A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

On the slow train to Butterworth

sunny 38 °C

Hello Readers!

Last week we abandoned our beloved Yute at Hat Yai in Southern Thailand. After an uneventful evening at our dingy hotel in the City (the centre was no place to go out at night – populated by more brazen rats than there were people), we were up the next day at 05:30, to catch our border-crossing train to Butterworth, Malaysia.

We were both excited about entering a new country as we always are and though I had visited Malaysia before, I was looking forward to Ross and I seeing the country with fresh eyes and seeing more of the country as backpackers. The day started well – Ross did his usual greatness at packing a bag of munchies and drinks, the train arrived on time and our cabin companions (French Canadian, Malaysian, Thai and Brits) all seemed very nice and in good spirits. We were scheduled for a 5-hour journey, arriving in Butterworth at 1pm, plenty of time to seek a great place to stay for our budget after a ferry to Palau Penang.

To echo Ross’s last blog describing the freedom and loveliness of having our own car, his sentiments came true. After 10 hours on the train, two long stops (one of which was parked up next to the Eastern and Oriental Express – just to add insult to injury), broken air con on our train and a broken train ahead of us, not to mention the domestic disharmony among the French Canadian couple sat next to us (they were tired); we were hungry, shattered and dehydrated. Butterworth was the pits – a port town to ferry people to Penang. Too weary to go on to Penang, we spent about an hour looking at overpriced horrid guesthouses with our luggage, only to spend money on a taxi to get us to the port and on the ferry. We should learn our lessons – bad decisions are often made when one is tired.

We headed for Georgetown, a fairly picturesque Colonial City with a seedy, grimey backpacker district where travellers get very little for their money; and a new town rich with British influenced buildings and architecture. After a stiff drink and a good sleep in the backpacker district, we went for a lovely walk to explore the City, which can easily be done if half a day. We treated ourselves to High Tea darlings, at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel – great fun, tongue in cheek & delicious.

We loved our road trip through Thailand so much, that we decided to do the same through Malaysia and the next day we were on our way to Kuala Lumpur with a planned overnight stop at Ipoh. My gosh, what a place – dire, average, creepy, ugly, and seedy. It was another horrid travelling day, scoping grim guesthouses (some of which were brothels) before we settled on somewhere nice and new and slightly out of our price range – sometimes, there really isn’t much choice. Oh, and we had a McDonalds Chocolate Milkshake for dinner – the only place that looked decent (!) that also had WiFi.

Onwards and upwards to Kuala Lumpur – we were determined to make this City- break a good one which Ross will update you on the next blog.

What we’re trying to say is that though we are have a fantastic time, and each experience, good or bad is stimulating; it’s not always fun. Sleeping and eating – our two preoccupations have been dire of late, and in between the highlights of the places we have visited, is has been hard work and budget draining to get to them!

Posted by charlieandross 06:24 Archived in Malaysia Comments (4)

The Road Trip - Part 2

31 °C

As Charlie mentioned in the last blog; the road trip through Thailand has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. The independence and freedom to actually get off the 'beaten track' of our own accord has been really inspiring and we have seen parts of Thailand that we just would not have been able to get too by bus or train.

The final few days of our trip took us to both Trang and Hat Yai in Southern Thailand. Whilst neither city offered us any kind of cultural stimulation they have both been marginally interesting - in the sense that you get to see how these smaller transport cities operate on a daily basis. Trang was fairly quiet when we arrived and the hotel Thumrin, situated on the cross roads at the centre of town, could easily have been in any of the SE Asian cities we have visited to date. However, the one advantage Trang did have over other towns in the region was the Bank of Bangkok! Such trivial matters mean a lot when you have 200 pounds worth of Loatian Kip and Vietnamese Dong to exchange and nobody (except the Bank of Bangkok) will take your money. So, after some rather fraught negotiations with a non English speaking bank teller and an extra few baht in our back pockets, 2 million less Dong to contend with both Charlie and I were happy with our brief flirtation with money laundering.

