outbackjoe

a camping trip of ridiculous proportions


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Into Cambodia: Koh Kong and Sihanoukville

From Ko Lanta we left hastily, having only a few days left on our Thai visa and knowing it would take a few days to get to Cambodia. The trip was long and involved a 1.5hr boat ride to Krabi, 3hr bus ride to Serat Thani, 14hr overnight train to Bangkok, 5hr bus ride to Trat, overnight stopover in Trat followed by an hour bus ride to the Thai / Cambodia border at Hat Lek then a short taxi ride to Koh Kong.

There were no beds left on the overnight sleeper train from Serat Thani to Bangkok which meant we had to take 3rd class seats. What a long, uncomfortable, tiring night. The seats are almost upright, can not recline, and are arranged opposite other seats so that everyone’s legs are in the middle and there is nowhere to stretch. We endured around 14 hours of this on a crowded overnight train. Not fun. At least it’s cheap! Needless to say we slept on the bus from Bangkok to Trat.

Trat was nice. Cheap, heaps of local food and there was some dancing and singing stuff going on for some festival. The border crossing was interesting. The tourist visa into Cambodia is supposed to cost $20. The way it works is the customs officer asks for a lot more, say $40, or the equivalent in Thai Baht. The closer you match his first offer, the faster you get your visa. We waited around half an hour and paid $25 each. Another couple that came before us only wanted to pay $20 and were still waiting by the time we got our visas approved and organized a taxi out of there. A few games go on – the customs officer will be rude and aggressive and close the window in your face when you refuse his first offer. Wait 10 minutes. Then he’ll swap with another guy who’ll maybe ask for a bit less or tell you another story about how you must pay inflated prices in Thai Baht. More waiting, more swapping of customs officers. Eventually you get through.

Koh Kong is the first small town on the Cambodia side of the border. First thoughts of Cambodia were very friendly people, friendly outgoing kids who are keen to try their english skills on you, and lots of smiles. Probably should have stayed in Koh Kong a couple of nights as we found the people nicer and the atmosphere more relaxed compared to the more touristy areas we’ve since visited. We stayed only one night, had a fancy seafood dinner on the waterfront for $11, then caught the bus to Sihanoukville the next day.

Sihanoukville is a party beach resort town. Main thing to do is go to a beach bar and consume your drug of choice. Plenty of options available depending on your preference. Our first night was spent in a bed bug infested beach bungalow. Not really into the local scene nor the bed bugs, we opted for some luxury resort style accommodation for the next couple of nights. No bed bugs, awesome pool, excellent room and a flat screen TV with many cable TV channels. We vegged out in our room and around the pool for a couple of days. We thought we could call it the honeymoon we never had, but there was no poolside cocktail bar so it wasn’t quite there. We resorted to making our own poolside cocktails.

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Ko Lanta, Thailand

What a relief it was to arrive at Ko Lanta after a night at Ko Phi Phi. Ko Lanta is beautiful – what we imagined a Thai island to be. It’s a big island so it has everything on it – busy bars for partying, busy beaches lined with bars and restaurants, quiet bars, fancy restaurants, romantic restaurants, secluded beaches, local villages and some sea gypsie villages too. Some of the bars also sell special brownies and happy shakes so Ko Lanta really is a complete package. Being a big island means hiring a scooter is almost mandatory – cost is around $8 a day.

We stayed in Ko Lanta for 5 nights in a $13 a night bamboo bungalow.  It’s amazing how fast time flies when you’re doing bugger all. We explored the island on our scooter, went to various bars, restaurants,  beaches, sampled plenty of cocktails on the beach and went swimming. That’s pretty much it. Before we knew it we’d been there 5 days and our Thai visa had almost expired. No time to check out any of the other islands – off to Cambodia before we get arrested for overstaying our visa!


