Sunday, 29 January 2012

Christmas & New Year Thailand Style

It was time for a change of scenery...I know the following I am about to say, sounds unthinkable, perhaps to some people unforgivable when you consider cold, miserable England, but, we were a little tired of the whole beach culture. We had spent over two weeks on the beaches that belong to the beautiful ko Samui archipelago and It was time for a change of pace, slow it down a bit before the madness of Christmas and New Year. We had already booked our accommodation for Christmas on the island of Ko Phi Phi situated on the west side of Thailand and we were also looking to spend New Year somewhere in the Krabi area. Therefore we decided on a trip to the jungle, in the centre of Thailand as something  completely different. We would spend a week in the jungles of Khao Sok and believe me it fed our appetites again for a little more of creamy sand and crystal blue sea. 

Khao Sok National park in Southern Thailand is an amazing place. It is covered by the oldest evergreen rain forest in the world, huge lime stone mountains shooting straight up in the air, the remains of an ancient coral reef that was five times as big as the Great Barrier Reef. Deep valleys penetrate the landscape, breathtaking lakes and caves are waiting to be explored are vast and remote; wild animals, insects and strange exotic noises creates a feeling of being totally free but at the same time a sense of complete loneliness as though one has stepped back in the wilderness of the Jurassic age. We spent a week in a remote part of the jungle, sleeping in small wooden jungle huts listening to some of the most primal noises of a night and being woken up every morning by troops of monkeys swinging on to the roof. We went on two jungle treks, visited waterfalls and ate beautifully prepared Thai food, my favorite being Bamboo Curry. It was a great experience but I was ready for the beach again after being out in the sticks for five days...I was also in need of a good hot shower.

The view from our jungle hut
Morning in the Jungle 

Taking a well earned rest during one of our jungle treks
We arrived on the island of Koh Phi Phi on the 23rd December and the first thing I done was book on two early morning dives for the following day; Christmas Eve. I usually spend this day stressed out, running around town doing last minute shopping trying to decide what perfume my Mum would like this year. There was nothing better than being on that boat at 7am on Christmas Eve, sun out and a cool sea breeze blowing in my face traveling to one of the best dive sites in the world with the potential to see an abundance of marine life including some reef sharks. We dived two sites just off the famous Ko Phi Phi Lay; this is where the cult  movie 'The Beach' starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. The first dive site was called  Hin Bida, and we dived a coral shelf with a maximum depth of 18m; the highlight  was swimming close to a shy  but curious Leopard Shark, a Blue Spotted Ray and a very inquisitive Hawksbill Turtle.  When you dive, it is probably a similar feeling to being in space; the freedom and weightlessness sensation, a feeling of being in another world...their world. I remember on both dives floating with the currant, and being surrounded by thousands of fish all brightly coloured, tightly packed, the perfect defensive tactic, a massive shoal of fish, individual but all working together like one singular entity, a force that is mesmerising to behold like a muscle contracting and extending effortlessly and poetically, sensitive to every motion in the sea. If you swim to close,  or put your hand out the whole shoal moves together changing its shape, contracting,  but  somehow keeping its order, its shape as though this entity is simply breathing in and out. I could stay there and watch this display of safety in numbers the whole dive, it is simply one of natures beautifully engrossing sites. My final dive was on a site called Bida Nok with a depth of around 20m.  We spent 40 minutes searching for the shy and elusive Black Tip Reef Shark.  Near the end  of our dive, our dive master took us to coral wall and we dived to about 16m and waited at a particularity good feeding ground for one last chance of a sighting. With only 60 bar of air left, and time running out, there it was, out of the blue the greatest hunting machine the world has known; skills homed and refined over millions of years of evolution prowling past me like poetry in motion; slick, graceful, elegant. I was in awe, in front of me swimming was the ultimate predator...the Shark and within in seconds... it was gone. What an unforgettable encounter.

