This is the first of four emails I wrote to friends and family while we were away in South East Asia on our little journey of discovery. After so many lovely friends and family members said how much they loved reading the emails, I’ve decided to share them on the blog. So I hope you enjoy them if you read them, I loved writing about our experiences almost as much as I loved living them. Here we go…
Hello my loved ones! I’m sorry you are not all getting personalised messages – I started writing this reply to Henry and it become so very long I thought all of you might like to receive it. It’s basically a run-down of our past month in Thailand and all our adventures so far.
And so, we are nearly at the end of our first month away. Thailand has so much to offer, I could have easily spent 4 months just here exploring all the different islands. As it is we haven’t seen much but what we have seen we’ve really liked. Bangkok was fine, if you have a local to show you round you’d get more from it. We met up with my friend Luke one night who is teaching there now but in true TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) style he was unable to offer any real useful advice because he was too drunk (it was his birthday!). So despite having an whole host of questions about Bangkok and Thailand and what we should be doing and where we should be going we just reminisced about our days together in Cambridge and gave each other heartfelt hugs, in that friendly drunken way people do.
So from Bangkok we got the night train down to Surat Thani, from there you wait for a couple of hours, then another bus, then a ferry. Waiting is something you do a lot in Thailand, that’s the way it goes. Within 24 hours we were on Koh Phangan, famous full moon party island. For no reason other than having heard it was nice, we headed straight to Bottle Beach in the north. You can only access by 4×4 along a crazy dirt road or by boat in calm weather. When we arrived the weather was unseasonably rough – big choppy seas, downpours, and chilly evenings. The Ferry ride attested to that – we hadn’t eaten anything for 12 hours or so and luckily had nothing to throw up, because if we had it would have been off the side very quickly.
So this kind of weather at Bottle Beach meant no boats in or out, so no day trippers and total peace and seclusion. Which is exactly what we wanted! So we paid for 2 weeks up front to get a 15% discount on our bungalow, which took the price down to 440 baht a night, around £9. For that you get a bed, a little bathroom with toilet and cold shower, a little balcony with a hammock. That’s it!
On the beach there are 4 places – each with their own restaurant and collection of huts. Our one was probably the most basic (and cheapest) but it had a rustic charm the most upmarket one lacked. It was cutely named “Smile”.
In Bangkok I had already thought about perhaps teaching yoga on the beach if we found the right kind of place. The next day I made some little flyers and walked down the beach chatting to everyone I found (which is not many people – maybe 20!). The manager, Ye, let me use a big chalk board to promote my yoga at the entrance to the restaurant which is what really brought people to the class. Without that I doubt many people would have bothered.
The next morning 3 eager yogis (plus Cristian) awaited me. I gently warmed them up, with some lying down breathing and hip openers. Then a standing series, a cool down, and a meditation. Each day I tried to mix it up with new postures, poems during mediation, chakra mediation, affirmations, breathing exercises (pranayama)… By the end I felt I could really offer something whole and nourishing which flowed gently from beginning to end. At this point I must thank my lovely gurus Celine, Laura and Roisin for teaching me yoga and mediation, so that I could pass on this lovely gift too. The setting was also incredible, a patch of sand slightly raised above the beach, in the shade, looking straight out to sea. I never actually saw the sea during the practice because I was obviously facing the other way looking at the yogis!
My only difficulty was probably being mindful of my own body while teaching – when I do my own practice I am very aware of my inner signals and can protect myself from injury by making sure I engage and relax different parts of my body. I sort of forgot to do this while teaching, especially as it’s difficult to engage the core and talk at the same time. This led to discomfort on the lower back – as I leapt too quickly up into shoulder stand I just felt it ping on one side. I would recuperate well for a few days, and then hurt it again as I forgot to protect it properly. So clearly my learning through yoga teaching is to be mindful when demonstrating and not forget that my own body needs attention as well as the other yogis.
Every day at least 3 people came, and I think I had as many as 8 one day. Pretty much every gave the suggested donation of 100 baht, which is the price of a beer or a Pad Thai in a restaurant (around £2). This money was our lunch money every day, which meant that Cristian and I didn’t spend any food money for almost two weeks which really helped the budget.
And so in our little yogi community in Koh Phangan we started to open our eyes up to the real exploitation that goes on here of the Burmese people by the Thai owners. It’s sad to see but has been a common theme of the trip so far. They work crazily long hours for around £120 a month, often not getting paid at all, and is the case with illegal workers, may have to disappear at a moment’s notice. The resort owners know this and use it to their advantage, which I suppose is the same the world over.
We met and chatted with lots of lovely Burmese workers, sharing their stories and somehow not feeling sure about what we represented as tourists – were we complicit in their exploitation too? We got a lot of the inside track from an English guy, Sam, who had previously stayed and worked alongside them for a year. That’s another interesting one – the lost souls of Thailand, day drinking expats who seem to have no real home, either here or back in the UK. The nice thing about Bottle Beach being so small is that you saw the same people every evening for dinner. We watched films together, played cards, and told stories. For somewhere so secluded it was difficult to find any alone time at all!
And so from our little Bottle Beach haven we got the ferry North to Koh Tao, famously known as the place to do your PADI course cheaply and easily. Koh Tao means turtle island, but with the beaches now full of diving resorts and bars the turtles can’t nest hear any more and are long gone. Poor turtles.
Once off the ferry we had a vague idea that a PADI course should cost around 8,000 to 10,000 baht, so £160-200. A random woman came up to us and showed us a place for 9,000, so we went along to look at it. A bit grotty to say the least but on the first night they upgraded us to a nicer bungalow with a fridge so we thought, ok then, let’s go for it. We perhaps regretted it by the next night when we had to rejoin the masses in the normal bungalows which were pretty rough, mattresses made mostly of metal springs covered by a thin layer of material and a water basin with a bucket underneath to catch the water. Hmm.
