Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Tonsai Beach- Railay: Beach Bum Heaven

Thailand is no secret. It was clear from our short time in the famous mecca of South-East Asia that the unparalleled beauty and friendly, welcoming nationals has lead to widespread development to accommodate for the ever growing influx of foreign travellers and touring Thai’s a like.
Tonsai Beach in Railay is one of the few places that has been left relatively untouched by this rapid change. Situated on the mainland, separated by the incredibly dramatic and beautiful limestone craggs and karst making Railay one of those dream like destinations.

Unreachable by wheels, it was a long tail boat that poots the tourists over to the beach, inevitably as and when they want to sail (a full boat, be prepared to wait). It’s only really the motorway of diesel powered long tails that detracts from this paradise. There are times of day when the noise does get a little too much.

The small crescent beach decorated by shacks and bars, with little concrete in sight, with a road set back that runs parallel is all there is to Tonsai. Electricity is  temperamental powered by generators hidden in the jungle. The accommodation is far from cheap by South East Asian standards, but affordable in Thailand. Josie flexed her haggling skills to bag us a nice enough fan room with a mozzy net at 500 baht a night.

It’s one of those places that casts a spell on you, everyone is working at half pace, life slows down, the world seems to just relax on Tonsai and put a smile on everyone’s face.
The wood shack bars, advertise special shakes, happy smokes, and it quickly became clear that Tonsai really is the kind of secluded stoner beach resort many dream of when they think of Thailand. Slack lines, hammocks, crystal sands, epic scenery, turquoise water, no cars, no haggling, no worries. From the other world bar to the food mecca of ‘Mama’s Chicken’ shack, the best and cheapest sticky rice and BBQ chicken cooked up by Mama a rotund Thai lady with a smile on her face all day every day.

We spent a day in our canoe paddling out to the Karst peaks that emerge from the water across the sea, finding secluded empty beaches, framed by the cliffs. We also explored the West and East beaches that make up Railay bay. The other beaches are clearly more up-market and still look relatively un spoilt with no high rise blocks and still a conservative attitude to concrete. It was one of those perfect days travelling, when your swept away by your surroundings, spending a day in pristine calm sea and Thai sunshine.

Railay’s epic cliffs are also globally famous as a rock climbing mecca. Whilst neither myself nor Josie had ever climbed anything except for a tree we thought it would be worth trying our hand at the day excursion to ‘Deep Water Solo’. After heading out in a long-tail boat to some massive over hanging cliffs it was time to swim over and try our hand at climbing for the first time, without ropes, with wet hands, soggy chalk, lots of people and only the water below as security. To say it was difficult is an understatement. The rocks got wet and slippy very quickly and your arms and hands got tired very quickly. It wasn’t ideal, still though trying to hold on for dear life then falling back in to beautiful blue water is still fun. After lunch at another secluded beach it was time to try another huge ‘roof’ cliff. This time an epic and intimidating stalactite. It was actually a little easier than the previous wall and I managed to get up to the top and jump over 15 metres down in to the sea, nerve wracking but incredibly rewarding. The hardest part was the rope ladder to get up to the rock as Josie found out. It was a fun way of trying our hand at climbing and even if we weren’t up to the standards of some incredible agile climbers on the trip it was worth a go (it was a little expensive for what you got though in the end).

We met some nice English gap year travellers and a couple of Californians, including the hilarious youtube rapper 'Stankin Rankin' who we spent the evening with at some of the beaches choice shacks blasting out reggae till the early hours, taking a walk through the pitch black jungle on the way.

It was hard to leave somewhere as idyllic and chilled as Railay, but the time had come after 3 amazing days to move on to Koh Lanta.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Koh Tao - Live and Let Dive

We were keen to get back to the beach after visiting a lot of cities, we needed to dip our toes in the sea. We got an overnight train to the south and then a bus and boat to Koh Tao.
The train journey was pretty awful, as the infamous full moon party was in a few days everyone seemed to be getting a train south towards the islands so the only tickets available were non a/c seating tickets. It would of been fine if it wasn't for the bright lights on all night, or the loud rattling windows, or due to the windows being open and lights being on, the ridiculous amount of bugs flying around, or the drunk american teenagers that got in in the middle of the night. Compared to the sleeper trains we rode on India it was a pretty disappointing journey, alas, we can't complain we were about to go and do some scuba diving off a beautiful island!

