Category Archives: South East Asia ’09

Note to self: remember to breathe…

It sometimes feels like this journey’s been all about learning to breathe again – from yoga in India to Tai Chi in China via the mind-focusing thin air of Everest Base Camp, and on to free- and scuba-diving and of course Vipassana meditation.

After a flight from Singapore to Bali, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the free-diving a little further. A short hop to the Gili Islands, and I was in the only other place in Asia that holds a free-diving school.

When I first tried free-diving in Thailand, my wonderful instructor Rodrigo had told me mysteriously that my free-diving would improve immeasurably after Vipassana (he had done the 10-day course a number of times), and I was eager to find out what he meant.

Bizarrely, free-diving is much closer to yoga and meditation than it is to diving of the Scuba variety, in that the heart of the sport is breath- and mind-control under water. In that sense, the benefits of ten days of meditation quickly became clear. I was able to focus quicker, deal with problems in a balanced way, and recognise the power of the harnessed and focused mind. Over 4 days, my instructor (an eminently practical Brit with a superb manner) gave me the opportunity to push myself to deeper depths and (more importantly) get comfortable diving regularly to 20 metres. I reached 24 metres with ease on the last day.

As Australian author Tim Winton wrote in his uber-cool 2008 surfing novel Breath: “It’s funny, but you never think much about breathing. Until it’s all you ever think about.”

With Australia and the Great Barrier Reef looming, I also completed my aquatic preparation by getting the advanced Scuba qualification and squeezing in a few days acquainting myself with that most quintessential of Aussie activities, surfing, with a wonderful Balinese instructor, Wayan.

In a final reminder of the openness that characterises Bali, Wayan took me home to his family before driving me to the airport for my flight to Australia. I was about to thank him, but he got in there first. “Andy, thank you for helping me and my family…”, he said. I hadn’t exactly looked at it that way. It was a fittingly humbling moment to end 11 months in Asia.

Going deep down under

My arrival in the land Down Under heralded a new phase in my journey. With a request to be Best man at a wedding in January, I have a wonderful reason to return to the UK in time for the end of the year.

Australia therefore defines not only a return to western values, but also (somewhat aptly) a transition from the free roaming nature of my travels thus far, to a more planned, but no less enjoyable, itinerary through Australia and New Zealand, before a final flurry driving across the USA from LA to New York.

With a limited amount of time for Australia, and the lure of a series of friends down the East coast, it became clear that proper exploration of this particular continent would have to wait. Australia might have a reputation for straightforwardness and simple honesty, but 2 weeks into 3 million square miles just doesn’t go.

The one thing I did want to do though was dive the Great Barrier Reef. 24 hours after arriving in the country, I stood, wet suited and booted, on the edge of the MV Taka, a diving boat which would be my home for the next three days. As I stepped off into the Deep Blue, I had to remind myself to breathe… one of the minor challenges of swapping between free-diving (breathing categorically not advised) and scuba-diving (don’t stop breathing under any circumstances).

I’d had some wonderful diving in Asia, but nothing compared to the Great Barrier Reef. Within 30 seconds of entering the ocean, a shadow passed over my left shoulder, as three huge manta rays slowly flapped their way past. During ten dives in the next three days, I saw a diversity of marine life that provided an alternative way of quieting the mind. Bumphead parrotfish, cuttlefish, octopuses, sharks, incrredible corals and 30 metre visibility – the whole shebang. I loved it.

I’m now shuffling down the East coast through Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for the next flight to Christchurch and New Zealand.

Toodle pip!

P.S. A video of some of my diving experiences will follow.

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A triple whammy! And a final journey

A tale of triple jeopardy

It’s 3.45am, and I’m standing outside a 7-11 store in Kota Bharu, Northern Malaysia. I’m about to embark on the final train of a looping 11-month overland journey from Mumbai to Singapore. There’s one problem. No taxi driver.

