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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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!

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!

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!

‘You’ve been here ages’

.

My home for a while!

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful sunset back on Koh Phangan

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

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

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

Koh Phangan

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

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

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

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

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

“Norton Disney?” I queried.

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

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

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

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

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

Full Moon wear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire fun - or madness, depending on viewpoint!

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

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

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

With Tony Bucket saying goodbye - and my bucket!

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

Tony signing my final bucket

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

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

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

Paradise on party island

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

Leela beach

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

Little crab friend that kept me amused

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

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

Sunset beach

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

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

The sun sets on my time on Koh Phangan

Dirk’s big break

Visiting Dirk in hospital

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

Dirk when we were tubing in Laos

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

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

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

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

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

View from the boat leaving Koh Phangan

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

A bit of a rough crossing - some struggled!

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

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

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

Somehow it almost looks nice in the photo!

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

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

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

Home sweet home

I walked out onto the street.

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

Head down. Walk on.

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

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

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

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

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

“Jaaaa, come,” came a familiar voice.

Still full of beans!

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

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

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

Some serious repair work

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

Dirk at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was like something else.”

Dirk, one of his nurses and his monkey mascot Whiskey

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

With Dirk as we said goodbye in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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

“I will be back,” he says, defiantly.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sexxxxy massaaaaaaage’

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

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

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

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

Back to see Dirk

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

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

Dirk in the First Class lounge awaiting his flight home!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get well soon buddy. Your world awaits.

New Year – Full Moon Style

Happy New Year!

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

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

A Full Moon party in full swing

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce looking good, as I paint his arm

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

Glowy things

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

Leaving Krabi

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

Party island arrival!

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

Bryce and Erin. And a bucket.

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

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

Beersbie throwers

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

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

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

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

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

Preparations underway

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

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

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

Full Moon beach

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

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

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

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

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

A bit of free marketing!

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

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

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

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

Tony Bucket!

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

A bit more paint!

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

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

Three…two…one…Happy New Year!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching dawn break on 2012

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

Still dancing at dawn

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

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

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

It might have been a slug impression?!

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

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

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

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

A bit wet...

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

Who ordered the storm?

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

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

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

Two days of this...

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

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

Saying goodbye, again, to Bryce and Wigley

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

A Singapore Fling

The Merlion

Wow – what happened here?!

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

Singapore by night

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

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

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

Old Singapore is still charming

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

Different league to the Megabus

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

Plush

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

Wet arrival into the Singapore border crossing

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

Inside the Inn Crowd hostel

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

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

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

Colourful

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

Light show at Marina Bay Sands

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

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

The Merlion, symbol of Singapore

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

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

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

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

Found it...satay street!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Raffles Hotel

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

How much?!

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

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

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

I don't think anyone's watching!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aww, just one photo,” I smiled back.

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

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

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

In pole position!

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

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

New Year preparations

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

Messages from around the world

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

Sentosa

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

A beach? In Singapore?!

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

No laughing at the flip flop tan!

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

Can't go any further!

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

'How beautiful are your branches'!

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

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands resort

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

The sun sets over the city

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

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

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

The Singapore Flyer below

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

Fullerton Hotel and old Singapore

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

Mock up of a Titanic room

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

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

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

Someones specs

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

Huge metal bollards that once tied the Titanic to her berth

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

Chef's jacket. He didn't survive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visa running

Feeling Krabi for a few days

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

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

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

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

A quickly grabbed shot of the flooding outside

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

Flood-damaged belongings being collected

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

My train from the north after arriving in Bangkok

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

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

Another ticket to ride

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

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

Thai national anthem time

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

Leaving Bangkok...again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving in Surat Thani

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

On the way to Railay

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

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

Ho ho ho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next to the Orient Express.

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

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

Posh train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When’s the next train?” I asked

“Tomorrow night,” came the unhelpful reply.

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

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

“No, no bus,” said the lady.

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

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

“Yes,” I whispered back.

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

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

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

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

It’s the Italian guy alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bang bang bang bang’

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

Early morning arrival in Kuala Lumpur

This might sting a little…

Heading back from Pai

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

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

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

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

Having skin on your elbows is overrated anyway…

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

Up in the mountains

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

Liz, Erin, Bryce and Krys take in the view

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

Jungles and mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geysers

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

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

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

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

Our bikes knew where the good street food lived!

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

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

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

“One kilo, 30 Baht,” the man said.

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

Plastic bottles are so last year!

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

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

Erin braving the mud

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

More great views

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

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

High up

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

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

Sun begins to set

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

Hurrah!

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

Not a bad scenic road!

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

Erin and Bryce

Beautiful sunset from the top of Thailand's highest mountain

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

Last night with Liz, Bryce and Erin

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

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

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

This had to go in the blog!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newly coloured-in scooter said goodbye to the hostel!

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

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

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

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