Saturday, September 29, 2007

headin' south ...

After the rather inauspicious start to our Australasian leg of our trip we started the long trip South. By heading North.

Our logic being that you haven't really done the East Coast unless you start where the tarmac runs out - so we made the 150km trip north to Cape Tribulation* where we had a pleasant afternoon exploring the beaches and rainforest of Daintree National Park.

We awoke early next morning in our beachfront caravan park gently poaching in the morning sun as we listened to the waves lapping against the shore. The soaring temperature in the van helped us make an early start and we returned to Cairns in time to make the day trip to the outer barrier reef.

While I had an excellent dive, including a close encounter with a shark, let's just say it may take a couple more attempts for Mel to earn her scuba flippers ...

Over the next few days we took in Mission Beach, Airlie Beach, The Whitsunday Islands and Eungella National Park where we were lucky enough to catch (not literally) a Duck-Billed Platypus in the wild.

But most of all we spent lots of time getting to know our new friend Bruce. Or Bruce Highway to give him his full title, the East Coast route that will take on our 4500km trip South.

Already living in a campervan seems to be having a strange effect on us. Perhaps it's the heat, but we've started noticing other caravans and campers with a worryingly heightened level of interest. Finding ourselves discussing the relative merits of features like overhead sleeping areas and chemical toilets can only be a worrying development ...

I've added a few photos from Singapore to flickr - just click here

* Cape Tribulation was where Captain James Cook (the famous Yorkshire-born explorer) ran aground on the barrier reef, hence the name.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Naked in Cairns ...

I've always laughed heartily when hearing stories of people getting locked out of hotel rooms naked. Not so funny now I can tell you.

I don't know which I'll remember most, the sinking feeling hearing the door click lock shut behind me to the sight of no porcelain, or my increasingly frantic knocking on the door as I tried to get Mel to wake up and rescue me from the public corridor.

Personally, I blame Quantas for the most uncomfortable flight imaginable from Singapore, it's sole purpose seemed to be denial of sleep. On the upside, my naked adventure seemed to have passed unnoticed by the other residents. It's an experience I'll be making very sure I don't repeat in the future (if I can ever get a good nights sleep in a hotel again).

After luxuriating in Asia (well sort of), our budget now dictates we live in the back of a van. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

We'll be spending the next 3 weeks on the ultimate roadtrip - driving a camper from Cairns to Melbourne. I look forward to telling you all about how we get on ...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

beware of the swing flapper ...

When you arrive at immigration in most countries you get a nice welcome sign, and often it let's you know something about the place you're about to enter. For example, when entering Thailand it's "Welcome to the Land of Smile".

As we crossed the causeway linking Johor Bahru in Malaysia to Singapore, we were greeted with "Beware of the Swing Flapper". It was the only sign in sight, but very prominently referred to a piece of glass that swings back and forth to ensure only 1 person at a time can approach the immigration officer. You get the idea.

It's the only place in all our travels I've seen anything quite like it, so being uniquely Singaporean they obviously had to invent their own name for it. Sadly I can't provide a photo for this unique innovation as apparently customs get a bit touchy about that sort of thing these days.

We spent a very pleasant 2 days in Singapore, our final destination in Asia. Thanks to facebook I got chance to catch up with Jacqui, an old friend from school who lives out there - it was great to catch up - at least until all the alcohol caught up with us the next morning.

We spent the rest of our time in Singapore taking in the excellent Night Safari, before signing out of Asia after four and a half months with a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel.

Now at least they made a better job of naming their cocktails ...

If you're on facebook and I'm not linked to you already then look me up! - for now at least I'm the only Mark Fretwell with a furry hood.

Finally I can add Tiger to the beer league ... we've been drinking it in just about every country since Mongolia and now I've drunk it in it's country of origin it finally qualifies for the league - 3rd place - well done!!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Going wild in Borneo ...

Time to go feral again.

We were headed for Kuching, the capital of Malaysian Borneo to look for wildife in the jungle.

Our two day trip to Bako National Park started out as it meant to go on. After taking the incredibly cheap (but even bumpier) local bus to Bako, we transferred to a small motor launch. Setting off we looked back at the jetty and saw the signpost asking us to "beware of crocodiles" quite clearly. Yikes.

After 20 minutes heading down the river estuary and into the South China Sea, we reached our destination. Well almost. The tide was out, so our launch couldn't get any closer than 50m from the shoreline. As we waded to shore I reflected that now would probably be a good time to beware of the crocodiles ...

