Category Archives: activities

Bron and Claire’s jungle day of fun

Bron and Claire playing Rambo in the jungle Bron and I bade farewell to the others and caught what has tho be the best, most comfortable public transport in the whole of SE Asia along wide, wonderfully smooth tarmac highways up to Jeratut where we had a scenic three hour boat ride along the fringes of Taman Negara National Park where we’d decided to stop for a day en route to the islands. As we only planned to spend one full day in the park we decided to get our money’s worth and have a jam packed jungle day of fun. After breakfast on the floating restaurants down on the river we caught a boat over to the entrance and set off through the jungle to the world’s longest canopy walk. It is a fantastic swaying bridge suspended in the canopy about 40 metres above the ground and the sections are 450m in total length, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie certainly and with fantastic views across the jungle canopy from the platforms. Canopy walkway in Taman NegaraTaman Negara is the world’s oldest rain forest which makes it roughly 130 million years old, give or take a millenia or two. Huge trees tower above you, giant ants scurry around the forest floor, the sounds of geckos and birds echo through the dense foliage and far away from prying eyes tigers and wild boar lurk about. Sadly we didn’t see a tiger but we did spot two wild pigs trotting through the entrance area as we were eating cookies outside the souvenir shop! After the canopy it was only a 2.6km walk to Ear cave. Somehow, due to the steep up and down paths riddled with tree roots, a torrential downpour, a prolonged photo stop by on the park’s largest trees and several slides it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the cave. Sunset over the rainforestBy this time we were absolutely filthy, covered in mud and thoroughly damp but with that wonderful dismissive-ness that comes from being dirty enough not to care. It was a rough and slippery scramble to get into the cave with our torches. We went in just far enough to see the colonies of cute furry bats clinging to the overhangs with tiny clawed feet and inhale the unmistakable stench of piles of guano! It was getting late so we made our way out and managed to get back to the village before dark. Bats in Ear CaveI must have picked up a few leeches on the way back as when I took off my trousers my feet and leg were covered in blood – nice! That evening after dinner we went on a night walk with a guided group. Sadly the six or so British 18-year old backpackers could not grasp the concept of walking and talking quietly to maximise the chances of spotting the wildlife. After the guide had asked them repeatedly to be quiet I asked them rather curtly to attempt to talk a little more quietly and the girl just rolled her eyes at me. Seriously, youngsters these days have absolutely no respect! We did see a green tree snake, a viper about a foot above my head, wood scorpions, huge furry spiders, massive stick insects and a beautiful flower called a one night stand which only blooms at night. It was 11pm by the time we made it back to our little dorm bungalow, muddy, damp, dishevelled but nicely jungled out!

easy riders and the crazy house

Swan Pedalos in DalatWell having gone our separate ways James and I ended up arriving in Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam on the same afternoon which was a good enough excuse for me to book us into a slightly nicer hotel with a jacuzzi shower. How have I managed thus far without one, they are the most wonderful inventions. That and the hotel had a truly enormous breakfast spread of passion fruit, pineapple, dragon fruit, baguettes, peanut butter and eggs, definitely worth $10 each for the night.

Me and Thai, DalatDalat is Vietnam’s no. 1 honeymoon spot and looks very different to the rest of the country. It has a cool climate and is set up in pine forest mountains and feels bizarrely like stumbling on a mini Asian-influenced region of the Alps. The centre of town surrounds a peaceful lake about 2km along with locals fishing and jogging and Vietnamese tourists out in pedalos shaped like giant swans or taking horse drawn carriage rides along the road alongside the golf course. Dalat countrysideIn the evening we went to find the Easy Riders of Dalat, a ever-growing group of freelance motorbike drivers who take Western tourists (apparently the local tourists like to do things in big tour buses only) zooming around the area on their bikes for a handsome amount of US dollars. They hang out drinking beer in the Peace Cafe in their bright blue Easy Rider jackets and fairly soon we had sorted a trip for both of us for the following day. The trip was a lot of fun and both our drivers were really nice guys, I was one the back of Thai’s bike and James on Renee’s. Most of the bikes in Vietnam seem to be Honda dreams, they are in Thai’s words “pieces of shit but cheap and easy to buy!” We began the day by visiting the most bubblegum coloured theme park like Buddhist temple I’ve seen yet in Asia, the Vietnamese do love their kitsch and there is no such think as overdoing the decoration. Silk worm cocoons, DalatThe gardens to the side of the temple housed a huge brightly coloured dragon that wouldn’t have looked out of place with a slide down it’s back in a children’s playground. It was kind of cool. We saw a lot of the countryside with pine forests on the slopes above the road, a thicker denser jungle forest below. Elephant waterfalls, DalatWe stopped off to see vegetable gardens, strawberry fields, flower farms in huge glasshouses, a mushroom farm (weirdly looked like a scene from ‘Alien’ with suspended lines of round pod sacks hanging in a damp room from which they cultivate the fungi), silkworms and a silkworm factory. Also to James’ delight found our first impressively beautiful waterfall in SE Asia, not easy in the dry season. The walk down to Elephant falls was muddy, slippery and involved plenty of scrambling but was worth it for the view of the falls framed by the trees. 

