Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's almost over now.

The time has come to wrap this baby up and shut it down. We keep getting asked 'what was the best this...' or 'where was the best that...' so, in the most arbitrary and subjective fashion, and with scant justification, here are the top lists. This is the best and worst stuff in the world...

Top countries
1. Argentina
2. Ecuador
3. Mexico

California would have been in with a shout if it had independence. Argentina has it all - and we didn't even make it to the glaciers, Iguazu, the pampas or the beaches. Ecuador is everything Peru claims to be. And Mexico is probably the most fascinating country we have been to.

Top beaches
1. Galapagos Islands
2. Park Tayrona, Columbia
3. Big Corn Island

Probably the toughest category, as we have seen probably close to a thousand beaches in a year. The Galapagos Islands are known for wildlife but the beaches are spectacular, and of course, not populated and unspoiled. The Abel Tasman national park in NZ South Island was also similar to Park Tayrona but lacked the Caribbean waters and 35 degree weather. Long Beach on Big Corn was just jaw dropping.

Top cats
1. The little black one at La Paz hostel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
2. The fluffy white one at the Plantation House, Salento, Columbia
3. The scruffy orphan at Elsa's, Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

The ginger from Wheeler's, the very silly fat grey one from New Zealand and the blind white one from Utila all deserve props.

Top disappointments
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
2. Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, New Zealand
3. Aukland

We believed the hype. Don't. The Experience Project in Seattle also deserves a mention for being a 15 million dollar plank with zero Jimi. Auckland was just bad. After so many other historic sites in Central America, Machu Picchu was over-priced and over-hyped. The glaciers, far from being 'the experience of a lifetime' looked like tiny Finnish ski slopes in Spring.

Top places to stay
1. Izhcayluma, Vilcabamba, Ecuador
2. Earth Lodge, near Antigua, Guatemala
3. La Paz, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Izhcayluma could arguably be the best hostel in the world. It does actually have the feel of a spa at backpacker prices, serves fantastic German food, has awesome views of the Valley of Longevity, and a very, very nice bar - where I am undisputed pool and table tennis champion. Ruby's Inn on Utila deserves mention for being the only place in the world where they clean the shower curtains - hostel owners take note! Earth Lodge is an avocado farm overlooking active volcanos, and La Paz has a yoga school. It says here.

Top walks
1. Laguna 69, Hauraz, peru
2. Colca Canyon, Peru
3. Yosemite, California, USA

On one hand we 'diss' Peru but then we say it is the best place in the world to walk. Yes, we are two-faced-tourists. We didn't do any serious trekking involving the need for specialised equipment, and we always got local instructions to avoid taking a guide. Laguna 69 took us up to 4800m and planted us under several 6000m Andean peaks. Colca Canyon is the 2nd deepest in the world (the deepest is just around the corner). You get perspective-changing views but also time to enjoy everyday mountain village life. Just getting out of the car at Yosemite is mind-blowing. Special mention for the Grand Canyon (though we didn't walk long enough really), and Key Summit in New Zealand on the way to Milford.

Top meals
1. Cerviche, Santiago, Chile
2. Las Tinajas, Cordoba, Argentina
3. 100% Natural, Acapulco, Mexico // Mole, Oaxaca, Mexico

We reckon Mexico has the best food in the world. And none of it is covered in yellow slime. Cerviche is fish cooked in lime. On our last night in South America we had a huge amount of salmon, barracuda and king prawns all cooked in lime and washed down with the local white. Where - we can't remember! Tinajas in Cordoba is reckoned to be the largest all-you-can-eat restaurant in the world. With 1200 covers there is a bit of a cruise ship vibe but my god, it is awesome. Our diverse tastes (meat vs no meat) made us split the number 3 spot. 100% natural was great food... for rabbits (no... I had a bizzo nut burger) and the Oaxacan delicacies made me purr.

Top man made sights
1. Easter Island
2. Tikal
3. Las Vegas

Surprised...? Well, we thought long and hard about this. We thought Tikal bossed all the other ancient sites we saw (but we didn't see Angkor in the end). Easter Island (and, in particular Orongo) is no.1 for cosmicity. Vegas is just hilarious.

Top islands
1. Little Corn Island. Nicaragua
2. Caye Caulker, Belize
3. Easter Island, Chile

Props for Puerto Rico itself, its sibling; Vieques, South Island New Zealand, and Koh Jum in Thailand. These three have something extra special. Even in driving rain for one week, Little Corn was paradise. Caye Caulker is sand-bar Caribbean heaven and Easter Island is out-of-this-world. Perhaps all of these are also unspoilt by mass tourism.

