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02.05.2011, 20:00   ---   A whole new world

After quite a hectic check-in in Dubai – the airline refused to check me in as I didn’t have an onward-ticket from Thailand, Wi-Fi didn’t work, the check-in-lady’s Black Berry didn’t load the websites properly, then they allowed me to use the internet at the airline office in the airport’s basement, quickly booked a cheap onward-flight, rushed through the security checks again and in the last second I finally checked in – I had a relaxed overnight journey to Bangkok and suddenly found myself in a whole new world.
I’m staying at Khao San Road, the party hub of Bangkok with one bar after the other, lots of delicious food everywhere (from fresh fruits to Pad Thai and even bugs), cheap massages from head to foot, the entire street is full of market stalls selling clothes, jewellery, music… great!
And after 4 months in southern Africa it’s an almost forgotten feeling of freedom to be able to leave the house at any time of day or night and still feeling safe!
The city is full of tuk-tuks and taxis in every colour, heaps of pompous Buddhist temples, markets, even more food (nobody’s gonna starve in Bangkok !), lots of over dimensional photos of the king and a good portion of Asian chaos.
After feeling badly jetlagged the first two days for no obvious reason (I only crossed 3 time zones!?) I explored the city along with two other backpackers. We spent hours strolling through the huge weekend market, visited the magnificent Grand Palace and the temples of Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho (stunning, lots of gold and massive Buddhas), had lunch in the probably smallest Hard Rock Café in the world… At night it was time for some drinks at Khao San Road , a relaxing foot massage in between and as a little snack to the beer we tried a fried grasshopper – salty and crunchy and not all that bad when you don’t think about what it is. ;-)  

08.05.2011, 9:00   ---   Islands and beaches

Instead of heading towards northern Thailand as planned I quickly changed my plans and went to the Andaman coast, hoping to get on one of the last dive boats of the season to the Similan islands. The trip that I fancied was cancelled though as there were not enough people and so I went all the way down to Railey first. This town is only accessible by boat, has some beautiful beaches and is surrounded by massive cliffs – so beautiful! The cliffs make Railey one of the world’s hotspots for rock climbing and we weren’t about to miss out on that. Olivia (met her on the nightbus) and I attended a beginner course, had two brilliant instructors and lots of fun. And it’s so exhausting to push all this damn weight up the rocks… ;-)
And very cute are the monkeys that hang around in the trees everywhere. On our way to the beach we passed a little pond with about 20 monkeys playing and splashing around just like little kids, jumping from the trees and pushing each other into the water.
One night we discovered a fascinating natural phenomenon: Bioluminiscence! After a few drinks we went back to the beach to go swimming and wherever the water got into motion it instantly started glowing. I saw that before during a night dive in Egypt and it's flourescent plankton, absolutely stunning!

From Railey Olivia and I took the ferry to the island Koh Phi-Phi, a tourist hotspot cramped with guesthouses, bars, souvenir-shops, tattoo-studios and the like. I’m usually not a big fan of that (it’s just not the authentic Thailand ), but after all that time off the beaten track in Africa (there were not even postcards) I actually even enjoy it. ;-)
And apart from party and buckets full of alcohol the island also offers nice beaches, crystal-clear water and a superb viewpoint in the mountains.
Yesterday we joined a boat trip to the little neighbouring island Koh Phi-Phi Leh, snorkelled, unavailingly watched out for the monkeys at Monkey Beach and finally climbed through the surf across the rocks to that place where even Leonardo DiCaprio had already rested under the sun: Maya Bay, the beach from the movie “The Beach”. Of course there were plenty of people around, but anyway it’s an absolutely stunning beach in a bay surrounded by high cliffs and green forests.
Oh and I treated myself with a traditional Thai-Massage!! After 7 months of carrying my backpack and sleeping in uncomfortable beds that was badly necessary! It might look kind of brutal sometimes, it’s a mix of massage and extreme body stretching and it’s totally fascinating how these little Thai girls bring up so much (sometimes painful) power… but it feels great afterwards!

