Hello Bohol: Loboc River

There are a couple large famous rivers on the island of Bohol, and we were slightly closer to the Loboc than the Abatan. In the end, reviews and photos make it seem like these rivers and their cruise options are so similar that ease of location seemed to be the best tie breaker. Thus it was that I found myself on the Loboc twice this trip: once by night for a firefly tour, and once by day for a lunch cruise. Both experiences were enjoyable in uniquely different ways.


Fireflies by Night

20171005_180252The only actual tour I signed up for in the whole 9 day holiday was the firefly tour. After my experience in Surat Thani, I wanted to see more, and I wanted my travel buddy to have a chance to experience the wonders of fireflies in the mangroves. We decided to go with a group because the price including pick up was only 700p, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about driving ourselves in the dark. I can’t tell you what company we used because our hostess Becca made the arrangements for us. The van was a little late, but again, it seemed everything in Bohol is slow, so I didn’t let it worry me, and soon enough we were on our way. I ended up sitting next to some Koreans and we chatted a bit on the drive up to the river. They were of course also on the same Chuseok holiday I was, but had already been to a couple other places in the Philippines and had done all the major sites in Bohol in just 2 days, including a dive! They were leaving for Manila the next morning and couldn’t imagine how I was spending my whole holiday on just this one tiny island.

20171005_192741.jpgWhen we arrived, it was at a small riverside dock where several other drivers also unloaded vans full of tourists and we were herded onto a large boat in the Loboc river. Once all aboard, we drove up into the mangroves. The night was amazingly beautiful. It happened to be a full moon and the river was wide enough to make a space around us and let the moonlight illuminate the trees and mountains in pale blue. The night air was warm, but the wind of the boat’s passage kept us cool and bug free. I was a little put off by the huge crowd, but it was a beautiful night and I was enjoying the scenery nonetheless. People had pointed to one or two lone flashes, wondering if that was the bugs we were coming to see, but of course it was not.

At one point the guide flashed his light high up into some palm trees and the light reflected off of dozens of shining things. I knew it couldn’t be the fireflies, which are bio-luminescent and not reflective, and which also don’t live in palms, only the mangrove apple. But I had no idea what could cause the reflective twinkling. In post vacation research mode, I found one lone reference to migrating birds sleeping in the nina palms along the river, so I’m guessing that it was their sleeping bodies the guide was illuminating for us?

Finally we came around a bend and were greeted with the christmas tree blinking of a firefly colony. I think if you want the best description, it’s better to go read my Surat Thani experience. This was really beautiful, but my experience of the beauty here was detracted from somewhat by a few things. One, the boat drivers actually ran the boat into the tree on purpose to get us as close to the blinking insects as possible (and I fear to agitate them into a better display, which is backward because they flash less when threatened). Two, every single person on the boat instantly stood up and raised phones and go-pros on sticks to try to get the best photos and videos of the tree. I know that low-light tech has improved a lot, but I also know that none of them have any images that will come close to the real thing. It made me a little sad that it was more about pictures than memories.

I stood too, because there was no other way to see. With the boat in their space, most of the fireflies retreated to the top of the tree, and blinked, as the others had, in near unison, but with one major difference from the ones in Thailand: they streaked. Perhaps because so many had been disturbed and taken to the air, or perhaps they just have a different blink time, but these bugs stayed lit long enough that a small portion of their flight path was illuminated creating the illusion of a thousand tiny shooting stars. My video, alas, only serves to highlight the terrible night capture my phone has. Maybe I should start a GoFundMe for a better camera…

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Once everyone had their photos, there was a chorus from the passengers to get going, and I rather expected us to move on forward to another glowing tree. After all, in ST, we were on the river for close to an hour and saw dozens of glowing trees. However, as we disentangled from the tree, we headed instead back toward the dock. The whole journey, more than an hour of driving, and the moonlight cruise up the river (which, yes, was nice for it’s own sake) were all for this single tree and brief 10 minute photo op. I thought about all the other times I’d seen the Chinese and Koreans on holiday do something similar: travel a long way to take a photo or two and then move on. I love my photos too, I like taking them, and I like looking at them later or sharing them on social media, but I still try every time I travel to take some time at every stop to put the camera down and just *live* in that moment. Otherwise all that photo will remind me of is taking the photo.

