The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

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I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

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In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

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The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

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I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

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Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 
Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

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From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

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Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

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I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

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At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

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The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

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There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

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About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

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When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

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Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

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Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

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How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

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For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

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Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

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Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

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Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Hello Bohol: Balicasag with the Turtles

Bohol is especially well known for the excellent diving spots, including Balicasag and it’s famous sea turtle conclave. I had hoped to take a diving certification course while there this year, but alas, my root canals ate that budget and I had to settle for some stunning snorkeling instead. Join me on a little sailing jaunt under deep blue skies to a world of magical coral reefs, tiny territory defenders, and lazy giants. Bonus: this time I managed to actually take some of my own photos underwater!


Choose Wisely

When I was planning this trip, an old high school buddy who now lives in Manila told me, “you have to go to Balicasag, it’s like a sea turtle old boys club down there”. I love snorkeling, and the chance to meet amazing and rare sea creatures in their home turf is not to be missed. However, it can be tricky to make sure you’re doing the responsible thing. I had already made the decision not to see the whale sharks at Oslob because of the environmental impact on the animals, but I was excited about Balicasag. As far as I could find, there are no damaging practices that draw the turtles there, they just like it.

While trying to make my plan of attack, I read a few dozen similarly disappointing stories of snorkeling and island hopping around Panglao online, most of which shared three basic themes:

  • You’re rushed when you don’t want to be and sitting around doing nothing other times
  • You’re stuck haggling over prices and then dealing with hidden fees and expectations of tips even with lousy service
  • The standard island hopping tour is not a good way to do snorkeling

The best experiences came from people who were lucky enough to find a private boat owner to drive them for the day where and when they wanted to go (very hit or miss), or from the people who went as tag-a-longs with a diving group.

This advice led me to Sierra Madre divers (the people who published that article on the whale sharks I linked to and teachers of marine preservation diving classes). Sadly, they were booked solid for the whole week with Chinese tourists in for the holiday. The guide was very kind, despite his overfilled schedule, and introduced us to his neighbor Rafi at Valm Dive with whom we made a verbal reservation.

20171003_134327.jpgRegardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask about any extra fees for Balicasag. Some activities do require paying the national park fee and others don’t. It’s never fun to be caught by surprise once your in the ocean. Valm Dive wasn’t planning to go to any of the pay areas, and so we were only on the hook for our ride and equipment (mask and snorkel only, no fins. I think they would have let us use them if they had extra, but they had to supply the divers first and ran out). Total cost: 500p or about 10$ USD.

A Three Hour Tour?

20171003_082402That morning was one of the few rains that happened during our active times. On any other morning, we could have just waited for it to stop, but Rafi had told us to be at the dive shop at 8:30 and we didn’t want to be late and run the risk of losing our spot on the boat. We waited as long as possible, and it didn’t take long for the downpour to become a drizzle. Driving on the wet roads wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared, but getting a face full of rain made seeing a little challenging. I thought again about what kind of gear to use to prevent that if I ever had to drive a real distance in the rain, but it seemed like all the locals, in addition to shunning helmets, only wore ponchos while driving in the rain, leaving their faces, and eyes, open to the wet.

Despite the rain, we showed up at the shop at 8:30 as we’d been told, and although Rafi was running around like a nut getting things ready, he spotted us eventually and gave us a friendly good morning and made sure things were set for us too.

Nothing starts on time here, and there’s no point in worrying about it. While we waited, the rain cleared up and the sky began its transition from gray to a deep vault-of-heaven blue filled with towering, crisp edged cumulus clouds. It wasn’t long after that when we all boarded the boat. This involved walking through the shallow water to a ladder on the side. I underestimated the depth and rolling up my pants was not enough to keep them dry.20171003_085545.jpg

Our boat mates included a very serious Japanese man who seemed to have a personal assistant with him taking care of his every need, but not diving herself (she was Filipina and had a tourism badge on, so I feel safe calling this as an employer/employee interaction). There was a Chinese couple who had some intense underwater photography rigs. It made me wonder if they were professional photographers on assignment. And finally and Australian couple who seemed just to be out to have fun. None of them were beginners.

A word about the boats

In Thailand we rode on the longtails nearly everywhere, and by now you’ve probably seen a few boats in my beach photos and have noticed that these boats are quite unique. The Filipino outrigger canoe style, called bangka or bangcas, is distinguished by the two slender bamboo poles on either side called katig. They help to balance the boat, and also mean the main boat needs less keel and can be lighter weight while still being ocean stable. Sailing versions are called paraw or parao. The outrigger canoe plan is most used by Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people today.

20171003_115304.jpgThe Wall

Balicasag is tiny island some 40 minutes to the south of Alona Beach. I never set foot on it, so I can’t tell you how it is. Our dive boat stopped first at a reef called “the wall” because there was a goodly stretch of shallow reef and a sharp drop off that for the divers below was actually a rising wall. We were asked to wait until all the divers were in the water and then given about 45 minutes to do all the snorkeling we liked. They pointed out some Chinese snorkelers a little bit away, and warned us about the current before turning us loose.

20171003_101601.jpgThe corals were lovely, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. It was my first real chance to play around with my new underwater photo taking capability. Almost as soon as we got in the water, I spotted my first turtle hugging the edge of the drop off. I did my best to keep pace with him, but especially swimming against the current, I had no real hope of catching up to a turtle, no matter how lazily he seemed to be swimming. Finally, I had to give up. I swam using as little energy as possible, but it was hard going because the current was much stronger than I was used to and it was impossible to hold still while taking a picture.

