Road Trip, Teaching, Thailand, Travel

London to Bueng Kan

Finally, after what seems like forever, we’ve come back to our Thai home! Our home, which I’ve written about a few times, is in the province of Bueng Kan, Thailand. The province borders the Mekhong river which splits Thailand and Laos. This is where our Thai family are based. It’s also where we’ve built our large family home.

We took a direct flight to Bangkok this time. Normally, to save a bit of cash, we would change in Dubai, Qatar, India or wherever offers the best time/cost saving benefit. Annoyingly, as I’m now a teacher, I have to travel during the school holidays which bumps the price up and reduces the number of cheap options. So, instead of our normally £500-ish return (with a change) ticket from London to Bangkok, we forked out a whopping £750 each on a direct return.

I think it’s the first time we’ve flown with EVA Air, for some reason I’d always assumed they were a carrier from South Africa. Turns out they’re Chinese.

Two points of note from an otherwise unnoteworthy flight. EVA is possibly the only airline I’ve flown with whose in-flight entertainment hardware is even close to acceptable. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was ‘good’. The touch screen was clear with a decent resolution and colour spectrum. The touch capacitance was light, accurate and quick. Unlike most airlines where you require a chisel and a bucket-load of patience to press each button. The only letdown was the content. There simply wasn’t a huge amount of it. Missing a few new release blockbusters. Even the Chinese movies on offer were nearly a year old. Having said that, the content they did have was high resolution with and with good audio.

EVA also has, by far, the best in-flight blankets. So good in fact that, I slipped one into my wife’s carry-on bag. And I fully intend to grab more on the return flight.

As most people do, once we’d landed in Bangkok, we had an immediate desire to leave it. Bangkok, as much as we love it, is not what you want to experience after 14 hours of travelling. It was also monsoon season, which had the benefit of cooling everything down, but also made everything incredibly wet and miserable. We headed directly to Hualamphong train station to pick up our first-class sleeper tickets and get on our train to Udon Thani.

We’ve travelled first class the last few times we’ve been on Thai trains. The price is a bit more than second class, but you get a private cabin, a sink and room service. For two of us in one cabin, we paid about £85. You even get access to the stations first class lounge, which is an air conditioned room with a large CRT television and a selection of pink and beige 1980’s style sofas. There’s also a fridge full of chilled bottles of water. We always take as many as we can carry discreetly. We boarded at 19:30 and arrived in Udon at about 07:30 the following day. The trains have always had toilets and basic showers, but on the older trains, these were often seats with a hole down to the tracks and a hose for a shower. The new first-class carriages, which have been widely admired on Thai national news programmes, are a huge step forward. The toilets feel like those on an aeroplane, the showers are now a wet room with a proper power-shower. The cabins have screens with a live GPS feed of the train’s location, several TV channels and a room-service menu (provided by an onboard 7-Eleven). There are also LED lights and USB charging ports. The in-cabin screens even have a display in the corner showing which bathrooms/shower rooms are currently available. I’ve stayed in worse hotels.

Having showered and slept properly we both woke up nice and early to watch the sun rise out of our window. We ordered a couple of lattes and some Thai/Chinese breakfast items from the in-cabin screen. After carefully choosing what we wanted and submitting the order, we waited. Soon after, a man appeared at the door, with a menu and a notepad. We repeated our order, and it arrived about ten minutes later. Apparently, they have not figured out how to read the orders yet, only that a cabin wants to make an order. The screen-to-mouth 7-Eleven of the future was still clearly in its early stages.

Arriving in Udon Thani we were met at the station by the guy we normally hire our vehicles from. This time we’d gone for an older model Toyota Fortuner (4×4, 3-litre diesel). Although we own a selection of bikes and trucks at our home, we like to hire when we know we’re going to put loads of miles on the clock. And we had over 2,000 planned for the holiday. I’d already paid both the deposit and the full fee through PayPal over the free WiFi on the train. So we just had to sign the paperwork, jump in and drive off. We’ve always had great service with these guys.

From Udon, we headed north towards Nong Khai. This is also the final destination of the train, but we’ve yet to find a good car hire guy there, so we still hire in Udon Thani. As we raced the train north towards the Mekhong river I was reminded of just how mad Thailands roads are. People happily drive on the wrong side of the road, they will plough into roundabouts as if they’ve been invited to a destruction derby. Scooters are everywhere, not a single helmet in sight. The drivers are nervous and incapable yet incredibly confident that they’re right. There are often kids as young as eight driving scooters down major eight-lane highways. The wrong way. Dogs, chickens and more recently cows all scatter the road. Most notably are the ‘Salengs’, these are scooters with a rudimentary sidecar bolted on the side. You’ll often see entire families cruising around in these. I’ve once seen four adults, three children, a dog and two pigs in one. On the main road. At night. The sooner you accept the madness, the sooner you can enjoy it.

Reaching Nong Khai, we head east along the Mekhong river for about 160Km until we arrive in Bueng Kan town. Now it starts to feel like the end of our journey. Once in Bueng Kan, we take highway 212 until we see the familiar temple sign, about 20Km down the road, take a left and follow the dirt track for another twenty minutes until we’re home in Ba Na Kam village. As I write this, they are busily tarmacking the entire road through our tiny village to the main road. It’ll save us money on tires, but it takes away some of the charm.

A few dabs on of the horn, and the family pop out of the house to greet us. My wife’s mum, dad, brother and two of our nieces (daughters of my wife’s youngest sister). The youngest of which, Gor Khao, is seven months old and we’d not met before.

Talking, hugging, drinking and eating started and we immediately felt like we’d never left. Home.

