Thai-me to say Goodbye

A final night on the Khao San Road

Grubby, dirty and in need of a shower after a long hot day being covered in grime in a third class carriage to Bangkok, I arrived on the Khao San Road in need of a place to stay.

I’d already told myself that it didn’t matter where I ended up. Time was of the essence – it was already 8pm and I wanted one more night of taking in the sights and sounds of Thailand’s most famous street.

This way for noise, cheap Chang t-shirts and beer

Normally I’d have a wander around, searching for the best value and usually cleanest place to stay. Tonight, my rulebook went out of the window. I simply didn’t care – I was so sweaty and dirty from the train, I just needed somewhere with a decent shower, even if it was the first place I found.

In the end, it was, as I turned off the main street into one of the alleyways which snake around and inbetween this hedonistic area. The Marco Polo guesthouse was pretty much the first place I set eyes on that had rooms available, and parting with 450 Baht (£9) I secured a hot shower, a bed, even the luxury of air conditioning. What it didn’t stretch to was a window, carpets, power sockets or any form of cleaning.

Taken from Marco Polo hostel website, but this is what my room looked like, minus the 'interesting' towel arrangement!

After a quick shower and change, I was back on the street within an hour of pulling into Bangkok on the train. There’s little I can do to accurately describe the Khao San Road – everywhere you look there are people selling things, eating things, drinking things. The noise fills your ears, the smells stay stuck in your nose, and the sight of people of dubious genders cavorting around in doorways is one that leaves lasting imprints on the mind. But its all part of the charm of the street, and it has to be said, the whole area feels incredibly safe despite the drink-fuelled activities of most of the people wandering around.

Hustle and bustle on the Khao San

I decided I would spend my final night in Thailand at the place where my love of the country first began last May, at an Irish pub roughly halfway down the main strip. Its where my friend Cat and I first had a beer and a meal after I’d arrived from London, and I remembered having a green curry and talking about my journey over. Tonight, Liverpool were playing and the place was full of football fans. I pulled up a chair, ordered a beer and a green curry and watched as the Reds beat Man United in the FA Cup.

The first place I ate on the Khao San Road in May 2011...and a fitting place for my last dinner in Thailand

The curry wasn’t brilliant – clearly mass produced and fairly bland compared to some of the great food I’d had in recent weeks, but then most people around me were already destined for heavy Changovers the next day, so food standards were probably a low priority. Besides, with such a great result, it was going to take more than a poor curry to take the smile off my face!

I took myself for a walk around the street, admiring the incredible range of goods available. Armani clothes, Calvin Klein pants, Tiffany jewellery and any DVD you could think of – all fakes of course – but a fine accompaniment to the knock-off driving licenses, student ID and university course qualifications that were proudly displayed by one resourceful vendor.

It really does seem you can find almost anything you can imagine on this street, but there is also a brilliant atmosphere. It’s the bustling, noisy, slightly dirty tourist mecca that you see depicted in films like the Hangover, but it has a charm all of its own.

Khao San Road from above

There would be no all-night partying for me down the Khao San though – after completing a relaxing walk around the whole area, including bringing some fond memories back with a visit to the place where my tour group first met back in November, I went to bed relatively early as I had an important job to do the next day.

Bringing back memories of meeting new friends - the place where I first got to know my tour mates!

I needed the Thai whizzkids to fix my iPhone yet again, after it shut down on its own accord in Koh Lanta and went into a permanent sleep. I could understand why, as Koh Lanta was by far one of my most relaxing stops, but if I could drag myself from a semi-permanent hammock-induced slumber, I was sure as hell my phone could do the same. Up early, I wanted to be at the shops for the time they opened at 9am, but decided to head to an official Apple store first. I asked the reception guy where it was in the following exchange.

Me: “I don’t suppose you know where there is an Apple store do you,”

Reception man: “Erm, yes, actually there’s one nearby, but you need to go to the end of Khao San Road first and turn right and you’ll see it.”

Me: “Ok, and how far,”

Reception man: “Oh, not far, about five minutes walk.”

Me (wondering how I’d not seen it before now): Ok, is it a big place and will I see it ok?

Reception man: “Yeah, its huge, its got a big sign above it,”

Me (feeling happy) “Oh, great – and its an official Apple store?”

Reception man: “Oh yes, they have lots of apple, pineapple, watermelon, things like that.”

Part of me wishes I had made that up, but no. Even a guy sat on a chair nearby struggled to hide his laughter, before telling me an official Apple store was about as common as cockerel eggs in Bangkok.

MBK Shopping Centre. Massive...and closed!

By 9am, I’d pulled up in a taxi ready for the doors to open at the MBK shopping centre. Except, for reasons I’ve not looked into, the shops don’t open until 10am on weekdays. It meant a sticky hour’s wait in what was already shaping up to be a scorcher of a day.

My search for a whizkid was in vain – it turns out something major has gone wrong with the phone, so I’ll be without it for a while yet. Having sent the backup that my dad got me the first time it conked out home in a box from Vietnam, I bought yet another Samsung cheapie. Smartphone it isn’t, but it’ll let me ring the ambulance if the weight of my rucksack pulls me over in front of a bus.

Khao San Road by day

With just enough time to buy the obligatory Chang vest top and a Bangkok City t-shirt from one of the street sellers on the Khao San, it was time to get myself out of Thailand and on my way to Australia.

It had been a brilliant few months in southeast Asia. Somehow almost three months had flown past, but it was three months full of brilliant highlights. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, watching it set again in a countless array of colours over the horizon, taking in the scenery and culture of Vietnam, the mountains and jungles of Laos and the beautiful islands of Thailand.

Of course, the brilliant fun at two Full Moon parties, getting injured while tubing in Vang Vieng, running over dogs on a Cambodian bus and umpteen nights out fuelled by various local beverages were some of the lighter moments shared with so many new friends, who for just a few hours, a few days or, in some cases, a couple of weeks, became close mates, people you could share a beer, crack a joke, have a prank with and generally share some amazing memories with.

Southeast Asia has quickly become one of my favourite parts of the world, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend so long in these parts to take in the culture, to experience the food and to immerse myself in life here. It never ceases to surprise, and infact, that is all part of the fun. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner, what you will see at the next set of traffic lights, who you might witness breaking all manner of health and safety, or should I say, common sense rules. Be it a live pig on the back of a motorbike, a bloke clinging to the side of a bus, a family of six crammed onto a moped or a set of fireworks being set off amid a crowd of people. It raises eyebrows, it might leave you feeling a little unsafe at times, but somehow everyone survives, nobody gets hurt and you can’t help but smile and laugh.

Perhaps that’s the secret to the famous Thai smile? The Thai people are by far the friendliest, most welcoming, funny, hospitable and smiley people I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s to do with their easy going, ‘anything goes’ way of life? You won’t find anyone here monitoring your parking, eagerly sticking a fine on you for being a centimetre over a white line or overstaying your parking by a couple of minutes. Speed cameras are unheard of, as are speed limits on the whole. They’d laugh at the prospect of people being charged for the weight of their rubbish bin, and there seems to be a general lack of those people with the ‘jobsworth’ mentality we have become so accustomed to back home.

Or maybe its just because they have been blessed with one of the most stunning, sun-drenched and beautiful places to live in the world, dining on some of the tastiest natural foods the planet has to offer?

Fully laden on the Khao San Road and heading out of Asia

I’ll miss Thailand, its people and the whole region in general. I’ll definitely miss the £1 beers and £2.50 meals. I’ll also miss the ‘Tinglish’ translations and the occasional comedy sign. As a final tribute to them, here’s a couple of my favourite I found along the way.

Jewelly shop

Im presuming this is a sign for the gents....

Another bit of toilet humour!

Bit of blue for the dads!

A little bit of home...

My flight to Sydney is with British Airways, on a flight which has just arrived from London. Its effectively a refuel stop for the aircraft, but onboard I could almost smell home.

Onwards and upwards

It was full of Brits all heading off for holidays or to see family, the staff were cheery and it felt reassuringly familiar onboard. After months of foreign trains, boats and planes, it was nice to kick back and relax, with a whole load of English films and entertainment.

As I settle into my seat, the engines spool up and we taxi away from the terminal. Its got pretty overcast all of a sudden, which matched my mood. Having spent six weeks in Thailand, somehow it still didn’t feel like enough time – I felt like I had still just scratched the surface. But it won’t be going anywhere fast, and I watch out of the window as the jumbo jet lifts off the ground and Thailand begins to fall beneath me.

Goodbye Thailand

Finally my feet have left mainland Asia for good on this trip, but as one part of the adventure draws to a close, another is only beginning. I fall asleep watching a lightning storm raging over Indonesia below me, and a few hours later I wake up in Sydney with a whole new set of experiences waiting for me Down Under.

Moving further round the globe

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Bridging the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

With just 49 hours to go before my flight out of Thailand, I find myself at one of the most famous bridges in the world.

While the Humber Bridge might just be the closest bridge to my heart, with us sharing the same birthday give or take a couple of hours, it isn’t a patch on the Bridge over the River Kwai in terms of historical significance.

I’m in Kanchanaburi, about 150km northwest of Bangkok and close to the border with Burma. It’s the proximity to the secretive country which saw the area become a vital supply line for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Having endured a tiring 25-hour journey from the south, the overnight delays and sleeping rough on a bench had taken its toll, but there was no time for a snooze in the little floating room I’d found on the river.

With just two hours to see the main sights before sunset there was only one thing I could do to squeeze them all in, so I hired a motorbike and at 4pm set off around the town taking in as many sights as I could, starting with the famous bridge.

It was built to carry the Thailand – Burma railway as a way for the Japanese empire to get supplies into the north, and to help keep pressure off the sea routes, which until the railway’s construction were the only way of getting supplies through. It followed on from the occupation of Singapore and Malaysia, and the consequent surrender of thousands of British and allied troops that were unable to keep the enemy troops at bay.

As a result, thousands of allied soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by Japan, and forced to work on construction projects that would help their own war effort. Years of hard labour, under nourishment, disease, torture and beatings by the Japanese took their toll, especially in the construction of the railway. It had been dismissed years earlier by British experts as an impossible task, mainly because of the dense jungle which covered much of the route, mountains, marshes and countless rivers which would have to be crossed. But they wouldn’t have had the manpower that Japan now had control of, and set upon the huge project. More than 16,000 allied troops lost their lives in the process, mainly British and Australian – and as a result, it became known as the Death Railway.

