Travel Truths

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Check out traveltangle.wordpress.com a page dedicated to debunking travel myths and adding a little reality and truth to the often overly glitzy world of travel blogging!

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Smoky Streets: Vegetarian Festival in Thailand

IMG_4326The 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.

IMG_4234Out 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.

IMG_4312These 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.

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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.

IMG_4305In 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!IMG_4250

Looking for a unique SCUBA diving experience?

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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.

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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”.

 

Dive Regions:

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.

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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.

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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.

One-off Wonders:

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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.