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I tried not to be ungrateful as we returned that night. It was hard for me not to compare my experience in ST to this one and feel very let down. I tried instead to focus on the good parts. The comet effect of the insects was stunning. The full moon on the river and the jungle was an absolute treat. It turns out that nearly every firefly tour in Bohol is like this, big crowded boat, one tree for photos, done. The best thing I could have done if I wanted a quiet peaceful personal experience with lots of trees full of lights would have been to go on one of the kayaking private tours, but there was no way that I was going to wield a kayak paddle until my back became less crispy, so this really was the best I could hope for. The good news is, now that they know tourists will pay to see fireflies, the locals have stopped cutting down the trees they live in and are working on restoring the mangrove’s environmental balance to bring more back, so spending money on this is contributing to the preservation of mangrove habitat.

Tourism is a tough balancing act because if they don’t have enough money, they can’t make it nice. If it get’s too popular, they can’t keep it ecologically healthy. If they make more money destroying the environment than they do showing it off, they’ll follow the money. People gotta live. It’s our role as privileged travelers to spend our money on things that encourage responsible growth and preservation while helping the local economy, and I think if nothing else, the firefly tours on Bohol do that.

This tour was also a good example of expectations vs reality defining an experience. I had no particular expectation of what I’d see in ST, and it blew my mind. But I had to at least slightly compare my first experience to the one in Bohol, and I ended up being perhaps less than stunned because it didn’t match my mental image. I don’t want to let this stop me from doing things twice or in different places, but I hope it reminds me to hold back my expectations and come to each experience as fresh as possible.

Lunch Boat by Day

Another must do on the tourist itinerary of Bohol is a daytime river cruise. I chose the Loboc River Floating Restaurant Cruise. By this time, I knew what a meal should cost, and 450p for a good lunch plus a cruise and a show is well worth it. Reviews told us that the food was decent, and they did not lie. It was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste). You can read more about it on the food post for this trip.

Unless you join a tour group, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get tickets in advance, so I aimed early and arrived at the tourism center at 11am. On my way into the parking lot I was issued a “priority number”. I gather this is so that people can then buy tickets in the order they arrive without having to stand in a long line.

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I pocketed the numbers and wandered around the little shopping area, taking in the repetitive souvenirs and trying in vain to find an iced coffee (no such luck). I never ended up buying any stuff, because I’m already loaded down with more things than I know what to do with, but I was tickled by the mash-up of the famous Starbucks logo with Bohol’s famous Tarsier, and I think if I’d been in the market for a new t-shirt, this would have been it.

When I at last headed to the ticket counter, I was at first rebuffed, but when they saw the priority number (issued some 30 minutes earlier and probably already called in the waiting area), I was quickly herded to the cashier and directed toward the lunch boat. Lunch was served as we boarded, giving everyone the chance to fill their plates and do some serious eating while still at the dock. At first I though it a bit strange, but I realized once we started moving that it was a good plan after all, since it got most people seated before the boat was in motion, and it meant that we weren’t dividing our attention between the food and the view.

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Somehow, I lucked out unreasonably, and got a table at the very front edge of the boat. I don’t think there are actual bad tables, since each one seemed to be on the front or one of the sides. The middle was occupied with the buffet, and the rear of the boat held the bar and a small stage where we were serenaded with acoustic renditions of English, Chinese, and Japanese popular songs. The musician was pretty good and I felt his songs added to the overall experience that day, so left a generous tip in his basket when it came around.

20171006_114514.jpgI took lots of photos, most of which are nearly identical in retrospect, and a few videos which I’ve managed to string together to give a general impression of the experience (see below). My seat provided an unrivaled view of both sides and a constant breeze that kept me cool and comfortable. Boat staff offered to take pictures (with my own camera, not as a souvenir gimmick), and when I was ready to go get my seconds of maja blanca, I offered my spot at the railing to a young lady with a very serious camera who I thought would appreciate the vantage point while I wasn’t using it.

