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!

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