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November 29, 2006

Trekking the Burmese Border

Intrepid TrekkersCHANG MAI, THAILAND - Puking out of the back of the truck as we made our way into the mountains wasn't an ideal way to break the ice with our newly formed trekking group, but it worked. Despite waking up early that morning with what seemed to me to be a fatal case of food poisoning, I'd chosen to go along on the trek. It wasn't until several hours later, as I trudged through the jungle, that I started to worry; every attempt to get either food or fluid into my body was violently rejected my stomach. I was growing weak and dehydrating fast, and here I was, hiking further and further from modern medical help.

Upon reaching the small and isolated hill-tribe village, our group was surprised by four villagers. As they rounded the corner it became obvious that they had violence in their eyes. Like a pack of wolves they instinctively set upon the weakest of our group, me, all the while tugging and pulling at any limb that presented itself. The only thing that saved me in the end was that the oldest of the group couldn't have been more than 8 years old. They were children, and even in my weakened state I was able to fend them off, after first posing for photos. Rural children, climbing on foreigners always makes for good photography.

The rest of the villagers were more gentle with us and I was full of hope that some soup broth and a good nights sleep would see the end of my misery. Not so. It seems my illness was the catching kind: All but three of our group spent that night taking turns running for the open doorway of our bamboo hut each noisily leaving a snack for the village dogs and pigs. None of us slept. We shivered our way through that first night but survived to see the light of day.

The rest of the trip was far less miserable for most of our intrepid crew. In fact most of it was fun and exciting. We steered bamboo rafts down jungle rapids, rode elephants, hiked through some gorgeous jungles and got to see some villages and country side we otherwise never could have seen. The fact that we chose to go all the way to the Burmese border meant that we were able to get away from the 'trekking crowds' there were no other tourists on our route, which in Thailand, is a rare thing indeed.

My Thai visa expires tomorrow, so I'll be making a run for the Laos border where I'll spend the next couple weeks exploring the Laotian countryside. It's a mysterious place for me. I know nothing about it other than it's got the distinction of being one of the most bombed countries in history.

November 25, 2006

Chang Mai

CHANG MAI, THAILAND - They tell me that the moat surrounding the city of Chang Mai was built to keep out Burmese and Chinese invaders a very long time ago. Today it keeps nobody out, but does provide a useful reference to keep us from getting lost; A state I typically spend most of my time in. Not that it matters though, as I rarely need to be anywhere.

Either I'm warming up to Thailand, or the cities get better and better as we move North. This town is, thankfully, a far cry from Phuket, our first stop in Thailand. I like each new place more and more. Chang Mai is tops on my list, though we won't be here for long. Tomorrow we We're headed further North, to the Myannmar (Burmese) border for a jungle trek. It's supposed to include some rigorous hiking, some bamboo rafting and even a bit of fording streams by elephant. We'll be spending our nights in indigenous hill tribe villages. I'm very excited about this.

We've chosen this trek, up near the Myanmar border in an effort to get away from the tourist trail. Our guide insists that we won't meet other trekkers. I have my fingers crossed as my experience thus far in Thailand is that the tourist trail is well worn.

November 23, 2006

Bangkok

Meter TaxiBANGKOK, THAILAND - I love Bangkok. I've fallen head over heels into it's trap. Everything here is so inexpensive, I can't afford not to buy it. In the three days we've been here, I've managed to pick up a new Salomon daypack, a beautiful Tag Heuer watch, an ISIC student card(I lost mine when I stopped being a student) and a pefectly good pair of Diesel sneakers; you know, the kind that make one appear cool enough to get into that sort-of-secret after hours club down the shady alley right beside who-knows-where in Bangkok. I even bought a phone: 66 7 685 1278 for all you internationally savy dialers. My entire shopping spree cost me less than $40 USD.

It's all here. Everything. Once you can look past the sleaze it's a spectacular city. Bangkok has all the advantages of a big city, without any of the pesky rules rules of a 1st world metropolis:

Why stop for a red light when there's clearly room to squeeze through? Why travel in a car when a scooter taxi or a tuk-tuk will do? Why not dine at a chic lounge set up at a Shell station after the pumps close? (Reminds me of Nicaragua). Why breath air when Carbon Monoxide and smog is so abundant? In Bangkok anything goes. Anything.

All that's left is for me to find that elusive "I {heart} Bangkok" t-shirt. If I don't find it this time around, I have a feeling I'll be back. This evening though, we're on another all night bus to Chang Mai in the North of Thailand. I look forward to these all night buses. They're almost cheaper than the hotels and they provide a much more comfortable atmosphere to sleep. Seriously.

