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Monday, 21 April 2014

Koh Yao Noi

I've been a little slow with the blog posts over the last week or two. That is in part, due to illness, and partly due to adjusting to the pace of island life, i.e. never feeling rushed to do anything! Since I've started writing this blog, I felt a good gauge for knowing when to move to a new location, was when I had nothing to write about. My objective was always to write from the heart, so when I had to think about what to write, it was time to go. With that, I decided to leave the wonderful Koh Lanta. I left there with very fond memories, and met some great people.

Making my way from Koh Lanta to another island, I got the opportunity to pass through Koh Phi Phi very briefly. This is the island that had a large part in putting Thailand on the map in 2000, when 'The Beach', was filmed there. It is beyond beautiful, and I could really see the attraction of the island. The water has a really bright, turquoise tint to it and being honest, I felt that the movie didn't do the island justice. It is completely over run with tourists though, and I got the feeling that the best days have already passed for that little gem, in the Andaman Sea. It is a matter of taste and opinion, I guess.

My destination, on that same journey, was one of the least known and less developed islands in the area, Koh Yao Noi. The locals on this island form an extremely strong community, and time after time, they have resisted the opportunity & temptation to sell themselves out, in order to keep mass tourism off their island. Most people have a price that they would sell for - no amount of money will encourage the people of Koh Yao Noi to open the floodgates to tourism, or at least, it hasn't yet. Never say never. That was part of the draw of the island, as I wanted to see how life went, in a place that isn't as heavily touched by tourism, as the rest of the country. Apart from the odd, modern, Government building and one or two fancy houses, everything else here is really old fashioned. Buildings, scaffolding, chairs, floors, tables, all made from bamboo. I didn't realise how robust bamboo was, until I saw it being used so extensively, here in Thailand.

A half hour speed boat journey brought me to Koh Yao Noi. Before getting onto the boat, I witnessed the only crime I have seen in Thailand - funny enough, it was committed by a monkey! It went into a shop at the pier and helped itself to a packet of crisps, before climbing onto the roof, eating them in front of the frustrated shopkeeper. Talk about rubbing it in!

Even before getting off the boat, you could sense how peaceful the island is. Whoever said that this island is largely untouched by tourism, wasn't lying. This is the real deal, in terms of being off the beaten track. Life here is as laid back as it could possibly be. Even though the island is quiet, and the locals don't want mass tourism, they make you feel so welcome here, and everyone seems to walk around with a huge smile on their face. Hardly surprising, when you see the beauty of their surroundings, and take account of their easy going way of life.

Most of the roads around here have concrete surfaces. There are a few areas where the concrete runs out, and you are driving along a dirt road, through the jungle. Seeing some of the tribal settlements along the way, reminded me of my jungle trek, in Chiang Mai, earlier in the trip. Everyone just seems to do enough work to get by, then spend the rest of their time surrounded by their nearest & dearest - the things that really matter, as I've previously mentioned.

What I especially love here, is how informal everything is. Checking into the hostel was just a matter of paying for it. Renting out a scooter was the exact same. They laughed at me, when I asked for a helmet! Everywhere else, there is a rigid policy of checking passports, filling out pointless details etc. Here, they put blind trust in you, on the assumption that you are just as honest as they are.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Songkran

Something I've noticed on my travels to South East Asia, is that there are a lot of very pale looking, local people here. I thought nothing of it, until someone explained to me, that people use a whitening cream (the opposite of fake tan) to give them a whiter complexion. The idea of it is that it will make the consumer look more Caucasian, rather than Oriental. I was completely speechless, for once!

This is an insecurity created by the media and it is very sad, in my opinion. White people want to be browner, so they use fake tan; Oriental people want to be paler, so they use a whitening cream. Why is that? In my opinion, it is because the media portrays images of what they think we should look like; this creates insecurities in people, so they end up thinking that they need to change. It's disgraceful that the media make people feel like they need to be different from the person that they are. Models, actors, pop stars etc., that we see in photos in magazines, don't really look like that. Just do a Google search for 'photo shopped celebrities before and after', and you will see what I mean. Anyway, rant over - it was just something that struck me along the way.

The Andaman Sea, that surrounds Koh Lanta, is warmer than any water I have ever swam in. Usually, if I'm going for a swim at home, I run into the water, dive under, realise how cold it is, then get out. Here, it is so different - it's just a case of run in and swim until you want to get out.

I've always been a huge fan of the sea. The sound of it is very relaxing and I always feel at ease when I'm near it, in it, or on it. Watching the sunset, on Khlong Khong beach, is a truly beautiful sight to behold. Looking out over the Andaman Sea, all you can see is boats on the horizon, numerous other islands and the sun, changing shade as it sinks deep into the clouds. The reflection of it, on the sea, seems to make a direct line to wherever you sit, as it always does, regardless of where you are.