A map of the Burma-Thailand railway

In total, about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the 415km railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers died, along with 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.

They are staggering numbers, and mainly due to the forced labour conditions – brutal treatment by the Japanese, malnourishment, injuries and falls in construction and disease, which was rife throughout the POW camps, made worse by a lack of medicine and treatment.

The famous bridge

As a bridge, its fairly unremarkable but instantly recognisable, its curved black steel spans joining two angular stretches across the river. Of course, the bridge was made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s a long time since I’d seen it. Besides, there are many people who say its completely unrealistic, and infact fails to portray the true horrific treatment of the prisoners by their captors during the construction period.

Between the rails

Arriving on my scooter, I found a bridge swarming with tourists, mainly European and Japanese tour groups who had arrived on a fleet of coaches from Bangkok. Surprisingly, despite it still being an operational railway bridge, you are free to walk across and spend time on the tracks. While it has got a solid appearance, it still feels rickety, with huge gaps between the wooden planks holding up the rails, the scores of bright t-shirt-wearing tour groups and their umbrella touting guides, me, and the occasional train.

On the Bridge on the River Kwai

I spent time looking at its construction, thinking of the prisoners who had tightened up the thousands of bolts and the conditions they must have been working under. I know the bridge was also bombed by the US and RAF air forces during and after its construction, which also led to the deaths of many POWs. It was a long way down to the fast flowing river below, and records show many fell to their deaths while trying to build the bridge. The fact it still stands now, and in full use, is probably the best tribute to their horrendous work.

Dodging trains

I walked to the far side of the bridge and was looking at a guard post when suddenly I heard a familiar horn in the distance. It was a train – and I was slap-bang in the middle of the track. Thankfully, I knew the trains slow to a crawl to pass over the bridge, but sure enough the locomotive appeared behind me. I ran down the track back to the main spans of the bridge so I could get some photos, and dived into a refuge area.

The safe area still left you dangerously close to hundreds of tonnes of train as it slowly made its way over the river on its way to Bangkok, complete with yet more tourists hanging out of the windows, pointing cameras and smiling as they pass. I’m hoping to make the journey myself the following day, but even now I’m still unsure whether I will have time.

I followed the train back off the bridge and made my way towards a nearby museum, right next to the bridge and at the site of the first wooden bridge that was built across the river before the main metal construction was finished. It was called the World War II and Jeath War Museum, for which I paid 40 Baht to enter (80p). It was possibly the most surreal museum I have ever been into, and when it comes to first impressions, an exhibit of televisions through the years just didn’t seem to fit somehow.

Odd

It wasn’t the only quirky addition to the exhibits. The models of people were bizarre, most of the displays were covered in layers and layers of dust, there was no particular link or explanation for most of the things you could look at, and a set of ‘life size’ main characters from the war were actually laughable…

Madame Tussauds is worried

If it wasn’t such an awful subject to be trying to educate myself about, most of the museum was laughable.

A bit weird

There was a scene depicting one of the bombings of the bridge, complete with cartoon-style paintings of aircraft, and possibly one of the best Thai-English ‘Tinglish’ translations I’ll ever see. ‘Bodies were laying higgledy piggledy’ apparently. I guess it helps to paint a picture of the scene.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for long – not just because it was slightly disappointing, but mainly because the sun was beginning to set.

The sun goes down

I still had one more place to visit, the cemetery where some 6,000 British and Australian troops were buried after succumbing to their treatment in the construction of the Death Railway. Row upon row of headstones with familiar names – Smiths, Hills, McCalls, Norths – complete with their regiment badges and ages, mainly in their 20s or early 30s, who had once been in southeast Asia but were never to return home.

War graves in Kanchanaburi

The grounds are well manicured and clearly looked after and regarded highly by the Thai community around here. Infact, my cyclo rider who had found me accommodation on the river just a few hours earlier even gave the cemetery a nod as he cycled past earlier. He didn’t know much English, but he did say “Brave men” as we passed. Brave men indeed.

With night falling, I headed back to my accommodation on the river and watched as the sky went the most amazing red as the sun set behind the distant mountains. My room was an experience in itself – its actually a floating bedroom, with the river Kwai flowing underneath. Every now and then, a boat will go past causing the whole place to gently sway as it bobs over its wake. Its actually quite relaxing, if slightly strange – and feels like you’re on a boat rather than in a hotel room.

Sunset on the Kwai

Back in the restaurant, and being near Burma, I decided to sample a Burmese chicken curry that I found on the menu. The owner, and cook, it has to be said, did warn me its quite hot, but it was too late. Most of the people around me had heard me order it, so I couldn’t chicken out now (no pun intended) and then spent approximately half an hour trying to consume what was by far one of the hottest curries I’ve ever had to tackle. I managed it – just –  but at least the time between mouthfuls of iced Coke and curry gave me time to think about my next move.

The bridge by night

I know I have to be in Bangkok in 24 hours time, as I really want to spend one last night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Khao San Road. I also want to make it to Hellfire Pass, another famous part of the Death Railway. I also want to travel across the Kwai bridge on a train, adding to my railway themed trip so far. It seemed an impossible task. I spoke to the owner and cook, who had a bit of a smirk on her face after making me a chilli fest for tea, and asked if it was possible.

“You’ll need to be up early,” she said

“You can get to Hellfire Pass in time for an hour there before the last direct train back to Bangkok leaves,” she explained.

My first thought was ‘how early’.

“There’s a group leaving here at 5.45am on a taxi to the bus station. Then theres a bus around 6.30am that goes north to the Burma border. It passes Hellfire Pass. It’s the only way.”

Its early, but a necessity. With a basic calculation of two hours for the journey, it should get me to the Hellfire memorial centre for about 9am, giving me a few hours to take it in before somehow making my way  back to Nam Tok and catching the 1.15pm train. It would, however, mean taking all my rucksack, backpack and belongings with me.

Trying desperately not to press snooze, I dragged myself out of my floating bed and into the floating shower at about 5.30am. Outside, dawn was breaking and a tuk tuk was waiting. I was joined by three women heading back to Bangkok for their flights home, but we were all too tired to talk properly. At the main bus station, I was ushered onto one of the local buses – it’s a no frills affair, but at least I’ll be moving soon.

Wrong.

After 20 minutes of waiting on an empty bus, I leaned on my bag and fell asleep. I woke up again at 8am – and we still hadn’t moved. There were a few more people onboard, but there were no signs of us heading anywhere. Back to sleep again, having now mastered the art of grabbing sleep wherever and whenever you can, and another hour later the engine started.

The bus was packed – it had been waiting for a full load, as is often the case in Thailand, rendering my early start pointless. After three hours of being asleep on the bus in a station, it was finally on the move, but my time at Hellfire Pass had been drastically cut short.

The other slight problem was the language barrier on the bus. It might have only cost me the equivalent of 50p, but the conductor had no idea what I had asked for. I also had no idea where I was heading or what to look for. I was the only foreigner on the bus, packed with families and kids heading to various parts of north west Thailand. Completely off the beaten track, I was on my own and battled to keep my eyes open on the swelteringly hot bus as it rocked its way along the mountainous roads north. I noticed that when people want to get off, they simply shout out and they get dropped at the side of the road. A conductor then bellows a weird noise to the driver when he’s clear to get going again, before he does a little run alongside the bus and jumps on the steps at the back.

I passed through Nam Tok, a town where I need to be later to catch my train, so I knew I was near. We were cruising along and I was taking in the scenery when we passed a military post with some flags flying. Then I saw a small sign with something written in English on it. I quickly looked back – was that the Hellfire Pass centre?

I suddenly woke up from my half dozing trance and called back to the conductor.

“Hellfire pass?” I asked, quizzically, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He just made his weird noise, and suddenly the packed bus came to a halt. If it wasn’t my final destination, all this was about to become very embarrassing, but it was too late. My bag had already been thrown into the dirt at the side of the road, and whether I was right or wrong, I was getting off the bus!

Hellfire Pass Memorial Centre

Thankfully, it was the right place, albeit with a sweaty bag-laden hike around some military outpost to the memorial behind. Its actually run and part funded by the Australian government in memory of all the allied soldiers who lost their lives here. I stumbled in to the blissfully airconditioned reception amid strange looks from tour visitors who wondered whether I had somehow walked all the way here with my bags.

Into the cutting

The lady at reception was nice enough to look after all my belongings for me, but warned me I only had an hour, or an hour and a half tops, if I wanted to make the 1.15pm train.

The museum was brilliantly laid out. A video on entry shows some of the horrendous work that went on during the war in the Asia Pacific region, including footage of the railway being laid by emaciated prisoners. Gradually, with the help of a great audio guide featuring some of the soldiers who were forced to work in the area, the story about the Death Railway, and in particular, Hellfire Pass, is explained.

Amid the details of how earth and rock were broken by shovels and picks, of how embankments of stone and soil were heaped up by human hands, and how bridges were formed using wood from the surrounding jungles, there is one site that stands out – and I am at it.

Konyu Cutting was the hardest, most difficult part of the railway to construct. It was effectively a solid rock mountainside – a mountain the railway somehow had to negotiate. Of course, trains can’t go up or down steep gradients, and so they had to go through the mountain. In peacetime, a tunnel would be dug – but the Japanese realised that there would only be two points of construction at either end if that was the method of negotiating the mountain. Instead, they realised they could force prisoners to chisel their way down through the rock, making a passageway for the trains to pass through.

Hellfire Pass

The brutal conditions, the backbreaking work, the lack of any form of power tools meant that this point of construction was quickly feared by prisoners. But it got even worse, as from April 1943, and with a summer deadline looming, the Japanese needed to step up the pace. They introduced the ‘Speedo’ period – forcing prisoners to work 16 hour shifts, even at night, with the whole area lit by flickering bonfires and under the watching gaze of Japanese soldiers.

In Hellfire Pass

It was widely regarded by POWs as a living hell, and therefore acquiring the name Hellfire Pass.

