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January 20, 2006

City of Angels

After a night in Gatwick airport we enjoyed a very pleasant flight over to Abu Dhabi where we changed planes. Abu Dhabi airport feels classically Arabian, with a domed central atrium covered in bright red and blue mosaic tiles, and sheikhs drinking strong coffee in a small, smoky cafe. In the short time we were there, Carita was taken by the warmth and friendliness of the Arab people we came in contact with - something I've always been struck by, and contrary to how the western media usually like to portray the Arab world.

Our flight touched down at Bangkok airport early yesterday morning before sunrise. Although we hadn't slept properly for three nights we were both very excited to arrive, hurried through the airport, and caught the shuttle bus through the rush hour traffic to Banglamphu.

It was so early that the backpacker mecca of Koh San Road was deserted as we made our way up it with our backpacks and sat down to have breakfast at My House Guesthouse. Dazed from the long flights and a serious lack of sleep - we'd been travelling since Monday and it was now Thursday morning - we sat eating our banana pancakes outside in the tropical heat as it gradually sank in that we were in Thailand. Flying somewhere is just travelling too fast for my brain to comprehend; it was difficult to grasp how we could move from Britain to Asia, from winter to summer, from cereal to banana pancakes, so quickly, and things felt surreal, like a vivid dream in the middle of the night.

Due to a small incident with a bug or two on a previous visit to Bangkok, Carita had made it clear that she didn't want to stay at my usual, cheap, friendly guesthouse this time, so after breakfast I set off to find some superior budget accomodation. Although we know the area pretty well, things develop so quickly in Thailand that new guesthouses had been built where old wooden houses had stood on our last visit . Soon, we had a newly renovated room in the terrifically named Happy House, with a balcony and more luxury than we needed, and we lay down for a siesta for a couple of hours.

The noise was so loud it felt like it was inside my head. Builders were working above our room, drilling into the concrete ceiling and it felt like being at the dentist, waking us violently. Unable to sleep we headed into Siam, Bangkok's centre for some food and retail relief, and returned to the hotel in the evening. There, we sat on the balcony drinking beer, watching a ladyboy in long boots dancing in one building, and a hooker hard at work with a foreign client in a hotel room. It was good to be back in Thailand.

January 24, 2006

Changover

According to backpacker lore Chang beer has amphetamine in it, and though this probably isn't true, strange things do tend to happen after drinking it.

The other night I ended up having a few Changs with some Thai guys on the street, then returned to the guesthouse, and fell fast asleep. Some hours later Carita woke to find me hunting for something in the dark room. I apparently told her I was looking for the air conditioning remote, then walked out of the room with her hair balm in my hand.

As far as I know I don't have any history of sleepwalking but the first thing I remember is standing in the corridor in my underwear, clutching some hair balm and having locked myself out of the room.

January 26, 2006

On the Train to Hat Yai

We're on a hot train with all the windows open to let the cool air blow through, having just left Bangkok, and heading down to Hat Yai in the very south of Thailand. When we arrive there in 19 hours we're planning to head out towards the islands of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park and relax after a busy week in Bangkok.

February 3, 2006

Out of Touch

We've been on the National Park island of Koh Taratao for the last week, enjoying unparalelled tranquillity, and completely cut off from mobile phones, internet, and email. Yesterday, we took the ferry to Koh Lipe, where I'm writing this over an expensive satellite connection, so I'll have to wait until we return to the mainland next week to fill in the details of all the incredible wildlife we've seen and what's been happening.

February 8, 2006

Bangkok to Koh Taratao

We've just arrived back in Bangkok after a fantastic trip down south to Taratao National Marine Park. We took the sleeper train down to Hat Yai - which courteously stopped as it was leaving Bangkok to wait for a girl running along the platform late. Eventually, the never-ending suburbs of Bangkok gave way to lazy, one street villages with dogs lying in the shade. The sun went down, silhouetting palm trees against the pink sky, and in the morning we looked out to see limestone karst, thick with bamboo forests, as the train made it's way on a single-track line through the jungle.

We were the only westerners getting off the train in Hat Yai, possibly because of recent violence in the south, and a passing pick-up truck, the back of it full of soldiers with machine guns, reminded us of the tensions in the area. After a quick lunch we took a minibus to the port of Pak Bara, from where the ferry left to the islands.

