A Travellerspoint blog

Siem Reap and beyond

Nearly all templed out

sunny 36 °C

9th May
Chia cracked the whip and had us up 5am for Ankor Wat sunrise.
Before Chia could get too excited , we told him we were a bit templed out and it was really hot, and maybe he could cut back a bit today and just take us to two temples. He said we can do four, and off we went.

Ankor Wat is the Wow temple. Wow. 5km x 5 km moat and outer wall, with several squared sections inside, culminating in the centre with a section that is about 4 levels high (not your normal house level).
The sunset crowd from last night were back again but Ankor is so vast, it didn't matter this time. We opted for the view over the lily pond with the temple reflected in the water. And it means Mark can look at fish when he gets bored. P1000941.jpgThere's so much to see here and we only saw a little. We wanted breakfast!
The centre of the temple wasn't open to tourists until 8am, so we waited, only to be told that I wasn't sufficiently dressed. Mark called me an "Immodest Western Whore" and went by himself. It's probably just as well. The insanely steep steps had a tourist friendly wooden staircase over top, but I think it may have meant the end of my Nanna knees so it's just as well I stayed at the bottom with the uncovered ladies. 90_P1000959.jpgYes Ankor Wat is every inch as impressive as they say it is. I do wish we had organised a tour guide though as it would be great to hear some of the stories behind the bas relief galleries that stretch for hundreds of metres.

After breaky, we headed further out of town, a 40 min tuk tuk ride to a Temple known to be the most ornate in the area, Banta Srei.
The ride was great fun. So much to see. It's fairly flat and large sections of the area is rice paddy, but being the dry season, they were almost as dry as the paddocks back home in summer. Much of the fields are broken up with patches of rainforest and fruit and vege gardens, so we're not talking the vast paddy fields you see in other parts of Asia. There were small villages the whole way along and people selling everything that can be made or grown. Durians are in season, there were big piles of them on sale. Being the hottest part of the day, many people were sleeping in hammocks or lying across the table of their stall, stretched out among the wares. Cows were often on the road free to do their own thing.
Most people had huts with walls made of woven Bamboo, some elevated on stilts. You can make pretty much anything out of bamboo. Some people had more substantial houses of timber. I noted a few people bathing or taking water from water pumps from the ground. I'm not sure what the quality of the water is here, but there has been a lot of work by international charity organisations, I expect the ground water is cleaner than the water from the streams in the area.
It seemed to me as a drive by observer, that these villages were not tourist savvy, but I was proven wrong when we stopped to fix a problem with the tuk-tuk. Mark & I thought we would take a little walk through the village and within seconds we were mobbed by children selling pretty little painted dragonflies made from bamboo.P1000986.jpg Again the problem is, they're all selling the same thing so you have to pick one. Awkward. Not sure if customs will let me take my dragonflies home.
As we approached at the site, we noted big signs saying that the area had been cleared of land mines. I was wondering if the same was true of the other areas we driven through. Or maybe they didn't need clearing? Or maybe the signs are just there for the benefit of tourists?
It was so so hot at the temple. This one is the most recently restored, so unlike all the other temples we visited it had a big information area which was great, particularly given that there is so much detail on the walls and it's good to know what it's all about. This temple was dedicated to Shiva. It was interesting to read about the French history from when the "discovered" the temple in 1914 (we suspect a few of the locals might have noticed it here). Many pieces from these temples ended up in European museums and private collections. They cracked down on this in later years. A guy was jailed because of plans to head out to this temple and saw off pieces to sell. He later became an advisor to Charles De Gaulle.
The temple was really very small and the middle section was fenced off to prevent damage by people walking around (not the case at any other site) so there wasn't a huge amount to see. The experience was made quite an uncomfortable one by a group of about 10 children following us around saying "dollar?" "dollar?". None of them were selling, just begging. There were a few families living around the perimeter of the site so I think maybe they belonged to them. Generally the sellers don't follow you into the temples themselves, they meet you at the gate and follow you around the grounds but they seem to respect the inside of the temple. Or more likely, they have been told not to sell there. All sellers at this site were in well organised stalls at the gate, but were still just as pushy. The temple was certainly a very beautiful one, I think we could have appreciated it far more if it were 10 degrees cooler. It was quite different to the other temples we saw the day before and the rocks used were red, rather than black90_P1010019.jpg
Something I forgot to mention in my last blog about the temples. It's quite amazing that with all the horrible conflicts Cambodia has suffered over the years, these temples are still here. Though fair to say the reconstruction may have fixed much of the destruction. One thing we did see many times, was beheaded deities. Many bhudda sculptures had been beheaded, we were told it was by hindus. Various gods and kings had been beheaded by the Khmer rouge. Often we saw monks praying to a headless figure.
There was a lovely big pond at the site, full of stunning lotus flowers which make for great photos. The fruit or nut or whatever it is inside the lotus flower is very commonly found in the dishes eaten here and much of Asia. I was impressed to see that this part of the flower is a brilliant gold colour, while the petals around it are pinkP1010008.jpg
There was of course a chance here for Mark to get excited about fish again. The pond was full of Telapia, an introduced species from Africa that is good to eat. Mark has studied these in rivers in WA (The Gascoyne and Chapman) but no one seems to eat them at home. They're not permitted to be sold (bad idea to give a pest species value) so it's probably a case of people being unfamiliar with them. They've been introduced into pretty much every part of the world and aside from the damage they do to native species and waterways, they feed a lot of people. Mark has also been getting excited about fish in little ponds and pots all over town, lots more live bearers, mostly swordtails and guppies.

