Archive for February, 2014

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia’s Temple History

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Angkor Wat is big. It’s famous. It’s so revered by Cambodians, it’s on the country’s national flag.

But is it any good?

I think it’s ok. It is worth visiting, but not for too long. Bits of it are impressive and as it’s regarded as probably the world’s largest religious structure, it demands respect.

The temple is actually part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire that date from the 9th to the 15th century.

It’s the most famous site on the park, so we stopped there first. But really it’s just a huge temple complex, with many plain parts, and with lots of faded carvings which overwhelm by the sheer force of their numbers and lose their impact the longer you are there.

To give an example of its architectural splendour, Angkor Wat itself has more than 3,000 apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, carved into its walls, each one a unique design. There are 37 different hairstyles shared between them, also.

Now archeologically, that is remarkable. But seriously, how long do you want to stand around, looking at wall carvings? And while each might be unique, the differences are very subtle, so they don’t immediately strike you as individuals. While these are lovely carvings, how massively different do they look?

The carvings are superb, don’t get me wrong. You’ll note the faces of these ones are scratched out – that’s probably because the Khmer Rouge abolished religion and would often deface or behead any Buddhist imagery.

1461721_10153628956845241_1004384247_nAs I said, Angkor Wat is worth looking around for a while. Here’s some of what I saw.

This corridor was covered with carvings, depicting a variety of scenes, and as such this was a good place to linger and take it all in. Here’s a close up.

And here’s some of those lovely nymphs. Hello, ladies…

Here’s the best looking nymph of them all.

It was blisteringly hot that day, so any shady spot was highly desirable. I never noticed this before I posted this first photo, but check out the living Buddha on the left side.

The grounds are worth a quick look, but the best thing about what’s there is that it’s all so big and sprawled out. Otherwise it’s nothing special.


You can get up high in Angkor Wat and check out the view.

575443_10153628966215241_455528629_nWhich looks like this.

And this.

But after an hour, an hour and a half max – push off. There are much better sights to drink in, just down the road.

When we left Angkor Wat, Adventurous Kate and I hopped back into our tuk tuk, driven by the excellent Mr Mean.

Friendly, always laughing and smiling, handing out bottles of chilled water, you’ll struggle to find a nicer chap than Mr Mean.

I liked saying his name a lot, because it was so at odds with his demeanour. (It turns out you pronounce his name Me-An, but he introduced himself as Mr Mean, so it stuck). If you ever go to Siem Reap, visit New Angkorland hotel (a very decent place to stay and quite reasonably priced) and ask for Mr Mean as we booked him through its reception, so they should have his details.

He took us down the road to Bayon, part of the city of Angkor Thom and on the way you pass these fellows on a bridge with a once-grand entrance, making you feel like you’re entering a secretive, lost city which could count King Kong among its residents.

Now this place is more like it – smaller, and largely crumbled, it nevertheless has much more personality than Angkor Wat.

There are carvings here, but not so many that you become blasé about them.

There’s so much charm about this place.

Bayon is a Buddhist temple and has 37 towers, most sporting four carved faces.

1465214_10153628981530241_155999281_nThe many faces to be seen at Bayon are similar, but located in different parts and positions around the temple, making them very photographable. They’re thought to be of Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII, the king who built the temple.

My money’s on the latter. You know kings and queens and authority figures everywhere – they give, but they like to be recognised for having done so.

1486833_10153628983875241_1211641003_nAfter a spot of lunch, Mr Mean expertly took us to my favourite part of the temple complex, the brilliant Ta Prohm.

I’ve a three-temple maximum, as I’ve previously mentioned in other blog posts. This was the third of the day, the best and one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen.

1456061_10153628994570241_2080326739_nThis temple complex was abandoned for centuries, and as a result has been overgrown by giant trees, who have dismissed man’s feeble attempts at making a mark on the land, simply pushing their way past mere stone.

1461860_10153629012040241_179151178_nIt now looks like where Indiana Jones would go for a weekend break, and actually the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed here. Closest I’ll ever get to Angelina Jolie, probably, although I did used to live on the road where Lara Croft and her game was created, in Derby.   

