Koh Samui

After leaving our apartment (and getting ripped off by a taxi diver), we arrive at Bangkok’s main train station just as it gets dark. Now that Koh Samui has an airport, we could have flown down to the islands (most people do), but we thought the experience of the overnight train and ferry would be more interesting for the kids. And they loved it. After settling in, we enjoyed watching Bangkok’s suburbs slowly go by, while having a bit of dinner and a chat with our neighbors. Just as we are getting tired, the attendants come through the carriage and convert the seats to beds. Of course, Finn and Lara opted for the upper ones, which suited us fine … we all fell asleep within minutes.

After arriving in Surat Thani the next morning we jump on a bus and then a ferry … getting us to Koh Samui around noon. All pretty smooth and easy.

Back in February, we had booked a house in Mae Nam (on the north side of the island) via airbnb.com … and like it as soon as we see it. A large porch (perfect for eating and school work), full kitchen, a sitting area and two breezy bedrooms. It’s a 5 minute stroll to the beach with easy access to restaurants and shops.

The island has changed dramatically (and for the worse) since I was first here, more than 20 years ago. Back then Chaweng and Lamai (the two nicest beaches on the island) had a few simple backpacker bungalows on them … now they are densely packed with resorts, restaurants, souvenir shops and bars. Mass tourism (the ugly kind) has completely taken over and package tourists from Europe and Russia are everywhere. As you can imagine, this mass influx has driven up prices dramatically as well. It’s still rather cheap compared to Europe or the U.S., but nothing like it was even ten years ago.

After renting an old jeep and driving around the island, we realize that we actually like our (Mae Nam) beach the best. Enough infrastructure to make it pleasant, not (yet) enough to be overrun by mass tourism.

And so we spend our days alternating between swimming, shopping at the local food markets, cooking, eating out and school work with Lara.

Truth be told, after almost ten days .. it’s getting a bit boring. The first few days it was a great change from the constant driving in Australia and from the hectic pace in Bangkok, but lately we are all getting a bit itchy to see something new.

Our original plan was to hop to the neighboring island (Koh Phang Ngan), but we changed our mind after talking to a few people. It’s main draw are the famous full moon parties, which are not exactly “child friendly”. I was there twenty years ago and they’ve only gotten bigger and rowdier since then.

Instead, we’ll head straight to Koh Tao (the smallest one of the three gulf islands), which is renowned for it’s diving and snorkeling. Unfortunately, it’s high season here by now, accomodations are filling up fast and prices are rising. So far we haven’t really found anything that looks good to us.

Here are more pictures from our first week in Koh Samui: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634632062086

A Week in Bangkok

After two short flights from Darwin (via Singapore), we arrive in Bangkok’s new airport just after 8:00pm. I buy a local SIM card (unbelievably cheap) and easily find the driver, who was sent to pick us and get us to our apartment for the week. We had booked it via airbnb.com and are met by the (very friendly) housekeeper, who shows us around. The pictures on the web looked almost too good to be true … but it turns out that the flat is every bit as nice as advertised.

It’s in a brand new high-rise, overlooking the river and we’re up on almost the 50th floor. Four pools to choose from (one on the 40th floor), a great view of the sunset from the balcony and a private ferry to cross the river and get us to the Skyrail and Express Ferry. Fantastic place in a perfect location!

It feels unbelievably good to have a bit of space to spread out. The camper vans in Australia did feel VERY crowded after eight weeks and it’s great to have our own shower, bathroom and kitchen again. Not to mention the fact that it’s nice to be back in air conditioning and without mosquitos at night.

I think this is my fourth or fifth time in Bangkok, and I’ve always liked the city a lot. It’s not as modern (and expensive) as Singapore, doesn’t have a split personality (like Shanghai) and has plenty of historical sights (unlike Kuala Lumpur). Of course, we’re here during the completely wrong season. It’s hot, humid and we watch the gathering storm clouds every afternoon … every second day the wind whips up, the temperature drops and we get a monsoon-like downpour for a few minutes.

Even though we’ve seen them before, we visit a few of the usual tourist sights (temples, museums and markets) to show them to the kids.

To cool down, we also spend a fair bit of time (way too much if you ask me) in shopping malls. And then we’re back at the apartment in the afternoon and spend and hour or two at the pools or catching up on school work.

We are surprised how patiently the kids trod around the city in the oppressive heat without much complaining. Especially Finn, who actually seems to enjoy shopping (must be Anna’s genes!) and constantly wants to “look around” … while I’m just looking for a place to sit down and rest.