November 21, 2006

Murky Waters and Even Murkier Dive Companies

BANGKOK, THAILAND - After a stint on an all night bus, we've landed ourselves into what seems to be the middle of everything; the centre of the universe.

It's hard to believe that just yesterday, I was standing on a sandy patch of Ocean more than 30m (100ft) underwater trying to complete simple dexterity tests in order to prove to myself, and the outrageously tattooed Aussie Dive 'Master', that I was indeed suffering the effects of Nitrogen Narcosis.

Except for a vague light above me, we were completely in the dark. Ko Tao is renowned for having some of the best visibility around. However, crystal clear waters weren't on the docket for me that day; recent rain and seasonal currents make the island one of the more ordinary spots to dive during the off-season. Hence the reason they have an off-season in the first place. And part of the reason I signed up for the deep dive rather than the normal 18m (60ft) descent I'm actually qualified to do.

Some of the other divers had some 'trouble equalizing' as we we dove which in my experience is a colloquial used for 'I'm too scared'. They resurfaced along with the other 'experts' on the dive. So in end it was just me and the Dive Master in the murky darkness at the very bottom of a giant pinnacle stretching up to the sky.

I, in my futile attempt to prove to him that I actually could finish the nose-touching sobriety tests I completely ignored him as he focused his attention on something behind me. It wasn't until he eventually pressed his hands above his head in a mock fin; the internationally recognized sign for Shark. I whipped around just in time to see the back end of a large (2.5 - 3m) shark disappear into the inky blackness. I assumed, incorrectly that it was a reef shark; a treat to see on these dives. Brian and I missed our opportunity to see hammerheads while diving in the Galapagos and I was happy to not have been let down.

It wasn't until 30min later as we reached the surface very very slowly in order to avoid all the nasty symptoms and side affects that affect deep divers (like me), and we started talking that I understood how close it came. "This close," he said; showing a gap of no more than 30cm (1ft) with his hands.

Apparently the reef sharks that the divers in Ko Tao see never get bigger than 2m (6ft) long. This shark was bigger than that by at least a metre. I've cruised Wikipedia looking for something that matched what I saw, but I never will amount to anything in the world of identifying species. The Aussie Dive master has spent far too much of his hazy drunken life in the tattoo parlour to be able to identify anything other than the most obvious of Kangaroo's. All the others were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in the boat at the time of the sighting.

I guess I'll never know what species of shark it was. I'd like to assume that it was some sort of man-eating species and I narrowly escaped death. I'll also be lengthening the shark just a little every time I tell the story from here on in. It is after all, just another fish story.

In the end I learned a thing or two about picking and choosing the right dive school. These guys were cowboys. Un-organized and at least a little bit careless. So careless in fact that they forgot to charge me for the dive, I didn't realize until we arrived in Bangkok. In Thailand, where Karma rules, I fear it'll turn out to be an unlucky thing. The few thousand Baht I saved may haunt may not have been worth it. If I really tried, I'm sure I could figure out how to get in touch with them and find a way to pay. It's just that the extra money feels so nice in my pocket. Besides, they nearly killed me.

Note: The lack of photos is due to the fact that I thought I lost my camera again and didn't actually take any pictures of the dive trip. It's not that I'm forgetful, it's just that my hiding spots are sooo good. The island is spectacular though.

November 16, 2006

Same Same...

KO TAO, THAILAND - Same same, but different; it's a classic Thai-English phrase that is used on farang like us several times a day. It's almost always meant as a plea to get us to spend money on accommodation, pirated DVD's, food, or massage parlors. In that context is usually means: 'I'll say whatever you want. You want it to be the same. It is. You want it to be different. It is.'

Whatever it means to Thais, I think it's the perfect phrase to describe all of these islands we've been visiting. Without exception they're all perfect images of paradise, but each one has it's own character and fills it's own niche.

Considering a vacation to Thailand? By now I think I've been to enough islands to recommend the right paradise to fit your profile.

On a two week vacation and are afraid that you'll regret you didn't go to Cancun? Stay in Phuket; fewer sombreros, but other than that you won't notice the difference.

Want to party all night, every night? then sleep until the afternoon? Ko Phan-Ngan is the place to be. Making the 11am check out time is so difficult some people never leave.

Want to SCUBA Dive then eat dinner on the beach as the sun sets into the sea? Or maybe you're just looking for a bit of everything? Ko Tao is the place to be.

