Tuesday, January 27, 2009

18 Meters Below & 50 Meters above Sea Level

After getting inspired by snorkeling during the Christmas trip, I was determined to go deeper into the water. I made up my mind and finished off the theory for the certification for diving in the sea through the month of January & I was ready for the Chinese New Year holidays for the four open water dives required for the certification. I had planned well in advanced this time & booked the tickets for Krabi, Thailand since the diving season on east coast of Malaysia was closed due to monsoons. And from the earlier experience from the Phuket trip, I had made myself better equipped with information since this time I was going to travel alone as the group from last time had different things on agenda.

I caught the cheapest flight around..People love Air Aisa around here because it makes travel possible for so cheap!

After getting down at Krabi I directly took the ferry to Phi Phi Islands where I was planning to stay during the next 4 days.

Approaching Phi Phi

I started chatting with this Irish girl, Ciara, on the way. She was in her early twenties and traveling around the world for few months. A German guy also joined the conversation. He told us that he tried to book accommodation but everything was full and he could not find anything. Now I started feeling the excitement..though I knew I would certainly get some help from the diving school, it was high season and cost was surely a concern. So we planned to share a room to find a better deal.

After reaching we inquired for a while and finally settled for one at the Princess resort near the beach. Since we only had one key and different plans it was going to be some issue but we managed. I visited the diving school to finish the paperwork after a brief walk on the beach. Saw this interesting board in front of a dive shop...made me feel good that I am going to be REAL traveler according to them.:)

I was introduced to my instructor Joost, an elderly Dutch guy..felt a little comfortable in the safe hands of an experienced fellow on the first dive in the ocean!

Later that night I went out for dinner & some drinks with the new European friends. The German guy, Oliver was on a 5 weeks vacation and also visiting for diving and was planning to dive at different spots in Asia starting from Phi Phi. Ciara was not sure but she signed up for the diving course next day.

With Ciara & Oliver

I had a theory exam to be finished so retired early. Also wanted to be fresh for the early morning dive. I was already feeling the excitement and don't know how many times I dived during the night..in my dreams. :)

Early next morning took around 45 minutes boat ride to the diving spot called Bida Nok...and the fun began!!

In the next two days we made 4 dives around 45 minutes each. Sharing some of the videos from that...
All videos were shot by Marcella from Visa Diving Shop, a specialist underwater videographer. Thanks Cella for recording the memorable moments!

Well, these videos will just give a glimpse of what I saw..but does not even come close to portray what I experienced. As I feel even the videos are insufficient, I will not even try any futile attempts with words. There is no sound but mostly it would have been the videographer's breathing bubbles and the boats on the surface. :)

The fun begins..

The Descends

It is a stunning world out there...and even the best of aquariums come no where near to showing it as it is!

During some reading on what I would get to see, I found out that the main character in the film Nemo is actually called aNEMOne fish. Hat's off to Pixar for the name they came up with!

The next two videos actually are the cream of the pie..the best of the diving experience!

The camouflage, the organisms have underwater is just indescribable! You wouldn't even know that you are not looking at a rock but a fish or something else is also hidden right in front of your eyes! See this video too see a cuttlefish change not just its colour but also its texture!

And seeing a shark in its natural habitat does not compare to any other...

And as I say in most of my posts..all good experiences come to an end..and this one too was no exception...interestingly there was a quantification of it this time around..as it could be measureed in terms of the pressure gauge showing the air remaining in the cylinder!

The Fun Ends

But the fun continued for a while even on the boat..

I now have official permit to dive till 18 meters which we reached during the last two dives. Another two guys in the group had got certified as dive masters after a month of training or so..but they had another small test to pass..which we all were invited to see..drinking a bucket of beer using a snorkel! Since a snorkel closes the nasal openings it essentially meant that the bucket was to be finished in one breath!

Night life in Phi Phi was sure fun..Thai Boxing & Fire shows were interesting features in the bars there..Usually drunk tourists would get into the ring to win free bucket of booze..[yeah its 'bucket' there not a bottle :)]..but they are not as fun to watch as the local professionals.

