Thomas Reichert

In early 2007, I got an e-mail out of the blue from a German filmmaker. He apologized for his English (which was nearly perfect - I know Americans with worse grammar) and asked me for permission to use some of my music in his project. When I saw the video, I was absolutely blown away.

Thomas had trekked up Mt. Etna, an active volcano in Italy, and filmed some of the most impressive eruption footage I've ever seen. He captured huge plumes of ash and fire, pyroclastic flows, a tornado spinning at the mountain's peak, magma spitting out of the caldera at twilight, all culminating in glowing rivers of lava that flowed down the volcano's blackened slopes at night. Incredible images, all set against the relentless sounds of Etna's thundering eruption.

I couldn't wait to hear how he would use my music in his film, and I gave him permission without hesitation. He thanked me, and I never heard from him again. His video, meanwhile, has clocked over 2 million views on youtube, a big success.

Unfortunately, I just found out why I'd never heard from Thomas again. In an attempt to return to Mt. Etna to document the ongoing eruption, he slipped and fell to his death. It's incredibly tragic, and although he lost his life back in 2008, this sad piece of news just found me yesterday.

I didn't know Thomas outside of our small collaboration, but I felt connected to him. Our work exists side by side, online, indefinitely. It's likely that it will outlive both of us. The images he risked his life to record have been immortalized in silicon. It's a reminder of how the internet empowers people like Thomas and gives them a voice and a presence where he might otherwise have none, preserving his work beyond his death and allowing others to enjoy it, for free, forever.

More of Thomas Reichert's videos.

Memorial site for Thomas.

MALAYSIAN FLASH TOUR - PART I

With my submarine fish envy as quenched as money would allow, my sights set on the unconquerable ocean-spanning archipelago of Indonesia. But as one can tell with even a glance at the glossy tourist map, a large country stands between Thailand and Indonesia. As the darkhorse anti-hero of Southeast Asia, a regional economic powerhouse, and a cultural melting pot that redefines the phrase, Malaysia seems oddly overlooked by travelers. It seemed like a good time to collect more stamps in my passport, so I decided to make a mad dash through this country, and try to make it to the other side intact.

Malaysia is split into two landmasses, with half occupying the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, and the other half being the top part of the island of Borneo. Malaysian Borneo is lots of rugged jungle and rainforest, while Peninsular Malaysia is a geographic grab-bag that's got a little of everything and houses the  vast majority of the country's population.

Getting through Malaysia by road, boat, and rail is easy because the infrastructure is highly developed. Unlike Thailand, roads in Malaysia usually have lines painted on them and drivers are encouraged to stay within them. The urge for the minivan driver to honk his horn every thirteen seconds has mysteriously vanished. Of course, along with the upswings of traveling in a country with a flush bank account, it's noticeably more expensive. Things are still cheaper than the States by a long shot, but prices are no longer impossibly low.

Hence the flash tour. Get in, see as much as I can, and get out before the bills stack up. No planes, strictly land and sea. Hit the sights and make it to Indo, incurring minimal financial damage while maximizing absorption of culture, scenery, and experience. Like some tourist-commando with a zoom lens instead of a silencer.

Still reeling from my dive trip, I disembarked from the Flying Carpet, laid low on Ko Payam for two days, then ferried back to Ranong and bussed to Chumphon. In a record 11 hour gap between my bus arriving and my train departing, I wandered aimlessly through the functionally boring town of Chumphon. When it was finally time to train up and head out, I backpacked to the station and was hit with some freaky pangs of deja vu - I'd been to this exact spot about a month prior, having been awoken by a group of German brothers who insisted against the facts that this was my intended stop. I shook it off, boarded a sleeper car, and rattled south.

Somewhere along the ticketing channels, I'd been downgraded from second to third class, and I had to ride it out in the smokey steerage car with shifty-eyed farmers and at least eight chickens. Trains aren't really supposed to bounce, but this one did. Every half hour or so, we'd hit a really rough break in the tracks that would nearly pitch us sideways into flooded ditches that ran alongside the train. Undeterred, we chugged through the rain and the night at a speed that seemed just a little too fast, our path bisecting vast plains hidden by churning brown floodwaters.

I woke from half-sleep at dawn in Hat Yai, a no-frills inland junction town where the tracks fractured into numerous routes. Stumbling off the train car, I posted up in a travel office waiting for enough passengers to accumulate to justify a trip to the coast. When more disoriented westerners showed up, we fumbled our bags into a minivan and drove to Satun, the last significant town in the southwest corner of Thailand. Waiting, again, to amass passengers, I spent a few hours in a cafe on a drizzling beach before boarding a fast boat that would bring me into Malaysia.

