Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Edibles and Criminals (UPDATED: Photos Added)

Two more nights in Cambodia, and then to Vietnam. I took the bus to Phnom Penh this morning.

The bus stopped at two roadside food stands. The first had crickets. I asked how much for one, and she tried to give me a whole cupful. Nooooo, no no no. Just one cricket. The vendors wanted to give it to me for free, but I paid 15 cents. They were pretty tickled. I had read that you're supposed to take off the legs so they don't get stuck in your throat. Off they went. It didn't taste bad at all, it was just mentally a little hard to eat because it was a bug.

I felt pretty proud of myself, but the cricket proved to be small beans compared to the second roadside stand. They were selling something on a plate that was a mess of big worm-like objects piled amongst chunky things. The worms were legs, and it was a plate of tarantulas. I had gotten back on the bus before I worked up the courage to get back off and buy one.

Looking at the thing in the plastic bag she gave me was disgusting. Leg to leg it went from the base of my palm to the tip of my fingers. If YOU had a tarantula in your hand, how would you eat it? I didn't know either. I tried to ask the woman, and she mimed holding it by a leg and lowering it into her mouth. Hellz no. I had to stare at it for a while, and nibbled at a leg. The leg still had hair on it. It also had a little bone in it. I didn't know that tarantulas had bones, but I swear this thing had bones in its legs. Little nibbles and you could pull the husk off, leaving the bone exposed. I took pictures. So gross.

I was determined to eat more, but it was so hard to work up to it. To make matters worse, I was back on the bus. If I tried and lost it, I would have had three more embarrassing hours on a hot bus reeking of vomit surrounded by angry Cambodians. The main body had all the thick legs connecting to it, so on top of looking especially gross, I was afraid it would be bony. Upon closer inspection there were also two little claws or something that felt just like sharp toenail clippings. No way they would have been chewable. That left only the back part. Maybe the thorax, maybe the abdomen, maybe something else. The little spinneret things where the silk comes out was cooked but still gummy-looking. Extra gross was the worried thought that maybe tarantulas don't make webs. And if that hole wasn't where the web came out... It was hard to eat, and took a while to chew, but I got it down. It smelled like potato chips. Lays. Try not to think of that next time you crack a bag of those open.

At the beginning of the trip, when I decided to take a break on five years of vegetarianism to make sure I experienced the culture everywhere I went, I told myself I would try everything. Even dog.

No longer.

One of the restaurants we stopped at had a dog in a little cage out back behind the kitchen next to a big pile of garbage. It was yipping and crying and jerking at the chicken-wire with its teeth. We stayed for 20 minutes and it was yipping the whole time. Horrible. I won't be trying dog.

Back in Siem Reap, the Angkor temples were gorgeous. The first two days my tuk-tuk took me around for a look. Thankfully, he wasn't too much of a crook. He charged me only slightly more than it said in the book. Nook cook snook. Mistook.

That afternoon we went to the River of a Thousand Lingas. The Khmer carved the living rock of the river bed with linga (kind of like big raised bumps) and Hindu gods. The second day we went to more temples. The third day I rented a bike and rode back to the park. More temples. Look at some pictures. They are gorgeous, but three days is a lot of temples. For a change of pace, I rode out into the countryside looking for an infrequently visited temple.

I never found it. But the farther I rode along the dirt road, the friendlier people got. Little kids love to yell out “HELLO!” and are absolutely thrilled when you yell back. They will give you two for free, pause before the third, and then keep it up until you are out of earshot, laughing hysterically. By the end of the road, even the adults were yelling out “hello!” and laughing and waving when you smiled and yelled back. Even a very grizzled looking guy on his motor bike, riding slowly towards me and glaring, flatly said “hello” as he got close. I yelled back “hello!” with a smile. He laughed a husky “hehehe,” gunned the throttle and sped down the road.