We were both a little disappointed to see how full of tourists the boat was - scruffy backpackers dressed in their near identical outfits, a girl with a child, and some old people including one man with a fan in the brim of his hat. The fantastic wildlife, however, began as soon as we were getting close to Koh Taratao, first with the appearance of a dolphin, and then the splash of a ray jumping out of the water. When the ferry stopped in deep water off Taratao, only six of us transferred into the small, rolling longtail boat that would take us to the island and the National Park headquarters - all the other passengers were heading to the rowdier island of Koh Lipe.

February 9, 2006

Taratao National Park

Although I've been to Thailand on several trips, this is the first time I've made it to one of the country's 100+ national parks. Taratao National Marine Park covers 51 islands but only three of them have any kind of accomodation or facilities. Koh Taratao is the largest of these, with bungalows and tents to rent or you can pitch your own. There isn't much nightlife, no internet or mobile coverage, and only six hours of electricity a day, but it felt really liberating to get away from all of that and get back to nature.

The island's an important site for turtle breeding, and although we were too late in the year to see any, it's still packed full of wildlife. It's also the best island in the park for hiking through the jungle, with several full day treks and four restaurants scattered around.

The sand was so soft it squeeked beneath our feet as we walked along the beach on the first evening. Crab-eating Macaque monkeys watched us from the edge of the forest, waiting to feast on the big crabs that would come out at sunset.

We soon found ourselves getting into a natural rhythm of wakening at sunrise and going to bed after dinner - something that never happens in Northern Europe. On our first early morning walk we stood below a tree with about forty monkeys in it as they jumped to other branches and ran into the safety of the forest then we continued along to the river and were amazed to spot a 1.5 metre monitor lizard run for cover.

Awed by so much wildlife I then managed to lock myself in the bungalow whilst Carita was at the beach. The lock had failed on the door and it took some time for anyone to hear my cries for help and come to my assistance.

Revitalised by my new found freedom, we spent the following day walking to the waterfall near Ao San beach. The last hour or two was through dense jungle and climbing over boulders as we followed the river towards it's source, but it was worth it. Finally we emerged at a waterfall cascading into idyllic rock pools, and as we were alone we stripped off and took a swim to cool down. The fish nibbled at our skin, making me more than a little anxious about being naked in the water with them, but it was one of the most fantastic places I've ever been.

Lunch with the Monitor Lizards

After several fruitless walks back to the river to see if we could spot the monitor lizard again, we were finishing off our lunch one day just after the restaurant had closed when we had some unexpected company.

A massive, two metre long, grey monitor lizard came wallowing in from the trees, went around the back of the building, and walked into the bin room. I went off to grab my camera, and whilst Carita was standing watching it a passing ranger shouted to tell her that there was another one coming up behind her.

It seemed that all the animals in the jungle knew when the restaurant closed and soon it was full of monitor lizards and monkeys, with hornbills sitting around in the trees watching the feast. A couple of the restaurant staff came over but seemed particularly concerned about the komodo-like lizards and beat a hasty retreat.

We slowly crept around, close to a large male monkey, to get a good shot of all the action. As I pressed the shutter, however, it instantly looked up surprised and leapt at me, screaming angrily and showing it's teeth, thinking that I was after it's food. With less than a metre from being monkey food myself I dodged away and we ran around the corner from it, but realised too late that we were now surrounded by hungry, large monitor lizards and a pack of monkeys. Suddenly feeling like the hunted, we had to stop and take a few deep breaths to compose ourselves before carefully moving between the animals and out of danger.

We stood watching all the beasts munching their way through the rubbish for over an hour, feeling very lucky to be able to watch such powerful, wild animals so closely. Eventually, a warden came over to the restaurant and we warned him about the huge monitor lizard in the building. He just laughed and said, "I know. They come every day."

Koh Lipe

On our last day in Taratao the sky turned dark and it began to rain. Carita and I had just returned from a long walk to Ao Taloh Wow on the other side of the island so we went for a swim while the tropical storm poured down. There was a sudden boom as we walked out of the water as lightning struck a cliff 200 metres away and instinctively we both ducked for cover.

Although the storm only lasted an hour or so it was bad enough that the ferry from the mainland to Koh Lipe couldn't go any further and put all the passengers off on Taratao. That evening we had our first taste of what Ko Lipe would be like.

We hadn't realised it until then but most of the people who visited Taratao were either peaceful and chilled or they couldn't stand the place and would catch the first ferry off the island. Suddenly, the tranquillity which we'd taken for granted was shattered as stressed out people shouted and complained all around us. Why was there no ice? Why was there no power? Why did they have to sacrifice their first born to the monkey god?