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Ko Phi Phi

Ko Phi Phi should be renamed to Ko Poo Poo. That’s what the island smells like. What a terrible place. Smelly, cramped, overcrowded, dirty, polluted, covered in rubbish, expensive, noisy and crawling with obnoxious shirtless males sporting Calvin Klein underwear and a backwards cap.

The narrow walking malls serve to stifle any breeze and concentrate the smell of sewage. Combine this with the tropical heat and crowds of people and it provides quite an unpleasant experience. The air is thick and suffocating and you just want to escape. What makes it worse is that there is no escape – the island is small and there is no option to hire a scooter and cruise out of town. Actually you can escape by staying in a resort out of the main village and taking a boat or kayak to one of the less smelly beaches. We probably would have enjoyed that better but opted to leave for a more attractive island instead. Stayed just one night in Ko Phi Phi.

The beaches, apart from smelling like sewage and leaving a sticky residue on your skin, are overrun with noisy boats. If you want to brave the smelly water and go for a swim you need to pick a spot on the beach in between the boats.

We paid about $37 for what I’d call a dog box. This sort of price usually gets you a resort in Thailand. Instead we got a small, dirty, moldy room with a mattress on the floor.

One thing Ko Phi Phi is famous for is the bucket – a small bucket with a bottle of spirits and usually a can of coke and a can of redbull that can be bought from most shops on the island. This typifies the culture on Ko Phi Phi.

Ko Phi Phi looks nice from a distance when you’re far away enough to not be able to smell it. I am sure it was once a beautiful island. Today it’s terrible. Over developed and over exploited to a degree never seen before with no regard for the environment.

When we were on Fraser Island I heard a hippie environmentalist say there are too many tourists on Fraser Island and it is not being looked after. That person needs to re-adjust their perception with a trip to Ko Phi Phi. Fraser Island, and the rest of Australia for that matter, is pristine by world standards. Most spots we’ve visited in Asia are dirty and smelly to a certain degree, although not to the extent that Ko Phi Phi is. Although expensive and over-regulated, when we return we will enjoy the Australian wilderness with a new appreciation.


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Krabi and Ao Nang

The train we boarded in Bangkok was older and crappier than the one we got from Chiang Mai. Not as comfortable beds, no privacy and much noisier. Got lucky on the first leg of our journey I think. The toilets on these trains are very efficient – they discharge directly onto the ground beneath. To get to Krabi we alighted the train at a town called Surat Thani and then caught a couple of hour bus ride to Krabi.

Krabi is a gateway town to some of the Thai islands further south. We stayed a few nights in Krabi and it’s adjacent sea resort village of Ao Nang. We did a half day kayak tour through some nearby islands and mangroves including an island which was used in one of the James Bond films. We hired a scooter and enjoyed cruising around the area visiting various beaches and villages and eating at odd road side shops. We scootered to a nearby Buddhist temple – Tiger Cave Temple or Wat Tham Sua. The temple is located about 20km out of town at the top of a steep hill. There’s around 1200 steps to reach the top. It’s very steep, quite an arduous hike. Although the rise in elevation is only around 300m the extreme steepness and large steps makes it difficult. Don’t do it in the middle of the day in the tropical heat – you might die. Plenty of monkeys about.


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Return to Bangkok

Being dedicated environmentalists, we decided to take the train from Chiang Mai to southern Thailand. Per passenger kilometer it uses much less fuel and releases much less carbon compared to flying. Also it’s much cheaper but that didn’t factor into our decision. Maintaining the environment is priceless, especially if it’s cheap and comfortable. We got a sleeper train to Bangkok and another sleeper train to Krabi. The first train was a new carriage with very comfortable,  roomy, private sleeping bunks, much surpassing our expectations. In Bangkok we arrived in the morning and had the day to roam around until the next train in the evening. We walked to down town Bangkok, had some food and checked out the national museum. There is so much information at the museum that it’s impossible to digest – so many kingdoms, so many wars, so many kings recognized for one thing or another, so many struggles that the people have endured.