Last night in Siem Reap I had my most overt encounter with a criminal to date. As I walked out of my hostel for dinner, I was startled by a guy standing in the dark in the garden bed just outside door. I had been singing to myself, and apologized for jumping. I kept walking, and he followed me. He was following me much too close for us just to have been walking in the same direction. I was turning around to look at him to make sure he knew I saw him. As we walked I was also watching the shadows from the streetlights and saw him closing the gap. I stepped into a well-lit shop, made sure he walked past, asked the shopkeeper a few questions, and went back out on the street. The guy was up ahead and had slowed down his pace to well below walking. Even though I was walking as slowly as I could, I still caught up to him. He was trying to drift back behind me. I wasn't letting it happen. I was looking him up and down to try and figure out what he was after. There was something very small and very discreetly concealed between his thumb and forefinger. You had to really look to see it. I think it was a razor blade, and he was probably trying to razor my bag. When we got close to the main street he stopped. I crossed the street and passed him. He turned around and wandered back towards the alley. It was still pretty busy where we were, so I gave him some space and walked 30 feet back after him to see where he stopped. He squatted down in front of an empty building. I went and got some dinner

In Siem Reap I was paying $1 a night for a mattress behind the guesthouse. It was covered, on a raised platform, and had a mosquito net. It was also right next to a hive of Cambodian activity that didn't seem to slow down until the very wee hours of the morning. They ran the guesthouse and they had babies and people of all ages laughing and playing cards and creating a ruckus all of the time. There was also a light that didn't get turned off, a bar on the roof that played music loud enough to hear, and a club next door that played music loud enough to feel. Sunday night was karaoke night. When you had to get up at 4:45 in the morning to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat, it got very frustrating to deal with. But for a dollar? Can't complain.

As a last bit of news, two days ago I shaved my head. You know you're losing your hair when you shave your head and look the same. The barber used a guard on the razor so it didn't cut right to the scalp. He took off the guard to do some edge trimming, set the razor down to brush aside some hair, and picked the razor back up, still guardless. He moved it slowly towards my head. I was watching him in the mirror. The slightly puzzled look on his face made it clear he knew something was wrong, and he was moving in slow motion as he tried to figure out what it was. He didn't. His face changed from puzzled to a pleased “oh well,” and his movements cranked back up to full speed. He touched the razor to my head, BZZT, and jerked it back up. He looked at the razor, looked at the new square shaped bald spot on the back of my head, looked at me in the mirror , and shouted “I so sorry!” He gave me a dollar off, though, for grand total of $2 to cut off all your hair and carve a little off-center patch out of the back of your head.

I found out today that I got ANOTHER speeding ticket from Australia. This one is $141 for supposedly speeding in a school zone. I seriously cannot believe it.

I haven't taken any pictures yet of the head shaving, but will try and post some soon. You can shoot a rocket launcher somewhere nearby. Maybe they would just let me hold it for a cool picture. For now, you can just imagine either an upside down egg or Charlie Brown, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what I look like.

Tomorrow I'm going to the Killing Fields and S-21 prison museum. It will be a very somber day.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tuk-Tuk

Ahhhh the tuk-tuk: Ubiquitous rats of the road. Assailers of the senses. "Tuk-tuk?! You want tuk-tuk?!" I had never heard of them before I left, but boy do I know them now.

For the uninitiated: a tuk-tuk (pronounced took-took, as in "the tuk-tuk took me to a cookbook nook") is just a little cart that gets pulled behind a motor cycle or little truck that you sit in. Sometimes it's only big enough for two, sometimes it's big enough for eight. It is a couple of levels below a taxi, one level below walking.

I have no idea how tuk-tuk drivers survive. They lounge around talking to other tuk-tuk drivers, lying in the cabs of their mini-trucks, leaning back in their carts, or napping in hammocks strung up in the back. And they do this all day. You can walk by a cluster of them when you leave in the morning, when you come back for lunch, and when you go to bed, and they're always there, exactly as you left them. And of course each time you walk by them you're met with shouts, one after the other from different overlapping voices: "tuk tuk?!" "My friend, tuk-tuk for you?" "You want tuk-tuk?"

