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John's year off...

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Home coming & Reading Festival

Reading, United Kingdom

We arrived home on Monday 24th August at 7am to be greeted by Oughts & Byron (once they had got the right terminal). It was excellent to see them after so long & especially good of them to collect us. Not only that, but both of the lads had taken the day off - meaning there was plenty of catching up to do immediately. We stopped off at my house on the way to Newbury, so that I could dump my bags (FINALLY) & take a shower. Before I left I couldn't resist reacquainting myself with a sorely missed life companion of mine...

I had been advised that there many places on my route that I would be able to find my favourite condiment (which there were; at least 6 occasions where I could've indulged), but I decided that if I went without for the year I would thoroughly enjoy & appreciate that first slice when I got home. I did.

We headed off to Sainsburys to purchase beer (I went for some British Ales that I have missed too), then headed to Ought's place to watch DVDs & relax. After a brief visit home to say hello to our families, Smalls & I headed back to Newbury that evening to show everyone our photos - & tell some accompanying stories ;-) The living room was full of wide eyed listeners, most of which were being vividly reminded of their own foreign adventures, & the hard core of them managed to stay with it until we called it a night at around 2am (you know who you are). Having not slept properly for over forty hours both Smalls & I gladly accepted the offer of Ought's couches. Whilst we were back at home we still woke up in the same room together the next morning...I guess we can add Newbury to the (somewhat less glamorous) destinations of our travels!

The rest of the week was spent catching up with so many people who we hadn't seen for so long - in my case a full year! Whilst it was so good to see everybody, it was also a little strange at the same time. Being back & seeing everyone indicated that the end of my adventures (or more specifically, this excursion) was very near. However, there was one final location to visit...one that I have frequented often over the past nine years...Reading Festival!!! :-)


Main stage

Smalls & I had made it!

Group shot on the first day (Friday)

Me & Lee enjoying some refreshments

Dan being introduced to the "fakie"

Later on in the afternoon Debbie & I went back to Davina (our tent) to collect a present I had purchased her from Asia...Red Bull. Knowing what Debbie is like on Vodka & UK Red Bull, I wanted to see what she made of the Thai variety of the mixer.

Deb & davina...that's right, DAVINA! She made it all the way back from Kuala Lumpur - which is where we posted her from. Davina had heard us talk of Reading Festival & we could tell that she was eager to get pegged in at Richmond field. I suspect that no other tent at Reading could firstly boast to being a Kiwi, or being as well travelled as Davina is. Sadly, as a result of her two months of intense use in NZ & Oz - & her postal adventure home, Davina was displaying some war wounds. Reading's campsite was to be her eternal resting place :'-( We shall miss her...

I think it is safe to say that even as we were leaving Debbie was already feeling the effects (so was I). The drinking throughout the day previously may have had an influence!

My final blog entry would not have been complete without the sunset picture! Being shot in the UK I think this picture is probably a rarity!

Debbie & I are still going strong (although my memory of that night is slightly blurry - thanks again to that Red Bull!)

Me, Lee & Deb

Friendly Fires & then Jamie T on the Radio1 stage were very good indeed! Then the group headed towards the main stage to see the Kings of Leon (who weren't as good as they have been when we have seen them previously). Smalls & I were definitely sick & tired of their sex being "on fire" - as we had been overexposed to this particular tune throughout NZ & Oz...it was EVERYWHERE

Reading festival continues to expand year on year. The festival is hardly recognisable from the one I first attended in 2000...so much has changed! This is one of the camp sites, taken on the way home.


Whilst I have been keeping a blog going for the full year of adventures I have also managed to complete a diary for a whole year! It is full of bullet points of what I have been up to each day. It also includes some amusing/inappropriate anecdotes that didn't make the blog ;-)

On the second day we were lying around the tent, drinking beer, when I spotted a Gecko walking past us. I said as much, much to the delight of the Gecko - who was sick of being mistaken for a frog! I quote "...we all know that frogs don't have tails!!!"

The second day provided us with some much sought after sunshine...the beer tastes even better in those conditions!

The girls had bought some face paints & glitter etc, which Dan (the "artist") used to create some masterpieces - with our skin being his canvas. I was fortunate enough to receive a beautiful (?!) butterfly. Thanks Dan :-)

Faye was onto my "fakie" antics - which is why I think she is looking a little suspicious of me here!

Sian is one of Debbie's best friends, & one of our hardcore festival goers. It was excellent to have her along for the Sat & Sun.

The highlight of the day schedule was Maximo Park! We all watched them in the sunshine & sang along (somewhat drunkenly) to their brilliant tunes. Happy days :-)

This is the best picture from Dan's disposable camera...can you spot who's missing? (Sadly I don't appear to have a complete team photo?!)

The above picture was taken after we had just been treated to an amazing performance by the Prodigy. We were all together in the front section of the crowd, which was packed & jumping. It was quite a sight to see a field rammed with 60,000+ people all bouncing up & down together. Sadly, I lost both the lenses to my sunglasses & my festival chair during their performance. The chair loss is especially sad, seeing as it attended my first Reading with me & has visited many more festivals since. I hope that it has found a good home.

The Arctic Monkeys closed the second day. They were good, although we had seen them perform better previously. They played some classics that the whole crowd went mad for though!


Last day group shot

Dan doing a vodka jelly shot. They are actually quite difficult to get out of the shot glass - we all have our techniques for this Reading Festival delicacy ;-)

After my aviator sunglasses (a "present" from Debs) got destroyed in Prodigy the previous day, Debs was kind enough to let me look after her purple glasses when she wasn't using them...isn't she great?!

Debbie's favourite band of the moment (you have NO idea)...Bloc Party!!! They were amazingly good (as always). When it comes to Bloc Party, they can play any of their tunes & I would be a happy bunny!

...and so it was time for the closing act of the festival (& essentially my year of adventures)...RADIOHEAD :-)

It was 15years since Radiohead last played Reading Festival, so I had a feeling that this was going to be a special performance...and it was. I had been saying, since I found out that my favourite band were closing the festival, that the perfect way to finish my year out would be to hear them play one of their earliest tunes "Creep." This was unlikely, due to their dislike of the song - which was as a result of its massive success (that's what Radiohead are like), and the fact that I have only heard of them playing it at two gigs in about the last ten years.

They OPENED their set with it!!! :-)

The light show was fantastic! The poles above the stage were perspex - meaning that they perfectly reflected the lasers. Some of the displays were very impressive indeed.

The sound was excellent too. We were quite close to the front, as you can tell from the awesome piccies, so we were immersed in the sound. In previous years Reading organisers have been known to reduce the volume for the Sunday evening acts - due to the residential area across the road from the site. Thankfully this didn't appear to be the case this year.

This final shot is actually of me after the opening song, Creep. I had dared to dream of this perfect finish from my favourite band, & that dream came true. I managed to record a couple of the songs on my camera, including Creep, moments I will no doubt enjoy reliving for many years to come...

After Reading Festival I went to visit my Mum & Roy in Looe, Cornwall. Having not seen my Mum in over a year, & it having recently been her Birthday, it was excellent to see her again. That evening she presented me with a beautifully constructed printed version of my blog to date. Mum had set it out in folders brilliantly (three of them - I didn't realise quite how much I had done until I saw this!) and she had added maps & information on every destination that I visited. It was the perfect present & I cannot thank her enough for the kind though & all of the effort she put into it.

At the end of the trip my Mum has asked me twenty questions, which I am including in my reflections of the year...

20 Questions about my trip from my Mum...

1) Where was your favourite place you visited?
A. There are different places for different reasons...
New York = An incredible city. I especially liked Central Park - I would love to live in Manhattan for a year to experience all four seasons in the city.

2) Where was your least favourite place you visited?
A. Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was smelly, muggy, unattractive & very dirty. Enough said.

3) Where would you most like to return to visit in a different season?
A. The rocky mountains in Canada. I would love to paddle from Jasper down to Banff, camping & hiking excursions included in a week long summer adventure.

4) What was your most memorable journey (not necessarily the most comfortable!)?
A. Hitch hiking to the Hilo Airport in Hawaii with a slightly unhinged individual, Gregory Scott Nottingham. He chatted a lot of nonsense to Smalls in the front (including how he was actually offered the honour of the Duke of Nottingham, as a result of his ancestry, which he declined!?!) while I rode along in the back - watching the bemused faces of the drivers behind as he ambled across the lanes on the highway. Smalls will be able to tell all on this intriguing individual.

5) What was the most extraordinary thing you ate?
Probably Reef Shark in Thailand.

6) Did you enjoy it?
It didn't really have a distinctive taste, therefore I think I prefer them when they are swimming around in the sea for my viewing pleasure. A lot of chilli sauce saved the meal on that occasion!

7) What was the best new food that you tried?
I particularly enjoyed the seafood available in Asia. BBQ Barracuda was a particular favourite of mine, along with lots of Pad Thai (a noodle, veg, seafood/chicken stir fry). I also enjoyed a few Elk burgers during my time in Canada.

8) What was the best new drink that you tried?
I think that I have to say it is Chang beer (nothing particularly exotic - but then again, whoever knows me would have guessed it would've been a beer!). Chang beer is not regulated in regards to its alcoholic volume. Therefore, when you have a tall Chang of 5.7% you could be drinking one that is potentially up to 9% - which leads to varying degrees of inebriation on the same number of bottles of the stuff. Also, it only cost about £1.20 for a large one...happy days :-)

9) Where was the most salubrious place you stayed overnight?
Being on a backpackers budget I was still limited on my accommodation budget, even in Asia where everything is a lot cheaper than in the western world, therefore luxurious accommodation was not the norm. I stayed in a number of nice resorts throughout Asia though, the highlight was probably in Vietnam's Cat Ba 5 star resort.

10) Where was the least salubrious place you stayed overnight?
The first hostel I stayed in in Toronto was truly hideous. It was vermin infested, smelly, dirty & generally run down. Needless to say I only stayed there the one night (sharing my bed with the bed bugs!)

11) What was the strangest creature (not human!) that you encountered?
That bug/spider thing in the jungles of Laos. There is a picture of it in the blog on our Gibbon experience.

12) What was the scariest moment of your trip?
Being held up at a bridge gate, after tubing on the second day, by a bunch of Laos teenagers with machetes. Not a pleasant experience. No one was hurt & we got back to the town okay in the end, thanks to a nice American girl that paid our passage to the hoodlums.

13) What gave you the greatest adrenaline rush?
The sky dive, for sure. If the activity itself wasn't enough of a thrill, seeing the amazing NZ scenery surrounding Wanaka lake made it a truly awe inspiring experience.

14) What was the longest you went without a good wash/shower?.
Probably just under two days. When you are travelling around Asia you find that the buses &boats take a long time, covering great distances. With the cramped conditions & the mostly muggy conditions it made for some dirty travelling conditions.

