So, since I came back from the Pai CouchSurfing collective, quite a bit has happened. We installed a fingerprint lock on our front door in response to the total mess that was the Gassiep family key management procedure, and I am pleased to report that it has been a total success. I have enrolled two fingers of each family member into the lock, and nobody has been locked out since. Furthermore, there's no more rummaging for Mum who has a handbag like the Tardis, or trying five different keys for Dad who refuses to cull his keyring which must have at least 50 keys on it. The model we have is the FA6600 and I highly recommend these units. They're easy to use, solidly built compared to standard front door latches and seem to have very good fingerprint reading capabilities.
Since then I've been overseas again, I visited friends and family in South Africa as well as making a stop off in Thailand to do another unit of training in Scuba diving. I've just returned home today. While in South Africa I stayed at my Aunt's place in Johannesburg, which is always a pleasant holiday. I accompanied my mother there, and we took Zayd there to meet my cousin's kids. He had a great time, he doesn't get a whole lot of family contact here in Australia, as there just aren't that many kids here that he can relate to at his own level. It was also great seeing everyone there, I haven't been in about 18 months. I didn't stay there for very long, and didn't get to catch up with as many of the people there that I would have like to, sorry if you're one of them!
On my way back I met Gemmell in Thailand, where we completed the next level of PADI diver training, Emergency First Responder and Rescue Diver. These two units are the last ones we needed to do in order to go into professional diving, and the last one before Master Scuba Diver, which is the highest qualification outside of professional diving. In order to get the Master Diver qualification we need to be supervised for 5 specialties. We've already done the first dive for our chosen ones the last time we were in Thailand, we just need to get them logged, and then ensure that we have 50 logged dives in total. In other words, we just need to get some dives logged, and we're there.
So now I'm back at home. I have a few things that I'm working on, including Twerl. Oh well, back to the grindstone again until I find an excuse to flee the country again. I'm thinking of doing some winter dives here in Melbourne so I have an excuse to try out the dry suit that I bought from my first instructor in Thailand. I've never used it, as I've not done any diving in water cold enough to need it. I'll keep you all updated on how that goes, so watch this space! Naz out.
So it's been a while since I last updated my blog. Apologies to all. I will try to summarise the last month as best I can.
I arrived in Thailand on the 10th Feb to work with the admin/tech team of CouchSurfing.com. Having landed in Bangkok, I took a domestic flight up to Chiang Mai. As luck would have it, I arrived on a Sunday, just in time for the Sunday Night market. I decided to delay a night here to sample the sights and sounds of this town that I have never been to. Chiang Mai is an ancient city that used to be the capital of one of the northern Siamese kingdoms. Founded around 1296 by King Mengrai, it was originally named Nopphaburi Si Nakhonping Chiangmai. After being captured by the Burmese, it was finally incorporated into Thailand in 1774 when King Thaksin recaptured the area that is now Chiang Mai province. Since then Chaing Mai has become an important local economic hub in northern Thailand, where locals come to engage in trade and work. It is also an important destination in the Thai tourism industry. It is a fascinating city, and I highly recommend that any visitor to Thailand make the effort to visit it.
I arrived in Pai on the 10th Feb. Weston and John met me at the bus stop after a long, stomach churning minibus ride down a windy road driven by a maniacal driver. I immediaely hired a motorbike to get around town, as there are no taxis or other forms of public transport. I spent the first day exploring the area in and around Pai, and taking lots of photos. I haven't uploaded them yet, but if you check the gallery soon they'll be there, as soon as I get to a fast internet connection. It is an incredibly serene piece of countryside, lush with vegetation. I have taken many photos of this trip, all of which are available in my Twerl gallery.
