January 13, 2008

The tranquility of a muddy bay

On Friday morning we were picked up from our place at 8.30am to go on a kayaking trip to a place named “Muddy Bay” (Ao Tha Lane). The name however does not do the place justice. We had to go in a pickup for 30km north of Ao Nang with our group (seven of us and our excellent guide). We knew little about the place which we were heading except that it was a mangrove. I had no idea what a mangrove is, except that it might be something to so with trees given that it had the word grove in it. According to Mark it is a salt-water swamp, which is probably correct – although the word ‘swamp’ does not sound very inviting.

When we arrived we found a beautiful area where the river meets the sea (a river delta I believe) surrounded by mountains and trees. We got into our kayaks and paddled across the large inlet that connects the sea to the river, heading for the mountains. We went around some large rocks, in between which there were tiny beaches big enough for a couple of kayaks. Soon we were in the cool shade of the mountains and trees, the incoming tide helping us on our way down small waterways inland towards the mangrove.

In the course of about three hours we paddled through the mangrove area. Some sections were all mangrove trees, others were beautiful lagoons surrounded by tall rock faces covered in lushous tropical trees. The highlight was the monkeys jumping on our kayak, swimming in the water, and stealing our water melon!

The most amazing thing about the mangrove and lagoons was the silence. Being in a kayak the only sound you could hear was the splashing of the oars hitting the water. When you paused for a moment there was complete silence, only interupted by the occasional sound of a small animal or insect. It was bliss!

January 12, 2008

Back to Baht

It seems hard to believe I was in England ten days ago, drinking hot tea to fight the British winter away. Now I am taking three showers per day to keep cool. They say there are two seasons in Thailand: hot and very hot. We are only experiencing the ‘hot’ at the moment, but I cannot feel that it is any different from the ‘very hot’ weather. Just like in Finland, my British blood is unable to distinguish between zero and minus ten – it is all just very cold!

Today my body has really struggled in the heat and sunshine. Mark and I are now in Krabi, a province in the south of Thailand renown for its beautiful beaches and scenery. We arrived from KL yesterday having done no preparation and with no idea where to stay. After a good deal of discussion with the locals, and hefty amount of charm, we managed to find the best deal for accommodation in a quite little area not far from the beach at Ao Nang. I had to swear secrecy on how much we are paying per night because the other guests in the lesser rooms next door paid more than us! Everywhere we go I am doing my best to get local prices, but it is not always easy with this white skin! However, I did locate a som tam seller who comes from Ubon and she gave us Thai prices automatically. :)

In the evening we ate at the place that found us our cheap room. They are particularly friendly at Sea World Resort – so if you are in Ao Nang, Krabi the check them out! We were the only ones in for dinner and after the lady took our order, she rushed out on her motorcycle. Ten minutes lates she was back with a bag of vegetables which soon turned into our delicious dinner. Mark fancied some fried bananas for dessert, so I asked first if they had some. The lady assured me they had – but five minutes later she was off on the motorcycle again! We did eventually get deep-fried bananas and they were well worth the wait.

This morning we made our way to the Tiger Cave temple (Wat Tham Seua) by the cheapest possible method, taking two songthaews (a pick-up truck with a bench in the back) it cost 90 baht. I had seen a taxi company offering the same journey for 1200 baht – it really is setup for foreigners here! At the temple we visited the caves and we climbed the 1237 steps (and some of them were big!) to the top of the mountain. It was the hottest period of the day and it almost killed us! It was worth the pain though when we reached the top. A big image of the Buddha and a chedi are perched on top, and there are stunning views of the province of Krabi from the mountains to the sea. The only blip in the near perfect view is a huge Tesco that has been built on the outskirts of the town. I had heard earlier in the day a taxi driver offering trips to Tesco – as though it was a big tourist attraction. And to my horror, when we met two Aussies on the bus later, they were on their way to Tesco! In Asia at least, it seems that Tesco is building huge stores all over the countryside – it is like the second coming of the British Empire!

