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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Backstreet Academy – Luang Prabang

No this is not the latest group offshoot from Backstreet Boys… rather it is an awesome organisation based online that connects tourists with locals and gives them the opportunity to experience something incredible, from knife making, to cooking classes, to mahout training, to weaving and so much more.

Backstreet Academy has courses throughout South East Asia and are often a cheaper alternative compared to going through something that is more touristy and set up.

How to Choose Where to Go

I had thought about doing a weaving course from when I first looked into coming to Luang Prabang. Doing some research online, in my guidebook and finally once I got here there only seemed to be one real option and that was to go through Ok Pop Tok. Located outside the city, the group has a fantastic textile store in town (on the spendy side) and a free tuk-tuk to visit the living arts village. They offer courses from 1/2 to full day and range from batik to weaving, prices range from $60 and up.

Another girl at the guesthouse was also interested but Ok Pop Tok sounded a bit spendy and more set up compared to actually visiting a locals house and learning from the source. So after a bit more wandering around someone happened to mention Backstreet Academy. They offered a half day (4hr) course at a weavers house for the base rate of $29 US, to make a longer scarf you added $5. Considering Ok Pop Tok offered a half day weaving course where you made placemat for over $60 this sounded awesome!!!

After some hassle with wifi crashing and not being able to figure out how to get discounts and such we finally got it sorted. In total it cost me $25 with a $10 discount I received.

So with everything sorted and ready to go we just had to wait till the assigned day and the pick up!

A Weaving We Shall Go

Katrin (from Germany) and I found our translator, Mr Pon (spelling??) waiting for us by 8.45am. We made introductions and jumped in the waiting tuk-tuk. Our host and weaving experts were located about 15min out of the city and it was great fun chatting with our translator while we drove out.

Once we arrived and met our experts, one each, we set about choosing materials and designs. So many choices so little time…

Weaving 101

I opted for a simple design of natural cotton with blue being the main color and green the secondary color.

the plan!!!

the plan!!!

Katrin, my fellow weaver who had her own mini loom at home, opted for a fine cotton one with patterns way more complicated!

First the experts had to spin our thread onto bobbins, and finally I understood how Sleeping Beauty pricked herself on the spindle needle, that bugger is sharp!!!

learning to load the bobbin

learning to load the bobbin

spinning the bobbin

spinning the bobbin

The experts got to work making it look easy as the bobbin flew from hand to hand and their feet seamlessly switched from side to side.

The expert

The expert

and then let us have a go… the mantra of the day for me was “CHANGE FOOT” as I kept forgetting to switch feet between the switching of the bobbin from side to side. Every now and then out of nowhere you would hear one of them say “change foot”, even if you thought they weren’t watching you!

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Getting into a rhythm is the only way, but then you had to remember to switch colors, thank heavens I had a simple pattern, not what I had planned but still good. My expert possibly didn’t understand what I wanted and so went for full stripes of green rather than half stripes scattered around the scarf. She planned 6 blue followed by 2 green… this pattern lasted about 2 sets before I would lose count and then ended up doing my own thing… when she first saw it she wanted to correct me then realised it was my plan to change the style and said it looked quite good.

In the end it turns out there might be hope for me yet… in Laos the quality of a wife often compares with the quality of her weaving and for a first timer I got quite a few nods of approval… even from the tuk tuk driver!

The finished scarves were delivered the next day. It was a phenomenal experience and I am really happy I opted for giving it a go, my back and arms were a little less happy but hey I have a scarf that is over 2m / 6.5ft long… I think it may end up as a table runner 🙂

I highly recommend looking into Backstreet Academy where-ever you are in Asia.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Travel

 

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Landing in Laos

Why Don’t You?

Laos has long been one of those mysterious countries I never thought I would get a chance to visit. Even though I hoped to during my stay on the island in Thailand for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to leave the island early and visit this stunning country until a friend said “Well why don’t you??” (Thanks Monique). It had been quite a few years since I had gone off exploring alone to a completely foreign country and, although I was nervous, as soon as I found a guide book I was hooked and so the Laos plan developed.

