Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Khao Lak first impressions

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Khao Lak is a resort area spread along a few miles of the Andaman coast a couple of hours north of Phuket. There are a number of beaches from Khao Lak beach in the south to Bang Sak beach in the north. What is generally referred to as “Khao Lak centre” corresponds with Nang Thong beach, at least on my map. There is one main road running north-south with a number of side roads. The beach is about a quarter of a mile to the west of the main road. Stretched along the main road are a plethora of dive shops, taxi stands, assorted Thai and European restaurants, massage places, convenience stores, tourist shops, and reminiscent of Hoi An, dozens of tailors. The most amusing tee shirt I’ve seen for sale says “No, I don’t want a fucking taxi, massage or new suit”. Someone has their finger on the pulse then.

Many of the dive shops and restaurants have strong German connections, so many that I’m already thinking of the place as “Little Germany”. There are also a couple of Italian restaurants, English pubs and even an Argentinian restaurant although I’ve not seen that one open yet.

The season hasn’t quite started here yet and the town is fairly empty of tourists. There are a few down on the beach, mostly fat middle aged Germans, many of the men in speedos and the women in nowhere near enough clothes. It’s not a pretty sight. At least the beach is not littered with empty Chang or Singha bottles, unlike Sairee beach on Koh Tao. There are some huge resorts between the main road and the beach. I imagine when they fill up the place is going to be buzzing.

I spent a tiring afternoon on Friday looking for somewhere to live for at least the next month, or hopefully six. Several people had told me about an abundance of bungalows around the 6000-7000 baht per month mark. Well they may have existed last year, and they may have existed last week but not any more. I found one room for 6000 baht per month and it was not nice. I don’t need luxury but I’d prefer something more than a dank, musty smelling box with a knackered double bed, no other furniture and a skanky looking bathroom with cold shower. After speaking with some of the staff in a few dive shops it seems I arrived about a week too late. Most places are now only offering accommodation on a daily basis, around 400 baht per night for a fan room with wifi and hot shower. The best I could find was a nice looking fan room with double bed, wardrobe, bedside cabinet and small fridge, bathroom with hot shower, wifi and a small patio for 10000 baht per month. There are places asking 15000 baht per month for lesser rooms. Apparently there are still rooms around the 6500 baht per month level, but too far to get to without a motorbike. I don’t ride a motorbike and if I did they’re about 3000 baht per month to rent so not really much cheaper than what I have now.

Over the weekend I visited all the dive shops that were open, dropped off a CV at each and inquired about work. They all confirmed their full-time positions are filled but most expected to need some freelancers from about mid-November. So I’ve got a couple of weeks of thumb twiddling to look forward to and then the phone will start ringing and I’ll get to go diving.

Oh yeah, and it has a McDondalds :-)

Back by popular demand

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Many people have asked why my blog has been silent the last few months. Some ask where I am and what I am and have been doing. One has been particularly persistent in the “Why aren’t you blogging?” department.

“Where” is easy to answer: Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand about half a days travel from Bangkok. It is the most northerly of a group of three islands, the others being Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui. All three are firmly established on the backpacker trail through Thailand and SE Asia with about half a million visitors each year.

“What” is also easy: people mostly come here to dive; that’s why I came here last year and why I returned in April. There are about 50 dive schools on the island. There are two main certifying agencies in the dive world, in alphabetical order they are PADI and SSI. Both are well represented on Koh Tao. The largest dive school here is reputed to issue about a quarter of all the new PADI Open Water diver certifications in the world every year.

So I’ve been diving, and pretty much every day for the last six months. There has also been some yoga, meditation, watching sunsets and a two-week trip to Minneapolis. There hasn’t been any dancing. People, usually drunk people, have been known to shuffle about in bars playing too loud music shortly before passing out and falling over, or falling off their rented motorbikes on their way home. There’s a club which hosts monthly parties with international DJs and “dancing” which might appeal to anyone missing their last trip to Ibiza or needing to “throw some shapes”. But there is no proper, partner dancing. Or if there is it’s a well kept secret no-one has shared with me. This is the one real downside to being here.

The diving has been great. For the first couple of months I was mostly a virtual DMT (dive master trainee) with Big Blue, the school I used last year. There is a glut of dive masters on Koh Tao. There aren’t a huge number of permanent DM positions and competition for them is intense. There are more freelance dive masters than there is work for them all. As a freelancer I might have dived (and got paid to do it) once or twice a week if I was lucky. As a virtual DMT I got to dive every day (but for no pay). For me the trade-off was worth it.

In July I did the PADI IDC (instructor development course) with Bans Diving Centre. There are many times more jobs advertised worldwide for SCUBA instructors than there are for dive masters. Afterwards I completed an SSI instructor crossover with Big Blue so now I can teach both PADI and SSI courses, roughly doubling the number of opportunities open to me. Remember how I said there are more freelance dive masters than there is work for them? Well the same is true here for freelance instructors. And the dive schools keep turning out more new instructors every month.

