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T H A I L A N D   II

30.07.2011, 15:00   ---   Too ordinary to be mentioned

For 3 months I’ve been travelling through Southeast-Asia now and I got so used to lots of things of the everyday life, that I’m not even bothered to mention them in all my stories. But from a German point of view these matters are not all that ordinary by any means…

1. Road traffic
Road traffic in Southeast Asia can easily be summarized as chaotic and hectic with lots of honking. Laos is a bit more relaxed though, while Vietnam is a lot worse than any other place. Road rules are rather suggestions, prohibition signs are not being cared about and when someone’s doing a turn and can’t cross the street in order to get onto the correct lane he won’t wait, but simply wind through the upcoming traffic on the wrong lane until there’s a gap to slip through. And very important: One rather keeps the thumb on the horn than the foot on the break!
At first, crossing those streets is quite a tough thing to do as a pedestrian, after a while one knows how to deal with it and in the end one even gets excited about crossing bigger and more crowded roads. ;-)

2. Motorbikes
About 95% of all vehicles are motorbikes or scooters (except for Thailand ), helmets are rarely used and accidents are often tragic. In Vietnam about 30-40 people per day die in traffic accidents!
Motorbikes are the Asian transportation all-rounders! They easily serve as vehicle for the whole family (5 people on that little machine are no exception), even kids cruise the roads in some places, they offer incredible opportunities to transport loads of goods of any kind (on the seat behind the driver, strapped to the sides, in the front between the legs, on the lap, dangling from the handle bar…) and in case there’s even more to be carried they even pull huge trailers. It really is astonishing!
Motorbikes are also used for business all over the place: First of all as tuk-tuks of course, a motorbike attached to a small roofed trailer with one or two little benches for up to 6 foreigners or a lot more locals. In a bigger variation they pull a long trailer with lots of wooden planks as benches to serve as some kind of bus.
Moreover motorbikes are quite popular among travellers to explore the area on their own. For only a few dollars a day they can be rented pretty much everywhere, nobody cares about a driver’s licence and after only a short time of getting used to everything one floats totally fearless within the Asian traffic.

3. Public transport
On long distances one is usually travelling by bus in Asia (There are also a few railway connections between some places, but it never came in handy for me) and they offer pretty much the full range of comfort imaginable. From the old and rickety ones with holes in the windows, no legroom and plastic stool along the aisle to the brand-new and top-notch luxury buses you can pretty much get just anything, but even the last one mentioned can break down on the way as I experienced myself. But no matter how malfunctioning and run-down a bus may be, it will definitely be equipped with a perfectly working TV along with a DVD player and heaps of speakers. For the entire time of the journey the local pop music will be played on maximum volume along with the respective karaoke videos, for a little change one of those badly made movies (terrible actors and no real plot) might be shown or in the very best case one of the many Chacky Chan movies.
In the towns there’s usually a good range of different means of transport available to choose from. Depending on the particular town you may find ordinary taxis (rather in Bangkok only), Sorng-taa-ous (roofed pick-up trucks with two benches, mainly in Thailand ), motos (motorbike-taxis), cyclos (bicycle-taxis with a passenger seat in front of the handle bar, mainly Vietnam and Cambodia ) and the above mentioned tuk-tuks of course.

4. Food
The most important fact: Rice can be eaten at any time and with just anything! The different dishes of each national cuisine can be bought absolutely everywhere. From a little push kart, a rolling food stall attached to a motorbike, a small hut by the road, in a restaurant – every person will find what he pleases! In the touristy areas even western dishes such as Pizza, Pasta, Burger & co are fairly common, but it’s often rather disappointing. To be on the safe side it’s advisable to check the chef’s nationality before ordering. In case of a Westerner it might be worth a try, otherwise it’s usually better to stick to local food.
In general people in Asia are not as fussy about what to eat as Westerners. Fish, chicken, beef and pork are not unusual, but it could also be dog sometimes, so one needs to careful! Also very popular are frogs, spiders, larvae and any kind of bugs – lots of opportunities for the adventurous traveller! As for myself, I rather prefer to stick (apart from that one grasshopper that I tasted) to all those fabulous tropical fruits!! Pineapple, mango, passion fruit, mangosteen, lichee, snake fruit, rambutan… delicious! :-)