We decided to do the advanced open water course which consisted of learning some navigation skills, diving at night, buoyancy practice, diving to 30 m and also time for a bit of independent exploration. The dives were great fun, it took a little while to get into the swing of it again and how to assemble all the equipment as it had been about 2 months since we last dived. Especially since the other people we were diving with had just completed the open water a few days before so everything was fresh in their minds. None the less we got back to it and had some awesome dives!  We chose Koh Tao as it was one of the cheapest places to do it and you are inundated with options of dive schools, there are over 70 on the island, it really is the certification machine of Asia, it's just a shame that even when the waters are relatively quiet (everyone was at the full moon) it wasn't impressive diving, there wasn't as much to see and the visibility wasn't brilliant, although we have to realise how spoilt we were before. As Tulamben was exceptional, it will be difficult to go a dive spot as good as that again.

The 30 m dive was very interesting, as you can come under the influence of this condition called 'Nitrogen Narcosis'. It's not serious, all it does is make you feel a little bit stoned or drunk, or as the divers call it, 'narked'. This happens because of how particular gases react when at a high pressure. I got it a little bit as I suddenly started giggling for no reason and the instructor did a little test to see if we were 'narked' by asking us to add up to 11. She showed me two fingers and I couldn't figure out how to add to 11! stupid eh?! The feeling disappears as soon as you go a bit shallower though.
We did an entry called a 'dead Mexican', time to show off your best acting skills as you fall dramatically in to the water after taking a shot to the chest. We really enjoyed our dives and felt a lot more confident in the water, so if you are in Koh Tao I would recommend Big Blue diving school!

Koh Tao is a really pretty island, unfortunately we didn't get to see much of it as most of our time there was spent diving. However we still managed to get well acquainted with the dive school bar and meet some cool people. There is a great vibe in the evening along the beach as the divers slope by to wind down and enjoy a drink, listen to some music and watch a man play with fire.

The white, sandy beach is quite narrow and the water is really shallow but is perfect for just wallowing in and relaxing after a dive.

Apparently Koh Tao is usually a lot busier but because we were there during the full moon party a lot of people were at the neighbouring island Koh Phangan. We decided not to go as it was a toss up between diving and the full moon and diving won. The horror stories we heard post party vindicated our decision. Of the people we met one was badly burnt by a fire skipping rope, someone had their foot in bandages from stepping on glass and someone else got their phone stolen... Those were just the three people we met.

Koh Tao was fun and it was a shame we didn't have time to explore the island further but duty called and with so many things to do in our last two months it was time to move on to the Andaman Coast and hippie heaven in Railay Bay on Krabi.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Delhi- The Final Frontier of India

Delhi was our last stop in India before Thailand and it was a chance for us to recharge our batteries before our next chapter.

We stayed in the busy Paharganj area down the main bazar a lively hub of tourists, locals, tasty street food, a legitimate bakery that served cheese and all just a short walk from the metro line.

We didn't do an awful lot in Delhi we caught the efficient but busy underground around the city, that made us feel a little bit like we were back in London again, except the modern Delhi metro has air con and women only seats and carriages!

Our time in the city was very much a sort of see where the wind takes us few days. We visited some of the government buildings and saw where the prime minister lived. The British influence was much more pronounced in Delhi, even some of the roads had very British names such as Connaught place.

We also did a bit of shopping and sight seeing although unfortunately we didn't make it to Gandhi's old house as we got taken for another ride by a rickshaw driver who really wanted us to go to his friends shop and wasted our time so we were too late to visit.

