A Travellerspoint blog

One week living in a Buddhist monastery

Buddhist university meets boot camp. Wat Sunantawanaram, Thailand

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The adventure to find the monastery... Third time lucky

Dressed all in white like a ghost (required attire for lay people in meditation centres), I hailed down a taxi to take me to Thonburi train station on the outskirts of Bangkok. As the city began to wake up and warm up, I said goodbye to the bustle; I knew where I was going would be very different. As the taxi pulled up to the train station, I bought my ticket for the 5 hour journey north and raided a few local food stalls for some treats as I had no idea what my diet would consist of for the following week.

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Me in my meditation gear

The train journey was beautiful - pulling out through the outskirts of Bangkok, and eventually into the Thai countryside consisting of sprawling fields and hills. A popular tourist route; the train also passed over the Bridge On the River Kwai and Wampo Viaduct.

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(Thanks to seat61.com)

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(Thanks to seat61.com)

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(Thanks to seat61.com)

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Lunch!

But eventually after 5 hours of feeding and reading (I'd heard no reading for entertainment was allowed in the monastery), I eventually arrived at my destination; Maha Monkol train station (well, just a platform); home to Daen Maha Mongkol Meditation Centre. As some other ghostly dressed passengers disembarked the train, we began our short walk to the centre. It was stunning; surrounded by climbing hills on which a local monastery could be silhouetted and accessed by crossing a towering and dominant white bridge lined with flags. After crossing the bridge, I set about finding my hosts for the stay and was immediately hit by the serenity of the place (partly helped by the floating about of other visitors, also dressed in white). Eventually I stumbled upon the centre 'HQ', inhabited by Nuns who welcomed me in and sat me down on the marble floor. As the centre had no internet or phone number, all I could do was turn up and hope they could fit me in, but this is where I stumbled upon a little problem.

'Our english teacher not here, please come back next year' the nun broke to me abruptly. S#*t I thought. This didn't go to plan, and it was a long way to come for that news.

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(Thanks to cari-lee.com for the use of this photo.

I asked her if there were any other centres in the vicinity, but her English didn't span that far, so after wondering around the centre for another five minutes to see what I was missing, I hit the bridge again and headed back towards the train shack. As no one else was around, I consulted my train timetable for options; the last train south left in 30 minutes, as I didn't really want to stay here in the middle of nowhere. I didn't want to give up either as I'd come so far and looked forward to staying there so much.

I decided to try and find anyone else who I could ask about finding another centre close by, and eventually luckily stumbled upon some Thai visitors who were helping one of the nuns operate a little cable car which ferried supplies from one side of the river to the meditation centre. I asked my query in slow English, which got a welcome reply from one of the Thai tourists in English; 'There is another centre 15km from here, and I think they speak English'. The adventure wasn't over, and they kindly offered to drive me the said monastery. The amazing Thai hospitality was very welcome to this one farang (westerner), who was by now drowning in his own sweat.

After driving for twenty or so minutes, and after asking for directions at several points along the route, we pulled up at a Police station to try and get some more information. We were again greeted by some disappointing news; the Police informed us that the monastery we had in mind didn't have any English speaking teachers or helpers, but luckily instead there was a large monastery 40km away where I could stay and had English teachers. Hooray, and third time lucky I hoped.

This final leg of my journey would involve a bus to the monastery, so after waiting for another hour, spent teaching some locals English and the meaning of 'psychologist', it eventually turned up. I noticed a monk sitting on the floor; a welcome sight as I was going in the right direction.
As the bus dropped me off, I looked up at the long path leading up to the monastery and set about tackling this final part of a day's travelling.
Soon after setting off however, I was greeted by a young man on a moped, offering to take me up the hill to the monastery. Weighed down by my backpack and with the sun setting on the surrounding hills, I gladly accepted.

My new home for a week

My destination was Wat Sunantawanaram, a 500 acre forest monastery in Kanchanaburi, headed by Japanese Monk the Venerable Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako.

As I disembarked the back of the moped clumsily, I was met on the road and welcomed in by one of the Nun's from the monastery who didn't seem too surprised by my unexpected arrival. She escorted me over to the monastery 'HQ' where I gave some personal details and was informed of the rules and customs of the monastery (based on Buddhist principles, or precepts, available from the following link).

http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/precepts.html

Next stop was the male dorm; accessed through a short walk through a small patch of forest and presented in the form of an un-walled, raised wooden building set in the middle of the silent forest. The Nun left me to settle in and unpack and informed me that meditation would start in half an hour. I made my bed consisting of a blanket on the floor (again in line with Buddhist precepts) and simplified by belongings to exclude clothes which didn't fit the dress code or any cosmetic products used for 'personal adornment'. I surrendered my bag, and felt excited to see how this even simpler form of living would come.

