotel, sorry, hospital that Dirk was being cared for in. I found my way to his ward, and asked the nurse if he was awake. She looked at the cctv monitor and nodded, pointing towards his door. I knocked.

“Jaaaa, come,” came a familiar voice.

Still full of beans!

I walked in, Dirk looked around and then cheered at the top of his voice. A huge smile lit up his face and he grabbed me for a manly hug. I could see he was so pleased to see a familiar face.

Then I looked at his leg – out stretched and covered in bandages and dressings where a series of metal pins and plates have been inserted during surgery.

“Its getting better – now I can move my toes a little,” he said.

Some serious repair work

I was gutted for him. Dirk was always one of the ‘cwazy’ ones in the group (as he says) giving us all a laugh, daring to be different, and nobody deserves to spend Christmas or New Year in hospital alone, thousands of miles away from family and friends back home, knowing that your dream trip around the world was at an end.

Dirk at Christmas

For the first time, Dirk told me exactly how he got such a terrible injury. Its still subject of an insurance claim, but what I can say is that it happened on a beach. After the first break was done to his shin bone, he tried to stand up and then broke the fibula, the calf bone behind it.

“I looked down and my foot and lower leg was at right angles to the rest of my leg,” he said.

“The pain..oh the pain,” he grimaced, covering his head as he relived the moment.

It was one of those horror breaks that you see footballers, boxers and other sportsmen do every now and again, usually with a story about how it ended a career. For Dirk, it was the start of an agonising 20 hours before he got to a specialist hospital. At first there was no pain relief given until insurance formalities had been completed. His leg was manipulated into the right sort of position, and then strapped onto a wooden plank to give it support.

At this point, you have to remember Koh Tao’s roads are basic to say the least, bumpy, pot holed and rutted. There was no ambulance at this point – his journey to the boat was in the back of a pick up truck.

“I felt every rock on that ground, every hole in the road. Man, it was so painful I was screaming,” he said.

Then it was onto a boat to Koh Samui, rocking on heavy seas, and finally to a hospital.

“I have never known pain like it,” he said

“It was like something else.”

Dirk, one of his nurses and his monkey mascot Whiskey

Some serious surgery followed, and a specialist had to be flown over from Germany to keep an eye on the injury. There were some huge complications too – compartment syndrome set in at one point, where the lower half of his right leg effectively began to shut down as pressure built up, cutting off blood. He told me he came within a few hours of losing his leg completely. A terrifying prospect.

With Dirk as we said goodbye in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Dirk had left Germany a week or so after I left the UK. Our paths met in Bangkok in November, and at the end of our tour I didn’t expect to see him again. While he was also travelling to Australia, he was then to go on to travel across South America, taking a completely different way home to me. He was due to return back home around June.

“I will be back,” he says, defiantly.

“This is just God’s way of saying I need to be home for a party in Germany. This is all part of my journey.

“Once I get the use of my leg back, I will fly out to Australia and complete my trip. Whether that’s in three months, six months or a year, I will do it.”

His determination is heart warming. With his constant laughing and joking, and the overall way he’s dealing with it, I admire him. Every day he’s having intensive physiotherapy to try to rebuild muscles which have been destroyed and to get his leg and foot functioning again.

I stayed until 11pm, and then walked slowly with him around the hospital ward as a last bit of exercise before he goes to bed. He is to fly back to Germany in a couple of days, and I promise to return the following night.

That night, I hardly slept. The room was hot, the mosquitos were biting – despite me taking refuge in my sleeping bag – and I appeared to have booked a room right between two huge outdoor nightclubs. LMFAO’s Party Rock song – you know, the ‘everybody’s shuffling’ song, must have played about eight times before I managed to grab some kip. I woke up in the morning with it still shuffling around in my head.

‘Sexxxxy massaaaaaaage’

I walked outside through the gaggle of skimpily dressed massage girls again. By now I’d have thought they’d have got the message that I was staying in the adjoining hotel. Instead, they tried to grab me like I was a regular customer. I smiled, put my head down and walked on to the beach.

I found it to be a huge problem on the island. While Thai massage is a huge part of life, and the culture, of Thailand, these massage parlours seemed to be of a seedy variety offering anything but a traditional massage. And there were lots of them – flyers and massage girls are in your face almost everywhere you go. While some parts of Thailand do suffer with that sleazy image – and indeed benefit from it – I didn’t know Koh Samui, or this resort, was heading such a way. They were harmless, but it got so annoying everytime I went back to my room!

I spent the day on the beach, setting up camp outside the Ark Bar and making full use of its free wifi for the price of a solitary Coke. I made sure the password was kept safe for future visits!

I didn’t speak to one person properly all day, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. When you travel alone on a backpacker circuit, you get used to rocking up next to someone and just starting to chat. Its easy, its fun and you meet so many different people with different stories. Here, there was almost a snobby attitude – that I was some sort of outcast for being here on my own. The majority of people in the resort were Australians on their annual summer holiday, either as a group or couples on a two-week package tour. I felt uncomfortable at times. It’s quite a lonely feeling.

Back to see Dirk

I was glad to return to see Dirk that night, but I had the sad job of helping him pack his bags. Its difficult for him to move around with his crutches, so I spent half an hour walking around, collecting some of his belongings and helping him to get them inside his packed rucksack.

The sweetener for Dirk is that he’s being flown home to Cologne in style – he has to keep his leg straight to help it heal, and the only way he can do that on his Lufthansa flight home is to fly in the First Class compartment. With a doctor from his homeland to accompany him too, I can see exactly how his insurance bill is already running into tens of thousands of pounds.

Dirk in the First Class lounge awaiting his flight home!

One of the items he packed was his X-Ray taken just after the accident, showing just how badly his leg was broken. It was a clean break, and I’m sure his X- Ray will one day be an infamous trophy from his time in Thailand.

I left him that night with a handshake, a pat on the back and a promise that somewhere, one day, we would meet again. For now, his travels were over and he is heading back to Europe. A reminder to me, and to any backpacker, just how quickly your fortunes can change. Yes, its an amazing experience being in far flung parts of the world, doing things that you would never do back home. Yes, travelling around clinging to the back of pick ups or on tuk tuks is fun. And yes, if you’re so inclined, the fire shows, fire rings and burning skipping ropes on the beach at night can be an exciting thing to get involved with after a bucket.

But suddenly, with one error of judgement, or an accident caused by someone else, you can find yourself back on a plane and heading to the colder climes of home for a potentially long and tough recovery.

I have to pay tribute to Dirk. If the same had happened to me, I’d be beside myself. I can’t think of anything more depressing than being sat in that room with a shattered leg while the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas and New Year outside, and your family are thousands of miles away back home.

Yet, throughout his entire ordeal, Dirk has remained strong, in good spirits, laughing and joking with everyone involved in his recovery. Not once have I heard him moan or get angry about what happened. Instead, he looks for the positives – choosing to look on the bright side of life.

“It could have been worse – a lot worse,” he says.

“I might have gone back to Germany without a leg. Me? Without a leg? I can’t imagine it.

“This is just part of my story, part of my travels, a story for my blog. I will go home, I will get better, learn to walk on it and I will start again.”

Dirk, from me, our tour mates, from our tour leader Fon and from all the other backpackers who I have told your sorry tale to in recent weeks – we salute you.

Get well soon buddy. Your world awaits.

New Year – Full Moon Style

Happy New Year!

Gallons of fluorescent paint. 40,000 people. Every kind of music you could think of. Thousands of buckets. A midnight countdown. One beach.

Welcome to Koh Phangan’s New Year Full Moon festival.

A Full Moon party in full swing

Its regularly listed as one of the top 10 parties in the world. Imagine Cleethorpes beach covered end to end with dancing, illuminous t-shirt wearing, bucket holding partygoers, around a dozen huge sound systems, people from every corner of the globe… No actually, don’t. Unless you come to Koh Phangan and see a Full Moon party for yourself, there is no way you can get your head around the sheer scale of what happens every month on Haad Rin beach.

But then its cranked up even further for New Year – it gets even bigger. The smell of paraffin in the air from the dozens of fire shows and burning skipping ropes glowing along the shore. The sight of hundreds of people crammed high up on a temporary stage, dancing in unison to some of the biggest DJs around. The sound of the waves crashing ashore, lapping over the feet of some poor soul who passed out well before 2012 officially arrived.

This is why I ditched my original plan to spend New Year in Sydney!

On the beach, on the stroke of midnight, practically anyone travelling or backpacking in southeast Asia was there, looking up at the sky as half an hour of the most amazing fireworks filled every available space above the horizon.

All around, everyone is covered in fluorescent paint, glowing under the ultraviolet lights dotted all over the sand. Be it stripes, dots, squiggles, my attempt at a Canadian maple leaf on my mate Bryce’s arm, or just random colouring in, it didn’t really matter – just as long as you had some on.

Bryce looking good, as I paint his arm

Neon light sticks, glowsticks and glowing ears add to the effect as you look out across a sea of people towards the, well, sea. Fire breathers and fire jugglers add to the chaos. Throw in some tables to dance on, and well, you get the picture. As nights out go, the New Year bash here surely ranks as one of the best nights out you’ll have in your life. Things can get messy – so much so, I took no chances – camera, phone, watch, even my glasses were left behind in a locked safe. I went out blind…and after a bucket, it wouldn’t matter anyway!

Glowy things

I arrived on the island of Koh Phangan absolutely shattered. Having stayed up all night to make sure I caught my 6am flight from Singapore, I’d only managed to grab an hours sleep on the plane. Infact, the only bits I remember of the flight are the safety announcements before take off, and a thud as we hit the tarmac in Krabi. I slept like a baby, but it was to be the only sleep I’d really get.

Leaving Krabi

I was shepherded onto a crammed public bus at the airport, and then onto another even more crammed public bus at Krabi which then wound its way through every small village on its way to Surat Thani, on Thailands south east coast. From there it was onto a large rusty ferry, absolutely full of backpackers heading to exactly the same party as me.

Party island arrival!

It took three hours to sail to the island, where I was then bundled into a tuk tuk with a few others who were heading towards the main party town of Haad Rin. One girl suddenly jumped out after realising the place she was staying was only a short walk away. We wished her well!

Bryce and Erin. And a bucket.

I was on my way to meet Bryce and Erin, the Canadian and American that I met at the Spicy Thai hostel in Chiang Mai. We’d had a brilliant time together, and got on so well, that we agreed to spend New Year together. I was to share a bungalow with Bryce and his friend Wigley – real name Trevor – on the sunset side of the southern peninsula, helpfully just out of the way of the main chaotic area of Haad Rin.

We enjoyed meeting up and had dinner together and discussed plans for New Years Eve the following day. Beersbie was being touted as the main way of having fun on the beach and having a few drinks at the same time. Let me explain.

Beersbie throwers

In the back of a tuk tuk in Chiang Mai, Bryce handed me a business card that he’d had made up detailing the rules of a game involving a Frisbee and beer. Lots of beer.

Aim for the can...or its post to knock it off

Its effectively an outdoor drinking game where you stand a can on a stick, split up into teams, and take it in turns to throw a Frisbee and try to knock the opposing teams can off their stick. Every time someone messes up, spills a drink, drops a catch, that kind of thing, the whole team has to have a drink.

If the can is knocked off, the team has to try to catch it before it hits the ground!

It soon became clear why I’d been advised to buy some ‘girly’ Bacardi Breezers – they are much easier to drink in rapid succession, as it’s a fairly fast-moving game! It was a perfect warm up for the evening – if you want to know more, visit http://www.beersbie.com. I might have to introduce it to Hull next summer. Oh, and I was on the winning team!

Preparations underway

By the time we left the beach, preparations for the night were well underway, with countdown clocks, stages and lighting already being put in place.

Its actually a really nice beach in addition to the party!

With a New Year’s dinner of pie and mash to line the stomach, the festivities began with a trip to 7-Eleven. There’s something stupid like 300,000+ 7-Elevens in Thailand, pretty much everywhere you look. The best thing about them is the 7-Eleven bar. Of course, its not a bar, but a big chiller at the back of the shop, but the drinks in there are so cheap! Then it was down to the beach. Impressive, to say the least.

Full Moon beach

I first came here in May last year, and somehow managed to pass out on the beach in the early hours. That’s because it was my first introduction to buckets – a bit of a Thai tradition, whereby you pick whatever poison is your favourite, to go with whatever soft drink you decide, and then mixed in with a bottle of Red Bull.

Crowds heading to the beach and passing some of the bucket bars

They’re sold everywhere – by Mickey, by Jane, by John (they all have simple names to remember!) – each with their own little slogan. Some will ‘love you longtime’, some will ‘sell you their daughter too’, whereas my bucket dealer was Tony – he offers free hugs.

With Tony Bucket, as Wigley demonstrates what his drinks can do to you!

Tony is a great guy. I was introduced to him by Bryce and Erin and we would go on to know each other well over the next few weeks. He’s typically Thai – kind, funny, welcoming and with a smile that you just can’t seem to find anywhere else in the world. He has ‘Hi 5’ written on his hand in permanent marker every night, and has an amazing knack of remembering names of everyone who buys drinks from him. He also let me write my blog address on his stand after hearing about what I was writing!

A bit of free marketing!

I opted for a Sang Som bucket, mainly because its cheap, but also because although its called Thai Whisky, its actually rum. And I’m quite partial to a bit of rum!

