Thursday, September 30, 2010

10 things not to miss in Vientiane

1. Your flight out of it
2. Er......

Hanoi - crossing the street

Just about 24 hours here and I have figured out that the only safe way to cross the street is downtown Hanoi is to develop the ability to do this.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tubing or not tubing, that is the question

The drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is probably the most spectacular bus ride I’ve ever taken. It’s spectacular both in terms of the scenery which is magnificent but also as an insight into the state of this country. Because most of this country is covered in forest and jaw-dropping mountains, only about 10% of it is arable land which is very little to feed a lot of people. As a passing traveller this makes for life affirming rides through, clichéd as it may be, the land that time forgot. Roads in Laos are the equivalent of secondary Irish roads at best (think driving from Boyle to Tulsk), and for a country that has a lot of unexploded ordnance from the recent past, it seems as if some of that UXO has been used to blast craters in the country’s roads.
Genuinely though as you drive through the countryside - and Laos is practically all countryside - you can’t help but feel a sense of guilt as you ride through countless roadside settlements - where poverty is writ large everywhere - in your air-con minivan on your way to a town where most will drink themselves silly on a river whilst attempting to navigate yourself in a bicycle tube. Genuinely, it feels as if it could be 1965 in this country. Amazing. If you do manage to build up some speed on the road, you immediately have to slow down because of the roving herds of cows and water buffaloes who wander the roads untethered, carefree and unconcerned.
The town of Vang Vieng is a dump dressed up as a shitheap masquerading as a sewer. Seriously, it’s that ugly. It’s a place which long ago sold its soul to the thousands who descend upon it each year to tube or kayak or whatever you’re having yourself down the river which flows through it. And who can blame them when money’s clearly too tight to mention? It’s filled with bars showing re-runs of Family Guy and Friends on a loop (seriously, who watched Friends first time round and then needs to see the fucking thing again whilst they‘re on holidays?) It’s populated year-round by different troops of backpackers shit faced on Beer Lao, flouting polite requests to respect the local population - a pissed up troupe for whom Johnny Borrell is Shakespeare. Ah but I'm just getting old of course.
Getting genuine Laos cuisine is not going to happen here but it could be argued that if I've come to VV to experience Laos cuisine, then I’m the one who needs to get out more. But I haven’t. Almost everything here revolves around the river or the caves which are found not far from the river. Got myself on the Nam Song today as a group of us kayaked down a 15km stretch - perfectly easy going, stunning scenery, quiet….until you reach the bars. 90% of people are here for the tubing and it’s easy to see why. Basically the idea is that you rent a large tube into which you sit and float downstream, stopping off at a variety of different bars where you can drink to your heart’s content, throw yourself into the water from a great height with gay abandon, play mud volleyball or just dance to the risible shite they blast from the speakers. And when you’ve had your fill at one bar, pop yourself back into your tube and float to the next one right next door. And it all looks like bloody good fun, apart from dancing to the risible shite they blast from the speakers of course.

Luang Prabang

First stop Luang Prabang. Much eulogised, it’s a very pretty, small town positioned on a Unesco-protected peninsula of land bordered by the Mekong. No city this. There’s one main street in which faded old French villas have been retrofitted and made into uniform shop fronts consisting of travel agents, cafés, travel agents, restaurants, travel agents, internet cafés and more travel agents. Regardless it is a beautiful place, though it frequently seems as if there are many more westerners here than natives. Everyone, it seems, is looking for a Shangri La.
My room for the two nights was in an ‘atmospheric’ (i.e. old, wooden and cheap) building just off the main street and cost me €3 a night. True Ronseal accommodation and just what I needed. The numerous travel agents here all seem to want you to leave LP, offering trips to nearby waterfalls, caves and other such rural delights but as I’m only here for a couple of days I stick around the town itself to soak up the atmosphere of the place. There are innumerable tuk-tuk drivers here whose main line of work is selling weed and as a sideline they‘ll occasionally offer you transport. It’s amusing though and there are no exceptions to the rule - they’ll loudly shout ‘Tuk-tuk?’ as you walk past and once you’ve shaken your head, they’ll sidle up to you whispering ‘Smoke? Marijuana? Hashish?’