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Next, I set off to get my first taste of daily life at the monastery; walking meditation and chanting. Led by my flashlight, I navigated my way back through the forest to find the meditation area and monastery. As I discarded my flip flops at the entrance (something which becomes habit after a while), I was greeted by one of the residents; a middle-aged Thai woman who was helping and staying at the monastery for a week residence. She spoke good English, and offered to introduce me to walking meditation which was practiced for one hour before evening chanting and sitting meditation. She explained the principles of walking meditation (basically, giving focus to the act of walking and one's breathing), which in practice was difficult, especially because of the abundance of mosquito's which put my practice of the 'do not kill any living being' precept to the test.

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The next part of the evening schedule involved 45 minutes of chanting in Pali (traditional Buddhist language) which I attempted to follow from an English translation book given to me. This was a beautiful experience as us lay people sat in the middle of the monastery, which was headed at the front by a large copper Buddha, and 10-12 monks sat at his feet.
Lastly, the chanting was followed by 30 minutes of sitting meditation which I attempted after another short crash course from the Thai woman. As I'd tried this before, it was great trying it in this incredible setting, even though I was not used to sitting in the 'half lotus' position for all this time. All in all, I think my knees aged about 20 years during my week at the monastery.

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(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)

The ringing of a small, high pitched bell signified the end of meditation, so myself and the about fifteen other people staying at the monastery headed off into the pitch-black forest to our living quarters to get some sleep before the first scheduled activity of the day; chanting and meditation again at 3am.

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I settled into my hard bed, and surrounded by the dark forest and all of its sounds, I fell asleep pretty quickly following a long day of travelling and adventures.

I was woken at 0245am by the sound of the monastery bell which rang through the forest repeatedly for a minute to wake all inhabitants in preparation for morning chanting. It was still completely dark, and the clear starry night was still shining through the forest canopy.

Monastery Schedule (Uni meets boot camp)

0300 - Morning chanting and meditation

0600 - Binthabart - more on this after

0730 - Chores (cleaning)

0800 - Breakfast - The one meal of the day involved a huge buffet style banquet consisting of really tasty Thai food, biscuits and milkshakes. The process involved first sitting by the Monks as they blessed their food, and then eating communally on the floor with the workers and visitors to the monastery.

0900 - 1445 - Reading, classes and meditation

1445 - 1545 - Chores (cleaning, gardening)

1600 - 1800 - Shower time, reading, classes.

1800 - 1900 - Walking meditation

1900 - 2030 - Evening chanting and meditation

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Favourite Bits

Learning about meditation

During my time at the monastery I learnt and practiced two forms of Buddhist meditation; shamatha and vipassana meditation. Shamatha meditation involves the focusing of attention single-pointedly (on the breath, or a task such as sweeping) and vipassana is a more in-depth form which examines the true nature of reality through the processes of our thoughts and actions (the deep stuff). I won't go into my personal experience of meditation here, but I had plenty of time to practice during my stay!

The process of learning and practicing meditation is a personal one, but I found it very valuable to learn this powerful tool; which is becoming increasingly used and understood in the West, from Monks and others for whom it is a central part of their lives and routines. A good understanding and patience are both crucial, and it is something I'm keen to keep practicing.

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Schoolin' with Monks

Delphine; a young woman from Belgium and fellow western 'visitor' to the monastery and I were lucky enough to be taken under the wing by one of the monks during our stay. Tan Thien, a Vietnamese-American monk who obviously spoke good English and had been a monk for three years offered us 'lessons' on Buddhism and meditation most days, which like being back at uni involved discussions; namely the big questions of Buddhism and how Buddhist philosophy fitted with the idea of me buying an iPhone 4S. It was strange going from the backpacker life to sitting down for two hours at a time going through handouts, but it was exactly what I wanted from my stay, and was invaluable in learning about the backbones of Buddhism and meditation.

Useful webpage here: http://www.tuaw.com/2010/07/28/5-apps-for-the-buddhist/

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Tan Thien's blog can be found at: http://tasteofliberation.wordpress.com/

It was also a fantastic experience to ask monks about their lifestyle, and we felt truly lucky that we were able to ask open questions about this and Buddhism to 'our' monk as we called him, as he spoke the best English of all the Monks.

I was also very lucky in that I was taken under the wing of an older, Japanese Monk who also gave me daily classes on meditation and yoga (a true work out for body and mind).

Our experiences with both Monks was truly inspirational as they both had such a genuinely kind and approachable nature, as did all of the other Monks, Nuns and helping staff at the monastery. We were soon welcomed into their community, which was a rich one as Buddhist principles and the nature of reciprocity were central (helping out around the monastery site for example). Another thing I learnt was that most of the Monks looked considerably younger than they were, which led me to lose many age-guessing games. I'm not sure if it's down to their lack of hair and eyebrows, or stress-free lifestyle.