Travel, USA, Work

Ship Life

Here’s another landmark to add to the still relatively young 2013. As you will most likely already know from my previous posts, I’ve been waiting to be assigned a ship for my new job. Six weeks ago, whilst on Koh Tao, sitting in the office of a small production company, I got an email. This was the email I had been waiting for. It simply read; ‘Ship Assignment – ENCHANTMENT OTS – Baltimore, MD – April 13th’. Which is American for the 13th April. At the time, this was only three weeks away. Which was great, something was finally happening. But it also meant that I would be leaving Mos far sooner than we’d expected. But as we’ve discussed many times, this was going to be great for our future. My new job on the ship would allow me to take home plenty of tax-free cash, and, they’d be able to hire Mos too. We’d be able to build our savings account to the point where we could buy a house in the UK, or, retire in Thailand in the space of a few years. And of course, you need money before starting a family.
Shortly after I received the email Mos and I started running around the island doing last bits of shopping that I’d neglected. Socks for example. Living in Thailand socks quickly make their way from the wardrobe to the bin. We had parties, sometimes multiple parties each day. On an island like Koh Tao, the resident community is small, and as a result people want to say goodbye when someone leaves. But as most of them are small business owners finding a single date and time for a party is nearly impossible. So, and I’m not complaining about this, we have lots of leaving parties.
Royal Caribbean, my new employer, had booked my flights from Bangkok to Washington DC. But I still had shopping to do and more importantly a visa to get! So I headed off to Bangkok to start the process, which annoyingly, was at precisely the same time as Songkran, Thai new year. Songkran is effectively the worlds biggest water-fight. It’s brilliant. But it also means that the entire country, including foriegn embassies close down for the week. Luckily I managed to get my visa granted, hours before the shutdown.
A couple of days later Mos traveled up from Koh Tao to meet me in Bangkok. As this would be the last few days we’d spend together for possibly up to seven months we decided to treat ourselves. We went for nice dinners, shopping, sightseeing and even to Siam City theme park. Where Mos proved to me that roller-coasters really can make someone projectile vomit. Despite this, we had a great day.
Once Mos and I had exhausted our time, money and bodies it was time for me to leave. I picked up my new suit, tuxedo and shirts from my tailor. Packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Mos and I had one last milkshake together before I disappeared into customs. I hate leaving her, especially at airports.
I flew with Qatar, who I’ve flown with a few times in the past and they have always impressed. This trip was no different. And in case you’re wondering, Doha airport still has a huge amount of camel themed souvenirs along with countless diamonds, jewelery and watches for sale.
Once I arrived in Washington I was met by the US Immigration team. And like all crew, apparently, ushered into a waiting area where my visa and passport where double and triple checked against their various databases. After an hour I was let through. The first thing you see when you leave Washington Dulles airport is a huge American flag. Today it was back-lit by the sun with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding it. It was like I’d walked into a film. After a short wait my van arrived to pick me up and take me to my hotel.
Maybe it was the 32 hours of traveling. Maybe it was the feeling of elation after finally getting through customs. Maybe it was just me being acclimatised to rock-solid mattresses and hot, humid rooms in Thailand. But the Holiday Inn at Washing Dulles airport had the best bed. Ever.
During the day other new crew arrived at the hotel. Most of us had arrived by the time we had our complimentary dinner in the restaurant. I met a guy from Serbia who was going to be signing on as Stage Staff. His name is Srdan, but it’s pronounced the same as the English word ‘surgeon’. It turns out Serbia is one of the biggest denominations of crew on this ship, behind the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The following morning we were all picked up by a coach and driven to Baltimore, which is just over an hours drive away. Once we arrived at the port, US Customs and Border Patrol met us and led us into a secure crew area where our belongings were x-rayed and we were searched. Finally we were moved to  secure holding room with tea, coffee, pastries and the usual tea trolley bits. We had to wait for the passengers to get off the ship, once they were, staff distributed our contracts and other paperwork and took or passports. Then, we were led to the gangway of the ship. On the ship we dumped our luggage in the middle of deck one, which, apart from a small area for guest embarkation, is completely for crew. We waited in line at the HR office to have our photos taken and information checked. Once we had completed that, each persons supervisor came to pick them up and begin to show them around their relevant work, living, leisure, eating and emergency areas.

Enchantment at DockEnchantment at Dock.
Thankfully, my job comes with a rank. I’m a 2-stripe officer. To give you perspective, the captain is 4-stripe. And out of the 850+ crew, only 240 of us are ranked with stripes. Starting with half-stripe followed by 1-strip, 1.5-stripe, 2-stripe and so on. The crew is further divided into three groups; crew, staff and officers. Officers are the marine department, the people that stand in the bridge, along with the various heads of engineering and so on. The crew are the people that keep the ship running; engineers, cooks, cleaners, deck boys, painters, laundry and so on. The staff are the people that are neither required to operate or maintain the ship. The staff are the luxuries; executive housekeepers, concierges, cruise directors, managers and me. I work in the Broadcast team. I say ‘team’, really it’s just me and Frank. Between us we manage all of the broadcast related satellite equipment, the encoders, decoders, streaming systems, scheduling systems and just about anything on the ship that involves video of any description. Having said that, the collective term for all employees is ‘crew’.
My job and rank means that I have access to all of the guest areas, all day, I can use any of the crew, staff or officer facilities and most of the guest facilities. In-fact, tomorrow I will be going to the on-board spa & saloon to get a long-overdue haircut. One restriction on all crew, even the captain, is use of the casino. No employees, of any rank or role can gamble on board. Which is fine, because even if you did want to gamble your wage away, there are plenty of casinos in the ports we visit.
Another restriction that applies to all employees is alcohol. Royal Caribbean operate a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs. You’re allowed a blood alcohol content level of 0.04 whilst on-duty, and 0.05 when off-duty. Both of which are far lower than most drink/drive limits. If you’re found to be over these limits at any point you will leave the ship, and the company at the next port. As for drugs, any possession, use, or trace in your system of drugs will result in you leaving the ship at the next port, getting fired and being turned over to local authorities. Which could mean a 25-year prison sentence in a small jail in the Bahamas. Not good. None of which bothers me as I’ve never touched drugs and I very rarely drink alcohol.
During my first two weeks on the ship my predecessor, Homer, was on-board to show me the ropes and get me up to speed. Which on this ship meant showing me all of the equipment that is broken, or about to break and how he manages to do his job around them. Homer is now on a four-month holiday and will be rejoining the fleet in Australia on the Radiance of the Seas. It’s a hard life.
My first two weeks didn’t only involve Homer showing me computers that pre-date most modern civilisations, I also had ‘training’. Training, like most other things on the ship is divided into stuff you need to know to save your life (Marine), and stuff you need to know to make guests happy (delivering the ‘wow’). We had two or three sessions each day. I, unlike most, found the marine training interesting and looked forward to each session. After all, it could literally save your life. The training that they call ‘Delivering the WOW’ bored me to my core. There are hour long presentations on how to smile at guests, how to point at things in ways that don’t cause offense, how to converse with guests and various other life-lessons that anyone who wasn’t locked in a box from birth would have picked up by the time they were ten years old. I hated it. With a passion.

