I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It begins like this…
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
I begin Part II in a weird little hotel on the other side of the water, having just spent the past 6 days on a boat in the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago, dodging currents and battling low visibility, diving some of the most lush underwater gardens I’ve seen in years.
I’m in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost point, and my official point of entry to this country.
First, the undersea world.
Diving is a strange contradiction, as well as an ethical paradox. To get to the places that have not been impacted (as much) by climate change and unchecked tourism and the unsustainable overconsumption to which this world has become addicted, one needs to travel further and further abroad, which requires planes, trains, buses, boats, etc. to get one there.
I’m convinced that the more people who discover diving will have their eyes opened to the pervasive problems the foundation of our ecosystem faces. I’ve diatribed on this before: without healthy oceans, we do not have a healthy planet. And one cannot get the true picture of what a healthy ocean looks like unless one sees the contrast.
I dove in Thailand 3 years ago and nearly cried each day I saw dead reefs, bleached and crushed corals, and a distinct lack of fish, with the exception of one dive site, Richelieu Rock, situated a difficult-enough distance from the mainland to not have the daily touristic pounding that is seen in the rest of the Similan Islands (shortly after we were there, Thailand’s government actually closed Koh Tachai because it had gotten so bad). Same observations last year in The Seychelles, where it’s clear that their reefs have not bounced back from a devastating bleaching event the year prior. The oceans are too warm. The landscape appears normal at the surface (for a given value of normal), yet scratch the idyllic surface and you quickly see there’s trouble lurking.
Enter, Myanmar: I wanted to give this part of the world another shot, and with 3 weeks in Southeast Asia planned and not much of an itinerary, I decided to add some diving days to see how the ocean is doing.
First off, it is difficult to get to the Mergui Archipelago. Situated quite a ways offshore from nearly anywhere, there is virtually no diving industry here, as one must get on a liveaboard to hit most of the charted sites. This bodes well for the reef, because the lack of frequent day-tripping snorkel and dive boats means that hordes of tourists won’t be tromping on the corals, nor should their fuel or trash. I’ll get back to the trash later.
Optimistic indication #2: the distance from any coastal building boom (if there were one here) means that toxins from industry and development running into the reefs isn’t yet being exacerbated by the depletion of mangroves and natural boundaries. Yet being the operative word.
Massively strong currents and wild thermocline are natural in this region (5-10° fluctuations in ocean temperature weren’t at all uncommon), as is the less-than-optimal visibility. These factors, too, make this a “not for everyone” diving destination. And these wild waters help nature do its thing: creating sea-creature superhighways to move critters and nutrients and food sources, cleansing the habitats in the process.
So we begin with a habitat that is less intruded-upon than most. Yet, our first night, anchored off an island some 6 hours northwest of Kawthaung, we’re shocked to see a horizon ablaze with fishing boats. These local commercial fishermen are trolling with massive nets that drag along the bottom of the ocean, collecting squid plus whatever bycatch happens into the fray. It’s a disconcerting sight to say the least.
By day, dive after dive, we visit reefs are teeming with schools of fish and soft corals, creating dream-like undersea forests in pinks and yellows I’ve never before experienced.
And dive after dive, I’m also wondering where the bigger stuff is. The reef sharks and mantas and dolphins and turtles and rays and whale sharks that should be flourishing in these waters, amongst these healthy reefs, given all the lower little stuff on offer for them…
So one afternoon, we take the zodiac out to one of the little islands; an idyllic uninhabited gem plonked in the middle of the ocean. As we land, a siren of sorts is sounding… turns out it’s some sort of beach insect that emits a wail akin to a fire signal, so loud, that as we walk to the jungle at the edge of the beach, it hurts the ears. And I get a lump in my throat realising that it is an alarm…the natural world is in a massive amount of trouble. Here, in the middle of the sea, where nobody lives, is a carpet of plastic trash.
Back on the dive boat, as we get to islands closer to civilisation again, we begin to see the impacts of the fishermen, a warming climate and more people: damaged, bleached and dead corals, dive sites strewn with “ghost nets” and stray lines and hooks, increasingly fewer, and noticeably smaller, schools of fish… the plastic-littered beach nearly broke my heart, yet an hour or a day or a month of cleanup won’t help the endemic worldwide consumption at its root.
I’m running this all over in my mind and I’m wondering when the breaking point will be for this place as well. Nature needs the balance of top predators and small; the plastic will choke the beaches and eventually the sea birds, then the small fish that feed the medium that feed the bigger ones…and the food chain needs its balance to remain intact.
Lest we forget: we, too, are of the animal kingdom and simultaneously the worst perpetrators of the misdeeds to it.