Christmas is not the same when you are abroad in my opinion, there is nothing like being at home with all your family eating your Turkey and Stuffing. It did not feel like Christmas this year but it was still a lot of fun. This year I had a BBQ all you can eat for dinner, which was a change. Boxing day on Phi Phi was a quiet and somber occasion. All excursions, dive and water sports were cancelled as a sign of respect for the hundreds of people who lost there lives in the 2004 Tsunami disaster. It was the seven year anniversary of when the Tsunami destroyed this island and you can still evidence of the disaster.  We walked up to the view point to remember the victims and to pay our respects. The tourist part of Phi Phi were the majority of hotels and restaurants are situated lies on a thin stretch of land. This is were the waves hit hardest; it really drives home the reality of just how vulnerable the victims were seven years ago.  

Happy Christmas

Koh Phi Phi

A poignant view of Phi on the anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami

You can notice Phi Phi Lay just under my chin where the cult movie 'The Beach' was filmed
Railay is one of Thailand's most sought after beach areas, a rocky headland and accessible only by boat, presents itself as a tranquil and extraordinary little world. In just one small peninsula you'll find gorgeous white sand beaches, soaring limestone cliffs, viewpoints, caves and lagoons hidden inside the cliffs, shaped and fed by the changing tides.  What a place to bring in the New Year. The vibe here is layed back and chilled out, with reggae music drifting harmoniously across the beach, basking in sun shine watching climbers from all over the world scale irresistible and very challenging cliffs and crags. However, we almost had to leave before we even settled in. 

We arrived on the peninsula late in the afternoon of the 28th December and decided not to book anywhere, as we have found from experience that it's usually cheaper to find a place when you arrive at your destination. Within minutes of arriving by long boat, however, we quickly realised that the entire place was fully booked out. With night fall fast approaching, me and Laura laid en with heavy rucksacks and wary from travelling all day were faced with the reality of sleeping on the beach, or if we are lucky in a bar somewhere. We walked the entire island for over two hours and everywhere was full. My heart sank. The closet place to go from here was by boat  and it was over an hour a way and we would defiantly be ripped off. In our hour of need and with the last throw of the dice I sat our bags down and ran up 'last chance saloon' jungle road, a stretch of beating track that leads up into the mountains. By now it was dark, I was tired and I new if I can't manage to convince someone to put us up for the night we were defiantly sleeping on a strip of sand somewhere. I called into three small guest houses, full, no vacancies. I then arrived at the last guest house up on the hill and pleaded with the guy 'We'll sleep anywhere'. The guy looked at me and told me that he did have one room, but it had no door, 'do you want a look'? I ran up with a joyful heart. He was right about the door, but it also had no windows, no bed no nothing, just a bear room with a ripped mosquito net and dirty mattress. But, beggars can't be choosers, and in a situation like this it looked more to me like the 'Hilton' to me. I think my words were  in a high voice 'we'll take it'!!!.

The Hilton
The motto of Rilay is a simple but effective way of making decisions quickly without thought or responsibility of any direct or indirect consequence that may follow due to your answer. Let me try to explain using the following questions. Do you want to climb tomorrow? Why not? Do you want to sunbathe? Why not? Shall we go swimming later? Why not? Do you want a ice cold beer? Why Not? Do you want to play the next song on the bass? Why not? Did you order a large pinnacallada?...its half seven in the morning I am not an alcoholic...Why not? I think you get the general gist. This simple quick witted two letter word is the answer to almost all questions on this liberal little island. It provides a platform for a no nonsense, no thought involved, uncompromising gut approach without a second thought for consequence or responsibility. Great!!! It's the decision making process the Tories having been using for years in England to discuss, manage and implement government policy on a number of greatly pressing issues. Imagine the setting; David Cameron addressing his cabinet including the one and only Nick Clegg. The issue  for discussion is on  debt reduction in the UK. David Cameron; "Shall we cut and slash Government spending to an all time low, and rip apart the entire social fabric of society in the process?" Cabinet with an indifferent glare and a shake of the heads...Why Not?

