Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 17 - Near death

I nearly died today.  How often does one get to say that?
Ok, perhaps that is a little dramatic, but it certainly is a story to be told.

Today is the official day one of Songkran, so we donned our water guns and suited-up so to speak and hit the streets running.  We made it our mission to cover more ground today, so we started to talk our way onto the backs of tuk-tuks, songthaew, trucks and utes. You know where this is headed.

Tom came across a ute with only two Thai guys in the back, but with a barrel full of water, so that was invitation enough for us.  We were enthusiastically welcomed onboard and after quick introductions, the games begun.  Lots of people to shoot at means lots of refilling of water guns, hence we quickly ran out of water.  We pulled over to fill the barrel with water from the moat that surrounds the old city of Chiang Mai. Tom jumped straight into the moat, and we established quite the little production line, passing various size buckets back and forth between the moat and the ute.  The process was slowed by the irresistible temptation to occasionally pour an entire bucket of water on a passer-by.  Nonetheless we got the barrel filled and all jumped in the back.

It was inevitable that with all the water-throwing the ute would start to fill with water.  And smooth, shiny surfaces filled with water are one main thing: slippery.  The driver stopped suddenly and like dominos we all fell forward onto one another.  No-one was injured and we all thought it was hilarious.  Not a minute later, the driver accelerated suddenly when traffic cleared, and not having completely regained my footing I fell backwards.  I landed sitting on the back of the tray so I thought I was okay.  However, as soon as the ute gained speed it was Alicia meet bitumen.  Having hit my head with such force, the details are a little hazy in my memory.  I do remember lying in the middle of the road and seeing another ute looming towards me, so I somehow picked myself up off the road before collapsing onto the kerb.  I know now that upon hearing me scream, followed by a loud smack on the road, Tom leapt off the (still moving) ute to run and help me.  With me about to go into full on shock, I was so glad to have Tom there.  Tom calmed me down enough to walk back to our room, but not before the driver and at least 10 other people came over to see if I was okay and to give us advice.  All very sweet, but at the same time, very overwhelming. I just wanted to lie down and sleep.

Upon returning to the room, I curled up in bed and tried my hardest not to fall asleep.  With Tom as my watchdog we watched 'Sister Act', which happened to be on one of the movie channels (oh yeah, we have pay TV, did I forget to mention that?).  There's nothing like a cheesy musical to make you feel better.

So that's me out for Songkran, it was fun while it lasted! New near death story? Acquired.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Day 16 - Waterlogged

Songkran has well and truly started early. I was rather close to drowning today, and I didn't, by any definition, go swimming.  Thinking this might be the case, we got prepared this morning with super soakers, headbands and war paint. Yep, once again the make-up proved useful; who told me not to pack it?!   Tom, Anders and I made a fantastic team and were definitely a sight to be seen.  Walking through the streets with big super soakers and war paints was always interpreted in one of two ways, either; 'whoa, we do not want to mess with them!', or 'hell yeah they are up for a water fight!'. In one word: Fun. In many words; all the fun you always wanted to have when you were a kid, but never got to take it to its full potential.  Being one for guerrilla tactics, I too often smiled at people as they passed (especially if they were dry), then squirted them full on from behind.  Our killer instincts came out, and no-one was spared.  We were determined to get everyone wet!

Around 2pm we ran into Lynn and Joe, so we decided to hunt down some grub.  It actually wasn't such an easy feat given most of the street stalls and some of the restaurants had all closed for Songkran.  Dripping wet we stumbled into a noodle soup place and were absolutely delighted they were open.  Once we had filled out tummies, and left what would have usually been embarrassingly large puddles under each of our chairs, it was time to reload our guns and rejoin the battlefield.

After arriving back at the main square, Tom and Anders rallied a team on one side of the road and their 'us vs them' mentality shone perhaps a little too brightly when they subsequently declared war on the group that had established itself in front of the THC Rooftop Bar on the opposite side of the road.  Around the time that Anders and Tom picked up a barrel full of water and hurled it at the THC team, the water was starting to get to me.  I was so waterlogged that my fingers and toes were wrinkly like I'd fallen asleep in the bath.  If I had have consumed even half the amount of water that was thrown at me I'm sure I would have suffered from water on the brain.

