Sunday, March 16, 2014

Navimag & the Patagonian Fjords

One of the well-known routes through Patagonia is the Navimag Ferries, and indeed, after trekking through Patagonian mountainscapes, why not cruise through Patagonian fjords?

The Navimag ferries though, are not actually tourist passenger ferries. They were originally used for transportation of cattle and goods (and still is), and someone had a brilliant idea to capitalize on the demand from tourists to not just travel through the channels and fjords of Chile, but sightsee at the same time. There are two main routes : Puerto Montt - Puerto Chacabuco and Puerto Montt - Puerto Natales, gateway to the famed Torres del Paine National Park. I took the reverse route from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt.

It was an interesting experience. As noted, this is not a usual cruise ship. The embarkation reminded me of an entry into a maximum security prison as we were bunched together, waiting for the huge cargo lift to bring us onto the cabin level. On the ship also, were of course the cattle, and I have to say, it's not everyday that you can have a view of glaciers and caged cattle all in the same scene. There had been complaints about the quality of the food onboard but I find it really quite exceptable. Yes, there were some meals that were pretty bland, but some were good. My main complaint is the lousy instant coffee. Also, different ships were used for the different routes (to-and-fro), so conditions of the food and rooms may be different!

Tourists waiting to go up to their cabins

Views of glaciers and cattle cargo hold

The scenery on the way was great of course, but weather plays a really important part. My 4D3N journey was rainy and misty almost all the way, which somewhat made the whole experience less than ideal. Still views of glaciers are always great! It has to be noted that the journey passes through the Gulf of Penas, an area open to the elements of the Pacific Ocean. Having weathered a total of 4 days through the Drake Passage to Antarctica, I embraced the entry into the gulf with smug confidence. That smugness was emphatically purged out of me as I joined the many who staggered to the toilet in retched misery. It was my first seasickness experience. Luckily it was only 10-12 hrs of passage, and for those on the northward route, most of it is through the night.

Detailed information on the Navimag ferries can be found on their website, and most guidebooks too. From 2-bedded cabins to 22-bed dorms (yes, tourists are part of the cattle!), I think it's a "cruise" like no other!

Puerto Eden, one of the coastal villages that the Navimag makes a stop
Misty and rainy weather for almost the whole part of my trip

Beautiful dawn light at my destination - Puerto Montt

Monday, March 10, 2014

Mai Kaew Cave, Koh Lanta Thailand

Koh Lanta is one of many islands off the the Andaman coast of Krabi Thailand. Not as popular or famous as islands like Koh Phi Phi and the like, it is exactly this point that brings out its charm. Oozing loads of laidback chill-out atmosphere and less busy with tourists, it still has its beaches to draw attention - in fact, no less than nine of them.

Formally known as Koh Lanta Yai, it is a longish island with its nine beaches spread over its western coast. I certainly did not go to all of them, and just based myself somewhere in the middle of the island. Not all the beaches are the sandy type though, with a number of them being the rocky kind. What I did find on the beaches though, are an amazing array of different sea-shells - much more variety than the beaches in Ao Nang and elsewhere.

My most interesting visit on Koh Lanta though, is a visit to Mai Kaew cave. While I had several cave visits around the world before, this was somewhat unique. The visit had to be accompanied by a guide, and you would be supplied with a headlamp. After half an hour of an uphill hike, you would be brought to the cave entrance. What follows would be a totally raw experience - the cave is visited as is. There are no lights installed, no planks/boardwalks, no handrails, and well, no safety. You have to clamor through holes, and on occasion, crawl on all fours. Any "sightseeing" is done based purely on the light of the headlamps in your group (I only had two others in my group). In the limited light, you can see the usual stalactites and stalagmites, big caverns, cave spiders and bats. All in all, it was still an interesting experience!

Start of the adventure!
Interesting formations on the cave walls
Going down down down....
Bats clinging to the cave walls

Of course, like the other islands, Koh Lanta also has the usual activities such as diving, longboat rides etc. As the ferry pier is situated at the town of Ban Saladan at the northern tip of the island, the beaches get quieter the further south you go!

Koh Lanta can be reached by ferries or car/minivans. The ferries ply the Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, Koh Lanta route and the minivan shuttles between Krabi town and Koh Lanta. And of course, there's the private cars/taxis. I flew in to Krabi airport in the afternoon, and there is only one ferry in the morning from Ao Nang to Koh Lanta, so I took the minivan shuttle to Koh Lanta and took the ferry back to Ao Nang. One advantage of this route is that the minivans bring you direct to your accommodation while the ferry lands you at Ban Saladan port and you would have to negotiate your way to your accommodation.

With budget carriers flying into Krabi, check out Koh Lanta one of these days!

Sunsets are good in Krabi!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Traveling on the Nam Ou, Laos

The Nam Ou is one of the tributaries of the mighty Mekong, and is an important river in Laos as a means of transportation. For travelers going northward from Luang Prabang, a boat trip is certainly one option that should be experienced.

The guidebooks would tell you about the "fast boats" and the "slow boats". Circumstances had led me to try out both. Note that as the road infrastructure in Laos slowly improves, the frequency of these boat departures will be based on demand, and sometimes you may not get a departure for that day. I managed to take the slow boat from Muang Ngoi to Muang Khua after waiting for a couple of hours. The slow boat is generally comfortable enough, although for people with long legs, it does get strained after 5-6 hours of travel.

From Muang Khua to Hat Sa, I was not so fortunate. There was no slow boat going upriver. It would also be another 5-6 hour ride anyway. I contemplated waiting another day or just go by the road route, until the locals start filling up the "fast boat". In a moment of eagerness to reach Hat Sa, I somehow went with them, throwing all the guidebooks' warning about the dangers of the speedboat trips into the wind.

The good(?) news was that the 5-6 hours journey was reduced to a 2+ hours journey. The bad news was that the above video was a somewhat 'calmer' part where I could utilise my camera with 1-hand. In most cases, I was just hanging on for my dear life in that narrow space. I was also concerned for my luggage that was stowed below that blue tarp at the front. It was one of those travel experience that you would probably want to try once only.

Traveling on the Nam Ou would probably be less busy than the Mekong, and its something one would probably do in Laos. For eg, one would probably visit the Pak Ou caves via the Nam Ou. But for the adventurous, do the Luang Prabang to Phongsaly journey on the Nam Ou!!