Enchantment in ArubaEnchantment of the Seas in Aruba.
Our ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, is now one of the smallest in the fleet. She is rumored to be second in line to be sold off or given to one of our subsidiary companies. This rumor was as good as confirmed when she was scheduled to leave her 14-day cruises from Baltimore and move to a 3/4-day cruise schedule from Port Canaveral. 3/4-day cruises are like a hospital ward for the terminally ill. Ships are sent there to keep them running and operational until they die, are sold off or scrapped. I joined the Enchantment on the 13th April 2013, which was her last ever voyage from Baltimore, as she repositioned to her new home port of Port Canaveral.
We arrived in Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten after three full days of sailing from Port Canaveral. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Phillipsburg. But I wasn’t surprised at what I found. Disappointed, but not surprised. Phillipsburg, much like all of the ports I have visited since, was full of brand name shops. Each of the ports has the same 8-10 brands. Each port has the same arts and crafts markets selling branded trinkets, most of which are made in China and printed with the name of the port you happen to be in. Phillipsburg represented everything I dislike about the classic package holiday. I’ve never understood why people travel half way around the world, get on a ship, and then get off and shop in the same shops they have in any mid-size city back home. I also dislike the time restrictions. When I go to a new place, I want the freedom to explore the local scenery, meet local people and eat local food. Cruise passengers pile off the ship, go to the generic beaches, eat in McDonald’s and shop in the brand shops. Maybe I’m the strange one…
On the evening of the ninth day of the voyage we had to divert into Nassau, Bahamas due to a medical emergency with a passenger. Probably a case of too much McDonalds. People on cruise ships eat like machines. It’s amazing to watch.
Before reaching Port Canaveral I had to familiarise myself with all of the equipment before Homer left. As I said before, this was less training and more showing me what was broken and how they work around it. For example, the edit suite is a 2006 vintage AVID with less processing power than pretty much any new $300 off-the-shelf laptop. I won’t spend this entire post complaining about the dated computers, miss-used equipment or broken machinery that we have in broadcast. Largely because I’m not sure I have enough time to make the list. I’m only here for seven months afterall.
After the various Caribbean and Bahamian island stops, which all fitted nicely into the crew shopping motto of ‘same shit, different port’, we arrived in Port Canaveral. Our new home. From this point on we will be only taking three and four day voyages. The three day itinerary is as follows; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – Nassau, Day 3 – CocoCay, then we arrive early in the morning back in Port Canaveral in order to disembark the guests and pick up the new ones. The four day itinerary is; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – CocoCay, Day 3 – Nassau, Day 4 – At Sea.  Port Canaveral is in the US state of Florida, the other two stops are both in the Bahamas.
CocoCay, which you may not have heard of, is our private island. It is owned by Royal Caribbean and is for the exclusive use of our guests. The island is a nice small island, there is snorkeling, hiking, jet ski hire, swimming, beaches and so on. There is also a very large, free, barbeque. Which I’m pretty sure is the reason most people really go. Cruises seem to be almost entirely centered on eating.
Nassau is a small town in the Bahamas, with western prices. We’ve also been warned by our chief security officer that the Bahamian police often set up drug selling operations to try and sell you drugs and then arrest you. The prison sentence in the Bahamas for drug possession can be as severe as 25 years in jail. Nassau, lives up to my earlier description of the ports we visit. One thing that is particularly depressing about Nassau is the large amount of puffer-fish and starfish that have been caught and dried out to be sold as souvenirs. Having seen many varieties of both these species in their natural habitats around the world, I can’t see the attraction of having a dead one sitting on your mantle piece.
As far as life on a ship goes, it’s great. I get free food, free gym time, free accommodation, I pay no tax, I have no bills and I get paid to effectively be on holiday. Much of my time is now spent trying to get Mos, my wife, onto the ship. Part of the deal when I signed up, was that they would provide Mos with a job on my ship. So far they are proving to be as useless at this as they were during my sign-on period. However, tomorrow our ship gets a new HR manager. Hopefully that will speed up the process!
We are currently sailing from Coco Cay to Port Canaveral, where we are due to arrive in nine hours. I hope to be getting off, I need to open a US bank account to keep my cash safe. It also makes it easier to buy online and send money back home to Thailand. Not sure if I’ll be going with someone or not. Most of the people I know are ‘management’ level, so they don’t have timetabled work hours. Like me, they just have to make sure they are there when something breaks.
Port Canaveral itself is fairly basic. There are taxis or a shuttle bus for the crew to head into town. There is a small shopping center (Mall), a Walmart, Cocoa Beach, Hooters, McDonald’s, a Post Office and various other eateries and shops. Most of the crew head to Walmart to stock up on luxury snacks, toiletries and drinks. The on board crew shop – ‘The Slop Chest’, is fairly limited in selection. It’s also our only American port. Which means that any crew that are signing on or off their contracts change over here. Which adds to the chaos.
Changeover day (Port Canaveral) is where we load on the new guests. Which means that at 15:45 each changeover day we have a full emergency drill for the passengers (PAX Drill). I am part of a seven person life boat team based at muster station 2. Which is good because it means I get a seat on a life boat rather than a life raft in a real emergency. But it’s bad because I will have to control 143 scared and panicking tourists.  I don’t mind it too much as I get to shout at them for 40-minutes detailing how they will all die if they don’t listen to me.

