23 December 2007

The Night before the Night before Christmas

It's December 23rd and I am in Bangkok.

Since I last posted, I traveled Cambodia for 10 days, finished my last day of work in Bangkok, attended the office Christmas party, and went to Chiang Mai and back. As I write this, I am in in bed in the Bangkok condo. Tomorrow I take the bus back to Pattaya for Christmas with friends. On Boxing Day I fly to Phuket, where I will board a boat for a 4 day scuba excursion in the Similan Islands. From the 30th until January 9th, 2008, when I fly home, my schedule is wide open. Somewhere in Thailand.

All of which is Very Exciting. But I am homesick. Very much so. This will be my first Christmas away from home, and I find that notion very, very hard. To all my friends and family, I miss you terribly. I miss the comfort and familiarity of home, wearing sweaters, hugs, opening Christmas stockings, the wind, rain, and snow, curling up with a good book in front of the fire, catching up in coffee shops, making phone calls easily, feeling cold - all of it. I travelled halfway across the globe to discover how much I love home. A good thing, methinks.

I've had lots of adventures here and met great people and even some Very Intrepid Explorers. All of which I'll have to write about another time. Meanwhile, here is a small selection of photos of my most recent travels (unfortunately, blogger will only allow me to upload a few).

Have yourselves a merry little christmas, everyone. See you soon.



Getting my Open Water Diver certification in Pattaya.
Beside me is Tom, one of my instructors.

Family photo.
Some of the best people in Thailand: Aquanauts.

Muay Thai Kickboxing at Lumphini Stadium.
Tom from the UK, the Champ (all 135 lbs of him), and me.

Taking in sunset at Angkor Wat.

With Gary and Adam from the UK.
Founding members of Very Intrepid Explorers (VIE) - "We find shit."
at Beng Mealay, a remote temple in a recently cleared minefield some hours away from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Steps to Doi Suthep, 14th century Buddhist wat atop a mountain in northern Thailand.

Monks enjoying the view from the top.

28 November 2007

Dear Constant Reader

In 7 hours, I fly away to Cambodia, where I will winter for 10 days. It is unlikely I'll post from there, but who knows - maybe I will, maybe I won't.

I was planning to post some photos to tide you over until then, but blogger is being uncooperative tonight. So please, please come back in 10 days for some more gratuitous SE Asian beauty and absurdity - scuba diving, Walking Street in Pattaya, and a kickboxing champion.

If you would like a postcard from Cambodia, please e-mail me your address at dealloyd(at)hotmail(dot)com

22 November 2007

This Side of Paradise

I've been busy in Bangkok lately - working, getting suits tailored, celebrating American Thanksgiving (yes!), planning my upcoming trip to Cambodia. So no new post, but here are some photos from my trip to Railay last weekend. Railay is found on a peninsula on the Andaman Sea.

When I thought of coming to Thailand, Railay is what I pictured, though I didn't have the name for it yet. Two-and-a-bit months after arriving, I got there.

Atmospheric bungalow, complete with mosquito netting in Ao Nang, where we stayed on Friday night.

longtail boats at the beach in Ao Nang, waiting to take travellers to Railay

Said travellers

close-up of the longtails

West Railay Beach. Railay is popular with rock climbers, and you can see why.

monkeys eating bananas

Me with scenery.

Can you imagine growing up here, with this as your "normal"?

Mudflats and mangroves on East Railay.

Enjoying the patio at Ya Ya's. Matt from Australia, Mike from Denmark, and Simon, my UVIC partner in crime. Or I suppose it's law. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

It's a cat's life.
Cats and dogs have it tough in Thailand. It was nice to see this feline enjoying itself.

Grilled corn on the beach. You could also buy jewelry, beer, massages, and pedicures.

Blue, blue, blue.
Apparently some scenes from "The Man With the Golden Gun" were shot around here.

More gratuitous beauty.

14 November 2007

Carrying on with the Doing A Lot

Birding in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand.
Special thanks to Khun Noom, who took many of the photos in this post.

I am a recent convert to the hobby, pastime -- nay, way of life -- of birdwatching. Whilst procrastinating studying a year-and-a-half ago, I stumbled across a bird blog by the name of birdchick. She made birding sound... interesting, so I attended a free CRD intro to birdwatching and was immediately hooked, and now count many birding blogs under my Favourites. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but suffice to say that I love birding because it puts me firmly and intimately in nature, where I count myself lucky to observe the trials, triumphs, and play of some of creation’s most marvelous creatures.