Shiny white Mark had really had enough of the heat and sun by this time and really had no enthusiasm for more Templing. On the way back we spotted two much shadier attractions to stop and see.
First one, was the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. The museum is not anything huge, but the stories we read and the video we saw were really interesting. The museum was set up by a man who was a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. As a Khmer Rouge soldier he would have done some horrible horrible things. At age 14, he defected to the Vietnamese army. Often he would be trying to kill his playmates. In the jungle at night, he would be sent out to hunt for food with his rifle and would sometimes come across his friends. They would play together for a bit, then go back to their camps to try to kill each other. After the wars, he decided to devote his live to getting rid of land mines. We watched a video, showing how he finds and defuses landmines using nothing but bare hands and a stick. He can get rid of over a hundred in a day and has trained teams from several international armies in mine removal. The solo video producer who filmed him at work was absolutely shitting himself at times following him through pitch black jungle, keeping an eye out for trip wires etc. The guy has lives a very modest existence at the location of the museum and has also set up an orphanage for land mine victims who are at risk. He has about 50 children staying at the site. We were happy to pay full price for souvenirs here. I heard a few different figure quoted, but here's the one I remember from the video; it can cost as little as $1 to make a land mine, but can cost $500 to remove just one. That's such a huge amount of money to people here. More than a whole village can afford. Someone told me that officially, the U.S still denies ever having been in Laos, not sure if the same is true of Cambodia. The U.S still refuses to sign the international No Land Mines treaty, the official line is that they won't sign unless there is an exclusion clause allowing use of Land mines against North Korea.

This ranting about land mines and war in general has reminded me something I forgot to mention about the temples. At the entrance to each of the most popular temples, traditional cambodian music is played by a band of amputee, blind and other disabled musicians. There are a number of these all the same arrangement and all selling cds so it looks to be have been implemented by a charity organisation. I like the music, it's very percussion based and makes a really great background while you're wandering around temples.

We stopped soon after at a butterfly park. Not as pretty as the Queensland butterflies but still great and fantastic flowers all through the greenhouse. P1010035.jpgThis is an environmental initiative set up with foreign money (I think it was Israel?) to help reintroduce butterflies which the farmers need for pollination. Overuse of pesticides has caused a decline in the population. Another city in Cambodia has a similar programme for bees. Staff know butterflies inside out having been trained by a professor from Scotland who lived here for some time. P1010053.jpgFarmers can potentially make good money collecting cocoons and feeding caterpillers for the butterfly farm and it's easy work compared to much of what they do for less money. Organic pesticide free farming is part of the push. They have 12 farmers on board but it's the same old story of old farmers been difficult to get on board with new ideas. They showed us some really colourful grubs and a cupboard full of cocoons, so pretty some of them looked like green or pink pearls with a stripe of gold.

That evening we headed into town for dinner. A very touristy strip with "tuk-tuk!" "tuk-tuk!" the constant call from the street. Lots of great food to choose from, so much variety here in Cambodia - I love this food! There is also the French influence - snail, frog (or froge) - or maybe they were eating those long before the French came along. P1010072.jpg
There's a particular tourist attraction in the street which we must introduce back home, the flyer reads: "MR FISH MAKES YOU HAPPY AND FANNY! $3 FOR 30min!" Any guesses?
It's a tank full of baby Telapia (The fish I mentioned before). You dangle your feet in the tank and the fish swarm your feet, pecking off the dead skin. It's a bit public for people sitting up there on a tank in the main tourist strip. 90_P1010068.jpgI was keen to have a go but, after a nice big meal we were way too tired for a thirty minute session, even if it does make you happy AND fanny.

