It certainly wasn’t an auspicious start. I arrived at the project and everyone stared at me as if I was a 3 headed dwarf. They hadn’t been expecting me. How odd considering all the emails, texts and phone calls I had sent to Predo, one of the project leaders.
This immediately played on my insecurities. I’d already spent 2 days prevaricating about going to the project. Not an unusual activity for me. For the last 4 years even with 20 workaways under my belt each new meeting makes me want to run for the hills. The ‘’fight or flight” syndrome I guess. I should be used to it by now; the unfamiliar, new people, a new ‘home’, a new regime but alas not. It’s the fear of the unknown and each time I have to ignore that insistent voice in my head telling me not to bother and force myself forward.
Where am I?
I’m at Bakau Hijau (Green Mangroves) a project situated on the river Merbok about 17km from Sungai Petani in Northern Malaysia. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate to the local community how a tourism business can be run in a manner which is environmentally friendly and sustainable.
There are several aspects to the Project:
the oyster farm
replanting of the mangrove forests, which are subject to deforestation because the trees are used for firewood, construction, and charcoal production. Mangrove forests are one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems with 35% already gone.
Tourism: there are River cruises, and accommodation available in the house boat
finally there’s education.
How do I come to be here?
I don’t know if you remember Fran? He was the motorcycling Spanish guy I met on a workaway in India around this time last year. He had some ‘must-see’ recommendations as well as 2 ‘unmissable’ workaway projects, the Mindfulness Project in Khon Kaen and this one. Actually technically not here but on Palau Bidan island, the sister project, where the project community work off grid, are self-sufficient and protect and nurture the Island’s nature and ecosystems. Due to time constraints I won’t be seeing Palau Bidan this time but it’s on my bucket list as I may well cycle through Malaysia in 2020.
How to volunteer.
I’ve been using workaway.info for the last 4 years but there are similar sites such as HelpX.net and WWOOF.net. All charge a membership fee but have thousands of hosts all over the world. Most expect 5 hours of work a day for 5 days and then allow 2 days off. The pay-off is free food and accommodation. In less developed countries a contribution may be required but usually it’s no more than $5 a day. I’m paying here as I did in Nepal and at the Mindfulness Project in Thailand. Here the contribution is 20 Ringgit per day (£3.70). Of course there are charitable and animal/environmental conservation projects also available in most countries but often they charge a considerable fee. Jane, the Canadian nurse from my last Solarblue sailing post, did plan to assist a charity in Nepal but she was expected to pay $800 for 2 weeks of work.
A working day
Usually a working day and what’s required is clearly outlined by the host. I love this. Structure! It’s not that I have OCD (do I?) but after 22 years in the Army I’m used to structure. What am I supposed to achieve, how best can it be achieved and how long have I got to achieve it. Some hosts are very particular about exactly how the job should be done (just anal retentive really) but also this is their turf and they’ve done the job a thousand times, so they are the SME (Subject Matter Expert) and you’re a fool if you ignore this advice because in all probability the job will be a 100 times harder and you’ll alienate your host.
Unfortunately Bakau Hijau was nothing like this. There was a list of jobs written on the blackboard. Sweeping and cleaning, washing up and watering the plants but it only amounted to about 30 minutes of work. Initially Julia and Myer, 2 experienced volunteers, were there to guide the way. Unfortunately they left for a festival after 1 day and I was left with 2 Malay interns, Balie and Fikri, Maksu and her family and various other Malay visitors / contractors. I was joined by a new German volunteer, Lily, and her 2 kids on my second day but she didn’t seem keen to do any work. So she didn’t. Perhaps it’s the Malay way or perhaps they are used to the Lily’s of the world but initially they would never ask me to do a job. Instead I had to catch them working and offer to help, or guess what might be required. As the week progressed they grew less reticent and asked if I wanted to help but even then there were significant barriers to overcome. It might be too hot to work, too early in the day, too late in the day, lunchtime, breakfast time or any other reasons why work couldn’t progress. Once work did start it was anything but plain sailing. Tools, equipment and know-how were in such short supply that tasks couldn’t be finished or took an inordinate amount of time to complete. Balie and Fikri were my compadres, my partners in crime. Two young Malay interns here for 5 months. Oddly they’re both Marketing students and I was at a loss to see the connection between marketing and their work at the project.
