Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
I am suffocating. I am looking out of the plane’s window as it banks left towards a small clump of lights down below. Realisation has just kicked in and I want to scream. What have I done? All in the name of adventure and to really live! But why do I feel as though I am about to be incarcerated in an isolated corner of the earth, in a city that no one has heard of and is surrounded by endless miles of sand.
When I tell people I am taking a fitness job at The Abu Dhabi Health and Fitness Club in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), they aren’t quite sure where I am going. Well neither am I, but I am in need of a change of pace and to get off the Sydney treadmill.
I mention Dubai, and recognition kicks in. But Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. It is separated by 120kms of highway laid across a sandy desert. There are two shopping malls, a smattering of five-star hotels with lively bars as these are the only watering holes allowed to serve alcohol, and a somewhat traditional souk (market) in the centre of town.
For an outdoor gal, there isn’t a lot to do. All of my clothing that stops short of the knee or doesn’t quite reach my shoulders is tucked away in the back of my closet. But there isn’t much time for dressing in anything more than my uniform as I am at work for upto ten hours a day, six days a week.
I am a jack of all trades; teaching fitness classes, pottering around the gym, dishing out gym programs for new members, trying to generate personal training clients to train outside of work hours, and of course keeping on top of communications with the outside world via Hotmail. I am surprised they haven’t banned it like Myanmar!
There has to be some lucky stars in any situation and mine comes in the form of a two-bedroom apartment to myself. It’s sparsely furnished and feels empty but I’m not complaining, as it’s close to work and part of my meager but sufficient package.
Daily I force bravery, and walk the ten minutes to work rather than take the easy option and the luxury of the Health Club shuttle bus. I need to feel where I am, whether it’s pleasant or not. What’s the point of living in a foreign country if you hide behind the walls of safe expat havens?
Sometimes I have to visit the corner store, but only if I can abhor to be stared at by every male in the store. I almost become masculine with my short hair, T-shirt, gym pants and trainers. I have to, to survive on my own. My first visit to the local tiny video store is like hitting the pause button. Everyone turns around and unashamedly stares open mouthed. However I hold my own and say something smart to put their eyes back into their sockets.
The sweaty man in white covered in a light dusting of flour is my favourite. He has the unpleasantly hot job of baking flat bread on the sides of a deep barrel of an oven. He hands me a steaming piece of oven fresh bread in newspaper for a couple of Dirham (UAE currency).
Some of the Bedouin still remains in Abu Dhabi. I pass flocks of chickens living upon manicured lawns beside office buildings. When the sun goes down the families come out in force. Women and small children wander in the confines of the ‘women only’ park, while men suck on Shisha pipes in sidewalk cafes. Late into the night grassy medium strips between busy avenues become alive with dozens of families; a blur of black Abayas and white dishdashs eating and being merry!
Although somewhat different to riding an unruly camel than driving a car, the Emiratee behind the wheel of a Mercedes is frightening. Either the car is not fitted with brakes or Emiratees don’t understand road rules. Never use a pedestrian crossing if a car is approaching, even if there is a speed bump to slow it down, you may not live to see another day.
I am intrigued by the ‘slow work in progress’ imposing Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. Its’ grey ghostly shell, photographable because of its eerie solitude sits like a white elephant of the Arabic world on the city’s outskirts; guardian of the southern entrance.
It’s the Middle East in January 2003 and George W Bush is talking about invading Iraq. The antics of the Americans are not my concern; it’s my own selfish reasons that I am here. But the war didn’t touch us in Abu Dhabi. Security is heightened and bags are checked upon entering hotel bars.
Around the days of the invasion in March, Health Club members spend time in their own personal solitude, dealing with the Iraq invasion best they can. We watch coverage of the military action on CNN together in silence. Members are predominantly expats, Emiratees make their entertainment elsewhere.
Today I share the shock and sorrow with Iraqi expats mourning their homeland and family caught up in the craziness of war. So close but yet so far from the madness.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – Central Asian Adventure: 2003
Let the Games Begin
It’s the middle of July, a couple of months after Asia get the all clear from the SARS epidemic. Due to this I am surprised that there are so many foreigners milling around. Where have they all come from? This is Mongolia after all and who really thinks about going to Mongolia?
I am travelling through on the Trans Mongolian train en route to Beijing in China, having started my journey in St Petersburg six weeks ago. When I alight in Ulan Bataar I head straight out into the great Mongolian endlessness. It’s just amazing; there are camels, small settlements of Gers (Mongolian houses), ancient volcanic craters and sand dunes. A land without roads. So where have the foreigners come from? They weren’t on the sand dunes in The Gobi, or on horseback in the Great White Lake National Park.
I return to the capital in time for the annual Naadam Festival, which is a traditional ancient sports festival with wrestling, archery and a long distance horse race, running for three days. The opening ceremony takes place in the National Sports Stadium, which sounds grander than what it is, and is filled to capacity, excitement permeating the air.
