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From the Andes to the Andaman - llamas to langurs

Welcome to our travel blog. We are having a grown up gap year, giving up work and going travelling. We are starting in Ecuador, then travelling south through South America for 5 months, then onto New Zealand and Australia, and then back home via Malaysia and Thailand
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Diary Entries

Friday, 25 May 2007

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

Good to be back in Bangkok. We had a slight trauma at Phnom Penh Airport - our lovely blue Swiss army knife, which has opened so many bottles and peeled so much fruit, made its way into our hand luggage and was confiscated at the security check ("Do you know you've got a knife in your bag, Madam").

Only four days before we return to England so we're back at the Soi Rambutri Village Inn having a relaxing few days - sightseeing, shopping, enjoying the rooftop swimming pool and so on. Not to mention the food - the joys of being back in Thailand - pad thai and mango for lunch from the local street vendors and our favourite restaurant, Hemlock, for great curries at night - we also finally had some Thai fishcakes (no better than English ones).

We've visited Wat Pho, home of a huge reclining Buddha and also a centre for traditional Thai massage so we had a final massage. Very professional but not quite the same as being by the beach wafted by sea breezes. We also went to the Jim Thompson House - Jim Thompson was an American who lived in Bangkok after WWII and is credited with singlehandedly rebuilding the Thai silk industry. We've also travelled about on the river boats and had a longtail boat tour of the canals or khlongs - lots of old houses on stilts and small boats acting as floating shops and cafes - including a guy barbecuing chicken over charcoal on his boat which looked very odd.

In our first week of travelling, we went to see "Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest" in Quito, Ecuador (can't believe it's over 9 months ago) so in our last week it seemed only right to go and see "Pirates of the Caribbean - at World's End" here in Bangkok. A very nice cinema with reclining seats and a great way of escaping the heat (in fact it was freezing) but we were a bit disappointed with the film - too much reliance on action scenes. The Thai national anthem is played before every film and everyone stands up - it's also played in public places, such as railway stations, twice daily and everyone stops what they're doing and stands up for the duration.

We've tried our best to do some shopping now we've lost the excuse of not wanting to carry it around with us, but our purchasing skills haven't really improved. We managed to buy a few things but aren't really tempted by all the fake designer goods. Still looking around for some wallhangings and maybe an axe pillow.

Well, later today, we're heading for home, definitely with mixed feelings - it will be great to be home and see all our family and friends but a shame that our wonderful trip has come to an end. We're not looking forward to chilly daytime temperatures (12 degrees in May!) but cool nights without air-conditioning will be good.

This is probably the time to sum it all up and come up with some meaningful insights - but for the moment we'll leave it at saying that we've had a great time with lots of highs and very few lows, seen some fabulous places and met some great people. We've trekked in the Andes, swum in the Andaman Sea, fed llamas and even cuddled a langur. Life changing - well who knows?

Just one more thing to say - thanks for reading and a special thanks to everyone who's kept in touch and entertained us with their comments. Hope to see you soon.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Location: Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We decided to spend a week in Cambodia and spent a lot of time considering our transport options. We particularly wanted to visit Siem Reap - the nearest city to the numerous ancient (9C - 13C) temple complexes of the Khmer civilisation including the famous Angkor Wat - one of the largest religious structures in the world. The overland route from Bangkok to Siem Reap is notoriously bad (and allegedly the only airline that flies the route pays money to ensure the road doesn't get upgraded - it also charges fares to match its monopoly status). Anyway, we decided we might as well go to Phnom Penh as well so we flew to Siem Reap then got the bus down to Phnom Penh and flew back to Bangkok, this time with AirAsia - the local equivalent of Ryan Air with the flights costing about 20 Pounds each.

Cambodia was a bit of a culture shock after Thailand - it's a much poorer country (not surprisingly considering its recent history) with a lot of beggars - including victims of landmines which are still everywhere in rural areas. There are also lots of very young kids on the streets at all hours selling books, bracelets, flowers, shoeshine etc (the shoeshine seems a odd one with most people wearing flip-flops).

