Viking Country 4: The Happy Ending

I did not want to leave Sweden. Ever. Well, at least not until the snows came. I thought very hard about immigration until I looked at the winter weather temperatures and decided that I’m just going to have to build my summer home there instead. I’m kidding of course, I’ll never be wealthy enough for a summer home in Sweden or anywhere else, but it is now where my imaginary lottery winning self has built her summer home. The last days in Sweden were a gift on top of a gift, and even my one day in Norway turned out to be pretty magical despite all the odds. I will always be enchanted by this Nordic land and I hope that you’ve enjoyed the stories so far. It’s time to say goodbye to Scandinavia.


Trollhättan

I can’t lie, I partially chose Trollhättan as a place to stop on my way back to Gothenburg because of it’s name. It pretty much means what it sounds like it should. I didn’t want to do a bunch of driving on my way out of Sweden because it was important to turn the car in on time and get to my bus that would take me on to Oslo. I’d already scheduled a stay in Gothenburg at the front end of the trip, so during my planning phase I was trying to find someplace different that was still not too far. Trollhättan won.

Trollhattan Falls

One of the reasons it won was the name, but another was the promise of a large and beautiful waterfall. The waterfall… is a lie. Trollhättan Falls isn’t a natural waterfall at all. It’s a hydroelectric power plant and when the water is “on” it does create a lovely view of the water cascading over the dam, which is what all those beautiful photos I saw online were. Perhaps because Sweden was the end of such a very very long research and planning exercise, and Trollhättan was the end of my stay in Sweden, I simply took the internet at face value, and trekked on up to see the “falls” on my way to my Airbnb that night.

The signs to the “falls” are fine, but when I found myself in the parking lot of a power plant with no waterfalls in sight, I was sure I was in the wrong place. I was not. There was a river below, and the view was lovely, but no falls. I drove across the bridge and up to trail head. I thought perhaps that might be leading to a waterfall, but there wasn’t much information. A family pulled up after me and set onto the trail. As politely as possible, I approached them to see if they knew where we were and how to get to where I wanted. They didn’t really speak English, and I didn’t speak Swedish at all. In the end we settled on Spanish… The world is a curious place.

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He gave me directions back the way I’d come and I tried following a little narrow road that ran down towards the river. This took me to a viewing platform and fishing spot below the power plant that was also very pretty but lacked any waterfall. At this point I pulled up the photos that led me here and started looking for landmarks. It was only then that I realized the tall dry wall of the damn dam was where the water was actually gushing from in these pictures. Lucky me, I found the only waterfall with an “off” switch. At least Sweden is insanely beautiful, and the view of the river gorge was worth stopping for even without any falling water.

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I made it to my Airbnb, a beautiful house that was out in the exurbs. The couple that hosted me had two delightful young children and were kind enough to let me do laundry while I was there. When I asked for some tips on local things to see, the wife suggested Marstrand (another island in the huge pile of archipelago, more north than any ferry would have taken me from Gothenburg, but along the same coast), and to drive some of the local scenic highways. Both sounded good to me, so I set off in search of Marstrand.

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It was a beautiful island, for sure, and I saw much beautiful scenery on the way, but Marstrand was highly developed and mostly filled with boat slips and marinas. Some of the most beautiful little bits of fjord were visible from the road, but there was no safe place to stop and admire them. I stopped off in a busy parking lot to re-examine my options and decided to visit one island north, the island of Tjörn.

Tjörn 

I don’t know what made Tjörn sound good, but it was. It was like a driving re-visit of everything I’d loved about my first day in Sweden. I stopped frequently for beautiful ocean vista photo opportunities, and drove as far out onto the tiniest of the connected islands I could get to, then walked out to the very edge of the land.

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It was filled with more of the tiny, delicate flowers and signs of life and whenever I looked out at the sea I was filled with an awesome sense of contentment. I sat there in the sun until I felt ready to go and drove on in search of lunch. Google Maps drew me to the Sundsby Gårdscafé where I could get a delicious local lunch and have a nice hike in the woodland nearby.

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Lunch was an enormous slice of smoked salmon, which I will never get tired of eating, along with some new potatoes and a generous slice of bread and butter. I mention the bread and butter rather specifically, because toward the end of my meal when I was the last person left in the outdoor dining area, I was joined by an unexpected diner companion who wanted to share my bread.

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After I was completely stuffed, I walked off my meal in the woods. There were several paths of different difficulties and I opted for an easy walk that would lead me up to the 900 year old oak tree. The woods were a bit brown after the summer drought, but the recent rains had brought out the tiny forest animals in force and I got to see a little brown frog no bigger than my thumb and any number of slugs out for an evening constitutional. Driving back to my Airbnb, I felt like I had just had the most wonderful farewell ever.

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The next morning, I joined my hosts for breakfast. The husband was just home from a work trip in Australia and it was a big family meal with Swedish pancakes, which he was very surprised I’d eaten before. One of the few foods I knew about Sweden before I came! His were quite delicious, and I very much enjoyed being able to just chat with the family and share our experiences of our own countries and other’s we had visited. Meeting people is still one of the most amazing parts of travelling the world.

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Oslo & the Wood Burning Hot Tub

Norway was an odd experience for me. When I bought my plane tickets into Paris and out of Oslo, I thought I’d have my road trip in Norway. When I looked at the prices in Norway, I decided to do it in Sweden instead, but my plane out was still in Norway. I think if I’d known how much I’d love Sweden, I might have planned things differently, but when I was booking buses and rooms, I thought I’d like to at least look at Oslo if I was going to pass through.  I was wrong about that.

However much I looooved the road trip in Sweden, after 7 weeks of travel I was getting very worn out. Even amazingness takes energy. Olso being super expensive, I reserved an Airbnb out on a nearby fjord peninsula called Nesodden. It was much more affordable, there was an inexpensive ferry that ran until about 3am to Oslo, and the hostess advertised a wood burning hot tub as one of her amenities. Sitting out on the fjord in a rustic hot tub looking up at the night sky seemed like a pretty good deal.

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It was a little awkward getting to the house, and only slightly awkward getting in. My hostess was on her own vacation, but there was a lodger in a side cabin who was able to help me find the key box. The house was nice, but simple. The water in the tap was not drinkable, so there was a large fresh water bottle available. The decorations were cute and witchy, and the garden was pretty with some ripe strawberries waiting to be picked.20180819_115155

In my mind, I was going to take that ferry back out to Oslo the next day and do all the sightseeing, but when I actually woke up I realized that I had no desire to move at all. Not to mention, I had no idea of how to deal with the transit since I had zero Norwegian money on me, and the bus ticket app wouldn’t take my foreign credit card. The whole thing just seemed like too much to deal with, and I had enough groceries left over to keep me going so I just stayed.

After a few hours of lounging around, I decided to investigate the hot tub. It was a bit warm to use it in the afternoon, but I knew by evening, it would be perfect. The instructions on using the hot tub warned that it would take a couple hours to heat the water, so I wanted to be sure and start earlier rather than later. Then I discovered the hot tub was empty.20180819_114126

I wandered all around looking for any sign of how it was meant to be filled. I found the draining mechanism, but nothing that looked like an “in” flow. In the end, I had to go back to the neighboring lodger for help, but she didn’t really know either. We decided to just use the garden hose. Sure the water isn’t drinkable, but it’s safe for skin. In any case, before I could fill it, I had to clean the whole thing. Despite the cover, it was coated with a film of dirt, dried leaves, and random dead insects.

