Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Taman Negara…Jungle Gym on Steroids!! (Sept 7th – 12th)

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Fresh out of island life, we motorbike-taxied to a small guesthouse
in downtown Karabi. We were anxious to shower and clean up a bit.
After chillin’ in the room, an intense sunset marked dinner time and we
hit the streets to hunt for a restaurant. We ended up selecting a
little outdoor dwelling where I painfully received the spiciest curry
on earth. Needing three bowls of rice and two large bottles of water to
dilute the hotness, I eventually got it all down…..despite its
attempts to resurface.

The next day, we took a bus to Hat Yai, a stepping stone city into
Malaysia. While arranging our next link of travel, we met another
foreigner (the only other foreigner) oddly from the states (not too
many yanks). Dennis (33) was a film producer from NYC and seemed to be
searching for an escape from a mundane career and an unhappy
relationship. We told him of our plans to hit up Malaysia’s largest
Rain Forest, and he expressed interest in accompanying us. As a
monsoon blanketed the region, we entered the minibus heading for the
border. Four hours later (10pm) we were shoved out, about 200 feet from the
country line. It felt like we were illegal contraband being brushed
into the dark of the sketchy ghost town, left to fend for ourselves.
We walked to the border, filled out some quick paperwork, got our
entry stamps, then found ourselves standing on Malaysian soil.
Welcome to Malaysia!

It was late when we entered the country and it seemed as though
one remaining taxi was waiting there just for us… and in a way, he
was. We exchanged Thai Baht for a couple Ringits, then taxied to
a guesthouse right near the rail-road station in the town of
Wakaf Baharu. Tomorrow the plan was to catch the 6am train, rightly
nicknamed “The Jungle Express”!

That time came around sooner than expected, and before we saw any of
Malaysia in the daylight, we were already chugging down the tracks.
Beautifully, the sun rose over a foggy mountain jungle.

Sleeping most of the way, at 2pm we approached Jerantut, the gateway
city to the National Park. We disembarked the train, nearly succombing
to a tourist (trap) package claiming they monopolized the only way to
enter the forest. Gladly, we reconsidered our options and chose to relax
and collect our ideas before running into the jungle. We checked into
a guesthouse and used the rest of the time to prepare spending the
following 3 days/2nights amongst the trees. We started the shopping
spree.

For food, we chose some interesting items; canned curry tuna, canned
curry chicken, canned vegetables, PB and J’s, fresh carrots, apples
and oranges. Lastly for water, we elected to bring two 5.5 liter jugs
along with four 1.5 liter bottles. With plenty of supplies, we
returned back to our residence to organize the items into two of
the backpacks. We chose Michelle’s and Dennis’s bags to take with us.

While packing our gear, Michelle and I made friends with a cute
Malaysian girl named Wati. A permanent resident of the guesthouse, she
kept us company while we equipped for the adventure. When our things
were finally sorted and packed away, we went out for our last meal in
civilization. Our favorite dinner item was Satay, mini chicken kabob
sliced meats, smothered in a spicy peanut sauce. At an equivalence of
$.10 per stick, we satisfied our cravings with bunches of ’em. At the
end of our meal, another patron of our hotel joined our table. His name
was Pablo (20’s), from Spain (go figure), and currently working in
London. He works for the UN, dealing with environmental regulations on
the importation of the animal and plant trade around the world, currently
here in the country for a timber conference. He was a nice guy and
anxious to enter the forest tomorrow as well.

At 5:30am we awoke to catch the 6:00am bus to Kuala Tahan, the
entrance to Taman Negara National Park. We were the only four
foreigners on the 1 ½ hour ride, which doubled as a school bus
for the children of the community. Before paying the one Ringit
to cross the Tembeling River by boat, we enjoyed an iced coffee
and egg roti (local pancake) on the deck of a floating restaurant.

Now, time for some action! Upon crossing the river we paid an entrance
fee, as well as booked a hide deep in the jungle for two nights. Pablo
had to buy some supplies, so opted to just meet us there later that
evening. Excited to get going, we set off on the five hour, 11.5 km
trek. One quick detour before really getting started was when we walked
up some spiralled stairs in hopes to open up vistas high above the canopy.
We mostly were in they sky to try and capture some beatuiful views, but
we did happen to see a monitor basking on the side of an enormous tree
trunk about 125 feet up! Down from the clouds, we continued forward
spotting a little black monkey in a tree not too far from the path.

With 3 of us and 2 packs, we rotated carrying duties between
ourselves. A person would carry a pack for a 2 hour stretch of time,
leaving one person an hour break in between their session. The packs
were unnecessarily heavy, each weighing literally around 25 kg (more
than 50 lbs). Fortunately, we figured they would lessen in weight as
we ate the food and drank the water.

The mud was slick and the terrain brutal, making things unexpectedly
more dangerous and unpredictably more difficult than we could have ever
imagined. Tiny streams criss-crossed the trail, and each creek meant a
steep revive. Going up and down the slippery inlets while carrying the
monstrous packs was hell for everyone, but particularly for Dennis,
who occasionally displayed some city-slicker moments. Unused to the
jungle heat, he was draining the water supply faster than Michelle and
I combined. We had to rest a little more frequently than expected, but it
was good for us all considering the intensity of the trek.

One turn ahead yielded a giant forest boar. Looking more like a wart
hog than any pig I’ve ever seen, the giant beast came rather close to our
snapping camera shutters. Eventually, it got spooked while going in
for a close up and snorted back into the depths of the forest.

A little while later, more rustling in the vegetation yielded a rare
find. It was a “Pablo”!! Some how he passed us on the trail, and now
he was emerging from a little side excursion to the river. It was pretty
random. Now a group of 4, we continued our best to traverse the
jungle’s obstacles.

While cooling off in a quiet, little stream, Michelle and I came to
two conclusions. First, we miscalculated our water rationing and had
much less available per day than expected (especially what Dennis).
Secondly, our hiking speed would put us at the hide well past night fall.
Both realizations weren’t a pleasure to our ears, but nonetheless we
weren’t turning back for anything! Luckily, I brought plenty of purifying
tablets and some bright flashlights, just in case. Go ahead…bring on the
obsticles!!

Pablo, only carrying a daypack, took off ahead of us. Moving slowly,
the rest of the group never reunited on the trail. The time was 4pm and
having left as early as possible (9 am), our misinformed 5 hour hike was at
hour 7.

When it was my hour long turn to go pack-less, I decided to sprint ahead to
survey the upcoming distance. A bridge, that I hoped to find around
each bend in the trail, marked a remaining 1 ½ hour walk to the hide. Each
turn yielded no bridge and even after catching up to Pablo, the bridge was
still somewhere ahead. Eventually, thirsty as could be, the jungle opened up and
I left Pablo back for Michelle and Dennis where the bridge finally did emerge.
Counting steps in aim to give the two back on the trail hope that the bridge
exists within a reachable distance, I measured every 100 steps with a tiny
twig I collected from branches lying around. 1,460 steps later, I reunited
with the team; Dennis filled with tears of joy to see my silhouette
on the hill. He was on his last leg, literally pleading with god for my return.
I took the weight from his shoulders (literally) and now with the bridge in an
achievable distance, we trekked onward. Finally, with a half an hour before
sunset, we arrived to the bridge exhausted, sweaty, and covered in our blood
from the leeches. We collapsed in the center and prepared to rejuvenate our
bodies with the nourishment contained in our aluminum canister dinners.
For at least 15 minutes, Dennis couldn’t sit down because at every attempt his
legs would cramp up in horrendous pain. Firmly stationed, he told us while
on the trail he was thanking God for tossing him into this punishing situation,
giving him the chance to redeem his sins he had collected while living life in
NYC. It made us all crack up…..since we were all hysterical by this time.

A refreshing rain passed overhead while we laid there lifeless on the
bridge. The dinner of beans and tuna curry really invigorated our
spirits and when night finally came, flashlights in hand, we continued
the last leg of the trek surrounded by darkness. Having the largest
population of elephants and tigers in mainland Malaysia could have
been daunting, but the eagerness to arrive would have drained the fear
from anyone. Holding true, about 1 ½ hours later we climbed up the
stairs to the hide. We were greeted by Pablo and two English guys in
their twenties. The five hour hike (what was told to us at the
headquarters) lasted from 9am to 8pm, totaling up to a whopping 11
hour trek (not to mention the fact we carried more than 50 lb packs
as well)!!!

Exhaustedly, up high, safe and sound, we were well rewarded with a
rainwater collected shower. We picked off the remaining leeches and
cleaned up our bloody wounds. Afterwards Michelle and I set up our
hammocks between the rafters of the bunk beds, then situated ourselves
down on the bench in front of the viewing window.

Unfortunately, my body was done! It didn’t want to stay up a wink.
I hoped people would stay awake, but not being able to last myself,
I wasn’t in the position to ask. No one organized shifts, so we basically
all drifted away around midnight. Then it happened… (around 3 am)…
“wake up”… “wake up”… “Oh MY GOODNESS”!!

Pablo woke us up since an even bigger mammal awoke him. Blasted by my
blue flashlight, way at the end of the clay lick was an enormous bull
Elephant!!! His tusks were huge, the whole thing was huge! The light
attracted an ungodly amount of insects which swarmed our heads, flying
into our mouths. We all took turns holding the light gagging on
the bugs. I feared that the choking would spook the hesitant beast, but
as if answering all our wishes, he came closer and closer till he was literally
right underneath us (guided by the beam of light the whole way). How
crazy is that! Anyone can see an Elephant on a safari in Africa, but
spotting an endangered Asian Elephant deep in the jungles of
Malaysia…eat your heart out! After allowing us to hang out
with him for an half an hour, granting us a chance to take a few
horrible photos (none of our cameras worked well in the dark), the
elephant vanished back to the trees from which he came. What an
unexpected, wonderful reward for putting up with the pain and choosing
the most difficult hide to reach! An Elephant….Yeah BABY!!

The next morning, while still buzzing from the adenine high the
night before, we ate some cereal for breakfast and discussed the day’s
future events. All our food was hung from the rafters during
the night, to keep the rats out, but for the English guys,
it was a different story. They left a backpack on the floor with a
package of Oreos inside and in the morning they were angry a rat had
chewed a massive hole and smuggled out the cookies.

Pablo left early that morning to exit the park, he was on a deadline
and had to be somewhere else by the next day. Unexpectedly using up
more water as well, he borrowed a couple water purifying tablets from
me to make it back.

We decided some fun for the day would be to trek 7 km to bat caves.
After gearing up (with a much lighter daypack), we headed out with a group
consisting of Michelle, Dennis, one of the English guys, and myself. Starting
our trek was a bit more difficult that we thought, since we had to
reconstruct a directional sign that had been bulldozed by the elephant
the night before. Deciding the path, we carried on. Within the first 20
minutes we lost the Brit and then 10 minutes later, Dennis turned back.
I guess they had enough of trekking from the day before, who could
blame them!

Michelle and I continued on, trading the backpack between each other
while following a much narrower trail then our previous. We didn’t see
too much wildlife, but there were elephant tracks everywhere on the
path. Leeches too weren’t hard to come by and every once in a while
you’d feel a big one dangling from your leg plump full with blood. Three
hours later we made it to the caves.

Before entering inside we opened our prepared picnic lunch of PB and
honey, along with an apple and orange. It was a blast being the only
two for miles deep in the lungs of the Earth. Taman Negara is
apparently the oldest rainforest in the world, and it’s shown by
hosting some enormous trees. After relaxing and filling up our
tummies, we entered on a guano pathway through a dark crevice,
following the chirps of high screeching.

A flash of the camera created what sounded and felt like a wind
tunnel. Bats left their upside down roost to fly in every which
direction. Literally coming within millimeters of our faces, we got
some pretty neat pictures of them in flight. We checked out a couple
more crevices, which to our excitement, revealed a similar display
from the flying nocturnal mammals.

