26 March, 2007

Part 9: Koh Samui

March 25:
Unlike Koh Tao, Koh Samui has a real physician (at Bangkok Hospital Samui) and this (now third) opinion of the recalcitrant spider bite includes prescription for:
  • Diclocil (antibiotic) 500mg 4x/day x 7days
  • Voltaren (anti-inflammation) 25mg 3x/day x 7days
  • Prednisolome (immune / steroid?) 30mg 3x/day x 2days
These should alleviate symptoms within three days.

Friendly Thai receptionist "Em" mopeds us to outdoor Thai market for quick, spicy dinner before revealing motel near hospital. 700B/night is twice my Koh Tao oven, but reliable electricity & AC justify it, despite its view (PHOTO pending)

March 26:
Museli and espresso at "AKWA" improve me.

Flight home is April 17 via mileage-based biz-class BKK-SIN-LAX but United says "Change date or itinerary, and lose your ticket". Since I'm a whore for business class, I might have to stay another three weeks in Asia for the pleasure of freely preserving 16 hours of legroom.

Former Vignette buddy Robert Knickman in Singapore invites me for two days, but short coach flights start at $500, which is just outside rationalization range, even to visit him. I'm sorry Knicky, but we still have the Singapore airport (2pm-3pm April 17) where story jars will be full.

Crosshairs aim now for liveaboard diving in one of:
  • The Great Barrier Reef (the long flight nixes it)
  • Papua New Guinea ($3000 BKK-POM-BKK flight nixes it)
  • The Maldives (if I can find cheap accomodations, at high season)
March 27:
Researching flights and liveaboard options in the Maldives, I consider Bangkok -> Male -> Bangkok and a week of liveaboard diving. Perhaps my OW/Rescue/DM instructor friend Linda Sue Dingel can find otions?

Although this will put a hurt on the pocketbook, we have only one life. To preserve mine, I'll navigate the 100% Muslim population better than the Koh Tao Moped Front Brake Downhill Slalom.

Dinner at a nice (Chinese) restaurant (first nice one in a month) Retreat to my gloriously AC-powered room to read.

March 28:
Transferring gear from hospital to motel, my Samui transition is nearly complete. Riding the island on a (200B/day) moped, discovering lessons about...

  • Arising before dawn maximizes daylight and coolness
  • Reading in the AC beats everything else except...
  • Getting eight hours sleep
  • Tropical heat and humidity easily exhausts me
  • I miss unprocessed food (veggies/fruits/fiber)
  • I need regular exercise to preserve mental energy
  • Wounds need prompt/full/accurate medical treatment
  • Inexpensive rooms are good only if quiet
  • Negative outweighs positive only when allowed
Trust and Bonds:

Reading map roadside, another moped rider pulls off 10m ahead, and waits for me to approach. During our short chat, the stranger is friendlier than most, so I keep looking over my shoulder for his accomplice as he "distracts" me with questions and compliments about my grasp of Thai language. I soon bid friendly farewell, but as I ride off, I realize no such accomplice existed, and that my paranoia had overrun me.

It shouldn't seem strange when others are friendly.

The moving moped cools almost as effectively as my room's AC, and it's great to have both on demand. But neither reduces my carbon footprint, so simply being in this climate zone causes mild guilt. Besides, riding "two-up" on the moped would be more fun.

During my full island circuit, I stop half-way around, at Hin Lad waterfall. Considering the rocky tramp ahead, I decide against the hike, ride away, and suddenly feel old. So I return, disembark into the woods, and navigate slippery rocks upstream. Slowly realizing I've made the the right decision, six or seven Thai children (ages 5-10) appear, playing on rocks and jumping and sliding into the water around me. Happiness abounds in their element.

My spirit joins them.

Placing my backpack on a nearby rock (and watching it like a hawk) the only Farang melts into the soothing, cool, murky water. One other adult watches from the water near me. Kids start playing with me, sliding, smiling, teasing, splashing, surprising, swimming, laughing, and during the next 45 minutes, I feel I've known them for days.

I realize, after a while, that my fear (of being ripped off) is unwarranted, as it had also been earlier today. I've been conditioned by "home base" friends and U.S. society to be paranoid. Although precaution and skepticism can be healthy, I've encountered so many native Thai's who've surprised me on the upside. I only see negative attitude from Thai's when they've had frequent contact with touristy Farang. Most offer smiling, happy help, and I believe that's their true nature.

March 29:
Reading "Flow" from my good friend Seth Alsbury. Down the street, the "AKWA cafe" serves up:
  • Museli with fruit and yogurt
  • "In My Life" from Rubber Soul by the Beatles
  • Free and reliable (but slow) Internet access points
But at 9:30am, it's becoming hot and street-noisy. So I'm annoyed with my "indie self" that the calm, quiet, clean, familiar, frigid Starbucks feels so good.