Once it was clean(er), I plugged up the drain and began to fill it. The water was… very brown. I had used the hose to clean it, but only a splash at a time, and I had assumed the brown-ness of the puddles was because of the dirt in the hot tub being washed away. Maybe some of it was, but the water in the garden hose was actually pumped up from some local lake and was not filtered!! The hot tub looked intensely like it was filled with tea.20180819_170729

I debated while the tub filled and decided that I swim in the ocean and in lakes without hesitation, so why should a lake-water filled hot tub be any different. It took a long time to fill the whole thing, and I prepared to start the fire up before it was all the way full, but then I couldn’t find the wood! There was a sign inside the house that gave directions about firewood being “on the other side of the house” but since the sign itself was on a door in the middle of the living space separating the kitchen from the bedrooms, I had no idea what “other side” meant. I found a little wood near the hot tub, it looked like the remains of the last bag used, but not enough to heat all that water, and so one more time, I went to the neighbor for help.

The wood turned out to be near her house, and was on “the other side” from the hot tub side. The oven in the hot tub would not hold much wood at one time, and the wood burned very fast. I had to return again and again to reload it, and one time the fire was reduced to a few smoldering coals because I waited too long between visits. I’m not sure where the 2 hour estimate my hostess left comes from, perhaps if one spent the whole time constantly feeding the fire to it’s maximum? It took me a bit longer.20180819_170707

I spent just about my whole day managing this hot tub experience, and as the sun began to set, it was finally ready! While I was soaking in the blissfully warm water and enjoying the last of the sunset, a timid little deer came into the yard after some of the fallen fruit, but she ran off before I could take a picture.

Once I was settled in, it was a very lovely experience. The smell of the wood-smoke mixing with the air of the sea and the fresh clean forest smells from the woods behind the house. I got in and out several times as I became too warm. The house was secluded from the road and the neighbors and I had to get on a plane the next day, so I didn’t bother with a swimsuit, although I did keep a borrowed robe nearby just in case. It felt wickedly decadent to soak naked in the outdoors and I enjoyed dipping in and out for several hours until the sky was black and the stars were out.

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The next day, on my ferry ride back into Oslo to catch my plane out, a beautiful rainbow appeared from the fluffy clouds to see me off.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Scandinavian peninsula is one of those places I’ll want to return someday and get to know a little better. I’m grateful that this ending of my long, and often fraught summer holiday travels were so beautifully magical.

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Hello Bohol: Waterfalls

On my last full day of vacation, everything on my Bohol checklist was done, but I was fighting for peace of mind after days of discord in what would turn out to be my shattered friendship. I will not air that laundry here, but it remains one of the hardest losses I’ve sustained in years. Seeking resilience and restoration that day, I turned toward the siren sounds of waterfalls. I adore waterfalls. Not only are they beautiful and fun if you can swim in them, but they also create negative ions. Any kind of massive moving water can do this, like pounding ocean surf or heavy rainstorms, even your shower. Studies started back in the early 2000s on the effects of negative ions on mood showed some promising results that walking on the beach when the waves are going, or visiting a waterfall can give you a major mood boost. Plus, they’re flippin’ gorgeous!


Mas Ago

20171007_095054.jpgMas Ago Falls is possibly the “most famous” of the Bohol waterfalls. I don’t mean to imply that it is famous, simply that of the dozens or more that dot the island, this one is better known and more often visited by tourists than any other. The drive time was a bit more than an hour, and there was a small fee to park my motorcycle and another small fee to enter the “park”. The parking attendant didn’t have any change so simply let me drive by and asked me to pay him as I left since the admittance fee collector would likely have change for me. She did, and also offered to hold my helmet in her office while I went down.

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I started down a long series of steep stairs. The falls and the river are at the bottom of a gorge. I could hear the falls long before I could see them. The stairs were wide, sturdy and well maintained, so I felt quite safe. My favorite waterfall near Seattle, Murhut Falls, was the other way around, and many others I’ve visited have been as well: a climb to reach, and an easier descent back to the parking lot. I knew as I descended that I would pay for the privilege of waterfall hunting with the uphill return later.

When I arrived at the bottom, it was clear that there had been some changes in the path. One branch led to a viewing platform where visitors could get a nice photo. Broken stairs led from the viewing area to the water, most likely destroyed in the earthquake. The stairs that now lead to the water were “blocked off” by a small stick, which I ducked under and proceeded onward. I felt emboldened to do this because there were already people at the river. There had been a heavy storm the night before, and there were what I presume to be park employees sweeping debris from the rocks to pretty up the area. There was also a father and son who had come down to the river for an early morning wash. It was quickly evident that none of them had been expecting a tourist so early in the morning.

The other effect of the previous night’s storm was that the falls were engorged. Photos I saw online showed two thinner streams  of water coming down the 8m drop into a turquoise pool below. The day I arrived, it was one very large waterfall moving massive amounts of water dangerously fast. The pool was far more peridot than turquoise, but the water was churning roughly and there were branches of fallen trees visible as well. I know better than to risk a river moving that fast, and as I stared at the water coming to terms with the fact that I would not be able to swim, one of the men sweeping asked me just that, “do you want to go swimming?”

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Of course I did, but the water looked too dangerous, I replied. He showed me a spot further down the river, behind some large rocks where there were pools that were sheltered from the worst of the current and indicated they would be safe. In addition to the rocks, I noticed that part of a concrete staircase had fallen into the river here as well. I found some older pictures of the area online where the pool and river are clear, so I can only guess that the boulders and stairs now cluttering up the river were a result of the quake that affected so much of the region. Given the remote location of the falls and the size of the rocks, I doubt they’ll be cleared away, however they provided a nice shelter from the strong current, and in calmer times would be a great way to get out into the middle of the river for photo-ops.

I doffed my pants but kept the shoulder and back covering I’d worn over my swimsuit. It wasn’t modesty, but a desire to keep the sun away. I settled into a little pool between some rocks and enjoyed the blissfully cool water. The rocks are quite slippery, yet the native Filipinos had no trouble at all bouncing around from rock to rock as though they had the best traction available. I was only somewhat mollified when some of the passing tourists later also had trouble with the slippery rocks (no one was hurt, only dignity).

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Before long, the sweepers finished and left, then the father and son departed as well, leaving me alone with the waterfall. I was having a little difficulty because I couldn’t get to a spot where I could sit in the water and see the falls at the same time, and so took to moving back and forth between sitting atop a large river rock and watching, and sitting beside that same rock and cooling my sunburn in the water. A few tourists came down the steps, but most just took a few pictures and headed back up. One couple did come down to the part of the river I was at, just to wet their toes, and these were the ones who slipped, as I had, on the rocks. I was less worried about keeping my clothes clean, however, and just resorted to scooting.

The most interesting visit of the morning was when a group of university students from the local college of tourism came down to ask me if they could do a video interview of me for a class project. As a teacher, I am morally obligated to help out with student projects whenever I can, plus they seemed nice, so I agreed and they came carefully down to the slippery rocks so they could film me there in the water, and I answered some questions about where I was from and how I was enjoying Bohol.

Despite a few tourists and students, most of my time at Mas Ago was spent in solitude. It was quiet and refreshing. After a couple hours, the negative ions and natural beauty started working on my mood and I began to feel that addictive surge of wonder and gratitude that I’ve come to associate with exploring the world.

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When I left, I discovered everyone had gone for lunch. The main fee collection booth was empty and locked, although she had left my helmet on my bike, and when I tried to stop at the parking attendant’s booth to pay the fee I’d missed on the way in, he was gone too, and the barrier blocking traffic was propped up. It seems that while the tourist industry does want to collect their fees when possible, they aren’t too bent out of shape about people wandering in on breaks.

Google Inspired Adventures

My waterfall itch wasn’t quite satisfied, as I’d been unable to do much swimming, and had to keep my distance from the raging falls for safety. I pulled up my trusty Google oracle and searched the area simply for “falls” to see what would come up. Sure enough, the map showed two such designations within 30 minutes of my current location.

People gripe about millennials being attached to phones, and although I’m not actually millennial,  I am attached to my phone. I bring it everywhere, I make sure to get a data plan and have a back up battery at all times. And yes, I like posting cool photos on Instagram or sharing updates on Facebook, but the real reason my phone is a critical accessory in world travel is that it is the ultimate guide book. I can look for attractions, find directions, translate labels or signs, and sometimes find hidden gems that I would never have even known to ask about. So, please, don’t judge people who are tethered to the device until you know what they’re using it for, because the next adventure would not have happened at all without my phone and my Google.