Experiencing four seasons in one day is not unusual, where I am right now. Following the magical sunsets every night, there tends to be a tropical rain shower, that can last anywhere from five minutes to two hours. It can actually be quite refreshing to go out in it, to cool down, especially after the scorching heat during the day. As well as the rain, there is nearly always thunder and lightening. It may not be directly over head, but the flashes, in the distance, really light up the sky over Koh Lanta.

Strolling down the beach in the dark, the shore line becomes a street of it's own, with loads of bars & restaurants, and even a little mini-mart. The music is often questionable, the food is nearly always great, but it is the people that make this place such a great location to visit. Safety is never a concern here, and you could leave your wallet on your doorstep at night, to find it still there the next morning, guaranteed.

The weekend just gone, was the Thai New Year, or 'Songkran', as it is known locally. The New Year's celebrations went on until the very early hours of Sunday morning. For a small island, they really know how to throw a party. It was a very pleasant surprise. Following the party in the night, there is a huge water fight the following day, which was also another welcome surprise. Driving my scooter towards Saladan, the main town on the island, I was completely unaware of this water fight. By the time I reached Saladan, I was dripping wet, from head to toe.

There were people everywhere, of all ages, waiting for the opportunity to throw buckets of water onto people driving by. To fight back against the people on the side of the road, there were pick up trucks, with huge buckets of water, and plenty of people to give the roadside a taste of their own medicine! It was so much fun to be a part of it, and to see everyone enjoying themselves so much. The festive atmosphere of the whole day really made Songkran a New Year celebration worth remembering.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Island Life

After eight very relaxing days in Laos, I made my way from Vientiane back to Bangkok, so I could go towards the islands of southern Thailand. The overnight train from Vallaleng station to Bangkok took 12 hours, and was very comfortable, due to the fact that you get a bed. This was a lot more pleasant than the bus journeys I had taken over the previous few weeks. I knew Bangkok was big, but didn't realise just how far the city spread. Our train was travelling pretty fast and we were travelling through Bangkok's suburbs for the last 2 hours of the journey. Arriving at 6 a.m., I didn't expect the city to be very busy - the place was choc-a-block and there were hoards of people going about their day, or others concluding their night's partying!

My original plan, coming to Thailand, was to get off the beaten track. Due to the size of the tourism industry here, it is becoming increasingly difficult to wander the path less travelled. Luckily, I came across Koh Lanta, a small island in the Andaman Sea, South West of the mainland. It is nowhere near as busy as the more popular islands, like Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi, the island shown in the famous film, 'The Beach'.

Island life in Thailand seems to be even more laid back than the mainland; something I didn't think would be possible. Getting off the boat, there were taxis waiting to bring everyone to their accommodation. When I say taxi, I mean Honda 50 motorbikes with little side cars for the passengers to sit on. The journey of 12km took about 30 minutes, so we weren't exactly breaking any land speed records. 'What's the rush anyway', is the attitude of everyone here, something I warmed to straight away.

There is so much to write about the beauty of Koh Lanta, that I'm finding it difficult to decide what to include, and what to leave out. Driving around the island on a scooter is a great way to pass a day. As you go up the coast roads, there are many secluded beaches with perfect white sand and clear blue seas. The kind of ones you see in photos, and then question if the pictures are photo shopped to enhance them.

Some of the beaches have little bars on them, so you can cool down with a drink, after your swim. I must commend the owners of these bars on their resourcefulness - some of them are fully constructed from driftwood, held together by rope. They are class and fit very well into their locations. Unfortunately, the abundance of driftwood in the area is a tragic reminder of the tsunami, that hit the area in 2004. Many locals can still recall that tragedy as if it it were yesterday, and one guy nearly reduced me to tears, explaining his story to me.


The Southern end of the island is a National Park that is a dense rain forest with the lushest of lush, green trees all around. The trees go right down to meet the sea, almost all the way around the island. Some of these trees are upwards of 100 feet tall. Wild monkeys can be seen swinging in the trees as you drive. Some of them are at road level, scavenging for food from rubbish, carelessly thrown away.

Long Tail boats, the traditional Thai boats, have fascinated me for the last few years. They are lovely looking boats and their unusual looking engines always had me curious. It wouldn't have been a trip to this part of the World, for me, if I didn't get to hit the seas in one, so I organised a snorkelling trip that was hosted on a Long Tail boat. The guides on the trip were very experienced sea men - being at sea is their whole life, like a lot of islanders. They knew every nook and cranny, of every cove, that was worth visiting for snorkelling. The water was so clear that you could easily see 40 feet below where we swam. Tropical fish, of every colour, were just as curious about us, as we were about them.
When we got to one cave, we had to put life jackets on, as we were creating a human chain, to swim 80 metres into the darkness of it. Imagine our surprise when we swam through the cave to end up on a tiny beach on the other side, that could only be reached by swimming through the darkness of the ancient looking cavern. There were cliffs towering above our heads, all around this isolated beach. Trees were growing on the side of these cliffs, and you could see the roots coming out through the rock. I'm still trying to figure out how rock can support this form of life, growing into it!