Trekking in the jungle was hot, hot, hot. In fact so was sitting in the room, eating in the park canteen or even taking a cold shower. But the amazing wildlife we saw really made up for any discomfort we experienced. We saw snakes, a bearded pig and loads of macaques - one of the highlights being able to track troops of the bizzare looking proboscis monkey's through the jungle and mangrove's along the coastline.

They generally kept their distance from us, but as we headed back to camp we came across a juvenile proboscis (above) scampering along the man-made walkway through the mangroves. We followed him and after a while he got quite used to our presence, enabling us to get within a couple of metres as he munched on mangrove leaves for half an hour.

If we'd doubted the crocodile threat beforehand, we didn't after seeing this one on the boat journey back just a few hundred metres down the coast from our drop-off point the day beforehand.
Our last day in Borneo we headed out to Semmenggoh Wildlife Centre hoping to catch Borneo's most famous forest dweller - the Orang Utan. Due to some inclement weather only one turned up for feeding (apparently they like a lie in now and again too) - fortunately for us it was the largest in the reserve.

This was our last stop in Malaysia ... 2 weeks wasn't nearly long enough to experience everything this country has to offer. Still, we'll be happy enough to come back here another time ...

Malaysia is the only country so far where I won't be adding a local beer to the league table - they just didn't sell one in any of the bars we visited (it most certainly wasn't for lack of trying) - so I guess I'll just have to try extra hard in our next country. You can see all the photos from Malaysia by clicking through on the flickr graphic on the sidebar.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the trail of Jim Thompson ...

When our VIP bus to the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia was an hour late, we shuddered at the thought we may have another thai-style bus journey on our hands ...

Thankfully this wasn't the case and we found coach travel in Malaysia to be a suprisingly comfortable affair - business class width seats, and carpet covering every concievable surface. Except for the floor. Naturally. Even the bus names had an air of charm to them, some of the logo's I spotted while we waited at the bus station included Mega Luxurious and Super Nice. It's kind of difficult to imagine where you go next from there - The Dogs Bollocks? I suspect not.

After climbing up endless hairpin bends we arrived in Tanah Rata - and for the first time in months it was cold. Not like proper UK cold, but in the evening it dipped to 10 degrees celcius - which after months of baking heat was enough to make us shiver. We liked it a lot.

Those of you who've been following my blog in the past few weeks may recall that this is where the legendary Jim Thompson went missing on the 26th March 1967 - so we couldn't miss the opportunity to hike his favourite trail. It took us on a 3 hour jungle adventure zig-zagging up and down the mountains behind Tanah Rata.

We didn't find him. Hardly suprising really, as the Malaysian Army and teams of local trackers didn't find a trace of him 40 years ago, in the largest manhunt the area has ever seen.

The day before our trek we'd taken a day trip where we visited the local tea plantations for a fine cuppa and made a visit to the otherworldly Mossy Forest - a place where you can walk on metre thick moss ledges high up the tree canopy. In the afternoon we visited an indigenous Orang Asli village, where, among other things we tried out blowpipes and nose flutes. It would be pretty hard to decide which we were worst at.

Our guide had just spent a few days escorting an Australian writer around the highlands, compiling background material for a new book on the life of Jim Thompson. He revealed that the last person to see him alive (now a middle aged tour guide) had last seen him taking photos outisde some tennis courts. Just 3 hours later the army helicopters we're circling overhead as the search got underway.

When you take into account Jim's history as a CIA spy in the second world war, the rapid search response for someone who at that stage was just a couple of hours late for his dinner seems to open up a whole host of conspiracy theories around his dissapearance.

But I guess we'll just have to wait for the book to find out more ...

Monday, September 17, 2007

twin towers and tremendous cheese ...

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to the aftermath of the 50th anniversary celebrations of their Merdeka (or independence to me and you).

Of course it had only been a warm up for the main event of the week - Mel's birthday. They'd left the bunting out for us.

So for the first time in a long while we treated ourselves to some 4-star luxury with a 21st floor room in the Renaissance Hotel, complete with picture postcard view of the Petronas Towers.

KL is a very unique place indeed. It's a mix of 3 distinct ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese and Indians - so during an average walk down the street you'll see the locals wearing either burhka's, sari's or miniskirts - it all seems a bit incongruous at first, but you get used to it.

We visited the Petronas Towers skydeck for fantastic views of the city. It's free to get in - the only cost being the 7-minute Petronas promotional video you have to watch before taking the elavator up there. Like all good corporate video's they decided to shoot it in 3D (?) - but unless you're into 3D petrol pumps it's a fairly tedious experience.

The real highlight was the birthday meal at Carcosa Sri Negara - the former mansion of the British General to Malaysia - a superb colonial building now converted into a luxury hotel that caters to the likes of HRH Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.