This is my life boat, lowered and ready for lowering in Nassau, Bahamas.

Enchantment Lifeboat

Thailand, Travel

Cleaning a Tuk-Tuk

We’ve had another busy week. Both Mos and I have both had a birthday, we’ve been to the cinema, twice. And, we bought a latex plantation.

After a quite and relaxed day at home, apart from a trip to the cinema, for my birthday, we started to get our stuff together to head back to Bueng Kan. Previously we’ve driven from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan, this time we decided to avoid the 900 kilometre, 16 hour drive by flying. Unfortunately you cannot fly directly to Bueng Kan, the nearest commercial airport is Udon Thani. From here we would hire a car and drive the remaining 240 kilometres to our favourite hotel.

I have flown with many airlines over the past few years, some good, some bad. My favourite domestic airline in Thailand is Nok Air (‘nok’ is Thai for ‘bird’). They offer good prices and have always provided a matching service. Also, their planes have a smiling beak…

We headed for the airport after dropping of Khao San at Lucky Dogs (it’s like a dog hotel). It’s only a twenty-minute trip on the scooter from our house to the airport. It was nice to know that I’d only be driving for a total of 4-5 hours rather than 16 hour mission of previous trips. Anyone familiar with air travel will be used to the sign at check-in that shows all of the items that are prohibited in the cabin of the aircraft. Normally this contains; guns, knifes, aerosols, lighters, fireworks, handcuffs, flammable materials, hand grenades and nuclear weaponry. A pretty sensible list. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in a plane with a disturbed person in possession of these. The Nok Air check-in desk warns against only one item that you cannot, under any circumstances, take onto the aircraft. Surely, they must be refereeing to a pretty serious piece of kit? Well… not exactly.

Major security risk.

The people in charge at Nok Air are clearly more concerned with the Durian fruit than a slab of C4 explosive or a machete. Lets investigate this further. The Durian fruit is very popular in Thailand, you’ll find it being sold all offer the place. It’s only crime as far as I can tell is that is smells like vomit once it has been cut open. It is also quite large and hard, like a spiky coconut. If you Google the Durian fruit you stumble across something it’s Wikipedia page. Which will show you its scientific name, ‘Durio’. And it’s higher classification, ‘Bombacaceae’. Maybe the Durian fruit has an explosive secret. Maybe some of the airlines in the west should take note and add it to their prohibited list.

We completed the check-in and removed all of our concealed Durian fruits at security. After a short wait we got ready to board. Mos was very happy with the plane, she’d never flown on a small propellor plane before. The plane had eleven rows of three seats and was staffed by two pilots and just one air hostess. The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes so we only got a small snack and a drink.

As we made our approach to Udon Thani we flew through storm clouds and the rain got heavier and heavier. The rain lasted, without break, for our entire trip. We picked up our rental car, this time from Lek Rental. After destroying at least one hire cars suspension this time we opted for a huge Toyota Hilux Vios 4×4. This is a pick-up truck with a double cab. Meaning that it can sit five people inside, comfortably. And a mixture of more daring people and cargo on the back. I was even more pleased with the selection of the car as the rain increased as we pulled out of the airport. We would have about 100 kilometres of dirt tracks and potholes to cross before getting to our destination. And that’s on top of the hours of motorway driving. We will definitely be getting one of these next time.

We reached out hotel in Bueng Kan at lunchtime, checked in, sent a few emails, Mos updated Facebook and then we headed off to see the family. They live in a small village called Ban Na Kap, or as I call it, Ban Na Na town. Sometimes I feel like my humour is wasted on the Thai’s. We collected the family, picked up the head of the village and headed to the neighbouring village to meet their head and the local men of power (mafia). We had to meet with the two groups because technically the land we now own is in Ban Na Kap. But some of the locals think it is in the neighbouring village. So we thought it best to have the approval of the heads of both villages to avoid any dispute. We were also joined by the land owner who bought all of the relevant documents. I sat there trying out my basic Thai on the people not busy reading the contracts and overlooking the paperwork. Which turned out to be two toddlers and a dwarf, who was clearly intoxicated. Between us we managed a sentence or two. The dogs seemed to understand.

Shortly after the contracts were signed bags of ice and crates of beer were delivered to the house we had been sat outside. This was fairly awkward as most Thai’s are Buddhist, and they take this seriously. Buddhist lent had started a few days previously, which forbids consumption of alcohol for three months. The villagers from Ban Na Kap won’t touch a bottle until the three months have passed. The neighbouring villagers however didn’t seem to care. So as my family dodged the beer and said goodbye I had a quick glass for politeness and got in the car. We had arranged to meet the land owner at the bank the following day to bank transfer the money and for him to give us the documents. He and his wife are genuinely nice people, very trustworthy. Unlike the owner of the previous farm we had considered buying.

