Looking for tickets or info for the Get Happy Tour 2018 featuring Bowling for Soup, Army of Freshmen and The Aquabats?

This domain name was used for the Get Happy Tour back in its original run around 10 years ago, when I used to do work for BFS and AOF. However, for the past 5 years it has been used for my travel blog as I never thought we would have another Get Happy Tour and I didn't want it to go to waste.

But as a favour to two bands who have done a lot for me over the years, and so you don't miss out, ticket info is:
O2 Presale: 10am on 25 September
General Onsale: 10am on 27 September.

Tickets available from ticketmaster.co.uk and bowlingforsoup.com
 


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Myanmar Sailing 2014

October 19th, 2013 No comments

I tend to get very distracted by special offers when travelling in order to maximise everything I see. In 2010 North Korea shot to the top of my list when I spotted some special offers on flights and accomodation and the same happened in 2012 with Central America. Both were on my list but not at the top before the time I booked.

This year it seems is no different. I’ve been looking at Myanmar (aka Burma) as a holiday destination for some time as it’s a country that has a lot of history, that I’ve heard a lot about, and that just looks spectacular. However it has never been at the very top due to the cost of trips there and there still being places on my must see list that I added 10 years ago. However last week I spotted a special offer on a trip to the country and when I discovered a special offer on flights I decided the time was right.

So I’ve booked a trip to Myanmar for March 2014. The trip stars in Yangon (aka Rangoon) for a couple of nights before flying down to Kawthoung which is a small fishing town in the far south of the country on the border with Thailand. From here we board a catamaran for a week of sailing around the remote and largely uninhabited Myeik Archipelago before returning to Yangon where the tour finishes.

There was a cheaper option to start the trip in Phuket, Thailand, before travelling up to the Myanmar border but I didn’t want to spend a week in the country without seeing it so decided to take the option to start in Yangon. This also had the added benefit of flights via Hong Kong with stopovers in each direction that are long enough to allow me to escape into the city for 5-6 hours.

So there you have it – in 5 months or so expect some great photos of some beautiful scenery and a report of what looks like a fascinating country. If you want to see some photos from the archipelago click here to go a Google image search.

2014 Myanmar tour map

The route I’ll be taking on the trip. Map taken from a different tour company to the one I’m using but it’s the same trip.

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This is adventure travel

January 14th, 2014 1 comment

The title of this post is s bit of a play on the phrase “This is Africa” but I’ve done a lot of travel in Africa, and there has been plenty to fix with this trip already, so I feel that it’s appropriate.

When you take part in adventure travel, be that as a solo traveller or on a group trip of what I like to call “organised adventure travel” inevitably something will go wrong. Indeed I have had plenty of examples of that. To name but a few of the memorable ones.

  • In Namibia in 2002 we had to leave our school project a week early due to how uncomfortable we were being made to feel by the officials at the school.
  • Again in Namibia we had to cut our evening plans short one night due to the police getting into a shootout with some people fighting outside the bar we were in.
  • In East Africa in 2009 we missed the final admission to a National Park after a border crossing took longer than expected.
  • Again in East Africa in 2009 our truck broke down half way up a hill meaning we didn’t get to our campsite until after dark and couldn’t take part in our planned canoeing on a lake.
  • In Central America one of our buses took too long to get to its destination and we had to have one of the fastest and scariest taxi rides I’ve ever been on, after a quick bag swap between vehicles, to get to the ferry we had tickets for.
  • While touring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we ran out of time to meet the resettled residents as we spent so long exploring inside the abandoned buildings which, according to policy within the zone, we weren’t due to go inside anyway.
Fixing Oscar

Our truck being fixed in East Africa – taken from my East Africa blog

Whether you will enjoy adventure travel or not depends on how you take to little mishaps like this. On every trip there tends to be one person who stands out for moaning about everything as they weren’t expecting it, and on some trips there may be more than one. For example.

  • In East Africa in 2009 we had one person who moaned bitterly about the previously mentioned delays even though there was nothing anybody could have done about them. We also had one person who moaned that we didn’t have hot dogs all trip despite the fact we were in Africa and had a beautiful, and large, selection of freshly cooked tasty food each day.
  • In Central America there was one person who every time the smallest thing went wrong felt the need to complain. Apparently the bus ride taking too long was the tour leader’s fault, as was a previous bus getting stuck in traffic in Guatemala City. This person even moaned that our leader was a few minutes late arriving back to the hotel on our last transfer morning despite the fact the leader was grabbing food for the first time in days after feeling ill – during which time all duties were performed to a much higher standard than I could ever hope to achieve. This person even made a point on the last few days of telling everybody she was going to complain which did nothing other than persuade some of us to send compliment to Intrepid about the tour leader in addition to completing the survey form.
  • In Chernobyl there was one member of the group who moaned for 24 hours continuously about missing the resettlers to the point that we all had an argument while out for a group meal as we couldn’t take any more.

However if you are willing to accept that things happen on adventure travel you can have the most amazing time. In Namibia sure the sound of a bunch of gunshots outside were scary but we had just spent a few great hours in a local bar in a town that hardly any westerners had visited in decades so it allowed us to get under the skin of the country in a way we wouldn’t have if we had stayed in our sterile camp within a walled school. In East Africa our food was the best I’ve ever had while travelling, and the delays crossing the border meant that we stopped in a town that wasn’t on our itinerary and ended up playing pool, playing darts and drinking with the locals at a local bar. Some of us also had a chance to hang out with some Park Rangers at the entrance to a National Park for a few hours while the others insisted on going on our pre-planned nature drive even though it meant delays in getting to our next destination.