Thai Boxing Ring at the Reggae Bar

Fire Show at the Apache Bar on the beach

Tourists having fun at the Fire Show, Apache Bar

I had another day on Phi Phi and I decided to experiment with rock climbing. It was not going to be high but high enough for an initial attempt. I signed up with CAT's climbing where Ryan, an American in his twenties, guided us pretty well knowing that we were beginners. Niv, an Israeli was another beginner along with me. Martina, George & Alexandra were a little experienced in the group. We headed towards the cliff from the beach..this was the area of Phi Phi island where we had had lunch during a one day boat trip from Phuket.

The Mountain that we climbed..

After the initial briefing I started the first attempt..

I followed Ryan's instructions, use hands just for balance and legs for all the body weight..

It was a very tiring...took me around 15 minutes to reach the top but I felt like I had ran a marathon.

The view from the top was amazing which according to Ryan was the most fun part of the climbing anywhere in the world.

It was a new experience but frankly I had enjoyed diving more than climbing. Technically I had just climbed around 25 meters but we already started 25 m above sea level.

But I think I had been higher up the day before to the View point to see the sunset..but it was a climb over a man-made concrete path..so the height even though higher did not matter as much the 50m vertical climb. :)

Sunset from the view point

I left the next morning to catch my flight from Krabi back to Kuala Lumpur. I realised that this was first time I was flying with sun right on the top..It was a fun to watch the different layers of clouds...some resembling ultra light cotton balls floating in mid air & some resembling flat soft beds..

But what I saw next..summarized my whole trip in one go..conquering heights & depths to see the unexplored beauty of nature!!

Merging Layers: Sky, Land, Water & Sky!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sex, Truths and Reality Takes

That’s what Steve Soderberg will name his film if he makes one focusing on the life around the Bangla road area in Patong, Phuket.

The gate was a part of temporary decorations for the New Year but for me it certainly identified as an entry to a different world. A world where ‘Sex’ had a pervasive presence and a very loose semantic..not just in coital context but also in terms of gender. Because in most places, the center-stage was occupied by trans-sexuals...

...mostly people who thought they were women trapped in men’s bodies. I am not sure whether they really felt that or it was just because of the money that they preferred to be women in one of the hottest places for sex tourism in the world!

The names of the bars in that area also belonged to a very special category, in which, I thought ‘Seduction’ seemed like a descent name...amongst the group of ‘Blow Job’,‘69’, ‘G-spot’ or ‘Wet Dreams’!

When you see men, negotiating with women...you know that there is something wrong going on there...but it was funny because most of the men would not be sure if it was really a woman they are talking to!

It was very amusing to watch there reactions...when they realised it!

When you see pole dancing, you presume that it is an adult entertainment spot..but the most shocking experience for me was when I saw families enjoying the artifacts on display as if it was a family hangout spot!
There were people with kids in prams..and even elder. And they did not have a shock on their face..as one would expect for someone who has taken a round turn..the kind of expression when people visiting Dagdusheth Ganpati in Budhwarpeth, Pune do when they take a wrong turn!

Some one made an interesting comment on the above video.."Was your camera drunk?" I think the later half of the video is an amazing example for visualising how most of the people on Bangla Road will be seeing things around there after midnight. :)

They all enjoyed the view..and even posed with the ‘Ladyboys’ to take pictures of there MEMORABLE visit to this place.

Since people used to pose for pictures..some people thought of another business idea around that. They brought these scary Iguanas and would charge 10 Bahts per picture.

It was another metaphor, I thought, for people losing all their inhibitions!
I was appalled by whatever I was getting to see..was it real? was it REALLY real? I wondered as I made my way through all that chaos towards the end of the street.

The other end of the street was very silent. There were many shops there..but no one was interested in what was being sold there..compared to the other end of the street.

The Tatoo shop was open all night..and most people would come all drunk late at night..enthusiastic to retain the memories of an amazing trip...forever on their bodies!

I could not stop but laugh when I saw the Police at that end...behind the barricades..as if being prohibited from the area!

