Malay Peninsula, Post Script: Airports, Visas & Life Lessons

Although the adventure in the Malay Peninsula was finished, I had one more obstacle to overcome before I could return home. Vietnam. In this tragic comedy of errors, I learned about the only airport in the world that doesn’t have a fly through policy, and I managed to check one more item off my bucket list. Never underestimate the stopping power of Communist bureaucracy or the healing power of pho. Don’t want to read about airports? Check out the end for some heartwarming life lessons about challenge and gratitude.


The Airports

Normally, I would not write about an airport, but it seemed that Thailand just could not let me go without a fight. Surat Thani was no trouble. A giant double decker plush AC bus (the kind I wish I’d been in on every other occasion in Thailand) pulled up to the hotel at 11am to whisk me off to the airport for a small fee. The airport was miniscule, but the staff were helpful. Nothing was labeled, but it was small enough that didn’t matter. Instead of posting about delays, they just told us.

I met a fun person in the airport, because I magnetize them to me. After our introductions, she gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten: “You’re way more interesting than looking at my phone!” So we pocketed our devices and talked until the late plane arrived to take us to Bangkok. And so it was, in this pleasant lackadaisical mood that I arrived in Bangkok with a several hour layover and plans to do some last minute shopping and get a nice meal.

I wandered out of domestic and over to the international terminal with only a mild case of being lost twice, and finally found my check in counter amid the totally not at all labeled rows of counters by the simple expedient of going up to a person and asking. However, here’s where the regular international airport challenges start to level up. While going through the check in process, I was informed that I cannot be issued my boarding pass without a visa. I don’t need a visa, I tell her, I have a residence card, showing my Korean ID. No, she says, for Vietnam.

You Need A Visa to Get In

Now, my flight, which I booked on the amazing and cheap website kiwi.com, took me from Surat Thani, through Bangkok, through Hanoi, and finally to Busan (where I live). In normal reality, catching a connecting flight in a country does not require a visa unless  you plan to leave the airport for some layover sightseeing. This is standard operating procedure around the world. China (which up until recently had a monstrously complicated tourist visa application with huge fees and wait times) has lots of people fly through without visas. Even Saudi Arabia which does not issue tourist visas will let people catch connecting flights in Jeddah on their way to some more touristy section of the Gulf. You don’t need visas to catch connecting flights. It’s like an immutable law of reality.

“I’m not going to Vietnam, I’m just catching a connecting flight.”, I say. “I don’t need a visa because I’m not leaving the airport.”

“No,” she says. “You need a visa. I can’t give you a boarding pass without a visa.”

Call Your Embassy

I search the internet frantically looking for supporting documentation, and while it is true that every single web search I get back tells me this immutable fact over and over, they do not care. They will not issue me a boarding pass without a visa. I’m having nightmare flashes of being stranded in Thailand, of missing work, of non-refundable tickets I’ve paid for… Unable to find anything on the US State Department travel site OR the Vietnam Embassy sight about airport transit, I finally called the US Embassy to see if they could confirm or deny this situation and maybe point me at some official document that supported my not needing a visa. The on call staffer at the Embassy agreed, this is bizarre, and he’s never heard of an airport where you need a visa to change planes, but they are also unable to find any official statements anywhere online. Then I run out of minutes and the call is disconnected.

I try to talk to the airline to see if I can get the flight changed, but that’s going to take a day or more because there are no flights that day with room. The Vietnam Embassy website has an online visa application, but it takes 5 days. Expidited forms won’t load on my phone, I need a real computer. I’m losing my mind. The check in counter staff show me a website that’s a private business (vietnam e-visa) who I can pay to get my visa quickly, but my flight is in less than 2 hours now. 30 minutes, they promise. The fee for the visa was only 19$ US, BUT, since I needed it in 30 minutes, and it was a Sunday, AND it was Tet (the very famous Vietnamese holiday that is in literally every Vietnam war movie), it was going to cost me an extra 190$ in processing fees. Before plunking down 200$ on a visa, I wanted to vet the website, and found that there are apparently a large number of fraudulent websites that advertise Vietnamese visas and don’t deliver. Finally, I found a traveler who had used the site I was on and had reported success, but advised us all to spring for the “airport fast check in” option for an extra 25$. Her story of waiting around the airport for hours to get approval was convincing, and so it came to pass that I paid 234 American dollars to buy a visa into Vietnam for the privilege of changing planes in the Hanoi airport also known as “the Story of the Most Expensive Bowl of Pho Ever”.

Getting to Hanoi

I didn’t have time to eat or shop. I managed to buy an overpriced sandwich from a cafe by the gate before boarding because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at my hotel and it was now after 6pm. Between the delayed flight in Surat Thani and the visa ordeal, I had used up all my layover hours. I got several emails from the visa service with instructions, very dire and specific instructions, as well as a pdf of a letter of visa application (not even a real visa yet).

When I got to Hanoi, the staff from the visa company was thankfully waiting for me with a sign. She ushered me into a waiting area and took my letter and passport away for processing. I was expecting to have to take some passport sized photos there for the paperwork, but I guess somehow they copied the photo from my actual passport instead and used that. Less than 15 minutes later she came back and handed me my passport with Vietnamese visa inside, while other people were still standing in line at the visa counter. At least that “fast check in” option paid off.

From there, I was able to go through immigration. For reasons unknown to any but the arcane inner circle of the Vietnamese bureaucracy, there is not an international waiting area. I’m told that if you’re travelling through Hanoi with both flights on the same airline, that it is possible to bypass the visa and customs rigamarole, but since many ticket sellers and even airlines use partners to get you from one leg of your journey to the next, buying your ticket from one place, doesn’t guarantee all your flights are on the same airline.

The Most Expensive Bowl of Pho

I had to go through customs and immigration. There was no need for me to leave the airport, mind you, since once through immigration, I could simply turn around and re-enter the security screening and boarding areas. But, since I’d spent so much on a visa, I did step outside and breathe the external Vietnamese air, just to say I did. I also fulfilled one of my long time bucket list items, to eat pho in Vietnam.

If you don’t know pho, you are missing out. This magical Vietnamese noodle soup took Seattle by storm more than a decade ago and it’s a staple cheap and delicious food for all occasions. Sick? Eat pho. Celebrating? Eat pho. Too busy to cook? Eat pho. Having a first date? Than Brothers it is. I even had my grad school graduation dinner there. You can get a fairly large bowl of it for 5-6$ which is dirt cheap when you realize that it’s actually good homemade food and not the McProcessed value menu. I love pho. I idolize pho. And typically, when people ask me what food I miss from America the most, I answer pho, because even though it’s not “American” that’s often the only country I can find it in with regularity. So of course, being in Asia is a big opportunity to have pho in the land of it’s origin. Bucket list, check.

The moral of the story is, if you have a connecting flight in Vietnam, call the airlines, ask, and even if they say you don’t need a visa, it might be worth it to drop the 20$ a week before your flight and get that paperwork rolling. Otherwise you could end up with a very expensive bowl of pho, too.

The Lesson of the Malay Adventure

This vacation was very different from what I have experienced recently and from what I expected. In many ways, I am grateful that my boundaries were pushed and my comfort zone was challenged. It’s easy to fall into a “new normal” and for me that meant more travel, more maps and trekking and becoming comfortable with navigating new cities, new modes of transportation and multiple languages. Which used to be challenging and exciting and even a little scary, but has become normal. It never ceases to amaze me what the human mind can adapt to.

I learned some very practical lessons about the balance between knowing your limits and being confined by them. I spent so long learning how to say “yes, I can do that” that I kind of forgot how or when to say, “no, that’s too much”. Plus, those goalposts move throughout our lives. As a teenager, staying up for 3 days and sleeping in a car on a road trip was fine. And no matter how many people told me that my body would not let me do those things as I got older, it’s hard to accept being “older”. The list of things I have to do with modification is getting longer, and my ability to function on less than 8 solid hours of sleep is greatly diminished.

Part of me wishes for every holiday to be as perfect as the New Zealand holiday, but there are two reasons I am glad they aren’t. One, I don’t want perfect to ever be my “new normal”. I would stop appreciating it if there were nothing to contrast it with. I would no longer feel the same amount of joy and gratitude for amazing things if they were regular. And two, I think we need adversity to know ourselves and to grow. I never want to stop growing and learning, so I need obstacles and challenges to help me achieve that. I don’t want to live in a constant state of challenge, I like it when my day to day life is quiet and enjoyable, but I value being pushed beyond my “normal”. I value expanding my comfort zone. I even value learning there’s a place my comfort zone is never going be.

Finally, every time we overcome, we become more capable. With each obstacle conquered, we look at lesser challenges more serenely. In 2012, I climbed a huge mountain in China. We were fat, out of shape Americans, and even though we took the bus and gondola as high up as we could, we still climbed stairs for 7.5 hours to get to the top. I’m sure fit people do it faster, but it wasn’t a race or even a comparison. It was about us, in our state at that time conquering something that many people (probably even ourselves) would have considered too hard for us. We made it to the top, we slept up there overnight and we watched the sunrise because that’s what you do on this particular mountain. And for years afterward, when one of us was struggling with something in life, we said, ‘remember the mountain’.  

Something was harder than I thought, but I did it anyway. That’s what builds confidence, what encourages healthy risk taking, and ultimately those lead to a more interesting and more fulfilling life. So keep it up world. Bring me your stunning beaches and awe-inspiring caves. Bring me your mind-mindbogglingly beautiful flowers and butterflies. Bring me your humans full of welcoming and their delicious food. But don’t let me leave behind your scungy alleyways, or your hotel invading rats, or your foot scarring coral reefs. I’ll take the whole package deal and know that each new wonder or obstacle lives with me forever, shaping the person I will be tomorrow.

Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

Malay Peninsula 15: “The Worst Day” or “How I Lost My Cool”

Sometimes vacations go awry. Sometimes it’s not fun anymore. And sometimes it gets so bad you feel like that toddler in the grocery store who just can’t take it anymore and has a critical meltdown in the aisle. For me, it was the second half of my 11th day. The combination of physical exertion, dehydration, low blood sugar, frustration, culture shock, and physical discomfort from overheating and actual injuries came together in a perfect storm. The story of how things went wrong is one I hope I can look back on with humor someday, but it is also one I know I can learn from. Not only can I see where my limits are so as to better respect them in the future, I can see where my resilience is strongest and nurture that in times of strife.


