The month of April brought travel and transition. Mae Sai to Mae Chan to Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Krabi to Ao Nang to Railay to Koh Lanta Yai to Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Mae Sai to Chiang Mai and back to Bangkok. Buses, planes, taxis, songtaews, longtail boats, high-speed motorboats, motorbikes – you name the method of transport; we used it.
First stop: Chiang Mai for the annual Chiang Mai music and street art festival. It was a rainy one this year but we still brought the party.
Next stop: Railay – an incredibly beautiful island in Krabi Province. Four days of beach combing, island-hopping, snorkeling, and soaking up the rays. A much needed reprieve from the previous months of non-stop work. Upon arrival in Railay, a 8.9 earthquake unleashed in Sumatra putting five provinces in southern Thailand on tsunami watch. An island-wide warning went out and everyone was to make for high ground. Some people panicked clutching each other in tears. Others played cards and drank beer. Ultimately there was nothing to do but wait it out. After five hours of sitting around – no access to phones, internet, news stations or accurate information – the Thai government lifted the tsunami watch and it was business as usual. A strange but illuminating experience. NTS: Pay attention to tsunami evacuation routes; you may need them. Although Railay is perhaps the most beautiful island in all of Krabi Province, I found the Thais to be quite unfriendly which is uncharacteristic. My only theory is that they have been dealing with a glut of direct and often times rude Europeans and have acquiesced. Railay may be paradise on earth but it’s expensive and bitchy and that was enough for me to leave in search of something more sabai sabai.
Next stop: Koh Lanta Yai – Krabi’s largest island with 30 km of sheer beach. Lanta is a dreamer’s dream. A timeless island that is more laid back than most of Thailand and that’s really saying something. Incredible fresh seafood, cotton candy colored sunsets, and beach for days. And it’s motorbikeable! We spent a week touring the island, stuffing our gullets, sunning ourselves, relaxing, reading, getting massage and decompressing in the best way possible. What better way to ring in the Thai New Year?
On the map, I noticed there was a sea gypsy settlement village on the far reaches of the island and I nearly shat myself. I’ve been fascinated with sea gypsy culture since I learnt about them on 20/20 after the 2004 Asian tsunami. Four of us (we made some friends from Greece and Singapore) motorbiked to the village and met the sea gypsies which was, I have to say, one of the top 10 highlights of my travels thus far. We weren’t in the village long, but were welcomed in and communicated as best we could in Thai. Sea gypsies or Moken or chao leh as they are called in Thai are a group of about 2,000 to 4,000 people residing in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand and Myanmar. They live on the sea in boats and are able to dive 75 feet deep while holding their breath and slowing their heartrate. They have a sort of super vision which allows them to see long distances under water. Moken children learn how to swim before they learn how to walk. In recent years, there have been efforts to assimilate them into Thai culture. The Thai government has allocated them land – such as the village at San Ga U – where 200 Moken currently reside. They still make their living off fishing, speak Moken, and are very animist. It appears they have no interest in assimilating into mainstream Thai culture and I hope that they don’t. They feel more comfortable living on the sea and often say they get “land legs” when on land for too long. The Moken were prepared for the 2004 tsunami – who could possibly read the signs of the water better? Their folklore even warned that one day the “big wave that swallows people” will come. While many Moken survived just fine, others were devastated. Today, their numbers are small but I hope there is a movement to preserve their culture and way of life without exploiting them like the tourist industry has done so badly with the ethnic minority hill tribes in the north. Meeting them was a sheer pleasure – a day I will never forget.
Next stop: Mae Sai. Sometimes things work out as if the stars are aligned in our favor. Things fall into place effortlessly – well almost effortlessly. In the case of leaving Mae Sai and selling off all my belongings within a week, it went abnormally well – further indication that it was indeed time to go. Leaving Mae Sai was bittersweet at best. There was a bit too much bitter with my sweet but I’ll take the high road and just leave it at that. Selling it all and packing it up for a new destination seems to be a recurring theme in my life these last few years. Isn’t that everything I’ve always wanted? To travel? To step outside my comfort zone? To experience as much of the world as possible? It’s an exciting proposition but it isn’t without its challenges and uncertainties. I met and worked with so many incredible people while living in Mae Sai. People from all walks of life who left impressions on me, challenged me, changed me, helped me grow into the person I’ve become. For that, I am humbled and grateful.
The last few days of April and early May were spent in Chiang Mai storing my belongings and in Bangkok securing a visa for Burma. The Burmese Embassy was bat shit with lines around the block since the “opening up” of Burma in recent months. Seems everyone wants in and the Burmese Embassy is handing out visas like candy. A step towards development and positive change? Or a superficial opening so the cash can start to flow? Time will tell. It’s always hard to leave Thailand. Although it tests my patience and there are times I think it’s time for me to move on, Thailand has become my home.
On May 10, I boarded a plane for Yangon with a 28-day visa in hand. I will spend the next few weeks exploring and networking in Yangon attempting to find anti-trafficking NGOs and potentially develop a new VIA post. If something amazing presents, I can sign on for a year. I’m going in with an open mind and heart but much reservation about whether or not I could handle a year in Burma or if I would even want to. It’s an exciting time for Burma no doubt – a crucial time for a country that has been closed off and seized by military corruption for decades. Whether I want to be a part of this is or not is yet to be determined. Let’s see how it goes…