Then more recently in Central America we got a true taste of the region and if it wasn’t for using public transport we would have been disconnected from the surroundings and missed so much. Central America is a chaotic but vibrant and friendly place which you won’t see as much with private transport. In Chernobyl if we had left Pripyat early to ensure we saw the resettlers we would have had to cut out the last few buildings which we were allowed to explore – and these for me were the most amazing and memorable.

Science Lab

We were allowed to wander around the abandoned buildings in Pripyat, against policy, which allowed us to see and experience so many memorable things. This was far better than a staged meeting with resettled residents.

None of the things that have happened in the past while travelling have put me off the idea of going to weird and wonderful destinations – in fact they have probably persuaded me even more that this is the style of travel that I enjoy. While camping may not be the top of my list of things I want to do right now, and while after Central America I’ll make sure ear plugs are at the top of my packing list, what I want to do with my life is get out there and see the world. I want to get under the skin of the countries I visit and see what they have to offer and I want to discover and experience things that most people I know could even dream of. I also want to do this on the terms of the country I visit rather than acting like a stereotypican western tourist who wants everything the same as back home.

That’s why when I saw a photo of the Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar in an advert on Facebook advertising new trips for 2014 with Intrepid I knew it was something I had to do. Myanmar is a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time and the idea of experiencing a side of the country that nobody else gets to see really appealed to me even though I had never really considered a sailing holiday before. However being an adventure holiday, and a brand new one at that, inevitably things were to go wrong. On this occasion, however, things started going wrong and needing fixing a few months before the start of the trip instead of during it.

The Myanmar sailing trip, when I booked, had two options available. I could either start in Phuket in Thailand and be driven up to the Myanmar border or could start in Yangon and fly to the starting point. Phuket has never really appealed to me, and I wanted to see as much of Myanmar as I could, so I chose the version starting in Yangon. However a few weeks after booking I noticed that it had disappeared from both the Intrepid and Gecko’s website. After contacting them I discovered that this version had been temporarily suspended as a temporary travel warning had been put in force by the Australian government for the town that we would fly to in the south of Myanmar. Being an Australian operation they had to put a hold on the trip following this advice for legal reasons but they recommended I didn’t change my flights yet as there was the possibility that it would be reinstated.

A couple of tense months followed where there was still no news so Gecko’s advised me to change my flights and transferred me onto the trip starting in Phuket. A week or so of heated three-way negotiaton between Gecko’s, myself and STA Travel and I managed to change my flights and managed to persuade Gecko’s that they should pay for the £350 upgrade to my flights needed to make the changes as my original trip was a guaranteed departure but was no longer operating. While I’m upset at how long it took them to make that decision they didn’t have to agree with me so I’m thankful for that. I’m also upset with the service I got from STA when trying to change my flights but that’s the matter of a complaint that’s still pending with their customer relations department so I won’t go into detail about that here – even more so as the complaint was twice as long as this post.

However despite all of these setbacks there was no point getting too stressed about it as there was nothing that could have been done either way. It’s sad that I’ll no longer see Yangon and won’t get to travel on the Circle Train, visit the many beautiful golden temples or see Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, among other things, and it’s sad that my new flights only give me one evening stopover in Hong Kong instead of two full-day ones. However there are benefits to these changes including visiting Thailand as well, the trip being considerably cheaper and now being able to see the Hong Kong skyline at night. I’m sure there will be numerous other mishaps and corresponding benefits by the time I return home but this will still be an amazing trip which I’m really looking forward to.

I still need to receive my reissued flight tickets from STA and need to book some extra hotel nights in Thailand and Hong Kong but I’ll get to these. If I can get through the chaos that the original person at Gecko’s left me in before leaving the company and if I can weave my way through the web of illogical staff and unacceptable customer service to find the one helpful person at STA Travel then I can wait a few more days until I receive my new flight tickets and can book some hotels without any problems.

Route of new trip

This is the route of the new trip I’m doing to Thailand and Myanmar.

Even though this has been a long post I guess what I’m trying to get at is, for those of you that are reading my blog to try to decide whether adventure travel is the right thing for you or not, I would say that by the time you get this far in the post you’ll already know. You’ll already know whether you’re the sort of person that thinks it’s the end of the world when your bus stops for traffic lights or whether you can’t go 24 hours without hot dogs for example. You’ll also already know whether the things I have mentioned in this post would make you panic, feel scared and never want to leave the house again or whether you see them as getting under the skin of a country and all part of the fun of travel.

Adventure travel, be it solo or in organised groups like the ones I go on, can be incredibly rewarding if you are ready for it. You get to see so much more of the world than most people and have some of the most amazing experiences and memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I would say if it’s something you want to do, and don’t think you’ll be that one person on the trip that moans about every small detail with the aim of ruining everybody elses’s trip, then go for it. Otherwise you may as well just lay by the pool in an all-inclusive gated community in the Benidorm for a week and never experience anything that this amazing planet and it’s people have to offer.

Sunset over the Kazinga Channel

Without adventure travel you wouldn’t see amazing scenes like this…

Playing Football

…or have great memories like our own England vs Namibia football match in a town that only a handful of westerners have visited in the last few decades….

Team Breakaway

…or meet amazing people like this who you keep in contact with for years and still consider to be friends even though you live on opposite sides of the world and only rarely see them, if at all, after the trip ends.

It has been a tubulent few months since booking the sailing trip to Myanmar but I’m confident that I’ll see some amazing scenes, have life-long experiences and make new friends. In 2-3 months expect some great photos and a new blog of my experiences. I fly out on February 27th and return on March 12th.

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Thailand bound

February 28th, 2014 No comments

I’ve arrived in Thailand and am loving the temperature and prices here already. Back in the UK at the moment it’s freezing cold, windy, foggy and expensive but it’s in the mid 30’s here and everything is so cheap. It has been a long journey to get this far, however.