The French influence shows as well - driving on the right and baguettes everywhere. The traffic is amazing - there are very few traffic lights or rights of way at junctions and basically the traffic (which is fairly slow) just seems to merge - it keeps it all flowing though and we only saw one minor bump. Makes it quite scary crossing the road as merging is the way for pedestrians as well - we tried to merge in front of scooters and tuk-tuks rather than cars and trucks.

Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination with loads of new hotels being built and there is obviously an effort to beautify the town with armies of people weeding and cleaning up. Our guesthouse arranged for a tuk tuk driver to meet us at the airport and the arrangement is that you use him to visit the temples which are fairly spread out. We went down to arrange a pick up time for the next day and were told that it was all already arranged and that Thul was coming to pick us up at 5am! In the event the early start was good since it meant that at least some of the visit to the temple sites was during a cooler part of the day - by lunchtime it was just too hot. The temperature was consistently around 35 degrees falling to about 25 at night.

We spent two days "doing" the temples - on day one we arrived at Angkor Wat for the sunrise and finished at Phnom Bakheng for the sunset (with a siesta in the middle) - neither sunrise nor sunset was much good for photos. On day two we went to some of the more remote temples and saw some of the local countryside. The temples are really impressive and covered with intricate carvings - some have been heavily restored and are in good repair and others are being overtaken by the jungle. They're an odd mixture of Buddhist and Hindu imagery depending on which group was in charge at the time. Angkor Wat was spectacular and we also liked Bayon (big faces), Ta Phrom (jungly with big trees straddling the walls and where some of Tomb Raider was shot) and the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srey.

We also visited a landmine museum run by a guy who used to lay mines for the Khmer Rouge and has now dedicated his life to clearing mines. Our exciting wildlife spot was a snake by the river in Siem Reap - it leapt into the air so we kept our distance for the photo - just as well as our guide Thul thought it looked "very bad."

Phnom Penh was even more of a culture shock with piles of rubbish in the streets and even more beggars. We arrived on Cup Final day, although there wasn't much 'fever'. We watched the game sitting on the pavement just outside the Hope and Anchor on the banks of the Mekong River eating lasagne and drinking Tiger beer with tuk-tuk drivers watching behind us - very surreal and incredibly hot.

We spent one day doing cultural stuff in the city - visiting the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Next day visiting notorious Khmer Rouge sites - Tuol Sleng (a school converted to a prison where people were interrogated and tortured) and Choeung Ek - the Killing Fields site where thousands of people were murdered. This now has a glass memorial full of skulls but you can still see bits of bones and fragments of clothes as you walk around the site.

The food in Cambodia was a bit disappointing compared to Thailand - strangely because it was a poorer country we tended to eat in more up-market westernised places. We did have one very entertaining meal in a restaurant where we discovered that the owner took in street kids who greeted and waited on. We were surprised by the welcoming committee of 5 or 6 small children and then 4 or 5 slightly bigger ones stood around our table while we chose what to eat. Their piece-de-resistance was the free dessert of local fruit and banana leaf packages with coconut and pumpkin - they positively swooped on us, breaking open rambutans and longans for us to eat and even trying to force feed Colin with a forkful of coconut dessert!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

We took another night train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. This time we sampled the onboard breakfast in the restaurant car - about as good (or bad) as UK railway food. Chiang Mai is the 2nd biggest city in the country but is a lot more relaxed than Bangkok. We're staying in a Dutch run guesthouse(Awana Sleep and Swim) in the old city, within the city walls and moat. We've spent some time sightseeing - lots of little lanes with old teak-wood houses and a temple on nearly every corner.