When last we saw our intrepid traveler, she was crammed in the back of yet another Thai “bus” (overstuffed minivan) on her way back to her hotel in Krabi, running only an hour or more behind schedule in hopes of catching the last bus out of town across the peninsula to Surat Thani. In addition to the delay in schedule, our heroine is suffering from a wounded foot, the result of a coral scrape now chaffed by sandal straps, beaten by sunshine, splashed with mangrove water and stepped in bat guano. This is where it gets bad. If you want to preserve the illusion that my travels are all magical adventures, skip the rest of this day.

Thai “Taxi”

Luckily, it seemed my guide had mentioned my predicament to the driver, because even though I was jammed in the back of the van, they stopped at my hotel first. With about an hour to catch the bus, I collected my luggage from the storage room and asked if they hotel could call a taxi to take me to the bus station. They could, of course, but were planning to charge an outrageous fee. Taking in my disheveled state and lone backpack as luggage, I think the clerk realized I was not a luxury tourist and kindly gave me directions to the nearest taxi stand where I could catch a local taxi for much less.

My foot had not fared well that day. Despite the sunscreen, I picked up my only sunburn of the holiday (mild pink, not serious). The area around my coral scrape was red and inflamed and I was sure it was getting infected. The brackish water and barefoot cave mud could not have helped (hopefully my mother skips this blog entry, I haven’t told her how dumb I was about that cut). I managed to arrange my shoe so that it dragged less on the skin, but I had to shuffle walk.

The taxi stand was a couple blocks away and around a corner, near a landmark hotel. I found the corner and the hotel, but nothing that looked like a taxi or a stand. Thailand has a serious problem translating transportation devices into English. First “bus”, and now “taxi”. As I stood there looking white, lost, and confused, searching for anything that looked like a taxi and wishing I’d taken some time to learn the Thai alphabet, an old man approached me and with the universal sign language of charades, inquired as to my dilemma. This took a moment, because we then said “what” at each other about 4 times before I finally said I wanted to go to the bus station, in English, because I did not know what else to try. It worked however, because he nodded and gestured for me to follow him… back to a little truck, the bed of which had been kitted out with benches and a sort of hard awning top.

There comes a moment in an adventure where you are so far out of your element you can’t see it with a telescope. Trusting in the goodness of humans, I hopped in the back of the truck. As we drove along, we picked up more passengers, and dropped off a couple too, who would stop by the cab window to pay the driver. I watched one passenger push a little button on the roof I hadn’t noticed before and realized it was like the bus stop button to let the driver know to pull over. It turns out “taxi” in Thai is like a tiny truck bus/ rideshare thing that doesn’t have a set route or fare. I watched my GPS and saw we were indeed headed to the bus station, and when we arrived, about half the passengers disembarked with me, so I had some time to find my money. The trip cost me less than 1$. I accidentally tried to hand the money to the passenger in the cab before realizing he was a monk! I guess ride-sharing taxis is efficient, but it sure was confusing for a newcomer.

I made it to the bus station with a little time to spare and headed over to the ticket counters to secure passage. I bought my ticket, hit the bathroom, and bought some water before sitting down next to the number where I was told my bus would arrive. I watched large buses come and go, unsurprised that my bus was not on time. I should have known not to expect anything so comfortable as a real bus. Shortly, a battered gray minivan pulled up and an old man hopped out and gestured for myself and the other lady waiting in the seats there to get in. There were no markings, not even a sign in the window. He did not ask for our tickets. The inside of the van was crammed as full as can be. I think they may have actually installed an extra row of seats. I perched on the edge (all of what was left) of one bench next to a rather large man, struggling to stuff my bag in the tiny space between my seat and the seat in front, my legs out in the space that would be called an aisle.

In this cramped and hot conveyance, I sat for nearly 3 hours to get to Surat Thani. All the research I did on Surat Thani was basically a litany of warnings: don’t go here it is not a tourist town it has no attractions. I couldn’t imagine that. In my experience, most towns have something, but regardless, I wasn’t planning to see Surat Thani, I had come because it was supposed to be the easier route to Khao Sok and because my plane back to Korea would depart from the Surat Thani airport.

Rip Off

When the van arrived, I was shuffled over to a travel agency where absolutely no one was interested in talking to me about my need to get out to Khao Sok the next day. I did manage to get someone to call me a taxi that wanted to charge me 150 Baht to take me to my hotel (for comparison, the taxi in Krabi had been 30 Baht and my minivan from Krabi clear across the peninsula to Surat Thani was 180). I felt massively exploited – white person just arrived in town, let’s rip her off – so I threw a bit of a fit. They told me it was because the hotel was so far away, and I pulled up Google Maps to show them it was less than 3km. I could have walked if my foot were not throbbing and raw from the coral injury. I finally agreed to 100 Baht, and sat with bad grace in the back of another truck taxi while the driver picked up and dropped off other passengers along the way.

The hotel may have only been 3km away, but it was quite isolated. When I selected it based on the map location, it seemed so close to the city center, however that was without any context for the city of Surat Thani. The many internet articles that advised how not-tourist friendly this town is were not kidding. The city is not pedestrian friendly, and lacks sufficient taxis, so if you want to get around, be prepared to pay an arm an a leg or rent a motorbike. But I was tired, hungry, hot, dirty. I had spent the beginning of my day in cramped minivans and the end of my day in cramped minivans, and however lovely the kayaking in the middle was, I had a seriously long day and was ready for a shower and a bed.

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the isolated side street where my hotel was, via Google street view

Travel Arrangements

My plans for the next day were to go to a family farm near to but not actually in Khao Sok, where a retired trekking elephant was cared for and had visits from the public by appointment. I had done lots of research on ethical elephant interaction in Thailand and discovered that there isn’t much of it in the south. There was a well regarded luxury elephant resort, but it was going to run about 450$ for two days and one night. The other place I found was this family farm, which seemed to be legit and well reviewed. I had been in contact with them via email and they seemed to think it would be very easy for me to get from Surat Thani to their farm on any of the vans going to Khao Sok. All I had to do was give their phone number to the driver to get directions. Since the farm was literally on the road to the park, the vans would pass it on the way.

While checking in, I noticed that the hotel offered rides to Khao Sok so I tried to ask about what it would take to get dropped off at my destination. This proved challenging as there was only one person on staff who spoke English, and he kept leaving. Protip: not everyone who advertises on Booking.com as speaking English actually does.

At first the hotel said they could not drop me off. Then they made some calls, had me call the farm itself so they could talk to them about the location and finally said ok. Wouldn’t it be a nice story if this were the end?

Cash Only

The hotel didn’t accept credit cards, and I was running low on cash. I hadn’t seen an ATM anywhere. I didn’t worry about it when I first arrived in Surat Thani because I figured there would be one near my hotel. It turned out the nearest ATM was about 1km up the rural road where it intersected the main road. I had no choice but to walk…reversing 1km of the 3km I had overpaid to be driven down… and back again, on my torn up foot. That’s right. I paid 100 baht to avoid walking 3km and ended up having to walk 2 anyway.

The heat of the day had thankfully faded, and I was allowed to leave my bag in the lobby. It was not possible for me to walk quickly. Even when not injured, my feet swell in heat and during long rides, but the coral scrape had become increasingly red and painful throughout the day. I set out on dusty road, passing half a dozen stray dogs, heaps of garbage and flies, derelict buildings filled with so much rubbish they may have well been dumping grounds. The whole thing belied the beautiful photos of the hotel, strategically taken to show none of the surrounding area. I passed the bloated corpse of a dog on the side of the road and tried hard to bite down on my disgust and judgement, reflecting that my pain, hunger and weariness were making me less tolerant, but it was hard going. I didn’t have the energy to take pics of trash and dog corpses, so these are from Google street view. They’re from February of 2016 and look a bit cleaner than the day I was there.

I made it up to the main road. The distance was not so great, but anyone whose had to walk on a foot injury knows how little that matters, and walking through trash and decay did not make the experience any easier. I found the ATM and got some money, then looked around for any sign of a restaurant, finding none. Again, I had expected a hotel to be near amenities and was sadly mistaken. I couldn’t bear to wander aimlessly around anymore, so I went into a corner store and picked up some food there: yogurt, a sandwich, a banana and a candy bar. I limped my way back to the hotel in the dark, and back to the desk to finally check in.

Change of Plans

While paying for my room and van ride, the girl at the desk who spoke only a few words of English, started giving me different information about the van ride than what I’d agreed to before going to the ATM. Something had changed in my absence, but she couldn’t explain it, so the English speaker had to be summoned once more. They weren’t going to take me to the farm, but instead their driver would take me to a travel agent in town where I would wait around for an hour or more then be taken maybe to another place where I might need to wait some more, and I could get to my location at like 10-11am. But still wake up and leave the hotel at 6am. To get to a place that was an hour away.

This was me summoning every moment I’ve ever worked in service to remind myself not to yell at anyone. I took deep breaths and tears came to the corner of my eyes. I can’t do that, I told them. My appointment is at 9am, so if you can’t take me to the farm, just take me to the park entrance where everyone else is dropped off and I’ll get farm folks to pick me up. This sounds simple, but it was more than 20 minutes of broken English, confused explanations, and me walking away to count backwards from 10 repeatedly.

Emotional Overload

I got to my room and cried. I cried about every difficult thing that I’d encountered on the holiday. I cried about every obstacle, every pain, every disappointment. Then I had a shower and ate some food and talked to a friend online. I didn’t really feel better, but I hoped that sleep would help and I was determined to make the most of my final day on holiday and visit the elephant ethically. I fell asleep around 8pm.

At about 10:30pm I was woken up by barking. Frantic get out of my house barking. I tried turning up the volume on my headphones. I tried folding the pillow over my ears to muffle the sounds. I hoped that whatever was bothering the dog would go away, but it didn’t stop. The hotel was made of shipping containers. The insides were quite adorable and well constructed, but not especially soundproof. On top of this, my window faced the street. I looked out the window and saw that a dog in one of the fenced in yards was barking it’s head off at the dogs on the street who did not give a shit. The barking dog’s owners just as clearly didn’t give a shit because he’d been barking for about half an hour by this time.

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This photo is also from Google street view, hence the daylight. I stayed in one of these container rooms. The dogs are not “cute” to me anymore.


I snapped.

