|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
The Lebanese playboy arrives!
Thailand, Country 19 (of 21 so far), Diary entry 26th May-6th June 2006, Total distance in Thailand: 4226km+2665km
Still staying on the umpteenth floor of the luxury Baiyoke Sky hotel with my parents in Bangkok, my friend and colleague from Purple Labs in France Charbel arrived early in the morning and took a taxi to the hotel to meet us. We all had breakfast together and then he and I got in the car, waved goodbye to the parents and moved to the significantly cheaper Royal Hotel now that I had to start paying my own way again - a big thank you to them for looking after me for just over three weeks! (oh and the first 20-something years of my life too I suppose)
Our new hotel was ideally located between the Banglamphu district and the Grand Palace, and having lots to catch up on and a slightly, but not too badly, jetlagged Charbel we didn't plan to do much, we just spent the day wandering aimlessly round the Banglamphu area - the Khao San Road, the river etc. There's nothing too remarkable to see round there but it's a whole new city on a whole new continent for Charbel so a nice sights, sounds and smells experience. I was happy to do something not too energetic too because it was so hot I just felt completely drained. After a quick afternoon siesta we headed out to see the nightlife on the Khao San Road, "backpacker central" for all of Southeast Asia pretty much. The whole street comes alive at night with more street markets, more fake designer goods, good cheap street food and plenty of lively bars. We sampled a few of these bars with Charbel testing the selection of Thai beers, except Chang obviously, which is nasty. We ended up at a bar with a surprisingly high proportion of the clientele being Thais (and I don't mean working girls), had a bit of a dance and before long we were each ready to leave.
The next day we went to the City Pillar, which is a large pillar sticking out of the ground with a temple around it. Actually there are two large pillars and I wasn't sure which was the proper one and which was the bonus, but anyway there were lots of people praying to them and the scene was very colourful but even with the aid of the guidebook we were at a bit of a loss as to its significance.
Onwards to the most major of Bangkok's tourist sites - the Grand Palace. Despite having been there only a few days before with my parents I was happy to go a second time as it is such a stunning site, and Charbel was equally blown away. From there we headed towards Wat Pho running the gauntlet of tuk-tuk drivers and helpful local gentlemen telling us that Wat Pho was closed but that they could suggest other places we could go instead. To our great non-surprise Wat Pho was indeed open when we got there and we went inside.
Wat Pho is most famous for its enormous golden reclining Buddha. Despite having seen probably close to a million Buddhas by now, I found this one still very impressive and well worth a visit. The statue is 46m long and is housed in a temple building only just large enough to it, making the statue look even bigger than it actually is. Particularly interesting are the soles of the feet which are decorated with intricate mother of pearl inlays. No matter that it is considered incredibly rude in Thailand to point the soles of one's feet at someone and here is a statue pointing its feet measuring several metres in length at everyone that walks past. I guess if you're a Buddha you can get away with these things. Strolling around the rest of the complex we found gallery after gallery with long rows of extra Buddhas housed in ornate temple buildings. All very impressive but we were certainly starting to get a little bit Buddha'd out so we headed back in the general direction of the hotel and after a quick pad thai from a street stall, we relaxed in the hotel room for a while. Charbel is still recovering from jet-lag. Not sure what my excuse was but I took the opportunity for a quick snooze too.
In the evening we went over to the Patpong area to wander through the night markets where Charbel obviously decided that he hadn't had enough Buddhas for one day and ended up buying a small wooden one as a souvenir. We had a couple of beers at one of the very few bars that didn't look like a total dive, and again ignored all the ping-pong show touts. Actually we were both very interested to find out what a ping-pong show is exactly, but we'd both heard horror stories about such places - where you have to buy drinks for the waitresses and the bill comes to some ridiculous amount of money and the exit is blocked by large bouncers if you try to leave without paying. I hadn't heard these stories particularly about Thailand but enough other countries to make me wary (including the UK - you know who you are!!).
The next day we drove out of the city and towards the old capital (another one) of Ayutthaya. Alex and Maz have already written about their visit there in this diary entry (click) so I'll spare you the details but we had an excellent day wandering around many of the wats and Charbel had a ride on an elephant. I decided not to join him as I know exactly how uncomfortable it is to ride on an elephant after we tried it in the Chitwan Park in Nepal. I was instead official photographer for the event though I failed to capture the look of discomfort on his face at the end of the ride. He hobbled around the rest of the wats afterwards without complaining once which was lucky as he wasn't going to get much sympathy from me!