Binthabart - The Almsround

My favourite schedule-based experience of the whole week. Binthabart is the process of alms-giving from local families and businesses to the Monks of various monasteries. As one of the Buddhist precepts concerns the nature of giving and stealing, traditional forms of Buddhist lifestyle rely on Monks being given food.

The experience started at 630am as a Thai man staying at the monastery and I would head to the kitchen to collect several cotton bags to carry the offerings, and then pile into the back of a truck which would take us down the road to a main road on which shops and homes were situated. As we headed out along the road, we were gradually joined by Monks from our monastery who would be carrying large metal bowls covered in orange cloth, used to carry rice and other foods offered to them by the lay people.

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(Thank you bangkokgirllife.blogspot.com)

As we reached our first stop; a local shop or home, we all jumped out of the back of the pick-up and starting walking along the road. The five or six Monks would walk in line along the side of the road, with myself and the other lay people following. As we approached the person or persons with offerings (rice, curries, drinks, eggs, fruit, flowers) they would place some rice into the Monk's bowl, and any other offerings on a small metal plate. As taking any items from lay people directly may be seen as stealing, the Monks were unable to touch the offerings, so I would wai (bow) to the offerings and place them in my bags. I got away with only a few leakages, leaving me covered in curry or egg.

We would stop along the road at about 10 stops, each loading up my bags with goodies. The whole atmosphere was made even more beautiful as the sun would rise over the surrounding hills, creating amazingly red skies and slowly lighting up the misty fields. We would also occasionally pass other Monks doing their Binthabart, chanting in unison and giving thanks for their offerings which provided a beautiful soundtrack to the experience.

When our bags were full, we would jump back into the pick-up which had followed us along the road and head back to monastery base where the food would be used for breakfast. I was lucky enough to help with the Binthabart each morning of my stay, which I loved doing as it gave an insight into both Buddhist and Thai life, and was actually my only 'outing' from the monastery.

The whole experience

A lot of my time spent at the monastery involved repetitive, personal experiences such as reading and practicing meditation, and I learnt a lot from both. The transition from the backpacker lifestyle to living at the monastery was a very powerful one; eating one meal a day, rising and sleeping at unusual hours and doing cleaning. Unusually, these didn't seem difficult when I was at the monastery, even though I'm now experiencing the hangover as my body clock is getting used to outside life again and my stomach is slowly growing back to its normal size. Surprisingly, I didn't find the eating of only one meal a day too difficult, as I think my mind accepted that it would only get brekkie, and I'd have to meditate any hunger away. (We could have unlimited drinks throughout the day, so this helped, and we could cheat a bit by having some yummy aloe vera drink with bits in).

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The whole experience of staying in the middle of the national park forest was an experience in itself, especially getting used to the sounds of geckos, howling wild dogs throughout the night, dramatic thunder storms and then complete silence. The site of the monastery was stunning, kept spotless by the team of us visitors who sweeped and gardened every day, and spotted with kuti (above), or the small hut homes for Monks.

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I achieved exactly what I wanted from my stay; to learn about meditation and Buddhism as well as have a completely different change in routine and lifestyle, all surrounded by beautiful and stunning settings. I also took away some practical changes, especially concerning living more simply, which the Monks do in their tiny kuti's with only essential items. Physically, I also took away a three volume book set of Buddhist teachings on philosophy and meditation which was kindly gifted to me by one of the Monks. I fear all the good work from yoga may now be undone as I lug it through China over the next 3 weeks. A great souvenir though.

Overall, certainly a top three experience of my trip, and a really beneficial one for both body (muscles and liver...) and mind (even though my knees have aged 20 years).

Will I be shaving my head and eyebrows any time soon? I learnt many great things, but not yet... It was interesting to learn from the Monks that anyone can be ordained as a Buddhist Monk from anything to one day to a lifetime. I missed my music and bread (We had lots of rice) too much, so not yet.

P.s. Meditation update: Still haven't managed to levitate.

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(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)

Posted by tom_e_free 05:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Heading norff (Thailand) - Chiang Mai

Trekking, elephants and cooking

all seasons in one day

Hello hello,

This is going to be a photo-blog-post as I just got back from a week of something I can't wait to write about, so i'll let the photos talk on all things Bangkok, Chiang Mai, trekking in some hills, riding elephants and bamboo rafts and learning how to cook Thai style

Floating markets at Ayutthaya

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Catching Thai life ... elephant, biker, Buddhist

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Getting to know the Bangkok night life...

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Amazing meal on sleeper train heading north to Chiang Mai (puts UK public transport meals to shame)

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Sleeper train blue land of nod

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Trekking group - English, Dutch, Kiwi, Australian, Danish, South African ... all hitting the hills.

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Steps up to Wat Phra Thart Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

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Baby Buddhist meditating

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Many bazaar things at the night markets, Chiang Mai

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Trekking in the hills

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Hill tribe kitchen

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Sunrise in the hills - warming up the rice fields

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This elephant didn't want to take us for a ride, just kick back instead...