The worst part is that despite how easy it is to find them, they try to rip you off so badly that it's almost never worth actually taking one. When you ask a waiter or local how much you SHOULD pay to get somewhere, and then ask them have them double the price because you're white, the drivers still ask at least double that price. In Laos when I was negotiating with a group of them (they travel in packs) they were all offering me ridiculously inflated prices for a trip to a nearby temple. Fortunately, I had just asked a waiter and gotten the quote, and was feeling ready to stymie them by being better prepared than they were.

Horde: "Oh very far, very far. (Yes, very far.) 40,000."
Me: "40,000? 20,000."
Horde: "40! 40! Good price for you!"
And now for my secret weapon.
Me: "It should be 20,000. I asked them [pointing towards the cafe] and they said it should be 20,000."
Immediately and simultaneously, each reached into their respective vehicles and pulled out the same laminated list of fares. They pointed. There was the name of the temple. And there was the price printed right beside it: 40,000. Damn them.

Right now I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are so many here that if you even make eye contact with someone on the street, it is met with an inquisitive "tuk-tuk?"

One horde hangs out playing a version of chess in the driveway of my guest house. I made a deal with one (not a very good deal) to cover my temple viewing days. I tuk, er, took, a ride with him out to the temples today to watch the sunset from the ruins. When we got back, I stepped out of the cart and walked to the bathroom. Two minutes later I walked back to the street to get some dinner. My driver, their friend, was still parking. I glanced towards their chess game. Instantly came two voices, one on top of the other: "Tuk-tuk?" "You want tuk-tuk?"

Before I left Laos I had gotten pretty good at bargaining with them.

30-40 minutes outside of Luang Prabang are some absolutely gorgeous waterfalls. The big falls themselves are impressive but not awe-inspiring. The smaller falls, however, are 14-tiered and spread throughout the jungle, each falling into a blue pool that you can swim in. (Picture below) As soon as you step foot in the water, little fish start nibbling the skin on your toes. When you go deeper they disappear. The water is quite opaque at more than three feet deep, but you can tell when you're getting close to the bank because you start to feel little nibbles.

If you want to visit the falls (which you do) and you want to avoid a costly tour, tuk-tuks are your only option. I was told to pay 30,000. When I was looking to go, I was first offered 150,000. I talked him down to 50,000. He wouldn't go any lower. This time, I tried a new tactic. I told him that I had another driver across the street that was leaving in an hour that was going to take 30,000, and I would just wait for him. He looked across the street at the supposed offender and stroked his chin, pained. "Ok, you pay 30. But shh!" and he put his finger to his lips. "Others pay 50, you pay 30. Shh!" He led me to his tuk-tuk, which already had three people in back. I started to climb in, but he pulled me down and put me in the cab up front with him. He started to drive. "My friend, you pay now" and he gestured discreetly to the seat between us. "Don't say!" and he gestured towards the back. It made me feel a little guilty.

At the falls I bought a knife for my brother. On the way back the driver let me ride with the others in the back, and I stuck the knife under the seat, promising myself not to forget it. I forgot it. Back in town, he drove to a group of tuk-tuks and turned off the engine. We climbed out and I started the walk back. The streets were thick with them, lounging in their hammocks and leaning against their trucks, lazily opening an eye and yawning "tuk-tuk?" I was two blocks away before I realized I had left it. I started to jog back. There was his tuk-tuk coming at me down the road. His window was down. I shouted "Hey!" Nothing. "Wait!" Nope. He was past me. "Hey you! Please! Stop! Sir!" He didn't even slow down. I knew what I had to do. "TUK-TUK!!" He came screeching to a halt in the middle of the road. Every head on the street whipped towards me, an engine started, and 10 excited voices shouted "you want tuk-tuk?!"