Obviously there is no shortage of great food in Bangkok and we alternate between street food, restaurants, food-courts, or just getting some take-away and enjoying it on our balcony … with a great view of the sunset.

Anna and I even left the kids with a sitter and went out for an evening by ourselves. The first time in four months that we spent more than a few minutes away from the kids … pure bliss!

The last week has been a good one and a real luxury for us. I’m sure we’ll be missing the apartment in the weeks to come.

A few more pictures from our week in Bangkok here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634429337284

Tonight we’ll take the overnight train down to the gulf islands.

Darwin

Arriving in the Darwin, we have to agree with what everyone has told us. There isn’t a single nice caravan park in the city … and so we choose the one with mediocre reviews, closest to downtown. As expected, we had a unpleasant evening, with drunk neighbors, who were playing loud music until midnight. Every time someone asked them to quiet down, it resulted in shouting and swearing … even Lara thought they were “rude”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that we had this sort of evening on a camp site in Australia 😦

The city itself turned out nice enough. Not really worth a trip in itself, but Finn and I enjoyed the Aviation Heritage Center and then we all went to the pool downtown. Due to the lethal marine life (stingers, crocs, sharks, …), many of the coastal cities turn their waterfront into public pools. We’ve seen it in Townsville, Cairns, Airlie Beach and have always enjoyed them. The one in Darwin even has artificial waves.

In the evening we went to the sailing club and celebrated Anna’s birthday … complete with local seafood, (loads of) wine and an incredible sunset.

Tomorrow we’ll return the camper and fly out to Thailand. After eight weeks we are all looking forward to getting out of the small van and having a bit more space around us. We’ve had our share of campgrounds for a while … in Bangkok we have an apartment waiting for us.

Litchfield National Park

Coming from Kakadu, it’s only a half day drive over to Litchfield National Park. This is the other famous park in the “Top End” and it gets great reviews from people who’ve been there.

Truth be told, we find it nice enough, but not the highlight that we were expecting. Like Kakadu, it’s huge, flat, featureless and a “boring” landscape. The big attraction are a few streams that flow over the escarpment, forming large waterfalls with swimming holes. These are “crocodile controlled” most of the year, which means that the rangers check for saltwater crocs for six consecutive nights, trapping and killing any that they might find. But, like in the Katherine Gorges, there is always the possibility of them “moving back into the area undetected” (as the warning signs say). The low water levels and the high tourist levels seem to make these swimming holes quite safe at this time of the year, and we decide not to worry. There are so many people swimming, that it’s unlikely that we’d be the first ones to be eaten 🙂

The swimming is fun enough, but two things are putting a bit of a damper on our days in the park. The refrigerator in the camper van has failed, there is nobody within a reasonable driving distance that can fix it, and the ice chest that we bought needs a constant refill of ice … also almost impossible to obtain out here in the bush.

On top, I haven’t been feeling well in the last days. It started with a cold, but now it’s turned into a bit of fever … with a constant headache thrown in. I can’t believe that this is the second time in the trip that I’ve gotten sick … usually I never do.

Tomorrow we’ll leave the park and drive almost up to Darwin, our final destination in Australia.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu might well be the country’s best known national park, yet we’ve been told by many Australians not to bother with it.

“It’s pronounced KakaDO, but they should rename it to KakaDON’T. There really isn’t much to see.”

So our expectations aren’t high as we cross into the park around noon. And after driving for a while, we begin to understand why it doesn’t get the best reviews. The park is the size of Germany and almost completely featureless. Endless, flat bush- and wetlands stretching to the horizon … there really isn’t anything to see from the road. You could literally drive right through it (there is only one paved road) and, except for the signs, never realize that you just crossed Australia’s most famous national park.

Two or three hours into the park we stop at a campground, just in time to jump on a boat for a sunset cruise on the Alligator River. We were told, if we should decide to go to Kakadu, not to miss these two hour long boat trips out into the wetlands. And that was good advice … the cruise turned out to be so good that we booked a second one for sunrise the next morning. For those of you that have been to the Everglades in Florida … the Kakadu wetlands are a very similar landscape. Mangroves, complex river systems and open floodplains. Within a few minutes we had huge crocodiles beside the boat and the birdlife was not only incredibly numerous, but also in huge variety. Combine all that with an unbelievably beautiful sunset (or sunrise) and you have quite an experience.

