Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Koh Lanta Limbo

Howdy Y'all! I'm still relaxing on Koh Lanta, taking it slow and easy right now. Before I started organizing the pictures for this post, I was thinking to myself, “Man, I haven't really don't anything for a few days, not sure what I'll have to write about.” But then I actually went over all the pictures and realized I've done quite a bit! Staying in one place does weird things to you I guess, when you are used to moving around so much as I have been. Well, let's get to it:

I spent the previous two nights in a private bungalow near the beach, and I got a good price, 400 baht, but it was a little luxury I can't and won't do very often. I saw a sign next door for a dorm room that only cost 150 baht, and decided to go for it. It's the first time I've actually used a dorm room (other than one time in the Philippines with Sandy and Kathryne, but we had that room to ourselves) and I was expecting a shabby and crowded bunk room, but was looking forward to using it as a way to meet people. It turned out the opposite was true! I got a huge and very nice room by myself, it has a loft, fridge, sink, and only 4 beds, none bunked. This is the Sonya Restaurant & Home Stay, and I highly recommend it as a place to stay.

This is Luke, his family owns the place, and he works very hard helping run the place. He has been very kind to me, and this day took me to one of the beach bars for lunch and to meet some of his friends who live on the island. We sat around under the cabana for a number of hours, just chatting and relaxing, while I built some (if I do say so myself) rather impressive sculptures/towers out of Jenga blocks. The bar is owned and run by an Irish family, but has a great group of locals who hang out at the place and work there. In the background, you can see a young boy, maybe 12 (?) doing mauy thai training, and I was told he already has 52 fights!

I ended up playing beach volley ball with the kid and an old man, getting very sweaty and sandy in the process, but once a game of football (soccer for us Yanks) was discussed, volley ball went out the window and football it was. Using sticks pounded in the ground for goal posts, running around barefoot (and getting bit by ants) I proceeded to get even more sweaty, but had a great time. My team got crushed (3-0) but I had a lot of fun playing with a few other travelers and the locals in the process.

After working up an apatite, I decided to go to the 'night market' for dinner. In a mixture of trying to save some money (about $2-$3 in all honesty) and because it was a wonderful star-filled evening, I walked the 45 minutes to the market. “Market” doesn't really describe it, this is more of a carnival. There are big glowing lights, bouncy castles and slides for the kids, a large stage for singing and dancing, carnival games, gambling, food stalls and yes, a few booths you could call a 'market'. For $1 I had a delicious chicken burger (I was curious) that contained hardly any chicken, but literally had (I watched him make it) 6 different sauces on it. Messy. It was a very small area so it literally took 10 minutes to see it all, but I had some fried things on sticks (no idea what it was) and watched the music for a bit, then caught a tuk-tuk loaded with speakers and a big subwoofer (playing Lady Gaga) back to the room. I then headed to the bar Kevin had introduced me to, and watched some live music before heading to bed early.

Bright and early, 7:15am, I was picked up by a truck and taken to the pier in town for another scuba diving trip. This was my first since the Philippines where I got my certification, and I was really looking forward to it. The prices here are a lot more than I was paying in the Philippines, so that was a bit of a bummer, but the boat I ended up on was quite nice, the food was excellent, and it was all very professional and well done. This was with Blue Planet Diving, by the way.

Somewhat ironically the spot I ended up going to was right next to Kioh Phi Phi where I had recently left. The dive sites were Koh Bida Nok and Koh Bida Nai, and I saw some wonderful things. Just like I said with the snorkeling, the diving off Alona Beach and Baligasag Island in the Philippines spoiled me rotten. I didn't find this area nearly as spectacular. The fish were quite good, and I saw some new things, but the coral was in rather poor shape, which is sad. It didn't terribly dampen my sprits however, because I got to see my first sea turtle!! That was one of my goals while diving here, so that alone almost made the trip worth it. I also saw (for the first time) a banded sea krait, a moray eel, a sting ray, a yellow tail barracuda, a peacock mantis shrimp and many more things. An excellent day of diving, and I just passed 4.5 hours of underwater time.

