Surf’s up in Bali

From a boat? From a train? Nope, this time, I’m writing from a plane. 10,000 feet above the azure hues of the Indian Ocean, flying from Singapore to Bali. But here’s the kicker — I am returning to Bali as I write this. Almost a month earlier to the day, I had first landed in Bali after travelling through Malaysia by train and then to Singapore by bus. But now, I needed to extend (ahem, reset) my tourist visa and so I planned a quick 24-hour round trip, athletically known as a “visa run”, between the neighbouring islands. 1, 2, 3 – go! Visa runs are common practice among expats living in Bali (and many parts of South-East Asia) where obtaining a long-term visa is apparently a daunting endeavour, involving hordes of middlepeople and bureaucracy — especially pointless if you’re a digital nomad working from your laptop and thus not needing any kind of work permit. Plus, you can help a local friend get much-needed hardware and stock up essentials, like 85% Lindt chocolate, from the air-conditioned malls of Singapore. Writing this, I realise a visa run is a privilege. I’m French, so I have a pretty good passport, one of the best in the world, if only measured by the number of countries I can enter visa-free — according to the Henley Index, it ranks 4th, with only 29 countries requiring a formal visa demand. Citizens of most nations of the world can’t say so. Experiencing borders so fully now makes me nostalgic for the grand vision of the European project (i.e. freedom of movement and freedom of establishment), at a time when its past momentum has all but reversed. And makes me long for the day when we finally erase down these dank lines from our maps. 

When we last left off, I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals affectionately call it. I like the former name better — if you pay attention, you can hear the murmur of the jungle and smell the sweet scent of spices when it rolls on your tongue. I only spent an evening there but strolling down the night markets and looking up the Petronas Towers, I got a sense of the city. Most capitals I had visited in South-East Asia have all such different personalities. Chaotic Phnom Penh. Sleepy Vientiane. Glitzy Kuala Lumpur. Slick Singapore.

Which is where I was headed the next day. Arriving by bus from Malaysia, it became clear I was in a different country. A different world even. Architectural symphonies, trees and gardens everywhere you look, streets so clean you could eat on them. Peacefulness. Quietude. Like the city in the sky, where the chosen ones escaped to preserve human civilisation after some cataclysmic event happened, far away from any harm of the radioactive badlands and their mutant inhabitants below. Ironically, while I initially found this sci-fi trope helpful to describe my first impression of Singapore, it only got more real after I visited the forest and flower greenhouses at the Marina Sands Bay gardens: the largest ones of their kind in the world, they are host to a stupendous amount of species and so could well become tomorrow’s biodiversity havens, our very own Noah’s Ark if/when the Sixth Extinction happens. Who’s sci-fi now?

Singapore does feel in many ways like the city of the future. More than any I’ve ever visited or lived in, Tokyo included. For one, nature, city and technology live symbiotically, with the city’s many vertical gardens hugging their lovers of steel and glass. Or the Super Trees glistening at dusk. A garden city, Singapore is an urban designer’s wet dream and I sometimes felt like I was walking in one of those miniature maquettes you sometimes see in museum exhibitions, spelling out ambitious dreams of urban future.

It also is city of the future, in other, darker ways: CCTVs are everywhere, denunciation is commonplace and nudging constant. The perfect 21st-century surveillance state. But it seems like it works for them.

More than visions of the future though, I also enjoyed many recollections of the past in Singapore. On my first evening, I visited Margot, an ex-lover of mine now living there with her daughter and boyfriend. After not having seen each other for over 7 years, I was touched by how warmly she welcomed me into her home, offering friendship, wine, food and cigarettes, when I was worn out and unkempt from a week of journeying down from Thailand. We even got to strum a few Bob Marley chords and sing like in the good ol’ days.

I also went for lunch with my long-time friend and SciencesPo classmate Zhiheng. Z, as we call him, had kindly offered to receive my surfboard which I sent from the UK so I could avoid carrying it on my adventurous trail from Cambodia to Singapore – which would have been impossible to say the least. I met him at his Morgan Stanley office, where my surfboard had been learning all about investment banking and M&A for the previous 2 months, and we then went for a traditional Padang-style meal and Singaporean coffee. Even after all these years, we reconnected instantly and got deep into startup talk.

So grateful for these decade-old friendships. They are the true stuff of life.

New friendships are great too. I shared the traditional Singaporean breakfast (Butter toast, kaya, boiled eggs) with Esther, a fellow Sandboxer, who then took me on a tour of the old Katong neighbourhood with its colonial houses. Singapore’s history is fascinating and I was surprised how much multiculturalism was its DNA . I was staying in Little India myself, stuffing myself with naan and biryani, and it was always heartwarming to see Singaporeans of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Caucasian descent hang out. 

But now, the ocean was calling. It told me the waves were longing for me. “Feeling’s mutual” I whispered. So I boarded a plane to Bali, ready to commence THE surf trip.

And what a looker, this island, this verdant rock in the middle of the ocean, dotted with thousands of fine, intricate Hindu temples and honoured daily with offerings of saffron flowers, sweet fruit and balmy incense. Ritual in the Island of Gods is alive and well. More than simply a religious duty, it is the social glue that binds locals together – there always seems to be a big ceremony (whether it be Galungan, Kuningan, Nyepi in my time here) alongside weddings, local rites and gatherings. I was told Balinese people spend most of their income on ritual and I believe it.

I started in Canggu, on the south-western shore of the island. I had booked a surf camp a few days later, but first I wanted to reclaim my surf level, rusty from nearly a year away from waves. I sure got back to my dedicated surfer routine pretty quickly: wake up just before sunrise, surf for a couple of hours, drive through rice paddies to breakfast — elated from the session and blasting reggae, a big smile on my face — chill in the afternoon, surf at sunset for another couple of hours, dinner, sleep. Repeat. Following the sweet astral beat, synced with nature’s slow tempo, I got into myself into a rhythm.

And I started learning Bahasa Indonesia (i.e. Indonesian…in Indonesian), the simplest and most logical language I’ve ever come across. Latin script, dead-easy pronunciation, simple subject-verb-object syntax, no verb conjugation, no gender, no plural…so no excuse! Being who I am, I opted to learn with a language learning app, and Babbel had the best course, so also ended up doing competitive analysis for my old colleagues at Busuu.