Passion Fruit flower, DalatWe had a very cheap and very good lunch on a balcony restaurant overlooking the valley and the coffee plantations and chatting to our Easy Riders. Thai was very impressed we were both travelling on our own funds and not our parent’s. “Vietnamese children are different, they are always asking their parents for money,” he commented darkly. We finished the day off at the Crazy House in town. To be honest I think crazy is an understatement, imagine Gaudi extremely high on acid, overdosed on Vietnamese kitsch and inspired by a combination of gothic architecture and the Brothers Grimm,Crazy House, Dalat let his imagination loose in wire and plaster in the middle of Dalat. There are winding walkways in yellow and grey, giant giraffe heads, huge wire spider webs, low ceilings, melted turrets and everywhere twists and turns that connect the strangely themed rooms. Hang Viet Nga is the woman who designed and built the Crazy House and who is still building it, she has managed to avoid any political criticism and discouragement as her father was helpfully ‘Uncle Ho’s’ successor, so she has been allowed free reigns for her creative ambitions. You can actually stay in there, in rooms with strange globular shaped beds in corners, mirrored ceilings and giant kangaroos or bears with red light bulb eyes to keep you company. In the designers words: “Living in the Da Lat, the surrounding wilderness inspired me to focus on nature.” Well maybe those giant swan pedalos on the lake were a little strange but seriously? All very cool, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there!

Easy riders, Renee and Thai, Dalat

smiles and sunshine on the walk to Sin Chai

Photos from the two hour walk that Jordan and I took to Sin Chai on our last day in Sapa…

Sin Chai Jump shot! Kids in Sin Chai Hills around Sin Chai Terraces in Sin Chai

Piglets up to no good in Sin Chai Kids in Sin Chai Bamboo, Cat Cat Village 

Sapa Fat Adult Pig, Sin Chai

the dangerous drinking games of the Black H’mong

Boozing at Hanoi BackpackersJames and I spent the weekend at the Hanoi backpackers, mainly drinking, well if they will offer free kegs of Bia Hoi on the roof. And besides those Sunday afternoon beers were purely to settle the hangover from the previous night. Apart from drinking we did manage to go and see the water puppet theatre by the river which I loved. The puppeteers are concealed behind bamboo screens and skillfully manipulate the wooden puppets by bamboo pools concealed in a deep pool of water on which the performances take place. There were farmers riding buffalos, dragon boat races, a mating dance of brightly coloured phoenix and two golden segmented dragons that shot fire from their mouths. Red Zao, SapaI think I was more captivated than half the children present! Finally on Sunday it was time for James and I to separate, partly as we wanted to go off to different places and to stop us potentially killing each other in the future, so now I have no chance to redeem myself at cribbage. I left him in the company of three lovely Irish girls and took the rather luxurious tourist carriage on the night train north to Sapa.

Afternoon mist in Sapa, Vietnam I arrived in Sapa at an ungodly hour of the morning with an American guy called Jordan and our new Welsh friend Marina. We spent about two hours eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant watching the changing white grey mist shroud the entire town and countryside…so much for the fantastic views! The rest of the day in the mist was amusing, it was impossible to see more than about 10 metres. Sapa is a tourist town with steep streets surrounded by villages of various ethic minorities of Vietnam, particularly the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao whose women frequent the town in large numbers smiling broadly in their traditional dress and try to persuade you to buy handcrafts from them. They are lovely though once you get chatting and I brought earrings from a woman called Mai, and her friend Mai (same word, different pronunciation that we all failed to get after 10 minutes) Mai and her baby boy, Sapaand we ended up swapping some of her embroidered wrist bands for my Indian bracelets which she loved! We had sizzling local meat dishes for dinner and played cards and drank mulled wine before Marina and I totally failed to get the fire going in the room, it is pretty chilly up here.