I usually think New Year is a big let down, and anti climax to the festive period, but, this year was different. I spent the night on the beach, watching fire work displays, mixing with people from all around the world and listening to the best upbeat positive genres of music...Reggae. The highlight was getting up with one of the local Rasta bands and jamming on the bass some legendary Bob Marley songs. I then had the pleasure to watch one of the best Reggae bands in Thailand bring the New Year in, and stand in awe listening to the funkiest soul-iest  bass player I have ever had the pleasure and honor to behold...he made the bass sing. What an end to a great year...roll on 2012.
Rilay Beach

Jammin', I wanna Jam it wid you!!!
Bringing in the New Year

The man. The best bass player I have ever seen; the man is soul

Happy New Year 2012

'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds'
                         -Bob Marley

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Welcome to the Koh Samui Archipelago

'Someones gotta live the dream'

Is it really fair?There are over 200 countries around the globe and Thailand has managed to snag a disproportionate amount of the world's top beaches. I don't care really as I am here, its more of a question of which beach to go to. There is enough stretches of creamy beaches and honey tinged paradises to give even good old Goldilocks a complex. The Sumui Islands make up Thailand's lower southern gulf and consist of three main Islands; Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao. I visited all three in this order and had the time of my life. 

I hobbled with a badly infected broken toe to our beach shack, tired, and still raging at being the victim of a Thai robbery. We dropped our bags off and went straight to the hospital. I was in agony now and the infection was getting worse. The nail was barely hanging on due the bad swelling and yellow stinking puss that was now engulfing my entire big toe. In a tropical country like Thailand you need to get an infection treated quickly. We got a taxi to the hospital, and got ripped off, later realising that we had paid three times the rate. We then got to the hospital, and I was taken straight into mini surgery. I filled out a few forms and then lied down as the nurse prepared all the tools for the job. Just when you think it cant get any worse, gets even worse. The doctor walks in and takes a look at me. Before he removes the nail and squeezes out the puss  he tells me that it will cost a tidy 200 pound. I look a him in disbelief and tell him I need to go the bank. He replyed with a smile 'don't worry sir, we have one right over there' and points towards the ward. Low and behold, there is a ATM cash machine in the hospital looking at me as if I am sitting in the townie. How funny is that? A money making business and making a fortune out of us foreigners, who fill the hospital with injuries mostly from moped accidents all plodding about like the walking dead. Well to top it off, after I pay, I sat down and the doctor pulled out a needle as big as a pencil and said this wont hurt a bit and sticks into my big toe. So, as you can appreciate, I was not in the best of moods with the Thais after this escapade. 

When I got back to our beach shack, I sat down, the sun was shinning bright and the sea was lapping up against the beach and I thought, it's not all bad, there are worse place to be. I am sitting on a little piece of paradise chilling out. From now on the only way was up. We spent a week on the island relaxing and eating. Each day I would go to the local pharmacy and see my friend 'Bong' who helped me clean my toe each day and re-bandage it. He was great and even better he was a big Liverpool fan. Me and Laura spent one night watching some world famous Muay Thai boxing. It was like being on the set of kick-boxer without Tong Po. The atmosphere was electric, crazy, bloodthirsty. It was basically a small blood stained ring surrounded by loads of bars and locals all cheering their fighters on, betting and baying for blood. What an experience. 

Our Ko Samui Beach Hut

Not a bad place to nurse a broken toe

Me and Bong who was a big Liverpool fan

Our little mate in the local internet cafe

Food the traditional way-beautiful Thai BBQ

'I want Tong Po'  At the Muay Thai boxing
Ko Phangan sits in the middle of Ko Samui and Ko Tao and is home to the world famous Full Moon Party. It is in the top five list of parties in the world to go to and attracts an outrageous 30,000 partiers to one strip of lunar lit beach filled with thumping DJ beats. The 10th of December was the date for this months legendary Party and lets face it, we had planned our entire Thailand trip around it. 

