Paul’s route, from place to place:
IRELAND: Dublin – UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Dubai (City & desert) – INDIA: Mumbai – Udipur – Mt. Abu – Jodphur – Jaisalmer – Thar Desert – Desert towns – Jaisalmer – Bikinar – Amritsar – Dharamsala – McLeod Ganj – Pathankot – Delhi – Agra – Varanasi – Saranat – Varanasi – NEPAL: Sonali – Pokhara – trek: Nayapul – Tikedhunga – Ghorepani – Tatopani – Ghasa – Marpha – Kagbeni – Muktinath – Jomson – Pokhara – Chitwan National Park – Kathmandu – Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu – THAILAND: Bangkok – Surat Thani – Ko Samui – Ko Pha Ngan – Surat Thani – Hat Yai – Nong Khai – MALAYSIA – Padang Besar – THAILAND – Nong Khai – Krabi – Hat Yai Yu – Phuket – Bangkok – Nong Khai – LAOS: Vientiene – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Vientiene – Nong Khai – THAILAND: Bangkok – Aranyaprathet – CAMBODIA: Poi Pet – Siem Reap – Phnom Penh – Bavet – VIETNAM: Ho Chi Minh City – Hanoi – Halong Bay – Hanoi – Dong Dang – CHINA: Pinxiang – Nanning – Guangzhou – HONG KONG: Hong Kong City – United Kingdom (England): London – IRELAND: Dublin.
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Five months of new places, of new people. Five months of painful laughter and painful reality. Five months of learning, of unlearning. Five months of hard days and long nights. Five months of fear and exhilaration, of revolution and temptation. Five months of meeting new friends. And meeting old ones. Five months of confusion, of insight, of revelations. Five months of great food and crappy beds. Of beautiful views and depressing sights. Of dancing in the streets. Of staring at your feet. Of truth and lies. Of anger and joy. Of experience. Five months of adventure.
Five months is a long time. Beards have grown thick and been shaved and grown thick again. Tans have darkened and faded again. Memories made and forgotten. The longing for freedom has finally given way to a longing of a different kind. Resolve has weakened and fuel burned out. Now the anticipation of normality tinges every breath with a metallic tang. Gone is the want know that which cannot be conceived, now is the longing for what was had before. In that different life that we left so long ago. Five months ago.
For some the power still draws, the imagination still tingles. Unwalked soil still calls and unimagined worlds are still reachable. Another adventure. Another experience. Another few weeks in hallowed land.
And so such power, like the gentle but insistant pull that pools spattered droplets of mercury, draws us apart. Like the now spend fuel casing on a rocket, I fall back down to earth while my counterpart continues onwards. While I drop back into the cool ocean of origin, the adventure continues.
I’m going back now. My part of this story is finished. In time, I’m sure, when my reserves are filled again and the needle of my wants swings once again, I will make another journey. There is a big world out there, and plenty of time for me to see it.
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The flights are booked, the route (somewhat) planned and your intentions of abandoning loved ones has been widely broadcast. This is about the time that the pressing concern of that magical word “Gear” begins to raise it’s head. You stand in front of your backpack; an indubitable requirement, it having even lent it’s name to the throngs of travellers you intend to join. Somewhere in the back of your head is the need for underpants and a spare pair of socks. But what other essential padding do you use to fill that gaping canvas and nylon void?
We opted for the ever-popular Bring-As-Much-Useful-Looking-Stuff-Possible school of thought. This had several advantages, the biggest one being the avoidance of those niggling feelings about your choice between ball-point Biro’s and pencils. We brought both! After all, when we stood in that pensive stance facing our bags, we came upon two conclusions. The first being that our bags were huge. One of them aggressively leaning it’s 110 litre bulk against the wall. They had that hungry look of a bag that could happily swallow several people’s gear, never again to be found within the zippered twilight zone within. The second, and most deciding, conclusion is that we really had no idea what we needed. Where shorts or pants better for 40 degree heat? How long would the wait for a laundry service be Nepal? Are fourteen hour bus trips more bearable in sandals or runners?
So we answered all our disconcerting questions with one haughty answer. Pack for wilderness survival, and everything more hospitable that we find will just be a bonus!
