Thursday, March 11, 2010

Weekly Photo: Park Guell

Perched upon El Carmel in Barcelona - overlooking the sweeping expanse of the Mediterranean - is the partially-realised, deranged vision of a self-contained community by Antoni Gaudi. Stepping into the cartoonish theme-park, one cannot help but feel as though you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole, landing in a pool of drug-fuelled insanity. Tea sets decorate roof mosaics, suggesting that Lewis Carroll’s wacky ‘wonderland’ had in fact seeped into Gaudi’s vision, though the entire park is an arena for abstract art. Sculptured land formations, gypsy buskers, marching bands and bewildering designs litter the park; tickling the imagination and your inner-child’s fantasies.

Hidden among all of this craziness is the white house featured in the picture. Owner unknown, the house offers a temporary escape back to normality. It serves as a reminder of the Mediterranean setting, accompanied by the Vespa in the driveway, lemon trees and cacti, and the refreshing sea breeze sweeping up the hill. As an elderly busker played a strange instrument in an oblivious rapture twenty feet away, I looked up at this house in envy, salivating at the thought of living before such captivating views and serenity; unaffected by the cultural pulse of Catalonia that envelops it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Weekly Photo: Lisbon - Castelo


Overlooking Lisbon's city-centre, Castelo de São Jorge is nested on the highest perch in the city. Dating back to the second century AD, the castle is an icon of European antiquity, and offers spectacular views of the city and the Tagus river, which empties into the Atlantic ocean nearby. With rich blue skies blanketing the horizon, we felt that this day was perfect to explore the hilltop neighborhood.

Firmly strung on Lonely Planet's shoestring, we neglected advice to catch the tram up the nigh precipitous hill, and instead navigated a tangle of eerily deserted cobblestone streets behind the hill - on foot. Without the roar of buses in high gear, tram bells, and tour-group stampedes, we managed to see signs of local life - generally a bewildered stare from a dark, withered face - as we got lost in the maze of pastel houses, each with sheets fluttering from their balconies.

"Up" was our only guide, and eventually, we came to this beautiful laneway featured in the photo. It led to the main entrance of the castle, where we could hear the hiss of bus hydraulics and whirring chatter, but we were pleased with our 'discovery'. Had we chosen to take the tram or bus, we would have likely missed it! We'd saved three euro, and had a more intimate look at this seductive, decaying district of Lisbon. So in other words... walk.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Weekly Photo: Wellington Arch

This shot was taken of the Wellington Arch in London on Christmas Day 2009. It was a crisp winter day in the English capital, but that didn't deter the hordes of Japanese tourists from swarming the streets. It didn't deter us either, but at least we had Christmas hats on. Courtesy of my photography affiliate Sarah, at The World Through My Lens.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Quote of the Month: Dickens

"One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind".

--------- Mr Meagles in 'Little Dorrit'.

Charles Dickens wrote this line when travel was still just a function of British colonialism, before Mark Twain was an 'innocent abroad', and before Jack Kerouac was 'on the road'. But it still rings true today. For better or worse, a place will always look better in retrospect, after the choking stench has left your nostrils. For better with Berlin, where the unbearable cold plagued my stay and prompted a "I'll never come back here"... for better because of the incredibly vibrant city that was hidden beneath that blanket of torturous snow. For worse... well, I'm sure we all have some of these. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Weekly Photo: Luxembourg

Taken from the Petrusse Valley in Luxembourg City. I love this city, I highly recommend you visit there. This shot just takes me back!

Budapest Hotel Review: Opera Garden Hotel & Apartments

Budapest is a truly beautiful city, a vibrant gem of history and romance nestled into a decaying urban expanse, a sign that the country is still shaking off the grasp of the Soviet Union. Divided by the river Danube, the city is split into two aptly named sectors – the hilly and historic “Buda”, and the vivacious cultural hub “Pest”.

Located in a Parisian style pedestrian laneway in Pest, Opera Garden Hotel & Apartments lures the eye with a striking salmon Art Nouveau exterior. Despite the age of the building, the hotel – which opened in November 2009 – had been refurbished with a stunning contemporary design. The apartment style rooms are exceedingly spacious, equipped with new technologies and furnishings that compliment the gorgeous décor. The fully-equipped kitchen allows a refreshing change of home-cooked meals for the weary traveller, and extras such as free WIFI, soundproofed walls and English channels on the LCD TV are just the icing on the cake.