Copyright Hellfire Pass Memorial

The Speedo period at Hellfire Pass coincided with the wet season, meaning disease was at its worst and outbreaks of Cholera claimed thousands of lives. Some 70-90,000 civilian labourers are also thought to have died on the railway, many at Konyu Cutting.

In Remembrance

After the war, Hellfire Pass was largely forgotten about, although not by those who witnessed the horror during its construction. Largely consumed by jungle, it was rediscovered in 1984 by Tom Morris, one of the thousands of POWs who had helped to construct it.

Today, it is a tasteful and thought provoking memorial. The sides to the deep cutting clearly show the manual work that took place to remove the thousands of tonnes of rock. Close to the bottom at one part, a broken drill bit remains stuck fast in the rock. Scrapes and drill marks in the rock face are a permanent reminder to future generations of days of unimaginable horror and suffering by those who had inflicted them on the mountain.

Broken drill bit, stuck fast

Its hard to picture just what those prisoners and labourers had to go through in order to construct what is actually an incredible engineering feat, the cutting completed in just a matter of months. It enabled around 220,000 tonnes of supplies to be carried along the railway by the Japanese before the end of the war.

In need of a lift!

It was time for me to head to the nearest town and catch a train to Bangkok, and complete my own journey along the Death Railway. Somehow I had to get there though, a distance of 20km, and so I headed to the main road in the hope of flagging down a bus or taxi heading in the direction of Nam Tok.

After 20 minutes, there was nothing. With my bags at the side of the road, hitchhiking was pretty much the only option left, when a silver minibus pulled over.

“Where are you heading,” shouted a man from inside.

“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.

“Jump in buddy, unless you’re British,” he seemingly half joked.

I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.

“Hello, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we’re Mormons, and delighted to help you,” said a fair-haired lady I sat myself next to.

Being dropped off in Nam Tok by my new friends

There was another half joke about converting me along the way before we began chatting about our reasons for being in this part of Thailand. Her name was Sister Katherine Noorda, a humanitarian worker. It turns out they had travelled from America and have been helping with the flood relief operation, delivering goods and supplies to those in need. They had been in Thailand for many months, and we enjoyed chatting about our love of the country. At one point, home made cookies were handed out which we all enjoyed.

It took around 20 minutes to reach Nam Tok, where I offered a donation for fuel and for the church, in gratitude for their help in getting me to the end of the railway line in plenty of time for my afternoon train.

“No, there’s no need for that, just promise us that if you ever see anyone in need, you’ll do as we do and give them some help,” Sister Noorda said. Of course, I agreed, and we had some photos taken outside together.

With my new friends after they picked me up

The train to Bangkok was late, as usual, but at 2pm we pulled out of Nam Tok and followed the route of the Death Railway, as was laid out and constructed during the Second World War.

Bangkok bound

It includes some breathtaking bridges and viaducts, including the wooden Wampo Viaduct that runs alongside a mountain and beside the river Kwai.

Crossing the Wampo Viaduct

Hold on tight!

Through another cutting

The beauty of Thailand’s railways, especially on a third class carriage like this one, is that all the windows open for some fantastic photograph opportunities. I went one step further, and clinging onto a handle on the side of the train, stood on the steps to the carriage for some great photos of the route.

About to cross the famous bridge

It included the moment we reached the Bridge over the River Kwai, which just 24 hours before I had been scampering along to take photos of the same train making the crossing. Now it was me that was hanging out of the train and smiling at those who were in the safe spots on the bridge.

Crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai

Originally scheduled to arrive into Bangkok at about 5.30pm, we were already horrendously late when suddenly one of the train guards ran through the carriage shouting.

No windows and trackside fires = covered in dirt. The beauty of third class rail travel!

The train shuddered to a halt. Incredibly, the Death Railway nearly lived up to its name, as somehow a teenage girl had been thrown out of one of the carriages. Somehow, she escaped with some cuts and a bang to the head, and was retrieved from the tracks by the train crew and sat back down with her friends.

My last sunset in Thailand

As she continued her journey, and we pulled in to Bangkok some three hours late, it was yet another moment that makes travelling in this brilliant country so fun. You really never know what is going to happen next.

Arriving back in Bangkok

I hailed a cab with two Dutch tourists and we headed to the Khao San Road. Against all the odds in my head, I’d managed to see everything I wanted to see, and probably in record time. A thought provoking pilgrimage to remember those who helped fight for us, but a fascinating look at some of the most historical parts of the country.

Hobos and locos

I’ve never slept rough before, but thanks to another wonderful Thai journey, all that has now changed.

Great.

Welcome to Chumphon railway station on mainland Thailand, 4:03am, cold, full of mosquitos and altogether a pretty miserable place to be thanks to a seven hour wait for a sleeper train, which then turned out to be more than five hours late arriving.

I’m on my way to Kanchanaburi, around two hours north of Bangkok. My time in Thailand is quickly running out – with just two full days left, I’d set myself a challenge that even Anneka Rice would be proud of.

Having completed my diving course on Koh Tao, I decided to head back towards Bangkok in readiness for my flight out of paradise and over to Australia on Sunday. Today was Thursday, and between now and then I want to cram in a visit to the Bridge over the River Kwai, a tour around Kanchanaburi’s war memorials and museums, a visit to Hellfire Pass another two hours north from Kanchanaburi, take a ride on the death railway, have a night on the Khao San Road in Bangkok and get my iPhone fixed, which once again has decided it doesn’t want to work anymore.

As you can see, the to-do list is enormous, and its all got to be done within the grand total of 76 hours before I’ll hopefully be sitting in a padded blue seat drinking a British Airways glass of red and looking down on a beautiful part of the world I’ve been lucky enough to call home for the past few months.

Currently, I have a rock hard marble bench, an oversize hoodie and Thailand’s finest biting flies for company. How appealing an economy class seat in a jumbo jet is right now!

Leaving the island of Koh Tao

The challenge began with a 2pm taxi to Koh Tao’s pier for my three hour ferry crossing back to Chumphon on the mainland. All was going well at this point. Infact, the journey across to the mainland was one of my most enjoyable trips across the seas that I’ve done so far – I bagged myself a spot on the upper deck, strapped my rucksack to the metal railing, slapped on some suncream and dangled my feet over the edge.

I made sure I held on...

It was a beautiful late afternoon crossing, the sun glinting off the waves for as far as the eye could see. I sat for around an hour, looking out, watching as we passed fishing boats and dozens of flags marking the various fishing grounds. Every now and again, a flying fish would jump up through the surface, skittering along like a pebble being skimmed from a shore. I was lulled by the sound of the boat cutting through the waves, and the gentle rocking from side to side on the slight swell. I even had room to lay down for a short half hour nap, wedging my head on my rucksack as a pillow.

Koh Tao disappears beyond the horizon

It was one of those journeys that for some reason just seemed special. Maybe it was because it was the last sea crossing I’d be doing in Thailand for a while, maybe it was because I had the perfect spot to watch the sun start setting over the horizon. Maybe it was because I was on my own, unable to listen to music (iPhone problem again) unable to blog (I just knew the laptop would slip out of my hands and into the sea somehow) and instead alone with my thoughts, taking stock and remembering parts of my huge journey so far.

Enjoying the ride!

I can’t deny there was a huge part of me that was deeply sad to be leaving Thailand – its an incredible country, and I knew that every minute that passed was a minute closer to being on the plane and out of there.

Fishermen heading out as we head in

We arrived into Chumphon as a flotilla of fisherman and their trawlers made their way out of port and towards the fishing grounds for the night, many of them cheering and giving the boat full of slightly burnt tourists a wave as we passed. By now the sun was setting, and on dry land I was bundled into a truck and sent to the railway station.

Definition of 'squeaky bum time'? Watching your entire belongings in a rucksack get thrown down metal pipes over the water. Thankfully mine here stayed dry!

That’s when I met Mango. He’s a dog – a Koh Tao dog to be precise, and he was on his way to Germany. Thankfully he had a human in the form of Sheree from Berlin to guide him to the right departure gate at the airport, or, more likely, to the animal transport terminal. For little Mango was being rescued from a life of scratting around in bins, fighting other dogs for territory and generally taking his own life in his hands by suicidally falling asleep in the middle of roads like most other dogs on the island.

Sheree and Mango on the truck to the station

When I say ‘Koh Tao dog’, it’s a common term for the animals on the island, since most breeds are indistinguishable. Infact, you’ve never seen such a hotchpotch of interbred dogs than there are on the tiny island, apparently stemming back to when a couple of dogs were introduced a few years ago. Their population spiralled, their gene pool clearly developed problems, and now its becoming so overrun with dogs that there’s even a rescue centre to help deal with the problem.

Mango on his way to a better life

Mango, at just four months old, was being looked after when Sheree came across him and fell for him right away. It seems the feeling between the pair is mutual, almost as if the cute canine somehow knew he was destined for a better life thanks to the kindhearted woman who was to take him back to much cooler climes in Europe. It was the start of a long journey for him, but he didn’t seem to mind leaving his native home behind.

After giving Mango a pat goodbye at the railway station at 6pm, my seven hour wait for the 12:45am service to Bangkok began. Thankfully I found a great little bar near the station with wifi – every travellers’ friend these days – and set up camp for the night. A particular highlight was another fine piece of ‘Tinglish’ I noticed after my third Coke of the night

Too late? Better get the mop...

Before I knew it, the bar was closing, I was being kicked out and the railway platform became my new home. I got talking to quite an annoying Aussie, who was far too full of himself for my liking. By 12:50am, my train was already five minutes late when there was announcement that one was arriving.

“Here we go then, about time,” said the Aussie.

“Well, its only five minutes late,” I said, at which point the rotund bloke sat back quizzically and asked me where I was going.

“Nakhom Pathom, on the 12:45 Bangkok train,” I told him.

“HA,” he retorted back.

“Good luck – this is the 11pm train and its only just arrived now, God only knows when yours will get here,” he shouted, throwing his blue diving kit bag over his shoulder and disappearing into a carriage.

A station guard took a look at my ticket, and told me there was a two hour delay. Then a coffee maker told me it wasn’t arriving until 6am. Then the station master told me it was the next train. It was like the Ministry of Misinformation, and nobody could tell me a definitive answer.

