Location: Melbourne, Australia
Well well it has been a long time between diary entries hasn't it? I think I can blame that on the post-travel hangover. You know, coming home and crashing back to the reality of actually having to be somewhere at a specific time, other than meeting up for bia hoi on the corner!
After saying goodbye to Vietnam I spent my last week of freedom in Thailand, checking out some greenery and nature (see previous entry) and the last day in Bangkok.
On returning from Khao Yai NP I realised that I'd have to be very tight with my remaining Thai baht - luckily I remembered it's crucial to keep 500B spare for the departure tax, otherwise they wouldn't let me out of the country. Now that would be terrible.
So I found a 200B room on Rambuttri St, which was only marginally bigger than the average bathroom. Excellent. They did throw in a free beer however so I guess I can't complain too much.
The next day was spent doing more emailing, and with very little money left, 10B unlimited internet and cool air-con I figured it was a good way to pass a few hours. To pay for a great western-style breakfast I sold a couple of books for 100B to the very tight booksellers. How backpackerish is that?!
In the evening I wandered around Khao San Rd, just soaking it in, and decided I had to have one last beer which I could just afford. So an icy-cold Singha it was, at a little table outside one of about four KSR 7-Elevens. Forgot to try the deep-fried crickets but I did also have a final serving of pad thai.
Then it was onto the mini-bus with the packs chucked up on the top, out to the massive Bangkok airport (soon to be even more massive), onto the plane and back to Melbourne. On the plane I caught half an excellent movie called "Match Point" then the stewardesses took the headphones before I had a chance to find out what happened, ate some pretty good food, slept a little bit and "touched down in the real world" - to quote a famous song.
What an awesome trip. Sitting here in Melbourne just a few weeks after, it's kind of strange to think I was in all these amazing places, meeting great people and eating spectacular food.
Now I just have to save more money to go somewhere else.
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
It's getting very, very close to the end of my trip. In fact, I fly out tonight from Bangkok, headed home to Melbourne...leaving at 1215am, bluuurrgh. At least I'll get to have a midnight snack of some Thai airline food (it was decent on the way over) and a few early-morning beers gratis.
This morning the final packing-up was a real dog of a job. My pack was a few kilos overweight, flying from Hanoi to here, so I was determined to get it under 20kg. This meant I had to undo all my excellent Hanoi packing (which I achieved in Hanoi in air-conditioned comfort) and re-pack the whole lot with only the aid of a wall fan. Sounds like a whinge, I know, but I'm sure anyone who's had to do anything vaguely physical over here on a steamy day knows what I'm talking about. Think rivers of sweat. But I persisted and got the job done - 18kg! Nice work me. Only problem is now my day-pack weighs a ton.
My last destination, apart from the crazy metropolis of Bangkok, was to the Khao Yai National Park. Mick went there a few weeks ago and he highly recommended the wildlife watching. So I thought, well, it's pretty close (2 1/2 hours by bus), and I'll probably go nuts if I spend the whole of my last week in Bangers...so off I went to check out a final bit of South East Asian Nature.
The bus arrived at the Green Leaf Guesthouse late in the arvo (a good place to stay, I might add), whereupon I dumped my bags, threw on a pair of boots and joined Stephanie & Matt from France in the back of a ute for the evening Bat Tour. Joe was our very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.
And we saw bats! Thousands and thousands of them. First stop was a bat cave (didn't see the Batmobile however) which we descended into with the aid of chunky torches. It smelt very ammonia-ey, due to the thick layer of bat guano on the floor, which the locals harvest and make a fair amount of money from. We had a close look at the stuff and could see the tiny remains of insects slowly being decomposed by guano-eating beetles.
We had a look up at the ceiling and saw some of the 50,000 or so bats that inhabit this cave. Some were just hanging out by their spindly little legs, some took off with a soft flutter around our heads as we approached and a few took care of baby bats, wrapped up in their wings. I was fascinated. They are such bizarre-looking but well-designed little creatures. They were flying around pretty fast, nearly hitting me in the face once or twice, and I even managed a couple of lucky in-flight photos. I could've stayed there for a long time, just looking at them, but we had to get to another cave before dark so off we went.
