Koh Tao – the continuation of a new obsession

Every year, thousands upon thousands of tourists descend on the tiny island of Koh Tao (Turtle Island – sadly named for the shape of the island rather than due to a resident population of endangered critters). The main draw? Diving. Kat and I were no different.
Koh Tao is Thailand’s dive Mecca. In fact, it’s one of the top three most common places to get PADI certified in all of Asia. Why? It’s cheap; you can dive all year round; and it’s bloody brilliant. The water is crystal clear. We had up to 50m of visibility and the corals are stunning – a real step up from where we’d done our Open Water course on Koh Mak, which is just a few hundred kilometres away on the other side of the Gulf of Thailand. 

Our slightly last minute decision to come here was made with the Philippines firmly in our minds, where, fingers crossed, some WW2 wrecks awaited us. To explore these properly, we needed a lot more diving experience and primarily the Advanced Open Water certificate. For those of you that don’t know (we certainly didn’t a few months ago!), the PADI Advanced Open Water course is all about improving your skills underwater, and exposing you to new and slightly more challenging situations, whilst having an instructor on hand to guide you through it. It consists of 5 dives, some of which are compulsory (underwater navigation and a ‘deep’ dive to 30m), and three optional dives, where you can choose from quite a wide range of different scenarios such as underwater photography, fish identification or diver propulsion vehicle (James Bond eat your heart out). The idea is that you pick whichever 3 interest you the most, or will be most relevant to the diving you want to do. In reality, you get a bit less choice, as some dive centres (including Coral Grand where we were staying) insist you do the ‘Peak Performance Buoyancy’ dive as an additional compulsory. It was actually really useful, and we both felt that our control underwater improved significantly – I guess that’s kind of the point! Our two other choices chose themselves – a night dive, and a wreck dive.

The torch lit night dive was incredible and a real experience. The ocean is a totally different place at night, with different species being active, especially stingrays. I think the clear highlight was spotting a turtle sleeping under a rock! 

The wreck dive was the other main highlight of the course. An old US (and later Thai) navy destroyer was donated to the marine reserve and sunk in 2011 as an artificial reef, and it makes a fantastic dive site. There are big schools of fish; grouper who have made themselves at home in the wheelhouse; and coral that is just starting to grow on the hull. We also saw a big barracuda on patrol – watch those fingers! 

All told. we were really pleased with our dive course. Yes, the centre had a bit of a feeling of a factory that just churns out newly qualified divers, but to be honest that was perfect for us and exactly what we needed. There is after all. A reason why it’s so popular – the diving is really, really good. 

  

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North Thailand

The mountain roads in the north west of Thailand had been recommended to us, so we headed to the Myanmar border at Mae Sok and started what was to be nearly a week of stunning roads. Pretty much all were in superb condition, with endless sharp corners and steep switchbacks – great for the soul, not so good for the fuel economy!   
The whole week was full of beautiful scenery, although the constant haze from the heat and forest fires cut the viability right down. We spent one night camping in the national park. The road up to it was pretty steep, but the views were great, and the national park campsite is well equipped. At least, it would have been in the high season. When we went there it was almost completely shut up, but the toilets were still mostly functional, and we had the place completely to ourselves. Most importantly, it was high enough to be blissfully cool at night. In the morning, we took a crazy ‘road’ back down the hill. It’s marked as a track for 4x4s only, and is utterly impassable in the wet season, but in April, at end of the dry season, it was sandy and dusty, and the Beaut was amazing! A few heart in mouth moments though, especially when the road just dropped away on one (or both!) sides. Great fun…! 

  
We also stopped off at the fish cave, which wasn’t really a cave, and more a river and a small hole in a rock. There were a lot of fish though, and it was a bit of fun! 

  
If I’m honest, we rushed Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. We got antsy and wanted to get to Laos. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the downtime we had in Chiang Mai – we had some great meals, stayed in a lovely guesthouse, and met some really nice people – including the honorary consuls of both the UK and of Ireland, but we didn’t really stay long enough to do it justice. We’ll put it on the list for next time!

Koh Mak

We split Laos into two halves, as we had some special visitors coming out to meet us in the form of Tom’s parents. A mad dash from Vientiane to Bangkok to meet them at the airport, before heading down the East coast to Koh Mak – a tiny island next to it’s more famous big brother Koh Chang. What a week it was. Here are a few snapshots to give you an impression…  

A luxury villa built on 3 floors, 4 poster bed with mozzie net, en suite, massage table, jacuzzi pool. Incredible! 

Unpredictable weather to start to week, but it actually cooled the temperature down a bit so was probably a good thing! 

Sunset pier

  
Vista cafe – fruit plates, chips, breakfast toasted sandwiches and the best view on the island. 

  
PADI diving course with Koh Mak Divers – superb, and really great tuition from Uwe. 

Hiring scooters to go to the beach on the far north east of the island – mum and dad on the back!! Distressing loss of frisbee through no fault of our own. We still haven’t quite got over it. 

  
Pizza. 

Curry pasties and nice bread from the German bakeries. 

Sawasdee restaurant was delicious, particularly the Western food. 

