Day 112ish: All the way through

Day 112ish. It’s probably time to stop counting in days.

I am back in Bangkok. I am slightly hungover, damp from rainstorms, aching from having walked a million miles through the city in a single day, and happy all the way through.

From Vientaine we – the CELTA 5 – travelled north through mountainous Laos to breathtaking Vang Vieng, then still further north to Luang Prabang. In Vang Vieng we went tubing on the Nam Song the day after a rainstorm, the sky washed clean and the river golden brown and flowing despite the season; the following day we cycled to a shady lagoon, swam, explored a temple-cave, saw butterflies. In Luang Prabang we got up at dawn to watch the people of the town giving alms to the monks and visited pristine blue waterfalls. We also ate ALL the baguettes and were eaten by ALL the mosquitoes.

ImageTham Phu Kham Cave (Vang Vieng, Laos)

Rosa and I took a 2-day slow boat up the Mekong river to the Thai-Laos boarder. We crossed headed to Chiang Rai by public bus, ate Thai hot pot in an outdoor food court while ladyboys mimed the words to power ballads on a stage built for the purpose. Here Rosa and I parted company – I headed south to Lampang, a bustling little town chock full of Lanna-style buildings and a tourist attraction called “Numerous wooden poles”. Highly recommend. From there I headed further south to Sukhothai, almost slept through my stop but realised just in time, then on a songtaw to the old city met a girl who started my secondary school the same year I left. Finally, I headed back to sticky Bangkok to drink beer on a street corner with Tom of Cat Ba Quintet fame, and then 19 floors up in the Sky Hotel looking out over the city during a thunderstorm, and then the next day we got stranded in a zoo because of another downpour. I like Thailand in the rainy season – it’s unpredictable and exciting.

And suddenly, just like that, the travelling portion of this trip is over. Back to Real Life, where I have to be responsible and sensible and not be on the move and probably not have any adventures and have a job that will be busy and hard and keep me in one place for an entire year if it works out. Travelling makes me happy. I’ll miss it. I don’t really want to stop, in fact. By the time I get to pick up my bag and head out into the world again, I’ll be 30 years old.

I can’t bloody wait.


Day 87: I went to Laos

You know what it’s like. One minute you’re overcome with joy and sweet, sweet relief because you finished your CELTA and definitely didn’t fail and have TIME on your hands and are FREE godamnit! and can swim guilt-free in the pool at the prison/resort you’ve been confined to for the previous month… then the next you’ve had a real-life job offer and are facing the prospect of living in BANGKOK for an entire year doing ACTUAL work like a real human being.
It’s a toughie. I did what anyone would do in that situation: I went to Laos.

Laos is, naturally, chock full of people who have finished a CELTA course and are now contemplating an ELT career that, until scant days ago, seemed to be a million miles away. The reason it seems this way is possibly because I am travelling with 4 of my CELTA compadres, survivors all, and because when there are 5 of you travelling together you really seem to fill up a place. I suppose there are SOME people out there who haven’t just finished a CELTA. There’s a gulf between us, though. You start to feel that these non-CELTA types are just fakers, the easy chilled-out movers and shakers. They don’t know what the rest of us have been though. How can they ever understand? Don’t they feel the urge to translate things into phonetic script at 2am, just for fun? Where is there inclination to split Life into the structure of a skills-based lesson: where’s their gist task, their scanning task, their detail task? What about freer practice? Most importantly, why don’t they understand – I mean really understand – the breadth and depth of that most sacred of questions: HAS IT BEEN RAINING?

I say it like one thing led inexorably to the other. It didn’t, obvs. That’s not how life works.

We finished our CELTA and had a day and a half to relax. There was a party on the balcony outside our resources room, and we presented certificates to our students, then went out drinking with our trainers. There was a relaxed Final Friday and an exceptional evening in which we watched an old Christopher Lee Dracula movie in one of the classrooms and made tremendously, appallingly, DELICIOUSLY geeky cards for our trainers. Saturday was celebration day – we left Vadara, had dinner with aforementioned trainers, drank, danced.

