Saturday, December 31, 2005

Thailand - chapter III

We flew to Phuket, which is an island on the Andaman coast, the wealthiest of the islands of Thailand and the destination of choice for many western tourists. It was badly hit by the tsunami a year ago, but it was all reconstructed.

We arrived quite late and we had no plans. We quickly decided that the best way to find accommodation at that late hour would be in Phuket town (I'm not sure if we were correct, since Phuket town is a town, very very few tourists in there, mostly locals), but it sounded like a safe bet with more alternatives than the beaches. We arrived in a deserted bus station where all the touting sharks tried to offer us a taxi or everything else. We refused and we headed away, not knowing where we're going, the priority being to find accommodation. We found some nice thais working in a DVD shop that guided us to a guesthouse.

That's one thing I liked, normal people and even sharks were quite eager to help and quite genuine in their help. Sometimes people working in shops would guide us to their competition if they couldn't give us something we asked for or they were out of stock.

We found some cheap accommodation, not very pleasant compared to what we had before or what we would have in the next days. We were glad we found something.
The second day we rented an old jeep for about 8.70 pounds a day. We got some petrol and we started rolling, the plan was to visit the famous beaches on the west coast of the island, Patong and Kamai being two of them I can remember. All the day was spent travelling from one beach to another stopping at interesting places.

Unfortunately the weather was cloudy and 5 minutes after we paid for relaxing chairs on the beach, it started to rain. We waited hoping it would end soon, but it didn't. So we had to move along. In the end we returned to a beach which we skipped in the morning as it was slightly out of the way and we had a break from the rain and some moments to admire the sea. We had dinner there at a fancy restaurant and we headed back to Phuket town.

In Phuket town once arrived, I had a panic attack thinking I lost my passport. I was literally panicked, imagining all the problems I would have to get back home and in the UK. It was serious. Then the guy with the car told me I will have my passport back soon. They took my passport as a guarantee but I couldn't remember this detail.

The second day we took the coach across Thailand to the other coast, going to Koh Samui, in preparation for the Full Moon Party on the 16th of december on Koh Pha ngan. A 6-hour trip in an aircon coach. Not too bad.

In Koh Samui we were awaited by Carmen and Ake and as we took an open back taxi-van, going to Lamai beach where they booked accommodation, it started to rain. So lucky, we were thinking!

And that was all our time in Koh Samui, either cloudy or plain raining. We stayed in nice bungalows with a 24 hour internet and creperie right across the road from us. The Lamai beach was 2 minutes from where we were staying, but to no avail.

On one day, me and Carmen were brave enough to rent 2 kayaks and start paddling on the sea, not very far from the shore. It was quite courageous of me as I was having the flu. I think it was my first experience kayaking and it was cool. That was until the wind picked up and the wave increased in height. The kayaks became harder to control and they picked up water, which made them even harder to control. We were battling with the waves, trying not to end up perpendicularly on the direction of the waves, but trying to face them. Of course it was a precarious situation and at one point, a bigger wave flipped Carmen's kayak. No problem, she's a good swimmer, she started to push the kayak ashore. I went to get her paddle from her and I took my kayak ashore and then started to swim to her and we both took the kayak back ashore. Rescue mission successful. Baywatch here I come!

Needless to mention my utter disappointment when I learnt that the Full Moon Party has been cancelled due to bad weather and the beach in Koh Pha Ngan being washed by high waves. Noooo, not another fiasco, the weather was enough. There was no boat to Koh Pha Ngan on the day and the rumours had it that there were 4 metres waves in Koh Pha Ngan. Utter disappointment!
Later on, I discovered that the situation was quite bad in Koh Pha Ngan and that 4 people lost their lives to the waves.

We left Koh Samui with a sense of relief ... don't get me wrong, Koh Samui is absolutely beautiful, the beaches are very very nice, all it need is some sun! :-) There was a glimmer of hope as he learnt that in Krabi, our next destination, it was sunny. Well, we weren't holding our breath, we've heard that before. However, we all thought no one could be so unlucky. And in actual fact, we were very close to vindication. But we didn't know that at the time. All about Krabi in the next chapter.

