12th May - 15th May 2005
With one day before our 3-month visa expired, we waved goodbye to Malaysia and said "Sawadee-khrap/kha" (depending on whether male/female is speaking) to Thailand. A torturously sluggish train, then faster minibus took us from the southern border to Hat Yai then Trang, and on to the island of Ko Lanta which suffered only light damage from the tsunami. May is low season here - so low that most dive operators had closed down for the season, and those that were open didn't have enough divers to make it viable to take us anywhere.
16th May - 26th May
So after a couple of massages, we left Ko Lanta and headed for Phuket to help sustain some more local restaurants and hotels and where we felt sure there would be more diving options. Sure enough there was a lot more activity. Plenty of building work going on, but the vast majority of hotels, restaurants and tourist agencies are fully operational and there's no real sign of devastation at least to the pa! rts of Phuket Island we visited. If you hadn't heard about a tsunami you'd just think they were building a few new hotels. Patong is the main touristy, bar-ry, clubby beach and is where to go if you want to get hassled the most. Along the streets, you have a choice of getting a suit made, eating or having a massage - these are the three main businesses here! Not many other people around, other than some sleazy, mostly overweight, westerners wandering around with some tiny, presumably hopeful, Thai woman.
We stayed at Phuket Town for a few days and brushed up on our cooking skills thanks to Noy (ratio 2 students:1 instructress owing to very low season), adding (or in Susana's case - revising) Thai food to our repertoires. An excellent location on the east coast of Sirey Island (www.phuketdir.com/pktthaicookery <http://www.phuketdir.com/pktthaicookery>).
On return from the Thai Cookery school, Roger was dismayed to discover that the Miss! Universe pageant had spent the last 2 hours in the street in front of our hotel (which had a prime balcony viewing spot) and that we'd just missed it by 30 mins. Having missed Miss universe in Ecuador last year, we came so close, but managed to miss it again this year.
We then opted for a 'holiday' and lived it up for a week in a nice hotel on Karon beach (Tsunami special at US$25 a night) with lovely views - warily avoiding the ground floor! Karon beach is not as "full-on" as Patong, but has the same array of businesses, and plenty of glistening sand and sunshine, with the occasional sting from a baby portuguese man-of-war jellyfish (3cm float, 40cm sting) thrown in for good measure (time of year we guess)!
Thankfully, the dive operators were all open and there were other divers around so we booked ourselves onto some dive trips with Dive Asia (www.diveasia.com <http://www.diveasia.com/>). Susana started doing a rescue diver course (pr! esumably to learn how to calm Roger down if he gets bitten by a trigger fish) and we have a few more dives to do before exploring the central/northern parts of Thailand.
Before we forget - we have some news. There are now three of us in the family... we adopted a gibbon by the name of Endoo, after visiting the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre to the north of the island (which runs on voluntary donations, and whose income has also dropped since tourists stopped coming to Phuket).
