Phuket

While Ko Phi Phi Don might have been a little different from our normal choice of destination, Phuket was taking it that extra step into another world.  Partly we were there out of convenience:  Phuket is such a popular party destination that it has good, cheap flights that worked out well to take us back to Singapore.  But also we just wanted to see what colour the (undoubtedly vomit-stained) grass would be on the other side.

Looking up the coast towards Patong

Looking up the coast towards Patong

We typically avoid the thumping party spots:  if I want to go get drunk, I figure I can probably do that perfectly adequately without generally needing to travel much farther than down the street.  So I’ve never really understood quite why people fly so far for a series of nights about which they’ll remember so little.

And we typically avoid places full of other tourists:  it’s harder to enjoy the beauty or the majesty or the subtlety of a magnificent destination if you’re surrounded by throngs of people telling you how beautify or majestic or subtle and magnificent it is.  Especially, we try to avoid places that are typical package travel destinations for people who haven’t travelled much before:  it’s even harder to enjoy the good things about your surroundings if you’re breathlessly being told that you’re currently standing smack bang in the middle of the best place your new friends have ever seen.  A fact whose significance (out of politeness you should probably omit to observe) is necessarily somewhat diminished, since, though they are most certainly well-meaning and of course perfectly entitled to experience the joy of new places with as much enthusiasm as they can muster, they haven’t really seen many other places to compare it to.

Anyway, Phuket.  The Bali of Thailand.  Typical destination for young (and not-so-young) Australians and Brits and friends the world over to descend on to go party (ie get drunk) in a country far from their parents, their more staid friends, and any people who might be able to tell said parents or friends what embarrassing things they got up to while partying (ie drunk).  And it has some beaches, so it’s theoretically about that too.  (Although I get the impression that the beaches tend to end up a slightly more minor feature in many people’s travel than they expected.  Hangovers will do that, I suppose.)

Anyway, we were staying in Phuket Town, which is not the crowded party area.  I probably needn’t mention by this stage that we’d hired ourselves some scooters, and thus equipped, we headed over to Patong.  Which is the crowded party area.

Crowded beaches at Patong

Crowded beaches at Patong

Personally, I’ve never really much enjoyed beaches full of row after row of sun-lounge things and umbrellas and so on, but apparently once in Patong I was in the minority.

I’ve never been that keen on tourist strips that are full of bars and restaurants each of which is basically a tacky imitation of some better-known Western brand.  But again, the other tourists of Patong have outvoted me heavily with their steady influx of foreign moolah.

Basically, the town, for me, resembles nothing more than a bad amusement park, but with fewer rides and more alcoholic beverages.  And scantily clad “women” roaming the streets.

We were scooter-bound, as I mentioned, so we weren’t there for a drinking session, and given the quality of roads, headlights and other drivers, we weren’t hanging about much after sunset.  So we didn’t see the party really in action.  But we could see it slowly getting ready to warm up.  We could see where it was going.  And we could see that we were happy enough to be going somewhere it wasn’t.

The main night drag in Phuket, around sunset, before everything gets too ridiculous

The main night drag in Phuket, around sunset, before everything gets too ridiculous

The rest of our experience of Phuket Island, though, was surprisingly normal.  Get as little as a couple of kilometres up the road from Patong, and the beaches are near pristine, and almost empty.  Explore the back roads of the north-west of the island, and right up until you get close to the international airport, you could be in any other secluded corner of an out-of-the-way Thai holiday escape.

Which was nice, because it meant my last experience of Thailand before my brief return to Singapore on my way back ‘home’ to Australia was the Thailand that I like to remember:  beautiful, fun, and even mostly sober.

The other side of Phuket (island) – getting out and about away from Patong

The other side of Phuket (island) – getting out and about away from Patong

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Koh Lanta

The western tip of Koh Lanta, viewed from our dive boat as we return just before sunset from a hard day’s diving at Koh Ha

The western tip of Koh Lanta, viewed from our dive boat as we return just before sunset from a hard day’s diving at Koh Ha

After Ko Phi Phi Don, we had two reasons to pick Koh Lanta as our next destination.  First, it’s a bit more laid back – dare I say less drunk and more mature – an island than its more popular sibling.  It’s an island of long beautiful beaches, but compared to the party version, those beaches have a substantially lower population density.  Second, we’d heard it’s a good base for scuba diving.

We hadn’t necessarily originally planned to do any diving in South-East Asia.  But we found ourselves with a couple of days up our sleeve and among islands which have a reputation as one of the world’s better dive spots.  And it wasn’t unreasonably expensive.  So why not?

So we jumped on a ferry and headed over to Koh Lanta.  For once, we didn’t have accommodation pre-booked (not that our pre-booked accommodation had worked out on Ko Phi Phi anyway), but luck had us passing a particularly promising-looking place near the ferry terminal when they had two cheap single rooms left.  (The place was called Lanta Lantern – it was awesome, and I definitely recommend it.)

