Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤

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Hello Bohol: My Own Two Wheels

One of the best things about travel is getting to learn new things, and on this trip I got to aquire a brand new skill I hope will serve me well in my future adventures. Despite the dangeous sounding urban ledgends and my own father’s brush with severe injury at the hands (wheels?) of this contraption, I decided it was time to learn to ride. Not only was learning far easier than I imagined, the freedom it brought to my holiday was irreplacable. Suddenly moving from place to place was not a chore or lost time, but an opportunity to connect with the natural wonders around me. 


Why a Motorbike?

Regular readers may remember, and anyone who’s been to SE Asia will know, transit in these countries is primarily done via motorbike (moped, scooter). Those who have not been, let me briefly clarify. I am not talking about a full on motorcycle Harley Davidson style, and I think sometimes westerners (especially Americans) are confused about the differences. Many countries have laws defining the these and what kind of license you need for each, and in every case the motorcycle is more demanding, difficult to drive and dangerous. I don’t think the Philippines has or at least doesn’t enforce any such laws, as I saw vehicles that looked like both on the road all the time. The best part about the scooter for me was automatic transmission, and a floorboard, so you are able to sit more naturally.

After my very frustrating experiences with Thai public transit and private tours, I really wanted to give the whole bike thing a try, and Bohol with it’s slow farm life and tiny barrios seemed like a perfect chance. If you can drive and ride a bicycle, learning an automatic motorbike (scooter) is a breeze. Plus, then I could free myself from haggling with tuk tuk drivers or being chained to tour group schedules.

I had read online that most hotels/hostels will help you rent a motorbike and had verified that with Becca at Imagine Bohol before my trip. Once I was settled in my room, I asked her if we could get the motorbikes that evening. She called Lloyd and James to bring us the bikes and give us a quick lesson in scooter driving and Philippine road safety.

Driver’s Ed.

First they taught us how to turn the bikes on and off, where the break and gas were, how to control the kickstand, the bike lock, and all the things you do while sitting still. Then they had us hop on behind, one each, so they could show us the controls in motion. James walked me through a step by step of every control and dial and button on the bike, then we pulled over and it was my turn to drive. Not realizing we we’re going to be out on the road, I’d left my sandals in the room, and James lent me his flip flops so that my bare feet would not be scraped on the asphalt, and off we went. At first I was a little nervous, but mostly I was excited. The roads we practiced on were nearly empty, and soon I learned to keep the bike on the far right, and how to make turns, how to control my speed and how to park. We drove around Alona and passed by Alona beach to see where the main parking lot was.

By the time we finished practicing it was nearly dark, but I felt much more confident on the bike. We made sure we both had helmets to use, and went over the bike condition before paying for the rentals and taking their numbers just in case of problems. I had read that the average rental rate in Bohol was 400-600php/day. James and Lloyd charged us a mere 350. We felt like it was a great deal, and it turned out that we had no problems with the bikes, or with returning them (I read stories of renters accusing riders of extra damage to get more money, not an issue we had with these gentlemen).

GPS via Headset

The longest drive I had was to the Chocolate Hills. Our hotel was on the southernmost end of Panglao, and it was about a 30 minute drive just to get to the bridge that connected us to Bohol, plus another 2 hours after that to get to the hills in the center of the larger island. I think in a car it may have been a little faster, but we were content to drive 40-50km/hr on our bikes and that added some time to the trip estimate. I also had to stop sometimes to check the map. Even with Google Maps playing through my headphones, I couldn’t SEE the app while riding the bike, so if I needed to check something, I had to pull off the road and fish the phone out of my pocket to have a look. Of course, I also just stopped sometimes to look at things.

The Unsheltered Drive

Even though the weather was hot hot hot and oh so humid, riding the bike was very comfortable. At 40 kph you get a very nice breeze that feels cool and refreshing and you get a great view of the countryside as you ride through. Of course I had a few issues getting adjusted. I got smacked in the forehead by a large insect that then flew behind my sunglasses. If you think having a spider or a bee in your car is freaktown, let me assure you that having an unknown buzzing bug next to your eye inside your glasses is much worse. Luckily I didn’t crash, and the bug flew from one eye to the other before escaping the lenses and being whisked away by the wind.