I’ve taught a mixture of PADI and SSI open water, advanced open water, speciality and rescue courses and racked up a reasonable number of certifications. As we approach November the monsoon is just about starting, bringing strong currents, poor visibility and of course lots of rain for the next few weeks. People say Koh Tao is a pretty miserable place to be and to dive during the monsoon. Lots of the dive shops send their boats away for maintenance, some close down completely and re-open in December. Many of the freelancers leave and seek work elsewhere. One of their favourite destinations is the Andaman Sea west coast of Thailand. Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Khao Lak are the top three diving resorts for the November to April season. The Similan Islands national park is open during this period and there are numerous live-aboard and day trip operators needing staff. The diving in the Similans is reputed to be much better than in Koh Tao. I like the diving here and think it’s pretty good so it should be spectacular over there.

A couple of days ago I had my best day of diving so far: three dives with a whale shark at Chumphon pinnacle. I’m looking forward to being blown away by the west coast diving. Tonight I’ll be leaving for Khao Lak. There I will find a well paying job involving a mixture of live-aboard and day trip diving, dive mastering and instructing, and avoid the east coast monsoon. I might even blog about it.

Happy now, N.?

Around the world in charts

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

With tango not really doing it for me in Buenos Aires I had to decide where to go and what to do next. I narrowed it down to two choices:

Continue travelling in South America (most of Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, more Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama for starters)

Go back to SE Asia via the UK since I already had a ticket for Buenos Aires to London

Eventually after a lot of deliberation I decided on the second option. Back in the UK many friends were interested in the logistics and practicalities of a round the world trip. The answers to some of their questions would have been useful to me when I was planning this trip and could be useful to anyone considering a similar trip now. Working on the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” here are six charts to summarise my round the world trip. They show how long I travelled for, how far I travelled and and how many journeys using various modes of transport, how much I spent in each country, how much the “big ticket” items were and the daily cost in each country excluding the big ticket items.

Chart 1 – RTW miles by mode of transport

I travelled at least 57340 miles in 358 days. The four main modes of transport were aeroplane, bus, train and boat. I didn’t bother to try to work out how far I cycled or walked.

Chart 2 – RTW journeys by mode of transport

This is similar to the first chart but shows the number of journeys made using each mode of transport. Before I started this trip the idea of two hours on a bus horrified me. These days 12, 16 or even 24 hours on a bus seem fine. Admittedly these are mostly semi-cama A/C coaches rather than bone-jarring, overcrowded, 30-year old “local” buses stuffed with people, live chickens, bags of rice and goodness knows what else.

 

Chart 3 – RTW nights per country

I travelled for 358 days on my round the world ticket. A bit of bad planning in Argentina meant I either needed to do a visa run for a new 90-day visa and only use six of them, or lose a few days off the end of my trip. Date changes on my ticket were free so I flew home a few days early. This chart shows how long I spent in each country in total (I visited some more than once). The countries are listed alphabetically, not in the order I visited them.

Chart 4 – RTW country costs

This chart shows the total amount I spent in each country after leaving home. It does not include the money I spent before the trip started. Pre-trip expenses included my OneWorld Explorer RTW ticket, backpacker insurance, vaccinations, visas, backpack and travel items. This chart includes the “big ticket” items; any single activity which cost over £300. If you’re wondering why Australia cost so little it’s because I did nothing there. I had to have an overnight stopover there to get from Shanghai to Queenstown. I thought I’d visit a tanguera friend in Melbourne so stopped for three nights in total. I couldn’t get hold of the tanguera and barely left the hostel for the entire time in Melbourne. My on-the-road expenses totalled £14,486. My pre-trip expenses totalled £4,906.

Chart 5 – big ticket items

I counted any single activity costing over £300 as a “big-ticket” item. I had planned for and made allowances for some (trekking in Nepal, Easter Island, Antarctic cruise or visit to Galapagos Islands) before starting the trip. Others just cropped up as I was travelling.

Chart 6 – Daily country costs excluding big ticket items

If you’re considering a Round the World trip, or backpacking in some of the countries I visited you might appreciate a rough cost per day for planning purposes. This chart shows the average cost per day in each country excluding any big ticket items. It includes food, accommodation, in-country transport costs and miscellaneous expenses (eg: toiletries, clothes, camera repair and anything I forgot to categorise at the time of spending). It does NOT include any alcohol. In Nepal my accommodation was teahouses, in Southeast Asia it was mostly private room with fan or A/C, elsewhere it was dorms. Food was mostly cheap, basic local fare (eg: streetmeat just about everywhere) but I did eat a lot of McNuggets in Buenos Aires. I made seven additional flights to my RTW ticket which are included here. I expected to spend more in Argentina but I danced a lot less tango than I anticipated so saved some money there.

 

 

PS. Yes, I know the charts aren’t rendering as circles. When/if I figure which bit of CSS is turning them into ovals I’ll bludgeon it into submission so my carefully constructed circles are once again circular.