Those were lonely days, too. Not that I don’t like it – an ambivert, I enjoy swinging into long spans of solitude from highly social environments and back. But in Canggu, I did everything except connect deeply with other humans. “How do you connect with an illusion?” I came to ask myself after a couple of days. Because Canggu was an illusion. A real-life Instagram, where tourists and expats alike are all cooler, hipper than the next. A town where breakfast felt less like a culinary experience and more like a fashion show, shutter clicks and envious looks included. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough and stayed stuck at the surface level – but man, I tried. 

I stayed there longer than I wanted, mainly because I had already booked a surfcamp, Kima, which happened to be there. As an intermediate + surfer, I’m generally dubious of surfcamps, as many of them are geared towards total beginners, if not plain party hostels in disguise with little to no surfing value. On the other hand, as I have ahead of me a few solid months of surfing that will push my limits, I wanted coaching so I could fix my bad habits and level up quickly. I got lucky as the only intermediate + surfer (level 4 they call it) in the camp, so I had surf guiding sessions all by myself, with Balinese guides who took me to local spots.

We surfed Medewi, the longest left-hander in Bali (up to 500m!) where I cut through the mellow, buttery faces of endless waves, putting in turn after turn, incredulous.

We surfed Watu Klotok, a tight-faced, speedy right hander, where I generated flow like never before, dancing with the water below. I got it. And, hubris maybe, later got completely crushed by a heavy, surprise set of 3m+ waves, stuck in the inside, caught behind the ferocious blue curtain. 

We surfed Tanah Lot, a “secret” spot with a stunning panorama, right next to a sea temple, tucked between two cliffs and accessible only by an impossibly vertical staircase that drops dramatically into the breaking waves. Swift left-handers, up to overhead, but not as heavy as it seemed.

We surfed Cucukan, a fast, hollow right hander that sections into a barrel, right in front of a laid back local fishing beach, with its warung and perahu. Made a few, wiped out loads (hollower waves being the wall I need to break through).

We surfed Black Stone, an A-frame off the shore of a massive concrete resort, catching unpredictable peaks wherever I could.

Last, we surfed Serangan, the most special of all, on my last day. It’s an outer reef break, which means you have to take a perahu (fishing boat) for a couple kilometres offshore before reaching the line up. Right there, a wave breaks, right below the school of anchored boats bringing surfers there on a daily basis. And that sky-blue water – nothing like the greenish waves back on the shore. Fast, clean lines with a relatively easy take-off that then turn into tight-faced racetracks and sometimes end up barrelling. I raced down their walls and even got shampooed as I was crouching in the chamber of the blue curl.

Overall, the camp delivered the goods. Still, I didn’t connect any further with Canggu nor its crowd, disillusioned with its cliches and archetypes of Instagram hipsters, vegan-yogi-models and Balinese surf gangstas getting fucked up on whisky-coke at the local Minimart. I’m aware my own judgements probably prevented me from going deeper and seeing the beauty in the dirt. They say judgements are a great tool to understand one’s needs – so I suppose mine are really about authenticity, diversity and depth.

What a relief when I arrived in Ubud, where I had planned to visit and spend time with another old friend, Laurent. We’d met 10 years ago in Paris, during early hours at a Concrete after-party and somehow built a deep friendship over the years and across countries, from France to Germany through the UK to Bali. I’ve always felt a deep connection and looked up to him as a senpai, the wise person he is being a bit further on this journey of life than I am. 

My intro to Ubud couldn’t have been more Ubud. Less than an hour after my taxi dropped me off, I was spinning at an ecstatic dance party that Laurent was organising, connecting non-verbally, yet more deeply than I had over the past 10 days in Canggu. 

Right away, I felt home. In a sense, I was home. The community of expats living in the mountains of Ubud was much closer to my London community than it was to the Canggu beach crowd. Yoga, meditation, healings of all sorts, poly, breathwork, cacao ceremonies, vegan/raw/organic restaurants, holistic health and nutrition, conscious dance parties… my peoples. Don’t get me wrong though: I’ve lived long enough to know that everything has its shadow. There is still a scene here, although a more conscious one, and the void left by Canggu’s blunt materialism was sometimes replaced by a flavour of spiritual consumerism (I’m looking at you, spiritual pickup artist!).

Laurent himself is a healer, blending technology (amplified vibrational water beds, electronic soundscapes, stroboscopic light machines) with tradition (didgeridoos, gongs) to induce deep meditative and altered states of consciousness. A one-of-kind experience which I highly recommend you try LSV if you’re ever around.

The vibration had shifted, and in a few days, I got from smoking half a pack a day, downing Bintangs and swiping through shallow connections to caring for my body, my mind and my heart. I’m pretty much a sponge, hence I absorb and adapt to whatever my environment is — especially on this journey, I want to let the world mould me.

While I had initially planned on spending just a few days, I figured why leave so soon if I felt home, and my healthiest self? Laurent kindly offered a mattress in his home. But I craved the ocean and the surf! What to do? So I made a plan to get the best of both of Bali’s worlds: get a scooter with a surf rack to hit the south-eastern coast in the morning for a surf, come back and chill in Ubud in the afternoon. Surely, I could get my cake, and eat it too.

Or so I thought until I went surfing Cucukan’s snappy waves again. I increased my risk profile that time, going more in the inside, being less picky and paddling for more waves. After what seemed an ordinary wipeout, I felt a sting on the arch of my foot but couldn’t really see what was going on below the waterline. As I pulled my foot above the water and touched the painful spot with my finger…there was a hole a few centimetres deep. I had split my foot open on reef. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! To add to my woes, the sea water that day was the filthiest I’d seen, because of heavy wet season rainstorms of the previous day (and Bali’s lacking waste water management system).

“Shit, must not get this infected”.

I ended up at the hospital an hour later, with 4 stitches in my foot. And no more ocean until the wound is closed.

“How long until then?” — I asked

“Hmmm…seven to ten days” — they said.

