Walking with the man of the forest

Our time with Odyssey may be over but the journey has not ended. Louise and I fly directly to Kota Kinabalu in north Borneo to begin our solo adventure. Our time in Borneo was jam packed so brace yourself, this is going to be a long one.

We arrive on the island early and attempt to spend the day exploring KK. We soon realise that this small town has little to offer in way of tourist attractions and head back to the hostel in order to plan our onward journey.

We leave KK early the next morning and head straight for the Kinabalu National Park. With most people heading to the park to climb the highest mountain in South East Asia it is easy to get to and the park is surrounded by hostels. We hop on a mini bus and sit, cramped, bags on laps for well over an hour. As we spiral our way through the mountains the mist draws in and the rain begins. Just as the rain reaches it’s torrential peak the bus pulls over, I turn to Louise, knowing we have a 1km hike to the hostel, “If this is our stop I’ll cry”, “It’s our stop” she mumbles, disheartened.

In a scene that resembles a tragic comedy we are bundled out of the bus, and our luggage propped at the side of the road, in the pouring rain. Grudgingly we begin the long, wet walk with our over-sized backpacks firmly strapped to our fronts and our back and flip-flops placed precariously on our feet. Eventually, after what feels like hours of trudging up hill, we make it. Soaked to the skin we are ushered inside where we order a hot milo and a blanket to warm up. We are staying in the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge which boasts the best views of the mountain. Unfortunately said view is currently obscured by fog so thick we can barely see the end of the balcony.

The “view”

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Once warmed we are shown to our room. Reviews online had warned us about the bugs “Tsk, we’re in Asia and in the mountains” we scoffed “what do you expect?”. However the wall of bug the greets us still comes as something of a shock.

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With the rain looking like it’s here to stay we wrap ourselves up in blankets and settle down for a day of Malaysian soap operas, promising ourselves that we’ll take a walk around the park tomorrow.

The skies have cleared when we wake and so determined to do something productive on our first full day we head out into the park. The lush green forests are wonderful and wouldn’t look out of place in an English national park. We wander for a few hours before the rain sets in once more and we return to the lodge for more hot milo and showers.

Exploring the park

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From the wet and wild national park we make our way down from altitude and in land to Sepilok, the eagerly anticipated orangutan sanctuary. Our morning starts with a 2km hike each with a 20kg bag, to the bus stop from the lodge. Luckily the walk is mostly downhill and the mountain air cool. It is not long before we are treated to some of the famous Bornean hospitality, as a group of girls pull over eager to help us with our bags, offering us a lift to our destination. Unfortunately their kind offer is perfectly timed as we have just arrived at the bus stop. The bus rounds the corner and we hop on board, winging our way once more round the mountainside.

Late afternoon the bus rolls to a stop and we gather our bags from the side of the road once more, looking around for directions to our hostel. We notice a sign next to the roundabout ‘Sepilok Forest Edge Resort 250m’ feeling incredibly smug we haul our bags onto our backs and head off down the road. Unfortunately it soon transpires that the 250m previously stated was in fact 250m to the next sign that states the resort is 2.5km further on. We look around hoping to find a taxi but on this quiet road we find none and so begins our second hike of the day except this time the sun is blazing overhead and the humidity has hit record levels. After what feels like years and a walk that would appear to be closer to 3km we finally arrive at the resort. Thankfully it is beautiful, the tensions between myself and Louise quickly dissipate as we sip on the welcome cocktail and check out our wonderful surroundings.

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The next morning we wake early and after our morning feed we head to the orangutan sanctuary, a short walk (thankfully) down the road for the morning feeding of the man of the forest. With vast amounts of Borneo’s jungle and forests being lost to palm oil plantations the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre was established in 1964 to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned orangutans. For a small price we are able to go into the centre and watch part of the rehabilitation process. It is only feeding platform one that is open to the public, the keepers are keen to keep interaction between the orangutans and the general public to a minimum. For more on the work that Sepilok do or to donate to the appeal please see this link: http://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/sepilok-rehabilitation-centre

Lou and I morphing into one person with matching outfits at Sepilok

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The morning feeding

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After the feeding we decide to take a walk in the forest along one of the trails where we hope to catch a glimpse of one of the rehabilitated orangutans and hopefully some of the other wildlife that Borneo has to offer.

We are followed along the trail by a rather excitable but extremely friendly Australian family. We are entertained by their young son who squeals with delight when he finds a leech attached to his sisters leg, this immediately puts the rest of us on edge. Having walked for about a kilometer into the forest without water we soon make the decision to turn back. Having failed to see a single animal or bird on our way out we aren’t hopeful we will have an encounters on the return journey. How wrong we were.

As I stop to pose for a photograph in the forest at Louise’s request I hear a movement next to me, I turn and gasp…

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No more than 20 meters to my right is a young orangutan swinging on a low branch. As we watch he climbs down from the tree and begins to make his way towards us. After a rather traumatising experience in a Kenyan wildlife reserve with a group of young baboons I am somewhat weary around dangerous primates, ‘I don’t like this’ I whisper taking a hasty step backwards.

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In that one moment something magical happens as the orangutan reaches out and grasps Lou’s hand. Hand me your camera I hiss in her ear.

A beautiful moment between [wo]man and ape

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A slightly hairy moment as Lou’s attempts to let go (luckily she escaped with all ten digits)!

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We return to the centre elated. Poogle, the orangutan, it transpires is a rehabilitated young male who is not too keen on the wild and regularly returns to the centre seeking attention and interaction with humans. A wonderful experience for us all but a sad tale of a wild animal who has lost all of his natural instincts. Suddenly the reasons the centre wishes to limit any interaction with the public become all too clear.

We return to the centre once more in the evening to watch the later feeding where we are treated to a show by Bella, a young and vibrant female.

