The Beach (we’re back)

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Haad Chao Phao, Koh Pha Ngan

We just got back from our month long trip to “Amazing” Thailand, the one-word marketing slogan that has been used for decades to describe this truly amazing country. For me it was my 4th visit, the first one was in 1991, followed by 1995 and 1996, before this 2016 trip. A lot has changed since then, much stayed the same.

Now and Then

The Beach is the title of the 2000 adventure drama film directed by Danny Boyle and based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland. Even though it’s set on and near the island of Koh Pha Ngan (see picture above), the movie was actually filmed at Koh Phi Phi.

After the movie, The Beach came out there was a significant influx of “regular” tourists, in addition to the backpackers that had discovered this jewel of the East several decades ago. Especially on my favorite island Koh Pha Ngan (125 km2 – 48 sq mi) a lot has changed since then. More fancy resorts, with AC and infinity pools, more paved roads, a larger pier supporting larger and more ferries, and MUCH MORE tourists.

This island is famous for its Full Moon party every month at Haad Rin beach. According to Wikipedia: “The first Full Moon Party was improvised at Paradise Bungalows on the beach in 1985, for giving thanks to about 20–30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 5,000–30,000 every full moon evening.”

During my first visit in 1991, I didn’t go to this party at Haad Rin. Instead, we created our own Full Moon party at our own resort, including (not surprisingly) plenty of readily available mind-altering substances. Haad Rin was a quiet beach, some scattered resorts and restaurants with wooden bungalows with a dirt road in the middle of this narrow peninsula beach.

Today it’s a small city, with an unusual amount of shops and firms catering to a Hebrew speaking crowd. It has quite a few run down, dingy areas, the beach is anything from quiet, with the constant coming and going of jet skis and boats. The monthly visit of tens-of-thousands of partying people has left its marks, or rather has scarred this remarkable beach with fantastic views of the deep blue water.

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The changes became apparent as soon as we arrived on the island, people were now hauling huge suitcases and were picked up by fancy resort vans, resorts they probably wouldn’t leave until their departure. The changes started back in Bangkok, the night before our bus-boat trip to the island.

I woke up at around 2 am because of a group of hotel guests who were partying in the hallway and being obnoxiously loud. After a few minutes, I decided to see them and ask to have mercy with me, as I had to catch the 6 am bus. I witnessed a group of 6 or 8 girls, dressed and make-upped for a nightclub visit, acting like brats in a dorm. I reminded them this was not a fraternity house, but a hotel with guests. They had a little mercy, and I was able to fall back asleep.

To my surprise, as we were waiting in line to check-in with the bus company the next morning, these same girls (still in nightclub gear!) arrived at the bus stop together with their large flashy suitcases. One girl had a problem with one of the other girls and was on a full rant (in Irish I believe), so loud and long, that everybody present was rolling their eyes in disbelief.

I was afraid they would be on my bus, and of course, they were! Luckily they were in the far back, and we were in the front seats. I knew they would probably fall asleep fast as they were up until the wee hours, and indeed, within an hour they were fast asleep. Adding a boat trip to this scenario (never sit on the top deck in the wind and sun unless you enjoy torture) and their cute looks turned into a disaster look, with runny makeup and knotty hairdos. I didn’t see them on our island, but I’m sure they partied at the Full Moon party, covered in fluorescent paint, drinking booze from buckets…

Pros and Cons

Every country and culture have pros and cons. I also realize that my four weeks of exploration can’t possibly render me with a complete picture. But visiting four times means I now have about four months of experience. I’m not a regular tourist, the one that has everything arranged, including tours and transfers, the one that dresses to the T, the one that doesn’t leave their resort, the one that prefers to eat food that resembles mostly what they eat home, the one that gets upset at the sight of a Gekko or Tjik Tjak on their ceiling, the one that sunbathes on a tanning bed near the pool (too much sand on the beach, and sea cucumbers in the water!).

My daughter and I immediately explore our “hood” and find cute places, fun stores, and sweet locals. Like Nikki, who just opened her nail and tattoo salon (her polish lasted over a month!) Like Gof, who was our guide during our island tour.