We did our standard thing and checked out TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations, discovering that the number one choice had especially effusive reviews, so we headed there for dinner on our first night.  Well, we tried to head there.  What we actually did was head a fair distance down the road going the wrong way in the rain because I hadn’t paid enough attention to the directions.  But a short search for some free wifi eventually to, err, double-check our course had us on the right track and we found our way back up the road and then to the right turn-off to the slightly out-of-the-way L Maladee.  Which promptly became my favourite restaurant in all of Thailand.

It started well:  the restaurant owner, a friendly Austrian lady, introduced herself and quickly asked “do you like fish?”.  Given that yes please, I most certainly do, she disappeared and returned with an assistant holding a silver platter of today’s catch.  That one there, please;  yes, the big tasty looking one.  In whatever sauce you recommend, I trust you.

My trust was well-rewarded:  it was so good that we went back the next night, and I did exactly the same thing.  That one there, yes, the biggest one.  Except this time maybe a spicier sauce:  we are, after all, in Thailand.  Now, I’m a big fan of spicy food.  I’m not a tastebud masochist, like a few people I know:  I don’t make my food as spicy as I can handle just for the hell of it.  But I do like some real heat to my food when it suits the flavour, and I’ll certainly eat spicier than most.  Especially if there’s a beer to wash it down with.

When you’re in Thailand, ordering Thai food, you do have to pay careful attention to the ordering process when you’re specifying how hot you want it, though.  If you say “fairly spicy” at most restaurants, they’ll hear “spicy as far as those silly Westerners are concerned, so maybe some freshly ground black pepper is in order, possibly garnished with an inoffensive chilli so they can pretend they’ve eaten something grown-up” and so you’ll often get something pretty bland.  The other extreme is the magic phrase “Thai spicy”, which will get you something done to local standards, and you’ll quickly be calling for a gallon of milk for the kitchen and making a mental note to put some bog roll in the freezer for the morning.

The upshot is that it can require a slightly extended conversation as you and the waiter negotiate the correct terminology for communicating to the kitchen exactly what proportion of little green mouth-murderers to actual edible food you require.  (It’s a conversation well worth having, of course:  spicy food in Thailand is delicious.  It’s just that making a mistake in your description can easily result in an inability to tell that it’s delicious, what with your being left with a lack of functional tastebuds on the tongue, palate and nose, to go with your lack of functional oesophagus.)

The nice Austrian lady at L Maladee, in any case, was practised and efficient at the elucidation of the required information.  We’d overheard other patrons ordering their food;  most of them after something particularly bland (there were a number of German and Austrian customers, so there was a bit of concern as to whether what amounted to the Thai equivalent of a butter chicken might be going overboard on the Scoville scale).  And we’d heard a couple who asked for somewhat livelier fare, seen the waiter consequently write “30%” next to the name of the dish on her little pad, and seen that they were happy with the result.

I asked for something spicy, and got it.  It was delicious, but any hotter would have been difficult to eat:  as it was, I was eating slowly and powering through the water.  Exactly what I was after, and by the end of the meal I had a healthy sheen going and a satisfied feeling of achievement for having completed the dish.  Look at me, I’m eating real Thai spice and loving it!

When we got the bill, I saw what had been written next to my order:  50%.  Writing percentages to figure out how hot people want their food is obviously an excellent and effective system.  But if that was 50%, then I’d be impressed to see people eat up in the higher half of the range.

We came away from a stunningly delicious meal with the conclusion that, basically, food in Thailand comes in three different levels of spicy – “tourist”, “a bit”, and “what real men eat, not like you, you piddly little pretender”.  I suspect that I would struggle with anything in the third category.

Anyway, the food on Koh Lanta was great – at least at the one and only restaurant we felt the need to sample.  (For what it’s worth, Chris, who is not a seafood fan, also loved his not-from-the-fruit-of-the-waves meals;  so don’t let a lack of desire for today’s catch put you off.)

Really our only other activity for the short time we were on the island – other than an obligatory but brief and largely unexceptional exploration by scooter – was the scuba diving.

The lagoon in the centre of the five islands of Koh Ha, viewed from our dive boat

The lagoon in the centre of the five islands of Koh Ha, viewed from our dive boat

And the diving was a lot of fun too.  I don’t have detailed notes of the dives, and diving is novel enough to me that my brain still registers every aspect of the experience as new and different, in consequence of which, I haven’t yet got to the stage being able to identify and store away for future reference all of the interesting features of each dive.  (I hadn’t dived for nearly a year, since diving in the Canary Islands shortly after I first qualified – these were only my ninth, tenth and eleventh dives.)

Which is basically a long-winded excuse for:  my description of the dives isn’t going to be very good, even though the dives themselves were a lot of fun.