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From Sepilok we have arranged a three day trip along the Kinabatangan River. Still on a high from our days spent exploring the forests surrounding Sepilok and our close encounter with the wonderful red headed man of the forest we are equally excited to see what we can find on the river. Thankfully our departure from the Forest Edge Resort is far less of an ordeal than our entrance. We are picked up by Uncle Tan, the company with which we will be doing our river cruise and taken to the river where we jump on board a fiber glass boat. With our possessions in black plastic bags, in preparation for a sudden downpour, we whizz up river, the wind whipping hair around our faces. However within minutes our driver is slamming on the breaks and turning us sharply towards the bank where we come face to face with our first crocodile basking in the sun. For a few moments the croc appears nonplussed with our presence and then suddenly with a flick of his tail he is gone.

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We are soon zooming along the river once more but no sooner have we started than one of our party have spotted another crocodile, this time a monster of a croc. His head appears to be as long as I am tall but he is too quick for us and submerges as we approach.

After about an hour on the river we reach camp and home for the next few days. This is basic living with no showers or even doors on the huts, we are given a bucket for our belongings (to protect from rats), but this is nothing that Louise and I have not become accustomed to by now.

The steps to Uncle Tans

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View from our cabin

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The huts

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Once we have settled in we are given a brief induction and a breakdown of exactly what we will be getting up to over the next few days.

Hectic schedule

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After dinner that very evening we are taken out on our first cruise down the river at night in the hope that we will spot some nocturnal animals. It would appear our luck is not in this night until we spot something swimming across the river. ‘Snake’ our driver shouts, jumping up and directing our boat towards the animal that does indeed appear to be a snake. That is until we come within touching distance ‘Ah’ our driver concedes ‘mouse’. The three of us on board collapse with laughter but this is one athletic mouse. This river would prove a challenge for even the most accomplished swimmer.

Lou and myself on our first night time river cruise

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Wonder mouse!

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We wake at the crack of dawn the next morning for our very eagerly anticipated dawn cruise, where we will hopefully catch a glimpse of our first truly wild orangutan. Unfortunately we are greeted by a torrential downpour meaning we are unlikely to see anything. We are fed and sent back to bed, hoping that the rain will cease soon. At around 10am, when the downpour has relented to a gentle drizzle, we are roused from our huts and taken out on the river for an extended cruise and the first of our jungle walks.

Views along the river

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We spot an abundance of wildlife along the blanks of the river, we soon leave the boat and continue on foot. The weather has now cleared and it’s time to get up close and personal with some of the islands more creepy residents.

Ready for a wet boat ride

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Creepy crawlies

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Lou, Shelly and myself checking out an indigenous tree

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Our wonderful guide

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The afternoon brings another cruise up the river to search for wildlife. This time we are on the hunt for the elusive and rare proboscis monkey. With it’s strange elongated nose this monkey is found only in Borneo and a single sighting will make this river trip all the more special for me. After an hour on the river it seems that luck is once again not on our side. We have failed to see anything and with the light fading behind the clouds it would appear that we are not going to get to witness a Bornean sunset from the river either. But then, as if by magic as the light dwindles, we spot them, high in the trees, settling in for the night. We pull the boats up onto the bank to watch. As we sit reveling in our stroke of luck, Borneo’s flying foxes (the worlds largest bat) break from the trees and soar over head. Just when we feel like the evening could not get any better the clouds break revealing a dazzling orange glow, it looks like we are going to get that sunset after all.

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We make our way back to camp where we are fed and watered before our final evening activity. Once the sun has set we are once again off into the jungle, just outside our front door, in search of nocturnal creatures.

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Poisonous, don’t touch!

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The giant ant

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We are even treated to the briefest of sightings of the rare Civet cat.

We leave early the next morning after two wonderful and wildlife filled days on the river. Lou and I will be returning to Kota Kinabalu the same evening, sad to be leaving but very ready for a shower. It is time for us to leave Borneo for a few days, Alex and Fi are waiting for us ready for a short trip to Brunei.

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The end of an Odyssey

Malaysia – our 17th and final country with Odyssey. After a week on the beach in Thailand I’m not sure any of us are quite ready to throw ourselves back into sight seeing once more. Thankfully we are spending one day in the city of Penang and then it’s back to the beach, Malaysian style.

We head straight for Malaysia and Penang from the ferry port. Another mega long drive day ensues in which Yvonne and I entertain ourselves by singing along to Mama Mia, Les Miserable and cackling at the top of our lungs to Kevin Bridges latest stand up routine, as you can imagine this delighted our fellow passengers no end.

We arrive into Penang late. A city set on a small island just off the north west coast of Malaysia we have to cross the water to get there. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this small urban metropolis, full of colourful and brightly lit high rise buildings sets a striking tone as we cross the bridge and for a fleeting moment images of Hong Kong spring to mind.

We have one day to explore the city and a few of us set out late the next morning. We head first to the Fort Cornwallis, a star shaped fort built in the 1700s it was an old meeting place for British soldiers. Built by the East India Trading Company the fort has never been engaged in battle and has mostly been destroyed due to lack of funds needed to maintain it.

Exploring Cornwallis

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Whilst the history of the place is interesting the fort itself has little to capture our imagination for more than half an hour. We leave to do what we do best – eat. Malaysia is full of cheap but impressive food courts where dishes from all around South East Asia are served. Imagine an enormous school canteen serving an overwhelming array of delectable and delicious dishes costing between £1-4 and you’re someway to envisaging a Malaysian food court. With our bellies full and our minds on tomorrow’s destination we make our way to the roof of our hotel to celebrate Jo’s birthday with a drink and a slice of cake.

We wake the next morning at 5am, we have a long drive ahead of us and for a change the crew have decided its better to be safe than sorry. Our destination is the Perhentian islands, a small collection of islands off the east coast of Malaysia, we have to make our way across the country to get there.

