Friday, February 27, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: Untainted Burma --

I leave the most tedious travel companion I've had and walk down the road, starting a previously planned long return journey to the big city.

Despite being sold a 'VIP direct service', I am told to board an old and dusty coach, departing almost twenty minutes delayed.
Having bypassed the perks of public transport in Myanmar on my journey into the Golden Rock, I can instantly predict an authentic experience to be had within the next hours.

Maneuvering for a few minutes to avoid colliding with some street vendors, the bus slightly skids in the red mud and pulls out of the garage, seconds before we are invaded by pilgrims who run towards the coach from the 'truck station', having just descended from the mountain after a warm night praying.
Every seat is filled up in seconds, clearly representing a challenge to the driver and the bus' suspension which seems to have seen better days in the past.

I move to a seat in the last row and open the large window. Morning breeze fully blowing in my face, and villages passing by behind each bend. Nobody around me speaks English. I sit silently, contemplating the dynamics of a local bus ride, just like travelling in British Burma.

The bus stops roughly every five minutes and collect passengers which now crowd the aisle, breathing heavily when some sort of extreme G forces are felt due to over-speeding , black plastic bags needed.
Sitting beside me, a man with a colorful Hindu mundu smiles and play with his modern iPhone, chatting to his travel mate who loudly chews betel nuts wrapped in green leaves, concluding the ritual with the 'spit from the throat' tradition, politely done into yet another black plastic bag.
To pass time,  the driver decides to play a Burmese movie. Crowd immediately fix their attention to the small flat screen television and laugh every time the main overweight character bounces people around with his large gut. Apparently he's a rapper living in Yangon, but he owns a tractor and a Hummer?.



Three hours after leaving sleepy Kyaikto and eighty-five miles down the road, my stop is called and I squeeze my way through the crowded bus.
The heat is nearly overbearing and I am offered a cheap taxi lift by a local. A confusing situation, once we agree on the fare, he runs away without saying a word, bringing an old bike with a tag-on seat on the side a few seconds later.
He grasps a few English words and tells me to seat and hold tight, ploddingly pedaling through the dusty streets of Bago.
Bago, (formerly known as Pegu) is one of Myanmar's largest towns and gets its name from the Portuguese who created a settlement in the area, which became an important crossroads when the Yangon-Mandalay train line was built.


My driver pants loudly and sink his legs in the pedals whilst we cram through the busy street market, avoiding incoming traffic in tachycardia-deserving turns.
Once in the train station, queues of local passengers purchasing tickets are formed, however, an officer walks me into an old office lit by a noisy neon light covered in cobwebs and dust.
He pulls out a plastic chair and kindly offers to grab my backpack and a bottle of water. He then sells me a handwritten paper ticket.
A brand-new blue sign in their office states both in Burmese and English: 'Warmly welcome and take care of the tourists' , which seems to be some sort of a motto in a country that has recently woken up from its domestic lethargy.

Train ticket in hands and battling the scorching heat reflecting on the village tin roofs, streets dotted with pagodas of all sizes and temples are discovered, though my main goal is to reach the impressive reclining Buddha, one of the few crafted in detail and colors in Southeast Asia.
Despite resting in a rather simple setting, at nearly the size of an olympic pool resting in a bed of black tiles, the Buddha is an intimidating sight, resembling a giant waiting to be fed in the middle of the Burmese countryside.



'Come on in, we have Wi-Fi' is announced by a shy restaurant owner in the main road. In the end, a pause from the heat is badly needed and energies are replenished with a plate of fried rice and a large bottle of water, excellent option to shelter and pass time before heading to the train station, capturing the moment of pure countryside quietness before the 15:35 train from Mandalay noisily arrives into the platform.

And what a train ride. First class carriages are covered in a lacquered brown finishing, with green ceiling fans and seats separated by an enormous old-fashioned leg room.
My seat partner plays Candy Crush in her awfully large mobile and, at the sound of basic English words coming from her wide white smile, she offers me fresh fruit and food, vocalizing the words 'fresh', 'eat', 'very good' repeatedly.
The train ride to Yangon takes about an hour and a half, loudly skipping over bent rail lines surrounded by light green rice fields and golden pagodas distantly crowning the hazy horizon.



