An education from Past to present

After returning to Bangkok to collect my over weight backpack, I chose a route that would take me to northern Thailand then over the border to Laos. I really wanted to catch the overnight train to Chang Mai however the 2nd class sleepers where booked out for the next few days and I really didn’t want to spend anymore time in Bangkok.  So I took a nine hour bus to Sukhothai instead.  There was of course a bonus, I needed to learn a little about Thailand’s history and the Sukhothai historical park seemed just the place.  Its literal meaning the dawn of happiness’, the capital of the first independent Thai Kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries.  The park comprises the ruins of royal palaces, Buddhist temples, the city gates, walls, moats and the water dyke control system of ancient Sukhothai.  This would surely help me because of my lack of Asian history.  I spent two days at the site.  Although not as mind blowing as Machu Picu, set up in the Andean mountains, or as vast as the Egyptian Pyramids, the Sukhothai site is still a work in progress so to speak.  Beautifully manicured areas and amazing ruins still being excavated and processed.  Actually the place is so big you really need a push bike to see it all and in retrospect I wish I had done exactly that.  However on one day I walked around the main site and the next I spent strolling around other ruins but most of the day I spent in the museum and it was here that I learnt more than I ever could imagined.  I am often in awe of the people who help reconstruct ancient sites.  I do wonder however why these places always make the ancient life look so idyllic.  Like “let’s make the world great again”.  If u know what I mean.  I also wonder who controls the narrative, as many large artefacts have been recreated.  But maybe that’s just me digging deeper than I should.  Religion and past empires are often shown in some glorified way, so we in the present feel some sense of gratitude.  Don’t get me wrong, The ability to design, then construct such monuments and the array of intricate features from such a long time ago is mind blowing.  I am still not educated enough to understand everything to do with buddhism however here is a link for further information about  the various Sukhothai monuments and features.  I’d rather not try.

Apart from visiting the ruins I decided to get a little more aquatinted with the local area. What a way to do this by riding a bike for a day.  We rode around the lane ways of Sukhothai, meeting local market owners and learning about the use of various foods.  We then road through the farmland a combination of rice fields, tobacco and a range of other vegetables and fruits.  The scorching sun made the ride at times unbearable, I don’t know how the farmers and their workers face up to it day in day out.  If somehow wearing their wide brimmed hats with cloth draped down their neck and back, gives them some sort of relief.  To think that is also meant to be the colder months.  At times we would pull over under the shade of tree just long enough so our sweat would cool us down, then back on the bike pedalling at a decent speed.  I suppose what kept me going was the music the played along our journey.  Every 100  meters or so a loud speaker hung from an electrical pole and sounds of traditional Thai flutes lulled me into a time gone past.  Although I have never been to Thailand in a time gone past.  You could hear it from the rice fields from quite a distance and without me asking I am sure it is a way to help the farmers work in the hot sun.  It certainly helped me continue to pedal.  We eventually made it back onto a main road and 5 km’s further to a house owned by a friend of the tour guide.  It was the first time I had been into a locals house and we weren’t there for a tour, but for lunch.  We must have looked like cooked lobsters as I peeled myself of the seat.  I even had problems trying to organise my thoughts and missed the opportunity to have a hose down.  Not to worry, before I had time to say sà wàt dee I was whisked away and given a towel, a foot bath, herbal tea, fresh water and enough food that I couldn’t lift my leg over the bicycle seat for the ride back.  This was more than I hoped for, especially when we met the rest of the relatives.  After we had finished our lunch we were introduced to the family and excitedly introduced to a young boy.  At first I wasn’t so sure why this boy was special, even though he was very cute.  However before long I realised what all the fuss was about.  I kept on hearing boy girl, boy girl, for a second I thought there was going to be a show with boy girls parading around like in Phuket.  Then to my surprise they were pushing the young boy towards me.  He was fully made up and I was a little envious of his eyebrows.  I was then told that they were very fortunate that their family, a large one at that have a boy girl.  They were very excited for me to meet their special child that all the kids performed a song for us and of course guess who had the staring role.  Not only did he have the starring role but a very spoilt child to boot.  He seemed to have the best of everything, the first and last of everything also.  I was fascinated not because they had a boy girl but maybe because they are revered in similar ways to that of the Fa’afafine’s, who are men raised as girls and identify with that gender in Samoa.  I did notice the night before during the market festival, many boy girls also performing.  They weren’t seen as odd or even left out, the complete opposite.  For a second I wondered why I was so intrigued that there were so many boy girls.  Should I be curious? I was told there were many families all over Thailand that have Boy girls and unlike many countries they were proud and saw themselves are privledged to have a boy girl in their family.  Unlike some of the stories I have heard about the Fa’afafine’s where abuse is often common.  However I must note, was he lucky he had a great family because I am sure just like the Fa’afafine there would also be disturbing stories.  However with this only one experience to go on and the belief that boy girls in Thailand are treated with honour, I was pleased to see an inclusive system of respect.  Finally, as I write this I am wondering why I am writing to you about boy girls, why would you care?  Well one reason is that in our society we often see gender differences as an affliction as a curse, arguing over semantics like what toilet should they go to.  How refreshing it is to travel to a country that doesn’t seem to have this affliction.  Oh and how we could learn so much about how to treat a small group of beautiful people who just want to live their lives like everyone else.