On Wednesday I had my last day at work before my trip. I was originally planning to use that evening to get everything sorted, finish packing, rest etc. However due to the problems with my flights I had an early morning flight out of Heathrow yesterday and needed to get a hotel near the airport to avoid having to get up very early and risk public transport issues.

The hotel I picked was the Ibis Budget in Hounslow and it turned out to be a really good hotel for the price. The room itself was weird and looked like something out of a 1970’s Sci-Fi series but was clean and functional. The staff were also really friendly – due to the rush I had left the copies of my passport that I might need during my trip at home so needed to get some new copies. I thought the best thing to do was ask at the hotel and then try at the airport if the hotel said no. However the hotel staff were more than accommodating and after getting the copies done I was able to catch a good nights sleep without worrying about not having copies.

Ibis Budget Hounslow

My hotel room at the Ibis Budget in Hounslow

So then yesterday I had a long travel day to get to Thailand. I got up early as check-in for Cathay Pacific opened at 8am and I wanted to make sure I was there at the start to get a good seat and to give myself time to have breakfast. The issue was that due to having a different class of ticket issued through a travel agent I wasn’t able to check in or select a seat online but due to having long legs I need to have an aisle seat so that I’m not squashed in. They had electronic check-in desks but for some reason these wouldn’t work so I had to wait until check-in opened. As expected I was first in the queue when check-in opened although the lady at the desk told me I had successfully checked in using the machines just hadn’t been issued a boarding pass. But either way it didn’t matter as I got the seats I wanted and checked in successfully.

While waiting for the flight I did the usual get breakfast, stock up on water and snacks, buy magazines etc and then headed to the gate once it was announced to wait for boarding. The flight was a bit late leaving but they let us jump the queue to make up our slot for take off.

The food on the plane was surprisingly nice although I kept having problems with the entertainment system in the back of the seat in front of me. First the screen kept going blank when each feature started so they reset it. Then it kept crashing and restarting when I tried to watch movies so they reset it again. Then the screen just froze so they reset it a third time. It was getting late by this point so I decided to give it one more go and, as expected, it crashed again and I just gave up and decided to catch some sleep.

It seems staff on Cathay Pacific are attentive, however, as at some point a little while after closing my eyes one of the flight attendants woke me up to ask if I needed any help as she noticed there was a problem with my screen. I explained that I had been having problems and she asked if I would like to move to some seats that were spare further forward. I agreed and she showed me to a row they had kept empty in case of emergency so not only did I have a working entertainment system I had a row to myself which was excellent. I watched a few movies but wasn’t able to sleep so once the lights went back up I had a lot of coffee with breakfast.

Sunrise over China

Sunrise over China

Hong Kong Airport

Transiting Hong Kong Airport

Transit at Hong Kong airport took a while as a couple of flights had arrived at similar times to us but the flight arrived early so I had plenty of time. Once through into the departure lounge I had a look around, changed some money ready for my overnight stopover on the way back, and was amazed how big the terminal is – the place reminded me of the new terminal at Dubai which I transited through a few years ago.

My flight down to Phuket was with Dragon Air, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific, and was only a few hours in duration so I wasn’t worrying so much about getting a row to myself like on the first leg of the trip. However I had a surprise as I was sat in front of the over-wing exit row which was occupied by a disabled couple who, for obvious reasons, were not able to sit there so were asked to move. I took the opportunity and asked the flight attendant if she would like me to sit there and she said that would be helpful. So not only did I have a row to myself it was the exit row with extra leg room.

The flight arrived on time but most of the journey was misty or over sea so we didn’t really see much. I was just happy when we touched down in Phuket Airport. The entire process through the airport including collecting bags, passport control and customs took less time than transit at Hong Kong so I was soon through into the arrivals area. I changed some money and purchased a pre-paid taxi voucher and I was then taken through to the taxi rank for my journey to Karon. Just a side note that there are several ways to organise a transfer in Phuket – you can book one online or through your travel agent but these are usually more expensive. I would recommend just getting a taxi when you get there. You can either purchase a voucher like I did for between 500-1500 Baht depending on the destination or can just go through and use a metered taxi. I used the voucher as it was less hassle although it did cost 20% higher than it would have with the meter.

After arriving at my hotel, the Karon Living Room, I relaxed in my room for a while before exploring the town. Most of Phuket is my idea of hell and is tourist central with rows of sun loungers on the beach and Karon is no different. It’s nowhere near as bad as Patong, which we drove through on the way to Karon, but the only reason I’m here is because this is where my trip starts tomorrow. The scenery is nice and the food is cheap but I didn’t get a chance to look around much as I’m really tired so I’ll be going to bed shortly to catch up on sleep.

Karon Living Room

My room at the Karon Living Room

Walking arond Karon

Walking around Karon

Karon Beack

Karon Beach

Walking around Karon

Walking around Karon

The view from my room

The view from my room in Phuket

The trip starts tomorrow officially although it’s just another night at the Karon Living Room before we head north to the Myanmar border the following day. Either way I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of the group tomorrow. I’ve been told that I can stay in the same room and not have to move which is helpful.

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A day in Karon

March 1st, 2014 No comments

I’ve just got back to my room after chatting to a couple of the others from the group and they seem nice people so far but there are still a few more people to meet tomorrow morning. There was a bit of an issue tonight, however, as the person that was due to share the room with me was put off by the smell of smoke that was lingering around so didn’t want to stay there. I had noticed the smell when I checked in but due to having a long day, and all the issues I had with the travel company before my trip, I just wanted to sleep and didn’t bother kicking up a fuss.

The day started off a little quieter, however. I decided to have a long lay in to adjust to the timezone before booking a taxi through my hotel to take me to the Big Buddha statue near Karon. This was the best way to visit and only cost 1200 Baht for a return trip including waiting time – this was less than the price I paid for a one-way trip from the airport to the hotel.

