Monday, December 30, 2013

Dec 30 2013 - Bangkok (mostly) peaceful protests

Olga and I had been thinking about taking a cooking class together in San Francisco, so when we had an opportunity to take a Thai cooking class on this trip, we jumped at it! After a little research, we decided to join May Kaidee's class at her vegetarian restaurants. May and her assistants did most of the prep work, so all we had to do was throw the ingredients into a wok in the right order. At times, it seemed like May almost intentionally left out a few small directions so we wouldn't be able to compete with her :) For example, one ingredient in the Pad Thai was "prepared tofu" - how did she prepare it? May will happily explain if you ask, but you have to keep on your toes! May replaces fish and oyster sauces with her own custom mushroom sauce, this too took a little bit of explanation after I noticed it wasn't explained in the take-home cookbook she gave us. I'm mostly kidding though, we had fun in the class, and once we get home and manage to find the ingredients (do they have Kaffir Lime leaves and Galangal in California?), we'll have fun trying to recreate the recipes!

May Kaidee has a certain
je ne sais quoi about her!
Best Pad Thai I've ever had! (it's
so much better without the fish sauce!)

On our way to the class, we walked past what seemed like a big party, so we headed back in that direction to see what was going on. It turns out it was a part of the government protests in Bangkok. From what we could see, there were several locations throughout the historical region of the city that where various 'protests' were occurring. Most of the protests we saw were more like festival concerts, with musicians playing and speaking from stages, Jumbotrons everywhere, locals sitting around reading, listening, chatting, and eating... At one point, we stood at an intersection and could hear two competing protests with Chinese/Thai traditional instruments blasting from both sides.

Why go home to pick up your camo
when you can buy it at the protest
One of the protest concerts

From what we could see, protesters were enjoying themselves. We received a lot of smiles, waves, thumbs ups, and the like. There were plenty of booths and volunteers handing out water, blankets, food rations, and first aid supplies - but there were also plenty enterprising vendors selling junk food, toys, trinkets, souvenirs, and camouflage military-style clothes!

Tents, tents everywhere!
Very long queue for free chips

As we passed through one small protest at the end of the parade grounds, and while we lingered for a moment trying to get our heads around the eclectic music being sung from stage, a Thai local came over to Olga and warned us to go back to our hotel by 10pm. I thought maybe he know of a specific and credible threat, Olga thought they were just looking out for naive tourists. I don't know if this is related, but there was a shooting at one of the protest that night according to this article.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dec 29 2013 - Disembarking the Oktavia for Khao Lak

A friendly turtle swam over to Olga (top right) as
she returned to the boat from a Snorkel excursion
The makeup of the onboard crew was interesting. The local Thai crew (who are legally required for foreign-owned diveboats) are hired for a year at a time, the Trip Leader and the lead instructor are hired for the season, and the other dive guides are hired for a few weeks at a time. It seems to take a ton of hard work and good fortune to make a career as a dive guide. First you have to select a touristy area with great diving and a specific high season (and preferably a second location in the opposite season). You need to spend months renting rooms a week at a time, pedaling your CV to every dive company in a particular town. When you actually get selected, you work 6 days a week, getting about 18 hours off before you are picked up and taken back to the boat for another 6 days. Meanwhile you are offline and out of phone service - which certainly doesn't help your ability to find the next gig when these few weeks wind down.

Air pocket in a cave 20M underwater
Hike to a scenic viewpoint on Khao Similan island

Guides who are fortunate enough to be hired often find it is for seemingly superficial reasons. Often it's not because of your work history, references, or dive record. Usually it's due to factors such as the languages you speak (English is absolutely mandatory - and this boat was heavy on German-speaking tourists as well), whether you end up having drinks with one of the fellow crewmembers at a bar, how persistent you are at asking your CV to be put on the top of the list, whether you answer your cell phone the precise moment they have more passengers sign up to dive... That being said, it seems like a great line of work for somebody who is flexible about how often they work, enjoy a malleable corporate structure, don't mind being thousands of miles away and offline from their friends and family, and relish teaching / guiding. I have one or two people in mind who would be perfect for this lifestyle!

Dive buddies Dave and Woo
Pufferfish on the Boon Song wreck

One principle of diving is that you don't do it just to do it. You don't do a deep dive (greater than 19 meters) just because you can. You don't dive a wreck just because it's cool. But after 19 dives in 5 days, and 12 hours of silent underwater time to reflect, I started to realize that part of the reason I do it is just that - because the technology of breathing underwater and crawling the ocean floor is pretty damn cool. They say you shouldn't dive a wreck just because it's there - you're supposed to focus on the fish and wildlife - but I find the rusting metal and the history of the ship to be just as compelling. That being said, the fish at the Boon Song Wreck near Khao Lak were extraordinary - certainly the largest and most abundant fish I have ever seen. Is it because a wreck is not a naturally-occurring location? That Mother Nature herself didn't design a natural predator for this area? Because the area is closer to the shore and better patrolled by police? (we had seen illegal fishing boats in the Similan Islands, which are a poorly protected Thai National Park).

