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Stephen Fry and the Akha Hill Tribe

18 Oct

Dickon getting help up the hill on the way home from school

The other night, after the X Factor results, I flicked over Planet Word with Stephen Fry.  He was somewhere in Thailand, with a hill tribe.  He was talking about the fact that they didn’t have a written language.  I realised that it was the Akha tribe he was talking about.  The same Akha tribe that we stayed with in Northern Thailand.  When I say stayed with, I mean we stayed in a guest house in an Akha village, run by Akha tribespeople.  That’s when it hit me.  Quite how much cool stuff we did.  We stayed in a place that Stephen Fry made a documentary about.  That’s actually pretty amazing.

We arrived in a bumpy pick up truck from the northern town of Chiang Rai, up the dusty winding track through the jungle, the truck straining noisily to make it up the steepest hills.  The village clung precariously to the edge of the steepest hill, a raggedy collection of bamboo houses on stilts with stunning views of lush green jungle, fishing ponds and lychee orchards.

Our home for the few days we were there, was a small hut with it’s own, slightly rickety, bamboo deck and an outdoor bathroom.  As in a bath, outdoors.  We will forever remember the tokay lizard that lived in the roof space, so called because of the earsplitting TOK KAY sound it made, shocking us into wakefulness at regular intervals throughout the night.  We tried yelling at it, but it was unmoved.

We loved listening to the guesthouse manager, Tao, and his stories of Akha life in Burma and Thailand.  We learnt about the Akha language, that was written on a buffalo skin which got left out in the rain and thus lost.  And how it has no past or future tense, but it does have a word which means ‘to hold the hand of a dying person’.

We swam in the local waterfall, visited the local school and bought birthday candles for Steve at the local shop.

We talked insects and practised our French with a French entomologist who was searching for a new species of stag beetle.  If he found one, he was going to name it after his long-suffering wife, who spent every single holiday searching for bugs.

We hired guides and went for a long walk in the jungle.  They taught us how to cook Akha omelettes in a bamboo tube on the fire, and how to dam the river to trap tiny prawns.  They made the children bamboo machetes and fed them bush tucker.

It was a fantastic four days in a beautiful, fascinating, friendly place.  We were sad to leave, apart from the lizard.

And do you know what?  I could say that about most of the places we visited.  We did some very cool stuff.

Prachuap Khiri Khan

25 Jun

“The seafood is amazing!” people say when you tell them you’re going to Prachuap Khiri Khan.  And so it should be, the bay bustles with bobbing, brightly painted wooden fishing boats.  All along the sea front are racks of drying beady-eyed squid and cotton fish, glinting like mirrors in the hot sun, while fishermen mend their nets under shady awnings.  At night, you can see the gostly green glow of flourescent lights, far out to sea, as the fishermen lure squid to the surface, the poor creatures thinking they’re on a promise as they mate at full moon.

It’s a quiet place where no one’s in a hurry and Hawaiian shirts and bermuda shorts are the outfit of choice.  The highlight of our day is going for a strong, sweet, iced coffee and a chat about Thai musicals and papaya salad, at the cafe run by a couple of friendly refugees from Bangkok, in search of a better life.   We’ve found the best beach, it’s on the air force base incase you were wondering, just past the shooting range.  And we know where to get takeaway chicken, hand printed t-shirts, enormous sweet juicy lychees, and boys pants.  All the essentials of life.

The twice weekly night market is as close to a social whirl as it gets, with it’s chatty massage ladies, Portobelloesque second hand clothes stalls, and outrageous shave ice, all the refined sugar you can eat for the princely sum of 30 pence.  Sarong-clad old ladies sit on the sea wall and share gossip to the soundtrack of gently lapping waves and prawns sizzling in boiling oil.

And those people weren’t wrong, the seafood really IS good.  We’ve had the freshest, crunchiest, spicy raw crab and sour papaya salad; we’ve had crispy fried cotton fish, dried for a day in the sun, which tastes a lot better than it sounds; we’ve had simple stir fried noodles with squid and tiny crunchy garlic cloves.  All delicious.

It’s not what you imagine when you think Thai beach.  The sand isn’t white, the palm trees are few and far between, the sea is muddy not turquoise.  But it’s gentle charm and friendly locals with golden retriever puppies have won us over.  I’m glad we came.