My last hours in Yangon are spent in the hectic grid-like streets of the city center, through the timeless red-bricked Secretariat building and a late afternoon pause in the Independence Monument, where tourists and a few foreigners alike closely watch the dynamics of the water fountain projecting in front of the spotless white City Hall.



A badly-needed shower and my first typically Burmese dinner follow, whilst the rest of the evening is unexpectedly spent learning about the peculiarities of this country from the eyes of an English expat I meet at the hostel.
Quenched by numerous bottles of Myanmar lager, I soon learn that mobiles were introduced into the country two years ago by a Qatari company and that Coca-Cola shares almost the same timeline, annihilating any other soft drink brand in the country with their aggressive marketing campaigns.
Expats are given 60-day visas only, forcing constant trips to nearby Bangkok in order to re-entry the Union, an unpractical yet sharp way of recycling or getting rid of unwanted foreigners.

I briefly sleep before spending my last kyats in a taxi to the airport, once again ending my time in this special place through the leafy avenues of the Northern neighborhoods just before sunrise.
Airport formalities are cleared in a record time of five minutes and I proceed to board my Air Asia red plane along with fellow tourists and a group of Burmese laborers waving their red passports around.

The engines roar and the plane steeply soars over rice fields before making a sharp turn South, conveniently flying over the streets, lives and stories of the busy morning in Yangon, former capital of a country that has just discovered Western life, without giving up the authenticity of its traditions and the warmth of their smiles with every genuine gesture of kindness given. At least for now.

Monday, February 23, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: The Golden Rock --

I hear a knock on my door and swiftly leave the dark dormroom, joining a fellow backpacker from Austria in a waiting taxi. We have teamed up for the next leg of this trip and, despite being early morning, numerous market stalls slowly congest the streets around the hostel.

As the white Toyota cruises towards the main coach station, which lies away from the city in a field behind the airport runway, the early morning scene of the city surrounds us. Here, groups of locals gather around government-funded fitness instructors, performing squats and jumping in sync around Inya Lake, a green oasis in the middle of a spotless neighborhood, cleaned by government staff wearing creme colored uniforms and sweeping the street with palm leaves. A privileged area dotted with foreign embassies, luxurious houses and luscious gardens.

Almost half an hour later, we reach the busy bus depot and board our coach. It is brand new, Chinese manufactured and the air conditioning is blowing at full power.


North of Yangon, the coach takes a wide dual carriageway linking the largest city in Burma with its counterpart Mandalay. Despite the obvious large investment made to build it, the road seems to be empty and only a few buses and trucks are seeing travelling around.
First service in the morning, means plenty of seats are available and, as foreigners, we are given the seats in the first row, so we fully enjoy the loud Euro-Burmese pop music videos coming out of the small flat-screen television and experience first hand stomach-wrenching turns whilst the bus speeds through windy roads, small villages floating in vast rice fields and conquer bridges spanning over wide muddy rivers. I soon discover why we were handed over a black plastic bag when we boarded the bus. Burmese people can get carsick. A lot.

Three hours later, we arrive into the mile-long village of Kyaikto and proceed to walk, through red dusty streets, to a small hotel in which basic rooms are offered.
Ever wonder where six US dollars can take you in Myanmar?. Apparently it is enough for a space with twin beds placed in between dirty walls covered in reddish clay under a noisy ceiling fan. A semi-open air bathroom and cold shower complete the set of amenities, although Wi-Fi adds a toucgh of modernity to it, so the few French foreigners around me are seen in the wide open common area researching for cycling routes in their iPads.

Basic accommodation aside, the peace of the Burmese countryside is unbelievable. The noise of farm animals in the background, the bells of the distant pagoda and the ceiling fan whirring at maximum speed over my hard bed make for one of the best siestas I have ever had in my entire life.

Once the sun declares a truce, a truck is boarded, an experience shared with some thirty local passengers squeezing in rows of five at the back of a modified Chinese truck. A necessary and somehow exciting ordeal up the vertiginous narrow road which climbs nearly two-thousand meters above sea level to the sacred place of Kyaikhteeyoe, commonly known as The Golden Rock.


Magically balanced at the edge of a steep cliff, the Golden Rock is the third most sacred place in Myanmar.
The legend says that the rock itself rests over a strand of Buddha's hair in a mountain range that limits the fertile lands of the Sittoung River delta on the South and the greenery of the cold hills that extend their way North to the Himalayas in the Chinese border. A place beautiful enough to turn anyone into Buddhism, legend states.


