Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Something new to learn

Ok, you caught me. Yes, in the last blog I did only say what mom and dad were doing next and left myself out. The reason was that I am not going home but wasn't sure what I was doing next. I have been toying with a few ideas, most of which involve never coming back. I have started the application for a working holiday visa for Australia and expect to go back there sometime to mostly work I guess. I was expecting to go right after getting solo status but that has now been delayed by a couple of months.
Ko Tao, hmmm... I know I trashed it a little bit and it's a lot more touristy that I would normally be found hanging around in but really, it is so nice here in the water and we didn't leave fast enough so I have now become sucked in. I have actually signed up to do the Divemaster course and become a professional scuba diver. If you go back and read the first blog about diving back in Egypt this turn of events will be almost as shocking to you as it is to me. Originally they had to literally drag me out to do the open water and I was convinced I was going to die. Life is so strange..... Am I that obsessed and crazy about diving? Honestly, no, I don't think so. But I guess the temptation to live in tropical paradise, hang out on the beach and really challenge myself learning something again sounded a lot better than washing dishes or picking fruit in Australia. Of course if the water here was anything less than 30C I would not have even considered staying for even a second. As it is, since I am so short on diving experience, I will have to stay here for a couple of months to finish the training and qualifications.
At the end of summer with everything finished I still think I will go to Australia and maybe check out work options on the Great Barrier Reef. Actually, this is in a way a very strategic move because I am missing the South Pacific and Caribbean as major travel destinations to see and this way I will be much more able to make it happen. Or at least justify it.....
Right now I am doing my Rescue Diver course before officially becoming a Divemaster Trainee (DMT). The cost for the courses is about $1500 and includes lifetime free diving here starting now. I will rent a room for $150 a month (at the dive resort) and try not to spend too much on all the rest. I think I'll have to avoid buying any of my own gear for now. It's just way too expensive.
On another note, I have finally applied for graduation from SFU to get my BSc. I only left 4 years ago and it took that long to admit to myself that I wasn't going to come back and do anymore work there. It won't be done until October officially and if someone had told me that I would be a pro scuba diver before I got my degree I'd've locked him up.
PS. Someone, anyone, come visit me this summer!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Krabi to Ko Tao