Locals in bright national dress perform. There is throat singing, horse fiddle playing, circus performers, Sharmans dancing and beautifully adorned camels prancing about. To finish the ceremony we listen to the President’s speech, clap politely and ooh and ahh with the rest of the crowd as the parachuters fall out of the sky and spiral their way down to the centre of the pitch.
The wrestling gets underway almost immediately. Men dressed in small leather underpants, knee-high boots, pointed hats and jackets that only cover their shoulders and arms go head to head. One referee is assigned per pair with a multitude of wrestling occurring simultaneously. The competition seems a little unfair as small are pit against large, but hey, this is Mongolia.
We move from the stadium to watch both men and women participate in the archery, vying for the position of ‘national marksman’ and ‘national markswoman’. They are all dressed in the traditional ‘del’ (heavy dress) and boots, looking very 12th Century Genghis Kahn. The bull’s eye target is a mighty seventy-five metres away for men and sixty-five metres away for women. The crowd watch in silence and bated breath as the pensive archers mark their target.
The ‘ankle bone shooting’ competition is in full swing and is causing a ruckus. Sheep knuckles are rolled much like dice and a very vocal crowd eggs on the competitors. The bets are on; Las Vegas eat your heart out.
The other highlight, the horse race is held thirty-five kilometers outside of the capital. We take a clapped out people mover to a makeshift Ger village consisting of restaurants and shops, horses and their men. My companions and I only spot another ten foreigners, so it feels even more authentic than what I had hoped. It’s what the pages from National Geographic are made of.
The horses and their jockeys, most are children, have already walked the eight kilometers to the start, and now, somewhere beyond the horizon they are racing to the finish line wherewe are perched, waiting. The stands are incredibly uncomfortable, and I feel more like a bird on a wire than a human. Amongst the locals we sit; horses, riders, policemen, military and children. It’s beyond words to describe the motley crew that surrounds me.
The ripple through the crowd and the strip of dust on the horizon heralds the impending arrival of horses and riders. They pound along the steppes, one hundred riders crossing the finish line, some even rider less! We end the day coated in their dust and competitive joy. Sensational!
Ulan Bataar, Mongolia: Central Asian Adventure, 2003
A Ger and a Goat
The driver nods towards the four white dots on the horizon. We follow his gaze to our next destination sitting in a huge green bowl in the valley. Hold tight, five bodies bump and sway, moving with the ease and knowing rhythm of the Soviet van.
This vehicle has been our home for the past seven days, carrying us through mountains, deserts, plains, mud, rain, hail and lightning storms. It has endured horrendous bone shattering roads and skimmed across plains where no previous roads existed. It has kept us warm when the temperature has plummeted, cool when the heat of the Gobi engulfed us and protected us from biting desert winds. It has enabled us to cook and share meals within its confines.
During the trip we stay a few days in Khongo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, translated to Great White Lake, which is situated west of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bataar. The journey can take days, depending on climatic conditions. The place is incredible! Immediately upon entering the Park you are transported into a lunar landscape, volcanic action that formed it evident at every turn.
Driving through the remnants of a volcano we head towards an immense lake shimmering in the afternoon light. It’s settled into a desolate ancient crater, perhaps created at the beginning of time. Beautiful, serene and at an altitude of 1800m above sea level, this area in Central Mongolia offers the opportunity to explore extinct volcanic craters and ice filled caves on horseback or by foot.
In our search for the perfect camping spot, foreshore bugs seem to rise from their winter hibernation and encircle us with an intense ferocity. We opt for the shiny whiteness of the nomad’s Gers rather than our own tent. The summer residence; home to four families, a herd of sheep and goats, and a couple of angry yaks are perched at the top of a sweeping valley that spills to the water’s edge.
Communication is tough; smiling, nodding, and watching. Not a word of English is spoken between hosts and the awestruck travellers. We abandon the thought of any toilette, as the lake is too far a hike and the air too crisp for a bath. The challenge of the day is to find a secret spot without being caught with trousers around ankles. At any moment a wandering nomad can appear at the valley rim and while innocently searching for his lost herd may be assaulted with such a sight. I don’t think I want to be the butt of his joke that day.
On our second afternoon we hear the distant hum of an approaching motorbike. It causes a burst of fresh activity at the settlement. Dinner is on its way! No, not a pizza delivery, but a silent shaggy goat calmly stretched across the seat of an old Soviet motorbike between two very happy men. Unbeknownst to the goat, he is the guest of honour.
A hammer and two petite Swiss Army Knives are the only preparation tools needed. With one swift move the hammer hits its target, straight between the eyes, the abdomen is cleanly slit, and an arm disappears into the belly in search of the artery to send the goat into his next life.
With his work complete, the goat slayer stands up to take a bowl of salty milk tea and a snack with only a dribble of blood on his shirtsleeves as proof of the kill. I watch the ordered arrangement in fascination as two men take charge with miniature Swiss Army knives and begin to peel the goat’s hide from the carcass. Children buzz about very excited about the promise of fresh meat, and so me help out by holding the goat’s legs so that the skinning can be done quickly.