The reason such an insect encounter was possible was because my helmet had no visor. This wasn’t an issue most of the time, but if I was planning to do more driving at night or in the rain, I would invest in a visor or some kind of driving goggles. For sunshiney day time, my sunglasses protected my eyes from everything other than that one very confused bug. Most of the natives don’t wear helmets or eye protection and it just mystifies me. I did forget to put my helmet on once when I was very tired and just focused on getting back to the room, but any other time I thought about it, all I could imagine was my mother flipping out if I splattered my brains on the highway.

Animal Crossing

Aside from the insects, other living creatures that hindered my driving by meandering onto the road, blocking my parking, or jumping out in front of me include: chickens, dogs, cows, goats, water buffalo, and tourists. Dogs were easily the most common, but they did a very good job of watching traffic, watching humans, and responding to beeps. The closest thing to an accident I had was one very confused dog who zigged into traffic instead of out. While stopping in a hurry, I put my feet out for balance, and my big toe got mildly scraped on the street.

Goats were usually not in the road. Cows and water buffalo were large enough that they expected to have right of way. The only near incident was having a calf come over to see if I had any food while I was trying to get out of a tight parking spot. The chickens, somewhat unexpectedly, never crossed the road.

Except for the dogs who roamed free, the animals were usually tethered with some kind of long string so that their owners could leave them to graze a reasonably large area without being in fear of having them wander off while no one was looking.

There is little to no traffic on Panglao except the 1-2km stretch next to Alona where all the bars, international restaurants, and tourist traps are situated. Every evening when we came back to the hotel, we had to drive through this and I dreaded it every time. However insane the other drivers were, the locals were generally safe drivers and my helmet tagged me as a foreigner to watch out for. Some had installed strobe lights or other party lights which made driving behind them a pain, but the worst by far were the tourists on foot. Whether drunk, lost, or simply staring at their phones, these people did very little watching of the traffic around them, and on at least one occasion a young man stepped out into the street right in front of my bike!

Passing and Turning

I drove up some intense twisting mountain roads. On the straighter roads, cars, bikes,  trucks and buses just passed whenever they felt like it. Often they drove on the wrong side of the road to get around one another and generally everyone is ok with this. However, in the mountains, the narrow roads and tight turns made this impossible. Combined with the fact that I just didn’t feel safe driving fast on hairpin turns on a scooter I’d learned to drive two days previously, I soon wound up with a line of traffic behind me. Doubly unfortunate, for long stretches the shoulder was nonexistent, the road dropping off sharply into drainage ditches or mountainside. I pulled over when I could, but it was more than a little nerve-wracking. I recalled similar drives in NZ with my rental car on the narrow winding roads while the locals and shipping trucks drove in silent annoyance behind me and reminded myself that it was better to be safe than to drive too fast and crash. Then again, I may be putting too much American in it. Road rage is a major thing in the US, and honking is a real sign of aggression. In the Philippines it seemed that a little ‘bip’ on the horn was more often just a friendly, “hey, I’m here” for awareness and safety and not a “get out of the way!” honk.

Women Drivers

Many Filipinos were surprised to see us on bikes at all, partially because we were foreign, but mostly because we were women. I saw only a small number of women driving motor bikes the whole time I was there. Mostly they were passengers riding behind a man. Sometimes whole families would pile on a single scooter. One taxi driver told us that not too many women drive there, although there isn’t any kind of legal restriction like in KSA. Our hotel hostess told us she had tried to learn before but had been too scared. Independence of transportation is so important for women’s equality, I hope that the younger generation will buck the trend. This is not to say that Filipina women are trapped at home, there were plenty of jeepneys and tricycles for hire, but there’s no substitute for independence.

Road Signs on a Long Drive

It was a nearly excruciating drive from the Chocolate Hills back to Panglao. As much as I adore the wondrous sensation of riding through the lush green countryside with the wind on my face, after so many hours my butt on that seat began to express a level of misery I think only marathon cyclists can relate to. As dusk approached, the drive became a contest between a desire to get back to the smaller island before dark and a need to stop every 20 minutes to move our legs. I tried to distract myself with reading the signs on the side of the road. The best was “Caution: vertical curve ahead”… put your best guess in the comments.