So that’s what we did, we brought our bags up to the budget airline’s max weight, and then carried all the really heavy stuff in our deceptively large day bags. We flung ourselves through the airport doors with the unstoppable momentum normally associated with meteors. The heavy clunk of our hiking boots (had to wear this heavy piece of kit, the hope of that passing the weight test would have been blind) sounded military of the shiny floors of the check-in queue. Our encouraging smiles to the airline staff, our quick jokes to the bored over-sized luggage clerk and our cover-all yellow bags (gifts to travellers of a voyage long ago) all helped us to make it on board with more than the regulation amount of weight. Once in foreign lands, we reasoned, all this kit will be worth it!
I didn’t mind carrying the pack, although it was admittedly was somewhat difficult to navigate narrow corridors, and I did occasionally need rescuing from tight doorways. The constant comments on the size of my bag, and it’s possible contents of a stowaway girlfriend, made for an interesting ice-breaker with the locals. The only thing that started to bug me, was the idea that I might have to throw some of it, possibly unused, into an Asian trash-can. That erked me so much, in fact, that I have doggedly refused all the sensible options of leaving unnecessary gear behind. Save for maybe a drum…
My companion has maintained a far more mercenary approach to his kit. Constantly resorting his pack, clearing his stockpiles of new clothes when even his pack couldn’t sustain the pressure. T-shirts, the trademark of his purchasing power, go through a constant revolving door in the bottom of his bag. Unneeded gear made way for more useful local produce. Eventually even his beautiful dream of the guitar-playing backpacker took too much strain, and it was offloaded to another dreamer along the way. Too bulky, too delicate, to prone to going out of tune and too time-consuming to put back in tune. Always the pragmatist of the due!
Now we’re a little wiser. A little better travelled. A little more sensible. We can now afford to look back on the fears of finding a place to stay and laugh. We can now look on over-sized packs and head-nets and roll our eyes. We remember buying new clothes for the trip the way that some people remember themselves fretting over how straight their tie looks the morning of the first day of school. When you get here, it stops mattering. You find, to either your dismay or relief, that even in Jaisalmer they sell deodorant, or that next to the the open-air market in Krabi they have a 7-11. So now, in the hope of passing on some of our learnings to those of you who want to take that step out the door and worry what you should have on your back, I’ll give a quick run-through of what we’ve had on ours.
Quite possible would have died without
Money Belt – Containing everything we needed to get our sorry asses pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. Passports, insurance details, credit cards, ATM cards, bulk cash, spare cash, flight details, keys to our locks. Maybe even a photo of our loved ones. Most useful when; Freaking out that you might have left something important behind, and you can just tap your waist-band and breath out in relief!
Sandals - The King of all footwear, can be worn with socks (don’t care what anyone says!!) or without depending on climate. Allow the foot access to air while protecting it from any unwholesome debris on ground level. Most useful when; needing to dash out of your bedroom with haste when your fellow travellers are threatening to douse you with water because you’re already late for a bus. Also for showering in Indian communal bathrooms, where the difference between the toilet and the shower hole may prove too confusing for some of it’s previous occupants.
Headlamp – Small, battery powered LED headlamps are the king of all illumination devices! Long-lasting and incredibly bright, these little puppies can be used for everything from reading to replacing a motorbike’s broken headlamp. Most useful when; One of the frequent power shortages plunges the city into blackness, and you have a dangerous route to navigate to get to the toilet. Also useful for evil monkeys away from you as you sit huddled under a tarp in a jungle.
Sunglasses – Let’s face it, we hail from the lands of overcast skies and depressingly weak natural light. Our corneas’ are not used to the punishing effects of direct sunlight, and we spend a great deal of our time squinting through the hydrogen bomb-glare of the Asian sun. This leads to migraines, distorted vision and looking like a pedophilic gremlin. A simply fixed with a pair of corrected lens sunglasses! Most useful when; Trekking the Himalayas, walking around at midday, and combining with shorts, high-ankle white socks and sandals to become the cutting edge of style.
Antibacterial Hand-wash – OK, this is one that gets some abuse, slandered for being the tool of westerners to keep their little bubble of protection from the world they’re visiting. But we will stand and defend this little bottle of green gunk! Without it’s sanitising effects, we quite litter-ally could have died in India. After stooping to tie a shoelace while standing in a river of filth and having to push scuzzy dogs away with one hand while receiving your Thali plate with the other you begin to appreciate the miracle that is us surviving India without a single dose of diarrhea! Most useful when; The water isn’t clean, it would be vain hope to imagine the cook washed this week and you yourself are covered with a thin scraping of smoggy slime. In other words, India!
