I’m running late when I’m finally leaving the outskirts of Skardu behind me. My motorbike, a Suzuki GS 150 I rented from Gilgit-based motorcycle enthusiasts group Karakoram Bikers, smoothly buzzes underneath me, seemingly happy to get its gears turning again after a while without a renter. As settlements disappear so do the exhaust gases and the children walking home from school. My backpack is securely fastened on the back of the saddle, filled with only the stuff I might need for 2 or 3 days on the road. I’m making a road trip, all by myself. Before me the desert starts, surrounded by mountains that look down on me seducingly. The entrance to Shigar Valley appears before me, a tiny dent in two giant walls of rock. I am in northern Pakistan, and I am on an adventure.
That same morning I was planning on leaving early, straight after breakfast. Just buy a few supplies, find a working atm and fill the tank with gas, I figured. My quick shopping spree across town took a little longer than expected. Among other things I got stuck in morning bazaar traffic with the motorbike, parked somewhere to ask a police officer on the street for directions to Allied Bank, which locals told me should work with my card. He promptly stopped in his tracks, gave me a hug and halted the first car that passed, shouted a few words in Urdu to the driver and gestured me to get in the passenger seat. A hundred meter further down the road the driver pointed out Allied bank to me and that was that. ‘Welcome to Pakistan sir!’, and he was off again. After rejections in 7 different banks I finally managed to withdraw some cash. Having stocked up on dry apricots, a bag of cashew nuts, 3 litres of bottled water and a roll of naan bread and with a full tank I finally set off on my road trip, hours later then planned. The guys from my hotel had warned me it was quite a drive to Askole, the last inhabited village before the ‘real’ mountains started, 120km from Skardu. Real mountains meaning several 8000+ peaks. I hoped to make it in time before nightfall, but this is Pakistan. Anything is possible here.
After about 20 minutes on the main road I took a left, followed a new road across a bridge and was halted by a police checkpoint. The guys demanded a copy of my visa and passport which I happily gave them. I came prepared to this country you know, armed with 50 passport copies. My research has definitely paid off already! After checking everything carefully the man smiled, asked me where I was from despite literally having my passport in his hand and opened the barrier. ‘When will you be back here,’ he asked. ‘Tomorrow or the day after,’ I shouted back while gearing up. He smiled and a threw a thumbs up in the direction of my rear view mirror. Friendly guys these Pakistani soldiers.
The landscape soon became very arid, and trees disappeared as I drove following hairpin bends up into the mountains. The sky was full of ear-deafening freedom roaring along to the sound of the Japanese engine underneath me. My heartbeat raised as I felt a liberating and primeval roar well up inside me, like a boy on a motorbike with the world at his feet. ‘Welcome to Pakistan indeed!’, I screamed to the mountain.
I quickly reached the top of the pass and parked on the side of the road for a moment to take in the magnificent view. Minivans, jeeps and tractors passed by at an alarming speed and people shouted, waved and smiled from behind the wheel, from the roof or hanging from the back. I was quite a sight to them, a white guy all by himself on a motorbike which, according to the jealous stares people threw my way, had to be a fairly decent one, equipped with a backpack tied to the back. I jumped back into the saddle, failed to start, embarrassed waved back to the teenager that almost rolled on the floor laughing, put the engine in neutral and got the motor going again at the second try. Back down into the valley I drove through Shigar, the biggest village around here. More children on their way home from school. People farming the fertile land next to the Indus River. Shopkeepers smoking outside of their roadside stalls. Construction workers building simple structures without power tools. After about an hour the asphalt stopped and I continued on a wide gravel road. Speed was not of any importance to me, I was simply enjoying the ride and the mountains. Nothing else seems to matter these days.
During a drinking break a guy who was also on a motorbike stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ali Ali and sat down next to me, curiously watching how I cleaned the dust off the sensor of my camera. ‘You very beautiful boy. Very smart,’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Askole,’ I answered. ‘Oooh Askole very far! Too much far!’ ‘I’ll still try to get there, and if it’s too far I’ll just camp by the side of the road,’ I explained. The conversation continued for some time and as I got up to get back on the bike Ali Ali got up as well. ‘I go with you, ok?’ ‘Sure, lead the way man’. We drove together for some time and Ali Ali helped me whenever I got stuck in a particularly sandy patch of the road, these places being still beyond my rookie driving skills. After about an hour Ali Ali pulled up beside me, said that he was turning back now and with a last ‘beautiful boy! Smartly shameful!’ disappeared out of sight.
I had been driving almost 4 hours when I reached the village of Dassu, where another roadblock announced a military checkpoint. A soldier in camouflage uniform gestured me to follow him to one of the barracks nearby. There a stern and annoyed looking man dressed in a local salwar kameez, which looks a bit like a pyjama, promptly asked to see my passport and route permit. His name was Mohammed and apparently he was the officer in charge. I gave him a passport copy and the foreigner’s registration card they had given me at another checkpoint on my way north from Islamabad when my bus entered the Gilgit-Baltistan area. ‘This no route permit! Where is route permit?’ He told me to get inside the barrack which turned out to be his bedroom / foreigner cross-examination room. He saw my camera and demanded to be shown all the pictures on it. I gave him the camera and as he started scrolling through nine hundred pictures of mountains and valleys his tone softened. ‘You like landscape photography sir!’ After about 200 pictures he had seen enough and explained me that in order to be allowed past the checkpoint and on the road for the last 40km to Askole foreigners needed a special permit. Askole is the starting point of an 18-day trek to K2 and Baltoro glacier, at 8600m the world’s second largest mountain and longest non polar glacier. He showed me an example of the permit, used by a group of 8 French mountaineers who passed by here 40 days earlier en route to K2. They were the last people he had seen. Another officer joined and offered us all tea while showing me pictures of his young daughters he was eager to see again after his 3 month shift here at the checkpoint ended. We all took some selfies together and an hour after arriving at the checkpoint I turned around the motorbike and started the journey back to Shigar, a bit more confident on the bike and slightly faster this time. It was 4.30pm already, and sunset happens around 6.15 here in the mountains. I needed to find a place to camp and remembered the desert area and viewpoint just before entering Shigar. That would be a perfect spot, I decided.
At 6.15pm on the dot I sat in front of my tent in one of the most scenic camping spots I have ever stumbled upon, right out of a fairy tale. The place looked like a small clearing on a mountain ridge above the road that shepherds might have used years ago to spend the night. Listening to some Coldplay while taking in the sunset across the valley I felt at peace, both with myself and with the world. I didn’t really mind not making it to Askole. I had ridden a bike all day, had had tea with two military officers and saw the length of Shigar Valley. Mission accomplished. To me Askole was just a yardstick, an anonymous name on the map that marked the farthest point of the valley. Getting there was more of a general idea rather than an actual goal. And I had already promised myself to come back here one day and do the K2 basecamp trek when the season was right, most of the snow had melted and I had the money to actually pay for it. I munched on the naan and cashews, and ate a few dried apricots for dessert, a simple dinner for a simple day. Before crawling in my brand new sleeping bag (thanks North Face) I gazed up at the stars. It was a beautiful night indeed.
The following day I watched the sunlight and warmth return to the valley, high up from my shepherd’s stakeout overlooking the Indus River. This is the essence of a good old fashioned adventure, I thought to myself. A simple trip, one that anyone could do, wether by bike, hitchhiking or just walking. Without too many variables or need of planning, just with the curiosity to get out and see what would happen. After breakfast I jumped back on the bike, drove once more through Shigar and this time took another turn leading me across a bridge over the Indus River. Another police checkpoint and thus another tea invitation later I started the loop back to Skardu on the other side of the river. The guys on this post were part of the police force and not the army, but they looked all the same to me. Guys in pyjama’s guarding empty roads where, on a good day, maybe a dozen people pass by. Some of the policemen were much younger than me. It was a very simple life, I thought to myself. Guarding empty roads somewhere on a mountain for 3 months, then go home for 1 to spend time with family. At least the environment they are in is incredibly scenic.