Costs run high for diving in The Maldives:
  • $1000 for flight (BKK-MLE-BKK on Bangkok Airways)
  • $1700 for seven days/nights liveaboard diving
  • $1200 for three nights room & board
It's hard to justify this; especially when flying solo.

March 30:
From home, I most miss:
  • crisp weather
  • air-conditioned gyms
  • fresh healthy food
  • fast networks
  • my bicycle
  • friends and family
But I'm not quite ready for...
  • shallow American media sold to the lowest common denominator
  • demotion of the Moped in modern society
  • "did you see xyz on TV last night?"
Thailand reminds me of The Playa for its:
  • mix of spiritual orientations
  • distance from home and required self-reliance
  • frontier spirit and lax law enforcement
  • disorientation and constant access to danger
  • eclectic mix of people who come out at night, after the heat passes
  • chaotic freedom of movement, on two-wheeled vehicles
  • art cars (think "motorcycle-meets-pancake-wagon")
  • shortage of reliable drinking water
Desparate for evaporative cooling, I shave my head.

March 31:
Contemplating the return home, through Bangkok, where I can finally detach from 30kg backpack of IDC-related books/binders I've shlepped through:
  1. Hermosa Beach
  2. LAX
  3. Bangkok
  4. Phuket
  5. Kata Big Rock
  6. Khao Luk
  7. Ranong
  8. Chumpon
  9. Koh Tao
  10. Koh Samui
  11. Bangkok
April 1:
Zooming around Koh Samui on finely-tuned moped, learning more lessons...
  • Maintain mental independence from commercial media
  • Always explore the dirty core of a country (not touristy areas)
  • Treat others as well as you treat yourself.
  • Trust, but verify
  • Be grateful for all the good fortune
  • Ensure effect of my life is positive re: psychic/social legacy
My existence here has devolved into constantly searching for coolness & relief via moped motion or air-conditioned motel. So to minimize carbon footprint, I must flee, back to my native climate.

09 March, 2007

Part 8: Koh Tao

March 7: Arriving in 90 minutes by speedboat from Chumpon, I rent 250cc motorcycle for 300B/day to navigate steep, pot-holed dirt roads. They haven't changed much in four years. With over 30 dive shops on Koh Tao, I hope to find a teaching gig here. Internet connectivty here is pricey and virus-ridden.

March 8:
On the south side in Chalok Ban Khao, where I stayed in 2003, I skin (breath-hold) dive with Corrine, a multi-lingual spearfisherman from Martinique where she works as a travel agent. She's finishing a six-week philanthropic (NGO) research trip in Cambodia and Thailand. I cut costs by switching from motorcycle to (gutless) moped for 75B/day. What the hell.

March 9:
Three hours of skin diving in Shark Bay where we see five (150cm long, 50cm wide) black-trip reef sharks that come within five meters.

March 10:
Skip skin diving appointment with Corrine, I upgrade housing (and halve costs) by switching from motel in Chalok Ban Khao (600B/day). Final straw: price-gouging and very bad customer service. Never stay at "JP resort" on Koh Tao

After the motorcycle gets a flat, and the rental company squalks about driving the 1km to assist me, I ride the rim 300m to a dumpy repair shop and pay 200B for a new tube. I calm down after realizing it's small potatoes (200 baht, $6). Inconvenience, not money.

Move into "Tommy's Apartments" adjacent the temple near Sairee Village with refridgerator, air-conditioning, electrical outlets and friendly (if clueless) staff for 9000B/month. String up psychedelic hammock on ocean-view balcony to watch sauna sunsets (air-conditioner is flaky >:-)

Customizing my month-lease habitat, I:

  1. switch circuit from (flaky) government electricity to (pricey) private electricity
  2. hijack wireless router (whose standard admin user/password was never changed)
These changes allow me to:

  1. enjoy reliable AC when its most needed
  2. restart their router remotely (cleansing it of the islands malware)
March 11:
Isometrics and museli. More skin diving with Corrine, this time in picturesque and sparsely-populated Ao Leuk, to see:

  • banner
  • pairs of butterfly
  • hundreds of feeding juvenille parrot fish
  • giant clam (20cm, polished white inside)
  • blue-spotted ray
  • spotted sweetlips
  • hexagonal grouper
  • giant sea turtle
Hiking up hill through thick dusk bugs, we moped (lights off to avoid bugs-in-the-eyes) to dinner with her neighbors (from New York) Greg and Eliza at Buddha View. They are spending eight months in Asia, and leave tomorrow for Laos. Fun people.

Buddha View has gone upscale since my last visit (Feb 2003) when it was a couple small buildings, a hut, and a BBQ. Koh Tao now seems to have many more 20-something post-baccalaureates and less psychedelic mushroom-eating bohemians. It seems to have gone mainstream.