15) Which person that you met on your travels would you most like to meet again?
This is a very tough one! I met so many truly amazing people, all around the world, and I would love to see any one of them again. I suspect that those I am most likely to see in the near future are Steve (UK - met him in Montreal), Chris (Ire - met him in Ottawa & he was with us for Christmas), Nerissa (NZ - met her in Ottawa as well. Smalls & I also stayed with her for a few days in her hometown of New Plymouth) and Nathan (Oz - met him in Banff, then Smalls, Dixy & I stayed with him & his family in Ulladulla for the weekend).
Those are the friends, as for the girls I got to know a little better...that would be telling! :-P

16) Which person that you met on your travels would you least like to meet again?
When in the travelling community you don't meet many unappealing people. Most people are friendly & open minded. If there ever is someone you don't see eye to eye with you merely don't speak to them & you will both be off on your separate ways shortly. What was far more frequent was getting on so well with so many people that you then travelled together with them.

17) Did you prefer travelling alone or with friends?
There are pluses & minuses to both being alone or with friends. I enjoyed both for different reasons. When you are travelling on your own you are never truly alone, unless you want to be, as it is so easy to meet other travellers & make many new friends.

18) What do you most regret doing on your trip? (Printable answers only!)?
No regrets. I mean that honestly.

19) What do you most regret not doing on your trip? (Likewise!)
No regrets. Had I been able to afford it I would have taken a helicopter trip into the Grand Canyon, although as a result of not doing it I was able to afford many other excellent activities = so no regrets, I shall do it another time! :-)

20) Where will you go to next?
South Africa 2010. I have got tickets to the next World Cup, which England have now qualified for. I now just have to wait to see what fixtures I get when the teams are drawn in December. I have tickets to four different matches - so I am hoping that one of those is an England fixture!

The plan is to spend a week in/around Johannesburg to watch football (& party), before heading off to the Kruger National Park for a three day safari, then finally on to Cape Town to go Great White Shark Diving (& hopefully see Marcus - if he is back from his tour of Africa by then!). There will be at least six of us going, so I am thoroughly looking forward to that one! ;-)


It seems longer than a year since the above picture was taken at the top of the Empire State Building. I have been many extraordinary places, met many amazing people, & had many unforgettable experiences throughout my year exploring the world. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it - even those that didn't seem so enjoyable at the time (mainly cramped travel conditions, sometimes being tall isn't the greatest of attributes).

This blog has been a chore at times, but in the most part it has been a pleasure to write. I shall forever be humbled & surprised by the reception my blog has had from its readers, along with the number of readers it has had! I thank you all for sharing in my adventures, & for the kind comments you have made as avid spectators along the way. I was especially pleased that Allan & Ricky made surprise appearances, it was a shame that a final year of University prevented Stuart from joining me at some point. Next time, maybe!

I now return to the UK in search of employment, hopefully continuing in the career that I had begun to establish before I left, in Video Technologies Account Management. The plan is to reduce the debt whilst working & living in London, then there's the World Cup excursion to South Africa, after that...who knows???



permalink written by  johnnoble on September 10, 2009 from Reading, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Return to Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

We arrived back in Bangkok, with three & a half weeks remaining. Our whirlwind tour of Asia was due to end with time to revisit some of our favourite places, so everything was on schedule.

The famous Khao San Road...a hive of activity with tourists everywhere - with equal numbers of Thai locals looking to make some easy money.

We asked a tuk-tuk driver on Khao San Rd to take us to a busy bar area. He did not. We were wandering down empty streets in the North of the city when we stumbled upon a tiny bar located above a (then closed for the day) food court. We walked in just as the band were starting up for the night, so we stayed to check them out. We were pleasantly surprised!

The lead singer had many of the mannerisms of the legendary Tom Jones, & he even sounded very like him too! There weren't many other people in the bar, so Smalls & I were free to request to our hearts content - due to the average age of the band we were treated to some golden oldies (Beatles, Eagles, Van Morrison etc). The Sax player was pretty handy too! We stayed for the whole set & then returned to drink in the bustle bright lights of Khao San Road.

Some of you may remember that when we visited the islands off of the East coast of Thailand I managed to injure myself (Red Bull buckets + fire ropes/rings = bad things). That was just before we arrived on the chilled out haven that is Koh Tao, which is primarily visited for its excellent dive sites. Andy did his open water Scuba course while Smalls & I sat on the beach for three days (I coped). Therefore, as I had managed to stay injury free I decided it was time to get back there & do the PADI (Scuba Dive Qualification) myself.

I did my open water course with "Buddha View" dive school, located on a small beach on the southern tip of the island. It was placed away from the main beach & bars, so I was able to resist the temptations of evening activities (you shouldn't drink & dive!). My instructor was very good, the group were all lovely people (6 of us in total) & I thoroughly enjoyed it! As anyone who knows me is aware I was a swimmer for many, many years so it felt totally natural, for me, breathing underwater (with as much sense as that comment can achieve?!?). After my four full dives, the deepest being 22m, I had opened my eyes fully to the wonder of this activity. Some of the coral & its inhabitants are truly breathtaking. It is amazing to be able to be in amongst the fish & being able to truly study their graceful movements & varying behaviours. It is fair to say that after three days of diving I wanted more - although with less fundamental drills (covered in the course) & more wider exploration of the dive sites. More on that later...

After completing my PADI it was time to head back to Koh Phangan for our second full moon party. We were arriving the day before in order to catch up with Dixy & the lads from Bournemouth. We had first met Pete, Rich & Ben on the slow boat missions through Laos, & they had looked after Dixy for about a month (when we were following on behind - due to the Gibbon Experience in Laos). They are top quality lads with a sense of humour very much like our own, so needless to say it was good to meet up with them & share some more antics!

That night we went to the Thai Boxing on the island, before hitting the full moon warm up party on the beach. August is the busiest Full Moon party - due to all of the tourists from Europe on their Summer holidays. Therefore, the warm up party was as big as the Full Moon was that we first attended in June. Needless to say we had a good time.

For the whole of the next day we relaxed in one of the nearby resort's pool, before getting back on the beers & back down to the beach for the real thing. Andy's girlfriend, Rachael, & her friend Becca were on their holidays too, so they got involved. With all the people that we had met in Phangan, along with the established crowd, there was quite a crowd of us that hit the beach together that night. However, with thousands upon thousands of luminous painted party goers we were never going to stay as one group for long!

There were many, many funny/crazy photos taken that night (which some of you have seen...you know who you are), so I have decided to pick just a few...

A glorious group photo (at which point many buckets had been consumed)

The aforementioned "Buckets" - "...that Red Bull ain't right!"

Me (pulling a "fakie"), Dixy & Smalls (meditating perhaps?)

A "fakie" is when you manage to pull a ridiculous face in a photo pose, usually directed at someone, whilst they are unaware of you doing so. It is very immature, but the results are very amusing (if you are immature like us, I suppose!)

Other fakies during our time with the Bournemouth boys...


Rach & Becca

With none of us having made it to bed until around 4pm the following afternoon we wrote the following day off as one for recovery. We had all had an awesome night & one we are unlikely to repeat too soon (if at all!). We (Smalls & I, Dixy was to remain with Rach) decided that we would tag along with the Bournemouth crew to the West coast of Thailand & the island of Phi Phi. So we all said our emotional goodbyes to Mr Andrew Dicks, who has been a stella travelling companion to all, before setting off on our 24hour journey - taxi to boat to bus to bus to boat to hotel room. I am not going to miss the "travelling" of travelling (although we always manage to have a laugh still). The hour & a half crossing from the mainland (Krabi) to Phi Phi was particularly amusing/terrifying, depending on your disposition, as the ocean swells & storm were really in full force. While there were many casualties to sea sickness, I am pleased to say that none of us were involved.

Phi Phi's main pier/boat port

Phi Phi is another beautiful island, as you can see. The warm, crystal clear waters & sandy beaches give the place its paradise image. The inner island is very small & cramped with bars & restaurants (thanks to the boom in tourism), but the surrounding beaches & small islands are all protected national parks, meaning it is only a short excursion to find some of Thailand's natural beauty.

Island of Phi Phi

We booked a half day/sunset tour of some of the more popular beaches & island around Phi Phi. We stopped off at monkey bay (where there were monkeys), did some snorkelling, jumped off of the top deck of our boat (a lot), kayaking, & finally stopped at Maya Bay - also known as "The Beach," made famous by the Leonardo Di Caprio film of the same name. The weather was gorgeous - incredibly hot, yet not humid. A quick dip in the cool(er) ocean was incredibly refreshing.

A cove on the other side of the beach

Maya - The "BEACH"

There's always time for a group shot...

& some "fakies"

"The" beach wasn't as stunning as I had anticipated, although I was probably expecting too much. On the film the waters are crystal clear & the sand is spotlessly clean. Thanks to the large number of tourists that frequent this beach that is no longer the case. Whilst Maya Bay is a protected national park, it does not stop the inevitable litter/spoiling that comes with human interference. The surrounding rock formations that make this bay a cove are truly spectacular though, & I think that it will take some determined individuals to ruin those!

Back on the boat we stopped to enjoy the sunset out at sea.

That evening was time for another emotional experience...saying our farewells to the Bournemouth boys. We did this in true traveling fashion & all went out to celebrate with some cocktails...

That night we managed to convince, a slightly inebriated, Pete that Thai boxing could wait for another time/life! Getting in the ring would have been impressive in itself! We all ended up dancing away on the beach late into the night.

We saw some pretty amusing signs on the island...

Ben, Pete & Rich have at least another 6months away together & will continue to have the time of their lives. It will be a happy occasion when we meet up with them again, in our old night out haunt of Bournemouth, for a catch up beer or two.

Due to our late retreat to our beds, coupled with Rich's alarm staying asleep, Smalls & I missed our 9am boat & bus to the Thai-Malaysian border. We managed to catch the afternoon boat & then the bus the following day. We had to go on a Visa run, as ours were due to expire in the next couple of days. It is free to leave the country & come back in (giving you a new 15day visa) but the Thai government charge ten pounds a day for every day you are over your visa allowance = great financial motivation to make the mission journey to the border. It is a crazy system, crossing a border & back again in a half hour whirlwind of forms, but them's the rules!

It was then that Smalls & I went our separate ways. We had agreed to make the most of the last of our time in Asia, so for me that meant going back to Koh Tao to do my Advanced PADI diving course. Smalls went off to Koh Samui to meet some of our female friends we had made back in Laos (ladies' man).

My mini-bus across Thailand was full. When we reached the East coast everyone but myself got a transfer to a Bangkok bound bus, leaving the driver to take me the 200kms down the coast to the port for Koh Tao (Champuon). I was slightly worried when as soon as we pulled away together the driver popped a DVD into the player in the front of the mini bus! Thankfully he kept his eyes on the road, although I had to endure his choice of "Death Race" (an awful Jason Statham movie about convicts racing to the death!). The movie's soundtrack & sound effects may have inspired a faster journey though!

I arrived in Koh Tao (above), after the night boat, at 5am. I wandered the streets & waited for the dive schools to open. This time I was staying up at Sairee Beach, which is the "busier" area on the island. Koh Tao is incredibly chilled out, which is why I liked it so much (certainly in comparison to Phangan & Samui). My dive school this time was "Asia Divers."