There were occasions when watching them work was hilarious but more often it was just frustrating. They were told what to do but not given any guidance on how to do it and without tools it was impossible to finish some tasks whilst others were just one huge bodge job. I thought my DIY skills were limited but compared to these young lads I looked pretty knowledgeable but without tools we still struggled with most jobs. We had no drill, no screws, only a few nails, a watering hose that don’t reach the mangrove nursery and a watering can with a hole in the bottom.
The oysters need to be cleaned periodically with a scraper to remove the barnacles. These oysters are in the baskets for over a year before they’re large enough to eat so scraping them
allows continued healthy grow but also ensures that the barnacle growth isn’t so extensive that it’s impossible to shuck the oyster. It’s also an opportunity to put them back in clean baskets. If the oysters are being sold they are scraped and scrubbed clean before they’re shucked. Customers are charged 5 Ringgit per oyster, about £1.00. The project has a lab where baby oysters are made. One morning Matzu tipped out 12 baskets, about 120 oysters and then Balie, Julia and I sat there for about 4 hours scraping them clean of barnacles before returning them to the river in clean baskets. We had several visitors come up the river by boat and stopped by to taste our oysters.
I was very excited by the idea of replanting mangrove forests but sadly during my short stay there wasn’t the opportunity. Instead I became a very dedicated collector of mangrove seeds. Unfortunately no-one gave me specific guidance on how to maximise seed collection. These seeds fall from the mangrove trees and so it’s just a case of picking them up. But at high tide there’s water everywhere and at low tide it’s all horrible sucking, stinky mud. I tried walking along the river bank at high tide, low tide and various levels in-between and kayaking at high and low tide.
Over my brief stay I did collect and pot over 200 seeds but these seeds need to be potted and nurtured until they have have rooted and produced new green shoots. Unfortunately the mangrove nursery had been neglected and was probably suffering from insufficient watering so we threw away about 200 seeds which had died. Very depressing.
A flight back to Phuket and Diana kindly offers to pick me up and then it’s back to the doggie hotel. Fortunately I remember all the dogs except the Christmas borders. It’s a full house with Bolle, Max, Minie, Flecky, Chiva, Katie and Perry, Paris and Archie.
It’s great to be back and there’s plenty to do with so many dogs staying.
Thursday 27th December
Diana’s workaway, Thalang
Well it has been a busy time. Besides the usual dog chores of grooming, washing, feeding and picking up dog poo, there’s also been painting, Facebook postings, vaccinations to check and various other random jobs Diana wants completed.
We’ve also been out for some lovely meals.
On Christmas Eve we went out with Gustee and Mai to a German restaurant and Christmas Day we went out with Gift and Kit (Diana’s Thai employees) to my favourite restaurant for a fabulous meal.
￼And the dogs have had some great treats too. Yummy Christmas dinner with duck mince and raw chicken feet – that’s for the dogs not me!
There’s also been time for shit TV, Professional Masterchef, The Apprentice, Homeland and some movies. Sadly I’ve failed to follow my intended regime of yoga and meditation but I guess there’s always tomorrow?
Tuesday 1st January
Diana’s workaway, Thalang
Another year done. And so much already pencilled in for 2019 – surfing, sailing, UK visit, China, Mongolia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Wow it tires me out just looking at the list and I’m its creator – perhaps I need something less ambitious. Last night Diana and I went to Layan Beach where we met Gustee and Mai. We’d stopped to buy dinner en route so we had a beach picnic. My first ever beach picnic and particularly special because it was on New Year’s Eve. It was obviously a popular pastime because there were hundreds of others there, mostly Thais, doing the same thing. And there were fireworks and Chinese lanterns to enhance the atmosphere. A great way to see in the New Year, 2019 here I come!
Over the last few days I’ve continued to be busy, looking after all the dogs and posting promotional material on Facebook for Diana. Word seems to be spreading because Diana’s had about 5 new potential doggie customers that she had to decline because of insufficient space.
And Little and Large – well Max and Minie.
My new sleeping companion. Poopy! Better company than the last one and lets me have the remote .
Sadly over the next few days we’re losing a number of dogs; Archie, Katie and Perry, Max and Minie and Sugar and Pela. Gosh it’s going to be so quiet with so many leaving.