Yes, somewhere in the world, there are people who have had it worse. I’m not looking for pity or comparing my experience to yours or, for example, a soldier’s or refugee’s. But I was on holiday. I hadn’t slept well for several nights, and hadn’t eaten well for all but maybe 2 of the 11 days. I had a foot injury that was starting to look infected, and I had trudged in this state passed heaps of trash and a dead dog carcass. I was so far out of spoons that I had sobbed my eyes out before falling asleep, and now after a mere 2 hours of rest, I was woken up with no sign of being able to sleep again and an alarm set for 6 am.

I Snapped

I packed my things and dressed, heading to the lobby to see if I could get a different room, away from the dogs, but the only person there was not the English speaker. She understood that my issue was with the dogs, but she tried to explain she couldn’t do anything about it because they didn’t belong to the hotel.

This conversation was nearly impossible. I was so tired I could barely express myself and she barely spoke English. I know she could tell I was upset, because I started crying again, but there was nothing we could do. Eventually I decided to change hotels.
“I’ll check out”, I said, “Call me a taxi”. But she said I couldn’t check out until I cancelled on the booking.com website. Using my phone and slow data, I managed to cancel my reservation and to book myself a room in the fanciest hotel in Surat Thani (less than 2km away).

She hadn’t called a taxi. I asked again. “What hotel?”, she asked. “Wangtai”, I said. She looked totally perplexed. Bear in mind, this is the biggest, poshest hotel in the city, and she’s looking like she’s never heard of it. I showed her the name in Thai and a look of instant recognition crosses her face. Oh, Wangtai, of course. We went through the rigmarole of refunds. I had quite honestly expected to pay for one night since I had occupied the room, but they refunded my entire amount, including the now cancelled ride to Khao Sok in the morning. It sounds simple, but everything had to be done in exaggerated sign language and triplicate forms, so it took over an hour from the time I came in with my bags to the time I got my refund. “A taxi?”, I repeated and she finally called, but by that time the taxis were “closed”.

Nuclear Meltdown

I may have turned into the worst kind of tourist here. Even writing it, it’s hard for me to convey the situation and it seems like I’m overreacting. I mean, I wasn’t quite at the awful tourist level of yelling at a coffee shop for not having a flat white, but I was loosing my mind from pain, exhaustion, culture shock and serious struggles. I’m fairly sure I raised my voice and uttered unflattering things about the city of Surat Thani and it’s taxis. I cried. I stomped. I huffed. I cursed. And while I tried to direct my rage at anyplace other than the girl behind the counter who was doing her best to help me, I am ashamed to say, I was not a nice person.

I could not bear the notion of trying to return to my room. I could hear the dogs from the lobby, though not as loudly, enough to know they were still at it. Plus, I’d already checked out. I thought about walking the distance on my burning foot with all my things. I turned once more to Google to see if there was any option, perhaps to have the other hotel come and fetch me or any kind of private transportation service.

Redemption

Suddenly, the girl at the desk said that her friend would drive me there on her motorbike. I almost collapsed in gratitude. I tried my best to apologize for my outbursts and to thank them for helping me. It’s still hard for me to believe how much they did to try and help me despite the fact that I was being a total brat.

 I had never ridden on a motorcycle before. I had my backpack, day bag, and bag of snacks and no time to rearrange my belongings. She didn’t have a spare helmet, and all I could think as I sat on the back of the bike, one hand on her shoulder and the other holding bag number 3, was “please don’t let my mom freak out about this”. I decided to close my eyes so I couldn’t see passing traffic. I thought of the things I’d read about being a motorcycle passenger, how to lean into turns and help the driver balance. The night air was soft and cool compared with the heat of the day and the ride was smooth and uneventful. When we arrived, I thanked her several more times before heading inside.

Spend the Money

The Wangtai is the swankiest hotel in Surat Thani. It’s in a reasonable location, and has a cafe, convenience store, and restaurant in the lobby, along with a massage parlor and spa and swimming pool (closed for renovations when I went ). The lobby was staffed with well dressed people who spoke excellent English even at midnight. I got checked in and settled in my suite with vouchers for breakfast and the sauna. And all of this was about 40$ US a night.

Thailand is cheap. In Europe and New Zealand things are pricier. I stayed in shared dorms that were almost the same price as the Wangtai. I traveled like a poor uni student on gap year, and I thought I should do the same thing in Thailand.  With very few exceptions (the hotel in Krabi) it’s just asking for suffering. My first hotel in Surat Thani was 11$ a night for a private room, while the most expensive hotel in town was only 40$ a night. The minivan from Krabi to Surat Thani was 6$ where a private car would have been about 45$. The point is, you can only choose 2: money, time, or comfort. If you have lots of time, then taking those 6$ minivans is great because you can recover in between adventures. But if you’re on a short trip to Thailand, I recommend to spend the money. Being comfortable can make all the difference between an awesome experience and an epic meltdown.


It’s now July and we’re finally almost to the end of my winter holidays 2017. Although I didn’t get to visit the elephant, I did have at least one more magical experience before leaving Thailand, so I hope you’ll come back to see the rewards of getting back on the horse after a fall.

Here in Korea, I’m working my way through the worst root canal ever, creating the materials for summer camp, getting ready for Seoul Pride and counting down to a brief return to the states. I’ll do my best to get everything online before stepping out, but if not, I hope you’ll be patient until my return. Don’t forget to see the holiday albums on Facebook and (almost) daily photo updates on Instagram! Thanks!

Malay Peninsula 14: Kayaking at Bor Thor

Thailand is best described as hours of cramped, hot, sweaty transportation interspersed with mind blowingly beautiful scenery and majestically unique experiences. Is it worth it? Well, I might do some things differently if I ever go back, but I can’t deny that the positive experiences will stay with me far into the future. Kayaking at Bor Thor was one of those things that I didn’t even know I was missing until I was there, and now I can’t imagine passing up the opportunity to experience it. Even if it did come with some discomfort.


Day 11 of the trip was a half day journey to some sea caves at Bor Thor with kayaking.

*The kayaking was a half day because I hoped to be doing an elephant experience on day 12 near Khao Sok. The internet revealed that getting to Khao Sok from Krabi was very challenging, but getting there from Surat Thani was easy. I toyed with the idea of staying that night in Khao Sok, but I was told the only transport from Krabi to Khao Sok left at 10am, which would leave me no time to do anything in Krabi at all. But the last bus from Krabi to Surat Thani left at 430pm and was plenty of time to do a half day kayaking tour, then get to Surat Thani for the night and take one of the many bus options to Khao Sok the next morning.  It sounds so good, doesn’t it? Lies. Anyway, kayaking.

Thai Transportation

I signed up for a tour that included hotel pick up and drop off. My pick up time was a 15 minute window and 30 minutes later the driver finally showed up. We drove for a while and then pulled over on the side of the highway. I was ushered from the truck that had picked me up into a minivan with a different driver. The minivan sat there on the side of the road waiting for more passengers, I was told. That minivan never went anywhere. Eventually, another minivan pulled up across the highway and I was instructed to cross several lanes of highway traffic to join them.

That minivan had a few more tourists in it, making me feel less like I was about to join the white slave trade, and we drove a bit further until we paused at a rest stop where we could use the restroom, get a snack and hang out with this giant bird shrine. I’m not sure why we stopped there or stayed so long, because the end of our journey was only a few more minutes down the road and also had restrooms and snacks for sale. Nonetheless, between the three vehicles and multiple stop and waits, it had taken over 2.5 hours to get from my hotel to the pier.

Garuda

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I got curious about this giant bird man, so after my holiday was over, I did some research and discovered that he is Garuda, the mount of Vishnu. Vishnu is a very important god in the Hindu pantheon and plays a prominent role in Buddhist mythology as well. (what? Buddhists aren’t atheists? Yeah, you’ve been lied to your whole life, but I can’t get into that now). I could do an entire dissertation on this creature, but I’m going to try to sum it up and focus on Thai Buddhism (because that’s where this statue is from).

The Garuda are a species of deva (we might call them demi-gods or supernatural in the west). They are giant part man-part bird creatures and are the sworn enemies of the Naga (half man half snake creatures). They have their own culture, cities, civilizations, etc. Not totally unlike how Fair Folk in Ireland have their own cities, courts, and markets. In Thailand, the Garuda have been associated with the royal family on and off since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 1910 that this image of Garuda was adopted as the official emblem of Thailand.

In it’s role as national emblem, the Garuda is the vehicle (mount, ride, etc) of the King of Thailand. The kings are seen as either the earthly descendants of Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) or the earthly incarnation of Narayana (a complicated super-diety that may either BE the supreme being, incarnating himself into the other gods as needed, or may have merely given birth to Brahma, the creator god) Either way it explains why the Thai people revere their King so much! Although both Vishnu and Narayana are originally found in Hindu stories, they are present in Buddhist mythology, and the Thai king is actually required by law to be a Theravadan Buddhist.

Everything I’ve read indicates these emblems are highly regulated. They’re used in all official government documents and buildings, and only allowed to be displayed on private property by royal appointment. In the 90’s it was punishable by jail time to use the emblem without permission and it’s unclear to me if the PM turned that around in his most recent (2001) edict about the treatment of Garuda, but it’s definitely an important and revered symbol in Thailand.

10 More Minutes

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I mentioned this was a half day event? The schedule for the tour I bought was 8am pick up to 2pm drop off. Yet at almost 11am, we were still standing on the dock, waiting for who knows what for just “10 more minutes”, the catchphrase of all Thai tour guides and drivers when something is delayed. It is not a measurement of time that correlates at all to the clock, but rather a phrase of amelioration of putting off confrontation when they are asked what’s going on.

Finally, after what seemed like an aeon of waiting, they were ready to get us into the boats. The boats were 2 person affairs, and not all of us were in pairs, so groups had to be split and partners assigned. A group of three South Asians (probably Pakistani, but could be Indian?), two women and one man, caused yet more delay. Neither woman wanted to row herself (why are they kayaking? I don’t know), each wanted a paid guide to ride with them and do the rowing. I am not kidding. So, a second guide had to be located.

I feel like even if this was the only thing I planned to do all day, I would be frustrated by the time spent just standing around. I have managed to let go of a lot of my need to keep to a schedule and just roll with the punches, especially while on holiday, but I couldn’t help being anxious about the time since my plans rested on getting to the bus station in town in time to catch the last bus. When I thought I’d be at my hotel by 2pm, getting to a 430pm bus deadline seemed easy. Lies.

