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Friday, January 30, 2004

Spent a couple of nights up at the very north of Thailand in Mae Sai. Stayed in a great little place called the Northern Guesthouse; friendly & with good food. The town itself wasn't much to look at mostly being a strip of shops leading to the border however heading to town from the guesthouse I was presented with a great view of houses clinging to the hill that looks over the hill and border. On top of the hill is Wat Phra That Doi Wao, accessed via a spectacular stairway with dragons as handrails. the view over the border and the country around was superb from the top. In the evening I had a drink in a bar right next to the border bridge. There, across a little river I could have waded across, was another country.

Mae Sai hill

Mae Sai stairs

Mae Sai border
Looking across the border from the bar

Spent half a day crossing into Myanmar but not much to see there except markets & touts. There did appear to be an official visit by some Thai & Euro dignitaries but I noticed the Europeans were given an old non-air-conditioned Thai bus whilst everyone else had the latest Landcruisers. I guess a political snub was being made.

Official Visit
The Thai & European official visit. Crappy bus just visible to the right

I am spending the night by the Laos border before crossing over tomorrow. I'll then catch a boat down the river to Luang Prabang that will take two days. For a while this will be my last web access and even this is on a slow connection.

Had a quick look at the news and wished I hadn't. The Hutton report is a total whitewash. Despite even the Whitehouse admitting there were no WMD's No 10 is still optimistic about finding evidence. And it doesn't look likely the Democrats can mount a serious attempt to remove that idiot Bush and the rest of the lunatics in the Whitehouse...... Please do me a big favour before I get back : replace Blair with Cook or Brown and do anything to make sure Bush & Cheney don't end up in the Whitehouse for another 5 years.....


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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

I caught the overnight train from Bangkok to Chang Mai, taking a 2nd class top bunk. Not a problem says the Lonely Planet...... wrong. The major flaw with the top bunk is that the curtain rail is about 2 inches below the ceiling and right next to this gap, beside every bed is a very bright lamp. It was so bright on my bunk I felt I was under a sunbed. I took my first sleeping pill of the trip and wrapped my eyes in a T-shirt but to no avail. I saw every hour of the night and arrived shredded next morning.

I had booked into the Eagle House 2, hoping to catch Tara who I had met on the bus from Byron Bay to Sydney. As I checked in I was told she had checked out; things weren't getting any better. Much of the day was spent snoozing, before getting up, exploring the night market and watching the FA cup in a series of bars. Chang Mai nightlife is much, much quieter than Bangkok, probably a good thing for my state of health.

Woke up next day to find Tara in the courtyard. She had been off on a multi day trek into the hills to see the hill tribes. We spent the day exploring temples (Wats) including Wat Phra Singh and Sunday markets, both coming to the conclusion that most Thai cities consisted mostly of Wats and markets. They are everywhere; I had sort of noticed this in Bangkok but their dominance of a 2nd city brought it home.

Chang Mai Wat outside

Chang Mai Wat inside

Tara's camera had broken and we eventually found a place with a replacement. Unfortunately the shops creditcard machine couldn't connect to the bank so she couldn't buy it after all.

I had a quiet night as I had to be up before 9am to do my one day Thai cookery class. The 6 of us doing the class had to agree the dishes to be cooked . Dishes were in catagories (soups, curries, stir fries, etc) and we had to agree 5 catagories to cook, then 2 or 3 dishes from each of those. The trainer worked out the shopping list and we went with him to the local food market. There was a superb range of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that puts British markets and supermarkets to shame. Once we had what we needed we set about chopping the days ingredients as instructed before preparing and eating our dishes through the day. It took all day but was a superb (& tasty) introduction to cooking Thai cuisine. Expect spicy food to emerge from my kitchen on my return. (Note on Thai spicy soups, they are served with herbs & spices still in them that should be removed before eating. It shows to the customer the quality & quantity of ingredients that went into it.)

Cookery 1

Cookery 2

The next day was spent travelling on the bus to Chang Rai, Thailand's most northern city. The original plan was to head to a town called Pai which had been recommended by a couple of fellow travellers. Discussion the night before had revealed it was now very much a traveller hang out and I wanted to get off the beaten track more. The final decision wasn't made until I encountered poor service at the window for the Pai bus. The plan is now to head to Mae Sai for a day trip into Burma (Myanmar), stopping in Chang Rai for a night to see it and change buses. To be honest if I was doing it again I would go though Chang Rai without stopping as it has little to offer after Chang Mai. Still I had a great Thai meal at a place called Cabbages & Condoms, a charity run restaurant whose profits go to promoting safe sex.