Fresh from a 10-day meditation, I try to put what I’d learnt to use. “Calm and balanced mind, Andy, stay equanimous…” But inside I‘m a knot of anxiety. My 32,000km journey from Mumbai has been spookily trouble-free. Surely I am not going to be tripped up at the final hurdle?

3.55am. A dilapidated taxi rounds the corner on two wheels and screeches to a halt in front of me, five minutes after my panicked call to the driver’s mobile. An impossibly scrawny Malay man, procured the night before to get me to the station, takes my bag and slings it in the boot with half-open bloodshot eyes. We set off at high speed.

“How long?” I ask. “Twenty” he replies, with a gold-toothed grin, momentarily removing both hands from the steering wheel to signal twenty and nearly giving me a heart attack in the process. This is going to be tight – the train leaves at 4.18. I breathe deeply and try to remember that there’s nothing I can do to change the situation.

“Sorry… three people…” he grins again. I look over. He is making that unmistakeable hip-and-fist-pumping action that indicates carnal activity. I raise an eyebrow. “Three people?”

“Three people… very good…” There is no mistaking that grin. I ponder the unsolicited addition of this information, wondering what the correct response is. He is suddenly apologetic. “Sorry… English…” he adds. Given the potential for sordid details, I am rather relieved at his lack of communication skills.

4.11am As the station looms out of the darkness, I realise I’m going to make the train. The driver makes one final conversational gambit.

“Where from… US? Bush NO! Obama OK…” I tell him I‘m from the UK.

“Ah… good language , good people, good economy…” he replies with a tinge of envy, as if to remind me that the UK’s not that bad after all.

We draw up to the station. I hurriedly get my bags out of the boot. Suddenly I am enveloped in a warm hug. Clearly Mr Taxi feels we’ve connected. I disengage carefully, trying not to betray that I can’t get the thought of “three people” out of my head.

I buy a ticket and board the crowded 4.18 from Kota Bharu to Gua Musang, the first stage of my final journey to Singapore.

Newcastle to London – via Wick

Actually getting to KotaBharu in the first place had been something of a challenge.

As an analogy (and with apologies the international reader(s) unfamiliar with British geography), most of you will agree that going from Newcastle to London via Wick is both mentally and geographically loopy in the extreme. But 11 months ago I left Mumbai by train, and I was determined to arrive in Singapore by train.

The problem: Kuantan (Newcastle) had no train station let alone trains to Singapore (London). So getting to the start-line for this final train journey involved an 8- hour bus ride from Kuantan (Newcastle) north to Kota Bharu (Wick) in order to take a 17-hour train ride to Singapore (London). Nice. (I suspect it’s the kind of thing that only appeals when you travel without deadlines).

Once I’d figured out that the three different trains that I had been told I had to catch were in fact one train (you just had to get off and buy another ticket for each section, rather bizarrely), I settled back to enjoy my final 17 hours of railtrack on this overland journey through Asia

And boy was it worth it. The first stage of the line from Kota Bharu on the Thai/Malay border to Singapore (off the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia) is aptly named the “Jungle Line”, cutting a swathe through the virgin jungle and plantations that cover the interior of the Northern part of this country. 

I was reminded of everything that I love about train travel in Asia – the relentless movement towards a destination, however slowly; the wonderful rural stations, the changing faces as passengers board and alight. And the stations themselves – always deeply pragmatic buildings, the guards proud in sparkling uniforms, the tired plastic waiting seats firmly affixed to the walls, the signs in varying fonts for sub-master this and assistant-platform-manager that. They are a place of practical expectation – a place to wait – comfortably and without concern – for the future to arrive.

My reverie was broken as we arrived at the Singapore border, the quasi-military efficiency of customs and immigration a reminder that this is a city that feeds off a mix of pride and paranoia, and one that keeps a foot in both the East and the West.

315 days and 32,000 kilometres of overland travel were finally over.

Singapore – sterile? Self-consciously superficial? Or just Singapore?

