Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scuba-ing Koh Tao

Life has been speeding along in the past few days. Becky and I left Koh Phangan on Saturday, making it to to the port at Thongsala - a very bumpy ride inland - and then by boat to Koh Tao.

Luckily we already had in our minds a scuba resort to stay at as there are over 40 dive shops on this tiny island - and most of them bombard you at the port.

We were whisked up the shore to Sairee village and to Big Blue resort where we signed up to scuba courses. Becky wanted to do the Open Water course (four dives and certifies you to dive to 18m) and then the Advanced course, while I was unsure if scuba really was me.

So I signed up for a trial with the option of extending to the full Open Water and we were introduced to our instructor, Scobby - an Australian with bags of enthusiasm.

We settled into our room - a 200B a night room with rather thin walls but it did the trick and wandered around Sairee village and beach. The dive shop is right on the beach and the restaurant, like many bars and cafes here, are along the shoreline. The beach is long and quite narrow but palm-fringed and very pretty.

The days here have been quite cloudy and windy but this has only affected where the boat will take us diving. Luckily we have had more to occupy us than sunbathing - namely diving and the theory and homework that goes with it.

Luckily I loved diving. We went out to a shallow but stunning dive site called Japanese Gardens on the first day to learn the skills and as we picked the up quickly, sneaked in our first dive.

In subsequent days we have been running around the island on the boat looking for calmer waters and good visibility where we can dive to 12m, 15m or down to 18m.

Some of the coral has been amazing and we have seen fantastic giant clams, angel fish, trigger fish and all kinds of marine life. It has been truly spectacular to be in this submerged and underwater world seeing such vivid colours and floating along weightlessly.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was our last day of the course and we were to dive to a maximum of 18 metres. You can dive to certain depths depending on how much air you have in your tank, the interval between dives, how long you stay down and so on for safety reasons. On our first dive we actually went to 24m ( we are only licensed to go to 18m) and on the second to about 21m for half an hour because we found a hawsbill turtle. Officially that breaks the rules of safety by the SSI tables but our instructor has a more accurate computer which ensured it was safe - if a little too advanced for us!

But Becky and I had been hoping to see a turtle all week and earlier Matt, who had been diving with us on previous occasions, had seen a small turtle. So we were amazed and delighted to descend and see this huge, powerful hawksbill which was about 1m diameter.

Watching him, we kicked up a bit of silt and scared him off but we managed to give chase and find him again, watching him munch away and got really close to him. Fantastic creature.

I had a really lovely evening chilling on the beach. There are a few bars with mats on the sand and candles and lanterns in the trees and sand. I met up with some of the divers and chatted the night away.

Unfortunately, this led to another rift with Becky who claims to have been concerned about my whereabouts after she went back to the room at 8pm. I have never been shouted at so rudely, and I felt enough was enough.

Today was my rest day, so I paid up at Big Blue resort and moved to a bungalow at Siam Scuba - more expensive but much nicer and with my own balcony, big bed and clean bathroom. It was a good deal.

So I spent today chilling on the beach, reading, catching up with other divers at Big Blue and having fun.

Just eaten very greasy Thai meal and feel a little bloated and sick but will have a cocktail now to sort that and then head to bed. Tomorrow I have to meet the dive team (the advanced course divers) at 6.45am to head out to Chumpon Pinnacle. I decided I wanted to do a deep dive to 30m which is part of the advanced course.

This is because there are sharks at Chumpon and if you go down that far they are actually swimming around you instead of below. Also, in Australia some of the best sites are at 30m depth and its better and cheaper to dive here.

So then, on to Cambodia. Not sure when leaving here for definate but maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday. I am loathe to leave this beach idyll where there is little to do but lie in the sun, read, drink, eat and dive.

Friday, September 22, 2006

thailand under the skin

It has just hit me that in a few weeks, I am to leave Thailand. In less than three weeks in fact.

Somehow this country has got under my skin. I'm juts not quite ready to leave yet - there is still so much to see and do.

The beaches feel a little unreal. There is wealth here, too many farangs, too much western food and not enough markets and street vendors for my liking. Everything is expensive - the Thai people used to foreigners fresh off the planes and boats and willing to pay what would be a small fortune in Isaan or the north for food, water and everyday items.

