Friday, March 31, 2006

Sydney, First Day

March 30th, 2006:

What a day. Today is one of those days I can look back on and think "Yep, that was a good day". I think it was due to me planning to do nothing at all, but then while out walking it just kept getting better and better and here I am now, in the early evening thinking "Wow!".

I'm staying/slumming in the infamous/sometimes-seedy Kings Cross area of Sydney. I arrived yesterday and took a quick walk around yesterday evening and was nearly dazzled by the gaudy flashing neon signs for premises which you would be unlikely to find near a church (if you follow my drift...)

So, for a change of scenery today I went for a walk and ended up in this vast, well maintained park, "Hyde Park" (I'm guessing there were a few Londoners who settled here initially). There is a dramatic fountain in this park, which sits alongside the even more dramatic St. Mary's Cathedral whose gothic architecture surpasses most similar buildings in Europe.

After taking a walk around the park I followed the signs for the Hyde Park Barracks where, in the olden days, convicts were held. Today, the buildings are in immaculate condition and its free to walk around the courtyards and part of the interior.

Continuing down this road revealed the Sydney Hospital with its Florence Nightingale wing, the state's parliament buildings and the state's library all of which were in original but well maintained buildings from the 1800's.

Across the road from the state library was a garden, which turned out to be the start of the Royal Botanical Gardens. These gardens contained many statues, observatories and even flocks of exotic white birds. They also, unexpectedly bordered sparkling blue water which turned out to be the Sydney Harbor.

So, as I was strolling through the garden, taking in the sights, smelling the freshly cut grass, listening to the song of those exotic white birds I suddenly came to a halt: in the distance was my first glimpse of part of the Sydney Opera House. Now, having seen the Opera House repeatedly since I was young in books and on TV, I had assumed that seeing it in real life would be anticlimactic: it was the complete opposite. Even glimpsing part of it was a stop-everything / jaw-dropping / goose-bumps-all-over experience. I also, unexpectedly, finally realized that I was really on the other side of the world(!): I had always known (naturally) that I was a long way from home but seeing even part of Sydney Opera House really drove it home.

So, walking slightly quicker, I followed the shore line of the Botanical Gardens and rounded a corner... and there it was. The pictures / TV programs don't do it justice: it is unlike anything I had ever seen before. Walking slowly towards it, not taking my eyes off it, I made my way towards it and soon found myself beneath "the nun's scrum" (as it is also known) and joined the many other tourists with camera in hand, walking around zombie-like, staring-up mouth-open at the structure.

After a while I looked at Sydney's other architectural highlight: the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which is just across the bay. I figured I might as well continue following the shoreline and walk over towards it, so off I went. The journey there took me through "The Rocks" which seems to be the antique/original part of the city with its many old-style buildings and its historic tours. While wandering through this area, near the bridge itself, I came across the entrance to the Bridge Climb company who can guide you on a walk over the bridge. Now, I had read in the guide books that you had to book this in advance, so I just thought I'd pop inside to get some details. However, after chatting with the receptionist, it turned out that I could join a group doing the walk in half an hour. Now, its 164 AUD, but I figured that this fell into the once-in-a-lifetime, the-reason-why-you-go-to-work category and so jumped at the opportunity.

The tour took three and a half hours and there were twelve of us partaking in it. It started off with us exchanging our clothes for jumpsuits (i.e. a one piece, body length, outer garment) and putting our belongings in individual lockers. The only thing I was allowed to bring was my sunglasses which had to be attached to the suit: everything else had to be left behind including the camera, unfortunately, as they didn't want things we brought with us falling down onto the cars/trains/people below.

After we were suited up, we attached a cable guiding system to our waists. A cable runs the entire length of the walk over the bridge and using our waist attachment we were able to safety stay attached to the bridge at all times. The attachment itself was ingenious, considering that the cable, on the walk, is attached to metal supports, goes around corners, up and down stairs, and the attachment can easily navigate past all of the obstacles. The cable attachment training session took about ten minutes and had us going through a mini-obstacle course to get us comfortable with it.

After we were happy with the cabling system, we were each fitted with two-way radios and headsets so that we could listen to the tour guide.

After one last check we were off on our walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I won't go into detail of what its like in case you haven't done it yet: suffice to say, the height wasn't a problem, the view was spectacular and afterwards we gave our guide a well-deserved round of applause for the most memorable three hours we've had in quite a while.

Despite not being allowed bring our cameras up with us, the tour guide did bring one up and took many individual and group photos. Once the tour was over, we got a group photo as a physical printout. We were also able to get the individual photos and the other group shots either printed out or digitally on a CD. However, I thought they were pushing their luck with the prices of these photos: for a digital camera to take a photo it costs next to nothing, and then to put the photos onto a CD should cost less than fifty cent, so we'll say they could charge one to five dollars after a markup. They, however, charge 64.99 AUD (40.53 Euro) for four images on a CD(!). I could see why, even with my strap, they didn't want me taking up my camera(!). One photo on a CD cost 24.99 AUD (groan) so I got that for posterity.

After the bridge I took a walk around the central business district (CBD) of Sydney and had a look at the towering skyscrapers and some of the many shops in the area.

Its now early evening and I'm left thinking that this was one great day. Still, its not over yet: I'm off to the hotel bar to chat with the locals. The seems to be loads of things to do in the area, so I'll update ye as events unfold.

So long Brisbane and reflections on the first month

March 29th, 2006:

I had been trying to decide over the last number of days on what to next. The original plan was to popup the coast to Cairns and go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, but it is still a disaster area up there and the tour operators in Brisbane were saying that the locals up there would need more time to get things back in action after Hurricane Larry.

After getting local/travelers opinions about Ayers Rock, the majority feel that it HAS to be done and that its best to do it as part of an overnight bush walk. However, due to Cairns being in the North and Ayers Rock being in the center, it makes most sense to do it on the way to / from Cairns, so Ayers rock is also on hold.

Next up on possible destinations was Melbourne but the recent Commonwealth Games and the F1 this weekend, along with a big AFL football game have all conspired to to make it expensive, hard to find accommodation and busy. I wouldn't mind seeing an F1 race, but there's no hurry: I'll catch one some other time. I'd only be in the city for four or five days and I wouldn't want to get a bad impression of the place when in reality it was only especially busy/expensive for this weekend.

Therefore I'm now sitting on a plane to Sydney. Naturally, during check-in, I was "randomly" picked for the chemical explosives analysis test, but that was to be expected by now. It was a little bit disconcerting sitting on the plane initially: I was sitting two rows behind an emergency exit and after we all had sat down, a maintenance guy come onboard to fix the emergency door. The top quarter of the inside of the door was coming loose(!) so he proceeded to try to screw it back together, but failed and so we took off minutes later with the emergency door being held together by masking tape! I presume the more important outside of the door is ok as we are, at the moment, over 30,000 feet and the plane hasn't gone pop yet...


Well, its been a month (is that all?!) since I left so now would be an opportune time to reflect on how things are going.

Time has lost nearly all meaning
I started noticing this after the first week of travelling. There are now, at most, two days of the week: Sunday and non-Sunday. Even at that, the only reason I might notice a Sunday is if I intend to go shopping and, as that rarely happens, there is usually just one day of the week: "today".
At home each day of the week evoked different feelings depending on "The Routine" I had, for example, work Monday - Fridays and different evenings during the week had different regular events scheduled. Now, every day is roughly the equivalent of Saturday, so having different names for the days is nearly meaningless.
Also, time during the day has lost most of its significance. In "The Routine", I always woke at a certain time every day, went to work at the same time, had lunch at the same time, etc. Now, I think I have a watch but I don't know exactly where it is: I haven't used it since Bangkok (my first destination). The only "time" I notice the time is if I have to get up at a certain hour to meet an organized tour and then I just set the alarm on the PDA. Otherwise, I have a meal when I'm hungry and goto sleep when I'm tired.
It is great, for now, but when I was in Perth seeing business people going about their day to the beat of their routines, I did find that a small part of me missed the structure of a routine. So, its great for now but I don't see myself staying in this boundary-less lifestyle for ever and I'm also acutely aware of the one way my bank account is going...
Its also hard to believe that its only been a month/four-weeks since starting this journey. So much has happened that it feels more like three months has passed which adds to the feeling that time has nearly lost all meaning.