Top stuff we missed
1. Angel Falls, Venezuela
2. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
3. Glaciers National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Big-ups to those who keep asking 'didn't you go to Africa?'. Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the Similan and Surin Islands in Thailand could also be here. But, having gone to Venezuela, we were gutted that the currency situation got in the way of Angel Falls (and any thoughts of seeing table-top mountains). All reports suggest Iguazu may be the most spectacular falls in the world but we chose penguins, and southern Patagonia was just too far in the short time we had given ourselves in Argentina. Next time though...

Top natural wonders
1. Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
2. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia
3. Milford Sound, New Zealand

Crickey... how does Yosemite not make this list... or the Galapagos. Really these five places are in a different class. They are all incredible. Even ignoring the fauna on the Galapagos, it is still incredible. Yes, these are (the) five places you should see in your lifetime. Just make sure you see Milford in Spring (Oct/Nov) when the waterfalls are on. Also see the Grand Canyon in Spring (April/May) and take a long hike. Same for Yosemite; the season starts April/May when the waterfalls are popping.

Top places to go back to
1. Whistler
2. Galapagos
3. Grand Canyon

This is the answer to the question; 'if you had to go somewhere tomorrow...?' Having Whistler there tells that we really haven't been to enough big ski resorts. One reason to go back is to do the heli-skiing. Also I was favouring my shoulder at the time and could've gone more extreme! Argentina and Mexico are probably the two countries to go back to. Galapagos again outside of September with warmer water, some extra islands and more and more snorkeling.

Top surprises
1. Puerto Rico
2. Columbia
3. California

PR is rockin'. World-class beaches. World class music and nightlife. An America city on a Caribbean island. It is something special - and we had the best hospitality there. Columbia was fresh and felt a little pioneering as tourism is in its infancy there. California was a big surprise to Miss Deli in particular - the human and natural diversity is unparalleled.

Worst places to stay
1. Grand Trunk Hostel, Vancouver, Canada
2. Pitstop, Medellin, Columbia
3. Refugio, Antigua, Guatemala

Avoid these places like the plague. Pitstop was the saddest spectacle of drug-tourism - the kind of thing that it is a big potential banana skin for Columbia as it receives more visitors. An honourary mention must go to Pangea Hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica - this place was a multi-storey prison, packed with teenagers wearing wrist bands. If this is the global village then we should put a torch to it now.

Top homes away from home
1. Morelos, San Blas, Mexico
2. Sun Smile, Koh Jum, Thailand
3. Fiddy, Wicked Campers, New Zealand

These were the places where we really felt at home. If we had stayed longer then Sunset on Koh Chang, and Ruby's on Utila, then they would be contenders too. Morelos had a stork, a kitchen, free water refills, a short walk to the plaza and market, and San Blas was very special. Sun Smile was our home for 41 nights - we know every shade of the sunset and the outline of every palm. '750 Rebels', the Toyota Camina, looked after us for a month, and assisted us greatly in the consumption of wine, cheese and kniffel.

Top wildlife encounters
1. Galapagos Islands
2. Peninsula Valdez, Patagonia, Argentina
3. Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The bio-luminescent bay on Vieques, Puerto Rico gets a commendation but these were the big three. Snorkeling with sea lions, sharks, rays turtles and millions of fish - all the time - and wandering through crowds of boobies, sea lions and lizards. Sea lion, sea lion, sea lion... Galapagos is one of the world's true natural wonders. Peninsula Valdez is where you can sea killer whales eating seals in the waves. We got up close with whales and sea lions and saw hundreds and thousands of penguins nearby at Punta Tombo. Rurre boasts giant anacondas, crocs, piranhas, pink dolphins and thousands of giant rats, and some of the worst guides in the world.

The blogger.com engine doesn't make it easy for me to add and caption pictures in with this but I will come up with something... probably. Until then we can infer that the FunkiDeli.fi DEliTOUR (with promotional consideration from Dick Bliss Park and Wanka Tours, Mendoza) is over. I am off to England for a week. We are back at home in our flat. We are looking for work and looking for our friends... Thanks for tuning in.

The last few weeks in Thailand

Pretty much as planned we went to Koh Phayam and enjoyed the vast beach at Ao Yai. We found a nice front-rower at Coconut Beach Resort - a basic bamboo job - set in spacious grounds. We realised on the first night that we were the next bungalow from the South Star Bar. The 6pm reggae was OK most nights but we had a pretty uncomfortable night when they blasted away some really disappointing tunes until 3AM.

