Thursday, 18 June 2015

Thailand - Surin and Koh Phangan

During my week in Thailand later on this year, I was lucky to travel to incredibly varied places in a relatively short period of time. You can read about my experiences in Sangkhlaburi and Bangkok here, but now it's time to move on to Surin and Koh Phangan; two very different areas of the country!


Surin was actually the second stop on my whirlwind tour; after one night in Bangkok, I was picked up by the project coordinator at the crack of dawn (fortunately jet lag meant I hadn't really slept anyway) and ferried 6 hours down the road to Surin. This was the place I was most looking forward to before I arrived. We have several projects based here - teaching, childcare, medical, and at an elephant village - and I was excited to meet the volunteers and see the work that they did.

Elephant Surin

It was a fairly uneventful drive to Surin; not as stunning as the drive to Sangkhlaburi, but you could certainly see it becoming more rural the further we went. We stopped off in Surin City first, which is bigger than I thought it would be, although still relatively small. I didn't really see much of the town, as the volunteer houses are based around 10 minutes from the actual centre, but what I did see looked nice.

The part of town our volunteers stay in is lovely - it has lots of cute bars and restaurants, and even has a coffee shop built into a camper van! The people in Surin are incredibly friendly; I met a lot of people in my week in Thailand, and none were friendly than those I met here. All the staff at the projects went out of their way to help us, and our volunteers, and I wish I could have spent longer with them.

After a brief stop at the volunteer houses, we headed straight for the elephant village, around a 30 minute drive outside of Surin. This was the bit I was most looking forward to, and it turned out I was right to be so. I'm aware elephant volunteering is controversial, and is certainly something I'm very wary about (I turned down an elephant ride in Cambodia because I didn't think the elephants were treated properly). Fortunately, at this project, I know that all is above board, and the elephants are very happy. The elephants there used to be worked in Bangkok in the tourist trade. They were kept in very bad conditions, and cities are horrendous environments for them as they need to constantly graze to stay alive and healthy. In the elephant village, the elephants are rescued and brought back into a rural area, where they're looked after really well. The volunteers help to collect sugar cane, wash them and walk them down to the river, which provides an income for the village, and ensures the elephants will never be misused.

Me Elephant Surin

Elephant Village Surin

Elephant Village Surin

Our homestay in the village is absolutely stunning; it's in the middle of nowhere, with paddy fields stretching as far as the eye can see. A couple of the elephants stay in the same bit as the volunteers, and from the hammock on the balcony, you can watch them wandering around and feasting on sugar cane. When I was there, I got a cuddle with the friendliest elephant - Pai Lin - got to feed her some sugar cane, then went to explore the area with the volunteers whilst they went kayaking on the river.

Elephant Village Surin

I SO wish I could have stayed longer; it really is idyllic, and somewhere I'll be returning to in the future.

We then headed back to the hotel in Surin, which was AMAZING. We stayed at the Maneerote Hotel, which I'd definitely recommend. The rooms were huge, really clean and comfortable and the bathroom was amazing!

The next day, we headed to the other projects, which are all based around Surin City. We visited a school, a childcare centre and the medical centre; they were all amazing, and it was great to see first-hand what our volunteers come and do. I know some may turn their nose up at what they deem as 'voluntourism' but I think if it's done properly and sustainably, then it can only benefit all involved.

Paddy Field Surin


School Surin

Koh Phangan

At the end of my week in Thailand, I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to spend a couple of nights on one of the most popular islands. I'm going to admit I was a little wary about this at first, as it's the home of the Full Moon Party. I'm decidedly not a party person, and was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to avoid them, but this was completely unfounded.

There are a couple of ways to get to and from Koh Phangan; on the way there we flew from Bangkok with Air Asia to Surat Thani, then they organise your transport from there to the ferry, and from the ferry over to Koh Phangan. The whole process took pretty much all day, as our plane was delayed a little, but it was painless and something I'd definitely recommend. I much preferred Dong Mueang airport to the main international one in Bangkok (I'm not going to attempt to spell it...) - it's cheaper and has a lot more options in terms of food and drink! I travelled both domestically and internationally from here, and both times found it nicer than BKK.

Sunset Koh Phangan

When we arrived in Koh Phangan, we were picked up from the ferry port in Haad Rin, and transferred about 15 minutes down the coast to Mac Bay. If you ever visit Koh Phangan, I would 100% recommend that you stay here. It has easy access to the main town and party beach (the resort run their own taxi service), but it's remote and feels like a little piece of paradise. It has a bar and restaurant on-site, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, so you never have to leave if you don't want to. It has a pool about a minutes' walk from the rooms, and its own little private beach!

Sunset Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan

Meals and drinks are very reasonably priced; if you stick to Thai beer and Pad Thai, you won't spend much more than you would on the mainland. If you opt for the western style dishes that are on offer, you'll spend a little more, but it's definitely worth it. They have pink noodles!!

Pad Thai

The rooms are amazing - you can either have a beach hut, or an air conditioned room set about 1 minutes walk from the beach (this is what I had). The bathrooms are western style, and it will take you about 30 seconds to walk down to breakfast in the morning, overlooking the sea.

Beach Panorama Koh Phangan

I got up early one morning and watched a guy raking the sand so it was pristine for those rising later (boy did I feel bad when I went for a paddle and ruined all his hard work!). The beach is shallow right up to a sandbank out at sea (I couldn't tell you the distance, but it took me around 5 minutes to walk to it). This means you can lay in the shallows (the water is warm!) and watch the world around you, or wade further out to sea for a swim. Across the way, you can see Koh Samui - this is only a 30 minute ferry ride away, and definitely worth a visit. Whilst here, you can have a massage, go snorkelling or scuba diving, trek in the hills, or just relax!

