27 September, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 9 to Day 17

So, it's been a while - but considering i am a) on holiday & b) in countries where the internet is not so readily available & expensive, think yourself lucky that i'm writing anything at all :)

Anyway, here's the diary of what we've been doing up till now...

Day 9 - Saturday 19th September
K took a day off between diving courses, so we rented a bike & toured the island of Koh Tao. That took us all of 3 hours (with drink breaks...) The roads on Koh Tao are really bad, so K gave up the idea of teaching me how to ride a motorbike. Instead i just held on really tight, hoping we wouldn't hit a dog, coconut or some random person riding on the wrong side of the road. No worries though - we ended our tour uninjured.

Day 10 - Sunday 20th September
K started his Advanced Open Water Diving course & started off with two dives: advanced buoyancy & navigation. Not really sure what advanced buoyancy is - something to do with floating properly, or not drowning. The navigation part involved compasses, and that's about all i know...
I just relaxed on the beach, wrote postcards & read. Nice.

Day 11 - Monday 21st September
K had a really early start & did his deep dive, which involved going down to 30m. He really enjoyed this dive; said it was amazing looking up & seeing another group of divers 10m above. Also did his multi-level dive which involves working out remaining air & bottom time & other technical things like that (which i don't fully understand but K the Engineer loved)
In the evening, K went out on his night dive, which was by far his favourite dive so far. He said it was like being in some spy movie or being an astronaut. While he was doing that, i read up on the symptoms of decompression sickness, just in case. No, nothing happened - K was perfectly fine & thoroughly enjoyed a stupid night out on the beach afterwards.
Yup, bucket cocktails. Woohoo!

Day 12 - Tuesday 22nd September
Had a mellow day. We decided where to go next & booked our tickets (keep reading, you'll find out where i am now..)
Then we just hung out on the beach most of the day.

Day 13 - Wednesday 23rd September
Bit of a long day, this one.
We'd booked ourselves on the night boat out of Koh Tao (9pm) but had to check out of Big Blue at 10. This meant a lot of hanging out time. Also meant no swim time, because we didn't have the use of a shower.
So, we ate, drank coffee, had a massage (damn good), played poker, played billiards & enjoyed an all day happy hour.
Headed down to the port at 7pm (when our taxi came - have NO idea why they book the taxi TWO HOURS before the ferry - to only takes 10 minutes to drive there, but hey)
But our bags onto the boat - a ramshackle wooden scary looking thing. This kind of freaked me out (those of you who know me, know that i have a severe aversion to water and boats, so seeing this thing was not good for me)
Anyway, the boat left on time, and was surprisingly OK. Felt a tad like a refugee ship as the deck (inside) was completely open with numbered floor spaces for everyone to sleep. Surprised myself by sleeping really well. We arrived 7 hours later in Suratthani (4:30am)

Day 14 - Thursday 24th September)
On arriving in Suratthani, a driver picked us up. There wasn't enough space for all the travellers AND their luggage, so he threw all the bags on the roof. There was no roof rack, so i spent the whole journey checking the road behind us making sure i bags hadn't fallen off...
He left us at a travel agent, and here we killed an hour waiting for our next bus. A mini-van came to pick us up & this one drove us to Hat Yai, a Thai "border town" which ius actually about an hour away from the border. Here, we were dumped at another travel agency to await our next mini-van.
30 minutes later, our van arrived and took us first to the border. Here, we had to get out of the van at the Thai border, walk through the passport control, get back on the bus, drive another kilometre, get off the bus AGAIN, walk through Malaysian immigration & get back in the van again.
BUT, it wasn't that simple, two vans drivers had decided that it was better for their drive that K & me change vans. So once again we changed vans. I have no idea why, but the drivers' negotiations took a lot of arm waving & sighs until they finally agreed.
4 hours later we arrived at that day's destination of Butterworth (North West Malaysia, just across from Penang) Here, we booked our bus tickets for the next leg of the journey (keep reading...)
Then we set off on a hotel/guest house hunt. First place we came across was truly horrible (for me). It reminded me of a modern day opium den & for some paranoid reason i was sure that if i stayed there, i'd either end up with fleas or being sold into white slavery. A tad of an over-reaction on my part, perhaps, but i refused to stay there. We ended up finding a slightly better place, with a less opium-den feel.
I really wasnb't impressed with Butterworth. All it has going for it is the bus station out of it & the bridge to Penang. It felt like Penang's poor downtrodden relative. It's hard to believe that only a bridge separates them. I will never EVER recommend visiting there. Don't even stay the night there - go across to Georgetown. Much nicer.