We, the CELTA survivors, went back to the hostel I’d been in before the whole mad thing had even started, hung out on the balcony at JJs for a few days. There was a glorious trip to Pai – a beautiful, arty, hippy town in rolling hills. There was a pedicure massacre. There was a LOT of applying-for-jobs. Individuals left for new lives, elsewhere. A month is a long time to live cheek-by-jowl with others, highly stressed, coping/not-coping, encouraging, persuading, helping. Strangers become family and it’s as if they’ve ALWAYS been there, coming to your room at night with food offerings to pep you up, tide you over, getting you to laugh yourself silly when you’re wound tight with tomorrow’s lesson planning. Sad to say goodbye.

But the next thing you know a bunch of you are on the night train to Bangkok, I bunk-beds rocking and rattling along the tracks towards the bright lights and INTERVIEWS of the hottest city in the world (appazza). Then you’ve had an interview, a job offer – what’s a girl to do?! It hasn’t been a week since your course yet; you don’t even have your grades, surely you’re not prepared? You’re professional façade clearly works a treat, though. Show no fear.

Then it’s Khao San Road for another goodbye, and you’re all on a train again, in bunks, fan-cooled and sticky, hurtling towards Laos with job offers and consequences all up in the air. You don’t know where you’ll be in two weeks, let alone two months. Commit or don’t commit?

Right now I’m in the bottom bunk in the Wizard dorm of Sihome hostel in Vientiane, capital city of Laos, tapping this tripe out on Libby’s Macbook Air – an incredible machine that my PC instincts can’t quite compute. Libby, Emma and Johnny are in their beds, chatting. Rosa’s on the floor preparing her bag for tomorrow when we head to Vang Vieng. I don’t know if that’s how you spell it but we’re going there anyway, balls to the spelling. Then in just over 2 weeks I’ll be back in Bangkok, about to start work with a reputable language company, signing a contract that’ll last a year. No idea where I’ll live or who I’ll be friends with. All I know is that I’ll be working my little socks off and using the qualification I worked so damn hard for.

It’s been 87 days since I left Leeds, and I’m in Laos. I’m pretty damn happy about that.

Day 45: Songkran in Chiang Mai

I am in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, and somehow I’m still not dead even though in Bangkok I ate at a rat-infested streetfood place at the train station.

I’m flying solo again. Callie and Hartley left Cat Ba to be swindled in Laos (but also to have many funz). My dear son Keegan left for a 40-hour bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City. Tom and I left for a couple of days in BRILLIANT Hanoi before my flight back to Bangkok and his trip north to Sapa.

I’d planned to stay in BKK for a few days before coming north to Chiang Mai – I was going to chill, upload photos, catch up on life admin and studying. I went to the train station on Tuesday afternoon to pre-book my ticket and discovered that all the trains were full because of Songkran, except for one leaving that night. Booked it. Done. An emergency 14-hour journey in a 4-berth sleeper coach. Utter joy (YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE TRAIN TRAVEL OUT HERE!). The beds were comfortably firm. I woke a few times in the night only to be rocked back to sleep by the movement of the train, the clacking of the tracks. In the morning I had breakfast of glutinous rice soup – like rice pudding only different, salty, peppery, and with “pork” balls floating around, and watched the sun rise over mountains.

Right now I’m staying in a dorm room with 5 others for 100 baht (£2.50) a night, no towels, no hot water, no in-room wifi, no toilet paper, no air-con. It’s everything you need. The hostel has a huge covered balcony area on the second floor with bamboo mats, benches, cushions. I’m there right now, at almost 11am, trying to memorise English verb tenses and thinking about getting some breakfast, and about heading out into the streets to cool down. It’s too hot for life here. People are melting in the streets, leaving nothing behind but fanny packs and globules of person-melt. Like candle wax or glutinous rice soup. Bit gross. People who haven’t melted yet are in the process: features sliding down their faces, dripping off their chins. Everything is sticky. Luckily it’s Songkran, Thai New Year, and the city is engaged in a gigantic water fight that takes over the daylight hours. Everyone has water guns or buckets – often both – and nobody is shy about using them. Families are on the streets outside their houses or shops with water butts and hoses, soaking anyone that comes within range; they travel around the city in trucks sloshing water over everyone they drive past; tourists form gangs outside their favourite bars and wage war  in the sun with the music up loud and the beer flowing. It’s all friendly. Everyone’s grinning, thrilled to bits to have a stranger run up behind them and dump buckets of ice water over their heads. It’s nearing 40 degrees so it’s exactly what you want to cool down. The whole thing’ s crazy-fun, frantic, phallic and an excuse to make masses of goodbad puns and act like a kid for extended periods of time.