But in Thailand everything is so fresh. I will miss the fresh-faced smiles, the cunning and knowing glances of the tuk tuk drivers, the unbelievably sweet mango and pineapple, the real taste of a banana. The prickly red rambutan with their delicious white flesh and the smell of phad thai from a street stall.

The abundance of food choices from the fiery som tam (papaya salad), which even mai phet (not spicy) can still blow your head off, the sticky rice and grilled chicken, the chicken with cashew nuts, fried rice, chicken with sweet basil and chilli... the numerous noodle variations and rice bowls. I didn't eat much rice before I come here and now I get withdrawal symptoms if it has been too long since I ate it.

The scenery has been stunning every step of the way, from the bustling filth of Bangkok to the lushcious green rice fields, the mountains of the north with the colourfully-clad tribespeople and the soft curves of white sand on the beaches of the south. There is much more to explore. More people to meet. More sangsom to drink while listening to Thai pop.

While I don't want to stay here forever, I cannot feel anything but sorrow on leaving these shores. They have a wonderful way of life. Thai people, dare I say it, are pretty lazy. Some work all the hours Buddha sends. Many more take the easy route always - picking up one or two expensive taxi fares rather than taking several cheaper fares from tourists or Thai's in the know.

That is why prostitution is seen not as a bad life - you can earn more in one hour klying on your back than in a week for some of these girls. And they reason they are only doing what they would be with violent and abusive husbands anyway. Sex tourism is a complicated mish mash of western guilt and curiousity, shame and pride.

For Buddists, giving up the body is far less of a sin that prosituting your mind as they believe we do in the west - working for companies we hate, pushing away our morals for the sake of money. While still a sin, it is possible to earn merit to cleanse or balance out that sin. It could, for example, pay for your sister's university education, a new home in your parents village, new water buffalo to breed instead of earning money through a hard-won rice harvest. It is a complicated situation for westerners to understand. They don't want pity.

Thai people are very proud. They can sleep at any given time whether on a speed boat, bumpy train, smelly bus... They create fantastic food and believe in having fun even while working hard in the fields. They love their hard-working King with a passion and many are devout Buddhists - a religion I find worthy, honest and workable.

With the sun shining down on this stunning beach at Thong Nai Pan Noi, it is hard to want to board a plane to Australia, let alone home. I know why people stay on here. The laid-back way of life is so appealing and so different to our busy busy schedules.

Right now the sun is struggling and the waves are too high to take the proposed snorkelling trip to Bottle Beach and beyond. But while there are books to read, delicious food to munch and cocktails to sip, why would that matter?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

beach party and military coup

Well it has been an interesting few days. Was partying hard on Haad Rin Sunrise Beach (the full moon party beach) last night when Mum texted to tell the news about the coup.

Soon we were all getting texts and info. Some people were freaking out about how to get home, a Canadian girl seemed to think the army would be rolling into Koh Phangan and all were wondering what this means for tourists.

Boats stopped running between the islands because of it, but news is very slow to filter down here - the Bangkok Post is always delivered late in the evening.

My journo nouse is telling me to get up to Bangkok but by the time I manage the 12 hour trip, I wonder if it will all have petered out somewhat.

Becky and I left Samui's Mae Nam beach on Tuesday lunchtime and took a local ferry to Haad Rin beach. We found a cell near the beach for the night and spent the afternoon on the cloudy but pretty beach.

We had decided this would be our party night - it is the Full Moon party beach after all - so got stuck into some Sangsom and visited a few bars for cocktails.

Then we went down to Cactus Bar on the beach and sat on the mats on the sand and met a Canadian guy Mark and a big group of people. Becky threw a bit of a strop and left at about 11pm but I stayed with the group and then Canadian girl Amber and I got chatting to some Brit guys, Cian, Scott and Joe and stuck with them and another girl Daisy who rocked up.

The were all travelling solo and had met up so it was really nice for us all to get together. We went up to the Mellow Mountain Bar and then headed back to Cactus Bar where everyone was dancing on the beach. It is hard to imagine such a small, pretty bay holding 10,000 people on Full Moon nights. The pitures show a lot of rubbish and very spaced out people!

According to old timers, Haad Rin has changed dramatically even in the last two or three years, with more developments and Samui-style bars.