The gadgets and tools have been mostly useful
I had brought a number of different tools on the trip and they have performed with varying degrees of usefulness:

PDA (Dell Axim X30): Indispensable. If I lost it, or it was stolen, I would straight away buy another one. As a music and video player, Internet browser and email (when wireless internet is available), electronic book reader (there's 80+ books on it), currency converter and for viewing pictures taken by the camera the pocket computer has performed flawlessly.
All of the blog entries were written using the PDA. I was unsure how the typing would go (imagine holding a mini keyboard in one hand and using a stick with the other hand to tap on each letter), but its working out well enough.
I would be happier if it was more rugged (so that I wouldn't need to be careful about not dropping it) and was cheaper to replace, but otherwise its great.

Camera (Canon Powershot A620): I'm very happy the quality of the pictures produced by this camera. You can see the results in my photo gallery and keep in mind that those pictures have had their megapixel size slashed to less than a third. The camera has easy to use controls, has a flip out and tilt screen so that you can put the camera into odd positions and still see what the lens sees. The easy to find AA batteries are also a bonus and they last a long time. I would prefer if it was smaller/flatter as it just about fits in my jeans pocket but I certainly wouldn't forget it was it was in the pocket (unlike the PDA which I would forget about).

Phone (Sony Ericsson T700i): useful in case of emergencies but otherwise I've used it fewer than five times in the last month.

Card Reader (unknown brand). Again, indispensable. I use this at Internet cafes. I take the memory card out of the camera and using the card reader attached to the computer I can read the images from the card and upload them to the photo gallery.

GPS Satellite Navigation (Dell Bluetooth GPS). This, so far IS dispensable. Due to me not driving anywhere, it only gets used sparingly. Typically, when I arrive at a new location I take a satellite fix of where the accommodation is so that if I get lost I can get it to direct me back. I haven't gotten lost yet, but its a comfort to have it anyway.

Multitool (Leatherman Juice CS4): unlike the GPS so far, I would be lost without my multitool. A multitool is a glorified penknife, containing more tools than the usual Swiss Army knife. My multitool gets regular usage, although the smaller Leatherman Micra which is small enough to have on a key chain might be more practical.

Plug adapter (Mitsubishi... something): all of my electronic gadgets would be dead without it. You'll spot this little beauty at airports and it looks completely different to every other power adapter: its a small green cylinder and is sadly more expensive than its competitors. However, it claims to be useful in 150+ different countries and so far it hasn't let me down.

One thing I should have brought, but it never occurred to me, is a small pile of business-type cards with my email address. You could easily spot the old pros among the traveling posse handing out their cards at the end of a tour/hostel-stay, whereas the rest of us had to rely on pens and paper which was messy.

I've stayed in a variety of accommodation over the month, ranging from four Euro a night rooms where you could see through the walls and floors to expensive beachfront bungalows. Here is what I have found:

Hotels (70-100 a night on average): Convenient the first night or two that you arrive into a strange city as you can be assured of a certain level of quality (depending on the star rating). However, they are comparatively expensive and you have to organize your day to a degree around the hotels schedule. So, for example, if the base price for a room includes breakfast you might as well avail of it as you have already paid for it, but breakfast is often only available during certain hours so you'll have to get up relatively early to avail of it. Also the hotel would prefer that you didn't spend all day in your room as housekeeping will want to get in there to make sure you’re not trashing the place. I have also found hotels to be business/family-holiday orientated and its harder to meet fellow travelers. Lastly, the vast majority of hotel rooms do not provide cooking facilities in the room so you'll be eating out a lot which is in itself a big financial drain. Hotels are, however, useful as a base, giving you time to take a look at cheaper hostels in the area.

Serviced apartments (70-100 AUD a night on average): Similar to hotels, serviced apartments are relatively expensive as a form on accommodation, costing about the same as a hotel room (depending on what you go for). However, an apartment does include cooking facilities which can save a lot money and gives you the freedom to cook what you want rather than being tied to a hotel's or restaurant's menu. They also tend not to have intrusive housekeeping staff and so I would prefer an apartment to a hotel room.

Hostels (15-45 AUD a night on average): Before starting travelling I had the impression that hostels were dirty, insecure and noisy. Some are but using the above hotel-as-a-base-approach, I've been able to vet a place before moving in and so have had no major problems. I did find the hostel dorms to have good and bad features: sometimes the people sharing the dorms would be great company but I found the lack of privacy to be intrusive so these days I pay a bit extra for a private room (current private room is 35 AUD) so that takes care of the lack of privacy issue. Hostels, also, are unbeatable for meeting fellow travelers and the last (for example) provided laundry services, kitchens so you could fend you yourself, internet access, big screen TV room, internet access, swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi, pool table, basketball court, table tennis, subsidized bar, restaurant, and helpful staff for organizing tours, things to do etc. I do have a face mask, ear blockers for reducing light & noise just in case but rarely do I need them.

Overall its been a great success so far. My arrival into Sydney will mark the end of the main jumping-from-place-to-place phase as I intend to try base myself in Sydney. Fingers are crossed that it will work out aok!

Lamington National Park

March 28th, 2006:

It was about time that I tried a bush walk so today's activity was an 8-10KM hike through a sub-tropical rain forest. Based on the recommendation of the tour assistant in the hostel, I went with "Rob's Rainforest Tours" ( for the bush guide and the rain forest we trekked through was the World Heritage "Lammington National Park".

On this particular day it was a small group: myself, "Michael" (an English bloke with family ties to Cork, Ireland) and Rob himself. The park is located about 120km from Brisbane and it was an easy/quick drive for the tour operator to get there.

It is possible to walk the rainforest trails yourself but I found having the guide there was very useful: every couple of minutes we'd stop and he'd point out details about the plants, birds or insects in that area that I would have missed had he not been there.

Some of the birds in the area, especially near the main camp (O'Reilly's) were relatively tame and Rob had birds eating nuts from his hand. Similarly Wallabies (smaller, stockier than Kangaroo) came close to the camp, but they were still wild and so we did not get too close.

The walk itself revealed Giant Box Brush trees which really were giant: all three of us managed to fit inside one which had been partially hollowed out in a fire.
We also saw Stinger Trees, which have hairs on their leaves which can inject a toxin into your skin and cause intense pain. They have even managed to kill someone: a woman who was not dressed appropriately for a bush walk (think near swimsuit), slipped down a small slope on top of many of these leaves which were on the ground: she suffered a heart attack from receiving too much toxin. We stayed well clear of those trees(!)
Another odd tree was the Strangler Fig, which starts off life as a seed which is dropped by birds high in the canopy of a tree and which grows its roots down the trunk of the tree until it finally reaches ground, possibly hundreds of feet below. The roots continue to grow until they eventually "strangle" and kill the host tree which dies and rots away leaving just the Strangler Fig with a hollow core.
These interesting trees and other strange birds were set in a varied landscape with picturesque waterfalls and steep mountany slopes.

I found the walk to be rewarding and well worth doing. Be sure to bring proper footwear (such as hiking boots) as, for example, we were jumping from rock to slippy rock at some points on the trail. Also, I did not bother with insect repellent as there were few/no insects to be seen but they may be more prevalent at different times in the year.

So, if you're thinking of doing a bush walk I can highly recommend the Lamington National Park and I will use Rob as my guide if I go hiking in a rainforest around Brisbane again.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fraser Island

March 23rd, 2006:

Today's offshore island was the World Heritage "Fraser Island". This 125KM long island is the largest sand island in the world and is off the east coast of the Australia.