We've been travelling by tuk-tuk (three wheeled open sided taxi with a motorbike engine) for the first time. We hailed one driven by a youth with his girlfriend riding alongside - in hindsight we think they were doing the equivalent of "the knowledge" or that they had just borrowed it for the afternoon - we said we were going to one of the four main gates into the old city - which everyone knows. They consulted each other and giggled, we showed them where it was on the map, they consulted more and suggested a 60 baht fare. We agreed on 50 baht and set off - by now in the pouring rain. The tuk-tuk kept stalling and backfiring and they kept stopping for directions even though we knew the way. They gave us their umbrella and eventually we arrived at the gate, we directed them to our guesthouse and the girl took us one by one to the door sheltering under the umbrella. We were quite happy and amused by it all but they were very apologetic saying "sorry, new driver, new driver" and would only take 40 baht - so definitely new to the game. Fortunately we were back before the road outside was knee deep in water.

We decided to do another cookery course - with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School which is run by a Thai TV chef, fortunately he wasn't like Gordon Ramsey or indeed Micky from Kanchanaburi. This one involved learning to make the curry pastes - lots of hard work with a huge pestle and mortar - good for the arm muscles. Yet again we cooked loads of delicious food and ate far too much. We made black sticky rice pudding - very nice but probably equivalent to deep-fried Mars bars on health grounds. In fact we have discovered that coconut milk is very high in cholesterol so our healthy Thai diet is looking a bit suspect.

We also went on a 2 day hill trek - we had been dithering about which one to choose of the numerous options. Anyway, a Dutch family staying at our guesthouse had already booked one and their guide came by at breakfast to brief them for the following day. We listened in, it seemed fine so we decided to join them which made it very easy. It turned out really well - there was us, the Dutch couple with their 2 boys aged 9 and 11, and 3 English lads.

The first day involved visiting a waterfall and hot springs and then 3 hours trekking through steep, muddy jungle to the Karen village in the Mae Tong area where we stayed. It was quite rainy which made it more muddy but kept the temperature down which was good. There were also loads of leeches and, despite rubbing tobacco water on our legs and putting tobacco in our boots, socks etc. Richard, one of the English boys and Sue were attacked. Our guide, Susin, suggested using dead spiders to stop the bleeding - Richard went for it but Sue opted for a boring plaster (imagine getting a leg infecton and telling your doctor that you were bitten by a leech and then pressed a dead spider from the roof into the wound).

The Karen people are originally from Burma and the older people generally don't speak Thai - our guide, Susin, and his brother, the cook, were from another Karen village. The village was quite near the Burma border and the opium growing area of the Golden Triangle - although our guide said that opium was no longer openly cultivated. Our village had about 20 families, was only accessible by foot and was about 1.5 hours walk to the next larger village for school, doctors etc. The kids had to either walk to school each day or stay with people in the next village. They had solar panels for electricity (lighting only) but the day we arrived, which had been wet and cloudy, the lights went out at 8pm and then it was candles, torches etc. It really was a different world.

After another night of rain, we walked for an hour to the river - the plan was to ride elephants to another village down river and then take bamboo rafts further downstream. Unfortunately the water was too high for the elephants to cross the river safely so whilst we had an elephant ride (no bathing but still fun especially sitting on the elephant's neck rather than in the chair) the guides built 2 rather flimsy looking rafts. The rafts floated just below the surface of the water and were very wet in the rougher sections. They were steered by bamboo poles, a bit like punting.

We arrived at the next village downstream where the guides consulted on river conditions and after reinforcing the raft (some extra twine) and taking on a river guide (a boy who looked about 12) we set off. This stretch was much rougher with rapids which the non-punters had to sit down for - Colin had to keep standing to help with the steering, although he decided to let go of his pole when it got trapped under the raft. We had to walk one apparently dangerous section where rafts had broken up last year - leaving our bags on the raft - but fortunately rafts, guides and bags all survived.

The last leg of the journey was by truck which was delayed by a fallen tree blocking the road - the (unpaved) road was dug out to enable trucks to get through. So all in all it was an eventful and interesting trip.