Someone should tell the CIA that the FBI are now running overseas operations. And on a tight budget, clearly.

The place is quite eerie.

1497452_10153629002245241_1159445123_n

It made me wonder, again, what the world would look like if human life vanished from it.

These roots were so big, they now have to be supported.

I spotted this woman having her picture taken in one of the roots. This is clearly a theme of hers, but whatever it is, that dinosaur is quality.

What remains of the inside of the temple still has much to offer.

1456793_10153628999755241_91411417_nHere’s another Buddha to be found inside Ta Prohm.

Finally, Mr Mean took us to Banteay Kdei, a monastic complex which is in poor repair but is slowly being restored. Now this did break my three-temple rule, but despite feeling a touch of temple fatigue, I enjoyed seeing this one also.

The late afternoon light played happily with what is left of this mainly ruined site, and made for some interesting shapes.


This site may be ruined but it’s still worth a visit.

This kid was curious to see what was in the Big Blue Box parked near the temple’s entrance, but sadly for him there didn’t seem to be anything in there.

While inside we came across this Buddhist shrine. I was told that the Buddha’s head is new, because the Khmer Rouge beheaded it and destroyed the original.

The nun you see here gave Kate and I a blessing and tied coloured string round our wrists. I wondered if they’d last the week, but more than a month later, it’s still on both our wrists!

So if you go on the hunt for Cambodia’s temples, these are four that you should definitely check out, and you can do them in less than a day.

Finally, as we left Banteay Kdei, I bought a Coke for Kate, Mr Mean and me. The woman who sold them was a charmer – look at that smile!

That’s all for my time in fascinating, if occasionally frustrating Cambodia.

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia’s Fearsome History

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

DSC_0051The Khmer Rouge were a mystery to me before I came to Cambodia. By the time I left, that group had became just as loathsome in my mind as the Nazis.

They were, if anything, an even bigger bunch of homicidal maniacs than their German predecessors in that unhappy club whose membership insists upon death, abuse of power and blind, irrational hate.

The Khmer gang killed as many as they could, as quickly as they could, and they didn’t even have the hateful ideology of the Nazis against Jews and other groups. No need to muster the troops and invade neighbouring countries to wreak havoc, because the Khmer Rouge simply killed their own.

And for what? To maintain a twisted, doomed ideology where everyone worked the land and everyone was equal. Instead they reduced their own society to the worst extremes of the impoverished medieval age.

Money was banned by the regime, would you believe, as was private property and public displays of affection, even between families. People were killed for wearing spectacles or knowing a foreign language.

Naturally those in the Khmer Rouge themselves were exempt from these idiotic rules. Their leader, the hideous Pol Pot, was an intellectual who had studied abroad in France and could speak its language.

The millions who died on Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and those who perished because they were starved or overworked to death, need to have their story told, because suppressing these horrors is how the Khmer Rouge got away with it from 1975-1979. People outside, and often inside the country, didn’t know what was going on, which is what their moronic leaders wanted.

So, here are a few images of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where people were killed in huge numbers. Although the Killing Fields were actually hundreds of sites across the entire country, this one outside of Phnom Penh has come to be known by that name and symbolises the horror in its entirety.

Also there are shots of the notorious prison S21, or Tuol Sleng, where thousands were tortured into confessions of completely fabricated crimes, such as spying for both the US and Russia and other such fevered delusions, by people whose stupidity was measured in tears.

The top shot shows the location of one of Choeung Ek’s mass graves.

When you arrive, the first thing you see is the Buddhist stupa, which has many skulls within it. We placed a couple of incense sticks before it, in memory of those who died.

This is a tooth I spotted on another grave site. When the rains come, they persuade the earth to give up fragments of those who were clubbed and hacked to death here – the Khmer Rouge did not waste bullets by shooting prisoners, instead bludgeoning them to death.

DSC_0052The tooth was within easy sight of the path, and the only one visible, so I suspect it was placed there. But its power and story remain undiminished.