Two days is hardly enough to start to understand a city, but there is something wonderfully honest and self-consciously  superficial about Singapore, so I think it‘s OK to try. There is no pretence here – they’re just trying to build a city that works, financially and commercially, and one that provides the cleanest and highest standards of living 

In that sense, the accusation that it’s “sterile” is both true and false. It’s true that there’s little room for anything the government and the residents don’t consider “hygienic”, but the people that live there do so happily, and in peace, which is hard to argue with.

I explored the city on foot, walking through the Arab area, the bits of the colonial era that still stand, and along the river which for so long was the beating heart of trade in the area. The roads (at least those that weren’t blocked off for the Grand Prix last weekend) are so clean that it was almost disquieting to see a rhododendron blossom ( they are in season) on the immaculate pavement.

Personally, I’d take the messy chaos of India every day, but each to their own.

I am now in Indonesia, enjoying more free-diving and scuba on pristine islands (the Gili islands, off Lombok).

Next stop – by air – Australia.

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Meditation’s what you need

The first time I heard of Vipassana meditation was in India in December last year. Justin, a seasoned traveller heading for Auroville on a Royal Enfield motorbike, told me about the increasingly popular 10-day courses in hushed tones, as if he was relating a ghost story.

“It’s really serious, man… ten days without a word – can you imagine that?” There was a short pause as it sank in. Ten days sounded a very long time indeed. I’d never even meditated. But there was something intriguing in the idea of being silent for ten days.

A month later in the Yoga Ashram some of the myths about Vipassana’s effects were dispelled by three girls who had completed it. “Oh yeah, it’s tough” said one. “You go a bit crazy after 5 or 6 days, but then it’s pretty cool…” Going crazy? This was starting to get interesting.

And when I read some of India’s top CEOs find the time to do 10 days of Vipassana every year without fail, I felt like I had no excuses. If they had the time, I definitely had the time. I found a centre in Malaysia that was running a course that fitted with my plans and signed up, with (I have to admit) a secret smile at the irony of doing a Buddhist meditation course in a Muslim state.

A journey from the inside out into a mad, mad world

4.30am on Day One. The meditation hall was so dimly lit that it felt like the light was battling the darkness. I crossed my legs for the first time with some trepidation, recalling my mental wrestling and physical wriggling during mere 20 minute sessions at the Yoga Ashram. My practice since then hadn’t exactly been what you would call ‘diligent”. Now I was embarking on 100 hours of a famously challenging technique, over 10 days. Ten days of navel-gazing… had I gone mad already?

“Vipassana” is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha 2500 years ago. It is a particularly pure form of meditation, and far from introspective. It is still concerned with stopping the mind completely, but in Vipassana, the purpose isn’t communication with a God – it’s to turn outwards, understand how impermanent everything is in reality, and therefore to engage with the external world in a positive and compassionate way. In the process, you rid of some of the bad stuff that we all carry around, and get to meet your Self.

The latest in a line of teachers, purportedly stretching back to Buddha himself, is S N Goenka. Goenka has been so effective in spreading the technique’s popularity through 10-day courses (there are centres all over Asia and the world) that he can no longer teach them all himself. Instead, instructions and chanting on every course (at the start and end of each 1-2 hour sitting) come in the form of his disembodied flowing Indian voice wafting through the meditation hall.

In the evenings, this voice was given a face for 90 minutes, as we sat listening to a “discourse” from Goenka, who had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what had been going through our heads during the preceding day. Warm and mellifluous, his voice begged mimicry, but that had to wait – for nine days, you must observe “Noble Silence”, complete absence of verbal, physical or visual (no eye contact) communication with other students so that the mind gets a decent shot of achieving silence.

The first few days were an extraordinary exercise in becoming aware of just how many irrelevant (and random, so random) thoughts go through your head each day as we became aware of what it means to meditate properly. Thoughts of the near and past future jostled for space with memories that I‘d forgotten even existed..