A recurring theme amongst our conversations with other Europeans in Asia is how much we all miss decent cheese and wine. Just for once, in the award-winning French restaurant that evening we were able to take advantage of the very best in both.

After all, if it's good enough for the Queen ...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Andaman sunset ...

After spending most of the previous 3 weeks covering old ground in the Gulf of Thailand, we thought it was about time for somewhere different before leaving the land of smile.

So we headed over to the Andaman coast for a few short days, enjoying an out-of-season deal in Krabi at the resort of Ao Nang. Despite visiting during west coast's monsoon, we had clear skies and brilliant sunshine for the first 2 days. It was only when we arranged a speedboat day-trip to the islands Ko Phi Phi that the weather turned ...

The choppy seas made for a rather exciting boat ride, bouncing along off the top of the waves. So much so that by the time we made our first stop, already 2 of the 10 passengers we're throwing up into plastic bags - although speaking personally I quite enjoyed the ride. By the time we reached the beach (location for the film of the Alex Garland book) the storm really took hold - and the only way of keeping warm was to get into the increasingly violent surf as we waited for our boat to pick us up.

Mel will remember the day as the one when she overcame a lifelong fear of fish and tried snorkelling for the first time. After a slightly shaky start (running squealing from the water after seeing a small fish) on Bamboo Island in the morning, she persevered and in the end really enjoyed it (I think). As with eating grasshoppers, I know Robert and Jane back in Ireland won't believe it without clear evidence - so here it is.

Remarkably Mel is now even considering trying scuba diving. I think it must be the lure of the rather fashionable gear ...
You can see all the photos from Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) by clicking here ...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

10 days later ...

I arrived on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, more in need of the Betty Ford Clinic than another beach party.

In short my timing was perfect. I'd arrived 24 hours before one of the island's legendary full moon parties where around 10,000 people party until dawn.

I met up with Mel who was already ensconsed at the rather laid-back Cookies Bungalows on the quiet West side of the island. It had everything we needed - a private beach, and decent food with ice cold beer on a wooden deck facing out to sea.

Come the night of the full moon we decided against the overpriced taxi's, broken glass and thumping bass of Haad Rin beach, and instead spent the evening alone on the deck, sipping cold beer and listening to the waves lapping against the rocks below. It was the perfect antidote to the previous 10 days ...

For those who didn't quite get my recent post about Mel and me splitting up - thanks for all your messages of concern. I can assure you the split was only temporary and purely geographic in nature ...

My video from Mongolia - World's Biggest Ger - has just been nominated as one of the top 10 travel videos from Asia on the internet by - when I checked this morning it was in 6th place - you can see the video and add your votes by clicking here

Sunday, September 09, 2007

getting down with the fishies ...

Finding the others on Ko Tao proved rather more difficult than expected.

Since my last visit 8 years ago, the main beach of Sai Ree has gone from 3km of unspoilt coastline to a fully developed resort with 7-11's and ATM's. Although in the end it wasn't the increase in size that stopped us finding them - it was the fact they weren't there.

We found them the following evening in Chaalok Bay to the South of the island to discover the mobile phone we'd been calling had suffered seawater damage, during what is probably best described as an apres-pub night-snorkelling expedition, that also added additional cuts and bruises to the growing list of injuries. We set off back to Sai Ree armed with the number of the remaining mobile, promising to call the next morning once accomodation had been arranged for the whole group.

I don't think the question of whether that one was lost or stolen was ever conclusively answered, but either way it had achieved missing in action status by the time we called the next day. So it wasn't until 48 hours after our arrival on the island that the full group assembled, having collectively incurred more injury, loss and travel disruption in 4 days, than in the whole of the previous three and a half months.

We spent the remainder of the week taking advantage of the excellent scuba-diving and of course frequenting the equally impressive bars along the palm fringed beach.

Arguably the most exciting land-based incident happended one evening during a tropical storm when a giant centipede (2cm wide by 25cm long) ran across our bar table, seemingly flushed out of it's usual home in the wall by the rainwater. On seeing it, one of the staff quickly ran out from behind the bar and cut it in half, only afterwards pausing to explain how poisonous its bite would have been.

On reflection the timing was fortunate, just moments before the barman's cleaver-wielding arrival, two of our group (who shall remain nameless) had been trying to poke it with their fingers - narrowly avoiding an additional entry on an already impressive injury list ...

Guy's - it was a pleasure to see you and a real change from the kind of travelling I'd been doing ... although please don't take offence when I say I definitely couldn't cope with it for 52 weeks running! Travellers planning a SE Asia journey take note; it may take Thailand's reserves of Tiger beer and English breakfast ingredients some time to recover ...

