Saturday, 30 March 2013

Living the dream

Am i the only white guy in this town without a thai chick? I notice I get looked at funny by my fellow countrymen because by bird doesn't pout at her phone camera all day or wear dresses that look like a negligees. Still, at least i can have a conversation that doesn't need to involve the words "You like fuckee fuckee". On reflection most of my converations do have those words in so will shut up being so cynical.

So, here we are...We are living in Chaing Mai and doing our teacher training thing. Our first week is out of the way and the results are in... We started learning about techniques and methodology on Monday morning at about 11.00am Thursday morning at 9.00am we are thrown (Roman colleseum style) to the lions. A one hour lesson which we deliver to the students in front of an assessor and 2 of our classmates. Its pretty scary but it had to happen one day so why not now when we are barely able to doggie paddle let alone swim. All week we had been told that the Thai kids were lovely but Rachels group were like they had been drinking sugary drinks and eating sweets for an hour before hand. Boisterous, excited and loud and, in her own words, she didnt know how to control them. So after the 1 hour of pummeling she was somewhat dispondent (grumpy little bitch is the term i would use - carefully behind her back of course). She was seriously thinking about chucking it in and consequently didn't sweat about practicing for our second lesson the folloing day - same format different subject. Result she was chilled and much more able to control the situation and get through her lesson plan (oh yeah, the kids were angels in this group as well). My experience was a lot easier because of having had children and running go bananas (at least none of these kids would threaten to have me "cut by their old man") I wouldnt say i loved the first class but felt i was competent and and in control and the kids liked me. My second lesson however was great. Subject matter - Superheroes. I got a great review and felt i was in the zone (so to speak). The assessor gave me a great report and i really think that this is something i will be good at. Already our course tutor has asked us to prepare CVs as she has many schools phoning up asking about the current course students so it looks like we will get jobs pretty easily. They want to get stuff sorted quickly so if we can get something sorted whilst Rachel is positive and I am golden boy then we should get a good placement.

People on the course are an interesting mix. The more colourful characters are Ray, a 60 year old Aussie, Sarah a 43 year old Halifax party girl with a strong accent, a penchant for pies and a unusual love of ferrets. Great fun and lovely! As well as Sarah we have sort of bonded well with Niall - a huge Dane who sounds like Arnie but is a really sweet guy and a Jill a woman from Louisiana who sounds like a female Elvis and young Irish guy called Mike. Other cast members are yet to emerge but am hopeful that we will keep friends with these guys.

The course is interesting and living is Chiang Mai is fab. Rachel and I feel we are living the dream and constantly walk about smiling. Both the present and the future looks rosy. Chiang Mai is a pretty big city with lots to see and do but this mainly centres around the outskirts of the moat of the old city. Its got a great vibe and is certainly a place we could live with many restaurants, bars, shopping areas etc but within 10 mins of our place we are in the foothills and the national park.

So, thats it for now. More next week.


Sunday, 24 March 2013

Travelling - 2nd Stage

Apologies for the recent dearth of blogs (maybe thats a godsend though?) Anyway, i've got lots to tell so will get on with it......

Left Vang Vieng and set off on a crowded minibus across the mountains to Luang Prabang. Any motorcyclists out their should put this one on their maps of 'must do' rides. It is a winding, swooping, climbing road that wends its way through a very dramatic landscape of limestone mountains and lush forest. After 5 hours we arrive at LP. Without doubt the prettiest town with have seen in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. Whereas Hoi An in Vietnam is picture box perfect it does feel a little manufactured. LP, however, is real. Colonial french buildings, a profusion of wats, a charming and picturesque river that encirles three sides of the town. Fragipani, Bourgainvillia and many other flowering shrubs and trees bathe the smaller streets in dappled shade and fill them with lovely smells. The town is classy with very nice shops and at least one ridiculously expensive hotel (£478 per night). Plainly our room at £15 per night was not quite so grand but relative to most of our places was palacial. We thought we would be there a couple of nights but, like most of the visitors (older crowd here) we were capivated by the charm of the place and stayed five nights. Apart from just eating drinking and mooching we did two things of note. One was going out to the most lovely waterfall about 20km out of the town. A nice ride up into the hills to a popular but still lovely falls that dropped in various swimming pool terraces down through the forest. Can't help but think nature was assisted in the course the river took and the elegant way the pools spilled over to the next terrace but even so it was quite lovely.
An interesting aside being the Sun bear sanctuary near the entrance. Obviously very happy, gambolling bears in huge very open enclosures playing, sleeping, eating and living a carefree life instead of being farmed for their bile which is used in Chinese medicine???