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Learning to cook - 'Chilli is sexy' was the favourite saying

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Thai green curryyyyyyyy!

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Heading back south

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Next blog ... one week staying at a Buddhist temple ... it might be a long one...

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Posted by tom_e_free 08:24 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Fiji Time

Island hopping and sharks

As I walked off the plane, the immediate warmth of the Fijian people hit me - beautiful smiles and a small band playing Fijian music in the arrivals lounge. As I walked through the hall with my picked up backpack, a cultural contrast also quickly became apparent; it was completely different to all of the countries I had visited so far and was refreshing.

My taxi left the airport bound for my hostel where I would stay for one night before leaving early the next morning, bound for the Yasawa Islands, north west of the main island where i had just landed. As we drove through several small villages, the very different way of life here jumped out at me. The hostel was quiet, with very few other tourists, but I soon found some other backpackers and we started drinking the local evening drink of Kava; a drink made from a root which has sedative properties if you drink enough. We felt immediately welcome, as the hostel staff started singing the 'Bula' welcome song, and it was a beautiful experience as gradually more staff appeared from various corners of the hostel to sing and dance with them. After several cups of Kava, I joined in and started singing some Bob Marley with the bar musician. I blame the Kava for this one.

The next morning we jumped on our transfer to the port where we would catch our ferry to the northern extremities of the island group and then work our way down over the next week. As we were being ferried through the Fijian 'rush' hour, it was great to see people starting their days; run-down buses full of people going to work and children walking to school, with chaps wearing their sulu's.

After a 5 hour trip which saw a fusion of tropical storms and sunshine, we finally arrived at Coral View Resort on Tavewa Island. As our big yellow catamaran ferry approached the islands, little dinghy's from each resort would come out and meet us; taking us and our bags to the island. This was an amazing experience as as we approached the beach to disembark, staff would again come and greet us, singing and dancing. This was a trend for all of our stops and was always a great experience.

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Coral View was quite a large resort on the beach front with plenty of hammocks (I stand by that all the best hostels have hammocks...) and faned for its diving. Itching to use my divers licence, obtained in the freezing waters of Surrey and Somerset lakes, I quickly signed up for two days of diving. The highlight was a shark dive which saw us descending to 20 metres where we were greeted by a large number of Reef and Bull sharks. The first time I saw some of the surprisingly large Bull Sharks, I pretty much used half of my tank of air from just taking in a gasp of air. This was an awesome experience - and as we looked up at the 20 metres of clear blue water above us, there were more sharks circling around. We survived this encounter, and as we reached the surface and removed our clumsy regulators, we all laughed hysterically at what we'd just experienced. The diving in Fiji was incredible; with awesome fish as well as loads of diving through tunnels and holes in the coral reef. The whole diving experience was also pretty different to other countries as the Fijian approach to diving was so laid back.

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Our next island stop was that of Korovo - an island 2 hours south. We only stopped here for 1 night and chilled by the pool. The highlight here was however one of the best sunsets i've ever seen ... with amazingly red skies reflected in the ocean. Definitely a top three sunset of all time.

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Next stop; the island of Waya LaiLai. As we left the boat, we were offered to take part in a walk to the summit of this small island; a rocky peak which could be reached by a muddy 45 minute climb. As we started, the black cloud approaching the island outpoured, turning the muddy route into a slippery one, and after an hour or so, we finally reached the top where the views over the other islands and the island village were stunning. The journey down was even more fun and involved plenty of bum-floor-mud encounters.

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The next day we were offered a trip to the village on the other side of the island to watch a church service, celebrating the arrival of the first Sunday in the month. Our little boat packed with locals and other visitors set off to the village, and a highlight was two local women on the boat practicing singing their hymns which provided a soundtrack to the whole experience. The church service was also fantastic - with great singing provided by the congregation consisting of loads of children and their parents. As the service was in Fijian, we had no idea what was going on, but the chief of the island have a very invigorating speech from what we could see.

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The following day saw the final island on our trip; the party island of Beachcomber. As I arrived, I was greeted by some friends I'd made on another island and we started some send-off drinks. As the bar was cashless, a tab started, and bad things followed. The island had a great vibe about it, and we all had a good last night on the Yasawa islands. This island also offered some sweet snorkeling, which left me with a nose bleed as my diving was a bit too adventurous.

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My whole Fiji experience was a great one - beautiful islands and people, and the laid back approach of Fiji Time which should be adopted more in the west! Our last day back on the main land involved the arrival of another tropical storm which left us confined to our hostel so that was dull.

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The following day however came my time to leave Fiji and start the 22 hour journey to Asia and Bangkok. Fiji had provided the perfect warm up for this, and I couldn't wait to go back.