Krabi ended up being another Penang for us as somehow we ended up staying there a full week and didn’t even get out to the nearby beaches (which are the main reason everyone comes to Krabi in the first place). We spent a lot of time on the internet monitoring Bre and Ben’s progress and completely screwed up our schedule to the point of not getting our day started until well into the afternoon. Paul continued to stay in a separate hotel and frequently visited us. Sounds weird I know, but it worked out. On one of the days Paul and I went to the nearby Tiger Cave Buddhist monastery/temple complex. It is a little strange to name it Tiger Cave, because although there is a temple with a cave at the back of it, the main attraction now is the temple and giant golden Buddha statue at the top of the hill. The top of the hill was about 1200 steps up and I would’ve hated to have been the monks that built them. Some steps were like a ladder on a sheer dropoff. Very cool but I was out of shape and had sweat literally pouring off me by the end. The view was amazing until yet another storm hit. I was quite happy with the fact that we managed to hitch back into town too.
The Thai really are much more friendly than the Malay, although I have to admit it is very frustrating at times too. Thailand has to be the easiest tropical country in the world to travel in. You don’t have to do anything. Just wake up, breathe and reach into your wallet and everything is done for you. It is back to guesthouses that organize everything for you and although every shop and person that speaks English claims to have tourist information, it is almost impossible to actually get any unbiased information. It usually works something like this: Me- “Hi. Do you know the bus schedule to X?” Them - “Well, we have minibuses to X at such and such times.” Me - “No, I mean at the bus station.” Them - “Well, our minibuses pick you up and it will cost you the same to take the bus (definitely not a true statement), blah, blah, blah“. Anyway, they’ll never tell you anything that doesn’t involve buying something from them because after the minibus they can also organize your next hotel, meal, etc. If you don’t know what you are doing and want service, it’s great and you have nothing to worry about out here.
We have had rain almost daily now for the past couple weeks. It still doesn’t last long and is usually at night or early in the morning so hasn’t bothered us too much. Paul left us to go to Phuket from where he was flying back to Singapore and then home and after an extra day in Krabi (we missed the last bus out) we caught a bus to Surat Thani, from where we caught an overnight ferry to Ko Tao. The ferry is a small thing with mats along either side to sleep on and if you were to actually have it full and everyone in their numbered slots (there are 56) then you’d be getting really cozy with the people on either side of you. We were lucky because it was only half full and were able to comfortably spread out.
We arrived in Ko Tao at about 7am and since we didn’t have any idea what we wanted to do other than our next dive course, we just waited for some touts to give us a deal. Yes, I actually just wrote that. I was waiting to get touted… It worked and we ended up at Ban’s Diving Resort, one of many on the main beach strip of Sai Ree. It’s supposed to be the off season now but it is still very busy. They pretty much are resorts too but with most of the guests backpackers like us with a desire to scuba dive. If you aren’t going to dive it’s not really worth coming out here, as there are many other beach areas in Thailand that are cheaper and easier to get to. But how can you resist diving out here? Actually, it seems nobody can. I was told by one of the dive masters that Ko Tao is the 2nd busiest certification spot on the planet. I can believe it, wow there are a lot of people out here. I’ve noticed that we are not nearly as eaten by mosquitoes as a lot of the others here. Maybe we really are more “local” now. They don’t ever seem to have any bites.
To our horror and delight we have found that psychologically, when you get to the end, it just doesn’t matter anymore. When there is no money left, you might as well spend it and if there is no time left you might as well enjoy it like never before. So in addition to our sudden massage addiction, we have added diving to the list.
We did our Advanced Open Water course which involved 5 dives over 2 days, including a deep dive to 30m and a night dive. There were 11 people in our course (they divide it up during the dives) and Ban’s is only one of dozens of dive shops here. All 3 of us did the course and we had a great time. We were also extremely lucky because on our first dive we saw a 6m whale shark!! They are found here but are not nearly as common as they are at Donsol in the Philippines where we saw one before. Somehow, even though it swam right under our boat when we jumped in the water a bunch of people didn’t see it. Mom had missed the whale shark at Donsol so it was good for her to finally see one as they are really cool animals. The night dive was awesome too because halfway through it we got to turn off our lights and swim completely in the dark with the phosphorescence! The other divers seemed to be glowing as they moved around us. Very, very cool.
The problem with diving out at Ko Tao is the crowds. It’s just way too busy at each dive site and if you don’t watch where you are going you are going to run into another group and get kicked in the head. On the surface preparing to descend, if you look down everywhere below you, all you see is bubbles coming up from all the divers below. It’s terrible to have so many people everywhere without some sort of traffic controller, haha. Actually, Ko Tao is great to get certified and do a course, but I wouldn’t ever come back to do any fun dives. I’ll admit that I enjoyed the Philippines more with it’s lack of crowds, slightly better visibility and turtles. The best part about Ko Tao is that the water is 30C and doesn’t get colder as you go deeper. That is so warm. Finally some water that did not make me even think about getting cold! I still wore a shorty wetsuit, but most people were diving without. Of course we continued to be lazy and didn’t leave Ko Tao right after finishing our dives but proceeded to sit around the restaurant reading and “recovering” until it got to the point where we couldn’t resist the temptation to go diving once again! Yep, 2 more dives and some major schools of fish to see. I still stand by my first assessment though, there are just too many people here. The terrible reality is that right now I am tempted to stay and keep doing more diving courses. I haven’t had a sports obsession in a while and I also haven’t learned anything in a while so the temptation is quite strong and actually not all that unreasonable. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m at the end of my trip and have no money left….
Our diving instructor was a great British guy and after our first day of 3 dives he told us that he was also the MC for the Thai boxing that is done a couple times a month here on Ko Tao. Dad and I went and our instructor saved us some seats in the front row. Thai boxing or Muay Thai is pretty crazy stuff. The fighters are tiny to look at but obviously tough. They wear boxing gloves but are allowed to kick, knee and elbow each other. The matches are only 5 rounds of 3 minutes each but on our night only 1 of the 7 fights lasted until the end. 6 ended in knockouts. Very entertaining if you like blood sports. Gambling is illegal here but that doesn’t stop the crowds from gambling amongst themselves and getting right into the battle with every blow accompanied by a loud “Uhhnn!” from the crowd. Mom didn’t go, but dad really enjoyed it, especially when one of the fighters was kneed in the crotch and to “recover” had water poured down his shorts by his trainer. Yeah, that always works….
Our next stop will be Bangkok if and when we ever get motivated to leave here. It’ll have to be soon though because mom and dad have now bought their tickets to fly home. They leave here on the 3rd and go first to Holland for a week before finally arriving home.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Paul's Journey