Second point of interest was spending a couple of hours helping monks with their English. A combination of chatting and listening to them read, during which explanations and correction of pronounciation was given. Interesting and quite rewarding.

That then finished the stay in Laos. Certainly our favourite of the three countries and by far the most picturesque + an undefinable something that really got us. We even made enquiries as to the prices of guesthouses that were for sale or rent for future reference. The only major problem with Laos is the limited transportation infrastructure so we flew to Thailand in an hour on a prop plane rather than spend 3 days on a collection of buses and boats all with uncomfortable seats.

So here we are in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Rachel is cooking Chicken Korma for our dinner and it smells amazing! But more on that later). Prior to leaving the UK we had spoke of housesitting and doing a Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course which would allow us the opportunity to earn some money and give us more opportunities. As we have been travelling we have been speaking of this more and more and so decided, since we were becoming a little travel weary, to do the course in Chiange Mai. We came here for a few days a couple of years ago and loved it and since it was one of 4 locations where a course is operated we opted to do it here. We have been here for 6 days and in that time we have had a couple of meetings with the language school and signed up for our course which starts tomorrow. Scoured the city for an apartment, selected one and moved in, bought new clothes and shoes which are required for teaching, Looked at various gyms and joined one- our first class is in a couple of hours, bought various homely items and generally trekked far and wide.

The course is for 5 weeks and, assuming we pass, we will be considered an interesting proposition to schools. We are a couple, we are native English speakers, we are both very gregarious and (potentially) presentable, we are older (and wiser) and can commit to a full contract of one year. This is very exciting and although we are nervous we are hoping to do well.

Our apartment is huge. About 130 sqm. with two double deds, lounge, kitchen with cooking equipment (rarity) and dining area with table for 10 (hence why Rachel is able to cook curry)two bathrooms, two large balconies and on the top floor of a building in a quiet area overlooking the city on one side and the mountain on the other. We breakfast on the mountain side balcony in the mornings to the sound of gibbons whooping in the forest and a profusion of chirrupping birds. It is lovely and after having spend 6 months in single rooms and forever changing it is a marvellous change. During the day, however, the grunts and slapping can be heard as we overlook (at the front) a Muay Tai boxing accademy. We are here for at least two months so please, anyone reading this be assurred, we would be thrilled to have you stay and have the room for you to do so.

Since just before leaving Luang Prabang until a couple of days ago i have had really bad guts. Feels like food poisoning with cramps, temperature, weakness and blood draining from my face with any exertion. Doctor Vic sorted out some meds for us before we went so finally took a course of Anti Biotics - not sure if it was these or time that cured me but at least thats over.

Also have had my 52nd birthday. And you know what? Even though that little bitch of a girlfriend bought me nothing and in fact bought a handbag on her birthday ....I feel like a f****g god. Something, Someone and Somewhere must be agreeing with me.

 Much of the rest of what we have done, to us, is novel and exciting. However to you would seem boring description of the mundane. so, to finish the post, we will add some wierd shit suff and simply say that we are ridiculously happy on our adventure and cannot wait for what this, stage 2, will bring us.

Weird shit:

Tesco Lotus (Thai version of Tesco) in Chaing mai sells amongst all the normal food stuffs - pre packaged cows uterus, small or large intestines, Freeze sealed chicken carcasses and bags of pig blood!!
Hotel signage.... Speaks for itself really!

Sad Shit

Just got back from the gym. First time in 6 months. Lovely but we can't lift our arms or move our legs.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Laos gets lovelier