To celebrate we took the family for a meal in Bueng Kan in a nice little restaurant looking over the river at Laos. This whole area is bordered by the Thai/Laos border which is marked by the Mekong river. Between the five of us we ordered seven different dishes, it was great. Chicken, fish, rice, soups, vegetables and spices. The cashew nuts fried with chicken was amazing. Total cost, including drinks, was ฿750 (£15).

The next morning we headed off early to the local Kasikorn bank branch to make the transfer and swap the documents. It was still raining. There was some confusion as banks in Thailand seem to be fairly upset when you try to transfer money to a different bank. But after working out that it would be much easier for the land owner to open a new account with Kasikorn, and transfer from my account to his, everything went smoothly. We now had the handful of old documents we had been waiting for. Very exciting. We ordered a load of noodle soups to take away from the food stand outside and headed off to the Land Registry Office.

One reason we liked this land owner so much was that he was from the southern Thailand, like Mos. They both spoke the same dialect. Well so did the man in charge at the registry office. He rushed through our paperwork and wanted to talk to Mos all day. He missed the sound of southern Thai. We changed all of the documents to Mos’ name. Apart from one, the Land Tax document. This, much like a car in the UK, is a tax that is paid annually. The previous owner had already paid it in July 2012 so when we renew the tax in July 2013 that document would also be changed. The tax for our land is ฿28 (£0.56) per year. It would cost us more in fuel to drive the thirty kilometres from our farm, to the office and back every year than the actual tax.

After we had done all of the paperwork we headed off to our families house. As usual, we were greeted with hugs and smiles, which we exchanged for the bags full of noodle soup we had ordered earlier. Today was Mos’ birthday, so the greetings were even more excitable than usual. The family had planned a birthday trip to see relatives that none of them had seem for over a decade. Mos’ dad, who is obsessed with chickens, made it clear that he wanted to buy some chickens whilst there. Apparently the area we were going to is renowned for its prize chicken breeds. Mos’ dad, when not working on his own latex farm of maintaining his two huge fishing ponds, enjoys making chicken cages and fish traps. So we packed a few of these onto the pick-up as gifts for the people we would be visiting.

On the way out-of-town we took the whole family back to the farm. The first time we would have been as the owners. The grandmother was excited. She walked around talking to each tree, telling them to be on best behaviour. Foamy (12-year-old brother) ran around with my iPhone shooting video of everyone, and the floor. Mos, her mum and her dad walked around the perimeter talking about the plans for the next cut (cutting the trees for latex). To access the farm we have to drive on a track, which when it rains turns into a muddy waterside. I was very happy to have the 4×4 at this point! As it was still raining we didn’t stay long and made our way back to the main road.

We had been driving for just under an hour before the grandmother started asking the dad if he knew where we were heading. He insisted that he did, and we carried on. We headed due south from Ban Na Kap. Not that we had many options, east would take up to Vietnam, north would take us into Laos and west would take us back to Bueng Kan. This was a part of Thailand that I’d never been to before. Lots of new sights, customs and people. At one point we drove past a lake. I spotted a man with a tuk-tuk. Which was strange as we had to be about ten kilometres from the closest town. Then, he forced some rubber off-cuts into his exhaust pipe and pushed the tuk-tuk into the lake. The water was about half a meter deep, coming up to just under the passenger seats. He than whipped out a sponge and started wiping down the chrome supports and bright pink and green seats. Apparently this is standard procedure for washing a tuk-tuk in this part of the world.

After a few more oddities along the route we arrived at the village we had been looking for. And eventually found the right house. We all greeted each other and exchanged gifts. We gave them two chicken cages and four fish traps and a few buckets of preserved fish. They gave us sacks of coconuts and rice. Mos’ dad had been saying he was hungry from the time we left Ban Na Kap, and now we had arrived we were about to sit down for a meal in the tin-roofed shelter in front of the house. Just as food started to emerge from the house, Mos’ dad, Foamy and the dad of the family we were visiting started talking about chickens and headed off on a scooter to find some. The rest of us tucked into a meal of various soups, pork, chicken, rice, noodles, and a local favourite, chicken feet.

Just as we were finishing up, the dads and Foamy returned on the scooter with three chickens. One impressive looking male and two smaller females. Total cost was ฿500 (£10). These chickens are a fighting breed, hence the high price tag. For the next hour we fought to put the chickens into boxes, and chase the one that Foamy accidentally let go. And instead of helping load the pick-up or chase the escapee chicken Foamy decided to shoot some more video on my iPhone. Once I got it back, I had 62 videos of chickens, four of a dog and one of himself using the phone as a mirror. We finished loading up the pick-up and headed back to Ban Na Kap.

On the way home we spotted a night market in a field. So we stopped to stock up on snacks. Between us we had chicken skewers, corn on the cob, pork skewers, rice, drinks and some sweets. After these had been eaten, everyone, apart from me (the driver), fell asleep. We dropped the family off at their house and said our goodbyes. Mos even got a quick massage from her mum to help combat a headache. Then we headed back to Udon Thani. Our flight was at 09:15 the following morning so we thought it best that we stay in Udon Thani, close to the airport, than in Bueng Kan and face a three-hour drive before our flight.

I was tired and we had no internet connection so I turned to my sat-nav for advice on hotels near the airport. The first result was ‘Udon Thani Airport Hotel’. Exactly what we wanted, so we headed there.

Once we arrived we checked in for the night, ฿650 (£13), including breakfast. The rooms were clean, the bed was comfortable. But, it was a strange place. Imagine a hotel designed and built in 1985, that was then abandoned in 1986. Left sealed from the world until 2012 when staff appeared, made the beds, dusted and cleaned the toilets. That is how it felt. Everything was original, the bedside radio, the phone, the shower unit. Very weird. Also, something that you very rarely see in any hotel anymore, a big glass ashtray. Other than the feeling of being in a bad 1980’s soap opera the stay was nice, the room service was OK. And it was close to the airport.