A lazy morning with the standard Royal Hotel breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup followed by chilli noodles (the only two things on the buffet that looked edible), we decided to take advantage of the hotel's pool for an hour or two - something we'd intended to do sooner but we kept finding other more pressing stuff to do. Our first commitment of the day was to return to the Indonesian embassy to collect my passport, and we met up with Alex and Maz there and had a quick burger but they had to rush as they were double-parked. From there Charbel and I decided to do the last couple of things we wanted to do before leaving Bangkok, which started with taking a walk through Chinatown with its ridiculously disorganised markets selling things nobody could possibly ever want before returning to the Khao San Road by river boat. Last thing on the list, back on the Khao San Road, was to go for a massage. We'd seen many signs and many masseuses trying to beckon us in and picking one of the cleaner, less dodgy-looking places we went inside to find out what all the fuss was about. The massage consisted of what I can only describe as a brutal mauling administered by a little Thai girl each. Why people pay for such pain and humiliation I'm not sure, and I certainly didn't feel any warm glow of satisfaction afterwards.
The next morning we braved the early-morning traffic once more to head out of Bangkok to start heading south. Charbel had booked his return flight from Phuket so we would have plenty of time to meander our way along the country without having to save time for returning to Bangkok. Our next destination was the island of Koh Tao, but along the way we decided to stop at the famous Floating Markets at Damnoen Saduak, about 100km to the southwest of Bangkok.
The Floating Markets are a far cry from the traditional image of wooden canoes laden with multicoloured fruits and vegetables paddled by women in wide-brimmed straw hats that the Thai promotional literature would have you believe. The reality now is that it is a big souvenir market lining the banks of the canals and there are boatloads of tourists being paddled around. We had already learned this from the guidebook before arriving but decided to go anyway since it wasn't far out of our way, and while it is very obviously there for the tourists we did see plenty of floating fruit vendors and the atmosphere was tranquil on the whole despite the hard-sell of one or two of the souvenir stall holders... if they're on the bank and we're on a boat, at least they can't run after you though! Charbel bought some very classy souvenirs, we sampled some random fruits and then of course got charged tourist prices when we decided some were nice enough to buy, and we headed on our way. It was worth the visit.
All that remained for the rest of the day was the long drive to Chumphon, which is the small nondescript town on the mainland from where the boats to Koh Tao leave. We arrived in town late in the afternoon giving us time to check into the Suda Guesthouse there - name-check given because Suda was very helpful indeed. Not only were the rooms good value but she organised our ferry tickets for us and even arranged a secure parking space for me in her cousin's hotel up the road for half the price the ferry company wanted at the less-secure quay. We wandered round the town for the evening and even with some effort we failed to find anything interesting except for the food stalls along one of the roads near the railway station. We wandered along buying a small something at several different stalls (freshly squeezed juices, pad thai noodles, satay chicken, fish cakes etc.) and after one trip up the road and back we were totally full, except for just a little space left for a quick beer on the way back. We stopped at a backpacker place that had a bar, simply because it was the only place showing any signs of life, and we sat at the bar talking to the friendly waitresses who were most amused by the fact that Charbel's eyebrows join in the middle as this is associated with being a "playboy" in Thailand. I found it funnier than he did and he'll probably kill me for putting that in :)
Getting up at the crack of dawn again we caught the shuttle bus to the ferry port. Receipt from the guest house duly processed at the check-in counter and being given nice pink stickers to wear to show our destination (the boat continues to Koh Phangnan and Koh Samui) we made our way along the long rickety pier to board the boat. It was a very long pier and I was glad I'd decided to leave much of my diving kit in the car, but still I was not amused to be refused boarding and be told to return to the ticket desk. Apparently we were supposed to have a ticket as well as the sticker but after a few choice words from me and radio calls from them it was all sorted and we took our places on the boat.
An uneventful crossing of one and a half hours entertained by a film called Keeping Mum with Rowan Atkinson playing the part of a vicar (for a change), but because the boat was so fast we missed the end so if anyone knows the ending please leave a comment below. We arrived at the pier in Koh Tao and had to wait amongst the taxi touts for the shuttle from Big Blue Diving to arrive, and a ten minute ride later we were at the Big Blue offices organizing our diving and accommodation. The rest of the day was spent doing nothing much - it was pretty grey so I made the best possible use of the time available by getting some important sleeping done. In the evening we went to the Blue Bar, part of the same organization, where we arrived just in time for the graduation ceremony of four new Divemasters involving various embarrassing tasks, cold water and whipped cream.
Day two on the island and our first diving trips. Firstly to Southwest Pinnacle which is aptly named, being a pinnacle to the southwest of the island, and secondly to Shark Island, less aptly named. Apparently it is supposed to look like a shark but not from any of the angles I viewed it from.
Both dives were pleasant but unremarkable. The visibility was quite poor for the area, presumably following the recent rainfall. The rainy season has arrived early and in force in Thailand this year with many areas in the north of the country suffering severe flooding and mudslides. It's not that bad here but it's raining a lot more than normal. Visibility was around 10m or so and on the second dive there was quite a strong current to fight against. The scenery was nice, coral reefs with plenty of shoals of small fish, the occasional scorpion fish and on the pinnacle at least there were so many large anemones that the rock could not be seen at all. No sharks, no mantas and definitely no whale sharks though, we'll have to try again later!