Songkran was nothing like I expected it to be.  I didn't really know much about it, but then Tom told me he'd discovered that the Thai tradition is for the young to bathe the old as a New Year celebration, according to Wikipedia, Songkran started as a way to pay respect to people, and to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring water on their shoulders.  Somehow it has morphed into a water fight that spans the entire week of the Thai New Year.  At such festivals I aways enjoy seeing large brands spending valuable marketing and advertising dollars on stages, promo trucks and monster sound speakers. AirAsia went all out, and for the entire week they provided the main stage and music.  They also had promo dancers dressed in almost space like costumes, who were a very easy, but also very entertaining, target.  Coke and Pepsi were also amongst the brands that joined in on the fun, as well as a handful of Thai brands I'd never heard or seen before.  The westernisation and corporate involvement in the Songkran festival also made me wonder what the locals think of their traditions being bastardised into an alcohol fuelled, week long, water fight. On one hand, the young Thais, especially the children, took absolute delight in slapping us in the face with water, gunning us down and pouring buckets on our heads.  But on the other hand, I'm sure that wasn't the initial interpretation of the Thai tradition. But we definitely had a blast, bring on more water and war tactics tomorrow!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 15 - Beer Buffet!

Last night we met up with Anders, who we met in Malaysia, and also starred in my blog post about the Cameron Highlands. Still having the scooter we hired yesterday, Tom made the journey to pick him up from the airport, and miraculously they both made it back to me alive and well.

Whilst that journey was in progress I met an Englishman who told me of a 'beer buffet', where for only 150B (about AU$5) one could enjoy all the Heineken they could possibly drink between 6pm and 10pm, so that is where I'm headed now.  Songkran (the water throwing festival, in celebration of the Thai New Year) has started early, so I've left Tom on the back of a Tuk-Tuk with a group of Thai boys; who are currently driving around the city and gunning down unsuspecting pedestrians with their water pistols.

Today we visited the temple Doi Suthep, which is on the top of an incredible mountain here in Chiang Mai.  Being the anti-religious person I am, temples aren't exactly my thing; but this one was quite impressive.  Being made out of gold helps!  But what I really enjoyed was the ride up and down the mountain.  The roads were winding, and wind in my face was fantastic.  We did have to stop and help people who had taken tumbles from their scooters, once on the way up, and once on the way down.  That made me very grateful I had Tom as my very capable driver.

But I digress, back to the important stuff, back to the booze! We've just arrived at the President Hotel, which is really rather swanky, not at all what I expected for AU$5.  The group I'm currently drinking with include; Joe (the englishman who led us to the watering hole, aka beer buffet), David (a Canadian, who likes No Doubt!) and Anders.  Tom shall hopefully find his way here, if soaking wet and a little cold, but nothing a Heineken (or 5) can't fix!

Tom did eventually find us (even if it did take a couple of attempts), and we ran into some more people we'd met who live and work in Thailand teaching English.  The night ended with us all in a local club, being the only westerners, and dancing the night away to a strange mixture of English pop and what I think was a Thai live rock band. Hopefully all that beer won't kick me too hard in the 'Heine' tomorrow!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Day 14 - In the jungle the mighty jungle....

We arrived in Chiang Mai today. Today as in 2am this morning. So bleary eyed after yet another long haul bus trip, we stumbled off the bus and were greeted by aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, who wanted to charge us stupid amounts of baht to take us to the city centre.  So Tom put the charm on and we somehow (in broken english and hand gestures) convinced some lovely locals to take a detour via the city to drop us off. Resisting the temptation of the 24hr maccas we were dropped outside of, we stumbled across a perfect guesthouse. For 250B (AU$8), we're staying in a double room with a fan, private bathroom (with hot water!) and even bedsheets, blankets and towels. At $4 each a night, this is pure luxury for us.

Before I continue I should point out that I'm writing this while receiving a foot massage (splashed out for 150B or AU$5), after 2 weeks on the road, hiking 13km, and spending 40 hours crammed in buses; maybe I deserve it? Holidays can be incredibly exhausting ;)

Note: If you're already so jealous that you're starting to hate me, perhaps stop reading now.

