Last Stop in Hua Hin

07-05-18

With a week left of our Asian adventure, we wanted to unwind by the sea. 200km south of Bangkok, Hua Hin is Thailand’s original beach resort and the summer residence of the King. Huge numbers of Thai people swoop into Hua Hin from Bangkok at weekends giving the city a real buzz.

We caught the train from Bangkok on a hot and humid afternoon.

The journey was painfully slow and the train trundled through the city and suburbs for such a long time before finally breaking out into the lush, green countryside.

We were sat in second class and there was no air-con but we had the old, rickety sash windows open in full and the warm, sultry air blew through the carriage. The scenery was beautiful, with tall palms and rice fields bathed in a late afternoon golden light.

We pulled into Hua Hin’s iconic station in the early evening. Tourists were waiting to photograph the train approaching with such a cute backdrop.

It’s red and white pavilion and perfectly quaint waiting room and tended gardens resemble a toy town station.

We stayed at the Amari hotel which is located right on the beach and is a real gem. It has wonderful style and chic seaside decor.

We’ve indulged in Thai massages, a spot of delicious afternoon tea in the Coral Lounge and enjoyed signature cocktails in the beach bars.

It has two huge pools, set in manicured, tropical gardens which have been completely deserted for the majority of most days.

It seems as though other Asian tourists avoid the sun and only make use of the pool in the late afternoon. We’ve had enough time to get into a nice little routine here and finally make use of the gym in the mornings – call it a ‘better late than never’ attempt to work off some of those holiday ice creams. We’ve loved lazing by the pools afterwards and listening to podcasts and reading books.

Hua Hin’s golden beach stretches for 5km and reaches a Buddha-adorned headland at the North.

We loved strolling along the shoreline, looking for seashells and admiring the horses galloping up and down the beach.

We climbed the headland in the searing midday heat to find wonderful views and a very strange temple complex which was pretty much derelict except for a pack of wild monkeys that had taken over.

We’ve eaten like kings in Hua Hin, feasting on incredible street food from the nearby Cicada and Tamarind food markets. These open air markets host a huge number of vendors serving the tastiest local cuisine.

There is an awesome food truck scene with cool retro branding and great eats.

The warm ambient lighting and live bands playing created such a lovely atmosphere. They also have artists selling beautiful pieces and hand made goodies.

Hua Hin has been the perfect final destination for us and served as a gorgeous backdrop to see out our final days of the trip. We’ve sat at dinner reminiscing over our last five months. Our favourite days, the most picturesque beaches, the quirkiest guesthouses and the tastiest eats. It’s been an epic trip and we are so grateful to be bringing home such special memories and a real thirst for more adventure.

So Long Vietnam, Back to Beautiful Thailand

22-04-18

Having had such a wonderful time in Ninh Binh we were reluctant to leave the beauty of the countryside to return to the madness of Hanoi hustle. We’ve enjoyed staying at the boutique hotel run by a lovely family and their little two year old was adorable fun.

We got the afternoon train back to the city and were in a third class carriage which was cramped and hectic but comfortable enough. We were in a compartment with a cute baby, her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. They would all do their stint of entertaining the little one before passing her to the next lap. Everyone was so smiley and friendly.

We decided to treat ourselves to a fancy meal to mark our final evening in Vietnam. The food here has been incredible. We had beef marinated in chilli, lemongrass, coconut and ginger with rice and veggies.

We savoured our last breakfast of Pho Bo before heading to the airport and flying direct to Chiang Mai. We did have plans to visit Laos but our timings were just a little tight and as we are nearing the end of our trip we didn’t want to rush about with long travel days and overnight bus journeys so have decided to wind down in Thailand.

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and first impressions are that it is very laid back with way less hassle from locals selling tuk tuks, tours and elephant print trousers that are absolutely everywhere! The old city is stuffed with temples and ancient buildings rub shoulders with modern coffee shops and cool street art. The city is wonderfully colourful and vibrant with street markets and night bizarres everywhere.

On our first full day we wandered the streets and visited a couple of temples including Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai’s most revered. The buildings and monasteries were lavishly decorated and the gardens were meticulously kept and beautifully peaceful.

We then treated ourselves to yet another foot massage at a nearby place called Lila. I’d read about this local chain of massage shops that were established to provide ex female convicts with working opportunities. Offering inmate employment and skill development, these spas help and support women striving for a better future. All the masseurs are trained and certified and it was a great massage.

