DAY 8 – Exploring the Emerald Cave on Koh Muk

We woke up early, having booked a longtail boat the previous day to take us to the Emerald Cave. Emerald Cave is Koh Muk’s premier attraction – a hidden beach completely surrounded by jungle-clad cliffs, which can only be accessed by swimming through a pitch-black cave at low tide. If it sounds like the kind of thing that only a pirate would do, you’d be right. Back in the swashbuckling olden days local pirates used to hide their treasure in there until the authorities had stopped sniffing around, then they’d come back and collect it and go and spend it on rum and eye patches, or whatever else pirates liked to buy.

We met our guide at one of the restaurants near where we were staying. Many Thai businesses, especially on the islands, are multi-purpose. In most of the places that we’ve stayed we’ve been able to get a room, eat in the restaurant, hire a scooter and book a tour, all under one rickety bamboo roof. Our guide was Mong (of Mong Bar and restaurant fame), and he was typical of the Thai islanders that we’ve met so far – shy, smiley and completely dedicated to looking after you whilst you’re in their hands.

We waded out through warm water to a longtail boat that had come out to meet us. Longtail boats are wooden, about ten metres long, and look a bit like Viking longships. I’m assuming that they’re called longtail because of the way that they’re powered and steered. At the back (or the stern, if you want to be nautical) of the boat, the captain is in charge of what looks like an oversized garden strimmer with a propeller on the end, which he dips in the water at whatever angle he needs to direct the boat. I said to Hollie that if I was able to use a strimmer like that in our garden back home, I could clear the weeds in no time – although I’d probably end up chopping my arm off in the process. It looks quite dodgy, and I reckon to the uninitiated driver it probably is, but to the islanders who have been doing it all their lives it’s second nature. After we were safely in the boat, he attempted to start up the engine, which spluttered and died. After several attempts we began to wonder whether we were marooned, but finally it stuttered into life. The boatman dipped the strimmer and we scythed away through clear turquoise water.

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The cave is popular, and even before 9am there were boats bobbing around at the entrance. We moored alongside another longtail and having donned life jackets, followed Mong in jumping into the sea. There’s something quite anxiety-inducing about swimming into a pitch-black cave, and my heart beat a little faster as we passed under the arch and into shadow. Mong turned on his headtorch, and pointed at various stalagtites on the ceiling as we drifted through, soundtracked by the lapping of water on the side of the cave, and the occasional “Wooo!” from grown adults (myself included), pretending to be ghosts.

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There was light at the end of the tunnel, and we waded out of the cave through the leafy shallows into a shaded clearing. There was a crescent of beach and a bit of jungle behind it, then steep cliffs on all sides rising 100 metres or so. The call of hornbills echoed all around the walls, and a gentle breeze rocked the palm trees from side to side. There wasn’t much to do there, but we could happily have done nothing there all day.

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We swam back through the cave and got in the boat. We paid 600 baht (or about 12 quid) for the trip, and we would have been satisfied at this point, but Mong insisted on taking us snorkeling. We anchored up near one of the reefs just round the corner from Haad Farang beach, and spent half an hour following him round through the coral. He swam down to the seabed and flapped his hand over sea anenomes to reveal families of clownfish living within. We saw sea cucumbers and angelfish and various other kinds of flora and fauna. After a second snorkelling stop, he dropped us back on the beach and we tipped him for what had possibly been the best morning of our trip so far.

We missed breakfast at Mookies, so we opted for a chicken burger instead – the odd western meal doesn’t go amiss every now and again if you’re out here for a while. Thai food is beautiful, but it’s all very healthy – sometimes pigging out on a good burger is just the ticket.

We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling, before heading out to Ko Yao Viewpoint restaurant for our last supper in Muk. Ko Yao is a set of wooden terraces built on stilts into the rocks above Haad Farang beach. It offers amazing views of other islands across the bay, and we ate Massaman and red curry, washed down with fanta and chang, whilst the sun set over the sea. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, tiny orange specks of light twinkled from the shores of other islands – they looked like campfires on the beaches. The food was amazing and the view was stunning, and we both felt slightly sad to be leaving Koh Muk. I think we’d done the majority of things that there were to do on the island though, and we looked forward to moving on to Koh Lanta in the morning. We walked back up the hill, calling in at Ting Tong’s for a swift Chang before turning in for the night.

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DAY 7 – November 10th. Ko Muk

We are in the jungle.  We couldn’t be more in the jungle if we drank Um Bongo whilst listening to Jungle music and watching the Jungle Book.  We discovered just how in the jungle we are when we tried to sleep last night – after drifting off post-meal, we were awoken by a cacophony of sounds in the small hours.  After the storm of the previous evening had passed so began the cicadas, crickets, lizards, birds, monkeys, and the tapping together of bamboo stalks in the wind.  This is not the same kind of nuisance noise of engines and scooter horns that drives you up the wall in the city.  It’s an exciting, natural kind of din that makes the hairs on the back of your neck tingle when you consider what bizarre creature might be lurking just outside your front door.  In the morning the noises change but they never stop – the jungle is always living, breathing.

Before making the trip to the islands, I had this romantic notion in my head that I was going to go for a run on the beach every morning.  This morning was my first and possibly only attempt.  It was half seven and the sun was already high in the sky, but I attempted it all the same, with Hollie in tow.  We got quizzical looks from the locals as we came bounding down the mud track onto the beach, and they had a point – what kind of cretin runs in this heat? Instead of doing a couple of miles up and down the beach, we ran directly into the sea and just splashed about a bit, like the amateur athletes that we are.

We had french toast with honey and some kind of Thai broth for breakfast.  If you have a sweet tooth and ever get the chance to try Thai iced tea I recommend it – as far as I can tell the main difference is that they pour a tinful of condensed milk into each glass, which makes it the ideal breakfast drink for someone who, like myself, aspires to morbid obesity.  The Thais are a bit obsessed with condensed milk, and many of their more decadent drinks and desserts seem to contain at least a litre of the stuff.  Apparently the American soldiers who were based in Thailand to fight the Vietnam war brought it over, and the Thais took it to their hearts (and their arteries).