Despite being busy with all the dogs I did find time to publish my Mindfulness Project blog and edit some videos. I was absolutely blown away by the response. I didn’t realise how many people actually read my inane ramblings but to receive such overwhelmingly positive and supportive comments was truly touching. Thank you everyone. And whilst my planned yoga sessions and surfing exercises remain unfulfilled I have started meditating first thing in the morning and I’m currently using guided sessions with Joe Dispenza, which are pretty cool.
Tuesday 8th January
Diana’s workaway, Thalang
Today is my last day at Diana’s and tonight I fly to Penang and then tomorrow to Bali. Many dogs have returned home over the last week but one of my favourites, Paris, is still here and I always make sure I set aside time to give her loads of cuddles.
We’ve also been joined by a travel dog, Jamie, who initially was terrified of everybody and everything but over only a few days has transformed into a waggy tailed mass of playfulness and affection. Ahhh so sweet. She’s come from the Government pound so she isn’t used to the space, the big rooms or all the attention. At the pound other dogs bullied and attacked her but here they all get along well and if any dog misbehaves or is too aggressive Diana soon lets them know that such behaviour is unacceptable. Watching Diana work with these packs and integrating new dogs has been very interesting. It’s taught me a lot on how to deal with bad behaviour in a dog and how to illicit the behaviour I want. We’ve also had a few unpleasant experiences in the last week. One of our short stay borders was poorly during his visit and subsequently died. One of our travel dogs, Lisa, seems to have lost the interest of her owner who is now back in Germany so God knows how that will end and whether Lisa will fly to Germany as originally planned or end up in the local Government pound. We also had a beautiful young husky pup stay with us briefly but she appeared to have no strength in her rear end and legs and if she ran and jumped her rear end / legs would flop as they gave way. It was painful to watch and we thought it was painfully obvious all was not well and yet her owners had never noticed anything wrong. Most peculiar.
In addition to dog care I’ve had an epic run on shit TV, primarily BBC Iplayer. I have a SIM with unlimited data and a VPN so I’ve enjoyed a Luther rerun. Bloody fantastic. And then the occasional episode of First Dates. The bad news was my shit TV preoccupation meant I skipped a few dinner outings with Diana but my farewell meal at my most favourite restaurant was fantastic and just thinking about the spicy mango salad and soft shelled crabs we ate still makes my mouth water like crazy.
What a feast!
I will miss all the great food I’ve had in Phuket and having my own personal restaurant guide and translator. Thank you Diana!
Wednesday 9th January
Last night I flew to Penang and slept in a coffin. Actually they’re called capsules. I’d always steered clear of these concerned that I’d feel too claustrophobic to sleep but actually it was ace.
My own TV, reading lights, aircon and total privacy once I locked myself in. Today I head back to Penang Airport for my flight to Denpasar, Bali via Kuala Lumpur. In Bali I’m staying at Kimasurf, Seminyak and I’m going to learn to surf. They even provide free airport transfers so once I’ve landed I just need some local currency and then it’s simply a case of finding my lift. A period of low grade panic ensues as I walk up and down looking for someone holding the piece of paper with my name on it. My eyesight is such that it’s some time before I’m convinced that there definitely isn’t a sign and I’m happy to venture further from the arrivals Hall. I feel a huge wave of relief when I finally spot my name. There’s only me and the driver and it’s gone 11pm when I’m finally shown to my 8 man dorm. Time to sleep before the surfing adventure begins.
Friday 18th January
For the last 9 days I’ve been learning to surf.