The resort itself is a 5min walk from the beach but it is very nice. The pool was especially appreciated as the whole four days I was there it was in the mid 30's oC! On my first evening I met my instructor, Hayley, & we planned my next two days of diving. The basic skills of diving are covered in the open water, so the advanced course is geared towards specific activities/uses for scuba diving. One of the options was Photography (something that I have always had an interest in). Whilst it cost an extra 30pounds to hire the camera & casing for the day (including pics on a DVD) I think all will agree it was well worth it...

Thankfully I didn't have any issues with equalising the pressure in my ears whenever I descended


...time for your close up

A Blue Spotted Stingray - they can be found all over the ocean floor after dark. Thankfully we spotted this one under a rock during the day

Yes, those are fish, thousands of them!

My "artistic" streak...

The most annoying fish in the ocean...the Cleaner Wrasse. Although they appear very pretty they nip away at any exposed dead skin, so being a victim of many mosquito bites I was particularly popular with these fish. They don't hurt, they're just simply annoying!

Christmas tree worms are brilliant fun! When ever you get too close they snap away into the their coral base...this never got old for me! They're colourful too

Who likes diving...

The most challenging fish to spot amongst the coral = the Scorpion fish

Q: How many fish want their picture taken with me?

It isn't only the fish that are engaging - some of the coral structures & colours were mesmerizing...

Hayley found evidence of the negative human influence on the ocean

Trigger fish: they are very big & very territorial. If you get too close to them the fin on the top of their body stands up & they attack - usually stealing a diver's fins

I have saved my favourite underwater picture for last - that of the Pink Anemone Fish. I surprised myself with how well some of my pictures came out!

My fifth & final dive of the course (9th in total) was a night dive. We headed out in the early evening, for the third dive of the day, and enjoyed the sunset.

My instructor, Hayley, & I had a good laugh together diving. I was her only student & proficient enough for her to be able to relax & show me some cool underwater inhabitants. This is us kitted up & ready for the night dive...

Whilst Scuba diving gives you that curious weightless feeling, being suspending in the water, doing in the dark is other worldly! There are far more crustaceans out on the coral & sea bed at night, so we saw lots of crabs. It is eerily cool to scope the underwater world with your torch. As you are sweeping you are constantly surprised by what is swimming around you, & how many fish there are so close to you! I have to say that diving was one of my favourite activities from my whole trip & I can clearly see how so many can become addicted to the activity & the lifestyle that goes with it.

My final day in Koh Tao was spent soaking up the beach. I have spent a lot of the last 7/8 months on the beach & I still believe it gets better everytime. I know that some of these pictures are going to spark some intense daydreaming when I am next stuck behind a desk. Beaches everywhere...I am going to miss you terribly so :'-(

Our final Asian stop is Bangkok, for the third & final time, where Smalls & I again reunited.

With three days to spend in Bangkok we decided to make the most of what was left of our Asian adventure. So, I googled local water parks & we were off for a day in the sun & sliding activity. However, when we got to the park we realised that the information I had obtained online was less than accurate - they only had two slides! Both were okay. The park could boast (& did with many signs) to having the world's Guinness book of records largest wave pool...WOW :-O
We made the most of the situation by enjoying some cold beers in the jacuzzi & then lounging around in glorious sunshine. The real world is going to be one massive shock to us!

That evening we were delighted to watch England's cricketers creep ever closer to beating the Aussies in the Ashes. The Aussie's final innings is underway as I type this. Both Smalls & I hope, like all Englishmen, that we win it - especially seeing as we have made so many Australian friends on our travels :-)

The next day we dedicated to making the most of the Thai prices by visiting the Chatachuk Market. This place is HUGE! There are over 10,000 stalls selling all kinds of weird & wondeful stuff. You can buy anything from a pillow case cover to a puppy (due to the poor conditions of their enclosures I decided not to get any pics...they were still cute though!). I managed to get some bargain t-shirts &jeans, amongst other necessity items - such as trainers (it will be very strange to put on socks & shoes after over 3months in flip flops!).

When we returned to the Khao San Road area that evening the skies began to turn. I headed to the hotel while Smalls went off to find some more bargains at the nearby stalls. I think he wishes he hadnt bothered now! The heavens opened, so all the stalls shut up as quickly as possible, then the streets became totally flooded in a matter of minutes! Smalls told me that as soon as it was clear the drains were blocking up all of the rats & cockroaches headed for higher ground by any means - including climbing up people! I am glad to say that I was dry & content in our room :-) We were lucky that we could make it around the corner from our hotel to watch the football in a nearby restaurant...we couldn't miss that because of a little rain!

After our last night out (which finished at 4am after a sheesha session) we got up late, then I made my way to Bangkok's biggest shopping centre. The picture on the left is of a statue located outside the shopping centre...I have no idea what it is in aid of or what message it is trying to portray?!

The shopping centre is massive. It is incredibly similar to any you would find in the Western world, although there is a market at the end of the building. Here you can find most of the goods from the proper shops at a massively reduced price...a very odd setup. I managed to find the majority of what I was looking for, however I can advise that the Thais do not cater for people of my height when it comes to shirts!

I have just checked our flight out of Bangkok to Heathrow & everything is in order, thankfully. We are both looking forward to some relatively comfortable travel (flying BA) after all of the discomfort we have endured on our travels. I have to say that it has all been well worth it though! Asia is a fantastic place & each country that we have visited has had something different to offer. There are a few places that I would like to come back to (Thai islands & Vietnam especially) but I would recommend everywhere I have been (except maybe Kuala Lumpur...I wasn't a fan). There shall be no great reflections in this blog entry, because there will be a "home coming" & Reading Festival entry to finish off the year's adventure. I am incredibly excited by the thought of seeing all of my family & friends - it seems like a lot longer than a year I have been away! Mr Byron Smith & Mr Christopher Oughton will be meeting us at Heathrow tomorrow morning...and I can't wait!!! :-)

permalink written by  johnnoble on August 18, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Cambodia...the last Asian country to explore on the tour

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our bus journey from HCMC to Phnom Penh (the Cambodian capital) was long &, thnakfully, uneventful. It is very hard to describe the border crossing throughout Asia, apart from to say that they are nothing like those in the Western world. Under-staffed, a distinct lack of security, & nobody tells you what is going on. It is not pleasant to cross these borders, but a huge relief when it is done!

Above is a picture of the Phnom Penh Palace. Cambodia has a vast array of temples & palaces, all very intricate in their design & stunning in their scale. This form of arcitechture is something that is ingrained in their history, as we were to learn fully during our time in the country.

Upon arrival in Phenom Penh, Smalls & I immediately checked into a hotel/hostel on the North East side of the city, near to the river. It turns out that we were in the moderately priced area of the expensive tourism area. We had arrived late, so we went for food & a couple of beers nearby. Whilst out we met up with our Australian friend, Dewse, who we had met on the slow boat in Laos. We had a fair few catch up drinks in celebration!

The next day was spent recharging our batteries, & catching up with Mr Andrew Dicks! Dewse had met him near his hostel & brought him over to ours to meet up. It was good to see the norm again after about a month apart. As Andy decided not to do the Laos jungle experience, & he didn't do the Thousand Islands tour in Vietnam, he was a week ahead of us in travel. That evening we celebrated our reunion with a $2 all-you-can-eat curry, & plenty of beer & pool. We met some nice lads from Cameroon & played until the bar shut at 3am.

Dewse & I couldn't resist the temptation to create an Angkor tower with our empties. Quite fitting, as you will see from the Angkor relics later in the blog (this is the modern day beer version...of sorts).

The next day Smalls & I set out on a full days' adventure & exploration. We hired a tuk-tuk for the day, & then set off to visit the local orphanage.

We decided to visit the orphanage instead of shooting big guns at the local shooting range. Mostly because we had done that before (in Latvia) & because we had heard what a good job the orphanage was doing. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that the orphanage was spacious, despite being home to 100 kids! The facilities were also very good, with plenty of sports activities (basketball, volleyball etc) & large classrooms. They even had access to the computers to learn how to word process etc.

Whilst we both made small donations to the orphanage, both Smalls & I wanted to give the kids a present...hence the mutlicoloured football. The young lad pictured above seemed to be very happy with our gift, & we had a brief kick about with him before we left.

Next stop was the notorious "Killing Fields" at Choeung Ek. It was at this location, about 15km outside of Phnom Penh, that over 17,000 Cambodians were executed - in accordance with Pol Pot's new regime. These barbaric executions were carried out throughout Pol Pot's rule, from 1976-1979. The picture above is of the tower constructed to house the skulls of many of the deceased.

The above picture is of the glass column inside the tower. It is impossible to imagine how many people died here.

Pol Pot's primary aim was to impose communism in its purest form - as he interpreted it. This meant that everyone worked to the benefit of the state, in the form of rural labour in the rice fields throughout the vast Cambodian landscape. Rice was Cambodia primary export, & the primary focus of international trade for Pol Pot. Anyone who was considered to be educated was detained & questioned in prisons in all the major towns & cities. Almost all of the inmates at these prisons were executed, after being tortured horrendously. The picture on the left displays just how brutal Pol Pot's men were when carrying out their duties.

The killing fields, as they are today, give very little indication of the horrific nature of their history. The many holes in the ground appear to be just that, although each of these were mass graves. There were literally hundreds of these graves throughout the site. It certainly sends a shiver down your spine when you try to visualize how it must have felt to visit a place like this in its operational days - either as a condemed prisoner, a guard, or even an observer.

Next on our tour was the S-21 prison. This was Phenom Penh's number one interrogation centre. Formally a school, the building is located on the outskirts of the city. The grounds look as they did when the place was operational, and they give no indication to the horrors that occured here. As you can see by the rules, there was little room any form of error here...

All of the rooms in the three buildings (each three stories high) now have various exhibits relating to the running of the prison, & Pol Pot's rule in the wider context. It is quite shocking to see how the Cambodian people were treated, & not more than 30 years ago. Below is a picture taken of the skulls that were unearthed from mass graves at the killing fields. Excavations began in the early 1980's, after Pol Pot's rule had been ended.

Here is a typical torture room. Inmates were strapped to these beds & exposed to some brutal treatment - all in aid of gaining information of "the rebellion," which was in the most part fictional & ultimately futile.

I would recommend the killing fields & S21 prison to all visiting Cambodia, although expect to be both moved & horrified by all that you read & see. I read pretty much every exhibit & left feeling pretty numb.

Next stop was a six hour (bumpy) bus ride across the country to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Cambodia's next largest city, & is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year...due to the nearby temple ruins. These I had heard about many years ago, & had been very high on my list of "must-sees" whilst travelling. So, needless to say, I was very excited at the prospect of a day walking around these ruins.

Our first view of the famous "Anchor Wat" was truly stunning. It is hard to believe that the construction of these gigantic structures began back in the 7th century! The land that the temples cover is vast, & there are many different groupings. Anchor Wat is the biggest, and arguably, the most impressive.

Inside the outer walls of the temple you can walk around the central towers. The attention to detail in their design, & the actual construction that was undertaken to create them, is nothing short of breathtaking.

It is clearly visible how vast these projects were when you observe the engravings in the brickwork. This is the norm, not the exception. You can only appreciate this is you visit the place & everywhere you look the bricks are patterned, or tell a story.