The island started off as a sand bar millions of years ago, next to the Australia coast, and over the years more and more sand was deposited to create a relatively big land mass. Due to the proximity to the coast, plant seeds were able to land on the island and initially it was plants which were able to grow in sand which took hold. Over thousands of years the plant matter from these plants created a thin top soil and other varieties of plants started to grow and today the sand island is covered with a number of different types of forests.
The island isn't flat and consists of hills and hollows. In some of the hollows a compacted impermeable layer of dead plant matter called humus built up. Rain water, trapped by the compacted humus, created crystal clear freshwater lakes and the sand island has managed to sustain quite a few of these lakes.
The island is also inhabited by different creatures, most notably the Fraser Island Dingo. Australian mainland dingoes have interbred with domestic dogs creating a mixed breed. However, there were no domestic dogs on Fraser and so the Fraser Island Dingo is now considered to be the purest breed of the species and is actually a descendant of the Chinese wolf (as you can see I managed to pay attention to the tour guide for much of his speech(!)

The island itself is notable in other areas also. It has, for example, no tarmacadam/bitumen roads. There is gravel-over-sand in some places but these are rare: every other road is a sand track. So, for example, the main road on the island is a beach(!) which runs most of the length of the island ("75-mile beach" as it is known). Needless to say, when the road is a beach, conditions can change dramatically in the space of an hour. Also, as if the bumpy surface, deep potholes, streams, waves and tides were not enough of a distraction, the beach also serves as the landing strip for light aircraft(!) Due to the challenging driving surface, ordinary cars, trucks and buses are not allowed: only four wheel drive vehicles are allowed on the island.

Lastly, you can swim in the sea surrounding the island, but due to the lack of lifeguards and the strong rip currents, it is generally advised that you avoid the man-eating shark infested sea around Fraser.

The tour I went with was with Australian Day Tours which operates in Brisbane. The tour takes you to the island, brings you around and drops you back to your accommodation at the end of the day. There were twenty-eight of us on the tour and I was expecting a fleet of Land Rovers to bring us all around (as ordinary buses cannot handle the lack of roads) but to my surprise they unveiled a four-wheel-drive bus(!), which I had never come across before.
Our guide on the island was nicknamed "Crocodile Dundee" by the guys working for the tour operator and I initially thought that it was just a name to impress the tourists... and then I met him: he had the same weather beaten appearance as the character in the movie and throughout the day he was full of talk of living off the Bush and experience he'd gained from his aboriginal buddies. He was quite the character.

I had buddied up today with three other solo travelers, two Scottish girls and an English girl and we all had a very enjoyable day.

I did have one major surprise though: it actually rained today(!) and it was the first rain I'd seen since leaving Ireland nearly a month ago. It wasn't any drizzle either: it was from the hurricane up the coast and so it was a real belter with the sea around the island getting whipped up to a frenzy, the main highway looking like it was near closure and most of the tourists in the group getting saturated. Being from Ireland though, where we know a thing or two about rain, I had always carried an umbrella in my mini-backpack and that pessimism/realism finally came in useful. The girls I'd teamed up with were very grateful that I was their knight in shining armor ;) The rain did also give that authentic feel one of the rain-forests that we had a (quick!) walk through.

Other stops on the tour were to Lake McKenzie, which is a freshwater lake and to the "silent stream" which apparently flows silently instead of trickling/gurgling. For us, the stream was silent but that was due to the steady roar from the rain shower/cloud-burst.

I did feel, at the end of it, that the trip was very rushed. We didn't have much time at any of the stops and even with the tight schedule we barely ventured a third of the way into the island. Tour operators also offer two or three day trips with accommodation on the island and these may be the better option if you have the time.

Overall, the stormy weather and rushed schedule detracted from the experience but what we did see of the island and the fun with my fellow travelers made it an enjoyable day.

Last tip: don't visit the island with a hangover: seatbelts were provided on the bus and due to the constant bouncing around the sandy tracks they were most definitely required!


March 24th, 2006:

Crikey! What would a visit to Australia be without visiting Australia's most famous son Steve Irwine of the TV show "The Crocodile Hunter" and his famous Zoo "The Australia Zoo"? The man and his Zoo are quickly becoming as famous as kangaroos and koalas, both of which are available at the zoo.

I went with Australian Day Tours again for this trip and this included a return trip to/from the zoo and an entry ticket.

The zoo itself is set on spacious, lush grounds. We arrived at 10:45AM which was perfect timing for the start of the daily shows in a big auditorium at 11:00AM. First off was a snake show where they demonstrated various snakes and what to do if bitten by one. Next up was a tiger show which explained how endangered these cats are. The third show had exotic birds flying around the auditorium and lastly was the Croc show. Sadly, the man himself was off filming elsewhere (though I did nearly bash into his wife later in the day...), so it was a normal person who did the show and he demonstrated what a croc does when feeding (or, more specifically when being fed). It was worth watching but the demonstrator, being normal, lacked the zaniness of Steve Irwine.

The zoo also featured many enclosed areas where you could walk amongst the birds and animals. So, there was a kangaroo park area where you could mingle with and feed kangaroos. Similarly there was a koala area where you could get up close to koalas and lastly there was an enclosed avian area where tropical birds flew overhead or hid in the trees. There were many other creatures at the zoo and all areas appeared to have been elaborately designed to make its inhabitants as comfortable as possible.

I found it all to be a nice, relaxing way to spend the day and it was great to finally meet kangaroos and koalas.


March 21st, 2006:

...and so onto Brisbane. Brisbane is located on the east coast of Oz and was settled well before Western Australia (where Perth is located) was fully explored by colonial explorers. It was originally started in 1825 as a prison settlement but was opened up for general settlement in 1840 and is today home to 1.6 million people.

It starts to hit home just how vast this country is when you consider that it takes about five hours to fly from Ireland to New York and it similarly takes four and a half to five hours to fly from Perth to Brisbane.

Brisbane is noticeably different to Perth. Perth was all modern architecture and is more business/corporate orientated. Brisbane has history: there's a lot of older style buildings amongst the modern skyscrapers. It also has pieces of modern art in parks/streets and is more geared up for backpackers and tourists. There also appears to be more of a buzz about the place in the evenings.

The weather is also different: it is actually cloudy here and gone are the days of 37C (as in Perth). To be fair, the clouds visible at the moment are related to an outer spire of a hurricane, but the locals here also say that it is cloudier and wetter here in general. That wetter weather hasn't prevented water restrictions from being introduced though: many skyscrapers have water features (e.g. pools and fountains), but many of those pools are now empty due to the restrictions. Apparently they are not far off moving to the next level of restrictions which will include fining people who wash their cars or water their gardens.

Walking around the CBD reveals lots of shops, colleges, museums, apartments and white-collar businesses. Also next to the CBD is the famous Story Bridge. This steel bridge was completed in 1940 and while not as famous as the Sydney Harbor Bridge, it is still popular with tourists. For the thrill seekers there is also the possibility of walking up and over the metal girders and supports: it should be noted, though, that the bridge is quite tall, that it can get windy there and the safety rails for the walk only went upto my waist so its not for the faint hearted. I gave the walk a skip as I intend to do the Sydney bridge and I wouldn't want to detract from that.

So, in the coming days I'll be doing the main sights around Brissy. I had intended on going further north after Brisbane but the last hurricane (not the current one causing the increased cloud cover) was a Category 5 with wind speeds of 300Kph and it clobbered the cities up there so its all up in the air (so to speak). In the mean time I'm off to my next off-shore island (!)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bye-bye Perth

March 20th, 2006:

Sadly the Perth leg of the trip has come to an end and I'm currently in the departures lounge of the airport awaiting the flight to Brisbane.

I had to check out this morning from my accommodation at 10:00AM and I suspect I had temporary insanity when I was booking the flight as the flight doesn't leave until nearly midnight, nearly fourteen hours later: groan...