Malingin Falls

20171007_133201.jpgAfter checking the routes, it seemed that even though it was farther as the crow flies, that it was closer as the motorcycle drives and so I headed over to this less well known waterfall site. After driving for a bit on well maintained roads, Google Maps directed me to turn down a dirt side road. I wasn’t especially bothered by this, since several places I’d visited during the last week were down this kind of side road. There was a sign at the intersection for the waterfalls. Although it was a very temporary kind of sign made of hanging vinyl, at least it told me I was headed the right way. As I continued down the road, the gravel and dirt gave way to mud and grass. I passed some bewildered locals and asked querulously if I was heading the right way to the falls. They indicated I was, so I kept on going.

Maybe I should have parked and walked a good bit earlier, but it was hot, and I was reasonably confident in my ability to keep driving as the road became more narrow. 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, only running into the bushes once in the process. In retrospect, it might have been less work to walk the longer distance than to fight with the mud, but it wouldn’t have been as cool a story, and one of my favorite lifestyle adages is to live your life for the stories it creates.

I was finally forced to abandon the bike by the side of the path. I can’t call it a road anymore. I suspect that in drier times it would be easy to drive all the way to the stairs, but the previous night’s rainstorms made the road simply too slippery to drive past a point. I was a little worried about leaving my rental out in what felt like the middle of nowhere, but it seemed like the rural folk were a good deal more honest and trustworthy than city folk are rumored to be, and I had a reasonable expectation it would remain unmolested while I was away. I only walked a short distance before I began to hear the rushing of water that told me I was getting close, and in just a few more minutes, I crested a ridge that opened onto a little green river valley and a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole, complete with local swimmers.

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There was another staircase down the ridge, but as it was also covered in slippery mud, I took off my mud covered sandals and proceeded down slowly, clinging to the railing, and where the railing was gone, sitting down and scooting once more. I can only imagine the ridiculous image I presented to the locals (who have no trouble at all navigating these slippery steps in flip flops) covered in mud from my struggles on the path, carrying my backpack and helmet and treating the steps like a dangerous mountainside. I made it to the field and began the trek through yet more mud, slipping and falling at least once when I took an incautiously large step. I began to wonder if all those pumice stone scrubbings I do to keep my feet soft were actually a bad idea because it seemed that every place I put my feet they tried to slide out from under me, but I did eventually make it all the way to the water’s edge where I was greeted with some amusement and much courtesy by the families already there.

I didn’t bother to change. Swimming clothed is common in most parts of Asia and the Philippines is no exception. Besides, my clothes were so muddy I’d be getting cleaner by swimming in them.

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This was easily my favorite waterfall experience of the day. Although it was also the most challenging, I think in some ways that made it more valuable. The river and fields were just amazing. Talk about your basic Garden of Eden unspoiled natural environment! Although there were man-made additions, I thought they added to the experience. There was a kind of concrete mini-dam that formed a pool at the top of the falls and also a safety barrier to keep anyone from getting pulled over by the current (and a footbridge across). There were also some little huts to put belongings and enjoy picnics at while hiding from the sun. The main swimming area was well shaded under an enormous tree.

I was a bit worried about having awkward social encounters, but the people there were lovely. One woman admitted she was quite surprised to see me (although reassuring me I was very welcome) and asked how I had managed to find the place at all. Two teenagers who I think were siblings introduced themselves and chatted with me. The girl was excited when she found out I lived in Korea because she loves K-pop. The families enjoyed themselves taking photos of each other (and some selfies with me), jumping from the top of the falls to the pool below, running up and down the slopes and generally splashing it up.

My favorite thing to do was to rest against the barrier at the falls and let the water rush past me as I looked downriver at the beautiful jungle scenery.

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Eventually, the families started packing up, and although at first I thought I might stay longer, a group of young men showed up with a bunch of beer. It may have been no threat at all, but I’m afraid my life experiences simply don’t allow me to feel safe as the only woman in a group of men with alcohol in the middle of the woods… yeah, there’s no way not to make that sound like the beginning of a horror movie. I think if anyone else was staying I wouldn’t have been driven off by the young men, but I’d had such a pleasant experience so far, I didn’t want to risk it becoming uncomfortable, or dangerous, so I decided to leave as well.

Solo Female Traveling Safety

I do want to point out that I did not feel unsafe anywhere in Bohol. The worst thing that happened was a guy who came over to talk to us in the ocean the one time we were out after dark, and he was totally friendly. It’s so hard to judge men’s intentions when I’m traveling as a female alone (or with only another female companion). Many folks around the world ask about things like age and marriage by way of friendly conversation and I’ve had lots of women ask me these questions, no problem. Unfortunately, when men ask, I can’t be sure if they just want to chat or if they are scoping me out for anything from easy sex to potential wife. And I’ve encountered the whole range. Some men I’ve met have been lovely to talk with and I’m happy to keep in touch after we part ways. Others made me wonder if it was worth calling the police over. But the vast majority are in a gray middle ground of making me feel vaguely uncomfortable without doing anything overtly “wrong”.

With the “me too” campaign underway, it’s hard not to think about my negative experiences at the hands of men in the US and around the world: taxi drivers who’ve tried to cop a feel or propose marriage in the Middle East. A well meaning festival goer in Japan who insisted my life was unfulfilled without a husband, who insisted on taking my hand in the crowd, and who is still sending me messages 2 years later even after being told “thanks but no thanks” as politely as I can. And I don’t even want to get into anything worse, but yeah, it’s there. I’m sad and angry that I have to live my life assuming that a man is a predator until proven otherwise, but if you as a man are upset that women are treating you like a threat, don’t get mad at us, get mad at all the men who creep, harass, and assault, leaving us with no choice but to live on the defense.

Filipino men may all be perfect gentlemen, I don’t know, but I do know it’s not worth taking the chance. So, I wrung out my clothes and gathered my things and followed the teenagers up the steps.

Stuck in the Mud

I had almost as much trouble going up as coming down, and one older gentleman paused to give me a hand. In this case, my nervousness at taking his hand was that he was not braced on anything and I was sure that adding my weight to his would cause us both to slip down the concrete sairs and split our skulls open, but he stood firmly and confidently and helped me up the steepest parts until I could reach the railing and manage on my own. I am sure they’re hiding super feet, either suckers or tiny hooks… I honestly have no idea how everyone was so sure footed on the mud and algae covered rocks and stairs. Island magic.

I got back to my bike, which was right where I left it, and bid the kids farewell as I began to ride back up the trail. When I encountered the mud patches on the way back, I got off the bike and walked it around, my shoes dangling from the handlebars to keep them mud free. This worked fairly well for the first two or three puddles, but soon I came upon a huge low place in the road. Somehow I’d ridden through it on my way in, but looking at it on the way out it seemed like an impassable lake. To drive home the metaphor, I spotted a water buffalo up to it’s shoulders just next to the road. I tried two times to progress and was forced backward each time after only a step or two.

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While I stood at the edge of the watery road debating the best path through the mud and marsh, the teenagers who were on foot caught up with me (more evidence I should have just left the bike back at the first mud puddle  on the way in). They quickly realized my conundrum and politely refrained from telling me how silly I’d been to drive in this far with the roads in this condition (literally everyone else I’d seen that afternoon was on foot, although I had seen a few more bikes parked on the path). The young man graciously began to poke around the mud for the shallowest path through, guiding me and my bike wide around the road up into the grass, through the trees, and eventually back down on the other side of the huge morass. I suppose I would have gotten through eventually, but who knows how long it would have taken or how many more times I would have been stuck.