I got the knife back, but it cost 40 dollars to ship to the US, so I kind of wish I hadn't. I'm going to see Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow, and will be taking a tuk-tuk.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Northern Laos

Laos > Thailand.

Fewer tourists, the people don't try and scam you at every opportunity, less humidity. All of which makes it easier to appreciate the country.

On the way out of Vientiane the markets had baguettes of all sizes leaning up against the stalls alongside the typical south east Asian food and wares.

My first stop outside Vientiane was Vang Vieng. The little town sits across the muddy Mekong from sharp stegosaurus mountains. At night smoke hangs in the streets like fog from where they are burning (rice paddies? brush?) in the nearby countryside. Bung Bang Fai, a rocket festival, happens in May. Kids had strung up rubber bands as makeshift catapults to launch their burnt out bottle rockets across the road.

When I got into town at dusk I walked around with my backpacks--big one on my back, little one on my stomach like an expectant mother. Through a window I saw some dormitory beds. I walked into the house to inquire, and it turned out they had just opened that afternoon. They had to get up to greet me from where they were still putting together the sign to hang out front. I was the first guest and had the entire dorm room to myself.

Across the street was a Hosteling International hostel that was charging 10,000kip for their wifi password. If you sat on the porch of my hostel you could barely pick up the signal. The owner sent me across the street with 10,000kip. He was very clear that he wanted me to stay for a little while in their lobby so as not to look suspicious, and then come back and give him the password. I didn't feel very guilty because the signal was too weak to suffer much leeching from his hostel no matter how many people tried.

The bars and restaurants in Vang Vieng all had TVs. They would play The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Friends, and you would pick where you wanted to go based on what they were playing. The most popular thing to do in Vang Vieng is tubing. You take a tuk-tuk 10 minutes outside of town and float or swim down the river. Bars on either side throw out ropes, haul you in, and ply you with free shots of whiskey in hopes that after a few you'll pay for beer and cocktails. Giving people free shots is like giving them a loaded gun. The bars also sell magic mushroom milkshakes. It was a weird, weird place, and got very crazy.

I'm now in Luang Prabang. It is one of the most beautiful cities I've been in. Last night the night market showed off intricate silk, switchblades, lamps, whiskey with cobras in the bottle, silver ornaments, and even a Delta stewardess pin. Woodsmoke woke me up this morning. After an espresso grown by the hill tribes in the far north of the country I walked to see temples and the royal palace. At one of the temples a monk had squatted down discreetly behind the main wat with a laptop and quickly put it out of sight when he saw that I spotted him. The royal palace hosts the former king's royal car collection. If you go in expecting to see a Rolls Royce or Mercedes, you'll be surprised. It was a tiny fleet of three Lincoln Continentals, a speedboat, and a Toyota jeep. Not what I expected, although nothing is as stately as a Lincoln.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The final night at the last hotel, albeit creepy and sweltering, passed without any parts of me being taken and wrapped in plastic. Phew. That morning I caught a boat to the mainland and caught a night bus to Bangkok. I paid for a shower at a hotel and booked another night bus to Vientiane, Laos. I arrived this morning. It is even hotter here, but less humid, which is (kind of?) preferable.

Somewhere along the line my hand decided to become infected. A week ago, as you may recall from an earlier post, I was scuba diving and scraped my hand on a rock and impaled it on a sea urchin. All in the same graceless motion. I blame the urchin spines, but the infection took a week or so to crop up. My middle and ring finger are swollen and it hurts to press on one side of each of the first knuckles. That strikes me as a weird characteristic of an infection and is troubling. I saw a doctor in Bangkok that spoke perfect English and said there were no spines (he insisted he would be able to feel them were they in there, regardless of the size) and prescribed me antibiotics.