I could continue to write about the bike journey as we cycled at a slower pace along the river.  Riding past rickety homes held up by whimsy poles to protect the houses from the rising water when the river floods, old men repairing their equipment sitting under large trees and women crouched down lighting small coal fires in pots ready to cook dinner.  I could also write about the fisherman we met catching small fish by net as his wife drank a bottle of rice whiskey and danced a better version of my bogan dance.  Or the fun we had at the bar we went to, sipping a Mojito and listening to 1970’s hits like Bonney M.  This was all in a days work and more than I could learn ever from a text book, a newspaper, a documentary or a you tube video.

Road to somewhere

The bus journey to Sangkhlaburi was nothing special but I wasn’t expecting a ride through the Himalayan mountains.  I did not read much about this area as I only chose to come his far because I made an error when booking my room in Thong Pha Phum and I had 3 days to kill.  In a way though the unexpected is the most enjoyable.  It’s like going to a movie without reading the reviews and being pleasantly surprised.  Thais visit Sangkhlaburi and the surrounding area for weekend trips and I met very few international visitors.  The hotel I stayed at was remarkable, not just because of the price but the location.  It is not often you stay in your own room for hostel prices right on the lakes edge.  The bonus, you could watch the sun set behind the hillside with a large Wat standing proudly on top.  It’s gold facade shinning brighter than street lights as the sun set behind.   The other unexpected bonus was that a group of photography enthusiasts from Bangkok had booked the weekend away with a photography instructor learning how to take photos at night.  I just happened to be setting up my gear when the instructor started chatting to me.  After a while he invited me to join their group.  At first I was a little hesitant because I am sure the group had paid handsomely for the weekend away, however they all seemed to want me to come along.  They of course had the most amazing camera equipment compared to my kit, however its not the size that matters, it how you handle your equipment.  At first I thought we were going to learn the basics about how to use aperture and shutter speeds at night, something I love to tinker with.  However as I soon found out this course was not just some ordinary photography course, the main aim was we were learning to create light painting, (photo trails) painted by fire using steel wool, sparklers, torchlight and glow sticks.  Sens-bloody-sational, I had always wanted to learn how to do this.  I know I had tried this activity with students once in the dark room with glow sticks and with limited success.  However this was on another level.  I actually think (looking at my photos) I was pretty successful.  I know a teacher who now has some of my technical notes, I just don’t recommend using steel wool in the dark room, but hey you can blame it on me!!