I spent the day at "Kings Park" in Perth which is a picture perfect park perched in the hills over Perth. Despite the pleasant surroundings, its surprisingly tiring doing nothing all day and having looked at all of the trees by 4PM I was bored out of MY tree(!). Walking around Perth was out of the question as I had my main backpack with me and it was a bit warm today (37C) to bring it around. Still, it gave me plenty of time to be a handy photographer for fellow tourists, who asked me to take pictures of them using their cameras...

On the way to the airport I found myself experiencing something unexpected: for every previous flight there had always been anticipation, but this time around I realized that I might actually miss living here. In an attempt at performing a living-in-Oz-test-run, I had rented a self-contained one bed apartment at Scarborough. I found the grocery shopping to be cost-effective and was soon whizzing around the city on the public transport: all-in-all it just worked and its good to know that if I do end up living and working here that it should work out ok. However, now that I'm leaving I'll have to skill-up for a new city again (Brisbane) over the coming days.

Incidentally, my 100% record of being randomly selected for additional tests/questions when departing from a major airport is holding up nicely. It all started in London when out of a queue of over 100 passengers, the interrogator made a bee-line straight for me and proceeded to ask me questions about the airport experience (I must have had my approachable-face on that day). In Singapore I was selected from amongst my fellow passengers for an additional bag check (must have been my shifty/suspicious expression). Today, in Perth, I was randomly selected and taken aside for an "Explosive Substance Analyzer" test. This consisted of my clothes and bag being swabbed and the swab was then analyzed for trace chemical elements which may indicate that I had been around explosives. I say "may" because many common household cleaning products (such as bleach, if I recall correctly), contain trace elements of chemicals which can be used in explosives, so you may be unlucky enough to be flagged as a potential problem if you cleaned anytime before flying wearing the same clothes as you are flying with. According to the security dude, a positive match results in your main bag being taken off the plane, each item inside being examined, then your carry on bag gets the same treatment and finally you get interrogated to see what you know. The obvious solution: never clean!

Well, onto Brisbane. I'm just thankful I'm not going to Cairns which was just hit by a category five hurricane. Hopefully the weather in Brissy won't be as extreme(!)

Rottnest Island

March 19th, 2006:

Being the seasoned island hopper that I am (!)(Koh Samui -> Koh Tao -> Koh Samui, Sentosa), I realized in (mock) horror that it had been a whole seven days since the last time I was on an offshore island, so todays excursion was to the picturesque "Rottnest Island" which is located 28KM off the Western Australia coast.

A number of tour operators provide one day tours to/around this island and I went with "Hillary's Fast Ferries" which conveniently collected me from my accommodation at Scarborough beach, took me to and from the island and dropped me back to my accommodation at the end of the day.

There are a number of ways you can view this historic (think late 19th - mid 20th century) island and considering it was scheduled to be 37C in the Perth area that day, most people took the air-conditioned buses. I, however, like to do things differently and so rented a mountain bike from one of the many bike shops so that I might cycle around the island, view things at my own pace and to be able to take more pictures.

I was initially dubious about my bike handling ability as I hadn't been in the saddle for ten-fifteen years, but I found that old saying about riding a bike to actually be true and had no problems. My partner in crime for the day was an American girl from Arkansas and together we set off to do our worst.

Our first stop was at one of the main settlements on the island. Here we viewed one of the main industries back in the day, salt mining, and there was also references to how the aboriginal people were integrated into the community: sadly it was the aboriginal jail and the aboriginal graveyard which were two of the more prominent facilities which remain. We hadn't bothered with a guided tour of the settlement but hopefully a guide would have shown that there was a more coherent and productive integration between the two communities.

So, after the settlement it was time to check the map to find the next place to visit. After checking, it had to be rechecked as neither of us wanted to have to use the soul-destroying words "we, uh, may have to turn around..." especially with the exertion of cycling in "the oven".

Once we were both satisfied, we were off. We gamely tried to ignore the smug looking tourists in the cool, moving fridges, aka buses-with-air-conditioning, and pressed on. Still, at the very next stop we had our revenge: we had found a site which the tourist buses didn't visit. The WW2 anti-naval guns at Oliver Hill.

It seems that in the 1930s, the British feared a possible problem coming up with Germany and Japan. They built anti-naval gun batteries through the commonwealth to bolster defenses. Throughout the years since the war, the guns were decommissioned, many being sold for ten shillings(!) and today only four remain, two of which are on Rottnest (the others are in Gibraltar and South Africa).

In the late 80's early 90's, lottery money was used to bring the Rottnest guns back to their former glory and today the three storey complex is in near-original condition (except for the live ammunition, naturally).

The magazine room with shells (sans-explosives) which weight 150KG+ is on the tour, as is the cordite (explosive used for propellant) room with its spark resistant floors and blast resistant ceilings, followed by the engine room (without the diesel generators), all of which are connected by underground corridors and finally the 9.2", 360 degree rotational, two storey gun itself. Sadly, test firing the gun was not on the tour but it was well worth the visit and we were expertly guided around by our volunteer tour guide.

The guns are located at the top of a big hill and it was near murder cycling up it, but the near break-neck speeds we managed on the way back down made up for it.

We pushed on, but right about the time we started seeing shimmering mirages on the road surface we stopped for the next activity: snorkeling. We had both rented the equipment and Deborah (the American) had done it before also so we were soon swimming and competing to see who could find the weirdest looking tropical fish (I had to tell myself afterwards that its not important who won: its the taking part that counts...(!).

In the bus back to the accommodation, after the ferry had dropped us back, most people were falling asleep which indicates how action packed the day was (and most of my fellow passengers had taken the easy bus option instead of the bike option). One piece of advice I would dispense is that the restaurants on the island were relatively expensive (captive audience & limited competition = increased expense) so if you can bring a packed lunch that may be best.

So, if you're looking for something to do around Perth, Rottnest may prove to be a fun and energetic way to spend the day.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


March 17th, 2006:

The science of meteorology has a term called "the urban heat effect". This term is used when describing the process whereby cities can get hotter than the surrounding countryside, due to concrete/tar/glass heating up and reflecting heat (more so than grass/soil) and various mechanical processes in the cities (cars/air-conditioning units/etc.) releasing additional heat into the mix.
Well, having been in Perth on a hot day, I can now state that the scientists got it wrong: they should have named it "the urban OVEN effect"(!) Walking through the high rise buildings in the CBD (central business district) I found myself wondering why the buildings weren't melting.
It was certainly easy to spot the visitors to the city due to the little puddles of sweat which formed around them whenever they stopped, as opposed to the unruffled, dry natives. Still, it was heartening to overhear two of these oven-dwellers proclaim that it was "a little bit warm today". Surely that must have been the understatement of the millenium... :)

Perth itself appears to be a well laid out city with many well-maintained parks dotted around and is serviced by a strong public transport system. Traffic moved freely through the streets and the pavements were clean, wide and easy to navigate through.

The city center had lots of shops but when compared with, for example, New York it was lacking in one area: many of New Yorks skyscrapers provide public observation decks at their summits enabling you to get a great view over the city (and you usually have to pay the building for the privilege), but I tried the top three skyscrapers in Perth and none of them provided such a facility :(

I was in the city on the 17th March and so the bars and restaurants were jammed with St. Patrick's day revelers and music groups "straight from the land of the shamrock" added a lively atmosphere to the city. I made sure to re-enforce the stereotype all foreigners seem to have about us Irish and tried out many beers in many pubs (using the ol' "need beer to cool down" excuse :)

In terms of things to do (before losing some of my senses), I didn't spot many tourist related activities. I didn't dig up any museums (although I wasn't looking very hard, and I'm sure they exist) nor did I spot many tourist related things to do. I did, however, visit the world's tallest musical instrument which is housed in a dramatic looking building near the city port and was provided by staff with the opportunity to ring a couple of the twelve 15th century bells.

