Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Nuggets from the Northern Hemisphere.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Hello everyone, hope you had a brilliant Christmas and you're looking forward to New Year. It was a bit of a funny one for us, we spent Christmas in Phuket, Thailand which couldn't have been more different from what we had originally planned, but once we embraced it for what it was we actually had a pretty awesome time - apart from missing everyone in the UK of course, and the many Christmas dinners we usually get to tuck in to. As the title of this post suggests, we are actually north of the equator now and will remain there for the foreseeable future. We've gone from taking life veeerrry sloooowwwwly in the van to traveling very quickly again, which has come as a bit of a shock. I started to say to Fia that I was getting a bit tired of the chaos, but actually we've just arrived in Cambodia and I'm feeling the excitement again. I just saw a man ride past on a moped one-handed, carrying a dozen live ducks upside down, tethered at the feet, alive and quacking(!) - the way someone might carry some dead ducks in Europe. Surely they should be dead before you string them up like that?

I guess you had to be there really...

In any case I think Cambodia has a lot of the weird and wonderful for us to see, eat, and experience, but we'll save these details for the next post. There are signs in the hostel advertising a 'fish massage', I'll let you imagine what that involves for now.

We left New Zealand on 18th December and now in Cambodia, this is the fourth country we've visited since then. First off was a brief stint in Australia. We only had three nights there so we stayed with Andy Harrison (some of you may know him) in Bondi, Sydney. I won't pretend we didn't spend the majority of the time drinking beer, however we did get to see the harbour and city centre as well as Bondi Beach and The Cross. Surprisingly we both left Sydney feeling as if we could quite happily live there for a few years, it's a bit like London but really close to some amazing beaches and just seems to have a really friendly, summery vibe about it, although we didn't meet any Australians! Everyone was either a Kiwi or from nothern England. It was pretty expensive to visit and beer was about 5 pounds for a scooner - about 400ml - criminal! The harbour bridge and opera house were every bit as impressive as we expected.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Fia in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Opera House

Me and Andy on his balcony in Bondi

Next on the itinerary was Singapore. I will be honest and say I wasn't really that fussed about going there, but it had it's charms, especially the way the whole city operated. From what we'd read it sounded like the Asian equivalent of Hitler's Germany - it's illegal to chew chewing gum, you could get the death penalty for almost any crime and all types of fun are illegal. This wasn't the case at all, the strict laws seemed to work really well, there was no real litter anywhere, there were very few police about (there didn't need to be either), everyone was friendly and we felt safe the whole time. From what we were told it's a really nice place to live and there's a lot going on, lots of community spirit and all the different races get along well. The people were a mixture of Indians, Malays, Chinese, and just every other nationality that decided to come and live and work there. There were different districts in the city based around the key nationalities, Little India was especially cool - loads of tacky/chic Indian gifts and really nice smelling food everywhere. There were temples and other religious buildings on every street, each seemed to be for different beliefs yet they all got along. There didn't seem to be a huge problem with poverty either. Apparently the tax banding is between 10% and 20% maximum as they don't need to throw huge amounts of money into public services, like litter clearing and huge police forces, and the whole place seems to run very well. with the people pocketing more of their hard earned money, even if it's less than we earn in England.

One of the many temples around Singapore packed with people

A man holding joss-sticks outside a temple

The only rubbish thing about it was the humidity. Singapore is pretty much smack on the equator and they have no real seasons. It was 30 -35 degrees all day, barely cooled at night, and stayed at around 80% humidity - sweaty as! Oh, and a pint of beer in a bar costs about 8 quid, but you can find it cheaper in their Hawker food centres. Hawker food centres are dotted all around the city, it seems everyone eats out in Singapore, understandable when you can get such amazing food, like spicy duck noodles, soup and beansprout salad for as little as a pound. Also on the menu was turtle soup, spine meat soup, meat balls (bollocks of some sort... a'hem...!) soup, brain soup, and good old stomach soup. Yum :os

Another surprising thing was that EVERYONE spoke very good English and they went mental about Christmas. It wasn't anywhere near as hectic as we had imagined either. Even the Germans don't run their cities as efficiently as Singapore.

Gingerbread house decorating competition in one of Singapore's amazingly well air conditioned shopping malls - we spent a lot of time going inside to get out of the humidity. They must make a killing over there.

Marina Bay, south of the city

Singapore again was a bit expensive compared to what we expected from the rest of South East Asia and unfortunately we are starting to run out of funds a bit, so we decided to move on after 3 nights.