Getting back out to our boat was traumatic, as by the time we got back to the opening of the cave, where the boat was anchored, there was a freak swell after picking up. It was really hammering the opening of the cave. Our guide was very calm and he got us out of there after a few very nervous minutes. Getting out of the cave was the first problem; getting back to the boat was the next, as it was moored quite a distance away, and swimming with a life jacket on, is tough. We had to let our human chain disband, so the stronger swimmers could swim to the boat. The rest of the party climbed on board a boat that was closer. All the guides from the other boats were just as surprised as our guide, at the swell, that had put a dampener on everyone's day. There was a lot of panic, but thankfully, everyone escaped injury. I felt bad for our guide, as he apologised to us, even though he did everything in his power to make sure we were all safe.

The swell going back to shore really showed what the Long Tail boats are made of. The side of our boat was being hit by wave after wave, and the vessel just ploughed through them effortlessly. The swell came over the side of the boat at one point and still, it motored on without strain. Needless to say, the boat lived up to all my expectations, as has Koh Lanta. I'd highly recommend it.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Vientiane

Laos has been growing on me, steadily, for the last week or so. Luang Prabang started off slowly. Then I    realised that the attraction of the place is the laid back way of life. At first, I was worried that I was wasting time, just lazing about, people watching. Then, I realised that it's not wasted time if you enjoyed doing it.

If anyone does find themselves in Luang Prabang, make sure to check out Kuang Si waterfall. It is like heaven on Earth - you'll see for yourself when you get there. The waterfalls flow down on top of limestone rock, and this makes the colour of the water a very bright blue. It is really magical and to top it all off, you can go swimming there - guaranteed to cool you down. It was a much needed swim, especially in the 40 degree heat.

Vientiane was my next port of call, after Luang Prabang. This is the capital city of Laos and like the rest of the country, I hadn't done a whole lot of research on this city. The road to Vientiane was an interesting one. It was one hair pin turn after another, for most of the journey. This was in a double decker coach, so we were crawling for most of the 12 hour road trip. At some points during the journey, we were looking down sheer cliff edges, as our 20 metre long coach took these turns that were, at times, more acute than right angles. It was pretty impressive driving. The rugged countryside of Laos is very beautiful and it seems very peaceful. We were so high up, it could be seen as far as my eyesight could stretch.

Getting off the bus in Vientiane at 4.30a.m, I was really looking forward to getting to my hostel and putting my head down for a few hours. A short tuk-tuk journey turned into a nightmare, when the driver couldn't find the hostel. Driving around in circles for more than 2 hours, eventually ending up in a really run down part of Vientiane, I feared for my own safety, for the first time on this trip. The feeling of being completely helpless was hard to take, as being robbed seemed like a very real threat, at that moment in time. Asking the driver to bring me somewhere central, he kept making excuses to drive a little longer. Hence, my fear. Luckily, the tuk-tuk driver admitted that he had no idea where he was going and all my initial fears amounted to, was a half hour walk. The sun was starting to come up as well, so I felt a little safer.

Having little research done on Laos, I went to the COPE Foundation headquarters to spend a morning learning about one of the most significant occurrences in the country's short existence. The COPE Foundation builds prosthetic limbs and rehabilitates people that have lost limbs, as a result of unexploded bombs going off in their vicinity. Laos was the victim of a US attack in the 1960s, that saw them drop 260 million bombs on this passive, neutral nation. 30% of these bombs never detonated and the repercussions of this, still result in people losing limbs, eyesight and even their lives, to this day. If you take the ratio of bombs:people, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the World. It was very upsetting to see the documentaries on the subject. Seeing people still risking their lives, out of necessity, to farm the land, was disturbing. Hearing the stories of the survivors, some completely blind and with no limbs, really hit home the point, that no matter where you are in life, there is always someone worse off than you.

Staying on the subject of people being worse off than you, I bumped into a guy at the Laos/Thailand border, who had just been released from prison in Laos, for overstaying his visa. He spent 6 weeks in jail for outstaying his welcome. I'm just throwing that in there as a heads up for anyone intending to travel to Laos. This guy looked worn out, hungry and tired, but he was very positive about his experience. It really takes an open minded individual to see the bright side of the ordeal he had been through. He commended the camaraderie of his fellow inmates, all of whom were foreign and behind bars for similar offences.

The idea of incarcerating someone, for staying too long in a country, seems alien to me. Being honest, and at the risk of being criticized for my idealism, the idea of borders & the ownership of land seems alien to me as well. Going back, who gave anyone the right to say 'I own that piece of land and you can't walk on it'? It doesn't make sense at all. Surely we should all be free to go wherever we want, whenever we want, as no one really owns the Earth. Wishful thinking out of me, I know!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Mixed Bag

Leaving Pai was always going to be difficult. The place really felt like home, away from home, for the few days I was there. Still though, it is good to leave a place while the going is good, so I feel like I got out at the right time.