Rice terraces, SapaThe next day Jordan and I left on a two day trek into the valley with our guide, a 19 year old H’mong girl called Za. All the local guides are women, they all speak amazingly good English and they are highly amusing. The men have no contact with tourists and don’t speak English, where as the women pick up the language and sell handicrafts in the markets and basically end up supporting their families. In the villages of the H’mong, the women are most definitely in charge!

Za and G, Black H’mong guidesWe got dropped off 10km from Sapa and walked down through the rice terraces that literally cover the hillsides like huge green contour lines. In places we were side stepping along the edges of the terraces our hands being held by tiny local women to stop us falling in. We passed ducks bathing in the water, splashing buffalo, women working in the fields and the clouds swirled and drifted over the tops of the hillsides as we passed. The final part of the walk took us down a steep but scenic path into the pretty village of Ban Ho at the bottom of the valley in a crook of the river.

There were about 16 of us spending the night in the homestay in Ban Ho run by a Black H’mong woman called Lam, five months pregnant with two twinkling gold teeth and a wicked laugh. We had the most amazing dinner of beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and spinach dishes with heaps of white rice. Me downing another shot of rice wineAfterwards we’d all had a few beers and the girls came out with three litre bottles of rice wine, “Happy Water,” announcing we were drinking all of it. And they helped. I don’t know what I expected of a homestay, but playing cards and drinking games and getting pissed with a group of women from a north Vietnamese ethnic minority was maybe not one of them. When any of the boys refused a shot B and Lam would accuse them of being lady boys and burst into hysterical laughter. I told B she had to keep eye contact when saying cheers otherwise she would have bad sex for seven years. She went bright red, the started laughing saying. “I don’t know these things, I’m not married yet!” She then told all the other women and ever time we said cheers they kept opening their eyes wide and laughing. It was a hugely entertaining evening.

Buffalo on the terraces, SapaThis morning we were all not too bad considering the amount everyone drank the night before. Jordan, myself, Za and another couple went for a long walk around the village past the thermal spring pools (we had an almost hot dip in them the previous night) and around to a tiny waterfall falling into a large green pool and falling over the rocks down to the village bridge. Vietnamese pot bellied pigThen we had a long walk uphill back to the main road. It had rained heavily overnight and as a result the path was a total mud bath. It was messy and slippery work getting back to the top but amazingly I managed not to fall over. After a noodle lunch we got taken back in a jeep to Sapa and to a warm shower and clean clothes!

the march of the monks

MonksI left a rather grumpy James in bed to get up at 6am and go and see the Luang Prabang monks do their daily walk down the main street collecting alms (rice and food) from the local towns people. Of course this religious ritual has become somewhat of a tourist parade but it is hugely captivating to watch the huge long line of brightly orange garbed monks, mainly the younger ones, in a long chain winding their way down the road.

Streets of Luang PrabangFor the rest of the day James and I decided to get involved with some adventure sports in the countryside around Luang Prabang. So we spent two hours in the morning mountain biking up and down some very rough roads out of the town past small villages, buffalo and coconut tree fields and ended up on the banks of the River Nam Kaun where our guide transferred us into a cute little two seater kayak and off we went down the river past some stunning scenery. In fact it was the scenery that proved to be my undoing. The river in the dry season is very flat and calm so the kayaking is fairly leisurely with no real rapids to speak of. Lured into a false sense of security and desperately wanting to photograph the scenery I pulled out my camera from the dry bag and took lots of photos. River scenes, Luang Prabang After a picnic lunch on the banks I decided to keep the camera out, hooked onto my life jacket. Then we hit our first rapids. These were the smallest, rippling rapids known to man but somehow they managed to hit our kayak side on and we capsized and along with myself and James my beloved camera tumbled into the water. Game Over. To my amazement two days later the camera is completely fine apart from the fact that the flash doesn’t work, long live the canon!

Night Market, Luang PrabangLuang Prabang has been the loveliest place to spend a few days. The old town is completely set up for tourists but it feels so laid back and is so picturesque it’s hard not to love. Our guest house was right opposite the Mekong and it was great just spending a day wandering around the temples, the roads, seeing the beautiful small colonial houses and the river peeking through the palm trees surrounding the peninsula. The town also has a small, colourful and embarrassingly cheap night market, even James didn’t bother bargaining. We spent our evening playing cribbage in the Lao Lao beer garden eating Buffalo steaks and drinking Beerlao (probably the best beer in SE Asia) and drinking two for one Lao whisky cocktails, this is definitely the life!

messing about on the Mekong

Flight of the Gibbon
Descending down between platforms, ThailandJames and I saw a slightly recovered, but still weak Mum off at Chiang Mai airport for her flight home and then went about planning our escape to Laos, but before leaving Thailand we found out about a zip-line tour through the forest canopy which both of us had previously done in Costa Rica but had never heard about being able to do in Thailand. The reason for this transpired to be the fact the activity only opened in January this year.