A plan was hatched over breakfast to walk the width of the island back to the dock that we had arrived on the previous day, taking in the sights of the jungle and the Chao Lae fishing village.  The distance couldn’t have been more than two miles and we took a bottle of water each, but the sun was intense.  The first half a mile or so was splendid, walking under the forest canopy and pausing regularly to examine weird plants at the side of the road.  By the time we reached the Chao Lae village, the tree cover was gone and we were melting into the pavement.  This taught me two valuable lessons: 1. Always factor in the heat when planning a country stroll, and 2. Rent a moped, you cheapskate.  The walk was made worthwhile though, by an encounter with a monster.  As we paused for a drinks break I looked into the hedgerow, and noticed that I was being stared at by an absolute tank of a lizard.  As we fumbled with the camera to try and get a snap, it marched back into the undergrowth.  You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that this creature was about the size and build of a British Bulldog.

This is how you harvest rubber from a rubber tree

We polished the drinking water and felt forced to stop off in the first open air cafe that we saw.  We each had a honey and ginger ice shake whilst flies buzzed all around us and the crazy cat lady owner told us how she had chopped one of her many cat’s tails off to prevent it being eaten by insects – we moved on shortly after this.  We wandered through the town near the pier, which was interesting to look at what with all the fishing gear and longtail boats under construction, but everything was closed.  We bought some snorkel gear from the only shop that was open, then got a motorbike taxi back to Mookies, where we sat on our porch and watched monkies causing carnage in the trees.

In the evening we grabbed some food at Hilltop Restaurant just up the road from where we were staying.  I had steamed duck in soy sauce and a couple of Changs, and Hollie had pork stir-fried in brandy – one of the madcap creations of the owner, but having tried the sauce I reckon it could catch on.

Steamed duck in soy sauce

To round off the evening we walked down the hill to “Ting Tong” bar.  Ting Tong seems to have several meanings in Thai, including “crazy”,”idiot”, and a slang term for a cow’s knob.  We were served by a German guy who explained that the only beer they sold was Chang, so I requested a Chang.  It turned out that the German gent was staying over at the bar and helping out the owner – a young Thai man called Om.  Om turned out to be something of a legend – an amiable people lover who collects friends from all over the world as they come to booze in his bar.  Within a few minutes of arriving, Om was sat down at our table with us, telling us stories about his life as an islander.  He was born and raised in the town on the mainland where we’d got the ferry to Koh Muk from, and he’d married a girl on the island.   He then went on to tell us a story about when he and his friends caught a baby python in the jungle, which Om intended to keep as a pet.  One of his mates suggested he give the python a cigarette, as it would make it “go to sleep”.  Om put a fag in the snake’s mouth, and it went to sleep and didn’t wake up – apparently snakes are allergic to tobacco.  Om was clearly gutted that his pet had died, but I had to stop myself from laughing at the image in my head of a snake with a fag on.

Aside from making snakes smoke and running a bar, Om is also a pyromaniac.  At half past nine every night he performs a fire show for the customers of his bar.  This involves him pouring flammable liquid on some chains and swinging them round his head.  As dangerous as this sounds, the guy has some serious talent.  He danced around to music like a swirling dervish, setting the night alight with his moves.  The finale involved him bringing the flaming chains inside his dry bamboo bar and performing a forward roll acros the dry, wooden floor.  As the applause died down and he sat back at our table with a whiskey and coke on the rocks, I asked him how long his bar had been standing.  “Eight years” was his response.  Skilled as the guy was, I reckon it’s 50/50 as to whether the same bar will be standing if we come back to see him in another eight years.  Minds suitably blown, we tipped Om for the show and went back up the hill to bed.

 

Om in action – excellent bartender, lovely bloke.  Not the kind of guy you’d trust to house-sit for you though.

DAY 6 – November 9th. Minibus to the pier then ferry to Koh Muk

We woke early, checked out and had breakfast in the hostel cafe whilst we talked about where to go next.  We settled on Koh Muk (pronounced Mook, not muck) which is located just a few miles off the coast near Trang. Muk is a tiny island of about four miles long and half as wide, and the write-ups in Lonely Planet and on the Travelfish website were complimentary about it’s beauty, hospitality and 24 hour electricity – something that’s not always a given on the smaller islands.  There are travel agencies in just about every town in Thailand that arrange transport and tours to local sights, and we located one immediately next door to the hostel that provided a minibus and ferry package to Koh Mook for 600 baht.

We were picked up from outside the travel agents within ten minutes by a minibus which had stickers on the window that advertised the following onboard facilities:

I could see the benefit in providing entertainment on the bus by way of a dvd player and even a karaoke machine, but what does that scantily clad woman bending over represent? There was no woman matching the physicality of the one on the sticker present when we got on the bus, so as far as I can tell it wasn’t advertising the services of anyone in particular.  Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

We sped through winding country lanes past lumpy, mishapen cows and dense jungle vegetation until we arrived at a concrete jetty overlooking a wide river mouth. Mangrove marshes grew gnarled and twisted along the far banks of the river, and I wondered what animals might be lurking in the murky green depths.  The jetty was a hive of activity as scrawny Thai lads dragged huge plastic crates of chilled food to the end of the jetty, before dumping them unceremoniously onto the deck of a clapped out wooden boat.  “I wonder where the ferry is then” I said to Hollie, before one of the Thai lads who had been shifting the crates wiped the sweat from his brow and requested our tickets.  Sure enough, the clapped out wooden boat was our ferry.

All aboard… Next stop, the bottom of the ocean.

We took our place in the boat and continued to watch it get lower in the water as more crates were loaded on.  One of the crew opened up a crate and buried a bag of meat in crushed ice – I guess this is the only way of getting chilled goods onto the island, and to meet the demands of the various resorts and guesthouses, each ferry crossing must be loaded with more cargo than passengers.  We shunted off from the dock, only to return immediately to pick up a man and his motorcycle – we were only a few yards from the pier, and if he’d have been a more adventurous sort he could’ve revved the engine and jumped onto the boat in the style of Steve Mcqueen.

