Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

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Sometimes travelling does not teach you new things; it confirms the things you already knew; if not now, one day I will be a crazy cat lady.

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Introducing Barbara, ninja cat. She has just eaten, hence the wise expression.

Travelling through places which are strange to me, I’ve found my brain automatically seeks things that it recognises and understands; things with which it can help to build a map of its surroundings. So new tastes, smells seeping from street-side stands and open fronted shops, weather that makes water ooze from me or drenches me with its own warm torrents, dead eyes, strange customs, odd language (even the altered twangs of English, drawled by young Americans or sun-soured ex-pats), rush hour that is hours and ferocious hours long, where even the side-walk becomes fair game for enterprising motorcyclists. First comes alienation. Then threat, under the onslaught of taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, restauranteurs, tailors, all the while ignoring the beeps of the horns, the roar of the traffic, the angry gunfire of the rain. And all the time my brain looks looks looks for anything it knows.

Animals. Barbara here, she is ‘same same, but different’ (a tried Thai-tourist expression); a cat of a different culture. Never has a cat been so quick to identify a sucker, follow them and hassle them until they break them down and get what they want. Along with Barbara I have met some heart-warming pets and some rough dogs, but I had little to say about them until I visited Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

Funded by donations and the profit from founder Junie Kovacs’ business, Time For Lime Restaurant and Cookery School, LAW has been helping animals on Koh Lanta since 2005.

I had read about it before I arrived on the island – Thailand Lonely Planet features a paragraph – but it was not until I saw a Western looking woman walking a dog on a lead (a rare sight) that I remembered and knew I must not be far from the LAW base. Armed with directions from the dog walker, I set out to visit.

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The first thing that struck me was that people had time. Busting at the seams, LAW still want you to visit, to show an interest and they want to show and tell you about their work. One of their main principals is education and they will talk to anybody who will listen. So, although it was too late to help walk any of the dogs, Terri, a volunteer from Edinburgh, took me on a tour.

We started in the hospital ward. Here, abandoned kittens, poisoned dogs and animals recovering from operations languished in fan-cooled air. Terri knew everything about them, sharing their sad stories and opening some of the cages so they could share cuddles.

The main surgical work that LAW do is neutering of dogs and cats. The organisation believe that one of the principal ways of reducing the abuse and cruelty caused to animals on Koh Lanta is to neuter them, reducing the stray population. But, they will help wherever needed. Amputations on dogs and cats that have been hit by cars are not uncommon – there are no orthopaedics on Koh Lanta, a specialism demanding money, a highly trained professional and long term care – and the reactive treatments for poisoning are regularly required.

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A new, young inmate.

As I had travelled the south of Thailand the presence of stray dogs was almost immediately remarkable. Aloof creatures; by day they move with purpose or languish in shade and by night the streets belong to them. Terri told me that the guesthouses frequently acquire puppies; a great draw of tourists. As dogs, they no longer have the appeal and anyway the low season descends and the dogs are turned out to the monsoon rains to fend for themselves. They seem to do pretty well. Only they are at odds with the significant Muslim demographic on the island, many of whom believe that dogs are unclean and feel justified in causing them pain. They are poisoned, burned, starved, left by the road to be hit or on a cliff to be drowned. LAW takes these animals in and if they can, they rebuild their bodies and their trust and hopefully find them a new home.

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In fact, many of LAW’s inmates find new homes all over the world, greatly assisted by the fact that the organisation can fulfil quarantine requirements. Others aren’t so lucky. Meet Woody and Oscar, part of the same dog pack, long term inmates, chilling on the beach part way through our dog walk.

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Just Chilling…

Much to the affront of my ‘good deeds’ ego the pair did not seem that excited about our walk on my second visit to LAW. I couldn’t blame them, because, as I took my tour a day earlier, for all the tens of dogs and cats it housed, it was remarkably quiet. There was none of the ricocheting, incessant barking you might hear at an RSPCA home. The dogs at LAW are separated into packs and they all have their discreet areas to roam, take shelter and eat; Oscar and Woody had got lazy, they had everything they needed right in their own living room.

The cats are the same. They roam around the courtyard, wash, bask, greet visitors when it suits them. In the evening they converge because it is feeding time, which takes place in a large concrete floored room with different levels, sleeping areas and scratching posts, where they are locked overnight.