Back near the beach we went for a swim to cool off, although the sun prohibited us from staying in for long. We were however tempted in for a massage which cooled and relaxed us. It was Mark’s first Thai massage and he said that the girl was very friendly. He was referring to the fact that she spent rather a long time on his buttocks! I think he must have been enjoying it really. However, I am pretty sure that when she was massaging his buttocks that it was with her knees, not her hands! Once our bodies were nicely supple we enjoyed our daily staple of som tam for dinner.

January 11, 2008

Tea houses in Kuala Lumpur

By the time we arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Monday late afternoon and had showered (as is necessary three times per day) in Peyshan’s 11th floor apartment (our new accommodation for two nights), we were jolly hungry! After a bit of a drive in the city locating our recommended place of rest, we found it: the Purple Cane Tea House. We were so ‘in love’ with the tea house in Penang that when Peyshan suggested it as our first activity in KL we jumped at the idea. This tea house had an excellent range of vegetarian food too, so we were able to satisfy both our hunger and need for tea. I ordered vegetarian noodles in tea stock, and we also had rice that was flavoured with tea – I am thinking I should experiment with tea in my cooking when I get home. After our dinner and a long tea drinking session we went back home, and spent the rest of the night waiting for the enlivening effect of the tea to wear-off so that we could sleep as we had an early start the next day.

At 7am Mark was in the shower and after his allotted 10 minutes I was in for mine (nothing wrong with fascist regimes early in the morning). We were supposed to leave at 7.30 but – as usual – food got in the way! However we still left early enough to be in the queue at the Twin Towers for free tickets. Completed in 1995, these two buildings were the tallest in the world until the Taipei 101 was built in 2003. They are still two of the three highest though! We managed to get a ticket for 10.45am to go up to the Sky Bridge that connects the two towers on the 41st floor. To pass the time and slowly wake our bodies up, we ate RotiBoy – probably the most fashionable bread in Asia!

Up on the 41st flloor at the Sky Bridge, we peered down at the tiny specks below that I can only assume represented people. The views from here were spectacular – my camera could not do it justice. The people that work in these two buildings must be quite used to it. Even the poor guy on the outside cleaning the windows from a small plastic tub seemed to be at ease with his surroundings despite there being 40 floors of nothingness below him.

Back on the ground we left the city for Batu Caves. After climbing up several hundred steps and taking as many pictures of monkeys, we reached a complex of caves where there are many different Hindu shrines. The main cave is huge, around 100m high and at least as long. Returning to the ground again and we found an Indian vegetarian restaurant (I love the ease with which we have stumbled upon veggie restaurants in Malaysia!) where we ate Tosai with curry and drank the milk from fresh coconuts.

In the evening we met Peyshan’s sister Peypey and got an excellent tour of the city visiting more buildings built by Brits. ;) We went to another Chinese vegetarian restaurant for dinner where I ate as much as I possibly could because it was our last night in Malaysia. The variety of food we ate in Malaysia was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Another was the Chinese tea houses, and so it was only right that we ended the night with a trip to yet another tea house. We relaxed and passed our last few hours enjoying the company of Peyshan and Peypey who have treated us so well on our brief trip to Malaysia. I really hope I can come again soon! And so I want to end this post with a big thank you to Peyshan for making our trip so special.

January 08, 2008

Where Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus come together

Mark and I landed at a hot but rainy Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal (such a grandiose name!) on Friday evening where we were reunited with another former member of Warwick BuddSoc: Peyshan! We made a quick get-away from the airport, but unfortunately it is further from the city than Bangkok’s new airport is from Bangkok! So we had a long journey around KL and then another couple of hours driving up to Peyshan’s house. We stopped at a service station for food but none of the Malay restaurants had any vegetarian food, except bread. This was a bit of a surprise, and going without rice for the whole afternoon was a shock to the system given that we had eaten at least every 3 hours whilst in Bangkok! Luckily when we arrived at Peyshan’s house at around 1am there was a full meal waiting for us and after that we slept very well.