On this dive boat, we were all given water bottles instead of plastic; they used real plates and cutlery; we cut fishing lines and hooks from the reef; they reported our findings to the authorities… it’s a small dent in a massive problem to which I don’t have a solution. But I think conscious consumption and responsible travel and deliberate choices and intelligent conversations are all imperative places to start.
With these thoughts mulling in my head, we head back to dry land. For me, it’s another 10 days of new experiences in a land I know very little about. The boat drops me where I started this piece, in the town of Kauthaung (pronounced something like cow-tongue), and from here I will travel northwards.
I’m flying on what seems an endless leg, northward and eastward, currently on a trajectory over Russia; a 15-hour slog and reminder of the value of the “priority economy” ticket I declined to purchase. I’m stuck in a window seat, feeling alternately claustrophobic and antsy, two individual snoozing millennials blocking my access to what freedom exists on this sky bus.
In my ear is an audio book, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. His account of a trip across Asia is significantly more interesting than mine thus far (N.B. it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read!!!).
Part 2 of this intro commences as I’m sitting by the pool when dawn breaks. Pigeons intermingled with morning songbirds, a sound one might not expect in this madly bustling city. It’s an oasis of sorts, tho a new LED billboard that blights the rooftop view hints of things to come.
I’ve spent 3 days here in Bangkok, my 2nd visit to this frenetic city. This go-round, I’m able to spend time with my uncle and his gf, who live here part-time. We eat our way through 2 days, wandering a night market (Chokchai), a weekend market (Chatuchak) and a produce market (Or Tor Kor).
After a morning bruising by a local massage doctor (My sore muscles will thank her. I hope.), we make our way to Nonthaburi pier to hire a boat to take us down the river a ways and out to the island of Ko Kret. The Chao Phraya River wends its way through Bangkok. On its banks, a mish-mash of older stilt houses look as if the next big wind might topple them, line-drying laundry and all, into the murky waters. Interspersed with the houses are shrines and temples and giant buddhas and new high-rise buildings, creating a ridiculous waterfront on this river’s banks.
Ko Kret was uninspiring. But we’ve arrived on a non-market day, so maybe it’s that we’re the only tourists there and the island is also unimpressed with our existence and chooses to ignore us as well. We hire bikes, roll along the pathways for an hour, and find our boatman to take us back to the pier.
In the middle of the river, we see flotillas of lily pads, a grand canopy for the massive barb carp, whose jumping makes the water seem to boil. And these lily pads are the perfect fishing spot for herons of all shapes and sizes, especially a beautiful little striated heron, who I hadn’t realised I caught until after the fact. Even here, a place where steel and concrete seem to spring from the ground as the jungle once did, there is nature to be found. If you look.
We get back and it’s almost sunset. The pier is buzzing with students and workers on their Monday evening commute. These food stalls have nearly everything you could imagine on offer: fried calamari, taro dumplings, hot dogs on a stick, dried shrimp, mango and sticky rice, grilled whole fish… lumpy stuff I can’t identify, and everything in between!
It’s not a secret that I love foreign markets. Ironically, I hate crowds but I’m strangely drawn to the buzz of these places, the smell of the myriad foods cooking in hot oil or over an open fire, the almost rhythmic flow of people and traffic and tuk tuks and motor scooters, with its own tempo and melody.
It’s with these things in my mind – a happier vision of Bangkok than when I was last here – I fall asleep. The next morning I’m off to Ranong, then to the Myeik Archipelago, to get my feet wet again, as it were. It’s a semi-complicated game of hopscotch, visas and border crossings, as I venture North to Burma.
So, Ranong. It’s like a forgotten place, this town: the old, storm-worn buildings, rusted cars and motorbikes and façades, as if stuck waiting for something to happen. There are cafés and shops lining the main street, but no patrons. I arrive mid-day on a Tuesday, expecting to be able to see the ocean or at least hop a bus or get a taxi or tuk tuk to take me somewhere with a view. “Too far” I’m told by the local moto-taxi guys. It’s not really a taxi, but a motorbike with a wagon on the back. A not-quite-tuk-tuk setup that I gather is more for moving people (and stuff) blocks, not kilometres. The hotel is equally helpful. No, there are no taxis. The bus goes near where you want to go but not at this time of day (it’s 3pm). There is no beach. Or, there are many beaches, but you can’t get to them because they are far. There are no scooters to rent. But you can rent a motorbike. Which is great, except I don’t want to die in this wretched place. I decline. At dinner, I was apparently too white to qualify to eat spicy food, and was thus served the bland version. Thus, my request for chili sauce was met with equal parts confusion and animosity.