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Ian the Cat.

Many moons ago I used to work in animal welfare. I was young and had a naive idea of what caring for animals as a job really means. But I learned a lot. And seeing how LAW is run – with care, time (largely from volunteers like Terri) and great organisation – I was impressed with how they have harnessed many of the positive features of UK animal charities and still in relative infancy, LAW is alive with a new hope and generosity.

With its established place on Lanta and its intention to care for the island’s animals and educate its people, LAW was something that I could make sense of in many ways. But don’t just take my word for it, visit their website to find out about their work first hand.

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Goodbye Hat Yai! – on awkward transitions

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‘Hat Yai! Hat Yai!’ A Thai woman called repeatedly, walking up and down the carriage. I started; dozing every 20 or so minutes had become a habit on the 15 hour journey.

Other people were in the carriage too; men. And they called out, ‘Hat Yai, Hat Yai!’ until it rang a rhythm to my panic. I gathered my things in a fever, afraid that I would miss the stop, forgetting that the train terminated here, in Hat Yai City; Big City living in southern Thailand.

My head was ringing as I stumbled, shoe laces still untied, from the train carriage, balking at the canyon between the train and the platform, wincing in advance of the pain I would feel in my ankle.

Old sofas, stuffing-guts spilling out, made for benches. Women stood at stands offering food as the flies crashed above through an overwhelming smell of fish.

And then it began, ‘where’re you going?’ Local men surrounded me; persistent. I was money. I was sweaty money. I began to walk. Again and again and again they asked me. I to them I knew where I was going (first time I have ever said that with much conviction).

If there is ever pessimism in the Lonely Planet, then I would say there were undertones in the section on Hat Yai. In its brevity and it’s ‘stay if you want’ attitude. I didn’t want, but having changed my plans to suit my wretched foot, I had no choice.

Hat Yai City, population 157,000 approx is a transition town; a place which travellers pass through and historically where Malaysian men make weekend pilgrimage to find their hookers. Along with this you might find good shopping and good food.

Between the Internet and The Lonely Planet, I was confused. The Lonely Planet advised that mist interprovincial buses and south-bound minivans left from the bus terminal south of the city centre. The Internet (I generalise here) advised not to travel direct to the bus terminal but that tickets must be booked from one of the many travel agencies scattered all over the city.

My instinct was that I wanted to buy the tickets direct from the station, if I could. Call me tight but I didn’t fancy paying commission to an agent for something that a degree of hobbling could achieve; I think it’s my duty as a traveller to adopt this attitude.

My first life line turned out to be the TAT, the Thai tourist authority. Located 100 yards from Sripoovanart Road on Niphat Uthit 3 Soi 2, they furnished me with a full timetable. So I set off to the bus station to try to book my way out of Hat Yai.

I passed by the international Golden Arches of McDonalds, an amazing feat considering my hunger, before I tailed onto the backstreets where people on mopeds shout ‘hey lady!’, greasy dogs watch their patch of concrete and men piss into the canal. There are also many many food stalls and I berated myself for being too meek to try at least one. Instead I fixed my face and just kept walking. And walking.

But I couldn’t buy a ticket to Ranong, when I got there, as I had planned. No, the ticket booth was shut until six. I slumped down on a bench to gather my thoughts.

‘Where’re you goin’?’ This time it was a New Zealander, pre-occupied with his onward journey to Padang Besar (border town and dead ringer for The Phantom Zone of Superman literature) and a seemingly insatiable itch in his scrotal area.

I’You wanna’ go to Phuket, Ranong bus is gonna’ go there anyway.’ I nodded, made the right noises and tried not to notice the itching.

‘Loads of buses go to Phuket.’

I assured him I would keep it as a back-up plan, then continued to give him my interested face as he told me of his frustrations.

The next time I saw the bus station I rode there, on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my 15kg rucksack wedged in front of the driver. The 50 baht ride might have been the first time I have genuinely smiled since arriving. Whether that was because of the feeling of the warm wind through my clothes or the anticipation of leaving, I don’t know; probably both.

In the end I got a ticket to Phuket – international beach resort – looking for some certainty. Although a little voice resounded, is that what travelling is? Certainty?

On my return to the hotel, through those back streets, I’d asked myself what travelling was all about. Because right then I felt scared, alien and impotent. And of course I got no answer but my instincts told me I might find both my feet and some temporary peace in Phuket.