Today has been my favourite of the trip so far, let me explain why. I rolled out of bed at 10.30, enjoyed a hot shower for the first time in 2 weeks. Hot water how I missed thee! Shortly after Tom busted in and told me he'd hired a scooter for the day to explore the city. Let the adventures begin!

Being the animal lover I am, I warned Tom before we left that I would want to do anything and everything animal related along the way. So when Tom told me he'd heard about a tiger sanctuary where you can actually get into the cages and hug the tigers, well, to say I was enthusiastic would be an understatement.

With map in hand and a vague idea of where we were headed, we set off to the area of Mae Rim, where (for the right price) you can see snakes, elephants, tigers, monkeys, live insects, go paintballing, hire dirt buggies, bungy jump, shoot guns and gaze at orchids. Spoilt for choice, we first made our way to the Mae Sa Elephant Camp, where we saw some highly trained elephants do amazing tricks. They played soccer, basketball, even harmonicas. The elephants were also quite talented artists, and Tom even compared one to Monet.

Then it was time for the main event, it was time to roar! We scooted down to Tiger Kingdom and purchased our tickets to play with the tigers. After we'd turned the flash off on our cameras and left our valuables behind (apparently tigers are quite the sneaky thiefs - who knew?), we were briefly briefed on what not to do around the tigers in order to avoid being eaten. So it was with anticipation and some trepidation that I entered the tiger enclosure. The first tiger we met was named Jackie Chan, and was 17 months old.  As instructed I approached him from behind, and sat down next to him. The trainer showed me how I could scratch the tiger's belly, hold his tail, and even where I could lay my head on him. It was truly amazing. The trainer explained to us that the tigers were quite tame around people until their 2nd birthday, when they start getting their killer instinct.  Then it was Tom's turn with the tiger and my turn to be the photographer. We got some amazing shots, it's not every day you get to lie down with a tiger, scratch his belly and hear him purr.

After meeting two other tigers, a lion (and heard him roar!) and one cheeky baby tiger who very nearly escaped, it was time to head back.

If today was anything to go by, and perhaps it has set the standard for the rest of the week; I love Chiang Mai, maybe I'll never leave?

P.S If you love me, and like reading my blog, maybe you could be so kind as to click on some ads? Or if you're really keen, you could press my donate button :)

Day 11/12 - When the water rose up and met us

It's currently 1am and we are on a bus to Bangkok. Upon arriving in Hat Yai we were able to book a VIP bus straight to Bangkok leaving at 6pm. Having just escaped the broom closet that was our previous minivan, a VIP bus sounded most luxurious. What we didn't really take into account is that it would be our third bus journey that day, and would bring us to the soul crushing number of 20 hours spent on buses.

Being the bus lover I am, I was quite content to spend the first two hours or so dozing in and out of consciousness, catching snippets of songs embedded deep within my iPhone. Tom, however, was a different story. Being less of a busophile, and more of a valium-enthuse (with none in sight), he was rather envious of my relaxed and rested state. Let's just say, when you've spent 9 of the last 11 hours crammed next to each other in various forms of road transport, tensions are bound to get high.

After putting some food in our bellies and Tom finally getting a couple of minutes (in the space of hours) sleep, we found ourselves on a bus sloshing through water that was getting increasingly deeper as we went. To say that we fully understood why the trains weren't running would be an understatement. With my head glued to the window and my eyes fixated on the rising water, my only hope is that we don't get stranded here at 1 in the morning.

I've just seen a sign that says Tharong Chang Sao, so that's where we are. We are amongst abandon cars, obliterated road-side stalls, a couple of brave road trains and the odd dingy. Yep, it's getting pretty deep. I can now hear water sloshing around the doors where the toilet is, and I'm sure my bag is soaking up some of the water in the hold.

Let's hope the mechanics of this bus are waterproof!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day 11 - Crossing the Border

Finally we are leaving Kota Bharu, a very Muslim town where women are required to cover themselves at all times and completely ignore men they don't know.  Not exactly my kind of place! My ticket out of here (scribbled on the back of a receipt, no less) was on the bumpiest bus I've ever been on, to the border town of Rantau Panjang.  Honestly, I wish I had a sports bra to wear!