We rounded off our evening at the Saturday night market which stretched along for over a mile. The whole market bustled with people, musicians, touts and sellers. The stalls had everything you could possibly want, from souvenirs to cheap t-shirts, through to more exotic delicacies…

It was noisy and messy and vibrant and awesome. We sat on tiny plastic chairs on the roadside and tucked into freshly cooked pad Thai and delicious homemade spicy sausage, washed down with plenty of Singha beer before walking back to our hotel. It’s inspirational to see everyone just grafting away and making and selling their own goods. Everyone seems so entrepreneurial in creating their own little niche and unique brand. These nights are the best nights. Cheap and cheerful and full of local life.

Two days in Glorious Ninh Binh

20-04-18

We’ve been using Hanoi as a base for day trips and having returned from Ha Long, we crashed one more night before setting off to Ninh Binh. Located 100km south of Hanoi, the Ninh Binh province is a rural idyll filled with limestone scenery and often referred to as Ha Long Bay on land.

We caught the train from Hanoi and trundled through the city before breaking out into the countryside with wonderfully green fields all around. The train was super easy to catch, comfortable enough and very cheap. The journey took about 2 hours and we hopped in a taxi to take us to our guesthouse for the next couple of nights. With plenty to see, we hired a scooter for the afternoon and hit the road immediately.

It only took 5 minutes to get out of town before we were immersed in farmland and countryside. Dirt tracks intersected the main road, enticing us to off-road and explore.

There were rice paddy fields as far as the eye can see and huge limestone cliffs and mountains in every direction.

We had so much fun wandering down quiet lanes, getting lost and stopping to take photos.

We reached Mua Cave on a very sleepy road between rice paddies that were inundated with baby chicks. They were so cute.

We heard that the cave itself was not particularly impressive but the panoramic views from the peak above were well worth the strenuous 500 step climb up.

With thick fog descending we weren’t sure we’d be able to see much but we persevered and reached the summit wheezing and out of breath. The dizzying views were absolutely wonderful.

From every direction we could see nothing but countryside. Lush and verdant green fields grazed by water buffalo and cows. The nearby Tam Coc River winded it’s way around huge limestone mountains shrouded in mist and fog. It’s a shame that the weather was so grey and dull but it did seem atmospheric. We climbed back down amongst the calls of mountain goats and continued our exploration by bike.

We had a quick look through the uninspiring tourist town of Tam Coc before finding a lovely place for dinner. Chookies had a great outdoor area and lovely vibe. We ate and people watched and I lost about 30 games of uno in a row.

The next day dawned much clearer so we got up and out bright and early to make the most of the gorgeous blue sky. We drove to the UNESCO world heritage site of Trang An grottoes.

We boarded a small row boat with a local lady who took us on an incredible tour along the Sao Khe river for the next three hours. She expertly rowed the boat and took us through three massive caves.

The limestone caves were incredibly long, plunging us into darkness for up to ten minutes at a time as we traversed stalactites. They had incredibly low ceilings that were so claustrophobic at times that we had to bend over completely to avoid scraping our heads. We’d emerge from the darkness into the scorching daylight and continue along until we reached a temple, another cave or other spot of interest.

Interestingly, the Hollywood blockbuster Kong Skull Island was filmed here just a couple of years ago and one of the islands still had some of the props and paraphernalia which really set the scene.

It was so lovely to sit back and enjoy the incredible scenery pass us by as the sun beat down and breathed life into the green fields, beautiful flowers and impressive mountains around us. We had a new found respect for our oars woman after Gary switched with her and had a stint at rowing us around.

She made it look effortless but it takes some serious stamina, especially when rowing into a head wind.

Following the boat ride we hit the road again for our afternoon stop at Chua Bai Dinh.

Completed in 2014, this Buddhist complex is absolutely huge and required a ride in a golf cart to get to main entrance. The cloistered walkways pass 500 stone Buddhist statues before reaching a triple roofed pagoda housing a huge 100 tonne bronze Buddha.

Regardless of religious preference, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the sheer size and grandeur of the building and it’s decoration. Everything was bathed in golden light and it looked majestic. Vietnamese came to pray and pay their respects with offerings including money, Coca Cola and cream puffs – the obvious holy choice. We then got the lift to the top of the nearby 13 storey pagoda which delivered wonderful views across the area.

We’ve absolutely loved our scooter days where we hit the road and discover amazing new things. This type of travelling is when we have felt most independent, stopping when we want, eating when we are hungry and coming back when exhausted. We returned to our guesthouse sun worn and dirty from the road dust but with huge smiles on our faces. Thank you Ninh Binh.

