Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
My neighbour Hutyee Boat
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Monday, May 31, 2010

Farewell to Thailand

Huge plumes of black smoke were billowing across the city centre as I made my way across Bangkok on my last day in Thailand. It was a sad end to my time in the country, as soldiers moved in to destroy the Red Shirts' encampment which had disrupted businesses and forced the closure of hotels in the Silom area for the previous seven weeks.

The dispute had dominated news in Thailand for a couple of months and I felt as though I was in the equivalent of Bangkok's 9/11 as I watched the fires blaze while taking a taxi across town to visit a Galway man, Tony O'Connell, who has been living in the city for the past six years.

A curfew was announced for the night of my departure and, thankfully, I got out to the airport with a couple of hours to spare.

But I felt sorry for the people of the country, who seemed so divided, and especially those who work in tourism, most of whom are oblivious to the dispute between the supporters of the former and current PMs. One things for sure, ordinary people were being manipulated by powerful figures who were never in the front line. Oh, and the Thai tourism industry will suffer yet again ... after the Tsunami and the 2008 airport occupation, the Red Shirts had done their bit by ensuring something like 50 countries had warned their citizens not to go to the so-called 'Land of Smiles'.

There had been some bizarre scenes through the previous months, such as the day when a group of Red Shirts held up a train full of soldiers and argued with them over whether they were on their way to Bangkok or the troubled south, where there has been an Islamic insurrection for almost a decade. Eventually, after being told the soldiers were not going to Bangkok, 50 of them accompanied the train to the south, just to make sure.

Koh Lanta, where I was based for the first four months of the year, might as well be on a different planet, but the fact is that most people have to fly through the capital to get there and after all the turmoil of the early months of 2010 I can see a lot of people opting to go elsewhere next season. What places like Lanta need are more connecting flights through Phuket and Kuala Lumpur.

But now Thailand has a reputation for trouble yet again. It's a pity, because for all its expansion over the past decade, Lanta still has a lovely pace of life and a laid-back feel which makes it a hard place to leave. Even though the island was virtually deserted of tourists by the time I left, I really found it a bit sad to have to say goodbye.

I still don't think I could live in Thailand, long-term, for a variety of reasons, but doing the Divemaster course over three months was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. It's not always a great idea to turn your hobby into your job, but those of us who scuba dive tend to really love diving and it was probably a dream of mine for a decade to turn professional. I feel that I learned so much about diving, about business, about life in the tropics, and about myself, that you really couldn't put a price on it. I also met some really wonderful new friends, whereas I felt that I wasn't learning much in my same old job back in Galway.

I spent five days in Geneva to break the journey home, staying in my brother's fantastic apartment and going to Marseille for what was a holiday weekend in France and Switzerland. Bizarrely, the place was taken over by Cardiff and Toulon fans. We hadn't realised that the final of the Amlin Cup - Connacht had lost the semi to Toulon - was taking place on the day after we arrived.

It was great to get home and see the family, especially my parents and little niece, Sofia, after being away for five months. Sofia wasn't a bit strange with me and thankfully appreciated the present I picked up in Marseille.

It felt really strange being back in Galway, with no job or car, but it was time to make plans for the next leg of my 2010 adventures .... a month at a language school in the Basque Country, some backpacking around Spain and visits to Peniscula and Valencia, and then hopefully a few months of volunteer work in South America to round off the most rewarding year of my life.

I'm also hoping to do some DM work at some stage, either in Spain or Latin America, but the main thing is that I'm living out my dreams before I'm too old to travel and see the world. Perhaps it's costing me a bit more than I expected, but you can't put a price on the kind of experiences I'm having during this 12 month career break.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Last days in Thailand

As it turned out, Malaysia proved to be a fabulous experience after the downer of reacting so badly to the antibiotics. The Cameron Highlands lifted my spirits, it was such a quiet place, there was nothing to do bar take off on three to seven hour jungle walks ... and some days I was glad to get back to the very sociable guest house, the Cameronian Inn, in one piece.

Some of the trails were dangerously slippy and, apart from the seven hour trek with the guide, I did most of them on my own. I had visions of falling down a ravine, Jim Thompson style, as the Thai-silk entrepreneur came to a mysterious end there back in 1967.

How ironic I was staying in the Cameron Highlands when that twat called Cameron became the new British PM, but I met so many solo travellers with tales to swap that the place really reaffirmed my faith in my decision to take a year off and travel.