5. Language and writing
Travelling could be so easy if it was possible to communicate everywhere with no problems… but also somewhat boring! Of course, in the touristy places many people do speak more or less English. Off the beaten track though travelling starts becoming really interesting and very often the only way of communication is with hands, feet and very few words of the local language. And as if that wasn’t hard enough yet each Asian country has its very own pretty symbols of writing, which are totally illegible for the ordinary traveller.
Many locals are extremely keen of learning English and especially off the beaten track they approach every foreigner that they can find to improve their English by doing some small talk. For example I just remember a bus ride in Laos . Only a young Lao woman and I were on that bus and after a while she gave me her phone all of a sudden. At the other end was her sister, who just studied English and was absolutely excited about the opportunity to use and practise this newly learned language.

6. Bathrooms
Variations of toilets are abundant, from the self-cleaning luxury version to the extremely basic hole in the ground. Usually in simple guesthouses one finds ordinary western-style sit-down toilets. Flush toilets though are generally only to be found in better hotels, otherwise there will be a bucket with water instead. Once I was even slightly confused searching for that bucket before noticing that there was actually a “normal” flush. ;-) At road houses, in simple restaurants and in remote areas one will usually have to deal with squat-toilets along with the above mentioned bucket of water and far off the beaten track it will only be a simple digged hole or just the bush. And the general rule is: BYOT – Bring your own toilet paper!!
Showers are not separated from the rest of the bathroom as most people I know are used to from back home, but only a shower head (or maybe even just a water hose) right in the middle of the bathroom, which unavoidably floods the whole place. The water is usually cold, but sometimes one can pay a bit more to enjoy the use of a small electric device that will more or less heat up the water.
And don’t expect a sink to be a basic peace of bathroom equipment!! It’s one of those little details, which you don’t give any attention when first checking a room quickly. But once you’re getting ready to sleep you will most likely be quite surprised not to find a sink below the mirror! But luckily the shower is conveniently located right in the middle of the bathroom instead. ;-)

7. Weather
No, it’s not always dry and the sun is not always shining either!! Photos can indeed give a wrong impression sometimes as pouring rain usually won’t make me excited about taking any. ;-) It’s rainy season at the moment and as the name indicates it actually does rain. And once it rains it’s generally extremely heavy, one gets completely soaked within seconds and can’t see the hand in front of the eyes!! Normally it starts all of a sudden, within seconds, with full power, but it also stops just as suddenly and the sun will be back out.

8. Animals
In Southeast Asia one will get in touch with wild animals as much as a monk with a wedding, so pretty much not at all! Sure, in the jungle there are tigers, elephants, bears, panthers… but it’s almost impossible to find them in their natural environment. Oh well, monkeys are quite commonly playing around and stealing anything they can possibly get when people are not careful enough! But that’s about it.
Otherwise one will only bump into heaps of stray dogs and cats, cows trotting across the streets, water buffaloes bathing in the mud… in general all animals are roaming freely, there seem to be no fences and sometimes I really wonder how people will ever find their cattle again.

9. Customs and habits
Different countries, different customs (A German saying)! For example, it is perfectly normal in Asia to take off the shoes in homes, temples and even shops in front of the door. Not always in shops though, there are some exceptions, but the general rule is to take of the shoes when there are some others in front of the door already and to go shopping bare feet then.
Moreover the soles of the feet are regarded as being unclean and therefore it is strictly to be avoided to point them towards another person and especially not towards a Buddha image when sitting on the floor!


