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Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Christmas Exile

The weather is outside is… well, considering it's December it's pretty balmy but then I'm in Dubai. This time last year I was home in Ireland (for the first Christmas in 7 years), the year before in Chiang Mai, the year before that Oman… and so on. When you choose an expat/nomadic/travelling life you may consider that Christmas may be spent somewhere else and that maybe it will be a novelty. If you're an expat maybe you've committed to the chaotic challenge of the trek home for the holidays, with thousands of other harried travellers facing queues, delays and arm-breaking bags full of duty-free alcohol.

I've grown accustomed to being away this time of year because although I enjoy travelling, I would rather not set foot in an airport between December 12th and January 5th. I have been repeatedly proven right that what can go wrong will go wrong with travel during these dates… in 2013 I couldn't get OUT of Thailand because even the slow boat down the Mekong was booked up, last year in the early days of January, I experienced 36 hour delays (and horrible attitudes) by Qatar Airways when there was some morning fog in Dubai, and a friend had someone throw up in her hair onboard a flight five years ago during the season… Merry for everyone but her!

I remember my first year in Dubai, presents had to be arranged so far in advance and a lovely cabin crew friend posted them from London for me (at the time there were no direct flights to Dublin), now we have numerous online sites to make that easy. I used to use a prepaid card to call home from a landline, which also meant they had to be home. Now, I can call my family for free, without even a telephone connection. In 2004, I had Christmas dinner in the Dubliners pub in Garhoud with my co-workers before I worked the evening shift serving everyone else theirs at the Irish Village. Things have certainly become easier but Christmas is still about family. I'm lucky that my extended family are spread across the world and grateful each year that cousins, aunts and uncles have invited me into their home to celebrate over the past few years and this year I got to celebrate with a new arrival in my cousins room after seeing my godson on Christmas eve and again on Christmas night. Family comes in many guises; it doesn't mean I miss Mom, Dad and Nickki any less.

It also means I get to learn about and sometime share in other traditions; most Europeans celebrate on Christmas eve, rather than Christmas Day, and it seems that my family have always unknowingly prescribed to this too - we've always had a family dinner and opened presents on Christmas eve, whereas most Irish people are having drinks in their local that night. I lived with a Swedish friend who explained that it was more traditional to have a selection of seafood rather than turkey, ham and stuffing. Even within my country, there were differences: whilst I lived in Kerry, I grew familiar with the tradition of Wren Boys, which I hadn't known growing up in Dublin. Whereas I always seemed to be in some form of transport on St. Stephen's Day (known as Boxing Day to the UK or 26th December) so I could head out to party that night, this year it was all about playing games in my PJ's. In 2013 on the 26th, I was visiting a renowned mountain temple in Thailand. I love the variety that my life and exposure to other cultures brings.

I have no idea where Christmas in 2016 will be spent, hopefully somewhere new and interesting and the idea of still being away is fine with me. I am perfectly content with my nomadic/expat life and as long as it keeps bringing surprises and adventures and often detours from the norm, then I will embrace every second. I hope you all had a wonderful festive season and all the best for 2016.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Part 10: Pub-crawling around the World: Himmel, Lonely Beach, Koh Chang

It was the height of Thai New Year, known as Songkran, we had been sprayed with water all day and we figured we were going to be wet all evening so we donned clean bikinis and headed out to see what Lonely Beach had to offer.

Ting Tong appeared to be the most popular bar on Lonely Beach and we'd stopped in the night before (which ended with me completely sozzled after only one bucket of vodka - what do they put in those buckets?) but we noticed there was a foam party advertised a little way up the street in Himmel Bar.

Himmel Bar is pretty large and at first glance appears a little classier than Ting Tong Bar, because most of it is covered by a roof. There are plenty of seating areas, both outdoor and indoor and an large dance floor, which was already playing host to a small number of patrons when we arrived. It was all feel-good music - a bit of dance, some 90's and 00's hits thrown in for good measure. I seem to remember "I've got 5 on it" and also some Kylie! The bar staff were all friendly and buckets were on special for 150baht, as seems the norm on Lonely Beach. Himmel Bar also offers a variety of shots and cocktails.

My friend Jess and I had picked up some new friends, lone travellers Joe and Anna (I remember travelling alone and people NOT talking to me), in Ting Tong bar and we made some more friends in Himmel Bar before the foam got too thick. We ran into some Spanish guys we had met on the ferry over to the island and there was even an old, bearded dude in a cowboy hat - everything one needs for a crazy night in Thailand. So, with buckets in tow we began venturing to dance in the foam….
Jess got involved!