Things that make living that little bit easier
Travel towel – This light, compact and easily dried little gem is top of travelling essentials. The alternative is being laden down with stinking, stinking bulk that a normal normal towel becomes after three days of living in your bag after hastily rubbings yourself dry the morning before you left. Wouldn’t trade this for; a pair of fluffy bunny slippers.
Aloe vera – All purpose, making-that-discomfort-go-away liquid! Useful for soothing insect bites, crotch-rash from hiking and sunburn. Also good as a quick first aid for minor cuts and blisters, as it has mild antibacterial properties. Wouldn’t trade this for; A big bowl of strawberries with sugar and cream.
Face cloth – It’s name makes it sound single-purpose, when it is anything but! This little puppy becomes a miniature towel, a cooling rag for fevers and sunburn, an exfoliating pad to scrub the grime from your feet, a little storage pouch for your still-wet soap, and many more necessary pieces of kit! Wouldn’t trade this for; Two bottles of eye-drops, a pez-dispenser and one of those hypnotising Waving Cats.
Things that became our best friends
Sun hat – Similar to the fishing hats sported by old men, this may be an uncool addition to our attire. But what this baby lacks in style, it more than makes up for in value when faced with an unrelenting sun that threatens to burn your skull through your scalp. Also adds an extra layer of insulation from the biting wind on those barren mountainsides. Number of times hugged; Three, the desert, the mountain, and the time it became an impromptu Frisbee!
Long-sleeved shirt – Front line defence from heat, cold and the evil mosquito! Also can be rolled up to become a short-sleeved shirt! Magic! Also, the very act of rolling it up makes you feel like you’re about to get down to some serious business. Number of times hugged; Two. When it made me “blend in” with the jerky, shirt wearing local party-goers and when it allowed me to laugh at other travellers swatting at the swarms of mossies buzzing about.
Books – These really do have the sole right to claim the ability to turn an otherwise mind-numbing wait for a bus into an entertaining three hours. Makes filling the gaps in your journey a cinch. Easily and cheaply replaced at the omnipresent second-hand book stores all across Asia, we never seem to be without at least two each. Number of times hugged; About three-hundred and fifty or so. Hard to keep track of the number of times you nearly cried with relief at the sight of that paper-back when you’re trapped in your hostel with nothing to do.
Notepad – Diary, account book, memory replacement and entertainment all rolled into this wire-bound (or leather bound in the case of our posher half) stack of pages. It’s amazing how many idea’s and insights you have when travelling, and it’s a real bonus to be able to jot some down. Number of times hugged; Eh, none. Coz hugging your diary would just be sad. Even if it’s sometimes the only friend you have in the world… sniff…
Panadol – The ability to turn an unbearable journey into an enjoyable exploration, in handy tablet form! Everyone knows that even a small headache can make a stressful time a real nightmare, it really is a mega relief to enjoy seeing day-light and hearing people talk again! Number of times hugged; As it turns out, it’s pretty hard to hug a panadol. Once it’s done it’s magic, it’s been dissolved in your stomach acid. But the freedom from pain does tend to make you run around hugging everyone else!
Things that we should have left behind
Clothes – This is a big one, everything you could possibly want to wear is readily available over here for a fraction of the price. The very idea of going out “shopping for travel” is twatish in itself. Practically every destination is cheaper that Dublin! Time it took to wake up to reality; about a week. When we saw how easy it is to get clothes much more suitable to our new environment.
Hammock – God. This was a real daft thing to bring. It remained unused in the bottom of our bags until I took mine out for a night and then ditched the hated thing the next morning. THESE ARE THE DAEMON BEDS! Time it took to wake up to reality; Mainly due to an insistant rocking back and forth with our hands over our ears repeating “we WILL need our hammocks. We WILL need our hammocks…” it actually took us quite a while to admit the truth.
Head-net – I have no idea what we envisioned when we got these. Even in the highly unlikely situation of us hacking our way through a forest of insects with a machete, we still wouldn’t wear these things. I did use mine once though, when I was too lazy to get out of bed and put up my fly netting and couldn’t sleep with all the little gits going for my ears. Time it took to wake up to reality; About two months. When we found them in the depths of our packs and it took a few minutes to figure out what they were.
Sleeping Mats – Aside from their occasional use, these things just aren’t worth lugging around. We used them about five or six times, normally on the floor of our hostel floor to pad the concrete a bit. When trekking we were able to stop at rustic accommodation the whole way, so we didn’t need these for the purpose they were brought. Time it took to wake up to reality; Three months. After the trek. But they were expensive and useful for trekking another time. We hope.