Following a day long delay in Pai, it was time to make the 7 1/2 hour bus journey to Chiang Khong. Thankfully, the driver wasn't in too much of a hurry, which meant the journey was very comfortable. The only drawback of this journey, was that it was dark for pretty much all of it, so it was difficult to take in the beauty of the Thai countryside. In the grand scheme of life, that is a fairly small problem.

After about 5 hours on the road, I noticed, from the sounds of the tyres on the tarmac, that it had been raining. This was the first drop of rain I had encountered since landing in Bangkok, almost three weeks previously. All of a sudden, we were smack, bang in the middle of this crazy, tropical storm. The rain was heavier than anything I had ever seen, there were branches of trees all over the road, as well as a few fallen trees. I have to hand it to the driver, he really took it in his stride, considering the conditions. You could easily sense the anxiety from everyone else on the minibus. The lightening was a bright white and it lit up the surroundings, very brightly. The silhouette of the trees and mountains was pretty spectacular, as was the sight of thousands of frogs leaping all over the road - probably out of joy, at the presence of water.

After a short sleep in Chiang Khong, it was time to cross the Laos border. As border crossings go, this was pretty stressful. The officials coordinating my crossing were grossly incompetent and were trying everything to make a few quid off everyone in our group. When I eventually got to the border, it was like a cattle mart, trying to organise and pay for the visa. Maybe it was my lack of sleep, maybe it was the feeling of being ripped off, or possibly, a combination of the two, but I had a sour taste in my mouth as my initial impression of Laos. I wasn't alone in having this opinion.

A slow boat down the Mekong River is as good a way as any, for Laos to show itself off as a country. An old, rickety boat was my home for the next 10 hours or so. The Mekong twists and turns for quite a stretch. Each twist and turn reveals an even more authentically, primitive culture than their close neighbour, Thailand. Tribal villages were nestled on the side of hills all along the river. The river was pretty low in water, as it is the dry season. The tribal villages are built at an elevation, maybe 40 or 50 feet above where we were cruising. They are built so high to account for how high the water rises when the rainy season starts. It was staggering to see how high the water marks go, all along the banks of the river. I can only imagine the volume of rain that falls during the wet season. If it was my parents house at home, it would be underwater for part of the year!

I keep having so many wonderful experiences and meeting so many truly amazing people, that I think this trip can't possibly get any better. Surprisingly, it does and here I am again, overwhelmed at the whole thing. I still don't know what to make of Laos though. It is very beautiful, the people, for the most part, are friendly - though nowhere near as friendly as the people in Thailand. For me, there is something missing from this place, but I can't put a finger on it.

Having an early morning coffee in Utopia Bar in Luang Prabang, I realised what it is that makes Laos so different, for me anyway. Utopia Bar is this very beautiful, tranquil bar, with all sorts of plants and flowers growing in it. There is two decks overlooking the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the massive Mekong River. This bar is full of tourists, except a few local staff. As I sat there, sipping my coffee, relaxing and taking in my beautiful surroundings, I could see many local fishermen going about their work, casting nets and bringing them in again. It looked like back breaking work. It struck me then, that those guys below me, in the river, couldn't afford to buy a drink in the bar I was in, if they put all their weeks wages together. The divide between rich and poor is very obvious here, and most people haven't got two pennies to rub together. All they have is the smile on their face. Laos is an extremely poor country. You rarely see old people here and a local that I spoke to, told me it is because a person usually dies when they get sick.

Now I could understand, a bit better, people's desperation to earn money. They see it as their ticket to a better future - maybe not for them, but for a loved one. Family is a very important concept here and having spoken to that local, I now have a much greater appreciation of Laos, and the struggles of its people.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Good times

Following a cycle into the countryside on Thursday, we stopped for 'one' drink in the Buffalo Bar on the way home. This pub is a little gem and as happens occasionally, 'one' drink can turn into quite a few. These random, unplanned parties are usually the ones worth remembering; we definitely got our monies worth on this particular night.

Sitting at a rather large table, there was people coming and going all night. Everyone was welcome and each person was just as much a stranger to each other, as the one previous. There was an open mic on, so some were singing in that and a few people had the chance to play their instruments by playing with the back up band. There is something about live music that really lifts people's energy. At one point in the night, the table was so culturally diverse that there was ten countries represented - not bad for a town that is a fraction of the size of my hometown, Dungarvan!

It is time to go discover fresher pastures. Heading East of Pai, later today (Saturday, 22nd March) we are going towards Chiang Khong, for an overnight stay in the riverside town. We will then cross the Mekong River border, into Laos and the next leg of the adventure will begin. I haven't done a whole lot of research on this country, so getting lost, in the hope of stumbling upon a hidden mecca is the aim of this step of the journey.