The night progressed with more and more foam, everyone spinning a little faster, a little wilder…
Jess getting cheeky with everyone that would talk to us and pretty much warning me off any man that approached, although she allowed me brief periods to dance with our new German friend, Joe, when we weren't having friendly foam fights with anyone and everyone in the crowd. Glow sticks and glory straws were being handed out at the bar - somethings are required for a cheesy night out. We also attracted the attention of a Thai lady friend, who was keen on our drinks. At least she was openly keen: Another guy just picked up my bucket and walked off with it. I caught him trying to steal someone else's' later on. Well, there are always people who spoil it for others, it can't be blamed on the bar.

Happy out of the foam
The party continued late into the night, with the foam being topped up on a regular basis. The bar staff were superb when a glass was broken in the foam, going straight in to remove the glass and tend to the one or two people who had sadly cut themselves (thankfully not badly at all). The music was still banging as we strolled off to our guesthouse around the corner around 3.15am.

All in all, it was a really fun night. Himmel bar advertises winter parties and runs special events quite regularly so be sure to catch one of their parties if you're in the area.

Ambience: 10/10 - If you're looking for a party in Koh Chang, you really can't go wrong.
Price: 150bht buckets, shots 100bht. Other drinks range from 100bht upwards.
Food: They offered barbecued food earlier in the evening, so they do food. I can't vouch for it personally.
Location: Soi 2 Lonely Beach, just off the main street in Lonely Beach - very easy to find.
Toilets: There were toilets and they were attended by staff, trying to keep it foam free. Fairly clean.
Overall: A good choice for a party on Lonely Beach, particularly on special nights.
Dancing the night away

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Being away and coming back.

I've been intending to write, of course I have, we all have the best intentions…
I didn't… life got in the way…

Having started this blog in July 2012, I couldn't even imagine where life was going to take me in three short years. I've always been a dreamer and I've been pretty good about "doing" but sometimes those dreams seem so elusive. Now, I know they're not. Now I know that you really can do anything - but you can't do everything, unfortunately.

In 2012, I had a great job working in Dubai, I was pretty settled in my lovely Sheikh Zayed Road apartment and I got to travel around 3-4 times a year, sometimes more as it was easy to hop to Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. I had a good life and I was grateful for it but I absolutely yearned for more. Luckily, I was surrounded both personally and professionally by people who encouraged me to take chances, who helped me believe that I could do other things, primarily write and travel. So, I did.

In 2013, I left my comfortable life, ghost-wrote a book, penned 4 plays commissioned for the stage, volunteered for charity in Sri Lanka and visited many more other countries that aroused feelings in me I wasn't aware were possible. I didn't know it was possible to fall in love so often (with different places), to spend 12 days not actually speaking to anyone in English (with very few words of their languages to help me!), to eat bugs without gagging and to live without fear. Everything challenged me and it became very addictive. The first day of 2014 began in Chiang Mai, Thailand and ended in Luang Prabang, Laos; a month later I was in Australia. Travelling is a bubble - I was the happiest I had ever been with my everyday life, but everything else went on without me. Given time back in Ireland mid-year, I had time to review what I wanted next and I realised that I wanted some stability. I loved the buzz of moving from place to place but my means weren't endless. I also like building friendships and although travel leads you to people everyday - there's a slim possibility that you'll meet any of them ever again. I thought Chiang Mai would be a wonderful base to live, I had immediately identified with the place when my bus arrived there and yet thought modern life would be accessible enough there.

July 2013 took me back to Chiang Mai where I quickly found a great apartment, a part time job teaching English at Chiang Mai University and a whole host of fantastic new friends with their own experiences to share. It is a brilliant place to live, with enough comforts of the international world mixed with truly Thai experiences. I learnt more Thai in one year, than Arabic from years in the Middle East. My little soi (lane) felt like a community, the Thai people waved, wai'd or gave me a "hi" everyday, and I had wonderful street food to choose from on either side of my small apartment block. I lived in the Old City with a view of the mountains, I travelled to the university 4 days a week in a songtheaw (red truck). I wrote and edited the rest of my time outside teaching and most of the time it was utter bliss.

With real life responsibilities (my sister's wedding, bills etc) interrupting from time to time, I realised that staying in Chiang Mai longterm would also have it's price. I had met people who couldn't leave, whether they wanted to or not. They didn't have the option to travel home to Europe or the U.S, because regardless of saving in Thailand - that money doesn't go very far in our Western home countries. Having lived in the Middle East I was used to having that disposable income, but I knew it meant sacrificing time off, an easier lifestyle and certainly the wonderful Thai culture that I had grown used to. In a way I think something else intervened (or maybe I sent it out to come back?) and I was offered three different roles back in Dubai; I even had an opportunity to choose. Once again, life showed me that I'm a lucky girl (I work hard for it!) with the options I had.