The next morning we left Peyshan’s house and set off for Penang. Peyshan trusted me driving her precious Malaysian-made car – initially I was quite cautious but I soon learnt the rules on Malaysian roads: 1) ignore lane markings or drive across as many lanes as possible; 2) tailgate to indicate to the driver in front you want to get past; 3) ignore somebody who tailgates you; 4) signal randomly to warn other drivers that you have no idea when you might change lane; 5) utilise slip-roads and hard-shoulders for over-taking. Having said all this, driving here is slightly more disciplined than Thailand, which I assume is one of the many British influences.

Our accommodation in Penang is owned by Peyshan’s employers – the central bank of Malaysia – and employees can use it whenever they like. The bank owns resorts all around the country – British institutions take note! Our residence for two days is right on the beach. I counted 24 steps from the room to the sand. Obviously the first thing we had to try was the sea. One of my last swims was in a Finnish ice-hole (less of a swim and more of a panicky splash around) and so it was a joy to swim in warm water!

The next essential activity, as you would expect from BuddSoc’s best eaters, was to find some food. For this we headed to Gurney Drive, the hot spot in Penang for food, where we found fried noodles, rice, rojak (fruits in a strong spicy sauce), ice kacang (ice with jelly, fruits and ice-cream) and jun jui nai cha (pearl milk tea). This brought back happy memories of Taiwan! We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the night market, while the locals tried to sell us pirate DVDs, fake Billabong t-shirts and plastic flip-flops.

On Sunday, after an early morning swim and a good jellyfish sting, we set off for the Kek Lok Si temple with its huge Quan Yin statue on the side of the mountain and a tall pagoda from which there were beautiful views across the city. The highlight of the temple for us though was the vegetarian restaurant where we ate a huge lunch.

Next stop was the centre of Penang to explore the history of the city. We visited the ancestral home of the Khoo clan – one of the earliest families to emigrate to Malaysia. They bought a piece of land off the British and over the years established a big complex of buildings for their clan, including a shrine hall where they keep the remains of the dead family members. Further down the road is a mosque – the land for which was ‘given’ by the British – followed by a Chinese Buddhist shrine where the land was also ‘given’ by those friendly Brits! Round the corner we found a Hindu temple where we were conned into a tour. It was quite amazing how the Malays, Chinese and Indians all live mixed in together – especially as they all live together along roads with English names like Cannon Street!

We ate dinner in the Little India area where a muslim guy forcibly coaxed us in to try the vegetarian food we could not refuse. It was quite tasty but we felt nervous having food forced on us. We finished our rice and curry fairly quick and left the unfamiliar surroundings to retire to a traditional Chinese tea house that we stumbled upon on the outskirts of the city. Although this was not the sort of place that tourists usually frequent, the atmosphere was far less pressured and much more enjoyable. For some reason I find the Chinese Malaysian places much more homely than anywhere else. The tea house was a great way to end the day, relaxing with friends over a good cup of Chinese tea.

After several rounds of tea, we paid another visit to the night market where I gave in and bought the flip-flops. But I did not stop there in boosting the local economy. I must have been in a good mood because it seemed that I was easily swayed into buying things I probably do not need by those smiling female sellers!

Monday, our final day in Penang, started with a trip to a Thai temple and a Burmese temple. We found another veggie restaurant for lunch where we once again ate like kings. It was a buffet with around 50 dishes, all vegetarian and delicious and cheap! After another drive around the town, we caught the ferry to the mainland, waved goodbye to Penang, and started our journey back to KL.

(The photos)

January 05, 2008

48 hours in Bangkok

While most people were out partying on New Years Eve, I was searching for my toothbrush to pack in my luggage. Midnight was not the big event – for me it was setting off for Thailand the next day. Despite it being New Years Day, Heathrow was as painful as usual and I was glad to escape from it when I got on the plane. As the Thai Airways staff greet you it feels like you are already stepping into Thailand.

A few hours later and a good sleep later I was stepping into the new airport at Bangkok and being greeted by familiar faces: Mark, Pie and Paradise. It was like being back in England again! We were soon on our way to downtown Bangkok, eating ice-cream, and then going for dinner where we were joined by Nun and Earth. That evening we went back to Pie’s house which is on the outskirts of Bangkok in a beautiful area with a canal in the garden. Our room not only had its own bathroom but also a walk-in wardrobe – I am not used to such luxuries!

