Monday, June 13, 2011

Return to Thailand: Ko Tao

On arrival in Bangkok I headed straight down to Chumpon on the overnight bus - mission: Rescue diver course. I arrived tired after a sleepless ride at around 4am and managed to get on a link bus to the pier at six in the morning. By around eight I was on a small ferry and heading to Ko Tao with the sun blazing and the sea calm and blue - time for a nap on deck! No sooner had I drifted off than I had my first nice surprise! I was woken up by Christina from Barcelona who I last saw in Cambodia as she boarded a bus to Vietnam. Needless to say we were both surprised and spent the rest of the trip to the island chatting about what we had been up to.

The arrival at Ko Tao afforded some stunning views as it was a beautiful sunny day. It was the first and only Thai island I visited but I was not disappointed. We berthed at a rickety wooden pier and the small army of backpackers headed off to find accomodation. My first mission was to find a good place to do my PADI Rescue Diver course before the extreme lack of sleep I was suffering from prevented all my mental faculties from working. It took me a few hours but eventually I settled on Sairee Cottage, a nice small establishment with friendly staff all round. I prefer the smaller schools as it does tend to mean smaller class groups resulting in more one to one attention from the instructors. Ko Tao is a diver factory with people doing every course from Open Water all the way to Dive Instructor as I soon realised on arrival at my first dive site 'Japanese Gardens', for a quick refresher course. The place was swamped with five boats from different companies and maybe as many as fifty divers milling around in different areas doing either fun dives or several of the different courses.

The diving in Ko Tao is absolutely stunning and very unlike what I previously experienced in Malawi. Visibility tends to be good with most of my dives having a good 20-25 metres vis. The range of sea-life around the many coral reefs is astounding ranging from the miniscule (various cool shrimps and pipefish), going on to the many colourful and varied species (bannerfish, angelfish, parrotfish, schools of squid, Moray eels, Stingrays, Pufferfish and Clownfish) and finally on the the most astounding species (Whalesharks and Turtles). I had the good fortune to see all of the above except for the elusive Whale shark as well as a great many more species that are simply too numerous to list here. The turtle who I saw twice was especially beautiful to watch as she effortlessly glided through the water and happily munched on coral ignoring the many divers watching.

Once my refresher course was done I had a day of First Aid training - not much more than a recap after my time as a lifeguard and the course I did at work last year. Then it was on to the Rescue Diver course which is incredibly good fun while also developing a keen awareness of the potential pitfalls and issues divers can come across. The last couple of days were especially good fun although quite testing on my nerves. Dan Hawkes (my instructor) and the Dive masters/trainees did their level best to keep me on my toes with emergencies being enacted one after another with little time to think. Any future dives I go on will be carried out with a much better awareness of mistakes my fellow divers could be making and hopefully the chance to avert any unfortunate mishaps - most problems encountered by recreational divers are caused by mistakes and oversights from the divers themselves.

With the course over I settled into life on Koh Tao as my previous plan to go climbing in Krabi was ruined by reports of the monsoon arriving. Anyway, life on Ko Tao is not too expensive and there are plenty of things to do. The food is excellent with everything ranging from cheap local Thai food, Indian and Korean restaurants as well as a wide selection of western food. I decided to work on my fitness while I had the time and enrolled with a Muay Thai training school for a couple of weeks. Fantastic fun and as with normal boxing a thorough test of fitness. The interval training we were doing there was intense but a great experience and I made a fair few friends while learning there. I had the good fortune to be around on a fight night

when a few of the tourists got the opportunity to pit their skills against some local fighters. Highlights of the night were two of the western boxers, Colette and Max. Colette, an Irish girl who although she lost, showed a fighting spirit that was awesome to see and had most of the crowd cheering for her throughout. Max, an Italian boxer was fantastic as although his opponent was slightly fitter and had legs like tree trunks, he came back late in the fight with a series of high kicks and spinning elbows to score enough points for a thrilling draw.

I was advised that at the south of the island there was a beach called Shark Bay where it was possible to spot small black-tip reef sharks while snorkelling. I headed over one afternoon and spent about an hour and a half mucking around in about 2-3 metres depth hunting for the buggers. I got the shock of my life when I saw my first one and realised that these 'small' sharks are at least the same length as I am tall. I don't mind saying that my heart rate shot up when I saw it although I think it was feeling the same as it immediately did a u-turn and shot off in the opposite direction! Emboldened by their apparent fear I stayed in the water and managed to find another and followed it for about thirty seconds before it got fed up of me and with a tiny flick of the tail disappeared at high speed into the shallows.

I came back the next day with a hired camera resolving to capture images of these beauties but had a lot of trouble getting anything decent. Visibility was low and I had great difficulty focussing the shot while finning as fast as I could to keep up with them although I did see twelve of them this time. I paid the price though as after three and a half hours in the water my prune like skin was all ripped up from friction with the fins causing me a lot of hassle in kickboxing over the rest of the week.