In the morning we dropped our pick-up off at the departures gate. Overall I was impressed with the rental company, will be using them again on future trips. We checked in and headed up to the departures lounge. Mos managed to sneak a bag of chicken skewers past three security check points and tucked into the in the lounge. Just before checking in we got a message from a friend in the UK, his wife, and our friend Jaew was in the airport too. So we sat with her as she waited for her flight to Bangkok.

Mos was equally pleased to be travelling on another small propellor plane, this time a different colour that the last. She even took a video of the walk from the terminal across the airfield to the plane.

I like Nok Air, I think they are great value for money. But the ratio of nuts to space in the inflight snacks was shocking. This picture shows the entire contents of one bag.

The flight back to Chiang Mai was nice, and now we are both back home and planning the future for our first farm. Possibly even considering a second!


LCCT – Low Cost Carrier Terminal

Once you find out what LCCT stands for (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) it makes you consider paying that £50 more to fly into a different terminal. The LCCT is a terminal of Kuala Lumpur (KUL) airport. It is the international home of AirAsia. Much like Heathrow Terminal 5 is home to British Airways. And like Heathrow T5 everything is branded accordingly. All of the planes I spotted parked up were AirAsia. Everything is red with white text.

This is both the first time I’ve flown with AirAsia and the first time I’ve flown into the LCCT. I have previously flown into the standard terminals at Kuala Lumpur with Eygpt Air. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the LCCT, or from AirAsia. I’d had mixed reviews when I asked people. But the comments seemed to favour the negative.

My first annoyance with AirAsia was that they offered a self-checkin at Chiang Mai airport. So I used the machine to scan my barcode and it printed my boarding card. Simple and very easy to use. I was then told that I needed to line up to get the boarding card stamped. In the same line that I would have used to ‘manually’ checkin. So that wasted ten minutes of my life. The airport staff were great. No issues there and the cabin crew were fine. I had to pay for my meal and a drink, which I expected as it’s well publicised on the website and the fare is lower. Also, the entire AirAsia fleet is brand new. So that was nice.

The flight was delayed by 51 minutes, but delays happen, especially at small airports like Chiang Mai.

Once we arrives in KL at the LCCT we got off the plane using the portable stairs, and walked around the airfield, unguarded, for about ten minutes before reaching the arrivals gate. Aside from it being a serious security risk, there is also the matter of health and safety. Passengers are walking through a ‘walkway’ but could easily wander in a different direction into oncoming vehicles. A problem that could have been solved with a handful of well placed safety stewards.

The terminal building is very basic, but clean and perfectly functional. It is the definition of no thrills. The LCCT relies on bus services to reach KL Sentral, these take about 70-80 minutes. As opposed to the superb KLIA Ekspres train that leaves directly from the other terminal building. The LCCTs busses are no match for the 28 minute KLIA service, with free WiFi. But the KLIA costs 70 MYR return (£14) where as the buses from LCCT cost 14 MYR return (£2.80).

My journey to the same hotel as before and leaving from Chiang Mai was actually faster and cheaper than previously. AirAsia fly direct from CNX to KUL, where as the higher price carriers don’t (not as frequently anyway), most stop in Bangkok. And the flight & bus combo has saved me around £80. So it’s not to be sniffed at. And I would certainly rather have £80 in my pocket than an airport with polished marble floors and an inflight meal that I didn’t want! I think the LCCT is a great idea. Every major airport should have one!

Thailand, Travel, Work

Kuala Lumpur MKII

The time has come. My 90-day Non-Immigrant ‘B’ visa is about to expire. A visa that could be renewed for a further nine months with the addition of a work permit. Sadly, in my role, I technically work on a project by project basis. The work permits that I get issued from the Film Authority only cover the project period. And at the moment, it’s the beginning of the rainy season with few valid projects. So… time to get a new visa.

I’ve done a bit of research and Thailand offer a Non-Immigrant ‘O’ visa. This is for people retiring in Thailand, for those who have Thai children or for those, like me, with a Thai spouse. I would have been able to apply for this in Thailand providing I met the criteria, which I do, apart from one point. Due to this one point I’m having to apply from a Thai embassy (outside of Thailand). My most recent trip to get a visa was to Kuala Lumpur. It’s not the cheapest option (Laos and Burma are the cheapest), but it’s easy. I can fly directly from Chiang Mai with AirAsia, it’s a well-developed city with plenty of distractions and places to eat and stay. And, most people speak good English. Which is a huge bonus if you’re on a fairly stressful hurried trip to apply for a visa in a strange and foreign land.

I leave on the 16:55 flight from CNX to KUL with AirAsia. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve flown with Asia’s answer to EasyJet so hopefully there good. Once again I’ll be staying at the all green PODs hostel in Brickfields. And I’m sure I’ll be walking the five-minute walk to Little India a few times to stock up on curry, rice and naan bread. Or maybe jump on the bus to China Town and eat some chickens feet and cow tripe. In the interest of saving a bus ticket, I think I’ll stick to Little India.

I’m also going to make more of an effort to make use of the brilliant public transport in KL. Last time I used a combination of taxi’s and the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. Which was great for getting and idea of the geography of the city. But not so good for the wallet. Will also be trying out the AirAsia SkyBus service from the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to KL Sentral station. AirAsia, along with other budget airlines, fly into the LCCT rather than the main international terminal. It’s effectively a different airport. If I was to use the superb KLIA Ekspres train again I’d need to first catch a bus from the LCCT to the main terminal. The SkyBus however equates to £3.50 return whereas the KLIA alone costs £7 each way + the connecting bus.