Once fenced off at the front, and bordered by a small expanse of water at the back, Chuong Ek is now a very peaceful place. The wind plays with the long grass and butterflies jig about the green tips, which were once stained red.

1507550_10153643700600241_1453288251_nExplanatory boards help you understand what the place was, and how it worked.

DSC_0033There are cabinets where you can see clothes which have been dug up, and on top of them are bone fragments, pieces of jaw and skull, all kinds of shattered bone remains.

I stood and looked at these shorts for a while, so small that they must have belonged to a child.

I wondered what threat a child could possibly pose to the Khmer Rouge regime.

Later I learned how their philosophy was that if you killed an adult for whatever delusional crimes had been dreamed up against them, you also had to kill the entire family, so as to ensure the children would not grow up and come after the perpetrators.

These strips of cloth can be seen in large numbers. They were used to blindfold those earmarked for execution, who were killed on the edge of pits.

This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It’s a large tree right next to a pit where bodies of women and children were found after the collapse of the regime.

It later emerged that Khmer Rouge soldiers would beat the heads of babies against this tree’s bark, before tossing their lifeless bodies into the adjacent hole with their mothers.

Today, people leave coloured bracelets pinned to the bark, which once contained fragments of skull, hair and brain according to the man who found it after the Khmer Rouge had fled.

This is the grave next to the tree.

On many of the grave sites bracelets and money is placed, offerings to the deceased.

Sadly, there were a number of $100 bills dotted about which looked fake to me. It’s easy to buy fake money in Cambodia and I suspect they’d been placed there to guilt foreigners into making similarly large, but genuine, donations.

I could be wrong about this, but there were also plenty of Cambodian riel about, and they hadn’t decayed the same way. Also, that money could have done much good to impoverished Cambodians alive today, so who would leave it to rot on a former grave site?

1526668_10153643736220241_301583199_nBefore people came to die at the Killing Fields, they were imprisoned and tortured at Tuol Sleng, also known as S21.

Some 17,000 men, women and children passed through its gates. Only 12 survived, the rest dying there or mostly being taken off to be butchered.

So this was the gateway to hell for many.

1513657_10153636606835241_1030880125_nTuoel Sleng is a former school, and you can clearly see that in its architecture.

1461530_10153636602465241_630923045_n

1469818_10153636548485241_841462238_nDifferent floors were dedicated to imprisoning different levels of prisoner, many of which had formerly been in the Khmer Rouge but were later deemed an enemy of the regime, for reasons only known to those clinging to power.

DSC_0886Higher ranking prisoners were chained to beds in the ground floor rooms.

1456697_10153636553330241_563375459_nThis table was chilling. It was where a Khmer Rouge officer would sit and fire questions at the prisoner chained to the bed in front of it, trying to get them to confess to something that would incriminate them.

Why they didn’t just kill them straight away seems baffling, as they were making up the crimes that they were accusing them of anyway.

DSC_0895

1482772_10153636549335241_71127957_nThe Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping (as were the Nazis).

Photos can be seen of those young men, mostly peasants and many in their mid-late teens, who were the prison’s jailers and torturers and who mostly just went home after the regime ended, meaning they are still alive today, unpunished.

Those who’ve more recently been interviewed say they were brainwashed and were victims of the regime themselves.

960075_10153636568780241_1527601014_n
1512744_10153636570410241_1712492761_nAlso, there are many photos of traumatised, horrified looking people – the prisoners. Every single one who came to S21 was photographed in a special chair, which is still on the premises. Some 6,000 of these images still survive.

This man, like so many others, looks like he knows he’s going to be tortured and then killed. Which he was.

The individual trappings of the former prison are still present, humanising the concrete and tile, serving as a reminder that people spent endless days here, before their days eventually ended.

The prisoner restraints and metal boxes once used to put their meagre food and water rations in are still around. Those boxes looked like they were originally ammunition boxes.

936024_10153636540375241_886317745_nThis was formerly an exercise frame used by the schoolchildren. For the Khmer Rouge it was a place to hoist up prisoners with their outstretched arms tied awkwardly behind their backs.

