Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Dalai and I

Dalai and I

The moment we crossed the border from Cambodia to Thailand we realised 2 things: the first, from now on and for the rest of this leg we’ll be driving on the left side. Finally, Boudicca is on the correct side of the road.

Yes dear Americans, Z Jermans, froggies and any other anti-natural national drivers: you can argue as much as you’d like that driving on the right is the correct way. But you’re wrong. Save your words as it will never change the fact that keeping your right hand on the steering wheel while the left hand is busy with the other necessary activities while driving is just a lot safer. And we Overlanders want you to be safe.

Face it, unless you’re lefty (which, without discriminating, puts you in a very small group), you have more control on your vehicle when your right hand is holding the steering wheel while your left hand is busy changing a gear, a song, picking your nose, fishing the tea bag out or just showing your middle finger to that idiot in the Toyota Land Cruiser who just merged from the right without looking.

The reason some of you still drive on the right is only a colonial slip-up. Keep your strong hand on the wheel – drive on the left.

Anyway, the first thing we realised when we crossed the border is that we are going to drive on the left side again (and therefore that Thai people have more control on their vehicle but really, let’s drop it now).

The second thing is that we’re now back to ‘modernisation’: highways, facilities, 24/7 services and road signs. A welcome change, we must admit, after long weeks of dirt roads, dust and potholes.

We’re heading to Ko Chang, a resort island south of Bangkok. It’s a small detour that we’re happy to take to spend our last few days with Lady D, our wonderful companion  since... well,  forever.

There’s not much to say about Ko Chang, only that this is where Jen got ill with Dengue fever and that one needs a lot of imagination to see that the island was once a beautiful piece of earth. Now it’s an over-touristy place where one can shop for dead crocodiles’ skin, take pictures with exotic but chained sad-looking animals and party with lady boys. Not our cup of tea, so we’re moving on.

Thailand is not exactly a ‘travelling’ destination. Everything is just too easy here. It is, however, a great country for holidays, chilling out, culture and history activities and for what westerners call ‘Thai Food’. Our next destination, we agree, should combine it all.

chilling out

At this point we decided to continue with our motto: to have a number of dynamic options instead of a firm plan. We love this motto; it keeps us open to any changes, moods and improvisations on the road – I like to simply call it ‘freedom’.

One of our options was to drive north, towards Ayutthaya. So we did.

The Thai roads would have been excellent if they weren’t underwater. But they are. Another set of floods hit Thailand a few weeks ago and large sections of the country are still a huge bog.

These recently-more-than-occasional floods are not a great surprise for a country that used to be completely covered by a thick rainforest. Nowadays less and less sections of the country are still forested and with no trees to take the monsoon rain... you get the picture: the locals do.
The signs of flooded plains are quite surreal: murky water all around, islands of debris and rivers running through houses and abandoned shops. People with their few belongings are crowded in improvised shelters on the side of the highway or on roofs, sitting anywhere that is still above the water level – for weeks. 

We’re counting another Environment Disaster, # 4391 on this journey alone.     

Floods in Thailand

Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is still a marshland. The local government thought it’s better to keep this World Heritage Site swamped as part of their strategy to save the industrial district of Bangkok. Money talks – the rest sinks. So we take a tour in a World Heritage Site underwater and actually, were quite enjoying it.

We’re the first tourists in town since the flooding and locals are happy to have us. We get special treatment everywhere, Lady D is spending her last Bahts on massages and Jen is recovering well from the fever. With high moral and wet feet we kiss D for goodbye for now and continue north, to Chiang Mai.

It’s great to be in Chiang Mai again. It’s a city of contradictions: street stalls next to healthy food restaurant, ugly local girls hung around with fat old Europeans, Yoga studios located above polluted noisy streets and golden temples are a safe home for a pack of bad looking dogs. It’s a city where the old market, selling traditional hill tribes artefacts, attracts more human traffic than the air conned, shiny shopping malls with its fashionable items from London and Rome. I like Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai

But I feel like it’s time to do something different – something with a distinctive character, low paced but high well being. Low key but high note. Maybe feed my spiritualism a little.
I’m turning to my old dear buddy – Google. Quick search. Finding a Buddhist temple in the forest up on the mountain – just outside the city. Reading. Monks came down from the remote mountains of Burma are now teaching how to meditate. 

Interesting –reading on.

The programme: 7 days, all inclusive – meditation lessons, introduction to Buddhism, accommodation, breakfast, lunch. ...And dinner? No. Buddhist monks don’t eat after midday. No dinner, no teatime, no afternoon snack, no supper and definitely no midnight munch. Mmm... a problem. I have superfast metabolism, so I must feed the monster every 4 hours. ...At least. Will I survive?