During my first visit back in 1991, we rented a motorcycle and crashed on a jungle road, followed by a short hospital visit. Even though the roads have been improved, I’m not used to driving a motorcycle, let alone on the left side of the road, together with other horrible driving tourists. I tried biking, but it’s too hilly and too hot for that. So we rely on taxis for transport, and this is why I signed up for a half-day island tour, to show my daughter a little more.

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This tour included a visit to Mae Haad, a great beach for snorkeling, zip lining through the jungle, a lunch, bow and arrow shooting, a visit with the elephants (I refuse to ride them, I just think they need to be protected not exploited), and a visit to a Chinese-Buddhist temple. The whole trip was great (the lunch was exquisite!) and Gof was a great guide, especially at the temple he provided a lot of background information. Thumbs up for Safari Boat (I wish we’d used them for our boat trip as well!).

OK, back to pros and cons. For me, the pros obviously outweigh the cons. The most annoying con is probably other tourists (just kidding a little) LOL. Although I’ve encountered quite a few very, let us say “interesting” tourists. Like this lady from Europe, who was also traveling with her daughter. They were just a few years younger than us, and the lady had, like me, also traveled to the island several times, during the early 90s. We had a lot in common and a nice connection, so when she rented a car, she invited us on a trip into town. There’s only one town on the island; this is where the ferries dock and most of the (larger) shops and banks are.WP_20160722_16_57_06_Pro (2)

She confessed that she had never visited this town, other than getting a taxi to her favorite resort (she stayed at this same resort each visit). I couldn’t believe it, as it was a great place to visit, getting a break from the beach, exploring great restaurants and cute shops. My daughter and I had already explored the town several times and were able to guide them around. In the evening I provided directions back to our bay, and she said she didn’t know the name of our beach or bay…what? As we drove through a tiny village, 10 minutes walking from our resorts (she stayed at a neighboring resort) she and her daughter discovered there were stores and restaurants right behind their resort, along the road to town.

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I was flabberghasted, you don’t know where you are and you apparently never left your resort? I guess there are tourists like that, flying in and out the country, staying at their resort and then go home. Not my cup of tea.

Other tourists were loudly complaining about the fact they had to wait, or things were not the way they thought it should be. Then there were the ones who had no clue about the Thai culture and traditions. They would step over ten pairs of slippers in front of a store or restaurant and walk inside with their shoes on.

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Ok, enough of this! Yes, some things can be challenging, like bargaining with the Thai and make sure you’re paying a fair price, but that is the case in many other tourist destinations, often locals depend on this seasonal income and try to bump up the prices (like my $20 for a 5 minute taxi drive in Italy for example).

Yes, there are bugs in tropical places and often MUCH bigger than you’ve ever seen. You can also eat them; you like your cricket deep fried? No problem. You must avoid too many mosquito bites, as they carry diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever. If you can’t deal with that, Thailand is not the place for you.

Dos and don’ts

I already addressed some of these in an earlier post, and in this post when I talked about people not taking their shoes off before entering places. My only advice here is to educate yourself a little bit prior to boarding your plane. Some things are just common sense and pretty much the same as at home. You don’t walk around town half naked, even though it’s exceptionally hot, you don’t see Thai doing that!

Bring or leave

I was going to include a travel list, but I think this is better for another post, so please come back and check if you’re interested in that. I’ll be uploading images on my website as well; you may visit www.moniquedicarlo.com

After 28 days, 19276 air miles, 3 train rides, 4 bus trips, 4 boat rides, 7 hotels, 855 pictures, 17 videos,  44 ice creams, 20 Tuk Tuk rides, a gazillion bugs, 6 Buddhist temples, 250,000 steps (each), and 15 amazing sunsets, we’re home. Planning our next trip…

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Counting Down…Counting Blessings

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Pid tong lang pra”

Meaning: Putting a gold leaf on the back of the Buddha. Which translates to “Doing something good without seeking attention”.