Once we were underway again the journey was swift and exhilerating. The sea air was cool and kept the full heat of the sun off us.  As the mainland got smaller various islands appeared on the horizon in every direction – huge limestone cliffs covered in lush green jungle rising out of the sea.

When we arrived at the pier in Ko Muk we were met by a lad from the hotel in a motorbike and sidecar, and he ferried us back to the resort free of charge.  There are no cars in Ko Muk, and the road is only just wide enough to allow two motorbikes with sidecars to pass in opposite directions.  Our driver drove us down the long and narrow pier, before stopping to refuel.  The petrol station was essentially a handpump with a coin slot in.  He shoved about 50 baht’s worth of loose change in the machine and put the prepaid amount in the fuel tank – on a tiny island like this, I suppose a quid’s worth of fuel will last you a fair while.

Not the kind of petrol station where you can pick up a Ginsters pasty and a bottle of anti-freeze…

We turned inland and passed a village of stilted houses belonging to the Chao Lae or “Sea gypsies” who live on many of the Thai islands.  The Chao Lae make their living from fishing and harvesting rubber trees, and many have their own unique religions and languages.  In 2004 the tsunami hit Ko Muk at a height of 2.5 metres and wiped out much of the original housing – these days there are alarms sounded and an evacuation route to higher ground has been put in place incase the same thing ever happens again.

We climbed higher as the forest closed in on the bike and the leaves of freakishly large plants brushed against our faces.  Moths and butterflies as big as birds fluttered across the path, and all around the squawks of unknown animals could be heard over the hum of the engine. After only a few minutes we arrived at our accommodation. Mookies is a collection of huts set in a clearing hacked out of the dense jungle that covers anywhere on the island that it is allowed to grow. Even our hut seemed ready to be reclaimed by the jungle within a matter of days – though the vent holes in the bathroom were covered by mosquito netting, we were visited by at least a dozen tiny lizards during our stay – the little critters climbing up the damp interior walls to escape the heat of the day.

Koh Muk taxi service

Our palace awaits (as do the lizards…)

We were already pretty sold on Koh Muk, but we fell for it completely about ten minutes after throwing our stuff in the room and legging it down to the beach.  Haad Faraang  means “White Beach” in Thai – which is funny because the word that Thais universally use to describe backpacking foriegners is also “farang”!  I am pretty pale, but the sand on Haad Faraang was paler – fine white grains that melt between your toes and leave you feeling like you’re walking on air.  I did the typical Brit abroad charge into the sea – let’s call it the “Farang Frollick”, and was relieved to find that the water was warm enough to do your dishes in!  We splashed around in the sea on the near-deserted beach with the imposing limestone hills as a backdrop.

Just when I was asking myself if this is what paradise felt like, a pink jonny floated past my ear like some kind of contraceptive jellyfish, and we quickly vacated the ocean.  I have to point out that this was an isolated incident, and that having been in the sea several times since there have been no more unwanted objects in the water.

You’d make this face too if a pink condom had just floated past you...

You’d make this face too if a pink condom had just sailed past your head.

We returned to Mookies for tea.  I had a massaman curry – the second of the trip between us and neither have been as good as the one that Hollie makes with extra peanut butter.  Hollie had beef in oyster sauce which she reports was not just good, but goooood. As we were polishing our food off the heavens opened, monsoon style.  The paths and the road beyond turned into rivers of gushing water, and puddles the size of ponds began to form on the ground.  We’d been seeing the flashes of lightning for some time before the rain began, and as the thunder passed overhead it sounded like the sky was splitting in two.  We finished our food and paid the bill, and made ready to leg it back to the hut before one of the waitresses came to our rescue with a couple of umbrellas.  We made the short dash back up the hill, but by the time we were under cover again our shoes and legs were soaked.

A mosquito net was fitted above our bed, and as we were more or less in the jungle we thought we better use it.  Sleeping under a mosquito net is quite fun at first, and reminds me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to build tents in the house.  It’s not as much fun if you get tangled in it during the night and end up flailing around like a fish in a trawler’s net.  We sat cocooned in the net, listening to the rain rattling on the roof until we fell asleep.

DAY 5 – Taxi to Hua Hin, then bus to Trang via Chumphon

Today we spent 9 hours on a bus with a belching monk and a window full of cockroaches.

We woke up having no idea where we were going next.  We’d planned on getting the train down to Surat Thani and then bussing it to Krabi from there – Krabi is a coastal town which is quieter and less developed than the city of Phuket.  The vast majority of backpackers heading down to the islands pick between one of these two places as their springboard.  We checked online the day before and found that all of the trains to Surat Thani were fully booked.  The Thai railways aren’t that extensive – they don’t appear to be able to run enough trains to cope with the demand, and the line doesn’t even run to Phuket or Krabi.

In the absence of a plan B we decided to taxi it to the main bus station in Hua Hin, hop on a bus heading south and then get a room for the night in whatever town we ended up in – it didn’t matter much as long as we were heading south.  We got to the bus stand for 9 and decided to get a 9:30am bus that was heading down to a place called Satun, which I’d never heard of.  We planned to get off the bus at a place called Chumphon and spend the night there before finding onward travel to Krabi the next day.

The 9:30am bus arrived at 10, and we took our seats at the second row from the back.  Sat behind us was a buddhist monk dressed in the traditional orange robes of their faith. There are over 600,000 buddhist monks in Thailand so it’s not at all unusual to see them out and about in the town, blessing people at public events, or even riding on the back of scooters with their robes flapping in the breeze.  Naturally, a great level of respect is given to the monks by the Thai people.  Women are not allowed to touch or sit next to monks, and men must bow their heads when passing them.  Conscious of these customs we were prepared for a long and solemn journey where we’d need to be on our best behaviour.  As the journey commenced though, the monk began to exhibit many examples of what I would describe as “Un-monkish behaviour”.  The first thing we noticed was the belching.  Every ten minutes or so he would emit a loud belch, making us jump at it’s ferocity.  Around every half hour or so, he would receive a mobile phone call.  It seems strange enough for a monk to own a mobile, but stranger still for him to have a jazzy polyphonic ringtone which plays at a deafening level of decibels.  Each time he picked up the phone, we would hear him say “KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP!” (Karp, krap or kap depending on where you are in the country is a word which is used by thai men to mean “yes” or “no problem”).  The monk seemed to get increasingly irritated with these phonecalls, and allowed the phone to ring out for longer and longer before taking the call, until finally he just let it ring and ignored it – which again seems like a very unmonkish thing to do.