A big thanks to Jim and his disposable camera for the photo's on this post ... after Angkor Wat I found myself giving my shutter finger a well-earned rest on Ko Tao. I hope I''ll soon be in a position to reciprocate with some fresh Jim Thompson information you may find of interest ...

Finally, if anyone's interested I'm currently having a rant about responsible travel over on, you can catch the full article by clicking here. If you've an interest in travel you'll find the rest of their site well worth exploring too.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

from bungle to bungalow ...

As a Leeds United supporter, the omen of boarding a coach emblazoned with the Manchester United logo should have been enough to let me know it would be a tough trip ahead.

Somewhere along the line I'd forgotten just how frustrating long distance bus travel in Thailand can be. For the uninitiated, the usual components of these journeys are ...

  1. Rendezvous at the travel agent you booked the tickets with. So far so good.
  2. Take a longish walk in searing heat, hauling your baggage to the meeting point for the bus.
  3. Or so you thought. You will then be moved to the real meeting point for the bus.
  4. Repeat point 3 for 30-45 minutes. You will normally arrive back at the original meeting point (see 2).
  5. You finally embark your coach, which can be anything from an ageing bone-shaker to a luxury aircon coach. Which you get will bear no relationship to what is described on your ticket.
  6. You then proceed happily along toward your destination ...
  7. Or so you thought. Usually you will be dropped off at a cafe somewhere on the outskirts of an unspecified town, to be picked up again anywhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours later for another bus to your final destination.
  8. Dependent on how lucky you are - repeat point 7 using as many different vehicles as possible for 3-4 hours. All without moving outside a 1km radius of the first drop-off point.
  9. At some point one of the vehicles will break the 1km radius and take you to your final destination - technically in the town you requested, but way beyond any reasonable walking distance to where you actually want to be.
  10. Take one of the conveniently poised overpriced cabs to your end destination. Alternatively make noises about going to find a cheaper one, and enjoy an instant 25-50% discount.

At no point will you receive any meaningful information on the number and timing of forthcoming transfers. In order to maximise frustration, experience at night.

Our trip south from Bangkok included all these elements. So much so in fact that our group fractured part way through the journey, with two people electing to jump ship at the port of Chumphon to head straight for the island of Ko Tao. Chris and I doggedly continued our intended route to Ranong, in a predominantly muslim area characterised by houses on stilts lined up along riverbanks.

We elected for a much shorter than planned hop over the river into Myanmar (aka Burma), where we found the town of Kaw Thuong (above) to be ... well, exactly the same as Ranong. Except that is for the hordes of hawkers trying to sell cheap Viagra, whisky & cigarettes on the dock. Not having a requirement for any of the aforementioned items, we spent our time talking to a one-armed man about Premier League football - almost more popular in Thailand and Burma than it is back home.

So a mere 22 hours after leaving Bangok, and having visited an extra country) we arrived on the beautiful tropical island of Ko Tao where we checked into some bungalows on the beach where we'd arranged to meet the others (no intended reference to Lost).

A consequence of cutting the Burma visit short was our arrival on the island a day earlier than planned, giving us the opportunity to surprise the other two. All we had to do first was find them ...

Monday, September 03, 2007

There's only one Jim Thompson ...

As we arrived in Bangkok Mel and I came reached a decision. We decided to split up.

Maybe it was over 3 months of being in each others company 24 hours a day. Most likely it was the arrival of some of my pals from back home - hell bent on partying away their 2 weeks annual leave. Mel rather sensibly opted to head south to Ko Pha Ngan where we plan on meeting up again in a couple of weeks time.

The break started in worrying, albeit not unexpected, fashion. Within the first 24 hours one of our number had a drunken fall that would leave him with back pain for the rest of the trip, while another managed to incurr the kind of sunburn you normally only see on lobsters after a few minutes in the pot.

About the only cultural thing we managed to do in Bangkok was visit the house of the American silk trader Jim Thompson - now a museum dedicated to good causes after his mysterious disappearance in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia.

It was an interesting visit, however as the Chang Beer* took hold that evening in the bars along Khao San Road, the legendary figure we recounted to Chris who'd just arrived on a later flight from Dubai may have been just slightly exaggerated.

Just like our casualty list, the Jim Thompson legend continued to grow over the next 11 days as we too headed southward ...

* Never, ever drink Chang was the resolution I made last time I was in Thailand. It tastes fine, but at 6.4% it's just one step too close to Special Brew for my liking - it's one of those drinks that causes you to forget who you are, then makes you pay for the privilege all the next day. In Bangkok, faced with a bar selling only Chang Beer (and an immovable group of Chang novices) I was forced to break my resolution - but I haven't changed my mind ...