The site that we went to is called Koh Ha, I can definitely accurately relate that part.  It’s a group of five small islands an hour or so’s boat trip from Koh Lanta.  There’s a sort of lagoon area created by the islands, in the centre of the group, and in the dives the company had done for the past few days, there’d been one of a particularly rare species of eagle ray – a white-spotted eagle ray, my dive log tells me – sighted in the lagoon.  So the grand hope for the day was to find it again – and there was much general excitement and waving and pointing and enthusiastic bubble-blowing when we did fairly shortly after getting in the water on our second dive.  We enjoyed following a turtle around for a while on our third dive, as well, and the semi-enclosed cave in which we surfaced on our first dive was an entertaining experience.  The marine life throughout was pretty;  nothing much large and spectacular, but a lot of littler fish and shrimps and other small-scale life on the coral.  And it was good to be back under the water.  Which meant that our mission (such as it was) for Koh Lanta was successfully completed, and we could move on to the slightly different environment of Phuket.

Ko Phi Phi Don

The islands in Thailand are about beautiful beaches.

The iconic images are full of long stretches of yellow-white sand, generous expanses of calm blue sea, plenty of longtails (the boats), and, depending on the decorum of the photographer, quite possibly a bevy of bikinis.

A longtail moored at the beach in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don

A longtail moored at the beach in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don

Ko Phi Phi Don (often just Ko Phi Phi) is one of the most famous of the islands.  It has such a strong, thriving tourism industry that just a few years after being completely and utterly devastated by the tsunami in 2004, it was and is back in full swing, with no evidence of any long-term inconvenience other than that now there are signs around town pointing out tsunami escape routes.  (The signs are largely useless:  either they’re right next to an obvious path uphill that you’d probably figure out to take anyway, and so are redundant, or they point to a track which may or may not end in impassable jungle at the bottom of an otherwise perfectly helpful-looking hill, in which case they’re most charitably viewed as a well-intentioned but poorly-executed attempt to make people overcome a predominantly irrational fear.)

It’s a beautiful island.

Looking south (-ish) over Ton Sai Bay from Viewpoint 1 on Ko Phi Phi Don

Looking south (-ish) over Ton Sai Bay from Viewpoint 1 on Ko Phi Phi Don

It’s also very popular, and a bit different from the sort of place we normally hang out on our travels.  It’s a party island.

It’s not the party island:  that would be Koh Phangan, home to the famous Full Moon Parties on the beach.  (And now, since waiting a whole month between outings was apparently getting a little too much like there might be withdrawal symptoms, the Half Moon Parties as well.)

But we were on Ko Phi Phi Don for full moon, and there was still plenty of beach partying to mark the occasion.

Buckets of bad idea for sale, on Ko Phi Phi Don

Buckets of bad idea for sale, on Ko Phi Phi Don

Much like when you were a little kid, the beach was full of people your age holding buckets.  This time, though, they’re not for sandcastles, they’re for mixing the bottle of spirits your bucket came with into the bottle of soft drink you also got thrown into the bargain.  Then they’re for drinking from, via a straw, as you roam the beach watching people play with fire.

A slowly-building crowd enjoys the antics of the fire-stick twirlers on the beach at Slinky Bar in Loh Da Lum Bay on Ko Phi Phi Don

A slowly-building crowd enjoys the antics of the fire-stick twirlers on the beach at Slinky Bar in Loh Da Lum Bay on Ko Phi Phi Don

Strolling the beach throughout the evening was entertaining, and only about as dangerous as you’d expect given the bucket situation (from which we abstained – a couple of beers did me just fine, thanks very much) combined with the fact that there are fireworks for sale to all and sundry, from stalls handily located next to the bucket sellers.

Yes, I did get hit with a firework let off by some drunken moron standing no more than five metres away from me – but in his defence, he only hit me in the leg, and he did apologise in his slightly trembling British accent before staring at me for a moment and then running away like a frightened schoolgirl.  (It was only a small firework, I should say, and I was standing in the edge of the surf, so a small wave conveniently carried it about a metre behind me after it dropped to my feet but before it exploded.  Handy, that.)

And in fairness, I should also point out that it’s hard to complain about random people on the street being able to buy fireworks and accidentally shoot them at people when the bar owners who were setting off their own fireworks in some sort of professional capacity were not necessarily doing a much better job:  we were up the very end of the beach at one point, taking long exposure photos back along the waterline, when one of the fireworks sputtered a little more slowly than intended out of its launcher and so didn’t actually travel quite as far as its own blast radius before it exploded.  It was a bit warm, although thankfully the shrapnel managed to miss us.

Loh Da Lum Bay (on Ko Phi Phi Don) at night, with the neon lights of its party bars lighting up the beach and bay.  The smoke is from a very large firework which had just been set off.