With the full moon festivities approaching, pilgrims from all over the country flock into this sacred place and are allowed to spend the night in the mountain. A proof of pure faith, I spot entire families extending bed sheets and soft pillows across the fresh white tiles, kneeling on the floor and sharing small pots of food.
Women close their eyes and, almost in a state of deep and pure trance, loudly pray and bow in front of the rock, crowned by a small shiny pagoda, whilst only the men are allowed to get closer and stick thin leaves of gold to the solid acrobatic boulder.






Only a few steps downhill, a market built just like it was hanging by the hill, colorfully sells food, cheap plastic toys, souvenirs and even livestock, turning dark and Dantesque-like at times when passing through traditional Chinese medicine stalls selling a 'magical' elixir based in a mix of formaldehyde run through a sticky amalgamation of animal bones, goat skulls and snake carcasses.






A trip to Kyaikto could not be complete without witnessing the sun setting over the plain lands, reflecting in the waters of the distant delta, scenically coating every little spot of landscape in a symphony of golden and orange colors.
It is also the time for foreigners to compulsory return down the zig-zagging road into town, where dinner is shared with three other fellow backpackers met whilst being tossed about at the back of the truck around the dark hills.



After sharing a meal, I am the last person awake in the hotel. The two receptionists around me have fallen asleep over red worn out deck chairs, listening to the Burmese news on the neglected radio system, lulled by the background sound of chirping crickets and palm trees swinging with the midnight breeze.

Friday, February 20, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: The Yangon Affair --

Built with large window panels, like a vitrine to a new country which has barely opened to tourists recently, the arrivals hall see a rapid influx of passengers nervously forming four long queues around five immigration agents as passports and visas are checked.
A very friendly officer grabs my documentation and with a wide smile states: 'e-Visa, very easy' heavily placing a stamp in my passport, finishing the formality with the a discreet 'welcome'.


Just a few steps away, a very organised queue of taxis await for clients and surprisingly, haggling is not encountered at all. Instead, taxi drivers politely ask where I am heading to and, in fast Burmese discuss rates and routes with each other.

Just as many other destinations, landing at night time represents a dramatic arrival and a challenge to the confidence.
Outside my taxi window, lampposts are dimmed in a reddish tone which, mixed with the haze of the tropical evening, reduces visibility considerably. I am surprised by the cleanliness and freshly irrigated gardens around the main road.
Cars look in general good conditions, an immediate and clear example of the recent ending of an almost legendary commercial embargo.
They are mostly second-hand Toyotas given a second life in these lands and brought from Japan, featuring steering wheels on the right hand side, fitted for left-hand driving.
Nonetheless, traffic flows in the continental right-hand driving! .Roundabouts were never as adventurous and daunting as they are in Myanmar.

I am dropped off at my hostel, which is a converted Victorian house stuck in the middle of a busy and dusty neighborhood.
The receptionist explains that Yangon is a very safe city and suggest a nearby option to grab some dinner and it is just that, despite being only 22:00, the streets of the Burmese capital are completely deserted.

My day in Yangon starts with children singing an upbeat national anthem at the primary school located just besides the hostel and a Burmese breakfast including steamed white rice, banana dumplings and a strong cup of coffee, served in a balcony overlooking the street. Pure bliss.

I meet two Canadian girls before start our procession through the busy morning traffic which, despite being at an almost total standstill, no car horns are heard and people seem to quietly wait in their cars for things to happen. Motorcycles are banned from the Yangon region, making things slightly more bearable.
The sight of Shwedagon Pagoda and its golden crown getting closer seems to almost blind us only feeding the anxiety of discovering such iconic landmark.
Two golden lion statues, a large empty hall and some oddly placed electric escalators greet locals who climb up the hill in order to celebrate their faith.


Tourists are barely seen, which enhances the experience of entering such a sacred place, key destination in Burmese Buddhism.
At the entrance, an abrupt receptionist in military uniform explains that foreigners have to pay a fee of 10 US Dollars to get in. I am also wearing shorts, which means I am also forced to buy a typical longyi, which is a tubular piece of garment which is rolled around the waist, in order to be allowed entry.
Seconds later, I enter a dreamlike place in which locals and monks euphorically chant and loudly pray to the numerous Buddha statues scattered around dozens of small shrines constructed over a white marble floor. The optical illusion is of a row of white, ivory and golden pointy towers rising towards the clear blue sky.