When they passed out in pain, they would be dunked upside down in one of the large pots beneath to revive them.

If they did not confess to some nonsense idea, they’d go through it all over again.

1479455_10153636564880241_805425862_nIn another of the site’s blocks were these crude cells. They had no doors as their former inhabitants were restrained by short chains.

1499546_10153636576625241_20755593_nThe chains are still there.

The brickwork forming the cell walls is so poor that it’s now being held up by metal scaffolding. I’m assuming that this wasn’t there when the place was used as a prison.

It was on these nails that the padlock keys to the shackles were kept.

1510504_10153636591525241_1306426728_nAnd the shackles also held prisoners in place in the larger rooms. Hundreds of them were crammed into the former classrooms, forced to lie on the floor in close rows at night and not make any sound.

Once every few weeks, if they were lucky, they’d have a hose sprayed over them so they could attempt to wash themselves.

960248_10153636572645241_1423856906_nFinally, here’s the very devil himself, Pol Pot. A typically insecure tyrant, he had many busts in his unsightly likeness around the place.

1512666_10153636573445241_1528470526_nHappily not all of Cambodia’s history is so horrific. There are some ancient temples which are really worth a look, which I’ll write about next time.

 

 

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

DSC_0003I didn’t know what to expect from Cambodia. I was keen to go because Kate raved about the place, and also I wanted to delve into the history of the Khmer Rouge, a group whose name I knew but whose scale of crimes I was unsure of.

What I found was a complicated country, enriched by many of its people, hindered by others. It’s a fascinating place which has understandably weaved its spell over many non-Cambodians. However, while it’s easy to like, it’s a tough place to love, depending on your experiences.

Let’s start with how I found the country to be a photographer’s dream. Its landscape is eye-catching, even its simplest architecture is carved out with an aesthetic eye, and many Cambodians are keen to pose for the camera, making street photography a real joy.

I spent a happy afternoon in the capital, Phnom Penh, walking around taking photos of the streets and its inhabitants. This gent was keeping a fire going on the street, presumably for culinary purposes.

DSC_0056I found this chap astride his hog, which I was quite taken with.

DSC_0012And speaking of motorbikes – well, we are in South East Asia. The motorbike here is king, and there are literally endless examples of them in Cambodia.

DSC_0040-2 This family were astride one bike – and there’s frequently an awful lot more people, and goods, to be seen expertly balanced on bikes around here.

Texting on a bike with a small boy on the front, while neither of you wear a helmet? No problem.

DSC_0079-2None of these bikes were going very fast, but you still wish people would protect their noggins while on them.

You see babies and small children perched on many bikes, and those kids clearly grow up to have expert balancing skills.

This chap didn’t seem to have a bike, so I assume he pulled people around with this contraption. Tiring work, clearly.

DSC_1038I popped into the capital’s Olympic Stadium one evening (no idea why it’s called that as the Olympics were never in Phnom Penh) just to look around, and stumbled across an international friendly, Cambodia – in blue – against Guam.

Guam were much better than Cambodia, sadly, and won 2-0, the second goal coming from an own goal. I did capture this shot, a split second before Cambodia’s goalie came charging out and got clattered – by his own defender, the chap in blue.

There were no tickets or anything at the ground, you literally just walked in. The crowd was sparse, too.

I later learned that the stadium was the site of executions by the Khmer Rouge. This is an example of how much terrible history is never far away from Cambodia’s landscape.

While the game went on, there was some rather loud UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ music polluting the airwaves behind me. All around the top perimeter were people of varied ages, but mostly older folk, waving their arms and legs around aerobics-style to the beatz.

It was painful to listen to but the whole thing was a great idea, because as much as I hate exercising myself, it’s the right thing to do of course. Not that this philosophy ever made my Bikram yoga classes any easier.

DSC_1032 This guy dreams of being a choreographer on Cambodian X-Idol Factor, I reckon.

DSC_1022Excitingly, one day Kate and I stumbled across a network of temples not far from our Phnom Penh lodgings, called Wat Ounalom. It is here that you can literally crawl into a tiny, hot room, crammed with many Buddhas and dominated by a dark-coloured one.