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Since Sangkhlaburi is so close to the Myanmar border there were many different groups of people who inhabit this part of the world.  There are many Burmese that live in the area, most escaping the regime, including Karen and Mon. These marginalised people lost their land when the government flooded the area over 30 years ago to build a dam. They lost their livelihood and their land; sound familiar.  Many of the people today live in houses on the lake.  One of the main attractions is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand that you have to cross to get to the other side. Of course there is a new bridge for transport which has now opened up the area for more mundane reasons, like logging and tourist shops selling traditional garments.  I spent a day roaming the streets and taking a boat ride around the lake.  There are Orphanages, mainly housing refugees (none were on their way to Australia) and I met a young girl who has returned for the 2nd time to work with the children.  She helped me learn about some of the issues that the kids face within and outside of the orphanages. There were also various NGO agencies trying to educate the Thais about the work that they do.  I believe that once they complete primary school many children have to leave and fend for themselves, without offical documents or an identity.  Some make their way to Bangkok hoping to earn money however unfortunately most end up with scrupulous men or get caught by police and sent back to Myanmar. Sadly, the Karen’s and Mon’s have become beggars for tourists, children sit on their own or with other children and beg to paint your face or perform.  There is a support network at least, with various community groups making a concerted effort to assist, although I think the government really just gives them lip service.  The weekend I was there like many weekends in Thailand the market area became a place to showcase music and dance and a place to speak about the issues with the Karen, Mon and the Burmese.  I started to feel a pang of guilt that maybe I should stay here and help out.  However after doing months of research back in Australia about volunteering unless you have specific skills, short term volunteering is often a hinderance rather than a cure, so I donated some money and bought plenty of food the kids had made.  I am sure when I feel I can really make a difference I will spend more than a couple of weeks to volunteer.  Teaching english is really not what they need, more a sense of belonging and that someone cares and I needed to get to Thong Pha Phum, in a sense my journey had just begun.


Your can do it, yes you can.

I love to go to a place that I often saw in documentaries when I was a young girl.  I loved watching very old episodes of Tarzan and hoping one day I could go to those places. Therefore it was a no brainer, that I would at some point have a journey into the mountains in Thailand.  I knew there were plenty of out of the way places up north, however at the time I wasn’t going to go that far. So when I read about Thong Pha Phum National Park, a park that also stretched well into Myanmar, I was won over. The bonus, the park had tree house accomodation.  This sounded cool, I did find a couple of You Tube videos and the images were amazing.  Another tick was apart from a few paragraphs in Lonely Planet I wanted to challenge myself and explore a few places often only Thais who have transport could visit.  Of course nobody seemed to know anything about the national park or how to get there.  Even the locals including the girl at the tourist office in Thong Pha Phum were bemused as to why I would want to stay there.  Without your own vehicle or the ability to ride a motorbike you are very limited.  I was so nervous about this trip to the national park that I nearly stopped myself from going.  However Bell the owner of the hotel where I stayed in Thong Pha Phum took me to the van stop and the lady who owned the food shop, where the van picked up passengers fed me and helped me with supplies which made me feel a little bit reasured that this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. 

The two hour journey to the National Park started slowly, I was a bit disappointed as the road seemed in good condition.  Maybe the comments I read about the dodgy road must be outdated as the ute was making good progress.  When we stopped for a toilet break I noticed that the driver started tying things down.  I don’t think I consciously knew at the time but in retrospect he knew what was coming.  It was only a few minutes after our stop when the ute slowed down, I peered through the gap between the cab and where I was sitting to see the road narrow from three cars wide to a car wide.  The ute was now laboring, women were using we what seemed to be smelling salts and some were huddling up to each other, it couldn’t be that bad could it?  I think I could have walked faster than the ute, which was also swaying side by side, switchback after switchback.  As the incline increased it also meant that we had to hold onto anything available, often squeezing my legs up under the seat and my hands gripping on for dear life.  At times all you could see when weaving around blind turns was the edge of the mountain, no road barriers and eroded edges that led to the bottom of the mountain. God help us if we met a car or truck coming the other way, but I had trust in the driver.  As we continued to climb the mist began to roll through the mountains.  The stillness of the environment with only miles and miles of lush jungle was awe inspiring.  It reminded me of the journey I took long ago through the African jungle and the Amazon, and I was thrilled that I could have another experience.  There is something about an unlogged environment that makes the hairs stand on end.  To think that there are very few places left on this earth.  A bonus with this trip was that we had the pleasure of enjoying the company of an older lady who was sat in the cab and was from the e-Thon, a closed border town with Myanmar. I am sure she made the driver stop at the scenic lookout or he didn’t have any other choice as she had the ability of talking without taking a breath.  (I think I saw a little of me in her) I also think the driver just needed a respite from the chatter. She was obviously well known through the community as she seemed to know every person getting on and off the van.  She even took me to the police check point when I arrived at the National Park.  Even with considerable language troubles we were still able to communicate.  There was no way anthing out of the ordinary was going to happen at this police check point anyway.  So with a hug and further chatter the ute drove around another bend out of sight.  I paid my money and was given a key and that was it. I was like, where do I go, but without google translator or any other way of asking I picked up my bag and walked past the check point into the unknown.  