Things of debatable value
Deet (insect repellent) – This is a brilliant idea! No-more-mossies, in a spray! Skrrrst skrrrst, mozzies begone! Unfortunately I can’t shake the unnerving feeling that the mossies watch us doing this, take a second to realise that those big, spongy food-bags now think they’re safe?! Score!! And then, when they’ve finished dining for the evening, promptly go off to the pub to laugh with their mates about their easies meal yet. Cheeky gits. Pros; Quick spray on exposed skin creates a chemical barrier that even the hungriest gits detest. Cons; We have never yet managed to get all the exposed skin, the stuff lasts less than an hour for even the most modest sweaters (which some of us are certainly not) and the stuff is pretty much as toxic to you as it is to the critters. So unless you plan on spraying yourself like someone with excessive compulsive disorder, constantly complaining about missing the backs of your ears punctuated with infrequent trips to your exasperated dermatologist… long sleeve shirts and incense coils work too.
Malaria Tablets – Long, long hours have we antagonised over this one. We gathered information from multiple physicians, researched on every website we could think of and took advice from every traveller who had their two cents to offer. Turns out most information conflicted, most local doctors didn’t know much, and the travellers swore against while the pharmaceutical companies, governments and medical boards screamed wide usage. Ah, easy choice so. The option we finally chose was to take the pills until we decided that our travels in danger zones had passed. Keeping your eye on the web for updates is a must for this option! Pros; Peace of mind. Avoiding the skip-a-heartbeat sensation when the word Malaria crops up in conversation. Not getting throttled by your fearful loved-ones. Cons; Pumping your body with unnecessary antibiotics for long periods of time (in our case months). All that cash you spent on them in the first place. And with many, unhappy side effects.
Sun cream – This is one that we still packed, and were thankful for it, but actually used very little of. A high-factor sun cream can be the difference between a good night’s sleep after a full day of hiking, or pain, blisters, peeling and possibly skin cancer. Although it really is no substitute for a hat, long sleeves and sensibly hiding away when the sun is at it’s worst, leaving midday to Charles and his frothy poodle. Pros; Protection for those times that you need to brave the desert sun to make it back to civilization before the scorpions get you, or if you want to go shopping in the markets all day with your flip-flops on. Cons; Horrible sticky stuff this. Unpleasant as a greasy film on your skin, worse when a greasy film all over your wash-bag. Plus it smells like your mother has been chasing you around the beach and humiliating you in front of your mates.
The information contained within this post is merely that of two somewhat lucid, though often departed from normally excepted sanity boundaries, hardcore backpackers. When reading through the advice contained in this, or any, post you must keep in mind that it was developed by legends, for legends. We therefore except no responsibility for the damaged caused to persons/property/nations when attempting to utilise such information while being outside the ideal disposition of legendness.
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Itchy feet again. Time to get moving! We’d done the Thailand thing and were ready to hit the road again, and where better to trundle off to than the much raved about destination, Laos? The newest hot-spot in South East Asia, Laos promised a relaxing combination of French food, quiet towns and, of great importance, less rain than further South! With the full rath of the Thai Monsoon snapping at our heels, we grabbed our bags and struck out for Thailand’s peaceful neighbour. Baguettes and pate, here we come! First stop, the teeny Laos capital of Vientiane.
And we do mean teeny. Barely reaching the population mark of 200,000 and having the infrastructure that would spur even the lowliest of Irish villages to pride, Laos’ largest urban area felt more like a little mountain town than a capital city. A little mountain town that some careless troll has vomited concrete all over. We hopped off our bus, sporting new and increased price visas, we set towards finding a place to stay. A short wrestle with the resident Jumbo drivers (like a tuk-tuk, only bigger and with half the engine power. Oh, how very, very slow…) and we found ourselves at the hotel centre. And, as it turns out, all the talk about dirt cheap living in Laos must not have included Vientiane. We eventually found rooms (more costly than Bangkok) and set to finding food. The grub was uniformly more costly than we were used to, but we found a nice Indian restaurant and set to filling ourselves with the much missed Naan!