I kept myself amused on the free wifi yet again, Skyping the folks back home and even getting a little old lady who was selling dried squid to come over and give my dad and brother a wave, whilst simultaneously wafting her stinking stock under my nose.

Then a train arrived. It was about two hours after I should have got mine, so I figured the first prediction by the station guard must have been right. I went to my carriage – it was locked. Some people who lived by the track saw me struggling with my bags and banged on the train for me, waking passengers and a train guard who had particularly impressive bed head.

I climbed onboard and went to my bed. There was someone in it. The train guard, complete with his sticky-up hair, grabbed my ticket.

“Wrong train – next one,” he said, shaking his head, bed hair going slightly limp. Oops!

Actually, it wasn’t the next one…or the one after that. Or even the one after that. It was predicted to arrive at 5.30am. There was now nothing else I could do – instead of being rocked to sleep on a train, it was time to bed down on a bum and back-numbing solid stone bench, bag straps wrapped around limbs, hoodie firmly pulled over my head and mounting a losing battle against the swarms of mosquitos being attracted by the floodlight slap-bang above me. To add insult to injury, my Deet ran out after three squirts. Brilliant.

Eventually the train arrived and I passed out in an already warm bed thanks to the passenger who’d just got off. I was past caring.

The whole Thai train fiasco meant I’d missed my connection in Nakhom Pathon, which was supposed to get me into historic Kanchanaburi for a full day of sightseeing at about 11am. Instead, after a stunning piece of navigation around an alien city, I eventually found a public bus that got me there for 3pm, and after a quick ride with a cyclo rider, found a room for the night that actually floats on the river Kwai.

'Bed on the river Kwai'

Somehow, after a 25 hour journey, I had to fit all the sights in Kanchanaburi into just two hours.

There was only one thing for it. I hired a motorbike.

Well, the wounds have healed nicely from my little fall last month. The challenge is on!

Under the Sea

Going under...

I love fish. I don’t know if its something to do with where I’m from (If you’ve stumbled across this site, there’s a clue in the name) but there’s definitely an affection for the scale-covered swimmers in my family.

I’m not on about eating them, as I can’t stand the stuff. Its too, well, ‘fishy’ for me. I’m on about watching them and admiring them, having spent hours over the years being put into a trance watching various Koi, goldfish and tench happily drifting around the pond in dad’s back garden.

Then there’s been snorkelling in the Red Sea, in what’s effectively a real-life aquarium, and I dabbled once in scuba diving by taking a trial dive with an instructor on the Great Barrier Reef.

I feel ready for the next step – I want to go exploring the incredible undersea world that lies beneath the waves of the world’s oceans and seas. I want to see the dazzling array of colours and life on the coral reefs around the world. I want to go and see Nemo and all his friends – and his lucky fin.

It was time to learn how to dive – properly, no messing, classroom and study time, exams, the whole works. Hopefully, at the end, I’ll get a Padi certificate that will let me dive without an instructor anywhere in the world.

My first view of Sunshine Divers Resort!

I’d enrolled at the Sunshine Divers resort in the lovely area of Chalok Bay, on the southern tip of Koh Tao, widely touted as one of God’s gifts to divers. Koh Tao is a beautiful little island – its tiny, at just 21sq km, there’s one main road, large swathes of the east coast are reachable only by boat, and just over 20 years ago there was nothing living here but coconut trees and the odd fisherman sheltering from a storm.

Some of the original coconut plantations on Koh Tao

The diving school was recommended by Hannah and Laura, my two friends I’d spent time with in Ao Nang a week ago. Sam, a Swedish guy Hannah’s dating used to be an instructor there before moving further south, and couldn’t recommend the centre highly enough. There are some huge diving schools on Koh Tao, and some have equally as huge class sizes. They are reputed to be more of a Padi diver factory, churning out hundreds of certified divers, whereas mine promises a class size of no more than four at a time. Perfect.

After such a tiring overnight journey, and an early arrival into the resort, I spent much of the first day dozing in a hammock, looking out over the crystal clear water in the bay and being hypnotised by the sound of the constant waves lapping on the shore just a few metres away. I was in the middle of one of those slumbers when suddenly I heard a familiar giggle by my ear. It was Hannah, and a few metres away was Laura. They’d been chuckling away and taking photos of me while I was asleep. Already the fun had begun!

Back with Hannah and Laura for more fun and laughter. And tea.

After a quick lunch it was down to business. Hours of DVD video had to be watched in the school classroom, which was a far cry from some of my old classrooms at Healing Comprehensive all those years ago. Distant views of ships on the Humber don’t really compare to watching the sun slowly disappear over the diving and fishing boats bobbing around on the beautifully blue Gulf of Thailand.

Not bad for a classroom view!

I was with just two other people on my course, under the expert guidance of my instructor Sarah, who has been at the centre for three years after leaving her native Virginia in America behind for a life in the tropics. My fellow students were Michael and Kristina, originally from Poland but who now live in London and who were now travelling for a few weeks.

DVD and textbook lesson, helped by gallons of banana and coconut shakes

After a few quick quizzes, dive school was over for the day, with a warning that the following day is tough.

And tough it was – I don’t have a particularly good record when it comes to being assessed in the water, but the first request when we arrived at the deep dive training pool at a nearby resort was to complete eight lengths, the equivalent of 200 metres. Now, normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but after three months of eating coconut curries and drinking copious amounts of Chang, I wasn’t in the best shape for a seemingly marathon swim. Michael agreed, and somehow duped Sarah into thinking he’d done all of his lengths before giving me a ‘don’t you say a thing’ look and a cheeky smile. (Sarah, if you read this – he cheated!)

Suited up and ready for a swim!

I wheezed my way along my final length, before then being told to tread water in the deep end for 10 minutes. The whole episode brought back memories of my most significant water failure so far when I was at junior school, on one of my forays into Whitgift’s big pool, when I was under the instruction of teachers to retrieve a rubber brick from the bottom. I managed to swim down and grab it okay, but in my excitement swallowed approximately a quarter of the pool’s contents, choked, spluttered my way up to the surface, swam the wrong way, dropped the brick and then promptly got whistled out.

It was a cock-up that condemned me to a life of ‘baby pool’ activities and verrucas for the rest of my junior school swimming career, with the sole achievement of a ‘one width’ badge sewn to my trunks.

School mishaps firmly behind me, I passed the swim test with flying colours and so it was time to strap on the scuba gear. By now I’ve learned how to strip it apart and put it all together a number of times, got used to having the regulator in my mouth, checking that everything’s working and with an understanding of roughly how to go up and down underwater (all to do with how much air is in your lungs – trickier than you imagine)

Starting the scuba training

We spent the whole afternoon underwater, practising emergency procedures, sharing air from each others’ tanks, learning how to use the buoyancy jacket, how to equalise your ears as you descend, and – the one I was dreading – how to clear a mask full of water while underwater.

I don’t know why, but the whole ‘removing mask, replacing mask, blowing water out of mask’ drill seems to fill a lot of people with dread. Actually, I do know why – I did it the first time I tried it in Australia, and I saw it in both Michael and Kristina. If you don’t get all the water out by blowing through your nose and tilting your head back, you get left with, surprise surprise, water in your mask. But with your eyes closed, and the rest of your head wet, its sometimes quite hard to tell if the mask is empty. So for some unknown reason, your brain (well, mine anyway) tells your head to try to breathe in through your nose to regain the seal on the mask. Except you then inhale a lung full of water, panic that somehow your drowning, forget that you’ve got a fresh air supply in your mouth and have a full on freak out beneath the surface. Its not nice, and most people do it at least once. Michael and Kristina did it a couple of times, and I really felt for them. Its awful to see panicking humans under the water, but Sarah was an expert at restoring calm without the students shooting up to the surface for air.They both then dreaded the whole procedure for the rest of the course.

By the end of the day, we were merrily diving and swimming around the bottom of the pool, ready for the next day swimming with the fishes.

Sarah my instructor (left) with Kristina and Michael getting kitted up

It was an early start to catch the diving boat, which left the main pier at 8am. We sailed to the Shark Island diving site, setting up our tanks, connecting our regulators, checking air pressure and flow and growing slightly apprehensive about the dive. Its one thing being in a pool, its another jumping off a boat into the ocean and spending the next 40 or 50 minutes under the waves.

My dive buddy was Sarah-J, originally from the UK, but who has been brought up and now lives and works in Germany as a graphic designer. She’d done exactly the same course as me, the Padi Open Water, around a year or so ago at the dive school. Now she was back to complete her Dive Master certificate, with the hope of potentially spending a few months a year instructing in the sun, and then returning to Germany to earn money graphic designing over the European summer. Not a bad plan!

With Sarah-J, my first dive buddy

We completed our buddy checks, where step by step you go through each other’s kit and basically checking that when you throw yourself in, you can a) float if you want to; b) sink if you want to; and c) breathe, although not necessarily in that order. Its got the acronym BWRAF – Begin With Review and Friend – and its the way the guide tells you to remember the sequence of checks for the Bouyancy control suit, Weights, Releases, Air, and Final Check. There are a few other ways to remember though, and I  particularly like the ones put forward by Sarah to help us: ‘Bruce Willis Ruins All Films’, or another, ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas’. Made us all chuckle!

Heading to the dive site

As the boat settled into position, one by one we all stood up on the side of the boat, held out masks and weights in position, and took a giant stride out into the deep blue sea. Gradually, we let the air out of our BCD and descended down under the gentle waves. Immediately, there were fish to look at – and in particular, a slightly annoying Striped Remora, one of the shark sucking fish – that took a liking to Sarah J and I the moment we showed our faces in his little world.

Normally they hitch a lift on sharks, sucking on and nibbling away at dead skin. Unfortunately for Sarah J, the same principle applies for humans, and she told me of her never healing cuts and grazes on her legs which keep getting eaten. Today was no exception, and after watching the long thin fish take off yet another scab from her leg, he switched his attentions to me and sucked onto the top of my leg. When you’re getting used to breathing underwater complete with tank and all your kit for the first time, having a pesky fish not leave me alone was slightly annoying. His free ride soon came to an end after I batted him away for the third or fourth time.