The landscape changed to desert again and fewer villages crossed my path. I drove for hours until my bum hurt. Took a break in an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere, where I stupidly fell off the bike while driving 2kph on an extremely sandy part of the road. I fell sideways and broke off the left rear view mirror in my fall. There was no other bodily or mechanic damage though, luckily. Bewildered I looked at the broken mirror in my hand. ‘Oh well… shit happens. Nothing to do about it. I’ll have to pay for that I guess.’ I continued on my way, hiked up to Kachura lake and eventually doubled back into Skardu just in time for lunch. Very dusty, satisfied and with only one rear view mirror I arrived back to my hotel exactly 24 hours after departing. The guys there seemed happy enough to see their only guest back.
Karakoram Bikers is a travel company based in Gilgit and Lahore. They rent out motorbikes for 2000PKR / day, no license needed. Get in touch through their website or social media. www.karakorambikers.com
The trek to K2 basecamp takes between 14 and 18 days and can be arranged online. Permits are necessary, so inform yourself well beforehand. In my opinion it would be better to arrange the trek starting from Skardu instead of Islamabad. Prices vary, I’ve read everything between 1000 and 3000$.
If you do get a permit, which you can request in Skardu, you can drive from Dassu to Askole. I’ve been told the 40km take 3 hours by motorbike, so time your trip well if you don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Askole has a camping ground mostly used by mountaineers as the starting point of their trek but I’m fairly certain you can camp there for a night before returning back to Dassu as well.
To do this trip I needed 3 passport copies, one for each of the police / army checkpoints along the way.
The bus makes its way along the Karakoram Highway, twisting and turning and shaking like a wounded snake on amphetamines. Mostly up it goes, for the length of the 490km that separate Islamabad from Gilgit, capital city of the Gilgit-Baltistan area, the pearl of Pakistan. A few hours into the journey we pass by Abbottabad, a town that became world famous overnight in 2012 because this is where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly killed during a nightly raid by US special forces. Under the cover of darkness the bus passes 3km from the compound, oblivious to its reputation and the history that was written here. I’m 48h into my Pakistan adventure, and couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to this beautiful country.
I arrived on a short flight from Abu Dhabi to the New Islamabad International Airport on it’s second day of operation. Brand new unfortunately also meant no ATM’s or money exchange, and no SIM card sales booths. The only operated booth in the arrivals hall belonged to a taxi company and after a few futile attempts to talk to the guy behind the counter, who seemed as lost as I was, I managed to exchange 20$ into 2000 Pakistani rupees from his own pocket. With a swish of his hand a minion in a fluorescent vest materialised out of nowhere to lead me outside to the taxi queue. The hall outside arrivals was so crowded with people that were waiting for arriving relatives that they had to be held back by steel fences. A military clothed gentleman nodded at me when I entered the hall and, waving his AK47, lead me and my taxi minion through the midst of the staring crowd. So this is what it feels like to be Justin Bieber…
When I told Omar the taxi driver about my experience he explained that every low or even middle class family needs one or more members working overseas to send back a never ending stream of monthly checks to support the rest of the family. Consequently, short visits of that relative to the motherland are a big event, celebrated by the entire family, a celebration that starts at the airport. Omar himself spent 2 years as an electrician in France and 4 as a pizza maker in Italy. Then he came back to Islamabad to take care of his ill father. There are millions of Pakistani like Omar, working abroad to provide for their families. With 200 million inhabitants this is the sixth most populous country in the world. That is a lot of mouths to be fed.
After a crazy ride through Friday night traffic Omar delivers me to the doorstep of Saad, a Pakistani guy who invited me into his house after I posted a public trip to Couchsurfing. As CS is always a bit of a gamble I didn’t know what to expect, and because of my typical disorganizedness I had only contacted Saad yesterday evening. After a nervous minute or so he opened the gate to his house though and introduced me to his wife Nadia and toddlers Mikael and Ozil. Their house was huge, and very comfortable. I left my stuff in the guest room which, to my astonishment, had its own private bathroom. Then Omar whisked me away to experience an amazing street food dinner in the streets of Rawalpindi, and the ball of incredible hospitality that seems to be characterising this part of the world started rolling, never to stop again.
Saturdays are for sightseeing! After a rich breakfast in the company of Saad’s father, a former judge, and with more food than an average football team can finish Nadia, Saad, the kids and I took a drive to drop off Mikael and Ozil at Nadia’s parents. Her mother, a fashion designer, insisted on trying some kebab and juice on the terrace of their house in a new development on the outskirts of the city. Despite my swollen stomach I managed to stow away a few different ones while Ozil entertained everyone by singing the Frozen song, happily munching on some kebab at the same time. Then Saad and Nadia took me on a road trip through town, past some of the government buildings to the Faisal mosque, the biggest in the country. Somehow I was interviewed by a crew of the national television while checking out a handicraft store in the Saidpur village asking me what I thought of Pakistan. Apparently they didn’t care that I only arrived the previous day and were very happy to hear that I had enjoyed my first 20 hours in their country.
For dinner we went up to a viewpoint of the hills overlooking Islamabad. The Monal restaurant was a very fancy place and we watched the sun slowly disappear in the smoggy skyline of a surprisingly modern city while discussing a range of subjects, both from a European and a Pakistani point of view. A quick coffee to go from an Italian place in an area frequented by expats and off we were, returning to pick up the kids.
One of my favourite moments happened right before picking them up though. During our many conversations the subject of alcohol had come up, and Saad had explained to me that, despite there being a beer brewery a few hours north from Islamabad, drinking alcohol is by law prohibited for locals in the whole country. Non Muslim foreigners do not fall into that category though, creating a vague legal grey area where underground alcohol dealers can hook you up with local beer and even liquors. When Saad asked me wether I wanted to try the only Pakistani beer in existence I didn’t have to think twice! A few phone calls were made back and forth, a time and place agreed upon and eventually a back alley transaction sealed between our car and the dealer’s, both with dimmed lights and without ever exiting the vehicle. A quick whisper and laugh and the merchandise was handed over. The monkey on the roof of the guy’s car, chained through the window to the back seat, made the whole scene look even more like a movie. Me, Saad and Nadia stayed up talking late that night while I tried the surprisingly tasty beer. A memorable night in good company of people that were strangers only yesterday. My faith in the world is skyrocketing these days.
On Sunday none of us did a lot. I spent most of the time in the living room planning the next few days and weeks while continuously harassing Saad with questions. Pakistan is a very off the beaten track destination and although the people are extremely helpful it still takes some research to get the most out of my stay here. After dinner I said goodbye to Nadia and the kids and Saad drove me to the bus station. It takes 18 hours to reach Gilgit, an overnight journey that will also take most of the next day. But I’m traveling the legendary Karakoram Highway now, and no lack of legroom, bus seats designed for midgets or questionable bodily odours will wipe the huge grin off my face.
The new Islamabad international airport (opened on May 3rd 2018) is about an hour’s taxi ride away from Islamabad city centre. Bring at least dollars from home to get away from the airport since ATM’s or money exchange were not yet possible yet (May 4th 2018). Use the taxi stand next to baggage reclaim, the fare is less then 2000PKR (I paid 1900PKR for a longer ride since I wasn’t staying in the centre).