There are many rural villages nearby where the tribes people live very traditional lives, more or less untouched by the dramatic social changes modernity brings. Pai, on the other hand, is a whole different story. It was clearly conquered long ago by armies of backpackers searching for authentic foreign experiences. While not westernised in the almost tasteless manner that Phuket or Koh Samui have been, Pai has been transformed by the many people travelling through it. All the foreigners there say how they prefer the authentic experience that Pai represents, which has taught me something fundamental about how societies interact; they cannot see reflections of themselves in others, they only see the differences. This may seem obvious, but in Pai, this property of human behaviour was demonstrated to me from the reverse angle; Instead of looking at another society and searching for something familiar as most people do, the travellers to Pai are looking for something different, they want the "authentic Thai experience". Over the years, Pai changed. Its society re-modelled itself to suit the backpackers flowing through it. The economy changed from selling farming tools and produce to selling handicrafts and souvenirs, the primary wealth generating activity changed from producing goods and trading them in nearby Chiang Mai to service based endeavours catering for their guests. The fact that the ex-pats living there did not recognise this and insisted that Pai represented "Thainess" as opposed to the regular tourist traps illustrates to me that they were unable to see those parts of themselves that were being imbibed by the locals, they only saw the differences that remained, which kept them believing that Pai was still truly authentically Thai. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.
Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, Pai has retained a very pleasant, highly social community spirit, with local townspeople, foreigners and nearby Lesu tribe members mixing together in as close to perfect harmony as one will see on 21st century Earth. I merely make the point that this demonstrates the truism that observation without intervention is impossible. Backpackers are famous for their low-impact travel nature, they strive to leave as few footprints as they can and assimilate into the places that they go as invisibly as possible. However, Pai is an example of the ultimate impossibility of this effort. It is a macroscopic societal manifestation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The backpackers' money is the metaphorical photon to the the momentum of the local economy's particle, and I feel that this very interaction, this cross osmosis of human experience, ultimately enriches the lives of everybody it touches. Economically, fair trade always results in net gains to both sides. So too in societies; respectful trade in ideas, experiences and knowledge allows all who engage in it to gain from their expanded pool of wisdom.
The CouchSurfing collective was for me quite productive. While I did not get as much real coding done as I would have liked, interacting with the rest of the ream and meeting the other people who up until then I had only known by reputation or by email was great. The CouchSurfing team are great people, with a wonderful sense of common purpose and a genuine desire to have a positive impact upon the world. If only more groups could look past their implementational disagreements and concentrate on a shared vision, then there would be far more positive results from human interaction. Great work guys, I look forward to working with you in the future.
One story worth telling was the tale of The Nameless Cat. While on one of my exploration trips, I came across a cat starving and near death. Given its distance from any livable area and the fact that it was obviously highly domesticated, I could only conclude that it had been dumped as a nuisance cat by an annoyed ex-owner. Being the animal lover that I am, I bundled it up in my shirt and took it back into town. I must have looked a little odd, being topless with a half-dead cat wrapped up in the bike's basket. We got back to the Mango Tree (the main guest house where we all worked) and gave her some water. It seemed, however, that she was unable to drink. I went back into town to fetch some chloromycetin drops, syringes and latex gloves. John helped me wash her up, put some drops in her eyes which were caked over with dry sticky secretions and syringed some water down her throat. We attempted to feed her, but she wasn't interested. We decided to let her rest, and give her fluids every few hours until she got her strength back. She responded very well to handling, purring very strongly and seemed to welcome the syringed water. Unfortunately however, she just wouldn't eat. More disturbingly, maggots appeared at her nostrils and mouth. We spoke to a local vet, who suggested killing it with a shovel. I decided to get a second opinion. I took some photos and called an emergency centre in Australia who gave me some care advice. After assessing the photos, it was decided that the most likely result would unfortunately be euthanasia. I had neither the time nor the resources to give the cat the several weeks of intensive care that would be required to give it a chance, and even that would be a slim chance. The only other option was to put the cat back where I found it, which would only prolong her misery. We decided to wait and see what happened. 24 hours later, she was still unable or unwilling to eat, which, along with the ever-present maggots, was an indication that her condition was unlikely to improve. We euthanised her that day, using carbon monoxide asphyxiation, as it was the only non-violent means available to us. We buried her under a tree.
CouchSurfing was nice enough to pay for a collective outing to go bamboo rafting and elephant riding. It was great fun, we all got to float down the river on bamboo rafts, and then ride elephants. I really enjoyed the rafting, but the elephant riding was a bit boring. I enjoyed it for about 15 minutes, and then I realised just how slow the things moved, and just how hard their backbones were. I had a sore butt by the time we had to get off. Afterwards I sat in a hot spring that smelled of sulphur, which was great, as I was starting to get bad gas due to stomach problems.
