Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ko Chang : playing pool with playing cards, in paradise

My view on most days on Ko Chang
Ko Chang is a large island in the east of Thailand. Although tourism has been present here for quite some time, it is far less developed than in the south Thailand islands of Samui and Phuket. In fact, the entire eastern side of Ko Chang is almost devoid of tourist accommodation.
After consulting with some experienced backpackers, I decided to stay in Bang Bao, a tiny fishing village on the very southern tip of the island - this was a good compromise between lost island paradise and tourist commodities.

Life on Ko Chang is pretty laid back - activities in which I partook included snorkeling, boat tours, circling the island on a motorbike, sampling all sorts of spicy soups, and a ton of just kicking back in a hammock.

The bay right under the cottage - decent snorkeling here too!

 Life is slow and easy here. Cheap, too, for the most part.
I had a nice bungalow for the first few days, with air-conditioning and a private bathroom (while still getting used to life post-Ethiopia, these were drastic but welcomed luxuries!). Towards the end of the stay I moved into a more rustic bungalow, right on sunset cliff. There, I just had a fan and a mosquito net, but hearing the waves splash below definitely helps with having a good night's sleep!

Lunch on the snorkeling boat. Pineapple and shrimp go well together.
It was my first time snorkeling - this was definitely a highlight of my stay on Ko Chang. Sea urchins with giant black spikes and centers colored in iridescent blues, greens, yellows and oranges, a mind-blowing variety of coral formations, fish large and small, a few beautiful jellyfish are just a few of the things for which I would have liked to have an underwater camera, but alas...

Matthias takes the shortcut to the snorkeling waters
During my first hours on Ko Chang, I met a group of three French tourists (from southern France - they pronounced "gauche" with the "O" sounds like we Normandinians would pronounce "roche", which cracked me up every time). Great people, all with a love of traveling and lots of cool stories to share, made for lovely long dinners and conversation as well as solid partners for daytime activities. More about Elodie, Simon and Matthias in the obligatory pool material further down this post!
Motorcycle fuel is stored in old Samsong whisky bottles...

Another highlight of the trip was meeting Tim, an American living in Barcelona working remotely as a freelance web designer. We got along from the start and wound up traveling together after Ko Chang, all the way to Phnom Penh. Tim and I rented motorcycles (more like glorified scooters, but still - it was the first time for each of us!) and circled the entire island. About 1.5 hours each way (there is no road completing the circle in the south), we saw the gradient of development, going from 5-star spa-resorts in the western strip to abandoned temporary fishing hamlets guarded by tourist-hungry dogs in the south eastern end.

 We had heard that the road on the eastern side of the island had some damage. This was confirmed when we got to a spot on the road with a single cone and a sign that explained "The road has aproblem. Please use careful.". A couple of kilometers later we were greeted by a gigantic gap in the road caused by a recent landslide. As first-time bikers, we had some apprehension about going around the massive hole on the strip of mud that was propped up for that purpose (this is the only way to get to that side of the island!). We did make it across without problems, very fun!
The road deteriorated quite a bit in the south eastern end. Unfinished pavement, no pavement, more landslides and crazy dogs were par for the course, but we were rewarded with breathtaking views from lesser-known vantage points. It will still be a while before the whole island is covered in bland tourist paraphernalia, but it will happen - maybe 5 or ten years. Things are changing very fast in southeast Asia, some of it is good of course, but the price to pay is traditional lifestyles and unspoiled paradises such as Ko Chang will not realistically be the same tomorrow.

Snooker-sized american pool ball set, on a snooker table
 Night life in Bang Bao is virtually non-existent. There are a few restaurants, but they close quite early in general and by 11pm you have nothing to do but go back to your bungalow, flashlight in hand, dodging mosquitos and the occasional sleeping hound. After one such restaurant dinner with the French, as we were walking back we saw some locals playing what appeared to be snooker in a local food shack. I got the French to come with me on promise of buying them a beer, were it to be available, and everyone had a great time trying to figure out the rules of this crazy game in spite of the insurmountable language barrier.