Birthday lunch, Akha style

28 May

Ned and Jung building a dam

It’s hard to know how to celebrate birthdays away from home.  Poor Eve rather missed out, I know she’d have loved a party like usual, and our attempts to do something special, like go to the cinema, backfired because we were in outback Australia.  To make up for it, we hot footed it to Monkey Mia the following day, which really was special.

I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Steve’s birthday.  We were planning to be in a small Akha hilltribe village in the jungle in Northern Thailand, so I knew cakes would be in short supply, but he loves walking in the jungle, which is what one does in that part of the world, so walking it was.

After a tricky bit of to-ing and fro-ing between guides, during which we worried about offending half the village, and probably did, we finally sorted out a trip to suit us.  Minimal walking (to avoid having to spend the entire day saying “come ON”), maximal jungle activities.

Over the course of a lovely day, we meandered all of five kilometers with our two guides, through sticky jungle where we marvelled at giant spiders and picked crunchy, tasty nuts, across a rickety bamboo bridge over a thundering waterfall, through a neatly cropped tea plantation, along a hot, dusty road to a Chinese village where we cooled off with icy cokes from the tiny shop and watched the school children heading home on their motorbikes, precariously carrying friends, machetes and guitars.

The highlight of the day was lunch.  We stopped by the side of a busy little stream, in the shade of some banana trees.  First job was to make the fishing rods with some line and suitably swishy sticks.  Then, in a belt and braces type of operation, we built a dam, to trap tiddly little prawns.  A fire was built, and cooking pots made from bamboo, for tea, baked eggs, noodle soup. We ate from newly minted bamboo cups with newly minted bamboo chopsticks, swirling woodsmoke scenting our clothes and hair. We may not have had cake, but it’s a birthday we won’t forget.

I’m a celebrity get me out of here…

22 May

Dickon and Noot

We first noticed it in New Zealand, when he was kipnapped by a group of Chinese tourists and photographed infront of a statue of Captain Cook.  He got quite a lot of attention in Singapore and Malaysia, and in Borneo was heard to say “they treat me like a Prince because I’m so cute”.  We laughed in mortification and worried about his future marriage prospects.

But it’s in Thailand that Dickon’s celebrity status has reached A list.  I don’t know if it’s because he’s got blue eyes and mousy brown hair, which someone actually asked if I’d dyed to make it such a lovely colour.  Or if it’s because he’s the littlest in our family, and therefore cute.  Though at 21 kilos, he’s about twice the size of most Thai four year olds.  Or if it’s because he’s a chatty soul, who happily tells all and sundry about every ice cream he’s eaten in the last six months.  Whatever the reason, we can’t escape his fans.  It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone shouting “What your name?” and rushing to kiss him.  He gets given stuff: chips, bananas, origami birds.  In Chiang Mai, where we stayed for a week, we’d pass restaurants, massage shops and tailors’ to cries of “Dickon, come here, hello, how are you?”

He mostly accepts it with good grace, but the novelty is now wearing thin.  He often refuses to have his photo taken, like a hormonal Justin Beiber.  He says he wishes the ladies, for it’s usually ladies, would leave him alone.  He says that, but I think he’s going to miss the free chips.

101 uses for bamboo

21 May

When it comes to bamboo, they’re damned ingenious these South East Asian chappies.

3) Toy machete

We’ve seen it made into…

1) floors, 2) cups,4) walls, 5) xylophones, 6) beds,

7) chicken coops,

θ) ashtrays,

9) cow bells,

10) clogs, 11) ceremonial swing, 12) food (the young shoots), 13) firewood,

18) chopsticks

14) go karts,

15) spirit gates, 16) chairs, 17) tables, 19) tables, 20) walking sticks, 21)

22) fish traps,

23) tea harvesting basket, 24) benches, 25) bridges, 26) rubbish bins,

33) Roofing thatch

27) puppy kennel,

28) ladles, 29) key rings, 30) pen pots, 31) mosquito coil holders, 32) umbrellas, 34) rice thresher,

 35) bird traps,

36) spinning tops, 37) food (you can eat the maggots that live inside it), 38) sticky rice steamers, 39) spoons,