The all-male team of staff are perhaps the most helpful and friendly hotel employees I have encountered, consistently going above and beyond to ensure comfort and satisfaction, as well as fulfilment from the city itself. From smiles and greetings, to incredible detail with directions and carrying bags to the room, the level of service is exceptional.

The hotel is located on Hajós street, a laneway bursting with terrace cafes and cosy restaurants that runs perpendicular to the avenue Andrassy. This bustling, fashionable avenue runs from the luscious river Danube, past the famous Opera House – and nearby Opera Garden Hotel & Apartments – all the way to Heroes Square, a memorial-style gateway to Varosliget (City Park). Essentially, the hotel is perfectly located in the heart of Pest, with the historic, leisure and cultural attractions all easily accessible, as well as public transport hubs.

Having stayed in this hotel, it would take a very special offer to prevent me from staying at Opera Garden Hotel & Apartments next time I’m in Budapest. I simply can’t recommend it any more. Prices vary according to tourist seasons, but generally a room can been obtained from 65-85 euros per night on

Otherwise go to: 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Vang Vieng: A World Closing In

The river swept my kayak gradually downstream, bumping its hull on the litter of rocks exposed in the dry season shallows. I was lost in a dreamy haze of solitude; serenaded by nature’s whirring ambience of crickets and trickling rapids, my quest for peaceful isolation seemed fulfilled. A glimpse of civilisation dragged my gaze from the enchanting karst terrain; two Laotian fishermen who peered from beneath their conical hats as I passed. Their curious stare lulled me into momentary obliviousness, and the sinister echo from Vang Vieng went unnoticed. 

But it wasn’t long before the thud of westernisation totally absorbed the tranquillity. Dance music dictated a storm of carousal, as the hordes of skimpily dressed tourists indulged in the cheap alcohol and backpacker comradery. I was swept with disheartenment. In the space of a few minutes, this famously mellow country had shown me its bipolarity, from an enviable natural rawness, to a nagging proximity to the cultural vacuum that is all too familiar to South East Asia.

But this lush, land-locked nation is an infant in the tourism market relative to its developed neighbours, having only recently embraced the industry to broaden its means of income beyond agriculture. Like its thriving communist counterpart to the north, Laos has seen monumental progress since embracing open-market principles and the subsequent surge in tourism. The phenomenon torments local traditions, yet it serves as a platform to cure the poverty that has plagued the Laotian populace since the disastrous collectivist era that followed the communist seizure of power in 1975.

Yet it was rather difficult to fathom the existence of a functioning tourism industry during my transfer from the capital Vientiane, which itself features an archaic ‘small-town’ vibe. Weaving among tractor-led tuk-tuks that overflowed with hitching locals, our minibus bounced on the fragmented bitumen, passing scores of shanties with the communist hammer and sickle dangling proudly from their rusted tin rooves. Evidence of wavering infrastructure was everywhere, and as dilapidated urbanity quickly turned to rural expanse, the prospect of a touristic boom seemed increasingly unfeasible.

The “two hour” trip was prolonged by unrelenting obstacles: dirt roads that narrowed at precipitous bends; single-land bridges that rocked in the breeze; and a laid-back driver that passively navigated ambling livestock, which was particularly impeding as the frequency of farming villages increased closer to Vang Vieng. Eventually, the hindrance of rural isolation vanished, replaced by the hindrance of civilisation, as groups of barefoot children scurried across the muddy surface, each wearing buoyant smiles. We had arrived in Vang Vieng.

My bungalow was nestled against the Nam Song River, boasting large windows that framed the limestone cliffs beyond. The reputation of the town’s visual allure was widespread, but as I soon discovered, a prominent spot on the backpackers’ circuit requires more than enticing landscapes. 
As I set out to explore the town centre, I was interrupted by a voice from a neighbouring balcony. 

“First time in Vang Vieng?” A man in his thirties sat blissfully slumped in his chair, eyes glazed in front of his open laptop.

“Yes it is, it seems beautiful” I replied, slowing down to engage in conversation.