Farewells

The bittersweet truth of leaving to explore is the farewells that need to be said. I have made amazing friends on our little island of Koh Phangan, but since it’s magic seems to draw us back I am sure I will be seeing you all soon…ish! For now it’s off to another adventure, LAOS!!

Getting There

Researching the best way to get there from Bangkok was a little intense, there were flights (quite expensive), busses (over 12hrs or more), trains (with a sleeper bed at least) and so on… I had planned to take the train to Nong Khai, just below the Laos border in Thailand, then take a shuttle to the border, go through immigration, take a shuttle to the capital Vientiane, spend the night and then take a 13hr bus journey to Luang Prabang, my planned destination. Total cost would run around $120 US, total time 2.5 to 3 days.

This would leave me a total of 3 days in Luang Prabang with 6 days ish of travel. The travel agent suggested flying and spending a full week in the town. I agreed and we found a ticket for $279 US, double the price but also double the time.

I am so happy I opted for flying!!!

Immigration

Arriving and getting through immigration was a lot easier than expected, for US citizens it is $35 or 1450baht. I had been told that I had to take new crisp US$ notes or they wouldn’t be accepted, but it turns out they take pretty much anything with a conversion rate. Just be sure you have a passport photo. If not they will charge an extra $1 to take a photo of the passport.

It’s Sunday of Course the Money Exchanges are CLOSED!!!

At Bangkok airport I stopped at 2 or 3 money exchanges to see if I could get Laos Kip, apparently none of them carry it, but no problem right? I can exchange at the International Airport of Luang Prabang, Laos…. right? WRONG!!!!

Once through I went out to exchange money and find a taxi. What do you know??? Arriving on Sunday meant all the exchange offices were closed, what are the odds! Luckily the taxi guy in charge of taxi payments exchanged some money for me, he seemed to be trying to do it quietly and gave me a rate of 8,000kip to $1, so I was pretty certain he was getting a good deal. As it turned out he gave me the same exchange rate as everywhere else, most country’s the guy would have been sure to give a terrible rate as we had no other choice. It cost 50,000kip ($6) to get into town per taxi, so find people and go in a group, I had met a French couple from the Comoros Islands on the plane and so we were able to split it 3 ways.

Finding a Guesthouse

For the first time ever I had not booked a hostel or a guesthouse or anything, I figured I would try practice what I preach, in the sense of “don’t worry, all will work itself out”, plus since I only had my day pack with me it meant I wasn’t lugging all my stuff through town with me….

The French couple had the name of a guesthouse and the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed in that general direction. We were a bit confused as we didn’t see it until I looked up at a building that was definitely not in use! Yup the guesthouse had been closed for 2 yrs… how funny is that.

We went to the one next door but the rooms were too expensive, they had one room for 120,000kip ($15) and the French couple were thinking of taking it. I sighed and said I would keep looking and the clerk said maybe he could give me a discount on the $25 rooms upstairs and make it the same price. It looked great so I agreed (more than I wanted to spend but it was the first night)… then the couple wanted to get the same kind of room at the cheaper price (they claimed the cheaper room smelled funny)… wow! there are 2 of them and 1 of me…. in the end the clerk called the boss and he said no to discounted rooms, so we moved on.

We found a place offering a room for 60,000kip ($6), but they only had 1, so the couple said they were going back to take the cheaper room at the first place (even if it smelled funny)… these people were starting to crack me up. The room I looked at was not all that good so I kept walking. Suddenly I cam across the French couple again talking to a guy on a scooter about a place down the road for 100,000kip ($12). The conversation went something like this:

Guy: We only have 1 room but we can add a bed
Me: I don’t want to impose I can keep looking
French: oh no that is ok, that sounds good
Guy: it is just 20,000 kip more so 120,000 total
French: no no give it to us at 100,000
Me: I don’t mind you are the couple you decide
French: 40,000 ($5) each is too much we take if 100,000kip total
Guy: not possible
French: talking in French look at me
Me: you decide!
French: no we do not want to pay more we think we just take the room for 100,000kip
Me: no problem I go look somewhere else cheers….