My guess is that there are little bits of spine left in there and I irritated them. Rock climbing is very popular on Railay beach, and I did some bouldering while I was there that may have stirred them around. I was planning on doing one whole day of climbing on the limestone cliffs, but it was expensive, and I had sea urchin spines in my hand. So instead I opted for a half day of deep water soloing. This is rope-free cliff climbing over the ocean. You get in a boat and they take you to cliffs in a national park. You climb to your heart's content and simply fall into the deep water at the base of the cliff or get high enough that you want to jump off.

If it sounds fun, it's not. I have absolutely no problem with heights, but apparently I don't like jumping into water. Most everyone else seemed to enjoy it immensely. One girl didn't like it and claimed to get seasick after trying it a couple times. I tried it a couple times and admitted that I was a coward and didn't like it. There were also huge jellyfish floating around waiting for jumpers. Everyone got stung a couple times. A German guy also got stung by a wasp that was basking in the sun high on the cliff. Both thought they were high enough up to not have to worry about encountering the other. He fell off with a shriek and crashed (safely) into the water. It was all pretty satisfying to watch from the comfort boat.

Down below is a picture of our Thai guide jumping off from as high as anyone got. He was out of control good, and did it all in bare feet. We had lunch on a gorgeous secluded beach. There was a small cave complex on the beach and we all climbed around and did some bouldering. My friend was walking through the sand, stubbed his toe on a hidden rock and tore off his pinky toenail. The nail fell to the sand and within a minute was swarming with ants hungry for goodies. I took a picture, but decided not to post it.

Now to backtrack some. I left Koh Tao a little less than a week ago. One of my last nights in the budget bungalow I came back and found a rat/giant mouse rummaging around in my stuff. As soon as the light came on he dashed under the door. That might mean that the "gecko" poop I found next to me when I woke up that earlier morning had in fact been a mouse poop after all. The morning that I checked out I was looking under the mattress to make sure I hadn't misplaced anything, and I discovered a likely source of the stink that filled the bungalow. A lizard had somehow gotten under the mattress and gotten squished, possibly by me. However, there was an index shoved under a front foot that looked like maybe someone else had found him and tried to scrape it up, so I'm probably in the clear.

I left Koh Tao via night ferry. The crew were the rudest people I've ever met. They treated us like cattle. I checked in at the pier an hour early. After glancing at my ticket, he looked away and said "numbersfull. nosleep." I didn't understand. "NOSLEEPNUMBER!" Sleep number? Serta? I remained confused. Hew as getting pissed. The guy was wearing a black tank top sitting behind a desk he'd pushed out to the middle of the concrete pier in the dark with a paper covered in scribbles with the scribbles covered in pink highlighter, slamming his hand down and screaming "NO SLEEP NUMBER! NO NUMBER!" One of his lackeys, no doubt fearful for the safety of my person, took me by the shoulder and led me into the boat.

As it turned out, all the "beds" were just spaces on benches, and they all had numbers. They put me on a straw mat in a hot little room in the bow. For a few minutes I wondered if they wanted a bribe for a bed, but I decided that there are lot cooler things to try bribing people for and that I didn't want to steal someone's bed who thought they had one. 10 minutes later I met two kids from England and we moved to the...aft? Is that the word? We moved to the back. The engine noise back there was thunderous, but it was outside and much cooler. The engine drowned out the voices of the people around me that had brought beer and I managed to sleep pretty well.

At 5 a.m. we arrived at the pier. Everyone with a pickup truck claimed to be the company that sold you your ticket and beckoned you to climb on in. Taking a gamble with one of them, we piled into the back. He drove us two blocks and kicked us out in front of a cafe. There's a system in Asia that drivers use where they drive you to a restaurant and make you wait between 20 minutes and an hour. They get a commission for bringing you. We stopped at five separate crappy restaurants and changed buses/vans three times before we finally got on the freeway.