Although I didn’t get a shot of the first amusing sign, on my last day while I was pausing to check my GPS, I spotted this sign to Albuquerque, and all I could think “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn…”

The Sunset Burn

Around sunset, a whole new peril was added to the joyful dangers of scooter driving. At dusk, the Filipinos burn everything. Seriously, I have no idea. It smelled wonderful, like campfire wood-smoke, so I don’t think it was garbage burning (an actual recourse for the very poor in Manila. read here and here). Some might have been cooking, but it also seemed like some people just made brush-fires on the side of the road. I guess farming has more leftover plant matter than they know what to do with? The upshot was that the road was not merely pleasantly reminiscent of summer campgrounds, but actually choked with smoke and ash, making it hard to see and hard to breathe. An hour or two later it was gone, and it happened every night that I was out on a road at dusk.

If I return to do that again I’ll invest in a cloth mask for breathing and some kind of goggles since my sunglasses were more a hazard at dusk than the smoke for my vision. If we weren’t so nervous about driving in the dark, I think we might have been better off stopping for dinner and driving again after the burning time passed.

Photo Ops

I rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry. I had no confidence at all to try to take photos while driving (although I saw Filipinos on their phones while driving motorbikes, I’m still convinced that’s a really bad idea) so there aren’t many photos of this part of the trip. On later drives through Bohol, I did stop a couple times and take pictures, but I always feel a little strange taking pictures of people just living their lives, like kind of super-white-national-geographic-exploitive. I don’t know how to get across that I want to share their lives, not make them out to be exotic zoo creatures, so I just don’t take photos more often than not. I mean, how would you feel if a tourist drove through your neighborhood and took pictures of you mowing your lawn or hanging your laundry?

Friday (day 6) was chosen for the second long drive day onto the big(ger) island of Bohol to catch the other Tarsier Sanctuary and a lunch cruise along the Loboc river. The drive wasn’t far, but I passed through yet more of the iconic Bohol scenery and finally succumbed to stopping for photos when I saw another car stopped on the side of the road and a white man taking pictures of workers harvesting the rice fields. I still felt awkward, but at least I was blending in to other tourists being weird? Oh, who am I kidding, I’m a lone white woman on a motorbike in the middle of farm country, there’s no blending in.

Stick in the Mud

My last full day, I went on back roads in search of hidden waterfalls, which I found and enjoyed and will share in another post. However, since it had rained heavily the night before, I found these unpaved rural streets to be made mostly of mud. On the worst of these roads, I had the only other near accident experience of the trip. While driving in, once or twice I hit a mud puddle and slid around a bit, but I was going slow and making progress … until I wasn’t. I managed to drive right into a deep and long patch of mud that claimed the bikes tires and stopped me flat. Putting my feet down, I sank in the mud past my ankles, and I worked hard to get the bike unstuck. I wasn’t able to move it on my own and decided to give it just a little gas to get the wheel moving, but this resulted in the rear wheel going sideways out from under me, and dropping me and the front end into the bushes on the side of the road. Since I wasn’t moving at the time, the only damage I sustained was some minor bruising where the bike fell on my leg.

On the way back out, I decided to simply turn off the bike and walk around the mud patches. This was a great plan until I got to one that was bigger than the road. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d thought driving through it on the way in was a clever idea. I only managed to get back out because some very kind young people walked ahead of me and found the most solid ground through the morass that would take the bike’s weight without sinking. The result of this mudtastic adventure is that when I returned the bike to Jesse the next morning it looked like this, but Jesse wasn’t upset.

In Conclusion

Despite a few minor inconveniences, I still think renting motorbikes was the single best decision I made regarding this holiday. Not only did I get to see so much more of the countryside that I would from a tour bus, but I had the freedom to set my own schedule and persue my own adventures, which became more and more adventurous as I became a more confident driver. Although I have only a few photos of the road, my memories of driving through the stunning scenery with the wind caressing my skin and the fresh air filling my lungs are some of my favorite of the whole trip.


Today is American Thanksgiving. It’s a little strange to realize you have a holiday that’s only celebrated in one country on earth. Last year I went over to the Naval Base with some friends for a traditional meal, but this year I sadly had a dentist appointment. Aside from that, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Thanksgiving is a holiday with questionable origins. The Korean kids liken it to Chuseok, which is a holiday for honoring family and ancestors, but American kids are taught a fairytale about the Pilgrims and Indians. In an attempt to find balance and gratitude, this year I’m going to have a traditional Korean feast with a friend and think about what I’m thankful for, including the fact that we can learn to treat each other better than our ancestors did.

