Archive for March, 2012

Diving in Southern Thailand!

March 31, 2012

I took a dip into the south for a couple of weeks to do some diving. One of the things that came from the last 10 day meditation course – remember to keep my life balanced! Diving is certainly a good balance to sitting meditation. All work and no play….

I began my trip by heading to the Gulf of Thailand (on the east side of the thin strip of land that extends southward between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand. After a long overnight bus ride from Bangkok (BKK) and a couple hour ferry ride from the mainland, I landed on the tiny island of Ko Tao which is ‘the spot’ for diving in this area. I took a refresher dive course which I found very helpful and did 6 dives total – had a great time. Here are a few shots from this leg of my trip.

Beach Ko Tao

Rocks Ko Tao

A few sunsets on the Island of Ko Tao. This island was laid back, not overly crowded and I had a very quiet place to stay with my German dive buddy whom I met in route from Bangkok. It is a beautiful place as you can see, one of the classic “island paradise” spots in the world. I ate fresh fish every night here cooked after I selected it from the several choices available that night. Eating under the stars by the beach is the way to go when the opportunity presents itself! Ko Tao was just the beginning, the islands and the water surrounding them just kept getting more remote and beautiful as the trip unfolded.

While beyond my ‘backpacker’ budget, there are some truely beautiful places to stay on Ko Tao, natural settings and well integrated into the landscape. Feeling an urge to call your travel agent?

From Ko Tao, I took my first trip on a night boat, this one from Ko Tao to Surat Thapi in route to the western shore of Thailand. There are 2 levels like this one on this old, wooden boat, each with spaces for 40 or 50 folks to get some sleep while slowly moving from one place to another (about 8 hours). While a bit crowded, it was a good experience, a neat sense of community among strangers from all around the world and one that I’ll do again if I have a chance.

From Surat Thapi, I made my way via bus, taxi and ferry to the island of Phi Phi where the diving and scenery were both much better than Ko Tao but the stay not nearly as enjoyable, too many people, too little space and way too much partying. The room prices were outragous so I ended up in a dorm room with 15 other folks, all in their 20s from all around the world. While I could have done without the 4am and 6am wake-ups from a bunch of drunk kids, I did enjoy the experience of seeing how these kids interacted, had a few good conversations of the “you’re not your Dad, but…” variety when invited to do so. Overall the kids I see out here on the road give me hope for the future of our planet!

Island Phi Phi

Beach Phi Phi

Rene, my 65-year-old, French dive instructor that I had at PhiPhi. I completed my “advanced diver” certification with him and another instructor, both excellent and attentive. I did 5 dives total with these guys including a night dive. I enjoyed them all!

This is me in my dive gear looking at the guy in the next photo.

A Leopard Shark! The only shark I saw on the this trip, water’s too warm for them I am told.

Here’s some other neat stuff I saw, a very small sample indeed. Not representative of all the neat stuff I saw during this 2 weeks of diving. But still offers a taste. I will have some pics from the Similan Islands at some point from some of the friends I met on the diveboat.

Island Inlet Phi Phi

Small Island Phi Phi

Dive Boat Phi Phi

Rock Island Phi Phi

Small Island Phi Phi

Then I was on a ferry to the Island of Phuket where I would begin the best dive experience of my life! A 4-Day, 4 night liveaboard dive trip to the Similan and Surin Islands (very near Burma) SIMPLY AMAZING!! in so many ways. Great food, all equipment, small dive groups with skilled instructors, a total of 14 dives including a night dive and all for less than $650. Words and pictures (even if I had them) can not begin to communicate what this experience was like for me. If you have any interest in diving, this is the place and the way to do it (at least one good option, I hear good things about other spots in the world too. May have to check some of them out one of these days).

I am afraid that I have been spoiled by this liveaboard experience and the amazing diving that I did in these 4 short days. But, I am aware that everything is impermanent and I am working on moving on and letting the experience fall away making room for the next adventure!
Here are a few shots from this liveaboard dive trip.

The water is amazingly clear and the beaches are like those you see in a travel brochure for exotic places like southern Thailand and the South Pacific Islands.

Here’s the dive deck

This was my room on boat, shared with 3 other divers, a couple from Ireland and a guy from Canada.

This is the mid-deck and a few of the other 17 divers who were on this trip. This is where we ate and had our pre-dive briefings and hang out between dives when we didn’t want to be on the top deck which was the place to be at night when the stars were out and a cool breeze was blowing.

