Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday, August 29th – Paris, Ontario, Canada

We are back in Canada, safe and sound after a lovely flight home.  Cathay Pacific is now my favourite airline, every part of the flight experience was perfect.  We were picked up at the airport by my brother and sister-in-law and it was nonstop chatter the whole way back to Brantford, where we went over to my in-laws house for a visit.  They were so, so happy to see the kids!  It sounds like it was a very long and dull summer for them being without their grandchildren.  The kids were happy to see everybody and were feeling pretty good to be home.  After we had exited the plane and were walking up the ramp to the gate Magnus turned to me and said, “You were right Dad, I have to admit it – it feels nice to be back in Canada!”

We let the kids stay over at their grandparents for the first night and we were home shortly after midnight.  Yes, it would have been a great idea to go to bed but we weren’t tired so instead burst into a frenzy of unpacking, laundry and cleaning the house.  By about 4:30 or so we were finally getting tired so went to bed, but were back up at 7:30 so that we could go back over to the in-laws for breakfast.

We spend our first full day back in Canada shopping for school supplies for the kids, school clothes, getting groceries and taking care of a few administrative things.  We bumped into our friends Justin and Heather so asked them over for dinner, along with Ana’s folks.

After ten weeks of rice and noodles our first dinner back home was heavenly.  Grilled chicken and pork, with fresh garden potatoes, tomatoes, onion, basil and peppers.  Our guests brought dessert so we had an apple crumble, blueberry crumble, and a big ice cream cake for the kids birthdays!  Though I loved the food while we were away, the meal last night was simply amazing.  Man, it is nice to be home.

So, here I sit.  I was in bed by 10 pm but at 2am my eyes shot open and I was awake.  I laid in bed for at least half an hour trying to get back to sleep, but no luck.  So I admitted the Zombie Walk was upon me so I made a cup of peppermint tea then headed downstairs to the office and decided to put together a financial summary of our trip (it’s the Finance guy in me).

The trip of a lifetime cost us $218 per day.  That includes absolutely everything – all flights, visas, hotels, meals, transport, entrance fees, souvenirs, gifts, and even the extravagant catamaran trip.  If you exclude the catamaran then the daily cost is $198.  That works out to $50 per person per day.

Is this a lot of money?  Well, considering all the amazing things we did and saw, the special moments we shared as a family, and the amount of ground we covered, I would say it is quite reasonable.  With that budget we were able to stay in top quality hotels, do three internal flights on top of our main flight there, and really not have to scrimp too much along the way.  Our goal for this trip was to do all the things we wanted to do, as opposed to trying to cover as many miles and countries as cheaply as possible.  I consider every penny of it to be money well spent.

So after 70 days, 7 countries, 5 flights, dozens of bus, taxi and tuk-tuk rides, and countless miles by foot, there remains only one thing left to do to complete this epic journey...

Begin planning the next one!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Thursday, August 28th – Bangkok to Paris, Ontario, Canada

With our summer family adventure coming to a close, where does that leave us?  Within a week we will be back into the same routine, settled comfortably into our normal life.  But what is a normal life?  For some of the people we have seen on this trip, normal life is waking up on the street in pain, getting your begging bowl in front of you, and sitting at the steps of the subway station asking for money.  For others, it is waking up in a monastery, putting on your orange robe then spending your day in meditation.  Others yet will wake up, have breakfast, drive to their job in an office, work hard, then come home at the end of the day and spend time with their family.  The point is, a “normal life” is simply what you choose to do on a regular basis, and is the result of many past decisions you have made, your circumstances in life and, in no small part, some measure of luck or chance.

As an adult, I have tried to make my normal life as interesting and as varied as possible and strove to make decisions that would enable me to keep doing new and interesting things.  When I met Ana I realized she had many of the same values as me so we were able to partner up and continue on with living a varied and colourful life.  When the kids came along, we knew right away that we wanted to pass these values onto them, and that is what we have tried to do since they were infants, so this latest endeavor is just the latest (though probably grandest!) in a long series of smaller decisions we have made to pursue this goal.

When traveling through other countries, you get to see and experience so many things that force you to question and re-evaluate your own convictions.  There are things that are done better in Canada than in Asia, but the opposite also holds true.  In Canada, we over-regulate everything.  We allow and even encourage people to shirk personal responsibility and let them blame the “system” for all their problems.  We make concessions that give priority to personal beliefs instead of the common good.  Small interest groups drive public policy and politicians cave in instead of making the tough, right decisions and sticking up for Regular Joe who simply doesn’t want to cause any trouble.  We don’t just tolerate other cultures and religions – we often allow ourselves to be held hostage by them at the expense of the public..  And we tolerate so much stupidity and small mindedness instead of using common sense and simply saying “No” sometimes.

But we do get a lot of things right in Canada, and that is why Canada is where we choose to live, raise our children and call home.  But travel is a big part of our lives, and I expect that our “normal” will always include spending a significant part of our time exploring other places, learning from them, and bringing those lessons home to help make Canada a better place.  And other people should do that to – especially those in roles that determine public policy so that they can see there are many different ways of getting to the same end goal.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wednesday, August 27th – Bangkok, Thailand

This was our last day in Bangkok, our last day of the trip, our last day spending 24 hours together as a family and our last day in this amazing part of the world.

We did practically nothing of interest, and I think that is the first time our whole trip I have been able to say that.  Though this was not news to me, our family is not good at down days and we tend to move through things at a fairly aggressive pace.  But this day we were truly trying to wind down from the trip so we had a nice breakfast then spend a couple leisurely hours at the hotel pool.  The kids swam, Ana and I read and sunbathed and hopped in the pool to play with kids when we were getting too hot.

We went out for lunch at a Japanese restaurant chain we had last visited back in Kuala Lumpur, and it was superb.  By now the kids are pretty versatile with their foods so have no problem with miso soup, sushi, salads and different sorts of sauces for the fried chicken and pork curries.  After this, we went to McDonalds for the final round of ice cream cones (they are 30 cents each so we have been visiting there frequently) then stood outside under the canopy to enjoy the “Daily Douche” - half an hour of intense rainfall during the mid-afternoon which we have enjoyed, and sometimes had to walk through, every day we have been here.  But with all the street food vendors, open sewers, and trash bags, if Bangkok did not get the Daily Douche I just can’t imagine how terrible it would smell.

We had some cash left over so walked through the market and Ana picked up some nail grooming equipment and the kids each got a set of super premium chopstick, so that they could continue their Asian eating tradition when we get back to Canada.

The rest of the day we lounged around the hotel room, I did some writing, we watched tv, Magnus practiced some moves with his new sword, Stella read, Ana creeped Facebook (and found a lot of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads for ALS research!), we snacked, and so on.  Basically, it was pretty much like any Sunday afternoon in February back home at the Olson ranch.  We didn’t even leave for dinner, choosing instead to eat up the rest of the food we had in stock, making it the final backpacker dinner, and a very satisfying one at that.