Some pics to illustrate the content. First pics are from Phuket ... notice the dark sky!

This is a taxi boat, very popular everywhere in Thailand (where there's sea silly!)

Moi in Phuket!

The next pics are from Koh Samui ... first pic is the beach next to where we were staying. High tide!

The beaches when we left Koh Samui ... notice the clear skies, we got some sun on the ship and some the first sun burns. Yupieee!!

Friday, December 30, 2005

That's how a petrol station looks like in a northern part of Thailand.

The service is included...

And that's how the pump looks like ... yeap, it's petrol in there alright!

Still pumping...

And that was our rented Ford, a very nice car and contrary to first impressions, the fuel consumption is not bad at all. It's a beauty to drive, especially if it's raining and you have to climb a muddy road and you have 2 metres visibility. Ah, and of course I was driving without my driving license on me! What an adventure that was! :-)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sis, skip this section or do not read it out loud :-)

A brief intermezzo in the Thailand story just to mention that I'm sick as a dog, I skipped work on the 28th, went to the office today, not sure about tomorrow. My father just told me on the phone that I could develop pneumonia and that I could die, told me to go see the doctor and take antibiotics and other scary stories including a story of a doctor that died of flu because he ignored it. Not to mention a lot of remedies...
Oh well, he managed to scare me a bit so I'm going to take some antibiotics starting tonight to avoid any lung complications.
Parents, always using that old Bogey man story to get what they want. And incredibly, it still works!

Thailand - chapter II

We returned to Bangkok from Chang Mai by train and we had couple of days to explore Bangkok alone before flying off to Phuket where our southern adventure would start.

Bangkok is a very big, busy and polluted place. Pollution was indeed very frustrating as we travelled in tuk-tuks many times. Tuk Tuks are very like motorcycles with an open back for carrying passengers. They're quite cheap and you can negotiate with the drivers, which is quite recommended before you set off on the trip, otherwise you can be asked to pay ridiculous amounts once you reach the destination.

Bangkok also has a Sky Train or BTS, which is a sort of surface train travelling suspended on concrete pillars, travelling above the traffic, thus the name Sky Train. I guess it's an easier alternative to digging the ground to have a tube line. But unfortunately, although modern and very convenient, the Sky Train only covers small portions of Bangkok.

Another feature of Bangkok is the love for huge malls. You just get in one and you find all sorts of shops on many levels. I guess it all has to do with the fact that they have ridiculously high temperatures during the summer season and they like shopping in aircon environments. The look is very modern and the malls make the most part of Siam, a very commercial district.

We travelled around Old Bangkok mostly, visiting wats (that is temples), the royal palace, the Golden Mountain temple, seeing the reclining Buddha, we also went for a thai massage (which I didn't enjoy very much, at points being quite painful, or ticklish, or being concerned that the woman would impair me for the rest of my life by trying to crack every bone in my back), we played some bowling (and I'm ashamed to say that I lost, despite all the preparations I had in London!!). We also just lazed around the swimming pool where Carmen works, enjoying a bit of sauna too. We also visited a very touristy area of BKK called Khaosan, where you could buy anything and everything. There were even signs on the street selling UK driving licenses, student cards and other illegal stuff. DVDs everywhere. The land of the copyright-free.

Thais are very friendly people, overly friendly as we discovered. Our first contact was at a corner of a street where we stopped puzzled to look for a zebra crossing. A guy next to us just asked us if he can help us. I was a bit reluctant, thinking he's trying to sell us something, but soon enough we realised he was genuinely trying to help us and also exercise his English. Touting is one thing I hate and we got a lot of it in Thailand, but this time, the guy was just friendly. I was impressed.
After walking for 5 minutes, another guy stops us and asks us where we’re going and shows us on the map all the attractions, suggests we should take a tuk-tuk and doesn’t understand our desire for pure walking.
After another 5 minutes another person stops us and forces us to listen the same story, the same story all over.
Needless to say it was happening every 5 minutes and it stopped to be funny anymore! We couldn’t waste all day talking to nice thais full of good intentions. So I came up with a solution … we don’t speak English! And when the next guy approached me I replied in Romanian “I don’t understand”. The guy was relentless “Where are you from?” in English. Of course this is a tricky question as you might be tempted to reply without thinking. But I continued to say things in Romanian. The guy gave up soon enough and I saved 10 minutes of good intentions and time wasted.