For the first 3 days I was enrolled in surf school. Surf school includes 3 lessons on the waves and one in the pool. There were 3 other girls in surf school when I started but because they were on day 2 and I was on day 1 I had my own personal surf coach. Initially I did really well and with 2 days of 1 on 1 tuition I was feeling really chuffed with my success. Unfortunately it seems my technique wasn’t actually that good and from day 3 onwards I really start to struggle. Basically I can’t bring my front foot far enough forward and it gets stuck in various places (always the wrong place, facing the wrong way) and I constantly struggle to adjust it and invariably fall off the board. As a result I decide this sport is stupidly tough and exhausting. After several days my problem is finally disagnosed by my surf coaches and now I simply need to learn a new ‘popping’ up technique but by this stage I’m so confused and so tired that joining each lesson is a huge motivational hurdle. I’ve also been joining the daily yoga sessions with Hanu, a Finnish guy. I’ve done an Astanga session and several Hatha sessions and already I can see a significant improvement from my start point at the beginning of December. Unfortunately my new love affair with yoga is almost completely decimated after a Yin session. In theory it sounds like a slow paced, relaxing session where poses are held considerably longer than in the other disciplines to target the fascia and connective tissue. The aim in yoga is to relax into each position so in each new pose we adopt I try to breathe deeply and relax and deepen the stretch. So far so good. It’s only when I need to move into the next pose that I discover I’m almost totally locked into this one and that unlocking myself is incredibly painful. Ninety minutes later and it’s over; the relief is immense but so is the pain. So much for a relaxing session. By the following morning my body feels as if I’ve been hit by a truck. I head to the beach with my board but soon realise my body is too exhausted to do this class justice and I decide to head back for breakfast. Later I tell my instructors the problem and they suggest a massage. Off I go to seek some relief. But of course I’m a mass of sore and aching muscles and my 60 minute body massage is more pain than pleasure. I can’t believe this is a holiday pursuit, it feels more like a punishment camp!! Everything I do leads to pain and more pain. But there’s been a brief reprieve some some sightseeing.
Today is my last day here. Tomorrow I’m leaving Bali and heading back to Krabi in Thailand for a 3 week sailing experience. I’m really looking forward to it because I’m hoping it’ll be a doddle after this camp. But of course my last sailing adventure was a total disaster so perhaps I’m being over optimistic !
Sunday 20th January
I left Kimasurf yesterday at 9am but it has taken almost 36hours to reach Krabi. Actually the 2 flights I needed from Denpasar to Kuala Lumpur and from KL to Penang were short but the connection times were dreadful – I don’t know what I was thinking when I chose these flights. I spent 10 hours at Kuala Lumpur airport and then 5 hours in Penang before heading off for my 5.45am bus to Yat Hai. This journey includes the border crossing into Thailand where passing through Immigration takes several hours. From Yat Hai I have a few hours to wait until my Krabi bus and I’m told I’m at the wrong bus terminal. I get a lift to the other bus terminal and again the ticket staff phone my bus company but they want to send me back to the first bus terminal. Arggghhh. Finally they tell me to walk down the road and wait outside the 7/11 and I’ll be picked up at 1pm. I have my doubts so I’m totally relieved when I do get picked up.
Finally I arrive in Krabi. It’s been 36 hours with only a few hours sleep so I’m happy to be staying in a lovely hostel in town tonight.
A hot shower, a fabulously comfortable bed and air conditioning.
Wednesday 23rd January
After a relaxing night at the hostel I’m in no rush to go anywhere. I’ve spoken to my new skipper and he’s going to be busy today restocking the boat so there’s no rush. Eventually I make my way to Krabi Marina, find the boat, Solarblue, and my 2 crewmates. They’re Ben (French) and Ann (French Canadian) from Montreal and they’ve already been on the boat for a week. We chat for the next few hours over a beer. These guys are travelling for 6 months but their first stop was travelling by 4×4 pickup with rooftop tent in Botswana and Namibia. Their stories and experiences sound so great that this is definitely going on my bucket list.
Late afternoon I meet John (Australian) and Tassy (Thai), the skipper and his wife.
They’ve been busy shopping for food and fuel and they’re pretty pooped so for a relaxing evening they take us to the nearby night market for dinner. My first night aboard is uneventful but by 10am we’re catching the tide out of Krabi Marina and we actually sail to our first island, Koh Poda (so already this trip is outperforming the trimaran) . The winds are light but we set both the jib and main sail. Tassy and Ann cook Pad Thai for lunch and once we’ve dropped anchor there’s time for snorkeling. For dinner I help Tassy prepare a green curry which is so simple to make yet so delicious. Only one day done and it’s already so different from my last ‘sailing’ trip. This morning we were up and sailing by 6.30am because we have quite a long leg to Koh Lanta and the wind and tide aren’t going to be in our favour.
For the majority of this leg we set both main and jib and only need motoring back up at the end. We drop anchor in the bay and then Ann and Ben paddle us ashore in the kayak and we have a few beers on the beach. My crew mates are fabulous company. Ann is hilarious because she pulls such animated faces when she’s telling a story and Ben sounds exactly like Fred from First Dates, the head of house, super sexy Frenchman.