There was David, the lefty US academic who left his native soil during the Vietnam protests and hasn't returned; the two French nurses, enjoying a break from trying to make money in Australia; Eethan, the enthusiastic young American graduate, heading to East Timor to do voluntary work; and Thomas, who has retired to a tiny village outside Chiang Mai where his rent is a paltry 1,000 baht a month.

But, with a flight home from Bangkok looming on May 19, it was time to take to the road again, even if I felt I could have stayed on for another few days. I had a four hour bus trip down through the highlands to Butterworth, and then another four hour trip to the Thai city of Hat Yai. Crossing the Thai border, I was the only non-Asian on the bus or heading through customs .... a taste of things to come.

Understandably, given all the trouble with the Red Shirts and the various Government warnings, tourists have deserted Thailand at this stage. Not many Europeans come here in May at any rate, but the Thai tourism industry really is suffering right now.

After an uneventful night in Hat Yai, where the amount of security locks on my hotel door made me just a tad nervous, I faced another seven hour (smelly) road trip north to Chumphon. Again, I was the only 'farang' on the bus. After covering 15 hours by bus in two days, I was looking forward to some rest and I decided to hit for the beach at Hat Thung Wua Laen, where Reg had raved about the diving a few years ago, when he visited with his young family. A taxi out there, for what was about a 15k journey, set me back 300 baht.

I got a very nice bungalow right on the seafront for 700 baht, about 15 euros, but I was shocked at how deserted the place was. Over the next four days, I counted seven foreigners, including a pair of retired British codgers, who told me that a former SAS man, who wrote a sensational book about his military past, was running one of the area's two dive centres. Would I like to meet him? No thanks!

Actually, my ear still hadn't fully healed up, so I didn't fancy diving there at any rate, but I did manage a daily swim in the sea, with the aid of silicone ear plugs. But, God, there was nothing to do at what was literally a deserted beach. Supposedly, this is their peak season at the place which is known as a stop-off point for people on the way to Koh Tao.

After two days of reading, walking, and eating, I was bored out of my mind. I did meet a French guy, Thomas, who was a neighbour at Koh Lanta. He had worked for the kickboxing gym down the road from my bungalow. But he was really ill with a stomach complaint, had to go to hospital in Chumphon, and any plans I had for a few beers with him were abandoned.

I watched the Chelski scum win the FA Cup final, no surprise there, with the old British codgers (who left when the shorts kicked in) and about seven Thai young lads who were all cheering for Chelski. I couldn't really explain to them why it was better to root for Portsmouth, the relegated underdogs, with no money, and I was at home in bed by 11 p.m.

My bungalow did have a TV, and the news from Bangkok was grim. Basically, the on-going fued between the Government and the 'Red Shirts' has escalated out of control over the past three days and parts of the capital are now a war zone. The images on the TV news seemed a world away from the peace and harmony of Koh Lanta, which of course they are!

A friend of a friend from Galway, Tony O'Connell, has kindly offered to put me up on the night before my flight back to Geneva. But right now, I don't really want to spend any time in Bangkok. A couple of nights in the resort town and Hua Hin, followed by a bus and a taxi straight to the airport, is my plan for a low-key farewell to the so-called Land of Smiles.

The Government has declared a two day national holiday, which should make it easier for them to clear the streets, and Bangkok must be eerie at the moment. Two French nurses I met in Malaysia said they were shocked by how few foreigners there were on the Khaosan Road, the traditional backpacker hangout, two weeks ago.

Nobody knows how this thing will pan out, and there has even been talk of a full-scale civil war. There are faults on both sides, but one thing is clear ... the Thai tourism industry, so important to this country, is going to suffer because of all this trouble for the next few years.

I spoke to a Thai girl who opened up a cafe by the beach just three months ago. She's attracting maybe ten customers a day. The beach is deserted, there is nobody around, and the only people enjoying swims in the sea were local Thai families enjoying a few hours away from Chumphon.

Who wants to visit a city which is engulfed in smoke from tyres? Where protesters have sealed off a huge section of the commercial zone and hotels and businesses have been unable to open for more than a month? It's all a mess. Promoting Thai tourism right now must be like trying to pretend that Ireland has a decent climate. Impossible!

Given how deep rooted the conflict has become, how entrenched the two sides are, it seems to be a complete misnomer to called Thailand the 'Land of Smiles' right now. I never thought I'd say it a couple of weeks ago, but I'm quite looking forward to getting on that 'plane on Wednesday.