I was glad to be going somewhere quieter, and this morning Becky and I took the local boat up the coast to Thong Nai Pen Noi. It is an idyllic beach and much less crowded and built up although everything is pretty expensive - including this internet - so apologies for lack of emails to everyone.

We plan to stay here for at least three nights and then we may party company for a bit. We have a bungalow on the mountainside - very pretty but bit pricey so we shall see how long we stay. For now, a bit of rest and relaxation are in order. Lets just hope the sun starts shining properly tomorrow...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Island life

Had a brief spell in Sukhothai last week being very cultural before becoming a beach bum. The historic park there has ruins of dozens of old temples around a large area of World Heritage protected land - many with huge Buddha statues.

The town of new Sukhothai is very uninspiring but I had expected to spend a good while looking at these impressive ruins. A good four hours peddling around the main sites and some lesser ones on a hired bike soon had me worn out. There's only so many temples a girl needs to see.

The most impressive was Wat Si Chedi, a huge Buddha statue which peeps out through a small opening in the temple wall.

Just cycling around, there were small Khmer temples ruined by the roadside, red brick glinting in the sunlight and peeping out behind trees. Some had to be climbed to on top of hillsides and all had the dramatic backdrop of the mountains behind.

During the afternoon I wandered new Sukhothai, went for a massage and explored the food market before meeting up with a Canadian - Jim - who I had met on the bus down - for a drink. We were joined by a crazy Aussie, Hamilton, a playwrite and soon to be screenplay writer.

The next morning I got the earliest bus to Bangkok which took seven hours and then spent two hours in traffic on a local bus getting to Khao San area. Did a bit of shopping and got a nice room with real sheets and a TV before heading out for sustenance.

Met a couple of African guys and went for few beers with them before heading to bed - had to be up early to go to the weekend market.

Plenty to see and buy there - budget and bag restrictions kept me from too much temptation but I spent the afternoon searching for new jeans (unsuccessfully) around town.

Then I contacted Becky as we had booked the night train together and we met for some food and a chat and sorted things out somewhat.

We had top bunks in the second class air con section, which were made up pretty early. We sat and giggled at the nosy old Thai women on the bunks below for a while before beding down for the night. No soothing rhythm of the train to lull me to sleep however. Squealing brakes, juddering movement and constant stops throughout the night saw a poor amount of sleep.

When we rolled into Surat Thani station at 6.30am I was rather worse for wear. We were conned slightly over our transfer to Samui, but made it to the island by midday.

We plumped for Mae Nam beach - a quieter strip of golden sand fringed with palms than the hedonistic resorts the island can offer. Also still has budget bungalows and we secured on right on the beach front for 400B a night for the two of us.

We spent the afternoon sunning ourselves and exploring the beach before heading out to eat at a restaurant beachside and lit by candles. Like the classy girls we are, we went to 7/11 for chocolate and a couple of wine coolers each to enjoy on our balcony before an earlyish bedtime.

This morning (Monday) we took a boat trip to Ang Thong National Marine Park - protected islands off the Samui trio. We went by speed boat on a bumpy 45 minute ride.

We had a good day, snorkelling around some amazing coral, rocks, sea snakes and colourful fish, climbing to see an Emerald inland lake, and then up to a view point on another island. This was more of a rock climb and abseil down as we had to use a rope to pull ourselves up the steep climb - but it was worth it for the view.

The other 15 or so people on our boat were kayaking so we had the climb pretty much to ourselves which was how we wanted it. For the cost we were disappointed by the food (terrible) and the herding from one part to the other followed by another four or five boat loads everytime.

But the scenery was undeniably stunning, depsite the cloudiness of the day. The sea is punctuated by huge rock islands covered in trees and hiding shimmering crescents of soft white sand. It should have been paradise, but we only felt that when sat high above everyone else at the viewpoint. Even then, we were disturbed to see cigarette butts and the odd water bottle.

Tomorrow we head for quieter Koh Phangnan - although we will be heading to the main partying beach - but just for one night. We then intend to go to quieter beaches up north before heading to Koh Tao and indulging in some scuba diving... this is the life

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pai again

Must firstly apologise for last blog - electricity got shut off while writing it and couldn't be bothered to retype the rest of it!