Hello Bohol: Firsts and Lasts

This post is a collection of tales of how I came to spend 9 days in Bohol, and of my first and last impressions of the country. I warned you that this holiday would not be presented in chronological order, and how much more out of order can you get than putting the first evening and last morning together? Read on to find out more about Korean holidays, Philippine toilets, a little about tipping culture, and a little about human kindness.


What Am I Doing Here?

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Image Credit: Haps Magazine

What made me think it was a good idea to take a 9 pm flight on a Friday before a major holiday? Considering I bought the plane tickets back in early May, I don’t have a clear recognition of that decision making process, but I’m sure it had to do with some combination of maximizing vacation time and minimizing price/layover time. Regardless of why I made the decision at the time, when the day arrived and I stood outside in the dark waiting on the limousine bus to the airport at a time of the week I’m usually in my PJ’s with a glass of wine recovering from the school week, I asked myself this question.

When I arrived at Gimhae airport to find it more full of humans than I’ve ever seen it before, the line for my check in counter already stretched across the large room, and the flight itself delayed by an hour, I asked myself again. One day, we’ll invent teleporters, or I’ll finally steal a TARDIS, but until then, airports are the necessary evil I face to enjoy the world.

The Big Holiday Gets Bigger

It was Chuseok again in Korea, that wacky lunar fall holiday that moves around more than Easter, but is a bigger deal than Christmas. Last year, you may recall, I took a 5 day weekend in early September down to Jeju, the “Hawaii of Korea” because Chuseok fell on a Wednesday-Saturday, and I also had no idea it was coming until it was almost here, so no real time to plan a getaway (thanks Enjoy Korea for saving me there). This year, Chuseok is in early October, and because of magical lunar calendars, the timing for no work days was awesome. The actual holiday was Tuesday-Friday, but many businesses (including my school) decided not to bother opening on the Monday before. Plus, the Monday after was October 9th, a controversial holiday in the US (I prefer “Indigenous People’s Day” to that other dude), and Canadian Thanksgiving this year also, in Korea, it was Hangeul Day, the day we celebrate the creation of the Korean phonetic writing system that freed them from the complex Chinese writing system and enabled the country to become super-literate. To save you the arithmetic, that’s 10 straight days of not working.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I wanted at first to go back to Koh Lipe, but the island is closed this part of the year due to the weather. *sigh. I pulled up my new favorite flight searching website, as well as several old standbys to see what the cheapest fares to the most interesting places were during my window of opportunity. It turns out that even though I started looking as early as April, most Koreans had been looking since last Chuseok, and the prices were already 2-4x what they normally would be for every destination. It’s also the “rainy season” in all of SE Asia, so trying to pick someplace I wouldn’t simply drown in a monsoon was on my mind. Finally, I settled on going to the Philippines, to the island of Bohol, and the even smaller island of Panglao.

I chose this destination for a combination of 1) ticket price, 2) new country experience, 3) recommended by a friend who lives in Manila, 4) Bohol is surrounded by larger islands, so I hoped they would serve as a weather break to protect me from the worst of any ocean going storms, 5) it’s not a total tourist resort yet. But first, I had to stop over in…

Manila

My flight landed in Manila around 1am. There were huge lines for immigration, and although I had no bags to collect, it still took me a while to navigate the terminal to find customs (no one even looked at me as I breezed through, let alone checked my paperwork or bags), and then to find the only open SIM card vendor at 2am. They gave us vouchers on the flight for a free SIM and I knew that I could try to get one in the morning on my way out of Manila, but when I found a lone agent manning a tiny booth outside the taxi pick up, I joined the short line and paid up for a working data connection. My lifeblood restored, I went off in search of my ride.

I had a 9 hour layover in Manila, which became an 8 hour layover when the flight was delayed, and then 7 because I didn’t get out of the airport until 2am… you see how this is going. But at the time I booked the tickets I did not relish spending 9 hours in a mostly closed airport with unknown facilities (just as well, since the Manila airport is severely lacking in comfort and entertainment even during operating hours, and it was positively barren overnight). While searching for options to rest my feet during the break I found a little hostel right next to the airport that clearly decided to make a business of the long Manila layovers.