Now I have not vomited since I was in primary school. However, during the course of the collective, I got such a bad bout of food poisoning that I vomited every hour one night. I was much better the morning after though, the whole episode lasted about 12 hours only, thankfully, with only minor belching issues for a few days thereafter.
After about 3 weeks I decided that it was time to leave the collective. I left with a friend of mine named Diamond from London, and headed down south for some sun and sand. We stayed in Koh Lanta for 3 days, which was absolutely stunning. The Thai south is beautiful, and I'm just sad I didn't spend a few more days there, as I didn't manage to get any scuba diving in. After that, I jumped on a plane for home, which brings us to the present. I hope you're not all too upset with me for keeping you in the dark, I'll do my best to update more often. Until the next time folks!
So, after 7 visits to Thailand, I've finally seen the famous Loi Kratong (ลอยกระทง) festival. Loi Kratong is an annual Thai traditional festival that has come to mean many things.
Rap and I went to a festival being held at what appeared to be a convention centre, where we ate traditional Thai food (although "European food" as available, apparently for the large number of foreigners present) and took photos of the fireworks and festivities. The fireworks show was particularly impressive, and I have some videos of a few minutes of it. Hundreds of khom lois, small paper hot air balloons, were also released, and the combined effect lit up the sky in a dazzlingly beautiful display of light and colour.
There was a show consisting of traditional Thai dancing as well as some spectacular theatrics including a dramatic rendition of a sword battle, where actors dressed in what I assume was traditional armour and battle gear enacted a battle scene. There was also much singing of the Loi Kratong song, a Thai song, which is translated as:
The full moon of the twelfth month As water fills the banks We, all men and women Have really good fun on Loy Krathong day Float, float the krathongs Float, float the krathongs And after we have floated our krathongs I invite you my dear To come out and dance Ramwong [traditional dance] on Loy Krathong Day Ramwong on Loy Krathong Day Good merit brings us happiness Good merit brings us happiness
The aspect of Loi Kratong that I find particularly beautiful is one of the symbols that the floating kratong itself represents; by setting a kratong afloat, Thais believe that they are releasing anger, bitterness, grudges, envy and other forms of spiritual vice. To symbolise this, they often leave a paring of hair or nails on the kratong, symbolically containing all those traits that they wish to rid themselves of.
One of the things I noted was the construction of the kratong. Being a bit of an environmental nut, the first thing I thought of when I saw the release of hundreds of these kratongs was about the huge amount of litter it must result in. When I finally got my hands on one of the mass produced kratongs I was pleasantly surprised to find it was constructed completely of highly biodegradable material. The raft basically consisted of a very low density waxed particle board which formed the "hull" of the float, on top of which floated a flower arrangement, a wax candle for burning, and some incense sticks. The whole thing would, in my estimation, break down completely in a matter of weeks. In the past, they were made of styrofoam, but I am pleased that more responsible methods of production have been adopted. Kratongs that are personally made are a different matter, and I haven't seen any of the huge ones that are floated by organisations or groups of people wishing to celebrate together. I've heard that such kratongs can be far more elaborate and I would hope that Buddhist traditions would make builders mindful of the impact that people can have on the world in which they live.
The dinner was being held one day before the official day of Loi Kratong, for reasons I was unable to determine. Despite this, many locals were in attendance. I am thrilled to have been able to be there and thank the Thai people for allowing me to attend one of their most intimate and beautiful cultural events.
Well it's been a long time since my last entry, I don't have much time to write a whole lot so I'll make this a short summary.
After getting back from Brazil I was just grinding away at the usual work stuff. About a month later my family all left for a holiday in Bali and Thailand. I took my parents around Thailand which they loved, and then in Bali I took everyone on a scuba diving trip. All in all, the family holiday worked out as a roaring success, everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly and we've pretty much decided to do it again in January.