Thursday 24th January
Last night’s mooring left us quite exposed and so there was a lot of boat movement and noise and we’re up by 5.30am to hit our dive site in Koh Ha on time. Unfortunately we’ve managed to jam the main sail so no sailing for us this morning instead we have to motor. Koh Ha is a collection of 5 islands or 5 big rocks. This is supposed to be a great dive site but whilst Ben and Ann wait for their dive boat I’m content to snorkel. It’s a little rough but the waters are incredibly clear and there’s so much to see: Angel fish, Clown Fish, Parrot and Puffer fish just to name a few!
Later we head to Maya Bay, location of The Beach (remember the film with Leonardo Decaprio?), and moor up for the night. Unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to set foot upon The Beach. We have another snorkeling session and then watch the sunset. When we arrived this place was jammed with tourist boats but by 8pm we’ve got the place to ourselves. It’s a lovely peaceful night.
Friday 25th January
This morning it’s a nice relaxed start but eventually we move off before the Park Rangers grab us and make us buy a ticket. We head to Koh Bida Nok where we have the most fantastic snorkeling: Moray eels, Black tip reef sharks, Angel fish and so many others. The visibility is incredible. Later we sail along Koh Phraya Nak and John anchors so we can go and explore a popular bay and see Viking’s Cave.
John has spotted another popular dive site along this island so we head off for our last snorkeling session of the day.
Saturday 26th January
Today we head to Koh Poda. Unfortunately John hasn’t been able to unjam the main sail so we’re only able to set the jib and use the motor for additional speed. We snorkel and paddle round the island in search of beer. Unfortunately this island is now a park and drinking is banned but we find a party boat and they sell us a few cans on the proviso we hide it and take it back to our boat.
In addition to finding beer we also see the double billed Toucan which apparently is very rare.
Sunday 27th January
Today we head back to Krabi Marina. We have a change of crew. Ben and Ann are leaving and we’re getting two new crew members, Jane the Canadian and Oleg from the Ukraine.
I’m really going to miss Ben and Ann. We got on so well and had a great time learning to sail and exploring Thai Islands together. They’re heading off to Nepal next and I’m sure they’ll have a great time.
Monday 28th to Saturday 9th February
So what an experience this turned out to be. Oleg’s a free diver and enjoys diving down to 20metres just so he can stalk a scuba dive group and scare the bejesus out of them.
He had hundreds of extraordinary travel tales often involving police, alcohol or drugs and usually all 3. When he’s not with his wife and kids, he travels with his special Ukrainian gang of male buddies. Possibly they’re all suffering from some sort of mid life crisis hence all the trouble they get in. Plus their holiday destinations seem to be chosen by searching where not to go and what not to do and then doing that. For example: hiring a self drive car and driving hundreds of miles in Nicaragua along a mountain road without a guide (and speaking no Spanish) and then drinking copious quantities of vodka and wondering why the check posts were such an issue.
Then there’s Nurse Jane from Canada who appears to suffer from tourettes and likes a drink or 20 . She’s also the least nurse like person I’ve ever met. Any injury and she suggests it’s bathed in salt water whilst having a beer. So perhaps you’re getting the picture: a crazy mix!
Together we explored the sea caves and Hongs (hollow lagoons in the centre of islands) and studied the strange Karst features created by the dissolution of limestone islands.
Our kayak paddling adventures were often emotional as we were sent off to explore caves for bats (Jane and I hate bats) or to find access to the Hongs along dark and claustrophobic tunnels.
In addition to the exploring, there was sailing, enjoying the incredible scenery and eating the fabulous meals cooked by Tassy.
So this adventure finally came to an end.
Clearly a goodbye celebration was in order so we visited the Krabi night market to eat, drink and watch the entertainment. The following day I headed off to Sungai Petani and despite having no bus tickets or any real plan I actually made it with a combination of bus rides and hitching. Definitely thanks to Oleg getting me to the bus station. Result.
Scooter ride to bus station
I only had to wait ten minutes for the bus to Hat Yai. But at Hat Yai I was reduced to full on panic when I lost my phone. I’d left it at the ticket booth. Walking through the Thai and Malay border at 6pm was a bit bizarre. No-one else seemed to be doing it. But just outside the Malay border and I got a lift. It only took ten minutes and the lovely couple fed and watered me for the entire trip.
For those observant ones out there you might have noticed that Darren no longer features in my blog. This is because we are no longer a couple/travelling companions.