Gone diving...

It wasn’t the only bit of sealife to have a go at me on my first dive either. As we were kneeling down on the seabed, we’d noticed a number of fish hanging around and waiting for us to kick some sort of tasty morsel up from under the sand. Having done some more skills, such as clearing yet more water from my mask, one of them, a bright blue wrasse, decided he was impatient and tried to attack my knee while I wasn’t looking. It was a sudden, sharp shock – and naturally, thinking it was something with huge teeth and poison, I jolted around and crashed into Michael, who was currently trying to retrieve his regulator from behind him. His wife and Sarah J, both who saw what happened, were clearly amused judging by the amount of bubbles drifting up from their mouths.

We went down to a depth of 12 metres, and after our skills practise emerged back on the surface 28 minutes for a tank swap and a cuppa.

The next dive was more of the same, including the strange sensation of learning how to control your height by nothing more than the amount of air in your lungs. Its fairly simple –the more air you breathe in, the more buoyant you become and so begin to rise. If you can imagine filling your lungs, and then keeping some of that air in there while breathing normally, a bit like puffing your chest out, then that’s how you rise. To descend, breathe it all out and breathe normally again. It’s a great feeling, a bit like flying through the water as its completely effortless once you get the hang of it.

The afternoon was spent completing the final exam, which I aced with a respectable 92%. It would have been 94% had I not coloured in the wrong box and seemingly decided that one of the most important hand signals in diving – a hand out, sweeping and rocking from side to side – actually meant ‘which way do we go’ rather than its usual meaning of ‘I’ve got a problem’. Buddy’s probably wouldn’t stay buddy’s for long if I actually thought that to be the answer!

Hannah and Laura buddy-checking before our dives

The following day was our deep dive down to 18metres, the deepest you can go with my certificate. Our instructor Sarah was ill, and so Tamara, an Australian instructor, took over and made me a buddy with Michael. Also on the dive boat were Hannah and Laura, providing a few opportunities for wind-ups and laughs, usually at my expense…

Looking a tad nervous before the deep dive!

We practised a quite impressive forward flip into the water, and then started to descend. Well, having had some brilliant visibility the day before, it was like trying to drift down into an abyss. You could only see your hand in front of your face at some points, and then my ears decided they didn’t want to equalize, forcing a ‘squeeze’ and becoming painful as I tried to go down. I slowed my descent and wiggled my head around, blowing on my nose.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrk…pop’

Ears cleared, down I went a bit more! Visibility still bad, it was the first time I could fully see how easy it would be to become badly disorientated. When I first heard that sometimes you have to watch which way the bubbles go, I wondered just how bad it could get. Now I knew – I could have been upside down, going up, going down…if it wasn’t for the rope and my bubbles giving me some idea, it could get very confusing.

And then I lost my buddy.

Michael, also struggling with his buoyancy, drifted up above me. I tried to grab him to pull him down, but it sent me out of control and I didn’t want to lose the rest of the group. I looked back up through my bubbles – Michael had gone.

Cue one of those ‘Jaws movie, panicked looking around and nothing but blue’ moments as I realise I’m briefly on my own, before another instructor suddenly appears in front of me and gives me a sign to descend. He’d obviously thought I was drifting up and away from the group – and not realised my buddy was also missing.

Back with the rest of the group, Louise, another instructor, went back up to the surface to find the lost Pole, and thankfully he had done the right thing and waited at the top. A few minutes later, we were back on track, taking our masks off at the bottom of the sea (still unnerving, especially with a slightly snotty nose (!)) and having our air supplies shut off – again, unnerving, mainly as its not right to be at the bottom of the sea without anything to breathe, unless you’ve got gills, which I haven’t.

It’s the only way to simulate an ‘out of air’ scenario though, and learning how to take a back-up air supply from a buddy. Thankfully, its easier than it sounds. Skills over it was back to looking at beautiful coral, watching a Crown of Thorns starfish making its damaging way across the bottom, and taking great delight in making hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms instantly disappear into their little holes with a quick wave of a hand nearby. That alone could provide hours of fun – YouTube it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNl2w_xH4xs

Clambering out of the boat for a reverse roll into the water

The final dive of the course was probably my most enjoyable – Tamara said she could tell I had done some diving before and was confident in the water, and buddied me up with her friend Rosie, who was visiting from home in Australia. It was a move I was quietly pleased about – it meant Michael could pair up again with his partner, and if I’m honest, it meant I wouldn’t have to be so worried about where he was and whether he was drifting away. They’d be the first to admit they were not the most confident at their new pastime, and sometimes I couldn’t help but feel I was being held back.

Safely in and joking with Tamara

Tamara made sure we had a great dive – the three of us were relaxed, freely diving around wherever we wanted to go, Rosie was somersaulting in the water – and dropping like a stone at one point, making both Tamara and I laugh our heads off underwater, again, another funny experience (usually a lot of bubbles and very smiley eyes are the giveaway!)

We watched parrot fish, clown fish, swam near swaying anemones, sent countless hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms back into their coral homes and watched bright blue clams close up as we swam near. All around, fish of every colour swim by, going about their daily business. It’s a cliché, but it really is another world under the sea, and it’s a great feeling when you’re a visitor.

Thanks to some calm and controlled diving, we made our tanks last just over 50 minutes – and even then, Rosie had still managed to keep 100bar of air in her tank, half of what she started with, and prompting me to shout the question “Do you breathe or are you a fish?” when we reached the surface.

Chilling on the boat

Climbing out, the diving was over. There were some well-earned cups of tea and biscuits all round – how English indeed – and we all relaxed as the boat took us back round to Sairee Beach, which was looking beautiful as the sun broke through the clouds.

Another cuppa with Hannah and Laura after our dives!

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

Back at base, I filled in my log book, got myself yet another banana and coconut milkshake and took in the reality that I was now a fully qualified diver. And even better, I’d manage not to drown, I’d consumed very little seawater, I’d not been seriously attacked by any marine life – and I’d loved every second of it.

Passed!

I had to check out the day after completing the course, which was a shame as I’d have liked to have stayed for a few days to relax in the stunning bay, but instead I’d set myself yet another sightseeing challenge. Kanchanaburi, home of the Bridge over the River Kwai, is close enough to Bangkok for a whistlestop rail visit. It’ll mean another tricky journey, but one I told myself was worth completing.

Officially a certified diver!

I picked up my Padi certificate and dive tables on the way out, said goodbye to Hannah and Laura, as well as the brilliant instructors and people I’d met at Sunshine Divers, strapped my backpack on yet again and headed out of the gates.

There’s a nagging thought inside me that it won’t be too long before I’m back. The next step up is the Advanced Diving qualification…and it sounds like a lot of fun!

A typical Thai trip!

Heading for Koh Tao

Its 11:05am, and I’ve just ordered poached eggs on toast for breakfast. While its being prepared I head back to my dorm and finish packing my bags. Then the door opens – it’s the owner, and my bus has arrived 25 minutes early.

And so the Thai travelling experience begins. In a mad scramble, I finish off stuffing my bag, take them out to the minibus and then remember I was going to send an email to my next accommodation, the diving school, to confirm my place on a course and a pick-up time from the pier.

I’m travelling from Koh Lanta, just off the south west coast in the Andaman Sea, northwards and over the mainland to another island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Tao, a divers’ paradise where I will hopefully become a qualified diver. It’s a journey of some 400km, give or take, and a huge chunk of the route back towards Bangkok – and ultimately, my flight out of the country. Most journeys end up being an experience though, so I’m writing this as I go along to give a flavour of what happens and some of the people I meet.

Loaded up in the minibus, my first form of transport

I’m soon getting scowls from the driver who is waiting for me to get onto the silver minibus. I’m giving him equally big internal scowls while searching for my laptop and pointing to my watch to tell him he’s the one who’s early. He points to a nearby bungalow resort and says he’ll return. I hope so – my backpack is now in his possession!

By the time I’d said goodbye to Luke and his family at the Sonya guesthouse and restaurant, grabbed some biscuits and a bottle of water for the journey, sent an email and swapped Man United’s De Gea out of my fantasy football team (highly important), the minibus had arrived back.

I clamber inside and take up position on one of the single seats by the window. After three months of roaming around southeast Asia in transport like this, you quickly learn which are the best seats. I lucked out on my journey to Koh Lanta and got wedged into the back with a mute French guy and about fifteen bags and suitcases. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had.

“Gosh its so cold back home right now,” broadcasts a Canadian at the front, preaching to a Norwegian couple. I knew she was Canadian because she took great pleasure in dropping it into conversation in every other sentence.

“Canada is so big I can get to Europe quicker than flying to the west coast…”

“Travel really is good, you learn so much from it…”

“Have you been to Cambodia? You really should, its fascinating.”

“Did you see that cruise liner that sank. The captain took a wrong turn.”

“I miss snow. I miss home cooking. Don’t you miss home cooking?”

“I’ve been travelling for two whole months can you believe,”

“I’m taking two tours and travelling independently in between…

And so the verbal assault went on, with the poor couple wistfully nodding and humouring their new friend at the front, who seemed to be suffering from a severe case of the tongue trots.

“Is this going to go on for the whole three hours to Krabi,” a fellow traveller rolls her eyes and smiles at me in the back.

“Hey, you know what, the aircon in these minivans helps soooo much, doesn’t it,” comes a Canadian voice, bang on cue.

“I think so,” I ruefully reply back, reaching for my netbook to write this very post and take my mind off the older north American’s travel memoirs in front of me.

Snatched shot of said Canadian in yellow...boring someone else

Gradually the minibus fills up as we head north through the island and towards the first boat crossing of the day. There are 13 of us inside, each seat taken, and the air conditioning was actually pretty ineffective. The first boat takes us across to another small island, where there’s a short 20 minute journey to yet another pier and another boat to take us to the mainland.

Loading up the boat

Having missed breakfast, I bought some pineapple from one of the street hawkers on the boat, who had a tray full of fresh fruit. I don’t eat a great deal of fruit back home, but if it was anywhere near as juicy and as tasty as it is over here, I would eat a heck of a lot more.