Actually Kayaking

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Despite all the crazy transportation and infinite time vortex of waiting, the kayaking itself was amazing. I wish I’d had time to do the second half of the day and enjoy more of it. I’d never kayaked before this, just some rafting which is quite different. It didn’t take too long to learn how to use the paddle, but a bit longer for my partner and I to get a rhythm. The river we were on was surrounded by mangrove forests and tall limestone … I don’t even know what to call them, mountains or cliffs or just big rocks, very unique to SE Asia and a stunning backdrop. The day was sunny sunny sunny and while I had put on sunscreen and wore my Korean ajuma hat, I still felt the extra heat of the blazing midday sun on my skin. Each time my paddle splashed or dripped river water over my legs it was a welcome relief.
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The primary goal of the tour was the sea caves. 
We paddled down the river, enjoying the easy going with the current, admiring the view and trying to take pictures without getting our phones wet.  We turned off the main channel of the river into a smaller side stream in the mangroves. A short paddle through the trees took us to the entrance of our first cave. I haven’t gotten tired of caves yet, any more than I could get tired of forests or mountains. Nature is new and unique each time you look at it, and this day was no exception.

20170127_105908Approaching the cave via the water was a special experience all by itself, but gliding through the dark tunnel was wondrously beautiful. First watching the boat ahead of me disappear into the gloom and then watching the silhouettes against the bright background of the other side. We emerged into a closed canyon, the high walls of the limestone mountain surrounding us with lush jungle growth. The guide told us that depending on the tide, sometimes the water was so high, they had to lay down flat and pull themselves through the cave by the ceiling, and other times so low they could not bring boats in at all. The little body of water was like an island in reverse, not land rising from the sea, but a patch of the sea sunken deep within the land around it. I could understand why people would go through the difficulty involved in getting to these places as the price for experiencing the splendor.

Magical Mangroves & Mermaid Cave

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We paddled back out the way we came, the only passage into the secluded cove, and moved further on down the river. Before too long, our guide advised us to make another turn into the mangroves. Our goal this time was not a cave, but the mangroves themselves. Although another tour focused on the jungle, the guides said there were only a few times of day when the little route we were on was passable due to the tides, so they wanted to share it with us, even though it wasn’t a cave. It was much harder to navigate in the tangled roots and we often got hung up on trees and had to back up and try again. My pictures, I’m afraid, do not do the experience justice. But once again, I felt like I was on the inside of a nature documentary. We saw lots of little crabs hanging out in the trees as well as a few large sea snails. The water was so tranquil and we were shaded by the trees. There weren’t as many insects as I was expecting, either. The whole area was quite comfortable.
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Too soon we emerged back out onto the river and headed toward our next cave. The tunnel was longer than the first one, and far more filled with delicate and detailed cave formations. We were told it was called “mermaid cave” because of a pillar formation that looked particularly like a mermaid. The cave itself was the main attraction at this stop and we paddled through to the other side just long enough to turn around and get an awesome view coming back the other way. There are no artificial lights in these caves, because the water level changes so much. All of our admiration had to be done by sunlight, and suddenly I was more grateful for the bright day.

Big Headed Ghost

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The third and final cave was Tham Pi Hua To (big skull ghost), famous for it’s ancient cave paintings. We had to actually disembark from our kayaks and walk to the cave mouth. This presented an interesting challenge since my damaged foot (exposed to sunlight and brackish mangrove water) was not doing so well with shoes, and my shoes themselves were wet and slippery. However, I was excited to see the cave paintings in person, so I put on the shoes and walked up the seashell fossil encrusted pathway to the cave mouth. I tried my best to get around with the shoes, but once we were past the seashells, the ground was slick with mud and to be brutally honest, bat droppings. I nearly had a nasty fall when my wet foot and wet shoe decided to part ways on a steep surface. I had no choice but to proceed barefoot into the cave.
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The Big Headed Ghost Cave is believed to have the highest concentration of mural wall paintings of any cave in Thailand. The paintings themselves are thought to be about 3000 years old, made by nomadic tribes of the time who used the caves for shelter and as burial grounds. I tried to find some official scientific research data on the cave, but it’s not widely published about in English. At this point, I’m taking the Thai tourism and national park service’s word for it.  Our guide used the term “gypsy”, which confused me until I realized he was just referring generally to nomadic people. (Yay, English as a second language!) He showed us some of the most famous paintings in the cave, but due to the fact that he used his flashlight hand to gesture with, I wasn’t able to get a decent photo. You can see my attempts (left) next to the much clearer picture from the official Krabi Tourism website (right).

We saw the most famous one, the big headed ghost, or maybe goat headed man, no one knows for sure. We saw some human figures, a man and a woman that were portrayed more than once around the cave. Our guide constructed a story that these were events in their lives, but we have no way to know. There is a set of hands on the ceiling which are very clear, and one of them has 6 fingers. Whether it’s an artist error or the 6 fingered man visited Thailand before killing Inigo’s father, we’ll never know. I believe there are over 100 different paintings in the caves here, but I couldn’t see them all in the gloomy cave interior.It was still interesting to see the 3000 year old human artworks in person.

We were left on our own to explore the small cave and climb out to the viewing point, through a pair of holes that looked from below like the eye sockets of a giant skull. After a decent period of poking around the cave, we were herded back to the boats to face the long upstream paddle back to the pier. By this time, my boat partner and I had finally found a good rhythm and we were able to stay at the front of the pack. I was quite surprised. I think of myself as not being big with the upper body strength, but there was a noticeable difference when we paddled together and when I took a break to snap pictures. We even raced the girls from France for the last leg of the journey. Far from feeling like dead weight, I felt like a contributing member of a team in a physical activity, which was a bit of a novelty, since I’m always feeling like the slowest one in a group. Maybe I should take up kayaking?

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Lunch With the Kathoeys

We unloaded back at the pier and were invited to sit down to enjoy some food. I was pleasantly surprised since my half day booking had said it included only a fruit snack, not lunch. There was a different meal for the all day folks, but the rest of us got a generous portion of shrimp fried rice and fresh fruit. The tiny pier had a large staff and a diverse one. At least two trans ladies (kathoeys) were present, and it seems employed at the shop there. One was super dolled up on the verge of queening. I noticed her putting on makeup when we arrived in the morning, and that she was still working on her hair and makeup while we were eating lunch. Another had beautiful long natural hair, which meant she’d been growing it for years, very minimal make-up, and simple everyday clothes. It was nice to see how casually accepted they were by everyone else.

*later research has shown me that the term “Kathoey” can refer to any or all of the following: feminized men, drag queens, MtF trans – regardless of how the individual genders themselves. They are and have been a prominent part of Thai culture for a long time and that has resulted in more tolerance and acceptance of their lifestyle out in the open, but there is still discrimination and as yet, no laws protecting them from it.

Moving On

After eating, I began to get a bit worried, as our guide had talked about moving on to the next location for more kayaking, but hadn’t said much about heading back into town. The clock was moving past 1pm, past 1:30, and I was becoming trepidatious about my inability to catch my bus. I fantasized briefly about spending the rest of the afternoon kayaking and just doing another night in Krabi, but I had hotel reservations in Surat Thani and the last plan of my holiday was an ethically responsible elephant visit, which I didn’t want to miss. I finally asked the guide about our schedule and let him know about my concern to catch an intercity bus that day. It seemed to help a bit because they got motivated to start heading toward the parking lot, and by 2:15 (15 minutes after I had been promised a drop off at my hotel) we were stuffed back in a minivan driving back to Krabi.


Adventure, vacation, holiday… these words are loaded with preconceptions. It seems to me by now, I might have come to know what to expect, or how handle it all, and yet the world continues to amaze me in so many ways. Natural beauty, such as what I shared on this little river tour, of course, but just the sheer variety of humanity. Growing up, I was taught to look past our differences and see our similarities. This was some well meaning philosophy meant to decrease racism, sexism, and other isms/phobias. But as an adult, I see the great diversity of the human experience and I despair at the idea that we should have to hide those to get along. I know that I could live a thousand lifetimes and not see all the wonders that the world has to offer, but I hope I can be grateful for every one that I do and that I will never let the obstacles stop me from the journey.

As always, thanks for reading, and don’t forget to like me on Facebook and Instagram to see more beautiful photos of my adventures. ❤

Malay Peninsula 13: Thailand – transportation, pharmaceuticals, and towelephants, oh my!

From Koh Lipe, my last few days of vacation were to be held back on the mainland, in that narrow part of Thaliand that extends down onto the Malay Peninsula. This post is about the smaller adventures and major learning opportunities I had spending the better part of an entire day getting from Koh Lipe to Krabi.


My final morning on Koh Lipe, I needed to be at the beach to catch the ferry back to the mainland by 10am. I was awake much earlier than that and hoped to use my extra morning hours to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the beach. I had read the ferry confirmation email several times, but made a critical error in judgement. The first instruction was the location of the office and the check in time. I did the unforgivable sin of making an assumption that I would need to check in at the office. I headed out on foot, one sandal awkwardly secured so as to minimize contact with the reddening skin around the coral scrape, toward Sunrise beach, the third major beach on Koh Lipe and the only one I hadn’t yet seen. Great! I could see another beach and have breakfast with a new view and still have plenty of time to board the ferry.

My walk from the campsite to Sunrise beach took me past a wooded temple compound. I didn’t have time to go in and explore, sadly, but I did see even more of the tiny houses on posts along with offerings of food, sweets, and liquor bottles. I still know next to nothing about Thai Buddhism. I never saw anything like this in temples of China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, so they really caught my eye.

Sunrise Beach & The Fine Print

Sunrise beach is beautiful, especially as it’s name implies, in the morning. It was larger than Sunset beach but less crowded than Pataya. There were several much nicer looking bungalows than mine in grassy glades along the beach and I resolved then and there that the next time I came to Koh Lipe, I would absolutely put up the extra money and stay here. I got very near the location of the office as shown on the map and sat down at a restaurant to order breakfast.

I double checked the itinerary one more time because I am paranoid like that and suddenly realized, like Wile E Coyote reading the fine print  my eyes glued to the phrases “Please check in on board…the Tigerline Ferry is parking at the Pataya Bay”. 

On the other side of the island!


Seriously look at this thing. The instructions are massively confusing. The ALL CAPS sentence is about the office on Sunrise Beach. Specific directions are given to the office. Pataya beach is huge and there’s no office or meeting point mentioned, just “check in on the ferry”, which you have to take a longtail boat to get to. I’m not saying I didn’t make a user error here, but wow. 