In the cramped, airplane-style seats of a dank cabin, I tried to sleep as we skipped top speed across the sea to Pulau Langkawi, the largest chunk of land in a 99-island archipelago hovering off Malaysia's northwest coast. An hour and a half later, we skirted into the harbor on the island's east coast. I arrived at my first Malaysian destination, 32 hours after leaving Ko Payam.

Stepping off the ferry into the heart of the duty-free mall, I was cheerfully greeted by a large sign in a bold sans-serif that proudly stated "DRUG OFFENDERS WILL BE SENTENCED TO DEATH." Welcome to Malaysia! Feel free to spend as much money as you can. I banded together with a small group I'd been minivan-ferry-hopping with since Hat Yai, and we split another van ride out to the west coast. I could feel the tensions of traveling lift as soon as I set down my bag and was hit by a cool, salty trade-wind rolling in off the Indian Ocean at sunset. I tossed my crap into the cheapest dorm I could find and went for a beer.

Malaysia's muslim majority was immediately apparent. The skyline was dotted with mosque domes, and the call to prayer was projected across entire towns on scratchy loudspeakers several times a day. All the women were struggling to keep their hair and faces behind scarves and veils that came in many different levels of severity. The men, dressed in shorts and flip flops, were wearing trendy sunglasses and flashy watches while talking on cellphones and drinking Starbucks. Their wives were smothered in thick black gowns that covered every inch of their bodies except a tiny slit for their eyes.

Langkawi is a sizeable island that can't really figure out if it should just relax and enjoy life, or drop everything and start throwing up resort highrises. As was now becoming standard procedure, I rented a set of wheels and explored the island on motorbike. I was accosted by a gang of grey macaques in the jungle, the alpha monkeys dropping down from the canopy to protect their harem from the big ape taking photos of them. I visited the white sand beaches of the island's north coast, walked far out onto a tidal sandbar that stretched almost all the way to a group of tiny islets that were much taller than they were wide. I drove along a river that emptied to a trickle at low tide, with all the boats sunk directly into the mud banks, still moored to the docks.

As I searched for a place to eat on my second night, I realized it was Thanksgiving. It was amusing to be oblivious of holidays that I would be completely absorbed in if I were back home. So I met up with the people I'd met the previous day - an Irish couple, and a girl from Holland - and I ordered the closest thing to a Turkey dinner they had in Malaysia: smoked duck. It wasn't very good, but it's the thought that counts, right? The rest of the night was one of duty-free beers, the cheapest in the country, and the next morning I'd get back on a boat headed south, inching towards Oceania.

TO BE CONTINUED: Penang, Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, and beyond!

The Flying Carpet

When you've got a subcontinent to explore and only a fixed amount of time and money to spend, the urge to keep moving is powerful. In my case, the immediate urge was to get back underwater after the teasing glimpses I had in Ko Tao and Ko Phi Phi. SCUBA diving is one of the more fleeting experiences you'll see listed in an adventure brochure. You can only stay down as long as your air holds out, and you can only breathe so much compressed air in a day before your blood starts to bubble with nitrogen. Time limits are hardwired into the experience due to its very nature - humans never evolved to breathe underwater. After a handful of really lazy days on Ko Phayam, I was compelled to join a live-aboard SCUBA trip to the Similan Islands, a chain of tiny uninhabited islands far off the Andaman coast of Thailand whose reputation seemed legendary. Every diver I met, from casual beginner to veteran instructor, mentioned the Similans at some point. They spoke about this archipelago as if it was some untamed frontier, new to science, ripe for exploration. "This place is good, and that place is good... but if you REALLY want the best diving, go to the Similans." So I figured I'd go to the most impressive location in the region and dive until I was sick of it. Turns out, you never really get tired of these reefs.

I woke up early and stashed my bulky pack at the dive shop, where one of the dive masters was severely stressing out. She had no idea where the boat was or where on the island it was arriving. After lots of disconnected phone calls and cussing in German, I was loaded onto the back of a tractor trailer with the all the dive gear and we chugged across the island to the docks. 'The Flying Carpet,' a big, colorful dive boat already full with passengers was waiting for us.

I quickly discovered I was the only native English speaker on the boat and the only diver who didn't speak any German. The instructor, dive masters, and nearly all of the divers were from Germany with the exception of a Swiss couple, a Finn, and his Thai wife. The crew, consisting of a captain, two deck hands, and a cook, were all born and raised in Ranong. The Finn and I were the only two who preferred English over the other myriad languages spoken on board, and we were paired up.

As the only two guys on the boat who didn't smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, we had super-human lung capacity. Most buddy teams would have to start their safety stops after about 30-40 minutes, but we stayed down for over and hour almost every dive. We were always last on the boat, usually surfacing far from where the ship was anchored. The Flying Carpet would spot our inflatable safety marker, swoop around to pick us up, and we'd be motoring towards the next dive spot.