Vientiane - Without doubt the nicest sounding capital city in the world (contenders welcome). It conjures up romance, shabby chic French style houses in avenues filled with smiling Asian vendors... The reality is that it’s not that but, all the same, it’s not bad. There is an elegant presidential palace, walkway along the river with developing gardens, a broad Champs Elysees style avenue complete with Arc de Triomphe themed monument and miniature Luxembourg Gardens, several wats of various sizes and that’s about it. The streets around are not manic, they are clean and there are several that are cosy and pleasant to walk down. A nice and relatively gentle city which is well worth a visit.
Vientiane's Arc De Triomphe
The best thing however, was riding out 20km on our pink  scooter with gay looking helmets to Buddha Park. Here there are over 200 statues of various complexity and size depicting Buddha or mythical creatures. Some, like the huge pumpkin or the reclining Buddha are amazing in their scope but even though the rest are smaller they are very impressive because of the characters, weathering and sheer numbers.
Reclining Buddha and Upright Chris
Funny Shit
Saw a poodle dressed up as a bee just standing on the back seat of a motorbike going through the town.
Vang Vieng - Only a very short time ago this place was famous for its party town antics. Hoards of young backpackers would gravitate here to drink, smoke weed, go tubing down the river and generally act a bit lairy till the early morning. Not anymore, thank god. The Laos government closed lots of the bars, put a curfew on opening times and are reclaiming this lovely little town from the grasp of youthful debauchery. There are still bars and tubing but the curfew has moderated behaviour considerably although  having said that we got absolutely smashed on our first night on Laos whisky, cocktails and beers. I do recall running out of the bar at one stage, picking up a Korean man who was walking down the street with his friends, slinging him over my shoulder and running back in the bar with him. All in good fun and it ended up with his friends all drinking in the bar. But, for the first time, i actually had memory loss about leaving the bar and getting home. Apparently I bought a little weed (which we ate the next day on a cake but then gave way as it made us both feel depressed), we went shopping and had a midnight feast, an Rachel took pictures of me with Ritz crackers in the crack of my arse??!! The surrounding scenery of Vang Vieng is stunning. The town lies in a valley with a river running down its centre. On either side there rises limestone carsts, crags and mountains that graduate in colour and they fade away in the distance of lush forests. It is stunning and by far the most picturesque landscape we have seen in Asia so far.
We stayed in an a/c hotel room for a couple of nights before moving across to Maylyn guesthouse. A collection of wooden huts in lovely gardens on the quiet side of the river looking across at the mountains and ran by a fabulous character called Joe - 67 year old opinionated, belligerent, argumentative, well read, eloquent, foul mouthed, xenophobic Irish carpenter. What a joy it was to hear his view on "what a treacherous bunch of f****g c**ts the bloody frogs are" when there are French guests eating in his restaurant a few feet away. Or how those "stuck up little, rich English bitches who think they own the f*****g world cos their c***t of father has given them too much money to do their (said sneeringly) 'gap' year’, whilst the little bitches in question walk past on their way to go tubing.
Strangely we liked him, and he us, possibly because we got him and gave back as much as we got in our frequent conversations.
High points were a bike ride to a small but beautiful waterfall where the waters trickled over dark rock to a clear paddling pool below. Butterflies (of which there are thousands in Laos) everywhere, green frogs, chirping birds etc. This followed by a stunning ride through the mountains on dirt roads going through some small villages whilst the sun shone done – lovely.

Balloon view of the valley

Next, hot air balloon ride at sun set along the valley looking down on the limestone mountains, the river and countryside. This was absolutely stunning and well worth the $80 each to do it. Just six passengers in the basket meant it was all very chumsy and not crowded. The pilot dipping down to scrape the tops of trees, drop close to the water then soar back up again. Ballooning anywhere is hugely satisfying but in this landscape was amazing and made even better by the sunset. Final highpoint was rock climbing the limestone crags for a half day with our own guide/instructor. I was able to climb to about 20 metres on a 6A+ route (for those in the know). Rachel was brilliant and was climbing level 4 climbs to about 12 metres. Both really enjoyed the experience of being able to do this on such interesting rocks set in the forest and reached by a leaking flat bottomed boat across the river.
 Rachel scaling the rocky heights
Noisy shit
6.00am every morning the cockerels start crowing, the locals start beating their children and shouting, the dogs start barking and the Laos government general radio broadcast starts – first with big ben bongs, then screechy Laos music, then screechy Laos female announcer then just screechy noise. This goes on till 7.00am when one either then falls back a sleep or gives in the brightness of the day

Friday, 8 March 2013

Its not about the destination...

The blogs have been a bit sparse for two reasons. Wifi is very rare and pretty poor so not many opportunities to post and in truth there's not much to report.

It is true what they say about it not just being the destination but the journey that's important and that is certainly the case coming up country in Laos. From Don Det in the Four Thousand Islands we sat on the riverbank for an hour and a half waiting for a boat to take us to the main land. Thought we'd missed the bus but as it happens everyone for the bus was on the boat but he'd called at three other places first! Mini bus took us Champasak. Well it dropped us on the opposite side of the river to Champasak and about fifteen kilometres away by road. So we head down to get another boat, at extra cost of course. We squeeze into a long tail boat full of 'fallang' and their rucksacks and take the ten minutes ride across the Mekong River. But no dainty getting out on a jetty for us, we stop on the muddy riverbank and clamber up the steepest, most rotten set of steps I've ever seen to arrive in a hotel garden.