Withdrawing money in Islamabad was no problem with my Belgian cards, both maestro and MasterCard worked but only in Standard Chartered Bank!
NATCO is the most reliable bus company to get to the northern areas, the bus leaves at 6pm, 7pm, 9pm and 10pm. The journey takes anywhere from 16 to 20 hours depending on traffic and road conditions. The price to Gilgit was 1850PKR. Hiring a car, motorbike or private driver is also possible.
Bring passport an visa copies to get faster past police checkpoints, I needed a total of 5 between Islamabad and Gilgit (but still less then the 11 The Broke Backpacker needed back in 2016!).
Confused I wake up at 4am on day 2. Did that gong sound or was that my imagination? Without any way to check the time I stare at the ceiling of my cubicle for a moment, listening. Then suddenly one of my neighbours turns on his light, casting a long shadow over the wall and across my ceiling. All around me I hear the muffled sounds of tired people waking up and moving around. I’m so much of an evening person that I’m happy there are no mirrors and I can’t see my own face. The gong sounds again. It’s time for the first session in the hall. I take a deep breath, move aside the mosquito net and slide into my hippie pants and slippers.
The night is still pitch black when I enter the hall. The first session of the day takes two hours and is without instructions. In fact the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless most seats are taken by people who seem to be in trance already. I sit down on my cushion and close my eyes. Almost immediately a sharp pain in my back starts manifesting, something I feared might happen. I try to ignore it and remember yesterday’s instructions. Close eyes. Keep hands relaxed in my lap. Start focusing on breathing through the nose. Try to become aware of any sensation at all on the tiny area of the nostrils and the upper lip. Keep doing this for the entire session.
It’s very hard to keep focusing on something that isn’t there, I think after ten minutes. Apart from the occasional itching I feel nothing much close to anything I’d call a sensation. Instead my mind wanders. There’ll be breakfast soon, and even though I won’t be able to talk to anyone at least I get to sit in a real chair. Happy days! I wish the food they served was any good. It’s not the vegan thing, no I don’t care about eating vegan for ten days. Should I become vegan? It’s better for the planet. Hmmm where on the planet should I go for the next couple of months? But wait, flying all over the world means I’m accumulating a giant ecological footprint, then it doesn’t make sense to become vegan, I’d better not fly anymore instead. Hmmm eating vegan is not that hard, I did it while I was volunteering in the organic olive grove too, months and months ago in Greece. The food there was delicious. Do I feel something crawling up my leg? Better take a look. I don’t want it to be like yesterday when I saw a big spider scurrying around my neighbour’s cushion. Better check to make sure. What do spiders eat actually? Meat? Yeah they’re not vegan at all. It’s not fair, we get only rice. Steamed rice, watery rice, sticky rice, rice with sugar for desert. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wait I should be focusing on my breath and nostrils. How long has my mind been wandering? Let’s try again. Pompidompidom… would there be bananas for breakfast? I don’t like bananas but here I do like them. They’re not rice. Oh the irony. I have to pee. Do I drink too much water? I thought rice soaks in all the water? Let’s focus on the breath shall we? I’d like to but do you remember yesterday when during lunch that old guy accidentally spilled soup in Mr Miyagi’s slipper? Haha that cracked me up so much. Almost broke my vow of silence there. Oh wait I’m supposed to focus on my breath. Damn you gong, what’s taking you so long?
The course schedule is very strict. At 4am sharp the gong wakes up everyone lucky enough to get some sleep on the prison bed. At 4.30am the meditation hall is full and silent. 120 people sit cross-legged on pillows with their eyes closed. It’s a long session, that lasts until 6.30am. Then the gong announces breakfast and rest until 8am. 8am – 9am is the first session of strong determination, but more on that later. A 5 minute break and another 2 hour session, until 11am. Then lunch is prepared. It’s remarkably similar to breakfast. After lunch there’s a break until 1pm, my favourite moment of the whole day. Exhausted after a short night with little sleep and a draining morning program I manage to fall asleep almost every day. Then the gong announces the next session, from 1pm until 2.30. Five minutes break, another session of strong determination until 3.30, five minutes break and another 1,5 hour session, until dinner is announced at 5pm. According to the official Vipassana rules there is no dinner to be had at 5, which is supposed to be merely a tea break with some fruits. But like with many things Cambodians don’t feel the need to adhere to the rules too much. They serve a dinner, which is basically just leftovers from breakfast and lunch. From 6pm until 7 there is the third session of strong determination, followed by a video discourse until 8.30. Then the final session lasts until 9, which is bed time.
Everyone seems to be using day 2 as a way to experiment with the auxiliary pillows. Next to the entrance of the hall there’s a giant box filled with pillows in different shapes and sizes which we can use to find a more comfortable posture. People put a small pillow under each knee, or under their bum , or just put one in their lap to rest their hands on. I’m also looking for the perfect posture, jealously eyeballing some individuals in the ladies crowd who somehow got their hands on some sort of back support device. Why do these ladies get preferential treatment? Why does that hundred-twenty-year-old get to sit with her back against the wall? All of this is not fair. I hate all these people burping and breathing loudly! Oh well there we have the dying llama again, shut up with the stupid chanting! In my mind I’m giving the guy in front of me a light push as retribution for all the farts he’s been sending my way today. Off balance by the sudden change in equilibrium he falls forwards onto the person in front on him, who then topples over onto the person in front of that. The human domino keeps going until everyone is head first on the floor except me. Satisfied I jump up, tear open my shirt hiding a superman costume and disappear with a devilish laugh in a haze of smoke and thunder.
It’s strange to be completely and utterly alone amidst 120 other people. During the meditation sessions everyone is doing his own thing in silence, but also during the meals, while walking in the garden, during teeth brushing or after the sessions speaking is not allowed, and neither is eye contact, gesturing or any other form of non verbal communication. By the end of day three I have given everyone that I recognise nicknames as a way to pass the time. I also invented a whole background story for each of them, including the reason they are here, their hopes and dreams for the future and their family tree, up until the third generation. The first to receive a nickname was the guy sitting on the pillow in front of me. I always stare at the back of his head and nicknamed him den Trappe, based on his trapezium shaped haircut. Den trappe was more or less my age and was always the last one to appear in the meditation hall after the sounding of the gong. He didn’t really like to be here it seemed, which made me like him immediately. When the gong rang he actively walked away from the entrance to the meditation hall as far as possible before dragging himself as slowly as possible and with hunched shoulders towards his seat as if it was the executioner’s block. His outfits looked expensive and I imagined he was sent here by his wealthy and powerful Cambodian father who hoped he would finally learn some discipline before taking over the family business, much against the will of the former, who’d much more like to join the circus. The guy on the pillow to my right on the other hand seemed to be born with the sole purpose of becoming a Vipassana meditator. During the whole 10 days I never even once caught him moving or opening his eyes during any of the meditation sessions, thus earning him the nickname Rock. Together with Glasses, the guy on my left, they were among the better students of the class. Then there was Dirk, a tall Dutch guy who used so many auxiliary pillows that his seat looked more like a blanket fort than an area for quiet contemplation. He regularly skipped sessions and spent most of the time of the other sessions on a plastic chair in the back of the hall to release the pressure on his painful knees, despite his young age. Eventually he left the course on day 9 for reasons of a wrongly scheduled flight. Stick on the other hand had to be at least a hundred and twelve years old, was so slow he usually struggled to make it to the dining hall in time before the other hungry participants finished all the food and scared everyone time and again with his shrieking bones every time he sat down, but nonetheless made it to day 11 glamorously as if he was the inventor of the elixir of life. I later learned he did a course every year together with his wife, and didn’t have the slightest trouble sitting for so long.