Since they left about a week ago, I've been travelling around Thailand with Rap going to places we haven't been to before and generally being travel bums. We've been to a small town called Chaiyaphum, which was quite nice. Nobody there spoke English, and we were given frequent curious looks by locals wondering what a couple of farangs were doing so far from the usual tourist trail. We just smiled back, said a quick "sawasdee kaap" obviously with funny accents as they usually giggled when we said it.
We've also been to Krabi. I've spent a day there and in Ao Nang checking out its suitability for the upcoming CouchSurfing Collective. From what I see, we won't have any issues. Internet access appears to be easy to source, with ADSL being available throughout the town and surrounding area, there's plenty of shopping (although I didn't see any of the large bargain markets like the ones in Bangkok and other major tourist spots) and finding things to do will be no trouble at all with rock climbing, scuba diving, jet skiing and a bunch of other cool things being very close and affordably priced. The local infrastructure is not as developed as in larger towns such as Phuket, Pattaya or Korat, but it's developed enough that I don't see us running into any problems with taking care of the collective's needs.
I'm really looking forward to the CouchSurfing Collective, it'll be great to be staying and working with a group of amazing people and I think that it will be of great benefit both to the individuals involved as well as for CouchSurfing as a community endeavour.
So it was time to leave Thailand and head to Rotterdam to meet the CouchSurfing guys. I left most of my luggage with a friend in Pattaya, as I did not feel like hiking around unfamiliar territory with 50kg of large bags. So I put 5 days' worth of clothing and supplies into a backpack and headed off into the great unknown.
The flight was terrible. It was an older 747 with no entertainment system at all. I'd forgotten to request a window seat so I was in the middle seat of an aisle row, between a stern Japanese guy who scowled at me every time I fidgeted, and some weird kid who fidgeted even more than me. Sleep was impossible thanks to the elbow he kept jabbing into my ribs. Needless to say it was a relief getting off the flight at Frankfurt. The entire airport is blanketed with a T-Mobile hotspot, which made getting online to check email and get a map easy. If only all airports had that.
I booked a long distance train ticket valid for 2 months from the travel center in the airport, it cost EUR200. I found out afterwards that I could take a local train to the border for EUR21 and then a local train in Holland for the same price, but oh well, now I know for next time. The train went from Frankfurt to Utrecht, taking about 3 hours, and then I changed to a local train for Rotterdam, taking about 40 minutes. It was a pleasant ride, the long distance train had a restaurant, as well as power plugs for laptops in every seat, however my plug didn't fit.
I got off the train at Rotterdam Centraal and walked around for a few hours. By now I was thoroughly grateful for my foresight in leaving my bags in Thailand, having to lug 5 bags around would have been a nightmare both in Frankfurt and in Rotterdam. I had a bite to eat in Burger King, bought a SIM card for my mobile phone and found an internet cafe in which to get online and grab the address I was supposed to be at.
Eventually, at about 7pm, I arrived tired and bedraggled at Jacob van Campelplain, only to discover that the number I had been given was wrong. As I had changed my SIM card since calling Walter, the number was no longer in my phone's recently dialed list, and there was no internet cafe in sight. So I had to call my Mum to look up Walter's number for me on the CouchSurfing web site. Thanks Mum! So I finally made it to Walter's place, tired, hungry and smelly, where I met Chris, Jim and Weston. More people should be arriving soon. I'll keep you all posted how my stay here goes, so stay tuned, dear readers. Until then, bye for now!
I've been in Thailand about 10 days now and it's been by far my most hectic stay here yet. Two days after meeting with Rap, we flew to Phuket, where we stayed for 2 nights. We took a day trip to the now famous Maya Bay, the setting for many of the scenes in the movie "The Beach". We went to one of the agents to ask about ticket prices etc, and after having worked out all the details, the agent asked us if we had any questions. I did not. Rap did. I would have thought one would want to know how many other people would be on the tour, or how long we'd spend at the beach or perhaps what was served in the included lunch. Nope, not Rap. Rap asked if there was mobile phone reception at Maya Bay. There were some spectacular views there, and I will be posting some photos to a new album as soon as I get a decent connection to plug my laptop into.