As I write, I am swinging on a hammock overlooking the river Pai. We have been delayed by a day, so another night in Pai is on the cards. I for one, am definitely not complaining. There is a few things that I never got around to doing, so maybe it is fate that I'm here for another night. To get to where I am staying tonight, you have to walk across a bridge, made from bamboo. It is actually falling apart, bit by bit.There are boards missing here & there, and it felt like such a novelty to cross it, knowing that in most other countries, a bridge in this condition would be under the scrutiny of the health and safety authorities. Not here; anything goes, as I've said before!

What did I say about fate? Staying in Pai for an extra night, meant I got the opportunity to bump into some people that were on the jungle trek with me, in Chiang Mai. Having many unfinished conversations from before, we got to further cement our friendship by concluding prior conversations and giving ourselves excuses to meet further on in life, so we can end the chats that started tonight. There are numerous ways of being wealthy and I feel like I am a wealthier person, as a result of the friends I have made throughout this journey.

I've never made a secret of the fact that I suffer from depression. It has shaped who I am today. I've no way of explaining why, but one of the things that got me particularly down over the years, was the passage of time. I used to dwell on what time actually is and the fact that we have a finite time here on Earth. A morbid fear of death might be a more accurate description for these feelings. Not knowing when it would all end, for me, was a very prominent fear. It is ironic that this fear actually prevented me from living, as I was so consumed by why time existed, that it actually put many constraints on my ability to function as a person.

Over the last few years, I have come to believe that your time is up when it is supposed to be. This mindset has really freed my mind of the restrictions previously put on it by my depressive state. It is human nature to put such restrictions on ourselves. If we believe we can't do something, then we can't. On the contrary, if we know we can do something, the possibilities are endless.

To put some context on what I've just said in the last couple of paragraphs, renting a scooter, in Pai, was one of the best things I have ever done. Leaving all fears aside, I decided to bite the bullet and just go for it. Driving to various waterfalls and a hot spring were amazing. I could easily see why motorcycle is the preferred method of transport in this part of the World. Driving along, with the breeze in my face, was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. True freedom and just accepting that, what will be, will be. More of the same please!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Pai in the sky

My time in Chiang Mai has come to an end. I am going to post a rough guide to the city in the next week or two. Next stop on the journey, Pai, a remote town in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It is a three hour journey, that we took by mini bus.

I am counting my blessings that I am in a position to write this post - the driver of our mini bus was an absolute lunatic; he put all his passengers lives at risk for the whole journey. Once we got off the motorway, the roads were winding up and down hills for quite some time. It was bizarre to see wild cattle grazing on the side of the road along the way. As we motored along these winding roads, I would hazard a guess that we spent as much time on the wrong side of the road, as we did on the right side, our driver always trying to make the corners easier to take. To put it politely, my heart was in my mouth for the whole journey

Throughout Thailand, you can really sense how laid back it is. Everyone seems to be doing something, but no one seems to be in a hurry. Pai is no different. Our bus got here at about 9p.m. and the place was really mellow. The night sounds of nature were very noticeable, as I walked around trying to find somewhere to stay. In the darkness of night, I really began to like this place.

Having slept poorly, I got up early on my first morning and decided to look around the town, that had been recommended to me by so many people. Being in the bottom of a valley, the mountains surrounding Pai are like a protective wall, surrounding the town. It is fair to say that I liked Pai from the start. Friendly vibes are extended from everyone, tourist and local alike. There are many free spirited souls in Pai, finding themselves, on their travels. I have met some really amazing people and heard many inspirational stories.

Tattoo shops are thriving in this town, as many people want a piece of art that is symbolic of their journey, be it a spiritual journey or a back packing experience. I guess it is a feeling of freedom to be ones self, as back home in the Western World, there are many things you need to consider before decorating your body with ink or piercings, such as what an employer may think, for example. In my own opinion, I think it is a pity that people are judged based on their taste in hairstyles, body art etc. One should only be judged on the content of their character.

Strangely, there was a power outage in the whole town on my second night. In spite of the lack of light and power, most businesses managed to stay open using candle light. Restaurants were still cooking, using gas. Walking around in the darkness, you would never think we were missing something, that many of us take for granted. People were getting on with life - some were singing in bars, some were playing musical instruments and others were chatting amongst themselves. For the second time on my journey through South East Asia (the first time being out in the jungle), it felt like I was brought back to basics. I am now convinced that this is the main lesson of the trip; as long as you have family, friends, a roof over your head and food to eat, life will be OK.

An early morning yoga class is a great way to start any day. It loosens the muscles and sets the mind up for the day ahead of you. Nestled into the side of a hill, was the bamboo hut that the yoga class took place in. The stretches were made a lot easier, when the view from my perch was one of sheer beauty - mountains, trees and nature; you can't go wrong!