With the skinning done the women appear, armed with nothing more than a large metal bowl, where they proceed nonchalantly to remove the internal organs and scrape them expertly into said bowl. It is time to adjourn inside the Ger with the women and leave the men with the carcass outside. With children flitting to and fro, dipping dirty hands into the bowl of steaming gizzards and carrying severed trotters, the atmosphere is almost carnival. A group of women squat around the metal bowl emptying intestines and hanging the linings for future use, distributing organs to different cooking vessels.
Tonight’s feast only offers a small portion of the goat. Vital organs are deposited into a steel can that looks unmistakably like an old-fashioned milk can, with a bundle of steaming hot rocks from the fire and an onion or two salvaged from the Soviet van. Mongolians appear from nearby valleys and we wonder whether the drums have been beating? Sixteen pairs of hungry eyes wait for the banquet while five pairs of eyes the size of saucers stare in disbelief at what a hammer and a couple of Swiss Army knives can do.
Weary from all the excitement, we embrace the smokey warmth and inhale the ingrained mutton aroma of the Ger. Trying to absorb as much of the ‘National Geographic’ spectacle as possible we are happy to be in the round darkness. Five travellers share the intimate space with the remains of a shaggy black goat. The dripping carcass, remaining entrails and the unseeing visage of our sacrifice are scattered amongst our belongings and us.
Khongo-Terkhiin Saghaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia – Central Asian Adventure: 2003
The Inner Sanctum
I stand mesmerised outside of Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple as red-cheeked pilgrims fill every inch of the plaza. Some have travelled immense distances from Tibetan provinces to visit the holy shrines in the capital. Others have made the whole journey by prostrations along gravel roads and bitumen highways, with only strips of leather and chunks of timber to protect their hands, knees, elbows and feet. Each pilgrim bares a mark on their forehead, a stain from the earth that they have kissed.
Some move sideways, their eyes constantly fixed upon the holy edifice that they circumambulate while others slide gracefully forward as though attached to a skateboard, fervently attempting to outdo those on foot. There’s room for everyone, all moving in synchronised harmony.
Once inside the dark recesses of the Jokhang Temple I am surprised to find that I am the only foreigner. I have them all to myself. We watch each other, unabashed, intrigued: me, by their timeless innocence, and they, by my blonde foreignness. We walk in the customary clockwise direction spinning each prayer wheel while I repeat my mantra: inner peace, love and happiness. I wonder what they wish for?
Entering even deeper in to the temple, the inner sanctum, I inch my way forward with the rest of humanity. Bodies are pressed so tightly together I can smell yak butter tea emanating from the pores of their skin and see every dirty crease etched into weather beaten faces.
Harsh climatic conditions coupled with high altitude and a nomadic lifestyle is responsible for the state of these pilgrims. They are unwashed and unkempt, with infants hanging askew upon their backs. Each fur-lined coat is wrapped tightly around the torso, fixed by a brightly coloured sash or gem encrusted silver belt. The throng moves slowly into every small chapel replacing ten Jiao notes in exchange for prayers. Butter wax is spooned into numerous troughs, as offerings and the only sound are the Chinese guards hollering to move the sea of bodies.
Could this be a movie set for ‘Seven Years in Tibet’? Tears stream down my cheeks as an old weathered woman sidles up beside me to have a closer look. I manage a smile, and in return she gives me a toothless grin, which shines like radiant light in the dusky space. It’s an emotional day, and after collecting my emotions I make a hasty escape in to the warmth of a clear Tibetan autumn day.
Lhasa, Tibet – Central Asian Adventure: 2003
My Silent Mantra
“Inner peace, love and happiness, inner peace, love and happiness,” I repeat wandering through Kathmandu’s labyrinth of hectic alleyways. After a dozen near miss motorcycle wipeouts I find myself standing outside a row of typical ramshackle Nepali buildings. Inconspicuously I look for the sign, ‘Palmistry and Astrology’, and then I see it jutting out above a doorway up ahead. Sure that I left the street unnoticed, I slip through the door into the dim stairway, not really sure what I might find.
The apartment I enter is the size of a shoebox, filled with an eccentric madness that I associate with crystal balls and gypsies. My illustrious host can barely speak English and sits opposite me with a wary expression. She frantically waves her grubby palms inches from my face and shouts “Palm Reader! Palm Reader!” It’s the only coherent phrase I understand.
What am I doing here? This is lunacy! How can I allow this woman to deliver my fate? But fortunately, the appearance of her male counterpart, the flipside of the coin and a divine picture of sanity extinguish my panic: my guide to Shangri-La. He leads me to an even smaller room where two chairs are squeezed inside and quickly shows me his professional credentials. “Great,” I say. Can’t say I have ever known anyone who had done a university degree in the cosmic arts, so I try to be impressed rather than dubious. As he reaches for his reading glasses I lay my hands on the table and the translation from palm crease to the English language begins.
