Ton Sai, Thailand: the destruction of paradise

Thailand

img_20160920_203530“No Entry!! MOVE ON!” a security guard yells at us as we jump off the longtail boat at Railay beach. He is guarding a new, expensive resort, meaning that the ‘common’ public have to wade through the sea, waves crashing up to our waists, rather than step on the resort’s swimming pool grounds. Heaven forbid us commoners walking on the rich man’s land. 

I first visited this peninsula – made up of the bays of Railay, Phranang and Ton Sai – back in 2007. Coming back nine years later, things are bound to have changed. But i’m not prepared for how much it’s changed.

Advertisements

Problematic backpacker tourism in northern Thailand

Thailand

The below blog post addresses just some of the problems of (mostly white European) backpacker tourism. When I first travelled in south-east Asia ten years ago, I did not see that my presence could be detrimental to the communities that I was visiting. My awareness of this has grown and evolved over the last few years, and there are, no doubt, so many more issues that I am unaware of with regards to how I impact communities as a white European. Every day is an opportunity to learn and become more aware.

tmp_1506-karen-woman-northern-thailand-image-by-ferry-yenni-gunawan-cc-by-2-0781311593

An example of one of the photos that has been used by Lonely Planet

“Hill tribe tour!” “Trek to a longneck village!” “Spend the night with a hill tribe!”

Hill tribes hill tribes hill tribes. You can’t walk more than five metres in Chiang Mai without seeing signs for these tours.

Tour companies and guide books such as the Lonely Planet use different terms for indigenous people, depending on which country they’re referring to. In Laos it’s the term ‘minority’.

Scooter travels in northern Thailand

Thailand

In July 2016 we spent two and a half weeks travelling around the far north of Thailand on scooters. We were careful not to photograph people without their permission, and we avoided driving into many of the small villages that we passed. This is because these villages never see tourists, and may not want to, and didn’t give us our consent to visit.

img_20160826_140855

A sketch of our route (from my diary)

I don’t understand the fascination with traffic-clogged Chiang Mai. I can’t wait to get away from the city and the tour agencies selling treks to ‘hill tribes’. But I’ll write more about that in another post.

Chris and I want to explore the far north of Thailand on a long scooter trip. So we hire out two scooters and haphazardly brave the traffic of Thailand’s second largest city. (If you’re new to riding a scooter, I don’t recommend starting in Chiang Mai.) When we arrive in peaceful Chiang Dao at the end of day one, I’m just thankful that I get there in one piece.

Hiking the GR10 trail in the Pyrénées

All hiking posts, France, GR10, France, Hiking, Pyrenees, France

We hiked the GR10 in June 2016.

DSC00790

I don’t like climbing mountains. I think of it as macho: the egoic human wanting to conquer the peak. Don’t get me wrong, I love long distance hiking, and I have done my fair share of hikes. But I don’t feel the need to climb a few thousand metres high.

So I wonder why I am here, why I have chosen to walk the GR10, a trail that spans all of the Pyrénées, from west to east  – a whole 900km of up and down. It is, of course, because I want to be immersed in beauty. And surely you don’t get much more beautiful than the Pyrénées.

friendliness versus hostility: a visit to Italy

Hitchhiking, Italy
"Today is a terrible day," moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“Today is a terrible day,” moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“WHORE!” a man yells out of his car window at Nicol, as she stands at the side of the road with a sign for the next town. She screams something back at him in Italian. “Welcome to Italy,” I think to myself. Chris has joined us on our roadtrip. Unfortunately for him, both Nicol and I are in foul moods. Nicol’s got mixed feelings about returning to her home country, and I’m sulking because we have left friendly France, where people are softly spoken and rational (women are not conditioned to be scared of hitchhikers) and we have entered paranoid Italy, where we are only taken by male drivers who talk non-stop and tell us that the world is full of dangerous people.

But maybe I’m being too harsh on Italy. After all, I’ve been hosted in drivers’ houses four times on my previous visits, more than the France that I’m pining for. And hitchhiking as a three is proving to be surprisingly easy here.

Sure enough, a driver called Carmine takes the three of us all the way from southern France to northern Italy. He then checks us into a hotel room, which he pays for, and then takes us all out to his favourite pizza restaurant (and doesn’t get offended when we order cheeseless pizzas!) He’s a friendly man with a huge smile, and really talkative. He tells us about his job as a lawyer and his dreams of retiring and travelling the world.

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

We’re in Italy because we are going to visit Nicol’s family in a village in the northern Italian mountains. As we drive up, up, up the twisting, turning mountain road, me and Chris feel nauseous as we are suddenly transported to over 1000m high.