It was overseen by this gentleman, who gave us a blessing and sprayed water over us. 

He kept saying “eyebrow, eyebrow”, the only English word he seemed to know, and immediately afterwards we found out that an eyebrow hair from Buddha is kept in that tiny chamber. So the story goes, anyway, but I was delighted to have been so close to such a relic, albeit one that does require a dash of faith in accurate historical records.

At one point I managed to get up high in Phnom Penh, atop the rather nice Green Palace Hotel. It has a rooftop bar that affords excellent views of this captivating city.

DSC_0845And while looking down on the sun setting over Phnom Penh. I met the Rather Amazing Amy Hanson, who runs the Small Steps Project, and also her friend Benedicta Bywater who runs Safe Haven Cambodia Children’s Trust.

Both do superb work in helping the poor in this country, so do check their respective charities out. Amy runs an annual, brilliant, celebrity shoe auction which contains the former Scooby Doos (shoes) of very famous types.

And both took part in SOTM, happily. Here’s the tour de force that is Amy.

And this is the unforgettable Benedicta.

But while I did enjoy my time in Cambodia, it’s clear that the country’s many problems include an increasing level of crime. 

I’ve never newly-arrived in a country and heard of, or experienced, so much crime in such a short space of time.

In no way were we looking for it, or asking about it, but as we went about the place we randomly met travellers who had their cameras snatched out their hands on Phnom Penh’s streets, or witnessed backpacks being ripped off of people’s backs in broad daylight by motorbike riders, and other such stories.

My Swedish friend stayed at the same hotel as we did in Phnom Penh and was violently mugged while in a tuk tuk – he fought back in a street battle involving him, five thieves and his driver who came to his aid. He retrieved his friend’s bag but he then went to Siem Reap and had his phone stolen there by a gang of street children. Again, he managed to retrieve it.

We came across these stories easily, and more. Worst of all Kate got extorted $200 to get her own iPhone back after she lost it on the way to Kampot and the man who found it made his costly demand, after failing to sell it for a better price.

Interestingly, while some Westerners we encountered seem willing to claim that there is nothing, or very little, in the way of criminal acts in Cambodia, the chief prosecutor of Phnom Penh says that there has been a yearly increase in crime in the country.

He does blame that on an increase in political protests, a claim which seems false to me and has certainly been disputed by Cambodian human rights groups.

Also, the British Foreign Office gives advice for travelling to the country and states how as of 2013 there has been increase in the number of crimes reported by Britons in that country, particularly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, where a fellow traveller told me he personally knew five women who’d recently had their drinks spiked.

And just the other day, a Finnish woman I met travelling in Thailand went to Sihanoukville and was attacked by two men on motorbikes. The next day she says the police took her bike and refused to return it unless she paid a fine (she cried for an hour and they eventually gave it back for $10).

When she then returned the bike to the hire place the owner said it was damaged and that she had to pay a fine (she cried for another hour and they eventually returned her passport). She’s now left the country and says she isn’t coming back.

My position is that Cambodia is a hugely interesting country, with a wonderful landscape and terrible roads.

It’s also got an awful, compelling history which needs to be healed yet still told,  and while it’s got an engaging population there’s an increasing element that is fed up of being so poor and is starting to steal what it wants. If they continue to do this, people will stay away, not invest in the economy and Cambodians will be worse off, through the fault of the more unscrupulous members of its society.

Here’s a noble expression told to one Cambodian woman by her father, and I rather wish that more of her countrymen and women would take heed of it too. Click on the image to learn the translation.

If you’re interested in Cambodia then you should certainly go – but be more vigilant there than anywhere else. It is absolutely not a place to drop your guard such as by leaving your camera or bag within easy snatch-and-grab reach of expert motorbikers, the victims of which I met in Phnom Penh.

And if you do go I recommend popping down to Kampot, a slightly ramshackle town well worth the trip.

DSC_0374 The place is famous for its pepper, and also known for its amusing roundabouts. Here’s the one which pays homage to a giant durian fruit (which Kate hates and says smells of feet.)