Gasps of awe are smothered by a strong smell of incense mixed with the freshness of steamed vegetables and rice eaten by elderly people gathered around to have their morning meal, kindly laid out and served in silver stainless steel pots.
Their faces are covered in some sort of cream-coloured clay, which they stylise over their cheekbones in diverse patterns to protect themselves from the strong sunshine.

Once the experience of walking through the domains of Myanmar's main pagoda is finally assimilated, I glance at my map and walk downhill, pausing for a lichee juice to fight the late morning high temperatures and continue through tree-lined avenues to Kandawgyi Park, whose green murky waters once worked as the Royal reservoir during the British colonial times and have now been conquered by an old wooden jetty where young locals date, study or just simply share a light meal trying to also find some relief from the midday sunshine.


As I walk to the main train station, the buzz of this some five-million inhabitants city starts to finally materialise and, the previously clean and manicured streets seem to have given way to a more dramatic and real landscape manifested in scenes of Soviet-like square blocks covered in rusty metallic grids and drying laundry, crowded noisy open-air buses fighting for space in the congested streets and some sort of dark blue sewage running across wide canals covered in acrid piles of rubbish and rotten food. Yet, it is finally the face of the real Myanmar, exhilarating at many levels.


With its white walls topped by golden pagoda-like towers and the constant rumbling of old locomotives pulling dirty carriages, Yangon's central train station translates the rhythm of the country at its best.
I purchase a ticket for the circular journey and, whilst waiting for the convoy to arrive, locals gather around platform number 7 with all sorts of goods, from enormous bags of Chinese-manufactured candy to grilled chicken skewers ready to be sold in a hop-on, hop-off basis.
The train circular journey is the closest thing to a metro system in Burma, roughly taking three hours to complete a loop around the Northern suburbs of Yangon.


White-and-red carriages covered in telecommunications company adverts slowly pull out of the main station and noisily roll over old and twisted railings.
A few foreigners and I get firmly stared at by the locals whilst inside the train, which features wooden seats organised in two long rows facing each other. Yet, smiles, requests for random selfies and obvious displays of kindness add the Burmese sparkle to this particularly special train ride.
The dynamics of the city unfold as stations are slowly (stress on the word slowly) conquered, with busy areas covered in apartment blocks and heavy traffic succumbing to the sight of shacks suspended in wooden palafittes, surrounded by swampy rice fields and small dry islands where barefoot children play with homemade leather balls.
A journey which ends at the end of the afternoon with the sunset reflection transforming the railway jungle of the central station into a shiny metallic mirage.



In desperate need for a shower, I return to the hostel swerving my way through the afternoon traffic, covered in a mix of sweat, red dust and exhaust fumes, later joining fellow hostel guests to indulge in the flavors of a freshly-made seafood Pad Thai and the refreshing bitterness of a Myanmar lager.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: Phuket Life & The Wedding --

We approach a pile of tourists, backpacks and loud tour operators as the ferry attempts to dock at the crowded Rasada Pier, one of Phuket's main gateways.

I am tossed into a small minibus, speeding through the sign-polluted streets of Phuket Town and sinuous motorways cutting across the hilly terrain in an almost acrobatic way. The Western beaches and particularly Kata Beach are next, my base of operations for the upcoming days.
In my mind, the scenery around me overlaps with footage recorded here some ten years back, when powerful waves swept across this island killing and displacing thousands product of one of the most destructive tsunamis ever recorded. 

And so, the 'resort life' begins soon after a friend, who I hadn't seen since my time based in Doha arrives from Melbourne, proceeding to check into our comfortable room, turning the aircon at full blast, TV on BBC News and curtains wide open for views of the village. 'Look, they provide small toiletries, robes and beach towels!'.quite the change after the bungalow in Phi Phi.

In no time, we follow a small pathway to the beach where a few food and fresh juice stalls dot the Northern end of the sand strand, sheltered under mangrove and palm trees.
Fried noodles, fresh mango juice crushed with ice and the sound of the waves smoothly sliding across the swimming-pool like ocean make for an almost perfect first glimpse of Phuket, continuing throughout the day with some freshly made 'mojitos' bought in the conveniently located street market and a time by the swimming pool catching up with life, because in the end, many things seem to have changed in almost six years.