We arrived in Chumphon after about five hour’s travel through monsoon conditions.  During the first leg of our journey it occurred to us that after Chumphon our bus was scheduled to stop in Trang – a lesser known town near the Andaman coast which also provides ferry crossings to the islands.  Due to the belching monk and the general tedium of travel, we were a bit fed up of being on the bus, but decided that it was better to bite the bullet and continue our journey towards the islands, rather than spend a night in Chumphon and have to take another long bus journey the following day.  I tried explaining to the bus conductor that we wanted to extend our journey to Trang, but he had no idea what I was on about – I only know four Thai phrases – “Hello”, “Thankyou”, “Yes” and “No”.  Instead, when we arrived in Chumphon bus terminal, Hollie stood in the doorway of the bus with one leg on the tarmac so that it couldn’t drive off, whilst I legged it to the ticket office and bought tickets for the onward journey.  This confused the bus conductor and the other passengers no end, but they just smiled in that shy, friendly way that Thai people do, and we continued on our merry way.

Hollie and I have an agreement when we go on holiday – I have the window seat whenever we fly, and she has the window on bus and train journeys.  This is because I’m still a very nervous flyer, and I demand to look out the window whenever the plane wobbles so that I can reassure myself that we aren’t plummeting towards our deaths.  As the agreements allows, Hollie had sat looking out the window for the duration of the journey.  She surrendered her seat very quickly though, about an hour before we got into Trang.  The reason for this was not generosity, but the fact that three cockroaches suddenly climbed out of the window seal and began scuttling across the pane.  I’ve never seen her move so quick!

We arrived in Trang about 8pm and jumped in a tuk tuk to the Sri Trang hotel, chancing our arm on them having empty rooms with it still being early in the season.  The tuk tuks in Trang are an upgrade on the ones that buzz around Bangkok – rather than being a glorified tin shack on top of a motorbike, the ones here are a glorified tin shack on top of a motorbike engine with a steering wheel, instead of handlebars.  They also take you where you ask to be taken, rather than a cheap tailor’s or jewellery shop, as is the norm for tuk tuks in Bangkok.

The Sri Trang Hotel is basically a huge corrugated warehouse, under the roof of which three concrete floors of hostel rooms have been built.  It’s an old-fashioned, family-run place which claims it’s heritage back to 1952 – long before the backpacker generation began.  We were famished having only been able to grab a couple of snacks since breakfast, so after checking in we headed straight out on the hunt for nourishment.

During the long bus journey I read in Lonely Planet that Trang has “The best night market on the Andaman coast”.  It may very well do, but it closes at 9pm, and when we arrived everybody was shutting up shop.  We ended up settling for one of the only joints that appeared to be open, but we were glad that we did.  The owners were Chinese and didn’t speak much English, but he gave us his iphone and asked us to scroll through the various pictures of food that he had saved on there to select what we wanted.  This is a much more complicated method than pointing to things on a menu, but it worked out okay.  Between us we ordered a load of pork in a savoury, gravy-like broth, and a gigantic plate of seafood in holy basil sauce.  This was hotter than anything Hollie had ever eaten, so she concentrated on the pork whilst I struggled through the sumptuous but scorching plate of squid, shrimp, and octopus.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what we ordered, but it was really tasty, after I regained the feeling in my mouth.  To top off the feast we went to the 7/11 and bought a load of random Thai chocolate, which we tucked into back at the room.

Today is a great example of the freedom and flexibility you get by not planning your travels too far ahead.  Sometimes it works out for the best, and sometimes every guesthouse is full and you end up sleeping in a park with a stray dog as your pillow.  Fortunately on this occasion, it worked out great.

Tomorrow we hope to get a boat out to our first island – we’re not sure which one yet.  There are just so many to choose from…

DAY 4 – November 7th. Exploring Phraya Nakhon Cave in Sam Roi Yot National Park

There was one place on the mainland that we definitely wanted to visit before heading down to the islands. Phraya Nakhon Cave is the reason that we’ve braved monsoon season on the east coast to come and stay near Pranburi, and after today’s experience we’re so pleased that we did. Phraya Nakhon is one of those images used over and over again by the Thai tourist board. It’s a huge collapsed cave buried in the side of one of the many limestone hills that dominate the landscape around here. Since the roof collapsed thousands of years ago, a small forest has grown up in the parts of the cave where the sunlight shines through. If nature made the cake, the Thai King put the cherry on top in the 19th century by having a pretty little temple built on a raised spot where the shafts of sunlight are the brightest. The result is one of the most breathtaking places that we’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
First we had to get there, though. The most common way of making the journey from our resort is to pay for a boat to take you there by sea. One look at the ocean confirmed that this wouldn’t be possible – it was blowing a gale out there already, with thunderstorms predicted from 3pm onwards. We chose to hire a scooter and go by road to the national park entrance, where we’d have to hike 3-4km to get there. My only experience of driving a scooter was on our previous trip to Thailand last year, where we’d used one to buzz around the highways and byways of Pai. It’s fair to say that I’m not a natural – we spent most of our time trundling along in the gutter at 20kph whilst lorries and old lady scooter drivers flew past us. I’m also completely incapable of looking cool whilst using this method of transport – I have a big head, and I’m therefore usually lumbered with a helmet that resembles an upturned bucket, which tends to catch in the breeze and make me wobble if I try to look left or right. The journey to the park entrance got increasingly scenic as we got closer, with limestone cliffs rising up all around us as we drove through a basin full of paddy fields and swampland. We parked the scooter up in front of a cafe and entrusted the bloke who owned it with our helmets, on the understanding that we dined at his place upon our return.
The first part of the path climbed up and up along the edge of a cliff, offering increasingly spectacular vistas of the bay and the sea beyond. A few minutes into our journey Hollie screeched and leapt back, and I prepared myself as the alpha male that I am to do battle with a venomous snake. It wasn’t a snake, but it was a bloody big centipede – the biggest I’ve ever seen at about 30cm long. Just when we were starting to get knackered the path began to go down again, and we came out on the level to find ourselves walking through a grove of palm trees next to a beach. The respite was short-lived. The path began to climb again, steeper than it had before. We overtook couples who were pausing at the side of the path for a breather, only to be overtaken again when we got out of breath ourselves. We climbed a good 500 metres until we saw a gateway in the path, and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves in the first chamber of the cave.