I must have walked about 300 meters when I saw a sign, written in Thai but with an arrow and numbers, 400m.  Oh good I thought, not a problem I’m sure this must be where the tree house is.  I was really felling like was the first solo 54 year old out in the middle of nowhere and looking fwd to what would be a great place to stay.  That was until I walked around the corner.  I don’t know who designed the road, but I couldn’t see the top of it and suddenly 400 meters seemed like 10km’s.  Luckily I bought my walking sticks, so with no other choice I began the climb. I think I must have been at a 50 degree angle, I was looking down and my forehead was nearly was touching the ground when I heard an engine.  For a second I was like, hell now I have to try and not fall flat on my face and make a complete dick of myself.  I dropped my bag and turned around to see a Ute slowly moving up the road and in the back a group of army cadets.  As they drove past me, one of the cadets yelled out and the ute stopped. The next thing I know I was being carried and lifted into the back of the Ute. I clambered my way up to the front and held onto the bar with dear life. I sort of felt like a damsel in distress standing on the back with 1/2 dozen army cadets!  I started laughing nervously as they were all staring at me and speaking in a quizzical tone.  Then out of the blue someone says in english “you on your own, lady?”  I didn’t know if that was good or bad so I smiled and said “Ah yeah I am, why is that ok?”  I mean what the hell else was I going to say.  “No, my husband is waiting for me in Thom Pha Phum so you better leave me alone.”  They all turned and looked at each other in either horror or what the F, is she crazy kinda look.  I started feeling a little nervous, I mean, I am on my own, I not what you would call ready to defend myself in shape wise and I don’t speak a word of Thai, let alone there wasn’t any telephone connection.  However before I knew it the ute stopped, they grabbed my bag, picked me up and plonked me down in front of the tree house which faced the most amazing view I have seen in years.  All good in terror and war, I thought. 

After roaming around the park for a couple of hours I decided have a bite to eat. Nothing like cold curry and rice, a few choclate biscuits and warm mango smoothie. What else did one need as I watched the sunlight slowly disappear from the mountains. As darkness took ahold I sat and listened to the night animals take over, sort of eery on your own.  So I decided that I would hit the sack, I sealed my food and hung it up on the hook.  I know from my experience in Tassie that you should never leave food around, but that is another story.  So I tucked mysef in with some background music for company.  I am not sure what time it was but I did wake at sometime and hear some noises, I tried not to freak myself out and went back to sleep. I am not sure how long I was asleep for when I was again woken to scratching sounds.  I froze quickly trying to think what the hell it was, then I suddenly realised, for some reason and I don’t know what I was thinking but stupid me did leave some some food in a bag on the floor next to my bed and I totally forgot. Yeap, you guessed it Mickey mouse and probably his family decided to befriend me during the night and decided to head into my bag.  It’s funny how during a moonless night, in the middle of a strange land, on your own, the million thoughts that go through your head.  There was no way now that I was going to sleep in my bed. So I grabbed the blanket, locked the door and sat on the balcony looking out at a moonless sky. It was when I had to go to the loo that paranoia really did creep in.  I decided that it was better to go down the stairs from the tree house and relieve myself on terra firma than using the pretty primitive loo in the tree house, plus I would have to go back through the bedroom. So as I climbed down with my trusty light, which I still didn’t know how to use properly yet, I noticed a car parked behind the tree house.  My initial thoughts were guards sleeping and protecting the area.  Of course I still don’t know what the guards were thinking when I got my lift.  So I flashed my bright light around and tippy toed around to find an out of view location.  Suddenly as I was relieving myself I heard the car doors open and shut.  Bloody hell, so with half my pants down, I quickly made myself back to the tree house.  Who were they, what do they want?  Suddenly Mickey became the least of my worries.  I listened and crept around the balcony to see who they were.  I heard the doors open and shut again however, after a few tense moments I composed myself and decided that the best course of action was to stay up and wade through the night.  At least if something did happen I had my camera for evidence, a headlamp, a bottle of water and food hanging from the hook.  So for the next 4-5 hours I made myself busy hoping no-one was going to climb the stairs.  I learnt a lot about using my video on my camera during a dark night and how to work my headlamp, whilst listening to a podcast I downloaded from the Record Doctor, the unhcharted hits from Madonna.  Nothing like listening to, “I F’ed up, I did it again, nobody does better than myself” to make you feel at home.  