By the morning of day 3, despite a lot of internal cursing, sweating, frustration and painful limbs I could finally see some progress in my idle attempts to shut down my agitated mind. During some of the sessions I noticed how I could focus longer without my mind wandering to every dark corner of my subconscience. The morning sessions were usually easiest. Still half asleep it seemed less difficult to keep my mind at bay. I was less distracted and sometimes managed to get into some kind of sleepy trance where my mind was blank but I could still focus on my bodily sensations. It was the darkest and the quietest time of day as well. As the course progressed I really came to treasure these early morning sessions in the hall, where after some time the chattering of the birds announced a new day full of daylight and opportunities, followed by the gong that meant breakfast. As a general rule the sessions after a longer break usually went relatively well, whereas the sessions after 5 minute breaks were still excruciatingly painful and impossible to focus. It is extremely unsatisfying to sit through a one-hour session going to great lengths to focus, suffering physical pain and mental self abuse pushing yourself further and further to then hear the gong, take a walk in the garden for 5 minutes and sit back down on the pillow to go through the whole experience again, knowing that after that there are even more sessions. And tomorrow the whole cycle repeats itself…
During one of the afternoon sessions of day 3 I’m determined to try and sit still for the entire hour. Tomorrow, on day 4, the actual Vipassana meditation exercises start. So far we have only practised Annapana, a technique to quiet down the mind and learn to focus on the experiencing of physical sensations. The area of the nostrils and upper lip is just an introduction, a pars pro toto. We’re narrowing down the focus area in order to be able to go deeper into the sensations. Starting tomorrow we will expand the focus area to the entire body. Combined with this we’ll also have 3 sessions of strong determination, where we cannot move for the entire time. I’m anxious for both aspects of this change. So far I’ve barely managed to feel any nostril sensations. Every previous session I’ve been making some progress when it comes to sitting still though. Every time I make it a few more minutes before giving up in pain. Currently I can more or less hang in there for 35 minutes, a big difference compared to the initial 5. Sixty whole minutes is still way off though…
I can’t bear the pain in my upper back anymore when I finally give up the internal struggle that has been going on for some time in my mind. We’re not supposed to move for the entire session, but my physical pain has been slowly eating away at my determination to follow that guideline. I open my eyes without a clue of how much time has passed since the start of the hour. One’s perception of time passage when sitting on a cushion with closed eyes doing nothing is very, very different from reality. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon that I would find out about the clock hanging on the wall behind me. Idiot. I’m completely helpless and, despite the presence of 119 other motionless cross-legged figures in the meditation hall, utterly alone. Slowly it starts to sink in what I’ve gotten myself into here.
‘Here’ is in the Dhamma Lattika meditation centre in the Cambodian countryside, a few kilometres outside of the city of Battambang. I’m here because I signed up for a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint when I decided to take this spiritual boot-camp. Before arriving here I had never even meditated. I had heard others talk about the benefits of meditation in their lives and the spiritual intensity of 10-day courses like these, so I was curious but not well-versed. Maybe I took this course exactly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up.
Created by and taught using recordings of the late S.N. Goenka, the course is a rigorous 10-day mental training intended to turn students into “masters of their minds”. Although the technique of Vipassana originates 2500 years ago when the Buddha became enlightened under a bodhi tree, and Buddhist philosophy certainly guides the course, Goenka insists that it is entirely nonsectarian, universal, and scientific in nature, as its aim is to create mental peace and stop the vicious circle of creating misery for oneself, rather than worship any higher being.
How hard can it be to spend 10 days in absolute silence, thinking about “stuff”, I had thought. To abstain from my busy, connected life for once. To lock all my ‘devices’ (what a terrible word) into a locker for the next ten days. To surrender not only my phone, but also my speech. Not just my books, notebook and pen, but also my entire right to communicate. When I filled out the registration form after my arrival here yesterday I answered the question “Why did you decide to participate in this course and what do you hope to accomplish during your time here?” truthfully saying that I was looking for some peace of mind and body after six exhausting months traveling the world. To stop moving around for 10 days to process the experiences and insights of the last few months. Reflection reduced to its bare essence.
It was a strange first day, yesterday. Straight after hopping out of the tuktuk that delivered me to the centre’s doorstep I walked into what was apparently the ladies’ entrance of the registration building. Wildly gesturing and shouting incomprehensible things in Kmer I was chased back out of the door and into the right entrance. There I was presented with a questionnaire and a contract to sign by a guy that looked a bit like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate kid. ‘That I’d adhere to the rules and schedule of the course and that I’d stay until the official end in ten days.’ After registration I was shown my residential quarters in a dormitory building that looked like it could have been used as horse stables just the same. Every room had its own front door, a bed with mosquito net, a light and a fan, but the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. The door had a square area with hinges that could open separately from the door itself. Like how the horses can put their heads outside to smell the fresh air without taking flight. Do they want to prevent us from running? The rest of the meditation centre consisted of two Asian style sanitary buildings (toilet and shower in one, do I still want to be here?), a dining hall with tables and chairs facing the same wall to avoid students sitting face to face, and the dhamma or meditation hall. Male and female accommodations were strictly separated by a fence cutting straight through the garden, and the only time we would get to see people of the opposite sex was during the meditation sessions in the hall.
After dropping my stuff in room number nine I had handed over all my forbidden items. Camera, phone, iPad, notebook and pens, e-reader, and the hard copy of some book I’d been dragging around since Iran three months ago. I met Douglas and Michael, a Scot and an Austrian guy and we introduced ourselves and talked for a bit about our fears and expectations for the upcoming ten days over coffee. It was reassuring that they were complete newbies to meditation too. After that and with an hour to spare before the official kickoff of the course and start of the Noble silence I went for a walk in the garden, where small groups of Cambodians were already pacing around. A Buddhist monk engaged in conversation with me, eager to practice his English. We kept talking for about an hour, walking circles around the garden while the sun started to set over the surrounding rice paddies. He told me this was the seventh time he came for a course and that he was looking forward to the moment it would finally begin. I asked him how the other times had been but he responded with a peculiar, almost invisible smile on his lips that everyone’s journey is different and personal, and therefore incomparable to anyone else’s. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud gong in the middle of the garden and my new companion left me behind with a twinkle in his eyes. All the participants had by now settled in their respective stable and everyone gathered at the entrance of the meditation hall, where we were assigned our cushions. Noble silence had begun, and the very first meditation session was about to begin…
To be honest I had no idea what it meant exactly to meditate before I started this adventure. My fairytale version of it involved a lot of sitting and thinking and processing and growing and not so much physical pain and boredom. As a result that first time on the cushion in the meditation hall yesterday was very startling. A tape recording was played and I almost fell off my pillow when the sound of a dying llama reverberated around the room. After a while I realised it was the voice of ‘guru’ Goenka chanting in an ancient Indian language, something he would do at the start and the end of most sessions from then on. Eventually the chanting died away and the instructions for that specific session were given. This first session the only instruction was to focus all our attention to physical sensations on the area between the nostrils and the upper lip. To try and focus on purely that and block out all other thoughts or sensations. And when our mind started wandering, to realise it wandering, and emotionless bring it back to the sensations on the upper lip.