Despite of some pronunciation issues, I got off alone at Phang Nga bay. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful bays in the world. They used an island there for Scaramanga's house in "The Man with the Golden Gun." Now they call it James Bond Island. That was definitely very cool. Everyone told me that it was low season and there were no tourists, so I'd have to take a private tour. This seemed to be true, so I arranged a private boat. The bay has lots of islands with vertical cliffs that shoot out of the water and continue so high that you have to strain your neck to see the top. Around some caves I switched to a canoe and my guide paddled us into a cave so low you had to lie down in the boat. We emerged in a lagoon surrounded on all sides by 40 foot high rock, with jungle vines and tree roots reaching down towards the water from a circle of blue sky.

Back on the dock as I was waiting for my van I began to suspect that I had overpaid for the tour. There were no white tourists, true, but there were lots of Thai and Chinese tourists that were parts of groups, although they could have been from Phuket. An old Thai man on the dock started talking to me to practice his English. He asked me what I paid. I told him. "Did I overpay?" "If you are satisfied, then you did not overpay."

From there I caught the bus to Railay and spent my three nights in the jungle bungalow version of The Overlook Hotel. (That's from The Shining. Not sure how obscure that is.) Now I'm in Laos, where I plan on being for a week or so, and then to Cambodia. My hostel here has multitudes of signs saying "no prostitutes in the room," "no sex workers are allowed in the hotel," etc. The currency in Laos is the kip, which is supposedly inconvertible. But I just used an ATM, so I'm not sure how that works. It's about 8,000 kip to a US dollar. I got 1,000,000 kip, and they gave it to me all in 20,000 notes. It is a huge stack of bills that I can't fit in my wallet. Makes me feel like a baller, though.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I am staying on Railay beach. It is dead deserted right now in low season. Bars are empty and the music is blaring, there are hammocks hanging slack--it is eerie. The bungalow I am staying in is at a place run by an English guy. The sign out front says 650 a night, but I am paying 250. I got there at night after a trek through the jungle. You can only get here by boat. The receptionist took 10 minutes to come out of his office, he said he was showering.

He is very creepy. Just the way he looks at you. I thought I was being overly judgmental, but other visitors tell me the same thing. The other day to find him I had to walk up the hill through the jungle on a little trail, past shells of buildings that had odd discarded saw blades, torn straw mats, and putrid piles of vomit in the corners. Nestled in the jungle are some concrete rooms with water pooling around them and a fabric net hanging across a broken down wall. The windows are dirty and taped over and obscured from the inside by dingy curtains. There are bathrooms with doors hanging off broken hinges, casting shadows over dirty tiles and opening into dark stalls that somehow admit none of the blaring jungle sun. I followed the water into a dim area between the buildings, rounded the corner and he was standing right there at a laundry machine waiting for me. It was creepy.

I had my passport and cards in the safe at reception to avoid another robbery incident, except he disappeared all day and I couldn't get my stuff out. He disappears during the day. There is a restaurant attached to the reception. It is never open, but he never takes the standing menus in from off the dirt road. There is also a minute mart, but you have to find him and get him to let you in. Today the power is out and I couldn't find him.

It is night now. Still no power. I walked down to the beach to use the internet, glad to leave the hotel behind me. It is very creepy there. It is in the jungle and there is power at other places before and after it. They are far enough away that we get none of the light. Two rows of bungalows in pitch black jungle and one very creepy owner that is unaccounted for and has keys to all of them. Most of the other cabins are empty, which adds to the eeriness.

I just took my headlamp and walked up to look for him at the creepy concrete structures in the jungle. He wasn't there, but my god was it scary up there. I wouldn't be surprised if he is an impostor that slit the real owner's throat and has him wrapped in saran wrap locked up behind one of those greasy curtains.

Creepy stuff happened on the walk. A jungle cat came and chased the local stray away from the bungalows, complete with terrible noises and cold glaring eyes darting and staring. There was a friendly kitten; the kitten has disappeared. Two other white cats with identical markings and identical mangled tails were sitting in identical fashion looking away from me on the trail. Simultaneously and silently they got up calmly and walked into the jungle in identical stride.