So, where was I? ah yes, saying goodbye to Pai. Well had a cracking and very late night on Monday night and it was really the perfect way to say goodbye.

Needless to say the hangover the following day was pretty atrocious but I managed to crawl out of bed and pack. However, sat at Mio's eating lunch I was persuaded to stay another night, get through the hangover by swimming at the waterfall and recover for the three hour windy bus trip to Chiang Mai.

So off we toddled, Rachel, Gemma, Rick, Mem, Lek and I to swim. The water was far faster than the previous week so when I decided to demonstrate the water slide to the girls, I got banged into the rocks - not so much fun!

The night was much quieter - early to bed for the trip to Chiang Mai.

I met Becky in Chiang Mai and stayed at her guesthouse with her. We checked out the night market and were shocked by the inflated prices but entranced by the jewellery, fake goods, pretty lanterns, wooden vases and colourful clothes.

We met up with Matt, the friend I made in Laos, and he took us for dinner at an Irish pub - full of expats but airconditioned and with such delights on offer as Irish stew. I had a massive combination grill... very good.

The following day, Becky and I went to the temple on the mountain Doi Sutheap which took a lot of negotiation price wise with the taxi drivers. After a while we managed to get a fair price and drove up the mountain to see the views over Chiang Mai.

It was packed at the temple, mostly with Thai people, as it was some religious day. The wat itself was stunning with a huge gold stupa in the centre. All around the shrines, people had placed buckets full of gifts for the monks and made trees with 100 baht notes attached to the branches. It is quite sickening to see the wealth of the temple sometimes compared to the poverty of the people. Even in the poorest villages there are very grand temples as the people want to gain enough merit in this life not to be reincarnated.

We had lunch at a cafe and then went back to the city. Our taxi driver, Mr Lop, took it upon himself to help me find somewhere to fix my camera. The Sony Centre was a good 20km out of town so he took me to a big store which agreed to try and fix it for no more than 1,200 baht (about 16 quid).

Later, I wandered around near our guesthouse (near Tapae Gate) and to the nightmarket and then we had dinner in one of the side streets - sticky rice and barbecue chicken, the Northen fayre.

The following day we decided to go to Chiang Mai zoo. It was baking hot in land-locked Chiange Mai so we got up early. It was virtually deserted. The zoo is very big and set out over a wide part of the mountain. You can get a bus around but we decided to walk. It was quite amzing because you could get up so close to leopards, jaguars, panthers, tigers - even the lions were seperated from us by just a (very deep) ditch.

That evening, Rachel and Madeline, two volunteers from Pai, came to meet us and we went for dinner with Matt. Matt and I decided it was only right to get quite drunk as it was a Friday night and ended up at Horizon nightclub - dancing and singing to a bizarre but fun array of Thai and western music.

The next day Becky left for Pai and Matt suprised me with a birthday present of a night in a decent hotel. He paid for me to have a room at the Dungtawan hotel - a posh place with a pool and so on and they upgraded me because it was my birthday. I was on the 20th floor and had the softest beds, a tv, bath and shower etc... it's funny how the little things seem like luxury!

I suddenly decided I was over travelling and just wanted nice clothes and nice hotels.

We then went to a shopping mall in search of hair conditioner (me) and stuff for the new condo (him) and I attempted to buy some jeans but failed. Madeline, Matt and I went for dinner and then I turned in early to enjoy some TV and a hot bath in luxury.

Madeline and I spent the next day sightseeing. We went to a few temples, including the ruined Wat Chedi Luang, where we were interviewed by two young monks for their English degrees.

My camera had been fixed by this time - I actually told the sales woman I loved her for fixing it. My budget would've taken a serious hounding to buy a new camera!

We then caught a very slow minibus back to Pai and went for dinner at Mio's with all the volunteers.

The following day, Monday, yesterday, was my birthday. Gemma, her boyfriend Will, Madeline, Becky and I went for breakfast at Mio's and I opened the lovely presents that had been sent out to me.

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time and trouble to send cards and presents. I had a top from my mother, a hilarious Edward Monkton chocolate book from my sisters (The Lady and the chocolate) in which eating the chocolate is her destiny, a very short mini skirt, several pretty tops and a gorgeous cardy from them and a top from my ma and pa, chocolate and magazines from Annabel, some balloons and a banner from Craig, and so on.