I’ve agreed to be locked up inside my own head, I realised while sitting cross-legged on that pillow. I tried to remember the daily schedule that we have to follow scrupulously. Did it really say that there are 10,5 hours worth of meditation sessions like this every day? This is the first hour of day 0, people can’t possibly sign up for this out of their own free will? This is worse then sitting in front of the microwave and putting the timer at 10,5 hours, waiting for a dish to be ready. Everyone knows that microwave minutes are the longest minutes on the speed scale of time passage. But here, there’s no amazing yesterday’s lasagna when that timer actually goes off. All it means is going back to your windowless cubicle, turn on the fan and try to shut your eyes again for 6 hours. Is that even healthy, to have your eyes closed for 18 hours a day?
All these thoughts race through my head while I’m sitting there on my pillow, waiting for a gong that seems an eternity away. Day 0 of 10, try not to go crazy yet, ok? Just try to make it to the end of the hour. That gong will come at some point. That’s the law of nature. Everything is impermanent, and also this shall pass.
The following day I’m on the same pillow again. This will be my cushion for the rest of the course, I’ve come to understand. This seat, on the last of 6 neat rows of pillows, will be my home for the next ten days. At least I can look at the clock behind me without anyone that might have his eyes open seeing it. I’ve got that going for me, I guess. Not that anyone, except me, would ever open his eyes or change his position before the gongs sounds. We’re supposed to sit still for one hour but it seems I’m the only one struggling with this. Every five or ten minutes I have to change my posture, and every time I do I have to look at the clock on the wall to make sure I see how much longer this tragedy has to go on. Everyone else though, seems to sit still like the Buddha himself. Are they becoming enlightened already, while I’m here struggling to even keep my eyes closed and my back straight? Why am I so bad at this? Maybe all these Cambodians are just way more used to sitting on the ground? Yeah that must be it. I’ve seen them do it, the Asian people. I can’t even squat for five minutes to relieve myself of number two, holding myself steady in the toilet stall using both arms in grotesque positions just to hover over that hole long enough to release my previous meal back into the wild, but Asians they squat when they’re waiting for the bus. Or fishing in the rivers and ponds. Or talking on the phone. Even these old guys on the pillow frontline aren’t moving, and I’m pretty sure they might have fought in the second world war. Ninety years old at least. I’ve even seen that guy there walking with a stick, imagine! I open my eyes and look at the clock. Twenty five minutes gone. Not even halfway yet. I arrived here yesterday afternoon already you know, they call it day 0. There’s also a day 11, for that matter. I’m not getting any happier.
The hours creep by so slowly it’s like the earth has stopped turning. Two hour meditation session. Breakfast. Three hour meditation session. Lunch. Four hour meditation session. Dinner. The two of them are quite a pair, I think while observing the male and female assistant teachers tediously during one of the lesser successful sitting sessions of that first day. The male teacher is a small man with a face like he has to do Vipassana meditation every day. Probably because he does. He looks a bit like Count Odilon, a side character from a Belgian comic book that rides his dog Tobias together with his wife the countess, who rides a dog like a polar bear. He sits on an elevated platform next to the female assistant teacher, who looks like the most devoted housewife ever, the kind of woman who spends her time knitting scarfs and socks for her grandchildren years before they are born. The count and countess were obviously very good at sitting still with their eyes closed. They made it their life’s purpose. I think I’ll choose a different path, with all due respect.
The end of day 1 draws nearer. After dinner there’re two more sessions, separated by a Dhamma talk. In these talks, that we’ll get to see every night, a video is displayed in which Goenka gives some theoretical and philosophical background on the technique we’re learning and the daily struggles on the path towards wisdom. Since the videos are in English we follow them in a smaller, separate room while the Cambodians take their place on our by now well known pillows in the hall.
We’re only six foreign guys, and when the girls enter I count nine of them. Fifteen foreigners out of 120 participants! I’d expected different numbers. After 10 hours of meditation sessions I’d hoped to find a comfortable couch waiting for us. Maybe they even have some popcorn, we’re watching tv after all. To my disappointment there are fifteen pillows waiting for us in rows that are just as neat as in the big hall. My back protests heavily, which lands me in the doghouse with the teacher. When I can’t take it any longer and lay down on my side, curled in a little ball like a beaten dog he shakes his head disapprovingly and gestures me to sit up again with the swish of a stern finger. No words needed. I groan.
At 9pm the gong finally calls it a day and before the teacher’s done explaining that there is half an hour of Q&A for those who have doubts I’m already out the door, in my slippers and halfway the garden to my own room. I close the door, turn on the fan and crawl onto my cardboard mattress. I’m happy to have brushed my teeth straight after dinner. This is getting familiar, I think when I close my eyes.
CAPPADOCIA – Flying a hot air balloon into the sunrise
In een luchtballon over het Centraal-Anatolische Plateau glijden tijdens zonsopgang, wie droomt er niet van? Er moeten zowat tienduizend miljoen miljard foto’s circuleren op het internet van ochtendlijke ballonvaartjes in Cappadocia, centraal Turkije, het ballonvaartwalhalla van de wereld. Mijn aandacht hadden ze alvast, die Turken. Met een camera in de aanslag passeerde ik in Kapadokya tijdens mijn overland tocht naar het verre oosten. Met kleine oogjes en een licht oversture maag na die tweede Döner van de avond voordien hees ik me om 4.45u uit bed om het fenomeen met eigen ogen te aanschouwen. En ik zag dat het goed was.
Reeds één keer eerder was ik hier, in Cappadocia. Bijna 10 jaar geleden tijdens een dolle eindejaarsreis doorheen Turkije, waarbij in een acht-daags tijdsinterval zowat 57 steden op het programma stonden, spendeerden we een terloops dagje tussen de fairy chimneys van de Pigeon valley en de groot geschapen fallusrotsen van de Love valley. Het ruime luchtsop kozen we toen evenwel niet, en laat dat nu net íets spannender zijn dan dat muffe edelstenenmuseum langs de steenweg. Hoog tijd dus voor een tweede passage. Twee dagen op rij vroeg uit de veren leidde tot onderstaand fotoverslag. Dat het licht perfect was dat hoef ik u niet te vertellen.
Uitvalsbasis voor een ballonvluchtje in Cappadocia is Göreme, een klein dorpje pal in het hart van Turkije. Afhankelijk van het seizoen gooi je tussen de 60 en 120€ euro per persoon over de balk voor een luchtdoop van een uurtje. Ik huppelde hier eind oktober voorbij en genoot dus van het off-season tarief.
Ook het aantal ballonnen dat je piloot zal moeten zien te ontwijken is afhankelijk van het seizoen én de weersomstandigheden. Ikzelf telde in oktober dagelijks een 90-tal luchtballonnen, in het hoogseizoen loopt dit op tot 2 á 300. Let wel op, want als er teveel wind staat mogen de ballonnen niet uitvliegen. Geef jezelf dus na aankomst meteen op als geïnteresseerde en wacht niet tot de laatste dag van je verblijf om het op een vliegen te zetten!
Göreme heeft zelf geen luchthaven. Turkish vliegt wel dagelijks meerdere malen van Istanboel naar Kayseri, zo’n 45 minuten verderop. Nachtbussen van Istanboel doen er zo’n 12 uur over maar zijn wel de comfortabelste die ik ooit al heb genomen (samen met de VIP bussen in Iran). Denk business class van de gemiddelde vliegtuigmaatschappij, inclusief bediening met thee en koekjes.
Göreme heeft een hele rits aan accommodaties in alle prijsklassen. Meng je voor een habbekrats tussen de backpackers in hostel Terra Vista (5€), boek een van de vele midrange Cave hotels (20-50€) of doe eens zot en boek een kamer in het Instagram-bekende Sultan Cave Suites (100-150€).