They were arguing about paying 40,000kip ($5) instead of 33,000kip ($4.50) and ended up paying 50,000kip…. I am sorry but sometimes the French are weird.

In the end I found this great little place just down the road, 80,000kip ($10), free tea and coffee, wifi (when it is working) and it is in a room with 2 beds so when my new friend from Bangkok arrives it will be perfect! What an adventure!

Pak Huay Guesthouse

Pak Huay Guesthouse

Night Market

I went to the night market to find something to eat and am pretty certain I squealed with delight at the sight. Everything was so well organized and beautiful and when I got to the food section there was so much to choose from I didn’t know what to take, I ended up eating a sausage on a stick and buying a fruit shake… just too much to take in!!

Night Market

Night Market

I was loving Laos already!!!!

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in Thailand, Travel

 

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Ayuthaya or bust!!!!! An Adventure of the Terrific Ten

NapPark Hostel and The Meeting of the TEN!

I have always loved staying in hostels and backpackers, you never know who you are going to meet or what you are going to see….

For example sitting behind the rather see through privacy screen on my lower bunk, a new traveler arrived and obviously or hopefully assumed he was alone. He stripped off to his boxers, then instead of facing the wall to be sure of privacy, he turned towards his bunk (leaving his lower half visible to me) and proceeded to reach in, pull out and give things a good jiggle… I wasn’t sure if I should cough, state “welcome to the mixed dorm” or just sit there silently… instead I tried to type louder but only when I zipped up my computer did I notice pants were replaced rather quickly… ahh yes you have got to love hostel life!

I stayed at NapPark hostel when I first arrived. The pics on the webpage are a little misleading, but the staff are friendly and always answer emails the same day. It is small but clean and comfortable and the lobby area is great to meet new people. On this time round I ended up meeting people from all over and on the first night we all went out to dinner, 11 of us in total.

Dinner with new friends

Dinner with new friends

I had been debating whether or not to fly to Laos or take the 2 day journey of train and bus. A turning point came when I asked the group if anyone would be interested in visiting Ayuthaya, the old capital of Siam, with me, I got a few yes’s so decided to fly (which turned out to be a brilliant decision).

Wrong Information

All the information I had found, from the internet, to guide books, to the hostel staff was as follows: Take the train (it runs every 20min), 20baht for a normal ticket around 130baht for aircon, the trip takes about an hour, then you are there.

So at 8am in the morning I was surprised to see 9 others show up, we ended up grabbing breakfast at the hostel cafe, the single cafe lady received a round of applause when she finished the last dish as she was truly fantastic. Then we were off to find taxis to the train station. Our adventure unfolded thusly:

A lot of the taxis wanted to charge 200baht to go to the train station, but it is important to insist on meters, some even offered to take us for the whole day 1500baht for 4 people per taxi. But we decided to stick to our plan and go with the info given.

The ride to the train station cost 71baht, another reminder to always use meters in the taxis. Then we headed to the ticket counter. The station has information clerks who speak english to help you find the right option. As it turned out the train did not go every 20min, rather ever hour and a half, the trip did not take 1hour, but rather 2hours, and the price for the aircon was 300baht not 130baht…. Well that sucked! We would either have to take the standing only local train for 15baht in 20min, or wait almost 2hrs for the aircon train. Since some of us had night trains in the evenings this wasn’t an option. Also once you got there the temples weren’t all in the same place so you would either have to rent a bike or a taxi anyway…

Rethinking the Plan

We stared at each other for a few minutes, Gina and I went even asked at the counter to make sure these ladies were telling us the correct info, they were. Then we decided to do what we should have done in the beginning find a taxi or van. The info ladies saw our decision and took us upto a tour service. In the end we bargained down to 450baht per person for an air-conditioned minivan and guide. Once again a brilliant decision was made. By minivan it is only an hour and since the temples are not all in one place the guide would drive us round from temple to temple. Most of the temples are free but a few of the best ones are between 20baht and 50baht to enter.