For us, the other attraction of Kakadu are the Aboriginal rock paintings. There are a few sites that can be accessed by short walks, and apparently thousands more spread throughout the park.We joined two ranger-led walks, which were quite informative and, once we understood the purpose of many of the drawings, it made us appreciate them much more.

In the end, we liked the park so much that we ended up spending four nights in Kakadu … including a day in which we did absolutely nothing except hang out at the pool and catch up on a bit of schoolwork.

Here are a few pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634296247412

For us it was very much KakaDO instead of KakaDON’T

Katherine Gorge

Even though we arrive in the late afternoon, it feels a lot warmer when we open the car doors. No wonder, we’re more than a thousand kilometers north of Ayers Rock now and almost back in Australia’s tropics.

Katherine Gorge National Park is a series of thirteen gorges, with a river meandering through them. In the U.S. it might be a state park, here it’s considered one of the top sights to see between the center and the top end of the country … which shows you how few of them there are. The campsite has a pool and is quite nice (with dozens of wallabies looking for food scraps), so we decide right away to stay for two nights. We are tired of spending the days in the van and are looking forward to a day with a slower pace.

The next morning we realize that the only way to actually see the gorges is to either hike (a full day in the blazing sun and heat), take a very expensive cruise or to rent kayaks and paddle ourselves. We opt for the latter, but are a bit concerned about the crocodile warning signs. The girl at the visitor center tells us that they are mostly “freshies” (fresh water crocs), which don’t get too large and usually don’t bother humans … but you never know, once in a while a “saltie” might swim up the river (which would not be good). But she thinks we shouldn’t be too worried, they haven’t seen one in the last few weeks. Still, I’m a bit concerned about swimming, especially when we meet a French couple that told us they’ve seen a croc and turned around.

The gorge itself is nice enough for a day, nothing too spectacular, but we all enjoy doing something physical instead of just holding a steering wheel, book or iPad all day long.

By the time we return to the camper, the sun is about to set and a large colony of flying foxes is waking up for their nightly hunt. I’ve seen quite a few bats in my life, but never anything even close to the size of the ones here. The larger ones must have a wingspan of well over a meter and it’s quite spectacular to see so many of them flying out over the river and into the sunset.

I’ve put a few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634296243472

Four Days of Driving – From the Red Heart to the Top End

After leaving Ayers Rock early in the morning, we make it back to Alice Springs (which we like slightly more the second time around) by nightfall. What’s in between? Nothing really. Eight hours of driving, flat dessert with a bit of bush, lot’s of red dirt and one or two “roadhouses” to fuel up and have something to eat or drink.

The next morning we switch campers, get rid of the four wheel drive and rent a small Toyota van for our last three weeks in Australia. Even though it’ll be a bit more cramped again, I’m happy to return our “box on wheels”. It really was poorly thought out, old and used unbelievable amounts of gas. The Toyota is much like the Jucy campervan we had in Queensland, the kids sleep under the roof, while Anna and I make our bed (thin mattress) below them every night.

From Alice Springs we head straight out on the only highway crossing Australia south-to-north, straight through the middle. We drive about six hours and then pull in at a free camping spot in the middle of nowhere, just before the sun sets. Driving at night is far too dangerous due to animals and drunk locals on the road. Only the road trains (with their steel bars on the front) don’t seem to mind. We’re told they are so heavy that they don’t stand a chance to brake for an animal and just drive straight “through” them … I’m not sure what they do with drunk locals.

Our neighbors invite us over to their campfire , we watch the sunset together and have (yet another) nice chat with a bunch of Australian retirees (who seem to make up about 99% of the camping population).

The next morning it’s back in the car and more of the same. Hour after hour after hour … low bushland, red dirt and the occasional dead cow or kangaroo by the wayside. We stop to stretch our legs at the Devils Marbles (huge round boulders), climb on a few of them, and then climb back into the van again.

By nightfall we’re at the famous Daly Waters Pub, apparently the oldest one in the outback and so well described in Bill Bryson’s book “In a Sunburned Country”. We have their famous “Beef and Barra” (basically the local version of Surf and Turf) and listen to live Australian Folk music until late at night … the kids have a blast.

Tomorrow we’ll stop at some local hot springs, before driving the rest of the way to Katherine Gorge National Park. Except for the occasional (normal) meltdown, the kids really handled the four days in the car amazingly well. Lara read a lot of Harry Potter to Finn, both did some school work … and significantly improved their “Temple Run”skills on the iPad.

A few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634291165203