It seems like eternity but I finally emerge from the musty darkness into the glare of the setting sun. The streets are busy with the bustle of afternoon trade. Hoping that no one notices my haste and the tears of desperation that clings to my flustered cheeks, I maneuver through the throngs of bodies; meandering tourists, wandering cows, and absorbed locals. It is not what I want to hear. Where is the fairytale? The happy ending?
I shall never forget the sadness, regret and pity upon the Palm Reader’s face after the delivery of my fate. After an interminable amount of head shaking, his elephantine sized eye quickly shrinks back to normal as he removes the magnifying glass. “I cannot believe this” he exclaims in disbelief, “very unusual”. The instrument responsible for acquiring my fate lay between us discarded, heavy with the burden of many melancholic secrets.
Finally after much ‘tut tutting’ The Palm Reader attempts to break the news gently. I can’t bear to meet his gaze as he tells me of the lack of love in my 30s. “You’re telling me” I want to say to him, but somehow I resist. He rattles on about my love life, as no doubt it’s of much interest to him and probably what most people come to see him about, but I tune out. I am concerned about the reality and I don’t need it confirmed by this man with a degree in astrology and palmistry.
Grabbing the piece of paper with my future scribbled on it, I head back into the chaos to begin my new journey, a journey to the heart of The Himalayas and in search of my own Shangri La.
Kathmandu, Nepal – Central Asian Adventure: 2003
Life of a Gypsy
The freedom to choose and the challenge of choice
Momentary desires and heart touching liaisons
The hues, scents and the very essence of the surrounds
Each day a different character.
Time to gaze at the ending of a day
And to witness the beginning of a new one
Time to love
To make mistakes.
People to meet
And people to avoid
Cities to explore
And places left untouched.
Time to be disappointed
To ponder failure
For hope and possibilities
And to be lost.
There is darkness
There are roads that are less travelled
But soon enough you are not alone
And someone will appear
To walk with you.
Even if it is just for a moment.
Bangkok, Thailand – South East Asian Adventure: 2004-2006
Dawn Delight in Downtown Bago
Three hundred sets of feet silently shuffle through the early morning dawn. Bare-footed they meander in perfect harmony through the streets in search of alms. Cloaked in maroon robes and modestly wrapped against the early morning chill. A monk’s day begins.
I am in the small town of Bago, about 80km northeast of Myanmar’s capital Yangon. The place is mainly a stopover en route to nearby Mt Kyiakto where tourists and pilgrims flock to see the sacred Golden Rock. However, Bago holds its own with an array of spectacular pagodas, reclining Buddha’s and an interesting market life.
Reaching a height of 114m, the Shwemawdaw Paya dominates the town. The name translates to Great Golden God and is a huge stupa rather than a temple. It is a great place to meander or simply people watch and strike up a conversation with a Burmese family.
If reclining Buddhas are your thing, Bago has two of them. The Shwethalyaung is one of the largest in Myanmar and the most lifelike. Apparently it depicts Buddha in relaxation mode with eyes wide open.
Hoping to get a head start before the day heats up, I rise early but am already one step behind the rest of town. In search of tea and Burmese breakfast do-nuts, I realise that the traffic noise is only a decibel louder than it was at 2am. Indescribably horrific! This is when I run into the orderly arrangement of robes weaving through dusty streets. Unemotional and solemn they pause to collect offerings of rice and fruit from locals, moving in their own spiritual serenity they seem unperturbed by the street life.
Locals believe that it is the good karma in this life that will make things better in the next. Alms giving assists in connecting the lay Buddhist to the monk and are a display of humbleness and respect. I am amazed at this generosity, as poverty seems prevalent.
I race ahead towards Kha Khat Wain Kyuang, the monk’s final destination. The monastery north of the main town centre is one of the three largest monasteries in the country, and houses about 600 monks and novices. The long line files past me without a flicker of interest. I feel invisible. Some are carrying an alms bowl, while others with prayer beads in hand are reading.
Mesmerized, I just manage to duck out-of-the-way of Tuk Tuks zooming into the monastery carrying huge silver pots of rice and curry. The pots are large enough to cook two people, ‘Livingstone style’. In perfect unison they appear from both east and west corridors. Two by two they move to the pots to have their portion scooped into dishes. A local offers me the opportunity to serve. I decline, happy to be an observer.
The huge dining room is composed of small tables surrounded by five to ten monks. They eat in silence, that same peaceful silence in which they move. Only when their bellies are full do they notice the foreigner in their midst and begin to speak and smile shyly. They don’t linger long. Shortly after, the novice monks reappear in the main hall to study their Buddhist scriptures. Sitting side-by-side in tidy rows, the din of their chanting is incredible, sounding almost melodic.
Stumbling out into bright daylight, I leave the monks to their scriptures and wander into the bustling market. Sipping a bowl of noodle soup amongst locals I watch another type of Burmese day begin.