Before I knew it my time was up and I was heading back to Bangkok to rendezvous with my girlfriend who had managed to get a week away from work so we could relax together for a little while. Nothing more needs to be said there other than we had a great time and yesterday she had to head back so here I am now. . one day left of my crazy year out from the world of work! Tomorrow I will probably take it very easy apart from another Muay Thai training session in a nice school I found near Khao San road, and on Monday morning I fly out to Stansted via Dusseldorf. After what will most likely be a sleepless night in Stansted, I will be on my way to Malaga and then finally back to Gibraltar on the 28th. It has been a real rollercoaster ride with highs and lows but I have had the opportunity to visit places and learn things that never in my wildest dreams had I imagined experiencing. It will be good to get back to Gibraltar and work again though (never thought I would say that about work o.O) and I look forward to seeing everyone back home again. Thanks for following me on this crazy trip and see you all soon!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cambodia - Dirt bikes and landmines

The day after Stephanie gave me the dirtbike idea I cycled over to Hidden Cambodia, the only place I could find on the web that had anything to do with renting scramblers. Unfortunately my worst fears were realised when I found that the hiring of bikes by tourists has apparently been made illegal around Siem Reap. Not a total shock as I have seen what western tourists are like on bikes in this area, especially considering they only need to provide cash and presenting a licence is rarely mentioned. Luckily I was guided to speak to Lis Seng of Cambodia Dirtbikes who recently parted ways with Hidden Cambodia and is starting up his own similar business. After a short chat he agreed to loan me a bike for four days (They were needed back for a booked outing) at a reasonable $25 per day. Off I put-putted with my new toy and a huge grin to get used to the traffic - It is insane here, people drive on both sides of the road and bigger vehicles assume right of way no matter the circumstances).

That evening I eventually found Stephanie to advise her that the original idea of a week or more on the back roads of Cambodia were off the cards but if she was interested a three day tour of some significant sights could be done. We agreed to meet at seven the next morning to sort out the bikes and head to Koh Ker. It took about two hours to get everything sorted out including buying some bungees at the market and Stephanie getting a little practise before we left, but soon we were on the open road heading east. At DamDaek we turned off the main road and found our first dirt track, an orangey gravel road in rather good condition apart from the odd surprise rut or bump. We were making good time and stopped about halfway where there is a temple complex called Beng Melea and had some food at the stalls there.

By 3pm we were on our way again to Koh Ker but knew it would be too late to see anything so on arrival it was time to find a guesthouse. Nobody spoke English here which was great fun as neither of us speak Khmer (apart from saying hello, yes, no and thankyou) but eventually we found there was a place in the village run by a very jolly Khmer lady who kept laughing at/with us! She pointed us to a food place - food sounds a bit like nyum if I heard right, very appropriate! - and with full bellies it was time to sleep by 9pm.

We were up by six and after a breakfast of rice, motored over to the Koh Ker ruins. The place was littered with signs every kilometre advising us that we were passing through cleared minefields! After an hour exploring the temples in the area we set off for Tbeang Meanchey, our halfway point on the route to Kampong Thom. We had been enjoying the road, which was now tarmac again, for about two hours when we heard the first rumbles of thunder. The storms here tend to come in really fast and we knew it might be time to consider a lunch break. We pushed on to get as far as we could but within about twenty minutes the sky had darkened and the heavens opens. It was a particularly heavy shower with fat drops of water that sting the lips and hands. We pushed on for half an hour and luckily the rain subsided so we were almost dry by the next stop for a stretch. We were getting puzzled as we should have hit Tbeang Meanchey by then but locals kept pointing down
the road indicating that we should continue so onwards we went. The road was heading south by now and in the early afternoon turned back into a dusty orange dirt track. We had given up hope of ever finding the town we wanted but signs indicating the distance to Kampong Thom showed we were heading the right way and I for one was thoroughly enjoying the road. It was then that the second rains hit and these ones were bad - the road turned quite muddy with deep orange puddles whose depth was impossible to gauge unless you happened to go through them. We stopped for petrol and a chance to wring out our soggy socks and ended up staying at a food stall for about an hour while waiting for the weather to break. Eventually it did and we were finally on the road again. Our final hurdle was some roadworks which had turned into proper mud but once over that we were soon back on tarmac and managed to get to Kampong Thom as the sun went down. We found a hotel for a reasonable price and although the rooms felt like ovens, managed to snatch some sleep.

Up at six am again the next day, and relieved to survive possibly my most uncomfortable night's sleep ever we decided to check out Santeuk Mountain. It was a beautiful place, a monastery at the top of the only hill in the area, littered with sculptures and rock carvings. Very peaceful and a photographer's dream. Once we were done there came the run back to Siem Reap, for once nice and uneventful with a decent surface all the way home. Once we had dropped off the bikes, Lis Seng told me the German guy who was coming wanted to go to a nearby waterfall at Phnom Kulen in a couple of days in case I wanted to go as it would be cheap. This run involved some more involved offroading but having had a taste of such fun my affirmative answer was only seconds in coming.

After a day of absolutely nothing - many coffees, cigarettes and general mooching around town - we were back at the workshop, this time with a couple more local guys on bikes, Cristoph from Germany and Lis Seng on one of the CR250s. Within minutes of heading out of town we were on tiny rutted tracks charging past villages as the kids fairly flew out of the doorways to catch a glimpse of the group of lunatics screaming past! It was all very exciting but hard work to keep up with the more experienced bikers in the group especially when we hit the sandy part. At this stage I lost my nerve and had to drop to more comfortable speeds until the road firmed up again. I have no problem with the back tyre squirming around all over the place but when it is my front tyre - well, all I can say is, No thanks! I was advised by Cristoph that the front wheel jumps around less if you go faster so I guess I need some practise for that kind of surface :)

Phnom Kulen was beautiful, a peaceful waterfall up a steep hill which was almost deserted. We swam in the pool under the falls and as we were drying off, some monks turned up for a swim too. One of the younger ones was very chatty and wanted to practise his English so we talked a while after which I headed off to get some food before the run back. Overall, the day was exhilarating and I think it may be time for me to give up race bikes in exchange for their slower but more versatile little brothers. The route back was an absolute blast and we finished off with a few cans of beer at the workshop after which I went to pack my stuff for the night bus to Phnom Pen and my flight back to Bangkok.