Back in my bungalow in the light of my headlamp I found my stuff from the safe with a note saying he'd been called away. More likely is that he lures people in with low prices and cuts the power before carrying out a monthly cull. Earning trophies to wrap in plastic and stash behind the curtains. With the power out there is no fan and it is unbearably hot in there, so everyone will have no choice but to leave their windows open, where he can slip in and stab them in the eyes with an icepick. My windows will be locked tight and I will be oozing sweat in restless sleep.

I am leaving tomorrow.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Koh Tao

For the past week I've been scuba diving on the island paradise that is Koh Tao. ALMOST paradise, I should say, as there are too many tourists and partyers for it to be a real paradise. Close, though. It is absolutely gorgeous here, situated off the east coast of Thailand.

A few days ago I took a freediving course. Freediving is kind of like scuba, except you do it only by holding your breath. You "breathe-up" on the surface, and then dive. In the beginner class we got at deep as 20 meters, all on one breath of air. At that depth the water pressure compresses your lungs to 1/3 the size of what they are on the surface. There are a few methods. One is with fins and to just dive down, equalizing your ears as you go. Another is to pull yourself down along the guide rope to a depth of 20m, feet first. Headfirst I had trouble equalizing my ears, and need to practice, so I was going feet first, pulling on the rope.

The breathe-up process on the surface takes four to five minutes. I was floating in the water with my mask on, looking at the end of the rope. Barely visible against the deep blue, I looked at the ring of weights suspended there and visualized my dive, listened to my breathing, slow and controlled, in the snorkel. When I completed the breathe-up, I removed the snorkel and took hold of the rope. You're supposed to remain calm and use as few superfluous actions as you can in order to conserve oxygen. That results in a sort of gliding motion as you pull yourself downwards. One hand needs to be kept on your nose so you can plug it to equalize your ears and release it to equalize your mask. You can feel your lungs compressing as you go deeper. At first it is a scary feeling, but as they get smaller the partial pressure of 02 increases and you actually get a bit of an oxygen rush and a sort of second wind. That kicked in for me between 7 and 10 meters. My first time at 20m I wanted to make sure I was legitimately at 20. In my mind, this meant putting my head at the level of the weights with my feet hanging below.

At 10m depth you are neutral buoyant. That means that if you go to a depth of 10m, you can just float there and won't move up or down. Shallower than 10m and you will eventually float to the surface. Deeper than 10m, and you sink in freefall towards the bottom. At 20 meters, with my lungs compressed and my brain saving oxygen for the rest of my body, I forgot this. I let go of the rope to grab hold of the weights. Already possessing downward momentum and 10m past the neutral buoyancy point, I shot towards the ocean floor like a stone. We weren't wearing fins, so any swimming I had to do would deplete my oxygen supply for the 20m ascent. As my fingers left the rope, through my mask the rope appeared to be zipping upwards towards the surface. Then the weights flew up past my eyes and all I could see was the blue of the ocean. My hand shot up and grabbed at them desperately. Fortunately, my fingers barely managed to grab them. I hung there for a second and let myself feel my body being pulled downwards. I thought about how close I was to either sinking or wasting my oxygen with 20m of water above me. It freaked me out. Slowly pulling myself up, I tried to keep my heartbeat slow as I glided back towards the surface. The safety diver met me at 10m. With the rope between us we glided upwards as he made sure I didn't experience a shallow water blackout and made sure I maintained eye contact in order to remain as aerodynamic as possible.

When you do break the surface from that depth (at least as a beginner) you experience an oxygen rush and it is a very clear-the-mind experience almost like a natural high. The last 10m are when you experience this the most and are actually the most dangerous. From 10m to the volume of your lungs doubles in size, meaning that the partial pressure of 02 is halved. That means a lot lower efficiency of absorbing oxygen for your body. It is the last 10 meters where you start to get really low on air and a little panicked.