AAAAARGH!!!

There were shrines to the Buddha balanced on rocks as we descended down rickety stone steps. The first cave contained a massive “dry waterfall” formed from the dripping of stalactites over the millenia. Since the roof of the cave collapsed the dripping has stopped, and consequently the falls are preserved in stone.

We continued downwards through darkness, travelling through a part of the cave which still had a roof, before coming out into a clearing filled with brilliant shafts of light that kaleidescoped down onto the pagoda roof of a temple. As we got closer to the light our necks craned higher and higher to look at the sheer walls of the cave, until finally we were able to see clear daylight through the tree-lined hole at the top. We recognised this as being Phra Nakhon from the photos, but no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the cave.

We went into full-on tourist mode, staring at everything with our gobs wide open, before photographing the cave and temple from every angle. With it being out of season there were very few tourists around, and there was an eerie silence around the place, broken only by the calls of tropical birds in the forest above.

We left the cave after about an hour and began to walk back. We were completely alone on the path when we heard the snapping of branches in the forest canopy above.  We looked up to see a family of monkeys making their way across the top of the treeline.  My past experience with monekys have been mixed.  In Mumbai I had to leg it from a particularly savage looking primate that wanted to nick my water bottle. I’ve been woken by them bouncing on the corrugated roofs of buildings, and I’ve laughed as they’ve tried to bite overfamiliar Chinese tourists.  I’m happy to say that this particular enounter was an absolute privilege. We watched in Attenborough-esque awe as they swung gracefully from branch to branch with no interest in us whatsoever.  When we got to the bottom of the hill we saw a tourist information sign advising us of the presence of dusky langurs –  a shy and endangered species that are easily distinguishable from other primates due to the white rings around their eyes.


We were aware of the storm approaching that afternoon and didn’t fancy being blown sideways into a swamp whilst riding back on the scooter. With this in mind we bid the monkeys farewell and hiked quickly back to the park entrance, which was a lot easier having covered most of the uphills on the way to the cave.

We had pork in holy basil and tom kha kai soup in the ramshackle cafe that I’d parked up in front of, after which our helmets were returned. I can’t rave enough about holy basil by the way – it’s a hot, slightly bitter herb which grows around most parts of Asia. Stir-fried with chicken or pork and chilli it makes a stunning meal, with a sauce that tastes a bit like a spicy gravy. I’ve looked all round Asian food shops in Britain for it, but apart from dried leaves that fall to bits and go all gritty when you cook them, I’ve had no joy in locating anything like the real thing.
We managed to drive back to the hotel without being blown into a ditch, which was nice. The storm we were promised never really set in, and we enjoyed a few beers with a massaman curry in the evening in the hotel bar, which had filled up with a group of noisy teenage schoolkids. I overheard the teacher, who was English, negotiating with the hotel receptionist. He wanted to have the staff remove all the alcohol from the minibars in the rooms occupied by the schoolkids, which made me chuckle – no wonder they were all so rowdy.
Tomorrow we continue the journey down south towards the islands.

DAY 3 – November 6th. Train from Bangkok to Hua Hin, then songthaew to Dolphin Bay Resort


The buffet breakfast was delectable again, and we made sure that we filled up for the long day of travelling ahead of us. We’ve never been as gutted to check out of a hotel, but at least we still have our trip ahead of us, and we’re not ruling out a return to the Chatrium before flying home if funds allow.

We took a taxi from Chatrium to Bang Sue railway station.  Having experienced rush hour traffic in Bangkok before, we were prepared to be in the taxi some time.  It turned out to be less than a half hour journey – the toll road through the centre of the city is worth the extra 50 baht to avoid breathing in exhaust fumes and wasting hours of your life.  

Bang Sue station is really pleasant, with little flower pots dotted around on the platform and friendly stray cats and dogs being fed by elderly Thai women.  To feed animals in Buddhist Thailand is considered very handy karma for your next life – they call it “Making merit”.  They’re building a massive new station next to the old one though, and you get the impression that nothing in Bangkok can be allowed to stay as it is.  Everything in this city is getting taller, louder, busier and pricier.


It turned out that the train to Pranburi that we’d carefully picked out on the internet wasn’t running – we have no idea what happened to it.  Instead we decided to wait two hours for a train to Hua Hin, which is a seaside resort on the Gulf of Thailand, about fifty miles south of Bangkok.  We chilled on the platform, watching pigeons puff themselves up at each other as they fought over crumbs dropped by commuters.  I had to prevent Hollie from putting a pigeon with hairy feet that she’d taken a shine to in her backpack to take home.  

The train was half an hour late, but in Thailand you always get an assigned seat rather than having to squat like a tramp in the corridor – UK railways 0, Thai railways 1.  You also get a constant flow of vendors trying to sell you food and drink. There were all sorts of wierd and wonderful fruits available, but I ended up having a kind of stir-fry thing with a fried egg on it which was really nice, but difficult to eat without catapulting into someone else’s lap.  