There is one theory as to why many of these roundabouts have large statues on them – it’s so that any uneducated people can get about without having to read road signs. So it’s straight on till the durian roundabout, then left until you hit the salt workers’s roundabout etc etc.

DSC_0203Kampot is sweetly run down in parts but also very interesting to look at, and some of its buildings are actually in decent shape.

DSC_0495We stayed in the excellent Magic Sponge, a smashing guest house that was affordable for us ($12 a night for a large en suite room which actually had two double beds.)

The owner is a flawlessly friendly Alaskan called William. No idea how an Alaskan ended up at the bottom of Cambodia, but he runs a great setup down there. If you go, tell him Kate and I said hello.

One day we went to Kep, which has superb crab. On the way we stopped at a Muslim fishing village, which is pretty small and quiet and not visually interesting in the slightest. Tours of the area often include it on the itinerary but it really isn’t worth a visit unless you’re actually a fisherman.

Still, while there I spotted one boy and his cat.

DSC_0441 Here’s just one example of the beautiful architecture that you’ll find out in the countryside, ageing beauty queens who must content themselves with passing flirtations from those biking by.

DSC_0481 And it was while we were in Kampot that our tuk tuk got stuck in terrible mud on the way to the Les Manguiers resort, located just a little way out of the town.

I had to push the machine out of the thick, grasping, infectious mud. I managed to do so and felt manly afterwards, I don’t mind telling you.

mud While we were at that place, a storm lashed down with the rage of a bear awoken early from hibernation to find that a fox has stolen his supply of honey and is now wearing his slippers.

When we managed to get back to Kampot itself we found many of the town’s streets had flooded. This is a regular event and the locals took it all in their stride, as you can see.

DSC_0334 In Kampot I also spotted this guy. He was looking over his shoulder while still driving at speed a lot longer than he should have been…

And there’s plenty to photograph on Kampot’s network of wide streets, which are sometimes smooth, often not and frequently do not have pavements. When they do, they’re sometimes in such bad repair that everyone walks on the street anyway.

That’s it for this bumper blog edition. Next time, I learn about the Khmer Rouge and their appalling reign in Cambodia in the 1970s.

SOTM World Tour – Thai Islands

Friday, February 14th, 2014

I’m a bit wary of sunset photos. While they look amazing, they are of the same thing, with only a variance of landscape which can often be slight.

And most often I suspect they’ve been so heavily amended by a filter such as Instagram or Snapseed, that they are now very far removed from what the photographer actually saw.

I started thinking about this after I took this photo of sunset from Lonely Beach on the Thai island of Koh Chang. Adventurous Kate had gone off to work in Italy on a trip for a couple of weeks and I was kicking my heels on the island in the meantime, on her recommendation.

Anyway, while the sunset was great, I ran it through Instagram and made it look even better. You can see it at the top here, and while that is what I saw, it’s a little better than what I actually witnessed. But there’s a plentiful number of people who say such alterations don’t matter.

The debate over sunset authenticity v aesthetics will continue for some time, I suspect.

Anyhow, I’ll always look back at my time on Koh Chang as the place where I partied harder than I have done in years, and also fell in love with motorbikes.

This being South East Asia, everyone uses a motorbike it seems. I used to occasionally hitch a ride to school on the back of a scooter in Malta when I was a boy, but have never driven one myself.

I didn’t have a push bike as a kid and learned as a teenager, so have always been a bit wobbly on a bicycle as a result of a lack of practice.

Therefore I was hesitant about taking on a motorbike, seeing as Thailand is one of the world’s most dangerous places to drive, and there is such a thing as a “Koh Chang tattoo” which is the scrapings you get after falling off a bike.

However, I finally mounted a mechanical steed and drove around happily on the island’s decent, if occasionally very steep and twisty roads.

I did worry that the helmet made me look like a member of the SS, mind.

On another occasion I took a bike I noticed some time later that the tread on the tyres was clearly a thing of the long and distant past. Also, the engine warning light came on a lot but when I told the woman who hired it me, she just shrugged and said she didn’t have any oil.