From Ratau Panjang we walked across the Thai border into Sangai Kolok, with buses, cars and scooters whizzing past us but not another soul on foot.  We got our passport stamped with must exit by June 5, watch out Thailand!

The heat, the stress of walking across the border and the weight of my backpack on my broken shoulders were all getting to me at this point.  I then lost all spirit after discovering the only way to get to the train station was via the back of a moto. Not happy Ali. With a few tears, and much convincing, I was finally able to get on the back of the moto after begging the driver to "drive safe for me".  I hopped on and clung to him like my life depended on it (because it literally did!).  Upon arriving at the train station we encountered the first of many military men armed with machine guns.  This part of Thailand is known for it's political unrest.  In fact, Lonely Planet suggests not to pass through this area unless absolutely necessary. Oops.

The plan was to catch a train from Sangai Kolok straight up to Bangkok, however we've just learnt the trains still aren't running due to the floods (contrary to what our hostel in Kota Bharu told us!).  Thinking this could be the case, our Plan B was to get a bus instead.  That didn't work out too well either when we were told all the buses to Bangkok are completely full until April 10, 3 nights from now.  Shit.

Plan C? Minivan. Shudder. We asked at the bus terminal about getting to Hat Yai instead, and were told we could get a minivan.  So I'm currently on a minivan, squashed in the backseat between Tom and two hilarious UK girls, Holly and Kristina.  We've already passed three military checkpoints, soldiers with machine guns and too many bunkers to feel comfortable.  Its a 5 hour drive to Hat Yai, fingers crossed the rest of the journey is uneventful!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Day 7 - I Like It Rough

Today I'm feeling rough, definitely not in tune with the past couple of days. I decided to make my way to Coral Bay for breakfast, after hearing rumours of snickers-filled-rotis. In hindsight, probably not a great decision the sight of said roti nearly made me hurl.  So with minimum energy levels, I purchased a sarong and found a comfy spot under a palm tree to curl up in. Sounds rough doesn't it? If you have to suffer stomach cramps from over-Asia-indulgence, under a shady palm tree isn't such a bad place to recover.

After pumping myself full of drugs (read: ibuprofen, paracetamol, stomachease), it was time to get ready for pirate night. It seems they like dress up parties here in the Perhentians, and we're more than happy to oblige, especially when there are free drinks to be had.  So once again the eyeliner came out, as did the scraps of clothing and ropes we stumbled upon on the beach. The dirt we didn't have to fake so much.  With my heart on my sleeve (quite literally), we arrived at the Buffalo Bar and were greeted with pineapple juice and rum (yum!), then nabbed a candlelit table to observe the firetwirlers (or so I thought).

Whilst having a really rather intelligent conversation with the girls (Tori - Southampton UK, Gwen - Cardiff Wales, Emma - NZ) as to whether the boys looked better as ladies or pirates, I glanced at the firetwirlers, and had to do a double take. One looked a little too familiar. Not a minute later, Tom was asking me to video him firetwirling. With me audibly gasping and thinking it would all end in tears, Tom put on an impressive performance and showed up the Malays at their own game. It wasn't until after that Tom let me know he'd never firetwirled before.  Needless to say, with more drinks comes more enthusiasm, so by the end of the night, most of the boys had tried their hand at it. Under Tom's watchful eye of course. Not one to be shown up by the boys, I had to have a go too (sorry Mum).  Wearing entirely synthetic materials, I twirled that fire stick until my arms begged for mercy.  I escaped with only a few burns, and my clothes no less tattered than when I begun. With hands and bodies covered in charcoal, we really did feel like pirates. The night ended in high spirits, with 2am hamburgers and a not-so-sober job offer for Tom. It was the perfect last night on the island.  Long live the pirates of the Perhentians.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Day 6 - Bliss

We've arrived at the Perhentian Islands, and they are breaktakingly beautiful.  Staying in a hut (well, maybe a shack) that is about 100m from the ocean.  Theres sand everywhere, but nothing beats the sound of the ocean.
The view from our hut

Last night, the first night on the island we caught wind of a ladies night at one of the bars on the waterfront, so free drinks for ladies, or boys dressed as ladies (so the sign said).  Six days in and I'm already finding multiple uses for all the make-up I seemed to have packed.  Needless to say, the boys looked amazing, and perhaps even showed up the (actual) girls ;) due mostly (of course) to my amazing make-up skills!

