Ko Chang

After another 1 night stopover in Bangkok then a quick 30min flight we arrived in Trat.  From here it was a minivan (seat of the pants stuff as usual) and ferry (short and good) trip over to the island of Ko Chang, in the eastern Gulf of Thailand towards the border with Cambodia.

The airport is very minimal, Bangkok Airways built it, it’s more of a hut with no walls. 
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Our accommodation was right on the river and was a beautiful, relaxing place to be staying. Much better than a room on the beach surrounded by the many (we’d estimate 75%) Russian tourists. The walkway to the house was raised above the mangroves, all the plants were so lush and green. The ‘river’ is an estuary so very tidal and was cool to see the difference between high & low tide, and see locals looking for crabs under houses during low tide.

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It was a 5min walk to the beach but we liked to kayak down the river to get there instead. 
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We also went up river to explore, it was very peaceful.  The owner of the guesthouse said that sometimes you can spot pythons curled up sleeping in the trees along the riverbank so we kept an eye out but didn’t see any.
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It was a great way to see the other houses along the river, some of them well kept, others not so watertight.
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This was the sundeck and covered deck of our guesthouse.  It made a great place to read out of the midday sun.

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There are a couple of restaurants just across the river and it was fun one night to get boated to and from dinner.
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Again we hired a scooter to get around.  We had a good look down the west coast of the island where most of the settlements are but didn’t venture to the east.  A 7 year old boy was the petrol pump attendant.  Well we think it was petrol, could have been anything.
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We stumbled across a great collection of street stalls and although we’ve been trying to eat mostly thai, the lady on a stand made an outstanding kebab. So good that we had it 2 days in a row.  

It was also around here that we saw the bank security guard moonlighting as the meat skewer chef.

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It was great to kick back eating awesome food and having a beer from the 7-11, while watching the mix of locals & tourists eating, many stray dogs, food vendors putting on a show while whipping up a dish, & general thai street goings on. In Thailand if you find a good set of stalls it is much better than going to a restaurant (even a highly rated & expensive one), in our experience.

We had a bit of time at the beach, the water was warm and calm. It was a great spot to see beautiful sunsets.
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We went to a popular waterfall one day, not overly spectacular but it was a good place for people to have a dip on a hot day.
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There are a couple of islands just off the coast that are good for day trips. At low tide its actually possible to walk out to the closest one about 300m from shore. There’s a great viewpoint looking over these islands which is another great place to watch the sunset.
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We liked Ko Chang a lot. It had a nice mix of beaches, resorts, local food & villages, things to do, without feeling too busy or touristy. It seemed pretty quiet for the week before Xmas – that was due to unrest in Bangkok causing lots of cancellations from paranoid travellers. Our accommodation was outstanding, really unique and one of the best we’ve stayed in anywhere on our travels.

Fun fun, next stop to Cambodia for Christmas.

Hazy Days in Hong Kong

After Siem Reap we were planning to spend some time in Bangkok but with riots/demonstrations over the government happening frequently we instead headed to Hong Kong to catch up with friends Silas and JJ for a few days.

We were lucky to nab very cheap flights with Emirates on the big bird A380 which we hadn’t flown before. Great plane, heaps of legroom, smooth take off’s, highly recommended.

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We liked watching the exterior tail cam.

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It was great to see friends and stay at their apartment close to town. 

We couldn’t help but laugh a little when we saw this notice in the lobby of their building.  Mahjong must cause quite a ruckus.
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We hadn’t quite realised until we got there just how densely populated the city is.   The footpaths were pretty crammed and the subway non stop busy, busiest (but also most efficient) we’ve seen anywhere by a long way.
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We had a couple of dinners out, I don’t think we were expecting a sashimi platter quite this big when we ordered it but we sampled most of it.   The sea urchin was a bit too slimy for our taste.
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Another night we had our first try of goose, kind of tasted like duck but even better!

Matt was lucky enough to get game of squash with Silas, was good fun even after all these months off the court.
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We went for a walk along the waterfront and got a ferry across the harbour to get a good view of the city but unfortunately it was quite hazy/smoggy during our time in the city so our photos haven’t captured the (awesome) skyline very well.
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There are a lot of modern buildings and much development going on around the city.   Bamboo is the main material for scaffolding and we enjoyed watching the progress of this build not far from the apartment.  Hard to gauge but they were constructing the scaffolding on a 45° concrete slope, not an easy task.
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Rachel celebrated her birthday here so we thought it called for a day of eating.   Lunch was at 1 of 2 Michelin star Dim Sum restaurants in Hong Kong, where sometimes the wait for a table can be a couple of hours.  We were lucky and only had a 20min wait.  It’s the most unassuming place but the food is delicious.  We especially liked the baked BBQ pork bun and fried dumpling type things with a yummy meat filling.
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Matt was also quite a fan of the sticky rice in lotus leaf which he thought would be a good lunch when he returns to work, providing it is available at Hungry Wok Hornby Mall food court. 
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We got a little carried away and thought they would be small dishes so ordered 7 items.
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Needless to say we couldn’t finish it all and left very full and very happy at having only spent NZ$24 on a superb meal at the only Michelin star restaurant we’ve ever been to.

