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The air is thick with smoke; it chokes the streets and shrinks visibility to just a few inches as I slowly pick my way through a crowd of white-clad teenagers in trances. The smell is heavily sulfuric and the hot, humid air creates a somewhat claustrophobic, sticky-sweater sensation. Suddenly out of nowhere a bang-pop and a flash of orange light, then another, then another until the sound is so deafening and the flashing so frequent that I have to turn and retrace my steps away from the smoggy mist.
Out of the cloud a delicate tap on my shoulder surprises me and I turn to find a small Thai woman offering two creamy-white cotton balls and pointing at her ears. At this same moment a delicate spray of blood stains a white shirt in front of me and a child carrying three plastic bags of half-burned fireworks pushes his way around my legs.
The blood is from a seemingly eye-ball-less man in a self-induced daze shaking his head vigorously and running the tip of his tongue over the sharp end of a shiny hatchet blade. Behind him others are doing the same. Further in the distance a woman with pink-scrunchied pigtails pushes a thick spear through her cheek and an elderly gentleman is swinging a large machete up and down over his head, narrowly missing the horde of bystanders as he dance-shimmies down the street.
As they pass the smoke begins to thicken again, and with it more pyrotechnics. People are throwing them from balconies and front stoops, in handfuls or sometimes just one at a time, onto the heads, and at the feet, of the procession in the street, now a group of young men stomping to the rhythm of a hand drum, swaying a large gold-painted spirit house between them.
These young guys began their day in perfect bleach-white but now look like unwashed street children in scorched brown and red stained costumes, raggedy at the pant hems, still sizzling from their last encounter with the popping mini-explosives through which they are dancing.
I am not sure exactly what any of it really means but it is fascinating to watch. And watching seems to be encouraged. As I make my way through the crowd old ladies and young men, even school children, push me into the street or drag me closer to the chaos encouraging the taking of photographs, the eating of blessed Jell-O and the general ogling of freaky self-mutilators.
These hordes of Thai-Chinese-Buddhists are celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (known best to the western world as the Vegetarian Festival). This is an annual 9-day Taoist festival filled with all sorts of public festivities and fascinating rituals. Most famously these events can be viewed in Phuket Town, however there are smaller less tourist infiltrated events in many parts of Thailand (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia), like in the tiny old town of Takua Pa about 2 hours north of Phuket Town, where I find myself in the middle of the smoky, bloody incense-ridden insanity.
In the thick of it breathing is difficult, staring too long at bloody shredded tongues can cause goose bumps and the sweltering heat is oppressive and heavy, but the atmosphere is fanatic, the street food delicious and the photo opportunities endless. As there are almost no other western faces around me, the people are welcoming if not a little curious and possibly amused by my presence, although the cautious staring and mistakenly obvious whispers may also have something to do with the fact that I didn’t get the white-wardrobe memo and am the only person in head to toe black with blond hair! A mistake I will not make next time!
As a SCUBA diving instructor, dive shop manager and lover of all things underwater I am often asked the question; where is the best diving?
In addition to being active in the world of professional diving, I am also a committed traveler and avid recreational diver, but, alas, I have not yet seen it all. For this reason I, like many before me, have often sat before the all-knowing wonder that is the World Wide Web in search of an answer. Sadly, while the internet has a lot to say on the subject, I find myself repeatedly disappointed with the hundreds of unimaginative “top ten” lists and predictable cataloguing of the obvious choices. There are the sure-to-be crowd pleasers; the Galapagos, the Maldives, the Red Sea, and the less-than-stellar regulars, Belize, for instance, whose place on these lists I have trouble understanding.
Sure we would all love to dive the fishbowl bonanza that is the Cocos Islands, but what if you can’t afford the $5,000 liveaboards that many of these must-see destinations require? What if you want something new, something different, something not so expected? In my quest for the ultimate diving experience I have spoken at length with experienced customers, newbie divers and the professionals with whom I work and play. I have concluded, perhaps obviously, that the answer to “where is the best diving?” is relative. Where a career diver may relish in the euphoria that is a good muck dive, a novice may see only sand, and while a happy vacation diver stares in awe at the manta rays soaring overhead his dive guide has likely got his nose to the coral in search of some microscopic abnormality in neon slug form. To each his or her own.