The journey there took about half an hour and went through a couple of towns and residential areas before making its way up the hill past some cafes, a quad bike tour place and an elephant riding experience to the car park at the statue. The Big Buddha is a large marble Buddha built on the hill overlooking Karon that has been built completely from donations. It still has a long way to go but once finished should be a very impressive site with very impressive views.

A view from the Big Buddha

Looking over Phuket

I spent some time taking photos overlooking the sea and Phuket town before making my way into the complex itself. The first place you will visit on a trip to the Big Buddha is the entrance hall which is full of souvenir sellers, donation boxes and information about the site. Some of the information is in English but the majority is in Thai so I skipped past this and went straight through to the steps up to the statue.

If you decide to visit the Big Buddha there are a few things you will need to know. Firstly you are not allowed to wear shorts and will be asked to cover up, secondly that it will be very warm as there isn’t much shade, thirdly that to get to the site you need to walk up a lot of steps and lastly that it’s likely to be very windy so be prepared. However the views from the top were incredible.

The site is actually made up of two Buddhas – the main marble one and a smaller bronze one. After taking photos of both statues I spent some time wandering around the site enjoying the views and looking at the other displays which included gold statues, a prayer room, a gong and a bell. There is also the opportunity to buy prayer bells of various sizes which you can either take back with you or hang in the trees – many people buy two and do both which is evident by the loud sound of bells that you can hear when there is a gust of wind.

Builders at the Big Buddha

Builders in Thailand have less safety restrictions than in the UK

Statues

Statues at the Big Buddha site

A gong

A gong at the Big Buddha site

The Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

Not many people at the site will speak English so I’d recommend you learn a few words in Thai before visiting this or any other site in Thailand. Even if you just learn hello and thank you it will be greatly appreciated by the locals. This was evident when I bought one of the prayer bells – the family ahead of me asked lots of questions in English and when they said thank you the person selling them just handed them the bell and turned away. However I said thank you in Thai and she said you’re welcome in the traditional Thai manner of putting hands together and nodding. It doesn’t hurt to learn a few words and the locals will like that you have made the effort.

After purchasing the bell and a few other souvenirs I made my way back to the taxi. We stopped off at a viewpoint overlooking Karon on the way before making our way back to town. I got dropped at town so I could buy some flip flops (thongs for any Aussies that read this) and grabbed some lunch before making my way back to the hotel to change before going to the beach. I’m not much of a tourist beach person as I mentioned in my blog yesterday but I decided that I wanted to spend at least some time on the beach in Phuket to relax, read and watch the sunset.

At the Big Buddha

Walking around the Big Buddha site

Overlooking Karon

Me overlooking Karon

As mentioned earlier the beach is lined with several rows of sun loungers which you can rent for 200 Baht (less than 1 dollar) for the entire day. Just sit down on one and eventually somebody will find you and ask for the money (before issuing a receipt to prove you have paid). They will also bring you drinks and snacks from one of the small places that are dotted up and down the beach. I ordered a sprite before slapping on the sun cream and heading into the water.

I spent maybe an hour or so in the water. It was clear, calm and very warm but I’m not sure if it was over salty or if there were things living in it as I felt itchy after I had been in there a while. Although this didn’t detract from the relaxing nature of just laying in the water and watching the world go by. It was quite busy on the beach and there were other swimmers, paragliders and jetskis going up and down the water. There aren’t many fish in the area so I didn’t bother bringing my snorkelling equipment and after relaxing for a while I got out and read my book while waiting for the sunset. The sunset was really beautiful but as I was on my own I decided not to bring my camera. I don’t think this will matter as I’m sure I’ll see some perfect sunsets while in Myanmar.

I headed back to my hotel to change before grabbing some dinner in town. I decided on a Thai restaurant on the beach which served cocktails and it was really nice but overpriced compared to other places in the area. Although at $15 including drinks I can’t really complain!

Karon

Walking around Karon

My hotel

The Karon Living Room

Karon by night

Karon by night

So I’m now back in my room after running into a couple of the group downstairs while clearing up the issue with my room mate and the smell in the room. Now that I think about it I woke up this morning with a headache so I wonder if that was something to do with the smell of smoke. The guy I was due to share with was given a different room for the night and it smelt a lot fresher than mine but I can’t complain as I’ll have the room to myself again tonight.

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Heading north towards Myanmar

March 2nd, 2014 No comments

Tomorrow we cross into Myanmar to start the sailing portion of the trip but I had a good day today as I had a chance to meet the rest of the group and to see the real Thailand compared to the tourist hell of Phuket.

After checking out of my room this morning I met up with my group in the breakfast room over coffee and got to know them while waiting for our leader. They all seem nice people so far – I’m the only Brit but there are some Aussies, a Canadian and an Irish person and although they’re all older than me we’re all like minded when it comes to travel. One interesting point is that there are two people with the last name Green on the trip who had been assigned to the same room. We assumed they would be sisters but turns out they don’t know each other even though by coincidence they come from the same city!

After a brief introductory meeting with our representative of Intrepid we jumped in the minibus and headed north out of Karon. On the way we dropped a spare bag off at a hotel near the airport for one of the group and picked up another member of the group from her flight at the airport before leaving Phuket and heading north along the mainland.

We all napped and chatted on and off during the journey until 2 1/2 hours later when we arrived at our lunch stop at a lodge overlooking a lake. The prices here were really cheap as well – £5 for a full meal and a couple of drinks – and it was good quality food. We relaxed, took photos stretched our legs for a bit and made use of the facilities for a bit before making our way back to the minibus for the remainder of our journey to Ranong.

Lunch with a view

The view during lunch

The journey to Ranong took another 2 hours or so and when we arrived it was already late in the afternoon but luckily the sun had not set yet so we were able to see a bit of the town as we drove through. It looks like a grimy border town but there are a few temples and things to do so it was a shame we didn’t have much chance to explore.