It all felt suspiciously easy. During those first two days we were given considerable leeway on movement during each 1-2 hour session. and Goenka’s slow sonorous delivery at the start of every session helped to sear his instructions deep into my cortices and develop a habit. “Be very aware, very attentive, very vigilant. Work patently and persistently, patiently and persistently. Work diligently… diligently…” Even the body adapted well, shifting to two meals a day ( 6.30am and 11am, with only fruit at 5pm to keep the wolf from the door in the evening). Time slowed, as the extraordinarily regular rhythm of life that mediation brings was established.

Crank down the volume

But on day three, Goenka shifted things to the next level. Unbeknown to us, the first three days had been mere warm-up – we hadn’t actually started learning Vipassana yet, he informed us. While this was ever so slightly disheartening, when the real essence of the technique was explained, it at least had the benefit of keeping things interesting by setting a new challenge. And for Vipassana from Day Four, things would be stricter. In a display of “Aditthana”(strong determination), we would now have to remain motionless for three of the ten hours each day. Ouch.

It is impossible to explain Vipassana and what happens to your mind. The next five days were a deeply personal journey that it would be impossible to describe without sounding a bit ridiculous; which is, of course, precisely why Goenka insists that experience over 10 days is the only way to learn.

Suffice to say that I did feel more than slightly crazy on Day Six (those thoughts just don‘t want to stop), I leaked gallons of water both from the eyes and the nether regions in one of the strangest “clearouts” of my life on Day Seven, and I had some incredible insights into many aspects of my life on Days Eight and Nine.

As Noble silence was broken on Day Ten and at last we could discuss and compare notes, it quickly became clear that experiences of the technique differ. But there was not one person who felt they had failed to gain from the ten days.

Vipassana is a truly extraordinary and rewarding experience which is bringing greater peace of mind to increasing numbers of people. In fact, I’d probably vote for a party that suggested it as a new form of National Service in the UK. Non-sectarian, easy to comprehend and with tangible benefits, it is now even being used to great effect in many prisons in India and even in America.

I left the centre with a happy heart and a clear mind. I felt ready for the final step in my overland journey from India – one last long-distance railway journey, down through Malaysia to Singapore.

[to be continued…]

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The life aquatic

It’s not easy being a turtle egg.
Mum’s journey up the beach to lay you has its own dangers, but that’s only the start of it. You and 100 or so potential brothers and sisters then lie buried a metre down in the sand, hoping to survive without being discovered by inquisitive predators. Presuming you manage to get out of your shell and up to the surface, you still have to cover 100 yards back to the sea, avoiding the spider crabs and their holes in a Lara Croft-style obstacle course. Then you’re in the sea and at the mercy of the waves and various seaborne hazards.

By the time you reach the age of majority, it’s easy to understand why you might pat yourself on the shell – you’ve survived against odds of roughly 1000 to 1 to get this far.

The conservationists got involved in Turtle-world when it became clear that human intervention – often to steal the valuable shells and the reputedly aphrodisiac eggs – was starting to challenge even these odds. Then, back in the 50s and 60s, something rather unfortunate happened. The conservationists didn’t know that the temperature of the sand in which the egg is buried has a bearing on the sex of the hatched animal. The devastating impact, particularly on the Leatherback turtle population, was only felt 40 years later (a couple of decades ago) when thousands of female turtles were left stranded without mates.
It’s *really* not easy being a turtle egg.
Nevertheless, turtles are a focus area for conservationists like WWF now, particularly in Malaysia. I had happened across the Ma’Daerah Green Turtle protection programme on the internet, and arranged to spend two weeks helping them out on the beach they patrol in Northern Malaysia.
I was welcomed a couple of weeks ago by Sharifah the biologist, two rangers and a hatchery worker. The basic nocturnal work took a little getting used to. Two night patrols – one at 9pm, one at 2am. with one of the rangers, I would walk the 2km of remote paradise beach by moonlight, lie down on the sand for a couple of hours, stare at the stars with the ranger’s radio gently wafting over the sand, often drifting off to sleep before waking and stumbling to the sanctuary. By the final day, I loved the patrols, particularly those with the middle-aged ranger Pak Mat. Not only did he seem to enjoy babbling to me in Malay (seemingly oblivious to my complete incomprehension), but he also had a caring wife – I must have tasted every kind of weird tropical fruit carefully bagged for beach consumption.

