Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Solo Travelling with Family and Friends

I have a little catching up to do... sorry, this is a looooong one!

Chronologically, I left Moalboal, Philippines on October 5th to head to Cebu City to meet my cousin, Emma, who was flying in from Singapore.  We met for the first time that I can recall at around 11pm in our hotel room.  I'm sure we met previously when I was a toddler in diapers visiting family in Australia, but we had a lot of catching up to do!  We got to know eachother while travelling from Cebu City to the island of Bohol where we spent 5 days before returning to Cebu City in time for "THE EARTHQUAKE" (see previous blog post) and a long trip to Bangkok where we bided two rainy days shopping before it was time for Emma's vacation to end and for her to return home to Melbourne.  In Bohol we spent one day relaxing, one day on a tour to all the island hot spots including; the Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, a Butterfly Reserve, a lunch cruise up the Loboc River, the historic Baclayon Church, a statue commemorating the Blood Compact, and the small Hinagdanan cave.  We spent one day on a snorkeling trip to nearby Balicasag Island, and we spent our last day relaxing before heading  back to Cebu City. 

The Chocolate hills are a very impressive geological formation of hundreds of nearly identical, symmetrical, conical hills which were formed when ancient limestone reefs were uplift and eroded through time.  The tarsiers are very weird looking tiny primates who are in danger of extinction.  Emma hates monkeys but Tarsiers are so unlike monkeys in appearance she agreed to go.  She didn't hate them but we both agreed that Tarsiers are pretty hopeless creatures.  We were told that the caretakers at the sanctuary build shelters around them so that they aren't in the direct sun and wind and rain, and that they will commit suicide by bashing their heads against trees if they become stressed.  They are often mistaken for rats by cats so they need to be in a fenced in enclosure.  All in all, evolution may naturally eliminate these helpless little guys because they don't seem to have many useful adaptive strategies!  The butterfly reserve was a brief stop and not particularly interesting but great for photo ops.  The lunch cruise up the Loboc River was really pretty, the buffet lunch was pretty good and I was entertained by the Filippino kids dancing and singing energetically on floating rafts beside the river (Emma was not a fan).  The historic Baclayon church is the best preserved oldest church in the Philippines... or it was... before the earthquake which nearly leveled it!  It was very interesting to have seen the church intact only days before the destruction caused by the earthquake.  The Blood Compact statue was on a very scenic lookout and the statue depicts a ritual in 1565, when Spanish explorer, Miguel Lopez de Lagazpi and Datu Sikatuna, the chieftan of Bohol sealed a treaty by pouring their blood into a cup containing wine and drank the mixture.  Gross.  Hinagdanan cave is beautiful with a crystal clear lake at the bottom.  We got there quite late and wished we had swimwear and more daylight to fully enjoy the cave. 
Chocolate Hill

Tarsier Tourists

Loboc River

These little boys were dancing their hearts out!

Butterfly attack!
Baclayon Church
Our snorkeling trip was on a very hot sunny day.  The island is beautiful with ridiculously blue water, white sand, and palm-fringed beaches.  We snorkeled in the snorkeling area which had nice corals, lots of fish, and a lovely wall that dropped off into the deep.  After a little lunch, Emma and I went snorkeling where there weren't any other snorkelers and we saw at least 4 turtles.  Lovely.  Unfortunately we had a few typical traveler challenges including our private tour turning into a tour with 3 other guests when we showed up in the morning, no refreshments (not even water) for the long hot day, limited instruction on where to go and what to do, an add-on that wasn't properly disclosed to us prior to the trip where we got paddled in a tiny boat for about 25m to the snorkeling area (which we could have easily walked on the beach!).  Later our guide told us that that boat ride cost an extra 200 pesos ($5)... silly.  Not worth arguing about but frustrating when tours nickel and dime you and hide costs and add on ridiculous things.  It happens A LOT in Asia, tiny little scams that leave a bad taste in your mouth a dollar at a time.  We didn't let it impact us much... we just refused to pay that part and enjoyed the rest of the trip which included a sighting of a small pod of 3 dolphins on the trip back to Bohol and a lovely sand spit island called Virgin Island which we stopped on briefly for some pictures and to drink a fresh green coconut :)

Balicasag Island

My previous blog post goes into details about the earthquake that struck and our travel to Bangkok so check that out to fill in this blank.

Emma and I spent two rainy days shopping in Bangkok, eating wonderful food, using the public transit, and getting decadent spa treatments!  We went for a drink and ended up eating some seafood on the rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel - Vertigo Moon Bar.  The view was really incredible!  I really enjoyed getting to know Emma better and spending some time with her.  I can't wait to see her again near the Christmas holidays and to get to know more family in Australia then (flight booked from Bangkok to Sydney on December 19th).

I chilled for 2 days in Bangkok by myself which I used to tour Wat Pho (Temple of the reclining Buddha) and to relax.  I took public transit to Wat Pho, toured around, then went for a walk along the Chao Phraya river.  I decided to take the public transit boat also and had a great view of the river and the banks of the river as I did... and it only cost me 12 baht (40 cents!).  I had a great sense of achievement navigating this Asian city by myself using local transit and seeing some sights on the way.  I rewarded myself with an amazing massage with a hot herbal compress which smelled of lemongrass, followed by a beer, some pork noodle soup, and some people watching on Soi 11 where converted vans become pop up bars and small plastic tables and chairs line the street in the evening to create a makeshift food market. 