So here are a few different lists, which I have compiled based on my own experiences, as well as those of my co-workers and customers. These incorporate some lesser known, but impressive, dive regions as well as interesting one-off oddities and suggestions you won’t automatically find in a Google search for the “top ten best dive sites”.
East Timor – Due to years of armed conflict this tiny new nation, which has only recently opened up to tourism (and has been virtually untouched by divers) has not yet made it onto the must-dive lists. However, it’s location in the coral triangle puts East Timor right up there with heavy hitters like the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia in terms of creature life and abundance. It also offers pristine sites with very few divers and some of the friendliest local guides around.
Togian Islands – The Togian Island Archipelago is in the Gulf of Tomini in Sulawesi, Indonesia. While dive professionals and macro enthusiasts may be well acquainted with the name, it is relatively unknown to the majority of recreational divers. The area is home to some of the world’s strangest, brightest, most stylishly creative creatures. Bring an underwater camera and keep your eyes peeled for the hairy, the glowing, the fluorescent and the miniscule.
Okinawa – This is a somewhat conflicted recommendation in light of the Japanese government’s horrendous disregard for ocean sustainability, still the Okinawa area boasts a plethora of easy-to-get-to dive sites, beautiful cave and wreck dives and copious amounts of nudibranchs as well as other interesting critters for which many flock to Southeast Asia. It should be noted that when visiting Okinawa, it is best to opt out of enclosed whale shark diving or a trip to the aquarium where up to 4 of the creatures are entrapped in a large tank. Whale sharks are migratory animals and should be left to roam free in their natural environments.
Mozambique – Sharks of every description, manta rays all year round and the occasional humpback sighting are just a few of the things that make this southern African nation stand out as a top dive destination. Here you will not only find the big guys but the little stuff too. With an abundance of macro life, in addition to all the usual suspects, you are sure to have some great dives.
New Zealand – Want wrecks, drop-offs and sub-tropical reefs with great visibility? How about kelp forests, schooling fish, dolphins and whales? If that’s not enough, what about catching a glimpse of the spectacular Leafy Sea Dragon? New Zealand has an immense variety of life and wonder and was considered by Jacques Cousteau to have some of the world’s most interesting diving.
Wreck Diving Areas:
St. Lawrence River – Try river-diving in what some call the freshwater wreck capitol of the world. In this upstate New York river you will find numerous wrecks, many dating back to the 1800’s, accessible from both land and boat. The area also promises great visibility and some of the best freshwater diving in the world.
Morehead City – You will find all sorts of wrecks up and down the North Carolina coast, from U-boats to civil war wrecks, sail boats to fishing vessels, tankers, freight ships and more. And the added bonus? In addition to the more than 50 wrecks sunken in its waters, the North Carolina coast is also home to a variety of shark species, the most notable of which is the commonly sighted, fearsome looking, but relatively docile, Sand Tiger Shark. No chumming necessary!
Bikini Atoll – Bikini Lagoon in Micronesia serves as the resting place for some of the most famous WW II-era naval vessels, many sunk by the US in an attempt to understand the effects of nuclear bombing. There are all types of wrecks here, battleships and carriers, destroyers, submarines, even small transports and landing craft. Untouched by divers for many years, the area also sustains an abundance of sea life both big and small.
Silfra Lake – In this Icelandic lake you can dive the rift between the American and Eurasian continental plates. You will not see fish life, but the scenery is stunning and the clear, cold water is a trippy experience.
Neptune Memorial Reef – The Neptune Memorial Reef, which is also known as the Atlantis Memorial Reef, is an underwater graveyard of sorts, located just 3 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne in Florida. It is home to hundreds of cremated remains, which make up the world’s largest man-made reef. At a depth of only 40 feet it is an easy and relaxing dive.