The hotel we stayed at, the Tinidee Ranong, is a nice hotel with restaurant, shops, pool, exercise room, free-wifi and bar. Overall it’s way better than most places I’ve stayed at with Intrepid – that’s not to say that Intrepid stay at bad places but on the contrary this was just a really nice hotel. Most of the group decided to take advantage of a free trip to the hot springs nearby but I wanted to see more of the town so after half an hour of relaxing in the pool with the others I decided to excuse myself and head into town.

My room for the night

My room at the Tinidee Ranong

The view from my room

The view of Ranong from my room

Tinidee Hotel Ranong

Tinidee Hotel Ranong

Ranong

Ranong, Thailand

I spent maybe an hour wandering around Ranong taking photos, calling home, stocking up on supplies and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. There are quite a few restaurants that I passed which were very busy with locals which looked really nice as well as lots of shops. I didn’t see anything else to do but I’m sure there would have been more somewhere. One thing I’m glad I found, however, is a 7-Eleven as I needed a spare memory card for my camera to use in my underwater camera pouch in case it leaked. 7-Eleven had one for about £5 which was great.

I returned to the hotel in advance of the group so that I could catch up on my blog notes and relax before dinner. When they returned they informed me that they had decided to eat out in town instead of in the restaurant as it would be nicer and cheaper plus mean we wouldn’t have to eat in the same place twice when breakfast tomorrow is taken into consideration. I agreed that this would be a great idea so waited downstairs while the others changed before heading out into town.

While walking into town the others told me about the hot springs. Apparently they were very nice and soothing – there were several levels of pools of varying temperatures including one which is reserved solely for guests of the Tinidee Hotel. It sounded like they had a great time but I’m glad I didn’t go with them as I had a chance to see the town and to get my memory stick.

The restaurant we ended up visiting was one of the ones I had passed earlier, called Dibuk, that was very busy. Luckily a couple of tables were available when we arrived so we made our way inside. The food there was the cheapest I have seen since arriving in Thailand. I had a minced pork dish with vegetables, rice and a fanta for 100 baht which is less than $3. It was slow to arrive but was incredibly fresh and tasty so I’m glad we ate there! After chatting and exchanging travel stories we made our way back to the hotel, after Boom made me ask for the bill in Thai. I managed it somehow but it brought smiles to the faces of the waitresses.

Dinner in Ranong

Dinner with the group in Ranong

Tomorrow the sailing trip starts so I’ll soon be off to bed. I’m excited!

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Crossing into Myanmar

March 3rd, 2014 No comments

It has been a very long day today but it has mainly been an administrative day and we haven’t covered much distance. Tonight is the first night I’ll be on board the boat that Intrepid are using for the trip and it seems nice so far. The bedroom I’ll be sharing is quite small but I knew this in advance – boats like this are designed to maximise the public areas.

This morning I got up fairly early and headed down to the breakfast buffet to meet my room mate who, by this point, had already been for a run, had a shower and eaten most of his breakfast. He said he was an early riser! The breakfast was really nice, especially the omlettes, and there was more than enough selection for everybody.

Time for some last minute repacking and we were whisked off to the immigration pier by tuk tuk where we met our local guides who would escort us across the border and be with us during the week. The immigration process only took 10 minutes including the time taken when one of our group was quizzed by Thai immigration about the length of their stay (this is as if you’re only leaving for a day you don’t receive an exit stamp to try to avoid the visa run). Then it was time to board the boat which was to take us across the border and, after boarding, we met up with Jill our last remaining group member. It turns out she is doing the trip for a second time as she enjoyed it so much which means we should be in for a spectacular trip!

Hotel lobby

The lobby of the Tinidee Hotel

Our transport to the pier

Our transport to the pier

Shuttle boats

Shuttle boats waiting to take people to Myanmar

The boat journey to Myanmar took around 20 minutes, although for political reasons we didn’t land on the mainland and went straight to the sailing boat where our visas were processed on board by Myanmar Immigration officials. The entry process for Myanmar was a lot longer than when I entered Thailand and in total we had to wait for 3 hours in order for our passports, visas and permits for the archipelago to be processed. One thing I don’t like is that while we’re in Myanmar the officials will be keeping our passports to make sure we come back. I guess we won’t be needing it this week but I don’t like being without my passport when travelling.

Crossing into Myanmar

Crossing the water to Myanmar

Transferring to the dinghy

Transferring to our dinghy

Me overlooking Kawthaung

Me overlooking Kawthaung, Myanmar

Then it was time to set sail. The journey today was very short and was only designed to get us as far as a sheltered anchorage out of the main shipping lanes ready to start the main part of the trip. After dinner we discovered that our anchorage would be shared with fishing boats tonight as we were in the middle of a prime fishing area. The method of fishing in this part of the world is to wait until night then deploy rows of lights to attract fish and squid that will get trapped in nets suspended below the boat. Fairly primitive but effective.

Myanmar fishing boat

Myanmar fishing boat

Myanmar fishing boat

Myanmar fishing boat

Sunset over Myanmar

Sunset over Myanmar

The cabin assigned to myself and Ashu

The cabin I’m due to share

The scenery and sunset were beautiful tonight but we’ve been told they don’t even compare to what we have to come!

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Snorkelling in Myanmar for the first time

March 4th, 2014 No comments

I didn’t sleep much last night as it was very hot my room so tonight I’ve decided I’m going to sleep out on deck on the hammock. I’ve never known such clear skies and such fresh air so I should have a great nights sleep staring up at the stars.

Today was my first taste of sailing around Myanmar and it was a great introduction. To be honest I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy a sailing trip as I’ve never been on one, because I like to keep busy when travelling, and because I’m not great with rough seas but I’ve always wanted to visit Myanmar and the scenery here is just so beautiful I had to give it a chance and so far I’ve not been disappointed.