A rare sight: me with frest fruit

It makes you realise how the transportation to Europe really does take the freshness out of it – and my family and close friends would, I’m sure, be surprised to know I’m regularly buying fruit here (My good friend Siobhan’s recent quote was ‘Norton you monkey, you think one of your five a day is a portion of chips…guilty as charged!)

Strange bag of white powder in with my pineapple

Its just so much nicer here – the bananas have none of that ‘chalky’ feel about them, the pineapple is sweet and juicy, melons are so tasty. But bizarrely, my pineapple came with a little bag of a white substance hidden beneath a particularly large chunk of the fruit. I’ve heard all about drug mules in Thailand, but the little old lady who sold me it hardly looked like she was about to get me banged up in a Thai slammer. I put if down as sugar – or so I thought. To be safe, I waited until the last two chunks and then poured it on to see the difference it would make.

Turned out it made a huge difference, mainly because it was salt and chilli –very hot chilli – but amazingly, it works! It was a bit like sweet and sour in one easy step. Try it, you’ll be surprised!

Passing on the river

It took about 20 minutes to cross the stretch of water separating the Koh Lanta islands from the mainland. Among the vehicles on the strange floating platform of a boat were lorries full of bottles for recycling, dozens of minibuses full of people like me heading all over Thailand, and an ambulance with its lights flashing, not that it was going anywhere fast as it drifted across the murky water.

Three hundred and twenty two thousand, five hundred and forty two plastic bottles, sitting on a truck...

Back on the minibus, the Canadian woman had moved to the front seat for some reason. She’s going to Bangkok – again, I know this because she mentions it every few minutes. I manage to keep her out of earshot by nodding off, only waking up when we arrive at a travel agent shop in Krabi.

All change at Krabi

This is the point where we all change over into another bus – a familiar arrangement for anyone who’s travelled around this wonderful country. It gets a bit annoying sometimes – and some of the changeover points can be nothing more than a shed in the middle of nowhere – but with this being the only effective way to travel around, they are the equivalent of changing trains at a railway station back home.

It was a two hour wait for my next bus, but thankfully there was wifi so caught up with a few people from home and cleared some of my ever expanding inboxes that needed a reply.

“You’d better move that bag before someone trips,” says the Canadian to a guy sat nearby. The bearded, cap-wearing chap obliges, not that it was causing much of a problem, but he joined the ever expanding group of people who were rolling their eyes more and more frequently at her inane comments.

At 4pm, the next minibus arrived, and we were driven around Krabi picking up passengers from a variety of different travel shops in the city, thankfully without the Bangkok-bound Canadian motormouth. By the third stop, we were almost full – with a warning that there were five more still to get on. Worried looks were flashed between us. This might get a bit full!

As well as being full, it was quite stuffy and hot inside too. I asked three Canadian girls behind me if they were hot too, and they encouraged me to turn the air-con up on a dial in the roof. I did – and it was promptly turned down again by the driver.

“You don’t need, you only hot because you been walking around, you will cool down in 10 minutes,” the driver says.

I held off from saying that I’d actually been sat down on Facebook for the last two hours, but was still hot. The girls behind me looked disappointed.

On the road again with some new passenger friends!

Then we stopped and picked up the remaining five passengers – and there were some familiar faces. It was a group of girls from Brighton who I had travelled over from Koh Phangan on the overnight ferry with earlier in the month. We all asked how our stays had been, and then I warned them it might be a cramped journey.

Low and behold, it was – especially for one of the girls who got stuck with the front seat, complete with everyone’s bags. Not that this is unusual – most buses ive been on have been like this.

With the music on though, everyone was in a good mood and talking about various mishaps and adventures along the way, from someone being arrested in Bangkok for knocking over a beer dispenser, to some getting drunken tattoos – including one that looked more like a safety pin – to mascots called Stuart, and of course there was much passing on of tips, like the 7-Eleven bar crawl and how you would get to Pai from Chiang Mai.

The girls' mascot Stuart enjoying the ride

The journey to Surat Thani took about two and a half hours, including a delay while three of the girls stopped for a comfort break in a bush.

A stop at the 'services'

It turns out most of them had done a summer season together in European holiday resorts, which is how they knew each other. They were great fun, and the journey passed quickly.

Next, four of us were unceremoniously dropped off at an office in a quiet residential street in the city. We got some drinks from the chiller and began talking. There was Justin and Liam, a couple of guys from Nottingham who were travelling the world together, and Jamie, a lifestyle or health coach from New York.

Another city, another little office to wait at...

Some menus were thrown on the tables in front of us, and the woman behind the desk was obviously waiting patiently for us to order some dinner. We thought we were waiting for more people or another minibus to take us to the pier, but instead, her patience for us to order something obviously ran out and she appeared at the front of the office in a pick up truck.

In the much loved Thai transport, the pick up truck!

This was to form our next mode of transport, and is nothing unusual in Thailand. In vehicles which are normally used on farms or for moving bricks and sand around building sites back home, here they are used to move people – and its actually quite fun. I now think nothing of clambering into the back, making a makeshift seat out of a backpack, and relaxing in the fresh air watching the traffic and the world passing by.

It'd be so illegal back home!

Justin and Liam were in the back with me, and it turns out they too had travelled to Asia by using the trans-Siberian railway, but instead of stopping, had done it all in one go for six days. We reminisced about our time and experiences of Russia and the rail journey for a while before arriving at our next mode of transport, the night ferry.

It leaves at 11pm, giving us three hours to occupy ourselves. As is often the case on journeys, the main way to do that was by drinking Chang and eating something.

Our ferry

In our case, it was helping ourselves to street food on sale at the night market that surrounds the quayside in Surat Thani. We walked around first, and found an amazing sight – hundreds and hundreds of chickens and ducks, all boiled and hanging from hooks or piled waist high in huge vats.

Anyone for duck?

Its an odd sight, particularly because they all still have their heads attached, but they were selling well, and the smell drifting through the air wasn’t a bad one. Its possibly a big thing because of the forthcoming Chinese New Year.

We continued our walk through the noisy market, passing tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables, old ladies snipping the ends off thousands of tiny chillis, coconuts being trimmed and prepared, people shouting and gesturing to one another. It’s a busy market, and cheap too. Coconuts and whole pineapples sell for 10 Baht each – 20p – and they are as fresh as you’d ever find them.

And the food safety scores on the doors are....

We sat by the river and took it in turns to guard our bags while we raided the street stalls. First up for me was some marinated barbecue chicken, which while tasty, was tricky to eat because of the bones still running through it. Jamie had a delicious looking platter of duck, chicken and pork on rice, with a deadly portion of chilli dip. The lads from Nottingham had some large Singha beers.

At the pier in Surat Thani

Still hungry, I then went for some Pad Thai, freshly made by a pretty girl on one of the stalls. She was joking with me about what noodles I wanted, and I told her to surprise me. I got yellow ones. The meat looked like it was festering in its juices out in the open, and with an overnight boat journey I didn’t want to tempt fate, so went for a vegetable version of the dish. To see how it was all whipped together so quickly – the egg, the spices, the green vegetables (no idea what they’re called!) the noodles and then blasted together in a wok on a gas bottle burner is always an experience, and it amazes me every time just how good their simple dish tastes.

Still not finished with the stalls, I went for a banana and chocolate roti, a special Thai style pancake, and an iced coffee. All in it cost about £3.50 for the whole lot, and I was stuffed for the journey ahead!

Now the boat, yet again, is an experience. It’s a wooded thing with low ceilings, so not the most comfortable thing when you’re six foot tall. It’s like one giant sleep-over inside, with narrow mattresses and small pillows laid on the floor. Each ticket is numbered with your mattress. It certainly means you become friendlier with those around you – the distance between each passenger borders on the personal space boundary.

Another cosy journey!

However, in overnight boat terms, I’d known the guys I’m with for a few hours so we were effectively family, and I settled down for the night sandwiched between Justin and Jamie. With the ropes cast off, we drifted away from the quay and all the hustle and bustle of the night market, and after just a few hours on the mainland, I was heading for another island once again.

Our sleeping quarters!

Casting off from the mainland

I actually slept really well, despite the constant noise of fans and the boat engine droning away all through the night. Justin was the first to say good morning as he saw me trying to prise my eyes open just after 7am. I looked outside to see Koh Tao in view ahead of us. I decided to make my way downstairs and look out the back of the boat, when I saw the sun beginning to break above the horizon. When it’s a crystal clear day, its amazing how quickly the sun starts to rise above the waves – especially when its one of the best sunrises you’ll probably ever see and your camera battery dies after one shot. Typical!

First glimpse of the sun...and then the battery died!

After a brief power charge in a socket I found onboard, we were already pulling into our berth just as the overnight rustbucket of a ferry from Chumphon to the north also vied with us for a space at the pier.

Incoming!

We shuffled our way out, dodged our way through the taxi touts and made our way to our onward transport. I said goodbye to my final travel companions of the journey as they headed off in their taxi to Sairee Beach, while I found a driver willing to take me to Chalok Bay to the south.

My travel friends heading off

In another pick up truck, I made my way through the dusty streets to my final destination, stopping every now and again as strips of firecrackers were let off to mark the Chinese New Year in front of us. There were huge smiles and cheers from the locals, some with huge ducks laid out on tables in front of their homes and businesses.

Blurry-eyed and in another pick-up. The joys of overnight travel!

Just after 8am I walked through the grounds of Sunshine Divers resort, a beautiful setting by a quiet bay, with only the sound of waves gently lapping onto the shore breaking the silence.

“You must be Phil. I’m Natalie, great to meet you,” said a tall, tanned smiley woman near an office.

It was Natalie who runs the centre, and who I had been in email contact with regarding my diving course, who gave me such a warm welcome. Its always nice after such a long journey to find a friendly face at the end of it.

And what a journey – 21 hours, two minibuses, three boats, two pick-up trucks and a whole lot of brilliant people on the way. It might be long, and it might be uncomfortable at times, but taking a journey across Thailand is always guaranteed to be an experience to remember!

And relax! My final destination!

Time out

Relaxing on Koh Lanta

I’ve got two lists when it comes to looking for accommodation while travelling: ‘basic comfort’ and ‘cheap essentials”.

My dorm room...in a barn by the road!