We arrive at the ferry port at 1.30pm and are told it will be a few minutes before we can board the boats. We look around, puzzled, can this be right? We have arrived at port ahead of schedule? We will be on the islands in a matter of half an hour? This doesn’t happen on an Odyssey tour, where’s the catch? But no catch comes. We board the boats, two of them, that will take us over to the tiny islands. As soon as we are clear of the port the pilot opens the throttle and we’re off at breakneck speed bumping along the open water towards another two peaceful and relaxing days on the beach.

Whizzing along to the islands

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Once we arrive on the island there is the small matter of manoeuvring ourselves plus all of our luggage from one small boat to a slightly smaller boat in order to get to land. This is no joke when your bag weighs as much as a small child. Luckily the locals know what they’re doing and we all make it to solid ground without getting wet.

The islands teem with wildlife, before we have even been introduced to our rooms we have encountered a friendly bright green tree snake and a lazy skink that refuses to move despite cameras clicking left, right and centre.

Creature comforts

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(snake photograph courtesy of James Paterson)

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We have two days to relax and explore the islands. We spend most of it in the spectacular underwater world that makes up much of the coastline. By the end of the first day we have swum alongside a grazing turtles and watched five foot long black tipped reef sharks basking below us. The colourful fans of shelf coral teem with fish and any number of sea molluscs, whilst the big brain coral bulge between rocks appearing to undulate in the rippling current.

Exploring the islands

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Underwater world

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(Thanks to James and Mahala for the photographs)

Every evening as we sit down to dinner the nightly storm rolls in. Rain thunders down like nothing I have ever experienced (and I’m British). Lightening crashes overhead lighting the small stretch of sea between the islands where we witness boats in turmoil, struggling to stay afloat in the turbulent waters. A stark contrast with the calm clear waters of the previous day.

Stormy Perhentian’s

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We leave these wistful islands desperate for more time, Louise and I try and figure out a way we can stay, unfortunately with our flight out of Kuala Lumpur already booked this isn’t an option and we clamber into the speed boat reluctantly, leaving our hearts behind as we whizz away, back the way we came.

Back on the mainland we find our final mode of Odyssey transport waiting for us. We hop on board our private bus and are soon on our way to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The drive across Malaysia highlights the extent to which the countries rain forests have disappeared. Palm oil plantations stretch out as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills topped with this squat, ugly tree. It is easy to condemn the devastation from our western high horse but the wealth and opportunities it brings the country are clear to see.

We arrive in KL late afternoon, heading straight out to China town for dinner. After a mediocre meal of chicken satay and fried rice we make the obligatory trip to the Patronas Towers by night. These impressive structures are surprising difficult to see at times between the high raise buildings that dominate the city.

Dinner in China town

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As we arrive we marvel at the level of lighting, mumbling something about Earth Hour it dawns on me that these towers are owned by one of the world’s leading oil distributors, they’re probably not too involved with environmental charities.

The Twin Towers by night

(Photos thanks to Louise McCarthy)

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Despite my environmental concerns the towers are no doubt impressive. We wander around the base before taking a swift look at the shopping centre housed inside. Fiona and I gravitate towards Topshop, squealing with excitement when we realise there is a sale on “these jeans are cheaper than at home” I holler across the store, much to the amusement of the sale staff. You can take the girl out of London…

Our final day with Odyssey is as packed as ever. We wake early with the intention of heading to one of KL enormous shopping centres, the girls have heard there is a roller coaster inside that they are keen to try, yes seriously inside the shopping centre! We arrive to find the roller coaster does not open until midday and so we make a mad dash across the city to the TV tower where we are assured that we will have a better view than from the Patronas Towers and at a smaller price (marginally).

Quick dash across the city by monorail

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TV tower

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The View

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We buy our tickets but find the view somewhat underwhelming, perhaps we should have frequented by night. We dash back across the city to the roller coaster only to discover it is out of order, thankfully we all have plenty of shopping we need to do and so we get stuck in. Lou and I are successful in our hunt for a cheap second hand laptop after the death of her previous machine.

A closed roller coaster in a shopping centre

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We have arranged to meet everyone at the Reggae bar for our final farewell drinks but at the last minute we realise we have failed spectacularly to buy Teresa and Simon any form of ‘thank you for getting us from A to B’ gift. What ensues is five of us running up and down escalators, pushing and shoving unsuspecting shoppers out of our way as we try to pick out suitable gifts from the Waitrose style supermarket. We deliberate for what seems like years in the alcohol aisle, trying to decide what kind of wine they would each enjoy, that is until someone points out that these are the two that sold us Georgian “wine” as delicious a mere six months previously. ‘You’re right’ the rest of us retort, clearly not wine connoisseurs, ‘we’ll go for the one with the prettiest bottle’!

Decision made, it is yet another mad dash across the city to dispose of our bags at the hotel, rushing straight back out to meet what is left of the group, just an hour late for our own leaving drinks. Thankfully Simon, Teresa and Mary have ended up at the wrong bar and haven’t managed to find the right one yet and most of the others are still hundreds of meters above the city on the Patronas Towers viewing deck.

The Reggae bar where the ladies drink for half price and the men hide behind their girl friends asking them for cheap glasses of rum and coke. When the rest of our groups finally arrives the party really does get started. Despite constant and recent protestations that I don’t want to be on the trip or around these people anymore I find myself genuinely sad for it to all be over. Those heading on to Singapore, where the trip officially ends, (no longer Darwin – we’re still unsure where that city fell off the wagon…) have an early start but that doesn’t stop us dancing until the early hours. We share memories about our time together and raise a glass to our incredible adventure.

Au Revoir!