Before bed, Magnus balked one more time at having to go back home, looking for any possible way to extend the trip.  He makes out like he just loves it here so much that he doesn’t want to go back to Canada, but I think the real reason is that he doesn’t want to go back to school!  It seems strange - his final report card was fantastic, and he enjoys school once he gets there, but like a true boy he would just rather be hanging around with no fixed agenda, which is pretty much what backpacking is all about so this lifestyle suits him perfectly.  Stella, on the other hand, is simply satisfied with everything.  She loves the traveling, but is also excited to get home to see her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and also to get back to school to reconnect with her friends.  About halfway through the trip, there was a bit of homesickness for both of them, which was short lived, but since then they have not once asked to go home.  I guess they realized that home is still there, and always will be, so instead they returned to enjoying each day and being constantly enthralled with all the new things they were seeing and doing.

Am I ready to go home?  I would say yes.  In fact, I think I am simply saturated with new experiences.  Seeing and doing so many different things every day does eventually wear you out and you reach a point where they start having much less of an impact than they did at the start.  This is a good signal that it’s time to go home.  I am looking forward to sitting in our familiar backyard, under the canopy, enjoying a fire and a glass of red wine.  Ana has also requested that we go to the local butcher and pick up a round of the biggest, best steaks they have for our first meal.  The beef in this part of the world simply isn’t very good (unless you go to a top class restaurant and drop some serious cash) so that is one thing we are really looking forward to.  But during this time away we have realized that we can happily live on a lot less meat than we normally eat at home, so we are going to try and adjust our diets a bit.  But nothing too drastic – after all, we are Canadian so meat and potatoes will always be there on the table!

I forgot one thing.  Since we were so bored today I thought it would be a good time to get a tattoo arm sleeve.  I thought it would be a nice way to commemorate our amazing adventure.  And, along with my overgrown facial hair, it makes me look real tough.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tuesday, August 26th - Bangkok, Thailand

For our final days in Bangkok we decided to keep it simple.  So today we began with a long, long walk to and through Lumphini Park, which looks to be the largest park in the city.  We meandered through a couple markets, down a few busy streets, packed with traffic, across a footbridge, then hopped Frogger-style, across a crazy busy street and finally arrived to the green oasis.  The park itself had quite a few people there – many bikers, locals doing Tai Chi, backpackers strolling around, families having picnics and a lot of folks just sitting around, enjoying the sunny day.  There are several small lakes in this park, so we headed towards one of them, and as we approached saw something long swimming through the water.  As it came close we realized it was a monitor lizard!  And he wasn’t the only one, as we walked we saw dozens of them, some smaller ones who were on land, digging in the ground for worms, and some really big ones who stayed in the water and on the banks, and eyed us warily as we passed by.

We found a big playground so the kids played there while and Ana and I sat on one the benches, discussing our impressions of this city.  Bangkok is truly a world class city and really has something for everybody.  Besides the many rats Ana has seen lurking both day and night around the outside food vendors (she HATES rodents, like I mean she has a spaz attack when she sees one), she has really liked Bangkok.  It is quite clean, very cheap for a major city, has so much variety, great shopping, cheap markets, great food, and so much to see and do.  The air pollution is quite nasty, but that is probably unavoidable with all the two stroke motorbikes buzzing around and all the other millions of vehicles belching their exhaust into the air.  I think it’s a place we could easily live in for a while, perhaps a future contract here when the time is right?

After touring the park (and on the way out passing by an outdoor gym with the oldest and rattiest fitness equipment you could imagine) we walked back through the congested city, passing by Patpong road and an awesome open sewer river that smelled so bad it made my eyes water.  At the end of this long, sweaty walk was the Neilson Hays library, located right beside the British Club, and keepers of the largest English book collection available in Thailand.  Whenever we travel I like to visit libraries, and this one was especially fantastic as it was in the middle of a ferociously busy area, but was nestled away behind a barrier of beautiful trees and offered a peaceful, quiet refuge.  We each found a book to read and collapsed on the bean bag chairs and read for a couple hours.  They had an area with books for sale so we also picked up some reading material for the long plane ride home, which was fast approaching.

Beside the library was a cafĂ© so we had lunch, then walked back to the hotel and spent the rest of the day and evening chilling out.  One day left…

The Selfie Shaft

The first time I ever saw what I call the “Selfie Shaft” was a Facebook posting by Adam, my cousin Megan’s boyfriend.  Now Adam is a right cool dude with a fine beard and seems to be set firmly on the path to Olsonhood.  Just keep on doing whatever Megan tells you to do and things will work out fine buddy!

Adam posted a picture of himself and Megan hanging out the sunroof of their car, cruising the desert somewhere, and was a bloody stunning photo.  But the strange thing was the shot was from overhead, which made me wonder how the hell he was able to do that.  Did he set the camera timer, fling it up in the air and hope it spun into the correct position at the exact moment the shutter goes off?  Unlikely.  Was there somebody else standing on the hood of the car taking the photo?  It seemed a romantic moment, so that too was unlikely.  So I looked closer at the bottom of the photo and noticed that he was holding something like a stick, which I finally deduced must be attached to the camera.

It stuck me as pretty cool, but I simply assumed it was a high tech, expensive piece of gear that only a camera nerd would buy.  But as soon as we landed in Southeast Asia ten weeks ago, I learned I was wrong.  So wrong.

Everybody here owns a Selfie Shaft.  Backpackers, package tourists, locals - hell I even saw a homeless dude with a Selfie Shaft snapping a photo of himself lying on the sidewalk, doing a thumbs-up with a hundred baht note he had scored.  After seeing everybody walking around with one of these, I easily found one in the market and had a closer look.  It is basically a telescoping plastic rod with an auto-closing mechanism at the end which you can slip your smartphone into.  It comes with a small, round, cheap, plastic device with a button that triggers the camera shutter via a Bluetooth connection and takes a photo.

What is the benefit of using a Selfie Shaft?  Well if you are all by yourself, and want a nice photo of you with that big, beautiful Buddha in the background, then it is an awesome tool.  But in tourist land it is used for a different reason; you no longer have to rely on strangers to take a photo of you.  Which brings me to the point of this little essay – how gadgets like smartphones and Selfie Shafts have turned backpacking from the most social, life-changing, mind expanding adventure shared with new friends into a mostly singular exercise, documented precisely with a never ending series of status updates with staged selfies, and automatically touched up photos.

The smartphone is the ultimate digital Swiss Army knife, capable of replacing a dozen other devices and fitting easily into your pocket.  Of course, people don’t put them in their pockets because they always have them in their hand, looking at them.  Or holding them up in the air taking a selfie (if they are barbaric enough to have not yet picked up a Selfie Shaft in the market).  Or talking into them.  Or being talked to by them.

The great irony about the smartphone is that the social media apps inevitably installed on them, meant to build an ever-present, online, omnipotent, connected community has done exactly the opposite – driven us into a self imposed solitude and prevented us from living in and enjoying the moment.  It has given us the ability to construct an instant, invisible fortress of solitude around ourselves, because no real life person standing near one absorbed in their smartphone dares initiate a conversation.  It is the ultimately anti-social device, masquerading as a great societal connector.