The dusty skies seem permanent during the few days I am here. If there is any consolation, it produces the most picturesque sunrises and sunsets. Every place has its own magic and in Bago it happens sometime around dawn.
Bago, Myanmar – South East Asian Adventure: 2004-2006
Feeling Like a Princess in the Land of Smiles
My day off from work is planned around pleasures of the flesh. Like most women I like a bit of pampering and to feel like a princess. Even though I live on a pauper’s wage in Bangkok, I manage to feel like royalty.
Once a week I go to Healthlands for a Thai massage. The place is huge with a tonne of therapists and massage rooms. They need it for the endless stream of people, predominantly Asians, coming through the doors. I anticipate my two hours of being poked and pummelled, the stronger the better. Expect a wait, but I don’t mind as it’s costing me less than a Chicken Panang in Sydney.
I also try to indulge in a weekly foot massage. I won’t pay more than 200bht (about AUD$6) and try various locations over the city. I sink into a comfy lounge chair and shut off the noise and pollution of Bangkok. My feet are washed and soaked in warm water; I sit back and close my eyes as the masseur goes to work on my weary feet and legs. My toes are prodded with a wooden massage implement, searching for strategic pressure points.
If you aren’t fussy with skin products, and just want your face to feel squeaky clean then pop over to the backpacker haven of Banglamphu. Choose any of the shoddy beauty therapists off Khao San road and take a bed next to a row of foreigners for an express facial for less than AUD$10.
However, if you a feeling like a splurge then try any number of luxurious spas found all over the city, treatments are about half the price than back in Oz and just as good.
Why bother doing your own nails when you can get someone else to do them for you for a fraction of the cost than back home? But don’t expect sterile nail bars. Girls will wheel out the polish wherever they can, maybe even while you are getting your hair done. I indulge at least once a month and try a few places around the city.
Forgo a haircut and definitely no colour treatments in Thailand. I manage to locate a hairdresser who has trained with Toni & Guy in London, owned his own salon, and seems confident and competent at putting blonde foils in my hair. It feels more like being at a training session rather than with a professional, as another hairdresser and the product colour rep act as spectators.
Eight hours and three colour attempts later, I am told my hair is in very bad condition. Whose hair wouldn’t be after it is bleached and coloured to an inch of its life! Three times in one day will do that to you!
I leave disheartened, with shorter hair an unsavoury shade of orange. So unless you know of a foreign hairdresser working with non-Asian hair, don’t put yourself through it. Do the colour yourself for peace of mind, or go ‘a la naturale’.
Thailand – South East Asian Adventure: 2004-2006
In Love With ‘The Lost Boy’
Every Friday afternoon in Bangkok I meet up with ‘The Lost Boy’ (TLB). It is a habit I have become accustomed to and I anticipate our weekly meetings. TLB is far too young and unsuitable for a serious companion but he is a kindred spirit, sharing my social views of the craziness that is Bangkok. I admire his wit and cynicism, and after each weekly rendezvous I feel closer to him and understood.
Is it the tropical heat? Perhaps it’s the fact that I am a white woman in Asia. Thailand is a place where white men come to frolic with young Thai girls. Both are after some form of escape, either the man from himself or the woman from a less than favourable existence. It is a place whereby opinionated white women are left alone.
To some ‘lounge chair travellers’ it may sound a little farfetched, but of all the girls I hang out with, I know one that came here with her French fiancé, the rest are as single as Mother Teresa was. Except maybe one…that frequents Soi Cowboy for some after-hours male action. She favours the working boys (when they’re not working) that have just spent a gruelling evening on stage of fondling, dripping hot candle wax on each other and anal sex. Each to his own I say.
I ignore the odds and continue my liaisons with TLB. Each week I listen to his views on Thailand’s obsession with American pop culture, the concept of the freeloading model in Bangkok, the darkness underneath the Land of Smiles, and the pilgrimage of the ugly Farang, to name a few. And I love it. His mind, his thoughts, I am definitely in love!
But all good things come to end, and so it happened with my love affair. However the day came far too soon when Paul, my boss, walks into the staff room with the Guru Magazine in his hand and says “T, this sounds like you!” and proceeds to read the following extract.
“I agree with you as I work with some pretty f***ed up people. I actually think that Bangkok really is a place that attracts a motley crew Farangs. All I can say, and against my true personality, I keep a very low profile! It took me several months to accept the whole Farang protocol. It really is the hardest place that I have worked in the world in relation to communication amongst colleagues. But it is almost time to move on. I can’t survive on peanuts for much longer.”
“WHAT THE?!!” I almost scream the words as I snatch the paper from Paul’s hands. I recognise my words from a private email between myself and TLB. How could he do this to me? Deceive me this way?
I recover from my embarrassment, but not my crushed heart. This is when I said goodbye to TLB. And so, I let him go. Reading the weekly Guru Magazine I skirt past TLB’s column, and in my mind I wish him well and wonder what he’s like in the flesh!