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Come 6am the next morning there are a number of thumping heads at the breakfast table. We congregate in the lobby of the hotel embracing each other in genuinely heartfelt goodbyes. The odyssey is over, we’ve gazed upon the highest and driven through the second lowest points on earth, both physically and occasionally metaphorically. We’ve driven and flown over 26,000km, we’ve visited 16 independent nations and one disputed region. We’ve suffered through one broken back and many upset stomachs. I’ve enjoyed the highs and the lows, every single one! It hasn’t always been easy but it has always been a privilege to share the past six months of my life with such a fine group of people. I’d do it all again in a heart beat.

As I retreat to my room, alone for the first time in six months, I find myself choking back tears. Don’t leave, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you…

Beach Bums

As we cross the border back into Thailand we are itching with anticipation, everyone is eager to get to the beach and take some time off from our hectic schedule – next stop; Beach Week. A week to ourselves, paid for from our own budgets where we are free to go where we please, providing where we please is somewhere on the Thai islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phanang or Koh Tao. But first we need to make a stop in Bangkok. Some of us need to pick up luggage that was left in storage in the hotel over a month previously. For some of us it is the perfect opportunity to stock up on cheap clothes from the Kao San Road. For others it is a chance to partake in sight seeing activities that were missed the first time around, such as the floating markets.

A brave few wake at the break of dawn on the Sunday morning, check out of our rooms, put our luggage back into storage, grab a bite to eat and wait patiently outside the hotel for the mini bus that is to take us to the floating markets.

An hour later and we are in the general vicinity of the markets. We are bundled into boats alongside hundreds of other tourists and are soon whipping our way around the water-ways, whizzing past houses and shops and the odd monitor lizard. Minutes later we arrive at the market, we are unceremoniously turfed out of the boats and told to meet back at the same point in two hours. It was too much to hope that the water taxis would be taking us around the market, there is too much money to be made in fleecing tourists. So we pay another paddled powered boat to show us the market proper.

Entering the floating market

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I fear my expectations of this market were set too high. I was sold on the idea of row upon row of boats loaded high with fruit and veg whilst the locals paddle past bartering over the price of a pound of tomatoes. This may have been how the market was in days gone by but today it is a tourist trap selling the same souvenirs, trinkets and t-shirts available anywhere in South-East Asia.

The small selection of fruit and veg that was on sale

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What we did get however is a delicious array of street food, cooked and sold from the back of these boats. The sellers pull passing boats into their stalls with the help of a long stick and hand over small but delectable packages of, the by now, ubiquitous chicken satay, sweet and sour prawns, rice balls, coconut juice, the list goes on. This is certainly some of the best and most novel street food I have eaten on my travels, all from the back of a small paddle boat no less.

Eating street food at the market

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The same evening we bid farewell to Kelly and Hayden who have chosen to leave the trip early and spend their final three weeks on the Indonesian island of Sumatra before heading home to New Zealand after almost three years away. They will be missed.

Once we have said our goodbyes we load ourselves up with luggage and begin the arduous journey across Bangkok, in the pouring monsoon rain, to the overnight bus that will be taking us to the ferry port and onto our respective islands.

We arrive cold, wet and miserable and to add insult to injury we find that the level of comfort we have become accustomed to travelling in no longer applies. As a group of 21 across South-East Asia we have chartered private transport, often allowing for two seats each or fully reclining sleeper buses, should the need to nap overwhelm us. This VIP Tourist bus however comes equipped with fully upright seats that, should the passenger wish to recline, result in a swift smack in the face for the person behind. Thankfully I manage to bag myself two adjacent seats and due to my reduced stature I am able to curl up and get some rest.

We are told by our trusty crew that we will be arriving at the ferry terminal at 6am where we will have time to grab breakfast before boarding the ferry to the islands at 9am. With so little having gone wrong in the past we have no reason to believe that this is not what will happen…

I am woken from a fretful but surprisingly deep sleep by the driver shouting that this is the last stop. It is still dark outside but I am too asleep to question it. I grab my bag and sleepwalk my way off the bus and onto the side of the road. We have landed in, what appears to be Thailand’s version of a remote service station. “Where are we?” I ask, rubbing my eyes, I am met with blank expressions all round. When I hear a groggy, sleep deprived voice exclaim that it is 4am my disorientation deepens. “Why have we been kicked off the bus?”, of course none of my fellow travelers are able to answer this question. Gradually we all settle down on the floor or available seating, surrounded by our bags and attempt to grab another few hours sleep not knowing exactly when we’ll be picked up, it would appear our crew don’t know either.

Eventually at 8am another bus arrives and transports us to the ferry. More waiting around ensues and finally at 9.30am we are on the ferry and on our way to beach week paradise. In search of some well needed rest and relaxation Louise, Pernille and I have chosen the quiet resort of Lamai beach on Koh Samui. We bump into Ben and Tom on the ferry, an Aussie / Kiwi pair we met in Hoi An, Vietnam. They happen to be staying on Lamai beach too (although this doesn’t exactly come as a huge surprise because we told them when and where we would be – it must be that British charm)!

Our hotel, aptly named Lazy Days, does not disappoint. We splurged a little but if you can’t treat yourself to a luxury garden view villa with a private beach and it’s own pool, when you’re travelling around the world, when can you eh?

Louise and I let ourselves into our apartment, drop our bags, change into a bikini, sink onto a sun lounger and resolutely decide not to move for the next six days.

Our own private stretch of Lamai beach

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Over the course of the next week our mornings are spent on the beach, our afternoons by the pool and our evenings in town sampling the vast array of food that Koh Samui has to offer. Oysters, squid, octopus, prawns, shrimp and lobster are all on the menu as well as steak, burgers, pizza and a plethora of Thai curry. We also exhaust ourselves managing to find a new cocktail – bananacolada – heaven in a glass.

Cocktails on the beach at Lazy Days

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Oysters and wine… heaven!