At nights people gather on the balcony to dry off and drink, chat, chill. Sometimes people play guitar, uke, sing. And they’re not all the shit, pretentious types either. Makes me want to buy a uke and learn how to play it – if there’s one thing that travelling has taught me it’s that I don’t have enough life skills to bring to the table. You go for food en mass. My favourite places are these ace little street food areas by the main road, a collection of stalls run by different people and each serving different dishes, plastic chairs and tables all set up, mystery water ready to drink if you dare. It’s where the Thais go to eat, and though sometimes you get food different to what you thought you’d ordered, and the hygiene standards are lax as fuck, it’s the best kind of experience. And the food is DELICIOUS and cheap. Last night I had crispy noodle soup – really thick, glutinous broth with huge slices of pork and the crispy noodles that exist in all your best food-related dreams. It cost 30 baht, less than a pound.

I’m bloody loving it out here. Different places and cultures and FOODS and people all the bloody time. The more you travel the more you discover that you want to do. I HAVE to go to Myanmar. I have to see Laos, especially the underground city. I’d love to go back to Vietnam and check out the off-the-beaten-track places and the stuff I missed first time around. I want to go to the Cambodian island that Hartley and Callie worked on because it looks like paradise, and I guess I could cope with seeing some pristine Thai islands as well. And that’s just the places right next door. China is a must now – it sounds like a fucking hard slog but hard is GOOD, right? It pushes your boundaries, tests you. Also Japan, South Korea, Nepal. Indonesia. I want to see (my old school chum) Penny in Malaysia. But I want to go to stranger places, too; places not everybody would go to: what’s in Turkmenistan? Can you go through Central Asia then the middle East and down through the African continent overland? Without facing death, rape or torture? That’d be pretty fuckin’ ace, right?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about travelling and studying and not as much tourism as you’d hope in Chiang Mai. Gotta prioritise, though. Can’t fuck up this course. I did go to a Wat having a celebration, and played out during Songkran, and had some damn good nights out with some good human beings. Tonight we’ll go see some Muy Thai fights and I’ll do a cookery course in the next few days, and me and a girl in my dorm are going to trek it up to a hill temple just outside of town even though I haven’t exercised in a month and a half and I’ll probably die. I met someone who went out with a girl who played roller derby and was thrilled to be able to chat derby for a while to someone who already had an interest. I mostly want to meet another roller girl and see if I can set up a team, or at the very least get some kind of roller skating back in my life. I can’t cope with all this non-skating that’s going on. Never thought I’d miss being forced to do more push-ups than my body can take, but apparently I do. Maybe I’ll take up Muy Thai instead and learn how to become aggressive – grrrrrrrrr! – and add that to my roller derby repertoire when I eventually find some people to play with/for.

I’m rambling. Excuse me. Blame the OBNOXIOUS heat, and the fact that I’m procrastinating. OK. Back to it. A couple of hours of study and then back out into Songkranland for the final day of the celebration. Get in.

Day 34: The Cat Ba Quintet

Time flies when you’re having fun. When I started writing this I was in Hanoi and still not dead, maimed, injured or mentally scarred and now I’m on Cat Ba island and am all of the above.

I have continued to remain classy. You can tell I’ve remained classy because aan old Vietnamese man walked in on me on the toilet at a local street bar and then later I had to wee in Piss Alley, a stinking dead-end that served as a street toilet for the local bars. Fuckin’ A.