Zowat alle guesthouses, hotels, Airbnb’s en hun moeder kunnen ballontours regelen, de prijzen zijn vaak vergelijkbaar. Ikzelf was zeer tevreden van de service in hostel Terra Vista. Ali en zijn broer zijn goeie gasten!
De luidruchtige buitenboordmotor komt sputterend tot leven bij de tweede aanzwengelpoging van onze kortgerokte kapitein. Hoewel deze opmerking verkeerdelijk kan opgevat worden als een sneer richting de aloude traditie van de Burmese longyi moet ik eerlijkheidshalve bekennen dat yours truly tijdens het schrijven van dit bericht meermaals zijn eigen rok moest fatsoeneren om niet met de spreekwoordelijke billen bloot te gaan. Heerlijk luchtig, die longyi.
“Alweer een reden om niet in een van de kostelijke riverside boutique hotels te verblijven”, verantwoord ik mijn keuze voor een vijf-euro-dure accommodatie in Nyaung Shwe’s rustieke hinterland voor mezelf terwijl de motor de nachtelijke stilte en waarschijnlijk menig slapend trommelvlies meedogenloos aan diggelen blaast. We zijn nog een klein uurtje voor zonsopgang, de super blue blood moon is aan z’n neerwaartse trek begonnen en zal volledig achter de bergen die het enorme meer omringen verdwenen zijn op hetzelfde moment dat de zon tevoorschijn schiet aan de overzijde. De vijftien meter lange houten boot glijdt soepel door de wetlands aan de noordelijke oever. Ik zit in de laatste van vier houten tuinstoelen die achter elkaar staan opgesteld in de boot, als ware het dat gevreesde moment op menig trouwfeest in Vlaamsche contreien waarop zatte nonkel zijn moment gekomen acht om de Marie Louise stoelendansgewijs in te zetten. Gelukkig is onze boot niet van roeispanen maar wel van een grasmachienachtig motorgeval voorzien. Laat dat Burmese gras maar groeien, moeten ze hier gedacht hebben.
Een half uurtje later komen we in het midden van het meer terecht. Vissers zijn al volop bezig met hun dagtaak nu de toeristenboten het meer nog niet onveilig maken. Hun techniek, die uniek is in dit deel van Myanmar, wordt meteen duidelijk. Balancerend op één been op de voorsteven van hun boot terwijl het andere been een roeispaan bedient hebben ze hun beide handen vrij om de netten binnen te halen of de enorme fuiken uit te zetten. Terwijl de eerste zonnestralen hun warme gloed de vallei in jassen peddelt een eenzame visser onze richting uit. Duidelijk gewend aan de camera’s die het tafereel onmiddellijk vanuit alle hoeken proberen vast te leggen poseert de man op stoïcijns-acrobatische wijze met zijn fuik in posities die zelfs meest getalenteerde Kamasutra beoefenaar de moed in de schoenen zou doen zinken, in de hoop een tip van de toeristen op de kop te tikken (en waarschijnlijk de toeristen zelf meteen ook een imaginaire toek op hun bakkes te verkopen, nvdr). Hoe je in dergelijke posities visbeesten uit de plan hengelt is mij een raadsel, maar oordeelt u vooral zelf. Fotogeniek is het in elk geval wel.
Hoewel het de foto’s dan wel aan authenticiteit ontbreekt, komt het geld ten minste wel bij de lokale bevolking terecht, en niet bij het nog steeds hoofdzakelijk militaire regime dat het land regeert. Geen overbodige luxe voor deze mensen als je weet dat een dagloon voor een arbeider in de bouw hier 3000 kyat bedraagt, minder dan twee euro.
De rest van de dag laat de kapitein ons alle hoeken van het meer zien. De dorpjes hier zijn op het water gebouwd en doen me denken aan Venetië. Zonder de extravagante prijzen en Orwelliaans grote cruiseschepen weliswaar. Al snel wordt een patroon duidelijk: aanmeren bij een van de lokale ambachtszaken die zilver bewerken, kleding weven, cheroot sigaren en sigaretten rollen, boten bouwen en tomaten verbouwen. Tien minuutjes rondleiding in de workshop waar getoond wordt hoe alles precies in z’n werk gaat. Afronden in de shop waar de eindproducten te koop worden aangeboden en vervolgens weer de boot in, op naar de volgende halte.
Na een uitputtende dag en twaalf uur op het water gaat de zon langzaamaan onder achter de bergen die het meer omringen. De vissers halen hun acrobatentoeren weer uit de kast en camera’s klikken er lustig op los. Yet another day at the lake zou je denken, ware het niet dat die super blue blood moon een zeldzaam fenomeen is. U zult moeten wachten tot 31 januari 2037 om die nog eens te zien.
Diana and I are running late when we arrive to the Tha Saphlan Plaa jetty, where the Thai immigration post is located. Despite being woken up at 7 in the morning by a strange and very loud parade passing under the balcony of the Ranong hostel dorm we are sharing, we may have gone out for breakfast a bit too late. The driver of the red pickup truck that is supposed to drop us off at the pier doesn’t seem to be in a hurry either, making a few extra loops through the centre of town looking for extra passengers before finally moving in the direction of the Thai border post. I hand over 30 baht for the both of us and jump out, dragging my backpack behind me. We are immediately greeted by the accomplices of a few long tail boat captains. They guide us to the immigration post where both our passports are stamped. After almost a month I’m finally leaving Thailand! Diana is just doing a visa run and needs a crisp 10 dollar bill as opposed to a visa to be allowed to enter Myanmar for a few minutes. I keep my e-visa close at hand while the guys charge her 500 baht for the dollar bill and guide us through a mass of long tail boats to the one of their friend. The captain is already waiting for us. We’re the last passengers he needs to fill up his boat and soon we’re off on a 25 minute boat trip across the border to the Myanmar village of Kawthaung and its Point Victoria, the British name for the country’s southernmost point. The boat docks for a few minutes at another immigration post on the water where the captain makes sure all the locals’ passports are stamped too. Apparently they have different procedures for foreigners and locals.
Twenty minutes later the opposite shore comes in sight. Again the locals have a separate immigration office on the water while we sit tight and wait for the boat to dock at the Kawthaung jetty. The captain takes us along to the foreigners immigration post located a little further down the road. Here an Indian looking guy with a deformed hand takes over. His English is excellent, and with an almost British accent he asks us for a copy of our passports, the passport itself and our visa. 5 minutes later we’re stamped in and I say goodbye to Diana who is stamped out again straight away and jumps back in the boat to make the return journey to Thailand, armed with a piece of paper saying she’s allowed another 30 days of fun in the kingdom of elephants. Meanwhile mister Littlefinger asks me about my plans for the rest of the day. I inform him that I want to take the bus to Myeik, a city about 450km further north. I tell him about my concern of making the 12.30h bus but he tells me that there’s plenty of time because Myanmar is 30min behind on Thailand time, and that it’s a better idea anyway to take a minivan at 5pm to save some money on a night of accommodation. He walks me to the nearest atm that takes foreign cards and armed with a bundle of kyat bills delivers me to his friend who coincidentally sells minivan tickets. 25.000 kyat (about 15€) lighter I say goodbye to Littlefinger who, as a last act of being the perfect host, points me in the direction of the best bar in town with the wise words “cheap beer and pretty waitresses”. I enter the Café that weirdly enough seems to be called “Mark”, half and half expecting all the waitresses to have grotesque hand deformities. I scold myself for having such stupid thoughts while I sit down obediently and welcome a 800 kyat beer (0,50€) into my life. I make a toast to myself: to one of the easiest and least stressful border crossings ever, and a new country to explore!