The deck hands were fishing off the back of the boat whenever we were on the move. One of them, a guy probably not much older than me, was missing the smallest three toes on his left foot. When they started shouting "Lua! Lua!" the captain would have to kill the motor while they reeled in their catch. One evening they caught a giant tuna, which the cook immediately chopped up into sashimi.

My dive buddy's wife, a young Thai woman who never got in the water and barely spoke the entire trip, had a painfully obvious lazy eye. Another guy worked for a film production company in Germany, specializing in extreme sports. His experience with Americans had been almost entirely with surfers, snowboarders, and wakeboarders, who he made fun of with an accent that sounded like a German Bill & Ted: "Yeah, bro! Like, surfing is my life! I totally wiped out, dude!" It needed some work, but I saw where he was going with it. The cook, a loud and energetic older Thai lady with a tenuous grasp of the English language, had somehow confused the words "spicy" and "sexy." The dive masters refused to correct her, purely for comedic value. "I'll have the fried rice - and make it sexy!"

There was a ditzy woman who talked nonstop, sang songs to herself, and drank too much almost every night. She claimed to be a surgeon back in Germany. As a chain smoker with blistering sunburns on her face and body, she did not seem like the type of person I'd want to take medical advice from. She and the rest of the Germans laughed at me for putting on sun block, but after 5 days at sea, I was the only person without peeling, third-degree burns on 85% of my body. They didn't really seem to understand that technology allowed sunburns to be avoided. That ridiculous looking cream I rubbed on my face and shoulders? Yeah, that stuff reflects UV radiation! To cut through the sarcasm and reiterate my point, there was a surgeon on board who couldn't really wrap her mind around the concept of sunscreen.

Floating ThrowrugDespite the strangitudes of our motley crew and the resulting unpredictable culture crashes, we all had an amazing time and everyone was very friendly. As an American, I was personally thanked by the Germans for replacing them as the bad guys of the western world. According to them, George Bush Jr. finally helped people get over that whole Hitler thing. I immediately accused them of Schadenfreude. Good-natured jabs continued back and forth for the whole trip.

By the end of each day's fourth and final dive, everyone would be glowing from giddy exhaustion and an unreal form of underwater sensory overload. The surgeon would start throwing back Singhas, the Finn and his wall-eyed bride would retire early, and the dive masters would chain smoke twelve cigarettes before everyone started to claim sleeping spots. While we slept, the boat would motor to our next dive site and we'd be in the water again at 7AM sharp.

Describing the actual diving is stupidly difficult, and unfortunately I have no underwater photos. I could use a list of tired clichés and worn out superlatives to convey how amazed I was, but I'll spare you. I saw things I'd never seen, each dive was uniquely incredible, and the raw wealth of life seemed impossible. I'd recommend this experience to anyone without hesitation - see it before it's gone.

I heard stories of the diving in Burma, where illegal dynamite fishing has destroyed entire ecosystems of marine life. The coral reefs were supposedly magnificent, but they were entirely devoid of fish. If you could see how many millions and millions of fish call the Thai reefs home, you get the feeling that a fishless reef would be incredibly eerie and depressing. Even in the Similans, which exist as dots in a gigantic imaginary box labeled 'marine sanctuary and national park,' we saw illegal fishing boats blatantly trawling the protected waters every night.

Cyanide fishing was another notorious problem. In China, the market for large, living reef fish is enormous. People in restaurants will choose the live fish out of the aquarium, have it killed in front of them, and eat it as fresh as possible. They believe eating a fish in this way is (yeah, you guessed it) an aphrodisiac. The challenge for fishermen of third-world countries is capturing these rare fish without hooking them, or visibly harming them, which makes them worthless. So they mix up a potent and toxic chemical compound in large batches, fill up a homemade contraption that looks like a clown's seltzer bottle, and hit the reef. They spray large amounts of this chemical over the face of the docile, slow-moving target fish, which stuns them and knocks them unconscious. They wake up a few days later with a hangover but otherwise not *visibly* harmed. This isn't much of a problem in itself. The issue lies in what those huge doses of chemicals do to the smaller, more sensitive fish and corals living in the reef. It wipes them out, bleaches the coral, and bioaccumulates up the food chain in large predators like sharks and dolphins. They're essentially killing entire ecosystems to capture a handful of fish alive.

A recurring theme of this trip has been that, across all borders, people struggling to gain any possible economic advantage will gladly sacrifice the environment to do so. It seems to be a combination of not knowing any better, and genuinely not having many other choices.