In it went, into my bucket, along with some Coke and a bottle of Red Bull.

At this point, I need to do more explaining. This is not the Red Bull you can get at home. Well, it is, in that it’s the same company – except this stuff surely has something in it that jumps through legal substance loopholes more often than that legal bod gets celebrities off parking fines.

It tastes like fizzy Red Bull at home, but there’s no fizz. There’s not as much of it either – its been condensed down into a little glass bottle. And it can keep you awake until the next Millennium if you drink too much of it.

Tony Bucket!

All in all, it’s the stuff that keeps everyone going until sunrise, and after a couple of Tony’s buckets, its easy to see how I managed to pass out last time I was here, much to my friend Cat’s amusement.

A bit more paint!

Determined not to do something similar, I eased off a little, but then I had a bigger problem. Following the orange shirt of one of Bryce’s friends towards the countdown clock, there were just minutes left before the New Year started. And then he turned around. It wasn’t him.

I looked back behind me. Bryce was no longer there either. Somehow I’d lost everyone. With three minutes left on the countdown, and it being nigh on impossible to find anyone quickly on the beach, my heart sank. I was on my own.

Three…two…one…Happy New Year!!!

At around the time I should have been linking my arms with Bryce, Erin and the gang and singing that Auld Lang Syne song for the year, I was actually smiling at everyone celebrating around me and watched the fireworks launch from the stand in front of me.

After a pretty rubbish New Year last year thanks to ex girlfriend situations, I made a vow while I was with my mate Rich in Pozition nightclub as the clock struck midnight (yes, Pozition…it really was that bad a New Year!) that in a year’s time, I would be somewhere far away and having an amazing time, that I’d get hold of my life and have something fun to celebrate within the next 12 months.

I might have been stood on my own, but I was watching some incredible fireworks alongside tens of thousands of other people who were all in the same boat as me. On a beach, in the warmth, thousands of miles from home and in the middle of epic journeys, meeting new friends and making memories to last a lifetime.

If someone would have grabbed hold of me at the bar in Pozition that night and told me exactly what I would be doing on that night in 12 months time, I would never have believed them!

I made my way back towards Tony’s bucket stand, an agreed meeting point, and met up with Wigley and a few of the other guys from Canada. We headed off, got on some tables, and danced.

I ended up talking to some Australian guys, who loved the fact I apparently sound like one of the Inbetweeners. In the end, I spent most of the night with them, laughing, dancing on tables, falling over in the sea, buying new, and dry, Full Moon t-shirts and generally having a fantastic time. It was one of those nights where time just flies by, when you’re having so much fun meeting people and dancing, that suddenly it’s the early hours.

Watching dawn break on 2012

A group of us sat down on the sand, and before we knew it, the sky started to brighten. We sat and watched as the sun rose on the horizon ahead of us. 2012 had dawned.

Still dancing at dawn

Somehow Bryce found me as I was laying on the sand with my new Australian friends, and we all sat together for a few hours before heading to Chicken Corner, one of the most famous food places on the island, for a chicken sandwich.

Clearly far too excited about a chicken sarnie breakfast. It was good though!

We all had loads of banter over the chicken sandwich, and for some reason none of us felt that tired. There were so many people milling around, yet everything I saw was so good natured. The travelling community here, while there may be the odd mishap or fight here and there (not that I actually saw any, but then there are enough people to fill Blundell Park almost five times over) is such a friendly bunch.

It might have been a slug impression?!

I walked the group of Australian girls we’d met back to their morning ferry for their rough-looking crossing back to Koh Samui, where they were staying, and headed back to the bungalow.

In the words of the Inbetweeners...'ahh, Friends...New Year Australian Friends'!

It was 9.30am. Somehow, the whole night had passed. Back home at that time I’d already be 15 minutes into the Look North morning meeting. But here I was, stumbling into bed, having had one of the most amazing nights of my life.

Thankfully, the hangover – or Changover in these parts thanks to the beer – wasn’t too bad. The weather, however, was. From nowhere, an almighty storm had descended on the island. It was so bad, the boats to and from Koh Phangan had been cancelled. Those who had planned to leave during the day after New Year were stranded. There was nothing they could do but sit it out. As did we all.

A bit wet...

There was almost one casualty of my post-Full Moon New Year state – my netbook. Sitting on the porch, recounting stories from the night before, my netbook was on my lap in a desperate search for some wifi. Suddenly a gust of wind caught the screen, which acted like a sail and pulled it off my knee.

Who ordered the storm?

Somehow I managed to catch it – with my hand that was holding a Shrimp Tom Yum pot noodle. I’d saved it from certain oblivion on a tiled floor, but I’d poured all manner of herbs, spices and liquid all over it in the process.

Annoyingly, ‘p’ and ‘0’ were the only keys that wouldn’t work. Some said it could have been worse. Not when you’ve got the name Phillip, it couldn’t.

After having it in bits, including taking the keyboard completely out to dry it, it was still having none of it. The blog would be incredibly hard to keep up from now on. And on all my forms I’d be known as Hilli. Not the best.

Two days of this...

The storms continued for two days, resulting in numerous power cuts and travel dilemmas for people on the island. We sat it out by playing cards and drinking Chang. Oh, and by drying my netbook – by the time the storms passed, it was fully working again.

With Bryce, Erin and Wigley making their way to Laos, it was time for me to leave the island too. I can see Koh Samui across the water, and over there there’s a friend in hospital. Perhaps I should pay him a visit…

Saying goodbye, again, to Bryce and Wigley

On their way to Laos. I'm heading to Koh Samui

A Singapore Fling

The Merlion

Wow – what happened here?!

Somebody has taken hold of Singapore, shaken it up and injected a whole lot of fun – and I absolutely love the end result.

Singapore by night

This tiny, expensive country is known for its high standards of living, its rich businesses, tall skyscrapers and a ban on chewing gum. When I last visited seven years ago, I spent two days in the city. It was enjoyable – quiet, colonial, stacked with bits of history and riverside bars for a leisurely lunch.

Theme parks, casinos, extravagant shopping malls and laser light displays were a long way from Singapore minds back then, yet this city state has become something I would definitely return back to after having one of the biggest facelifts I have ever seen.

The best thing is, the quaint Singapore is still there, where you can wander around endless quiet lanes, all spotlessly clean and full of interesting shops and restaurants.

Old Singapore is still charming

My visit back in 2005 was at the end of three weeks in Australia, and I stayed at the Inn Crowd hostel. It’s in Little India, and at the time was my first ever night in a dorm room bed. I looked it up on the internet, found it was still on the go and booked myself in for my two nights in the city.

Different league to the Megabus

First I had to get there, and what a journey – with a company called Odyssey, I left from a place well out of the centre of Kuala Lumpur, and away from many of the tourist buses. This was pure luxury – sumptuously padded huge leather seats that recline, personal tv screen, entertainment, food and drinks served by a waiter on the journey, wifi. It was worlds apart from anything I’ve travelled in over recent weeks.

Plush

It was about four hours before we reached immigration checkpoints and a huge bridge that connects Malaysia with Singapore. Sadly, it was raining hard – the tropical weather is one of the problems in this area – but dropped off in Singapore I arrived feeling relaxed and ready to explore.

Wet arrival into the Singapore border crossing

Arriving at the hostel, it was as if the last seven years had disappeared. It looked exactly as I remembered it, with its purple and orange canopy covering the doorway, nestled in between a 7-Eleven and a few bars. All around, members of the Indian community were in the streets eating some excellent looking currys and naan breads.

Inside the Inn Crowd hostel

I had no time to dawdle though, which is a shame as its one of my favourite pastimes. I had just a matter of hours to see the city, which I am treating as a bonus stop off. After all, I never had any intention of coming this far – I was in Singapore purely because of the savings I was making by flying back to Krabi in Thailand from there. However, I wanted to make the most of it.

Logging on to Facebook, James, a good friend from school – and who travelled the world himself in the last year – tipped me off about a light show in the evenings. I’d been to one before in Hong Kong and it was spectacular, so that became my ‘thing to do’ for the evening.

I had walked just a few blocks in the sticky evening heat when suddenly the heavens opened. I got soaked. My flip flops were slipping everywhere. I contemplated turning back.

Colourful

Then I caught sight of the waterfront, and everything changed. I was mesmorised by the colours, the lights, the new landscape in front of me. My memories of last time were of a waterfront dominated by a few skyscrapers belonging to the banks, the Merlion statue and a few boats sailing around in the darkness on the water. Its most extravagant building was the modern arts building, with a surface resembling some kind of metallic hedgehog.

Light show at Marina Bay Sands

I looked across the bay. Where once there was darkness and a horizon, there are now three huge glittering buildings, topped off by what looks like some kind of mastless yacht. To the left, a sophisticated steel bridge, adorned with the lights of thousands of cars. There’s a stage with around 20 people singing and playing odd wooden instruments, their sound filling the air. In the water, thousands of white balls of varying sizes light up in the colour of whatever light shines upon them. In the distance, radio controlled kites, lit up with neon sticks and LEDs, flit around the night sky, almost like they’re doing an excited dance to celebrate how Singapore has moved forward so quickly in the last few years.

Everywhere you look, something was happening – and then the light show started. Lasers, water fountains, music – it was an assault on the senses, and one that I loved.

The Merlion, symbol of Singapore

I walked around to the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot. The fish part of its body represents Singapore’s beginnings as a fishing village. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, meaning the ‘lion city’. It’s a city still proud of its history, even that before Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on the island and started off the transition into one of the world’s largest and most important ports, as well as being one of the biggest business and trade centres on the planet.

Sir Stamford Raffles statue at the point where he landed, keeping watch over his city

I sat for a while, watching the water gushing from the Merlion’s mouth and taking in everything around me. When I last sat in exactly the same spot, I was on my way home and had a 14 hour journey ahead of me. Now I sat knowing I was still on my way as part of my journey, that the journey had brought me back to Singapore, and ultimately, most of that journey over the huge landmass between this southern point of Asia and back home had been made over land.

By now I was hungry, but I’d been saving myself for one of the street food centres that I remembered so well from my last visit, mainly as, to this day, I maintain it was the best chicken satay I’ve ever tasted. I remember being sat in the middle of the street on a rickety table and chair, with a beer and a whole tray of beef and chicken on sticks for about £1.50. With nothing other than remembering it wasn’t far from the Merlion, I set off in my hunt for the same place.

Found it...satay street!

It was a good hour of walking in circles before I found La Pau Sat hawker centre – and it hadn’t changed. Where during the day, cars pass along the four lanes of the road, by night its filled with Singaporeans and tourists munching away on satay and noodles, washed down with ice cold beers, while the sweet smell of glazed chicken drifts across the entire area from the surrounding barbecues.

Like most things in Singapore, the price had shot up. It was £3 for 10 sticks, but worth every penny. They tasted just as good as I remembered. Back then, the guy who sold me them got talking to me, and pinned a Grimsby Telegraph business card to his stall. It was, of course, long gone, but I wondered what had happened to him. Perhaps he was still there, sataying every night. He might have even cooked my tea once again for me. I’ll never know, but for a few minutes, everything that had happened in the seven years since disappeared as I melted back into the moment I remember so well just a few metres away from me in that same street. Delicious, and well worth a visit.

The next day I knew would be a bit of a mission – to cram in as much of Singapore as possible. I even woke up early, such was the time pressure, and I don’t do that lightly!

Breakfast put a smile on my face – it was still the ‘two eggs, two slices of toast’ rule that the hostel had when I stayed those years ago. The Inn Crowd may have had a bit of a redesign downstairs – the reception had moved, the doors had changed and everywhere was covered in wooden flooring – but it still has the same feel about it. I was even ‘welcomed back’ when I checked in, with a bit of chin wagging about how it had evolved since my first visit.

The reason why I smiled over breakfast was also because it brought back memories of one of the biggest clangers I’ve ever dropped while trying to make new friends. It was in that kitchen on my first morning there in January 2005, having woken up for my first ever morning in a hostel, that I’d made my way to breakfast and sat down with about 12 other backpackers. I’d had my toast, and in an effort to be friendly and make a good impression, I offered to make a round of tea and coffee.

It took me a while, almost as long as a tea-round in the BBC Look North newsroom, but I got there. Everything was milked, some wanted it strong, some wanted lots of sugar. All went well – until the tea was tasted.

Actually, it was spat out back into a cup by some big Scandinavian-looking guy, who then just glared at me. He was followed by a few others who glared at me. I tasted mine. I soon realised why.

The pot of sugar that I had delved into with the teaspoon was actually the main salt container for the kitchen, resulting in twelve thirsty backpackers thinking it was some kind of hilarious practical joke. Awkward, to say the least.

Thankfully the pots nowadays have labels on them, so after a nice cup of Lipton Yellow Label (still rubbish, but used to it now) and some crushed up boiled eggs on toast, I was good to go – and first stop was the Raffles Hotel, my final stop the last time I was here.

At Raffles Hotel

The Long Bar is the home of the Singapore Sling cocktail, where it was first mixed by a bartender there sometime around 1915, and I sipped one on the balcony there, watching the sun go down, just a few hours before my flight left for the UK almost seven years ago to the day.

How much?!

Even back then it was pricey – I paid about £12 for the drink and to keep the souvenir glass it came in. I almost choked when I saw the same drink and glass won’t leave you with much change from £25. Thankfully, mine is still in a cabinet back home, so I moved on!