Posted by shananmark 05:06 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Siem Reap and the Temples of Ankor

sunny 35 °C

7th May
We had arranged a nice hotel cheeep at $26 a night on wotif.com. One of the great benefits of travelling in the off season! Once again, none of the signs held up at the airport had our names on, so we let an unthusiastic tuk-tuk driver talk us into being our driver for three days. When we arrived at the hotel anther driver came up with my name on paper saying he had been there waiting. We'd waited a good half hour - too bad so sad, he missed out on 3 days guaranteed good work.
Tuk Tuks vary country to country, but in Cambodia it's a motorbike with a trailer with two small facing bench seats. Best for two peope facing forward, but you can cram two more facing backwards. Our little mate "Chia" we believe is the fasted Tuk-Tuk driver in all of Cambodia. He overtakes every other Tuk tuk on the road, we never once had a Tuk tuk overtake us once the whole time in Siem Reap. Despite Mark's protest, Chia calls him "sir" and throws it a couple of times into every sentence.P1010140.jpg

Fancy hotel, beautiful carved wood on every inch from the walls, to the giant carved chairs, with scenes and figures carved at every opportunity. P1010139.jpgThis 70 room hotel, had only 2 rooms filled, so we had about 3 staff each and the run of the place. "Sir" and "Mam' from everyone, our own bartender by the pool who also brought us our dinner. Pool to ourselves and towels on command. Ahh nice. Mind you, without the pool, this place would be hell. Siem Reap is soooo hot.
There are some downsides to having an empty hotel. The aircon is off. With the corridors and rest of the building hot it makes it hard to cool your room with the aircon. If you want they'll turn on the cooler next to you while you eat. Lights are off when there are no people around so sometimes you have to feel your way down the grand curving wooden staircase at night. Restaurant will be closed if there is noone around, ignore the opening hours. But, who can blame them at $26 a night.
We really liked the Cambodian people right away. So happy, smiley, friendly and they like a laugh. No hint of the hell they've been through or the poverty they go home to after work.
Siem Reap is a busy place, even now in the off season when it's too hot and dry for tourists. It's pretty exciting on the roads, can't imagine what it must be like when things get busy.

8th May
Chia had us up nice and early to start on the temples. He had a three day schedule worked out for us and it sounded pretty hard core. The first temple was a nice quite one. A cow wandered through, came up to me and started licking my arm. Mmm salty arm. Ow scratchy tongue. P1000697.jpgI was thinking after seeing a few cows wandering the roadsides that maybe cows are sacred here like india. No in fact they do have owners, but for some reason cows don't seem to be penned. They often graze the verges. Chia tells me they are used for working the rice fields as well as meat and milk. Not so sacred after all. Smaller than the ones back home and friendlier!

Right from the first "quiet" temple, it became clear that we would constantly be dealing with hawkers - relentless hawkers. Ankor books, scarves, beads, t-shirts.. "you buy? You buy?" Not just pushy, not just persistent, desperate would be a better description. When we moved on to the busier temples we really started to see how desperate they were. Of course selling is preferable to begging, but the line is very blurred. "You not buy from me I cry!", "why you buy from her not me?!" "You buy from her but I talk you first! You bad person!" "Oh my god!"- (not sure where they picked that one up or what they meant exactly). Mark is pretty good at doing the blunt "NO." and carrying on. I can 't help feeling like I need to be polite and explain why the answer is "no" at this particular time.. big mistake. The worst mistake of all - buy from one person when there are three other people crowding you selling the same thing. You have to choose one then the others can get downright angry at times. Particularly if you talked to them earlier - and sometimes you just can't remember which ones you spoke to and which ones you didn't. There seems to be no loyalty between traders. If one woman comes up to you with waterbottles, it's perfectly ok for two more to come and try to sell you the same thing. Then you get to choose and it all goes badly. I don't understand how they work side by side day after day. Just sheer desperation. Sheer poverty.
Then there's the children. That I found hardest of all. Plenty of kids had tried to sell to us, Some threatening to cry if I didn't buy, saying they needed it for books for school. They were getting younger by the hour, finally a girl who could barely have been two years old tried to sell me a handfull of wooden fans, complete with demonstration and probably the first words she learned "two dollar?" . I actually did want one of those fans, but how do you haggle with a two year old!?