“We have had two months and no accidents or deaths!” Our grinning guides proudly announced.

Huge trees in the forest, ThailandWe started off visiting a nearby waterfall in the middle of some lush green forest with views out across the valley. It would have been a very peaceful morning had not the guy on our trip (a Hawaiian in Thailand with his wife for dental treatment!) said he’d seen James going further up to the top. So I waited for James to reappear and after a while as the others started walking back down became a little concerned so I went to check he was okay. I walked a good 20 minutes steeply up the steps, scrambling up over some slippery earth and so far up that I got turned back by a bloke with a large knife! And still no James. By now I’m convinced he’s fallen down unconscious somewhere. Of course I ran into him looking for me as I was going down, he’d been back at the start all along. Oh well, I was just glad to find him in one piece!

James incoming!After lunch we headed out to our starting platform, one of fifteen, for the zip-lining. For three hours the eight of us in the group got harnessed up to long lines from platforms suspended up in huge thick trees in the forest and went zooming along them or dropped down between platforms. Our guides were hugely entertaining, even when my bamboo stick ‘break’ that was tucked into my side strap nutted one of them in the crotch as I came into land! James spent most of the afternoon taking very amusing videos of himself zooming down the lines. It was huge amounts of fun especially flying over parts of the valley and seeing the canopy below you as you whiz along and finally stop, or in my case forget to use the break and half crash, into the guide waiting for you at the next platform. 

Chiang Mai Walking Market, ThailandWe got back to Chiang Mai with enough time to take a stroll through the walking night market, I gazed hungry eyed at all the stalls and crafts on sale but managed to restrain myself by just buying some fisherman pants and a banana waffle. Then we came back for a final farewell to the wonderful luxury of the Tri Yaan Na Ros and got picked up by minibus to take us to Chiang Kong and the Laos border.

Cows on the Mekong, LaosCrossing into Laos was one of those bizarre exercises in Asian chaotic organisation which seems, somehow, to work surprisingly well. We’d booked a kind of arranged trip to get us to Luang Prabang. Five hours to get to the Boom house Guest House on the border where instead of arriving for breakfast at 6am we arrived at 3am but got given a really cheap and fairly nice room so I managed to get a welcome four hours sleep. After breakfast we were taken down to the Thai immigration, got stamped out of the country, then across the river in a tiny boat to the somewhat chaotic immigration for Laos on the far shores. Despite the numbers of tourists milling around and filling in forms, changing currencies and crowding around the booths it was only about 35 minutes to get a visa and the entry passport stamped before a few of us were relaxing in a cafe up the road before the slow boat was due to leave.

Views down the Mekong, LaosThere are two ways to get from this border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, a speed boat or a slow boat and I am pretty glad we opted for the slow one. The speed boats zoom down the river dodging huge rocky outcrops and the occupants, beside getting sprayed, have to wear crash helmets, apparently when they do crash it tends to be the kind of head on collision with a rock or another speed boat where the survivors number 0, crash helmets or not! Our slow boat was a long brightly coloured wooden boat with bench seats, a well stocked bar at the back and it was carrying about 80 passengers, so fairly crowded, and pretty much all farang(tourists). The Mekong is a beautiful river, a wide flowing silty river that cut through scenery of forested limestone hills, high white sandy banks with jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the edges of the river banks. We saw the occasional herds of black and pink (!) buffalo grazing on the shores, fishermen drifting by in long thin wooden boats, their nets suspended from the rocks, and small groups of children playing in the water by the banks of tiny bamboo villages on stilts tucked away within the trees. We sat with bottles of very drinkable BeerLao and watched the scenery roll past.