Becky, Will, Madeline and I then did the best thing ever. We went elephant riding! Becky and I were on a 42-year-old elephant called Kamnoi. We trekked up a mountain and through the jungle and back down again for an hour. We were sat on a rug on its hairy back, clinging to a rope everytime we went down a steep bit or she decided to take some lunch from the bushes or fields.

The guide sat on her head and directed her with grunts and spoke Thai to her, urging her on with a few taps or digs behind the ears.

We then rode down to the river and waded through the muddy waters. The elephants squirted us with water and then rolled over on command, throwing us off their backs gently time and time again. The ele's were clearly well-loved and enjoyed cooling off in the water and playing with us.

After showering off, I read for a bit, spoke to my sisters, and then went for a shake with everyone at Mio's before going home to get changed. I decided to fashion a top out of a length of silk I had bought. It was pretty successful but I pinned it to my trousers which proved to be a problem every time I needed the toilet!

We went to Na's Kitchen for dinner - they do fantastic Thai food but it takes ages to be served.

Like last week, we went to Mem's cocktails truck, Charnon's bar and Beebop. Gemma and Will bought me strong cocktails and Rick gave me Sangsom whisky. Then Mem brought out this massive chocolate cake. It was coated in thick chocolate with swirls and slabs of white chocolate, cream and cherries on top. They even put candles on it.

Then Mio brought out a cake she had made. It was three of her thick, cake-like pancakes - rasin, choc chip and chocolate - piled on top of each other, covered in chocolate sauces, biscuits, choc chips and so on.

So we had a merry time singing, taking pictures of the cakes and then tucking in to large slabs of both. I was decked out in balloons and banners and even cycled to Charnon's bar with them over my raincoat. Once inside, they impeded my dancing somewhat.

At Charnon's bar, Eek made me a powerful and frankly lethal cocktail with different rums in it. God knows what else. It was green. We danced and sang and went to Beebop, where the band playing sang happy birthday to me. Everyone joined in.

The night was going well until a 'friend' of mine flirted heavily with Lek, the guy I had been pulling. He didn't seem to mind in the slightest so the night went downhill pretty quickly.

Shame as I was supposed to be travelling with her for next three weeks but not sure I want to now.

Anyway, now recovering from hangover. Just had lunch with Mio and all the volunteers and thought had better reply to all of you who have emailed and been checking out the blog.

Next stop is possible Sukhothai, though flooded, so may head to Bangkok and Ayuthya instead. WIll update again soon!

Friday, September 08, 2006

farewell to Pai - twice

Tuesday was due to be my last day in Pai. I was to take a minibus to Chiang Mai and spend a few days here. So naturally, we decided to celebrate my departure on Monday night.

We had Thai cooking class (fried rice) and Gemma and I bought a bottle of red wine - a bit of an extravagance out here - ready for the evening.

Fran, a volunteer who had been in Nong Khai and a new arrival, Madeline, Rachele, Gemma and I decided to go and see Mem, the Thai coordinator, in her new venture. Her uncle has a little truck which he has converted into a cocktail bar and this was parked in the bus station, decked out in fairy lights and serving to the hordes - ie us and Rick.

We ploughed our way through the long list and then decided to go to see our friend Eek who runs Charnons bar. By this time we had been joined by Mem's brother Lek, a rather hot Thai guy.

Gemma and I, having sampled rather a lot of cocktails after our wine, persuaded Eek to put on some dancing music and we led the whole bar in some rousing dance moves. Soon all the Thai people were up and grooving with us.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

mountains and mountains of fun

Well I survived a two day trek - just about.

Gemma and I signed up to a company called Back Trax on Friday with two Dutch girls we had met at Meo's restaurant. We prepared ourselves for the worst after several bad days of rain.

But Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny and very very hot. We were left wondering if trekking would still be a problem - but because of the heat not the rain.

But by the time we arrived at the villages near Soppong (about an hour drive from Pai), it was cloudy and less humid.

Our guides were Nan and Prucha who both spoke good English. Prucha is from a Karen hilltribe village and Nan had a wealth of knowledge about the three different tribes we were to visit - Karen, Lahu and Lisu.

The trek started off with a punishing uphill climb up a dirt track between corn fields, rice fields and soy bean crops.