We had a marathon journey ahead. We thought we'd just get on a bus and see where we ended up before getting too tired. We ended up travelling by bus all the way to Butterworth, near Penang in Malayisa. Penang sounded a bit like Singapore so we skipped it out. We passed by Kuala Lumpur on our way up but the connecting bus to Butterworth was leaving in a few hours so we kept going. Thinking back on it we perhaps we should've tried to see a bit more of Malaysia but we really wanted to spend Christmas on a beach somewhere and it just didn't seem possible in Malaysia - Thailand it was. We slept for a few hours in Butterworth, woke up and had breakfast in the bus station - an Indian dish called Tosai, a pancake type thing with three curry-like dips - then continued on to Hat Yai and finally Phuket, Thailand. We left Singapore at 7:30am on the 21st and arrived in Phuket about 9pm the next day.

Me and my Tosai

As usual when travelling there's always something waiting to go wrong. The journey up, despite being long and the bus pretty sticky, was actually quite bearable. We'd booked a great looking hostel the day before over the internet (hostelbookers.com) and received our confirmation email so all good. Until we arrived in Phuket! We got to Cheap Charlie's Backpackers, where we'd booked, only to be met by a blank looking guy who said "Oh, shit, it's been so busy I haven't bothered to check my emails and we're full". Great. Fia was basically in tears and somehow we had to find a hostel that wasn't infested with cockroaches and rats, that wasn't already booked up a couple of days before Christmas, and wasn't ridiculously expensive. Luckily Gregg at Cheap Charlies handled it well. He sat us down with a free beer each and then drove us around in search of a comparable place to stay. Somehow we hit the jackpot, a double room just down the road in a place called Sea Blue Backpackers, far enough from the bars to get a decent night sleep but close enough to the action to walk to and from the main strip, and... it had a balcony with a Jacuzzi bath! It only cost us 50p each a night more than the hostel we originally booked so we were quite happy.

First glimpse of the room


Now, as I mentioned earlier Phuket (more specifically Patong beach area) was not the island paradise we originally planned for. At first it seemed like the Blackpool of Thialand with topless 40 - 50 year old, pot-bellied single guys - grey chest rugs and gold medallions everywhere - with 20 - 30 something pretty Thai girls hanging off their arms (about as cultural as their experience will get), watching football in one of the hundreds of bars that are built next to the beach. Patong beach had a massive McDonalds towering over it and everywhere you looked were sun loungers with these old blokes and their girls (and maybe not in some cases...). After a brief period of despair we realised that we'd only seen one part of the island and decided to hire a moped the next day. From then on it got a lot, lot better. The roads were pretty mental, hundreds of bikes everywhere, most carrying more than 2 passengers, and the law seemed to be - if you're turning into a road it's your responsibility not to crash in to the person coming out of the road, but if you can't be bothered with that rule then it's their responsibility not to crash into you. Basically, ignore the signs, lights and whistle blowing traffic police and pull across three lanes of traffic as quickly as possible (they only have two lanes in most places, but there is in fact an invisible middle lane that's used for weaving in and out of traffic beeping your horn to make it all fine).

Phuket from the road side

We zipped around the island (wearing our helmets - Mum and Dad!), and found some really nice beaches. They were still fairly busy but then it was high season and it was loads better than Patong. The water was crystal clear blue, and the sand was white. It was 35 degrees most days, with a gentle breeze to keep it just below too hot. We were even blessed with some small, clean waves on Christmas eve and Christmas day. Christmas dinner was substituted by a good old Fry up - we went out for a few on Christmas Eve and needed some grease to make us feel better. It was actually surprisingly good - thanks to Stanley's English Pub for that one. We ended up having the staple noodle soup for dinner in the evening. Fia chose chicken, I chose beef because it came with dumplings... or so I thought. As soon as I bit into those one of the two dumplings I realised they had the wrong texture. Surely the had to be something else? I took another bite, it was chewy, very rubbery and tasted like some kind of meat I hadn't eaten before. Yep, you guessed it, they were balls of the testicular variety. I will never be the same again. The worst bit is they definitely weren't cow balls because they were too small. Answers on a postcard please.

On Boxing day we got some really good snorkelling in at the southern cape of Phuket. We saw tonnes of colourful fish swimming amongst the coral, blue starfish, strange crabs and a massive school of squid. Pretty cool way to spend the Christmas period in the end.

Longboats in Phuket
Thai longboats

Fia surfing on christmas eve, Kata beach, Phuket
Fia catching a Christmas Eve wave

The coastline south of Patong

Christmas lunch!

Beaching it up on Christmas Day

I'll finish with some pictures of Patong at night to give you an idea of how mental it was. If only all of you guys were there to make it as fun as it could've been. We could've gone to the Ping pong show together, or even the Egg Show... I'll leave that up to your imagination!

Patong at night

"Ladies" of the night... maybe where the balls in my soup came from.

Happy New Year everyone xxx

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