I feel that I should give a mention to the place I'm staying in, for my time in Pai, OOr-U-Pai. As back packing goes, this place is very off the beaten track, even though it is very central to the town of Pai. The owner is extremely friendly and he couldn't be more helpful if he tried. There are bikes available, free of charge, there is always a fresh fruit breakfast and after a few days here, he was asking how much we wanted to pay for the rooms.

Making use of the bikes offered, I cycled around the countryside for a few hours. Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of cycling, but I really enjoyed it here; I think it was the combination of beautiful surroundings and the warm breeze on my face, that made it so pleasant. I could definitely get used to a life in Pai!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Same country, different Worlds (part 2)

Same country, different Worlds, continued...

Following the village visit, we took off trekking towards the jungle, walking through the village's agricultural land, where they grow rice, soy and a variety of other crops. They don't use mechanical equipment and I was imagining, in my own mind, how labour intensive it must be, when it comes to harvesting these crops. Apparently, the whole village helps out. This kind of socialism seems to work very well for these indigenous people. No such thing as greed; just all for one and one for all. It truly was a privilege to get a glimpse into this way of life, and those people touched my heart, more than they could possibly know.

Marching on through the jungle, there was very little our tour guide, Lan, didn't know about the various leaves and fruits that you could eat. Some tasty, others the polar opposite! If you were stuck out there, you'd never go hungry - the variety of edibles seemed to be endless.

Not being used to the heat (never mind long distance walking in it!), some of the group were eager to take a break after a while. Lan encouraged us to walk a little further, promising a very nice surprise a few minutes further up the trek. Reluctantly, we pushed on and the reward was worth the slog, when we came to a natural spring that we all splashed around in for a while. It was beyond refreshing, and I think the group would back me up in saying that all of our faces were sore from smiling, at the whole experience.

When we finally got to our resting place, I felt like I was dreaming. Just below the hut that we would be sleeping in, was a huge waterfall with a pond that we could swim in. You could hear the water crashing off the rocks from where you laid your head, which I found very soothing. There were trees towering 100s of feet above our heads, housing all sorts of tropical birds and butterflies. As clichéd as it may sound, I was at one with nature and I had never felt as chilled out, as I did out there.

The beauty of our surroundings contributed to the groups chemistry and we all got to know each other, talking about everything, and nothing at the same time. My words are only vaguely descriptive, at best. It was just one of those things that you'd need to be there for, to really appreciate how enhancing it was, for everyone  present.

The second day of the trek saw us trek to a Buddhist temple, in the middle of nowhere. In my heart of hearts, I was disappointed to be going to another temple, as I had seen quite a few already, in Chiang Mai. The guide told us, that this temple was like no other. He said no more and I took him at face value. I can assertively say, that this temple was like no other. Stuck, in the heart of the jungle, lays this magnificent temple, with trees and shrubs of every conceivable colour surrounding it. The only way to get to it is by a dirt road through the wilderness of the jungle. The general ambience of the place was one of complete serenity. I don't know how to describe the beauty of this place any better, so it is probably best to leave it at that, as words are failing me - a common occurance of this trip, it would seem!!

Waking up on the third day, I was disappointed to be leaving the jungle. The trekking part was finished with and we were heading back to Chiang Mai, via an elephant centre to go elephant back riding. Long before that, I had decided that I wouldn't take part in this activity. I had read somewhere previously, that the process of taming elephants is called 'the crush'. This literally means that, from birth, the elephant's spirit is completely crushed, until they become submissive to humans. The others on the tour were taking part, so I had to stop by with them. I just waited at a nearby coffee shop. From my seat in the coffee shop, I could clearly see what was happening in the elephant centre below.

When I saw how the elephants were treated, I felt so bad for them; I wanted to do something to help them, but the only thing I could realistically do at that time, was to stay away from them. I became very pensive, and found myself wondering, how their human handlers could live with themselves for treating an animal this way. I'm glad that I stuck to my guns, and didn't go near the elephants that day, as I would carry the guilt forever more. This was an upsetting end to my 3 days in the jungle. On reflection, sadness is one of the only emotions I didn't feel while I was out there, so maybe it was good to get it out of my system before getting back to Chiang Mai.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Same country, different Worlds

After a few days in Bangkok, I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake in my choice of destinations. I was feeling a little bit deflated, if the truth be known. My next stop was Chiang Mai, and I decided to get the bus, which was a gruelling 10 hours. My decision to travel by road, as opposed to air, was made based on the fact that I could see some of the countryside as I went. Thailand is a truly beautiful country and the road trip to Chiang Mai really illustrated a different country, than the one portrayed by Bangkok.

Chiang Mai is a really laid back, sleepy city, at the same time as being explosively energetic. You'd have to experience it for yourself, to understand where I am coming from. It is warm and welcoming; my trip really only began once I got here.