So far we were pretty lucky with the weather… It’s rainy season right now and we usually get one downpour a day, but apart from that it’s mostly dry and from time to time even sunny. I hope it stays like that as from tomorrow I’ll be on a boat for 4 days – diving diving diving!! :-)
I’m on the ferry to Phuket just now, it’s quite a rough sea out there (hopefully it’ll calm down for the next days!) and then I’ll try to get on a bus to Khao Lak, where the boat leaves from tomorrow. :-)

17.05.2011, 17:15   ---   Ups and downs  

To cut it short: Due to bad weather the dive trip was cancelled and I went back to Bangkok much earlier than expected. But before I left I took the chance between some rain showers to visit a terrific tsunami memorial: Boat 813. This police boat lies in the middle of a field about 2km inland and had been taken there by the tsunami on Christmas 2004, which killed more than 8000 people only in Thailand – a horrible force of nature!
Back in Bangkok I spent the day with exploring one of the shopping centres and enjoying all the great street food at Khao San Road , before taking the night bus to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand .
As I got there I noticed that my backpack was closed differently than I usually do it and everything was disordered inside. It was the same with everybody else’s luggage and in the end my well hidden emergency-backup of 200 US $ and my jewellery (more an emotional value than financial though…) were missing. The luggage had been locked inside the luggage storage for the whole time and only the bus drivers had a key of course. Obviously they took their chance during the 11-hour-drive to check the entire luggage while everybody was asleep… And a visit at the police station showed us that this was not a single incident!
But Chiang Mai is a really nice place and very different to the South of Thailand. While in the south everything’s focussed on beach and party this is rather the country’s cultural centre, the entire city is full of beautiful temples and the whole Thai culture and tradition is way more present and authentic.

Over the weekend I joined a two-day trekking-tour to the hilltribe villages of the ethnic minorities – fantastic! The group consisted of 10 people, everybody was really cool and our guide Jabun had a big smile, few teeth and lots of humour. :-)
First thing in the morning was a visit at the Longnecks. The women of this tribe traditionally wear metal rings around their neck, putting on more and more over the years which stretches the spine and makes the neck get longer. This habit originates in the protection against tigers, but unfortunately nobody could tell us why they ended up putting on more and more rings. Of course that visit was a little bit like going to a zoo, but on the other hand it’s still not only made for the tourists, but a tradition of thousands of years. The people live in this village, the kids play in the streets and so it was even more authentic than I actually had expected it to be and very interesting.
Next activity on our itinerary was an elephant ride. I heard lots of terrible stories before about rings through the trunk, poor health, inappropriate enclosures… so I was even more relieved when I saw those five happy and healthy elephants. They looked really good and after the rides they are apparently free to stroll around a big enclosure in the bush, their natural habitat. With this peace of conscience I climbed up the elephant and enjoyed the one hour ride through the jungle. Our slightly lazy buddy had already seen the bunch of bananas, that we’ve bought before, and so he stopped every now and then, lifted the trunk up and claimed some snacks. Luckily our supply lasted until the end of the ride… two others from our group ran out of bananas and received a massive snot shower from their disappointed elephant! :-D
Afterwards we started our 3 hour hike to a little village on top of the mountain. Sometimes the track was brutally uphill, we crossed several creeks and rivers on rickety little bamboo bridges and broke out in quite a sweat… but we were rewarded with amazing landscapes and lush green jungle and meanwhile Jabun explained to us what the locals use certain plants for (medicine, insect repellent, fuel…).
Right on time before the daily tropical rain shower we arrived at the village. We were accommodated in a bamboo hut, one of the families prepared delicious food for us and Jabun and a guy from the village played the guitar. Next morning after breakfast we started straight-away with another 3 hour hike. We descended the mountain on the other side and as the track was extremely muddy and slippery after the rain Jabun quickly supplied us with some brilliant walking sticks made from bamboo. ;-)
Along the way we stopped by a waterfall for a well-deserved refreshment and as we arrived at the foot of the mountain it was time for White Water Rafting. Even though the rapids were nothing in comparison to those I had rafted in Australia , it was a lot of fun!!! One hour later we switched to simple bamboo floats for a relaxed ride to our pick-up-point, from where we were taken back to Chiang Mai already.
My extremely soar muscles still remind me of that fabulous trip and even an extensive massage couldn’t really make a difference. :-/

