Category Archives: Travel

UN-DISCOVERED THAILAND – THE FESTIVALS OF ISSAN

In the Northeast of Thailand (on the Mekhong River and border of Laos) sits Issan – Thailand’s least visited province.

English is rarely spoken here and there are no golden beaches to attract hoards of western tourists. Visiting this “forgotten” province can be stressful; particularly for anyone new to Thailand (and especially for anyone coming from a cosy beach resort full of English speakers omelets on every menu!). Transport is confusing, the language barrier is more obvious than in the rest of Thailand and ordering food can be tricky – as a vegetarian I was often handed a pile of miscellaneous meat with the explanation:
“no meat, no meat, just pork”!

Children ready to perform at Phi Ta Khon Festival, Dan Sai, Issan, Thailand
Children ready to perform at Phi Ta Khon Festival

That being said, Issan can be a beautiful place to find a truly Thai experience with friendly locals. The people of Issan are proud of their culture with the unique dialect, ritual and famously spicy food that differs from the rest of Thailand. Issan lets you see the famous Mekhong River in a completely untouched environment and drive for hours through the mountains and endless views of forests, only broken by the occasional bamboo hut.

Young Thai dancer bows to an image of the king during Phi Ta Konfestival celebrations in Dan Sai, Thailand
Local Issan girl bows to image of the King at Phi Ta Khon procession

One reason to visit Issan is for the brilliant and bizarre annual festivals of rainy season, the most unique being Phi Ta Khon in Dan Sai – every year thousands of people descend on this sleepy village for 4 days of loud, colourful and sexually-charged celebration!

The festival combines a few different cultural and religious celebrations – and going in we thought we knew what to expect but we were proven wrong! The whole experience was perfectly summarised by a German journalist I shared some rice-cakes with:
“the longer I’m here the less I understand it”.

Spiritual disciples descend upon the temple to dance at the Phi Ta Khon Festival, Dan Sai, Issan, Thailand
Spiritual disciples descend upon the temple to dance at the Phi Ta Khon Festival

In a nutshell, from what I gathered from locals and other confused bloggers, the Phi Ta Khon festival (Festival of the Ghosts) is unique to Issan and centred around the story of the Buddha’s last great incarnation before attaining enlightenment – at that time local celebrations were so huge it woke the spirits of the village and nearby forest, so they joined the party. The festival creates a re-enactment of that great celebration, with local men wearing the Phi Ta Khon masks to represent and appease local spirits.

Phi Ta Khon masks at Phi Ta Khon festival, Dan Sai, Issan, Thailand. Made from
Phi Ta Khon masks are lovingly made with wood and coconut leaves. The headpiece is made from the woven cone used to make sticky rice (Issan’s specialty dish).

One element of the festival is based around fertility, and something we weren’t expecting was the countless number of phallic objects being waved around all weekend! Every Phi Ta Khon carried a huge wooden penis and we even got surprised by a few old ladies poking us from behind with penis canons! At the end of the second day giant penis-shaped bamboo rockets were fired into the sky to provoke rain-making spirits into doing their job of bringing a good rainy season.

Another thing we didn’t know was that the festival of Bun Luang is celebrated in parallel to Phi Ta Khon, and joins the party in Dan Sai for a weird and wonderful hybrid of sights and sounds. The two spiritual leaders of the town and their many disciples hold merit-making sermons all weekend, and their parades of orange and white beautifully clash with the madness of Phi Ta Khon.

IMG_1563
After a peaceful sermon disciples carry spiritual leaders and monks through the town in a huge procession of singing and dancing.

During the days you’ll be caught in never-ending parades of Thai dancers, phallic-waving Phi Ta Khons, impressive floats and loud music. You’ll wander through town and join hundreds of disciples dancing around temples, experience Buddhist monks chanting and praying at the river, share beers and hear stories from local people, and as one of only a few other “farangs” in town you’ll probably take part in hundreds of selfies with excited locals!

Hundreds of children compete in traditional dance contests over the weekend of Phi Ta Khon, Issan, Thailand.
Hundreds of children compete in traditional dance contests over the weekend of Phi Ta Khon.

At night you’ll experience the hospitality of Issan and drink beer with locals while dancing to live music at the main-stage. Then when the inevitable evening rain comes you’ll join hundreds of people carrying on the party from within the fish market!

Locals are dressed in colours from head-to-toe, making this one of Thailand's most colourful festivals. Phi Ta Khon, Dan Sai, Issan, Thailand.
Locals are dressed in colours from head-to-toe, making this one of Thailand’s most colourful festivals.

