Saturday, October 29, 2011

Australian or Austrian?

  I developed a daily routine of getting breakfast at the hotel restaurant, planning my day with my island map, and reading on the beach near my room. I tried to structure my time in the hopes of keeping myself busy each day on the island. I like having traveling options, but as my schedule became more structured and packed with things to do I realized that I was in fact preventing myself from a chance to relax. The whole point of going to the island by myself was to escape from the structured hustle and bustle of city life and retreat to paradise in solitude. When I caught myself planning out each day on paper I abandoned the idea and decided to reorganize my time around relaxation. Sometimes when our concentration is devoted to school or work (or both) we momentarily forget how to properly separate ourselves from work mode or school mode. 
  On the second day I rode my motorbike back to Chaweng beach to find the girls. Chaweng is the most populated and touristy beach on the island. I found the girls sitting on the beach and talked with them about their plans. Since they planned to have a lazy day on the beach, I said 'aufwiedersehen' and sped off in search of my next hotel. Prior to my beach trip I made plans to stay at the Akyra hotel (as previously mentioned) and I wanted to find out where it was and take a quick tour of the complex. After driving passed it multiple times I found it virtually hidden between two bigger resorts tucked in the side of a hill. I spent most of the day going back and forth between the Mermaid and the Akyra, checking out of one and into the other. The Akyra looked like a pristine modern Japanese village. The grass was perfectly cut around each stone with care and the bamboo bushes were neatly sculpted around each walking path. Every ground-level room had a small wooden outdoor patio that gave the room a more homely feel. I was caught off-guard by all the tourists staying there; maybe I was just used to a quiet hotel. 
  The next day I checked into the Akyra and spent my time reading on the beach and writing in my journal. I was only spending two days and one night there, so I wanted to get my money's worth. "Dinner at the Akyra was tempting, considering my weakness for sushi. However, I decided it would be better to be more frugal. I remembered seeing an Australian bar and grill broadcasting various sports matches when I was out with the German girls. My interest in rugby led me to this place in hopes of catching a match and meeting some new friends in the process. Since I no longer had my motorbike from the Mermaid I jumped on the back of one and paid the driver to take me downtown. During the ride I yelled over his shoulder to take me to an Australian bar. Somehow I knew he had misheard me and I laughed when he pulled over at an Austrian schnitzel haus. The Australian place was just down the street, so I didn't mind walking and window shopping along the way. When I got to the right place I asked if there were any live rugby matches, but sadly they were only showing repeats. I figured this was better than nothing and took a seat. My first instinct was to order a beer if I was going to watch sports. I held off after considering the slight pain in my mouth and my daily doses of antibiotics. After much deliberation I ordered a girly mango shake complete with an orchid perched on the rim of the glass. Great. 
  Desperate for someone to talk to, I started talking with the sun-stained Australian man, Eddie, who greeted me on the way in. He said he moved to Thailand a few years ago, hooked a Thai girlfriend and has been managing the bar ever since. I expressed my interest in Australia and traveling up the southeast coast, to which his first reaction was to tell me to stay in Thailand. As he cackled I knew he'd start talking about Thai girls, the islands and easy living. He has a point. I know Australia is pretty expensive, but there are ways of making it more affordable. For instance, linking up with distant relatives for a place to stay and finding decent hostels through proper research. Eddie seemed smitten by his Thai girlfriend and his new lifestyle, but I enjoyed talking with him about Australia, Thailand and teaching. I finished my drink and thanked Eddie for the conversation, walking out of the bar with the intention of heading back to my hotel. 
  As I was walking along the sidewalk two older European guys approached me and asked for a light in German. I said no immediately, but asked them auf Deutsch if they were German. They replied that they were Austrians - close. It wasn't long before they invited me with them to get a few drinks. I felt a little uneasy because they were already a little drunk, yet I wanted to see where this would take me. Side note: this is the PG version of the story. For the full story, I'll have to tell you in person. Funny enough, we ended up back at the Australian bar and had a few rounds of beers on their tab. During our conversation I did my best to practice my German and they would respond in English. Like most other tourists on the island, they flocked here to let loose before going to Koh Phangan for the full moon party. Since they were in party mode, they were reluctant to talk about their jobs in the catering and hotel business in Europe. Before I knew it we had finished our rounds and they proceeded to buy a bottle of champagne to take back to their hotel bar. They were decent guys, but not worth more than a few drinks. When they invited me back to their hotel bar to pop the bottle I hesitantly agreed. Were they more drunk than I thought? 
  At the hotel bar they asked the bar tender to pop the bottle for them, which would cost them back 300 baht. Pretty ridiculous. Refusing to comply, one guy takes a champagne glass and attempts to pop the bottle by striking the glass against the cork as if lighting a match. The glass starts chipping and spitting pieces of glass all over the floor. All of the timid Thai hotel staff can't stop him, meanwhile I'm acting like I don't know them. Finally, an older European man comes over and grabs the bottle from the Austrian guy. He demands that they pay for the broken champagne glasses before they can have the bottle opened. Again he refuses and has a brief tug-of-war with the champagne bottle. As I'm spectating I can see the pressure building inside the bottle and the cork slowly rising. I keep my distance for the explosion. The tussle ends and the cork bursts while the older man is holding the bottle in one hand. The cork zooms past the Thai bartender's head and bounces off the ceiling, leaving champagne foaming onto the floor. At that point I knew it was my time to bail. I told the other Austrian guy that I was going to the WC and then left without looking back. Actually, I did look over my shoulder many times to make sure they weren't searching for me. I was super paranoid after they made such a scene. I emerged unscathed and retreated back to the Akyra. 