Our itinerary is looking great, and Sarah, my 13-year-old daughter is super excited to go on this month long trip to Thailand. The backpacks are out and already contain a few items. We did a pre-packing session the other day, to see what we want and need to bring, and if it’ll fit in our packs.

I always pack too much, so I constantly need to be mindful of every ounce that goes inside, and that will affect each step I take. The Thai heat and humidity already make it feel heavier than it is!

We’ll spend significant time in temples as they provide a quiet retreat during our hectic days in busy Thai cities, especially in Bangkok.  Many temples also offer Thai massages, a great way to overcome the jetlag and regain flexibility after spending months in an office chair.

I’ve always been drawn to Buddhism and love the way it is integrated into the Thai culture and daily life. People bring food to the monks in the early morning and celebrate many Holy days at the temples.religion

People often wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. Buddhism does not ask you to accept its core principles on faith, it does not ask you to simply believe the results of someone else’s gnosis. To me it is a philosophy, the Buddha does not want you to believe, he wants you to seek out the truth–the very essence of philosophical enquiry.

The usual offering (Wai Phra) at a Thai Buddhist temple, consists of a candle, some flowers (often a lotus), a small square of gold leaf and three incense sticks. The flowers are placed in water before lighting the incense sticks using the candle. The three incense sticks are held between the palms of the hand in a wai gesture. In kneeling position with feet tucked behind (so that they face away from the Buddha image), a Thai making the offering recites in their mind, phrases from the Buddhist scriptures. Incense sticks are then planted into a container of sand, and the small square of gold leaf is pressed onto the Buddha image.

They cover the Buddha statue with the thin golden leaves to honour Buddha teachings. In the case of pain, the thin golden leaf shall be stuck at the same painful location on the Buddha statue. The gold leaf is a form of donation and seeing the leaves on the back of a Buddha makes a meaningful experience even more meaningful…

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We’ll put some extra gold leaves on the back of the Buddha’s we encounter, our way to show our gratitude, for being able to visit this exquisite country.

Voorpret

Not sure if there’s a good translation for this Dutch word. It refers to the happiness you feel before you are about to do something fun, let’s call it antefun. It’s in your imagination but feels very real. I’ve had voorpret for almost a year now, in anticipation of our Thailand trip. Last year in July I wrote a post about the decision to go on a trip to Thailand in 2016. Just making the decision caused a surge of pleasure through my body…

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I traveled to Thailand in 91, 96, and 97 and missed it ever since. I moved to the U.S. in 2000 and when my daughter arrived in 2003, the Thai memories were further pushed into the background. Then, as I was cleaning up some memorabilia and discovered the Thailand photo albums, the wish to visit again returned full force.

I had lots of doubts, I was afraid it would be too expensive for my daughter and me to make the trip. Could I take so much time (four weeks) off? Do I deserve this? Finally, I realized I first had to decide to go (pushing fears aside) and then see how things would unfold.

The moment I said to my daughter: “We are going to Thailand in 2016” the planning and voorpret or antefun started.  I know that not everything I imagine will turn out that way. We’ll encounter some obstacles and other pleasant surprises. I keep an open mind, my itinerary is just for voorpret , guidance, and budget planning.

Since I visited before, planning this trip was rather easy. However, my trips were a very long time ago, and things changed a lot. After the movie ‘The Beach” (2000) there was a serious influx of (backpacking) tourists, and nowadays most young people with a little budget, travel to Thailand, before starting a career or family requires them to shift their focus.

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Great free tool for planning: mindmeister. 

My imagination is fueled by some very vivid and positive memories of this pearl of the East. Another factor that helps tremendously with planning and voorpret are consumer reviews like TripAdvisor and Youtube videos, both were not available in the early 90-ies. I can check Google earth and zoom in on a beach and check how shallow the water is, or where there’s a coral reef for snorkeling.

Back in 1991, during my first trip, we only had The Lonely Planet guide-which was pretty awesome- and that was it. I printed a map of Thailand and planned our tour. One thing we didn’t realize was the fact that it is tropical, something I’d never encountered before as a Dutch native. When we got off the plane, it felt like a warm, humid blanket covered us, and we immediately realized that we had to move less and much slower.

