Barefoot in Burma Part II

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The divers loaded onto the dinghy at dusk, a gray sky masking the setting sun. They joked with one another to distort the clear sense of uneasiness in the air.  The sign at the border promised, “we warmly and kindly welcome tourists”, but the gruff looks on the faces of the guards said otherwise.

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My grim imagining from the dock in Ranong was swiftly becoming reality; our journey ashore bared a frightening resemblance to being kidnapped by the Burmese government!  We filed into the customs office and watched our passports be casually slung aside while we stood to get photographed.  No one spoke or smiled; the tension was palpable.

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When it seemed we were free to go, we swiftly returned to the dinghy.  As we started the motor, a few guards came shouting after us, one of whom jumped into the boat:  this was Nyein, our Burmese guide, who would accompany us on our trip.  I could tell by the look on Dani’s face that this was not a protocol he had ever seen before.  Nyein was there to act as our guide and translator, as proof of our allowance into the country’s waters, both for our protection and their own.  Captain Wat was commanded to remove his Thai flag and put up a Burmese one, which he was visibly disgruntled about.

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Despite the drama of the day, we finally sailed off into open waters.  Nyein, who turned out to be a very nice man, drank Singha beer with us as we relaxed into our new home with this motley crew.  Captain Wat didn’t talk much.  Our exchanges consisted  mostly of Sa-wat-dii kha and khop khun kha (Thai for hello and thank you) when purchasing beer from his special refrigerator.

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The ship’s fabulous cook, Swing, served us the best Thai food I ate in Thailand (next to Mrs. Jip’s papaya spicy salad).  Our dinner that first night consisted of prawn fried rice and Swing’s speciality: coconut milk soup with whole straw mushrooms, scallions, and an assortment of julienne vegetables. Another standout included soft tofu curry over rice with cabbage, aubergine, straw mushrooms, and whole quail eggs.  With our evening beers, Swing made us a special bar snack that Steffi and Boris, the German couple aboard, had eaten in Chumphon a few years prior: roasted cashews sprinkled, while hot, with salt, lime juice, chopped red chilies, sliced red onion, and chopped scallions.

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We sailed on like this, eating amazing Thai food, drinking Captain Wat’s beers, and, most importantly, diving four times a day for a week.  Each morning we awoke to the breathtaking sunrise over open water, and each evening we finished our last dive to the brilliance of the sunset.

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Throughout this time, the only other boats we spotted were local fishing boats, the fisherman sometimes waving to us as we passed by.  The diving was not easy, and we often dove with much current, needing to drift dive sites. By the end, I had 28 new dives under my belt and saw my first turtle (which Steffi said was requisite for any dive trip). The reef was brilliant, full of gorgeous sea fans, with none of the evident damage I later witnessed in The Philippines.

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The boat usually carries 12 divers, so with only the four of us we had reign of the ship.  The main deck consisted of a large dining table (three times the size of Swing’s kitchen), a center console with stereo, books in German, hot/cold water and snacks, and a main room with window seats and a big lounge area.

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The best place to sleep, though, was on the sun deck, because from there you can see the stars.  More than I’ve seen in so long, even though the moon was only a few days old and a small sliver in the sky.  On The Flying Carpet, for the first time in my life, I truly slept under the stars, not just in a tent.  I awoke every few hours to look up at the luminous sky of bright stars; they seemed near enough to touch, and I felt safe and close to home on the roof of a ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea.

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Barefoot in Burma Part I

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I hurried into the waves with CoCo, the golden retriever, splashing at my heels.  The rest of the Hornbill Bungalows crew joined me, helping to lift my luggage onto the return boat to Ranong.  Parting with the paradise of Koh Chang Noi, its golden sands, and the new family I found there distracted me; it wasn’t until halfway to Ranong that I realized I’d jumped on the boat without my shoes.  In my ephemeral time on this tiny Thai island, footwear became utterly irrelevant.

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From Ranong, I was to board The Flying Carpet, on which I’d spend seven days diving in Burmese waters.  The dive boat owner, Mr. Frank, was a Koh Chang resident and one of many friends to my Hornbill Bungalows host, Mr. Ao.  A German, Mr. Frank retired from his career as a businessman to run a dive shop on the island.  Applying for a visa to Myanmar is still a difficult process, but, through some unspecified connections, Mr. Frank is granted 7 day dive visas for patrons of his boat.  With The Flying Carpet, I was given the opportunity to witness reef and sea life that has been primarily unseen by foreign divers for decades.  Not only was I new to diving, but I had also never lived on a boat before; once again, an irresistible adventure presented itself!

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I docked, barefoot, in Ranong with the dive master and three divers I would be sharing the week with.  All were German apart from my Belgian dive buddy, Ruel.  Our gang of Europeans spent the sweltering day waiting for this infamous, illusive Mr. Frank.  He finally showed up, hours late, looking like a pirate in cargo shorts, a faded T-shirt and a gold hoop earring visible through his long, scraggly hair.  This was not the way I imagined a German financier to dress for a meeting with Thai government officials, and I began to wonder what kind of rag-tag crew I had thrown my lot in with.

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We finally arrived at the pier in the late afternoon, abandoned apart from The Flying Carpet. Our captain, the austere Captain Wat, docked the boat at an impossible angle, so that boarding became impossible.  He told Mr. Frank that he would build steps for us while our group waited to be released by Thai officials, who were to meet us at the pier with our stamped passports.  Walking the long, deserted dock made me imagine I was a Burmese prisoner of scuba, crossing the border back into Thailand, while officers stood with guns at my back.