Imagine this scene.  Actually, you don’t need to imagine it, and neither do I, because we all see this anytime we step into any public place where people used to go to visit and talk.  In Khao Lak a few weeks ago I was by myself in a bar in a crowded market enjoying a beer while the rest of the family was shopping.  Four young backpacker girls walked in talking to each other and laughing, then ordered drinks at the bar and sat down at a table.  Bing, the smartphones were instantly pulled from pockets or bags and the conversation stopped dead as the four of them stared zombielike into their phones, thumbs rapidly scrolling across the screen.  Nobody talked.  Once in a while one of them would giggle to themselves.  They periodically reached over, picked up their drink with their free hand, took a sip, and then placed it back on the table.  After twenty minutes, one of them actually put her phone down and looked around, remembering for a fleeting moment that she was in a tropical paradise.  She actually appeared interested in talking to her friends, but as none of them would raise their eyes from the hypnotic, tractor beam of their devices, she simply picked hers up and got back to telling her online friends how much she was enjoying the sights in Thailand.

In a McDonald’s on Khao San Road in Bangkok this week I watched two young guys in a restaurant order their food, eat their entire meals, drink their drinks and not once did they say a word to each other.  Their eyes and full attention were glued to the smartphones in their hands.  They may as well have been sitting in the janitor’s closet.

Are we so bored with each others’ company that we can’t be bothered to talk to each other anymore?  Is it not an insult when we are sitting together in a restaurant and I spend the entire time with my face in my phone instead of talking to you?  Based on what I’ve seen, it sadly seems to be the case that this has become quite socially acceptable.  But how strange.  And how sad.

The advent of the built in digital camera with a zero marginal cost of taking pictures has greatly contributed to our newfound inability to live in and appreciate the moment.  Before digital cameras we used to have to buy film, load it in the camera, take a specific number of photos (12, 24 or 36 from what I can remember) then remove the film, take it to a film lab, and then come back a few hours later and pay for your developed pictures.  Most of them would be crap, but there would usually be at least a couple gems.  The point is, there was a tangible cost every time you hit the shutter release button.  Because of this, when that adorable monkey popped his head out from the tree canopy to look down, you would take a picture or two and hope you got lucky.  Now, with the smartphone digital camera, you take fifty haphazard, thoughtless photos in the hopes that one turns out, then you simply delete the other 49…if you get around to it.  If not, who cares, computer memory is cheap.  The marginal cost of taking a photograph is effectively zero so people feel happy (and even compelled?) to constantly have a smartphone directly between themselves and whatever it is they came to see.

Are there benefits of having a smartphone while backpacking?  Of course!  Being able to book accommodation, look for things to do, research things online and keep an eye on email for any emergencies back home.  Yes, they are invaluable tools, but this tool comes at a price if you do not put it in its place.

Things have definitely changed, for the better in many ways, but for the worse in others.  The last time I backpacked, if I wanted to get a photo of just me, then I’d simply ask somebody nearby to take it.  Sometimes that little bit of human contact would turn into a short term friendship which would initiate the discovery of an interesting coincidence, or provide me with a useful piece of advice, or in most cases, just give me somebody to talk to for a few moments.  If I was curious to know about a potential day trip, I’d ask around the hostel to see if anybody had done that particular trip yet, and see how they liked it.  I wouldn’t generally book any accommodation ahead of time, so when I arrived at a new place I’d usually team up with any other independent travelers I could find and try to hunt down a decent hostel together.  All this extra contact with strangers, some who parted ways as strangers and others as friends, was a significant and enjoyable aspect of the journey.  I’m not sure if it happens this way anymore, and that makes me a little bit sad.

Maybe I’m just getting older, or perhaps crankier.  But honestly, what does the future hold for us if we continue to use technology to replace human contact?  I think there is a way to use the technology properly, but it comes down to each individual to do that and, more importantly, ask it of others.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Monday, August 25th – Bangkok, Thailand

Today, I took the kids to Kidzania, which you have probably never heard of but I can assure you it is an incredible place and a very unique concept.  It is a relatively new company and they only have a handful of locations around the world (mainly in Asia) but keep your eyes open as I fully expect they will start popping up in Canada and the US soon.

Kidzania is a miniature city where kids get to experience working in different jobs, take short courses and training, deliver artistic performances and learn real life skills like counting money, making decisions, time management and budgeting.  Each child gets a cheque for 50 “Kidzos” which is the currency used in the Republic of Kidzania.  They take this to the bank and can either cash it or set up an account, deposit it and get an ATM card they can use to withdraw their funds at any of the several machines scattered around the city.  It looks like a miniature version of a real town and has restaurants, a newspaper, a radio station, hospital, dentist, airline, courier company, veterinarian, theatre, construction site, sports stadium, car dealership, gas station, music academy, institute of interior design, Coke bottling factory, convenience store, milk factory, restaurants and so on, many of them branded with real companies.

Kids are free to roam around the city as they please and participate in whatever activities they want to.  Adults are allowed in, but are not given access to the actual stores or offices where the kids go.  Kids are able to try out careers where they are given a fixed salary to do a particular job for a particular length of time.  For example, Stella got to be a dentist, veterinarian, courier, gas station attendant and a few others, and then was paid a wage.  She then used her money to enroll in training and she did short classes to be a McDonalds burger assembler, magician and one or two more.  There are staff in each venue who run the kids through what they need to do, or teach them skills, or help them out.  It was an incredible learning environment and a perfect example of learning by doing.  Magnus’s jobs were gas station attendant, television reporter, courier, construction worker, mechanic and was even the judge in a legal case!

The kids were there for five hours and were still not ready to go.  They made it through only a small fraction of all the activities which were available.  So if you are ever in a city that has a Kidzania, make sure you take your kids there – it is an incredible, unique experience.  The best thing is that your job as the parent is to basically stay out of the way and let the kids do it all on their own.

After Kidzania we met up with Ana, who had spent the day finishing up the shopping we wanted to do and, for the first time in my life, heard her say that she was “shopped out”.  I could barely believe it as I did not believe she had any limitations when it came to shopping.  So we returned to the hotel for a couple hours of chillout, then went back to our favourite Mexican restaurant, stuffed ourselves with tacos and burritos then turned the page on another lovely day in Bangkok.

Sunday, August 24th – Bangkok, Thailand

My sweet daughter Stella turned eight years old today!  So the plan for the day was really up to her, and what she wanted to do was to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.  So after she woke up to a hotel room decorated with balloons and Happy Birthday messages, she opened her presents and got hugs from everybody.  We then went down for breakfast then walked to the Skytrain and rode to the shopping behemoth known as the Siam Paragon and picked up tickets for the 15:50 show that afternoon at the Paragon Cineplex.

That meant we had about five hours to fill.  Our initial idea was to go to this place called Kidzania in the interim, but when we got there we found out it was very expensive and is really meant to be a full day activity.  And it took us about an hour to find the damn place as it was expertly hidden in a practically inaccessible location of the mall.  So then we followed some signs to the lowest level of the mall which housed Siam Ocean World, an enormous aquarium eclipsed only by the enormous entry fee – enough to cover another month of backpacking Southeast Asia.  The next option was to simply wander the Paragon and check out the shops.  But after passing several car dealerships – Rolls Royce, Maserati, Lotus, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, I realized I didn’t have the budget to support this retail environment.

So then we tried to find another shopping place we had heard about called MBK and we ended up wandering outside in the heat for a while and found a few places, but not that one.  By this time we were all getting cranky, irritable, and generally annoyed so in times like that all you can do is eat.  We tried to find a restaurant outside of the malls (as I refused to go back in), but could only find food carts.  So I relented and we went back in the Paragon and the family pack had lunch at McDonalds while I picked up a grab bag of local food, including these nice looking sausage balls that had a hidden cache of garlic that completely polluted me and would leave me reeking of garlic for three days.