Very quickly we decided to skip half of our planned route, we didn’t want to be on trains and buses every day and have enough time to take in the beautiful landscape and at times intense cultural flavors. When I tell people about our upcoming trip they ask me about all the places we’re going to visit and if we’re also going to Vietnam or Singapore, since we’re so close.

No, we’re not. Just the city of Bangkok is worth at least a week, and we also want to incorporate ample quiet, lazy, beach time. I’m very lucky to be able to travel for 4 weeks, so I don’t have to rush from one place to the other and upon returning feeling so exhausted I need another vacation. If you would ask me for one tip I would say: take it easy and take your time.

Another tip: Do some homework and prepare! I can’t image to just book a ticket and perhaps hotel, pack my bag the day of departure, fly to another continent I never visited before, and just see what happens. The chances you’ll experience more stress and unwanted challenges on your way, are huge.

I started with tracking flights, even though this was too early, at least, I had an idea of how much the two airplane tickets would be. I found an article that stated that at 171 days prior to departure and no later than 90 days before departure, you could find the best price. In my case, that was mid-January, thanks to a tip from my cousin I found two tickets for $1740 via Google flights. This is extremely cheap (they still go for $1200-$1400 per ticket), and yes, it is not the most perfect flight, arriving late at night, but you have to be flexible to get such a price.

Once I had the tickets I changed gears and started a “mindmap” (see screenshot above), this free tool helps you keeping track of all the things that need to be done prior to the trip and the wish-list of places to visit and things to do. Immunizations, for example, some require being given weeks or months in advance to allow your body to build the immune system.

I knew I wanted to spend at least 2 weeks on a tropical beach on one of the many beautiful islands. Thailand has different weather regions, based on that I selected the island Koh Phangan because in July it’s dry (Phuket for example, is in the rainy season that month). This time, I wanted to visit two other places I had never been before, Ayutthaya and Khao Yai National park, both are located within a 100 km range from Bangkok.

 

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Our bungalow at Chao Phao beach.

 

Another advantage of planning (early) is that you can spread the expenses. Last summer I found great backpacks on sale, and immediately ordered them and took them off the shopping list. I’ve paid for several hotels and other accommodations I found with the help of TripAdvisor. At this point I’m reviewing travel insurance, I advise you to do some research as some things might already be covered under your current life and medical insurances. The only expenses left are food and a few taxi and train trips.

Most travel guides have a section about Thai culture and the general dos and don’ts. I’m no saint and probably stepped on a few Thai tails myself, but I highly recommend to inform yourself a little bit. For example, most people from the West (Europe and US) live at a much faster pace, be prepared for things to go much slower and don’t get annoyed by that.

Thai people are usually soft-voiced and rather avoid confrontation and arguments. If something is not OK, or the way you like it, just smile and gently ask for something else, don’t raise your voice, make a fuss, or point your finger, it’ll make things much more complicated. Don’t complain if you only get one toilet roll (while you only paid $12 a night for your beach bungalow?) just go buy another one yourself, or use water, just like the Thai do.

Other things are just common sense, put on a T-shirt or top when you go to a restaurant or visit a store. Dress appropriately when entering a temple (no bare shoulders or tiny shorts). When you make a little effort to blend in and welcome sanuk and sabai, you’re in for an unforgettable time and might even feel becoming part of the Thai family that runs your hotel or resort. For now, I’ll end with a video from Sunny, he’s very straightforward, but he has lived in Thailand for over 15 years and he knows…

 

 

 

 

Zenything

Zen is in. Everything is zenable these days. What is Zen?

“One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind.”

Got it? Got Zen? How about this one: “Zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.”

For most of us, Zen is connected to peacefulness, being at ease. For me, it also means I feel “flow”, a state of heightened focus. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—glad I don’t have to pronounce his name—a positive psychologist, has made flow, happiness, creativity, and fulfillment the focus of his life. He notes that things (including money) can’t really make us happy, instead, the activities that bring about a state of “flow” provide long lasting satisfaction.