We set sail at 7.30 this morning after a quick breakfast of cereal and toast and after making our way past the fishing boats we were in open water watching the world go by. There wasn’t much wind today so we were mainly under power but we did manage half an hour under wind power. During today’s sailing I sat out on the bow of the boat for a while but didn’t see much other than jellyfish and the islands going by.

Sunrise

Sunrise from the boat

Relaxing on board

Relaxing on board

Island 115

Island 115

We had planned to stop at an island along the way but as the water is murky at the moment we went straight to our anchorage for tonight, called Island 115, so we could spend more time here. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to the most is the snorkelling so I was happy to hear that the first thing we would be doing at Island 115 was snorkelling. Unfortunately the water was very murky so I didn’t see much except jellyfish and LOTS of urchins. After around 45 minutes we were picked up by dinghy and taken back to the boat to freshen up for lunch, which today was pasta and salad.

Me snorkelling

Me snorkelling off Island 115

Jellyfish

I saw this unhappy looking creature while snorkelling

After lunch we chilled for a bit before being taken onto land for a bit of exploring with our local guides. It felt good to be finally setting foot on Myanmar soil, after being here for a day, although unfortunately it wasn’t the mainland. After taking some photos from the beach we were lead down a path through the jungle that had been cut by the Moken Sea Gypsies across to the other side of the island. The walk only took about 10 minutes and when we reached the other side of the island we were treated to a magnificent beach with a great view.

We spent some time walking around the beach on the far side of the island, trying to avoid the tiny crabs that kept popping out of the sand and running away and also discovered a hermit crab and a huge clam shell. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend as much time here as I would have liked as the tide was getting low and waiting for much longer would have resulted in us being stranded on the beach. However this meant we could relax and watch the sunset before a nice lunch of chicken strips, rice and salad.

Me on Island 115

Me on the beach of Island 115

A tiny crab

A tiny crab

Walking in Myanmar

Walking to the other side of the island

Island 115

The other side of Island 115

Hein

Hein and a big shell

Hermit Crab

A Hermit Crab

Sunset

Sunset as seen from the hammock

The fishing boats nearby have just turned their lights on so there’s going to be a little bit of light pollution tonight but the air is so clear I should still have an amazing view from the hammock.

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Visiting the Moken

March 5th, 2014 No comments

Today has been a very long day but has been a very enjoyable one. Unfortunately the sunrise this morning was behind the island so I didn’t get as great a view from the hammock as I hoped but the day more than made up for it.

Sailing in Myanmar

Sailing in Myanmar

Mike our Skipper

Mike the Skipper

Our first stop of the day, after an hour or so of sailing, was Ma Kyone Galet which is a village populated by the Moken Sea Gypsies. This was the part I was looking forward to the least as “community visits” on trips tend to be set up but today didn’t feel like that. Plus their story is quite sad. When the Myanmar military junta were at the height of their power they were quite oppressive towards the different indigenous groups around the country. One of the things they did was to force the Moken onto land and make them settle down in villages. Ma Kyone Galet is one of those villages although restrictions have eased slightly and the Moken are now allowed to spend time travelling around the islands for a few months before returning to one of the village which usually houses around 850 people in 100 families.

We were lucky enough to see a family of Moken leaving the village on their way to whichever island they had chosen. They were being towed by a motorboat in a line of rowing boats containing the entire family, chickens, dogs to keep away evil spirits and general supplies to keep them going. It was nice to be able to see this part of local life.

Moken village

Arriving at the Moken Village

Moken family

A Moken family leaving for months away on an island

A beach bar

A beach bar

Ma Kyone Galet is set in the channel between two islands and after landing at the village, while waiting for the others to arrive, we had a chance to take in the beautiful view and take a few photos both of the scenery and of the local children who started paying is a lot of attention.

Our plan was to look around the local school before exploring the village but it’s the school holidays at the moment so once we had all arrived we set off into the village. It didn’t take long for most of the village kids to find us and by the time we made it to their main road we had dozens of kids following us, holding hands with us, asking to pose for photos and generally trying to show us their village. The whole thing reminded me of walking through villages in Uganda a few years ago and the kids were just as happy to see us.

The village itself is mainly made of tin shacks but the main road was lined with stalls selling everything from fruit to water and from general supplies to doughnuts. I didn’t buy anything as I was too busy interacting with the kids but some of the group did. While walking through the village Hein, one of our local guides, told us that on the trip last week they gave the school its first ever computer which is probably one reason why we were getting so much attention. This was probably true but I’ve travelled enough to know that kids in indigenous communities are generally curious of travellers so we would have generated a lot of attention anyway.

Kids and Ashu

Kids looking at photos on Ashu’s iPad

Ma Kyone Galet

Walking through the village

Our boat

Our boat from the temple

Ma Kyone Galet

Ma Kyone Galet as seen from the temple

Temple

The Temple in Ma Kyone Galet

At the end of the main road we crossed a bridge and entered a Buddhist Temple which was our main destination on the island. We had to take our shoes off to entered, under the watchful eye of some young monks, and were soon ushered up the steps to the lookout point containing a shrine by the local kids. The view from the top was really good and it seems to be the place where the older kids hangout. We spent some time admiring the view and hearing more about the village from our guides before we were being ushered back down the steps by the kids who seemed eager to show us something. Once we got back to the river we found out that they wanted to show off to us by stripping and doing somersaults into the river.

After a while of watching the kids we made our way back to the beach where we were met by Win, our other local guide, who had disappeared as soon as we arrived on the island to visit his girlfriend who lives in the village. I was in the second group to go back to the boat so sat on the beach with some of the local kids taking photos. As soon as we were back on the boat we set sail to Lampi Island, where we would anchor for the night. We went under power even though there was a bit of wind as the tide was getting low but the skipper said it would be a great place to kayak if we arrived in time.