When the sun started to rise I noticed that it wasn’t guards or even some crazed madman but two women sleeping for the night in their car.  I think they were scared also because when I made my way down and they saw I was just a little old lady, they started laughing hysterically.  For Mickey, he enjoyed my biscuits, thankfully he wasn’t anywhere to be found and he left no trace in my bag.  As the dawn became daybreak I realised I had to get transport back to Thong Pha Phum so I made my way back down to the police check point.  This time without a lift, but at least it was down hill.  So with my limited knowledge of Thai, and my horrible drawing skills I asked the police what time the van came, 7:30 the young man wrote, great I thought only a 15 minute wait.  What a joke, either they had no idea what I was asking or they really had no idea when the van came.  I spent the next two hours watching ants disect and carry a dead cricket away, what amazing little creatures they are. When the transport did arrive I was thrilled (for a minute anyway) to know I was going back until I realised that there wasn’t any room inside.  I spent the next 2 hours, going down the mountain hanging off the back of van with my backpack wanting to pull me down with it. The exhaust spewing carbon monoxide my way whilst the van weaved its way down the mountainside.  To say I was excited about returning to the bus stop was an understatement. Let’s just say I got a lifetime of carbon monoxide, until I returned to Bangkok.  After a 10 hour journey back to Bangkok, I suddenly realised what an achievement. Sure not everything went to plan, but having the opportunity to give it a go and to spend 10 days traveling to areas outside my comfort zone and without the use of a guide book was rewarding.  The moral of this journey was having a dream, ambition, hope and a goal. What would life be without it?


A railway to nowhere

Traveling solo can bring a real sense of achievement.  I felt this when I returned to Bangkok after 10 days of traveling along the Thai-Myanmar border.  A route that people often do through organised tours from Bangkok and often ending at the bridge over the River Khwae or the beggining (or end) of the Death Railway.  I sensed that not all was great at a town call Kanchanaburi, the location of the Bridge.  There was a real divide between tourists and locals and part of Kanchanaburi was a place for ex-vets.  The owner of the hotel I stayed at confirmed this to me, lamenting a time gone past.   When he would have bookings for longer than one night.  He blamed this on the many tourist bus in, tourist bus out types of places, where hordes of visitors come, take a photo, buy cheap souvenirs and leave.  I also noticed how large hotel chains were eating up the river for wealthy tourists.  I myself visited the bridge 8 years ago and came here for the same reason to see the bridge but I remember thinking what was further up the line, I also noticed that the place was like a border town.  So this time I wanted to catch the train to the end of the line and continue on, first to Sangkhlaburi, (the last town before the one of the many closed border crossings with Myanmar) although not planned, then back to Thong Pha Phum. 

I am glad I spent a few days in Kanchanaburi, not because I was invited to dinner with a lovely Malaysian couple whom I met in Bangkok or even chatting with ex-vets who wanted to dispel the stereotype.  I’m glad I stayed mainly to educate myself about the history of the famous railway line and the people who were sacrificed and sacrificed their own lives for a better world.  How apt in todays crappy war laden world we live in.  What has changed in 70 years I ask?  By visiting the museum and walking around the cemetery I learnt not just about soldiers from my own country but the realisation that 100,000’s of Asian prisoner of war peoples were slaughtered in the process.  I am sure I knew about this and many diggers told stories about them but I had no idea of the treatment and how they came to such a killing field.  The museum gave me the motivation of going to the memorial at Hellfire pass.  Not easy to get to with public transport but to further understand about war in this part of world it was worth any modern day issue with transport.  Visiting the memorial did give me the opportunity to talk to people I met who also visited the site and reflect on days gone past but also on events today.  We all agreed that the sad thing is, as much as this memorial was an eye opener, why is it that we live in a world that refuses to learn from history?  The events from the past are so short lived that the same issues that were faced back over 70 years ago continue today.  It was reminder that it’s time we take a chill pill and learn how to treat people with respect and not to judge one culture unfairly compared to another.  That messages of hate and fear are often led by people who fear losing their own power.  So with these idealist thoughts in the forefront of my mind, I continued my journey to the border, as Hellfire pass was only a portion of the route the Japanese constructed.  Unfortunately the railway isn’t in use any longer but the road takes the same route up to the border town of Sangkhlaburi.