The following morning, after a week on the island, we boarded the crowded ferry to Koh Lipe. A French guy with pink beads in his goatee beard told me how he hoped the next island would have, "More enjoy!", rather than a lack of electricity. I tried to point out that it was a national park but he seemed adamant that they should be generating power from oil, or leaves, or possibly a small nuclear power plant.

We arrived in Koh Lipe and checked out the optimistically named Porn Resort for a room. It was scruffy and run-down, like most of the places on the island, and we eventually settled for the Pattaya Song Resort, run by two big, scary, ladyboys, and booked into a concrete bungalow in a building site. Lipe was hard to handle after Taratao. Although it's technically in the national park it's been destroyed by illegal development over the last four years and has something of a lawless, mafia controlled feel to it - a young girl working in a shop had a revolver casually lying next to her behind the counter! The main part of the island consists of a crescent of white sand, but a continuous line of bars, restaurants and bungalows have been built along it's entire length, ruining it completely. Apparently, the national park is unable to do anything to stop the development - they need the government to step in, but the government doesn't.

We spent two nights there, trying to adapt to the sounds of wasted backpackers, but in the end we gave up and escaped on a longtail boat to Koh Adang. Why come to a tropical island just to get pissed and sit watching Sky News in a restaurant?

February 14, 2006

Longtails

The longtail crossing to Koh Adang was wet and rough, with waves breaking across the bows, soaking both of us, but I was in my element - being on a boat and escaping from Koh Lipe.

Longtails are traditional small, wooden boats, often about ten metres long, with high ends and a partially flat bottom, made famous by the chase scene in the Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. They feel quite unstable when you first get into one, but having seen them now in rough seas they seem really seaworthy and are used across Thailand by most of the inshore fishermen, as well as for ferrying people between nearby islands. They're powered by the most bizarre outboards ever - 100hp truck style engines mounted on a five metre long driveshaft the driver holds onto, steering like a tiller, even lifting the propeller out of the water and turning it 360 degrees over the top of the boat to maneuver out of shallow water.

February 15, 2006

Sharks of Koh Adang

We were lucky enough to get the very last tent on Koh Lipe - all the other accomodation was booked by three hundred Thais who were visiting the otherwise uninhabited island for the weekend. Maybe lucky isn't the best word; the tent seemed to be a remnant of World War II, full of holes and of the ancient triangular school of tent architecture, with a central pole at each end to hold it up. I wished I'd brought my own tent on the trip, but we had a beautiful pitch at the top of a tropical, white sandy beach, our nearest neighbours were almost out of sight, and Carita set to work sowing up the assortment of holes in the tent.

One of the reasons we'd come to Koh Adang was to go snorkelling on it's coral reefs, which we'd heard were terrific, so once we'd pitched the tent we dived straight in. The sealife was amazing, with brightly coloured parrotfish, angelfish, and triggerfish everywhere, and it felt wonderful to be swimming over coral reefs again, floating weightlessly with so much action going on below us. We watched a huge, black pufferfish swim away and hide beneath a rock from us, and the water was so warm it felt like we'd never get cold.

We swam out to deeper water where the coral began to shelve, hoping to see something bigger, and suddenly the dark shape of a shark appeared about ten metres away. Powerfully and effortlessly, it slid through the water with hardly any force at all. We didn't feel frightened, just in awe of this majestic creature, though we were a bit on edge. A black-tipped reef shark, less than two metres long, it just swam over to check us out before disappearing back out of view. This experience was worth the entire trip by itself. Even still, we spent quite a bit of time checking behind us on the rest of our swim, just in case it reappeared!

It was really windy that night, and we were woken regularly by the gusts and lay wondering if the fragile tent would be blown away to Malaysia. The following day the huge party of Thais left and we moved to a bamboo sheltered tent. This was really lovely - a cross between a tent and a bamboo hut, shaded from the sun and built on a raised wooden platform off the ground.

Koh Adang has a couple of good treks, one of which is a near vertical 500m climb up a cliff face, which passes through bamboo forest and emerges out to a stunning view across to Koh Lipe. At one point whilst walking I heard a loud squeek from the undergrowth and spotted a rare mousedeer running for cover. The other notable forest trek takes you to Pirates Waterfall, and whilst returning from this walk at dusk a large, black snake slithered across the rocks next to us, and out of our way. We decided to watch our step after that.