In total, I’m expecting this trip to cost around £300. Which includes the £110 visa fee. I’ll be gone for four days. Although it could have been two if the flights had been slightly better timed. To give a comparison, the visa companies in Bangkok, quoted me 25,000 baht (£500) to complete this. And they would do it all by post. So not only would I be £200 down, I’d also have to trust my passport and wedding certificate to an unknown man and the Thai postal system. No thanks.

After planning this new visa-adventure I also decided to apply for a new job. Pro-Consul at the British Embassy in Bangkok. Not entirely sure what this involves. But, sounded good at the time. And, I wouldn’t have to make any more visa runs.

I’m going to try to write some blog posts while in KL, but I’m only taking my iPad, not my beloved MacBook Pro. So forgive and mistakes if I do.

Thailand, Travel

Sleeping on a Helipad

Mos’ friend, Macky, who is a nurse in Bangkok, told us that she was planning on visiting Chiang Mai for a short break. She had just left her job, and had a gap before her new job started. I’d never met Macky before, aside from a few short messages on Facebook. Mos had met her a few years previously on Koh Tao. She was a customer at Mos’ dive shop, Scuba Junction.

Macky was going to be getting the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. By far my least favourite mode of transport. There are plenty of regular and reasonable priced flights and a good reliable train link with sleeper carriages for an overnight trip. The buses, beside being horrible uncomfortable, are dangerous. Although the Thai media doesn’t like to cover them, bus crashes are frequent. And due to the lax health and safety policies and slow emergency response time. Often fatal. Every week I see reports, largely from twitter, of fatal bus crashes. The causes are varied, but a huge percent are due to driver error. Whether that be through drink, drugs, lack of sleep, lack of training or simply showing off. I’ve experienced examples of all of these. I really don’t like buses in Thailand.

When Macky arrived at Chiang Mai bus station I went to pick her and her suitcase up on the scooter. On our ten minute ride home monsoon style rain hit and thoroughly drenched us. As we arrived home and began to dry off Mos started to cook our dinner, pork ribs, on the barbecue. And before you ask, we have a very large porch, which we can barbecue under, even in torrential rain.

A couple of days into her stay at our house Macky announced that she was going to take Mos and I on a mini holiday. Right on the Thai border with Burma. Directly north of Chiang Mai. She knew a friend with a car rental business and would pay for the trip. So, of course, we agreed. Macky said that we’d drive up there, head into the mountains, and stay at a campsite she had found online. We would be able to hire a tent and bedding there, and as it was low season they’d have loads of space. No need to book.

I dropped her in town and a few hours later she returned to our house in a small Honda saloon car. As we headed north from Chiang Mai and into a much more rural, mountainous area it was clear that Mos and Macky were both feeling withdrawal symptoms from Facebook. Macky quickly spotted a coffee shop on the highway with a WiFi sign. Coffees ordered and iPads ready they searched for the WiFi network. It turns out that the owner of the coffee shop hadn’t paid his bills and was cut off by the provider a few months earlier. Shame. So we sat in this seating area overlooking the beatific mountain range the we were about to try to conquer. It was at this point that Macky got out her teddy bear and started posing it for photos. Mos and I did the same, but with each other. Not a teddy.

About an hour later, and another hour from our campsite, we stopped in a roadside restaurant for lunch. Both the girls pointed out that we are now clearly out in the middle of nowhere as they served buffalo. A meat that is rarely served in or around towns.

We continued into the mountains, the road got steeper and sharper and our car it’s an automatic gearbox was struggling. At a few points we only managed a couple of miles an hour. I’m still surprised the gearbox didn’t blow up.

Eventually we made it to the end of the road. There was a fork. The right turn turned quickly into a dirt track and through dense jungle. The other was guarded by a soldier in a green hut and a barrier. He said that the dirt track led to Burma. And his entrance was an army base. He said that we could come in to turn around and have a look if we wanted. They don’t see many farang (foreigners) in this part of Thailand. We parked in the base and started to look around. The first thing I saw was a military car the looked like an American military Humvee, but not quite the same. Almost like a cheap copy. The roof mounted machine gun however looked like it could do some serious damage.

The bad was basically a clearing on top of a mountain. In the middle was a helicopter landing pad. At the entrance tear the road were a few wooden buildings that appeared to be empty. Maybe used for meetings and cooking. Behind that an ammunition bunker. There were maybe ten small huts around the edge of the helipad each had two beds in for soldiers. There was also a toilet and shower block. All of the huts had their opening for the doors pointing the same way. The soldiers told us that was because the doors point towards Burma. The soldiers keep a constant watch on Burma. All I could see however was dense jungle until they pointed out a small speck of brown on the side of the adjacent mountain. That was the Burmese equivalent to the base we were in.

Just past the sleeping huts were bunkers dug into the ground. These had mortars set up and ready to go. It looked like they were all targeted at the Burmese army camp. Machine guns loaded and ready for action and platforms for artillery guns. Just past these was a dense fence of razor-sharp bamboo spears sticking out of the ground wrapped with barbed wire. Immediately after that was a steep drop into the dense jungle. Certainly looked like a pretty good deterrent.

Finding ourselves this far down the road meant that we had clearly missed our campsite. So we thanked the soldiers and headed back down the road we had come from. A few miles later we found a sign for a flower garden. Mos and Macky had clearly heard of this place as they seemed very excited. We decided to visit.

As we entered the gate to the gardens and paid our 40 baht (£0.80) per person entrance fee it became clear that this was not the type of garden that I was expecting. I had imagine a place like Kew Gardens in London. Arranged gardens with themes that you could walk through and take pictures. This was very different. All we saw were rows and rows of greenhouses stuffed with colour and workers carefully pruning and watering the plants. Some of the green houses grew plants for selling but some were cordoned off with fences, clearly separate from each other. Each of these was a research department. Some of them belonged to universities, some to government and organisations. My favourite one was ‘the Royal Centre for the Research and Development of Strawberries’. I’m fairly sure it is the only establishment in the world with that title.