“That’s why I’m here. Officially anyway…” he said with a smirk, raising his hand to reveal a bulging joint. “I’m here taking photos for a travel brochure. But I’m happy to just indulge in Laos’ finest. I’m Dennis anyway…”

I scarcely saw Dennis’ balcony vacant, he was constantly attached to his laptop as he overlooked the riverside panorama. He always seemed to be toying with the prospect of terminating his assignment to just be consumed by the nonchalant lifestyle for life. But that was Vang Vieng. The town of just twenty-five thousand people has been transformed into a backpacker refuge, streets lined with bars, pancake stalls, day-tour agencies, and restaurants with ‘happy’ menus and Family Guy marathons. Yet, it maintains an enviable complacency. Without the stretching resorts and bustling business districts, it preserves an aura of seclusion and exclusivity, despite the large presence of western partygoers. 

Vang Vieng is known for its “adventurous” activities, including caving, kayaking and tubing, and I was swiftly lured into participating by a persuasive tour guide named Kham wandering the main street. I was herded into a decrepit truck that carried twelve kayaks on its roof-rack, and after driving just five minutes from the town-centre, the rural expanse reasserted itself. Manoeuvring livestock and potholes, Kham drove me to a small rice-farming village called Ban Tham Sang, before a woven bamboo bridge led me on foot across the river and into the modest commune. A civic game of bocce continued undeterred as I passed through the decrepit village, stepping between poultry and litters of piglets as the curious eyes of children peered from lattice windows.

Proceeding across sticky rice paddies, I followed the winding trail to a lagoon-like pool at the foot of a looming precipice. Pointing to an opening that hung ajar to the crawling stream, Kham proclaimed, “Tham Nam cave, we go”. As I climbed into a tube, a group of local boys sat on nearby rocks, snickering as I jolted to the unpredictably cold tributary that oozed from the cave mouth towards the Nam Song. 

The confines of the cave were illuminated by our head-torches, though navigation was difficult as they flickered closer to an untimely death. With no others to share the cave with, despite being peak season, we were able to paddle at a comfortable pace, focusing on dodging the hazardous stalagmites that got lost in the dark without a steady light. Such preoccupation meant that the journey was a scant one-kilometre, and before long, we were walking back through the village on our way to embark our kayaks.

“Do the locals mind us coming through here?” I guiltily asked Kham.

“It’s not a problem”, he responded with a smile, “they don’t even know we are here”.

Whilst this was perhaps an exaggeration, it was clear that the residents had become accustomed to the tourist trail interjecting their lives. But there is a cardinal condition for this tolerance.

“Only if everyone shows respect”, Kham continued, “Lao people are proud of our culture”.

And such values are overtly encouraged throughout the town. Signs that outline the expected behaviour for tourists envelop the walls of hotspots throughout the main streets. From appropriate, conservative attire and the discouragement of begging, to the prohibition of shouting, public affection and photos without consent, the explicit guidelines aim to reduce the drunken revelling in the streets that is synonymous with cultural erosion, preserving the values and dignity of the Lao people and facilitating a harmonious co-existence with tourists. Of course, being notoriously known as the party town of Laos, Vang Vieng certainly hosts its share of drunken revelling. And so as my kayak came upon the roistering riverside bars that thorn Vang Vieng’s cultural integrity, I decided it necessary to get a taste for the infamous tubing to avoid criticising something I hadn’t done. 

The next day, as the sun reached its highest perch above a cloak of cloud, I hired a tube and headed for the ‘starting point’ several kilometres upstream. I guiltily immersed myself in the growing crowd, chatting to a Canadian backpacker who was working for one of the bars. He introduced me to his local counterparts, some describing in broken English the enjoyment they get from a days work. By the time the fiery red sunset had saturated the landscape, I found myself floating away from the concentration of bars with a beaming grin, surprised at how easily my traveller’s conscience had relented to the lure of western fun. 