Chia had picked a select few temples for us to visit that day, but because we were so slow, we only got through seven. Seven! In a million degree heat with rocks that felt like they'd come out of the pizza oven and a constant torrent of sweat running allong every gully in our bodies.
So, about those temples.
If you've never heard of the Temples of Ankor, you really should do some homework! They're just amazing. These were built for the Khmer kingdom between the 9th and 13th centuries. They built dozens and dozens of them here, culminating with the mighty Ankor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. Originally they were Hindu temples but Bhuddist seems to be the focus now. Ankor Wat was turned into a Bhuddist monastery and that seems to be the case in many others.
Eventually the population dwindled and dispersed (wars etc). The temples were abandoned for hundreds of years and overgrown by jungle. They were hidden and crumbling by the time the French colonised Cambodia. They instigated the uncovering and resoration of the temples but many countries are now funding work. Of course all work went backwards during the vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge years. The restoration is mostly easy to spot. Some has failed and had to be redone. It's been hard to match the skill of the original construction, the clever ways they locked stones together to form waterproof roofs etc. Similar joinery to carpentry but with massive heavy lumps of rock.
It's hard to imagine without being there the scale and number of temples we are talking about. Some are just piles of rubble in the jungle, while Ankor Wat's outer moat & wall is about 5km by 5km. Several of the temples need an hour or two to walk through. There are over 1000 temples in the region with a big cluster in this area next to Siem Reap city. There were about a million people living in the city of Ankor back at time when London was a big village.
The construction of the temples was quite phenomenal. Stones were often carted from far away, by elephant, floating on rafts and so on. Slaves ground the sandstone flat ready for construction. The most amazing part, is the ornate carving on every inch of space. It would once also have been painted and sections covered in gold. It must have been a stunning place to see. The carvings tell stories from mythology and Kmer history. Some are very well preserved. You can see images of what life was like back then, people catching fish in the Tonle Sap (Great lake which supports the region), crocodiles (now only farmed), constructing the temple, fighting wars on elephant back and so on. It's easy to burn up hours studying bas-reliefs (some 20m long) trying to work out the stories and scenes.

Ok, enough of the history lesson. A big thumbs up for the amazing Temples of Ankor, but I wouldn't recommend you do it in May as we did! It was a real struggle. The temples themselves are quite a physical challenge at times. This apparently was back in the days before they invented proper staircases. Or maybe they had really short feet, and really long shins? The steps at times were only 20cm deep but 40cm high. Often they were broken or worn to be rounded and smooth. Climbing to heights of 20 - 30 m gets a tad freaky for someone scared of heights like me. The heat adds another element to the equation, the rocks are burning hot, so you can't use your hands to climb.
At most of the temples, we came across a Bhuddist prayer spot where you would mostly also find a monk. At the first we were asked to remove our hats, much to the delight of the old monk sitting on the mat who laughed at Mark's bald head. Snap! At the time we knew nothing about bhuddist customs, we didn't know that we should not have been standing, while a monk sat at our feet. Very rude. He didn't seem to mind. He tied string around each of our wrists, said some words for us and gave us incence to place. Then we are expected to put a donation in the box which we did. We soon learned the routine. They were all very smiley monks and apparently quite happy to have us tourists stomping all over their temples. P1000710.jpg

One of the bigger temples, Ta Prohm is particularly famous for having been used in Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones movies. It's the dream set, apart from some serious occupational health and safety issues! When restoration work began, they decided to leave the fantastic trees in place that were effectively tearing the place apart. While the undergrowth is clear so you can walk around, giant strangler figs and other trees have their roots wrapped around the stones and poking between, gradually prising them apart. The effect is stunning. We got quite lost walking around this one.P1000779.jpgP1000730.jpg

Visiting in the dry season, the temples look quite different to the pictures. They are surrounded by jungle, but the smaller greenery is missing. The green moss covered rocks, ferns poking out from cracks etc. I'd like to see that. It's a pretty dusty place right now. Mark and I were still getting over the cold we picked up in Koh Tao. My ultra sensitive runny nose was driving me bonkers hooning around on the back of the tuk tuk. There were a lot of people around wearing masks and I was thinking I could use one. This seems to be the go everywhere in Asia and I'm still not exactly sure why. Sometimes they where them when there is no dust around, perhaps it's fumes from traffic, perhaps they have colds? I didn't expect the mask culture to be here in such a poor area. Maybe they know more about what the dust and fumes are doing to their lungs than I do.

