A taste of "island life" in Koh Tao, Thailand
First, a general update
Dreams do come true. I remember before this trip we had a bit of a dilemma: I wanted to go live in China for a while and travel, and Jordi wanted to travel. Since it was two of us 'pro' and nobody really 'con', traveling it was. As it turns out, it was only an illusion that we had to choose. We visited China in the very beginning of our trip and left it with a feeling that it would be great to go back and finally get behind the facade exposed to tourists. That feeling kept lingering on in our subconscious mind, until we started talking about it and gradually shaped it into a plan. We did the research (anybody out there who still remembers how we did it before internet?), exchanged emails, received a snail mail and a week ago finally received our 3-months, double-entry visa for the People's Republic of China! So, as I said, dreams do come true, and on September 6th we are going to China!!! And here is the best part: we are going there to study the ancient martial art of kung-fu!!! We'll be living in the coastal province of Shandong (roughly half way between Beijing and Shanghai) for at least three months and studying kung-fu at the Ren Shi Gong Fu Family School.
In those three (maybe more) months, we are hoping to get a general idea of kung-fu (Jordi uses different terminology that involves "kicking" and specific parts of my body :-), also learn more Chinese (to a level where we are comfortable talking to people), and most importantly, discover the real China. And this latter is not an easy task, as there are so many versions of China around the world: the "undemocratic and economically threatening" China through the eyes of American and European analysts on corresponding TV channels, the official version of modern "carefully selected China" of the viewers of the English-language CCTV channel or the Chinese pavillion at the Shanghai Expo, the "dazzling tourist China" that blinds multiple foreign visitors by how modern it looks, the "forward-leaping China" of some official brochures I got from the Chinese Embassy in Belarus when I was doing research on China for the international economics course back at university, the "doomed China" of the book we just read by Gordon G. Chang who in 2002 was predicting the collapse of China, the "mysterious China" of movies about kung-fu, or the "bloody China" of Bertolucci's "Last Emperor"... Oh, so many versions of China, all so different, and mostly so one-sided. When we go, we hope to discover the China of the people who actually live in it, and something tells me that it's going to be a very contradictory and diverse China, and that's the process of discovering it is going to be real fun :-)!
That's the biggest news so far. And btw, it was quite a challenge to get such a long visa and we feel lucky we managed: it took an official invitation letter with pretty red stamps from the school, two visits to the embassy in Bangkok (the first time we didn't get farther than "you can't get a study visa") and a really long talk with a supervisor during our second visit where we tried to make her understand why we should get more than 1 month for our business visa (type F). Well, we are happy we succeeded, as it would have been a real nuisance to have to extend our visa every month before we would reach the limit of extensions.
And there is another update: now that we are about to leave SEA, we decided to take another 10-day course in Vipassana meditation. This time we will do it in Malaysia, close to KL, where we are right now and just like on our last visit here spending time studying Chinese, catching up on some reading and working a little bit on some "pet projects" of ours.
Our "island life" in Koh Tao, Thailand
And finally, here is a short update of what we were doing in Thailand in the last 1.5 months. Back when we were travelling Thailand, we also decided (just like in case of China) that it would be nice to go back to that country with no more pressure and hurry to travel it and have a taste of "settled island life" for a while, to either get it out of our system or maybe discover that it suits us just fine. If during this "beach life" experiment we were to discover that we really like it, we would then know that when we go back to Spain after this trip, one of the first things to unpack would be the "500 islands" book my colleagues gave me back in Ciber as one of their awesome farewell gifts, but this time we would be browsing through it not out of idle curiousity and for pretty pictures, but with a serious mission of choosing a place to live :-)
Well, anyway, on our first trip to Thailand, as we were passing through Koh Tao, which is the world's biggest PADI factory, we asked around in the multiple diving centres whether they need instructors and the unison answer was "yes, sure, just leave your CV with your Thai number and the languages you can teach in and we'll call you, and btw, the best season for Spanish is July-August". Well, we replanned our itinerary in such a way that by beginning of July we were back in Thailand.
First stop in Bangkok - applying for Jordi's new passport:
We first made a stop in Bangkok to apply for a new passport for Jordi, which was really easy (as to mine, which has almost zero pages left, it can only be issued in Belarus, which is now an official destination of this rtw trip).