Koh Phayam had a little touch of the nightmarish. There was an awful lot of faux spirituality and juggling going on. But, even though there must have been 3-400 people staying on Ao Yai, it never felt crowded on the sand. I found some good volleyball games and we played frisbee in the sand. We took a scooter around the island and found it to be developing fast with ex-pat businesses. Phayam is out-of-the-way as it is close to the Burmese border and away from other tourist centres but it seems to be getting a reputation - in a couple of years it might be a serious party party island - though the lack of electricity should slow things down.

We met the charming Laurent, Nina and their child, Victor, from Paris, and we spent the days with banana shakes, guitars nd kniffel. We also ate some of the best food, and certainly best value food, of our trip, at the tiny family Pratsai restaurant just inland from the beach, Huge, tasty curries, packed with fresh veg, were only 60 baht, and we enjoyed them nearly every night.

After a few days in Ranong online we went to Burma for an hour and came back to get our stamps to entitle us to the last 14 days of our trip in Thailand. After that we decided to check out Koh Chang before heading to Bangkok. Little Koh Chang (to avoid confusion with big Koh Chang in the North) was very much like Koh Jum. Super quiet, a lot of candle power, and a very relaxed traveler vibe.

We got very lucky and found a bungalow at Sunset Resort at the North end of the main tourist beach. The week flew past in a blur of curries, banana shakes, volleyball, walks, giant-lizards-in-the-bathroom. I guess we were starting focus more and more on returning home.

We had our last week in Bangkok. We made it to the weekend market and, though it was spectacular and had some more individual clothes, we found the prices for tourist tat were more competitive near where we were staying at Khao San Road. Next time we go we will see some temples and buddhas but this time we shopped and hung in the rooftop pool we had accidentally acquired in our desperate scrum for a hotel room upon arrival. It was a very pleasant surprise.

Bangkok probably demonstrates the worst aspects to tourism, traveling and perhaps even human development in general. It is a particularly good place for making you value your return home. Bangkok is terribly polluted - dangerously so at the wrong time in the wrong place. And to get anywhere takes immense patience. We were very much a part of it, but perhaps the most unsettling aspect to life in the tourist areas (beyond even the disgusting sex trade) is Bangkok's role in the homogenisation of global culture. Of course there are pirated goods. Yet there are also people from 100 countries buying the season's fashions and recycling them worldwide. It brought home how bizarre it has been to see teenagers dressed in the same (fake) quasi-street-surf gear from San Diego to Santiago to South East Asia.

Overall Thailand was, if not a revelation, then still a bonus. We found that there are islands for every taste and budget and the same safe feeling that you get in other primarily non-violent societies (e.g. India) combined with novelties like very alternative cultural attractions, transport methods, cuisine and customs. The drawback would be the two-tier system that is in operation, which basically means that there a lot of people trying to rip you off. I am not going to dwell on this again though. Thailand was a great pleasure and now I totally understand why it is so popular. We will definitely go again.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Re-entry plan

For the logisticians amongst you here is the plan:

Fri 13.2 Leave Krabi for Ranong, gateway to Burma/Myanmar and Koh Chang/Koh Phayam islands

Sun 15.2 To Koh Phayam probably - to enjoy some secluded beach action

26.2 Back to Ranong

27.2 'Visa run' - terrible phrase used by all around these parts and not even correct. We will go on a day trip to Myanmar to get a 15 day visa waiver program entry stamp when we come back into Thailand - not a visa at all. As our Thai visas run out on 27.2. We could pay 1900 baht (40 euros) each for a 30 day extension here in Krabi but it is cheaper and more fun to see a far flung outpost of a ghastly, dictatorial regime

28.2 - 12.3 Head to Bangkok and discover the city - and do some shopping

12.23 Fly home

15-18.3 Tahko

24-30.3 I fly to Gatwick from Helsinki with Easyjet for the first time - I'm sure it will be luxury

1.4 We move back into our flat and, if we are lucky, start some work

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Leaving Koh Jum

We managed a total of 41 nights at Sun Smile bungalow (sic) on Koh Jum, breaking the previous record of 30 nights held by some Canadian geezer from last year. We made our host, Mr Ka, a card listing all the records we had broken - of course, he doesn't read any English but it was with great joy that we noted Anna's 1297 3-line Kniffel high score and other nonsense. And we left behind the cribbage board that I had fashioned from drifwood. I don't think my veneering grandfather would have been too impressed by my effort but it served the purpose - I never dreamed I would have a girlfriend who would learn and then want to play cribbage - my father would have been impressed.