This shows the basic route from my camping zone, over to Wapi Resort (closest landmark to the defunct ferry office) and back to Pattaya. lipe walking

Unexpected Pancake 
I canceled my breakfast order and set off again for the far side of the island. I did find the office, by the way. It was empty and looked like it had been abandoned for some time. On my quick shuffle back to Pattaya beach, I turned back into the main street of the island and paused for a much quicker breakfast of the famous Thai pancake. This is not a pancake like we have in the West, not even like a crepe. It came first from the roti style bread of India and was later adapted to Thai tastes and then back to western. I had a banana nutella pancake (and another Thai iced coffee, because yum). The dough was a both chewy and flaky with warm soft banana filling and a generous smear of nutella on top. Even though I’d entirely messed up my morning plans, it wasn’t too shabby to visit a beautiful beach and have one of the most famous foods on the island, after all.

Farewell Koh Lipe

When I got to Pattaya, I began looking around the immigration building to see if I could find any sign of which boat to get on. Fortunately, there was a young man at a folding table who was checking in travelers for the outgoing ferries. The sign and company name were not at all my company, but he was the only one in sight and I figured he’d at least know where I was supposed to go. Proving the adage, “always ask”, it turned out that he was the guy I was supposed to check in with! Despite the total lack of signs. I got my sticker, identifying me as allowed to board the boat and was told which longtail to take to the ferry.

Unlike the ferry we arrived on, which docked with a floating pontoon pier thing, the boat taking us north was just hanging out in the water and we had to do a direct boat to boat transfer. Koh Lipe is not for folks who are afraid of boats. The seating was much less formal than the ferry from Langkawi, and I was able to head up to the main deck. Many passengers headed outside to soak up more sun (the crispy and the melanin blessed), but I had not slathered myself in sunscreen that morning, so I opted to stay in the shade (and air conditioning) and enjoy the view from the window. Even though the bench I sat on was plain wood (breaking in some parts), it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. I think I slept through most of the voyage and woke up later on in time to get some beautiful views of the towering limestone cliff islands off the coast.

The Bus That Wasn’t

We pulled into a tiny dock called Hat Yao Pier near Trang where we were bustled off the boat and into a nice shady little convenience store where I was able to find a restroom and a snack while waiting for the next leg of my journey, the overland ride to Krabi.

Side note about transportation in Thailand: It is terrible. Unless you have booked with a lux upscale tour company on one of the main tourism routes with the big limousine buses, prepare for cramped misery. Tigerline ferries, with whom I booked my transportation, advertised a bus ride to Krabi. As a native English speaker, I have some preconceived notions about the word ‘bus’. I expect you do too. If you need help, I suggest doing a google image search and looking at the things we think of as ‘buses’. In Thailand, I believe that ‘bus’ simply means anything bigger than a car, or possibly anything that holds more than 4 people. This 17 seat minivan (18 if you count the driver) was common, although none were as clean or new as the advert here. Note the impressive absence of leg room.

One of the main reasons I like to understand my transport options is because I have shredded knees. Other people might have long legs, or bad backs or a thousand other reasons to have strong preferences in transport. Mine comes from the issue that if I sit with my knees bent for too long (more than 45 minutes), it starts to feel like someone has inserted red-hot steel rods into them. I can usually avoid this by simply straitening the leg for a moment to stretch it out. I can do this on airplanes, boats, buses, cars, so it’s hardly ever an issue unless someone takes away ALL thee leg room (cause I’m short and don’t need much). Which is exactly what happened in Trang. The “bus” that arrived for us was a little silver minivan with seats so close together that leg room was imaginary. I finally had to resort to simply standing up and hunching my back regardless of how awkward it was with the other passengers. Unfortunately, I know of no way to discern the type of vehicle in advance in Thailand which could make future journeys problematic.

Towlephants

The good news is that the Tigerline company had agreed to drop me off directly at my hotel in Krabi (the Lada Krabi Residence, highly recommend), so I didn’t have to try and arrange yet more rides. This hotel pick up and drop off is crucial to any experience in Thailand unless you’re in walking distance of your hotel or are driving yourself. I cannot stress enough how hard transportation in Thailand is compared to nearly everywhere else I’ve been. It’s not just me, all my friends in Korea who traveled around Thailand this winter had similar experiences with the exception of those who stayed in a major city, or booked an all inclusive tour.

When I got to my room, I nearly cried with joy. It was so nice and clean and big. The very helpful staff got me checked in quick and the room not only had plenty of space (soooo much space) and places to hang my wet clothes, and a separator between the shower and toilet to keep the toilet seat dry, and a mini-fridge with complimentary bottles of water, and a kettle with complimentary coffee/tea, there were even towelephants on the bed! (Towelephant™: a towel folded in the shape of an elephant. Credit: Diana). I was so dirty/sweaty/sandy/gross. Days of being cramped, damp, uncomfortable and unclean had been worth it for the amazing experiences, but I think the only other time I was so glad to see a “regular” hotel room was after a two week backpack around China.


Finding Birth Control Abroad

I had a very important goal to fulfill in Thailand, and Krabi seemed like my best chance: Depo. Yes, the shot. It’s my lifeline to sanity because it’s the only thing I can take that totally eliminates all the horrible pain of “that time of the month”. I do not disparage the women who are in tune with their cycles and flow, but as a child reading fantasy novels, I always wondered how the characters managed without once dealing with a pad or tampon the whole time they were saving the world, let alone crippling pain from cramps. So, yes, when I found a medicine that brought on that relief, I clung to it.

Up until now, I have always brought my supply from the US, and returned to the US within a year (the amount the will sell you if you prove you’re moving abroad). But I had already been in Korea a year and wasn’t planning to go back to the US soon. I was all out. I knew birth control was available in Korea, so hadn’t given it much thought until I took my last dose and was looking for a new doctor, and no one had it. However wonderful Korean medicine and even culture is in many ways, I stumbled headfirst into the backward treatment of women’s reproductive health.

In Korea, women do not go to regular check ups. My co-teacher, who I asked about finding a good doctor, said she didn’t know because she’d never been. She is married with a son, by the way. The stigma of going to a gynecologist is that a woman must be “loose” or worse, have an STD already. Birth control is not taken on a regular basis, but instead is used to stave off a period if the woman has a vacation or important event coming up. Which sort of explains why tampons aren’t popular here, since women can just take a few pills to schedule their period for a more convenient time. On the one hand, the government passed a labor law mandating that women be granted one (unpaid) day of leave per month for menstruation (not kidding). On the other hand, women never take it because they fear the perception and shame surrounding it. Depo is legal here and I’ve heard of people getting it, but given the huge number of hospitals and clinics, as well as the language barrier, the task of trying to find one that would have my medication was quite daunting.

Pharmacies Without Prescriptions?

Turning to my trusted friend, Google, I found that Thailand (of all places) sells my drug of choice over the counter! For a few dollars. And yes, I have heard every argument about buying off market drugs in countries without enough regulations, but what are you supposed to do when the country you live in doesn’t have the drug? Also, as an expat, I’ve been to doctors and pharmacies around the world because that’s where I was when I needed the medicine. Egypt, Saudi, and France were all places I had to visit pharmacists. I take other medicines here in Korea that, when I look them up, are not on the US market by the same name or even manufactured by the same company. Were I to take a job in Thailand, as people in my career do from time to time, that is the medicine I would take. Maybe the drugs are actually less well regulated or maybe the US pays too much for pharmaceuticals. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

So, I discovered that there was a pharmacy within a couple blocks of my hotel and set out on foot. Depo Pravera goes by the alter-ego name Depo Gestin in Thailand. It took a little bit of translation and pictures from the internet, but once the pharmacist realized what I wanted, they had no problem selling me a whole year’s worth along with the needles to inject myself (which I was taught to do by my doctor in the US, don’t freak out). The vials are now in my fridge at home and I suspect I’ll be taking a pilgrimage to Thailand next year even if it’s just a weekend to Bangkok because it will cost me less to fly there and buy the medicine than the medicine cost me to buy when living in the US (sans Obamacare).

The Night Market

Following a truly epic shower full of hot water, soap, and scrubbing to erase the days of sweat, sand, sun and sea from my skin and hair, I headed out to find food. The night market was just around the corner from my hotel. I got some more phad thai in a tiny stall with plastic seats and a kind older couple managing the ersatz kitchen serving fresh shrimp and other types of Thai soul food to locals and tourists alike. I took a to go plate of sticky rice and mango for later, and found even more Thai pancakes that were completely different from what I’d had on the island. These were similar to crepes, but smaller and thicker. Each little silver dollar round was dabbed with a filling, and then rolled into a tube. I got egg custard and taro flavors. They were delicious.


Looking back on this holiday, I can only surmise that I was both insane and overly ambitious. This day was day 10 of the vacation, country 3 and city 6. With 2 more days and one more city ahead of me, I had already seen enough for at least 3 vacations, and I’d spent an amazing amount of energy running around in the tropical heat, and I’d managed to get a foot injury (though, no food poisoning so that’s good). One of these days I’ll listen to my own advice and slow down. Until then, enjoy the view 🙂

Malay Peninsula 12: Koh Lipe part 2

This beautiful, glorious day was all I could have asked for in a tropical island vacation. After several days of mediocre or downright unpleasant experiences, the holiday gods smiled upon me once more. This day is the reason why Koh Lipe has made it to the top of the return destinations list. I’d be worried about singing it’s praises, but since this post isn’t going to be seen by more than 200 people, I don’t expect that I’ll spur a tourist revolution.

What I’ve read about Thailand seems to indicate that it was full of island paradises 30 years ago, but the tourism industry has turned nearly everything into a marketing scheme and the trash tourists bring with them has destroyed once pristine beaches and coral reefs. Koh Lipe is the only island in a national park where permanent (non-government) structures are allowed. It has no big roads and limited access to any transportation other than the small longtail boats and scooters. Boat access to the other islands in the park is relatively easy from Koh Lipe and it makes for a cleaner and less crowded experience than other Thai island destinations.


Good Morning Koh Lipe

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I booked a snorkeling tour package ahead of time. I needn’t have bothered, however, since a stroll down walking street showed dozens of companies doing boat tours, snorkeling tours, and scuba instruction. Plus, most hotels and hostels rent out basic snorkel equipment, and one can simply walk out into the water from any beach and see cool stuff. I booked with a company called Paradise Tours. The tour I chose had access to multiple reefs across several islands and the absolute coup de grâce, glowing plankton!