The colonial-style hotel is luxurious, and I do like the way they let you wander around through its grounds. It was very quiet and relaxed, with the odd staff member giving me a smile as I made my way around taking photos. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder, it’s among the most famous hotels in the world. I was going to try to sneak into the main part of the hotel, sectioned off for residents only, but decided that with my shorts and flip flops, I’d blend in about as well as a Scunthorpe United fan at a Grimsby Town awards night.

Instead, I blagged myself into something much more fun. Well, I say blagged – it was more ‘ignore the signs and railings and see what happens’ to be honest, but I did end up on the start and finish straight of the Formula One track!

I don't think anyone's watching!

Singapore began hosting a stage of the Formula One season on its new street circuit in 2008, and became the first ever night race in the sport. Its another example of how this city state has turned around its straight-laced image – and as I made my way through some yellow barriers I found myself looking at skid marks and road markings left behind by Jenson, Lewis and co just a couple of months previous.

There was nobody else around, but I carried on walking as if I was supposed to be there. I didn’t have any tell-tale tourist signs like a bag or a camera dangling off me, and so I just carried on. There were a few workmen on the main straight dismantling a couple of stands, but even they just looked at me and carried on.

Great shot...but I was about to get rumbled!

I came unstuck, however, when I found the pit straight. Still with the team names, logos and drivers names above their garages – and tyre marks on the painted shiny surface where each car would grind to a halt for pit stops – I tried to imagine what it must be like on a race day.

Then there was a man waving his hands at me. My jobsworth detector immediately kicked into action, although to be fair, I was completely in the wrong. I began thinking of an excuse, but in the end opted for a big smile.

“Not supposed to be here,” the overall-wearing bloke said to me in broken English.

“Aww, just one photo,” I smiled back.

He paused, did a shifty look around, then smiled back.

“Keep away from the petrol lorry,” he replied, pointing at a line of fuel heading into an underground tank.

Brilliant! Back home I’d have been frogmarched out by some heavies in fluorescent coats, had the police called on me for trespassing and probably banned from the area for good. Here, I’d been smiled at and welcomed, as long as I didn’t blow up the petrol wagon.

In pole position!

As he turned to answer a phonecall, I thanked him with a big cheesy grin and got a couple more snaps in the pit lane before moving on to the pole position place on the start grid. There was a little hole in the middle of each start position, which I’m presuming is for some sort of false start equipment, and there were little splodges on the track from the fragments of hot tyre rubber that had been worked into the asphalt.

It certainly hadn’t been on my list of places to visit, but its definitely one of the most memorable, and it’ll be fun to watch the race here on the television next season when I’m back home.

New Year preparations

It was already lunchtime, and I still had lots to do. I walked around the marina, where workmen were throwing big white balls into the water, each daubed with Christmas and New Year messages.

Messages from around the world

They were being moved into the centre of the marina in readiness for the New Year fireworks and celebration show in a couple of days. I’m presuming they’ve been blown up and signed by visitors somewhere, and I spent a few minutes reading the messages from people who had visited from around the world.

Sentosa

Next stop was Resorts World Sentosa, another addition to Singapore’s fun side, located on a separate island just to the south. Much of the island of Sentosa is given over to a huge new Universal Studios theme park, but there’s loads of other places too, like a downhill luge track, marine park, casinos, shopping and beaches. Yes – beaches.

A beach? In Singapore?!

They may be man made, but they have sand, shells and clean water lapping up onto the shore. Admittedly, with the world’s busiest shipping port next door, you need to squint to block out the dozens of huge container ships and tankers on the horizon. But it’s a beach all the same, and it means after just a 20 minute journey from the centre of the bustling metropolis, you can be paddling in the waves.

No laughing at the flip flop tan!

An extra bonus for me was to find a plaque marking the furthest point south on continental Asia. Having spent the last two and a half months making my way overland round from Europe, this was now as far as I could go – well and truly the end of the line. With just the sea to the south, the next time I go further will be on a plane to Australia. But almost 10,000km from Moscow now, it was time to reflect on one huge journey so far – an adventure that is missed from the air. Its certainly a lot warmer here than during those cold, icy days walking through the steppes of Mongolia in the snow!

Can't go any further!

It was now 4pm, and I knew the sun would start setting shortly. I needed to get back to the city, as I’d decided to stump up the cash for a trip to the Sky Park at the top of Marina Bay Sands resort to watch the sun set over the skyscrapers opposite.

'How beautiful are your branches'!

Spotted a great Christmas tree on the way though-you might need to look closely. I had a double take on the way past, and the barman told me quite a few people had spotted it and laughed!

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands resort

I arrived in the vast shopping centre underneath the three huge buildings to find a gondola floating along a canal. The company that built this massive resort – and got Singapore’s stringent gambling laws relaxed for the first time – is the same company behind the Venetian in Las Vegas. Its billed as the most expensive standalone casino resort complex in the world, costing £4-billion to build, features a 2,561-room hotel, a museum, two huge theatres – one being home to The Lion King – an ice rink, seven celebrity chef restaurants…the list goes on.

The sun sets over the city

There is definitely an awe-inspiring Las Vegas feel to the place, matched by some awe-inspiring prices. It costs £10 just to go up in the lift to the top floor Sky Park, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, and where a can of Coke sets you back £4. The view, and the photos from the top, however, were worth the entry price.

One day...when I win the lottery...

Sadly, you don’t get to see, or use, the 150m infinity pool being used by the hotel guests to watch the sun set over the city just a few metres behind a security door, but you do get a great 360degree view that is surely unsurpassed even by the Singapore Flyer, the big wheel that knocked the London Eye off its ‘biggest wheel in the world’ perch.

The Singapore Flyer below

Singapore, it has to be said, is a city – and a country – that now looks better at night than it does in the day. The lighting, the lasers, the skyscrapers – everything was big and bright.

Fullerton Hotel and old Singapore

I watched the nightly music and light show once again before heading to a brilliant exhibition at the ArtScience museum, Titanic.

Mock up of a Titanic room

Ever since my university days in Southampton, where my halls of residence were across from the former Canute Road offices of White Star Line, and just a few hundred metres from where Titanic sailed, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the story about the ship.

Crockery recovered from the Titanic, complete with White Star Line logos

Here, the story for me was brought to life, with hundreds of parts of the ship, cutlery, crockery, clothing, passengers belongings and jewellery that had been brought to the surface from the wreck.

Someones specs

The most amazing parts for me were the scores of portholes, window frames and huge metal parts of the ship’s structure that had been brought up from the sea bed.

Huge metal bollards that once tied the Titanic to her berth

To look at parts, along with an explanation of what role it had within the ship, really put things into perspective. But to know that the windows had been looked through by passengers on that ill fated liner, or that the chef’s overalls had been worn to prepare dinner before he went off duty that night – and ultimately lost his life – was really poignant.

Chef's jacket. He didn't survive.

It was done really well, and wasn’t in any way ghoulish or morbid. Sections of the museum were laid out as if it was parts of the ship, including first class cabins and bathrooms, and an excellent reconstruction of an outside deck.

Recovered baggage label showing Canute Road address, where I lived in Southampton

I never thought I would see parts of the Titanic just a few millimetres away from my face, but thanks to a visit to Singapore, it was just one more pleasant surprise in a very surprising change of direction for the republic.

Sadly, after just 35 hours, I had to leave – my flight to Krabi checks in at 4am – and after arriving back at the hostel at 1am, decided not to go to bed for fear of not waking up in time. Instead, I packed my bags and headed straight to the airport. Tonight will be an ‘all nighter’ and i’ll probably pay the price tomorrow, but at least I won’t miss my plane!

No sleep, but at least I didn't miss it!

I was so pleased I had crammed so much into so little time. It made me realise how Singapore has definitely put itself back on my map as a place to visit again. You might need buckets of cash and a brolly to protect you from the tropical rains from time to time, but instead of a city break or Oz stopover, Singapore is rapidly becoming a holiday destination in its own right.

Christmas in Kuala Lumpur

Christmas Day in Malaysia

I knew it was going to happen at some point. Infact, I’d been preparing for it to happen. It was well overdue. I was surprised it hadn’t happened weeks ago.

No, its not meeting someone from Grimsby…although that did happen –  sort of – more later!

Nope, this was something else, and boy, did I know about it.

I got sick. Over Christmas. Thousands of miles away from home. Its not what I’d had in mind for the festive period in the sun!

Arriving into Kuala Lumpur, I checked into a fantastic new hostel called the Reggae Mansion. I’d arrived early, pulling into KL’s Central Station at 6am. I’d not eaten since the day before, but at that time of the morning breakfast options were limited to Mcdonalds, so I went for a Mcmuffin meal. It was my first Mcdonald’s for weeks.

The dorm was beautifully air conditioned and completely different to anything I’d stayed in before – each bed was in its own little compartment, complete with light, power supply, cabinet and mirror. It was like a mini bedroom, with a curtain that pulls across at the foot of the bed.

Funky dorm...that I spent a lot of time in!

I climbed in to my little bit of Kuala Lumpur for a few days and caught up on sleep that I’d missed by being sat upright all night on the overnight train. It was mid afternoon before I woke, and I felt groggy. I put it down to irregular sleeping. I went out to explore the surrounding area, buying myself a new plug adapter and taking in the Little India area I was staying in.

That night I ate pizza in the hostel bar, having a bit of a Western day away from noodles and rice. And that might just have been my downfall. Overnight, someone implanted a washing machine in exactly the same place my tummy once was.

The next morning, having had very little sleep overnight, I felt terrible. I put it down to food poisoning, with a good dose of fevering and everything else that comes along with it!

The next two days were a write off – completely bed ridden, unable to wake up, no energy. Thankfully I had wifi, so could keep myself amused by looking at everyone’s Facebook updates back home stating how they were all excited to be finishing work, going home for Christmas, travelling to see families. What a tonic to make me feel better!

I must admit, it was a little depressing, and again it hit me how far away and isolated I could be. People in the dorm must have thought I was some kind of hermit, shut away in my bed and tapping away on my laptop instead of seeing the sights and enjoying Christmas. The knock-on effect was that very few made any effort to talk to me. Not that I was in the mood for conversation anyway – and nor could I stick around too long before having to, shall we say, dash off somewhere…

Thankfully, by Christmas Eve, the stomach cramps and fevers had become much better. There was a countdown party organised on the rooftop bar, in the shadow of the famous Petronas Towers and KL tower. It was a fantastic setting, complete with a Christmas tree and decorations. I felt anything but Christmassy, not only due to my illness but also because life in Kuala Lumpur was just continuing as normal. Being a majority Muslim country, there were very few signs of the extravagance and spending that you see in the West when it comes to the festive period.

Fun on the rooftop

It was time to try to meet people. I went to the bar and got speaking to a German guy called Martin. We spoke about football – always a good starter – and then a bit about how we both found ourselves in KL for Christmas. He was visiting Thailand for a wedding and had just flown into KL from home with his friend Philipp. He invited me to sit with them, and we immediately hit it off with lots of banter about England and Germany football results over the years, World Cup goals that should have stood, the usual light-hearted fodder when it comes to our national rivalry.

After a while we moved over to the main seating area, sitting with two girls who also looked to be on their own. They were Danielle and her younger sister Alannah, from Canada. It turns out Danielle is working as a teacher in South Korea, and her sister had flown over to spend Christmas with her. After some time in Korea – at a time when it all kicked off over Kim Jung Il’s death – they’d travelled to Malaysia for some time in the sun.

Clappy hands

I risked a beer, knowing I’d probably pay a price, but it was almost Christmas and everyone else was making the most of it. So much so, that the party was in full swing. The Petronas Towers shimmered in their silvery bright light, the KL tower, complete with its revolving restaurant, was full of diners enjoying a Christmas meal. They were looking down on a rooftop full of backpackers who were waiting to count down the minutes until the big day.

Everyone had been given a party bag full of noisy hand clappers, those blowy whistles that you get at kids parties, face masks and a few had some spray snow – and over the impressive sound system (you wouldn’t want to live within at least a mile of the place!) the countdown began, just as you have at New Year.

Three, two, one…Merrrrrryy Christmaaaaas!

Its Christmas Day!

Everyone went crackers, shaking hands, giving kisses, running around with balloons. It was great – with a few classic Christmas songs, finally, I felt a little Christmassy for the first time this year. It was mixed with emotion too – it’s the first time I’ve ever spent Christmas away from home, and I knew that back home the usual meet-up in the local pub would be taking place, catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a long time, and then heading to see mum and dad for a few glasses of port and nibbles.

Father Christmas turned up on time

On Facebook, thousands of miles away, I could sense the excitement building back home with people counting down the hours. I let everyone know that Father Christmas had just flown over the twin towers and was on his way west – prompting a funny reply from one friend who’s son had told her I wouldn’t get any presents because I’d actually seen Santa Claus. It made me smile, and the party continued.

Father Christmas dropped by on his way and offered us all a free drink if we gave him a kiss. There was a huge line of people waiting to take him up on his kind offer, which naturally I joined. It was good of him to get a round in, but I worried we were holding him up on his busy night!

I refused the offer to sit on his knee

The party went on until the small hours, with more balloons and dancing on tables providing much hilarity. I went to bed at a decent time though – I still wasn’t feeling too well, but I had agreed to finally see the sights on Christmas Day with Danielle and Alanna, as both the German guys were leaving to catch their flights.