The last few weeks at Sun Smile were a little different. We encountered the Andaman jellyfish season, which was a little disconcerting. We investigated and found that it is an annual event but still, the sight of hundreds of sizable (5-20cm diameter) blue but harmless cauliflower-like jellyfish washed up on the beach every day for a week, put us off the water. And then another guest got stung by something else. And the other guests were all much older for the first time. In our last stint we were there 18 nights. We still loved it and were able to relax and carry on much as before.

It was a bit sad on the penultimate day when I had a run in with a Swiss couple who had been very moody to everyone. They took offence when Anna and I sat in the sunchairs at the back of the beach - they seemed to have got the idea that they owned the place and had upset another girl the day before by asking her to leave the sunchairs. We were reading and the guy didn't even speak to us but came up and started arranging furniture a few inches in front of us mumbling about how "he likes this part of the beach". Basically he was gutted that we were standing up to their bullying on behalf of all the guests. They were instructed to 'do one'. Bear in mind that Sun Smile has about 800m of empty beach all around. Anyway, later we received the support of our fellow guests who then also started to use the furniture - and the Swiss skulked off embarrassed - they really were very stupid.

The end of our time at Sun Smile was dominated by 'the show', about which I must ramble now. I had long dreamed of performing some of the songs I had written at Sun Smile to thank the staff. I arranged with Mr Ka to play for them after dinner on the final Friday. We had a nice crowd; the five staff, the German 'hang' playing couple, the old Swedes, Dutch mother and daughter, French lady and Canadian boyfriend, Miss Deli and myself. I had done the rounds and apologised in advance to the other guests and, at about nine, I launched into eight new numbers. 'Virgin Soldier', 'What is this music?' (a song conveniently written about writing songs at Sun Smile), and 'A question of interface' (spawned by Ville's obsession with the future of human interaction with technology) were successfully dispatched before I explained 'My sun will never set' to Mr Ka - it being about his little boat n'all. That said it is also a banging rock blues about the deflation of ego with lyrics like "I am the emperor of the human race, you want to put me in an envelope". It is about how, when you feel at your highest peak, there is often someone around that can't wait to try and bring you down. Yes, the language barrier did prevent me getting across the finer points to the Thais in the audience.

The set continued with 'Sea gypsy', a personal favourite, written with one eye on a local fisherman who paddles past very slowly every day. It wound up with 'Hole in the ground' (a tale of the Grand Canyon, NHS funding and collateral damage) before 'Bad Machine', where I, once again, attempt to solve the Palestinian question in 3 verses. The audience were very appreciative and it was great to get to try out the new tunes.

As I was just reminded, there is nothing more boring than sportspeople talking about sports or musicians talking about music. But I had to try and paint a picture for you so you could imagine the tableau as all the farang joined together to dance out the moves to the 'dum-ching' N95 phone-backing of 'Mr.Ka', written for the staff. Regular readers might remember the Thai children's dancing that we had witnessed, along with the staff and their families, a few weeks before. Well, inspired by those moves, I had choreographed a series of sequences for the farang to act out, for the amusement of our hosts. For "Mr Ka make the noodles Mr Ka" arms are outstretched and the action of teasing spaghetti is made. For "Mr Dad drive the longtail", "Mrs Ya bring the omellete", and "Mrs Tuk bring the Chang" similar self-explanatory moves are made. For "Mrs Kim wear your glasses" the classic circle is made with the thumb and forefinger and brought up to the eye, one hand at a time. Throughout, hips are swayed, hands alternated - and we change more rapidly between the variations as we progress. And, at the end of every verse, Mr Ka is celebrated with the chorus of "Mr Ka, Mr Ka, Mr Ka, Mr Ka does everything" as one is bent over and hands are rolled repeatedly, before one slowly straightens up while opening both arms aloft in celebration. Er... don't try this at home.