It was the day of Food Tourism. Dinner had included snail, frogs, pig heart and pig liver stir fried with crispy noodles, all washed down with medicinal tree wine. The medicinal tree wine came in a reused plastic water bottle, was the colour of poisoned rivers and tasted and smelt like bad ideas and whisky sweats. Later that night I experienced mu first tropical storm as we sat outside under the awning of a little kerbside bar opposite our hostel fat rain hoofing it down, thunder cracking open the sky and neon-bright lightening bleaching it white. Big Weather. Makes UK storms look like sneezes.

Hanoi is my favourite of all the cities so far. I love it for no single reason I can immediately think of. Maybe because it’s cool here, not so sticky, or maybe because our hostel’s so sociable, or because I got a pair of prescription glasses and sunglasses made up for $30, and a hat for 50p. All that and more, maybe. The streets are smaller and less hectic, winding, more varied. The shopping streets are themed. Here’s metalwork street, every shopfront crammed with pans, hangers, buckets, drums, cans, wire racks and all other metal things. Next is bamboo street for all your bamboo ladder needs. There’s woodwork street, clothes street, party craft street, mannequin street, Things To Sell To Tourists street and Stuff That Goes In The Garage street. The fruit and veg are together, live seafood close by. The markets sell coffee beans, herbs, spices, unrecognisable fruits. It’s weird being surrounded by so much stuff you can’t name.

On Easter Sunday we travelled to Cat Ba Island, discovered that there is no Cat Bar on Cat Ba, and are staying in a guesthouse that has MOUNTAIN in the kitchen – or just a rock wall, depending on which way you look at it. We are a quintet. Hartley, Callie and I have been hanging out since Phong Nha, we met Keegan in our Hanoi dorm room, and the fifth is Tazmanian Tom who I’d met back in Mui Ne – happened to spy him on the street in Hanoi, chased him down, appropriated him.

Cat Ba island is breathtaking, a prehistoric wonderland chock full of enormous jagged karst (limestone) slabs jutting out of the ground, blanketed with jungle. It’s stunning, otherworldly, more Jurassic Park than Jurassic Park. You half expect to look into the distance and see a heard of Stegasaurus lumbering around the rice paddies, or see a pteradactyl swooping overhead.

We rented motorbikes and rode to the other side of the island, eyes full of scenery. Keegan climbed a mini lighthouse and got stuck because he couldn’t jump backwards and I rode my bike into a bollard, but only a bit, and only the wing mirror and only at about .5 of an mph. I was distracted by THE GROUND. I’m a dunce but no harm done.

Yesterday we went out on a junk boat to explore the rock formations and kayak. Stunning. Hard to believe that such scenery really exists. We kayaked through caves, into huge, sheer-walled grottos, saw – just by chance – a Cat Ba langur, and kayak-raced the boys and won, obviously, as if it could end another way. I found some green slime on a rock that tensed and moved when you poked it, jumped off the boat into the sea over and over again and almost kayaked into a dismally large jellyfish sitting around in the water. It was hungry work, all that Fun. When we ate lunch our table was the only one silent, intent on stuffing our faces. We won that race as well, finished about 10 minutes before everyone else and left no scraps behind, cleared up next door’s fish rolls as well. Our guide was surprised but he had admiration in his eyes, I could tell.

At nights we drink beer and eat delicious food, bully Keegan, laugh. On our first night there was a beer/hallucination tent and dancing Chinese dragons on a stage. Last night I ate shrimp, the whole thing, even the brains, even the shells. We lost to the boys at pool, drew some vagina dentatas on people. Standard.

Today is Wednesday. I’m out front of our guesthouse, hungover from Vietnamese whiskey, Tiger beer amd too-little sleep, tapping this out on my phone whilst listening to the harmonious sound of building works a few doors down and looking out through the trees into the bay. Hartley and Callie leave for the mainland in a few hours, Keegan and Tom to follow tomorrow and then me on Friday. Over so soon! Can’t believe it. This has been frikkin’ awesome. Can’t wait for the next adventure.