As a city, it is well geared up for business, is lively and appears to be going places (and I nominate the inventor of air-conditioning for a Nobel prize :)

Arrival into Oz

March 14th, 2006:

Well, hello from down under! On arrival, it looked like just another airport, but then I heard somebody actually say "Fair Dinkum" and there was no mistaking what country I was in(!)

My first impressions of the place, as the plane was about 10 minutes away from landing at Perth airport, were: red, dusty, red, flat, red :), and where's the grass?! The "Bush" north of Perth was composed nearly entirely of red sandy soil with sparse outcrops of green bushes. Roads were visible intermittently but most were dusty tracks. Sadly (or gladly for the local farmers, apparently), there were no roaming groups of bounding kangaroo, nor did I see any koala bears clinging to the bushes, nor were there any road-trains of Fosters... :( Still, I'm keeping my eyes peeled.

The first night in Perth, I stayed at Governer Robinson's Hostel. I had buddy'd up with a English guy and gal who, as it transpired, were following my route exactly(same destinations) though they had spent longer in Thailand (which was a good idea) but plan to stay for a shorter duration in the States. As we had all come straight from Asia we were looking for a traditional Aussi neighborhood to stay in, but naturally Governer Robinsons turned out to be smack bang in the middle of... Chinatown(!). Apart from the dodgy research on our behalf, the hostel was great: clean, friendly, cheap, within walking distance of the CBD and not noisy.

Having spent the days before arriving in Perth in a different big city (Singapore), I was not looking to stay in another city center so I left the following morning for Western Australia's most popular beach, Scarborough Beach, which is north-west of Perth city center. This beach has the whitest, softest sand and the bluest sea of any beach I think I've ever been to. It also has waves (as opposed to the wave-less flat sea at Koh Tao, which was great for swimming in btw), and those Scarborough waves have made it a surfer's mecca. The beach is also bordered by a grassy garden where people can lay-out if they find the "sand grains going everywhere" problem annoying.
The bus back to Perth takes 1/2 - 3/4 hour and costs a mere 1.93 euro (3.10 Australian dollars).

How does Oz compare with home so far? Apart from the obvious weather differences:
-> Prices are cheaper: houses are actually affordable, petrol is about 0.73 cent euro per litre (compared with 1.07 cent euro approx. in Ireland), cars are cheaper and when you go grocery shopping you end up with what feels like far too much change.
-> The locals are laid back (like home) and the accent is easy to understand.
-> Traffic is virtually non-existent in Perth so, for example, on the way from the airport to the hostel we flew down the main street in Perth during "rush-hour": it may have been a fluke, but the minibus driver insisted that it was the norm.
-> Currency is a mixture of modern and historical: the notes are modern plastic, but the coins appear like huge, old-fashioned heavyweight blocks of metal when compared to the waif-like euro coins.
-> TV is hard to judge: the Commonwealth Games are taking place in Melbourne at the moment so TV scheduling is dominated by sporting events.
-> Public transport in the city is well developed: public officials took the inspired decision to make most inner-city buses free(!) and buses to outlying suburbs are cheap and plentiful. This, no doubt, is a main factor in the lack of significant traffic.
-> Wireless Internet access is less developed (or more developed, depending on what way you see its business development heading). So, for example, Cork airport in Ireland has free wireless internet access for all to use and is provided as a value added service by the airport; international arrivals at Perth airport wanted you to have an account with an Australian telecoms company and to pay for the use of the service: I seriously doubt that a significant number of internationally arriving travelers would have such an account set up and so only a small number of local business people might use it while everyone else is locked out. Pity, as it is quite useful when arriving in a new country to be able to email home, research the locality, etc and its the same story in Perth city center: wireless access points are locked out to one service provider or another so it appears that you need to have multiple accounts, one for each provider. In both Singapore and Thailand wireless internet access was not a problem with free wireless access points being accessible in the main areas, but here, so far, wireless is no go. I suspect its due to broadband services being less developed: ads on TV offer broadband services but there is an incredible two year lockin with the contracts (how does anybody know definitively what they are doing in one year, not to mention two?). Still, hopefully all cities will follow the example of San Francisco in the US which is rolling out free internet wireless across the entire city in an effort to boost business.
-> The mobile phone service was a great surprise: my phone worked completely as soon as I arrived. It connected to a local Vodafone operator and everything worked straight away: even dialing 171 for voicemail worked with no effort on my part.
-> Cars tend to be bigger physically and generally have far bigger engines. Its interesting to see saloon cars (think Opel Vectra type cars in Ireland) shoot away from traffic lights: sometimes the (invariably younger, male) driver will spin wheels in first gear until smoke is visible, then change to second gear where the spinning starts again with more smoke coming from the tires: I'm guessing tires are cheap here, or something. Still, no sign in Oz yet of the odd green glowing light underneath some truck cabs as seen in Singapore.

In the coming days I'll be getting a flavor of the city and surrounding area. In five days I'm off to the east coast of the country. I have been asking fellow travelers if they thought I should stop off in the middle to see Ayres Rock, but the majority felt that there was no need. Therefore I may skip it at this stage, but may come back to it later in the year. In the mean time, its off to see WA's (Western Australia's) capital city, Perth.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Last notes from Singapore

March 14th, 2006:

If you are an English speaker, you'll be glad to hear that English is the primary language used in Singapore. This country was formerly part of Malaysia so Malay is spoken sporadically, as is Mandarin (Chinese) due to immigrant workers, so it is a good idea to know at least the basics in all three. For example, saying "Ni hao" (its Mandarin, it means "hi" in English) to a bar girl was enough to earn me a free beer!

Due to the multiple languages, TV was a varied affair with Malaysian cooking programs on one channel and wacky Japanese gameshows on the neighboring channel. While some of these shows had questionable taste, it was an American show which took the biscuit, so to speak, on questionable content: the show consisted of eight obese people competing to lose weight(!) The slow-mo's of the contestants running on treadmills should have been enough to convince the producers that the show was A Bad Idea, but apparently not. Still, after wading past the Sumo wrestling and the brain numbing Chinese soaps, I did find the Australian program Home And Away which proved a useful study tool for learning the many Aussie colloquialisms : I now feel confident that I can "throw a shrimp on the barbi"; its also good to know, having studied the program, that if I ever go back to high school, I can spend the day in the coffee shop and also that it never, ever, rains ;)

A curious thing you'll find, if you travel to Singapore, is the emphasis on the military. The first radio show I heard (in the taxi from the airport) was sponsored by the Navy, TV ads promote various different branches of the military and billboards giving the benefits of military service are displayed alongside ads for computer war games. Conscription is used here, so every able bodied youth must spend at least 2 1/2 years serving their country. I had thought that Ireland's lack of conscription was the norm, but having visited countries in other parts of Europe and now also Asia I can see that its the exception.

Saturdays and Sundays are the wedding days in Singapore: there were four separate weddings in my hotel and peering out of my room window over the nearby hotels confirmed that all were jammed with wedding parties. I had never seen an Asian wedding before and was expecting to see the guests in traditional looking formal wear. Sadly, though, there were no flowing Samurai outfits(!) and even the bride wore a traditional western white gown. I tried gate crashing one of them but being the only Westerner made me stand out a little and "Ni hao" only gets you so far... If you want to be more adventurous with your Mandarin, you could try the far more advanced "Ni hao ma?" which means "How are you?". Just hope that they don't reciprocate the question as answering a question in Mandarin is beyond the scope of this tutorial(!)

Last tip: if you are looking for a place to take some good pictures of the Singapore skyline, there is a handy viewing area across the river from Raffles Hotel. I only spotted this in the taxi on the way to the airport, but hopefully you'll get a chance to use it if you are in the area.