We arrived on the island on the 7th December and stayed right in the heart of the party capital. The vibe here is amazing as people from all over the world have came here to have a good old jolly time. The main beach is called Hat Rin and of a day people sun bath, play football, volleyball, swim or just laze about in the sun and chill out listening to the music that booms out onto the beach. It's a cool place. Of a night the beach is transformed into neon lit, fire dancing light show of energy with thousands of people painted from head to toe with fluorescent paints and wearing various luminous cloths and paraphernalia, bumping, grinding and sweating their way through one of greatest nights until sunrise.  

On Ko phangan, they will use any excuse to a party; half-moon, quarter moon, crescent moon, black moon, no moon...they don't care, its just party time all the time. For me the lead up to the full moon party, the so called 'pre-full moon' parties are the best. We met up with friends from Bangkok, 'Trey' a Folk singer from New Orleans who is an artist recording his own music and playing all around the world. I as lucky enough to chill out with him and have a jam session playing a lot of Bob Dylan inspired songs. We met so many more people like our Dutch friend Frans-Willem who was traveling around south east Asia after competing in a the Thailand Triathlon and finished in the top 40. Great achievement. It was also during one one these parties were fate would play it's hand and lead us to a meeting with some amazing people. In the early hours of the morning whilst throwing the shapes out on the beach during one of the 'pre-full moon' parties, I looked down and saw something flashing. There was a fire show going on at the time and the lights were flashing around me like a giant kaleidoscope of rich colour. It took some time to register. was I dreaming? As I focused on it, there it was, half buried in the sand, an iPhone 4,  the very same beloved model I had to reluctantly leave behind. I picked it up in wonder and saw a picture of bearded man the image of Jim Morrison staring back at I really was dreaming. I gave the iPhone to Laura and decided to try and contact him tomorrow. The next day I met up with Ronnie and Karlie (our friends from Kirkby who we had met up with again) and showed them the picture of the this guy. He looked and with a surprised reaction  told me that that this guy was staying in the next beach shack to them...what are the odds of that? On the way to their shack I spotted these two guys walking towards us, both looked as if they had just been plucked from the 1969 Woodstock festival. I instantly recognised him and asked him if he was missing an iPhone. His reaction said it all, he had been looking for it all day. When I gave him it back, he was overjoyed and well, we all went and celebrated and the rest is history. Their names were Damon and Kyle, both from the USA who work in the shipping industry in Alaska. They were chilled out people, with a great sense of humour and behaved like time was always on their side. It was infectious. They are just good people who are just easy to get to know and have that easy way about them that makes them likeable to everyone. Good times!!!

All the crew celebrating (Kyle on the left and Damon aka Morrison) shortly after returning the iPhone 4
Me and Frans
Tray from New Orleans playing some Bob Dylan inspired Folk music
Hat Rin Beach
The calm before the storm that was the Full Moon Party

Strict dress code applies for the Full Moon Party
Fire show during the Full Moon Party
Little Ko Tao was our next destination...perched on a ledge of coral reefs, it has earned world wide fame as a diving and snorkeling mecca. The water has high visibility, there are abundant coral formations and diverse marine life and diving certification is one of the cheapest in the world. I was supposed to go here first but chance would have it I ended my journey around the Samui island here in beautiful Ko Tao.

