Impossible Addresses

Day 10 – Chiang Mai – Friday March 11th 2011

Our plan was so simple:

  • Have breakfast
  • Check out of the Winner Inn
  • Check into new place
  • Spend the afternoon visiting temples

The reality was far from simple. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how complicated addresses can be in Thailand. We were within 50 feet of our new guesthouse and still couldn’t find the place. Even a Tuk-Tuk driver took us half way across town without finding the place.

In the end, we set up a base camp at De Naga, a Hotel and restaurant. Nic and Chick waited with our bags and Frank and I went off to find the place. After about 2 hours, tucked down a narrow side street we found it. There were two almost identically named roads.

We went back to the girls and took our bags round to get checked in. We still had time to tour some temples and ended up in a public park at the bottom corner of Chiang Mai. The park was busy with people practicing juggling, tightrope walking and playing games on the grass.

That night we walked to the night bazaar for some food and ended up eating from a strange food court where you exchange money for tokens, then tokens for food. The food was pretty average but the walk back afterwards was an eye opener. We saw countless old fat white men chatting up Thai women in sleazy bars. Some real desperate stuff. As we were in couples we didn’t get much hassle from the girls in the bars but we saw single guys get pounced on as they walked past.

I nipped in to a 7-11 for a Coca-Cola slushy on the way back. My favourite refreshment in Thailand aside from Chang beer, and only 35p!

Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai

Day 11 – Chiang Mai – Saturday March 12th 2011

Today we booked a day at Elephant Nature Park. We wanted to repay our debts to the abused Thai elephants after witnessing their poor treatment first hand. We wanted to help and see the work that is being done to put things right.

We were collected early from our guesthouse and driven North. During the journey to Elephant Nature Park we were shown a DVD to explain the about the foundation, and about their founder Lek. Since logging was banned in Thailand there are redundant elephants that can be costly for their owners to keep. One way they make ends meet is by using the elephants for tourism. The badly treated elephants are rescued and taken care of at the park.

We arrived at the immaculate camp which had a massive barn full of fruit to feed the huge beasts. The elephants are allowed to roam free on the land without chains, and are followed by their individual mahouts (trainers). The park is against any sticks or hooks as discipline, instead preferring to use food as a training tool. Even the troublesome elephants are not chained up, instead they tie a bell round its neck, so everyone knows when trouble is coming.

This is true of a couple of the younger male elephants, which came to the park without first being domesticated (I think one of them may have been born at the park). They are much more of a challenge to train, but eventually the park aims to release elephants into the wild anyway. It would not be possible at the moment, as the elephants would be taken back into the tourism trade, due to weak laws, and the value of the elephants.

Abused elephants.

One of the elephants at the park could hardly walk as it had been chained up and used for breeding. It had broken hips and needed constant veterinary care.

Another elephant had a piece of its leg missing after a landline accident near the Burmese border. It happened over ten years ago, but still requires constant medical attention.

Feed the elephants.

We were able to feed the elephants from a raised platform, and then wash them down with buckets of water in the river.

After a massive buffet lunch we signed a petition against the use of elephants begging on the streets. The foundation does support people that use their previously domesticated elephants for tourism, but wants to make sure their welfare is being looked after, and that more elephants are not being brutally broken in to use to make money.

Elephant Nature Park was a fantastic place, and it is great to see a Thai woman making a stand against the poor treatment of these elephants. Lek has dedicated her life to helping these elephants and it clearly shows in the park.

Japan earthquake

Today we received panicked messages from our families after seeing news of the awful earthquake in Japan. We have been totally unaffected by it, but will need to keep an eye the situation for our next flights.

Thai Cooking – Chiang Mai

Day 12 – Chiang Mai – Sunday March 13th 2011

Thai Cooking Chiang Mai
Thai Cooking Chiang Mai

In the morning we booked a bus for tomorrow morning to take us North to Pai. We had heard about the place via the backpacker grapevine and it sounded like a relaxed small town. The minibus was only £3.60 each for the 4 hour trip.

We had booked a cooking course at the same office as Elephant Nature Park, so knew it would be good.

We were the only people on the course this time, so we had the place to ourselves. We started the evening at the local market, where our teacher showed us the various spices and ingredients. She was really knowledgeable and gave us ideas for things we could substitute if we couldn’t get hold of them back home. She bought some ingredients and then walked us to the house where we would be cooking.