Jorvim Apartelle arranged an airport shuttle, a comfortable room (shared bathrooms), working AC, and a fresh breakfast before the return shuttle as part of their package deal. Maybe I could have paid less by doing it all piecemeal, but it was worth it not to have to hunt down a taxi at 2am or worry about feeding myself at 6am. It wasn’t a long nap, but I was horizontal and cool and I awoke much refreshed. Breakfast was a simple egg, fried slice of spam and scoop of rice with Nescafe on the side, but it enough to be getting on with, and the driver made sure we all got to the airport in time to go through all the security.

Oh the security. Manila is going through some weird stuff politically, which I’ll get into later, but I’m assuming that is part of the security set up at the airport. While customs had seemed wholly unconcerned with what I brought into Manila, once I was going on to another port, I had to pass through a gauntlet of x-ray machines. Simply to enter the terminal, one must pass through bag x-rays and metal detectors. I didn’t have to stand in line to check in since I already had my boarding pass, but to get to the gates, I had to pass another screening. I’m not sure what they thought we might put in our bags or pockets between the front door and the boarding gates, but there it was.

For a major international airport, the Manila airport is pokey. At first I thought it was just because I was on a domestic flight, but my wait in the international terminal on the way out was not much better. I went to get an iced coffee, only to discover that this just meant nescafe over ice… and it tasted awful. The first time it was so sweet I felt I was drinking sugar syrup, when I went back and reminded them I’d asked for no sugar, I got something that sort of tasted like a mix of coffee and chalk. It seems that the Starbucks invasion of the Philippines hasn’t reached the airport yet. It did not bode well for my coffee prospects on holiday, but I consoled myself with the idea of beach drinks instead while I discreetly tipped my cup in the bin.

Tagbilaran

When we left Manila, I stared out the plane window at the bustling city, tall buildings and concrete from one coast to the other with little spots of green here and there. When we flew in over Bohol, it seemed the opposite was true. Not a single high rise building or city-like cluster tainted the green below us. I could see the rolling dark green of mountains and the brighter green of farm land.

As we got closer, I could make out palm trees and rice fields, and the Chocolate Hills that are the most famous land feature of the island. The water we passed over was so clear and shallow I could see the outlines of the reefs from the air. I began to seriously wonder about the “city” we were supposed to land in as we passed over more and more jungle broken up with the occasional road or group of houses.

When we finally landed in Tagbilaran, the entire airport was a single building that was smaller than the hostel I’d stayed in in Manila. The runway was short and the tarmac could not have accommodated more than one plane at a time. We disembarked via stairs and walked to the terminal a few yards away while bags were unloaded onto carts. There was a small luggage carousel in the building, but to be honest, I’m not sure why. The flight was so small it seemed like it might have been easier to simply let passengers claim bags as they came off the plane rather than use the tiny moving circle inside.

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A Word About the Bathrooms

Because my hotel at least 30 minutes away, I stood in line for the restroom in the airport, only to discover that Philippine toilets don’t come with seats… They weren’t Asian style squatters, they just looked like Western toilets without a seat. I thought maybe it was broken, but I saw many more like this any time we were in a very Filipino place, so I’m thinking it’s normal there. Plus, the first non-Muslim country I’ve seen the hose regularly installed. Toilet culture.

I found a decent article later on about the bathroom situation in the Philippines. I think it’s gotten better in the last 9 years since the blogger wrote this, but some of it is still true. Even in Bohol, most of the places “for tourists” had toilet seats. Many had paper (although still best to throw that in the trash and not the bowl). But when I did go to a less touristy area, I was greeted with seatless bowls, flushless toilets (like the ones in Koh Lipe that had to have water poured down them), and either the Arabic style hose or the Philippine traditional tabo (bucket and ladle) for cleaning. I’m reasonably open to doing things like the locals, but I still bring my own paper when I’m touring in case of emergency.

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Image Credit: markblackard.com

Finding Food on Foot

The hotel I’d chosen was only a couple km from the most famous Alona Beach, but far enough away to be much cheaper while still being quite nice. There were animals everywhere. Goats, cows, dogs, chickens… and I could hear the roosters from my room, but they weren’t too loud inside so I didn’t think it would be a problem to sleep through them. Once I got in and had a little look around, I asked my hostess, Becca where to get some food.

Becca is the best, by the way. I seriously recommend everyone who wants to go to Panglao go to Imagine Bohol and stay with her, because she is wonderfully attentive, speaks great English, and will recommend or arrange anything you’re looking for.