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Recent Messages

Dear Sue and Colin, It was great to read all your adventures and to know that you were in Thailand, a country which I visited on my honeymoon!! surely you are already at home and therefore I wish you a nice welcome to the rain, cold and damp english weather (hahahahah) I beat you will miss all the llamas, mountains, beaches, and the sun!!! Hope to see you both sometime
Annie from Peru!! living here in Birmingham in case you forgot me!!!
Response: Yes we're back and it's freezing. Of course we haven't forgotten you - although those lessons seem a long, long time ago. Hope to catch up with you soon.
From Jackie Calver
I guess you'll be home by the time you get this, but I just wanted to say it's been wonderful reading about your adventures. Sometimes I have wondered how you could cope with all the physical stuff you've done!
This won't excite you very much but I'm hoping (treatment permitting) to have a 2-week 50th birthday bash in November with a Midlands leg on 17th or 24th. Anne will be there plus John Mcphail and some others. You're invited.
love Jackiexxx
Response: It's been great hearing from you too. Can't believe how cold it is here.
Do you think 2 weeks partying is enough? Hope to be there for the Midlands leg.
From Jackie
How do you fel about coming home ? Mixed feelings or total despair ?xxx
Response: Coming home - mixed feelings; work - what do you think!
From John
Where is Micky ?
Elephants and buddhas are all very well, but there really is little point in a blog from Thailand without photos of hermaphrodite cookery teachers.
When are you planning to come back ... if at all ?

Response: As we said to Roger (see earlier message) Micky did not want to be photographed and we respected that choice (and never managed to sneak a decent shot). We'll be back before you know it.
From Adrian
Perhaps Richard Branson will put on some sleeper cars. Any pictures of you in your fluffy dressing gowns on your spa day...?
Hope you both had happy birthdays.
Response: Maybe. No but should have taken a photo of Colin having an aloe vera wrap - too long for the sheet and all he needed was a tag on his big toe to complete the body in mortuary picture.
From Jackie Calver
I'm so jealous-the elephant ride and bath sounds wonderful!
Response: We loved it and have done another elephant ride since, but no bathing which was the best bit.
From Roger
You seem to have forgotten to put a picture of Micky on the cookery course page.

Happy Birthday Colin - albeit belated.

Response: Micky was decidedly camera shy.
From Carole Blagbrough
Hi there Sue & Colin

Just been reading your latest diary entries. Your trip sounds really fascinating. Rather you two with all those mozzies. See you soon

C xx
Response: Good to hear from you. Mozzies and leeches now - not good. Say hi to your Mum and Dad - hope they're OK
From Jackie Calver
Happy birthday Colin!
Enjoy your Tiger beers!
Response: Thanks - just had another one on our balcony.
From Jackie Calver
I'm getting quite excited about becoming an old git in november and planning 2 weeks of celebrations!
Response: Good for you - 12 months still to go for me and nearly two years for Sue.
From sue, rob, A & A
How intrepid you two are - managing long journies with dodgy tummies! It must be the restorative powers of multiple massages that sustain you- good for you. Have a lovely birthday Colin - less rain and more clear seas xx
Response: As we left the islands the weather improved. Missing those beach massages already - not sure what 'extras' you might get with a massage here in Kanchanaburi (Bridge over the River Kwai).
From John
Er, enough quips about my advancing years, thankyou - we old gits are quite sensitive. Those dusky langurs look nice, but obviously not as good as a capybara.
It's Liverpool - Milan in the Champions League final - it'll be just like Istanbul without the miracle.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to test drive some new slippers.
Looking forward to seeing you soon.
Response: Oh ye of little faith - they've scraped through so far, so who knows?
From Kathy Mquarie
I really enjoyed hiking in the Golden Triangle years ago, i bought into a guided walk from Chang Mai lots of mud, wonderful traditional villages, i liked the textiles, hand dyed, woven, beaded blah d blah. The food was interesting, bamboo shoots straight from the plant to the kitchen.
Response: Sounds good - not sure what we're doing yet, may be too hot for hiking - although hot would be a nice change after a week of rain.
From Jackie Calver
Will you be able to keep your website open for ever as a way of preserving memories or
will you be able to keep it somehow ? There's so much incredible detail there it would be sad to lose it. Sorry, I'm useless at technology.
love Jackiexxx
Response: We should be able to download it on to a disc - as it's really our diary of the trip. All that detail is probably incredibly boring rather than incredible but hopefully we'll enjoy looking back when we're as old as John.
Be really good to see you if you're coming to Anne's this summer.
From Jackie Calver
Oh yes, Paris next month then Yorkshire and North Norfolk. Won't let a few rogue cells tie us to the house!
Response: Quite right. Take your woollies to Yorkshire.
From jackie calver
Lucky you Roger, husband and I planned to go there this month but spoilsport consultant said no way jose.
Have you ever been there Sue and Colin?
Response: No but we'd like to. Can you go somewhere closer?
From Roger Shepherd
Thanks for the PC- arrived today (20th April).

