Hello Bohol: Historical Sites & History

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


Mostly Catholic Churches

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

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

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

Panglao Watchtower & St. Augustine Parish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Peter the Apostle Parish Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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Baclayon Church

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

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

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

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

More photos of the Loboc and Baclayon Churches.

The Blood Compact Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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How About That History?

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

Colonialism

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

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Image – Front National SA

Which makes this next part extra sad.

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

The Philippine American War

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

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

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

Military Dictatorship

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

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

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

Democracy and Death Squads

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

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

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

Responsible Tourism

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

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 12: Koh Lipe part 2

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

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


Good Morning Koh Lipe

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

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

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

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

Snorkeling Adventure

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

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

Tarutao National Park

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

Underwater Life

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

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

Three Reefs and a Rock Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset BBQ on the Beach

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

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

To Neverland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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