Download the full track here: https://soundcloud.com/jt-bruce/saudade
Part of a series made for UC Berkeley - I did the intro graphics and a bunch of other animation and effects throughout the video.
All I did here was the green titles in the beginning and the VFX for the exploding Uhaul truck at the end. Kaboom!
Some stills from my soon-to-be-released music video for Justin Michael's "Eyes Closed."
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.
It's probably pretty apparent that my tour through Southeast Asia has ended. This blog has been stuck at a tantalizing 'part one' of the Malaysian leg of my trip for months. It doesn't get into Penang or the Malaysian highlands. It doesn't even touch on Sumatra, Bali, or Lombok. There's no mention of being pickpocketed on New Years, overstaying my Indonesian visa, or being stranded in Bangkok, unable to get money from my American bank account. Those stories aren't here, but it all happened, and there's pictures to prove it.
There was always a lag between where I was and where this blog said I was. It started out as a delay of only a few days, but eventually grew to over a month as I got swept up in traveling and the volume of events grew to the point where I couldn't find the time to write about them before the next big thing would happen. And then returning stateside erased all motivation to finish writing about months-old adventures on the other side of the globe.
Still, I feel like I can't just leave this series of posts dangling. The trip needs some kind of closure, not because you're out there hanging on the edge of your seat, but because I'm still processing the events myself.
Even though I couldn't keep up with the writing, I never stopped taking photographs. At the end of three months, I was left with almost 2,000 photos and video clips. So instead of distilling the experience into words, I'll cull the photos into a manageable collection and let you take from them what you will.
For now, cue the highlight reel.
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!
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.
Despite 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 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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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.
Sometime between leaving Ko Phi Phi and arriving in Phuket Town, I became suddenly and violently ill. I stumbled off the boat after holding back a reservoir of vomit for 2 hours, and ran to the bushes to open the spill gate. Disoriented and too nauseous to research a destination, I decided to just follow people from the ferry. Almost everyone was going to a place called Patong Beach. I'd never heard of it, but it must be decent if it was so popular, right? All I needed at this point was an air conditioned room with a bed and a toilet.
I got on an 'ordinary bus' from Phuket Town to Patong. It cost about 20 baht and turned into a school bus halfway through the trip, slowly filling far beyond maximum capacity with kids in lavender and khaki uniforms. They were hanging out the door, piling up in the stairwells, sitting on each other's laps in the aisle, all while screaming and laughing and shoving more kids into the tiniest gaps. The bus was so full it could barely make it up the numerous hills on the way to the opposite coast, sometimes slowing to a near standstill as the diesel engine labored and belched an unhealthy black smoke. Mopeds and pickup trucks flew past us, honking, while a few kids jumped off the bus and ran to the top of the hill to wait for their ride to catch up. When we hit the beach, I squeezed off the rattling, overheated vehicle and fumbled my backpack to the nearest discount guesthouse.
I won't go into the gory details of the following 48 hours - all I'm going to say is that they were spent writhing face-down in bed and making frequent unpleasant trips to the bathroom. When I emerged from that diseased lair, I was surprised to find that Phuket's reputation had preceded itself. My less-than-sunny disposition was compounded by the fact that the island turned out to be a nightmare of corporate tourism. If high season was just kicking off on Ko Phi Phi, it was already in full swing on Phuket. I doubt there had been a low season in at least a decade.
Patong Beach - you can't tell where one Speedo ends and another begins. It's an undulating sea of umbrellas and human flesh, punctuated by hawkers, peddlers, and garbage. It's a game for these people to chuck beer cans and cigarette butts into the ocean. "Ugh, I'm done with this but I don't WANNA walk over to the trash can." I'm not exactly an environmental activist, but come on. Do I have to explain to you why flicking your cigarette butt into a marine sanctuary is a bad idea? There's no driftwood here, but driftplastic - bottles, styrofoam ice chests, fishing nets, and a confetti of multicolored plastic chips litter the beach like gardening mulch. Three decades ago, I bet this landscape was pretty close to flawless. In three more, it'll be a theme park.