“OK, then R&R in Ubud”

And so the following week ended up very chilled: lazing in bed in the mornings. Taking time for slow, deliberate practice. Healing. Reading — currently alternating between the exalted Bhagavad Gita and the irreverent Jitterbug Perfume…sprinkled with some guilty Boruto chapters. Watching the wet season skies pour down on the rice paddies (“wetflix and chill”). Dancing when Laurent was DJing (maybe I shouldn’t with this foot?). Watching Legong, a traditional Balinese dance, all about eyes and hand movements. Sampling the finest foods. Taking long, leisurely strolls through viridescent hill paths and neighbouring rice paddies, weeded and cleaned from pest by wild ducks, all the while sowed by farmers, rainwater to their knees.

In some sense, this is what I needed: slowing down. Grounding. And since I couldn’t seem to get myself to do so, speeding as I was on the travel highway, the universe gently pulled me over. And grounded me good.

My new-found physical invalidity equally became a door into the knots of my own psyche. I was undergoing painful, restricted movement and had to suffer maddening interactions with Indonesian bureaucracy at the hospital which I had to return to every couple days to make sure my wound wasn’t getting infected. Behind all the stoke from the sun, surf and sand, I realised how tense and impatient I could be, short, condescending even, when things weren’t efficient or turn out the way I wanted them to be. And as you might know, the “developing world” will teach you patience and acceptance. I’m still learning.

And still healing. More than ever, I have developed a healthy fear of the sharp reef below. I know I will take its proper measure from now on.

The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure. And yet you were expected, even as a kid, to take its measure every day. You were required—this was essential, a matter of survival —to know your limits, both physical and emotional. But how could you know your limits unless you tested them? And if you failed the test? You were also required to stay calm if things went wrong. Panic was the first step, everybody said, to drowning. As a kid, too, your abilities were assumed to be growing. What was unthinkable one year became thinkable, possibly, the next.- William Finnegan in Barbarian Days

As my karate sensei liked to point out, it takes a full-blown hit in the head for someone to effectively face guard. Yes, trauma can be the best teacher.

Full sails in Thailand

Hello friend. I’m back, once again writing from a vehicle in motion – but this time, rails have replaced the Mekong and I’ve traded a slow-boat for a high-speed train. I sure do have a thing for writing in movement.

The train is heading to Kuala Lumpur. This morning I woke up in Langkawi, a lush Malaysian island close to the Thai border. I packed my things, drove 20 kms to the jetty on my rental scooter, returned the scooter, boarded a 90-minute long ferry to Kuala Kedah, came off the boat, jumped in a taxi to Alor Sentar 10kms away and finally got myself onto this train. I find multimodal, overland transportation a much more interesting way to get from A to B than say, flying. I have all the time in the world, so why not? I get to actually see what the country looks like. And the impact on our planet is much gentler too. Since the start of my journey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (3,800 kms earlier) I’ve travelled this way, all the way down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The journey so far.

Or almost. We did take a cheeky, domestic flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket, as Rob and I had a hard deadline – the start of our week-long sailing trip. It sucked but I did the least I could do and I offset the thing. Which I have been doing for all flights so far I have been and commit to keep doing throughout this trip, using

After I last wrote, we crossed the Laos-Thailand border on foot, when the slow-boat dropped us in Huay Xai. From all the border crossings so far, it was the most comical: on the Laotian side, we had to pay an “overtime fee” for crossing since it was past 6pm and then had to wait for a bus to take us to the Thai side — we weren’t allowed to walk across the Friendship Bridge (but sure enough we had to pay for the bus).

Arriving in Thailand, I felt giddy, experiencing again the comfort of a more industrialised country, especially after so many days adventuring in the outback of Laos with bare necessities. Paved roads! 7-Eleven! Cafés! Funny how those staples of modern consumer society become luxury once you start acclimatising to a rougher environment. The hedonic treadmill doesn’t just go forward — it goes backwards too. In a way, it’s a good thing: this means a little austerity can go a long way to making us more grateful for what we normally take for granted, as Epicurians found out long ago.

I had heard that Northern Thailand was culturally rich and it did not disappoint. We spent the night in Chiang Rai and first thing in the morning, we headed out to see the famed White Temple. It was superb — and crazy. The best way to describe it is…if Hieronymus Bosch, Banksy and Walt Disney had had a threesome (time-travel, you know) and their kid (that’s not how it works?) was born a Thai artist who devoted his life to building a Buddhist temple.

Hieronymus Bosch, for his visions of heavens and hells. The mind-boggling level of minutiae of frescoes and sculptures. I spent over 30 minutes examining the infinite detail of a 6-meter long hellscape at the entrance of the temple.

Banksy, for the blurry line between real and unreal, authentic and fake: what a sight to behold Thai visitors kneel and pray with all their heart before an altar to Buddha, their back directly facing paintings of George W. Bush and Osama Bin-Laden (symbolising the evil we must battle) part of a giant pop-art fresco featuring other icons such as Iron Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pikachu. No pictures allowed, though.

Finally, Walt Disney for the architectural grandeur and business savvy. The temple, both a place of worship and an art piece, is a living building, under constant construction. Just like a theme park, over 2 million visitors enter the White Temple every year generating huge profits which are reinvested in expanding it. The mastermind behind it all, Chalermchai Kositpipat (rightfully) sees it as his life’s work, reviving traditional Thai art, while also becoming immortal.

After this satisfying visit, we headed to Chiang Mai, capital of the ancient Lan Na Kingdom. After a few days travelling, mostly sat on boats and buses, my body felt a strong urge to exercise so I went and found a Muay Thai gym to let a few kicks out. On the way, I stopped by a Buddhist temple (this one less rococo than the White Temple) where 2 young monks, Sutham and Bas, pulled me over to practice their English. I got to learn about their daily schedule, including Sai Bat (morning alms) and attending Buddhist school, which includes not only religious but also lay subjects such as history, math or natural sciences. Becoming a novice first, a monk then, is undoubtedly a great way to get an education in most of South-East Asia, especially for those born in less fortunate environments. I even got to teach them a new word: Lay people as they were always referring to us as “normal people” to which I’d retort: “But you’re normal too! Or rather, no one is!”.