Personally, my favourite view of Anchor Wat is above. I love the reflection of the temples on the lake. If you want to see some even more spectacular images of this "eigth wonder of the world" then google images is your friend ;-)

As the temples are built out in the forrests there is plenty of wildlife nearby. These were just a few of the monkeys that we saw throughout the day. They are very used to people, as one would expect with the number of tourists that must visit each year.

Anchor may be the biggest & most renowned of the temples, but there are many more. There are six main clusters of temples, all varying slightly in their styles and sizes - reflecting the time in which they were built. The faces in the tower above are at the Phnom Bakheng temple, which isn't nearly as big as Wat - although nonetheless impressive; as are all the other temples.

Ta Keo ruins...

Near to the Anchor Thom ruins there is a giant buddha stature. There are four of these throughout the grounds of the temples, and they are used daily as places of worship for local Cambodians.

Whilst it is currently possible to fully explore the ruins, as I am above (my own personal "Indy Indiana" moment!), this may not be the case for too much longer. As tourists are free to roam the grounds as they please they are causing more & more destruction to the site. The high number of visitors increase corrosion of the temples, so there are currently discussion regarding plans to exclude visitors from walking in/around certain temples. Therefore, I would advise on exploring these fascinating structures as soon as possible - whilst the chance to do so freely remains!

The Ta Prohm temples are possibly my favourite of all. These temple ruins are littered with trees literally growing out of & over the temples themselves. Seeing is believing. The picture below is of one of the most photographed, & therefore recognisable, ruins. You may recognise this as inspiration for the "Tomb Raider" computer games, which have also been made into films (partly shot at the ruins in Cambodia).

It is very hard to take a bad photo when your subjects are as visually stunning as these. I must have taken a hundred photos that day, so picking out a select few took a while!!

One of the temples designs was to include a vast lake - about the size of ten football pitches. There used to be a temple where Smalls & I are standing, but it has since fallen down completely. The main focus of this construction was the lake anyway.

The only annoying thing about visiting such a popular tourist attraction is that is attracts many locals looking to make a quick $$$! Every stop that you make you are surrounded by desperate locals looking to sell you anything they can. We dealt with this annoyance in the best means possible...to decline their offers whilst having some fun with them. At one stall Smalls decided to purchase a t-shirt, although his form of bartering was questionable at best (Paper, scissor, stones anyone?!)...

Smalls lost & had to pay the whole $4 asking price :-O

Having walked around six of the major temple sites all day, we stopped for a quick beer, then made our way to the highest temple - in search of a good sunset. Whilst we had been treated to glorious sunshine throughout the day, sadly, as we ascending the hill the clouds began to thicken.

The view from the top of the temple on the hill was spectacular, although our luck had run out & we didn't get the sunset we desired. We weren't the only ones though, many people had made the twenty five minute walk to the top - so it was actually quite crowded at the top of the temple!

I have to admit that I wasn't in the least bit dissapoined by our excursion to the temples. It is largely as I imagined, but not a large as I had imagined. It is worth coming to Cambodia just to see these phenomenal structures, although I would advise that you start making those plans soon as no one can tell how much longer free exploration will be allowed.

After all of the culture & history of Cambodia, it was time to check out its more modern draw for tourists...that is the sandy white beaches of the south. Sihanouk Ville is the most popular beach destination on the South coast, & is currently under a lot of development to construct very western style resorts.

There are about six different beaches around Sihanouk Ville, we chose to stay at the one most popular with locals & budget travellers - giving the place that authentic local vibe, whilst also competitive & cheap.

All along the beach there are many, many restaurants & bars. All of which sell lots of different styles of food, although the seafood is amongst some of the best I have ever tasted! The majority of it is BBQ...delicious :-)

As with many tourist destinations in Cambodia, there are plenty of locals looking to sell you their "tat." Mostly bracelets. However, can anyone think why on earth Mr Small decided not to part with his $3 for this hat?!? The sun had clearly got to his head...a decision I am sure he will rue for the rest of his days :-(

Out on our first night we met up with Andy again, who had been at the beach whilst we were exploring temples in Siem Reap. We hadn't planned to meet up, so a nice surprise. We also met some more of our friends from Laos, Mike & Caz, and the lot of us drank whilst playing giant Jenga & pool into the early hours.

I have to say that the Cambodian girls are VERY good at pool (either that or the girls in the UK are really letting our nation down in this department). I'm not sure that I won a single game! Worth mentioning, as most of you who know me will know that I like the occasional game of pool - but not losing!

Our time in Sihanouk Ville was spent on the beach or in the bars. We didn't go crazy at all, it was just nice to recharge in the sunshine & relax. Afterall, the buses in Asia are tough going!

Whilst on the beach on our second day we ran into a couple of furry little friends. I think that our recent exposure to puppies has had a profound effect on "cat-lover" Smalls, although he would be the last to admit that! Who could refuse faces like these?

I will sign off this Cambodian blog entry with one of my signature sunset shots (it's been a while?!). Cambodia is a very unique country - largely due to its history & man made structures. I thoroughly enjoyed our time here, although there isn't much more that could keep an avid tourist here for more that ten days (at a push). Therefore, we are off back to Thailand & the islands...one more full moon party before the reality of the UK ;-)

permalink written by  johnnoble on July 31, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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The rest of Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After killing a few days back in Hanoi, & Allan departing, Smalls & I got our overnight sleeper train. We were setting off on our way down the East coast of Vietnam, with our first destination being Danang - a 12hour ride away (Vietnam is bigger than I had expected).

The primary purpose of our visit to Danang was to check out the National Cham Sculpture Museum that is located there. Cham craft are intricate sand sculptures. There are examples of the art form from all over Vietnam, & from varying dates in time. A lot of it is very impressive, including the well preserved state that the majority of the exhibits were in. Below is a selection of photos to give you a taster of what was on show...

We only stayed in Danang for one night, as there wasn't much to it (as far as tourist sights), but as we walked around the city after the Museum we got caught in one MASSIVE thunderstorm. All around us people took cover, although Smalls & I braved the downpour (which we found to be both refreshing & enjoyable) - much to the amusement of the locals! We arrived at our hotel looking like we had literally just climbed out of a swimming pool fully clothed! I wish I had a picture, but sadly my camera isn't waterproof.

The next day we made the relatively short trip to Hoi An, which is a 30km bus ride away (costing all of $2!). We immediately liked what we saw.

Hoi An is a step back in time to a simpler Vietnam. As a 17th century international trading port the town has many foreign influences - predominantly Chinese, Japanese & European. These influences are clearly visable by the ecclectic composition of buildings & shops, all set in narrow streets & lanes. At one end of the city (which is more like a town in size) there is an impressive Japanese bridge.

At the other end of the town is the market, which is very large & sells all sorts of goods - including a vast array of food stuffs, DIY equipment, kids toys, ornaments & figurines, & many, many silk stalls & tailors. All of the people working there see the Western tourist as a walking wallet - so merely brousing the markets is like running a gauntlet of persistant stall owners..."come look in my shop!"

Ön our second day in Hoi An we decided to set off on a tour of some nearby Cham temple ruins. This was at MY SON (pronounced "Mee Sun''), which is located 35km inland - at the base of the "Cat's tooth" Mountain. The night before both Smalls & I had decided to go out for a few drinks, as we hadn't done so since tubing (our livers were given a two & a half week break!), although such a choice was ill advised...at least, reaching for the top shelf liquors was! Needless to say that we paid for our stupidity the next day, as we nursed our hangovers in the swealtering heat of the jungle & ruins!

Thankfully, we had the best guide anyone could wish for. Not only was Xuan's grasp of English excellent (& incredibly amusing at times), but his enthusiasm for the ruins was more than catching. It was him alone that got us through! :-)

This area was another of those heavily bombed by the US forces, during the Vietnam war. It seems that the yanks merely chose to shoot at any landmark or town/city that they came across. There were many craters all over the landscape immediately surrounding the ruins, & some of the ruins themselves had been badly hit. Still, they are nonetheless impressive. The construction of these temples began in the 4th Century & continued until the 13th Century.

These Cham temples were a religious centre for the people. The picture above is of an sacrificial plinth, on which various animals were slaughtered for the peoples' Gods (mainly goats & pigs).

The sight is not one of the biggest in the world, but there are some very impressive structures here.

I took the above photo at the tour centre outside the National Park. I thought I would share it, not only because it's a good photo, but because waterlillies are one of the most common flowers in South East Asia. I can only imagine that this is largely due to the VAST number of flooded fields (intended to grow rice).

After our blistering tour of the ruins, we caught the boat back along the Mekong river to Hoi An. On the way we stopped off at a small village that had one trade - that of wood craft.

There was a massive variety of carvings on show; anything from massive cabinets or statues to tiny trinkets. My particular favourite subject for carving was the chubby cheerful buddha

I would thoroughly recommend Hoi An, as it is a city like no other we have visited in Asia. Although there are many international influences, there is less evidence of the modern westernised world here...there are no flashy stores or fast food takeaways! One of my favourite areas of the city was on the riverfront, where the majority of the bars & restaurants are situated...

Yet again we were off down the coast to our next destination, Nha Trang. This time we took another sleeper bus, which is not advisable to anyone nearing six foot or taller...trust me. My lack of sleep did enable me to see the sun rise over the rice fields, the Ocean & the mountains that were the stunning scenery all around us. Unfortunately I had a flat battery - so no pictures! :-(

Nha Trang is just another Vietnamese city, except for its glorious sandy beaches that stretch for miles up & down the coast from the city. The waters surrounding this area of the East coast is brimming with sealife, so there is a large presence of Diving companies in the city - which is the main reason that people visit. Neither Smalls nor I did any diving, & the weather wasn't all that good for the beach, so we checked out most of the seafront bars. A hazy couple of days, but enjoyable! We met a litter of adorable puppies at a local shop, & met up with other travellers that we had met previously on our tour of Asia.

Whilst Nha Trang is nice, I would say that it is missable - unless you are desperate for beaches & diving.

Another ten hour sleeper train was to take us to our final Vietnamese destination, one I had been very much looking forward to...Saigon, aka, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It was recently renamed after Vietnam's most popular Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh.

If we had thought that Hanoi was crazy for scooter activity, we were staggered to find that HCMC was even more extreme! No picture can do justice to the hectic nature of rush hour in this city!

Our first tourist sightseeing stop was the Reunification Palace (pictured above). This was the operation head quarters for the South Vietnamese Army from 1966 (who were on the US team), & it was captured by the North Vietnamese in April 1975 - which brought about Saigon's surrender to the Northern Communists. Below is a picture of the tank that broke down the gates at the front of the palace, which is now stationed inside the front grounds.

The inside of the palace is very lavish (for the 1960/70's), & incredibly roomy. The vast hallways & meeting rooms are designed to impress. Above is a picture of the main conference hall on the ground floor. There are many banquet & meeting rooms throughout the palace, but there is also a Casino & Cinema on the fourth floor. Below is a picture of the view of Saigon (HCMC) from the top balcony.

After the palace it was time to visit the War Remnants Museum. The anticipation of this visit was both excitement & dread, as I had heard about the graphic nature of the displays. I also know enough about the US-Vietnam conflict to know that it wasn't going to be easy reading/viewing.