We lunched among the hawker stalls, Chia slept in a hammock while we fought them off. A lady fanned us for a while and god it was nice, the heat was such a killer. After a while she asked if we would come to her scarf stall, we said no and the fanning stopped. A little girl tried copying the fanning sales technique, by this time we really felt like an evil pair of westerners. The silly thing is if someone had said "hey, I'll fan you for half an hour for 20 bucks" we probably would have said "Yes please!".

Chia's worked us through till sunset when he dropped us at the foot of a hill and told us to climb for sunset photos. Elephants! There were two elephants giving rides to the top (we didn't). I have a soft spot for elephants. I hope they are not unhappy elephants. Happier doing rides for tourists than logging I expect. I didn't see any signs of maltreatment.
The climb up the hill was nothing compared to the verticle steps to reach the top of Phohm Bakhem temple. A gazillion people gathered at the temple at the top for sunset photos. There were views over Ankor Wat on one side and to the region's famous Tonle Sap lake on the other side. There were so many tourists and in that heat a sunset photo really didn't seem worth waiting for. We held out, amusing ourselves by people watching. I began compling a collection of photos of innapropriately dressed people. We cannot get over the numbers of people covering every inch of skin with hot clothing. The locals complain about the heat yet they wear warm clothing. I think many are Japanese tourists. Gardening gloves, Jeans, High heeled shoes, so much camera fodder. Locals always wear a colourful checkered scarf, many ways to wear them but often they are just for wiping away the sweat. Sunset was, yeah sunsets we've seen them before. Yes it was great with the sillouetted temple tops but so hard to keep all the heads from bobbing into the picture. Man we went home buggered that day.P1000863.jpgP1000883.jpg

We ate in, too tired to check out the town. Cambodian food is great. Lots of variety, lots of fish. Not as spicy as thai. They put a little salad with everything so it's hard to follow the "don't eat the salad" rule from "How not to get sick when travelling 101" but we're trying. I'm still eating too many fruit smoothies, the tummy will get used to it eventually.

Posted by shananmark 17:40 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Notes for Divers

Go Koh? or No Koh?

sunny 35 °C

The main reason Koh Tao certifies more divers than any place in the world, is accessibility. There are plenty of lovely warm tropical, cheap, current free places around, but this one is a nice cheap air hop from The US, Europe, Aus, pretty much everywhere. P1000669.jpg
If you're looking for an asian dive holiday that's cheap, and you're lucky enough to live in Australia, my first recommendation would be Bali. We dived at Talumben where it's also warm and calm. There are far less people, there are great dives right off the beach so no worry about boats running you over, you are allocated your own private dive guide who is ready and waiting any time you decide you want to dive. You also get to watch the superwomen carry two tanks on their heads.
The corals under the water are in far better condition and the area did not seem to have suffered so much from overfishing. It also meant staying in a small village rather than a backpacker party town.
On the other hand; if you live a long way from Bali, or if you have done the Bali thing and are keen to do the Thailand thing, or if you're really keen to do the backpacker party town thing, Koh Tao might be the place for you. It is a fun place to be with massages, shopping, great food etc. The dives are still really nice. We went in the off season and as I said, half the sites were not accessible so maybe the boat crowding is not such an issue at other times of year.
Of course at other times of year, there a loads of other dive possibilities on the west side of the Thai coast, I hear these are fantastic. We would love to come back and do a liveaboard to the Similan Islands we've heard so much about.
As we were only diving for 3 days, we chose to hire all of our gear. Not something we would normally do because there's nothing nicer than having nice integrated weights, comfy fins and a well sealed mask. (Not to mention the pee in wetsuit issue..). The gear we had was very well used and worn out, but safe and fine. If I were a beginner diver perhaps this would be more of an issue. Things like BC shoulder straps slipping undone are not a problem if you're familiar where everything is. I swapped reg to my 2nd stage on one dive, the thing was making a nasty noise but it worked so nothing serious. I ended up with dents in my head from a mask on one day. I'd advise bringing socks if you have narrow feet as the fins are the foot style and if they don't fit properley you can bulk them up. IMG_4201.jpg
But really, we were happy with the gear we had, for the price we paid. We went with Seashells divers and we found them to be well organised with good staff. Our dive master Rachael was fantastic.IMG_6931.jpg
As we were leaving we chatted to some new divers who had dived with another company. Their gear was in a terrible state. So, if you're hiring, I'd advise doing your research via web blogs. Pay a bit more for better gear if you need to.