It seemed that the colonising French had some strange ideas of what advancement is. The road systems were largely non-existant, and the ones that were more than just mud where more holes than not. There were actually warnings to tourists about looking where you were going, in case you disappeared down one of the deep chasms. In a strange twist, the victorious Laos people erected a large monument in memorial of their struggle for independence. It eerily resembles L’Arc De Triumph in Paris. So much so that we assumed that it was a French monument designed to make the Colony feel more at home! The lack of amenities and transport that quickly wore our energy, time and wallets made for quite a dull city. Ja Yeon did drag us to another temple, a great big dirty stupa covered in flaking gold paint. Riveting stuff. Not too impressed with our first taste of Laos, we quickly decided to head North. The Northern “city” of Luang Prabang, with it’s remaining French architecture, was the destination. But we decided to make a quick stop on the way.
Vang Vieng was once heralded as a “best kept secret” of Laos, it’s peaceful rivers and captivating rock formations made this a place worth visiting. Until everyone did. We arrived at a bus stop with two roads leading off it. It seemed that the too-common tourist fever had taken the village completely long before we got anywhere near it. At night the place really did resemble the neon lit streets surrounding the infamous Ko San road in Bangkok. Each building served as a hostel, travel agents or restaurant/cafe that played re-runs of Friends. Quite often they were all three in one. Again, prices had soared and we were paying through our teeth for less-than-incredible food and accommodation. We stayed only long enough to float down the river on a tractor tyre (the activity of choice, called tubing. Good fun, until the toll is taken from lying under the baking sun for three hours) and then we grabbed the next bus to Luang Prabang.
The bus rides in Laos deserve a special mention. We payed the extra dollars for the top-of-the-range, ultra-luxurious VIP coach. What we got was an old Korean reject from the 80′s. It was supposed to come complete with a free lunch (which didn’t happen), free drinks (that didn’t exist), have an inside toilet (that didn’t work) and air conditioning (what do you thing?). The drive took us around every mountain in the North of Laos, with a quick detour through a theme park specialising in vomit inducing roller-coasters, with a quick nip across the Atlantic ocean to add a bit of spice. For the first few hours we used every bit of muscle that our rear-ends could muster just to try and stop us thwaking back and forth from the sides of the bus. For the last two hours our bodies failed us and we surrendered to the lowly existence of a gold-fish being flushed down the toilet.
We staggered off the bus looking as green as the jungle around us and over-paid a Jumbo to get us to our hostels. We got there, sweaty and tired after our voyage up and down the pot-holes, and got ourselves refreshed and ready for exploration. Luang Prabang sports a population of 22,000. Making it a mid-sized town by our standards, but a bustling city by Laos’ flexible terminology. It also turned out to be a tourist-orientated city, where the main streets were dominated by French and American back-packers. It also turned out to be quiet expensive. This super-cheap county, with an exchange rate of 1 euro to 12,000 kip (the currency name aptly describes the state and value of the notes) and one of the poorest populations in Asia was turning out to be the most expensive destination so far. In between dashing out of frequent rain storms (the monsoon had found us, crafty beggar!) and groping for torches during the blackouts, we managed escape joining JaYeon on her latest temple-hunt and rented a couple of bicycles. They were the really old school kind (taken straight out of the Wonderyears era) and we had great fun moving about the town slowly, arms locks straight, chins in the air, releasing the occasional French WHONH HONH HONH! (it had to be done) as we passed the faded colonial shop-fronts.
Another distressing bus ride to Vientiane and we were ready to leave. After our wonderful experiences in Thailand we began to wax nostalgic. Oh it’s so cheap in Thailand! Oh it’s so easy to travel! Oh the people are so nice! Oh the food is so good! Lets go back!
So we did.
We’re now back in the mighty city of Bangkok. Once again. Just can’t seem to get away from this place, it’s almost Western comforts hold strong appeal for these weary travellers. We managed only a week in Laos before scampering back, begging for the welcoming smiles of our familiar hostel owners.
Man oh man, we’re really getting soft. But seriously, Bangkok is just so flippin’ GREAT!
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With my girlfriend back in town it was time to let her do the food choices, but i was unprepared for her choice today – MK restaurant, a top Thai favorite. Instead of a big post about the food, I’m going to make a very short photo ‘diary’, it’s what i do best. You should check out http://www.mkrestaurant.com/
JaYeon checks the menu and we get the water heating. That’s right.. there is a ceramic hob built into the table where we boil the vegetables and other dishes ourselves.
You can now see the table layout, with all our instruments of death spread out before us.
She is amused at my perplexity as i take in the whole experience.
Look at this little plastic thing on the table – pure evil if i ever saw it. He can launch nukes with that PDA i bet.