Cambodia and the Temples

A big shout out to the Phuket Airport hotel. They know their niche and they nailed it. Close to the airport, obvs, beaut of a pool, neat lush gardens, fast WiFi, cheap clean spacious room, free transfer to the airport at 4am!

We arrived at Siem Reap airport at 7am only to realise we had left our passport photos in checked baggage. “Not to worry you can avoid this necessity with a fee sir”. At least we got our visas, even if it did cost us a little extra.

Our hotel, Sakmut Boutique, offered free airport transfer and true to form they greeted us at the arrival gate with a sign and they managed to spell my name right. Exceptional service for roughly £50 a night. They bill themselves as an “Affordable Luxury Hotel”. I think we would both go along with that. As we had arrived so early they offered us free breakfast. Pretty amazing given checkin is normally 2pm and that our room was ready for us to bag drop then chow down.

This bad boy was waisted on us #lazybones

We used the rest of the day to catch up on blogging and sort out accommodation for further down the line and work out our plans to explore Siem Reap.

We decided that the best way to visit the vast amount of temples was to spread it over two days with a pool day in between.

Small Circuit

Angkor Wat – Undisputedly the largest religious building in the world. A massive 3 level temple mountain style structure dominated by 5 central towers.

Two monks enjoying the lake at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

I know it looks empty but we got lucky with this shot before the crowds took over

This little one had enough temple action

Plenty of cheeky monkeys feasting on scraps

Ta Prohm – made famous by the film Tomb Raider.

This was one of my favourites as it was the most atmospheric. The jungle has definitely taken over in parts and has made it more beautiful than some of the restored parts.

Bayon – The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

It’s funny when you visit a lot of temples in a day or two. You get to understand the saying “same same but different”. On the whole we enjoyed visiting so many as we did it at a leisurely pace and didn’t try and squeeze in too many. It was also nice to quench our thirst with a cold one at the end of a hot sticky day.

Khao Sok Snake Diaries

20-03-18

Day Two in Khao Sok started bright and early as we headed out for a full day tour of the National Park and Cheow Lan Lake. This destination is well documented as the jewel of the park and having seen lots of awesome blogs and videos about it, we’ve been really excited to explore. Cheow Lan is a 71sq mile artificial lake built in the 80’s in conjunction with a huge dam for power generation and to combat flooding.

Khao Sok village in the Surat Thani province is where we are staying and is the gateway to the park. We were picked up by a mini van and we drove for an hour before we reached the pier and piled onto a long tail boat.

Almost immediately we could appreciate why so many people raved about the lake. It is incredibly vast and it’s surrounding scenery is stunning. The lake is an incredible blue colour and studded with huge limestone cliffs and mountains that majestically jut out of the water. As we ducked and dived around the rocks we felt like we had the lake to ourselves, barely passing another boat.

After 45 minutes on the boat we reached a set of floating houses on the lake. With nothing else around for miles it was impossibly peaceful. We did have the option to spend a night here but having peaked into the rooms which are essentially dark boxes with a filthy looking mattress on the floor, I’m pretty relieved we didn’t go for it.

We did however stop there for a great lunch of fish and stir fried chicken dishes before we embarked upon a trek in the National Park.

Our tour guide had really been selling this big hike which would take 3 hours in total and culminate in a spectacular cave walk. He reiterated the importance of plenty of water and proper trekking shoes so were anticipating a hefty slog in the midday sun. Turns out the route was no more than 3 km in distance, but did take us across streams, scrambling over rocks and on paths crisscrossed by huge tree roots. Major tripping hazards that, much to the amusement of Gary, I managed to stumble on repeatedly.

Immersed in the greenery and dwarfed by insanely tall bamboo, it was awesome. We saw monkeys and a wonderful array of butterflies sunbathing on the river bank. So many butterflies that dispersed when disturbed that they looked like confetti.

Once we arrived at the cave entrance we were told to turn our headlamps on and advised that once inside to stick to walking and not climbing.

Turns out that the ‘cave walk’ was essentially potholing in the pitch black with no helmets and the world’s worst lamps that illuminated a two cm spot a meter in front of us. Our guide gave us no advance warning of how slippy the rocks were or the best route to take and he went at such a pace that the 13 of us in the tour group were struggling to keep up. We were fumbling along, tripping over rocks and then falling into water. At some points we were in ankle deep water and at others we were plunged into icy cold pools where the water was so deep it came up to our necks and took our breath away. It was so farcical that it was almost funny……that is until I heard the dreaded words shouted back by our guide to “watch out for the snake.” Needless to say, I lost my shit. A horrid snake perched on a little ledge eyeing us up. It’s the only time our guide displayed any real care and attention so I can only assume it was poisonous. After gingerly crawling past and giving the beast a wide berth we continued on our way, this time without gripping the walls and rocks for balance. I was so nervous about touching or grabbing any more snakes lurking in the darkness.