James boarding our boat at Pak Beng, LaosWe spent the night in a little rustic stop over village, full of guest houses,  called Pak Beng and were thankful that our guide had got us to pre book a room back at the border crossing, as a small group of us were taken out of the throng of locals, farang and rucksacks and went up the hill to the Boun Mee Guest House which was basic but nice with a wide wooden terrace over looking the now darkening Mekong. Ben and Ronnie, an English couple we’d been chatting to on the boat came down and Ben’s usual blond afro was considerably larger than it had been during the day. In trying to get the lights to work in their room he’d flicked a breaker and been thrown across the room by an electric shock. Luckily he didn’t seem to worse for the wear and the owners found them a less deadly room for the night. Locals on the Mekong, LaosThe next day we continued for about 7 hours down the river, by now my bottom was getting a little sore, despite the cushions and I was hugely thankful when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. I also realised that I am getting old. A small group of 21 year old Brits, Aussies and Americans were rowdily doing beer bongs at the back of the boat and having the most inane conversations I have ever heard. There is a limit to how often the word ‘like’ should be used in a sentence, certainly not as every other word! James’s all time favourite quote from one of the American guys to one of the British guys was:

“Didn’t you guys like just have a war with Argentina?”

Enough said! I am too old to be hanging out with 21 year old travelling piss heads anymore. James says I am turning into a travelling snob. Well with 46 countries, 4 months in India and having been away for 11 months I think I have earned the right to take the backpacking high ground. However, I think he maybe right!

Port sunset in Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang is lovely, relaxed, picturesque, friendly and really laid back. The buildings are small and wooden with sloping roofs, potted plants and small balconies and the whole old part of the town is just ridiculously, charmingly cute. We wondered around a little last night after finding a cute guest house opposite the banks of the Mekong. We had a really cheap and really gorgeous dinner (I had Laos aubergine, chicken and bean noodle soup, James had a cheese burger!) along the main street of restaurants before having a few beers in a small bar and heading home to bed. This morning we’ve just been wondering around the streets, long the river side and visiting a beautiful old Buddhist temple called Wat Xieng Thong. There are brightly robed monks walking about everywhere, in fact they are even in the internet cafes checking their emails!

ups and downs in the hill tribes of Chiang Dao

Mum and her elephantDay one – Elephants, bamboo rafts and bartering
We started our three day journey in Chiang Dao, about two hours north of Chiang Mai where we met Dan and Amber, a really lovely couple from the gold coast in Australia who were also on our trip. Just as well really, three days with just us Linneys and who knows what could have happened. The first day was mainly a lot of the more fun activities and not so much trekking which was cool. Limestone hills, Chiang Dao areaWe had a very funny guide called Tory who laughed at absolutely everything he told us, whether it was serious or not and sang us the cutest kids song about elephants in English and Thai! We started off with a quick visit to the local market which was a mishmash of cheap clothing, herbs, large bush knives and retro US army t-shirts. Then we headed off by jeep to where three large Asian Elephants were waiting to take us the one hour journey to the first hill tribe village, Palaung.

Lisu KidThe hill tribes live generally around 1000m in Thailand and originally came from China, Tibet, Laos or Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are being discouraged from their slash-and-burn agriculture and now much of the area is protected or being planted. The government also stopped their very lucrative trade in opium so now their main income is via tourism, hosting trekking groups and selling handicrafts.

Mum managed to get the biggest elephant all to herself and it spent most of the scenic leisurely ride trying to overtake Dan and Amber’s in front. On the final steep path down to the Palaung village James and I nearly slid off the front of ours and gripped onto the seat for dear life as we teetered down the path. Lisu Tribe WomanThe villages are a group of bamboo houses on stilts, most with solar panels outside and lots of squealing piglets, chickens and half fox/half dog breeds running around. The women were all waiting for us round in a circle on the ground in traditional colourful dress displaying their handicrafts to buy. I’m sure they go and change into jeans the minute the tourists leave. They were really lovely though and every time they smiled you got a sight of red and black stained teeth from all the betel they chew.

Mum barginning!After a tasty lunch we took the jeep onto visit a few more villages seeing on the way lots of bamboo houses, banana plants, a baby monkey riding on the back of a local dog, the men in their very kitsch blue velvet baggy pants, pigs and roosters. Mum brought a bag from one Lisu tribe woman and I don’t think the woman was quite prepared for the bargaining technique. Mum just kept leaning her head on one side and hugging her around the shoulders saying, “Go on, 120 Baht!” To the amazement of us all it worked far better than our bartering! When we reached the Akka tribe the women were waiting for us and practically jumped us with hats, bags and jewellery. It was surprisingly good natured though and they keep laughing and smiling even when we didn’t buy anything. James simply said,

“Look this is all women’s stuff. There are only two women in my life, and they are both over there.”