Yes, it was childish, and very funny, and in 'bigging up' Mr Ka in such a way we succeeded in unravelling some of the aspects of hierarchy and deference that mark such a yawning and impenetrable chasm between Thai and western culture. Maybe. The assembled farang stood in a semi-circle around me and followed my lead as we embarrassed ourselves. It was great fun and such a change of pace, for one night only, when it is usually so tranquil. Beers contiued to be cracked open on all tables (a rarity) and I remounted the upper tier to encore with the emotionally charged 'You've given me everything' written for parents and children everywhere, especially my mum. They still hadn't had enough so I then dipped deep into the back catalogue for 'Neptune's Wrath' a fitting tale of underwater adventure. During the tumultuous middle 'storm' section the electricity failed, the candles came out, the waves roared and it was a very rewarding atmosphere. I finished with 'Tide', a song I wrote in 2004 at Christmas after hearing about the Tsunami. It seemed fitting to bring it home, in bringing that song home, to a place so affected by the big wave. No one died on Koh Jum but we had met people with the physical scars, the adjacent resort on Ao Si beach had been washed away, and we can only imagine at the psychological effect that still pervades daily life for some.

I think it would be fair to say that Mr Ka was 'chuffed to bits'. He is a man of great vision. He asked me back next year and promised a big stage, fire show and fifty gypsy dancers on the beach. I said I would do it if I could have a floating stage on the Andaman sea. I also reminded him that he really shouldn't get the jet-ski he has been talking about.

So, we departed but, after 41 nights, we were ready. We have now been in Krabi Town (again) for 3 nights. We are here specifically to communicate with people like you - and to start to look for the right jobs for our return. Even though the landscape is not as healthy as we would we wish, it seems that there are really good companies in Finland looking, so our fingers are crossed. We are both actually really excited about working again. I guess we are a little homesick now as we can't wait to get back to our flat and get back into some normal life. I am a bit worried about my wardrobe though - it doesn't really notice but I am down from 94 to under 81 kilos since we left home - even the shorts I have bought on the trip are balooning now!

Go on my son!

Canadian bloke gets urge to make portrait of the Deli; Sothebys and Gettys are put on alert

This is how we... well, how Mr Ka, makes the noodles

Monkey attack

One last Sun Smile sundown

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Loose ends

Mr Ka has two daughters with Mrs Kim but only one 'My Son'. That is the name of his tiny - I mean miniscule - boat that bobs about on the water occaisionally and that he takes out for morning fishing. I wrote a song about it. 'My sun never sets'. It is always there you see even after the sun goes down. There have been lots of other songs too - to be discovered in good time.

In Penang we discovered Georgetown's wonderful Little India, great food, the local salon scene, and the volume of toursists that leave Thailand for as little time as possible before returning with their new visa. There were hostels with giant waiting rooms. As soon as the passports reappeared from the visa agency everyone was back on the bus.

We just went to see Ake, Laura, Ville and Kirsi on Koh Muk. It was wonderful to see friends. We went scootering around the island as Ville got his second flat tyre. And we took a daytrip to see the Emerald cave. We went with the Norwegian honeymooning couple and the 2nd German underwater camera couple. There was a massive red jellyfish at the cave entrance we had to swim nervously around. Then we had an 80m swim, some in darkness, through the cave until we came out into a hole in the ground; a 100m wide beach surrounded 360 degrees by 250m high limestone cliffs on the edge of Koh Muk island. It was marvellous, until we swam out looking for the jellyfish, only for me to find it 5cm from my left arm. I was OK as I was wearing a rash shirt and it wasn't the kind with a tail but I felt for Anna who, of course, has the fresh memory of a nasty sting back in Honduras. As part of the trip we got to snorkel at Ko Kradan island opposite Koh Muk. It was cool to see some fish again(Nemo was there and Koh Jum is really only missing decent snorkelling and street food) but I would love to go to a prime Thai site where we might see more big stuff.

Koh Muk was very small and relaxed and Charlie's was very understated for a package resort. There were plenty of Finns about and we enjoyed the excellent food and company. We found a large bamboo bungalow to stay in for 350 baht just 10m outside Charlie's back gate and we found it really easy to slip into the scene - well, we basically hitched onto our friends holiday for 4 days!

We said goodbye to them in Trang after a day's shopping and we headed to Krabi town, the gateway to plenty more beaches and islands - and coindidentally very close to Koh Jam again. In Krabi we found a cheap but very noisy hotel for 250 baht (5 euros - the cheapest of our whole trip) and we also found market food to die for. Anything on a stick, bowls of tiny fried eggs (are they quails'?), amazing juices served in bamboo sticks, noodles and rice with anything, pancakes, more stuff on sticks, sausages, sausages, sausages - and Krabi even has shops selling cheese and wine. OK we can't afford it but we have been cheese-window-shopping. We have also been to the outta town malls - I found some more guitar strings on a half day songtaew adventure, and we took a longtail to check the famous Krabi beaches.