Bangkok, Thailand – South East Asian Adventure: 2004 – 2006
Purging Myself of Thailand’s Excesses
It’s already a year since I somehow fell into a crack of Bangkok life. After seven months on the road using every conceivable mode of transport, from Malaysian Borneo to Myanmar, Thailand to Vietnam, I have ‘done’ Southeast Asia. However I’m not ready to return to routine Sydney life and it’s this fear that keeps me away. It leads me to a low paid job as an English Instructor at one of Bangkok’s Berlitz Language Schools smack bang in the heart of the City. But that was well over a year ago, and I have had enough. I am weary of maneuvering the hectic Bangkok streets and sucking in the carbon monoxide filled air. It’s time to go home.
Unfortunately, social hibernation and too much Thai street food has left its mark on my body and soul so to find balance once more I decide to embark on a final journey to purge, pummel, and purify my temple. A former travel buddy from Denmark joins me for Phase One and we catch a bus to Koh Chang, about six hours south-east of Bangkok. Sadly due to the impact of tourism, parts of the island have changed since my last visit three years ago, but that’s typical in developing countries. Luckily Spa Koh Chang, a franchise of the infamous Spa Samui, is situated on the quiet side that still hasn’t been infiltrated by the ugliness that tourism breeds.
Spa Koh Chang is renowned for its sound and economical detox program and we opt for the seven-day cleanse that consists of fasting and two daily self-administered colonics. Herbal steam baths and Ampuku massages are optional, but encouraged to help the process of elimination.
There is a spa menu of massages, body wraps, foot massages and basic facials for pampering and keeping the evil thoughts of eating under control. Days merge into another as time is spent by the pool, conversations over pysillium husk cocktails by the bar, a carrot or coconut juice on the deck for sundowners, and early nights.
Detox stories are shared, victories celebrated, and the end of the program envied when food is once again back on the menu. The most difficult decision of the day is to decide whether to try the garlic colonic or stay with the coffee!
I dream of vegemite and cheese on toast and bowls of wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce, only to be met with a watered down pineapple juice laden with pysillium husks for breakfast.
Actually this is my breakfast, lunch and dinner plus ‘in betweens’ for the duration of the detox. How I look forward to my five times daily ingestion of a handful of herbal capsules, interspersed with a couple of indulgent colonics.
The seventh day arrives quicker than I expected. We’ve made it! Although glowing and feeling lighter and clearer, my body is STARVING! Trying to make the healthiest choices, I try not to eat my way around the Gulf of Thailand to Koh Samui where begins Stage Two.
Stage two involves purifying, if that’s possible, and soothing my mind and soul. Trudging past Go-Go Bar after Go-Go Bar I finally find my way to a slice of heaven at ‘Diphavan’ on Koh Samui’s eastern shore. This haven is located only a few kilometres from the beach, but it is a world away from the island’s tourist trap. Nestled into the cliff face and enclosed by a blanket of forest, it overlooks the ocean and a distant village. It is my home for six days.
Six gloriously silent and peaceful days and how I do cherish them. When I told friends and colleagues in Bangkok that I was going silent for six days they laughed in disbelief saying I wouldn’t last an hour. A year ago I wouldn’t have. Something has shifted. Bangkok’s confusion, delights and suffering has worn me down and I need to purge it from my system.
Time is filled with nothing more than sitting and walking meditation sessions, Buddhist teachings, a daily yoga session, rest, abundant scrumptious vegetarian meals (up until noon), and…..silence. A dim deep bell chime awakes us at 4.30am. At 9pm it is welcomed as it signals time to be horizontal. During the first few days my body feels battered. But I am getting used to sleeping on a wooden platform with nothing more than a mat and mosquito net for comfort. I am surprised it takes little time to get used to.
Days begin and finish in a room lit by a flickering candle and the sounds of the forest. The forest is so thick that when the wind stirs the trees, the sound of leaf on leaf is like rain. Each morning a haunting solitary voice floats up from a mosque in a village somewhere down below, welcoming the dawn. What a glorious way to start the day!
Heading back to Bangkok the rhythm of the train leads me into a relaxed meditation and I reflect on the fifteen colonics, thirty-five pysillium drinks, two hundred herbal capsules and six days of meditative silent bliss.
Thailand – South East Asian Adventure: 2004-2006
Swimming With Gentle Giants
“Go! But quietly,” advises the spotter calmly. Going quietly is not an easy thing to do when you are swimming with an eight-metre whale shark for the first time. I slip into the sea as silently as possible but can barely breathe through my snorkel I am so awestruck!
Whale sharks are considered the largest of the fish and shark species. Despite the name, they are neither a whale nor have the nature of sharks. They can grow unto 15 metres in length and weigh unto 18 tonnes. Basically, they’re massive! I am a little dubious as I look at the wide mouth, which I am told is perfect for collecting water filled with plankton, small fish and squid. It looks more like a human shovel, a collector of bothersome snorkellers. But I am assured of my safety.