I still had an underlying fear that this majestic location would further kneel to the fruits beared by deep-pocketed foreigners, abandoning what raw culture remained. But as it stands now, Vang Vieng offers a complimenting bipolarity, with a face that accommodates rustic lifestyle and uncultivated landscapes, and another westernised face that helps to temper local poverty. While there is a fine line being walked, the solution to preserving this land of virgin jungles and laidback smiles is not to stem the influx of tourists, but rather to ensure that foreign visitors arrive without imperial tendencies, and demonstrate the respect for the Lao people that they deserve.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Prague Winter: In Photo

This year I decided to indulge in a white winter, exploiting the dwindling crowds to get a more intimate look at Europe. Armed with thermals, a scarf, and a mid-range Lumix, I snapped some photos of beautiful Prague in its Christmas glory. How romantic.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Top 6 “Must Packs” before you travel

Clifton Fadiman once said, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” Keep this in mind before you pack your bags. If you’re one who can’t survive a trip to the fridge without your iPod, or a trip to the shops without SMSing twelve people to inform them of your venture, obviously you’ll need to sit down and plan how to best utilise that precious space and weight in your luggage. Others prefer to merely “go with the flow”, take what travel brings to them and try indulge in the local lifestyles without the corruption of the ‘goodies’ from home.

Obviously the items you pack will vary according to individual tastes, as well as the destination. But I’ll try to give a rough guide on what I believe to be essential items for when I travel, outside of the requisites (such as a passport).

First, the ‘Honourable mentions’:

Multivitamins: Unless you’re travelling through some Asian countries, you’ll find there will be a severe lack of fruit consumption. As a result, you’ll either shrivel-up and die for not adhering to the laws of the ‘food pyramid’, or you’ll merely feel less than 100%. Either way, multivitamins will help you! While we’re on the topic of ‘medication’, bring sleeping pills.

USB: I cannot stress enough how important this is! If the TAB were giving odds for the likelihood of you losing your camera, it would probably be around 1:1. Take a large USB or two, back-up your photos as often as possible!

Photocopies of Passports: If you lose your passport, this may save you some trouble with language barriers. The last thing you want to do is be stuck in some obscure Mexican police station shouting “taco taco” amidst an anxious attempt to explain your missing passport.

Now for the top 6:

6. Travel insurance: It’s hardly an object (so it gets a low rating), but it’s absolutely vital if you’re going to be on the move a lot, particularly in “dangerous” areas. Yes, it is somewhat expensive, but given the threat of theft when in transit, the dividends it will pay when covering stolen goods will cover the cost and then some. All it takes is a momentary lapse in concentration, and a ‘professional’ thief (usually gypsies who struggle with the concept of integrity or job classifieds) will swoop on your luggage faster than a fly to shit! Just remember to file a police report if something is stolen! Of course, the principal precautionary reasoning behind travel insurance is for the coverage of injury or death. Without looking at statistics, I’d say the chance of an injury increases when travelling. The road rules are different; the location is unfamiliar; you participate in activities that may be foreign to you (such as skiing, surfing or eating a baguette). For example, if you’re travelling to somewhere like Mumbai or Bangkok, the possibility of a road accident is going to be a lot higher than at home given the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the traffic (picture an agitated nest of wasps). Make sure you’re covered!

5. Power adapter + power board: The power converter is rarely forgotten, but what a lot of people fail to capitalise on is the invention of the power board. Rather than wasting money and space on several adapters, or mere time by alternating charging appliances and forgoing simultaneous use, take a power board! 1 adapter… 4-6 home-grown appliances! This way, you can charge your mobile; use your laptop; turn on your strobe light; blend a margarita; and cook a beef stew in your slow cooker all at the same time! Ah the blessings of technology.

4. Locks: Padlocks, combination locks, zip locks, chain locks… you name it! If you’re travelling through somewhere like Eastern Europe or South America – in other words, areas renowned for mysterious cat-burglars or gypsy families raiding unbeknown sleeping train passengers’ luggage – bring lots of locks! Combination locks will give you peace of mind when you sleep in transit, and a chain lock will secure your luggage to a train pole whilst you catch some Z’s. If you’re staying in a hostel, bring your own locks! They’re often not provided, and given the… er… ‘integrity’… of some people that frequent such places, it’s a good idea to secure your valuables. Maybe put a lock on your kidneys too.