Aside from the Phi Phi island and Maya Bay trip though, Phuket was a disappointment. The locals there are obviously more touristified, and have lost much of their local character, having adopted a watered down culture which feels like it's more for the benefit of the tourists than a desire to retain their heritage. It does not feel authentic at all, especially given that I have spent much effort getting to know the feel and flavour of traditional Thai culture. After about 6pm you cant walk anywhere without being accosted by bar girls asking you to buy them a drink. My airport driver tells me that they get 50/50 splits with the bar on the drinks they manage to squeeze out of tourists. The shoppingthereis pretty poor, the products are all sweatshop trash, and there's STT (Stupid Tourist Tax) on everything. If I go back to Phuket, it will be only as a stop over for a dive trip to Phi Phi island.
A few days after our Phuket excursion, we hired a minivan and hit the road bound for Kanchanaburi, a province in western Thailand on the Myanmar border. We visited the Erawan Dam and falls, which was an incredibly scenic and tranquil place to visit. We also visited the Tiger Temple, which was a huge let down, as we were both expecting to see wild tigers being trained for repatriation to the wild. Instead, we got to stand in line with a bunch of babbling European and American tourists and have our photo taken next to a couple of thoroughly non-wild tigers so bloated with high calorie food they looked like they'd have troubly hauling their fat bellies off the ground. I've seen fiercer poodles. It was a far cry from the images of a majestic apex predator that the word "Tiger" invokes.
Finally, we had a lovely lunch of freshwater fish at a floating restaurant on the River Kwai, very near to the famous Burma Railway and the site where the movie Bridge on the River Kwai is set. All up, the Kanchanaburi expedition was a fascinating exploration into part of South East Asia that I've read much about.
Anyways, this has been a longer than usual entry, I'll post an update to my travels soon. I'm heading out to Europe soon to meet the guys for the CouchSurfing Collective in Rotterdam. More on that as events unfold. Watch this space!
So I finally got some diving in, and what a day we had. I saw the new wreck here, the HTMS Koot, scuttled by the Thai navy a few months ago. It's so new that few fish have moved in yet and there's not a lot of build up on the hull or superstructure. There's a gap under the keel and the sea bed which I squeezed under. I wrote my name on the underside of the hull there, given that current is unlikely to disturb there, it should stay there for years. I'll check it when I'm here next.
We also saw what I think was an albino stonefish. I thought it was a sick puffer fish and almost grabbed it. Good thing I didn't, as stonefish venom is amongst the most toxic in the world. I also spotted a baby white eyed moral eel, which was a good find. I've always liked the morays, despite the damage they can do to a diver if disturbed. The highlight of the day was riding a tutle. I know you're not supposed to mess with them, but I just slowly swum up behind it and held onto the back tip of its shell while it wandered the coral gardens looking for food. It didn't seem too alarmed by my presence.
I'm hoping to get one more day of diving in tomorrow. I'm planning to get back here in April if that's possible to go on one of the Similan live aboard cruises. Out of PJs and into wetsuit sounds like the kind of life I could get used to! That's about all from this update in the life of Naz, so until next time, peace out peeps.
If that wasn't reason enough, Australia has been accused of interfering with Fijian sovereignty and illegally smuggling weapons into the country to support the government, which runs us afoul of the military. So even were the conference going ahead, I would not want to join a 200 strong group of Austrlian businessmen in Fiji right now.
So instead of going to Fiji, I think I'll be joining my cousins on a trip to Brazil. I've never been, and I hear the beaches are amazing. There's good diving off the coast apparently, with the opportunity to observe some larger pelagic fish such as sharks, large rays and game fish. Woot! I'll be sure to keep you all posted with pics and stories. Watch this space!