Posted by shananmark 02:38 Archived in Thailand Tagged ecotourism Comments (2)

Blowing bubbles at Koh Tao Thailand

Happy Birthday to Mark, May 4th

sunny 35 °C

We got up early on Mark's birthday to beat the hungover backpackers to the dive sites. I wasn't all that well, tummy wasn't happy last night and no better that morning. I think perhaps I had too many yummy fruit smoothies, or it could be those prawns in yesterdays lunch, or the pina coladas? the ice? the salad? .. I wasn't about to miss out on diving!
They'd been having problems with tank filling so only 7 divers were allowed to go -GREAT! We piled on a long tail boat and shuttled to the dive boat. It's a Thai style wooden vessel of over 12m with a top deck. The driver and wife live on board in the tiny cabin.
We did two dives, both were nice but my god these sites are crowded. I thought that being the low dive season would mean less divers. On the contrary, all the dive sites on the other side of the island are closed for the season so dozens of these huge wooden boats fight for positions over the remaining sites. I find it hard to imagine conditions would be bad on the other side of this tiny island. Conditions are completely and utterly flat and still. 31 degrees water temperature and bloody hot above. The dive masters keep mentioning current, what current?!!
Two incidents worth mentioning on day one of diving.
Incident 1: I strode off the side of the boat for my first dive. As soon as I popped up I heard a commotion and looked over my shoulder to see one of the other huge wooden dive boats ploughing in our direction, it rammed into the side of our boat, snapping the wooden pillar that held up the second level and crunching it's nose. It was either that or go over top of us. Rachael, our fantastic dive master (young pom) said that a few days ago a boat ploughed over top of her group and she got everyone underwater just in time. Every dive master carries a safety sausage (inflating bright red tube) on a string, which they pop up at the surface 5 minutes before surfacing and carry until they board. It apparently made no difference. Under water, it sounds a bit like a freeway at times.
Incident number 2: This incident involved my bottom so tune out now if you are not into travellers tummy stories. I mentioned I was unwell, but feeling ok to dive. The boat has a toilet, but no paper (not uncommon) and no bin to put the paper in (don't flush paper in asia!). So I was prepared with BYO paper and BYO plastic bag with which to "pack it out". I sat myself down with papers and bag laid out on my lap and all was going well until the door flew open giving me a fantastic view down the full length of the boat where 12 dives were busily kitting up. It was a a long way to that door handle from the seated position and difficult to manage with everything on my lap. Either everyone was too busy to notice or too polite to say anything.
I won't go into too much detail about what we saw on the dive since there are plenty of non divers reading this and my dive friends will see the photos. There are loads and loads of nice fish to look at, the coral lacks colour and some is dead but still makes for an interesting dive. Big grouper and stingrays with bright blue spots are favourites . IMG_4292.jpgIMG_6857.jpgIMG_6884.jpgThe hand signal for Grouper is much like the signal for grabbing a pair of boobies. It's fun to hover and watch them go about their lives. Gobys in the sand formed a nice friendship with shrimps, the shrimp digs the hole, the goby sounds the alarm if predators come. One thing we noted straight up was the lack of the bigger predatory species and the large number of sea urchins - the really spikey ones with 8 inch needles - increased sea urchin numbers is a sure sign of overfishing.
With so many divers in the water it's easy to follow the wrong group. It's usually me who does that. I'm also the air guzzler of the group but it probably doesn't help that I always swim closer to the bottom. A habit from keeping out of the current at Perth/Rotto. Depth of most sites is 12-20m some deeper but with so many learner divers around there are pressures to keep to the shallower divers. Visibility 25? maybe more. Zero current. Hot and sweaty underwater, makes for very easy diving for someone who feels the cold the way I do. Normally diving is exhausting for me, but this makes it lazy.IMG_4280.jpgIMG_4239.jpg
Back at shore for lunch followed by some shopping and a Thai massage. The massage place has 5 beds in a row forming one big platform. Mark, Tanya & I all went in together. Thai massage involves the doer crawling all over the table using their knees, elbows, feet or whatever is required. They don't use oil, just press on the muscles, then manipulate you like origami when you're loosened up. The calf muscles were a good test of pain threshold after the dive. At one point they folded us in half almost sitting on our backs. Tanya and I were as stiff as boards but I was surprised to see Mark fold down to his knees.
That night we saw some beautiful lady boys, I think they were handing out flyers for a party. I have a great photo of Mark with one. The pool was a nice way to end the night but it's looking a little green. Thunderstorms flashed in the distance, some rain would be nice. It's a sticky place. At midnight the power went out so the aircon shut off and we woke up soggy. Wow it would be hell here without a/c. Turns out power outage is the norm every day. It is an island after all and much dependent on generators. What selfish complaining tourists we are.