Live music at the Art House on the hill up to Goodtime resort (There are lots of Art Houses on the island!). 

In conclusion, a wonderful week. So special. 

Mechanics in Bangkok

Once again, we had problems with our brakes. This was a recurring theme of the trip sadly. We’d first noticed a slight veer to one side on braking back in Kyrgyzstan, and despite our best efforts, and the efforts of not one but two genuine Land Rover garages (Almaty, Kazakhstan and Barnaul, Siberia), they were still bad. In fact, they were barely functional. At least we vaguely knew what the problem was, and now had brought the correct spare parts out with us from the UK after our brief Christmas trip home!
We had been recommended a particular garage – they only do clutches and brakes, and they were open, even just after Chinese New Year – most places in Bangkok see this as an excuse to be closed for about a week…! The garage is called Prakanong Brakes, and is between Sukhumvit Soi 67 and 69. Not much English spoken, although they understood a lot of the mechanical terminology pretty quickly!

They were also brilliant, although not massively cheap. 5 hours later (we hung around and generally made a nuisance of ourselves) they had completely overhauled the brakes. They’d reconditioned all 4 drums, put new pads on all 8 shoes, repaired all offending wheel cylinders (the cause of all our woes), and generally given everything a well needed clean. Oh, and had the usual fun bleeding them afterwards of course…! Cost for all this was TBH 6,700. (£130). A fraction of the cost of a similar thing in the UK!

Finally, we had firm, even braking. How long will it last this time I wonder…?


Bangkok

Hot, hectic, and definitely not the most pleasant smelling of cities, Bangkok, initially at least, isn’t the most relaxing of places. And, despite it’s reputation as a top holiday destination, with cheap flights from pretty much anywhere in the world, nor is it the most spectacular as a tourist spot. Sure, there is the Royal Palace; the museum; there are temples; the canal tour is pretty good; and there are a plethora of floating markets to visit, but there is nothing that really, really makes you go “Wow” from a tourist attraction point of view. There are even more racy destinations elsewhere in Thailand if that’s what you’ve come for. So, after a week of waiting for the Beaut to clear customs (why is everything always so much more frustrating when you’re waiting for something?!), we weren’t sold on Bangkok as a place to visit. We weren’t even enjoying the street food as much as we’d hoped! But then we realised that we needed to stop viewing Bangkok from a tourist point of view. I mean, on a holiday, you aren’t that likely to spend 2 weeks in the city anyway, not when you’ve got the rest of Thailand to enjoy as well. We needed to start appreciating Bangkok for what it did have, and stop comparing it to Myanmar, or to other places in South East Asia that we were looking forward to.

Step forward a website called “Bangkok.oneplace.events”. It’s a listing of pretty much everything that’s happening in the city, organised into morning, afternoon and evening, for every single day. And wow, what a selection. Bangkok might not have the best sights in the world, but for the sheer number of things going on, it’s got to be up there. From art galleries and rooftop jazz nights, to free open air concerts by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, we found something that we wanted to do literally every day. We even found somewhere to watch the 6 Nations! Conclusion: if you are coming to Bangkok, don’t follow your guide book; find out what’s on at the time, and really experience what living in Bangkok is like – it won’t disappoint.

Cambodia Visa – In Bangkok

This was easy. As there seems to be limited information online…. like opening hours etc. hopefully this will help out anyone looking for the same.

Consulate: 518/4 Pracha Uthit Road
(Soi Ramkamhaeng 39)
Wangtonglang
Bangkok 10310
Thailand

Get off the Metro at Huai Khwang – be warned, its a long old walk from there!

Opening Hours: 09.00 – 12.00 & 14.00-17.00 (we assume daily – we went on a Monday)

Turn up, collect application form and fill in – nothing too hard on here, you will need to know how and where you plan to enter/exit Cambodia. For Overlanders we used ‘Hat Lek/Koh Kong’ Thailand/Cambodia and ‘Voeun Kam/Don Kralor’ Cambodia/Laos.

You will also need – Passport (Obviously) Passport Photo (they don’t seem bothered about the size for once!) Photocopy of your Passport photo page AND a photocopy of your most recent Thailand entry stamp.

Moneywise, US$30 was advertised but we paid $US35 for a quick issue, the guy behind the desk suggested that $US30 was for a three day service. You can also pay in Bhat 1200 which actually worked out at a better exchange rate. Re quick issue, they mean quick – no receipt given we just sat down and waited – and it was like you wouldn’t believe, having entered the consulate at 14.00 on the dot without photocopies or application forms we had everything done submitted and returned to us by 15.00!

Having supplied dates of 08/02/16-07/03/16 the visa shows 01/02/16-01/05/16 so you seem to get three months to enter from date of application but only a month is allowed in country.

If you need a photocopier service come out of the embassy turn right and there’s a copy shop within a few minutes walk next to DIY Coffee. 2 Bhat per sheet!

Obviously having not had any of the info above we turned up at 12.00 and were turned away but turning left out of the consulate is an excellent coffee shop, the name escapes me but its all glass with a terrace – have the frozen coffee float and the almond cookies, there are wore ways to kill two hours!