The Terrific Ten go on an Adventure

The Terrific Ten go on an Adventure

Well Worth the Effort

It turned out the whole trip was well worth the effort and the temples were amazing and the aircon in the van was a godsend, as it was hot as hell.

I think HOTLY would have been more appropriate

I think HOTLY would have been more appropriate

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gold leaf covered Buddha

gold leaf covered Buddha

Line of Buddhas

Line of Buddhas

The Terrific Ten

The Terrific Ten

The second Temple we went to had something I have seen in books and postcards all over the world, the Buddha head surrounded by the roots of the banyon tree, it was stunning.

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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Thailand, Travel

 

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Koh Phangan: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things!!!

Chaloklum

Welcome!!!

Welcome!!!

The village of Chaloklum is located in the north of the island, and is a sleepy, laid back fishing village. 4 of the scuba diving schools are based out of here and for most of the year the dive boats leave from this pier. There is really only the main island road and a short village road with shops and restaurants on either side. We have everything from delicious Thai food, great street food, delicious western food and even TWO Italian restaurants! While Srithanu is the yogi hang out, Thong Sala is the “city” and Haad Rin is the party, Chaloklum is that perfect in between with everything you need from quiet to party and an amazing group of locals and expats that make it feel like home!

we are a drinking village with a fishing problem…. so come over and join the fun

My Beautiful little village

My Beautiful little village

The World’s End International Cafe Bar and Restaurant

For the perfect morning coffee or a sumptuous sandwich for lunch… World’s End is the perfect spot. Situated in front of the pier you have an incredible view of the boats coming in and out and can watch the day to day life of a fishing village pass you by.
Run by Lotta for the last 6.5yrs it was originally opened in 2005 and is pretty much a landmark and meeting place for every expat in the village and indeed, the island. Lotte has lived on Koh Phangan for 13yrs, arriving here with her husband and working as a dive instructor. As it happens to so many of us, they came for a few months and never left, ultimately making the island their home.
Among all the incredible options on the menu such as huge baguettes with a wide range of fillings, to quiche, full English breakfast, oatmeal and fruit shakes to die for you will find the most popular item, the Eggs Benedict, truly something worth treating yourself with.
Another plus to the incredible little gem is the options for vegetarian, vegan and even gluten free, making sure there is something for everyone.

For those of you wanting to get married on the island, here is a little secret, Lotta makes the most delicious, stunning wedding cakes!!! So be sure to look her up!

If do one thing in Chaloklum be sure to visit The World’s End!

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AA Massage

This fantastic little gem is run by a wonderful Thai lady named “A”. She has had it for 3yrs and it is conveniently located behind the 7/11 on the curve of the “main” street of Chaloklum. She often has 1 or 2 helpers that are under her training and they all do a phenomenal job. 350baht (around $11 USD) for a 1 hour oil massage is my preference, I try go at least once a week. If you are looking for a great relaxing massage to help work out the kinks of travel, visit AA Massage!

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Genny’s aka Cucina Italiano

Genny’s is the ultimate treat while you are on the island and a place I always remember when I leave. Located right on the beach on the “main” road of Chaloklum, means you get to sip red wine while dining on homemade pizza or pasta made by Genny, a local legend! Watch as the tide comes in and on quiet nights you might get serenaded by Genny when he brings out his guitar… The food is amazing and the atmosphere is one of a kind. If for some reason it is full on the terrace, no worries, you can sit next door at Lost Dog and enjoy a drink while still ordering your food at Genny’s, ’cause this is how we roll on the island, relaxed and laid back!