I must say I didn’t like Bangkok too much, it’s too crowded, too polluted, everything London is but worse. I was looking for something else, something more relaxing. Furthermore, Bangkok is not for walking and everyone will think you’re absolutely crazy if you want to walk around. No wonder our minds were set on the sunny south! Little did we know about all the twists laid ahead of us. But all about that in the next chapter!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thailand - chapter I

3 weeks and I forgot already that winters are cold and your best escape is a thick layer of cloth. My body forgot too and the shock was terrible when I arrived this morning on Heathrow, a bone chilling -3 degrees at ground, in stark contrast with the 35-38 degrees that spoilt us for the last days in Thailand. I was carrying a ravaging flu too, breaking the silence every 5 minutes with a cough. Air-con was my sworn enemy.
But what a trip it was. 3 weeks and couple of days in Thailand, seeing Bangkok, Chang Mai, Pai, Phuket, Koh Samui and Krabi, travelling by airplane, train, bus, car, jeep, open back vans, tuk-tuk, boat, speed boat, kayak, inflatable boat with twists that weren't in the plan and fighting the european flu that followed us all the way. Bugger!
First a "thank you" to Carmen and Ake, our hosts and co-travellers. Thailand was friendlier and less confusing with them. Kopunkap guys!
The other participants were:
Lucia - ex-university colleague, living in Austria, stayed with us for 2 weeks only
Roberto - italian friend of mine, living in London, stayed all the way, he was in charge of safe keeping the european virus and carrying it around :-)

We arrived in Bangkok on the 4th of december. It was hot and we liked it. We didn't like that everywhere there was aircon and it was set to Freezing-cold. Thais love aircon, the colder it is, the better. We couldn't understand it as it was all we were trying to avoid by running away from Europe. Well, it wasn't the only thing we couldn't understand. We couldn't understand where Roberto was too!!
He was coming with Kuwait Airways via Kuwait and I was thinking maybe he decided to stop and enrol in some holy jihad movement and wave goodbye to a life of office slavery.
We finally met him after 3 hours and he told us Kuwait Airways lost his luggage. After getting some compensation from the airline and with the promise that the luggage will be shipped to Bangkok soon, we left. We left by car as Ake and Carmen were waiting for us. We even managed to do some shopping, changing our trainers for sandals and Roberto buying all his other necessities that were in Kuwait.
It was a huge market, very busy, I forgot the name now, but apparently it's a hardcore experience even for thais to shop in there. We did it while jet lagged. Too bad we can't put it on the CV.
We flew to Chang Mai the second day at 6 o'clock, no rest for the wicked, especially if jet lagged. Chang Mai is in the northwest part of Thailand, in a mountainous area, quite close to the border with Myanmar (Burma), which was quite evident after a while from the number of military checkpoints on the roads. Which roads I must say are very good, surprisingly good, I was expecting mayhem, maybe same level with India. Yes, my acknowledgement of my ignorance skyrocketed those days and even now, writing this, I still feel a bit embarrassed.
In Chang Mai we rented a Ford 4WD and we set off north, even closer to Burma, to a place called Pai. It's a nice place, where backpackers and adventurers hang out. You can do a lot of stuff around Pai.
But before reaching Pai, I said ... let's bunjee jump. I was the one pushing for the idea, not knowing it's going to be my nemesis. We went for it, Roberto was in too and the bugger jumped. From the ground level it all looks so simple, a walk (pardon, jump) in the park. However, once I was up there, I knew I was made for office life. It was absolutely terrifying, my pulse racing, my knees shaking. My body suddenly remembered I am afraid of heights. And I didn't jump.
The jokes that followed for a week were well deserved. But it was a lesson in self-knowing. It's amazing how you reshape yourself depending on the perspective.
A word of advice ... whatever you do, however high you climb, don't look down.