When you’re in flow, you forget about time and your surroundings, and perhaps you might forget the daily challenges as well. When one is in flow, everything goes automatically, without thinking, you don’t have to think. You’re thoughtless, yet very aware.

This brings me to Zentangles, a new hype that was recently brought to my attention. Some might call this doodling with pen and ink. I think they are beautiful line drawings of patterns. The people behind this “Zen” product saw a market. They call it a method, and recommend you take classes and one can also become a certified instructor. They even sell stacks of square papers (a “real” Zentangle is made on a square piece of paper).

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Doodle art by Faith Georgia (not a Zentangle!)

I think this is utter baloney. Especially when they start talking about Zentomology. As a marketer and bachelor of fine arts, I can appreciate their boldness. Afraid a lot of people will get trapped in this marketing hype. They even went as far as to try to patent it (they were rejected 8 times).

You can’t patent drawing or art! Besides all that, they miss the point of “flow” and the limitlessness of Zen. All I want to say is: you are more creative than 1000 Zentangles, just grab a pen and paper (as small or as big as you want, square, rectangle or triangle) and start with the first line…

…or dot.

There we go again…

Thinking…I thought I had left it behind me, and finally entered the realm of just being and doing. NOT.

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I met some seriously strange characters in Prague. 1990

 

I realized my blog does not really have a theme, and thought it should, or does it? Why is it that everybody—including myself—wants to write, post, vlog, present, share, etc? Is this a new era of self-expression?

Are we doing this just because it feels good? Are we doing this because we think we have something really important to say or show? Or is it just because it’s so easy these days? Perhaps it makes us feel a little more significant and famous for a minute or more?

Why do I write this blog? I live a pretty mediocre life as a full-time working, single mom in the suburbs. OK, I’m not an average Joe/Mo, but I do my very best to blend in. Maybe that’s what bothers me?

Maybe it’s time to not blend or bend anymore, and just let it all go the way it flows. It’s amazing how quickly, little rules can take over. For example, I thought my blog posts needed to be long and deep. How about short and sweet?

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By the way, that Basque cake with semolina cream, cinnamon-vanilla sauce and ice milk was sweet indeed, yum!

À demain!

Mo

This is ridiculous!

Again, it took me several months to write my next post. Oh well…

The new year just arrived and so much already happened! It all started with the idea that I wanted no resolutions, but instead a theme to practice, my theme is “do”, no more thinking or testing, no more goals, just do! The reason behind my “do” theme is to prevent me from over-thinking, something I do very well and often I think myself out of an idea, either because of doubt or fear of failing or whatever other “reason” I can find.

So, I did.

I filed my own divorce (I was scared to do that for over 5 years), and this week I received the final decree, a new single chapter has started. Next, I tackled creating my new website http://www.moniquedicarlo.com which took me a couple of days with the help of WIX, a really cool web development tool. Of course, this is a work in progress…

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Then I had a nice little party to celebrate my 51st birth year. Last year when I turned 50, we were in the middle of a move and I couldn’t really celebrate. In a way, it was a re-celebration, as well as a housewarming party. Multi-generations of amazing women from different countries and backgrounds provided for some very interesting discussions. Brooksie Wells had recently released a new album, and she brought a few CD’s to share. “North East Rising Sun” has some very insightful lyrics, you should check her out!

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Buddha statue in Bangkok

The next VERY exciting thing is the fact that I bought two tickets for Thailand! We’ll spend the month of July visiting this amazing country. I started a mindmap at MindMeister to plan everything, another great tool I just discovered. I’ll continue to write about this trip and my preparations for it, I already got a lot of ideas of things to see and do. Some accommodations I’ve already booked, which will make the arrival and transition a little easier for my daughter.

Another item on my “do” list is creating a book via Amazon. I explored this a couple of ears ago, but this time, I’m going to get it done! For over 25 years I’ve been taking pictures of windows and I think this makes a nice collection for a coffee table book.

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À bientôt,

Mo