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Slow Boat Experience

There are many ways to get to the city of Luang Prabang and almost all of them involve much time and patience. You can travel by VIP bus which takes - and estimates vary depending on the travel agent you speak to - 12-15 hours. Unpleasant. There’s also the speedboat which whizzes you to LP in half the time but at least 100 times the likelihood of ending your travelling days in a high speed collision on the Mekong. Equally unpleasant. Lastly there’s the slow boat route which takes two and a half days as the boat gently meanders down the Mekong and it’s this latter option that works best for me.
Generally slow boats hold on average between 60-70 passengers but as its low season ours has about 30 paying passengers and is an easy mix of travellers weighed down by their packs and locals equally weighed down by their produce. We watch a few speedboats whizz by as we float down river and, admittedly, it looks like fun - strapped in, crash helmet on (though surely for effect only), bouncing along on the water’s surface. As we float there are countless traditional Laos settlements along the river bank - it has to be difficult eking out a living here. At the end of day one we overnight in the village of Pak Beng, a sleepy hamlet where the locals rush to meet those emerging from the slow boat with offers of good food, cheap accommodation, weed and, in my case at least, a beautiful view of the moon on the Mekong - “The moon is coming tonight” I was reliably informed and was immediately sold on it. A room costs 30,000 kip (€3) and is about as basic as you can get but equally has almost everything that you need.
The boat itself is pretty standard - about 10 metres in length with pew-like seats - and reasonably comfortable. No need for fans as there’s a wonderfully cooling breeze blowing down the Mekong. There’s a lady at the back selling cheep Lao beer and she’ll rustle you up a chicken sandwich if you’re caught short for food. The one downside to the trip is the presence of an American guy who holds forth on every conceivable topic you can imagine, very loudly indeed for the entirety of the first day. I’ve gleamed that much information about him by the end of the day - I wasn’t eavesdropping, I had no fucking choice - that I feel as if I should become his official biographer.
On day two we sail from 9.30am, arriving in Luang Prabang just before 5pm. Along the way we’ve stopped numerous times along the banks of the river to collect or deposit some of the Laos villagers who inhabit the bamboo huts littered by the shores of the Mekong. There’s even a sighting of an elephant washing himself down as our boat drifts past. Like Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang comes with a reputation of rare beauty so here’s hoping it isn’t at all like the Chiang Mai I experienced then.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


There’s little to match the feeling when you’re travelling of crossing a border. New country, new visa, new challenges, new currency and an entire country awaiting to be explored. And so begins the next leg of this trip. Made it to Chiang Mai but left a couple of days early as it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. More wats, lots of monks but little or none of the oft-mentioned charm on show. One of my reasons for moving to Chiang Mai was to sample the city’s reputation as a gateway to tribal village trekking. It’s only when you get here that you realise that the ‘trekking’ on offer involves relatively short hikes, a one hour elephant ride (I mean why would you bother?), and a short trip down a river on a bamboo raft. Fuck that. It’s the equivalent of being in Ireland, doing a short bog walk, getting a ride on a donkey and a lift home on a fucking tractor. Not what I came for but my fault for not reading the small print. Still, a nice place to overnight in for sure. And a good place to meet photo-journalist Mr. Cleary also. Cheers for the book John!
And so it is that I move to Laos a little earlier than expected. This being Thailand, there are many options for getting to Laos - specifically Luang Prabang - which involve no effort on the traveller’s part. Basically this involves going to a hostel and travelling by minibus all the way to Laos. Now, for me, this would defeat the very purpose of travelling - the hassles along the way, the arguments with tuk tuk drivers, watching the clock to see if you‘ll make that connection, when is this fucking bus going to stop as I need a piss etc etc. Crossing the border the independent - and equally easy - way involves the following;
1. Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai (3 hours)
2. Bus from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Khong (3 hours)
3. Longboat across the Mekong river to the Laos village of Huay Xai ( 2 minutes)
And easy it is. Crossing borders is, as I’ve said, a wonderful experience but to cross a border in a longboat across the Mekong as the sun descends is pretty hard to beat, and here I am in Laos.