Lost Dog

Located right next to Genny’s is another great stop, they make delicious burgers and have cold beer. Also a pool table for some fun in the evenings. You will find a lot of the local expats gathering here each night and they are always happy to welcome a newby… also if Genny’s is full, you can still order pizza while enjoying drinks and the sunset at Lost Dog

Holy Grill

Meat eaters rejoice!!! This is the place for you, but fear not they have veggies too for those of a more discerning palate. Holy Grill is run by the phenomenal couple, Hinch and Francis, they will welcome you to the Grill and make you feel at home. With the all you can eat BBQ buffet for 220baht, it makes me drool just thinking about it. Hinch’s master BBQ skills produce varieties of chicken, beef, pork ribs (my favorite), fish, veggies (another favorite), add to that bread, salads of all varieties and an apple if you wish. It is well worth the price and definitely worth the atmostphere.

On top of that Hinch and Francis are amazing for other reasons, they provide many BBQ’s for fundraising, just recently it was for the Scuba Drivers bid to save Sail Rock (our prized diving site) and before that an awesome event to raise money for our local humane society, PAC.

A definite itinerary stop where ever you are on the island.

Indy Kitchen / Chaloklum Travel

Needing to book a bus ticket and a little peckish at the same time… well have no fear, Bea and Go have you covered at Indy Kitchen and Chaloklum Travel. Located near AA massage on the “Main” road of Chaloklum. This family run business right out of there home makes you feel welcome and part of the family, especially when the kids are around. Bea and Go have to be 2 of the most amazing people in the village, Bea’s cooking is outstanding (I recommend the crispy pork on fried rice) and both of them are experts on anything travel related within Thailand. I take all my friends and couchsurfers to see them. They are honest and clear and don’t try and make you buy the most expensive choice. Truly wonderful people, with the cutest kids!!! Oh and Bea bakes delicious yummies…..

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North Beach

For the best sunset drink you need to follow the dirt beach road passed 7/11 to the end and there you will find North Beach, a great spot for an afternoon drink while watching the sunset.

Photo by Sarah Train

Photo by Sarah Train


For the best

Crow Bar

On the way out of Chaloklum on the road to Tong Sala you will see the sign for the Crow Bar, run by a wonderful couple Chris (Estonia) and A (Thailand), it is often the home away from home for many of us. Warning this is not a ONE DRINK bar!!! Most of us only leave in the wee hours of the morning and if you are too inebriated to drive you can always crash the chairs until you sober up. Thursday have phenomenal live music and if A is cooking you are assured of an incredible meal! Just be careful when someone convinces you to “squeeze the chicken” as there are consequences… It is the Thai version of the Cheers pub, where everyone knows your name.

Mae Haad

Just outside of Chaloklum is a beautiful beach with a little island attached by a sandy strip. Mae Haad beach is a stunning place and one of the best places to go snorkeling, they even saw a whale shark there once. White sand, lots of coral, and massages right on the beach.
Here is a little clip of something exciting I saw while snorkeling :

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2015 in Thailand, Travel

 

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WHALE SHARK!!!!

When a Great Dive Becomes AMAZING!!

For me every dive is good, some are great and then there are the amazing dives. It doesn’t have to be that the visibility is astounding, or we see something huge, some of my amazing dives involve seeing my favorite nudibranch or a small octopus. But, if truth be told, there is at least one creature in the oceans that guarantees me a truly incredible and amazing dive, and that is a Whale Shark, the largest fish in the sea.

Sometimes however, it is not easy to get a guest as excited as we are at the prospect of seeing one, seeing their faces turn to utter horror at the words “shark” and “largest”. In fact some instructors have begun altering it to Whale Fish in order to calm the nerves of those who do not know what to expect. But one thing is for sure, no matter who you are, no matter where you are from or how many dives you have had or even how many times you might have seen one of these incredible creatures…. you will be wow’ed!