27th May - 30th May Susana completed her Rescue Diver course, successfully 'rescuing' our 'unconscious' divemaster from near certain death at the bottom of the ocean (ok, 10m down and he wasn't *really* unconscious). After a couple of nice dives at Phi Phi islands we established that the tsunami had done little damage to the undersea world. We then had a couple of strenuous days by the pool, with the occasional massage (not the dodgy kind) and jog along the beach. 30th May - 2nd June After a night bus to Bangkok (dinner-stop at midnight), a tuk-tuk and a "rapid" train that took 2 hours to go 76km we found ourselves in the old capital, Ayuthaya. We switched into culture-gear and had a look at various Wats (What? Wats are temples!). Some are ruins, others are still in use, nicely decorated and well maintained - at one Wat, the Buddha statues even get Tesco water to drink (the heat must be getting to them!). We were foolish enough to try cycling through the afternoon rush-hour traffic in our bid to see the Tesco-drinkers, and lived to regret the decision - we went again by Tuk-tuk the following day! 2nd June - 4th June Tried out the "diesel express" train as we headed east to Pak Chong. The diesel express was a bit faster, with air-conditioning to boot. From Pak Chong we went to Khao Yai national park where we awoke to the sound of mysterious trampling noises in the dark and gibbons singing (laaah - the hills are alive... with the sound of gib...bons). Lots of wildlife - gibbons, hornbills, deer, a crocodile (no-one is sure how it got there, but there's a crocodile park near Bangkok...!), a leopard cat, pythons, macaques and more. 5th June - 8th June Another "rapid" train but, being Sunday wasn't one hour late and actually seemed to make progress. We arrived in Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), Thailand's second largest city where you can't hire a car and the airport has no commercial planes but that's ok because Susana thinks they do an excellent Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad) at the night market. Besides, buses and sitting in the back of pickup trucks and motorbikes is more fun than car hire (especially when Susana runs down the aisle to tell the crazy driver, even from a Brazilian perspective, to slow down - NOW! ... which he duly did). All this, in order to see the best-preserved Khmer ruins in Thailand - Phimai and Phanom Rung and a bit of silk-weaving. Back in Khorat, we indulged two hours of Thai "massage" (being pulled, stretched, elbowed, and stepped on) for the equivalent of US$5 - a tad cheaper than in the UK! 9th June Headed for the Cambodian border... 10th June Left Thailand at Aranyaprathet, having successfully avoided visa scams, and had a smooth border crossing into Cambodia, entering at Poipet - a busy and dusty border town with the majority of transport being men pulling carts loaded sky-high with goods.
==> Cambodia <==
Once back across the border to Thailand and back on tarmac, we soon made it to Trat and a good night's sleep.
10th July - 13th July After a conversation with Pam & Dave, an Australian couple, their plan sounded good and we headed for our last piece of beach action on the island of Koh Chang - a still very forested island, with beautiful beaches (palm trees et al.), and one tarmac road running almost round the island. Very relaxing, and sufficiently lacking in traffic for us to try our hand at moped-driving (automatic of course)! 14th July - 17th July Thought it about time we saw the capital of this country, so went to Bangkok. The contrast to an idyllic, peaceful, nature-rich island was severe, but we have started to acclimatise and seen a few of Bangkok's cultural (and shopping) spots. 18th July - 1st August Still coming to terms with the fact that we seem to have been travelling for 543 years - all the dates here say that we are in the year 2548. Or could it be something to do with their Buddhist calendar...? Escaped Bangkok overnight to see the floating market at Damnoen Saduak - lots and lots of boats selling fresh produce and noodle soup breakfasts in amongst the floating tourist tat stalls (once we'd harrassed our not-very-enthusiastic boat driver enough to actually take us to the market area). In the town itself we frequented a street stall for dinner, noting that they plugged into the lamp post for their (metered!) electricity supply. Back in Bangkok, we had ourselves measured up for some tailor-made suits on the off-chance that we might make it back to London and find ourselves in need of jobs. Whilst they were being made we arranged for an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. Sadly, the travel agent we booked through was not competent enough to complete the simple task of matching us with the correct bus. On the plus side, we discovered that our enforced stay in Bangkok enabled us to see an important Buddhist light festival the following night. Having more confidence in our own ability to board a bus, we went to the bus station and successfully found a bus to Sukhothai, one of the old Thai capitals. There we hired some ropey old bicycles and pedalled our way round some interesting historical remnants (and Buddhas, of course). Hopped on another bus to Chiang Mai - famed for its 300 temples (too many even for Roger), cookery schools, hill-tribe trekking, and massage courses. Parting ways for a couple of days, Susana checked out the hill-tribe trekking whilst Roger tried his hand at Thai massage. And then back to steamy Bangkok to check how the suits were getting on, packing into boxes and sending 'em home. 2nd - 8th August Escaped Thailand by flying to Kunming, south-west China