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The boat wasn’t set to leave until 1pm , so I took myself down to Pataya for breakfast. I found a little shaded cafe overlooking the beach which was dazzling in the early morning sunshine. I was relieved to see that the storm clouds had passed since rain can cloud up the water and make snorkeling less fun. I ordered scrambled eggs and got served a massive portion and a complimentary slice of sweet fruity bread that they made on site. My Thai iced coffee came in a tall thin glass that made me feel posh and decadent. I took a food pic but only later realized that the plate and glass were both large enough that it’s impossible to tell the scale, but trust me it was generous.

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After breakfast I headed out to find a beach bag. Well, a waterproof bag anyway. These are sold in abundance on walking street in many sizes. The idea is that it’s a bag you can put your phone and wallet in (or even towel and change of clothes) then take it in the water (no diving, but surface swimming is ok) and your stuff will still be dry. This was great for me since I had no one to watch my things on the beach if I went swimming (one more reason for beachfront accommodation next time), and I definitely wanted to make sure that my phone stayed dry on the afternoon’s snorkel excursion. I’d already had to replace my Korean sandals that came apart in the rain, I wasn’t risking anything else. The shops on walking street have everything you could need on the island. Swimsuits, sandals, diving gear, beach wear, even pharmacies and a hospital are all available. It was easy as pie to pick out my water bag and head back into the jungle once more to fill it up and leave the non-essentials behind.

I went through more sunscreen on the island of Koh Lipe than anywhere else, but when you are a pasty, porcelain skinned, melanin deficient, sun wimp, the main line of defense tends to be clothes, hats and sunbrellas, none of which work well when swimming. Ergo, beaches mean the all over application of sunscreen. Follow that up with a liberal dose of mosquito repellent and while you may smell a little odd, you’ll be more comfortable in the long run. I managed not to burn at all and only sustained one mosquito bite that left any lasting impact. Better living through chemistry!

Snorkeling Adventure

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Wearing my swimsuit and new sarong, armed with my waterproof bag, I joined the expedition at the headquarters on walking street. Once our party was assembled, we headed down to the beach to board our boats. They split us up, and I ended up with a group of 4 young westerners who were quite happy to include me in their day. It was a pleasant surprise because they clearly had a group vibe, but still worked hard to make sure I felt included in the activities when we were above water. The early morning insanely bright sun had gone behind a light gray cloud cover for which I was relieved. I know that UV can still be dangerous on a cloudy day, but it’s easier on the eyes and it’s less hot. The downside is that all those photos you see online of the crystal turquoise water are a result of the intense direct sunlight and my photos are a little less stunning. But I’ll take a comfortable experience over a stunning photo, since my adventures are about memory and I am not a paid photographer.

I don’t have a large number of photos of that day anyway, since I still haven’t managed to do a fundraiser to get a go-pro or other underwater camera in my life, the underwater pictures here are all from the Paradise Tours page to give you an idea of what I experienced. For whatever reason, they didn’t take any photos the day I went, even though it’s supposed to be part of the package. All the other photos are, as usual, mine unless otherwise noted.

Tarutao National Park

dive-sites-mapWe went to three different snorkeling spots around Koh Lipe, all of them a part of the Tarutao National Park chain of islands and each one even tinier than Lipe: Jabang, Hin Ngam, and Koh Yang. It may have struck you by now how many places start with Koh, which is because เกาะ (koh) means “island”, so saying “Koh Lipe” is the same as saying “Lipe Island”. You can see from the map that there are two larger islands, which I gather are the main part of the national park and are nature preserves where the only accommodation is camping by government approval. Thus even though it is much smaller, Lipe is the  place people stay when they want to explore the islands.

Underwater Life

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I guess that people who dive all the time get disappointed on dives when only the plain fish come out. I didn’t see any giant sea turtles or whale sharks or anything rare, but that didn’t make the experience less stunning to me. Coral reefs are like giant underwater gardens filled with multicolored life at all levels. Just enjoying the rock and coral formations is a treat as you feel like you’re flying above the ocean floor. The sea is teeming with tropical fish that most of us only ever see in an aquarium or “Finding Nemo”.

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Not counting the myriad of fish I could not hope to identify, I know for certain that I saw clown fish, angel fish, parrot fish, trigger fish, fusilier fish, sea cucumbers, anemone, starfish, giant clams, sea urchins, bright blue christmas tree worms, stunningly enormous moorish idols everywhere (that’s Gill from Finding Nemo, btw), a wide variety of rainbow hued wrasse, balloon and box fish, and a thing called a cornet fish. The coronet fish totally weirded me out. At the third reef of the day I encountered this odd looking fish, but unlike the other fish that day, the coronet froze and stared at me. I froze and stared back as we both tried to decide if the other was dangerous. At the time, I only knew the names of maybe half a dozen of these, but i was able to identify the rest using my trusty friend “Google”. All these links lead to pictures of the creatures on Florent’s Guide.

Three Reefs and a Rock Island

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Jabang is famous for it’s red coral. It was our first stop and we arrived about the same time as another tour group. It was amazing to me how many people on the tours didn’t know how to swim. Everyone in my boat was a strong swimmer, but I observed a large number of people from other boats in life vests and clinging to the buoy lines that had been put up to mark the reef’s location. I didn’t realize that the snorkeling equipment listed didn’t include fins, and I didn’t do much downward exploration because I am a natural flotation device. People in Asia seem to use life vests for everything, even shallow water or narrow, slow running rivers. Of course I wear them if I’m going too far from shore to swim, icy water, or otherwise dangerous situations, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see them while snorkeling!

The current was strong and I found that I had to work hard just to stay in one place. But we were surrounded by boats, each one with a dive captain assigned to it, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. It had been almost two years since my last coral reef swim in Aqaba. I was excited just to be there. The reefs are huge and filled with fish at all levels, including some that will come right up to you to see if you have anything interesting. Toward the end of our time there, it got a little crowded, but since more than half the people were glued to the buoy lines, it didn’t take much effort to swim a short distance and get space to myself.

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The swimming site on the south side of Hin Ngam was less crowded, had much less of a current, and I felt more comfortable exploring. I drifted around and finally started to get used to swimming without fins. Normally when snorkeling, you keep your arms to your side and use gentle foot motions to glide forward. Without fins, I started out splashing way to much while kicking my feet, but I eventually settled into a reverse style where I left my feet still and used a variant on breast stroke to pull myself forward through the water. With less of a crowd and feeling more at home in the water, I soon found myself immersed in the rhythmic breathing of the snorkel and the entrancing experience that is a coral reef. Before I knew it, the guide was waving me back to the boat and it was time to move on to the next spot.

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We took a break from swimming to go check out the north side Hin Ngam itself. The island is not accessible all year, but is a unique attraction because its north beach is made entirely of smooth rounded rocks. Every other beach is smooth white or pale sand, but here the shore is mounds of round rocks of all sizes. There is a myth that whoever removes a rock from the island will be cursed, and another that says whoever can make a stack of 12 rocks will have their wish come true. The Thai government is all for supporting the first myth as the island would soon vanish if tourists removed rocks; however, the tradition of stone stacking is also frowned upon. There were more signs warning us not to stack stones than there were warning us not to steal them. I could not figure out the logic behind this at the time and have since been entirely unable to find any other reference to the stone stacking ban online. There is only blog after blog inviting visitors to stack their own. I am trying to imagine what damage could be done to the park. Could the stones be breaking when they fall over? Could the human rearranging of small and large stones be interfering with the structural integrity of the island? Why does the Thai government object?

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Who knows. But I’m sure you can predict that our group did not honor the signs, and at least two of them set about constructing a lucky tower. It’s harder than it sounds. Because the stones are round and smooth, there is no way to efficiently stack them. The trick is to start with the largest stone and get progressively smaller, and to find stones that are more elliptical than round. While my boat-mates were constructing, I wandered a little further inland to see a small display that showed the curse for removing stones in several languages and a small shrine that I didn’t quite recognize. (I would see several dozen more like it while in Thailand, but more on that in a later post). The stones were beautiful, a muted gray color and banded with stripes of yellow, white, blue and green. Their soft shape is caused by the unique way the water has pounded them over the millennia.

Our next stop, and our final coral reef, was at Koh Yang. This was the shallowest of the reefs we visited, which was a mixed blessing. Although in shallower water, it is easier to see the bottom dwelling fish without free-diving, it also means the coral are much closer. Much much closer. It was not as shallow as the reef I went to in Jeddah which had barely enough water to swim in without touching the corals below; however, while I was treading water and talking to people still on the boat, I managed to whack my foot into a boulder sized coral growth resulting in one of the worst types of injuries you can get for its size. At the time, I was in the water, and full of adrenaline and endorphins, so I glanced quickly at it to make sure I wasn’t gushing blood and then promptly got distracted by the coral reef. This place was much emptier than the other spots we’d visited as far as people, and the crystal clear water gave me plenty to look at. Of course it’s fun to see the stars of the ocean, but even an ordinary neighborhood coral reef is a feast for the eyes filled with tiny, intricate creatures and the wonderful illusion of flight as you soar over them.

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Counting my coral injury, 3 of the most interesting things happened at this reef. The other two were 1) my encounter with the coronet fish, which was odd both because I had no idea what he was and because he spent a good long while watching me, when other fish simply ignored me or glanced in my direction momentarily. When all ocean life is just going about it’s business and one fish pauses to watch you, it’s memorable. And 2) the parrot fish feeding. I had seen the odd parrot fish at the other two reefs, but they were everywhere here and multiple sub-species/color patterns.

Parrot fish are named for their “beaks” because they eat coral. Some reserves even worry that they may be endangering what’s left of the reefs and work to limit the population. Thailand doesn’t seem to be on that list because “don’t eat the parrot fish” signs dotted the beaches. Nonetheless, the fish eat coral, crunching it with strong beak-like mouths and digesting out all the nutritious bits before excreting the remainder as sand (sorry if I just ruined your barefoot beach walk).  At first I was confused by the sound i heard underwater, but soon realized that it correlated to each mouthful the fish took from the reef and I remembered that documentary (because I adore ocean documentaries) and realized I must be hearing the chomp chomp of parrot fish jaws. The reef here was shallow enough and the parrot fish plentiful enough that I could hear them crunching away on their dinner.

