A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

"Bangkok has them now"

What to say about Bangkok? If Bangkok were a song, it would be Dick Dale's 'Misirlou'. It’s loud, brash, and unashamedly so. The first night we arrived we only had time (and energy) to venture out for food in our hostel’s district of Silom before collapsing into bed, and I have to admit I was outfaced. Bangkok’s nights are dominated by street markets and food stalls, so the city’s 8 million people are compelled to conduct their evenings around the tables and tents and kitchens on wheels that occupy 80% of the pavements. There must be no such thing as ‘quickly popping to the shop’ in Bangkok, as it takes an age to get anywhere through the throngs of people. We retreated to our hostel that night with a slight sense of relief.

However, a new day brought a new perspective. Having slept away all our plane fatigue, we armed ourselves with a map of the city’s transport system and set about getting to grips with the extremely efficient train network; a combination of a skytrain, metro and airport link train allow you to get almost anywhere in the city. After whizzing across to Hua Lumphong Station to book our coach tickets to Chiang Mai, our next stop, we spent the rest of the day exploring Pratunam Market, a typical Bangkok street market selling everything imaginable. We snatched up some vacated seats at a busy street vendor and had two meals and two drinks for the small price of 140baht (just under £3), and I bought some beautifully comfy and ridiculous trousers for our temple trips the following day.

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The next day we set out to tackle the temples in the old city of Bangkok, Ko Ratanakosin. In an attempt to preserve the old city, modern public transport has not been developed there, so the only way to get there is to jump on a boat down the Chao Praya River. It’s a picturesque journey, passing traditional Thai huts nestled amongst glass skyscrapers and the towering Wat Arun on the other side of the river.

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Although the Grand Palace and Wat Pha Kaew are Bangkok's main attractions, the high entry price and stories we had heard of the rampant tourist hordes compelled us to merely take a quick wander around the entrance area before blowing it off in favour of Wat Pho, a smaller but underrated temple a short walk away. Its main boast is the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world; 15m high and 43m long with mother-of-pearl inlaid in the feet.

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Although this building is constantly filled with people, the rest of the temple grounds were quite different. In contrast to most tourist cities, visiting this tourist attraction was actually the most tranquil experience of our Bangkok trip. Once away from the Buddha buzz you find spacious courtyards and quiet worship spaces where you slip your shoes off and quietly explore while monks go about their business around you. The detail of the buildings is amazingly intricate and perfectly preserved; the building was built in the sixteenth century but the colours look as good as new.

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That evening John dragged me to Muay Thai Boxing at Lumpini Stadium, which actually turned out to be quite a fun evening. I had next to no clue what was going on, but we slowly picked up on the basic rules and when in doubt cheered when the locals cheered. The Thai regulars run an unofficial gambling system in the stands, which is almost as interesting to watch as the boxing; all across the crowds people are making hand signals, shouting and passing money around, and somehow everyone seems to get what they're entitled to.

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After spending our last day getting lost in the maze of stalls that is Chatuchak Weekend Market, we made our way to the bus station for our night coach to Chiang Mai, where we are undertaking a volunteering project at the amazing Elephant Nature Park. Til next time...

Posted by kate1401 12:17 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok wat_pho muay_thai Comments (0)

Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg

So, after a gorgeous but exhausting trip along the Garden Route, we finally reached Port Elizabeth to spend a week with John's friends Tom, Jaquie and Jono and get some relaxation time! Port Elizabeth is a small but beautiful town on the south-east coast that a lot of tourists rush right through, or just spend a couple of days in, but for us it made a perfect rest stop. Our hosts were lovely; Jono took us to the beach on an ill-fated mission to teach John to surf, and at the weekend we took a trip to Addo Elephant National Park for a day of safari. I was disappointed in my quest to see a lion, but we did see elephants, warthogs, kudu, zebra, and huge tortoises taking a casual stroll down the roads. A contender for the best moment of our trip was when a group of elephants appeared out of the bushes right by our window, forcing us to quickly reverse or be crushed. They gave us a dismissive glance before strolling across the road right in front of us.

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That was pretty much the end of the relaxation time for me, as I had the daunting task of completing my PADI Diver Open Water course in just 2 days. On my first day I learnt all my skills in the safety of a swimming pool and then went to the beach to do one dive in the sea, then got up bright and early on day 2 at 6am to do another three dives before lunch. I was exhausted, and my back ached from carrying the weights and air canister in and out of the water, but I was a qualified diver! Who knows, it might even be the beginning of a perfect six-pack.

The next day we set off for Durban at 7am. It felt like the longest coach ride in the world but we made it, finally stumbling into our hostel at 11pm. Our hostel was pretty close to the beach and an impressive new centre called Ushaka Marine World, a water park/swimming pool/shopping mall/food court that offered plenty entertainment. It was also clear why Durban is seen as a surfer's paradise; the waves are huge and pretty much constant. Having said that, we weren't really enamoured with Durban; it's noisy, dirty, and it rained quite a lot. If only we could surf...