The caves were great, but time was vanashing along with the light.
On our return back, we had to stop at a creek half way to fill the
water bottle. We purified it to perfection (I hoped and
thought… stay tune for that conclusion), then carried on. Right before
sunset, we made it to the hide only to be greeted by new faces.
Michelle exclaimed her excitedness to be back with a loud
“Hello Everyone!”. This remark was followed with a loud “shhh-ing” sound,
with nasty looks and single fingers to the mouth….we knew that this
group was going to be much different than the night before. Two birders from
Germany sat stoically gazing into the canopy while a cute couple from
New York (how many New Yorkers have breakdowns and need to flee to
Southeast Asia??) were anxious to see some fauna. Also, reuniting with
Dennis allowed him informe us of some crazy news. Apparently, Pablo was
charged by an agro-male elephant during his trek back to headquarters.
See, I guess after he survived his encounter by seeking refuge behind a tree,
he warned some hikers heading back towards our way of the ordeal.
Word apparently spread throughout the current Homo sapien population of the
Forest, but I was more thrilled for Pablo than anything (what a crazy rush
that must have been!).

Muddier than the swamp thing, I was anxious to take another shower.
This new group of hide-mates was hardcore; everyone was
silent, and the birders were the real deal! In the shower, where I
thought sound was muted, apparently it was amplified tenfold. The water
was freezing and when it hit my HOTT body (haha), it actually was
tremendously painful and I screeched like a bat. Not expecting an
audience to hear my discomfort, I was vocal outload about how jungle water
should not be this frigid, making this the most painful shower of
my life. Anyway, when I exited the bathroom, Dennis was quietly
giggling since he said the entire jungle heard my cries of discomfort and
that the German birder’s sported angered and frustrated faces at my loud
moaning. Apparently, it was a really funny situation you would have
had to be there to understand.

I redeemed myself with the group when Michelle and I organized a
schedule of shifts to stand guard and spot wildlife throughout the
night. There were six people wanting to participate, apparently one of
the birders just wanted to catch up on his beauty sleep (with good reason).
We divided up the night and early morning into twelve shifts allotting each
person with two. Michelle and I decided to keep each other company
during our watches, and we were left with the 10-12 and 2-4
openings. We went to bed after a gross dinner of canned chicken in
curry sauce, to get some rest before our session two hours later.

At ten O’clock, I was woken by Ian, the New Yorker, and in turn I got
Michelle from her hammock. We enjoyed (more like gagged down) a can of
warm Guinness and ate some peanuts while listening to the
constant buzz and chirp of the forest. A rat also kept us extremely
entertained, as it would skirt down a string attached from the rafter
that held the German’s food supply. The animal would disappear into
the bag only to reemerge with a stolen Kudos bar in its mouth.
It was quite a criminal! At one point, the rat fell off the high beam,
making a huge squeal….but upon investigation only the Kudos bar
remained. More cunning than the rodent, Michelle and I devoured the
candy bar after the rat did all the dirty work for us.

During our shift we saw a whole bunch of nothing. When twelve O’clock
came around, we woke up Dennis to stand guard and then anxiously
returned to sleep. What seemed like only minutes later, Dennis was in
turn re-awaking us. It was now 2am, time for our second shift.
Again, no Tapirs or Elephants were seen, only a family of
fearless rodents that didn’t hesitate to scurry right over our feet if
they got in their paths. At 4am, we went back to sleep and unfortunately
weren’t reawakened for any exciting surprises the rest of the night.
It’s ironic how with the lackadaisical crew the night before we saw an
elephant, but this time with a die hard team on shifts, nada was uncovered.

At 8 am I woke up and had to pee. On my way to the bathroom, I saw a
tiny feline about the size of a house cat. It was blotched with
blackish and brown colors and was already retreating when I called
Michelle over to come and see it. I never got a picture, nor did Michelle
see it…..What can you do?

After some more cereal, we packed up and got ready for the trek out. Dennis
decided to walk to the river (about 1 ½ hours), to hitch a boat ride
back to headquarters instead of joining our trek. Just being Michelle and
I, we went back a different route, hoping for more level terrain.
We got our wish, and with the land much flatter, we made great
time despite the slightly longer (in distance) trail.

Some falling debris from the canopy revealed Gibbons acerbating
through the branches, high above us. While in awe of their aerial
spectacle, the heavy flying from a pair of giant hornbills caught our
attention. These huge birds resembled toucans on roids, supporting what
looks like two beaks rather than one (they actually have a boney
casque-like structure protruding out from the top of their bill).

After passing a grunting family of pigs with over half a dozen
rambunctious piglets, we finally completed our three day adventure in
the jungle of Taman Negara. Overall, Michelle and I traversed over 23
miles of rugged rainforest and couldn’t have been better rewarded by
such an extraordinary elephant encounter.

We stopped at a public restroom where I took a shower in the sink,
then we headed back down to the river to spoil ourselves with an iced
coffee at a floating cafe. Dennis actually had just gotten there by sharing a
boat with the birders and joined us for lunch. By 6:30pm we were up
at the tiny bus station waiting for transport back to Jerantut.
Everything was “rolling” smoothly till the bus rapidly veered to the
shoulder of the road and stopped. The front right tire was flat, and
upon further inspection, they had no spare. This left us waiting for an
alternative vehicle to arrive. About an hour later, a smaller bus
rescued us, dropping us at the guesthouse where we stowed away our
gear. We were allowed to take a proper shower and rearrange our equipment.
Dennis decided to check in for another night while Michelle and I
planned to head to Kuala Lumpur on the midnight train. We went out for
a final dinner as a team (for more satay), then split ways having
created together some challenging and adventurous memories.

I left the jungle eager for a hot shower, huge meal, and an
air-conditioned train ride, but while in the comfort of luxury, I longed
to return back to the thrills of the wild. Our expedition proved
harsher than initially expected, but our preparedness for all obstacles,
along with our will to continue, allowed us to persevere, especially
when some of us (Dennis) thought death was near. Despite Dennis’s
struggle, Michelle and I enjoyed taking him deep into the jungle,
opening his eyes to an adventure formerly existing outside his realm
of reality.

In conclusion, for me a greater lesson was reinforced. Those who
attack the more difficult, less traveled road usually reap a
sweater trunk of treasure in the end……In our case, that trunk was
attached to four legs and some jumbo ears!!!

Rescripting ‘The Beach’ (Sept 3rd – 7th)

Monday, October 1st, 2007

After stamping our free entry visas in the Thai immigration office of Ranong, we ate dinner at a guest house overlooking the bus station since we were waiting for the bus from Bangkok to give us a lift on its path to Phuket. When it finally came at 8pm we slipped aboard and fell asleep. At around 2am we awoke at our destination and walked down the street in search of a guest house. To my surprise and delight we stayed at On-On hotel, the exact place where the movie ‘The Beach’ had some scenes shot. It was simple, cheap, and comfortable….just perfect. While lying in the bed, I could imagine Daffy ripping open the screen above the backboard and sharing with me the story of a secret island. If I lost you, rent the movie….or just continue reading since we practically retrace the plot!

The next morning we awoke late and decided to take it chill for the day. We rented a motorbike after a delicious western breakfast and decided to hit up a movie theater showing flicks in English (Amen). ‘Rush Hour III’ wasn’t bad (I was expecting better), but ‘The Condemned’ was more up my alley! That’s right….a double feature….Oh I love the movies!

After the films, we hopped back on the bike to check out Patong. The town of Patong is a popular strip that may initially come to mind when someone mentions Phuket, Thailand. About a 20 minute drive takes you to the heart of the commotion. It reminded me of a larger scale Ko Phan Ngan, with the similar sins of go-go dancing, drugs, lady-boys, and plenty of alcohol. It’s like South Beach having an illegitimate child with the red light district of Amsterdam! Fortunately Michelle and I had no inclination to get our grove on, so we simply viewed the party from an outsider’s stance. We figured we got wild enough during the last full moon to carry us through this celebration. I was happy to see Patong, but even happier to refind our camouflaged motorbike we couldn’t pinpoint amongst the maze of streets. After a nippy late night ride back to On-On, we shimmied into our beds and dozed off. Tomorrow I planned to take Michelle into my World!!!

We woke around 10 and cruised on our motorbike (24hr lease) on a hunt to reach a lookout point before the ferry departs for Ko Phi Phi at 2pm. After referring to a useless map way too often, trusting instinct more than street signs we finally made it atop a hill surrounded by two huge beach-lined bays spotted with green cliff-rock islands. We ate a picnic lunch we brought with us (I love picnics!!), then headed back to the hotel to grab our gear. When in eyesight of On-On, a police officer decided to delay our return by pulling us over, issuing me a citation for being the driver and not wearing a helmet. I knew exactly what was going on….me being a foreigner stitches a money sign on my forehead. Although I was in the norm for riding helmetless, I was still targeted out of streets loaded with noggin exposed crotch rockets. He asked for my license and in turn I received the ticket. The orders were to go directly to the police station to pay my fee (which I couldn’t decipher how much) in order to get my license back. Figuring it would be cheaper (and less encumbersome) to just leave the country, I blew off my date with Phuket’s finest and reunited with Michelle who ran up ahead to check out of the hotel.

Now a fugitive (not really of course), we loaded into the shuttle bus that came to On-On to pick us up, then switched to a ferry bound for Ko Phi Phi at the port. Mimicking the story line of Leonardo’s best movie, we planned to camp on the same ‘Beach’ as the one in the film. See, Ko Phi Phi has two islands; Phi Phi Don which is inhabited while Phi Phi Ley (where ‘The Beach’ was filmed) is a National Park with a population of 0. The ferry takes you to Phi Phi Don, but the objective was to rent a kayak there and paddle out to Phi Phi Ley and camp obscured amongst the natural beauty.

We arrived to Phi Phi Don at 4pm (way late) with still many things to do before setting off. We first found a hotel with a baggage room to watch our gear since we only needed 1 big dry bag to take with us. Secondly, we had to find a kayak rentable for three days, and thirdly we needed to buy some supplies (snorkeling mask, lighter, food, and water).

We were successful in every avenue, however by the time of completion it was already six with the sun nearly set. We lied to the kayak outfitter about our destination (fearing they would prohibit our plans), then pushed off into the sunset unsure about several factors. We didn’t know exactly how far away Phi Phi Ley was, the currents in between the two islands, or if its waters and beaches were patrolled by rangers. Not hindered by doubt, we didn’t hesitate as we went for it head first.

We turned the corner out of our cove and saw our destination way in the distance just before darkness completely took hold. Stroke after stroke, with the seas docile in our favor, we surprisingly reached the nearest point of Phi Phi Ley in less than two hours. The giant rock cliffs acted as an impenetrable fortress, so in order to make landfall we searched for a bay we ended up finding along the back coast. Covered by darkness, we set up our hammocks and fell fast asleep all alone.

As isolated as we slept, so it was when we awoke. While admiring our gorgeous little cove, we devoured the sweetest pineapple for breakfast before breaking down camp. The water in our bay was a dark emerald green and we couldn’t resist its inviting allure. We tied up the loaded kayak to a buoy and uncovered some amazing sea life! Corals were rare, but huge anemones and clown fish were everywhere. A huge eel posed for us along with 2 enormous octopuses (octopii??…..wait, I should know this) which were probably the biggest I had ever seen! Trumpet fish, puffer fish, barracudas, and thousands of damsel fish and parrots all worked their best to get their picture taken…..What a treat!

We went into the water completely alone, but around 10 o’clock the tourist boats stormed in. As anticipated, during the day we had to share paradise, but by night we expected to have it all to ourselves! With the kayak packed, we decided to check out the bigger bay (literally ‘The Beach’). A few minutes paddle around the bend left us in a cove surrounded by gigantic walls of rock. The water inside was turquoise and the sand along the far stretch was as white as cocaine (not that I know what that looks like Mom!). This beach, which seemed computer generated was no digital creation, but rather the pinnacle example of Earth’s natural beauty. Selfishly, I was frustrated with so many tourists enjoying it at the same time, but I was confident they would evaporate as the day lingered.

After a picnic lunch of Rambutan (small, delicious fruits) on a tiny adjacent beach, we submerged ourselves in another snorkeling session. This time we spotted a vibrant sea snake along with another gigantic eel (about 6 feet long). At about 3pm we decided to return to our original beach back in the smaller bay to lesson the chance of being noticed by people. After the short kayak trip, we now had some chores to do.

Firstly, we collected some wood. Fortunately, no rain the past 2 days meant it was nice and dry. We broke plenty of pieces from fallen branches, then collected some dried palm fronds for kindling. Secondly, we set up our jungle hammocks and lastly, we cut up some veggies (carrots and this humongous cucumber thing) and tossed them in a rusted kettle we luckily found washed up amongst the line of debris.