20171006_115341.jpgWe pottered down the river, admiring the plants and scoping out some other floating platforms where we theorized the dance performances would be held. At one point, I began to notice lamp posts along the riverside, seemingly alone in the jungle. I suppose that there may have once been a path there, perhaps wiped out by the 2013 earthquake or just by the changing course of the river, but it was more than a little Narnian to see a perfectly normal lamppost in the woods.

Our outward tour ended at a small waterfall where we paused long enough to make sure everyone on board got a good look and a photo op, then we turned around and headed back the way we came.

20171006_115421If you’ve ever been up and down a river, you’ll appreciate that the view on the way back is not actually the same as the view on the way out, so I didn’t mind at all. Plus, on the way back we pulled up to one of the floating platforms and got treated to some local traditional dancing. The sign indicated the dance is called Kuradang, which seems to be a kind of dance used at many celebrations in Bohol. It likely started before the Spanish colonization but has just as likely been influenced over the centuries. It’s still special here, though, because it’s considered to be a uniquely Boholano dance.

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My lunch partner got up from our table to see if she could get a closer view for photos and was quickly stolen onto the dance floor.  I couldn’t just leave her there alone (plus, I had to get pictures of her being silly), so I followed and was soon dancing with the performers myself. We joined in the Kuradang in the portion where male and female partners sort of circle around one another. I did my best to follow my ersatz dance partner, who knew the steps much better than I. I’ve watched a few competition videos since and I can say that while I do feel that we were doing the same dance, that we were also doing only the most simple beginners steps. The gentlemen we danced with were very polite and hands off and we all had a breathlessly good time. After the music stopped, we were invited to sit there on the platform to watch the next dance: the tinikling.

Tinikling is much easier to find information about online since it’s practiced all over the Philippines, not just in Bohol. It’s also dated to the Spanish colonial era, but I don’t believe it came from Spain, merely that it developed across the Philippines during their occupation. (Kind of like how Riverdancing style developed in Ireland in response to British occupation?) I got a much better video of this dance, since I was now seated right next to the stage. It’s a dance involving two long bamboo sticks being slapped on the ground to make both the drum beat and a jumping challenge for the dancers. It was a bit like the complicated jump rope routines I could never master as a child, and also reminded me of some of the stick jumping dances I’d seen the Maori do in New Zealand.

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Once the main performance concluded, the dancers once again urged us forward. This time, I went first and tried my best to imitate the foot movements of my teacher. She was patient but of course it was a performance as well, so after only two practice toe taps, they started the bamboo moving (slowly) and I tried to follow the pattern. Oops for me, we’d only practiced the right foot, and suddenly I realized I had no idea what to do with my left! Fortunately the bamboo wielders were paying close attention and did not snap the poles on my leg. We reset our position and started again, and I managed to get the rhythm for about seven seconds before losing it again and begging my way off the stage. I won’t say this is an easy dance to master, but I was also going sans bra to spare my sunburnt back and I was more than a little worried that the energetic bouncing would cause a wardrobe malfunction.

Finally, we were released back to our seats on board, breathless and excited. I felt completely ridiculous but I also realized that we’d probably had the best time of anyone on board because we were willing to throw dignity to the wind and act like children. We bid the dancers farewell and thanked them for the joy (with words and a generous tip) and then the boat moved on, bringing us back to the pier where we began.

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I don’t know what I had expected from a lunchtime river cruise, and I suppose at least a little bit of every experience has a reflection of what you put into it, but it turned out to not only be a lovely meal (where I learned about a new food) and a beautiful view (getting to see the same river by moonlight and midday), but also a personal dance lesson in traditional Bohol and Philippino folk dancing. Definitely worth the cover charge.

 

Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

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


Hinagdanan Cave

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

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

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

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

Songculan Lake

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

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

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

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nova Shell Museum

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

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

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

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

Fire Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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. ❤