The Apache Helicopter - an iconic symbol of the Vietnam conflict.

It is hard to explain how pointless the whole affair seemed. I appreciate that this particular exhibit is very biased, making ALL US soldiers out to be barbaric, although it is hard to understand the US' foreign policy here. Many would probably say the same thing about their foreign policy today. So many lives were needlessly lost, & many people still suffer today - thanks to the aftermath of destroyed countryside & cities, along with the physical effects of the chemical warfare tactics used by the US. It is worthwhile also noting that US Vietnam vets are still suffering as a result of these tactics today.

I have not included many pictures, as they are not really images you want to keep. However, I would strongly recommend that if given the chance you visit this Museum & learn more about the details of, & the aftermath of, this particular conflict. In order to combat (no pun intended) the mood that the Museum put us in we headed to the cinema to see Disney/Pixar's latest animated film - "UP." It was very good, & just the tonic that was required! :-)

The next day it was time to go on a day tour East of HCMC. Our first stop was at a craft centre on the outskirts of the city. Here they made a variety of ornaments & house hold goods, but their main trade was that of Egg shell & Mother of Pearl pictures.

Each of these pictures is painstakingly made by hand, on a production line of about twenty employees. Some are incredible, & reasonably priced (as far as I could tell). I took a few pictures (which was much cheaper & easier than purchasing), with the one below being my favourite.

The next stop was the Holy Cao Dai Temple, located in the Holy Cao Dai City (not far from the Cambodian border). Cao Dai is a modern religion, with priciples & beliefs constructed from an amalgamation of many religions - including Buddism, Christianity, Hinduism & Confucianism.

The gates to the Holy City

The Cao Dai temple


The Cao Dai followers are largely old people who live in, or nearby, the city. The age of the followers is largely as a result of the religions requirement for ceremonial prayer, at the temple, every six hours...without fail. Each prayer/worship session lasts about half an hour. It was very impressive to watch, even if it was all a little strange to me!

The last stop on our day trip was the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are about 200km of underground tunnels, used by the Communist Vietnamese forces (aka - the Vietcong/VC) during the war. The tunnels are too small for most to fit in, as they measure about 30cm x 60cm. The tunnels proved to be a useful means of avoiding detection by the enemy, whilst also providing an excellent opportunity for surprise ambushes. The picture below is of a watchman's hole. located on the outskirts of the small town the VC stayed in.

In the immediate surrounding area to the town & the tunnels the VC made many vicious traps. These were designed to seriously injure the enemy & to slow down his progress in the jungle. The trap above is one of the nastier ones, although all involved spikes of some form!

The tunnel that we actually crawled through had been expanded by over double its original size, to enable tourists to make it through! Even this 200m stretch was difficult to crawl through & incredibly hot. I could not imagine having to actually live in those tunnels (ones half the size of the ones we used) for days on end. They were a tough lot, those Vietcong!

That day trip concluded our tour of Vietnam. I loved the country! It has a lot of history, both pleasant & bloody, some amazing scenery, incredibly friendly people, & best of all it is the cheapest country we have visited in Asia to date. I would thoroughly recommend it. I would like to come back one day to explore the Central Highlands, & the Mountains & National Parks North of Hanoi. I have heard & seen spectacular reports.

Now we have a new country to explore...Cambodia!

permalink written by  johnnoble on July 24, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Hanoi, Vietnam

Before we had arrived in Vietnam we had all agreed that we were going to treat ourselves to a really nice hotel - having spent a considerable amount of time over the past couple of weeks either in the jungle, on buses/planes (LOTS of time spent travelling), in shabby guest houses, & all in the rain (it is the rainy season in Asia during the UK summer). The place we found was very nice & good value at US$10 each a night.

It was good to be in some luxurious surroundings...something that will become the theme of this blog entry! ;-)

Having given the hotel, literally, ALL of our (dirty, smelly, muddy & damp) washing (mainly as a result of our time in the jungle...I do feel sorry for them) we headed out to explore the sights of Hanoi. Allan, inparticular, was especially glad to get an opportunity to perfect his shutter skills with his latest toy (for which he acquired the nickname of "pap" from me & Smalls).

For those of you who have never been to Hanoi, I am going to find it very hard to give an adequate representation of the place. It is mental. There are thousands of scooters everywhere!

When it comes to crossing the street you just have to ensure that you are not walking out infront of a car, keep your pace & direction constant, & hope that the wave of scooter drivers adjust their course to avoid you. There is no waiting for a clear road here - you literally have to go &hope for the best. We have seen many an inventive use of the scooter as a means of transportation...a whole family of five travelling together, a man carrying about 15cases of beer, two guys & a large glass cabinet, but my favourite had to be this guy...

As you would expect with a major city in Asia, the streets are very tight, crowded & quite dirty. There are many, many shops that are selling all kinds of goods. We were staying in the "Old Quarter" of the city, which is where most of the tourists go. The streets/areas have been devised to house stalls for specific products. For example, there is a shoe street - where you can find lots of shoe stalls, or a food district - where many streets over are filled with food stalls (selling many weird & wonderful food stuffs)...

On our first full day in Hanoi we visited the temple on the lake, the market streets, & then walked South to the Hanoi Prison, affectionately referred to as the "Hanoi Hilton" by many of its former inmates.

One wing of the prison remains, after it was closed in the mid 80's. It has housed many different nationalities of guests, as rule has changed over the years in Vietnam. Its most famous guest would be John Cain - who was an American POW here in the Vietnam war, after being shot down just outside of Hanoi. Before the prison was used to house American pilots, who seemed to have a rather comfy stay there (by prison standards), the jail was used for local criminals - the most offensive of those being executed here in spectacular Asian style...

That evening we decided to indulge in some local culture, in the form of the extremely popular water puppet show. We have to entirely honest &say that we didn't really follow the "story line" (as the singing was all in Vietnamese), but the music & the puppetry was pretty impressive. Far more extravagant than your UK beaches performances of Punch & Judy! At only two pounds a ticket I would strongly recommend the hour performance as something to see...we can all say that we enjoyed it a LOT more than Transformers II (which we had painfully endured the night before)

About 150km East of Hanoi is the bay city of Ha Long. We had booked a three day boat cruise, leaving from here. After a three hour coach journey we arrived & were taken on a short speed boat ride to our ship. Immediately, having left the busy bay area, we understood why this is a "must do" excursion when visiting Vietnam. Stunning...

Allan was able to click away to his heart's content - although with subjects as amazing as our surroundings it would have been difficult for anyone to take a bad photo!

Smalls was really getting into the relaxation vibe & taking in all of the beauty around him. I like to call this his "catalogue pose"...

The boat itself was very decadent, with plenty of room for the nine of us guests.

Having sailed out inbetween many, many islands (all visually striking) we arrived at a small floating village. We all disembarked onto small boats that were rowed by some locals, who then took us on a relaxing hour tour of the place. After which there was time for swimming & sunbathing back on board our ship - which was also our accomodation for the night.

The restaurant on board was excellent, & we all thoroughly enjoyed the seven course seafood feast that they served us on the first night. We were all enjoying the meal so much that all of us forget to take any pictures of the feast...although none of us will forget it in a hurry!

On our second day of the cruise we were up early & tranferred onto a smaller boat, which then took us for a short trip towards the islands' national park (Cat Ba). We then swapped our boat for kayaks & paddles and then began to explore inbetween the smaller islands & their lagoons.

It was easy to forget that we were actually at sea whilst we were on our cruise, as the waters were so calm (due to the protection the islands give from the tidal currents & winds), although we were given the occasional reminder...

We stopped for a short break, prior to lunch, on a lovely sandy beach. Whilst everyone else went for a swim & relaxed for a while I regressed to a child like mind & went scouring the shore for shells. I found some beauties! There were many that I had never seen before, so despite the amusement of others, I felt it was time well spent (I am going to make fridge magnets out of all of them - or, at least, those that make it back to the UK in one piece!)

Back on board boat two it was time for lunch...more amazing seafood (lots of it) & a pretty decent view out of the ship's window...

Following lunch everyone had a short rest before embarking on a two hour open water paddle to the floating "city". The distances between the islands were greater here & the wind had picked up with the tide, but it still was far from a challenging paddle.

The floating city was first inhabited back in the mid 80's, since then it has grown to the 1000 strong population that live there today. There are actually more dogs than people in the village, as they are kept as security guards for the residents. The boom here is as a result of the excellent fishing opportunities. The dogs are seen as a necessary measure to protect one's interest, although it does appear very cruel to keep dogs on small floating platforms with very little space to run (there's no RSPCA here though - that's Asia for you!)

Fish farms

Even out here, amongst the beauty of the thousand islands, there are remnants of the Vietnamese-American conflict. This area off of the North East coast of Vietnam is where the US first began their attack on the country & their relentless bombing campaigns.

After another short boat transit we arrived in Cat Ba, which is one of the biggest & most populated islands. A short coach trip from the bay & we arrived at our resort...pictures speak a thousands words...welcome to 5star luxury at 2star UK prices...

Not a bad balcony view...

That evening we chilled out & had another fantastic meal in the resort's restaurant. It wasn't as much seafood, but it was still delicious! How far from our jungle experience could we get? Polar opposite extremes!

On our last day Allan & I, plus three other guests (not included Mr Small), decided to explore the island on scooters - rather than lie in sun loungers by the pool (each to their own!). A ten minute drive from the small, yet relatively hectic, town centre & we were already being treated to more stunning scenery & views.

Located on Cat Ba island is a cave hospital, which was constructed in the early 60's in order to treat wounded Vietnamese & Chinese soldiers. The cave housed a capacity of 200 soldiers, & was complete with a swimming pool, cinema, operations room & kitchens. As it is no longer in use, it now all looks the same.

The hopsital was used at the start of the Vietnam war, from 1963-1965, as the thousand islands was the US' first port of attack. This structure cut into the rock is very impressive. There are many escape routes should the cave itself come under attack, Allan is sat at the rear exit to the facility. As you can see, the doors & tunnels were designed for the smaller Asian structure!

The roads through the island were of good quality & obviously surrounded by fantastic views (I can't say that enough, can I???)

We stopped off at the Cat Ba national park & embarked on the short, yet steep, climb through the jungle to one of the tallest peaks in the islands. It was no more that 230m, but the heat, incline & humidity made it a decent 40min workout. I was just thrilled to be in some real Vietnamese jungle - having seen so much of it in war movies.

When we arrived at the peak we were greeted by the sight of an incredibly rusty watch tower. After the crowds had died down we climbed up the frail structure. There was a sign advising that only five people could go up at a time - possibly reflecting the local's faith in the strength of the structure!

You can see that the effort was worth it when you see the views from top of tower

We returned to Hanoi that evening thoroughly satisfied with our excursion. It was incredible. We felt that this self-indulgent, luxurious, &SUNNY :-) experience was our reward for having survived the mud & rain of the Laos jungle (an experience we thoroughly enjoyed & would highly recommend too).