With the fire pit ready to go, we waited for the tourists to leave before setting out to fish. However, when one boat left another would appear, so getting agitated with waiting, we paddled out of the cove and around the corner. Camping on the island probably required a permit or something, but fishing I’m sure was prohibited. Nonetheless, spear in hand with Michelle behind dragging the kayak, we went in hunt for dinner.

Fish were abundant, but my aim was off, not even getting close. For the first 40 minutes I was dry. I blame it on the fact my spear tip was crooked, slightly altering the trajectory, but I’ll take the blame directly for being horrible. Finally, when I accidentally hit a rock hard enough to break off the bent tip, I could feel the accuracy improve. I hit 2 fish that squirmed off the spear, but then put 2 good size parrots in the bag. Michelle wanted her chance to kill her first animal but fired away unsuccessfully. By the end of this trip, I’m sure she’ll get a fishy! She handed the spear back over and i got two more parrot fish. Content with our hunt, we seal-like plopped back into the boat and proceeded to paddle back.

The sky began turning bright orange, so we aimed for a further point beyond a cliff before going home. What an incredible day; two snorkeling occasions resulting in an assortment of sea animals, a drop dead gorgeous cove worthy of simply being coined ‘The Beach’ (and staring in a motion picture), hunting for our own fresh fish in a pristine tropical ocean, and now watching a stunning sunset from a kayak hovering still in a tranquil glassy sea! Can it get any better……..Yes!! After the sun changed the sky and water from pastel orange to neon pink, then to a wispy purple before fading into blackness, we began to steer calmly back to our shore. Under flashlight, we started cleaning and scaling the fish, then skewered them onto a stick. We ignited the fire and roasted the plump carcasses over the open flame. Along side, the veggies boiled as well in a mixture of fresh and salt water to add some flavor. After 15 minutes or so of cooking, Michelle had her first wild caught meal and together we enjoyed not only the food but the entire day beginning from the moment we awoke. I can’t describe how satisfying and fun days like this are, but as the fire dimmed and the stars emerged all I was left with was a humbled thanks for being able to experience such internal contentment. I was also blessed with being able to share it with a similarly, just as gratified spirit. While rocking away on a planet far from mainstream, we closed our eyes serenaded by serenity.

Crack!! The serene moment came to a halt when my hammock decided to take down the trunk of a tree. Literally the size of a coffee can, out of nowhere this tree broke away from a communal stump system leaving me crashing to the sand. In fear of being squashed by the canopy, I covered my head till the ruckus ceased. This was the first time I had ever fallen in the hammock, which definitely had me evaluating nearby trees differently as I searched for a place to retie.

Awakened by soft sunshine, we packed up for the final time and scurried back over to ‘The Beach’ to see it raw, unadulterated by the tourist’s screaming and garbage. The morning light crept down the rock faces and eventually illuminated the water to a radiating aquamarine. We took beautiful photographs of the deserted lagoon, but like clockwork the catamarans and speedboats began parading in eager to plunder our paradise. We headed back to our bay for a concluding snorkel (admiring a brilliant blue sea slug), then undertook the long paddle back to Phi Phi Don. Racing to arrive by 12pm to return the kayak and catch the ferry, we gritted our teeth and anchored our feet for the 2 hour journey across the sea. Facing no delays, we were allotted time to spare. We dropped off the kayak and collected our gear, then grabbed a delicious bite to eat (a big juicy burger) before boarding the boat destined to a port further south, Krabi.

From the comfy, air-conned seats of the passenger ferry, we gazed through memories locked in time on our camera chips, reminiscing over an unbelievable experience that left us both longing for a sequel. Well stay tuned my friends, cause ‘The Beach II’ will be coming soon!!!
.

Santa Needs to Visit Burma (Aug 31st – Sept 3rd)

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Leaving the Yahoos, now cut down from four to two, we dropped off our packs at a hotel room in Surathani for the evening. We found the times for tomorrows departure towards Myanmar (7am), then focused on spoiling ourselves with something we both were craving…….a visit to the movie theater! We taxied to a big mall only to realize none of the films were in English or had English subtitles….Urgg!!! We contemplated for a bit before deciding to just do it! We bought tickets to an 8pm showing which gave us an hour to hunt for dinner. A money stop at a salad bar, a rotisserie chicken, then a pastry puff all from a supermarket within the mall left us filled with a dinner far outside the norm for South East Asia….it was better than delicious!

We went back to the theater for the movie, ‘Chaiya’. Not only was I able to understand the plot, the movie was incredible! It was interesting watching the movie here as well, since Chaiya is actually the name of a town only kilometers north of where we were sitting. The story is about 3 boys being taught a style of Muay Thai specialized to the region, but as they get successful they end up losing their roots and enter down dangerous paths (what a synopsis!). I’m sure this film will be available to rent in the states, so check it out!

After the flick, we met a father and son who offered us a ride back to the hotel. It was extremely generous of them, especially when they pulled over to buy us a drink. The father used the opportunity to encourage his kid to practice English. After we chatted and finished our beverage, we were dropped off back to our room and went to sleep.

Early the next morning we departed Surathani for Ranong. The trip should have taken 7 hours, but instead it took 31! It’s for a good reason though, so I’ll fill ya in………

While on the bus, we met a guy named Joo. Joo was on his way back to Lang Suan to reunite with his family after working away from home for the week. Perhaps not knowing what he was getting into, he graciously offered us a look into the inside life of a Thai family. Michelle and I though about it for all of 5 seconds before we replied with a…’Sure, thank you very much!!’. As a result, we got off next stop with Joo. His wife came to pick him/us up in a real nice Toyota pick up (2005) with a more than spacious big back cab. His wife was just as nice as him, and both spoke fantastic English from living in the states for four years. First order of business was to stop at the bookstore to pick up their children. Whin (pronounced ‘win’) was a cute 2 year old who was chasing around another baby in the store. He was quite the ball of energy. Santa, in an art class sponsored by the book store, was 10 years old. She had an American accent from attending kindergarten in the states and was just as hospitable as her parents. She was born on Christmas day, hence the name.

With the entire family packed in the truck, we headed to a restaurant on the sea they wanted to show us. We ordered a crazy spread including prawns, squid, fish, and curry. We expressed to the family our amour with curry, and they were enthused with our love for Thai food.

After lunch Joo was eager to show us the home where he grew up (now lived in by his brother). Situated in a palm tree plantation started by his grandfather (for palm oil), the house was simple and lacked nothing. I could imagine hearing young kids playing hide and go seek behind the palm trunks or running through the creek during a game of tag. By his excitement to show us the property and from the layout of the land, I could tell he had a great childhood.

Continuing our tour, we now went to his mother’s house for a quick stop just to say hi. She was a nice old lady, very happy to meet us, giving us bananas and candy in a kind gesture. Right next door was Joo’s house which we entered next. The house was huge and had a very western feel to it. We played with the kids and I inspected the construction with Joo. Santa made us a cool drawing of a flower with an art set we bought her from the book store. How many people can say Í really got a present from Santa!

Joo had connections to a nice hotel, so even though we would have loved to stay at their house, he was excited for us to stay in a room on the beach. We weren’t going to complain. The family drove us down to the ocean near where we had lunch, and we happily checked into a bungalow for half the price it should have cost. Joo planned to come and pick us up tomorrow morning around 8 and treat us to a Thai breakfast…How great is this!! We said bye to our new family (Only temporarily), then went on our own in search for dinner.

The area near our room seemed empty at night, so after 20 or so minutes of walking in darkness, we decided to stick out a thumb and maybe catch the occasional ride driving by. Not before long a motorbike pulled over and we rode tri-style down the street. However, needing two rides to make it to a night market we were just informed of (one town away), we repeated our approach at hitching and landed a big one! This ride was money considering not only did he take us there, but after we strolled the market we ran into him again and he was more than happy to offer us a ride back! Beautiful!! On full stomachs from Thai delectables, and with an ocean view consisting of thousands of squid fishing boats illuminating the sea to mirror the stars in the heavens, we cranked up the air con and slipped away in luxury.

Right on cue, 8am sharp, Joo knocked on the door to our prepared and anxious appetites. We checked out, then hit up another (day) market buying items hardly any American would describe as breakfast foods. Tiny spicy eggplants, shrimp paste, a fish chunk, shredded coconut, and curry paste were on the list. Wait, did I say curry paste! No way, Joo and his wife were planning on teaching us how to make Thai curry! We bought the ingredients…..too the kitchen we go!

Firstly, all to familiarly, I was assigned the task of milking the coconut. Exactly as I would have done it if stranded on an island (go figure), I grabbed chunks of white flakes and squeezed the goodness into a bowl. Michelle cut up the eggplants while Joo and his wife worked on the curry/shrimp paste. The milk was brought to a simmer in which the paste was dissolved, followed by a quick blanch of the veggies. It tasted like everything I wished for, but it was only a fraction of the feast as we shared other dishes including a Thai omelet (uses soy sauce instead of milk), homemade banana break, fish soup, and miniature pancakes cooked in banana leaves inundated with soft coconut chunks. If it sounds like we were spoiled, we’d concur!

Included with breakfast was our escort back to the bus station (Get out of town (pun intended))! Exactly 24 hours after blindly following Joo off the bus, we were sadly saying goodbye to a family we fell in love with. I felt as if I was Whin and Santa’s uncle, and I could tell they shared the same emotions especially when little Whin cried as we headed towards the bus. It was a unique and wonderful experience Michelle and I are both fortunate to have been offered, but even more grateful the opportunity was presented to us by a beautiful family I’ll remember for the rest of my life….especially when I make curry!

Back on the exact same bus, as if the detour had never took place, we now once again had Myanmar back in our sights. After we crossed the peninsula of Thailand, the mountains gave way to my first ever glimpse of the Indian Ocean! Excited I was, but probably shouldn’t have been for it looked like every other ocean I had seen. Nonetheless, I’m not going to lie…I was trilled! About four hours after we left Joo’s family, the bus came to a halt and we were bristled off. Not knowing what to do or where to go, we walked to the town’s major bus station and they hinted at the location to hire a boat. Apparently this town of Ranong wasn’t much of a tourist destination….just how we like it! We walked and walked, probably an hour with our packs on before finally hitting the port; only then did we realize we had to return back to town to get a Thai immigration official to departure-stamp our passports. We did the run around with a boat captain following us (insisting we use his tiny canoe like vessel), then returned to the bustling harbor. For 75 Baht we cruised over to a culture a World apart, yet only a stones throw away.

Burma (now called Myanmar under the current control), well what can I say. Walking down the dock to the immigration office felt like being dragged towards the electric chair to carry out my sentencing. Stern faces were held on the warden-like officers whom despite our pleading, happily denied us entry into mainland Myanmar. We were granted only a 12 Kilometer radius in the town of Kawthung, but we had a whopping 14 day window (way more time then anyone would need) in which to wander through this urban captivity.

The people were dark. Many looked like former Bangladesh workers I met in Palau. To obscure their darkness (the fairer the skin, the more beautiful in these parts of the World), the women and daughters covered their faces in a yellow colored powder extracted from the bark of a tree. Not only did it turn their faces to a yellowish hue, it also doubled as a sunscreen and face moisturizer. It was often applied in decorative designs such as dots and circles.

The women’s faces jumped out at you like urine in freshly fallen snow, but that wasn’t the only major culture shock. The men all sported the most vibrant fabrics to wrap around their waists as serongs (skirts). Another thing really catching my attention was that the monks changed colors!! In all of formerly visited South East Asia, bright neon orange was the color of choice, but here, glowing crimson stood out in the crowd. This lead to several award winning photographs as we scoured the city hunting the righteous!

The people didn’t seem to smile easily, and when confronted for directions, sometimes responses were a little hesitant. the children were cute and giggly, but in adults the joy seemed to be missing. Fortunately we met a nice guy (19) named Johnny who befriended and guided us around town in turn to practice English.

While searching for a hotel, we began feeling the strong clutch of governmental control. As travellers we were only offered 3 hotels, each over priced and run by the government. Other hotels in the city would not accept us, as it was illegal to harbor foreigners. Supporting an unpopular regime, we picked the cheapest of the three evils and dropped off our back packs. Talking to more locals with Johnny as our translator, we never came across any individuals liking their government. It was a sad situation, considering how successful the economy is right across the river in Thailand, but as time goes on I’m sure something will change given the hatred currently held by the people.

