Bridging the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A map of the Burma-Thailand railway

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

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

The famous bridge

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

Between the rails

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

On the Bridge on the River Kwai

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

Dodging trains

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

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

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

Odd

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

Madame Tussauds is worried

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

A bit weird

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

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

The sun goes down

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

War graves in Kanchanaburi

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

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

Sunset on the Kwai

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

The bridge by night

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

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

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

My first thought was ‘how early’.

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hellfire Pass Memorial Centre

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

Into the cutting

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

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

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

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

Hellfire Pass

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

In Hellfire Pass

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

Copyright Hellfire Pass Memorial

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

In Remembrance

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

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

Broken drill bit, stuck fast

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

In need of a lift!

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

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

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

“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.

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

I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.

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

Being dropped off in Nam Tok by my new friends

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

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

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

With my new friends after they picked me up

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

Bangkok bound

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

Crossing the Wampo Viaduct

Hold on tight!

Through another cutting

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

About to cross the famous bridge

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

Crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai

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

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

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

My last sunset in Thailand

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

Arriving back in Bangkok

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

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Under the Sea

Going under...

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

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

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

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

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

My first view of Sunshine Divers Resort!

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

Some of the original coconut plantations on Koh Tao

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

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

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

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

Not bad for a classroom view!

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

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

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

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

Suited up and ready for a swim!

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

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

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

Starting the scuba training

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Sarah-J, my first dive buddy

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

Heading to the dive site

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

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

Gone diving...

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

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

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

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

Hannah and Laura buddy-checking before our dives

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

Looking a tad nervous before the deep dive!

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

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrk…pop’

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

And then I lost my buddy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safely in and joking with Tamara

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

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

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

Chilling on the boat

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

Another cuppa with Hannah and Laura after our dives!

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

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

Passed!

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

Officially a certified diver!

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

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

Time out

Relaxing on Koh Lanta

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

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

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

Sonya's guesthouse

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

The bathroom

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

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

My bedroom for a week

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

Brushing my teeth in the great outdoors!

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

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

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

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

Lovely!

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

I loved that hammock!

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

Out in search of paradise!

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

Another empty beach in the south

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

Koh Lanta National Park

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

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

Monkey on the beach

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

Baby monkeys

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

Back on my scooter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rub a dub dub!

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

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

Cooking, Thai style

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

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

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

Kaffir lime leaves...chop chop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My yummy Tom Yum soup in progress

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

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

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

3 Kaffir lime leaves, ripped up and stem removed

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

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

A few mushrooms of choice

A few scrapes of grated carrot (optional)

Half a tomato, quartered.

A spring onion, chopped up

Some fresh coriander

1 Chicken stock cube

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

1 tsp of brown sugar

1tbs lime juice

300ml water

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

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

Here's something I prepared earlier

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

Chicken with cashews...made by me

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

My Pad Thai

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

A birthday message for mum!

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

Luke at work in the guesthouse kitchen

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

I'll miss it!

Five-minute friends

Sunset and beautiful skies at Railay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ferry that finally gets me off Koh Phangan!

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

Sleeping arrangements on the ferry! Cosy!

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

My bags enjoying the ride to Railay

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

They were full – and had almost doubled in price.

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

Eventually found a home in the jungle!

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny meets her match

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

Continuing her journey home

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

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

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

Spy wine coolers...girly but deadly!

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

Loving the 7-Eleven Bar Crawl!!

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

Flaming B52s all round!

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

He was awesome...

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

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

I doubt whatever it was happened to be that funny!

Another 7-Eleven purchase!

New buckets please!

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

Laura, Hannah and their awesome friend!

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

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

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

‘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.

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.