Arriving in Koh Tao and looking for a place:
After 1.5 days in Bangkok we came to Koh Tao. In the first couple of days we did the research about the monthly prices for rooms and bungalows and after comparing everything that was available at that time, settled on the unbeatable offer from the Kanokwan guesthouse: spacious clean tiled room with big fridge, TV and nice clean shower, plenty of air, huge adjacent balcony and nice views (mountain on the left, sea on the right and a lot of "action" down, at the main crossroads of the Sairee beach area), 5 minutes on foot from the beach as well as all the restaurants, shops and a huge supermarket. All of this - for 7 thousand baht a month (about 175 euro). And oh yeah, the package "included" 2 very cute cats, one small (and not very well socialized) dog, and one adorable tiny thai baby, all of whom were always there at the small informal reception of our hotel. The cats were a bit timid at the beginning but by the end of our stay were regularly coming to our room for dinner and occasionally for breakfast. The dog was never really happy to see anyone (maybe not even the owner). And the baby was so cute: always in his granddad's arms, his face an exact tiny copy of his granddad's, the old guy always looking so genuinely happy and proud as he was lulling his grandson :-)
Second trip to Bangkok - we pick up Jordi's mum Joaquima and try to apply for a student Chinese visa:
In the meantime, because it was summer vacation for Jordi's mum who teaches kids back in a Terrassa primary school, we suggested that she should come and stay with us in Koh Tao. While we were waiting for her to come and for the diving schools to start calling, we spent the time learning web-development and Photoshop while making this website. And in another two weeks Jordi's mum was taking her flight to Thailand! We picked her up in Bangkok, where we also got Jordi's freshly made passport (all the way from Spain by diplomatic post) and also tried to apply for the Chinese visa. I already mentioned the result of that first attempt. What I didn't mention is how frustrating it is to have to deal in this life with "blank" people, that is, people who are like puppets, with no mind of their own and no knowledge and decision-making capacity outside the few simple work instructions they perform day after day... The girl who was reviewing our application on our first visit to the embassy was like that. Oh, how lucky for us that the girl from the second visit to the embassy wasn't!
Back to Koh Tao and our blissful little routine of "island living":
In Koh Tao Jordi's mum joined us in our blissful little routine of "island living". We would wake up to the glorious sunshine and gentle breeze outside, do a meditation, have a leasurely breakfast at the balcony that has great views (remember? mountain on the left, sea on the right :-), then work for about 6-7 hours interrupted by a lunch break, then just as the sun was starting to set go have a swim in the incredibly warm sea (warm like a bathtub!) while watching the sunset from the water... Those were the days, my friend!.. Yeah, it sure felt like "they'd never end", but they did. After a couple of weeks had passed and Jordi still hadn't got any calls, we settled to that "island working and living" regime happily and irreversibly. Later we started working on some projects of ours and after another couple of weeks it was time to leave Koh Tao for Bangkok, where we still needed to apply for the legendary Chinese visa.
Third time in Bangkok - applying for a business visa for China and sightseeing in and around Bangkok:
While in Bangkok, we visited the Royal Palace, as well as made two day trips: one to the Floating Market in Damnoen Saduak and another one to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. And oh, those daytrips were sooo comfortable! To save time and Jordi's mum from heat, we went to both places by taxi. The taxi driver who took us there was a really great guy, with such an awesome level of English (legacy of his visiting his sister who lives in US). Lucky for us, he also likes to talk, so those two taxi trips were like audio excursions to the life of simple Thai people.
Jordi's mum left Thailand on the very eve of the Queen's birthday (and Thai Mother's day), when the main streets of Bangkok were all decorated with beautiful lights (like European cities for Christmas) and a search for a house or building not adorned with a portrait of His or Her Majesties (or both) would probably not produce any results (that's how locals love their monarchs!). We left the next day, on the actual Queen's birthday. However, for anyone who ever witnessed Koninginnedag in the Netherlands, with all the orange clothes and merry-making, the Thai version of celebrating Queen's birthday is nowhere like that. To start with, selling alchohol is prohibited... I wonder what the subjects of the Dutch Queen say about "no beer" rule for their Koninginnedag celebration :-)
And oh, I forgot to mention: they did call Jordi from some diving centres after all, but alas too late (for whatever reason, we started seeing a lot of Spanish tourists only in August). At that time we were already in Bangkok, in our last sightseeing week. So although this beach life was initially all planned around diving, it ended up being more about "Web 2.0". The only thing from this month that was about diving is Jordi's getting certified as an Aqualung Repair Technitian as a result of an intensive two-day course, which means now he can repair and service all our regulators back home :-)... As to our overall feeling about whether "island life" is something for us, well, like with any other experiences in life, this one is also like a painting in impressionist style (you cannot really "see" when you are too close), so I guess it's too early to draw any conclusions.