Ashy Drongo. Photo: N. Nuttum

Thailand has amazing biodiversity and is home to 10% of the world’s bird species. Clearly, I would have to go birdwatching while here. Forget my own interest in birds; my birdwatching friends would shun me forever if I failed to bring my binoculars (you know who you are).

Greater Flameback Woodpecker - A counterpart to the black back and red head of
our Pileated Woodpecker in N. America (which I have still to see).
Photo: N. Nuttum

Many westerners and “twitchers” go birding to the far corners of Thailand on tours catering exclusively (and expensively) to their needs. Looking for something a little more, ah, affordable, I googled “Thailand” and “Birdwatching”. I was delighted to find that not only was there an established national bird conservation group, but that they were going on a daytrip that very weekend at a very reasonable cost. After establishing that the guide would be conversant in English, I signed on.

We were to meet at a gas station near a skytrain station at the uncivilized hour of 5 am - yes, bare hours after my return from Pattaya. The skytrain doesn’t run that early, so I took a taxi to our rendezvous point. Apparently, taxis don’t run with metres at 4:30 in the morning, either. After being quoted the ridiculous price of 200 B, I “bargained” it down to 100 B (read: looked shocked and started to walk away), still twice as high as it should be.

The taxi driver had limited English but was very keen on practicing it. He took a call on his mobile, speaking rapidly in Thai, but I could tell I was at least one topic of discussion as a couple times he said “farang.” (This happens a lot here – apparently everything I do is noteworthy or very funny. Who knew I was such a comedian?) After hanging up, he explained that his youngest child – the “Baby” – was calling him. Then he politely asked if I was American. “No,” I said. “Canadian.” His eyes lit up and he clasped his hands in a victory salute. “Ah, Canada! Canada Good Guy! Canada Good Guy!” “Yes!” I agreed happily. Then he asked if I liked spicy Thai food, could I speak Thai, did I have babies, and so on, punctuated by frequent gales of giggles. When he dropped me off, he squeezed my hand and said, “Friend! Friend!”

I could not find the gas station, which I’d been told was immediately visible from the steps of the skytrain station. I saw a Shell and an Esso, both open, but no Caltex. I called the trip leader. She told me to walk down the road from the skytrain station. “Which way?” I asked. “Down the street.” “Yes, I understand, but in which direction?” “Down the street. You walk down the street.” This was starting to feel a lot like the day before, only less comical as 25 impatient birders were waiting for me – the adage “the early bird gets the worm” applies as much to birders as it does to birds (that said, while I am frequently still awake in the wee hours, I’ve never gotten up at 3:30 in the morning to go birding – or go anywhere, for that matter. Those who know me understand what a heroic triumph of will this was.).

After walking up and down the street for a good while, I saw someone waving at me across the street from the Caltex, which I imagine would be immediately visible from the skytrain station were it actually lit up and open for business. I had found my rendezvous point. I climbed into the van and settled in for a good couple hours as we drove north to Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Looking for birds.

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s largest national park, at over 2,900 km². It is home to a wide variety of wildlife: elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and hundreds of species of birds, including the elusive pitta and treepie, roam this wet and mountainous land blanketed with lush tropical rainforest. It is also a popular weekend camp site; holidaying Thais were in abundance during the park’s first weekend open since its annual rainy season closure.

Watch out for monkeys. Seriously. They leap through trees, bringing brawny branches crashing down.

We had breakfast at a lovely open-air thatch café and were given our bag lunches for the day – wrapped in banana leaves instead of your standard plastic bag. I was the only westerner on the trip; everyone else was Thai, except for a Japanese fellow who spoke Thai. They were very surprised that I had come along and wanted to know how I had found out about it. "Google," I replied.
Many were clearly avid birders, with expensive cameras and scopes, from a good cross-section of ages and genders.
This was the hardest birding I've ever done. It was mostly 90º birding - looking straight up. I learned that when I tilt my head back in a tropical environment, my glasses fog up! We frequently had to step to the side while four-by-fours and pickups barreled down the muddy road, which also kept the birds away. I was hot and sweaty, while dense vegetation and tall, tall trees combined to make the birds very hard to see, at least for me.

Many of the birds I only caught glimpses of. Others, I stared and stared in the direction people were pointing – and saw nothing. That’s often the way it is with birdwatching – a maze of branches and vines until a very small movement or a twitch in the eye brings everything sharply into focus. I wonder how much we miss in life simply because we aren’t paying close enough attention.

Orange-breasted Trogon, front and back.

Photos: N. Nuttum Beautiful bird, eh?
I wouldn't know. I didn't see it.
Maybe because I was looking over here.

Or maybe because I was looking over there.