After my trip into Burma the plan is to head east to Chiang Khong and cross into Laos ASAP. I'm looking forward to returning to Thailand for some lazy days on its beaches, but before then I need to undertake some more challenging travel than I have done up until now.

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Anyone for Thailand???

When I was planning this trip it was clear that there would be one or two places on the trip when it would be possible for someone from home to join me for a couple of weeks. One of those is coming up. In late March I intend to head to the islands off the east coat of Thailand, catching the Full Moon Party on April the 4th. If anyone fancies a holiday with a difference (couple of days in Bangkok, week or so in the islands and then another couple of days in Bangkok) let me know.


In the meantime Bangkok is a blast. I've got a train ticket to head up to Chang Mai overnight on the sleeper train tomorrow night and will be sorry to leave. I've not really done many of the sites in Bangkok yet as I feel I'll make a better job of it once I've got used to Asia in places a lot less manic. Nice to know I'm coming back in a month or two. I'll pop up some photos of the nightlife soon.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I needed to get a Lao visa yesterday whilst still in Bangkok as the one available at the border is only valid for 15 days and cannot be extended, whilst the embassy one is valid for 30 days and can be extended. Used a bus to get to the train station (6 pence), a train to get to the right district (4 pence) and a taxi for the last bit (a quid). Took a long time but as I found in Samoa using the local public transport (taxis don't count) shows you a how the the people live and gives you a good boost in confidence. Stupidly forgot to book a train to Chang Mai whilst at the station so have to return there today.

Drank too much last night in a small road not far from the Khao San. A guy sets up a small stall with a few chairs outside one of the shops on the Khao San Road selling draft beer. Its a great spot to people watch and whilst doing this I got chatting to a Manc guys called Paul. He had just come back from Laos and remembered the baggy period in Manchester so we had a load to chat about. He recommended a few other good places for a drink where he was hoping to meet up with a friend. One of these is a Beatle Bus turned into a cocktail bar at the start of the alley which then has a whole series of bars and food stalls up its length. It had a good atmosphere and was unlike anywhere I've been before.

Cocktail Bus

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Monday, January 19, 2004

Thailand 

Bangkok

Landed in Bangkok at around 10:30 pm so by the time I had passed though immigration (only airport I know with plenty of officials and no queuing), customs and caught a taxi in Bangkok it was getting on for midnight (or 5am by my body clock). The Khao San road was a blaze of lights and activity, however I had to find a room. My attempts to book one by phone from Oz had failed and my first choice was full. Found an OK place a bit further down the road with a room on the top floor (I probably need the exercise).

Khao San

The Khao San is a backpackers haven, full of bars, restaurants and guesthouses. Its always busy and is an emerging place for young Thais looking for a night out a well as all the farang (white folk). The sheer size of the tourist trade here tends to shield you from the local culture however most shopping is done in markets and its difficult to recognise some of the foods sold at stalls.

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Saturday, January 17, 2004

I fly to Bangkok today and am looking forward to it. So far most of my trip (Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia) has been in cultures derived from and related to the British culture. South East Asia should be very different and for me this is where the proper travel starts; what came before was more closely related to a holiday. That is not to say the trip so far has not be good, its been a lot of fun but with the exception of Samoa not exactly challenging or educational.

I've done a little preparation for the next stage : buying extremely expensive malaria tablets, clearing out the pack and sending the excess home or binning it (should be 5kg lighter), doing laundry and getting my hair cut. Basically making my initial couple of days there as easy as possible whilst I get used to the place.

Australia has been interesting, the trip into the Outback being superb, it was great to meet up with relatives but with me failing to make the best of Sydney. The lack of entries in this journal for my time spent in the city is an indication of how little I achieved here. However I suspect that after 5 months or so in Asia I will quite look forward to my return to Oz in the middle of the year. Suggestions on the most interesting route to take between Darwin & Perth are welcome.

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Friday, January 16, 2004

Lyn & Johnnie

I had relatives (4th cousin) living in the Blue Mountains at Wentworth Falls so took the opportunity to visit them. It was nice to hop off the backpacker circuit for a couple of days. The train from Sydney runs a regular service and I was met at the station before heading to their home. It was not what I had expected, styled as a castle with a tower and with medieval antiques inside and out. Johnnie had designed the place himself, had it signed off by an architect and then had to find brickies capable of building it. Its unique and nicely reflects his character.

Lyn has a strong interest in family history and it was through her tracing of Johnnies family that we got in contact. My parents had met them at a wedding in Ireland so one thing led to another and here I was. We spent the afternoon seeing the local sights such as the 3 Sisters, Wentworth Falls and the local Hydro hotel built in the 1920's very Art Deco and almost lost in a recent forest fire. We ate at home that night and it was great to get a good home cooked meal.