Homestead Crater – Take a dip in this 55-foot sulfuric dome in Midway, Utah. No fish life here, but it’s an interesting atmosphere with great visibility and bathtub-like 96 degree conditions.
Elephant Cave – Elephant Cave in Crete, Greece is filled with fantastic, colorful earth formations as well as the fossilized remains of an elephant including tusk, tooth and vertebrae.
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Pulled Pork, El Salvador
Stewed Beef, Belize
A lot of people assume that I support my travel habit with some hidden disposable income somewhere that I covertly draw from when no one is looking, or that I am a trust fund child on the loose. An ex-boyfriend of mine once accused me of having a secret bank account I refused to tell him about. Not so. The fact is that many people have an inflated idea of what traveling really is in a monetary sense. In 1997 my husband spent less than $900 over a period of 6-months traveling India, and while that level of budget madness is sadly no longer possible, you can still manage to spend very little while seeing a great deal. All it takes is a little patience, some ingenuity and a bit of imagination.
When buying your plane tickets look into alternative airports, and similarly, alternative transport. Often times your cheapest option is something you don’t ever think of. Do a little research about where you want to end up and how other people get there; you might find that flying into a country or city altogether different from your final destination and hopping a bus, boat or train can save you hundreds of dollars.
For instance, I travel too and from Thailand on a regular basis. When I am working in the south of Thailand it often makes more sense for me to fly into Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia than Bangkok. A train from either city to my final destination is an equidistant and a similarly priced journey, allowing me greater variety when choosing flights. Likewise a flight on Air Asia from either city to Phuket, or Hat Yai (two cities that I frequently fly into) is roughly the same cost.
Another good example is Central America. A lot of people arrive through the obvious large ports of entry, Guatemala City, Belize, San Jose, etc. Whereas I have found that, it is often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into Cancun, Mexico and catch a bus south. This sort of knowledge comes with experience and luckily, if you don’t have your own, you can access other people’s by way of online blogs like this one or sites like the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum, Tripadvisor and other travel related pages.
With a little pre-flight exploration you can save yourself hundreds on transport, which, along with accommodation, often makes up the bulk of any trip’s expenses.
Be persistent and be flexible:
Don’t buy the first plane ticket you search out, unless it’s a ridiculously awesome deal. Check budget booking sites like Kayak.com and Travelocity.com on a regular basis, air fair changes from day to day and is often at its cheapest mid-week, early afternoon and within 6 months of your departure date. Play with different combinations of dates, times and destinations, if you have a few days leeway in your travel plans you are a lot more likely to find a cheap deal. In similar fashion, if you have to book your hotel online ahead of time check out sites like bookings.com, asiarooms.com or agoda.com and check often, there are always new deals popping up. However as long as you are not arriving in the middle of the night, you will often find better deals on accommodation once you’re on the ground, especially in bargaining cultures like India, Indonesia and Thailand (though not at peek travel times like Christmas or Easter).
Pay attention to local festivities and peek seasons:
Find out what’s going on where you’re headed. Local holidays, carnivals and festivals can mean a huge discrepancy in the price and availability of food, transport and accommodation. Likewise seasonal highs and lows will affect what you pay for things. During the annual camel fair in Pushkar, India you will run up against heavily-booked hotels at double or even triple the regular price, while traveling the west coast of Thailand in the low season means easy bargaining and cheaper digs.
Carry as little luggage as possible. I know girls that will travel with their entire bathroom and half their wardrobe, including 4 pairs of shoes and a blow dryer, for a 3-week vacation. Think before you pack. What do you really need and what will you actually use. Traveling light will save you money. Equipped with only a backpack you are capable of using public transport rather than springing for overpriced airport cabs, it also decreases the likelihood of theft and/or loss of luggage and allows you to take internal flights without paying the ever-increasing excess baggage fees. Plus it’s just easier!