On our last morning in Koh Adang we awoke to the sounds of a cockerel and looked out through the mesh door of the tent to see the sun rising behind the Malaysian island of Langkawi. We're convinced we're going to return with camping gear on our next trip to Thailand and spend a lot more time staying in the national parks as we had such great experiences and got close to so much wildlife.

February 18, 2006

Out of Paradise

Catching a longtail a bit later than we should have to take us to the fast ferry to the mainland, I couldn't really care if we missed it or not. The longtail driver seemed to share my feelings whilst, very chilled, he slowly loaded dive tanks onto the boat and detoured to pick up more passengers - who anxiously checked and re-checked their watches and questioned his short cuts across rocky outcrops and dry sandbars. The fast ferry left thirty minutes late as it turned out anyway, it probably always did, and soon Koh Adang was just a memory.

After a two hour trip of endurance squeezed into a tiny minivan with a dozen other backpackers and their luggage, we arrived back in Hat Yai and caught the evening sleeper north. Sinking into the luxury of a bed again, I was soon unconscious, and woke as we rattled into the vibrant, tropical megacity of Bangkok.

The shock of being dropped right into the hustling hordes soon wore off and it quickly felt more like coming home. We had lots to do in the following days preparing for our trip to Laos; I had my camera serviced, treated myself to a lovely new lens, booked tickets, and checked out the visa situation.

February 20, 2007

Trip to Bangkok

I flew out to Bangkok on Wednesday on a Sri Lankan visa run. Since the immigration department in Colombo have had Faye's passport for the last month she couldn't come with me.

After a short, overnight, sleep-deprived flight I landed in Bangkok in a daze and staggeredout into it's stunning new airport. After months in rural Sri Lanka it felt more like we'd landed on the Death Star with it's glass, steel and concrete structure.

I'd had enough of turning up at guesthouses trying to get a room in previous years so this time I booked a hotel on the internet. After a quick trip on the airport bus I was dropped off right at the hotel door, checked in and passed out on the bed.

December 11, 2007

Curry Express

I caught the train to Kanchanaburi to see the Bridge over the River Kwai and get out into the countryside for a while. One of the best things for me about Thailand is the fact that you're never very far away from food, and that's just as true on the trains. There's a constant stream of food sellers who get on and off at stations, walking through the train with delicious, freshly cooked food for sale. Chicken satay on a stick, chicken or pork green curry in small folded banana leaf bowls, fresh fruit and cold drinks.

So, as the package tourists on the train stared at me in horror as if I was braving salomenella, I ate far too much, sampling my way through dish after dish.

December 13, 2007

Death Railway

My guidebook notes that most people are disappointed when they see the River Kwai Bridge, which is odd as it looked exactly how I expected it to look. Maybe they expect it to have more architectural merit, like a Sydney harbour bridge dropped into the jungle, or maybe I should have more of an imagination the next time I head off to look at an unknown bridge. Ironically, the movie about it was filmed in Sri Lanka so I guess I could have gone to see the fictitious bridge without even leaving home.

In the centre of Kanchanaburi, the Death Railway Museum covers the atrocities involved in the construction of the railway line and it's interesting and informative. Then, once you've finished going around it you walk into the cafe which has a panoramic window that looks out across the prisoner of war cemetery. Nicely done.

What surprised me about the whole thing was to discover that most of the people who died building the railway line into Burma weren't prisoners of war but Asians forced to do it by the Japanee; Tamils, Malays and Chinese brought up from Malaysia, an workers from Burma. 42,000 workers brought from Malaysia died, 40,000 Burmese died, and around 13,000 Allied prisoners died - but the Asians, who are in the vast majority, are hardly ever mentioned at all.

January 27, 2009

Don't Believe the Hype

I persuaded a tuk-tuk to take me to the border for 200 baht, jumped in with my bag and sped off towards Thailand at 10mph. The afternoon sun was beginning to sink across the Mekong and the warm light softened the buildings of Vientiane as I headed south. It felt right.

After the border formalities, a pickup dropped me off at the railway station and I hurried in to see if I could get a ticket. 2nd class was full but they had space in 1st class so I bought a ticket, grabbed some food and a Singha, and delightedly boarded the train to Bangkok as the sun set.

February 19, 2009

Temple of One Million Bottles

Ok, I have to blog this as it's online everywhere, is today's most viewed story on The Telegraph website... and I shot it.