Eventually, the four customs officers appeared in a silver SUV, opening and closing each of the doors in unison.  Without much ceremony, and certainly without use of firearms, we were free to go.  The “steps” Captain Wat promised in fact consisted of a wooden plank, leaned at a precarious angle, a 50 meter drop from the dock to the ship’s sun deck.  At this moment, I knew exactly what kind of rag-tag crew I was dealing with, but my excitement mounted.  We all crossed safely into the arms of our crew: pirate-fashioned Thai men who were to help us with our dive gear and catch fish for the captain in their downtime.  The Flying Carpet itself is a very charming boat, with blue and yellow painted panels and a flower offering to Buddha at the captain’s bow.  I felt at home the moment I stepped on board.  Even our tiny cabins, which consisted of small, stacked cubbies that only fit a full mattress, charmed me.

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Before we could sail off into the Burmese sunset, however, we still had to make it through customs at the Myanmar border.  As we entered Burmese waters, I watched a group of four men approach us in their dinghy.  Why so many customs officers always seemed necessary in these situations was beyond me, but I presume it was for intimidation factor.  We waited on the sun deck while Dani, our dive master and guide, spoke with the officials at our communal table.  After a few minutes, Dani came to speak to us, informing that we’d all have to go ashore.  The Burmese government was already keeping our passports, would they be keeping us as well?

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To read about part two of the dive trip, keep following Chomp Around the World!

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Two Chomps in Thailand

Here is the next chapter in my Southeast Asian adventure, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !

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I awoke at sunrise and walked out of my bungalow directly on to the golden sands of the Hornbill Bungalows’ private beach. CoCo, the family’s golden retriever, was the only other creature stirring; we sat in the sand together, my feet buried in the gold and his paws on my legs.  Looking out across the pristine Andaman Sea, I found the Thailand I was searching for: a deserted, unspoiled island without Wi-Fi, modern plumbing, air conditioning and, most importantly, tourists.  Electricity is only run on generators for a few hours each night.  For me, this is paradise.

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 I was spoiled by Vietnam and Laos, both of which I visited during the low season for tourism.  The Thai islands have long been vacation destinations for an array of travelers, especially popular among Europeans, Russians, and Chinese tourists.  It only takes one step on those white sand beaches to understand what has made Thailand so loved by visitors, but many of the country’s more beautiful islands have turned into overcrowded tourist traps or been spoiled by an excess of partying Farang (Thai slang for western tourists).

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Despite my initially vitriolic attitude, I came to find that a more authentic trip to Thailand is still attainable.  There is no need to waste your precious vacation time following the crowd, and who better to advise on the unblemished islands left to explore than the locals. I took advice from two expat restaurateurs in Bangkok who have lived in Thailand for over ten years. The owner of the café Chomp – the name catching my attention for obvious reasons – drew me a map of the best islands from her twelve years of experience in the country.

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 This map led me on an overnight barge journey, on which I slept in a cargo hold full of bunk beds and had my most comfortable sleep in weeks.  After traveling across the peninsula, I took a small commuter boat which dropped me directly on to the golden sands of Koh Chang Noi (little Chang island) and the Hornbill Bungalows.  Not to be confused with the larger Koh Chang on the Gulf, this infinitesimal, elephant-shaped island is home to a tiny population of Thai locals and resident expats.

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 The sand truly is gold – not the yellow beaches of the Hamptons or the white sands of Mexico and most of Thailand’s tainted islands. On the private beach of the Hornbill Bungalows, I paid ten dollars a night for golden sand and crisp blue water the temperature of a warm bath.  After one afternoon, I understood why the lovely owners, Mr. Ao and Mrs. Jib, said they never wanted to return to Bangkok.

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 Prior to my stint in utopia, I spent a week on Koh Tao, the diving capital of the world.  I was warned by my Chomp counterpart that, while it is teeming with Farang, the island is still worth a visit for the price and ease of getting certified; with more dive shops than any other island, it only takes one week to achieve an advanced 30m (98ft) diving certification.  Apart from the lure of diving, the small island still maintains its beauty and laid-back atmosphere despite its touristic charm.  It is a running joke/truth in the expat community that the island is impossible to leave, and I certainly began to feel that way in my final days there.  Those who do stay are some of the craziest, funniest people I’ve ever met, truly a welcoming and kind family of stowaways.

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A week after pulling myself away from Koh Tao, lazily sitting by the sea on Koh Chang Noi, I watched a dive boat glide off the water and onto the shore.  Mr. Ao acted as my tour guide for the day and drove me around the tiny island where we swam in the reservoir and shared a beer with the general store owners.  As we sat on Ao Yai, the main beach, and watched the ship anchor, I sensed my ephemeral trip to paradise was coming to an end.  Mr. Ao called out in greeting to the men disembarking the boat, who had just returned from a dive trip to the Similan Islands.  My recently developed interest in diving sparked up a conversation; the next morning, I was picked up by the same boat, now headed for the near shores of Myanmar and a seven day dive trip to the country’s beautifully preserved reef.  I waved at my Hornbill hosts until the last glimpse of gold was out of sight, then looked out at the horizon of the Andaman; from this moment onward, I realized, diving was about to become a focal point of my trip to the east.

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More to come on my dive trip in Burma at Chomp Around the World