Boredom seems infinately preferable to life in the troubled city right now and, suddenly, I'm looking forward to the second part of my adventures during what has been, already, an eventful gap year!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ten nights in Malaysia

Well, I had the first downer of my trip when I got to Penang. The antibiotics I was on just didn't seem to be clearing the ear infection and the arrival of an unwelcome virus to my computer only added to the blues.

I treated myself to four nights in a four star hotel in Penang, a reward for finishing the DM course and living in such basic accommodation for four months, but instead found myself visiting the doctor and spending four hours getting the computer fixed on my first day.

The doctor in Penang put me on even stronger medication, which made me nauseous, drained me of energy, and with no mobile phone I suddenly felt quite alone in the world. I spend 20 hours in bed one of the days.

Thankfully, a young Malay man fixed my computer and I had to force him to take some cash as a reward. But I had no energy to tour the city of Georgetown, it was hot, sticky, dirty, noisy, and all I wanted to do was stay in bed.

Coming from a close family, I hadn't really thought much about how much I would miss them during this gap year. Ever since my sister Cliona died at 16 years of age, we've had a special bond, and not being able to text just made me uncertain over whether or not this whole trip was worthwhile. I forced myself to get out and visit temples and beaches, but when I moved out of the Sunway Hotel to one I'd been recommended, I found that my room was a kip with no natural light.

At one stage, I wanted someone or something to beam me up and bring me home to Galway!

Thankfully, I found the conviction or the energy to book an onward bus to the Cameron Highlands, my first wise move since I left Koh Lanta. Leaving the hell-hole on Lebuh Chulia at 6 a.m., I had no pangs of regret about leaving Georgetown, and my spirit lifted as soon as I arrived.

The highlands, about 1,500 metres above sea level, are cool and damp and in total contrast to the coast down below. It's Malaysia's highest hill station and my bus driver recommended the Caledonian Inn, which has been only a quarter-full. I've met sociable souls here from all over the world.

There's no night life, but I didn't mind. The town is quiet, so quiet and peaceful, and the ear pain which had been bothering me for three weeks seemed to vanish at high altitude.

On the second day I booked a seven hour trekking trip with Yen, the guest house's resident guide, and it was truly amazing. It was tough, yes, and a tad too long, but the views were spectacular as we breathed in the mountainous air.

I stayed four nights instead of the three I'd planned, met some lefty Americans to hang out with, and just enjoyed long walks in the jungle every day. My ear is not 100%, but it's waaaay better, and the homesickness which crippled me in Georgetown virtually disappeared as well. And anyway, I'm now about to make my way home for a two week break in Galway in which I hope to hook up with loads of friends and family.

Tomorrow, I think I will have pangs of regret when I leave Tanah Rata to take a bus to Butterworth, and then another one across the Thai border and into Haat Yai. Back in Thailand again, for the first leg of my trip back to troubled Bangkok, where the Red Shirts have still taken over the Silom business district.

I really should have expected the blues at some stage, but the important thing was to breathe deeply, experience the anxiety, and then let it go. The Cameron Highlands have refuelled my batteries, sometimes there really is nothing better than peace, quiet, and the joys of nature (far from the madness of big cities) to bring peace back to your soul!