Next day Johnnie had to present one of his two weekly radio shows at the local community radio station Blu FM 89.1. Wednesdays is his country slot & I joined him in the studio. As I know little of country music I had little to offer but being there took me back to the days when I was involved in MCR 100 FM in Manchester.

Johnnies radio show
Johnnie presenting his radio show

I stayed that night but had to be off early next day to return to Sydney for my final preparations for Thailand. These include sending home excess clothes & kit (I want to look 5kg from my pack), picking up malaria tablets, replacing wrecked clothes and updating this journal. Also hoping to catch up with Paul from Samoa & NZ, John from the Stray bus and Julie from the Green Tortoise before I fly off on Sun.


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Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Outback

Sunday 4th Jan

Struggle out of bed at 6am to check out and catch Ando's bus from Central Station at 7am. Our driver, Ted, is running a little late by the time he gets to us and things only get worse. Someone called Pong cannot be found nor contacted at their pickup point and two Swiss guys missed their pickup at 6am. Pong is never found and never calls either Ted or the office, but the Swiss guys have hired a car and will follow us round the tour.

We stop for a look at the 3 Sisters rocks in the Blue Mountains, climbing down a steep staircase to a natural platform on one of them. They valley around appears almost totally unspoilt and is almost completely covered in trees. The two Swiss guys catch up with us here to reveal that they have brought along a mate and there are now three in the Swiss army.

3 Sisters
3 Sisters

We drive to Sofala, Oz's oldest mining town, for lunch and a swim in the river. The cafe is a small place that can just about handle the numbers on our small bus. Just as we have finished being served the Oz Experience crowd turn up in a huge 3 axle bus, so we get to sit eating in front of them as they queue up. It is here we start to realise the annoyance of the Ozzie bush fly; they are everywhere, are very persistent and seem to have a fondness for your nostrils and ear holes. Most of us are eating sandwiches but Tony has ordered the full English brekky which gets covered in flies the second he stops waving them off. The swim in the river is fun and cooling but before long we head off.

The next stop is at Hill End where we go Gold Panning in a creek. I'd done this before in New Zealand, but the technique demonstrated here was very different and far more aggressive. This may have had something to do with the mud we were panning here, instead of the fine gravel we had back in NZ. It was hot work in the creek bed, with the flies driving us mad, but we all found little bits of gold. It was clear, however, that gold panning is not a good get rich quick scheme and you have to admire the determination of those who had made it their livelihood.

Just up the road at the village of Hargraves we joined the locals who were having a BBQ for a quick game of football, tourists vs locals and a beer. We had the advantage of numbers but they had the advantage that the little kids were fairly handy with a ball, but none of us was going to go in with a crunching tackle on people under half our size. It looked like a 0-0 stalemate and halftime was going to be declared when the 1st goal was scored. I was forward on the right when a high ball came in to me; I took the speed out of it with my chest and then volleyed it past the keeper with my left foot. 1-0, half-time & I have just played the best bit of football of my life. The second half saw more goals for both sides but our team prevailed.

Gold Panning
Gold Panning

During the drive we found that Ted is the owner & sole full time employee of Ando's Outback Tours. The company was started by an Andy before passing it onto his son. The two of them managed about a year before they were burnt out when Ted bought it up and has been running it for the last 4 years. Late that evening we arrived at Ted's farm, Eulin Sheep & Cattle Station, where there was a great BBQ dinner (including roo steak) and a party into the night. Ted warned us he was waking us early and that we should not get cleaned up but should dress in closed shoes and long trousers. I took the hint and headed for the hay around midnight. Others partied on until 4am

Monday 5th Jan
We were woken up at 5:30 just before the sun rose. Within half an hour we were all in the back of 2 Toyota Landcruisers with 4 dogs and off to hunt wild pigs. The dogs were wearing wide leather collars to protect their throats from the tusks of the pigs. When we got to the hill where the pigs were meant to be, the 2 trucks headed round either side with 2 dogs in each. We dismounted and Ted led our group up the hill at a fierce pace but despite seeing a few kangaroos we didn't find any wild pigs (to my relief to be honest). When we caught up with the other group they had had little luck either but it was blast hooning round the farm trails clinging to the backs of the 4x4's.

Pig Hunt
Off on the pig hunt

It was back to the farm to get cleaned up and to have a quick breakfast before we went to shear a few sheep. Time restrictions meant we only sheared two sheep between up, doing small parts of the easy sections each. Ted also gave us the recent history of sheep farming where wool prices fell catastrophically in the early 90's forcing many farmers out of business. Ted only retained a few sheep to shear as part of the tour.