Twenty minutes later the ute stopped at the foot of a rocky hillside and our guide, Joe, set up the special viewing scope and aimed it at a hole in the rocks. This scope was amazing - kind of like a really powerful rifle scope but without the attached firearm. We pointed it at a couple of hawks and I swear it was that powerful I could almost see what they were thinking...
Just on dusk the bats started to come out. First just a few, one by one, quickly increasing in numbers until a steady stream of bats was pouring out of the cave, heading off to feed in a twisting, spiralling tube. I'd never seen anything like it. We stood transfixed for half an hour while the bats just kept coming - apparently about 2,000,000 of them live in this cave. It's hard to describe it (if only I could put a little video up on this site) but I estimated the bats were exiting the cave at the rate of maybe 1,000 every two or three seconds, give or take several hundred. There were that many it was incredible.
As they were flying overhead, making plenty of noise just from all those wings flapping, Joe made a sharp "SSSHHH" noise and the bats reacted instantly to it, simultaneously pulling away from the sound. The whole experience was amazing and we watched them until it was too dark and we could only hear the sound of thousands of little bat wings.
The next day was the full-day wildlife tour in Khao Yai NP. Three Poms, two Irish, a Canadian, myself and two guides (Mr Nine and Mr Lek) piled into the ute and we hared off in search of anything that walked, slithered, flew or swung.
The first, and very cool, find was a big, dark green scorpion, which just escaped being roadkill under the ute wheels. This fella was big - probably about as long as my hand. He was looking pretty evil with big claws ready to nip anything in sight and a fearsome-looking tail stinger poised to strike. Mr Nine walked straight up to it, held the claws away with a stick and quickly grabbed it by the stinger. We all thought he was crazy. Does this type of scorpion give you a bad sting? we asked. "Like an ant," he replied. Oh, well, that's ok then. Probably just like a massive ant.
He then proceeded to place the scorpion straight onto my arm. And it just sat there, surprisingly. It didn't seem too disgruntled at all to be way up in the air on the arm of a human. I certainly wasn't going to torment it though - I've made it this far in my trip without major injury (in fact I haven't even had a stomach bug) and didn't want to tempt fate and end up with an "ant-like" scorpion sting. But it was awesome to see a real, live scorpion. And green too. I always thought they were black.
We spotted some colourful parakeets, small hornbills, a bushy-tailed red squirrel and a couple of monitor lizards climbing the trees. Then it was time for a little walk.
We all donned leech-proof socks, and instantly looked very fashionable and no doubt highly attractive to anyone of the opposite sex passing by. This effect was only increased when the coloured plastic ponchos came out. Boy were we glad we had them though, as it started belting down rain in a Thai monsoon kind of way.
Tramping through the incredibly green forest, we discovered a huge (as big as my hand) golden web spider with bright yellow markings, giant millipedes about 15cm long with pairs of little feet moving in waves, giant slaters (think big brown macadamia-nut sized balls), and some fearsome-looking claw marks from a bear's tree-climbing expedition. We heard the calls of gibbons but couldn't locate them. The army of leeches on the leaves and wiggling on the ground attacked us from all angles but we managed to get rid of most of the little bloodsuckers. They're actually fascinating to watch - anchoring themselves at one end and probing around in the air with the other until they find a nice warm body to latch onto.
Later on, back in the ute, Mr Nine and Mr Lek somehow, I know not how, spotted a pair of giant hornbills - a good two or three hundred metres away. These fellas have incredibly well-trained eyes. The birds were big and bright-yellow coloured with white and black markings Fully grown, they can stand about 1.5m high, and they looked a little bit like a toucan with the big beak. At least the Froot Loops ad type of toucan, anyway. I don't think these are spotted all that often so it was exciting to see them.
More birds followed - a bright blue kingfisher, woodpeckers, and pheasants sprinting across the road. A whole family group of pig-tailed macaque monkeys made their appearance by the side of the road, totally unfazed by a uteload of farang pointing cameras at them. The mothers kept taking care of their little babies, some groomed each other, and the males showed off their bright pink assets to much amusement. That's the male monkeys, not Dan and myself.