Day 15 - Friday 25th September
Headed back to the bus station for our 10am bus. Had breakfast in the food court nearby - and i have to say that the people there were really friendly. And the bus station people too. It's just the town that's depressing.
Got on the bus, and embarked on our (supposed) 5 hour bus ride. Was a really nice bus ride through the mountains & jungle. Beautiful scenery & a smoker friendly bus driver who stopped every 90 minutes or so for a smoke & a leg stretch.
Maybe that's why our 5 hour journey took 7 hours!
Anyway, we finally arrived in Kota Bahru (East Malaysia) in the early evening.
Found a nice guest house with both friendly guests (lots of Germans - they're EVERYWHERE!) and kind owners.
Now, you may be wondering why we went all the way over to the East of Malaysia from West Thailand, only to come back to West Malaysia. Well, apparently, South East Thailand is a bit dangerous with Muslim gangs running around causing chaos. I thought it would be safer to go the long way round & avoid the dodgy bit. In our guesthouse, we met a guy who'd come from Koh Tao the 'dangerous way'. It took him about 10 hours. It took us 2 days...

Day 16 - Saturday 26th September)
Another day of travel.
Took a taxi to Kuala Besut, the main port for our final destination - The Perhentian Islands. Taxi was a complete nutter, but he got us to the port in time for our 9:30 boat to the islands. Was pretty on the way though - lots of greenery & it seemed pretty prosperous round there.
Then it was boat time again (yippee!) This boat was a small speed boat. Oh My God. For me, it was like being on a roller coaster wtih no reassurance that it wouldn't crash. Kevin The Sailor, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed every scream & bounce & splash.
Finally, after what seemed like ages (was only 30 minutes!) we arrived.
Had a look at what was available & decided on Panorama Chalets - close to the beach & with their own diving school)
We're currently staying on the Small Island (called Kecil) & it's nice & quiet. It kind of feels/looks like the island from Lost. Except with chalets, dive schools & no monsters. No cars though. No bucket cocktails either. In fact, beer is pretty hard to come buy AND bloody expensive (10 ringgit for a small can; about 2 Euros)
Don't think we'll be staying here too long - especially as there are no ATMs here either...

Day 17 - Sunday 27th September (TODAY)
Today i tried snorkelling for the first time. I wanted to try for the first time with K, just in case i had a freak out in the water. But i didn't! I loved it too. Saw Nemos, Barracudas, Zebra fish, sea cucumbers, coral & loads of other fishes that i don't know. It was like swimming round in an aquarium. It was SO cool!
And so there we are, up to date again.
K is out on a night dive now, and the Singapore Grand Prix is about to start, so i'll sign off here.

Hope you're enjoying about our adventures as much as i am being on them.

18 September, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 1 to Day 8

Before we left, K was filling in the forms for our travel insurance. To do that, he needed to calculate how many days we would be away. It's 74. Yes: SEVENTY FOUR!! From 11th September to 23rd November. Cool.
Anyway, while we're away, i'm going to try and update my blog on a weekly basis so everyone knows where we are & what we're up to. I won't be uploading many photos, because the Internet connection is a bit slower here & I'm too impatient to wait...

I've been keeping a diary as we've been travelling around, so here's what we've been up to for the last week:

Day 1: Friday 11th September
Probably one of the safest days of the year to travel on nowadays, but still a tad unnerving to be sitting in Dusseldorf airport watching the 9/11 memorial service on TV.
We flew with Air Berlin direct to Bangkok; 7 and a half hours. For those who don't know, Air Berlin is one of Germany's budget airlines. And it is BUDGET. Before we got on the plane, K exchanged all his Euro for Baht, not realising that you have to pay for beer on board. Not only that, there is enough legroom for Hobbits, but not many other people. For all 192cm of The German, those 7 and a half hours were torture. Added to the the fact that our overhead lights weren't working & they only show movies on the big screen, it wasn't the most fun of plane rides. BUT saying that, the food & service were OK and they arrived pretty much on time.
Day 2: Saturday 12th September
Because of time differences, we arrived in Thailand a day later, at 9:30am. We got a taxi from the airport into town (Khao San Road). Then we wandered round & found a cheap guest house (500 Baht/night; about 10 Euro); had lunch - of course Thai; had a 5 hour afternoon nap; woke up and had dinner - Thai again; played some poker (K's favourite new pass time...) and then went back to the guest house and crashed.
Not the most exciting of days, but we were so tired from the flight that we needed an easy day.