We got to an opening where bats were congregated and then returned the way we came. Whilst an interesting interlude and another new experience for us, it’s not one I need to do again in a hurry.

We walked back to lake and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing and drinking beer in the most picturesque of settings in Thailand. The swimming was glorious and easily my favourite part of the day. It’s sometimes hard to fully appreciate your environment when you are there, and already I wish I’d taken it in more. The pictures do a great job of reminding us of the incredible grandeur of Khao Sok though.

We enjoyed the gorgeous beaches of southern Thailand so much that it had to be something pretty spectacular to pull us away. I’m pleased we made the effort to get here and experience a different side of Thailand. I’m surprised that Khao Sok isn’t completely inundated with tourists because it really is beautiful and well worth the trip.

Khao Sok National Park

As we left our great Phuket digs the guy gave us a wonderfully tacky key ring with the name of the guesthouse “Glitter” embossed. I just looked at Emily and she smiled. If your called Gary and travelling around Thailand the last thing you want is a little label that says “Glitter”.

The journey from Phuket to Kao Sok National Park would take around 4 hours on a bus. I don’t really mind the bus journeys too much but they do eat into your day. We decided to get an early one so we could go on a canoe trip in the afternoon. Time for a little nap then.

The bus dropped us off at the side of the road and we managed to score a ride in an old jeep with no roof to the Paradise resort. Sure it was nice but Paradise was over egging it somewhat.

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Being the dry season the river was a little low but we climbed into our inflatable kayak and the guide paddled us down the river.

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As you can see I was still tired from the journey 😜

All along the route a local dog called Coffee followed us. At one point he even tried to get in the boat and I had to fend him off until he got the message. We saw lots of monkeys fooling around on branches over head. We even saw a snake in the water looking up in hope that one of the monkeys would fall in.

The scenery was stunning and at time reminded me of a summers day in a Welsh valley. So green and lush.

Halfway along the river we stopped and the guides heated up water in bamboo and made tea and coffee. A nice treat.

Four Days in Phuket

18-03-18

Having enjoyed a wonderful few days on the peaceful island of Yao Noi, we took a speedboat over to Phuket to experience the ultimate contrast. Phuket is just 36km away but the two islands are worlds apart in terms of culture, vibe and footfall.
Phuket really is an ‘anything goes’ island that attracts huge numbers of package tourists with its dizzying array of attractions engineered to relieve you of your hard earned bhat. We’re talking anything from tiger ‘sanctuaries’ to snake shows, adrenalin sports and ladyboy cabarets. Whilst we’d read that the beaches have retained their tropical beauty, we were a little sceptical about whether we’d enjoy the rest of the island.

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We decided to base ourselves in Kata, a beach town located approx 20mins south of the infamous Patong. Patong is a party town, famed for its cheap booze, sleazy bars and all-round debauchery. Whilst Kata has a buzz and plenty of tourists, it’s much quieter than Patong and has a stunning beach.

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The sand is so fine and the sea is wonderfully calm and inviting and we happily whiled away most of our time at the beach, reading and listening to podcasts. We also discovered The Surfhouse, a cool beachside bar with a ‘double flowrider’ surf simulator as it’s centrepiece.

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Always keen for adventure and trying something new, Gary was keen to give it a go and by calling upon his snowboarding experience he got the hang of it immediately. It looked really tricky but so fun. The wipeouts were also pretty spectacular.

We rented a scooter on one of the days to visit Phuket Old Town on the east of the island which was great.

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The old town has a core of beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture and many of the buildings have been lovingly restored to their former beauty.

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We wandered down lanes with wonderfully colourful shopfronts adorned with gorgeously ornate fresco work and decorative tiles.

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Phuket Town also has a neat collection of cool street art that is reminiscent of the talent we saw in Georgetown in Malaysia.

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We stumbled across a cat cafe which I couldn’t resist. This is basically a place where you can grab a coffee and a slice of cake and pet a load of pampered pussycats that laze around.

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Such a strange concept but I loved it. I think these felines had been over pampered because they were very aloof when it came to tummy tickles and cuddles. Not sure Gary was particularly enthused by the whole experience but he did approve of them serving beer.