Started to get messy

Rested, and just about feeling well enough for some sightseeing, I met the girls in reception and we headed out to find the sightseeing bus that does a loop of the city. It was Christmas Day, but you wouldn’t know it. Outside, the city was a fully functioning city – people were heading to work, there were queues for the underground railway, McDonalds and Burger King were doing brisk trade and there was not one ‘Merry Christmas’ uttered by anyone. The only tell-tale sign was the odd Santa hat sat on a tourist’s sweltering head here and there, and a Christmas tree every now and again outside only the largest of department stores. It was a completely different experience to anything back home.

One of only a handful I saw this year

Thankfully, the sightseeing bus was air conditioned – it really is such a humid city, and the sun was hot when it broke through the clouds. Our first stop was China Town and Petaling Street, full of street hawkers, street food, noise, hustle and bustle. We walked through to one of the city’s most important Hindu temples before catching the bus again.

It was around lunchtime when we decided to visit the Batu Caves, which I had seen advertised on day trip posters, but Danielle and Alanna told me it was very easy to reach. I had been tempted to visit but presumed it was quite far away. Infact, a train goes directly there in about 20 minutes, so we headed to Central Station, bought a ticket and the train was waiting at the platform.

Batu Caves

By now the sun had come out and it was scorching. We were confronted with around 200 steps to get into the cave. I was making my way up them when suddenly there was a commotion ahead of me, and a rustling of bags. I thought someone was having their bag snatched, and it turned out they were – by a monkey.

Cheeky monkeys on the prowl

I’d been too busy concentrating on my footing and trying not to keel over with yet another passing fever to realise there were dozens of wild monkeys lining the sides of the steps, eyeing up tourists and working out who would be their next victim. One of them looked at me and jumped off the wall, walked over to the man in front of me and reached for his bag. I put my small daybag on both shoulder, which the monkey spotted. He then turned his attention to me, and more importantly, to my camera that was half inside its case.

Mother and baby. And someones lunch.

He came right up to me, made a grab for it and then hissed at me when I quickly pulled it away. Now, I really like monkeys, but something told me this one wasn’t quite the king of the swingers but more the king of the stealers. He was really aggressive and was determined to get something. He snatched at a carrier bag, and then someone behind me made an even louder hissing noise and shooed him away, much to the relief of everyone around me.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have too much luck when it comes to cameras, but having to tell the insurance company my Panasonic Lumix had been stolen by a monkey would have been plumbing new depths even for me.

Others on the hike up weren’t so lucky though – apparently, they presume anyone with bag will have some sort of food tucked in it. Rather than being picky, they just make a grab for any bag they can find, scattering valuable contents throughout the trees and cliffs. I do wonder whether the vendors selling crisps, snacks and even milk at the bottom of the steps work in cahoots with the vendors selling exactly the same at the top – their pink carrier bags were prime targets for the primates. One grabbed a bag of crisps to feed to its baby. It was fascinating to watch, mainly because once you’d twigged, it was just a waiting game to see which unfortunate tourist would be picked on next!

The caves were, well, caves really. There were a couple of temples inside, and the dampness and shade was welcome relief from the Kuala Lumpur heat. Another cave nearby offers the chance to see bats and rare spiders – and that’s when I realised I’d seen these caves on a BBC Planet Earth programme – before we decided to watch the monkeys in action for a bit longer.

Rascals

One woman, possibly American, was bashing a plastic bottle on the floor, trying to attract the attention of a monkey close to where she was sitting. A few seconds later, there was a scream – while she was ok, the expensive-looking camera wasn’t, and one of the monkey’s mates had disappeared through the trees with it. Its owner decided it would be a good idea to step over the fence and wade through the trees after it – close to a few baby monkeys. Cue an onslaught of monkey paws and screeching as he was slapped and scratched back to where he had come from. Served them both right!

On the way back I was talking to Danielle and Alanna about life at home in Toronto when I was mentioning about how I’d visited many years ago. That’s when I discovered a brilliant – and coincidental – fact.

Danielle was born in – wait for it – Grimsby! The only other place in the world called Grimsby is in Ontario, Canada, about an hour or so away from Toronto. I was making small talk about how I’d visited and had a photo taken with the sign when Danielle stopped me in amazement. She never normally tells anyone she’s from Grimsby (insert your own Grimsby joke here!) as its such a small town that people in Canada don’t usually know where it is, let alone someone from the other side of the Atlantic.

Good old Grimsby!

We were amazed at the coincidence. Both of our passports have the same birth town listed, albeit with a few thousand miles in between. It had taken two months, but I’d found one – I was travelling with another fish out of Grimsby!

We headed to the Petronas Towers for photos with the famous buildings, and I donned a t-shirt that my two Spanish friends Santi and Galli, from the trans-Siberian railway journey, had given me. I tagged it on Facebook complete with a Christmas message in Spanish for them, knowing it would make them smile.

A Christmas Day message for my Spanish friends - with their t-shirt!

That night I felt ready for something to eat. I’d not had anything proper for three days, and what better to start again with than a turkey dinner at the rooftop bar.

Christmas dinner

I had turkey, beef and lamb, along with an attempt at a Yorkshire pudding and a few vegetables. It was hardly one of Mum’s dinners, but it had to do. It was certainly a different backdrop to my parents’ living room. I met up with Danielle and Alannah for dinner, and we spent much of the time talking about how we spend our respective Christmas days and thinking of our families back home, who were by now waking up for the start of the big day.

With Alannah and Danielle and a great Christmas dinner backdrop

Speaking of which, it was time to Skype them. The eight hour time difference meant it was getting on towards lunchtime back home, and I knew my package of gifts from Thailand had arrived a couple of days previous. We’d agreed to have a video call where they would open them on camera, and it was brilliant fun for an hour.

Brother Andrew, mum and dad back home with my box of presents I sent. And yes, mum did get that hat for Christmas!

While I couldn’t be there in person, it was the next best thing, and it was great to see their faces as they delved into the large Thailand Post box and pulled out the newspaper wrapped presents I had packed inside less than two weeks ago.

Somehow the hand-carved flower shaped soaps for mum had just about made it home in one piece, my brother put on his Angry Birds t-shirt, even though it was slightly small, and dad laughed about the daft elephant slippers I’d bought him from the Chiang Mai walking market. They read the individual notes I’d wrapped inside the presents, and hung the Buddha charms from the White Temple in Chiang Rai on their Christmas tree.

Unwrapping time!

I might not have been there, but it was nice to know that items that I’d picked up and thought about my family back home had made it, and it was slightly strange to see them in everyone’s hands, on the other end of an internet phone call, thousands of miles away back home.

Later, or should I say early in the morning, I called them again. Dad had only been half joking when he said I should join them for Christmas dinner, so I Skyped again at 3am and while they tucked into turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets and roast potatoes, I’d been maximised on the computer screen and became a virtual guest at the dinner table!

Stunning

Technology played a part the following day too, thanks to Twitter. My friend Simon Clark, the sports reporter for Look North, had seen my tweet stating I was in Kuala Lumpur. He’s a huge fan of Malaysia and travels to the country a lot, and sent me an article about a top English pub called Sids Pub, which is highly commended.

It turns out he visits it quite a bit, and to my surprise, Geoff, the owner of the pub, tweeted me back inviting me for a visit. It was a bit out of the way, but with a few decent Premier League matches on that night, I decided I’d spend Boxing Day evening there. The best thing was, on the menu were pigs in blankets- a whole plate of them- and having gone this Christmas without them, it was a great dish to eat whilst watching Manchester United go on yet another goal rampage against Wigan.

Pigs in blankets...and Guinness. Bliss!

I got talking to Frank, one of the owners and managers of the pub, who told me about some of the potential problems facing Malaysia – its such a multi-ethnic country, but the government’s ‘One Malaysia’ campaign is apparently dividing some sections of the community. We got talking about football, work back home, travels, and eventually about how I was getting back to Thailand. I’ve now worked out that Singapore has much cheaper flights back than Kuala Lumpur, and Frank told me it was remarkably easy to get there from KL. Infact, the buses that run between the two cities are almost like business class cabins on flights. Frank gave me a tip on the best company to use and I used the pub’s wifi to book a seat.

The KL Tower

It rounded off a great relaxing day which helped my recovery. I’d had a wander to the KL Tower and admired the view from the top, including a look down onto the hostel where I was staying. It gave a great panorama of the city, but having been up a few tall buildings in the last few months, it was noticably closer to the ground for the price! I could still see people on the ground – a far cry from the dizzying heights of the Financial tower in Shanghai a few weeks back.I did my usual trick of going up to the top half an hour before sunset, making sure i’d get to see the city from the sky at night and during the daylight. Two birds, one stone and all that!

The Reggae Mansion hostel from above

By day...

By night

I’d also taken in the other sights around the city, including the many mosques and temples, interspersed with so many colonial style buildings. Its a real mix of cultures, and of the old and new. It makes for a fascinating walk.

Gets the message across!

Kuala Lumpur is a very compact city, its possible to walk from one side of the city centre to the other in about an hour if you keep the pace up. It was on one of these walks I ventured into a huge shopping centre (there’s quite a few in KL!) mainly for a blast of cold air conditioning and to get me out of the sticky tropical heat. That’s when I came across a great indoor rollercoaster, complete with loops and steep drops. I’d have been tempted to go in, but looking at the queue it was mainly kids with parents. I gave it a miss!

Great indoor rollercoaster

Kuala Lumpur was a great place to spend a few days, but admittedly I’d been there quite a bit longer than intended. I’ll never forget my nights looking up at the glittering Petronas Towers, nor will I forget eating a turkey Christmas dinner in the heat on the rooftop bar with a fellow fish from Grimsby.

Petaling Street...home to just about everything!

I spent my last evening with the girls from Canada, wandering around Chinatown and Petaling Street, dodging people trying to sell us anything from dodgy watches to dodgy designer bags, and from dodgy Tiffany jewellery to dodgy Chelsea tops. It puts the frequent ‘fake goods’ crackdowns back home into perspective, but its good fun looking at just how bad some of the copies are. One thing that wasn’t dodgy was the excellent Chinese meal we had on the street, complete with a bucket of beer. It was a nice way to part ways, as the girls head up to the beaches of Langkawi and I head south to Singapore.

Street food in Chinatown

It was on a last minute trip to a 7-Eleven that I discovered perhaps the strangest name for a soft drink I’ve ever come across. I can imagine the marketing team coming up with the name, agreeing it was the right name for the brand, perhaps celebrating with a glass of the illuminous green fizzy drink itself. Its just a shame that they’ll never be able to market it in the West should it become the next Coca Cola.

Can you imagine the tv ads? ‘Tired and thirsty? Time to….’

It was actually quite nice!

Visa running

Feeling Krabi for a few days

Time was running out – with just days to go before my visa expired in Thailand, I was heading south towards the border. I’d still not made up my mind exactly how, or where, I was going to leave the country, but Burma was out of the question to the north and so there was only one way I could go.

My overnight train from Chiang Mai was extremely comfortable – the lower bunks are almost as big as a double bed and well worth the £2 extra cost over the upper bunks. You’re not in private cabins, but instead everyone has a curtain along the carriage, and by 10pm most people are catching zeds.

Most people except for me – I’d just had an email on my phone from one of my housemates back home. The boiler had broken. Cue a mild panic. I was in the middle of northern Thailand, passing through the wilderness on a sleeper train, and with the time difference I knew I had to act quickly to get the problem sorted out. My plumber back home had changed his number, and so I was on the phone to my parents asking them to search for him on the internet.

Thanks to the wonders of mobile data, I managed to get an appeal out on Facebook for a decent plumber that wouldn’t rip me off, and thankfully had a couple of replies came that could help me out. I then decided to call my housemates after finding their mobile number. After a 10 minute broken conversation as the reception dropped in and out, I’d worked out that the pressure had dropped and was a simple case of turning a small tap to top it up. Having had nightmare thoughts of needing to get an expensive new boiler installed from afar, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was a simple and free fix, and slept well all the way through to Ayuthuya, just north of Bangkok.

A quickly grabbed shot of the flooding outside

Outside, more evidence that the flooding of previous months was still causing problems. The waters had dropped in most places, but all along roads were people’s belongings and furniture, thrown out of flooded homes and either being burnt or collected by teams of recovery workers. The train passed the city’s former airport, Don Muang, which had been used as a refuge for weeks, although much of that too had been under water. It was now empty and no doubt heading for demolition. Walls on buildings alongside the tracks had clear watermarks high above windows and doors in some places. I was amazed life was somehow still going on so soon after the devastation – there had been at least six feet of water in many places, and the railway would have been well covered. Its been an incredible recovery.

Flood-damaged belongings being collected

Arriving into Bangkok, I still didn’t know whether to stay for a few nights to enjoy the city and then make a dash for a border, or whether to head to Kanchanaburi to the west, where the bridge over the River Kwai is located. I headed with all my bags to a coffee shop near the MBK shopping centre, the same place I had spent the evening when I first arrived in the city before my tour started. I knew the internet was fast, and the food was pretty good.

My train from the north after arriving in Bangkok

Logging onto Facebook, I saw that a few tour mates were still in the south – Alissa, Emma and Steven. Alissa was heading from Phi Phi to Krabi, while Emma and Steven were contemplating Railay beach. I dropped them a message to ask if they were going to be in the area for a few days, and it turned out they were. I quite fancied a bit of time on the beach, and so my decision was made. I wouldn’t have had enough time on my visa to stay for the time needed in Kanchanaburi, and I’d be coming back to Bangkok before my onward flight, so I checked the rail times and saw there was a night train to Surat Thani at 7.30pm.