It took us ages to get out of Bangkok, and we seemed to keep stopping every mile or so for no apparent reason.  At one point the Thai Railway Police came through to our carriage and asked to see everyone’s ID cards.  They then took an ipad out and took a group shot photo of everyone in the carriage.  This is a really wierd thing that happened to us last time we were here – I think maybe it’s some kind of security thing in case there’s a criminal on board.  It’s all a bit 1984 really. The scenery was impressive as we rolled out of the suburbs into lush green paddy fields lined with palm trees. We came to Thailand in dry season last year and it’s nice to see everything looking greener and less dusty.

One for George Clark’s Amazing Spaces?

The train was an hour late and we arrived at Hua Hin in darkness.  Hollie was starving because she’d held off from eating on the train, so we nipped to the 7/11 store and she had her first cheese and ham toastie of the holiday.  The 7/11 toastie is a legendary part of the Thai backpacker experience – there’s nothing quite like that processed ham and cheese square, and they’ve helped us through many a dark time on the road when we’ve needed something quick that’s not going to give us the shits.  
We then chartered a songtheaw to the resort near Pranburi where we had a reservation.  A songtheaw is basically a cage in the back of a pickup truck with benches either side that operate as taxis in most places in Thailand.  They usually charge a set amount for each journey and you split it between however many people are going there – in this case as there were only the two of us it cost us 800 baht, or about 16 quid between us. Usually you’re crammed in with eight or nine other people, which stops you from sliding around.  In the absence of other passengers we had to hold on to avoid sliding down the seats and out of the back of the vehicle.  Noticing that we were a couple, our driver switched on some seedy pink lights to illuminate the back compartment and smiled at us.  I have no idea who he takes and what he does in there at weekends, but I was quite glad when we pulled up at the hotel 45 mins later and stepped out of his shagwagon.

(To the tune of Roxanne by The Police) “Straaange man, you don’t have to put on your pink light…”


The Dolphin Bay Resort resembles the kind of holiday resorts that you’d stay at if you booked a package holiday to Mallorca.  It’s a little different from the hostels and guesthouses that we’re used to staying in and comparatively pricey at twenty quid a night, but it has aircon and wifi, so we can’t really grumble.  

We couldn’t decide if these represent swans, or elephant’s trunks. Nice though!


What’s really wierd though, is that there’s more or less nobody here. With it being monsoon season on the Thai gulf the flocks of tourists are yet to arrive, and consequently we’re outnumbered by staff by about 4 to 1.  It reminds me of that episode of Alan Partridge when he’s live in a Travel Tavern hotel and he’s the only guest.  Our room is quite a comedown from the luxury of Chatrium.  This evening’s shower was fraught with danger, as the flow of water fluctuated from scolding hot to freezing cold and back again.  
We went downstairs for food and four waiters worked together to take our order of pad thai, spring rolls and tom kha soup.  It was happy hour on sangria and Chang lager, and in a surreal twist, a guitarist/singer had been hired in to perform, despite there being only the two of us and the waiting staff to perform to.  We smiled politely and dropped our cutlery to clap enthusiastically between tracks as he worked his way through hit songs by ‪Coldplay‬, ‪Noel Gallagher‬, ‪Green Day‬ and – oddly – White Christmas by ‪Bing Crosby‬.  He finished with the inevitable rendition of Wonderwall, and we gave him one last round of applause before paying the bill and heading upstairs to bed.


Tomorrow we’re going to visit a cave with a temple in it.

DAY 2 – Nov 4th. Livin’ it up in Bangkok

There are few things that make me feel more frantic than a free breakfast buffet. It brings out the worst in human nature, as people elbow each other out the way for the right to scoop up the last manky sausage. At least, that was my previous experience of breakfast buffets, before we ate at the Chatrium. There was such an abundance of everything here that I didn’t feel the need to get lairy with anyone, and the selection catered for all tastes and ethnic backgrounds. The first time I had curry for breakfast I was sat in my pants with a reheated madras after a night out upon returning to live with my parents after uni. On that occasion my Dad told me that I needed to sort my life out and get a job. Fortunately since then I’ve discovered such countries as India and Thailand, where it’s actively encouraged. Chicken satay sticks, pork dumplings, chinese steamed buns and eggs with cumin were all consumed before 9am, followed down the hatch with some watermelon to cleanse the pallet – I’m not an animal, you know. After the paneer pizza debacle Hollie was understandably sheepish about trying anything too crazy, so I ate the bits that I’d saved on my plate for her as well.

The right way to start the day.

We then went to the hotel spa for a massage – the classy kind. The package that we purchased involved back and shoulders, foot massages and a rose milk bath. After consuming a cup of delicious Thai tea we were ushered into a spa suite with two tables and asked to get undressed whilst our masseueses prepared things in the next room. We were given underwear to change in to, although underwear is a generous term for what was actually a pair of see-through tights for the crotch region. I attempted to don the crotch-tights before throwing a wobbler and telling Hollie that I was not going to pay 1500 baht to be humiliated. Hollie suggested that the crotch-tights may actually be worn over my swim shorts in order to protect them from the massage oil. I put my swim shorts back on and placed the crotch-tights over them, which looked moronic, but saved the spa ladies from having to witness my nethers. When we emerged from behind the curtain my masseuse said “You not change!” – Hollie was wrong about the crotch-tights being a protective layer, and the massage then commenced with me wearing the crotch-pants over my swim shorts.

The proceedings began as serenely as you’d expect. The usual pressures were applied, and my masseuse had both feet on the ground. My face was resting through a hole, and a little plant in a bowl full of fragrant water had been placed beneath my head so that I had something to look at and breathe in. At this point I was comfortable. Just as I began to relax into it though, the prodding and pressing increased. My legs were snapped back into positions that they’ve never been snapped into before, and I heard clicking sounds that reminded me of the sound effects used in budget horror movies. Then, as the sweat began to trickle down my forehead, I felt a heavier pressure on my legs.  