Loh Da Lum Bay (on Ko Phi Phi Don) at night, with the neon lights of its party bars lighting up the beach and bay. The smoke is from a very large firework which had just been set off.

But anyway, evening drunkenness on the foreshore is not the only thing Ko Phi Phi Don has to offer.  The non-full moon evenings are a little more subdued and make for some very attractive scenery as the longtails bob about on the waves in the still-quite-bright moonlight.

Longtails floating on the water at night in Loh Da Lum Bay

Longtails floating on the water at night in Loh Da Lum Bay

And the island has some nice viewpoints you can hike between – including a track which runs right up to the north-east of the island, towards a partly-constructed resort village which seems abandoned, but for a few of the houses nearer the water – perhaps because of the financial effects of recent world crises, or perhaps because someone realised that they were already making plenty of money elsewhere on the island without needing quite so much capital investment as seems to have been poured in here.

Some construction is still ongoing, though – we could tell there were people around when we heard concerned shouting and then muffled laughter from around the corner as someone accidentally tipped the truck they were driving onto its side.

But other than that adventure, it was really all about the beaches.

The best of which is Monkey Beach.  We were told it was accessible either by longtail or by a track leading over the hill.  We couldn’t find the track, so we just swam around the corner instead.

Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

It’s a beautiful beach, and it comes with a free Family Guy sign warning of the monkeys after which the beach is obviously named.

On Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

Family Guy-inspired sign, on Monkey Beach

But even if you can’t be bothered making it around to Monkey Beach, there are still plenty of other bits of sand to enjoy.  How much you explore the island is up to you.  Pretty much wherever you go you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to install yourself for your afternoon of doing very little, watching the world go by.

The firework thing had been a little annoying and more than a little alarming.  And our time on the island hadn’t started well when our pre-booked twin bungalow turned out to be less twin and more a single double bed mattress, leaving us walking around the island in the driving rain finding somewhere else to stay.  But no harm, no foul:  there were no injuries, and we found a cheaper room that not only had two comfortable beds but cost no more and was better located.  Our time on Ko Phi Phi Don worked out well.  With a bit of forbearance and patience, travel generally does.

A longtail beached in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don, at low tide

A longtail beached in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don, at low tide

Hanging around in Krabi

After Chiang Mai, we didn’t have all that much in the way of specific travel plans for the rest of our time in South-East Asia, but we knew we were headed towards Thailand’s islands.  We caught an overnight train back to Bangkok, and then, after a not-amazingly-inspiring twelve hour wait in the airport, flew to Krabi Town, from which we expected to fairly quickly move on.  Krabi is a bit of a gateway for the islands down south.  From there, you can catch a ferry to Ko Phi Phi Don and/or Koh Lanta and/or a number of others, but it’s not much of a destination in itself.

As it happened, though, we ended up in Krabi for a good five days.

It’s not that we suddenly discovered that Krabi had a lot more to see and do than we’d anticipated.  It’s that, as sometimes happens, we stayed in a good hostel and meet some cool people;  and as rarely happens (at least for most of this rather hectic round-the-world trip), we didn’t have any immediate definite plans that would prevent us from just hanging around and continuing to enjoy ourselves exactly where we were for a while, thanks very much.

Of course, the fact that it was about the fellow travellers we met more than about the place itself makes for a not a particularly great post, what with this being a travel blog and not, say, Facebook.

I guess it’s still funny to relate that we met one of our companions when he woke up as we turned up to our dorm, and shortly thereafter realised that he’d just missed his flight back to Oz, which he was sure he’d booked for tomorrow.  Similarly that we met another when she had the misfortune to sit down next to a particularly hungover me one morning as we boarded the back of a van that would take us out on the unexpectedly long (one hour) trip out to a kayaking expedition.  (Apparently I smelt more than vaguely of beer and wasn’t the most stimulating conversation partner.  Sorry about that…)

About to go kayaking near Krabi

About to go kayaking near Krabi

And it’s still relevant to tell you that we stayed in the excellent Pak-Up Hostel, that we enjoyed the food in the street markets just down the street and the breakfasts in Relax Coffee, the coffee shop across the road.  That we had an entertaining if exhausting and unreasonably sweaty climb up the seemingly endless steps up to the Tiger Temple…

The view from the Tiger Temple (Wat Tham Sua) near Krabi

The view from the Tiger Temple (Wat Tham Sua) near Krabi

… that we had great fun ziplining at Tree Top Adventures, near town…

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Not the most elegant pose I’ve ever adopted for a photo, I’ll must concede

… and that we had a nice trip out to the Emerald Pool park, before getting thoroughly drenched on the ride back home…

The Blue Lagoon, in the Emerald Pool (Sra Morakot) near Krabi

The Blue Lagoon, in the Emerald Pool (Sra Morakot), near Krabi

But I guess what I’m really telling you is that it can just as often be the people you meet as the things you see that make travel entertaining and worthwhile.  And that sometimes it’s handy to have a little flexibility in your plans, so that you can hang around somewhere you’re having fun, or change destinations to fit in with people you’ve just met.