I give Ranong a walloping thumbs down. It is, I gather, a stopping point for ex-pats on visa runs, or travellers, like me, in-between segments of a journey.
Having begun the trip with a splash and – quite literally – a bang (as my travelling companion/dive buddy lives in Brussels, and we were conveniently out at sea when the attacks happened), it continues with a whoosh (jet engines whisking me from Phuket to Bangkok), a vroom (taxi to Ayutthaya) and click-clack of train wheels on hot and dusty rail (Ayutthaya to Bangkok proper).
I booked this trip as a 2-part adventure, really. First, the dive holiday, which pretty much just smacks of fantasy. Then the explore and learn bit: how much Thailand can I inhale in just a handful of remaining days…
The “bang” left me feeling a little hollow, freaked out by proxy, and more dismayed with humanity than a privileged western girl maybe has right to be, neatly plunked amongst palms on an idyllic southeast Asian beach.
Determined to not let an unstable, trigger-happy faction that is not targeting me specifically win the war of fear, I send well-wishes (and said travelling companion) Northward and Westward and must continue on, trying to shed the sheer baggage weight of being a lucky one this go-round, stepping through airport security with a bit more trepidation than perhaps usual. That said, I can’t shake the question, “why?” To what end, this madness?
My madness, this travel bug which hit me perhaps later in life than some, leaves me feeling in-between. Too old to be a backpacker, casting off job, flat and responsibility to travel (as so many I’ve spoken with) “until funds run out.” What then, when you arrive back where home was supposed to be, a year, maybe more later, and though you are more world-wise, your world has moved on (as it does) sans toi.
Too young (or at least not nearly liquid enough) to retire and see those things on the world travellers’ bucket list…And a little too comfortable (maybe too tired) in a safe place in life to completely change jobs (again), freelance, live on a shoestring and tick each place off my travel list (which changes as frequently as I learn about less-travelled natural wonders).
Thailand did not have the impact on me that India did. Its plastic, consumable, neon, disposable, synthetic, thing-filled, chaotic-ness (erm, lifestyle?) spoke to me in much the opposite way of Delhi’s musical, synchronised chaos. Spirituality on offer as a tourist show (higher price tag on everything for the foreigner). To be fair, the farthest north I ventured was Ayutthata, clear of the hills and northern jungles that would likely have renewed my faith that there is still a swath of wild Thailand left, home to free elephants and tigers, birds and other fauna. Had I an extra day or two, I would have explored the jungled hills rising from Khao Lak’s beaches.
I gravitated towards the old (Ayutthaya’s crumbling ruins) and felt pangs of familiarity amidst the opulence (case in point, Bangkok’s Grand Palace) in the murals and the depictions of ancient India that called to me quietly from deep within the artwork. Where Buddha’s roots took seed, of course, were the Hindu Brahmins of old, and with that the folklore, gods and goddesses came along for the ride when decorating a palace.
The stone work in Ayutthaya’s old city reminded me of a miniature Angkor Wat (though without being first built as Hindu temples). Where, in its glory, there were hundreds of temples and structures, now only a couple dozen individual sites remain and are being renovated as a World Heritage Site. The city’s temples, its stupas, walls and prangs were decimated in the 17th century when the Burmese flattened Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (as it was then called) in a matter of days; they beheaded most of the Buddha images (as history was told to me, the statue torsos were hollow, and the kings stored their gold and treasures in the Buddhas’ chest cavities) and melted down the gold for their own purposes. Aside: I could not help but wonder whether history curiously repeats itself and our current incarnation of bad guys from the East are plotting their own destruction of our golden idols and symbols of excess. To prove or effect what, exactly, I’m not clear.
When Siam’s capital moved South (briefly to Thonburi, then to Bangkok), palaces and temples were erected but (in this traveller’s opinion) cannot compare to the masterwork of ancient architecture that was Ayutthaya.
I was not prepared at all for Bangkok.
I stayed on the outskirts of town, at a relative’s flat on a lovely soi (side-street) just blocks from the bustle of what my senses perceived as Chinatown on steroids. I wonder if this is what people feel upon meeting New York City for the first time.
I experimented with different forms of Bangkok transport to get around: taxis (So. Much. Traffic.), Metro (clean, quick and efficient) and the motorcycle-taxi (you pay money to put your life in the hands of orange-vested drivers as they zoom you from point A to point B). Zoom: as if for sport, my moto-taxi driver went the wrong-way on a busy street, up sidewalks, and once on the main drag he drove like mad – I do think he was racing the next guy – weaving in and out of traffic to get me from the Metro station to the flat. He was amused. I, not so much.