Though I’ve often lectured the kids on never using the term “kill some time” it seemed in this scenario that is exactly what we needed to do.  So we made a concerted effort to find the MBK mall and we finally did and were able to hang out there until movie time.

When we entered the movie complex there was this horrible, high pitched screaming sound and we really had no idea what it was.  But as we neared the main area and the sound grew, in fact so loud that I had to physically cover my ears, we ran into a massive throng of young Thai girls and realized there was some sort of band getting ready to play and the girls were going wild.  Now Thai girls have an extremely high pitched voice when just talking normally, so imagine the piercing sonic assault of two thousand of these neon beauties screaming at a boy band.

We got out of there as fast as we could and into the movie theatre.  Stella loved the movie and the rest of us liked it too (yes the plot was riddled with holes, but it was what it was) and after we returned to the hotel for a little break before going out for her birthday dinner.  But after a couple hours we realized everybody was out of gas, so instead we had a backpacker dinner, watched another movie and chilled out in the room.

It was not the most exciting birthday for her, mainly due to our lackluster planning, but it was just that kind of day.  We told her we’d take them to Kidzania the following day so that could be part of her birthday celebration, and she was pretty happy with that.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saturday, August 23rd – Bangkok, Thailand

One of the largest open air markets in the world is called Chatuchak and runs on Saturdays and Sundays in Bangkok.  That was our target for this day as we were in shopping mode during these last few days in Asia, looking to pick up some interesting gifts for the folks back home.

But first, we wanted to visit the MOCA, which is the Museum of Contemporary Art and located quite close to the market.  This museum just opened in 2012 and was built by a billionaire Thai man named Boonchai Bencharongkul.  He is an avid art collector and important benefactor for Thai artists.  Not only did he fund the construction of the five level building, but he also filled it with approximately 30% of his art collection, and then donated the whole works to the king of Thailand and its people!

I loved the gallery, as much as any gallery I have visited.  A lot of the works had themes of death and destruction and many were surreal, fantastic and epic representations of fantasy worlds.  Any one of these would have been perfect for the next Mastodon album!  There were also hundreds of sculptures covering many topics and ranging from a full size sculpture of Salvador Dali painting himself in a mirror to wooden carvings to a bizarre collection of half human, half dog creatures lying all over the floor.  Ana didn’t care for these too much and I believe her and Stella actually walked past with their eyes closed while Magnus and I were taking photos.

This was the first serious museum or gallery we have visited during the trip.  Yes, we have been to others, but they just haven’t been in great shape, or were poorly lit, or there were no English translations for any of the works, but usually they were all those things together.  Being able to visit a brand new, professional, serious gallery was quite a treat and I enjoyed it immensely, especially since the art was so damn creepy.

In way of perfect contrast, we took a taxi to the Chatuchak market and its 20,000 vendors and over 200,000 daily visitors.  It is a massive, throbbing, odorous, diverse, flavourful, crowded, gritty collection of every possible sort of item you can imagine.  From a mile away you could practically see the fumes rising from the 35 acre melting pot of merchandise.  Need to buy a sword?  There are thousands to choose from.  You should be able to find a t-shirt you like, there are millions of them hanging from every possible place to hang things.  You could buy textiles, antiques, hardware, Indian headdresses, electronics, art, snakeskin boots, weapons, and even pets.  There was a large open cage with a dozen baby bunnies, all dressed up in clothes.  There were vendors doing magic tricks.  Hungry?  Food stalls were everywhere, selling everything you could imagine, from roasted frogs to chicken biryani to burgers and shakes (papaya shakes, of course).

We rummaged through the chaos for several hours and when we couldn’t take it anymore, we headed to the exit, feeling dirty, sweaty and tired, but triumphantly holding a bag crammed with deals.  We took the Skytrain back to the hotel, had a chill down session for an hour or two, then headed back out to Chinatown to meet some friends.  Ana had received an email from the lovely French family we met back in Myanmar and they were passing through Bangkok on their way back home, and invited us to meet them for dinner.

We met them at Texas Suki, a nifty Chinese restaurant, and had a lovely meal, a couple drinks and a great chat about our mutual adventures over the weeks since we last met.  It was so nice meeting up with people we knew, and they are such a great family.  The restaurant had a big kids play area, so we let the apes go wild while we had a visit, and around 11pm we realized the restaurant was dark and there was nobody left besides a cook and two waitresses, who were patiently waiting for us to leave so they could go home!  So we rounded up our sweaty children went for a short walk together around Chinatown, then parted ways for the second, but almost certainly not final time, as I am positive we will meet again.

Friday, August 22nd – Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is a big place with many things to do so your first challenge is figuring out where to begin.  As it was an overcast day we decided to go for a walk and see if we could make it to the river – I had read that there was a boat you could take all the way into the centre of the city.  Plus, we were really feeling like we could use the exercise after the five days spent on the boat, where you spend an awful lot of time sitting around.  We walked for about an hour, but were still nowhere near close and it was pretty grimy walking around beside the busy street, so we flagged down a tuk-tuk and he carried us right to the nearest boat terminal.  We picked up tickets for a little over a dollar each, boarded the boat and went on a nice little cruise up the Chao Phraya river.  There was a tour guide on board who talked about the sites of interest as we passed them.  He tried his best to make jokes, but between the terrible sound system and terrible English, they sort of flopped.  At least he tried.

We got off at the stop closest to the Royal Palace.  Of course, as soon as we stepped off the boat we were in the middle of a big market, so we navigated through there and fortunately popped out at the palace.  There were many tourists around, but we had a quick look inside the gates of the palace and promptly decided to save ourselves the hefty entrance fee and give it a miss.  At this point in the journey, it’s not too hard passing touristy things up, as it is seems next to impossible to top the amazing sights we’ve seen already.  An enviable position to be in, for sure.

Instead, we just went for a big walk.  Surprisingly, beside the Grand Palace is a gigantic, empty, grassy park.  On the information board mounted nearby it told the story of the park, and how it’s had many purposes over the years, such as a test site for rice planting, horseracing and open market, but now it simply sits empty and is used mainly for official events and special public occasions.

We walked for quite some time and then came upon Khao San road, so we stopped for a drink then wandered around the crazy street for a while.  Since Stella and I didn’t want to join Ana and Magnus shopping in the markets, we instead decided to go for a five dollar, 30 minute foot and leg massage so we took a seat on two of the big comfy chairs which were set up on the street, and within seconds two Thai masseurs were going to town on our feet.  It was a great chance for us to relax and do some serious people watching.  This is Bangkok’s backpacker haven and the only people there who were not tourists were people selling stuff to tourists, which meant we got to enjoy a rainbow of Journey pants, dreads, tattoos and fabric satchels.  I saw one dude who looked like a clone of at least six others backpackers I’ve seen on this trip in various countries.  He was well over six feet tall, pasty white, skinny, had massive dreads all piled up on top of his head, a wispy beard, fabric bracelets and a pair of sweet MC Hammer Clown pants (a.k.a. Journey Pants…I just love both these terms so much I can’t decide which one to use!) where the crotch was slung so low it nearly dragged on the ground.