The morning after wasn't so pretty (boys have no idea about removing make-up!), but we picked ourselves up, brushed the sand off, and hired some snorkeling gear on the other side of the island (Coral Bay).  A local recommended we snorkel at 'Romantic Beach', so we found our way there (sneaking through a swanky resort), and got into the water.

Romantic Beach

I saw some amazing fishies, and colours I didn't even know existed.  The fish were really friendly  too, at one point I discovered a huge school of fish and was swimming behind them in formation.  I swear I saw more fish in a metre or so radius than I've ever seen in my entire life. If I had an underwater camera, I could show you, but even then I don't think it would have done them justice. It's definitely been one of the highlights of the trip so far. Sun, water, animals, amazing sea creatures; what more could a girl like me ask for?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Day 5 - Euphoria

Currently on a minibus going to the Perhentian Islands, there's 11 of us plus the driver, so its nice and cozy.  We also have a sneaky suspicion that our driver is the stig, will keep you posted ;) He is a risky overtaker, and a professional tailgater so hopefully we all make it in one piece.  Getting all our bags in the back was like an epic game of tetris, I hope I don't lose a shoe.

Today is the day it's hit me that I don't have to return to the chokehold of my previous job. It's an incredible feeling, like I own my life again, and I can take it in any direction I choose.  This is why people travel. If I could bottle this feeling, I'd be a millionaire!

Last night was interesting, a couple of us had drinks in a derelict building across the road from our hostel, which looks over Tanah Rata; the main town in the Cameron Highlands.  Just because we could. Tanah Rata is probably more like a village, but I think the fact it has a Starbucks makes it officially a town.  Too bad their coffee costs more than my dorm bed.

We've heard from various sources that there isn't much nightlife in the Perhentians, so we decided to stock up and bring the fun with us.  The amount of alcohol we've purchased is probably enough to keep the whole island pissed for a week, but when 5 bottles of vodka cost the equivalent of AU$28, how could we say no?!

Pulling into Kuala Basut now, where we will catch a fastboat to the islands - should be interesting. Can't wait to get back on the beach and into the water again.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Day 4 - Plan B

Literally just booked transport from our current location of the Cameron Highlands to the Perhentian Islands. Which, apparently, are a charming couple of islands off the east coast of Malaysia. The previous plan was to make our way to Koh Tao in Thailand for our island fix, but now that it's been evacuated due to all the flooding, we've had to come up with a plan B. So now we will be waiting out the storms in Thailand on a sunny, white sand beach in the middle of almost nowhere. Sounds like the perfect plan B to me!

Tonight is goodbye to the Cameron Highlands, which have been an absolute blast. Yesterday I hiked up Mt Berinchang, which is 2025m above sea level. I say hiked, but the last 300m or so were more like climbing, and I may have had a bit of a panic attack after a few too many slips, but I survived and have the bruises to prove it. The group I went hiking with were very fun and included; Mr Tori (a beautiful girl from Southampton UK), Bas (a sober Netherlander - who knew they existed?!), Mr Anderson (a man who thinks like a goat from Noway!), and last but not least Tom (who provided more Dad jokes than one needs in a lifetime).  

After we reached the summit, and sufficiently filled ourselves with h2o, salty snacks & sugar, we made our way to the breathtaking tea plantations, to drink tea & eat scones. However,  we were fortunate enough to stumble across a herd of goats so we stopped to play with them and feed them strawberries.  They were so cute, it reaffirmed my desire to work with animals at some stage in my life.

The tea plantations were amazing, and made for some awesome shots (I.e Tom and Tori amongst the Tea) and jokes were a plen-tea. The tea was delicious, the scones were sans cream, hence not so scrumptious, but the surroundings made up for it.

With tired legs and heavy eyes, we were rather sick of walking, so we hitchhiked our way back to the hostel, and when you are in the back of a pick up truck, the wind is in your face, someone else's hair is in your eyes and everyone is up for a laugh, life doesn't get much better, so it made for a fantastic end to day 3.