To follow that up Matt whipped up a yummy home cooked meal for dinner complete with apple crumble and some NZ Sauvignon Blanc from Silas and JJ’s collection.
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They were so thoughtful and brought home a delicious birthday cake, just a shame we couldn’t finish it all.
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Hong Kong has a lot of jungle running behind the city so it’s easy to get out into some greenery.   The mountain called Victoria Peak is a popular place to go to get a great view over the city on the north and to the south side of the island.   We chose to taxi part way then walk up, it’s pretty steep going. There is a tram to the top but like usual we didn’t like the idea of waiting in the line for ages.  It was our last day but unfortunately the weather hadn’t cleared so this was the view we had.
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Thanks to Silas and JJ for having us stay it was great to see you again.
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Next stop another Thai island getaway.

Smiles of Siem Reap

After a quick stopover of one night in Bangkok we were headed to Cambodia.   The luxury of having only carry on bags and sitting near the front of the plane meant the wait time for our visas on arrival in Siem Reap was only about 5min.

We were here to see what the thousands of people come to visit every day, the temples of Angkor.  
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As you can see Rach donned her ‘Dora the Explorer’ outfit.

Reading ahead most visitors can take 2 to 3 days to fully explore all of the temples.   After this long travelling we’ve realised that our attention to any particular site is really only limited to a few hours.   Keeping this in mind we arranged for a tuk tuk driver to take us around, keeping to 3 of the main temples.  
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Angkor Wat was the first stop.  It’s great to drive around the man made moat to the entrance.  We spent a couple of hours looking around, certainly not as long as most, but saw most of the grounds.
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We spotted this monkey waiting patiently to use the porta loo.
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Although there were thousands of people here the area is so large that we did manage to get lots of photos with no people in them.
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Then we headed towards Bayon and as we went through the entrance gate we spotted a bit of monkeying around.  This little girl was not happy about the monkey trying to hitch a ride (check out the look on her face) .   Out came someone’s slingshot, now we see why they’re sold everywhere.

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This is our driver Mr Ven Sing with said monkey.
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I guess they’re so used to people that they make themselves at home anywhere.
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The temple was set back from the road along a raised walkway.  
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Maybe if we weren’t sweating so much we may have opted to climb the stairs to the top but we opted for the horizontal track. 
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One thing we cant get over is the layout of the temple and how there were clear frames (obviously not window frames that long ago). 

This was the temple of faces, many carved into the stone. 
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The detail that went into each carving must have taken so long to complete.
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The last temple of our visit was Ta Prohm, where trees have taken root in amongst the stones of the temple.

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This one seemed the most touristy with people offering all sorts of things for sale.  When we left, literally through the gauntlet of begging children – we got away easy, some people were hassled from the exit right up until they got into their van.

It is certainly incredible to see the huge trees growing out of the stonework.

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Back in Siem Reap we decided to have a look around town. Although we knew it was a popular tourist spot we never expected it to be so geared up for foreigners. Probably takes the title of most touristy spot we’ve ever seen. However it’s still has a certain kind of charm, even after getting asked if we need a tuk tuk ride several hundred times over the days we were there.

The most well known street, Pub Street, is a line of bars and restaurants catering to any taste.

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Like any tourist area it’s not where the best quality restaurants are but it’s busy well into the night.   There is some traditional cuisine on this street but it’s more pizza, pasta, grill, Mexican, sushi etc.

Unexpectedly there was a squash tournament on the big screen outside one of the bars.

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On a walk by the river we managed to find some locals, not easy to find on Pub Street, going about some fishing and gaming on the footpath.

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We decided to do a motorbike tour which was by far one of the best things we have done on this whole trip. We each had our own semi automatic bike and with just the two of us and our guide we covered a lot of ground in the 5 hours.

It didn’t take long to get into the country side along a bumpy dirt road. We stopped to take a look at women weaving baskets. They complete about 5 or 6 baskets a day and sell them at the markets in the city for around $10 each.
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Here there was also this simple gizmo for children to learn to walk. They hold on and go round and round in circles.
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It was beautiful to be driving between the palm trees and rice paddies, everything was so green.
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We only had one slight detour due to a road washout.
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There were lots of people out harvesting the rice. It gave us a greater appreciation for the rice that we easily buy when we saw them in the huge fields doing all of the harvest by hand. After its dried the process of separating the grain is also done by hand.
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It’s usual to get friends and neighbours to help with the harvest then help them in return.
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The big thing that made our day was all the children that we saw would smile and wave at us, almost all of them shouting hello even right back from their houses. They were so happy. Even though it was a Saturday they still had school so we saw lots biking home for lunch. It’s so funny seeing 5 and 6 year olds quite capable of handling an adult size bike even though the seat was up to their shoulders when they were pedalling.
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We had a look around the school, same sort of layout as the primary schools we went to.
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We had some lollies with us so Rach tried to save the world one lolly at a time.
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We got to see another temple ruin, this one most tourists would never know about.
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The whole time we were out we didn’t see another westerner, so it felt like we were really off the usual tourist trail.
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One night we saw a sign for “Cambodian food festival” so we ventured to it. On entry we were given tickets for the lucky draw and proceeded to win 4 beers so this was a good start.
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Rather than a food festival though it was more like a open air concert with tables and food stalls but was fun for something different. We thought the stall selling toddler helmets was funny, then turned around and saw one being put to use.
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Cambodia has now taken the trophy for cheapest destination we’ve visited, with many meals in SR being US$1 and $2, and draught beer .50c per glass. If you bargained a bit you could get a whole day tuk tuk driver for ten bucks.