For me, there was high excitement in finding turtle-tracks on the beach, following them up to a nest, and hearing the sound of strong flippers scraping sand over eggs. The job of collecting hatched turtles from the hatchery and releasing them in their 100s into the sea was even more rewarding. Pak Mat just laughed gently at my child-like enthusiasm – for him, it was just another day of his ten years here, supporting his seven children.

With the end of the season approaching (now-ish), we had another job to complete. WWF had acquired four expensive satellite transmitters to fix onto the backs of mothers after they had laid their eggs. This was no easy task – weighing in at 100kg and about a metre long, these turtles were (understandably) not that keen on being boxed for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while a hot epoxy resin was applied to their shell. But this is a necessary part of the conservation effort – even now, very little is known about the lifetime movements of turtles out at sea.

In my last few days at the sanctuary, Sharifah the biologist started a final small project. Around a headland north of the beach, the lights of a huge Petronas oil refinery cast an eerie red light into the sky. Hatchlings are attracted by light, and Sharifah and her boss had a hunch that the “Petronas effect” was pulling hatchlings North like a magnet once they reached the sea. To test the theory, small lightsticks on polystyrene floats were attached with sellotape and fishing line to the back of 4 hatchlings, which were followed for a couple of hours with kayaks. Results – as yet – inconclusive; though I know where I’d lay my bets.

I left the sanctuary 4 days ago and moved on out to the beautiful Perhentian Islands, renowned for their fantastic diving. Given the increasingly aquatic theme of this section of my travels, it seemed churlish not to learn to scuba-dive, so I’m now a PADI Open Water scuba-diver. Another day, another aquatic qualification.

I’m heading into silent Vipassana Meditation now for 10 days, before heading to Singapore and then Bali, where I plan to surf and do some more free-diving.


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Swim like a mammal, waddle like a reptile

{29.08.2009 – Picture now added]

It was the fifth day of my free-diving course, and my final dive. I knew I was about 20 metres down, unthinkable only a few days earlier. I tried manfully not to panic. As I tried to push a metre or two deeper, the upside-down goggled face of my effortlessly cool instructor Eusebio eased into view…

He looked at me with penetratingly confidence-boosting eyes and a broad grin, and made the thumbs-up (or down, depending on your point of view) sign. “Further… I know you can go further…” he wordlessly communicated to me. But I’d had enough – I glided as slowly as I could up the rope to the surface sand emerged gasping for breath.

“How-did-I-do?” I blurted out breathlessly.

“22 metres, my freeend. Excellent dive…” Eusebio told me in his wonderful Spanish accent.

“I could have gone further… I could have gone further…”

Tales of Oxygen and the Brain

It’s a well known fact that free-divers nearly always think they could have gone further after they’ve set a new Personal Best. It is one of many slightly weird things about this emerging sport.

Some brief explanation for the uninitiated – free-diving has a number of different variations, but in essence they all come down to one thing – diving as deep under water as you can on a single breath of air. There’s something very attractive about the simplicity of it all. But like other extreme sports, the sport comes into its own when you comprehend that limits are as much mental (and in some ways imaginary) as physical. For that reason, instructors have to tread a fine line between inspiring courage in their students and scaring them witless. You can indeed go further than you think you can. In fact, much further.

There is certainly danger – in the 1950s when Jacques Mayol (made famous by the film “The Big Blue”) started diving, the theory was that the body would collapse below 30 metres. Mayol smashed that theory, and nowadays the top divers frequently get down below 100 metres. Medical research has uncovered that something called the Mammalian Dive Reflex exists in humans, and free-divers themselves are discovering new ways of breathing and relaxing to help them go longer and deeper underwater.