04.08.2011, 10:45   ---   Back in Thailand

After 3 months on the road in Asia I eventually returned to Thailand , back to Bangkok and I was very much looking forward to it. Not only because Bangkok is a fantastic city, but also because it’s nice from time to time to return to a place that I already know, where I know where to go and how to get there. I got back to the familiar chaos at Khao San Road , loud party nights and after a long time some reliably good western food again. And it’s interesting how someone’s perception for certain things changes after a while. When I first arrived in Bangkok 3 months ago the road traffic seemed slightly chaotic to me and the streets overcrowded and full of motorbikes. Of course, the streets are still crowded, but I found the traffic very well organised, irritating was simply the huge amount of cars in comparison to the tiny amount of motorbikes – especially Vietnam left behind some traces in my mind obviously! ;-)
On my first day I treated myself with a full wellness program. Massage, body-scrub (to finally get rid of even the last peeling layers of my skin), foam bath with massage pipes, sauna… and waxing (which eliminated the relaxation instantly!). Perfectly recovered I enjoyed the Khao-San-life for almost a week: Shopping, markets, good food and some pub crawling at night. And by chance my friend Mark from Australia happened to be in Thailand for holidays right now and after more than 5 years we could finally catch up again!! Only my Myanmar-plans didn’t work out as I hoped they would… This time in Bangkok I didn’t fail with my visa application (at least I think that wouldn’t have been any problem), but instead the prices for flights into Myanmar have risen extremely (crossing overland is not possible) and so I sadly had to skip those plans for now… to bad. :-(

But before I could finally take off to the islands and beaches I had to detour for a short visa-run. Since I crossed overland into Thailand I only got a 15-day-visa, which is not long enough in order to stay for the legendary full moon party in Koh Phangan on August 14th. So I basically had the choice between a visa-run (briefly crossing the border into one of the neighbouring countries and coming right back with a new visa) or overstaying my visa for about a week. The last option would be pretty expensive when I finally leave the country and so I decided to go to Ranong, a small town near Myanmar . From there I took a Sorng-taa-ou (a pick-up truck with two benches) in the morning to the Thai Immigration office in order to leave the country. Right outside the Immigration I agreed with one of the boat captains on a fair price to Kawthoung in Myanmar , the ride took about half an hour (this time with sunscreen, but I still got a little bit burned) and at the Myanmar Immigration I got a day visa which allowed me to stay within a diameter of 5km. Right on time for lunch I arrived in town, checked out the Burmese cuisine, strolled along the streets and to the market and got a moto to take me to a temple on a hill. Of course, it’s not even nearly the same as travelling the country for several weeks, but at least I had the chance to get a small insight view. The locals are unbelievably friendly, helpful and outgoing, smiling happily, golden stupas stick out of the mountains everywhere and I really enjoyed these few hours in Myanmar a lot. Only the very present military at the harbour seemed quite out of place in this peaceful friendly place. Some hours later I took another boat back to Thailand , got a new 15-day-visa at the Immigration and now it’s finally time for the islands! :-)


11.08.2011, 16:00   ---   Take your time, but be fast!  

Crystal clear blue sea, extremely laid-back atmosphere, beach parties, fire shows and loads of coral reefs – that’s Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand . I met some cool people, we relaxed a lot, partied even more and meanwhile I also pushed my dive education a bit further again (which wasn’t always too easy in combination with those mentioned parties). On the first day I passed the EFR/Emergency First Response and afterwards I spent 3 days with the Rescue Diver course, definitely the funniest course ever! The dive center that I chose is one of the biggest in the world, so actually not the kind of thing I usually like. But a big dive center does indeed have some advantages and therefore I was lucky to do the course together with 3 others, instead of being the only student. The group was brilliant, our Italian instructor Andrea seemed to have lots of fun himself doing these Rescue Courses and therefore taught with lots of pep, enthusiasm and the distinctive Italian touch. After a good amount of theory, a theoretical exam and some ours of pool training we already knew basically what to do in an emergency or in the best case how to prevent it in the first place. So it was time to practice these skills in a real life scenario. We joined the daily fundiving boat to the reef, Andrea brought one of the Divemaster-trainees along to play a victim and the entire time on the boat and during the dives we had to keep our eyes and ears peeled for any sort of emergency and solve it in the correct way. Panicking divers, tired divers, unconscious divers (but be aware of underwater photographers! ;-) ), out of air, lots of other problems… we didn’t really get to enjoy the reef though and also on the boat there was lots to do for us, they really made sure to keep us busy! But it was a lot of fun! The last day was our final examination, Andrea increased his team to 3 Divemaster-Trainees to keep us busy during the dives along with himself, on the boat he also engaged lots of others to play a certain emergency situation and on the last dive we had to solve a full scenario – two missing divers. We had to get the necessary information on their possible location from their despaired dive-buddy Andrea, locate them (one out of air, the other one unconscious), take them to the surface and back to the boat safely and supply first aid. After that it was all done, the victims survived, everybody passed the course and we could use the rest of the time to finally explore the reef a little bit without any more incidents.
The next day I joined the boat again for two fundives to really get to enjoy the underwater world eventually. Unfortunately the visibility was rather disappointing, but several times we came across a huge school of barracudas, basically a wall of fishes, absolutely stunning! Anyway the reefs around here are really beautiful, we dived through caves and with a water temperature of almost 30 degrees (even at a depth of 25m) one doesn’t even need to be bothered about a wetsuit.
A unique phenomenon of Koh Tao is the constant flip-flop-swap. In any of the restaurants and bars it’s obligatory to take off the shoes at the entrance, where one often won’t find them anymore later on (especially when being one of the last people after a long party night). Instead one just takes any other pair available, which the owner of those shoes will do as well obviously and that will probably go on forever. And every now and then also the many beach dogs will take advantage of those loads of chewing-toys.
That week on Koh Tao definitely passed way too fast. Even though I didn’t get to see anything of the island but the main beach I truely love it, but our livers need a party break! So this morning I left for Koh Phangan along with Arne (from my Rescue Course) and Tobi, where we’re gonna recharge our batteries to be ready for the Fullmoon Party in a few days.