If you're looking for authentic Thai culture, ummm... I haven't yet found it. Not that I've been looking. We'll be riding an all night bus North to Bangkok this evening before continuing into the Northeast of the country where I've been promised some Thai-ness.

Ko Pha-Ngan

BucketsKO PHAN-NGAN, THAILAND - So I haven't been giving this site much love lately, this I know. My difficulties are two-fold.

First off, I've been on the road now for 13 months straight and I'm beginning to feel tired. Except for a month long stint in Australia, I haven't stayed in the same place for more than 4 or 5 days at a time in over a year. I've been constantly on the move, constantly spending money, constantly moving, and constantly checking in and checking out. I've just had a lapse in motivation. It'll come back. It has. Promise.

The second reason is that Thailand is so easy to travel and perfectly set up as a vacation destination. You know what they say: 'When in Rome... do what the Romans do.' The difficulty being, a vacation when compared to an adventure is not very interesting to write about. I've been caught up in the beaches and the nightlife, the same way everybody who comes to Thailand gets caught up. I'm now resigned to the fact that Thai leg of my journey will be a vacation.

Ko Phan-Ngan has been my favorite spot yet. The inexpensive buckets they give you to drink (pictured above) might be partly to blame. The legendary nightlife is exactly that. Legendary. Ko Phan-Ngan is famous for it's full moon parties. Sometimes drawing 30,000 to the tiny town of Hat Rin. The next full moon isn't until Dec 6th, so we had to 'make due' with a half-moon party in the jungle. But the beach here goes of every night of the week. Unlike most beaches, the crowds don't appear until long after the sun has gone down. Though, they stay at least until it re-emerges in the morning on the other horizon.

The routine of Ko Phan-Ngan is the same every single day. Wake up sometime after noon. Find a restaurant showing a movie you fancy (they all show movies), then park yourself there until dinner time. Head back to your bungalow, nap, shower, eat some more maybe use the Internet, then get down to the beach for midnight. Go to bed at 9am or later then repeat.

I'm looking to escape to Ko Tao (the next island in the chain) ASAP.


November 11, 2006

Koh Samui

Sunset over Koh PangnangKOH SAMUI, THAILAND - Well it took more than a week, all our effort was eventually met with success. In our intrepid search past the Starbucks, tourist markets and go-go dancers we finally stumbled upon the Thailand that people so passionately tell me about. Bungalows on the beach, with only the odd hammock supported by palm trees to block the perfect view of the sun dipping into Gulf of Thailand.

We have had some adventure along the way and two full days of travel to get here. There was the tuk-tuk driver who despite being far too drunk off cheap whiskey, managed to escort us through the impossible traffic of Surat Thani unharmed. In addition to the fare, he managed to get his fingers into Pete's day bag and drove off with a new MP3 player. (Mom: We realized too late that the driver was drunk. I know the rules, it's just that jumping from a speeding tuk-tuk was out of the question)

We've managed to fall in with a group of 8 or 10 Europeans for the time being who share our beach. When we're not exploring the island on scooters, we read on the beach, swing in a hammock, eat in the little restaurant on site or socialize with the young Thai family who run the place. By night we generally migrate to Chaweng, the bustling tourist ghetto for the spectacle of Thai night life.

There will be plenty of beach in my the foreseeable future as we hop from island to island, working our way North; which begs the question, am I on an expedition or vacation?

Maenam Beach At Night

Maenam Beach By Night
KOH SAMUI, THAILAND - I've just discovered the 'long shutter' setting on my camera. This one was taken just outside my cabin.

November 06, 2006

Crazy Phuket

IMG_0702[1]PHUKET, THAILAND - I picked Phuket as our first destination in Thailand for two reasons; it was close and I'd heard of it. I'd had this vision that Thailand was full of secluded and laid back beaches. I had visions of clear water and hammocks dancing through my dreams.

If you've ever been to Phuket, you can imagine my shock as we arrived late last Friday night. The last 3 days have been reminiscent of our time in Cabo San Lucas; way back in Mexico.

The recent coup, combined with the lingering effects of the Tsunami have made the street hawkers and touts desperate to sell you everything and anything; A stark contrast to the laid back Malaysians. There's even a Tsunami: Wave of Destruction the DVD it out in force on the streets, though I'm sure they've pirated it from themselves.

We've stayed long enough to get the obligatory Phi Phi Island photos and are ready to move on (I'll upload them when I get a chance).

These quiet, relaxed beaches that everybody keeps talking about must be out there somewhere. Tomorrow we set off to find them.