The last time I traveled with Ammon, and Maggie, it was three years ago, in India. I was with them for five weeks, and considering it was the first time I really tried to be a backpacker, I got the crash course on traveling on a budget. Back then when we parted I said, “When you guys reach SE Asia, let me know and I’ll be there.” Sure enough I kept that promise I made in '06.

I can certainly say that this trip was a lot easier then my first. Coming from Vancouver, Canada to Singapore, I got over my jet lag and adapted to the humidity in only three days. Even though I haven’t lived on this side of the world since I was 6, I had an easier time adapting to the changes. I guess I sort of also had an advantage of kind of looking like I belonged here. But it didn’t take the locals very long to realize that I was a foreigner. My stubborn insistence on wearing shoes and socks was one sign. The tone of my English was another giveaway. I also didn’t know what the people were speaking on a street level. Although many signposts in Singapore and Malaysia are written in English, I could not begin to guess what language people were speaking to me on the streets. There really is quite a variety of cultures and languages spoken here. Even though I was born here, I did feel a bit out of place.

So we wandered upward through Malaysia and planned to make our way to Bangkok, Thailand but considering I only had 3 weeks with them, looking at the map it made more sense for me to leave from Phuket. Before leaving on this trip, I told myself what I really need is a quiet beach where I can just sit in the sun and just do nothing. After we were delayed in Penang, I was painfully aware from how close we were to Thailand. The Watkins needed to stick around for 3 more days but I couldn’t wait that long so it was an easy decision for me to venture off on my own.

There’s a certain sense of freedom when traveling solo. One can go at one’s own pace and it’s much easier meeting new people. Healthy people can not be alone for long periods of time. The need for human contact and interaction becomes a high priority. So following my own advice I went over to Trang, for a night, found nothing for me to do there so I headed off to Krabi. I didn’t have a Lonely Planet book with me so I was kind of winging it. I had already booked a flight from Phuket, so I was just heading in the direction I need to go. At Krabi, there were no shortages of minibuses that would take me out of town to one of the many island or beach resorts. Because of improper planning I ended up in Lanta beach without a place to stay. Being adventurous I ended up hitchhiking up and down the island, trying to find a cheap resort. Considering it was the low season there, many guesthouses were closed until October. I ended up being saved by a Finnish fella who brought me to a very cheap bungalow and I got my beach fix. But there’s a reason this is the low season. Ever since I left Malaysia, I was trying to stay one step ahead of the rain. I think it read my mind and dogged my every step northward. So I left only after two nights and went back to Krabi, town. I also knew that the Watkins were going to arrive from Hat Yai, that day, and we needed to regroup. I found out that they were only staying a few doors away in a different guesthouse. We ended staying in Krabi for the remainder of my trip.