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Bananacoladas!!

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We do also manage to motivate ourselves to visit Chaweng, the slightly livelier beach just up the coast from Lamai. We end our week with a day snorkelling off the coast of the beautiful island of Koh Tao.

Snorkelling on Koh Tao

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The girls on Koh Nang Yuan, north of Koh Tao

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Ben, P and Lou on Chaweng beach

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Seven days after we arrive I am dragged from Koh Samui kicking and screaming. It is with a heavy heart that I greet my fellow travelers on the ferry that morning. In that moment I am ready to leave. I am ready to organise my own itinerary, create my own route and my own schedule, even make my own mistakes. Thankfully with just over one week left all of those opportunities are now available to me along with all the stresses and woes that might entail.

Heartache and hangovers in Cambodia

Firstly, an apology for my lack luster and uninspiring blogs of late. It isn’t that South East Asia has been uninspiring, far from it. The countries are breathtakingly beautiful and the people’s generosity of spirit never ceases. For ease of travel it comes top of the list. The truth is these blogs take time and energy, energy I haven’t had in recent weeks. Now I know I’m not supposed to say this – extended travel is everything you’d expect it to be; eye opening; awe inspiring; mind altering; life changing. It is also exhausting! The constant movement, the need to be enthusiastic about every city, town and village that you enter, negotiating cultural differences, simply finding somewhere new to eat every night, these things can all take their toll. I have pondered recently how much of this exhaustion is to do with the fact that I have been stuck with the same group of people for six months, often going weeks without coming into contact with anyone new but I know from experience that independent travel poses its own set of challenges. No, I am sure this fatigue comes from the pace at which we set off and the length of time I have been away. Enthusiasm waxes and wanes and fortunately after a week of relaxation on a Thai island and three weeks of unforgettable wildlife spotting on the magnificent island of Borneo I am renewed, I have found a second wind. Forgive me, I am not complaining, I wouldn’t change a thing and as the date of my return draws ever nearer, despite the travel fatigue and depleting funds I find myself not wanting it to end.

Thailand and Borneo I will get to later, but for now, Cambodia. A country we all knew was going to pose an altogether different set of challenges. We enter through one of the most corrupt borders in the world (apparently). We arrive at the border and form an orderly queue, we have to, we’re British. Our passports are collected and handed to the official who promptly places them in a corner and resolutely ignores them. As a steady stream of foot traffic files past us handing over passports laced with cash to sweeten the deal it dawns on us that we could be in for a long wait. Our bus driver, wondering what the hold up is, wanders into the terminal, places a bribe on top of the passports and waits. It’s amazing what a small crumpled note can do to grease the wheels, before long our passports have been stamped, returned to us and we are on our way.

First stop Phnom Penh, the capital. We have been hearing reports of civil unrest in the area for weeks but in true Odyssey fashion these reports are duly ignored and we turn up anyway. Our journey to the hotel is hampered slightly by roadblocks meaning we have to get out and walk. An ominous sign? Perhaps not. The streets are quiet, police and soldiers line the pavements in an effort to keep the peace. Many roads are closed to us and as we reach our hotel we realise that heading out anywhere other than the immediate area is going to prove difficult. Confined to the hotel we make up for it by drinking copious amounts of happy hour cocktails delving into the Khmer curry, a dish you would be forgiven for thinking had a slightly bitter after taste. It was, in fact, delicious.

The morning that follows is a difficult one, and no, not because of the hangovers. Today we visit the Killing Fields. On the way we pick up a newspaper and discover that a man was killed the previous night in the riots over the recent election. Cambodia may have ousted the Khmer Rouge but they are still fighting for their independence. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, once an orchard, is now a mass grave and memorial to those killed by the Khmer Rouge campaign in the late 70’s. We ready ourselves as we walk in, most of us have a good idea of what today will involve, some of us have been before. As we cross the threshold we are handed a set of headphones and an audio guide. The perfect way to see this site, it allows you to remain with your own thoughts as a survivor of the regime explains his experiences and what each part of the site was used for.

Very little of the site remains intact due to looting and understable anger when the Khmer Rouge left. Signs have been erected to give you an idea of what would have happened in each area and the survivors story does well to immerse you in the devastating life under the Khmer Rouge.

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The resourceful Khmer Rouge would use the sharp edge of the palm trees to slit the throats of the prisoners

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5,000 human skulls are housed inside a Buddhist stupa, a memorial to the dead

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As we walk around the site we do our best to avoid stepping on the fragments of bone and clothing that are still, almost 40 years later, being washed to the surface. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s orders, executed almost 9,000 people at this site alone. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million citizens were executed or died from other causes (lack of food, poor medical care) during the Khmer Rouge regime, at the time the country had a population of just 8 million.

Our morning has been heart wrenching but the grisly history lesson is not over yet. After a quick bite to eat we enter the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, more commonly known as the S-21 prison. Once a high school full of bustling children, during the regime this innocent building, once a place of learning was turned into a centre for torture. 14,000 people entered this centre under the Khmer Rouge, seven survived. We are shown around by another survivor, a local woman who was 13 at the time of the regime. She was forced out of the city, Phnom Penh, and sent to work in the rice fields with her mother, she never saw her father again. She describes how she was forced to walk from Phnom Penh in the south to the rice fields in the north. The journey took them weeks and thousands died on the road. As she takes us around the former prison she explains the gruesome scene that greeted soldiers after the Khmer Rouge fled, the bodies of 14 prisoners remained strapped to beds where they had died as a result of the injuries inflicted on them by their torturers. These rooms remain as they were found with shackles and a lonely bed, the shadows of blood stains can still be seen on the floor.