But on Day One of the training at the small Apnea Total school, all this was yet to be discovered. So when John, our Basque instructor, told us that we had to think of blackouts as our friends, I was a little freaked out to say the least.

John explained the principle further. “Ees a natural reaction by your body – the system shut down for a while when things get a leetle bit difficult, heh?” He sensed a little edginess in the five of us sitting in the beach-side classroom. “Ees OK, I never know someone blackout on beginners course…” Well, it’s one way of looking at it, I told myself in a wobbly internal voice.

Two hours later I found myself clasping a buoy off the back of a boat, with a weighted rope hanging 20 metres down into the Gulf of Thailand. I’ve never really felt comfortable in the sea, and as my instructor Rodrigo looked at me with his deep eyes, it occurred to me that this was therefore perhaps one of the stupider things I’ve decided to do.

The waves lapped over me; Rodrigo purred in my ear. “You are beerry relaxed Andy, beerry relaxed. You look beeeerry relaxed. Ees beerry beautiful, excellent breathing, Andy…” I felt anything but relaxed – but there’s a game of positive thinking to be played here, and the instructors were experts at playing it. At times it was almost hypnotic.

A final deep breath, and I was under, pulling myself down on the weighted rope into the beautifully clear water. On the first couple of days, I don’t mind admitting that unexpurgated panic set in at an early stage; I struggled to get down below 5 metres, while my compadres on the course reached depths approaching the bottom of the rope. It was all deeply depressing.

So by the second afternoon I was frustrated beyond belief. Rodrigo fixed me with his penetrating stare. “What’s een your mind, Andy? This game is all in your mind…”

And something clicked. It really was in my mind. Suddenly I was at 14 metres and feeling, well, at least OK. And more than that, I was conquering my mental demons – and developing my breathing. It all felt so connected – to the yoga, the tai chi, the kung fu – and so far away from my days struggling to breathe at my desk in London.

I knew that I had to move on to the three-day Advanced course.

Advanced Apnea for dummies

Apnea, meaning suspension of external breathing, is at the heart of free-diving – the diving is really just the culmination of what’s called the “breathe-up” which can easily take five to ten times as long at the dive itself. So the advanced teaching focuses far more on breathing.

Without getting too technical, you have to learn to live with diaphragmatic contractions in order to stay at depth. Initially frightening, the best free-divers see these as “internal breathing” – and to be welcomed.

Despite the rather frightening sight of one of the course attendees blacking out during a training breathe-up (low blood pressure), things progressed remarkably quickly. By the end of the first day I was holding my breath face down in the water (called “static Apnea”) for what felt like an age – 2 minutes 50 seconds. (By the way, usual warning – don’t try this at home, kids – needs supervision…)

Over the next two days we practised new forms of “breathe-ups”, learnt to kick the Mammalian dive Reflex quickly into action, studied all kinds of exercises to increase lung capacity, and tried new ways to equalise at depth.

But above all, we kept on diving. We did NPSA dives, Exhale dives, free immersion dives, you name it. As with any sport, it’s the only way to progress. And that final dive, to 22 metres, made it all worthwhile – mostly thanks to stunning instruction from Rodrigo, John and Eusebio.

From here, the only way is up. Or down. Depending on how you look at it. Highly, highly recommended.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

A thirty hour train journey through the troubled wilds of Southern Thailand, and I reached my current location – the little-known Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary on the East coast of peninsular Malaysia.

I’m the only volunteer here, which is a treat. I released my first hatchling on the beach last night. It’s a great experience to watch this tiny reptile – no longer than the size of my pinkie – make its way down to the sea for the first time. In 30 years, it will grow to be a metre or more long. And if it’s a male (you can’t tell until they’re older), it won’t ever come back to land. Tonight I hope to watch a female actually lay its eggs.

I’ll be a nocturnal beast for the next fortnight – the work is all in the hours of darkness. Which is rather apt, given that it is Ramadan, and finding food during the day is a little tricky.


[Unfortunately pictures aren’t working on blogger today. They will follow].

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