I can say that this time around was much easier then my experience in India. The people are much nicer and I’ve developed a much thicker skin when dealing with anyone that was pushy. Even though it’s been said that Malaysia, and Thailand are dirty and developing, I didn’t have a problem with any of the amenities. Learning to accept how things are done differently than home is part of the experience of traveling. For myself, I don’t need to go to monuments, temples, or shines. I like to walk the streets for hours, just observing the daily life of the people around me. For me I absorb more information then any book or television show could offer.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Congratulations and Happy Anniversary

Can you believe that our Ben whom we grew to love while traveling through Africa has just WON!!!! the worlds best job contest. We are so proud of him, but not in the least bit surprised. He is the perfect man for the job. So, soon he and Bre will be off to Australia for the 6 month position of manager and caretaker on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. It will be very exciting so stay tuned to them.

Life is so strange..... to think back.... we now know why we were held up in Liberia for 3 weeks waiting for a boat to take us away. If we hadn't been delayed we would never have met up with Ben and Kees in Ghana and we would probably still be stuck there. hahaha As it is Ben and Bre are a couple in the limelight, Savannah is in Holland with Kees and Skylar is doing well in Vancouver with his sweetie Adriana. Ammon, Brandon and I are here in Thailand of course.
I'm reporting with a quick summary, that 4 years ago (thus the anniversary) we arrived in Hong Kong with the intention of a one year trip and how strange it is that we are still on the road after so long. We started the trip off with the 4 of us (Ammon, Bre, Savannah and myself), spent one and a half years seeing Asia as well as eastern Europe. I went home to get Brandon and add him to our adventure, while Ammon continued thru the Middle East. We started up again in Jordon and spent 20 months in Africa, half of that time with Ben, Kees and the rest of the overland team. Our group of 12 became 7, then down to only the last 3 troopers, when Savannah went home and Bre and Ben went to England. So then,finally onto South East Asia, where we initially intended going, after a quick visit to Israel. I am up to 90 countries, Ammon 118 and Brandon at 59. This has been such a worthwhile trip in so many ways...... Each of us will agree, especially Bre,.......hehhehee

You really should take a look at the youtube site and search Ben Southall to see some of the footage of his win. Ben has been getting so much media coverage since his win a couple days ago. Bre, home in Vancouver, is also busy with the radio, tv and newspapers.

Sorry that I'm not a talented writer like most of my children. hehehe

We really are not sure of the future but I do know that it will be exciting...... life is a great adventure, and like our motto says "best done on the road".

Love to all and thanks for following our dwindling itinerant cabal and by the way there are new photos up for you to enjoy............