We went out for an meal that evening to say goodbye to Allan, who was heading back to Bangkok the following morning (in order to fly home to London). It was excellent to have him along for three weeks of our adventures. Due to both mine & Allan's hectic work & social lives (when I am in the UK!) we don't get the opportunity to see each other much, so I was especially glad when he decided to use his holiday to join the tour! It is a holiday I know he enjoyed & he won't forget in a hurry - although perhaps next time he will choose to visit Asia during the drier months!!! Allan may have got a better tan sitting in a park in London ;-)

Smalls &I had a couple of days to kill before our overnight train, down the East coast, to Danang. Therefore we walked around more of the city, relaxed, & visited one of Vietnam's most popular tourist attractions (predominantly amongst the Vietnamese). That is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh's body is preserved & on display in the building pictured above. Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam's Democratic Party Founder & his teachings are still incredibly influential in the lives of the Vietnamese people. You have to dress respectfully (no skirts or trousers) & be very quiet when entering the chamber in which Ho Chi Minh rests. It was a very strange sight - the preserved body in a raised glass coffin, surrounded by very strict looking (armed) guards. Both Smalls & I agreed that he actually looked like a Madam Tussauds special, although neither of us have seen many preserved bodies to compare him too! There is a rumour that when the body was being returned from China, a yearly month excursion for preservation purposes, that the head was stolen & replaced by a fake one. I can believe that, but we will never know either way for sure (& I shaln't be losing any sleep over it!)

Above is the shrine to Ho Chi Minh in the adjacent museum dedicated to his life & works. Most of the exhibits are in Vietnamese, but there was enough English interpretation to make the trip an interesting & worthwhile one.

We are about to embark on a whistle stop tour of Vietnam, down the East coast, in which we hope to meet up with Mr Andrew Dicks once more. His decision to opt out of the jungle trek has put him about four days ahead of us, so only time will tell if we can catch him.

permalink written by  johnnoble on July 10, 2009 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Laos is quality...

Luang Prabang, Laos

We arrived in Vang Vieng & I emailed Allan our hotel details, so that he could find us when he arrived that evening from Vietiene. Whilst we were waiting we decided to hole up in the Irish bar located over the street from our hotel...which was to become a home from home for the next 3nights! Allan arrived & found us successfully, so we all tucked into the beers & rice wine/vodka (a local specialty...& I mean "special") - in preparation of Andy's Birthday the following day (25th June).

The rushed nature of us passing through Luang Prabang was so that we could go "tubing" on Dixy's Bday. For those of you who are unaware of what "tubing" involves, I shall explain & then let the pictures roll...

4kms North of Vang Vieng, which is situated on a wide & deep river, there is roughly a km of bars located on the banks. There are probably about 8 bars in total - each of which has some form of rope swing or zip line. Each of these bars sells lots of beer, & the afore mentioned buckets (which we first encountered in Thailand). In order to get from one bar to the next you either swim down river (aka - stay afloat & the current does the rest) or get into a large rubber ring (aka - "tube"). At each bar there are guys with ropes who pull you in, so that you can spend money at their bar. It is a very simple concept, although also an incredibly stupid one too! Alcohol & swimming don't really go together - & 30/40ft high rope swings, whilst under the influence of alcohol, don't really sound like sensible activities. However, as we all have learned in life, sensible isn't usually much fun...tubing DEFINITELY was!!! The following pictures are a mixture of our first day (Andy's Birthday) & two days later (recouperation day inbetween) when the "slow boat crew" were reunited. The weather was spectacular on Andy's Bday, but the showers didn't dampen anyone's spirits on the second day tubing...as you can see...

First bar

Beerlao...which was consumed in large quantities by many Westerners!

Everybody writes on each other with marker pens...why not?!? Some of the messages are most definitely inappropriate for this blog though :-)

Second bar - busy, busy, busy!

Party time

Doubling up on the zip line with Elisha - after she had chickened out on me the first time!

Dixy does it backwards

Bring on those buckets...

The view of bar one from bar two

Who needs a tube...not us

Third bar & its rope swing

The third bar was "the MUD bar" - because it had a rather large mud pit to enjoy...

and a volleyball court (of sorts)

There was a lot of music throughout the day - appreciated enthusiastically, of course!

Allan & I in the river (on our first day), after dark, making our way to the final bar.

Tuk tuk being mauled by drunken tourists wanting to avoid the 3km stoney walk home. These are designed to carry a maxium of nine people! This shot reminds me of a nature programme I saw, in which a pack of Lions take down an Elephant!

As I mentioned previously, the very principles of tubing (alcohol + water + rope swings, etc) is in itself very dangerous. However, I am pleased to say that no one in our (large) group received anything more than some minor cuts & bruises (from rocks & water impact respectively). We did see a few walking wounded in the town during the evenings, but everyone looks out for each other & an excellent time is had by all. I thoroughly enjoyed the two days tubing, as did we all, but I suspect it will be something I never revisit...who wants to push their luck, eh? ;-)

I am meddling with my usual well ordered blog now, as I am going to report on the sightseeing from our second day (yes, we actually did something other than drink) whilst we were in Vang Vieng. At least, four of us did - Allan, Pete, Yurry & Myself all hired scooters & went exploring.

The roads outside of the town were pretty much stones & dirt, which was bumpy but enjoyable all the same. It also prevented the chance of any horrific accidents, as it is difficult to travel at any great speeds!

We were on our way to find a cave that had been recommended to us by a local. There are many caves in the mountain range that runs along the river, South of the town. In order to get to the caves we had to cross a couple of sketchy bridges. One mistake in steering & you would be in a lot of trouble!

We passed through a number of small settlements/villages, where the locals live off the land. Asia has many rice fields, which supports the endless varieties of rice based meals in the continent. The people here could take advantage of the town's developed ways, although there seems to be a great deal of pride & traditional values in the way they live. It is what they have always known. It felt special to observe.


When we arrived at the cave we had a very steep climb (about 100m) to conquer, which was a challenge in that humidity.

Whilst it was not the most spectacular cave I have ever been in, it was still impressive. It was also unique in that there were no developed paths in the cave, once you had gone into the entrance, meaning you literally had to climb, crawl & squeeze your way around.

On our way out of the cave we decided that we had to take full advantage of the lagoon that we had seen on our way in, as we were all very sweaty boys. As ever, the thrill seeking continued. Any opportunity to jump off things...

As we made our way back over the river, towards the town & civilization, we had a great view of the town from the South. The surrounding mountains & terrain are simply spectacular.

Before Allan departed to join us for three weeks of Asia adventures, he had been advised that he should check out "The Gibbon Experience" - located in the North of Laos. Dixy opted out of the adventure & carried on into Vietnam ahead of us, accompanied by the Bournemouth lads we had met on the slow boat. Now, Smally & I had come from Huay Xai (the town on the Laos side of the border with Thailand - where we caught the slow boat from), but we had to go to Vang Vieng for tubing. So, in order to go to the Jungle & see some Gibbons, we had to retrace our steps through Luang Prabang & then onto Huay Xai. This time we decided against the slow boat, opting for a 13hour bus journey instead. The travelling is the least enjoyable aspect of travelling (how ironic). You can't complain about the view out of the window though...

We had booked onto a three day, two night, exploration of the jungles in Northern Laos - in the hope that we would sight some Gibbons. For the full details of the project & the experience, please refer to the link below.


When we arrived on the first morning we were advised that due to the large quantities of rain in the past few days the 4x4 was unable to cross the river...meaning an additional 5hours hiking to get to the jungle. We decided that we were up for the adventure & pressed on regardless of the poor weather & the sticky, slippery & drenched terrain.

After nearly 6hours of trekking (through some of the deepest & stickiest mud I have ever encountered), we arrived at the Gibbon centre - which is where we would collect our harnesses. What makes this such a unique experience is that the jungle has a network of zipline cabling, which protects the jungle floor, fauna & wildlife, whilst also providing an amazing view of the landscape. Below you can see me zipping off into the mist...

As it began to get dark we arrived at our treehouse, which is elevated 100m & deep, deep, deep into the jungle. Our group of 7 explorers sat down for a rice based meal (which was the theme for every meal over the next 3days) & reflected on a challenging - yet enjoyable day.

The next morning we were up at 5am & getting ready to go looking for some Gibbons.

We had been warned, that due to the vast amounts of rain (it is the rainy season), that our chances of sighting Gibbons was vastly reduced. Nonetheless we had our breakfast at the kitchen, located across the valley from our treehouse (a brief zip away), then set off deeper into the jungle. I am sad to say that we didn't see any Gibbons, although every one of us saw (& personally got to know) enough leeches to last a lifetime. As we weren't on any kind of a trail we were trampling through the damp detritus of the jungle floor - the perfect habitat for leeches! Allan & I were also attacked by a swarm of rather large wasps - I managed to bail down the slope (on my arse) unscathed, although Allan wasn't so fortunate. He was stung four or five times. Despite the constant rain, the biting creepies, &the concern that we might not be able to cross the river to civilization the following day (due to the rainfall & consequent rising water level), we all pressed on exploring the jungle on the zip lines.

That, in itself, was one of the best things about the experience. Not only taking on a real jungle trek & exploration at ground level, but also being able to appreciate a bird's eye view of the sprawling landscape. In our tree house, the best view was out of our bathroom window...not bad eh? (I am most definitely referring to the view, not the facilities!)

On our two full days in the jungle we visited three of the other tree houses, all of which were only accessible via zip lines. We all enjoyed the hot chocolate of another group, whilst utilizing their hammocks, as they no doubt did at our tree house (minus the hammocks).

The most attractive tree house was the last one that we saw before leaving on the last day. This is the newest of the lot, & unlike the others it doesn't leak at all. Very nice. Does it remind anyone else a little bit of the Swiss Family Robinson setup?

I think the most extraordinary creature we saw in the jungle was a beetle that our guide found in the main centre. I assure you it is not a spider - as you would assume on first sight. What a bug though! :-)

I am pleased to say that the rain must have caused the river to burst its banks, as the water level was lower than it was on our way into the jungle. Therefore we did not encounter the difficulties we had been dreading as we experienced hour after hour of rain during our jungle time. I had purchased myself an Indiana Jones hat for the adventure, so it was pretty fitting to find a bridge over the last river that could have easily featured in one of his films. I am clearly very happy to have survived a tough experience, but despite not seeing any gibbons, every piece of our clothing being caked in mud & smelling rotten, being soaked through for three days, being eaten by mosquitos, leeches, & stung by wasps, I wouldn't have changed the experience at all...I had an amazing time :-)

Laos = DONE. Next stop...Vietnam

permalink written by  johnnoble on July 4, 2009 from Luang Prabang, Laos
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Thailand mainland

Bangkok, Thailand

So, as a result of my stupidity & the injury I incurred, I was unable to take advantage of the notoriously good scuba diving off of the Thai island on Koh Tao. With my arm in a sling for a week I was resigned to sitting around - which is far from my idea of a good time. I am very grateful to the inventors of ipods & books; without which I would have gone insane. Dixy enjoyed a three day scuba course, while Smalls & I lay on the beaches. We all plan to visit the islands again before the end of the trip, so I WILL be doing my scuba then!

We caught an overnight boat from Koh Tao to the mainland, which was an experience. It was incredibly hot, cramped, & the waters were very choppy. As with most transport in Asia I expect the absolute worst & then enjoy the experience as an adventure.