Trying the local food and visiting Wat Luang Temple were among the highlights. When you set foot inside the temples, you instantly feel at peace. They are so tranquil and the monks that live in them, keep them in tip-top condition.

I wrote the opening three paragraphs of this post on Saturday, 8th March. It is now Wednesday, 12th March and I have been completely humbled, by three amazing days in the jungle of Northern Thailand. The group that did the trek, was full of great people and we all gelled together very nicely. The first day of the trek was the single best day of my life, to date. Everyone was just being themselves and it was really special. There is a lot to be said for feeling like you can just be yourself around others.

There is something very primitive about rafting down a river valley on a raft made out of 8 bamboo shoots. The sounds of the river and the jungle inhabitants, the animals & insects, going about there day, is very endearing. After an hour on the river, we went to a tribal village that is very off the beaten track.


I've never felt as welcome as I felt in this indigenous village that day. Many of the tribes people were just sitting about, relaxing, having their lunch. It was a really sociable occasion and we were made feel at home, when they offered us some of their cuisine. At first, my cynical side had me thinking that they were after our money, or that there would be a sales pitch somewhere along the way. One should never make assumptions. Lesson learned! We had actually just arrived into the village on the day of a wedding, and the locals just wanted us to help them celebrate.

One thing that really struck me, is how genuinely content these people seemed. They all wore huge smiles and seemed so relaxed. It was obvious to me that they knew what really mattered in life - family, friends, being together. Things like Facebook, Twitter and branded goods meant nothing to them, and they're probably better off for it! The irony of that last sentence, as I sit here writing a blog!!!

This post is getting long now, so I will continue it on another post in the coming days


...to be continued

Friday, 7 March 2014

Bangkok, not really my cup of scald!

My mind has been blown - i'm just throwing that out there as an opening to this post! Anyone I have ever met that has set foot in Bangkok, has always offered the same few words of advice-

"Be prepared for the culture shock"

If i've said the word 'overwhelming' once this week, i've said it 100 times. It is hard to put into words, just how overwhelming the city of Bangkok really is. The number of people, the volume of traffic, the aroma of food, the heat, the noise and the general hustle & bustle of a thriving city, all contribute to the energetic vibe of this metropolis.

Riding along the ancient streets on a Tuk Tuk is a great way to get around. If you can get over the bumpy ride, it is really pleasant driving along, as the breeze really cools you down. The driver was probably bringing us around the World for sport, trying to boost his earnings, but it meant we could take in a lot more than we could on foot. Street after street of dilapidated buildings. We turned a corner then, and the influence of the West was really present. Something didn't seem right, when I saw hundreds of ancient looking, galvanized warehouses, and smack bang in the middle, sits a DHL facility, similar to one you'd see at home. It looked odd, and very out of place.

For me, part of this trip was about getting lost and just going with the situations I found myself in. Walking around some obscure part of Bangkok on Thursday, I stumbled upon a really random little festival. There was stalls left, right and centre, selling everything from whole fish, cooked on skewers to flip flops and other clothes. The funny thing is, that this festival was taking place on the grounds of a Buddhist Temple. Having done a course on Buddhism, my impression was that Buddhists embraced themselves and their spirituality, in the hope of one day, finding enlightenment. This festival, from my perspective, seemed to be the complete opposite of that. This was definitely a capitalist venture from where I was observing, and the Buddhist monks appeared to be the ring leaders. Again, bizarre!!

Speaking of capitalism, John Perkins, best selling author of 'Confessions of an Economic Hitman', explains it as, doing whatever it takes to make money, regardless of the expense to the natural World. He went one step further, to say that many true capitalists would be happy to make money at any expense to other people. My experience of Thailand thus far, would indicate that it is a highly capitalist country, and that John Perkin's description of true capitalists is bang on the money, no pun intended!

I guess it is a matter of opinion, but I would consider myself an open-minded individual. Judging people is not my thing. However, my heart has broken a couple of times here, as I watch Western men, in their droves, exploiting innocent children/teenagers that haven't had a chance to live their own lives yet. It is not right and I find it very difficult to a) bite my tongue when I see vulnerable people being taken advantage of and b) not be judgmental.

There is something very sinister about a society that sits idly by and lets this happen, all in the name of capitalism. My stomach is actually turning as I type this. Is the money, that these Western men spend in the tourism industry, really worth it? Do the local authorities place that much value on these guys money, that they are willing to exploit their very own people? It boggles my mind and I think it is a sad indictment of humanity. For the record, that is not a politically motivated statement; i'm just writing from the heart!

That's it from me, from Bangkok; next stop Chiang Mai :-) 



Thursday, 6 March 2014

24 hours in...

Breathtaking is the only adjective I can think of, to describe the sunrise I witnessed, as I was flying into Bangkok. We flew from daylight into darkness, and back to daylight again. It was spectacular. Above an expansive sea of clouds, the sun was giving off this beautiful, orange light; it was a more intense shade than I had ever seen.