As night time rolled in, our taste buds were interested in trying ethnic Burmese food, so we walked for 20 minutes to a restaurant Johnny recommended (still within our allotted boundary!). The food seemed to lack identity, as even the Burmese chose Thai and Chinese cuisine over their own (which doesn’t even seem to exist). Nonetheless, Thai and Chinese is not all that bad, and I enjoyed a meal of sweet and sour fish with some steamed vegetables and rice.

After dinner while walking home, Michelle and I played a game seeing who would receive more smiles by saying hello in the native tongue, ‘Mingleaba’. She barely beat me (Ok, she killed me with most of the people smiling in return), but what I found fascinating was that no matter how enthusiastic we were in greeting certain individuals, their faces remained looking angry and bitter. Johnny walked us home, but planned to return at 8am to take us to the temples. Tomorrow was his birthday, and he was anxious to go and worship. We went back to the hotel and fell asleep under the protection of the Burmese Government….Ya right, I was more worried in our room than in the streets with the peeps.

Johnny came up early the next morning to show us some religious sanctuaries. A short walk led us to the first…then second and so on it continued. For about 2 hours we hopped between temples seeing the similar gold Buddhas and prayers (it got a little redundant). When enough was enough, we grabbed some lunch then heard some rumors of a ‘Snake Island’!!

Johnny told us stories of massive snakes inhabiting this island only meters away from where we were. Upon hearing such tales, my mind was already planning on how to get there. Johnny kept saying foreigners were prohibited, but if there’s a will, there’s a way right?….so we headed over to the hectic port. Johnny was very hesitant to come with us, but we promised him safety as long as he remained near us (personally I was more concerned about getting caught by the alert officials then by snakes). People here would do anything for a dollar so I thought getting to the island would be a breeze, but apparently the government is so feared, many boat owners denied our request no matter what price we offered. Not giving in easily, eventually we did find someone with enough guts (or to little intelligence) to drop us off after the 2 second trip. We did talk Johnny into coming along (he was terrified).

The tiny island was only inhabited by monks living on the rocky coast (the inland was too dangerous, a good sign!). Some of the monks we talked to confirmed the stories Johnny mentioned to us. As we walked everywhere searching erected temples that dotted the island’s internal jungle in a ghost town-like fashion, nothing scaly appeared. Johnny kept saying our ‘snakeless’ expedition was the result of our good fortune we were blessed with while visiting the temples. Despite my attempt to explain, he never understood why I wanted to catch a snake, which i guess might bewilder many more people than just poor Johnny (It’s the rush folks, in case any of you are wondering).

Snake island was cool. Johnny said we were the first foreigner to ever make it there and it felt scandalous when having to sneak on to the island incognito style. Even though we turned back without spotting a serpent, the island was worth the risk (from the law that is), and an adventure in itself. Hollering over to our boat driver, we snuck back to the city, checked out of the hotel, then checked out of the country.

Burma was entirely unexpected. Even though we were only there for 2 days, I was anxious to leave. Not only do I not like supporting a corrupt government, it’s not a happy atmosphere where the people are repressed by their own leaders. The government is being extremely short sighted. Rather than promoting tourism and catering to travellers (which would bring in crazy revenue, Thailand being an example), they eagerly take what profit there is away from their people leading to a inhospitable ambiance between visitors and locals alike. Michelle and I wanted to see much more of Myanmar, but at the same time I’m fairly confident a similar vibe would resonated throughout the rest of the country. On top of that, I would much rather spend precious days in a more amiable country happy to have us. The stay was short but rich in awareness as it exposed a culture of which I was both unaccustomed to, as well as unprepared to encounter. If they don’t want us, we won’t force it…..back to a country that would love to have our money….Thailand!!

Nothing but ‘Lunacy’ (Full Moon Party) (Aug 26th-31st)

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Back in Bangkok, we were just dropped square in front of Khao San Road from another overnight bus, this one lasting us 11 hours. We went back to our familiar guest house where we paid a couple Baht to shower and clean up. It was about 6 in the morning and I needed a new shirt, so as soon as the street became alive with vendors I made a purchase while Michelle guarded the backpacks. We switched positions, and then Michelle hit the street for a new outfit.

At 8am we were excited for the restaurant at the guest house to open since we had been craving Thai curry ever since Cambodia. “Two orders please,” and when it came out both of us were in Heaven. We dropped off our dirty cloths to get washed and dried by 5pm (luckily, because normally it’s a two day operation), then hit the market/mall (MBK) for some supplies we needed to replace (shaver, belt, yatta, yatta, yatta).

We made it back to the guesthouse to watch ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ by 2 and in my opinion it wasn’t nearly as good as the first two…and that’s not saying much. At 6pm, yet again, we hopped onto ANOTHER overnight bus, this time heading to Surathani, a city way in the south of Thailand. This is our third overnight bus in a row, which may sound bad, but it allows us to kill 2 birds with one stone. You get sleep and transport all in one!

In Surathani we went from the bus to taxi, then taxi to ferry. Finally, after leaving the Yahoos over 1 week (and three countries) ago, we were on our way to reunite in Ko Phang Ngan. Three hours later, after a pit stop in Ko Samui, we propelled our way through the Gulf of Thailand and arrived to our destination.

Prior island insight taught us about taxi prices, so instead we rented 2 motorbikes at only four bucks a piece (for 24 hours). After a brief lunch (more curry) we went to the resort where Shane and Ruthless were residing. “Hello”, and we were all excited with stories and pictures to share with one another. Shane P. and Ruthless rented a motorbike as well, and we decided to head to the northern, more desolate part of the island in search of beautiful vistas.

After a few kilometers on a dirt road, then following unclear signs and indistinguishable trails, we found ourselves on an enormous boulder overlooking the island and the sea from an eagle’s perspective. The wind was firm and steady, so a little unnerving as we crept across a rocky outcrop. The crawl was entirely worth it however, for the view revealed miles and miles of palm trees stretching from inland to the coast, opening up to virgin beach, then turquoise sea all before our eyes. After a few breaths to absorb the beauty, we hit back the trail and returned to the town where together we ate some Greek humus with pitas before calling it a night.

August 28th, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! One of the biggest parties in the world, right up there with New Year’s Eve in Time Square and Marti Gras in New Orleans. We kicked off the day by motorbiking a little more of this surprisingly large island before returning the bikes by the 2pm deadline. With some purchased bottles of Thai liquor, we walked back to the resort to start the fiesta!

Eventually, time ticked away along with some brain cells, and we found ourselves in a taxi heading for the heart of the celebration, the beaches of Hat Rin. It was dark, but the streets were electrified with loud foreigners and Thai vendors cramming the axis-ways to the sand. Music was blasting in all directions, some with reggae vibes but most with a techno beat. As we navigated through the hoards, the beach emerged along with the full moon in all its glory glistening over the glassy sea.

We decided to head over to a corner of the beach where we could overlook the coast from a bar rightly named ‘Mellow Mountain’. You live once right, so I ordered a ‘Special’ (fungus) shake to experience the ambiance from a different perspective! Glow in the dark body paint was passed around and before I knew it, Michelle had turned me into a neon rave machine. I had my chance to repay and gave her cute little spirals along with glowing eyelids. Shane P. and Ruthless also joined the festivities by finger-painting each other to perfection.

When the screaming kicked up a gear with more sweaty partiers, we left the safety of Mellow Mountain for the chaos of the beach. Black lights illuminated the shore and raised staging was placed randomly throughout for the Ravers that really wanted to be noticed. Michelle convinced me a couple times to rock the stage, but we were never successful in dragging along the Yahoos!

It was a blast!!! People of all nationalities gathered here simply to celebrate. The shroom shake never really affected me like I was hoping. People that took it with me would comment on the excessive glowing of trippy colors but all I was feeling was the product of the Thai whiskey, which I can’t complain about!

As we walked/danced through the maze of sweaty bodies, we made it to an area where the sand was roped off and passed out people were dragged in to sleep off their over-indulgences. Probably over 100 bodies littered the sand and they continued to pile in. For the partiers that were less fortunate to make it to this protected zone, any passed out person was fair game to being scavenged. Several times throughout the night you would see people raiding the pockets of an out-cold individual. Everyone is warned to leave valuables at home since pit-pocketing and stealing is ramped.

Shane P. and I needed to take a leak, so we hopped over a sand bank and found a dark place to pee. Ruthless and Michelle waited for us only about 20 meters away, but before we unzipped we noticed we were not alone. This Thai guy, who seemed four feet tall at the time, without warning whacked me on the side of my bicep with a metal pipe!!! (What???) Apparently, he didn’t know how to communicate in any different way how he did not want us there. At first, I didn’t know what was happening because I was in a ‘One Love’ style mood, but when that pipe nailed Shane in the stomach leaving him hunched over and gasping for air I became furious. Ruthless and Michelle heard the commotion and came over to see what was going down. While Shane was retreating, the guy aimed with his pipe for my head which I blocked with my forearm. Not to sound full of myself (which I am, as you all know), I remember looking into this punks eyes and seeing fear. With his weapon just recently exposed, the tiny window was open to brawl in and unleash a (T) storm, but something sympathetic held me back. I turned and left, a part of me questioning if this was the honorable way to end the confrontation, but at the moment I felt like I had nothing to prove to anybody, for I knew inside there was no competition if things were to progress. I caught up to Shane P. and the girls who were just as confused as myself, and we found a place some distance away (back on a packed street) to analyze our injuries.

I couldn’t stop from laughing at the scenario. Shane was making funny comments even though still hunched over and grimacing, while I had a nice souvenir emerging like a mountain on my forearm. For one thing, the party was taken immediately out of us all, and although I was anxious to stay up till sunrise, at this point I was just as content doing it from the beach in front of our resort. After people-watching for a little bit, we piled back into a taxi and around 4am returned home. Michelle and I walked along the shore near the resort and witnessed the emerging sun mark the end of an unbelievably crazy evening that left us with an overwhelming feeling of joviality, despite the stupid little incident that attempted to ruin the night.

After sleeping away part of the next day, I felt my arm throbbing before I even opened my eyes (Awww, poor me). Today’s itinerary….relax! Shane was fine from his run in with metal, and no one seemed to have too terrible a hangover. The Yahoos went to the beach while Michelle and I hit up a Mexican cafe, then checked a couple emails at an ungodly price/minute. We lethargically walked back along the coast and watched the movie ‘Knocked Up’ on Shane’s new IPOD. Eventually, the Yahoos returned and we all re-ventured to Hat Rin (by rented motorbike) to stroll a bit before sitting down and having a nice, relaxing meal. The detoxifying day came to an end when we returned back to our beds and closed our eyes.

I awoke before everyone to a beautiful day with yet another reason to celebrate…….Michelle’s Birthday! I decided I should capitalize on the situation and make the morning as special for her as possible. I snuck out of the room, jumped onto a motorbike (which we still had because of a 24 hour lease), and shot over to the supermarket then fruit stand. At the market I bought different favored yogurts, while at the stand I bought a pineapple, watermelon, and bananas. I hurried home to start slicing and dicing. My brother awoke during my butchery and helped out. Not before long we were singing “Happy Birthday” to the birthday girl while she was still snuggled up in bed. Her face couldn’t hide the surprise and excitement which in turn lit up everyone’s face in the room.

With full and satisfied tummies, on request of the birthday girl, we headed out to ascend the tallest mountain on Ko Phang Ngan. When the mountain was in sight, no longer were Shane and Ruthless in my rear view. Michelle and I turned back to check on what was keeping them. The dirt road was attempting to sabotage the trip to our mountain destination………the Yahoos popped a flat!!

After delaying us a good hour, our goal was finally back on track. We parked our bikes in the shadow of the peak and headed upwards. The trail was small but navigable, passing through tiny streams and towering clumps of bamboo. The going was easy and smooth with the incline gradual and the terrain firm. Despite the ease, we reached a point where enough was enough for Ruthless. The plan was to have a picnic lunch at the summit, but with her whining to return we decided it best just to picnic there (half way), then separate. While Ruthless pouted, refusing to join us, we split up lunch which consisted of roast beef sandwiches (with Dijon mustard), PB & J, and a can of Pringles…mmm mmm good! Succumbing again to Kathleen’s wants, the Yahoos turned back leaving just me, Michelle, and the mountain!