I headed back to Hualamphong station and asked at the desk. I was pointed to a screen that showed one bed remaining. I immediately agreed to take it, upon which the cashier said something to me in Thai with a look on her face which told me she needed an answer again. So I repeated that I would take it again and nodded, handing over the equivalent of about £10. I was happy to be travelling that night, and at a good price.

Another ticket to ride

By now it was 4pm, and I contemplated heading to a huge weekend market, but deciding it was too far away I set up camp with my laptop in the station, bought some wifi and uploaded some blog. Occasionally I’d get talking to some of the locals who would sit near me for a while, taking an interest in what I was doing and the places I had been to. Suddenly their eyes would light up when I told them how I’d found myself in Bangkok after listing the countries I’d travelled through, asking questions like ‘what is Russia like’ and ‘what does snow feel like’. The Thai people are so friendly, always speaking to you with a big smile and making you feel so welcome in their country. It’s part of the reason why I love their culture so much.

There was also another quirk at 6pm – the daily national anthem. I first heard this in Pai, at 8am every day, waking us all up. It’s quite a merry little anthem, and the Thai’s are so proud of their country, that its played publicly twice a day – and everyone has to pay their respects. Bang on 6pm at the station, every police officer blew their whistle, the Thai flag appeared on all the screens, and everyone stood and observed it. Its actually quite a spectacle – and quite heartwarming to see so many foreign visitors standing side by side with the smiling Thais and respecting its importance just as much as those who live here.

Thai national anthem time

Soon it was time to grab some snacks and head to the platform. It was the next one along from the one I had pulled into some nine hours before.

Leaving Bangkok...again!

I was in carriage nine, and began my walk along the side of the train and all the well maintained and inviting air conditioned carriages. Carriage 13. Carriage 12. Carriage 11. Still the glazed, brightly lit carriages went on, with everyone inside settling in for their comfortable ride.

Carriage 10…and then the posh carriages stopped. Carriage 9. What on earth is that?!

It was like something out of the third world. Surely there’s been some sort of mistake. It hasn’t even got windows, just holes where the glazing should be. It looked tatty and tired. And there’s a train man waving at me to check my ticket. He nodded and motioned to me to get on. The green décor wasn’t particularly to my taste, neither was the sharp metal edges around the patched up walls immediately adjacent to my seat-cum-bed. There was a window buried within the wall somehow, but it wouldn’t stay up.

Not the best. Blogging kept my mind of the bites...

It soon dawned on me what the woman said in Thai at the ticket desk – probably after something along the lines of ‘you’re a foreigner and you really want to rough it in there?’ was the advice that it was a non-air conditioned carriage. The air conditioning was provided by the open windows and a series of pointless fans.

I decided to make the best of a bad job and settled in for the night to do some writing. The carriage attendant made my bed and I tried to shut out the conditions around me. It wasn’t that bad, but I’d been looking forward to a good sleep. Instead, with a strange metal shutter covering most of the window, it was effectively open to the elements. And mosquitos – a hungry swarm of which made a beeline for my obviously very tasty ankles while I was asleep. Oh, and that was the sleep I managed to grab inbetween every passing train that thundered past within a few feet of my head all through the night.

Arriving in Surat Thani

I arrived in Surat Thani, one of the main transport hubs in Thailand, and found my bus to Krabi. I promptly fell asleep and slept like a log most of the way to Krabi Town, where I was ushered into a minibus to Ao Nang. I found some digs for 400 Baht a night (£8) and then found Steven and Emma on the promenade about to get on a longtail boat to Railay. I joined them, and had a great few hours catching up on each others’ travels and stories.

On the way to Railay

We met Alissa later that day and we all went out for dinner at a good Indian restaurant we found on the main strip, followed by drinks, pool and a fire show in the main centre.

The following day I moved into the same hotel as all three of them, sharing a room with Alissa. It worked out cheaper than the place I had been staying at Bernie’s Place, recommended in my Lonely Planet, and I have to say it was much nicer. It had air conditioning, a private bathroom, even a television. They’re already seeming like luxury!

Ho ho ho!

We had a lot of fun on the beach – Steven brought a pit-pat set so we tried to see how much of a rally we could get going between us, while I’d come equipped with a Father Christmas hat with the festive season now well and truly upon us. It provided the ‘must have’ but slightly clichéd photos of spending Christmas on a beach, but I didn’t care. It put a few smiles on people’s faces too, especially when I kept it on while going for a swim, complete with flashing stars on the front!

With Steven. Santa probably doesn't have quite the same t-shirt tan.

Alissa and I went in search of budget accommodation in the area, as we’re both considering spending some time here after New Year. We found some bungalows nestled at the foot of the limestone cliffs near Railay East beach, and they are in a much more backpacker friendly price range than the top end tourist resorts just a few hundred metres away on the west beach.

Alissa, Emm, Steven and I, along with DVD and nibbles!

After a quiet night in with a DVD and a few games of cards, we had to be up early the following morning. Steven, Emma and I were picked up at 6am by different taxis. They were heading to Koh Samui to visit Dirk, also from our tour, who has somehow ended up in hospital. I was heading out of the country, to Malaysia, as my visa run continued, and I’d decided to spend Christmas at a nice looking hostel I’d found in the capital.

My journey took me to the south of Thailand, an area the tourist guides warn you to be careful in after a spate of bombings and attacks due to some political unrest in a few states. I had to pick my route carefully, but as long as I kept moving I was supposed to be okay. I headed to Hat Yai, where I knew I could catch a direct train to Kuala Lumpur. The weather turned and it began to pour with rain. After four hours of driving, I was dropped off at the railway station, where I was promptly told the train to Kuala Lumpur was full.

I began to worry. My visa expires at midnight, and the ticket desk was telling me there was no way out of the country until the following day. I sought refuge in a coffee shop to raid their free wifi over lunch and try to work out what to do.

In the end, I found there was another train to the border town of Pedang Besar. I asked if there was a way I could get across the border that day. There were shrugs of shoulders and a general lack of interest in my plight.

Next to the Orient Express.

There was one highlight however – as I boarded the train, there was a flurry of excitement from both those on the platform and on the train.

The Orient Express has just pulled in alongside us, complete with all its gold trim, sun deck carriage and plush interior. I took a few photos, and a tourist in the end carriage of the famous train was doing the same as me. We waved to each other and smiled as I trundled down the tracks past him and his £10,000 rail ticket!

Posh train

One thing I would have quite gladly paid the £10,000 price tag for though would to have been sat far away from an Italian man who wanted to become my best friend on the short ride to the border. He was the sort of man who snarled when he speaks. There was a snarl when I told him I was from England (‘expensive and rude’ apparently) there was a snarl when I told him I was heading to Kuala Lumpur for Christmas (‘why would I want to stay in a city like that’, apparently) and there was a snarl when I told him that I still had a few hours on my visa (‘they never check, and if they do, you pay a few Baht’, apparently)

Sun deck carriage with the waving man as we pull out of Hat Yai

He was a know-all, eager to impress how he’s been travelling for years. He saw that I had been eating some chewy fruit sweets, and I nearly snarled myself when he abrubtly insisted ‘do you have one for me’.

Admittedly, anyone else who I wanted to be talking to, I’d have offered one straight away anyway, but there was something creepy about him. He was older than me, about 50ish, and just seemed to moan a lot about Thailand and Malaysia. I was down to my last sweet.

“Sure, its my last one though,” I said, expecting him to withdraw his request.

“Ok,” he said, holding his grubby hands out. I threw it across the aisle to him and then tried to avoid contact until we arrived at Pedang Besar. He’s already told me he didn’t have an onward ticket across the border either, but there was no way I was joining ranks with him. I went out to look after myself.

Thankfully, the station falls within Malaysia, so I’d made it out of Thailand in time. I went through immigration, got stamped out and made my way to the ticket window.

“Sorry, train full,” came the reply to my request for a train to KL.

“When’s the next train?” I asked

“Tomorrow night,” came the unhelpful reply.

Great. I’m stuck in this border town, with nothing in the way of hotels or attractions, and quite probably with a really annoying and selfish Italian bloke for company.

“Is there a bus from here,” I asked, with a pleading look on my face.

“No, no bus,” said the lady.

“Is there anything I can do,” I asked, starting to plead for help. The lady looked at me, looked around me, and then moved closer.

“How many of you, is it just you?” she whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back.

Then she shut the window and disappeared behind a screen in the direction of the train. Five minutes later she returned.

“Carriage five. Speak to the conductor. He knows, you’ll be ok but don’t tell anyone,” she whispers again.

I whispered thankyou back and gave her a huge smile, which she returned as she watched me head down the platform. I don’t really know what the deal is – it’s a huge train and there’s not that many people waiting to get on it. And then I see the Italian guy talking to the train officials. I turn away and hope he doesn’t see me. Then there’s a tap on my shoulder.

“How do you have ticket? I have no ticket. How are you getting on train.”

It’s the Italian guy alright.

“You should help me. You have got your ticket. I want to know why. Why didn’t you tell her about me,” he babbles at me like some sort of spoilt brat.

“I just, erm, I went to speak to her,” I reply.

“Well, you could have helped me too, you British are all the same.”

It made my blood boil. I’ve not lost my temper once on this trip, but he’d infuriated me. And he ate my last chewy sweet. I kept my anger to a hushed but firm reply.

“Look mate, I’m here on my own, I’m looking after myself. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. I’ve managed to get on it by being nice and talking to the lady at the window. I’m sure if you do the same you’ll be helped out.”

He headed off without a word. I walked to the train and into the carriage as instructed. I gave a knowing nod to the carriage attendant as he asked for my ticket.

“You need a ticket, the train is full,” he tells me.

I gave another knowing nod, I think I might even have winked a bit. But he had a blank face. I mentioned about the lady at the ticket office, and mid-flow another conductor arrives at the scene. He gives me a knowing nod and sits me down. It was all very perculiar!

Somehow the Italian bloke made it onto the train and plonked himself across the aisle from me. He muttered about how he appreciated the advice about speaking to the ticket office, but it was far from an apology. I kept my head down in a book or writing my blog as darkness fell and we headed south through Malaysia. The conductor took the money from me for my ticket – about £10, and handed me a slip of paper. I think it was above board.

It was great that I had a seat, but it was far from a sleeper carriage like I had been expecting. I tried to get comfortable to grab some sleep but it was hard. In the end I got my sleeping bag out and wedged myself against the window. The lights were bright and I drifted in and out of sleep. In the early hours, I briefly woke to see the Italian bloke getting his stuff together – he was getting off halfway between the border and KL. I breathed a sigh of relief, and made sure I kept my eyes closed. I couldn’t be bothered to say goodbye.

‘Bang bang bang bang’

There’s knocking at the window. It wakes me up. I’m the last one on the train. I’ve arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

Early morning arrival in Kuala Lumpur

This might sting a little…

Heading back from Pai

My new-found love affair with motorbikes was about to come to an abrupt end.

We left Pai around lunchtime, with the aim of making the 155km journey back to Chiang Mai as much a day out as it was a trip back to our belongings at the Spicy Thai hostel. With waterfalls, hot springs, geysers and mountains to explore, it promised to be an exciting ride.

Half of Chiang Mai's scooter rental stock outside the Spicy Pai hostel!

What we didn’t factor in was a speeding minibus driver who shot around a hairpin bend, running both Krys and I off the road.

Having skin on your elbows is overrated anyway…

The day had started well, although Liz tempted fate by asking to ride as my passenger as I looked to be a good driver, and it would give Krys a chance to ride on his own. I agreed, and we loaded up with our two bags and set off in convoy.

Up in the mountains

The weather was perfect- glorious sunshine, a gentle warm breeze and some of the most picturesque roads in the country made for a lovely day to be out on a bike. There were places where it struggled, purely with the weight of two people and all our belongings up some very steep stretches of roads in the mountains. We didn’t quite struggle as much as some of the lorries we got stuck behind, belching fumes and grit into our faces, but we forgot about that when we stopped at some of the sights.

Liz, Erin, Bryce and Krys take in the view

Lush, green, jungle-clad mountains contrast so well with beautifully clear blue skies, and some of the viewpoints and lookouts provided memorable views. We were on our way to tick off the geysers from our ‘to see’ list when disaster struck.

Jungles and mountains

The road to the geysers was more of a track off the main road. We’d just stopped off for a few minutes break at a small shop, and Bryce entrusted me with a bottle of locally made strawberry wine, which I put in my scooter’s drink holder. Then we tackled the road, and I immediately took it steady – patches of slippery sand, gravel and potholes meant it was a tricky road to navigate on two wheels. I was taking it relatively slowly – which is more than can be said for the driver of a silver minibus that suddenly just appeared right in front of us and on our side of the road.

He’d shot straight round a hairpin bend we were turning into, but veered out into our side of the road. Krys took evasive action in front of me, diving to the left out of the way of the minibus, but then stopping right in front of me. I took even more evasive action, pulled hard on both brakes, steered to the left, and that’s when I knew we were in trouble.

Not only had I run out of road, I’d gone straight into a sandy part of it at the edge. Everything then seemed to happen in slow motion – the front wheel locked and skidded, I saw it turn underneath the bike, there was a bit of a lurch through the steering, the bike went one way, I went another, and then I remember heading down towards the ground.