The visit is difficult for Nicol. She’s excited to see her family, but now that she’s returned home, they want her to stay there permanently with them, and they find it difficult to understand her lifestyle choices. Italian village life comes as a shock to me. Everyone knows each other’s business, and people gossip about the clothes Nicol wears and the fact that she has hitchhiked here. Still, it’s beautiful to see the place where one of my close friends grew up.

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

Chris has never been to Venice. “You have to see Venice!” I say. So off we go to Venice, hugging Nicol goodbye with the intention of meeting each other again in a few days for the hitchhike home to England. But, of course, life never goes according to plan, and when we say goodbye to Nicol, little do we know that she won’t be joining us for the hitchhike home…

Chris loves Venice. We wander the narrow alleys and he is pleasantly shocked by the crumbling buildings and the activist graffiti all over the city.

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l'Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese :)

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l’Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese 🙂

Beautiful Venezia

Beautiful Venezia

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that's set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that’s set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

We move eastwards towards the Alps, and to save time, we decide to hitch the motorways, rather than the country roads. I have been hitchhiking for many years now, and I have grown sick of hitching on motorways. I try to take the slower, scenic route whenever I have the time. Almost everyone driving on the motorway, in every country, is miserable. And it’s no surprise why: after all, the whole experience of driving in a metal box at about 150km per hour for hours on end, completely disconnected from nature, is really miserable! And the only break from the monotony of it all is a shitty service station with sugary, crappy fast food, which will only make you more miserable if you put it in your body!

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Italy’s got to be one of the worst countries for hitchhiking on the motorways. We stand at the Autogrill (Italy’s brand of service station) and Chris tries to politely explain to drivers in Italian that we are hitchhiking. But whenever he says hello, people deliberately blank him, or give him a hostile response. This is poor Chris’s first experience of people being so rude to him whilst hitchhiking, and instead of getting upset, he laughs lightheartedly at the absurdity of this paranoid, fearful society. Chris is a breath of fresh air when I need it most, and I am thankful that he’s on this journey with me.

We laugh at how all of the men in Italy aspire to look like the below picture. Absolutely everyone is wearing the same jacket, along with aviator sunglasses.

Italian vanity.

Italian vanity.

Eventually, we get a lift with two friendly men, and the Into The Wild soundtrack plays on their car stereo. My god, we couldn’t be further from the Alaskan wilderness that Chris McCandless explored, I laugh to myself.

And then it’s another shitty service station, and more hostility awaits us. But then Chris gets us a lift with a 6’4″ man with huge muscles from the USA.

“Shit! He’s military!” I whisper to Chris as the man puts our luggage in his car. “Don’t say anything!” I warn Chris cautiously.

We’re anti-militarist activists, and I worry about how this journey is going to go. Inside the car is the soldier’s beautiful young wife and their baby. The soldier tells us about his life in Italy, and I find it tragic when he explains that he gets discount petrol in Italy when he shows his NATO pass to petrol station staff. Oh, can’t he see the irony? I wonder to myself. A military force, murdering for oil, getting cheap petrol. As I sit there in silence, I wonder why I have accepted a lift with this man. After all, if a truck driver transporting animals to be killed offered me a lift, I would refuse it. Surely there’s not too much difference. This man, if not directly a killer, is contributing to the killing of our brother and sister humans.

“Stay safe,” the soldier says in a cliché, macho way, as we get out of his car. Can’t he see the irony of that comment? I wonder yet again.

Chris would have liked to have talked to him about his job – after all, it’s possibly the only time he’ll be in the car of a NATO soldier. I am annoyed with myself: I sat in silence so that I could selfishly get a lift 100km further. I should have either refused the lift or engaged in a conversation about this guy’s ‘job’.

Of course, hitchhiking the Italian motorways isn’t completely doom and gloom, and we do meet a few friendly people and get lifts with lovely drivers, including a car full of actors who are touring the country, performing a play.

Our last stop in Italy is the Susa valley, close to the French border in the Alps. We’re here because we want to visit the area where the high-speed train track (Treno Alta Velocità, TAV) is going to be built – mostly for freight trains – with tunnels being bored through the Alps to neighbouring France. The No Tav activist campaign against the destruction of the valley has been going for two whole decades.

Chris and I are only about 15km from France. We decide that the border really can’t be far away, and that we’re going to walk it. Of course, we’re ill-prepared, without a hiking map. All we know is that France is somewhere west, over the insanely snowy Alps. I take my compass out of my pocket, and we start walking in a westward direction. Surely it’ll be easy…

France is somewhere over the Alps...