I also noticed there were Italians all over the place, more than I’ve seen anywhere.  Ana told me Italy practically shuts down in August for holidays so I guess the kids with cash hit it for Thailand.  I’m sure there was quite a party on this road every evening, but we didn’t really want to stick around to catch it, so I sent the kids to find a tuk-tuk for us and they negotiated a great deal on a ride back to our hotel.  She was a beautiful tuk-tuk, even had flames painted on the side!

We choked and gagged through the diesel fogged air of central Bangkok, overpowered only occasionally by a whiff of durian from a nearby cart overloaded with the toxic fruit.  The tuk-tuk man dropped us off at the station then we went to the local market and picked up a good supply of backpacker lunch food – tuna, bread, fruit, jam, seaweed chips, soups, crackers, Oreo cookies, Pringle-like chips, beer, milk, Menthos and so on.  We were fully stocked for an awesome backpacker dinner in the hotel, which we enjoyed as we enjoyed a hacked, hand-cam movie DVD we picked up in the market.  The quality left something to be desired, but was watchable….just.

Thursday, August 21st – Phuket to Bangkok, Thailand

We woke up to a cloudy and warm day and, after a slim but sufficient breakfast using up the remaining scraps of food we could find, we started cleaning up the boat and gathering our things.  Ana had already spent a good hour or two the previous day repacking our luggage so it did not take too long.  Toddy had an earlier flight than us so the taxi was there for him at 8am.  We each gave him a big hug, said our goodbyes and then watched him walk down the dock and up to the taxi, unsure of where or when we would see him next, but hoping it would not take seven years.

Our taxi arrived promptly at 10am and soon we found ourselves at the Phuket airport, on the airplane, and saying goodbye to this fine island.

We arrived in Bangkok at 11:30 and I spent most the time on the flight mentally preparing for the next and final leg of our epic journey.  It was going to be quite a contrast to the previous five days of tranquility we had experienced, but sure to hold some surprises.

We took a bus to the nearest BTS station (known as the Skytrain) and rode to the station Chong Nonsi, which was close to our hotel.  After a few wrong turns and a walk through an interesting looking market we finally found somebody who guided us towards our hotel, called Furama.  We got checked in, exploded our luggage over the room, had a brief chill-down, and then head out to find some dinner and explore the area.

We started walking and soon found a main road which lead right to the famous Pat Pong night market, beside which was a Mexican restaurant.  Imagining a novel change of dinner that would include burritos, chips & salsa and guacamole, we went in and did indeed find all of that and enjoyed it immensely.  We also noticed that birthday boys or girls eat for free so Stella made a mental note of that as her birthday was coming up in a few days.

By the time we were done it was close to dark and the Pat Pong night vendors were getting set up.  This area is known as one of the premier red light districts in Bangkok, and that was evident by the names of the clubs we passed on either side of the night market, which we tried to divert the kids’ attention away from, as most of them featured slang words for the female genitalia, in flashing neon letters.

Before things got any seedier we headed back to the hotel and called it a day.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wednesday, August 20th – Ko Yao Yai to Yacht Haven Marina, Thailand

Ten years ago this day was the day of Magnus’s birth and we were given strict instructions by Stella to get up at five in the morning to hang the Happy Birthday sign she had made for him with paper, tape and pencil, so that it would be there when he woke up.  She also constructed Happy Birthday table settings on the sly and wanted us to set those up, and to also make sure we inflated the balloons and sticky taped them all over the boat.  She had purchased a birthday card for him, bought him a present, and hidden it underneath her pillow so that he wouldn’t find it.  I feel sorry for any future love interest of Magnus’s, as she is undoubtedly going to have to gain Stella’s seal of approval before being allowed near him.  She takes such good care of her big brother.

My magical, internal clock woke me up at precisely 5am so I went out to the back of the boat for a morning pee and, while I was relieving myself, looked over the starboard pontoon and noticed a strange, large oval shaped thing in the water, with little phosphorescents flashing around it.  I actually rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, but it was still there.  I heard some movement inside the boat so went back in and found Ana awake, so I called her out to have a look at it.  She came out and we both stood there looking at it, trying to figure out what the hell it was.  Perhaps a big fish or shark?   But because it wasn’t moving that seemed unlikely.  Maybe a jellyfish?  She returned inside to use the bathroom and I went to grab a flashlight.  I brought it outside, turned it on and shined it at the creature.  The moment I did that, it disappeared!  What the hell?  I turned the light off and it suddenly reappeared.  I was standing there dumbfounded when I heard Ana say, “I think I know what the creature is, let me know if it disappears in a second.”  So I watched, and it disappeared.

“It’s gone!” I said.  Then the creature reappeared and I exclaimed, “It’s back!”

Ana appeared on the deck of the boat and said, “It’s a reflection from the bathroom light coming out the oval shaped window on the starboard pontoon.”  Well, at least it wasn’t a monster.

Despite our better judgment, we went back to sleep and were woken out of our grog at 8 am by both the kids.  Magnus was thrilled with his birthday surprise and very, very excited to be ten years old.  After we ate a breakfast of French toast and scrambled eggs, Magnus opened up his presents.  He ripped open Stella’s present first and immediately loved the Wolverine keychain she had carefully chosen for him.  Though he initially wanted to save our present for after lunch, his curiosity got the best of him and he pulled off the tinfoil wrapping paper (it’s the best we could come up with) to reveal the foam nunchuks I bought back in Patong from the weapons vendor.  The spirit of Bruce Lee immediately possessed him, but then I realized it was actually the spirit of Nacho Libre as I watched him twirl the nunchuks furiously then swing one at high speed directly into his crotch, doubling him over in glorious birthday pain.

To be honest, we hadn’t planned much for his birthday.  We actually had quite a bit of water to cover this day as we had to be back in the marina in time to gas up the boat.  As we sat in the cockpit, drinking coffee and watching the numerous jellyfish float by, Ana noticed something walking on the beach.  We weren’t sure exactly what it was, so she grabbed the binoculars and said it was wild monkeys!  We each took a turn with the binoculars and watched at least a dozen monkeys walking around on the rocks, swinging in the trees, and poking around in the sand.  It was quite exciting seeing monkeys in the wild, and a much different experience than the stage monkeys we saw through the crowds on Monkey Beach in Phi Phi.  We decided to go on a dingy mission to see if we could get close so hopped in the dingy and paddled over, trying to be as quiet as possible.  We got quite close to shore, close enough to see there were actually at least 20 or 30 of them, including babies, but as soon as the kids hurled the bananas they brought along the monkeys got spooked and climbed into the safety of the trees.  We paddled around for a while, hoping they would come back down for the bananas, but they remained wary of us, so we fired up the dingy motor and cruised over to the secluded beach.

A secluded beach anywhere in the world has everything you need for hours of entertainment.  We walked up and down the shoreline watching crabs scurrying around, collecting coral pieces and rocks, digging in the sand, finding sea glass, throwing rocks into the ocean, splashing, writing messages in the sand with sticks, finding circular shells and skipping them across the water.  We went for a long swim and floated around in the ocean.  We climbed the nearby rocks and explored the gaps, cracks, crevices, crannies and fissures, finding all sorts of creatures and objects of interest.  We snapped dried twigs from the trees and stuck them in the sand for fun.  The grand finale was a dozen rounds of hermit crab racing with Toddy’s gigantor hermit crab (the largest we’ve found yet) winning every round.  We also found the tiniest little hermit crab, who didn’t win any races, but sure put in a good effort.