Now at a hasty pace, onward we continued, and a half hour later we found ourselves perched on a boulder at the peak. The view was barricaded by monstrous trees, but the disappointment was replaced by the satisfaction of reaching the top. Spending only a few seconds to come to this realization, we turned back to descend. At a certain point, to mix things up a bit as well as save time (not to mention we had no idea where we now were) we decided to head towards this little village at the bottom, only occasionally visible through the trees. This direction unexpectedly led us to an abandoned cottageesque-type structure on the side of the hill where we uncovered several marijuana plants growing in ‘pots’ (get it). Not spending too much time in association with the contraband, we continued down and about forty minutes later we stood on flat land! We found a road, then followed it to where we had parked our bikes. The time was about 5:45pm, leaving us to race against the setting sun to meet the Yahoos at a beach rightly named ‘Sunset Cove’!

With a few minutes to spare, just enough time to unwind with a glass of red wine for Michelle and a fruity Pina Colada (I know, I know) for myself, we reunited with Shane and Ruthless to watch the sun sink into the ocean. As far as beauty is concerned, the colors and patterns of the sky were not the most stunning, but the ambiance of the entire day came through to create a gorgeous evening.

After an hour or two of reclined resting, back on our bikes we went in search for dinner. Michelle was craving Mexican, but we had no idea if that existed on this side of the island. Her birthday luck must have came through, because only about 300 meters down the street we discovered an international restaurant with 2 full menu pages dedicated to south of the border cuisine. We split fajitas, quesadillas, empanadas, chips and salsa, tacos, and everything else that fits the stereotypical expectation. The food was delicious and Michelle left Ko Phang Ngan, drifting away to a land of euphoria! Still on Cloud 9, we began the hour long drive home in the tranquil, quiet darkness of this part of the island…till half way when we found ourselves making a detour in the direction of Hat Rin. Why you ask??? How about for a little ink…..I’ll leave it at that!!

With only a tiny amount of sleep, but a lot of memories, the next morning was time to leave the island. We boarded a truck to the port, then sat in the ferry. Back to Surathani all four of us went, but for the Yahoos, this was the final chapter of their journey. They were anxious to re-emerge into their former lives while Michelle and I were as excited as always to continue ‘living’ ours. At Surathani we parted ways with hugs and kisses, leaving them waiting for their bus to Bangkok while our taxi-bus took us to the town’s local bus station. The time with the Yahoos sometimes oscillated up and down, but always ended on the up! Despite our very different views of what this vacation was about, we still managed to incorporate everyones interests into the itinerary. Ko Phang Ngan was a great setting for our final fling together; Kathleen got to pet her elephant, Shane got to bask on the sand, and we all got to experience the World’s largest beach party. From Palau to Thailand, and literally every country in between, we created shared memories that I for one know will last with me forever. In Palau Kathleen swam across a tiger shark-infested channel (barely), wile Shane squished a developed duck egg in between his teeth in the Philippines. It’s events like these, and the idea of looking back on them sometime in the future, that saddens my soul with tears. I have come to the understanding some time ago about how short life is. It will be just a blink from now when I can only see my brother looking like a bad-ass on a motorcycle from a photo album or deep within my memories. We are all growing up and it’s one force we can’t fight. I truly appreciate the opportunity I have to be out here, living the dream, but it saddens me to think this ‘dream’, my life, will one day be nothing more than an adventure tale told by an old man to his grandchildren.

Enough with the sob story Travis, you have much more life still in you. Get out there and orchestrate some amazing chapters to your book of life. Create something worth reading about, worth sharing with friends, family, and strangers alike. But most of all, produce a story so intriguing that you yourself will be satisfied with long after your fairytale making days are over.

Enough said…..it’s time to Rock and Roll…………….To Myanmar we GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No Money For Lao-Lao!! (Aug 21st – 25th)

Friday, September 14th, 2007

Beep……Beep……Beep! The alarm to the watch went off at 4:30am and after a long nights sleep we awoke refreshed despite the wee hour. By 5 we were walking the short distance to the bus station. Michelle and I reunited with Claire, Helen, and Maryanne who were already starring at our bus with puzzled looks!

First of all it was a mini-bus (meaning more like a van in this part of the world), normally no big deal, but the entire back half of this thing was literally stacked from top to bottom with cargo crates and enormous bags of who knows what. Not only the back, but racked on top and wedged under every seat there was also miscellaneous supplies crammed in. Personally, I had what felt like potatoes condemning me to sit with my knees up near my chin. Despite my discomfort, oddly I had one of the most comfortable positions while the other 27 passengers were sardined into the remaining 11 seats!!!!!!!!!!!! Some where standing with their heads in awkward angles at war with the ceiling while others had to sit on the lap of someone snug into a crouched position. One guy was even sitting in the open window with his feet dangling inside, the rest of his body exposed to the elements (and I mean elements with crazy dust then torrential rain). For me, I had one way to sit in and in that mold I had to remain for get this, an 11 hour journey! Michelle, who was wedged in the back (middle really because of all the crap) constantly had boulder-size bags of (perhaps) clothing ram her forward with each confrontation between tire and pothole (and that means constantly). This bus on the moon would have yielded a smoother ride. Fortunately, everyone had a smile, especially when the bag of Lao-Lao (Laoan Rice Wine) was passed between foreigners and locals alike (9 foreigners and 19 locals)!

After penetrating the Laoan/Vietnamese border, several rivers began criss-crossing the road, and for many of them we had to disembark the vehicle. One river caused the bus to stall out in the viscous mud, while a much different rocky river bed tilted the top heavy jalopy (because of all the gear strapped to the roof) onto 2 wheels in a pendulating motion I thought for sure would lead to searching down stream for lost luggage. One particular pot hole managed to knock off our spare tire which resulted in an additional pit-stop lasting over an hour in the intense, shade deprived heat.

By 5:30pm, with everyone’s limbs in a neurapraxic state, we finally approached the last of a maze of rivers where we gladly traded the mini-bus for a boat to take us to the town of Muang Khua on the adjacent bank. With monsoon season about to unleash, we booked it to a guest house where a room for rent was only 16,000 Kip, that’s less than $2 (9,000 Kip = $1)!!!

From the bus ride over, we already knew Lao was light years apart from the rest of South East Asia we visited so far. Electricity for the entire little town shut off at 7pm. In addition, the border crossing we chose recently opened up to foreigners in May, so only a few travellers have entered into Lao in this region of the country (The South Africans we were with where actually the first Africans to ever cross). This meant the villagers weren’t dependent or adapted to tourism yet, allowing for a very tranquil and relaxing environment. All 9 of us foreigners (3 English, 2 French, 2 African, and 2 Americans (us!!)) decided to reunite for dinner at a tiny riverside ‘restaurant’ (basically someone’s house, and the only place to eat at that) where Michelle and I shared an order of Lap-Lap with sticky rice. Lap-Lap, Lao’s signature dish, is a spicy mixture of ground meat chock-full with herbs. You can get it with chicken, pork, or fish but beef is the most traditional. It lived up to it’s depiction of being spicy, but was served at a room temperature when I was hoping for a more filling, warm meal. Plus, there was an over-whelming cilantro type flavor that left me longing Thai-curry instead of Lao cuisine. The sticky rice needs no introduction and Lao custom is to grab out chunks from a communal pot with your hands, roll it into a ball, then combine with a pinch of Lap-Lap and enjoy. Nonetheless, it was a satisfying meal and fun evening, but it was much more money than we expected! ATMs we found out where only available in Lao’s capital of Vientiane (a 3 days journey) and we literally only had about five more dollars in Kip. it was odd that Lao offers such cheap rates for rooms ($2) but about $4 per dinner plate. Thailand for instance, you can get a bowl of curry for about 50 Baht, that’s $1.50. We basically were already running on empty!

Back in our room I went out to use the shared bathroom and guess what I found? no, seriously…..Guess! Ok, I’ll give you a hint (or just the answer), it was a huge Tokay Gecko!!! not giving this guy any chance of escape, I flung out my hand like lightning to a keyed kite and captured the orange spotted, foot long lizard. After 8,000 pictures and just as many smiles of happiness, I released the little guy back to his natural environment, the wall! Finally, a Tokay Gecko, now if only I can scratch the Reticulated Python off the list. I’m workin’ on it guys, give me a break here!

Early next morning I went out and bargained with some boat owners using hand gestures and funny faces to see how cheap I could get five of us down river to Nong Khiaw. Michelle searched for a place to exchange some miscellaneous moneys she had (like Malayan Ringits and extra Baht) but returned with the same useless papers. Claire, Maryanne, and Helen were interested in going down river as well, and after going back and forth with a certain boat driver for at least 10 minutes, I got him from 800,000 to 500,000 Kip. Between five of us, that’s about $10 a piece, which seemed still like a lot for the 4 hour boat ride. Being more money then we had, Helen let us borrow some cash which was extremely nice of her. Unfortunately however, we now found ourselves chained to the group until perhaps Luang Probang (where there is word you can do cash advances on credit cards at a certain guest house…cross your fingers).

The boat ride was indescribable. The terrain made the Amazon look like a homogeneous desert. The towering cliffs shrouded in the clouds were covered in foliage with all different hues of green. Occasionally we would be greeted by waves from children playing as we passed unexposed villages perched on the hillsides, while the mostly abandoned river banks denizened herds of wild water buffalo bathing in mud. The sun shone through the collage of clouds creating spots of shimmering red water radiating as we splashed through. Lao to me had the most beautiful landscape so far in Asia. Away from the heavily deforested areas, there were Kodak moments in every direction. I felt so privileged to be amalgamated in such a majestic place!

Four hours later just as promised, we made it to Nong Khiaw. This town was slightly bigger than our village stay the night before and was equipped with a mini-bus station to boot (I’ve never used such a Canadian expression). We checked the departure times for tomorrow to Luang Probang (which we realized ran basically every hour), then found Sunset Guest house for another $2 a night room. To the bill I also had to pay for some laundry I dropped off since my cloths were beginning to wreak worse than the Manila Bay Front. When everyone was settled, Michelle, Claire, Maryanne, and I went for a walk down a nestled road between sunlit peaks and babbling creeks flowing through rice paddies. While sharing the pavement with a herd of 7 buffalo tended by 1 ten year old boy, we heard what sounded like a waterfall coming from behind a wall of jungle trees. We all went to interrogate the interior and Claire decided to capitalize on the opportunity and pop a squat. To make a short story long, this place immediately brought back nightmares of Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam because the ground became squirming with relentless, blood-thirsty leeches! Just as I felt one of the little vampires attach to my ankle, I heard a load shriek soon followed by more repetitive screams as Clair hobbled back to the road holding up her pants! Maryanne decided to join the commotion by freaking out as well and when calm Michelle and I (all to familiar with these devils) returned to the road it humorously looked like the two women where hopping around on hot coals! Giving them a few minutes to recollect their nerves and for us to stop laughing, we walked back to our guesthouses to call it a night. Having only borrowed 100,000 Kip, we didn’t have enough money to buy dinner, so rather than paying for a meal we picked a couple Pamalos (enormous looking grapefruit type citrus) to eat. On semi-empty stomachs we fell asleep under mosquito netting in another hidden and enchanting little Laoan Village.

We slowly awakened (Since the Africans wanted to take the 11am bus) and peacefully packed up our stuff, then bought sticky rice with the few remaining kip (pennies) we had. The other three soon joined and we hopped into another crowded public transportation vehicle. This time it was more of a pickup truck with modified benches stretching towards the tail gate, with a metal room on top where our luggage was roped. Off to Luang Probang we went, now me with the unlucky seat as I was stuck sitting on an old collapsing box. Unable to see out the side due to the overcrowding, time dripped away slowly and the four hour trip seemed to last longer than watching the movie Titanic with a girl you don’t even like!

Finally, in Luang Probang we tuk-tuked to a guest house where the three ladies planned to stay allowing Michelle and I a place to drop off our backpacks for a few hours. We all started walking the foreign-friendly town and eventually (thank goodness) came to a cash advance office where we were able to gratefully repay Helen. This meant no more ‘leeching’ (get it….. ya, lame I know) off the Africans and time to blaze off for our own. We exchanged hugs and emails, then detached from our parasitic ways, rediscovering a sense of freedom we never want to sacrifice again.