17.08.2011, 21:45   ---   Highly professional Beach-Bums

After that party marathon in Koh Tao we were on the hunt for a quiet place in Koh Phangan instead. Bottle Beach became our home for the next days, a small bay in the island’s north, only accessible by boat. We were staying in a small, simple first-row beach-bungalow, there were only a few restaurants and otherwise only lots of silence and serenity! For 3 days we only sunbathed, read, drank fruit-shakes, enjoyed massages… to summarize it roughly we just didn’t do anything – extremely relaxing!
And then the time had come for the legendary Fullmoon Party!! For many years this party takes place every month on the full moon night at the beach of Had Rin in the South of Koh Phangan and nowadays about 20.000 people come together each time on this small island to celebrate a crazy party – we mustn’t miss that of course! The self-proclaimed Captain Jack Sparrow of the restaurant next door had booked us in for his speedboat, before leaving we already got started with some Vodka-RedBull-buckets and off we went. We were taken right to the party beach, the techno beats were buzzing across the entire bay, neon paint was available everywhere, lots of crazy people and another fireshow of course. We partied all night, literally danced down a water-stage (There were several dancing platforms built up in the sea, which we climbed straight-away. For a short moment I thought that it’s quite a rickety construction, but they’ve been building this stuff for many years every single month, they’ll know what they’re doing… Not even 2 minutes later we found ourselves in the sea along with our platform!), made ourselves somewhat obnoxious at the Red Cross (We found a nearly unconscious guy on the beach and carried him there. They simply told us that it’s no emergency as long as he’s conscious – I would not seriously call that condition conscious though – and as he finally started to throw up after a while they seriously tried to charge us 500 Baht for cleaning! Pff… ) and in the end were taken back to Bottle Beach by Captain Jack.
Result: An absolutely crazy party, which one shouldn’t miss when being around at the time!! But I wouldn’t go there every month over and over again…

Next morning (to be precise, after only one hour of sleep) we were meant to be picked up by a taxi-boat to get to the ferry… Well, our good friend from that bungalow place had obviously preferred to smoke another joint instead of arranging the boat. So we ended up sitting on the beach with our backpacks, overly tired, no boat showing up and the ferry leaving without us… When the manager showed up a bit later she tried her very best to solve this mess and I spent half a day on the pier watching loads and loads of wasted party people filling up one boat after the other. Crazy how busy that place was, everybody extremely tired, having bad hangovers and leftovers of that neon paint all over their bodies (well, I wasn’t any better though) and my ferry was the very last one of course!
Along with a bad cold I finally arrived in Koh Samui and went straight to sleep. Unfortunately Samui is quite disappointing. I’ve got to admit that I didn’t make it anywhere but to one of the main beaches, but that place is extremely ugly touristy, noisy, dirty, full of construction sites, the beach totally crowded, lots of annoying hawkers everywhere… It looks beautiful on the postcards, but that’s not for real unfortunately. But today my Thailand visa expires anyway, at least I made it back to the mainland already and tomorrow I will hopefully have a smooth trip across the border to Malaysia .

   

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