The streets in Patong boast an intense palate of odors. In the span of three blocks you could be assaulted with raw sewage, two-stroke engine exhaust, leaking propane, electric ozone due to shoddy wiring, rotting fish behind the seafood market, smoke from distant agricultural fires, vomit, carrion, stray animal feces, and delicious street food. You could give directions based on the smells alone: "Go right at the shit, head straight through the puke, and then hang a left at the gas leak. It should be somewhere between the piss and the hot garbage, but if you hit roadkill, you've gone too far."
A big challenge is framing gawking tourists out of photographs. I'll come across a great vista, but there's an overweight European in a Speedo blocking the shot. A monkey drops down from the canopy and is bombarded with camera flashes, girls screeching, and locals slowly shaking their heads. The curve of this beach would make a great photo, but some idiot left his bag of Doritos in the sand and a 65 year old woman is busy oiling up her loose, leathery skin a bit further down.
I had to get out of Patong as soon as I was feeling better, so I rented a motorbike and drove around the island. There were some nice places, particularly in the south, but I was still hounded by an unfitting sense of commercialism. When they put up a Starbucks, a McDonalds, and a Pizza Hut between a shanty town and a sewage drainage ditch, something is wrong. Priorities seemed completely backwards - a street would have dozens of empty billboards with what could have been tens of thousands of dollars in unpurchased ad space, but a restaurant right below them still has dirt floors.
I had one redeeming night in Patong, the night before I left. The streets were thumping with cheap dance music and I made my way towards the beach where people were buying and setting loose hundreds of sky lanterns. These bamboo and rice paper balloons lift off the ground and gently soar into the air when a small candle is lit at the base. The sky was filled with these miniature hot air balloons for hours. Many got blown into trees or fell onto street tents, causing small fires up and down the main drag. Nobody really seemed to notice or care.
On my one night out, feeling more or less 100%, there was an impressive amount of live music being performed on this stretch of beach. At least a dozen music stages were set up, each featuring its own group of bands and genre of music. You have to give credit to the Thais for knowing how to throw a party. Most of the performers were traditional Thai dance teams, singer-songwriter types playing acoustic guitars, or cheesy synth cover bands butchering the lyrics of classic songs. But one stage was blasting the loudest, shreddingest death metal I've heard in a long time. Their audience was abysmal, but I stuck around, partially out of solidarity with my fellow metal brethren, and partially because death grunts in Thai were hilarious.
When their set wrapped up, I approached the band and introduced myself. They were super friendly, and seemed happy to have someone backstage who actually appreciated metal. I was a welcome break from the tourists in Hawaiian shirts walking by, mock-headbanging, making fun of their music before waddling off to the karaoke-style hacks further down. In a moment of shameless self-promotion, I handed the audio tech my iPod and told him this was my music. Without hesitating, he shrugged and unplugged whatever background tunes they had playing between sets and popped my iPod up on the monitors. He played three or four of my songs on the main stage speakers, volume cranked, while the next band set up. We stumbled through language barriers talking about music, our favorite bands, and what the metal scene was like in Southeast Asia. At one point, I offered to buy the band a round of drinks, only to be informed that none of them drink or smoke. I ended up hanging out with them backstage for two or three hours, a bunch of really cool guys. I left them with a copy of my CD and got a few photos before I headed back to my guesthouse for the night.
It was a good night in a strange place, but tomorrow I was getting off this non-island in search of mellower climes.
It was time to switch coasts. With the monsoons winding up in the gulf, the weather was getting messy. I crossed from the gulf islands to Krabi via Surat Thani which turned out to be a full day of traveling aboard cargo ferries, motorbike taxis, a handfull of tuk-tuk trucks, and one very cold bus. An air conditioned bus sounds like a fantastic idea when you're hauling around a fifty-pound backpack under a blanket of heat and humidity. But when you're immobilized beneath a jet of icy air for five hours, you start to forget what you were so excited about.
Krabi Town itself is friendly but somewhat unremarkable. It straddles the wide and slow Krabi River as it opens into the Phangnga Bay, functioning as a water and land transportation hub for the surrounding area. It's a perfect a gateway to a slew of isolated beaches and a launching point for several popular islands off the Andaman coast. On my list were Ao Nang, Railey, and Ko Phi Phi. I really had no idea what to expect at each of these places - I was making decisions based on on vague recommendations, guidebook entries, and pure speculation. These three places sounded the most legit.