20171003_100627I wove back and forth above the stunning coral shapes, trying to get my camera to focus when I was spotted by a little rainbow wrasse, maybe 5 inches long. It was clearly watching me, swimming back and forth in front of me in quick zipping lines, and once it was sure it had my attention too, it swam straight at my face. I was honestly worried it was going to hit my mask, not for my safety, it was a small harmless fish, but worried that it might hurt itself bashing into the plastic. Fortunately at the last moment it turned aside.

20171003_102013It seemed like a strange behavioral anomaly, but the fish came back and did it several more times. As I got used to the pattern I tried to get a picture. I wish I could have done a video, but I hadn’t quite figured out the trick I needed for that with the waterproof cover.

Eventually I let it chase me away and went on exploring more beautiful coral shapes. I got so focused on getting a working photo that I drifted into a whole shoal of fish without realizing, and at one point when I looked up I was entirely surrounded by tiny flashing fish bodies, not unlike being in a blizzard. I saw larger fish in the hazy waters just past the drop off, fading in and out of the misty darkness. At one point there was a school of silver fish that were more round than narrow and as they passed between me and the dark open ocean beyond, they reminded me of nothing so much as cherry blossoms falling in the wind at night.

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Less Coral, More Turtles

All too soon it was time to swim back to the boat, a healthy challenge in the current without fins, but we made it and the boat moved off to the pick up point for the divers. They had to spend an hour on the boat between dives, but the snorkelers have no such restrictions. We were invited to head back into the water while they waited. The pick up point was not as interesting as the drop off had been, but the water was cool and refreshing and it was nice to just float around and watch the few fish that were braving the desert landscape between reefs. I saw a few more turtles there as well. Despite the poor quality of my pictures, the in person experience was captivating. The water was so clear that I could see the patterns on their shells and fins. I watched each one that passed through as they dug in the sand or chewed plant life growing on the bottom. We also saw a couple turtles surface for a breath once we were back on board.20171003_110919.jpg

The second dive site for the day was all about the turtles. The divers started getting ready well before their hour was up so they could hop back in the sea as soon as it was safe. Once more, we waited for everyone to get in and head off to the goal. Apparently, there is a sort of sea turtle metropolis down there, and we were parked over in turtle exurbs. I’d already seen more sea turtles in the first two stops than I’ve ever seen in the wild before, so I didn’t mind too much.

At first I was a little disappointed because there were still no corals like we’d seen at the first stop. I didn’t want to head too far from the boat, as my last two trips had resulted in very tiring swims against a strong current to get back and I didn’t want to risk getting too worn out in the ocean. However one of the boat hands came in the water while I was swimming and began helping me spot turtles. The first one was chased avidly by a nearby boat of Chinese tourists. A couple others passed by too far for a good look, but then a giant beauty showed up right beneath us. The guide held my elbow to keep me steady so I could try for a better photo, and then when the turtle began to swim away, he motioned me to follow and we swam under the boat to keep the turtle in sight.20171003_121442.jpg

Unlike the turtle the Chinese tourists were chasing which was close to the surface, this one was on the bottom and I was not about to try to free dive to reach it, so I don’t think we were being invasive. We followed it for a few minutes and I managed to get some of the best photos of the day as well as a short video clip. Of course, my phone in a plastic waterproof bag has an upper limit on quality, but I was excited about it.

Finally, I put the camera down and just watched. When the turtle swam on again we didn’t follow but returned to the boat where we motored over to the final pick up point of the day.

With the divers back on board, we made the return journey to Panglao. I happily gazed into the horizon watching the monumental cloud formations and being totally oblivious to the horrendous sunburn I was developing.

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If I Could Change One Thing?

Ideally, if I went back it would be with the time, money, and intention of actually getting my PADI certification and going on those dives, but if it turns out that snorkeling is on the table, then just two main changes: wear a shirt! No amount of sunscreen is enough. I think the reason I didn’t burn on the snorkel trip in Thailand is that it was overcast (and yes, UV happens on overcast days) which meant there was no reflection off the water as there is on sunny days which massively magnifies the cooking power. And get fins. Again in Thailand although it was tricky at first, it was not a hindrance to go without fins because the water was calm. But the current around Balicasag was intense, almost like swimming in one of those resistance pools, I had to swim as hard as I could just to make any forward progress at all, even gentle swimming could result in me drifting backwards.

The massive burn did teach me one interesting fact about fashion. I now know the only valid excuse for a tube top. I don’t own any, but I had to fold down a regular tank top to wear in tube top style for the next several days in order to avoid horrible pain. Thanks mom, for always making us wear shirts over our swimsuits at the beach!

Don’t miss out on the photo album over on the book of faces.

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Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

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


Adventure Hangover

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

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

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

Spirit Houses

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

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

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

Night Market

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

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

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

Street Food

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

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

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OK That’s Creepy

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

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

Language Barrier

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

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

Firefly Boat

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

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

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

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Local Knowledge

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

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

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

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

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

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Magic on the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Good Things Happen

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunrise Beach & The Fine Print

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

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

On the other side of the island!


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

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

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

Farewell Koh Lipe

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

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

The Bus That Wasn’t

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

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

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

Towlephants

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

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


Finding Birth Control Abroad

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

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

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

Pharmacies Without Prescriptions?

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

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

The Night Market

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


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

Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

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


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

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

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

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

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

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

Where Are You From?

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

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

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

Entering Thailand by Sea

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

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

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

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Getting Settled In

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

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

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Lipe Camping Zone

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

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

Sunset Beach

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

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

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About the Accommodation

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

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

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

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

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

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

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

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


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