Southeast Asia

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When travel becomes lacklustre

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It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

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Adventure prone

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Waking up at 4 am is a hellish experience I wouldn’t ever want to wish on anyone. But the Travel Companion and I did it, in my 4th iteration of what has so far been an annual pilgrimage to Bali, that has now gotten past just scuba diving off the east coast of Bali and off Nusa Penida.

I had a great time on Christmas with Jan and Markus (just the 3 of us, it seemed), since tourist numbers are madly erratic for this period. But perhaps what made it worth it as always, was the accidental conversations I fall into during these journeys. Jan and I spoke at length about conceptual art, the European far-right, losing face and how stupid people can get on the way back to Sanur, while TC got badly sunburnt in the meantime.

But that was only the start of the trip. Blame my growing thirst for adventure.

Thus far, I’ve done a dive off the drifty little islands off Padang Bai (Mimpang and Tepekong), gone off-roading on a Buggy/quad bike tour off the villages past Ubud and recklessly decided to up the ante and head far north for canyoning.

“Do not hesitate,” Adrien (the Icopro instructor) said. And he’s right. It gets worse when you think and re-think the angle of the jump, the probability of hitting your head on the rocks.

I ended up lobbing off the edge, 8 metres into a deep pool, and straight on my arse like a demented cannonball into the water.

Add that embarrassing thing to sliding down slippery rocks, zip-lining partway down and rappelling off waterfalls…and I found myself having an absolutely brilliant time while at it, then wished I’d chosen to do a full day of it. The Kalimudah part of the Kerenkali Canyon in the mountainous north of Bali (Git Git) is the most technical of the parts which the TC and I had signed up for with Bali Adventure and Spirit, and the hellish experience of waking up at 4am just to make this journey from Sanur more than made up for the adrenaline rush and the thrill that came from working the stunning scenery and getting dunked straight into ice-cold water. TC, who couldn’t even swim, was so enthused and challenged by the entire experience that swim classes are finally, finally on the cards.

Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t in 2 minds about this when we first started out—straight out of a furious thunderstorm in Sanur to rain that persistently didn’t let up until about 8 am after we finished breakfast in Gigit. We went past numerous lazy dogs, endless rice plantations and cloud-covered misty mountains framed by rows of corn and coconut trees. The drive back had worse traffic, but bluer skies and colourful towns where tourists don’t seem to register much on the locals’ quotidian.

But it was mostly filled with memories of the hard kick of the water up my nose, the thrill of the slides and the pull of the abseil rope, as well as the exhaustion that crept in slowly as the day wore on.

My canonying-initiation card will proudly stay in my wallet for now.

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A brief excuse for adventure

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I never though I’d find myself in Krabi again, but I did. And did so for a few short days filled to the brim with diving and climbing…with some backbreaking, painfully agonising Thai traditional massages in between that left me more bruised than diving or climbing every did.

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Wanting to do something new each time I dive, I opted to try the PADI digital underwater course with The Dive Ao Nang. The course itself was a disappointment (apart from the bits that taught white balance in the water and the effect of colours at depth) and the dive sites (at Phi Phi) were abysmal with visibility that was no better than mushy soup. But as always, every guide instructor/guide I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting has had the most unusual and esoteric stories of their lives I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. Liz – short for Lertlid Trzop – a Thai/German guy who’s worked in filmmaking for two decades pretty much tops the list and has load to say about camera techniques, composition and the price of camera housing. He simply concluded – given the horrendous price of the housing – that underwater photography is either for the filthy rich or the professionals.

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The climb with Real Rocks on the other hand, was a novelty for me, more so for someone who has only climbed indoors. A short boat trip from Ao Nang to Railay seemed to open a door to another portal where backpackers slum it up next to a few luxury resorts and trawl the beach in as little beachwear as possible, oblivious to the stares and ogling of everyone else.

In Railay, climbing shops (and seedy massage parlours that supposedly offer rock-climb rub-downs) range from excellent to dingy to the nth degree. We obediently followed our guides – whose shortened names sounded as interchangeable as lock, stock and barrel – and started panicking at the look of the vertical faces. Someone threw a tantrum a few metres up, wailing about being forced to go on a climb when she didn’t want to, which was probably enough entertainment for the day that had even barely started.