Our next stop was Bangkok (pic above). I was pleasantly surprised at the (relative) cleanliness of the place, although still wasn't the greatest fan of the city. We had to stay a couple of days - in order to check out some of the classic offerings. One being Khoa San Road. This is a long street in the centre of the city that is loaded with market stalls, bars & restaurants. It is a popular backpacker destination, so we met many PLUs (people like us). We did venture out to see a local show at a club, the nature of which I won't disclose - & the less said about it the better (trust me...Asia is a weird place!). We also had to spend a day finding HSBC (so Dixy could pick up a replacement card, having left his wallet in a tuk tuk), & extend our Visas by a week.

Having completed our missions in Bangkok, we caught a bus up to Chang Mai.

Our purpose of this visit was to go Elephant trekking the in the northern Thai jungles. We were yet again incredibly lucky to be in a group of lovely people, so right from the off I had a feeling that this was going to be another memorable excursion!

On our way to the jungle we stopped at a local market, in order to buy local produce & any last supplies we required for the following couple of days. Andy decided that he ought to go fully prepared - hence the inspiration for the Rambo outfit! The lady on the stall was so impressed with his impulse purchases that she tried to sell him everything in the place! We were all impressed by Dixy's commitment to the cause, & felt so much safer having him along (just in case any of you are concerned at this point, the gun in plastic...no one would sell Dixy a REAL one!). The craziest product on offer was a bag of LIVE frogs...the picture doesn't really do it justice, but I am sure you get the point!

The Elephant trek was first on the agenda. We split into groups of two/three & had a group of Elephants take us on an hour circuit of the jungle. Along the way we were able to purchase bananas to feed them, & I can promise you that they can eat a LOT of bananas (we were informed as many as 250 a day - which might explain the regularity of the elephants!!!).

The Elephants were incredibly sturdy & seemed to take the rough terrain with ease. The views were fantastic & we all thoroughly enjoyed the ride from our giant grey friends.

After the Elephants we embarked on a four hour trek into the hills & valleys, which included a stop off for a swim at one of the waterfalls (which was most refreshing). The terrain wasn't the most challenging, although the scenery was fantastic...

We arrived at the top at one of the hills very late in the afternoon & our guide established where we were going to stay. A NEW set of huts that a local family had built for tourist purposes. They were adequate, although not particularly comfortable - but compared to many places I have stayed on my travels they were luxurious!

They were incredibly accomodating & very friendly, we all got on very well & really enjoyed the enthusiasm & comedy stylings of our guide (who had grown up in on the hills in one of the villages). That evening the family cooked us an incredible thai curry, provided us with ice cold beer (an amazing feat in those remote conditions) & a guitar! We all bonded well that evening & had an excellent time...

The following day we went on another hike in the morning, which was more of the same stunning scenery, before getting the our river rafting. Due to the wet nature of this particular activity I was unable to take any picture...so you will have to trust me when I say that this was possibly the most fun we had during the whole tour! Our guides even got involved when we decided that boarding each others' rafts & pushing each other off was the aim of the whole hour. It was a LOT of fun! :-)

Upon our arrival back in Chang Mai, we checked into a hostel & then booked our next move, then made our way out for the evening. We watched the first Lions test in an Irish bar, which we narrowly lost (great game), before heading to the local Thai boxing event - with our two new Aussie travelling companions - Ashlea & Elisha (great girlies!)

The Thai boxing was very entertaining, although we weren't watching the top flight fighters - as they fight in Bangkok. There are a number of fights throughout the night, including a blind round! This is when three thai boxers get into the ring (blind folded) & thrash around wildly at each other. A ref helps out by directing them at each other, although sometimes gets a whack for his efforts...it is very amusing! If all of that wasn't enough, we had Jenga & Connect4 to keep us entertained :-)

After the main event the champion did the rounds of the crowd & posed for photos...you know our ladies couldn't resist that opportunity!

The best event of the evening was yet to come...Mr Andrew Dicks was to enter the ring & battle it out against a fellow tourist, for the lowly sum of ten pounds! Dixy really did look the part in his thai boxing shorts. We are all certain (including Andy) that his decision to enter the ring had a lot to do with his beer intake; although he fought it out for two tough rounds & came out with his pride intact. No clear winner was established, although we filmed the whole fight - which some of you might be lucky enough to see one day!

The next day we all got a coach to the Thai-Laos border, where we were staying for the night - in order for our visas to be processed overnight. At the hotel on the Thai side of the river we enjoyed a few beers & got to know the group that we would be spending the next 48 hours with...as we were about to take the slowest form of transport in Asia = the slow boat.

It is aptly titled, as the journey down the river to Luang Prabang took a total of 17hours on the boat - with an overnight stop halfway. Our first views of Laos were very impressive, as you can see from the view we had from the boat.

The boat is very crowded & incredibly uncomfortable, but the experience was a largely enjoyable one - thanks entirely to the group on board. It would have been a tough two days if we didn't get on as well as we did! On our midway night stop we all went to dinner together at a small restaurant (taking the place over) & had a good time eating, drinking & chatting. The owner of the place came to tell me, at about 11pm, that the major of the town had come down & told him to close up as we were making too much noise! It goes to show how small this town was. When we arrived back at our hotel (which was disgusting, falling apart, but literally a pound each for the night) we found that the generators had been turned off = no lights, no fans. Our room was a sweat box that night!

We spent one night in Luang Prabang, staying in a NICE guest house - to make up for the previous night (none of the girls could imagine repeating that experience). We all went out for a meal together at the Lao Lao gardens restaurant, which has to be my favourite restaurant on my travels so far. It is tables set in a garden, all beautifully lit, with amazing food. I consulted Mr Google for this picture, as none of us took one.

The next day we had to take a 6hour mini bus to Vang Vieng, as we had planned to be there to go tubing on Dixy's birthday & meet up with Allan there too. The journey itself was only 150km, although it was across the mountains...which were stunning.

The roads are surprisingly good throughout, although they can get a little bumpy. All along the way we passed very small & remote villages, which had many strange food stuffs for sale - including dead squirrels, porcupines & many, many odd looking fruits & vegetables.

I am sad to report that the frequency of my blog entries will diminsh as the internet available becomes worse & worse. I WILL continue to report on my travels as thoroughly as I have been previously, although it will be in a feast or famine nature.

Next up - meeting Allan, tubing, exploring caves, hiring scooters, & the Laos jungle...an entry NOT to be missed...watch this space ;-)

permalink written by  johnnoble on June 24, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Thai islands....

Bangkok, Thailand

I must begin this entry by making clear to all that travelling isn't always exotic & exciting. I spent the best part of two days getting out of Malaysia & making it to Koh Samui, in order to meet up with the boys again. Asian transport is slow & overcrowded - I spent my night on my overnight train sat in one of the doorways! Not a comfortable way to travel. Worth it though, because after the overnight boat the next day I arrived on the beautiful Thai island of Koh Samui.

As the boys had already been there for three days, they had had enough of the local bars & beaches, the plan was to move onto Koh Phangan the next morning. Therefore, I made the most of my one day there by hiring a scooter (with Smalls) & zipping around the place sightseeing.

Our first stop was some famous rock formations on the south of the island...Grandfather & Grandmother rocks. We weren't that impressed by Grandmother (a crack inbetween two boulders), although our imagination was inspired by Grandfather (a new Facebook profile for Mr Small perhaps???)

As we were making our way to one of the temples, I spotted a sign for the Tiger Sanctuary. So off we went. We didn't have a look around the place (tight for time), so we paid our six pounds to have our photos taken with this beautiful beast. It was a little daunting being so close to such a huge animal (that, given the motivation, could kill us), but we were in the cage long enough to get a few excellent snaps.

Next on the whirlwind tour was the "Mummified Monk".

This fellow has been mummified (aka - embalmed/treated) & preserved in a glass box at one of the bigger temples on the island. The Monk himself decided, in his golden years, that he would like to contribute to the monks' cause after his death - & so the concept of a tourist attraction was born. He is wearing glasses for a very good reason - I don't think that eye balls keep that well! ;-) The accompanying temple, to the crusty monk, is pictured below. All of the temples are very ornate, decorative & sacred affairs. Pretty impressive.

I have now seen more waterfalls in the past ten months than most average people would probably expect to see in a lifetime. However, I like them so they will continue to be on my radar when they are available to see. Unfortunately there wasn't time for a dip, which did look inviting - especially due to the heat & humidity!

Our four hour circuit tour of the whole island finished with a sunset visit to the "Big Buddha." Naming it must have taken many a great mind many a costly hour?!?! It was, as described, BIG.

The next day we caught the boat over to Koh Phangan...

We checked into a resort, situated about four miles from the main port town & beaches. We were meeting up with Tom & Jordan, a couple of lads from Reading that Smalls & DIxy met in Koh Samui. The resort cost us eight pounds a night (each) for a A/C room with TV/DVD, & one excellent view of the ocean & Koh Samui in the distance. Not bad, eh?

We had arrived on the island just in time for Koh Phangan's "Full Moon Party."

This, quite simply, is a HUGE party on the beach - attended by thousands of travellers & party goers. It is quite a sight to behold...

Luminous body paints seem to be high on the agenda for most. Even if you aren't wearing any when you arrive, chances are that won't be the case for long. There are lots of bars & stands that are selling beers etc along the beach, although the unique aspect to the drinks here are the buckets. You literally purchase a small sand castle-esque bucket from the bar & they fill it with liquor & a mixer. I went for red bull, predominantly, which is actually loaded with amphetamins - meaning I was elated drunk for most of the night.

We all enjoyed the atmosphere, as well as one or two of the previously mentioned buckets!

Having gone to bed after sunrise, the next day was a total write off. We chilled by the pool & recharges the batteries. The next evening we went down to the beach & were shocked by how few people were out to party. It appears that the nights leading up to the full moon are busy, then everyone moves on to other destinations.

We did find a busier bar - which was surrounded by people watching drunks attempt to jump over a rope on fire (skipping), or through a ring of fire. Needless to say we weren't going to do anything as stupid as that...that is...until we had had sufficient courage (aka - buckets). I can't pin point exactly when it happened, but I finally fell victim to my own stupidity, as I woke up the next morning in excrutiating pain. My shoulder was agony. I got a taxi to the hospital, got the okay after an x-ray, then got loaded on painkillers. I took my prescription of pills, my sling, & what was left of my pride, & went back to bed. The admittance report from the hospital makes amusing reading though..."John woke up with big pain in right shoulder. He does not know what happened to him last night." Not my proudest moment - but I did make it over 9 months without incident :-)

permalink written by  johnnoble on June 11, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Having made it into the country, our first stop was Kuala Lumpur. I have to be completely honest here & tell all that I was not particularly impressed - although I think that the cleanliness & statue of Singapore may be solely responsible for this. Kuala Lumpur was dirty, expensive, & very very muggy. A dirty muggy that I will no doubt become accustomed to in my time in the larger cities in Asia.