I’m thinking about this again:  a chance for starvation - but - a temple on the mountain with Monks meditating all day; definitely low paced, surely some potential to increase my well being and no question about feeding my spiritualism there. So I’m booking the meditation. Que Serra.     

Pack a rucksack, down 7 breakfasts, put on pure white clothes and head up to the mountain and the temple. Driving to a meditation retreat in a Land Rover Discovery – irony. 

I’m in the temple. Tropical greenery. Birds’ song in the air. Incense aroma. I like. And here’s a young woman, down the footpath, sitting, relaxed, eyes close, focused. So this is meditation. Right. I could do this.

Welcome ceremony. I’m meeting my teacher monk. He looks like a slightly younger Dalai Lama. Smiling, he’s telling me about the principle of meditation, the technique and the timetable for the next week.

Outline of the principle: generally, to reach nirvana. More practically, to reach inner peace, mindfulness and silence the mind. Important things indeed.

The technique: Stop the ‘thinking-thinking’ action and focus on breathing only; raising-falling. 15 minutes walking meditation, 15 minutes sitting meditation, 15 minutes break and repeat. Cool, so when’s food time here..?

Timetable: wakeup at 5am and the rest I didn’t hear. 5am?! Ok... I really need to kill Que Serra one day. There are also Dhamma lessons, chanting, monks chat, lots of meditation and absolutely confirmed and double-checked: no dinner. 5am...

First lesson: sitting in the lotus posture. Stopping the ‘thinking-thinking’ action. Focusing on breath. Raising-falling....

I’m failing immediately. Millions of thoughts are running through my head. Starting again. Sitting. Stopping ‘thinking-thinking’
... thinking about the Land Rover, pizza and that lady on the footpath. Not good. Trying again. And again. I am now discovering how difficult it is to stop thinking. Impossible. Where’s that Dalai Lama chap, I need to figure out how it’s done.

I can’t turn my brain off – I tell him. He’s laughing. You cannot turn the brain off on your first day of meditation. Meditation takes a long time and plenty of determination. You should start by first ‘acknowledging’ the thought when it comes in and then ‘put it away’.
Ok, thanks Dalai.

Back to my pillow. Sitting. Practicing. Again and again. I skip the other activities. Concentrating. Raising-falling.

Evening. I’m entering my room, sitting on the bed. Raising-falling. Thought. Acknowledge, Put aside. Raising-falling.


Night. Exhausted. Hungry. Closing my eyes and without thinking on a thing – I’m falling asleep.
Early morning. Sleepy. Starving. Breakfast. A plate of rice. Not enough for me. I’m sneaking into the kitchen, spotting the pot and loading 3 more plates of rice. Much better. Back on the pillow again, raising-falling. Thought. Acknowledge, put aside. Raising-falling.
Raising-falling... Raising-falling...

Dalai in Dhama (5am...)


The days are passing by. Fewer thoughts slip in. Dalai is teaching me a few more stages. I get to like it. Mindfulness. Balance. Build the centre. Avoid building the inner fire – don’t get upset if something pissy happens. Instead, acknowledge, put aside and carry on – mindful. Good stuff. I keep on practicing again and again.  


All of a sudden it’s the last day of the retreat. I jump out of bed. I’m awake and relaxed. I’m eating my single plate of rice slowly and peacefully. Finally – quiet. I’m saying goodbye to my teacher monk. Don’t forget the balance, the centre and stay mindful – he’s advising as I leave the temple. I won’t forget.

I’m driving down the mountain and back to the valley. In Chiang Mai again. Hordes of tourists, crowded streets, busy traffic, street stalls... I acknowledge, put aside and stay mindful. Raising-falling. Haaa...And it’s all quiet again.

Thank you, Dalai.

Jen & Noam
More photos, stories and action in our website

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The story of the Break Bone fever

The story of the Break Bone fever

Here’s the story of the Break Bone fever. It begins with a little mozzie called ‘Little Bugger’.
Little Bugger used to live in the heart of the Kardamom jungle in Cambodia. From this sentence you can already assume that either Little Bugger is dead or the jungle is no longer there. In this case, both are - almost - correct.

The Kardamom is a truly amazing jungle. It stretches from the mountains in North Cambodia to the Gulf of Thailand in the South. It has gigantic trees, exotic birds and it’s the last jungle in SE Asia where tigers and wild elephants still roam free. This jungle was also where Little Bugger used to fly happily around and suck tasty blood from passing mammals – or from the odd jungle trekkers, in our case.

But Little Bugger is now dead. I killed it. I smashed it against my leg, splashing streams of blood and inner mosquito bits on my hands.

I’m certain it neither thanked me after finishing sipping my western-flavoured blood nor a moment before it spread its wings to fly away. Too bad. If it had stuck around for a bit longer it might have still been alive. But it didn’t.    