My journey involved a 6 hour wait in airspace purgatory - or Sydney airport before my transfer flight to Bangkok. I was however unfortunately informed of some sad and shocking news here when checking my email; the passing away of my former personal tutor during my time at Surrey; Lynne Millward. She was a brilliant, supportive tutor and was a fantastic inspiration to myself and so many other students. She was a great Occupational Psychologist, and inspired me to take up study in the area, so she will live on through this. She was also a great mother, so my thoughts go out to her three young children who I had the pleasure of meeting once when Lynne had to turn her office into a playground during the school holidays!

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Posted by tom_e_free 00:21 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

New Zealand!

Auckland to Christchurch on the big green bus

all seasons in one day

Hello, hello!

Here are some highlights from my trip to the fun capital of the world.

After two days in Auckland (enough, really ... highlights included the awesome Auckland art gallery), I jumped back on a bus, but this time the 'Kiwi Experience', which offers again like Oz Experience, ruddy easy travel around New Zealand. It was so simple, again drivers helping with accommodation, leaving us just to have fun and terrify ourselves and our bank managers through various activities.

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Stop one: Hot Water Beach. Very surreal experience - we headed down to the beach at sunset, torches and shovels in hand to find locals digging away on the beach. We joined in, and soon we found ourselves standing in pools of hot sandy water which was sometimes unbearably hot. As the ocean water rushed in, the pools were cooled to create little steaming baths in which we sat and soaked ... truly incredible!

Stop two: Waitomo. A sleepy little town, Waitomo is famous for its caving. I opted for the 'black water rafting'. Not as extreme as it sounds, this adventure involves floating through the cold and stunningly silent water filled caves in rubber donuts, jumping down little rapids and the highlight, watching the thousands of glow worms stuck to the roof of the cave. As we turned our headlamps off, they shone brightly and led our route as we floated through the caves following the star-like path set out above us. We later learnt that the bioluminescence from the glow worms (or maggots as they actually are) is actually their glowing poop, which even though took away some of the romance of the whole experience was still an incredible sight and certainly worth doing.

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Stop 3: Rotorua. The Maori cultural experience. Enough time having fun - it was time to learn something and get cultured. This cultural experience involved spending an evening at a made-up Maori camp where we were greeted with traditional and intimidating Maori dance, workshops displaying various Maori ways of life and skills, a meaty feast cooked in traditional fashion in the ground (yummy lamb) and ofcourse a dancing display of the Hukka. It was great to learn about the Maori tradition and ways of life, and I would again definitely recommend this to anyone who is visiting NZ so to get a feeling for these proud people who are so central to NZ life and culture.

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Stop 4: Taupo. SKYDIVE! I jumped out of bed in excitement and did a little dance ... the grey skies had cleared and the crisp blue skies meant that today I was able to cross off a dream of mine to jump out of a plane. A small group of us jumped into a mini-bus and headed off towards the skydive centre. Putting my best psychologist face on, I tried to calm my fellow jumpers who were starting to shake with anticipation.
After several hours of waiting for our slot, watching torrents of skydivers return to earth, and signing various disclaimers, it was our turn to head up to 15,000ft. I was greeted by my dive master and immediately asked him how many dives he had done. 6,000 he replied. I knew I was in good hands (well, chest i suppose). All geared up in a bright red one-piece suit and sturdy harness, we boarded our transport for the trip; a bright pink plane.

The trip up was incredible fun. 4 jumpers, together with their dive master tied to their back, as well as a camera man each who would jump out just before us and catch our gaping mouths on HD film. The flight was a beautiful experience in itself; soaring over the largest lake in NZ (the same size as Singapore) as well as stunning green forest and mountains. The view down would be sweet!
My dive master kept showing me his watch as we climbed the heights, until eventually we reached 15,000ft. Our oxygen masks came off, and the hatch opened to reveal the cold air and before we knew it, we were being chucked out of the plane. Watching my fellow jumpers was so strange - falling at a great speed before you knew it and disappearing in a flash.

My time came in last place, and after sitting on the edge of the place for a few seconds, I was out and falling. The freefall lasted 60 seconds before the parachute came out, but for me it seemed like 20. The feeling of falling was so incredible and difficult to explain, but one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I couldn't help but scream and just shout wooooooaaaaaaaaaa ... spinning in circles before our parachute opened and we began our scenic glide back to ground. For 5 minutes we glided down through the silence, alongside the stunning lake and over sunny fields. We landed with a bump and before I knew it, I was untied from the parachute and overwhelmed by the rush and amazement of the quickest 7 minutes! I gave my divemaster I big hug, as though he had just saved my life and smiles were all round from my fellow jumpers - all landed safe, and with all earlier doubts and fears ousted. A truly amazing experience which has to be experienced!