I was beginning to think it had not been such a good idea but one look at Gemma, Annouke and Isis's faces showed they too were feeling the strain.

We stopped at the top of the mountain at a Lahu village and sat in the school playground to recoup for a few minutes. Then it was off again down a steep, slippery path through a corn field and down into the forest. Here, it was much cooler under the shade of the trees and very pretty as the path followed a stream with little waterfalls.

We crisscrossed over the stream, using stones to jump across or being handled over makeshift bridges (logs) by the guides.

We stopped for a quick break and had a snack of sticky rice with custard (amazing) and then it was a steep uphill climb for about forty five minutes to the top. There we rested and had lunch of fried rice and fried egg which prucha had been carrying in a basket on his back, along with bananas. It was greasy but so so good.

Shortly after, we continued our walk, passing through a Karen village and then on through woods - where it started to rain.

This was monsoon style rain which no amount of tree cover could protect us from. Even with our rain jackets on, we were drenched.

We slipped and slided our way towards the Lahu village which would be our resting place for the night, gritting our teeth and praying the sun came out to dry us off.

Eventually the rain eased off and about an hour after the first drops of rain, we arrived at the village. We washed our mud cake shoes in a stream and laid our sodden clothing out to dry as the sun made an effort to shine.

Everything in our backpacks was drenched. We felt pretty miserable until tea and biscuits materialised...

We sat and chatted and tried to get warm and dry while they cooked us dinner.

The village was made up of just three families who remain here to look after their animals. They have cows and buffalo nearby and also crops. Most families grow just enough rice and corn to feed their family and animals for the year. Because they harvest just once a year, it means they have to calculate how much they will need when planting.

Most villagers move around frequently because rice can only be grown in the same spot for three years and must have four years to breathe but the Thai government are now saying villagers should stay put.

The family we were staying with also had chickens and pigs - which they mostly use as currency and only occasionally eat. They are Lahu people and are animists - believing everything has a spirit.

The hut was quite large and raised on stilts. Underneath, the pigs and chickens live with the stray dogs which they keep around for hunting. The hut was split in three with a room off to the right, an open communal space in the centre and a large room to the left, which serves as a kitchen and bedroom and indoor communal space.

They have a concrete block in this room with a fire laid above it. Our beds were four mats with two flea-infested rough blankets. Thank goodness I had brought my sheet!

The hut was made from bamboo with palm leaf roof. At night, you could hear the pigs squealing loudly, the dogs fighting and cockerels crowing. Not the most peaceful night ever.

Dinner was pork (poor piggies below) with a variety of vegetables and different sauces and rice. We sat and chatted again and when it grew dark, went inside to sit with candles while Prucha showed us some magic tricks, logic puzzles and we drank beer. It was then early to bed for us - only for us to be frequently woken by animal sounds, scurrying footsteps of rats perhaps and the fear, for me anyway, of spiders.

We woke early as the owners get up to feed the animals and head out to the fields around 6am. We dozed for a few hours and then had breakfast of pancakes with bananas followed by mashed potato with garlic and onion.

We set off again with wet shoes and damp clothes but we relieved to see it was dry and warm - this meant we could cross the river and go to a waterfall rather than taking a similar route to the one we walked on Saturday.

At some point during the morning I pulled a muscle in my thigh - a slight twinge at first - it was aching by the end of the day.

We walked for about an hour to the waterfall and jumped in and swam for a while - good after a lack of shower and the smells of the previous day's walking!

We then had to cross the river over a very large and very high log - half way across I lost my bottle slightly - it was a very high log! Prucha had to come and rescue me.

The walk took us through very different scenery - forests with huge-leaved trees, along paths next to rivers (I fell in at the end of the day - whoops!), next to lush green rice fields, up rocky mountain paths and down winding dirt tracks. We pushed our way through brambles and wandered through sweetcorn fields where the crops were 10 feet high.

We were very lucky with the weather - it was cloudy enough to not be too hot but the pace was pretty relentless. Afterwards they said we were good, fast walkers - but we thought we had to go at that pace!

As we walked along by the river on the last stretch of the walk, the sun came out as if to reward us for our hard effort! We were muddy, sore and, in my case, limping and sopping wet, but we had a brilliant time getting that way.