Thailand by train

I love train travel. Even a mundane trip such as that from Sligo to Dublin coaxes a barely hidden nostalgia in me whilst more epic trips such as the Trans-Siberian offer more thrilling vindications of travel by rail instead of road or sky. I currently sit on Train 109 - hurtling - no, bullshit, it isn’t hurtling, it’s edging its way toward Chiang Mai, the last leg of a reasonably epic trip by train from Bangkok. What would have been a truly epic trip would have been to take a train from Singapore all the way to Chiang Mai, but time constraints meant air time somewhere along the way.
This entire trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai - some 700km in length - has cost me the grand total of €8.70 and that’s no misprint. Stage I from Bangkok to Ayutthaya cost a mere 50c and for that I was stuck in 3rd Class standing for most of the way - a one and a half hour trip memorable only for the hangover which accompanied it. Stage II from Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok cost €1.20 and again I was in a 3rd Class carriage, the difference being once you’d found a seat on this train it was yours to keep.
On this my 3rd and final leg I’ve paid €6.50 to bring me from P’lok to Chiang Mai and for that hefty sum I’ve bagged a seat in a fan-cooled 2nd Class carriage with only the remotest opportunity of sleep. 99% of my fellow travellers on these trips have been Thais which is wonderful as you’re guaranteed smiling faces, frequent offers to share food even if conversation is limited to nods, smiles, and endless thank yous.
Another incomparable advantage of train travel is that it offers vistas which lurch quickly from the bizarre - a Thai town literally overrun by monkeys - to the beautiful - a sodden farmer seemingly walking on water whilst leading his herd of water buffaloes along a submerged dirt track.
Each train I’ve travelled on sees and endless stream of Thai women bearing a dizzying variety of food and drink down through the carriages, speaking in that wonderful way where when they talk the letter ‘a‘ almost complete drowns out every other vowel and consonant. It’s customary for Thai males to end sentences with the word ‘cap’ and for females to say ‘ka’ and these ladies are take it to the extreme, their word endings left in the carriage long after they’ve moved on to the next one.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Began my trip north to Ayuttaya with a shitty hangover which stubbornly stayed with me for most of the day, exacerbated by the heat. This, combined with standing room only in the 3rd class compartment (well what do you really expect for 20 baht - 50c?), made for a one and a half hour trip that seemed three times that. But on arrival here found a nice place to stay - Tony’s Place - for 200 baht and a little room with, er, lots of character for sure. When I leave my room I have to secure my door with a Chubb lock, happily supplied by management, in the absence of a traditional lock. It’s novel for sure.
I stopped off here having been sold on Ayuttaya’s epic history and I haven’t been remotely disappointed. Ayuttaya was built on an island - I had to take a ferry from the train station to get to the city centre - for defence and trade purposes. The city itself is nothing special - quite small, easy to get around but nothing to see. The draw here are the ancient ruins of the fallen city which litter the place and are each quite spectacular. Each of the sites are remarkably well preserved - most of these buildings were constructed as far back as the 14th century - and before long you master the difference between your wats, chedis and praangs. The problem with some of them - and this probably sums up modern day Thailand as a whole - is getting that postcard-perfect picture without a 7-Eleven featuring somewhere in the background. But visiting ancient ruins like these is, for me, like being in an art gallery. For the first hour or two you’re rapt, buzzing with a sense of excitement at what you’re seeing but son after that, everything starts to look the same and you feel as if you’ve had enough wats for one day. This manifests itself as follows - today I stopped seeing beautiful Khmer architecture and started to see Pet Shop Boys hats. It happens. Nocturnal Ayuttaya is a non-event especially coming from the never-ending buzz of Bangkok so it all adds up to an early night before another long train journey north tomorrow to Phitsanulok.