The Sun - and their slideshow of 17 images
The Telegraph
Daily Mail
Mirror
Metro
Google news

March 12, 2009

Mosha the Elephant

Here's a few quick links to a story I shot last week...

BBC News
The Telegraph
The Sun
Daily Mail
Metro
Sky News
B-Z Berlin
Metropolita.hu (Hungary)
Expressen (Sweden)
Radio China International

My favourite quote about it comes from the Guardian as they proclaim this the Best Week of Animal Stories Ever...
"You could focus on the landmine issue here, of course, but let's not. Let's look upon Mosha as a rare symbol of the good we can do - or at least the harm we can undo - if we put our minds to it."

April 29, 2009

Koh Pangan

After the stress of shooting the Bangkok protests I headed down to Surat Thani to photograph a Monkey Training College there, planning to only be away from Bangkok for a couple of nights.

I finished the job at lunchtime, but really didn't feel like heading back to Bangkok and the big city so I made a snap decision to head out to the islands if there was an afternoon ferry going to Koh Pangan. I made my way into Surat Thani itself, had a pizza for lunch, and the women in the restaurant told me there was a bus that went to the afternoon ferry at 14:30. One of them even took me to it on the back of her scooter with my enormous backpack! It was one of those sudden decisions and it felt good.

The ferry left at 16:00, gliding away from the dock into the smooth blue gulf as the sun gradually sank on the port side. I called a couple of guesthouses on the east coast, thinking I'd head to somewhere chilled, but they warned me that it would cost a fortune to get there by taxi by the time the ferry arrived so I opted to spend a night in Coco Huts near Hat Rin instead.

In the pickup taxi were a bunch of Canadians and a Scottish guy called Woodie, and the Canadians asked him what currency we used in Scotland and we both started laughing! It turned out that he'd lived in Dundee for a few years, we started chatting, and he was living on the island and working in one of the bars.

The next day I left my room just to buy sandals, but ran into Leila in 7-11 and ended up going off for an extended trip around the island. Back in Hat Rin, I took advantage of Woodie's offer of some cheap drinks and sat at Cactus Bar chatting with him and watching the firedancers on more than a few nights.

The last days I moved to Lighthouse Bungalows, a collection of huts built on stilts above the rocks at the very south of the island, looking across towards Koh Samui. The following morning, I decided it was time to go and check out Koh Tao and maybe return to Koh Pangan for my birthday. I packed my bag, caught a minibus to the ferry and walked ashore onto the much smaller neighbouring island in the late afternoon.

May 1, 2009

Free-Diving Course

I was chilling out by the beach in Blue Wind, trying to get some work done and failing, when I overheard Kester, the Scottish yoga teacher, telling someone about a free-diving course on the island. Immediately interested, I asked him where it was, and a couple of days later I found myself sitting excitedly in a classroom learning the basics of free-diving.

After working on our breathe-up, we headed out on the boat in the afternoon and began diving in deep water. I'd gone down to 12m before on my own, and that was our limit for the day, so I knew I could do it. I dived right to the end of the line, touched the weight at 12m, and swam back up.

The following day was a bit more challenging. Looking down from the surface, I couldn't even see the end of the 20m line, the maximum depth you can swim to on the course, and it still didn't appear when I was swimming down. After a few tries, however, I pulled myself down the rope using my arms and as little oxygen as possible, reached the marker, turned around, and pulled myself back to the surface.

Next, was swimming down next to the rope, which is tougher as it uses up much more oxygen. I kicked my way down to about 17m, clearly saw the weight, and decided to go for it, knowing that if I passed out my instructor would take me to the surface. I hit the 20m mark, but out of air by this time, I turned around, knowing I was risking a blackout and began finning back to the surface. Trying to keep my mind focused and calm I was suddenly hit with cramp in both my thighs, but knew I had to force myself to keep finning through the pain. My Argentinian instructor met me at 10m (most blackouts occur within 7m of the surface), with her big, brown eyes staring at me, and I kept pushing until finally I broke through the surface. Low on oxygen, with bad cramp in both my legs and things beginning to spin and blur ever so slightly, I recovered and gave her the OK sign. Although everyone who blacks out free-diving describes the feeling as euphoric, I was glad not to experience it.

November 18, 2009

Bangkok Apartment

After a few days of hunting around, I moved into a nice, new apartment in Bangkok today. It's about a mile from Koh San Road so I can still head over to my usual bars and restaurants whilst having a base to leave all my gear at while I travel around.