Whilst the kitchen was prepared, we were given a starter to try. We were seated on cushions at a low table in an open fronted house. The food was served in a round dish with separate sections, with peanut, chill, sauce and some other things which I cannot remember. The idea is to pick the ingredients, wrap them in a leaf and then eat. It was like a chilli bomb. Very tasty.

When we had demolished those, we were taken outside where the cooking stations were all arranged. We were shown how to prepare the vegetables and herbs and were given some choices of what to cook.

We cooked papaya salad or stir fry first, and then went back inside to eat. After that we cooked our curries. I made a Thai green curry and got to make the curry paste from scratch. For desert I had sticky rice and mango.

All the food was genius. So tasty and not too difficult to cook. We also got a recipe book to take home.

Night market revisited.

We walked back to our guesthouse via the night market. We were lucky to get another Sunday here, I love this market. There was a row of blind musicians busking in the market in a line, and they were playing lovely music. I had a lump in my throat listening to them. They were really skilful and must have been playing together for ages.

I found a Chang t-shirt, but the woman wouldn’t budge from 170B, so I walked away  (£3.50 for a t-shirt, what a cheapskate I have become!)

In the middle of the night I woke up and was convinced I saw two ghost monks standing in the darkness of our guesthouse. They would have been around 7 feet tall so it was probably just a trick of the light. I just went back to sleep.

North To Pai – Bring The Rain

Day 13 – Chiang Mai to Pai –  Monday March 14th 2011

Pai Night Time - View from our hut
Pai Night Time – View from our hut

I woke early and was a bit freaked out about my potential ghost sighting last night. Breakfast was Coco Pops, yoghurt, and fruit. This guesthouse is run by a German guy and does great breakfasts.

The minibus was late but then we travelled around Chiang Mai collecting some Chinese travel companions.

We had a rest stop after a couple of hours and then got to Pai at around 1pm. It’s a small pretty town on a river, with quaint bamboo bridges and a decent local art scene. Some of our best postcards came from Pai.

We crossed a bamboo bridge and after walking for half an hour in the wrong direction found Darling Viewpoint Bungalows perched on the hillside. The owners were away, so a French guy that was living there and a Thai cleaner lady  helped check us in. For some reason we got upgraded to the VIP chalet so we had our own en-suite bathroom and our own terrace area with hammocks and seating.

It was a beautiful setting with mountain views beyond the town below. There must have been a temple nearby as we often heard the hypnotic sound of monks chanting. We also heard a bit of karaoke at one point but couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

Frank spent about two hours trying to light a small fire on the land outside our chalet. He finally got it going when the rain started. I was looking forward to a decent storm from our view up here. It didn’t really happen and just drizzled for ages.

The cleaner, who spoke no English at all, was also a decent cook. She cooked up some real authentic Thai food for us. We had to just point at things on the menu, which is a pretty universal way to order things in an unknown language. I think one of us may have mimed out a chicken dance, to confirm the meat content. It seems that the chicken dance is also universal.

That night, as we were falling to sleep, there was a massive crash and bang on the terrace. I got up to see what it was but I couldn’t see anything. It sounded like an animal, so we just went back to sleep.

Rainy Rural Thailand – Pai

Day 14 – Pai – Tuesday March 15th 2011

The lush wet greenery of Pai is worlds away from the Thailand we have come to know. This place is quiet, rural and laid back, even when compared to Ayutthaya. The landscape is mountainous and feels almost English. The fact that the rain has been relentless also reminds me of home.

Earlier today we were all sat around reading, just chilling out. Frank came busting through the quiet time with his exercise routine. Our chalet rocked from side to side with his every squat thrust.

We had to laugh. Even in Pai, where relaxation is king, Frank just couldn’t sit still. Eventually he succumbed to the Pai way of life and is now sitting in a hammock reading a book.

In the afternoon we got our rain macs on and headed across the river to book our travel back to Bangkok. The bus back to Chiang Mai was only £3 (150B) but we were gutted to find the next sleeper train fully booked. We had to book an overnight normal seated train for the 12 hour trip. That train cost £14 (711B) and if we couldn’t sleep on it then we had the next day to catch up before our flight to Hanoi.

Nic has had a bad stomach today so hopefully feels better before the flight.