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Penang to Krabi

Our final stop in Malaysia was on the island of Penang. It's not really an island like the tropical beach island you are thinking of but is more of a historically important one. Penang is where the British set up their first settlement on Malaysia and began their trade rivalry with Dutch Melaka further down the coast. The original plan was to just visit for 2 days and then head into Thailand to find some beaches. Ha, didn't quite work out that way. In the end we actually stayed 9 days, the longest we've stayed anywhere since leaving Cairo in December.
Our decision to stay in Georgetown, Penang was more of an accident than anything. We were feeling rather lazy and had found a pretty good deal on a room big enough to comfortably fit the 4 of us (as in nobody was on the floor for a change). The hotel was a strange one because Penang has a lot of tourists and our hotel was full of mostly old white guys running around all day in their towels. We actually felt like we were in a retirement home or something and a lot of these guys are effectively retired and living there. They spend months (or years) at a time in the hotel and cycle through a handful of cities in South East Asia so they've all known each other for years as well. Some were quite friendly and interesting to talk to, and full of good stories and information as you can imagine.
There is quite a bit of old British architecture dating from the 1800's around though I must confess that apart from a few half-hearted wanders on my part we didn't really go out to see stuff. Instead we spent most of our time reading and trying to work through the massive pile of books that Paul had brought us. It's just too much weight to carry so we were trying to lighten the load a little, haha.
The reason we were delayed so long was because mom bought a laptop in Kuala Lumpur (computers are all evil and this effectively was the last nail in the sightseeing coffin) but it had a defective part that we had to get fixed. It took a couple days and went over the weekend. Fortunately for us, Penang is famous for it's great food. Paul and mom became the pro-Chinese/Malay team, while dad and I were firmly on the Indian team (complete with real masala tea, yum yum!).
But that brings me to another point about the whole Malaysian experience. I know there are Malay people, but it really doesn't feel like their country and sometimes I wonder where they are. It is such a melting pot of Chinese, Indians, Malay and Westerners and all possible crossbreeds that I don't know who dominates. We'd been couchsurfing with Chinese (who then patronize Chinese food joints) and in Penang we were on the edge of India town (which is everything about India except for the cows, garbage and staring). Because of their own religions, there are lots of Chinese and Hindu temples around and they often outnumber the mosques. Malaysia is an Islamic country (and devout in many ways) that I've heard quite a few complaints about from travellers who were harassed or had to pay a little more for a beer than they'd want to, but I really feel like I had to go out of my way to find Islam most of the time. I do remember sitting in front of one of the mosques in Georgetown as the mid-day prayer was called and seeing the worshipers enter. I had to think of Jake because most had beards and no mustaches which is an uncommon (but proper) style of appearance for devout Muslims. So they do exist, but they were really a non-issue in Malaysia for us.
It is still really warm and humid here and every day in Melaka saw us receiving more and more rain as the monsoon season is about to start on the west side of the peninsula. Fortunately the east has a different rainy season so we (and everyone else) will just have to adjust our itinerary to the east.
Being on only a 1 month holiday, Paul naturally got impatient and ran off a few days early into Thailand. We were lucky that we were delayed though. While at the hotel we learned that Thailand is only giving 15 day entries on arrival at land borders now. This seems like a stupid idea designed to further cut into their already hurting tourism (they've had a lot of political problems in the last year or so) and obviously somebody somewhere realized that, because for the next 2 months the Thai consulate in Penang is giving free 2-month visas out. Sign me up! On the day we picked up the computer we also got the visas and the next day we left for Hat Yai in Thailand.
If Malaysia was a small step down from Singapore, Thailand is a bigger step down from Malaysia and it was immediately obvious at the border. Gone were the nicely paved roads and in again were the chaotic masses of powerlines, run-down, dirty apartment blocks, potholes, chaotic driving, less developed farming plots, etc. Actually, I think one of the biggest changes is that we are now looking at signs in the Thai language. Unlike all the other countries we've been to so for since returning to Asia, Thailand is the first to have it's own alphabet and a tonal language. I know nothing of it so it's strange to look at a sign and not be able to identify a single letter. But I like Thailand, they call it the land of smiles for a reason :) On the peninsula we had found Malaysians to be quite friendly and helpful but the Thai are known for being amongst the most welcoming in the region (I'm still voting for the Filipinos so far though).
A night in Hat Yai and we were into another minibus for a completely psychotic drive to Krabi. Much of the highway was 2 lanes but wide enough for 3 cars across. Well, I guess that means it was really a 3 lane highway with our driver having the special access to the mysterious and invisible third lane. He would continue driving at his cruising speed of 120km/h, lean on the horn and straddle the centre line regardless of who was oncoming. If by some strange twist of whatever safety system was working in his mind that deemed a particular moment unsafe, he would tail the car in front so close I don't know how we didn't hit anyone. I was in the front passenger's seat and pretty sure some of his moves were impossible until they happened. It was quite stressful and now I remember why I prefer the chicken buses of the world....
We survived and in Krabi I learned just how much having a laptop can affect your ordinary travel decisions. We wanted wireless and set out to find some guesthouse that had some. There are a lot of tourists in Krabi, mostly in transit to or from some of the beaches and islands nearby, so there is a very well established area of backpacker guesthouses. Most guesthouses, also serve as restaurants, travel agencies, and internet cafes so really nobody ever need set foot outside of their hostel (I am anti this type of tourism development as it is essentially just very budget resort mentality without spreading the wealth to the community or even promoting cultural exchange or interaction). Anyway, free wireless would be business suicide for a lot of these guesthouses because they make a huge profit from it. As a result we ended up in one of the newer, nicer and more expensive guesthouses, the only one offering free wireless, because with our own laptop we were now going to save money overall. So now we need to spend several hours a day on the computer just to justify staying at this hotel. Hmmmm..... I'm not sure this is a positive development for the trip. In Krabi we also met up with Paul, who had a successful 5 days without us. We are still on the west side of the peninsula and not out of the rain yet either. Paul only has a couple of days left before he has to fly back to Singapore from Phuket so that will be our next destination.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Peninsular Malaysia - Melaka and KL