20170930_113725There were no food delivery options nor any restaurants in walking distance and although it was my plan to rent a motor bike (scooter) for the week, I was waiting until my travel companion arrived on a her flight 4 hours behind me so we could handle both rentals at once. However, my breakfast had been a long time ago, and I needed something to quiet the growling tummy. As we reviewed our options, she mentioned hesitantly that there was a small convenience store just down the street where I could get some ramen. Done! She said she’d show me where it was and I expected it to be hidden or at least farther, but when we got to the gate of the hotel drive, she pointed at a sign barely down the street, less than 2 minutes walk.

I headed over, meandering my way, taking in the flowers and greenery on the side of the road as well as playing a short game of peekaboo with a shy child hiding behind a tree. A man came out from a house and began to purposfully cut small branches from a tree, but he was collecting them, not discarding them, so I assumed it was not merely pruning. I asked him what the tree was and he replied “mulungway”. “What’s that?” I asked, not yet understanding how strange a question it must have seemed to him. However, his English was not up to the task and he simply said, “for eating”. I didn’t recognize the tree and vowed to look it up when I got back to the room, but sadly I had forgotten it by then and didn’t hear it again for several days.

The convenience store folks were surprised to see me, and were endlessly helpful as I bumbled around the tiny aisles looking for lunch. I ended up with cup noodles, an egg, and an ice cream cone. As I was paying, the ladies wished me farewell, and I said, oh, you’ll probably see me again since I’m staying right down the street. This seemed to make them happy and we chatted some more before I finally left.

I had heard from other travelers how friendly the Filipino people are, but I was starting to understand that it was not actually an exaggeration. I mean, I like talking to locals everywhere I go, and usually I find kind and helpful people and have good experiences, but dang if every single school kid didn’t break into a grin and wave and say hello when I passed by. Leaving tourist spaces can be scary, but I think in Panglao is well worth it.

Leapin’ Lizzards

20171005_182724As the sun set, the lizards came out, and when I went back to the room, I was greeted on the porch by a gecko. It was maybe 6 inches long, not huge, but so unexpected I let out a little yelp, and Becca sent someone to save me. I insisted they did not need to shoo the little lizard away with a broom, but Becca said sometimes they bite. She also pointed out the tiny 1-2 inch lizards elsewhere that were totally safe. I asked if the gecko was poisonous, but it’s not, and it wasn’t even slightly aggressive, but I still kept a distance from the others I saw so as not to add gecko bite to my list of minor travel injuries.

Grateful Farewell

The last morning of vacation, it was time to settle our account with Becca, the hostess with the mostest at our little apartelle. Like most places in Bohol, they only take cash, and she’d been careful to politely remind us the day before in case we needed to get to an ATM. Tipping culture in the Philippines is not yet standard, but I’d read up a bit before coming, and I’d seen many things I’d read confirmed. Fancy restaurants tended to add a 10% tip into the bill, most places didn’t expect a tip but were happy to get one. Tips are still expressions of gratitude there, and so when we felt we were treated especially well, we left a special tip, and if we felt the service was adequate, we left 10% (often included) at fancy places, and not at all in “regular” places. But when it came to the hotel we were both in agreement that Becca and her staff deserved more, and to be honest, it wasn’t a very expensive hotel to begin with, so 20% was still only about 40$. I don’t know if that seems big or small to you. I’ve never stayed in one hotel for 9 days before. I’ve left tips for housekeeping before, but usually only when I made a mess or when they did extra work for me. But Becca was so gracious, always there for us, making sure we had everything we needed, the apartment was cleaned up every day, fresh towels and sheets, she arranged our motorbike rentals (at a much better rate than other places around the island), scheduled our firefly tour, recommended beaches and restaurants and was just generally a fantastic part of the holiday.

I took our rent and her tip bundled together and brought it to her room in the morning, letting her know that the extra money was for her, and not waiting around for her to count it before heading back to finish packing up. A few minutes later she came by our room to see if we’d made a mistake. This is I think the most amazing insane part of this story. We gave her 20%, like I said about 40$US in tip. I can almost imagine someone questioning a mistake if we’d given her hundreds, but in the grand scheme of my life, 40$ (or really 20$ from 2 people) is not that much even to loose accidentally. But she was so honest that she came back to see if we gave her too much money by mistake. No, I told her, you’ve done so much to help us and make us feel welcome and cared for, this is our way to say thank you.