Think outside the box:
If you are on a short trip you are likely not going to get too far outside the heavily touristed areas, in some places this is difficult even on longer journeys. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get inventive. Don’t go falling for those glossy package deals and the flashy poster-advertised mini-adventures you see on every street corner. Forced fun is a false experience anyway. Instead do a little digging. Find local guides and boat captains, book with companies directly rather than through an agent or your hotel and whenever possible go for the independent exploration angle. Often guides are a luxury, not a necessity, and armed with a map and a rental bike you can go it alone at a much lower cost and have a farm more unique experience.
Manage your inner party persona:
One of the easiest ways to watch your money dwindle is by drinking it. If alcohol is a must on your vacation consider the local 7-11; grab a six-pack and head to the beach. If that’s not enough for you, keep your eyes out for the worldwide Happy Hour phenomena. In most places, in Central America and Southeast Asia especially, you can often get a good deal if you go in for an early start.
The Lonely Planet is a guidebook not a bible:
The guidebooks published by the Lonely Planet and other travel franchises are a great resource when beginning your travel research. They are also useful for last minute, late arrival necessities, but don’t get too attached. There is only so much space in a guidebook so suggestions are just that, suggestions. Don’t be afraid to find your own restaurants, hotels and tour guides. Sticking strictly to Lonely Planet recommendations means that you are literally following in the footsteps of thousands of others, step by step by unimaginative step. It also means you are missing out on some great grub, cheap deals and fascinating experiences.
This is a pretty typical everyday Sri Lankan side dish, one of my favorite aspects of any Sri Lankan meal. It is usually served beside rice, curried vegetables and either chicken or fish.
500g of potatoes – boiled, peeled and cubed
3-4 curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon dill seed
1 large onion – chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons chili pieces
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
Dry roast cumin, dill seed and chili pieces for one minute in a pan. Into the same pan, add the oil, onions, mustard seeds and curry leaves. When the onions are nicely browned, add the potatoes, turmeric, salt and coconut. Stir and toss until potatoes have absorbed the spice mixture. Sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander leaves and serve hot.
While it’s not quite the obviously seedy underbelly of the world I had long hoped it would be, it certainly has its share of the strange and wonderful, odd and unexplainable. From lady-boy hookers to edible caterpillars, prison tourism to snake farms, Bangkok has an abundance of odd experiences and sights, some a little stranger than others.
Like mummified serial killers in baking trays.
Yep. One of my favorite places in Bangkok is the Siriraj Medical Museum, a Forensic delight. Crammed haphazardly into the middle of the Siriraj Hospital, the museum is a bizarre jumble of forensic mishaps. Difficult to find and hard for many to stomach the museum is a patchwork collection of all things medically, and not so medically curious.
One room is occupied by shriveled but surprisingly well preserved Siamese twins sharing the scene with the bodies of long deceased babies boasting all sorts of pre and post-uterul disfigurations and diseases. Another displays elephantiasis in all its glory from deformed appendages to bloated testicles. There is a disturbing presentation involving Tsunami victims from the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami and a hallway blotted, seemingly at random, with the photographs of fatalities from some of the most gruesome and atrocious motorway accidents that Thailand has seen.
But it’s a little further into the museum where the real fun begins. Here is the final resting place (at least for now) of what is commonly accepted as Thailand’s first serial killer. This is not a photograph, not a clean sealed coffin, not even a wax interpretation. In a tall glass box that looks as if it might tip at any moment is the mummified remains of a murderer. Rather than stand he slouches into the glass panel of the box, like a broom leaning against a wall, his feet in what is basically a cookie tray, his post mortem juices congealing around his toes. Just for good measure you are also able to see photographs of his victims, some bloody evidence and a few of his successors.
And it doesn’t end there. Walls of bullet riddled skulls, pickled creatures and tropical diseases in all their glory are displayed chaotically, strewn about, poorly categorized and flimsily contained. The museum is unlike any other, morbidly enticing and absolutely stomach wrenching while surprisingly basic.
There are few places in the world which would allow such an odd experience to satisfy public curiosity and it is well worth a visit!