20171007_142554.jpgI was humbled by the absolute unselfish behavior of these teens. They were kind and patient, and generally the type of teenagers no one thinks exist anywhere in the world (love Facebook, K-pop, and their phones, but are kind and helpful to each other and strangers?). I hope that their lives are as good as they are.

I bid them farewell when they reached their homes, and I made it back to the main road without further incident. I was covered in mud to the knees again. I didn’t want to put on my shoes and I didn’t want to drive far barefoot, so I drove just far enough until I saw a little roadside convenience stand.

I couldn’t find anyone, but it seemed that the cashier window was open (or at least not boarded up), so I called out to see if someone was around. The building itself was attached to more domestic looking structures and hanging laundry was also visible. Eventually, some small children noticed me and one girl came over to sell me a packet of cookies and a large bottle of water. They were a bit flustered at having to make change (I was always running out of small coins), but managed it in the end and I sat down on the bench out front to clean up and have my snack. The mud hadn’t had time to dry yet, so rinsing my feet was easy enough, and once they were mud-free I was able to put my shoes back on and do some more serious driving.

Kawasan Falls

The third waterfall was another 20 or so minutes away according to Google, and I wasn’t sure I was up for another slog through the mud, no matter how wonderful the prize at the end. I debated for a while and decided to head over anyway, promising myself that if the road was too muddy, I would turn back. (the lies we tell ourselves)

I followed the directions along the main roads, finally finding the side road in question. There was another sign indicating that this was the way to Kawasan Falls. The side road was under construction, perhaps someone in the tourism industry realized that muddy dirt roads are a solid deterrent to the average tourist. I was somewhat encouraged at the easier drive, although the road workers laughed a bit as I passed by, they assured me that I was on the right road to the falls. I guess that solo motorbiking foreign women are not a common sight on Bohol.

Eventually, the construction ran out, and the road returned to it’s former dirt and gravel state, however places that would have otherwise been mud pits had been filled in with more gravel, making the overall drive much less sticky. It was still a bumpy, uneven, rocky road, but the mud puddles were avoidable and I was able to press on without having to turn back from obstacles. There was a bit of a lawn at the end of the road that was being used as a parking lot and a park attendant sitting next to the path through the trees. Once I was parked, he led me through a little trail to a haphazard entrance pavillion where a young lady collected the small entry fee. The man continued to lead me down the path, although it was the only one and there was no way I could have gotten lost.

We passed some small feeder falls, and a series of elevated huts which I assume could be rented out for a day to have your family gathering and picnic at with a great view of the falls and the downstream river. It was obvious that this site was gunning to become a bigger attraction. There were plenty of locals already there enjoying the day. Once we were in sight of the falls, the guide released me on my own recognizance. It was easily the most crowded place I’d visited that day. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if because this location had easier access it was just more popular.

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I waved hello to a bench full of locals who were tickled pink to see me there. I found a tree to dump my bag, shoes and helmet at and set about trying to figure out how to get out to the swimming area. Again, I observed that all the Filipinos have magical feet. As I was moving out toward where some kids were swimming one of the little girls stopped me with a warning about how slippery the rocks were, and I headed off disaster or at least embarrassment. While trying to get out another way, I got approached for some more ‘selfies with the tourist’. Sometimes I wonder if I look like someone famous. I don’t think my appearance is especially remarkable, and yet it seems to give people joy to take pictures with me. I don’t get it, but it’s harmless as far as I know, and doesn’t cost me anything to make someone else happy, so I do it. I hesitate to imagine how many random group photos I’m in from around the world.

Of the three falls I saw that day, although Malingin was my favorite overall experience, there is no contest that Kawasan was the most stunning visually. (Not to be confused with Kawasan over in Cebu which is super famous and crowded with tourists from what I hear). It was much taller than the other two, and of course because of the previous night’s rains it was pouring a magnificent amount of water. Despite the torrent, a group of young men had climbed up the rock-face (no stairs, no handholds, just magic feet) and were sitting behind the falls. Lots of kids and moms with little ones were in the shallower pools, and a few more emboldened swimmers were out in the deep pool directly beneath the falls.

I am a confident swimmer, so I was happy to get right up close. I ended up perching against some large rocks in the pool to rest and just take in the scenery. It was the pinnacle of what I had hoped for when I set out to swim under a fall that day, since I was submerged in the cool water only a few meters from the downpour, the strength of the wind created by the falling water blowing the wonderful clean smell (and negative ions) over me while I gazed upward to the sun-sparkled peak where the water leapt over the edge like liquid diamonds.

After a little while of pure “oh my god, this is my life” feelings, I noticed that the young men up on the sheer rockface were standing up and preparing to jump. I have nothing against jumping into water. I like diving. I may be overly paranoid about jumping into water I’m unfamiliar with, but I think it’s safe to assume these young men were regulars at this particular swimming hole. Nonetheless, it was a nailbiting scene, and it was clear that even the jumpers were more than a little nervous, one even performing a sign of the cross before leaping into the air. Everyone below watched and cheered so it became a group spectator sport and when they returned to the shore, the young men were welcomed by their waiting wives and girlfriends.

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One of them asked me if I wanted to try, and while I might have been ok with the jumping part, when I asked them how they even got up there in the first place, they pointed to a section of wall that looked incredibly vertical and slippery, so I declined. I did try my luck at getting closer to the falls, although I only made it about halfway across the deep pool before the current and force of the wind drove me back, but it was exhilarating to be able to get so close to so much natural beauty and power.

After I retreated back to the resting rock, I was approached by yet another set of tourism students from the university, out collecting interviews for what was very likely the same class project. Of course I agreed to appear on camera, but I can’t help imagining what that class will be like when they show their projects and two separate groups with interviews at two separate waterfalls show up with the same tourist in their report!

I would have happily stayed until it was too dark to see or I got kicked out. Especially because around this time the crowds started thinning out and I got to take some totally human free photos of the magnificent scenery. However, I had made dinner plans for my last night in town and didn’t want to cancel. Thus, I clambered cautiously back through the shallow pools filled with pointy rocks, gathered my belongings, and climbed back out of the river valley as the golden light of the afternoon sun cast it’s glow on the quiet jungle around me.

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And so ends the Chuseok Philippine Holiday. Like all the very best vacation posts, it takes me months to process all the stories and photos. My goal is always to get one vacation fully published before the next one, and while I didn’t have a winter vacation this year, I am doing a major upheaval in March as I move to a new city in Korea, rent my first Korean apartment on my own, and start a new job, so that seemed like a good deadline. I don’t know how much time I’ll have in March to write, but I hope that as the weather warms up and the flowers come out in April, I’ll have a cavalcade of new stories about this next leg of my journey. As always, you can see the full photo album on Facebook. Thanks for reading!

Hello Bohol: Historical Sites & History

When I was in high school I thought history was the most boring subject ever. Now I know it was just that history had the most boring teachers… and textbooks. Seriously, I don’t know how hard they have to work to make something so interesting seem so boring. However, since I know the secret these days, I love using my travels as an excuse to learn about the history of each place I visit. Bohol is far richer in history than I can fully explore here, but I enjoyed learning more about it, and I hope you will too.


Mostly Catholic Churches

I visited many of the large cathedrals left over from Spanish occupation that had distinctive stone architecture and European influenced art, but driving around I saw a great many smaller centers of worship. Most of the small churches around the island are a single “room”, wall-less or lattice walled affairs where the neighborhood can gather to worship. I took that picture on the right from the street. It’s not under construction, it just doesn’t have a wall there.

They are very devout Catholics over there. One evening on the way to dinner from the hotel, I drove past a procession of some kind, a mixture of genders and ages, but 4 men were carrying a liter with a statue of (probably) the Virgin Mary and a mountain of colorful flowers. They walked down our small street singing Ave Maria as they trailed after the statue. I didn’t take any pictures in part because I was driving, but also I felt it would have been a bit rude. These people weren’t worshiping in a place that was heavy with tourists and I felt as though I’d been allowed to witness something very personal.