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The Khmer Rouge used the S-21 prison to torture the captured into giving false confessions of their involvement in the CIA. These confessions were documented and held at the prison along with mug shots of every prisoner that entered. In one chilling room we see photographs of these prisoners both alive and dead. Row upon row of sunken faces look back at us, frozen in a terrible time. The cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another never ceases to amaze me.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks, we have visited the DMZ, the Vietnam war museum and now the Killing Fields and we have been able to reflect upon our own lives, as cliched as that may sound. Thankfully it is time to move on. Next stop – Angkor Wat.

As we move away from the terrible history of the Phnom Penh our sorrow for the people of Cambodia is forgotten momentarily. This is one historical site I have been excited about visiting since I booked this trip. We arrive at the hotel mid afternoon and are delighted to find it has a pool (it’s the small things). Unfortunately it is also raining and our schedule for the next few days is going to allow very little time for relaxing. My journey here, for the most part, had been spent discussing Angkor Wat and the best way to see it. Aware that it is possible to enter the site in the evening to catch the sunset and return the next morning for sunrise at no extra cost this is exactly what we plan to do.

Alas, the constant drizzle that has followed us here shows no sign of stopping and the sunset is no where to be found.

The next morning we try again. We wake at 4.30 to find it has stopped raining, for now, but the clouds remain. It looks like we won’t be catching the sunrise either.

Angkor Wat, clouds and hoards of people

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As a steady drizzle sets in again we take cover in a near by temple to enjoy a spot of breakfast, before long we head inside the temple complex starting with Angkor Wat itself. Our guide describes in painfully close detail every aspect of the carvings on the outside of the temple. Whilst full of knowledge this man is also painfully dull. Oblivious to our boredom he drones on regardless, by now less than half the group is even pretending to listen. Finally at 8.30 we are allowed inside the temple itself. We clamber with trepidation up the wet steps to the top and are treated to grey view of the rest of the complex.

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As the day progresses we are shown a grand total of five temples, climaxing in the Lara Croft temple (this temple was used in the 2001 Tomb Raider film). The jungle attempts to reclaim this wonderfully beautiful temple as tree roots cascade down the walls, this should have been the highlight of an awe-inspiring day. However  the rain does not stop and our guide fails to become any more interesting!

Fi – loving life at Angkor Wat

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Unfortunately a mundane guide and miserable weather have done little on this occasion to muster any enthusiasm we had for the site. I am sure under different circumstances the temples at Angkor Wat would be worth every penny, it is truly magnificent.

Owl spotting – the most interesting part of the day

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Enjoying the Lara Croft temple before the rain sets in

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In the evening – our last on this whistle stop tour of Cambodia – when the heavens have finally relinquished their downpour, a few of us head out for a drink or five.

Despite our constant badgering the rest of the group have declined our request for them to join us. The Angkor What? bar comes highly recommended and when we stumble upon it almost by accident we decide that $12 for a bucket of alcohol is not all that bad. Some of you may have heard that the majority of South East Asia likes to serve it’s alcohol in buckets, yes much like those you would use to build sandcastles with at a much more innocent age. Now I’m not promoting this type of alcohol consumption, we all know its not big and it’s not clever but it certainly makes trips to the bar a hell of a lot less frequent. Or at least it would if said bar was not handing out promotional t-shirts to every idiot stupid enough to buy three buckets at a time. In our slightly inebriated state there is nothing we want more than to get our hands on one of these prized garments – sadly we left our wares in the bar, none of us quite lucid enough to pick them up.

The next morning I am fairly convinced there is a man with a hammer attempting to escape from my skull, no wait, that’s just the door, “Breakfast?” Louise chirps as I scramble across the bed to open it. “It’s looking doubtful” I reply as I collapse back on the bed. It is late afternoon before Pernille and I finally feel able to leave the sanctity of our bedroom and hunt for food. ‘Never again’ we muse, a philosophy that lasted at least a week…

Good Morning Vietnam

After a long drive from Laos we find ourselves in the city of Hue. Keen to learn about the history of Vietnam and find out more about the war we organise a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). It is a long and interesting but equally sad day. We start the morning at the tunnels that hid families and soldiers during the war. Nestled in the most beautiful setting, directly overlooking the beach, this intricate tunnel system was built to protect and hide the Vietnamese civilians during the war. It even boasts a working maternity ward where 18 children were born. Deep and claustrophobic I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be trapped here night and day with bombs landing overhead.

Exploring the tunnels

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From the tunnels we make the long drive, right back to the Laos border where we visit a fallen American base. Photos of terrified and fleeing American soldiers adorn the walls. The realities of this war are difficult to stomach but the worst is yet to come…

Planes and propaganda at the fallen airbase

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After one short day in Hue we make our way across the country to the old colonial town of Hoi An (not to be confused with Han Noi). Lou and I spend our first afternoon here exploring the market and the old town whilst many of the others make their way to Vietnam’s famous tailors in search of a bargain, tailor made suit. We rush home as the afternoon rain hits. Our first evening is spent making new friends and sampling the cheap Vietnamese spirits. Unfortunately due to said sampling the next day is spent doing little more than eating and lazing around.

Afternoon rains and the river in Hoi An

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On our final day in Hoi An, after five months of mountains and grassy plains we finally make it to the beach. With soft white sand between our feet and an aquamarine sea stretched out in front of us we settle in for the day.

Paradise

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We leave Hoi An relaxed and slightly sun burnt ready for another few days at the beach. Thankfully that is exactly where we are headed. We arrive at the coast late at night but eagerly anticipating the next couple of days. Our home for this time is a rustic resort known as Jungle Beach run by an equally rustic Canadian who shows us to our bamboo huts in nothing but a sarong and an over grown beer belly. The door to the bathroom consists of nothing more than a curtain, it’s a good job we’ve grown very comfortable with each other over the past five months. Whilst basic this place has a certain charm and we are soon settled in, already unwilling to leave.