Muay Thai was much fun — and sweat. I hadn’t hit a bag since my last karate trainings in London, so it felt cathartic, plus I learned a few new techniques, especially elbow and knee strikes. They’re incredibly powerful and not something we use in much karate, but it’s really big in Muay Thai. And rightfully so: elbows and knees are the hardest, strongest ends of our body. Then I realised, from all peoples I know, Thais are the one who leverage their knees and elbows most — not only in fighting, but also in massage.

Which I got to experience full well in Chiang Mai, as I had my first satisfying — and painful, they often go together for me — massage since the start of my journey. Right after my Muay Thai class, I needed to loosen up a bit and found this place, Association Massage Chiang Mai of Blind, the massage equivalent of Dans Le Noir, where all bodyworkers are blind. During my second visit there, I got paired with a really strong one who was able to properly dig into my IT band, stretch my hips and most important, listen. While I initially expected to get the best massages of my life in the region, surprisingly I hadn’t been wow’ed until then, as I found most masseuses’ approach to be too…formulaic, not intuitive enough: they would invariably go through a rigid, pre-defined sequence instead of listening to what I needed. But this guy listened and man, he had strong hands!

The next day, we got back on scooters and drove all the way up the mountain towards Doi Suthep, a huge temple at the top where a relic of Buddha is kept under a massive golden stupa.

The way up was pure joy, leaning into bend after bend. We also visited a Hmong (hill tribe) village, which featured giant bamboos and flower gardens. In the distance, you could see the valley and then, hills after hills, standing like waves in the ocean. Myanmar too. After visiting the hill tribe museum, one of the gardeners actually showed us where he grew weed and opium — and asked if we wanted some. “Well, we’re driving”, we replied, as responsible adults.

So we drove, back to Chiang Mai where I spent the evening getting lost in the night market and seeing the largest amount of food I’ve ever seen in my whole life, spread out between hundreds of food stalls.

Next morning came the time to leave and journey to Phuket, where our yacht was waiting for our week-long sailing adventure. Arriving at the airport, we put on our masks. Coronavirus, they said.

Phuket was to be the finish line of our month-long adventure with Rob in South-East Asia, starting with Nettra and Luc’s wedding in Siem Reap, Cambodia and ending with our sailing trip in Southern Thailand. How much we had experienced in this month! And we knew the last chapter would be equally exciting, as we were to sail our own yacht in crystal-clear waters and live our pirate fantasy to the fullest.

Landing in Phuket, I couldn’t wait to get to the beach and reunite with the sea. But Rob and I immediately felt a bad vibe from the locals, whether it was our taxi from the airport or our host from the first night, both trying to rip us off and being generally rude. This was ominous of my time in Southern Thailand – more on that later.

Next day was the big day, the one we’d been waiting for, when we’d sail off. We went to Elite Charters, our yacht rental company, for a thorough briefing on the area. I then left on a mission to stock up on groceries. Little Eva, our ship, was way more than sole transportation — she was our home, where we’d live, eat, shit, wash, sleep and more for a whole week. We needed it fully stocked.

The mission to get to groceries became more…interesting, as one of the tires on my scooter got punctured on the way to the supermarket and I then spent the next 3 hours driving around with a flat tire, trying to find a scooter mechanic by communicating with locals through Google Translate. In somewhat such a touristy place as Phuket, seemed like no one actually spoke much English. I did eventually find a mechanic, who replaced both the chamber and tire, in his modest garage, a shack lost in the bush which also happened to be his house where he lived with his son, wife and baby. Family business.

Groceries mission complete, we finally set off from the marina on Little Eva, with Rob. And Ali — the skipper we had hired for the first 2 days. Reasonably enough, we wanted to get comfortable with the ship and the area before we, newly minted skippers, threw ourselves in the deep-end, left to our own devices. Sure, we did pass a skipper exam in May and skippered a yacht independently for a full day, but this was the real test – could we then, for the following 5 days, work as a team of 2 and figure it all out, without breaking the ship nor ourselves?

And what an adrenaline-filled week it was. I can’t remember the last time I had lived this fully, this intensely. Marc Andreessen is famous for saying that building startups you only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. That’s how I feel about yachting too.

On day 1, after leaving the marina, we journeyed towards Koh Nukha Yai. Little Eva was a solid yacht, 12-meter long, with a 4-5m high mainsail, a smaller genoa and the classic setup below deck: 2 bedrooms, a kitchenette opening into a living room, manual-pump toilets (err, sorry…”heads”) and shower. We did hoist the sails and played with the wind on the way there, which was blowing hard – up to 20 knots! I always get a mixture of excitement and fear when close-hauling against strong winds: excitement from the feeling of speed, sensing the bite on the wheel and seeing the vessel angle to the side as it catches the wind; fear from recognising how powerful the forces and heavy the weights we are playing with are… forces that could eventually capsize the ship in an instant. That night we anchored on a small beach on Koh Nukha Yai, now desert as the daytrip boats had all left, leaving it all to ourselves to enjoy, with a beautiful sunset and a well deserved Singha.

On day 2, we set off around 7am, to Koh Panak. This will remain one of the highlights of this trip, if not of my life. Koh Panak is your brochure-perfect, typical limestone-cliff-dropping-into-the-sea-island. After anchoring there, we boarded our dinghy and paddled into a small cave (it was too shallow to motor). As soon as we entered the stalactites-filled cave, it became pitch-black and…silent. All we could hear was the echo of water drops falling afar. We kept paddling in the dark, pointing our flashlight at the remarkable sculptures the sea had carved over thousands of years, the tide its mighty chisel. Until we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Literally. So, we paddled towards the light. As we reached the opening, we crouched under the teeth of the cave’s mouth, which then proceeded to throw us out, back in the open and the daylight, yet this time we were surrounded by the island! Here we were, on our dinghy, in the middle, in the eye of the island, encircled by a 360° cliff on which a thriving forest was growing near-vertically. And again, so very silent, with not another human in sight. All we could sometimes hear was the echo of a bird shrieking, reverberating all around us. None of us were saying a word – to break this silence would take away the sacredness of this eternal moment. We had landed in Sir Conan Doyle’s Lost World (I was bracing myself to see a pterodactyl circle above us at any time). This place had been the same for thousands of years and will probably be the same for thousands to come. I was speechless, in pure awe at the unspoilt natural beauty. Satori.