Raft hitchhikersWe finished the day with a long relaxing bamboo rafting trip down the river on literally sticks of bamboo bound together. We each had a go pushing the rafts through the shallow water with the long bamboo poles before letting the guide take over whilst we enjoyed the scenery. At one point three local boys in their underpants hijacked Dan and Amber’s raft and spent the next twenty minutes jumping and somersaulting off the back before finally disappearing up the banks. The Thai people really do seem to be laughing and smiling pretty much all the time! It was just before dark when we reached our bamboo hut in the Lisu village we were sleeping in. An almost full moon was shining above the limestone hills, we had a gorgeous dinner of sausage and chicken curries with rice and were all in bed by 9 o’clock.

Mum in the cavesDay Two – Extreme caving, claustrophobia and Thai whisky
The village roosters were rather over-enthusiastic and had two rather loud rehearsals in the middle of the night before finally timing their vocal announcements with actual daylight. As a result we were all awake fairly early and sat outside our hut watching small male piglets running after the larger females and trying unsuccessfully to mount them until breakfast was ready! For the day we had our very own velvet-trousered guide, who spoke no English but who none-the-less turned out to be a bit of a joker, to take us first caving and then to a local waterfall. The caving was fantastic, we spent about 90 minutes crawling, walking and scrambling through passageways to different chambers with immense stalactite and stalagmite formations. I’d forgotten, however, that James is considerably more claustrophobic than I am and when we finally got outside he was a good deal more relieved than the rest of us to be once more in the fresh air. Chiang Dao Mountain from Lisu NalaoWe trekked along the river side over some Indiana Jones-Style bridges to a small waterfall before making our way back up over the hill sides until about 4pm we came to our second Lisu village for the night. This time our bamboo hut had a terrace overlooking the whole valley to Chiang Dao mountain on the other side. Dan and the whisky man, Lisu NalaoThe villagers were a lot more friendly, within 10 minutes of arriving we all had a large bottle of Chang beer in hand and shortly afterwards the village drunk (?) arrived with a large bottle of home brewed whisky and a few small glasses and insisted that we spend the next hour drinking with him. The whisky was pretty strong, actually you could probably have got drunk just inhaling the stuff. After a few whiskies, beers and the luxury of a sit down toilet we were all feeling very relaxed as we sat down for a Thai dinner and watched the sky darken over the mountains.

Local ShamenDay three – Shaman, Blind caves and Mum is pushed to the limit
Our final day was the toughest hiking but some beautiful scenery and our guide for this day, a fifty-nine year old Lisu man with clipped words in English, a very peculiar sense of humour and a huge beaming smile. He was hugely surprised that Mum was old enough to have had James and I, he spent the rest of the day calling her Mama to our amusement! We stopped for lunch in a small village and were given some strange tea to drink by the local shaman in the cut off stems of bamboo trunks. We all then had to take a brightly coloured woven wrist band for luck. Dan and James were slightly horrified at the un-manliness of the orange ones they picked and announced they were taking them off the minute we got back to Chiang Dao! Village pigletWe trekked down steep paths through teak and bamboo forests, the earth changing colour from sand, to yellow-orange, to deep red clays. Huge brown fallen leaves lined the track and crunched underfoot and the sunlight filtered through the yellow and orange ones still on the trees. Our guide kept merrily kicking huge Buffalo turds out of the path and frequently hopped off to hack down bamboo shoots with his huge knife to make us walking sticks. He also cut down a huge stem which his assistant guide-in-training later made into long bowls for our lunch!

Cutting Bamboo for lunch bowlsBefore lunch we explored one more cave that cut right across the rock-face in front of the path. Even though this one had no crawling James wisely elected to stay outside. It was then we realised all our torches were in our packs which we’d left to be driven to our pick-up point. So we went in with the guide’s not-very-bright torch and Dan’s even-less-bright torch. The chambers in the cave were huge and though it wasn’t nearly as hard going as the previous cave it was more unsettling as we could hardly see where we were going. It was like the blind leading the blind. Lunch was rice and vegetable with chilli tuna in our very cool bamboo bowls. By now Mum was starting to have a dodgy stomach, probably from the Thai whisky the night before. Unfortunately we still had over two hours of particularly steep uphill trekking to do to reach our pick up. Mum made it but only just with a little help from James and I along the way. Then our truck broke down taking us to Chiang Dao to pick up the rest of our stuff so we had to wait another hour to get rescued.