Photos: N. Nuttum

Although the guide spoke English, she only did so when I asked what we were seeing, so I think I missed a few birds and interesting factoids because I didn't hear or understand when she was pointing them out. This is no reflection on the club – the trip was planned around the interests and needs of a Thai membership and I was a last minute addition. She seemed really good at her job though, spotting birds, talking about them excitedly and imitating their calls.

People were very friendly and did their best to speak to me in English, although one guide would occasionally point to me, say my name, then say something rapidly in Thai to great laughter all round. I suppose I would laugh too if a foreigner in my country insisted on taking a photo of her bag lunch or other such nonsense. One woman assured me that whatever he said, "He's only joking!" Right then. What a relief.

Lunch: Rice, chicken, egg, and cucumber. Mmmm. And biodegradable!

Despite these frustrations, it was lovely to be out of the city, breathe fresh, clean air; and later, see the stars at night. I picked my way across running streams, walked through clouds of multicoloured butterflies

and saw giant squirrels and monkeys playing and crashing through the tree branches. I tried my hand at digiscoping – the blurry Asian barred owlet below. Can you see his glowing yellow eyes?

Every species of bird I saw was brand-new to me. We even had a couple rare finds: the Blue Pitta, a very shy bird that hides in the undergrowth, and the Ferruginous Flycatcher, an uncommon migrant through the area.

Ferruginous Flycatcher. Photo: N. Nuttum

My trip list: asian fairy bluebird (isn’t that a lovely name?), ochraceous bulbul, black-crested bulbul, asian brown flycatcher, striated babbler, gray-headed flycatcher, dark-necked tailor bird, green-billed malkohas, black eagle, paradise flycatcher, ferruginous flycatcher, black-naped monarch, ashy minivet, hill blue flycatcher, blue pitta, blue-throated flycatcher, bronze drongo, ashy drongo, emerald cuckoo, lesser greenleaf bird, greater greenleaf bird, rosy minivet, slender-billed oriole, asian barred owlet, greater flameback woodpecker, and blue-bearded bee-eater (or at least its nest cavity). We also encountered many specimens of that great ambassador of the aves class, the Falling Leaf Bird, which, despite its great ubiquity, is one of the hardest to spot. Can you see it here?

Look closely. Can't see it? Try harder.

We headed back, drank some coffee brewed at the side of the muddy track and ate tangerines as dusk fell, then hit the road for the long drive back to Bangkok, stopping for a meal on the way at a roadside restaurant. We were all very tired. I asked my seat-mate what he'd enjoyed the most from the trip. His answer was one of those quintessential birding moments that remind me of what a lovely pastime it can be. Mr. N was exhausted and hadn't spoken for a while. When I asked him, his face softened and a smile crept across it. "The Blue Pitta," he said.


Next time: Return to Pattaya!

6 November 2007

In Which Dea tries to do a Bit Too Much

Me in the Montreal Canadiens locker room at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
There are no pictures in this post; I neglected to bring my camera to Pattaya.
But I thought you all would like a picture. Go Habs!

As a pause in the gripping narration of my travels to Siem Reap, here is a post of my recent activities. I will resume the Angkor Wat story another time.

This past weekend was verrrrry active. I had two goals, and two goals only: to start my scuba certification and to do some birdwatching. Sounds simple, eh? That, my little cherub, is strictly a matter of opinion, as Bugs Bunny would say.*

I decided to get my scuba cert in Pattaya, a seaside city a couple hours south of Bangkok. It is the second largest city in Thailand, a scuba diving hub, and a major couples resort destination and sex tourism centre. Yeah.

So why Pattaya, you say? First, it’s close to Bangkok. Due to the effects of pressure on the body when scuba diving, you have to wait a minimum of 12 hours before flying anywhere safely. That ruled out any other beach in Thailand for a weekend trip.

Second, the first two components of the PADI Open Water certification course are spent in the classroom (or learning on-line) and then in a hotel pool. I plan to visit the stunning white beaches of Thailand later in my trip, and so don’t want to waste any of that time inside or in a swimming pool.

So Pattaya it was. As another traveller explained to me, there is a difference between hardcore sleaze and good-natured sleaze. You can find both in Thailand, and, indeed, many other cities round the world. Pattaya sleaze, I was told, or at least the Pattaya sleaze visible from the street, is the good-natured kind. Sure, it’s in your face, but let’s face it, I’m really not the target audience. Besides, I would be there for the diving.