We did manage to find the lonely planet we had been looking for for ages of Northern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Olly decided to go to a pub to watch some England play Scotland in the Six Nations and ended up getting horribly drunk due to being the token white guy at the bar and lapping up the attention of all the Indian men that wanted to buy him a drink, be his friend and post photos on Facebook. So we spent the next day chilling in the room whilst he nursed a hangover... naughty boy!

There were some nice places to walk around, some of the narrow lanes of Old Delhi were truly atmospheric and whilst Delhi was a long way from the hell hole we'd feared it certainly wasn't our favourite city in India.

Batteries charged and raring to go we were ready for the final chapter of our 6 months. It was time to head South East. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Bangkok- A New Chapter

India had been the experience that it was supposed to be. Whilst we did certainly fall in love with the country, after over 2 months of thalis, trains and constantly being the centre of attention we were ready for a change of scenery and culture. So the final chapter of our 6 months began with a flight from Delhi to Bangkok with Indigo (just £80 for the flight).

The first thing that struck us in Bangkok was just how comparatively clean the city was in relation to everywhere in India. Pavements were wide and you could actually walk down them, the roads had crossings (in places) and despite some of the news stories about the protests, the majority of the city was still in full working order.

Our first night was spent in a really trendy hostel in the quieter more business district area of town, unfortunately for the price we were paying as 2 people we could get far better value moving closer towards the tourist beacon of Khao San Road and so on recommendation from friends we moved to the Nat 2 Guesthouse. The hostel itself was cheap and simple, full of  young Japanese tourists smoking themselves silly, must be in their Lonely Planet as a ‘top thing to do’- smoke a whole pack in the lobby/bar of Nat 2.
Khao San Road itself was hands down my least favourite part of Thailand. It’s brash neon lights, in your face hawkers, constantly heaving with sun burnt Brits and Aussies in day-glo vests all come together to make it feel just far too tacky and over done. Two Burger Kings, a McDonalds, and a KFC just compound the turn of events that this most famous of roads must have seen. All the same some of the more low key roads around the area were far more pleasantly buzzing with travellers and backpackers instead of the Full Moon Party faithful warming up their livers for the big night on Koh Phang An. It also made up our mind as to whether we were going to attend the famed event, instead we chose to avoid the crowds on neighbouring Koh Tao and booked our train down there to dive in peace instead.

The city was covered in cool street art. 

While we didn't actually venture in to the Royal Palace, the Thai architecture with the iconic spires is clear from over the wall.

As many times as we were told to avoid the protest areas in the end we stumbled upon the protests completely by accident after a look around the brilliant Jim Thompson's House near Siam Square.
The house showcases classic Thai architecture and is intriguing in terms of the history of the American merchant who brought silk weaving to Thailand and then disappeared never to return. A very professionally run museum and the dark wood stilted houses are beautiful.

Just along from here towards Siam Square was the famous MBK mall which also happened to be the central location for the Blue shirt protestors. Far from the imagery of burning tire walls and cars on fire we’d been told to expect these protests shared a much closer resemblance to a festival.

Tents littered the streets around the centre piece of a large stage right underneath the Sky Train station, directly outside one of the biggest and most popular malls in the country. 

Whilst we were there we saw a rather ropey Thai pop band perform and a very passionate figure head of the protests make a speech met with waving flags and cheers from the faithful supporters camped in the road. It was by no means a huge event, I would estimate maybe a few hundred tents were pitched, how many were actually being slept in is also up for debate. In terms of the politics of it all though, it was quite clear that these were the far more affluent side of the divide, the middle class anti-government protestors, not the rural pro-Thaksin 'red shirts'. Its a complicated and interesting political divide that is still developing. 
We spent a lot of time walking around Bangkok and the city itself felt so delightfully clean compared to India. The backlash from the protests and civil unrest in the city was evident in several spots around the city. On a few occasions the profusion of barbed wire around government buildings and on certain roads acted as a reminder that politics is certainly anything but stable in Thailand. 
After a few days in the busy city we were ready for sun, sea and sand so we hopped on a train to the south and the famous Thai islands.