It is in the waters off Padre Burgos that I am seizing the opportunity to cruise with these creatures. Located at the southern tip of South Leyte Island, Padre Burgos is on the Lonely Planet diving trail. However, it has none of the flash and aplomb like some of the other dive hotspots in the Philippines. Here, lining several kilometres of coastline is a handful of dive resorts offering a variety of accommodation options and the opportunity to dive pristine reefs and experience an encounter with the gentle giants.
The Filipinos call the whale shark Butanding. We see two during the four-hour tour. The first was small at four metres, but this one at twice the length is a true beauty. We are close enough to see the spotted skin; however it senses our presence and quickly takes off to deeper waters as we struggle to keep up.
Whale shark season runs from December to May, but for a guaranteed sighting, you are best to visit from February. It’s still early in the season and I have just come from Legazpi, the gateway city to the infamous whale shark village of Donsol in the north, and I was advised operations there are still closed. So it is with little expectation that I join my five companions and every member of the hotel staff for the tour.
This morning I woke to a soft rap on the door and one of the staff asking, “Do you want to look for whale sharks?” I look out at a dark pregnant sky and don’t particularly feel like getting wet, but I don’t want to miss out either.
It isn’t long before the heavens open, but we continue to power through the choppy sea. Before our tour can continue we have to check in with the three men in the small Bangka (canoe) approaching us. Our compulsory US$5 per person charge for the local guide/spotter and general municipality usage fee is collected.
There seems to be some discrepancy and there is lot of animated discussion between our crew and the village officials. We are then left to wait another forty minutes as a crew member is paddled in to shore for further discussions with higher authorities.
It’s all very entertaining and carried out in harmless Filipino humour. Before too long we are on our way, following two wiry men paddling their small Bangka with masked faces submerged, scanning the depths. We have been trawling the waters for hours in the teeming ‘end of wet season’ rain, with little hope of seeing them. Although enormous, these creatures are difficult to spot on cloudy days as their shadows are hidden in the dark waters.
Be warned, guidebooks advise that the wet season is well and truly finished by November. However, locals say they can have rainy conditions until January. Whether today is our lucky day or we are amongst experts, one of the spotters gives our crew the signal and a surge of excitement rips through the boat. Masks and snorkels are set in place and we slide in.
Initially it was not my intention to chase whale sharks in Padre Burgos, but to dive the uncrowded reefs of Sogod Bay. The whale sharks are just an extraordinary bonus. It was all by chance really. A friend had recommended the spot for the colourful coral and abundant sea life, and the overcrowded peak hour bus spat me out in Peter’s driveway.
Peter’s Dive Resort is simple and authentically Filipino. The staff is friendly and accommodating, and the dive team well organized and professional. The restaurant serves basic Filipino food; although I am shocked my fruit salad comes from a can, considering there is a bowl of mangoes on the table!
Recommended are the sizzling hotplate seafood dishes, they are divine. The restaurant overlooks the small coral beach, which is truly inviting, but I didn’t come here to lounge like a lizard. Shortly after I arrive I head out to dive under a cloudless sky. It’s my first dive in a year and my first in the Philippines. The calm clear waters are teaming with activity beneath the surface. I am impressed.
Emerging from the twenty-seven degree waters I join my three diving companions onboard the large dive boat we share with just as many crew. Apart from a local fisherman paddling by, ours is the only boat on the reef. As I sip hot tea and devour biscuits I am thinking I have stumbled upon a gem.
Back on land I walk into a small village at dusk and feel like the Pied Piper. Children come out from everywhere to ask me my name and where I come from. The strangled tunes of Celine Dion and Richard Marx are belting out from nearly every household. Videoed, the Filipino version of karaoke is a national past time for young and old in the city and the country. It’s a contrast to my days out in the bay.
After all of the excitement, I retire early. The fatigue induced sleep comes easily. It’s amazing what a day on the water, meeting new and large aquatic friends, and the absence of the ubiquitous videoke machine can do.
Padres Burgos, The Philippines: Nov/Dec, 2008
Someone must have been listening. Not only have I located the elusive Sunday afternoon cockfight, but also I have etched into my memory, a cock of a different kind. This morning whilst strolling alone along the beach I saw a local vigorously beating his proud cock. He stood amongst the fishing boats proud as punch in his attempt to upset the female foreigner.
Wishing I could linger and take a better look without inviting consent, I hurriedly moved closer to safety. Shockingly this man wasn’t at church where all good Filipinos are on a Sunday morning, but was here harassing innocent me and giving his cock a damn good seeing to!
Its early afternoon and I am still getting over my morning encounter when I stroll into the village of Indonesia, a hop, step and jump away from my lodgings on the small island of Malapasqua off Cebu Island. I hope the cock beater isn’t here, or if he is, doesn’t recognise me. I am not a prude, but travelling alone, I don’t want to incite trouble.