Seafood skewers for dinner seem to be a delicious yet treacherous idea. As a consequence, my first night in Phuket is hell, with a complete lack of sleep and a stomach cramping for several hours.
In the morning, breakfast is barely touched and I feel like I have been swimming countless sets of butterfly stroke non-stop for hours.

A walk to the beach represents a challenge to my already scarce energy levels, disguised behind my sunglasses and a smirk, only made worse by my sunburned shoulders and my constant cough.
Perhaps dismayed by my looks, my roommate rushes to the local pharmacy, which in Thailand means being offered a cocktail of strong drugs and copious amounts of Panadol. She purchases the best combo of medicines to remedy my sickness promptly. This is key as my friend's wedding, which is main reason why I am in Southeast Asia, is due to happen in a few hours.
Preparations for the big event start with a bit of rest, a frustrated quest for an iron across all shops in Kata Beach and an aloe vera massage which combined with heavy doses of Panadol work miraculously in getting rid of any body pain I previously had.

Nearby Katathani Beach Resort awaits. An idyllic space surrounded by manicured and vibrant green gardens, decorated in white linen which blend with the quiet sands of the beach and the sun starting to set in the pink horizon, acting like it is part of the venue itself.
It is also one of the hottest afternoons in Phuket in days. Girls try to retouch their make up constantly and guys try not to look exaggeratedly sweaty. 
In the end, it is my friend's special day and every single detail around it must be just as the place itself: perfect.



A few minutes past four in the afternoon, the glowing bride marches through the row of white chairs and sweaty guests wearing the shiniest of the smiles, before being handed to the groom which now awaits under an altar covered in flowers and lit by the reflection of the sun setting in the silver ocean.
Religious service starts, jokes are cracked, photos are taken, big 'Yes'es are said and a gracious baby elephant is in charge of closing the ceremony in the most authentic Thai way.
It is now time to celebrate this cross-continent romance, and we are doing so with people from all over the world gathered in this little piece of paradise, eating, drinking and dancing, though nothing could beat the newlyweds specially choreographed version of 'Happy', which becomes one of the hits of the fresh evening by the beach.


Days of a much needed relaxed routine follow in Kata. It is the part of the holiday in which no plans are made, no must-go places are designated, but instead, we do whatever we decide to do on the spot, including several trips to the beach laying under mangrove trees, sipping on fresh fruit drinks and bathing in the pristine warm waters of the Andaman Sea, or laying by the swimming pool avoiding the Russian tourists playing a clumsy form of beach volleyball.
An attempt to rent a scooter fails miserably leaving a few bruises and scars on my left leg (and my pride as a driver), turning into a long walk by the side of a busy road under the heat of the late afternoon.


Some hours later, we finally make it to the famous night market in Phuket Town, a space where everything seems to be valid and a place where locals and foreigners alike converge in an adventure of cuisine and shopping.
Laid under a somehow organised grid-like mess, pirate DVD stores play loud Thai music, whilst fake clothes stalls make for colorful displays along with small local girls selling cheap make up and a large sultry area of the market serves all sorts of food, ranging from upscale fresh sushi, to overly sweet pastries and even fried insects.



My friend and I venture to the beach for the last time, before taking a 'songtaew', a blue open-air bus which is the Phuket answer to public transport, into Phuket Town for some good-bye formalities before she then proceeds to continue to the airport on yet another minibus.


Back in the Western beaches and fighting the holiday blues, I enjoy a last drink with the newlyweds and fellow guests before retreating to my hotel, packing up and preparing for a day of constant travelling, starting at around ten in the next morning with a minibus route which provides a quick look at the tourist-crowded and somehow unappealing Patong Beach before taking a modern motorway to the main international airport.

At the Air Asia check in desk, an interest conversation unfolds in regards of my next destination. Visas are triple-checked with the main office and I am soon cleared to proceed to immigration and to board an aggressively red-painted Airbus.

When taking off, Phuket Island fades through the late afternoon orange haze, fried noodles are offered for purchase and minutes later we start our descent into Don Mueang airport, which is Bangkok's second main airport.
I am led through corridors and escalator and visas are checked again by an attendant wearing a red uniform and a shy smile. My flight is soon called for boarding.