But just around the corner on the other street were many interesting shops...It did not shock me as much when I noticed that there were some amazing toys being sold there! And these were for kids, not for adults! I was amazed by the variety in both hand made and manufactured electronic toys.

Some very cute Wooden Toys..

A wooden frog which made sound exactly like the real one!

Dancing Dolls..

See the video to watch them dance..

Cars that flipped wheels to make a turn!

There were some interesting art works on sale too...

A Lantern shop..

These are carvings on a bath soap! Takes around 45 minutes for each of the delicate piece..

It was typical in art shops that you would see an artist working on some artwork...

I had a small chat with one of them who worked on buffalo hides to create intricate designs..but he did not allow me to take any pictures.

We walked around the place most of the days while we stayed there...but there were not any new surprises after the first day...and I wasn’t expecting any either.
When truth lies naked in front of you I don’t think there is any scope for more revelations.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Adventures in Thailand

For the first time, since I started working in Malaysia, I was getting long vacations. So we were planning to travel to places far off in Malaysia. We had 5 days off [25-29 December] but none of the spots was worth more than a couple of days. All the interesting locations on east coast were out of question due to monsoons and the remaining ones on west coast were not as far and could be easily covered over a weekend each. So procrastinating the decision till the end..it came to the 24th evening and we still had not decided where to go. Extensive search started over the internet, and some phone calls to local friends...but in vain. While browsing the web, Harish, whom I was panning my trip with found out that over the next 5 days..no place is Malaysia is rain free. That was it...my anticipations seemed completely submerged. But that's when I happened to talk to Garth who suggested Phuket in Thailand. The political turmoil had died down and it would be a nice season there he said. As per my plans I wanted to cover Malaysia completely before going out..but we checked the tickets and they were available [hail Air Asia for its cheap rates] !! What the heck we said..let's not let the vacations go waste..two of my ex-flatmates Anupam & Yogesh also agreed and Harish booked tickets online for all four of us using his credit card.
The flight was on 25th evening, so we tried to find whatever info we can..but were not able to firm up on anything..just that there was some facility for bungee jumping that we all were eager to attempt, a sunset point that Anupam wanted to see and snorkeling near Phi Phi island was in my wishlist. Meanwhile Harish had made a special comment that we will help the world by saving paper and not printing out tickets and just take the online booking reference number to get our boarding passes. Though I had a not so good feeling about it, I did not resist considering the greater good. :P
While we were trying to gobble up as much as info as possible time was running up. We left for the airport and managed to reach on time only to find out that the flight is delayed by an hour. Usually an hour doesn’t matter much in International journeys but it meant that we will be reaching the town just before midnight and while everyone will be celebrating Christmas we will be carrying our bags in search of accommodations.

If only I could have used this hour to search for more info I thought. I tried it on my phone but gave up when others coaxed me to chill and let everything take its course. I agreed and wished I could get a little of their carefree attitude...
Finally we caught the flight and in less than 24 hours after deciding, we were in a foreign land..with no accommodation bookings or much info about what to do over the next few days. I was already feeling my pulse rising in anticipation of the adventures to come...but I was not expecting that they were going to start from the airport itself! We went to the counter to get the 'On Arrival' visa for the tourists and the officer asked for our return tickets. We did not have any copy of that since we had decided to save paper! Well there you go..saviours of the world! You were thinking about the problems of the world..you are in a big problem now!
'Its OK'...the eternal optimistic voice in my head said..'the worst thing that can happen to you now is that you will have to stay on the airport for four more days till your flight back to Malaysia..and maybe you will be in shoes of Tom Hanks from ‘The Terminal’!'
I am always amazed how this part of my brain always finds amusement in the most hopeless situations!! Anyways the issue did not grow in reality as much it did in my head..though he asked us the address of the place we were going to stay at...we bluffed our way out of it thanks to some notes I had taken down while browsing internet. The officer asked an office boy to get a print of our ticket from the Air Asia counter on the other side of the immigration. He got the print promptly and though the wait added up on top of our original delay we were glad that we got to enter Thailand.