Wheelspins In The Mountain

Day 15 – Pai to Chiang Mai – Wednesday March 16th 2011

We woke early and packed our bags. It was still raining. The owners had now returned and Darling gave us small handicraft gifts before we were dropped to the bus stop on the back of their pickup truck.

The minibus back to Chiang Mai was so full we had to ride with some of the baggage in with us. You wouldn’t believe how many bags some people travel with. (Lots)

The journey was awful. Visibility was only a few metres in the fog of the mountains, and the minibus was wheelspinning around some of the tight 180° switchbacks. Somehow we got back to Chiang Mai safely, where a waiting songthaew (pickup truck with benches in the back) ferried us to a familiar part of town, near Thapae Gate.

We had lunch and then went to an internet cafe to send messages home.

A little while later we hailed a red songthaew taxi to take us to the railway station. It cost 40p each (20B).

Our train was due at 9, but didn’t arrive ’till gone 10. The seats were actually quite comfortable, and we were at the front of the carriage so had extra leg room. Don’t think I will get much sleep on here. Wish I was tucked up on a sleeper train bunk.

Tired Taxi Waiting Day – Bangkok

Day 16 – Bangkok 2 – Thursday March 17th 2011

From Bangkok Railway Station we hailed a taxi to get us to our next hostel, the Bangkok Airport YHA. It backs on to the airport, but the taxi driver didn’t have a clue where it was, even with the address. I have found that the concept ‘near’ is very difficult to communicate to somebody when you don’t speak their language.

Me: “It’s Near The Airport”
Driver: “Aahh, you want to go Airport”
Me: “No, NEAR the airport… YHA…”
–Repeat x1000 (Exaggerated)

He eventually just headed towards the airport. I was following our location on a map, and ended up directing the driver to the place. We found King Kaew (Thaew) Road but there was still more confusion when we finally found Soi 58… All three of them. How can a place have three roads next to each other with the same name. (We later noticed later that there was Soi 58, Soi 58/1 and Soi 58n). I just found this note on the YHA website:

“** NOTE ** We are located at ‘KingKaew 58’ NOT KingKaew 58/1 and NOT KingKaew 58n
If you come from the Airport, KingKaew 58 comes after KingKaew 58/1 and 58n”

The taxi only cost a fiver for all that driving around so we can’t really complain too much. We booked another taxi for around 3am to get us to the airport, and then had a stroll around the local area to find food. I think we ended up at 7-11 for snacks.

Later we had dinner at the back of the YHA looking out over the airport. Again it was a low table with cushions to sit on. It’s a really nice way to eat.

Mugged by a Hanoi Taxi Driver

Day 17 – Bangkok to Hanoi – Friday March 18th 2011

Mugged Vietnam Taxi

I somehow managed to sleep through most of the flight so felt pretty good when we landed in Hanoi. We asked at the information kiosk about a sleeper train to Hoi An, but they were fully booked. We had been banking on getting a train straight to Hoi An so we hadn’t really planned what to do in Hanoi. We were ushered into a taxi and driven towards the city centre.

Alarm Bells

We should have realised when the driver started playing music videos on a small screen that this wasn’t your usual government issue taxi.

He eventually pulled up in a side street, where a dodgy Hotel owner was waiting to try and sell us rooms. The taxi driver snatched 2 million Dong from Frank’s wallet and after a heated exchange we grabbed our stuff and started walking. Fast.

2 million Dong is only about £60 so we counted ourselves lucky and shared the cost between us. We later found out that it should have only been £10.

In that moment of madness we had ignored all our own advice and been taken advantage of. We all felt a bit stupid and quite vulnerable. We didn’t have a clue where we were or where we wanted to go.

Find a big landmark, head for that

We knew that Hanoi had a big lake in the middle so we tried to head for that. By some huge fluke we wandered straight by a Hosteling International Hostel. We took refuge in the lobby and were so happy when they gave us a room for the night for only £4 each.

The rain was still heavy but we decided to get out and have a walk round the old quarter. The noise of this place is like nowhere else. Cars and motorbikes use their horns at every opportunity. It isn’t very relaxing to walk around the streets, which are often 5 deep with parked mopeds. Walking along a busy road, whilst motorbikes crowd the pavement seems mad.


After our walk I was totally shell shocked so went for a lie down. Nic and Frank went to look at tours to Halong Bay. They seem quite expensive at around $30-40 USD. Vietnam uses the US Dollar almost as a second currency, the problem is that you can only get it on the black market here. We decided to use local currency instead.