Song of the Day:
  'What's the use in trusting more than we have to?' Especially if the people in question are already intoxicated when you meet them. It was a funny night that I'll always look back on fondly. Appropriately enough, this song is called 'Trust'. It's another beachy song from my Samui playlist. Sometimes when I encounter sketchy people that song line surfaces in my head. Look at these hipsters doing hipster things. 

Generationals - 'Trust'

Friday, October 28, 2011

Part 1: Koh Samui

  During my solo trip at Koh Samui I kept a daily journal with me at all times in case I wanted to reflect, whether I was relaxing on the beach or enjoying a meal at a local restaurant. This blog will include some of that handwritten material as a recount of my daily activities on the island. The road trip involved a ten hour overnight bus from Bangkok headed south to a pier located close to Koh Tao. As if the bus ride wasn't long enough, I had to endure a four hour ferry ride passed Koh Tao and Koh Phangan before I finally arrived at Koh Samui. Both rides were uncomfortable, not to mention my teeth were still slightly throbbing. 
  "The bus left Khao San around 9pm Saturday night. I boarded with some Pad See Ew and a throbbing jaw. Luckily there were two movies to keep me entertained and distracted from the constant pain.  About halfway through the bus ride around 2am I started chatting with a young guy from England sitting in front of me. He was on his way to Koh Tao to study for his Master Diver's Certification. Many people from all over the world flock to this island to dive. After all, it's affordable, quick and the marine atmosphere is nothing short of ideal. Tony told me that he is currently a Tai Chi teacher in the Chang Mai area in northern Thailand. He studied in China for a few years focusing on his acting career. Apparently he was nominated for an acting award for his role in a musical. Moreover, he's landed a small role in an upcoming movie, 'The Cave', which is scheduled to premier at the Cannes Film Festival. Naturally, he plays the role of the Tai Chi instructor who trains the main character. I'll have to do some research to follow Tony and his acting career. 
We finally arrived at the pier around 5am before sunrise to catch the ferry at 7am. I was so tired I felt hungover. The boat departed from a pier north of the island chain. My destination was last on the four hour ride. I spent most of the boat ride trying to get more sleep. As soon as I walked down the plank and onto the island I grabbed a map to get my bearings. I landed on the northern coast, rather than the west coast as I had originally planned. However, this didn't upset my plans because each part of the island is easily accessible by motorbike. At this point I was just exhausted and desperate to find a decent hotel. I asked a songtau (pickup truck taxi) driver to take me to a cheap hotel close to the Big Buddha statue in the northeast. That's how I ended up at the Mermaid Hotel, sitting on the beach, only a few steps away from the water with the golden Big Buddha in sight."
  My hotel was actually in a great location; far enough away from tourist-infested areas that I could relax in solitude on the beach, and close to a few temples for sight-seeing. Also, I felt comfortable knowing that my headquarters at the Mermaid were not completely deserted, but occupied by a few travelers worth talking to. One day at the hotel I met an elderly British gentleman in his late 70's who was traveling with his long-time buddy from home. I really like meeting new people when I'm traveling and this was the first time I shared a conversation with an elderly person since I've been abroad. We talked about everything from teaching abroad, to military service, rugby, traveling and the best footballer out there, Messi. Although we talked mostly about current issues and ideas, I enjoyed hearing about his younger years and how times have changed. There is so much to learn from our elders that most of us younger people haven't even tapped into yet. Maybe we rely on technology for that source of information now. 
  "When I first arrived at the hotel I checked in, threw my bags in my room and walked across the street to get lunch at the hotel's restaurant. As I was eating I overheard to German girls chatting at the next table. Naturally, we got to talking about their trip to the island and what they wanted to see. It turned out that we were both heading for the Big Buddha, so I rented a motorbike from the hotel and toured a few sights around the island with them. We checked out a few temples, sipped smoothies at a beach resort and got dinner and drinks later that night.    
  Fast forward to that evening, we stopped at a beach-side bar to lounge on the sand. The highlight of the night occurred when a ten-year-old Thai girl challenged me to a game of connect four. I thought to myself, 'This girl must play this game all day, every day. But I grew up playing this game, too. I can beat a little girl.' What a monster. I should've bet less than 100 baht. I let her go first only because she insisted 'ladies first'. It seemed to go well for the first few turns. She could've cared less, while I was devoting full concentration to my strategy. As time went on my moves became futile. She had multiple avenues to win no matter what I did. When she wasn't looking I even cheated by dropping two plastic coins at once and I still lost! That's the last time I let myself get suckered in to one of those games. I'm convinced that the person that goes first has the advantage. Unable to redeem myself, I accepted my defeat and called it a night. 