Everyone on the flight was getting really edgy, myself included. Hardly surprising after 10 hours in the air. When the time came for us to make our descent and we got the instruction to open the blinds over the windows, the sun rise, in all it's beauty, injected a new lease of life into the exhausted passengers. There was a collective sigh of relief as we knew this long journey was nearing its end.

Thailand, the land of a thousand smiles. My first impression of the people was the complete opposite of that sentiment. Perhaps that was something to do with the unearthly hour that we arrived at, but the people I first encountered were far from smiling.

It was only about 7a.m. and after passing through the visa check point, I made my way to the train so I could get to my hotel. The heat at that hour was already overwhelming, especially as I was wearing a pair of jeans and a hoody. Luckily, the train journey was only 20 minutes and my hotel was another minute walk. However, I didn't get to my hotel for another 20 minutes, as I had to cross the road at the busiest junction I have ever seen. It was absolutely crazy - there was no traffic lights and the traffic was coming from four directions, non stop. It was a traffic free for all, and I was in the middle of it, tired and confused.

It worked out well in the end, glad to report. Watching a few locals, I realised that the drivers are courteous, and if you walk out, they will stop and let you pass. That said, it'd be wise to watch how the natives do it, a few times, before taking your life in your hands in such a way!

The expression "anything goes" took on a whole new meaning for me, as I strolled around Bangkok for the first time. Walking down lane ways wide enough for two people, and next thing you're being beeped at, to get out of the way, so a local can whizz past you on a moped. Some of these mopeds may have 3 or 4 people on them, and believe it or not, they could also have the family pet. They'd be doing well if they had a helmet between the lot of them! Bizarre, to say the least. Being honest, that description is pretty mild compared to some of the other stuff I saw; more sinister things, that I will save for another post.

Behind the main streets, there is a really extensive network of lanes throughout Bangkok, that give a real glimpse into the lives of the city's dwellers. Many of them have stalls, selling food, at the front of their homes and you can see the families going about their home life as you walk idly by. For me, it was along these paths that Thailand redeemed itself as the land of a thousand smiles.The people were very friendly and you could tell from the glint in their eyes, that their smiles were genuine.

Monday, 3 March 2014

In preparation

Finally, the time has come for me to suppress this travel bug, that has been making my feet itch for quite some time. I thought the time would never come, but one resounding lesson from my previous 30 years stands out; everything comes to an end - including waiting.

Preparing for my travels has proven to be a self reflective process, and I have learned a lot about myself during the last few months. One thing I have learnt is that I hate clutter and hoarding belongings. Another thing I have learnt, or more like solidified my feelings on, is my complete lack of desire for material goods. Through growing up in a Western society, it has become custom for people to accumulate all sorts of material goods throughout their lives- Books, CDs, MP3 players, ornaments, gadgets, clothes etc. A direct result of living in a consumer driven society, me thinks!

In preparation for my own journey, I decided to get rid of everything I own, which I felt I wouldn't use again, either on my travels or when I return - golf clubs, clothes, old copy books from school, old bank statements, phone bills to name but a few. Why did I still have a lot of these things? I have no idea, but I feel very liberated, having rid myself of so many things that have been laying idle for God knows how long! It's not like I have, or ever will look back on my bank statements for fond memories of being broke from one end of the month to the next!

Having a very varied wardrobe was never a huge priority for me. Just take a look at any photos of me from over the years and that will become patently obvious. The only way you'd be able to tell if it was a different occasion would be by looking at my hair length. 

I donated most of my clothes to charity shops. Reducing my wardrobe significantly means I will be travelling very light; this is one of my favourite things to do. Perhaps it is a fear of being responsible for too many things, or just a necessity to limit the strain on my, already weak, spine. My rucksack is classified as hand luggage, so I will avoid queues at airports for checking in luggage. When I land, I can just walk straight off the plane without having to wait for my luggage to be loaded onto the carousel. It may not sound like much, but that is a lot of hassle and time saved, in my humble opinion.

Some of my inspiration for this trip has been taken from a couple, Simon and Erin, that are currently travelling the World and making a living while doing so. They literally packed up their whole lives in the UK, for a life of travel and they have been on the road for quite some time. Obviously, they have a lot of tips to share and I have taken many of them on board myself. You'll even notice a similarity between some of the things I have written, as it is direct advice I took from their website. If you're thinking of heading off on your travels, check out their website and you'll surely take something of value from it. Here is a link:

For the first time in my life, I am going to be leaving the Western World behind me, in the hope of embracing new cultures and experiences. I am feeling all sorts of apprehension, anxiety and excitement about the upcoming few months. Who will I meet, what will I see, where will I go? Stay tuned and I will keep you posted.

Sláinte,

Mick