Railay Bay is famous as a clmbing destination and for 4 picture postcard Thai beaches. We hated it. Big new expensive proper resorts dominated the beachfront and the beaches were packed - really packed. And there were dozens and dozens of very loud longtails clogging up the beaches. It was ghastly - actually what we expected to find on Koh Muk (Muk or Mook as it is known was charming and a different world).

The weirdest thing was that we were just 40km from Koh Jum, where there is tranquility, wonderful beach and inner peace! We are heading back there tomorrow (22.1). We have to keep a lid on the budget, and that means not moving. And, as we are going to spend a lot of time somewhere, we need to feel confident about it. We could head further North to Ko Phayam and Ko Chang but everything we have read suggests they may be fine but maybe not work out as well as Koh Jum. I am sure we will visit them in a few weeks - on or around the time when we will probably have to nip into Burma (27.2) to get our stamps to stay the last 15 days in the country.

That's it for now. We have until 12.3 to enjoy Thailand. Then we have 15-18.3 in Tahko. I (and possibly Anna) will then go to England and then at the start of April... we need jobs. The big J... O... B... The time is coming. I feel really good and enthusiastic about getting back to work... but to do that I will be needing a job. Fingers crossed eh readers?

Ake helped us to surprise Ville (left)


Koh Muk's lovely main beach

Railay's beaches were packed

Stuff on sticks!

What we got up to and the village idiot

We spent a total of 3 weeks at Sun Smile, with a break just after Christmas to go to Malaysia's second city (Georgetown on the island of Penang) to get our Thai toursist visas.

We did take one day on a scooter around the island to check out all the other accomodation. There are about 25 resorts altogether. Even though there were some desirable places with lovely restaurants and great (expensive) food, nothing came close to Sun Smile value-wise - and especially because we had such a relatively wide, quiet stretch of beach - and great swimming at any time of day. Most places had poor quality accomodation and rocks on the beach and in the sea - one reason why Koh Jum has stayed a quiet island.

Anna spent her days working on her already impressive tan and scorching through books. I have been playing guitar and writing songs from eight in the morning until ten at night. It has easily been the most productive and constructive I have ever been musically. I can only hope you will get to hear the results at some point my dear readers. And we managed to get down to spending 700-800 baht per day with the odd extra beer or fruit thrown in. We got trim from sensible portions and plenty of frisbee and swimming and eventually we got to know the handful of staff at Sun Smile. Of course we had a few extra dishes at xmas and new year but it was pretty understated. Let's make that supremely understated. Chilled out does not come close.

Anyway, there was some other action. In Thailand it is 2552. The year, that is. You see they started with the enlightenment of Buddha - I think he probably stayed at Sun Smile a few thousand years ago or something. But also we were in the midst of National Children's Day and a week of happennings on the island. Well, actually we were oblivious to all of this (in a bubble watching a thousand sunsets from the blacony and marvelling at the subtle changes of colour between every day's dawn and dusk) - we were oblivious but for a bizarre chain of events.

We had taken the scooter around the island and I had seen one of the boatmen with very shiny new footy boots. In Tanglish I managed to ascertain that there was some action on the Ban Ting Rai village school field. This is the village behind our place mid-island and the school field we had found when lost earlier in the day. I thought I might get the chance for a kickabout. At dusk I left Anna at the ranch and scooted over.

There were a handful of stalls up and about 50 locals milling around. It turned out there was the big 7-a-side tournament going down between the island vilages. After I had chatted to a few players I settled into to a kick about with a bunch of 7 year olds, and then sat down to watch the action with a couple of Austrian guys. We watched as Ban Koh Jum firsts held Ban Ting Rai seconds to a goalless draw forcing penalties. Then I was distracted from the action as my rugby-loving Austrian chum pointed another team's manager towards me. They looked fit and organised and needed a player so I jumped at it. Though it tuned out I wasn't going to play for my local boys, Ban Ting rai. No, I was off to the knacker's yard with the slightly older and unkempt Koh Jum seconds. And they made play in a yellow Arsenal kit. I loved it of course. But after I had chatted to the lads, not understanding a word between us,of course, and using sign language (my body actually) to indicate that I would play in front our goalkeeper, I realised that there were now 150-200 people sat around the pitch in the dusk. Pretty much the whole of middle village.

And there was a commentator. With a big PA. In Thai of course. The game started OK. And I was the only Farang (foreigner). And when I approached the ball you could sense the pitch rise in his commentary. And the pitch was one third rocks, one third hard sand and one third shag-pile length grass. And then we conceded a soft opener. They cut us apart easily. The crowd got involved but I mostly noted them get louder at the comedy value of the token (lanky) honkey leaping to head clear or stooping to put a good headed chance over the bar from a corner.