With plenty of seats to choose from, I sit beside a young man writing poems in Spanish and travelling with his girlfriend. Across the aisle, a busy middle-aged woman seems to almost smash her keyboard briskly writing e-mails and constantly looking at her watch. When filling out the landing cards, I learn she is an important executive in a telecommunications company based at our destination.

It is a flight full of foreigners which, through a bumpy final approach, are entering one of the most secluded countries in the world.
The white lights of a glass modern terminal announce the arrival of our flight into Yangon, the capital of the Union of Myanmar.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: Phi Phi 'Phun' --

After two hours of waiting in the early morning stuffy heat and legs almost devoured by large mosquitoes, we are led to a bus that seems to have had better days for a short transfer to Surat Thani town.
I meet two Dutch girls on the way and as small talk flows, we soon decide to join forces for the next days in exploring our next destination.

We are transferred to a larger coach and through a modern motorway which zig zags through soft hills covered in rice fields and palm tree plantations, dotted by lonely towers of karst and solid granite rising from the plain lands, we reach the noisy Krabi about two hours later.

Once again, we are led to the back of a pick up truck for a short trip to the ferry station, slightly forced to run through the long jetty in order to make it in time for departure.
I sit on the floor of the main front deck for a decent sized piece of personal space in the packed ferry and also to avoid sea sickness.

The quiet navy blue waters of the Andaman Sea seem to easily flow under the hull of our slow boat, rocking and splashing our legs at times, soothing the effects of the Equatorial sunshine slowly burning our skins.
And as a mirage, large blocks of rock rise from the horizon like some sort of giant's fingers trying to stay afloat.


Passengers become excited and countless camera clicks are heard as we approach the islands from the West, increasing the excitement of arriving into a paradise of blue water, white sand and luscious greenery.
Ships and longboats pile around the main pier. A large yellow sign welcomes everyone to the island, seconds before being tackled by a short man charging a conservation fee.

Conservation you say? The main settlement in Phi Phi Dom is far from being a paradise. A backwater town, once completely destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, seems to have been reconstructed in an improvised way with sewage running across the main pedestrianised streets, flooded by open air tattoo studios, massage houses (lady boys included), small shops and loud bars.

I find a rather cheap accommodation option which would work for at least one night, squeezed in between a loud bar and a little convenience shop.
The girl in the bed besides me reads a book whilst her phone charges in the wall and briskly tells me stories from the previous night, warning me about the night ahead and the fellow guests lethargically sleeping their hangovers.


I run to the beach to savour the feeling of the warm ocean water around my skin at Lo Da Lum Bay and spend the afternoon laying in the hot white sand strand, emulating the behaviour of hundreds of other tourists sleeping, having a drink and heavily working on their tans as a sun holiday credo. All of this complemented by the rock walls sheltering the bay and adding the Thai touch to the beach.

Four white walls covered in graffiti and a loud ceiling fan are the recommended dinner place for the night and dishes of Pad Thai, soup and refreshing fruit juices are consumed vigorously. A small place which is then visited two more times, one for each night I spend in Phi Phi Don.

At night, sleeping becomes impossible thanks to a broken air conditioning and loud backpackers constantly crashing into furniture, laughing and speaking out loud.
Agreed that the profile of the traveller reaching this piece of paradise is younger, therefore a bit more prone to lose control of normal decency around their fellow peers.
An element that somehow has taken some of Phi Phi's beauty out and has turned it into a messy party capital, only slightly surpassed by the loud and infamous Patong Beach across the sea in nearby Phuket.

Refusing to believe this is all Phi Phi has to offer, we venture through a beautiful pathway under lush trees bordering the island to a place known as Long Beach.


The seclusion of the place has preserved it, making it almost ideal for a day of relaxation, sleeping under the trees, dipping in the spotless waters and having a little drink.
In the distance, the constant come and go of the main pier is muffled by the rocking of the waves and the sight of Ko Phi Phi Leh, turning darker as the hours pass by.

Once the skin is tired of sunshine and hunger strikes, we decide to find a better accommodation option, which is never an easy task in the small island.
We find a wooden bungalow in the quiet side of the island, with a balcony that becomes a hang out place in the evening contemplating the stars, chatting and enjoying a few cold beers (oh yes, we have wi-fi as well).