Relaxing on the restaurant terrace next to Big Blue, the instructor Rick joined us and persuaded us that we really wanted to do the night dive... I think they were short of enough people to make the trip worthwhile but we decided it sounded like a nice idea, so soon afterwards we were out on the boat again heading to the Twins dive site near the island of Koh Nang Yuan, about 20 minutes from Koh Tao.
As my last night dive was a total waste of time (Dahab, Egypt) it was nice to see plenty of life under the water - loads of angel fish, scorpion fish, box fish and a hermit crab scuttling along sideways. Some of the rocks were completely carpeted in all different colours of Christmas Tree Worms which look like little Christmas trees and when you disturb them they suck themselves back into their little holes - imagine a magician's bunch of flowers. I had great fun sweeping my hand across them and making them pop back in.
The next day was a full day out on the boat and proved to be a very popular trip with something like 30 divers on board. The first dive site was Sail Rock. It took about two and a half hours to get there, but the sea was dead calm again and I was able to fully participate in the day's first activity: breakfast of scrambled egg sandwiches.
With a maximum depth of nearly 30m this particular dive was beyond the range of Charbel with his PADI Open Water Diver certification... unless he were to dive with an instructor. Doing this meant he would gain his Deep Specialty (sic) enabling him to dive this deep in the future, so it was obviously a sensible thing for him to do that and me do my own thing. We could dive together on subsequent dives.
My buddy was an experienced English guy called Ian who has been in Thailand many times and knew some of the dive sites well, but to make life easy we decided to follow the dive guide Julie to the chimney. This turned out to be at the end of the dive anyway so we did the whole dive as a group. It was a bit of a challenge as the visibility was not good and we nearly lost the group right at the start of the dive but managed to catch a glimpse of a yellow fin or two through the murk and chase after it. The dive was unfortunately pretty boring and the chimney not particularly exciting (there wasn't a lot to see inside, it was just a swim-through) so we came up looking forward to seeing if the second dive would be any better.
Again we had a long travel time to the next site, so a decent surface interval and another opportunity for food, this time an excellent selection of Thai curries which more than made up for the disappointing dive.
The second site was Chumphon Pinnacle and did indeed prove to be much better. Charbel was finished with his training for the day so we dived together. The visibility was much better at around 20m and this meant that the life, which was undoubtedly present at Sail Rock, just seemed so much more abundant because one could see so much more of it at one time. We saw plenty of Titan Triggerfish which are known in these waters for their aggression - imagine a diamond-shaped fish where the front point is all teeth and you get the idea. They are very territorial and have been known to attack divers who stray into their territory, and their territory extends upwards in a funnel shape so we were told the only way to escape is to turn on your back and swim away horizontally until you leave their territory. Swimming this way means they can only bite your fins, leaving a nice souvenir set of teeth marks in the end. We kept our distance and they ignored us and ignored the turtle that also did a swim past.
The third and final dive of the day was Green Rock. We kept to the same groups and came to the first of a series of swim-throughs where we promptly lost Julie, Charbel went back to look for her and disappeared too, leaving myself and another pair together alone. Despite the visibility being as excellent as the last dive I couldn't see either of them nor their bubbles anywhere around so I was forced to abort my dive and return to the surface where the others had also just arrived. It wasn't that deep but being the third dive of the day we decided it wouldn't have been a great idea to re-descend so we returned to the boat where we caught the crew unawares ("I am having a fag!")and had to clamber out of the water unaided. You win some, you lose some. On the whole the diving was fantastic and I'd like to say a big THANKS to all at Big Blue diving for their warm welcome and lots of fun!
One of the Big Blue instructors was having a leaving party that evening so the bar was very crowded. I had planned to have only one, or maybe two beers and my resolve was very strong until quite late in the evening when the effects of the vodka and Red Bull, the "Liquid Cocaine" (no mother, not real cocaine) and other drinks took their toll and we ended up walking to the AC Bar which seemed to be full of Englishmen with shaven heads and no shirts. Somewhat ironically, I couldn't tell if it was a gay bar or a neo-Nazi rally but either way it was an uncomfortable atmosphere so we didn't stay long, but we'd already had one too many by that stage anyway.
Had big plans to get up late and I suppose I was successful compared to previous mornings but 9:30am wasn't really what I had in mind. It was very hot in the room though so we both got up and had some breakfast overlooking the beach and gained the advantage of a head-start over the others in recovering from our hangovers so when everyone finally dragged themselves out of their rooms we were in a much better state and could laugh at them.