Really, there was no reason to leave.  But since we still had a fair sail ahead of us we reluctantly got back into the dingy, motored back to Happy Eva, pulled anchor, said goodbye to our final anchorage and headed south around the island then northwest towards the island of Koh Naka Yai, which would be our last stop before the final run to the marina.

We sailed past the small island of Koh Khai Nai, which was packed full of tourist speedboats, people on beach chairs and had Sea Doos skimming across the water in every direction.  The island itself was little more than a giant beach with just enough land for a small grove of trees and a resort, and we read in the pilot guide that this was a very popular stopover for all the tourist boats doing tours in the area.  At this point in the trip, we just weren’t into being around a bunch of people again, so we cruised on by and continued up past another island called Koh Lipi, then turned towards our target.  Ahead we could see a big storm blowing in, but we sailed on and soon found ourselves in it.  It wasn’t as severe as the storm the previous day, but it did pack a fair bit of wind, rain and we watched the temperature again drop six degrees in a matter of minutes.

We reached the sheltered anchorage just off the huge beach on the east side of Koh Khai Nai, and dropped anchor, not far from a majestic 80 foot sailboat which was similarly waiting out the storm.  Ana had been working on lunch as we sailed so we sat down and enjoyed a nice meal of pasta and sandwiches as we waited for the storm to pass.

Though we had planned to do a bit of snorkeling at this spot, by the time the storm had cleared, it really didn’t leave us a lot of time to get back to the marina, and we were not sure exactly how long it would cover the remaining 13 miles, so we agreed to haul anchor and motor back.  The kids weren’t too disappointed as Magnus was keeping himself very busy swinging his new nunchuks around and Stella was busy with her books and iPhone.  Also, once we were underway I gave the controls to Toddy and went inside the salon to play several games of cards with the kids.

Before we knew it we had reached the marina.  As this was my first time docking a catamaran I was decidedly a little nervous, especially as there was a strong breeze and a slight current.  I motored slowly up to the gas dock, eased up on the engines, and glided in, the only problem being that we hadn’t lowered one of the fenders enough so we touched the dock a bit, but there were two staff there to push off the boat so no harm done.  The Happy Eva drank up only a hundred bucks worth of diesel, and the dingy took about twenty bucks worth of gas so we were pleasantly surprised, as we had done quite a bit of motoring during the previous five days.

One of the marina staff then directed us to follow him in his dingy to our assigned slip, which was the same one we left from – a difficult corner slip where you had to squeeze in tightly between two other catamarans.  But I was ready.  I felt I had done enough close quarter motoring to have a pretty good feel for the boat, and I already knew what the wind and current were doing from the gas dock.  So I motored in through the main channel, which was a bit of a tight squeeze in itself, and made it to the area where our slip was.  I approached slowly, then as we were getting close, I rotated the boat a bit, then reversed a bit, then when we were twenty feet from the dock, I cut the engines completely, hoping the wind would slowly and gently slide us into the slip.  And it did!  Ana even complimented me on a perfect docking, and said it was a sign that we are definitely destined to own a catamaran one day.

After the marina staff tied us up and we all had a chance to freshen up a bit, we took the birthday boy to the marina parking lot so he could do some serious nunchuk training.  He was scared of doing it on the dock as he feared he might accidently launch them into the lake on a miscalculated move.  So the big kids all grabbed a drink and we followed him out there.  I showed him a couple moves I remembered from the old Bruce Lee movies, including the one where he slowly removes the nunchuks from the back of his pants, holds them in front of himself, looks at his opponents, and then strikes a menacing pose, before proceeding to beat the crap out of everybody in the room (I didn’t show him how to do that part).  Magnus and Stella took turns striking poses and practicing their moves while we enjoyed a most memorable happy hour.  Toddy even took a turn with the nunchuks, but deployed such speed and force that one of the foam handles flew off and landed in the bush.  Magnus re-assembled the weapon and banned Toddy from future training.

We scraped up all the remaining food we had onboard and wound up with just enough for a delicious, final meal.  As for alcohol, we were left with four tall cans and enough wine for dinner so we had paced ourselves perfectly.  Ana even had dessert – three packs of Euro cakes, which were these delicious sponge cakes with cream filling inside, sort of like a Twinkie.  But I wasn’t quick enough – by the time I thought to eat one, Toddy had already devoured them and all that remained were three ripped up foil packages lying in the cockpit.  After dessert we sat in the cockpit, talked about the trip and reminisced about all the other countries where Ana, Todd and I have met up in over the years, which included England, Canada, Bahamas, Spain, Netherlands and Portugal (several times!)  Stella and Magnus were there and they started developing a plan to meet up with all the Olson cousins sometime in the future.  Stella even started putting a budget together and estimated that each of the cousins would need four grand to ensure a sufficiently lavish adventure.  So I guess they all better start saving.

For the first time, I was the last one up on the boat.  The marina was so incredibly quiet on this, our final night on Happy Eva.  The wind had died completely so when I peered over the side of the boat I could see the reflection of the marina lights in the water.  The temperature was perfect, there were no bugs and even the stars and moon were out.  I sat there enjoying the quiet, which was broken only once, by a South African sailor (seemingly the only other person in the marina) who stopped by for a quick chat and told me of some of his adventures him and his partner had experienced thus far in their voyage around the world.

I called it a night and went to bed, happy in the knowledge that we had successfully navigated this magnificent vessel around the stunning waters of Thailand.  I hoped to return here someday.

Tuesday, August 19th – Koh Phi Phi Don to Koh Yao Yai, Thailand

By 5:30 am I was awake.  I had a fitfull sleep, waking up many times to look out our cabin window and ensure we were still anchored in the same place.  The others on the boat must have been the same because by 7 am we were pulling up the anchor and on our way to Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Le, which was an island just a few miles south of our current location.  This is among the most popular day trips for tourists, as it has an amazing beach and was the location for several scenes from a movie called “The Beach” which is a bit of a backpacker classic.  The charter agency had told us we probably wouldn’t be able to get into this bay as it was east facing and nearly always very rough during this southeast monsoon season.  But when we arrived, it was a little rough, but really not too bad so we tied up to one of the many mooring balls, jumped into the dingy and cruised into the beach.  The scenery in this bay was spectacular.  I looked around to see that we were enclosed by towering limestone walls, much higher than the ones we’ve seen in the previous anchorages.

Though we were early, hoping to beat the crowds, there were already three or four tourist boats anchored near the beach, with tourists spilling off them.  We dragged the dingy up the beach and started looking around when we were approached by a Thai guy wearing a uniform.  He asked if we were the ones from the catamaran, then told us there was a national park fee we had to pay.  Of course, we hadn’t brought any money, so Toddy and I hauled the dingy back into the water, started the engine then bobbed up and down across the sizeable swells back to the boat.  Toddy did a flying leap back to the boat and got us tied up while I tried to hold the dingy steady.  He grabbed some cash while I changed into my swimming shorts, then we jumped back into the dingy, but I couldn’t get the engine started.  After several minutes I finally realized the kill switch had popped off, so I reattached, got it going and we took off across the water.  Halfway back I realized I had forgotten my camera, so we turned it around, returned to the boat, Toddy did another flying leap, retrieved my camera, and we surfed our way back into the beach, and only after we had hauled the dingy up on the sand did I realize I had forgotten to grab the bottle of water that Stella had asked for.