One beer turns into two and later three. not knowing how much a beer costs in the rest of the country, I make the most of the situation. For a while I write a bit in my diary and observe a group of Burmese men discussing unknown subjects in yet a new, exotic language. I’m lucky they have English translations in the menu, because the Burmese alphabet is nothing like I’ve ever seen before. I immediately notice that many people have a kind of yellowish paste on their faces. I later learn it’s called Thanaka, used both to protect from the sun and as a sort of makeup.
I decide to take a stroll through town to check out the true Victoria point and climb a hill to see some warrior statue. In a park I meet a few children that are fascinated by my white skin (although I consider myself quite tanned by now) and the camera in my hand. They’re very pleased when I applaud their bicycle skills and most of them crash trying to impress me further. Then I return to Mark for a late lunch and accompanying beer. I position myself strategically on Mark’s terrace with a direct view to the minivan place. 5pm approaches and passes by. No one at the minivan place moves. At 6pm I walk nonchalantly over to the place where the ticket selling guy is having an argument with another waiting passenger. Before I can open my mouth he shouts that they’re waiting for a few packages that have to make the journey to Myeik with us. At 6.30 we’re finally off. “White guys in the back” is announced and the other passengers laugh. I’m seated next to David, an Australian expat living in Myanmar. He speaks some Burmese and translates the joke to me. An image of a black woman unsatisfied by the bus seat assigned to here comes to mind, but I repress it. Only 6 other people climb into the van with David and me before the co-pilot slams the door shut and immediately turns up the music, a terrible local poprock hit that would still rattle my brain several days later.
An hour into the journey David and I figure out that the backseat is actually empty apart from some luggage piled on top of the seats. After some rearranging I call shotgun on the whole backseat and manage to jump over the wall of suitcases that separates it from the rest of the van now. David has to be content with our original two seats and a suitcase for a third. At least we can both lay down.
Another hour or two later the minivan stops at a roadside eatery. The toilets are made of empty jerrycans cut to the shape of urinals and the meal consists of a lot of different small bowls filled with a variety of foods, most of which don’t appeal much to my spoilt Thai tastebuds. I make my selection feeling like I’m about to be put on the electric chair and thank the lady with a silent “Justin Timberlake”, a word that David has just taught me, which means thank you (actually it’s Jayzu ting ba le, but Justin seems to work just fine). I wash the meal away with some free tea and fold myself away on the backseat of the minivan again. David pops a Valium and snores for the remainder of the way. I drift in and out of consciousness, trying to filter out the car radio with some music of my own.
We arrive in Myeik at 5.30am. David has booked a hotel and I decide to get out of the van at the same place to ask if they still have a room. David suggests I sleep in his room as he has a spare bed anyway, and so after a hell of a first day I catch a few more hours of shuteye for no cost at all.
⁃ The long tail boat between Thailand and Myanmar costs around 50 baht for locals but they charge foreigners 150 baht. Haggle down to 70.
⁃ If you have no passport copy the guys at the Thai side are happy to make one for 5 baht.
⁃ Make sure you print your e-visa, for some reason they stamp it as well at the border.
⁃ The journey from Kawthaung to Myeik used to take 15h, road improvements and organisational changes cut it down to 9-10h now.
I’ve just crossed the border between Thailand and Myanmar. A little frequented land border mostly used by tourists doing visa runs to renew their Thai visas, thereby spending only minutes in the fascinating young country that Myanmar is. I on the other hand couldn’t wait to leave Thailand. I’ve spent 4 weeks island hopping through the southern part of the country and my 30-day visa is running out in a couple of days. Thailand was the perfect destination to rest up after the very intensive first 3 months on the road. The Thai beaches, incredible street food, excellent weather, fruit shakes and easy transport connections treated me really well, but the last week I felt it was time to leave.
As a relaxing, affordable and exotic holiday destination few places in the world beat Thailand, but at the same time the authenticity of many places and the possibility for adventure are scarce and far in between. The country’s succumbing to the hordes of international tourists claiming their place under the sun, and thousands of other backpackers moving along the well-established Pancake trail. To avoid having my soul crushed by yet another set of drunk English speakers being boisterous in the streets and lobster-coloured people complaining to pharmacists about the strength of the midday sun, I decided it was time to leave. I needed a challenge, a place undiscovered by the masses and with possibilities to get a little off the beaten track.
A month in Southern Thailand, an itinerary
Mid-December I took a ferry from Langkawi in Malaysia to Koh lipe, the southernmost Thai island. The immigration office on this tiny island didn’t seem like the worst place in the world to work, located right on an exotic beach with a few beach bars around it.
After 5 nights on this beautiful island I took a speedboat to Koh Kradan, another tiny island that hosted nothing but a handful of beachside resorts. I stayed in the most modest one in the centre of the island, and the only one with a dorm.
Next up was Koh Lanta. As I really needed a few days of doing nothing at all this was the perfect spot: long beautiful beaches, cheap motorbikes to hire and incredible coffee shakes to enjoy with the sun on my face. I stayed at the Blanco Hostel and spent Christmas here with a bunch of other backpackers from all over the world. Great sunsets, too.
Next I spent an exhausting day reaching Koh Phangan for the full moon Party on New Year’s Eve. I met up with Livia who arrived from Abu Dhabi and Ana, a friend of hers. We spent 4 nights at Mayom garden, a pleasant jungle hideaway with outdoor bathrooms and good food. Although the full moon party was the main reason we were here, looking back the splendid night market was more my cup of tea.
Next up: Koh Samui. 2 nights in a beach side bungalow. Thai massages, reggae bar cocktails and a few good conversations.
We said goodbye to Ana who had to go back to work, and Livia and me took a bus to Khao Sok national park. Art’s riverside guesthouse provided us with everything we needed, including swinging from lianas into a natural swimming hole and a daytrip into the national park, trekking through a cave filled with thousands of bats and (probably just as many) huge spiders.
I originally planned to go straight from here north to Ranong to cross the border with Myanmar, while Livia had to go south to Phuket to fly back to Abu Dhabi. My phone had different plans though. The screen suddenly died and doubting that I could find any place in Myanmar that could fix it I decided to make a detour to Phuket. I saw Livia off to the airport, feeling a bit under the weather already. Then I checked in into a cheap but comfortable hotel a little outside of Phuket old town and didn’t leave my hotel room for 3 days, unwell with a cold I probably caught by all the air conditioning everywhere. I extended another 2 days to take care of my phone and to use the surprisingly fast public WiFi to backup 120 GB worth of pictures to the cloud.
Eventually I continued my original plan and took a 6h bus to Ranong where I spent a night in an empty hostel and met up with Diana, the only other person staying there. The next day we crossed the border into Myanmar together, she to get a new Thai visa, I was looking for a new challenge, well rested and ready for the next part of my trip.
So here we are. I have a Burmese e-visa that is valid for 28 days. I’m not sure yet if I’ll use all of these days. In fact I know barely anything about this country, that has only been opened to tourists a few years ago. The southern part where I arrived today is very little visited by tourists. Over the course of the next two weeks I’ll make my way up to Yangon to meet Livia again to travel together to Bagan, the legendary temple site. After that I have no clue as to what to do, but I’m pretty sure an itinerary will unfold itself. It always does. Looking forward!
Dear 2017, we’ve had fun together. You’ve been one of those years where everything worked out really well in the end. You’ve given me lots of changes to deal with, allowed me to reach personal and professional goals and gave me some well-spent time with the people that I love. You challenged me, and your days ticking away have inspired me to challenge myself, something that I need to maintain the balance and motivation in my life and to keep things interesting while I’m watching the days of my youth pass by.