The food selection and cooking pot. Fish cakes, fish balls, squid and other fishy stuff. Dimsom (like momo’s), tofu, beef and loads of vegetables, among them several different types of fungus.
My bowl of food.. yummy.
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Bangkok’s malls are an experience in themselves, dazzling, mesmerizing, sometimes perplexing and regularly disorienting. When you step of the BTS Skytrain at Siam squares station you have a multitude of maze like walkways conveniently leading you in to one of the many malls available – the Siam Center/Siam Discovery Center, MBK Center and Siam Paragon. I decided to explore one of the more modern ones – the Siam Paragon. The bottom floor consists of an Aquarium, actually it’s the biggest aquarium in south-east Asia and on the same floor there is also a concert hall. The next floor consists of a food court which is a place constantly bustling with people in and around the restaurants, cafes and food markets. I have never seen such a mix of fast food corporations, Thai, local and other Asian restaurants blend together with such symbiosis. In Ireland McDonald’s and Burger King usually attract a certain ‘crowd’ and end up with a bad image. Thai’s seem equally content with being in any kind of establishment and never have this kind of problem. Anyway the next 5 floors cover every type of store available, with amazing specialty in some items that are usually grouped together or just sold in department stores. Sony had 4 shops – One just for it’s Bravia TV’s, one for it’s mp3′s, one for the Viao notebooks and one that sold everything else. Designer labels were abound, everything you can imagine. One entire floor was dedicated to car showrooms, I’m not kidding – Lotus, Ferrari, Maserati, BMW and a few of the other top sports car makers. On the second floor i stepped into the biggest bookstore of my life, they had Thai and English books with a selection probably larger then Easons on O’Connoll street. I went into the ubiquitous Starbucks to really see what the fuss is all about, and concluded a hypothesis rather quickly. The American coffee chain seems to be about 80% image and 20% coffee, absurdly overpriced the beverages cost about 6-10 times the price of an equivalent drink somewhere else in Bangkok. And the taste? Good.. very nice indeed, but not any nicer then any good coffee shop in Thailand. Although as a budding designer, i must respect Starbucks captivating and very intelligent graphics – their image is very modern. Their business model was explained to me by a conspiracy theorist, he explained they extrude an almost ruthless Borg-like behavior – They see a well established, popular coffee shop in a good location, and simply buy them out. Marvelous! OK.. i should continue..
Watching the shoppers buzzing around this gigantic edifice i think i really saw the pantheon of Thai society. The cool hip teenagers with slicked spiky hair and trendy shirts – usually sporting an intelligent phrase or the face of a revolutionary. The young Thai women – at risk of sounding hypocritical for slandering the sex ferang, they are as amazingly beautiful as everyone says and it’s hard not to look and go “God damn!”. The men stroll around with sleek threads, sunglasses propped on their heads pacing after their girlfriends and chatting on their cellphones. There is a style and class here i had never seen before, certainly not in Ireland anyway.
Right, I’m now finished writing.. I’m hungry. So basically if you like shopping, go to Bangkok!
Filed under: Thailand | 2 Comments
Ok, for this post we are going to need some jungle drums:
Dum Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum
Ahh the jungle! The most beautiful and captivating of environments, they truly are the most prominent edifices to Mother Nature’s powers. For centuries the words of men have painted dark and terrifying images of those shadowy worlds. Those places where beasts rule and even the mighty sun is not permitted without the earthy hues of it’s chlorinated screen. Stories are told of giant apes and killer feline predators hiding amongst the thick canopies. How could you not be tempted to visit such a place?
The jungle has always held a certain appeal, and on our journeys through the Southern paradises of Thailand, I felt the itch to do them some justice. Having just pulled off a sprightly border-hop (our apologies, Malaysia! We will do you some justice on another journey) we had just arrived on the island of Ko Yao. It was true to it’s guidebook-description of a sleepy little island with little to do but watch the local Muslim fishermen clean their nets. It did have one or two appeals to us though; the crystal-clear waters, the thick jungles and, not least of all, the complete lack of farang. Turns out that it had one thing that we hadn’t been wishing for. The monsoon. The rains were heavy and relentless for the last week. Bangkok was poised for major flooding and was busy preparing emergency services. The roads down south lasted about half an hour before surrendering to nature and becoming full-blown rivers. We watched the rain out our windows while clawing at computer screens, begging the forecasts to change. But, in spite of BBC warnings and the ominous darkness of the previously cloudless skies, we strive forth. I will have my jungle adventure!
