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.
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 MyClimate.org.
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.
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.
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.