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the door to the room opening, and a new face coming in. While I was losing my 'private' room I was excited to see someone new and to meet him. He turned out to be a kiwi named Joesph, and I once he had told me what he was doing for the day I was quite pleased, because it was EXACTLY what I had wanted to do as well. He had a scooter, and was going to ride around the island visiting the Old Town, the two caves and the light house on the southern tip. It's not a big island, but moto is the only economical way to get around. It also turned out that since I don't have my passport (in Bangkok to get my Indian visa) I probably couldn't rent one anyways without a huge cash deposit. Luckily my problem was solved my Joseph, who had a bike and the experience (a month riding one across Vietnam) to use it.

We set out for one of the caves, but due to poor signage and poor navigating on my part, we went past it and ended up going to 'Old Town' first. Now I read about this before hand, and was hoping to look into a place to stay for the next night, and look into the homestay program where you go to a nearby island and spend the night with a family in a little Muslim fishing village, doing what they do in their every day life. The 'town' turned out to be only one street really, and the water-side was nothing but restaurants and expensive rooms for tourists, the other side shops. Not only was there nothing to do there, it was too expensive anyways. They also didn't know anything about the homestay program, and just told me to call, making it a bit of a bust. At least I found out before just arriving their on my own without transportation.

After lunch, I took a shot at the scooter, having never driven one before. Let me just say having your first time driving one with a passenger, on windy, hilly, potholed, Thai roads, then a dirt road, also while being your first time EVER driving on the left side of the road isn't ideal for your first time, it worked out just fine. It took me a minute to get the feel for the throttle, but especially since the bike was an automatic, it was a breeze to drive and will certainly be renting one in the future.

We got to the site of the first cave, and was told it was 300 baht each to go in! We both decided we had seen caves before, and we refused to pay that much to see this one, so we turned around to go to the smaller cave, which we were told 'takes 10 minutes' and doesn't have a fee to get in. The photo here is of a tree in a rubber plantation, which is a common sight around these parts. We motored on to the next cave, only to find they wanted 200 baht to go in, saying we 'needed' a guide! Again, we left in protest without paying a single baht.

We finally achieved some level of success when we went to the trail to the waterfall. In a mixture of luck and misfortune, it was raining for a good portion of the riding. Bad because it's not fun to ride in the rain (especially on dirt roads) but good because the falls only..... falls.... when it rains! We had to pay 20 baht to park, but we were OK with that, and headed off on the 20 minute walk. Along the way we saw some a cool lizard, some crazy insets, and a number of impressive trees such as this huge banyon (so I overheard?) tree.

The falls itself was rather unimpressive. A rather small trickle of water really, and maybe a 25-foot drop at most. Nevertheless, it was rather pretty, and the walk was very nice. After the falls, we continued our tour of the island, and rode towards the southern tip to see a lighthouse. After a number of kilometers of nasty dirt road (then a totally unconnected section of good pavement) we reached the entrance, where they wanted 100 baht a person to drive on and see the lighthouse. Again, in both cheapness and protest, we didn't pay, and instead turned around, heading back to the room after what ended up being a fairly fun day, despite the series of letdowns on the way.

In the evening, Joseph and I got dinner at one of the local restaurants, which cost 50 baht each, the cheapest you can find a meal for around here. I had fried rice, he had pad thai, both were quite good. A good rule for finding the cheap food here in southeast Asia, is look for the places with plastic chairs! If they are bamboo/wood, expect to pay at least 20 baht more, for what will often be the exact same thing. That said, the chairs where I am staying are wood and concrete (weird I know) and the dishes are more in the 70-100 range, but the food is of a notability higher quality, so I have it from time to time and enjoy it quite a bit.

After dinner, I took Joseph to the Ting Tong bar, for some drinks and live music. As usual, the band plays mostly covers of western songs and Bob Marley, but it is a cool atmosphere and some good people hanging out for sure. We ended up chatting with some Germans and an Austrian guy for most of the night, as well as a few locals in the band, and had a very good time.

This brings me to today. Joseph left early in the morning for Koh Phi Phi (where I came from a few days ago), and I spent a lazy day around the room mostly. It was cloudy and drizzling on and off most of the day, and since I saw most of the island yesterday I didn't have much to do. I sat around on the computer emailing and chatting with friends, getting this latest post ready, and trying to figure out what to do with my time. By about 3pm, the sun came out, so I headed down to the beach where I relaxed for three and a half hours, napping in the sun and reading my book until the sun went down.