In Pai we found a very nice and clean guesthouse, charging us 7 pounds per night, for all 5 of us. We couldn't believe it. We called it our headquarters for 3 days.
The most interesting thing we did in Pai was white water rafting. That's rafting in an inflatable rubber boat on a river, all day long, paddling for 40 or 45 km. The price was outrageously cheap for that. It was great, the river was crossing the mountain, the jungle, at places it was quite turbulent, pumping some adrenaline in our blood. We even did a bit of swimming in the river, where it was quiet; we did some mini climbing on a waterfall, ate in some jungle huts and all in all had great fun all the way. A very nice experience, highly recommended.
We learned that the our guide was making 150 baht a day (or was it 250?!), that's roughly 2(3.5) pounds a day. We left a tip and the guy was very happy about it. Happy happy how thais would put it! The superlative in Thai is formed by repeating the adjective. So "happy happy", "cute cute", "good good", you got the idea!
We also visited a cave near Pai, on bamboo rafts. Interesting experience. On the way back we had rain and the mountainous road became really muddy, a hazardous driving experience. And I was driving! And then there was fog too and we were moving with the speed of a slug. The fun part of course was that I was driving without a driving license, I had forgot it in Bangkok. Ah, what the heck, it's Thailand!
And then in a treacherous slope it all came to a halt. The road was blocked by cars that got stuck in the mud and couldn't move. We contemplated a night spent in the jeep, not a pleasant prospect at all.
It was fun to see all the thais in the street, trying to find solutions, trying to work together but lacking a decision maker. Until someone in a military uniform showed up and they all obeyed. Ake confirmed that this is the thai way, they all expect someone in a uniform, be it military or police to solve the problem of decision making.
Finally, there was a small gap in the blockade and I had to drive the jeep without sliding it into a truck. We did it and we slept in our beds at the guesthouse that night. It was fun though!
Carmen and Ake flew back to Bangkok and me, Lucia and Robert took the train back to Bangkok, it took all night but we wanted to try it. But Bangkok is a different chapter all together.
Below some pics to illustrate the story...

From left to right: Carmen, Roberto, moi, Lucia

At the bunjee jumping place ... Carmen, Ake, Roberto, moi

This was our porch at the guesthouse, next to the river, we used to go there and have a chat in the evening or in the early morning, planning the day ahead while having a tea and bananas, provided for free, by our hosts

On the rubber boat, at the end, after 40 km of paddling

This guy was our rafting guide, quite a cool and funny guy, too bad he wasn't speaking english, although he pretended to understand some. We left a tip, mostly coz we were outraged that he made so little a day.

Me and Roberto playing table tennis at a guesthouse/restaurant where we stopped to have lunch. As you notice, we're both professional players and moving so fast around the table that the camera barely could catch us, those traces of colour are us.

Friday, December 02, 2005

It's HO HO HO time

It's a nice sunny day, like whispering to me ... go C.i.p.r.i.a.n, see if I care, we'll have so much fun without you! But there was rain too in the morning, so I can relax knowing this is still England. Hopefully I won't have signal on my mobile in Thailand, otherwise Marco will text me every time there's the slimmest shadow of a sun in the sky: "Once you're gone, the sun is up!". :P
I don't think it'll happen, he's too busy with the new appartment. I helped Marco and Maryam yesterday with a van trip carrying stuff from the old Streatham to new shiny Islington. The place is quite nice ... I'm looking forward to some BBQs in there ;-)

Less than 24 hours to departure for Thailand... just a reminder that I haven't packed yet. And the time is short.

Tonight I'm going to Mariana's birthday party, in Guanabara, a brazilian club in the heart of London (Does London have a heart? ;-). Mariana, I will only stay for dinner, I can't stay too long.
Okay then ... it's time to hug, blow a kiss in the air and wish you all a Merry Christmas HO HO HO ... unless you hear from me before that. Of which I'm not sure at all!

Oh ... don't you just hate those bloody reindeers...