Ao Nang is a series of broad, straight beaches broken by sheer cliffs that rise and fall almost vertically with no warning. Like the dot-dash of morse code, these sequences of beach-cliff blipped down the coast farther than I could see and in an order I couldn't predict. Of course the most popular section of beachfront is heavily developed, as it's the only section of coastline in the area easily accessible by car.
Railey, on the other hand, is only accessible by boat, despite being a part of the mainland. It sits where the inside curves of two beaches meet, creating a narrow spit of sand and jungle. Pushed onto the peninsula are walls of rock the size of skyscrapers, rimmed by dripping limestone caves, framed in dense rainforest, and undercut by a sapphire ocean. Vines, roots, and plant tendrils tie down the rock, as if it would fall over or lift off into the sky without these support cables. Railey West is almost uncomfortably postcard perfect and lined with resorts, while Railey East is a swampy mangrove forest where the cheap huts and good times are.
I spent a few days here on the east side of Railey, rock climbing and hopping around jagged outcroppings to get good shots of the cliffs. One day I hacked up through the jungle to see the legendary 'lagoon' crammed away inside the peak of one of the limestone monoliths. I spent the better part of two hours scaling rocks coated with slippery red mud, clinging to frayed ropes dangling from well worn tree roots, and skirting mud pits that would have swallowed me whole. It was nearly a vertical climb at parts. I was expecting some Fern Gully-esque jungle paradise at the end of all this, but what I got was a glorified muddy pond. It wasn't even really worth photographing. The sights can be pretty hit-or-miss.
I hit Ko Phi Phi next, along with everyone else, right on the cusp of high season. The tiny island has a steep reputation, and justifiably so. As our ferry pulled into the emerald cove of Tonsai Bay, I could stand on the top deck of the boat and make out individual fish swimming around the coral. You know all the photos in the guidebooks and magazines with impossibly blue water and white sand? This is where they were taken. And everyone knows it, which is why they come here in droves.
The SCUBA diving on Phi Phi was top-notch. We took a boat south to some uninhabited rocky islands, Bida Nok and Bida Noi, which looked like two enormous fossilized eggs placed carefully into the sea. As soon as I hit the water, I was overcome with the clarity and vibrancy of the colors that surrounded me. The wall of the island we swam up against was dotted with anemones that represented every possible hue on the continuum of color, and the countless fish that swam amongst them only added to the palette. We saw cuttle fish, color shifting cephalopods, cousins of the octopus, which put on a show of ever-changing patterns and hallucinatory color spasms. Up close, I looked into the eyes of one cuttle fish and caught a glimpse of its bizarre W-shaped pupils before it darted away and rapidly camouflaged itself amongst the coral. We also saw a black-and-white ringed coral snake as its flattened body slithered up and down the rock face. These snakes are highly venomous, and we had to keep our distance.
On Ko Phi Phi, it seemed like every night was Spring Break. The crowd here was young and affluent, two prime ingredients for outrageous partying. Concession stands lined the streets, blatantly selling packages that included a flask of liquor, a can of soda, a bucket to mix them in, and a communal jumbo ice tub. Bars and clubs hire attractive westerners to hand out flyers to whatever event or party was going on that night. I could really rail against the ridiculousness of this situation, but it's hard for me to maintain any legitimacy when I'm technically part of the problem. I'll save the cynicism for another post.
They're building resorts on this island like some sort of twisted tourism arms race. Mutually Assured Accomodation. Like if they stop building, the island will shrink away and disappear. When you build an international airport on a 200 square kilometer jungle-mountain popping out of the ocean, things are going to change.
Samui is a once-pristine slice of place and history that is now in it's death throes. Globalization has claimed another victim, and I feel guilty for contributing to it in some minute way. The island is not necessarily broken or destroyed, just irreperably changed. On the contrary, its economy seems to be thriving. It's a mixed bag - this unique island is being homogenized into the global average, but it's locals get to enjoy a better stardard of living. Locals now have access to modern healthcare, better education, political freedom, and far less manual labor.