This guy is explaining the rules to me. I'm not getting it.

 This game is played with a deck of playing cards. I have a feeling this a version of the game that my good friend Jonas experienced in Cambodia (see this old post).
Each player gets dealt 5 cards face down. If any player sinks a ball, then all players may reveal and discard the corresponding card. Whoever plays all his cards first, wins. For example, on my turn, I may have an 8. If I shoot and make the 8, I play my 8 card, but the other players also get to play their 8 if they have one (or several for that matter).
The game is actually quite interesting tactically, because you can actually figure out the contents of your opponents' hands by observing which shots they attempt (if you are relatively sober).
There is quite a bit of defense. In fact, sinking a ball for which you didn't have the card, or fouling in any way meant you had to take an extra card from the deck (and if that one had already been played, too bad for you!). Unfortunately I only won 1 rack and came out down about $12 after 2+ hours of play, not so bad for such an experience. The locals were super friendly and happy to try to teach the game (and to take my money).

The whole crew

I leave you with a Ko Chang spicy soup pr0n selection. Can you name them all?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gambling in Bangkok

After 3 weeks in adventurer mode through Ethiopia, a dramatic reversal of lifestyle seemed appropriate.
Addis Ababa -> Bahrain, Bahrain -> Uneventful
Bahrain, Bahrain -> Bangkok : Secured the "ghetto upgrade" (you are on a giant aircraft and the flight is so empty you can claim and entire central isle) :

The elusive ghetto upgrade
Coca-cola in Arabic
List of things I learned between Bahrain and Bangkok :

  • Coca-cola is still identifiable as Coca-cola by westerners when written in Arabic
  • The average Greek sexpat to Thailand doesn't believe that Greece is at fault in the Eurozone crisis
  • The average German ecotourist is profoundly upset with Greece
  • Walking out of a plane in Bahrain, three temperatures - normal plane temp,  followed inside-a-steel-walkway-in-the-desert-heat, and finally ICE FRIGGIN COLD air-conned airport luxury overload does not help with jetlag
  • Most taxis in Bangkok are hot pink. Very hot.

Bangkok for me consisted mostly of having an upset stomach and moving up in pad-thai spice-level. Also, I found a pool scene. 

What Jim looks like when he's 2 ahead in a race to 5 for 1,000
Pool in Bangkok is mostly drunk farangs trying to impress Thai prostitutes for reasons that escape me. Redeemingly, for this young but storied city, it's winner stays on (read carefully you silly Frenchmen, you are the only nation in which I've never see a winner-stays-on table!). This means you can put your name up on the board, and wait till your turn to dispatch, one by one, a legion of drunk bangers. Each rack, the loser pays about $0.50 after losing and the winner breaks the next rack. Rules alternate between British style 2-shots-on-foul and  the less insane "ball in hand" rules more familiar to American players, but either way, the rules are enforced by a neutral cohort of bar-employed racker girls who actually know their job well.
I was in one of these bars, winning hard, when Jim came along and played some instantly recognizable "serious pool". After he beat me he asked if I would gamble, for minimum 1,000 Baht. So we went to a nearby and more serious pool hall that I had previously scouted out. I played some of the most fun big table 8-ball in my life and came out exactly even after about 4 hours of play. 

After Bangkok, it was time to find the famed island paradise of Koh Chang - for next post!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Alien Earth - The Dallol volcanic explosion crater

Green lakes of acid, the lowest subaerial volcanic vents in the world, and sulfur-crusted landscapes combine to create the Dallol volcanic explosion crater.

It's very hot here, sulfur and acid fumes define the olfactory landscape. Gurgling sounds of various frequencies and volume meter the progress of what will become the world's newest ocean in about 10 million years.

In pictures :

The land cruisers put the size of the Danakil salt flats into perspective


Ibrahim, our driver, standing on a stone mushroom

Lake of sulfuric acid

Our Afar guide for the day. He did not bring any water for this trip, unreal.

Hamed Ela