It’s one of my biggest convictions of travel.  Yes, it’s worth making sure you plan to go somewhere you’ll enjoy.  But actually, you can have plenty of fun pretty much anywhere you end up, whether you had it all plotted out in advance or not.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much where you are as who you find there, and how you manage to spend your time with them.

Scootering around South-East Asia: advice

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Observant (or perhaps I should just say ‘persistent’) readers may recall that a while ago, I made fun of the traffic situation in Vietnam.  As you may have noticed from my other blog posts about our time in Vietnam, and in fact from Thailand as well, we actually spent quite a bit of our time riding around on scooters.  So I guess you can conclude from that combination one of two things.  Either (a) we’re just crazy and were happily exposing ourselves to risks we were lucky to survive, or (b) it’s actually not all that bad.  I’ll leave the choice up to you.  Arguing in favour of (a) there’s certainly the fact that as you wander around South-East Asia, you see a lot of blank-faced looking tourists sporting road rash or other evidence of recent scooter-related injuries.  On the other hand, in favour of (b), we didn’t have any problems at all…

Anyway, the decision of whether to scooter or not to scooter is entirely up to you.  All I’ll say is that if you’re game for it, it’s an incredible way to experience the area – and you can go a lot of places you otherwise wouldn’t, as well as going places you otherwise would, but under better circumstances (directly, at your own pace, and without with a whole other busload of people).

If you do decide to scooter around, here’s a random assortment of advice:

  • First and most important:  be aware that what you’re doing is probably not entirely kosher.  Unless you’ve gone to the trouble of getting a local Vietnamese licence, your scooter adventures in Vietnam will be not entirely above board.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to hire a scooter – far from it.  Nor does it mean you’re going to get in trouble with the law – Vietnamese police are not going to pull you over for a licence check, and even if they did, a small handful of local – or better yet, US – currency would solve that problem.  But you need to be aware that if you’re involved in an accident, then (a) it will be your fault, even if it wasn’t, and (b) your travel insurance will not cover you.  Just for the sake of hammering it home:  by hiring a scooter and riding around, you are taking a risk, and it’s a risk that your travel insurance doesn’t cover.  If you’re not OK with that, that’s fine:  don’t do it.  Obviously it’s a risk that we considered carefully and decided we were willing to accept.
  • Next on the must-remember list:  get a decent bike!  There are an absolute metric crapload of bike hire places everywhere you go in Vietnam and Thailand – your hotel/hostel will almost certainly rent bikes, as will the café down the street, etc.  That means you have plenty of choice.  Take advantage of it.  The variety of rental places is matched only by the variety of quality in the bikes that they rent out.  Don’t sweat the little things:  very very few bikes will have a working odometer, for example.  But don’t rent a bike until you’ve checked that the brakes are genuinely useful (front and back – I kid you not, we had one rental place try to explain that it didn’t matter that the front brake didn’t work, at all, because the back brake was just fine, so where’s the problem?) and that the headlights, indicators and horn work.  A working fuel gauge is also a nice-to-have, but you can always look in the tank if you need to.   A working speedo is handy, although in any case you’ll be basing your speed entirely on what you feel comfortable riding at given the road and traffic conditions, not on the number on the dial, so it’s less important than you might think (coming from a driving-in-Western-countries background).
  • On a similar note:  if you are tall, be aware that some bikes will not be big enough for you.  It would be very embarrassing to fall over while turning left out of the rental garage’s driveway because the handlebars got stuck on your leg and you couldn’t turn back nor get your foot down onto the ground.  At least, err, I imagine that would be very embarrassing.
  • Just so you know what to expect from the rental process itself:  you will be asked to leave your passport as surety (normally one passport is fine even if there’s a group of you hiring bikes, although some places will want one per bike).  If that’s a problem (perhaps because you’re expecting to need your passport for your accommodation during the hire period, or perhaps because you’re unnecessarily paranoid about losing your passport), some places will let you leave large amounts of cash instead.  (Obviously if you do that, ask for a receipt so you can be sure to get your money back!)  Some places will have you sign a detailed contract for the bike hire – chances are that indicates that this is a fairly professional outfit, so that’s a good sign.  Other places will just hand you the keys.  No problem.
  • I recommend you take a business card or something else with the hire place’s details on it.  If something goes wrong with the bike, or if you have an accident, you’ll want a phone number to ring.  If nothing else, just take a photo of the store front (assuming that there’s a prominent name and phone number on it), so that you can look it up on your camera if needed.  While you’re at it, probably note down the address, or better yet, put a pin/star on the place on your smartphone’s maps application, so that you can find the damn place to give the bikes back once you’re done.
  • Before you even get on the bike, spend some time just watching how traffic flows.  Notice that when pedestrians cross the road, the traffic flows elegantly around them – you will be expected to do that too.  Notice that despite the initial appearance of complete and utter chaos, everyone is calm and proceeding gently, with deliberate movement and no sudden changes in course.  You will be expected to do that, too.
  • You will quickly observe that the concept of lanes is a relatively ephemeral one in South-East Asia.  The concept of a lane is really only important insofar as you need to realise that the verge is considered one too.  Do not think of a lane as “yours”.  If you are riding along happily as the only person heading in your direction, and there is traffic coming towards you on the other side of the road, don’t be surprised when that traffic pulls out onto your side of the road – on a direct collision course – in order to overtake, or to avoid a pothole, or possibly just coz your side of the road looks prettier.  There is a perfectly good verge to your right, and as a scooter, you are expected to veer onto it to avoid oncoming traffic in your lane.  Deal with it, and move on.  In fact, you will actually spend most of your time riding on the verge anyway.  It’s much safer there, and as an added bonus, it’s a good spot to overtake larger traffic.  (Well, undertake, strictly speaking, but that’s not an important distinction in this part of the world.)
  • Be aware that the road quality is generally terrible.  There will be a lot of potholes, and you will spend a lot of your time looking out for them.  It will be tiring.  Factor this into your planned itinerary – you will be thoroughly and absolutely exhausted after the concentration of a long day’s riding.
  • Speed limits are meaningless.  Ignore them – everybody else does – and ride at a pace that you feel comfortable and safe at.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.  Scooters are less bad than motorbikes if you fall off, since you typically won’t end up with the bike sliding over your ankle as the latter gets ground away into the asphalt.  But nonetheless, it’s a good idea to wear long pants and actual shoes.  Don’t be the dipshit riding around in board shorts, bare feet and no shirt.  Not only do you look like an idiot, but you are one.
  • The hire places will have a range of helmets for you to choose from.  They will all be shit.  Try to choose the least shit one that fits.  And wear the damn helmet on your head, you stupid git.  I don’t care that you don’t think you look cool enough unless the wind is gushing seductively through your hair.  Your helmet is probably not going to perform as admirably as you might wish for in an accident anyway, but it’s definitely not doing you any good on your arm.  If it’s not properly fixed onto your head, it might as well be shoved up your arse.
  • A helmet with a full face visor is a godsend, if you can find one.  You probably can’t, though.  If you don’t normally wear glasses, make sure you have sunglasses.  As the sun goes down, insects will come out.  Having insects flying into your eyes at 60km/h is unpleasant.  Even without the insects, there will be plenty of dust:  we’re not talking about autobahn-quality road surfaces here.  Without glasses, you will be crying.  A lot.  The absolute most difficult and dangerous experiences I had on a scooter in South-East Asia were shortly after sunset, when it was too dark for me to continue wearing sunglasses safely, and I had to keep riding despite all the shit flying into my eyes.  It was fine, but it was unpleasant and it was painful, and we would have to stop every half hour or hour just so that I could wipe the gunk out of my eyes and then sit with them closed for a while.  After a couple of our longer rides, my eyes literally didn’t stop watering for two to three days.  Aside from other safety concerns, this is an excellent reason to ensure that you have returned before sundown.
  • Make sure you know roughly where you’re going, and roughly how long you think it will take you.  When it takes you longer than that, adjust your estimates for the rest of your day’s travels accordingly.  Do not expect that you will be able to get to your destination as quickly as Google Maps tells you you will.
  • Speaking of which, have a local SIM card with data (they are stupidly cheap) and use a decent maps application on your smartphone.  (So, probably not Apple Maps.)  Google Maps is great, and for a lot of the world you can take maps offline.  Nokia Maps (called ‘Here’) is available for non-Nokia phones now too (iOS definitely as I write this, and probably Android too, by the time this post actually gets published), and is even better.  It is unbelievably liberating not to have to worry about getting lost because you have a smartphone and GPS.  “Hey Chris, were we supposed to take that turn about 3km back?”  “Dunno Sam, how about we pull over and check where the hell we are?”  …  “Well bugger me, how the hell did we get over there?”  *shrug*  “About face and take the next left, then?”  “Yeah, sounds about right.”
  • Don’t be scared when you hear honking behind you.  If you’ve watched the Top Gear Vietnam special, you probably have the impression that there are mad bus drivers swerving all over the road honking aggressively at everyone to get out of their way.  Actually, if you hear someone honking their horn behind you, they’re probably just letting you know that they’re there and/or that they’re overtaking – so that you don’t pull out in front and splat yourself under their tyres.  Far from aggression, the honking is actually to make things safer.  If it bothers you, just relax – you’ll get used to it.  Ideally, you’ll start doing it yourself when you’re overtaking someone and you’re not sure they know that you’re there.