After quickly seeing what we could of Singapore it was time to lead Paul into that dirty, scary, uncivilized, third-worldish trauma of......Malaysia? Ha, not at all. Peninsular Malaysia is more developed and busier than the Borneo side and really only a small step down from Singapore while still a large step ahead of many of the other countries in the region. Malaysia doesn't seem to give you much choice on the buses you can take. Lots of companies but they all seem to run to the same place at the same price at the same time. You just get to chose between air-con, air-con delux or super VIP. All fancy fancy and well beyond what we are used to.
It doesn't take very long to get anywhere either and our first stop was only 3 hours up the road at Melaka. Melaka (aka Malacca) is the most important historical town on the Strait of Melaka, the narrow stretch of water between Malaysia and Sumatra which funneled and protected all trade between Asia (China and South East Asian kingdoms) and the West (India, Middle East and Europe). It was the middle point where the 2 monsoon trade winds met and in the 15th century was an incredibly wealthy and powerful area with as many as 4 harbour masters organizing 2000 trade ships coming into port daily, and up to 84 different languages spoken.
And then it all went downhill..... You can't be that powerful and wealthy without attracting some negative attention, in this case it was the Portuguese as they made their first voyages east, took over and tried to introduce a trading monopoly that would give them total control over the valuable spice trade. Naturally, everybody else just set up other trading ports and tried to break all the new rules. The Dutch and finally the British eventually took over, each adding its own set of restrictions that continued to pound nails into the coffin.
Today Melaka is a pretty quiet town (Singapore is the major regional port) with a lot of Dutch architecture in it's centre (they controlled it the longest). Across the canal that used to be Melaka river is an equally interesting Chinatown and with our Chinese host we were introduced to tea (he owns a tea shop, and tried to drown us), good local seafood and some of the history. I was shocked at how quiet everything became after sunset as all the traffic mysteriously disappeared (this was to happen again later in Penang as well) and then pleasantly surprised to find out that there were free nightly performances by a group of musicians in a little open area right by the canal to watch. In the end though we didn't stay too long, just 2 nights.
From Melaka we went to Kuala Lumpur, the capital. KL isn't really known as much of a tourist destination but we still managed to have a good time. We had a great host that took us around the area and got us involved in some pretty good eating, including the most interesting Japanese sushi buffet I've ever seen. Mandatory buffet and 6 tables of food just coming out and sitting there to steal before the next guy got it.... In KL we also managed to see the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings 10 years ago when they were completed. They are twins, standing at 452m with a bridge between them on the 41st and 42nd floors. They don't look that tall from a distance until you realize that you can't even see the bridge. And when you stand right at the bottom and look up, ya, they're tall alright. It is possible to go up to the bridge for free but there are a limited number of tickets given out everyday and we were not able to get any.
We also visited the Blue Mosque in nearby Shah Alam. I did that in part because I know Jake wanted to see it and he probably didn't because after leaving us in Singapore we got a message saying he had to return home and would not be able to meet us again. It was a nice mosque, very big and claims to have the tallest minarets in the world. I don't know how true that is, but looking up at them they very well could be..... We also went to the Batu caves, a group of Hindu temples set inside a couple of caves. The caves are more like a naturally hollowed out hill but the effect is kind of cool. There is a set of 172 stairs to climb to get to the main cave and temple and on the stairs are dozens of monkeys that hang out to terrorize anyone going by. We had no food or bags and thus no problem, but it was fun to watch the locals scream and try to run away. At one point in the year there is a pilgrimage to the caves with the most devout mutilating themselves with various piercings, etc. Up to a million people show up in 3 days. That must be something to see. It seemed really quiet when we were there by comparison.