It seems that Venus De Milo may not be as unique as she first appears. Apparently the most likely damage to any ancient statue is the arms breaking off. I could fashion an entire photographic album of armless statues from Thailand alone, let alone the rest of the world. A few I’ve attached to this post for your artistic viewing pleasure. Note how the broken off arms are a metaphor to the graceful yet fragile beauty of mankind.


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Chiang Mai Cooking Class

Back on the spew mobile from Pai to Chiang Mai where we stayed for a few more days. Chiang Mai has ended up being one of our favourite spots in Thailand – good food, cheap, not too touristy, plenty of tourist activities at very good prices, lots of local markets and local food. Actually there are a lot of tourists in Chiang Mai but it’s a big enough city to dilute them enough that it’s nowhere near as noticeable as in Pai. Apart from cruising the markets and bars and walking around town we did a full day Thai cooking class. A highlight was when the instructor taught us how to maximize the firey explosion when adding stuff the wok. It takes balls of steel to play with fire in these proportions and it’s especially impressive to any onlookers. Even better is if the food tastes good.


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Pai and Thai Highlands Trekking

After a few nights in Chiang Mai we took the bus further north to Pai. The road is only 120km long but takes over 3 hours due to the very sharp hairpins and switchbacks through the mountains. Combined with the constant hard accelerating and jerky steering of the Thai bus driver meant it was a perfect recipe for motion sickness. Fortunately no vomiting on our bus, other buses were not so lucky.

Pai is a lot smaller than Chiang Mai and is supposed to be really laid back and relaxing. We did enjoy our stay but it was incredibly busy with tourists and hippies. The traffic was bad, not from locals but from tourists on scooters. Walking down the main street we often saw tourists covered with bandages and arms in slings. With so many tourists on scooters concentrated in one area it’s inevitable that accidents occur on a daily basis.

From Pai we did a one night, two day walking trek through the Thai Highlands in northern Thailand. We took the company that advertised “no compromise on safety.” The trek started with a 40km ride in the back of a ute along a twisting mountain road.

The trek passes through farming land, rain forest, small streams, waterfalls and steep ascents up to a height of around 1400m. Most of the farm fields you see in the photos are garlic. In the wet season the garlic is replaced with rice. The people working the fields work hard for around $10 a day so we can have cheap garlic and rice.

At one stream crossing we stopped for a rest, where our guide made a fire. Using his machete he made a long jug out of bamboo to boil water in and made 6 bamboo cups and served us tea. All whilst we sat around recovering from the walk. Whilst we drank the tea he made bamboo skewers that he would use later for dinner. Bamboo is used for everything here. It’s used to make variously sized cups and jugs, skewers, chopsticks, baskets (weaving thin strips), string (thin slivers of bamboo bark), firewood, food (young bamboo shoots), furniture, flooring, shelters, bridges, scaffolding,  aircraft, spaceships and nuclear reactors.

The scenery wasn’t as spectacular as usual due to the haze. The guide said the haze was from bush fires in Burma. He didn’t mention the source of the haze shrouding the rest of the country.

Overnight we stayed in a Hill Tribe Village of the Karen People. This was probably the highlight of the trek – to énjoy a meal with a local family and see how they live. Their homes are a single room with no furniture. Meals are had sitting on the floor served out on a mat. Bedding is laid out every night and put away every morning. For bedding, blankets are used for a thin mattress and folded blankets for a pillow. Also they use blankets for blankets. Their only fuel for cooking and heating is wood. There is no chimney – the smoke diffuses through the thatched roof. They are not connected to mains power but did have a small solar panel charging a battery that powered some lighting. The family cooked up a delicious dinner which we ate in their home and they offered us some of their home made rice whiskey, 100% methanol free.

Next morning our guide was slightly ginger from too much whiskey. We did some more hiking to a waterfall then to another village to be picked up in the ute and brought back to Pai. We spent another couple of days relaxing in Pai, checking out the markets, trying the various street vendor food and Joe got his head shaved for $2. Then back on the vomit bus to Chiang Mai.