When my deceptively short five days were up, I could have easily gone for twice the time. Climbing off The Flying Carpet and into the dingy, dubbed 'The Floating Throwrug,' I said auf wiedersehen and comically faltered through my short list of German vocabulary, which included too many World War II and Sigmund Freud references to be politically correct: "Howitzer! Mein Kampf! Zeitgeist! Penisneid! Seig Heil! Shiza Batsen! Uh... Auchwitz!"

"That's a city in Poland!" they called back. Shucks, I'll miss 'em.

Ko Phayam

Ko Phayam is the perfect antithesis to Phuket. Phuket is geographically huge, crowded to the point of breaking, and infected by overbearing commercial interests. Phayam is a pristine and tiny island lost in a big archipelago, home to a few hundred people instead of over half a million, and only very recently discovered by tourism. It's not perfect, and in many ways it's not as picturesque as it's more famous counterparts, but Ko Phayam makes up for this in character and hospitality.

It has intermittent electricity, no ATMs, and the only vehicles with more than two wheels are a handful of re-purposed agricultural tractors. From the minute my slow boat from Ranong bumped against the aging pier, I could tell the pace of things was getting taken down a few notches.

I stayed on this quiet island for three or four days enjoying the seemingly infinite beaches, exploring rocky coves on a motorbike with some kind of fluid leak, and letting a few cheap days roll by to balance the budget.

At one point, I went to a reggae party with a blind German who couldn't stop dancing with the hottest ladyboy on the island. And one time when the rain was too strong to keep driving, I'm pretty sure I got caught up in a paganistic ritual involving the butchering of a chicken. But overall, my time on Phayam was an easy and pleasurable blur, best described through a series of innocuous and G-rated photographs.

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Visa Run

Our splintered longboat sloshed across the olive-brown tidal estuary of the Kraburi River. We approached a drab building that rose out of the water on rickety stilts and bore the weathered emblem of the Burmese government. The tiny immigration building looked like a sea gypsy hut. The driver moored at the base of this top-heavy structure by literally crashing into the other boats parked there, throttling up the engine, and driving apart the conglomeration of longboats like a lumberjack's wedge. He smiled, tossed a frayed loop of rope around a post, collected our passports, and zipped up the eroding concrete steps to the office. The passengers just kind of looked at each other like, "this is seriously how they do it?"

Minutes later, we were stamped for entry into Burma. The diesel engine coughed back to life and we wedged out of the swarm of boats in a cloud of exhaust. Shielding myself from the spray of the white-capped river, I turned to the old Australian man next to me:

"Have you done this before?" "Every two weeks for three years." "Any they just stamp everybody in? No questions asked?" He looked at me over his glasses, "If they started asking questions, they'd have more to lose than we would, mate."

After passing a handful of islets encrusted with bizarre religious shrines we came upon Kawthaung, the southernmost point of Burma. The abject poverty here was immediately apparent. The shore was crowded with houses that were nothing more than dirty concrete shells or driftwood planks that have been lashed together with fishing net. The streets were piled with trash. We drove parallel to the shore for about 15 minutes, getting a good look at a place we're lucky to have not been born in. Coming up to the docks, there must have been a hundred wooden boats lined up on the beach like toothpicks. Again, we crashed into the mob, clattering up and over the other boats, scraping and grinding them out of the way, like a gradeschooler pushing to the front of the lunch line.

When the driver killed the engine and we stepped onto the shore, there was an eerie quiet about the place. All the subtle things that made the atmosphere in Thailand so friendly were gone - no distant music, no sizzling of food being cooked, no excited conversation in shops and restaurants, nobody laughing or even smiling. Until very recently, a corrupt military regime had been controlling the nation, and it showed. Burma - or Myannmar, I can't figure out which to call it - gained independence from the British in 1948 and has been locked in an unresolved civil war ever since. It's the least developed country in Asia and ranked in the absolute lowest place out of 160 nations on the World Health Organization's ranking of healthcare systems. Yeah, it's bad.

Our small group quickly walked past the contraband carts and beggars lining the dock and filed into a dilapidated government office. We were met by a small balding man at a desk who was surrounded by a half dozen beret-clad soldiers with machine guns and lit cigarettes. One by one, we handed the man our passport, a color photocopy of our passport, and a crisp American five dollar bill we had to purchase in Thailand specifically for this exchange. The bald man regarded each of us for much longer than it took to simply match our faces to the ID photos, then stamped our passports with much more force than was necessary to simply apply the ink to the paper.

And that was it. We left as soon as we could, passing the motionless soldiers on the way out and squinting to identify our longboat out of the hundreds strewn on the beach. When our driver was finished haggling over a stack of cheap cigarette cartons and a bottle of Burmese rum, we were back on the water. Re-entering Thailand was strictly routine, and bought us another two weeks in paradise. I had a feeling the old Aussie would be back.