The checklist in use for the next few days is the ‘cheap’ list, as I try to preserve a rapidly depleting bank balance. A bed is an essential, naturally, as is a roof over my head. As for flushing toilets, hot water and – the ultimate backpacker luxury – aircon, well, I can do without.

Sonya's guesthouse

And so I introduce Sonya’s guesthouse on the island of Koh Lanta. My home for almost a week, a place where I can relax, switch off and have some ‘me time’. A holiday within a holiday almost. Complete with a hosepipe for a shower!

The bathroom

I’d found it on the Agoda website, coming in at a budget saving £3 a night. I was shown to my bed in what can only be compared to a fan cooled barn- except the fan doesn’t cool it that much.

“The bathroom is outside, and there’s another through the restaurant,” I’m told.

My bedroom for a week

It was what’s known as a bucket shower, in that there’s a tank of water and a bucket. Its how the locals do it, and I know because you see plenty of them at it along the railway lines when you pass by on the train. There’s a hosepipe that fills the tank, and a mirror. And that’s it.

Brushing my teeth in the great outdoors!

I’m what’s officially known as ‘roughing it’, a week I’d set aside to live cheaply, eat less and drink water to help save the budget a little. I’d managed to set my record of 60 Baht (£1.20) for a day’s living when I travelled here, mainly by living on 7-Eleven sandwiches and bottled water for the day. I admit, when I saw how basic the dorm was, I contemplated a move the following day to more comfortable digs, but chose to stick it out for a while.

I was so glad I did – I grew to absolutely love it. The main reason for this was the food, admittedly – it was quite possibly the best I’ve had in Thailand – but also the friendliness of the family that runs the place. By the second day, I almost felt part of their family, welcomed every time I arrived back, asked how I’d slept every morning, it even got to the point where I was writing my own food orders on their order pads and helping myself to drinks from the fridge.

My spot on the beach...complete with blog and Chang!

On top of all this, I found a little bit of a beach which had my name on it. It was empty, apart from a few other lucky travellers who had discovered it, it was lovely white sand, blue water and was in a great position for many fantastic sunsets. On my first day when I arrived, I stopped at a couple of places to sit down and take it in, only to be quickly chased up for food and drink orders. Then I found a hammock near a place called Fisherman’s Cottage, a bungalow resort on the beachfront. I laid in the hammock, gently swaying and watching the sun set, for a good couple of hours, and not once was I pestered to order anything. Best of all, it had wifi, a clincher – I’d found my spot and called it home.

Lovely!

The week for me was all about relaxing and catching up on my blog. The following day I went back to Fisherman’s Cottage and ordered some food, a Coke and opened up my laptop.

I loved that hammock!

In between uploading I’d be writing, and when I wasn’t writing I was trying to catch up on a mountain of messages from friends asking how I am and what I’m up to. And that was the general pattern for the next few days – writing during the day, uploading and laying new posts out during the night, but always making sure I was at my favourite spot at Fisherman’s Cottage for about 5pm, in time to watch the sun go down over the Andaman Sea with a nice cold Chang in my hand.

Out in search of paradise!

But I couldn’t come all this way without actually checking out the island, so for £6 I hired a pretty cool looking scooter for a couple of days and took myself off for a tour. I’d set myself a personal challenge of finding some deserted beaches, and it didn’t take me long to complete it. The island is lucky enough to have some beautiful beaches dotted all the way along its western coastline, and just 10 minutes ride from where I was staying brought me to a stretch of white sand with nobody on it.

Another empty beach in the south

I rode further, and again, another beach with nobody on it. I continued further, with an aim to reach the southernmost point, part of a national park, and what a fellow guest at Sonya’s had told me was a must see.

Koh Lanta National Park

He was right – a fantastic part of the island where a rocky outcrop divides a beautiful beach from a rocky beach, with stunning blue waters, thick jungle all around and wild monkeys. Oh, and there were about three people on the beach!

I rolled out my t-shirt, kicked off my flip flops and laid back. I’d found a bit of paradise, and it was great. The monkeys kept dropping by with a cheeky look at my day bag, blatantly thinking of making a raid on it, but I kept my eye on them. Infact, they were great fun to watch, running around with their babies, playing, swimming and looking for food.

Monkey on the beach

Every now and then I’d also have a hermit crab scuttling nearby, and if they weren’t running back to their hole in the sand, they were busy throwing little balls of it out. Beaches aren’t normally my thing unless there’s a frisbee or a volleyball doing the rounds, not to mention a beer, but I’m growing to love being able to switch off and just be amused by the wildlife around.

Baby monkeys

I also kept myself amused by making myself a nice new blog header (see above!) which took me a bit of time, but then what else have I got to rush back for? Apart from the sunset in a few hours, absolutely nothing. And it feels great!

Back on my scooter!

After a good few hours, where in the end I became the only one left on the beach, I got back on my scooter and rode back north looking forward to another amazingly good yellow curry at Sonya’s. I came across a sign pointing to some waterfalls, and decided to squeeze in a quick visit while there was still some daylight. I rode along a dusty and rutted dirt track, overtaking a few elephants heading back to their camp, and came to a place where motorbikes are supposed to be parked. But my quick visit quickly hit the buffers.

“You can’t get down there to see the waterfall mate,” said two fellow bikers.

“Why not, am I too late?” I asked back.

“Nope. Too many King Cobras according to the guides.”

Good enough reason I thought, and quickly rode back along the dirt track to the safety of the road!

It was by the junction I came across one of my favourite moments on the island. Happily riding along, I saw an elephant being washed at the side of the road – except there wasn’t anyone washing him. After a double take, and trying not to stick my motobike into a ditch with my surprise, I saw exactly what was happening – the elephant was washing himself with a hosepipe!

Rub a dub dub!

It was brilliant to watch, and soon a large crowd had gathered to take similar photos and videos. A memorable sight!

It wasn’t long before once again I was thumbing my way through the delightful menu at the guesthouse. The food at Sonya’s is all freshly prepared by the family. When I’m in the indoor shower, next to the kitchen, I can hear them pounding the spices in the pestle and mortar just a few inches away on the other side of the wall. The whole place fills with the most amazing smells when it hits the pan. Its no surprise that the guestbook is filled with comments praising the culinary magic that goes on in there, thanks to Luke and his family. Infact, it got to the point where I was actually looking forward to dinner every night, browsing through the menu and choosing yet another different dish to delight the tastebuds – quite an achievement for the restaurant considering I’ve lived on curry, rice and noodles for almost three months now!

Cooking, Thai style

It actually inspired me to enrol on a cooking course, something that I’d not really considered, but now having expanded my Thai palatte considerably further than just  a green curry, I realised time was running out if I did want to properly learn how to make the stuff.

“Go to this place. Gordon Ramsay uses it,” says Luke as I look through the bright yellow pamphlet.

I don’t quite believe the Gordon Ramsay sales pitch, but it didn’t matter as I found that in the morning session you learn how to make Tom Yum soup. If you haven’t tried it anywhere, you must – I hadn’t until Alissa on the tour had it nearly every night and made me have some. I’m so pleased I did, as it quickly became one of my favourite dishes if I was in a ‘spicy’ mood.

Kaffir lime leaves...chop chop

It’s a hot and sour, clear soup full of lemongrass, galangal (its like ginger) chilli and lime. It comes with chicken or prawns, and while it doesn’t sound that spectacular, I can assure you its fantastic. I had no idea how to get such incredible flavours out of it, so I laid down my £20 and pulled on an apron for a morning of cooking.

Our teacher is Chien, who is also the owner of the Black Pearl restaurant on the island, and who it turns out, actually did teach Gordon Ramsay some of his Thai cooking skills.

“He came over here and I went to Krabi to teach him,” he tells me, skilfully chopping away at his lemongrass.

“Now he sends his staff to me too, they come over here and learn how to cook and pick up some of my recipes.”

I was impressed, and naturally the journalist came out from inside me.

“What’s he like,” I ask, trying not to take off a digit with the ridiculously sharp knife.

“Ah, I like him. He’s a bit grumpy sometimes. And he swears a lot,” Chien says, before going into his own expletive riddled impression of him. It made us all laugh.

My yummy Tom Yum soup in progress

And so I cracked on with my soup – and as a little Brucie bonus, here’s my recipe, written in my terms of understanding.

Half a stalk of lemongrass, sliced into inch-long lengths.

A thumb-sized lump of galangal (fresh ginger will do)

3 Kaffir lime leaves, ripped up and stem removed

1 Shallot, skinned and crushed (don’t chop it up!)

1,2 or 3 small chillis, depending on how hot you want it (I went for two, and it was hot enough!)

A few mushrooms of choice

A few scrapes of grated carrot (optional)

Half a tomato, quartered.

A spring onion, chopped up

Some fresh coriander

1 Chicken stock cube

1tbs fish sauce (not my favourite, so I only put half in)

1 tsp of brown sugar

1tbs lime juice

300ml water

Basically, you boil the water, add the stock, throw in the lemongrass, chilli, galangal and shallot and boil together for a minute, mixing it round.

Then, throw in your thinly sliced chicken or prawns, add the fish sauce and sugar. Let it bubble for 30 seconds. Then put the mushrooms in and wait another 30 seconds. Chuck in the tomatos, carrot and lime juice, give it another 10 seconds on the heat and its done – easy as that.

Here's something I prepared earlier

Incredibly, mine tasted just like it does in the restaurants here too. A lot of that is down to the fresh ingredients that Thailand is lucky enough to have growing out of its ears, but when I get back to the UK, I’m searching out a place that does this sort of food to make my own. Its delicious!

Chicken with cashews...made by me

We went on to make three more dishes – chicken with cashew nuts, pad Thai and a Penang curry, all of which were stunningly good and a credit to Chien who admits he’s tweaked his recipes over the years to get them as good as they clearly are. I can see why Mr Ramsey trusts him.

My Pad Thai

Full of a four course dinner before midday, it was yet another day on the beach to snooze it off. I did have one vital job to do though, as it’s mums birthday back home. I got a bit creative and logged onto Moonpig to make sure she at least had a card. Hope she likes it!

A birthday message for mum!

After six wonderful days of relaxing, eating, swinging on hammocks and watching the tide and sunsets, it was time for me to go. I had a diving course to get to, and it involved a trek across Thailand and north to the island of Koh Tao.