Sheep shearing
Sheep shearing

It was then off to Ted's house to fire a shotgun at a paint tin (it got a good hit sending it spinning away) and to pack some roo meat up for a BBQ later in the trip. We were to be joined by a couple of backpackers who had been helping Ted look after the farm for several weeks and Ted's largest dog, Mad, who had to go and see a girlfriend in Lightning Ridge. It wasn't long before Mad was renamed Scooby and became the most pampered mutt in the world.

We left the farm late that morning stopping at the Warrumbungle National Park for a hill climb followed by a picnic lunch. It was 44 deg C so the hill climb was shorter than usual, but we still got some great views. It was then a long haul to the Glengarry Opal Field where we were to stay the night at the Glengarry Hilton. This was a pub with a few portacabins out back for accommodation and a bag shower. Most of us pulled our mattresses out onto a tarp outside to prepare for sleeping under the stars as it was still well over 30 degrees and wouldn't cool off much at night. The pub was a great place with a few locals keen to chat and a good supply of well chilled beer.

Tues 6th Jan
Woke up just after sunrise because of the flies and the whine of mozzies. Got an early shower before the rush and then went for breakfast. It was 32 deg C at 6:30 am and climbing.

Glengarry Hilton Pub
Glengarry Hilton Pub

Glengarry Hilton Shower
Glengarry Hilton Shower

One of Ted's mates had originally discovered the Glengarry Opal Field and it was to his place we headed for a look at the equipment and to scavenge through the tailings of his mine. As long as we didn't find anything stupidly valuable we could keep the stones we found. We all did find little pieces of coloured opal and several of us had ones that looked worth cutting. Down at the mine area itself was a lake of water used for washing the dirt brought up from the mines to leave only the stones. The process is done in modified cement mixers, with mounds of dirt from various mines waiting their turn. As Black Opal is one of the most valuable gems in the world it is likely that some of these mounds would be booby trapped to prevent theft. The lake itself is the colour of clay from all the dirt washed into it and this stopped many from having a dip. Not me, in the heat the opportunity to get into water was one to be taken. The swim was great with alternating warm and cool currents, but came to a sudden halt when one of the guys found a leach stuck to his arm. You have never seen a group of people leave a body of water so fast, checking their bodies to see if there were any more blood suckers. Fortunately not.

Lightning Ridge was only a short drive away and had a set of hot springs with showers. We were all keen to wash the clay off and swim in clean water but the hot springs really were hot. Most didn't stay in long, I didn't go past my calves as with the air temp in the 40's getting into water also in the 40's seemed mad. The shower was nice and cool though.

After lunch we went for a whip cracking demo from Ted's mate Pete. Pete is a leather craftsman who did work for Mad Max III. As it happened there was a pool next to the garage Pete rented space from (strange place to have it). We all dived in with Pete telling lewd jokes and horsed around for while.

One of the local mines which was still working had also been opened up as a museum. We watched a video on the process, sweating horribly, before descending 80 feet or so down into the mine. I suddenly realised one of the reasons these guys do this without going totally mad.... its nice and cool down there. Our guide gave us a rough idea of how much Opal mining costs and the chances of finding anything that will pay this back. Except for the lucky or talented few its not a get rich quick scheme either but more like an excellent way to burn money.

A pottery demonstration was laid on before we went to a Aboriginal museum with the proprietor telling us what is known of the culture before the arrival of the Europeans and wrong assumptions made by them. Ted, meanwhile, was arranging for some of our more hopeful Opals to be cut.

Ted had arranged for some of us to go up in a small airplane owned by one of the locals. Because of the heat of the day the time was limited to the evening whilst still light. As there were limited numbers, I had flown in small planes in Samoa and to Stuart Island and had flown a two man glider before I passed the opportunity to others. Whilst the flights took place that nights BBQ was being prepared.

Ted owned a small camp just outside Lightning Ridge with a couple of small buildings, a train carriage as a dorm and a BBQ area. When we arrived after the flights the food was cooking and the beer chilled. Lots of Ted's local mates joined us for the evening, including Pete and a couple of other with guitars. We kept going till the beer ran out and I crashed in the railway carriage.

Lightning Ridge BBQ

Lightning Ridge Sing Along

Wed 7th Jan

Lightning Ridge Morning
Morning in the railway carriage

After breakfast we looked at one of the more interesting buildings in the town. An Italian guy decided he had always wanted to live in a castle, so he built himself one. It doesn't have council approval but that counts for little out here. (the local shops sell 4 times as much food as would be expected for the population registered in the area).