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Stop 5: River Valley. A relaxing stop in a river side retreat (in a valley). Beautiful hostel set my a crisp and clear river which provided some great rock jumping and swimming. Following a pretty heavy night with the group of great people from the bus (and some 'drumming' on wine glasses and bottles from myself ... a smashing time...) we woke up early the next morning for a detox yoga session. With the sound of the river nearby, it was a pretty special experience. Three of us guys rolled in slightly late and began our class consisting of meditation and yoga, and by the end, we were new and looser men.

Stop 6: Wellington. One night here - didn't see much. Caught inter-island ferry early the next morning.

Stop 7: Kaiteriteri / Westport - Little town overlooked by beautiful mountain range. The scenery was getting more stunning.

Stop 8: Mahinapua - Beautiful lake. One crazy night in party hostel. Dressed up to theme of 'G'. Still having a dress in my bag from a previous fnacy dress night, I went as a 'glamorous girl' - and it looked great. One of the most liberating experiences of my trip.

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Stop 9: Franz Josef. We rolled up to Franz Josef, a small town which acted as a base and was again in the shadow of some wicked mountains and glaciers. We headed out for the full day glacier hike; geared up with coats, boots and krampons, we set out on the glacier as the rain started, and it didn't stop. A truly soggy experience, but the glacier was stunning and walking among giant ice sheets was an amazing experience. I opted for the 'advanced' level group which headed to the peak of the glacier at a good pace, resulting in incredible views over the glacier, and walls of water falling around us created by the continuing downpour.

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Stop 10: Wanaka. My third haircut of the trip. My good pal Joe and I headed off in search for Ali Barbars; chosen purely for its name and cheap cuts. Another successful trim and the mullet gone. Wanaka also had a stunning lake, surrounded by an imposing skyline of mountains. Beautiful place.

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As it turned midnight, my 24th birthday and the penultimate stop of our trip came about; Queenstown. The two hour south to this 'adventure capital of the world' was broken up by a little stop to 'Puzzleworld'; a playground of illusions and mazes. The perfect way to start my birthday; brushing off some of those 24 years by getting lost in a maze and feeling sick from staring at too many illusions.

As we drove into Queenstown, the sense of excitement on the bus grew ... this would be our base for 10 days and arriving on my birthday was a real bonus as our bus driver organised a pub crawl. We were greeted in the hostel by a free room upgrade - to a 'king suite' (or the 'penthouse' as it became known) which consisted of a large balcony overlooking mountains and lake, as well as a nice big TV and sit down shower (?).
After some beers on the beach by the lake in the sun and the third best pizza of my travels (after NY and Chicago), we hit the town and explored this party town by night, with a highlight being a bar made entirely out of ice (including the glasses!)
I loved Queenstown - and we all soon settled into a flashpacker way of life - Fergburgers almost every day (the best burger I've ever had) as well as lounging on the beach with beers, all set in one of the most beautiful places I've stayed. The mountains were again, stunning, and the setting sun made them look awesome.
Other highlights included visiting Milford Sound (even though it again poured all day and we couldn't see much) and 'luging' - or the racing of little gravity powered go-carts down a hill which resulted in a friend breaking his finger. 12 boys racing down a hill - it was going to happen.

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The highlight of Queenstown was however, another crazy experience ... the Nevis Bungy jump; the tallest bungy jump in Australasia, standing at 134m. Doing a bungy in NZ was on my list and I decided on a whim to upgrade to the Nevis from the smaller 46m jump which I'd planned on doing. After again signing various disclaimers and having our weights checked a couple of times, a small group of us boarded the minibus to the jump site 45 minutes out of Queenstown. As the journey went on, the terrain got increasingly bare and we eventually arrived at the rocky valley which homed the bungy. Similarly to the skydive, I was again wrapped up in a big harness and our group of 7 made our way to the bungy box, suspended above the valley. This involved getting a shaky little cable car over the valley which warmed us up for the dive.

As we off loaded from the cable car, we walked into the bungy box which had music blaring and an electric sense of energy in the air. As we went in weight order, I was the first to jump in my group. My ankles were strapped up and I was placed in a reclined chair and clipped to the bungy cord. After a hasty briefing, I was ushered over to the jumping platform and didn't look down.

After a countdown from 3 (or 4) I put my arms out like Jesus and pushed off. The first 2 seconds were completely bizzare - you're body and mind are telling you that this isn't right, and then the 8 second freefall towards a rocky valley sets in and it was incredible. The strange thing was that you couldn't feel the cord being pulled and bouncing up after the bungy stretches was a bizzare feeling. As instructed, after a few more bounces up and down, I pulled the cord on my ankle which flipped me upright and then began my ascent as the crew above pulled me up. I began laughing hysterically for some reason, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Utterly brilliant! Like the skydive, the adrenaline high lasted well into the afternoon, which was followed by a crash as it wore off.

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After 10 days in Queenstown of flashpacking lifestyle, our livers and wallets needed a break.