Song of the Day:
More like song of the week. This artist creates some of the best atmospheric indie music that I found to be absolutely perfect for laying on the sand and admiring the tropical waters. The only bad thing about this song is that it ends too soon. I think you'll find that you need to hit repeat many times, but it's never enough. I'll insert the download link to save you the effort of going back to Youtube over and over. Click the song title to download. 

Washed Out - 'New Theory

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October Adventures Intro

  I'm about to blog all over the place. It has certainly been a while, my friends. In a previous post I unveiled my prospective itinerary, mostly concerned with my solo beach trip to Koh Samui. At that point my plans for Cambodia and Vietnam were up in the air. I knew who I wanted to travel with and the places we wanted to go, I just I didn't do any proper research until after my beach getaway. This three-week October trip was my first extended vacation / backpacking experience and it really turned out well. I'm especially glad that all my photos turned out so well. I found myself unable to restrain myself from shooting endless photos of the ancient temples I visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia. More on that later. I'm going to divide my blog posts into three sections: the first for Koh Samui, the second for Cambodia and the third for Vietnam. 

  Before I set off for my travels I was nervous about my money situation from the beginning. In late September had to drop at least 10,000 B (half of a paycheck) to get my wisdom teeth removed. For the longest time I refused to write about my dental situation because it was stressful and time consuming, taking cabs around the city to different dental offices and talking to so many doctors to explain my situation. Initially I was only supposed to have one removed that was causing jaw pain and headaches. After getting an x-ray, the dentist wanted to remove the one tooth under local anesthesia - absolutely not. I insisted that I wanted general anesthesia so it would be easier for everyone involved. That way I could also have the three other wisdom teeth removed and just get the whole ordeal over with. Having any kind of surgery in a foreign country is an uncomfortable process, especially when communication is essential. Thankfully the doctors all spoke English well and understood my situation. I'm glad that the operation went smoothly and also that I felt well enough to travel to the beach soon after. As for my money, the other half of that paycheck went toward Koh Samui (mostly transportation and food). The other source of funds came from travelers checks that I converted into Cambodian riel, Vietnamese dong, and US dollars. At one point I had four forms of currency in my wallet including Thai baht. I'm the worst mathematician you'll ever meet, so I had a lot of trouble converting all those foreign currencies into the equivalent in USD. 

1 USD ~ 30 Thai baht
1 USD ~ 4,000 Cambodian riel
1 USD ~ 20,000 Vietnamese dong

  By the time you're dealing with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong it hurts your wallet to shell out huge amounts after getting used to spending a few hundred Thai baht here and there. The Cambodian economy accepts US dollars for most purchases, so I felt relieved to have some good old US mint in my hand again. However, if you choose to pay for a meal with a ten or twenty bill some of your smaller change will be returned in Cambodian riel because a 1,000 note riel acts as a US quarter. All the money conversion made my head spin. I'm still stuck with useless Cambodian monopoly money in my wallet. Maybe those notes will prove to be more valuable as souvenirs now. Stay tuned for upcoming posts that delve into a recount of my vacation!

Song of the Day:
  The intro to my journey around southeast Asia. This song is stolen from an epic snowboarding montage in the film "Art of Flight". The movie was filmed with the same high-quality slow motion cameras used to film the Planet Earth series. If you like snowboarding even a little bit, you should see the movie. 

M83 - Intro (featuring Zola Jesus)