There was a thud. I hit it pretty hard. In the slow motionness that was still going on, I looked round to see Liz heading down towards the tarmac too. The scooter was resting on my leg, half sticking out of the undergrowth at the side of the road, engine still running. I checked if Liz was ok  – there were no tears, and more importantly, no blood from her. The strawberry wine was still intact too.

In my head my thoughts started to go around checking all my limbs. I could still feel everything, and I wasn’t in a great deal of pain. I stood up, and glared at the driver and his passenger. He looked sheepish. His passenger looked concerned.

My next concern was the bike – any damage and i’d be in trouble. Repairs are known to cost foreigners a lot in this country, mainly as it’s a good way for rental places to boost their coffers. Thankfully, nothing seemed broken. There were a few scratches on one of the plastic panels, and a bit on the footplate, but that was it.

Then I looked at my elbow – it was bleeding, and there was sand and grit stuck all over it where I’d momentarily slid on the tarmac. The same could be said for my knee.

We carried on and caught up with Bryce and Erin, who had started to wonder what had happened. They looked surprised when I showed them my arm, which by now had a trickle of blood running down it. We headed to a visitor centre at the geysers, and I ran my arm under a tap for a good 10 minutes to try to clean the wounds.

There were three deep cuts on my elbow, one of which was particularly deep, and was close to needing a stitch. Erin and Liz raided my cheap Tesco first aid kit I’d taken along with me (just incase!) and rubbed antiseptic cream and wipes all over it. I turned away and gritted my teeth. I think Liz offered me some sort of cloth to bite on.

The fuss over my arm meant I’d not realIy checked anything else, and then I found a bit of road rash on my chest from yet more gravel on the road. The girls used a whole roll of Band Aid tape to hold some antiseptic wipes in place as a makeshift bandage. Having alcohol permanently in contact with the cuts wasn’t the slightest bit comfortable, but with hours to go yet on the journey, it was the only thing we could do.

Scuffed up arm, taken the next day when I could laugh about it! (and it was much worse in the flesh, stupid camera!)

We went on to see the geysers, even though I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, and a bit guilty for injuring Liz too. She had a graze on her upper leg, but kept assuring me she was ok.

Hubble bubble...toil and scooter trouble to see this

The geysers bubbled and steamed away thanks to the red hot rocks below us. Thankfully the warm breeze was blowing the sulphury, eggy steam away from us, and we stayed for a good half an hour, being mesmorised by the constant noise and energy being emitted from deep within the earth. Bryce threw a rock into one, but sadly it wasn’t catapulted back out. They were by no means on a par with those i’ve seen in Iceland, but impressive to just come across as part of a national park in Thailand.

Geysers

Then it was time to get back on the scooter. My confidence had taken a massive knock, which was a shame because I’d absolutely loved the experience and felt totally in control. Sadly, as good a driver or rider you may be, you can’t do anything about the bad driving of others. I was just grateful I was driving slowly and carefully, otherwise things could have been much worse.

Waterfall on the way to Chiang Mai...i'm still covered in dust from my close examination of a road surface.

We took in another waterfall on the way back before arriving back into Chiang Mai that night. After a much needed shower to wash the rest of the dust and dirt off me, I felt a bit better, but knew I’d be sore for a while as it heals. And I knew I’d get a massive bruise on my leg too from where I landed, mainly as it had started to stiffen up and given me a limp.

Over a few drinks that night, I’d decided I wasn’t going to let the mishap put me off. The following day we agreed to go in search of Thailand’s highest point, Mount Doi Inthanon, a good 70km to the south of Chiang Mai but thankfully along good straight roads and hopefully away from speeding minibus drivers! When you fall off the horse, you’ve got to get straight back on and all that…

Our bikes knew where the good street food lived!

As usual, we started out late – too late in all honesty – but we were determined to at least make it to the national park the mountain is in. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, we had to stop for something to eat as we knew it would be a good couple of hours riding in each direction. Bryce spotted some smoke, and we dived off to the left and up at muddy ramp towards some wooden shacks. There was a barbecue on, and some particularly good looking sausages and mystery meat.

Bryce, Erin and some of the best street food we've had

I asked for a sausage and wanted to know how much.

“One kilo, 30 Baht,” the man said.

That was the equivalent of 60p. Surely not. Bryce looked in amazement at the price. It meant we could buy the whole barbecue for about £2, though I have no idea what we’d do with that amount of meat. Then the man’s assistant came over. Turns out it was 300 Baht for a kilo – about £6. Sometimes things get lost in translation. I’m just pleased I ordered one sausage!

Plastic bottles are so last year!

That’s when we tasted it – it was some of the best barbecued meat I’ve had. Erin got a portion of pork, and while a lot of it was fat, it was edible and very tasty fat! Between us we had the entire tray, I ordered another sausage to go, and with a bag full of Pepsi (they keep the glass bottles – interesting way to drink pop, but it works!) we were back on the road.

We found some really impressive waterfalls – the sheer noise and power of the water from a river falling over the edge of a cliff never fails to impress. The spray was drifting all over, and had made a walkway down the bottom really muddy, which in turn made Erin really muddy. With my stupid limp and not wanting to risk another fall in as many days, I stuck to the safer path.

Erin braving the mud

We then rode for 20 minutes to another waterfall, before deciding that we just about had enough time and daylight to head further into the park and towards the main mountain. After all, it’s Thailand’s highest point – we’d got this far, and if it meant riding home in the dark, then so be it.

More great views

The roads began to get steeper, and the engine on my scooter began to sound more and more like it was about to cut out. The higher we got, and with less oxygen in the air I’m presuming, the worse my scooter got. I had the throttle fully open, but could manage a measly 20km/hr in many places, meaning Bryce and Erin were constantly ahead of me. And then I noticed the fuel gauge. It was almost showing empty, and we were miles away from any kind of petrol station.

Still we climbed, and by now the air was getting cold. Thankfully my oversized hoody came in handy again – the extra long sleeves double up as gloves, and were much needed as the cold air blasted against my hands.

High up

After about an hour of climbing, we suddenly hit a bend in the road with an incredible view. With trees all around, we’d not quite realised just how much we’d been climbing, but suddenly the whole world was below us.

We carried on further, finding a viewing area with car parking space and a shop. It had a great view of the neighbouring mountains, and after a few quick photos, I had a more pressing need in the form of fuel for my scooter. A guy with a barbecued chicken stall came to the rescue, magically producing a container of yellowy liquid from behind the toilet block. I was hoping it was petrol.

Sun begins to set

He looked into my tank, swished it round and said I had enough to get back down the mountain. The only problem was, despite the sun beginning to set, we wanted to go further up the mountain, so with £1 handed over, he gave me a litre.

Hurrah!

After 15 arduous minutes for my struggling scooter, we made it to the very top, the highest peak in Thailand. There was a military installation with huge signs saying ‘No Photographs’, a sign marking the achievement of reaching the top, and a lot of trees blocking most of the view. We walked through them hoping to get a clear view of the sunset, but there wasn’t one. We took the decision to head back down to the initial bend we came across with a clear vista across the whole range.

Not a bad scenic road!

We arrived just in time. The sun was setting, the sky was a bright orange and pink colour, and it was perfect for a few memorable photographs. It was a great sense of achievement making it all the way to the top, and there was a similar buzz of excitement from the many other tourists who’d stopped alongside us to take in the view of yet another day coming to a close.

Erin and Bryce

Beautiful sunset from the top of Thailand's highest mountain

Except for us, there was still more to come. The ride back was thankfully trouble free, and waiting for us was Liz with our bags of washing she’d kindly retrieved from the laundry.

Last night with Liz, Bryce and Erin

It meant that it was our last night together. Downstairs in the hostel, everyone was already in good spirits after a good few hours playing drinking games around the table while we were out. We decided to do some serious catching up thanks to supplies of strawberry wine (!) vodka, Red Bull and Coke, and headed out to a nearby bar where we once again made friends with Mr Sang Som, the local whisky.

Sang Som...everyone's favourite Thai friend!

We had a brilliant night together, full of banter, laughs and chats about all the things we’d done together. Erin still maintained she hated Canada. Bryce still maintained Canada was better than America. Liz was Australian and so gave me lots of Pom abuse. I returned the favour. It was great fun.

This had to go in the blog!

Towards the end of the night, Sang Som clearly kicked in!

Early the next morning, we waved goodbye to Liz as she left at 8am to get her flight to Cambodia, where she’s spending the next few weeks. Bryce, Erin and I managed to give some newcomers a bright and cheery welcome as they tiptoed into the room, not long after Liz left, as they were trying not to wake anyone. Somehow, we were all wide awake and in really funny moods and had a good laugh between us and with them. Then we crashed out again, waking up at 11am with agonising hangovers. The Sang Som was obviously still in our systems early on. It’s a funny tipple that stuff!

I too needed to head off south. I’d spent far longer than I intended in Chiang Mai, and with only a few days left on my 14 day visa from the Laos land border, I needed to come up with a plan. In Pai, I’d made a huge decision to spend New Year in Thailand with Bryce and Erin at the New Year Full Moon party. It meant that I wouldn’t be in Sydney for new year, as was my original plan. I figured that I’d already experienced the fireworks around Sydney Opera House a few years ago, and that I felt there was still a lot I wanted to do in and around Thailand.

It was a sacrifice – the earliest flight I could get to Sydney from Thailand on my particular ticket wasn’t until January 29th. It means another month and a half in this amazing country, but plans to meet friends and celebrate with them in Australia would have to be put on hold.

The other problem is that I’d need to make a visa run to another country to renew my tourist visa. If you cross  by land, you get 14 days stamped in your passport, but if you fly into Thailand you get 30 days. It’s a bit of a pain, but means I need to leave the country, go somewhere and then fly back in. There are companies that will do visa runs for you, but it costs a lot of money and involves a trip to a Thai consulate somewhere and paying for a visa – about £60.

I figured that I needed to head south towards Malaysia, where there’s a border crossing, and the possibility of a visit to Kuala Lumpur. Its somewhere ive never been before, and if you have to leave the country, you may as well go and explore somewhere. I made my mind up, that’s where I was heading, and so rode my scooter to the railway station and booked an overnight train to Bangkok that night.

Newly coloured-in scooter said goodbye to the hostel!

On the way back I stopped off at a shopping centre. I needed some blue and black permanent marker pens – a little DIY patch up job was required on the scratches on my scooter in the hope I could make them less noticeable. If they had a Halfords over here, I’d have probably got a proper touch up paint kit, but as it happens, marker pens are equally as effective!

With my scooter coloured in, I donned my fleece and jeans in the mid afternoon heat to cover up my road rash scars (apparently they are giveaways to check the bike closely!) and sweltered my way back to the hire shop. As soon as my driving licence was back in my hand, I got out of there while the bike was still being given a once-over. I’d got away with it, minus a bit of skin here and there, but on the whole I was very relieved. I’m probably going to put my motorbike days behind me for a while and quit while i’m relatively ahead!

Back at the Spicy Thai I said goodbye to everyone and headed out to catch a taxi to the railway station. With an hour to spare before the train, I had plenty of time – or so I thought. Aside from the fact I managed to put my foot straight into a red biting ant nest while waiting to cross a road,  resulting in a very amusing funky chicken dance from yours truly for the scores of drivers waiting for a green light, there was not a taxi or tuk tuk in sight. When one did turn up, there was just 35 minutes before my train left. But the driver decided to pick up and drop off lots of locals first, before dropping the bag laden foreigner off for his train.

With just seconds to spare, a train guard ushered me in through a back carriage door, and a few moments later we began to move. It was far too close for my liking  -and I still had crushed ants all over my feet. But the stress was over, I was on my way to Bangkok. A week and a bit after the rest of my tour mates left me in the north, I too was heading back, and settled down for supper in the dining car.

A Slice of Pai

Fun with the elephants in Pai

Road trip time. A phrase that normally puts a smile on my face – time with friends, out in the big wide world, laughing and joking and usually going somewhere fun.

All the above applies here, but this wasn’t a comfortable swanny down the M1 to Alton Towers in the car. It wasn’t even going to be in a proper chair. Infact, it didn’t even involve four wheels. There were two. And an engine. And a seat that I keep sliding down on. For five hours.

Have two wheels (and a decent helmet), will travel

The furthest I’ve ever travelled on a motorbike before was down a coast road in Cyprus for 10 minutes with my brother on the back. This was a whole new ball game. Pai is a small town in the northern mountains, pretty much as close to Burma as I can get before the authorities kick me back into Thailand for being a journalist. Its 150km away from Chiang Mai, where I’m renting my little Honda scooter for the princely sum of £4 a day. I say little, but its actually 150cc – hardly a Harley, but for a novice like me, it half fills me with fear, half with excitement.

Erin and Bryce lead the way, Krys and Liz follow

I didn’t sell my ticket to Bangkok. My hand scrawled ad on the blackboard winks at me as I walk past with all my rucksack and belongings that were to stay in Chiang Mai on their own for a few days. We’d grabbed a few changes of clothes and found all manner of ways to cram them in and around the scooters, and at 1pm, we were ready to leave.

There were three bikes to go in convoy – the North American alliance of Canadian Bryce and American Erin on one, Australian duo Krys and Liz on another – Liz who had only arrived the night before and somehow got talked into joining us on the crazy trip – and lonely me who was to fly solo for the journey.