“See this is the real travelling,” I joked to Mum, “food poisoning and transport breaking down when you least expect it.” She didn’t look amused!

Tri Yaan Na Ros, Colonial House, Chiang MaiTwo hours later we were back in Chiang Mai, dropped Dan and Amber off at their hotel and then we headed to the Tri Yaan Na Ros. To say this place is beautiful is the understatement of the year. It’s small, cosy, gorgeous, lovely, picturesque and amusingly costs about the same as a travel lodge in the UK! James disappeared immediately into his room and found the sports channel and Mum and I collapsed onto two huge dark wood four poster beds draped with maroon silk and white mosquito nets. Our room opens onto a balcony that overlooks a turquoise green swimming pool lined with white columns and palm trees. Sadly Mum is still in bed recovering from traveller’s diarrhea today but at least it’s a pretty fantastic bed to be ill in. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when planning a lovely holiday for her with James and I in Thailand!

Mr India’s balls and other camel stories

The biggest reason for many people to come to Jaisalmer other than the beautiful Jain temples, Havelis, and sandstone town surrounding a fort cut into the rock rising above the rooftops glowing in the setting sun, is to go on a camel safari and I was no exception.

Me and SheruI went on the safari for three days, beginning with a jeep trip 30km out from the town. The desert is not all sand dunes, it’s a mixture of rocky and sandy scrub land full of sprawling multi-fronged cacti, low bushes, short prickly trees, herds of goats and cows from tiny mud-wall villages dotted around, wild camels, and areas of isolated sand dunes rising up out of the vegetation. I had a lovely and (apart from a few bottom biting incidents) relatively well behaved camel called Sheru. It’s mating season at the moment, and our camels, being boys, kept making these bizarre rumbling throaty sounds (like a Desert kidshelicopter whirring under water) and then they’d pucker their lips blowing their tongues, pink and gooey, out of the sides of their mouths in a sort of gobby fart. This apparently is the camel mating call. How the females find that attractive is beyond me, but each species to their own!

We got to drive our own camels, which consisted of basically holding the reigns while they did and went exactly as they pleased at pretty much whatever speed they chose but giving you the wonderful illusion of control. Ocaisionally I started feeling smug that my prodding and clicking noises had finally got Sheru to manage a slow run or to hurry up, when I would see Dhurgan, my 12 year old camel wallah, running along side nudging him with a stick!

We visited the villages, spent the heat of the day resting under trees eating lunch and lounging around on mats chatting, and in the evening made a camp on the dunes, had dinner around a glowing fire with the camel wallahs singing traditional songs and beating out rhythms on the empty water bottles. We slept on thin mattresses under blankets with the unadulterated nights sky above us showing a brilliant array of stars, the odd shooting one briefly flashing by. Canadians in the sand dunesIt was cold, but very cool. The first night we were a big group of Canadians, French, Americans, Spanish, Turkish, Colombians and Brazilian backpackers, giving me a chance to practice my ailing languages a little although Fatim, the Turkish girl was horrified at all the Turkish swear words I knew!

Dhurgan and the camelsThe others were all heading back for the second day leaving Eric (Denver) , Pierre (California) and myself riding Simon the camel, Sheru and Mr India. Mr India, the biggest camel, had the largest balls of all the camels, so large that they swang out from under his tail from side to side as he walked. Following behind him for a few hours I became quite hypnotised by those swinging balls! We had a really peaceful day, swaying along on the top of our steeds, taking in the scenery, low hills, scrub-land and streaks of white cloud radiating out across the horizon. We came back to the dunes that night and were joined by two Taiwanese guys and a couple from Korea. That night we had desert folk songs, Korean children’s songs and Taiwanese music whilst Eric, Pierre and I contributed ‘American Pie’ and ‘She’ll be coming round the Mountain!’The boys, the camel and I

img_8135.JPG By the time we got back to the jeep on the final afternoon it had been great but my bottom and inner thighs had begun to protest, although according to the boys it was far worse for them having had their nuts squashed for the past three days. We got back to Jaisalmer to hot showers and soft beds and I went out for dinner with the boys to have pizza and wine to celebrate being back in civilisation.