She teared up. Actual tears in her eyes, and she asked if she could give us hugs and told us we had been such wonderful guests. It blew my mind a little bit that such simple things as appreciating her with words and a small gift meant so much. This was obviously not an everyday occurrence in her life at the hotel and it struck me not for the first time how the people here are treated simply because of the reputation of their country as a source of cheap labor and maids.

I hope in some small way that sharing my experiences of Bohol and it’s people can help paint the Filipino people as a caring, friendly, generous and worthwhile group of people who deserve the same respect and courtesy as all of us no matter what their job is. A little kindness goes a long way here, so spread it around.

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The weather in Busan is decidedly cold these days, and the mountain outside my window has turned from green to russet as the trees change for autumn. I’m still pressing though a monumental amount of healthcare. It turns out that suddenly having access to good and affordable care means you actually go. I’m totally fine, I’m just a dental and medical anomaly and require more specialists than the average bear. Despite this drain on my time and energy, I try to stay grateful that I’m doing this here and not in some country with totally inadequate health insurance plans. Hopefully by January I’ll be able to do some kind of adventuring again. Stay tuned for more tales from Bohol as I get my first (and only) motorcycle lesson, and the wonderful freedom and unique experiences that came with this new mode of transportation in our next installment: My Own Two Wheels. Thanks for reading! ❤

Hello Bohol: Introductions & Disclaimers

During the Chuseok holiday this October, I took a 9 day trip to Bohol in the Philippines. It’s taken me a long time to get the rough draft out of my head, and it’s going to take even longer to devote time to polishing the words and photos. I’ve broken up the story into small, and hopefully joyful vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. This post is a little introduction to Bohol, and a little explanation about why this story is being told differently. Yeah, it’s another post with no photos… it’s been that kind of fall. If you’re really craving photos, you can go look at the chrysanthemums I found here in Korea last weekend.


I usually take holidays by going to all the places. I can look at my color coded spreadsheets of past holidays and it’s a little bit non-stop. I think the last time I stayed in one place more than a couple nights on holiday (not counting family visits) was in that resort in Egypt, and even then I did a day flight into Cairo and may have done more if not for the food poisoning of doom. Every other holiday has been a whirlwind of exploration, and I love that. I love seeing all the things. But, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last did a “relaxing” holiday, and considering how I drove myself into the ground in Thailand, I decided Chuseok was going to be a single destination vacation.

Even in the spring when I started to look at plane tickets, the holiday prices were already sky high, and my decision to go to the Philippines was influenced by the fact that they were some of the cheapest flights left. After asking a friend who has lived in Manila decades where to go, I decided to spend my time in Panglao. Panglao is a tiny island that’s off the coast of tiny Bohol.

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Some people may look at the tiny island of Panglao and say, really 9 days? What did you do? Especially when you consider I don’t really DO laying on the beach all day, nor do I have my diving certification (the two main reasons to go there). It turns out that there is a LOT of amazing stuff over there, most especially if you can control your own transportation. I didn’t make a spreadsheet for this holiday either (to be honest, I was a little focused on the US trip, and the dental work). I did make some tentative itineraries based on interesting things and geographic proximity, but I did not have a day to day PLAN. I made fewer itineraries than there were days, so that there would be resting time and I would avoid the kind of burnout that happened in January. I was also meeting a friend there and wanted her to feel like she had some room to suggest things and not be railroaded by color coded schedules.

Researching Bohol ahead of the visit was a little tricky since it’s not a real popular stop on the backpacker routes and the tourists listed the same few “must-do’s” over and over without a whole lot of information on them since it seemed nearly everyone who went joined a tour group or hired a guide to make these tried and true tourism routes. I was largely content with the idea of doing the same things, but on my own time and without an awkward guide trying to make conversation, take silly photos, or rush me on to the next thing (it turned out I couldn’t avoid this altogether, but the few times I was forced into it, it made me grateful for the self touring I did the rest of the time).

The posts in the “Hello Bohol” series are not strictly chronological, but more organized into categories:

First and Last – I thought about calling this one “airports and hotels” but I thought, who’s going to want to read that? It’s the story of getting to Bohol, and a rather special experience on my last morning there.