Day 3: Sunday 13th September
We decided to go to the famous weekend market, both to see what it was like & buy a few holiday essentials (sun hats, walking shoes, mini-towels). K said we should go by Tuk Tuk, and after convincing the Tuk Tuk men that "No, we REALLY didn't want to go and see his friend's gem shop", off we went. This was my first Tuk Tuk ride. Wow. Those guys are a tad crazy, weaving in and out of buses/taxis/cars/other Tuk Tuks. Felt a little bit like i was in an action movie, but it was fun.
The weekend market was an overwhelming maze of stalls selling EVERYTHING. The customers were a mix of locals & tourists and i found it all a bit too much - too many people, too hot, too jet-lagged. But despite this, it was fascinating - impossible to see everything in one go though, i think.
After all that exercise, we needed a nap so Tuk Tuk-ed our way back to the guest house & crashed for a few hours. Woke up in time for dinner (ramen, Thai style - ie not very ramen like at all, but tasty all the same).
Once again played poker; I did say that it's K's new hobby...actually, i won't bother writing about our poker games for the rest of trip. Just assume that we played, and i probably lost. But i will say that playing poker is a wonderful way of meeting people. So far (until today, 19th September) we've played with an Israeli couple, an American guy & a Swiss guy. And have had curious bystanders come by & see what we're doing. And don't worry, K & I aren't going to come back with huge debts & Thai mafia hunting us - we have our own poker set & are playing with chips. No money involved!!

Day 4: Monday 14th September
We'd decided we didn't want to spend too much time in Bangkok & wanted to get out asap. Proper Bangkok site-seeing there can be left till the end of our trip.
We'd decided that we wanted to go down to south Thailand & hit the islands down there. After a little research, we decided that train would be the best way: more legroom for K, not much more expensive than the bus & only a tad slower. Still, it was 8 hours. Longer than Dusseldorf to Bangkok. We got the train down to Chumpon - left Bangkok at 1pm & arrived at 9pm. It was LONG, but on-time & air-conned.
Chumpon is not one of Thailand's most beautiful towns, it serves as the port for Koh Tao, Koh Phangan & Koh Samui & most tourists get out as soon as possible. Because of our late arrival, we had to stay the night there (there was the option of a night ferry, but after spending 8 hours on a train, we didn't really feel like 6 hours on a boat).
Found a place to stay - nice lady was standing outside the station offering cheap rooms, free taxis & ferry booking. Think we paid about 1400 B for everything. Had dinner in the small night market in Chumpon then crashed pretty early.

Day 5: Tuesday 15th September
Got up bright and early to get the 7am catamaran to Koh Tao. Arrived in Koh Tao's main port, Mae Hat, at 8:30, in time for a English Breakfast. I know i should be eating local food, but sometimes you really can't beat baked beans, bacon & fried eggs...
We wandered up the island to find a place to stay. We'd already decided that we wanted to try diving while we were in Koh Tao (apparently, it's one of the best & cheapest places in the world to learn & issues yearly the most diving licences worldwide) and found Big Blue, which i'd already read about in Lonely Planet. Talked to one of the guys there & i explained i was a bit nervous about diving & being in the ocean and he was really reassuring, so we decided to stay there. And because we signed up for diving courses (a 3 and a half day PADI open water course), we got free accommodation.
Our course started the same day, with our first theory session. Did you know that diving's safety record is one of the best of all active sports - in or out of the water?
Was really interesting & i was looking forward to learning/doing more....

Day 6 (Wednesday 16th September)
Had our second theory session in the morning. Again interesting stuff going over the basics & the pieces of equipment.
In the afternoon, we headed out for our first diving experience; a swim test, treading water test then onto basic diving manoeuvres - mostly oriented towards safely suing the equipment & dealing with problems. K, with his sailing experience, got through everything like a fish. Me, i managed the swim test & tread water for 10 minutes. But, when it got down to the actual diving part, i found i really couldn't do it. I just couldn't fully immerse myself in the water - even though it was only 160cm deep. I had a full on panic attack & had to be taken back to the boat. And there ended my diving experience. I was really disappointed, but i am really glad i tried. Now i know that diving definitely isn't for me. But i am planning to try some snorkelling while i'm here. K, on the other hand, fell in love with diving & enjoyed every moment in the water.