The large historical cathedrals are well marked tourist spots however, so I have plenty of photos of those.

Panglao Watchtower & St. Augustine Parish

Before visiting,  I didn’t know much about the history of the island other than a little bit about the Spanish colonization. However, the watchtowers are listed on a great many “to do” collections, so when I noticed one nearby on Google Maps, I decided to stop and check it out. As I pulled in, several young men asked if I was there for an island hopping tour. This was one major tourist attraction I decided against before arriving simply because the descriptions I read online made it sound like a horrible hassle for little reward. I politely declined and found a shady tree to park under near the church of San Augustine. Some nearby cows who wandered over to see if I had anything interesting, but soon realized there were no treats.20171001_114802.jpg

The Panglao Watchtower is located on the south end of the island. It is 5 stories high, making it the tallest structure on the island. It was built in 1851 by the Spanish, and is in serious disrepair. I know almost nothing else about it, because it’s not a popular enough historical site to have much published about it online. I did find that around that time the Spanish and Filipinos were having a bit of a tiff over things like government control and secularization, so I suppose the watchtower built next to the church may have been out of a concern that the church could be attacked by secularists?

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I wandered around taking photos of the tower and the mangroves nearby before moving to the church. There were people inside, it was a Sunday after all, but it seemed to be a small meeting and not a full congregation and they were confined to one section of the church, so I quietly stepped in to an empty area to look around and take a few more pictures inside. As I stood looking at the art and architecture, I was struck by the very Spanish style before remembering that colonization of the Philippines was Spanish and not British.

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Finally, I walked out along the end of the pier all those island hoppers were using to see the ocean view. I didn’t know it at the time, I only found out days later when a restaurant owner told me, but apparently a local church runs a free ferry to the nearby Virgin Island (a stop on the island hopping tour), and if you want to know more, you’ll have to go to Nikita’s Coffee Shop and ask the old British guy who runs the joint, as I never had the chance to find that particular boat.

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Dauis Watchtower, Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, & The Miracle Well

My next goal was to find the Miracle Well, which is located at the Our Lady of the Assumption church on the north end of the island. There is a little matching cathedral and watchtower at both north and south, although the northern watchtower was so much shorter that I almost didn’t see it at all.

The church is just next to the bridge that leads over to Bohol. It’s easy to find parking, and the grounds are lovely. I wandered slowly around taking photos of the exterior of the church, some of the statues and grottoes around, the sea nearby, and a little brood of baby chicks because they were insanely cute. The watchtower is so low that I have no idea what one would be watching from it’s second story window, but it seemed to be a part of the set. Unfortunately, by the time I finished exploring the exterior, they were just closing up for lunch and I didn’t get inside (don’t worry, I came back another day).

Our Lady of Assumption is so close to the bridge to Bohol that I was able to pause there again on my way elsewhere for another shot at getting inside the church and finding the Miracle Well, but it wasn’t until my third stop at the church that I finally succeeded. At long last, the church was both open and unoccupied, so I was able to get inside without interrupting services.

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It is an open and intricately decorated church. Either it had been untouched by the earthquake or had been lucky enough to earn a full restoration because the inside was in excellent repair. The large sanctuary had stone walls, but also large windows to let in light and air. It was an interesting combination of the European style and island style. I wandered around taking pictures and looking for the well, which is supposed to be near the altar.

According to myth, the town was under attack by pirates (a thing which did happen regularly), and all the townsfolk locked themselves in the church (big stone building, makes sense). However, the pirates were determined and began a siege, trapping the townsfolk inside with no water! Then, miraculously, a fresh water well sprang forth at the foot of the altar and saved the people inside, allowing them to wait out the pirates who I suppose either got bored or were driven off by the Spanish navy. The well remains a source of fresh water to this day, despite the fact that it is a stone’s throw from the sea. The church offers bottles of this miraculous water for a donation of your choice.

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I searched everywhere. I saw no well. I looked online for images that might give me a clue where the well was, but the interior seemed to have undergone a remodel, and the few photos of the well I found were such close ups that I could not tell where in the church they were. Was I even in the right church? There were no signs, no informative plaques to tell visitors about this amazing miracle. Had I really come to the wrong church three times looking for a well that either didn’t exist or had been destroyed in the earthquake?

Finally, on my way out, I saw a small office with some people who looked at least a little bit like they were affiliated with the church and asked. A very kind lady not only assured me that this was the correct church, but led me over to the well, which was hiding unobtrusively amid a low wooden railing that separated the parishioner’s pews from the priest’s area.

I had seen the railing and the signs on it that said “no entry”, and had looked no further, but in one little section, the railing goes from being a single line, to being a square and there is enclosed the well, covered with Plexiglas to keep anything or anyone from falling in. 20171006_150623She took up a nearby lamp and shone it into the depths so that I could see the water below.

Once I’d taken a few photos, she walked me back over to the office and fetched a bottle of the “miracle water” for me to try. Of course I left a donation, don’t be silly. And since tourists are advised against drinking the tap water here, you’ll be happy to hear that I suffered no ill health from the miracle well water. Maybe that’s the miracle?

More photos of the St. Augustine & Lady of Assumption Churches.

St. Peter the Apostle Parish Ruins

After the river cruise, I headed across the street to see the Loboc Church, aka Saint Peter the Apostle Parish Church. The full history of the Spanish colonization here is for a later time. For now, suffice it to note that this church was the second built on Bohol by the Jesuits. The Parish was done in 1602, but the coral-stone building that (mostly) stands today was finished in 1734. Then in 1768 the Jesuits were tossed out and another Catholic group called the Order of the Augustinian Recollects took over. I’m not going to try to explain Catholic orders here, feel free to wiki that if you have a burning desire to know. It’s also been declared a National Treasure by the Philippine government, and is under consideration for UNESCO heritage sites. It was absofrickinloutly beautiful (judging from photos) before the 2013 earthquake and now it is a stunning ruin.

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I had spotted the ruins when driving to and from the Chocolate Hills earlier in the week, but at the time I was  hurrying to get there or exhausted and ready for bed, so I was pleased to have carved out some time just to go and ogle the ruins. I know it’s tragic that the earthquake destroyed so much, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed seeing the church in it’s glory, because photos really do look lovely, but there is something about ruins being reclaimed by nature that just draws me right in. Even though it’s only been 4 years since the earthquake, the locals have just not been able to raise enough money to complete repairs and other than some scaffolding and a few gates to keep people out, the structure has been left to the onrush of jungle foliage.

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Trees have sprouted in the walls. Ferns and mosses creep across the stone carvings. I peeked in barred windows to see the remains of a baptismal font, and peered through gated doorways to see the interior filled only with more layers of scaffolding. It’s clear that they do not wish to simply leave the church to decay, but very little has been done in the 4 years following the destruction. To me it was the perfect combination of man-made beauty and natural power.

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At one point, I moved up close to get a good photo of some carving and I noticed the odd texture of some of the stones in the wall. They seemed to be organic. I know there are some crystalline structures that can appear organic, but these struck me as being especially sea-like and I wondered at the time if the stones may have come from a once-upon-a-time sea floor limestone quarry. I saw more of the same stones in other ruins once I knew what I was looking for, and vowed to find out when I got back. It turns out the answer is fairly simple, and I wasn’t far wrong. It’s not so much an ancient sea bed quarry, as a coral quarry. I had no idea coral could be quarried for building materials, but this happens in several islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Sometimes the coral is sliced into roof tiles, sometimes it’s mixed in with other ingredients to make a kind of concrete, and sometimes it’s big enough to hew whole building stones from, leaving some of the churches of Bohol with fascinating fossil structures in their walls.

I spent close to an hour circling around the crumbling church. The detail in the stones, the tiny plants and the hidden carvings and grottoes were entrancing, but eventually the heat and sunshine drove me back to my bike and back on the road where a welcome travel breeze cooled me off once more.