A day on the island, and Paul is not so convinced. The rain has been thumping down all day and the roads of the little village are streams of red mud. We’ve found an abandoned “resort”, which is more of a Muay Thai boxing camp with a few rickety huts for rent. I intend to find a quiet strip of beach and spend the days practicing my Kenpo forms on he sandy flats and the nights lying in my hammock under the heavy canopy listening to the jungle sing. Paul looks at me like I have my head so far in the clouds I can’t see the cow turd I’m standing in, but agrees to sleep on it. That night it feels like our hut was in the midst of a tsunami, and the storm continues well into the morning. The next boat leaving is that afternoon, and Paul was on it. Bah!, I thought. I’m made of stronger stuff than that man! I turned and started the short hike to my jungle camp.
Now, to call the jungle a habitat in it’s own right is incorrect. What it is, is a million habitats all piled on top of each other. It’s an insane ecosystem that encourages a disorientating number of species to fight for every inch of space, normally using extremely violent methods. The concept of creatures harmoniously living in one biotope is one that never reached the depths of these tropical forests. It’s a vicious, cut-throat environment where loving your neighbour is something that some guy once told you just before you ripped off his head and stole all his stuff. In some ways it reminds me of the Ballymun flats; nobody has enough space, you have as many neighbours on the vertical as the horizontal, and you’re occasionally forced to eat one of your own young.
This was the world I entered with my packfulls of gear, army boots and high hopes. The jungle denizens must have paused on their first glimpse of me, and either shook their heads in pity or rubbed their mandibles together and salivated. Now I am not a first-timer to the jungle world, though you may find that hard to believe. I have camped on the river-sides of the mighty amazon some years back, and even made a fleeting renewal of friendships in the Chitwan national park. I even went for a hike through the Northern Forests of Chiang Mai. Even still, it is my humble opinion that anyone who tries to live in this deranged otherworld goes through several stages of metal breakdown. After the initial shock and awe at the sheer diversity and amount of life around you, over the next day or so you go though the five stages of jungle realisation:
There is no way those ants are throwing themselves off the tree just to get me. That’s not possible, I’m imagining it. And those mosquitoes are NOT biting me through my t-shirt. I’ve covered myself in Deet and everything. And there is NO WAY those things are biting through the ropes of my Hammock!
All right! The next little git to bite me is OW!! Aaaargh!! Die! (Grabbing a big stick and bashing everything around me, only to look down and realise that it was home to a nest of little red things that start swarming up my sleeve) Aaaahh, F#*k!! I’ll kill every one of you! Get off!(Stumble back into a spiky tree that rips my clothes) What!? Oh, the trees better not start on me now! And that F#*KING MONKEY BETTER NOT THROW ANY MORE COCONUTS!!
Ok little friends. We’ve had our differences in the past but I know OW! that we can put those behind us. I tell you what, why don’t I leave you some food? I know OW! that you’d like some of my dinner. Then we’re even? You leave me alone, I’ll give you more food than you could ever imagine? What do you say? OW!
Whats the point in trying? Why don’t I just lay down and let them eat me alive? Nothing I try works. Deet wont keep the bugs away. Clothes wont keep the bugs away. They’re there in the day, in the night, when it rains, when it’s dry. They hide in the bushes for me to pass. There’s nothing I can do!
Us squishy human kind are nothing. The insects are true masters of the Earth. I bow before you! All hail the insect overlords!
You laugh now, but you should have seen me on my knees telling the ants that they had won…
My plan was to set up a hammock, with a tarp shelter above it to keep the rains off. Then I would cook on my newly purchased (and laboriously carried) gas stove the supplies which I had stockpiled. I planned to stay two or three nights, more if I enjoyed the experience as much as I hoped. The cooking went well enough, though I did flee the jungle line and head out to some rocks on the sand. The flies weren’t so thick out there, where the breeze kept them at bay, but the main reason was the sand crabs! These guys are brilliant, and in them I found my only ally of my adventure. Queer, nervous little guys, but predictable, and best of all cowardly. They had no interest in taking a pop at me. They valued their lives, unlike the brain-dead insect realm past the tree-line. They also had one other useful attribute. Just as sure as they would run from anything bigger, they would gobble anything smaller. Including, to my enormously devious pleasure, any insect that touched the sand. The number of times I ran shrieking from the jungle covered in creepy-crawlies to get my twitching, slightly manic pleasure watching the little gits scurry off across the sand. The crabs, ever wary of the big fleshy thing standing there, would side-scuttle about, testing it’s daring for getting to the prize. It would do it’s best to look like it was simply scuttling past the thing. Not interested in the slightest. And then it would watch you a while. Then it would scuttle back for another passing. No reaction from the giant. Then it would shoot, quick as a catapult, for the little thing trying its best to find shelter. Grab it in a claw, freeze (no reaction! I’m home free!), pull a bit off and gobble it, pause (just in case it changed it’s mind…), pulled another bit off and gobble it. This was the manner of the most efficient little bug-hunter I’ve ever seen. But they were cute enough to know that the ants were efficient in their own way, and that it would be their death if they crossed the border from their territory into the jungles. It was like warring border, with the opposite sides patrolling incessantly but never daring to cross. Brilliant though, my own little guard dogs!