Charbel was diving in the afternoon but I decided not to, preferring to explore the island a little having seen only the village where the ferries land, the Big Blue resort and a stretch of beach between the two, but by the time I'd got into gear, done some diary writing and internet in one of the plentiful internet cafes nearby and had some lunch, there wasn't enough of the day left to do anything useful with and I settled for another pleasant stroll along the beach. In the evening Charbel retired early after his exhausting day and left me alone to go to one of the pubs to watch the England v. Jamaica World Cup warm-up match. I hoped it won't be too hard to find places in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to watch the tournament. I suspected it wouldn't be.
We decided to stay one more night. Partly because we both felt that we shouldn't leave the island without seeing at least a little of it, but largely also because of the following evening's entertainment lined up: another two people were finishing their Divemaster course, including Julie with whom I'd dived, so we decided it would be rude of us to leave without helping them to celebrate properly.
We got up and hired a motor scooter each and made our way along the paved roads towards the island's main town Mae Haad and from there we attempted to navigate our way across the hills in the centre of the island to some of the bays and beaches on the eastern side. This was easier said than done though, because the tarmac stopped and the roads were badly rutted from where they obviously form the river beds at wetter times of the year. Added to this was a layer of sand and loose dirt on the top making traction very difficult and the gradient in some places being so steep that the bikes struggled to keep going, and the conditions were shall we say, not ideal for myself with only two previous days' experience on a motor scooter ever, and Charbel's only one.
We proved this quite conclusively by narrowly escaping death on one of the tracks down to one of the bays - both of us lost control and ended up in the bushes at the side of the track and it was quite a struggle getting the bikes back up to the top again. I managed with a great deal of effort and was helping Charbel when some locals came along and offered to help. One of them got on Charbel's bike and effortlessly glided up the hill - how did he do that?! More practice needed I think.
We went along to the next bay called Tanote Bay where the road was in a little better condition though with one rather dangerous stretch. Charbel was ahead of me and I was giving him some space - braking too hard on the loose surface is dangerous so I left a big gap. I rounded a bend and found his bag in the middle of the road but no sign of him or the bike! With quite a plummet to the right hand side I started calling for him and looking for damage to the vegetation on the side fearing the worst, but fortunately he was still on the track, although a very long way ahead! He had managed to lose control, and hanging onto the handlebars had twisted the accelerator and done a very convincing Superman impression flapping away with only his hands connected to the bike, during which time his bag had jumped out of the carrier... all this to the great amusement of some locals at the bottom of the slope who were still laughing when I caught up. We decided enough was enough. We limped the bikes to the bay, a beautiful tranquil one with very few other people, and had lunch there before returning home at very slow speeds to try to avoid further mishaps, calling only at a couple of other beaches where there were tarmac roads all the way.
We made our way back to the Big Blue resort and had what now seems to be a customary mid-afternoon siesta before heading back into Mae Haad to the post office and to get some food.
We ate Thai food again, at a small restaurant called Yang which had been recommended in the guide book for being authentic Thai, cheap and plentiful meaning it easily met all my main criteria for a restaurant. We sat down and began talking to a girl called Uschi who despite having an accent somewhere between Northern Ireland and the Southwest of England, is actually German. A veterinarian volunteering for a charity, she had recently arrived on Koh Tao to spend a few weeks working in a local clinic who had been without a qualified vet for several months. We had a pleasant meal and having never met a vet before I found the conversation fascinating, although seeing the photos she insisted on showing us of road accident victims she'd operated on was a little much for the dinner table (no she didn't give me copies for the website).
We headed back to Big Blue once more to catch the start of the Divemaster Challenge. The instructors had set out a "Kohtopoly" board on the floor of the bar, loosely based on Monopoly but with local restaurants as the properties, instead of going to jail one "goes to Burma" on a visa-run, and generally one drinks lots of alcohol for no apparent reason. Particularly clever was the Community Chest - a hollow female shop window torso filled with alcohol and lots of straws for everyone to drink from. The two newly qualified Dive Masters were Archie and Julie and though there were no obvious signs of rigging, Julie had soon acquired all the properties and Archie had acquired all the alcohol. With him soon bankrupted, the game was over so then everyone else did their best to catch him up.
The final morning on the island was a total write-off and all we managed to do was return the scooters (there were a few new scratches but we got away with it) and a quick email check before catching the boat back to the mainland. Once again the boat was very fast and very calm and this time we had a film where some American pilot (Owen Wilson) got stuck behind enemy lines in Bosnia and the rest of the American forces had to rescue him, saving the entire world in the process, God Bless The USA. I'm sure I've seen more than one film with that exact same plot before but I had to watch because the sound was on too loud for me to sleep even though I was feeling close to death. As a result I decided I couldn't face driving when we got back to the mainland and we spent the night in Chumphon, back at Suda's place, before we got in the car the next morning after a nice few days out of the saddle and started our way towards Krabi.
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