We booked a taxi for a random address I had in my notes & we had bluffed about and went to the taxi stand. There was a long queue of passengers waiting there. While we were booking the taxi, we had realised that we are paying a little higher than expected but they said it was a premium service so I thought maybe we will reach sooner than if we try to find something outside. But apparently, there was more queue for premium taxis and the general taxis which costed lesser were queued up waiting for passengers! This was going to be a fun trip I said to myself!

Finally after waiting for nth time that day we got into a taxi and around 45 minutes later we were into the town..crowded everywhere for Christmas celebrations. We inquired at 15 places at least, but the accommodations were either not available or too expensive. It was getting late and our stomachs & the taxi driver had started to crib now. So much for the premium service! So we decided to get down and hunt for the rooms on our legs. We moved to Karon, an area which was a little further from Patong [the hottest area for night life in Phuket]. And finally after a few inquiries found some rooms that we could afford at the Karon Guesthouse.

It was almost midnight, but we did not have time to rest if we had to have a healthy dinner after tiring last few hours. No one was willing to experiment with Thai food that night as most of us were vegetarians. So we found an Indian restaurant and ordered food. We ate to content of the heart and to the discontent of our pockets. That meal cost us almost 400 INR per head! And it wasn’t even authentic Indian..the dishes were Indian but the taste was Thai! Just as a Chinese would complain in India that the Chinese food in India sucks..we had similar sentiments for Indian food in Thailand. It also gave us an idea that whatever cash we had brought along with us for the trip was not going to be sufficient. No arguments against critics who would call us a bunch of suckers to have Indian food instead of trying the exotic Thai cuisine on a vacation in Thailand. We were just not ready for any uncharted territories that night..not at least after the setbacks earlier.

After a brief walk around the area, me and Yogesh decided to catch some sleep. Harish & Anupam were still up for some explorations and enjoyment. It was almost 2 am when I fell asleep.

I woke up early morning in anticipation of a better day than the last. A friend had suggested to rent out bikes to travel around the island. So I decided to go out for the inquiries for bikes & places to visit till others woke up. Just outside this guest house I saw this stall for what my mom calls ‘Appe’ or ‘Gundupagulu’..

Oh great!! They are my favorite! That was a wonderful start for the day! Though they were unexpectedly sweet..I gleefully finished them up.
By the time I returned, everyone was up and ready to go. After a lot of debate for renting the bikes, as the stores were asking for our passports as collateral, we agreed as we understood that stores cannot tie us with anything else. That is the only way they can have tourists returning the bikes. So we rented to bikes and started our trip around the island.

The first thing on everyone’s wishlist was bungee jumping. So we searched for the place and it was already 12:30 pm by the time we reached there. We were the only customers when we reached and no one amongst us was willing without seeing someone else jump. So we hung around for some time till some tourists showed up. Seeing other jump gave us a lot of confidence..and we signed up. Though Yogesh chickened out and played the photographer. Thanks to him that I have some of these amazing pictures!

For those who are not satisfied with the pictures...here is the complete video of the jump from the top. It surely was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life..never before I had to gather so much courage in one moment!!

After the jumps we decided to wander around town, have lunch and reach the sunset spot by evening.
On our way we came to know about a famous Buddhist temple, ‘Wat Chalong’, so we decided to give it a visit.

The ostentatious exteriors of the architecture were quite contrast to the serene places that they enclosed.

Calming ourselves in the temple premises after the adrenalin rush from the jump, we moved ahead towards the Promthep cape for the sunset. On our way we witnessed some picturesque panoramas in Rawai.

We reached the Cape just in time for the sunset..and it was one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen.

That was an amazing day of outing! Made us forget all that we had been through...we started looking forward to a nice trip as we headed back to the room to get fresh for the night out.

We still had a couple of things to sort out..we had to make bookings for the boat tours for the next two days and find a accommodation in Patong so the hot spots of the town will be easily accessible. We managed those and enjoyed a conservative dinner..that mostly included fried rice same as the lunch that day.

The Patong nightlife is covered separately.

We had to shift the accommodation to Patong that we had booked for the remaining two nights, return the bikes to get our passports back and catch the bus to the pier by 7:45 am! That was going to be an early start so I got up early to see the sunrise at Karon beach. Technically it was not on the East so it was not as beautiful as the sunset last evening but it still infused a freshness.