With two hours to spare, before an overnight bus would escort us to the Laoan capital, we ate our first independent meal by splurging on some Laoan Curry (which ended up having a strong Indian influence (lacking coconut)). Afterwards we rented a tuk-tuk driver to taxi us around for the remaining hour which turned into nothing more than a photographic safari to hunt the elusive orange monks that inhabit the streets and temples. After taking some award-winning photos, we picked up our backpacks and were dropped off at the bus station. We bought a few snacks, then boarded the double-decker as the sun started to set on our approaching overnight jaunt.

Six am arrived sooner than expected since we awoke to the clamoring of people frantic to depart the bus. We rolled out the door, still with half open eyes, and leaped into another tuk-tuk to take us to the central area. There, taking the recommendation of three English girls traveling during their gap year (year between high school and college), we planned to drop off our packs at a nearby guesthouse and depart for Bangkok on another overnight bus leaving later that afternoon. This was perfect, now we basically had the whole day to explore Vientiane!

We started our discovery at a delicious little bakery where we ordered a traditional Laoan breakfast consisting of Keish, Croissants, and Coffee (can you sense a hint of French colonization?). Not in any hurry, we began strolling the sidewalks passing packs of street dogs and noticed the hierarchy amongst the individuals within the group. After using the internet and stalking more monks in their natural habitat, we ate lunch at an unbelievably delicious vegetarian buffet.

Vientiane was definitely the smallest capital I had ever been too, even smaller than a capital of a U.S.A state. It was fairly clean and had a nice feel, but didn’t have anything scream out uniqueness. Manila, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Phenom Phen were rich in flavor and truly a treat to roam through, while Vientiane seemed bland in comparison. Lao is definitely worth visiting in my opinion, but more for its back country and villages. Get outside the capital and be prepared for spectacular scenery and surreal smiles. Unfortunately, with the deadline of meeting my brother and Ruthless down in Southern Thailand by Aug 28th, our time in Lao was severely cut short. However, in our four days of traveling across the country we made good friends and really experienced a glimpse into what Laoan life is like. The food, landscape, customs, and character were exposed before our curious eyes that left us a strong feeling of the country’s identity. We boarded our overnight bus to Bangkok and bid farewell to the lovely country of Lao!

Nothin’ Wrong in the Viet-Cong (Aug 16th-21st)

Friday, September 7th, 2007

With a couple of bottles of Vodka, to crunk it up to party train status, we boarded the locomotive at 4am in the morning. Michelle and I had hardly any sleep that night, since we were searching for fruit was three Vietnamese girls we befriended far after every store and stand closed down. We did complete our mission however, and the fruits were money since the food on the train was worse than the mush served in a POW camp.

Each room on the train had six beds, three per side, bunked up. Even though the mattresses were less than an inch thick, they were surprisingly comfortable. I fell asleep fast, and when I awoke I gazed out the window at the beautiful Vietnamese countryside. Green mountains framed the landscape, occasionally giving way to hidden beaches of golden sand. Time elapsed faster than expected, and before I knew it, I was watching the day turn to night right before my eyes.

Night time…..sounds like a good enough reason to party to me! We began by playing a card/drinking game that eventually led us to the food cart. There we made more Vietnamese pals who were more than happy to help share some of the Vodka. Get this though! Shane, who was sitting near the window, was talking on a girl’s cell phone to someone who spoke no English (it was a joke). Anyway, I soon yelled “Shane…Look Out!!” just as this one guy slid open the window and reached in to snatch the phone from Shane’s hand. Mighty Shane P. did not relinquish the mobile, while the thief failed then flailed from the train. Mission unsuccessful for the un-so-smooth criminal, but exciting for us all. In retrospect, it was a little unnerving seeing what lengths some people will go to make a buck.

Afterwards, Shane P. and I ran up and down the halls of the train for no apparent reason, then called it a night as we fell asleep to the constant, steady rocking.

The next morning I awoke at around 9 with only about an hour left in the voyage. When the train finally did stop, we crawled out and found a taxi to take us to the bus station. The plan was to go to Halong Bay from Hanoi by bus, but before we knew it the taxi car was brining us there himself. Two hours later, we arrived and boarded a ferry immediately for Cat Ba Island. Another 3 hours past that, floating over nasty brownish water, we could see Cat Ba in the distance. Halong bay was beautiful, with giant rock islands shooting from the sea, but not nearly as picturesque as Palau. The water was much dirtier and the air was more polluted from near by Hanoi. Cat Ba is the largest island in the bay and has a little town situated right on the sea.

We got off the boat and found a hotel. We reserved two rooms for five bucks a piece and then ordered some fish from the nearby restaurant, the Bamboo Hut. Once again, the seafood was not worth comparing to my former island nation, but relatively delicious I’m sure for South East Asia. We used the slowest internet connection on the island, then Shane P. and Ruthless went to sleep while Michelle and I searched the streets for some Tokay Geckos. We gave up early due to sheer exhaustion from all the traveling, but mark my words; by the end of this trip I’ll have captured one of these little devils!!

In the peak of monsoon season, we awoke to a gorgeous day on Cat Ba. We all went out for breakfast while deciding on the days activities. Shane P. and Ruthless wanted to relax on a beach while Michelle and I thought it’d be a blast to explore the island by motorbike. We rented 2 crotch rockets, then split ways with the Yahoos for an adventure all of its own.

After riding for hours across the western side of the huge island, we headed east towards Cat Ba National Park. This island is drop dead stunning. The green mountains shoot out of the land like randomly assorted gum drops. To capture the nicest view, we decided to try and ascend the tallest ‘gum drop’ we could find! When the rock was within our grasp, we parked our bikes down a little dirt trail, then blazed to the start of the steep slope. One foot above the other, literally, we faced climbing vertical cliffs, jumping across deep, unforgiving ravines, and crawling under dense, thick, spiny bamboo. The entire terrain was covered in razor sharp limestone (that, I can compare to Palau), and lose rocks were all too common. Finally, about 2.5 hours later, I reached the summit! When I peaked over a cliff side to see where Michelle was, I freaked out one of the rarest animals in the World, the Cat Ba Langur! It looked somewhat like a Lemur as it bounced through the trees after seeing such an enormously sweaty primate (Me!). All this was in a matter of milliseconds, so I wasn’t able to snap a photo. Oh well, I was one of the very few who had ever caught a glimpse of the illusive creature.

Michelle soon crawled up and we enjoyed the peak with lots of pictures. The beautiful island was even more gorgeous from high above all. The difficult climb was well worth this reward, however, feeling rushed by the idea of being stuck on the side of a cliff in the dark, we were pushed to leave such a breathtaking locale. Plus, I was thirstier then ever (and I mean ever!).

The way down was much harder than the way up, not so much in level of difficulty but rather in finding the most optimal direction possible. See, the direction up was simply finding the easiest route going upwards. Going down, we not only needed to descend, but also in the area of where we thought our motorbikes should be. Michelle started taking one route down, which was easier to traverse, however was not heading in the right direction. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded, but I wanted to get down fast for I could feel dehydration approaching, something I’ve never really experienced. After finally deciding as a group to go ahead and aim straight down for the bikes, we soon found ourselves facing three major drops before flat land. One required leaping to a tree to climb down, while the other two were a mixture of rock holds and vines. Unbelievably, fortunately, and most of all… ‘surprisingly’, when we survived the descent, we ended up right near our path we chose to first climb up the mountain. A few minutes later we were back at our bikes…….barely!

I tried to get on the bike and immediately my leg cramped up. I couldn’t hold it in the riding position without the muscles knotting up like hairs in a dread lock. After trying a few times, I finally got to the point where the eagerness to get the hell out of there surpassed any dismay I was encountering. A short ride away, we stopped at the local convenient store for two big bottles of water that I pretty much finished on my own. We assessed each others bodies and admired several scrapes, cuts, and bruises from the day’s expedition! I don’t know what threw me into such a spell of dehydration, but whatever it was, I’ll try and avoid for my next adventure! We hopped back on our bikes and literally rode off into the sunset!

Back in town, we met up with the Yahoo’s for dinner. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity for food gave us time to talk about the day’s events with each other. It sounded like Shane and Ruthless did exactly what they wanted to do, relax on a beautiful beach……wonderful! We ate up, then used the internet for a bit. We considered the idea of exploring a near by cave with some flashlights, but everyone was so beat, the only thing we wanted to find was the direction to our rooms. While watching a movie in our fully equipped, TV included room (always a treat on our budget), we fell asleep after yet another fairy-tail day!

After breakfast with Shane and Ruthless, we planned to separate for a bit. Michelle and I really wanted to see Laos (pronounced Lao it turns out), while the Yahoos wanted to relax a little more on Cat Ba before flying to Ko Phang Ngan (a small island in the gulf of Thailand) where we would eventually reunite for the “Full Moon Party”! We bought tickets for the ferry, said our good-byes, then scooted off onto the boat aimed back for the port city of Haiphong.

From Haiphong, we jumped on a bus immediately for Hanoi, and upon arriving back in the capital we searched high and low for bus times heading anywhere in Lao’s direction. Bien Dien Phu, where a mighty battle between the French and Vietnamese took place, became our destination city to the north. It was now around 5pm, and the next bus planned to leave at 3am. Perfect! This allowed us plenty of time to explore the city. We took motorbikes to an area called the ‘Old Quarter’ that had several guesthouses and restaurants. We dropped off our bags for a few hundred ‘Dong’ (16,000 =1$) then walked around enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds.

Hanoi was a beautiful city (third world still of course), and we found a delicious little restaurant where we perched on a balcony overlooking a quiet street. We were able to unwind a bit before strolling around a central lake which was well catered to pedestrian traffic. Around 10pm we stopped for a cocktail at the cutest little café and split some raspberry ice-cream. After two more hours of urban exploration, our eyelids started to get heavy so we returned for our backpacks, then motorbike taxied to the bus station. It was about 1am when we fell asleep on the filthy floor of the dirty terminal, but even laying on a bed of rats wouldn’t have kept us awake. We were out immediately!

At 3am I awoke (Thank goodness, because Michelle tried to sabotage the group (us) by shutting off her watch alarm to get some more sleep), and found the mini bus getting ready to go. I woke up Michelle and we piled inside. Very speedily, every seat of this vehicle became full and apparently the driver did not want to ‘waste’ fuel on air-conditioning. The ’13 HOUR’ ride definitely felt like 13 freakin hours, and I guess this was worse then sleeping on a bed of rats because we couldn’t’ sleep a wink! Bittersweetly, we did get to see some amazing beauty passing through the countryside (Mountains and Rice Paddies), but nothing was sweeter than when we finally arrived. At last, at 4pm we gladly slithered from our imprinted seats. I felt more free than the Vietnamese did after winning the battle fought right in this very city! We instantly found out times for the next day’s bus departures into Lao (5:30am) then hurried into a guest house to unwind. We were exhausted, but wanted to grab a bite to eat before calling it a day. We walked around taking in the town’s sights and met two female white South Africans (probably late 20s) traveling along with an English Woman (early 40s) who gave us directions to a near by restaurant. They were heading to the exact same place (both tomorrow to Lao and tonight, the restaurant), so we joined them for dinner!

After dinner, we parted ways from our new friends for the evening and headed back to the guest house. Bien Dien Phu was a nice town, but didn’t have any particular draw to attract non-french foreigners (there were hardly any of any nationality). It was a simple, basic Vietnamese village. The whole way back to our room we debated if we should withdraw more money from the ATM (that they had suprisingly) before going into Lao. Against better judgment, we decided to wing it with what we had (which wasn’t very much, but definitely very stupid)!! Imagine, going into the least developed South East Asian country with basically only credit and debit cards…..Ha, you won’t have to imagine too hard…just get ready to read the next blog entry!!! See you in Lao!

More Bloodloss in Vietnam (Aug 10th – Aug 16th)

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

With visas already in pocket, we left the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh, by bus to the old capital of the Vietnamese south, Saigon! Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) is exactly as I imagined when I close my eyes. The women all wear traditional round straw farm hats even while hustling and bustling the hectic city. There were people hollering from all directions to either come in to their restaurants, get tailored for a suit, or to get massages. We got a cheap guest house room for 7$ then went back into the circus to find some dinner. We picked a very local street side restaurant and had to point and chose from the undecipherable Vietnamese menu. We had some nice traditional music to go along with our curbside ethnic meal. The food is bland when compared to Thai and Cambodian cuisine. It’s much less spicy and leaves an unsatisfied feeling after eating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, just not as rich as the other countries thus far.