With routes checked and cross-checked on our Iphones, it was fairly simple. Straight on at the big lights, go for a kilometre or so, turn left at the hospital. We managed the ‘straight on at the big lights’ bit, but then it all went wrong. Mainly as Krys was in the lead and shot straight past the left turn near the hospital. I headed left. Bryce and Erin shot off into the distance in pursuit of the wayward Aussies.

Thankfully Bryce and I have Thai phones, so we co-ordinated a rendezvous point and after about half an hour, we were back on our way.

Fun on two wheels

It was my first proper experience of riding a motorbike, and despite all the worries, concerns, advice to be careful, thoughts of expensive medical bills and various encounters with people covered in scars and scabs from motorbike mishaps, I was finding it a lot of fun.

We’d rented some pretty decent scooters. They were good quality, relatively new and rode really well. After carefully starting off and winding my way through the traffic near the hostel, the roads opened up and we cruised along at a steady 45 to 50kmh. Eventually we met a turn off we needed north, the roads got quieter, and all of our confidence was picking up. Even Krys, who somehow wobbled his way out of the city without missing any more turns.

Bryce set himself out as a pace setter, leading the way and generally looking much cooler on a bike with Erin than I ever will. Nevertheless, I had a weight advantage, and on a particularly long, open, empty downhill part of the road, decided it was time to see exactly what the scooter could do. It’s a similar thing to what you always do when you get a new car – wait for a relatively safe bit of road, and then open up the engine. In much the same way that puts a smile on your face, so did this, and I shot past them both, feeling a very cheesey grin on my face, and loving the feeling of the warm wind in my face as the sun was beating down on us. It was great fun, and much easier than I anticipated.

Time for a breather

As we were all riding along at different speeds, and due to traffic through the many villages we passed through, we’d all get split up from time to time. Every half an hour whoever was in front would stop and wait for the others. After a couple of hours, our heads were sore from the helmets, and our backsides were numb, so we stopped for a while in a little village at the foot of the mountains we were about to climb. We knew we had to reach Pai by nightfall, mainly as the town is in a valley and we’d been warned to be off the mountain before it gets dark. We’d worked out that it was already 4pm and cutting it fine. The sun would be setting in an hour and a half, and we were still at least two hours away. Then along came a familiar face – it was Kit, one of the guys who runs the Spicy Thai hostel in Chiang Mai, and he was on his motorbike heading to Pai and the sister hostel with some supplies.

Filling up at the service station

Kit said he’d show us the way to the hostel, but said we’d need to fill up with fuel as the mountains can catch you out. He also said we needed to hurry up – so we asked one of the locals to fill us up with her roadside pump. I say pump, it was just a barrel of petrol with a measuring bottle attached which then lets the gas run into the nozzle. After paying just over £1 each, we were all topped up and on our way, winding our way up through the dozens of hairpin bends, looking down over huge swathes of jungle, watching the sun set and feeling the temperature plummet the higher we got.

Eventually we reached an army checkpoint at the top of the mountain. By now, it was getting dark and increasingly cold – our teeth were starting to chatter as the much cooler wind blew into our faces. While a change of clothes had helped, it still wasn’t enough.

Much of the last leg, thankfully, was downhill, although parts of the road were broken up or washed away by heavy rains. In the distance, the twinkly lights of Pai, and all four bikes rode in convoy up the gravel path to the Spicy Pai hostel. We’d made it – it took hours of riding, but what an adventure. It certainly beats the bus, along with all its relaxing chairs and air conditioned comfort – and it made us all feel like we’d achieved something. Taking our helmets off and checking in, we were the latest ‘pilgrims’ to make it to Pai on motorbikes, and there were some very familiar faces waiting to say hello to us in the dorms who we’d met in Chiang Mai. It meant we already felt at home – and what a strange home it was.

My first reaction got a laugh:

“Where are the walls?!” I said, searching for the last remaining spare bed in the dorm.

“It gets bloody cold at night,” came a voice from behind a mosquito net.

Made it in one piece

It was effectively a barn – an open one at that – but at least it had a roof of sorts made from leaves. Outside, raised bamboo walkways lead you to the toilet block (open to the elements) the communal area (open to the elements) and a neighbouring dorm (open…yep, you get the picture)

One of the dorms

All around was running water. We were in the middle of a paddy field, and I was in a bed that was a bit like being in a tree house. As bizarre as it was, it was just as exciting to stay in, and knew the next few days would be a good laugh. Bryce and Erin managed to bag a luxury villa. It had walls and everything. Amazing what luxuries you can live without if you put your mind to it – but for about £1.80 a night, I wasn’t complaining!

Paddy fields and pillows

We headed out for dinner at the Curry Shack and met up with Laura, a lovely girl from Birmingham who’s travelling for a while. She’d left Spicy Thai just before us and was part of the group who went to the zoo together. The Curry Shack was exactly that – one bloke, one shack, some herbs and spices and far from enough pots and pans. So much so, he came to tell us he couldn’t make anything for a while as he’d used all his pans and plates up.

Curry Shack...there wasn't enough brown rice for us all, hence two tones!

Bryce and I set out on a hunter-gatherer mission, in a vain search for popadoms. Instead we found samosas on a street stall, so stocked up and took them to the waiting table with a few large Chang’s from a local shop. Curry Shack man wasn’t happy – we thought he’d given us the nod to go sort ourselves out for a while before he cooked for us, but the noise of our beers hitting the table from elsewhere I think put his nose out a little. It turned out the samosas were filled with some sort of weird sweet filling anyway, and we made up for our faux pas by tipping him really well – and it put a huge smile on his face. After all, the curry was incredible, despite the fact he also ran out of rice, and incredibly cheap.

Random grafitti man in Pai

That night, it was “bloody cold”. I slept in my oversized hoody, jeans, two blankets, and still I was freezing. The morning walk along the bamboo path, jumping over muddy patches and being careful not to fall into the paddy field water on the way to the toilet block was definitely different! I met Erin and Bryce in the communal area. Apparently they were cold at night too. And they had walls and a solid roof.

Interesting breakfast menu...

The beauty of having transport is that you can really explore the area you’re in. After breakfast in the main street, we headed off on the scooters to find waterfalls. Pai is located in a near picture perfect valley. You wake up with mountains all around – it’s a bit like a ski resort town, but in the sun and without the ski lifts. There’s plenty of water too, and at Pambok Waterfalls we enjoyed cooling off in the crystal clear water along with the obligatory photo opportunity.

Pambok waterfall and gang

We headed off back to the hostel as the sun was setting, and already the temperature was dropping. The altitude of the town, along with the fact we were quite far north, means that the moment the sun goes its time to reach for a jumper. I wasn’t expecting to have to wear jeans and a hoody in Thailand, but I was glad I’d taken the advice of people at Spicy Thai and packed them.

It was still cold the following morning, and I woke up to see fog everywhere. We’d booked an elephant trek through the countryside, and I was worried we’d only see as far as a huge elephant backside in front if the fog didn’t lift. Thankfully it did, and we arrived at Thoms elephant home to find four elephants happily chewing on bananas and sugar cane. I’ve seen elephants in zoos as a kid, but its something else to be up so close and personal to one. One of the staff gave me a bunch of bananas and told me to hold them behind my back, and as I moved closer to the animal, its huge trunk wrapped around me as he went in search of the fruit in my hand.

Beautiful

They are incredibly huge, but surprisingly gentle. Its easy to be wary at first, as it feels so strange to be up so close to something so big, so heavy, and to the untrained eye, so unpredictable. Its massive feet could do some serious damage if you got in the wrong place, but I could tell these were amazingly intelligent animals too. I could see their eyes moving and watching me as I moved closer with yet another bunch of cane leaves. Beautiful.

I was allocated Ot, a 30 year old female, and Liz was also to ride with me. The first problem was trying to get on, especially for those who were a bit more vertically challenged than I am. Laura struggled a little, but it was amazing to watch how the elephant would lift its leg to form a step for her to stand on. Next it was my turn, and it felt strange being told to hang onto Ot’s ear and then pull myself up with a rope holding the matting onto her back. Ot moved her leg into a step position for me, I stood on it and with a bit of effort, managed to haul myself onboard.

With Liz on Ot in the countryside around Pai

First impressions – prickly, and incredibly boney!

There was a huge lump at the back, part of Ot’s spine, that sticks up right in the place where I was to sit for the two hour trek. I pulled Liz up too, and she sat in front of me, and with a shout from the mahout, Ot took her first lurching step out towards the road.

Going downill and clinging on!

With every step, the huge lump underneath me moved. Its far different to riding a horse – your legs are forced much wider apart, almost uncomfortably so – the elephant’s skin is hard and covered with prickly hairs that rub on your legs. But it was a great experience, and the scenery as the sun came out was fantastic.

Prickly!

We walked along a trail into the countryside. Every now and then, one of the elephants would spot something it wanted to eat at the side of the trail, grab it with its trunk and pull it out of the ground. Sometimes they’d spend too long trying to eat, and get a shout from the mahout riding on top. It was usually with a smile, and eventually we arrived at a river. We knew we were getting close, as the elephants got excited and started to walk faster. It was obviously a part of their day they loved.

Going...

We clung onto the rope and the matting as Ot stepped into the water before lowering herself down. Then, with a big swing of her trunk, she flung water all over us. It was brilliant – and a much needed cooling off for us and her as the sun started to burn.

...going...

Next the mahout shouted something, and suddenly Ot turned into a bucking bronco. Liz went straight away, down into the water below, while I managed to cling on. Then, with a particularly strong shake, I couldn’t hold on any longer and got thrown into the river. I swear when I resurfaced I looked into her eye and there was a cheeky glint in it!

Gone! And bathtime!

Ot was swishing her trunk around trying to cover herself with more water, so Liz and I gave her a hand, splashing and pouring water all over her head and back and giving her a rub and a bath. It was clear Ot loved it, blowing bubbles in the flowing river and treating us to a spray of our own with her trunk every minute or so.

Another facefull

The mahout beckoned me back on, and as soon as I was back on, there was more trunk spraying and shaking off. I think it was as much fun for us as it was for the animals.

After 20 minutes of playing with the elephants in the river, it was time to head back. We treated Ot to more handfuls of bananas and cane leaves when we got back, while we got treated to chicken and rice as we watched the elephants have their lunch.

Heading off

Drenched, but the smiles say it all!

We met a couple from Singapore who were touring southeast Asia on a motorbike – they seemed amazed that we’d tackled such a long trip on mopeds, and we swapped traveller tales over lunch.

Swapping biker stories over a big map!

That afternoon, as part of the day, we had a bamboo raft ride along the river for a few hours, before heading back to the elephant camp and saying our farewells to the animals. It had been a great day out, and we finished it off by watching the sun set over a nearby canyon.

Pai Canyon

With Liz, Erin and Bryce as the sun sets

That night was our last night together as a group. Laura was heading off to nearby Laos the following day, so we decided to head into town for dinner.

Scruffy and co...our friends in Pai

About halfway along the 15 minute walk, we were spotted and followed by Scruffy, a dog who had become a regular sight around the hostel. Nobody seemed to know whether he lived there or not, but he had a collar and he was called Scruffy for obvious reasons.

Most of the time he could be found relaxing around the paddy field or seeking strokes and attention in the communal area from fellow travellers, but somehow he would recognise the people he knew in the middle of the town. We’d been followed by him a couple of times, and he’d happily sit by us as we all ate before walking with us back to the hostel. A few little bits of chicken off a plate thrown in his direction every now and then kept him more than happy.

Scruffy

Suddenly, halfway down the main walking street, all hell breaks lose. A black and white dog appears from nowhere, attacks Scruffy and his mate, and somehow Scruffy came off worse. We saw him limping away. Erin was upset, and I felt sad that perhaps he’d followed us too far, into another dog’s territory, and got hurt.

We ordered dinner but we were slightly muted. I think we all had a bit of concern for poor old Scruffy, when suddenly Erin spots a familiar sight outside the restaurant. It was him – and somehow he knew where we were and was waiting for us! Erin went to see him and he followed her back in, complete with his limp. We treated him to a full plate of sausages, and he sat with us and walked with us for the rest of the night.

Scruffy even watched as we set off two Chinese lanterns into the night sky. It was a bit of a celebration of the brilliant week we’d all had together. We’d gone from complete strangers to being really close friends in such a short space of time, and it was sad that soon our time together would end.

Saying goodbye to Laura

We said a few words and wished each other well for our onward travels as the lanterns rose high into the brilliantly dark night sky. And as the lanterns rose, we saw shooting stars everywhere. There was a meteor shower that night, and we had perfect conditions to see it. Every few moments we’d all see another bright light streak across the sky, as our lanterns disappeared high above us. It was almost magical.

‘Tuk tuk sir?…

Aside

Fun in the mountains

There’s a familiar sense of being on my own once again. Walking out of Chiang Mai’s railway station, with the rest of my organised tour heading down the tracks to Bangkok, its back to fending for myself.

I’ve at least got Alissa, my tour mate from Canada, for company for a few days, but gone are the organised coaches, the advice and the worry-free world of having someone to get you from A to B.