3. iPod – It’s hard to believe how normal an iPod has become since it’s initial launch in 2001. It’s essentially an icon of the decade, a symbol of contemporary lifestyle. When travelling, its value increases ten-fold. Transit can be a terribly boring experience, particularly if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck with long, monotonous day travel (save for a scenic trip past the Bavarian Alps or a Lucerne-Interlaken route!) This tiny accessory will carry 8 or 16 gigabytes of your life. A simple rotation of the thumb and press of a button will see to it that an otherwise unbearable nine hour stopover in Singapore will be transformed into a retro ho-down courtesy of ‘The Very Best of Prince’. Face it, music is a large part of our existence, and an iPod will save you carrying a discman, two-hundred CDs and twenty AA batteries. Thank-you Steve Jobs!

2. Digital Camera: Yes, it’s stating the obvious (as are a lot of these), however your trip will be immortalised if you put your camera to good use. I specify digital for obvious reasons (unless you’re a photography enthusiast) – they’re extremely compact; you can review photos instantaneously and delete unwanted photos; it avoids having to worry about the issues with film due to the potential for backups.

1. Diary: Similar to the camera, there will inevitably be some priceless stories that will be soon forgotten. Whether it is a drunken encounter with a Swedish backpacker in Berlin; a jail-term in Brunei for revealing too much skin; or losing a kidney in a Brazilian slum… a lifetime of alcohol abuse will erase such unremarkable memories. A daily entry into your diary could ensure such stories aren’t lost to Alzheimer’s or in the drunken haze that is your life. Furthermore, a quick report on your feelings and emotions in a certain location could trigger that nostalgic longing for a return upon reflecting a few years down the track!

Well there you have it, my top 6 "must packs" before you travel. There are other objects on my list that deserve a mention, but you'll have to figure them out for yourself. Good luck!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bangla Road

Touching on the guilt I spoke of earlier in regards to tourist degradation of local traditions and lifestyle, the guilt peaks upon your first visit to Bangla Road. It’s a sleazy display of the lengths locals will go to in order to exploit the consistently high tourist population, but don’t let the guilt restrain your opportunity for enjoyment! Wallowing about the wrongdoings of our generation will only waste relaxation and… (I feel so mid-90s)… “party” time! The “party” capital of Phuket is Patong, and the “party” capital of Patong is the infamous Bangla Road.

If hundreds of drunken tourists and a disturbingly high concentration of lady-men is your thing, then I’d advise you camp yourself as close to Bangla Road as possible! [tip: without the benefit of experience, I’m willing to bet most are post-op given how convincing most of them are, just a handy tip for those of you who believe in the “what happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand”] Once you can get past the seedy appearance of it all, there is an extremely vibrant atmosphere that is difficult to dislike if there is ‘fun’ somewhere within you. Tens and tens of bars with pole-dancing ‘lady-boys, tourists getting loose and abundance of cheap drinks… what more could you possibly want?

You’re bound to be aggressively hit-on by a lady-boy seeking enough baht to afford chondrolaryngoplasty (the reduction of the ‘adams apple’), but be aware: don’t respond aggressively with your refusal. You’ll find out the hard way that testosterone wasn’t removed with “her” testicles, and there are a large number of Thai pimps hiding in the shadows ready to threaten and throw down! If you can avoid these confrontations, you’ve done well for yourself. Just keep moving to the next bar!

Here’s a tip for the lone traveller in Patong: Ring the bell at any of the bars, you’re bound to make friends pretty quickly! Just remember though, it will cost you 1000 baht (about $35 AUD or $25 USD), but everyone at the bar gets a shot! If you’re lucky, you’ll find a bar with a group of rowdy Australians looking to lighten their pockets (I know because I was in that group, strangely we found our ‘group’ grew pretty quickly).

If you’re really looking for a headache, ask for “the bucket” (a bucket full of vodka and red-bull… somewhat out of proportion). While you’re circling through the congregation of bars, be sure to challenge the bar staff to a game of connect 4 or the ‘hammer and nail’ game. I even came across a 4-year old boy - who was the son of the bar owner and was extremely skilled -challenging (and beating) all of the rowdy tourists till sunrise!

Something to possibly avoid: There are “hidden” nightclubs above some of the bars on Bangla Road. Overall, they’re similar to most mainstream nightclubs anywhere else, including a cover-charge and more expensive drinks, but it’s the fact that it resembles a cross-dressing red-light district crammed into a room that makes it something to avoid… unless that’s your thing. Adding to this notion, there are countless other night spots in Phuket that are just poor attempts to mimic Western nightclubs. The reality is, most people are seeking something a little different, that’s why I think Bangla Road is the place to be!