This taught me a valuable lesson – always check the tyres before you take a bike on.

Also, learn how to kick start it. That’s pretty easy but I didn’t know how to do it, and was stranded at one point on a Cambodian bridge, some weeks after my Koh Chang trip, when my bike wouldn’t restart.

Luckily a nearby fisherman came over and showed me the procedure, but I had another bike back in Thailand that wouldn’t start either, proving that a) these bikes are driven into the ground and not very well maintained and b) learning to kickstart is important, otherwise you’ll be stuck wherever you last parked – although kickstarting is common knowledge so you could always ask for help from passers-by.

Anyway, back on Koh Lanta, I was tootling around on my first bike with my new friends, Anton and Jasmin, two Finns who are long-time best friends and were travelling together.

They were a lot of fun and we had a good few laughs. Anton was shocked to eventually learn I was 40 at the time we met, as he was 21 and this meant I’m old enough to be his dad. He started calling me father, disturbingly, but I embraced it and called him son. We still do that over Facebook now.

1377240_10153413298440241_298113982_nHere’s Anton’s SOTM.

And here is the lovely Jasmin’s. She too is great fun and we were introduced through our mutual friend Backpacker Becki, who came over to Koh Chang and we all hung out during a fun week.

While on Koh Chang I saw an impressive fire show at one of the bars on Lonely Beach. I grabbed this shot with my iPhone which pleased me somewhat. All these chaps had their cigarettes lit by this man’s spinning, flaming balls. I raised my eyebrows and happily they kept theirs.

Although Lonely Beach area is a lot of fun, it is far removed from its name. Sadly, the beach itself is dirty in places and getting worse. There is a lot of rubbish around and it’s frankly spoiling what is otherwise a great spot.

I was told that foreigners tried to clean it up and sort out a regular cleaning/recycling scheme, but that local Thai officials refused to support it. This seems like slow suicide, as people will go elsewhere when they are fed up of treading on condoms, plastic bottles and bits of broken glass, all of which are on Lonely Beach itself.

During my stay, for the first time in years, I hit the party scene. Hard. Suffice to say that most of my evenings were taken up with vodka Red Bull buckets and kebabs. Both free, if you timed things right at the appropriate bar. Things never got too wild, but I did get a little squiffy a couple of times.

On my first night I saw a ladyboy show, in which they mimed to Whitney Houston. Nice work, ladies.

Also, more Finns arrived and my two Finnish mates befriended them. We all became pals and partied a bit. This is my favourite photo of us all. I’m getting on famously with Anton here, as you can see.

1383457_10200921252376851_1484886068_nAnd otherwise I hung out with a load of Swedish girls. They were all a great laugh and at one point we went to a waterfall where they were all running around in bikinis. I would post pics but this isn’t that sort of blog.

Alternatively, here’s a shot of us all at a viewing point in Koh Chang. They were a great bunch, both the Swedes and their Thai male companions.

1393672_10152331576266501_2035546939_nWeeks later I headed to the remote Phayam island. This has a good reputation but I wasn’t that taken with it. I did get this one shot, run through Instagram.

But otherwise its beaches were dirty, either from natural wood and seaweed or from humans – flip-flops, plastic bottles, all sorts.

The one nice beach we went to was littered with hundreds of jellyfish, making swimming impossible there. This one was a particular monster, the size of a hubcap. Here it is next to my flip-flop for scale.

And here’s an example of the rubbish to be found on its beaches. It is a very remote spot – most places don’t have 24-hour electricity, the wifi advertised in a couple of cafes doesn’t work very well and it’s not a place to hang out in unless you’re Jason Bourne or are on the run.

I did see this sign which made me chuckle, though. We later breakfasted here and it was full of older British expats.

Shortly after our brief stay on Koh Phayam, Kate and I headed to her beloved Koh Lanta. Now this really did have a good vibe, and Kate assured me that it was one of her favourite spots in the world.

On the ferry ride over from Krabi, I grabbed these couple of Instagrammed shots of the islands that we passed by.