I emailed the person who runs the homestay program, and when I heard back I was excited to do it. However my hopes were shortly dashed, by the cost of getting back to Old Town where you leave from. It seems taxis don't want to take people there, because the cheapest I could find for the 20 minute ride was 700 baht each way! What I had initially expected to be 350 baht had suddenly turned into 2,100 (since the price in the book of 350 is also half what they are charging for it now) and that is just too much. I wrote him back and said if I can find a way to get there and back that isn't outrageously expensive I'd still want to do the homestay, but as is it was just too much money.

In the meantime, I have a few days to kill. Tomorrow I am going to go chat with Lanta Animal Welfare, a local animal shelter about volunteering for a few days, and if that doesn't work out I guess I'm just kind of sitting on my hands for a few days, so cross your fingers! I had thought about heading farther south and inland, but I just don't have enough time to do that, so I'm sort of in limbo right now. It's a little boring right now honestly, but at the same time I really like the fact I DO have the time for something like this to happen and be OK. Flexibility is freedom, eh?

So that is where I am at right now, so for now, goodbye and take care.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Islands of Thailand Have so Much to Offer

Hi everyone, and happy new years, I can't believe it's 2011 already! 2010 was an amazing year for me and being in Thailand right now, I can't imagine 2011 getting off to a better start than it already has!

The day began with our being awoke by monkeys on the roof, causing quite a racket. They seemed a bit less hostile than the other day, which was nice, but you don't want a monkey bite, nor monkeys in your room, so I try to be careful around them. Nick of course had the same concerns, but was more interested in playing with them, first handing them a water bottle to play with (which they fought over) and then a (empty) can of Chang Beer. When we'd returned later, I found the can full of bite marks and ripped in half, haha.

After breakfast at our hotel (the provided breakfast is eggs and toast, I guess they assume that is all white people want to eat in the morning, I prefer Thai breakfast though...) Jeans surprise was revealed (though it was already sort of blown a bit earlier by Ellen) to be a little hike over the hill top to the other side of the island to snorkel, so we went into town, gathered supplies, and headed off.

Naturally the beginning was quite steep, and we were all sweating within short order, but the views were more than worth it. This is the best viewpoint of the island, and I think shows why this is such a popular tourist destination. The main 'town' is that sandy bit connecting the two hillsides, the main bay with the pier for larger boats is on the left, and the sandy beach with all the bars and long-tail boats is on the right.

On the other side, the hike took us through the jungle, where we saw a large lizard, some birds, and interesting insects. The weather started to turn a bit unfortunately, and it was rather overcast once we had arrived on the beach. The wind was blowing a bit as well, and the sand was stirred up, meaning the snorkeling wasn't great, and I ended up just falling asleep on the beach while the others actually did some snorkeling.

This picture is of something we often find ourselves discussing: sewage. Officially, this is called the “Wastewater Collection and Constructed Wetland System” but the graffiti on the sign was a better name I think, the “Poo Garden”. Open sewers are a common site around this part of the world, and big whiff of the stink is a common experience. This is a Dutch (if I remember the sign correctly) project to use a 'wetland' to help filter and clean the sewage using natural methods, and we ended up with a nice view of this “poo garden” from our room!

The next day, all of us hopped on a boat for an all day tour around the island. From the boat we would stop a number of places to look around, snorkel, kayak, and so on. The weather still wasn't perfect, a bit overcast, but it was not a problem, and did clear up a bit as the day went on. The snorkeling we were able to get to on this boat was vastly better than what we had been able to get to on our own previously, and we all saw some pretty neat things in the water.

Of the many stops the boat made over the course of the day, this was the last: Maya Bay. It is a very pretty little cove, and was used in the Leonardo DeCaprio movie The Beach. From there, we watched the sunset from the boat, and motored back in. Quite a nice, full day. On shore, we got dinner, and headed back to our rooms to clean up and rest for the new years celebration.