Pop up bars :)

After my two days as a solo traveler, Sheena and her husband Chris, friends of mine from Calgary arrived in Bangkok.  I met up with them and we went to the huge Chatuchak weekend market.  There was tons of cool stuff there but my travel plans sadly prevent me from buying anything right now... just more stuff to lug around.  It was still cool to wander around and see the wares.  The next day, we went on a full-day private tour with Tom, a knowledgeable and friendly Thai fellow.  Tom took us to Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon (the Golden Buddha) which is a small temple which houses the worlds largest solid gold statue, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace, on a river cruise up the Chao Phraya river by longtail boat, then to Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), then to Wat Pho which was a repeat for me but the reclining Buddha is so spectacular to see I didn't mind at all. 
Solid Gold Buddha

Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Grand Palace
Longtail tour up the Chao Praya river with Chris and Sheena, tourguide Tom in back
Wat Arun
Climbing back down Wat Arun... so steep!
Reclining Buddha - smile 5m wide :)

Reclining Buddha's feet.  mother of pearl inlays on the soles of his feet
Sheena, Chris, and I had a refreshing dip in their hotel pool before heading out in the evening for a dinner cruise on the river.  Guidebooks I had read said that this would be a "magical experience, not to be missed".  pfft.  Although the temples and palace looked very nice lit up at night, it really terrible.  Sheena, Chris, and I spent the evening making faces at eachother over the ridiculous people on the boat.  It was very touristy and the only people on the boat were the types of middle-aged white tourists who frequent all inclusive resorts, want to eat hamburgers and French fries no matter where they are in the world, love buffet meals, and dance awkwardly as soon as music comes on.  It was like being at a wedding where you don't know many people and all the aunties and uncles start dancing.  The highlight for us was one of the traditional Thai dancers who had a very spaced out look for her whole dance.  We called her "dead eyes" and were fully entertained by her robotic dance moves and her fake smile.  Sheena and Chris moved on to Phuket to continue their vacation the next day and I did some walking around, went to a movie (About Time - SO GOOD - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!) then hopped on the night train to Chumphon so I could get to the island of Koh Tao the next day. 
The beginning of the terrible dinner cruise

Dead Eyes

The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha at night - very pretty

Travel from Bangkok to Koh Tao cost 1500 baht ($50) for a first class, air conditioned, sleeper berth which travelled from 7:30pm from Bangkok to Chumphon and arrived at 6am in the morning, a bus transfer to the pier, and a ferry from Chumphon to Koh Tao.  I arrived at around 9am and my friend, Raf, met me at the pier to help me get my bags to the bungalow.  The sleeper berth held two people in a bottom bunk and a top bunk and was very comfortable.  There was a bathroom with a small sink an a squatter toilet at the end of the train car and a small sink in the berth.  A train employee knocked on the door in the morning to tell us we were close to our stop so we could get organized to get off the train.  Actually, my wake up call came at 4:30am but the train didn't arrive until 6:30am... I guess we were 2 hours late...still not sure why they didn't just wake us up later then?

Night train! whoo whoo

1st class sleeper train.  the back of the seat folds up to create the top bunk.
It was great to see Raf again, he was an instructor in Indonesia, and he suggested I join him for a cavern and cave diving course and some fun diving in Koh Tao.  So I did!  We have been able to go diving for 3 days (6 dives) and get more practice using twin tanks, decompression cylinders, and planning decompression dives.  We even did a long day trip to a distant wreck called the Torpedo Wreck with a boat full of only tech divers.  There was so much cool equipment on that boat!!!  So neat!  The wreck was beautiful with really great visibility down to 44m where a halocline created cloudy, low visibility waters below and clear blue waters above.  There were huge schools of fusiliers, baraccuda, jacks, Trevally, and other schooling fish above and around the wreck and giant Groupers inside the wreck as well as some really cute Flabellina nudibranchs (white with blue tipped protruberences) at the prow of the ship.  I saw a large Tuna entangled in some old fishing net that was caught on the wreck and was able to cut it free using my dive knife and a line cutter that I borrowed from Craig (the Cavern and Cave diving instructor who I was diving with).  The tuna swam away... now I can eat more delicious tuna sashimi guilt free knowing that I made sure that Tuna didn't die for nothing (tee hee).
Getting ready for some diving with the guys from Bans Tech in Koh Tao

Glad to grab a few more beers with my favorite Belgian Military man, Raf!

Raf and I started our cavern/cave course today with classroom theory and some exercises.  We put on our aluminum backplates and harnesses with regulators zipped tied to the back and "went through the motions" of how to tie lines, hook on directional and non-directional line markers, share air, signal eachother, move through a cavern or cave using touch contact in case visibility decreases to a point where you can't see.  It was really cool seeing how everything will work on land before going underwater where it is difficult to ask questions!  We will spend tomorrow setting up our equipment, loading the truck, and then we take the overnight ferry to Surat Thani from which point we will drive to Kao Sok National Park to start the cavern and intro to cave course!

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