My camera battery charger's gone missing (probably back in the sweatbox of Chumpon) so from now on, photos are from earlier in the trip.

March 12:
Awoke at 5:30am, when the roosters and I have this place to ourselves. The mosquito coils are working. Oats, banana, coffee, and a weekly shave.

Thinking about a great quote by Cassius Clay, "Many people want to win. But only real winners have the will to prepare to win."

Free diving alone in Ao Leuk and the noon-day sun gives me a decent burn w/o my shirt.

I procure a giant hatchet so I can whack/drink/eat coconuts whenever I feel like it.

On recommendation from Buddha View IDC Staff Instructor James, I speak with Course Director Mark (on Koh Tao with Bjorn in the mid-1990's) about teaching at their shop. He suggests I enroll in a three-week MSDT at their dive center at (wait for it...) 20,000 baht. I think I'll keep looking.

March 13:
Corrine's stolen moped wheel cancels our Koh Nanyuang free-diving and we instead visit the police and repair shops.

The free-diving school wants 3000B for certification down to 15 meters and 7000B for advanced skills. Since I can already free-dive to ~15m for ~60 seconds last week, I'll skip this for now.

Buddha View CD Mark conducts Marine Resource Management lecture and, resolving to learn /teach more about this vital topic, I apply for this instructor specialty. I chat Thai w/friendly Biya, Ung, Care, Nam over a huge dinner at Mae Haad pier.

March 15:
Low energy past 48 hours caused by:

Recuuperating with guilty pleasures:
  • Air conditioning on the private circuit
  • Tradewinds (unlock using "JYAP-MGMM-L4FH")
  • ice-cold coconuts hacked with meat-cleaver
  • iPod playing "Chill 5" playlist
  • peanut M&M's
March 16:
Spider bite symptoms:
  • pain at bite site
  • numbness adjacent to site
  • mild disorientation and malaise
  • swolen lymph node (mini-golf ball on my shoulder blade 20cm from bite)
After four days of macho, I visit a helpful, happy clinic nurse who prescribes:
  • hydroxyzine hydrochloride (for allergic reaction)
  • prednisolome (for immune system)
  • fenistil (topical hypoallergenic)
I give her an iced-tea.

March 17:
The friendly Thai cleaning woman at Tommy's Apartments replaces my ethernet cable so it protrudes just beyond the locked router room so I can connect via wireline as needed. I give her an ice-cold coconut.

Go to bed early to avoid beer-fueled Koh Tao mayhem on St. Patty's Day. Finished "Shadow Divers" by Robert Kurson and watched two Simpsons episodes.

March 18:
Reading about Taoism and Epicureanism and racking up high electricity bills with near-constant AC. Neighbor Pete from England cooks us outstanding green curry. Split a six-pack of Singha with him on our mutual balcony.

March 19:
Here's a sample of aquatic life at the Surin and Similan Islands, within the red rectangle to the left. Images are from the four-day liveaboard diving trip with Khao Lak SCUBA Adventures three weeks ago.

Dive sites include:
  • Koh Surin (northernmost islands)
  • Koh Tosai
  • Koh Bom
  • Koh Similan islands (southernmost islands)
Visibility: 10m to 30m.
Water temp: 26C-28C (I used a comfy 3mm full wetsuit).
Trip cost: 15,500 baht or $400 (incl. meals, air fills)
Camera: Canon C630 w/built-in flash, Canon housing

March 20:
  • coconuts
  • water
  • bunch o' bananas
  • 5kg bag of rice for neighbor
March 21:
Spider bite symptoms mostly remain:
  • pain at bite site
  • numbness adjacent to site
  • swolen lymph node (now shrunk to the size of a garbanzo bean)
I get a second opinion re: the spider bite, and apparently poison's still present (no wonder it still hurts). Doctor prescribes stronger antibiotic cream and I'll know in two days whether she'll have to CUT OUT THE POISON. The nearby motorcycle-stove vendor consoles me with four fried fishballs for 15B.

Dinner by Pete along with other neighbors Eva, Shirley and her boyfriend (all from Holland). I offer two coconuts with rum along with oranges and pineapple. They're all in the in IDC at Ban's with CD Jonas.

March 22:
On the hunt for instructor gigs, but since there are so many others here looking for work it's been tricky for someone with no certifications (experience) yet.

Spider bite still hurts, so upon persuing a second opinion, I learned the poison is still present. Doctor gave me a stronger antibiotic for it, and I'll know tomorrow whether she'll have to cut out the poison from the wounds.