50) Ramekin

40) penny whistles

41) dim sum steamers, 42) matting, 43) hats,

44) toothpicks,

45) washing line, 46) bird cages, 47) kitchen tongs, 48) food storage baskets, 49) t-shirts, 51) picture frames, 52) water carriers, 53) fences, 54) animal shelters, 55) shutters, 56) rafts, 57) guttering, 58) trellis, 59) fans, 60) pins,

63) Cooking pots

61) loo roll holders,

62) fly swats, 64) fish storage basket, 65) yoke and pails,

66) chicken nesting boxes

67) Thai violins (I don’t know their name), 68) stick for poking rice seedling planting holes, 69) hairclip,

75) beer glass

70) fighting stag beetle carriers,

71) decking, 72) doors, 73) bowls, 74) lampshade, 76) crossbows…

OK so the title is a slight exaggeration.  But only a slight one.


16 May

We’ve been away from home  for more than six months, almost thirty weeks.  Six months of never staying anywhere longer than two weeks, with most rooms only being home for a few days.  We’ve done different things every single day, and rarely eaten in the same place twice.

It’s may not be the most exciting place.  But after over six months of perpetual motion, it’s nice to have somewhere to return to again and again.  Last week we were in Chiang Mai.  Just down the end of our lane, and across the busy road is Sailomjoy, open for breakfast and lunch.  They serve a range of travellers standards; banana pancakes, porridge, mango shakes, spaghetti bolognese.  Useful for children who are fed up with rice. They also do Thai staples, like papaya salad, that tastes like it’s supposed to, and real coffee.  It’s clean and tidy and the staff are friendly. That’s pretty much the pinnacle of my ambitions.

Oddly, Ned moaned every time we went back after our first visit.  He liked the food but thought we should be trying something new.  I, on the other hand, loved having somewhere familiar to go, if only for a week.

At the end of this week, we’re heading back to Chaing Mai for a couple of days.  I know where we’ll be having breakfast.


15 May

She’s surprisingly bristly, like a sparse, straggly, scrubbing brush, and her skin is thick, so thick that you have to give her a good hard slap before she can feel you.

To clamber up, you stand on her bent knee, grab a large, leathery, ear and swing your leg over.  Except she’s about three times as wide as a horse, so you end up being unceremoniously shoved in the bottom by a friendly mahout, who’s probably secretly laughing at your incompetence.  He then demonstrates how to do it properly by nimbly scampering up the trunk and perching on her head, as if she’s a stool and he’s having a drink at the bar.

Then she stands up.  Blimey she’s tall.  As someone who’s not particularly fond of heights, I’m starting to wonder whether this was such a good idea.  Dickon is hoisted up by a couple of people and plonked infront of me, I plant my hands on her head as I’ve been instructed, infront of Dickon’s thighs, I hope it’ll be enough to stop him falling off.  He whimpers nervously as she trundles off down the tree lined path.

It’s very bumpy, a slow rolling motion, rather like the boat that made us all sick off the Otago peninsula in New Zealand.  Keep looking ahead, instructs the mahout, and I try to do just that, because looking down is a bit scary, particularly as we’re walking alongside a ravine.

But gradually, as we slowly move along the sun scorched track, and she never gets faster than gentle lumbering, I start to relax and enjoy myself.  Dickon keeps up a steady mantra of it’s really fine, she’s very slow, she doesn’t want to hurt me, and he, I think, starts to enjoy himself too.  Every so often she waves her trunk in our direction, blowing sweet, bananary breath on us, and he says “Banana, Mummy!”, so I pass him one from my bag and he gives it to her.

Once you get over the terror, it’s a lovely way to travel.  We’re walking through farmland, with mountains in the distance, and we spot lychee, mango and rose apple trees.  When she goes downhill, it feels like being on a very slow moving roller coaster and you can’t imagine how you’ll ever manage to stay on, but it turns out that it’s quite hard to fall off such a broad back.

We spend all day with these beautiful, gentle creatures, with their toenails the size of desert spoons and their friendly wandering trunks, always on the look out for bananas.  We talk to them, feed them treats, wash them in the river.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of amazing, once-in-a-lifetime days on this trip.  But we’re all agreed, this was one of the very best.