Health care Thai style

Ask someone who isn't from either Ireland or Thailand which health care system they would guess would be more efficient, better organised and have higher hygiene standards. Chances are they'd plump for Ireland and the truth is that they'd be ridiculously wrong. It wasn’t that I willingly wanted to do a case study to compare our respective health services - my visit was out of necessity. Ever since my diving experience my ears have felt like I’m still underwater and one week after diving with no sign of things clearing up, I decided to get things checked out. Ear infections have a wonderful way of fucking up what is already a tight schedule. My hospital of choice i.e. the first one I walked past was, funnily enough, the auspiciously titled Bangkok Christian hospital. Walked up to information, described my affliction and was led through the hospital to the registration desk by a sweet, smiling staff member - it was difficult already not to draw comparisons with Ireland. Filled out a form and was led from there to the ear, nose and throat department. Sat and waited for 10 minutes, during which time I was given my own personal laminated client card for future visits. Was examined by the doc, he shoved some cotton way WAY too far up my nose and was asked to come back in in 10 minutes. Exactly 10 minutes later - I checked - he brought me back in, told me what the problem was - still some water stuck between my ears and my nose - how to treat it, wrote out a prescription and sent me on my way. From there I was led to where I could collect my prescription and pay for the whole experience. The entire process from walking through the doors of the hospital to receiving a receipt for payment took 45 minutes. Now as anyone familiar with Irish A & E could tell you, this was a masterful exercise in efficiency - actually they'd probably suggest that it was impossible. And how much did all of this cost? My total came to 550 baht (that’s €14) which included consultation and my medication. Phenomenal.
Through the entire thing I thought of home and vomiting bugs, waiting lists, misdiagnoses, Mary fucking Harney and the HSE - an organisation that could only be conceived of in dear old fucking Ireland. None of this is a slight on the people working in a health system at home that's patently useless and getting worse. Coincidentally I had heard reports of our mighty leader’s alleged drunken radio interview just the day before. Now what surprised me about this is that it seems to have surprised the nation. Surely being Taoiseach of a country in a mess like ours is (which he helped to create naturally), getting bladdered before going to work is a necessity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man is chasing the dragon on a daily basis before heading off to work for the morning. Ah if only we were French.

The Bangkok experience

It is impossible not to love Bangkok - best to get that straight out there. I deliberately limited myself to 2 days here mainly due to the fact that I have just over a month to visit northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia - it can be done. I visited Bangkok for the first time 12 years ago as a callow youth (right Tony?) so it was great to be back, not that I recall all that much from back then. When I think of Bangkok now, I think of food. There is food everywhere, on every street corner and it’s all uniquely wonderful in spite of the fact that frequently you have no idea what you’re signing up for when you point to those balls of fat being cooked in oil. And, above all, Bangkok is easy - its PT system ushers you around and deposits you at the river where your journey begins anew. But Bangkok is best seen by night. On my first night here I wandered randomly down to Chinatown, ate the greatest meal I’ve ever had - a wickedly great tom yam seafood with lemongrass and chilli concoction - and just walked through the place revelling in the smells and the chatter. Decided on my way that I needed the tuk tuk experience and felt like a good haggle and Bangkok won’t ever disappoint on either score.
Bangkok also coincided with my first hearing of the new Arcade Fire album (cheers PK) and so I spent my 48 hours here listening to The Suburbs rapidly lodging itself into my brain. Wonderful record. I've also managed to download the new Interpol album and have only listened to it once - I'm expecting my whelmed to remain under for this one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Koh Phi Phi