March 23:
Two hours before sunset, I explore the dirt roads up the hill to visit "Eagle View", a real-life treehouse of a restaurant built on a hillside facing the west, and owned by the friendly bong-smoking "Nop Marley" who recognizes me instantly from my two visits in 2003. Back then, the island was less populated, and I would moped up at night for an occasional "Magic Coffee" which would fix me in my hammock for musical inner views. Alas, he no longer serves the potion ("Too expensive") and after seeing a wife and two little kids now, I begin to understand what the expense could mean. "See you when you see me".

Managing the marginal moped down steep dirt on the south side, I momentarily mis-apply the front brake and the pony collapses onto my R foot, and dies. It won't start, it's too heavy to PUSH back up the hill, it's getting dark, and mosquitos are stopping by for take-away dinner.

It's a good time to be sober. (Gosh, I'm sure glad Nop has no more Magic Coffee)

I pivot 90 degrees against the steep dirt so the moped no longer threatens to roll down the road, off the hill, and into jungly oblivion, never to be seen again. I can now detach myself from the (I-can-imagine-the-cost-of-replacing-this-PoS) handlebar death-grip to assess the situation. Kickstarting several times, nothing. Throttle cable looks ok. Kickstart, nothing. Choke, try again. Choke further, try again, it stumbles to life, and I softly caress the throttle into agreement. Pivot another 90 degrees to face uphill and jog alongside its sandblasting rear tire back to a smaller gradient, a grateful man.

But now I realize the mishap has broken the front brake handle, so I have only a rear brake (on a nearly-bald tire) to get down dirt hills to concrete/traction. On the bright side, I can't mis-apply the front brake again. But I can pay 200B the next day to have it fixed.

Back at the humid, un-air-conditioned coccoon of Mosquito Motel, I'm mostly incapacitated now, limping around with my injured foot, and unhealing spider bite wounds. In fact, I can feel the poison knotting up what little remains of my abdominal muscles (January's gym routine was long ago). I gotta get outta here.

March 24:

#include /usr/lib/Hunter_s_thompson.h
"The decision to flee came suddenly"

I vacate Mosquito Motel (aka Tommy's Apartments) due mostly to lack of reliable:
  • electricity
  • air-conditioning
  • network connectivity
And giving my remaining fruit to my fun Welsh neighbor Pete, I say fast "goodbyes" to other friends, and vacate the whole island, taking a two-hour boat to Koh Samui, shlepping my 90kg mountain of gear.

04 March, 2007

Part 7: Khao Lak and Ranong

February 27 - March 2 (Liveaboard dive trip in the Similan Islands): (more photos and dive logs pending)

Fun crew and great dive leaders (including the fire-throwing Sedrich and the dive site artist-extraordinaires Tommy and Leo). Dan Slater offers to our group his expert, fun, safe brand of dive leadership.

March 2:

Return to Khao Lak and immediately find a nice (250B/day) moped and (700B/day) motel room with air-conditioning and private bathroom. The only Robinson Caruso I understand resides in my audio book.

Eating fattening food and drinking fattening beer. This phenom, along with my non-existent exercise schedule, is obscuring what little abs I had back in January.

March 3:
Blast 30 moped kilometers north to Ban Bang Muang. En route, I see only Thai people (read: "No English speakers"), and I eventually learn the path to the recommended tsunami memorial and museum. Only two years since the horrible event, native Thai people have regrouped well enough to cheerfully help me enjoy large Singha at a local restaurant.

March 4:
I roam hot noon-time minutes around the upscale post-tsunami Green Beach bungalows that once held the folksy dive shop of my first Similan dive trip four years ago. I didn't stay close enough to the staff there to know if they even survived the tsunami that washed 8 meters over their shoreside shop in the morning hours of 26-Dec-2004.

Now debating two primary options for visa
renewal en route to Koh Tao:
  1. Van to Phuket, fly to Singapore and back, fly to Koh Samui, speedboat to Koh Tao ($500) --or--
  2. Bus to Ranong, boat into Myanmar and back, bus to Chumpon, catamaran to Koh Tao ($100)
To gain clarity on this big decision, I blast forth on the moped to "Sad Wings of Destiny" from Judas Priest. After a late lunch at "Mr. Indian", a Khao Lak hole-in-the-wall where the manager teaches me "donde-wat" (thank you), I lean toward option #2, due primarily to time and to my now-lowered cost threshold.

March 5:
Three-hour bus ride from Khao Lak to Ranong. For half of this trip, it's standing-room-only so I sit crumpled in the stairwell, alternately gazing at the swirling landscape and resting my head on folded sweaty arms.

Crossing into Myanmar (formerly Burma)
to start my second 60-day non-immigrant Thai visa, I suddenly realize that anything could happen because I've decided to go alone via long-tail boat for a 90-minute round-trip into a country that prosperity has forgotten. Thankfully, it's uneventful, and after three more hours by truck, I crash overnight in a dingey seaside motel in Chumpon on the East side of the peninsula.

Awaking at dawn, I board the speedboat to Koh Tao.