Despite my obvious seasickness problem, we decide to take a full-day boat trip around the island in the morning, joining a crowd of young budget tourists in the main street and, upon receiving instructions, I find myself marching in some sort of a queue around the muddy streets of Phi Phi Don to the main pier.
We board a wooden noisy longboat, which rocks constantly when leaving the sheltered bay and it finally enters the open sea, however, my policy of non-eating before a boat journey seems to be working perfectly.


The boat suddenly stops in the middle of the water and sharp instructions are given: 'Shark Point, snorkelling, twenty minutes'. And off we go,  jumping into the crystal clear waters with our snorkels.
No sharks are spotted, however, I don't think anyone would care when you are surrounded by an infinite amount of curious and colourful fish playing in the coral reef.

About an hour later battling tall waves and drifting away from Phi Phi Don, we reach the white sands of Bamboo Island, where we are given fried rice in Styrofoam packs along with a bottle of water as lunch.
I decide to explore the small piece of land instead, walking through the beautiful sandy beaches, dipping in the refreshing blue waters at times (avoiding the crowd of Chinese tourists) and finally climbing the rocky and virgin side of the island for a beautiful view of the Andaman Sea and my little piece of private beach.
A full loop of the whole island is completed in around twenty five minutes, followed by a little siesta under the trees.


With the body used to the constant rocking of the boat, I no longer find any reason not to finally enjoy myself, have a bite to eat, dive in the waters of Mosquito Island for another session of snorkelling, this time in turquoise waters, and feel the breeze of the afternoon weather blowing in my face.

Family Guy's 'Evil Monkey' themed sign indicates we have now reached a place called Monkey Beach.
Tourists seem to almost crawl in the white sand trying to get close ups pictures of the several monkeys wandering around the place.
It is never a good idea to feed the monkeys they say. Combine uneducated tourists and food leftovers and you are guaranteed a number of aggressive monkeys running around screaming and scaring their benefactors. I just limit myself to laugh from the safety of the warm water.



A visit to the Southern Thailand islands could not be completed with reaching the epitome of the Thai tourism boards splattered all over the world.
Bordering rocky shores and navigating across the bay we finally reach the island of Phi Phi Leh which slowly reveals our next docking point: Maya Beach,  'The Beach' beach.



It's a unique landscape. A perfect balance of white sand, blue water, a line up of colourful longboats and a rocky frame with a beauty probably not describable with words.
Perhaps the small piles of rubbish, the constant whirring of boat engines or the hundreds of tourists with selfie sticks have taken its toll on the magnificence of the place, yet it's a place of inspiration and somehow feeling of accomplishment.



A 'Chang' beer serves to commemorate the conquest of yet another iconic place in the world, moments before the day ends in a rather melancholic note, navigating through the quiet waters of Blue Lagoon, a body of water which reflects everything in sight like a giant mirror and finally enjoying the 'orangest' of the sunsets by the sea, sunset that had been offered as part of the package.



Once docked back in Phi Phi Dom, the three of us enjoy an evening of dining at our little Thai food spot and having a few Singapore slings by the beach, watching fire shows happening at the sound of loud techno music and neon lights from the distance whilst young backpackers walk around the beach to one of the many party spots in the main island.

In the morning, I wave good-bye to my sleepy new friends and walk through the empty streets of town for an early morning ferry departure.
I grab a seat on the main deck because in the end, my sunburned skin is crying for a break from the sunshine and some air conditioning pampering.

The ferry lines up West. About forty-two kilometres separate me from my next destination: the loud and world-famous Phuket.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: Bangkok Touch & Go --

With the mercury reaching almost 12 degrees Celsius in an atypical winter day in Dublin, I leave the office and head to the airport, through the rush hour of a damp afternoon.
Since I am flying on a 'stand-by' ticket, I pray to St. Etihad to let me into the flights.

Loads looking good and ground staff making sure there are enough seats for the next flight, I proceed to check into my flight to Abu Dhabi which departs an hour delayed due to foggy conditions at the destination airport.
I cram into two seats and shortly after having a substantial meal,  I succumb to the fatigue of a long day at the office and a rushed departure. No space for whining, I am officially on holidays.

As expected when flying East, the night is shortened by several hours and the plain landscape around Abu Dhabi is releaved by the orange sunrise, some seven hours after departing Dublin. Modest muffin and coffee is served minutes before descending into the busy airport.
A storm of memories and nostalgia follows. In the end, I used to operate flights to this airport regularly. A storm fed by the strong smell of amber scent wore by the people in the Middle East and the announcements in Arabic.