The Journey onto Hat Yai from Trang was only 140km and the road south continued to wind through masses of palm trees and jungle laden scenery, truly stunning! Hay Yai itself is a major transport hub and most travellers, including ourselves, use this as a route to catch the train onto Butterworth, Malaysia. We did get to explore Hat Yai city centre in the evening before our train journey though and were amazed at not only how quiet the city was but also the massive Chinese influence that dominates. This did seem so odd to me though as the place really did feel like it was stuck in the cold war era, most of the building were grey and dull and clearly built in the 1950s/1960s. For some reason my own pre-conceived ideas of this part of the world were very different from the reality we got to see.

So our first road trip together concluded 1200km and seven days after it started. Charlie had never been on a road journey before and whilst I have had a couple of trips through Europe by car this one blew both of those out of the water. The control of your own journey gives you so much freedom, and whilst that is an obvious thing to say for any traveller, it really does count for a lot after you have endured a miserable twelve hour train journey or delayed bus ride through some god-awful out post. In fact the experience is akin to passing your driving test and getting into your own car for the first time.

Ross and Charlie

Posted by charlieandross 03:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The Road Trip - Part 1

Hua Hin to Kura Buri

sunny 40 °C

Hello Everyone,

We hope the weather is improving back in the UK, we have been thinking of you all – we can’t quite believe the temperatures everywhere! First of all, a big thank you to Lee, our first guest blogger for such a great write up which summed up our journey together really well. Apologies for the delay on our own blog entries – we have had limited WiFi since leaving Hua Hin, as we are on a Road Trip! Yes, Ross and I felt we needed to get off the beaten track a little more and really wanted the freedom to stop off wherever/whenever we wanted.

So, we have hired a Yute! A Silver Toyota Hi-Lux Vigo 2.5L Diesel - it’s brilliant.

On Valentines Day (day 101 of our journey since leaving the UK) we began our journey South. Our first stop was at a huge roadside mango hut where we stood and enjoyed the sweetest mango’s ever. We were already off the beaten track where the Thai people are even friendlier and so proud of seeing visitors enjoying their wares. We bought two more for the journey onwards and were kindly given another for free, we are learning all the time that the poorer the people, the more giving they are…and they do it with genuine smile that Ross and I are continually humbled by.

We decided to check out Praphat Beach as our second stop. The evidence of the destruction caused by the Tsunami is palpable and incredibly sad. An entire (once touristy) village, was derelict. Any building that was just about standing was completely water damaged, but mostly the land was left to ruin and there were just a few rotten longtail boats and a rusty lifeguard look-out platform. Though we have visited many beach areas affected by the Tsunami, this one was worse - neglected in the redevelopment, appeared destitute and dare we say it without sounding dramatic, but we could kind of feel the death. There is a Tsunami Museum in ‘town’ (we didn’t visit this) and a brand new research facility for coastal development. The place was eerie…certainly no place to stay. Even the sand was grey – the first time we have seen this in SE Asia. It was evident that there were once shops, guesthouses, restaurants and bars that were empty and again, water damaged. What happened to the owners and workers of these places? How/where are they now?

After another 140km we decided to stop overnight in a small fishing village. We drove through a boatyard area which was full of huge tables with thousands of tiny fish – looked like sardines, were drying out – I can only assume this was to make Nahm Pla (Thai Fish sauce). We were not sure of the name of the village on the map but the nearest town was Bang Saphan. We found a beachside guesthouse where we were literally the only guests, to stay for the night. We found a superb boutique hotel right on the beach to have dinner and enjoyed the best green curries either of us have had, and lazed in hammocks on the empty beach – a perfect day all in all.

The next day Ross drove no less than 350km further South. We stopped at a small village just outside of Ranong by a stall selling Vietnamese steamed dumplings – so that was our lunch for 40p! Again, the young girl who served us was incredibly proud and smiley and her buns were delicious!

We climbed high up into the jungle, and took in some stunning scenery on the sweeping bends, to arrive to jungle territory near Kura Buri. We found a fantastic guesthouse, surrounded by lush greenery, lizards, geckos, hornets, frogs and bats, all surrounding a tranquil lake, where we enjoyed a bit of canoeing. Our traditional clay house – a round hut made from clay with a thatched roof and an outdoor shower, with a hammock overlooking the natural stream. The surroundings were stunning, very natural and therapeutic.