Champasak is a one street town that runs along beside the Mekong. We stopped here to break up the journey and to see Wat Phou which has been mooted to be the blueprint for Angkor Wat. Early morning seemed the best idea to visit avoiding the heat and seeing the sunrise so we climb on our pile of poo Honda Wave scooter and take to the lovely smooth tarmaced road. As we ride along commenting on the lack of dust and what a pleasure it is the road stops and is replaced by a gravelly dusty road which eventually peters into a sandy track that we can hardly hold the bike in. But we get to the Wat and it is quiet, the sun is rising and it feels more spiritual than Angkor though no where near as grand.

Next stop Savannakhet. This is again about the journey because the only reason we stop here is to break the journey and to see the Dinosaur Museum. I am quite excited about this but I'll get to that in a bit. We decide to go native and do all of this journey on local public transport. The village bus, or Jumbo as they're called in Champasak, stops to let us squeeze in the back along with Metal poles, live chickens in net bags, chattering ladies, and men who want to chat but don't know what to say. This takes us to Pakse market which is bustling at 7.30 in the morning. We then take a tuk tuk to the other side of town to try and get a bus to Savannakhet. The tuk tuk has hardly stopped and two young boys are asking where we're going and have taken our rucksacks and stowed them in a bus. We're a bit concerned about where it is actually going and when. But we pay our £4 and wait. Only 15 minutes and we're off. There are three lads all about 17 or 18, one driving, one collecting tickets and money and one loading up with the usual 50kgs bags of rice and sugar in the walkway. The four hour bus journey stops when they want to stop, either to eat (which they do four times) or to pee or just to haggle with people waiting on the side of the road. This actually feels like we have been allowed to join them on their road trip! The four hour journey actually takes seven and a half hours. They have picked up additional passengers from two other buses that were stopped on route and are constantly counting the money they've made. We stop at one point. Nobody knows why. They open the engine cover but all seems ok then they head to a waiting jumbo and hop into hammocks for a twenty minute sleep. The locals just sit and wait on the bus.....we try to ask but they plead ignorance of English! Lesson well learnt, get the tourist bus.

Savanakhet is the second largest city in Laos, which is unbelievable when it has a population of 120k which is about as many as Braintree! And the weirdest thing is that there are probably as many dogs as humans but the dogs hang around in packs and are really aggressive. They would run up the road barking and snarling at you. Chris spent most of our visit clutching a brick! But the best thing about Savanakhet was the Dinosaur Museum. Chris was a bit reluctant to go but I persuaded him it was worth the 50p entrance. And to be fair it was only just worth the entrance fee. But the little man running it was very sweet and followed us round to make sure we didn't miss anything in the two small rooms. They had all the bones for a Brontosaurus and had some hanging up but they couldn't do them all because they were too big and too heavy! The room was so small that the brontosaurus outline had to go round three of the walls.

Savanakhet streets are laid out in a grid format and should be easy to navigate but we managed to get lost one evening and avoiding the dogs was tricky enough in the day but at night it was worse. Anyway, we spotted a couple of families sitting outside at tables and chairs enjoying a family BBQ so we approached them hoping to get some help with directions. Before we could even speak one of the men jumped up and gave Chris a big hug and kiss on the cheek. We tried to ask our question but they wouldn't listen until we'd drunk some beer with them. Eventually they offered some help but they were divided, the ladies said one way and the chaps said another. And guess what, we went with the ladies and got even more lost!

After our fiasco of public transport we booked a VIP overnight sleeper bus to Vientiane. It was like some futuristic space ship with multicoloured flashing lights all over the front and we glided along at good speed with minimal horn beeping. There were two decks of double sleeping areas with pillows and blankets, bottles of water, curtains and soft lighting. Lovely. Only trouble was he did the journey in such good time that we arrived in Vientiane at 4.30 in the morning and no hotel booked! Eventually got a tuk tuk to take us the 10k from the bus station to the city centre and found a great little hotel with rooms around a courtyard that had a sleeping man behind the counter. The room was expensive but it had air con, hot water and breakfast so we stayed.