There is nothing for us to do here except sleep on the beach, swim in the sea and turn up for meals on time. We are fed to bursting every morning, noon and night. After which there is nothing to do but go for a late night swim with the glowing plankton – magical.

More paradise

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Drinks and fire on the beach

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All too soon we are dragged from Jungle Beach kicking and screaming and dumped rather unceremoniously in Ho Chi Min City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam’s bustling second city. Pavements are lined with scooters and motorcycles making it impossible to walk anywhere but the road. We are back in the land of crazy roads and even crazier drivers. Zebra crossings no longer illicit a response and crossing the road means taking your life in your hands. For Yvonne returning is a traumatic experience – the last time she was here she was hit by a rogue motorcyclist, breaking her jaw.

Whilst here we take the opportunity to wander around the Vietnam War Memorial Museum. We are warned by those who have been before that it is a harrowing experience but this does not prepare us for what is to come. Traumatised by images and stories of the atrocities committed by the American soldiers we leave the museum in a melancholy mood. We are aware we have borne witness to a subjective account of the war but fought on Vietnam soil with chemical weapons – the effects of which are still felt throughout Vietnam – it is hard to see this was a fair fight.

Thankfully two days later we escape Ho Chi Min unscathed and a little more somber than we entered. Tomorrow we cross the border into Cambodia, I fear our mood will not be improving anytime soon.

Messing around on the river

After an all too brief jaunt around Northern Thailand the group and myself make our way into the idyllic and laid back country of Laos. Since the visa / illegal agent debacle tensions in the group had been running high but thankfully the border crossing was quick, pain free and relatively simple. We make the precarious journey to the border across the Mekong in a shallow boat that some how manages to accommodate the 21 of us, including all of our luggage. This is certainly a novel way to enter a country but thankfully our time on this narrow, shaky piece of wood is short lived. In no time we have entered our fourteenth country.

Departing Thailand

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From the border we are bundled into taxis that are to take us back to the river where we climb on board a long boat that is to become our home for two days as we travel down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

We climb on board the boat, dump our bags in a pile, remove our shoes and settle in for two full days of unadulterated nothingness. As we wile away the days catching up with blogs, diaries and reading, the sights and sounds of Laos drift peacefully past our windows. The river bank, dense with trees, teems with wildlife and the occasional blonde buffalo. We spot local children enjoying lazy afternoons by the river, swimming and sunbathing.

The Mekong and riverside villages

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After two delightfully relaxing days we arrive in the sleepy town of Luang Prabang. An old colonial town, the French influences are not difficult to spot. Bakeries and French restaurants line the streets, whilst in the market we find women selling baguettes loaded with cheese and bacon on every corner.

Hearing that the best way to explore Luang Prabang is by bike we set out early on our first morning to hire some. The equivalent of a few pounds a day to hire, ‘what could go wrong?’ we ponder. We decide to make our way out to some of the near by waterfalls, 15km in the searing heat ‘we’ll make it…’. Unsurprisingly with the sun beating down on us and no respite from the heat, after an hour of furious pedaling, up-hill, we decide we are unlikely to make it to the waterfalls and instead stop off at the river. We happen upon a group of children playing in the river, in their backyard. After a quick word with the adults present we are welcomed inside. Much to the bemusement of the children we head down the bank and jump in the river to cool off.

Biking!

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On the way home we soon discover that I have a slow puncture, which would explain the furious pedaling earlier in the day. After attempting to mend the bike with the puncture kit we have been provided with, we discover that the wheel is in fact welded on. Lou and I flag down and tuk-tuk and head back to the hire company to see what they can do. The rest of the group return shortly after us to find Lou and myself embroiled in a row with the manager of the shop who is refusing to help us. Eventually, after much more shouting we set Pernille on him and he allows us to take a cheaper city bike. We ride away knowing that we are going to face difficulties when it comes to collecting Pernille’s passport that evening. Mere moments later we discover that Dave also has a puncture, he returns, not wishing to waste any more time he hands over the bike and walks away.

The next morning, having successfully retrieved P’s passport the night before, the boys decide to hire bikes again, this time from a different company, and cycle to another set of waterfalls. Not fancying the 64km round trip the girls wait until later in the morning and hire a tuk-tuk to take us instead. We arrive to find Al and Dave waiting patiently for us at the entrance to the falls. First stop – the bear rescue centre – where we find a group of Asiatic Black bears relaxing and catching some rays.

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From the bear sanctuary we make our way to the waterfalls, the main attraction. On this cloudy but warm day the milky blue water looks inviting however a quick toe dip reveals that the water is ice cold, until the sun comes out I’m not sure I’ll be venturing in. The waterfalls are complex, spread out over many levels, we make our way up to the middle levels and stop for a spot of lunch overlooking the falls.

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Before long the sun has made an appearance, desperate to get in the water we brave the cold and the painful barefooted entry to find that once in the water it is refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable.

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After cooling off we scramble our way to the climax of the day. The stunning main waterfall. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Climbing to the top of the falls

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Over the edge!

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After another day cycling and relaxing in Luang Prabang we make our way directly to the capital; Vientiane. Like the rest of Laos the capital is quiet and positively more laid back than any city I have ever visited. Unfortunately Louise and I need to start planning our next adventure so have very little time to explore but we ensure that we make time to visit Vientiane’s most iconic attraction – the Arc de Triomphe. Resembling the Arc de Triomphe in France the Arc was built to celebrate Laos’ independence from France. It was built with American funds, using cement that was originally put aside for a new airport earning it the nickname ‘the vertical runway’. Up close the Arc is overwhelmingly oppressive. If you take the time to read the plaque outlining its history it is quite clear that the Laotians feel the same way. The evening is spent with the rest of the group at a local bowling alley.