We followed the crowd onto a well worn path which went through the jungle and led to the other side of the island.  We expected to find something amazing, but the path just ended at a small cliff overlooking a snorkeling bay.  I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we didn’t recognize much of anything from “The Beach” movie, except maybe for the small group of stoned backpackers on the beach.  We found out later that scenes of the perfect beach and lagoon in that movie were all CGI, so that explained it.

We spent a while walking around the gorgeous beach and went for a swim while the kids built two cool sand castles.  We took a picture of the Olson family feet (something we’ve been meaning to do for a very long time…but always seem to forget!) and one of Toddy doing a handstand.  With our digital mementos, we got back in the dingy, returned to the Happy Eva which was bouncing merrily on the waves, and somehow managed to get everybody back on board without an injury.

We did a full circuit around the rest of the island, along the way nearly getting crushed by a giant, hulking, rusted dive boat, and then returned to Monkey Beach and were happy to see that the mooring ball was now free so we tied up, had a quick brunch, and loaded up what we needed for a day trip to explore Phi Phi town.  But first, we had to go and finally meet the monkeys.

We dingyed (yes, that is a perfectly acceptable boater verb, screw you spellchecker!) to the beach and found only six boats there with maybe 80 tourists – a slow morning.  The monkeys were out in full force, at least twenty or thirty of them, including some babies.  They were all professional snatch and grab primates and nothing was safe around them.  Magnus made the mistake of pulling some peanuts out of his pocket and within seconds he had six monkeys in front of him grabbing the peanuts - one of them even digging into his pocket trying to get the rest of them.  One monkey snatched somebody’s camera.  Another got a bottle of sunscreen.  Some were simply rooting through the trash on the beach, and we saw one clever fellow clutching a can of Chang beer, trying to get the remaining drops out.  Excellent, I thought, if Chang is good enough for monkeys it is good enough for me.

One of the tourists had a big bag of rambutan fruits which was immediately stolen by the biggest monkey on the beach, who was surely the leader, as he sported giant testicles, a huge red scar on his back and a face that said, “Just try me.”  We watched him pulled a fruit out of the plastic bag and expertly peel it in about half a second, then pop the juicy nugget into his mouth and toss the spiny, red peels on the beach.  Some of the other monkeys noticed he had made off with the mother load so three of them confronted him, demanding him to share.  Well, a monkey scrap ensued and they fought and clawed at each other until all four of them rolled into the ocean, which cooled them off a bit and stopped the battle.  All this while, several of the tourists had enticed monkeys to jump on their heads or shoulders and were doing selfies (or perhaps those would better be called “dualies”) on the beach.  There was a hot Italian chick wearing a skimpy bikini who was caught in the middle of the frenzy, getting swarmed by grabby monkeys.  Several men, hoping to get a prize shot, were waiting with their cameras at the ready, hoping for a monkey to relieve her of her bottoms.

This was all a hell of a lot of fun, especially with the potential for injury, but when we saw a giant boat with at least two hundred tourists on board arrive and start to back into the beach, we gathered the kiddies and escaped in our dingy to the relative safety of the crazy bay.  We zigged and zagged around the boats and made our way onto the main beach, then hauled the dingy up as far as we could get it and went off to explore the town.

I read that the 2004 tsunami had devastated this island and basically wiped out everything that was there, but there was little indication of that now, besides the construction of a giant resort and some repairs being done to the walkways.  The crowd was overwhelmingly young and backpackerish and the majority of the businesses on the island looked to be bars and restaurants, plus a couple 7-11’s of course!

We walked across the sandspit to Lohdalum Bay, which was much more peaceful than the other side and had a lovely beach.  Lining the top of the beach were a series of bars, including the Woody Bar and the Slinky Bar which, charmingly, had a giant sculpture of a penis directly in front of it, either repelling customers or drawing them in, depending on the demographic.  We then wandered through the labyrinth of narrow walking streets and found a nice little restaurant to stop for lunch.  This was the first meal we had eaten off the boat and, to be honest, it was probably the worst.  Or maybe we had just gotten used to our own cooking.  Or maybe being back in a busy place, crowded with people, jostling for space just fouled the food.  Other than the food, it was a good lunch because we were able to relax and watch the hundreds of people passing by, including one chubby man who was pushing his wife around on a trolley as she videotaped him and ordered him where to go.  It was very difficult to understand how this could possibly be the low season as every restaurant was full and there were people everywhere, but I guess that just speaks to the popularity of this little island.

We walked back to our landing point and were relieved to find our dingy still there, though less than an hour of rising tide away from being drawn out to sea.  We motored back to Happy Eva and finding her safe and sound, pulled up the anchor and head off to find an anchorage for the night, which was definitely not going to be anywhere close to the madness in this place.  As we rounded the south end of Ko Phi Phi and headed northwest we found a steady, strong breeze between 16 and 20 knots so we put the sails up, cut the engines and let the boat show us what she could do.  We were able to maintain a speed of over 7 knots and enjoyed fastest and most exciting sail yet across 20 miles of open water to the southeast coast of Ko Yao Yai island.

Our bible for the trip was the Southeast Asia Pilot guide, which is the definitive guide for cruising in this region of the world.  The anchorage we chose for the night was called “Captain Ed’s Spot” and was one of the ones recommended by the book, but at first glance it was hard to see what was good about it.  It wasn’t in a secluded bay, nor were there any spectacular sights or towns nearby.  We arrived, anchored easily in 20 feet of water, and then sat down for a happy hour drink and to evaluate our surroundings.  The best part was that we were the only boat there, and after the madhouse at Phi Phi, that was a huge plus.  The water was very calm and the shoreline offered secluded coconut groves, some rocky spots full of birds and a nice looking beach a bit further down.  As we enjoyed our drinks, we looked out across the bay to see fishing boats slowly trolling up and down the water, a backdrop of island silhouettes, the distant lights of Krabi, and this strange, green, alien glow coming from many different locations in the distance, which we later discovered were lights from squid boats that they use to attract the creatures.  We could also hear the muezzin doing the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, which must have been from a Muslim village on the island.  It was a beautiful way to cap off a day of sailing and I felt very fortunate to be there, at that exact place and exact time, with my family and our friend.  And I could definitely see why Captain Ed loved this anchorage.

As Ana and I started preparing dinner, Toddy grabbed a fishing rod and started some bottom fishing.  I had caught a single, small fish when we had first arrived, but he added to the count with at least four more bottom dwelling, bug eyed beauties!  They were admittedly small, but hey, a fish is a fish and I’ve always said a fish caught is worth ten fish bought.  It so happened that evening I did grill up the fish bought a few days prior to this at Tesco, and they turned out just lovely.

Ana, Todd and I stayed up after the kids went to bed and had another lovely chat, a few more drinks, and enjoyed another magical evening by ourselves on this vessel, which was starting to feel very much like our own.

Monday, August 18th – Koh Hong Island to Koh Phi Phi Don, Thailand

We awoke to a stunning sunrise and another calm, tranquil morning with the sounds of birds coming from the island.  Toddy and I were up first and went for a morning swim and bath in the ocean, then were followed a short while later by Magnus, who I soaped up on the swim platform then threw into the water to rinse off.  The ladies, being more civilized (and certainly more modest), used the shower instead.  As we were drip drying in the cockpit Toddy looked up and noticed that there was a heart shaped image in the rock wall beside beach, so this would henceforth become known as the “Heart Rock” anchorage.