We were staying in Chow Kit, in the North of the city, which is close to China Town (pictured). Chow Kit is renowned for its markets, in which all of the stalls appeared to be selling the same cheapy goods - none of which grasped my interests. The place is very dirty, but as mentioned. in comparison to Singapore. When I mentioned that Malaysia was expensive I was, of course, referring to the price of alcohol. Try six to eight pounds a pint expensive :-O As Malaysia is a Muslim country (in the majority) alcohol is not top of the bill for the general public. Tourists can located watering holes, although they will pay the price. Therefore we decided to keep the drinking to a minimum, & spoil ourselves for the Champions League final. Dixy enjoyed the first 10mins of the match, I enjoyed the result the most ;-)

The most impressive sight in Kuala Lumpur, in my opinion, is the Petronas towers. They clearly dominate the skyline & have a glorious metallic glow to them from all angles. Unfortunately we did not get the opportunity (aka - make the effort) to go up & cross the bridge between the towers. We were far more focussed on visiting an island on the North West coast of Malaysia, recommended to us by a lovely English couple we had met, called Langkawi.

Langkawi is a Malaysian tax haven - meaning cheap beer! :-) We checked into a hostel on the West coast of the island that was located close to the luxury resorts & the white sandy beaches, costing us a whopping four pounds a night!! The beer from the hostel fridge was 55p a (coke sized) can, with a self serve honesty policy. Great start. On our first day we settled into the hostel & beaches, had a wonderful seafood soup feast, & played drinking games with our new buddies Phil (German) & Lucas (Polish).

The next day we all hired scooters (six pounds for the day & less than a pound for a whole tank of petrol), & then proceeded to check out the island. On our thirty minute drive to the island's waterfalls we saw lots of buffalo, monkeys & a salamander lizard...pretty cool.

The waterfall was nice, but the rocks were quite precariously slipperly. We all decided to refresh ourselves by getting in & sliding down into the pools below. All was well & good until we discovered that we were all covered in tiny leeches - after which none of us were too keen to go again!

We scootered around checking out more of the island & its beaches, before we decided it was time to head up the islands biggest peak. The drive up was excellent, as the roads were incredibly windy & we saw only one other car in the 13000m climb.

We decided that it would be rude not to get a piccy of the most notorious "Motorcycle Gang" on Langkawi. The views from the top were incredible. It was nearly possible to see the whole island from up there.

That night we played more drinking games at the hostel, including a lovely couple that we met from Jersey, before heading to the local club & get our groove on!

The next day was spent recovering, before Lucas & I made the effort (later in the PM) to explore the areas of the island we had missed the previous day. I was glad that we did.

We stopped off at a temple of worship & went in to get a better look. I had read the guides & done my homework, so I remembered to take off my shoes before entering (it is very disrespectful not to). I was amazed at the intricate detail of each column & beam in the temple, which was a lot more colourful than any religious relic that you would expect to find in Europe. I am certain that this will be the first of my many visits to such religious temples throughout Asia.

Next stop was the Book Village, located in the centre of the island. Unfortunately we were too late to get into any of the libraries, although we were able to appreciate the peaceful surroundings of the jungle & stream of the location. This is, according to the guide books, the largest collection of English texts in Malaysia. I would like to have had a nosey around & see what they had to offer.

The drive back to the hostel that evening was nothing short of spectacular.

As the sun began to set, I became envious of anyone wearing glasses or a visor - as the bugs begin their suicidal mission of throwing themselves at our headlights. I get the feeling that the majority missed, mostly hitting my eyes or my face. A small price to pay when you are treated to magnificent scenes such as this...

I would strongly recommend Langkawi to all visiting Malaysia, not merely because it is beautiful & cheap, but because the atmosphere there is great. The locals are very friendly & there is no pressure to buy or do anything. Very refreshing.

On our last day on the island we decided to put ourselves through the ordeal of enjoying some of the luxury resort's facilities (for free)...such a tough life!

Upon leaving Langkawi the boys & I went our separate ways - them to Thailand & me to the jungle! I decided that I should check out one of the oldest jungles in the world, Teman Nagara in central Malaysia, which is reportedly 130 million years young. First off I had to take a ferry & then a bus all the way back to Kuala Lumpur, before heading back up to the mid/east of Malaysia, because the bus&train routes are fairly limited. I caught an early morning bus from KL, then a boat up the river from a town about 100kms south of the park.

The boat ride took 3 hours, although there was some stunning scenery to enjoy. I had also met some good people on the bus, a Canadian (Nick) & a couple Aussies (Garth & Kristy), so I was in good company. The town of Kuala Tahan is located on the opposite side of the river from the park, which is where we were staying - providing easy access to the park/jungle. The town is a mix of wooden chalets, old buildings & small shacks. All along the river there are floating restaurants, which in order to access you have to literally "walk the plank" from the shore (a nice touch, I thought). We had dinner at one of the floating restaurants, local cusine costing less than three pounds for a full meal, then set off across the river for a night time jungle walk.

The night time is the best time to see the abundance of wildlife in the jungle, as the majority of its inhabitants are nocturnal (or just sensible enough to stay underground during the crazy daytime heat). On our 2km round trip we saw scorpions, spiders, lots of ants (big ones!), fire flies, a sloth, some deer, centipede, &my personal favourite - a deermouse (it is a large mouse that looks like a deer). It was an enjoyable experience, costing all of two pounds - which is also exactly what a bed in the town's hostel cost for the night...I am liking Asia more & more.

The next day the four of us were up early & in the jungle by 8.30am, with a day of exploration planned. We mapped out a 12km round trip, which would give us a good look at what the park had to offer.

On our way to our canopy walk we came across some massive bamboo plants. I have never seen bamboo this big! As it grows so quickly, & is strong when bound together in construction, it is a very handy product of the jungle for the locals. Not long after we passed this both Garth & I felt some sharp stings. I had heard/seen nothing. Then I looked ahead & saw a hornet/jungle bee nest on the side of the track. Needless to say we ran pretty fast past it!

The jungle canopy walk is the world's longest suspended jungle/forrestry walkway, measuring just under 500m in length. It consists of 13 separate walkways & 12 platforms. The whole walkway is suspended about one hundred feet up into the jungle canopy, giving some excellent views enjoyed by the monkeys on a daily basis.

After our walk in the skies it was time to climb the Teresek Mountain. It is not the tallest peak in the park, but it was certainly steep enough to work up one hell of a sweat in those steamy jungle conditions. The views of the park from the top are nothing short of spectacular...some views no cameras can convey effectively enough.

That's me - not Tarzan (in case anyone is confused). The amazing amount of twisted vines offered up a number of opportunities to immitate the king of the swingers...great fun! We made our way up steam to the lookout point, then went for a swim in the river to cool off. Well deserved. I managed to avoid the leeches this time, although Nick wasn't as lucky!

I will finish with a couple of my favourite images from the park. A true jungle in every imaginable way & a thoroughly worthwhile excursion! Next stop Thailand.

permalink written by  johnnoble on June 4, 2009 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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Asia begins...

Singapore, Singapore

So, it is true what they say, no one is perfect (I have held off admitting to that for SO long). On the morning of our departure from Oz Smally & I got up at 9.15 & got ready to catch a bus to the airport, at 10am. Dixy had left for Singapore the day before & we were due to meet up with him, & Spencer, that evening. As we were getting ready (with good time to spare - or so we thought), Smalls decided to check out itinerary...only to find out that we had been working to the time of our connecting flight (in Brisbane) - our flight left Cairns at 10:05am!!! We got a taxi to the airport for 10am, although that clearly was too late. Therefore we paid $150 to get on the next flight, via Darwin, to Singapore. A costly error, but a mistake neither of us will be making again in an hurry.

It was excellent to see Dan again; we all caught up over a few pints & a curry in Little India, which was good. After which we played some pool & then watched the last day of the premiership season (chuckling at Newcastle's fate, of course)...it was just like old times - just a few miles off our usual destination.

Singapore is one of the CLEANEST cities I have ever visited. It is illegal to sell chewing gum here, so the pavements are clean, & heavy fines are incurred for anyone brave enough to spit or throw their ciggy butts on the ground. The weather is varied, although always hot. The above picture shows the rains decending, although within 30mins of this all of the streets will be dry, due to how warm the place is - & consequently muggy!

On our one full day as a foursome, we decided to check out all that Santosa island had to offer. It is a small island off the south coast of SIngapore, & therefore was a strategic focal point in defending Asia from attack in all previous military conflicts. We visited the Siloso fort, which was built by the empire back in the 1800s. It is incredible to think how anyone was able to work in the temperatures that we were experiencing, but they did! The place was facinating & informative, & I would recommend it.

It was then time to check out the Siloso beach...

Although largely manmade (as with the majority of the island attractions), it was very nice. Smalls didn't agree with the marine life...Jellyfish 1, Smally 0.

Some of the wildlife inhabitants of the island include the very naughty monkeys who watch the picnic area from the trees opposite &/or above. When they see the opportunity they swoop down, en masse, to see what scraps/full meals they can snatch from tourists...they are very successful most of the time too! Fair play to them - I would if I felt I could get away with it! ;-)

We went on the island's dry luge track, which was a lot of fun, although due to the competitive nature of it all there was no time for photos. Dan will remember this epic clash for years, eh mate?! ;-)
Another activity that we had paid for was the Segway machines (left). There was a specially closed circuit through the trees by the beach, which was great fun. They are a little tricky to get going quickly, although once you have the hang of it they are great fun!

After we had done sweating out litres all day (it was SO hot) we got some refreshments & headed to the Aquarium for the Dolphin show. I have to say that it was more than a little disappointing...definitely not worth 15pounds for the priviledge! Also, you cannot appreciate from the picture below, but the Dolphins appeared to have some form of skin complaint - being covered in red blotches?!?

The next day we had enough time for a visit to Raffles hotel, before splitting up - with Dan going to Thailand & us to Malaysia. Visiting the Raffles "Long Bar" for a "Singapore Slinger" is a must (according to many guide books)...so we did!

The other alternative is afternoon tea. We didn't have the time for that - so we had to make do with the morning cocktails! ;-)

Having said our goodbyes to Dan (for the time being, at least...will there be a return on this adventure for him?!?), we made our way to the bus station. We had a pleasant surprise when we found out that we were on a luxury coach, complete with ondemand TV screens & lazy boy reclining chairs...very nice for next to nothing (about twenty pounds). I wish I could say that the crossing of my first boarder in Asia was dull & uneventful, although then that would make me a liar.

Can you spot the problem with the green departure stamp in my passport? I was blissfully unaware of the Sinaporian error, however the lovely Malaysian immigration officers noticed - much to their delight. They continued to tell me how much of a problem this would be throughout my time in Asia, unless I went back across the bridge to rectify the stamp issue in Singapore (not an option, as my bus was heading North to Kuala Lumpur). The head immigration officer then took me aside & politely informed me that if I was to "help him" he would in turn "help me" (aka - $$$ in return for a stamp & passage into the country). I paid the requested bribe of $50 (about 25pounds), & was on my way. A lesson to anyone travelling anywhere, make sure you evaluate the work of the "trained" border staff, or it could be to your cost!!!

permalink written by  johnnoble on May 27, 2009 from Singapore, Singapore
from the travel blog: John's year off...
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