If you’re looking for an… ahem… ‘experience’, then follow one of the countless local marketing geniuses promoting the ‘peep shows’ all along Bangla Road. Their tactics rarely surpass the “look at this brochure, you like? Now follow me”, but for a first-time visitor, it’s tough to resist curiosity. You’ll sometimes be led down seedy side streets and into a tacky building, then you’ll emerge through a door and be confronted with countless other embarrassed faces of curious tourists, anxiously awaiting the horrors ping-pong balls and small birds (yes, birds) will bring. [Tip: There is no cover-charge for the show, however the drinks are grossly overpriced in the 300 baht vicinity, and you’re obliged to buy one. Do make sure that you have several witnesses when you pay for your drink, as they can try to intimidate you into paying twice!]

Basically, Patong Beach is a fairly chaotic westernized fragment of Thailand that boasts beautiful beaches and a hectic nightlife. If it’s a serious cultural experience that you seek… look elsewhere! If you seek sheer relaxation, perhaps head to Phuket's calmer neighbours to Patong - Karon or Kata Beach, only about 20 minutes away! Otherwise, there are various alternatives in Thailand such as Koh Chang (relatively untouched when compared to Phuket) or Phi Phi Island. But if you're just looking for a bit of fun with loads of beer and cocktails, ignore the recent negativity... go to Patong!

Destination: Patong Beach

I know, I know. It’s basically become a cliché for Westerners to travel to Phuket, so much so that reviews for the area have taken a sudden turn south. Nonetheless, the close proximity to home, comparatively cheap shopping and the image of a tropical paradise is enough to lure Australians in particular all year round. Hence in an attempt to reveal some more specific positives, it will be the subject of my first review.

I guess the foremost criticism of the area is that despite the glaring differences between Thai and Western culture, the effects of globalization and the consequence of the high-profitability of tourism in the region, have seen to it that Phuket is merely a “home away from home”, rather than a cultural experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of the culture to be absorbed, because there certainly are. However, after spending even a few hours in Patong Beach, it becomes somewhat clear that there is a unified purpose amongst the locals to simply serve and please the tourist population.

It probably doesn’t bother them too much, given that their lives are sustained by the continuous influx of foreigners and their heavy wallets, and this has been the case for several decades. But you can’t help but feel guilty for the erosion of their traditional lifestyle, just so that we wouldn’t have to go a couple of weeks without McDonalds or cable TV (we wouldn’t want to miss the footy).

Daytime at Patong generally consists of several trucks patrolling Thaweewong Road (the beach strip) sporting cheesy PA promotions and some old school rock tunes, preparing Patong for the coming night, which is no surprise given the “party” reputation Patong has compared to its more subdued neighbours Kata and Karon. Nonetheless, there are countless activities worthwhile during the day. The beach itself does little to fulfill Phuket’s image of ‘paradise’ despite the crystal clear water and white sand, as it is generally littered with thousands of tourists, and the water littered with jetskiis.

On that note, if water sports are your thing, Phuket is the place to do it! You can hire a 2-seater jetski for around 1200 baht for 40 minutes (which equates to around $45 AUD), a very cheap proposition when compared to prices in Australia! However, be extremely weary: there is no insurance on the skis, and any damage sustained will see you out of pocket by at least 10,000 baht (sometimes up to 60,000, as it turns out, you can even barter for reparations in Thailand, but maybe just bring the credit card for this!). So in other words, be careful! Also, try to stay calm if an accident occurs. Defuse the situation with rational discussion and don’t lose your cool, as this is considered to be very dangerous by the locals! If you’ve been mistreated or threatened, find the ‘Tourist Police’ and let them rectify the situation (yes, such a thing exists!)

If you’re still feeling a little sporty, make your way down to the North end of Thaweewong Road, just next to the Graceland Resort. There is a soccer pitch that is predominately gravel with some undersized goals on it, but you’ll generally see a couple of scratch matches throughout the day, as well as some at night. I mention this because they’re extremely welcoming people and won’t hesitate to let you participate if you wish, however do expect some bruised and bloody feet afterwards, as they play in bare feet, and nationalistic pride dictates that we wouldn’t want them to think we’re soft. And there is some serious talent there, too.