Hope that helps.  Any other advice welcome in the comments below.

Safe travels, happy scootering.

Pai

At least if you judge by the slogans on tourist t-shirts for sale in the city itself, the most important characteristic of the northern Thai city of Pai is the number of bends on the road between it and Chiang Mai.  (There’s lots – 762, apparently.)

I can only presume that it’s because most backpackers (and it’s mostly backpackers in Pai, make no mistake) get there in the windowless back of a not-especially-comfortable van driven with not-especially-comfortable speed on some not-especially-comfortable roads.  It makes for a twisty journey, and we heard plenty of tales of stomach-turning woe.

On the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

On the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

I wouldn’t know, though, because we didn’t take the van option.  Nor did we go with the public bus (which is slower, but I gather is recommended for those who aren’t sure if they’d appreciate the speeding van).  We, obviously, hired some scooters for a few days from Chiang Mai, and made our own way.

It’s a pity that the majority of travellers experience the journey more via the twists and turns of their stomachs than as a picture nicely framed by the brim of yet another largely useless scooter helmet.  Because it’s a very very pretty ride.  And while the road may be crap, it’s perfectly fine if you slow down and avoid the more egregious of the many potholes.  (Well, ‘potholes’ is somewhat of an understatement for some of them.  There are admittedly a number of occasions when they’re more hole than road.)

A section of road possibly in slight need of repair, on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

A section of road possibly in slight need of repair, on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

And as an added bonus, when in control of your own itinerary, you can easily stop to take advantage of the many coffee shops along the way – in particular, there’s a place called ‘We 2 Coffee’ at about the halfway mark that does a very nice coffee indeed, and some excellent, wonderfully spicy lunch, to boot.

Putting aside the actual mode of transport to get there, Pai was quite a nice destination, too.

It’s a small place, and very tourist-focussed.  But there are some quite beautiful sights to be seen nearby.  And it’s relaxed.  Hell, I don’t think it could be more relaxed without being actually perched on a couch in front of a TV watching bad eighties movies.  Which would be a difficult thing for a town to be, you have to admit.

A view out over the plains near Pai, from the coffee shop at the Pai viewpoint

A view out over the plains near Pai, from the coffee shop at the Pai viewpoint

In addition to the prettiness of the countryside itself, there’s Pembok Waterfall – a nice little secluded cascade well worth the short trip out of town.

The lower part of Pembok waterfall, near Pai

The lower part of Pembok waterfall, near Pai

And there’s Pai Canyon.  It’s not exactly the Grand Canyon, but it’s attractive nonetheless, and it was fun to spend an afternoon scrambling around climbing all over it.

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon

Climbing around Pai Canyon

Climbing around Pai Canyon

And when you’re done with that, there’s hot springs to relax in – including pools of up to 80 degrees Celsius (well, obviously you don’t relax in those).  And there’s the ever-popular game of ‘look at that idiot tourist being stupid on his scooter’ (winner:  the group of bronzed Aussie-looking boys riding out towards the hot springs in the rain, wearing nothing more than board shorts:  no helmet, no shoes, nothing but boardies) and its slightly older sibling ‘look at that idiot tourist sporting injuries obviously sustained on a scooter’ (winner:  the girl sporting road rash literally all down her right leg, more on the underside of her right arm, and a few bonus nicks on the right side of her face).

That was pretty much enough to keep us occupied for our time in Pai, really.  We took our time enjoying the ride back to Chiang Mai – and another coffee and lunch at We 2 Coffee – and hoped that the weather would hold out until we got back.

It didn’t.  But oh well.

Our scooters, standing in an extended puddle of water otherwise known as the road, as we wait for the deluge to ease on our ride back from Pai to Chiang Mai

Our scooters, standing in an extended puddle of water otherwise known as the road, as we wait for the deluge to ease on our ride back from Pai to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai

We’d been looking forward to our travels bringing us to Chiang Mai for a while, but once we got there, we quickly found we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves.

We’d been looking forward to it because it’s a favourite destination of many digital nomads – internet-famous travelling bloggers/programmers/nerds in whose lifestyles we’d definitely taken more than a passing interest as one to consider perhaps emulating longer term.  But of course, those people love Chiang Mai because it’s a comfortable and affordable city to set up base for a while and get on with the non-touristy parts of their lives.  We, on the other hand, had no such delusions of productivity.

Statue elephants gaze along the moat that surrounds the square centre of Chiang Mai

Statue elephants gaze along the moat that surrounds the square centre of Chiang Mai

I get asked a lot what I intend to do once our round-the-world ticket comes to an end in September, and I happily tell people that I don’t know, and frankly right at the moment, I don’t care.  But I’ll admit it’s not like I’ve given it no thought whatsoever.  I like travelling, and I intend to keep doing a lot of it – whether that involves being permanently on the road, or whether it means setting up a home base in Australia again and taking lots of extended holidays as often as I can afford it.