Monday, May 3, 2010

On Leaving Koh Lanta

Meet Hutyee Boat. Hutyee was my neighbour for the last four months and I'd often come home from a day's diving, or in the office, to find him sitting on the hammock outside my bungalow, looking for gossip. He would always want the latest news from Saladan or to discover which bungalow operations were doing well.
Huytee probably fancies himself as a bit of a 'Del Boy', but I consider him more to be Koh Lanta's version of Moycullen's Ronan Ryan. Like Rhino, he has the gift of the gab, but he has a country innocence which belies his big plans.
He's known to go to the bank with no shoes on, to make them think he's poor, even though he owns about 20 bungalows on Koh Lanta. And at 350 baht a go (about eight euros) his bungalows are better value than virtually any others at the end of Long Beach (Phrae Ae).
It was meeting someone like Hutyee that made living on Lanta so special since January. He invited me to my first Muslim wedding, his niece's, and there were even photos taken of the big Irish guy with the Mayor of Lanta. Handy, I'm sure, if I ever have visa problems.
I also became friends with Pakob, in Saladan, whose wife cooks up the best 'pad Thai kai' (a chicken and noodle dish) on the island. The language barrier didn't get in the way of our love of 'sanuk' or 'craic' as we enjoyed the banter during my regular visits to their outdoor food stall.
It was great to see the Ozone guys doing really well, nine years after myself and Keith Carty first befriended them. They were even asking for Keith and gave me a huge welcome the first time I wandered down to the bar which has the biggest party on the island every Thursday.
But Korner Bar was better, and it was right beside my bungalow as well. I used to try to wrangle my way out of working Sundays with Blue Planet just so that I could enjoy meeting the eclectic bunch from all over the world who turned up there every Saturday night.
In the past, I'd spend ten days or two weeks on the island, diving the odd day with Blue Planet, but would just be getting into the pace of life when I'd find myself moving on. This time around, I got used to living without creature comforts such as a TV in my bungalow at the rear of the Red Snapper restaurant.
The main reason I went there, of course, was to become a Divemaster, and I do feel I learned an awful lot about my favourite hobby since January. Now that I'm qualified, I would love to work at it for a while during this gap year, and the time at Blue Planet in which I wrote seven articles for 'Krabi' magazine showed that I could combine journalism with professional diving.
It's not an easy life, especially when you have to get up at 5.45 a.m. in order to dive Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, the region's two world class sites, and there was a forlorn feeling about the place when I left on the first of May. The season only last six months, before the seas get rough and the monsoon rains roll in, so it's pretty tough for Lanta businesses to make money.
There was a real 'end of season' feel in the last few days, after I had completed the course, as many Thais were also making plans for heading home after six months on this beautiful, tropical island.
Long-termers will tell you that they love low season, but walking an empty 4km beach was quite eerie in the past few weeks. There were virtually no tourists around.
But living there has been a phenomenal experience for me. I've made great friends through Blue Planet Divers, especially my felow DMTs such as Chris and Jane (UK), Raggi (Norway), and Emma (UK), and even a diving instructor from Galway called Oisin Gormally, a teacher on a three year career break.
We'd never met at Scubadive West or any of the West of Ireland's cold dive sites in the past, but it really felt like a small world to be working on the boat alongside someone from Barna. Plus, I had back-up for my showdowns with the British National Front, in the guise of Instructor Kev Skellern, who is under the deranged delusion that there is a place called the British Isles (!).
He wanted a toast to the British Isles on my last night, to which I replied that I'd have a drink to every country that was messed up by the British Empire. Then I realised that I couldn't possibly drink so much, even on a party night. Anway, it was all good fun!
It wasn't all good at times, there were not enough opportunities to get on the boat in the first five weeks or so, the boat staff were pretty rude and surly, but I really learned an awful lot about the dive industry and it was just the change I needed, really, after so long in the same job in Galway.
Some of the staff in restaurants were downright rude and unfriendly to foreigners, too, which made me realise that one of my neighbours for a while, Oonagh from Tyrone, was right to claim that Malaysians are far friendlier.
I didn't intend to become the token Irish man at the Irish Embassy, the island's only Irish pub, but Jamie and Darren were friendlier than any of the other 'farang' publicans along our end of the beach and, like me, they have a passion for sport on weekend nights. Plus, their Thai staff produce a Sunday roast which can only be described as 'legendary'!
On motorbike trips I discovered the joys of Lanta Old Town, which had a brilliant three day festival in March and Songkran, the Thai new year, was the best day I've had all year as we all went on the rampage with water pistols. It would have been impossible to go diving that day!
The three and a half months passed incredibly quickly and I was quite sad to leave, especially after a phenomenal last night at the Irish Embassy, where people were dancing on tables until I baled out at about 4 a.m. Getting a computer virus in Trang the following day only added to my pain at leaving the island.
The beauty of Lanta is that Thai, Chinese, and 'farang' (white foreigner) seem to get on in harmony, with Buddhist and Muslim coexisting without any worries. It was great to see the robed monks at dawn on my way into Saladan in the mornings, but there was also a mosque within 500 metres of my bungalow.
With all that's been going on in Thailand for the last two months, it could be argued that this tropical paradise is a model for the rest of the country. It's certainly a hard place to leave, as most of the DMs have discovered when it came to packing their bags at the end of the season.

Back to Malaysia

So I'm in Georgetown, Penang, for a few days after quitting Thailand on Sunday. The people here have been incredibly friendly ... one guy insisted on taking no cash after spending three hours fixing my laptop and the buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site seem to be well worthy of exploration.
It's actually good to be back in a city for the first time in 2010, and the food here seems to be fantastic. I'm due to fly out from Bangkok on May 19 and had intended to meet up with a couple of Galway lads before that, but right now a few days of chilling down this side of the border seems a lot more appealing.