So, that ends the thoroughly enjoyable Asian part of the trip. As I write this I'm relaxing in a plane flying to Perth drinking Champagne/sparkling-wine, watching a cloudless Indonesia pass by below and looking at the Oscar nominated "Constant Gardener". Qantas so far has been flawless, although there were a few dodgy moments at the airport when my Aussie working-holiday visa was being checked as it hadn't been correctly associated with my passport by Australian Immigration: one quick phone call sorted out the problem and they confirmed that the visa was aok. The native Perth-ians (?!) I was chatting with at the airport have given a nice long list of things to do in Perth so hopefully I won't be too bored there...! Well, I will be arriving in a couple of hours (its a five hour flight... urgh...), so its Sayonara Asia, G'Day Australia!

Orchard Road

March 13th, 2006:

On my last day in Singapore I went shopping in Singapore on the main shopping road in the city, Orchard Road. Now, when I'm shopping by myself, I try to play the following game to keep myself amused: (it doesn't take much to keep me amused :)
1. Goto a shopping center with a high rise car park so that you don't have to walk far (its more efficient than walking across a long flat car park). Also, the car park has to give you a 15 minute grace period for finding a free spot before you have to start paying.
2. Do your shopping.
3. Get back to your car BEFORE the original 15 minute grace period has expired... :)

As you can see, when shopping by myself, I don't hang around. However, as I didn't have a car with me, I thought I'd try a different game: good ol' "What's the most expensive thing I can find?". The search began at the Ngee Ann City shopping center, winner of Singapore's Best Shopping Experience Award 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004... and there it ended minutes after starting when I became dazzled by the sparkling rocks of Cartier. Now, you know that a shop is serious when there is a bouncer at the door. I was going to go in, but the disparaging look he gave my backpacker appearance spoke volumes about the likelihood of me being left in: I made do with the window displays instead. A bracelet could be bought for the pocket change amount of approx. 12,000 Euro while a nice looking diamond encrusted ring for approx. 70,000 Euro was the eventual winner.

The fact that I managed to keep going for another three hours (easily a personal best for shopping endurance), and still only saw a fraction of the place, indicates how much there is to see and do. A girl, or a more normal person :), could easily soak up a day or two wandering around.

A similar street in Europe would be the Champs-Elise in Paris, so which is better? Well, the Champs-Elise wins purely because of the Mercedes shop with the Formula One car hanging on the wall, but I'd imagine your credit card company would prefer you to go to Orchard Road as there are shops for every price bracket there with more variety on offer also.


March 12th, 2006:

Today's excursion was to the resort island of Sentosa. This island, just off the coast of Singapore, can be reached by road-bridge or the far more exciting cable car. I went with the cable car option and found myself dangling over 400ft above the ground, starting at a mountain top, passing over various big cruise liners in a sea port below, going through a hole near the top of a skyscraper until finally going down to the cable car station in the island below.The island, in the South China Sea, is a family resort and it looks like the entire island is owned by one or more companies: there are no houses, only resort-related businesses.

At the cable car station there were some preset tour packages which could be purchased and I got the most cost effective package (i.e. the cheapest). The first place on the tour was an aquarium where I could have used my new fangled SCUBA skilz to swim with the sharks. Sadly time was short so I made do with walking through an underwater transparent tunnel with sharks, manta rays and other sea creatures swimming above and to the sides.

Next stop was a virtual reality cinema ride, similar to some of the rides in Dreamworks Studios in LA. You were strapped into a seat in a cinema and as the rollercoaster movie played, the seat moved. I had expected it to be quite childish(!) but when we were warned that those who felt unwell or those who were pregnant should avoid it, things started looking up(!)... and sure enough, you had to hang on tight and sometimes you were thrown out of your seat by the seat-motors with just your seat belt preventing you from ending up on the ground. There were two movies which were shown and between the movies, the operator asked if anybody felt if they weren't able to handle any more... and some adults did actually leave (to a chorus of giggling from the other people present :) All-in-all, rather enjoyable and it gave a great massage :)

Last up was the Skytower which went up to a height of 130 metres and rotated at the top enabling you to take pictures of the surroundig area.

So, is it worth visiting? Well, I found some guide brochures of Singapore in my hotel and there just didn't seem to be much to do in the area: Sentosa at least passed away a few hours. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't have been overly upset had I missed it. Still, the kids with families who were also there seemed to have a great time so maybe I'm just an old fogey(!)

Sunday, March 12, 2006


March 11th, 2006:

What a difference. Singapore and Thailand, though neighbors on a map, are like different worlds. I departed from the simplicity of Koh Samui airport, with its coconut-tree-lined open-air waiting area and its lack of walls anywhere (there was just thatch roofs on wooden supports, which gave a nice natural look to the place), and arrived in Singapore airport where the ATM machine talked to me (it even knew my name, though it pronounced it as {ion} instead of {owe-en}, but its the thought that counts) and the taxi drivers had wireless bluetooth headsets attached to one of their ears.
The drive into the city was literally an eyes-wide, jaw-dropping experience We came over the hill between the airport and the BCD (Business Central District, the heart of most cities) and suddenly all you could see were skyscrapers sparkling and glowing in the night. Even the first shop that we saw (Carrefuore, can't remember the exact spelling of it) appeared to have more floors than the tallest building in Ireland. I was sharing the taxi-minibus with two Germans and the taxi driver was grinning back at us as we ooooh'd and aaaaah'd at the sights every couple of seconds :)

I'm staying at the Holiday Inn Atrium, Singapore, and it is the most incredible hotel I have ever seen(!) It is 27 floors tall and it has no central core. Standing in the lobby, you can look straight up through the hollow center through the glass roof to the night sky. Its a nice design and ensures that every room has a view as they are all arranged between the hollow core and the exterior of the building. I don't know how child friendly it would be though: outside each door is a narrow walkway around the hollow core and there is a low wall to help stop people and things accidentally falling down a long way down to the lobby below: that low-wall only comes up to my waist and its definitely sweaty-palms time when holding the hand rail on that low-wall and looking down at the itty-bitty people way, way down below.

Quick tip, also, if you end up travelling a similar route as I have: buy everything you can in Thailand and aim to buy as little as possible in Singapore. Its mentally hard buying things that cost near normal European prices after the amazing value for money in Thailand. For example, laundry cost 0.84 cent Euro in Thailand total to get someone to wash and dry your clothes; in Singapore, wash and dry self-service costs 8.50 Euro... urgh the pain..!

Last notes from Thailand

March 10th, 2006:

Its interesting to observe the social effects of the Bangkok Ladyboys: most conversations among western blokes, if discussed long enough, end up about them in either a humorous or near phobic manner, depending on the perceived proximity to one.
For example, SCUBA diving. What has SCUBA diving got to do with Bangkok Ladyboys?! Well, there is a checklist which must be done after putting on your equipment, before jumping into the water, to check that you are ready to go. The checks are:
-> Buoyancy Compensator (an air jacket which can be inflated / deflated to aid buoyancy)
-> Weights (used to help you sink, they must be attached to a belt but should be easy to remove)
-> Releases (check that the quick releases for the equipment are ok so that you can get the equipment off in an hurry)
-> Air (check the air cylinder, mouth pieces, etc)
-> Final check (one last check of everything)

The acronym BWRAF is used for this list and is most parts of the world a normal sounding phrase is used to remember this list, such as (if you don't like Bruce Willis) "Bruce Willis Ruins All Films" :) . Do you know what phrase is used to help remember those letters in this part of the world? "Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas"!

In general this subset of society is seen positively, bringing fun and variety to society while demonstrating how free and open this society is. The only negative comments about them relate to how completely convincing they can be: the perceived trickery and the potential for an unwanted surprise results in most foreign guys tending to avoid meeting female Thai strangers in social situations just in case all is not as it seems. This probably leaves a major section of Thai society (naturally born females) feeling left-out/marginalised, which is a pity.

It was also fascinating at the airport, as I was leaving, to see the number of middle aged English blokes leaving with Thai women who were 15-20 years younger than them. It looked like the young women were being groomed for living in England and I overheard comments such as "Eat with your mouth closed, love"! and "That's it, stand up straight!". When I had arrived ten days ago, a taxi driver had joked that we Europeans come to Thailand to steal their women(!) I can see now that he wasn't entirely joking...!