Arc de Triomph, Laos style

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Bowling

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Vientiane is the last stop in the wonderfully peaceful and relaxed country of Laos. Leaving is hard, I will definitely be back to explore more of one of my favourite countries to date.

The land of smiles and a breath of fresh air

On the 19th August we say a fond farewell to Warren as our group loses one of its number and take our first flight in over four months of travel. On the short two hour trip across the India ocean we manage to leave many of the tensions experienced in the previous few weeks behind.

Absolved of our sins we land in Bangkok refreshed and ready for the next adventure. I’d love to tell you that leaving our (almost) trusty stead ‘Calypso’ behind had been a wrench but in truth it was a blessing. For the most part she had done us well with a single breakdown in the time that we were with her. When we returned to the truck in Kolkata to find most of our possessions soaking wet and / or covered in mould due to the vast array of holes to be found on board I can’t say many of us were sad to say goodbye.

The journey from the airport to our hotel is taken at breakneck speed but compared with the hustle and bustle of India the city and it’s roads appear clean and quiet. There are more tourists here than we have seen in months on the road, we dump our things in the hotel and head out immediately, full of new enthusiasm, to explore the Khao San Road. Louise, Pernille and myself do not return until 4am the next morning. Having partied like there was no tomorrow we find it difficult to drag ourselves out of bed, but drag ourselves out we must, we have a new country and a new city to explore. We head out in search of the reclining Buddha only to be told by an overly friendly local that it is in fact closed. Our usual instinct would be to ignore this type of advice, particularly when said local suggests we take a long boat ride down the river. Wanting to push our Indian cynicism aside we decide to take him up on his kind offer, after all we think, ‘What could he possibly be getting out of this?’. Before long we find ourselves on the river, decked out in life jackets and happy smiles having handed over a small amount of cash to a man with a boat. We’re off, whizzing around the waterways past houses built on stilts and shops selling their wares to passing tourists. We are even stopped by a woman selling bottles of ice cold water from her boat which we all willing buy. We pass enormous schools of cat fish being fed by waiting locals and spot monitor lizards lazing in the sun on the river bank.

Felix (Fi and Alex) on the river and schools of catfish

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We return to the hotel in the evening only to find that the others have all managed to get to the reclining Buddha, ‘But how could you, it was shut?’ we exclaim! Still unwilling to believe we have been duped we choose to think the friendly local may have been mistaken.

The next morning eager to make it to the Buddha today we set of early, minus Fi and Al who have had to make a minor detour to the hospital due to an illness that began in India. We find our way once more blocked by ‘friendly’ locals who tell us ‘the Buddha is shut, come to the floating markets’ realising by now that this is a scam we push on through and eventually find the entrance open and for a small fee we make our way inside. We spend a quiet morning wandering around the temple complex marvelling at the beauty of it and the detail that has gone into the intricate carvings. The Buddha is every bit as majestic as we’d hoped, reclining in all his gold glory.

The reclining Buddha

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From Bangkok we hop on yet another over night train directly north to Chang Mai. Having heard that Thailand has suffered a number of derailments in the past few months for some of us this is a particularly restless night. However we arrive in one piece, if not exactly rested.

Spike, Lou, T and the ticket inspector

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Our time in Chang Mai is jam packed with activities. Day one is spent at a cooking school where we cook up a Thai storm. The morning begins with a tour around the local markets where our cooking instructor teaches us all about local ingredients and cooking techniques. Then its back to the school for a morning of cooking and eating. Those of us who are there for half a day cook three wonderful dishes, one soup, one noodle dish and one curry, we even make our own thai curry paste.

At the market

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Cooking and eating

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James and Dave trying to burn the place down

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Day two begins equally as hectically with a day of downhill mountain biking. The morning begins with a three hour hike up hill to one of the village tribes where we enjoy a quick lunch before beginning our journey back down. Unfortunately we are accompanied by the most sexist man I have possibly ever encountered. His complete lack of faith in the women of the group riles us to such a point where we are all determined to prove we are better than any man. When the first one of us to fall off is a man we are all feeling pretty smug (sorry Dave). Now it is here that I feel the need to point out that down hill mountain biking is one of the most terrifying activities I have ever partaken in, and that includes the moment when I almost stepped on a cobra on the way up the hill. The downhill momentum is irresistible and uncontrollable. The rest of the group make it down in record time and loved every minute. I, on the other hand, crawl down at a snails pace wanting desperately for it to be over. Finally I make it to the end of the death run and am rewarded with a delicious Thai curry and a stop near a lake.

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After two fun filled days we are off to our last stop in Northern Thailand. We are heading for the Chang Kong river border with Laos. On the way we stop at Thailand’s newest and most bizarre temple at Chiang Rai. The outside is entirely white and mirrored whilst the inside is adorned with murals of Harry Potter, the Matrix, Star Wars, 9/11 the strange list is endless.

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Before long we arrive at a wonderful hotel on the Mekong river over looking our next stop; Laos. None of us are too keen to leave this place but come the morning leave it we must.

James, Mahala and Lou enjoying the view across the river

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But before we leave there is the small matter of our Laos visas. All the information we have read says that the easiest and cheapest way to obtain the visas is on the Laos border but once again Odyssey have other ideas. They have arranged an agent to obtain the visas for us, apparently taking the hassle out of the border crossing in the morning for us. He claims he will get us stamped out of Thailand that very evening and stamped into Laos without us even needing to leave the hotel. Something isn’t ringing true so we ask for a meeting. As the agent is questioned it becomes increasingly clear that what he is proposing isn’t exactly legal. Thanks Odyssey! It’s put to a vote but he has uttered the magic word ‘illegal’ and those that were on the fence have made up their minds, they are not partaking in the farce. Tensions are once again running high but the rest of us have decided it isn’t worth the risk regardless of how many people do this every month.

With the decision made and most of the group happy we are leaving Thailand for now but fear not, we will be back!