Be sure to visit the various markets in the area. Thaweewong Road is predominately a stream of market stalls, with countless rows of stalls running off perpendicular to the main strip. There is also a large market area a few blocks inland, just south of Bangla Road. The products are fairly limited, and you’ll notice that most of the t-shirts and clothing is the same, but it is good fun hunting and bartering for a bargain. The majority of the stalls sell fake brand-name clothing, handbags, watches, tailored suits [tip: make sure your tailor is close to your hotel, because it will generally require a lot of return visits for alterations]
sunglasses and other little goodies. They’ll always try to insist that the products are legitimate (whether it be the brand-name or ‘real’ leather), but when you question it, you’re sure to be satisfied with the “yes, real fake leather” response. But I’m sure the main attraction for most is the abundance of DVDs.

This is more serious than the peep shows, as you’ll be led down corridors, up stairs, through basements and down ladders just to get to the room with the DVDs, this is to avoid the ‘raids’ on the street. It’s usually worth the trip just for the air-conditioned room, but there are literally thousands of titles to add to your collection. Just make sure you check the quality first, particularly with newer titles. [Tip: Stating the obvious, never pay what they ask for. You can always get the price a lot lower, except in the case of DVDs. 50 baht is the going rate for a DVD, and you won’t find any lower than that unless you buy in huge bulk. If you can, try to make friends with a tailor you use, and they’ll make sure their friends give you the best price on other products].

Eventually you’ll tire of the generic products and incessant calls of “massssaaaaagge?”, “looks like you need a suit” and “are you from Wagga Wagga my man?”, and you’ll force yourself to branch out a little. Either grab yourself a tuk-tuk driver for the day, or hire a scooter / motorbike (for as little as 300 baht for a day). But like the jetskiis, they are uninsured, and the road traffic is an unpredictable, chaotic, nightmare. So again, be careful!

There are activities to cater for all tastes within a reasonable distance of Patong, including go-karts, paintball, motocross, shooting-ranges (where you can shoot anything from a pistol to a sniper rifle) and Phuket Zoo (where you can get a photo with an orangutan, plus an adult tiger and a cub, as well as seeing some incredible elephant, monkey and crocodile shows). Of course a ‘must-do’ is the elephant riding, which is almost a symbol of Thailand. Word is that the elephants must earn a living much the same as a tuk-tuk driver! If they don’t have passengers, they probably won’t be eating that night! So don’t feel like you’re exploiting the animals or being inhumane, because you’re practically donating money to the World Wildlife Fund by riding them.

As the sun begins to set and your mind turns to food, be sure to try the beachside restaurants near Bangla Road. You can score yourself countless bargains with local Thai food for as little as 50 baht for a main (that’s about as cheap as eating a can of tuna for dinner, so put away your credit card, you won't need it here!) These open-air restaurants themselves can often seem very tacky, whether it is the gender-questionable manager or the seemingly diseased dog lying near the entry, but don’t let appearances fool you! The food is fantastic and brilliant value, the staff are extremely friendly and the location is perfect. [Tip: Make friends with the staff by regularly eating there, and they’ll let you bring your own drinks, including beer! Be sure to buy it from family-mart on your way to dinner, you’ll get a Chang long-neck for around 25 baht!] The only downside is the regular appearance of Thai versions of door-to-door salesmen, trying to guilt-trip you into buying useless junk while you’re trying to enjoy your dinner. They're good for a laugh though.

If the mobile propaganda and rooftop feinted sparring grabbed you like it did most, then by this stage of the night you’ll start heading towards Patong Boxing Stadium. Western pop-culture has already climbed aboard the muay-thai bandwagon, with a series of ‘The Contender’ dedicated to it as well as the popularity of movies such as ‘Ong Bak’, and the real-life action doesn’t disappoint! You may cringe at some undercard bouts that often involve young children resembling Ali and Frazier, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. And once the main-events begin, the experience is really something to remember! It’s a brutal combat sport, so do keep that in mind if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing.

Once you’re done, families will recede back to hotels and resorts, and you’ll be ready for a night to remember... that you'll probably forget.

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