I’m not quite convinced outdoor climbing is for me yet, seeing how I’m quite a joke in the indoor gym. But perhaps it’s the greater sense of it being risk that I can’t quite fully manage or control that’s unsettling me. That there are those who go straight to rock climbing as rank beginners without trying sports climbing first is astounding to me.

But it’s a baby step out of my comfort zone and one that’s hopefully getting me braver.

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A Thai pocket of paradise

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There is a little something for everyone in Thailand, even the Travel Companion (TC) who is known to be finicky at the best and worst of times. Having been to Thailand thrice in the last half this year, I think I’m inclined to understand why.

Khao Lak – a small place that’s really a series of villages about 70 km north of Phuket – wasn’t a destination that TC had initially agreed to, but after some form of cajoling, agreed and upon arrival, didn’t find the place too bad at all.

A long stretch of highway connects Phuket Airport to Khao Lak and an hour’s drive brought us to The Sands on the north side of Nang Thong Beach. Thankfully not as touristed as Phuket, Khao Lak’s renewal is nothing short of amazing after the 2004 Tsunami decimated kilometres of the coastline. I arrived exactly on the 11th anniversary of the Boxing day tragedy and having seen pictures of the devastation wrought by the power of nature, marvelled at how life somehow manages to crawl back. Only having been brought up the long coastline on ‘taxi’ (which is really a modified pick-up with added seats in the back) were we able to comprehend the scale of the disaster that must have struck this part of southwestern Thailand.

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Without a map, the piecemeal information I could glean from the internet is probably a testament to how much less touristy this place is than Phuket. Without a moped, we walked up and down the beach from Nang Thong north to Bang Niang and pretty much left it as that. Wilting under the heat of the day, we plied the well-worn paths down the main highway (or the high street) eating Thai food and buying rubbish snacks and souvenirs, then plunged into the pool for a much needed cooling off.

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But I was here also to visit and dive in the Similans, the marine national park which is only open for half a year, dragging TC with me on the first, unfortunate journey that involved a speed boat, loads of movement causing sea-sickness and tons of tourists on the white-sand Similan beach. Nevertheless, these are the best dive sites I’ve ever visited, the staggering amount of pelagic sea-life simply unbelievable, especially in Richelieu Rock.

Big Blue Diving is half-Japanese, half-Swiss owned, and populated with British, Japanese and Scandinavian staff, all of whom I’m sure have very interesting personal stories. I only managed to speak to a few of them – and being rolling stones is the only thing they have in common – but the perspectives they all offer often fracture my own changing opinions on travel and work. Therein perhaps, is always the heart of why I travel.

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What?

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3 days in Krabi and that sentiment might just characterise the Travel Companion’s (TC) and my dive experience.

The TC had too many questions (mostly unanswered) about buoyancy – an issue that sorted itself out by the second dive day. The poor thing somehow figured it out all on her own after the numerous explanations given by several dive instructors. That, and a rather ‘deaf’ Norwegian man who went ‘Haarh?’ loudly at everything people said to him, before answering in an unintelligible accent. Coupled with a Divemaster in training (from Sweden) who was made the errand boy for all things and still didn’t quite know what to do.

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We sailed on the Lavadee – the boat belonging to Scuba Addicts – on both days; the first to the local islands in Ao Nang, and the second to Phi Phi. The heavy rains on the day we arrived had made visibility 1-2 m, which was a challenge to dive in, but Phi Phi offered somewhat better conditions at least.

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Scandinavians and Russians are aplenty in this small resort town littered with rows of shops and food touts who come alarmingly close to you. On the boat, the Norwegians were surprisingly chatty, speaking about everything under their fjords, the failing oil & petroleum industry and the long way back from South-east Asia. The Russians pretended to be cocky Americans. ‘Nuff said. Throw in a Brit or 2 and the mix becomes weird.

I can only hope TC feels better prepared for the Maldives trip we’re taking next year.

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Bruised, battered, victorious

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The travel companion (TC) finally tells me – on the way to the airport – that Bali has been, on hindsight, quite an enjoyable experience. It helps that we’ve both passed the different dive courses we’ve signed up for, even though we’ve been bruised, battered and badly cut in the process.