Desert skyToday after visiting the network of Jain temples in the fort, Pierre and I set out on a very innocent trip to buy train tickets from the station outside town. Somehow we ended up meeting a group of very entertaining guys staying in the station’s retiring rooms. They invited us in for food and shots of Old Monk, my favourite Indian whisky. After helping them to drink the best part of a bottle Pierre and I decided it was definitely time to leave, getting pissed in the early afternoon is definitely not a good habit. I do have a pretty bad cold at the moment though, so for me the rum is purely medicinal! This is the bizarre and best thing about India, it is so wonderfully unpredictable. One minute you are being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in a huge city, the next learning to fly kites on Rajasthani rooftops or sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes; being surrounded by business-hungry touts one second who view you as a walking cash machine and then being welcomed into the poorest family’s home to share their dinner.

a new year and rajasthani cheer

I could probably stay in Udaipur for another month quite happily, sitting up on the roof overlooking the river and drinking banana lassis and eating Bhang cookies, but sadly all good things must come to an end so I am heading off tonight deeper into Rajasthan.

Village viewsNew Year’s Day was a very lazy day for pretty much all of us, it involved a very prolonged breakfast up on the terrace and much lazing about. In the evening a few of us decided that it was about time to go and watch one of the screenings of Octopussy, a good portion of which was filmed in the town so pretty much every other restaurant has a television showing the film at 7pm. The one we chose even had little wooden doors enclosing the TV proudly naming it the ‘Octopussy Temple’…there was a comedy photo begging to be taken there! I have to say it’s not the best James bond film ever but it was quite exciting watching the scenes around the lake and up at the Monsoon palace. I forget just how wonderfully sexist and unPC those films were, especially the ones from the late 70s early 80s. in one classic scene 007 hands a wad of rupees he’s just won gambling to his Indian counterpart and says grinning, “there, that should keep you in curries for a while!”

Horse ridingYesterday I decided to something vaguely productive with at least half of my day and got up early to go horse riding outside of the town for three hours. Typically, as is always the case, I get given the naughtiest horse. Chandra, I was told was a very good horse but, in the words of our guide, “he has the mind of a child!” He was a lovely horse but had an amusing habit of trying to chase things if they went past fastest than him; buffalo, motorbikes, cows… Still it was a peaceful morning Tiger lakeriding through the country villages, visiting an animal orphanage and finally ending up at a beautiful place called Tiger lake far north of Udaipur. The villages are small dusty tracks lined with flat topped white or pale pink houses, tiny Hindu temples, sugar cane and crop fields with buffalo peering suspiciously over the tops of stone walls and women in vividly coloured shawls carrying huge water pans on their heads or working in the fields. The men, it seemed, were mainly sitting around in the the little chai stalls reading newspapers, no doubt doing the essential ‘thinking’ to keep the wheels of village life turning.

Last night we went to a gorgeous terrace restaurant on the other side of the lake for dinner and were a decided motley crew between us we had a landscape gardener, ex army recruit, two students, a fire eater, a musician and a guy who works for Cirque Du Soleil. I know I frequently mention this but it is one of the things I love about travelling you just meet so many more interesting people than you would in the same week to week routine at home. I even got to practice my French the other day with a couple in the guesthouse and discovered that I haven’t forgotten as much of it as I thought although it did confirm my suspicions that I can only really speak another language well if i’m a bit tipsy.

fortune cookies, condoms and chaos

WUP poster1 Busy busy week in Pune. Not helped by the fact that three nights over the weekend were spent indulging in a significant amount of Kingfisher beer. Also, surprisingly a bloody (literally) good steak in a restaurant found by Dave, Carole and Gill. Indian food is great and I’ve no problem with having a mainly vegetarian diet but my god, it felt good to have a steak again!

All the younger LINK volunteers who’d been travelling for the past few weeks got back on Sunday night so the house is pretty much full to bursting, and the somewhat more chilled out, laid-back atmosphere that has been so nice, has burst and things are back to feeling like we are living in boarding school once again! Still, it was nice to see everyone again!

So this week we are all out putting up my lovely World AIDS Day posters, sorting out leaflets with shopping malls and planning street dance performances, getting red ribbon iced cookies and fortune cookies done for December 1st and getting slides done to hand out to the cinemas on Thursday. Crazy days. Someone is also going to have the fun job of putting 1000 condoms into little white boxes and tieing them up with red ribbon. We have been given the okay to hand out condoms, but only if they don’t look like condoms! Don’t ask, even oral sex is technically illegal in India, seriously! And on Saturday night about 1000 of the inhabitants of Tadiwala Road slum in Pune are going to have the delights of watching a group of us do a Bollywood dance performance at the Celebration fo Life Rally being held for World AIDS Day. Our friend Rujuta is a dancer in her spare time and is teaching us a dance all this week…there is a lot of jumping involved…