The Spicy Thai...sounds like a restaurant and its a pretty good hostel

A in this case was the railway station, B was a hostel by the name of Spicy Thai that we’d both agreed to book on a recommendation by some people Alissa had met. As we rattled along the roads and around the city walls, we both spoke about our fears of the unknown once again. Through the smoke drifting from the roadside eateries, our tuk tuk blasted around another corner, our voices barely audible above the engine, clearly working hard with the weight of us and all of our luggage. It includes a box of Christmas presents for Alissa’s family back in Canada, which many of us have had a hand in carrying from time to time since it first appeared in Laos. ‘Boxy’ is its name, apparently.

“We’ve got to make new friends again,” I say to Alissa.

It’s a strange thing arriving at a new hostel. You know absolutely nobody, and so the first few hours are often crucial. Go in over-friendly and sure of yourself and you come across as a bit of a pillock. Hide away too much, and you could be seen as a bit of a recluse. It’s a fine balance, but its becoming a familiar cycle now. You always arrive as a ‘newbie’, relying on advice from those who have been there for a few days, but within a couple of days, people come and go and suddenly people are coming to you as the ‘veteran’ of the hostel for advice. Then you move on and the cycle starts all over again.

Tonight we arrived at the hostel to find a few people sat outside drinking a few beers. Unloading all of our rucksacks from the tuk tuk – not forgetting boxy – a few of them shouted over for us to join them for a drink once we’d chucked everything inside. Its always nice to be made to feel welcome from the start.

The hostel seemed very homely. It’s the former home of the US ambassador that’s been converted into dorms, located in one of the smartest parts of the city. Its actually in the middle of an upmarket residential housing estate, and there’s a very Western feel about it. Inside there’s a huge plasma tv, cinema system, sofas, dining table and photographs everywhere on the walls of previous residents having fun in the various places around the area.

I went to the fridge, marked my name on the honesty chart and took an ice cold Chang for Alissa and I and went to join the guys outside. There were two Australians and a few others, and by the sound of it they were all going to see some Muay Thai boxing in a couple of hours. It was clear everyone’s had a few beers, but it was also clear the two Australian’s were incredibly annoying – they were very young, and I have to say it showed. With a particularly stupid hat, they thought they were cock of the walk, trying to make jokes, trying to be funny, being loud, being crude. They seemed to have a gaggle of people who thought they were hilarious however, and there was a bit of a clique.

Hmm, street food decisions

Thankfully we met a guy called Gaylan, a farmer from the States, who took it upon himself to show Alissa and I to the main street and point out where the main places to eat and drink were nearby. We opted for street food, and I discovered the incredibly tasty Chiang Mai sausage, which is basically heaven in a sausage. Its no Lincolnshire banger, don’t get me wrong, but when you’ve not had a good sausage for a while, the meaty, spicy, tasty, lemongrass-infused morsel I picked up for 20p was just the ticket. I had two, followed by an equally good tub of Phad Thai noodles. In total, dinner cost me just under £1.

Nom!

The next few days were spent relaxing after such a hectic few weeks on the road. Blogs were uploaded, there was a trip to the mall to pick up boring things like shampoo, Alissa’s ‘Boxy’ began its journey from the post office to Ottawa and the two Australians continued to be loud, immature and obnoxious. It made me wonder if the hostel was the right place for me – it was nice enough, but some of the people were irritating to say the least. It’s a hazard of the backpacking world in that you have to live in close proximity with people like that sometimes. In any case, my train ticket was booked back to Bangkok in a couple of days time, so I wouldn’t have to put up with them for long.

Spicy Thai meal trip to Chiang Mai's Riverside restaurant

One of the good features of the Spicy Thai hostel is that it fosters a family atmosphere, and the night before Alissa left, everyone went for a really nice meal at the Riverside bar in the city, on the banks of the river. Speaking to a few others, it became clear I wasn’t the only one who was a bit fed up with some of the young Australian’s antics…but the word on the street is that they leave tomorrow.

Sure enough, they did, albeit after drunkenly waking the entire hostel at 2am after snapping their key in the back door lock, banging and shouting until Alissa reluctantly marched out of our ground floor dorm and let them in with a huff! But within one day, the entire dynamic of the hostel changed. It seemed to become much friendlier, much more relaxed and I got speaking to some really nice people. One of them was Bryce, another Canadian, who was in the bed next to mine. We’d got talking while clinging onto the back of the hostel pick-up on the way to the restaurant, and it turns out he’s a software programmer in the world of online poker.

Anyone know a good solicitor?!

Alissa’s last day soon came around, and we agreed to do something together that was a bit different – so we went to prison!

Chiang Mai women’s prison runs an excellent rehabilitation scheme for inmates, whereby they are taught how to perform Thai massage in return for payment, which goes into a kitty for them when they are released. It’s a true ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ situation, though I’m hoping mine will be massaged rather than scratched.

Cell Block H was empty

We arrived outside the main whitewashed walls and gates to the prison, complete with its rolls of barbed wire and lookout posts nestled between the trees. The massage suite isn’t actually inside the main complex, but instead in a very pleasant building across the road. Inside there’s the fragrant smell of lavender and about eight or nine people laying on beds being moved and manipulated into a variety of positions.

I’ve never had a Thai massage before and so didn’t really know what to expect or how much it would hurt (massages always hurt, especially with a back like mine -more knots than a Scouts’ rope course) I have no idea what the women are in prison for, although I can’t imagine the authorities letting mass murderers loose on a predominantly touristy clientele, but in any case they’ve done something wrong and I had some quite expensive gear with me. They’d obviously thought of that, and provided lockers, but instead I decided to keep my camera with me to record the moment. Infact, I went one step further – I asked one of the inmates to take a photo of Alissa and I once we’d changed into the slightly unflattering massage outfit.

Fetching outfits for a prison

It was then I realised how long away from society this particular inmate had potentially been. She seemed to have very little idea how to use a digital camera, looking for the viewfinder (it hasn’t got one, just an lcd screen) and then almost dropping it as she tried to work out how to take a photo. She worked it out with a bit of help, and she seemed delighted when I showed her the end result. Its easy to forget that outside of the massage building, these women are subject of some of the most punishing and harsh prisons in the world, far away from any form of modern technology.

The massage started with a foot wash, and my now dirt-ingrained feet after weeks of flip-flopping around Asia are not a sight for sore eyes. I could almost sense her revulsion, and I’m sure she detected more than a hint of embarrassment from me, as she grabbed a second helping of soap and tried to keep her eyes away from my dried-up, dirty size 10s.

Patted down with a towel, I was then moved to a bed where I laid down and was told to relax. It started with my feet being massaged and pulled around, each toe individually cracking, my ankle being rolled around for a while, joints being bent in directions they don’t normally bend. Then it was up the legs, her hands kneading away into my muscles, stretching my knees and she was intent on trying to pull my upper thigh bone out of its socket.

My arms were next, followed by the cracking of all my fingers and knuckles. If at first she failed to get a good noise out of my limbs, I could almost sense her disappointment and she’d just work harder at it, not letting go until my bones had been freed within. Its was strangely enjoyable – I admit, I was half on edge most of the way through, worried about what procedure would come next. And it was for good reason, as suddenly she starts crawling over my back and putting my legs into some sort of lock position between hers.

“Push up,” she tells me, threading her arms through mine and around the back of my head, so my hands are kind of waving in the air. I’m totally immobile now, so if she was the wayward mass murderer that slipped through the net, now was her chance.

She pulled me up from the bed, cracking something in my lower back. For a minute I think it could be broken.

The next thing I know she’s got my whole body resting on her feet and I’m almost doing an inverted crab above her. It really wasn’t comfortable. Something probably should have clicked that hadn’t and she was determined to make it pay. She pulls down on my arms while gripping my legs. I’m wondering if wrestling is a favourite pastime in the cells.

Crunch. Something gives. She tells me to sit up.

I’m now put into a position that makes me look like a human corkscrew, my arms again weaved between hers. I knew this was the finale. This was the biggie that she’s been working up to for an hour. I wondered if I’d walk back out of the door, or get wheeled out.

She swings my arms slightly from side to side. Once. Twice. Arrrrghhhh.

After being pummelled

In one big move, the whole of my upper body was twisted round, and I’m sure every joint that connects every bone in my back cracked simultaneously. It wasn’t painful as such, just a bit of a shock. In one go, weeks of rucksack carrying, trekking through cities and sleeping awkwardly were cracked out of my back. It did feel like it had done some good, and for just over £3, I walked out feeling like I had done something good too.

Plus, I can tick off ‘Thai Prison’ from my to do list. Thankfully, it was the right reasons!

An hour later, Alissa was undoing the good work by slinging her backpack on and running to catch a taxi for her train to Bangkok.

Bye Alissa!!

I waved her off and returned to the hostel, where I chatted to Bryce for a while. Someone near reception was talking about spicy pies for some reason, and excitedly singing ‘spicy pie, spicy pie, we’re all going to spicy pie’ to the tune of the spider pig song in the Simpsons. It must be a decent pie restaurant nearby.

There was a lunar eclipse across Asia that night, and I kept myself entertained in the front garden with a few others trying to find the right setting on my camera that enabled me to get a good shot. I used my mini tripod to get a couple of decent-ish pictures that I put out on Twitter. One was selected to be used on a website somewhere that was nice, and I had a message to say another was being used on Twitter as a ‘top image’. Picked up a few new followers as a result.

Total lunar eclipse across Asia

Everyone watched Hangover 2, based in Bangkok, that night, and a group of us arranged to go to Chiang Mai Zoo the following day. It would be my last full day in Chiang Mai, so I needed to do something, but there was a part of me feeling like I’d not quite seen all I needed to see. Then I was told about Spicy Pai, a sister hostel in a town to the north amid mountains, waterfalls and beautiful scenery. It also explained the spicy pie song.

Pai was a place a few people had mentioned but I’d not really paid much attention. I’d never heard of it, and it only had a small section in my Lonely Planet, so it can’t be that good (!) Even so, there were a steady stream of people hiring mopeds and making the five hour journey up there. Over breakfast before the zoo, a few people were talking about Pai as if it was some kind of northern Thailand utopia. It started to make me think. I really wanted to go see some elephants in Chiang Mai, but the high cost had put me off. Back to the Lonely Planet, and the small section on Pai did include the fact there was a popular elephant place, where you can take elephants to the river, wash them, play with them and generally have a brilliant time. The best bit was, it’s a fraction of the price.

The only problem was my already changed rail ticket can’t be changed again. But my mind was made up – it did sound like a great place to visit, and for the sake of another £14 rail ticket, it was worth it to make the saving on the elephants. I advertised the train ticket on a blackboard in the hostel, and got ready for the zoo.

Baby elephant with a banana skin phobia

There was a good group of us that visited the zoo, a few from the UK, Bryce from Canada, Erin from the States and a guy called Graham, a Tranmere Rovers fan with whom I talked a while about Grimsby Town’s misfortune over the years.

Awww!

As zoos go, Chiang Mai’s was really good. I’m still not a fan of animals in pens, but on the whole they seemed to have a fair bit of space and seemed happy. The highlights were the number of elephants that were dotted around, and you could buy fruit and vegetables to feed them. I bought some bananas to feed to one of the baby elephants, who in one nifty manoeuvre managed to stand on the edge of it to take the skin off. I then stood and peeled each banana for it so it didn’t have to do it itself, much to the amusement of the group who were watching.

Monkeys with guns?! Must be gorilla warfare... (its an illusion...was its arm!)

Other highlights included the tigers that you could buy meat for to feed through the bars, admittedly with a long pole to save you losing any digits, and the pandas were good to see, although they didn’t do much other than sleep, which I guess is what pandas are famous for.

One half of Chuang Chuang and Lin-Hui, the giant pandas

One of the funny things at the zoo was the fact a 7-Eleven shop had managed to find itself within the park. They’re absolutely everywhere in Thailand, but to find one amid the ostriches and deer was strange.

Ostrich didn't have far to go for his groceries

Even so, it was a good place to buy some cheap sandwiches – but quite how cheap was revealed at the monkey enclosure. I’d plumped for a pork and mayonnaise sandwich, which was disgustingly sweet and slightly strange tasting. The monkeys were beckoning a few people to throw them fruit and food, and with a lack of bins around, I threw a small bit of my sandwich to one particularly greedy monkey that was at the front. He caught the rolled-up sarnie, took a taste, looked at it, spat it out and threw it into the surrounding moat – complete with the same expression I had pulled when I first tasted it!

The other half of the famous giant pandas at the zoo

On the way back to the hostel, Bryce asked how we were getting to Pai. He said he’d be interested in going if we took scooters and had a road trip. With a few nods in the back of the taxi, there was an agreement. Krys, an Australian guy, Bryce, Erin and I agreed we’d make the trip as a group, and we’d investigate the cost in the morning.

Chiang Mai Walking Street...and time for Christmas shopping

That night I went to the walking street market and spent hours looking around buying a few Christmas presents for my family back home. It was mainly light, postable gifts – hand dyed silk scarf for mum, Angry Birds t-shirt for my brother, stupidly daft handmade elephant slippers for dad (well, Christmas isn’t Christmas without slippers!) along with a few clever, and very pretty, hand carved soaps that I knew probably wouldn’t make it back in one piece but I figured was worth a try. I found some really nice handcrafted Christmas cards too on one stall, and with a bit of wrapping in the hostel that night – out of newspaper as wrapping paper just isn’t available here – they were wrapped and ready to post back home with a few other clothes to try to lighten my ever increasing load on my back.

With waterfalls and a mountainous trip to look forward to the next day, it was an earlyish night. Pai was calling.