We visited a National Park (which we timed perfectly between tour groups and had the whole place to ourselves), swam with fish in a natural spring pool from the beautiful waterfall above, en route to Mai Khao where we were back in December.

We are just halfway through the road trip and Ross will update you in a few days when we can get some WiFi again. Suffice to say this is one of the best decisions we have made since our travels began and is already a huge highlight of our trip so far. We both thought that backpacking, using local trains and buses would give us everything we needed, but it just doesn’t get you off the beaten track in the way a road trip does. We have found places and had experiences that we would never have done so otherwise, and though it seems a little extravagant on our budget, it is absolutely worth it. We have hardly seen any Westerners let alone tourists, and the freedom to stop & learn whenever we feel like it is invaluable.

Two things though….. we didn’t think through our love of music for the car, with just two CD’s, we have listened to MGMT & James Blake far too many times….and we have got a new addiction to Fisherman’s Friends….any longer and we might start on the Werthers Originals.

We are updating the travel map as we go.

Keep warm,

Love Charlie & Ross

Posted by charlieandross 17:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

lee day

my special trip, meeting up with Charlie and Ross

After my 15 hour journey and an overnight stay in Bangkok I took a short flight to Luang Prabang, full of anticipation and the excitement of seeing Charlie and Ross again.

I sat next to a very nice young Thai man who told me all about his lovely family, he offered to share his nut's to which I politely declined.
I soon learnt along the way that the Thai's and the Vietnamese are more than happy to share what little they have.

Luang Prabang airport is very small small and more akin to an old fashioned English country railway station.

Walking through I heard "HELLO" and there they were, the two of them looking so healthy and happy with a definite travellers aura. We set off to the Government office. They had arranged to have my visa sorted out by a very kind man who had opened his office on a Bank Holiday!
Once sorted we made our way to our guesthouse which was lovely. I soon settled in and felt very relaxed and happy.
Luang Prabang is a beautiful little place along the Mekong River with quaint streets every which way, very laid back with lots of art galleries and good value restaurants and spectacular views from the highest point, well worth the 300 steps!

After a few days we took a flight to Hanoi, we had no idea it would be so cold. We arrived late in the evening only to find our hotel closed for TET holiday! we went to a hotel next door to a warm welcome and left it to Charlie to negotiate a good rate, which of course she did. We settled in and went off to explore the local area. It was full of backpacker haunts playing good music and serving good cheap food and a much needed hot rum toddy, two for one. We marched our way around like tourists, taking in the sights keeping warm and laughing all the way.
In some of the more upmarket bars/restaurants we were surrounded by very young 'trendys' who drank milkshakes and ate chips whilst texting on their latest mobiles.
One of the most interesting places was the war museum, we climbed into fighter planes and tanks and I have to say it sent cold shivers through you at the vulnerability and sheer fear they must have felt. One area was bombed by the Americans at a rate of 4 bombs per head!

An overnight train took us to Hoi An, we shared our cabin with a nice Vietnamese family who kindly bought us food on the way. I really enjoyed the journey much to C&R's surprise.
We arrived at our hotel, took one look at it & the feeling of dread filtered through the taxi...the bags came out..the bags went in..the owner came out "welcome we have no hot water but we fix tomorrow". We were back in the taxi 'toot sweet' and off to a much nicer hotel.

Hoi An was much more attractive once the shops were closed, and free of tourists, you could then see the real beauty of the buildings, all very colourful and French. We found a great restaurant called Sreets run by an American couple, the ethos being similar to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. Ross made good use of the book exchange shops while Charlie and I browsed the many silk shops.

We all agreed by now that we needed some sun and beach, so we headed south to Nha Trang which has a lovely beach. We had a lot of fun and laughs with the many elderly beach hawkers, they were very sweet and had a cheeky sense of humour. The noisy city was too much and we had had enough of dodging scooters that never stop to let you cross the road. That said we did make light of it and just did the same as everyone else...walked straight out without stopping..it work's.