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So we left this little bubble of adrenaline and foodie delight and headed north to our final stop, Christchurch. Friends who had been to Christchurch had warned me that this city was still in a bad way following the devastating earthquake of last February. They were right; a year on, the centre of the city was still deserted and closed off. We arrived on a Sunday, which made it feel even more eery. It was fantastic to see however how the city was recovering ... there are beautiful botanical gardens, and an innovative shopping centre made out of shipping containers. This little hub had a wonderful energy about it, even though devastation was just around the corner. With my travelling companions Joe and John , we wondered about the city, soaking it in, and fell in love with a massive tree in the Botanical Gardens which was transformed into a memorial for the earthquake victims - the people of Christchurch are committed to get their city back on its feet.

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This concluded my month in New Zealand - which was made so brilliant by increasingly beautiful scenery as we went further south, and dotted with various adrenaline rushes and amazing experiences. I said goodbye to Joe and John, two great travelling pals who made the trip great as they had guitars and a love of Alan Partridge, and continued my journey to the tough times and environment of Fiji.

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New Zealand Top Three:

1. Skydive - the most fun you can have without dying ... truly awesome experience.
2. Fergburger - a Queenstown institution - has to be tried. Go for the 'Big Al' if you dare - 2 burgers, 2 eggs and a whole lot of mess.
3. Bungy Jump ... wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwicked

Posted by tom_e_free 22:26 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

4 weeks heading up the Aus East Coast

4th January - 1st Feb

all seasons in one day

Hello, hello.

I know it has been over 2 months since my last blog update, and I'm sorry. It's been a pretty fast paced time and I've had a ruddy good time, so here are some of my highlights from the Australian East coast - Sydney to Cairns.

I woke early on the 4th of January to get my bus out of Sydney; leaving the flat where I had been staying with my fantastic cousins and hosts and hitting the road again after unpacking and having a fantastic few weeks in town. It felt strange going back into backpacker mode; living out of a backpack again, but I couldn't wait to see more of Australia.

I traveled the east coast with Oz Experience, a bus tour company who specialised in giving backpackers (mostly English) a fun packed experience up the coast, stopping at cities and smaller stops which you'll hear about in a minute.

After an 8 hour journey north, we stopped at our first stop; 'Spot X', a surf camp near Coffs Harbour. A small but busy camp with shipping containers for bedrooms, we spent our first evening around a huge campfire playing games and getting to know our new traveling companions, but also in the back of our mind we knew that we had to wake early for a surfing lesson in the nearby Pacific Ocean. Surfing proved to be pretty knackering as we kept getting washed up and our hangovers smashed out of us; but I was able to put the skills I'd learnt in Sydney to use. After 2 hours in the Ocean, we jumped back on the bus and continued north to the muchly anticipated Byron Bay.

Byron Bay was the highlight of the East Coast for me. After spending two days and two pretty lively nights in a hostel with my bus friends, I headed off on my own to another hostel 20 minutes down the beach for 3 nights. With my backpack back on, I followed this huge beach down and stumbled up to the hostel; in the middle of no where with a little cafe next door and the beach only paces away. I loved this place, with its really chilled vibe and hammocks (a sign of the best hostels, I've learnt...) as well as some great company. Purely coincidentally, Matt, a good friend and travelling buddy from America turned up on my penultimate day to the same hostel which was an awesome surprise, and I introduced him to the Australian delicacy of Kangeroo for dinner. Yummy.

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My last evening also resulted in another great musical experience - jamming with some bongos and guitars under the full moon on Byron Bay Beach ... a truly amazing send off from this beautiful and totally relaxing place. 3 days and 2 books later, I was ready to hit the road again and continue onto the Gold Coast.

People had warned me that I would either love or hate the Gold Coast; a resort city on the sea characterised by busy beach and high-rise hotels on the ocean front. It was Miami/Blackpool on Australian steroids. I didn't hate nor love the place; it was just a holiday resort city and pretty severe contrast to Byron Bay, which after one night in, I was ready to continue my journey.

My next stop was Brisbane which turned out to be another top point of the trip. Highlights included two beautiful art galleries which were set in stunning grounds on the river as well as some of the nicest green spaces I'd been to on my trip; The Roma Street Gardens in the north of the city, characterised by stunning light displays and plants in toilet seats. Great city.

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Noosa - my following two nights were spent in Noosa, a small ocean-side holiday town. Pretty chilled, I just spent my time chilling and bizarrely bumped into a friend from uni, Jamie, who I ran into again several times further up the coast as well as New Zealand.

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Fraser Island - 3 day island/beach safari. In groups of 8 we packed our 4x4 jeeps with camping gear, food and iPods, and set out for Fraser Island in the torrential downpour which we had woken to. We drove for several hours along sprawling beach and off-road tracks to find our campsite foe the trip, a soggy but quiet spot just off the beach. Following a spot of camping lunch, we set out for some sightseeing at the islands largest lake.