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Baclayon Church

I will admit that my itineraries were largely informed by picking a single destination based on interest or reviews, and then examining the map to see what else was labeled on the roads I would be driving. I mean, if you’re in control of your own transportation, there’s no reason not to pull off to at least have a look when passing by landmarks, right? I don’t think I would have gone on a church tour in the Philippines for it’s own sake (although I did go to several in Europe because architecture!), but I’m glad I had the chance to see the buildings.

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I had a suspicion by this time that I’d actually seen the Baclayon Church before, but not stopped at it. Looking at the map that day, I was sure it was the church that was visible from the market I’d stopped at for snacks on that first drive up to Bohol while going to the Chocolate Hills. And lo, I was correct. It was a little tricky to find the entrance, but fortunately Bohol is not a heavy traffic place, so if you get lost its easy enough to pull over or turn around.

The Baclayon Church (also The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary Parish Church)  is the oldest Christian settlement in Bohol, established by the same Jesuit group that had set up the Loboc Church. It was first colonized in 1596, and the finished coral stone building that stands now was completed in 1727. It was also taken over by the Augustinians. It was also declared a national treasure. And it was also a short-lister for UNESCO world heritage sites before the earthquake hit. However, unlike the Loboc church which is nearly untouched, the Baclayon Church is well under way with repairs. I ran into a construction crew on the far side actively working.20171006_141117.jpgThere is very little sign of damage on the exterior. This is not because the damage was minimal, but because the effort has been great. There was a before and after photo out front as well, showing what the damage looked like just after the quake and it’s much closer to what Loboc Church still looks like. I wandered around the exterior taking more photos and found several more blocks with that organic sea-life look that I now know to be coral stone. It seemed that the sanctuary proper was still under construction, but it is scheduled to re-open this year.

The museum, reliquary and gift shop are all open to the public. I have never seen so many rosary based trinkets in one place as that gift shop, I think some may have been several meters in length while others appeared to be made of glow in the dark materials. The reliquary is at this point in time simply a loose collection of the relics and art that adorned the church and (mostly) survived the damage: statues, a few rather terrifying mannequins and a version of the Pieta with some loose wigs. Still, it’s clear that these were all valuable historical displays and they were gathered together with care. I’m afraid I declined to enter the museum proper that day.

More photos of the Loboc and Baclayon Churches.

The Blood Compact Memorial

One of my favorite travel techniques is to look at a map or a tour to-do list, see a thing with an interesting name, visit it, realize I have no idea what it is about, take a ton of pictures, and look it up when I get home. The Blood Compact is a perfect example of this formula.

When I programmed my map app to take me there, the destination was a place I had driven past at least 3 times during the last week, yet unlike the Baclayon Church which I was confident of having seen while driving past, I could not recall anything at all where the map was pointing me. Confused, I pulled up the street view, hoping to get a better idea of what that stretch of road looked like, and Google insisted on pointing me to a patch of grass on the side of the road with nothing around it. This is not the first time that happened on this trip since some things are set back off the road, either down a slope or behind trees where the cameras missed it. Since I had to drive that way to get back to the hotel anyway, I decided to give it a whirl.

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I only realized I’d driven past when my app dinged in my earbuds. When I pulled over to look around, I spotted a tiny little monument set back from the road back the way I’d come. I turned around to get a better vantage point and took my “I was here photos”, but there didn’t seem to be anything other than this small wall, explanatory plaque, and a trio of wayward goats.

“About the middle of March, 1565, Captain General Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s fleet anchored along this shore. Shortly thereafter, Legaspi, manifesting trust and confidence in the islanders, entered into a blood compact with Datu Sikatuna, for the purpose of insuring friendly relations between the Spaniards and the natives. A few drops of blood drawn from a small incision in the arm of each of the two chiefs were placed in separate cups containing wine, and in the presence of the followers of both, each chief drank the potion containing the blood of the other. Thus, during this period of colonization, a bond was sealed in accordance with native practice, the first treaty of friendship and alliance between Spaniards and Filipinos. –1941”

Later, while doing my “now what did I just see” research, I found all these cool pictures of a bronze statue of the ceremony! Where even was that? There are two places on that road labeled “Blood Compact” on Google, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of the people posting photos of the statue were part of a tour group with a guide who knew where to go. Looking at Google Street View in retrospect, I found both the plaque and the bronze statue in different places. The plaque is next to a convenience store and somewhat down a slope from the roadside. The statue is next to “Ocean Suites”,  on a raised dais, behind a white metal fence. I may have driven past it and thought it was part of the hotel. *sigh.

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How About That History?

I am not going to write a comprehensive history of the Philippines, or even come close. This is a highlights reel to put the current socio-political and economical issues the Philippines is facing into context for those of you who, like me, found your history books mysteriously silent on the fate of small island nations.

Colonialism

A whole bunch of countries were scrambling to get to the East and get the precious SPICES! The Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, British, Ottoman, and even the Chinese and Japanese were all out to expaaaaaaand. That’s how I got a country, and how lots and lots of indigenous people lost theirs. The Portuguese and the Ottomans were being a bit rude in the Philippine Islands, so when the Spaniards showed up on Bohol and were like, “oh no we are not like those silly Portuguese!” The natives were happy to make this treaty with them, and the Boholano people are still quite proud that their ancestors made the first friendship treaty with their eventual oppressors… Yeah, I don’t like colonialism.

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Image – Front National SA

Which makes this next part extra sad.

A few hundred years of all those empires competing over SE Asia and South Pacific islands of military strategic value meant that even though the Spanish held the Philippines officially until 1898, there were plenty of battles, skirmishes and invasions where someone else took control of Manila or other islands. Basically all the rich kids fighting over the land and the native people getting boned. Sometimes the natives did rebel, I think the longest single rebellion lasted almost a hundred years in one part of the country, but none succeeded at driving their European overlords out. The part that came as a complete and total shock to me is that Spanish rule of the Philippines did NOT end with independence in 1898, but rather with the sale of the island nation to …(dun, dun, dun) THE USA! …at the end of the Spanish American war.

The Philippine American War

Mere days after the transfer of ownership, the Filipinos tried to declare their independence once more. While we (Americans) were busy fighting the Spanish American War, the native Filipinos were simultaneously fighting Spain for their independence. Was the democracy loving US *helping* little Philippines? No, because we were still pretty darn isolationist in 1898 and hadn’t gotten into the habit of having the giant standing army we like to send around on “peacekeeping missions”. We were actually fighting Spain for control of their islands like Cuba. By the end of the war, they signed over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, although apparently the US paid 20$ million for the last one to cover infrastructure costs.

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By the way, we still own Guam and Puerto Rico, but won’t let them be states (have representation) or apparently get decent federal aid after a devastating hurricane.

Having been engaged with the Spanish for their freedom, the Filipinos were not actually on board with the sale, and declared themselves independent and published a lovely constitution. The US, on the other hand felt it had paid some hard earned money for the territory and so began the Philippine American War, which I had actually never heard of until now. The Filipinos lost, and America continued to OWN the country until after WWII when we were generally making everyone (mostly Britain) give back all their colonies and decided to use the Philippines as our “set a good example” colony.

Military Dictatorship

Shortly after WWII, we get to Ferdinand Marcos who started his career in the House in 1949 (just a few years after officially free Philippines happened) and eventually became the President who implemented strict martial law from 1972-1981. It was a military dictatorship, and a seriously brutal time, and why am I telling you about it here? Because although the was finally ousted by a revolution in 1986, his rule was a major threat to democracy there and rife with cronyism, favoritism, extortion, and flat out ignoring the constitution. And the guy in power now is making a lot of people draw comparisons.

10 interesting facts about president ferdinand marcos | tenminutes.ph on Ferdinand Marcos Background

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Like many countries, the Philippines was not proud of that time in it’s history and as a new generation grew up in the light of the revolution and the restoration of democracy, they weren’t always well educated on the dark side of Marcos’ reign. Too soon, people began to think that stricter measures and even martial law could be good tools to help the country.