And then I was 3 against 1 at the back. If you know where Jamie-Carragher-land is, then you will know where I was. As I backtracked the ball was passed in front of me from right to left and I had to use my (waning, possibly even long-forgotten) athleticism to scythe through the air to try to cut it out. I had lunged two footed, but in true Clagger style, leading with my right; the good foot. And I made contact. It was a miracle really. I was chuffed at my anticipation, reading of the flight, and reactions. For a stone cold hair's breath of a split second. For, as our goalkeeper was wrong footed, I had steered the ball passed him into the corner of the net.

Cheers from the home fans? No. Recriminations from the away fan or my teamates? No. Just infectious laughter. Cackling, bawling, screaming. The pitch was pretty high. The commentator was drowned out for a while before he joined in. The ref laughed at me. I turned and took a couple of bows to the crowd, smiling when I realised my teammates were not humiliated. The game restarted but the monstrous cackling didn't stop until we were 3-0 down and the crowd started to ebb away. In the second half I man marked their no.10, came close with a volley and we got a goal back. But I was already a legend in three villages. The village idiot. Long and white against the clouds of smoke from the noodle stalls. I would be recognised in the pitch black walking back after dropping off the scooter.

It was only later I realised that I had scored for my village team, Ban Ting Rai. Albeit while playing for the opposition!

Two nights later we went back to the field of dreams to see the local children's dance show. If only we had the photos of all those 4-9 year olds attempting choreography. We were in stitches. And the outfits were amazing. And there was some kareoke. And we found out that the Sun Smile boatman was called Mr. Dad. He invited us to sit on his family mat. Then we were joined by Sun Smile waitress, Mrs. Tuk. And it turned out they were married with two kids. They looked about 18. And that night, on the same field where I had embaressed the Queen only 48 hours earlier, all that was forgotten as we waited and then watched their gorgeous daughter dance in a wonderfully lacey fairy Princess dress. The girl next to her couldn't manage any of the moves and stared blankly at the PA for the whole 10 minutes, but the girl who calls Mr. Dad 'dad' knew every move. Especially the one where you hang your arms straight down and wiggle your hands behind you.

Finding Koh Jum

We spent some quality time with a reference books (LP South East Asia and a second hand Thailand Rough Guide), as well as talking to some sensible people we met. Being new to Thailand we didn't know what to expect but we had narrowed our priority destinations down to a few islands - Ko Phayam (not far from Burma), Ko Chang (the Ko Chang next to Phayam), and Koh Jum (also known as Koh Pu, midway between Koh Lanta and Krabi). All three were not in the South East Asia book but all sounded quiet and devoid of package tourists, and with plenty of cheap accomodation, and lots of beach - maybe not spectacular beach but beach all the same.

We toyed with some sightseeing options but decided to head for Koh Jum as it appeared first on our horizon. We rejected the pricey tourist ferry option and headed to Trang for a night, where we enjoyed our first taste of a Thai town, before getting a morning bus on to Nea Klong, then a people carrying truck (the legendary songteaw) to the tiny sea gypsy stilted village of Laem Kruat; for the longtail boat ride 45 minutes across to Koh Jum town.

I already loved all the names of the Thai towns - I can roll Nea Klong around my tongue for hours - and we have also learnt to love the local transport. The longtails are small wooden boats that have enormous truck engines on the back with a very long pole-like shaft (maybe 3m long) that connects to a propeller - hence the long tail. They don't have keels and the long tail is levered in and out of the water in the shallows. At least they are wooden so should stay afloat. Whenever you are near the coast you can hear the throb of a longtail engine. On a day trip to Railay Bay the other day we were on the loudest longtail in the history of the world ever. We had to put our hands over our ears and I swear that is the boat you can hear wherever you are in the country!

By the way every place in Thailand has about 6 names: Nea Klong, Nua Klong, Nea Kong, Nuah Klong etc etc which makes any conversation about getting anywhere independently hilarious.

Koh Jum has 5 beaches stretched out on its Western shore over about 10km. We plumped for the middle beach, Ao Si, as we had read good things about Ao Si bungalows on the frankly brilliant and indespensible Tezza's Thai beach info blog. We had to take a mototaxi (think; beaten up small bike with sidecar made of wooden planks with a flat tyre and a metal cage that can squeeze in a family of 5) across the island, where we saw the tsunami village; 50 pre-fabricated homes that had been made by a relief organisation in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It had been built in an area safe from future tsunami hazards, but was also a stark reminder that, even though miraculously no lives were lost on Jum, Boxing Day 2004 changed everyone in these parts.