Camouflaged Scorpionfish on the
wreck (can you spot it???)

Boon Song Wreck - largest fish
I have ever seen!

Scuba rules require divers to wait 24 hours from the last dive before getting onto an airplane, in order to give the Nitrogen a chance to exit your system. Otherwise you can get The Bends in the air, similar to the effect of surfacing too quickly from a deep dive. Fully aware and understanding of the danger, a small part of me thinks the 24-hour requirement was concocted as a compromise with tourism officials in beach towns as a way to get liveaboard divers to spend a night in their town. After 5 vivid, wondrous, and (at times) grueling days on the sea, we disembarked to the nearest town: Khao Lak. The town seems to be hugely popular with German tourists, as most signs were in Thai and German, with a heavy dose of English sprinkled in for the rest of the world.

Massage, Laundry, and liquor bottles of Gasoline
Our hotel was a block from the Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak. The entire beachfront (about a mile deep) is brand new, a reminder of the horrific devastation caused by the earthquake and Tsunami on December 26 2004. With this in mind, we enjoyed swimming in the Andaman Sea one last time (yes we spent our first day on land back in the water!) with our thoughts on the 250,000 who perished. Olga does a "deeper deep" into the tsunami experience in her blog. There was a little shop next to our hotel offering massage, laundry, and gasoline - we had use for two out of the three :) When diving, you use some muscles you didn't know you had, other leg muscles get abused a bit, so the forceful Thai Massage really came in handy. I feel we might need another or two before we leave Thailand!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dec 28 2013 - Diving the Similan Islands in Thailand

Sunrise in the Similans

With the goal of scuba diving and snorkeling in the Similan Islands of Thailand, we set off Saturday morning on a 11 hour flight to Tokyo, 7 hour flight to Bangkok, overnight layover, 1 hour+ flight to Phuket, 1 hour+ taxicab ride to Khao Lak, and overnight on the dive boat to the Similan Islands. Was it worth the effort? It was worth every KM of travel, every second of lost sleep, every GB of photo space...

Great snorkeling!

I had gone on 16 dives before - including a few while I was initially getting certified - but after getting to the boat and meeting the other 20 passengers, I quickly realized I was a novice and would require a little patience from everybody. Not only did I have a very small number of dives (16 compared to hundreds and thousands for everybody else), but also I hadn't dived since December 2012 - everybody else on the boat had dove sometime in 2013. I was quickly buddied up with a South Korean gentleman named Woo. We were a good match - his desire was to slowly and methodically test out his new camera equipment and practice taking high-quality deep underwater photographs - and I was advancing my knowledge of diving techniques.

Found Nemo!

We were also matched with Tom, a kindly but strict dive instructor/guide from Berlin. When he "yells" at you with menacing hand gestures 25 meters underwater, you can easily imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type guy breaking your back over his knee. His admonitions are as strong as his praise - the joy of seeing a rare beautiful fish is as strong as the desire for Tom to flash you the Ok sign when he sees you handle a difficult situation under pressure.

Moray Eel on a night dive - we were later given safety briefing about big teeth! :)

Other than Woo, Olga, and myself, all other passengers were from two distinct regions: US American military personnel stationed at the military base in Okinawa Japan (there were 4 separate couples/families from there) and Europeans (3 groups of German, French, and Swiss tourists). Olga and I had the distinct honor of being the only Americans who braved the trip from America.

Crab caught on a fishing line during night dive (Tom freed it)

Since we would be making 19 dives across 5 days and nights, I decided to take the opportunity to get my Advanced Open Water certification. This means I would partake in - and be certified for - Buoyancy, Navigation, Deep Dives, Night Dives, and Wreck Dives. It also meant I had to do a lot of studying on my vacation, taking an average of one class/test a day. It was great having *everyone* on the boat available to give advice on passing the tests and advancing my skills. I also watched as they dove, trying to pick up tips and tricks from the experts.

Taking the buoyancy test (Left-Right: Dave watching, Tom instructing, Woo photographing fish)

The main reason people dive The Similan Islands is to see exotic fish. I rented a small point-and-shoot camera from the boat, and attached here are a few of the photos I took. Many of my fellow passengers have multi-thousand-dollar camera rigs that are almost as large as they are. It turned out that, when they weren't giving me tips on buoyancy or discussing their camera accessories, these passengers were quite knowledgeable about fish, and taught us all about scorpionfish, lionfish, Napoleanfish, oriental sweetlips, nudibranches, pufferfish, and all sorts of other undersea life we experienced.

Lovely photo Woo took using his fancy camera equipment :)
Please check out Olga's blog for more insight... More photos and stories coming soon!