After dinner, Michelle and I headed out to buy some supplies for a camping trip we planned on doing the following day. It was around 9pm when we left Shane P. and Ruthless and started out in one direction. Not before long, we had no idea where we were. More importantly, we had no idea where we wanted to return too. We walked for two more hours looking for something familiar (12 o’clock am now) before succumbing to a taxi driver and trying to translate where we needed to go. We used words like foreigner and white person to see if he could take us back to a touristy area we passed by earlier in the evening. He understood nothing, but we had fun nonetheless seeing Saigon at night as we looked for recognizable features. Two cab rides and one scam later, we thankfully made our way back to the hotel and crashed.

The next morning we bused it up to Cat Tien. The goal was to trek Cat Tien national park, but when we arrived at the town of Cat Tien at around 4:30pm, we realized the park entrance is far from the city. Backtracking is not usually a good thing, but it’s what we had to do to enter the jungle. We slept for the evening, then the following morning mini bused it to Tan Phu, the gate way to the park.

I usually can keep my temper when involved with strangers, but when we got off the bus in Tan Phu, immediately we were marked by motor bikers. See, a popular transportation method is to jump on the back of a motorbike. Well, the second this group saw us leave the bus, they were on like flies on rice. We needed motorbikes, but these guys wanted to rip us off. Did we have other options? I set to find out! No matter where we walked to, the same ‘gang’ would follow. No other motor biker would take us in fear of the gang, that already had us selected. We soon found a truck that could have taken us, but as he was backing up, the gang leader had a short discussion that scared the driver into no longer wanting to take us. I realize this is how business is done here, but in my head I was determined to get into the park by an option different than these bullies, so we developed a plan! Shane and Michelle distracted them, while Ruthless and I split away and got some different drivers. We then switched seats with Shane and Michelle while I ran and got two more bikes with drivers. To make a short story long, we found an alternative that didn’t involve paying the bullies that threatened to beat up any person nice enough to want to help us!

The motorbike voyage (40 min) brought us to the entrance of the park, almost! First, we had to take a small boat to the other side of a very muddy river. Cat Tien National Park has a lot to offer, on paper. Anything from Tigers and Elephants, to the rare Javan Rhino and Asiatic Leopard. Personally, I just wanted some big pythons. We never found any ranger in the headquarters, so we took some pictures of a map (for our map) and headed off.

We first started down a dirt road and encountered monkeys. They were the same species we saw at the temples of Cambodia, Crab Eating Macaques. They were very territorial and the male came down to keep us out of the trees. As we continued we caught two yellow and black water looking snakes, of which species I have no idea. They were extremely docile, but because of the uncertainty, I handled them with caution. From the road, we off a on a trail heading for crocodile lake. We caught a really neat looking lizard, but after that things started to suck…..literally!!! This trail (as all trails in this jungle) was infested with land leeches. A simple roll up of the pants would reveal handfuls of these slimy fellows. Personally, I didn’t mind them that much, I mean they don’t transfer diseases like mosquitoes or ticks, and you can’t feel them unlike a wasp or spider. However, this optimistic view wasn’t shared by everyone. Ruthless was repulsed by these little dudes drinking her dry. Almost to the point of a nervous breakdown, we had to get up camp fast to get her off the ground.

We found the perfect place for our hammocks, under probably the biggest tree in the forest. It’s root structure was large enough to dwarf an elephant! We set up camp, ate some tuna and yogurt we brought (didn’t have too many options), then as the sun was setting Michelle and I went for a night trek. Ruthless and Shane P. opted to stay leech free in the hammocks.

I expected way more than we uncovered while searching the rain forest floor in the dark. For about 4 hours we flash lighted the jungle and uncovered only a gecko, centipede (really large might I add, about 10 inches), a couple dull spiders, and 2 big millipedes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feeling of exploring the nocturnal forest, but I really was hoping to see some creatures. With so much potential, I felt a little unfortunate with the results.

The next morning we broke down camp and had some yogurt before setting off. Ruthless and Shane P. couldn’t deal with leeches, so the plan was to split up, them turning back while we continue our trek forward. After 10 minutes of parting ways, we started hearing ‘Travis’ being yelled through the trees. Apparently, they became worried about becoming lost and thought splitting up was a bad idea(even though the main road was only 30 minutes walk on a well groomed trail). Personally, I was a little disappointed to reunite with them, since the trek ahead was going to be difficult and I knew they were not going to be whole-heartily for it. Sadly, it turns out I was right.

We eventually made it to the park headquarters deep in the forest where we had to cross a lake to get to the trail at the other side. This definitely was a stopping point that gave Ruthless an opportunity to express how badly she wanted to do nothing but return back immediately. Michelle and I really wanted to continue, but splitting up at this point was no longer a wise decision. In addition, we both knew if we were all to continue, the strenuous conditions would have made certain people completely crack, making it horrible for everyone else. Unfortunately, after paddling a canoe throgh barbed, water-tolerant bamboo, against our selfish wishes, we turned back from the land of wild elephants and tigers for the sake of the group. My dreams of finding a large python will have to be postponed till I find myself with people only as enthusiastic as myself venturing into the misty mountains of Borneo! I think that may be my destiny!

After practically running out of the forest the way we came and motorbiking back to Tan Phu, we crashed at a hotel (that was watching our packs during the hike) for the evening. The next morning (with legs marked dotted red from leeches), we bused up to Da Lat, meaning the city of ‘Eternal Springs’. We rented a cheap room and found a place to eat. The city was high in the mountains and was chilly (60 F) in climate. It reminded me of Baguio in the Philippines, and after drinking some fresh local coffee we strolled a night bizarre amongst only Vietnamese. It was a beautiful and tranquil city perched high in the mountains.

We woke early the next day and rented some motorbikes. The goal was the reach Pangour Waterfall about 60km away. With only an idea of its location, but with the knowledge of how to say its name in Vietnamese, we headed south on highway 20. After stopping every so often asking directions, we found ourselves on a dirt road off the highway. I was driving with Michelle holding on, while Shane and Ruthless were on the other bike. Seven K’s down the winding road we arrived at the spectacular falls. Water was pouring off the entire face of an extremely wide cliff. The rocky backdrop of red stone really made for an awesome sight. After a beautiful Kodak moment we hopped on our hogs and rolled back to Da Lat. We checked out of the hotel and found a bus for Nha Trang (a city along the rail road that connects Hanoi (the capital) to Saigon. The plan was to catch an overnight train and reach the capital far in the North 30 hours later. And that’s what we did!

Angkor-WHAT ???? (Aug 7th – 10th)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

A six hour rice paddy passing bus ride took us from the beaches of Sihnoukville (finally) to Phenom Penh. Immediately on arrival the most aggressive of all peoples encountered so far, surrounded and hassled us to use their services. I thought it was funny, but Ruthless started feeling claustrophobic. She lost her temper, Oh Ruthless we love you! We decided to leave the capital of Cambodia ASAP. We ended up choosing a taxi to take us north to Kompong Chhang. The public transportation system shuts down early since they don’t like driving on their dangerous roads by dark. At about 8 o’clock we made it to a hotel costing 8 bucks, then set out in search for some food!

Finally, we were out in real Cambodia. The people here, especially the children, acted like they had never seen a white person before, and some maybe hadn’t. We try to learn the words ‘Hello’ and ‘Friend’ for every country we visit, and here we were greeted with the same chant of “Su’sidae Pu’ma” like we were strolling down the street in a parade!

We found a small night bizarre and Shane and I had some basic noodles with a sweet and spicy broth. I saw something (worm I think) moving in a piece of the chicken, so I didn’t eat the chunks of meat. Shane hardly ate any. Afterwards, he and Ruthless returned to the hotel while Michelle and I strolled around the dark town. For the longest time we were followed by the cutest little kitten (we named Trip) that we were really close to adopting for the evening. At the last moment, the little cat ditched us, fortunately. What a rambunctious little devil it was! We returned home and went to sleep!

The following day we bused from Kompong Chhang to Siphonia (a 4 hour trip) then hopped in the back of a loaded pickup truck (local style) in the direction of Siem Reap. This was actually an awesome journey. Nuzzling into a comfortable position amongst the cargo, we were able to catch a beautiful sunset while flying through the Cambodian Countryside. The temperature was perfect, probably in the low 70’s F. It was the 4 of us, with 3 Cambodian guys, but everything turned from relaxed beauty to paranoid excitement when we realized the cargo we were hauling was cocaine!

Nothing really amounted of this, for as soon as we discovered its contents, we were being dropped off at a guest house in Siem Reap. It now made sense why we traveled near the speed of light, and why the two Cambodians sitting in the back with us were constantly surveying the landscape. It could have been a sticky situation, but fortunately they thought we were some pretty cool dudes.

At the D&D guesthouse (6$ per room) we cleaned up before grabbing some dinner at the strip. There was a very touristy road not far from our stay where numerous restaurants and clubs were situated. Addictively, at a restaurant we found I had to order more Amok (Cambodia’s style of coconut curry), and it satiated the craving just as desired.

The next day we rented bicycles to peddle to the ancient Angkors (Temples). Near Siem Reap there are more than a dozen awe inspiring temples built back before London was even a city. The bike ride was gorgeous! It took us probably an hour to get to Angkor Wat while passing Lotus Flower swamps and a huge flock of roosting giant fruit bats. Angkor Wat was everything I expected and more. The restrictions on exploring the grounds were lax to say the least. Personally, I liked that, but I’m sure as more and more people visit, they will need to get stricter with regulations. Anyway, we climbed the ruins and took some beautiful pictures. The intricacy of each massive stone, along with their arrangement and pattern was remarkable. The sheer size of the temple was breathtaking, towering over the jungle that once consumed it in mystery. Angkor Wat is actually the largest religiously based structure in the world.

Upon entrance, some photogenic monkeys wee more than happy to threaten us with some big canines. While taking pictures, one even climbed upon my bike and bit a chunk out of my seat. One monkey attempted to steel a bottle of water from Ruthless. Those foolish monkeys!

For the rest of the day we traveled to and from by bicycle between temples. Personally, my favorite Angkor was Ta Prom, which was left in the process of being engulfed by the jungle! Huge trees sent roots snaking all amongst the stone of the ruins. These towering trees were the highlight for me. They were indescribable in size and root structure. Vines and moss also smothered the climbing roots with beautiful shades of green. Angkor was indeed a spiritual place which left me in a meditative mode only comparable to the feeling I received from Macchu Picchu!

We rode our bikes back to the guest house and relaxed for a bit taking in the day’s activities. Eventually we went out for dinner, than planned to depart the city in the morning. Even though Angkor is Cambodia’s main draw, the grandeur is definitely worth visiting. The temple ruins left me feeling not only in awe of human capabilities, but in amazement of the power of nature in reclaiming its property. What an unbelievable treasure we were all fortunate to encounter. Now it’s time to visit a country many Americans were not as enthusiastic to visit, Vietnam!!

City of Sin…Sihnoukville, Cambodia! (August 2nd-7th)

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007
We arrived by ferry from Ko Chang to Trat at around 8:30pm.  No more buses were departing the city, so we crashed in a cheap hotel (5 bucks) and had some Phat-thai from a night bizarre next door.  Delicious!!!   We even dipped some fondue for desert! 
Next morning we pounced on a bus heading for Cambodia.  We pulled into the border crossing at around 2pm and got visas upon entry.  A fellow traveller clinged onto us during the bus ride since she was nervous about entering the country alone.  She was probably in her early thirties, from Belgium, and apparently had been mugged the last time she entered Cambodia.  She was on her way to Sihnoukville and told us stories of the town’s beauty, so not before long, we were all in agreement about our next destination.  ‘Sin’ville’ it was!
A taxi from the border took us to a tourist trap style bus station (not the local one) where all the tourists were being ripped off.  We, being Michelle and I, really bargained like crazy to get the price down, but were eventually so drained we gave in to the 16$ per person price to get down to Sihnoukville by minibus.  I’m sure there was a local bus station somewhere, but no local taxi’s would come to this sketchy corner except the ones in on the deal.  In addition, 3 Canadian guys, Mike, Jessie, and Ben, who travelled with us to Sville were royally ripped off by trying to exchange some Dollars to Real (Cambodian Money).  You definitely have to have your wits about you, cause these people know how to take advantage of the careless travellor.
  