Luke at work in the guesthouse kitchen

I said goodbye to Luke and his family, wishing them well for the future. Sonyas isn’t well publicised and its not in the Lonely Planet (Though its probably only a matter of time before it finds itself in there) and that’s why it was such a fantastic discovery. It’s a little gem, a home away from home, and it was a pleasure to spend some memorable days there on what was a beautiful and relaxing island.

I'll miss it!

Five-minute friends

Sunset and beautiful skies at Railay

Sometimes in life, you’re destined to meet particular people. They go on to become friends, soulmates, someone to have a beer with, partners, or in some cases – eventually – you meet someone who will become a lifelong partner.

You meet through work, through friends, through school or university or perhaps by complete chance. Sometimes it can be engineered, but I’m a firm believer that if your paths are meant to cross, then at some point, your paths will cross.

I’m lucky to have some brilliant friends around me, but when I think back to how we met, there are reasons for it. Going to university on the south coast, mainly because of a relationship and applying late for a journalism course, I knew nobody. I remember walking around Southampton on my first day there with the strange feeling that I was completely alone. Three years later, I left with a group of lifelong friends, and a couple of them who have become absolute soulmates, people you trust, people you look forward to spending time with. And I knew in most cases, straight away from the moment we first met, that they were ‘my type’ of people, that I’d like to be friends with them and enjoy spending time around them.

Travelling provides so many of these opportunities. Every new place you get to, there’s a chance you could meet that new person to add to your friend list. The ‘five minute friend’ check usually makes up your mind – join them for a Chang and share a room, or leave them struggling with their rucksacks and boring stories on the pier

Where am I going with this? Let me explain – five years ago I was on an overnight flight back to London from New York with my family. It was our ‘last’ family holiday together, and we’d had a brilliant time. For the flight back, we changed all our pre-booked seats and chose some towards the back of the plane.

About two hours before we landed, I began talking to a cheerful blonde girl sat next to me. She’d been asleep most of the way, but she was around my age, had similar interests and, co-incidentally, was a journalist based in the City. After lots of chat about our jobs – a favourite hack pastime – a bit about our travels and how we got our careers, the tick box in the ‘five minute friend’ test had been well and truly checked. Her name was Hannah.

We swapped business cards, promised to add each other on Facebook, that we’d meet for coffee sometime and said goodbye at the baggage carousel.

Of course, time went on, we had a few messages every now and again, perhaps one of us would ‘like’ a status or a photo every so often, but as our lives went along separate paths, there was little chance of us bumping into each other again.

Fast forward five years, and to my last day in the Look North office before setting off on my travels, when a message drops into my inbox. Its from Hannah, the girl on the plane, who had seen my status about how I was leaving for a few months to travel the world. She too had gone through a break-up, packed up her career for a while, stuffed some clothes into a backpack and set off for a round the world trip of a lifetime. She was already in Thailand and loving every second.

“We should meet for a beer on the beach,” we agreed.

Of course, Thailand at that point seemed a million miles away. I was still to turn on my ‘out of office’, bring everything in my daily life to a halt, find my passport and work out how to get myself across Russia. Maybe we’d meet, maybe we wouldn’t, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one taking the plunge in such a spectacular way and wished her well for her journey.

Three months on and Hannah and I, along with her friend Laura, have just been out on one of the best nights out of my trip so far in Ao Nang, Krabi. Our paths crossed, and the five minute friend test was right. We had an absolute blast, and we’ve gone on to become really good mates.

Coffee in London...or Mai Tai in Thailand?!

It rounded off a great week of meeting new people. Having gone to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party with the daunting prospect of not knowing anyone on the island, I ended up sharing a brilliant few days with Sarah, Emily and Brad, while yet another five minute friend, Jenny, had abused me in the street for seemingly outstaying my welcome in Haad Rin.

My ferry that finally gets me off Koh Phangan!

But alas, my time on the island did eventually come to an end and I got the overnight ferry to Surat Thani in the south, a huge transport hub that sees hundreds of backpackers pass through every day.

Sleeping arrangements on the ferry! Cosy!

I was heading to Railay, a place that had been recommended to me and where I had found bungalows just before Christmas going for around 400 Baht, or £8. It was affordable, just, and pencilled myself in for a few days.

My bags enjoying the ride to Railay

After an exhausting journey, I arrived on the beach by longtail, the only way you can get there thanks to a complete lack of roads, and a way that always evokes images of a Robinson Crusoe-esque arrival nomatter how many times you wade ashore with your bags. I made a sweaty, bag-laden trek up the steep hills to the back of Railay East and  the cheap bungalows I had found.

They were full – and had almost doubled in price.

It prompted a search high and low for something affordable, but thanks to peak season and a lot of package tourists being in the area, it was impossible. In the end, I settled for a jungle bungalow after bartering them down from £22 a night to £14. I also made a mental note to leave the place as soon as possible.

Eventually found a home in the jungle!

Then I had a message from Jenny, the girl I met in Koh Phangan who ‘kept seeing me everywhere’. She was making her way back north to Chiang Mai from Koh Phi Phi, a short ride away from Railay. Her journey meant a stopover in Krabi, a place where she’d been before, so she asked if I fancied meeting for a beer in Railay as she’d like to see it.

Being in a bungalow, it was already hard to meet other people so I told her it was a great idea, and the following day she arrived on the peninsula. We had fruit shakes on the beachfront, chatted about life back home, our families, our travels. She told me of stories about her trips through India and to the Everest base camp, and how she was gutted to be leaving Thailand in a week’s time.

We joked about the small world that finds her family running the Hill Holt Wood project in Lincolnshire, a place where a few years ago I did a bit of filming. A fellow blogger, we talked about futures, careers and aspirations. Basically, we completely hit it off and had a brilliant laugh along the way, mainly about the way we met and her abuse of me. It also turned out she had been in the same taxi as me when I arrived on Koh Phangan – she told me how she’d jumped out after realising she could walk the distance to where she was staying. Immediately I remembered the moment – I’d even shouted out ‘good luck’ as she set off on a seemingly futile trek. Perhaps our paths were supposed to cross.

Indoor fire shows in a wooden bar...safety first, as usual

In the end we had a brilliant night, watching Thai Boxing that was laid on at one of the beach bars, laughing about the lack of complete health and safety regulations as a fire dancer performed a full routine – indoors – and sipping buckets until the early hours, tapping our feet to the current Thailand anthems.

Jenny meets her match

Jenny left the following day as she continued her journey north, and ultimately on her way home back to Derbyshire, but I know we’ll stay in touch. After such a fleeting meeting in a busy street, suddenly a new friendship is formed, one that will continue, and it’s a great feeling. Its one of the best bits about travelling.

Continuing her journey home

I too was moving on, to meet up with Hannah, the girl from the New York flight five years ago. I was to share a room with her friend Laura, a complete stanger. But then it was easy to forget that Hannah was still a complete stranger to me herself. The next few days could be brilliant if we get on, but could be a disaster if it turns out we don’t!

With Laura and Hannah...after visiting 7-Elevens (keep reading!)

As it happens, they’d clearly had similar discussions as it was revealed I’d been referred to as ‘Psycho Phil’ prior to my arrival, a joke between them about how little they knew about me, yet we were to share accommodation. Infact, there was nothing to fear – the next few days were a blur of beach time, dancing in bars and making regular stops at the 7-Elevens for a new game dubbed the ‘7-Eleven bar crawl’.

Spy wine coolers...girly but deadly!

It’s a great way of saving money when you’re on a budget, where to save the £3 cost of bottled drinks in the touristy bars around Ao Nang, you simply raid the 7-Eleven ‘bars’ at the back of the shop. For just 60p, you can get bottles of Spy, a sparkling fruity wine drink, that while being incredibly girly, packed a 7% alcoholic punch!

Loving the 7-Eleven Bar Crawl!!

The rules are simple – on the way to the pub, you have to stop at every 7-Eleven you come across, pop in to the chiller at the back, pick up a drink and finish it before you reach the next 7-Eleven. Sounds easy, but there were five on the way to the main bars from where we were staying, and its fair to say we were well on the way to a morning ‘Changover’ by the time we reached them.

Flaming B52s all round!

It resulted in a couple of fairly heavy nights out, but there was plenty of banter between us, we all laughed at the same things –

He was awesome...

mainly a guy wearing a ‘I Am Awesome’ t-shirt, and they helped to sober me up after one too many buckets by force-feeding me a Burger King before going to bed. That’s when you know you’ve found some good friends…and they found it highly amusing!

After three days of hitting Ao Nang’s nightlife, raiding the 7-Eleven girly drinks cabinets and some much needed hungover breakfasts, I was ready to relax. I booked a ticket to Koh Lanta, an island a little off the tourist trail and one where hopefully I can enjoy some cheap living for a week.

I doubt whatever it was happened to be that funny!

Another 7-Eleven purchase!

New buckets please!

Saying goodbye to Hannah and Laura was more of a farewell – in a week’s time, I’m heading to Koh Tao to do a diving course, and at the same time, Hannah and Laura will be there too. We’ve agreed to meet up for more fun and games together, but in the space of just a couple of days, we had become great friends. So much so, it was easy to forget we had been strangers before – you know when you’re in tune with people when it feels like you’ve known each other for years.

Laura, Hannah and their awesome friend!

When I think back to when we first met, of how Hannah was trying out my noise cancelling headphones (not that she remembers) and telling me how she hates flying, who would have thought that the next time we’d meet wouldn’t be in a coffee shop in London, but infact on a beach on the opposite side of the globe. That if we hadn’t changed our seats on that flight, the chances are we wouldn’t have spoken at all. And if Facebook wasn’t invented, well, it would have just gone down as a chat with a random passenger on a plane.

Same could be said for Jenny. What would otherwise have been a boring couple of days without knowing anyone in Railay, and probably having to go on yet another solo night out in the hope I’ll get chatting to someone (it gets tiring after a while!) turned out to be a memorable few days. Again, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to meet, have a laugh and become friends.

The importance of staying in touch with five minute friends – you just never know when they might be in the right place at the right time for a beer and a good knees-up. Even if it is in some far flung land!