12552862_1774943286067791_30421379723713114_nWhen it was time to get back in the boat, I got a better look at my foot, which bled for about a minute, then stopped. I rinsed it out with fresh water and the scrapes seemed shallow and sparse. I think I’ve had worse carpet burns. I knew the complications that are possible with coral scrapes from my last run in with the sharp sharp critters, but at the time, I thought it looked ok and had been rinsed sufficiently. (this is what we call “foreshadowing”)

Sunset BBQ on the Beach

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We boated over to an isolated beach on Adang for dinner and sunset. The beach looked like the set of Lost and we joked that the black smoke monster or possibly a maniac wearing a Dharma Initiative jumpsuit would burst from the jungle behind us at any minute. While the guides were cooking our barbecue, we wandered up and down the beach, found a little freshwater stream that was ice cold in comparison with the warm sea water, took an endless number of photos of and for each other (including a little Dirty Dancing reenactment), and generally splashed around on the amazing paradisaical beach.

Dinner was simple grilled chicken and salad, but it was plentiful and we were hungry after all that swimming. Afterward we were treated to an amazing sunset. The cloud cover from the day provided a dramatic outline for beams of sun to play hide and seek and for the dying day to cast a golden crown along the edge of the sky. We watched until the last glimmer of glow had sunk and in the purple twilight, we re-boarded the boats for our final stop of the tour.

To Neverland

I have an addiction to bio-luminescence, maybe to pretty lights in general because I find myself drawn to every lantern festival and fireworks display I can find, but there’s something magical about living things that glow. I was lucky enough to live in a part of the country with fireflies as a child, but I haven’t in years. The glowworms of NZ were one of the highlights of my trip there. Glowing living things are awesome.

You know those lists on Facebook that say, “50 amazing things to see before you die” or “20 beautiful places you didn’t know existed”? Most people look at them and go, “ooooh aaaah”, and then forget about it because we’re never going to get there. One such list I looked at years ago included the bio-luminescent plankton in the Maldives. I made grabby hands motions at my computer before realizing at that time in my life, there was just no way to make it happen. Years later, when I was researching Thailand and what to do in the tiny slice of it that shares the Malay peninsula, I ran across repeated mentions of glowing plankton. My dreams rekindled. I had to put that on the itinerary, no excuses.

I had no idea what to expect. The photos of the glowworms had been dramatically different from the reality (not at all a let down, but not accurate either), and I knew that most of the pictures and video of the plankton was from the famous beach in the Maldives where the glow is especially strong or simply time lapsed or otherwise enhanced. Understandably, looking at tiny specks of light on a black background is not a great photo. Pictures show a beach at night where the normally white foam glows blue, or people wading/floating in water that seems to have a diffuse blue LED glow. Maybe those things exist somewhere I haven’t been yet, but they weren’t here.

Our glowing spot was just off a boat access only beach back on Lipe. As we sped across the water, the sunset diminished and the stars began to come out. We pulled up to our beach a little early, and the guides said we had to wait for full dark. One of the girls on our boat had done a tour in Australia with glowing plankton, but she said they only put their feet over the side of the boat and kicked at the water, creating a soft blue glow. I looked at the water and at the surf on the beach for any sign of light, but could only detect reflections. Finally, they told us that the plankton were present and it was time to get in. We still couldn’t see anything and our guide swished his hand around in the black water, trying to show us. I thought I saw a tiny sparkle, but couldn’t be sure. You have to look under the water, he said.

I fixed my mask in place and descended into the ocean carefully because it was now too dark to see the bottom and I didn’t want another collision with rock or coral. Knowing that the plankton’s glow was activated by motion, I put my face down and waved a hand tentatively in front of my eyes. I nearly swallowed seawater in my utter shock at the response I received. As I drew my hand through the clear water, tiny sparkles emerged and trailed behind my fingertips. I was the first in the water. Everyone else was still on the boat, nervous because they couldn’t see anything. To catch my breath and get my bearings, I popped my head up long enough to exclaim my delight and wonderment to the other passengers before returning to the underwater marvel.

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I wasn’t angry Tinkerbell, but this gif shows via fairy cartoon the way the sparkles trailed from my hands and feet when I moved.

Despite not being able to see anything from the surface, once looking underwater, there was enough light to make out the large rocks and corals on the bottom. Similar in many ways to a meadow by moonlight, the detail was vague and the shadows intense, but it was far from a black abyss. While observing the reefs, the strategy was to move as little as possible, here we thrashed, flailed and spun with vigor. At one point, without any communication, we formed a ring and kicked our feet in the middle to summon the largest glow we could manage and then broke apart to revel in our private magical flights. Each movement of hand or foot brought a new ribbon of sparkles, exactly like CGI magic effects, but made of living light. As I looked down at the nightscape beneath me, fairy lights trailing from my toes, I felt an overwhelming sensation of being in Neverland, dusted by Tinkerbell and flying with my happiest thoughts.


This tour – boat, equipment, guide, snacks, dinner all included came to about 25$ US and there are way more than 3 places in the National Park to find good coral reefs. I long to go back and spend a week or more alternating between lazy beach days, snorkeling, night diving, and maybe a night of camping on one of the uninhabited islands. I hope you’ll check out the rest of my photos of Koh Lipe on Facebook and stay tuned for further adventures in Thailand. Thanks for reading!

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Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

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Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

Malay Peninsula 9: Clothes shopping in Georgetown

Here in Korea, Spring chugs along into summer. The mornings I stand outside overseeing the kids recite their daily English are still a little bit chilly, but by the time I leave school at 4, it’s hot enough to want a shower and an ice cream at home. The festivals of May are coming fast and furious, and just today, the whole 6th grade went away on a field trip, leaving me with some unexpected free time to power through another story from winter break.

The next major destination of interest on this trip is actually Koh Lipe in Thailand, but it would take me two more days in two more cities to get there. In researching my travel path, I came to realize that Penang and Langkawi are places that used to be awesome hidden gems, but have gone mainstream tourist in the last few years. This story is less about Malaysia and more about clothes, but sometimes that’s where the adventure takes you, especially when it ruins a pair of pants and requires an emergency replacement.


By Train and Ferry

20170122_100830The train from Ipoh to Butterworth was a delightful piece of transportation, and in retrospect, the last clean and comfortable transit option I would get on this trip. The train was spacious, sparkly clean and climate controlled with a nice view of the Malaysian countryside out the window. The train station in Butterworth is easy walking distance from the ferry terminal and bus station allowing me to take a quick detour and buy my bus ticket to Kuala Perlis. (there were only two running each day so I didn’t want to miss the morning bus!)  Then I headed over to the ferry terminal to catch the quick boat over to the island of Penang. The ferry ride was brief yet delightful, with beautiful views of the cities and a cooling breeze.

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From the ferry terminal I was able to hop on the free cat bus toward downtown Georgetown. I know that “cat” stands for “central area transit” but I could not help but be amused at the similarity to the famous Miyazaki character from My Neighbor Totoro. No, the Georgetown bus didn’t have a furry face or eight legs, but I liked the idea that I was riding in the cat bus anyway. The free bus has stops all around the central area and is a great way to see the sights. In my case, a great way to get closer to my hotel.

Who Colonized this Architecture?

I was staying in a UNESCO world heritage neighborhood, and my little hotel was doing it’s best to live up to the standard. The whole place was dripping with charm and atmosphere. The architecture and decor was some strange clash of China and New Orleans. I’m not sure how else to describe it, because I haven’t been to many places that have the unique New Orleans architectural style which I always understood to be a French influence, yet here in Georgetown, which was a British colony, I found that the styles were far less colonial British and far more colonial French. I’m not an architectural expert, and you shouldn’t take my word for it. All I can say is that having been to Beijing and New Orleans, Georgetown felt like the all time city mash up between the two.

Expat Life

After I got checked in, I took all the clothes I wasn’t wearing down the street to a laundromat where the machines dispensed their own detergent. One of my 2 pairs of pants had acquired some holes in an indelicate place and I needed a replacement. While my laundry was spinning away, I wandered across the street to engage a group of expats who looked like they may have been in town for a while and asked about the best places to find cheap pants replacements.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to be directed to the mall and the international brands like H&M or the Gap. It shouldn’t shock me that more than half the expat community just wants to live surrounded by familiar brands and western styles, but it does. With the exception of being unable to find a thing in my size (bras anyone?), I like to buy clothes that the locals are wearing for two reasons: one, it is more likely that they know what is suitable to the climate they live in; two, I’m less likely to stand out as the obvious newbie/target. There’s some bonus material about local economies and new experiences in there, too.

One guy finally realized I wasn’t impressed with western mall options and told me where the local clothes markets were to be found. I spent the rest of my laundry cycle chatting with an older French lady who had rented out her property back in Europe and lived in Malaysia working under the table for the hostel she stayed at because it was cheaper and easier than trying to deal with paying all the bills in Europe at her age. Note to self: Malaysia as potential retirement country?

alibaba-trousers-tie-dye-baggie-genie-boho-gypsy-harem-pants-250x250Laundry complete, I set off on a walking self-tour of the cheap clothes district. I am not normally a fan of shopping, but I have decided that if I am ever going back there, I need to do it with an extra suitcase. So many beautiful clothes, many inspired by Indian fashions, glorious batik fabrics and wildly reasonable prices compared to what similar fashions cost in the US. Skirts, shirts and dresses abounded, but pants were a little challenging. Free size is really a misnomer because it only applies to a size range from about 6-12 (US). the most popular pants seemed to be the Ali Baba style which are big billowy and flowy, but cinch around the ankle, looking not unlike the pants Aladdin wears.

Thigh Gap Deficit

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art: GarbageHumans on Etsy

Why not just get a flowy dress/skirt/alibaba pants? Well, if any of you have thighs that touch, you may have some idea of the horrible phenomenon known as “chub rub”. The unfortunate and unflattering name notwithstanding, it’s not just about chub. I know lots of svelte people whose thighs touch because thigh gap beauty standards are insane! (no shade on naturally skinny folk, this is about people trying to achieve beauty standards that are not natural to their body type). So, in hot / humid weather, the chafe is real. Imagine getting a blister on your inner thighs. Ouch! I wear biker shorts under skirts or dresses and it helps a lot with the rubbing, but I only had one pair with me and I needed another chafe free article of clothing for the rest of my journey.

Coloring Outside the Runway

Pants in my size came in 2 types. Black, coarse, thick fabric (wtf it’s 30 degrees and 90% humidity out here?) or clown pants. I wish I was joking. I know that as an American my sensibilities of color are drab in comparison with everyplace other than England. Our puritan ancestors despised joy and now we’ve culturally accepted the idea that bright colors are somehow gauche or low-class (hello systemic racism?) because we associate them with the heathens and the brown people. This disdain of bright colors is something I’ve been observing in myself and others since I first started traveling. Buying hair clips in China was challenging because I didn’t want the super bright sparkly ones, I wanted the earth toned ones. Watching people cringe in Hindu temples because they see the brightly painted statues as gaudy while the Hindus see the colors as a celebration of their faith. And now in Malaysia trying to buy a pair of pants that I might ever wear again.