Before we got here we had heard news of a British guy drowning on an overnight Halong Bay trip, so we didn’t want to spend a night on the boat. Luckily there was the alternative option to stay on an Island instead.

We had a bad start in Vietnam so I went to bed hoping to wake up in a better mood. We have been away from home for 3 weeks and have yet to see a single beach yet. The islands of Thailand are calling me.

Eating From The Gutter

Day 18 – Hanoi – Saturday March 19th 2011

After a chilly night’s sleep I hadn’t managed to shake off my bad mood. We checked out of the Atlantic and headed for David Guesthouse. We walked past this guesthouse last night, and were pretty horrified by the scene. There was litter all over the street, massive rats, and a family huddled around a bin-fire.

Today, the scene was infinitely improved. There was a bustling street market, which explains the rats and litter. The room was actually OK, and very cheap.

First we booked trips to Halong Bay and then spent the day walking around Hanoi, which is not as easy as it sounds. It often involves playing chicken with the traffic. Walking round a new city is a great way to get a feel for a place, especially when you’re on a tight budget. It’s one of my favourite free activities.

Hanoi Hilton

We had lunch by the lake and then visited Hoa Lo prison (The Hanoi Hilton). This historical prison had been in use for years, most recently during the Vietnam War to house and torture prisoners of war.

Hoa Lo Prison Stairs
Hoa Lo Prison Stairs

Outside the prison we were targeted by another scam, but we were ready for this one. A woman jumps off the back of a scooter and says she is learning English. If you agree to help then they do various things to extort money from you, from running up huge bar bills (which they get a cut of), to muggings and other dodgy things. We just told her firmly NO, and then walked off. Luckily somebody had warned us of this scam.

Read my tips to avoid airport taxi scams here.

At 4:30pm we found the Ho Chi Minh Museum but it had just closed, so we went to find the St. Joseph Cathedral before heading back to our guesthouse.

We freshened up and then walked a few blocks looking for somewhere to eat. We ended up at a “cook your own” place. Perched on childs’ plastic chairs, we were given a plate of meat, onions and veg, and dishes with salt, pepper, chilli and lime. We had a solid fuel camping stove on the table so lobbed on some steak and onions and cooked our own dinner. It was really tasty, but I can’t help thinking we should have gone for the goat option.

French Bread

The best thing about Hanoi’s French heritage is arguably the bread. Most bread in asia is horrible sweet crumbly stuff, but the baguettes in Hanoi are perfect. Look on any street corner and you will see a woman selling an armful of bread rolls. We even saw a woman on the hard shoulder of the motorway, selling bread to passing motorbike riders.

After eating we walked back to the lake to see it at night. It was really busy, with free dance classes and groups of people playing foot-badminton. I had never even heard of foot-badminton, but it looks like it takes a lot of skill.

Halong Bay – The Inspiration For Avatar

Day 19 – Hanoi to Halong Bay – Sunday March 20th 2011

Halong Bay Avatar
Halong Bay Avatar

We were collected by minibus at about 9am and arrived at Halong Bay around lunchtime. Frank was on a different bus, as he was sleeping on the boat overnight. We were just day-boating and then sleeping on Cat Ba island.

The most striking thing about the harbour at Ha Long is the massive amount of building work happening there. The whole place is like a building site.

The harbour is rammed with old wooden boats, waiting to take people out to the rocky islets. As is often the case, we all paid different amounts for the same trip. We paid around £20, but some people in our group paid twice that amount.

The water was calm, but visibility was really poor due to fog. We could just about make out one rocky formation at a time, before we moved on to the next one. I think we missed out on the main effect of this place.

We stopped at a pontoon, along with about a hundred other boats, where we joined a line to walk through a cave. The cave was lit by coloured lights, and felt a bit too touristy. We pretty much ran through the cave to get out the other side.


When we got going again, we got chatting to two Swedish sisters Helen and Marianne. They taught us the swedish words for body parts. This was probably my favourite. We also played a card game which asks questions and scores how Swedish you are. Nic did OK, but doesn’t watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve so lost some serious points for that.

On Cat Ba island we found a bar and had a few beers with the Swedes. There was no heating in our hotel so I decided to drink enough that it didn’t matter. I had quite a few Bia Ha Noi’s which helped send me to sleep.