If this transition was all bad, the Thai locals would reject it outright. Instead, they reluctantly embrace it, taking the good with the bad. Many are as eager to exploit the scenario as the tourists are. Like most things, the situation is not black and white.
I get the feeling these islands were violently bitchslapped into the 21st century - power lines have been sprayed onto buildings like silly string and the streetlights jut from the ground like unskillfully thrown javelins. This hut has been here for 200 years, but it has a utility box and air conditioning unit bolted into the antque siding. A restaurant isolated at the end of a dirt road has high speed wi-fi access. Strange priorities; internet access before vehicle access.
When I wake up, I have to make a decision: sunblock or bug juice? The white man has just not evolved for this climate. Either UV rays will cancerize the skin, or disease vectors will infect the blood. Hypochondria is one of the many gifts of industrialized society. Luckily, science makes my travels possible.
Science, man! Spray and lather those chemicals and you are invincible! If only they made a spray or ointment against head-on motorbike accidents, the Thai traffic system might get a better wrap.
The gulf coast of the Malay Peninsula is just entering its wet season. Thunderstorms shake the foundations of my guesthouse every morning, making me sleepily wonder if that rushing sound is the ceiling turbofan or a torrential downpour just outside the screen windows. More jarring than any alarm clock is a monsoon thunderclap exploding overhead. Every day, the storms last longer and clash louder. Soon, I'll flee to the Andaman coast, where the wet season is on its way out. Catch the tail end of a few more storms and it's all sunny equatorial climate from there on out.
There is no way this motorbike can jump the three-foot concrete abutment, but it has to. The sun is setting, I'm about 20 klicks from civilization, and the bike rental expires in 45 minutes. So it's come to this - assembling a ramp from rotten boards and flat rocks found in a dry creek bed, battling swarms of mosquitoes as the dinner bell of dusk rings, and attempting to make sense of the brochure map now ruined by sweat and rain. Over dramatic? Absolutely. But that's the way this shit goes down, you know what I'm sayin'?
Over the past two days I rented a Honda POS moped and circumnavigated the island on this baby. Me and Ol' White Lightnin' tore through the red volcanic mud of the highland dirt roads and got bogged down on the fine white coral sand of the Haad Rin beaches. It's a good thing I sprung for the 50 baht insurance policy - I broke off a kickstand, scuffed up the flimsy plastic fenders, and probably tweaked the forks on at least eight potholes taken at speed. I got lost a half-dozen times, almost collided with a few pickup trucks, and found a handful of remote vistas untouched by tourism. It was a blast.
Together, me and Lightnin' dominated the inconsistent roads of this island. We hit an ancient Chinese temple, an elephant trekking camp, a coconut plantation, some kind of bizarre ecotourist-trap zipline enterprise, a dozen coves and beaches, and countless Indiana Jones-style deep jungle locales. This place belongs in a museum, if you catch my reference. The roads would go from Southern California superhighway to medieval dirt with no warning. I got stuck on the wrong side of one of these transitions, coming up from a washed out dirt trail to a steel-reinforced concrete freeway. The Thai government either ran out of money halfway through building this road, or they gave up and hit the beach instead.
Everywhere I go gets progressively sleepier, from the madness and confusion of Bangkok, to the lively small island life of Ko Tao, to the deserted beaches and jungles of Ko Phangan. The island's huge resorts, bars, and restaurants are empty. It's a ghost town populated by well-weathered locals and quiet couples searching for a storybook island getaway. They have the facilities to host what seems like thousands of visitors, but they sit maybe 5 to 10% full. The island is dead.
This might have something to do with the ongoing floods in Bangkok and northern Thailand. The outlook of that city gets worse and worse with every storm, and the locals here are riveted to the Thai news channels showing geysers of brown water drowning the crowded streets.
Once a month, Ko Phangan is bombarded with partiers on a pilgrimage to a fabled boozefest on the island's southern peninsula. The infamous Full Moon Party is a study in irresponsibility, intoxication, and the types who prey on these weaknesses. They've written novels and based films around this event, that's how ridiculous it is.
But for now, the bucket stands are left to become driftwood. The resorts operate with skeleton crews. And the restaurants are content to let you wait until a commercial break to pass out menus.