Lost opportunity or a blessing in disguise

My plans for this blog was to post various stories every month or so but thanks to circumstances out of my control, (or should I say in my control if I took the time to smell the roses), thanks to a broken foot, I found I had writers block.  I just couldn’t write about or even face the prospect of writing about the incredible time I have had so far knowing that it came to a crashing stop.  For the first few days, I would say I was feeling crap, the reality of what I was in for.  I think it actually has taken me two weeks, up to the last visit to the doctors to get back into a positive frame of mind.  As much as I love traveling solo, there are times like this that having a companion would have been great, but maybe not so.  If I was with someone else there is the guilt that you have changed their plans, at least when you are on your own, you only have yourself to feel sorry for.  However, when you are on your own it is difficult to do just the little things like carrying food/drink, going up to the shop and even bathroom/cleaning yourself issues.  So the decision to book a hotel in Chang Mai for a couple of weeks was a no brainer. It gave me time to rest the foot, the convenience of room service, getting around without annoying people and probably for the first time it gave me time to reflect since I left home.  The drawback when you stay in a hotel is that it was a bit isolating, although I think I bought this on myself.  I really couldn’t be bothered.  Maybe I was harsh and putting pressure on myself but I felt I failed in someway.  It was not all gloom and doom I have seen first hand how events can have a terrible effect on the mind.  I made sure that this was not going to happen.  What did keep me focused was that I was only going to be immobilised for a short time, not a life time.  I have my mind I will have my two feet back and I did bring my walking sticks and ankle support, thanks to past foot issues.  (Maybe my sister shouldn’t sell my fathers mobile scooter, I think I will need it in the future).  Knowing this and thinking about how bloody lucky I am, made me reassess what my purpose of the journey is and to take a different tack with my writing.  The hair and tortoise comes to mind. So I will with new vigour post the next series of blogs.  Oh and I have completed the video just look for the link.

Balabac Islands

So where do I begin, I think if I wanted to go to a place like the places I travelled to back 30 years ago without any connection with the outside world this 3 day journey would be it.  The tour without an itinerary. I loved it, expect for the part where they wanted to share a shower with me and they couldn’t understand why this was not going to happen.  The bus journey to our boat took 6 hours from Puerto and without knowing I shared the journey with four Filipinos, two from Manila and two from Boracay.  Raymond and Miki spoke english and over the three days I learnt about life in the Philippines for young 20 somethings.  Christopher was our main guide, cook, sailor and the nephew of the owner of Candaraman Island.  He loved his life and wanted to continue doing tours.  He was very talkative unfortunately or fortunately I don’t speak Tagalong so I am sure I missed many interesting facts about this area.  We did have numerous brief conversations about his fear of losing the island he has come to know and love.  Many Islands have been taken by government officials for private use and Onuk a gem of a place is now in the hands of a wealthy businessman who is going to change it to a Maldives style resort.  The helipad was being built when I was there.  He knows that being able to stay here will be coming to an end very soon.  So I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy the one night I spent there.  However it was staying at Candaraman Island and sharing a night with Christophers family that was a highlight.  His mother Helen, aunty Ris and Vicky made us feel at home and prepared a wonderful meal.  Although the though of eating Balut, a egg with the embryo inside made me uneasy.  Luckily it wasn’t such a special occasion to eat this delicacy.  We sat around the table sharing our outside world with them and their lives in these parts of the world.  I was a fascination to the ladies because I was travelling on my own, single and no children.  This was certainly a talking point and one I have often had to repeat with many locals.  The most amazing aspect of the night was when Ris told me that her daughter, Donna is studying accounting in Australia and did I know a place called Melbourne.  The moment she found out that I was actually from this great place she didn’t leave me alone.  She has not seen her daughter for 5 years as she was also studying in Singapore.  She said Donna was being sponsored by her sister who has lived in Melbourne for 15 years.  It took a year for the paper work to go through immigration and it cost tens of thousands of dollars for the three year course at VIT.  She works at Melbourne central and was surprised that you get overtime if you work Sundays.  Donna was 1 of only 2 students that got an HD and was very proud of what her daughter has achieved so far.  However she does not know when she will see her again.  There was a sense though, that with the uncertainty of the islands Ris knows that this is the best for her daughter, as Ris is only able to live day to day, making the small amount from tours like ours to provide other needs.  Yet she would not change her life for the world, and wonders why people need the modern world.  Actually I agree, the modern world with the constant want of things is something we are told we need to aspire to, but what I have learnt from all the people I have met so far, there is only one constant and that is the love of family and friends, your health, good food and a laugh.