Now the useful stuff:

The bus terminal is just off Sripoovanart Road on Chotwittayakul 1 Road…

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Bottom right, not Google Maps, I know.

Hat Yai Bus Terminal can be contacted on 0 7423 2404

Buses offers are VIP, two levels of air-con and non-air-con.

Here are a few of the locations the terminal services:

Bangkok
Chumpon
Koh Samui
Koh Yai
Krabi
Padang Besar
Phang-Nga
Phuket
Ranong
Surat Thani
Trang

This list is not exhaustive and for all locations there are multiple departures daily.

My Itinerary

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In the beginning, or somewhere thereabouts, I wrote and posted an itinerary; a detailed list of my travel plans until September. That was what I understood an itinerary was; a list of travel plans and places to visit. Another meaning of the word is the record of a journey. This is my record.

Over the last months I have come to realise the word means more. While an itinerary to me is a list or a record, on a mountain it is a physical route, a line of travel, down. An itinerary is not a pisted, tended run, but there is a way down for you to find and it is away from the bashed motorways of piste ridden by every other skier, boarder and their family; your own way.

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This is Le Masse, the summit I can see from the chalet window. Down the back of Le Masse runs an itinerary. To get there, turn left at the goat (strictly speaking, an ibis)…

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…(goat riding before committing is optional), follow the ridge, negotiate the rocks and undulations, bend around the mountain and finally into the crevice that scars the left hand side, can you see it?

I was scared at first. For off-piste skiing (or snowboarding) you should carry full avalanche equipment (transceivers and spades) and be insured (in France a Carte Neige does this). We left the top of Le Masse with no equipment and no insurance and my inner risk assessor screaming worst case scenarios. But there were five of us and the pow was thick* with limited tracks (the lines cut by skis and boards) running away over the blankets of undisturbed snow beneath us; we had to go. And to explain the ‘why’ you have to understand the feeling of swooshing through light powder, it is like no other…or you could say it is like floating and floating is something I do not do particularly often.

Contrary to the effortless implications of floating, pow is hard work. Stand back, use your back leg to turn, lean back to make sure the nose of the board does not begin to dip into the pow or so will your face. By the time we reached the edge of the first ridge Steve, Alix and I (the uninitiated) were panting; as much with fear as with exertion; where were we going?

But, as we followed tracks from ridge to ridge, between outcropping rocks and along traverses that hugged the mountain our breathing slowed and our confidence grew. In the distance was a hut, ‘we’re going that way,’ our leader said. And we did, onto a track that traced the scar of the mountain, taking us back to the piste. Smiling, relieved – because we had done it – we were back on safe ground. We had traced our own itinerary down the mountain.

The next time was different. A week or so later, with no fresh snow and blue bird skies blazing with spring sunshine, the undulating passageways had become hard, and deformed by moguls. The ridge that we followed, left of the goat, was striated with hard humps of snow. Needless to say I fell, I got up, tried to turn on one of the sun blasted humps and fell again. Then, as my companions slid further into the distance my fear returned, both a fear of the mountain and an older, latent fear that has lived in me for a long time. It became stronger with each fall, with the scrape of the hardened surface against the board edges, the impact against my legs as I hit the snow, sliding over a mogul, down with my heel edge fighting for purchase. I could not do it. A helpless child’s cry welled up inside.

By the end I was sweating. I had made it but my left leg was throbbing and I was angry, gripped by a fear that belonged in another time and place. I had made it but as I chuntered at my companions, fighting for control, I knew I needed to make that journey again.

I have done that; twice since then, each time with focus, rather than fear. Not necessarily with much greater skill but perhaps I make one more turn with each new journey. My journey; my itinerary.

And during this time my itinerary, my list of places, has changed. In the beginning I was not not staying for the entire ski season but would move on on 15 March towards Asia. Instead, I will be here in Reberty until the slushy end. This can be little more than a month away now: the lower slopes have turned to mush and the chalet roofs drip constantly onto the now exposed Tarmac.

When I move on I would not say I have a route, a line of travel, beyond that list. England seems a world away (wages, taxes, shopping and TV), like a pisted run I was brought up to travel on. I want to make my own line of travel, like dropping off the back of a mountain which you have been told is passable but you have no idea how until you get there.