Over the weekend we lived with a lovely local lady who made us part of the family and showed us off around town as “her farangs”. We spent the evenings eating, drinking and partying with her and her friends. Most of them didn’t speak English but they partied hard and we didn’t need spoken language – the beauty of any festival is that everyone is connected by the shared experience of their surroundings, the joy that comes from music in the sunshine and – in this case – the spiritual ceremony that is so important to the thousands who celebrate Phi Ta Khon.

TIPS

There aren’t many places to stay in Dan Sai so book early at either Mountain Green Resort or the Ban Paja Resort (Pizza and Jaap will look after you at Ban Paja!).

If you are in the area visit Chiang Khan – a great riverside market village nearby which is trendy among Thais and tipped to become the next Pai.

Buddhist sermons and merit-making start from as early as 3am on the first day – so get some sleep!

THE CANDLE FESTIVAL 

If you are in Issan around July make sure you check out the Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival – the biggest and most elaborate candle festival in Thailand. In true SE Asian style the dates changed at the last minute this year and we couldn’t make it, so we will be celebrating on a smaller scale in Chiang Mai. But hang around in Issan and ask locals or a TAT office for the latest information.

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On email xstaticworld@gmail.com
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THROUGH THE EYES OF THE MAASAI – 5 REASONS TO VISIT A MAASAI VILLAGE

Of Kenya’s 42 tribes the image of the Maasai is the most iconic as one of the only tribes in the country who still retain their traditional way of life – making them one of Kenya’s most famous tourist “attractions”. This has sparked debate in recent years on the negative influence to their culture versus the much-needed money that tourism brings to the poorer communities.

I spent 2 weeks living and volunteering at Maji Moto Cultural Camp; a small tourist camp within the community of Maji Moto set up by Salaton Ole Ntutu – warrior, chief and spiritual leader. Money from tourists goes straight back into Salaton’s community projects like the primary school, widow’s village, health clinic and Medungi Conservation for the protection of land and wildlife.

Salaton Ole Ntutu - Masai warrior and Maji Moto community leader, Kenya
Salaton Ole Ntutu

5 REASONS TO VISIT THE MAASAI

1. Experience real life
Salaton’s camp is in the middle of a real living community and on arrival I was greeted with songs and the iconic jumping ceremony of the warriors. From then on, to my surprise, it wasn’t all song-and-dance every day; at first I even found myself a little disappointed when I wasn’t being constantly “entertained”. But I soon realised that wasn’t the purpose of my stay – I was there to live the life of the people, a very peaceful life, and I was quickly welcomed into the community as one of the family.

I milked goats, carried water, made jewellery, taught English, shopped at the lively local market, sang with the warriors, relaxed with the locals and walked to school with the kids.

2. Meet real people
The great thing about staying a while and blending into the community is having the time to get to know people and build lasting friendships.

Being the only white person, or “muzungu” around for miles I was quite noticeable as a stranger in a community of around 600 people, but I was always greeted with warm hearts and big smiles. The children in particular were fascinated by me and always curious, full of energy and eager to learn my English songs!

Many adults spoke no English but we were able to connect in other ways – singing, dancing, jumping, throwing spears, sharing chores and learning from each other.

Masai woman makes jewellery at Maji Moto Cultural Camp, Kenya

3. Enjoy the Masai Mara on your doorstep
The Masai Mara is a 580 sq. mile stretch of the Serengeti – once roamed on freely by the Masai people but now a protected game reserve hosting over 95 species of mammals. Anyone visiting Kenya should experience an overnight safari – seeing the Big 5 roam and hunt in their natural habitat, standing in an open-top van while driving across the vast expanse of grasslands, sleeping in a tent beside a watering hole and waking up with the animals.

Even if you can’t manage a safari drive you will experience the sights and sounds of the wild all around you. Walking across the Loita Plains I saw wild giraffes, antelope and even a zebra carcass being eaten by vultures. I watched the sun set over the Masai Mara from the top of the Loita Hills, slept among a colony of fruit bats and woke up to a family of baboons at my door.

giraffes at the Masai Mara Kenya

4. Learn to be a warrior
Traditionally Maasai men go through 3 stages of life – childhood, warriorhood and adulthood. Once circumcised at around age 13 a Maasai boy will usually leave his community to live in the bush for 7 years – he will sleep in a cave and learn to defend himself, live off the land and learn the earth and sky from the elders who have gone before him.

On my many walks with the warriors I was shown the ceremonial and medicinal uses of the plants and which to eat when living in the wild. I also learnt the behaviour of the animals, made fire and practised my spear-throwing!

For the final part of my training I was handed a cow-skin shield and sent into a field of warriors. With no prior warning they started hurling sticks at me – fast and hard! Myself and 2 Maasai girls did lots of screaming while hiding behind shields before we went in for an attack! After 10 minutes of war we called peace and danced around to warrior songs.