This was also my first night of yucky Thai belly. We had bought some salad veggies in the supermarket and washed them as usual, before making a salad to eat at home together. Washing the salad in the local water was probably a bad idea, but we’d been fine so far. A night of belly ache, vomiting and shitting ensued. By the next morning, I felt dodgy but determined to be well. Cristian ate the same thing as was fine! In any case, I got rehydration salts and anti-bug pills. I even ate a banana and some cashews. As the time approached for our theory lesson, I started to feel really peaky. Sweaty. Dizzy. We go round the table and introduce ourselves to each other. Hi, I’m Emily. I’m sorry, I really have to go. I run out of the room into the bathroom next door and projectile vomit creamy banana mush all over the toilet. Luckily, each Thai toilet has a handy spray gun you can use to wash it down with (they don’t do loo roll here, just spritz those bits instead!). I instantly feel a whole lot better and surprisingly manage to get through the videos and questions without too much bother.
The PADI course goes really well – we are a group of 7, with a Canadian, another Brit, a Frenchie and a Finnish couple to top it all off. We have two instructors, a no nonsense Polish guy called Vik and a South African woman called Carina. Carina is only 22 but she’s all red-Malboro smoking, Chelsea-tattooed (seriously!) and loves getting “narked” – this is when you felt light-headed due to gas narcosis during a dive. So quite a funny character. Both are very safe, clear and direct underwater, although their team teaching style above water is at times a little unclear, especially for the non English speakers. But we all get there in the end.
Our first real dive is steeped with anticipation. My biggest worry is not being able to equalise the pressure in my ears so I won’t be able to descend. But as we go down, we gently enter another, quieter world. I feel no pain or pressure, and equalising is easy. Breathing becomes quite natural. We do our skills – taking off our masks underwater, retrieving our breathing regulators, clearing our masks. This is all fine. As we start to swim around, we see coral, fish, sea cucumbers, a spotted ray in its hole. 40 minutes passes very quickly.
The next day we go to another dive site. We start again with skills, all in a circle on the sandy bottom. As I turn to Cristian, kneeling on the sand next to me, to check he’s ok, he looks at me through the mask and mimes putting a ring on my finger. I’m slightly incredulous as although we’ve talked about getting married several times, I can’t honestly say that Cristian has ever sincerely asked me to marry him. I look at him and ask him to confirm. He does it again. I nod emphatically and we just stare at each other through the water, 15m down. My eyes well up. You can’t actually smile with a regulator in your mouth but I’m sure we were both smiling! For the first time I see some real sincerity in his eyes when he asks me. I think we’re getting married!
Even without the mental mimed proposal the diving was wonderful. Quiet, meditative, other-worldly. And surprisingly easy once you try. I can happily see us blowing the budget on some more dives along the way, as we are now PADI Open Water certified!
And so here we are with 5 days left in Koh Tao before we head down to Malaysia on the night train again. We found ourselves another little bungalow, not exactly as secluded and peaceful as Bottle Beach but quiet enough. We asked a taxi driver for recommendations and he swore blind you could get a 400 baht hut here, although the very stony faced ancient Thai woman, Mama Chai, was having none of it. 600 baht. What if we stay for 6 nights? 600 baht. Any discount? No. Ok then, 600 baht it is. Smile? No.
As a money saving mission we don’t get taxis here, so we walk everywhere. We walked for a good 2.5km with our bags, and I stupidly wore my Thai flip flops. I don’t know why I did that. My poor left foot is now very upset with me. It’s particularly raw in between my big toe and second toe, that cheeky little place where no plaster can go. Ouch. It seems that with travelling neither of you are ever completely well – if it’s not my belly it’s Cristian’s, or one of our backs, and now my feet. But with every gentle yoga practice or mediation we do, we send healing energy to our lovely bodies and try to get them back to optimum health as soon as we can. It takes its toll!
One thing I have not talked about is food! Ahh food! To his credit, Cristian has eaten almost zero meat which means everything we have we can share. We eat a lot of vegetable or tofu Pad Thai (friend rice noodles), different kinds of curries, corn on the cob, soy and black sesame seed milk (new favourite drink!). We eat a lot from street vendors as they are cheap, quick, and usually fresh. We also buy fruit, coconut milk, and seeds to make our own breakfasts as we go, using a pen knife we bought, borrowed dishes, and plastic bottles as containers. I have yet to try Thai-made porridge as I just can’t trust that it’s anything compared to the lush porridge we make at home! Whenever I ask for no fish sauce I often get a non-committal sound, neither a yes nor a no, which as you can imagine is hugely reassuring. It’s the same sound I get when I ask for no sugar in the fresh fruit shakes, which come back tasting deliciously sweet and fruity. You do your best!
And most importantly of all, I am tanned! Hurray! I’ve got freckles I haven’t seen since the Barcelona days. We are warm. Always too warm. Always sticky, hot, and a bit dirty. It feels good! Also, nothing smells fresh anymore, even when you wash it. Yum.
If you’ve reached is point then well done for reading the whole thing! You must truly love me and Cristian. Thank you! We love you too and we send you all love, kindness and happy healthy thoughts from our hut here on Koh Tao.
As you read this please feel some warmth in your heart and a smile on your face! That’s me saying hello to you!
Lots of love my beloveds, see you soon in your dreams or mine,
Love Emily and Cristian
P.S. We’re engaged! Hee hee!