I’ve always considered myself to be a man of the world, but until that point in my life I had never been mounted by a woman on a massage table. I can’t decide if it makes it better or worse that my wife was lying on a table next to me, having the same thing done. As she began to work the knots on my back and shoulders, my face was slammed further and further into the face hole. It was becoming a bit of an effort to breathe, and I kept having to pull my head up out of the hole for a gulp of clean air, like some kind of frantic dolphin. I’ve had a cold for the last few days, which has made it hard to breathe through my nose. Having to keep your mouth open constantly to breathe obviously generates excess saliva, which eventually has to go somewhere. I tried swallowing it, but after attempting this and making a noise a bit like Hannibal Lector, I decided to just try and hold on to it in my mouth. Towards the end of the pummeling this got too much, and I accidentally gobbed into the aromatherapy bowl below me.

I can remember from watching WWE wrestling when I was younger that each wrestler had a “Finisher” move – some kind of trademark way of completing victory over an opponent. My masseuse’s Finisher move involved asking me to sit cross-legged on the massage table. She then grabbed my shoulders with her hands, placed her feet in the small of my back and pulled back with her arms until she’d achieved a final “click”. We then sat together in a jacuzzi of “rose milk” for half an hour – where the udders are on a rose I’m not quite sure.  


There was further humiliation at the hands of the maid. After we returned to our room, she showed up to clean the room. Prior to her arriving I’d just made a visit to the lav, and had done what I thought was a pretty impeccable job of cleaning up after myself. As we sat reading a book on the balcony, I heard the toilet flush. A few seconds passed and it flushed again. And again. AND AGAIN AND AGAIN until I was starting to think she was attempting to flush herself down there. Finally she emerged from the toilet, by which point my face was as red as the 100 baht note that I gave her as an apologetic tip.  

To complete an eventful day, we took the hotel’s riverboat up the Chao Phraya to Sathorn Pier. We walked through a couple of streets of food vendors with the smell of fish sauce and hot oil heavy in the air. We called in to a place for a cocktail and ended up having dinner there as well – massaman curry for Hollie, although I’d argue that she could have made a better one at home. I opted for soft-shell crab in yellow curry which was excellent – yellow curry doesn’t seem to be as fragrant with kaffir lime as green and red curry, but it holds it’s own as a dish against the two more popular shades. We returned to the hotel via the riverboat, charging through the waves made by bigger boats. We took advantage of the free drinks vouchers that we hadn’t yet cashed in at the hotel, and had a couple more bevs and a boogie on the balcony as party boats bobbed up and down on the river, pumping out K-Pop and karoake versions of Katy Perry hits.  

The woman in this photo is not Hollie.


We’ve had a completely different experience of Bangkok in comparison to last time. I think this is partly because we know what we’re doing more this time around, and partly because our budget has allowed us to splash out a bit. It’s a city where tourist scams are a huge source of income for dodgy locals, and we were roped in on our last visit by scams that appealed to our tight budget. There’s no doubting the seediness and pollution of Thailand’s capital city, but there’s also a rough charm to be found if you can stick around long enough to locate it. It’s worth spending that extra bit of money to guarantee decent accommodation and food.  

The woman in this photo is Hollie. Note Man City v Arsenal game in the background – conversation was limited at this point.

Tomorrow we begin our journey down south towards the islands.

November 3rd – Day 1. Work, then train to Birmingham, then flight to Bangkok via an eventful stopover in Delhi

Ayup.

Our day began at 5am in England. Hollie starts work at seven, so I took her to work and put a shift in myself before my Mum and Dad took us to the station after work. We got the train to Birmingham Airport and the adventure began.

As anyone who knows us will tell you, we’re an unassuming and occasionally uncouth couple with very little experience of “the high life”. You can imagine our delight then, when I discovered that we were eligible for a meal and unlimited drinks in the airport member’s lounge. I’ve been banking with the Co-op for a number of years, and one of the benefits of the “privilege” account that I hold is a “Dragonpass” – this grants you access into various airport lounges across the globe. I’ve held the card ever since I joined the Co-op, but this is the first trip that I’ve been on where I’ve had it on my person when we’ve been in an airport. We had a couple of hours to kill after checking in and having spotted the lounge we thought that we’d chance our arm with the card. After confirming that the card was valid, I asked the gent on the front desk “So what does this entitle us to?” and he told us. At least he began telling us, but we didn’t hear the end of what he was saying because I’d already legged it to the bar and ordered a G&T. Four G&Ts, two glasses of wine and a roast beef in yorkshire pudding each later, we felt satisfied that we’d maximised our use of the free stuff.

Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t…


The eight hour flight to Delhi was grim – Air India are certainly no match for Jet Airways, who I travelled to India with last year. We were an hour late taking off, the food was shite and the telly in the back of my seat was on the blink – it looked like somebody had repeatedly headbutted the controller in a fit of air rage. We were looking forward to having a good gander through the plane window at Delhi as we were coming in to land, but it wasn’t to be. A hazy smog of pollution hangs permanently over the city at a level of a few hundred feet, making it impossible to see anything until you’ve virtually touched down on the runway.   

I’ve commented previously on this blog about the eccentricity of hospitality in India – things just seem to be done in the most bizarre way possible, so I include the following story as a perfect example of this.  

I needed the bog quite badly after the 8 hour flight, so we both headed for the nearest set of toilets, only to find that they’d been coned off. A queue of people were waiting outside, and I assumed correctly that they’d been told that it was closed for cleaning. After a few minutes I got impatient and walked into the toilets. There was a man in there leaning on a mop in an immaculately clean toilet room.  

“Floor is wet sir, I cannot let you use the facilities.”  

“But I’ve already walked through it!”

“I will be two minutes sir.”

I reluctantly agreed to wait outside. Five minutes later he emerged from the toilets and explained that he had to go and get a mop to dry the floor with – what he’d been doing in the meantime I do not know. After a further five minutes he hadn’t returned, so we gave it up as a bad job and walked the length of the airport to find some more toilets. When I walked in all of the cubicles were in use, so I waited patiently for my turn alongside another toilet attendant who was also wielding a mop. A cubicle was vacated and I walked towards it, only to be stopped by the raised arm of the mop man. “I need to clean this sir” he said, before entering the cubicle with his mop. Another thirty seconds later he emerged from the cubicle. “The toilet is prepared sir.” I thanked him before entering the cubicle and locking the door firmly behind me.