Day 7: Thursday 17th September
K was continuing on with the dive course & i was left to my own devices. we both decided this was actually good thing because we'd actually have something to talk about at the end of the day!! In the morning, K had another theory session & i stayed in bed. Erm, yeah, lots to talk about!!
In the afternoon, K went out on his first 2 dives. He came back totally in love with the whole experience & wanting to do more, so signed up to do the advanced open water diver's course from Sunday.
Meanwhile, i went for a Thai massage & foot scrub. The massage was great, although a bit scary when i heard my spine crack. Felt great afterwards. The foot scrub made my feet all smooth and shiny and got rid of all the crusty dry skin (the masseur"s comment about my feet was, "Too hard"). Think i fell asleep and snored through the foot scrub because when they had finished and woke me up, all the masseurs were smiling at me...
Day 8: Friday 18th September (TODAY)
This morning K went out on his final two dives to complete his Open Water Diver's Licence. At lunch time, he came back really excited about all the things he had seen; fish, coral, bubbles, meeting other divers underwater and so on. He said it was like flying underwater.
He & his classmate, Stefan from Switzerland, have both signed up to do the Advanced course together from Sunday.
Right now, K is completing his final exam & by the time i see him (in about 15 minutes) he"ll be a qualified diver! Cool! Meanwhile, i am updating my blog & picking up the laundry...not much different from Stuttgart, eh? Except here there is a beautiful view, great people, wonderful weather & no work.
Tomorrow, K is taking a break between diving courses, so tonight we're planning to sample the nightlife of Koh Tao. Tomorrow, we are planning to rent a bike & explore the island a bit. But that plan could change depending on how much fun we have tonight...

Not sure where we're going next, but i will keep you posted so watch this space!

All pictures are of Sairee Beach, Koh Tao, from the restaurant of Big Blue.

10 September, 2009

Germany & Other Places

Things here in Deutschland are still good; i don't regret making the decision to move here at all.
I like European summer, being closer to my family, loads of vegetables in the supermarket, big green parks, beer gardens, German food and finally living with The German again.

BUT, it's not all hearts & bows.
I do have 'down days', actually it's more like 'dark moments'. The thing i am finding most challenging at the moment is my complete lack of German. While i have noticed that i am understanding more of what's going on around me, I am completely unable to communicate for any period of time. For me, it is frustrating, infuriating & really lonely at times. I know i am perhaps over-worrying (or imagining) things, but I sometimes feel judged ("Oh, yeah, another English person who can't speak German") and if i were given a Euro every time someone has said "You really need to learn German, Helen"...
I KNOW i need to learn German - i don't need to be reminded of that fact. It was something i realised pretty soon after moving here - to be able to function & live in Germany without having to have someone babysit you all the time, you need German here. I know that may sound pretty obvious, but in Tokyo, for example, it's possible to live a reasonable life without speaking/reading any Japanese. Here, I couldn't even fill out the forms to register as a citizen of Stuttgart.
I do realise that most people don't mean it in a horrible way at all, but for me it's something i have had so many times in the last 2 and a half months & it gets to a point (on some days) that i just want to stamp my feet & shout, " I speak Japanese & French; I'm NOT an ignorant Brit!! I DO speak other languages!!"
So, yeah, that has been hard for me. It's been especially hard in that my life is completely surrounded by Germans (well, um, yeah, this is Germany...) What i mean is that i have no friends who are also foreigners in Germany. While The German is understanding & does listen to me when i am over-tired & frustrated, i think there is a part of him that doesn't completely understand. For him, German is easy - which means our stress levels, at times, are at completely opposite ends of the scale. He's relaxed & enjoying the conversation. Meanwhile, i have a headache & frustration from trying to listen to a language i barely understand.
However, the one thing that keeps me sane is knowing that this situation, with time, will change. I am determined to master this bloody language even with all it's changing word endings, genders & difficult pronunciation.

And in totally different news, tomorrow The German and I fly out to Bangkok.
And from there, we are going to spend just over two months travelling (coming back to Germany on 23rd November). We haven't got any concrete plans - we're going to book cheap flights out of Bangkok once we get there. Top favourite places at the moment are Cambodia, Indonesia & The Phillippines (but we can't go there because i can't spell it...)
I'm excited because this will be my first backpacking experience (believe it or not) & first time to Thailand (and all the other countries mentioned; have only been to Singapore & Malaysia in S.E. Asia) Am also looking forward to the fruit. I LOVE the fruit available there & i'm going to eat fruit every single day. So there...
I'm also looking forward to extending my summer till november.
I'm also excited about seeing new places, people & cultures.
And I am looking forward to spending time with K, trying out all this new stuff (assuming we don't kill each other...2 months is a long time to spend travelling with someone...)
And, i have to confess, a little part of me is looking forward to escaping from German (not Germany, just German)...

I will try and update regularly as we are on our travels, but i may be too busy stuffing my face with fruit or enjoying the sunshine...