* I have learnt over the last three months that all ‘pow’ (fresh powdery snow) must be shredded (ripped up with fresh tracks). This is known to some as ‘shredding the pow’ and is typed by this 33 year old with the greatest irony.

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Tired and grumpy having shredded people who have shredded the pow.

“Excuse Me, I Am Going Out To Find Myself. I Shall Return Shortly’

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The journey

It seems a tired and cliched path, the one you take to find yourself. And when you go ‘travelling’ there is something embarrassing and revealing about the priority of ‘you’ in the face of new cultures, people and geographies. And so, I have avoided writing about my ‘journey’ or else I have side stepped it, unable to write in a way that does not evoke an uneasy toe curling.

When we travel we are making our way through ‘the strange’ (people, places, circumstances) and respond for better or worse. But in daily life we don’t do that, we adapt to the situations we find ourselves in every day, we act and over time we make a mask. The mask is fashioned and painted in such a way that we believe is acceptable to those around us, it keeps us safe and eventually it is so familiar we believe it is who we are. In my current half-life, my mask is not fully formed. This is good.

One thing I currently am is a newspaper scavenger. Guests buy them at the airport on the way here, they lay crumpled in rooms and on transfer day they are abandoned. When I find them at 08:00 on a Sunday morning, already tired from 3 hours of work. It is hard not to plop down on a bed and spread them. One morning I did (banishing guilt) and began reading an article Suzy Greaves had published in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ supplement. She introduced the concept of ‘wilderness therapy’, the physical and emotional journey where you can reconnect with ‘your own true self’ (the one without the masks) using nature as the mediator.

Interesting, especially in relation to ‘the journey’. And in the challenges that she and her interviewees suggested the wilderness presented, I saw the mountain.

“The only obstacle to the mountain is your mind,” a wise man (nee Motor Engineer, Dave) recently wrote. I wondered at his intuition (motor engineers are not widely known for intuition) because then the mountain was one huge obstacle to me. It was excruciating; my legs burned, my neck and head ached from impact after impact, and it was frustrating; inside, the mountain made me rage, I was desperate to let go (give up). And even worse, as I rattled down the piste an awful thought took shape; ‘this is what I am’. Damn the mountain.

This is what I am:

Distrustful of myself: I judder along a lumpy piste or grate down a hard packed slope. The first thought comes: “can I do this?” And then the second, “no”. My legs buckle, I catch an edge or I slip backwards. Whatever, I meet solid ground with an unsuitable part if my body (incidentally, other than feet are any parts suitable?)

…And others. We might go out two of us or five of us in a pack. And we’re all different, what we want to do on a board or skis, what we can do, nobody is more important than another; I believe this when I’m in an objective frame of mind. But when I’m on a slope trying to keep the coloured outfits of my colleagues (friends? on Facebook yes, for good, I’m not sure) in sight. I am terrified I will lose them, they will abandon me. So I bump down the piste, my legs juddering like an Elvis, broken from acceleration and emergency breaking, the rest of me wet or bruised from the last crash. My physical and emotional journey is not taking me anywhere near a true self I am keen to know. Which brings me on…

My boundaries are drawn by fear. Ben Howard tells me this fairly regularly during the imaginatively titled ‘Snowboarding 1’ playlist. But in general I think it is quite natural to be wary of the hard packed snow meeting my padded (in some places) body at speed or the suffocating stuffing and dragging of the deep off-piste drifts that I become planted in. But if I could take away the fear and sprinkle on a little belief I could be bouncing over lumps and untouched snow with a huge smile on my face. I know my mind is the only difference. Thanks Dave.

And, since I began writing this, I have done it. It is typically un-British to celebrate in this way but what the f***…I I love snowboarding. I came here to be a child again, to climb onto my metaphorical skateboard everyday, ask my mates if they’re coming out to play and stay out late. The board has become part of me, for the very impermanent ‘now’, it is what I do. I look down at it smile because it is mine. And somehow I have found that belief in the speed I can go and the small jumps I can land – where belief in everything else remains as fragile as ever – and I have that smile. So with a little pain (currently a stiff knee and bruised coccyx) and some slightly disturbing realisations my wilderness therapy seems to be working.

So ‘huh hmmmm’ (uncomfortable British throat clearing) long may ‘the journey’ continue!