BUT, along came my first injury of the trip. Rambling along a rural track to the said lake in barefeet, after a mere 5 minutes, I managed to stub my toe on an exposed (and very hefty i might add) tree root, resulting in my toe being dislocated at a right angle and me in a bit of pain. My kind pals escorted me back down the hill and raced me back to camp in one of our 4x4's. I was greeted by surprised faces back at camp from my tour leaders who seemed amazed at how I'd managed to do such damage within 1 hour of landing on the island. Another short 4x4 trip took me to the closest (and only) small town on the island which soon saw the arrival of an ambulance (which created quite a stir in the town ... little did they know it was all for a toe...) and paramedic, who informed me that I would have to give the toe a little tug to put it back in place. Luckily this didn't hurt too much, and after a bit of time putting it off, I pulled the toe back into place and spent the next 2 days stumbling around the campsite and adopting the nickname 'toes'.

Update: Toe still a bit swollen 2 months later, and a nurse i met on my trip informed me that an operation may be needed unless i want a fat toe for the rest of my life. I think it's a nice souvenir, so we'll see.

Other than this, the 3 days of rain didn't dampen the rest of the trip; and it was a great experience camping, cooking and exploring with the mostly not English group. When the sun did occasionally pop out, it was fantastic exploring the island and its beautiful lakes and forests.

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My next stop was quite a contrast - a cattle station a few hours north of Fraser Island. Located further in land, the weather hotted up, letting us dry off from the past few days. Our one night residence here resulted in eating lots of beef, clay pigeon shooting and sporting womens clothing for a friends birthday dress-up party. This evening however resulted in a other drama. Following a few too many drinks, a friend (also dressed in womens attire) managed to fall off the bucking bronco onto his neck, which led to him being ruched off to hospital in a neck brace, accompanied by me in the front of the ambulance being a nuisance and trying to convince the driver to put the lights and sirens on. Being the outback, this wasn't necessary, so I lost this battle. It was quite a sight, my pal Will in a neck brace and dress, laid out on a hospital bed. After a night in the hospital (definitely the cleanest bed I'd slept on during my trip), Will luckily got the all clear, even though his trip unfortunately stopped there as he missed the bus north.

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Whitsundays Sailing - my next stop involved another little adventure, but this time by 22m yacht around the stunning Whitsunday beaches and islands. This was another beautiful experience as the 16 strong group contained only a handful of us Brits, so it was pretty refreshing living on the boat for 2 days with some other nationalities and we had a blast. Over the trip, we did some fantastic snorkeling and i was able to brush up on my rusty sailing and to the horror of my fellow sailors, took the helm for a couple of hours which luckily didn't result in any catastrophe.
The weather shone on us, and the beaches, especially Whitehaven Beach which contains some of the purest sand in the world was a real highlight. After a spot of beach cricket (which the Aussies smashed us as), we boarded the boat back the port and the crew who had grown so close after living on a boat together went our separate ways.

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Magnetic Island - Following one night back on dry land, I woke at the crack of down to a huge Queensland downpour - we'd chosen the right days to sail! I bumped into some friends from further down the coast and we continued north to Magnetic Island, named so because of the apparent disturbance the island caused to Captain Cooks compass when he sailed by it. After a short ferry journey to this small island, we headed to our hostel. Set on the beach, it was basically a bar and some bedroom huts on the beach, but was nice. The following day, we rented a car and set about exploring the island, its beaches and coves. As it was so small, we managed to see plenty of the island, and after 3 days of exploring, swimming and propping up the bar, we were ready to leave.

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This was my final day on the bus as it terminated in Cairns. I'd definitely recommend Oz Experience to any traveler who wants an easy experience of traveling the East Coast as you bump into so many people again and again who you travel various sectors with and as they help you with accommodation along the way, you don't have to think too much.

My final stop was Cairns, which as I said was the terminus for many East Coast trips, so I was always bumping into friends and reminiscing over our travels. The highlight of my few days in Cairns was heading out to the Barrier Reef which I'd visited during my last trip to Aus, and got the diving bug. I spent another day diving the beautiful reef and as I was now a certified diver, was able to see so much more than before and it was brilliant being able to dive in just shorts (after learning in the freezing lake water of Surrey).

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So, this concluded my two months in Australia. I'd only seen a fraction of this maaaaaaasssssive country, but experienced so much. My 6 weeks in Melbourne and Sydney allowed me to get totally absorbed into these cities which i loved, and the fast paced travel up the East coast had been really fun. I was however ready to leave Aus and continue onward to New Zealand!

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East Coast Top Three:

1. Byron Bay - stay at Byron Bay beach resort if you want to get away from town, stay on a beach and spend hours in hammocks
2. Whitsunday Sailing - I preferred this to Fraser Island if you have to choose between them ... living on a boat is a blast
3. Brisbane - Beautiful art galleries and gardens - amazing how it's recovered from the severe flooding of last year too

Posted by tom_e_free 17:42 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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