Klong Dao beach, where we settled, is a superb spot. We stayed at the Cha Ba Bungalows and they were pretty good, right by the beach with plenty going on nearby.

There are cheap, basic bungalows, which we stayed in, and also better quality ones are available for those with a bigger budget, or not trying to stretch theirs around the world for a year.

When you get off the ferry at the harbour, you pay a 20 baht tax (37p, 60 US cents, 44 euro cents) to keep the island clean.

I did wonder where that money would really be going, but having spent a few weeks on Klong Dao, and ridden another motorbike around the island, it is really quite clean, so perhaps it’s well spent after all.

This place is a fantastic location and a perfect example of how worthy a destination can become if it’s not built up too much, and cleanliness is maintained on its streets, beaches and in its waters.

This chap pops up on Klong Dao sometimes, and is like the Pied Piper as kids from all over the place come running along to chase his soapy balloons. It’s quite hypnotic to watch. Again, this photo is via Instagram.

During our Koh Lanta time we hired more bikes and went for a tootle around to the Old Town, and then back up the other side of the island, stopping a few times along the way. Here’s some of what we saw, starting with the Old Town itself.

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1497637_10153715474595241_1766849519_nThis woman and her son, I presume, were watching a man burn and cut long shrubs.

58433_10153782713430241_1395805815_nI also came across the Thai Snoop Dogg.

1546047_10153782716995241_108448551_nThese were our bikes. Koh Lanta’s roads are good and using them to explore resulted in a cracking day out.

However, this guy topped all the local riders when it came to displaying bike skills that day.

Here’s a dog I was quite taken with, who would come say hello whenever we ate at a good and cheap street-side restaurant. I named him Poochie, for reasons I can’t quite recall. I’m normally a bit better with my animal monikers, but still.

He was a very friendly chap and I was worried about him living on the streets – I bought him food from the local 7-11 a couple of times, which he gobbled up speedily.

I was considering dognapping him and sending him back to my sister, but later found out he belonged to another restaurant owner, so I do think he is getting some food and shelter, at least.

And speaking of dogs, one of my favourite things on Koh Lanta was our visit to the marvellous Lanta Animal Welfare.

This is a smashing place that does a lot to help the animals on the island. This includes caring for sick and injured ones, but also it neuters animals, administers rabies shots and tries to educate the locals about how they can live alongside various strays.

Who says napping is just for cats?

1510849_10153684427665241_1391410941_nSadly sometimes the animals that come here are badly maimed by people – having been cut wide open or having had boiling oil thrown over them, that sort of thing.

This poor chap had his leg crushed by a car. He seems to be coping now thought, after plenty of loving care at the centre.

 The staff here are mostly volunteers. This lady is from Italy and was spending a few weeks there.

All the signs are that the animals here are well cared for in a responsible, loving manner.

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1520609_10153684440690241_460973682_nAnd the centre is eager to promote adoption of its charges. All the animals are available for rehoming, even overseas.

The centre runs a full adoption programme with all the necessary veterinarian checks and international paperwork needed. It’s pricey but not as expensive as you might think.

Here are some of the centre’s successful adoption stories.

1521358_10153684419895241_363649229_n“I never had to have bath time when I was a stray, dagnammit…”

1538748_10153684424385241_80509541_nThe animals kept in these cages are either ill or recovering from treatment.

1544489_10153684417525241_1317322255_nLike this chap.

Also while on Koh Lanta I got some SOTM action in. Here’s the smashing Aruna, who runs a guest house on the island.

And here is the unforgettable Jenifer Divine, an American who has lived on Koh Lanta for some four years and says she feels totally at home here – so much so that the locals call her dok mai, a Thai word meaning blossom.

Finally, Kate and I celebrated my birthday, Christmas and New Year during our time on Koh Lanta. Here we are on my 41st birthday, sipping on coconuts and chilling on the beach – something I’ve always wanted to do on my birthday.

1521949_10153640252110241_184638897_nThat’s it for this Thai island round up. They are generally beautiful places and I’d recommend Koh Lanta in particular. So if you do go, please support Lanta Animal Welfare too. And give the kitties and pooches a cuddle from me.