5th May
We beat the backpackers and got on the early boat again. I've been waking at 4.30-5am every day anyway (no idea why). Charlie's tummy had him in a bad way in the early hours so he didn't make it to the dive. By the time we hit the water Tanya wasn't feeling too good either. They seem to have a much worse one than I do. Nothing will stop me diving, I'm even game to give the surprise door toilet another go. First dive we skipped the pretty reef in favour of a seahorse hunt on the sandy bottom. (Seems a strange place for them to be) after 10 minutes we gave up and were heading back to the reef - until we saw the japanese camera's flashing and found one poor harassed seahorse clinging to a little piece of seagrass. IMG_6951.jpgAfter they moved on I found another one they had pretty much been sitting on while taking the photos. The seahorses seemed to be used to the attention. No turtles, no whale sharks, but still the fish are very entertaining. It was nice to be the first to the dive site but it didn't last long.
We have been amazed at the number of smokers on these boats. At one point every single diver except us (about 12 people) was on the top deck lighting up the next one while still stubbing out the first. They don't even try to stand to one side so we can't get away from the smoke. Can't understand how a sport so dependent on good lungs and a nice clear airway would attract so many smokers.
Despite the hot bath conditions, mark insists on diving in full rashie and hood with his hired shorty wetsuit. He says it's to keep the sun off - though he wears it in the water not out so I'm not sure that argument flies. Anyway this hood has become known as his diving burka.IMG_6913.jpg
The afternoon was a lazy one with 3/4 of us sick. Me - not so bad.

Night dive
It will take more than a runny bottom to stop us night diving! All were present. Lots of sleeping fish including a giant trigger fish. These things like to attack divers so it was nice to be able to have a closer look while he was sleeping. Saw eels, lots of blue spotted rays, plenty more. Highlight for me was a big fuzzy hermit crab wandering along with his shell, shell included he was about the size of a peeled coconut!
A great dive but spoiled for Charlie when he was pushed onto a sea urchin by someone from another dive group and got two spines in his leg. Spoiled for me when I whacked my hand into one and got a spike. They give you nasty pain for about 10 min and you can't get the spike out. Charlie dug a great big crater in his leg trying. P1000656.jpgMark tells me they carry no poison (didn't feel like it!) but can have bacteria and can get infected. Mine healed fast.
Mark wanted to go to a Muay Thai fight tonight as his belated birthday treat. Turns out he used to do a bit of this when he was a tad younger. Sounds pretty violent but the fighters featured on the poster included some kids so maybe it's just like any other martial art. I met the local champion promoting in the street. His face looked a bit crushed.
Anyway, we were too exhausted and sick after the night dive so we gave it a miss. Cheap cocktails and Tiger beer were still on the agenda though.

6th May.
This time Mark is too sick to dive so just 3 of us again. He didn't have it as bad as Charlie and Tanya who were still not so great but keen to get in the water. First dive was a good one, a giant puffer fish (probably the same as what my Dad calls a north-west blowie) posed for the cameras, about 45 cm long. The end of the dive was something Rachael described as "fields of heather". If you've ever been to Scotland you'll know about the pink and green shades of heather that look like nice soft round cushions. The coral made the same effect. Lovely yellow butterfly fish that we had seen throughout the dive in pairs, gathered in a huge school over the heather. So pretty. IMG_6956.jpgLast dive we had done before but with a boat full of Open water divers trying to graduate we couldn't have it all our way. The dive instructors always argue with the Master divers taking "fun"divers like us over which sites to go to.
I have never done a dive with so little current. On the safety stop (at 5m for 3 min) I just hing there without moving a muscle watching the busy world underneath. So relaxing. And so good to be warm on a dive. Too hot for most!

What the hell are all these spots on my arms? One morning I woke with them all over my right forearm, the next day it was the left. We thought bed bugs but Mark has none and they don't look right. We've concluded they are sandfly bites (actually they wee on you so it's not a bite) they don't appear right away but they end up forming hard itchy red lumps that sometimes blister. Bizzare that they are on my arms not my legs. Looking around town we see that plenty of people have revolting spoty legs. Must stop scratching!