Masau warriors jumping at Maji Moto, Kenya

5. Relax
As a westerner accustomed to fast-paced life, stressful work and a constant stream of available entertainment it can be a struggle to get used to a lifestyle born out of pure outdoor living. But once you embrace the peace of your surroundings, laid-back ways of the locals, lack of media and love of nature you can find a new sense of relaxation.

The sleep I had at Maji Moto was the best I’ve had in years – you spend your entire day outside among the trees, your nights by the fire looking up at billions of bright stars, no TV or iPhone keeping you up until the early hours of the morning, the stress that normally floats around your head all night lifts away and you can just drift off in the pitch-black dark of night to the sound of birds, insects and the occasional hyena.

I was told that the Masai have no recorded history of stress-related illness and most of the people I met across Kenya really did live by “hakuna matata” – no worries.

Masai people on the Loita plains, Kenya

I visited in low-season and would recommend it to anyone looking for a truly authentic experience – or if you visit around August you will have other tourists to interact with and get a chance to see the great wildebeest migration!

Get in touch at xstaticworld@gmail.com
or on Twitter @XstaticWorld

TRAVELLING ON BUSINESS – TIPS FROM NAIROBI, KENYA

Having been in Nairobi, Kenya for a week now I can’t tell you a whole lot about it – I’m here on business for the first few weeks of my trip, organising a large international conference, and so my experience of this beautiful country has mostly been airport-hotel-office-hotel. But I’ve been embracing my surroundings as much as possible so here are 5 ways to enjoy travelling on business:

1. Actively embrace local food and culture.

You’re likely to be staying in a hotel catered for westerners – burgers, chips and omelettes on the menu and Carlsberg in the fridge. If you don’t make the effort to try new things it’s easy to slip into a “Busman’s Holiday”. Even if it’s not on the menu, ask your hotel staff to make you something traditional – they’re usually happy to cook their local cuisine!

There’s no one dish that represents Kenya as the 42 different tribes (or communities) of the country hold their own unique culture and tradition. Nyama choma (grilled meat) is the most popular meal and usually eaten with ugali and kachumbari.

Sweet-banana salesman in Nairobi, Kenya
A roadside sweet-banana salesman in Nairobi, Kenya

2. Have a day off.

Working on a large project in any country can mean 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Make sure you plan 1 day in the middle of your work trip to go and explore. Go out early on a Sunday as most of your colleagues won’t be calling and traffic will be clear. Get all of your work done on Friday/Saturday so you can relax in the knowledge that you’re on top of your deadlines and can turn off all of your devices. You’re free for a day, enjoy the calm before Monday’s storm!

I took a day to drive around the entire city with a local – he took me to tourist attractions like the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Nairobi Giraffe Center. He also showed me the real Nairobi outside of the tourist areas and largely European suburbs. Stepping away from the computer and into Kenya was just what I needed!

A baby elephant watering at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Center - Nairobi, Kenya
A baby elephant watering at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Center – Nairobi, Kenya

3. Make friends with the hotel staff.

It can get a little dull stuck in a hotel on your own, especially in a city like Nairobi where – as a foreigner – you can’t safely just wander out to a bar alone and make friends.

Having worked in bars and restaurants I know the hotel staff are probably more bored than I am! So when I’ve had enough of my room I’ve wandered downstairs, offered the night-staff a beer and learnt about their lives and their country. This week I even got let into the kitchen for a late-night cooking lesson!

Masai Market in Nairobi, Kenya
Handmade souvenirs at a Masai Market in Nairobi, Kenya

4. Get used to local time.

I don’t mean re-set your watch. You’ll find in a lot of places that your local colleagues are much more laid-back about deadlines than you’re used to. In Kenya particularly the approach really is “hakuna matata” – no worries, it’ll get done.

Most Kenyans run on “Kenyan-time” and so your 2pm meeting could start anywhere between 2.30-4pm. Get used to this quickly and don’t let it frustrate you. Surrender to the idea that you may become the office monster from time-to-time!

HAKUNA MATATA! A young warthog chills near the giraffes at Nairobi giraffe centre, Kenya.
HAKUNA MATATA! A young warthog chills near the giraffes at Nairobi Giraffe Center, Kenya.

5. Speak the language.

As with anywhere you go on holiday or on business, locals appreciate hearing their native language. Even if you just learn the basics (hello, thank you, goodbye) you can be assured to receive a wider smile, especially in Kenya!

Helen and Daisy walk together at the Nairobi Giraffe Center, Kenya
Helen and Daisy walk together at the Nairobi Giraffe Center, Kenya

Get in touch at xstaticworld@gmail.com
Follow me on Instagram @XstaticGibbo and Twitter @XstaticWorld

#NOTETOSELF – FEAR IS TEMPORARY.