Technology wise, if bringing a mobile phone from most countries in Europe, good luck getting it working. I'm with Vodafone Ireland and was able to receive text messages, but was barred from sending messages and making calls. People from Germany and Sweden were in the same boat. The British seemed to be ok. There is probably a way of getting it working for the rest of us, but it was not obvious.
Also, if you're lucky enough to have a high megapixel camera, and you intend to upload your pictures to an online photo gallery on the Internet, you may want to change your camera settings to use fewer megapixels. For example, my 7.1 megapixel camera takes images which end up at over 3.5MB in size: uploading 150 such pictures at over 400MB in size in total is no fun when paying by the minute at an Intermet café... I've my camera now set to use just 2.1 megapixels per picture resulting in smaller file sizes (0.8MB) with only minimal reduction in image quality (i.e. The same lens and image processing chips are used in the camera: the resulting image is just stored in a smaller size file).

Regarding the nationalities of my fellow foreigners, it was the British who were the most prolific travelers in Thailand. In second place were the Japanese or Chinese (its tough for this untravelled gaijin to tell the difference). Some had a passing level of English, but most conversations with the Japanese or Chinese involved overly dramatized hand signals and gestures Still, its great that you can still laugh with someone even though though ye don't share a common language. In third place came people from Scandinavian countries and in last place were Irish travelers: I did not meet any Irish people in Koh Tao and haven't met any since the three Cork women in Bangkok. For many foreigners I was their first Irish person. It appears that we rely all too often on Ryanair for choosing destinations and those countries not on Ryanair's routes rarely if never get to see us...

Finally, some people have a near phobic reaction when it comes to insects. If you are such a person, you'll be glad to hear that the insects are few and far between (in the places I visited in Thailand at any rate). I didn't see anything big, and those insects that I did see tended to be few in quantity (so no clouds of flies, or anything like that). Just watch out for mosquitoes at dusk and don't be too shocked if you see a small spider which can both scurry along like normal spiders but which can also... gulp... JUMP! Lets hope other spiders don't also evolve this creepy spider-superpower :)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

SCUBA Diving at Koh Tao

March 8th, 2006:

SCUBA Diving is the business! Within moments of starting my first dive I found myself wondering why I had waited so long to try it. Well, alright: the near arctic conditions of the sea near Ireland may have been off somewhat putting, but now that I've started I'll have to make up for lost time.

It turns out that there are two main diving organizations worldwide: PADI and SSI. PADI is the more established brand, but SSI is becoming more and more recognized. My dive center (see below) recommended going with SSI so I have followed their advice.

The first day took only a couple of hours and consisted of meeting my fellow students (there was four of us, but the numbers vary) and watching a video about diving. Afterwards, the party scene on the beach made sure we were all suitably worn out.

The next day consisted of doing theory in the morning, followed by equipment fitting and then we moved onto the main event in the afternoon: our first dive. Taking that first breath underwater is odd, and then you notice that you sound like Darth Vader, but once the initial strangeness passes it becomes unforgettable: schools of tropical fish were all around and the coral formations were straight out of a National Geographic program. We also performed some basic drills that day including learning how to stay suspended underwater; removing the mouthpiece, dropping it and refinding it; removing the face mask from the head, waiting for about a minute, then putting it back on and using air bubbles to remove the water from around the eyes. All useful skills for...

Day three, which consisted of theory and two separate dives totaling over an hour where we swam in amongst the coral reefs and spotted various strange and colorful inhabitants. Sadly no sharks but all the drama was left for...

Day four, the final day on the SCUBA open water course. We had two dives to do in the morning, followed by some more theory, finishing with an exam in late afternoon. The first dive went like clockwork and after waiting for about an hour we went on the second dive down to a depth of about 40 feet. After about ten minutes into the dive, we were all forming a circle around one of the local residents, a "Nemo" fish from the movie with the same name. However, just as we were taking up positions, I heard a "whump" noise followed by a continuous "whooshing" sound. A part of the scuba assembly connected to my air cylinder(the rubber hose connecting the first stage to the regulator, for those of you who have scuba experience) had blown, meaning no air for breathing for yours truly. Fortunately we had practiced just such a possibility several times during the previous dives and so I followed the guidelines and ended up using the dive instructors secondary air supply. We had to abort the dive, but it was exciting stuff for a few moments!

That afternoon we went back out to redo the aborted dive and we all got through it this time aok. The exam, a short while later, needed an 80% result to pass, but we all passed and are now qualified divers. The partying we on late into the night and we polished off many buckets (the local tradition: they use (clean!) sand castle buckets instead of the usual jugs when serving large quantities of cocktails) and was at the In Touch club in Koh Tao (picture a night club with no walls, perched on a narrow beach, next to the calm ocean. They also release orange balloons with glowing candles every so often which slowly float up to a cloudless starry night... awwww.... :).

I did my SCUBA course with Big Blue Diving in Koh Tao. This conveniently located dive centre is located next to shops, bars and restaurants. I found the staff to be very helpful, the rates to be excellent (less than a third of what it costs back home AND they include the accomodation in the price: the total including tuition, rental, accomodation, certification, etc. came to 192 euro) and the dive sites to be fascinating. Interestingly, many of the dives centres on the nearby bigger island of Koh Samui travel to the waters around Koh Tao for the better dive sites.

Koh Tao, overall, is unmissable. It has something for everybody: sandy beaches, warm tropical water, plenty of restaurants and bars, lots of interesting people to meet, low crime rate (I never saw or heard of any trouble) and good value for money. Still, after living in the 35C windless heat of this paradise island for nearly a week now, there is only thing I am looking forward to in my next stop (Singapore): AIR CONDITIONING!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Koh Samui

March 4th, 2006:

My next main stop will be Koh Tao (an island off the coast, over 1000 km from Bangkok apparently) however I ran into an unexpected hitch in the travel plans... I had intended on catching an overnight train to the nearest mainland town (Chumpton) and had read before leaving Ireland that it was just a matter of turning up at the train station and buying a ticket as you are starting your train journey. This is NOT the case!!! Buy your ticket at least a week in advance as the train frequently sells out, as it did with with me... The only alternative was flying to a nearby island and catching a ferry from there.
So, that’s what I had to do: I had to fly to the nearby idyllic paradise island of Koh Samui. Darn the bad luck ;)

The flight was half a day earlier than the train so packing and booking a hotel was a rushed job. Incidentally, trying to bring a pen knife aboard a Bangkok Airways domestic flight by accident is not the end of the world(!): it was picked up by the baggage scanner and with what felt like the whole world watching I removed the knife. However, instead of giving me an inquisition, they gave me a paper stub with which I could reclaim the knife with once I arrived at my destination. Handy: a leatherman multi-tool is not cheap and I'll be sure to check where it is next time.