Hard to believe, I know, but this male dominated Sunday afternoon ritual is all about the cock! Men arrive with their handsome fighters tucked under arms or in their own woven carry basket. These well-groomed roosters have been bred purely for this moment, to fight in the corral, egged on by a boisterous crowd of punters.
The competition is not for the faint hearted. A testosterone fuelled pastime in a very masculine society. The only other females I spy are foreigners and some women selling refreshments. It’s bloody and archaic. A blade is fastened around each rooster’s leg. A referee stays in the ring to mediate, intervening to keep the action rolling. Feathers fly and I look away, surveying the crowd instead. The fight takes no longer than a few minutes in some cases, the loser ending up on the victor’s dinner table that night.
The atmosphere is the drawcard for the tourist, and gambling for the locals. I am here purely for the experience, to see it with my own eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t encourage cruel spectator sports involving animals (even roosters), I despise it, although I am guilty of a bullfight or two. But when in The Philippines, how can you not sometimes do as the Filipinos do!
Malapasqua Island, The Philippines: Nov/Dec, 2008
I’ve Been to Bali Too
‘Life is tragic hanging out at Kuta
If you haven’t got a car, bike or a scooter
Show me the bike shop
I’ve been to Bali too’
When I was sixteen, I made three promises. One, never to go on the pill, two, never to get my hair permed, and three, never to go to Bali. So here I am twenty-five years later on a Jetstar flight to Denpasar that reminds me of a chartered flight I once took from London to Athens breaking that third promise. It feels as though we are on our way to Disneyland and if there are any locals on board, they are certainly lost amongst the boisterous Aussie families.
Both luck and wishful thinking one cold winter’s day brings me here. Two weeks, and my first two travel writing famils, I am positively laughing! Waking up to a steamy morning in Ubud is a great idea. Surrounded by rice fields I venture into my first taste of Bali. It’s bigger and busier than I imagined, more like a cross between Chang Rai and a bloated Pai in Northern Thailand. Who cares, a fourteen-dollar manicure and pedicure is my first stop. After spending a couple of years in Southeast Asia, I am well rehearsed in the ‘spa’ benefits, so I take advantage in sampling as many treatments as possible.
During my three nights at Como Shambhala Resort, situated in a small village about fifteen minutes drive from Ubud overlooking the Ayung River, I am treated like a princess. I feast on organic delicacies including lobster and my ‘cleanse’ program includes much pummelling and pampering by expert hands.
My garden terrace suite is so luxurious I don’t want to stray far from it; there’s the four-poster bed, the deep bath where I can watch the flat screen TV from, the king-size daybed on the private deck, and the heated spa.
But I do swim in all the resort pools available to me. Wanakasa Residence’s infinity pool is only a few inches from my door, there’s the lap pool, and the three fresh spring pools that are hidden halfway down the cliff, fed by pure fresh spring water. The only problem with the trek down to the spring pools is that I don’t want to leave, preferring to curl up in the bale. If it wasn’t for those noisy rafters in the river down below and the promise of another massage and delicious dinner, I would kip poolside.
I say goodbye to Ubud, and probably the only authenticity of Bali that I’ll get to see for the next week. It’s time to hit the surf! I join eleven women to surf and practice yoga for 8 days at Surf Goddess Retreat. The gals are from all over, and it’s an interesting mix. The daily yoga is gentle and slow, more stretching and different to what I am used to doing in Sydney. I am so tired from the lack of pace that I’d rather curl up and sleep on my mat than hold poses.
The ocean is toasty warm, and I only need to wear swimmers, a rash vest and a hell of a lot of sunblock. I am surprised how busy the surf is, especially after 10am. I guess all the tourists have slept off the partying of the night before? The surf dwindles during week, but I do get to ride which I am ecstatic about. My body gets accustomed to the paddling as the week progresses; what a pleasure it is to surf daily, even if it is for only ninety minutes.
Unfortunately I am the only one that has any surf experience, so while they go through the basics, I have the pleasure of my own surf instructor for the one and a half hour lessons. However my best surf is on the last day when Melinda (one of the Surf Goddess guides) takes me on a mini surfari to Canguu, an easy twenty minutes north. It’s a world away from the Kuta/Legian strip. It’s like going from the Gold Coast to Byron Bay. The deep volcanic reef break is busy at 6.30am, but I get some long rides on fat easy waves. Looking back to shore I can see the outline of a volcano as I sit out at sea, invisible from the breaks at Legian.
I do follow the pack one night to the infamously glitzy Ku De Ta for sunset. I splurge on a fifteen-dollar cocktail, and try not to berate myself for it. It is Bali remember, not Sydney, so I have every right to! But it’s a priceless experience, even if it is just to see the expat glamourzons prancing about.
It’s all over far too soon. Standing at Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai Airport staring up at the departure board, I remember one of the Surf Goddess affirmation cards I have packed in my bag, ‘I am flexible and flowing’. I keep this in mind as I trudge off to find out what happened to my 1am flight home!
Bali, Indonesia: October, 2010