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Just enough time for Gary to get his hair cut in a supercool barbers before we headed for some dinner. Haircuts have tended to be nerve wracking affairs since we’ve come away, with a worry that Gary’s requests will be lost in translation and he’ll come away with a bubble perm or skinhead. Thankfully this place was pretty good (although painfully slow) and we left happy.

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We found a wonderful restaurant to have dinner in before heading back. I had my first taste of lamb since we’ve been away and Gary had the signature dish of steak and tempura prawn. It was delicious and made a lovely break from the usual Thai.

Big shout out to the awesome markets and street eats that we’ve indulged in since arriving in Phuket. There is a lovely little evening market close to our B&B that serves the most amazing pork ribs that we’ve become addicted to.

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Exploring food markets and gawping at all the fresh veggies and exotic fruits is my favourite thing to do in a new destination and makes for incredible people watching.

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We’ve really enjoyed our time over the last few days and we are so pleased we uncovered an alternative Phuket to the stereotype it’s become famed for.

Hiding out in Koh Yao Noi

Of all the forms of transport we have experienced on our travels I love the boats more than anything. I think it’s the freedom to set your own course, unencumbered by traffic through stunning scenery.

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Whilst waiting to set off from Railay to Koh Yao Noi we were treated to a little musical interlude from an Aussie with a face that looked like a bulldog chewing a nettle. I do hope he doesn’t read this 😬.


We had chosen Yao Noi because we had watched a film in Le Dream Boutique, back in Penang, that used it as a location. Predominantly Muslim population we knew it would be sleepy and rustic and that is just what we were after before the busy crowds of Phuket.

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These guys welcomed us with sweet sticky mango rice, banana fritters and freshly brewed coffee and tea.

The first afternoon we wandered along the road to Pasai beach and I made friends with a bull. Gently stroking its head and feeling the incredible power when it shook off a fly and a horn caught my arm. Wow, I can’t imagine the damage these things can do if they really want to hurt you.

We wanted to find out about a tour to one of the neighbouring islands but didn’t have the heart to rouse this sleepy man.

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Pasai beach had a great little vibe about it. Cool little bars and restaurants with lots of character. Rustic beach with swings and hammocks free for anyone to use.

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We spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening drinking Caiparinhia and Mai Tai’s, playing UNO and eating delicious masaman curry.The next day we sought some adventure and the only way around the island was to hire a moped. Cruising along the coastal road we stopped at various points of interest.

Up in the north west we came across some interesting chalet style buildings. Being cheeky I wandered  up the hill and took a closer look.

 

On the way back we came across these cute little fellow bikers.


Taking one of the back roads to explore a bit further we encountered a battered wooden sign “Restaurant and View Point”. The only problem was it was pointing up a dirt track. With the memory of the Duli beach puncture still fresh in our minds we were both reluctant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The track wasn’t as bad as the Duli track but it was bad enough near the end that Emily got off and walked up the hill whilst I scrambled the bike over the rocks to go on ahead and make sure it was worth it. What a treat we received at the end of this dirt track.

Welcome to The Hideout

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This place was amazing. It was a very small resort with a restaurant and pool. Free to use provided you bought a drink. Two Mojitos then please.

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UNO score, Emily 0 – 4 Gary #unochamp

 

Motorcycle Diaries to Lanta Old Town

Keen to get out and about and see more of Lanta we rented another scooter and actually got to choose one this time. With the memory of the “El Nido puncture” still burnt into my brain I chose a Honda 125i Click with brand new back tyre.

“Check out my sweet ride”

Don’t worry Hawkins clan we don’t go over 40km/hr when Emily is riding pillion but I did see how fast it could go solo.

We decided to take the long way around to see what we can see on the way. One thing we have noticed all over Thailand is the “tapping” of trees.

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In order to collect the latex that is eventually turned into rubber, farmers make cuts across the tree, just deep enough to reach the vessels without harming the tree’s growth, in a process known as rubber tapping. The latex is then collected in small buckets.

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It’s quite pleasing to see row upon row of neatly planted rubber trees.

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A little further down the road and we saw an advert for Emily’s favourite show.

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The 40 minute journey was most pleasant. Pootiling along the decent roads surrounded by lush rural tropical plants. It is easy to forget how hot it is when the breeze is cooling you down. Arriving in the old town and walking the pretty main street we were drenched in sweat within minutes.

A quick explore and we decided to quench our thirst in lovely restaurant called “Fresh”. This one even had a swing with picturesque views.

After a couple of shandy’s and a few games of our new favourite, UNO, we set off to find a new beach.

As luck seems to have it we drove passed a dirt track with a hand made sign saying “Beautiful Beach this way”.

The sunset wasn’t bad either.