We then booked a flight to Bangkok arriving at a backpackers hostel, I had no idea what to expect and to my surprise was cool & modern with a great atmosphere but, the lady at reception looked worried! "so sorwee I have no woom, booking not come froo". After some deliberation and phone calls Ms 'No Woom' escorted us to another hotel nothing like hers but for one night it was fine. It was a small hotel/ traditional coffee house with all kinds of coffee making paraphenalia. After eating some street food around midnight with some kind toothless locals, we slept. By 07.30 the next day we were on a train to Hua Hin, passing paddy fields, shaks and 30's style houses. A tuk tuk took us on a bumpy ride to our little boutique hotel. It was everything we wanted, stunning rooms with big comfortable beds and stunning decor. We hit the beach asap and relaxed, got baked in the hot sun whilst watching the many 'kite surfers' with envy. I loved it! and if anything inspires you to get fit and take up a new sport that has to be it. We had masages on the beach which ended with some fresh pineapple to eat, what more could we want.

A visit to the night market was wonderful, the fresh fish stalls were amazing, some of the fish I had never seen before, we ate out of traditional metal bowls and savoured every bit.
Ross became our very own Mr Bargaining Dude and insisted on 'Thai price' all the way, he was in his element and so were we after parting with not much cash for some great tee shirts and dresses.
We spent my last evening at a beachside boutique hotel restaurant and had the best cocktails under a full orange moon. Delightful!

I feel sad now writing this knowing what I have left behind. I am now back to the reality of work, cold weather and saving to meet up with Charlie and Ross again to share a little more of their adventure.

I send them all my love and thanks for inviting me to be a small part of it.

Posted by charlieandross 09:56 Comments (4)

Checking out at Ho Chi Minh City

overcast 25 °C

Hello Everyone, first of all, a huge thank you to all who posted birthday messages for me - it was lovely to get them from so many of you, especially as we are unable to access any social networking sites in Vietnam (communist country etc). I'm glad many of you enjoyed Colin on my behalf, I had food envy! For those who have posted things on facebook, sorry I have not responded, but we cannot access anything at the moment.

So, we have had a speedy journey through Vietnam, and at times we felt like we were chasing something that wasn't there. While we all really enjoyed Hanoi - so interesting and atmospheric, the rest of our journey has lacked that 'something'. After Hanoi, we took the 18 hour train journey to Hoi An. Though this sounds gruelling, it was much better than we all expected and we shared a cabin with a lovely Vietnamese family. Ross actually got 'tucked in' by one of them...funny but very caring....and cheered him up on the day the first true homesickness took him by surprise. We shared snacks throughout the journey and everything was going well until the train broke down and was spearated, which meant everyone from the other carriage joined us. Cosy it was, we eventually arrived Hoi An. Hoi An is descirbed as a UNESCO Heritage town (akin to Luang Prabang in Laos). Maybe we were spoilt by Luang Prabang, but this felt more 'oldy worldy' than historic, and overly touristic to be able to see any of the crumbling, gorgeous buildings we were hoping to see. Nonetheless, the place was lovely for wandering around and we found a great little cafe/restaurant called STREETS that supports disadvantaged teens & young adults through employment and culinary training.

TET holidays coupled with the fact that everyone was doing the same as us (chasing the sun), buses and trains were fully booked and slow, so we treated ourselves to a flight to Nha Trang for some beach and sunshine. Nha Trang is described as the Jewel of Vietnam's beaches - the beach was lovely and the three of us had a great time, but the town itself is like Croydon town centre with a beach.

So, here we are, writing from the airport of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), awaiting our connecting flight to Bangkok. We were all very curious about Vietnam and Hanoi in particular was excellent, but overall, the remainder of our trip gave us little in the way of cultural stimulation - this in itself is fascinating for a 'communist' country. It possesses little in the way of identity as a nation/country and appears to be influenced by Japan, China, France and the U.S which is ironic. It certainly feels capitalist and the nation has a comparatively good quality of life, to their neighbours in SE Asia. As a result of this lack of cultural stimulus, we haven't taken many photo's....sorry!

Aside from that, I have loved my Mum being here and we have all had a good laugh throughout, which has been excellent.

We will most definitely return to this part of the continent soon, to visit Cambodia, but for now, we are heading to Hua Hin for some sun & beach (we are feeling knackered), after which, Ross and I may try to get some beachside bar work (Vietnam hasn't been cheap!)

Love to all, keep the messages coming!

Ross and Charlie

Posted by charlieandross 22:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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