It is a full house for my flight to Bangkok, since many flights were delayed due to weather conditions and passengers from every corner of the Etihad network were placed into a large Boeing 777 which leaves the dusty Middle East flying over Pakistan, the bumpy skies of India and the Bay of Bengal and finally reaches the Thai capital nearly 7 hours later.

Once deplaning, the humidity and the heat of these latitudes instantly hit me in the face, despite the air conditioning working at full power at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

First time as a backpacker in Bangkok and with no crew pick up or five-star hotel in sight, I immediately take the modern Skytrain which seems to almost levitate over dark neighborhoods, tall buildings and massive outdoor advertisements promoting ASEAN countries integration.
The Skytrain takes me to the Makkasan Station right in the center of the neighborhood where several accommodation options had been suggested by my Lonely Planet book.

I lose half of my body weight in sweat despite being almost midnight, at a point in which finding the street names in the neighborhood of Sukhumvit becomes quite the challenging task.
Around me, the typical Bangkok night unfolds naturally and my quest for a hostel is defined by a row of pink taxis fighting for their own space in the busy avenue along with rickshaws and trucks, smothered by a strong smell of exhaust pipes, fried cooking oil and sewage.

I finally find a hostel which feature lovely pods and most importantly at this stage, excellent showers and aircon. A dinner of delicious black noddles with seafood and a Singapore sling follows.

The constant whirring of the aircon numbs every possible thought at night and, after a decent sleep, I grab some fried Thai breakfast and check out.
I take the modern metro to Hua Lampong train station to sort out my train ticket first, and after searching for many options due to limited availability, I am given a second class berth for the 15:00 train by a smiley attendant.

A walk from the train station to the area where the Royal palaces are becomes a colourful challenge surrounded by busy street vendors and incense shops in Chinatown and sweat-drenched clothes, quenched by copious amount of bottled water, juices and smoothies. A walk rewarded by the sight of the colourful pointy towers of Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple which is also known as the birthplace of the Thai massage.

Each tower is covered in small tiles and placed within the Palace grounds strategically to guard both sanctuaries where local bow and a countless amount of golden Buddha images, with the larges resting on almost 50 meters of a red berth and covered in gold leaf.



A few steps down the road and a short ferry trip across the busy Bangkok's main artery, the murky Chao Phraya River, I climb up the former military fortress of Wat Arun, defying vertigo with its steep and narrow steps for a hazy yet one of the best overviews of the second largest city in South East Asia.




My attempt to visit the Royal Palace is instantly frustrated by the heat and the large crowd of tourists gathering around the main entrance, moment in which I decide to visit the red Giant Swing and through quieter neighborhoods reach Siam Square, a place which, with its airlifted monorail lines, passageways, tall towers and neon signs, perfectly translates one of Asia's largest passions: a love for retail.
Air conditioning has now become a precious asset, enjoyed with a lovely Pad Thai by the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.


I walk back to the train station by way of the green and fresh grounds of Chulalonkorn University, moments before sipping on a cold strawberry Fanta and board my old-fashioned second class carriage, featuring an area for washing up and a squatting toilet.
We leave the station on the dot. Families around me say their good-byes and kids run beside the train as we slowly pull away from the platform and enter the city's suburbs: a mix of low-rise houses, slums and motorways under construction.


The landscape around the train line slowly changes and the haze of Bangkok's concrete jungle surrenders to villages, small golden pagodas and swampy rice crops, shining by the reflection of the late afternoon sunset.

I entertain myself jumping from carriage to carriage, spotting obvious differences between the facilities of each 'class', from wooden seats in the budget option to comfortable first class berths, aircon or not.
By night, my sleep is interrupted by the noisy clickity-clack of the old tracks, the fully lit lights, a banging door and the Antarctic-like aircon.

Almost 13 hours after leaving Hua Lampong, a loud assistant wakes everyone up announcing my stop, the sleepy and dusty village of Surat Thani.
At 04:00am, a decent omelette is enjoyed at a restaurant which has placed tables on the main street and proudly offers wi-fi as their main luxury.

Time for await for further instructions to continue the trip, after an almost 'romantic' train journey across Southern Thailand. Reckoning flying would have been easier, but memories would have not lasted as they do now.