There were two events that bought us strangers together.  The 1st event was the boat trip to Onuk which only had a narrow entry through the reef and only passable through high tide.  Then the boat trip from Onuk back to the mainland through open waters.  In my haste when booking the tour I didn’t ask questions like will the boat be covered from the elements?  Also I hadn’t even thought about getting on and of the boat which consisted of a narrow piece of wood that was set at a 90 degree angle. 

We had a peaceful boat journey to Candaraman Island, not much swell as the water was protected from the many islands dotted along the way.  Anyway I welcomed the sea spray which was cooling especially with the Philippines heat.  It was the journey from Candaraman to Onuk that changed that.  Although not a major shipping channel we were closer to Malaysia (Borneo) than Manila.  You could see large ocean going vessels in the distance and the swell was considerably larger, especially in a small low lying boat.  We were also sailing into the wind, so a journey that might take an hour turned into two.  We were all happy when we made the outer reef and started to relax.  Looking over the boat’s edge the water was so clear and the colours of the reef were vivid.  Christopher moved to the front of the craft to guide the boat through water as the water become shallower.  However you could hear in the tone of his voice that things weren’t going to plan.  Suddenly, the sound of the boat scrapping the reef.  We were asked to move back, but then the propellor made a horrible clunking sound.  Even with my untrained eye you could see there was no way through.  The next thing I knew the crew and the Filipino guests were jumping off the boat.  What the….?  Was there a hole in the boat?  Raymond, his eyes as big as balloons screamed at me, “get off the boat”. I thought we might be stuck here until the tide rose, not jumping off!  Looking at the fear on the other guests eyes, water and swimming wasn’t something they were comfortable with as they huddled together with their life jackets standing on a large rock.  They were more interested in taking selfies and posing for the camera to show their friends, not evacuating a boat and wading in waist deep water.  So I grabbed my go pro and jumped in.  I just wished I had my togs on and grabbed my goggles as well, as the reef was so full of life.  I swam over to the others and I tried to reassure the young girl, by this time her life jacket was high around her head.  She was petrified, however with some coaxing she started to float with the current towards the boat.  By this time Christopher had moved the boat off the reef.  The next challenge was getting back on.  Lets just say, I use to be able to get my legs over my head, luckily I turned off my Go-pro. We eventually made it to Onuk and once settled in and filling our stomachs with food we bonded and laughed about our adventure.  That night without electricity and only my head lamp for light, we ate an amazing meal of freshly caught tuna cooked by Christopher, played cards and listened to Christopher talk about his dreams and Marco talk about his hopes for a new business venture, selling beauty products.  I have to thank Raymond for being my translator.