Democracy and Death Squads

Enter Duterte. Another lifelong politician, he has risen to popularity and power with the aid of DEATH SQUADS. I’m not kidding. In order to “clean up” the country, he has repeatedly and publicly declared that it’s ok to kill criminals without trial. This includes drug dealers, drug users, petty criminals, and “street children”. If you aren’t gagging in horror, you may need to get checked for your humanity.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects firearms together with Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit at the military camp in Marawi city

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He’s also said unbelievably horrible things about wanting to rape women, wanting to kill people who cause problems with extreme violence, and pardoning everyone under his command who committed human rights abuses while carrying out his orders… if this sounds like any other world leader you may have seen on tv in the last year, you are not alone in thinking this.

Responsible Tourism

This left me in a tricky position vis a vis being a tourist. I did not feel in danger in Duterte’s bloody cleanup because they are in no way targeting foreign nationals in this death squad round up. But economically, it was a tough choice. I know that my tiny vacation budget is not going to have an impact on the national economy of the Philippines, but it just might have an impact on the lives of the small business owners, guides, and environmental preservation programs that I do want to support and that I desperately hope survive until the next era of democratic sanity is restored. So, yes, I went and I feel ok about that.

Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

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It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

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The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

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The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

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The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

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While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

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I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

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I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

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Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

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Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

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Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

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Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

One full day itinerary for my Philippine holiday included a driving tour of the smaller island of Panglao. I’d had the chance to drive up to Bohol, I’d had a lazy beach day, and Thursday was my day to find as many points of interested on Panglao as I could. As always, I’m drawn to water, so I found a couple of lakes, one of them underground. I made it back to visit the bees and learn more about the local plants. I saw one of the most expensive and tiniest seashells in the world, and I witnessed my very first “fire rainbow”. What’s a fire rainbow? I guess you just have to read to the end, now.


Hinagdanan Cave

I’ve read that there are a multitude of caves around Panglao, but it seems that most of them are not set up for the safety and convenience of visitors. Several of the ones that are visitor friendly were too far to drive this trip. A few others are exclusive to certain resorts who restrict their private cave spa to their guests, and yet more that are only accessible to divers. Hinagdanan is easily the most famous of all of these, and the advice I’d read online was get there early if you want to swim (before it gets crowded). The reviews on the swimming were mixed, and by the time I finished researching it, I had no idea what to expect. We found the cave entrance easily enough and pulled into shady parking spots amid a hoard of souvenir stalls and snack stands and then bought our tickets. The entrance fee is quite low, but there is an additional fee for swimming. The whole thing is only a couple dollars US. Everything that is maintained (cleaned) has a small entrance fee, but none of them are onerous, and they do seem to be well cared for.

20171005_092425.jpgWe signed the guest book and the guides at the top of the entrance offered to keep an eye on our helmets while we went down. The stairwell looks like a black hole into nothingness, and the cave entrance is more like a sinkhole than a cave mouth. The stairs are steep, but sturdy and have a handrail, and it’s a short trip down. Once inside, there’s plenty of room to stand up straight and look around. It’s a small cavern with some lovely, though not stunning formations. The main attractions are the natural skylight that fills the cavern with the warm light of the sun like a spotlight, and the beautiful crystal clear pool. Looking at the water, I couldn’t understand why anyone had complained about it in the reviews. I suppose it’s possible that weather or too many swimmers might have clouded it up during their visit, but for us, just past opening time, the water was still, blue, and so clear that every rock on the bottom was visible even in the dim cavern.20171005_092702.jpg

We decided at once that swimming had been a great choice, and found a little outcrop to put our things before entering the water. There’s obviously been some man-made construction: stairs, a railing and a little platform to make getting in and out easier. The water was cool and soothing on my sunburnt skin. The bats were mostly sleeping, but occasionally we could hear a squeak or a wing-beat from our neighbors in the ceiling. The water is technically brackish, and I did hear a guide tell someone else that, but all that means is that it is a mix of fresh and sea water, not that it is somehow dirty. You wouldn’t want to drink it, and only mangrove plants are adapted to use it to live on, but it’s absolutely fine for swimming.20171005_093137.jpg

We tootled around in the underground pool for well over an hour. Often we had the cavern to ourselves, but a couple times, the guides brought groups of tourists in who just wanted to have a look and get some photos. The famous photo op there is to stand under the skylight and do a trick shot that makes you look like a saint. A few people waded through the shallow water around the steps, but no one else came in to swim. I took a million photos, and at the time my display screen showed the beautiful clear and turqouise pool, but when I looked back again later they were all black. It reminded me of a story from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld where people can be fooled by illusions, but the photoboxes can only see what’s truly there. I enjoyed the slightly chilling idea that I’d spent the morning in inky black water that was enchanted by some creature to make it seem blue and welcoming, but it turns out my companion’s pictures worked out a little better, and we do have a small amount of photographic evidence after all.20171005_094451.jpg

Songculan Lake

Although I felt like I could spend the whole day in that cool and quiet swimming cave, the time came to move on if I wanted to see the rest of the itinerary before dark, and we got back on the road feeling peaceful and refreshed. My next stop was a large lake that I’d only seen on the map and not found any mention of in other tourism websites. It’s called Songculan Lake, and it’s so close to the cave that it seemed like a shame to not at least go and look at while we were up there. The road that runs along the lake doesn’t afford much of a view since the lake is mostly blocked off by mangrove jungle.

20171005_110603.jpgWe drove around in hopes of getting a glimpse of the water or perhaps some boating opportunity, but mostly what we found was a kind of upscale neighborhood where the people seemed rather surprised to see us. It seemed not unlike other lakefront neighborhoods, and we still had no view of the water which I presumed was visible from the back windows of these beautiful houses. At last we came up to the bridge that crosses the narrow point where the river meets the lake and we got our viewing spot.

20171005_111720.jpgI’m sure everyone thought we were nuts for pulling over and walking out on the bridge to take pictures, but it was very pretty, and we’d driven over there more or less just to find out if there was anything to see at all. At the far end of the bridge I found a staircase that led down to a shaded swimming area in the lake, but it was occupied by a local family and I wasn’t entirely sure of the etiquette so I waved politely and moved on.

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

20171005_133031We went back to the Bee Farm for lunch and the “tour”. Arnold, our guide, started us out with a little cooking lesson in the herb garden where we played “name that herb”. I recognized nearly all of them, but the oregano completely stumped me. What? Oregano? How hard is that to spot? Yeah, but this crazy Filipino oregano was completely different with HUGE leaves. The guide asked the names of each plant in English, Tagalog, and Boholano, and when we got to the oregano and everyone saw how surprised we were, we had to explain the differences in the plant’s appearance in Europe and America versus the one growing in the Philippines. Arnold said he’d heard about that but never seen the European varieties. Behind him ranged a huge display of potted herbs with their names displayed, and I recognized most, but had to ask about Pandan.

Pandan is an aromatic, used to add fragrance to things like rice, and it can be used to repel cockroaches, which I thought was interesting. Later I saw it in the ice cream flavors, and now that I’ve read this article, I’m kind of sad I didn’t eat it when I had the chance.

20171005_134343.jpgOnce we were finished in the herb garden, we moved over to the manufacturing areas. Arnold explained that while they do use as many of their own ingredients as possible, the farm has grown too large for them to do tours of the farmland itself anymore. We saw the bakery where they made the wonderful squash bread. We saw the creamery where they were busy making ice cream, sadly it smelled like Durian was the flavor of the moment. And we saw the prepping areas where they made and packaged the teas, honeys, and other goodies used in the restaurant and sold in the gift shop.