It seems almost wilfully cruel to draw direct comparisons between Koh Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee) and Koh Lanta but a comparison is inevitable as I now find myself here in Phi Phi having just arrived from Lanta. Koh Lanta was utterly comatose - even allowing for low season - and not a pretty sight at all. Its beaches were as unspectacular as they were empty and the entire place gave off the air of an island living on former glories. Above all, Lanta’s in need of a bloody good clean up and probably some form of island viagra.
Phi Phi on the other hand is a younger, fresher and more vital place to be. This becomes apparent from the very second you step off the island ferry to join a queue of people paying Phi Phi’s ‘clean’ tax - your contribution to litter control on the island (3 days in and litter aplenty around me, it still isn‘t clear what they spend this tax on). Everything is more expensive here on Phi Phi from the basics like water and sun screen to beer and food but let’s face it, you haven’t come here for a cultural experience, you’re here for the sand and, oh yes, those buckets.
The village of Tonsai in which all the late night action happens is an uneven mixture of dive schools, massage parlours, overpriced and underpopulated bars and innumerable travel agencies all too happy to promise you more buck for your baht when you finally tire of Phi Phi. And tire of it you will. But now’s a good time to be here. Accommodation is cheap and plentiful - even the woman who made my banana milk shake today offered me a room. 400 baht seems to be the going rate and once you’re far enough away from the party zone - and I am - then it’s easy to kill some days here.
Each bar has a gaggle of gap-year British backpackers outside offering various inducements to get your baht which include free shots, 2 for 1 cocktails and, if pushed, probably hand jobs too. For this they get paid 300 baht and a free cocktail which is just about enough for them to get rat-arsed by the beach when the village bars are closed and naturally this they do with much more enthusiasm than which they hand out their flyers. The bars themselves are filled with bucket-slurping, 21 year old emo types with fringes sharp enough to cut through the coral in the surrounding bays.
But cut away all of the inevitable resort-type tat that surrounds this place and you genuinely do have a staggeringly beautiful beach. Encircled by limestone peaks and palm forests, the bay’s waters are that photoshopped aquamarine colour, the sand impeccably white and pleasingly empty especially if you don‘t have a hangover to sleep off. There isn’t a stretch of sand in the world like this that hasn’t become prostituted, and all because people like me want to see it of course, but the natural beauty of the beach here at Phi Phi manages to outshine the neon glow of its night bars and clubs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Thai tourist machine

Last night saw me board the good ship Suratthani, the infamous night boat which will took me from Koh Tao to Surat Thani. I‘m in Southern Thailand until the 14th so I‘m making my way across a few of the islands before heading north to Bangkok. First stop is Koh Lanta - in the beauty stakes, if Koh Phi Phi is Gabriela Sabatini then Lanta is Martina Navratilova - which offers a chilled alternative to the supermodel vibe of Phi Phi.
There were no seats whatsoever on last night‘s little chugger, instead the floor was strewn with mattresses and your bed for the night was the number on the wall which corresponded with your mattress. I was number 39 which left me sandwiched between the monosyllabic young German couple and the two British girls whose first words were - in a very serious tone - “This is going to be fun.”
Our crossing time was about 9 hours and, remarkably, I slept right through it, almost. Something I’ve noted very quickly about this country is that when it comes to moving tourists around from A to B, Thai tourism is a fucking machine. It’s quite amazing to witness. Once you’re travelling in Thailand you very quickly become a product. On arrival at the port, scores of eager drivers hoover each tourist up and ship them off to a variety of back-street tourist agencies where everyone is checked then, quite literally, labelled - everyone gets a sticker depending on where you’re going next - and within minutes buses from all directions converge and you’re shipped off to your next destination for the next instalment of labelling to begin. Every journey involves the tiniest of route changes and alterations but they don’t screw it up. It’s quite a process and the Thais have it perfected.
Pick two obscure points within Thailand and you’ll be deposited there, wondering what the fuck just happened but happy you’re now you’re where you wanted to be.
As an example last night’s journey involved the following;
1. Taxi from agent in Koh Tao to ferry
2. Ferry from Koh Tao to Surat Thani
3. Jeep ride from ferry port to tourist agent (for packaging and labelling)
4. Coach ride from Surat Thani to Krabi tourist agent
5. Bus ride from tourist agent to minibus meeting point
6. Minibus to ferry (x 2)
7. Minibus on to tourist agent in Koh Lanta
8. Agent in Koh Lanta calls accommodation for pick-up from office
9. Product i.e. me delivered to destination via one final jeep ride
So yes, here I am in Koh Tao and it feels as if not just winter, but a nuclear winter has descended upon the island. I’m staying at a place called Lanta Emerald and it’s absolutely deserted. Adding to the dreary feel is the fact that the weather’s been shit all day - truly dreary Irish rain. The place itself is fantastic and only a tenner a night - beautiful beachside bungalows, a pool, restaurant and bar (though the barmen give you that haunted out of season thousand yard stare imploring you to order a drink which is slightly unnerving) but this place is haunted by the spirit of summer’s past and yet to come for sure. But I could care less - after 6 days of diving I came here to relax by the beach - and I’ve already discovered a restaurant across the road which serves up a quite wonderful Pad Thai (and no fucking tofu!). Home for now.