The crazy thing is that if I opted for the advanced class they teach you dive as deep as 40m. Madness. I would certainly have liked to take it, but it was very expensive for three days. The first day of the advanced was static apnea. In other words, holding your breath in a pool. They guaranteed at least three minutes. The two people from my class that continued on each held their breath for about two minutes when we timed it the day before. After the class they each managed four minutes and forty seconds, underwater. Crazy.

Right now I am spending my time trying to decide whether or not I should leave the island. I have a little bungalow 20 seconds from the beach for 9.25US a night. I think it maybe should be a little less than that, because it is a huge jump up in quality for what I could have for 1.25 more a night at the place next door. There is no mirror in the bathroom, the door doesn't really close all the way (although it locks), the bathroom reeks from something that I can't find and is inhabited by shockingly big ants, I can see through the floorboards, and today I found a rodent turd on the bed when I woke up. However, it looked pretty dry so it could have been there and I missed it or fell from the ceiling or something. Tons of personality, though, and not too uncomfortable when the fan is on. [Edited: I just talked to my friend, who tells me that it is likely a gecko turd. He was lying in bed watching one on his ceiling when it pooped on him. Just like a rodent.]

The scuba here has been great. Coolest thing I've seen was a lionfish. Yesterday I hit a rock with my hand, scraped and cut it, and hit a sea urchin. At that depth the spectrum is so depleted that your blood looks green. They had told me that blood looks gray at depth, but this was definitely green. "What the devil is that," I thought to myself. Then I realized it was blood, and it looked like Spock's hand.

Urchin spines are designed so that they break really easily in order to remain in whatever predator tried to eat them. Or in my case, clumsily hit them. Some smaller points that broke off in my hand aren't bothering me at all, but a bigger one is stuck deep in my fingertip and is quite painful. Last night I spent some time digging at it with a needle, but didn't have any luck. The anti-septic the pharmacy gave me was iodine, though, which was exciting. I'd heard of iodine being used from Peanuts when Peppermint Patty got licked by Snoopy, but had never actually seen it used outside the hospital.

I want to see Krabi and mayyyybe Phuket and then I will feel more or less satiated in Thailand. My next big stop is Laos, where I am trying to see a rocket festival. Apparently they make homemade bamboo rockets and shoot them towards the sky. There are supposed to be lots of botched rockets resulting in explosions, as well as normal bottle rockets. The losing rockets get thrown into the mud by their frustrated creators. The question now is how to get started on the rest of my SE Asia itinerary. If I stayed four more days on Koh Tao, maybe with some snorkeling and hiking in the jungle, on the 6th I could go on a full day trip to Sail Rock. It is one of the best dive sites in the gulf, and whale sharks are often seen there. BUT, "often" by whale shark standards is still a pretty low percentage.

My Vietnam visa expires at the end of this month. I want to cross into China from Vietnam overland. As a result, I think I might just reapply for a Vietnamese visa in Cambodia and absorb the wasted cost of the visa that I got in the US. That will mean finish up Thailand, then Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. But do I stay for those dives, or do I get started? I just don't know. Aside from the heat, it is pretty amazing here. This is also about as un-touristy as I can probably hope for; it is low-season, plus many people are avoiding Thailand due to the political situation in Bangkok. So many decisions! The biggest thing is that I don't want to miss the rocket festival (Boun Bang Fai) in Laos. If anyone has any details on the dates of that, I would love hear them. I am having a hard time finding them. One guy on the couchsurfing site says it happens every Sunday of May, which is good news, but I'd like to have this corroborated.

Anyways. I just looked at some pictures of whale sharks online. That would really be something. Tough, tough decisions. Here is something that my friend Sam sent me. It is a link to a hike in China. It looks pretty exhilarating, but maybe too terrifying to actually attempt. The story is really good, but the pictures offer quicker gratification. Blogger's "embed link" function is unreliable, and doesn't seem to be working, so you have to copy paste, sorry!

All for now.