The rest of our time in Siem Reap was spent around the pool at the guesthouse and generally relaxing. We met some Canadians and went out to dinner with them one night. Great fun, next stop another ‘one night in Bangkok’ before a visit to Hong Kong.

Chiang Mai Choice City

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a great melting pot of locals, tourists and expats.  There’s never a shortage of food and when we realised our accommodation was 3 min walk from one of the city’s well known markets we knew we were on to a good thing. Rach tried out a pork noodle soup for breakfast among the locals.

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To keep on the food theme we went on a food tour one night and did a cooking class. The tour was great, we tried lots of different local dishes and had our first taste of frog.
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Here’s the chef whipping up our Kermit stirfry. Not bad but a bit bony.
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We loved the moo gai – slow boiled pork over rice with a chilli/lime dressing.

We tried about 4 different desserts including these dumplings, the filling is a peanut butter/chilli sort of mixture.
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We’ve decided that as desserts go mango sticky rice wins hands down.

The cooking class was great, only us and a Canadian lady.

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We had a market tour first to get to know more about the ingredients. Interesting to see all the goods on offer.
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Then it was back to the kitchen to start our 4 dishes each. Between the 2 of us we made papaya salad, spring rolls, variations of tom yam soup, pad see ew, laab salad and a massaman and penang curry. Luckily the serving sizes were just right so we left full but didn’t waste too much.
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We hired a scooter which was great. As much fun as it is on the tuk tuks, having our own transport meant we got out of the city more.

We decided to go up the hill to the Doi Suthep temple. We only realised once at the bottom of the hill that there was a major cycle race on to the top. Nevermind, we weaved between the cyclists without incident.
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We were hoping for a good view over the city but it was too hazy to get any photos. The temple itself was pretty, lots of gold and some pretty gardens.
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There were just a few steps to climb to get there.
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We got passed by more cyclists than cars on the way down.
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A trip to the ‘Merivale’ of Chiang Mai lead to us finding a truly excellent coffee shop. Matt was very excited to have his first flat white in months.
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We were amused to see how to get around with a toddler. Just wheel the buggy onto the sidecar of the motorbike taxi, put the brakes on and the trailer door up and with some added sun protection you’re ready to go.
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Our accommodation was great, good value, rooftop pool and a man who ran the little bar/store that the regulars affectionately called ‘Papa’ . He even went to the trouble of cutting the top off our packet of chips with scissors then cutting down the middle so it was like a little plate. Simple thing but made our day that he thought to do it. There was also a security guard that saluted us each time we passed through the entrance.

These are some of the expat retirees who were long term residents of the apartments, they seemed to spend more time at the bar than anywhere else.

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We can’t be in a city without checking out the mall so we ventured to the Festival Mall which had only opened in the beginning of November, it claims to be the largest mall in S.E. Asia. Also saluted at the entrance by security guard here. Multiple levels with shops, restaurants, a whole floor of beauty salons specialising in whitening products, and an ice skating rink.

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We did manage to find where we’d parked the scooter among the hundreds of others.

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After seeing them all over town we decided to do a fish spa. It took a bit of getting used to them nibbling all parts of our feet but golly our feet were smooth after it.

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Every Saturday brings the closure of a street near our accommodation to create a walking street and a marketplace that stretches far further than we were willing to walk. The part that we did see was shoulder to shoulder busy and had some interesting stalls like this one asking for money for dog food. They were pretty cute.
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We also couldn’t go past the mini icecream cones.
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There are many places around Chiang Mai where you can ride an elephant but unfortunately not all of them treat the animals well. After some research from Matt we decided to go to the government run farm south of the city. The scooter got a good workout on the highway for the 50 odd kms each way.

We opted for the short elephant ride because we weren’t sure we’d like sitting atop such a huge animal but we both really liked it. In fact the lulling side to side motion could have put Rach to sleep.

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We also got to see 3 baby elephants in the nursery, talk about cute.

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This one liked playing soccer.

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It’s strange to see all their fuzz on their head and back.

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Chiang Mai is definitely a great city, we felt like it was really liveable compared to others in Asia we’ve visited.

There are lots of activities, great food and a good mix of nationalities. The weather is cooler than many other parts of Thailand being up north which is really nice, and costs for everything are roughly half of what you’d pay in a tourist destination like Ko Lipe, Samui or Phuket.

Despite having roughly a million residents it felt much smaller which is a good thing. We’d love to go back in the future.