Lightning Ridge Castle

Andos Group
A group photo, sorry about the quality

A local artist, John Murray http://www.johnmurrayart.com.au/, who was achieving a fair amount of acclaim designed the poster for Andos Tours. We dropped by the gallery for a look at his work which captures the scenes of the Outback and its cattle stations as well as humorous pieces. Before leaving town we picked up our Opals that had been cut, mine now worth around $200 and Tony's around $1000.

We pick up Scooby & a Dutch girl who has spent 6 months or so in the outback for a long haul east towards Bingara where we were spending the night. 20 minutes into the drive Jan realises he has left his wallet in the gallery. We are suddenly glad the Swiss guys have a car as it will be much faster than the bus in the hills so they can head back for the wallet and catch us up for lunch at the RSA club in Moree. After lunch we passed though a rain storm with some impressive lightning. This was concerning, our packs were in a trailer and had got covered in dust every day on the unsealed roads. Adding water to the dust wasn't going to help matters any.

We arrived in Bingara late afternoon with enough time to feed some orphaned roos and throw boomerangs by the river whilst drinking beer (some swam, I was determined to develop my throwing). I eventually got OK at getting the boomerang to come back but by this time I was holding a beer and you need 2 hands to catch the thing.

feeding roos

On arrival at the hotel we were told it had been 46 deg C there that day. We could believe it, the bus's aircon couldn't cope so it shut down and we had to rely on opening the windows. Several of us got put in a large 7 person dorm, which wasn't great until we realise that it was fitted with aircon. Bliss, a cool nights sleep.

Thurs 6th Jan

Most of the group were up early to go horse riding but I plumped for the lie in. My last experience with horses, in the USA, was muddy, painful & humiliating. As good a recommendation as that is for a good time I decided against it. Around 11 am we set off for Byron Bay. It was a long trek so a short lunch was grabbed at Glen Innes where we were also shown some of the local Sapphire. By the time we arrived in Byron, had a shower and changed it was almost 9pm by the time we arrived at Cheeky Monkeys Club & Restaurant. Dinner was OK, we managed to rig a competition so Tony won it (and a free sky dive) and headed for the dance floor. There was a girl I'd got on OK with on the bus and had my eye on tonight; with little warning one of the other guys had swooped in there and they were off together. Despite being pissed off it was strangely reassuring that after 4 months of travelling and on the other side of the planet things were playing out as normal, I can't have changed much.

Fri 7th Jan

Most people spent the day getting sunburnt on the beach and messing about in the breaking waves. Although the tour had finished Ted volunteered to take us round the bay to the eastern most point in Oz to see the lighthouse and the sunset before having a last few drinks and dinner together.

Lighthouse

East

Sat 8th Jan

Ted & Gabi headed off early for the 12 hour drive to Sydney. Gabi was of to Ted's farm to look after the dogs for a couple of weeks before heading south. I was staying in Byron for one more day before catching a different bus to Sydney. Most of the others were heading north up the coast. It had been a great trip, seeing stuff & meeting people I wouldn't have seen any other way. I can't recommend it highly enough so if you are up for it head to http://www.outbacktours.com.au/


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Saturday, January 03, 2004

Found a short 5 day trip that heads inland, before finishing in Byron Bay. It sounds like the company, Ando's Outback Adventures, has one van and that does the one trip. I set off early tomorrow and am not sure what internet access I will have on the trip so I may not post up anything further until next weekend.

If I can delay my flight to Hong Kong for a couple of days I will be able to spend a few days in Byron, before returning to Sydney and taking a short trip to the Blue Mountains.

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Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy Hogmanay 

Managed to get a great spot on the penisula just to the east of the Opera House by turning up at 1 in the afternoon. Spent the day snoozing & picnicing in the park with Matt, Jo, Adrian, Laura & Dieter whilst waiting for the big event. By 9pm and the first fireworks it was very crowded, but after they were over the families with children headed off and we had some breathing room. The midnight display was truely spectacular, lasting a full 15 minutes. That was then followed by a light show on the bridge. I don't have any great firework photos but do have a nice one of the light show I will post up sometime.

NY fireworks
NY fireworks 2
NY lights

As far as mad parties were concerned it was a comparatively quiet night as long bar & toilet queues limited the drinking, but lead to a nice chilled atmosphere. Does mean I feel better today than any other New Years day in memory, and I do actually remember it.

I've now got to sort out my travel plans for ther next couple of weeks including visiting relatives in the Blue Mountains and a quick trip up to Byron Bay. I've got to get stuck into South East Asia and will fly to Bangkok mid January; the rest of Oz can wait till I get back here around about June.

Hope you are all set for a great 2004, Happy Hogmanay.

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