Moken kids

Moken kids jumping in the water

Monks

Monks watching us

Moken Kids

Moken kids

Moken Kids

Moken Kids posing for photos

Lampi Island is a lot bigger than Island 115 where we stayed last night although it’s not the biggest in the archipelago. Like the others we have seen it’s covered in forest but it has some low lying mangroves which we kayaked around for a bit. The tide was very low and there was quite a current in the mangroves so the kayaking was quite exhausting – we had to drag the kayaks over some sand bars and paddle upstream for a while. Unfortunately we didn’t see any wildlife except a few small fish and a very large dead hornet on a rock.

The journey downstream was much easier and after arriving back at the beach we relaxed to take in the view for a while before being towed back to the boat by dinghy. Normally groups also snorkel at Lampi Island but the sea was still way too murky so we just jumped in the water and swam or snorkelled in the vicinity of the boat to cool off for a while. The water was only 10 metres or so deep but you couldn’t see the bottom unless you dived down to it but I only did this a few times as there wasn’t much to see as far out as we were anyway.

Lampi Island

Me with a Kayak on Lampi Island

Lampi Island

Being taken back to the boat

After a beautiful pork green curry for dinner we relaxed with a game of Skip Bo before chatting about the events of the day. It seems the Moken village visit was a positive thing for everybody. Ashu has decided he’s going to take the hammock tonight so I might spread out down in the room – if I open all of the hatches and turn the fan on it shouldn’t be as hot as it was the first night and hopefully some of the diesel smell should leave.

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BBQ on Swinton Island

March 6th, 2014 No comments

I slept really well last night as I had the whole room to myself with Ashu in the hammock. He said he got a great nights sleep too so we’re going to have the same arrangement again tonight but I might suggest we make it permanent as I could do with a good sleep each night – these days are turning out to be more exhausting than I thought considering this is supposed to be a relaxing holiday. However today has been another day to remember.

Departing Lampi Island

Departing Lampi Island

I got up early to watch the sunrise on deck and, after an early breakfast, we set sail for Swinton Island in time to get some perfect photo of Lampi Island as we were leaving. Today there was quite a lot of wind so we managed to sail most of the journey which was great as it was so relaxing without the noise of the engine. Even though the wind was strong the seas weren’t rough at all which I was pleased about as I was told Swinton Island was the most breathtaking of all the islands we would visit and I didn’t want to arrive feeling sea sick.

When we arrived I could see what all the fuss was about. Swinton Island, which the crew and Jill have been talking about since the start of the trip, is set on a wide beautiful beach surrounded by trees, with a small island offshore stopping large waves coming in. It also has a couple of secluded bays with beautiful turquoise water which are perfect for snorkelling. Much to my delight snorkelling was the first activity after dropping anchor.

Arriving at Swinton Island

Arriving at Swinton Island

The water was still very murky but cleared once we got closer to the rocky shore and the depth decreased. I saw a LOT of urchins while snorkelling but today was also the first time we saw some proper marine life since starting the trip. I saw lots of Angelfish, Parrotfish, a few of whatever Dory is in Finding Nemo and loads of other fish I didn’t recognise. I also saw a few large clams.

During the snorkel we slowly made our way to the turquoise bays we saw upon arrival where the water got shallower and warmer. It also got clearer and unfortunately this meant not so many fish so we decided to take a break from snorkelling and enjoy the views from the beach for a while. The beach wasn’t too big but provided us with some great views and gave us a chance to take some lovely photos.

Swinton Island

Swinton Island

Swinton Islnd

Swinton Island

Me on Swinton Island

Me getting ready to snorkel again

A few of us were eager to get back in the water so decided to swim around to the second bay which looked a lot more promising for snorkelling. The water was a little murky but had lots of rocks and deep channels which provided shelter for a whole variety of marine life. I saw clownfish, an albino urchin, some Oriental Sweetlips, and lots of the same fish we saw earlier. We also saw Mike, the skipper, spearfishing and while we didn’t see him catch anything he already had a large number of caught fish in town which meant that the beach BBQ tonight would be plentiful.

Snorkelling

Snorkelling at Swinton Island

Mike

Mike Spearfishing

In order to get ready for the BBQ we had to cut the snorkelling short and after being taken back to the boat we dried off and headed straight to the main beach to collect wood and set up the area. Collecting wood was hard work – not because we we’re all unfit on this trip but because Win is like a machine. He already has a reputation within the group for working hard and today was no exception. While most of us were collecting sticks and other small burnable materials Win was chopping down trees and severing branches using what looked like nothing more than a meat cleaver. This was great and meant that we would have a huge bonfire but meant that we were exhausted carrying the logs and trees to the BBQ location. While collecting we didn’t see much wildlife but this is probably just as well as we saw some cat tracks in the sand. I don’t know what sort of cat the tracks were made by but generally the wild cats in this area aren’t too friendly!

After building the bonfire there was time to relax and enjoy the sunset on the beach. I can see what all the fuss was about as the sunset was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen – I don’t think it quite beat the sunset over the Kazinga Channel in Uganda a few years ago but it came close.

An Eagle

An Eagle visited us

Swinton Island

On Swinton Island

Bonfire

Setting up the bonfire

Sunset

Sunset over Swinton Island

We made a quick stop back on board to freshen up and grab supplies before heading back to the beach for our BBQ and Bonfire. If you come on this trip you will need to make sure you bring insect repellent as Swinton has a lot of sandflies once the sun goes down. Even though I had to apply a lot of mosquito repellent this didn’t spoil the evening as we had such a great evening. Win and Hein were in charge of the bonfire while Marie and Mike cooked us a great meal of chicken, fish, rice, potatoes, salad and much more. I’m not a huge seafood or fish person so I mainly stuck to chicken but I tried some of the Oriental Sweetlips and it was a really beautiful fish with a delicate taste. According to Mike it’s rare to find them in markets as they lead solitary lives so aren’t caught as much as we were lucky to have some for dinner.