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In addition to foods, we got to see some of the other manufacturing they do including the hand woven raffia, mostly mats and wall hangings they grow from a tree locally called “buri” which is more widely known as the coryphe, a type of palm tree native to the Philippines, the leaves of which can be stripped and dried to make the fibers used in weaving. We got to watch one of the ladies doing traditional weaving, a method that can only produce a few feet of material in a workday, but is preserved as part of the local cultural heritage. We also met the seamstresses who turn the woven fabric into bags and other goods to be sold, as well as some furniture restoration where young men worked to give new life to old chairs using the woven raffia and palm leaves.

At last, it was time to meet the bees. Although the majority of the hives had been moved away from the restaurant and hotel, they kept two on hand for the local gardens and for the tourists. These aren’t Philippine bees, but European honey bees, the most docile honey producers available. Arnold had us stand a decent way back from the hives and gave us a serious talk about safety, warning us especially not to swat at any bees who happened to fly around or land on us because it could trigger defensive behavior and result in some major stinging. He also reassured us there was a clinic there on hand just in case. Finally, he went to pull some bees out for us to have a closer look, and boy were we in luck. Not only were these the most chilled out bees ever (not even one took off and tried to investigate us), we got to see the queen in the very first tray that came out!

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As you most likely know, there is only one queen per hive and she never emerges except to swarm, so seeing the queen is pretty special. Although she is visually different from the other bees, that bright turquoise spot is added on by her human caretakers to make it easier to spot her when they’re harvesting honey or doing hive maintenance. Once we all oooohed and aaahed over the royalty, everyone in the group was offered a chance to hold the tray full of bees and pose for photos. Arnold was very careful to hand off the tray gently and with safe gripping spots. At first I was hesitant, but when even the little Boholano grannies did it, and not a single bee was perturbed, I decided it was ok to have a go. It was silly fun and I’m glad I did it.

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On our way back into the gift shop, I passed a curious looking fruit and snapped a photo to ask about it inside. I was told it was called a “mickey mouse” fruit, but that it wasn’t really a fruit like for eating. Once I got back to the internet and had a bit of a rummage around, it turns out that it is the solanum mammosum, also called “utong” which is Tagalog for “nipple” and took me to some strange search results before I finally figured it out.

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Back inside the gift shop, we went and had a few more samples of our favorites from the last evening visit, as well as sampling a few new things. My top new discovery here was a thing called “hard honey”. It wasn’t crystallized honey, which sometimes happens when I forget about a jar in the back of my cabinet, but instead a liquid with a dark color and a texture like soft taffy or thick molasses. Indeed, it tasted a little bit like molasses would if it was made from honey, and my deep need to know things was immediately satisfied by the knowledgeable staff and helpful signs.

Hard honey is a thing that happens when honey stays in a hive for a while and ages. Hive aged honey. I assume the texture is a result of evaporation? And it would seem that the unique flavor is a combination of the honey taking in the flavors around it and a slight fermentation. Either way, it was a magnificent new taste experience which I recommend.

Nova Shell Museum

20171005_153024After lunch I went in search of the Nova Shell Museum, because I like seashells and museums. The whole area of Bohol is filled with tiny little roadside tourist attractions that are so cheesy and cost 20-60p to go see. I realize looking back on this experience that there is a high probability I enjoyed these because they reminded me of the random roadside attractions that we would sometimes visit on road trips when I was a kid. The US has (had? I’m not sure how many are still there) a huge number of tiny local sights setup for families to stop and look at while stretching their legs or getting a snack. None are sights that are destinations in and of themselves but they are fun to see if you’re passing by. This is how I felt about the Shell Museum. Would I have driven out of my way for it? Probably not, but it was right there next to one of my go to restaurants (La Familia) and only a few minutes drive from our hotel, so why not?

This is not a museum the way that I usually think of them. It is, in fact, the private collection of a Mr. Quirino Hora who has been obsessively collecting shells for more than 50 years and likes to show them off at this tiny building in Panglao. It is said that he collected many of them himself around the various islands of the Philippines, but he has also purchased several. My guide, because you cannot go anywhere without one of those, was clearly instructed to make sure that visitors understood the price and rarity of the shells on display. It was this emphasis on price tags that made me ask about the collection’s owner in the first place, finding it less and less likely that this was some kind of government run museum. I have nothing against private collectors, and I think it’s nice that he’s decided to share this stunning collection, but “museum” might be a bit misleading.

I remember going into the stone and gem rooms in the Smithsonian as a kid and seeing case after case, and drawers and drawers of cases of samples of different rocks all carefully labeled. It was like that, but with shells. Shells were put in groups and there were tiny tags for labels that were mostly taxonomic with the scientific name, the “author” (I’m not sure what that means in context of a shell), and a location and depth at which the shell was found. Sadly, I just don’t know enough about shells for the tags to tell me much, but I did enjoy looking at the huge array of shapes and colors including some naturally party colored scallop shells, some stunningly large nautilus, a kind of critter that liked to decorate it’s shells with the smaller shells of other animals, and three enormous shells of giant clams which I have seen in the wild, but only at about a 10th the size of these monsters.

The pride of the collection is an extremely tiny shell found in Panglao and named after the Emperor of Japan, and the two shells that Mr. Hora discovered himself and are so named after him. They range in value from a few dollars to millions. There are rooms and rooms stacked with shells in cases, behind glass, on shelves, in drawers and eventually just in boxes. Like any worthy tour, it let out in the gift shop where the more common shells were sold whole or made into art and jewelry for sale. Outside the gift-shop, there was a small tree house I was invited to climb around and explore and they talked with me about the museum’s plans for expansion.

Fire Rainbow

20171006_172421.jpgThat night we went back to the Pearl at Linaw for a sunset diner on the beach.  I spent more or less the entire vacation being in absolute awe of the cloud formations that piled up in fluffy mountains around our island, and this night was no exception. I got up from the table several times to walk the few meters to the water’s edge and get the most unobstructed sunset views possible. However, we got treated to something a little more than your average (stunning) tropical sunset. As the sun worked it’s way downward, I noticed an odd smudge of color at the top of the tower of clouds. I thought that it was that beautiful golden lining effect that so often happens when the sun back-lights dark clouds. I took more photos, admiring the glow and the strong beam-like shadow that was being cast into the sky.20171006_172654.jpg

As I watched, more colors than gold began to appear. Soon I could see a tinge of green and purple. And then an entire rainbow spectrum appeared in the crown of light atop this cloud. It did not look like a rainbow, for it lacked the shape and stripes. It looked if anything as though a rift in the space time continuum had opened up. I had no idea what could be causing this unique and stunning visual effect, but I stayed standing on the beach, food forgotten, alternating between taking photos and simply staring in awe until the colored halo receded. Only then did I return to my table to eat, venturing forth once more when the sunset clouds became a brilliant pink.20171006_173842.jpg

Back in Korea, I was finally able to research this atmospheric oddity, and I have discovered that I apparently witnessed something rare and special, well, I knew it was special, but I had no idea how rare. It’s called an “iridescent cloud” or sometimes a “fire rainbow”, and it, like other rainbows is caused by sunlight refracting through water, but this variety generally only happens on hot, humid days with lots of cumulus clouds. Only the tall piles of clouds like I had been admiring on my trip get high enough to cool the warm air and condense into droplets forming the cap, or “pileus”, creating the disc of color that I saw. According to National Geographic, not only is it rare to see such a phenomenon, photos are even rarer. I feel amazingly lucky to have had the opportunity for both!

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Even though it’s a small island with no cities, I found Panglao enchanting and found that 9 days wasn’t even enough to see everything. I’ve been thinking a lot about my island adventures this January, not only because it’s so very cold in Busan, but because I’ve sacrificed my winter holiday this year in favor of running around Korea doing job interviews. Sometime in March when that hair-pulling adventure is wrapped up, I’ll share all the crazy details, but until then I’ll share my memories of Bohol to keep us all warm.

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: 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.

bohol map.png

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 & Fancy Restaurants– 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 when I 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 losing 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 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. ❤