After returning Yogesh & I shifted our stuff and returned the bike and reached the guesthouse where the bus was going to pick us from, only to know that it had already came for us..twice! I hurriedly called them up and they said that they will return once again. Phew!!
But Harish & Anupam were still not there. They had left just after us. The bus came.. and the driver was infuriated but we still had to make him wait for the other two. We managed somehow and these guys showed up after a while..and they had another adventure to share! Their bike had ran out of petrol on the way back! They managed to find someone selling petrol [not a petrol pump] who filled the tank completely because of some misunderstanding and these guys made him empty most of it again as they were anyway going to return the bike immediately! A stunning start to the day!! Though this time I was glad that I did not have their carefree attitude.

The agenda for the day was island hopping on the speed boat but I was more eager for snorkeling.

I don’t know how this swiss guy managed to read on the bumpy boat ride..but it was an interesting view!

The view outside was also stunning! It looked like the islands were just waiting for us...

And looking out towards the sea..never realized how time passed by and we reached near the islands.

First destination amongst them was Maya Bay on Phi Phi island.

This was the place where the movie ‘The Beach’ was shot. It looked so beautiful in the movie that I had always wanted to visit..but like me thousands of others too wished the same. As a result the huge crowds made the visit a big turn off!

Monkey beach was another place we visited and they provided bananas on the boat to feed the monkeys!

The next stop was for snorkeling..the HIGHLIGHT of the day..another memorable experience...

[Thanks to Cathy for the underwater photos]

Watching the fish is their natural habitat was a very different thing compared to seeing them in an aquarium..I made up my mind then and there to take up scuba diving and explore deeper...

After having lunch on Phi Phi island..we went for another round of snorkeling nearby..

..before returning to Phuket early evening. This time we saw the sunset on Karon beach..

This was surely the most beautiful I have seen in my life...a lot better than the last couple of days..and will remain so for a while I think..

After another walk in the night nearby Patong before and after dinner, we were ready for the final day of the trip.

It was the most easy morning of the trip, got up and got ready for the bus. That day it was visit to the James Bond island & canoeing in the low rise caves.

The huge rock behind me is famed after James Bond...after one of his films was shot here. Interestingly, I had never seen a natural place named after a fictional character.

But the real highlight of the day was canoeing.

A small boat with maximum 3 people could go into very small places. So must of the time we were lying on our backs looking up at a very unusual natural structures...

Thanks Yogesh for this next video.

Afterwards, we got to use the canoe by ourselves...

It was another wonderful experience...

All three days of the trip had been wonderful...every time I thought nothing can beat this..another one would come along the way prove me wrong..

Just two days left for the year..and I went into a ruminative mood. It had been the best year of my life..my biggest dream of traveling around the world had begun..2008 had started in a distant land and was going to ended in another...[keeping my fingers crossed.:P]

The next day we had an early morning flight to catch so we booked the taxi in the night and relaxed. Little did we know that the climax of the adventure trip was not yet over. When we reached the airport next morning, while checking in, the lady at the counter asked us to show the credit card with which the tickets were booked. And my dear friend Harish was not carrying it! We tried to explain her that it was his credit card, showed all other identity proofs but she won’t listen..she said I cannot issue the boarding pass without seeing the credit card!!
Now what? I felt my heart beat skip for the first time..there had been many adventurous moments, adrenalin rushes in the trip..but I had enjoyed every one of them. But this was a clincher...we were completely drenched out of money...not even in a position to cancel the current ones and buy new ones. What were we supposed to do? So we all took deep breaths and calmed ourselves down..and decided to make another attempt. We patiently tried to explain her that we booked the onward tickets in the same transaction & showed her the tickets. She typed the reference number into her computer and after what felt like an eternity raised her head to say ‘OK.’......Phew!! Our synchronized sigh of relief was so heavy that it was heard all over the interior of the small Phuket airport...and as everyone looked at us...we merrily walked towards the immigration and then to the flight!

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