There are so many dive centres here that you are spoiled for choice. As I was walking around the place I bumped into my American friend Kyle from Ko phangan. He wasn't there to dive but after speaking to him for a while and telling him all about it he decided to extend his stay and join me on the 4 day Open Water Course. This was to be one of the best experiences of my entire journey around the world so far. We singed up and met a an English guy named Steve who was from Portsmouth but supported Manchester United...why? However, he was a great guy and for the next 4 days we were the scuba team along with our French Dive Master Serg. The course consists of some interesting theory, confined water skills and principles finishing with 4 open water dives off Ko Tao putting all your skills together in the open sea. The first time you go under water, is quite strange, you inhale, the air comes with a reassuring hiss and within moments the bulky gear you had on aboard the boat transforms; you become light, agile and free, a feeling of weightless. Its a feeling that delivers both adrenalin and intensity, serenity and peace. You explore a world that only a few select people will ever see, It's an unknown world, one that has an abundant variety of marine life and you dive with growing anticipation and excitment of what strange creature you will encounter next. It's one of the most tranquil environments I have ever experienced, and now am hooked, I love it. I have since dived in the Andaman sea on the west of Thailand and have plans to dive on the eat of Indonesia. 

Me and Kyle learning the skills and principles on the confined water dive
Buddying up

The team:Kyle, Me, Steve and Serg

Ok: getting ready to dive

Last dive so we all somersault in

Ready to descend on our last dive

Me and Steve with our PADI Certificate 

Chilling on the beach in Ko Tao
The three weeks we spent traveling across the Samui Archipelago was some of the best times of my life; a roller-coaster ride of experiences. You meet so many people from around the world on the journey and you learn so much about life and about yourself. This is one of the the best parts of traveling. Most people you will never meet again but, for that single moment in time everything is all good. It has a positive impact on your life no matter how brief your encounter. On our last night I was sitting on the beach in Ko Tao with all our friends, it was a beautiful night. The sound of someone playing the guitar could be heard in the distance and in front of us there was a fire show lighting the sky up. People were laying about on the beach without a care in the world. I layed back, soaking it all in, catching Damon's eye as I did so. He lent over and whispered in my ear in his soft Western American voice that just summed it all up for me; "man...someones gotta live the dream" 

Monday, 2 January 2012

Bangkok, Thailand

When we left Cambodia, on the 27th November it was an unbearably hot day without a cloud in the sky. With our backpacks on, we were on the road again. I was excited for the next leg of our trip; the ultimate experience I was told, the country that has been there and done that and has everything to offer and more. This is the place were the term superlatives was invented. Here one will find; the best beaches, the most secluded islands, the biggest parties, the best diving locations, the greatest tropical jungles, the hottest and spiciest food, the most beautiful scenery, the most preserved and impressive national parks....welcome to Thailand, perhaps the most diverse and rewarding roller coaster of a country in south east Asia.

What a ride I was in for!!!

At passport control we got our Visa stamped and we walked the short way to our transport feeling big old yellow face breathing down my back, it was hot but beautiful and I was dripping with sweat. Bags packed and then we were packed like sardines into the small mini bus, (in south east Asia this is a common skill they have acquired). The local guide popped his head into the bus before we set off, quick head count, followed by a look with a wry smile he said; 'Good luck'. I was thinking why is his parting words so foreboding? After 20 minutes I knew why. Our bus driver was in the wrong business, he thought he was Michael Schumacher. He drove at maximum speed all the way to Bangkok, weaving through traffic, speeding on the hard shoulder and to top it off he was driving onto coming traffic in an amazing short cut manoeuvre. Crazy, insane, terrifying; I am still thinking about passing his name on to the Mercedes team, believe me I think they would snap this guy up. I still get cold sweats thinking about him. As soon as I got on the mini bus I sat down and thanked God for saving my life and being there in my hour of need. Welcome to Bangkok I thought...oh and add this to your ever growing list of superlatives; the craziest F1 wanna-be bus drivers. 