So, I am back in Dubai. It was hard to leave Chiang Mai, but easy to come back here, if that makes any sense. I'm trying to be an adult, trying to do the right thing but also giving myself new opportunities and demanding more of myself. I learnt a lot in the past few years and I'm happier with what I've achieved. I know more about what's important to me (primarily family, friends and then travel) and what I'm willing to sacrifice to get it and I hope that road leads me back to Thailand and that I'll have figured out a way to make it all viable.

With all the notes I have on various places, I still intend to log the memories but I thought I'd explain a little about how much my life has changed and my thoughts on that, particularly as this has been a record for me to review from time to time. We're all on different journeys: the places are just different - sometimes they are physical and sometimes they are mental.

I hope my fellow travellers that I met along the way get to read this and hopefully empathise with some of the feelings I've had during these past few years.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rotorua - Not just a place with an unusual odour ....

Yes, when stepping off the bus in Rotorua, the first thing you will notice is the sulphuric scent on the air. It's a little startling at first and although you won't quite get used to it (well, certainly not in a day - the length I spent there), it's not terribly unpleasant. It's unusual, but the geothermal hotbed that causes the smell is definitely something to explore.

Rotorua is classed as a city, but I would call it a town. I found it rather quaint, set beside the lake of the same name with low-rise buildings. We were dropped off outside the local iSite, NZ tourist offices. The staff were super helpful and stored my backpack for the day for a small fee (It closes at 7pm though and my bus was at 11.15pm). After getting some info, I headed out to Te Puia, a Maori Cultural Park not far from town. I managed to get a bus just around the corner from the iSite and I was at the centre in less than twenty minutes.

Once more, the friendliness of the Kiwi people was displayed by the woman selling tickets. She asked me lots of questions about travelling solo as a woman and she said I was very brave. Then, she gave me half price tickets to the Maori concert which takes place a couple of times daily!

I decided to have a wander around myself first before taking a guided tour. One of the most important things about Te Puia is that it's a place of learning and preservation. Customs of the Maori tribe are in use and taught to Maori students from tribes across New Zealand from weaving to stone carving. Thus, all the carvings onsite are truly Maori and faithful to time-honoured tradition.

During the first part of the tour we were brought up to see the famous Pohutu geyser. This was truly a sight to behold: going off approximately every hour and lasting for upto twenty minutes, this is the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere and it certainly gets your attention. I was mesmerised by it. A natural wonder of the world. The photograph doesn't do justice to how it dwarfs you and the heat can be felt from 10 metres away!

There's quite a lot of geothermal activity here, covering 60 hectares, with over 500 geothermal spots. Even on a cold day, I can't imagine you'd feel it here; there's steam rising from everywhere!

After an hour or so of exploring the geothermal landscape and marvelling at hot springs (that are far too hot to bathe in), we returned to Te aronui a rua, the meeting house where the concert would take place.

A woman came out to greet us, with the typical "Kia Ora!" and advised us on the etiquette of the show we were about to witness and be a part of. A man in the audience was chosen as chief, and we all approached the house behind him, as is customary.

They took us through songs and stories, displaying dances and the infamous haka (with some volunteers from the audience!). Some of the strapping young Maori men weren't hard on the eye either! It was great show and well worth the price of the ticket. I'd be really interested in going to the night time show if I ever return.

The Haka

After visiting the word carving and weaving workshops, I took my last wander around the landscape part of the park and headed back into town. I was very lucky to be picked up by French and German girls who had a car rented for the day and who I'd spoken briefly to at Te Puia.

I grabbed some fish and chips for NZ$12 at a quiet cafe on the main street, about two blocks from the iSite, although I can't remember it's name. It was also conveniently close to my next port of call, The Polynesian Spa. I got an unlimited pass for the Adult Pools for NZ$25 and headed in to bathe myself softer than a furry blanket. It's truly blissful in there with a variety of pools to choose from and temperatures ranging from 37 deg Celsius right upto 42 deg. I didn't stay in that one too long!

The Priest Pools, with the lake in the background
My favourite pool was the Priest Spa pool right by the lake, so birds were flying by and providing a chorus as the sun went down. It was a real treat to bathe in the hot spring waters and wonderful to ease the muscles after a few bus rides.

After touring the seven pools a few times, I decided to grab a snack and head upto the iSite to wait for my bus. Rotorua is absolutely deserted at night so there was nowhere to wait and I didn't see a bar nearby where I could have chilled for an hour before the overnight bus to Wellington arrived. Thus I was a very weary traveller boarding for my long journey (8 hours) to my next stop.