I’m a computer programmer by trade, so assuming I’m any good at said trade, it should theoretically be possible for me to make a living pretty much anywhere in the world, working for people who could theoretically be anywhere else in the world.  I can see why somewhere like Chiang Mai would be a popular place to do that.  It has a large and friendly expat community, it has cheap and good accommodation and food, it has fast and reliable internet connectivity to the outside world, and it’s a pretty city to boot.  Who knows, maybe I will come back and sit myself down here for a few months when the money starts to run out, when I do finally have to confront the horror of having to earn myself an income again.

Anyway, all of that’s irrelevant drivel for the moment:  my point is that unlike most of our destinations to date, we hadn’t necessarily come to Chiang Mai quite so much because there was something we wanted to see or do;  we came in large part because it was a city we wanted to have checked out for ourselves, in case we might want to come back to it in future, in a different context.

Of course, none of that is to say that we wasted our time there.  Obviously we hired some scooters and explored.

Mae Ya Waterfall, near Chiang Mai

Mae Ya Waterfall, near Chiang Mai

There are some beautiful waterfalls near the city, and so we scooted happily over their way first, enjoying both the falls themselves and the scenery on the way to get to them.

We scootered out among the countryside in a big loop around to Samoeng, a nearby town, not because there’s anything there, but just because we could, and because the countryside looked pretty.

And, in a slightly longer journey, we made our way to Doi Inthanon National Park – again enjoying every moment of the motorised trek out there.

A shiny golden wat, just by the entrance to Doi Inthanon National Park, near Chiang Mai

A shiny golden wat, just by the entrance to Doi Inthanon National Park, near Chiang Mai

Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain – although in all honesty that’s not the most impressive of distinctions:  Thailand is pretty flat, and the lofty Doi Inthanon is a not-so-jaw-dropping 2565m above sea level.  (Yes, it’s still higher than Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest peak.  No, that doesn’t make it impressive.)  Though it is high enough that you can experience the bizarreness of feeling vaguely cold and mostly not sticky, for the one and only time in otherwise hot and humid Thailand, and enough that our well-used 115cc scooters started to struggle in the power output department, what with the reduced oxygen available for their not-very-meaty-in-the-first-place putt-putt engines.  (This was especially funny because on this particular occasion Chris’s scooter was even shitter than mine, allowing me to zip past on the uphill, as he trundled along falling unhappily behind.)

A moss-covered elephant statue forming part of the King Inthanon Memorial Shrine, at the summit of Doi Inthanon

A moss-covered elephant statue forming part of the King Inthanon Memorial Shrine, at the summit of Doi Inthanon

Nonetheless, Thailand’s highest mountain it is, and it’s in the middle of a nice enough National Park. There were more waterfalls, there was a shrine to King Inthanon himself at the top, and there were pretty forests and, of course, plenty of Buddhist wats and pagodas to spy en route.

Greenery at the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain

Greenery at the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain

If I’m honest, there was nothing that spectacular about it, but it was a nice day trip, largely because it was yet another nice scenic ride on the bikes.

Greenery beside the roads around Chiang Mai

Greenery beside the roads around Chiang Mai

More of a spectacle, I suppose, was the Muy Thai boxing we saw in Chiang Mai.  Before that we’d wandered the streets a little, and decided that the market and the bar area nearby were not really our thing – far too many unpleasantly suggestive noises, winkingly-offered ‘massages’ and outright sexual invitations coming from the probably-ladies at the seedy-looking bars.  So we headed back nearer town, and towards the Muy Thai venue whose details had been helpfully plonked onto our breakfast table by a scooter-borne pamphlet delivery man that very morning.

Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai

Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai

The boxing was highly entertaining.  It wasn’t, I’m sure, the highest quality exhibition of the country’s most popular sport.  But there were some genuinely serious matches, so we could see what it’s all about.  And there were plenty of more humorous exhibits, too.  Viz the five-boxer all-blindfolded arm-flailing contest that served as a sort of half-time show between the more normal fare.

The referee takes a hit from one of five blindfolded competitors at the Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai, and falls to the mat

The referee takes a hit from one of five blindfolded competitors at the Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai, and falls to the mat

And naturally there were also more respectable spectacles to see in Chiang Mai, too:  the many beautiful Wats all through and around the city.  Let it not be said that we didn’t experience the more refined side of the culture as well, before yet again temporarily acquiring ourselves some scooters for our next stop:  the backpacker-dominated cosy town of Pai.

At Wat Jed Yod (aka Wat Chet Yot), Chiang Mai

At Wat Jed Yod (aka Wat Chet Yot), Chiang Mai