Further into the gardens/farm we found an open garden, much more like the Kew type garden I was expecting. They had grass, trees, flowers, all sorts. Mos, who is a huge fan of flowers and gardening in general was in her element. Walking around smelling the flowers and taking pictures. It looked great, so many colours. I can’t comment on the aroma as I’m anosmic. Meaning I no longer have a sense of smell, see the link for more information. I lost it a few years ago after an accident involving my head meeting a Tarmac road at speed.

I headed for the more visually stunning parts of this garden. My favourite was the bamboo garden. It looked just like those you might find in martial arts movies. Or one of the default nature desktop pictures in a Mac (OS X 10.5 Leopard onwards). Yes, I’m a geek.

Macky wandered around sitting her bear on anything that was strong enough to hold its weight and snapped a load more photos of this clearly well-traveled bear. Is not quite as globetrotting as Paddington, but it must be close. In comparison, Mackys bear is far too underprepared for serious travel. Unlike Paddington, her bear is lacking a sensible coat, Wellington boots and a hat. Let alone the obvious schoolboy error of not having a suitcase. Now I can understand why he relies so heavily on the support of Macky. He’s simply not equipped to travel solo.

On the way out of the garden/farm I spotted a shop. It was fairly similar to what us Brits would call a farmers market. Local produce sold to local people. Handicrafts, fruit, vegetables, food, artwork and locally distilled strawberry brandy. We left with three bottles of it, and another of locally brewed ‘Zebra Vodka’. I’m fairly sure this is not fermented and distilled zebra juice. But… It looked interesting.

Somewhere between leaving the shop and getting back into the car I lost my glasses. I’m not blind, I don’t need these glasses to live, I use them for driving, cinema and looking at the amazing scenery around I see on a regular basis. Still, I was annoyed. I couldn’t find them. I blamed a dog, then I blamed school children who used the estate as a short cut back up to their homes. In the end, I accepted my loss and we left. With me moaning all the way.

My mood was not helped by our arrival at the campsite that Macky had planned for us to stay in. The campsite where we would hire a tent and bedding and didn’t need to book because it was low season. Well, it was low season, and they had been closed for two months. Great. I think Mos and I both considered putting Macky and her unprepared bear in the boot and making the long drive back to Chiang Mai and dumping the car in a temple. But, we didn’t. We kept driving hoping to find another site. We found two, both closed.

At this point, the dark of night was closing in and it was clear that we’d have to drive down the mountain in the pitch black. A road that has sheer drops, 180 degree turns and no safety barriers. Not to mentioned the frequent landslides that block the road or simply throw cars off it. Not some pitching I was looking forward to. But this is Thailand and the self-preservation part of your brain seems to go further into hibernation the longer you’re here. So we set off.

Before we reached the point of no return we spotted a green hut. It was another army camp. This one was positioned to look over the road that leads onto the mountain. It’s the only access road to the mountain and therefor this camp was in an ideal position to monitor the illegal logging vehicles.

We stopped at the gate and explains our situation. We asked if there are any other camp sites that they knew about. The soldier on the gate invited us in to talk to his superiors. We parked up and a man with a camouflaged jacket and t-shirt cam over to us. I quickly noticed that below the waist his attire was slightly less ‘military’. He was wearing Chelsea FC shorts and red flip-flops. Although he was the base commander and was surrounded by men with rifles, I thought it only right to express my dislike of his shorts. Mos and Macky looked at me in horror. Thankfully, instead of ordering us to kneel in front of shallow graves ready for execution he laughed and continued to talk to Macky and Mos in Thai about our predicament.

Although I don’t speak Thai, well nid noy (little bit), I was able to understand that he was pretty against the idea of us driving down the mountain on the road the his base overlooked, in the dark. He’d seen far too many accidents and had to recover too many bodies from the valley below. He disappeared for a few minutes to speak to some other soldiers. He came back followed by a couple of the base dogs, they could sense the bag of biscuits he’d just been passed. He told us that we could say at the base. Behind him, two junior soldiers walked over to the helipad and started to set up two tents. It was clear that this is where we would be sleeping. This base was similar to the previous one but this was all arranged in parallel lines. The huts and sleeping quarters in one line. then a small parking area a few meters lower, then the three helipads, then the bunkers and bamboo spear fences. The view from this camp was amazing. Infact the picture at the top of this page is of Mos standing next to our tents on the helipad overlooking the mountain range at 07:00 the next day.

We threw out stuff in the tents and decided to head back to a small village we’d seen to get some dinner. On our return to the base the soldiers had prepared a clay stove for us. It’s a traditional Thai way of cooking. It’s like a clay bucket that you light a fire in. A saucepan or work sits on top. The soldiers also explained that fires are illegal on the entire mountain range. But because we were under their supervision we could have one. As we sat cooking some eggs and noodles over the open fire a few soldiers came over and we sat talking for a couple of hours. They were all very friendly and hospitable. Far more than I’d expected.

Based on the advice from the soldiers we decided to get showered before it got too cold. It drops to around six degrees celsius in the mountains. The shower/toilet block was a concrete platform divided into three boxes with corrugated steel sheets and wooden posts. In each of these was a western style toilet seat, a large bucket with a tap above it and a small pan. The pan was for both flushing the toilet and throwing water on yourself to shower. It was very cold, but refreshing.

We lite a few candles and stuck them in the ground around our fire and decided it was time to crack open a bottle of whiskey we had brought with us. Macky the found a way to access the Internet on her iPad and disappeared into her tent to update Facebook. This left Mos and I cuddled up, sitting next to an open fire, on the mountain-top helipad of an army base in northern Thailand watching the campfires of the hill tribes light up as tiny specs on this huge mountain range in front of us. It was perfect.