No words

We had the idea to keep following the water stream as it probably led back through another cave to the other side of the island but as we kept paddling it became muddy, and so, clear that we couldn’t go much further. We headed back. The rest of the day paled in comparison: we sailed to “James Bond Island” so-called because it was featured in 1974’s Man With the Golden Gun, which ended up being an absolute tourist trap. And then anchored in Ko Yao Noi for the night.

On Day 3, in the early hours, we parted with Ali. No more adult supervision – now the real adventure could begin. We made a first stop in Koh Nok, a small island with a steep hike to the top, with ropes to help you scramble up. At the top, we were greeted with picture-perfect, panoramic views of the islands — some far, far away.

Time to head to Koh Hong. “Hong” means “chamber” in Thai and hongs are therefore “chambers within islands”, similar to what we’d experienced the day before. However, this time wasn’t as satisfying: daytrip boats all over the place, no cave to paddle through and also, the engine of our dinghy suddenly stopped working. After spending a couple of hours choking it, then flooding it, then letting it rest, we were able to start it again and finally make it into the hong. We then sailed off to Railay beach, in Krabi where we intended to spend the night. Our misfortunes continued there, as we anchored in the bay, which on that day was receiving quite a lot of swell. Shortly after dropping the anchor, it became clear it was not a good idea as there was a non-zero risk that anchor would not hold and our ship would drift away during the night. So we tried to pull the anchor back… but couldn’t, as the boat was spinning on itself from the combined effect of the swell and the wind blowing hard on it. Half an hour and a dive later, we finally managed to pull the anchor back. Phew. No time to rest though, we needed to find a sheltered bay – fast, as the sun was setting and none of us had experience sailing at night. Fortunately, our almanac pointed to a nearby bay, where we found shelter. As we anchored — properly, this time — we kicked back and laughed. Situations can change in a second and things can get stressful quickly on a boat! We jumped on our dinghy, decided to go town – literally and figuratively- and let some steam out after this stressful landing. We did what pirates do and got properly inebriated, downing drinks and singing karaoke at one of the islands’ many reggae bars on the main touristy strip. Oh and of course, swimming naked with fluorescent plankton under the jagged cliffs.

Day 4. Head hurts. A hangover to nurse. So Rob had a Tinder date on the boat (gotta use it) and I went swimming. After restocking with groceries, we set off to the beautiful island of Koh Pu- “Old School Thailand” as Melissa from the charter company described it. Quiet, sandy beach, with a few tiki bars dotted here and there, it was a stark contrast to the frenetic, built-up Main Street of Railay. We got to watch the most beautiful sunset (I nearly clapped) and eat the best Tom Kha at one of the only 2 restaurants on the island.

Our faithful Little Eva, patiently waiting for us in the bay

On day 5, fully rested, our plan was to sail to the Phi Phi islands, famous for “The Beach” (that cult movie with Leo was filmed there). It was January 31st and we’d had this idea for a while to put on a Brexit party — on the boat. Find a few people, get some salt & vinegar crisps, blast “God Save the Queen”. On the way to Phi Phi (pronounced “pee-pee”, it never gets old), we stopped by Bamboo Island for some top-notch snorkelling. While waters until then had been more of an emerald-green, they were now turning turquoise — my favourite kind. I was lucky enough to swim with fish so colourful they made rainbow jealous.

Arriving in Phi Phi, it felt very different to Koh Puh. Massively built up, a huge tourist Main Street replete with a Burger King and McDonald’s, right there in the middle of paradise. And lots of millennials straight out of a spring break movie. We did go big that night though, mourning the UK’s departure from the EU and making new friends along the way. The fatal decision, the moment of hubris, was to buy some of the cocktail buckets we’d seen other tourists drinking from. I’d originally had nothing but disdain towards them but then realised they made a lot of sense, economically speaking – they were huge and inconceivably strong (though as I learned later from a friend, because they’re filled with moonshine…). It all ended with rounds of dancing, limbo, rope skipping and a stolen bag… my daypack, with my wallet and phone, was taken away that night (drunk tourists do make an easy prey). Not only that, a few days later, as I had been hoping a good samaritan would, someone got in touch with me on Facebook claiming they had found my iPhone! But after a day chatting with them, it felt funny and I realised they were the thief, now trying to phish me through a very well-made lookalike Find My iPhone website, prompting me to log in so they could get my credentials and unlock my phone! Vicious. I nearly got had and wonder how many have in the past. Anyway, lesson learned.

On day 6, our new friends met the night before came onboard Little Eva for a quick sail. They loved it and it was great to share the gift of sailing with others. Vincent, a French guy who needed to head back to Phuket and a sailor himself, joined us for the rest of the trip, as our first mate. We then headed off to Kao Yao Noi for our final night. Arriving there, the wind started blowing again so we put in some nice tacks around the bay.

As the sun was setting, it was time to anchor. But anchoring is a bitch. Just after we’d boarded the dinghy and were on our way to the beach for dinner, Rob very astutely observed that…well, the ship was drifting away. We were not anchored. Mic drop. So we got back on the ship, tried to pull the anchor back and get closer to the bay, but the anchor would not bulge. It seemed like it was jammed, maybe caught under. Shit. So we called all the emergency phone numbers the charter company had given us (none answered), so then we went looking for help, from other yachts first and then on the beach. No one seemed able to help so we headed back to the boat, which somehow looked like it had stopped drifting. But it was hard to say – we were far offshore, in over 20m depth, the wind was blowing the boat away, which then spun and circled around. Was it actually drifting or not? Not knowing what to do, we tried playing a bit more with the windlass (the contraption that pulls up the anchor chain) and then Vincent figured out the use of a tool to tighten it. We got it working again, were able to pull the anchor up and finally, after 3 stressful hours, anchored properly in 6m depth much closer to the bay. Rob, still concerned by the whole thing, kept waking up through the night to check we weren’t drifting. I have to give it to him, Rob is a fantastic skipper, much better than I am and I would not have felt as comfortable and confident throughout this whole trip without him. I was able to relax because I knew that when shit would hit the fan, I’d be able to fully trust him and his command. Yachting does teach you this kind of humility: when things get rough, you got leave your ego at the door and there can only be one captain because any disagreement (and the decision slowdown that comes with it) might cause a disaster. So thanks Rob for being that guy.