Diving - Part III

To cut a long story short then, I did manage to complete the course and receive my Open Water Diver certification and it probably didn’t go as badly as I expected it to given the unnecessary palpitations of Day I. Diving, once you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, is an incredible thing. It’s like a 3-D version of The Blue Planet, the coral is quite stunning with schools of iridescent fish swimming around, above and below you. Our one ‘interesting’ encounter came with the trigger fish, owner of an almighty set of teeth (apparently they chew through coral for breakfast) and fiercely territorial to boot - he made a sashay in my direction but somehow I contorted my body to avoid his lunge.
So much did I enjoy my diving experience that I decided to go ahead and complete an advanced course over 2 days. This basically involves specifying particular types of dives you’d like to specialise in - my choices were; Fish ID (if I was being bitten, I wanted to know what was biting me at the very least), Deep diving (to a depth of 30m), Underwater Navigation (that said, even now having completed this aspect, if asked to navigate by myself underwater I’m more likely to end up in the frozen food section of my local Tesco than leading us successfully back to the boat from which we dived in), Buoyancy (something I can’t practice enough) and best of all Night Diving, which as the name suggests is a dive once the sun has set. This affords you the opportunity to see fish you wouldn’t normally see during the day - in our case getting a close up of barracuda on the prowl made it all worthwhile. Jumping in as the sun sets and descending as it disappears is quite another thrill entirely. Staying close to your dive leader is essential and throughout the half hour dive, you never quite lose that feeling of ‘There’s something behind you!’ and, of course, there is.
Have I been bitten by the diving bug? Unquestionably, yes. Am I a good diver? Undeniably, no. But everything comes with practice. In 5 days I completed 11 dives under varying conditions - visibility, light, current - and now that I’ve started, it’s something that I’ll return to during the coming year in order to practice some of the skills I’ve patently failed to master just yet. As an experience though, incredible.

Diving - Part II

‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ - my thoughts as the boat leaves the beach behind headed for our first dive site. What I haven’t alluded to yet is the ridiculous amount of information you need to absorb in a short space of time in order to develop some level of competency as a diver. There’s the equipment for starters which you must assemble yourself, ensuring that you’re careful with your precious cylinder of air and that you don’t puncture your buoyancy compensator, and then there’s the skills you need to learn and the theory surrounding the necessity for safety stops or holding your breath while ascending etc. So you're balancing the need to remember all of this vital information with the need to remember how to function in the water. To most people, this is probably straightforward, to me this is a problem.
There I stood then - still wondering to myself why the fuck I was doing this course - on the edge of the boat, full gear on, trying to look nonchalant while slipping into my fins, aluminium cylinder on my back and fucking weights around my waist - I didn‘t tell G that I felt the weights were unnecessary as one thing I‘d always been confident about in the water was my innate ability to sink to the bottom. This theory was the be completely disproved not 20 minutes later. Anyway, so I’m at the edge of the boat, trying to remember the instructions G has drilled into me once I’ve got the fins on - left hand on weight clip, right hand on regulator (through which I will breathe) and two fingers on my mask, look out to the horizon and jump separating my legs as I enter the water. Now, everything ready, all I need to do is jump. But I wait, anxiously peering into the abyss. Having a queue of folk impatiently awaiting entry to the water directly behind you is always a motivator so I inhaled deeper than was necessary as if it might be my last breath and jumped, emitting a little scream/groan which was audible to me but hopefully not to anyone else as I plunged into the depths. My first reaction after ‘I’m alive!’ was ‘Christ, this is warm!’ Each day I dived here, the water temperature rarely dipped below 30 degrees.
Our first lesson involved learning all of the basic skills which are essential to know but will hopefully never need to be used - recovery of regulator, use of secondary regulator, dealing with cramp etc etc. For the most part these were all fine and I surprised myself by completing them all. That said we were kneeling in a metre of water so panic wasn’t really a factor just yet. Once completed we began to move out to deeper water where we tried - not so successfully - some flotation exercises. I knew the theory behind it all - as you breathe in your lungs become more buoyant and so you float to the surface. As you exhale, your lungs contract and you should sink in the water. This is also where the weights come in, in order to stop you ascending too much too soon. The idea is to gain a happy medium between ascending and descending and so a regular breathing pattern is essential. Body position is also essential and this is where my problems began. Over the course of the 6 days I spent diving, I diagnosed myself with a hitherto unknown affliction - underwater dyspraxia. I might want my body to do something underwater but by and large it will refuse to do so. And we’re talking the most routine tasks here - bending my back to get from a vertical to horizontal position, turning upside down as I was diving. All tasks which it’s possible to complete with the minimum of fuss, but not for me.
We were in three metres of water and the plan was to flip over horizontally and swim to greater depths. Except I couldn’t do it, having no understanding of why I was rising to the surface, my legs flailing wildly beneath me. G was equipped with a pad and pencil which was clearly only broken out in case of emergency or an encounter with excessive limb-flailing Irishmen. Upon this he wrote (“STOP KICKING YOUR LEGS!”) which was a mild rebuke given the fact that he’d waited ten minutes for me to assume correct body position. What he really meant to write though was ‘Continue trashing those legs you ignorant Mick and I’ll bite the fucking things off at the hips.’ EVENTUALLY I figured things out and by the end of an extremely chastening day - for newbie diver and exhausted diving instructor - I returned home happy to be on terra firma once more but having developed a taste for the depths.