For that I’m thankful, even if we’ve spent most of our time shopping at Guardian pharmacy (TC simply bought more and more bottles of shower gel and muscle ache packs for god knows what reason) and eating at the same Italian place more times than I can count.

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We’ve finally trudged along Sanur’s beachfront walk, done the obligatory shopping and rub-downs at spas and eaten more Balinese and Indonesian food than we should. But I’m astounded that TC finds it hard to admit that Bali is really quite civilised and sort of tourist-friendly, but I’m also grateful to learn that I’ve managed to spin several tentative thoughts that planning for the next dive trip isn’t too bad an idea as well.

We’re cosied up in a corner of the departure lounge and TC’s gone off to take photos of the very modern Bali airport to prove to some friends that we haven’t visited a dump in some corner in the world.

Sometimes, TC needs a little nudging in the right direction.

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Oh, such luck

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you never always get what you wish for.

Translated into diving terms: I didn’t see a damn Mola Sunfish in sight.

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But at least a manta ray or 2 graced us with its presence at Manta Point in Nusa Penida. Crystal Bay was supposed to be dive stop 2, but the extremely choppy sea meant that the captain of the speed boat took us to S.D Point instead where I actually had my first drift dive experience over a coral plateau. 7 kg heavier with a 5 mm wet suit in colder waters, I felt like a complete beginner struggling with buoyancy in the gentle drift over the amazing reef.

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A page over the intercom turned the afternoon a little sour when theory became reality: 2 missing divers – an instructor and a beginner – in the waters around Nusa Penida. The boat I was in powered through the choppy sea and found the stragglers on another speedboat. “We” took them in – the poor beginner looked stressed and exhausted while the instructor was chirpy but grateful – and handed them back to their proper boat whose inhabitants were crying with relief.

That made me wonder about the rescue training that I was taught just yesterday. Just how useful can I really be in that situation except to commiserate and comfort?

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Bali Redux

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“I’d sooner be eaten by a shark than be rescued by her.”

So says a person who’s actually related to me when asked to volunteer as my unresponsive dive ‘victim’.

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As much as I’m able to ignore that particular lack of confidence in my rescuing skills, I’ve found the PADI rescue diver course with Joe’s Gone Diving to be the most challenging that I’ve ever done in my very…short diving experience these past few years. But everyone speaks highly of it (most shop owners/instructors I’ve met say the same thing) and someone had even gone so far as to say that it should be a necessity for all divers – at all levels – all except my instructor who was dubious from the start of my ability to actually save people.

To expect the unexpected and to be prepared for it is probably the underpinning principle of the course, but isn’t that true of life in general? Well-said and taught…up until the point I nearly drowned my own instructor when using a pocket mask to tow him back to the boat in a relatively strong current. He gleefully brought up that incident time and again, making me wonder if he not so secretly enjoyed Schadenfreude.

It has been a tough 2 days of a full classroom session followed by a pool session and finally acting out those rescue scenarios in the open sea. I’m sort of familiar with the environment (both hotel and dive shop to minimise the unfamiliar) at least; being back in Bali in 2015 isn’t very much different from being in Bali in 2014, and going back to Padang Bai and the Blue Lagoon is like visiting a friend whom I’ve not seen for a while.

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Essentially, I’m treading old ground – except for the dive course – with a belligerent and very sullen travel companion who is determined to think the worst of everything, sometimes comically so. What most Europeans consider ‘exotic’ and ‘ambient-rich’, my TC calls it ‘deluded’, ‘run-down’, ‘dirty’ and ‘incomprehensibly stupid’. The only draw for TC, is that prices are staggering low and the spas heavenly…by TC’s own standards. To be fair, TC hasn’t seen the nicer side of Sanur and its seaside stuff; the only places we’ve been back and forth are the street the hotel’s on and to the dive school.

But I’m glad that TC’s open water course is going fairly smoothly, despite all the complaints, fears I’ve been privy to and the numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises we’ve all miraculously acquired in the pool.

TC and I head to different dive sites tomorrow, of my own making really, because I really need to see a Sunfish.