25.05.2011, 14:45   ---   A world of silence and serenity  

After being fairly recovered from my sore muscles I went to Pai for a couple of days, a small and extremely relaxed town in the mountains. I stayed at a little bungalow by the river, spent plenty of time in my hammock and relaxed like a pro. ;-)
But I was not only lazy… One morning I joined a Yoga lesson and was surprisingly stoked! It’s one of the kinds of sport I never took all too serious without knowing how exhausting it actually is! But also very relaxing at the same time… just a fantastic mix, really cool!
And I had to explore the surrounding area of course. It seems everybody’s cruising around with those scooters, but since my wounds of that motorbike crash in Zanzibar are still not healed completely and I also badly need to improve my fitness I decided for a bicycle instead. ;-) It’s not all that easy in the mountains though, but the beautiful landscape is much more enjoyable on a slow means of transport. Along the way I did a short drinking stop at a little elephant camp, had a nice chat with one of the employees and was even allowed to pet the “gentle giants”, so cool! :-) My destination for the day were the hot springs . At about 80°C the water bubbles from the ground into a little creek. Further down it’s cooled down quite a bit and in the daily heat you can conveniently warm up your legs in the hot water. ;-)

From Pai I went back to Chiang Mai, where I had a confirmation to join the meditation training at the temple Wat Phradtat Doi Suthep. The temple is situated on top of a mountain, surrounded by the jungle and with a fantastic view over the city. I stayed there for the last four days and got taught by the monks about meditation and Buddhism. An incredible experience, but we had to adapt the monastery’s rules and daily rhythms of course… A maximum of 8 hours of sleep a day, no solid food after 12 noon, speak only when it’s necessary. We had to get up at 5am. Half an hour later started the daily Dhamma-talk, where we learned about the teachings of the Lord Buddha by the Dhamma (the teacher). 7am was breakfast time, lunch at 11am and at 6pm everybody met again for the communal chanting, rhythmical speaking in honour of Buddha, at 9pm we were allowed to sleep. The rest of the time we were free to practice meditation at our own pace. Meditation is about shutting down all thoughts and senses to focus only on yourself. That sounds easier than it actually is!! All the time the thoughts drift away, ‘cause the head is still too busy with a lot of things, and when you finally manage to control that you’ll suddenly hear a bird chirping or some steps and you’re distracted again. Once a day we had an appointment for a report with the teacher, where we got help and advice to improve our meditation.
The teacher was probably one of the most fascinating persons I’ve ever met! He exudes an incredible calmness and kindness, lives the teachings of Buddha by heart, but at the same time he’s also absolutely close to reality and knows exactly what’s happening in our minds and our lives and what’s important to us.
Also Buddhism in general has this especially peaceful and loving character… totally different to Christianity. It’s already obvious when we just look at each religion’s symbol: The peaceful Buddha vs. the crucified Jesus!
Summarising I gotta say that were some exhausting days. I’m not an enthusiastic early morning person, I enjoy food and more than anything else I need to communicate with other people! The last one also was the rule that we actually broke quite a few times though… I probably couldn’t have done it much longer, but nevertheless it was a great experience and I’m glad that I got this chance!

For now my time in Thailand is over. My visa’s gonna expire tomorrow and I gotta get to the Laos border as soon as possible.


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