We stayed on the famous Khaosan Road which is located in the heart of Bangkok and is where east and west meet in the ultimate cultural explosion. It has everything from McDonald's to Indian suit shops to dance clubs to local Pad Thai noodle stores. What more do you need? Its a big, brash, bold neon-lit decompression zone that attracts international backpackers in their droves. It's the first place that people go to, a stop in transit before they travel on to their chosen destination. It's perhaps because of this reason its  has so much energy. People who come here want to let their hair down and relax which means party and this place was made to accommodate a party, and its lots of fun. The first night I was there I was sitting on Khaosan road, watching the hundreds of travellers pass by when we bumped into  some old friends from Cambodia (this is  one of the best things about travelling, you continually meet  lots of friends that you have met previously in other countries on the backpacker routes and you form friendships for life). Well we had a good catch up and a very good night sitting on the many street stalls having a beer or two and enjoing a Pad Thai (noodles). However it also resulted in myself waking up with a broken toe. This was to be the burdon of my travels for the next two weeks, but consequently it led to a change in direction and a chance meeting with some amazing people.  Its funny how things happen, must be fate?

Khaosan Road

Laura on the famous road
Me Gillon and a Gypsy on our first night on Khaosan Road

About five minutes before the fateful broken toe incident

We had originally  planned to travel to Ko Tao next so I could complete my Open Water Scuba Diving Course before heading to Ko Phangan's famous Full Moon party. However, with a broken toe and slightly depressed we decided to travel to Ko Samui  first so I could rest up on a beach then travel to Ko Phangan and then finish in Ko Tao hopefully with a fully recovered toe. We spent the rest of the week in Bangkok, meeting some of our friends from Kirkby; Ronnie and Karlie, (its a small world really) chilling out, enjoying life and visiting one of oldest China towns in the world.

Guess which one mine is?-Notice the toe on the far right ha ha ha

Ronnie & Karlie immortalised outside the Royal Palace
We left Bangkok for Koh Samui by sleeper bus (to be politically correct it should have just been called a bus) and it turned out to be a very eventful journey. When you travel by sleeper bus you keep your main back pack in the baggage compartment underneath the bus and then you bring your personal belongings on with you.  We travelled using a private company (who  are supposed to look after you) however what we didn't know is that they are all involved in a big scam organised by the local Mafia and we were to be their next victims .
After a couple of hours on the road one of the crew turned off all the lights, including the individual reading lights and then shut all the curtains. We have been on many sleeper buses and this was the first time this had happened. It was pitch black but looking back  what they where in fact doing was creating the perfect atmosphere to rob you. We had our two bags between our legs and then tried to get some sleep. There was a gap of no more than half a foot. But some how they have managed to crawl under our seat take our bag, go through it and return it back as though nothing as ever happened. At 6am as you can imagine everyone is still weary, they came and got everyone off the bus as quickly as possible. I had woken early and was looking out the window and I was thinking, why had they threw all our bags off? As soon as the last person was off the bus they drove quickly.  It wasn't until I looked in our bag to read the lonely planet about 10 minutes later that I had realised we had been robbed. They had taken Laura's SLR camera worth a great deal of money and had went through Laura's travel purse and taken a substancial amount of cash. I was gutted, that hollow feeling in your stomach  you get that just takes over you at the realisation of what has happened. You feel helpless when your in a country like Thailand, you cant even depend on the police because they are often involved in the scam.

All the tourists got their backpacks rummaged through, me and Laura included. They never took anything but went through the whole bag. They are so cunning and sly. I had a tie wire around my bag and they undone it some how and still managed to seal it back up. They are so skilled at robbing. I went a bit crazy at the guy who I knew was in on this scam, and he was a bit aggressive, but I wasn't letting this go and neither was Laura. Thankfully Laura was more reserved and rational. She demaded to speak to the manager and the police. In the end she was on the phone to some random Thai woman and arranged for them to keep the money  in return for the camera or we would not leave. Then, after 2hours of waiting and as blatantly as the minibus arrived to pick us up, a motorbike driver arrived with our camera bag in his basket. The man then paid this guy and frantically ushered us onto the minibus. Well, in a way we were thankful we have our camera back but still gutted that the 15,000baht was robbed. 
But it's only money and the journey from here on in was to be some of the best times of our lives.