Unfortunately it was also too late for me. And for Jen. We both got bitten by Little Bugger.
The Dengue virus that was injected into my blood didn’t spread immediately. There’s no rush apparently when it comes to Dengue. After 10 days the incubation period ended and the first sign finally appeared: high temperature.

Then it all came at once. Symptoms: horrible muscle pain, bones, joints and brain ache, weakness, extreme temperatures and then the horrifying realisation of ‘so this is why Dengue is called Break-Bone fever’.

It definitely feels like it: body is immobilised, sight’s disabled. Appetite vanished, brain’s screaming in agony. The only piece of though that’s still hanging around like undesirable requiem is ‘why am I not dead yet, Moses, why am I not dead...?’

I was laying in bed for 10 days, recovering from Little Buggers’ gift. 10 days is enough time to think about our jungle experience and decide if it was worth it.

Was it?

If jungles were cars Kardamom is definitely a Land Rover; Mighty, powerful and full of surprises. To penetrate it we needed to get a local guide, a bag of determination and a good pair of boots. The team: Lady D, Jen, Anna, another British backpacker we met on our way, and I.

Our first stop was a little remote village of hunters and loggers called Chi-Pat.
The only access to the village is through a long muddy track, endless plantation areas and a number of river crossings. The village itself looks like it was taken out from the classic fairytales: one main dirt road with wooden hats alongside, small herb gardens, a few paddy fields in the back and a tiny market. Smell of fresh food mixed with livestock and dried fish. Locals wave to us, kids chased us to greet hello, dogs barked to us, chickens run away from us and only the pigs ignore us and kept playing in the mud. I loved Chi-Pat from the first moment.

We spent the night in the village, linked up with our guide and set ourselves to our jungle exploration: packed our bags with food, hammocks and enough mosquitos repellent to crack another hole in the ozone layer.

And into the jungle we went.

We rowed a little boat upstream. It was early morning and the jungle was awakening. Bugs were zooming, birds tweeting, huge Hornbills flying above and orang-utans jumping from tree to tree. Magic.

After a couple of hours we arrived to a little clearance and it was time to disembark and leave our boats behind. We started to walk.

And immediately – leeches. Millions of them. And they are all crazily obsessed: “Blood! Blood! We want your blood!!”

Sensing our footfalls they’re crawling fast on the jungle floor, climbing on our boots and finding their ways through leather and socks. Then pinching the skin to get to their favourite juice and suck it until they’re about to explode. Hey you – leave some for Little Bugger, he needs a drink too!

In the beginning we fought back. Armed with sticks, knives and a flame-thrower we stood firm and bravely manned the defences. We beat them, sliced them and burned them. But there were too many of them and soon we had to give up to those parasites and accept our own bloodshed – Jen won the beer for been dined on the most with 9 leech marks.

During the day we came across several monkeys, big cats’ paw prints, elephant’s beds and a huge pile of what they left after digesting their massive breakfast.          

In the evening we set up camp. We washed in the stream, cooked our meals and got into the hammocks, slung high above the jungle’s floor. It was then, while changing our sweaty clothes, that Little Bugger spotted the opportunity of its lifetime to taste some of that exotic Westerner blood.
He came, he tasted, he died.
No hard feelings, Little Bugger. You did what you needed to do and I did what I needed. You suck blood, I killed you.  

Night time. Light breeze puffed fresh air through the dense jungle, bringing smells of green and moist. The jungle was switching shifts. Night shift is on. A beautiful harmony of creatures singing lullaby, late bird calling its partner and fireflies were flying around my head, getting attracted to my torch. So relaxed. So remote. What a beautiful night. And the Dengue virus has just started to feel comfortable in its new host.    

The bad guys of this story are, again, the Chinese. A new development is currently underway to transform this jungle into a lively complex of resorts. In the next few years these trees will be bulldozered to clear way for 7 new holiday cities. Yes – 7 cities.

On the agenda: beachside towns with exclusive shopping malls, restaurants with the best selection stretching all along the coastline. Airports, coaches, high speed trains connecting the boulevards to the fluorescent lighten hotels and the pearl in the crown: a gigantic massive casino, the biggest even built in SE Asia – how exciting.  

This is just another of the disasters the Chinese impose on our nature as part of their blindness race to ‘develop’ the world. For Little Bugger it won’t matter anymore but for the elephants, Serval, monkeys, hornbills and other endangered creatures of the Cardamom jungle is will simply be the end.

So was Kardamom worth the visit?

Was it worth the Break Bone fever?
Probably yes. Sadly, the last pristine jungle for a few weeks of sickness – it’s a deal I can handle.

Jen & Noam
Photos, stories and more on our website www.landroveroverland.co.uk

Note: In general we object to the killing of defenceless creatures. Mozzies, however, can fly, bite and kill therefore are not defenceless.