Day 7 we headed back to the Marina and said goodbye to Little Eva. Still unbelievable we made it in one piece and didn’t break anything (significant). After that, I dropped off Rob at the airport and he flew away to Japan to start his snowboarding adventure. So grateful for all the vagabonding experiences we shared over this last month and excited for the ones to come. For me, it was time for R&R. After a week at sea, I was battered. Sun-drenched, sea-drenched, tired, malnourished. I needed a detox, I needed a retreat. So I looked up what places in Phuket weren’t too touristy or party-party and ended up staying a few days in Bang Tao, where I could enjoy loneliness and sobriety. I went for massages, did heaps of yoga. Even splurged on a vitamin IV and a B12 shot — that stuff does work. I also engaged life recovery mode which consisted of getting replacements for the things that were in the daypack that got stolen. Including documents like driving licence or credit card but also travel necessities like a good daypack, a water container, a wallet, etc…For the first time in years, I had to forsake Amazon Prime and instead go spend hours in air-conditioned malls looking for the things I needed. Crazy.

Melody, a friend from my Tokyo days, was coming to town and we wanted to catchup after all those years. We always meet in the craziest places, from Taiwan to Paris. She was staying in Patong and I figured I could move there too, especially if we were to have a night out together (no drunk driving 30 kms). It was great to hang out and reminisce about the sheer exuberance of those years studying/modelling in Japan, all the while sampling epic street food and getting foot massages.

We did go big one night (it was the pre-party of a major trance festival) and I ended up doing reckless things even I am too ashamed of to write about on this blog (my dad is reading, after all).

In the end, I feel like I ended up staying in Phuket longer than I should have. Patong, especially, was soul-crushing for me. It’s the best-worst example of tourism gone wrong. Everywhere you look is entertainment: bars, nightclubs, restaurants, tour operators, massages, malls…And they’re all excessively tacky, beige even. It’s the same kind of vibe you might find in Magaluf, Mallorca, with the two dominant colours being mutant green and lollipop pink. The whole economy revolves around tourists consuming stuff and therefore, I as a one, am nothing but raw material in the eyes of locals. Local vendors there are the rudest and try to rip you off whenever they can. But I can understand: the tourist bros coming there in flock to tan and get fucked up aren’t any better, so logically locals get jaded and start giving us the treatment we deserve. There is no love in the air, only exploitation.

So why the hell did I spend a whole week there? Partly out of necessity, partly out of laziness. With the need to recover my things and also because of how tired I was of being constantly on the move for the last month, I needed a base at least for a little bit. Circumstances just happened to elect Phuket and so it was. Phukin Phuket. My tourist trap, where I got stuck. All that said, I also see it as a valuable a part of my adventure: the sourness I tasted there only makes the sweetness of other places more salient. If anything, it was a valuable experience.

“Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences. They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.”

Bertrand Russell

Also, there is this interesting thing about travelling without a return date, about vagabonding, where the point (at least for me) is to drift and see where life takes you. Then, there is an interesting tension between going with the flow or being intentional. Do you relax and let the place mould you for a bit? Or do you maintain strong boundaries? And when do you choose to choose?

Once the frustration of staying any longer in Phuket finally outweigh the laziness to leave, I made an escape plan. I took a bus to Satun, further south, next to the border with Malaysia and spent a night there before heading out to Langkawi. In Satun, my heart felt it was in the right place again and my soul started growing back. I felt much more at peace, wandering the quiet streets of the town and sampling local street food at the night market. There was a citizens’ parade for Chinese New Year and I stood there watching while eating a vegetable pancake. That, I thought, is what I needed. Humble, quiet, authentic village life.

Next morning, I took a ferry to Langkawi, Malaysia. I loved it from the moment I set foot. They call it “The Gem of Kedah” and for a reason – it reminds me of Kauai, Hawaii. Jade-green mountains, crystal-clear waters, laid back locals. There they don’t really need tourists as much as they do in Southern Thailand, so it felt nice to be let off the hook for a bit. Got myself a scooter and drove through the island, looking for a remote hostel where I could enjoy some alone time and finally slow down. In truth, that’s the one intention I hadn’t yet been acting upon at all over this last month. If anything, I had only sped up! Besides, the inner introvert was crying out for alone time. So I ended spending two magical, solitary days with very limited social interaction, lots of reading and probably the best food I’ve had on this trip. Including but not limited to: Mee Rebus, Char Kuey Teow, all the Nasi (lemak, goreng, etc), Checur, Cendol and so on. I love Malaysian street food and I’ve found a good heuristic to spot the best joints: it’s on the roadside, it’s got plastic chairs and a bunch of locals are digging in.

Selamat Jalan!

Mekong Cruising — a month in Indochina

Hey, friend. So here it is, my first entry on this blog. Being written as I sip a Beer Lao, sitting on a bench aboard an old, wooden slow-boat travelling up the mighty Mekong River from Laos into Northern Thailand. From my seat, I see hills teeming with lush green jungle, invariably diving together into the Mekong.

I’ve never seen a river like this. It feels part lifeline, part highway, part mother. It provides water, food, transportation and livelihood to the people of the region, as far north as China and as far south as Cambodia.

And I’ve been following it for close to a month. Magically, my relationship with the river has been the one constant since I landed in Phnom Penh on December 30th, the first day of a ‘who-knows-long’ trip around the Pacific, to explore the world, reflect, recharge — and surf!

On the first morning of my trip (and penultimate day of 2019), I landed in scorching Phnom Penh, jetlagged, exhausted from 20 hours of flight, feeling sweaty and yucky. I couldn’t even get a change of clothes as my rucksack somehow didn’t make the transfer in Taipei (#treasureyourtraveltroubles) and so, half delirious, I went to buy a change of clothes at a local market. I was feeling ungrounded, restless and utterly confused.