When I say that the crabs were my only allies, I don’t exaggerate. My equipment included. My sealed Tupperware food-box didn’t keep out the ants. My high-ankled boots attracted the ants (the little black ones actually ate the polish off them. No joke). But worst of it was my hammock.
My hammock was a pretty top-of-the-range piece of kit, not yet opened and actually designed for the jungle. It was lightweight, flexible, had it’s own fly-net attached (soaked with chemicals to kill anything that even thought about getting inside). But it hand a major flaw. It was a still a bloody hammock.
Facts about Hammocks
1 – They sag. You have to hang them ridiculously high up to allow for the sag, so that your ass doesn’t rub the wet ground all night. This means you have to be some kind of Olympic… ninja to get INTO the bloody thing. And getting out normally involves getting one leg on the ground and the other being catapulted over your head throwing you in a kind of stunt that takes skateboarders years to pull off.
2 – They actually have a special technique to sleeping in them. This is no commoner garden rope affair here, this thing was designed for professional sleepers. You see, lying length-ways will result in you being crumpled in a ball in the middle, and have no support for your spine whatsoever. To counter this you must sleep diagonally, from corner to corner. Then the little stick-man in the picture has a smile on his face. Easier said than done. Moving around inside a hammock in the pitch black was difficult enough, and the slightest bit too much to one side would flip the thing. You spent a great deal of your time trying to lie as perfectly still as possible. Trying to lie across the thing was suicide, and attempting such would send the hammock into a swinging arc that took a long time to stop. The eventual result is that you move one way, while the thing swings the other, flipping the devils chair and you come ripping out through fly-netting to land on the rain-soaked ground. Rain-soaked and swarming with ants.
3 – Hammocks make excellent rain collectors. I can just imagine that being written on some survival manual somewhere. Great when you are dying of thirst in some desert. Terrible when you’re lying in the thing, with shreds of a torn mozzie net over you, and the water is coming up past your underwear. The technique which the survival hammock uses is a simple yet effective one. Whatever you tie the hammock to, a tree in my case, the rain runs down. Until it meets the hammocks ropes, which divert the steady flow along their length to finally gather in a pool around my buttocks.
So this was how I found myself spending my first night in the jungle. Sitting in my boxer-shorts atop my soaked rucksack. Watching the monsoon thunder away and the water pooling in my hammock. In the middle of the jungle. Oh and I did receive a brief respite when the rain stopped for an hour or two and I was stalked my monkeys who obviously enjoy terrorising helpless soaked rats in their underwear. Gits. It was my first and only night, at day break I beat the insects from some clothes and staggered down the jungle paths back to village.
I was forced to admit defeat, and I feel I am stronger for it. I learned a lot in those long hours. I learned that fire-ants attack by piercing you in with their mandibles and then arching their backs to spray acid over the wound. I learned that there are a hundred thousand species of mosquitoes that Deet will keep away, but the little black and silver gits seem to love the stuff. I learned that making some noise to let things know you are walking down the path was a REALLY good idea. I learned that no matter what you think, every human runs around for the first minute of heavy rain, like a crazed chicken convinced that it can dodge the raindrops. I learned that after the first minute you get used to being wet, and you actually start to enjoy the rain. And I learned that when my companion feels something is daft to do, it probably is because it’s quite a daft thing to do.
The rain has cleared up the last day, and the forecasts are for sun for the next week. May the Travel gods forever smile upon the poor of wit and strong of will who set off from home to visit this huge planet.
But I understand that sometimes we need a lesson in reality. In such cases, I find a quick spot of monsoon works wonders.
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