Diving - Part I

Koh Tao - literally ‘Turtle Island’ - is the reason from my blogging hiatus over the past week and a half. I came to Koh Tao with one goal in mind - to learn how to dive. Now, given the fact that water is not an environment in which I’d willing choose to place myself generally (as those who witnessed me being towed around the Great Barrier Reef a decade ago can attest to, eh Bob?), it took some leap of faith on my part to actually go through with it. But there’s little point in me spending a year on the road if I don’t try things which put myself outside my comfort zone and so, enter Koh Tao. Genuinely, there is little else to do here but dive. The beaches are relatively unspectacular and if you’ve come here looking for a cultural experience then you’re holding the map the wrong way up - Chiang Mai is >>>>>> that way. Everything - everything - is geared towards diving, conversations are littered with references to diving, you get cheaper - and free - accommodation if you‘re diving, in fact there‘s probably a cult here on Koh Tao who believe that the Messiah will return clad in BC, fins and scuba mask.
There are 50 dive schools on KT and northwards of 200 instructors. That’s your first conundrum: who to dive with? My choice - Scuba Junction was based on internet recommendation. The Thorn Tree forum has its uses when it’s not filled with people bickering over rural village hiking choices in Northern Thailand or the quality of hawker rice porridge in Penang. As it turned out, SJ was pretty much a perfect fit for me - no more than 4 to a dive group, young and enthusiastic instructors who seem to love what they do. As it turned out I got one-to-one instruction due to the fact that I was the only one beginning the following day. Clearly, the diving gods were smiling on my instructor as I knew he‘d have his hands full with me alone. And then some.
The Open Water dive course which I was taking is the standard course for any diving neophyte, as it takes you through the fundamentals of diving, quite of a lot of which involves developing a clear understanding of the science of diving. There is, of course, much more to it than jumping in, diving down, looking around and climbing back out again. My instructor was to be G (Gwydion - you can see why he goes by G), an affable and infinitely patient English lad who’d been diving seriously for about 4 years. It was he who would be charged with the task of rendering the impossible possible in just over 3 days.
Prior to doing my Open Water dive course, jumping into the water has always felt about as natural as standing blindfolded on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, prodded in the back and being asked to jump. Once in the water I’m generally fine, getting into it has always been the problem. I baldly lied when asked about my swimming ability, hoping - foolishly - that this wouldn’t immediately become apparent or through some miraculous osmosis, that once I was surrounded by people who could swim properly I too would find my swimming legs.