That was until I got my ass on a boat cruising the Mekong River at sunset. Alone, in silence, far from the buzz of the city, I found refuge in the tranquil haven of the river, its gentle breeze and rolling waves. It revived me, nourished me.

And so that’s how our relationship started. And now nearly a month later, I’m back on a boat, being gently rocked by the mother again.

My initial plan was to begin my trip in Cambodia to attend the wedding of two of my favourite humans (Luc and Nettra), meet with Rob (a friend and ex-colleague previously CTO at Busuu, also on a break) there, together head to Northern Thailand and then journey to Southern Thailand, chartering a yacht and putting to practice our newly-minted skipper licences.

But first, I spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh, soaking in the youthful (over 50% of the population is less than 30 year-old) and enterprising energy of this city. There I met with Vivaddhana, an old friend from my SciencesPo class now leading the national Brazilian Jiu Jitsu federation and involved in a variety of business ventures, as many bright young Cambodians are. It was touching to see that after 7 years apart, the rivers of our lives had joined again on many aspects (martial arts, entrepreneurship, spirituality) and we now probably felt closer than we ever had. I love when that happens. New Year’s Eve was also celebrated in Phnom Penh and we were kindly hosted by Nettra’s mom, in her Pinterest-perfect house overlooking the Mekong.

Next stop was Siem Reap (or “Destroy Thailand” in Khmer…), where the wedding was happening, a place famous around the world for the grandiose Angkor temples, king amongst them Angkor Wat. I was supposed to join the wedding party on their private bus, but after an indulgent NYE and much jet lag, I overslept (oops) in my hostel container bedroom (pitch black helps) and made my way there on my own.

And what a wedding this was! A day-long Khmer affair, it started at 6 a.m. with several of the groom’s friends (myself included) carrying baskets of offerings to the bride. This was followed by a succession of highly symbolic rituals (bride and groom feeding each other, tying knots, receiving blessings from elders), some delicious lunch, a cocktail back at the Méridien, a Western-style wedding ceremony with vows and speeches, a dinner and a party…phew! It was inspiring to witness tradition expressed in such a meaningful way, and made me long for more ritual in my life. It was also touching to hear the vows from the bride and groom, and made me connect more than ever to the possibility of obtaining freedom through unwavering commitment to another.

Also, I was personally honoured and privileged to be entrusted with MCing the evening ceremony and leading vows from their friends, gathered there to witness and support this union ever after.

Dear Luc, dear Nettra,

Before I give the floor to your parents, I would like to say something on behalf of your friends, who have travelled Cambodia and the world to be with you today.

Too often, successes and failures of couples are placed only on them, but we recognize it’s a community endeavor. And so we too, would like to take some vows with you today.

So everyone, please join in and repeat after me.

As your friends we promise,

To walk by your side,

In your journey of growth and exploration

To hold space when you need,

And listen with compassion

To always support you,

In your loving vows and kind intentions.

Not only was the wedding day unforgettable, Luc and Nettra had kindly put together a whole program of pre- and post-wedding activities. It somehow felt like a Sandbox retreat, getting stuck in deep meaningful conversations while living enriching experiences with so many interesting people from all over the world. Together, we visited the ancient temples of Angkor, toured silk farms (and worms!), watched a modern Khmer circus performance, explored night markets and sampled the finest foods.

I’d also taken a chance on renting a scooter my first day in Siem Reap. While the voice of safety within screamed “you’ll lose a limb if you scoot around in South East Asia”, the voice of freedom shut it up — and I’m happy it did. Zooming around the city and temples with a scooter was the ultimate feeling of freedom, and the risk was calculated. I was too safe back home anyway and one of the deeper purpose of my trip was to tilt the balance back to more freedom and trade it for a bit less safety. Back in the summer, I had realised that most of the choices we make about our life (work, love, passions) can be plotted on a Freedom vs Safety spectrum.

This realisation had me come to the conclusion that I was over-indexing on safety, sacrificing too much freedom and in turn affecting my happiness, flow and creativity. 5 years ago, it was the opposite: before I joined Busuu and arrived in London, I was over-indexing on freedom, but with little to no financial safety and so I had to sort my life out. Quitting my job and embarking on this trip was a way to tilt the balance once again.

Back to the scooter: in the near-absence of traffic signage in Cambodia, you find that there is a strange, subtle harmony within all the apparent chaos. I had noticed that on Day One, fresh from the plane, in the tuk-tuk to my hostel: while there don’t seem to be any road rules with everyone carving their way through, the whole thing is smooth and most interestingly — especially compared to the Western gridlocks of Marseille or Lisbon — absolutely silent. No honks, no shouts. Not even music blasting. Everyone is super aware of what everyone else is doing and it all works out like a big ballet. I like to think that traffic in Cambodia (and future will tell whether this applies to other countries in the region) is like one big organism, similar to a school of fish, where drivers instinctively understand what they can and cannot do. So Rob and I learned the rules pretty fast and soon enough, we were slicing through traffic like locals.

Even after the wedding was over and most people had left, a few stuck around for another round of Cambodia, including sunrise at Angkor, adventurous foods (including snake, tarantula, lizard and scorpio). and day-long scooter trips in the outback to find some ancient temples. Indiana Jones and Lara Croft had nothing on us.

I made some lifelong friends during those days and especially bonded with Shirah, the worldliest person and kindest adventurer I know. Thank you for our time together and good luck for your doctoral defence!

But, there comes a point though when you have to go. I felt it was time when I realised I knew the city well and could navigate it without a map.

So Rob and I proceeded to research the journey to our next stop, Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As mentioned previously, the original plan was to head there before travelling down south to Phuket, where our charter yacht was waiting for us to sail it.

But plans change, and while the start and end points have remained, we took a little detour, as you do on such trip. Inviting chance is actually one of my guiding principles for this trip. Oh, I haven’t told you about them yet, have I? Probably one of the best moves I did to prepare this trip was to read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. I’d had the book on my reading list for years already, since I’d heard author (and all-round life experimenter) Tim Ferris rave about it consistently. Below is my visual summary of the book.