The famous waterfall used in the filming of "The Beach" was next on the agenda, with plenty of brown water pouring over it. We asked Mr Lek if anyone jumps off there. "Yes," he replied, "but sometimes they get dead." Hmmm. Might give it a miss then.
Returning to the ute someone had found a very bright green pit viper. Only a little one, but apparently they get quite big. Amazingly, this little fella allowed us to take photos up really close, and he happily posed with his piercing, yellow, black-slitted eyes. Shortly after a big 1.5m-long water monitor lizard wandered through the carpark, slid into the river, crossed to the other bank and clumsily scrambled up the other side.
All we had to see now to finish the day was a gibbon and an elephant. The French couple had shown me photos of the previous day's expedition so I knew they were out there. But alas, it was not to be. Mr Nine and Mr Lek tried hard, driving us around in the rain for a good couple of hours but the gibbons and elephants are obviously not as silly as us and had sensibly decided to stay out of the downpour. Still, we did see some huge, 15cm-long centipedes on the road, and I spotted a big grey mountain goat that looked more like some sort of deer. A few glowing fireflies showed us the way home.
After a warming hot chocolate (we were pretty cold after getting wet in the ute) I bid adieu to everyone and caught a bus back to Bangkok, after purchasing a very tasty whole chicken leg (with foot still attached) for sustenance. The last proper bus journey of my trip was really quite boring, but definitely more peaceful than those in Vietnam - the horn is used more sparingly over here which is a very good thing.
The throng of taxi drivers at the bus terminal offered to take me to Khao San Rd for 400B (~US$10), but little did they know that I do actually know how much it should cost after 6 months in South East Asia and instead took a metered taxi for 85B.
Thus ended a very quick but great trip to Khao Yai NP - think I might have to come back one day to find those elusive elephants and gibbons.
Location: Bangers, Thailand
It's a funny feeling to be back in Bangkok, where it all started at the beginning of December. Of course I'm staying near Khao San Rd, which is still a pretty interesting place and a good spot to end the trip really. I wish they had a Thai version of bia hoi though...
But I was walking past a travel agent yesterday, and my eyes caught a sign advertising all the interesting places to visit in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And I realised as I read it - I've BEEN to all these spots! It was one of those moments that made me think, wow, I've done so much stuff on this trip. And seen so many amazing places. I walked away with a big grin on my face.
Location: Bangers, Thailand
For my last day in Vietnam I thought I'd better eat some very local food, so had a steaming hot bowl of "pho bo" (beef noodle soup) in a little alley, sitting of course on the tiny little plastic chairs. It was very tasty. Considered having a last bia hoi but realised I had quite enough of that last night so had some water instead.
Caught a taxi for the 35km airport trip, with Mr Huong. He very nicely gave me a souvenir set of postcards from Dien Bien Phu to take home, what a good bloke.
Half-way through the taxi ride I realised with a shock that I'd completely forgotten about a certain item stashed deep in my pack. It was in fact a gun. No, it's ok Mum, not a real gun, but a plastic, toy one I'd picked up while on the Cambodian bike trip, when we crossed into Thailand for breakfast. John from the States, one of the other riders, and I spotted these plastic airguns for 50B and thought well, we just have to get one. They were fun too - whilst waiting for the bikes to be fixed we did a bit of target shooting with the local little tackers. Not AT the little tackers, I might add.
But I was pretty sure the Vietnamese and Thai airport authorities, not known for being overly lenient, would be highly unimpressed as it looks quite realistic. So I was thinking, how on earth does one dispose of this - at an airport?!
Having said goodbye to Mr Huong, I opened up my pack outside the main entrance, trying to be inconspicuous. I dug around inside the pack and finally found the offending item. Hmmm, now what to do. I grabbed Mick's army shirt I was taking home for him and stealthily wrapped the gun in the shirt. Then, as casually as possible, gathered up all my stuff (I was loaded down with my big pack, a small daypack, a shoulder bag, camera and conical hat), wandered over to the bin, had a quick look around, and slyly dropped the gun into the bin. Don't worry Mick, the shirt didn't go in as well.
Phew. At any moment I was expecting the Vietnamese Secret Police to jump out and grab me but it seemed the coast was clear.
Just lucky I remembered hey?