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photo: TheHaremLoft on Etsy

Bright colors, elephant print batiks (really, I know the elephant is popular in SE Asia, but don’t put elephants on plus size clothes, it’s just rude), and even patchwork patterns of jangling colors and prints. I might have worn them there, because the locals did and because they wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb, but the chances of me wearing them in Korea the next summer were slim to none. I have begun to learn to appreciate the bright colors and patterns in art and even in clothes on other people, but I still can’t put them on myself. I think because of my weight I was subconsciously trained to try to occupy less space, and almost certainly because of my gender I was taught not to stand out. I’m working on it, but I wasn’t ready for elephant pants just yet.

The Mystery of Viscose

20170122_182655Eventually, I found some black pants that were a lightweight material and had a beautiful blue pattern around the cuffs. They were about 7$US, so I wasn’t overly concerned with the durability and I was delighted with the way they fit. Of course they were from India (I’m starting to believe all my favorite clothes are), but unfortunately, they are made of a material called “viscose”. I did not know what this meant at the time. I had never heard the word and I was so desperate for pants at this point, I didn’t really care. But later, while laying in the AC of my hotel room, I looked up the word and discovered the world’s most temperamental fabric.

Viscose is made from plant fibers or cellulose, making it a uniquely natural synthetic fiber. It has some ties to artificial silk and to rayon, but is ever so much more delicate. Many laundry blogs (yes those exist) indicated that although there are tricks to washing most “dry clean only” clothes, viscose is so sensitive to water that it can loose it’s shape or shrink dramatically if it gets wet, and it can tear to shreds if it is squeezed or wrung out while wet because of how the water impacts it’s delicate plant based fibers. On the other hand. I have rayon clothes I wash all the time, and I’ve had bamboo sheets that went in the washer and dryer, and because of the way the bamboo is processed, it’s viscose too. My cheap, imported-from-one-developing -nation-to-another pants did not come with washing instructions, just the 100% viscose tag. I have no idea how to clean them without utterly destroying them because even dry cleaning is an adventure when you aren’t fluent in the dry cleaner’s language. I hope I can get them to last the summer at least, fingers crossed.

Wrap It Up

20170122_172744I tried to find some local-ish dinner food, but my travel weariness led me in the end to a little boutique restaurant near my hotel that was more expensive but also vastly more comfortable. Amid the offers of western sandwiches and pasta, I found a lone offering of the national dish: nasi lemak. Omnomnom.

I also managed to pick up a beautiful blue batik sarong which was one of two things I actually planned to buy on this trip. After I got cleaned up and I watched a few YouTube videos on how to wear a sarong, I went 20170122_182721out for a beer in my new tropical get up. I got the impression that Georgetown is so popular among backpackers and expats for a combination of it’s strong western influence and plethora of cheap bars. (many places have a regular “ladies night” menu which are totally free or insanely cheap) I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it after only a short time, but I can see how it would be a refreshing break if I were on a multi-month trek of SE Asia, and I’d definitely love to go back for more clothes when I’m not backpacking.


We’re about halfway through the stories of the Malay Peninsula adventures. For those wondering how I keep the memories so fresh months after the experience, I cheat. I wrote everything down as soon as I got back in one giant GoogleDoc, and it’s just a matter of edit and polish for each chapter afterward. There’s no photo album for this post, but I hope you’ll check out the Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter pages for regular updates and photos on adventures as they happen. Thanks for reading! ❤

Malay Peninsula 8: Ipoh White Coffee

Spring is brilliant. Cool mornings, sunny afternoons, flowers everywhere, but just enough rain to keep the air from turning into a pollen infused nightmare. Kids are outside preparing for “Sports Day”, a springtime event in Korean public education that gets everyone out in the sunshine after a long, cold winter. Lucky me, while the kids are outside practicing dance routines and the three legged race, classes indoors are cancelled! I’ve used some of my extra time to catch up on my winter holiday stories. Coffee lovers everywhere, this one’s for you.


20170122_081446When I woke early that morning, I had only two main goals: to catch the morning train out of town and to track down the famous Ipoh “white coffee”. While chatting with the hostess the night before, she’d recommended a smaller coffee shop for me to try out instead of the main tourist one. She said that the Old Town white coffee shop had become too “Starbucks”, which as a Seattleite, I can totally relate to. (shout out to the refugee and veteran hiring goals tho, SB, good work there). She said I simply had to try their egg tart while I was there. However, because of my train fiasco in KL, I decided to head first to the train station to buy a ticket and then to the coffee shop. It was a piece of cake to catch another Uber and the train station was easy to navigate. I was amused by the herd of taxi drivers who tried to approach me as I got out of a car to enter the train station. Were they hoping to get a fare to another city?  Once I had my ticket, I set off to find my breakfast.

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20170122_083031The town was very quiet early Sunday morning, so I enjoyed a leisurely stroll past some beautiful architecture and into the quaint “old town”. I had been advised to seek out a place called Nam Heong. When I found it, I discovered they sell the same brand of coffee as the high tourist cafe, which is simply called “Old Town White Coffee”. I have to infer that my hostess of the night before was referencing the atmosphere of the cafes rather than the coffee itself. Pictures I found online of the famous “Old Town White Coffee” restaurant show that it is a spacious and rather upscale looking place, geared toward the bougie and the Western tourist, while my experience in Nam Heong was a crowded hole in the wall filled with scurrying locals where I was the only white person. There probably is some difference in the drinks, since the brand itself was just the roasted beans, there’s almost certainly a difference in the price tag, and there’s a huge difference in local flavor. I don’t regret my choice for a minute.

What is white coffee?

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photo credit: Google image search

That’s a weirdly complicated question. The first time I encountered the phrase (as an American) was in a little niche coffee shop in Seattle where all the craziest trends in coffee can be found. In this case, white coffee was defined as coffee that was barely roasted (as opposed to green coffee which is not roasted at all). The slight roasting is just enough to blanch the beans from green to pale ivory, thus giving them the name “white”. The flavor is nothing like what most of us think of as “coffee” since those oils are activated in roasting, and instead has a mild nutty flavor.

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photo credit: Russian Wikipedia

But, then I started travelling around where British influenced culture more than American and I came to learn that the term “white coffee” could also simply mean coffee with milk (or some other lightening substance). Although fancy coffee shops tend to use the term “flat white”, nearly any place that instant coffee abides, the term “white coffee” will there also live.

Finally, I got to Malaysia, where coffee leads a unique Southeast Asian lifestyle. Not all coffee is created equal. The Arabic peninsula had a singular, unique style of coffee that I will miss for the rest of my life, and now I fear I have to add the Malaysia to that honored list of beloved and hard to find coffee styles. Malaysian coffee in general is different from even the other SE Asian coffees. Having been to Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, I thought I understood the regional coffees to be strong dark things brewed through muslin bags in special pots and served with sugar and condensed milk, and while this is basically true, it turns out Malaysia goes one giant step further. The roast.

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photo credit: Star2

Regular coffee is roasted bare, relying on the oils and sugars within the beans to bring the flavor to the party. However, Malaysians like to roast their coffee using palm oil and sugar, meaning that the extra flavors wind up in the final product. PLUS, they add some wheat into the roast (so if you’re gluten free, avoid coffee in Malaysia!) which gives the whole thing a deep grain flavor that I can only associate with other roasted grain teas that I’ve had in Japan and Korea. And yes, it’s standardly mixed with sugar and condensed milk, but there are always options since it’s made to order and they’ve started learning foreigners only like “a little sweet”.

Ipoh, however, has taken the traditional Malay style coffee and made another twist. It turns out that the name “white coffee” comes from the Chinese character for white (白) which doesn’t just mean the color white, but more often means “plain”, “bare” or “unadulterated”. It was applied to the Ipoh coffee because they chose to roast the beans with only the palm oil and NOT with the sugar and wheat. Thus, compared to the rest of the coffee in Malaysia, the Ipoh coffee is “白” and it has nothing at all to do with the milk that’s added later.

logo.png(a side note on palm oil: don’t buy it. Seriously, I work pretty hard to be a responsible consumer. Palm oil is a product of major controversy right now because of the elephant exploitation in Thailand as well as the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s hard to exclude because it’s often improperly labeled, but please try to buy more sustainable and ethically sourced oils if you can. I was a little put out by eating it there, but in the end, my “locovore senses” took over and reminded me that if the Malaysians just grew enough palm oil for their own needs, then everything would be fine. It’s not an evil crop, but the high demand for it internationally has led farmers to damaging and unsustainable practices that harm the environment, and just so you don’t deride me for valuing orangutans over humans, the unsustainable farming practices are damaging the land and water those farmers and their families rely on, making the human future dim as well. Say no to imported palm oil.)

I ordered my white coffee iced because even though it was still early in the day, I wasn’t quite ready for hot coffee without AC. I had a seat near the kitchen which is normally considered bad, but it let me observe a little of the preparation process, including the long pours that help to churn the ingredients for a smooth and frothy finish. I also observed that they were selling bags of the brand coffee, although I’m not sure if it was beans or an instant mix. (Whatever you may think of instant coffee, I have discovered that in Asia they have it down to a fine science. I can still tell the difference, most of the time, but there are several worthwhile instant brands here).

20170122_083414My coffee and tart arrived promptly and were very inexpensive. The coffee was smooth and extra creamy (more than just because it was made with milk, I believe the palm oil roasting made the flavor smoother). While other coffee I’d had in Malaysia was aggressive in it’s “coffeeness”, slightly if pleasantly bitter, and coffee I’ve had in the US and Europe tends to have an acidic tang, the Ipoh white coffee was as smooth as coffee ice cream, but not quite as sweet. Also the tart was warm, flaky and not too sweet either. As a recovering HFCS addict, it can be challenging for me to find the balance of sweet that tingles my taste-buds without overloading my synapses, but I was left very satisfied by the experience at Nam Heong that morning. I shall think fondly of the coffee until one day I start my own tour company and make it a stop on the “Coffee of the World” tour package.


There’s not quite enough photos for an album of this morning, so enjoy a few more random sights of Ipoh. Stay tuned for a Golden Week of adventures in Korea next week as well as the next installment of Malay Peninsula where I go to Penang to do laundry and buy pants! Thanks for reading 🙂

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