Vagabonding helped me articulate how I wanted to live my own vagabonding journey and I came out with 5 principles:

– Slow Down

– Invite Chance

– Treasure Troubles

– Prevent > Repair

– Mix It Up

Inviting chance, we decided, rather than going straight to Cambodia, to head to the 4000 islands of South Laos after reading online that it “would be a crime to miss out on them”. We also had this romantic idea to buy a motorised, long tail fishing boat and navigate the up the Mekong with it (which turned out to be impractical, if not impossible given the current historically low Mekong water levels).

So, off to Laos.

After a day travelling through Cambodia and a memorable border crossing involving walking through a no-man’s land between the Cambodian side and the Laotian side, we made it to Don Det, “capital” of the 4000 islands.

Surrounded by the Mekong, this small island is only a few kilometers around. In a typical island style, the one word that comes to mind when thinking about Don Det is chill. Laid back locals, hammocks, no cars, waterfalls, reggae, happy shakes, bicycles, magic mushroom shakes and sandy beaches, it’s a backpacker’s paradise. A stark contrast from the bustling, hectic and tourist-packed streets of Siem Reap.

There’s also something about Lao people — only magnified by the island vibes. While their Khmer neighbours are often confident, proud hustlers, Lao people seem more quiet and laid back. You feel this with mainland Lao people, even in bigger cities like Pakse, Vientiane or Luang Prabang.

What were supposed to only be a couple of days in Don Det turned into 5. Why not? We’re not in a hurry and we’re loving the place!

In Don Det, watching a classic Meking sunset with Rob at a riverside bar, I met Elsa, a French entrepreneur travelling around Asia. Destiny’s hand was impossible to ignore in us meeting: as it turned out, we knew each other, even though we didn’t remember how. By an impossible coincidence, she was the one who had inherited my spot in the Babababarrio camp at Nowhere (a Spanish, regional Burn event) when I decided not to go last year! We also shared many dear friends in Paris, and funniest of all, were Facebook friends — though we’d never exchanged messages. How we initially met eludes us to this day. Oh yeah, and she’d also matched with Rob on Tinder the day before. Small world!

We hit it off pretty hard and a steamy romance ensued over the next few days, amidst cycling trips through the island, swimming in the Mekong and river cruises to see dolphins and late night karaokes with a bunch of crazy drunk local teenagers. We even got to play a game of pétanque against a crew of local aficionados, lost without a chance.

The time to move on came again. Elsa had told us about a motorcycle route north of the islands, the famous Pakse Loop which runs through the Bolaven plateau, highlands known for their coffee plantations and picturesque waterfalls. Elsa joined our crew and we were now a trio zooming through the loop on our scooters.

We saw some gigantic waterfalls at Tad Yuan and Tad Lo, and even went swimming under them, setting a trend with other tourists bravely following soon after.

Riding further, we took a chance and turned at Captain Hook’s coffee plantation. The plantation is farmed by a small Kuta community (hill tribe of Lao) in a recluse village where most locals have never ventured past the next town. Inspired by the authentic nature of the village which felt like a time capsule to agrarian times, replete with its roosters, pigs and cows freely roaming around, we elected to spend the night there and taste local hospitality. It did not disappoint as we were invited to share a meal in Captain Hook’s house, where 26 people over 5 generations live! I put aside my vegetarianism and joined in a delicious chicken hotpot (after internally thanking the animals for their meat, of course).

Next morning, Captain Cook took us through his plantation and explained the whole coffee growing and refining process, often sidetracking to give a well-woven world history of coffee (and colonialism). He also showed us a host of traditional plant medicines growing in the wild, and I felt immense respect for the community’s closeness to the earth and their land. We also learned about the many beliefs and traditions of the Kuta tribes (mostly Animistic), some of which definitely struck an uneasy chord of value judgements in our fellow tourists. Don’t know which one won the cultural shock prize though, between children starting to smoke tobacco around 3 year-old or the yearly, village-wide “kicking a puppy to death” ceremony to bring good luck. A valuable and fascinating insight into cultural divide. Others have written about this cultural experience here, so I won’t dwell on it too much.

Back on the road. We had initially planned to rent scooters in Pakse, drive through the Loop and bring them back. But in the spirit of adventure and inviting chance, we decided instead to negotiate return them up north in Thakhek so we could avoid going back and rather, ride across the country. The price to pay for the rental company’s trust was Rob’s passport — at least one of them — which was duly returned in Thakhek.

We drove miles and miles, through pretty good roads, and sometimes pretty bad, dirt ones.

After a full-on day motorbiking over 300 kms in the outback with zero comfort and lots of dust, where locals never see a farang, we made it to Thakhek, back to our tourist bubble and boarded a bus to Luang Prabang in the North.

Luang Prabang really reminds me of Kyoto. A millennial town, previously the seat of an empire, rich in temples, craft and gastronomy. Also, slow, clean, comfortable. After 5 days of intense travelling in the Laotian outback, this was exactly what we needed and so we treated ourselves to gourmet food, spa treatments and temple visits. We even had Galette des Rois (the French influence is felt here).

A very welcome stop before embarking on the next leg of our journey — Luang Prabang to Thailand via slowboat on the Mekong. We also parted ways with Elsa, who stayed there before going East, while we are going West. I know it’s just a goodbye though – we’ll meet again on our respective adventures I’m sure.

The journey is 2 days to Huay Xai, after which we’ll take a bus to Chiang Mai. We’re sharing the boat with both Laotians and tourist, and it feels like a mini-cruise. The boat is big and sturdy, and we get the best views of the river and mountains around it. It is gently rolling on the Mekong — especially compared to the local speedboats, those crazy fast long tail boats which look like a surfboard with an engine strapped at the back and whose captains wear helmets (passengers none). It would have been a fun ride, but I sure couldn’t have been writing all this!

Wow! You’ve made it to the end of this entry 👏🏾

I’ll try not to procrastinate too much to keep this journal updated, but in the meantime you can follow a more visual and up-to-date account of my adventure on insta (@diary_of_a_vagabond).

Tschüss for now!

Hello World!

After 5 life changing years living in London and working at Busuu, I’m taking some time off to recharge, reflect and roam the world.

You can find me surfing around the Pacific. Or follow my adventures right here, starting in the new year…stay tuned!