We sat relaxing and chatting after dinner until the bonfire burnt itself out and it was such a relaxing night although it’s now almost 11pm so I’m going to be heading to bed without socialising tonight. I’ve had such a great day today and while I’ve had better snorkelling Swinton Island is so beautiful and I’m glad we spent so much time on shore.

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Pilot Whales and an overdue shower

March 7th, 2014 No comments

The days just keep getting better and better on this trip. I’m not sure if the trip has been planned this way, if I’m getting used to life on a boat away from everybody, or if it’s just the way it is but I’ve just got back to the boat after spending a great evening on Macleod Island to round off what has been a very eventful day.

We had another beautiful sunrise this morning. Unfortunately the sun itself was behind the island but all sunrises and sunsets are beautiful in this part of the world. After breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Swinton Island which was a shame but we were treated to more sailing under wind power rather than using the engines. According to Marie we’ve sailed more in the past 24 hours than the last few trips have all week which is great.

Breakfast

Breakfast before departing Swinton Island

Mike

Mike enjoying a final view of Swinton Island

Hein and Win

Hein and Win raising the main sail

Part of our journey today was across a channel which was in the region of 60 – 70 metres deep and during the short time it took us to cross so much happened. First we saw a few dolphins which, usually would make me smile for ages, but we didn’t have time as Mike soon announced that he had a fish on his line. We stopped the boat to allow him to pull it in but he had a lot of trouble. We weren’t sure whether the trouble was due to the fish wrapping around the rudder or whether it was just that there was a big fish on the line but this question was answered very quickly once a giant Oahu fish was brought up on deck.

The fish was so big that it would be enough to feed us for the rest of the trip and feed the next trip completely but the excitement didn’t stop there as the catch hadn’t even stopped wriggling when we were surrounded by a pod of Pilot Whales which didn’t come close but stayed with us long enough to get a few photos. However as quickly as the excitement started it stopped when we left the deep channel on our way to Macleod Island.

Mike catching dinner

Mike catching dinner

Pilot Whales

Pilot Whales

MacLeod Island

Me relaxing on board the boat at MacLeod Island

Macleod Island is the only island which has any tourism infrastructure on and is the site of an expensive resort containing a few dozen beach huts, a bar, and bungalows. It’s also set in a beautiful setting but none of this excited us on the remaining couple of hours of sailing today – what we had our sights set on was the showers at the resort.

When we arrived we decided to fit in one last snorkel before heading for the showers as we were told that the waters around Macleod Island were a prime spot for spotting turtles and this was too good an opportunity to miss. We were taken half way to the snorkelling area by dinghy but swam the rest of the way as we had to be quiet so as not to scare the turtles away. I stuck pretty close to Mike as he has eyes like a hawk and said he spotted turtles the last few times he snorkelled here. My plan almost worked as after about 10 minutes Mike called me over saying he had spotted a Hawksbill Turtle but unfortunately it had disappeared by the time I swam over.

The snorkelling here was the best of the trip so far and we saw lots of fish and some beautiful corals. Unfortunatley I didn’t take my camera with me as it acts a buoyancy device and the images are awful but Ashu took his so I’ll try to fit some of his photos in my blog. I was sad when it was time to stop snorkelling but I knew that it was soon time for a proper shower!

Life on a boat is fine but due to the nature of sailing you don’t really have much of a chance to shower. It’s possible to rinse the salt off using a hose on board, and to cool off by going for a swim, but there is no way to have a proper shower which is one of the reasons the trip stops at Macleod Island. The showers aren’t traditional ones we would expect in the west, instead they are situated right on the beach allowing us to enjoy the beautiful scenery while using them. I spent a long time showering as my hair was a mess by this point but by the time I dried off and met the others at the bar I had never felt so clean in my life. Ok that’s probably an exaggeration but it was nice to feel clean for the first time in a week! Another tip if you come on this trip is bring a towel that’s big enough to change under unless you want to get naked on the beach when changing into your proper clothes. I’ll add that to my list at the end of my blog.

MacLeod Island

MacLeod Island

Shower Time

Beach shower

There isn’t a dress code at the resort but I decided to dress up a bit and wear a shirt as dinner tonight was a sit down meal in the resort restaurant so I thought it would be a nice touch. However before dinner there was enough time to take advantage of the wi-fi at the resort to get in touch with the outside world for the first time in a week, and we all decided to take advantage of the resort bar. I decided to hit the cocktails and had a couple of Caipirinhas then finished off with an Amaretto Sour which were all quite expensive but worth it!

Dinner tonight was a Myanmar Tealeaf Salad followed by a seafood curry which was nice although it was a little pricey and came to $50 along with my cocktails. Although I didn’t mind as the whole atmosphere on the island was amazing. There we were in a largely deserted archipelago, on a beautiful island, sat on a veranda having drinks and that’s what travelling is about and why I decided to come on this trip.

Dinner Time

Dinner Time

Tea Leaf Salad

Traditional Myanmar Tea Leaf Salad

After arriving back on the boat I realised that I left my swim shorts drying on the back of my chair so asked Hein if he could look for them when he went back to get the second group. Officially they didn’t find them but it takes a lot for me to not notice things and I just saw Marie and Hein hoist something up the mast and it looks suspiciously like my shorts but it’s too dark to tell for sure. I’ll just get up tomorrow and play along anyway as that’s a good prank and at least they’ll be dry as it’s quite windy tonight.

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