The next day Mark and I set off for Bangkok using the public transport, much to Pie’s concern. After a motorcycle ride, a bus journey and two taxis we had stopped by to see my Thai Mum and Dad and then we were at a temple in the centre were I met Grandma and some monks. Next we were met by more Warwick people, we went for lunch, and then we met more Warwick people, and then cake, plus more Warwick people. Thanks to Lyn, Vas, Arty, Noon, and Gate for all coming to see us!

Yesterday we had another quick trip to town before Pie took us to the airport where we caught a plane to Kuala Lumpur. So that was my shortest visit to Thailand yet – just 48 hours – but I will be back in a few days. Right now we are at PeyShan’s house and soon we are off to Penang and the beach!

December 20, 2007

Lapland trip: final part

Writing about web page http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=2436311861522438691

The final part of our trip to Lapland included a visit to Santa’s house in Rovaniemi, dinner in Sweden, and then a long drive back to Joensuu. They must have heard that we were coming as we got a police escort through Joensuu at 2am in the morning to locate Myriam’s house. A short promotional film has been compiled of our trip for your entertainment!

December 18, 2007

Colour sudoku takes off

Writing about web page http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/12/18/scisudoku118.xml

I had been in England for less than 24 hours when my phone started ringing with reporters from the national newspapers. A press release was made by the university on Monday morning about a colourful approach to sudoku that I have been involved with. Today there has been a small article in the Telegraph, as well as articles in the Malaysian Sun, the Innovators Report in Germany, and the Thaindian News in India. So, wherever you are in the world, check to see if I have infiltrated your newspaper!

Try Colour Sudoku

December 17, 2007

Lapland Tour: Day 2

We managed a whole 6 hours sleep which was luxury compared to our previous night when we only had 2. Clint prepared the breakfast, and then it was off to the local school in Salla accompanied by Eeva – Erkki’s cousin who had kindly planned us a day of activities.

Shortly after 8.30am, we were in a classroom full of 16 year old students hoping to improve their English. We introduced our five countries and then we talked about the University of Joensuu, because we had been instructed by Anton that we should do some publicity for the university on our trip. (On our return we convinced a director of the university that they should fund international students on future trips like ours to do publicity for the university!)

The school we visited were actually having an international day and the next event was a music concert of music from around the world. After their performance, we infiltrated the stage and took over the instruments. Luckily we had the talented Anya with us who spontaneously broke into a song, and so the rest of us untalented individuals hummed along to Anya and we each grabbed a drum so that it actually looked like we were ‘the band’. I do not think that Salla had ever seen anything like it… Five people from completely different corners of the world, on a trip visiting a countryside school in Lapland, exuding confidence, laughter and singing songs. And so this is when we decided that we should be called the University of Joensuu International Publicity Band!

After another class of entertaining the students with our humourous introductions to our respective countries, including the suggestion that Finland might soon invade Russia, we had lunch and then made a poster about our visit. If you ever visit this school in Salla, you should find the mark of the University of Joensuu International Publicity Band. :)

The next destination was the countryside surrounding Salla, in particular a house miles from no where, close to the Russian border, near Lake Kolunki, called Majava. In the garden there were a number of huts, one of which was the toilet, and wandering about in the field were a number of reindeer completely uninterested in our presence – similar to those we almost hit on the road! This was the house of Eeva’s husband’s family, now only used as a place of retreat from their house in the town. It was a step back into the past. A giant bear skin hung on the wall, a large collections of old cross-country skiing medals, and an old radio the only entertainment – this was probably the most unique place I had visited in Finland.

One of the huts in the garden was a smoke sauna – the most traditional type of Finnish sauna. A smoke sauna takes two days to prepare, first lighting the fire and then getting the smoke right, I assume so that the occupants do not die from carbon monoxide! Luckily this preparation had been carefully undertaken for us and so all we had to do was go enjoy it. It was great to do this unique thing on my birthday, even if I did smell like a bonfire for the rest of the day!