After many melty-hot hours of playing tourist, the things that did not kill me on my first full day in Bangkok were as follows: blazing heat (34C!), street food, dark alleys, negotiating with street vendors, and the moto-taxi.
Overall trip report card:
Thailand diving: A-/B+. The reefs are a mess, bleached and trampled; ocean temps are rising, there are too many divers in the water and not enough oversight by the Marine Park Services, though the farther out you get – Richelieu Rock for example – the reefs are in discernibly better shape. There are oodles of fish, though (which you don’t get in the Caribbean), and The Junk liveaboard was a great experience. (A+ for the travelling companion!)
Khao Lak: B. It’s a little too touristy for my tastes tho the beach was nice and the hills/surrounding jungle inviting
Ayutthaya: B+. Phra Ram Park was lovely, the air smells like jasmine and the ruins are fascinating
Bangkok: C+. I’m not so much into shopping, needed an interpreter or guide to do the city justice and prefer a place with more green and open space
And so, with another whoosh (the departing flight) and a grumble (an 8+ hour layover at a Doha airport lounge in the wee morning hours and then a 2+ hour delay to an already 13 hour flight) and a thunk (bags dropped haphazardly in the foyer of my flat, then weary traveller collapsing into bed), the trip ends. A feeling of still being on a boat (or is that the jetlag?) and a post-travel melancholy lingers into a snowy Sunday morning north of Boston.
As the tides turn on my first of two weeks here in Thailand, I reflect on a few days at sea and a few days on a Khao Lak beach, where 12 years ago the Tsunami hit and they still speak as reverently of it as if it were much more recent history, reminding me that however sad and devastating it seemed to me at 9000 miles away, I will never know what the images on the Internet could not convey.
The Andaman Sea in late March is like bath water. The air, like a warming sauna without one iota of that lovely dry heat. The fruit here comes pre-peeled and wrapped in plastic film and styrofoam, which is then wrapped in its own plastic bag(s). There are more nail and massage places, tailors and tourist shops than I’ve ever seen in 4 square blocks. Something like The Beach meets Fort Lauderdale at Spring Break. I’ve also managed to lose my sunglasses.
But we came to dive…
Most divers have a critter wish-list. That is, we part mer-humans make a small private wish each time we head into the water, hoping to encounter a whale shark or manta ray or ghost pipefish or seahorse or other such aquiline critter we have not as yet met. To this end, I spent 4 days this week aboard the June Hong Chian Lee, an old Chinese Junk that has been renovated as a liveaboard dive boat. And so, I spent the days in the company of divers from far and wide: from the UK and Sweden and France and Argentina and Finland and the Philippines and Switzerland… Each of us with our own personal quest to find Nemo or other critters on our respective lists.
My fish checklist was rather easy to tick off this trip, as I’d never dived waters on this side of the planet. Nemo, check. Butterfly fish and triggerfish of all colours, shapes and sizes, check. Honeycomb moray, white-eyed moray, spotted moray, green moray, check, check, and check. Leopard shark, check. But there are some special critters that are simultaneously elusive and for their own reasons special to each diver… My list includes seahorses, ghost pipefish, manta rays, sea dragons, hammerheads and some others. So when Mick, our divemaster, pointed deep into a crevice on the Andaman’s famed Richelieu Rock dive site and I realised what he wanted me to see, the words that formed in my head were, “OMG, are those really….” [whispered in my head: Ghost Pipefish] Yes, indeed they were. It’s hard to convey underwater to your dive buddy that you’ve just seen a critter on your lifetime wish-list; a thing you’ve been diving for nearly 20 years in hopes of glimpsing. Yet, all he can see are your frenetic hand signals (none of which can adequately depict said ghost pipefish) and a very silly grin on your face (which causes perhaps some alarm, because one is not supposed to get narc’ed at 20 metres).
Maintaining a sense of awe and wonder at the regular everyday marine life and general spectacle of the undersea world while at the same time experiencing a first glimpse of one’s bucket list critter(s) is the practice, really. It’s not hard to take for granted what we know and that with which we are comfortable. What’s hard is to see the precious magic in the everyday schools of yellow snappers or run-of-the-mill parrotfish or blue tangs and trevallis. As if being privileged to observe the underwater aquatic ballet isn’t magic spectacle enough.
And so, ghost pipefish seen but, alas, not photographed, we wade back into the (Andaman) sea to see what other wonders may make themselves known…
And on dry land, the mangoes are sweeter than nectar, the bananas equally so; the massaman curry does not disappoint, the sun sets like a ripe tangerine dunking itself in the Indian Ocean, and this mermaid trades fins for feet and embarks on the second half of her adventure.