PS/ If you want to see a photo of me crossing a river with a bike and riding a tandem, you should check out Callie’s blog post, here:

Day 28: Lost my glasses, cut my hair

We went to The Pub With Cold Beer. It was an adventure. We had to cycle there but there were 5 of us and only 4 proper bikes so we ended up taking three plus a tandem, obvs, that mode of transport famously designed for steep hills and rutted dirt tracks through the rice paddies. We were warned that it was quite the tough trek, that we’d need to cross a river, that the roads weren’t really “roads” yet. Tourism’s only just becoming A Thing in Phong Nha, the infrastructure isn’t quite sorted out. Yeah. Whatevs.

Mike gave us directions as a group, which nobody listened to because we got distracted by PUPPIES (infinitely cuter than directions). We had a map, anyway. And the navigational expertise I developed during my years as a sea captain in the British Navy back when I was young. What’s the problem?

We got lost in the rice paddies straight away, of course. It was inevitable. Luckily, my aforementioned navigational skills came into play and I was amazing. We got back on track, arses already killing from the bike seats. The scenery was stunning. People working in the fields, cows and buffalo mooching about by the sides of the roads, kids legging it down to to high-five us as we cycled past, calling out “Hellooooo” as soon as they spied us. At one point we had to cross a river on foot, pushing our bikes through the water and trying not to let the current push us over. It was shallow, just above the knees, but it was STRONG. True-blue adventuring.

When we finally got there, we almost cycled past the place. It wasn’t so much a pub as someone’s house with a huge porch, chickens in the front garden, a stone table and seats outside and a hand-written “The Pub With Cold Beer” sign. The girl didn’t speak any English but the beer was cold, and that was the most important thing at this point – it was after midday and HOT. We ordered some chicken using the international language of The Point and she killed it there and then, indicated we should come back in an hour. We rented an inner-tube and took it down to the river for a swim. Some Vietnamese people stopped on their scooter and took photos of us. By the time we got back I’d lost my glasses in the river, and all the money was missing from my fanny pack but I was too happy to care.

The girl had prepared a full meal for us: rice, Morning Glory fried with salt and garlic, crushed peanut paste and the chicken pasted with a piri-piri-style sauce. It was presented on a huge basket with banana leaves, and we ate cross-legged on cushions on the floor of the porch. It was the best and most delicious meal I’ve eaten so far, the closest we’ll come to eating in a Vietnamese home. Peanuts and rice, people. Get on it.

We got back bone-tired and sunburnt and blissfully happy, full of adventuring and beer and delicious food.

And had to immediately get a taxi to the station for the Overnight Devil Train to Hanoi. We arrived at 5am, got scammed by a taxi to the hostel, slept on sofas in the lounge and used ALL the free internetz. When the others were still asleep I wandered into the city, got some new glasses made up – not as good as my old ones but so cheap I got some prescription sunglasses as well. Maybe now I can tan the little white line in the middle of my forehead from where I’ve been squinting into the sun so much. SHUT UP! IT LOOKS COOL.

The hostel’s great but the people look at you weirdly when you cut your hair in the sink with scissors you bought for 30,000 dong from an old lady in the street. JEEZ GUYS. We’re in a 12-bed dorm, but it’s clean as anything and the people we’re sharing with are ace. We went out last night and one of the girls almost hit on a guy who turned out to be 18. Laughed so much I thought I might be sick.

I heard an excellent conversation yesterday morning in which a girl was asked to name an artist from the 80s. Her response was that she doesn’t know any artists from the 80s cos she wasn’t born then. “I was born in the 90s, I don’t know any music before 2000”. Bestworst thing ever.

Staying tonight and then tomorrow I’ll leave the girls to go to Cat Ba island for ROCK CLIMBING ADVENTURES. Get in.

PS/ I don’t really know what you’re supposed to write about on a travel blog so let me know if there are things I’m not writing about that I should be. Don’t tell me to write about the history of places, though. NO. You can’t make me.