All good things must end and so after the full moon party it was unfortunately time for our little group to head our seperate ways. Dan and Yara headed for Singapore, a bunch of the couples headed down to Kolanta for some relaxing (and no doubt romantic) time and I headed to Ko Samui to meet my college friend Beth and then head on to Bangkok.
Although I didn’t love Ko Samui physically after a place like Phangan, it was really fun to see Beth and her friends and hang out with some familiar faces. Time has an odd way of drawing people close. Beth and I were never that close in College but we rented a scooter and drove around the island (got lost really) and had a great day, heading for a buddhist temple (until we realized we were dressed too informally to go in) checking out the beach and generally just chatting the whole way. I got a flat tire on my bike (for the second time!) and was once again impressed with how entrepenurial and helpful the Thai people can be. 150 Baht ($5) and about 20 min and I was on my way, good as new. Yara had said that a similiar incident in Zimbabwe would have taken a week to fix and I can believe it.
I spoke a little before I left about what the perfect Zen day would be. Here is the rough schedule, amended for the experience of actually living it:
- 10 am wake up
- 10-12 lie in bed, read in the hammock, take a walk through the totally quiet town
- 12-1 eat “breakfast”
- 1-3 Yoga class. Amazing
- 3-5 Hang out on the beach. Chat with people. More reading. Thai Rummy.
- 5-6:30 Thai massage $7 for an amazing hour.
- 6:30 – 8:00 nap
- 8:00 – 10:00 food and hang out with friends.
- 10:00 – 2:00 or later: party.
Some days we would take the centre out of the day (even the yoga class!) to “do something” like drive up to a remote beach or try to go sailing. (Unsuccessfully as it turned out – low water levels this time of year make sailing difficult.)
If you get the opportunity to live a week or longer like this, I highly recommend it, especially if you can have the psychological feeling of letting it go on as long as you want, rather than having the end of a vacation looming before you.
I find it a little scary just how much I enjoy Yoga. I had tried it once before when I worked at Microsoft but hadn’t enjoyed it at all; (The Pro Club, an almost all-Microsoft gym had a way of making many things somehow less appealing than they should be) Good fortune then, that I tried it again in Ko Phang-Nan. 2 hours of stretching, crazy balance poses and outright strength work leaves you gasping for breath, flexible and in remarkably good spirits. While not “hot yoga” per-se, Thailand is so hot that it might as well be. I would typically end a class sitting literally in a puddle of my own sweat and I found the “inner work” (meditation really) remarkably more enjoyable than I might have imagined and after only a week I found myself remarkably more flexible than when I began.
Originally I had pretty ambitious plans for travel in SE Asia. There is a whole list of places everybody tells you you must go: Ankor Wat, Phnom Penh, The Delta Region in Vietnam and so on… Whenever you meet fellow travellers the easy conversation (like “what’s your major?” in college or “what do you do?” afterwards) is to compare places you have been or are going.
The problem is, like so many things it can be a trap. It is easy to spend all your time negotiating the next bus trip or where you will stay, or to keep your nose buried in the Lonely Planet or worse yet, Internet message boards trying to get something for even less than the absurdly low price you are already being offered.
Not long into my trip here a friend suggested that I take my watch off – not simply to reduce the likelihood of crime but specifically for the purposes of not knowing the time. That when people asked me what time it was, I would respond “I don’t know”. It was good advice.
In that vein, not only did I do that, but I returned to Ko Phang Nan, where there were people I knew I liked, and booked myself into a nice bungalow for a week. A week of not thinking about bus schedules or guidebooks or places I was supposed to want to see; or of logging onto the Internet. Somehow a little group of six formed (conveniently around 3 motorcycles) and so for the last week we have driven out to deserted little beaches, played cards, hiked up to scenic views or – more often than not – done not much of anything.
While there may be other chances to “hit the highlights” of Asia I doubt I’ll get another chance to truly disconnect like this and have my biggest worry be whether I prefer a Thai or Swedish massage today. For the record, I generally prefer Thai; but only after extensive research…
I have realized that I really enjoy acquiring new skills, especially physical ones. While I find diving very enjoyable, I will admit that after a certain number of dives, all the coral and beautiful fish and even fantastic sea turtles start to blend together a little. You start to wonder then if you should continue paying rather steep prices to keep diving. It’s fun and exhilirating but you also start to feel like you’ve seen it. Or at least I did until I tried night diving.
Night diving is something new entirely. There are added elements of danger since it’s easy to become disoriented, lose your partner or ascend or descend too quickly. There are new skills to learn like how to signal in the light. Familiar sights look very different when diving at night and the beam of your flashlight has this very other-worldly quality about it.
The real magic comes though when you shut off the lights. Like in air, your eyes adjust to the darkness and you can pick out other divers off in the distant gloom with their own lights. More special still is the phyto plankton: Swirl your hand in front of your face and sparks trail off behind it, exactly like casting a spell in the movies. It’s a pretty intense and special feeling.
After a week in Ko Phangan (Where does the time go?!) I have moved on to Ko Tao. This kind of travel really gives you a first hand view of the limitations of the Lonely Planet and it’s peers. While the books describe Ko Tao as very rural, without even fulltime power, arriving at the dock, you see a pretty thriving Scuba destination with plush resorts that exceed anything Ko Phangan has to offer. Oh well, good thing I love to Scuba dive!
I went out for two dives yesterday (first time in probably 5 years) and reminded myself how much I love it. Lots of great coral and wildlife including a huge sea turtle and a 3m reef shark. Great stuff. Today I am going out to “shark bay” in the boat of a local that my friend Danielle has met. These guys don’t speak a ton of English so we will see if we get what we expect. Lots of suntan lotion definitely required!