I’m headed to Cambodia tonight for a few weeks via a night bus to BKK (12 hours) then a day bus to the border (6 or 8 hours), keep me in your prayers and I’ll return the favor! John/Steve

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Thailand: Exploring the Western Border

March 18, 2012

Just came off a 10 day retreat at a charming little Vipassana center in the rural village of Thong Pha Phum. I can see from my daily interactions that my practice is deepening and I am grateful for it. I am learning and relearning the finer aspects of how this practice of purification works. On this course, I found that I was working a lot with my mind’s craving for the profound stillness that I experienced on the 20 day course in January. What is this? Attachment to equanimity?? Yeap, afraid so. Another opportunity to see how the process unfolds through periods of mental and emotional restlessness and physical discomfort that when faced with adequate concentration and determination, breaks through and we have a chance for a moment of Grace, a moment or two of Peace and Stillness. A reminder of the reality that is being obscured by our ego’s resistances, attachments and old habits of mind and heart. Another course, other experiences, more growth as always on a retreat. Moving along this path is just more fun sometimes than others 🙂

Earlier this month I was traveling in Western Thailand beginning with a couple of days in the ancient city of Sukhothai which is often referred to as “the Angkor Wat of Thailand.” Here are a couple of shots from this very well laid out and maintained park. I had a ball riding an old English-style bike around these ruins.

I then headed over to Mae Sot at the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) as I had heard that there was a lot of NGO activity in this area and I wanted to see what was happening. It turned out that this little city is the “networking center” for the many NGOs that are serving the 9 refugee camps that are nested along the border. Then I headed further out toward the edge of civilization to where the road ends at the base of mountains in this part of Thailand. A 5 hour ride in a small pick-up truck taxi to the village of UmPhang. I had some good conversations with some refugees along the way and came to appreciate a bit more how difficult the situation is for folks who have no home country and have lived in these “temporary” settlements for 20 or 30 years.

This man was sitting just on the Thailand side of the border at what we would call in the states, a “day work” station. It was already past mid-day and his hopes for work were small to none. I thought his face told a story I would like to write one day.

Here are another few shots from this border area.

Still haven’t gotten an explanation for the face paint that is very common in these border areas.

They make everything out of bamboo here, including pretty sharp hats!

Here are a few shots of the refugee camp I passed by and tried to enter but was refused permission, no clear reason why other than they could see no advantage to letting a strange American poke around with a camera – all risk, no gain. I was coached by a refugee who lives here and works for UN Legal Defense (and whose wife teaches at the Jr College in the camp) that I could expect to pay a bribe to be allowed in but the chance to pay one never materialized. Maybe another of those many things that get lost in translation. Much to learn about these borderlands where folks live without passports or many of the rights we take for granted.

This guy got on our truck on the way down, just climbing out of the woods with a bag of something he and his friend had just harvested or gathered. I decided it might be best not to ask too many questions but I would have loved to know more about the underground economy of this community.

In UmPhang, I took an overnight trek beginning with some rafting down a river that in the rainy season must be something to see. My timing was a bit unfortunate as the water was low, the smoke from the fires that the villagers burn every year at this time, thick. You can see the smoke in these shots. I’ll have to come back in the better months of Sept to Dec next time 🙂

Here’s a couple of more shots from this area and some of the animal friends I met along the way.

I then traveled for two very full days (11 hours of truck/local bus time one day, 12 the next) simply to get to the other side of the mountain (a 2-3 hour drive if there were a road) to get to the area where I would sit this last retreat, the village of Thong Pha Phum. Here I stayed on a houseboat and had a tour of a temple that the man-made lake had taken over. Here’s some pics. This is a view from my $7 room, the boardwalk between the rooms, some monks hanging out and other glimpses of this area.

Here are some of the fish that comes out of the lake. Recognize any of these guys? I think I can see some type of catfish and some look like brim but others look very strange to me.

These pick-up truck taxis are great. In this one, the ride down the mountain on a Sunday, we had plenty of room. On the way up, we had 30 people (including a couple of little children) in, on and around it. There are many chances for those “little sweet moments” that come from this kind of travel in these situations. The comfort level Thais have with closeness made me feel at home and put me at peace many times especially during these travels at the edge of the country where English was rare and there was much to be confused about.

The kids here are such troopers! Because of the twisty roads and rough-riding trucks, I would see them (and many adults too) throw up into plastic bags and then just go back to normal, no tears, no whinning. This one is asleep on the floor, his father sleep above him, his arm thrown over the side to keep him from falling off the bench seat.

This man got in as we rode along a small mountain road, seemingly headed home and sold a few of us his homemade pastries along the way. Not a bad thing to have a bit of sweetness and crunch every now and then.

Of course, there are other modes of transport here too. This man carried me from the bus station to my guesthouse (what they call hostels in this part of the world) for $0.65. Some folks work hard for a living and you can sure see a lot of them in this country.

I am looking forward to being back in the states and having some time with my Mac to “download” all the images and experiences I am carrying around from this journey. I think I may have a short story or two coming up. BTW, for those who haven’t already heard, Jordan and I are planning on returning to the states when she finishes her PC service, move into a little farm house on my brother and sister-in-law’s farm and give ourselves some time to re-integrate into our home country. No electricity but we have clean water, a hot shower, lots of quiet and nature to help us along. We’ll have nThombi there too to keep our lives more balanced and to remind us to play a little every day. Dogs are so good at that aren’t they? Wish us luck!

Life is indeed a great adventure! Stay well! John