We found Ao Si bungalows perched on the hillside at one end of quiet Ao Si beach. They were jungle style bamboo rooms on stilts, some of which had amazing views down the length of the island, and from the bar you could look out onto the Andaman sea. We struck up a deal for 12 nights with the Scottish manager, Phil, and settled in.

Then we took a walk down the beach.

Ao Si beach only had 3 'resorts'. When I first read about Thai resorts I thought concrete and swimming pools but it means just a collection of bungalows or huts or something similar, probably with a restaurant of some kind. We could see 'Jungle Hill', the other similar resort at the other end of the beach. We were walking to find a spot to swim in because of the rocks in front of Phil's place. Then, in the middle of the beach, we saw Sun Smile. There were 11 blue-roofed bungalows and just two guests from Holland. It was imediately apparent that this was the nicest stretch of beach and great for swimming with gently sloping sand well away from the handful of longtails that were actually parked in front of Phil's.

Then I saw the owner, a small but young oriental-looking gent, who showed me a front rower - a bungalow with an obstructed view of the sea through the coconut grove of 8 trees providing a bit of shade behind the beach before the 'resort'. And it was concrete, and had a great tiled bathroom, the bed was new, there were proper nets fitted to the windows, and he offered to undercut the 'sweaty'*. There were even useful furniture units. And parasols for the beach. And we would be giving money to a 'chao leh' family rather than to another gringo-owned hotel. I had had enough of dodging wildlife filtering through jungle-style construction back in Mexico. The thought of not having to use a mosquito net, of the amazing view, the lovely balcony - it was a no brainer.

But I had to go back to Phil and renege on our agreement. He actually kicked us out straight away with a smile and we gave him 200 baht (4 euros) for his trouble. Our room at Sun Smile would cost us 380 baht per night. Not the 250 we had hoped for on quiet Thai islands but we haven't found anything remotely comparable at the price before or since. As we left Phil's down the endless steps through the jungly hillside at dusk we realised what we would be missing. I had already left a crazy pink frog in the bathroom. Now, as we descended, fully laden, thousands of gigantic moths lifted off around us, clouding the path and echoing into the trees.

I woke up the next morning and jogged just after dawn on the beach - for the first time in my life. I was pretty scared when I made it to Phil's end but as I ran back past Sun Smile I saw a big cat running from the rocks at the other end. Only it wasn't. It was one of about 40 monkeys all running up the beach from a little circle of rocks back into the trees. I eased up and watched them squabble and play. Were they fishing? I have no idea. It turned out that two tribes of monkeys lived either side of Sun Smile and had frequent territorial squabbles. We would see plenty more of them - especially when they would try to steal thong-clad-Klaus' fruit!

That first full day we enjoyed the simple, basic but good enough food from the Sun Smile kitchen and we saw the arrival of a handful of new guests. This would become pretty much the only daily event. In the morning the tourist ferry would come from Koh Lanta, and in the afternoon from Krabi, and the Sun Smile boatman would go out to meet it and bring back a few new guests. Many would only manage a night as our island is just too quiet for some. A few would walk the few kms down the beach in search of more family-orientated digs, and a few would stay a few days.

None of them got bungalow 302 though. That night we discovered the stunning sunset view across 25km of Andaman see to Koh Phi Phi. Every night the sun would set over Phi Phi (Pi Pi or Pee Pee sometimes:)), the island famous for scenes from The Beach movie. Actually it is two islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh, the later being uninhabited and 'the beach'. Those of you who have an unhealthy memory will note that Anna and I met while The Beach (with Leonardo) played on the giant Stella screen on Brighton beach, and that our first date was at The Beach club (with my dad shaparoning!). We felt some kinda divine circularity looking out on the islands' silhouette. We joked that we could split up now we have come full circle - we're not by the way!

By the way, the 'chao leh' are the decendants of Chinese migrants; the sea gypsies of South East Asia. Our host, who we found out was called Mr. Ka, had a Chinese background. Mrs Kim, his wife, was from local island, Koh Yao Yai. They had two daughters but we would spend more time with Mr Ka's 'my son'.

*sweaty sock = Jock = Scottish bloke

On da boat

They don't all look like this. The sunset view I keep banging on about

Sun Smile bungalows

Beavering away on the balcony