So, how's Koh Samui? Wow. You'll see from the pictures on my website what my accommodation looks like. I had been a bit dubious when the booking girl on the phone described it as a hut, but now that I'm here, well, millionaire's play pad may be more accurate! When you move in they give you a tropical fruit drink in a tropical fruit, then you see that your accommodation is within a stones throw of the sandy beach and then you notice how plush the room is: even the floor (solid teak with ever so slight hills and valleys in the wood for a massaging effect) screams expensive. And it is: I met a guy yesterday who wasn't happy until his accommodation cost less the 5 Euro a night; this is 100 Euro a night... If I had more time I would have looked for something cheaper, but you know what, its nice to live it up every once in a while! My accommodation over the coming five nights will be 4 Euro a night, so that will reduce my feelings of guilt(!)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Last day in Bangkok

March 3rd, 2006:

Today was my last day in Bangkok. Three nights is too short: I'd aim for five if doing it again. I did get to see the infamous Koh San Road (backpacker mecca) but missed out on sights such as the Floating Market and the Grand Palace.
Speaking of the Grand Palace, if you go to see it, watch out for the Tuk-Tuk scam. One of the girls I met yesterday had heard about it but due to the smoothness of the conmen she and her friends still managed to get caught out by it(!) Basically, you go to Grand Palace and as you are entering the gates an official looking guy comes up to you and gives you the bad news that it is partially closed for a couple of hours at this time of the day and only Thais' are allowed to enter (that is a lie). Handily enough, though, there are some other touristy things you can do while you're waiting. He then calls over a Tuk-Tuk (think mini taxi which has been crossed with a motor bike (they're very popular in Bangkok)) and off ye go. The Tuk-Tuk driver is knowledgable about the area and helpfully knows some local tailors and jewlers where you can make a good deal and drives you to them. At this point the girls knew all was not right and wanted no more of it but got caught off guard when the driver started talking about Roy Keane! (a well known footballer from Cork) After another bit they demanded to be brought back but then had to haggle with the driver to reduce the bill for his services.
Apart from the Tuk-Tuk drivers be prepared to fend off suggestions about getting a suit (4 times it happened to me during my stay. I'm trying not to take it personally) and also if you mention that you’re travelling to somewhere outside of the city you will get suggestions from people who know people who work at hotels where you can get a great deal. These suggestions will even come from people in official jobs (airport staff, hotel staff, etc),. So, keep your wits about you!

The hotel I had stayed in was the Asia Hotel. I would definitely stay there again and it only cost 117 euro total, breakfast included, for the three nights per room (i.e., three people could have stayed there for three nights and only have spent about 40 euro each).

Last Bangkok tip: apart from avoiding the Lady Boys ( :) ), avoid also the traffic where possible 'cause the traffic can be brutal. If driving by taxi, take the inner city expressway where possible or go with the BTS (light rail system).

Overall, Bangkok was great. Some places you’d do once, but I definitely intend to return here.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

March 3rd, 2006:

So you travel over 10,000 kilometers to the other side of the world, and guess who sits down next to you on a bus? Yesterday it was a girl who, it turned out, works 5 minutes from where I live in Douglas (Cork, Ireland), a friend of hers who is also from Douglas and a girl from near Midleton (just outside my home town)! It was completely random: there were only 5 of us on the tour and 4 of us were from the same area in Ireland. Mad!

What tour were we doing? The Bridge over the River Kwai. It is situated about 2 hours outside of Bangkok and is definitely worth the trip. Our first stop was at a war cemetery where are thousands of British and Dutch graves It was quite sobering seeing the headstones and reading the heartfelt messages engraved on each. We spent some time looking for Irish soldiers but didn't find any.
Next up was the Museum which was a mere 80 cents to enter. Due to the tight schedule we could only give it half an hour when in reality you could spend an entire day exploring the machinery, guns, photos, and there was even a covered box with the remains of 142 POWs. The sprawling complex was fascinating and if you're in the area don't miss it.
And so, onto the bridge itself. Now, the original wooden bridge that the POWs built was built by them so as not to last very long, and it didn't. So, later a steel bridge was built to replace it and that bridge is still there today. Trains still use it and it is also VERY popular with tourists. Walking across it is not for the faint hearted as at times it will feel like you're walking a tightrope. This is due to the gaps on either sides of the narrow gauge tracks and the masses walking in the opposite direction to you forcing you to the edges of the tracks: if you fall its a long way down to the river...!

After lunch in a restaurant on a river we had a go at bamboo boat rafting, took a look at a waterfall (while trying not to stare at Russian models doing a photoshoot ;) and finished off with an elephant trek through a jungle (quick tip when being carried by an elephant: hang on tight!)
Overall, the tour (organized by River Sun Cruise of Bangkok), was a bit too rushed for the River Kwai section and I could have given the rest of it a miss without being too upset so if you are doing a tour in this area try to devote an entire day purely to the bridge.

Friday, March 03, 2006


March 2nd, 2006:

Before I left I mentioned it to people that I would be traveling by myself. The reactions were either "won't you be bored traveling by yourself?" or "that's great: you'll meet more people that way". So, which reaction is proving to be closer to the mark? The second one: after one day I already have a half a dozen phone numbers and email addresses from people who want me to look them up if I pass through their country. So, if you too are thinking of travelling by yourself but are worried about not chatting with anyone: don't be! Its real easy to meet interesting new people.

March 4th's activity involved a guided tour of a number of temples, a palace and a ruined city. The tour was given by an interesting chap who revealed details about the path every Thai guy has to follow. It turns out that after school they have to do two years of military service after which they have to become a Buddhist monk for a period of time(a month I think). The Buddhist monk involves doing the whole nine yards: shave the head, wear only orange robes, have only one meal per day, etc. Apparently it leads to a calmer society, however I notice that this is not reflected in the driving skills of the populous which is at times like watching barely controlled chaos(!) The upside to driving in Bangkok, though, is that petrol is a lot cheaper than in Ireland: it was 1.09 Euro a litre when Ii left Ireland and what is it in Bangkok? A mere 56 cents a litre...
Another point to note is that the language skills of my fellow non-native-English travelers puts most native-Engish speakers to shame: everyone could hold a conversation in English (though the Japanese school girls were a bit hard to follow with the incessant giggling!), many had three or more languages and the maitre'd of the local restaurant had no problem when I tried to slip him up by talking in French instead of English.

So, our first stop of the day was the Bang Pa Palace. This is well worth a visit to see its traditional palatial buildings and traditional Thai gardens.
Next stop was Ayuthaya, originally the capital city of Thailand but which was destroyed in fighting with Burma hundreds of years ago. Only the ruins remain and provide a most interesting sight.
We then stopped in at a number of Buddhist temples and were given an introduction to Buddha statues. We also saw the third biggest Buddha statue around: 42 meters in length.
Finally, lunch was served on a river boat and we leisurely made our way back to Bangkok on the local river.
Overall, the tour is well worth doing and was organized by the River Sun Cruise tour operator in Bangkok.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


March 1st, 2006:

Well, in case there was any doubt Bangkok is HOT! According to the local American(?!) radio station it feels like 45C today in downtown Bangkok... so, pleasantly warm, and just a bit warmer than Ireland's 8C, so I ain't complaining.

The flight over was... interesting. It started off well: I had watched many, many episodes of Air Crash Investigations and fully expected the improbably large 747 to explode as soon as he started the engines, but somehow we managed to take off. It was packed with people in their 20s and 30s, except for the 5 year old directly behind me who shall forever more be known as The Plague-Ridden Demon Child (TPRDC for short).
The first sign of trouble was when I and my neighboring passengers heard what sounded like somebody eviscerating himself(!): a loud "Urrrgggg!" sound followed by a wet splashing sound.... Hmmmm.... And then came the smell: quite unique. So, at least once an hour the quiet tranquility on the plane was shattered by the cry from TPRDC: "I need a sick bag!" and the rest of us groaning.
Still, after about eight hours of that he managed to recover sufficiently to be able to repeatedly kick the back of my seat. Ahh yes, good times!
On a brighter note, British Airways is no Ryanair: they poured on the food and drink, each seat had its own TV and when they made a little culinary error (they forgot the knives and forks for breakfast) the captain kept coming on the intercom sounding very contrite and apologizing and wanted us all to lodge customer service complaints with BA: Ryanair, on the other hand, would probably have tried to charge us extra for the privilege of getting that authentic Far-Eastern no-knife-or-fork experience!

As for Bangkok, well I've good news: the King is alive and he's crooning in my hotel, although he's gained a strange Thai look to him. The city itself is VAST: it stretches to the horizon in every direction and there are skyscrapers everywhere. Its strange to see roadside billboards in no less than three languages (Thai, English and French) and quite a few people here wear filters over their mouth to help with breathing in the city streets. Other oddities are that the shower head only gets up (my) chest height and the dinner portions are smaller than you'd find in the poshist restaurant in France.

So, would I want to be anywhere else? Not a chance.

P.S. If you're in the area, try the local "Singha" beer: at 6% proof it shure hitsh de schpot!