And of course, a picture is worth a thousand of words, so here are a few thousand extra words about our "island life" in Thailand.
Bangkok, first time
Monks shopping for laptops and mobiles in Pantip Plaza:
View from Kanokwan GH, Koh Tao (the one on the left :-):
Palm tree in Sairee Beach:
Jordi's Aqualung Repair Technician course, Koh Tao:
Second trip to Bangkok
Buying rambutan from a Thai family who had this adorable monkey as a pet (seriously, it was the first monkey we saw on this trip that was actually really sweet and happy, as opposed to mean and miserable):
Mantis performance on the train to Bangkok ( the guy never woke up although the mantis spent at least half an hour playing with his hair before he left or was blown away by the wind :-):
Bangkok again, second time:
Back to Koh Tao
Koh Tao cats:
Koh Tao baby:
Koh Tao sunset:
Jordi on a bike:
Koh Tao viewpoint:
A shop guard in Koh Tao:
One day we found this monstrous-sized lizard in our balcony:
Jordi on the beach:
Third trip to Bangkok, the sightseeing week
Train to Bangkok (Jordi ended up barricaded behind all the boxes of some passenger we never met :-):
A street stall in Bangkok:
Pantip again (buying an external harddrive for Jordi's mum):
A tuk-tuk, Bangkok:
This cat and frog were playing like best buddies (I am sure they were just playing, as the frog kept coming back to the cat :-):
A lunch break in Bangkok - all the street stalls get really busy as the locals flock there to get their noodle soups:
A visit to the Immigration office in Bangkok - it was recently moved so we found ourselves in this huge building that hosts almost (or maybe every) ministry of Thailand:
Bamboo rice vendor Bangkok:
The Floating Market in Damnoen Saduak
This lady with the pancakes was incredible - so genuinely kind, and smiling, and friendly (which is not so usual any more in tourist-flooded Thailand). In the half an hour we spent around her eating her delicious pancakes it was such a delight to watch her wonderful facial expressions and pancake-making skills. Check out in the photos below of just a few of those expressions:
We've always wanted to get a couple of straw hats as souvenirs. Since we are about to leave SEA, we finally "surrendered" and got a couple to ship home (our only purchase in this market, apart from the pancakes :-):
Visit to the Royal Palace, Bangkok
A noodle stall in front of Royal Palace, Bangkok:
Thai soldiers marching for the funeral ceremony in the Royal Palace:
The Royal Palace, Bangkok:
Day trip to Autthaya
Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya:
Phra Mongkhon Bophit, Ayutthaya:
Kids on a school trip to Phra Mongkhon Bophit, Ayutthaya:
You can stop for this exotic snack - grilled rice field rats - on the road from Autthaya to Bangkok (Jordi wanted to try but due to unanimous protest around him ended up not doing it, which he is still sulking about :-):
Khao San road, Bangkok:
"Behind" a Bangkok street stall:
An actual palace with "101 dalmatians" next to Thara GH, Bangkok:
Saying bye to Jordi's mum at the Bangkok airport:
This little monk was buying a manga at a 7Eleven at Khao San road, Bangkok! :-)
Ever-busy Hua Lamphong train station, Bangkok:
Train Bangkok - Hat Yai:
This Thai lady on the train treeted us to a full home-made meal of rice chicken and dessert of local rice cakes!
There was not a lot of rain during our stay in Thailand (although it's supposed to be rain season) but as we were leaving it was raining really hard. This cloud was like a giant airborne wave:
T-shirts, Khao San road, Bangkok
(Jordi got the one with the communist "party" :-)