I had planned to wake up to a beautiful sunrise but that turned to despair when the colour of the sky wasn’t crimson but dark grey and ominous.  I could see out in the distance the chop of the sea and I could hear the roar of the waves pound against the reef.  So to did the others.  This time I was ready, I had a plan, just wear my togs and sit further back in the boat.  I am sure everything will be fine.  Christopher got word that the boat was struggling to reach the Island to take as back.  The sea was angry and after a while, with the help of a pair of huge binoculars I could see a small object bobbing up and down in the sea, so tiny and powerless.  I think from the time we first spotted the boat till it reached the outer reef it took 2 hours.  Of course the next problem was how the hell were we going to get past the reef.  After several attempts they decided to anchor the boat at the reef and we were going to meet the boat in the swollen seas on a small wooden canoe.  OMG how the hell are we going to jump from one boat to the other?  Ask no questions I decided was the best option.  So did the others.  So we all crammed in and set off.  The boat was so low in the water my eyes were at water level.    The next trick was leaving the inner reef and tying the canoe to the boat.  It took several attempts whilst the boats were bobbing up and down like yo-yos.  Still the question how do we get from one boat to the other?  I wish now I had my Gopro because I don’t have the language skills to describe how hard this was.  If yesterday was a hassle this was an ordeal if ever there was one.  Somehow though we all managed to crawl on without any injuries.  Now safely on the boat we took off. I put my life jacket on, mainly for protection of the water rather than saving us from going overboard and I sat behind Raymond at the back thinking that I might get some sort of protection.  Well within two minutes that idea went out the window.  The swell was well over 6 meters and at times when on top a wave I felt I was on the big dipper.  The boat would move side to side and fall down the wave with a thud, no cushioned seats on this little beauty.  The motor was struggling, one boy was pushing the hand bilge and Christopher was tossing out water from a saucepan.  When I turned around about 15 minutes later they had changed jobs.  The only thing I was thinking was thank god the water and air was warm.  I could see land in the distance but at no time did I feel we were getting any closer.  Four hours later and not wanting to disappoint us by not going to the pink island Christopher decided to stop at a sand bank.  Now by this stage the last thing on my mind was gee I really want to take photos of me lying on a sandbank.  The boys however thought it was a great idea so of they went lying on the sand, throwing water in the air and taking selfies of the beauty of the sandbank.  I just sat on the boat feeling like I was watching a reality show.  Eventually we made it back to land the journey from the sandbank without a hitch.  The van was waiting to take the 6 hour journey back to Puerto, including a shared shower with 4 others at the back of someones house, in the middle of a field, I kindly declined.  All I wanted was a loo, but that is another story.





Sabang is a beach side town an hour north of Puerto and better known for its surf and the underwater caves.  Up to 10 years ago a place no one visited unless you stayed for a week, that was until the road was built.  Now the daily hordes of Chinese travel for a day trip to Sabang.  There is now a Sheridan hotel to cater for those who don’t need to wander too far into town.  I did think for a moment to sneak in for a swim in the huge pool, but I definitely would have looked out of place.  The hostel I stayed at was a 15 minute walk along the main road and owned by a German man who came over 30 years ago.  He and his wife created a beautiful place, unfortunately today it needs work done.  I sense in his tone that he is disillusioned with how his life has panned out.  Critical of the work ethic of Filipinos, the state of western society and the loss of an area now more interested in making a quick buck and destroying the natural environment.  His son was born in Sabang and has never left the area, he has 4 children to a Filipino who sat with me and spoke about the changes in Sabang since the road opened up.  She wants to build up the hostel again and hope more backpackers will come and appreciate what they have to offer, however because of the way shuttle vans just come in and out for the caves, the hopes of having people stay for longer for a day are remote.  She said they use to come for a week at a time, to surf and soak up the lay back lifestyle.  An example of how mass tourism can have such a devastating effect on ones life.

Although Sabang today caters for the in and out tourist, staying for three days gave me the opportunity to wander the streets.  On my last night after the day was a total rain out, I was sitting on the pier waiting for the lady to start her bbq so I could eat yummy pork skewers, I heard the sound of a man, “the speaker is now connected”. What speaker, before I could turn around music started blarring out, children from everywhere ran to the sound.  What followed for the next 2 hours was an outdoor version of bootscooting come a gym workout.  I loved the sense of community, this wasn’t run by adults but teenagers love of music and dance.  The Filipinos love of pop music and Karaoke filled the air with fun and laughter.  Of course when children take control there is the probablity that some would run amok and sure enough behind the organised dancing, the youngest of the bunch were jumping on car roofs, bonets, opening doors and basically causing mahem.  Yet not once did I see an adult repremand or stop them from playing and having fun.  I must say as the party ended and the kids returned to their homes, I danced my way also up the road in darkness to the hostel, I’m sure noone saw me doing my own bogan interpretion to Vogue!  Well I hope not.