France is somewhere over the Alps…

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

After about six kilometres of hiking, we run into a group of activists.
“You can’t go this way!” they say. “It’s too dangerous!”
They explain to us that we’re about 1km away from the site where the tunnel is being bored through the mountain. There’s army protecting it absolutely everywhere, and apparently they’re quite pissed off with activists today.

The No Tav activists are friendly, welcoming people, and they invite us to their resistance house, give us dinner, and let us stay for the night. They tell us about two decades of struggle, and they talk about the environmental hazards of the TAV project. The mountains contain uranium and asbestos, which will be released as the tunnel is dug. Spending time with these inspirational, courageous activists is the perfect way to end our time in Italy.

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

Homeward Bound! Siem Reap and Bangkok to London

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Thailand
A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A strange thing has happened to me! Whilst travelling through South East Asia, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I actually miss home. So because of this, I’ve controversially made the decision to book a flight from Bangkok to London. I don’t like to fly when I could go by land. But I don’t have a Russian visa to return the way I came, and the thought of doing the Trans-Siberian again alone fills me with dread! As I get closer to Bangkok, though, I guiltily wish I had tried to get that Russian visa and travelled the long way home.

Hitchhiking South East Asia: some tips!

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Laos, Thailand
A view from a pickup truck, somewhere close to Phonsavan in Laos

A view from a pickup truck, somewhere close to Phonsavan in Laos, just before the monsoon rain soaks me!

During my last couple of months in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I didn’t hitchhike as much as I usually would. I completely lost the enthusiasm for it – maybe I had hitchhiker’s burnout, so to speak. However, I did do some hitchhiking whilst I was here! These are my tips, or observations, of what worked for me, mostly as a solo traveller:

a fleeting week in smiley Vietnam

Vietnam
Travelling through the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam

Travelling through the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam

I cross the border from Cambodia to Vietnam nervously, ready to be ripped off at any moment, and frightened that I’m going to find my animal friends in every dish that I order.

I first visited Vietnam seven years ago, and I have memories of scams and hostility towards travellers. I wondered why it was like this, and decided that with the history of the US invasion, why wouldn’t people act with hostility towards seemingly spoilt western backpackers?

The only reason that I’ve returned to Vietnam is because my friend Conor lives here. Conor left Ireland on a trip across the world two years ago, and I last saw him in France, at the very beginning of his journey. He’s been teaching English for a year in the city of Vung Tau, in the south of Vietnam.

I arrive at Conor’s home in Vung Tau in the evening. It’s strange, but wonderful, for us both to be reunited after two years. I think about how beautifully unpredictable life can be: when I said goodbye to Conor in France, I didn’t dream that I would be visiting him in Vietnam (and nor did I dream that he’d be gone for over two years!)

To be alone…

Society, Spiritualism & Buddhism
Just me and the rice paddies...

Just me and the rice paddies…

I have been travelling alone for one month. Before this, I was travelling with Chris every day, so the feeling of being alone was all the more intense when he left. It’s been interesting observing myself: my feelings of loneliness or contentment, and observing when I have clung to other travellers so as not to feel lonely.

Paradise Almost Lost

All hiking posts, Cambodia, Hiking, Kep, Cambodia

So speak out loud of the
Things you are proud
And if you love this coast
Keep it clean as it evolves
Cos the way that it shines
May just dwindle with time
With the changes it will confront
Xavier RuddMessages

Some of your people can’t hear it
The cries of the Earth
Some of your people can’t feel it
The way that it hurts
Nahko – Great Spirit

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Tina Turner’s Private Dancer blasts out of the stereo, taking me back to my childhood, when me and my sisters were subjected to Tina Turner on a daily basis. The sand is white and the sea as warm as bath water. I’m on Otres beach, Sihanoukville’s more tame tourist spot.

“Massage? Pedicure? Oh! Hair removal!!!” a woman says, pointing at my legs. Maybe I’m the first western woman that she’s ever seen who doesn’t remove the hair from their legs. I politely decline her offer.

Five minutes later another woman approaches. “Bracelet? Oh! Hair!” she says, looking at my legs.
“No thanks.”
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“England.”
“You have a nice body. English people are fat.”

For the next hour, more people approach me, all analysing my legs and deciding that I really need to remove my hairs. I think about discussing patriarchy, sexism, and the pressure that women are under to conform to a particular image of beauty. I want to tell them how unfair it all is. But then I realise that these women are just trying to make money, and it must be really frustrating for them to see the hairs on my legs and then not be allowed to do anything about it!