As our time in South Africa drew to an end, we just had time for a one-night stopover with my Grandad and his wife Louise, who gave us a bed for the night and took us walking in Klipriviersberg, a local nature reserve in Mondeor. The reserve was beautiful and felt so far away from the world, and John even made some new friends when we stopped for a snack.

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It was definitely a flying visit; that night Louise dropped us off at the airport and we were on our way to Bangkok, where I now sit writing this blog. Updates on our Thai adventures coming soon...

Posted by kate1401 00:24 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving safari johannesburg durban port_elizabeth Comments (0)

“Fear is temporary, regret is forever”

On our last day in Nature’s Valley, with a slightly sick feeling in our stomachs, we travelled to the 216m high Bloukrans Bridge for our bungee jump. After we’d been strapped into our harness, we were led along a long metal grid bridge, which gave us a stomach-flipping view of what was to come and bounced slightly, just in case we weren’t feeling nervous enough.
Once at the bridge, everything happened pretty quickly. I had already been tagged to go first, so I was pulled aside and tied to the bungee rope as someone turned on the ‘get psyched’ cd. The guys working on the bridge were clearly aware that time spared is time to hesitate, so as soon as I was tied up they helped me to the edge, and with my heart pounding in my chest I half-jumped and half-fell off the bridge. I will admit that John had much more poise than me.

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The weird thing is that once you jump all the fear melts away. The adrenaline kicks in, the world seems to spin around you and you feel completely free…for about 6 seconds. Then the bungee cord pulls taut, all the blood rushes to your head and you feel like your eyes are about to pop out. Within 20 seconds a guy had dropped down on a winch, clipped me to his belt and begun the ascent back to the bridge, which ironically is more terrifying than the jump. When you’re jumping you don’t have time to think, but when you’re hanging from a single clip looking down at the valley below getting slowly further away, there’s plenty of time for your mind to go into overdrive. Suffice to say I was happy to reach the bridge.

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Exhilarated and triumphant, we made our way back along the bridge onto solid ground, and my adrenaline buzz lasted for at least the next hour. It may be a short experience, but it's definitely sweet.

Posted by kate1401 10:47 Archived in South Africa Tagged bungee_jumping bloukrans_bridge Comments (0)

Exploring the Garden Route

So, after four lovely days in Cape Town we climbed aboard the Bazbus (our ride across the Garden Route), and headed for Stellenbosch, a pretty university town where a new batch of students were diving head first into Freshers Week. As Stellenbosch is famous for its wine, we really had no option but to check out one of the local wineries, especially as we were charged only 35 rand (approx. £2.50) for an hour wine tour and a tasting session. We visited the Bergkelder, a small winery on the other side of Stellenbosch, where they produce a wide range of white and red wines and make many of them available for tasting. South African wine is so good I'm even developing a taste for red; no mean feat considering I'm a dedicated drinker of white wine.

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The next day we moved on to Hermanus, a tiny coastal town whose claims to fame are their whale and shark watching opportunities. We were booked in for shark diving the following day, so chose to spend potentially our final hours walking an hour-long scenic route along the coast to the beaches of Hermanus. The views were beautiful, though blighted slightly by the gigantic forest fire that was raging on the horizon.; the South African Fire Services seem to take the view that as long as a fire isn't near houses, it can do what it wants.

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Our last day in Hermanus was spent cage diving with sharks in Gansbaai, an area famous for its shark population, but unfortunately they must all have been on holiday that day. The conditions weren't ideal, and consequently we only saw two sharks, but it was exciting to see them from the cage!

We then moved on to Mossel Bay, where we were excited to finally encounter some warm sea water, and then to George, where our hotel owner very kindly transported us to Cango Caves, a limestone landmark about an hour away near Oudtshoorn. Humans lived in these caves as far back as the Middle Stone Age, much more recently they were used for opera concerts due to the excellent acoustics, and eventually access was made available only for tours due to the amount of damage done to them by the public.

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The rest of our visit to George was plagues with rain, so we were glad to escape to our next destination; Plettenberg Bay. We didn't arrive until evening and therefore ventured out looking for a restaurant. After a long walk down a very steep hill we found a lovely restaurant balanced right on the beachfront, which John seemed to remember left a great impression on his dad back in the day. The outside deck is treated to sprawling views of sand dunes where the ocean ends, and due to the angle of the beach the waves come in from the side. The added bonus is that you can work off your meal climbing back up the hill...

Our final stop on the Garden Route was Nature's Valley in The Crags; our hotel was in the middle of nowhere and it was lovely to be surrounded by quiet for a couple of days. John quickly made friends with every dog, cat and horse to be seen, and the only small interruption of our tranquility was an incident one night when the door of our dorm was rattling and we thought it was a baboon. Turned out to be a cat. We enjoyed a day of wandering around the surrounding countryside, finding spectacular views, a beautiful waterfall and a camper pitching his tent in a giant treehouse.

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Oh yeah, we also did a massive bungee jump. More on that as soon as I get my hands on the photos....

Posted by kate1401 06:57 Archived in South Africa Tagged george hermanus stellenbosch plettenberg_bay shark_diving mossel_bay nature's_valley Comments (0)

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