Window cleaners risking life and limb to give us a clearer view of the smog


We went for food in the airport lounge. Taking advantage of our short spell on Indian soil I had a dhosa – a kind of giant pancake filled with curried veg or paneer, which you dip in curry and pickle sauces. Hollie thought that she was picking the safer option by having a paneer pizza from dominos, but this turned out to be absolute filth. She soldiered on through two slices before I pointed out that the gloops of paneer that kept dropping out of it resembled the same substance that comes out of a freshly squeezed blackhead – she stopped eating shortly after this, but I think the damage had already been done by the time I’d made my observation.

A dhosa – highly recommended


The offending pizza – note the blobs of what looks like mayo, but is actually liquid paneer. NOTE – Hollie was cropped out of this photograph for legal purposes.


The second flight was better, and there are few cities more impressive than Bangkok to fly in to at night. The lights below you are a yellow-tinged reflection of the stars above, stretching for as far as the eye can see. We queued for half an hour to get through Thai immigration, before taking a taxi to the hotel.  


As it’s our honeymoon – and because we stayed in a complete shithole for our first night in Bangkok last time around – we opted to begin this trip in five star luxury. Hollie booked two nights in the Chatrium Riverside Hotel at 80 quid a night. This is expensive by Thai standards, but you’d be hard pressed to get a B&B in the UK at that price. Hollie also casually mentioned that it was our honeymoon in the booking e-mail, and we reaped the rewards at check-in, when we were informed that we’d been upgraded to a “Grand One Bedroom Suite River View”.


Grand was an understatement – I bet there are Arab Princes and TOWIE celebrities that haven’t witnessed such grandeur. Our 12th floor balcony looked out over the Chao Phraya river and the impressive skyline of Bangkok beyond. Jetlagged to buggery but ecstatic at Hollie’s success, we ordered half the room service menu and cracked open some tins from the minibar, before the exaustion kicked in and we crashed out at midnight.


It’s gooood to be back!

November 3rd 2017 – A (Re) Introduction

Ayup.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? 

A lot’s happened since I came back from India – most of which is too boring to commit to the blog, but to summarise: After returning to the UK Hollie and I both got new jobs, saved up a load of money, and got married on 30th September this year. Since returning to the UK we’ve both been utterly obsessed with going travelling again, but we decided that we’d prioritise getting married because we didn’t want to get old and fat before doing so (and also because we love each other). As a result, every spare penny that we’ve had for the last year and a bit has gone towards our wedding, which is why we’ve not been away. Now that the wedding has been and gone, we’re finally in a position to go travelling again, and what better excuse do we need than our honeymoon?


The destinations discussed were far-flung and plentiful – Sri Lanka, Nepal and Cuba were all in the running. With it being our honeymoon though, we didn’t want the trip to feel too much like hard work. We spent a month in Thailand last year and absolutely loved it. Whilst it’s very, very different to the UK, living there is cheap, getting around is easy, and athough there’s a massive language barrier the Thai people are generally very warm and welcoming. We also concentrated on the north of the country last time round and didn’t take in any of the tropical islands that the south is famous for. 

 For all of the above reasons we felt that we had unfinished business in Thailand, so that’s where we’ve chosen to go. We plan to fly in to our old nemesis Bangkok and spend a couple of nights there in five-star luxury, before heading down south and hopping around as many of the islands as we feel like seeing.  

As usual I’ll be attempting to take you all on the journey with us through my clumsy words and pictures.  

I hope you enjoy my ramblings.

Peace and love, Tommy and Hollie x

May 16th 2016 – Goa to Mumbai, Mumbai to Heathrow, Heathrow to Belper

I woke at four and went downstairs. The concierge was snoring loudly with his feet on the desk, and didn’t take kindly to me waking him up to ask where my taxi was. He phoned the taxi driver, who had either forgotten that I’d booked him or was still in bed, but I had plenty of time to catch the flight so I wasn’t worried. I walked out to the front of the hotel to wait but quickly decided against it as a pack of stray dogs began growling – this was cleary their patch.  

The taxi and the flight to Mumbai were uneventful, other than to note that this was the first time I’d ever flown on my own – a given for most adults, but a fairly big deal for me considering that I spent ten years being unable to to go near a plane without hyperventilating.

And so it was that I sat on the Mumbai to Heathrow flight with my head pressed against the glass of the window, staring at the squiggling mirages thrown up by the heat of the tarmac. My hands gripped the arms of the chair either side of me, and the harness was strapped so tightly around my stomach that the last of the nervous farts had finally been squeezed out of my system. The man sat next to me gave me a look of disgust, which I ignored because he was wearing a stale shirt which stunk worse than I did. My thumb flicked through the music selection for something comforting or relevant to my situation. I located Bowie – Brilliant, recently deceased Bowie. As the engines powered up to that crescendo of impending doom, I pumped the volume up and up to try and block out the fear inside of me. The aircraft began that familiar, ridiculous stampede down the runway – that never-ending, bollocking charge of madness that I always assume is going to end in disaster, in spite of the statistics. Just as I’d resigned myself to the inevitability of death, the nose tilted skywards and I felt that second of almost reassuring weightlessness, before my stomach fell through the floor of the plane and I began practicing my breathing exercises. As I looked back over the airport I could see the tiny corrugated roofs that make up the slums of Mumbai, twinkling in the afternoon sun – each one a monument to the millions of people who live there, clinging improbably to life. Bowie screamed “We can be heroes!” into my ear in one of those perfect moments of real life cinema. A few minutes later I’d have a beer in my hand and a tray of curry in front of me at 37,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. My first world problems seemed so petty and ridiculous next to the plight of all those people down on the ground, and I made a little promise to myself to try not to be afraid of anything ever again that it’s not logical to be afraid of.

The three weeks I spent in India blew my mind just as South-East Asia had done. Now that I’m home I can’t wait to go back and enjoy the warmth, ingenuity and madness of the Indian people. I remain convinced that whilst there are places that exist that are so utterly out of my comfort zone, I will always be itching to get back on the road.