Anyway, at the moment I am in Thailand. Yes, again. Yes, I was just here, in October. No, I do not have a girlfriend here. Yes, I know I haven't put the photos from my last trip up, things have been hectic. I've been here for about a week now, and I've decided that I've had enough of the cities. So I decided to go out on a little tour. The guys were going to come with me, but they pulled out at the last minute, I was unable to cancel the whole thing as arrangements had already been made, so I'm doing the lone ranger thing and traveling solo. At the moment I am in a villa type hotel, if you can call it that, it's more like a group of chalets. I just had a drink with Kai, the owner, and his friend Manfred at the bar (Coke, before you ask). He is German and moved here after marrying a Thai woman. They have a daughter named Anne-Marie. We chatted for a few hours at the bar under the makeshift pagola, listening to 50's classics played from his laptop and state of the art German sound system. He was a man who knew what is really important in life. His business here earns very little, just more than what it costs to keep running, but then how much more do you need when 'running' means you and your family has a beautiful home, great food and is about 200km away from the nearest burglar?
Kai built this place on his own with a few workers from a local village and now lives here with his family. He has done a magnificent job. The bar overlooks the pool, and the whole area looks like a tropical resort. About 20 feet from the pool is a pit with a raised walkway above it and overhanging wire fencing. In this pit live several large crocodiles. I don't know about you, but the sight of crocodiles really makes me want to have a swim. All night Kai plays jazz and country while chatting idly with Manfred and any guests who happen to come out for a stroll. One could spend hours lying on a deck chair looking up at the crystal clear sky. The rooms are superb, right now I am sitting in bed, under a satin duvet that feels like it is filled with goose down on an incredibly comfortable mattress. Oh, and the air conditioning works a charm.
Before dropping me off at the hotel, Wassana, my tour guide, took me to visit her family's home, which is nearby. They live in conditions to be expected of rural areas in Thailand, reminding me just how much of a privilege things like hot water, gas or electric cooktops and plumbing really are. Most of the houses were nothing more than four walls made out of cinder blocks, with windows, clay tile roofing and a doorway. I say doorway, but most houses don't even have a door, privacy is achieved by the fact that it is dark inside and one cannot see inside during daylight. Bathrooms were made by partitioning off a section and putting in a traditional far eastern style squat toilet which, regardless of the modesty of the house, was kept surprisingly clean. Beds are little more than mats on the floor. People live in close proximity to each other, no more than 20m separating each dwelling. This suits their incredibly strong communal mentality, with everyone knowing everyone else and being welcome to sit on each others' porch, enter each others' homes, even use each others' motorbikes. Fences are unheard of. People trust each other implicitly and are friendly to strangers. I was welcomed with the genuineness that only the very poor seem to be able to manage, and immediately offered all kinds of food. I tried some fish and rice, but the rest contained pork and I was unable to try it, much to the chagrin of the housewives. Nevertheless, I wandered around the area, followed by a few young children including Wassana's son, Teun.
After getting to the hotel, I tried to convince my driver to take a room for himself, seeing as it costs under $30 per night it seemed ridiculous for me to allow him to spend the night in the van. However he refused, saying it was too expensive. I spoke to Kai and asked him to send his wife to tell my driver that a room was available and that he could stay there for free, but he saw through my little trick and politely told her that he preferred the van.
And that brings me to the end of today. It's been an adventure and I will no doubt be coming back to visit here again. I told Kai that if I ever came back I'd bring him a media PC he can use as a dedicated juke box with a nice big hard drive so he can store enough music to entertain even the most obscure of his guests' tastes. I hope you're all well and taking care of yourselves. I'll be home in about 10 days. I have many photos to show you all, and I beseech you to have patience until I find the energy to get them all up. Until my next entry, dear readers, this is Naz, signing out from somewhere in rural Thailand.
After statements were taken, we were informed that the guy essentially had two options. He could spend 2 or 3 days in jail and then be deported, never to be allowed back into Thailand, or, he could somehow convince Keh to drop the whole thing and give her some money. He and his friends offered Bt3,000, which is about $72 USD at current rates. Rap and I acted as negotiators seeing as we spoke English. We recommended to Keh to take the money and drop it. Now, given his alterative and the fact that it was his own stupidity that caused the whole thing, I think that Keh's demand for Bt30,000 was quite reasonable. Eventually she settled for Bt10,000. Had I been able to buy a get out of jail card for the equivalent of about $250 USD I'd be rapt. But no, he walked out of the police station threatening to get her the next day. Some people just don't have any brains.