“Well done for not shaving your body hair,” a French woman says to me. “Me and my friend tried it for one week and felt too self-conscious.”

There’s also children selling things. They’re cheeky and funny and when I last came to Cambodia, me and my friends bought lots of books off of them. This time, I’ve decided not to give the kids any money. Travelfish says why here and here.

After the tenth woman comments on how hairy my legs are, I decide that Otres beach is not a good place to relax and do meditation!

I take a boat to the relatively unknown island of Koh Ta Kiev. The total population on the whole island must be about twenty or thirty people – a fishing village which I don’t see, and a couple of beach hut-style guesthouses.

Deliveries arrive at the island

Deliveries arrive at the island

20140926_164053

The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev's beach...soon to be changed forever

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev’s beach…soon to be changed forever

I walk in the rainforest, all alone as beautiful massive wild hornbill birds fly overhead. The island is famous for its many species of birds. The trail is completely overgrown and l get lost. Afterwards I find out that nobody has walked on my route for months and months.

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

As with everywhere I visit, this untouched, perfect island is set to be destroyed. The Cambodian government has leased half of the island to a French company and half of the island to a Chinese company. Whilst the French company has, so far, done nothing to ‘develop’ Koh Ta Kiev, the Chinese company has already chopped down and logged trees, and a huge, ugly road has been bulldozed through the forest.

The company is called KSKW, and is owned by Ni Zhaoxing, President of China’s ZhongRong Group. They boast about their plans on their website. I’m told by locals that they plan to build a huge resort, with a golf course and casino for the rich. During my stay on the island, the company come to collect rent from the beach hut-style guest houses. It’s really sad to think of the destruction that is to come, and the inevitable death of the beautiful wildlife.

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev - a road through the rainforest

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev – a road through the rainforest

As I walk along the deserted beach (there’s literally no-one around: the island is so unspoilt!), with thousands of crabs scurrying across the sand and rocks, I’m shocked by how much plastic washes up here. Every day, piles and piles of plastic wash ashore on an island with barely any people living on it. As humans, we’re completely disgraceful, abusing and destroying our land and our seas without a second thought.  I guiltily acknowledge all of the plastic that I use and casually discard on a daily basis, knowing that it’s not biodegradable. I vow, there and then, to cut down on the plastic I buy, and to try to wean myself off of plastic completely.

Plastic plastic plastic

Plastic plastic plastic

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

Inspirational plastic-free activist Beth Terry summarises on her website why plastic is so toxic, both to the oceans and sea creatures, and to our own health.

A few days later I head back to the mainland and travel to Kep, and it becomes my favourite place in the country! I really, really love this small town and the locals are so friendly. Kep’s full of delapidated French colonial villas, ruined by the Khmer Rouge, and there’s wild monkeys.

2015-01-05_11.47.59

One reason why I love Kep is because there’s a MARKED HIKING TRAIL through the jungle! There’s no need for guides, and there’s no one in Kep trying to sell me a tour of the national park. And so I embark on a small, 8km trek alone. At the start of the trail there’s a warning: ‘DIFFICULT: ONLY FOR EXPERIENCED WALKERS’, mostly because you need to use ropes to haul yourself up rocks. “Fine,” I think, “I’m an experienced hiker.” There’s also a big photo of a scorpion on the warning sign.

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep :)

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep 🙂

I walk happily uphill, looking out for birds and monkeys. However, within minutes I realise that there are thousands of spiders in this jungle, and hundreds of them want to cast their webs across the trail. Each web seems to be at the exact same height as my face, and I spit cobwebs out of my mouth every two or three metres.

“Lucky that I’m not scared of spiders,” I think to myself.

But then I stop suddenly.

The biggest web ever, which reaches from the ground to my head height, stretches across the small dirt trail. Visions of Shelob from Lord Of The Rings come to my mind. I hack down the web with a stick (sorry spider, but there’s no other option!) and I walk on.

One minute later I see it.

The biggest spider that I have EVER seen in my life: the size of my hand, yellow and black in colour, sitting on a web at my head’s height. Petrified, I duck beneath the web. “What if I’d been looking at the ground, searching for scorpions?” I think to myself. “That spider would have landed on my head!”

For the rest of the trail, I nervously thrash a stick in the air, cutting down webs in front of me.

The next day, I hitchhike with a beautiful family to the Vietnam border (they go far out of their way to take me to the border), and I’m so happy that I visited amazing Kep with its wonderful people, old mansions, monkeys and even its giant spiders.