There are truly no words to explain it when you first see this behemoth of a fish glide right past you. Sometimes it can be mere inches away but you are completely unawares, only to turn and gasp at it’s sheer presence.

Whale shark at Sail Rock

Whale shark at Sail Rock

Past Experiences

I have had the opportunity to dive with whale sharks on multiple occasions thanks to my time diving here in Thailand. But there are 2 occasions that truly stand out.

#1 During my time training as a divemaster I had to return with one guest who had sucked his air faster than his companion, so while the instructor continued with her I began the ascent with him. It was a rare occasion where the visibility meant you could barely see 1meter / 3feet. I gingerly followed along Sail Rock knowing that the boats were “parked” above the chimney which started at 6m/18ft, so I followed the rock at this level keeping the guest close at hand. Suddenly a vertical thermocline created a 2m/6ft, swathe of crystal clear water, rather disorientating to enter after concentrating so hard on finding the chimney. At the precise time I entered from my side, a ginormous, vacuum cleaner type mouth, emerged from the other side. It took me a few milli-seconds to realise it was a whale shark and not something out of a sci-fi horror flick, and quickly hugged the rock in order not to touch it, indicating the guest should do the same. I swear we had to suck in our guts in order for it to get passed, it was that close. At the end of the dive we were the only ones to have seen it, a truly unbelievable experience… it’s not everyday you very nearly french kiss a whale shark.

silhouettes...

silhouettes…

#2 This was the dive that made me realise I might want to pursue becoming an instructor. It was my final dive after completing my Divemaster before leaving the island. We had a group of 6 Spanish and one of them was terribly nervous having quit barely 10min into the first dive. We decided on the 2nd dive that I would remain with her at a shallow depth while the instructor would take the other 5. We remained at barely 6m/18ft for the beginning of the dive until I heard the tell tale banging of tanks indicating something cool, another diver gave the “whale shark” signal and pointed the direction. It was the 4m/12ft, juvenile that had been around the boats for a week or so. Somehow, I just knew where it was heading and began slowly manoeuvring my diver closer and a little deeper till we got to a small pinnacle about 9m/27ft deep. Within seconds of us getting into position the whale shark changed direction and swam directly over us, enjoying the feel of our bubbles on it’s belly. It was so close we could have touched it (which of course we were careful not). After that I could not get her out of the water, she wanted to see everything, experience everything, and near the end even attempted to chase down the whale shark to get closer. She was so happy and excited at the end of the dive attributing the entire phenomenal experience to me… it made me feel fantastic and realise that showing people the undersea world might just be something I wanted to do permanently…

This wasn't our shark, but it pretty much sums up the experience.

This wasn’t our shark, but it pretty much sums up the experience.

Most Recent Encounter

It was nearing the end of September and whale sharks had only been sighted once or twice near Sail Rock, but we knew they were in the area. Most of dives up until this day had been Discover Scubas or courses, not giving me the luxury of diving for fun and being able to look around or carry my gopro. On this day I had an advanced fun diver, so not only was it going to be a fun dive but she did not require tons of attention but instead preferred just a guide.

News of the whale shark quickly spread and we all got in the water excited at the prospect of seeing it. It lived upto it’s reputation and swam above us for half of the first dive at about 14m/ 45ft.

On the second dive we descended over East Pinnacle, a pinnacle that sits just a few kicks from Sail Rock at approximately 17m/55ft below the surface. We dropped down and started exploring, the only divers at the time. Glancing at something over my shoulder I saw the whale shark suddenly emerge from behind us, he swam around us and descended. We were so excited and when other divers approached I was thrilled to give them the whale shark symbol and, as if on cue, he appeared again circling us and in general making our day.

Selfie with a whale shark.

Selfie with a whale shark.

They are truly phenomenal creatures, the largest I have ever had the honor of swimming near was a juvenile of maybe 5m/16ft, I can’t even begin to imagine an adult of 10m/32ft….

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2015 in Scuba Diving, Thailand, Travel

 

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