Didn't go to Warwick reunion last weekend. Left it too late to decide and then had decision taken from me. If you'd been there things would have been different.

Still, off to mathematics department soon to see Zeeman unveil statue.

Talking of which - off to NY, NY for weekend in a fortnight - worried our carbon footprint is too small.

Response: Statue of himself?
NY for the weekend - that's outrageous. Don't like to think about our carbon footprints - we'll have to plant some trees (forest?).
Thanks for the Birthday wishes.
From Jackie Calver
Just to let you know the Warwick reunion was very good. I didn't know anyone there except Anne Crooks and John Mcphail but it was still great fun.Can't believe how much the campus has changed since I was last there in 1979!
Good to hear you're still having such a fascinating time.Just reading your blog exhausts me!
love Jackie
Response: Sorry we missed it. Next time maybe?
From John
Thanks for your birthday card which arrived in plenty of time. Hope you have a great birthday, Sue, wherever you are at the time.
I'm glad you caught up with St. Francis Xavier. His body didn't decompose you know - at least that's what the Headmaster told us.
Sorry, can't stay long - got to go and look at all those special offers from SAGA.
Response: Still bleeding when they dug him up apparently. Have you bought your pipe and carpet slippers yet?
From Sue,Rob,A& A
Hope all is well; just researched a bit about KL and find you may be in the midst of monsoon rain and v. high temps! Awsome! Sue, have a great birthday on Saturday. We will be thinking of you whilst having fun at our Garden Party in Sydenham(hopefully not in a monsoon). x
Response: It is hot, although we're at the beach now in Langkawi and it's not raining. Hope the garden party goes well.
John Southcote was 50 on 14th April 2007!
Response: Happy Birthday John xxx
From Val and Barry
Just been catching up with your blog - you'll never come back down to earth again, you're having far too much of an adventure. Ignore all comments about casinos/IKEA etc. being built next to your house - we hope your friend is joking and doesn't know something we don't! It's warmed up nicely now and your house doesn't feel quite so creepy and cold. We did however make ourselves a few quid by hiring out cold storage space. Do let us know your due return date so that we can open some windows and sweep out the porch etc. Saw the lady gardner yesterday and it all looks fine. We've booked 3 wks in France in June, leaving 5th, so maybe we'll see you before then? Keep on having fun. Regards from us both.
Response: Hi - good to hear from you. Colin said "what porch?" - which is a bit worrying!
From Carole Blagbrough
Hello there you two

Just thought I'd write to see how you're doing. Just reading your most recent diary entries. All's well here though Mum has been really weary and tired after her treatment last week. Have fun!
Response: Hi - good to hear from you. Best wishes and love to your Mum.
From Lesley
Mum says thanks v much for the postcard but could you make the writing a bit bigger next time, and what's a kaugaloo?
Hope the food in Malaysia is dodgy enough for you,
Lesley & Ed
Response: All that effort to fit all those words in! Obviously I've lost all ability to write legibly - soon be unemployable.
Dear Sue & Collin
I'm so glad to read your adventure. I just came back from Peru and England as always cold and damp!! Carry on enjoying your travelling. Next write a book with all your experiences!!!
Response: It's cold and damp here in Australia at the moment too!