It was not my stop. It was actually about 200 kilometers north of my stop, but plans change quickly when you have no destination. I had taken the sleeper train out of Bangkok with plans to go to Surat Thani and catch a ferry to Ko Phangan. It took me about 30 seconds after the train left the station to realize that I was in Chumphon, not Surat Thani. This is a lot of place names to be throwing around, but let's just say I was very much not where I intended to be.
After riding on the back of someone's motorcycle to the money exchange kiosk, helping a Thai gradeschooler with her English homework, and unfolding my giant 'look-at-me-I'm-a-tourist' map, I bought a ferry ticket. Ten minutes later I was in the back of a military-style truck with benches parallel to the road and big canvas flaps for a roof, riding to the docks along with the aforementioned German brothers, an American dive instructor, and a Sweedish bartender, all of whom I'd shared drinks with at some point on the train. We were heading to Ko Tao, a place I'd never heard of.
This all turned out to be hugely in my favor. Josephene, the bartender, was in with a diving outfit on the island, and hooked the Germans and I up with accomodation and dive trips for 4,000 Baht. That's about $130, and it included a beachfront bungalow to crash in for five nights, equipment rental, air, taxis to and from the docks, and boat fare to the dive sites. We did a deep water dive, a long and shallow reef dive, a remote shoal dive, a night dive, and a wreck dive, all in the course of two days. Our guide was a British expat who has lived on the small island for four years with his Thai wife and newborn.
It was an incredible deal and some of the best diving I've ever done - wetsuitless, breathtaking, teeming with color and life. Turtles, eels, irridescent stingrays, octopi, giant barracuda, towering coral formations, bioluminescent plankton, and billions of psychedelic fish of all sizes and shapes. The wreck of the HTMS Sattakut, however, was the highlight. Formerly the the USS LCI-739 this WWII infantry landing craft was sold to the Thai Royal Navy shortly after the war ended. It was recently sunk in June, skuttled as an artificial reef and for technical wreck dive training.
We approached the massive ship from the bow, so that when it's threatening silhouette came into view, the twin cannons commanded your attention, projecting beyond the broad deck at uneasy angles. We swam through the bulkheads of the ship's bridge, over the landing ramps that put troops on Iwo Jima, and around the rear cannon before circling back near the ships hull, peering through holes where the steel had been broken and rusted through.
The diving was phenomenal, but staying in a tiny beach bungalow with three loose-canon German brothers was a whole different experience. Two of them spoke very good English with a thick Bavarian accent, while the youngest and craziest of the brothers spoke hardly any. He spent most of the time trying to teach me the filthiest German phrases he could think up.
They enjoyed openly discussing their level of horniness and how much they love taking a shit, always speaking at full volume and wanting to "make a party." Three days in a row, Manfred was too hung over to dive. I'd tell a joke, get three blank stares, then thirty seconds later when they finished translating it amongst themselves, they'd howl with laughter and buy another round. Whenever I would introduce myself to someone, they'd crack up at my name. "JT? Like a J and a T? Those are just letters! His name is just letters!"
At the end of one dive, Andi, the oldest brother, fully inflated his BCD at 10 meters (33 feet!) and shot to the surface like a god damn cork. The dive master was furious, and for good reason, explaining how dangerous this was due to the expansion of air at different pressures and the possibility of a lung embolism or decompression sickness. He turned out to be fine and went diving the next day, but the dive master had to sit him down and explain in protracted, simplified terms with full sign language that he needed to ascend SLOWLY SLOWLY SLOWLY. He did the same thing again the next dive, this time at 5 meters, and wasn't allowed on the dive boat after that.
Andi, Christian, and Manfred were great guys to hang out and drink a few beers with, but they were terrible house mates, especially considering how we only had two beds between the four of us. They were really nice guys and very welcoming, but it got a little too cozy and I had to get my own place after three nights.
The next two nights were much mellower and I got to enjoy the dives more. I walked the entire length of Sairee beach twice, swimming when I felt like it, eating when I was hungry, drinking when I was thirsty, and sleeping when I was tired. It was comfortable, but time to move on.