I know I was getting down on the party-scene in my last post, but this is new years eve, this is the night to party! One very nice feature of this area, and a great money saving tip, is you really don't need to buy drinks at the bars. We bought all of ours in the little stores along the way to the beach, and then you just walk along the water, watch the fire-shows, and dance on their dance floors. This was a pretty crazy scene. There were so many people out, the bars were packed, the music was blasting, and once the clock struck midnight-ish, the sky erupted with fireworks. I'd say this is probably the most fun new years party I've ever had.

In the morning, the sun had finally come out, but it was time to move on. After relaxing on the beach for a while, everyone else caught the ferry to Phuket. Nick and Ellen are starting a month long volunteer program at a monkey rescue center, while Colin, Jean and Chris had a flight to catch up north to Chang Mai. I know I said it before, but after my own family, I've spent more time with the Jones-Clan than anyone else. To get to spend Christmas and new years with them here in Thailand has been a special treat, and I am very grateful for the hospitality they have shown me during our time together. I do hope to meet back up with Nick and Ellen in about two weeks however on my way back north to meet Brendan in Bangkok, so this isn't goodbye to them yet!

It was also my time to leave Phi Phi and after some rather typical confusion regarding schedules, I caught a different ferry to another island, Ko Lanta. It is closer to the mainland, farther south and a much more mellow place than what I was leaving behind. This gives me about two weeks to travel alone again, which will be interesting. I began alone in the Philippines, but within a day had travel partners, and ended up spending only about 2 days alone. I'm not sure what will happen here, but while traveling with Nick and Ellen has been a total blast, I'm also looking forward to some alone time, haha.

Ko Lanta isn't like Phi Phi, it is a long island with 5 main beaches on the west side. Because of this it lacks a central area and is a bit more difficult to negotiate. The boat I caught was later than I expected, so in a bit of a hurry I went with one of the guys who waits for the arriving ferries to some bungalows on the beach which are a pretty good prices, but higher than I want to be paying for more than a night or two. At the time it worked out very well however, and was a pretty good find.

The next morning, I slept in, and went for a walk trying to figure out what I actually want to do while here. As I said, there is no centralized town here, other than a collection of shops by the pier, and walking around made that quite clear. I walked for about an hour in one direction, and honestly there isn't much besides a few shops, hotels and restaurants. With a vague plan in mind, I went back to my room.

This is laundry time! While there are plenty of laundry services on the island, they charge 30 baht a kilo, so I choose to do it on my own. (the laundry services do it my hand and sun-dry as well) I bought some soap for 10 baht at the 7/11, and used a plastic bag I had with me. You can wash in the sink, but they can be nasty and it didn't have a stopper anyways. This bag method actually ended up working out very well. After laundry, I laid out on the beach for a while, relaxing and trying to build a solid base tan finally so I don't need to worry so much about burning!

In the evening, after sitting on the beach, watching the sunset and writing up most of this post, I headed off for some dinner from one of the local restaurants along the road. Food here is 'expensive' compared to the street-food of Bangkok. The cheapest meal is 50 baht, rather than just 30 baht, which is a bit of a bummer. Anyways, no one at the place spoke English, and they didn't have a menu, but a neighbor translated for me. Something must have been lost in translation however, because I asked for stir-fried noodles with veggies and chicken, and instead got veggies and chicken, and a huge plate of rice. Oh well, that's how things go around here!

I decided to spring for an evening of muay thai, or Thai kick boxing. I've never been to a fight before in my life, but this seemed interesting, and 'only' cost about $20. It consisted of 8 fights, starting two kids who looked to be about 8 years old, then moving up in age and size, ending with the main event between an Australian guy and a Thai guy. The crowd was mostly tourists, but there were a decent number of locals who were very into it (and I'm sure got their tickets for a fraction of the price). The whole thing ended up being a lot of fun actually, and was defiantly worth it. Oh, and the Aussie won, but it wasn't very graceful.

That's it for now. Tomorrow I will probably rent a scooter and explore the island, maybe go caving, then go to this weird carnival thing they have setup. In the coming days I'm looking into doing some more scuba diving, maybe an elephant trek and a home-stay with local fisherman. Take care everyone.