The bus to Sville involved 4 ferries across beautiful rivers since the roads were patchy and incomplete.  At times, we weren’t sure the bus would make it through knee high thick, wet sludgy mud.  Fortunately, 6 hours later we arrived.  Taking the advise of an Australian we met back in Trat, we (being us 4 Americans, 3 Canadians, and the 1 Belgium) rented rooms at Chan Guest House.  And well my friends, this is where Sinville starts to get interesting!
It was late when we arrived, and we all were a little hungry.  The eight of us went out to a 7-11 type store to first buy some liquor.  The girls (Michelle and Ruthless) purchased a bottle of white wine, while us manly men got a bottle of vodka and a 750ml of cheap local crap that tasted like Sambuca (If you don’t know the taste, don’t try it …..if you do know what it tastes like and enjoy it, something is wrong with you). 
We brought all our liquor into the restaurant and ordered some dinner.  No one had a problem with it and we happily ate and drank.  The general manager sat down with us along with a couple other employees.  Personally, the liquor was hitting me hard, abnormally hard, and on top of that I was cleaning up everyone’s plate, I don’t know why (I couldn’t get full).  I was setting myself up for a horrible evening.  Not only myself, but the GM got smashed fast as well, which was very entertaining.  We definitely had the happening table, and sat there well after they shut the doors.  It was a good time, but only the beginning to a long evening…for most! 
After the restaurant, we went to a bar.  I don’t remember much about this place except really starting to feel sick.  So sick, Michelle walked me home (Ya, pathetic I know, I felt like a failure to USA in front of the Canadians, but more importantly a loser to myself).
Sometime during the walk home, I remember Michelle and I went Salsa Dancing at a beach bar, but it was shortlived and felt more like a dream in my hazy and nearly unconscious state of mind. 
Immediately at home I crashed dead, I think I had food and alcohol poisoning combined (If possible).  Definitely not a good combination!  Michelle went back out, and the stories I heard the next morning about that night made me green with envy.  Apparently, at the bar, strangers would constantly buy them rounds of drinks and offer them endless amounts of ganja.  As the story goes, they partied all night long till everyone was in my condition.  I definitely felt like the light weight of the group….oh, how I must redeem myself!
The following morning, weirdly, I felt great!  The day was rainy and gray to match the mood of the Canadians.  Shane, Ruthless, Michelle, and I woke up around 4pm (Ya, I know) and headed out to have some breakfast.  We picked a restaurant right next door to keep as dry as possible while running through the rain.  We literally stayed their for the rest of the day.  It was a beautiful restaurant, with a thatched roof and open walls.  Here, let me explain the day’s events.
At first, we ordered some ‘Happy’ Pizza.  We had an idea of what ‘Happy’ meant, but weren’t entirely sure about its components (It’s really difficult to understand or converse in dialog with people here at times).  Anyway, we ate up and didn’t feel anything.  We then ordered an individual dish in sequence, and each tried everyone’s selection as they came out of the kitchen.  A couple from Holland joined and left our table at around dinner time as the night progressed.  This place had excellent fruit smoothies (I thought I’d just throw that in).  Our last 2 orders of the evening (at around 9:30pm) ended up being a ‘happy’ pizza, then an extra, extra ‘happy’ pizza.  This latter pizza is beyond words.  Literally, you could not see the toppings due to a thick layer of sprinkled ‘happy’!!!  Well, this ingredient lived up to its name.  We started getting crazy and cracking up uncontrollably.  Ruthless, who wasn’t feeling it in the beginning, immediately hit a stopping point and became sick.  Shane walked her home, then came back out.
  
It was a blast, but honestly (and it wasn’t the drugs talking) things started getting a little weird around us.  We suddenly became aware we were the only ones in the restaurant, and all the Cambodian workers started dancing and singing around us.  They then would pause their routine and stare us right in the eyes, literally inches from our face asking, ‘Are You Happy?’!!  On top of that, they started trying to get us to drink beer that had already been opened, and being very pushy about it.  I was prepared at any minute for someone to sneak up from behind and blindfold me, only to find myself waking up in a bathtub of bloody ice with open sutures.  When things got to the point of utter paranoia, Shane yelled out ‘F**kin’ RUN!’ and we jumped up and took off not looking back.  In hindsight, ya, we were all a little loopy, but something fishy was definitely taking place.  Fortunately, we are all still in one piece and able to tell the story of the most uneventful, yet frightening day at a ‘Happy’ restaurant in Sihnoukville, Cambodia!
The next day, Sunday, was another rainy day.  It’s monsoon season so most days are gloomy and dark.  We woke up late and did nothing but relax.  We were mainly waiting here till Monday to get our Vietnam visas from the Vietnamese Consulate that was located downtown.  Sihnoukville is the fastest place in Cambodia for this transaction.
Early Monday we went out for a jog, then at 2pm got our visas as planned.  It cost 40$ a piece (average price), but only took 10 minutes.  Afterwards, we had some lunch and came to the sad realization that all buses heading north were done for the evening.  This left no choice but another night in sketchy Sinville.  Michelle and I were itching to get into some nature, so after we found a cheap room near the bus station, Shane and Ruthless went upstairs while we found the slowest Tuk-Tuk in Cambodia to take us to a nature reserve about 40 minutes away.
  
We were geared up with flashlights, long sleeves, and pants, as well as a knife I purchased in Thailand; it’s a big mother that acts as a machete.  Anyway, we made it to the park only to find out that it wasn’t too much of a jungle.  Big trees were scarce and animal sounds (like birds and insects) seemed muted.  The jungle improved a bit as we hiked, but still we were never overtly impressive.  We were supposed to be accompanied by a guide, but we talked our way out of it.  Even though wildlife seemed to be exterminated from this area, some of the views were still rather breathtaking.  Day went to night as we trekked towards ‘Meditation Mountain’.  When we were surrounded by pitch black, we came to the realization we only had the slightest idea of which direction to head.  We pulled up our pants, determined a location, and went head on, trail blazing Cambodian style!  Probably not the brightest thing to do considering Cambodia is the most dangerous place on earth (with the exception of equatorial Africa) to accidentally step on a land mine, but for some reason being in national park boundaries convinced us we were safe (which I don’t think really mattered).  See, in the mid eighties, a genocidal Cambodian dictator apparently ordered the planting of more than double the landmines that had been laid in Vietnam during their war.  What’s the world coming to when your biggest fear on a hike through the jungle is to be blown up from a bomb?
  
After about 30 minutes of heading in the same direction (I had a compass), we could see a road in the distance, only we had to cross through a couple hundred yards of muddy rice paddies to make it!  Our boots were already soaked from the off and on rain and traversing through streams, that the wetness wasn’t an issue.  What a great and surreal experience it was coming out of the forest, down the hills, and into rice fields!  We made it to the road where we stopped a motorbike who then took us for five bucks back to Sihnoukville (3 people on 1 small motorbike, that’s truly SE Asia style)!  We rejoined the Yahoo’s (Shane and Ruthless) for dinner, having some delicious Amok (Cambodia’s version of Curry).  Afterwards we went to sleep, only to find ourselves in the morning on a bus heading for Cambodia’s capital, Phenom Penh!      

Lost in a Found Paradise (July 31st-August 2nd)

Friday, August 10th, 2007

So we decided as a group to see the northern land of South East Asia before heading south. As a result, we hopped on a bus heading towards the east side of Thailand near Cambodia. We planned to spend a few days on the island of Ko Chang. After a 6 hour ride to Trat, then a 30 minute ferry, we found ourselves renting motorbikes at the port. Ruthless got a moped since shifting gears wasn’t one of her many talents, while Michelle, Shane P, and I got on some wild hogs that none of us knew how to ride. I figured it would be an adventure in itself, and it didn’t let me down.

We all got the hang of it in no time. Riding with our huge backpacks wasn’t any big deal either, they just sat snug to us. We set out from the port looking for a place to stay. The sun set while on the forty minute drive. We turned on a dirt road for about 2km, and found ourselves truly in paradise! Follow me here, let me try and explain this.

Imagine hundreds of palm trees (and only palm trees) blowing at a warm, steady pace. The rustling of the palm fronds was accompanied by the sound of the crashing waves at high tide. About 15 bungalows, all with thatched roofs and walls dusted the treeline, perched above the soft sand. The sky was black, but the moon illuminated the curves of the coast and the white caps of the sea. There was no one, not even a worker to hand us over a key. We ended up pushing in the shutters of two bungalows and snuck in the windows. Kathleen was upset, since she fell off her moped into a puddle, but other than that, the night couldn’t have been any more beautiful. So beautiful in fact, Michelle and i decided to sprint into the ocean to be tumbled by the relentless waves. After frolicking in the surf, we returned to the bungalow and under mosquito netting, the thatched roof, blowing palm trees, and beautiful stars, we drifted away into a dream world that could not even compare to how truly beautiful the reality was around us.

The next day, do to the puddle incident, the one moped was having some trouble. We walked it back to the main street, where we ordered breakfast while trying to get it started. We finally got it revving, and i took it out for a little spin. When i was right in front of the restaurant, I hit a soft shoulder and completely wiped out. I did a couple rolls and scratched up the bike a bit. Everyone was staring, even though i popped up immediately and tried to pretend nothing happened. In fact, my first words were ‘The elephant ride is that way’ (since i saw some people riding elephants) and now that line is an inside joke for when someone trips or falls. I guess it was something you had to be there to see for yourself. Everyone was laughing, fortunately all i got was scrapes on my elbows and knees. We called back the rental place to come pick up the bike. Ruthless didn’t feel safe riding anymore.

We checked out different bungalows down the road, this time having to pay 100 Baht, that’s about 3 bucks. We dropped off our stuff, then headed to the other end of the island. Michelle and I each had our own motorcycle, while ruthless rolled on the back of Shane’s. The backside of the island was gorgeous, We passed several tiny villages wedged between the ocean and the mountains. We headed down an old abandoned road which stopped at a rocky river. We hopped off our bikes and began trekking up the stream.

Not before long, I noticed a smaller creek joining the river we were walking. There was a flat rock that had quick water trickling over it, ‘Slide’ immediately came to my mind as i climbed to the top. My plan was to go down slow, but the slick flat rock offered little resistance. Fortunately, at the bottom of the 10 ft drop, I was able to stop myself with my flip flops. Michelle’s landing wasn’t as graceful. She climbed up, then pushed off. She got some serious air before smacking her backside on a very non forgiving stone. She was the one laughing the loudest, so we figured she was fine. Later she had some bruises to help her remember the occasion.

Upon continuing our mini-trek up river, we found ourselves completely surrounded by little native dudes with big knifes. No one here speaks English, so at first we had no idea what was happening. We didn’t want to stir up any controversy on their turf, plus it was starting to get dark so we turned back towards the road. When we reached our motorbikes we realized what the Thai people were doing. They were collecting rubber they had tapped from the trees. We had purchased a large bottle of wine, so we offered them some with open arms. Before we knew it, we had five new friends sitting and drinking with us in the jungle.

We stopped back for dinner at a tiny little restaurant for some curry and rice. We then drank even some more wine when we returned back to our room. Mixing alcohol in paradise is always a good combination in my opinion, and before long, all 4 of us were sprinting naked to the beautiful warm water. Welcome to paradise!!

The following day we planned to leave Ko Chang. After breakfast, we strapped on our gear and drove to the port. We has a couple hours to spare, so we left our backpacks with Ruthless at the dock and cruised down the Eastern Coast. Ko Chang was a bit touristy, but there was something truly enchanting about this place. Rolling down the vacant highway, you would breathe in a sense of freedom and exhale inner peace (cheesy I know, but it’s how I felt). After passing palm tree and orange-sanded beaches, we decided to drop off our motorbikes and catch the 6:30pm ferry back to the mainland.

Ko Chang had everything you would want in a Thai island. Friendly people, good food, and beautiful landscape. Renting motorbikes allowed us escape from conformity, while splashing naked allowed glimpse into our unconstrained spirits.  Ko Chang and it’s memories will be remembered for as long as I live, for paradise isn’t where you are, but how you feel when you are there…..Here, with no doubt, I was ‘Living the Dream’!!!