That afternoon we booked our flight to Siem Reap Cambodia. I'm pretty sure the chick at the net cafe who helped us with the phone call was no chick - a lady boy in her day job. Eye-liner only and a bit too much.
We walked to the more upmarket end of town for dinner. By this time Mark and I were coming down with a cold so we were feeling viral and grumpy. So once again we weren't in the party mood. Despite all 4 of us being sick party poopers while on Koh Tao, we had fun catching up with Tanya and Charlie again.

7th May
I woke at 4.30 again (Why does this keep happening????) so I got up and took some early morning beach photos. Flew Bankok air via Bankok to Siem Reap Cambodia. Note to other travellers - bring a passport photo for your Cambodia visa. Bankok Air has been really good apart from not giving me a gluten free option. You can't have everything.

Time to get out my phrasebook and learn a couple of Khmer words..

Posted by shananmark 05:14 Archived in Thailand Tagged ecotourism Comments (4)

Phu to Koh Tao

Ahh.. Now it feels like a holiday


3rd of May.
Mr King, our taxi driver friend with Pooh bear decor cab (for his son) took us to the airport after our short Phuket stopover. On the way he told us that the oil palm plantations we passed were used for biodiesel for the long boats.
Roadside seller sold decorative flowers on string, these religious danglies are the Thai equivalent of fluffy dice to hang from your mirror. Must be lucky because we survived.
We flew to Koh Samui, a huge holiday Island before bussing to the ferry terminal.
We found our friends Tanya and Charlie who are starting the holiday with us, 3 days diving in Koh Tao. Great to see them again as they have moved to Melbourne. (Not for the diving I hear)
Koh Tao is by no means the best diving in the world, but it's the only place open for diving this time of year in Thailand. Tanya and Charlie know the people who run the dive company we're diving with (and staying in the attached resort). It's a young party island for backpackers. P1000669.jpgKoh Tao qualifies more divers every year than anywhere else in the world. Almost all the divers here are beginners so we're to be the know it all old farts.
Ferry was just like the rotto cat only more packed and a looong two hours.
The owner of the dive co was supposed to meet us at the jetty to give us a ride. It was total chaos. Dozens of people holding signs, none with our name on. Hundreds of people with utes and bikes, fighting over tourists for lifts, hotel bookings, dive company bookings. There are about 30 dive companies (I think?).
Our lift was absent so we negotiated a price and piled in the back of a ute with two bench seats. With 6 of us and packs it was a hairy ride. Every time he swerved the packs in the centre would roll onto us and nearly send us off. I kept thinking about my little dog Tyche and her broken ligaments (first time) and broken leg (2nd time) when she tumbled off the ute.
On arrivign we found the owner had made a surprise dash to the uk (something about volcano buggering up flights). The rooms were double the price we thought ("from" price), the diving was more too. They had booked one double one twin in the most expensive room. Mark and I down graded and it turns out our room is cheaper and better. Charlie and Tanya lose power to the A/C and the fridge every time they take out the key card. Not good for keeping the Tiger beer cold.
Much of the rest of the day was taken up with yummy fruit smoothies, Thai beer, Cocktails (Pina colada is soo much better in a real coconut!). P1000620.jpg
The town is packed with dive resorts and backpackers. The road in front of our resort feels like a footpath so you easily forget that it's a motorbike highway. The locals are savy to meandering tourists but backpackers (particularly drunk ones at night) are not so good on the bikes. With my attention span I have a 97% chance of getting cleaned up while on the island. I have insurance.
Now a word about toilets. It's a topic you can't get away from in Asia. So far I have not had to squat. I don't mind a squat, it means you don't have to touch anything, but my nanna knees are just not up to it the way they were 10 years ago. Its a no-no to flush the paper, bins are provided. A squirty hose is provided for washing in fancy tourist towns. Otherwise a dipper sits under a tap so you can wash. Really a very clean way to go. The floors are always wet but in this climate so are we. Some places provide courtesy thongs for the loo - it's the little things that make a difference.
I never tried the squirty hose on previous trips so I thought it was about time. First attempt in Phuket not so good. The water pressure was so high it sprayed all over and splashed up the water from below. Not nice. I'm not one to give up so quick. Second attempt, better. This is a custom that works well in a hot climate but I can't see squirting your bot bot with cold tap water on a frosty morning catching on in Donnybrook.
This little practice run may prove wise sooner than Í'd hoped...

Posted by shananmark 02:09 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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