On my flight into Thailand, I skipped Bangkok entirely and on the advice of a friend headed directly to Ko Samui and onwards to Ko Phangan. It’s like each of those places gets progressively less developed as you go, with Bangkok as mega-metropole, Ko Samui as developed honeymoon destination ala Maui (with an awesomely cute airport) and Ko Phangan still bearing the traces of what people who came to Thailand in the 80s still talk about – simple and hedonistic. The big decisions are whether to lie on the beach or take a walk up to the lighthouse. I have not yet made it out of Hat Rin, the biggest development on the Island although still quite simple and laid back. Television has made a little too much of an inroad here and it feels like a big frat party but there’s still plenty of magic. Soon I will head up to Kao Tao an even smaller island focused mostly around Scuba diving.
I have never been very good at keeping a journal. In elementary school, I had an amazing English teacher, Mr. Lowndes and part of the assignment in his class was to keep a running diary of what we were reading, what I thought of it so far, and so on. At the end of the term, he collected them and graded them – for what I am not exactly sure, perhaps just to see that we had done them. Of course being the typical lazy student, I often would not keep up with the work and then, on the night before they were to be turned in, I would try and rush through a month worth of journal entries. It never worked of course – it’s hard to remember how you felt about something when you had less knowledge than you do now and my slacking was always obvious. Perhaps that was the whole point…
So it is with keeping a blog of my travels. It has been almost a month since my last blog entry and I’ve had the vague although diminshing hope that I would go back and “catch up” with the entries I’d missed. I’ve taken lots of great photos (captured here) but I have not been great about writing my thoughts. Part of it has been I find the keyboards in little Internet Cafes to be incredibly cumbersome, reminding me of my youthful problems manipulating a pen. Perhaps I will still go back and write about Brazil and Argentina from the notes in my trusty moleskin, but it is time to stop compounding the damage, not writing about today because I haven’t written about yesterday. Onwards.
Rio feels a lot like New York City, or the place New York would be if it were consistently a lot hotter and the divide between rich and poor were even more insane than it is. It definitely takes a few days to get your travel legs. Challenge #1 getting money from an ATM, not as easy as it sounds. Hint: Just because it has the Cirrus logo does not in fact mean that your Cirrus card will work there…
I stayed the first two nights in a hotel just to get my bearings, but on reflection I would not recommend this. Meeting some English speakers is what takes this place from feeling harsh and expensive to the truly wonderful place it is. I stayed in the “Girl from Ipanema” hostel for R$30 a night an really enjoyed it, lots of friendly people. Alex the guide will tell you where to go to see some great stuff. I actually tried to push my flight to Fortaleza out a few days so I could catch a Futebal match, but alas the travel agent I used was closed all day Sat and Sun…
I ended up meeting some folks who are finishing up at Stanford GSB (what an incredibly small world) and hanging out with them one night. There was supposed to be a big party at the Jockey Club which unfortunately was cancelled (and there were a lot of decked out and pissed looking Brazilians standing outside). We went to “Club Zero Zero” a nightclub that could compete with any I have seen.. not the most Brazillian of experiences but a lot of fun nonetheless and we brought two fantastic women we met standing outside the Jockey club. Even if the drinks seem a little expensive, keep an eye on the guy pouring. They tend to come VERY strong so you may drink a lot fewer than you would back home..
One of the fascinating things about Brazil seems to be the amount of internal tourism they have. Even at the most touristy of touristy place, almost everyone is speaking Portugese and seems like they come from Brazil. I met a number of people who were just travelling inside Brazil, from Sao Paulo or Brazilia. Of course this is only the wealthy Brazillians who can afford to do this.
My flight out of Brazil is in Rio at the end of the month so I will pass through again and check out some of the stuff I missed the first time. Now it’s on to Jericoacoara.
It’s amazing how much work it is to sort out and shutdown your life in a city. Packing, shipping, change of address, goodbyes, etc… Especially if you’re planning on being out of the country for a few months, there’s a lot of crazy stuff to do. A few things I discovered in my preparation:
- Remote Control Mail is a company that you can have your mail sent to and they will scan it, PDF it and let you read it on the web. It takes a while to get set up (You need to send a notarized permission slip to the US Postal Service) but once it’s going, it’s very cool. The interface is a little crude and not tuned for low bandwidth connections but still it’s a great service. This is a business I looked at starting at one point so I’m glad somebody is making a go of it. Now they just need to get indexed by Google (but only for you…)
- Onebag.com is really marvelous about telling you how to pack light for a long trip. In particular the MEI Voyageur bag they recommend is fantastic. It’s sort of a pain to get (You have to call the guy who makes them) but it’s really fantastic. Being able to carry everything you have on your back easily makes a big big difference to how you travel.
- A stick of body glide is a great investment. If youre in 120 degree heat and 100% humidity and walking carrying 40lbs or so, skin in some sensitive places can start to get a little tender.
- Moleskin notebooks are perfect for sticking in your pocket and writing down addresses, people’s names, thoughts that occur to you etc… If you’re in a place you don’t speak the language you can often show a taxi driver a written address and he will take you where you need to go.
- Make sure that your guidebooks are recent. I have a 2004 Let’s Go (whoops) and things have changed a little.
- I brought black leather shoes “in case I want to go somewhere nice” and right now that feels about as likely as going to the moon.
- Do not, under any circumstances, lose your ATM card. Seriously.