(And, before going on, let me just say, because I have friends who are rightly concerned about this stuff - as am I - that the dynamics of the sex tourism industry in Thailand seem to vary widely, ranging from apparently mutually beneficial relationships to outright exploitation and abuse, as evidenced by the recent high profile arrests of two Canadian men accused of sex crimes in Thailand. That issue, though, is not the theme of this post. Like I said, I stuck to the streets:)

My plan was to take an express bus from Bangkok to Pattaya, a max 2-hour trip leaving at 8:30 am that would deposit me at a terminal not far from the dive shop. “What a maroon!” Bugs would say, rolling his eyes dramatically. As I am learning, few things go according to plan in a foreign country, with a language I do not know beyond a couple words I usually punctuate with a broad smile and vigorous hand gestures.

Somehow I ended up on the wrong bus, “the local” that stopped every 5 minutes. I was scheduled to be at the dive shop at 11 am. At 11:15, with no beach in sight, I called the shop on my mobile, explaining that I had no idea where I was nor when I would arrive. Da from the dive shop asked me to pass the phone to a Thai so she could establish my location. I did, got the phone back, and was told I’d be at least another 45 minutes.

Carrying on, the little boy across the aisle was violently car-sick throughout the rest of the trip. Everyone smiled indulgently at the poor little guy, though my sympathy was nearing its limits as we approached our stop, him standing behind me in the crowded aisle, lurching wildly and clutching a small plastic bag as we rattled over the bumpy road. It was an exercise in seeing how far away I could stand without in fact moving my feet -- a flashback to the school dances of grade seven yesteryear.

I was deposited not at a central bus terminal but on the side of the highway in the bright sun somewhere in dusty, busy Pattaya, the beach still nowhere in sight. However, the ubiquitous moto drivers were. I’d brought a map showing the location of the dive shop, on which a colleague had helpfully written the address in Thai script. I was quoted a special farang price, hopped on the back, and deposited by the side of another road, dive shop nowhere in sight and directions written in Thai script notwithstanding. Resignedly, I adjusted my backpack and started trudging in the direction of the beach.

I found Aquanauts 20 minutes later on a narrow soi just off Beach Road. When it first opened, it apparently shared the soi with a number of small shops. These days it is lost in the clamour of go-go bars which, even at lunch hour, were open for business. Girls scampered about in skimpy dresses or less, smiling and waving at me as I passed, perhaps happy not to be calling out “Hey, sexy man!” for once.

I was the only student booked for the confined water segment, so only the instructors had been kept waiting. After filling in the necessary paperwork (“for the lawyers,” they explained), we drove to a pool at a nearby hotel. For the next four hours, after swimming many lengths of the pool and treading water for 10 minutes (that apparently was the “good news”. The bad news, I was told, was that I had to do it wearing a weight belt. Good thing I called bullshit. Dive instructors, it would seem, have a funny sense of humour.) I learned to assemble and disassemble my gear, communicate underwater, establish neutral buoyancy, clear my mask and snorkel, descend and ascend safely and, most frighteningly, deal with various exercises simulating running out of air. They actually turn your air tank off while you're underwater. Another tricky exercise involved taking my regulator out, depressing the purge button, and breathing the stream of air from the corner of my mouth as it filled with water. You do this if your air tank valves (?) fail and start spewing unregulated air, which would quickly expand and hurt your lungs.

Did I mention that I did all this while underwater?

I passed with flying colours, thanks to great teaching and attention from the instructor and an intern in the instructor program – a 2-to-1 ratio. Paul, the instructor, is from Zimbabwe, having recently returned to scuba after spending many years as a hot air balloon guide in the Serengeti. Intern Greg was from L.A., and is hoping to live in Thailand permanently and make a living as an instructor. I’m seriously starting to reconsider my career choices.

After we returned to the shop, Da arranged for me to be driven to the bus depot – the proper one this time. The driver even walked me up to the right window and told the ticket agent, in Thai, what bus I needed to be on, doing everything but leading me by my elbow. Perhaps they thought I needed a little mollycoddling. I am thankful for the mollycoddling.

I was back in BK and our condo by 10 pm. Which left just enough time for unpacking and repacking my daypack and a few hours’ sleep before getting up to go birdwatching at 3:30 in the rapidly approaching morning… more on that later.

Eh, dat’s de end, folks.

*Er, actually I think it was Daffy Duck, but I never much liked the duck.

14 October 2007

Holiday in Cambodia, Part I

We were in Cambodia from September 27 – 30 in order to renew our Visas.

map taken from PPR website.

Cambodia borders on Thailand and shares its hot climate and lush greenery, but faces many more challenges than its relatively affluent neighbour. Chief among these is the effects of decades of civil war and brutal dictatorship under the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the massacre of 2 million people, many of whom died in the notorious Killing Fields. Although relatively stable since the late 1990s, Cambodia is still lacking in basic infrastructure, social services and education. In the UN’s Human Development Index, it ranks 129 out of 177 countries.