Koh Phangan

Me Koh Phangan

Pool Mac Bay

Unfortunately, I was only here for 2 nights before I returned up to Bangkok ready for my trip to Cambodia. I was travelling alone this time, and took the budget route - I used the Lomprayah company, as I have friends who had used them before and highly recommended them. You book one ticket, and they ferry you back across to the mainland, then pile you all on a coach ready to make the 6 hour drive back up to Bangkok.

I booked the early departure (8.30am) to make sure I'd be back in Bangkok in time for my flight to Phnom Penh the next day (just in case of any delays), and it was pretty much a painless journey. My one criticism would be that they pile all your luggage on one end of the ferry. This means that, when it comes to the end, all the doors are blocked because everyone is trying to get their luggage, but nobody is really sure where it is. There must have been about 200 bags in a pile, with people whose bags were at the top, stuck at the back of the queue. I had one heartstopping moment where I thought they'd lost my bag - I waiting until the pile had gone, with still no sign of my rucksack, when I discovered they'd thrown some of them through the window onto the jetty outside. Not a problem, but I wish they'd told me!

There was a bit of a wait for the buses (around an hour), which I assume was on purpose as we were all held captive at the various shops and cafes at the port, but for the price I paid (around £15 for the whole journey), it certainly wasn't something to whinge about. If you're on a budget, and looking to get back to Bangkok, this is definitely what I'd recommend. It didn't take much longer than the flight, and was a hell of a lot cheaper!

Next instalment - onwards to Cambodia :)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


This is a difficult post to write, and one of the reasons I have been putting off blogging for so long.

As I'm sure you're aware, there was a huge earthquake in Nepal on 25th April. It measured 7.8 on the Richter Scale, thousands lost their lives, and many more were injured and left homeless by the devastation. Kathmandu, the capital, was one of the hardest hit areas, and images of fallen buildings and sacred temples flooded the headlines. Remote villages waited weeks for outside help, and many people around the country slept outside for days, as aftershocks rippled and they feared their homes were unsafe.

It was peak climbing season in the mountains; avalanches rocked Everest Base Camp, and 18 climbers lost their lives. Others were stranded at Camp 1, safer than their colleagues and friends at base camp, until helicopters could be organised to transfer them further down the mountain, with avalanches deeming the Khumbu Icefall - the only way down from Everest - impassable.

Although Nepal lies in the heart of the Himalaya, and is prone to tectonic activity, this was the largest earthquake in 80 years. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, it didn't have the money or resources to deal with such a disaster. Fortunately, aid quickly scrambled to their relief, with disaster charities from around the world arriving around the clock to help those in need. Fundraising efforts around the globe raised millions of pounds for various charities, and my faith in humanity was restored.

A second earthquake hit the region just a few weeks later, setting back the relief efforts, and terrifying those already affected. It was a dark time for Nepal, and it is only just beginning to rebuild itself almost two months later.

The reason I'm telling you all of this, is because I was supposed to be flying to Kathmandu on 21st May, less than a month after the earthquake. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know of my obsession with Everest, and I have been planning this trip for a very long time. I've had it booked once before, two years ago, when I had to cancel due to a highly unprofessional company, coupled with a lack of funds. I then planned to go in October 2014, but again had to postpone while I saved up a little longer. Needless to say, this was a trip of a lifetime.

When I woke up on Saturday 25th April, and heard the news, my heart sank. Not, I hasten to add, because of my trip, but because I knew how many people would be affected by this. I didn't quite realise the severity at the time, but I had friends and acquaintances out in Nepal, as well as work colleagues, and people I follow on Twitter. I was on tenterhooks the whole day, waiting for news that people were safe, and my sadness deepening as more and more images flooded the news sites.

Although I've never visited, I have read so many personal accounts of Nepal, and had done so much research for my trip, I felt like I had. I felt I knew all the places that had been so heavily affected, and felt deeply for everyone who had died or had been injured. When I realised that there was no hope of my trip going ahead, I was sad more for the missed opportunity to experience the country at its best; not for a cancelled holiday, as these things can always be rearranged. Of course I was disappointed, but it was very easy to see the priorities in life as I scanned Twitter, following those who had been personally affected.

I did allow myself a moment to be selfish, when I feared the insurance company wouldn't compensate me for my trip (they often don't if it's force majeur). Not because of the financial side, but because it meant that I would have to cancel the trip completely rather than postpone, and I would have to wait another few years to visit.

I am also very grateful that I wasn't there at the time, and that no-one I know was injured, or worse.

In the meantime, we fundraised at work (we work closely with partners based in Nepal - I was actually supposed to be visiting them on my trip), and I also set myself a personal fundraising goal, to give to long-term NGO relief efforts, as well as the immediate disaster relief we donated to in the office.

I was very fortunate that Emirates extended their refund policy based on FCO advice, and I now plan to postpone my trip until May 2016, purely because my plan was, and always has been, to visit and trek to Everest Base Camp during the climbing season.

Two months on, Nepal has declared itself safe and ready for tourists. Indeed, it is crying out for them as its main source of income. Frustratingly, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is still saying that they advise against all but essential travel to the area, meaning that if British nationals go against this advice, their travel insurance will be invalid. Fortunately, other countries around the world are much more sensible and I would love it, if you can, for you to go. I would go earlier myself if I could - most trekking regions are fit to travel after the monsoon (from September onwards) and lots of places, such as Pokhara and Chitwan, were barely affected. Don't make anyone else lose out because of this dreadful disaster, and don't alter your travel plans. Nepal is still stunning, and with your visit, you'll be doing more good than ever before.

As for me, my walking boots are waiting patiently in a cupboard, my daypack hung on the rack, and my trekking guide sat quietly on the bookshelf. Everest, I'll be with you next summer.

Image credit: Hillary Travels