Jo spent 5 months in South East Asia, Australia and finally New Zealand. She spent her last week hitchhiking, jumping off cliffs and getting tattooed. Before she flew home to England she wrote herself this message – a perfect piece of advice to remember the freedom of fearlessness.

“FEAR IS TEMPORARY. ACHIEVEMENT LASTS FOREVER”.

Jo in New Zealand with the #NOTETOSELF project - Fear is temporary. Achievement lasts forever.
Jo in New Zealand

Forgotten Photos from the Black Rock Roller Disco (Burning Man 2014)!

I got a lovely surprise today.. an email from Schwabel Studio and a project called the Human Light Suit – Eric Schwabel took my photo at the Black Rock Roller Disco (Burning Man) 7 months ago and finally gifted it back to me it true Burner style! Heading to your first Burn this year? Read about a ‘virgin burner’s’ experience here.

Eric Schwabel Human Light Suit Burning Man Black Rock Roller Disco

Eric Schwabel at Black Rock Roller Disco Burning Man 2014

#NOTETOSELF – VALENTINE’S DAY – LETTERS FROM LONDON

Last weekend countries around the world celebrated Valentine’s Day!

Here in England I took the #NOTETOSELF project to the streets and asked the good people of London to show us what they’d write to themselves or the world in a Valentine’s card!

See the results for yourself in the first ever XSTATICWORLD video…

‘Your Smile’ by The Going Goods.

Check out our photos of all these lovely people and our brilliant day below –
and in the full #NOTETOSELF gallery here.

Massive thanks to Henry Dell, Frankie Checkley, Megan Street and The Going Goods.

How did the #NOTETOSELF project get started? Find out here.

Get in touch:
xstaticworld@gmail.com

On Twitter: @XstaticWorld / @XstaticGibbo
On Instagram: @XstaticGibbo

#NOTETOSELF – THE RAINBOW SERPENT FESTIVAL – AUSTRALIA

Last weekend a good friend of mine, Stefano Dinami, took the #NOTETOSELF project to the Rainbow Serpent Festival in Victoria, Australia.

The Rainbow Serpent Festival is a boutique electronic music, arts and lifestyle festival in Lexton, Victoria. Organisers say “it’s a fresh discovery of opportunity and escapism, a chance to connect with like-minded individuals and to celebrate nature, community and harmony”.

Photo from sonicgravy.com
Photo from sonicgravy.com

Inspired by Burning Man theme camps Stefano and his team set out to create a glitter-fuelled paradise of their own – and so the ‘Glam and Cheese Toasties’ camp was born. They offered festival-goers three unique tents for relaxing, doing yoga, drinking and most importantly;
applying glitter.

Glam and Cheese Toasties at the Rainbow Serpent Festival, Australia #NOTETOSELF
Glam and Cheese Toasties

After an important Glam and Cheese initiation ceremony on the first night (Lick glitter. Sip tequila. Eat a lemon Starburst.) the team hit the festival and got to work approaching strangers with a piece of paper and a Sharpie. The results were phenomenal. Stefano said:

“Everyone we approached was really excited about writing their future selves a letter. I also got a lot of joy out of doing it so don’t imagine it was ever a chore for me!”

According to Stefano the camps, art, music and lifestyle at Rainbow Serpent was enough to make you feel like you were in a little slice of Black Rock City – from the major EDM stages to the Bean-Bag-Babylon Camp, the roller disco, the donated-alcohol free bars and the lifestyle village hosting guided meditation, yoga and hula-hooping. Although, Rainbow Serpent did have its own unique charm with a beautiful market village as well as world music, electro-swing, cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville, circus performers and much more.

Sylvie - Rainbow Serpent Festival - Australia 2015 #NOTETOSELF

 “Our world’s population was 16,500 – big enough for a great party but small enough to see the same friendly faces day-to-day. Everyone I met was no doubt having a special time and we all wished it didn’t have to come to an end so soon – this party should last 7 days!”

Chelsea - Rainbow Serpent Festival - Australia 2015 #NOTETOSELF

See all eleven #NOTETOSELF letters from the Rainbow Serpent Festival 2015 and their wonderful owners below. See the full #NOTETOSELF gallery here.

Stefano was with me all the way while collecting these letters at Burning Man and he even received his own letter all the way from England recently. Now he’s paid it forward and at some point this year he’ll provide a bunch of strangers and friends with a fantastic gift. I can’t thank Stefano enough for his tremendous support as we spread the #NOTETOSELF project as far and wide as possible.

Get involved!

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