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Phuket and its surrounds

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The slow boat to Phi Phi – a good 48 kilometres away from Phuket’s Chalong Bay – was close to the equivalent of a slow ride to hell. Nothing to do with the weather really, but I slowly went out of my mind trying to find things to do on the boat, other than pace the narrow corridors like a convict. Denis was the only other recognisable person on the boat; the others came from yet another dive company and we soon found ourselves talking to Katie of San Diego, another lone diver who seemed content to sit in a corner of the slow boat to hell.

Denis spoke fondly of months where there wasn’t a single drop of rain. I was horrified.

Thankfully, he went on to talk about his past as a Mountie, his gym training, his para-motoring hobby and the sheer number of eggs he consumes a day. Katie on the other hand, spoke repetitively about her job, the wonders of California and her trepidation of diving.

I, on the other hand, tried not to make inappropriate remarks.

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At Phi Phi and Shark point, the dives were good though not as spectacular as I’d hoped they would be with rather poor visibility and moderate currents, but then again I’d never had schools of fish swimming around me before. That mild euphoria evaporated when I returned to the mainland late and was reminded immediately just how expensive things are over here when I paid an exorbitant amount for my laundry load – which I suspected was weighed using a scale tipped in the shop’s favour.

Why am I bloody not surprised?

If there’s anything I’m going to remember of Phuket, it would unfortunately be the relentless heat and humidity, the never-ending touts and the costs I’ve racked up in the past few days, even in a quieter place like Karon. I’ve spent an extortionate amount on transportation, an unwelcome hotel deposit fee, underwater photos and driver tips that have come up to a staggering amount.

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The only place of relative normalcy is Phuket (Old) Town, which has a surprisingly eclectic vibe of the old and the modern with the sheer number of cafes stubborn holding their own in the presence of traditional shops. But I’d only wandered those charming streets for 40 minutes, having been given a strict curfew by the driver who was adamant about my punctuality like an army sergeant.

And then it was back again to Karon, with the sounds of ‘taxi, hello taxi?’ dogging my every step.

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Mass Dive

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“I love pink,” Andy declares as he parades around the boat in a bright pink towel, then drops it conveniently in front of most of the people in the boat waiting to take their turn at the step-off platform as he points to Denis, my Nitrox instructor for the day. A mild-mannered French Canadian, Denis is built like a wrestler and strangely apologetic for the coarse things that slip out sometimes.

But he is overshadowed by Andy (most people are anyway), who struts around like a peacock with an extra long tail. Yobbish, full of showmanship and bravado, bluntly hilarious and attention deficit, Andy—the owner of Andy Scuba Diving—makes himself the life of the party. In fact, he’s 50 shades of pink: the towel, his mobile, diving socks, laptop cover and bag are proud advertisements for breast awareness day, a cause he’s obliviously championing. A lot of it is faux affection; the rest of it is what I suspect, wish-fulfilment.

“Because real men love pink. And stop perving me.”

Denis shakes his head in denial and points at me instead. I nod and point at myself and Andy brightens immediately, moving to throw his arm around me. Thereafter, I’m referred to as his ‘little beauty’ or ‘the beautiful one’, probably used when he’s forgotten my name. Throughout the day, I’m regaled with tales of his broken camera casing, a 16km marathon he’s going to undertake with his wife, ‘Scubaman’ the new superhero (done by puffing up his scuba suit) and his pride of having freed a manta ray from a fishing net.

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The first day of scuba to Racha Noi and Yai is a tiring and bewildering (but fun) one, filled with yobbish, male ‘jokes’ about cock rings, flirtatious come-ons and lots of touches (all voluntarily given by Andy and Denis). I told them I liked big things, innocently in reference to sea creatures, which they all promptly misconstrued with many winks and grins. The dives themselves aren’t as stressful as I thought they’d be, burdened with course expectations and theory. Denis was encouraging and quick to praise which I naturally found suspicious because of my own paranoid nature. Yet the boat, packed with several dive groups from different dive companies, was a little too crowded for my liking, an experience which I hope, wouldn’t be repeated on Wednesday’s dive to Phi Phi.

Andy ended the trip by kissing my hand almost reverently. I laughed at that extravagant display and told him what he wanted to hear—that I had a brilliant day.

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