My Own Two Wheels – After Thailand, I realized that I needed to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around SE Asia. With it’s small size and lack of cities, Panglao seemed like the perfect time to try. These are the stories of learning to ride a motorbike and how it felt.

Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers – Two of the most famous tourism attractions on the larger island of Bohol. I visited the Chocolate Hills, two tarsier parks, and a few other attractions nearby.

Balicasag with the Turtles – I got a spot on a diving boat heading out to the minuscule island of Balicasag, best known as a serious gathering place of giant sea turtles. I didn’t join the divers, but I had excellent snorkel experiences and finally got my own underwater photos!

Beaches – There are so many beaches on Panglao. I didn’t have a chance to visit them all, but I managed to get in quite a variety.

Food – There is an amazing plethora of gourmet food on Panglao. Everybody has to eat, and vacation is the time to indulge. Vacation calories don’t count, right?

Panglao – things to do and see on Panglao besides beaches and restaurants

Loboc River – a lunch cruise by day and a firefly cruise by night, the Loboc river is another tourism hotspot in Bohol that’s worth the visit.

History & Historical Sites – For anyone who likes history as much as I do, this post includes several old churches, military fortifications, and other historical points of interest, as well as some backstory about the Philippines I didn’t know about before.

Waterfalls – My last full day of the trip I went on a three waterfall adventure quest that took me to muddy back roads and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

What’s going on with me this holiday?

Every time I write, it’s a work of balancing the best story with the actual reality. This is not to say that I make things up, but sometimes I leave things out. Like any good storyteller, I leave out boring details. You don’t want to read about what movie I watched on the airplane or every time I had cup noodles as a snack or how often I brushed my teeth or what book I’m listening to to fall asleep. These are pedantic details that do not add to the story. Likewise in life there are small discomforts and dissatisfactions that happen, but do not serve to advance the story or to entertain the reader.

Facebook and Instagram have been accused repeatedly of creating false narratives of our lives wherein all our friends look so happy and successful all the time, while we feel like useless failures. Of course the irony is that everyone experiences the same distortion because we all post our best selves online, right? I mean, who wants to look bad? Well, me, sometimes. I mean, I don’t want to look bad per se, but I don’t want to create a fantasy version of myself that I won’t recognize in 20 years.

So how to decide what bad things to include and which ones to leave out? I have no idea. I’m totally faking it. Mostly, it’s about how much of an impact did that have on me (did I forget it and move on in less than an hour or did it alter the course of the day/week/year?). And the rest is how good of a story does it make? I mean, let’s face it, we love tragedy and schadenfreude so yes suffering makes good stories sometimes.

In many ways, I think of this blog as a journal. I hate diaries and always have, but every therapist ever says that journaling is a very important part of mental health. I do have some blog posts that will never see the light of day because they are just for me. But mostly, I don’t mind sharing, and there’s something about pretending I have an audience that makes me more attentive to the quality and content and frequency of my writing. But times like this I have to remember that it’s not my diary. It’s one thing for me to tell stories of people I’ve met on my journey who will almost assuredly never be identified by this blog, or even to tell stories of people who are identified as long as the story is the kind that makes them happy.

This time it’s harder because something happened on this holiday that is having a profound and lasting effect on me, and it might even be a good story from an external perspective. But it’s not my story alone. A person I care for quite deeply is involved, and I don’t want to hurt or embarrass her by telling this story in a public forum. But there’s no denying that her presence, her actions, and her choices had an impact on the holiday, on me, and on my writing afterward. Re-creating this adventure was an emotional roller-coaster as memories unfolded taking me from happy times to “oh, and then that happened…”. Photos show us smiling and laughing and I cannot help but remember my joy in sharing those moments with someone so close to me, but the gaps between photos speak to tears and hurt and confusion.

At the time of writing this, it seems that this trip spelled the end of our friendship, so this is my compromise. I won’t tell her stories, but I won’t pretend that everything was great. As you read, if there seems to be a gap where the plot jumps irrationally, or where details are less than they might be then those are the scars left by removing each unpleasant yet wholly private instance of conflict.

Once while talking about death, she asked how I would cope with loosing her, and I told her that I would be sad, and I would feel grief, but that those would fade and in the end it would be the good memories we made together that would last and define my feelings. She’s not dead, but it seems that she is lost to me just the same, so I’m hoping that telling these stories will help me process my sadness and cement the good memories that I want to keep forever.

 

 

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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