In the evening we went to a church for yet another carol service. It was very informal as we all sat around tables and sang whilst sitting down. After singing 23 Finnish Christmas carols we were starting to feel our sleep deprivation and began to find even the most simple things quite hilarious. This might also explain the biscuit eating competition when we got home, and the late night animal dancing. We eventually forced ourselves to bed, our faces tired from a day full of laughter – the best way to enjoy my birthday!

December 10, 2007

The University of Joensuu International Publicity Band

On Thursday at 3am, after barely an hour of sleep, five brave souls at the University of Joensuu took to the road for a trip to the arctic circle. This international group came together from five distant parts of the globe:
  • Representing Africa, the queen of dance, Myriam;
  • From the mother country Russia, our singer and songwriter, Anya;
  • All the way from Asia, the man who has more social events than I have cups of tea, Shujau;
  • Coming from America, the cookie eater, Clint;
  • And from a little island in Europe, causing trouble in all parts of the globe in true British style and your narrator, Ant.

They had equipped themselves with thermal long johns, a Finnish map, a bunch of big yellow dudes (also known as bananas), a ton of little orange dudes, a most revered Audi A3 hire car (complete with heated seats), and an infinite supply of creativity. This is the story of their adventure.

The journey north from Joensuu to Lapland was long and slow in the snowy conditions that I had not really practiced for. It was Finnish Independence Day though, so there was not much traffic. When we set off from Joensuu the roads were icy and slushy which was pretty tricky, but once we got further north the roads turned to solid snow which was much easier (and surprisingly faster) to drive on. However, the conditions further north were made more dangerous by the animals on the road. The first time we saw a reindeer crossing the road while Clint was driving was quite scary, as slowing down is a slight issue, and then later on I almost hit a big reindeer by a couple of feet. Luckily this meant that I had to concentrate so much on spotting reindeer that there was no chance I would fall asleep. I also managed to spare a fox’s life too.

After 7 hours or so, we pulled over at a place called Ruka where we spied a ski slope from the road. Once we had found a morning cup of tea, we quickly decided that we should hit the slopes and so we signed ourselves up for a group beginners lesson. Despite it being our first time, we impressed the instructor with our skills—after all, we are the Joensuu International Band, world famous for our creativity and problem solving skills! We also provided much entertainment for the rest of the skiers. I think all of us managed to fall of the ski lift at some point, whilst Myriam managed to ski down the slope backwards, and I performed a 360 spin and stayed on my feet to continue the run.

We were on the slopes until it got dark—which was by 3pm! Then we headed north again, whilst eating the supply of food we had brought including lots of big yellow dudes and little orange dudes. By 5pm we were in Salla and easily found our cabin, which was situated next to another ski slope. We had a wander around and cooked some noodles for dinner, and I drank 3 cups of tea to restore the drought that I had suffered during the day. After dinner we took a sauna, as we had our own in our cabin, and we made good use of the deep snow outside our cabin. By this time, we had been up for over 20 hours and we were getting sleepy, but it seemed that everyone was not ready yet for bed. There was some suspicious cake making going on too.

At midnight I was encouraged to go out with Clint to check out the northern lights. Unfortunately, the only thing we saw was the northern clouds! On returning to the cabin though, it was lit up by candles and as I entered the band were singing happy birthday, the cake was ready and tea had been made! I had not really been expecting to take much notice of my birthday and this was a lovely surprise, but this turned out to be the first of many special events that would take place in the following 24 hours. Thank you Clint, Shujao, Myriam and Anya for making it so special!

(To be continued.) (See some photos.)

December 09, 2007

Lapland trip: part one

I arrived back in Joensuu at 2am this morning from a most exciting and memorable trip to Lapland with Clint, Shujau, Myriam and Anya (the newly formed University of Joensuu International Publicity Band). It was a great privilege to spend my birthday in such a warm friendly group in deepest darkest Lapland. Now I am back I have a long list of birthday messages from more lovely people – and sorry I have been out of contact the last few days – so I hope to catch up with you soon. I am also going to try to write a full report on my jollies in Lapland, which were numerous—and particularly humourous!

Quote of the day Go to 'Today's Quote'

John Irving
"If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it."


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