After a satisfying boat breakfast of cereal, fruit, fried bread and eggs scrambled with all the leftover meat crud on the grill from the previous two dinners, we threw off the mooring line and set sail.  Our target for today was Koh Phi Phi Don island, one of the most popular tourist spots in Thailand, which was approximately 20 miles to the south.  One of the peculiarities of the pronunciation of the place names in Thailand is that the letters “Ph” are always pronounced simply like “P” and not like “F” as you would assume as an English speaker.  So yes, it sounds like Pee Pee Island, but is only strange the first couple times you say it.

As we sailed along we could soon see Phi Phi’s shadow in the distance, and a large storm system approaching it.  So we decided to alter course slightly for the Bamboo Islands which are a couple miles north of Phi Phi and could offer some shelter from the storm blowing from the west.  As we approached the westernmost landmass, called Mosquito Island, the ocean swell was really kicking up, so we tucked into a small bay, but were not able to anchor as it was too deep, so we continued down the windy side of the island to the end and were thinking of going straight to Phi Phi, but by now the winds were blowing at close to 30 knots and the sea was very rough, so we turned back north and travelled up the east side of Mosquito Island, which was calmer, but still quite rough, and by now the rain was pounding so hard, and so horizontally, that it was difficult to keep my eyes open.

We found a spot just off a beach where there were several boats anchored, and though it was hard to believe, there were a few tourists attempting to snorkel on the reef!  We dropped anchor then sat down to have lunch while we waited for the storm to break.  The storm cells that pass through are generally quite small and do not last much longer than an hour, and this one turned out to be the same.  But when the storm is hitting, the skies are entirely grey and the wind is thrashing your boat, it feels like it will be stuck in for hours.  Sure enough, just after we had eaten, some light appeared in the western sky and suddenly the storm was gone, leaving sunshine, calm and only wisps of clouds in the sky.  As soon as it broke, all the boats which were anchored on the reef pulled out and took off, leaving only us.  Perfect, now we had this entire reef and beach to ourselves for an afternoon of snorkeling in solitude.  But we were wrong and soon realized we were in the eye of a different kind of storm - a Tourist Storm.  Within 20 minutes seven new boats had arrived, thrown their anchors out on the reef and each let a seemingly never ending stream of masked, snorkeled and finned touristos into the water.  After a short time, three of those boats left, and four more came in to replace them, and this continued on the whole time we were there.  As we looked out there were hundreds of people snorkeling on the reef, and it looked like there was to be no break in the action, so we suited up with our own gear, leaped in and started swimming towards the reef.

Though Stella had tried a mask and snorkel several times, she had never really gotten the hang of it, but was ready to try again today.  During the swim in, she couldn’t keep her face in the water for more than a couple seconds, then she would pop her head out and continue breathing through the snorkel.  But by the time we reached the reef, and the thousands of fish appeared, and the many coral heads, she was transfixed on the wonders below her and snorkeling non-stop.  To me, the reef was not in great shape, as much of it was dead and there was not a great variety of fish (not to mention the old, discarded boat battery I saw lying abandoned in one spot), but for a little girl seeing a coral reef for the first time, it would have been overwhelming beautiful.  By the time we swam back to the boat, Stella had become a snorkeling expert.

After we were all back in the boat, we pulled anchor, sailed over to Phi Phi and continued down the east cost of the island, along the way discussing the incredible volume of tourists we just experienced, and imagining what it must be like during the high season.  We actually felt quite sad, as it was clear there were no rules for the quantity of boats that could haul tourists around and definitely no training for the people snorkeling as we saw loads of them standing on the coral with their fins, which is a big no-no.  But when the boat operators are throwing anchors right down into the reef it’s no wonder the tourists are similarly careless.  I’m glad the kids got to see it now, because there likely won’t be much of anything left to see on that reef in ten years.

Along the way we saw three beautiful, long beaches with what looked like lovely resorts behind them.  At one point Ana pointed at something in the water – a dolphin!  We saw two flashes of his dorsal fin, but then he disappeared as one of the many longboats beared down upon him, obviously scaring him down into the safety of the deeper water.  I had hoped that we’d see many dolphins, but we found out later that there are very few dolphins in these waters so we were very lucky to see even one.

We were soon at the south end of Phi Phi and turned northward into Ton Sai Bay, which is the main jetty for boats going to and from the island.  And it was busy.  I mean, real busy.  There were dozens and dozens of boats zipping around in the bay, and just as many anchored and on mooring balls.  Though it’s not possible to see while on the water, there is another bay north of this one, and two of them are separated by a sandspit, on which the town of Phi Phi is built.

We sailed across the bay over to a beach we had heard had a population of monkeys.  We got close enough to see the monkeys on the beach, but it was difficult to get a good look because of the fifteen boats and three hundred tourists all jammed together on the sand taking pictures of them and feeding them watermelon and bananas.  Instead, we continued into the bay, hoping to find a place to anchor to go into town.  After weaving through a dozen boats and mooring balls we found a spot that looked okay, dropped anchor, and had a tough time getting it set into the bottom, but when we finally did, looked at all the boats around us and just didn’t feel comfortable leaving our boat there.  It’s like the old poker saying – if you find yourself in a game and aren’t sure who the idiot is in the group, then it is probably you.  Well, we looked around at all the local boats around us and were quite sure that we were the idiots, so we pulled up anchor and started back to Monkey Beach, which at least had a nice mooring ball we could tie onto.  Along the way another storm system rolled in and soon both Toddy and I were at the helm, both wearing masks to be able to see, watching the heavens open around us.  Sadly, the mooring ball we had seen earlier was taken by a local boat, so we let down the anchor, got it set, then stood in the cockpit, entranced by the sheer quantity of water coming down.

Happy hour was called, so Toddy and I cracked a beer and Ana had a tea while we sat enjoying the cool temperature (the outside temperature had plummeted from 28 degrees to 22) and talked about the day’s events.  After a while, we were finally calm and relaxed, and our nerves, shattered by the two storms and failed anchoring, had stopped firing.  We looked to Monkey Beach and noticed there were no longer any tourists.  We also noticed there were no longer any monkeys.  But that was strange, because earlier we had needed binoculars to see the beach close up.  Oh, that’s because during happy hour our anchor had come loose and we had dragged about 200 meters right down the shoreline and were nearly past Monkey Beach and approaching the rock cliffs and reef!  Nerves firing afresh, we shot up and I frantically started the engines while Toddy and Ana scurried to the bow of the boat and started retrieving the anchor.  We got the anchor up, returned to the original spot (though a bit further out) and dropped anchor and made sure that bastard was set by putting the engines in full reverse for several seconds and ensured we were not moving.

With that, we made dinner and then called Movie Night.  So we fired up the two laptops – kids in their cabin watching the Lego Movie and the three of us in the main salon watching a terribly stupid movie called The Double where the final scene was a room filled with a gigantic spider.  Damn art movies, they just don’t make any sense, unless of course you have a nice hit of LSD handy.  We only had beer and wine so probably should have watched something with Will Ferrell instead.