And yet Cambodia has much to offer. Its people are open and friendly, and it is home to the famed beaches of Sihanoukville and the legendary temples of Angkor Wat. These temples are evidence of a once-thriving empire and still inspire awe in modern-day visitors. It is not surprising that tourism is Cambodia’s second largest industry. I can only hope that more people visit this beautiful country, leaving behind much-needed dollars.

We planned to land in the capital city of Phnom Penh, visit the Thai embassy, and then get on a bus for a 5-6 hour trek to Siem Reap (some x km north) to see Angkor Wat.

Silly of me to assume everything would go according to plan. We ran into some difficulties at the embassy, due in part to me not having my student card and due to a low-level bureaucrat throwing her weight around, requiring additional documentation we were unaware of. This required some intervention from our firm in Bangkok, with the result being that we did a lot of running around to find phone booths and internet cafes, and missed the bus to Siem Reap.

All of which was kind of fun in its own way. The cheapest and quickest way to get around in Phnom Penh is by moto or tuk-tuk. Entire families and their pets get about all packed onto one moto.

Small family on moto.

The idea of riding a motorcycle back home makes me a little nervous. But several times throughout the day in Phnom Penh I found myself on the back of a moto going from one place to the next. It was an excellent, unmediated way of seeing the city and I found it liberating. Perhaps too liberating – I was reminded later that ladies typically ride motos side-saddle. I guess I ain't no lady.

While the traffic in Phnom Penh is nowhere near as intense as in Bangkok, moto and tuk-tuk drivers do have an unnerving habit of crossing into oncoming traffic if their destination is on the other side of the road, slowly drifting through the other lane until they reach the curb. A number of such unwritten traffic rules seem to exist in Cambodia, and I found it best just not to look.

In a tuk-tuk.

We found a guesthouse for the night and had a lovely dinner at a restaurant that trains and employs former streetkids. I had the fish Amok, a national dish of stewed lake fish, served in banana leaf. An American fellow at the next table over ordered deep fried tarantula, though I strongly suspect he was aiming to impress the gaggle of British girls he was surrounded by.

In the tuk-tuk on the way back to our guesthouse, we passed groups of children in our tuk-tuk on the way back to our guesthouse, who greeted and waved at us ecstatically – “Hello! Hello!”

* * *

The next morning we boarded a bus for the 5-6 hour trip to Siem Reap. On the way out of Phnom Penh, I saw monkeys playing on the telephone lines!

Passing through rural villages along the way, we passed many houses built on stilts, the better to ride out high floodwaters. Children ran with chickens, pigs, and skinny cows in the yards. Lines of water ran through green rice paddies. Rains pounded the red earth into red mud, which quickly dried as the sun reclaimed the sky.

Arriving in Siem Reap, we were quickly surrounded by masses of tuk-tuk drivers eager for our commerce, an introduction of sorts to the constant hard sell dogging tourists’ steps.

Siem Reap

We decided to stay at the Popular Guesthouse, which, as you may have guessed from the name, is popular with backpackers. I quickly met and fell in with a group of backpackers from Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, and the UK. With them, I explored the market, had a couple drinks at an Irish pub called “Molly Malone’s”, then celebrated a birthday at nightclubs Angkor What? (clever) and Zoom 3. I executed a ceremonial transfer-of-custody-of-the-Australian with the Canadians, who were leaving for home the next day.

Cam and Andrea from Canada, Matt from Australia.

Zoom 3 was surreal. A cavernous dark room, illuminated by lasers and strobe lights, playing the latest Khmer hits backed up by throbbing Western beats, and packed with all of young Siem Reap. The men in the bar would periodically scream – literally shriek – at the tops of their lungs. Imagine the sound of the Black Riders screaming on the wind in the Lord of the Rings -- only young, Khmer, and fashionable - and you get the idea. We shrugged our shoulders, thought ‘why not?’, and joined in. I even got to show off my macarena dance moves.

I just realised how old I am with that sentence.

Next post: the temples of Angkor

7 October 2007

In Which Dea Stalls for Time

I'm currently preparing a post (or two) on my experiences in Cambodia last week. I was there for five days while I sought to renew my visa for Thailand.

Meanwhile, I offer some guffaw-inducing signs seen in the course of my travels through Bangkok and Siem Reap. Enjoy.

At the Dead Fish restaurant in Siem Reap. As is probably obvious, it caters to Westerners.

Just above the bar at Cheap Charlie's, a (you guessed it) cheap (must be) bar in Bangkok.

A very helpful signpost telling us how to get to This Way.