I’ve worked hard in a job that provided me with (almost) everything I’m looking for in an employment. This year I won my first architectural competition as part of a talented design team at OMGEVING, completed my two-year internship to become a licensed architect and saw the end result of a project that ran for 18 months. Professionally speaking 2017 was incredible. Making tiramisu for 50 people as a way to say goodbye to all my colleagues was a small price to pay for 2,5 fantastic years as part of this group of beautiful people. Nobody will ever take that first work experience away from me.
Training for and completing my first ever marathon was something that I’ll never forget. People, 8 practice runs in 8 weeks is not enough to run 42km! Unless you want to stumble over the finish line like me, gasping for air and with awkwardly twitching legs that scream for a massage. I’m looking forward to properly train next time… Antwerp marathon, I’ll be back!
From spending time with friends snowboarding in the French Alps, weekly Tuesday evening Portuguese classes, watching and meeting our favourite football team in Manchester with the lads and enjoying long sunny weekends in Rotterdam and Hamburg (including wedding proposals, barbecue pizzas and Brazilian models) to being the best man at my beautiful sister’s wedding, 2017 had it all. And on top of that an invitation for a wedding of Erasmus friends in Helsinki proved to be a good enough excuse to go on an adventure in the Scandinavian wilderness for a month, an awe-inspiring journey that showed me the goodness of random people, the omnipresent beauty of nature and the positive effects of (hitch)hiking hundreds of kilometres alone on my physical and mental well-being. Only to be back home in time for Pukkelpop. Because well, Pukkelpop.
These last few months
Last but not least, 2017 was the year I finally mustered up the courage to follow a dream and leave everything behind in search of adventure and to satisfy my curiosity to unravel everything our world has to offer.
I’m 3,5 months into my big trip. Some of the best things I’ve experienced so far were hiking in the Italian Dolomites, exploring fascinating Albania, volunteering on an organic olive farm in Greece. Floating in a balloon over Cappadocia during sunrise. Crossing borders from Turkey to Iran. Meeting the first familiar faces after 7 weeks on the road. Taking time to properly discover friendly Iran after spending only a week here in 2011. Flying to Abu Dhabi, visiting Dubai and the tallest human-built structure in the world. Discovering fascinating Singapore. Relaxing on Malaysian beaches. Spending my first ever Christmas away from home with a Thai beach barbecue in 30 degree weather.
Grateful as I am for my experiences during the past year I’m already looking forward to make 2018 at least as interesting. I don’t really like New Years resolutions, so I’ve just written down a few things I look forward to in 2018:
– Stretch my money as far as possible to see how long this nomadic lifestyle stays interesting
– Do a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat somewhere in Asia
– Cheer for Belgium during the world cup in Russia (in Russia…?)
– Keep working on my storytelling and photography through this blog
– Walk across Iceland (travel companions wanted, but first read this)
I’ve recently reached day 115 on the road. For those of you that have lost track of my journey due to my long and descriptive style of writing, chaotic promotion strategies or just the fact that I’m 3 months behind with my diary, here’s a small overview of the countries I passed through so far:
– United Arab Emirates
After 3+ months of travel I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I can’t keep up with writing at the same pace at which I’m traveling. For that reason I’ve decided to slightly change the way I tell my stories. From now on I’ll try to give a general post in which I describe my plans for the next month or country, to elaborate on that in follow-up posts if I find the time and motivation to write. Stay tuned! Myanmar up next!
As I walk out of Rovinj there’s nothing on my mind. It’s completely blank. I have these moments quite often where I’m thinking of absolutely nothing, and no one ever believes me when they ask what I’m thinking about. I just zone out somehow. I walk and I look ahead, well aware of my surroundings and the cars whizzing past ignoring my outstretched thumb, but without processing the information in my brain. People are often jealous when I tell them I don’t fret while laying in bed at night, but sometimes I would like to fret. Process the day’s events, mentally prepare for the next day. I can’t, most of the times I just fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. A hard reset.
An old guy gives me a ride to Rijeka. I didn’t plan to go there, but I think what the hell. I can take a ferry to one of the islands from there too. Pretty much the only thing I understand during the whole ride is that he goes to Rijeka to buy a new car radio. “Rovinj small city. Rijeka big city. Better radio.” I didn’t know people still bought car radios and nod in agreement. He drops me off in front of a restaurant where I’ve had dinner last summer with a couple of friends. El mundo es un pañuelo.
A fifty-something shabby guy who’s sitting in the corner of the Rijeka McDonald’s gestures me to come over. He’s seen my backpack and the fact that all tables are taken. I sit down across from him and eat my cheeseburger while he talks of permanent travel and camping. He’s interested in the brand of my backpack and shows me his, an old, small, black leather bag like they used to make them in the seventies. He tells me he’s been on the road for years, hitchhiking and wild camping around his native Croatia, sometimes going as far as Vienna during summer. He travels without money, he says, and I tell him I’ve been very interested these last few years in stories of people traveling with very little or no money without resorting to begging or taking advantage of people. I tell him of my hitchhiking adventures and wild camping exploits, about surviving on 10€ a day and about how I’ve read about dumpster diving and busking and all that stuff. I ask him how he survives without money and he says he knows all the places where they hand out free food. At the end of our exchange he wishes me luck and asks for a few kuna to pay for a hamburger. Disappointed I give him the equivalent of a Euro and leave.
I take the ferry to Krk, an island off the coast of Rijeka. I wanted to island hop all the way to Dubrovnik without returning to the mainland, but that seems impossible. These northern islands are all interconnected by ferry but trace back to transport hub Zadar. From there other ferries service a more southern archipelago until Split, and so on. It’s been raining all afternoon. Hard, the kind that soaks you within seconds. In Krk town I get dropped off next to the bus station and I sit there, under the passenger shelter, waiting out the storm. Out of nowhere the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard almost bombards me off my bench. I haven’t been in the best mood all afternoon. Bad weather, and rain in particular, seems to do this to me while I’m on the road. It doesn’t seem to be worth going anywhere in the rain. When dark clouds fill the sky my mind becomes equally grim. Suddenly I have a minor breakdown, the first one since leaving home 10 days ago . I have no idea what I’m doing here by myself. Going to Iran does not seem like the appropriate answer to that question. I think of home where everything is easy and comfortable and where dead moments like these pass by unnoticed by the distractions of everyday life. You see, when you travel everything is new and exciting. Your mind is alive and overwhelmed by new input every single minute of the day. As long as you keep moving forward towards a goal you’ve set for yourself, time passes. But once you, for whatever reason, are stuck in a place without new input or a short term goal, time seems to stand still (that’s why a microwave minute is the longest minute in existence!). This, in my opinion, is the hardest part of traveling alone. Not being able to complain, pass the time or share your feelings with someone who is in the same position. Right now I feel so lost with purpose that everything seems better than being here, alone in a Croatian thunderstorm at the start of autumn.
Luckily I’ve experienced this feeling before while traveling by myself and I know more or less what to do. No impulsive decisions about going back or changing the itinerary. Once again realising the privileged position I’m in and the sacrifices I’ve made to get here. Short-term comfort and the right to wallow in self-pity and complain to the universe about the toughness of my existence for a while. Talk to friends and loved ones at home. Let them convince me that I’ve made the right choice to leave home. Eventually I find a hostel in Krk City and get dry. The tourist season is over and I’m the only guest here. There’s absolutely no one to talk to so I eat a whole pizza and Skype with my parents. Then I go to bed early and lose myself in a Netflix series for a while. New day, new spirits.